I slept well last night, but woke up with a bad backache—it was agony to bend forward. I did my usual morning stretches and took a couple of Aleve tablets, and now (an hour later) it feels no worse than usual. These past few long days of driving are probably the main reason my back has been hurting so much lately. Getting across Oklahoma was a long, arduous grind—not my idea of what RVing is supposed to be about! The payoff, though, is that I'm finally back on schedule. I have eleven days (assuming I want to get back on Saturday the 26th and still leave myself a couple of days to recover), and there's no need for any more of this marathon driving. I need to get back to enjoying myself—not pushing to reach a destination!
Planning for hot weather
One thing that may change my plans somewhat is the weather. It's been in the 90's F. and increasingly humid for the past two days, and if that continues across the rest of the country, I'm going to be reluctant to boondock as I had planned—simply because I can't use the roof air conditioner when boondocking, and I can't sleep well (if at all) when I'm sweaty and hot.
This is the price I pay for not having a generator. My four solar panels and four house batteries give me plenty of juice for just about anything (even the microwave oven or my hair dryer)—but not enough to run the A/C. Of course, many RVers use generators to power their air conditioners. But I hate generator noise, there are safety risks due to carbon monoxide...and generators demand religious maintenance, or they won't work when you need them. (This happened to a $700 Yamaha generator that Gary and Judie bought: they didn't use it regularly, and now it won't even start.) Besides, the last commercial campground I stayed in flatly prohibited the use of generators at any time, and all the campgrounds I've seen so far forbid generator use after 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. So all in all I'm better off without one—but it may cause me to stay at campgrounds with electrical hookups more often than I wanted to.
The best experiences I've had so far have been in sites like Picacho Peak State Park, the Grand Canyon's Mather Campground and Cimarron Forest State Park, none of which had hookups. I'd like to have the freedom to choose campgrounds like that (including Bureau of Land Management and Army Corps of Engineers sites, which are usually pretty primitive)...but sweaty weather may force me to pass some of them by, at least for this trip.
Well, I've had a good breakfast—granola with bananas, plus a big chilled grapefruit—and updated this journal while enjoying Chuck Berry's greatest hits, and I'm feeling pretty good—even my back seems OK. Time to have a shower, dump the gray water tank (I do that now every chance I get) and head for Terra Studios.
Wednesday afternoon: Terra Studios at last
Twenty minutes of driving brought me to the Arkansas border, and another hour or so saw me parked in the RV lot of Terra Studios, after following their detailed directions. As an RV park, it's fairly plain: a large flat area covered in white gravel, with 25 parking spaces marked out with logs (each with shiny new electric, water and sewer hookups, let it be said). No trees in the parking area, but there's a good view of the wooded Ozark hills in the distance. Then again, it's only been open for six months, according to Terra's website. Hopefully they'll spruce it up and make it more appealing as time goes by. And let's face it, you don't come here for the scenery in the campground—you come to see Terra Studios!
I got Gertie parked and leveled, and paid my $15 fee to a gentleman who runs the RV campground from his mobile home. We sat in his living room and he wrote out a receipt on the back of an envelope; all very informal. No handout with campground rules and such, none of the usual paperwork. (Not that these places are very formal anyway, but this was as casual as I've ever seen it get.)
I noticed that he smokes Camels, but takes several kinds of health-food supplements (iodine kelp tablets, for example.) A strange combination! But then people in the Midwest smoke a lot more than I'm used to seeing in the Northeast. Store clerks leave their cigarettes casually smoldering on the counters—something you almost never see in my part of the country. One shopping mall advertised itself as "SMOKER FRIENDLY" on a large sign outside! Well, they didn't get my business.
I hooked up water and electricity and fired up the air conditioner, then wandered off to see the campground facilities. The RV services building, like everything else, was brand new. It housed a pleasant common room with couches sprawled around a TV and VCR, a phone line for modem use, and a laundry room. I could hardly believe my eyes: the washing machines and dryers were ordinary ones, not coin operated! I'll head back here later this evening and do a load or two of laundry while I try to check my email. By the way, the place was absolutely deserted. There was exactly one other camper on the lot—a big fiver with slideouts deployed. Of course it was just past noon when I got here—perhaps others will trickle in as the day progresses. (Later note: in the 24 hours I was there, nobody did.)
