Lake Fort Smith to Herrod’s Creek: Section 1 of the Ozark Highlands Trail
October fifth, 2017 was a full moon and the Jewish holiday, Sukkot, celebrating the exodus. It seemed like the perfect time to go on a thru-hike. A wonderful friend of mine, Lauren and her husband Duke, offered to drop me off at Lake Fort Smith State Park. I had to get a ride to a shipping facility, and didn’t have my items boxed up. They thought they were just taking me a for a scenic drive to lake Forth Smith. I am so sorry you two for putting you through a crazy trip of running last minute errands before I left. Not having a car made things difficult. I was also out of money.
So first we had to get boxes. Went to a restaurant to see if they had anything and they said Goodwill did out back. So we drove to Goodwill, and got blocked by a truck making deliveries so we couldn’t just drive up. I jumped out and ran to the back where a dumpster was filled with cardboard boxes, grabbed three roughly the size I needed, and sprinted back. Then we had to get them shipped to my two food drops at Post offices within two miles of the trail. I had the addresses written down. Should be easy. Wrong.
“Oh. Are those perishable items?” the man behind the counter asks with concern.
“Yeah,” I reply.
“Oh, no, we can’t ship perishable items. We’re a third party shipping company.”
“You’re kidding me. I’m leaving to hike 200 miles today and I’m going to need food. Any suggestions?”
“Just take it directly to the company, Fed Ex should do it.”
Back in the car. To Fed Ex we go. They didn’t give me a bizarre look at my box loads of zip-lock bags and peanut butter, and a gallon size bag of home made trail mix. They showed interest and started packing it up. They even cut the boxes down to save me some money. I’m doing calculations in my head of the tiny bit of money I have left, and questioning whether I need to deposit the three dollar and sixty eight cent co op check I have in my pocket that is now drenched with sweat. Finally, we can be off. I mention the check, but I have asked too much of these kind people who still have an hour drive to get me to the start, then back. We set off and made it to Lake Fort Smith state park in record time around twists and turns. Thank you so much Lauren and Duke for getting me on the path to start this journey.
I was already having a hard time getting my pack out of the trunk, much less onto my back on flat ground. My pack was definitely overkill, and I had a feeling I might be leaving things along the way. Even after realizing how heavy my bag was, I just wasn’t ready to give up on anything until I knew if it would be useful. Every day my pack would get lighter. In the rush to get out the door and on the trail I was fueled on caffeine and not any real calories or energy.
I just wanted to get on the trail and leave the world and all of its flaws behind me.
It was a hot, sunny day and I was in good spirits. Just after getting around the lake I ran into a large water moccasin over three feet long. I had just stepped down an embankment into a dry creek bed and seeing the large snake so close made me want to take a step back, but I hit the embankment and fell backwards into it. The water moccasin reared up its head and stared at me, realized I wasn’t a threat when I fell, and continued on its way. I stood back up with some effort, got my point and click camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS25, and snapped some pictures before the snake headed into the woods and out of sight.
I hiked in six miles and met Billy Cunningham already camped at the creek campsite I had planned to stay at. We chatted for a bit while I pumped water into my bottles. He was a nice guy just taking a break from everything for a night with his dog. I carried on, and with a late start it was getting dark. At almost eight miles it got too dark and I had to set up the hammock in a creek. It wasn’t an ideal location, but there were two trees for the job. I used the foam yoga pad to throw all of my gear on and set up the hammock. My headlamp highlighted a tiny water moccasin crawling around the mat. I made some tea, and a quick meal of couscous with my own special spice blend (Italian seasoning with cayenne).
The next morning I cut the yoga mat in half, wrapped it around the shovel and tucked it away, hoping it would be more useful to someone else. I left only a few pieces of gear I knew someone else could make good use of, but left no trash. I carried it with me to the next site that had trash cans, few and far between. That half yoga mat was one of my favorite pieces of equipment and was perfect for setting my gear on to prepare camp. It was also a hammock floor mat for gear I might want in the middle of the night and a soft, clean place to put my feet for midnight pee breaks. I could sit in half lotus under my rain-fly on rainy days, read, meditate, or relax and enjoy the views.
