Returning to the Ozarks

Growing up in the backwoods of Culp, Arkansas, I’ve always been enraptured by a quiet forest. As a child, I’d shuffle through fallen leaves and hop between the moss-blanketed boulders that surrounded our barely-there chicken house. I hummed along to birdsong and grappled with clinging poison ivy. There were no marked trails, but with all the wonders of a childhood in the woods, it’s hard for me to believe I didn’t start actively hiking until I graduated high school and moved to Lawton, Oklahoma. I was fortunate enough to explore the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge for eight years. The landscape spans over 59,000 acres and neighbors parts of the Fort Sill Army base. A home to American bison, elk, white-tailed deer and a herd of Texas longhorn cattle, the prairie sprawls golden across glimmering lakes and forests. This protected area is filled with hiking trails that I quickly mapped out in my mind. It was during this time of my life when I was first asked the question;

 “why do you hike alone?”

At the time, I chalked up the curiosity to Oklahoma being a different kind of “country” than the one in which I’d grown up. To me, playing in the woods was the same as playing in a park. Even better—there were no rules. I was never dismayed at less-than-perfect weather or lack of hiking partners. I still packed a bag with food and water, tugged on my hiking boots and asked my dog, Juniper—a now 7-year old chocolate lab—if she wanted to go for a ride. I let someone know where I was going and what time I’d be back. To anyone who objected, I made my case:

“I am a competent hiker. I have educated myself on this area and the wildlife here. I carry maps—on both paper and nifty hiking apps—so I know exactly where I’m going. I have tools for protection and a dog. If that answers all of your questions, can you please let me live?” 

Only kidding about that last part, of course, but the question grew tiring. In the defense of those who love me, I understand their concern. In addition to hiking alone in this world, I am also a female. In addition to hiking alone in this world and being a female, I am also a type one diabetic. For me, the chances of something going wrong on a hike might be higher than average. Still, I try to alleviate the worries of my loved ones by being as safe as I can. Blood sugar checks, extra snacks, checking in as often as possible. As my time in Oklahoma was nearing its end, I finally graduated from college and made plans for the future. A few months later, I said goodbye to the Wichitas. I decided to pursue a dream of mine: Living and working in Zion National Park.

There, I hiked some of the most famous trails in the country, including Angel’s Landing. I completed my longest solo hike thus far, 15 miles on Zion’s West Rim. Beneath those desert skies, I was surrounded by people from all walks of life who valued the silence of an empty trail just as much as I did, and I was constantly inspired by their camaraderie, braving the desert wilderness together. I came to know some of the more adventurous people there as my friends, and I listened intently to their stories of climbing, hiking excursions and camping in creek beds.

The smaller group I surrounded myself with there had adventures of our own, but we primarily took up joys like howling at the moon, reading books and painting canyon portraits. Zion taught me a lot about hiking, but I think it taught me more about how fiercely I could love people. I told stories of my own there, but every time I mentioned the lush greenery and glistening rivers that roll over my hometown hills, I was always met with skepticism. Very few people I interacted with knew the depth of Arkansas’ beauty. This was bewildering to me, but then again, I guess I didn’t know much about Utah before I visited for myself. Still, so many profoundly cinematic moments had taken place in my life with Arkansas as the illustrious scenic background.

For starters, summertime truly seems to glow here. Even after my travels, creekside at Blanchard Springs will always be one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve made unforgettable memories there of catching crawdads and sharing my grandmother’s homemade chocolate cake with my cousins. As a teenager, I’d go backroading down Boswell with my friends, crossing train tracks and keeping the river close by. As the time was approaching to bid farewell to the canyons, I finally made the decision to move back home for the first time in nearly a decade. With the newfound knowledge and refreshed respect I had for adventure, I felt excited to set foot on new Ozark trails.

Coming home, I realized that I had learned something vital about myself in the desert: Hiking alone may have been something I started because I love the comfortable quiet of the outdoors—and of course I still do—but there was another reason, too. If you’re at all familiar with the physical toll type one diabetes can have on someone, you should know that the mental toll is impossibly greater. One of the many occasional thought-spirals I used to have regarding my diabetes is the necessary and sometimes frequent stops I have to take while hiking. In order to hike safely, I monitor my blood sugar very closely and carry some type of snack and water. This is true for all hikers regardless of the functionality of their pancreas, but it could be life-threatening for someone with type one diabetes. This was an insecurity to me until I finally started communicating with the wonderful, understanding, thoughtful people around me. They listened to every situation, asked questions and never made me feel like a burden. Even though I still love solo hiking and strive to become stronger and more educated, it can also be a security blanket.

