Archive | February 2012

We Have a National River?? Part 1

Snowball, AR to Silver Hill, AR

Miles 9051-9071

Nov 3-5, 2010

I turned north onto US Highway 65, intending to cross the Buffalo River, take a look at it, and then continue the last 25 miles or so into Missouri, which would ultimately put me home in Chicago the following night, at an easy pace.  However, as the grade steepened for the descent to the river, the semi in front of me applied the brakes and slowed down to a crawl… er, a safe speed.  Antsy behind the big truck, I noticed a big sign off to my left, leading to the Buffalo National River Visitor’s Center, and at the last moment I swung the wheel and turned down the drive.

I’m pretty knowledgeable about the various classifications of public lands in our country – I can tell a National Park from a National Monument, a State Park from a State Recreation Area, a Wildlife Refuge from a Wildlife Area – but I had never heard of a “National River.”  I figured that it was probably something a little different from the federally-designated “Wild and Scenic River,” maybe something to do with historical significance or something?  In any event, I hadn’t expected the huge sign, landscaped parking lot, museum displays, or campgrounds that greeted me at the Tyler Bend Visitor’s Center, so I thought I’d look around for a minute.

I drove around the premises, found a campground that was uninspiring but offered spigots for refilling my dry water bottles, then took another fork that I hoped would lead me to the river.  Instead, it seemed to dead end in a huge mowed grassy field, and I went to turn back around again.  As I did so, I noticed a small cardboard sign leaning against a stop sign, reading, “Trail Crew Park Here.”

Back when I had begun planning this trip, four or five months before, I had thought that I might volunteer for several days at a time in a few spots around the country, trading my knowledge of recreation and ecological management for the opportunity to learn something new about a place I’d never been.  That part of the plan never materialized, largely due to my own lack of persistence, but also to the ridigly-scheduled nature of most volunteer opportunities.  Plus, and I can say this because I have led more than my share of well-meaning but inexperienced volunteers, if someone walks up to you off the street and offers to help you out for a day or two, chances are that you will spend that whole time supervising the “help” and never get around to what you would otherwise have gotten done that week.   You wind up a little skeptical of how beneficial these temporary volunteers actually are.

Now, though, I was at the end of my journey… and it had been totally selfish, barely a moment of the last 2.5 months spent on someone other than myself, none of my 9 thousand miles of exhaust spewed into the atmosphere for social or environmental good.  So I hurried to the visitor’s center, straightened my ball cap and worn sweatshirt, and went inside.  After looking around the museum for a moment, I went up to the woman at the desk and asked about the sign.  She explained that the trail crew work was an annual event, organized by a friends’ group, and that if I wanted to help, I should go down and talk to them at the end of the day, in a couple hours.  I spent those hours on a hiking trail through an old homestead and out to an overlook, and by the time I got back to the parking lot I was sold on the desire to work on one of these trails myself. …

Along the Buffalo River, with Cliff Goldenrod and Juniper on the bluffs, I felt like I was 500 miles farther north, on the Mississippi.

Along the Buffalo River, with Cliff Goldenrod and Juniper on the bluffs, I felt like I was 500 miles farther north on the Mississippi.


Arkansas Ozarks

Nov 2 – 3, 2010

Jessieville, AR to Snowball, AR

Miles 8890-9051

I spent a few days in Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains, which made me homesick for the autumn I had already missed in southwest Wisconsin, and eager to get back to what remained.  The nights were cool, even sub-freezing on at least one occasion, and I was glad to be able to get my new warm, down sleeping bag out from the depths of my trunk, where it had spent most of the last two temperate months.  Strange to think that I had been swimming in the ocean only a week before… a long week before!  Since then I had revolutionized my thinking about waterfowl, passed through the nation’s ecological confluence, had a fleeting but passionate moment of patriotism… and traveled 1,000 miles.


The Ozarks were beautiful, as they’re supposed to be.  It didn’t hurt that a few brilliant maples were left among the brown oaks, that the air was dry and crisp, and that I had remote campgrounds all to myself.  I chose a lot of small roads, and went on a few short hikes, but didn’t spend too much time exploring beyond that in my journey from Hot Springs north through the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests.

A glowing maple tree nearly obscures a hanging rock formation in the background, Ozark National Forest

All alone at Fairview campground in the Ozark NF. The night before, at a campground along the Fourche River, I was disturbed by some noises in the night and realized that a beaver had just felled a tree just a few yards downhill of my campsite.

Ozarks woods look a lot like southern Wisconsin's, right down to the rustling brown oak leaves in the fall.

A "natural bridge" of stone in the Pedestal Rocks area.

At the egde of King's Bluff, in the Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area, Ozark NF

Layers of sediments were layed down millions of years ago, and they have been graually eroded away to form the topography of the Ozark Mountains. The top layer is very hard, so here at King's Bluff it has worn into an almost perfectly smooth surface, except where the Illinois Bayou River has, over millenia, worn away the striking cliff face (left).

