February 5th-7th, 2015
I pulled in to the parking lot of the Trinity Episcopalian church in downtown Tulsa with my car’s bonnet steaming. I popped the hood and a white cloud arose from within as the sweet smell of coolant hit my nostrils. Vibrant fluorescent green coolant was splattered all around, and as I stared at my car’s green liquidy vomit, I heard two men behind me ask if I needed help. I obliged, and watched as they tinkered around beneath the hood. Both were homeless and had been waiting in line at the daily food distribution from the church when they saw me and Smoky the Subaru pull up. They chided me for having put too much coolant in (hey, it’s my first car and I had just gotten it in October), and said that it should be fine. I thanked them, ran inside the AEP/PSO building across the street (where I worked from a cubicle down in the basement as part of an Americorps Disaster Preparedness team), grabbed some documents, and got back in my car for a tri-state drive.
The plan was for me to drive out to Miami, Oklahoma, for a meeting with the Inter-Tribal Health Service regarding distributing emergency preparedness publications before heading up to Joplin, Missouri, to meet up with my college buddy, Seth, where we would grab lunch together. From Joplin, we’d drive south-east toward Springdale, Arkansas, where Seth would leave his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot for the next couple days. Then Seth and I would carpool in my Subie out to the Hideout Hollow trailhead in the Ozarks to meet up with another college pal, Josh. Then we’d start our three-day backpacking adventure from Hideout Hollow to Cecil Creek, bushwacking the entire way.
Unfortunately, the best made plans sometimes go awry, but that’s when the best adventures happen! After my meeting in Miami, I grabbed lunch with Seth at a rad little Mediterranean-style diner in Joplin, where our host was a kid from Iran who talked to us about his acid trips and his tough transition to life in America (“The speed limits are so slow here!”). My phone’s GPS then decided to take the long, scenic route to Springdale, which lasted an hour more than it should have if we had stayed on the highway (note: always double-check your GPS settings…Avoid Highways is always a bad option to have checked unless you have ample time and like to see the countryside). We hid Seth’s car amid the other random beater cars in the Wal-Mart lot and took off for the hills.
We almost made it. Seven miles away from the trailhead, my car exploded.
Not completely exploded like in a ball of flames, but a huge cloud of smoke suddenly obscured my view and as I slowed down and glanced at my thermostat gauge, I felt adrenaline course through my body. The gauge was in the red. My radiator had blown. It was dark now and no other cars were on this backcountry road. I pulled over, popped the hood, grabbed my fire extinguisher (just in case!), and waited for the steamy smoke to dissipate. The radiator had a nice crack running along it that burbled with hot coolant. I tried to fix it up with several wraps of grey duct tape, but it was pooped. We managed to get the car off the thin road onto a gravel pullout and tried to figure out our next steps.
The surrounding forests were alive with the chirps of crickets and the yips of coyotes, and the temperature was beginning to fall. Seth and I unloaded our gear and set up a couple strobes for passing cars to see. We were hoping that Josh would come driving smilingly by, see us, and then we could all go to the trailhead together. There was no cell phone service out here, so we waited. And waited. And waited some more.
A car rolled up with two stoned hippies. “Yo dudes, you guys okay? Want a lift?”
“Nah, we’re cool, just waiting for a friend.” was our reply.
A few more cars drove past. Then a red car that looked pretty similar to Josh’s flew by.
“Dude…was that Josh?”
“I think so… Crap! How did he not see us? Why’d he drive by so fast? What are we gonna do?” were among the words said.
Pooped, we decided to ditch the car and start hiking the 7 miles to the trailhead, most of which was uphill.
We started walking up the hills hoping that we could hitch a ride with someone, but after a car drove by and the driver seemed to be looking so intently past us that we thought she had seen a glimpse of heaven, we realized we’d be in for a long night.
Thankfully, a mile later, an SUV with a young family drove by and picked us up. They were just out “driving around for fun” with their five year old in the backseat and were more than happy to let us hop in. An orange globe began to rise up into the sky, and by the time we got dropped off at the trailhead, the moon was shining brightly down upon us. Josh was there waiting for us, a bit confused as expected. We quickly forgave him for blazing past us, and set off down the trail to Hideout Hollow. We spotted a skunk staring at us with glowing eyes and after chasing it through the woods for a few minutes, we got back on the trail and downclimbed through the narrows until we were safely below the large overhang of Hideout Hollow. Frozen chunks of ice from the waterfall flowing overhead jutted out along the path and we slowly trekked over the large boulders until we arrived at a dry, flat spot to set up our camp.
