Plans for a winter backpacking trip began percolating in my brain, followed by the acquisition of supplies needed for said trip. Unfortunately, inventory shortages and holiday travel had me sweating the arrival of a couple of pieces of mission critical gear the week and day before my departure. I found myself fretting over plans B and C, as well as beating myself up over time not budgeted adequately. Truthfully, I had far too much to do in the time I had left. My lackadaisical demeanor was transitioning into panic at a rapid pace, and familial relations in my house were bearing the brunt of my madness. Thankfully, my gracious wife, whose patience with me never tires (a bit of an exaggeration) stepped in to fill sandwich baggies with rations of granola and chips. This was not my plan for the final moments of quality time we would have for the next ten days or so. For you gentlemen still developing your marital prowess: if your wife has permitted you to exercise your primal instincts in the backcountry, do not expect her to tolerate you seam-sealing your tarp after dinner the evening before your departure.
With backpack stocked, the remaining logistical hurdle was a lengthy car ride to the trailhead to leave a car, followed by another lengthy ride to the opposite end of the trail. Our frenzied departure made the mood in the car about as warm as the snow-blanketed hillsides. A gray, overcast day didn’t help lift spirits either. The serpentine road and pickups loaded with firewood willed upon us a pace more apropos of the setting. As the miles and minutes ticked by, I was increasingly anxious of my departure. Small talk did little to ease the mood. Tackling this piece of the Ozark Trail had been on my list. I was excited to be executing my plan; unfortunately my gut was in knots. I scanned the trees for blazes or a sign indicating the trailhead. Finally, a double blue blaze appeared on a tree. I finished sealing my pack with hesitation. Once the lid was closed, our paths would part and disappointment would collide with excitement, as a new adventure began.
I could still hear the panicked barking of my dog as I wound through the trees and up the hill. Fighting back the tears, I refused to look back. As the barks and the car engine faded away, the tranquility of the snow-covered hills began erasing the emotional waterfall that had cascaded over me. I settled in to a steady pace and tried to put some trail behind me in the remaining daylight. The snow on the trail was undisturbed, with the exception of deer tracks. Some human footprints near the trailhead had stopped, and it looked like the deer and I were the sole occupants of the Ozark Trail today.
The Ozark Trail, often confused with the Ozark Highlands Trail (which I hiked and wrote about here, is across the state line in Missouri. There are plans of connecting the two trails someday, creating a 700-mile trans-Ozark Trail system. For now, the two trails remain separate, maintained by their own collectives. Looking for solitude and a chance to test my winter kit, I decided to scratch the backpacking itch in January, rather than wait for spring to pop. The Ozark Trail consists of more than a dozen named sections, most of which connect to make a 227-mile main spine. The remaining sections bring total trail mileage to over 300 miles. I chose to hike the main spine and save the spur trails for shorter trips. Humbled by my attempt to yo-yo the Highlands Trail, I built in a touch of slack to my itinerary. I packed food for 10 days, assuming a day or more could be wasted with bad (unsafe) weather conditions. If things really unraveled, there were several road crossings where a hitchhike to town could resolve the problem.
Winter along the Eleven Point River.
The frenetic energy of getting my food packed and gear accounted for was beginning to subside with each plant of my trekking pole. Preparing for an extended outing is like the last steep miles of a long climb to a mountain meadow: anguish followed by blissful calm as the resistance eases. The sun was sinking lower and the cloudy day was bringing a close to hike-able daylight. So much energy expended for the day to hike for only an hour was bothersome to me. However, a few pinks and reds in the sky followed by coyote yips and the hoot of an owl reminded me why I had come outside.
I awoke to find my pyramid shelter unstaked and laying on the foot of my sleeping bag. I was feeling a bit clumsy, but grateful the weather had cooperated with my haphazard set-up. Finding one’s trail legs takes a day or so. Once a routine is established, the engine fires rather mindlessly. A cloudy and gray day provided little motivation, but views from bluffs above the Eleven Point River made for nice pauses. Around mile fifteen, rain drops began to pepper me, eventually settling into a light rain that would follow me for the next eight miles. Satisfied with my efforts and needing a break, I sought refuge from the rain and fog under a cedar tree, that upon closer inspection made for an ideal place to bed down. With shelter up and a warm cup of tea in my belly, I mustered the energy to start a fire.
