You are not about to read a scary sci-fi story of remote high mountains and man eating spiders. Oh no – what follows is an everyday story of hiking in Arkansas. And for a finale, a thieving raccoon enters the story.
Oliver was able take Friday off work so on Thursday night after a few libations the idea of ascending Pinnacle Mountain took root. It’s a very distinctive mountain rising above the plain of the Arkansas River close to Little Rock and standing in glorious isolation. It’s only 1011 feet high and the base is about 300 feet above sea level, but it is very steep sided and the summit ridge with its two tops is very exposed.
The main reasons for climbing it, apart from the “”because it’s there” answer, is for the exercise and the views from the summit. Because the temperatures in the middle of the day were bumping around the 100F mark, prudence said that we should be on the mountain by 9.30 -10.00 so that we could reach the top before 11 and be back down by 12.
And so it was that the next morning Oliver, Henry, Margaret and myself set out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the mountain. The drive was about 20 minutes to the west. We approached the mountain on its steepest side – reserved for the ultra fit and the foolhardy – and drove around the base to the “tourist” side. As so often in America, the parking was well organised complete with clean toilets and all for free. The State Park system, of which Pinnacle Mountain is a member, is a real flagship in the provision of leisure facilities in the US and an example for other countries to follow.
By 9.35 copious amounts of sun cream had been applied and a final check made to make sure we had enough water. There were a number of different trails leading out of the car park and all were well marked with their own colour codes. Our colour was yellow, an easy colour to see at a distance. Also the signs said that the length of the trail was 0.75 miles and there would be ten distance markers along the trail. Off we set.
The trail was steep but it was all walking and scrambling. No hands required except occasionally for a bit of balance. Every few minutes we passed someone coming down the trail from the summit. After a while it dawned on me that the usual camaraderie of the trail was totally missing. No one was keen on saying hello or even giving a wave or a smile. What was wrong with these people? To be kind, I suspect they were people who went up the mountain every day as part of their fitness regimes, and they saw us as interlopers in their territory. Bu that doesn’t wash with me, part of the joy of mountain walking is meeting your fellow ramblers.
The further up the trail we got the steeper was the path and the slower some of us got. There were welcome benches at regular intervals and the nearer we got to the top the more we used them. As we neared the summit ridge we could hear sounds of gaggles of young children. And the loudest voice was the leader who seemed to think that the only way to control the children was by shouting out orders. In fact, they were clearly well disciplined kids who needed only minimal guidance to do the right thing.
The summit ridge, when we reached it, was rather narrow and exposed. It was composed of rocky slabs all at awkward angles. It was a precarious job to get to the west summit, our planned destination. But it was more than worth the effort.
To the east we could see Lake Maumelle, an artificial lake created in the Maumelle River for storage of drinking water. It was massive, stretching away into the middle distance. To the north the Arkansas River meandered upstream towards Oklahoma, Kansas and ultimately Colorado. To the east there was a great panorama over Little Rock. A major feature was the Big Dam Lake that we had visited on the bikes a week ago.
Then it was time to head downwards. For us oldsters with our various handicaps of old age, going down can be a bigger challenge than going up. The first few hundred feet definitely needed to be taken slowly. It didn’t help that the party of 8 to 12 year old, who turned out to be Christian leadership summer-campers, came prancing over the terrain like mountain goats. To add to the scene, several of them, including the rather portly middle-aged adult leader, were wearing cardboard hats reminiscent of Xmas Cracker hats each with a crucifix on the side. What a strange sight.
One of the kids, a rather plump boy, tripped and fell with his knees and hands scraping over the rough path. The leader, clearly a man full of Christian compassion, dismissed him with the comment “At least you fell on your belly so that would protect you”, without even looking to see if the poor boy had any cuts and grazes that would need treatment.
About half way down the trail I was at the back of our group, although we were all close together, when I saw something moving onto the path. On closer examination it revealed itself as a large, hairy spider about the size of the palm of my hand. I called the others to stop – or did I let out a shriek? Anyway, we were soon all circling round the slowly moving creature. None of us knew what kind of spider it was but it looked mightily like our images of a tarantula. Keeping a safe distance we watched it for several minutes until it started to move away from the path. It was so unusual that our assumption was that it was an escapee from a local collector.
We descended the rest of the track at a brisk pace with glances behind to see if it was following us and wondering whether it was poisonous or would it jump. Whatever we were glad to have put some distance between it and us.
Back at the car we decided to drive round to the Vistors’ Center to report our discovery. When we got inside one of the staff came out to greet us. She asked if it was our first visit to the park, and when we said yes, produced Sate Park logo-ed metal badges for us all to wear. We thanked her but said there was a pressing issue we would like to discuss with her. As soon as we started on the story she said that she had seen a few tarantulas this season but this was the first year since she was a child (not to be rude but that wasn’t yesterday as she was first to acknowledge) when they were very common. I wonder if the Pinnacle Mountain will lose its appeal once word gets round that there are tarantulas lurking there.
Then she said to have a look out of the side of the balcony at the front of the Visitors’ Center where we would see a raccoon. And right enough, hanging precariously upside down from a branch not more than 20 feet away, was the raccoon helping itself to the contents of a bird feeder. When it had had emptied the feeder, it dropped down to the ground and grubbed around picking up seeds that had fallen.
As if this was not enough of Southern nature for one day, we turned around and saw a glass cage containing a few stuffed animals. The centre piece was an armadillo, a breed which turned out to be common to the area. Oliver explained that the only armadillo we were likely to see outside, would be a squashed one on the highway as they are relatively shy but not full of road sense. I’m glad to say that didn’t happen for us.
We certainly had plenty to talk about when we met up with the rest of the family for lunch.