Ever since I heard about the Womble Trail I wanted to ride it. Those familiar with the world of mountain biking know that the Womble is a legendary IMBA Epic route, considered to be “immersive, technically and physically challenging, beautiful to behold and worthy of celebration.” It’s a 33-mile stretch of almost uninterrupted singletrack that traverses the southern part of the Ouachita National Forest. A friend of mine once suggested that the creator of the Womble must have been a genius. Despite the nearly 6000 feet of climbing, a rider is able to stay on the bike and keep pace for virtually the entire length of the trail. It’s an expertly graded, smooth, “flowy” ride.
Since it is basically in my backyard, I had no excuse but to plan a trip. The Ouachita Trail, which was recently given IMBA Epic status as well, connects to the Womble at its northern terminus. That gave me an idea. Why not connect the two into one multi-day bikepacking adventure? I would start at the southern terminus of the Womble, south of Mount Ida, Arkansas, and end at the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area about 40 minutes outside of Little Rock. The route would span 102 miles, climb nearly 15,000 feet, and take three days to complete. And on November 30, 2017 I put the plan into action.
Kate drove me out to the Womble trailhead and wished me luck. I promised to send her the custom message on my GPS SPOT tracker each evening after finding camp, as is our custom. I think the message is still the same one from my Divide ride: “Made it! No bears, no crashes, love you!” And so far that message has always proven to be true (well, maybe I’ve had a crash or two but nothing crazy).
I hit the trail a little after 2 p.m. and enjoyed an afternoon of smooth riding. The stories are true. The Womble is EPIC. It’s just as flowy as they say. However, I quickly learned that it’s not without its dangerous sections. Much of the Womble’s footprint is about a foot in width and cut into the side of steeply graded slopes. So, on one side of the trail there is a slope up and on the other side, an often sheer drop-off into the abyss. If you take your eyes off of the trail to chase a noise in the woods, for example, you’re likely to drift right off the edge. I speak from experience – I slid probably 20 feet before stopping myself. And I wish I could say that I learned my lesson after that, but it took a couple more freaky falls before really committing my eyes to the trail in front of me. These slopes should be of particular concern to bikepackers, with all that cumbersome gear gumming up the bike’s handling.
After about 15 miles I found an acceptable ad-hoc campsite a little ways off the trail. Since the sun sets so early this time of year I didn’t want to ride much past 5 p.m. Ramen was tasty. Mood was up. Slept well.
The next morning I set out around 7 a.m., found a water source and filled up. Having learned my lesson from the day before, I managed to avoid falling into the abyss and was able to savor the genius of the Womble. Miles 23 and 26 were particularly scenic, as the trail follows a high, narrow ridge that overlooks a remote section of the Ouachita River. Despite the exhilarating riding and the inspiring views, it was about this point that I realized my food stores were a little low. For whatever reason I often underestimate the energy I’ll be burning on these trips and pack fewer calories than I should. At home in the kitchen, with a full belly, I tend to think more about saving weight than cramming extra calories into my bag. I had been hoping to find somewhere to buy a few candy bars along the way, but no luck. The Womble, Epic trail that it is, insists on staying hidden in the woods, away from the hustle and bustle of civilized life and its conveniences. Normally this is a good thing, but not when you’re hungry.
My growing calorie deficit eventually turned from a concern in the back of my mind to a reality. Around mile 32 my mood took a nose dive (remember: “food is mood”). The sky was overcast, the temperature was dropping, the sun was on its way down, and I had only done slightly more than half of the mileage I had hoped for that day. Ugh. And to complicate matters I took a wrong turn. There’s nothing more frustrating than putting in extra miles going in the wrong direction, especially when you’re racing a against the sun. In hindsight, this is when my nicely planned bikepacking trip turned into an adventure.
The style of the trail changed dramatically all of a sudden. Instead of that genius flowy stuff that was the trademark of the Womble, the trail got so seep and rocky that I had to hike my bike. I searched my memory for where I could have taken a wrong turn but the white blazes that mark the Womble were still clearly coming – so I just kept on climbing. Eventually I came to the top of a ridge and found a perpendicular trail marked with blue blazes. Confused, I pulled out my phone hoping for service so I could consult Google Maps (My usually trusty GPS had an incomplete basemap and didn’t show enough detail for me to get my bearings). Luckily, I did get service and after some head scratching I realized that I had reached the Ouachita Trail – just several miles before I had expected to.
It turns out that the Ouachita Trail is marked with blue blazes and its side trails are marked with white blazes. One of the OT’s side trails hit the Womble – also marked with white blazes – and I had mistaken the “Big Round Top Mountain” side trail for the Womble. Once I figured this out, my calorie starved and overly panicked brain calmed down and I knew what I had to do. I could just ride NE on the OT, eventually run into the actual OT/Womble intersection, and continue on my journey. And 3 miles later that’s exactly what happened. Although I found my way again, it turns out that the adventure had just begun. As I bid goodbye to the Womble and started down the Ouachita Trail I learned my next lesson.
