I had made it to the Southern edge of the Ozark National Forest, about a 2 hours’ drive via the interstate from my destination in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A quick analysis of the map confirmed that I could enjoy a thrilling drive through the Ozarks and would only be adding an hour to my trip! Onward north via Arkansas Route 7 it was. I knew I had reached a mecca for drivers when I encountered this friendly sign:
53 miles of hills and curves! What a wonderful few hours I had ahead of me! The time was 7:20, and I was soldiering on, hoping to find a nice vista somewhere in the Ozarks before the sun had set. Not more than a few miles in, I came across a stone/dirt road to my left, labeled as Pope County Route 70. A labeled county highway, it had to be navigable, right? I turned off onto the road, and set a comfortable cruising speed at between 17 and 20 mph. While the road was in the middle of nowhere, and likely saw on the order of a single digit number of travelers weekly, it was in very navigable condition indeed.
Pope County Route 70, known locally as Dare Mine Road
In just a few minutes, I encountered deer, hawks and of course all kinds of other birds and other critters of the forest. I turned the radio off, lowered the windows a few inches, and crept on, in awe of the forest around me, and in eager anticipation of coming across a scenic view from which I could snap a stellar photo. I still had decent, if spotty, reception, and was able to keep tabs on the Phillies game during these first few miles. While the road was wide enough at some spots to turn around utilizing a 7 or 9 point turn, I didn’t want to backtrack. I made sure to check out the GPS – and had a path selected. I would continue on Dare Mine Road, taking a right on Indian Creek Road, and subsequently making a right on Silver Creek Trail. This final road would have me back on Route 7 well within the hour. My plan to see the Ozarks was coming to fruition. It was not yet 7:40.
As I continued on Dare Mine Road, the conditions slowly deteriorated, but were still easily passable, as you can see from this photo, approximately 3 miles into my trip:
I trudged further into the forest, and the deteriorating conditions continued deteriorating, giving way to portions of the roadway which were laden with rocks and boulders. It was obvious that someone had, at some point, maintained the road, however, as this was all still passable. I had, however, reduced my cruising speed from 17-20 in 3rd gear to 10 in 2nd gear, making occasional trips down to the single digits in first gear in order to get through particularly rocky stretches. Another mile in, and I reached a fork in the road. GPS indicated that I go straight, to get over to Indian Creek Road, however, that path did not appear easily cross-able. I stopped my Jetta and embarked on foot to survey my options.
Several creeks converged in this area, and for me to proceed onward to Route 7, I was going to have to cross them. Choice 1 offered a direct path across the stream which formed as two others met, yet was wider, featured places up to a foot deep, and was formed of a bed of loose rocks. Choice 2, while necessitating that I cross 2 streams, proved far easier. The first stream would be forded by the Jetta. At this point of the forest, the loose rocks had not yet settled, and my tires would be gliding across far more stable rock. The depth was similar, while the width was not nearly as daunting. Most enticingly, however, was the paved bridge I noticed which would allow me to traverse the second, larger stream which formed up to create the stream I would have had to ford in Choice 1.
Choice 2 it was. I plodded forward methodically, and upon making it successfully across the first stream, stopped for a triumphant photo.
A half mile further down the road, I crossed a campground, which had been recently utilized – as there were several empty cases of Miller Lite and a few cans strewn about. A good sign – someone else had been here, and has successfully left.
Only a few miles south of the merger with Silver Creek Trail, I proceeded cautiously, in anticipation of finding the trail shortly. It was beginning to get dark, and I had lost reception. Thankfully, the map app on the iPhone still works without reception, and I kept a steady eye on my little blue dot as I paced forward in the Jetta, by now proceeding at a maximum speed of 8 mph, with most travel done just above idle in first gear.
While technology was on my side, remoteness and nature were not. The road became significantly less traverse-able with each 100 feet. Small rocks and boulders gave way to stretches of road which were laden with rocks, elevation change, and curvature. It became common that I would need to stop my car, get out, and survey exactly how I would proceed before doing so. Not only did I have to contend with rocks, fallen trees were commonplace on the trail.
While the above log was relatively easily removable from the path, another one a few hundred yards up began the half hour of hell that was to await. The log was easily over a foot in diameter, and fully crossed the path. While I am not feeble, I am far from a weight lifter, and in approaching the log, I felt the creeping specter of doubt filling my soul, as an inability to move this log likely meant that I was shacking up in my car for the evening, to either make an attack plan in the morning, or to turn around and begin the trip back.
The log was crawling with bugs, and this deep in the forest, snakes and other dangerous critters couldn’t have been far behind. I hoped to use just one hand to somehow get the mighty trunk rolling, but was unable. In a desperate act, I grabbed the log with both hands, grunted a grunt which would make Monica Seles proud, and lurched back as the log gave way to my strength. I threw it over the edge of the road, and enjoyed a clear path!
A few more hundred yards of rocky, hilly terrain and a few more moved logs later, I was right at the junction of Indian Creek Road and Silver Creek Trail. The problem, however, was that Silver Creek Trail was nowhere to be found. Once my blue dot has passed the intersection, I parked the car, grabbed a flashlight, and walked backwards a few hundred yards in the hopes of finding a path I wasn’t able to see from behind the now fogging windshield. No luck.
As I turned around to head back to my Jetta, for the first time on the trip, fear of the unknown and doubt that I would reach my destination had entered my mind. In the still darkness of the forest, I walked back to my car to develop a plan B.