I hiked a short distance the next day and found a great creek bed and campsite and spent the rest of the day in the sun exploring the area. While bathing the parts that needed washing, something interesting found my fingers, a sort of skin bubble between my butt cheeks. That’s right, day one had given me a hemorrhoid. It wasn’t affecting my hike so I didn’t worry about it. I had bummed a few cigarettes for the trek after reading in the 1986 Army field manual on survival that eating a cigarette can kill intestinal parasites (do not exceed one in 48 hours). I smoked one, and ate the other and they were all gone. To any smokers out there, please don’t throw your cigarette butts in the woods. I kept all of my trash in a one gallon ziplock bag and it took up no room and kept the smell in.
Journal entry: Day 2: Hiked just over a mile and found good camping at Jack’s Creek. Searched the area along the creek. Dry and itchy hole. Went to clean the area and discovered either a hemorrhoid, hernia, or reaction from bug bite. Bulbous bubble, creeped me out, but feel fine. Literally blew my ass out on day one, figures. Sunny, beautiful day. We’ll see how I feel in the morning. May take an extra day or just stay here for the duration if it doesn’t heal. Hoping to carry on.
After being mildly disgusted with myself, I felt great and ready to carry on. I had a blown O-ring. I kept the area clean and treated it with honey and gold bond powder to lessen the friction of walking under a heavy strain. Say what you will, it worked. It wasn’t a great way to start the trip, but I felt fine. I creek jumped a couple of miles at a time and camped at each creek along the way for the first three days.
Caution! Too Much information from here to the next set of pictures and pretty things. You have been warned. For those who wish to skip it, just scroll past the next two paragraphs, to the next set of pictures, and continue on.
Day four. The next morning it was finally time to empty my colon. I could feel it in my gut and it was going to happen fast. I held it in and dug a hole with a stick far away from camp, the trail, or the creek at the base of a tree. I was only mostly sure that what I had was a hemorrhoid, so passing a stool was a little worrying. I’ve never had one before. What looked like a jellyfish had come out first and plopped on the ground and part of me was worried that it was a ball of puss from whatever horrible thing was attached to me, or some horrible “Deliverance” scenario. I listened for banjos. After a few feet of soft serve, I felt great and was fairly sure I had just passed a parasite past my hemorrhoid.
I already had my suspicions before the trip. I was always hungry for awhile. A good friend of mine had symptoms and had been turned away by doctors, so he did his own research, and a possible intestinal parasite was a culprit. He did the garlic diet to get rid of it, and did. He took pictures as evidence. I thought about requesting those pictures, but I’ll let your imaginations do the rest. The garlic diet is rough. Yes, I tried it, but not for long enough. The bathroom smelled like fermented gasoline. I couldn’t help but wonder how long I had been carrying the traveler. It wasn’t small and had to have been with me before I entered into the woods. Assuming that’s what it was. I’m still not really sure, but of all the possible scenarios it seems the most likely. I think my first day fasting and the effort of carrying a heavy pack on a long hike followed by eating a cigarette finally killed the damn thing. I buried it all effectively so no one could witness the horror and put a large rock over it. Be careful picking up large rocks close to campsites along the trail, something disgusting may be hiding underneath. Once I dropped that load, I felt lighter on my feet and was glad to be venturing through the beauty of the natural state, even with my heavy pack.
Here are some pictures of the pretty things I saw along the way to get that image out of your head.
I ran out of water near the top of White Rock mountain and was glad their campsite had potable water at the top. The place was filled with people enjoying the wonderful view and trying to find their cabin rentals or get a good campsite. A young woman was outside near the main house playing with her daughter and I asked if there was water. She pointed to the faucets right beside me on the house with a tool in her hand. I filled up my bottles. The little girl asked what I had on top of my pack. I couldn’t figure out a way to explain Spalding the friendly face-hugger to a child that wouldn’t give them nightmares. I thanked them and went to the campsites. It was a busy weekend and I had just passed a primitive campsite to go back to. I hung out on White Rock and checked out the view and took a lunch break. I met a family and we discussed the falling walking sticks. They would land on me from time to along the trail like they were just trying to hitch a last-minute ride to the big gathering.
