Broke toe on the Buffalo

It started about three years ago.

One of the summers where I get together with my parents and my sister, her kids and mine, our long-suffering spouses.  The yearly family week at Lake Chicot.  My nephew must’ve been about fourteen, fifteen at the time.   Asked me if I’d take him floating on the Buffalo River.   He’d never done anything like that before.   Never “roughed it” out in the wild green like in the crazy stories his Uncle Matt told him.  Sure, I said.  Absolutely.   I’m pretty sure he asked me at least once a year for the past three years until finally, around Christmas this past year, he called me out on it.

It’s his senior year.  He’s 18, about to head to college.   All he wanted to do over his Spring Break was float the Buffalo with his Uncle Matt.  Last chance.  He wasn’t going to ask again.

How could I say no?  I mean, this kid is THE kid whose birth made me an Uncle.  He followed me into the woods when he was little.   I planted the seed then, I’ve told stories upon stories.  What kind of favorite uncle would I be if I let this man down?  No kind at all, I tell you.  No kind at all.

About a month before his break, he started texting me.  Uncle Matt, what do I need to wear?  What do I need to bring?   Do I need a tent?  What kind of clothes? 

Wait, son, wait.  I’ll tell you closer to the time.

Two weeks out, I start getting texts from my sister and my mother.  He’s driving them crazy with it.  Does he need to bring his truck? What kind of sleeping bag should he buy?  Does he need to bring food?

Gimme a week, son.  Just bring your life jacket and the clothes on your back.   Let me get closer and check the weather, check the water level.    

We still gonna go?  You not gonna cancel it?

Trip’s still on, son.  Trip’s still on.  

A week out, I checked the weather.  Looked great.   Lows around the low 40’s, highs in the low 60’s.  Sunlight the whole week.   I threw out a courtesy invite to Kat and The Professor because, well, that’s just what you do to your best wilderness buddy.  He spread out the invite and pretty soon it looked like we had about eleven people signed on to come.    I secured three kayaks and a canoe from my brother-in-law, as well as a trailer to pull them.   Plan was to launch from the Ponca low water bridge and float down to Pruitt.  3 days, 2 nights.  Try to be moving downstream by 10 a.m. on Wednesday.  Out of the river sometime Friday.

Kat was so excited that he and his son camped out at Steel Creek Tuesday night.  I gathered up my two boys, my nephew, and my father and left out of here before dawn on Wednesday.

This was the first time in almost 30 years that I’ve gone out into the wilderness with my father.   He took me on the Buffalo once when I was 16.  What I saw then surely planted the seed for what grew into a deep love of this entire area as an adult.   I thought it would be a nice gesture to invite him along, let him see his grandsons paddling along the river he took me on so long ago.

I like symmetry, so when I invited my father
and he agreed to come, I immediately chose
as close to the same route as I remember
from then.  It has been a few decades since,
but there were two things I distinctly
remembered. . .

The trip down to Ponca was quiet.   The old man and three boys (10, 14, & 18) all fell asleep on the way down.   We got there to find out that four had already dropped out, but we still had a party of seven.  Unloaded the boats and the gear, then I packed up while Kat and Poppa shuttled the trailer and a vehicle down to Pruitt.  We put in at the Ponca low water bridge.  [River Mile (RM) 28.5]

It was cold.  Overcast and rainy.   As soon as I got the kayaks packed, all four boys just sat in them. . . on dry land, facing the river and waiting a half-hour still for them to return from Pruitt.  I kicked back in the rear of my borrowed canoe and started reading from a Cormac McCarthy book I found tucked into my backpacking gear.

I said it was cold already, right?   Was still cold when we finally launched into the water.  Got everyone pointed in the right direction and down the river we went.

The first mishap was at Steel Creek, just a short bit downriver.  [RM 31]

My nephew, who later earned the river name of Flip needed to poop and there was a bathhouse right there.   Can we stop?  Sure. . . knock yourself out.   Beast, still getting his water arms under him, shot his kayak right over a rock where it went sideways and dumped him straight into the cold drink.   Soaking him.    Just as I was hopping out to rescue him, Poppa stood up and promptly fell over backwards into the water.   I helped him out and rushed over to where Beast was in a near panic and splashed down to get him all sorted out.   Ruined my digital camera ‘cause it was still in my lifejacket pocket.  (That’s why I don’t have any pictures from this part of the hike.) Beast was done at this point and ready to go home.  Poppa was ready to throw down against this granny standing on the bank who thought his asynchronized dive was the height of humor.   I lifted my hand to wave downstream at Kat, Professor, Flip, and Squirrel who were dry(er), warm(er), and wondering what the hold-up was.

I traded clothes with Beast so that he could at least have something dry.  He was done with the kayak, so I put him in the canoe with his Poppa and hoped for the best.   I hopped on the kayak and away we went.   Twenty-something more miles of this, right?   We’ll be fine!  Fine, I say.

The next person to go down was my nephew.   Not his fault, really.  It was his first time on a river, first time in a kayak or canoe.    But he lost his fishing pole and got his gear all wet.   And there was no sun out. . . I mean, none at all.   And the wind blowing hard.   The boys swear they saw snowflakes and I don’t completely doubt them.  It really was that cold.    Around lunch-ish, we pulled up on a rock bar and made a fire.   Everyone under the age of thirty was complaining that they couldn’t feel their feet or hands or face.  They were freezing and wanted to go home.   Squirrel said he had full-on frostbite happening and while I didn’t think it was quite that cold, I knew enough about taking kids into the wild to know that at the very least boy had to warm up his toes.

