Last Day on the Road

November 5-6, 2010   

Miles 9133 – 9836

Mountain View, AR – Chicago, IL

After leaving the awesome Blanchard Springs Caverns, I headed over to nearby Mountain View, Arkansas for some culture.  The Ozarks are known for three things, at least in my mind: beautiful scenery (check), hillbillies (er, check), and music.  The first two are shared pretty closely with lots of places, among them southwestern Wisconsin.  The last makes the area unique, and in a lot of different ways.  Most people have heard of Branson, MO, and a lot have been there.  That’s one example of the excellent country music available in the Ozarks, but Mountain View shows off another side of things.

In warm weather, visitors to historic downtown Mountain View, “The folk music capitol of the world,” can listen to accomplished musicians picking guitars, banjos, mandolins, and bass on porch stoops all over town, and even join in if they had the foresight to bring an instrument along.  Nightly concerts at multiple locations around town bring in sell-out crowds, and several museums of mountain music and crafts round out the experience.

In November, though, most of those places are shuttered up tight, along with the ice cream shops, fudge factories, and t-shirt dealers.  In late fall, I was left with a few die-hard music stores, a luthier’s studio, and a small post office from which to mail the last of my postcards.  I nearly bought a mandolin in town, just to say that I had, but settled on just a few picks, instead (after all, I’d barely played the mandolin I’d just dragged over 9,000 miles around the country with me).  I walked around town in the chill, and drank a hot tea in lieu of the ice cream before heading over to the Ozark Folk Center.  Of course, even that closes early in the off-season, and I got there just as the doors were shutting.  Instead of displays of heirloom crafts and musical artistry, all I got was the gift shop… but even that was full of high-quality, handmade items.  Plus, it gave me the opportunity to look for some last-minute gifts from my long travel – and even a couple Christmas presents!

I left Mountain View with a determination to head back on some warm summer day in the future, and headed north.  I crossed into Missouri just before sunset, drove straight east, and a few hours later crossed into the southern tip of Illinois.  I meandered around, generally northward, for a few hours before finally finding a spot to spend the night in the Shawnee National Forest.

I woke up in the morning to a towering cliff topped with brilliant fall leaves  – I couldn’t have picked a better campsite if I had tried! 

I headed up from Cairo towards Carbondale, with a short detour to go through Anna, IL, which I had always wanted to see.  Around mid-morning I got to a park near Carbondale that had been recommended to me by a friend (thanks, Jared!) for one last hike.  The Little Grand Canyon is a favorite among college students and families alike, and on this beautiful fall day I could see why.  Not only was the scenery itself beautiful, but I had the chance to look out on the flat Mississippi River floodplain and realize that these were the last hills for many, many miles.

My drive north confirmed that fact, as I got on the interstate and zoomed my way north through cornfields and concrete for another 6 hours until I hit the urban sprawl of the Chicagoland area.  I threaded my way through it until I could smell Lake Michigan, see familiar store fronts, and make second-nature turns through narrow city streets.   I rang a familiar bell, and my mom opened the door and welcomed me in to the fragrant meal they had been keeping warm all evening.  Home at last!  And ready for the next adventure…

Looking westward towards the Mississippi River from the peaks of the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois.


Just one more thing to see…

Nov 5, 2010

Miles 9071-9133

Silver Hill, AR – Mountain View, AR

The previous night, around the fire at the Buffalo River, someone had inquired whether I was going to “the Caverns” or not.

“Uh…,” I replied, “I hadn’t planned on it.  What is it?”

The group went on to explain to me that Blanchard Springs Caverns, within the Ozark National Forest, was an attraction not to be missed on any trip to the Ozarks, so I figured I’d stop by there on my way out the next morning.

When I pulled into the parking lot that morning, it was already full of cars and school busses, and I was told that it would be a while before I could get onto a shuttle to the cave’s entrance.  Pretty popular for a Friday in November.  I went to check out a small hiking area to the spring’s outlet while I was waiting, to keep from shivering in the frosty fall morning.  I nearly decided not to pay the $10 admission fee for the cave proper, but decided on one last splurge  – and it was certainly worth it!

A short waterfall at the outlet of Blanchard Springs

Ceiling of the cavern at the outlet

Blanchard Springs Caverns formed as a byproduct of the same geological forces that created the rest of the Ozarks.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, an inland sea covered the central United States, including Arkansas, and laid down millennia of sediment on the ocean floor, including tons of calcium deposits from decomposing shells and bones.  That sediment was compressed by the weight of the water above it, and when the ocean receded it became the newly-exposed bedrock, composed largely of limestone.  After that, but still hundreds of millions of years ago, the earth shifted and lifted up the crust of what is now northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.  This is known as uplift, and it is what created the Ozark Dome – see my previous posts for some pictures of relics of this.  As water rolled downhill from this plateau, it naturally sought out cracks in rocks, and wore away softer minerals from on top of and within the stone.  Millennia of this process created the steeply rolling topography of the Ozarks as we see them today.   Eventually, in much more recent geologic time (but still tens of thousands of years ago), the trickling water began wearing away the softer stone under the bedrock in what was to become the Caverns.  At this point, the water was able to tap into the source of a natural spring, which gave it a quick outlet from the interior of the rock.  This increased the speed and quantity of water coming through, and the water’s erosion of the limestone intensified as well.  Over time, the amount of water flowing through decreased, leaving empty cavernous rooms under the bedrock.  In places, the ceilings collapsed once the support of the water was removed; in others they became sturdier as the rock walls shored them up.  Small amounts of water continued to pass through, eroding and depositing minerals as it went, creating the Blanchard Springs Caverns as we know them today.

