Most of the trail runs our club does are one day events at an established off-road park, with trails rated from easy to extreme on a scale of 1 to 5. Two years ago I was introduced to a different type of off-road experience, one in which the challenge was not to conquer the biggest obstacle your rig would allow but rather to plot a course through the back country spanning several days, to travel off pavement as much as possible, and to be prepared to camp wherever you might find at the end of the day. Granted this does not necessarily require big tires and lockers, rather just a reliable 4x4 rig packed to get you through several days away from civilization.
After participating in similar trips with another club, I would come back with great pictures and good stories to tell other club members. Gradually several members of our club became interested in trying this “other” type of off-road adventure. Last spring I was asked to plan a three day trip for the fall that would introduce those interested to this type of off-road adventure. As fall approached we had about six members interested so I committed to planning a trip for the first weekend in November. Since this would be my first experience at actually planning and leading a trip of this type I was a little overwhelmed. I didn’t have a route, was apprehensive about the weather, and about using my iPad to keep us on track. I quickly realized I needed to turn to someone who had experience planning trips of this type and asked a friend to help me with a route and show me how to load what I would need onto my iPad to keep us on course and somewhat on schedule. I wanted to combine parts of past trips I had taken in order to not just experience the back country but to see some of the area history hidden along the way.
With the route decided and downloaded to my iPad the first hurdle was behind me. Now I needed a contingency plan if the iPad failed for any reason, so out came my paper map of the Ozark National Forest to see if I could duplicate the route on it. Sure enough, I was able to locate every leg of the trip on paper so I felt much more confident that we could actually finish the trip once we left the pavement. After communicating to the other drivers where we would meet to begin our adventure, I had to decide what I needed to pack for two nights of primitive camping. I had three choices for shelter. I could tow my M416 trailer with rooftop tent, I could just pack a small ground tent, or I could make use of the sleep platform I had built for my 4dr Jeep. Since I was riding solo on this trip, I decided to sleep in my jeep. After that decision I customized my packing list based on the room I had available in my jeep.
We ended up with a total of four rigs on this trip. Two from NW Arkansas, one from Southern Missouri and one all the way from Northern Louisiana! We all met at 10am, Thursday, November 1st at the intersection of Arkansas highway 16 and 23 to begin the trip. After introductions, we discussed briefly the route; made sure I had everyone’s emergency contact numbers, and discussed the use of the “bump and go” method for keeping everyone on route. I explained that some of the trails we would be on would be very dusty and we would need to spread out at times. In order to make sure no one missed a turn each driver would need to make sure the one behind them made the turn before proceeding, this way everyone stays on route.
After a short prayer to thank God for His wonderful creation and the opportunity for us to share it together, and for His protection for us and our families back home, it was time to put this plan into action. Away we went to find our exit off the security of the pavement to start our back country adventure. We hit dirt about 11am and traveled for about an hour before coming to a fork in the road. Our route had us taking a left onto a less improved dirt road and one that was tighter as well. As we started down this trail I was glad someone in our group had packed a chainsaw, you just don’t know when you will come up on a downed tree blocking the trail but as we made our way on down the trail the chainsaw was never needed.
After a few mud holes we stopped at a small pond about noon and discussed lunch but decided to drive on and try to make it to the Oark Café for lunch and to top off our gas tanks before heading off pavement again. But before hitting pavement we stopped to check out a small campsite just off the road by a small stream. As we were checking everything out we saw a dead crow hanging in a tree and across the creek a small wooden cross? This being the morning after Halloween, the thought did cross my mind that the crow may have been some part of a Halloween ritual of some sort the night before! Spooky!
We made it to Oark by about 1:30 and enjoyed a great home cooked meal surrounded by reminders of days gone by. Oark Store and Café is the oldest continuous-operation store in Arkansas, established in 1890. The building has the original floors, walls, and ceiling.
After lunch we filled our tanks and headed a short distance down the highway to our next stop; the swinging pedestrian bridge at Catalpa spanning the Mulberry River. We were back on the highway for just a few miles before we hit dirt again to continue our journey. The fall colors were amazing and at times it was like driving through a kaleidoscope with the wind blowing leaves of all shapes, sizes, and colors all around us. Thank you Lord for all the intricate details interwoven into your creation that provides such an awesome place for us to experience and explore; Lord please help us to be good stewards of all you provide us.
About an hour down the trail we come upon this old homestead, part of which dates back to the Civil War. I always wonder when I come up on something like this what it was like for the different families that lived here, definitely a much simpler life but also one filled with much hard work and uncertainty, and as we would realize later in some of the old cemeteries, a much shorter life here on earth.
We had planned to try to find a camping spot before 5:30 so we would have time to set up camp and eat before it got dark. After looking at our progress for the day and our route where we had planned to camp the first night, we were still a few hours away at 4pm. As we discussed our options James suggested an established Haw Creek campground. This would allow us to meet our goal of being off the trail by 5:30. While not as primitive as we had planned, it did provide us a nice spot by a small stream with fire ring and picnic table as well as vault toilets. We decided it was primitive enough and found a site that would accommodate all four of us.
After a dinner of hot dogs slow roasted over an open fire we settled in for my favorite part of these trips, campfire fellowship! About 10:30 as the temperature edged closer to the forecasted 42 degree low for the night, we decided it was time to crawl into our warm sleeping bags and dream of adventures yet to come.
Hope to see you on the trails soon,