Thursday, May 16, 2019

Eagle Rock Loop - Part 3

Despite our very recent misgivings about trusting Google … off we went, heeding her directions without following up on a real map. In fact, at this point we did not have a road map of the state of Arkansas because in planning our trip our atlas had been removed from the vehicle. And not returned.

Not that it would have helped.

By now it was truly dark, we were hungry, and we were getting tired. Had it seemed safe to do so, we might have just pulled off somewhere to make dinner and sleep. Alas, this part of the state is full of hills, woods, (deer, dogs), and tiny towns with nothing but a stop sign and a defunct gas station. Occasionally the odd pallet factory, steaming away in the darkness causing me to wonder if I were hallucinating (no, I was no longer driving at this point).

Eventually we were instructed to turn off on Goat Ranch Road.

Now doesn’t that sound promising?

It was questionable from the start. Other than a gate painted in similar faded purple and yellow hues to others we had seen hanging open in the Ouachita forest. It frequently intersected other narrow tracts through the forest with names that read like barcodes, carved vertically into the trunks of pines.

This is not an exaggeration. The road indicators were carved into the trees.

Like an apparition, a white car passed going in the opposite direction. People! I even imagined the cheeks of the woman in the passenger seat to be flushed with sun from completing a day on the trail. They may have been flushed. But it wasn’t from being on the trail.

The road, if you can call it that, narrowed tunnel-like as the grass grew ever taller and the tree branches reached ever closer to hold one another across the lane. Either we were going in the very wrong direction, or the very right direction! This was, after all, an adventure! I prefer to take the road less traveled and this was undoubtedly one of them!

As Tim grew increasingly skeptical and I hit a maniacal second wind and urged him to keep going … two orange and white reflective sawhorses arose in the darkness. I wish I had taken a picture, but I was done. Goat Ranch Road was washed out, and we were washed up.

I’m not sure what the white car had been up to, but it was probably no good.

We gave up. Called it a night. Decided Waffle House and a regular bed were in order. And a stop at the welcome center for some maps in the morning. Somehow we were headed toward a town called Glenwood which was nowhere near where we wanted to go. By the time we got our radiator pointed back towards Texarkana, we had 83 miles to go.

Doesn't Tim look excited to be eating Waffle House at 1am? It's like old times honey!

The next morning, since the Forest Service did not appear to have directions from Texarkana to where we wanted to go (I see them plain as day now?), we drove to Mena where they DID give directions from and followed them. Even with a state road map, none of the forest service roads we wanted were labeled; if anything they appeared as questionable grey lines. Countless others were not included on any map we had access to.

The vague gray lines and haphazard labels flanked by 8 to the north, 375 to the west, 369 to the east, and 246/84 to the south are where we wanted to be ... 
Even the verbal directions from the Forest Service were questionable. As it turns out, they are the Forest Service and not the Camper/ATVer/recreationer service. They are not the human protection service. They are not the weather warning or trail condition service. They are mostly there to preserve the wildness of the forest, and prevent and respond to forest fires. Their roads are sometimes marked, often not. Their directions are vague and may or may not include all the information or even entirely correct information. And their station is about an hour away from the trail. I'm not sure how often they visit Eagle Rock Loop ... so ...

Nothing boosts your confidence in where you are going like a SIGN, with an arrow even!!!
You’ll get there when you get there. And eventually we did. We did NOT hike the Eagle Rock Loop - this time. But we did part of the hardest portion, and you better believe we will be back. We did do part of the Little Missouri/Athens-Big Fork portion of the trail. We did camp. We did do water crossings. We did need those trekking poles we had borrowed. We even managed to squeeze the Little Missouri Falls in on our way out, and backtracked to find out where we went wrong. It was beautiful, and we will be back.

We had two options at the trailhead ... take the "easier way" towards Little Missouri Falls ... but you can probably guess by now what we did. We headed straight up the first mountain on the Athens-Big Fork trail ...

Spirit Rock Vista - pictures never do places like this justice

This actually used to be the mail route, if you can believe it
I love you Texas ... but you don't get this in Texas ...
Perhaps the most perfect campsite we've ever setup ...
We didn't hike to the falls this time, but we still managed to get there on the way out
Tim, let’s never stop having adventures. We weren’t lost, we were just wandering.

