We were stranded by a flood. While my wife and I slept in our tent, the Buffalo River rose eight feet in a flash flood, forcing us to flee, dragging our canoe and camping equipment to a steep hillside. There we were safe, as the river rose another 20 feet. We were completely stranded, however/
A road had once wound down our hillside, but it had been closed and abandoned when the federal government bought the land along the river. We could not leave by river: The huge uprooted trees being rushed along by the flood waters would have capsized our canoe almost instantly.
Remarkably, we were able to make a cellphone call from deep in the river valley to let our canoe outfitter know where we were and that we were safe. The outfitter reported that he was stranded at home by the flood but would try to help us get out once the waters receded.
So we made a smoky fire of wet wood, ate, and watched the rain fall and the river rise. That night, we crawled off to sleep in clammy sleeping bags in a clammy tent.
We slept late the next day, then took a long walk up the road to try to find a way out to pavement. After miles of walking, we found none, so returned to camp and sat around another cold and smoky fire.
By afternoon of the second day, the river was still rising and another four inches of rain was forecast. We resigned ourselves to another night on the river, moved our tarp and camp kitchen higher up the hill and decided to take a before-dinner nap just to get out of the rain. As we heading toward the tent, we heard a truck engine. Three old pickup trucks, sent by the outfitter to look for us and another party stranded on the river, creaked and groaned down the abandoned road.
Three local men climbed out and greeted us as casually as if we were meeting in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, as though they rescued stranded canoeists every day. Wet and muddy, they helped us load our sodden and soiled camping gear into the back of one of the trucks, a venerable Ford from the mid-1980s. We climbed in next to the driver for the trip back up the steep road.
I'm a bit leery of off-road drivers, having seen too many hillsides scoured bare by 4x4s with oversized tires and oversized engines. On the highways, we have been scared too many times by trucks jacked up so far on their suspensions that their bumpers are at eye level. In our suburban neighborhood, an unfortunately popular recreation is driving over lawns and hedges with four-wheel-drive vehicles in the middle of the night. I almost dreaded being rescued by some guy in a 4x4 truck.
This guy was different, though. As we rode up the abandoned road, twisting and climbing that Ozark ridge, dodging boulders and gullies, I noticed the gentleness and precision with which this man drove. He used first and second gear, keeping the engine speed steady, never letting the engine race or the wheels spin. He shifted slowly when he changed gears, moving the long shift lever delicately from gear to gear. Without apparent effort, he anticipated the road ahead, picking up speed when he needed some momentum to carry us through slippery clay, slowing to a crawl as he eased a front wheel into and out of a deep hole in the limestone. He didn't fight the vehicle or the road: He and his truck moved with it.
As he drove, we talked: first weather, then politics. His voice was rich and rounded, like these hills. His Arkansas accent was distinctly Southern, but different, with almost a bit of Scotland mixed in. It had none of the twang of President Clinton's; it was almost a New England/Arkansas hybrid.
Then I recognized the voice. I had heard something a lot like it far away in the small fishing villages of far-eastern coastal Maine, well beyond the tourist locations and past the influence of Boston. Out there, in Down East Maine, the local accent has the same musical lilt to it. It's a particularly beautiful accent, just like this north Arkansas voice, and just as hard for an outsider to understand.
As this gentle man with the musical voice drove his truck, I saw another kinship with Down East Maine. This guy drove his truck the way a Down East fisherman can drive a lobster boat. The lobstermen are amazing. Their boats are clumsy vessels with a long keel and single inboard engine - a terrible combination for steering. But those lobstermen, steering against choppy waves and stiff cross winds, can put their boats right where they need to be, a foot from a bobbing lobster buoy, a hundred times a day.
They are a joy to watch, circling from buoy to buoy, so absorbed in pulling traps and resetting them that steering the boat seems an afterthought. They hardly seem to pay attention to steering the boat, just spin the wheel and nudge the throttle forward to pivot the boat away from a buoy, then straighten the wheel and let the boat coast up to the next one. They can park a 35-foot work boat - a boat with none of the fancy modern steering advantages of recreational boats - with the same ease other folks can park a Toyota.
This Arkansas truck driver drove the same way. He brought together power and steering the same way Maine's lobstermen do: steering into a rut to ease the wheel down, then giving just a tiny pop of acceleration to make the tire float up the other side. He used the truck's momentum just the way a lobsterman lets his boat coast, applying power when the traction was good and rolling through the slippery spots with neither acceleration nor brakes.
The same way a lobsterman intuitively knows exactly how far away the bow and the stern of the boat are from where he stands, this guy seemed to be in touch with each corner of the truck to gauge just how close to a rocky outcrop he could steer.
It took the whole afternoon to get back to our car. When we arrived, I felt I had been transported, not just to safety, not just out of the path of the flood, and not just over the worst approximation of a road I had ever seen.
Instead, I had been transported all the way from Northern Arkansas to eastern Maine and from a mid-80s Ford truck to a 35-foot lobster boat.