Ticked Off in Arkansas

We left Texas via Texarkana. Our route into and through Arkansas was atypical in that we were on a major highway. Interstate 30 headed northeast taking us in a direct line past Hope (birthplace of that most famous Arkansan) and directly up to the Hot Springs area. The truckers in Arkansas appeared to be fierce and not terribly thoughtful. Usually, truckers make space for us to change lanes and there seems to be a brotherhood among us. These truckers seemed intent on running us right off the road.

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Our next stop was the Lake Catherine State Park. The land for this park was donated to the state in the 1920’s when Harvey C. Couch, a very successful local businessman, built the Remmel Dam to generate hydro-electric power. The power station was later switched over to natural gas and oil. This is one of a pair of man-made lakes and dams serving the Hot Springs area.

The park is quite pretty. The campground at the park has two sections for rv camping and a group of cabins. The park caters especially to fishermen and golfers. Just before you reach the park, there is a large public golf course with housing and a restaurant.

5217 362Our site was beautifully situated right on Lake Catherine. Our lounge backed up to the shore just a few feet away. Tall maples ringed the site. Our neighbors to either side were a discreet distance away from us. Groups of quacking ducks and honking geese were our constant companions for our stay along with a heron or two. Once again, we got out all of our paraphernalia and decorated our site.

Did I mention the power plant dominates almost any view of the lake? Yes, right in front of us on the opposite shore of the lake sat the hulking power station. It was an omnipresent anchor to our, and anyone else’s, view of the lake.

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Of course, without the power station there would be no Lake Catherine. It gleamed in the sun and emitted a constant low-level hum. At night it was aglow with light and continued to emit that low-level hum. Like an unwanted dinner guest with bad table manners, it had pulled up a chair at the head of the table and anyone else at the table could only avert their eyes to enjoy the otherwise sumptuous spread.

This we did. We sat out in the evening air and watched as the sun slowly set and the world darkened around us. The power plant glowed and hummed and we steadfastly enjoyed a quiet evening at lakeside.

This park had quite a nice system of trails so the next morning we packed our lunches and headed out to hike the park. At the trail head there were interpretive signs informing us that this park, too, owed its infrastructure to FDR and the CCC.

We had a planned route but, as happens all too often, we missed a trial turn and ended up taking a different route. We both agreed this was actually much better. The first trail was called the Falls Branch Trail. It was a wooded trail and mostly followed the course of a small brook winding up and down rocky, mossy hills. There were lots of little water falls and it was cool and comfortable hiking in the woods.

To get to our next trail, Falls Creek Falls, we crossed the Falls Creek by the pretty waterfall for which it was named and headed up a steep and rocky trail. Our plan was to break for lunch at a spot on the top of a ridge with views down to the lake (and power plant) below.

We were out of the wooded area and hiking through tall grass and bushes at this point. It grew much warmer in the sun. We had feared we would leave behind good hiking as we headed east, but this trail made us feel there was hope for more good hikes in the future.

We made it to a bench overlooking the wooded hills and peaceful lake below us. We broke out our sandwiches. We were happily munching away when we became aware that we were sitting in the middle of a huge tick colony. Ticks were falling from the bushes onto us, crawling up our legs and swarming Dakota. For some reason, that ended our lunch break quickly. We gobbled last bites and retook the trail at a fast pace.

The rest of the day’s trail was easy walking and we made good time looping back to the Falls Creek Falls. From there it was a short hike along the banks of Lake Catherine back to our trailer.

The first thing we did back at the trailer was get out the tweezers and flamestick and check Dakota for ticks. There were quite a few. Ugh. We checked ourselves as well. The ticks made a satisfying popping sound when they were incinerated.

Rather than do more hiking at Lake Catherine, the next day’s plan was to head in to Hot Springs and visit Bathhouse Row and hike in the national park. Hot Springs National Park claims to be the first national park. The hot springs in the area had been drawing people for years and the area had slowly been developing in a haphazard fashion. In the 1830’s the federal government took the unprecedented step of “reserving” large parcels of the land for use by citizens. The creation of Hot Springs Reservation was the first attempt by the government to protect a natural resource. It was a bit ham-fisted, however, and failed to clearly delineate boundaries.

Over the years the bath houses in town had evolved from tents and crude lumber shacks to wooden structures. Hot Springs Creek ran right down the main street. The town was subject to frequent fires and the creek regularly flooded. In the 1880’s the federal government covered over Hot Springs Creek so that it ran under the main street of town. Next the government approved private development of new and more elaborate bath houses. Hot Springs’ reputation and popularity soared.