We settled in under the overhang, and below us was a little valley that an unnamed creek trickled through. That creek would be our handrail tomorrow as we bushwacked down it. We gathered some firewood, built up a cozy fire, and settled down to watch as the shadows in the hollow began to disappear and the moonlight glowed on the adjacent granite walls.
Morning came with the sound of distant hikers checking out the nearby bluffs. We could hear them across the valley from us but couldn’t quite see them. We foraged around for firewood and found a stash hidden away in one of the nearby caves.
Josh started the fire again which was still warm beneath the ashes from the night before, and we began cooking up some breakfast. Water was fetched from the waterfall and food consisted of oatmeal, hot chocolate, and protein bars. Perfect for a cold February morning!
After packing up the campsite, we decided to hike back to the trailhead, find cell phone service, and call a tow truck to come fetch my car.
We trudged over the boulder slabs, climbed back through the narrows, and carefully traversed the crack above the precipice.
The morning sunlight was shimmering through the wintered pines, and the pine floor covered in forest detritus began to heat up.
We called a tow truck and then piled in to Josh’s car to wait for it to arrive at my Subaru. After a few hours of waiting, I waited alone with the Subie while they went back to call the truck driver and see what was taking so long. It turns out that the driver couldn’t get through to us because an eighteen-wheeler had apparently rolled over on the route, blocking the road between him and us. So then we had to go back to find cell reception and call another tow truck.
We found a cell phone signal at the most random, out-of-place location on a hill overlooking the Buffalo River. There was a small storage unit complex with an ancient Coke machine out front (which still worked!). We sat there for another hour or so, waiting for a new tow truck driver to accept the job and figure everything out with my insurance’s roadside assistance program before heading our way.
By now the sun had begun to go down, and the tow truck driver still had not arrived. We drove to where the highway intersected with the forest road and waited for him to show up. After ages, he finally pulled up, a rugged Arkansas mechanic with a pistol on his hip and a short, attentive sheepdog standing on the flat bed of the truck. His speech was remarkably hard to understand, with a mixture of southern drawl and some strange Arkansas-mountain dialect, but after numerous hand motions, grunts, and nods, he winched up my car and drove off telling us to “Gimme a caw ongg Sumda err Moday”
We drove back to the Trailhead, hiked back to the hollow, climbed down the narrows, and finally began our trek down the creek valley, bushwacking until we reached Cecil Creek. We had about two hours left of daylight and about four hours to hike, so we pushed it hard to maximize the existing sunlight.
Along the way we clambered over ginormous boulders, seemingly tossed into the valley by giants above and investigated various caves that we stumbled upon.
As the sun set behind the hills above us, we came across eerily blue pools, starkly contrasted with the drab winter-browned forest. The depths were indiscernible and with miles to go before we slept, none of us wanted to jump in for a swim.
We found a neat heart shaped pool (which we aptly named the “Heart Pool”) right as we began to switch our headlamps and flashlights on.
As the darkness settled in around us, my camera refused to pick up anything, so forgive me for the lack of photos here. We trudged on along the creekbed, a simple bushwack now made complicated by the darkness. Josh began to complain of stomach pains, so we tried to hasten up the pace. We eventually staggered down to where our creekbed connected with Cecil Creek, which we had thought would be a rapidly flowing creek. Unfortunately, it was yet another dry creek bed. We started following it north to where it connected with the loop trail, and soon found several fantastic campsites, complete with large fire pits, stone tables, and stone chairs. Too bad for us, all of the campsites were already taken by families with kids. We hiked past them and kept going north, hoping to camp at Broadwater or Paige Falls. We couldn’t find the trail, so we just took a northerly bearing and bushwacked through the brambles and vines until we eventually arrived at Broadwater Falls. The stars, like billions of diamonds, shimmered brightly above and we almost didn’t even need to use our flashlights. We quickly established camp and built a fire to ward off the cold February chill that had begun to blanket us.
Daybreak came with a clear view of the falls from my sleeping bag. We couldn’t have picked a better site!
As the first one up, I built the fire again, lighting it with Vaseline-soaked cotton balls with a few sparks from my flint, and I sat down to watch the sun rise up over our little cove.
After a delightfully warming breakfast of Peaches and Cream oatmeal, I woke up the rest of the gang and we started tearing down the site. Josh and I jumped in beneath the falls for a quick morning swim before hitting the trail once more.
