Village Creek State Park, Oct. 2012

Just the good ole boys....

Just the good ole boys….

Last month, I decided to arrange an impromptu father, son, and dog getaway during Joe’s fall break from school.  I packed the Explorer up on Saturday night and surprised Joe with the news of the trip about 30 minutes before we left on Sunday.  Thankfully, Joe enjoyed our first camping expedition earlier in the year, so he was excited to go on another adventure.  With a few last minute preparations, we were ready to head out.  As we were leaving, Michelle asked “Did you remember the anti-bacterial?”.  Ummmmm, no?!?! 

 For this trip, we travelled about 75 miles to Village Creek State Park near Forrest City, Arkansas.  The park was small, but nice, and had but a few campers, due to our Sunday arrival.  Village Creek has about 25 miles of multi-use trails and a large portion of the park is dedicated to horse riding.  It is a pretty little place to visit, and is situated on a unique Arkansas geologic feature named Crowleys Ridge

When we arrived at the park, we made the obligatory stop at the visitor center to check in and look at all the guides and goodies.  We also watched a program about the animals of Village Creek, given by one of the park interpreters.  After checking in, we started setting up camp site #34.  Our elevated campsite was really nice, the tent pad was set back in the woods from the rest of the camp.   This gave a feeling of being a bit more secluded from the other campsites around us.  After eating dinner and exploring a bit, we built a nice fire and then hit the sleeping bags. [Read more...]

Happy Birthday to me…

In an amazing turn of events, I lucked out with some awesome camping gear for my 35th birthday!

From Michelle and Joe, I got a Weber Smokey Joe grill for our camping excursions. This is going to come in handy when those picnic style grills at the campsite are a little questionable in terms of cleanliness. Yes, even I have some standards, especially when it comes to grills. I also got a few books by my favorite motivator, Zig Ziglar, and am looking forward to reading them in my new (cue Price-Is-Right music) ENO DoubleNest Hammock !!!

This totally unexpected birthday surprise came from my sister, brother-in-law, nephew and sweet little nieces in Alabama. The ENO line of hammocks are very comfortable and sleep inducing. If the ‘skeeters weren’t so bad this time of year, I’d be tempted to sleep under the stars tonight.

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes today, and also to my wonderful family for these great presents!!!

My Birthday Haul...

My birthday goodies. Joe’s card is so fantastic! He drew a picture of our tent on it. Look closely, and you’ll see the little mat from our custom footprint, complete with a pair of shoes sitting on it. I love you too, little buddy…

Lounging in the ENO

Joe’s dad in the ENO

See you on the trail…

Almost Famous…

Forgive me blog, for I have sinned.  It has been 33 days since my last expression.  While the posts here have been quiet lately, I have some hopes for another trip soon.  In the meantime, here is one I’ve wanted to get out there.

Mather Lodge - Petit Jean State Park - image courtesy:

Mather Lodge – Petit Jean State Park

During our “recent” outing to Petit Jean, the historic Mather Lodge was closed for renovations.  Since late 2010, the lodge has undergone a $4 million face-lift.  Originally built in 1930s by the CCC, the lodge is named after a National Park Service Director who helped persuade the powers that be to make Petit Jean Arkansas’ first State Park.

The renovations nearly doubled the size of the lodge, and provided an updated kitchen, new restaurant, and a makeover for the guest rooms.  As our luck would have it, we were scheduled to depart the mountain top the day before the grand reopening of the lodge.  I was sad that we didn’t get to drink all of the Petit Jean Kool-Aid this time around, but C’est la vie.   [Read more...]

How to make a custom tent footprint…

For our first camping trip, I found an extra-roomy nine person Coleman tent at Wal-Mart.  It is a 9×14 behemoth you could literally drive a Nissan Versa into.    Happily, with the entire family of three in this bad boy, we had enough room for our bags, a full size air mattress, Joe’s sleeping pad, and plenty of room to move around.  It was a great luxury to have enough space to stretch out after a day on the trails.  Clark would have surely approved of this spacious structure.

Still, I realize that setting up this tent is not really feasible or even practical, every time out.  Especially when it is just a quick getaway for the night, and we don’t want to have as much “stuff” with us.  If our first outing was a test to see how much we could cram into the Explorer, our next one will be a test to see how little we can get by with.  Going to the park for the weekend shouldn’t always necessitate a full-on experiment in Griswold style camping.

With this in mind, I began a search for a two or three man tent that wouldn’t break the bank, and allow for many years of practical use.  Enter the big CL[Read more...]

Camping with Joe – Day 4…

Family Portrait - Petit Jean

Our last, but best picture of the trip, deserves a spot at the top…

Well, it’s been a few weeks since I posted on the merits of Vienna Sausage and Swiss Army knives, so I suppose it is time to wrap up the log of our first family camping trip.  It has been pretty neat to revisit the trip over the past couple of months, and look at all the memories we made at Petit Jean.

