The Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Léon never found the Fountain of Youth, but he left one thing in his wake: a little town in Missouri that bears his namesake, about 30 miles south of Springfield. Located on the banks of a tribute that feeds the James River, the town is lush in greenery, and poor in wealth. It was once a booming town; its economy fed by curious travelers seeking to dip their hands into the mineral springs that, according to locals, promised eternal youth. Now it houses a post office, perhaps a filling station or two, and a few scattered homes, dilapidating in the humid moisture of the climate.
And so we travelled. Not that my parents sought eternal anything; with four children, no one wants that curse. But the town of around 600 residents, fondly named Poncie by locals, bears the names of my relatives in its archived histories. Our family founded the town, and so here we were, descendants of Irish immigrants, searching amongst corroded, moss-laden tombstones for a name resembling our own.
The Ozark Mountains are host to a wealth of flora and fauna, and a type of person unwelcoming of diversity. As we travelled down the roads of a town too small to make marks on a map, we watched doors slam shut and eyes appear at windows, framed between the crinkle of calico drapes. Generously proportioned women cloaked in tattered house dresses glared at us with menace from their screened in porches, rocking to and fro from grandfather’s chair. Children scattered like the wet gravel kicked up by the tread of our tires; men paused and rested on the tired arms of drooping fences and garden rakes. We were not welcome here.
But we continued down the road, the houses growing sparser, turning into mobile homes and wooden shanties of garden sheds. The grass grew longer and the wildflowers blossomed in abundance, their proud heads blowing in the wind. We turned off a little road, guided by a paper napkin scrawled in chicken scratch directions from a wary and suspicious gas station attendant a few miles back. The trees framed the road in arching magnitude, the green arbor shadowed the dirt from the sun and only glittering glimpses of light shone through, dancing about as the breezes shook the boughs.
Off to the side there was a little pool of stagnant water. Once a vibrant creek bursting forth from the ground in rich tones of mineral vivacity, it had shrunk to a lifeless puddle tinged red from a richness in iron. It gurgled forth like lava, the thick water choked beneath its mossy surface. The Fountain of Youth. Second guessing ourselves, we consulted the 3×5 map that trembled in the wind. But we were in the right place. The putrid stench of death and wet earth clung heavily to the air; it infiltrated our nostrils and pierced our sinuses in shocking musty scents of decay. A dead squirrel decomposed upon the earth beside us; a rotting deer lay not too far away. We squirmed in tune with the maggots that devoured the flesh in fervent hunger; this was no place for living things. A deadened silence cloaked the air; the threatening whispered mutinies of the laid-to-rest were close at hand. We did not linger long for fear of being cursed by the spirits residing in the trees, but the memories of our ancestors let us pass in peace, and our bodies did not grace the presence of the ones that lay beside us.
The Ozarks are a strange place. One of wonder and of mystery. A darkness lingers here, born by ancestors and carried by the residents of dying towns who whisper curses from chapped lips lined with the heavy pouches of peach and red apple snuff. The lush landscapes protect the secrets of the land; the roots weave seamlessly together to cover up the tracks of those who’ve come before. Spells are cast to ward away curious travelers such as ourselves, and those who enter leave quickly, always craning their heads back over their shoulders, shaking off the remnants of curses that cling to their retreating backs.
But it is beautiful. It is bewitching in its obscurity. It is dazzling in the way the rivers carve meandering pathways through the valley floors. This place enchants you; the beguiling deceptions of quiet little settlements lure you in, and never release their hold. I am forever captivated by the looming danger of this land; by the wicked ghosts displaced in times of rapture. It reminds you of your own mortality, of the transient nature of the human spirit. And despite the corrosive waters coursing through the land, I have discovered youth. This fountain has replenished my soul, and I find that I am full.