Mile-127 to Mile-161
11 June 2017
My first section hike, done. It wasn't actually part of the plan, but I have a funny way of finishing what I start. The Ozark Highlands Trail is a total beast, and one easily overlooked. In fact, the whole Ozark Mountain region is frequently overlooked. If you're looking for gorgeous, nearly pristine solitude, this is it. Best-kept wilderness secret in the whole country. (But maybe don't go in the summer.)
There are a number of hidden gems in the Ozarks. Before finishing up the Ozark Highlands Trail, I checked out Whitacker Point, which is just one of a myriad. Finally hit the trail around 930a, and it was already hot, muggy. Summer is not the season to trek in the southeast, sure heat and humidity, but really it's the bugs. In the first hour, I'd already picked three lonestar ticks off of my person. Naturally, I bathed myself in 100% deet and committed to hourly tick checks. Not trying to get ill out there, or worse. For the next 20 hours or so, I pulled/picked/brushed tick after tick away, or at least what I believed were ticks. Turns out most of them were actually chiggers. Despite being from the southeast, I'd never seen chiggers before. They look and even act like ticks. They burrow their heads in, but rather than suck your blood, they release an enzyme that breaks down our tissue. That's what they feed on, your tissue. Gnarly, right? That enzyme is what causes the raised bumps and intense itching that accompanies chigger bites. I got dozens and dozens of 'em. My one great mercy? That they don't actually burrow under our skin and crawl around wreaking havoc. Can you imagine if that myth were true?
Stopped at the Richland Creek bridge, near the halfway point, for a dip and a thorough tick check around 430p. Not feeling psyched to be out there at that point. Tired of the heat, the humidity, the bugs, the bushwhacking. But, my ego wouldn't let me quit just cuz it was a little tough. The second half was about as pleasant as the first. I was relieved a few hours later when I came to a detour, which included nearly 3 miles of walking forest service roads. The first was wide, graded, lovely. The second was steeper and unmaintained, but still better than the "trail." Dunno how many miles of the OHT I skipped, but I figure it was comparable. The detour was 2.7 miles; it started shy of mile marker 150 and the first mile marker I saw after was number 153.
Saw some pretty good wildlife out there, per usual: a turtle, a couple great blue herons, some huge snails, a pretty black spotted salamander, a snake around three and a half feet in length (which I nearly stepped on). And a handful of fireflies, which was nostalgic and brought me back to catching them in the front yard as a child. Seems it's been forever since I've seen them. There was also some sort of mystery beast that bounded away from me in the middle of the night. I saw his eyes, and I could see him moving low to the ground and hear him bounding deliberately through the overgrowth. Noisy, but not clumsy. No idea what it was, but I imagine it was something cool, and I wish I'd seen him better.
The prize sighting on this trip actually came after I reached Mile 161 and forded Richland Creek east of the trail. I'd decided not to yoyo, as I'd originally planned, because my pace was slower than I'd anticipated and I didn't have enough food for the return trip. Also, ticks. Instead, I headed for Snowball with the intention of hitching back to my car. After more ticks and chiggers than I could count, I was ready for a road walk. Hit the ford and officially finished my last OHT section around 1a. Time for another full-on tick check, my last until I got back to civilization.
Spent an hour bathing before pressing on. About 10 minutes later, I turned a corner and was face-to-face with a huge wild boar. He was about 20 paces ahead of me, so let's call it 60 feet. Conservatively, I'd say he was 200 pounds, and likely bigger than that. His tusks were at least three inches long. He must've been blinded in my headlamp, because he was all over the place. I'd surprised him, and he first turned hard to his left like he was going to dart into the woods. Then he did a quick 270, first turning away from me, then coming back around and b-lining straight at me. He was charging me, and I was f*cking scared. I did the only thing I could: I instinctively got into an ahtletic stance, facing him head-on, and I roared. It lasted maybe 2-3 seconds, but it was so loud, deep, and intense that I was horse afterwards. At that, he finally veered off into the woods away from my voice. But not before he'd covered 30 of the 60 feet that separated us. Damn, he was fast. And I was shaking. Razorback attacks are rare, and extremely dangerous. They're brutal animals that attack and keep attacking until their victim is completely incapacitated. Seriously close call. I got outta there quick. The first six miles were along forest service roads, and the first hour of that was a steep uphill. I was shredding, high on adrenaline. When that wore off, I took a sitdown water break about a mile from town.
