Our Personal Year-End Review

It started out with a hole in our hearts. There were peaks and valleys that have followed since.

Our lives will never be the same following the unnecessary loss of our friend (Dana’s best friend) Alissa Reynolds. Outside family, she was the person who walked through our front door most frequently, the person I called to consult on just about every gift for Dana, and she worked for me in two different capacities as an advertising manager. We loved Alissa, and there are still moments that are almost too much to comprehend.

I spent most of early 2020 planning our Tranquility Base Retreat for Writers & Thinkers beginning with our Phase 1 lodge. We dug the footings in early March and finished up the last details in October. It is a beautiful 6-acre parcel of land smack dab in vast Ozark Mountain valley with 500 feet of White River frontage. It is the place I always dreamed about. Quiet. Secluded. A place where a man can go and think, or enjoy a great day with family and never see another soul. TB is my place for peace and joy.

It was a major milestone year for each of my three children. Adam completed med school, and is now in residency as an ER doctor at UAMS in Little Rock. Emma entered her second year as director of the Jonesboro Public School Performing Arts Center. She encountered major adjustments in her work this year. After blowing the lid off her ACT, Sophie entered pre-med study at Arkansas State with a full ride. These are the kind of “kids” you pray for. Amazing in every way.

After the discovery that we enjoy some of the most fertile soil in the world here off the banks of the White River, I created a garden of about 1/5 an acre. With my new bee hobby nearby, it produced massive quantities of produce and I canned, pickled and froze garden vegetables for a solid two months. I’ve expanded the size for next year’s garden by about 4 times. When will I ever learn?

An unexpected opportunity popped up in early fall when I mentioned to a longtime friend and editor of the local Mountain View paper that I’d be open to helping out from time to time. Lori Freeze and I go back to at least 1986 when we shared responsibilities at the college newspaper. As it turned out, a longtime employee was off with a new baby the timing was right, and I now work there about 32 hours a week. It’s been a joy getting back into the journalism world. Outside family, it’s what I know and love most.

Dana spends part time helping me with my publishing operation and she also works as business manager for the Arkansas Crafts School in Mountain View. The flexible nature of our jobs allows us to travel frequently back and forth between Mountain View and Jonesboro checking on parents and visiting with children.

On October 1, I published The King of Highbanks Road, actually four versions of that book – a hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook. It became an Amazon #1 New Release five hours after it launched. There was also a companion cookbook. The process of writing that memoir was an incredible journey into my past, and mostly helped me learn more about why I am the way I am, not to mention giving me an all-new appreciation for the rural landscape where I grew up.

We continue to maintain a home in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador, which for obvious reasons, has not been seen in more than a year. I’m getting the hankering for some hammock time back there at Latitude 1 South.

We’ve both had COVID now. Thank goodness they were relatively modest cases. My heart breaks for families with more serious situations, especially those who’ve lost older loved ones in long-term care facilities where the visits were few and far between.

It has been a year for spiritual growth, though I’ve not attended church since January. I’ll write a book next year about the Bible-Belt church and its impact on believers like me. I’ll also write a book about my life of storytelling in the mass media.

We’re not complaining. It’s been a busy, sometimes exhausting year. But we are blessed with family and friends around the world, and can’t wait to hug your neck the next time we see you.

Via con Dios, for now.

One favor request: There are several contact forms at various places on this blog site. I’m building an all-important email list for next year for newsletter distribution and other purposes. It’s the biggest favor you can do me right now. Many thanks for your consideration.

When the Dirt Speaks

Here’s my debut column for The Stone County Leader published this week. They decided to call it The Flatlander:

***

The local real estate agent maneuvered his pickup down and around the winding, increasingly narrowing road with almost no effort at all. Blind curves, perilously low-hanging tree limbs, we descended steadily like an airplane on final approach for almost eight miles. A single deer bounded across Herpel Road, and a couple of little varmints I’d never seen scurried to the safety of the roadside ditch.

