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Romance at Petit Jean

Cedar Creek
Cedar Creek alongside Cedar Falls Trail

Cedar Creek

Driving up the mountain to the visitor center of Petit Jean State Park, I had already decided that I would camp for two or three days if spots were available. I knew that the odds of finding availability were against me on a beautiful Saturday morning in early April. Early that morning I had learned that the romantic legend of Petit Jean, tells the story of a young French girl who disguised herself as a cabin boy so she could travel with her fiance to the new world. Falling fatally ill, Petit Jean asked to be buried in the mountain that now carries her name. It was hard not to fall in love with the place!

Cedar Falls Trail
Cedar Falls Trail

It was my lucky day! There were two camp sites available and one of them was open for two nights. The customer service at the visitor center was excellent. Armed with maps and park brochures I quickly set up my tent and went on to my first hike. With no time to waste I chose to do a short hike; the Cedar Creek Trail which is only 1.25 miles in length. It does follow the scenic winding Cedar Creek above Cedar Falls. The trail is listed as “moderate” and only in a few sections rock steps and bluffs may pose challenges depending on the hiker’s skills and physical conditions.

Cedar Falls Trail
Cedar Falls Trail

After camping for the first night almost a week after I got on the road, the following morning I chose to hike the 4.5 miles long trail (9 miles round trip) Seven Hollows Trail. For my last day I had reserved to hike to short but strenuous Cedar Falls Trail. This trail is quite challenging from beginning to end. It does not matter if it is going up or down. The trail begins behind the Mather Lodge through the breezeway and takes you to the 95-foot Cedar Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in Arkansas. The longest trail in the park is the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Boy Scout Trail which is 12 miles long. This trail connects and follows portions of almost all other trails at Petit Jean State Park.

Cedar Falls Trail
Cedar Falls Trail

I had finally done what the trip was supposed to be about: camping and hiking! After almost a week in which I had spent most of the time driving, camping at the park for a couple of nights was quite relaxing. On my third day after hiking to Cedar Falls, I checked out from Petit Jean and headed to Texas.

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Big Surprise in The Natural State

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After reserving a hotel for the night in Little Rock, Arkansas, I left Memphis, Tennessee with the only thing I knew about Arkansas: that’s where the Clintons come from! The only reason I chose to stay overnight in Little Rock was its location and because I thought I would visit the Hot Springs nearby. My plans thereafter were to stop in Dallas, Texas to visit a friend I had not seen in years. From there head on to New Mexico where I had one National Park on my list; literally, Arkansas was on my way, so to speak.

As I checked in to my hotel in Little Rock just a few blocks from the State Capitol, I got the recommendation to go to The Big Whiskey’s as it was one of the few places that would still serve food at that hour. The place was full of life and packed with a diverse crowd, which were both good news being that it was past eleven. So far on this trip most of the places I had been through had long ceased to live after nine o’clock in the evening. Certainly, diversity was not something I had seen since I left New York. Yep! I was already happily surprised in Little Rock.

A couple of days into the trip I had changed my profile on all social media apps to reflect what I was doing. That way I would curb the enthusiasm of people who just wanted a date. So, while I sat at the bar waiting for my food and enjoying my beer, a message came through from someone asking me where had I been hiking in Arkansas? My response was “I haven’t and won’t hike in Arkansas”. He then told me that it was a shame because Arkansas, as The Natural State, has about 50 state parks. I later ran a search and found out that The Natural State actually has fifty-two state parks. Wow! I had no idea! Nobody ever talks about Arkansas in the Northeast! I might be wrong as I am not a TV type of person, so for me to say that I have never seen an ad on TV featuring the State of Arkansas as a hiking destination would just not be right and fair.

My new friend in Little Rock, David, turned out to be an avid hiker and biker who convinced me to not visit the Hot Springs on my way to Texas. Instead he told me to at least visit one park: Petit Jean State Park just about one hour northwest of Little Rock. He also was surprised when I told him that I was not going to do anything in Texas other than visit a friend in Dallas. Again, he was shocked that I seemed to be “bypassing” the wonders of the South. So, I tried to justify by saying that my eyes were on the Southwest and the Pacific Coast. But my heart is soft and one of the purposes of a road trip is to discover things one never heard of. I had no schedule and no commitment other than trying to stay out of bad weather. We met and chatted for a couple of hours or so and by the time we said good-bye he had twisted my arm. I was headed to Petit Jean the next morning hoping to get a camping spot for at least one night! And did promise I would at least drive through Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Lone Star State.

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Call me Crazy

IMAG0069I think that the most encouraging thing that I heard on my fifth day on the road, which coincided with Fools Day (no pun intended here!), was that “if you haven’t been called crazy yet, you’re not trying hard enough”. On that account, call me crazy! And I must confess that I came close to call-it-quits and head back home because the weather was not on my side!

