Nov 20, 2008

Mountains and Sucking Toads

written Thursday, November 20, 2008
Maumelle COE near Little Rock, AR

The day started clear and cool, and we were looking forward to our first exploration since coming down with colds the past week or so. The objective was to drive a scenic route on small back-country roads in a generally northwest direction from our camp to the area referred to as Toad Suck. It's along the Arkansas River and about 24 river miles upstream from Maumelle Park. The same destination using Arkansas's finest country roads would be over 40 miles away.

The first place we stopped was Pinnacle Mountain State Park. There we learned about the geology of the area. The center-piece of the park is a 1,011 foot high conical shaped peak that dominates the surrounding landscape. The river level is about 300 feet above sea-level, so the peak rises about 700 feet above that. (I know, not much of a "mountain", but it was fun nonetheless.)  After a quick stop at the visitors center where we learned of trails that lead to the top of the peak, we headed off to the trailhead for the West Summit Trail.

A sign at the trailhead said it'd take about two hours to complete the trek so we headed off (and up) at noon. At first, the trail was a well used path of crushed rock and dirt that ascended at a manageable rate. They've broken the trail into 10 segments and installed small signs numbered from 1 (near the bottom) to 10 (at the top) which allow hikers/climbers to monitor their progress. At about the half-way point, the slope increased proudly and the path changed to a primitive stair-like climb from one boulder to the next. The trail is well marked but it was still necessary to make personal decisions about which precise route to take. You're basically climbing up a pile of huge rocks, hopping from one to the next, following a general path to the top.

The hike/climb was a test for muscles that hadn't been used lately. Rubber-legs and all, we made the summit after about 50 minutes. We soaked in the view, the warm sun, the cold wind, and took a passel of pictures. The trip down was quicker and allowed different leg muscles to get their workout too. It was a good hike on a perfect day.

Since the assault of Pinnacle Mountain wasn't in our original plans, we hadn't taken any sustenance except water. By the time we were back on the road starvation was becoming a concern. I thought we'd surely find something along the remaining route to Toad Suck. But that was not to be. This part of Arkansas is very rural.

We proceeded up Hwy 300 through Roland, Monnie Springs, Little Italy, Wye, and Bigelow. The road was winding, hilly, and pleasing to the eye. But food was in short supply on that route. It wasn't until we were at the foot of the Toad Suck Lock & Dam where we found a small convenience grocery to ease the now-screaming pangs of hunger.

The Toad Suck area is near Conway, AR., a significant town of about 50,000 people. All the action must be in Conway, because there's little going on in Toad Suck. In fact, other than the Lock & Dam, a COE campground, and the convenience store, things pretty much suck in Toad Suck. We did stop for some pictures, including the requisite photos with the "Toad Suck" sign, before pointing the car in direction of home. Due to the lengthening shadows we chose a quicker but more frantic route down I-40 on the east side of the river back to Little Rock.

I-40 was a mob scene. It was packed with traffic, much of it semi-trucks rolling at 75 and 80 mph... cars going faster. Are lower fuel prices liberating people to drive as fast as they can, while they still can?  Poking along in the slow lane at 70 we had made it over half way back when, suddenly, the Blazer's engine just quit -- abruptly and completely decided to stop running! Man-oh-man! What's wrong now?

Regular readers know we call the Blazer our "Toad" (we tow it... towed... Toad... get it?). We speculated that the Toad didn't find anything humorous in going to Toad Suck, and, hearing what we both had to say about the place, decided to give us a little demonstration of dominance... a reminder of how critical a Toad can be to our happiness and well-being. We'll always remember that it was on the day we visited Toad Suck that our Toad sucked.

What would we do without cell phones? After bailing out of the Toad and getting ourselves well away from traffic, it took only a few calls to arrange a tow. Call it "good karma", or going with the flow, or luck, we actually felt fortunate that the Toad stopped breathing when and where it did. Considering the much less accessible places we were just earlier today, the time of day it happened, and the flow of events that brought us to a group of people (tow truck operator, mechanic, rental car company) that were concerned, helpful, personable, and professional, things could have turned out far worse.

Despite my initial concerns, I agreed to have the tow truck driver take us to a mechanic he works with not far from where we broke down. Even though the clock was well past 5pm, his normal closing time, the mechanic worked at diagnosing the Toad's problem. But even if he found the problem, parts wouldn't be available until Thursday and we'd have to find a rental car for a day. I found an car rental office not far away and the mechanic had one of his helpers schlep me over to pick up a car.

We got back to the bus-house about 7pm, where Dar had put a pork tenderloin and vegetables in the slow-cooker earlier in the day. So, despite a hic-up in the daily plan, we still had an excellent, albeit well-done, hot dinner waiting for us when we got home.

By the way, the mechanic did find the problem before we left but, as expected, parts would have to wait until morning. It looks like a problem with the ignition system -- an electronic module that controls the coil and spark to the plugs just up and quit. It looks like Toad will be back on the road by Thursday afternoon.


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