Attempts to contact my wife and assure her of my well-being were denied by the remote locale, even though I could see a tower on a hilltop miles away. So, I laid next to my campfire and reflected. The warmth enveloped me like a soft blanket. I had heard some hunting dogs running through the hills earlier and wondered if they had found their prey or shelter for the evening. It felt reassuring to hear those dogs in the woods. Drops of water falling in the leaves and my campfire’s occasional crackles were the lone sounds of a wet evening in the hills above the Eleven Point. Food, shelter, and fire: Maslow would have found little to be ungrateful for this evening.
An early morning creek crossing dampens feet and spirits. Not to be deterred, I soldiered on and found the Hurricane Creek crossing not particularly daunting, despite forewarnings of flash flooding history. Water sources are marked on the National Geographic maps provided by the OTA (Ozark Trail Association). The Ozarks are chalk full of wet drainages. However, winter dries many of them out until the rains of spring replenish the hills. The OTA has done a nice job of listing water sources, but some were dry, and many unmentioned water sources were wet. I never went without water, but I carried water a lot of unnecessary miles as well.
Solo trekking without a communication source is a careless choice. However, once one tethers oneself to a communication device, a piece of isolation is compromised. I agree to notify my wife of my status and check hers as well. Unfortunately, miscommunication and my tunnel vision have created tensions I would rather not worry about on the trail - or at home, for that matter. One such misstep had marred the start to my hike and had me distracted.
The trail meandered through a maze of hollows and short ridge lines, impressing upon me the hard work of the OTA and their trail volunteers. Several birds, including woodpeckers and blue birds were spotted. The bird activity provided distraction from a gray day. By afternoon, clouds had cleared and a sunny day concluded with me on a hilltop hovering over another campfire. Chocolate in my tummy and my fire waning, I glanced over my shoulder and saw the sky had filled with stars that shined like diamonds. Life was good.
Before the dark.
Clear skies yielded to clouds once again as I made my way towards the Current River section. A biting wind fought me early and never really let up. Hopes of refilling my water bottle at a creek adjacent to an old mining operation were dashed by bone dry conditions. Should I have expected anything more from the Devil’s Run? Undeterred, my search for hydrological salvation continued. Curious horses, an abandoned 1950’s Chevy Coupe, and a blood-thirsty Weimaraner made for excellent diversions on a cold and cloudy day. The highway 60 crossing marked my beginning of the Current River section and also afforded a good enough signal for my first phone call to the woman upstairs (my wife). Invigorated by conversation and a fresh dose of calories, I forded Pike Creek sans footwear. The Current River section hosts a lovely palette of Ozark geology: rocky glades, igneous rock formations, scenic overlooks, wooded river bottoms, shut-ins, and sinkholes all pepper the landscape.
Rocky Creek shut-ins.
I concluded my third full day of hiking at the Peck Ranch Conservation area. Peck Ranch is owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The agency benefits from an 1/8th cent sales tax levied on basically every purchase of outdoor, hunting, and fishing gear in the state. This tax has no sunset and inspires some vitriol in the state. However, the MDC does oversee an impressive number of public lands, as well as manage a robust fisheries and wildlife stock that many Missourians benefit from. Currently, MDC is restoring much of Peck Ranch’s short leaf pine trees. One could argue a number of ways that nature doesn’t really care, but diesel tractors and a pocket full of cash put up a helluva fight. The sunset was hinting at a few pinks and looked as though the clouds may part on my final push towards camp. A scattering of deer leaped ahead of me on the trail. A cup of tea and my campfire were beginning to feel like a routine. Stars began to appear and the cold drove me to bed. I had barely settled in when a pair of promiscuous wildcats let out a blood curdling scream. Bald eagles, robins, bluebirds, woodpeckers, deer, and wildcats were rolling out the welcome mat.
