When we walked back from dinner at the Queen Wilhelmena Lodge, the wind was howling and the temperature was about 40. The wind chill had to be 10 to 20 degrees below that. We dug our hands into our pockets and consoled ourselves by picking out Orion and the Big Dipper in the moonless night sky. The stars were gorgeous up on this 2681 foot high mountain peak in the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas. Ahead of us was our tent, swaying on its side and held down by just one stake and the gear that we left inside. The wind had pulled all but that one stake from the ground and we were lucky that our night’s shelter wasn’t rolling down the mountainside.
It is always good to get your misadventures out of the way on the first day of a vacation. We struggled to right the tent, restake it and rearrange the muddled cots, sleeping bags and clothing that were inside. I wasn’t prepared for winter camping but layered what clothing I had and shivered in my sleeping bag. Bill slept peacefully all night while I listened to the flapping of the nylon tent. I’m sure that I dozed some but finally carried the sleeping bag into the car and turned on the motor just long enough to warm myself.
I pride myself on NOT doing winter camping but I had agreed to put the tent up for this night when there were no rooms available in the lodge, knowing that I’d have a warm bed the next night.
Bill and I love active vacations – cross country skiing, hiking, bicycling, or kayaking. What all of these activities have in common is that they can be done at whatever pace you choose and they get us outdoors in semi-wild areas where we can view wildlife, enjoy the scenery and learn about the natural world around us. I have a sedentary job and moving in the outdoors always raises my mood. I don’t know if it is the sunshine, the endorphins from the exercise, or the natural beauty but I can’t think of a better way to enjoy a break from my everyday life. No photograph or documentary ever captures the smells of flowers, the feel of the breeze, the bird songs, and the 360 degree panoramas of being outdoors.
These kinds of trips also have the advantage of being inexpensive (well not that trip we took to Alaska), perfect for a semi-retired librarian and high school teacher. Even if I had a bigger bank account, I’d choose similar trips.
This year we’re feeling the pinch of the economy. To avoid air fares, I took out a map and looked for places within a day’s drive. For those of you on the coasts or living in the mountain states, this technique can produce a wide range of choices. For those of us in places like Kansas City, the choices are fewer – or at least, less conventional. It’s been a cold winter so I looked south. The license plates in Arkansas declare that it is “the natural state” and the long term forecast was for daytime temperatures in the 60s. Arkansas also has a great state park system, including lodges and cabins in some of the parks. Great! We headed south, straight down highway 71.
Day 1: The beginning of our drive was through the western edge of Missouri. At lunch time we stopped to see Harry Truman’s birthplace and got a nice tour through the tiny house. Our tour guide suggested a great sandwich place called the Eastsider for lunch.
We drove on into Arkansas and through the winding roads of the Boston Mountains. We stopped at the Ozark Folkways Heritage Center in Winslow Ark. to shop for handmade baskets, carved bowls,pottery, quilts, and other handicrafts. On to the Oauchita Mountains and Queen Wilhelmena State Park. See the description above for how our evening went.
Day 2: Because we awoke in a cold cloud – literally, we chose to head down the mountain towards the town of Mena and out of the cloud for our hike along the Ouachita Trail. The woods conisited of many shortleaf pines and we caught a glimpse of an enormous pileated woodpecker. We spent the night in the lodge- ah the wonders of central heating!
Day 3: No cloud this morning so we hiked the Lover’s Leap Trail to the Ouachita trail and made a loop around the side of the mountain. The sun came out for awhile and we began to see a few small flowers, as well as other hikers on the trail. After our hike we drove to Bryant, just west of Little Rock and spent the night there.
Day 4: We got started a little later than we had planned because we were both reading the same book, Little Bee by Chris Cleave and wanted to see how it turned out. I need to learn to allow myself this uninterrupted reading time when I’m not “on vacation”.
We drove into Little Rock and visited the Clinton Museum. I liked the architecture and the setting along the river. The history was too new for us since we had lived it so recently. Surprisingly, we enjoyed a special display of Madeline Albright’s pins. Apparently she used brooches to let heads of state know what kind of mood she was in. Beware the days that she wore snake pins!
We walked into downtown Little Rock, a smaller city than I expected. The downtown area takes advantage of the waterfront along the Arkansas River and most of the businesses and restaurants are local. There is a farmer’s market in the warmer months. We ate at a fun place, the Flying Fish a casual place with a fishing theme and great seafood. I enjoyed the catfish and what appears to be a regular southern side dish, pickled green tomatoes.
From here we drove to Petit Jean State Park and were able to get a wooded campsite with a flat tent area. We ate dinner at the CCC built lodge looking out over a mountain valley and sited to take in the sunset. The lodge rooms were closed for renovation but many families were spending spring break in the cabins. This is my favorite of the Arkansas State Parks that we’ve visited. It is the first park in the Arkansas State Park system. The waterfall on the Cedar River drops 95 feet. I’m hoping to visit again when the lodge is open.
Day 5: We had to choose among many interesting trails in Petit Jean State Park and decided to take a four and a half mile hike on the Seven Hollows Trail. Open glades, interesting rock formations, and some more wonderful vistas. This is getting almost boring. We had a great time crossing paths with two young men from Texas who were taking pictures along the trail. We went back to take down our tent about 2:30 and stopped to see the Cedar Falls from a handicap accessible overlook on our way out of the park.
We drove to Springfield (MO) up Arkansas Highway 7 – another scenic ride through the Boston Mountains and stopped at another fish place, the Catfish Wharf in Harrison, a funky restaurant that we had visited when camping along the Buffalo River on another trip.
Day 6: On to Columbia Mo to visit my in-laws. Bill went with his folks to the doctor and I visited a favorite yarn and fiber store there: True Blue Fiber Friends for a spindle and fiber to give to the neighbor who fed our cat while we were gone. And back to Kansas City. A great way to spend a week.
Not only was the choice of a relatively nearby destination a way to travel on a modest budget, but it opened our eyes to the sites and attractions of our own region and neighbors. I enjoyed listening to the southern drawls of the Arkansans, enjoyed the catfish dinners, and loved seeing the first signs of spring in this gorgeous state. What interesting places are within a day’s drive of your home?