The Gathering Place

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Saturday, Dave and I made a day trip to Tulsa, Ok., just a short drive away from Fayetteville. Even though he’d just gotten back home after three weeks of back-to-back travel, Dave knew I was beginning to climb the walls and needed some new scenery.

What can I say? I married an amazing man.

After we did some shopping, we set out to explore downtown Tulsa. It was a bit eery walking around what I’m sure is a bustling business district during the week, but on a Saturday the streets were like a ghost town. The tall buildings loomed up against the grey overcast sky like fingers trying to reach an itch. We stumbled upon an alley that had brightly colored murals painted on the brick walls of the buildings that backed onto it, the only color that could be found mixed in with the steel and concrete buildings.

We wandered around the empty streets for a little while longer before climbing back into the car and heading down towards the river district. We had stopped once for lunch in the river district on our way home from a summer vacation years ago, and always wanted to go back and explore the area some more, but had just never made the trip. As we got closer, we could see tunnels ahead of us, landscaped medians and pedestrian walkways everywhere crossing over the tunnels. The river flowed on one side, parks and playgrounds lined the other side of the road. . . .

And then I saw the skate park.

Dave pulled a U-turn, found a parking place next to the park and we hopped out with our cameras. At first we hung back and just watched the skateboarders and BMX riders, but I couldn’t help myself. I started taking pictures, catching all the tricks the skater was doing, wincing a little when he fell. But he and his friends were laughing and having fun and not paying attention to the scrapes and bruises from failed tricks.

Dave suggested that we explore some more of the park we stumbled upon, so we turned around and followed the walkway up and over the busy highway we had just been driving on and discovered the name of the place that we found: The Gathering Place. It is full of playgrounds, skateparks, pump tracks, basketball courts, walkways, forests. The attractions of this place are boundless, and I so wish we had something like this in Fayetteville. It was amazing.

We decided that we better head home, but as we were passing one of the many skate parks, one of the young men that I had been taking pictures of earlier spotted us and called us over, asking if we’d mind taking some pictures of he and his friend doing some tricks on their boards. We said not at all (duh!), each of picking a spot on the ground and settled in to have some fun. It didn’t take long for more skaters and BMX riders to join in and by the time we wrapped up forty-five minutes later, we had about ten different boys all performing tricks for our cameras. Luckily, I had my business cards with me and we gave all of them away that evening with the promise that we’d make a gallery for the boys on my website, the riders and skaters thrilled that they had some pictures of themselves.

Honestly? I don’t know who had more fun: the skater boys or Dave and myself. Either way, all of us found a way to bond over wheels, concrete and shared laughter. And that’s all that matters.

The Backroads

We decide to load up our mountain bikes Saturday afternoon and explore a gravel road that David found near Lake Wedington, a lake just twenty minutes from our house. The lake and the recreational area surrounding it has been around since at least the time that my parents went to school here, my dad taking my mom on a picnic back when they were dating, my mom telling me just a few months ago that he only brought bread and cheese, thinking that would be enough for the both of them. Lake Wedington was host to many an outing when I was in school here as well, both my dormitory and David’s holding games and cookouts together, all of us gathered along the lake shore. Today, it’s still a popular place for hikers, fishermen and families to explore and play, with the added feature of mountain bike trails.

But I’m actually not a big fan . . . yet . . . of mountain biking. Those narrow little dirt trails that wind around bluffs with steep drop offs right next to them make me a little nervous. Add in the speed you can pick up going downhill and it can be little hair raising.

Thus the safe, wide gravel road that David picked out for us to ride along.

To use a Joe Quote from when he was learning to talk: “That’s much more better.”

We splashed through streams and climbed long stretches of road. We came to forks in the road, each of taking turns determining which way to go. We had to stop a couple times to climb over huge fallen trees, lifting our bikes up and over. The wild plum trees scented our way, their fragrance our reward for the pedaling we were doing. I had to stop a few times (well, more than a few) to walk my bike up hill, my runner legs not used to biking. I spotted violets, bluets and Johnny-Jump-Ups growing next to the abandoned dirt road we were traveling. Looking out across the little valleys, the taller trees sported the finest of green lace along their branches.

We talked along the way, discussing various podcasts, fitness, the difference between single track and double track trails, our trip to Wisconsin and the beautiful trails that we used. We talked about the upcoming storms that we were expecting overnight. We rode in silence, too, each of us lost in our own thoughts.

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Maybe David will make a true mountain biker out of me yet, but as long as there is good wide dirt to ride on and a creek to splash through, I’ll ride my little red bike with him anywhere he goes.

