Before I moved over here from Texas in 1983, I had a chat with a friend about the spot where I am typing this column — the Rim Country. He knew we were moving to Arizona and I happened to mention that some day we planned to retire “in the Rim Country.”
“Oh, you’re making a terrible mistake,” he told me. “You’ll get sick of it in a rush. No one can live in a place like that.”
“No one can live in the Rim Country?”
He shook his head. “Rim Country. Ugh! Sounds terrible! Must be all rocks, sand, craggy hills, dry river beds — dry everything! I hate the desert. Not a fit place for man or beast.”
You should have been there. I had a hard time keeping a straight face as he raved on. His idea of Arizona was a barren empty desert from border to border. With maybe a half dead saguaro cactus every mile or two — in the good parts.
When I described Payson he thought I had lost it.
“Are you sure you haven’t got it mixed up with some other place you’ve been?” he asked me. “It sounds more like Northern California. Pines? Are you kidding? Take it from me, there are no pine trees in Arizona.” He raised his arms like Moses parting the Red Sea. “All desert. Everywhere. As far as the eye can see.”
I gave up. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
You know something? If you think about it, that’s the way most of the country probably sees us. East, South, North and West in this great land of ours, they probably have an image of Arizona that is suspiciously like the Sahara Desert.
You know something else? That’s not exactly a bad thing. This place is one of the best secrets in the country, and I suspect we’d be smart to keep it that way. It’s bad enough that they’ve found out about us over in the Land of Fantasy (otherwise known as California). If the word gets out to the rest of the country we’ll be up to our armpits in flatlanders.
We don’t have to feel alone though. There are other places in America like this one — beautiful places that are almost unknown. A lot more of them than you might think. This is a large country. It’s possible to hide a lot of great places in a nation that measures 1,000 miles from north to south, and 3,000 miles east to west. I’ve even stumbled upon a couple of them myself.
The truth is I would never have known about the Rim Country if it hadn’t been for Bill, my oldest brother. He came out here on military exercises a couple of times and came back bragging about this place. He even bought some land somewhere up here to build a retirement home on. So when I was driving across the country on my way to Japan in 1958 I turned aside and took a look.
And here I am.
I’ve come across a lot of beautiful places in this country, but only two that surprised me as much as the Rim Country did. One time in 1956 I was on my way to Wichita Falls, Texas, from Mom’s place up in Connecticut. Because the interstates were just going in back then, the drive took me through a part of northwestern Arkansas on a small country road. What an eye-opener that was!
I had seen pictures of Arkansas in history and geography books in school, but most of them must have been taken in the delta country lying along the Mississippi, or in what they call the Grand Prairie in the southeastern part of the state. I had an image of a land of lakes and rivers, spotted with thick forests and fertile farmland. A pretty place, but nothing dramatic.
But what I saw as I drove through northwestern Arkansas was something I had never even heard of. I asked a couple of questions in a small restaurant where I stopped to eat and found out that I was in a region called — of all things — the Boston Mountains. At first I thought that maybe the short order cook I was talking to was trying to rib the Yankee sitting at the counter eating his delicious ham and eggs, but then he dragged out a stained old map and showed me on it where I was. And — sure as heck — there they were, the Boston Mountains. In Arkansas. Part of the Ozarks.
And what a place! Some of those cliffs went straight up and down (I know, I drove down a couple). And they were beautiful; white, yellow, and ochre limestones, capped by thick layers of sandstone and dark shale. What a place! What a beautiful place!
And the best part? The people, of course. Hell, they were even nice to me, and I still had my New York accent back then. If the Rim Country is ever overrun by the backwash from California, just head on up to Interstate 40, turn east, and drive. When you get to Arkansas, drive east another10 miles or so and turn north on U.S. 71. Or if you want the scenic route that I took, drive another 20 miles on I-40 and take State Road 23 north.
Shades of the Rim Country! National forest and all too.
But the most amazing place of all? Wasn’t high country. Wasn’t desert country. Wasn’t even in the west. Well, not quite.
Ready for this, Johnny?
Natchitoches, Louisiana. Square dab in the land of cajuns, crawdads and cypress knees.
But if I blindfolded you, flew you there, and set you down, you would swear I had cheated, that I had flown you to someplace in — say — Virginia. You’d see a small southern city with lush green grass, a quiet lake running through its middle, trees standing tall and green against the sky, a city center marked by wrought iron and cobbles, quiet country lanes, stately homes, farms, plowed fields, and the easygoing atmosphere of the Old South.
Oh sure, you’d see some muddy lakes and streams, but you’d also see grassy knolls that resemble the plains of Texas, and you’d be unable to shake the feeling that there was something very special about the place where you were standing.
And there is. Natchitoches is over 200 miles from the Gulf Coast, and its location, perched on the edge of the Red River where it emerges from the Texas plains, makes it unique. It gets enough rain to keeps things green, but has a climate controlled by the open lands to the west of it. It even gets a little snow every few years. Not too much. Just enough to make a statement.
And just as here, it’s the people who really count. Who are they? Cajuns, arguably the best cooks — and happiest people — on the planet. And can they cook in Natchitoches! Lolly and I ate in Lasoyne’s Meat Pie Restaurant so often it was like a second home.
Yes, there are a lot of very special places in this country. So if someone finally saws off California, and it floats away.
And you don’t feel like living in a coastal state ...