Words and Photos by M. Lokelani Howe
The descent into Devil's Den State Park, a switchback drive at the edge of the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas, offers up sweeping vistas around every bend in the road. In summer, children of all ages climb sandstone bluffs and romp among green thickets. When autumn arrives, hikers meander deep into valleys adorned in fall colors. In all seasons, Arkansas is “The Natural State.” What's not to love?
I managed to withhold judgment until we rounded the last bend. "It's all dead," I moaned. The forest covered miles of mountains like an old grey blanket, muted and threadbare.
"Mom, it's not dead!" exclaimed my son. "This is a deciduous forest!" He rattled off facts from the backseat like nine-year-old boys do, so I searched the barren landscape again. Then I caught my first glimpse of spring as soft light filtered through bare branches in pastel shades of pink, lavender, and gold.
Our small caravan pulled into the campground just before sunset. This might have been an issue for first-time campers, but not us. Thankfully, we traveled with our family friends, the Martins. They had scouted the location, had shared campfire cooking tips, and had even loaned us a tent. In all ways, our friends are the kind of folks who love to "throw another log on the fire, y’all."
Our campsite nestled beside the forest and the banks of Lee Creek. The sound of rushing water called the kids, and me too. "Can we take off our shoes?" they begged.
In my childhood, my cousins and I romped beneath redwoods, caught crawdads in the creeks, and snooped about old miners' ghost houses in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Once again, I found myself seeing the wilderness with the eyes of a child.
So, how could I say no?
They kicked off their shoes and splashed in the creek until nightfall when the promise of s'mores and stars led them back to the campfire.
Devil's Den earned its name by reputation. According to local legends, outlaws took shelter in the caves and crevices. Stagecoach routes cut through the mountains in the 1800s, luring all sorts of robbers. Then bandits tucked treasures beneath the sandstone bluffs during the Civil War. And who can forget the Prohibition era from the depths of Moonshine Cave? Those darn devils.
My own little devils enjoyed climbing prehistoric rock formations, breathing in the cold air from the Devil's Ice Box cave, and squeezing into moss-covered crevices.
I trailed behind with my camera in hand, hoping to capture all the natural wonders they could find. But some sights can be experienced only firsthand: the holy hush of a natural cathedral, the breeze atop Yellow Rock, and a serendipitous encounter with another native Hawaiian beneath Twin Falls.
There's a catch to camping in the spring. Nighttime temperatures dipped into the low 30s. I nearly packed up when the forecast called for sleet. But our camping buddies came prepared and ready to weather the storm in nearby Fayetteville. The quaint college town is home to small shops and boutiques with outdoor gear. We loved browsing for locally made goods and glamping finds at City Supply. The kids most enjoyed old-school gaming at Arkadia Retrocade. The beloved vintage arcade welcomes folks to play all day for just five bucks per person. As for the sleet? Our friends loaned us a small space heater that night, and it made all the difference.
The next day was beautiful and warm.
The kids woke up ready to explore the creekside again. The bigs marveled at the waterfall that seemed to appear overnight in the bluffs above, and the littles hunted for tiny white flowers that dared to peek above the mulched leaves from last season. Above us, hawks soared over the tree line until frog songs lullabied us back to sleep.
It's humbling to know that the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps worked themselves to the bone to forge Devil's Den during the Great Depression. I wonder how many of them arrived in Devil's Den literally starved. Not just for beauty, but for bread. Yet, they formed enduring monuments, stone by stone, that still bear witness during these challenging times.
On our last day, I savored the crisp, smoky, fresh air and tilted my head back to gaze at the canopy of trees one more time. In the span of a few days, bare branches had birthed tender buds, and every last one, hell-bent on blooming.
Back home, we hadn't even unpacked when I moaned, "It's all dead." Ridiculous, right? But the winter had been too harsh. It devoured the fragrant wisteria that covered our pergola and our treasured lacebark elm. Then we caught COVID-19, layoffs hit shortly after, and marital stress too. Talk about a devil's den, right?
In times like these, the witness—and "withness"—of the natural world give me hope. Winter may find us in a devil's den, but so does spring. Until then, may we all become soft light filtered through bare branches and tender buds hell-bent on blooming.