By Ellen Nimmo
Eagle Rock Loop. It’s a 26.8 mile trail in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and Oklahoma. The loop contains a number of hills and mountains which make up a, if not colorful, at least curious, nominal list of footnotes in any wanderer’s tale: Raspberry Mountain, Hurricane Knob, Sugartree, Leader, Blaylock, Bresh Heap and Fodderstack Mountains. The Little Missouri River runs through the loop with many an adjoining creeks and streams.
Regarding the name of the range itself? I’ve read it written, that “Ouachita” is composed of the Choctaw words ouac for “buffalo” and chito for “large”, together meaning “country of large buffaloes” and like so many things that once were but have ceased to be, wild buffalo no longer roam large or wild in Arkansas and Oklahoma. But that’s another story altogether.
This is, in fact, a Christmas memory, but it started before Christmas itself.
On December 22nd, 2012 we began the 26.8 mile loop. We being: me, my dad, and two loyal canines named Belle and Quincy, respectfully. We were there to hike, explore, and spend time together. My sister and mother had gone to visit a cousin of mine, a poet and professor, who lived and wrote in NYC at the time. My brother, sisterinlaw Jodi, and baby niece Gwendolyn had gone to do Christmas with Jodi’s family that year. This left my father and me to figure out a plan. What would we do? Go hiking and camping in the wilderness! My parents seemed to think this was a grand idea. I wasn’t sold on the plan, but agreed anyway. The alternatives seemed a bit glum, and after an assuring call from my mother, I figured I might as well.
If I’m honest with myself, with you, I think they saw and knew what I was blind to – I was struggling and needed space to see what was obvious to everyone else, I needed wise counsel. Before we go any further, though much has changed since 2012, I still find myself struggling and in need of wise counsel, but that Christmas in the Ouachitas is a gift I could have never given myself. I was clouded with misery, shrouded in fear and doubt.
My father and I set out over the “scrambler’s paradise,” the wilderness in which we’d spend the next 4 days and 3 nights. I was 31 years old and 10 months into a new career, in a new city, with a new boyfriend, and with equally new and old patterns of dysfunction and pride. And while parents often have a way of overlooking these things in their children, some have a way of miraculously easing the blinders off without all hell being set loose. Thankfully, I think my parents are a mix of both.
As we took the first few steps into the Ouachita wilderness, our backpacks crammed full of the supplies we’d need to camp and eat over the next several days, we came to the first of many creek crossings. There were giant boulders for us to hop across dryly to the other side, with only one problem: Quincy. The merry mutt was so excited he was making a game of leaping rock to rock. Occasionally falling off into the creek after a slippery landing only to scramble happily to another rock. Fool dog nearly knocked us both into the creek, backpacks at the prime of their weight. Our hike would have been miserable if we’d have gotten our gear wet within the first 30 minutes of a 4 day tour. Lucky for us, some things work against you only for a moment before they’re turned into something useful, like laughter. Once we were safe from his reckless glee, we laughed so hard it was nearly worth the fright.
Making our way across the creeks, climbing through gorges, and moving up and down the craggy rocks and hills we were moving in a large circle. We filtered our water. Warmed our food and brewed coffee over an open fire. Told tales, pointed out wildlife or unusual landmarks and walked in silence. My dad would ask me about my life, forcing me to reckon with the reality of it without a condemning word. He listened and occasionally he’d share his thoughts or experience, usually by way of a story. We slept in hammock tents and on Christmas Eve we drank cinnamon whiskey and said “cheers” and “Merry Christmas” the Ouachita woods faithfully echoing the sounds. Christmas morning soft rain turned into snow and we hiked the last few miles with determination, knowing it was better to get out before things got confusing with the snow coverage, and we did, thank God.
Driving home that Christmas afternoon giddy with adventure, merry with togetherness – we retold ourselves the stories of blunder and bravery – knowing we’d done something special with our time. Looking back on that trip I’m filled with gratitude. It was an experience, a gift, I could have never given myself, but I needed more than I realized. Trekking through the forest, with my father’s preparation and provision, afforded me much needed perspective: that elusive and precious gift was found twinkling under the trees of the snowy Ouachita Mountains.