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M Fear and Loneliness on the Ozark Highlands Trail

by Lucas Boyer

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Article Summary:

My heart racing, I fumbled with the barrel locks on my sleeping bag, pulled back the zipper and threw the hood of my bivy sack open. The breeze felt cold against my clammy skin. I let my heart rate subside and laughed at myself and the absurdity of my panic attack. The branches of the tree up the hill occasionally let out a squeak, but the river's steady song kept its rhythm. I repositioned my aching legs, and my mind revisited the water running beside me and whether it was too deep to ford the next morning. I did not want to cross that river. It was cold with my sleeping bag opened, and I needed sleep. I drifted back to sleep and woke again to the sounds of coyotes up the valley. My watch alarm sounded its call at 5:00 AM, but I was done hiking, and sleep was more important. Still, there was no use fighting it; I had woken at this hour every day, and today would be no different.

I crawled out of my bag and inspected my feet and legs. My ankles were swollen enough that the transition from ankle to foot was hardly discernible. The scratches on my legs looked like I had played jump rope with a strand of barbed wire. Standing up was no fun, nor was the walk away from the river to answer nature's call. I had just stepped out of the campsite when the coyotes down the valley let out another call. More clouds, wind, and occasional falling drizzle erased any promising spring color. Voluntarily walking across the river was the last thing I wanted to do this morning. Walking the other way wasn't in the cards though, and my ride would be here soon. I fixed a cup of tea and pulled my granola bars from the day's food rations, tossing back 800 milligrams of ibuprofen to ease the pain a bit.

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