It was two weeks before my elopement hike in Colorado, and unlike most brides, I had an “anti-bachelorette” adventure up my sleeve…
By myself. Outside.
Because… what else do you expect from an introverted highly-sensitive person??
I packed up my gear and drove five hours from Jefferson City, Missouri to Ponca, Arkansas for a four-day adventure to my Midwestern happy place – The Buffalo National River.
My plan was to float a section of the Buffalo and explore as many waterfalls as possible. Initially, the solo-hiking didn’t worry me, however this would be my first solo river paddling trip – AND – the water would be COLD. It was mid-April, and the air temps were hovering around 50 degrees.
Though my body and hands would be warm, I didn’t have a waterproof layer for my feet. Luckily, there was a little outpost along the way (JB’s Trading Co.) to poke around in. They had all kinds of high-quality outdoor gear, and I snagged some Sea to Summit wet shoes that looked like they might just do the trick. I also picked up some cheap Frog Toggs in case I got caught in the rain while hiking.
Day 1: Lost Valley View Cabin & Buffalo River Trail
New purchases in hand, I made my way through the twists and turns of highway 43 to the Lost Valley View Cabin, and let me tell you, the view did. not. disappoint. Wow. You know you’re in the middle of nowhere when you cross two cattle guards and have to open a gate just to park your car…
As I unloaded my gear, I checked out the cabin. Rustic, but just nice enough to feel mostly comfortable. A friendly dog even stopped by to greet me!
I could feel the anxiety creeping in – just like it does every time I’m out on my own. I’d be staying in this tiny cabin all week – and, sure, it was on private property and even closed off behind a gate – but thoughts of who – or what – could be out there to “get me” really started to mess with my mind.
(Personally, I blame all the “boogie man” stories my brothers told me as a child…)
Breathe. Think. You’re going to be okay. You have protection (a tiny bottle of long range pepper spray) and cell signal if you need anything.
Early afternoon rolled around, and I felt settled enough to plan my first adventure. Since it had been three years (TOO LONG) since I’d seen the beautiful water of the Buffalo River, and because I’ve always wanted to spend some time on the Buffalo River Trail (BRT), I found a short section (about 4.6 miles out and back) between Ponca and Steel Creek.
When I pulled into the parking lot and saw the water… wow. That spring-blue of the Buffalo River always makes my heart flutter. Every. Time. A bit distracted, I nervously fumbled around with my new Garmin In-Reach Mini to send a check-in to my fiancé and then made my way to the trailhead.
The views were spectacular, and though I was the only one out on the trail that afternoon, I still couldn’t shake the anxiety that had been building since I arrived.
Fear of falling. Fear of dying. Fear of leaving my daughter motherless. Just one slip and fall…. one tiny misstep…
I can get very dramatic when left to wander alone in my mind, especially when I’m in the wilderness. And it’s such a dichotomy, because the thing that brings anxiety is the very thing my nervous system craves.
Quiet. Solitude. Nature. Adventure. Beauty.
To get through these anxious times, I try to remind myself that I’m careful, trustworthy, and that I have the tools I need to face whatever is ahead of me.
I passed through to Steel Creek Campground before I saw or heard another human, and honestly, I didn’t want them to know I was out there. I quietly turned to head back to Ponca as the sun sank lower in the sky – casting its warm glow on the depths of the beauty around me.
I made my way back to the Ponca low-water bridge, loaded up my car, and drove away. Over to my left, something caught my eye – a herd of elk! I stopped to snap a few pictures, naturally.
It’s always a little difficult for me to sleep when I’m alone, yet I was surprised at how nervous I was even inside a locked, remote cabin. Luckily, I had a really great book to occupy my mind – The Alice Network – and Netflix, of course, if desperation set in.
Day 2: Buffalo River Kayak & Hemmed-In Hollow
I awoke the next morning to more anxiety pulsing through my veins. This was the day I had planned to tackle the river on my own. Taking deep breaths, I methodically packed up my paddling gear, taking care to not forget things. The In-reach. The paddle leash. Pepper spray. Wet suit. Dry bags. First aid kit. Food and water.
After renting a kayak and reserving a shuttle, I met the BOC staff along the water’s edge to ask a few questions and wait my turn to launch. I’ve done this float a half a dozen times, but I was pretty apprehensive thinking about doing it solo – AND in colder temperatures.
I have to admit, though, I felt a little silly needing a wet suit and booties when literally all the dudes helping launch kayaks were in shorts and Chacos…
Whatever. You do you, right?
I loaded up the kayak and I was off! The first few rapids right out of the gate were a little shaky, but I got the hang of the new ride (and clunky paddle) fairly quickly.
Note to self: Next time, bring your own kayak and paddle.
Awkward paddle situation or not… the Buffalo River NEVER disappoints. Towering bluffs stretching up into the sky, rock faces speckled with caverns and caves… water streaming down. Unbelievable.
There weren’t many others floating that day (the bliss of paddling on a weekday), but I did come across another solo female paddler and felt the solidarity. I reminded myself that I was not alone, I am strong, and that I could do this.
I only experienced a few nail-biting situations:
- Swift, shallow water running over a big pile of rocks where I got stuck teetering and had to painstakingly pry myself free before I tipped over.
- A narrow river bend where there was just enough room to navigate around a boulder/fallen log/root ball while also playing limbo with the low hanging tree above me.
I could always see these situations in plenty of time to work myself into a worried tizzy. Though, each time I encountered one, I found that once I got right up in the middle of it, my body and brain knew exactly what to do. There was no use worrying or being scared, but just to stay calm and let my experience and instincts take over.
