McAlester hikers trek Ouachita Trail from Talimena Park to near Little Rock

·7 min read

Jun. 28—McAlester residents Christine Holiday and Debbie Nelson are already talking about where they'll go on their next cross-country hike and if it sounds challenging, that's all the better.

They've already proven they've have "the right stuff," by embarking on a trek along the Ouachita National Recreation Trail and completing it on the high end of the scale.

The Ouachita National Trail is a continuous hiking trail covering 223 miles through the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma and Arkansas, making it the longest hiking trail in the Ouachita National Forest.

Holiday and Nelson began their journey at Talimena State Park near Talihina and finished close to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Official literature advising hikers states by a conservative estimate, it takes from 21 days to a month to complete the hike, which is up and down mountainous terrain on much of the trail. Nelson and Holiday not only completed the hike, they finished on the top end, in only 21 days while carrying 50-pound packs on their backs for much of the way.

One more thing: Nelson is 67 and Holiday is 68. They said they hope to inspire others in their age group not to set self-imposed limits on themselves.

While an ancient proverb states a journey always begins with the first step, Nelson and Holiday, whose friends call her Chris, began theirs even earlier through an intense training process they hoped would get them ready for their pending expedition.

"We are physically active, and once we decided we were going to do this, you have to train," said Nelson, who does cross-fit, while Holiday prefers yoga.

They also talked with a man who had completed the trail and even took some hikes along a portion of the trial while getting ready.

"We went about three different times to the Ouachita Trail and went about 10 miles," Holiday said, growing more confident each time. They even practiced setting up tents and breaking them down, not only becoming proficient, but speedy as well.

Initially, other friends intended to join them, but had to drop out for different reasons, leaving Holiday and Nelson the sole ones to hit the trail.

Nelson and Holiday embarked on their journey at Talimena State Park, about seven miles from Talihina, setting a steady pace.

"We got into a routine," Nelson said. They both had cell phones with them and set their alarms for 5 a.m. Every morning, they ate a quick breakfast and continued on their way.

They hit one of the roughest portions of their hike on day 2, when they encountered what they called the Rock Garden, when they had to traverse a steep slope covered with sizable rocks.

They encountered some rain along the way, but the were thankful for something the parks service had provided to help hikers, which meant theydid not have to spend every night in a tent.

"There are shelters along the way, one every 10 miles," Nelson said. If the forecast called for rain, they tried to make it to one of the shelters before it began.

At first, they were headed down a lonesome pathway.

"We didn't meet any hikers on trail," Holiday said of the journey's beginning.

They made sure they were well equipped before they began.

"Beside the backpack, boots are the most critical thing," Nelson said. For safety purposes they kept their food in specially-designed bear-proof bags, designed not only to protect the food, but to keep bears from detecting any tasty tidbits in the first place.

The bags worked, because they encountered no bears along the trail.

They had each allocated 10 pounds in their packs for food and water. "We took protein bars," Nelson said of one of their main staples. With all of the hiking and their self-rationed diet, they lost some weight along the trail — and not just due to depleting supplies.

"I lost seven pounds or so," said Nelson.

They arrived at their first major checkpoint at Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, close to Mena, Arkansas, atop Rich Mountain, the second highest peak in the state. Set along the Talimena National Scenic Byway, it marked the first 51.2 miles in their journey. Two of their McAlester friends, Linda Timmons and Dawn DeBaun, who were unable to participate, held a rendezvous with the hikers Wilhelmina, to encourage them along the way.

After a stay in the inn, they hit the trail again.

They didn't get to pause much to enjoy the scenery, because they had to keep their eyes on where they were stepping, which proved tough going at times.

"It is not a path; it is not a walk in the woods," Holiday said. It became a path because hikers through the years have left trail markers that are sometimes easier to follow than the regular ones, which sometimes could be confusing or placed between long intervals in the rugged, heavily-wooded terrain.

At one point, they became a little lost, because a trail guidebook published in 2016 said to watch for a telephone pole. However, when they reached the site, they didn't find one.

"We were supposed to turn there," Holiday said. Finally, they got on-track and later learned that the telephone pole that had once been there had been removed.

The Blue Bell Cafe in Story, Arkansas marked another milestone for their journey. Owner Lori Carley offers a shuttle service to either deliver supplies along the trail or to pick up hikers and bring them to the cafe for a brief respite from the wild. Nelson and Holiday said she was very helpful to them.

They got their feet wet on the trail, not only in a figurative way.

"We had numerous water crossings," Holiday said, including one across the Kiamichi River, which, luckily for them, was low enough to get across on foot at that point. Rocks in the waterways helped — as long as they stayed on the rocks.

"We were rock-hopping and I went into the water," Nelson said. The mishap led to them taking some protective steps the next time they hit the water-hop. They utilized some plastic baggies they had with them.

"All the rest of the way, in the water, we put our feet into the baggies," Nelson said. From then on, their feet were provided waterproof protection.

They also began to enjoy the scenery.

"There were lots of ferns, lots of moss. It was beautiful."

Their most memorable encounter with a creature came not from a from a large one, but a small one, when Nelson was bitby what she believes was a recluse spider. At that point, it would have been easy to give up and go home — but they didn't. They treated the bite themselves with Witch Hazel and Benadryl they had brought along.

"We had never wanted to stop before the end," said Holiday.

Along the way, Nelson discovered that Holiday had knack for storytelling.

"If I was getting tired, I would say 'Chris, I need another story," said Nelson.

Before beginning, they had marked three major checkpoints. It took them six days to reach the first one; another six days to reach the second and finally, five days to the last one.

"Mile 100 was a major milestone," Nelson said. When they reached mile marker 155 out of 222, they knew they were getting close to finishing their journey.

When they finished ed it on the high-end of the time the time the parks service estimates it takes for completion, they even impressed themselves by hiking a trail that begins near Talihina and ends near Little Rock.

"Yeah, it was pretty impressive at that," Holiday said with a smile. Nelson agreed.

"Looking back, it seems it all went so quickly. It's a very emotional experience to have done it."

They appreciated the support of other hikers as well as Carley of the Blue Bell Cafe and their friends and family McAlester area who were rooting for them.

"People were tremendous," said Holiday. "If you need your faith restored in people, go on a hike."

Contact James Beaty at

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