GROWING UP, I’D WATCH as my dad would disappear off into the woods near our home in southwest Arkansas. He’d wander back fairly soon, wearing a smile and holding a harvest of poke salad overflowing from a paper sack or a plastic Walmart bag. Sometimes he’d come inside the house wielding an armful of the still-unwashed herbaceous green and ask my poor mom to prepare it. Sometimes she would cook it up along with some fish we’d caught earlier that day, but usually, the poke salad was scrambled up with eggs, a little onion and some salt and pepper for taste. If my mother, a young girl from Torrance, California, hadn’t known how to properly cook poke salad, she could have easily poisoned us all.
Luckily for her (and even more so for us), cooking poke was among the first things she learned from my grandmother, Dora Arizona Beezley Miller—a woman who, at first glance, looked so small and frail standing before the behemoth cast-iron stove but was capable of feeding dozens a scratch-made supper without blinking an eye—not long after marrying my father. But for as many times as she made poke salad, it, and the South, remained foreign to my mother. They’d come from very different places, my mother and father, and understood the place they’d ended up in very different ways. My father, from a Southern backwoods culture founded in raw goat’s milk, honest-to-God cornbread and the warmth of a cast-iron stove. My mother, from the suburbs of L.A. County. I don’t think she could truly fathom where she’d landed. And it’s largely for that reason—for that dichotomy between my father’s and mother’s experiences, and the way I observed them—that I came to understand the South as I do.
The youngest of seven, Dad had no interest in growing chickens or becoming a gardener so much as he wished to raise horses. It was his dream to own his own land and to bring up thoroughbreds. For him, the pull of his youth and his memories on the farm were more powerful and unwieldy than the high-strung temperamental beasts that he raised. I can still hear the sound of their galloping on the rock-hard earth of our farm. Adrenaline-fueled and nearly always unpredictable, these thoroughbreds demanded your attention as they kicked their back hooves wildly into the air, often frolicking and trotting around our modest 100-acre spread. These normally fast-legged, sweet-natured animals with faster-beating hearts would often race one another while playing along the green, rock-sodden earth where I’d hunt arrowheads. These were animals bred to run, and Dad knew this. It was always his favorite part, watching them play and be free on his property. Horse farmer that he was, Pops would often take time off from work and the farm to conduct his own “research” at Oaklawn.
In addition to learning a little about horse betting early on, growing up on the farm and going to a small rural high school all seemed like pretty good introductions to life in Arkansas. Sure, there were many pros and cons, but becoming fully cognizant of the surrounding beauty and tranquility of where I grew up became much of a source of pride and inspiration for me as an adult. Prior to that, from the age of 5 and until my freshman year of college, I had convinced myself that it was the most boring existence imaginable. It was my own little lonely dirt-road purgatory off Arkansas Highway 240, near the south fork of the best parts of the Caddo River and just a few miles from the Winding Staircase hiking trail and Little Missouri Falls. In truth, it was a fairly decent childhood that I had the privilege of sharing with my family, and with horses with names such as Straight Diamond, Jason’s Deal and Up to Mena. There were others with names that still probably litter old horse registration papers tucked away in a filing cabinet somewhere.
The farm is for sale now, and the horses are gone, along with my father and his dreams. Deer stands have now popped up like weeds among the wild blackberries and passion flowers that grow in the pastures. Occasionally, when the grass gets tall enough, it’s mowed down for hay to feed another person’s livestock, and a part of me sometimes feels ashamed—ashamed that I may be out of touch and disconnected from this place that instilled so much of who I am as a person.
But then I remember grandma’s cooking, and my father’s passion to pursue his dream, and I realize that it’s not so much about a physical place as it is about the people and those earliest experiences. Even the feelings of boredom, loneliness and frustration born from the difficulty of growing up in middle-of-nowhere Arkansas helped to cultivate a patience found at the heart of every Southerner.
Jim G. Miller is a writer living in Hot Springs National Park. He currently works as director of marketing at the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs.