Seeking serenity in the Ozark Hills
I DRIVE INTO THE Mountain Home area—best known, I believe, for being a former island surrounded by the waters of Bull Shoals Lake, Lake Norfork, the White River and the North Fork River—as the sun begins to set. I don’t think I’ve ever visited this corner of the Ozark Mountains before (is that a crime to admit?), and I’m not sure what to expect. A stray snowflake hits my windshield, a remnant from a late, late winter storm that just blew through north Arkansas, yet daffodils (my absolutely favorite flower, the first harbinger of spring) pop up all along Arkansas 62. I am confused, but delighted, by the mixed message. Then, 20 miles out, I pass the Red Raven Inn, a spectacular piece of Queen Anne architecture, sadly closed for now, juxtaposed amongst mundane commercial buildings.
Six miles out, I could choose to stop at establishments ranging from Letty’s Fine Mexican Dining to Judicious Spirits. And then I see a billboard proclaiming “Be a Bull in a Bear Market,” and I have to wonder, is that what Mountain Home is? A powerhouse in a pristine enclave?
THURSDAY, 5:09 P.M.
The Raimondo Family Winery store, a small concrete-block building along Arkansas 62 in Mountain Home, isn’t so remarkable upon first sight. But the sign on its front door welcomes visitors in no less than three dozen languages, and when I step through the front door (bell chiming as I enter), I feel like I’m entering one of the many enotecas I visited while living in Italy: Black cabinets with crisscrossed shelves hold bottle upon bottle of wine, metal cabinets are stacked with all manner of olive oils and mustards and assorted condiments, and a counter—that I can only hope will shortly become a tasting table—sits at the ready to my right.
An adorable woman—I’m guessing to be right about 5-foot—with brown collar-length hair, sensible black boots and brown pants leading up to a slightly wild leopard-print top, walks down a ramp from a back room and extends her hand. “Heather?” she asks, smile spreading across her face.
“Margie,” I return, shaking the hand of the woman I have come to admire from afar. According to the Raimondo Family Winery website, California native Margie Raimondo moved to Arkansas 10 years ago to pursue her love of food and wine after spending more than 20 years in the high-tech world of Silicon Valley. Although I only know her from what I’ve read about her, I think leaving behind a high-paying, glamorous world to pursue her passion in the Ozark Mountains is an exceptional kind of bravery.
As she lays out plates of vegetables, meats, cheeses and breads, Margie’s enthusiasm is contagious. She keeps pulling out sample sizes of oils and vinegars and plastic cups and full bottles of wines, and I wonder if Bacchus himself will soon be joining us. Gesturing to the spread, she says, “Well, mangia!”
I can’t resist her order to eat. As she feeds me her green-olive mustard and her herbs de Provence oil and her grandmother’s fig aceto balsamico, she tells me about the seven months she spent in Italy in 2014 learning how to make the majority of the food items she sells in her store. “It’s pretty simple,” she explains. “You start with the freshest whole food and don’t muck it up.”
For Margie, it’s this idea of “simple” that ultimately led her to Mountain Home. During the 9/11 attacks, she had an employee die in the loss of the first tower, a mentor survive the attack on the second and a company engineer die in the plane that went down by the Pentagon; in fact, she herself was supposed to be on that plane. After 18 months spent processing the ordeal, Margie realized she wasn’t doing what she loved. She knew she needed to make a drastic change in her life, and she made a spreadsheet of what she was looking for most in a new location: things like decent access to health care, mountains and lakes. Her father-in-law, an accountant with the IRS who had colleagues from The Natural State, said “Have you checked out Arkansas? It’s everything you’re describing.” Margie’s internal response? I certainly would never, ever live in Arkansas.
Until, on a business layover, she decided to go ahead and check it out (just to be able to mark it off her list). With its “simple” living—the Ozark Mountains, the lakes and rivers, the people who accepted Italian-Californian Margie just as she was—Margie took the leap, first buying a resort in 2006 and then opening the winery in 2008, and she couldn’t be happier with her choice. “For such a rural area, it has the art, the recreation. Everyone’s here for a lifestyle change. They’re here to simplify, experience life at a much slower pace. Less is more.”
And before I can taste the multitude of her delicious mustards and jams, or drink more than a taste of each of the three sparkling wines she’s pulled out, or dip my bread one more time in that mind-blowing balsamic fig vinegar of hers, she whisks me away to our next stop.
With her black-and-white graphic-print dress, chic silver earrings dangling below her chestnut hair (slicked back into a long ponytail) and her black, knee-high, high-heeled boots, Kim Quiblier is yet another transplant to Mountain Home, Margie tells me. Kim pauses greeting and seating folks just long enough to offer a hello, and with that accent, we’re guessing Kim’s roots are farther flung than California. For now, though, Margie and I will just have to speculate because Kim doesn’t have to time to chat; on this Thursday night, there is not an empty table in the dining room at the Whispering Woods Grill, where Kim is both owner and hostess.
With its pine plank floors, ceiling and walls, the restaurant has a charming rustic-cabin feel—which is a good omen, considering Margie and I are actually staying overnight in two of the 11 cabins that, with the Grill, make up the Whispering Woods resort. We aren’t the only ones enjoying the atmosphere: To our left, seven men in various Columbia and L.L. Bean-wear (and do I see—gasp—a Tennessee sweatshirt?!) are at a table, eating and drinking and being merry—and very loudly so.
“I can move you if you’d like,” Kim says, sneaking up on us amidst all the raucous gaiety going on one table over. “We just had a couple leave.”
“I actually think they’re pretty funny,” I say, and I throw a wave in their direction.
Margie has brought wines from her vineyard for our meal tonight, and with great expertise, Kim uncorks the bottle and begins to pour. “Usually, I’d let you taste it first, but since it’s Margie’s wine, I’m assuming it’s good.”
The first wine of dinner is the Raimondo Family Winery’s Primitivo. You know, as in primitive. Simple. I take a sip. My eyes go round. “This is the best wine I’ve had since I lived in Italy,” I tell Margie.
She smiles back.
“Would you like an appetizer?” Kim asks. “We have a shrimp-avocado cocktail and a salmon tartare.”
We order both, and thus begins what I can only describe as an onslaught of decadence. I order the filet mignon with fresh squash and zucchini and a mushroom risotto. Margie orders some kind of fish. (I can’t even remember what it was now, even though she gave me a bite, because I was too busy polishing off my own meal.) I drink the wine and eat the steak and now I see, in part, what made the rowdy table so darned rowdy. At some point, our two conversations become one. These guys are here visiting from Memphis for the 15th year in a row. They always come this weekend, since it’s when the trout spawn. According to them, at some point, the world-record rainbow trout was caught in these parts. When they find out I’m here to write a story, they literally cheer.
“Would you like me to send you some of our pictures?” one of them slurs. “We always take some good pictures.”
“Sure,” I say, and hand him a business card. “But only PG-rated or safer.”
“I’m single,” Margie says, fishing a business card out her purse. “You can send me the rest.”
She winks at me, and I want to be her friend forever.
After the restaurant clears out and Margie and I are the last customers left, Kim finally gets a chance to sit down. She comes out with the chef—her husband, Richard, also a transplant. They bring us some strawberry pie, served warm, which is just another twist of genius that makes the simple so extraordinary. Before moving to Mountain Home last July, Kim (from England) and Richard (from Switzerland) were based in Minnesota, but they traveled constantly, working for a hospitality corporation that catered the PGA tour. Fed up with life on the road, they simply Googled “small resort for sale” and Whispering Woods came up.
“We came to discount it,” Kim tells me, “but it was actually really pretty here.”
And like Margie, Kim and Richard moved here for the slower pace, for the chance to own a business they were passionate about and for the loveliness of the people they encountered. “The neighbors are very encouraging,” Kim says. “They’ve come down to help tidy the parking lot and drop off firewood!”
