It’s pristine, easy to access, and historically important. It’s also remote and seems to be relatively unknown, and the fact that few people know about it is probably a good thing. The grounds of Sacred Heart Abbey, near Konawa, Oklahoma are a place of peace and calm and mystery. It’s a quiet place to walk, to explore, to meditate or pray, to ponder the work that went on here so many years ago, or to ponder nothing at all.
I visited there recently for the third time, on a photo expedition with my son Mark, something that is becoming a Mother’s Day tradition for us. The photos here are from that visit. We noted with amusement that the sign at the front gate says, “No Trespassing After Dark.” We assume it’s okay to trespass before dark.
There were two people leaving as we entered. Other than that, no one was around and we were free to wander over the several-acre site and take photos with our vintage Nikkormat film cameras loaded with Kodak Tri-X film.
From the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture: A Roman Catholic institution founded May 13, 1877, by Father Isidore Robot, O.S.B., Sacred Heart Mission (later Sacred Heart Abbey) and its successor institution, St. Gregory’s Abbey and University, constitute Oklahoma’s oldest educational center in continuous operation. Robot, a Benedictine monk, had arrived in the Indian Territory in October 1875 with a lay brother companion. The two had left their home monastery in France when the Laic Laws threatened to close many Catholic institutions. Other members of the French community soon joined Robot, and the Potawatomi Nation offered a section of land four miles north of the Canadian River in the southeast corner of what is now Pottawatomie County. By 1880 Robot had built a monastery, schools for Indian boys and girls, a technical institute, and a seminary. In 1892 he constructed a large church. Four years later Sacred Heart was raised to abbatial rank, and the monks elected their first abbot. Fire destroyed the large complex of frame buildings during the night of January 14–15, 1901. The facilities were quickly rebuilt, but by that time the monks had realized that the nearest railroad would not be close enough to make a secondary school viable on the site. They therefore established St. Gregory’s College at Shawnee, thirty-five miles north. The new school opened in September 1915. As other monastic operations thereafter gravitated to Shawnee, Sacred Heart reverted to priory status, with the seat of the abbey transferred to St. Gregory’s in 1929. Sacred Heart Priory closed in 1955 and most of its buildings were razed.
– James D. White, “Sacred Heart Abbey,” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, http://www.okhistory.org (accessed June 01, 2016).
Western Oklahoma. For some, the words conjure up in the mind’s eye a straight ribbon of four-lane through flat, featureless land. But they are the ones who have never been close to it. For them, and maybe for you, it’s like “fly-over” country for coastal inhabitants . . . they are passing through on the way to somewhere else.
I know, because that was me. A native of northeastern Oklahoma, I found the western landscape a stark and barren contrast to the hardwood forests and verdant hills of my youth. It never occurred to me that a different kind of beauty waited there. I too had rushed through on the interstate, always headed to other places, just waiting for the miles to go by. But then there was FreeWheel.
FreeWheel is a yearly bicycle ride across Oklahoma. The first year I rode, it started in Duncan, Oklahoma and ended in Anthony, Kansas, taking us through the western high plains. During that week of riding and camping, I got “up close and personal” with the land on two Susan-powered wheels, averaging 17 miles per hour for four or five hours every day. Aside from walking, there is no better way to get to know a place.
And what I learned is, first of all, it is not flat. The elevation change from Duncan to Cheyenne is 1,200 feet and on a bicycle you feel it. And neither is it featureless . . . maybe you’ve heard of Red Rock Canyon, the Gloss Mountains, the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge. These are things you don’t see from the interstate. You might glimpse them from a state highway, but to really know them you have to take the back roads. There you smell the wheat, feel the breeze, cross the creeks on one-lane bridges and welcome the surprise of daffodils or wild roses blooming around old homesteads.
And Oklahoma has plenty of back roads . . . 84,984* miles of county roads, to be exact. According to Susan Allison, Public Information Officer for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, about 59,000* miles of those are unpaved, which means they may be “unimproved,” graded, or gravel. To put this in perspective, the earth’s circumference at the equator is 25,000 miles. Think about it . . .you can (figuratively) go around the world twice on unpaved roads and never leave Oklahoma!
So it was natural that when Bill and I decided to take a motorcycle trip to visit Chris and Claire Johnson at their Wichita Mountain ranch, we would think of making it a “back roads” journey. Admittedly, this decision was partially driven by our choice of motorcycles for the weekend.
We were on the horns of a dilemma. Bill had recently “jacked up” the BMW F650GS (actually returning it to its original height) so he could use it for training. Too tall!
I could ride the Triumph Bonneville, but the British bike didn’t feel like my cup of tea for this ride. A bit too stiff.
And there’s the Yamaha XT 225. A great all-around bike. But isn’t it too small to ride that far?