We threw some food into them, swore it would be warmer and nicer tomorrow, and let them thaw out by the fire.   I dove into my dry bag and pulled out my fleece jacket for Squirrel.  Put some dry socks on him and on Beast.   Off we went again.   Plan was to float till about 3pm and then find a good place to camp.  We pushed them along with promises of camp fires, fleece blankets, and toasted marshmallows.

The boys were making great time and Flip said he wanted to see the “really big waterfall” and so we stopped near the Hemmed-In Hollow trail [RM 35.5] and did a short hike in.   Poppa stayed behind to bail water out of his canoe.  He was in a 14’ canoe full of gear and it really was overloaded, even with Beast taking my spot.   The boys, Kat, and I all went to the waterfall.   The last time all of us had been there together was when Beast was still a kindergartner called Bear Bait.   (In fact, I think that hike was where he earned that first trail name.)  Ol’ boy is in High School now.  Time does find a way of getting past us, doesn’t it?   The Spider Tree he played on then was long washed away, but I did make him pose by a flat rock that I’m pretty sure he crashed out on about nine years ago.   The water was flowing great off the falls and whenever the wind would kick up, the waterfall would bend about two-thirds of the way up and land a good 30-40’ away from where it normally landed.  That was fun to watch.

 

 

 

Back to the boats, back on the river.   We made camp directly across from Lockhead Barn at [RM 36].  It was beautiful.  Full moon made the whole world visible.   Temps did drop pretty low, about 10 degrees lower than we expected.   I was okay, but Poppa and the older boys slept fitfully.   We did find out that the dry bags kept in the belly of Flip’s kayak were soaked.   None of it was cotton, so I wasn’t too worried about hypothermia – – but it did mean that Squirrel and I went to bed soggy.

I still have the army surplus dry-bag that my father
used on my first Buffalo River float.  It is dry-rotted,
some, and not as fancy as the ones I ordered off of
Amazon. . . but how could I not bring it?  I did have to
take them all shopping, though, so that they all had
non-cotton clothing to wear.  I needed to keep them
warm, even if I couldn’t keep them all dry.

I was trying out my newest hammock that night, a Clark Vertex Ultra double hammock.  I bought it so that, hopefully, I can finally get Momma out on the trail with me.   I’m so much heavier than lil’ man, though, that I sank lower and his half rose a good foot above me.   Everything was stable and it slept real comfortable.  When he found that Monkey was soggy, too, he started whimpering a bit.  He wasn’t cold, just damp and uncomfortable.  He wanted his momma and he wanted to go home.  This is very, very unusual for Squirrel.   He’s the hardiest of all my backwoods boys and other than once being convinced that Kat’s midnight snoring was a wandering zombie, he’s never gotten homesick or scared.  Other than Squirrel, his other trail name is Deathwish because of how fearless and awesome he is.  I reached up and held his hand for a while.  Asked him if he was cold.  He wasn’t.  “Just soggy.”   I promised that tomorrow would be warm and sunshiny and that we would have a great time.  I told him how proud I was that he never once even came close to tipping his kayak over and that he was the fastest of all of us on the river (truth. . . the boy is so light in his kayak he’s like a leaf on the water, dandelion fuzz on the wind).   He pretty soon was breathing deeply asleep and I followed soon after.

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Monkey drying out in the Clark Vertex Ultra. Monkey is an honored member of our wilderness adventures and has moved on from keeping Beast safe to keeping Squirrel comforted.

Breakfast the next morning, I awoke before dawn with a bladder more full than my desire to stay in the warm sleeping bag.  The full moon was hanging low over the barn and you could see everything as clear as noon.  Stars everywhere.  Not a cloud in the sky.   My phone camera is really inadequate to capture how beautiful it was.  Not the first time that I’ve wished I had a better camera.  I crept over to the fire and slowly whispered it back to life.  Just sat there a long cold while, wrapped in a fleece blanket and thinking about things I probably shouldn’t be thinking about.  Wondering how we were going to reconfigure the weight in the canoes to get us better down the river.  Hoping it would warm up soon.

As the rest of the group thawed to life, I started getting coffee ready.   I asked Flip how he slept and he said, “Great. . every hour or so.”  Then proceeded to tell me how he was in a constant war between his bladder and his body heat.  Poppa didn’t sleep so good, either, making the neophyte backpacker’s mistake of trusting the forecast lows to dictate how much clothing to wear to bed.  (The answer is All.  All the clothing.  He would not make that mistake again.)  A not-so-quick breakfast had us packed and on the river again by almost 10:00 a.m.

Chaos and trouble began very shortly after.

