Thirty Miles & Thirty Pounds: Three Days on the Ozark Trail
Ozzie is not a hunter, angler or farmer. He has never owned a pick-up truck or a dog. He is 100 percent, pure college professor. Art and architectural history! For a weekend, however, he left the University of Missouri-Columbia's soporific lecture halls and became an outdoorsman. He agreed to hike and camp along the Current River Section of the Ozark Trail, which is why he found himself befuddled by a dome tent, flexible poles and the very presence of a rain fly. Eventually, we figured it out.
The weekend, we noticed, included many instances of the number three: three of us - Ozzie (my father), a friend named Elizabeth, and I - backpacked for three days, 30 miles and each with a little more than 30-pound backpack. At times, we wished we had three mules.
But the Current River Section of the Ozark Trail winds through some of the most beautiful federal and Conservation Department lands, including Mill Mountain, Stegall Mountain and Peck Ranch Conservation Area. It was a chance to escape from our ordinary routines, and that alone was enough to convince us - especially since we didn't know exactly what to expect.
The night before our trek, we shuttled one car to the end of the 30-mile trail section, returning in the second car to the national park campground at Owl's Bend on the Current River. In the morning, we began to pack. We brought the basics: poncho, tent, sleeping bag, water, food, stove, matches, first aid kit, flashlight, sturdy but well broken-in shoes, insect repellent, compass and map.
Our gear was not especially new or made from the latest, ultra-lightweight materials. We did make sure, however, to pack it all in good quality, adjustable, internal frame backpacks. Had we invested in new stuff, such as rain suits or a more expensive tent, our packs would have been lighter. We set off from Owl's Bend and followed the trail as it heads south along the west side of the Current River for two miles, then plays tag with Little Indian and Indian creeks. Splashing through the creeks left us wet from the ankles down. Later that afternoon, showers near Mill Mountain drenched the rest of us. We trudged along for part of the first day, struggling in and out of droopy ponchos as the weather flip-flopped. Nevertheless, spirits remained high. By evening, everything but our shoes and socks had dried out.
We covered about 9.5 miles the first day and found a level spot to camp beside noisy Rocky Creek. It was late spring, and the temperature fell in the evening. Perfect sleeping weather. Ozzie said it had been 15 years since he'd slept in a tent two nights in a row, and fell promptly and happily to sleep.
Elizabeth was new to backpacking and the outdoors. She claims to have never seen a tick before moving to Missouri. Chiggers and poison ivy, she reminded me, do not thrive in New York City, or on the paved grounds of Public School #28 in Jersey City, where she grew up.
A lack of outdoor experience, however, didn't inhibit Elizabeth's observations. Her perspective was skewed, but never dull. She often was the first to smell something pungent, hear an eerie bird whistle, or wonder aloud how early settlers figured out which wild mushrooms to put in the stew, and which were lethal. Even with wet feet, she was a steadfast hiker and always ready for whatever lay around the next bend.
On the second day we hiked a set of switchbacks that left us winded and sweaty. It was the steepest part of this 30-mile section of trail and took us to the top of Stegall Mountain. We stretched out on the rocks for a rest, wrung out our socks, and talked about how quickly the landscape could change: sometimes we stalked through pine forest, sometimes oak; minutes later we squirreled through dense, weedy hollows, then opened our stride through the shady, roomier forests on high stretches; sometimes the temperature kept us cool, sometimes it left our shirts soaking wet beneath our pack straps.
Part of the trail looked like it was used by more deer than people. These narrow stretches made us itchy and kept us on the alert for ticks. Even so, the route is well-marked with small, rectangular signs bearing the Ozark Trail logo - intertwined green and white letters, O T.
We didn't see any garbage, and best of all, we also didn't see any other people for three days; at the backpacker registration boxes located at the beginning and end of this 30-mile section, we noted that the last hikers on the trail had passed by five days before us, and 14 days before that.
In the evening, Elizabeth found revenge against crawling ticks by dropping them into the hot wax of a burning citronella candle. She gleefully kept track of the first 11, then stopped counting.
Fine dining and drinking are essential to Ozzie's well-being. So on our trip, his mission was to make the food - if not memorable - at least filling and tasty. He rose to the occasion, bringing among other things, fresh fruit, cashews and a prize-winning, Boone County-cured ham. Hard cheese, bagels and spaghetti with fresh garlic kept us fortified, as well as cheerful.