Yucca and tombstone.
Some days start off so nicely that no matter how one tries, it can’t get better. A brisk climb to the top of Stegall Mountain provided 100-mile views and warm sunshine. I descended into the National Park Service-owned Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Comprised of the Jack’s Fork and Current Rivers, the NPS property consists of the river corridor. The trail passes one of the park’s interpretive sites at Klepzig Mill, a grain mill built at the beginning of the 20th century and later converted to a power source for local residents. Struck by the “local” economy of sourcing one’s food and power, I looked out the door of the little shack perched on the side of the creek. Bottomlands rich with soil vastly better than the surrounding rocky hillsides certainly provided the impetus for development along this creek. The quiet valley was certainly a different place then. Gone was the self-sustaining pioneer spirit, replaced by a NPS history lesson. If memories are the only thing we preserve, are we any better off? The bark of dogs snapped my train of thought and sent me down trail.
100-mile views from Stegall Mountain.
Doorway into the past.
Views from the bluffs above the Current River crafted a lovely midday hike. Unfortunately, as the trail snaked back behind the bluff my spirits sagged and sore feet began to remind me of the 100 miles I had put behind me. A less than ideal spot below a county road offered me views of the nicest sunset yet. Puffs of smoke from my campfire hung in the air, as the setting sun took the horizon through a technicolor dreamland. Sagging spirits and sore feet were little competition for such a sublime setting. I fed my fire wood and my belly chocolate, refusing to take a second of this for granted.
Spring house cloaked in fog and frost.
Each day, one gets the chance for a fresh start to their journey. Perhaps daybreak is my favorite time of day for a reason. An early start by headlamp found me hiking under a crescent moon and stars. As the sun’s rays illuminated the Blair Creek valley, a silver coating of frost blanketed thickets and grass. Ruins of an old spring house emerged from a foggy pond, backlit by the sun’s glow. A piece of vertebrae in the trail prompted inspiration to have the backbone and fortitude to see my journey through. Sunshine and nice trail were moving this day along rather well.
Solar and lunar.
Prior to this hike, many of my coworkers had asked me why I was going out on this journey alone. Obviously, those who backpack and trek don’t require validation of this question. However, the curious among us need satisfactory explanation as to why one would venture out in the middle of winter alone. The reasons are too nebulous to explain. In a nutshell, I don’t know why I’m going out. That’s ok. I’m completely satisfied with the journey, not the destination. I came down the hill and crossed a small creek. Something white caught my eye in the leaves by the creek. Upon closer inspection, I noticed a deer skull and antlers. Antler sheds are a precious find, but finding them attached to a skull is a goldmine for collectors. There was no way I could expect to haul my find out of the woods. I still had several days of hiking and would risk damaging the skull if I strapped it to my backpack. I snapped some photos and replaced the skull back by the creek. Walking away, I was somewhat disappointed by the thought that my find would never decorate a cabin, but I hoped too that another hiker would be fortunate enough to find it before hungry animals chewed up the antlers. Either way, someone or something would benefit from the treasure. On our journey, tangibles need not be collected as measure of success or happiness, simply seeing and remembering is often the best reward.
Take only memories.
Unfortunately, all good days on the trail must come to an end. On a long hike, one resigns oneself to periods of transition. Unfortunately, these transitions seldom come into focus until the journey’s completion and subsequent reflection. In the moment however, it can seem as if the whole trip has taken a turn for the worse. The conclusion of my day was spent in a rather unsightly stretch of trail too close to roads and marred by motorized traffic. Political signs, beer cans and stop signs angled for real estate at road crossings. I pushed forward in search of greener pastures. The conclusion of hiking for the day took me through an extensive blow down of trees with lots of ATV traffic, as evidenced by the muddy trail. I sought refuge in the Grasshopper Hollow Fen complex for the night. I later learned that a trail crew was working feverishly to clean up the destruction a derecho (a rare low pressure system with hurricane force winds) had levied upon the area more than a year ago. The ATV traffic was actually their equipment that was being used to reestablish the trail, since hundreds of mature trees had been blown across the trail. I felt somewhat childish and ignorant after meeting a couple of the trail crew members a day later, especially since they were so apologetic about interrupting my hike with their ATV and chainsaw. I extended my thanks for their hard work and allowing me an open pathway.
Journeys are like eating. Fast food and fine dining both accomplish the same task, filling our bellies, and yet are totally different experiences. Walking a trail end to end is the same task for anyone. However, one person’s experience will obviously differ from another. One can slow the second and third course as much as they want, but the dessert signals the show is coming to an end. The next couple of days on my trek took me inside of 100 miles to go. Signs of measurable progress included my broken trekking pole, ripped tights, shredded socks, and a burn hole in my sleeping bag. Perhaps we stay away from the end as a means to pass the early days, but as the end approaches, we know it’s safe to start thinking about that final push to the finish. Sadly, as I was starting to think of the end of my hike, the weather was absolutely stunning. Crisp mornings with the moon and stars still hanging above me gave way to sunny afternoons in the 40s F. Trails followed the contours of Ozark ridge lines and made for swift passage. Sunsets cast an amber glow upon dried grasses. Each evening found me huddled around a small fire clutching a cup of tea and penning my thoughts for the day as the sun set and my dinner cooked. I found myself inside an emotional tug of war. I could spend a lifetime tending my fire, but the pull to be home with my family was a burden that even an idyllic moment in the woods couldn’t bear.
On the trail of... something.
My short trek was like a campfire. Early on, during the wet lonely nights it seemed like the journey would fail. However, mile by mile I kindled and nursed it. Here I sat next to a warm blaze, confident the fire would last. There were coals and plenty of fuel, but sadly I would have to extinguish it and move along. Each day I would build another. Coyote howls were some of the first sounds each morning. One of my final mornings found me moving along a contour where I flushed out a flock of wild turkeys. Moments later I could hear hound dogs bellowing in the distance. A smile perched on my face as I couldn’t help but think of those dogs my first day on the trail. Here we were, still chasing prey. I pushed along a few more miles, catching a howl or two from my companions. They were getting closer. Moments later the crunch of leaves under foot behind me signaled a visitor and a white and tan dog with radio collar attached to her neck appeared. I could see the look of disappointment in her eye as she sniffed in circles behind me. Sure she had found her quarry, but knowing better she turned and retreated.
In the circle of fastpackers and trekkers, we treat our game like a buffet restaurant: quantity over quality. Knowing when to get up from the table is a fine art. For those of us raised to clean our plate, that means overstaying our welcome from time to time. Why hike the entire trail? Because it’s there. Why eat everything on our plate and be miserably full? Because it’s there. My second to last morning on the trail looked like the previous mornings, however, a low layer of clouds and fog slowly set in with a biting wind. I had been spoiled the previous day by temperatures well beyond seasonal norms. I had even wished at one point for a pair of shorts to replace my tights. Fighting some tightness in my Achilles tendon and the pervasive chill in the air, my mind was having a hard time engaging. Aside from an owl in the early morning, I saw very little wildlife moving. The sun finally broke through and granted some warmth to my chilled bones, but getting a message out to my wife proved futile. I wanted to finalize my arrival home, but the network would not allow me anything. Later in the afternoon, I approached a trailhead and encountered a hiker who informed me of a developing dangerous winter storm expected to bring extensive ice and snow to the area by the following evening.
Ice flows punctuate the leaf litter on the hillside.
I had already moved into finish mode and now an impending winter storm exacerbated my rushed mood. I had planned for a final push of thirty miles on my last day with an empty pack and the car in sight, but quickly called an audible and extended my mileage goal for the day. The hiker had kindly offered me a ride to the trailhead, but I politely declined, knowing the finish was too close and there was food on the plate. Unfortunately, the Ozark Trail has been abused by illegal ATV traffic in some places. During my frenzy to log extra miles for the day, a motorcyclist approached me from behind on the trail. Not in any mood to deal with clowns today, I simply turned around and demonstrated no plan to yield my trail to them before they sped off into the woods. My unfortunate guess is that no effort has been made to end illegal trail abuse. There was a lot of ATV usage in the area. Between the county and U.S. Forest Service, I would guess a lack of resources to enforce and some general ambivalence towards the problem ultimately leads to the type of behavior I witnessed. Undeterred, I squeaked out an additional handful of miles and managed to have a nice sit by the fire, despite missing the final sunset of the trip.