I told you that smaller canoe was overloaded.   Poppa at the back, Beast in the front.  While in his glory days, Poppa spent a bit of time on the water . . . it’s been a little few decades since he’s captained a canoe with a kid in it.  I didn’t get the full story of it, something about confusing left and right in the heat of the moment, but we weren’t but a mile or so down the river when I hear Beast yell out and I see the canoe sideways against a rock and completely submerged.   Beast was almost in tears, standing outside the canoe and trying to pull it and his grandfather out of the water.  (Ain’t happening, hoss.)   I zipped the kayak around and fought upstream to calm him down.  Poor kid thought the whole thing was his fault and started apologizing to me.   I soothed the Beast and told him no worries.  I got this.    Gave him the kayak and sent him downstream to join the rest of the team.  I helped Poppa out of the canoe and got him settled on the bank – which wasn’t much more than saturated sand on a steep slope.  Once he was settled, I started rescuing the contents of the canoe.  One tent, an ice chest, the gear box, metal grate. . . did I really put this much junk in our smallest canoe?   I saw Kat working his way upstream to try and get across but the water was too deep.   I waved him off.  Needed him to swing down and be with the boys anyway.   I worked the canoe up on the rock and just started bailing with a small camp bowl.

Took forever.

Was very cold.

Eventually got it empty enough to move toward the bank.   Bailed it out as much as I could but there was still the issue of getting it through the rapids.  I decided that my only option was to walk it down so I loaded it back up.  Loaded my dad back into it.  Grabbed the front rope and eased it back down the river to join the rest of our intrepid floaters.

A short side-conference with Kat and we decided to shift contents around once more.  He was in a 17’ canoe, so I put one of the ice chests in his and swapped Poppa for The Professor.  Much more balanced loads now in the two canoes.   Beast, now completely cured of his kayak spookies, stayed with his kayak and our party was off once again.

For about fifteen minutes.

Kat pulled his canoe up about 30 yards from a fast flow of rapids to adjust Poppa’s seat.  It was leaning too much and throwing off the balance.   I pulled my canoe in to see what I could do to help when I see Squirrel just FLY past me and shoot like an arrow down the rapids.   He was gone before I could even yell for him.  Flip shot past next and that’s where all hell broke loose.   I turned to check on Kat and heard my nephew just start hollering.  He’s bellowing in his terrified man-boy voice, but I couldn’t see him from where I was.   No time to get a canoe worked around – and not sure I could get to him against the current anyway if I were in a boat – so I just took off running.

Here I was, Hasselhoffing it through thigh-deep rapids toward the sound of yelling.  The icy cold water was nothing compared to the grip of fear on my heart should I let harm come to my baby sister’s favorite boy.  (I love her, but I am terrified of her wrath.)  I saw him against the bank, clinging to a limb and while he wasn’t in immediate danger he was in full panic which could quickly lead to danger.  His kayak was gone, his paddle and gear all gone.   My left shoe caught on a rock and floated away as I kept running in the now waist-deep water toward him, trying not to let the current catch me.

He’s a big ol’ boy, so I reached up and grabbed his arms.   Using my best Stern Daddy Voice, I called out his name a couple times before he looked at me and stopped bellowing.    “You’re okay!   You’re safe!   It’s okay!  Calm down.”  Eventually, he nodded, and I told him to follow me.   I walked him back upstream toward the shallow end of the water and helped him cross over with instructions to walk back to where everyone else was waiting at the base of the rapids.   I then headed back to my canoe and we eased down picking up his gear as we went.    When I finally got back to where everyone was standing (the boys all wide-eyed) at the bank, I sat down.   Kat had rescued my shoe.   Putting it on, I realized my left pinkie toe was pointed in a rather unnatural direction, roughly 90 degrees from the rest of my little piggies.  I didn’t feel a thing – whether it from adrenaline, shock, or the icy cold water.  The boys were all wide-eyed staring at me.

“Pretty sure it’s broken.”  I reached down and skronched it back into position.   There was appropriate sounds of disgust and disbelief from my audience.   One of ‘em asked, “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Nah.” I said.   ‘course, I figured that wasn’t going to be true in a few hours . . . but the looks of awe on their face made this semi-falsehood completely worth it.    Squirrel said, “You’re a hero!”

Damn right, boyo.  A broken toe ain’t nothing compared to what my sister would do to me.

Now, ever since he tumped his kayak the day before, Flip had been asking us when the next and worst rapids would be.   Kat had been telling him about this one spot coming up that Flip was terrible worried about.   Kat walked over to Flip and put his hand on his shoulder.   Told him, “Remember me telling you that there was one more really rough spot?”   Flip nodded.   “Well, that was it.  Welcome to Grey Rock Shoals,” and pointed to the rather large and rather grey rock we just passed by.  [RM 38]  Flip’s jaw dropped.   “NOW you tell me?”

Kat came over to tell me that we’ve made 2 miles in the past two hours.   We can’t keep that kind of pace and stay on schedule.  The map came out and we set a goal to try and make it about six more miles before we break for lunch.   All of our happy crew took inventory.  No kids lost.   One fishing pole gone, one camera broken, and one toe destroyed . . . but other than that, everything was cool.

The sun was finally all the way out and the world had warmed up.  It was a beautiful day.  The kids were happy, even Flip because I rescued his backpack.  Even the wind was at our backs.   Down the river we went.

20190321_152036

Squirrel, handling that river like the absolute boss he is.

 

We made great time after that.  Five miles in the next hour.  Squirrel was now absolutely forbidden to go down any rapids without an adult telling him to go.   A whitetail deer crossed the river in front of us.  We saw caves and geese and birds and wildlife everywhere.  Even saw a bat in full daylight flittering around outside of a cave.  The boys were all laughing, none of the canoes swamped or got hung up.  We decided to at least hit Erbie before looking for a campsite.  Maybe stop on river-mile 46 around 4 o’clock or so.

