Ozark Highlands Trail: The Final Stretch
After enjoying a beautiful sunny zero day, it was time to get going. The sun disappeared and the gray haze of rain clouds covered the skies. I wouldn’t see the sun for many days. It was Halloween and I trudged through the drizzle as it rained off and on all day. I hiked five miles and found a good camp by a creek to celebrate the holiday by staying dry and well fed. I was determined to have a fire despite the rain and scoured the area for firewood.
I was camped very close to a dirt road by a one lane bridge and thought about just heading on to a more secluded area as trucks and tourists drove by once in awhile to see the leaves change and check out the creek by the bridge. After a look at the map I decided just to get out of the rain. I had a brand new food drop and was well stocked. I was close to Richland Creek campground and was hoping to hit a side trail and stay at the Sandstone Castles the next day or the day after.
Later in the day the traffic went away and an eerie quiet settled over the place with only the light pattering of rain from time to time with no wind. I was alone again. I stayed dry and kept a good fire going. It rained all night and I lost the fire. I got up the next day, made coffee and Cream of Wheat, then waited for a break in the rain and packed up in chilly winds.
It was an interesting hike as fog rested over everything. Trying to hike on wet rocks and leaves up steep hills proved challenging. There was one spot in particular that was ominous as switchbacks climbed steeply up a mountain and even in the dense fog I could see the entire trail all the way to the top. With wet ground and the steep climb, I knew this would be tough, and I had to be careful or I would come tumbling down.
I made it to the top and looked out over what was probably an amazing view, but all I could see was fog all around and below me. I walked along the edge of the mountain through a mist laden forest that seemed appropriate for a post Halloween hike.
I made it to Richland Creek campground after five miles and the rain continued. Firewood was tough to come by and it was all soaked. There would be no fire tonight. I was able to empty my trash finally and ran into a group of three making camp. Two of them were a couple arguing and seemed quite rude and angry. I nodded and waved and they turned their heads down immediately and said nothing. I walked on, but the third of their group was an older woman and said, ‘hi.’ We chatted and I told her a little bit about the trip so far. It turned out she had a big portable USB battery charger in her car and she let me borrow it to charge up the tunes. I was grateful. The long wet days without sunlight were draining.
It continued to rain all night. I had a tapered candle ready for occasions such as this. I dug a small post hole in the dirt, stacked some rocks at the base, and lit the candle. I sat in half-lotus on my map under the rain-fly with the hammock resting on my neck above me and stared into the candle or out into the rain. I was able to play some music under my little shelter and it helped tremendously. A couple of people wandered into the campground that night but kept to themselves. A nearly full moon crept through the clouds now and again. It was finally a bit warmer and I was able to sleep well without my toes freezing.
I decided against the hike to the Sandstone Castles. If you have the time along the trail it’s absolutely beautiful if you now how to find it past Twin Falls and worth the effort. Under the circumstances however, I decided just to move on. It was still drizzly through the first part of the day and the ground was saturated and slick along the rocks. It was a beautiful hike through the first part despite what I now call “knuckle-punch alley.” Sharp rocks jut out from the ground like rounded knuckles that punched at my feet. They are everywhere and hard to avoid.
The sun came out and I found a beautiful site of moss covered boulders and a cascading waterfall. The falls were all small and hidden beneath the boulders. Fresh water puddles held fallen leaves that slowly swirled in clear waters. I dropped the pack, filled up my water, and had a look around. I ran along huge boulders and fallen trees that just kept going up and up. I wanted to find the source and continued to climb, but every summit only had me looking further up into more boulders and cascading falls. I filmed some footage with the Gopro as I descended down slick boulders. I finally gave up the chase and sat down to enjoy the sights and sounds around me.
I was expecting to stay at Stack Rock eight miles from Richland Creek, since the map shows a camping symbol on it. Stack Rock has since become un-stacked in a seven acre landslide. I had read about it before I left and knew there was a re-route and was hoping it would be marked. I figured I could camp at that spot and figure out the re-route the next day. I got to stack rock and found a camp ring next to a red gate with a big “No Camping” sign attached to it. An angry man in a red Dodge Ram glared at me next to another sign, ‘Road Closed.’ There was a laminated paper attached to a tree nearby with directions for the re-route around the landslide for three miles. There was no choice, and nowhere to camp. I started down the dirt road, shuffling my feet painfully after my experiences with knuckle-punch alley, the eight mile hike, and having way too much fun in the boulder field falls of Dry Creek.
