Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bicycle Memories, Part 8; Darn Humans & Lovely Springs

Late 1991 to early 1992: Continuing from my last bicycle post, I worked on laying out my mountain bike trail from November all the way through April—over 5 months in all. As I built it, I also began to ride it, and so did others as they discovered my single track trail’s existence.

One weekend afternoon I took a breather, after riding and tweaking a section of the trail where it wound through the dense woods directly behind the commissary just up the rock-strewn forested ridge behind the police shack. Where I sat on a small boulder I spotted a rider coming up my trail toward me. It was the first time I’d seen another rider on it—I was thrilled yet strangely upset, feeling like he was trespassing. He stopped and in conversation told me how great the trail was and wondered why he had never noticed it before. Shrugging, I agreed that it was indeed a great trail; feeling proud, but keeping my secret to myself.

But I wasn’t always pleased with other riders. The trail switched tightly back on itself in several places, especially in the hilly areas, and soon I noticed that some riders were taking short cuts. I could not allow this to happen. I needed a solution to stop alternate spurs from springing off my main trail due to the bushwhacking of these wrongdoing riders. If I didn’t figure out how to stop them, these uncaring riders would soon slice up the woods that I had now made so completely accessible and thus ruin its natural beauty. Damn, but sometimes I hate people. Present company excluded, humans ALWAYS find ways to take a good thing and ruin it.

There was only one way to fix the short-cutting problem, by dragging huge logs and boulders across the short-cutted areas. I also interlaced these barricades with spiny branches, blackberry canes, and anything else I could find that would painfully impede a rider from casually cutting through and sullying the areas directly around the trail.

It sounds like a ridiculous thing to get upset over, but trail shortcutting is a big problem for all trail maintainers. For instance, indifferent hikers cut between trail loops all the time and in many parks, because of the damage it causes, it is illegal to shortcut a switchback. It kills plant life and causes unnecessary erosion. By building these large seemingly “natural” obstacles I managed to nip the problem in the bud.

An interesting thing about the area that I put my trail is that it was basically a wild region right in the middle of a busy air force base. On the east side was the flight line; to the west, base housing; to the north lay the small base lake; and to the south were the commissary, Burger King and sports fields. Until they started purifying pollution-soaked soil in the center of it, I always wondered how that huge plot of nature never got built on over the years. But over time, I discovered that someone HAD indeed built on it, although many years before the Air Force had taken possession.

Over the course of my traipsing I found two springs where water naturally found its way to the surface from the aquifer. In days gone by, wherever spring water busted to the surface people would usually settle nearby. Sure enough, that’s exactly what had happened with these particular springs, although you wouldn’t have known it at first look.

The first spring I discovered was not all that enchanting. It slowly fed out of the ground and formed the mucky willow swamp through which I had to build the dike. This water eventually drained down the hill behind the cop shop. It was here during heavy rains a series of picturesque little waterfalls flowed over several small escarpments of flint and sandstone.

Out of curiosity one day I followed this bubbly stream to the bottom of the hill and was pleasantly surprised when I came to an ancient concrete watering trough studded with small smooth river stones. It sits there now in a small grove of trees hidden from view, but I could tell it was once part of a long defunct farmstead. The archaic cement and round river stones of its construction is of a crudely ancient vintage. I could be wrong, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably put there by some frontier farmer in the late 1800s.

The second artesian spring is much more fascinating; not only in appearance, but in how I discovered it. The tale actually goes back four or five years before my trail building time, when I first arrived at Little Rock AFB. Being a runner long before I was a biker, I soon came upon a narrow sunken dirt road hemmed in thickly with trees. The road starts just behind the commissary, where it begins as a gravel lane through a large grove of pines. It continues in a mostly straight line north for almost a mile to highway 107 which parallels the base’s northern fence line. I figure the sunken road is original, probably well over a hundred years in existence, and was there long before the base came into being in the mid 1950s. How could I possibly come up with this figure in years? Well, I’ll explain.

As I mention above, the road, actually better described as a lane, was sunken. Wikipedia even has an entry on such thoroughfares. Sunken roads become that way through the action of many years of erosion and wear. In the old days almost all country roads were sunken. Most people are generally unobservant and uninterested in such things, so I doubt anyone else traversing the sunken woods road on the base, besides me, even realized its ancient origins.