Then I thought of Lois Pryce, whose book, Lois on the Loose, I had recently read. She rode an XT 225 from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. It dawned on me that riding my XT225 from Norman to Lawton would be sissy stuff by comparison. So, like Goldilocks, I decided the XT would be “just right.”
“Are you sure?” asked Bill.
“Yep,” I said. “It will be fine, if we take the back roads.”
“You don’t want to ride the BMW?”
“No, you ride the BMW. I’ll have fun riding the XT.” And I meant it.
In preparation, we located our Oklahoma atlas and gazetteer, The Roads of Oklahoma, and extracted the pages for Grady County, Caddo County, and Comanche County. The maps in this book show all 84,984 miles of those back roads, indicating whether they are paved or unpaved. This is a great resource for planning but, as it turned out, not my preference for way-finding. We ended up using my GPS to occasionally get our bearings and otherwise simply zigzagged south and west from Norman until we got close to where we hoped to be.
We chose the hottest week of the year to go. Not from masochism or bravado, that’s just the way the timing worked out. This first weekend in August promised temperatures over 105, but the heat wasn’t yet oppressive as we departed, so we carried our “cool vests” rather than donning them.
Heading south, we made short work of the one mile of I-35 across the South Canadian River, the only interstate driving we did the entire weekend. The XT was glad to be done with it. Highway 9 took us west to Blanchard and from there we plunged into the back roads. Riding dual sport motorcycles gives us peace of mind about tackling any of Oklahoma’s county roads. Nice to have the freedom to keep going when the asphalt turns to deep gravel.
Thirty-five miles of zigging and zagging delivered us to Alex, where we stopped for a drink from our water bottles. There the main street runs through a shuttered-up downtown. In front of the community center stands a marker paying tribute to the man for whom the town was named. W.V. Alexander was a Civil War veteran who, through his marriage to a Chickasaw woman, controlled a large tract of Indian Territory’s Washita Valley, including this townsite. We stayed long enough to snap a photo of the marker and wave at the driver of a semi-truck, the only other vehicle passing through. Then we set out for the next set of zigs. Admittedly, there weren’t many curves. But lots of zags.
Serendipity is the pleasant result of keeping your options open, and it led us next to Marlow. We didn’t intend to ride so far south, but this course held our interest, and on we went. As we rolled into town we were ready for a break, so we stopped to cool off and have a drink of water in the shade of Redbud Park, then shared a delightful lunch at Giuseppe’s Ristorante, (see Bill’s article in the September 2008 issue of Ride Oklahoma).
Frequent stops and diligent hydration kept us going in the triple-digit temperatures. From Marlow, we made our way around the north side of Fort Sill. Grass grows through the asphalt of barely-paved one-lane roads on this northwesterly track. We kept our speeds under 50 most of the time, making both me and the Yamaha happy. Soon we fiybd ourselves in Elgin, from whence we veered west to Meers, then through the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge to the home of our friends.
After a good visit, a tasty meal from Claire’s abundant garden, and a good night’s rest, we started the journey home. It was already mid-afternoon and we didn’t hesitate to wear our cool vests, knowing we would need them. Bill gave them a good soaking and we departed. In spite of our mutual agreement not to seek out dirt roads on this hot, dusty afternoon, we succeeded in doing exactly the opposite, spending most of the trip on dirt and gravel, having . . . and creating . . . a blast. The phrase, “Eat my dust” comes to mind as clouds of the white stuff erupted from our wheels.
Traveling north and east to Apache, we were greeted by quiet streets in contrast to the lively atmosphere in 2004 when we rolled in under our own power during FreeWheel . Then the mood was festive, with more than 1,000 cyclists nearly doubling the town’s population. Apache was one of our favorite stops on that traveling bicycle camp for grown-ups. Townspeople went all out to welcome our caravan with food, music, camping and showers set up at the local fairgrounds. But this time, it was an ordinary Sunday afternoon and a very hot one at that. Most folks were wisely staying indoors under the A/C. We soaked our vests, got gas and Gatorade at a convenience store, and parked on a bench to rehydrate and watch the locals.
We had started back fairly late in the day and it was getting on toward evening as we arrived in Verden on the heels of an intriguing ride up a freshly oiled hard-pack dirt road to a red butte, where we were greeted with a locked gate. No problem . . . turnarounds are easy on my little bike. In town, one more stop for a cold drink and another soaking for the vests. “How far is it to Chickasha?” I asked the store clerk. My GPS battery gave out so we’re guessing.
“Oh, 10 or 15 miles,” she responded congenially. We were getting close.
We continued northeast and crossed over I-44, zigging our way back to Blanchard. We knew the way home now, without map or GPS, and soon we pulled into our driveway covered with dust and grit, thoroughly satisfied. The weekend was rich with exploration, discovery and companionship. Western Oklahoma is better known and better loved, and the XT was indeed big enough for our state’s plentiful back roads. And there’s a bonus . . . with about 250 miles under our belts from the weekend, we are 1% of the way towards circumnavigating the globe . . . right in our own back yard.
