Travel Tip: Don’t camp at Civil War Battlefield sites
I started my Saturday in Ozark, Alabama at 5:30 am. Coming up through the Gulf of Mexico was Hurricane Nate, and if I pushed it I could be west of him before he made my pleasant drive through Alabama and Mississippi miserable. Since my preference was traveling back roads, I just wanted to get west of the Mississippi River and call it a day. I scoured the map and found “Poison Springs State Park” in south-central Arkansas that had the telltale little tent symbol that meant it offered camping.
I now had a destination. By 6 o’clock that night I turned off 239 and onto Highway 76, a long winding two lane road that led to the park. I was a few miles in when I realized I had the road all to myself. Back and forth, up and down I wound through the woods that flanked the pavement closely on each side. For the first time today the sun had broken free of the drizzling rain that had started to fall intermittently since central Mississippi. The sunlight streamed through pines and oaks and painted dappled patches along the road as I made my way deeper and deeper into the woods. The road seemed desolate. I didn’t see another car, not one side road nor a single house since making the turn onto 76. When I arrived at the entrance that was a good 10-12 miles later, I was surprised that it was simply a nicely manicured, medium sized pull off along the north side of the highway. There were no entry or camping fees. Just a nice array of picnic tables and fire pits stretching along the side of the highway with a ridge that ran along the opposite side of the road, and a fairly steep ravine at the rear. There were no park rangers and it just so happened there were no other campers either. This wasn’t the first time I had t encountered this kind of set up, the fact that it was free made it that much better in my book. Late afternoon was quickly giving way to dusk, so I decided to make friends with this quiet patch of woods before I settled in. I walked the narrow hiking trail and found myself looking into the canopy of fall leaves that hung high above me to figure out how much sunlight I had left to make it back to camp.
The woods were full of critter sounds, probably getting settled into their dens and burrows for the evening. I walked along the trail until it started to curve into an earthen stairway that made its way down about ten feet into the ravine that ran along the back of the camping sites. At the bottom there was a small stream meandering its way along its rocky banks. The light began to cast a golden glow on the rocks, dancing quietly among the gathering shadows. As I made my way up the other side and back to camp, I found a historical marker that explained the 85 acre park is the site of the Battle of Poison Spring in the Civil War. Great. I had inadvertently chosen to stay the night in my truck in the middle of a Civil War Battlefield where who knows how many human beings lost their lives. My immediate reaction was to just forget the whole idea and get the hell out of there. I looked around and wondered if my can of bear mace would be an effective repellent against restless spirits. As I sat on the back of my tailgate weighing my options I realized I was being absurd. This was a gorgeous piece of quiet tranquillity, a real gem of a camping spot I had stumbled upon. The fact that I was the only soul around was a plus to me. Providing I was in fact, the only “soul” there. Twilight quickly made way to darkness, and my decision was made for me. My night-vision sucks, and it was 30 miles back to the nearest town or 60 miles ahead to the next one. At least by morning I’d have bragging rights.
I was dozing off when I heard what sounded like a horse whinnying up on the ridge. I listened intently. Frogs croaked. Crickets hummed. The occasional twig snapped far down the ravine. I resisted the urge to crack the curtains and take a peek, opting to instead try to just go back to sleep. For a moment I thought I could hear the clip-clop of hooves far in the distance, and their rhythmic beat helped me finally drift off to sleep.
What the hell was that!? I bolted straight up, my heart racing so fast it made me lose my breath. Unfamiliar muted sounds ran together, making it hard to determine what I was actually hearing. As the fog cleared in my head I was making some sense of it. Muffled male voices. Horses snorting, hooves clamoring against rock and dirt, wood creaking. I could feel my heart beating inside my throat. My face flushed and burned. The hair on my arms and neck bristled.
I stopped breathing for quite a spell.
Frogs. Crickets. The light wind whistling through the trees. I swallowed hard. I didn’t dare click on my flashlight. I saw Jurassic Park and I was not taking the chance of summoning a civil war era T-Rex right to his dinner. My brain thumped inside my skull as I stared out into the moonlit woods through the small slit in my curtains. That’s when I realized all my windows were cracked about 3 inches. I instantly decided security took precedent over ventilation. As slowly and silently as possible, I fetched my keys and slipped them into the ignition. I winced at how loud the “click” was, hoping that it didn’t catch the attention of any specters floating around in earshot. I paused and listened to the silence for a long moment just to make sure it hadn’t. Using both hands I tripped all four windows at once. I let out a long breath. My force field was at last in place.
As I sat in silence with only the sound of frogs and the wind on the other side of the glass. I laughed at my own paranoia and was finally able to fall back asleep about an hour later.
