Lost on the Buffalo River Trail – Finishing a 200 Mile Journey
It had been another dark, rainy day of hiking and I had seen very little of the sun. After finishing the Ozark Highlands Trail at Woolum I was over 180 miles into this journey and 33 days in the wilderness. I had a heavy pack with a full load of water, 2 Nalgene bottles, camelbak reservoir, and a one liter collapsible bag. Despite the promises of the name, the Buffalo River Trail lets you look at water from the mountain with no way to get to it. I was ready in case I ended up stuck on the mountain. I no longer had a good map and wasn’t sure when I would get to water.
The trail markers had come to an end. The last sign I saw was a wooden sign that said BRT with an arrow. I followed the arrow up the mountain and descended the other side into a no man’s land of dead leaves hiding sharp rocks and holes over steep terrain. I had slipped into these holes twice and decided to turn back, this was obviously not the trail. I headed back to the bluff and checked out the little pamphlet map given to me by a Park Ranger and tried to figure out where I was. I decided just to take it easy and stayed the night.
I had plenty of time and just needed to make it to Dillard’s Ferry by Saturday for my pick up. I was camped on a bluff overlooking the Buffalo National River with a scenic vista of fall leaves. The next morning I slept in until the rain let up, then made coffee and breakfast and explored the area in my warm pajamas when the weather finally stabilized. The wind had momentarily dried most of the foliage to keep me from getting soaked while creeping through the underbrush.
Old pine trees were covered in neon swathes of Spanish moss overlooking the river below. Bright fall tones of red, yellow, and orange glowed like beacons amidst the dull and dreary brown of dead leaves surrounding them as the last of the color left the forests. I explored a large area of the land around me and just stayed dry through intermittent patches of rain while I tried to decide my next plan of action. I would have to make a decision the next day if I couldn’t find the trail, either turn back, or just make my own path.
I got up early the next day and made two mile excursions into every available path around me. I used the compass to navigate the areas I needed to get to. The creek I was following was headed in the right direction and I was hopeful I would find something that could get me back on track. But it didn’t last.
I crossed over barbed wire fences and ended up on private land. I found that out when I saw tire tracks and became hopeful. I followed them and passed a deer stand, then I ended up in a pasture with cows staring at me. I could see a large house in the distance over the next hill across a valley. This looked like a great place to get shot for trespassing. I got the hell out of there, back to the cross section of creek to the BRT sign, and gave it the finger.
There was only one path I knew would get me where I needed to go, the Buffalo National River. I decided to give it a try. I back-tracked for maybe a mile or more and found a little canyon that looked like it would get to the river. I rounded a corner and saw the river as I stepped carefully across muddy ground. I weighed my options: wave down farmers and ask for help, back track all the way to the Gilbert General Store, wade the river. I wasn’t going back unless I absolutely had to. I finally had a reason to use the swim trunks I had been carrying and never used. I slipped them on and my camp/river shoes.
The bottom of my pack was right around the same level as my testicles, which became my river gauge, if my dangling flesh sack was in the river, so was my pack. Of course once I entered the river those parts of me tucked themselves in and were not willing to be dipped in the cold water. After so much time in the rain it wasn’t as cold as I was expecting. I had to walk on tip toes and lean forward to keep my pack dry for a deep section. I made it to the other side and started wading the river from beach to beach.
One section was too deep and the only way around it was through some thick bamboo and boulders along a steep embankment. I made it to another beach, and another. I had found a rhythm and was just happy to be moving forward. I found enough driftwood on one of these beaches that I contemplated making a raft out of gorilla tape and para cord. Then I saw tire tracks compressing river stones and sand. I followed the tracks and saw a dirt road with a sign for North Maumee. I was thrilled, until I got there and saw the no camping signs. There wasn’t a reasonable place to camp anyways. I knew from the map South Maumee wasn’t far. Back in the river I went.
I made it to South Maumee and found one good camp with trees to support my hammock. I had the whole camp to myself. I got a fire going and made a meal to celebrate. The days without sun came to an end as the clouds dissipated just in time for the sunset. I was thrilled to be back on track.