The Roads of Oklahoma is published by Shearer Publishing. DeLorme publishes an Atlas and Gazetteer for every state, which is also a good resource. Both are available at Borders and other book stores.
Special thanks to Susan Allison at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation for her time and energy conducting research about my question, “How many miles of county roads are there in Oklahoma?”
*Department of Transportation statistics as of 2008
Concertina wire draws my gaze away from the lenticular clouds shifting from flying saucers into mother ships in the western Oklahoma sky. We’ve been driving northwest from Woodward on Highway 270 looking for Fort Supply, and we should be there by now. The fence topped with razor wire clearly indicates we are approaching a prison, but where is the fort? Finally we distinguish the sign for the Fort Supply Historic Site, almost lost amid the prison barrier and institutional buildings. We are greeted by armed guards when we turn in, and muddle through an explanation about being with the Oklahoma Historical Society’s annual conference and wanting to visit the historical site. They don’t seem to be expecting anyone, although a large bus full of conference-goers will soon follow. The four of us — me, my husband Bill, and my parents Jane and Jack Morgan — have come separately by private car.
Winding through a maze of buildings of uncertain purpose we find the parking lot for the historic site and there we do indeed seem to be expected. Two friendlier-looking men greet us as we get out of the car. Site manager Shayne House and Mead Ferguson, president of Friends of Historic Fort Supply’s board of directors, are a contrasting pair. Mead is slight, white-haired and gregarious and Shayne a dark-haired, bearded young man originally from Hawaii, but both are full of knowledge and enthusiasm about the place we are here to see. A young woman is sweeping out the entrance to the guard house as we approach. They may not get many visitors.
Originally named Camp Supply, the military installation 13 miles northwest of Woodward, Oklahoma was established in late 1868 as the supply base for Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s winter campaign against the American Indian tribes of the southern Great Plains. From here Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. Army Seventh Cavalry marched south and destroyed the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle at the Battle of the Washita on November 27, 1868. For the next 25 years the site served as a base for soldiers patrolling the region in an effort to contain the tribes and keep out trespassers. Fort Supply was closed in 1894 and its grounds have since been used for the state’s first mental hospital and a minimum security correctional facility, whose ominous fence it was that caught our attention.
They’re expecting the bus to arrive at any time, and House and Ferguson seem to feel a bit constrained, needing to be here to greet it but also wanting to show us around. Not getting too far afield, our small group wanders through the 1892 brick guard house, the only brick building erected here by the army. It is clean, pleasant, and feels spacious in spite of the barred windows on the room reserved for military prisoners and the two dark closets for solitary confinement. A few artifacts are displayed in an adjacent room and we notice a bathroom with surprisingly modern toilets and a large tub.
I want to get outside and shoot photos of other buildings, so I start to wander off. Ferguson goes along with us to the 1882-era teamster’s cabin, the oldest building on the site. It is a rare example of a common frontier construction method, with walls built of vertical cedar logs.
Then it’s off to the stockade, with House in tow. The stockade is a replica but we are told it provides a good idea of what the original might have looked like, and its blacksmith shop appeals to Bill and Jack, where they get an educated mini-lecture from House on the artifacts there, including an anvil and forge.
Next Ferguson leads us over to the 1879 commanding officer’s quarters, a large wood frame house with a long veranda facing the former parade grounds, now the prison yard where inmates stroll on a path that circles the yard. The house is surprisingly well preserved for a wood structure of that era and is in the process of being repainted. Ferguson says Sherwin-Williams had a hard time coming up with the proper green for the paint needed to restore the house to its original color. Not surprising. Bill notices the float.glass in the windows, a sign that the windows are old, if not original.
We head for the car, ready to get back and prepare for an evening event, and just then the bus arrives.The large group had toured a wind farm before coming here and will probably have to settle for a shorter version of the private tour we just enjoyed. Good timing on our part.
Fort Supply was officially closed in September 1894 and was turned over to the Department of the Interior on February 26, 1895. In May 1908 the first patients arrived at the Western Oklahoma Hospital, which used the old post’s buildings and grounds as the state of Oklahoma’s first mental health facility. The Oklahoma Historical Society currently administers five structures and a replica stockade as the Fort Supply Historic Site. The grounds of the old post are also occupied by Western State Psychiatric Center and William S. Key Correctional Center. The Fort Supply Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 (NR 71000675).
The dogwoods are in bloom; the redbuds are still flowering; and wildflowers are beginning to dot the landscape in violets and yellows as things green up in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas.
Bill and I spent the last couple of days with my parents, Jane and Jack Morgan, at their home on Beaver Lake near Garfield, then traveling to and around the Jasper area, near the Buffalo National River. Our primary goal for this trip was to hike to the Glory Hole Falls, and we decided to add a couple of other hikes while we were out.
