Can you make up for lost time?
Doug Haynes and Gabe Wilkins
The Ozarks don’t quite reach as far north as St Louis, or as west as
Tulsa, or as south as Little Rock, or as east as Memphis. They are a
place best reached by car or bus, and the drive is through dense,
shady forests of sycamore, silver maple, sweet gums, and oak.
Occasionally you’ll pass scenic lakes created by electricity dams
on the White and Black rivers. Many of the people you meet can
proudly tell you the exact population of their towns, quoting
numbers like “4,321” (Carl Junction), and “2,261” (Horseshoe
Bend). Some other telling statistics: in the rural counties, the
population is often 95 percent white, with per capita income
around $15,000 annually. Ten percent of residents might have a
college degree. People in the Ozarks get married and get divorced
at nearly double the national rate. The way to a better life does not
necessarily involve moving north or south to a big city to get an
education. Ozarkers don’t have a culture or tradition of migration.
They are as planted as the sycamores. Hardship is persistent and
passed down like a surname. A better life, to them, means giving
yourself over to the Lord and letting Jesus redeem you for your
sins. The region is the epicenter of conservative Christian
fundamentalism. Springfield, Missouri, was once dubbed “the
buckle of the Bible Belt.” Church offers hope where hope is hard
to find. In this way, religion and poverty are interlocked as the
constructive and destructive forces on people and their families.
The western descent of the Ozarks is anchored by a former
lead-mining town of 46,000 people named Joplin, Missouri. Joplin
is where Doug Haynes and Gabe Wilkins hail from.
Doug is Gabe’s biological father, though for fourteen years,
Gabe didn’t even know that Doug existed.
There are parts of this story that make Doug squirm, parts
that took him a year to completely own up to with me. For a long
time, he’s had to live wi