Tristan’s twelve but acts like a twenty-year old biker. He rarely slows down. Especially at night on an Ozark river.
We’re camping on the Jacks Fork just upstream from the famous Jam Up Cave, one of the largest cavern entrances anywhere. The river makes a sharp turn here creating a mile-long gravel bar on the opposite bank.
I’m valiantly trying to get some sleep on a full of moon in July.
Tristan’s staying up to fish. Once or twice I crawl out of the tent to see he hasn’t been washed downstream.
“Come look at this,” he hollers, so I crawl out of the bag yet again to see him kneeling on the gravel bank chasing minnows with a beer can he’s cut in half.
The full moon gives him all the light he needs. He’s about to give up on gar fishing. Catching baby catfish seems excitement enough.
This river’s so warm in mid-July I walk into the shallows to watch Tristan pick up small rocks as he searches for the tiny fish. Is this legal? Can he take them home to his aquarium? I’m skeptical. This is a National Park; we’re not supposed to even take home stones, much less living creatures.
I crawl back into the tent Sam brought down. He lives in a cabin just down the gravel road and came up with this idea of camping because he wants to see what the short- wave reception will be in this huge open space. Sam’s not sleeping either.
His portable radio brings in Havana and China, but my Mandarin’s not quite good enough to get the gist. Every once in a while he switches to some rock’n’roll station which Tristan also enjoys. More hooting.
“Got a turtle,” Tristan hollers, “Come see.” I roll over. This gravel bar’s far too lumpy.
x x x
Not so much different than his mom who became a bride shortly following her sojourn of two years with Cathy and I.
He and his mom have been through a lot, but still find their true center, the place where everything balances out in perfect peace, on an Ozark gravel bar. Maybe this explains Tristan’s hillbilly grit.
The next afternoon we walk a trail behind another neighbor’s cabin to a fishing hole on the Jacks Fork. Swim, fish and nap for the old guy. Looming above us a huge bluff harbors a cave.
No ordinary cave, the kind that hides behind trees and brambles. This monster of a cave seems almost as big as Jam Up and casts a spell on us.
“Let’s go,” we holler out almost simultaneously. Sam’s not joining us, his turn to nap on the gravel bar. We swim across the perfectly warm Jacks Fork and clamber a few minutes up to the entrance, which looms above us three or four stories high. What really intimidates is the mud, a reddish-brown goopy slimy stuff that holds footprints, skids and paw prints from previous explorers.
Tristan scoots right up. Me the grandpa barely makes it. Sometimes it helps to be speedy, you don’t get bogged down. He must be part squirrel.
Mud Cave deserves a better moniker, but it does give its essence. This mucky ooze comes from the cave ceiling continuing dripping. Further back in, the drips fall on rock to begin forming stalagmites, toward the front of the drips keep the clay moist and mucky.
So many fascinating features back in there: flow stones, colorful mosses, a welcome coolness, the view back out to the river as a tiny trickle within an emerald daylight which seems like a far too busy world compared to the rhythmic drips within the dark stillness of the cavern.
We have no flashlight so ol’ gramps eventually makes his way down the boulders and back into the river. Tristan’s snake hunting. Luckily no luck. What a great way to escape the hottest part of the day.
x x x
Another chilling method for the next day. Tristan’s family comes to the cabin to pick him up. We have enough boats to go upstream on the Jacks Fork in mid-afternoon. Swim, explore, and maybe a nap in the distant vibes emulating from a big ol’ cedar someone has named ‘Old Man Dancing’.
This gravel bar may be only a half-mile long, but it features an overhanging elm, which provides shade all afternoon. The river itself goes through some gentle riffles, then broadens out to a limpid run perfect for swimming and finally circles into a deep pool where gar play with Tristan and his little sister most of the afternoon.
Where’s that coon who ate our breakfast out of my pack basket in the middle of the night at Jam Up? He’s probably watching us, hoping to get what we leave behind at Old Man Dancing
Before sunset we head back downstream to the vehicles. Hate to leave.
The buzzards follow us all the way.