Which has been a big help to Kim and Richard as they go about doing some major renovations to Whispering Woods. Plans for this year include adding another parking lot, an outdoor dining space, a kitchen remodel, upgrades to the cabins, landscaping improvements … the list goes on. For now, though, they’re just excited to open up their most recent addition: a second dining area in the grill. “So many people ask for lake-view dining, and the new dining room has it,” Kim says. My table actually has a lake view, but it is far after dark, and all I see is my reflection in the window.
“Wait till morning,” Margie tells me. “The view from your cabin is amazing.”
FRIDAY, 7:34 A.M.
It was too dark last night to see that my little cabin had a wooden deck attached with chairs from which to view Lake Norfork. And, as advised, I love the scene—crystalline water surrounded by banks of trees. But with Margie as my guide, there is much to do on today’s agenda. Our first stop of the day? Gaston’s White River Resort, for breakfast.
As we drive onto the property, I see a standard yellow diamond-shaped caution sign—except this one is different. Is that a silhouette of a peacock?
“Oh, yeah, they have a petting zoo here,” Margie says.
Of course, I think. What simple fishing resort doesn’t?
Sitting along the winding road are numerous salmon-colored cabins. I see signs for a gift shop, a game room, a dock. “They have a private air strip here, too,” Margie tells me. But all of these perks are trifles, as far as I’m concerned at this moment, compared to the breakfast bar. The restaurant—stuffed to the gills with antiques (old outboard motors and bygone bicycles literally hang from the rafters)—smells divine, with shiny silver buffet warmers full of biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and every breakfast food a good Southern girl’s stomach could desire. “They’ll even make you a pancake,” Margie winks.
We cram our plates full and are joined at the table by Clint Gaston, the fourth generation of Gastons to run the resort. In plain old jeans, boots and a blue plaid shirt, his brown hair parted neatly on the side and his beard and mustache closely trimmed, Clint tells me how his great-grandfather started the resort with just six boats and six cottages on 20 acres. Now the Gastons have 29 different units on 2 miles of riverfront property. He talks about their guiding services out on the White River—how they’ll set you up on one of their 75 boats, guide you to prime trout holes, even clean and cook what you catch. Turns out talk show guru Phil Donahue’s been a customer, as well as country singer Justin Moore. One guy from Sweden flies in four times a year.
Before we go, I just have to ask Clint one question. “If there’s one thing I need to see before I leave Mountain Home, what is it?”
“You’re here!” he says, and we all laugh. “But really,” he says, his face becoming earnest, “it’s not often you find a business that survives in a family for four generations. My grandmother still stocks the gift shop. That’s her job. Check that out before you go.”
So we do. And yeah, it’s got fishing poles and polished rocks and pictures of fish and bottles of calamine lotion, but it also has tiaras. Because what simple fishing resort—in what I’m beginning to realize isn’t so simple Mountain Home—wouldn’t?
Six-foot-three-inch, bald-headed, goateed Moose Watson pulls me into a hug. “I like redheads,” he says. His wife, Tina, gorgeous and tall with long dark hair, rolls her eyes, and Margie laughs loudly.
Moose and Tina started the White River Inn as a bed and breakfast that catered to fishermen, but before too long, it evolved into an all-inclusive lodge designed for folks who wanted to have their every whim catered to. Massages, drinks, meals: Moose and Tina provide it all. The details of this place astound me: the taxidermied animals are all Moose’s personal kills (and there are a lot of them), and fishing-rod racks at the front of each bedroom have bases made from granite salvaged from the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. It’s no surprise the White River Inn has achieved the prestige of being the only Orbitz-endorsed lodge in the state of Arkansas.
Moose and Tina make me a cup of Earl Grey tea, and I pet their dog Layla, a South African Boerboel (because even a simple house pet in Mountain Home is remarkable). “Just what is it that makes Mountain Home Mountain Home?” I ask.
The answers come rapid fire.
“The outdoors,” Tina says.
“It’s just far enough off the beaten path,” Moose says. “It’s a destination.”
