Pre-Holiday Decompress in Ponca, AR

Wild elk in Arkansas

Elk lounging roadside in Ponca, AR

If the current political climate or the prospect of spending the holidays with 30 cousins and all their babies crammed into a tiny house with nary a bottle of wine among you has you feeling more #stressed than #blessed, then I suggest you head to a place where cell phone service is non-existent and the only sounds are that of bugling elk or unnamed critters rustling through the leaves.

In preparation for the whirlwind of travel, shopping, and social engagements this time of year always brings, that’s exactly what Henri and I did last Friday night- a last minute, barely planned ditch of civilization.

It was the perfect 24-hour reset and something to feel truly thankful for.

With just enough time between obligations to sandwich in an overnight, Henri and I drove to Ponca, AR for a stay at Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging. Normally, weekend stays require two nights but when we inquired earlier in the week they told us if we called back Friday morning and the cabin hadn’t been rented, they’d let us have it.

Friday morning. Score #1.

After my appointment with some very cute and very rowdy beagle puppies, I headed home to pack. One carry-on size bag seemed sufficient for a no make-up, sleep naked, come home in the clothes you wore overnight trip. My bag- sweater, tennis shoes, moisturizer, tooth brush. Henri’s bag- blanket, stuffy, food, bowls. Done. Only two more stops before hitting the road. Grocery and liquor. In Arkansas, those are two different stores.

With a full ice chest and an hour of winding roads lined with the remnants of fall color ahead of us, we rolled down the windows, turned on Kenny Wayne and headed East.

My Mema always says I “get my ass between my shoulder blades”, but thankfully there’s something about leaving the city that just relaxes me. As soon as the buildings are few and the pastures are many, as soon as I realize there are no bars on my cell phone or that the only structures are farm houses and churches, those shoulders revert to their natural position. As I relaxed, my mind started to wander and I began to think of the elk.

Rocky Mountain Elk were introduced to the Buffalo National River area to replace the Eastern Elk that were hunted into extinction. Fall is the best time to catch them as it’s mating season and the bulls are in full rut. The herd tends to feed in the fields that lie along the Buffalo National River between Ponca and Boxley just after sunrise and then again in the late afternoon. I’d never seen them, but we’d timed our departure so as to be driving through the viewing area- a 7 mile range on Hwy 43- at the right time and making our cabin before sunset.

Friday afternoon. Score #2.

Between Ponca and Boxley there’s an Elk Education Center and an elk lookout. I don’t think the elk know about the lookout because they aren’t always there. However, if you want to find them, simply drive from Ponca down Hwy 43 to the south. Keep your eye on the fields on the east side of the road. Roadside elk-viewing spots can be had anywhere from the Ponca access to the trailhead for the Buffalo River Trail. If you see cars pulled over to the side of the road, join them.

After our roadside elk viewing pit stop, where I left Henri in the car and tried without success to find a hole in the fence, we continued on to our cabin. I was super-intent on making what I was sure would be a gorgeous sunset.

Our cabin was actually only about five minutes from the elk stop so after checking in at Lost Valley and being advised to ‘just gun it’ when going up to Hillside Cabin #1, we arrived. This is not a cabin for the lame or handicap, or the Toyota Avalon. In fact, in another five years I’m pretty sure my hip will give out and I’ll need a Sherpa to make it at all. Please God let me have a truck by then!

All this being said, the cabin is fabulous! A wrap around deck with rocking chairs, a hot tub and a charcoal grill does not disappoint. It even comes with a nice gray kitty. The only drawback is…no view of the hills, just woods. Fortunately, long summer days on the water have made me an excellent sun chaser and spying a sunny hilltop in the distance, I got it my mind that we should just drive in that direction. My plan worked.

Friday sunset. Score #3.

We drove in the direction of the mountaintop which led us to the entrance of the Steele Creek trail. From the entrance it’s just downward, not good for sunset viewing, but I found a great little spot across the road to throw a blanket and plop down. As the clouds changed from white to pink to dark blue and the mountain slowly sucked the light from the sky, I babbled to Henri about the majesty of sunsets. With patient eyes he stared, if only to appease me. He’s used to my ramblings.

Once I was satisfied with having seen the best of what would transpire that evening, we returned to our cabin for dinner.

At the store, we’d picked up all the necessary supplies for a long quiet evening of snacking, good eating and drinking. Cheese and crackers would tide me over while I built a fire and enjoyed a drink, and when I started to get really hungry, I’d planned to fire up the charcoal (bring your own) grill for a steak. Bacon-wrapped filets, roasted rosemary potatoes, and Michael David Petit-Petite were on the menu.

Henri split his time sniffing around our hillside and cleaning out the cat food bowl which I relocated to a table top out of canine reach. My rule for out-of-sight free-range is that I just need to hear his rustling or the jingle of his collar. This summer I discovered an LED collar at an outdoor store and it might be my favorite new dog accessory. If I can’t see the collar or hear him, I call him and he returns.

The sky was clear and starry and the night a cold, quiet reminder that winter is coming. It was perfect hot tub weather and a relaxing end to the day.

Saturday morning. Naked.

The crisp chill of the Saturday morning air led to one more dip in the hot tub while drinking my coffee. And the realization that if Travel Tails were a TV show, there are a lot of things I might not do. Like, sit naked in a hot tub while drinking my coffee. Or spend two days without make-up (lipstick doesn’t count).

Check-out was at eleven and we’d planned to grab some lunch and get in a hike before heading back to town. The hike was the whole point of the trip and not getting it was a major disappointment. Unfortunately, we discovered too late that many of the trails in the Buffalo National River area do not allow dogs. They allow horses, with their big hoofs that tear up trails and giant piles of crap that no one picks up, and there’s a HUGE controversy over a factory hog farm that was allowed to be built, but NO DOGS. I won’t ruin this story with a rant, but suffice it to say that I don’t get it!

We settled for a drive through Horseshoe Canyon Ranch and lunch at Low Gap Café. Neither was actually a ‘settle’ as the view at Horseshoe is nothing short of stunning and lunch was great. Horseshoe doesn’t allow dogs and is yet another reminder that I need a truck, but if you’re a frisbee golf player, you should get yourself there ASAP. I didn’t even bother trying to take a picture because I knew there was just no way to do it justice.

Low Gap does have an outdoor patio but it was a little chilly for that, so Henri had to wait in the car. They have excellent food, a BYOB alcohol policy (they’ll serve it to you in a red solo cup), and music on the weekends. It was a wonderful little surprise and certainly a place I’d eat again.

Once we returned home, I tweeted my disappointment in the availability of dog-friendly trails to @BuffaloNPS, the official Twitter source for the Buffalo National River. They responded to let me know that “Henri would love the Mill Creek Trail (Pruitt), Forrest Trail (Buffalo Point), and Overlook Trail (Buffalo Point)!” They also let me know that Hawksbill Crag/ Whitaker Point is a popular dog-friendly trail in the Upper Buffalo near Boxley, which is closer to where we were but temporarily closed due to a wildfire.

She gets political.

I’d guess a majority of the population of Arkansas is familiar with the Buffalo. For those that aren’t, shame on you. Get there. STAT. In addition, check out the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. I don’t get political very often but when there’s a factory hog farm near our nation’s first national river and its existance is a threat to a vast and beautiful wilderness, I get a little opinionated.

For the rest of you, plan a visit. I have no doubt that afterwards you’ll understand what we are trying to protect.

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