Day four of Camping with Joe began with a surprise when my dad awoke to find that his cooler had been raided by a four legged masked bandit, who robbed him of a few precious leftovers.  Lucky for us, he fancied the steak, and not the Shiner.  While Dad was surveying the damage, we started cooking another fine breakfast, although we did not do any dutch oven cooking this time around.  We had a few coals left in the fire pit from the night before, so Michelle made some tasty campfire toast, to go along with our eggs and sausage.

Like all good things though, our time at the little campsite we’d called home had come to an end, so it was time to break camp.  This was done in relatively short order, but still, we kind of lazed around the site, making sure we’d picked up and packed up sufficiently.   Joe was able to grab a few more minutes of Scooby Doo while we were packing.   My dad didn’t have a particular place to be, so he kept his tent up, went to the visitor center, and reserved himself another night under the stars.

While it was still hot, the weather FINALLY gave us a break.  Temps hovered most of the day in the mid-80s, and while it got close to 90, it was a welcome change from the low to mid-90s.  With the “break” in the weather, we debated for a bit whether or not to do the 4.5 mile Seven Hollows Trail.  Whether hiked alone, or as part of the Boy Scout Trail, Seven Hollows is a truly magnificent trail, and one that should not be missed.  It has dense forest, rock formations, a natural bridge, a grotto, and even a desert like feature.  But, after an already late start from breakfast and packing up, we opted for the lighter and more manageable Cedar Creek Trail.   Seven Hollows would have to wait for the next trip, and lucky for us, we made a good choice (not that there can be a bad one at Petit Jean!). [Read more...]

Morning Camp…

by Ron Blake
August 2, 2012

I love the sights and smells of morning camp
Birds sing, gentle breezes stir the early damp
Routines of home and work are far behind
Simpler things occupy yet relax the mind

Awareness in this new and special place
Creates familiar mindfulness of grace
Scents of coffee and woodsmoke mingle in air
Time collapses – deep connections linger there

Worries and concerns are easily erased
Being in this moment can be fully embraced
Such is rare treasure, value beyond measure
I love the sights and smells of morning camp

Inspired one early morning in May at Petit Jean State Park while Camping with Joe…

Camping with Joe – Day 3…

Yeah, yeah yeah.  How could it take three months to document a four day hike in the woods?  Summer my friends, the dog days of summer.  I’ll wrap up day three in this post, and you won’t have to wait a month for day four – I promise!!!

After another peaceful night of tent camping, day three of our trip began with eggs, sausage, and blueberry scones cooked in the dutch oven.  They were prepackaged, and just needed to be cooked to the right temp.  They were YUMMY.

While I cleaned up after breakfast, Michelle and Joe went to a park program called “Spiders Among Us”, where Interpreter Mystina taught the kid campers all about spider hideouts and also a Cherokee legend about spiders.  This was right up Joe’s alley, as spiders are one of his favorite creatures.  Following the program, we went back to Bear Cave and Rock House Cave, as we had done on day two.  We had a little more time today to explore around and check out more parts of each.  Here is a great shot of Joe and the two massive Bear Cave rocks.

Joe claiming Bear Cave for his own…

After about an hour at Bear Cave, my dad hiked the trail back to Mather Lodge, while we took the car over to one of the four scenic overlooks at Petit Jean, “Palisades Overlook”.  Here we could get a view of of the canyons of Cedar Creek, and I believe this is where my dad, grandmother, sisters, and I used to do a considerable amount of star-gazing, back in the day.  We met up with my dad after having a look around Mather Lodge, which was still closed for renovations.  More on that in a future post.

Later, we went back to Rock House Cave, for a quick look around, and this is where I got to introduce Joe to two must-have items while on any camping trip:  Vienna Sausage and the venerable Swiss Army Knife.  Both of these items have been staples on every camping trip that I can ever remember, whether with my dad, the boy scouts, or on my own.  I’m not a card carrying Swiss Army Knife aficionado, but I recognize their necessity on the trail. Dads have a magical power to make the simplest things into something mystic and when we were through, Joe was thoroughly convinced on the supernatural powers of the Swiss Army Knife. [Read more...]

Camping with Joe – Day 2…

With our first night sleeping on the tent pad at campsite 80 behind us, we started day two of our trip at Petit Jean in great fashion – with a nice breakfast.

After first reading Lonesome Dove 20+ years ago (and a couple dozen times since), I’ve always wanted to make dutch oven biscuits, outside, early in the morning. Since this was our first ‘official’ breakfast in our camping adventures, I got up a little early, started some coals and threw some Pillsbury canned biscuits in the dutch oven.  It wasn’t exactly like Gus’ homemade biscuits, but hey, it’s 2012, not 1875.   Uva Uvam Videndo Varia Fit, as Gus would say.

I must say the buscuits were tasty, and well worth the ‘effort’ that Pillsbury put into packaging them.We made some coffee and had link sausage and scrambled eggs w/Pickappepa to complement the biscuits.    It just doesn’t get much better than a decent meal to get your day on the right track.  Following breakfast, we lazed around the campsite for a little while and Joe played with his new knight and dragon that Pops brought him.

