Ghost ride 

The Observer spends a lot of time observing the river these days, ensconced as we are most days in a satellite Observatory with a lovely balcony full of deck chairs overlooking a lovely stretch of the Arkansas a half-mile downstream from the red scar of Big Rock Quarry, which used to just be Big Rock before some damn fools turned the whole thing into gravel at some point in the past century. It was the Big Rock, of course, that gave the Little Rock its name. Now it is hollowed out. The Little Rock is mostly gone, too, like its big sister upstream, dynamited to make way for railroad bridge footings back in the days before anybody gave a tinned shit about landmarks, even those that lent their name to a burg of thousands.

The city dug way down to expose what was left of La Petite Roche some years back, like a dentist going after a broken stump of tooth, so the tourists would have something to stare at and take selfies with to prove they'd Been There, Done That and Got the T-Shirt. Can't go to Atlantic City without trying saltwater taffy, we suppose, and can't go to Des Moines without trying corn on the cob. The city ended up moving a fragment of the rock from another location to the river.

It's a pretty poor trip to Little Rock that doesn't eventually lead a tourist to the actual little rock.

The Observer has always been partial to the river, and not just because it was a magical, wish-granting catfish from its depths that imposed on us the blessing and curse of Observatude some years back. Long before we took up this mantle, the Arkansas River was the sparkling ribbon that covered the fragile suture of our heritage, Ma's people being from north of the Arkansas, while Pa's kinfolks were from south. Pa was a water-loving creature himself, and took to it every chance he got. He owned a series of boats when Yours Truly was young, from leaking, flat-bottom death traps with puttering Johnsons and Evinrudes, to gleaming metalflake bass rigs with swivel seats, grumbling outboards, Astro-Turfed decks and burbling live wells to hold the catch. Every once in a while, when the stillness of a lake wouldn't do, he would launch on the Arkansas just as the fog was beginning to lift in the morning, and then we'd go tear-assing up and down for miles, stopping occasionally to fish out some spot that looked particularly promising, but mostly just flying low, dodging the lumbering barges, blowing through the chilly shadows of the bridges downtown, kicking up rooster tails, fast enough when the thirsty Mercury outboards were big enough that the Boy Observer wondered how long it would take to find our bodies when we inevitably hit a submerged log or snag and went pocket watch over teakettle in a spectacular spray. Ah, to be that boychild again, leaning out over the hovering prow at speed so the boat itself was lost to our peripheral vision and all that was left was the feeling of flying, of seeing what the old-timey filmmakers called The Ghost Ride, becoming one big eyeball just skimming the water like a low-cruising tern, unattached to the world and yet an intrinsic part of it. We have been through the big locks upstream of Little Rock a time or three, and there is no feeling like that, either: the boat and you so small, the vastness of the machine, the blaring horn of the lockmaster, the huge doors coasting shut like the gates of hell sealing in the damned, and then the weird feeling of rising as the water comes in, like the very breath of the living river inhaled, the inescapable feeling of buoyancy, being lifted up on a million gallons of water, you and God and the fish and all the myriad creatures of the silted deep waiting patiently until everything levels out and the doors at the other end of the lock finally swing open to release you, once again, to the world. We haven't owned a truck to tow or haul a boat in years, and have never owned a boat or outboard motor, period. But sitting every day with a clear view of the river makes us want both something fierce. It is, we suppose, part of growing older, something like that old salt Herman Melville said: the everlasting itch for things remote and simultaneously familiar. A river is a kind of clock, always flowing instead of always ticking, bearing water on and on to the distant sea, running the day you were born and to be running the day they lay you in the clay. But there The Observer goes again, simultaneously trying to see over our shoulder and ahead. What a melancholy baby are we, and ever more so, it seems, as the gray creeps steadily into our hair. We know better than most that what is around the bend is always stubbornly concealed, even to the best pirate, pilot or captain. And so we sit, day by day, and stare at this lovely stretch of the river, pouring past us, drop by irreplaceable drop. And we think: Maybe we should buy a boat.



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