(Though if anyone knows if NF-512 is actually able to be traversed by a Suburban to just west of the Little Missouri trailhead on FS-25 … I am curious to know … )

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Eagle Rock Loop - Part 2

The last large town we expected to see on our way to the Ouachita National Forest was Texarkana, so we stopped to fill up on gas, some snacks, and we considered having dinner. We ended up deciding against dinner since we had eaten a late lunch only a couple of hours before.

This would turn out to be a mistake.

It is expected in forested, mountainous areas to lose your cell signal. We thought we were prepared for that though. If nothing else, the Suburban has GPS. Kinda. Turns out you can only input degrees and minutes … and those seconds are kind important … but I digress …

We knew we needed to get to Langley and enter the forest just north of there. It turned out to be a pretty drive approaching the mountains. Our excitement mounted with each glimpse of deep green crests in the distance as we rounded switchbacks in the road.

A sign welcomed us to the Ouachita National Forest, and the Albert Pike “Campground.” I’m actually rather surprised it is still referred to as a campground, as parking is not allowed and overnight camping is forbidden. In June of 2010 a flash flood caught vacationers unawares in the middle of the night and 20 people were killed. The campground has been shuttered ever since.



It was eerie, passing through with everything basically left just as it was before the flood. Bathrooms boarded up with weeds and young trees overtaking the concrete. Forbidding rocks enforcing the slashed camping and parking signs. Information signs standing silent, their posters long since faded, degraded, unupdated.





We had been watching the weather for over a week. Part of the trail follows the Little Missouri, and the entire loop includes 28 water crossings. Only one of them is a bridge. There is a USGS water level gauge you can text which we needed to remain at 4.5 or below in order for the deepest crossing to be passable.

Flooding had already been on my mind. The abandoned Albert Pike Campground sent chills down my spine and made it very real.

Due to our backtracking at the start, we were later than we intended and decided we would camp in the car for the night. But we had to get to the trailhead first. The pavement abruptly ended, and we came to a Y in the road.

To the right, the gravel road continued. To the left, a well maintained low water crossing boasted a sign indicating you should not stand on or fish from the bridge. Both roads were unlabeled. Google maps confidently directed us to turn left. The low water crossing sealed the deal. This MUST be the way. It looks more challenging.

As it turns out - This is NF-512
And this gravel road to the right is actually FS-73 ... which we came down a few days later ...
At first I was looking at the water level under the low water crossings, judging if it looked like I could do it on foot. Things were looking a little intimidating but definitely doable. The gravel road pressed on, but was narrowing with each crossing.

Typical of the many low water bridges we crossed ...
Now the water was over the low water crossing. The first one I traversed without hesitation. The Suburban weighs 6000 pounds! It’s a low water crossing, it’s meant to be like this. But finally we came to one and that caused me to ask Tim … is this "turn around, don't drown" deep? Or do we keep going?

There was a turnaround area - I’m still not sure what it was … a makeshift campground of sorts? Tim hopped out of the car and waded partway into the water. Still passable. So we pressed on.

Nightfall comes on quick in the mountains. There is no slow race to the horizon … the light doesn’t become long and lean, stretching shadows as if lingering ... reluctant to give this day up to the moon for the night. The horizon rises up to meet the sun, and the trees collude in obscuring it’s rays as it is swallowed by the earth earlier than conveyed by its hues.

The forest was growing more forbidding. Real or imagined, it was pressing in closer to the car with each moment that passed. The water crossings were each deeper than the one before. Always cheerful and sure, Google insisted we were getting close. Suddenly this no longer felt like the right way to go.

At the last low water crossing the water was over the small “bricks” that formed the edge on the downstream side. The next one might be too deep even for our heavy vehicle. The road was too narrow to turn around, and it was becoming too dark to safely back over the crossings we had already passed. The upstream sides dropped off sharply into deep water with culverts sucking whirlpools through to the other side. Backing over the side would mean getting stuck at best.