There were times during our three-day trek, however, when his culinary attempts - and backpacking in general - seemed crazy. There we were with 30-plus pounds strapped mercilessly to our backs, stinging nettles lurking just around the next curve. We drank water made potable (and awful-tasting) only after adding iodine tablets, then tried to keep June bugs out of the sauce while hunkering on the ground with sore, tired calf muscles.
Just when I thought the next ant on my plate would surely send me over the edge, we'd see something marvelous. Many species of birds swooped around us, including hummingbirds, vultures and, by our estimation, everything in between. We saw two deer, one tiny mouse and 11 turtles, two of whom were mating. We caught glimpses of so many lizards that we lost count. On top of Stegall Mountain, a handsome eastern collared lizard came charging over the glade rocks and peered at us. The lizard pitched its big head to one side and we admired its long toes and splendid orange, blue and green throat.
We buoyed one another, too, with humor and nonsense. Elizabeth: "I think the whole reason for camping is that it's the only time you're allowed to go to bed dirty." Ozzie: "And I thought getting drafted into the Army was miserable." Ozzie, while trying to cook on the ground: "We're Norwegians. We don't have hunkering in our genes."
Elizabeth almost stepped on a copperhead snake that had its head in a hole. We found an iridescent selection of mushrooms - some brilliant, almost neon in color - growing in unlikely places. In Rogers Creek, a Designated Natural Area at Peck Ranch Conservation Area, I watched the most enormous crayfish I've ever seen scoot from rock to rock. Elizabeth wanted to know why crayfish scoot backwards.
Many times during our hike, we wondered why the passage of time felt so different while backpacking. On the trail, yesterday seemed like a week ago. Getting the car inspected or watering house plants were vague, far away chores. We banned all conversation about computers.
By the third and final day, dry socks and shoes were cause for celebration. The trail's only series of switchbacks - up Stegall Mountain - were history. Fording creeks over slick stepping stones was a breeze. Our packs had grown lighter with every meal. Hot spots and a few blisters were no worse than a mosquito bite. Our legs were sore, but stronger.
To hike the last few yards, we had to cross Highway 60 about 10 miles west of Van Buren. The hot pavement felt odd - almost too level - beneath our feet. But a dip in the Current River was just a short, welcome car ride away. We climbed gratefully into the car, hot and tired and happy.
Getting Ready for the Ozark Trail
Every backpacker or day hiker who sets out on the Ozark Trail will have a different experience, and that's the beauty of it. Butterflies, sore muscles, an incredible vista - every trip is unique, every person can call it his or her own.
The Ozark Trail stretches almost 300 miles through primarily public land, but also over some land belonging to cooperating private landowners. In the late 1970s, people working for state and federal land management agencies, trail user groups and landowners joined together to build a trail that would pass through some of the state and nation's most distinctive natural areas.
When entirely finished, the trail will begin near St. Louis, head south through Missouri, and join with a similar trail in Arkansas called the Ozark Highland Trail. An eastern loop will wind through the St. Francois Mountain region in southeastern Missouri. When complete, the Ozark Trail will stretch about 500 miles across the state. It eventually will extend all the way to the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.
Designers of the trail made efforts to lead hikers through aesthetically pleasing areas. For example, trails often pass vistas, along ridges, by unusual natural features, and near water sources such as springs, creeks or rivers. Several sections also are open to horseback riders and mountain bicyclists. Responsibility for maintaining the trail falls to the agency whose land the trail crosses. These agencies in turn enlist the invaluable help of volunteers. Scout groups, equestrian clubs and nature organizations all monitor trail conditions and help with maintenance.
The trail is designed to be used by people with varying levels of hiking experience, for afternoon excursions or week-long backpacking trips. To find a stretch suitable for you, take time to do a little research. Begin by studying a section map. Before setting off, familiarize yourself with the map, noting landmarks and features along your chosen route. Especially pay close attention to the availability of water. Water sources along the trail can be sporadic and always must be treated either with a water purifier or iodine tablets. Maps for sections of the Ozark Trail are available by writing the Ozark Trail Coordinator, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Historic Preservation, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, 65102, or call toll-free, 1-800-337-6946.