Inaugural picnic on the grounds of Tranquility Base. 2/29/20 (Photo, Frances Merrell)
More Than Just a Story
During the last eighteen months and through the process of drafting The King of Highbanks Road, there is something I’ve not shared with you. It’s the kind of thing that troubles a writer deep down. Even makes him wonder whether it’s worth it.
I’ve never been able to explain to you how it’s more than just a story. I’ve known it was more, even if but from a feeling deep down inside my soul that couldn’t be explained. The words describing it wouldn’t come out. But I knew it was more.
And so there was always a nagging void between the writer and the reader. To be completely honest, I felt a bit inadequate in the vortex of that void, and struggled daily because the story I’ve been telling you wasn’t, well, whole.
We are about to clear all that up.
There was not a day that passed from the time I was 5 years old until the day my father died from natural causes in 2011 when I did not believe that would be the day we found him in a roadside ditch, his head blown off with a shotgun.
Every summer morning in 1981 as the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for 23
consecutive days, I watched dad force down a cup of coffee, then he’d go to the bathroom and vomit for ten minutes. We literally watched a crop burn up that year. It happened to small farmers everywhere. Interest rates skyrocketed the next year, and the banks came after our land. They didn’t care if we had to sleep in a ditch. They just wanted their money. I never believed my father would survive the pressure.
He died twenty years later, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Earlier this week I randomly came across a 2018 article in The Guardian about suicide rates in rural America. Its title: Why Are American Farmers Killing Themselves? The story quoted two academic researchers who had dedicated their life to counseling small farmers in rural America. And their research specialized on the 1980s.
The weather, the markets, the interest rates, the stress. It was the “wrecking ball” that became the beginning of the end of the small farmer on the American landscape, they said.
A “wrecking ball.”
These guys were telling the part of the story that I didn’t know how to tell. The view from twenty-thousand feet. The big picture.
Finishing the long story, I put my head into my hands and cried. I tracked down those researchers and called them, and we talked, and I cried some more. I told them my story. They said they’d heard it a million times. And so they let me cry some more.
“But farm families are proud, and we just don’t talk about it a lot,” the said. “…and yes, we’d be happy to help you with your book. Whatever you need. Anything.”
The thing is, everyone’s normal is relative. We are products of that place from which we come. Without and understanding of something else, the only thing we know is our normal. But there was something that just kept telling me my normal was different. I witnessed too much stress, too much pain, too much struggle. Surely that wasn’t normal.
And so even though I didn’t really know what to call it, I had a deep, down desire to tell you about it and share it with you. It seemed a story that needed told.
And now I get it. It WAS something.
It was a wrecking ball that tore through the landscape I called home.
10 Things I Learned to Love About Home Again
As we wrap up the finishing text for The King of Highbanks Road, I reflect on so many things from the experience of putting it all on paper – and how the place I will always know as home has impacted me all over again.
• The art of loafing and sitting around a coffee table with a group of men just shooting the bull, telling tall tales, even a few lies.
•Massive Crock Pot gatherings after church where the food is so good it makes you want to melt, but the older ladies say, “It must notta been fit to eat. They barely touched a thing.” This, although every last crumb was scraped from the bowl.
•The smell of fall. For cotton farmers, this is distinct, unique, and like nothing else in the world.
•Four-wheel drive pickup trucks so tall you need a step side to get in one … and the bird dogs and retrievers that ride in back of them. I recently got one of those trucks for myself.
•Watching the fall migration of Canadas, Snow geese, and mallard ducks navigate the Mississippi River Flyway.
•The sudden power jerk when a 2-pound crappie hits a 12-foot pole, and the battle that follows in the seconds afterward.
•Going out of my way to see the senior members of community families who raised me.
•Listening to the satisfying, nostalgic, mechanical hum of a distant cotton picker in a field miles away as it tries to beat the rain.
•The smell inside the old church where I was raised.
•All those small-town stories, and people, especially the local farmers who for better or worse, shaped me into the man I am today.
Photo of the Week
Stop the Presses! But Go to 500!
After eighteen months of writing, and a half-year of (ongoing) editing, we’ve set Saturday, October 3 as the release date for The King of Highbanks Road.