Our first stop was Alum Cove Natural Bridge, a 130-foot long, 20-foot wide natural stone arch bridge (as the name says). There is a short trail from a picnic area to the top of the bridge and it’s an easy scramble down below for a better vantage point. It was getting late in the day when we visited so we didn’t explore more of the area, but the trail has other interesting features which sound worthwhile.
To reach this spot from Jasper, go south about 14.5 miles to Highway 16. Turn right on Highway 16, go about 1.1 miles to Country Road 28. Turn right and go approximately three miles to the turn-off, on your right.
For more information, go to: http://www.exploretheozarksonline.com/activities/parksnature/nationalforests/ozark/bigpiney/alumcove.html
We spent the night at the Cliff House Inn, which is south of Jasper on Highway 7 and has a spectacular view of “Arkansas’ Grand Canyon” of the Buffalo National River. http://www.cliffhouseinnar.com After checking in at the Cliff House, we drove in to Jasper for dinner and found some decent grub at the Blue Mountain Cafe and Bakery. We also picked up some peanut butter cookies and blueberry muffins for later.
Next morning it was French toast and bacon at the Cliff House Restaurant, pretty good food and they had the presence of mind to bring out the maple syrup warm. That sounds basic but it’s amazing how many restaurants miss that important detail.
After breakfast we set out for the Glory Hole. We’ve been talking about doing this short hike (~2 miles round trip) for several years. It’s a remarkable sight, where Dismal Creek has eroded a circular hole in the bluff where the water pours through. The surrounding glade is lovely as well. A fellow hiker had the nerve to stand under the chilly water coming through the Glory Hole and amused us all. None of us offered to join him! The Glory Hole trail is off Highway 16, 2.2 miles west of Edwards Junction (the intersection of highways 21 and 16).
Our last hike of the trip was to Kings River Falls. This is an easy hike (~ 2 miles round trip) over level ground to a fairly significant waterfall. It is notable that it is the waterfall on the cover of Tim Ernst’s “Arkansas Hiking Trails” book (which served as our guide for all of this). We enjoyed this lovely finale to our hiking excursion; the weather was pleasant and we saw yellow violets and mayapples, and Bill got a nap. We also saw evidence of the long-ago existence of a grist mill at the site of the falls — carvings in the stone where mill foundations would have been secured.
To get to Kings River Falls from the community of Boston on Highway 16 (between Fallsville and St. Paul), go north on County Road 3175 (dirt) for 2.1 miles; bear right as the road forks onto County Road 3415. Stay on this road for 2.3 miles until you come to a “T” intersection with County Road 3500. Turn left, and go across the creek and park at the natural area sign.
We had three perfect days in Baja California with Tiberio and Suzanna Esparza a few weeks ago. Four-wheeling in “side by sides” through the mountains and deserts of Baja, including a trip through the Parque Nacional Constitution de 1857, we had a rough and tumble time and ended our first day at the famous Mike’s Sky Rancho, an icon of off-road racing. We had the place to ourselves but enjoyed all the physical reminders — stickers plastered everywhere and t-shirts hanging from the ceiling — of the Baja racers for whom this place has been a haven for many years. The second day, Tiberio’s vehicle broke down in La Independencia and the four of us piled into our (actually also Tiberio’s) Razor and rode back to La Rumorosa, where Tiberio had left his truck and trailer. Since the rear passenger seats had been removed from the Razor to provide cargo space, Suzanna and I sat in the back on our duffel bags, resting against our backpacks. Our plan was to take the trailer back to La Independencia and fetch Tiberio’s broken Arctic Cat and get back to the Esparzas’ home in Holtville, California late that night. But as we drove through the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine country, the enchanting Encuentro Guadalupe presented itself just after sunset and lured us in. We ended up staying in their luxurious Eco-Pods that night and enjoyed their amazing food and wine for dinner and breakfast. The next day we reluctantly left the wine country and returned to La Independencia to load up the side by side. We returned to the United States through Mexicali and were entertained during our long wait at the border by vendors of food, drink and souvenirs, and even some young men climbing over the border fence. Not that they intended for anyone to see them.
Tiberio and Suzanna were amazing hosts and have a wonderful talent for turning lemons into lemonade. Thank you, Tiberio and Suzanna, you bring joy and light to the world!
Day One Gallery
Bill is already having a good time piloting the Razor
Bill, Tiberio and Suzanna at our first pit stop
Early morning reflections at Laguna Hanson
“Adventure in the Trees”
We drove in the echelon position at times to stay out of Tiberio’s dust
We stopped here for a break in the Parque Nacional Constitution 1857. The female proprietor of this shop cooked us some wonderful burritos, with homemade tortillas
This cat’s unusual eyes caught our attention
Old Tecate advertising sign
Several types of succulent plants growing in the desert
Bill and Suzanna visit on a break
The cat again, showing off
Day One Gallery (continued)
Tiberio and Suzanna lead the way through a herd of sheep on a dusty road outside of La Rumorosa. That’s Suzanna’s signature pink Yeti cooler.