I followed the trail blazers and thanked each one out loud to whomever took the time to put them up. I had been lost enough on this trip and forced to run in circles to find trail-blazers that I got in the habit of thanking each one. The trail-blazers and occasional laminated signs led me across the top of the mountain along a dirt road that hides the view. The red Dodge Ram passed me and he continued to glare even into his rear-view mirror. At this point I was no longer in a good mood and I just wanted to get to a water source and rest. The three mile re-route felt a lot longer.
After traveling along the dirt road where I could easily shuffle my feet I took a right onto a farm road. It was rough and rocky and my ankles were tested to the extreme as more rocks punched into my feet or sent my ankles tilting all over the place. It’s downhill sections that I have had knee problems in the past. I have since learned to widen my stride and sort of wobble back and forth to save my knees and have never had problems since, but I could feel a familiar sensation starting to warm up in that area under my left knee-cap. I put more weight on the poles and widened my stride some more to keep my legs straighter.
I had a few moves that I started naming:
“The Dead Leaf Shuffle” resembles a cross-country skier. Good for flat surfaces of dead leaves. The white noise of it in silent days with no wind can be like having the white noise of a television at full volume after many miles of it.
“Turbo-Mode” would have me shuffling my feet with my pack hiked up on my shoulders, thumbs under the straps to get them off my collar bone for a bit, and poles tucked under my arms high enough they don’t drag the ground. Leaning forward to support the pack a little higher on my back. I will shuffle, slide, ski, and side-step in rotations to double time it down the mountain. Comes in handy when I’m losing light and need to find a good camp or rush to a food drop before the weekend.
“The Hunchback of Nature Done” Spent. So done with this day. It’s already dark. There’s no choice. Find any two trees that will work. There haven’t been any for miles. Might as well watch the sunset if we’re stuck up here. The last water source looked like a disgusting pile of mud barely functioning as a water source, but great for a festering pile of dead fish rotting in the mud and flies. I’m not getting off this mountain and to water today. I’ve climbed over fallen oaks up steep switchbacks. My head sways from side to side in search of two trees without thorns or boulders between them. I’m hunched over because the trekking poles are supporting most of my weight. My huffing breaths and grunts are followed by dragging feet as my poles seem to pull me along with wild eyes.
I finally made it to a creek at the bottom of the road with a fire ring and chairs and two trees for a hammock. It was late and the sun had already settled in, leaving the haze of twilight before the darkness came. I found fire-wood and set up camp. I got a fire going and had such a rough day that I was really just wanting some fire and music. My ipod had already died. I had already tricked it once into getting an extra two hours while it said it was dead. But I had to try. I got the ipod to start up, connected the blue-tooth, pressed shuffle all songs, and hit play. The second I did the low battery signal came on and it was out of my hands. I thought I could get a few songs before it gave up, but I must have gotten another hour and a half. It was wonderful. I was exhausted, but I had a fire next to a flowing creek, music, food, and tea. It was all I needed.
I had seen the air-evac helicopter several times along the course of this trip. Always in the distance. I was eating from my mug next to a fire when the helicopter came hovering low right in front of me in the valley over the creek. It hovered for a moment and I stayed sitting and eating. I gave them a thumbs up, and continued to eat. The helicopter moved on and I smiled. The music kept going for far longer than I had expected and I felt rejuvenated. I had the rain-fly in half so I could lay in the hammock and enjoy the view, but be ready for the rain. Sure enough, I went to sleep and woke up to drops hitting my face. I jumped into action. The stakes were already tied to the ropes and ready to go, all I had to do was throw the other half over the top and hammer it in with a rock. I went back to sleep to the sound of rain.
I never had the chance to dry out my clothes and everything was still wet, but I had to put it all back on and keep going. I didn’t expect to go far, just to the next good campsite. There wouldn’t be another for quite some time. I hiked in the rain that only got worse as the day went. The forest turned into a thick mess and through the drizzle there were a few times when I ended up in circles trying to find the next trail marker.
I hadn’t seen much wildlife on this entire trip other than an occasional armadillo. I was excited when I saw a solitary elk ahead of me. The vegetation was so thick through this stretch I was lucky to see anything. I only saw the one elk, but I could hear the whole herd rumble as they ran away. The herd sounded like thunder through the rain, but I never could spot them.
I found a fire ring with stone chairs, but it had no shelter whatsoever, or reasonable trees. My only water source would be the constant rain. I decided just to press on. Some of my best miles were in the rain and I just sloshed through it all in wet clothes, thinking about how wonderful it would be when I could get under the rain-fly and get dry. My pajamas were warm and dry in the dry-bag and just waiting for me. A hot cup of tea, a meal, and a tiger balm massage. For now, it was just time to trudge through it all.
It was so humid it felt like I was drinking every breath. I spotted several stones shaped like hearts along the way and placed some of them in plain view on the trail as motivation for any who might follow. I made it to the dirt road at Woolum when it was getting dark. I was ready to settle down at anything that would work, just two trees off the road. There were plenty of trees, but none were suitable for a hammock. A farm truck went by with his headlights on. The driver smiled at me as I stood on a pile of dirt with the last of the light from rain clouds fading quickly. The world went gray, then to pitch black.
I had barely seen the sun in four days, and it was brief. I was wet and miserable. It was an eternal darkness along the road to Woolum with overcast skies. I could barely see the clouds in the shadow of trees and bluffs. I turned on the headlamp every once in awhile with the green light to spot the next area of terrain. Then I turned it off and walked in the darkness to save the batteries. I have great night vision once adapted, but it was so dark I could just barely make out the silhouette of trees against the dark clouds in the sky. It was a long six miles along that dirt road to Woolum in the dark. The road was flat and I could do the shuffle along the flat forgiving ground, but it had been a long couple of days. At this point I realized there would be no camping until I finished the Ozark Highlands Trail at Woolum. This was the final stretch if I didn’t continue on to the Buffalo River Trail.
I finally made it to Woolum and was ready to hammock up to anything. I had to use the headlamp to see anything in the rocky terrain and realized I had to cross the river. My view of the river was a small circle of light in the darkness reflecting off the waters when I needed to see what was beneath it. Everything was soaked and I was tempted just to go ahead and walk through it. It was still raining and the river was deep and wide. There was a family camping by their pick up truck across the way and I could see their lamp shining like a beacon. I took my boots and socks off and put on my camp shoes that doubled as river shoes. I just wanted to get this day over with and get dry. I tied my shoelaces into each other, stuffed the socks inside and hung the boots from my pack with bendy ties that held the half-yoga mat to my pack so I could do it without taking the pack off. I used my trekking poles for balance and waded into the Buffalo National River across slick rocks and flowing waters.
I made it to the other side and searched for two trees to hammock in the dark. It was all rocks, sand, and thorns. The only trees were covered in spines, too small, or had obstacles between them. I was so frustrated by this point I actually said out loud, “What a s#!tty reward for finishing the Ozark Highlands Trail.” (This isn’t true, the reward is just a bit further down, and even if you end at Woolum, take a quick trip up the trail to overlook the Buffalo River Valley for your reward). I will have those pictures in the next post.
I searched deep into the thickets and finally found the only two trees in the damn place that would work. There was enough space between them that wasn’t filled with brambles and thorns and I set up camp and got dry. The rain was straight down and light. I got dry pajamas on, lit the candle in a safe place under the rain-fly, made some dinner and tea, sat in half-lotus and massaged my shoulders, lower back, and feet with tiger balm. I reflected on how far I had come next to candlelight with everything covered in burs. I had just completed my first thru-hike along the Ozark Highlands Trail.
I wasn’t in the right mind set to make decisions, so I just stayed warm and went to sleep. I had hiked twelve miles that day through some thick and unforgiving terrain, got lost, and was soaked to the bone even through my rain gear, but it would not be the last of the trip. The next day I headed out along the Buffalo River Trail.
Next Installment: 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 from Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Scrib’d, Angus & Robertson.
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.