We found a great camping spot right where we needed to, right when we needed to do it.   As we were unloading the canoes, one of the teen’s phones blipped to indicate some kind of notification and they (and their grandfather) all rushed toward phones to see if they had service.  Kat and I continued setting up hammocks and getting the camp sorted.  Squirrel, a phoneless 4th grader, continued gathering sticks for the fire.  Connections to grandmothers and mothers were attempted unsuccessfully as a single 3G bar proved insufficient for that desperate grasp at digital civilization.

I hobbled along with my toe finally starting to bark at me.   (I swear, I thumped it on every rock and stick between here and the Buffalo River.)  Got a big fire going and we started cooking off all the rest of the food.

One of my favorite memories to tell the boys
when we’re around a campfire, is how just
absolutely horrified I was when my dad pulled
out a can of spam, wrapped a lump around a stick
and cooked it over the campfire.  Which meant
I just HAD to bring Spam to have my dad cook it
on a stick.  It was seriously pretty stinking good.
20190322_074511

Poppa readying the infamous Spam On A Stick.

Burgers, dogs, hot links, mac & cheese.   Everything on the grill.  The older those boys get, the more bottomless they become.   We brought enough food . . . barely.   S’mores, of course, crammed in the few empty corners of their stomach before all of them staggered toward the hammocks and an early bed.

20190321_180253

Beast & Flip . . with Kat in the background. You’re never too old for a well-earned S’more.

Poppa was snoring almost as soon as he zipped in (wearing, I might add, every piece of dry clothing he brought with him.)  Squirrel opened up all the remaining Hot Hands body warmers and passed them out before having me boost him into the hammock.   He kissed me on the forehead and told me that today was a better day and he’s glad he didn’t go home early, but that he still misses mom and will be ready to go home tomorrow.   I asked him if Monkey was soggy and he smiled.   Neither one of them.   Dry as a bone.    He was asleep by the time I eased on back to the fire.

20190320_185600

Flip & The Professor

Kat and I stared at the flames for a while, talking a little bit about work and next year.   It had been a while since we had camped together.  Even longer since we had been on the river together.  Reminisced a bit.  Re-planned this trip in the way we do sometimes reflecting on how we could’ve done it better.   I’m always glad to have him with me in the out there.

It was a much warmer night until about 3 a.m. when the temperature plunged and decorated our hammocks and clothesline with frost.

20190322_080238

I figured my early fire starting the day before earned me a few extra minutes of warmth pretending to be asleep while Kat coaxed a fire back to life.

 

 

 

We cooked up a huge breakfast of eggs and sausage, bacon and spam, onions, peppers, cheese.  Just a glorious buttery greasy meaty mess of breakfast.   Whatever was left in the coolers got added to the pot.    We weren’t taking any food home.

20190322_074616

Everybody loaded up and it was, really, a beautiful but gloriously uneventful float home.  It ended as peacefully as it began chaotically.  We muscled everything up to the parking lot at Pruitt and crammed it all onto the trailer.   The boys were either lost in their phones and tablets or conked out asleep by the time we made it back to Kat’s truck still parked at Ponca.

I asked Flip if the trip was everything he wanted it to be and he nodded.    Not much for words is my gigantic manboy nephew.   I then asked him if he wanted me to take him again and he paused then said, “In tha summer.”   I laughed and he added, “And I want to be in the canoe with you.”

16 year-old me.  We’ve just finished floating the Buffalo
River at flood stage.  Ponca to Gilbert in two days, one night.
My dad and I are sitting on an upturned canoe, waiting
on our ride home.  There’s some fully drunk college kids
partying on the rock bar.  Two bikini-clad girls in front of us
decide it would be funny to moon the boys behind us.  Teenager
me was just in the line of fire when they drop trou.  My dad turned
to me and said, “Don’t tell your mom.”  I’m pretty sure that’s
the first thing I told her.  Other than the Spam-on-a-stick, that
is the other memory that has stayed with me.

Pretty sure I can make that happen.

We all signed a map of the Upper Buffalo to give to him.  Marked all our stops and the sites of our misadventures.  Maybe one day he’ll have that map with him when he takes his kids or grandkids out on that river and tells them about his crazy Uncle Matt.

 

{Broken Toe Epilogue}

BrokeToe

Second thing I did, after taking a shower, was to head out for an X-ray and some better pain meds.   As I’m writing this, a week later, my toe still hurts. . . but not nearly as much as the pain my baby sister would have inflicted on me had I not saved her favorite son.

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Posted in Buffalo River, Nature | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Squirrel on Mt. Magazine (part 3)

<– part 2

Woke up on Sunday morning around six to the sound of blackbirds.  I heard the nylon shushing sound of Squirrel shuffling awake.  He said something derogatory about birds and I unzipped the hammock.

While he was sitting up rubbing his eyes, I breathed life back into the fire and fished out my keys from the bottom of my sleeping bag.  Got a jacket out of the truck for little man.  Got my cook kit.  There’s something to be said about the convenience of truck camping.  Can’t say it didn’t help with the last-minute nature of this hike to just throw my bin-o-gear into the bed and trust that everything I needed was already in there.    Maybe that’s how I ease Momma into more primitive camping?