I arrived in Snowball around 5a. It's a creepy little town, maybe the only one I've ever been to where I was actually afraid for no other reason than the sense I got. Dunno why, but I felt unsafe. Turned off my headlamp and slipped by the few rundown homes, pepper spray in hand. Hit pavement and started cruising, knowing that I was likely to have to walk at least the first 11 miles (of about 45) before coming to the first intersection where I'd hoped there would be more traffic. Saw three cars in as many hours between 5a and 8a. Not too surprising for a Sunday in the boonies. Threw my thumb out for the first two, which were both trucks, and which both blew by me. I was actually distracted taking a photo when the third car passed, and she stopped without being prompted to see if I needed help. We chatted a bit during the quick 3-4 mile ride. She was sweet, and it was clear that she'd been living up there in the middle of nowhere for a long time. She dropped me at the convenience store in Witts Springs. I'd hoped to get a soda and a bag of chips, but they weren't open yet, and there was no telling when, or even if this place was gonna open at all on a Sunday. I took an hour-long nap on a shaded bench out front before heading out to the hot roadside to start hitching.
I'd walked over 45 miles to that point, and I was ready to be done walking. I stood out there for three hours trying to catch a ride before I finally gave in and walked myself outta town. The road walk was absolutely miserable. Exposed, hot, narrow. I saw a car about every 20-30 minutes going my way, which is kind of a lot over a 12 hour period. I knew it would be a tough hitch, but I couldn't believe no one stopped. I was in the middle of actual Bum F*ck Nowhere walking a highway wearing running shorts and a hydration pack. I mean, c'mon. I covered about 11 more miles before someone finally - FINALLY - pulled over.
He had me hop in the bed of his truck, which is my dream hitch every time. "Is that legal in Arkansas," he asked. I assured him it is. In truth, I have no idea. I was just desperate. Love riding in the back- no need to make small talk, no need to feel guilty for smelling bad, and 50 mph winds blasting through my hair. So good. They dropped me at Sand Gap after a wicked-fun 20-minute ride on a narrow, winding highway. No hope of a hitch on busy AR-7, but I was so grateful for the the two pickups I'd already gotten that I wasn't mad about it. I ran out of water as soon as I got out of the truck, so I woulda been in trouble if I hadn't caught that last hitch. Not much in the way of general stores out that way. Glad I waited on the one in Witts Springs! I actually ended up jogging four or so of the last six miles. Can't believe I had the energy, but it felt good. Was able to get water out of a spigot at the Fairview parking area en route. Just a few miles to go after that. Then, finished. I was spent. My legs carried me nearly 65 miles, all told. You can't imagine my elation at the sight of my car.
With this most recent trip, I've now explored the Ozarks in all seasons. (Spring isn't really a thing in the southeast, so fall, winter, and summer round it out.) All things considered, fall trekking is the way to go, which is what I assumed at the outset. Still, if I'm going to have a chance of being successful on my next speed attempt in November, everything will need to align perfectly. Better to be sure and scout every detail I can, since there will be plenty of curveballs regardless. Now I've seen the full breadth of the trail, which is more a goat path than a trail in some places, and more a bushwhack than a goat path in many others. The moss-covered tread on this most recent section is indicative of how little traffic this part of the trail sees. It's extremely overgrown and difficult to follow in broad daylight- basically a guessing game in many places. It's about as bad as the Hurricane Creek Wilderness area, which I hiked in the middle of the second night on my first speed attempt. At least this section has the white blazes, which aren't reflective but are way better than the nothing that marks the Hurricane Creek Wilderness. I'd thought that a full moon would be helpful on the overnight sections, so I planned this trek accordingly. Turns out the relentless canopy cover along the trail completely negates any value the moon might have offered. And while that's a bummer, it's nice that there's one less variable to try to align. Instead I can focus on pinpointing an appropriate weather window (temperature, humidity, etc).
As I continue to understand this region better and better, I love it more and more. Stoked for November. Gonna be brutal. Gonna be awesome.