How gratifying and healing to get through these challenges!
A big goal of this paddling trip was to hike up to Hemmed-In Hollow – the tallest waterfall in the Midwestern U.S. The trailhead is about halfway between Steel Creek Campground and Kyle’s Landing, on river-left at the peak of a horseshoe bend.
Once I parked the kayak, it was about a mile hike to get there – maybe less – and when I got there, WOW. I can’t believe something this majestic exists in Arkansas. Or the Midwest, even.
I stood in awe for a few minutes and snapped a some pictures (they absolutely do NOT do it justice), but I was feeling a little introverted so I hiked back down when it got too people-y for me.
The end of my paddle was pretty anti-climactic, thank goodness. My car had been successfully shuttled to Kyle’s Landing, and my keys were sitting on the underside of my car by the tire. The BOC employee who helped me out of the river showed me where to find them, and I was on my way back to Lost Valley View Cabin in no time.
First solo-river paddle… Check!
Day 3: Rainy Day & Hideout Hollow
Heavy storms and wind rolled in over night, and when I woke up the next morning, a dense fog had settled over the valley – thick and moody. Since visibility was crap and temps were in the low 40’s, I really didn’t feel like venturing into the wild… so, what’s a girl to do?
I settled in for a day of nerding OUT.
I exercised… played the flute… (yes I brought my flute.. don’t judge) … journaled up in the cozy loft while staring at the rain-soaked scenery below… and I watched a LOT of movies on Netflix. I ate yummy food, read my book, and probably dozed off more than a few times.
It was all very nice, but by the time evening came around, the skies were clearing and I was itching to escape. Hideout Hollow was next on my list of waterfall trails, so I packed up my gear and ventured forth!
Once I finally found the trail head (it was a little scary getting there… lots of fog… windy narrow roads…), I immediately fell in love with it’s damp, eerie mood. A dense mist hung still in the air covering the outcroppings and moss in a fairy-tale blanket.
There were actually two waterfalls on this trail; one flowing from a cavern that opened up under the ground that you peer into from the ridge, and another you could walk around to see – a cave-like entrance. Definitely a great place to hide out, and I was sure hoping there weren’t any black bears who had that idea too.
On my way out, I stepped past patches of adorable flowers and mosses – and this hiker chick I found on the tree helped me to not feel so alone.
Day 4: Balanced Rock and Hammerschmidt Falls
The next day, Thursday, was the final day of my trip. I needed to get home that night so I could work on Friday, but I figured I still had a few hours of exploring I could do.
I needed more waterfalls!
After loading up my car and checking out of the Air BnB, I headed back to Ponca low water bridge to tackle yet another trail, Balanced Rock Falls. The trail was a little difficult to follow due to the variety of paths from which to choose. The outfitter guys at the river said to follow the creek, and then head up the hill to see the falls.
My anxiety and self-awareness had already ramped up that morning, and as I ambled along, I had a gnawing feeling I wasn’t alone. I tried to relax and enjoy the peace and drippy plants, but I just couldn’t shake the paranoia.
Sure enough, two men – one young and one old – came up behind me. They were quite considerate and announced themselves in plenty of time, but that was all my little nervous system could handle. As they headed up the hill toward the falls, I turned around and headed back to my car. I didn’t see the point in making myself suffer and knew I could try Balanced Rock Falls another time.
But, who wants to end a trip feeling defeated?
There was one more trail I wanted to find. Hammerschmidt Falls.
I drove where Google sent me, but instead of a trail head, I found a gravel road that led me to a legit, real-life dude ranch. Horse Shoe Canyon.
It was a happy little accident – a GORGEOUS canyon with all sorts of animals and lush greenery. The nice lady at the store said horseback riding was only for guests, but if I drove back up to the highway, I could find my trailhead on the other side behind a pond.
A little disappointed that I wouldn’t be riding a horse on this trip, I followed her directions back up to the highway, and sure enough I found the actual trailhead.
Thanks, no thanks, Google…
After a short hike, there it was. It was like the ground fell in and someone turned on a gigantic water faucet.
I climbed down inside – even went to stand behind the flow – and it was beautiful. And LOUD. I splashed around for a while and took a million pictures and videos before this bird rock reassured me that my journey here was done, and it was time to fly back home.
I felt light and proud. Actually, I felt like a bad-ass. And, also thankful I didn’t die.
As I approached the pond by the highway, I stopped to sit and watch some ducks and an otter gliding around in the water. I thought about how anxious and scared I had been for so much of this trip. And, if I was being honest, the last several months, really.
So much was getting ready to change in my life.
- Getting married again – after the last marriage went so horribly wrong.
- Moving into a new house – when it feels like all I have ever done is move, move, move.
- Becoming a homeowner for the first time when I’m used to living in tiny rentals.
- A major shift in my work schedule and routine.
All of these changes were great – ones that I really wanted – but when you are highly-sensitive and carrying a load of PTSD, even good things can feel really terrible.
What if I fail? What if I make the wrong choice? What if I end up more traumatized than I was before?
What if I end up alone… again?
This solo-adventure taught me that it’s okay to be scared. Even in visceral fear, I can listen to myself. I can move through the challenging situation or feeling in a way that is honoring to me and what I need. I can trust my instincts. I can have an open heart. And I can definitely do awesome, adventurous things and be so proud of myself in the end.
Driving back to Missouri – back to bridal showers and moving boxes… back to waning to-do lists that would take their eventual end in my big wedding adventure, I was thankful to carry this newfound strength and peace with me. Thankful to nature in all of her wild and terrifying beauty.
Thankful to myself.