I continued on the trail to a primitive campsite further down. There was a bizarre pattering sound that caught my attention and I tried to find the source. It sounded like light rain, but it wasn’t from the clouds. Walking sticks started falling out of the sky. As I looked closer, I found tiny little green poop pellets and realized I was getting rained on by the remnants of a walking stick feast and orgy. I put up my rain-fly to keep it away from me. All night I could hear the pitter-patter of poop pellets and the occasional crash of a walking stick falling out of the branches, sometimes alone, sometimes still paired. They would crawl into the fire still in mating position. I tried to save them at first, but after awhile I felt it was out of my hands and let natural selection take its toll.
In the morning I packed up and escaped the disgusting mating ritual. I made it to Salt Fork Creek just a few miles down. There were great campsites, a water source, and plenty of sunlight. I rationed my food so I could stay there for the rest of the day. I let my batteries charge on the solar panel and got some reading and writing done, then explored the area along the creek. It was a relaxing time in beautiful sunlight.
I hiked four miles to Spirit Creek and enjoyed the day. Met a group of three girls thru-hiking, and planning to do it in a couple of weeks. I wished them luck and told them to relax and get some water, offered maps, and a fire. They hung out to get water and were on their way. I let them be and collected firewood along the creek. A husband and wife team came through doing forty miles together and we’re doing great. I was always friendly and offered a look at the map. They were trying to make it further down before sunset. I wished them luck and told them the same about getting water and feeling free to relax. They could join me or go off and do their own thing and and I’d leave them be. I was able to creek jump those first few days, but then the mountains left me no choice but to hike in search of water.
I only intended to go to Fane Creek. It was a noisy hike of chainsaws, four wheelers, and gunshots as the hunting weekend started. I arrived to some beautiful campsites at Fane Creek only to hear hammers and chainsaws. I realized this would probably start early and decided just to get water and carry on. I ended up hiking thirteen miles ascending and descending through the mountains. The environment changed with each descent from the typical scenery of the Ozarks with red oaks, birch, and pine to slot canyons.
Then it felt like I suddenly shifted regions and entered the jungle. The atmosphere was moist, dark, and strange with thin trees and the smell of decay. There was even a giant mushroom patch and stump covered in green algae and mold.
The trees thickened as I descended the strange jungle that seemed out of place in the Ozarks. I ended up at Cherry Bend and checked out the rock house (a very short hike). It was late and I needed to find a suitable hammock spot and call it a night. I finally found two suitable trees just off the trail maybe a mile further up the mountain. I was officially on the other side of my Ozark Highlands Trail West topography map.
The following day was a ten mile hike. I ran out of water on Hare Mountain. It was a gorgeous view. I had no choice but to hike down to water, so I stayed up there and enjoyed the view for an hour and charged my ipod and camera battery with the solar charger.
As I descended I was on the lookout for any water source. A three foot long snake darted in front of my feet. It was so well blended to the rock I didn’t see it. The triangular head told me it was poisonous, but it just disappeared into the woods. I found a puddle in a run-off and saw mosquito babies swimming in it. I pumped water and boiled it in the jet-boil to be safe, added some instant Reishi mushroom coffee, then just took a load off while enjoying water, coffee, and a breakfast bar.
I ended up at Herrod’s Creek.
The place was noisy with dirt bikes and ATVs, but I had a beautiful campsite next to a clean blue watering hole and a big fire-pit. I watched dirt bikes drive by all night. Groups would come through and stop while they tried to figure out where to go. All I could see was an array of lights. At first blue lights were hovering right off the trail and I thought it was a shakedown, until they finally figured out where to go, headed across the creek, and took a left. They came back slowly and finally decided to head up the hill instead. I watched this same routine with the next group and rainbow lights on one of the four wheeler cages. Another group did the same, stare across creek, cross, guess turn, wrong turn, go back up the hill. Repeat all night. I got a good laugh out of it, and despite the noise it was a great night. They could see my fire but it was far enough from the ATV trails that I was never bothered. I thought about just telling them to go up the hill but it was more fun to sit back and watch the confusion. I celebrated completing one side of my maps with a big fire and a meal. I couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow would bring.
Next Installment: Ozark Highlands Trail: Herrod’s Creek to Ozone
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.