A great view of Tiberio’s Arctic Cat looking east toward the Sea of Cortez
Our vehicles on a desert wash
A challenging road in the mountains
Mike’s Sky Rancho and Beyond
Windows at Mike’s Sky Rancho are covered with stickers left by off-road enthusiasts
Our vehicles parked at the front of Mike’s Sky Rancho. We were the only guests.
The dining room at Mike’s Sky Rancho
Mature poplars frame the moon at Mike’s Sky Rancho
The pool area at Mike’s Sky Rancho
Breakfast at Mike’s Sky Rancho
Bill chatting with one of a group of riders on vintage BMWs. We encountered the at a gas station north of Mike’s Sky Rancho.
Bill and Tiberio add oil to the Arctic Cat in hopes of getting it started.
Our vehicles parked at the store where we got ice cream at La Independencia
“Detour,” La Independencia
Pablo Esparza, Tiberio’s father, at his home in La Rumorosa
Encuentro Guadalupe Gallery
Eco-Pods at Encuentro Guadalupe
Suzanna enjoying coffee
Suzanna’s view of the Valle de Guadalupe
Bill, Suzanna and Tiberio at breakfast
The lodge at Encuentro Guadalupe
Suzanna and Tiberio chat with the property manager, Oscar
Suzanna steers while Tiberio, Bill and some local men push the Arctic Cat back to the trailer
Reuben, the proprietor of a shop near the Sea of Cortez
Over the past few months, Bill and I have been busy working on a big project for Oklahoma Today magazine on camping in Oklahoma. It has motivated us to get out and explore some of our old favorite spots and discover some places that will become new favorites. The details of that adventure will have to wait on publication in the May/June issue. Now we are on to other projects, among them exploring some of Oklahoma’s historic wagon roads.
On a trip to western Oklahoma this week for the camping project, we attempted to trace some of the California Road across Oklahoma. This wagon trail became an important thoroughfare when news of the discovery of gold in California in 1849 greatly increased the number of westward travelers on northern routes (can it be they had traffic jams?) and a southern trail was sought in order to offload some of the volume.
Congress ordered identification of a suitable route south of the Canadian River from Fort Smith to Santa Fe and then on to California. This task was given to Captain Randolph B. Marcy, who left Fort Smith with his command on April 5, 1849 to establish such a road and to escort a large party of California gold seekers on the way west. For most of its length across Oklahoma, the road followed the south bank of the Canadian River. Records indicate that thousands of emigrants used the route and after the Civil War it was a main traveled road west in Indian Territory for many years.
What remains of the road, if anything? We used a map from a 1960 Oklahoma Historical Society publication, “Rock Mary and The California Road,” to guide our attempts to trace its path out west, and stumbled upon two historical markers. Later, after a stop at the Packsaddle Bar for lunch (They really should call it a saloon to describe the way it feels; it’s the only place to eat for miles and worth eating there even if it weren’t) we noticed that the highway map we were using actually indicated the location of a marker north of the town of Leedey and we found that one on our return trip. There, we also saw a new marker with the 2015 insignia of Art Peters, whom I learned upon our return home is an expert on the topic and is willing to share what he has learned and show interested folks some of the remnants of the old road. Peters is the curator of the Hinton Historical Museum and we are going out to Hinton to meet with him in February.
I probably won’t wait for that to pay a visit to Red Rock Canyon State Park near Hinton, however. There, I also just learned, is a nature trail that follows the path of the California Road and wagon ruts still remain. Another outing is soon to occur.
A renaissance is underway in my hometown of Okmulgee, Oklahoma with new investment in the downtown area by individuals and public institutions (especially OSU Institute of Technology). I visited a few weeks ago during the ChiliFest and had the opportunity to tour some of the downtown buildings where renovations are either planned or underway. These buildings made up the familiar cityscape of my childhood and most had fallen into disrepair. Now, many are being restored for residential and business use. It’s an exciting time in Okmulgee as a core group of believers lead a huge shift in the community’s perception of itself. The word is spreading . . . Okmulgee’s rising!