Tim took over the driving and got us turned around. We went back out the way we came, hungry and frustrated. We debated … do we drive all the way to Mena and use the verbal directions from the Forest Service? Do we try a different trailhead? Do we go back to Texarkana for the night (the last place we knew without a doubt had hotels and 24 hour restaurants)?

I tried putting GPS coordinates for the trailhead we wanted into the Suburban’s GPS only to find someone thought it’d be a good idea let you use latitude and longitude … kinda. There was no space for seconds. Which meant our location was “about” where we were looking for. Northwest of Hot Springs. At least it was in the right state … but the Little Missouri-Athens Big Fork trailhead is NOT Northwest of Hot Springs.

We opted to trust Google one last time to take us to a different trailhead. We wouldn’t be starting where we had planned to, but that would be ok. Right?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Eagle Rock Loop - Part 1

Earlier this month, Tim and I celebrated 8 years of marriage (and 10 years since we met and went on our first date). That seems impossible.

It also seems impossible that we used to go hiking about once a month. From the beginning! Within weeks of meeting, we went on our first hike in Lost Pines. I didn’t even know I was a hiker until then … I had hiking and backpacking confused. I was nervous that we’d be doing something strenuous involving ropes and helmets. I was thrilled to find that walking in the woods, sometimes uphill, was considered hiking and that we shared a love for it.

Pre-2011 fire at Lost Pines
On one particular hike early in our relationship, we came to a Y in the trail. I had hiked this trail by myself many times, but unbeknownst to Tim what he chose next was going to indicate a lot to me about who he was as a person on some deep level. To the left, the trail meandered flatly along the dry creek bed. Although a beautiful hike in its own way, what I wanted to know was if Tim would choose the “hard way.”

"The Easy Trail"

To the right, the trail climbed steeply. It was clearly the more challenging route, and it was the one Tim picked, much to my heart’s satisfaction. When we caught our breath from that climb was when I felt it was time to start asking some difficult, uncomfortable questions that had been on my mind.

"The Hard Trail"
Through the last decade, it has remained true that Tim enjoys being challenged. So when he slipped me a list of questions about what to do for our anniversary I didn’t hesitate to circle “backpacking.” He found one of the most challenging loop trails in a reasonable distance of us and off we went to Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita Mountains.

As it turned out, just getting there was going to end up being a challenge. As soon as we dropped the kids off next door with Grandma and Grandpa, the hiccups started. Originally we planned to be off by 9, and onto the trail a little ways with camp set by dark.

The hands of the clock were creeping closer to 10 than 9 by the time we left, but we were still ok. We were enjoying chatting and being able to hold an adult conversation without interruption until …

We realized the trekking poles Tim had borrowed were back in the trunk of his car. An hour from home. As I whipped the Suburban into a side road to turn around, the air in the car changed. I was frustrated and embarrassed. The next hour of our trip was rather quiet, but I simmered down and forgave him and eventually we were actually really on our way.

There have been trips we were better prepared for, but we had Google maps, a hiking app, and a detailed paper map of the trail. What could go wrong?

Plenty.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Even the winds ...

I grew up in the church. Not having seen Jesus' miracles in person, I tend to take them for granted. Sadly perhaps they get lumped in with Aesop's fables ... wise stories you were told that certainly can be applied to your life ... but you don't FEEL them. Perhaps even the marvel of their truth has been lost.

This week, Tim and I are anticipating a (now) rare backpacking trip. But the area we are going to has been prone to flooding. Even deadly flooding that in 2010 caught campers unaware.

Needless to say, we've been watching the weather. And praying. Even as a type this, the gauge which is considered impassible at anything above 4.5 feet is at 7.5 feet and flowing at a rate of about 1.5 million gallons per minute (if my calculations are correct). Moving water is not a force to be trifled with.



Jesus calmed a storm. It's so easy to picture sitting in that tiny chair in that tiny classroom with my tiny mind, looking at the tiny felt disciples on a flat blue felt background.

Several of the disciples were fishermen. They KNEW weather. They were men of the sea. The wind and the waves ruled their livelihoods until they met the man who ruled the wind and the waves.

When they woke Jesus on the boat, it was threatening to capsize. They weren't just nervous about some ominous clouds in the distance. They were perishing. Dying. "Lord don't you care?" They were sure they would drown, and this Jesus man with them.

