Meandering The Backroads of Arkansas

When my tires left the pavement of Hwy 21 north of Ozone Arkansas the GPS in my car indicated I had just driven off the edge of the world. I had chosen dirt road #5550 as a shortcut to Hwy 123 where I would continue on to the Haw Creek Falls. I had just dropped Mary and Susan off at the trailhead near Ozone Arkansas. They have been section hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail and this stretch of trail was to take them from Ozone to Pelsor where I would pick them up in two and a half days. I had never been to this part of Arkansas before but I had my trusty DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer to guide me.

What I failed to notice when I chose this road was the fact that it was going to descend several switchbacks into a valley where I’d be crossing a stream several times. With the exception of the occasional large rock scraping on my skid plates, the very narrow and steep road itself wasn’t so bad. The stream crossings weren’t an issue either because with the exception of one, they were all dry. All was going well until I wound up in the front yard of someone’s shack. Apparently the road had made a sharp left and narrowed to a mere pig trail whereas this guy’s driveway looked like the road. Before I could even get stopped a pack of about 20 mongrels had surrounded my car and had worked themselves into a jumping and barking frenzy. The shack, mostly wood, sheets of tin, and tarpaper, didn’t have speck of paint on it. In front of the shack were piles of firewood and various parts of old trucks. The only operable looking vehicle was an old Willis Jeep from the late 1940’s. The smoke coming from the chimney indicated someone was home. Due to my concerns for the safety of my corn hole I decided it best not to go ask for directions so I slowly backed out onto the road being careful not to run over any of the barking dogs.

Once I was back on the right road I crossed a stream that actually had water but on the other side I was faced with a mud bog. For as far as I could see into the woods there were a series of mud holes. Due to flat land and poor drainage it looked like the water frequently pooled there creating a muddy challenge for the road. To my right I could see that someone had recently hacked out a narrow path through the trees to go around the first deep hole. It was so narrow and had such sharp turns that I couldn’t get the Outback through. In fact the turns were so sharp that you’d have to be driving a narrow vehicle with a very short wheelbase… you know, something like a Willis Jeep! So I surmised that if his Jeep couldn’t make it through the mud bog then I’d better not try with the Outback. After backtracking all the way back to Hwy 21 I studied my Gazetteer a little more closely and chose a series of dirt roads that followed the top of a ridgeline all the way over to Hwy 123.

My plan for my short trip was to find and photograph waterfalls but when I reached Haw Creek Falls and saw that the falls which normally is about a hundred yards wide was a mere trickle I knew I’d have to resort to Plan “B” which was finding and photographing barns and other points of interest as I meandered around Arkansas.

On my first point of interest stop I hiked down the trail in hopes of viewing the rocks at Pedestal Rocks Recreation area. Those too turned out to be a dud. The trees were thick and the leaves had not yet fallen so it was challenging to even see the rocks much less photograph them. While hiking that trail I met two women who were also there to photograph the rocks and they too were quite disappointed. Once I learned they were familiar with the area I told them about my quest for waterfalls, barns, and things of interest to photograph. They confirmed my suspicion that the streams were all but dry but they did suggest that the road between Boxley and Ponca had some nice barns. I thanked them and headed toward Boxley.

About an hour later while shooting photos of one of the barns, the two women drove up and told me that if I’d follow them they’d take me to an old schoolhouse away from the main road that not many people know about. When we got there I saw there were signs indicating that we were on private property. I asked about the signs and the women said they go onto the property all the time and nobody has ever caught them. When I questioned them further they said they know the people who know the people who hold the lease to the land and they were in another state and didn’t care. So I followed them through an unlocked wooden gate. When we got up close to the schoolhouse there was another fence around the building with a locked gate and there was also a padlock on the door of the building. I decided I wasn’t going to climb the fence and started feeling even more uneasy about being on private property. After shooting a few photos I told them I was going to mosey further down the road. They invited me to join them for camping but I told them my new quest was to go find a restaurant.

After eating in the big metropolis of Jasper I asked around hoping to find a campground. I learned the closest one was at Steel Creek Landing back the direction I had just come from. The camping area at Steel Creek is just a big nice grassy field. The problem was that there were about 300 other people there who already knew this fact. Too many people for me! So I moseyed on down the road where I found a privately owned campground with a very nice hot shower for only a few more dollars than the campground at Steel Creek.

On Friday I still didn’t have a clue which direction I was going to go next or what my new quest would be. I debated on driving west to Eureka Springs to photograph the train yard and the steam trains or to just start driving east till I felt the urge to turn. At the last moment I decided against Eureka Springs because there would be lots of tourists there for the weekend. Besides, I’d never seen this part of Arkansas so I chose to meander east. While I was eating second breakfast in Harrison I remembered reading somewhere that there would be barns between Mountain View and Clinton so I meandered toward Mountain View.

At the Mountain View Ranger Station the ranger told me I should stop and see Mirror Lake near the Blanchard Springs Caverns. He failed to mention the actual Blanchard Springs so when I discovered the waterfall coming from the cave I was pretty excited! One of the locals told me there is an underwater river that emerges from the cave. Pretty cool!

 

A little over half way to Clinton I arrived at the little town of Shirley Arkansas. As I entered the town I noticed a mural of a train trestle painted on the side of a building. I stopped and asked one of the locals if the train trestle was still around and learned that it still is! I was to go past the car wash, and go behind the ball field where I’d find the rodeo arena. Just past the rodeo arena there would be a fork in the road. The road leading down is a driveway so I was to take the upper road which would lead me to the bridge. This would be the second time on this trip when someone’s driveway was a better road then the actual road!

The bridge spans the Middle Fork of the Little Red River. It is no longer a railroad bridge but is now a bridge for vehicles. As I was shooting photos a couple of locals drove up in their truck. The first thing the driver said was “My daddy jumped off this bridge in 1939!” He then laughed and said that the river used to be a great swimming hole. He explained the railroad quit running and they pulled up the tracks in 1949. He said they converted it to an auto bridge in the late 1950’s. Then they proceeded to tell me that every time the river floods both ends of the bridge wash out. He said they have to wait till the waters recede before they can ford the river in their truck in order to get into town. So after they drove off I decided to go ford the river so I could get a different vantage point of the bridge.

The barns between Mountain View and Clinton didn’t disappoint. At one of the barns I spied a little foot trail that led off into the woods where I found a dilapidated old shack. It was fun to explore but it wasn’t all that photogenic. As I was heading back west I decided I would go to Pelsor to camp. The girls weren’t supposed to arrive until noon on Saturday but I knew where the primitive campground was and knew it was free. I also had a funny but strong hunch that the girls might finish their hike ahead of schedule.

When I got to the trailhead and campground at Pelsor I cooked and ate my dinner. As I finished eating a hiker came off the trail and I asked him if he was section hiking the OHT. He said yes. When I asked if he had passed a couple of women hikers he said “Yeah, they’re right there.” He said he and the girls had been passing each other all day and they are right behind him. Then he said it again, “They’re right there.” Just then I turned to see the girl’s headlamps coming through the woods and I could hear them talking. Sure enough it was Mary and Susan! They had hiked 21.5 miles and had ascended over 4700 feet for the day! They were quite happy that I had followed my hunch and arrived early!

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