There are some places where I’ve dreamed of going all my life. The summit of Kilimanjaro, for one, looking down through the clouds from the top of Africa, or to see the last great wilderness of Antarctica or the dangerous beauty of Cambodia. Those destinations and more I won’t call a bucket list, because I refuse to let them slip away into the infinity of someday and things that will never fit the schedule. I have nearer dreams as well- the arches of Utah and volcanoes of Hawaii; the splendor of the Appalacian Trail or the staggering length and climate of John Muir’s legacy, the Pacific Crest. The list could go on forever.
Arkansas had never factored into that list, and now I realize that I’d done it a disservice. I had a head full of clichés, and anyone who has ever seen Deliverance or Nothing but Trouble will know the type. One slow day at work, though, while daydreaming of destinations, I stumbled across an image of Whitaker Point and its amazing Ozark panorama and realized the magnitude of my error. The kids were easy to convince. I showed that same picture from Google to Alison and Carl’s daughter Arwyn and they were immediately as entranced as I; Alison has yet to second-guess an adventure, and Arwyn was excited about the idea of backpacking. It took a little longer to get Carl on board, but he came around admirably, and the decision was made.
We left Indianapolis early Saturday morning and headed west. Carl had reached out to Missouri’s Roubidoux Grotto (for pronunciation, try saying “Scooby-doo” with the pup’s own penchant for Rs) and was able to arrange a trip into one of their many area caves on Saturday night, led by locals Karen Hood and Michael Aalsburg. I will admit to some laziness after spending the better part of 6 hours in the car and could have been convinced to just nap at the hotel instead, but Campground Cave was not one to be missed.
We piled back into the Jeep after checking into the hotel, met the two locals at the Visitor’s Center around the corner from the hotel and made the ten minute drive to the cave. It was a haven for salamanders and soda straw stalactites, and countless frogs leapt away from us as we slogged through the stream and the thick Missouri mud. There were pools full of baby salamanders and little brown bats clung to the ceiling, none of which exhibiting the fungal growths which characterize White Nose Syndrome, a disease which has been decimating bat populations for the last ten years. We followed the stream through the cave, finally turning back after about an hour and a half of exploration, and exited into the growing dusk outside.
The rain that had been coming down all day had turned cold, and we were all shivering as we stripped off our muddy gear. That was when we realized our first oversight of the trip, in that we had no clothes accessible to change into, and with frozen fingers (and little practice doing so) we couldn’t manipulate the ratchet straps holding our bins of gear in place on the roof of the Jeep. After a while of tugging and swearing we gave up and headed back to the hotel, hoping for the best for our stuff on the roof; thankfully we lost nothing during the trip back, ran through the lobby to our room in varying states of t-shirts and underwear, and were able to correct the ratchet strap problem in the morning before driving the remaining couple of hours down to Harrison, Arkansas, where we passed the night on Sunday before starting out on the Buffalo River Trail for the backpacking part of our trip. We made a pit stop in Springfield, Missouri, on the way down in order to visit the first and largest Bass Pro Stop, a goliath that spans half a million square feet and boasts multiple aquariums and an arms museum. Our stop was for a simpler reason, to pick up some lightweight sleeping bags and for me to get a new pair of boots. As it turned out, though, my feet were the least of our problems.
We hit the trail shortly after noon on Monday from the Kyle’s Landing campground with plans to camp that night at Erbie, about 7 miles away, and to continue on to the Ozark campground the next day, where we had arranged for the Jeep to be dropped off the following morning.
We were beset with issues from the beginning. We set out on the trail, but after a mile realized we had picked the wrong one; we were on the Old River Trail (ORT) instead of the Buffalo River Trail (BRT) that we were aiming for. The ORT was beautiful as well and meandered along the right direction, and I would have nearly considered switching routes but the biggest issue was that it required crossing the river, swollen with spring rains, twice within the next mile. We reluctantly turned back and upon returning to Kyle’s realized that the way to the BRT required a three-quarter mile trek back up the steep road from Kyle’s toward the main road. The way was rough, rocky, and ever upward, even eliciting complaints from within the comfort of the Jeep on the initial drive down. The kids were ready to drop out before we even reached the trail, and when we finally reached our ingress point, we had added an unexpected three miles to the hike and burned a few hours of daylight. We passed the next few miles at a decent pace, the anguish of uphill nearly forgotten in the stunning landscape unfolding around us.
