My first blog
was more centered around the Fall semester and the idea of finding the ‘family away from home'. Until the Spring Break arrives sometime in mid-March, most of us have survived through the gruelling mid-semester exams, the never-ending armada of homework. During the same exam time, I and my friends, and I suppose everyone is frantically making spring break plans. Sifting through various top destinations which will soon flood their social media accounts and then sadly realizing one can only spend so much. Furthermore, as grad students, most of us have only the Spring Break Friday as an official holiday which makes Thursday – Sunday, the most ideal time period for the break.
On the same note, the flight tickets from Houston/Dallas to Florida, Chicago, California, Vegas, LA, New York, etc. and the hotel costs would have been increased phenomenally. Thus, most Aggies take the 7 hr car journey New Orleans or to South Padre Island. These places provide the perfect spring getaway with booze, parties, damn good seafood, etc. However, during the same time, the winter starts to fade out and most of the scenic places in the US start to become accessible, creating a place of serenity and solace. I and my friends capitalized on this opportunity. Going through the same turmoil, my friends Lakksh Kothari and Akhilesh Gandhi planned, or I would say did a case-study in optimization, a trip to the beautiful Ozarks, Arkansas.
Flight vs Road Trip to Arkansas: Choose the Highway!
Flights from IAH/DFW to Arkansas are expensive, partly because there isn't a large airport near the Ozarks. Hence a 10-11 hr road trip is the most feasible option. Furthermore, renting a car from Enterprise for multiple days is much cheaper than using the Zipcar service. The additional insurance, liability covers aren't too costly and one can avail a discount using Chase or Amex credit cards. We also used a coupon code to get $100 off on our booking and summed up all the things to $ 25 for car and $ 20 for fuel for the entire trip.
The choice of car is an important step and here we failed to gauge what to anticipate during the trip. We went for the cheapest 5-seater option availing a Ford Fusion Sedan. However, to our dismay, we got a Nissan Sentra which doesn't do well in terms of leg space and ground clearance. This proved to be critical during the trip because we didn't at all anticipate rain inflicted unpaved dirt roads which we encountered near Hawksbill Crag and even our Airbnb. Thus, I would strongly suggest to gauge the roads to the scenic spots and choose an SUV with 4-Wheel Drive.
The Itinerary: (Limited spots) + (More Time) = Chill + Memories;
Buffalo River Rafting – Day 1
We were driving for most of the Friday and Sunday, thus we had only the whole of Saturday to really plan anything. The Saturday was reserved for kayaking in the Buffalo River and some minor sightseeing during the Sunset. The entire 10-mile kayaking/rafting stretch is covered by different coloured rocks, trees and devoid of chaos and perils of life. The silence on the stretch is in harmony with the chirping birds, the rustling of leaves and more importantly one can hear their own thoughts. The kayaking trail is from Ponca to Kyle's landing and the rafting trail is from Steel's Creek to Kyle's Landing. Most of the canoe renting places will shuttle your car to Kyle's landing and keep it ready for you. The rafting trail cost each of us around $45. (https://www.buffaloriver.com/
Here is where we were unprepared. During the spring break, the water in the Buffalo River is super cold and if the Kayak flips there is a chance of hypothermia. We had no idea about this. Me and my friends, in our usual shirt-short Texan attire, went to the Kayak stop and the instructor gave us a stern look tacitly saying "Who the hell you think you are to go kayaking without water gear and in swanky shorts and shades!". He advised us to take a five-man raft which won't flip; Wrong Decision. The river flow is not very fast with hardly any rapids; thus, it takes hell lot of effort rowing the raft in still water. More than that, our raft got stuck amidst rocks and we had to get down in the freezing water to push the raft to get it free and avoid puncturing. We were literally stuck for 20 mins with no one to help around and fortunately escaped before the panic started to sink in. Thus, I would advise, to take some waterproof gear or rent from the same shop you rent the canoe and take a kayaking option in the lieu of rafting.
Whittaker Point – Day 2
Even after being enervated by a hell of a rowing adventure we optimistically decide to catch the 6 am sunrise at Hawksbill Crag, perhaps the most beautiful place in Arkansas! There is a parking space at the start of the trail. The trial itself is under 2 miles through the tranquil forest. Once you reach the Hawksbill Crag, there is a specific point from where you can click amazing pictures of the Crag the valley beneath and the sunrise. We spent almost an hour there just admiring the view and chilling around. And as I mentioned before, of course, we flooded our social media accounts with pictures on the way back through Dallas.
Stay: Book cautiously!
Airbnb places around Ozarks are really cheap but are sold out pretty quickly. The five of us luckily got a real cosy and well-furnished place for $60 a night.
There was a campfire pit with fuel and coal provided. A perfect place to relax and unwind. However, when we arrived at the place, it was to be reached by an unpaved road not mentioned or available on Google Maps. The car suffered heavy blows to the bottom of the car and we were absolutely terrified by the thought of a car breakdown amidst a pitch-dark place rife with rattlesnakes and wildlife. This added to the thrill of the trip, we had to be super vigilant on these uneven roads. We would have been in a far much better state in case of equipped ourselves with an SUV.
Route Options and Offline Maps and Playlist
There are two primary routes to reach the Ozarks, one is via the heart of Dallas, and the other one goes around it. We took the latter one and it was super awesome with lush green trees on the sides and majestic road views during as we the sunset approaches. We did some pitstops in random small towns to binge some food. As you enter the state of Arkansas, the roadside view is filled with long farms and grasslands with grazing cattle. We even got to see Deer's as we were nearing the Ozarks. Some areas we didn’t get network and thus offline maps and offline playlists came in super handy. Country classics, Hans Zimmer Soundtracks and Chorus singing, the mesmerizing roadside views and banter made the long 10 hr journey to seem much shorter and much memorable.
Food: Walmart and the Local Restaurants
Four out of five of us were Indian Gujjus who are vegetarian and thus they had packed a hell lot of food in case we don't find vegetarian options in the local restaurants. We had a superfluous amount of food items that we got it back at the end of the weekend. I felt so guilty not bringing anything and shamelessly relying on them for food. But, isn't that what friends are for? However, the local restaurants are really accessible on the route to Buffalo River as well as Whittaker Point. For breakfast, we stocked milk and bread from nearby Walmart.
Take Home points
- Optimize flight vs road trip in terms of cost, time and accessibility
- Be prepared for unpaved roads and areas without network coverage. Get offline Maps and an SUV
- Check the water route conditions before Kayaking/rafting. Preferably carry waterproof gear to avoid fatal situations in chilly waters
- Have a great offline Song playlist for zero network areas (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3F75ZBzbWSb9xR7L89VIIi). Play Country Roads Take Me Home!
- Carry a small Medkit for an emergency!
- Prioritize spots and spend more time at each spot rather than being all over the place and completing each spot like a checkpoint race
- Most importantly, take this opportunity to bond with your ‘family away from home'!
Niranjan Sitapure is a PhD student in Department of Chemical Engineering.