Photos from building tour:
Julie Roberds on the Bell Block
Future courtyard behind the Torbett Buildling
Julie exiting the Torbett Building
Julie and Frank Roberds inspecting the construction underway in the McBrayer Building
East side of the Commerce Building
Artist rendering a likeness of Will Sampson on the Council House lawn
Leah Jackson entering the Kennedy Building for a tour
Map of the Creek Nation circa 1898 in an upper story office of the Kennedy Building
Mr. Kennedy’s desk
A safe in the Kennedy Building
Office door in the Kennedy Building
View of the cupola on top of the Council House from the Kennedy Building
Jane Morgan finds the one key that still works on a derelict piano in the ballroom on the third floor of the Kennedy Building
Ron Drake gives his daughter a whirl in the ballroom of the Kennedy Building as his wife looks on
Staircase in the McCulloch Building
Seats in a room of the Masonic Lodge on the top floor of the McCulloch Building (damaged by fire)
Nights are long on the trail in late October. The sun sets early and there we are in camp, 13 hours of darkness ahead. Even a camp fire provides amusement for only so long. The four of us have been together all day so there’s not much left to talk about. We try to stretch the evening to 8 o’clock but eventually we give up and retire to our tents. By the light of my head lamp, I review the trail guide for the day’s hike and read what tomorrow will bring. Then I look at photos on my camera’s small screen. I’m trying to preserve battery life on my iPhone so I use it sparingly; still, I read a few pages of a book on my Kindle app. That gets me up to about 8:15, when I give up and try to settle into my sleeping bag. Sleep is slow to come and when it does, it’s interrupted by the howls of coyotes close to camp or a chain of hoot owls sending late-night messages. Then I start over, not daring to look at my watch for fear it will only be 11 p.m.
I can’t wait for that wake-up call.
With Mary McDaniel, Janet Hamlin and Pam Frank, I am hiking the western half of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT), in northwest Arkansas. Eighty-five miles in seven days is our goal and we have scheduled the trip for late October to enjoy good weather and peak fall foliage. The full length of the trail is 165 miles (an update from the Ozark Highlands Trail Association says it is 197 miles and growing) starting at Lake Fort Smith State Park and running northeast to the Buffalo National River. Our end point for this hike will be the Ozone Trailhead, mile 85.7, the approximate midpoint of the trail.
We set out on October 23 from Oklahoma City, heading east on I-40. First stop, Ozone Trailhead, to leave one of our vehicles at the end. After lunch at the Ozone Burger Barn (burgers good/proprietor grumpy) we leave my Subaru Outback a few miles north of Ozone in the trailhead parking area off Highway 21. The four of us pile into Pam’s Honda Element to return to Fort Smith, and ultimately the trailhead, by way of four water caches. The past few months have been dry in this part of Arkansas and water sources are unreliable east of White Rock Mountain. We spend the day driving dirt roads to trail crossings and stashing 16 gallons of water (one per person per cache). Then we camp at the Hampton Inn in Fort Smith. Nothing like a good night’s sleep before a big adventure.
The morning of October 24 dawns cool and drizzly and we don rain gear for our 10:30 a.m. departure from Lake Fort Smith’s Visitor Center. We begin the hike with a prayer, a habit we will continue each day of our trip.
In addition to our camping gear and water, we each carry seven days’ worth of food, making our packs much heavier than normal. Thankfully, we have a short day today, just over eight miles to Jack Creek, actually a short distance beyond milepost nine. Because of some trail re-routing, the actual distances are about a mile less than what the mileposts currently read. So, somewhere along this first stretch of trail, we actually gain a “bonus mile.” Kind of like Daylight Savings Time, I suppose. The mileposts are one of the notable things about the OHT. On the Ouachita Trail, mileposts are missing more often than they are present. On the OHT, they are virtually always there. And the blazes — metallic with reflective white paint — are easy to see and ever present.
We pass several old home sites on the shore of Lake Fort Smith and cross a bone-dry Frog Bayou Creek on the lake’s north end, arriving at Jack Creek in plenty of time to set up our tents and filter water. There’s been a lot of bear spoor along the trail and we take the usual precautions, hanging the bear bag.
The next morning we get an earlier start, although we are hiking about the same distance we did on the first day. Our destination is White Rock Mountain, a spot known for its spectacular sunsets. There’s a lodge there, cabins and campsites, running water and who knows what other luxuries. I called for reservations in the lodge or cabins many weeks ago and was told they are full, but things could change. As we hike we fantasize about what awaits there. Maybe someone cancelled and a cabin is available! Perhaps there is food — something cooked in a pot on a stove, not rehydrated with water from a JetBoil!
It’s a hard climb to the top of White Rock and it’s disappointing to learn there are no vacancies in the lodge or cabins, but it’s okay. We have our choice of camp sites and the campground has a toilet, a water faucet, and picnic tables. Luxury is in the eye of the beholder. Best of all, there is ice cream. At the cottage of the congenial caretaker, we find a freezer full of frozen goodies and a case of cold soda pop and candy bars. I buy an ice cream bar and savor every sweet bite.
Firewood is available here too, at 10 sticks for $5. But the caretaker tells me where to find some scraps and says we can have those for free. We retrieve enough for a nice camp fire and haul those to our camp site, then eat dinner before heading to the pavilion to watch the sunset.
