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WORDS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | PHOTOS: Brian Vernor
Since its popular debut in the 1972 movie Deliverance ‘Dueling Banjos’, originally called ‘Fuedin’ Banjos’, has become synonymous with hillbillies, backwoods, banjos and the musically-inclined simpleton.
Deliverance was not filmed in Arkansas or anywhere near Arkansas’ Buffalo River where we found ourselves to ride the ‘Jasper Disaster’. The movie plot took the four urbanites to the fictional Cahulawassee River in the remote Georgia wilderness for a canoe trip turned survival story. No known connection, either behind the scenes or on film exists between Deliverance and the state of Arkansas, yet for some reason the moment we crest a knoll and roll into view of the Buffalo River Valley several of us, as if on cue, begin to whistle ‘Dueling Banjos’. It’s not simply a case of our big city tourist ignorance either because our guide, friend and Fayetteville local Clay Crymes, was heard whistling right along with us.
Seven hours after the whistling affair, over peanut butter, banana and chocolate milkshakes chased by sweet-potato fries served with honey in the Ozark Café it’s evident to us all that perception can be thoroughly misleading. 70-miles of some of the most stunning and pristine, best-kept, best-preserved, best-maintained countryside in America is what we found to be the reality of the Ozark region.
In our third year of this undertaking, the Rapha Continental, predisposed to rural environs and back roads in backwoods places, has experienced an infinite amount of local color and character. Some roads have at times been a bit frightening in a manner reminiscent of Deliverance. But to be clear, none of our more chilling encounters occurred anywhere near Arkansas’ Ozarks. In fact, in the weeks following ‘Jasper Disaster’ we rode throughout the south and southeast, areas and regions that enjoy much tamer and more cultivated reputations. But while these areas and rides often proved to be as scenic, challenging and enjoyable, very few if any were as friendly and unspoiled as we found in our first hint of the South.
Funnily enough we learned that while Deliverance is well remembered, often quoted and cited, hardly anyone seems to know anything about where it actually took place. Everywhere we went south of the Mason-Dixon Line, locals, hosts, other cyclists and proprietors would reference some nearby river and say without cause, warning or solicitation, “You know that’s where they filmed Deliverance, don’t ya?” It’s as if Deliverance has become less of a movie location or story, and more of an idea. A warning. A cautionary tale for all travelers and would be adventurers passing through. A deep, dark jungle kind-of-a-thing that's uniquely American and scary and lives in the southern woods. A rural bogeyman trotted out for city slickers and out-of-towners with sport utility vehicles and complicated roof racks. As if the creepy, dangerous hillbilly is the latest entry in American folklore to join the ranks of Paul Bunyan, Bigfoot and Davey Crockett. The stereotype of overall-wearing, toothless grinned, tap-dancing, banjo-picking men with a jug in one hand and a shotgun in the other makes us laugh and makes us scared at once. And certain areas of the south know it.
The strangest, darkest thing about ‘Jasper Disaster’ is a place called “Dogpatch USA” in the Marble Falls area between the towns of Harrison and Jasper. Dogpatch is in reference to Li’l Abner, the successful newspaper comic strip that ran for 43-years in the States. Li’l Abner was about a clan of hillbillies who lived in a town called Dogpatch, KY. Featuring local arts, crafts, a honey hut, fudge shop, apiary, horseback riding, train and paddle boat rides, when Dogpatch USA opened in 1968 it was essentially a pioneer-themed theme park loosely based on the hillbilly culture. It never quite caught on and now the abandoned Dogpatch is the haunting scene of several defunct and abandoned buildings near the banks of a beautiful river that we’re pretty sure was where they filmed Deliverance. At least that’s what a local told us.