For those who seek the lonely places of the earth

Posts tagged ‘Hiking’

Big Tunnel

Hi everybody!

I’m super excited about my latest Patreon post about the Big Tunnel in Tunnelton, Indiana. Instead of locking the post for patrons-only, this one is open for everyone! Follow the link below to give it a read. If you like it, maybe you should check out the rest.

Big Tunnel on Patreon

Talk to you again next week!

Beautiful Views and Bad Attitudes

Montana, July 30-31, 2018

We drove 1600 miles cross-country to Helena, Montana, ostensibly for a convention, but once we realized what wonders were in the area, we went rogue and skipped out entirely, setting out to explore the mountains instead.



A bit of housekeeping before we get started on the post: due to some scheduling changes, new content will now be available on Wednesdays instead of Mondays. Also, if I have not clarified the posting schedule in regards to free content versus the subscription content on Patreon, these will alternate weekly. For example- this is the second of three posts regarding our Montana trip. The first, Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers, appeared on Patreon last week, and next week the third installment will be posted there. The following week, we return here with a different adventure. If you have not yet looked into the Patreon page, it’s only $2 a month to gain access to the exclusives; that said, though, the rest will remain right here. And now, to the road.

We’d spent the last few days sightseeing through the Great Plains on our way out, and once we reached western Montana we were enthused to see the multitude of peaks towering around us, though we were painfully sick of driving.

A friend of mine who lived in Montana for several years commented once about how going anywhere required at least an hour or two of driving. There were things to do in town, I suppose, at least where we were- his location was more rural, but our home base for the week was right in the state capitol of Helena. Hanging out in town isn’t our idea of fun, though; if that were all there was to do, we wouldn’t have skipped the convention. Regardless, his words ring true. After three days of driving, tantrums from both of the kids (and perhaps the adults), and vehement insistence that we want nowhere near the Jeep ever again, we found ourselves back on the road, two hours out from town, exploring the aptly nicknamed Big Sky Country.


We had a lucky encounter from a perspective point of view at one of our hotels on the way out- namely, in Rapid City, we headed downstairs in the morning to take advantage of the included breakfast before hitting the road. We walked into a much more crowded dining room than I had expected, and the reason soon became clear. Carl privately nicknamed them the Silver Fox Tour Group- we were sharing breakfast with a busload of elderly people trying to check items off their bucket lists in the twilight of their lives. Away from the bustling hotel dining room, I tried to explain to the kids the reason I consider this to have been significant: maybe it could help them understand why we would make this frantic trip West, clocking a total of over five thousand miles in the course of a week, instead of letting time ambush us before we could get it accomplished.

Of course, after breakfast, we headed to the Jeep.

We had rested Sunday night and when we set out on Monday morning, we planned to spend the day at Mt. Helena City Park. It seemed to fulfill our requirements well enough: good hiking close to town was what we hoped for, but that plan quickly got scrapped due to a road closure and frustration with GPS issues and Helena’s awkwardly situated roads. After a few irritating laps around town, we headed out on Highway 15 North instead and soon came across a sign for The Gates of the Mountains- it was too intriguing to not turn off. When we arrived, it was a sparkling lake in a valley, stretching out into the mountains, complete with boat tours; the boat had just left when we pulled into the lot, though, so instead we hiked up a nearby ridge to look out over the area. The view was stunning, worth every uphill step, although for the kids it was also an uphill battle.



After we finished up at the lake, we continued north to see what else we could find. We explored by road for a while, and eventually saw signs for Great Falls, where the the Falls of the Missouri are found. The river seemed to have followed us ever since we first crossed it in South Dakota- we decided to follow it right back.


The Ryan Dam is a hydroelectric dam perched atop the falls- rather than detracting from the site, though, its consistent (and constant) flow tames the wild river, as it pours out its burden. Near the parking area is a suspension bridge that leads to a small island, where maybe Lewis and Clark themselves stopped for lunch alongside the gorgeous falls.



On the following day, we headed north again, this time aiming nearly for the Canadian border. The mountains around Glacier National Park dwarfed us and made us feel perfectly insignificant. The park was already packed when we got there around noon, after making the four hour drive up. It surprised me that there were so many people there on a Tuesday, although summer was still in full swing. Whatever the case, we entered by the St. Mary gate, whose visitor center was full to overflowing; Logan Pass was the same way. Unable to find parking, we followed Going to the Sun Road for its 50 mile length through the park, and exited via West Glacier. We lunched at West Glacier Restaurant which we found right outside the park gates, then re-entered and headed toward Apgar, now our nearest possibility for parking, to see what kind of hiking we could find there. We found a trailhead down a gravel road, said to lead to an old ranger station about four miles out, and we hit the trail.

