When I was a kid there was a girl that lived just up the street from me. She was a couple years older and, because so few girls lived in our neighborhood, she had to tomboy it up just to have kids to play with. Eventually we grew up; the days of roaming the neighborhood in packs of pre-teen adventure were over. I thought she was just plain pretty. Anyway, we stayed friends until she graduated and had that kind of thing where we were always good for a hang-out date or as a fall-back for the school dance, but it never had the chance to turn into anything serious.
The Butterfield Trail at Devil’s Den State Park is kind of like that. Pretty as the girl next door, but doesn’t really have an exotic air of the unknown that gets the blood pumping. Still, it is good for a weekend if you don’t have anywhere else to go and you’re just hanging around.
I know that most reviews of it consider it a strenuous trail, and there are a few spots that get the sweat pumping. But portions of it, when done just right, make for perfect hikes with the boys. There’s a parking area where the trail crosses Hwy 74, just outside of the Ozark National Forest. If you park there, it is only about four miles through Quaill Valley down to Rock Hole Camp. Our boys love to boulder in the valley and explore the cave-like crevices in the bluffs. Blackburn creek has several nice swimming holes for them to goof around in.
Just like their daddies tend to do, Bear Bait and Kit were already planning the next hike before the river water had dried out of their underwear. None of us had been down to the park since spring floods ripped through there, so we decided to just take a Saturday and hike the boys down to Rock Hole and back the next day. (But Mattdaddy, you may ask, isn’t there a wonderful swimming pool at Devil’s Den State Park? There is! And it looks really nice and refreshing. My boys have never dipped a toe in it, though.)
We explored the park a little before hitting the trail. Lee Creek was dry as a bone – so dry that the big waterfall was just a wall. And the suspension bridge broke my heart. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and start fixing it up, but I guess they’re waiting on . . . well, I don’t know what they’re waiting on. Man was it hot, too. The trail was well shaded, though, and about a mile in we could hear thunder rumbling in the distance.
After this month of 100+ degree days, it seems silly to say it, but we were all real surprised at how dry it was. The boys have done this section of the trail enough times that it is a pretty quick hike for them. We were all so intent on finding a swimming hole that they didn’t even want to stick around and rock climb any in Quaill Valley. (That isn’t a typo, by the way. According to Ernst’s Arkansas Hiking Trails it is named after park employee Jack Quaill.)
In our eagerness, we turned off-trail a little too early and ended up on a wide & dry section of Blackburn creek a little bit north of Rock Hole Camp. We found a tepid pool that was just about chest-deep and spent the rest of the evening soaking in the water while the boys jumped off of a submerged rock and splashed around.
Dinner was hot dogs for the boys, but for the grown folks I made something a little special. I took a package of just-add-water corn bread mix and made thin cornbread pancakes. Wrapped the brats in the cornbread and chowed down. I made sure to bring mustard and Kat swore up and down he had a food bag with ketchup in it when he left the house. Something happened to it between the house and the trail that was just mystifying.
I mean, I can’t imagine why anyone would possibly sabotage the chance for him to have tasty tomato-flavored goodness on his dinner. I do know that not a single raccoon ended up hanging out in our camp that night, though. I wonder if the two events are related? Nah. I mean, what kind of hiking buddy would revoke someone’s ketchup privileges?
Just as the day was approaching perfection, Bear Bait was walking back to the swimming hole when he just started caterwauling. He was screaming, “Ow! Dad! Ahhh!” and of course, we all went on Daddy-alert. When he said something bit him, my heart sank. We didn’t see any snakes, but we were walking on a rocky creek bed. In a quick scan, I saw he wasn’t hopping and there didn’t appear to be anything slithering or crawling away. That’s when I saw the yellow-jacket crawling on his shirt. I ordered him to “Stand Still” in that voice all good Dads have when the shit is about to hit the fan. It had to be instinctual, because his reaction was to immediately freeze and stop making all noise. (Something he’s only managed only a few times in his life while fully conscious.) I walked over and flicked the offending insect off of his shirt, then pulled it up to check the sting. Sure enough, a welt the size of my thumb was already rising red and angry. It looked like he was hit two or three times. He was crying softly now, no longer scared but definitely in some pain. Grandpa already had a bite & sting kit out and was looking over the instructions on some interesting-looking suction apparatus. (It didn’t appear to do anything, but by evening you could hardly tell he’d been stung – so who knows? I’m betting it was the benadryl.)
