We set off on the Womble trail just before noon on a Saturday, an odd time for us to begin a long route. We’d driven the 12 hours from Chicago to the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, leaving town in the teeth of a nasty snow and ice storm. To make the trip possible, we’d overnighted in our van near the halfway point and gotten back on the road around 0330 that morning.
Details about the Womble online are scarce and almost all oriented toward mountain biking. Despite being one of the oldest trails in Arkansas, a product of CCC work in the 30s, the trail is mostly known as being one of the jewels of Arkansas’s growing mountain biking trail system. So setting out on Saturday afternoon onto this trail, I knew that it was busy with mountain bikes, about 32 miles long and had ~3k of vertical gain each way. In fact, not one of those things was correct.
Our first impression of the trail was that it was spectacular, scenic and very well architected. The first 10 miles reminded both Allison and I of the Pinhoti trail in biome and trail quality. It meandered around but rarely over the Ouachita mountains, travelling down a ridge toward the Ouachita River. On the north side of the ridge the woods were mostly hardwood while the south side was pine forest. The views with no leaves on the trees were often spectacular. The temps were in the 50s with brilliant blue skies, but on the ridge the north wind was stiff and cold.
In no time the sun was setting. We’d seen a single mountain biker, and then an hour later a couple out for a day hike. We would not see another person for the remainder of the trip. This had the effect of making the trail seem dramatically remote, even though we could occasionally see towns in the distance.
By the time we descended into the river basin, we were traveling by headlamp for the first of three times on the trip. We crossed the Ouachita RIver on the longest roadwalk of the route, a mere half mile or so on a long, low bridge. Moments after leaving the road, there was a sudden thunderous noise in the woods just beside us, like several trees falling at once. Before I could really even wonder what it was, it was replaced by a chorus of annoyed gobbling sounds. If I’d not been surprised by a large flock of turkeys during the day, I’d probably still be wondering what the sound was. Very soon afterward, a rustling sound in the bushes turned out to be an armadillo — the first time I’d ever seen a living one on the woods. We all know where you usually see them.
Somewhere in the dark we passed the most scenic mile of the trip, a place where the trail skirted a precipitous drop to the river a couple hundred feet below. At night I could tell there was a yawning open space that my headlamp did not penetrate but could get no sense of the scale. Soon afterward we reached the second brief (really brief — like 300 yards) of road. The sky was stunning, easily the darkest clear sky we’d been under in a long while. With no moon, the stars were almost to the mythical brightness of casting shadows. We decided to stop for a few moments and try out the astrophotography mode on my new phone. Unintentionally, I managed to photograph the Andromeda galaxy.
The last miles to the turnaround at the Ouachita Trail were long, longer even than we expected. This was likely due to the fact that the trail was actually nearly 37 miles long, not the 32 that we’d expected. I blame Caltopo for this error, but given that this happens all the time, I suppose the whole “fool me once” thing applies. Insert me doing the George Bush version of this here.
By the time we climbed McGill Mountain and reached the Ouachita Trail at midnight, we were ready for a nap. In fact, we were so ready for a nap that we plunked right down under the Womble/OT sign and made camp for a few hours. We debated whether an early morning mountain biker would see us before running us over. The fact that we’d seen basically nobody in 37 miles of trail didn’t seem to register in our trail addled brains.
As I was about to drop off to sleep, I remembered to plug my rechargeable headlamp into my Anker battery pack. When I did, the lamp shut off suddenly. I tried turning it back on to no avail. Allison was asleep by the time I did this, so I decided to just figure out what I was going to do in the morning. I slept poorly for a couple of hours, and when I woke the headlamp still hadn’t fixed itself. I managed to get it into the lowest brightness mode, but it would randomly shut off. We got back underway slowly, with me following closely behind Allison. Nothing like a little 25F early morning 37 mile walk in the dark woods.
After dawn finally arrived, we picked up the pace a bit. It was interesting seeing the trail we’d passed in the dark again in the daylight. The stretch along the ridge with the dropoff was sobering. I was glad neither of us had tripped. We stopped for a few moments after the bridge for Allison to fix a small blister. The day started clear but clouds had moved in making things feel gloomy.
Somewhere in the next stretch I hit a low point that was probably related to the 2 nights of little sleep. It almost felt like 2am in the morning on a 100 mile race, but it was early afternoon. I remember thinking that there was an ostrich just under the surface of a pond we passed, and the world seemed to just be wrapped in a fog. I was also seriously grumpy. Allison asked me at some point if it had turned into slog, and I realized it had.
Suddenly, I saw the solution: I needed music. I hadn’t brought headphones, so I did something I frown(!) at other people doing. I pulled out my phone and put on a song (it was the new MGMT track “In the Afternoon” for what it’s worth). The effect was like a nice cup of coffee early in the morning. Almost instantly my mood lifted and the haze cleared. Just for the record: I scanned the (empty, of course) woods continuously while playing tunes lest someone not-Allison have their woodland revery disturbed by my sorry self.
And then it was the final 10 miles or so along the ridges, chasing the sunset that meant I we’d be back to using my broken headlamp. We didn’t quite make it back to the van before dark, but by the time it got dark we weren’t running much anyway and the trail was relatively smooth. We finally arrived back just over 31 hours after we’d left. 72 miles travelled. We learned a bunch on this trip, but that’s another post.