|Photo: Clinton Steeds|
The price for constructing I-540 in northwest Arkansas that now bypasses parts of Highway 71 and its treacherous, winding roads was the death of Mt. Gayler Tower & Gift Shop – a multi-generational business that once flourished as weary travelers stopped to pick up a souvenir or make a trek to the top of the tower behind the shop to marvel at God’s creation.
Ruby Jo Bellis still lives there. She’s alone now. Her father was killed in 1985 on Highway 71, less than a mile from the shop. Her grandmother, whom Ruby Jo ran the business with after her grandfather died, is gone now too. And her son died in 2009.
She says she’ll stay there as long as she can pay the taxes and pull the weeds.
“The tower has steps that need repaired so I don’t dare let anyone climb it,” Ruby told the Washington County Observer last October. “I can’t afford to keep the electricity on in the shop when no one stops anymore, but this is my home.”
The newspaper points out the irony of her statement, given that the Bellis family bought the first generator that brought electricity to the mountain top.
I remember the days when people did stop in her gift shop. When I was a teenager, my grandparents used to take my sister and me on road trips to Arkansas during the summer to visit family. The Mt. Gayler Tower & Gift Shop was a guaranteed stop on our journey. By the time we got there my grandfather needed a break after an extended white-knuckle driving experience through the mountains.
My sister and I had a curiosity about the lookout tower. If my memory is correctly, we chickened out once and we made it to the top the next time. It was windy the day we made it to the top, causing the tower to sway slightly. I was a little freaked out by the cable that ran from the top of the tower to the ground – presumably for support.
Our grandparents stayed down on the ground and watched us. Once we made it to the top we could see lakes nestled between mountains that were miles away and hidden to anybody except us and people traveling by air. Trees showed off their red, orange and yellow leaves. Vehicles passed by on Highway 71, oblivious to the beauty they couldn’t see.
I don’t think I took any photos, which sort of bums out. But in October of 1993, my grandmother and I made that same drive. Of course, we stopped at the gift shop and I climbed to the top of the tower with my camera and took these photos:
Progress always comes with a price.