"Hush, be still." And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. (Mark 4:39b)

Perfectly calm.



Water is a powerful force. It gives us life; we're made up mostly of water and die within about three days without it. Yet mere inches of running water can push a vehicle off a road. It carved the Grand Canyon with its persistent cutting flow.

I don't think in 40 years of living I have fully appreciated what Jesus did on that boat until begging Him to do the same for me. Not because I'm dying, just because we have a narrow window of opportunity and if that powerful force isn't hushed we will miss our chance.

But looking at that gauge ... my small mind begins to grasp just what He did on that boat, and why the disciples looked at one another and became more afraid of Him than the water they had moments before been sure would devour them. The Creator telling His creation ... hush. Hush to millions of gallons of water moving with enough force to snap a ship at the mast and bury it in a soggy grave.

None of the Gospel accounts say "the sea settled enough that they made it safely to the other side and lived another day." Whew. I know that feeling as well. And it is miraculous. But no.

Perfectly calm. So calm it scared them and made them realize this was no ordinary man.

"Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?" (Luke 8: 25b)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Daredevil Homeschool

Days like today are why we homeschool. Not the only reason … but you know how when you determine that you are going to do something, you have expectations? A picture in your mind of what it will look like?

I have a master’s degree in elementary education. The vision of an ideal learning situation was burned into my brain. When I started teaching, nothing could have been further from that vision. It was disappointing and frustrating.

So we started our homeschool journey with our eyes wide open. I knew it would require a patient persistence, discipline, celebration, and periods of rest. But I often I beat myself up for falling short of this beautiful perfection constructed in my mind: themed units with broad spiderwebs of connections between subjects. Topical and engaging, the kids excited an enthralled and soaking up the information as organized and categorized little sponges. Easily accessible in their minds so they’d never, never forget a precious drop.

Homeschooling has been so much more agile that I dreamed. I don’t plan themes, I follow a curriculum. I think I’d have been placed in an institution by now if I tried educate from exciting thematic units as a rule. That or my family would have starved and we’d have had to hire a live in maid and nanny by now. I realize that some educators have achieved this, and my hat is off to them - it is a labor of love and likely the result of years of sacrifice, triumphs, and failures. And frankly, I actually feel that if it was exciting all the time, I wouldn’t be best preparing them to leave the nest (college organic chemistry, anyone?).

But today … today was a diamond of a day. Sparkling with multifaceted clarity! Not mined but unearthed from the mud of the mundane. Organic. Natural. The most beautiful day of homeschool among countless sparkling gems on our calendar.

OF COURSE it started with science. I heart science with an anatomical heart in sinus rhythm. We introduced forces and simple machines. Wheels, ramps, levers. I used their own toys to demonstrate, let them try for themselves, and might even be disappointed if I don’t catch them experimenting on their own when they think I’m not watching.

Now, part of our homeschool day involves focus exercises. Not intentionally. But when you have an 18 month old boy running roughshod through your school day … it takes effort to avoid distraction.



I’ve taken to calling RJ Evel Knievel. I thought the girls were climbers, but he climbs higher, faster, and at a younger age … seemingly without fear. He laughs in the face of danger. Our little adrenaline junkie; I shouldn’t be surprised but I am. Today I chided him as a removed him from a table, and Victoria jutted out her chin and came to his defense, “Don’t call my brother evil!”

As I explained that I was calling him Evel, not evil … it dawned on me. Wheels! Ramps! Thank you, internet … as the children watched science reemerged.
It gets better.

Evel Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River in Idaho. The same river we crossed on our road trip this summer. Not far from where we crossed it.



Then we watched footage of the actual jump, with Evel Knievel himself describing his experience. That it was a miracle he landed on the rocks instead of the water, seeing as how he was bound into the heavy machine. Seeing a person who tried and tried and tried again and didn’t wait until everything was perfect.


And that word. Miracle. Inspired Shelby to ask if he believed in Jesus. I vaguely remembered that perhaps he had later in life. And they got to hear his testimony, in his own voice.


And just like that, something better than I ever could have planned unfurled around us.

I just hope I didn’t manage to turn them all into professional daredevils.