Every March, as the weather warms in Central Arkansas, there is one unlikely spot along the old sunken road that sprouts thickly with bright yellow clumps of flowering lilies, white dogwood blossoms, wild redbuds, as well as some kind of yellow-flowering domestic bush, of which there are several. All of these flowering plants grow within a relatively very small area. At first, I marveled at the coincidence of it, that such a beautiful wild garden would develop there. In the spring of 1992, when I started work on the last leg of my mountain bike trail, I discovered that the lovely wild garden was not there through happenstance after all, but was the site of a long gone homestead.

Anyone with a mind to can see the stream that runs into the west corner of the small base lake. It usually runs at a trickle from a culvert passing under the street that runs directly in front of the base lake shoppette. I knew that I wanted to fully incorporate this stream bed as it meandered for several hundred yards through the northwest corner of the wooded region of my trail. In my explorations of the stream I casually followed it back to its beginnings, to its headwater. Fascinatingly, I found evidence of overgrown manmade ditches, as if someone had used them for irrigation purposes many decades before.

Where the stream channel ends, the ground becomes quite marshy. At the time, it was muddy in places, but mostly thick dead grass just starting to sprout new tendrils of growth formed a spongy sucking walking surface. Suddenly, I knew exactly where I was when I spotted not 25 yards away the out of place cluster of yellow lilies and flowering domestic bushes. It was the place along the sunken road with the improbable wild garden.

About then I heard the murmur of dripping water. I followed the sound to a tiny copse of trees a few feet away. There, amidst lush green moss and thick verdant grasses was a perfectly circular antique well. Gazing upon it, I felt a thrill go through me.

The old well was only 4 feet in diameter and constructed of indigenous flat rocks mortared loosely together. At some point someone had filled it in with large rocks so that it was only a foot deep. Whoever had built it all those decades ago did so right over a spring. The sound that drew me to it was spring water dripping off the mortared rock face and into the shallow pool of crystalline water in the well.

The sight of the old round manmade structure fascinated me. It was a serene and yet haunting spectacle, because now I realized I was standing in the remains of the home of some long ago farmer or frontier family. With that in mind, I began to kick and paw at the dense foliage, roots and vines covering the earth around the well.

Over the next week or so, before it got too hot and bug-infested with the approach of summer, I searched for vestiges of the former occupants. The first things I found were large once-molten clumps of old-fashioned blue-tinted glass that I suppose had been used in the disappeared building’s window panes. At that point I reckoned that a fire had burned down whatever wooden structure had once existed there; all that melted glass had to signify a devastating blaze. I also found the remains of footings of crumbling mortar and native stone. The only other remnants were bits of broken chinaware and vintage bottles.

I had jogged, biked and strolled past that spot hundreds of times over the years and never suspected that a family had once lived there maybe a hundred years before; though I do remember one early evening run that I took about two years before I had taken up mountain biking. It had been still out, completely windless, without even the hint of a breeze. The sun had already passed below the horizon, but there was still another 15 minutes of twilight left. Jogging along the sunken lane something caught my eye in the trees exactly in the area of the long gone burned down house.

Something was there. I stopped running and stared at the place where I had seen it, but now it was gone. Turning away I felt a shiver go through my spine as it reappeared in my peripheral vision. Whatever it was, it made no sound and that I knew to be impossible. Nothing moves through those woods absolutely soundless like that. Whenever I moved it moved, but when I stopped it also stopped. It continued to do this. Once, as I stared directly at the misty white “thing” I could still see it obscured behind some trees. It was there!

The white misty phantom thing only went out of my side-vision when the road bent around away from it. Just to make sure, I turned around and went back. Sure enough, now it followed me in the other direction. Never approaching me, it always stayed exactly the same distance away to my flank perhaps 20 yards distant. It only moved when I moved, but never followed when I looked directly at it.

I’ve only seen something similar once before in the woods and fields behind my family’s home in Birch Run, Michigan. Anyway, I only saw that particular “thing” that one time; although I never stopped looking for it over the years. I was a bit stunned though, when I realized years later that the apparition I had seen years earlier had appeared directly in the area of the long gone house. Strange, huh?


James (Les) Chandler said...

The yellow flowers remind me of my grandfather. He would always cut a few branches off and gently whack his pants legs before going into the bush. He never had any problems with ticks because of this. My grandfather was from near Fordice, Ark a few miles south. The flowers were gone by this time. The ticks came out after the flowers stopped blooming and the plant acted as a natural repellent. It didn't take me long to imitate the same act before going into the brush. This part of Arkansas has more bugs then any place I've ever been any other time in my life...thanks for the memories Phil...

PhilippinesPhil said...

Oh yes! The bugs! I've never lived anywhere that had so many chiggers, ticks, and no-seeums, like Arkansas does. That will definitely be a part of one of my future bicycle memories post.