Light was breaking through the periphery of my vision. I breathed a sigh of relief that I had made it through the night without further incident. I grabbed my knife, you know…just in case…and slid out the door of the truck to make my way to the facilities, which was really just a glorified outhouse. I was all the way there when I realized that it wasn’t sunrise that had woken me up but rather the fullness of the moon that hung low in the sky overhead. What time was it? A heavy fog began to settle in all around me. It rolled off the edge of the bank and started to fill the ravine behind the campground. Goosebumps raised on my exposed skin. Strange sounds once again bounced off the hillside and through the treetops. It was as if someone was playing with the volume knob inside my brain. Sound came in and out of focus. Male voices, my heartbeat jumped to my throat. This time I was outside, and about 200 yards now separated myself from the protective shell of my SUV. My pulse quickened and I scanned the ridge top, which seemed to be the direction of the sound of hoofbeats and metal clinking against metal. The moonlight cast strange shadows through the trees. That’s when the silhouette of horse drawn wagons began to materialize out of the mist that hung low to the ground. My ragged thoughts fought one another desperately trying to rationalize what I was seeing. It’s an RV arriving late. Then why was it being pulled by a horse? As my mind grasped at straws, all hell broke loose. I could hear the charging of boots and horses as hundreds of shadowy glowing figures moved toward the wagons.
The air filled with wisps of smoke left behind from musket fire that echoed all around me. Shadow-figures howled as they fell, disappearing into the fog that hung on the ground. The air was thick with sulfur and sweat. I made a run for the truck. My flip flop caught on something and I went face first into dirt. Sounds were bubbling up from the ravine behind me. Footsteps climbing up the embankment. Men yelling orders. Cries of pain. As I got up to make my final dash for the safety of the truck I felt something whiz by the side of my face. It was so close that it caught my hair. Sticks began to rain down and clink against the rock on the trail. No. Not sticks. Arrows. They were coming from the hillside beyond the ridge. I was caught in an ambush. The sounds all around me became louder and clearer. Choctaw war cries rolled out from the woods beyond the ridge. The sound of boots and hooves closed in from every direction. A surreal scene of glowing orbs and faint details picked up in the moonlight played out before my very eyes. I scrambled to my feet and broke into a full on run for the safety of my truck. I tripped and fell again. The palms of my hands bled from breaking the fall. I got to my feet and was nearly into a full stride when something grabbed me from behind. I screamed as I lost my foothold and slid down the embankment into the ravine, finally coming to rest face down in the thick bed of leaves and rock on the edge of the stream. I spit the dirt and broken leaves from my mouth.
My shoulder hurt. My hip ached from hitting a stone that protruded from the ledge. I looked up in the general direction of my truck. A figure began to move into my view as it approached the edge of the ravine. A faint light, floating weightlessly in the misty moonlight. It was a soldier. I could see the edges of his jacket, the outline of the brim of his cap, the musket slung over his left shoulder, the blade of the bayonet catching a sliver of moonlight along it’s steely edge. Another figure began to materialize next to him. I winced in pain and tried to get up, the soldiers was moving slowly toward me. I dragged myself behind a tree, my entire body quivering in pain as the fear of a thousand men pulsed through my veins. Footsteps getting closer. Underbrush snapping under the weight of heavy boots. The knife handle slid in my damp palm. Sheer and utter panic set in as the footsteps approached. I held my breath. I leapt to my feet and let out a war cry of my own, slashing my knife indiscriminately through the glowing mist that now surrounded me. Something slammed into the back of my head. Bright white light filled my vision. My throat filled with the taste of metal and blood. The world went black.
The sound of birds chirping broke through the silence as I slowly opened my eyes and let them adjust to the morning light. I was alive. I was in my truck. My body felt like I had been run over by it. My shoulder and hip ached. I was drenched in sweat. I peeked through the curtains and looked up onto the ridge. The only silhouettes where a small herd of deer grazing in the early morning light. I rolled out of the truck, having to steady myself as I stood. I tried to piece together in my mind what I had witnessed the night before. I was filthy, the palms of my hands scraped and caked with my own blood. My head ached. My hand found my forehead, and with it some dried leaves clinging to my wet, matted hair that was firmly stuck to my forehead. I felt around the tender spot on the back of my head, wincing at how tender it was. I walked to the Historical Placard, and this time I read it in its entirety.
Perhaps I wasn’t the only soul to spend the night at Poison Springs after all. I felt their terror and I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness at the senselessness that is war. I wondered how many people across the globe were experiencing what I had felt last night at this very moment. It was a sobering thought. I rubbed the tender spot on the back of my head. My fingers found something else in the gnarled mess of hair. A single feather. I read later that the local Choctaw Indians helped the Confederate troops in their successful capture of the supply train at Poison Spring. Now the feather made sense. It is the Native American symbol of the Warrior.
I hung the feather from my rear view mirror. It will remind me to be a warrior for peace. It will also serve as a reminder to choose my campsites a bit more wisely.