The boy goofed around with his water pistol and rocks while I got pop tarts and hot cocoa ready for him (and coffee ready for me).  It was beautiful and quiet.  There are very few better ways to wake up on a Sunday morning than the cool Spring dawn of May on a mountain in Arkansas.

“Are we going to church, Dad?”

“Well, we uh. . . ”

“Oh yeah,” he interrupted dryly without looking at me, “we were there all night.”   Dang, son.

I started packing up and he outlined his morning for me.  He wanted to go see the “ghost pool” – which was how he remembered Buckman’s Pool on the eastern side of the mountaintop.  Then the visitor’s center to pay for the campsite and buy a bag of polished rocks as his “goodbye present” before heading home.

We loaded everything up, gave the campsite a last once-over, then headed out.  Reverend Jerry Garcia waved at us as we drove past.  We waved back.  He looked very well rested and, okay, healthy.   Hiking his own hike.    Parked the truck at the horse camp and headed out to our last little trail.

The first picture is my young companion demonstrating how he’s holding his breath in the ghost pool.  You can see the remnants of the rock wall behind him.   He is explaining to me in the second picture how that must be the ghost hot-tub.  Given my (grateful) inability to see ghosts, I could neither prove nor disprove his assertions and so leave belief up to the reader.  There are, after all, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in even Horatio’s philosophies.

On the walk back, we worked on noticing and identifying the wildflowers that punctuated the late spring greenery alongside the trail.

It was a beautiful morning and I was so close to celebrating a wholly successful hike when tragedy struck.

Well, 8-yr-old tragedy.   When we pulled into the visitor’s center, even though the sign indicated it was open . . . all the lights were out.   Someone, somewhere, was working on something and the young woman cleaning the place said that they wouldn’t have power until 11:00 a.m.

I tried to just leave a $20 to pay for the campsite and a bag of those rocks, but she seemed distressed at what her manager would say and no, she can’t take any money.   Squirrel didn’t say anything, he just left the center and stood outside crying.

He’s still a little guy and, man, he had his heart set on those stupid little polished rocks.  Normally, usually, I’d give him the “suck it up, buttercup” speech but this was his date.  He wanted it to be perfectly aligned with his plans and so far it was.   To have it go sideways at the very, very last minute was a hard blow for a little guy.   I gave him a hug and suggested we check out the lodge gift shop for a memento that would be almost as good as a bag of shiny polished stones.

He dried it up and moped to the truck.

I eased the Yota past the luxury cars parked cleanly in front of the lodge and we hopped out.  In the lobby, a small herd of chubby baby-boomers was coming to life.  Squirrel and I wove through the knot of recent retirees in their matching Harley Davidson costumes, talking about golf while their gratuitously pastelled wives complained to the cashier about the HVAC in their hotel room.  One beleaguered worker gave me a tired smile and asked if we were having a good morning.   I answered, “almost. . ” and explained the polished stone crisis.   Squirrel settled for a T-shirt he could wear to school the next day and I did my best to rescue the cashier from the still-ongoing entitlement fit being visited upon her co-worker.  (Except now it was some kind of issue about the restaurant, having moved on from the HVAC system.)

I sent him eye-rolling into the bathroom for a “just try one more time” before we got on the road.  He was asleep before we made it all the way down the mountain.

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I woke him up once we got to Paris because I saw, out of the corner of my eye, what appeared to be a little park with a replica Eiffel Tower.

I geek out for little pieces of Americana (if you can accurately call the French connection here Americana. . .) and had to shake little man awake to see this.

He was glad I did.

 

And, because his name is Logan (no matter what I call him most), he had to take a picture of the county they surely named after him.   He forgot all about those stones.

Posted in Backpacking, Backpacking with Kids, Mt. Magazine State Park, Nature | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Squirrel on Mt. Magazine (part 2)

<– (part 1)

Easing into the overflow primitive campsites on Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice the motley array taking up the far south end of the area.  A huge transport van hauling a trailer.  An old Ranger with plywood sides lifting up a camper top.  Several tents, a hammock.  They were having a rowdy good time, but I didn’t see anything overly unusual other than the size of the group.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mount Magazine State Park, it is one of the state’s flashiest state parks.  A whole lot of money went into rebuilding a glorious lodge on the southern side.  There’s a nice paved road heading all the way up to the top and it, understandably so, is a nice tourist spot.  There’s a trail from the bottom to the top that Kat and I took on one dry July heatwave (and looking through my posts here, I can’t believe I didn’t write about it) but it isn’t the best backpacking spot because you still end up in a campsite at the top.

Heading over to the overflow at Brown’s Spring area does get you away from the mansions-on-wheels that will choke up the regular camping area.  And, truth told, you always find more interesting folks on the fringe anyway.

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I usually shrink the pictures just a little to fit the text around, but this is the view from the picnic table on our site.  I can sit here for hours just looking out over that view.  Squirrel was hungry, though, so as soon as I tied up the hammocks we loaded up and went to the lodge to check another item off his list.

Here’s where this dips a little bit into a parenting blog.  See, that part above isn’t me.  I don’t get that.  When I head out into the woods, it is to get away from anything like this.  Little man, though, listed going to a gift shop as part of his perfect weekend so that’s what we did.   You don’t have to understand them to love them. . . and one of my main rules about backpacking with kids is that it isn’t about you.   The view was great, the food was decent, and Squirrel talked me into letting him have dessert (even though . . the s’mores. . . *sigh* okay).