It was about ninety degrees at that point, and the skeletal pines offered little shade, still decimated from wildfires as long ago as 2006. The kids, initially excited about escaping the Jeep and going on a hike, started dragging their feet pretty quickly, complaining that they were bored and hot. By this point, Carl and I were feeling pretty jaded as well, and having to defend every location we chose to stop from relentless criticism didn’t help our own perceptions much. Nonetheless, we dragged the kids along for about two hours before saying “to hell with it” and turning back. By this point, they were nearing mutiny and it took promises of Slushies after the hike to keep them moving- of course, with that motivation, the return trip only took us about an hour. With a dead battery on my Garmin watch that day, I had only a faint idea of how far we had gone before turning around; the pessimist in me likes to think that we were just right around the corner from the old ranger station, but that will remain a mystery. With some of the tension relieved, the trail seemed prettier on the way back: Indian Paintbrush nodded all around us, punctuated by ancient exposed rock, the same kind that loomed all around us, obscuring the horizon. Afterwards, I found very little information online on this trail, and although it remains in decent shape, it seems to no longer be maintained.


We delivered on the promised Slushies, established a tentative truce with the children, and headed back toward Helena for the night. We planned to go to Yellowstone the next day and had no desire to get caught in the same traffic, so we would be retiring early and waking up at 4am to be there at open. Attitudes ended up cutting that one short as well, as Alison discovered a sudden crippling phobia of horseflies- but the day after, we would end up back at Glacier, and finally get a chance to take that perfect hike.

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Sinks and Stones

This week’s post is something a little different. It’s a write-up of Kentucky’s Sinks of the Roundstone cave, and it is available exclusively on As We Wander’s new Patreon page! I’d love for you to check it out. If you’d prefer to wait for free content, stay tuned and next Monday we will return with The Land of the Spiders, a hardwood forest that only looks empty.

Stories of the Ozarks

We awoke tired and sore Tuesday morning at the Erbie campsite, halfway through our planned trek. The four of us were backpacking, and the trail to the next site, Ozark, was supposed to be both shorter and easier than the previous day’s hike, which had topped ten miles, and whose elevation gain was somewhere in the four digit range- the guidebook listed eleven hundred feet, but did not include our jaunt up the Kyle’s Landing road, which added another 350 feet of elevation gain at a 10% grade.

Buffalo River Trail

Erbie to Ozark was charted at less than seven miles with only about three hundred feet of gain throughout; unfortunately, though, we were fated not to make the hike. While Carl and I had been setting up camp the night before, Arwyn had told us that her shoe was torn, which we had brushed off for the time to focus on other matters. By the light of day, though, we could see that one sole was completely detached, and the other not far behind. Duct tape and paracord can only postpone the inevitable, and with blisters already on her feet, we made the decision that she would not be hiking that day.

While it may be easy to decide not to hike, there were logistical problems that had to be resolved. In the midst of a National Park, neither my AT&T nor Carl’s Verizon could pick up a signal to change our itinerary and have the Jeep dropped off at Erbie. Carl walked the campground, Ali tagging at his heels, looking for a payphone or cellular signal, but there was nothing to be found. Although we had all breathed a collective sigh of relief at taking the day off, we were now stuck in what Carl dubbed “the worst campsite ever,” with not even a decent view to distract us. We had begun to toss around the idea of him or I hiking on to Ozark alone while the other stayed with the kids and coming back with the Jeep, but we were reluctant to split the group, and both of us wanted to be the one to hike on anyway; eventually we suspended the discussion without making a decision and I went to make another lap of the campground to look again for a phone as well as to find a water spigot and refill our Camelbaks.

I passed an older man near a campsite as I searched, who exclaimed his surprise at seeing a fellow human being, and I laughed politely and walked on over to the campground message board, hoping to see water and a phone marked in the map.

They were not, of course, and as I stood there, the man who had spoken to me came over and began to chat. He was down from Minnesota with his son’s family in a couple pickups and an RV trailer and they had come in late Monday night. I was apparently the first person that he’d seen that wasn’t related to him since they’d made camp, and he was the gregarious sort who longed for a new friendly ear. We shared that moment of solidarity for our respective family vacations and I began to tell him about mine. His face turned sympathetic when I recounted the discovery of the rebellious shoe and he offered to give us a ride out to Ozark, as long as his son was okay with the idea. It turned out that he was- they had intended to camp at Ozark the night before instead so they could see Ozark’s bluffs, but couldn’t find the turnoff and ended up at Erbie instead. They wouldn’t mind at all going to see it. I hustled back to our site to break camp. We tore down in record time, returned, and threw our gear in the back of the indicated pickup. The old man smiled at Arwyn, still fretting about her shoes.

“I had that happen to me once. I was on an Antarctic cruise. Nowhere to buy shoes in Antarctica, you know.”

