I’ve lived all my life amidst the Cross Timbers, the boundary between the eastern forests and the treeless Great Plains. The coarse and sandy soil has limited nutrients and is covered in post oak and blackjack oak trees. Before modern clearing, prairie fires helped create a thick underbrush of grape vines and green briars amidst the stunted oaks, making the narrow band of timber a formidable barrier. Here is how Washington Irving described it in A Tour on the Prairies in 1835:
The Cross Timber is about forty miles in breadth, and stretches over a rough country of rolling hills, covered with scattered tracts of post-oak and black-jack; with some intervening valleys, which, at proper seasons, would afford good pasturage. It is very much cut up by deep ravines, which, in the rainy seasons, are the beds of temporary streams, tributary to the main rivers, and these are called “branches.” The whole tract may present a pleasant aspect in the fresh time of the year, when the ground is covered with herbage; when the trees are in their green leaf, and the glens are enlivened by running streams. Unfortunately, we entered it too late in the season The herbage was parched; the foliage of the scrubby forests was withered; the whole woodland prospect, as far as the eye could reach, had a brown and arid hue. The fires made on the prairies by the Indian hunters, had frequently penetrated these forests, sweeping in light transient flames along the dry grass, scorching and calcining the lower twigs and branches of the trees, and leaving them black and hard, so as to tear the flesh of man and horse that had to scramble through them. I shall not easily forget the mortal toil, and the vexations of flesh and spirit, that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.
We presume this timberland is called the Cross Timbers because it runs north and south while all of the major streams and rivers in the area flow west to east. So it was a band of timber to be crossed on your way between the great prairie grasslands and smaller grasslands bounding up against the eastern forests.
My elementary school years in Bethany, Oklahoma were on the western edge of the cross timbers. My parents and I were members of the aptly named Western Oaks Christian Church, and our own three-lot property had 70 trees growing in the sandy soil, almost all blackjacks. One was huge, but most of them were narrow with that distinctively dark blocky bark which could really scrape when you were trying to learn to ride a bicycle amidst them. I spent many hours playing with my friend Gene Freeman amidst immense piles of their leaves each fall.
My adult years in Bartlesville place me on the eastern edge of this timberland and today I ventured to its northern edge at Cross Timbers State Park on Toronto Lake in the Chautauqua Hills of southeastern Kansas, a two hour drive from my home. At the end of 2010 Betty Henderson and I trekked at Fall River Lake, only ten miles southwest. The three trails at Cross Timbers were far better, albeit more expensive since there was a $4.20 day use fee charged per vehicle. Sometimes you get what you pay for. It was a hot windy day reaching into the mid 80s, unusual weather for early April.
Oddly there is no good highway to the lake, so one veers north off US 400 on a narrow shoulderless asphalt road for nine miles, passing through the tiny burg of Coyville, which has fewer than 100 people. Eventually the road turns into the improved state highway 105 around the eastern and northern edges of the lake. The dam is on the southeast edge of the lake and I pulled in at nearby Woodson Cove to hike 1.3 miles on the Overlook Trail.
I was alone on the trail, although there were several fishermen on the shores of the lake. Right after the trailhead I was led down into a deep sandstone ravine. I could tell the lake was low as I climbed up to find the path covered in thick carpets of moss and lichen. Below me a fisherman and his buckets were on the shore of the inlet near Woodson Cove. Buckled sandstone plates were telltale indicators of the soil conditions creating this haven for scrub oaks.
I crossed a trashy ravine – no human pollution, thankfully, just forest remains. I was now on the far side of the inlet, and climbed to a headland to find a large driftwood tree. From one angle it resembled an immense wishbone, with its roots reminding of some alien skull on a garish scifi pulp magazine. Perhaps I was just hungry and delusional. Soon I was at the dam overlook, the mossy green trail providing a soft cushion to my footfalls. I loved the moss on the trails, although I’m most fond of long strands of moss hanging from trees. Throughout my childhood my folks had a vacation home on a high bluff above Table Rock Lake, and behind one of the homes there you could stroll among mossy trees to a magnificent lonely view of the lake. The silence hung heavily whenever I snuck over there and I shall always remember the eerie beauty of dusk amongst those trees.
Back on the Overlook Trail, I was now at the far end of the initial ravine, although in my mind I was still a teenager amongst the mossy trees of Table Rock. A sandstone bluff in the here and now caught my attention, shifting my imagination to the Clue in the Crumbling Wall and The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion. But unlike Nancy Drew I don’t have titian hair, nor much hair up top for that matter, and there also weren’t any clues or treasures other than nature’s little presents like the tiny flowers strewn hither and thither. Yes, as a child I read Nancy Drew after I’d exhausted all of the Hardy Boys books…and Trixie Belden and the Dana Girls and The Three Investigators and…well, anything I could get my hands on.
