Mount Nebo Bench Trail
This is what happens when you send a first-time backpacker into the wilds of Arkansas with little more than a tent, some beef jerky and a pat on the back—oh, and absolutely zero technology
August 10, 2016, 10:53 a.m.
I am going on a hike in the heat of Arkansas summer and camping somewhere, alone, overnight. I, the former pageant queen, the lover of donuts and air conditioning, am going to hike some unknown number of miles into the Ouachita National Forest, using not a trace of technology (only a map and a compass), sleep in a tent, and hike back out.
I don’t even know what to pack. But I’m quite certain that whatever it is, I don’t have it.
August 12, 2016, 10:56 a.m.
My mom texts me a picture of hiking boots, saying “I know they’ll fit you.”
My mom often sends me pictures of clothing she’s thinking about buying me, and when I don’t like things, I try to be diplomatic and say something like, “For you?” This time I reply, “I don’t like hiking boots but you are so sweet to think of me.” Ten or more minutes go by and I have an epiphany. I text back, “OH WAIT! For my upcoming camping trip?”
“Yes,” she replies.
I am so obviously going to rock this trek.
August 16, 2016, 10:00 a.m.
I meet with my editors and Arshia, the photographer I learn will be accompanying me and capturing the glory of the weekend on Polaroid (in keeping with the low-tech nature of this experiment).
Both editors are outdoorsy types, and they tell Arshia and me that they can loan us backpacks, a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tarps, ponchos … the list is exhaustive. And dumb! Who needs sleeping pads and tarps? Whatever. And then they tell us we’ll need food and probably a camp stove. Camp stove?
“What’s wrong with jerky?” I ask. “I can see it now: 24 hours of jerky.”
“You could do jerky,” they reply, but their faces seem to reflect the thought that I am crazy.
Whatever, whatever, whatever.
August 19, 2016, 5:17 p.m.
Arshia comes to my house for a dry run on the tent assembly. We are going to camp out tomorrow, just four days after picking our destination, which we agree simply gives us less time to be nervous.
I’m pretty comfortable with the little springy rods that hold up tents today, but I don’t want to take the time to stake the tent in my front yard, so I just run the rods through the sheaths and don’t put the tent up completely. It lies on the ground like a deflated balloon.
The Hindenburg stares up at us sadly from the ground. But I’m absolutely positive that when the time comes (tomorrow!), I’ll be totally successful making a beautiful home of that tent.
“I just don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into,” my husband tells me.
Have I mentioned whatever?
August 20, 2016, 4:16 p.m.
Arshia arrives to whisk me away. We go to Target for last minute supplies—you know, jerky. Applewood-smoked bacon jerky. And hand sanitizer. And $4 pillows that we can throw away if they get too icky.
We program the address into Arshia’s phone, and we’re off. We both know it’s supposed to be a techless trip, but we’re not actually hiking yet, right? RIGHT?
We are lost. Not lost lost. We’re in the park. Somewhere. Driving around. And the stupid maps function on Arshia’s phone isn’t helping because there’s no exact address for “entry onto the bench trail where you can park your car and hike to your campsite, where everyone thinks you’re going to die.” We see a pavilion crafted from natural rock hung with chandeliers that look like they were made from old barrels, and as we walk up to the map on a display stand, we realize there is a wedding going on. And there are tuxedoed Corgis. I want to be respectful of their special day—they are taking pictures behind the pavilion with the incredible backdrop of the sun just beginning to set around the peaks of Mount Nebo—but there is a bathhouse just to the left of where the happy couple is being photographed. A BATHHOUSE. This may be my last opportunity for a civilized potty for the next 18 hours, so I stride past the bride and groom shamelessly, my Mom’s hiking boots thunking on the pavement.
We go back the way we came, and lo and behold! There’s the entrance to the bench trail, right along the road we drove up on our way to the summit. Whatever. What matters is we are here, and we are parked, and—so far—the rain has held off.
It’s raining. We were dry until we got to the campsite, me hiking along the trail, wearing some kind of travel backpack (it’s not mine) and carrying a sleeping bag (it’s not mine) in one hand, the tent (it’s not mine) in the other, and a pillow (I just bought it so it’s totally mine) under my arm. I even stopped at an area called Varnell Springs, a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide water to downtown Dardanelle, to pontificate on the value of said CCC to post-Depression America, especially in Arkansas (where had it not been for the progressive program, my grandfather would never have met my grandmother, and the all-important me would never have been born).
