Prologue: Life is nothing if not full of surprises!
A friend and I had planned to hike the Ouachita Trail from Big Brushy to Queen Wilhelmina SP but the day before the trip I had to have an emergency root canal after cracking a tooth. Then, after we began, we'd hiked about 9 miles when she suffered a pulled muscle and was forced to quit. It could have easily been me instead, as I'm 16 years her senior. Fortunately she had cell reception and was able to call a friend that lived nearby. While we waited for him to pick us up, she checked the weather. The forecast had taken a turn for the worse, so after we drove to her car at the lodge, ate dinner, slept in our cars, and picked up our food cache the next morning, I headed home to regroup. I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, so maybe we weren't meant to get caught in the middle of a forty plus mile trip in cold rain and temps only rising into the forties.
Back home I started planning. Since I would now be solo, a loop would be easiest, and since I didn't get to do ERL at Thanksgiving because of high water, I decided to try again. What I didn't know was that I was in for another one of life's surprises!
Day 1- 11 miles
I left the Winding Stairs trailhead at 7:30 AM, the car thermometer read 29*. I was headed counter clock-wise and soon reached Albert Pike. A couple was camping just above the campground at the lookout in a huge tent. Well it beats staying at home, I thought! I said good morning and continued on. The sun was just beginning to strike the leaves on the ground, and illuminate the frost.
The first crossing at Brier Cr. was COLDDDDD!! My toes were screaming and they hadn't even thawed out by the time I crossed Long Cr. As I was putting on my shoes after the crossing, the sun was beginning to melt the frost in the trees and it was raining down on me in big drops. I passed a group of young men hiking in the opposite direction, said good morning and continued on enjoying the quiet woods and the warming sunshine.
The first crossing of the Lil' Mo was running deep and swift. I scouted carefully, moved upstream a bit and crossed. After a while I met a group of guys from Denton and then not long after, another group from Louisiana. A small group was camped at Crooked Cr. and were getting ready to try their luck at fishing when I crossed. I made my way toward the falls, saying hello to a couple and their dog out for a day hike. I decided not to stop at the picnic area for lunch because there was a noisy party of ATVers clad in camo, but I couldn't fault them for wanting to enjoy the beautiful weather. I went a little farther and stopped at "bridge to nowhere" to have lunch and get water. My plan was to get about half way to the ABF trail head to camp for the night, and after stopping and checking out a couple of spots, I ended up at a spot just before the double river crossing. I smelled wood smoke and thought there was someone camped up ahead but then realized someone had left a campfire smoldering. I decided to camp there and make sure it was extinguished before leaving. This was the second time I've put out someone's campfire on this trail. I will spare you my rant, dear reader. And yes, I realized there's been lots of rain, but.....never mind :) It was approaching 4 pm so I selected trees for the hammock, hung my bear line, and proceeded to cook my dinner. Since it gets dark so early in the winter I'd brought my tiny MP3 player with a downloaded book, a story about hunting a man-eating tiger in Siberia. Thinking back, not the most appropriate tale given I was traveling solo...good thing I hadn't read about the mountain lion on Fourche mountain yet, LOL! I don't put the earbuds in, just lay them on my chest, and about 7 pm I heard something thrashing through the woods that I assumed was a deer. I peered out and saw a headlamp beam moving through the woods.(Love the transparency of my cuben tarp!) At first it startled me then I realized it was simply a hiker who wasn't going to let the early darkness keep him from his progress. I still don't know what the bushwhacking was all about.
Day 2- 8.4 up and down miles
The next morning I woke at dawn's first light, brought down my food, heated water for coffee and ate breakfast. Because I was in a valley it would take a while for the sun to hit, so knowing it would be a warm sunny day, I shook as much frost off my tarp and quilts as I could, packed up and headed up the trail to tackle the hills. It was 9 am when I left camp and quickly made the double crossings dry. As the sun began to peek over the hills I was delighted to walk through warm thermal spots in an otherwise chilly, breezy morning.
I reached the junction of ABF at about 10 am. I stopped, got some water, took off my layers, ate a snack and headed up Hurricane Knob. There was one downed tree in this section. What a glorious day to be in the woods! This was a mantra I repeated over and over throughout the trip.
Straight Cr. was running too high to rock hop, but my feet needed a refreshing cold water shock anyway.
When I reached McKinley Mt. I took an hour long lunch break while I aired out all my damp gear, which dried quickly in the warm sun and breeze. My plan was to get to Saline Cr. to camp for the evening and that meant three more hills to climb, so I continued on down the trail.
It was a blue bird day consisting of ups with beautiful vistas and downs with cool water crossings.