Soon I was driving to the northeast edge of the lake, turning off south to Toronto Point just before entering Toronto itself, a run-down little town of less than 300 souls. But the internet reports the air is clean and its cost of living is 34% lower than the national average and, best of all, it has a nice lake with good trails.
I had ignored warning signs at Woodson Cove about needing a day use permit since there was no pay station down there and it was so isolated. But Toronto Point has campgrounds, ball courts, and more. And it has a manned pay station where a nice lady gave me a small paper permit to tape onto my car windshield. Nearby was a stone marker and sign for the Doyle “Bud” Niemeyer memorial, adjacent to the Ancient Trees trailhead. In 1982 scientists from the University of Arkansas Tree-Ring Lab analyzed 26 post oaks in this area, and the 1.2 mile trail winds among 14 of the old growth trees.
Ancient Trees Trail
The first old-growth remnant dated back to 1751. The redbuds above me and tiny delicate flowers below me were far more attractive, however. I circled around to a mossy ledge overlooking the exposed mud and drowned trees of the bottomland, exposed by the dry weather. I passed another old dead tree, dating back to 1752, then the decaying stump of another dating back to 1727. I was beginning to wonder if any old growth trees were still living when I came across a large healthy specimen dating back to 1740.
A small bluff provided a shelter where someone had built a fire, and I shot a panorama of the driftwood-strewn bottomland. I squeezed past of troop of girls on the trail, who were listening intently to a leader whose words I could not catch. I spied an odd-looking combination of a fallen tree and its straight-branching supporter, and decided to pose. The lake finally was visible, with trees sticking out of the low water. The driftwood-strewn shore lifted toward some trees, with at least one welcoming the spring.
Next to the trees was a picnic table where I enjoyed the berry bread turkey sandwich I’d bought at QuikTrip in Bartlesville and the last of a fizzy Orange Fresca. Later on the hike, I’d have to choke down a warm G2 Fruit Punch drink and vowed to only pack water next time. On my return to the car I would see layers of redbud branches above, conjoined twins beside the trail, and finish with a beautiful isolated redbud tree.
Chautauqua Hills Trail
It was time to tackle the big trail nearby. The Chautauqua Hills hiking and biking trail circumnavigates a long inlet stream with shorter blue and yellow segments connecting to a red segment which can stretch a hike to 11 miles. I knew I would not venture all the way over to Coyote Road for the 11 mile stretch, but figured I would do all of the blue and yellow segments and much of the red, turning about at the final loop. That worked out to a 7.1 mile hike.
A long bridge was made unnecessary by the low water with the trail heading northeast, the stump-filled inlet on my right. I forded streams, admiring some sculpted sandstone crossing slabs. Mossy steps led up to a grassland area with telephone poles and trees on the horizon. The trail re-entered the woods and the inlet had narrowed to an active stream. I saw a large tree felled by beavers and examined their toothwork. I forded the stream at the far northeast corner of the park, and began moving down the other side of the inlet stream. Soon it was cutting quite prettily through sandstone beds and the trail would rise to high bluffs.
Then it veered to cross grass which glowed a golden orange against the dark Cross Timber trees in the background. The mown sections of this trail were somewhat reminiscent of the less attractive Casner Creek trail at Fall River Lake. I had passed the end of the yellow segment and was on the less travelled red segment, choosing to follow the side edging toward the inlet. Here the trail faded out and I wandered down the shoreline, spotting the trail bridge across the way which I had traversed earlier.
This section of trail would punish me a bit for wearing shorts on this hot day, but thankfully no ticks were yet out. Amidst all of the bark and mud, the few tiny flowers were bright and welcoming. Finally I could see the open choppy waters of the lake beside me and ventured down to the rocky shore. Spiders were everywhere, scuttling across the rocks out of sight wherever I trod. Clearly I would not be sitting down here to relax! Even the driftwood had spiders crawling about it, but they did not venture near the splashing water.
Turkey vultures were riding the wind gusts as I climbed up at an opening in the rocky shore back up to the trail. A roll of barbed wire on a nearby fence made it clear I was at the edge of the park as I strolled back along the red trail. I ventured across the prairie, following the trail ruts over the gentle slopes. Soon I was returning shore of the inlet, passing a tree losing its bark and posing on a stone stranded in the dry streambed.
I reached the stump-strewn inlet, with a couple of fishermen braving the stumps and the troop of girls I’d passed on the Ancient Trees trails were over here now launching inflatable boats.
I’d trekked 9.6 miles in the heat and eagerly drove into Toronto, hoping to step into a convenience store for a cold drink. But the town was too small, so I set out for home and by the time I reached Independence I was eager for a dipped cone at the Dairy Queen, but it was closed for remodeling. Thankfully there was a Braum’s ice cream store nearby which offered a restorative chocolate shake. I’m tired of the bare trees and soil of winter and it was strange to see more of the same in the blustery heat of this spring day. We need more April showers for May flowers.