Adventure meets ability

I’ve always been adventuresome in spirit but rarely acted on it except in spurts. As a young boy I think I had the typical fantasies ranging from being a swash-buckling pirate to a “spaceman” (yes, that was before the term “astronaut” was coined), to a fireman and so on. Having originally been an electrical engineering major in college and later getting my degree in accounting, I was immersed in the more “stoic” part of our population.

Times gradually bent me toward outdoor interests more and more. While in the Navy another young officer and I took USO-supplied bicycles (3-speed touring bikes with fat tires) from Sasebo, Japan to the resort city of Karatsu. Upon embarking, we had no clue that there were seven mountains in between! Adventure met ability head-on that day, but that’s another story in itself.

The years from then to the current period have seen backpacking, running, motorcycle enduros, water and snow-skiing, instrument flying, long-distance motorcycle touring and camping, kayaking and more.

Having recently gotten serious about running and recently rediscovering the joy of cycling, it seemed an obvious transition to get my mountain bike (a classic, Trek 850 Antelope) fixed up and so when I headed to Arkansas to the Ouachita Mountains, taking the mountain bike was a no-brainer. After a brief warm-up the day before, Bill and I set out to explore the Lake Ouachita Vistas Trail which follows the shoreline of Lake Ouachita in Southwestern Arkansas, and promised not only a great outdoors experience but a “doable” mountain bike experience for a couple of novices.

The overview chart shows Denby Bay (trailhead P1B) to Tompkins Bend (trailhead P3) to be a mere 5 miles. Why we had ridden 4 miles just the day before so we would no doubt simply ride that portion, then on around the loop, meandering at will, for as many miles as we felt like. Cooler and more cautious heads did prevail and we dropped a car at the Homestead trailhead as a midpoint location which would be handy AFTER the extended loop we planned.

The trail started off with a gradual climb from the cove of Lake Ouachita and was quickly enveloped in a lush forest of pines and hardwoods. The trail was generally smooth with a few small rocks peeking above the leafy floor of the forest. There was little underbrush that might otherwise have been grazing our legs.

Gil at an overlook at Lake Ouachita

There were some nice vistas like this point overlooking the lake. There were several of these side trails that take the rider out near the lake. Lake Ouachita is quite large with a shoreline covered in the green of the forest, yielding only slightly to give a beach shoreline.

Then the trail began to dip a bit and then some gentle climbs appeared. This is great, I thought, and just knew Bill too was feeling like the 5 miles to Tompkins Bend would be largely uneventful.  Suddenly, without much time to think about it we were plunged into a gulley and pedaling up the other side I was surprised by how much effort it required. Oh, right, gears. Wrong gear. OK, next one would be a piece of cake. Down another — this time more of a ravine — with some speed and momentum to carry me at least part way up the other side. Pedaling again now, rapidly. Quite rapidly. Nothing happening as I’m too fast for the granny gear into which I had shifted. But not to worry as the momentum died off and my speed dropped, now my pedaling was very much needed — and moderately effective. Up the hill and back on more level terrain I was sure that I had now conquered mountain-biking (MTB). At least MTB101.

As the morning progressed we discovered faster downhill runs that were frankly a little scary and led me to test out the brakes. Now I know why the modern MTBs have disc brakes! The little calipers squeezing the wheel rim work, sort of.  And just as Newton’s Second Law says that what goes up must come down, we now have Bill’s First Law is that what goes down has to get back up again. Indeed it does!

There were downhills requiring a slight dodging of trees.  There were bridges to cross some of the creeks — bridges about 6 inches wide!  Well, they were about 3 feet wide but seemed unnecessarily narrow. Then there were the climbs that began (often immediately beyond one of those skinny bridges) with a quick 90 degree turn and loose rock coming up the hill. “Walk the bike” became a necessity in some spots when either the energy just wasn’t there, or traction was lost with a spinning rear wheel. It seems that technique is important as well as brute force.

It was becoming quite an adventure and we were doing our best to match some ability to it. Now keep in mind that I’ve been able to do 4 mile runs and just last weekend rode the Peugeot for 32 miles. For a 66 year old dude I think I’ve gotten into pretty darn good shape. But these ravines were beginning to look like the Grand Canyon and the climbs out of them were running my heart rate up to 155 or so. And I was getting winded. Really winded.

This trail was built with a lot of volunteer labor and donations for, among other things, benches placed strategically along the path.  It was amazing to me how those folks whom I don’t even know had divined the exact spots where the choice was between sitting down or falling down! Truly amazing.  We would rest a bit, sip some water, and strike out again.

I was getting discouraged with the slow progress we were making because the GPS on the handlebar kept reminding me of where we were, and were not. It was becoming indelibly clear that a 10 mile ride would not happen today.  At some point, without even discussing it Bill and I formulated different plans for the vehicle parked at the Homestead trailhead.

Bill gearing down at the Homestead trailhead

It would not be the end-point after the extended loop but would be the “save us from our folly” rescue point.

Adventure had met ability, and adventure won!

It was, nevertheless, a good adventure and an instructive one. I now knew, just as I had learned that bicycling muscle groups were somewhat different from running muscle groups, that mountain-biking called on some yet additional parts of the body.  We had made about 3 miles of the planned minimum of 5, and have vowed to learn how to do this better. One day, ability will yet overcome the adventure!