There is much to to share. The book’s foreword is set to be authored by a New York
Times best-selling author at the top of his game. We’ll have some commemorative ceremonies, but more about those things later.
Today, I’m happy to tell you that KOHBR will release as a traditional limited-edition hardback with a 500-volume numbered press run. That means you can get a “one and only.”
So I hope you’ll make plans to buy one one of these signed, limited-edition books now. They will be released for sale in two phases: first at a ceremony in the King’s hometown of Monette, AR; the second phase a few hours later via online order. Hardback copies will sell for $24 each, plus shipping. #1 goes to my mom. #2 goes to my wife. #3 through #500 are up for grabs.
Both unnumbered hardbacks, and paperbacks will also be available via Amazon. The paperback will sell in the $15 range.
I’m also pleased to report there will be an audio version of KOHBR, narrated by yours truly. More to come on that as well.
Stay tuned for future announcements. We’re not finished yet!
Which number will be on your bookshelf???
When Religion Makes You Think Too Much
It’s worth noting at the beginning my sensitivity to this topic. It began in 2012 when a well-intentioned, but misguided church pastor literally walked away from my dying father’s request for baptism. There is no more anger. Over the years, I have understood this moment for what it was.
Fast forward six years.
Dana and I were working a three-month term of volunteer service at a facility in Santiago de Compostela, Spain known for its welcoming atmosphere, peaceful environment, and Christian foundation. This is not a place that pushes religion on you, but it ideally operates as if Jesus managed it. We often said we hoped visitors experienced Jesus when they walked through the door. It’s also worth noting that the founders of this facility were abroad on business during these three months, and had they been there, none of this likely would have happened.
As I mentioned, Dana and I were volunteers working with several full-time staff members. We greeted visitors, helped them with travel issues, helped them understand the city, and other basic needs. Volunteerism is a commendable thing, but you also have to remember your place. You are there to assist, not necessarily lead. You are on someone else’s turf.
Several weeks into our service, a young man from Portugal came in. After helping him with some logistical issues, he began a conversation along spiritual lines. The young man mentioned he’d been on pilgrimage for three weeks, stopped in three churches to request baptism, and was denied each time. He was confounded how this could happen.
“Can you baptize me here?” he asked.
I asked a few questions exploring his faith a bit more. My judgment was that he’d had a genuine experience out there that fully merited his request.
I should have handled it right then and there. It was so exciting. What a moment this will be, I thought. We will remember it forever. It even crossed my mind that this was the reason we were called so far from home. Yes, I should have handled it right there. Were it to repeat, that’s exactly what I’d do.
But in the moment, I decided the best protocol was to quickly explain the scenario to a full-time staffer and let him and others move this process forward. There was no question in my mind they’d do so, and it was the respectful thing to do.
So I led Carlito into a conversation with the senior staff member on duty and went back to the desk, listening intently, and excited about Carlito’s decision.
Carlito described his frustration with the three churches who would have no part in his baptism. He did not wish to be catholic. He wished to be baptized in the name of Jesus. I counted this a real sign of his understanding.
At this point, it might be helpful to explain what baptism is, and what it is not.
It is not:
•Membership in a denominational church
•A magical moment of conversion
•Even particularly necessary for one’s salvation
•A symbolic profession of faith carried out as a result of a previous experience
•Agreement that one believes in Christ Jesus, His deity as the Son of God, his death as atonement for sin, and his resurrection ,and place at God’s right hand today
•A milestone moment on which a Christian can reflect
Our staffer, a well-educated, deep-thinking scholar and Christian evangelical from Tennessee walked Carlito though conversation. I eventually heard him explaining how baptism is an act of community, and should be performed in community. He encouraged him to return home, find a church, explore his faith further and invest in a place where he could serve. There was so much talking, and so little acting.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It would be the fourth time Carlito was refused baptism. He left later that day never knowing the difference. I was sick to my stomach.
So much theology!
It doesn’t take a special set of circumstances or a certain environment to profess your faith in Christ. Jesus doesn’t care if you are fully immersed, or sprinkled, or if you are in a church of five thousand, or with a friend in the woods. Jesus cares for the condition of your heart, and asks that you take a step in faith to know Him.
