After several rough days in the rain and darkness I had finally finished the Ozark Highlands Trail. I set no records. I took my sweet, damn time and enjoyed as much of it as I could. I left October 5th, 2017 and finished on November 3rd at Woolum, completing 165 miles of trail from Lake Fort Smith state park. Now it was time to decide if I wanted to keep going. I still had plenty of food and wasn’t ready to head back into the cruel world of reality just yet.
I had hiked into Woolum after several dreary days with only the occasional day of sunlight. Those days were beautiful and perfect, but the rest was a drizzly mess. After wading through the Buffalo River at night and hammocking in the thorns and burs then trying to sleep to the sound of horses and people very near my campsite I was a bit tired, but ready to move on. Turns out I had set up camp right by the horse trail and the main entrance road on a weekend. I woke up to the sun creeping through the clouds. My maps ended at Woolum.
A park ranger pulled up in the morning as I was brushing my teeth in pajamas in the woods near the dirt road. I crawled through the brush to greet him. I told him how far I had come and that I no longer had a map. He offered a Buffalo National River pamphlet. It only had a rough drawing of the river, but it was enough to show me direction and the path of the river I would be following along with a few highways. He also warned me that water was tough to come by. As I would be following the river this confused me.
I packed up and prepared for a fresh start on a new trail. As I was about to cross the river again a Jeep pulled up and offered to get me across to keep my feet dry. My pack was such a monster that it wouldn’t fit anywhere in that Jeep. They crossed without me to drop off the passenger and came back to get me. I barely got my pack in my lap in the driver’s seat and the driver plunged into the river. I was grateful and they wished me luck in my travels. Unfortunately, fifty feet later I had to cross the river again in an even deeper portion. It’s the thought that counts though and I am glad someone was willing to help. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled my pants up, and crossed.
On the other side I found the white trail blazers I had know for the past 165 miles and started up the mountain. The warning about the shortage of water was still in my mind. I explored old cemeteries and enjoyed the beauty around me.
I came across an old car rusted out on the trail. Me and Spalding the friendly face-hugger took an imaginary joy ride. I wondered how that car had ended up there. Further down, a homestead still had some of it’s walls, and even an oven.
I climbed further up the mountain and finally got to the top to enjoy an amazing view of Boxley Valley over the Buffalo National River (the first designated National River in the United States).
I continued to climb and came across a spot with a fire ring and a stunning view over the valley. There was a plank rock and I sat with a 180 degree unobstructed view. I was low on water, but I couldn’t pass this up. I set up the hammock.
The beautiful view over the Buffalo National River was just what I needed, and the perfect reward for finishing the Ozark Highlands Trail.
That night the clouds went away and a full moon came out to greet me in the night sky. I took my half yoga mat to the plank rock and did yin yoga under a full moon.
The next day the clouds came back. I carried on through dirt roads. I met a hunter along the way and told him my story. He graciously offered to fill my nalgenes and gave me all kinds of treats: fun-size almond snickers, vienna sausages, and a beef stick. His truck had the company name ‘Rogers group asphalt, concrete, etc.’ on the door. Another trail angel saved me, for little did I know what little water there really was on this trail. I descended back down the mountain into the lowlands along fields, dirt roads, abandoned homesteads, farms, and dried up river beds.
I called a friend to arrange a ride the following Saturday at Grinder’s Ferry. I didn’t realize it was so close. I found a run-off of water and filled my bottles. I had to cross the highway, but saw a tunnel going underneath it and decided to skip the traffic. Bad move, the tunnel under the bridge was incredibly slick with calcium deposits and run-off water. I didn’t make it far before my feet came out from under me and I toppled hard to the ground. I have good balance, but there was no way I was going to make it safely through the tunnel. I felt like an overturned turtle trying to get back to my feet on a surface with the viscosity of baby oil. I got out and went over the top, sprinting across the highway.
I continued past Grinder’s Ferry and made it to the top of a mountain with a church across the valley of the river. Fall leaves had already started to change and were in their prime. I had cell service and made a new rendezvous at Dillard’s Ferry. I saw the town of Gilbert in the distance as the trail began to descend into switchbacks. I assumed the trail would take me right to it and the Gilbert General Store for a few extra supplies and pick me ups.