“How do you even know where we’re going?” I asked, slipping my seat belt on and as I made dubious eye contact with my wife in the back seat.

“Oh, it’s a ways down here, but it sure is pretty,” he said.

The day began earlier at a lovely little quiet area called Cool Water on the Izard County side of el Rio Blanco. We discovered three available residential lots on a corner we could piece together for a nice tract of land where we could build a main lodge and some guest housing for family and friends. And the price was right.

We walked the grounds for almost 45 minutes as I waited for the dirt to speak. When the right caretaker comes along shopping for land, the dirt will speak. Call out to him, actually. Raised on fertile flatlands of the Mississippi River Delta, I know this. Dirt speaks to the soul. It is the sixth love language – a beautiful gift God shares between two of His favorite creations.

The words never came clear, but I’ve always been in too big a hurry, so I suggested we head back to town and sign a deal at the agent’s office. Dana and I were ready to make Mountain View, and this place called Cool Water, our second home.
But God was still waiting to have His say. We often forget that He works on His time, not ours.

“Now, I’ve got this other place, and it’s way down there and right on the river, and the price is good. I don’t care to take you down there,” the agent said, surprisingly not in a hurry to ink the deal.

“Well, what the heck. I’ll take a look,” I said, fighting off the anxiety to just get on with it.
Forty minutes later that November Sunday afternoon and at the end of the eight-mile meandering road, we turned the corner onto six acres of river frontage at a place with a name as original as finely aged moonshine. We were at Round Bottom Landing, he said.

I opened the truck door, took a few steps outward, and did a slow, 360-degree turn.
My jaw dropped and I couldn’t close my mouth.

This is it. You’re home.

The dirt spoke.

And it was with unmistakable clarity.

“I’ll take it,” I said to no one in particular, and not breaking view from what had just captured my soul.

It was like standing at the bottom of a beautiful bowl, the swift flowing mighty White rolling just below and to the northwest, and spectacular eastern bluffs amazingly highlighted with flecks of red and gold from the soft fall light sourced low in the southern hemisphere. There were four surrounding mountains each with its own distinctive character, all infused with poplar, birch, maple and more, and bursting with brilliant colors.

“What did you say?” the agent asked, confused.

“He said he’d take it.” My wife has been there, done that, before, and she knows when something happens in my heart that’s not about to get undone. She took a deep breath, and laughed at the same time, surely both exasperated and thrilled at the next new and completely unknown adventure ahead.

At that moment, Tranquility Base was born, and a flatlander from cotton country just stared at a landscape so beautiful he couldn’t even dream it. I’m sure it’s not the first time it happened.

Ten months later, here we are. I’m writing and reunited with a college friend, Lori Freeze, at the Stone County Leader. Dana is selling real estate with a local firm and loving it. And we’re both waking up most mornings in this place that with every new sunrise, every new fog formation across the valley and river, and every new sighting of some amazing wildlife, thankful for our new home in Stone County.

I think we’ll sit here a spell.

See you next week in the newspaper.

•••
Steve Watkins is a reporter for the Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books including Pilgrim Strong: Rewriting My Story on the Way of St. James and The King of Highbanks Road: Rediscovering Dad, Rural America, and Learning to Love Home Again.

Giving Tranquility Base Some Breathing Room

 

 

Lot 5 was our original purchase on January 2. The Lot 4 addition doubles the property for our Tranquility Base Writer Retreat Center Development.

Its legal description is Roundbottom Pool Estates, an approximate 50-acre land tract developed in a spectacular river valley near Mountain View, AR in 2007. When a one-hundred-year flood passed through a year later, it derailed plans for everything. Today it is the site for about seven homes, most of them vacation homes for people living full-time elsewhere. It is also the home of our Tranquility Base Writer’s Retreat Center. Outside the trickle of the White River and an occasional eagle, you can hear a pin drop there.