“There’s no easy way in,” Tina agrees. “I have grandchildren in the city, and it feels like the twilight zone now.”
Moose smiles. “All I have to do is fly over Dallas, and I think, ‘Thank God I don’t live there any more.’”
After 20 minutes winding along roads in the Ozark Mountains, I find myself at … a house. A white clapboard, ranch-style house (as far as my eye can tell). Margie parks her van in the driveway, and a man with a long gray ponytail and long gray beard streaming down over a black collared shirt comes out and stands in the sun. Embroidered in white over his left breast is the logo of the White River Distillery, one of only three distilleries in the state of Arkansas. This whole scenario seems ever so sketchy to me, but when the garage doors open, the stills are blindingly, shiningly pristine.
I am under strict orders from my husband to bring back some apple pie moonshine, but as this is not a retail establishment, I can’t buy, only sample. So sample I do. Gary Taylor, co-owner with his son, John, tells me about the twice-distilled process and the fruit infusion. And while his long gray ponytail and long gray beard may have portrayed a grizzled backwoods moonshiner, his scientific shoptalk is so above my head that the only thing I really comprehend is “60 percent alcohol.”
Now, I’m a lightweight, but this corn whiskey is smooth. There is absolutely no burn going down. He gives me a sample of his apple pie moonshine with butterscotch schnapps and it tastes like caramel apple. He makes me a cosmopolitan with his Friday Night Redeye, fresh lime, Cointreau and cranberry juice, and suddenly, I am giggling, asking where I can buy some of his stuff—any liquor store in Mountain Home it turns out and, in fact, almost 100 stores across the state. “The history of this country,” he says, “was built on the liquors and the wines.”
What about this country, I wonder? What makes Mountain Home Mountain Home?
“It’s laid-back, relaxed,” Gary says, pouring me another shot.
I’m certainly feeling laid-back and relaxed by this point. So what does Margie have planned as a follow-up to moonshine? Why, fine culture of course.
The Vada Sheid Community Development Center, which houses a performing arts center, a convention center, an amphitheater and an art gallery, is a beautiful brick building on Arkansas State University’s Mountain Home campus. Here, we meet Christy Keirn, director of communications and institutional advancement, her smile professional yet welcoming. Christy immediately begins showing us photographs taken by none other than the late Mountain Home local Jim Gaston (grandfather of Clint), and proceeds to give me a book of pictures that he donated to the college. ASU Mountain Home was able to sell these books—titled An Ozark Perspective—and raise $10,000 in scholarships.
As Christy takes me through the center, she informs me that Vada Sheid was the first woman to serve in both the Senate and the Arkansas House of Representatives. She was also responsible for constructing the bridges that connected Mountain Home to the surrounding area. If it weren’t for her, Mountain Home would still be isolated. This building serves a similar purpose.
“Before this building, the only gathering place was the fairgrounds,” Christy explains. “And Dunbar Auditorium at the high school.”
Now, the Vada Sheid Community Development Center connects Mountain Home to much of the outside world. Mercy Me, Skillet, Casting Crowns, the Ten Tenors and Willie Nelson have all performed here. Currently, 13 Rembrandt paintings (yes, that Rembrandt) are on permanent loan here. Local artist Duane Hada, who traveled the entire length of the White River from its source to where it empties into the Mississippi, painting the scenes with water from the river itself, displays all 45 of those watercolors in the Trout Room. And in the Haley Family Conference Room, a stunning $500,000 collection of Asian art is on exhibit.
I can’t get over how much the simple and the extraordinary are juxtaposed here. But for Christy, that’s exactly the point. “The natural beauty of this place blew my mind,” she says. “The pace is incredibly laid-back. Yet you have a building like this where you can see world-class performances and art. It’s a mind-blower.”
I have to agree. After only two days here, my mind is blown. Margie offers to take me back to her store, but my brain is already in shreds. I thank her—profusely—and promise to keep in touch. My 20th anniversary is in May, I tell her, and when I want a “simple” way to celebrate an extraordinary occasion, I believe I know exactly where to come.