So I wandered down the hill and across the road to the Terra Studios compound. What an amazing, magical place!
Oh, it starts fairly conventionally, with a gift shop that offers many sizes and variations of the "Bluebird of Happiness." This attractive handmade glass knicknack is the foundation of the company; more than five million signed copies have been sold worldwide in the twenty years since it was introduced. Behind a glass wall in the shop I could see a craftsman making Bluebirds...gathering a blob of molten glass from the furnace and rapidly shaping it with tongs and tweezers. It took him less than a minute to make one perfectly formed bird.
It's an interesting process that I tried in vain to photograph. There just wasn't enough light, even after I cranked up my digital camera's sensitivity to ISO 320—as high as it would go. (I refused to use flash, not only because I hate the way it makes pictures look—flat, harsh and amateurish—but because it would be the height of rudeness, and dangerous besides, to blind a craftsman with flash at point-blank range.) Having worked with glass back in high school, where I was the resident glassblower of my advanced biology class, I've always been fascinated by the stuff. I would love nothing better than to do some real glasswork of the sort I was watching here at Terra. In fact, I read in their brochure that Terra offers a three-session, three-week course in making handblown glass paperweights. What I wouldn't give to be able to stay around long enough to take it!
I ought to pause here and summarize the history of the place. Terra was founded in 1975 by two California schoolteachers, Leo and Rita Ward, who quit their jobs, bought a few acres in the Ozarks and started a crafts business there. Leo is a glassblower and Rita a ceramicist. About five years later Leo came up with the "Bluebird of Happiness," which quickly became a hot seller in gift shops nationwide. Building on the profits from the sale of Bluebirds, the Wards attracted other glass and ceramics artists, expanded their scope to include arts and crafts classes of all kinds, and gradually assembled a 110-acre campus of buildings—each one decorated with unique handmade artifacts. In fact, there's even a small "Bluebird Pavilion" whose walls are made of 1,800 Bluebirds. A sign above the entrance reads "In honor of the Bluebirds of Happiness. They made everything possible."
Terra isn't all Bluebirds, of course. As I wandered through the gift shop, I found many other glass and ceramic items. For example, one room was devoted to a series of "Painted Desert" vases and paperweights blown by Leo Ward and his student Gary Carter—voluptuous shapes swirled and streaked with unique and subtle colors that did indeed remind me of the Painted Desert. A brochure explained that the unusual color combinations were facilitated by the addition of a little silver to the glass melt.
There were also handblown glass ornaments in a variety of styles; some lovely and unusual paperweights; delicate glass filigree work; a series of handsome glass fish; and a row of spectacular glass flowers. I admired the ornaments and vases, but all I bought were a few Bluebirds in various sizes as gifts for my friends.
Prices were surprisingly low. For example, the foot-high, exquisitely detailed glass flowers shown here were $24.95 apiece. I'm sure they would have fetched several times that price in any gift shop in my part of the country.
But all this—I soon discovered—was only the glass gift shop! There was also a completely separate building for ceramics, featuring everything from tableware to a manmade cave filled with whimsical "Endangered Species From Another Planet" animals...and a couple of lovely Loch Ness monsters. If I had a garden, one of these would surely take center stage!
But it's what lies beyond the gift shops that makes this place so remarkable. Terra Studios is very hard to explain. I can only describe it as a garden of whimsy. There are sculptures, architectural constructs (for lack of a better term) and figures of glass and ceramics in every shape imaginable, in sizes ranging from a few inches high to six or eight feet to huge murals, all of it arrayed throughout a series of sculpture gardens that sprawl across many acres.
There are human figures, animals, plants, dragons, gnomes, trolls and figments of some wild imaginations. Far from the smooth, minimalist lines of the Bluebirds, these creations are complex, richly textured...as well as quirky and in some cases just plain funny. In fact, this whole place looks very much like something my old ceramicist friends from college, Jimmy and Tojie Colavita, would have come up with, given the time and the money. (Jimmy went on to become a regionally well-known sculptor and teacher, before dying unexpectedly a couple of years ago.)
Everything at Terra is hand-crafted; everything is unique. Sculptural oddities are scattered seemingly at random. For example, under a tree in one garden-like corner there's a small ceramic couch. On it sits a little troll girl, perhaps seven years old, holding a little troll doll and wearing troll slippers. In the middle of the lawn (just visible in the panorama above), there's a girl sitting down to tea with a bear. They're sitting on toadstools, and the toadstool table has a tiny front door at its base, indicating that it's home to somebody—a field mouse perhaps. There are any number of dragons and trolls. In fact, each trash container has a different troll head on it. (The mouth is where you put the trash.)
If you look just to the left of center in the panorama, you'll see one of my favorite sculpture groups. If I describe this it will probably sound completely bizarre—even my photos don't do it justice—but I loved it. It's called "Crested Elders Chanting for the Light." It consists of six spiraling, five-foot-tall creatures—somewhere between earthworms and birds—wearing comically ornate hats or crests. They are reverently facing a central column that looks somewhat like gnarled wood, but with large chunks of gemlike colored glass embedded in its sides. At the top is a melon-sized irregular blob of Bluebird glass that catches the sun and turns it to a rich blue. To complete the tableau, hidden speakers play Gregorian chant. Somehow, the effect is magical.
Dinner with Otis Zark
For me, the crown jewel of the place was the Otis Zark restaurant (O. Zark—get it?), the most fantastic (in the literal sense) place I've ever had the pleasure to dine in. To use an old expression, it beggared description. But I shall try anyway...
Let's start at the entrance. Well, actually, before we get to the door, there's the troll parking lot outside, where a row of comical ceramic trolls in caricatured cars and pickups are lined up between little yellow stripes beneath the sign that says "TROLL PARKING". The front door is made of heavy, hand-carved wood, with irregularly shaped opalescent stained glass inserts and a handle of wrought iron in the shape of a bat-winged dragon. It looks, in fact, like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien. One can imagine, perhaps, the wizard Gandalf answering a knock on this door. A closer look shows that there's a second, smaller door inset in the lower half of the main door...with its own smaller dragon handle and stained glass insert. Yes, it's a special door for children!
Inside, you find yourself in the foyer facing a trio of stylized trees, with funny, stubby branches that you can hang your umbrella or hat on. Inserts of stained glass are illuminated from behind, giving the whole room a cheerful glow. The hatrack trees grow out of a floor of hand-set mosaic tiles in irregular shapes.
Opening the next door, you enter the main restaurant through a passageway that's green with plants and filled with the cheerful gurgle of fountains and waterfalls. Some are ceramic; some are of beaten copper and bronze—the son of the Wards is a talented metalsmith with a studio of his own in Fayetteville, it seems. As you come into the main hall of the restaurant, something bizarre and complex catches your eye on the right. It's the spiral staircase to the second floor—but what a staircase! Looking as if it's a natural growth made of vines and creepers, its intricate webwork of organic forms almost blends into what you slowly realize is a wall-sized painting behind it...a cheerful landscape of castles, wizards, dragons and fabulous beasts.
In front of you is the counter, but nobody is there. Do you wait for the hostess to come? No, on the counter there's a ceramic plaque with a droll, off-balance gnome and the words "Flip the switch and wait to be seated." You do, and his nose lights up a brilliant red. Almost immediately the hostess appears and seats you at an oaken table with hand carved inserts along its sides. From one side of each table sprouts a cluster of lamps, looking like exotic flowers, made of hand-shaped brass. A small red light bulb surmounts the arrangement, and switches at the base let you turn on the red light to attract a waiter's attention, or dim the flower-lamps to your taste.
Of course the dishes and cups are all handmade ceramics. So are the salt and pepper shakers...with, I noticed, tiny, barely visible happy faces on their tops! The walls are decorated with ceramic murals by Leo Ward, whose warm tones echo the golden glow of the wooden tables and floor.
Off to one side are five "theme booths"—each different, each wildly imaginative. One is a troll family's cozy den; one is the interior of a gypsy fortune-teller's caravan; one is tiled with mystical cobalt-blue glass rondels and oriental inscriptions...I have never seen anything remotely like this.
