I set off the next morning from Herrod’s Creek. The four wheelers and hunters had gone home after the weekend and the place was quiet again. It ended up being a beautiful hike across green moss carpets to paths of brown pine needles dotted with scattered rocks of blue and green lichen. The Marinoni Scenic Area is a beautiful landscape.
I camped by a giant oak tree next to a flowing creek in the mountains. The oak tree had very large limbs that had already crumbled and fell. The whole tree was hollow and looked like it was ready to fall at any moment. I put the hammock up away from any overhanging limbs to be safe. Always check for widow-makers (dead trees that might fall and crush you in your sleep). The oak was leaning away from me so if it did fall I would be alright. Earlier in the hike I found a painted rock that said “Keep Dreaming” with a message on the back to take it or leave it for someone else to find. I took it with me and notched it into the oak tree for another traveler to find. I enjoyed a fire and was starting to get into a routine of unpacking.
The next day was a tough eleven mile hike up Wolf Ridge. It was the spot on the map that looked like the longest stretch without water. I walked across a road for a ways to the Little Mulberry. It was a long walk down to the river from the bridge and I decided I had enough water to get me through. Advice: drop the pack, take the walk, and get water at the Little Mulberry before you start up Wolf Ridge.
Wolf Ridge was a tough climb. It’s one thing to ascend with a heavy pack, but having to find a way over some of those giant fallen oaks proved challenging. I was nearly out of water at the top. During that climb I started going through old grudges. I was getting angry with it all, trying to understand human nature and the hatred it can contain. Then I would stop and turn around to enjoy the beauty around me. Back to climbing, grudges, anger. I was staring down at my feet, climb, climb, climb, dirt, rocks. Then I noticed the pattern. I was internalizing instead of enjoying all of the beauty I was in because of lame, pointless grudges that needed to be tossed over the side of the mountain when I made it to the top. But for now, it was keeping me walking. I just had to remind myself to look away from my feet and to focus my eyes away from me, away from the fragile ego. I developed a rhythm of checking my feet and looking right, check footing, left to keep me out of my head.
I met another friendly thru-hiker by the nickname of, Thumper, at a campsite near the top with a gorgeous view of the valley below. He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit. It was a beautiful campsite, but it was taken and I didn’t want to intrude. I was low on water and needed to make as much ground as I could.
I was still on top of the mountain as the sun was setting. I knew I wouldn’t make it down that day so I sat and watched the sunset over the valley for a moment. All the grudges were forgotten as nature gave me a beautiful sight to take in. In the end I know there are some who will kick me while I’m down, but I know who will stand beside me. I have wonderful friends and family and have every reason to be grateful. I was in the middle of an incredible journey I had always wanted to experience and it was time to leave all of the unnecessary baggage and trivial things behind me.
It was time to run. I needed to find a worthwhile hammock spot soon while I still had some light. I kept walking as the sun disappeared, looking for any good campsites. There weren’t any. I chased the sun around valleys. Everything would get dark before I would pop up over another hill and see the sun through the trees. I kept chasing the sun into the night. If I could see the next white trail blazer marker, I kept going. The sun disappeared but I still had the gray haze of light. By the end of it I was stooped over like a hunchback and pulling myself along with the trekking poles.
I finally set up the hammock in the dark at mile marker 63. I didn’t have enough water to cook. I ate some snacks and peanut butter and decided it was a problem for tomorrow. I had a little bit of water left in my camelbak that I used as an emergency source along the trail. I left the rain-fly off but had it ready nearby just in case. I watched the stars and saw strange flashes of light over the horizon, but no clouds. I assumed it might be traffic from a road in the distance somewhere and I was seeing the headlights. I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes to light sprinkles of rain there were storm clouds overhead. I jumped to action and set up the rain-fly just in time before it started to pour down. I put the rain cover over the backpack and made sure everything would stay dry beneath me. I attached my water bottles to trees with para-cord and bendy ties, hoping it would catch some water, and tried to sleep again. It was a cold and shivering night but the fleece blankets kept me warm. The problem was that I had two tiny blankets and required both to keep warm. The cocooning process in a hammock took some time. I would put both blankets inside my sleeping bag and wrap up, making sure my feet and the rest of me were wrapped nicely. If I moved to the side a gap would open up at my back and I would feel the chill winds immediately. Every time I had to get out and pee, I would have to re-cocoon myself. The trees were too close together and turned me into a U-shape, making sleep difficult. I was exhausted.
