Ozark Highlands Trail – Getting Started
The Journey Begins
I was living in an art community, working on two novels, painting, creating, and enjoying life. Then my car went into the shop. The art community was over an hour away from my work as a dental technician. I had been commuting for years. I made enough to pay the bills and used the rest of my time to work on various projects. I learned early in life, from observing others, that most people are given the option of money or time. Rarely are people lucky enough to get both. Those with money substitute their lack of time by spending their money, often on things they rarely get to enjoy. They work hard, so they play hard when they can. Many have families they support and it is a noble pursuit. It was not the lifestyle I chose.
As an artist and writer I wanted the time to work on creative pursuits. I like to take apart old typewriters and collect their hearts: the metal keys that hit the paper are separated and then I form them into a geometrical pattern by folding the keys. I would go hiking and collect interesting bones and driftwood I would find along the way. Then I would make sculptures out of them, creating mutant skeletons and fantasy creatures. I learned to paint and found my own style, hiding tiny creatures inside everything. I wanted my paintings to take awhile to look at as people search for everything hidden within and giggle at how weird it gets. Paintings by John Ozmore
My car going into the shop seemed like a big deal at the time. It turned out my vehicle had an expensive engine problem. The 2005 Chevy Cavalier had lasted me a decade and been a good car, but with a cost over $3,500 for a used high mileage engine, it was time to say goodbye. I needed another vehicle. One small loan from a friend and I was able to find an old police car for a decent price on Craigslist. That is a story unto itself.
The car drove well for six months, then suddenly it just puttered, gurgled, and died one day on my way to work. I was lucky to get it to a church parking lot off the road. It turned out that vehicle had an expensive transmission problem. I found that out after a month of waiting and paying five hundred dollars to fix the flywheel. Now I was out a car and $500, plus another $150 for towing fees to the mechanic, and then to the scrapyard. The scrap yard gave me a good deal and I came out with $225. It wasn’t enough to counteract what I spent, but it was far better than what anyone else would give me for it.
I was stuck with no way to get to work. I sold a painting to Club Frisco that lets me put my bizarre artwork on display and sold my mountain bike to get a couple more months of rent. I was surviving on instant oatmeal, mashed potatoes, eggs, and ramen.
Making the Commitment
I had just enough money to do something I had always wanted to do. It started off as a joke that if everything went wrong, I would just run off into the woods. It was my fallback plan. The Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) had been calling me for some time. I had done sections of the trail here and there on weekends and explored the Ozarks when I had the gas money and opportunity. I had always wanted to thru-hike the Ozark Highlands, and in its own funny little way, the universe conspired to get me there.
I already had most of what I needed to hike the OHT either in my own gear or provided by helpful friends. It all needed to fit into a ‘very used’ second-hand backpack. The pack is a now vintage Gregor and it has been on many adventures over the years, maybe too many.
The rest of my money went to buying food and a few cheap supplies. I had done some multi-day hikes and kayak trips, but a thru-hike was a new challenge. I started reading, researching, and training.
I was blessed to be given one more month in the art community to help with the Annual Fall Music and Arts Festival. I used that time to plan and train. I got into the habit of running up a steep three mile hill nearby, then picking up trash on the way down with a plastic grocery bag. Then it became two grocery bags. Before I left it had become two thirty gallon bags filled with beer cans, bottles, fast-food foam cups and containers, and all kinds of random things from lazy drivers that could have just as easily been driven to a trash can. I would leave the bags on the side of the road, and borrow a truck to haul them down later.
The six mile trek had become a morning routine. I started adding my pack to the walk, then adding water and weights. Before I left I was hiking six miles a day with two full nalgene bottles, two fifteen pound weights, and two five pound ankle weights.
I was lucky to have that hill to climb right out the front door. Find your own training routine. You can train in your house just pacing back and forth with a loaded pack and five pound weights to simuate trekking poles, which I highly recommend. You can even train while watching a movie in your room or make treks around the block. Squats, lunges, and calf raises are great. Do incline and decline to simulate walking up and down mountains. It’s the downhill that can be tough on the knees. I have some tricks to overcome “downhill knee” that I will discuss in later blogs.
Take a Walk
I have been walking long miles for many years, rarely out of some need for exercise, but simply out of necessity. It started when I was a teenager and walking home from school. When I rebelled and left the house at eighteen I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I just knew I needed to get out on my own and find my freedom. I was invited to a band’s practice. Most of the members I had never met. I ended up at a place we called ‘the barn’ in Avoca, a run-down shack with no running water out in the country. I ended up getting along great with the drummer of the band who lived in the barn. It was a separate building from his mother’s home who was surviving on disability after having major health issues. I moved in within a week after meeting him. He is still a life-long friend along with all the other wonderful people I met through the Vessels of Wrath from Avoca to Arizona.
