The following is my journal from my unsuccessful attempt at thru-hiking the Ouachita Trail (OT) in October of this year. I learned two very important lessons: The first, was that the weather can demoralize you in an instant if you let it. You’d think that I would have come to that conclusion years ago but alas I was naive to the fact that instead of raining for an hour or two, it might decide to rain for 72 hours or maybe even more. The second, was that while being quite physically fit, I had no idea how my body was going to react when I basically forced it to do something that it had never done before at this scale. I’ve always been a competitive cyclist and in doing such have always used my knees as a hinge whereas walking/running the knee is used as a hinge and as a shock absorber. I basically went from a low impact knee activity to a high impact activity in the span of a few hours and my body didn’t mind…for a few days anyway.
October 13, 2013-
Dropped off at the Talimena State Park trailhead at 3 PM. I said a few quick goodbyes and started out in a beautiful fall day of 77 degrees and sunny. I immediately had to pee and found a tree next to the trail to hide behind. I was about half way unzipped when I turned behind the tree and found myself staring right into a trail camera that I’d guess was placed there to keep up with traffic on the trail. Suffice to say, that I went and found another tree. Initially it was much more of a workout than what I expected and I broke into a sweat less than a mile into the trail. Walking wasn’t too hard and as I got used to walking with poles, I developed a nice rhythm of pole placement and steps. I walked for three hours and ended up passing mile marker 7 before I chose a place to camp, which also happened to be the first real water source that I found. I made camp, cooked dinner, and crawled into the tent. Tomorrows weather doesn’t sound too great, 80% chance of rain during the day and a 90% chance of strong storms tomorrow night. Looking to up the mileage tomorrow, with 20 miles being ideal.
– dinner was mashed potatoes and gatorade
– saw 2 other people camping. They were maybe 2 feet off the trail? Why?
October 14, 2013-
Sleep was restless and I listened to the radio most of the night. Wind kicked up after midnight and created this unique sound through the trees. You could hear it coming and then it would swoosh overhead and then eventually fade away before another gust would start and do the same thing. I was up at 6, ate breakfast with some coffee and waited for it to get light enough to navigate which ended up being 7:20. The rain arrived in the form of mist at 8 but it wasn’t too much of a problem at first as the forest I was walking through was quite dense and most of the rain was stopped by the tree tops overhead. I eventually stopped to put on my pack cover but decided against rain gear for myself as the mist had a nice cooling effect and as I was wearing a hat, the rain didn’t bother me. The rain intensified as I came up to Winding Stair campground. It was closed due to the government shutdown (fucking stupid) and I was bummed a bit as there wasn’t an open shelter or pavilion for me to get under. I finally found a bulletin board that had a slight roof over it and checked my phone for a signal. Luckily I had a signal and the weather report was dismal, more of the same and it would continue the next day. On I went, up a steep climb to the top of a mountain that used to have a fire tower on top. The mist and fog got thicker and denser the further up I went. The animals couldn’t see either as a coyote was walking right at me about 30 yards away. He eventually saw me and bolted into the woods. The former tower site is nothing but some concrete footings and some metal scraps and I’m sure would have yielded a great view but all I saw was mist. I tried to call the daughter for her birthday but was only able to leave a message and was concerned I would soon lose signal as there was nowhere to go but down. Pissed about the increasing rain and the incredible wind, I trudged on only to come around a corner and see a new sign that pointed the direction to a shelter. Bonus! I had no idea there was a hiker shelter here and was already trying to figure out the best way to set up camp in the rain. The shelter was easily the best feeling I had today. I was able to hang up all my wet stuff and put on dry clothes. There was no nearby water but I just put my cup outside and the intensifying rain was giving me all the water I could ever want. I’m sure the view from this shelter is great but due to the elevation, the exposure is quite heinous during a storm. The wind is rocking up here!
-the trail from Horse Thief Springs to Winding Stair CG was non-existent. Lots of bushwhacking and bitching.
-was able to call aela since I was up so high. She immediately asked where I was as she could hear the wind howling in the background.
– got in 18 miles today and stopped early at 3:30 due to finding the shelter and having the sense not to move on. Should be back in AR tomorrow night.
October 15, 2013-
Surprisingly slept really well during the strong storms all night. Luckily there weren’t too many lightning flashes but the wind was incredible every time I checked. Storm clouds kept it really dark till 7:30 or so. I was really concerned with the amount of rain over the past two days as I had to cross a creek (that had a high water bypass) and a river EIGHT times. I went for it and it was do-able without too much concern. Yes, the river was rocking but width wise I felt that I could remain in control. I did a trial run at first without my pack and then went back and got it. It was fairly odd to carry a pack over your head while fording a river. For some reason the trail likes to criss-cross the river a total of 8 times in about 5 miles. I crossed from one side to the other twice and then just bushwhacked on the north side for the remainder. It made no sense to go back and forth, risking too much on a day like today. Walk was miserable with a steady drenching rain and a good climb on the way to the state line. I once got quite cold and since my options for warming up were as close to zero as I ever hope to be, I jogged for a mile or so to get the blood pumping. I took a few photos of the waterfalls that had formed from all of the run-off. Everything else was shrouded in a dense fog that made visibility limited to maybe 30 feet. I finally came to the top of the climb and then shortly after I was back in AR. As soon as I hit the state line, the trail was weedeated to a width of 8 feet! I think no one takes care of the OK trail. Unfortunately the trail was basically a steady flowing stream at this point and rocky as hell. I fell about 8 times today and once landed on my right knee and shoulder. I knew at the time it hurt like hell and I’m hoping there’s nothing seriously damaged. My shoulder revolted about 4 miles from Queen Wilhemena. I had to alternate tightening and untightening the pack strap. QW Lodge and Restaurant are closed so I walked through the campground and thought about camping…it was still pissing rain and radar had it continuing most of the night. I stopped at the visitors center and asked about maybe a ride or a shuttle down the hill into town. They called someone and I was whisked away to Mena for $30 and dropped off at a hotel for $80. I took a 45 min shower and hung up all my gear to dry. Had some coffee and some soup and finally warmed up. I ate an entire large pizza for dinner and settled into a real bed.