We headed back to camp with plenty of sunlight left.  I got a fire going with wood scrounged from nearby empty campsites and a dead cedar branch I found.  Sat and watched him play.  Remember me complaining about that water pistol?  Yeah. . . that thing never left his hand.  He ran back and forth to the little stream nearby to fill it up.

While I’m watching him, I notice the caravan campsite has emptied out.  Gotten quieter.  Except for one guy, the oldest one I saw over there.  Looked like Jerry Garcia.  He wandered over and was just standing in the empty campsite adjacent to ours sort-of looking at the view.  I’ve run into all kinds of folks at campsites and out on the trail and, really, have only ever felt uneasy enough to move on once in twenty years (and that had more to do with the amount and variety of firearms they were carrying deep into the woods than anything else).  He was pretty obviously scouting the edges of campground etiquette and so I waved at him and offered him a s’more (because Squirrel was far more interested in enjoying the process than the product).

He chuckled something about not looking like he needed a s’more and introduced himself.  Asked me where I was from.  Said he ran a school.  A special school.  And they were out there on the mountaintop for a weekend retreat.  That explained why so many of them were teenagers.  The more he talked, the more comfortable he got in sharing, and the more I listened.   Don’t tell Bear Bait, but I have a pretty good measure that Squirrel is the smarter of my two sons.  And that’s saying something because big boy is sharp.  My little guy is staying near the fire, not looking like he’s paying attention at all but not missing a word.

When Jerry said he ran a school, I started asking a few extension questions and it didn’t take long to find out that, well, it really wasn’t so much a school as it was a church/homeschool group that took in kids who got kicked out of other schools.   Admirable. . . working with at-risk youth has been a key part of my professional life.  He gave a little chuckle about how their methods are a little unconventional, but praise Jesus, they work.  The next ten, fifteen minutes I hear how he and his family members who run the school have faith healed autism, tourettes, heart disease, demon possession, and a host of other issues.  I was eating it up.  The more he talked the more I asked and the more he told.  Great, friendly guy.  Invited me and Squirrel to their camp later because after the kids got back from a sunset vigil they were going to have church.   I shook his hand, explained that I promised little man a night hike, but thanks anyway.

Squirrel, never looking up from his stick and stone fort, gave a parting “Thank you, Jesus!” to Jerry as he headed off to spread Jesus to another campsite.  ’bout this time, the sun was dropping low.

Squirrel wanted me to take him to “the spot” one more time so we could watch the lights blink on in the river valley.  I-40 was on the horizon coming on like a string of white Christmas lights and it was just beautiful.  As we traipsed through the undergrowth back to camp in the dusk, the tinny sounds of Christian Contemporary music being blasted from a boom-box cut through the night.  The closer we got, the louder it was.  The prayer meeting was in full effect.

I made sure little man brushed his teeth before I tucked him into his hammock.  The moon will be full in a couple of days, so it was pretty bright even after the sun went down.  I gave him his stuffed Grobie and got him all snuggled in.  One more drink of water.  Then we settled down for the night.   It was 10:00 pm on the nose when they turned off the praise music.  Squirrel, still awake along with everyone else in the campground, murmured, “I know they’re getting their Jesus on, but it’s nothing but the devil in my mind right now.”  That cracked me up.  He’s more observant than I give him credit for.

(part 3) –>

 

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Squirrel on Mt. Magazine (part 1)

Thursday, driving Squirrel to school, he laid his criteria down upon me.   When I pitched the initial idea of a daddy-date, I really was thinking I’d be on the hook for some animatronic pizza and maybe seeing a new Marvel movie.  He started ticking off his list, though, and I got excited.

I offered him three possibilities:

  1. White Rock Mountain.  Gave him altitude, a moderately difficult trail around the top and maybe down Shores Lake Loop a ways, even had a base camp.  Upside – a little closer.  Downside – no restaurant.
  2. Devil’s Den State Park.  Not so much in the way of mountains, but very close.  Could hit a restaurant in Fayetteville on the way back maybe.   Upside – a lot closer.  Downside – no mountain.
  3. Mt. Magazine State Park.  Had everything he wanted, but was almost 3 hours away.  He opted for the mountain.

Standard protocol on a Kid Hike is that they have to make the shopping list.   He asked for a little help, so I gave him parameters but the list is all his.   Saturday morning, we woke up.  I got my Saturday mowing out of the way and threw the gear into the truck and off to the grocery store we went.

20170506_105103Saturday was a little bitter-sweet.  We found out on Friday that Momma transferred jobs, which was a great thing.  It opened up the opportunity for Squirrel to transfer schools.   He won’t be going to work with me next year.  Kinda sad about that.  Figured I’d have two more years to work at his school.  He didn’t take to me as easily as his brother did.  He’s a momma’s boy and that’s fine.  Bear Bait is my daddy’s boy.

I find that I’m more patient with the older boy because I understand him more.  He thinks like I think.  He feels like I feel.  Squirrel is a clone of his mother in just about every way.  There’s one way he’s pretty unique, though, and that is in his Love Language.  His main love language is gifts.  I used to interpret that as him just being greedy or spoiled, but it really doesn’t matter what the value of the gift is.  He just likes getting things from people he loves and he likes giving things to people he loves.