And the girls both chimed that it sounded way too cold, and incredibly, as soon as the subject of that frozen giant to the south opened, it was slammed shut and the conversation changed and then ended as the packs were settled, and we said our goodbyes to him and crammed into the backseat for the bumpy ride up the Erbie road toward Ozark. The son and his wife drove us, and their children and grandpa went off in the other truck and out of this story.

We made small talk, the kind the comes with the realization later that you actually learned nothing about them. Something about Minnesota weather, perhaps, but nothing of Minnesota dreams.

We arrived at Ozark and our good Samaritans, ready to head home, only spent a few minutes at the shoreline before saying their goodbyes and getting back on the road; with our Jeep still not delivered, we settled down at the nearly deserted campground to spend a lazy afternoon napping and playing on the shore.


The Ozark campground, much like Kyle’s Landing, boasts impressive bluffs looming just across the river. The bluffs are formed by mainly sandstone and dolostone, combined with some limestone, deposited during different geological periods, namely the Mississippian, Pennsylvanian, and Ordovician, the last-named layer being deposited nearly half a billion years ago, when the land we know was sea and the landmass called Gondwana was breaking up and beginning to head toward its modern locations, creating distinct places such as the Himalayas and Antarctica.

As we gazed at the bluffs, we were particularly interested in the black stains that ran down the rock, similar to others we had noticed elsewhere in the region. After further research, I found that the staining of the bluffs, or “painting” in the local parlance, is caused by a precipitate of manganese oxide, carried by water that has seeped out of the rock. Manganese, an element used in metal alloys, not only has its uses in industry, but it is exceedingly valuable in nutrition too, helping the body to process and use the vitamin thiamine. It is also beautiful. Manganese oxide, also known as pyrolucite or psilomelane, can create fern patterns on sandstone that nearly appear to be fossils, or it can alternately form what is referred to as “rat’s hair,” delicate tufts of pyrolucite fibers that protrude from the surface. Gorgeously painted bluffs, like the ones that stood before us, were but another effect of the mineral.

“Rat’s hair” and painted bluffs at Steel Creek

Ozark thankfully also had the fine feature of a phone, and we were able to call and revise our arrangement for the Jeep, which arrived late in the afternoon, delivered by Buffalo River Canoes. We had initially planned for it to be at Ozark on Wednesday, but to our delight, they were able to deliver it early.

Our first order of business was to get a room and a round of showers. We were all sweaty and not a little dirty, after an afternoon in the sand with no cover from the sun and the previous day’s hike. This turned out to be easier than most of our trip up to that point: we’d rented a cabin in Jasper at the Arkansas House which was supposed to be ours the following day but it was empty and clean so we were able to check in early.

The proprietor was friendly and immensely talkative, with a story for everything; I happened to be wearing a Jack Daniels t-shirt that day, and he launched into a tale that made me think of an old 19th century merchant mariner, spinning a yarn behind his pipe and cup of grog. Perhaps in another life he’d been a whaler alongside of Ahab, or fought under Jean Lafitte during the pirate’s legendary display during the Battle of New Orleans, or maybe a member of some other ancient armada.  Whatever the case, the old man’s eyes softened with the mist of memory as he began to speak, undoubtedly reciting a tale that he’d heard since infancy.

“Jack was just a nickname, you know,” he began. “His real name was Jasper Newton Daniels.”

“Like here,” I said. We stood in the Great Room of his inn, decorated with chandeliers and antiques. The far wall was dominated by a large painting of fully-rigged sailing ships, their canvas tight with wind, which served to intensify the unreal effect. On a map, you would have found us in Jasper, Arkansas, the county seat of Newton.

“Yes, like here,” he agreed, “and others too. There are Jasper, Newtons in Kentucky and Tennessee and throughout the south. Did you know that George Washington was a moonshiner? During the Revolution, the south was just minding their own, but then Washington contacted Jack Daniels and told him that the British were going to tax their liquor. So Jack Daniels spread the word and rounded up some men, and the south joined the war and their men made the difference in some of the last few battles to beat the British.”

He beamed at me, obviously pleased with his tale, and a good one it was, although it could not be true. Washington died half a century before Daniels was born, but it didn’t matter; the story was a myth of the Ozarks with as much flavor as the whiskey in question.

We spent the rest of our stay exploring Newton County and the surrounding areas, with our cabin serving as home base; multiple times we set out in the Jeep in different directions, just to see what we could discover. One day we headed toward a town called Vendor and the mountain vista was interrupted by ruins, few but stark, of the old town- an ancient chimney rose over a meadow, another on the other side of the lane that wound down into the valley, and further on we came across another structure that had survived more than whatever had bore the chimneys- we couldn’t quite decide if it had been a one-room schoolhouse or if it had been a small church, but by this time all that remained were the mortared stone walls and facade, overrun with vines and other growth. I attempted to find some more information on Vendor’s history, but there was not much to discover without having stopped in town to try to talk to locals.

