IT’S LONG BEEN SAID that Jasper, a town of 453 near the banks of the upper Buffalo River, is not just a special place, but a magical one. My mother remembers touring Diamond Cave, spelunking its forests of stalagmites and stalactites and marveling at the fairylike formations of sparkling calcite crystals. Rumors swirl of Newton County’s longitudinal alignment with Tibet. And more than once, I’ve heard tell that this area is a vortex—whatever that means. But could there really be something to all of this transcendental talk? Is there something truly supernatural about Jasper?
If stopping at the Rotary Ann Overlook about 30 minutes outside of town is any indication, the answer is yes, as someone has written on the rock retaining wall, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I smooth the goosebumps on my arm, jump back in my car and continue my pilgrimage. After all, I have a guru to meet.
Actually, “yogi” is a more accurate term. I’m scheduled to meet Holly Krepps—co-founder of Circle Yoga Shala, a yoga retreat, farm and training center in the beautiful rolling hills of Jasper—at the Blue Mountain Bakery and Cafe at the northwest corner of the town square. And when I stroll into the building, with its heavenly blue plaster walls and bits of exposed rock showing through, I believe I immediately recognize my guide, whose back is turned to me as she chats with someone at the baked-goods counter. There’s nothing particularly special about this woman’s jeans, or brownish-gray sweater, or ash brown hair that just grazes her shoulders. But there is something almost divine about her posture. And sure enough, as I walk up, she seems to sense me, and she turns around with a beautiful, serene smile on her face.
“Heather?” Holly asks.
“Nice to meet you,” I confirm with a nod. “This is lovely!”
“It’s my favorite place,” she says, guiding me to a table where an elderly man is already seated. “If it wasn’t here, I’d have to move back to Little Rock.”
The older man has long gray hair fastened in a ponytail down the center of his back. His black ball cap has a motorcycle on the front, and he sports an American Indian-style blanket jacket and three gold teeth when he smiles, which he does a lot.
“When you asked me what makes Jasper Jasper,” Holly begins, pushing a plate with a muffin on it between us, “I realized that for me, it’s really the people. It’s not like a city where you’re inundated with things, so what we have here is precious.”
The older man—whose name, I learn, is Jolly Jones—couldn’t agree more. He was born about 5 miles north of town, but grew up in Los Angeles, living there, raising a family there, even working until retirement there. But as soon as he could, he beelined it straight back to good ol’ Jasper for what he considers his true glory days. Now, Jolly has time to exert his existence as a Renaissance man: His poetry decorates the Ozark Cafe’s walls here in town; a Bowie knife he carved hangs in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas; and four years ago, he and a buddy of his rode their motorcycles all the way up to the Arctic Circle and back.
“That was back when I was young,” Jolly says with a laugh.
“Guess how old he is,” Holly prods me.
I look at Jolly’s face. It is remarkably unlined. My dad is 72, and I figure Jolly is somewhere near his age, so I guess 74.
“I’m 86,” Jolly proclaims.
“You rode to the Arctic Circle and back when you were 82?” I clarify.
Jolly nods. I am in awe. I pop a bite of muffin into my awkwardly gaping mouth, and my taste buds are suddenly awash with the flavor of fresh orange—even though it’s the middle of winter. It is truly the most delicious muffin I’ve ever eaten. But Jolly doesn’t miss a beat.
“Just me and my friend. A total of 9,000 miles,” Jolly says. “You know, I like it here. Anyone would like it here.” He looks to the left and right, then drops his volume conspiratorially. “I hope you don’t write all this down because we don’t want everybody coming here.”
That seems odd to me. Don’t small towns—especially ones like Jasper, those that thrive on the tourism that the Buffalo River brings during the summer months—want folks to come around? I wonder. And bring their money with them?
Dawn, one of the owners of the Blue Mountain Bakery and Cafe, comes to check on us. I gush about the muffin and ask her what she likes best about Jasper. “Its history,” she says. “There’s so much history people don’t know.” And what’s the one thing she’d have me see? “Steel Creek,” she says without hesitation. “It almost makes you feel insignificant because the bluffs are so gorgeous. You can sit and contemplate and solve all the problems of the world.”
Hmm. An elderly man who looks more than a decade younger than he is. Delicious food that tastes of eternal spring. Beautiful waters that solve earthy ills. And a community that wouldn’t mind keeping it all to itself. I’m no idiot. Take me to that Steel Creek. I’m ready to drink from the Fountain of Youth.
Holly and I walk along the north side of Jasper Square. In the center lies the Newton County Courthouse, built in 1939 by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). This unique stone building was constructed after the old courthouse burned down in 1938, and not only is the entire structure fireproof, but every room is also a fireproof vault. If I had any mystical secrets to pass on to future generations, I know where I’d be storing them for safekeeping.