By the time I returned home to Arkansas, my confidence had grown, and I never again wanted to lend my mind to insecure ways of thinking. For a while, my brother was visiting. We had been looking forward to a home-hike since we reunited in Las Vegas a month prior. We traveled across the country together during the first week of December, car camping in various parks (and parking lots.) In my mind, it was the definition of adventure. And again, we found ourselves on another. The first trail we had the pleasure of blazing was the Bald Scrappy Loop in the greater Syllamo Mountain Bike Trail System near Mountain View, Arkansas. This trail system stretches over 50 miles through the Ozark wilderness and has the reputation among biking enthusiasts as a hidden treasure. For many bikers, their desired destinations lie out west, but since its opening in 2003, bikers come from all over the country to experience the surreptitious Syllamo Mountain Bike Trail.  Because of my deep inability to safely control a bike—even on pavement—I am grateful this bike trail also allows hikers. At the very least, I am a capable walker.

When we set out to hike that day, we actually intended on completing the less daunting White River Bluff Loop, a 4.5 mile trail beginning from the same parking lot about a mile down Green Mountain Road. What we didn’t know at the time was that the hiking trails are marked with different colored signs. The White River Bluff Loop is marked with green signs, while the Bald Scrappy Loop is marked with orange. Thanks to the app AllTrails, we realized less than a quarter-mile down the trail that we were in fact on the Bald Scrappy Loop. We assessed our water and food supply and decided it was a beautiful day for 7 miles instead of 4.5.

Quite frankly, the Bald Scrappy Loop welcomed us with open arms. Even in barren January, the quiet path winds over leaf-topped forest floors alongside delicate rock formations decorated with pine needles. With a toothy smile and a wagging tail, Juniper also accompanied us on this pleasant loop. The trail, sometimes beautifully faint, took us over trickling streams and smooth gladerock, as well. There are some days when you can feel the sun shining brighter than usual on you and the company you keep. This was one of those days.

After my brother left, it took some time for me to desire reacquainting myself with Arkansas. Having just spent the last five months in dormitory-style housing in which a moment by oneself could be considered an isolated incident, my newfound alone time was…jarring.  However, this time was vital—and continues to be so. It was during this time I began to recognize my prior reasoning for such a firm stance on hiking alone. It was during this time I began writing more than I have in my life, even more than when I was in Zion. I read books about witches finding themselves on deserted islands and poetry about the strength found in solitude. I reconnected with childhood friends, and I marveled at our opportunity to once again make summer plans together like we were children. I visited with my family, witnessed my grandmother’s baptism and finally, once again, found myself enchanted with my mountains.

Of course, I also had to relearn how to balance my relationship with the social internet. With free time, one scrolls. In Zion, we had to drive to the local coffee shop in order to have cellphone service, so you can imagine the adjustment. The point is, I had time. I had time to sit in my backyard and think, write and create. I had time to have difficult conversations with myself and set goals and boundaries alike.

With all of that, I also had time to plan my next hike. This would be the first hike I would be doing myself since my entire relationship with hiking had changed. Maybe it would be more of a relaxed stroll through the forest, but my time home thus far has done nothing if not teach me the value in slowing down. I decided to formally hike the White River Bluff Loop—and actually start at the right trailhead this time. The White River Bluff Loop led me through wooded canopies and along the tops of bluffs overlooking the White River. If you’re ever in need of a perfectly picturesque location to capture on camera, this trail has a stunning viewpoint. There is a world of things to experience in Arkansas, and I couldn’t be more grateful for my time here to explore everything it has to offer.

Once, when I was hiking in Zion, I ran into two older couples hiking together. They asked if I could take their photo, and we talked for a while. One of the women suddenly looked surprised and asked if I was hiking alone. I nodded my head and prepared for her concern.

“Wow, I love that!” she said. “It takes such confidence to hike alone!”

I sincerely thanked her, said goodbye to the group and immediately wrote down what she said—because she’s right. I would like to believe that hiking by myself all these years taught me how to be alone—and to be quite happy with it, too—but I didn’t realize hiking with friends would take practice and confidence, as well. Doing anything you love takes confidence. In loving something, there is always risk, and in adulthood, sometimes you have to talk yourself into doing things you love. I can honestly say that every time I’ve talked myself into hiking—whether alone or with loved ones—I’ve never once regretted it.

With only two trails back home under my belt, I’m eager for the next one. As the weather warms and the forests fill with green again, there is no place I’d rather be than Arkansas in bloom.