Ali explores the schoolhouse

I found cemetery records going back into the mid-1800s through the Newton County Historical Society‘s website and an anecdote on Wikipedia about the name, saying that it came from traveling salesmen setting up by the road in the area. I struggle to accept Wikipedia as a source, but with no others to be found, I must admit that it sounds reasonable, especially as those aforementioned cemetery records contained no surnames of Vendor.

It should be taken like the tale of Jack Daniels and the American Revolution- a story, no more and no less. It can be so easy to get carried away by the tide of imagination in trying to discover history, so I will stick to the facts: Vendor is a hamlet of perhaps two hundred people, not far from the Scenic Byway 7.

That is all I know.

As for what I can imagine, those people each have lives and petty grievances and dreams and ancestors, and those ancestors left those artefacts that linger in those fields to tell the story of a tiny backwater that is fading away.

Remains of old Vendor

Maybe after leading the young United States to victory near the end of the eighteenth century, the very premature Mr. Daniels then set out for the county whose name he carried to establish a school.

Maybe in such a place, we should just revel in the fictions, as closely held are the facts.

There was only one storyteller that we encountered who disappointed me. Driving from Harrison to Jasper, we noticed signs for a show cave called Mystic Caverns and at Arwyn’s request, we made a stop on Wednesday to check it out. We bought passes to Mystic and its sister cave, Crystal Dome from fresh-faced youngin named Joey, who turned out to be the guide for the tour as well.

Mystic Caverns and Crystal Dome

I don’t think he liked us from the beginning. Admittedly, we can be a little silly sometimes and have been known to ham it up on occasion, such as when Joey the guide asked for someone to sing in one part of the cave in order to demonstrate the acoustics- we volunteered Carl, and the guide’s eyes flickered around the room for alternatives. Nobody else volunteered. He reluctantly selected Carl, who bounded up to his appointed stage and belted out the jingle for his fictional product Snake Leash, accompanied by my hysterical laughter and Ali sweetly singing along.

We can also come across as pretentious, especially where caves are concerned. The girls love to brag about their underground accomplishments and this occasioned no exception; considering their ages and accomplishments, the pride is well warranted.

I don’t know if young Joey rolled his eyes at them, but it would have fit well with his attitude, and this was what underlaid our fundamental difference: our pretention is that caves are fantastically beautiful things that are worth exploring, understanding, and protecting, while for him, it was clearly just a job.

While navigating the switchbacks of the mountain roads one day, in our perpetual awe of the area, Carl and I talked about how wonderful it would be to have those views from one’s own house, and he mused about what a shame it would be to become jaded with such a place. That was the impression I got of our guide- maybe he was thinking about the upcoming weekend, or something going on at home, but he showed little interest in the beauty around him and was not receptive to our questions about the geology of the cave. He had a script, but knew little behind it.

Arwyn asked how old the cave was and he said that he didn’t know, and furthermore that there was no way to tell. She suggested that the formation growth could give us an idea, but he was quick to point out that different factors could affect growth. True, but can’t it be estimated?

“There’s just no way to know,” he responded, taking refuge in the safety of negation.

The Pipe Organ at Mystic Caverns

We were deprived of its history, so I’ve taken it upon myself to find another story of the Ozarks, one that is more ancient, dating back to the formation of the land itself. According to geological maps, the area is on the edge of the Springfield Plateau, made of rock deposited during the Mississipian Period somewhere around 320 million years ago, back when Arkansas was covered by a shallow sea. And while it is true that different factors affect formation growth, such as outside temperature and amount of rainfall, estimates can be made for annual growth ranging from .13 millimeters to up to 1 or even 2 millimeters. The main attraction of the cave is a gigantic formation called the Pipe Organ, reported varyingly at 28 to 36 feet tall. This definitely complicates the issue of estimation, the math allowing the wide window of four to eighty five thousand years.

Even if we go with the lower end of the estimate, that would mean that the Pipe Organ was already beginning to form, drop by slow drop, while the first human civilizations were amassing, the pyramids were being erected in faraway Egypt, and the Olmecs of Central America were building their massive basalt heads. On the other end of the time frame, the cave could be as old as the most basic hominid culture and rituals, dating back to the era when homo erectus still roamed the younger Earth and homo sapiens had not yet emerged.

Each drop leaves its fine layer of calcite, growing with the patience of immortality.

With a droplet, we have modern humans.

Another drop, and ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, flicker and flare and fade.

Another, and another, and modern saviors are born; they live and they die; and there are wars, always wars, but there is also life, and joy, and hope.

And at the end of it all, there is a column, and it holds the whole of human history.

On the Buffalo River Trail

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. 

Buffalo River in bloom

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. 

Campground Cave

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. 

Views of the BRT

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. 

Dusk gathers on the River

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. 

Sunset on the trail

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.  

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