But once we arrive at the very first campsite (why walk further than necessary?), and I start unloading and eyeing the actually really nice tent pad (is that what they’re called? The little cleared area, bounded by wood and raked evenly for nice tent placement?), the heavens open and shower us. I needed water anyway.
I have no way to tell what time it is. I did think to go through my watches, knowing that for years I’ve only used my phone to tell the time and that I wouldn’t have that convenience on this trip, but all of the batteries in my watches were dead. I was going to ask my husband to borrow one of his … but I forgot.
I set up the tent without incident. Unless you call cursing loudly and emphatically as the tent stakes repeatedly claw their way out of the soft, wet ground “incident.” The front little porchy thing (an extended flap for entertaining purposes? Heck, I don’t know) is lopsided. Whatever. It’s up, isn’t it?
Getting darkish p.m.
The sun’s about to set for good, so if I’m going to see anything I’d better get on it. I make sure my pen and notebook are in the easy-to-access outside pocket of my backpack, and I put on my headlamp flashlight (a leftover from the days I dreamed of going on The Amazing Race). I look at my water bottle, and it’s big. Heavy. We’re just going on a little traipse, so I’m sure I’ll be okay without it. I leave it behind.
Current dirt level: Mild. I’ve got some mud making its way up my mom’s boots, a couple of smudges on my calves, a dot here and there on my forearms.
Current humidity level: Soup. The paper I’m writing on is more akin to freshly-used paper towels than the sharp crispness of my usual notebook.
I find a bug in my hairline. It’s not a tick. It’s not a tick. It’s not a tick. I hear an unrecognizable chattering in the woods. I see deer tracks. Do deer chatter? Do ticks? I wish I could Google it or text my husband (a middle school teacher I affectionately call Mr. Science) and ask him. But my iPhone sits securely in Arshia’s car, as promised.
There are blue diamond-shaped signs affixed to trees along the trail, and I wonder what they mean. The wind sighs through the treetops, and there are mushrooms and lichened rocks and big pink-stemmed plants (something else I’d like to Google), and I feel a bit like Alice walking around Wonderland. I’d love to take a selfie, here in the woods at dusk. But I can’t. So I stare around me, actively working to imprint this magical moment in my memory.
Quite darkish p.m.
The chirping of cicadas is one of my very favorite things about living in the South, and my little insect friends don’t let me down, even here on the mountain. We were trying to walk to the “seasonal waterfall” (about a six-inch hike along the bench trail on the map I printed from my computer at home), but it’s getting darker and darker and it must be 8:30 at night and I haven’t had dinner and I’m hungry.
And thirsty, now that I think about it. Some water would be nice. But you need water bottles for water. WHATEVER.
We head back toward the campsite, and my headlamp isn’t as bright as I would like it to be and I walk into a spiderweb and a bug flies up my nose and I REALLY WISH I HAD SOME WATER, but there are lightning bugs amongst the trees, and they look somewhat like fairy lights tempting me to follow them.
But unless they have an indoor potty and air conditioning, they can forget it.
Late, late dinnertime p.m.
We sit at our picnic table, and the generic drinking water is refreshing and the applewood-smoked bacon jerky is delicious. I don’t know if it’s because I’m tired and it’s late or if that jerky really is little bits of manna from piggly angels.
Arshia and I hear music wafting in from somewhere, but it’s too quiet—too elusive—to tell what kind of music it is or where it’s coming from. We hear musical female laughter, too. Have our fairy lights manifested into humanoid form? Will we be visited by wee folk tonight? It is so dark now that a whole tribe of ancient Celts could come upon us and we wouldn’t see them until they were sitting on our heads.
I pull out surprise marshmallows and Arshia pulls out the camp stove. I have zero idea what I’m doing here. Instructions on the canister are:
1. Before use always inspect canister for damage. (What would that look like, exactly?)
2. Keep away from all sources of ignition. (Then how the heck am I gonna light it?)
3. Close the appliance control valve. (WTF is the “appliance control valve”?)
4. Screw down hand-tight only. (Screw what down how?)
5. Avoid cross-threading …
There are more instructions but they are far beyond my comprehension. I pop the black plastic top off, aiming away from my face so I don’t die.
I screw this weird metal claw thing on to the top, set the whole contraption down on the picnic table, and light a match.
I turn this little crank on the side until I hear a gush of air, then light another match. WHOOSH! Do I still have eyebrows? I don’t know. I don’t have a mirror to look in.
But I have marshmallows. Seared black on the outside, with a perfect smoky taste, gooey on the inside. Arshia doesn’t normally like marshmallows, but she likes mine. I. Am. A. Goddess.
A goddess who needs to … evacuate her bladder.
We have to put the food out of reach of bears, right? And they can smell through a tent, right? The car is clearly the only safe place to store our consumables. And since we’re going to the car anyway, we might as well take one last trip to the bathhouse, right?
Unbelievably dark p.m.
Arshia and I arrive back at the campsite. We IMMEDIATELY hear a growl. I look at her and she says, “Yeah. That just happened.” We throw off our shoes and dive into our tent, zipping up that surely bear-proof flap as quick as we can. I realize I have done no research on what kind of predators live in these parts. Bears? Wolves? And I have no idea what to do if you encounter one—play dead? Scream at it? Hit it on the nose like you would a shark?
Instead, Arshia and I bed down quietly. We kill ant after ant after ant. Liberate a few grasshoppers from their tently prison. I pass her The Alchemist, a book I know she loves, a fable about how when you are on the path to your destiny, the universe conspires to help you achieve it.
I hope our destiny is not to be eaten by a bear.
Morning time a.m.
I awaken to yet another full bladder. While I usually wake up to an alarm and go to the bathroom first thing because that’s what you do, then eat breakfast because that’s what you do, I am much freer out here on the trail. And, I decide, I will give in to that freedom. For the first time in more than half a day in the “wilderness,” I pee in the woods. Just like that bear last night does daily.
I’m not hungry yet, and I have no schedule to adhere to, so I simply don’t eat. Instead, Arshia and I walk in the direction of the waterfall and see a side path marked with green diamonds. No thanks, I think, figuring that those signs mean the offshoot is more difficult than the trail we’re on. We come across Fern Lake, a little inlet coated in what looks to me like green sludge. I remember my husband telling me that algae is actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but it looks too much like the Nickelodeon slime from my childhood to me. Arshia asks how long until we hit the waterfall, and when I pull out the map I realize we have somehow passed it.
“Maybe we were supposed to go up that path marked ‘treacherous,’” I say.
“Um, I think it said ‘strenuous,’” she replies, and I don’t care one bit for her sassy tone of voice.
We turn around and head back to the strenuous path (she was right, whatever), and my eyes follow the trail up a long, steep climb. But I promised myself we’d see that waterfall today, and by golly, I’m going to do it.
The way up is beautiful. The gorges are filled with colossal rocks and the view into the valley is stunning. I mentally begin singing “Going On a Bear Hunt,” but after our close encounter last night, I figure I better keep that tune to myself.
Many times I stop on the strenuous route up, thinking I hear the trickling of water. Many times I am wrong. The map does say “seasonal” waterfall, but there’s been so much rain lately, how could it not be flowing?
We’ve been hiking for about 10 years up this path, and when I look up at the sky, I see the moon is still out.
We hike another 10 years or so and then I stop suddenly. I make Arshia stop. And there it is.
The sound of a trickle.
We turn the corner and instead of a rushing, gushing deluge, we are treated to a trickle.
The path doesn’t go all the way up to the waterfall itself, but I am hot and have not walked all this way for nothing. I scale the rocks, stand right in the middle of the trickle, and survey this mountain that I have climbed. The fact that it does not actually belong to me is, in itself, one big whatever. At this moment, I own it.
Still really early morning, I’m guessing a.m.
We return to camp. Arshia leaves to take a load to the car while I disassemble the tent. “Can you do that by yourself?” she asks me.
“I think so,” I tell her. “Most of it, anyway.”
I strike the tent. Fold it up and roll it up and even make it fit in its tiny little travel bag. I roll up the sleeping bag Arshia couldn’t figure out how to pack, and I successfully put it in its bag, too. I pull out the stakes, fold up the tarp and saddle up with all the bits of our camp that remain.
Arshia is not back yet. I hope she didn’t get eaten by a bear.
I head toward the trailhead. As I walk, I realize that I packed up camp, by myself. I didn’t get eaten by a bear in the night and
I didn’t fall off the cliff up to the waterfall, and I am walking out of these woods just the slightest bit dirtier than normal—but leaps and bounds more confident about my ability to rely on myself. To survive when people think I can’t and to actually enjoy myself even when I don’t have any “entertainment” to occupy my time.
I encounter Arshia. She is not bear-eaten.
“How about McDonald’s?” I ask.