As the trail continued on past the town I realized I would have to double back to get to it. I crossed over a fence and through the woods, then waded across the river. I walked across a sandy beach and made it to the General Store with excitement. Turns out I was about thirty minutes late. The store was closed. It was late enough that I decided just to find a place to camp and wait for the morning. Finding trees worthy of the hammock proved to be a challenge and I explored the area looking for anything that could work. I had to cross the river again and finally found the only two trees in the area that would work on a hill by the river.
Morning came, but it was difficult to tell what time it was, the sun was hidden behind rain clouds. I packed up and walked to the store. I stared at the door trying to determine if they were open. I heard a voice from a nearby window tell me to come on in. It turned out I showed up at 8 am right when the store opened. I walked inside to warmth and set my pack on a nearby bench. A very friendly man with grey in his beard greeted me. I told him about my journey and he let me relax and wander around. He made coffee and gave me a fresh cup.
I told him about hiking two books with me, one of which I never had the chance to read. He said I should the read the Bible. I told him I already did.
“Well, you can read it again,” he said.
“I want to know what others think about life after death and what lies beyond from more than one source. I’ve read many religions and beliefs and just finished The Teachings of Buddha.”
I saw where this was going and started off on a calm and matter of fact tangent.
“Most beliefs have the same basic underlying principles: practice compassion, kindness, and understanding and don’t willfully cause harm to others, and those are the only laws we need. Unfortunately we have lawyers and politicians to try to determine what that means. But it’s really quite simple. As long as people use their beliefs to better themselves and to help others, I’m all for it. If it’s used an excuse for hatred and bigotry I’m against it, period. People want to use the Old Testament as an excuse for horrible behavior just because it’s in the Bible.”
He agreed with me and smiled. The religious conversation ended there when he said, “I agree, and we’ve been washed in the blood of the lamb to be saved from our sins. You are blessed.”
He was never unfriendly during this exchange and we were both better for it.
There wasn’t much in the way of food, but he had just what I needed. With ten dollars cash I still had left over from the Ozone Post Office cash back I was able to get a jar of peanut butter, some snack crackers, and candy bars. He donated a ziplock bag of coffee grounds and half a pack of swisher sweets in exchange for a signed copy of my Dark Fantasy novel, “The Blood of Winter” Demons of Lost Souls when I finished the trail, despite my warning that it was dark and violent. I had some coffee and a swisher out front and relaxed. We had a pleasant conversation about life. Bless you kind Sir and the Gilbert General Store for the fine company and treats to get me going again.
The rain showed no signs of stopping. I waded back across the river and found the trail again. I trudged through the rain which I had gotten used to over the past week. I could get plenty of miles in until the next campsite revealed itself. I had to cross another deep portion of the river and thought it was worth taking off my boots and socks again, even though they were mostly soaked.
The trail blazers changed from white to silver. I carried on in the rain and suddenly the trail was very well marked with blue flags all over the place. Then all markers disappeared. I was starting to wonder if I had made a wrong turn and went back to the last marker. There were no other paths to take. I found a wooden sign that said BRT and had an arrow going up the mountain. I followed the path. There was a beautiful bluff overlooking the river. Because of the rain I was able to find plenty of puddles to get water. Be forewarned, the Buffalo River Trail can be troubling when you’re thirsty and get to stare at water in the river far below from the top of a bluff with no way to get to it, but more on that later.
The trail just ended. I had followed a path up the mountain and started to descend along an old farm road now grown over. Then I was in a boulder field covered with dead leaves and had my feet disappearing into hidden holes between the boulders. There was no longer a trail. Occasional ribbons tied to trees gave me hope, but after exploring the area I realized this couldn’t be the way. I turned back and decided to stay at the bluff overlooking the river and figure it out in the morning. I could get to water at a cross section of creek, get dry, and have dinner.
The coffee and swisher sweets came in handy the next few days to calm my nerves. I had plenty of food and wasn’t stressing about it. I knew if I had to I could just head back to the General Store and call in a ride on the weekend, but it felt like a step backwards, and I wasn’t going to until it was absolutely necessary. I could figure this out. This bluff was going to be my home for the next few days.
Next Installment: Lost on the Buffalo River Trail
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, available in paperback and Kindle versions.
E-book versions of the Dark Fantasy, “The Blood of Winter” are also available for Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Scrib’d, Angus & Robertson, and other major retailers.
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 and photos from the trail.