"Every road is a backcountry pathway, and we're the rulers of this vast kingdom while we're here."
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY Beatriz Craven
The blur of brown and white jars me out of my podcast daze.
I narrow my sights on the bird that has swooped in front of our windshield as we make our way down this tree lined country road in northwest Arkansas. My eyes widen as I recognize its distinctive white head and screeching sound. "A bald eagle!" I grab the camera and only capture a fuzzy photo of its feathered rear before it vanishes into the thick woods. Our Catahoula Leopard dog, Red, jumps to the ready, but she's too late as she scans the horizon with fierce intention in her eyes. My husband, Sam, and I try to alert the other Land Cruisers on our overland expedition over CB radio, but it only crackles and fails. Our convoy of six outfitted vehicles continues its way toward the Ozarks. I'll just have to wait to blurt this out in excitement at our next stop.
I return my gaze to the passenger window, admiring the endless curtain of pine and oak trees as they rush by my mirror and into the distance. It feels like we have the entire state to ourselves. Every road is a backcountry pathway, and we're the rulers of this vast kingdom while we have it. I feel like Calvin and Hobbes on one of their woodland adventures, and it makes the kid in me absurdly happy.
We reach the sprawling wood that is Ozark National Forest. Our leader spots a trail opening, so we follow it with curiosity as our compass. We make our way farther and farther from the pavement, escaping into a thicket of wood and moist dirt. It emits that delicious earthy and wet scent that soothes your soul. We have a good deal of off-roading to do before we make it to camp, so I volunteer to put in a shift behind the wheel. My hands feel most at home when they're clutching a camera, but I like to swap for the steering wheel from time to time to sharpen my technical skills and break the gender norm. Women off-road too, y'all.
I can feel my old voodoo curse follow me like a shadow as I turn the corner and see the gnarliest road of rock ahead of me. If you want to reach the most challenging part of a trail, just get me in the driver's seat. It always lands on my turn. Intuitively, I let the wheel go slack in my hands as I follow the carved out ruts of tires before me, letting the truck go where it needs to. We reach a steep obstacle, and I have to stick my head out of the window to see where to carefully place my front tires. Inch by inch, the weight of the Land Cruiser lurches up the wall to my left and teeters to the right. My heart rate begins to increase in perfect correlation to our tilt. The group helps spot me, and as I watch the whites of their eyes grow, I can feel the butterflies fluttering in my stomach because of how far I have to tip this metal beast just to get by. The Land Cruiser flirts with the rock wall but avoids kissing it as I carry on without a scratch. We collectively exhale air we didn't realize we were holding in our lungs.
The inherent decision-making of adventure makes me laugh under my breath as I listen to our group divide over where to set up camp for the night. We walk a steep section of dirt road that opens up to a rocky creek bed and survey the land as we imagine how to get our vehicles down the terrain. The dogs run wildly over the rocks, following scents buried deep in the cracks. Sam and I feel a strong pull to make this place home for the night. One of our younger, fresh-faced travelers worries about the risk involved as he eyes the path to get our supplies here. In the end, it's the older, more seasoned adventurers among us that push to forge ahead with optimism and slight recklessness.
We discover a new path that folks can agree on despite some required white-knuckled wheeling to get there. Shifting our homes into park for the night, we enter into old, familiar routines and set up our roof-top tents, pillows, and dinner equipment. Our tiny village comes to life as we hustle around our homes like nesting birds. One of our tuckered-out travelers builds the fire, methodically picking up awkward pieces of branch and delicately placing them in the small flame, hoping they'll catch.
The sun is going down. Headlamps begin to flicker on like fireflies in the dark. The purple-tinted clouds fade from sight as the sound of chatter, jingling dog collars, and crackling wood takes over. By this point, we can hardly make out the greenery that surrounds our little bank of rock and the stream that runs through it. We pass around hot food, sharing an abundance of steak and potatoes with one another. The fire now roars a beckoning welcome. We plant our chairs firmly into the ground and settle in with full stomachs and satisfaction in our day climbing the rise and fall of the Ozarks.
Beatriz Craven is a psychologist, writer, and photographer. She is the boss lady of Modern Therapy, her private practice in Houston where she helps people master the art of living. When not doing therapy, she loves engaging in overland adventure travel with her husband Sam and trusty dog, Red. For more on Beatriz, visit beatrizcraven.com