This popularity endured until the 1950’s when healing cures fell out of fashion and the bath houses slowly declined. Today only two of the bath houses are still in operation. The Fordyce, arguably one of the most elegant, now serves as the Visitors Center for the national park.

We drove into town and parked the truck on Central Avenue. Dakota was immediately engulfed by adoring fans. Central Avenue is the dividing line between the park on one side and the town’s business development on the other. Small shops and touristy places are on the town side and the row of preserved bath houses are on the park side.5217 467

Walking through the Fordyce was a treat. We took turns. One of us stayed with Dakota on the wide front porch while the other savored the vestiges of a bygone era. It was beautifully preserved, an elaborate and gracious emblem of the past.

After The Fordyce, we strolled the main street past the balance of the bath houses and back to the truck. We headed up Hot Springs Mountain Drive as it snaked back and forth up Hot Springs Mountain to the very top. Here we planned to walk the Goat Rock and Dogwood Trails.

The parking lot gave us a grand vista from the top of the mountain across wooded hills and the town below. It was very warm as we hit the trail. The sun was strong and the air heavy. We stepped off the trail to enjoy another overlook. When we got back on the trail, I noticed Dakota already had a tick on his paw. I removed it and we continued.

There were a few other hikers on the trails which was surprising since they seemed somewhat overgrown. I was feeling twitchy about ticks. We stopped for lunch at a stone shelter by the road. Sitting there eating my sandwich, I found another tick crawling on my arm. We never did see Goat Rock. If there was an actual Goat Rock, it eluded us. We completed our hike on the upper loop of the Dogwood Trail. I couldn’t find any dogwood either.

Back at the parking lot we checked Dakota for ticks. They were everywhere. We kept finding them and scrunching them into the pavement. I lost count around thirty. It was a total nightmare. Every time I ran my fingers through his fur, I found more. And more. Finally, it seemed we had them all. We got back in the truck and headed home, stopping in Hot Springs at a Kroger for groceries.

As we entered the park, I found a tick in my hair. We both felt itchy all over. When we got back to our camp site, I swept off the mat and laid Dakota down for another tick check. Unbelievably, we found more ticks. We found a few dead ones which meant we had missed them from before. We also found a few which had latched on to his skin. With dark satisfaction, Jim incinerated each tick, even the dead ones, with the flame stick. We felt terrible that we seemed not to have been diligent enough to protect him.

5217 363Sadly, we were no longer comfortable in this camp site. As I stepped into the trailer, a small tick fell from overhead onto my hand. In my research on ticks, the CDC said ticks can only crawl up their hosts. Experience proved otherwise. Later while sitting on the bench seat, I looked down to see another tick beside me. We felt under assault. Obsessively, we continued to go over Dakota checking for missed ticks.

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We holed up in the trailer. No more sitting outside on our mat enjoying the night air and scenic view of the lake and power plant. We contented ourselves with the view through the screened window.

Natchez: It’s Not Just for Nabobs

We headed west across Mississippi to Natchez next. We traveled Route 98 for most of the trip and rolled through softly rolling landscape which was just at the beginning stages of greening up for spring. There weren’t many towns. This was very sparsely settled country. Homes dotted the roadside and, of course, small churches.

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Leaving the highway, we took the State Park Road for about six miles to get back in the woods to the Natchez State Park. This was a smaller park and mostly dedicated to fishing. It had a very nice, large fishing lake. There were two campground loops, but one of them was out of commission because there was a problem with the water system. This was typical of this park. While it was an attractive park, it was not as well maintained as many parks we were used to.

As usual, our first day was dedicated to getting a feel for the park. We explored all over.

On the way to the park office, we came across an impressively large and thankfully dead rattlesnake stretched across the road. A cogent reminder that this country was full of life and sometimes danger. We stopped in at the ranger station to have a chat. There were nice picnic pavilions next to the lake and at the far end of the park were cabins. The remaining campground numbered 22 sites and was quite nice. Our site sat up on a hill overlooking the lake.

This country is so lush and teeming with life. Life and renewal are balanced with death and decay. Just take our rattlesnake. He was stretched out dead across the road and carrion birds were feasting on his flesh. He had lived, killed and feasted and was now food for another creature. In the humid warm air the cycle of life seemed to have sped up. Life burst forth, flourished and when quickly spent, made way for more life.  Even though it was clearly winter, we could almost see the buds beginning to leaf before our eyes. Each day the grass became greener and the azaleas were bursting into bloom.

