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.

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