(as of the initial writing, there are photos and a video on Bill’s camera not yet available to me and this article will be updated later)

Breaking news: I found where God lives!

What? Rain? Darn sure is. Can’t find my watch to check the time but it must be 3am or so — so this is September 3. Now it’s almost 6 and I’m so glad I turned off the alarm before I snuggled into bed in the Jayco 19H camper. It’s cool here in the Ouichita Mountains of Arkansas, especially down here in the valley. Must be 64 degrees or so.

A few rays of light are peeking through the pine and hickory forest. In the cool, still air I hear the creek flowing over the swimming hole dam. I’m here alone, me and the animals … and God. He definitely is here and that makes sense because only God could make a place like this. Now there is just enough light to make the birds tune up in full song. I have no idea what kind of bird that is, but the low-high warble wafts easily on the cool breeze and fills the valley with song. It’s a beautiful morning in the Arkansas Ouichita Mountains.

Driving now into Norman, AR (hey, it’s an easy choice: 6 miles East to Glenwood or 6 miles West to Norman — 50/50 chance of getting it right!) to see if Melba’s Diner is open. Passing through Caddo Gap — doesn’t take long — and along the Caddo River valley the road gently winds and dips.  Is there enough shoulder for a road bike here? Looks decent.  Around the last bend, partially obscured by towering forest, Melba’s is in sight. Open? Yep, sure is. I’ll just pull my “pickup” in here next to the “real” pickups. I’m pretty sure this crowd would not consider the Chevy Avalanche to be a”real” pickup. Not a sedan in sight.

Inside Melba’s, two tables are fully occupied — plus a few, kinda like Atwood’s at home — with groups that are obviously regulars. Interesting, the two tables don’t seem to be talking back and forth much. Now why is that old dude staring at me? Oh, must be that I’m the only one not in over”hauls” here. Here comes that cute waitress with about 4 days worth of way too much dark eye shadow … but the order is taken proficiently and the hot coffee is here promptly. Didn’t make any at the camper this morning, so this is the pump-priming slurpage.  Breakfast is here with the egg fried in real grease, wonderful patty sausage that, surprisingly, is not grease-laden and hash brown potatoes (Dan Quayle:  correct spelling?) that were hand-hashed and definitely browned. None of that compressed stick of a potato you get in so many places.

More locals filter into Melba’s, only a few leave. Pulling out onto the highway now the house across the street has a couple of guys on the porch — looking.  100 yards later the abandoned gas station is not abandoned but has several guys obviously just hanging out — looking. Well, it’s a nice day just to be outside looking, I guess.

Now for some biking. The newly-refurbished (thanks, Mike McKenna of Mike’s Bikes in Marble Falls) Trek 850 Antelope

Trek 850 Antelope Mountain Bike, probably built around 1986-87

is ready to go. As I approach her, she asks “are you ready?” I neglected her terribly for 12 years or more and I don’t think the miles I’ve put on the road bike have quite prepared me to resume mountain-biking. Never did do it seriously, but we will this weekend! Brother-in-law Bill is to arrive in a couple of hours and we have plans for the Albert Pike Recreation Area and the Little Missouri Trail, as well as the Lake Ouichita Vista Trail. (shhh, he doesn’t know all of that yet!)

Full sun is now trying to warm the valley but the air is brisk as I crank the Antelope up to 7-8 mph, “flying” down the gravel road. Dang, feels really fast sitting lower to the ground and feeling every pebble. Down a hill, weight shifted back, she kisses a stone now and again but tracks true. Turning up Bean Rd now there is a bit of an easy climb and I’m trying to make the shifting a smooth and automatic evolution. Clumsy at first, I started getting it right — and in time for the downshifts — after about a mile. There are cabins for rent up this part of our valley with yet another all-weather creek flowing through it. Crud! BIG river rock now for the roadway, obviously a measure to prevent washouts from the torrents of water that occasionally ravage this area. Then there is the Bean Creek & Southern RR! (not your eyes, bad focus)

Back down to our main road now and up by the family cemetery where cousin Claude was buried only a few weeks ago. He has a nice view from the top of the hillside, overlooking so many of our ancestors buried there. He was a kind and gentle man.

Back on the main road. Let’s duck off to the side and catch the logging road that runs up the mountainside. Gears, watch the gears. Only a couple of steep (but blessedly short) climbs lie in wait but I still need to be prepared. The grass between the wheel ruts is already a foot high, having grown since July 4. Old man Sun is trying to penetrate, with little success, the dense forest canopy that guards the road. The air is warming nevertheless … wait … that’s the warmth now emanating from me as I pump up the second of the steep dips.  Over some small fallen branches and occasionally careening off of fist-sized rocks lurking beneath the forest debris, I’m beginning to feel confident about my trusty Antelope.

Back down the logging road, popping back into the valley behind Hillbilly cabin, the Garmin Oregon GPS shows 3.01 miles. The cyclometer shows less so I need to adjust the pickup lead. I think I may be ready for the trails now.

And if the biking proves too strenuous, there’s always the MantaRay12 kayak and the Caddo River teeming with smallmouth bass!