Our timing is perfect. Low golden rays set the mountainsides on fire, making the greens, reds, and yellows pop. On the verge of disappearing, the sun outlines the distant ridges and once it sinks below the horizon, lights the ragged pink edges of the gathering clouds. It’s a feast for the senses and worth the climb. But the wind is freshening atop the mountain and we head back to our camp site for a fire and the warmth of our sleeping bags.
Day Three brings longer miles and two long, steep climbs made more difficult by the warmth of the day. We also encounter a great deal of deadfall, requiring us to go over, under or around the huge trees killed by the red oak bore. Three miles of hiking on an abandoned railroad bed provides straight and level relief. It is part of the Combs to Cass spur of a railroad that ran from Fayetteville to St. Paul in the early 1900s.
We make it the 13.5 miles to Fanes Creek, where we pick up our first cache and camp. That night around the camp fire, a persistent frog joins us. He is determined to listen as Mary reads from the trail guide, recapping our day and describing what we can expect tomorrow. The frog hops closer and closer to Mary; it seems he likes the sound of her voice. He is unfazed when she shrieks when he hops a bit too close. Of course, we are the invaders and this is his home turf. Still, rather quickly we go to our tents and zip them up securely. None of us wants a frog joining us in our sleeping bag.
The next day brings our biggest challenge so far. It is Day Four and our schedule calls for a walk of 15.9 miles to Herrods Creek. It is raining as we get on the trail at daylight. Our first climb, to the top of Whiting Mountain, is long but not too hard. Soon we approach the Highway 23 trailhead and on a narrow, loose stretch of trail Mary, leading at the time, slips and falls. She ends up tail over tea kettle on the steep slope below the trail and my first thought is that we’re fortunate to be so close to the highway. Thank God, she is unhurt and we continue. Skipping the climb up to the Rock House, we cross Highway 23 and enter the Pleasant Hill Ranger District, marking the beginning of one of the OHT’s more scenic sections. The next climb takes us to the summit of Hare Mountain, the highest point on the OHT at about 2,380 feet, and the midpoint of our hike. It’s all downhill from here! Well, not quite.
After we descend Hare Mountain we pick up our water cache. This one is not at our camp site and we’ll have to carry it for three miles. A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds and that’s a lot of weight to add to a backpack. It’s a downhill walk to our camp at Herrods Creek but that doesn’t make it easy. Steep, rocky downhills with a heavy pack lead to sore feet. What a relief to reach our camp site after this long day of hiking. We’ve had a light rain all day and are tired and wet. No camp fire tonight, we cook dinner and listen to Mary read from a seated position in her tent. That girl was ready to get off her feet!
Day Five is shorter, just 12.5 miles to our camp site at mile 60. It’s not raining when we start out, but my tent and boots have not dried out from the day before. Plastic bags over my socks are the solution for the moment, and I hope my boots dry out as I walk. But they don’t. At least not today.
This part of the trail takes us from one beautiful hollow to the next, places where spectacular waterfalls would stop us in our tracks — if only there were water. And in one of those beautiful places — a ravine filled with large beech trees called the Marinoni Scenic Area, a thunderstorm strikes. We take refuge under a bluff until it calms.
When we reach our cache at the Lick Branch Trailhead we find that someone has opened one of our gallons. We hope that they really needed a drink and decide to split the other three gallons among us. This means less weight to carry and no one minds that. As it turns out, three gallons is also plenty of water for the four of us.
Tonight our camp is in a ravine on the side of Wolf Ridge. Our camp site is small and not very level but we get through the night. Next morning, we walk less than a tenth of a mile before we find a large, level camp site with four, count ’em, four stone recliners. These Flintstones-like seats around the fire ring are a hallmark of the plentiful camp sites along the OHT and are actually quite comfortable.
It’s a foggy morning but soon it burns off at our high elevation and we see the fog hanging in the valleys below. Soon we’re hiking in the sunshine and cool temperatures and today, Day Six, we have mostly level trail. It is another day of long miles. At first, we had planned to hike 17.7 miles but it became apparent it would be near-impossible for our troupe with the short daylight hours. We decrease the day’s hike by two miles and add that on to our last day. We come across five other hikers on the trail as we walk and we realize it is indeed a perfect day to get out for a hike. Two of the hikers are a couple of girls who have run out of water. We leave them our 4th gallon at the Arbaugh Road Trailhead and fill up our reservoirs with the remaining three. By this time, we are all carrying several empty gallon jugs attached to our backpacks by whatever means possible. It makes for bulky and comical backpacks, to be sure. Our last night of camping is at the second crossing of Lewis Prong Creek and the night is cold. Our coldest night so far.