First time Bear Bait has ever been stung by a flying insect before, so we were all watching him – waiting to see if he’s going to have a reaction. My dad carries around an epi-pen because he’s one bee sting away from all kinds of emergency, so that was definitely on my mind. I rubbed his head and said, “Sorry, buddy. That wasn’t any kind of fun.” He sniffed and said, “Why did it sting me? I want to go home now.” Since it didn’t appear to be turning into any kind of allergic reaction, I started digging around for some Benadryl cream. Learned something a few seconds after I bit open the little packet . . . that cream separates into liquid when it gets above a certain temperature. And man it tastes nasty. Managed to get some on him, though, and said, “Well, kiddo, you really want to go home?”
“Yeah.” Then he paused, thinking about it. “Will we have to walk all the way back to the truck first?”
“Never mind, then.” And off he ran to swim in the water. By the time I put him in pajamas that night, the swelling had disappeared and he was bragging about getting stung.
Close to darkfall, we found a few trees clustered together close enough to hang the hammocks. Since we had Kit’s grandpa with us, that made for five hammocks again. Only one was equipped with a rain tarp. With maybe an hour before dark, some texts came through from Momma. She was getting pounded with thunder an hour or so north of us and was worried about her boys. I couldn’t get a call out, but a few texts made it through and it looked like we were going to miss the rain. We did end up sketching out a plan where, if we did wake up to midnight rain, we could at least keep the boys dry under the one tarp. Never happened, though, so all was good.
I left my jungle hammock at home, not expecting rain. The bugs were annoying enough that I tied a bandana so that it covered Bear Bait’s ears and knotted at his forehead. He looked like a failed gangster experiment, but it kept the humming out of his ears. My hammock and Bear Bait’s were strung in a tight V, so my head was real close to his.
Between the frogs, the cicadas, the owls, and the coyotes it was the loudest night I’ve ever spent outdoors. I could tell he was having a hard time going to sleep once dark fell. I asked him, “You okay?” His reply was, “Yeah. I’m just a little scared.” First time I’ve seen him get spooked outside, so I turned over and stretched my arm across his chest. He reached up and held my hand and we swayed there a bit, listening to the noises. After each new or distinctly different noise, he’d whisper, “What’s that?” I’d identify it. Bullfrog. Insects. Barn owl. Another frog. Coyotes far away.
After a little while, the spaces between questions grew wider and his questions softer. Before long, it was just me listening to him breathe. I could already tell the nearby rain was going to make for a colder night than I’d planned. Left all the sleeping bags at home, but we did have fleece blanket that I cut in half. Bear Bait is still small enough that I can wrap him up pretty good in his half, so I did that. He’s a heavy sleeper, so it was easy to swap out my wool cap for his skeeter-blocking bandana. Once I was convinced he was warm enough, I curled up in a ball and tried to get my piece of the blanket to stretch over me.
Didn’t work, but I eventually lapsed into the kind of broken dream-chased sleep I sometimes get when on the trail. It isn’t the same as not being able to sleep, but more of a protective half-sleep that reminds me of when my boys were infants and slept in a crib beside my bed. Various noises would bring me into just enough awareness to check on them before slipping back into scrambled dreams. I always wake up refreshed, though.
As always, Kit woke up early and crawled into his daddy’s hammock to try his level best to be patient while the rest of us stirred. I woke up soon after and draped my half of the blanket over Bear Bait who, we knew, wouldn’t grace us with his presence until after breakfast was made.
It was just a gorgeous morning. Almost nearly cool from the night, a beautiful haze misting over the dry creek bed. We dressed the boys for a morning swim and then divided up to explore. Kat and his father-in-law took the right fork and walked down to Rock Hole camp, easing our fears that the flooding had washed it away. Funny how you see what you expect to see – we were convinced that our swimming hole yesterday was a flood-remodeled version of our favorite spot. They also found a copperhead sunning itself on a flat rock, so we didn’t take the boys down that way. I took the boys up the left fork and they were very proud with themselves for discovering hoof prints and manure. I swear they were like Boone and Crockett explaining to me how this had to be a campsite for cowboys.
We went back to the tepid pool that hadn’t cooled much over night – and swam until they got hungry for lunch. Fed them what we had left of hot dogs, pancakes, and the crumbly remains of a Lunchable. Refilled every water bottle we had – considerably more water than we’d ever normally carry on a 3 mile stretch. But it was hot and the boys were sweating profusely before they ever started walking.
Up, out, and through. Kat and I were walking behind the boys on that last stretch of road between the parking area and where the trail picks up through the National Forest when Kit reached over and grabbed on to Bear Bait’s hand. They finished the trail like that.
He was asleep before we hit 540. Woke him up for a celebratory cheeseburger at the Greenland exit, then he was out again before we got home.