Later in the morning, we hit the first of several stops of the day at Cedar Falls Overlook.  In years past, Cedar Falls was just that, falls.  Due to very little rain, snow, etc. the falls are more like Cedar Trickle, these days.  It didn’t help that we arrived during the middle of drought-ma-geddon.  I won’t depress you with a picture, but this, is what it should look like.  Still, the short trail to the falls has been redone since I was last there, and Joe really liked leading the way down.  This is probably the most kid friendly (and now wheelchair accessible) trail at Petit Jean.  It is a great way to start your trip, and you get a beautiful view of the falls and canyons below you. Here is a shot of Michelle and Joe at the falls overlook.

Joe & Michelle at Cedar Falls [Read more...]

On Father’s Day and camping…

In honor of Father’s Day, I thought I would reflect on a few lessons I’ve learned from my own father in regards to camping.  For the dad’s out there, happy Father’s Day and I hope that you use this weekend to reflect on the immeasurable gifts of fatherhood, and that you are able to share some memorable moments with your kids.

1.  Just Be:  Whether you are preparing your gear for a weekend getaway, setting up your tent, making breakfast, going for a hike, or whatever it is, just be.  Be mindful of your surroundings, be ready to accept things as they come.  Be content with life in the woods, surrounded by bugs or uncomfortable by the heat.  Be grateful for the opportunity to have a new experience with your family, and thankful to leave the world behind while you are doing it.  It will all be there when you get back.  Most of all, be present in the moment.  In a blink of an eye, it could all be over – whenever and wherever you are, be there, and no where else.

2.  On Coffee and Hatchets:   “The coffee is ready when it smells like coffee…“  and “A hatchet is sharp enough when it is sharp enough to do the job you need it to do…“  Being an analyst, the simplicity of these statements was hard for me to process, but what Dad really meant was:  “Son, you need to get out in the woods more often…”.  Point well taken.

3.  On Preparations:  No matter how big your checklist, how thorough your packing job, or how much you “get your OCD on” about your trip, some things will inevitably a) be forgotten, b) not be needed, or c) be able to be re-purposed (my father is the KING of re-purposing).  Whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter.  Be ready to adapt and move on – when in doubt, see Lesson 1, and deal with it.  Camping trips and life are too short to “sweat the small stuff” and both can be made or broken by how you deal with being outside your comfort zone. – adversities will arise.  Just don’t forget the kids!

4.  On Keeping Cool while “Car Camping”:  On our recent camping trip to Petit Jean, I knew we would have electrical service, so I brought our box fan from home.  My dad said he never remembered seeing a fan at a camping site.  I had to chuckle because I first thought to grab the fan after a memory of being constantly parked by it one really hot summer week at Petit Jean.  We were on a trip with my sisters and step-sisters.  Dad had the foresight to know that four teen girls and a boy would not be good company if they were constantly overheated.  Since my own traveling partners are hot-natured, the fan was a must for us, and was a welcome addition to campsite during the day and in the tent at night.  There is also the ‘cowboy air-conditioner’, but that is a topic for another day…

5.  On Racoons:  After being raided by a masked bandit on our recent trip, Dad had these words:    “Heard him rumbling around about 3AM.  I figured if he was crafty enough to break in to the cooler, he could have what was in it.”  Luckily, the clever little robber didn’t make off with the beer.

So there you have it, five lessons I’ve learned from my father on the subject of camping.  Somewhere in there are also five lessons on the subject of  life.  Thanks Daddy/Pops, for your part in making our most recent trip one to remember, and for providing these, and many other lessons throughout the years.  I hope to pass them (and some of my own) on to Joe as we continue our adventures together…

Me, Dad, & Joe - May 2012

Me, Dad, & Joe – May 2012 – Cedar Creek Trail, Petit Jean State Park

The first day of camping with Joe…

As I mentioned in the last post, our first camping trip has come and gone, and was a big success.  Of course, we went to Petit Jean State Park near Morrilton, Arkansas.  Where else would I choose to introduce my little buddy to the adventures of camping?  We stayed three nights and four days, and really did it up right, which is putting it mildly.

The biggest reason for the success of the trip was all the pre-planning.  After several weeks of scurrying here and there to look at and gather different gear, tools, supplies etc., when it came time to leave, we were sufficiently equipped with enough “stuff” to survive any calamity that the great outdoors could throw our way.  It was quite comical looking back on it, but almost all of the preparations paid off.  Here is a shot of Joe in the Explorer.  As you can tell, we packed almost every square inch of the SUV.   The Nesbit Hillbillies, maybe?

We got out of town on time, and our drive over to Petit Jean was uneventful, thanks to my mechanic, some new tires, and a little good luck.  Driving westward on I-40 to revisit adventures of the past and begin a new set of adventures with my own family was an amazing feeling.  It wasn’t as exciting as getting to see Joe’s face light up at Magic Kingdom, but moments like these are what make it all worthwhile.  It was truly great to make the drive up Petit Jean Mountain. Of course, we couldn’t go all the way up without stopping first at the Arkansas River overlook and Petit Jean’s grave site. [Read more...]