Sycamore seed balls

Pines and Oaks share the stage in the Ozark National Forest


A "hoodoo" (here at Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area in the Ozark NF) forms when softer sediments erode from around harder ones.























Arkansas wasn’t really on my list of destinations for this trip… it just happened to lay between Texas and home.  So after my day of historical sites, I had chosen the route that looked the most scenic, based on the areas shaded green on my map, and heading towards a long purple splotch at the northern end of the state.  It turned out to be my last adventure of the trip, and I extended my stay in “The Natural State” a few days longer than I had originally planned…

Hot Springs

…continued from previous post:

One of my motivations for this extended roadtrip had been hot springs… I suddenly felt an urge to take a dip in some hot springs, but, finding myself in Wisconsin, it seemed impossible.  I did some research and determined that my two closest hot springs were in western South Dakota and central Arkansas.  I did a little bit of research before hopping in the car for 20 hours, though, and found out that both of those sites were very developed and not likely to fulfill my yearning.  So, I made sure to stop by a couple hot springs when I was out west in October.

Still, I thought I might as well swing through Hot Springs, since it was on my way, and Clinton had gone to high school there, and anyway it had been on my mind for well over six months and it deserved a look.  It was nothing like I’d expected.View from overlook on Hot Springs Mountain

The town was fairly large, but didn’t seem to offer much of interest, except on the main tourist strip.  In fact, one side of the street along that strip has been pretty much the same for over a hundred years; the other side was full of kitschy stores selling t-shirts and fudge.  The National Park Service has taken over most of the bathhouses lining that street, though the facilities are operated by private concessions.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these bathhouses were the main attraction for wealthier visitors who wanted to experience the curative powers of the springs.  However, even those without the means to pay for fancy treatments could bathe in the springs that bubbled up all over Hot Springs Mountain, or in the creek that carried the water through town.  While that practice was ultimately stopped due to concerns about hygiene, and the creek was channeled under the road in the late 19th century, free drinking water from the hot springs is still available at several “jug fountains” around the area.

Drinking water? From hot springs?  Well that’s the thing of it… these aren’t “hot springs” like we find in volcanic regions, so much as springs that are hot.  The water comes out of the ground at 142°F on average, but it lacks sulfur and most iron, and is therefore clear and nearly tasteless.  It is safe for drinking as it comes out of the ground, and I can personally attest that it’s pretty good.

Hot Springs National Park has a long history –  the area was first set aside by the federal government in 1832, less than 30 years after the Louisiana Purchase added the territory to the United States.   Due to conflicting land claims, the government didn’t take active control of the springs until 1877, and it became a National Park in 1921.  It was around this time that the park had become a popular location for those seeking cures to medical ailments, and the large bathhouses were built.  The only one still operating in the traditional way today is the Buckstaff (since 1912), but the Park Service has renovated the Fordyce to its original (1915) condition, including museum displays and captions describing the various remedies offered at the time.

I didn’t have a long time to spend there, and I didn’t do any “bathing,” but I definitely learned something in Hot Springs!  I was a little overwhelmed by the very commercial atmosphere of it at the time, and quickly escaped to the driving loop and overlook trail on Hot Springs Mountains.  In retrospect, though, it is a rather interesting place and I would like to go back sometime and experience it for what it is… now that I know.


Hope and Hot Springs

Nov 1, 2010

Miles 8748 – 8922

Little River, AR to Jessieville, AR

When I first saw “Hope” on a map of Arkansas, I thought that it was an interesting name for a town, then I wondered why I had heard of it before, and finally it dawned on me that it had been the birthplace of Bill Clinton, our 42nd President of the United States.  While therefore of historic importance, I figured that I would go around it, stop in Hot Springs, AR, and then check out the Ozarks for a couple days before heading north into Illinois and the road home.  When I woke up that morning, however, I didn’t want to miss whatever Hope had to offer, and I headed down there to see what that might be.

It was a cool, gray Monday in early November, so tourist traffic was at a low point and the town was probably not looking its best.  There were a lot of vacant storefronts and homes, and it seemed as though the town itself hadn’t changed since Clinton was a boy there.  According to all of the literature, though, Hope used to be a vibrant community with several daily passenger trains and a bustling commercial and entertainment district.  To be honest, all Southern towns look a little run-down to me.  However, I once heard a woman from a Pacific Northwest city refer to Chicago’s brownstone two-flats (mostly occupied by decent middle-class families) as “squalid,” and ever since then I’ve been wary of judging places by the standards of a different region.  So I’ll stop trying to describe Hope itself and jump right to the tourist attractions.