My Jetta’s tail lights dimly visible in the distance as I searched in vain for Silver Creek Trail.
I reviewed the map, and determined that there was another trail, a few more miles up the road, which would get me back to AR Route 7. This one was known as Gunter’s Trail, and offered me the best bet for salvation. By this point, the road required the most delicate touch, and the torquey nature of my Jetta’s diesel engine coupled with a very short first gear in a manual transmission worked wonders. I did stall the car a few times trying to be too gentle with some particularly rough patches, but plodded on well enough. I had reached the point of the planet where Gunter’s Trail was to be, and to my dismay, it was not there to be found.
At this point, my 185 mile cruising range upon entering the forest had dwindled to 110 miles, owning mainly to my primary use of first gear and slow speed of travel, and it was at this point I began taking stock of my food and water supplies. I had 2 cups of warm yogurt, a pound of peanut butter, a half gallon of water and a liter of coke. I would be fine if I was unable to make it out of the forest that evening and would have to turn around the next day. In a worst case scenario, I would get stuck somewhere, have to walk to a place of the trail where I had reception (which by this point was a solid 3 or 4 miles in the opposite direction), and call AAA to get my dumb northeastern ass out of the Ozarks. In any scenario, I had ample food and water for a brief stay in the forest, although I very much wanted to avoid that ending.
The conditions of the road had “reverse plateaued” if you will, and were not getting worse, although it was harder for them to do so. I made it another half mile up Indian Creek Road until I got to the base of a moderate climb. I took out the GPS again, and analyzed the route I had ahead of me:
I was the blue dot, and I needed to get to the solid white line at the top of the image. It was roughly 2-3 miles, but figured to be a test of both myself and my vehicle. Typically, such curvature in the mountains is a sure fire sign of significant elevation change, massive rock formations, or both. I wasn’t exactly sure I was going to make it up to AR 123, but I knew I was going to give it a shot.
It was around this time that I received a text message from my buddy Paul. He was trying to negotiate a trade in our fantasy football league, and is trying to get me to give up Peyton Manning for Adrian Peterson. A shock of shocks, I had completely ignored the phone’s capabilities as a communicator, and had been solely relying on it as a navigator for the last hour. A sign I was near civilization! Here in the forest, I was digging into my human past to think of surviving, while back on the East Coast, things were chugging along as normal; fantasy football was the concern, not surviving. I decided to give Paul a call to give him the update on my shituation. Questioning of my motives in getting this far off the path quickly gave way to hearty laughter at my light mood and reassurances that I would be okay. Reception faded quickly, and I had to get back to the task at hand.
I proceeded at an even more methodical pace than before, navigating the turns at a walker’s pace, and being sure to be very steady on the brakes during my descents. To my astonishment and immense relief, however, the road slowly improved in condition. As I was nearing the highway, the amount of travel this road saw had increased, and the road miraculously became easier and easier to transverse.
By the time I was a mile from AR 123, the road had turned to good condition, and I was able to resume travel at a clip in the 15 mph region, provided that the road was straight and flat. A few minutes later, I had finally reached a paved road. Arkansas Route 123. The savior of savior and king of kings. As I was creeping cautiously back to the highway, I noticed a sign facing the opposite direction of Indian Creek Road. I assumed it would read something like “Danger,” or “4 Wheel Drive Only,” or “Good Luck.” Using the driest of senses of humor however, the sign only warned of the narrowness of the roadway:
It’s not the best picture, but that sign reads “One Lane Road.” Thanks for the heads up.
The time was 9:50 and my cruising range had dwindled to 80 miles. Fayetteville was about 100 miles away. I quickly called Paul, and told him to “Call off the Hounds, Brother!” I was back in familiar territory!
I had another 2 hours, largely themselves of curvy, hilly, scenic mountain roads, ahead of me, through charming mountain towns such as Jasper, AR and Kingston, AR. I saw not a soul in these settlements, although I did pass a few inns and eateries which looked appealing, but had all long since closed for the day.
Finally reaching the base of the Ozarks just east of Fayetteville, the odor of spent brakes wafting into the cabin, my fuel gauge was holding steady at a purported 1/32’d of a tank. Only 20 miles to Fayetteville and fuel! I made it with well over a gallon to spare, and fueled up, got some food and found a place to stay.
I had wanted to hike at some point, somewhere on the trip, but feel now that I have had my fill of pure, unadulterated adventure on the trip. A lone venture into the unknown, I ended up spending 2 and a half hours and traveling about 15 miles to go about 8 miles towards my destination. It was harrowing, exciting, frightening, and visceral, yet was probably the most alive I’ve felt yet. I don’t want to do something so foolish again, but am so very, very glad that I did it once.
I traveled from the white dot at the bottom middle of the screen to the green pin towards the top. The purple line represents travel along AR routes 7 and 123, a distance of approximately 8 miles. My path, however, was not able to be routed by any mapping app, and consisted of a drive west on the faintly labeled Dare Mine Road, followed by a trip north on Indian Creek Road. To give you perspective on my location, consider this zoomed out view of the same area:
The same white dot and green pin from the previous photo indicate my starting and ending points for the trip through the trails of the Ozarks.
I had planned on playing 2 rounds today, but will likely only get 1 in before heading up to Missouri for the evening. No worry, as I can get Missouri and Kansas out of the way tomorrow before starting my trek to the Southwest. The great American adventure continues!