After my visit to Hot Springs, I drove up into the mountains of central Arkansas in search of some decompression time in nature. I’ve been visiting friends a lot the last two weeks, and am so grateful to be able to do so, and it was also getting to be a bit too much social time for me. A nice, clear lake, surrounded by trees, and guarded from the throbbing crowds by swarms of mosquitoes…sounds perfect.
This little campground is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, but “campground” and “maintained” are loose terms in this case. It is basically a site where they let you come to camp for up to two weeks for free, but there are no services or hook-ups of any kind. This kind of camping is sometimes called “dispersed” or “primitive” camping when done in a van or RV and called “camping” when done in a tent.
I’ve been on the road for almost a year now, and camped a number of times, but have yet to make a campfire, cook s’mores, or sleep in a tent. Some might not call this camping because of the lack of tent, but it is camping to me because of the lack of modern conveniences and closeness to nature. And anyway, “camping” can mean a lot of different things to different people. For some it means roughing it, for some it is time away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives, for some it is time with loved ones, and while I come out here to be alone, others seek the social possibilities of meeting new people or reconnecting with itinerant friends. For all, though, I think a core part of what makes all these variations “camping,” is that it is in a natural setting. Whether in a forest, at a lakeside, on a beach, or in the desert, there is a peace and comfort that many seek in being in and around nature.
Here at Lake Ouachita (have fun pronouncing that), there are several regular campgrounds with services, and fees, and this out of the way site with neither. My GPS led me most of the way here, but told me I had arrived in front of a farmer’s house on a dirt road with no campground, lake, or any kind of sign in sight. I was confused, and thought briefly of turning right around and going back, but I had come several miles on dirt and gravel roads and it wouldn’t hurt to go a bit farther and see what I could find. It was still early in the day and I could always go back in little bit. My perseverance was rewarded after several hundred yards by a sign for Cedar Fourche Recreation Area at Lake Ouachita. Yay!
Following the main road in, I quickly found a dozen or so families, several with children, hanging around in lawn chairs and leaning against pickup trucks, RVs parked in close quarters, clothes lines strung up between them with swimsuits and shorts dripping on the grass, boats turned over to dry on the lakeside, an older lady with a wrinkled face like a dried apple hunched over in her patio chair, smoking, staring at me as I drove slowly through their campground and back out. Maybe she was wondering if I was going to stay, hoping I would for some new company, or hoping I would move on and not intrude upon their group. I wondered which as I drive through, my anxieties making me think that they were all eyeing me—they were in fact all looking at me—but I imagined them wishing me gone, and I did go. It wasn’t the solitude I had been hoping for.
Back at the campground entrance, there was another, less used road, and I tried going down there. It led down a bumpy, dirt road, I avoided a couple of deep potholes, and found this sign, warning me: “danger lake ahead.” In fact, the road splits and the left fork runs right into the lake as a hard-packed dirt boat ramp. There is no one out here. No awkward stares or RVs with generators rumbling, kids screaming, guys gawking, women judging. They’re not that far away, but I feel alone. At the lake shore. And it is beautiful.
The other campers are just around a bend in the lake. If I were to walk from where I took the picture below, along the shore line to the left, around the bend in the shore and a little farther on, I would come to their temporary home. From where I am, I can’t see or hear them, but I still feel a little on alert the rest of the day, wondering if anyone will come looking for that strange white van, or if another camper will show up randomly, just as I did.
As the sun sets, I see a small light flicker and wonder if it is a flashlight from the other campers, but it seems too weak for that, and much too close. After a few minutes, I see it again, from a different direction. It happens again, and I’m sure now that it is no flashlight. In fact, it is something I have heard about many times, but have not seen since I’ve been old enough to remember: fireflies!
As the night deepens, I start to see more and more of these tiny lightning bugs zooming past my windows and enjoy the show. A chorus of frogs pipes up and I try to pick out individual voices. After an hour or so of careful listening, think I can make out 16 frogs, plus or minus 2. I could be wildly off, but it is fun to try.
The stars come out; this is what I have been longing for. At home in New Mexico, I’m far enough away from large cities that I get a pretty clear view of stars most nights, but what I want to see is the Milky Way. I’ve heard of this elusive creature in legends, myths handed down from ancient times, but actual sightings are so rare in our modern world…it is scared of the light and hides at the smallest hint of day in the night.
It is late and I am tired. I don’t see the Milky Way yet, but am too sleepy to stay up any longer. I feel secure enough out here in the middle of nowhere that I fall asleep with the back curtains open, facing the tall windows which make for good skyward viewing, and wake again in the middle of the night facing the stars.
The Milky Way never does come out. Maybe I am still too close to towns and cities. I do get a great view of the stars in the night sky, though.