Since he rides to and from school with me every day, I end up taking him to the grocery store a lot.  I end up telling him ‘no’ a lot.   There’s always three, four things he just can’t live without.   I’m very much a “stick to the list” kind of guy.  I was sticking to the list when he brings me this $0.97 water pistol.   He wants it.  I think that’s just absurd.  I’ve been on countless camping trips, it’s just the two of us, what the hell does he need a dang water pistol for?   My mouth was all ready to let it go when I remembered this was his day.  What’s it going to hurt?  Sure, kid, throw it in.   You’d have thought I gave him a new car.

The trip down to Paris was beautiful and uneventful.   We stopped outside of Fayetteville for a cheeseburger and Squirrel chatted it up with some bikers at a gas station who let him look at their motorcycles.

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Made it to the State park around 2:00.  Checked in at the visitor’s center and I let him pick out one of their fancy little walking sticks and three badges for it as a starter set.  An Arkansas State Parks badge, a Mt. Magazine badge, and one for the highest point in Arkansas.   He was giddy.  The campground was full, but I really didn’t intend to stay there anyway.  We drove over to the Brown’s Spring picnic area and parked at one of my all-time favorite drop-camping sites.   Squirrel grabbed his stick, made sure I had mine, and we eased down a small little trail to my very all-time favorite sitting spot.

I first discovered this spot several years ago and the view from there is incredible.  It looks north out over the river valley and you can see the Boston Mountains colored onto the horizon like a picture postcard.

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We eased away from the edge and headed back with Squirrel in the lead. He wanted to go the top of Signal Point, so we got the maps out and I let him plot the next leg.

Around 4:00 we made it back to the truck and I began setting up camp while he worked hard at being a boy.   He gathered sticks and rocks, ran off to a nearby stream to fill his water pistol so he could shoot at sticks and rocks, borrowed my knife to whittle things, told me a million and one “facts” about nature that he made up on the spot.

He got hungry around 5 and began quizzing me about how I was going to find a restaurant up here on the mountain.  Was it more of a McDonald’s kind of restaurant or a dress-up kind of restaurant?  (More toward the latter, but trust me, we smell much better than the last time I ate there.)  What kind of food do they have? (you’ll find something)  Can we get dessert? (Sure, but what about the s’mores?) Can we get double dessert?

In all it was a pretty decent afternoon.  Things didn’t get all Flannery O’Connor strange until after dinner.

(part 2) –>

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Paternal Epiphany

My greatest paternal epiphany to date begins, not unusually, with Kat.  He’s been putzing out on me lately.  After two weeks of frigid monsoon April mayhem, May finally arrived like your first sane adult girlfriend and the weekend was going to be perfect.  Cool evenings, warm days, blue skies, full waterfalls.  I got some kind of text from him listing all the reasons he’s booked and I got to thinking.

The boys are now at the age where they’re just miserable to have together.  12 and 8.  It means the 12-yr-old acts like a man-sized 2nd grader whenever he’s around his brother and the 8-yr-old resorts to full-throttle attack mode as a way to assert his right to personal space and then the big one gets hurt because he won’t take a hint and starts yelling and then hulks out and goes all puberty-schitzo on everybody.  They’ll grow out of it in about 10, 15 years but there is a very real temptation to escape them.

You know you feel it, too, model parent readers.

But then Kat blocked off my first line of escape with excuses, so that idea was shot.  And, truth told, it is horridly unfair to Momma to leave her with that muddled mess of testosterone and partially-formed frontal cortexes.

It is hard, though, seriously hard to get them all out in the green together.  I can focus on keeping maybe one of them happy, safe, and comfortable at a time.  (You know, I need a husband. . . )  Momma is so out of her wheelhouse in the green that she’s a passenger only – and, let’s be honest here, but her happiness and comfort is the engine of the bus.  Once it runs out of gas, the vacation is way over.

It was mid-week, last week, as Momma and I were decompressing after an evening of particularly turbulent puberty – you know, door slamming and cracked-voice yelling and phone-grounding – when it hit me that there’s a way to do this.

I pitched it to her that part of Bear Bait’s problem, at least the non-biological part, was that all our family fun really did seem restricted by the lowest common denominator.  By necessity, we have to keep an 8-yr-old along and so Bear Bait is probably pushing back against that.  You know, quit treating me like a kid and all.   I brought up the idea of a date night.  Momma would take Bear Bait and, just the two of them, do whatever stuff they wanted to do.  I’d take Squirrel and do the same.  We’d share notes on Sunday.  She loved it.

When I asked Squirrel what he wanted to do, he didn’t even have to think about it.  He was very specific.  He wanted:

  • a mountain
  • a restaurant
  • a new hiking stick
    • badges to earn on his new hiking stick
  • a gift shop
  • camping overnight
  • hiking

I let Momma know that Squirrel’s date night was looking like an overnight trip and she thought it was a great idea (what?) and that I should do it.   I told her that it would likely mean that the big boy would want something similar when it was his turn with me.  She loved it.  (What??)

I went to Bear Bait and sized him up.  Boy will probably be taller than me by then end of the summer.  He’s already 5’6″ or so.  Weighs 125-ish.  He’s lost the middle-school pudge after a year of Jr. High track and taekwando.   I could throw a pack onto him and he would easily outlast me on any trail these middle-aged knees could take.  I pitched the idea to him and he loved it.  He wanted Momma to take him clothes shopping (“without Squirrel“) anyway.