Morning came and I was cold, tired, hungry, and thirsty. The storms were still going. When the rain finally let up loud shrill winds followed and were blasting through me. Had I known I could have left my clothes out for a wash and dry. I stayed cocooned and just let it slip by. Once the storm subsided I got up and ready. The winds were too much to allow water to get into my bottles. The high winds also ended up drying the whole place out so I couldn’t even get water by gathering it from the foliage with a cloth.
My pack does not have a spot to allow the camelbak reservoir to go through the bag so I could drink on the go. I needed my water bottles. I tried to transfer my emergency water source from the camelbak to the bottle. This is a tricky process as the camelbak will shoot water out like a fountain when you tip it. I filled the bottle with electrolyte powder and protein powder so I could have enough energy to get off the mountain. My hands were cold. Right as I finished filling the bottle the weight caused it to slip through my hands and the bottle dropped, spilling almost all of it into the dirt. I stared at it for a second in bewilderment, shrugged my shoulders, drank the last drops, and packed up.
There were a few moments on that mountain that I lost the trail and had to run circles to find the markers again. I made it to county road 6200 and had to cross the dirt road to get to the next section of trail. I spotted a mud puddle in the middle of the road. I needed water. I dropped the pack, set up the solar charger for the gopro camera and pumped water from the muddy puddle. I boiled some of it and made some instant coffee and oatmeal then just sat down and chilled out. The sun came out and I reveled in its warmth.
A bike packing crew of four came down the road and slowed when they saw me sitting with my gear laid out on the side of the road. They stopped and chatted for a bit. I told them about my trek and the previous night. They had been bike-packing from Hector, AR and were eighty miles from finishing their trip where I started at Lake Fort Smith. They had just pumped a bunch of water from a spring that morning and had more than enough. They filled my Nalgene bottles, gave me a nutter butter and a pecan pie Larabar. One of them tried to give me a huge summer sausage. It was a good gesture but too heavy and I couldn’t justify the weight. There were giggles from his buddies when I declined, and I bet they’re still giving him s#!t for it. His sausage offering was just too big. It made me laugh. I am so grateful to those trail angels. It made my day. I was back in good spirits with plenty of energy and ready to carry on.
I really felt the love on that dirt road and it came at just the right time. I decided to make it the first place to plant the poppy seeds In memory of Melody Lane.
The side of the road was next to a barbed wire fence that got plenty of sunlight. I dug out some holes and planted some seeds. I know its not the season and they may not grow, but in lieu of not getting the ashes, it was the gesture and thought that mattered to me. I hope they bloomed this year or the birds that ate them were fulfilled.
I finally started to descend the mountain and ended up at one of the most beautiful campsites along the trail. It had it’s own waterfall, an overhanging bluff, and cascades of fresh water filtered through pebbles and sand down boulder fields. I unpacked, got the fire ready, and had food and tea before exploring the area. I read from the “Secret Tactics” book given to me by a good friend (Thank you David!) and pondered the passages while I explored. Despite the rough night, it ended up being a wonderful day.
Next Installment: Ozark Highlands Trail – Arbaugh to Ozone
Check out johnozmore.com for artwork, sculptures, writing, and photography from the author or to purchase the Dark Fantasy novel, “The Blood of Winter” from Amazon.
If you want to find out more information about the OHT you can check out the Ozark Highlands Trail Association website at ozarkhighlandstrail.com. They have some basic information and tips as well as any changes in the trail such as reroutes from landslides and other information that may change the trail experience. You can also check out ultralightbackpacker.com for some really great tips, advice, and recipes for any thru-hike whether you decide to go ultra-light or want to loaf it and take your time. Check back for more stories from the trail.