Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving/Black Friday Adventure

Every year the madness of Thanksgiving and Black Friday seems to increase exponentially. The traffic gets worse, the crowds grow larger, and the general aggression of people escalates as Thursday turns into Friday and none of that seems to recede one bit until January 3rd. Last year Adventure Chick and I found a very effective and fulfilling method of dealing with this problem, and it's a method I've always been told never solves anything.

We run away.

Last year for the frantic holiday we abandoned civilization for a backpacking trip in the Appalachian Mountains. The only people we saw were like-minded individuals seeking peace and enjoyment in the quiet places on this planet, immersing themselves in the stillness of mountain forests while the rest of the country went mad over sale items.

This year, we drove 950 miles to a magical area I can't seem to stay away from. Ponca, AR is a town of roughly 125 people (I've seen about 13. I guess the other are always been in hiding.) The town consists of a single road with the general store, gas station, cabin rental and canoe rental all inhabiting the same building. The peace and quiet associated with the town that is literally a wide spot in the road is only part of the magic that keeps drawing me back.

We set out early on Wednesday, around 3am, and drove almost nonstop. Pitstops and fuel were our only breaks during the entire drive. We checked into the quaint cabin located on the 'outskirts' of Ponca and collapsed into the already steaming hot tub just long enough to boil before showering and passing out for the night... at about 8pm. Then were were up before dawn, coffee brewing and both of us anxious to stretch our legs after an entire day of driving.

Thanksgiving saw us hiking first to Whitaker Point (known by outsiders as Hawk's Bill Crag). The fairly mild trail leads directly to the rocky point that juts out of the cliff a full 40 feet into the open air above the rocky valley, but we have trouble staying on the trail. Almost to the point, we were distracted by a rocky cliff and the next hour was spent descending, scrambling, and hiking down a couple hundred vertical feet. Our crazy dog loved every moment of it... except when he had to be picked up to be lifted or lowered over drops too high for him to jump.

After satisfying our curiosity, we climbed back up to the trail and continued on to the point, a rocky crag that protrudes straight out over the valley below. Rounding a bend in the trail, the point suddenly becomes visible about a hundred yards away, an imposing triangle of brown stone thrust into the empty air. Standing on the point is something else altogether. The earth drops away on every side and suddenly the only thing between the hiker and a two hundred foot fall is a narrow tip of rock. Wind threatens to disrupt your balance and a sense of emptiness floods into the vertigo as you stare around and the wide valley that stretches around you. Across the emptiness, a murder of crows torment some lone, white bird. Sitting on the rock, you can't help but feel alone in the world, even with the person you love most and a dog you love like a child right beside you.

I can't explain why I always feel alone and somewhat sad when I sit on Whitaker Point, perhaps it's because the rest of the world has fallen away and I'm stranded there in the emptiness that surrounds from all places visible when staring out. My only connection is the widening rock behind me. Perhaps it's the unseen but clearly felt emptiness beneath. Whatever it is, there's a solitude to be felt on Whitaker Point, but there is peace also. And that combination of emotions is tangible and magical. I miss it when I leave, but I know another place to find it.

Returning from Whitaker Point, we followed the highway north toward Ponca, turning off a mile and a half from our cabin into Lost Valley State Park. The short, crooked road leads to a small parking lot with a half dozen cars, and there, my cousin and his wife met us. Bringing gifts of excellent cigars, Mr. Cakes joined our adventure as we set off down the winding trail. The first half of the trail is rather boring, but it separates the beauty of the small valley from the parking lot. Near the halfway point, we departed the trail (because trails were meant to be left behind) and sought out the mouth of a small cave. With only two flashlights between us (and a dog who expressed his unease about crawling into the darkness of the cave) Adventure Chick and Mr. Cakes began the exploration, crawling on hands and knees into the cold rock hole.

The caves here have no markings or guides or hand rails, and that's just the way we like them. This particular cave is more of a misshapen culvert than a cave, a twisted, crooked tunnel that can only be crawled on hands and knees. Though I didn't crawl in this time, I have been there before. The tunnel is long and grows increasingly tighter as it bores deeper into the rock, terminating in a kidney-shaped chamber some distance back with only a small hole roughly the size of a basketball proceeding further. A narrow trickle of water runs along the uneven bottom, turning your toes to ice as you crawl sideways into the tunnel.

Adventure Chick and Mr. Cakes emerged several minutes after entering, breath hanging like smoke in the air while Mrs. Cakes and I sat at the mouth of the small cave with Rocco. Their clothes were filthy, as they were meant to be. One can't properly see a cave and remain clean... or dry. It's just not natural.

The climb up to Eden Falls Cave was steep, but after the relatively flat trail through the canyon, we were eager to tackle it. Scrambling up stone inclines and winding switchbacks, we arrived at the mouth of the cave. Roughly ten feet wide and about seven feet high, the entrance was a poor indication of what lay beyond. Walking the fifteen or twenty feet to the rear of that first chamber had us ducking our heads by the time we reached the back. Then, the cave became a narrow hallway, the bottom half perfectly vertical and the top half leaning at a near 45 degree angle to one side. In order to walk through, one had to step into the hallway sideways and lean forward, shuffling through the crooked path until the floor dropped out a dozen or so paces back. Then, Climbing down, we descended into the second portion of the path. Here, we were forced to crawl on hands and knees over rough and crooked rock beneath a wide stone ceiling.

Hands burning from the cold and the grit, we emerged into the vault at the rear of the cave where a tiny trickle of icy water fell from a domed ceiling and little bats lined the walls. The air was hazy from our condensing breath and cold from the chilled rock. Turning off the headlamps thrust us into a darkness so complete that opening or closing the eyes made no visible difference. Everything was black, totally black. Without the lights, in the stillness and void of that cavern, I felt that loneliness again, just as I had when I was surrounded by air in the bright morning light on Whitaker Point. There, in the cold rock and the darkness, the feeling was identical. Vertigo, emptiness, loneliness, and peace.

We had Thanksgiving dinner that night, consisting of a tur-duc-hen roast, green bean casserole, rolls, stuffing, and corn still in the husk. I drank strawberry milk from a wine glass, a Ponca tradition that began ten years ago on my first trip to the little town. Dessert was sweet potato pie. We finished up by smoking some fine tobacco from our pipes on the back deck of the cabin. I had great food, a happy girlfriend, and a happy pup. The three of us were exhausted from a day that had started before the sun had risen and ended after it had vanished again. Seeing the smiling, tired faces around me, I realized that no man has ever been happier than I was right then. There can be nothing greater to be thankful for than that.

I admit we are guilty of Black Friday shopping, stopping in at the general store for a few souvenirs and treats. The holiday madness had reached all the way to Ponca. The store was bustling with shoppers. There must have been eight or even ten of them in the half hour we were there.

We drove back on Saturday, crossing the 950 miles again in four hard driving sessions, and unloaded our two bits of luggage in one trip (a mini-fridge loaded with left-overs and a gray tote containing everything else).

The effects of the long drive have subsided along with the weariness. All that remains are the memories of a magical spot on the map and a desire to return sooner rather than later.

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