Big Bluff Trail

Saturday dawned warm and insanely windy, so windy in fact, that when I took my morning run, a pine cone blew off a pine tree that I was running under and hit the side of my face, making me burst into giggles. That was definitely a first for me during my running career. I’ve been chased by sparrow hawks, have had buzzards circling overhead during the height of summer and have swallowed more than my fair share of those little “no see-ums”, but I’ve never had a pine cone hit me upside my head.

Needless to say, my Saturday got off to a riotous start.

After I got home and recovered, David and I loaded up the car and headed east to the Buffalo National River for an afternoon of hiking the Big Bluff Trail. The Buffalo River winds its way through my childhood memories, memories of camping, playing in the water, the smell of campfires and the sounds of crickets in the night air mixed with hushed voices of other campers. As an adult, I’ve floated the river both in canoes and in kayaks. The river is like a family member to the entire state of Arkansas. It’s beautiful, it’s ancient and the bluffs hugging the water tower up nearly 3,000 feet in some places (nps.gov). It was a perfect day to go hiking and exploring.

After driving by the trailhead by accident, we turned around and drove back, parked, grabbed our cameras and water bottles and headed out down the trail. The parking lot was full of cars (guess everyone else had the same idea as we had), but we didn’t see any other hikers for nearly 30 minutes. They were a young couple, both a bit out of breath, asking us how much further to the parking lot that they had to go.

The parking lot always seems a lot farther off than expected when you’re hiking back to it, doesn’t it?

And that was the really the last of the people that we saw until we found the Goat Trail, the connecter trail to the Big Bluff trail.

But what a beautiful hike. The trail took turns going from smooth to rocky to muddy back to smooth and easy. We kept getting glimpses through the bare trees of the river valley and bluffs below us, drawing us onward. We stopped to take pictures, David working on his sun bursts, me playing with my little Lego Storm Trooper, all the while making our way further and further down the mountain.

And then we saw this.

All of a sudden we went from hiking a tame dirt trail to climbing amongst bluffs, peering over the edge to the valley waaaaaaaay down below us, pine branches brushing against our faces. My vertigo tried to play havoc with me, but I kept on my bottom and scooted along the more narrow of the rocky outcroppings and David’s hand was never far away from me, especially when I wanted to shoot straight down into the river below me.

We climbed, we scooted, we sat quietly. We traded “can you believe these views?!” with other hikers (seems they had gotten a head start on us and were making their way back to their cars ), all the while the sun inching closer and closer to the western horizon. We each took one last picture and then turned back to the trail, starting the three mile hike back uphill, the sunset keeping us company.

We took the quicker route home, going through Boxley Valley, hoping to see the elk that live there, and lo and behold, we saw one of the biggest herds I’ve seen since moving to Arkansas. Cars were pulling over to the side of the road, people hanging out their windows with the iPhones or standing along the grassy shoulder with binoculars. I walked down to the pasture fence with my camera, took a few pictures then climbed back in the car next to David, remarking that I’d never seen so many before as we continued our way along Highway 43 before turning onto Highway 21. No sooner than the words were out of my mouth than we spotted a car pulled over on the road leading out of the valley with it’s hazards blinking. By this time, the sun had practically set and it was pretty dark, but I could make out another large herd of elk trotting across the highway just ahead of us, not a care in the world, and more were streaming out of the woods to our right.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. What an amazing sight!

As we drove home in the dark, both of us yawning, I asked David what his favorite part of the hike was, something that I like to do after we have one of our adventures. He thought for a moment, then replied that he loved climbing around the bluffs and seeing the elk, before asking me what my favorite part of the day had been. I told him that I loved seeing the elk, too, but that I also loved the views that we were rewarded with at the end of the trail and how the whole day felt like being on vacation.

We finished the trip home in silence (and more yawning), each of us lost in our thoughts and memories of a wonderful day spent outside.

Roaring River State Park

This past weekend, we had unseasonably warm days, with temperatures in the mid-60’s, abundant sunshine and crystal clear blue skies.

It was wonderful.

David and I took a late afternoon adventure to Roaring River State Park in southern Missouri on Saturday, a place that we discovered by accident a few years ago while taking a motorcycle ride. The park is located in the Mark Twain National Forest, part of the southern chain of the Ozark Mountains and it’s a beautiful drive getting there. We wound our way around twists and turns, passed scenic overlooks and pastures dotted with cattle and horses. When we arrived at the park, we found a short hiking trail along the river that led us from the parking lot where we had parked over to the main part of the park. We passed rapids and bluffs, people throwing rocks in the water and playing in the small park across from where we were walking, everyone happy with the beautiful day.

I think even the river was happy to have the warm sunshine glinting off its back.

