South of Kansas City happens to be a town called Fayetteville, AR. A couple months ago, John found an online quiz that suggests towns to consider living in, based on one’s lifestyle and desired amenities. Fayetteville was the top suggestion for both of us. Neither of us had ever heard of Fayetteville, and knew virtually nothing of Arkansas. Since we were passing the town on the highway, we took a quick detour to check it out. The University of Arkansas is located there, so we wandered around the university business district. I walked through the maze of a used bookstore, the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was in college. Signs indicated the direction of the historic downtown, which also offers a farmers’ market. I later learned from the local NPR affiliate that the town also has a food coop; we had stocked up on food in Kansas City, so we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. With the intellectual stimulation offered by universities, availability of fresh food and proximity to two national forests, I understand why this town floated to the top of the recommendations for me to live in.
After our short look at Fayetteville, we drove to Devil’s Den State Park, where John had intended we stop for lunch. After reading about all it had to offer, we decided to stay three nights. Hiking trails are available in many different lengths, ranging from a 1.5 mile interpretive trail to a 15 mile loop, available as a day hike or an overnighter. Additionally, the park has a lot of interesting geology on display, and many opportunities to learn about the natural systems, from self-guided interpretive trails to interpretive programs. Devil’s Den park’s main attraction is the namesake cave. Unfortunately, the cave is closed in an attempt to protect the bats from White Nose Syndrome. We learned that the National Park Service recommended all wild caves be closed, which means that we will not have an opportunity to go spelunking as we had hoped to at some point on this trip.
Devil’s Den State Park was initially built the the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and is considered one of the best preserved CCC projects. Many of the original structures are still in use, such as the renovated cabins, and the park is full of CCC history, including an interpretive trail past the remains of the CCC camp facilities.
Our first full day in the park was forecasted to be the warmest, so I knew if I was going to do the 15 mile Butterfield Hiking Trail, that was the day to do it. I overslept a little, and didn’t get to the visitor’s center until 9 am to register (a permit is required to hike the trail). Even leaving at 8:00 am, with the sun setting around 5:00 pm, 15 miles would be a stretch, so I asked about shorter options. There were no shortcut trails, but the “Park Interpreter” told me that Quail Valley at the 5 mile point is the best part of the trail, so a there-and-back would give me a 10 mile option. I agreed to that, and signed the permit form. The form asks when I expect to be back, and how many hours after that they should initiate a search. That’s a lot of pressure for someone who is not very good at sticking to a plan, and always likes to push as far as possible!
I set off to find the trailhead the Park Interpreter directed me to. Wandering around the A-section of the campground as instructed, I was carefully examining the two terrible paper maps they gave me trying to remember exactly where he told me to go. Eventually I decided that I should cross the creek. Due to my morning brain (the coffee had not yet kicked in) and feeling that I needed to hurry, it did not occur to me until the third step that maybe I should have put the paper maps away before trying to rock-hop across. But I continued, paper maps in one hand and both hiking poles in the other. Thankfully I did not slip and ruin the maps!
The terrain was relatively easy and the trail exceptionally well blazed with bright blue diamond markers nailed to the trees. As promised, it was a warm day. As the air and soil heated up, the ground radiated the smell of decaying organic matter. The scent was different than usual…it smelled almost like propane. I was walking quickly as a result of the easy terrain and my need for exercise, so I reached Quail Valley by 11:30. Quail Valley is an interesting rock crevice, adjacent to a small intermittent waterfall. I sat in the rock crevice for lunch, but I was not ready to turn back. I decided to continue on, and see where I got by 1:30 – if I was less than halfway through I’d turn around, otherwise I’d continue around the full loop.
At mile seven, I decided I was making good enough time to complete all 15 miles. But the permit and the promise to initiate a search nagged at me – I felt like I should stick to the plan I stated at registration and turn back, but it seemed silly to not complete the loop when I was halfway through. As I was hurrying along the trail, worried about my decision to deviate from my stated plan, my foot caught under a root hidden by the layer of fall leaves on the ground. I tried to catch myself with the other foot, but had to resort to plan B – hands out in front, I managed to avoid injury beyond bruised palms and sore shoulders. My fall was at the furthest point on the trail from the campground; it would have been the worst possible place to get hurt. I worried even more about that permit itinerary, but I didn’t even have enough cell service to send John a text about my plan.
Around mile ten I stopped to look around and appreciate my surroundings. As I stood there enjoying the forest, I heard a loud crack around the corner behind me, followed by what sounded like a small rock slide. Whatever caused that commotion – a collapsing rock wall, a large animal (bear? human?) knocking rocks down while running uphill, I did not want to backtrack to find out. The crack wasn’t quite loud enough to be a gunshot, but I hurried along my way to get out of there. Near the end of the hike I heard the same sequence of sounds a second time, this time further away from me. I still did not go investigate.
Even taking a mile roundtrip spur trail to see a view point, I finished the full loop at 5:10, ten minutes later than my stated end time, and two hours before they would start searching for me. The sun had set, but the twilight was still bright.
On the second day I was awakened by something scratching and shaking the van at 5:00 am. I shot up in bed, thinking John was outside in the cold and stormy weather. I felt around and found him still warm and cozy in bed. I laid back down but couldn’t fall asleep…I didn’t know what had made the sound that woke me up, and laying there I heard inexplicable rumbles in the distance; they sounded like the footsteps of a giant. When I finally gave up on sleeping, I discovered that the sound that woke me up was the wind pulling the awning legs out of the brackets.
Since I was up early, I spent the morning on the Yellow Rock trail and planned to attend the park program on animal footprints at 11:00 am. It turns out the programs are meant for children, but I wanted to learn about animal prints! I frequently see prints (usually in the winter in the snow when they are easy to spot), but don’t know a rabbit from a squirrel, let alone the larger animals. I was the only person to show up, so it was a little awkward, but overall I had a good conversation with the Park Interpreter and learned a lot. John and I came back in the evening for a program on “Sounds of the Night”. Here we learned that the park is full of flying squirrels! Oh, how I wanted to see one, but it was our last night and it was pouring, so I think the squirrels were all cuddled up in their dry homes.
From talking to the Park Interpreters, we learned that they consider their resident beaver population a nuisance because they are too destructive to the landscape. Considering what humans do to the landscape, this is a pretty hypocritical view. John and I are amazed and impressed at the ingenuity and industriousness of beavers.
I took one last hike the morning we left. On my way to the Fossil Flats trail head, I saw a streak of white near a tree. Looking closer, I realized it was a white squirrel! Pure white…from the points of its twitchy ears to the tip of it’s bushy tail. I thought maybe it was a flying squirrel, but the legs lacked the parachute-like membrane. John and I have seen all colors of squirrels – common grey ones most every where, red ones in Maine, even black ones in Ontario, but white? I never knew squirrels could be white. I couldn’t get close enough to tell with certainty if its eyes were pink, but they appeared to be dark as far as I could see. Sadly, I had forgotten the camera so I cannot share this surprising sight with you. But you can watch a video about a white squirrel population in Missouri…it made me chuckle!
I will end with pictures of fruit. I was excited every time I caught a glimpse of a bright color against the drab late-fall backdrop.