Day Seven . . . today we will finish! We are on the trail a little earlier than usual, admiring the pink clouds hanging in the pale sky as we start. We have some up and down climbing but by this time our packs are lighter and our spirits are buoyant. It’s a 10-mile day but that seems like nothing. At one of our snack breaks, a solo hiker comes along. He approaches Pam and says, “I see you’re wearing purple. Is this yours?” He holds out a purple bandana which I had lost on the trail the day before. It had special meaning for me and I was sad to have lost it. Getting it back was a happy thing! The hiker’s name is Mike Wilson and he is a State Park Superintendent at Arkansas’ DeGray Lake State Park. We have a good visit with him and he tells us he is hiking the entire trail in nine days.
We reach the end of the trail at the Ozone Trailhead at 2:30 p.m. There, to my relief, is my Subaru and, it starts. As I drive toward the highway, it feels strange to experience movement without effort. We’ve hiked more than 85 miles under our own power, carrying all of our food, and are thankful at the end for each other, for God’s provision of guidance and shelter, for freedom from injuries (although we each fell at least once but none as spectacularly as Mary), and good health.
The realization came, on this last day or two of hiking, that we couldn’t have hiked the miles we did in a week’s time if we’d had water crossings to deal with. So the drought was a blessing in that respect. But the beauty we had to rush through made me think — do we really want to through-hike the eastern half? Or can we section hike it and schedule fewer miles per day — do it when there is plenty of water so we can see the waterfalls? We’ve passed this test of endurance — sore feet on long mileage days; heavy backpacks; eating the same oatmeal and peanut butter and rehydrated rice and beans every day; having no shower for a week; trying to sleep cold and on a slope; being unnerved by coyotes howling nearby. We know we can keep putting one foot in front of the other for many miles. Next time, we might just take it a little slower. Maybe.
The scenery is magical along the Ozark Highlands Trail
Remnants of folks who farmed this rugged land still appear along the trail
A boulder along the Lake Fort Smith shoreline
The Lost Girls hike through the brilliant colors of the Ozark National Forest
Crossing a small stream on Day 1
The only “waterfall” we saw!
My tent at the Jack Creek campsite
Mary and Pam filtering water at Jack Creek
Pam, Mary and Jan at Jack Creek
Our camp fire at Jack Creek
Day 2: Pam signs in for us at one of the trail registers
My tent on the left and Mary’s on the right at our camp site at White Rock
Jan taking a photo of Pam taking a photo of Mary (sunset at White Rock)
Sunset at White Rock
Day 3: Going into the light! (departing White Rock Mountain)
Signage for White Rock Mountain
Signage as we left White Rock Mountain
Fall foliage on the trail
Typical scenery on the trail
Crossing a dry Salt Fork Creek
Clearly motorcycles are not wanted here!
Lots of interesting fungi on logs along the trail
The Beauty Berry bushes are in their full glory!
These thin stalks topped with clusters of berries were quite tall, maybe ten feet, and appeared in clusters around the forest
A rare stream crossing with water
Hiking along the railbed between miles 27.2 and 29.9
Cooking breakfast in my tent vestibule on a rainy morning
Lots of uphill climbs
Beginning of Section 3, just east of Highway 23 trailhead
On top of Hare Mountain, highest point on the OHT and midpoint of our hike
Another shot on top of Hare Mountain, this one with me in it and Mary behind the camera
Old rock wall on Hare Mountain
A foggy morning on the trail
More colorful foliage
View from a bluff where we sheltered during a thunderstorm in Marinoni Scenic Area
Negotiating a large boulder field
The foliage pops on a sunny day!
Clouds hang low in the valleys as we walk along Wolf Ridge
View at mile 61.6, atop Wolf Ridge
Sights along the trail
Sights along the trail
Sights along the trail
Downhill . . . sometimes harder then uphill!
Acorn on a fern-like moss
One of the many beautiful hollows was passed through
Flintstones-like recliners around the fire ring at our Lewis Prong Creek 2 camp site
Lewis Prong Creek 2 camp
Pink clouds in a pale sky right before sunrise on Day 7
One of the loveliest of Arkansas’ state parks is Petit Jean. The park is located in central Arkansas, about 75 miles northwest of Little Rock. I had visited there once before in the fall of 2010 to hike Seven Hollows Trail, when the foliage was at its most splendid (see photo above). This time, the woods were still draped in a rich green, but a few reds and yellows were beginning to creep into the forest tapestry. I hiked many of the park’s trails over the two days we were there and I was often thinking that I want to return in cooler weather, particularly when the park’s fall foliage is at its peak.
In addition to Petit Jean’s beauty, the customer service at the park’s Mather Lodge makes it worth a stay. Every staff member we encountered made us feel welcome and went out of their way to help when we needed it. The lodge and cabins are of 1930s CCC construction, and a new addition has created a spectacular reception and dining area.
Here is the park’s web site: Petit Jean State Park and the gallery below includes a few photos from my recent explorations in the park: