Saturday morning we watched the mist roll into the lake from the far side as we ate previously hard boiled eggs, grape fruit, and sauteed chicken with homemade bread on the side. This shored us up for our Ouachita hike and drive. The mountains got steeper and higher as we ventured northeast. It was still cloudy but not foggy when we stopped at Talimena State Park, a mile ahead of the Talimena Scenic Drive to check out the google-indicated trailhead to the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. The park lady said it doesn’t start there and gave George a couple of 8×11″ maps indicating a couple of short recommended loop trails off the scenic hwy as alternatives to through hiking. We spent all day reconciling the loop hiking map with the Scenic hwy map with Google maps location of the OT. There was only one landmark they all had in common, the Winding Stair Campground.
My objective for the day was to view the trailhead, hike for about an hour on our sore feet from the day before, assess other OT access sites and check out future camping options. Regarding the last point, the two above mentioned campgrounds were way too claustrophobic for our situation. McGee Creek is much more secluded and spacious, despite the one pad that was too close to us. No one was on our other side overlooking the lake, and there were plenty of other options, including cabins if I want to bring the kayaks instead of the camper.
After the beginning of the Talimena Scenic Hwy we finally located the Old Military Trail access. It was constructed in the early 1800’s and went from Ft. Smith to the Red River. If you take it south it joins the OT after about a mile, which does indeed start at the Talimena State Park. It wasn’t a good place for us to hike anyway, but why did she say that? There’s a pretty long loop you can take there. After taking a picture of the entrance to the Old Military Road we drove on. After a while we stopped at what we guessed was the “overlook” indicated on the paper map for the nice loop trail she recommended. There are about 20 overlooks with names on the other paper map, and they didn’t bother to say which one. This overlook, in addition to all the other ones, was very crowded with Indians from India and black-leathered motorcyclists. I hadn’t counted on the peak fall foliage Saturday crowds. Mercy can’t handle them in close quarters. While George used the facilities, I noticed a middle aged biker with a handle-bar mustache and a bandana. Mercy had barked at him, but she calmed down after he sat there waiting for his wife who was in front of George in line at the bathroom. More on that later. When George returned I looked at my google map for what may be a more remote entrance. There was a small road that went north off the hwy that didn’t have a parking area and intersected the OT. We turned on this, turns out, dirt, single lane, cliff lined road and shortly saw some hot pink tape hanging around what looked like a trail. There was indeed nowhere to park without blocking the one lane. So we drove down to an intersection with another dirt road to turn around. It was pretty, but not an access point unless you were being dropped off.
Winding Stair Campground was at the end of the suggested 2 mile loop that was recommended, and a few miles before that we finally saw some pedestrian crossing marks on the road, and went on to the campground. This place was also pretty crowded, again with Indians and bikers and there were big dogs off leash, belonging to a rare unmotorcycled white guy, that Mercy barked at till we passed them. We found a campsite near the trail head that was out of the way, and parked our car there. The sun was beginning to peak out pretty often and we were shortly in the woods. We did the 2 mile suggested hike across the highway, along the Mountain Top trail west, running parallel but far enough in the woods, along the downward slope of the mountainridge to not see or hear the highway. This was very nice, and clearly marked where to cross again for the short loop which took us briefly up the mountain and back east on the Ouachital Trail (finally!), back to the car. It was just right. It was 4:45 by then, and we still had to cook dinner, pack up the camper, and make it home that night in order to take our daughter to Church on Sunday. So we head back west on the same road while the sun was setting.
Just before we get to the beginning of the Talimena Scenic Highway, theres a man at the top of the hill waving people to slow down. After we go over the hill we see a short line of cars not moving. We stop and a man comes to our car, setting Mercy off, but George could hear him over Mercy’s barking. He says there’s been a motorcycle accident. I can see reflections of emergency vehicle lights reflecting from around the bend on a car about 10 cars in front of us. Here we go again, waiting on a closed road for an accident to be cleared. Two Indian kids had gotten out of their car just ahead of us and were taking pictures of the guard rail beside us. Oh, that’s what Indians do, I thought, and occupied myself with my no reception phone and such. After about an hour George says he’s going to go see what’s going on. When he finally comes back he said he saw the large touring bike on its side, 2 ambulances, a guy with a bandage around his head and his arm with another guy sitting next to him. There’s also a crowd of witnesses close by that a policeman approaches and asks what happened. I forgot to mention earlier that there were ladybugs, the yellow biting kind, swarming wherever we went, except in the woods. They were all around our campsite and at the stops along the hwy. George said they were particularly thick among that group of people and he had to keep swatting them away. The witnesses said the bike went off the road, attempted to go back on, but hit the lip and flipped twice. “You mean he was run off the road?”, someone asked. George couldn’t hear the answer. The woman riding in back was in critical condition, and George said a prayer for her. Oh dear. We couldn’t roll the windows down while we waited because of the lady bugs. George said, “you know what those kids in front of us are looking at?” No. “Walking sticks.” What? Sure enough, I looked and there were tens of walking sticks along that guard rail that I could see from my window. I wonder if they eat lady bugs. Later we saw a Careflight helicopter approaching and saw a policeman with his orange spray paint marking the middle of the road. Must be bad. I bet Careflight landed at the visitor center at the entrance to the highway and they were going to drive her down there in the ambulance. I knew there would be no capable hospitals for a very long way. After about an hour and a half we were let through and we could see that the orange paint marked the beginning and end of skid marks that started on the inside, oncoming lane. Then we saw the dirt divots on the right side where the bike had gone off and on again. Then in the oncoming lane the bike and one of the ambulances.
In the Visitor’s Center we saw the helicopter turned off and the ambulance with not much activity outside it. Just a couple of people talking. That didn’t look good to me. After a few miles down the road I got a strong impression that the lady wanted people to appreciate the scenery, despite her death, and know that she died experiencing her favorite thing – a gorgeous day. She died quickly and with no pain.
George then told me that he thought he recognized the guy sitting bandaged on the curb as the guy waiting for his wife at that bathroom. She had been in front of him and had advised George to “use the bathroom on the right”. She seemed very nice. The man had been letting some Indians sit on his bike to have pictures taken.
I asked if he had a handlebar mustache, was older than us, and had a soft, round, weathered face and a bandana. He said yes, and that the bandana must have covered his bald head. Wow.
Then I looked up at the sky and there was the most perfectly formed profile angel wing connected to a body that had a cloud coming out the back of its head. I said, that’s her being taken to heaven by her angel, and she must have died of a head injury.
Later I found the article about it. She must have been on life support till that night because it said she died at the hospital in Fayetteville, Ark. She was from Farmersville, Tx, east of McKinney. Lord have mercy.
We made it home at 2am Saturday night. I napped in the car on the way home. George slept in the next morning and cleaned the car of dog hair and slobber while I took our daughter to Church.