The “Dripstone Tour” takes visitors past the most dazzling of the cave formations, or speleothems as they are technically known.   Blanchard Springs Caverns is an “active” cave, which means that the formations are still growing as water is still dripping through.  The $10 fee includes a shuttle to the

The "Curtains" formation was as thin as potato chips

cave entrance, a short lecture on cave formation and history, a self-guided tour recording, and the elevator back up to the top.  You can get through it in an hour or spend all day in the dark, humid, 58-degree depths.  In the summertime, two other, more extensive (and expensive) tours are offered, but the Dripstone was my only option in November.  While there were plenty of other people down there with me, it never felt really crowded – that might be different in the heavy tourist season, so I felt lucky in my timing.  I’m not going to both saying any more about the cave, because my photos can probably explain it better.  I don’t have equipment for fancy cave photography, but good theatrical lighting helped me out, and my photos turned out better than expected.  To get a really good look at the place, you’ll have to visit for yourself!

Baby stalactites grew from the ceiling until the water in this area stopped flowing and they became inactive.

The variety of formations in the cave was astounding!

The enormous cavern, before descending the stairs to walk among the formations.

These forked stalacmites looked just like saguaro cacti - not everyone is lucky enough to see them at Blanchard Springs less than a month after walking among the real thing!

The ceiling in the cave, where it hadn't collapsed, was almost perfectly flat - the underside of the Ozark bedrock I had seen at King's Bluff a few days before.

A visit to any cave these days requires some mention of the bats that inhabit it.  The Blanchard Springs Caverns is the only cave currently open to the public on any National Forest, and visitors who have visited another cave or expect to are required to sterilize their shoes and change clothing before entering this one.  The reason for all of this security is the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that is devastating bat populations across North America.  I’ve touched on it in a past post, and for more information on the latest research, the official web page is a great source:  I won’t say more about it now, but I have plans to devote an entire future post to the subject, so stay tuned.

A National River – Part 2

I went back down to the lower parking area, saw that the crew was back and busying itself to make dinner, and sought out the leader, Ken Smith.  He graciously accepted me into their little group, showed me where I could pitch my tent, and the crew invited me to eat with them.  Over the next 36 hours, I got to know this bunch of kind and passionate people, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been part of such a great project, if only for a

Ken Smith, warming by our camp fire


The first thing that I learned was that any story of the Buffalo River had to have Ken Smith at its heart.  He was instrumental in the movement to preserve the river in its free-flowing form, and it was that process that eventually resulted in the creation of our first National River.  That designation turns out to mean something between “National Park” and “Wild and Scenic River.”  The latter term is used for a river that has been preserved without dams and artificial control, but does not necessarily have public ownership along the river.  In the case of a National River, the lands around the river are owned in large part (if not wholly) by the National Park Service, which preserves and protects lands in its care, as well as providing for responsible public recreation.  Today, most of the National Rivers are also part of the Wild and Scenic River program, but are protected to a greater degree.

The Buffalo River, like many others, was threatened in the middle of the 20th century by the proposed development of large hydro-power dams, and locals sought to preserve the river’s natural flow among steep cliffs and rock formations.  The Ozark Society was founded to lobby for protection, and was ultimately successful when, in 1972, the Buffalo National River was signed into law by Richard Nixon.  Ken Smith worked for the park service for ten years int he 1960’s and 70’s before leaving to become Education Director for the Ozark Society in 91974.  Today, he is officially retired, but continues to live out his passion for preservation of the BNR, by working towards the creation of a comprehensive hiking trail to span the length of the river.  He does this by bringing together teams of volunteers, then providing tools, campsites, food, transportation and – most importantly – expertise in trail engineering for a few weeks every year.

I had happened into the middle of all this, and despite the fact that the other volunteers had paid for their opportunities (to cover the costs of all of the above), they welcomed me into their fold and shared what they had.  Upon waking up in the frosty cold, they shared the warmth of their fire as we all bustled about, eating breakfast and making lunch while we warmed our toes.  By mid-day, though, after some hard labor on the new trail, we had stripped off a few layers and were happy to sit in the shade as we ate our sandwiches.  I arrived at the end of the week, so the finishing touches were being put on the trail surface – I was given shovels, garden rakes, and pulaskis, and alternately asked to pile rocks for cairns, chop out roots that might cause a stumble, or rake the trail into its final smooth surface.  Even the boring work was made entertaining by the great and dedicated folks who I had the opportunity to work with, and who told their own stories of life-long commitment to the Buffalo River as we worked.

Fall Colors in the Ozark hills along the Buffalo River

I'd never seen an armadillo in the wild until I spied this one, nosing the leaves for a tasty meal.











That night, the crew invited me to dine with them again, and then we sat around the fire for a couple hours… it was the last night of the fall trail-construction week, and I had graciously offered to help the guys finish the beer they had along, so no one had to pack it up in the morning.  We went to bed early, though, after a long day, and I snuggled deep into my new down-filled sleeping bag, protected against the chilly November night.

Looking south along the Buffalo River at Tyler Bend on a fall evening

Some of the many uncommon rock formations on the Buffalo River







I was very happy to delay my trip north for a couple of days for this opportunity, and hope to get back to explore the Buffalo in greater depth.  If you’ve ever been there, or to any of the other National Rivers, leave a comment below and let me know about your experience!

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!