Devil's Den State Park

A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON

Devils's Den State Park is located in West Fork, Arkansas. According to the site's homepage, the park was built in the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corps. during the Great Depression. The park is full of hiking trails, horse trails and has camp sites all up and down Lee Creek that runs through the park:

It now stands as one of the most intact CCC sites in the U.S., with a legacy you can see in its trails and buildings like its original cabins. Some of the park’s unique characteristics are rock formations and caverns. An impressive rock dam spans Lee Creek forming Lake Devil, an 8-acre lake for fishing and boating with canoes and pedal boats for rent. The park’s hiking, backpacking, mountain bike, and horseback riding trails lead to the surrounding Ozark National Forest.

After spending an inordinate amount of time at the DMV last week, I decided to blow off the rest of my errands and head down to Devil's Den for a bit of relaxation and to escape civilization for a while. I used to visit the park quite a bit, but then Life got in the way and I slowly forgot about the park and how refreshed I felt after spending a day hiking and exploring the different trails and getting down to the water to wade about on a hot summer's day.

I always have a camera with me whenever I'm out and about in the car, so I just pointed my small but mighty Subaru Crosstrek south and drove the few miles from Fayetteville to Devil's Den, driving through fog and thick overcast skies. I passed farms and cow pastures, shrouded in mists, looking mysterious and isolated. I actually love foggy, overcast days. The weather adds to the photos I take, adding moodiness and textures, something that's hard to get "just right" in post production.

I didn't see much in the way of wildlife, but a herd of deer very nonchalantly crossed the road in front of me as I neared the park's entrance, stopping to look back at me curiously.

I had a beautiful time hiking around in the damp, chilly woods. I had the place to myself, it was quiet, peaceful and got my creative juices flowing once more, something which I'd been needing to happen.

As I left the park and headed north back home, I made a promise to myself to get back to Devil's Den sooner than later and as much as I can. There are far too many trails left to explore, photos to take and water to play in.

And moments to savor.


Written on January 19, 2019

Steel Creek at Sunrise

Up Before Dawn

I've always wanted to get up before sunrise, drive to a river and take pictures of the sun rising up over the water and the beauty of the early morning, but have always been too lazy to do so. My intentions were good, but staying buried underneath the covers seemed even better.

Especially in the winter time.

However, Tuesday morning, I got up at 4:00, brewed some stout coffee, loaded up my car and drove down to the Buffalo River Valley to finally make my sunrise come true. It was 13 degrees F., but with three coats, long johns layered underneath my jeans, a hat and gloves, I didn't notice the cold. The only time it even crossed my mind was when I noticed the hem of my jeans were frozen solid from slipping on the rocks near the water's edge as I was photographing the bluffs across from me.

Elk Sighting

I arrived at Steel Creek Campground twenty minutes before the sun was to make her debut. It was still dusky, but as I passed the horse camp and the two horses that were grazing behind the fence, off to the left of my car, I saw there was an elk grazing near the water's edge. The elk that call the Buffalo River Valley home were introduced to the Valley after the Eastern Elk that had lived there had been hunted into extinction. These larger Rocky Mountain elk have free range all up and down the 150-mile corridor that make up the Buffalo River Valley and when there's a herd in the pastures that line Highway 43, you can see cars stopped alongside the road and people standing taking pictures with professional cameras with long lenses attached or with their smart phones.

Details

When you have an entire campground and a section of a national river all to yourself, you can slow down and take your time discovering the little details: the way lichen creeps up the side of a fallen tree, the way the sunlight cascades down the side of the bluff face across from you or highlights a single pine tree down river. Icicles hanging from the edge of a cliff come showering down as the early morning warmth of the sun melts their grip and the remnants come crashing down with deadly force into the water below. The way the cold water at your feet forms frozen jeweled "ear rings" from the twigs caught up against the rocky bank.

The Deer

When you have an entire campground and a section of a national river all to yourself you get to have your breath taken away at the sight of a deer plunging through the freezing cold water as she fords the river to get to the other side.

A New Beginning 

I used to take adventures like this, maybe not early, early morning adventures because I had to get our kids to school, but I used to take a day off during the middle of the week and go hiking and exploring the beautiful national and state parks that we have here in Northwest Arkansas. I'm not sure why I stopped - - - maybe raising kids and sending them off to college and their own life got in the way, maybe I just got lazy - - - but yesterday I realized how much I miss having my "Momma Days" out in the wild. I miss the slowing down and the noticing of the world around me, the sounds of birds calling to each other, the roar of the rapids over the smooth rocks in the river before me, the overall quiet that seeps inside me. I miss the playing that I do, the throwing of rocks I do for each of my kids and the way the rocks splash (I find the prettiest one for our daughter, the biggest ones that can make the biggest splash for our sons).

I get to just be me for a few hours one day a week.

And that's so worth getting up at 4:00 in the morning on a cold winter's day.

Disclaimer: I thought I’d post a few stories I’d written on another site here. I want them to live all in one place. This one I wrote back on January 30, 2019.)