I’d now have been on the road for five days and all I’d seen was rain, cloudy skies and indoors. The purpose of this trip is hiking and camping and registering awesome scenery; all I’m getting are comments of my now noticeable growing facial hair. After years holding corporate jobs all my friends and family have seem in over a decade were images of a clean cut guy. But two days before getting on the road I decided that shaving while camping wouldn’t work.

Another decision I’d made was that I would try to avoid cities and urban routes. I live in the Hudson Valley, just about one and a half hour north of Manhattan and I have always had a passion for the outdoors, as long as I live close enough to a metropolis. But, on this trip I wanted to stay away from the so-called “civilization”.

I was now driving south of the eye of the tornado through Tennessee still under heavy rain left behind by the storm. The rain seemed to be tapering off as I drove south on I-65 and around ten in the evening, I decided to pull off the road in Nashville. I was famished and all I could think of was a hamburger with fries and a cold beer. After a quick search I was headed to a pub that was still open and serving food and that was casual enough for someone who had been on the road for a while and not quite dressed for the night. By the time I heard the friendly announcement that “your destination is on the left”, the rain had returned with full force. The storm was so bad that I could barely see the other side of the street and the water running down the street looked more like the rapids I was looking forward to see in the wild. Not being able to get out of the car, I sat for about thirty minutes hoping that by the time it would stop raining the kitchen would still be open. At that point, under heavy rain and windy conditions, a homeless knocked on the window in my car’s passenger side. Apparently, Nashville has a huge homeless problem and they don’t give you a break; not even during a storm! So, at that I decided that I would get back on the road and just keep going.

I drove the three hours trip from Nashville to Memphis that night and stopped at the Tennessee State Welcome Center on North Riverside Drive. I thought I was just going to take a brief nap and decide what next. At this point I had already figured out that couch surfing wasn’t going to work and I couldn’t wait to start camping and doing what I had in mind from the beginning: hike! Surprisingly, I woke up around nine in the morning to the brightest sunlight I had seen in days! No, it was not a short nap! I had slept for over seven hours. After having breakfast and strolling around Beale and Main Streets, enjoying a warm, sunny day at the sound of blues coming from every corner, I got back on the road headed south to Little Rock, Arkansas. I think it was the first on the trip that I actually began to smile. My road trip had finally begun!

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The Road Ahead – Excitement and Surprises

DSC04453On March 28, 2016 after I finished packing I headed to bed around ten in the evening and set the alarm for 6AM. Filled with excitement and with my mind racing with imaginable scenarios about the road ahead, I could not fall asleep. It occurred to me that in the morning I would be just too exhausted to get on the road. “That’s it!” – I told myself that I’d rather get on the road there and then.

On Tuesday, March 28, 2016,  at 1:11 in the morning I set the GPS to my first destination: arrival time 8:43AM at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio. Based on my tentative road trip route research and readings about the Cuyahoga Valley, I was looking forward to my first stop. According to “Your Guide to National Parks” by Michael Joseph Oswald, 2012, the When To Go tab informs that the park is open all year.

Crossing Pennsylvania in the middle of the night turned out to be a good decision. If I got tired, I figured I would just pullout at a rest area and take a nap. Clear skies, a bit windy, low traffic with just a few trucks here and there, it was smooth sailing.

Having been with Couchsurfing and hosted travelers, I thought that I would use it on my route as much as possible. I had a confirmed host in Cleveland, Ohio for that evening as a fall back plan in case I could not get a camping site at Cuyahoga Valley.

Arriving at the park turned out to be a bit challenging as a number of road constructions and detours proved to be difficult for the GPS instructions. I drove in circles for a few minutes and at which point I was tired and falling asleep. No problem! I thought I would set up the tent and take a nap. Maybe I will rest and pick a trail for my first road trip hike.

By the time I finally arrived at the visitor center I already knew that I was the only traveler there. What made it more bizarre was the unwelcoming attitude of the National Parks Service ranger. He did not seem to be thrilled to be there that morning and he did not seem to be happy to see me there either.

The trails were closed! Excessive rain and subsequently trails repairs proved to be my first obstacles. With no chance to stay and camp there I headed to Cleveland where I stopped to have breakfast. As I arrived early, I contacted my host and we agreed that I could come by around noon. He was very friendly and let me know that he was studying for an exam and was up all night. Perfect! I was exhausted myself and was ready to close my eyes for a few hours.

I woke up around eight that evening and feeling rejuvenated I decided that it was best to get back on the road instead of being awake all night. Next stop was Louisville, Kentucky, where I also had a confirmed host through Couchsurfing. I thanked my host and left Cleveland with a positive attitude of not letting the Cuyahoga Valley disappointment to bring me down. After all, road trips come with surprises!