The creativity and imagination that have filled this place to overflowing in a thousand ways are simply stunning. I can't adequately describe it, and although the pictures here will give you a taste, it would take a book to do the place justice—every tiniest detail is thoughtfully handcrafted.
I had dinner at Otis Zark (and breakfast the next day as well). The food was excellent, and very reasonably priced as well—$11 bought me a sumptuous meal, all freshly prepared. The superb "Blueberries of Happiness" cobbler I had for dessert included a baby Bluebird of Happiness to add to my collection.
Filled and happy, I wandered around the grounds photographing things that caught my eye—which is to say just about everything! Suffice it to say that I took more pictures at Terra than at the Grand Canyon. Finally I wandered back to my campsite and lugged the laundry over to the services building. While the clothes were getting clean I hooked up to the phone line and got a good fast connection to EarthLink's 800 number, so I was able to read and send a bunch of email.
My delight in this place is marred only by the fact that I can't bring my friends here—or return myself! They would love it, and I would enjoy it so much more with good company. But it's 1,500 miles from home...a long way to come for lunch.
Update: I've learned that Terra recently had to close the Otis Zark restaurant because it was losing money. What a tragedy! I hope someday they can find a manager who can make a going thing of it, because it was without question the most wonderful restaurant I've ever eaten in.
I slept late and felt pretty good when I got up—my back was less painful than it had been in several days. The fact that I had only driven for a couple of hours yesterday probably had a lot to do with it. I went over to the Terra Studios compound and had breakfast (a lovely salad with a delicious vinaigrette dressing and a roll hot from the oven) and then walked around photographing things I had not photographed before.
Back at the campsite, I checked my email one last time in the deserted RV services building and found replies from Judie and Gen to my messages last night. I brought the latest batch of pictures into the PowerBook and decided on the spot that one swirled blue paperweight was so beautiful that I just had to have it...so after dumping and unhooking, I drove across the road to Terra, parked in their lot and bought the piece. And I couldn't resist taking a few last photos...mainly of the strange, lovely organic forms. How they did all this I haven't a clue...the thirty-foot-wide "garden fence" shown here, for example, is much too large to be fired clay. Concrete over chicken wire? However they did it, the effect is almost otherworldly...yet friendly.
And everybody here has been so nice! When I asked hesitantly yesterday about taking pictures—knowing that most gift shops and art galleries absolutely prohibit this activity—the woman behind the counter smiled and said "Why sure, photograph anything you want!" This morning another employee invited me into the ceramic work areas. (I declined only because I was running late.) I saw Leo Ward himself trotting across the lawn from one workshop building to another just before I left. (He's in his seventies, but still works every day.) I wished I had time to stop him and shake his hand...I'm sure he would have had time for me! People in Arkansas have generally been very friendly.
After I left Terra (I didn't get away till after 11:00) I headed back the way I'd come—north on Rt. 71B—making stops to replenish my supplies of cash, groceries and gas. At the Rhino Conoco gas station, I had a nice chat with the proprietor's father, who used to live in Phoenix but is now working here in Fayetteville for his son. He described his previous job: selling cars in Phoenix, standing "on the point" (outside the dealership) all day in 110° F. weather to snag customers as they came in. Frankly, I can't even imagine surviving this kind of work. We both agreed that while Arkansas can get warm and muggy, living here beats Phoenix any day!
It seemed to take forever to get out of Fayetteville, but eventually I found myself on the same kind of twisty mountain roads I had had so much trouble with in northern New Mexico. Then it sank in: these are the Ozark mountains. Must be hillbilly country, too—the road signs were all pretty badly shot up.
While in Otis Zark, I had picked up a handful of tourist-attraction brochures from a rack in the lobby. I was struck by the number of open-to-the-public caves—six different brochures! "This area must be honeycombed with caverns," I thought. Later I found out that (quoting a Missouri website) "Missouri is called The Cave State—largely on the reputation of our show caves. Although Tennessee reputedly has more total known caves, Missouri has more caves which are (or have been) operated as Show Caves—ones open to the public." I counted thirty Missouri "show caves" on that website!