From Mountain View, you travel about five miles southeast and downward following the White River to reach Roundbottom. Not uncommon along the drive are deer, turkey,  and all kinds of wildlife, not to mention the occasional hillbilly. The Herpelites (those hillbillies living along Herpel Road) are the biggest challenge as they fly around blind corners in beat up pickup trucks (think Deliverance) with no regard to possible oncoming traffic. A Herpelite can kill you in a heartbeat. Watch out, and drive defensively for Herpelites.

The conclusion of the five-mile drive down into the valley on our River Valley Road is take-your-breath-away beautiful.

Last Monday, Dana and I spent an hour researching real estate records at the Stone County Courthouse. After some digging, we identified the lot owners immediately west of our 1.2 acre property. The kind clerk gave me directions to the owner’s house and we drove there. The owners kindly invited us in to their amazing mountain cabin overlooking our valley and I asked about his willingness to sell his property adjacent to tranquility base.

“I’d love to sell it,” he said. My heart jumped.

After a couple of days of negotiations, I’m happy to say we’re purchasing another 1.2 acres that will double the size of our sanctuary, providing room for more wildlife habitat, a walking trail and lots of breathing room. It also brings our river frontage to just more than 200 feet.

We’re hopeful that construction will begin on March 1.

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Tranquility Base Writer Retreats (2021 Schedule)

 

Our 2021 curriculum is focused on four primary dates (4 days each) on site at Tranquility Base in Mountain View, AR.  Call us for specific information on a customized 2-day retreat at another location in the US.

Our retreats are private, intimate, and designed to focus on individuals. That’s why we limit each retreat to eight participants. This experience is designed for:

Learning – Relaxing – Cultural Experiences – and Hospitality (we are at your service).

Each four-day retreat focuses on four areas including: Faith & Craft, Content Marketing &  Authentic Brand, The Art & Science of Writing & Publishing, and The Deeper You.

Some of the topics covered in these four sessions include: Finding Your Voice, Don’t Waste Your Wilderness, Habits & Systems, The Valley of the Dry Bones, How to Sell Without Selling, Creating Stakeholders, Embracing Fear, Your Creative Rhythm, Traditional & Indie Author Strategies, and many more.

These are the 2021 learning dates and the cultural opportunities extended with them:

•March 11-14 (highlighting the bi-annual Mountain View Bluegrass Festival)

•April 15-18 (highlighting Mountain View’s famous Arkansas Folk Festival)

•October 21-24 (highlighting Stone County’s Beanfest & Outhouse Races)

•November 11-14 (highlighting Mountain View’s bi-annual Bluegrass Festival)

 

While we’re focused on learning in a rustic lodge setting in the amazing White River Valley, we’ll also work in opportunities for experiences such as:

A tour of the Hemingway-Pfieffer Center and the barn studio where Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms; Blanchard Springs Caverns Tours; Shopping in the Town Square; World-Class Trout Fishing; Zip Line Course; Golf; and more.

COST: Each four-day seminar is $500, plus a $100 room and board fee for those who stay on the property. Our accommodations are albergue-style in our loft, a rustic, hostel-like, but cozy setting. Private accommodations are easily arranged. All meals (with the exception of one night out) are covered. We will work with each participant on transportation to our lodge, and to your return destination. Again, we are here to serve you.

This is not one of those experiences where you’ll leave disappointed. You’ll learn. You’ll have fun. Make new friends. See another part of the world. And you will be served. We are laser-focused on hospitality because we love serving people. Tell us you weren’t happy when it comes time to go home, and I’ll refund your money (if you even want to go home).

Spots may be reserved with a $100 non-refundable deposit, balance due sixty days prior to the event. For more information, call 870.926.4055, or write steve@stevewatkins.org

BONUS INFORMATION:  Depending on our completion date, we’ll offer two to three free group getaways during Fall/Winter 2020 to help us practice with our soft opening. This is the perfect opportunity for your small business retreat, leadership conference or other activity that will include up to eight persons. Interested parties for our soft-opening giveaways should write to steve@stevewatkins.org