As I grew up in central Arkansas, my family spent a lot of weekends and some longer vacations enjoying one of the state's best lakes.
We spent plenty of summer days at Lake Ouachita, specifically at Brady Mountain Campground, off U.S. 270 near Royal, west of Hot Springs. My brothers and I would always get excited when we turned off the main highway to make the seven-mile drive that got curvier and curvier the closer we got to the lake. We knew we were close when we passed what we called the "barefoot house," an old cabin overtaken by vines that we couldn't imagine going into, much less without shoes.
My parents, my dad's parents and aunts and uncles started going to Brady Mountain in the late 1950s, not long after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished construction of the state's largest body of water. By the time I came along, they were veterans of the trip from Little Rock. Setting up tents, the clothesline and everything else in our camp got easier with repetition.
There was a period in which we didn't make it to the lake as often. I assume it was just the busy-ness of life for a family of five. The old ski boat they'd used back in the 1960s, with tail fins much like those on cars from the same era, was in the back yard, becoming more and more sun faded.
Renewed interest in the lake came as my brothers then I approached our teen years. My dad parked that old boat in our one-car garage, sanded every inch of its fiberglass body and repainted it. How he got that old outboard motor running again I'll never know.
I was glad our family had a boat, but I couldn't decide whether it was cool or crazy to be at the launch ramp with a "vintage" boat when most other folks had graduated to more modern vessels.
He eventually sold his renovated boat and we moved up to a used, but still far more modern inboard-outboard boat that, to me, seemed luxurious. I still remember when he took us with him to give the boat a test run in the Arkansas River. We couldn't believe Dad was going to buy it, but buy it he did. That boat renewed our reason to break free from Little Rock and venture to familar waters, back to Brady Mountain.
We'd soak up as much skiing and island hopping as we could on those trips. As most boat owners would understand, at least a few times our fun on the water was interrupted by a boat motor not working the way it had the last time we'd had it in the water. Boats can be cantankerous things. Maybe that's why they say it's better to know someone with a boat than to actually own one yourself.
Just a few weeks ago, I got to go back to Brady Mountain for three nights of camping -- still in our tents, even though most people these days have converted to RVs. My parents, now 85, were there as were my brothers. I'll admit to one addition: air conditioner units that blow cold air into their tents.
Circumstances didn't allow other members of our family to make it, so it was back to the original Harton crew of the 1970s and '80s. And yes, the boat motors gave us trouble, apparently wanting to be part of our family nostalgia.
It wasn't a trip to Belize or Cancun or even the "Redneck Riviera" on the Gulf Coast, but I cherished every moment we shared back at Brady Mountain. It felt like home with the people who have been with me since Day One.
They say you can't go home again. But I got as close as you can.