Our faith has never been about the rules, or the guidelines, or the principles. Just as it is not about your resume or list of achievements. We come to the place where we realize that we are not enough, and we need a helper. A simple decision, not a ceremony.
Don’t overthink Jesus.
Pilgrim Strong Readers: We Need Your Review
Did you read Pilgrim Strong? I could use your help.
We need 36 reader reviews to reach 100. The Amazon gods are saying magical things happen to a book’s visibility at 100 reviews. All our reviews are legit. We’ve never attempted to pad our page with fake reviews for the sake of numbers. But if you”re a reader, and can take a moment to help with an honest opinion, we’d be grateful. You must have an active Amazon account in good standing. Here’s a sample, and thank you!
Ten Inspiring People I Met on the Internet and Now Call Friends
Some time around 2014 my phone rang and showed an unknown number. The caller identified himself at Keith Richardson and said he’d found a blog site where I mostly wrote about our adventures building a house and living part-time in Ecuador. He wondered if I had time for a few questions. I said, sure.
Six years later, Keith and I are close friends. He is a man I admire. Smart as a whip. Moral. A learner. Compassionate for those less fortunate. A giver. Both a lawyer and a minister by profession. We communicate frequently as friends and consider ourselves traveling companions. We’ve spent a week together in Ecuador, and last year logged about four thousand miles together on a round-trip, road trip to Nova Scotia. I consider Keith a part of my inner circle.
Beth’s name began popping up in my social media feed during my 2015 pilgrimage on the Way of St. James. She and her husband had walked just months earlier and she re-lived her experience through me, though it was quite different from hers.
Writers pay attention to how others write, even on social media. I immediately
recognized her as a skilled and thoughtful writer, one of the best around. That alone drew me to her as a friend. Little did either of us know we’d both spend the next couple of years writing about the walking experience. Her book is Walking to the End of the World. Our friendship also became a professional relationship. I’ve consulted with Beth on several writing projects, and she is the lead editor for The King of Highbanks Road. Beth blogs at caminotimestwo.com and bethjusino.com. She is one of those people whose opinion is important.
Annie introduced herself to me the same as Beth. Social media comments here and there during pilgrimage. Because the pilgrim population is a tight-knit group, I knew of Annie’s work on a developing documentary called Phil’s Camino. It was an honor having Annie in the conversation.
I’d actually first seen Annie in her own documentary, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. The film captured Annie’s physical pain with several miles yet to go. She was
genuine, authentic and raw in that film, and I knew I’d like her immediately.
We became close enough friends, and Annie identifies with my writing enough, that I asked her to write the foreword for Pilgrim Strong. She was the perfect person in that moment. Our names are forever intertwined in that relationship.
We get to hang out occasionally. We spent a day together at the Hot Springs Film Festival and watched the total eclipse together near Kansas City in 2018. Annie is an incredible artistic talent.
He is the rock star of the pilgrim community.
Phil Volker is the focus of Annie’s film, Phil’s Camino, the story of a man who overcame all odds to walk the Way. Phil, too, followed along as I walked in 2015.
He is one of the most inspiring men you’ll ever meet. My favorite Phil Volker quote:
“There is a difference in being cured and being healed. At this point in life I’m focusing on the healing which means all the important things in life are reconciled like my relationships with my family and with God.”
It was one of my greatest pleasures walking with Phil on his camino in 2018, and I’ll see him later this year at a gathering now known as Philstock. Yes, he has his own annual gathering. That’s how much people love him.
Susan & Kym Gardner
Another Camino connection. Susan and I were first connected until I met both her and her husband, Kym at the Gathering of Pilgrims in Asheville last year. This North Carolina-based couple is kind and generous, and have found a way to use their resources for the greater good.
For the last two years, they’ve organized groups that are part of a long-term project to carry a young man named Gabriel across the Way. Physical limitations confine Gabriel to a wheelchair. The experiences they’ve shared as part of Gabriel’s camino are amazing.
Some people are just extraordinary. Brien Crothers is one.
Though we connected through pilgrimage, I am most impressed with Brien’s adventures as an endurance athlete. He’s run several ultra marathons across several deserts on several continents. He’s complete the Western States 100 on multiple occasions, and he’s just a super nice guy. He allowed me to tag along last year, observing an aid station around mile 70 of this spectacular event.
Brien and his wife, Kathey, opened their home to me in 2019 during a book tour through California. We have the same eccentric qualities with an interest in many things and Brien is steadily working on his writing craft.
I never realized how many friends I’ve developed just because of pilgrimage. Roni is another.
Her comments on my social media thread in 2015 struck me much in the same way Beth’s did. Roni was clearly educated, thoughtful, and articulate. I eventually learned she was closing in on her doctoral degree in communication and was studying how the use of technology impacted pilgrimage with people who used it. I was the perfect mouse in the maze to observe on that topic.
She’s since completed that degree, frequently demonstrates an amazing flair for photography across rural Oklahoma and the world, and she travels. Roni’s headed back to Camino in just a few weeks.
The only person on this list I’ve not met personally.
Suzan and her husband’s work in travel writing first caught my attention back around 2010. They were writing a lot for a publication known as International Living, and Ecuador was a frequent topic. Their writing piqued our curiosity enough that Dana and I made a 3-week exploratory trip to Ecuador in 2012. It’s a long story after that, but Latin America has since become a big part of our lives.
I was on a train to Pamplona when Suzan wrote and asked if I’d consider writing a story about pilgrimage for International Living.
I ultimately learned Suzan has considerable roots in Arkansas and an impressive list of writing credentials. She is one of those folks with a solid world view based on real experience.
If you have a wooden sign in your home about your pilgrimage experience chances are this Minnesota man made it. Tom has a great Etsy business making commemorative camino signs and he’s one of the kindest men you’ll ever know. After reading Pilgrim Strong, Tom sent me several pieces of his work as “thanks” for the book.
When Tom passed though Arkansas last year, he and his wife spent a night with us. We made him an honorary citizen of Wynne, AR, just forty miles south of here.
It was my first literary gathering – The Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference in Asheville, NC. A particular book in the bookstore drew me toward it and I began flipping through. The voice from behind is one I’ll never forget.
“My mother just LOVES that book,” the voice said. And I wondered who this strange man was, and why he was talking to me.
He was the author! What an honor!
I followed Jim’s career from that moment. A New York Times best selling author, he’s achieved the highest awards in the world of Christian fiction. And he’s an amazing person.
I attended his Rubart Academy last year just so I could get to know Jim better. It was time and money well spent. I’m hopeful I’ll get to say more about working with Jim in the next few weeks.
Photo of the Week
Old cypress barn north of Oil Trough, AR.
Giving Tranquility Base Some Breathing Room
Its legal description is Roundbottom Pool Estates, an approximate 50-acre land tract developed in a spectacular river valley near Mountain View, AR in 2007. When a one-hundred-year flood passed through a year later, it derailed plans for everything. Today it is the site for about seven homes, most of them vacation homes for people living full-time elsewhere. It is also the home of our Tranquility Base Writer’s Retreat Center. Outside the trickle of the White River and an occasional eagle, you can hear a pin drop there.
From Mountain View, you travel about five miles southeast and downward following the White River to reach Roundbottom. Not uncommon along the drive are deer, turkey, and all kinds of wildlife, not to mention the occasional hillbilly. The Herpelites (those hillbillies living along Herpel Road) are the biggest challenge as they fly around blind corners in beat up pickup trucks (think Deliverance) with no regard to possible oncoming traffic. A Herpelite can kill you in a heartbeat. Watch out, and drive defensively for Herpelites.
The conclusion of the five-mile drive down into the valley on our River Valley Road is take-your-breath-away beautiful.
Last Monday, Dana and I spent an hour researching real estate records at the Stone County Courthouse. After some digging, we identified the lot owners immediately west of our 1.2 acre property. The kind clerk gave me directions to the owner’s house and we drove there. The owners kindly invited us in to their amazing mountain cabin overlooking our valley and I asked about his willingness to sell his property adjacent to tranquility base.
“I’d love to sell it,” he said. My heart jumped.
After a couple of days of negotiations, I’m happy to say we’re purchasing another 1.2 acres that will double the size of our sanctuary, providing room for more wildlife habitat, a walking trail and lots of breathing room. It also brings our river frontage to just more than 200 feet.
We’re hopeful that construction will begin on March 1.