I texted Kat and told him that I was a genius.  I just lined up two amazing hikes that will be fun for -me- still, after I make sure it is fun, safe, and comfortable for everyone else. . .  and . . . and . . . and everyone is happy about it!

The only place I know of that fits Squirrel’s list is Mt. Magazine State Park.  Next – the trip report.

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April showers bring mid-life crises

In between rain storms, as the clouds part enough to work in the yard, I’ve been putting the last few infrastructure touches on my garden.  Some of the seeds I put in the greenhouse last month have sprouted now, others were lost to the learning curve of too-damp soil and an inadequate greenhouse heating plan.  I’m on round two of germination.  All of my fruit trees made it through their first winter, though, and the blackberries are in full bloom.

When I should be tending to the HOA-mandated grass-length in my yard, what I’m really doing is what appears to be beating the hell out of myself and my new mountain bike.

I’ve been out three times with Kat on various trails now.   The last time, yesterday, was moderately successful from a medical standpoint (even if he did leave me wandering my way back out. . . one is never truly lost in the woods if you are already content and able to just stay there indefinitely, no?)   The last ride I ended up scratching my calves and thighs all to hell and ended the ride with a broken finger.   I would’ve gone to the emergency care clinic on the way back home, but I didn’t want to leave my new bike unsecured.   And besides, I told myself, what are they going to do with a broken finger anyway except give me one of those little metal foam thingies to wear?

My second ride left me with dinner-plate-sized bruises on my hips because that was where I tended to land.   I’ve since purchased a better set of padded shorts.

Momma looks at me with the kind of side-long wariness that indicates she’s probably like to say something, but counts her blessings that I’m not on a motorcycle or trying to pick up a redhead.  The boys are loving the unexpected first aid lessons that happen after each ride.  (“Hey, Squirrel, come splint daddy’s finger and bring me the peroxide.”)  My neighbors are casting significant looks at my front yard when they drive by to pick up their mail. . . but is it my fault that I can’t mow when it rains and when it isn’t raining, well, there’s trails I haven’t fallen down yet.   (okay, yes, I guess it is.)

To get through late Fall and Winter, I signed up for a martial arts gym.  Intermittent krav and jujitsu classes have been serving the dual purpose of catering to my little-man syndrome while also letting me sweat through coming to terms with my early 40’s through getting twisted and pummeled by folks almost half my age.  I’m going to have to let those classes slip until next Fall, though, because it is too pretty outside to be inside.  One thing that has significantly helped, though, and is why I mention this here. . . I spent a lot of time learning how to fall, practicing falling, and being dropped/thrown/rolled in those classes.   I didn’t realize how much that muscle memory helped me until I took up a hobby that seems to involve me falling off of things and landing on other hurty things.

I’ll end with this, because I know he reads it. . . but I wonder sometimes at Kat’s power of persuasion over me.   “Hey Mattdaddy. . do you like walking?”   (not particularly)  “Let’s put heavy things on our back and stomp up this mountain!”  (Yeah!)   “Hey, Mattdaddy, do you like riding bikes?”  (um..well..when I was 10.  Not so much since then.)  “Let’s do that, except on a mountain and with more falling down and bleeding!”  (Yeah!)   So I was walking my bike up a particularly steep (well, for me) incline because not only could I not find the right gear that allowed me to successfully counteract the persuasive force of gravity but my legs hurt and I was tired, it gave me time to reflect on why I keep getting into things that are – in the moment – so potentially miserable but so stinking fun at the beginning and end?

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Sprockets & Sermons

I got blood on my church shirt.

Wasn’t much.  Wasn’t on purpose, but still.

This Spring, it’s been impossible to get Kat to commit to a backpacking trip.  He went and got himself a new hobby, see.  We’ve done a lot of the trails around here, and he’s done more than I have.  There really just isn’t anything within reasonable “weekend backpacking trip” distance that we can grab packs and go.  At least nothing we haven’t done so often that (dare I say it?) it’s getting a little boring.

He ended up getting a mountain bike and that was the last I saw of him for . . well. . 2016 and the first quarter of 2017.  It snuck up on me that Northwest Arkansas has turned into a mountain biking destination. I’m not surprised and, well, neither is anyone who has ever gone into the green up here.  Lewis & Clark recently offered teachers in the area a 20% discount on bikes, and it is my birthday this week, so I bit.

Yesterday, I picked up my new Giant Talon 2.  I sent this picture to Kat and he sent me back a text to meet him at 7:00 a.m. at the Blowing Springs MTB Trail Head.  Told him I could come, but I had to be back at the house at 9:30 to get the boys ready for church.

9 miles and 90 minutes later, I had a new passion.  It was my first ever mountain biking trip.  I did alright.  Crashed hard twice, but not so bad that I had to stop riding.  Bloodied up my elbows.  Got the chain-oil tattoo on my right calf.  Made it to church, though (barely), and I’m still sore.  Probably should’ve put a little bandage on that elbow trail-rash before I put on my church shirt.  Can’t wait to go back, though.

I haven’t given up backpacking.  Nope.  Not at all.

But I wake up a good 3-4 hours before the rest of my sleepy family anyway.  And 20 minutes out the door can find me on some beautiful mountain biking trails.  Back in time for breakfast.

(and a shower)

((and ibuprofen))

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