The embers of my final campfire reflected back on my face and the last glow of dusk disappeared from the horizon. I had run down the battery on my phone attempting to get a message out. Instead, I replayed the past 48 hours in my head. Two days of warmer than average weather in January and obvious signs of little to no animal activity along with an apparent cell network overload seemed to spell out conditions the day hiker had mentioned. A storm of historic scale would overtake the area in the next 24 hours, I later learned. I had passed up a guaranteed ticket home in order to hike 25 more miles. The gravity of my choice was looping through my head. I knew I would make it back to my car. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure driving home would be an option. Stuck at an interstate motel in a winter storm wasn’t high on my list of priorities at this time, but I was committed to see the trail through. I threw a few sticks on my fire, journaled some more, and finished my chocolate bars off.
My final morning out of camp was supposed to be a melancholy but celebratory experience. I had passed a small roadhouse in the country on my way to the trailhead. I was going to treat myself to a cold beer and a hot cheeseburger, watch some TV, and maybe answer a few questions about my mangy appearance and why on earth I would backpack in the winter. Now, I wasn’t sure if I would even make it all the way home, much less have time to stop for beer and food. I stepped out of camp well before sunrise. I could see drops of precipitation floating in front of my headlamp. My pace was hurried. My mood was too. The greatest threat to my safety was falling tree limbs in an ice storm and/or hypothermia. I managed to get a message to my wife and eventually spoke to her in person. The developing storm was expected to bring extensive rain, ice, and snow with it. Getting back to my car was going to be fine, but the four-plus-hour drive home was not a guarantee. Upon exchanging weather forecast information, my phone’s battery abruptly died. Not exactly the photo finish I’d recommend to others.
Rain showers dotted my hike back to the car. Temperatures in the upper thirties offered no respite. The final miles of the Courtois section of the Ozark Trail skirt the ridge above Courtois Creek and bluff top views give a bird's eye look at the surrounding countryside. A lovely set of caves also grace the bluffs too. Unfortunately, they are closed due to the white nose fungus that is killing off native bat populations. One final creek crossing numbed any remaining feeling in my feet. Passing through the adjacent campground, I was greeted by a pair of unattended dogs. I prepared my trekking pole for combat and my canine foe barked louder. Upon exiting the campground, I chuckled to myself. Here both of us were with bigger barks than bites, neither of us sure what we were getting into.
Plans do nothing but confine our goals to a limited boundary. Perhaps that’s why I like the Lennon lyric so much: “...life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Getting outside of the plan is sometimes harder than no plan at all. Had I known what the weather conditions were going to be, I would have planned a much more aggressive finish to my hike. My wife later explained that she had held back on giving me the weather forecast, knowing that I would just worry about it and the possibility of it changing wasn’t worth the stress. I know for sure my hike would have materialized much differently in the final days had I been more aware of the weather. However, I’m glad to have someone keeping me slightly insulated from reality. Technology tethers us to our families, lives, etc. but kept on a leash, technology can allow us to push our boundaries, for better and worse.
The final miles of my hike peeled off in a mindless stupor. I was emotionally and physically drained. I was no longer in any state of mind to care whether my bed or a motel bed would be home for the evening. Some hot food and a shower would suffice. I could sleep in my car. Each time I return from a hike, I’m grateful for the solitude that it has afforded me. The noise and distractions of civilized life seem so loud after tuning out. Finishing these trips is so anticlimactic, but yet the tide of emotions that arrives in the following hours rivals the finish line celebration at a major marathon. To some, that would indicate it is about the destination. However, there is no destination without a journey. Why we journey is up to us. Get as much out of it as you can because there’s one destination that doesn’t give second chances.