Sunday in the Park: Tunica Hills
Written by Dave Parker Jr.
Monday, 16 April 2007 08:43
2.6 miles. Two and a half turns around the fairgrounds at Jazz Fest. You’ve walked farther than that along a Mardi Gras parade route just to find a bathroom. You’ve walked farther than that to find your car after a Saints game. So when you’re standing in the Clark Creek Natural Area in Tunica Hills on a spring afternoon, trying to decide which trail to take – the Primitive Trail, or the Main Trail – and you’re looking at a sign that recommends only “experienced hikers in excellent physical condition” tackle the 2.6 mile Primitive Trail it’s easy to say to yourself and your friends, “2.6 miles? Please. How hard can it be?”
Later, when the path plunges straight down off a steep bluff or disappears altogether for hundreds of yards along a creek bed only to end at another waterfall, you’ll remember those words. But for now, armed with a bottle of water and a pocketful of pistachios, you veer onto the 2.6 mile Primitive Trail, aware only of sunshine falling through the treetops, the sound of the creek rushing over its rocky bed, and the purple wildflowers strewn across the ground liked spilled pennies. Upwards along a gentle slope you trudge along with your friends who are dressed in sneakers, black t-shirts and big sunglasses, looking more like they ought to be mounting the stairs of the Balcony Bar than the ancient “loessial ridges” of the Gulf South.
The trail changes gradually at first, growing steeper, and then steeper still, until before long it feels like you’re walking straight up the side of a wall. The forest grows thicker too until you’ve lost sight of the Main Trail and any other park visitors. It’s only been ten minutes, and you already feel strangely isolated. “I’ll bet they put the biggest hill first,” you pant, climbing up the hard angle. “To scare people off.”
But if you’ve been living in a blasted out neighborhood like, say, Gentilly, waking up each morning to the sound of chainsaws and wrecking crews, drinking your coffee on a front porch that looks out over blighted homes covered in spray paint and the dusty shells of leftover hurricane cars, the Tunica Hills are a wonderland for their unique formations, the fresh air, and their simple intactness. Moving through the steep bluffs, over the winding contours of creek beds, and among myriad shades of green – from bamboo to moss to oak leaves – it’s possible to forget for a while about all the broken streets, the broken homes and the broken services. Sounds of construction are replaced by sounds of woodpeckers at work in tall elm trees. The sight of garbage piled head high outside gutted houses is replaced by the rise of foothills and bluffs. Everything here seems whole and alive. “I wonder,” you say, gazing down a steep ravine and admiring the sudden remoteness of the location, “how long it would take to find a dead body if someone fell down there.”
“Well,” one of your friends says. “that’s a happy thought.”
But for now, trudging through the woods for over an hour, you crest another steep incline and pause at the top. All thoughts of penitentiaries, dead bodies and blasted cities are gone as you gaze out over the tree-covered range of hills and ravines. Keep moving, back down the other side of the hill, and on and on.
Another hour or so into the hike, and you stop for a rest in the shade beside the creek. After all the climbing, all the scrambling down sheer drops, all the leaping back and forth over the creek bed, it feels amazing to be still and let your body tingle as it slows down to idle. “Is it just me,” one of your friends says, peering upstream where the creek disappears through the green canopy, “or does it feel like we’re going to run into Colonel Kurtz out here.”
Munching on pistachios, you look up the hillsides and imagine that a crazed tribe of Cambodian jungle people are watching you. Take the empty shells of pistachios and set them sailing like small boats down the creek, watch them vanish around the bend, as if they were carrying messages downstream to civilization. We’re still alive. For now.
“We should get moving,” one of your friends says. “We’ve almost finished the loop back to the Main Trail now.”
“Really?” you ask. “How long have we been out here?”
“Ha,” you say. “Just a walk in the park.”
For now however, you fall in behind your friends and walk the final stretch of trail, watching your tree-dappled shadow growing longer along the floor of the woods. The creek vanishes for the last time around a bend in the hill, and the sound of water fades away as your path veers in the other direction. Your friends are quiet now, tired, looking toward the Main Trail, looking toward that victory beer on the front porch of the Pond Store. And emerging finally from the hills and the woods, you return to the land of the living, which, in this case, looks like a gravel parking lot full of cars, families packing up their picnics into the backs of minivans, and groups of college kids preparing for the drive back to Baton Rouge. Congratulations, you think. You’ve made it back alive.
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