“I WANT TO show you why I bought this place,” Holt Condren says to me as I follow him down a mossy, manicured trail, its surface soft and almost spongy beneath my feet.
It’s a trail that he built himself, relatively recently, employing “a chainsaw and one of those commercial blowers” on a parcel of 100 acres he’s owned for 20 years. When you’re the one building the trail on land that’s yours and yours alone, you can determine where it goes, what the trailgoer sees. And as we’re walking and the trees start to thin, I see it. It catches my breath.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Holt says, stepping onto a precipice he calls Chapel Rock, walking to the edge and placing his hands on a lichen-speckled boulder—an immense limestone monolith that looks like a piece of Stonehenge, albeit one rolled on its side. “I mean, how did it get here?”
I nod but do not respond, as my mind’s too busy processing the scene around me. Three hundred and fifty feet below us, Big Creek’s wending its way through a tree-smothered valley. Beyond the creek’s bend, the Ozark National Forest stretches as far as eye can see. There are hills and bluffs and birds and, well, damn-near everything—everything except anyone else. I feel a million miles from anywhere, though I was just driving through Marshall 30 minutes before. So, yes, I’m wondering how that rock got here, but I’m also wondering, how did I get here? How did Holt get here, those 20 years ago?
I ask as much, and he tells me it was a bit of luck and a leap of faith.
At the time, he was 33 years old. He couldn’t really afford the place, and he certainly couldn’t afford to do much of anything with it, but it called to him. Not that he needed many creature comforts, anyways. He’s a capital-O Outdoorsman, the Arkansas version of Bear Grylls—the kind of person you imagine could survive in the woods for a month with three matches, a pocket knife and an extra long Slim Jim. After closing the deal, he spent the next two-ish decades getting to know the property, fishing the creek with his kids, camping in the clearings, walking above and below the blufflines and into the cave and over the ridgetop until he knew every single inch of the place. And then, two years ago, along with his business partner, he started building what he calls Leatherwood Lodge: a solar-powered, off-the-grid, super luxe “cabin” where, by my own bit of luck, I get to spend the night.
As we walk back toward the “cabin,” Holt uses the toe of his boot to kick rocks off the path and send errant sticks to the side. Where the trail meets the house, he stops and looks out over the valley view, scanning the horizon. He apologizes. “I’m sorry, the trees just aren’t popping like they usually do,” he says. Again, I nod. Not in agreement, but because I’m still in shock at what I’m seeing.
And then he’s shaking our hands, bidding us adieu. (I’ve invited the rest of the staff along. They’re feeling lucky, too.) “I’ll leave you to it,” he says with a smile, lingering for a moment before he walks back to his truck. Because there’s only one thing that excites him more than spending time on this property, and that’s seeing the looks on people’s faces when they realize they have it all to themselves.
WE HAVE THIS place all to ourselves.
“If this is the view from the driveway, I can’t wait to see inside,” our senior editor Jordan says, and the rest of us can’t wait, either. After the wooden front door swings open, the first thing we see is an immense two-story stone fireplace, flanked on either side by walls of east-facing windows that flood the space with light. Our eyes then move upward, taking in the timber-framed ceiling and the iron-and-cedar-railed sleeping loft. Standing there, gazing up and out, it’s not unlike being in the nave of a rustic, hand-carved cathedral—a sanctuary devoted to the land beyond. Except with a SubZero fridge and three full bathrooms and enough beds to sleep 18.
The house is stunning. No detail has been overlooked, no need left unsatisfied. There’s everything from a castiron skillet to a French press in the kitchen—even a popcorn maker should you feel so inclined. There’s Taboo in the game closet and a cache of DVDs beneath the TV. There’s a place to set your drink beside the shuffleboard table, extra fuzzy blankets on the bed, overstuffed couches galore, half a dozen chairs perched on the covered deck, magazines next to the reading chairs. But beautiful as it is—as much as that overstuffed couch seems to be saying, Curl up on me! Light a fire!—it’s just a matter of seconds before we’ve got our fleeces on and laces double-knotted and are standing by the door, itching to explore.
