When author Valerie Haight was 13 years old, her adventuresome father moved the family from Baton Rouge to the mountains of Arkansas, a move she credits for turning her into an author (and for her appreciation of modern plumbing).
One summer morning, the four of us kids were summoned to our cherry dining table. We settled into the dining room chairs and wrapped our toes around the elegant claw feet. Though we were by no account wealthy, for the most part we enjoyed the same things other kids admired and coveted—designer clothing, the latest technology, music and baton lessons. We lived on the outskirts of Baton Rouge in a little town called Walker, but we had access to everything Louisiana offered. Minutes away in downtown Baton Rouge–where industrial plants loomed over the Mississippi River–art museums, battleships and planetariums awaited. A short drive south landed us at Biloxi Beach on the Gulf Coast. The same distance east nestled us in New Orleans, home of creole food, quaint shopping and rich Louisiana culture.
“Kids, we’re moving to the mountains of Arkansas.”
My father winced as we whined our best case against moving again. We’d attended six schools and my sister Michelle, the oldest, was only 16. My well-rounded, educated, adventuresome dad never turned his back on a challenge and traveled wherever he thought might best provide for a family of six.
In trying to convince us of the benefits of this latest move, he talked up the opportunities of living off the land, learning self-sufficiency and strengthening family values and bonds. We kids heard only “no electricity, no shower, no curling irons.”
We kids were right.
No, we weren’t rich, but we were accustomed to luxuries that we would spend the next four years dreaming of.
In mid-June of 1990, we found ourselves bouncing down nine miles of dirt road in Dad’s old white Ford through the Ozark Mountains to our newly-purchased 80-acre parcel on the side of a mountain. That summer, our home would be an army tent in a neighbor’s field surrounded by towering, misty mountains. My mother, father, baby sister and brother slept there at night while Michelle and I shared a dome tent outside the army tent. The first night was horrific as my overactive imagination had me fighting for my life from attack bears, wildcats and sasquatches. My sister dug out her stockpile of D batteries and turned up her favorite band, Chicago, on her cassette player to drown out the whippoorwills and cicadas.
That summer, we cleared a 3/4-mile drive, severely overgrown with saplings and briers, to the spot where we would build a cabin. No one had ever built on the land, only used it to hunt.
The days flew by and we worked hard, every one of us. Nights were a blur as we fell exhausted into our sleeping bags after a meal off the Coleman stove. Determined to be in the “cabin” on the first day of school, we moved into the tiny house with visqueen plastic for walls. And we were ecstatic. No more sleeping on the ground!
Everything about country living was new to us and we dealt by living day to day. We had ups and downs but living out of civilization’s reach was hard work and kept us occupied with the daily tasks necessary to get by.
Next up was electricity and until we cleared our own right-of-way over the hill, we did our homework by the dim yellow glow of Coleman lanterns. The moment Dad flipped the light switch and flooded the room with that sweet, bright electric light is a favorite memory to this day.
After school and before homework was chore time. My brother and sister piled firewood next to the cook stove. My sister had dish and dinner duties. I hauled four five-gallon buckets of water up from the creek each day for bathing and dishes. There were also pigs, goats and chickens to feed and tend as well as a garden to manage. We worked hard. But on weekends, we ran.
Eighty acres of wooded land, ice-cold creeks and two rock establishments built by Cherokee Indians eons ago were ours for exploring. And explore we did. The only place we weren’t allowed was the little spring where Dad rigged up some kind of sanitary system for our drinking water. Sophie, our trained snake dog, gave us a free pass with our mother, so we’d head out after breakfast and stay gone sometimes until dinner.
Our efforts to get back to basics fizzled after four years when Dad’s job ended and we moved back to Louisiana my senior year of high school. But we kids left with the exact set of lessons Dad set out to instill in us. He and my mother taught us to persevere even in dire situations and threatening environments. Living in those mountains taught us the full meaning of appreciation.
That my father followed his dreams and my mom supported us all left me with a deep respect for them. They gave me the courage and strength to follow my dream of publishing a book and to dig in when things get tough. They taught me what I would need to deal with Michelle’s death later in life. They support me still in everything I do. I only hope I can teach my children half as much. (I’ll keep electricity and running water, though, thank you!)
Valerie Haight is a short story writer and contemporary suspense and romance novelist. She is a member of Ozarks Writer’s League through College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO and a published author with Turquoise Morning Press. Her first book, HAPPENSTANCE, releases December 13.