As we hiked down back toward Cecil Creek (this time we were on the actual trail), we came across a massive cave yawning up at us from the bowels of the earth. Fallen leaves crunched and crisped below our feet as we tromped down closer to investigate it. I had brought a 70m Edelweiss rope, and was excited to rappel down into the cave, but just before we had unpacked everything, we noticed a sign nailed to a post. “Due to the White-Nose Bat Syndrome, this cave is closed until further notice.” – USFS/NPS
Bummer on that idea, so we packed back up, took some pictures, and kept hiking further along. Closed until 2019. Maybe I’ll be back.
As we neared Cecil Creek, we walked by one of the campsites overrun with wild families the night before and found them all empty.
We trekked up the creekbed until we came to the slot canyon that led to Thunder Canyon Falls and began our journey up along it. Slippery rocks were abundant and as we neared the end of the canyon, the roar of the falls reverberated through the rocks to us.
Right as we approached it, my camera’s battery died. Below is the last shot I took just before we rounded the corner and found a large, 20 ft deep pool with the falls flowing down into it amid the slippery, moss-covered rocks and overhanging ferns. We hung out there for a bit before trying to find a cave that was supposed to be up above us. We climbed up a steep scramble and spent about two hours trying to find it but failed to do so.
We then bushwacked out back to the the road and then back to the Hideout Hollow Trailhead where we decided to rappel off one of the 90 foot cliffs (we had been lugging our rope and climbing gear and hadn’t even used it yet) before leaving.
After rappelling (and having an audience of a family where a little boy said, “Dad, can I pleeeasee do that too?”), we took off back to the trailhead, piled in to Josh’s car, and drove to Springdale. Seth and I jumped into Seth’s car and bid goodbye to Josh as he drove back to Tulsa. Then Seth and I grabbed a yummy dinner of chicken at some famous chicken restaurant in Springdale before driving the 90 minutes out to Table Rock Lake where his family’s friends had a lake house. We spent the night as the sole occupants in the house (which was more like a mansion), and in the morning we went fishing. Clouds had rolled in overnight, and the overcast sky made things a bit drab and dreary. I caught a nice largemouth bass on a crankbait in one of the nearby coves and Seth had a couple bites but no hits.
Although it was February and the water was absolutely frigid, I jumped in for a swim – I had heard that the waters of Table Rock Lake were super clear. Unfortunately, I had heard that from people who lived in the Midwest where the only other lakes to compare it to were Oklahoma’s muddy, manmade lakes. So sadly, the visibility was definitely not up there with the glacier lakes in Washington, but yes, it is clearer than other lakes in the Midwest due to its rocky bottom.
Seth and I called the mechanic who, after having him repeat himself several times due to his thick accent, told us that my car was ready with a new radiator. So we grabbed our stuff, made sure the lake house was cleaner then when we arrived, and took off to Huntsville, Arkansas. Along the way we picked up a hitchhiker who needed a ride to the next town on our route and listened to some of his wild stories about truckers.
We got my car, and as it was already late, we decided to go camp at a Wildlife Management Area a little southeast of Siloam Springs, Arkansas. It was dark by the time we turned down the dusty dirt path that a tweaker (he was definitely on something) and his girlfriend told us about. Backwoods Arkansas definitely has some odd folk. Seth and I parked our cars in a little spot surrounded by forests and a meadow, and switched on our flashlights. The surroundings were alive with animals – from armadillos to deer, this was definitely a place not many people visit. We hiked awhile down a lonely path hoping to find a campsite before we decided to turn back and just camp in one of the meadows we had passed, where we would have better visibility in case the packs of coyotes (that were howling all around us) decided to attack. Morning came early and cold, with frost layering a white sheet upon everything, but the view was phenomenal.
As usual, I woke up first and took the early morning hours to go explore our surroundings. The area was completely different than what I had pictured at night with my flashlight.
I returned to our campsite and started making breakfast. Seth was soon up and together we enjoyed the dawn over a small fire, oatmeal, and hot chocolate.
For some reason, I added marshmallows to my Maple and Brown Sugar oatmeal, which made it taste a bit like super sweet s’mores.
By now it was Tuesday. We packed up, dunked the fire out, and hiked back to where we parked. Seth and I found lunch at a trendy little pizzeria in Siloam Springs in which we were the only customers – probably because it was only 11 am and we were wearing the smell of wild woods, but their pizza was great! Chef’s Special was what I ordered (basically you leave it up to the chef to put whatever he wants to in the pizza as long as it’s edible) and I ended up with some sort of tasty BBQ chicken, bacon, and ranch pizza.
We parted ways there in Siloam Springs, and as Seth drove back to Kansas City, I drove back to Tulsa to plan another adventure.
Adventure Awaits! Continue on to Adventures in the Ozarks – Part Three.