Despite sharing IMBA Epic status, the Womble and the OT are nothing alike. Where I could typically maintain an overall average of 5 mph on the Womble, I found I could hardly manage 3 mph on the OT. It is simply made for hiking rather than mountain biking – and so I did a lot of hiking. By the time I hit mile 40 (25 on the day) I was done. It was only 4:30 p.m., but my physical reserves were gone and so was my motivation. I found a spot to camp on the side of the trail, built up a fire, ate my ration of Anne’s Mac and Cheese, and hoped for a good sleep.
The next morning I took my time getting ready, slowly packing up my gear, needing a burst of positive emotional energy to lighten my ride a bit. My sleep, although good, didn’t completely reset me like I wished it would. I was daunted by the prospect of a full day on the OT, fighting both the hills and a calorie deficit. To top it off, I was a little lonely. Yeah, it had only been a day, but I hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail. And then I felt a little selfish and irresponsible. Kate was at home packing up the kids for school by herself while I was out here “recreating,” and feeling sorry for myself. Ugh. I knew from experience, though, that these unproductive thoughts were par for the course. The “demons” often crawl out of their hiding places on these trips, itching for battle.
I’m still honing my fighting skills, but I’ve learned a few war tactics over the years. The “phone a friend” option always helps if cell service is available. Some external motivation goes a long way. If that fails, firing up the GPS and SPOT tracker gives me a lift. I imagine a GPS device casting invisible tethers out into space where those tethers are then tied to others that reach back to civilization. Even if the connection isn’t two-way, at least I know one exists. Probably the most powerful way to combat the demons, though, is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The closer you get to your destination the more muffled their war cries become. It’s not a quick fix like a phone call can be, but it’s ultimately the most effective.
The Ouachita Trail passes through some gorgeous country, always keeping things interesting. The mountains in the southern Ouachita National Forest are grand by Arkansas standards. At mile 66 I summited Ouachita Pinnacle at an elevation of 1973 ft, the highest point on this trek. And after enjoying the specular view, I got to enjoy the dizzying descent.
The trick with mountain biking down switchbacks is to become skilled at shifting your weight uphill at the turns, unclipping your uphill foot for counter balance, and applying your rear break while going at just the right speed. Once you nail this maneuver you can count on a nice “drift” on the turns allowing you to stay on your bike throughout the descent. At least that’s what you shoot for. In reality, I probably successfully did this about half of the time, and only maybe a quarter of the time made it look pretty. In addition to the challenge of switchbacks, the OT offers a number of blowdowns for the biker to navigate. I had my share of humbling spills trying to hop the logs. Again, a bike with the additional weight of bikepacking bags can throw off one’s sense of what is possible. I eventually learned that if the success of a hop looks marginal then I should be cautious and get off the bike to climb over it!
As the day came to a close I realized I wasn’t going to make it to Highway 7 as I had hoped, so I decided to shoot for Big Bear Shelter instead. It’s one of the many Appalachian Trail style shelters on the OT, each generally spaced seven miles apart and near water sources. Big Bear is situated at the base of a steep bluff with a stream flowing just 30 ft away.
As soon as I pulled into the shelter area memories of the Appalachian Trail came flooding back. The “lean-to” style is distinctive, with one of its four sides open allowing room for several hikers at once to toss in sleeping bags and crash after a long day. Also, like shelters on the AT, Big Bear has a logbook where hikers can share their thoughts on the day’s travels, offering tips about water sources and sharing some uplifting words for the weary. I spent a few minutes browsing through its dirty, tattered pages reading about the adventurous souls who had begun their journey back in Oklahoma, at the beginning of the OT, and were just a few days from completing their trek. As an exhausted biker, it was a gift to feel the “hikers high” come through those pages. When you’ve had time to beat back the distracting demons a bit, like these OT thru-hikers had, a real appreciation for the present can develop. Honest joy can be found in the simple things, like a good night’s sleep, the warmth of the sun, or, as I found next to the logbook, a extra pack of ramen noodles a fellow traveler had left behind!
That evening, as I watched the bright moon rise above the Bear Creek bluff, I sat by the fire and indulged in a Cherry Pie Lära Bar and TWO packs of ramen noodles.
With the third night behind me and a little over 30 miles to go, 20 of which would be on the easier Lake Sylvia area dirt roads, I set out in good spirits. The final 10 miles of the OT proved to be its typical, extremely challenging yet beautiful self but ended with a smooth several miles of downhill all the way to Highway 7. It kind of makes me wonder if the IMBA officials who gave the OT its Epic status only rode that section!
The Lake Sylvia portion of my ride, which I had traveled many times, was like coming home. I know those roads intimately and was able to relax while riding, no longer having to worry about a narrow trail with precipitous drop-offs. And at 2 p.m., exactly 72 hours and 102 miles from when I began, I arrived at the Lake Sylvia parking lot. A sunny spot near a Ouachita Trail trailhead invited me over, and I gladly accepted, melting off of my bike and collapsing onto the ground to await my pick-up. I was done.
I can now say that I’ve seen with my own eyes the hidden spot in the middle of the Ouachita National Forest where the Ouachita Trail and the Womble intersect – it no longer only exists on my topo map!
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This route is 102 miles end to end and climbs and descends 15,000 feet.