A short block off the square stands Gordon’s Motel and Canoe Rental, which Holly says is one of the main outfitters putting people on the Buffalo. Holly’s son Noah has been working here for so many summers that he’s practically the owners’—Rosalyn and Harold Gordon’s—surrogate child. In fact, I feel almost like family myself as soon I step into Rosalyn’s white-carpeted living room.
“Are you sure I can’t get you something to drink?” she asks me at least three times.
“We just had tea at Blue Mountain, Ms. Rosalyn,” I respond, settling into her plush couch.
“My grandson calls me RoRo,” she confides. (So does everyone else, it would seem, as this is how Holly referred to her on our walk down.)
Rosalyn tells me about how her family has been able to make a stable life for themselves from the river. They have 85 canoes, 10 rafts, 15 kayaks and 18 rooms, and all of these are pretty much spoken for from mid-March through August—sometimes into September if the summer’s been a particularly rainy one. She begins fielding phone calls about mid-January and, sure enough, she’s pulled away several times during our chat to answer phone calls.
“When people call in for reservations,” she explains, “I tell them everything they need to know.”
I believe her—RoRo likes to talk. She tells me about how she used to teach school in Louisiana and how Harold was an accountant for the gas company before they bought the place from a relative, back in the days of Dogpatch and Diamond Cave. How they have four school buses and four vans and will shuttle people to and from various points along the river (“I don’t care if it’s one or 100, I’ll take care of ‘em!”). How Jasper is only an hour from Branson and lots of folks will spend a day on the Buffalo, come back to Gordon’s, shower, and then head up and see a show. How during the summers, their little office becomes a gift shop with koozies and dry bags and ponchos and eyeglass holders, and how she and Harold will sit out on the porch and visit with their guests.
“And what’s the one place I should see before I leave town?” I ask her.
“Low Gap Cafe,” she says. “It’s got the best food in the whole world.”
Isn’t that just like family, to feed you?
This stop wasn’t so supernatural. Not so mystical at all! In fact, it was downright down-home. Holly and I start walking west along Court Street. She’s wearing a delicate little bangle around her wrist. It’s got some unfamiliar script on its face.
“What does your bracelet say?” I ask her.
Holly smiles. Her celadon eyes are striking. “It’s in Sanskrit. It says, ‘Praise to the divine mother.’”
Of course it does.
Normally, I am an extremely visual person. But when I walk into Emma’s Museum of Junk, a blond-brick building full of vintage and antique items just begging for my attention, it is smell that overrides all of my senses.
“Is that sandalwood?” I ask, closing my peepers and inhaling deeply.
“It’s frankincense,” says a voice from behind a glass case, which is stacked on top of a glass counter. Both are full of trinkets and collectibles of all shapes and sizes. Emma Rowan comes out, hair pulled up in a clip, glasses on, blue apron secure. Originally from Rhode Island, she has an accent that is Yankee, but her demeanor is full-on Southern. She came out here about 40 years ago to go camping with a friend. She went back north just long enough to sell everything before moving to Jasper permanently. “I like to cleanse the store with frankincense in the mornings.”
Well, it works. The smell is peaceful yet refreshing. It places an uncanny calm right in my chest yet gives me a boost of energy that makes me want to look at each and every thing she has in her space—and believe you me, it’s a lot. On the front counter alone, she’s got ginseng gum and Indian bells and bone china dishes full of tiny saint cameos. Lucky for me, a handwritten cardboard sign announces that she is “NOW ACCEPTING CREDIT CARDS. IMAGINE THAT!”
But standing right in front of the counter is a sight at least as entrancing as anything Emma has in her shop: a man, I’d guess around six feet tall, dressed in camouflage pants, a brown suede jacket with fringe that hangs from his shoulders to his waist and a floppy leather hat not unlike Indiana Jones,’ with the left side of his glasses hand-patched with black leather. Is he a pirate? A mountain man? An antiques-loving hunter/archaeologist/Davy Crockett?
Try a medicine man, of sorts. Kent Bonar—formerly of the Arkansas State Parks department—has been in the area full time since 1977. According to Holly, he’s walked the entirety of Newton County, and the University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections department has a manuscript collection of his that contains more than 500 pages of An Atlas and Annotated List of Vascular Plants of Arkansas, as well as many of his personal notes on flora and fauna. Kent, who’s been called “the John Muir of the Ozarks,” has even been featured in a short documentary.
Kent and I get to talking about the medicinal value of the plants that are under our very noses in our native land and how sad it is that so little of that knowledge is being passed down to the next generations. He tells me how very valuable Newton County is when it comes to medicinal plants, and he reminisces about his days with the parks department. He tells me that this area is so beautiful that “the rest of the state is jealous.”
These days, Kent lives off the grid in an old school bus. (I believe I heard that right. Who am I to question the medicine man?) He loves the independence his lifestyle offers him: “When the electricity went out, I never even noticed!” And when I ask him what I must see before I leave the town, I hear a familiar tune: “Steel Creek.”