There weren’t a lot of hiking trails at this park. We did attempt the nature trail on our second day. The trail began right at the campground but just a hundred feet into the woods, it crossed a deeply ravined creek and the bridge was down and impassable. We decided to attempt the trail from the other end and hiked along the park road to where we had seen another sign for a trail. The woods were quite thick with trees and underbrush. The trail wound through the trees and popped out for views of the lake. We got almost all the way back to the campground when we ran into the same creek and ravine. Again, the way over was no longer negotiable. We retraced our steps looking for another trail and ran into the same problem. Finally, we gave up and left the trail. We wound our way through the brush carefully remembering that impressive rattlesnake. Poor Dakota had lots of logs to jump and brush right at eye level. We finally made our way through the woods back to the park road.tick

On our way back to our site, we chatted with a woman at another site who warned us to check carefully for ticks. Bingo. We embarked on beauty parlor and I found one on Dakota. You can’t kill these things easily. I incinerated it with our flamestick. “Die you nasty little creature!” I found another one on the dinette where Jim had been sitting. He was also quickly incinerated–the tick not Jim. After lunch I headed to the showers. Much to my dismay and disgust, I found my own tick and mine was affixed. Yuck. I finished my shower and sped back to Jim for surgical removal. This third tick was promptly incinerated. These woods are alive with ticks in the summer, but going off trail allowed us to find those winter-hearty souls. I really, really hate ticks.

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Following Tick Day, we decided it was time for some civilization and tourism. Natchez has a really together tourism operation. They have a gorgeously produced 50+ page guide to the city with touring info, restaurant listings and lots of glossy photos. It is available for download and in print at their attractive and informative Visitors Center. We headed into Natchez and parked at the Visitor Center. A very friendly and helpful lady greeted us and gave us our printed edition. We stayed to watch the nicely produced 20 minute film about Natchez’ history.

Armed with a map, we gathered Dakota from the truck and walked up the road to the center of town. It was a sunny and cool day just perfect to be out and about, but Natchez was oddly deserted. It was almost noon on a Saturday, but the streets were empty. The roads were devoid of traffic. Natchez was a ghost town. Where was everyone?

As we walked, we noticed broken strings of colorful beads strewn across the sidewalks and scattered in the streets. An alarming number of Solo cups and beer bottles lay about in drunken profusion. Finally we chanced upon a sign in a shop window advertising the Mardi Gras parade and celebration. It had taken place the night before. Realization dawned, Natchez was sleeping off its Mardi Gras.

People down in these parts take this whole Mardi Gras thing very seriously. Mardi Gras is not some distant bacchanal taking place in New Orleans, it is a multi-week regional build up to days of revelry. We had noticed this preoccupation for quite some time. Local news broadcasts featured special Mardi Gras graphics. Television ads offered Mardi Gras special deals. Every town had at least one parade scheduled and gaudy parade floats sprouted in parking in lots and passed us on the roads as they were hauled into position. The local radio station even had beauty tips for celebrants to help them look their best after days of festivities: stay hydrated with water, always use sun block, be sure to remove eye make-up each night, always moisturize and sooth under eye bags with cool cloths. This Mardi Gras lifestyle is serious business—a girl needs to stay looking her best.

Natchez was picturesque and we strolled the streets taking in the historic buildings. Despite the focus on tourism, Natchez was not “touristy.” These people lived in their history and it was there for tourists, but uncorrupted by tourism. Natchez lies at the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. Natchez proper sits up on the Bluff overlooking the river. Here lived the “Nabobs of Natchez,” the wealthy plantation owners who preferred life in the city to the more remote life on their plantations.

And then there was Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Quite literally down under the bluff, life here was rough and rowdy with saloons, gamblers, longshoremen and women of ill repute.

We fetched the truck, stowed Dakota and parked it next to a barbeque spot, Pig Out Inn, “swine dining at its finest.” This was seriously good barbeque and a perfect coda to our tour of Natchez.

Just before leaving Natchez, we crossed the Mississippi over the bridge into Vidalia, Louisiana. Vidalia did not have much to recommend it. Once across the river, we turned around and, with full bellies, we headed back to our trailer and home.

The next morning we were all hitched and ready to go when the ranger stopped by on his rounds. He seemed surprised we were leaving and it turned out we actually had another day reserved. But, despite what had been a very nice stay (except for the ticks), sometimes a nomad just knows when to go. It was time to move on.

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Media notes: At the Natchez Visitor Center I picked up a book by Nevada Barr titled Deep South. Although the book is fiction, it gives a tremendous sense of the country and given that the author was actually a park ranger on the Natchez Trace, almost counts as nonfiction.

60 Minutes just broadcast a story, on chess,  Chess Instills New Dreams In Kids From Rural Mississippi County, in Franklin County which is the county next to Natchez. This story, too, gave a good sense of the rural nature of this country. It was a heartwarming story well worth watching.