Leafing through the brochures, I found that two caves—Onyx Cave and Cosmic Cavern—were on my route to the north and east. Cosmic Cavern looked to be the more interesting of the two, so I decided to stop in. Having reread "Tom Sawyer" less than a week ago, I had Tom and Becky's adventures in McDougal's cave fresh in my mind, and was in the mood to explore a real cave. (Truth is, I hadn't been in one since I was a small child.)
Finding Cosmic Cavern (silly name!) was a bit complicated (aside from the driving), but I managed to get there at about 4:30 p.m. I was half expecting that I'd arrive only to find that I'd find I had missed the last tour, but the folks there welcomed me even though I was to be the sole customer on the last tour of the day. Before starting the tour, I bought a hematite ring in the gift shop. It's not that I wear rings; I was just attracted by its metallic, silver-gray sheen. Wish I'd had time to look around more—they had quite a lot of interesting stuff. Then again, maybe it's just as well that I couldn't tarry...it could have been an expensive visit!
Inside Cosmic Cavern
A young fellow named Scott took me underground for a 45-minute tour of the cave. It's quite impressive! Like most limestone caverns, it's actually a string of caves hollowed out by erosion. There's an underground "lake" near the entrance—actually more of a pond in surface area, but reportedly it's more than 70 feet deep. Pale, semi-blind catfish and salamanders live down there, where it's always moist and the temperature is 61° F. all year round.
Scott was quite entertaining...and because I know a bit more than the average tourist, he seemed to enjoy my questions and comments. We had a nice talk about bats, for example. There aren't any in Cosmic Cavern any more—all burned out by ignorant people in the Twenties and Thirties. But the visitors' center has posters with information about bats, and Scott had been in other caves with bats, so he was interested to learn that I had spent four or five years working with bats back in the Seventies. He told me cave stories and I told him bat stories. It was fun.
It turns out that the name "Cosmic Cavern" came from the previous owner, a hippie type who painted the stairs lavender and decorated the upper parts of the cave with Da-Glo paint so that it would light up under black lights—groovy, man! Most of this has been removed, though the stairs still bear faint traces of purple paint.
The cave is well lit, and I managed to get a few good pictures of the more unusual (well, to me at least) formations without using flash. I used the Nikon 950's "Best Shot Selector" feature, which takes a rapid sequence of shots, then automatically picks the sharpest one and discards the others. It lets me get good handheld shots at impossibly low shutter speeds—1/2 or even 1/4 second. This feature has really saved my bacon in many situations on this trip...I used it a lot in Otis Zark, too.
After leaving Cosmic Cavern, I thought I'd just head east and trust to luck to turn up a campground, since there seem to be a lot in this area. Sure enough, in about half an hour I came across Parkers' RV Park, where a jovial father-and-son team signed me up amid lots of pleasant banter, and went out of their way be helpful. For example, Parker Sr. looked up the location of Toad Suck Ferry (my next destination) on his PC and printed out several pages of maps and directions for me—in color, yet! Then he lead me to my site (I was very careful not to hit any buildings!) and even helped me hook up, having learned that I was a beginner. I certainly felt more than welcome here.
I was good and hungry by the time I got hooked up—I hadn't had anything to eat since that salad at Otis Zark at 10:30 this morning! But somehow I don't seem to get as hungry on the road...just as my blood pressure stays unusually low on the road—114/72 as of now. (I'll have to check this BP meter against my unit at home just to be sure that I'm not getting overly optimistic readings!) I had the last of the pasta salad for supper, along with some blue corn tortilla chips I'd picked up in Fayetteville. For desert I had a can of ginseng root beer (made in Santa Fe, New Mexico) that I'd bought on a whim. It was OK, but not as good as Sioux City sarsaparilla. Nothing is as good as Sioux City sarsaparilla.
Gertie's been rocking a bit for the past few minutes, so I turned off the music and went outside to see what was up. There's a thunderstorm brewing—I can see lightning in the distance and we're getting strong gusty winds. I tried the weather radio but can't get any NOAA stations, and there doesn't seem to be anything on the CB either. Gertie is parked between two big old trees, so if any branches blow down it won't be a good thing for me. I'm trying not to think about tornadoes... There went a big BOOM of thunder! And I can hear the rain starting to patter...my first rain while staying in Gertie.