As a new adult I filled out five applications at various places and got a job in a Mexican restaurant as a waiter. I had no vehicle and no bicycle. It was a three hour walk to work and I had to get there by 10:30 am to prepare for the lunch crowd. I had a disc-man and listened to music while I walked the railroad tracks, balancing on the beam to feel the vibrations of a train, and making sure to look around and listen for any sounds other than the nearby traffic of the highway. I don’t recommend it and I do believe it is now illegal to walk the tracks, but it got me to work. If I walked the road it was just people wanting to yell things at me, flip me off, and just generally be rude to impress their friends.
I would get ready in a public bathroom in the downtown area of Rogers to do my shaving and cleaning the dirty parts of me with water, soap, and paper towel rub downs. The people I worked with started to figure out how far I was walking and offered rides I graciously accepted. Three hours to work and three hours back. Six hours of my day were spent walking just to work a five hour lunch shift.
I saved up enough money and bought my first vehicle, a very used Ford Taurus with faded paint and plenty of character. I bought it for $800 and it got me around. Eventually it lost all the door handles except the driver and I had to let people in from the inside. Then the heater went out and I had to stick my head out the window to drive while being pelted with ice because I couldn’t see through the ice without defrost. There was no heat in the barn either, so getting up out of bed in winter and getting to work consisted of sleeping on my clothes so they would be warm and then shivering until I got to work. Then I became a pizza delivery driver. The Ford Taurus lasted a year before the engine went out. It was back to walking.
I’m also a pacer and have a tendency to walk back and forth in circles while I work on characters for my novels or figure out art projects. Typically I only sit if I have something to work on or because pacing makes others uncomfortable. In my creative pursuits there is a lot of time spent just trying to work through various problems and figuring things out, typically dealing with fictional landscapes, characters, and plot lines. I rarely sit when I’m alone. Even when I was living in tiny studio apartments I would pace back and forth like a rat in a cage. I never bothered to track my steps or mileage, but I’m willing to bet it would be several miles. I started adding a weighted pack and weights to this routine as well. I felt like I was built for thru-hiking and had been unknowingly training for it most of my life.
I wanted to take my time on the trail and enjoy every bit of it. When planning your thru-hike remember to make it your own. Gather advice from multiple sources and find the common threads, but in the end this hike is for you, and it’s not a competition. Despite the fact that many thru-hikers try to turn it into one. If you want to be the lightest and get from point A to point B in the least amount of time, great. If you want to relax or explore, enjoy the sun and have some fun, then do it.
Keep in mind, of course, that the more comfort, the heavier the pack. Decide sparingly what will be important to you. Food and equipment are the obvious areas of concern, but give yourself some treats and things that can boost your morale on tough hikes and rainy days. The style of hike I did was a bit different from most. The websites I read said the average thru hike on the OHT was between 14-16 days. Many hikers have work or families to get back to and have to finish it quick, others are doing it for their own satisfaction of finishing the trail and proving to themselves what they can push through. Without having to worry about rent or a vehicle, I had no expenses or bills. I had a pay as you go phone and was paid up for quite awhile. Who knows if life will let me get to do this again. I was free to take my sweet time about it, so I planned accordingly.
Earlier that year I attended a funeral for a wonderful soul named Melody Lane. She had open heart surgery at a young age and knew she had a limited time. She lived to the fullest through it all and always wanted to make people laugh. Of course if you didn’t laugh, she didn’t care and would be giggling at her great jokes anyways. I know there were a lot of people that wanted to make it to her memorial who didn’t get to. You were in our thoughts. She was such a unique, creative, and wonderful soul. Melody posted a last message on her facebook that she wanted half of her ashes to go to California and the rest spread in the Ozarks. I tried to get some of her ashes to spread along the trail, but short notice, and California family members who didn’t know me or how I knew Melody made it impossible. There were envelopes of poppy flowers at her memorial and I grabbed several for the trail to make my own peace with her loss.
While living my last days in the art community I was trying to finish a painting and figure out how to self-publish my debut Dark Fantasy novel. I enjoyed my time: training, researching, and soaking in every last bit of the art community I could.
The Fall Music Festival at Terra Studios went great. We broke everything down and it all went quiet. I had mixed feelings. I was excited to get on the trail, but I was really going to miss this place. The time went by way too fast. I had given away or sold most of my things and donated my books and DVDs to the community library in the laundry room. The time had come.
I dropped off the finished painting at Club Frisco in Downtown Rogers, Arkansas that displays my art.
Then I said my goodbyes and left with the pack on my back.
My novel, “The Blood of Winter” was released on October 1st, 2017.
Four days later I started the Ozark Highlands Trail under a full moon. October Fifth also happened to be the celebration of the Exodus called Sukkot. It was the right time to go.
If you are looking for advice on an ultra lightweight thru-hike then you may want to look elsewhere. If you want to have a unique experience on a budget and enjoy your time, than my experience on the Ozark Highlands Trail can give you some useful tips. I used a hammock for my hike which adds some extra weight, but can provide some amazing opportunities for thru-hiking in the Ozarks that I couldn’t have done otherwise. There are plenty of things I have changed and modified since that first trip and I will tell you what worked great for me and what didn’t.
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 as well as food choices, equipment, and preparations.