In the morning, mist shrouds the lake.
For this short time, as the sky begins to lighten and the colors gradually intensify, it feels as if magic is possible. The sun comes up too quickly for it to last long, but I enjoy this brief touch of the mystical.
My second day at Lake Ouachita, I do something that I have been wanting to do, longing to do, dreaming about, for two weeks. And wondering about for over a year. Take a shower! With my camp shower bag.
Showers on the road have been sporadic, but for the most part I’ve managed to get about one a week, and until recently that has suited me just fine. But ever since I left New Mexico, so for about the last month, it has been hot and humid and sweaty, and it has simultaneously been longer between friend visits with showers I can use.
So I’ve been getting good at sponge baths in the van—pro tip: work from your face down, not your body up, eww—and that works well enough for the most part, but it’s been two weeks since I’ve had a proper shower and I haven’t tried washing my hair that way yet. Lately I’ve started fantasizing about washing my grimy hair. But how? Maybe crouched over the sink with my hair hanging in the basin? Maybe laying down on the floor with my head sticking out the side door, pouring water over my head and hair onto the ground outside? I think this might work best, but haven’t had the guts, or been quite desperate enough, to try either, yet.
I’ve also started looking up truck stop shower prices (around $10 per shower!) and Planet Fitness membership rates. Many van dwellers get this membership primarily for use of their complimentary showers. They comment casually that it’s an easy $20 a month, and right now, with my nasty hair and layers of caked on sweat, that sounds reasonable enough, but it is not just $20 per month, it is $21.99/month, plus a $59 yearly membership fee, plus a $39 signup fee, all of that plus tax, and requires a year contract to get that rate. I only intend to be in the van eight to nine months out of the year and spend the winter at Mom’s house, so that is three to four months wasted. All those fees add up to over $445 per year, which is $37 per month, not $20, and three to four of those months are wasted. If I factor those months into the rest, that $445 comes out to $56 per month for eight months. I better take a lot of showers for $56 a month!
Sorry to throw so much math at you; this is what I’ve been going over and over lately. I just can’t bring myself to spend $10+ on a single shower! Especially if it smells like a gym locker in there…because it is a gym locker. Which brings me to…
My first camp shower. When outfitting the van more than a year ago, I bought one of those camp showers that is a plastic bag that you can fill with water and heat in the sun and it has a hose at the bottom for water to spray out. You pull down the shower head looking thing at the end of the hose that is practically a child’s plastic toy, but works, and water comes out the many holes, and push it back up and the flow stops.
I’m alone enough, I think, I hope, that I decide to chance it. I filled up the three gallon shower bag yesterday in Hot Springs with this in mind.
That’s when the ranger pulled up. Okay, not so alone after all. I pull my shorts back on and open the door to say hi. He is very friendly, no, there’s no problem, I’m fine here, there’s no fee, as advertised, he’s just going around to see who’s here. A scraping sound starts coming from the bed of his pickup, like claws on the sheet metal, but I don’t see a dog. It turns out to be a medium sized box turtle trying to climb up the side wall. He says he picks them up off the road and saves as many as he can.
He heads farther down the road to see who else might be around, and I wait for him to head back past me again on his way out. And then wait a little longer. An hour later, a camper drives by from down the road heading towards the exit.
Now I’m wishing I also got one of those pop-up shower stall things. But I didn’t. I wait a while longer, anxious that someone could arrive at any time, but I also don’t want to wait too long, as new campers are more likely to arrive in the afternoon, as will the bugs.
Eventually, my nasty oily hair wins out over my modesty, and I set up the shower, the bag handle closed in the top of the passenger door of my van. With flip-flops on to keep me mostly out of the mud puddle I’m about to create, and peering frequently around the van toward the road to make sure no one is coming (at least the van blocks me from easy view), I try my first camp shower.
It felt soooo good. Cool water streaming down my hair and over my skin, I can feel layers of sweat and dirt melt off. There are only three gallons, so I have to be very conservative, but it is enough for a good scrub of everything with a little leftover to just enjoy.
No one came, and the warm breeze on my wet, clean skin in the open wilderness was a rare pleasure, so I let the wind dry me most of the way as I combed out my hair, before heading inside. Which was good timing, as an RV rattled down the road past me a few minutes later.
I enjoyed the clean, fresh feeling the rest of the day. As much as I miss having easy, regular access to a shower whenever I feel like it, I can’t remember ever feeling so wonderful after one. I guess depravation is an instrument of gratitude.
In all, I stayed two days and nights before getting back on the road, headed for Bentonville, Arkansas, in the northwest corner of the state, the unlikely home of one of the best museums of American art in the country. More on that in the next post.