– knee and shoulder hate me
– Mena is in a dry county. FML
– Wet shoes are destroying my feet. They almost look frostbitten.
– walking 26 miles really makes your body feel like you walked 26 miles.
October 16, 2013-
There are a total of 6 lines of text for this day. Obviously my day wasn’t the best. I’ll elaborate on the day as I remember it
Dropped off at QW in the pouring rain for $20. Shoes were dry for a total of 3 minutes and my feet got pissed quickly. I was able to get out of the rain for a couple of hours and make some coffee at another new shelter that had just been built. It was at the top of the hill after crossing HWY 71. The sign on the front says it’s “Foran Gap Shelter.” The rain stopped for a bit and I headed out. Most of the rain stayed away for a few hours but I still couldn’t see through the dense fog that shrouded the hills. Loaded up on water at Tan-A-Hill Spring. Water was beautiful and the guidebook says that his was the source of water for early settlers in the area. Matter of fact, the rough old road trace back to the spring is all former wagon roads. I finally found a campsite at mile 76. I had been going up and down and there was nothing level. Finally I found a flat spot in the woods but I knew I was on a ridge top. Soon enough the wind picked up and as soon as I had finished cooking dinner the rain returned. I crawled into the tent and am still listening to it rain. I did hear that the govt is going back to work. That was the highlight of this day I guess.
– another 25 miles today.
– feet scary looking still.
– knee pain is concerning.
October 17, 2013-
Awoke to clearing skies but everything was wet. It continued to rain most of the night and also got quite cold up on the ridge. For the first time, I slept with the bag zipped all the way up and wore a hat. I made some coffee and hit the trail as early as I could see. Almost cried when I finally saw the sun for the first time in almost 4 days. The trail meandered up and down ridge tops and I could actually see from the vistas! It warmed up to about 70 and made for the best day hiking yet. My feet and knee however were a different story, lots of pain and for lunch I ate Ibuprofen. I stopped about 10 miles in and re-taped my toes and let my feet air out. I put my socked foot into a plastic bag and then put my wet shoes on. It worked fairly well but my feet eventually sweat themselves back into being wet. Scenery changed on the last 10 miles to Big Brushy as there were some clear cuts and a bit of fire damage. I was surprised to see MTB tracks on the trail and it made me wish I was on a bike. I made it to Big Brushy after walking right by it once and going out of my way by 2 miles. The area was closed and it pissed me off. I decided to stealth camp by the water as there was a zero percent chance of rain that night. The camp ground had been flooded out recently and was run-down and decrepit looking. I made myself some dinner and set up camp. My tent was soaked and with the little day light left, I was hoping it would dry out. I went back to dinner and checked my feet…actually I checked my feet by accident. I glanced down at my shoes and they were seeping blood. Removing the shoes and socks revealed a blistered, oozing mess.
I looked at the guidebook and I needed to make 20 miles tomorrow to be able to retrieve my re-supply box at the post office in Story on Saturday. The post office hours sucked so I had to be as close to Story as possible to be able to get up, walk the 5 miles to Story and get my box. The post office is open for 3 hours on Saturday, so I had a very small window to hit and it was going to be tight enough. Tomorrow’s hike was also rather remote with civilization being at the end of it only. I really needed to make some decision as far as moving on or calling it quits. I had my answer as soon as I stood up and lightening raced up my right leg from the knee. My girlfriend was summoned and I was in a nice warm car 3 hours later, headed back to my life. I’d made it 94 miles and was one day from the halfway point.
October 25, 2013-
I’ve been back a little over a week and at first I questioned my decision as just being a wimp and maybe I should have toughed it out. As of today, I can tell you wholeheartedly that I did indeed make the right decision and if I continued, I’d of put myself in a world of hurt. Today my feet are returning to normal after the trench foot symptoms I was exhibiting. My right knee made my entire leg swell for 4 days, was immobilized in a brace, and made me walk like I had a soiled diaper. Surprisingly, my left knee became swollen and more painful than the right. I would attribute this to it having to over compensate for the right and it actually felt hot to the touch. Ibuprofen and some rest are working slowly but I can walk uphill and downhill without wincing for a change. I am however returning in March to do it all again, but this time the legs/knees/feet will be prepared.