Ouachita Mountains

Ouachita Mountains
Alexander Moliski

"Although I do love oceans, deserts, and other wild landscapes, it is only mountains that beckon me with the sort of painful magnetic pull to walk deeper and deeper into their beauty... " - Victoria Erickson

Intro

When it comes to weather and backpacking I have been extremely blessed. Out of all the days I have been on the trail, I remember only hitting bad weather three times, and each of those times, the weather quickly passed and returned to lovely hiking weather. The other times inclement weather struck, I was either finishing up a trail, or already in my dry and warm tent. I understand that my fellow enthusiasts have not experienced the same luck I have. On a last minute, whim of a trip to the mountains of Arkansas, I finally received my fair share of bad weather while hiking.

For Forty Days and Forty Nights

My usual off-the-radar city had been in the world's (well, at least the media's) spotlight for nearly two months. The day I returned from my trip in the glacial mountains of the Wind River Valley in Wyoming, was the day before a massive hurricane hit the gulf coast. Normally, I enjoy being out of touch on my trips, but this time it could have been dangerous. Driving into Houston I had absolutely no idea of what was coming. In addition to the news of the hurricane, I am relatively new to the gulf coast and had no experience when it came to hurricanes. I got an email from my office telling me we would be stopping all operations unit further notice due to an approaching hurricane. Confused, I asked one my of friends how serious it was, and the replied "probably not too bad, just keep an eye on the weather for the next few days". For whatever reason, I was entirely unconcerned - and took my office's warning as an extension to my two weeks I had just had off.

On a normal basis, I rarely stockpile more food than exactly what I need, and I was returning from a two week trip where two weeks prior, I had thrown nearly all of my food away. All I had to eat was the food I had left from the trip: some noodles and half a bag of trail mix. I was oblivious to the voracious nature of worried Houstonians, and when I went to my local grocery store I was greeting by completely empty shelves. Even so, uneasiness didn't find me.

For nearly five days, I couldn't see the sun. I was beginning to sympathize with Moses' friends that didn't have an arch. My area received record-breaking amounts of rain, the highest being a biblical fifty-two inches over a three days. I had just returned from two weeks of pure freedom and was now placed in nearly solitary confinement. The roads were inundated, the stores were closed, and the city shut down. Once the rains cleared, the damage was assessed - half a million cars were lost, a quarter of a million homes were destroyed, and thousands of people were displaced. My report: a horrible case of survivor's guilt, because I was completely and utterly spared. For the next week I spent my time volunteering where I could, jumping between shelters and food banks. The event was a sobering reminder of the importance of the phrase 'be prepared'.

I seriously considered my living arrangements, vowing to keep proximity of the coast at the forefront of analysis during my search for future homes - I have always been a mountain over beaches person anyway. All that being said, by month two of the disastrous event, I was ready to take another break from the city, and even more than the city, I wanted a break from the commotion. There was just too much happening. On a whim, I took a trip to the very-far-from-the-coast mountains of Arkansas, a state and area I had not previously explored.

Hosuton got back on its feet right away.

To Arkansas

Without checking anything, without any sort of preparations, I jumped in the car with an equally enthusiastic Dave, and we took off, away from the city. Arkansas was hilly, green, and forested. It reminded me slightly of home back in Pennsylvania, and nostalgic memories of the Loyalsock trail flooded my mind. Dave and I arrived at the national forest, like we always do, in the middle of the night. The Ouachita National Forest is located just south of the famous Ozark National Forest - the whole area can be described in one word, spooky. The "roads" were hardly maintained and the forest was dense and covered in fog - making it very hard to navigate. In fact, I had never had as much trouble finding a trailhead as I did that night.

We ran into various interesting characters while traversing up and down the dirt roads. Not being able to find the trailhead, Dave and I decided to pull off in what seemed like a forest parking lot to sleep until the morning. There was one other car park in the area. Not thinking too much about it, Dave and I got ready of the night by brushing our teeth in the glow of the car's headlights. Someone came out of the forest (mind you it was 3 or 4 in the morning) and approached us. I wasn't worried, he seemed like a normal guy. I introduced myself and asked if he knew where the trail head we were looking for was. He kindly pointed us in the right direction and waited for us to be on our way. After a moment I realized he was waiting for us to leave right then and there, I said, "well, we've been driving all night, I think we are going to just sleep in our car and find it in the morning". The man replied quickly with, "I'd rather you not". Without asking any questions, Dave and I left the area.

Careful for rattle snakes, a general rule of thumb is that you're too close if you can see your relfection in their eyes.

It took us all night to finally find the trailhead to our hike, Eagle Rock Loop. We napped for the remainder of the night in the car, the entire time it poured, which was quite soothing to hear the drops hit against the metal roof of the car. The scene remained scary, in an almost traditional, horror movie type of way. I have been afraid a few times on the trail; during the thunderstorm in Zion, watching my brother climb Capitol Peak, but this was different. This was a sinister scary, rather than a worrying anxiety. The rain, the mist and the remoteness created the perfect cocktail for an eerie setting.

Eagle Rock Loop

Morning sun has a way of transforming a scary foggy scene to a mystical, misty, fairy-tale glen. Light brought a new perspective and reinvigorate our dampened spirits. Within minutes of waking up, Dave and I strapped our bags on and headed on our way down a sparkling and dripping, forest trail.

A comfortable trail, tree covered and calm.

After exclusively exploring and hiking desert parks and trails, it was indescribably refreshing to tromp through the the green woods. Our trail, the Eagle Rock Loop, is a 30 mile long, back country hike. The fog was unnoticeable in the forest, but as soon as we gained elevation, the mists obscured the ostensibly beautiful views. Between chilly winds and light drizzles, the sun shone and the fog cleared for only 20 minutes the entire morning - just enough to get know the Arkansas hills.

The fog was so thick we didn't even notice we had reached the summit

I only managed to get a few pictures and soak up the sun for a few moments before unrelenting rain and wind forces us back below the treeline. It was in a makeshift shelter did Dave and I come to the decision to retrace our steps and re-hike the eight miles we had made it back to the car. I have never given up during a hike, but it was game 7 of the Astros against the Yankees, we had to see that.

Spirit Rock overview

Hot Springs National Park

We found that it was only a short drive to Hot Spring, Arkansas. A national park I had little interest in that shared a valley with an old town. Boy was I wrong, Hot Springs (the town) was a lovey and historical village that I immediately fell in love with. Old, stately, hotels lined the main road into town, what was once a thriving gambling Mecca was now a derelict town, but it managed to keep most of its charm. Breweries, pubs, and bars packed the valley corridor. Along the sidewalks bubbled boiling and steaming springs from beneath. The National Park shared the valley with the town, as a wilderness lover, this fact originally turned me away, but I soon came to enjoy the partnership between the natural and the man made.

A beautiful town, bustling and busy

Not know how great Hot Springs was going to be, we didn't schedule any time to explore the town or the park. Now I can't wait to go back and walk through the street and springs of the little Arkansas town.