Emma agrees. “Steel Creek! There’s an energy here [in Jasper]. And people feel that. They say there’s something wonderfully special going on here.”
On our way out the door, a wall decoration catches my eye. It’s a buffalo head, cut from cardboard. It’s strange and unique and … large. Almost the size of a real taxidermied animal head. I am entranced, but maybe it’s the frankincense. I keep my credit card firmly in my wallet and shake off whatever magic is weaving its spell over me.
As she is driving me to the low area between Kilgore Mountain and Shiloh Mountain, Holly does a one-finger wave that I am certain must be the secret handshake of this mysterious small town. We arrive in a stunning valley—sweeping views of trees and mountains towering over both sides
of the highway—where a beautiful rock building, the Low Gap Full Gospel Church, stands next to the Low Gap Cafe, a former general store that boasts both a horse-hitching post and a potbellied wood stove. A chalkboard boasts today’s specials: scallops, filet mignon, ahi tuna, duck and snapper, and I wonder how such a small town acquires such sophisticated dishes. Is this another feat of enchantment?
When I ask the man behind the counter, who’s in a plaid shirt and ball cap, what he’d recommend, he tells me, “Just close your eyes and point.” I choose a modest turkey and avocado sandwich because, quite honestly, the twists and turns of scenic Arkansas 74 have got my stomach just a bit on the topsy-turvy side.
I pull out my phone to check my messages, but there is no service here. Is this what is meant by a vortex? But at the Low Gap Café, there’s no need to seek outside entertainment, especially on Saturday nights. “They have music here on the weekends,” Holly tells me. “It’s so busy; you can’t get in here unless you call in advance.” But on this Friday at lunch, it is relatively slow, and I enjoy my talk with Holly.
It turns out that in little old Jasper, Arkansas, population 453, the Czech Republic Olympic Beach Volleyball Team comes to Circle Yoga Shala to train with Holly and her husband, Matt. In fact, Holly and Matt built an Olympic sand volleyball court last year on their property to aid in that training. Matt and Holly also train their son Noah in his newest endeavor—bullfighting. “Yoga has a lot to say about a lot of things,” Holly explains of the diversity of their ventures. “Now that we’re out on the farm, we can say yes to a lot more.”
“Yes” sounds like a pretty good mantra to me when working to expand your opportunities, and I can’t wait to see what Holly and Matt have done with the yeses they’ve already recited.
Sure enough, there is an Olympic-sized sand volleyball court sitting on 25 acres of hilltop Arkansas. Just beyond this netted-in unnatural wonder of the world, three horses mosey up to a fence, beckoned by Holly’s siren presence. She’s rescued them all, and I can’t figure out if the equine therapy done here at Circle Yoga Shala benefits the people or the horses more.
Holly shows me “The Coop,” a former barn that’s been repurposed into a place where folks stay when they are lucky enough to come for a retreat. The building is beautiful—a rock-lined shower lit by a skylight, floors made from round slices of wood—and was entirely renovated by Holly and Matt, with most of the materials coming from the immediate area. Upstairs, an open space allows for yoga practice, with glass doors that can be left open in fair weather, granting gorgeous views of the horses in their pasture.
As we head back to the car, we are joined by Bella, a Bernese mountain dog who is also a rescue. These days, Holly has a pack of four canines. “They keep showing up,” she shrugs. But it’s not just animals that Holly takes in—currently, she has a yoga apprentice and a monk living in two separate sleeper cabins on her property, as well. They grow their own crops, collect their own drinking water and are even looking at building a communal dining hall on their grounds.
Holly’s got big plans, and she’s the kind of person who inspires others to believe in those plans, too. When she first moved out here, she had a neighbor who was, as she puts it, rather “prickly.” To show her good intentions and her neighborly ways, she introduced herself, bringing along a pie. It wasn’t long before all was right with the world. Holly sums it up humbly and succinctly: “Pie fixes so many things.” Now I know she’s magic. Those are the very words I live by.
Steel Creek. We couldn’t not come here.
As Holly and I walk the rocky path through sparse woods, she says, “There are certainly prettier places in the county, but it’s so accessible.”
We run into Kathy, a nun living at the Katog Choling Mountain Retreat Center (because of course there is a Buddhist retreat center here). “This is my favorite spot in the whole world,” she tells me.
And then we come to Steel Creek, and I can’t imagine a prettier place.
Rocky bluffs in colors ranging from sandstone to dove gray to rust tower over me, trees growing wherever they can gain purchase. Water, a slight turquoise so clear you can see to the stony bottom, flows musically at the base.
And yes, I feel insignificant, as Dawn at Blue Mountain said I would. And yes, I feel the incredible energy as Emma at her museum said. And yes, I want to stay here forever and forever and forever, listening to the water and breathing the clear air, feeling the sun on my face and just, well, being.
But I have a cardboard buffalo head to buy.