We finally broke for dinner at about 6 o’clock after Ali had reached a point where she kept falling, and with tears in her eyes and both knees bleeding, her exhaustion was evident. I got the stove going, a recent acquisition after the failure of the one that had accompanied us to Isle Royale last summer- this one was both more compact and more powerful, allowing us to be back on the trail in the same amount of time for water to boil with the old one. As the food cooked, Carl and I looked around to see if there was a reasonable place to make camp nearby, but the spot was less than ideal; while the area had places bare enough to reasonably pitch a tent, they were all sloped, and although we had been fording streams all day and I carried a water filter, there happened to simply be no water nearby. We sat down to eat. I was worried about Ali’s state and wondered if she would be able to get much farther before a hysterical meltdown or falling asleep, and to make matters worse she soon announced a need that was a little more involved than peeing against a tree. I had packed a trowel- experience taught me that one- and had even felt smug about the fact that I’d purchased a lightweight one to replace the heavy one from Home Depot that I’d hauled for a week last summer. That turned out to be a much less effective upgrade than that of the stove, though, and could barely break the rocky ground. I realized at the same time that we had packed no toilet paper. That problem was solved with the cut-off sleeves of a t-shirt that Carl sacrificed to the cause and soon after, Ali was back on her feet and we were ready to move again.
Our trail ran high above the Buffalo River, backlit by the westward sun which was already starting to dip toward the mountains. The water below sparkled with a thousand crazy prisms in a transcendental moment where the world seemed to pause between breaths in its headlong flight through space and everything unconsciously hushes with it, and in that instant all troubles fall aside and we can feel in our souls why we’re out there.
We lost our way in a rocky area and had to double back across a bluff that peeked over the green valley below. Arwyn, who had taken the lead early in the hike, was the one who found the trail again, and did so every time it was in question; although this was her first time backpacking, her extensive background in caving had given her an uncommon eye for traveled areas. Before Carl and I met, the better part of a year ago, they had already spent the previous two years caving nearly every weekend and even for an adult her resumé would be impressive. The trail rose over the bluff and soon began sloping down toward the river. Soon we reached a fork and followed our map to the left, overjoyed to see the unmistakable landmark of the Cherry Grove Cemetery, marked toward the end of our long hike to the Erbie campsite. We followed the trail to the right past the cemetery into a pine forest which was beginning to glow with the shades of dusk and were deposited onto a lane marked Erbie Road, at which point the trail became rather confusing. There were very few labels on the map, perhaps due to the fact that the labels in the area seemed nearly arbitrary; we had noticed in the Jeep that the road names assigned by the GPS never matched the ones actually marked. We saw structures through the trees and thought we had found the campsite, but we had only reached the Parker-Hickman Farmstead, another landmark which I would have loved to have spent more time exploring, but next to it stood a sign declaring another mile to Erbie and we headed on, losing steam and losing light. We found ourselves trying to navigate a spaghetti bowl of unmarked dirt roads and trails, none of which seeming to lead where we were going.
One path seemed promising, but dead-ended into a fast-moving stream which wasn’t on the map; we turned back, consulted the map, and set out again in the most likely direction. I took the lead to scout ahead. The trail widened, gently slanting upwards, and the merest ghost of gravel lingered. The sun was saying its final goodbyes, but up ahead I could see the distinctive build of a ranger cabin- surely the campsite was near.
The trail faded away beyond the cabin, and suddenly there were voices behind me.
“Are you lost?”
I turned, and there was an older couple standing on their back step, gazing at me with benevolent curiosity. Behind me, the kids were struggling up the hill, Carl urging them on. In a different situation, it would have been funny to watch their progress- both Arwyn and Alison had passed the point of dragging, and Arwyn was stomping, grumbling, and pounding her walking stick down into the ground with every step as if to punish the hard earth for our hike.
“Well, I didn’t think so. But since we’re having this conversation, I suppose I am.”
“Where are you headed?”
I replied that we were headed for the Erbie campsite, and they told me that we were actually in their driveway. I brandished the map that I was beginning to distrust very much, apologized, and asked if they could point us in the right direction. The kids had reached earshot by this time and Arwyn was nearly beside herself with fury.
The woman from the cabin took pity on us and offered to lead us back to our trail and point our way from there, which we gratefully accepted. She led us back to the stream that we had previously declined to cross, chatting the whole way. She told us that they didn’t even have a mailbox, but that they instead had to drive into Jasper to pick up their mail. There was no chance of doing so that day either, she added, due to the water levels- they had just recently dragged a Subaru out of the high water and weren’t trying to do the same with their own vehicle. As soon as she began to walk with us, the kids perked up as if they hadn’t spent the entire day hiking already; Arwyn, buoyant in her joy at our new acquaintance, forgot about hating everything and was even heard calling the trip “the best Spring Break ever!”
We reached the stream and parted ways at that point. The woman’s husband had followed us down in order to light her way back up to the house and they watched as we waded across, then took the immediate left she had pointed out; the trail curved around into a meadow before entering the campsite. We had reached the point of flashlights as we finally strode into camp, and the night had come alive. The stars glittered above, bats fluttered and dove, and the voices of countless frogs surrounded us. There was no way to differentiate to attempt to count them; on the banks of the Buffalo River, finally at Erbie, the frogs were so many that their voices ran together in harmony and we slept with their song and the stars and the cold hard ground.