I crossed FR #106 at 3 pm making it to Saline Cr. at 4 pm after trudging up Brush Heap. What was I thinking having this the last hill of the day!! Well, better than first thing in the morning :). If I hadn't taken an hour for lunch, I would have made it to Eagle Rock Vista, but wasn't crazy about the possibility of dealing with a nosey bear.
Arriving at a campsite, I found a couple of nice trees, hung my hammock, then my bear line, fixed dinner and went to bed at o'dark thirty, listening to the north wind blow through the trees on the ridge above, before it finally calmed. I didn't hear any coyotes on this trip, which was a little disappointing. I did hear an owl, but it hooted only once then moved on. Just before dawn the wind came up again, this time from a southerly direction. As opposed to the night before it was much warmer and I slept in the clothes I would start hiking in sans any baselayers, using my down jacket and pants as a pillow.
Day 3- 7.4 miles
The morning was spectacular, with beautiful pink clouds scudding from the south, the soft sound of the creeks and the sun spotlighting a patch of leaves on the high crest behind me in golden light. And some people think they have to die to go to heaven!
I broke camp and started walking at 8:45 and soon encountered a couple of guys from Austin camped at the last campsite before heading up the hill. I was anticipating a beautiful view from the Vista and was not disappointed! Even though it was cloudy, there was mist in the valleys far off in the distance.
I was soon at Viles Branch (tree down at junction here) and after what seemed like a long time, made the first river crossing a little before noon. The section between here and the campsites as Winding Stairs is a somber place and as I walked through I couldn't help thinking once again of the people that lost their lives here in June of 2010. Gruesome images slipped through my mind. It was a relief to ascend again and see the river flowing freely in the bright sun and blue skies with the beautiful rock formations.
I hiked on, and after taking a few more pictures I continued on toward my last river crossing. I was just about there when I came upon a father and daughter consulting their map. I said hello and helped reassure them they were going the right direction. They were from Missouri and had begun at the Winding Stairs trailhead, leaving the night before and camping before the crossing. We talked a bit more and they mentioned someone had left their lights on in their car at the trailhead.....the more the described this the more I realized they were talking about MY CAR!!! Oh no I thought, I didn't leave my lights on. I had parked right in front of the restrooms and would have noticed as I walked out of them before heading out. And my warning bell would have gone off. But I couldn't argue that they had the right vehicle. I just couldn't believe it and I was flustered to say the least. I told them I had a portable battery charger and even if that wasn't enough to charge it after three days, there would be someone at the trailhead that could give me a jump. Then they did something that totally astonished me! They pulled out their car key, handed it to me, told me where their jumper cables were and said to leave the key on the front passenger tire.
I simply could not believe it, but by this point I was so shocked by the whole thing that I thanked them and fairly flew up the trail arriving at my car at 1:45, which was indeed dead as a doornail. The first thing I took note of was that the headlights were not left on. Perplexed, I got out my charger and connected it, showing "medium" charge. I always charge it before a trip, just in case, but it had already lost some of its charge. While I left it on to try to charge I asked a group of guys across the parking lot whether they were coming or going. They were heading out but said they were happy to give me a jump. I told them to take there time and whenever it was convenient, their help would be much appreciated, since I wasn't sure I could rely on mine to start it. The guys finished getting ready and came over and jumped it off. I offered to pay them but they refused. Before they left they asked me to take some pictures of them which I happily did, with all 5 of their cameras. After they left on their hike I walked over to the car of the kind folks from Missouri, unlocked the door, put a tiny thank you note on the console,(I only had a tiny piece of a Queen Wilhelmina brochure to write on, because I'd recently used up the last of a small notepad I keep it my car) locked the door and walked around and laid the key on the tire. I wished they had asked me to lock it in the car, but I guess they were afraid the clicker wouldn't open when they got back and it was there only key! I still couldn't believe their kindness! I drove home worrying about leaving the key there, although they were parked at the far end of the lot and that tire was facing away from the rest. As I write this they should just be getting back to their car. Dear Lord, please let the key still be there with all safe!
All I can figure out is that somehow I must have either left a dome light on, or didn't get a door shut completely, and with it daylight I didn't realize it, but I was so relieved to get a jump I forgot to investigate those possibilities closely. My first stop on the way home was to buy a new battery (mine was past its prime.) I hadn't stopped to have a leisurely lunch after the last river crossing as I had planned, in fact I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, so I stopped and had pizza. When I went to bed that night I couldn't help but be amazed at the kindness of the strangers from Missouri and said a little prayer that everything was as it should be when they arrived back at their car. I only wish I could have left them a longer thank you note!