The old train depot has been turned into a Historical Museum, with a prominent display about Bill Clinton and the era in which he grew up.  Mike Huckabee is also from Hope, it turns out, and there was another display on his life and times.  The rest of the museum featured the stuff of most small town museums – including a special section on Hope’s biggest claim to fame (other than the Prez): watermelon.  Yup, Hope is the Watermelon Capitol, and world record watermelons continue to be grown and shown there at the county fair.

I moved on from there to “Bill Clinton’s Boyhood Home” and the accompanying museum.  By now the house has been taken over by the National Park Service, but at the time they were still awaiting that transition.  The lack of backing by a wealthy federal agency was apparent, as the museum was not furnished richly, though with a lot of care.  The boyhood home is actually Bill’s grandparents’ home, where he spent his first few years and which he always afterwards thought of as “home,” wherever else he moved.  It was re-decorated in period furniture, appliances, etc. – which was a little bit curious.

Recreation of the Oval Office in the museum next door to Clinton's "boyhood home"

Think about it – Bill Clinton was hugely popular among “baby boomers” because he was one of them – he graduated college in nearly the same year as my parents, and my mom wracked her brain trying to remember the young Hillary Rodham that graduated high school the same year as her, just one suburb over.  What that means, of course, is that the house in which he and his mom lived when he was a young boy did not look too different on the inside from my grandmother’s when I was growing up.  It’s a little bit odd to tour a house that just looks like it could be just anyone’s house… but to a certain degree, I think that’s the point they are trying to make.  Clinton billed himself as just an average guy, growing up in an average town with his average family, and that certainly is exactly what it looks like.

Display in the Clinton Museum in Hope, AR

Careful, I’m going to wax a little philosophical here for a minute.  I’m not usually overly-patriotic, nor do I idealize our presidents, even the ones whom history has proven great.  However, after checking out the museums and being reminded of all that Clinton stood for before, during, and since his presidency, I was pretty impressed.  I remembered how enthusiastic people had been about him when he first ran for President, and he was the first guy I got to vote for, when he was elected to his second term the year I turned 18.  Though I can never say that I agree with all of the decisions that any politicians make, I’m proud of Bill and Hillary for continuing to fight for peace and justice both abroad and at home.

Okay, that’s done – I hope I didn’t just lose all my readers with that little sermon.

I left Hope around mid-day and headed west to Hot Springs, AR… a story that will have to wait until next time!


Glossy Magnolia leaves outshine the towering loblolly pines and 80 other tree species at Big Thicket National Preserve

Oct 30- 31, 2010

Miles 8369 – 8748

Stowell, TX to Little River, AR

After crossing the Bolivar Peninsula, I headed more or less straight north, and got to the Big Thicket Preserve in the late afternoon.  I immediately recognized both that it would be a very interesting place to explore and that it was getting too late to do it that day.  I opted instead to find a place to spend the night, and by the time I had done that I was on the north side of the preserve.  After two months on the road, I was itching to be back home, and never got to explore the area… but you will be sure to see it on my upcoming “top ten list of places I want to go back to!”

Loblolly Pines

What makes the Big Thicket Preserve so interesting to a plant geek like myself is that it is at the intersection of four major ecological zones of the country, and as such has an amazing variety of flora in a relatively small geographical area.   The headline of the preserve’s brochure reads, “Unusual Combinations of the Ordinary,” and if you haven’t gotten the hint from my past posts, this kind of fusion is what gets me the most excited.  I had driven north from the coast, away from the dry plains landscape of central Texas, through a hundred miles of lowland swamps and coastal bayous, and all of a sudden was seeing not only several

The Magnolia really made me feel like I was in "the south," as opposed to the southwest desert or coastal regions.

different species of pine trees but also magnolias, tupelo, sweetgum, cypress, and hickories, not to mention about ten different kinds of oaks – the Water Oak being one that I had never seen before.  That was only in a short walk that I did right in Martin Dies Jr. State Park!  An equal variety of herbaceous plants would have greeted me earlier in the year, and birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals of all sorts were hidden in the woods, swamps, and meadows around me.  Because of this diversity, the Big Thicket is a little bit different from other National Parks and Preserves in that it is not a large block of land, but rather several separate corridors totaling about 100,000 acres within about 1800 square miles!  Definitely plenty for everyoneto do… at least everyone who enjoys outdoor recreation.

Though reluctant to leave such a cool site, I trucked on into Arkansas, and spent a little while exploring Texarkana, where I had a good lunch at a café and got some great fudge at Shelly’s Bakery (oh, and an oil change, too… funny how you need a couple of those when you drive 10,000 miles).  I stayed at a fairly nondescript campground at Millwood State Park, next to a large impounded lake and some train tracks, a little ways northwest of Hope, where I headed on the next day…

As I rolled out of north-east Texas into Arkansas, the pine-lined highway was a precursor to the Ozarks ahead.