Once outside, we scatter like kids unleashed at recess. There’s an arched sign hewn from logs marking the start of the Big Creek Trail, and it beckons me, though the rest of the group heads the other direction. Ten minutes down the path, I realize I’ve never been on a trail, by myself, in the woods. And it feels exhilarating.
Maybe it’s being alone, or maybe it’s just how meticulously Holt has maintained the trail, but my walk soon turns into a jog, then into a scramble, then into a full-on run once I reach the clearing below the bluffline. I keep running until the trail turns into river stones and I find myself on the creek bed, a hundred yards or so from the rest of the crew. They’ve been exploring on their own, too, and they’re skipping stones and pocketing pebbles as their laughter echoes off the limestone cliffs surrounding us.
“It’s weird,” says Wyndham, our associate editor, as he flings a stone across the creek’s crystalline surface. “I mean, it feels familiar, like my childhood memories of being out in nature, but it’s so strange to know we can run up and down the creek and never see anyone. No one can get here.”
Hours later, sitting around the firepit out back, feeling close to the moon and mesmerized by the clouds that whip past it, we realize it: There’s nothing around. Like, nothing. It’s eerily quiet, and there’s just one tiny blip of light across the way, likely some sort of ridgetop tower alight in the National Forest.
“This is what it must’ve been like way back when,” Emma, our creative director, says. We sit in silence for a few moments, taking in the darkness. As free as we’d felt earlier in the day, we employ the buddy system to walk back up to the cabin.
IT’S NOT QUITE 7 a.m. and people are stirring, and here’s why that’s significant: These people don’t typically “stir” in the morning, and the beds we slept in aren’t the kind of beds you want to get out of. We’ve slept through sunrises before. Plenty of ’em. But this property faces due east, and the spectacle isn’t to be missed, we’ve been told.
We bundle up and head out before coffee, before breakfast, back down the trail. We reach Chapel Rock just as the sun begins to show itself behind the ridgeline. The clouds that danced around the moon last night have lingered, and soon the sky’s painted wispy orange and the lichen on the rock is glowing.
I settle down, criss-cross-applesauce, sitting closer to the edge than I typically would. Coffee can wait. Heck, lunch can wait. So can dinner.
Because as nice as Holt’s Leatherwood Lodge is, there’s something about the land around it that calls to you, like it called to Holt: Come outside. And sure, it’s the view. And the creek. And that soft, spongy trail. But it’s also a palpable connection to the land, one forged over 20 years, that almost emanates from the moss and the rocks and the bluffs and the trees. This place is loved. It’s cared for. It’s known.
So, Holt, to answer your question: I don’t know how that rock got there. But I sure am glad you found it.
Soooo … Leatherwood isn’t close to much. But if you do want to get out, here’s where the getting’s good
401 High St., Leslie
If you’re driving in from Little Rock, make sure you leave in time for lunch at this Leslie cafe, which is worthy of all the heart-eye emojis ever. Or just stop in for a slice or three of strawberry pie. (Can we tell you a secret? Sometimes we make the trek from Little Rock just for that pie.) (skylarkcafe.com)
Crockett’s Country Store
Junction Highway 14 and 27, Harriet
Big Creek’s one of main feeder streams for the Buffalo River, and Crockett’s Country Store in nearby Harriet is the closest outfitter who can get you out on the water. (buffalorivercanoerental.com)
107 Westwood Dr., Marshall
The oldest in the state (and the only one open year-round), Marshall’s Kenda Drive-In theater still uses those old-fangled speakers. And since this is Searcy County, they serve chocolate rolls at the concession. (facebook.com/kendadrivein)
614 U.S. Highway 65, Marshall
Delicious, diner-y burgers are the draw at the roadside dairy bar, but if you’ve got a hankering for anything from a blueberry sundae to a chicken burrito, odds are you’ll find it here. (facebook.com/daisyqueen1966)