Journal Entry: Day 36: 11-9-2017 – Sunlight! finally. Charging batteries, drinking coffee, then heading up the road to another BRT trailhead. If it fails me, I’ll jump in the damn river again.
The next day was a beautiful day full of sunlight. I charged my batteries and sat in the sun. There was a map at the campsite and the sign said 5.3 miles to Spring Creek. There was a campsite symbol on the pamphlet and by this point I knew I could make that distance in no time.
I wasn’t carrying much water, assuming I would come across something or get it at Spring Creek. I made it to a dirt road with a sign that said Spring Creek, and no campsites anywhere in sight. I decided just to keep going. I estimated I had two hours of sunlight left. I went into turbo mode and double timed it, climbing for a while, then shuffling across dead leaves.
Then I climbed higher and higher. I looked down on the river and realized how high up the mountain I was as the sun was setting.
Night came and I was still on top of the mountain. I was close to finishing this whole adventure, and decided to hike through the night to enjoy the night sky from the top of a mountain. I had no food and very little water. My dinner ended up being starburst and crackers. I climbed up stone steps by headlamp in the dark. I pushed hard and kept climbing. It was finally time to set up anywhere I could.
Mist crept through the valley and I watched the sunlight spread across the bluff before finally getting out of my warmth and packing up. My hands were cold and barely functional.
I headed down the mountain chasing after that beautiful sunlight so I could bathe in its warmth. I made it to Dillard’s Ferry and let my pack slip from my back to pump water from the river under a highway bridge. I was early and this was not a place to camp.
A park ranger pulled up. He jumped out with a nervous expression and put his right hand over his gun.
I took off my beanie, set it on my pack, and held my hands to my sides. “I have been hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail since October 5th and tried to hike through the night, only to freeze my ass off on the mountain last night.”
He relaxed and told me how to get to Buffalo Point and that there was a gas station with food just up the road. I jogged across the highway bridge since there was no shoulder on the two lane road. I hiked up hill to the gas station a few miles away. I walked inside excited for some non-instant food and nearly knocked over the wine display while turning around with my monster pack. I left my pack outside on a table and went back for a sausage, egg, and cheese croissant. I bought a large can of beer and some snacks for the night, then made a new rendezvous for Buffalo Point.
This was it. I had made it across roughly 200 miles of trail. My ride wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. It was still early on a Thursday. I had Friday all to myself with nowhere to go, no miles to get done. I sat back and relaxed, and finished the book, “Secret Tactics” collected by Kazumi Tabata. I charged the ipod and speaker and listened to music while I finished writing in the journal and enjoyed the sunlight. I ate the last of my food and coffee.
They sat back and I told them stories from the trail and found out what had been happening in the world while I was gone. Once they started on the news of the world, I said, “Never mind. I don’t want to be plugged in yet.” It was all bad news. I found out what they had been up to and we talked and laughed into the night with plenty of delicious food and drink. It was a wonderful reunion with my closest friends.
Journal Entry: Day 40: heading Home.
I left on the celebration of the exodus on October fifth and spent forty days in the Ozarks while watching the seasons change. It was a wonderful experience and I look forward to getting back out on the trail in the future.
I got cleaned up and groomed and had my first hot shower in forty days. I only lost 5 pounds in that time, but my body was completely re-shaped. All the muscle went into my legs and my upper body shriveled away.
Now, it was time to get plunged back into the cold reality and start the assimilation back into normal society. One thing has always been in my mind since I finished the trail. My grocery bill was around $200 for a 200 mile trip. No matter what happens in life, I always know I can escape into the wild beauty of the forests and mountains, and even do it in comfort for only a dollar a mile. I’ll tape and tie my old beat up gear together if needed.
I had some grudges when I first started the trail. They would pop up on long uphill climbs when I was low on water. One of the tips in the “Secret Tactics” book mentioned quite frequently was, “forget old wounds.” The trail cleared my head. My only worry was water, food, and shelter. The pettiness and ugliness of others has been left behind.
All I can do is keep moving forward, one step at a time.
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.