VisitMO editor's note: This article (Dec. 18, 2012) is reprinted with permission of Missouri Life Magazine; to see the original content, please click here.
On our third day of hiking the Ozark Trail, we trudged along a rocky ridge on the side of a hill. The four of us marched in a single file line which was all the space the trail allowed. I could only focus on Dave's feet plodding along in front of me. That was until he turned abruptly shouting, "SNAKE! SNAKE! THERE'S A SNAKE!"
My fear of snakes is so severe that I have issues watching them on television. If they show up in a commercial, I casually leave the room and occupy myself until it goes away. This rattlesnake completely freaked me out, but it was like a train wreck. No matter how much anxiety I knew the snake would give me, I had to see it.
Knee-high grasses lined the sandy, rocky path. I peered over a small hump in the trail and saw the creepy black and gold rattlesnake coiled in the middle of the path just four feet in front of me. I darted back to safety as the dreaded rattling began.
Throughout the past three days, I had slept on rocky ground. I ate only freeze-dried food or oatmeal. I had massive blisters on the backs of my heels that rubbed against my boots for every single one of the 25 miles we had hiked so far. The rattlesnake brought me to the brink of a panic attack. The only thought in my mind was: Why did I decide to do this?
My three friends, Dave, Jim, and Matt, go on a long hiking trip every summer. They come back with hilarious stories and amazing pictures. I knew that I wanted to go with them; they just had to decide if a girl was tough enough to do it. They finally conceded because of my persistence, and we planned to hike the Taum Sauk section of the Ozark Trail.
Long hikes aren’t about being comfortable. In fact, it was probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences I have ever had, and the infamous rattlesnake day was the worst. Yet, I would never trade those days spent hiking through the Ozarks with my friends for anything.
Our trip started in Black at the Bell Mountain Wilderness Ozark Trail trailhead. We planned to hike through to Taum Sauk Mountain, where we had left my car. Once we parked the second car, it was time to gear up. My beloved flip flops were traded in for wool socks, sock liners, and an old pair of hiking boots. To don my 30-pound backpack, I held a shoulder strap with one hand and swung the pack around to my back by holding the handle at the top.
Hiking packs have a belt strap that anchors all of the weight on your hips as opposed to across your shoulders, which makes it easier to carry. Naturally, I buckled my belt and chest straps immediately to keep from falling backward.
“No belt strap for me,” Jim joked.
“First one to use their belt strap is a loser,” Matt replied, as Dave ran around the empty parking lot in his brand-new synthetic hiking underwear, “Just to test it out,” he said. It was clear to me that I would be the wuss in this group of “manly” hiking men.
The Taum Sauk section began with a crawl up a mountain. The Ozark Trail pulled out the big guns against us right away. We hiked upward on switchbacks for at least a half hour. This was my first what-am-I-doing moment—my legs began aching, but I kept going. Only one of my two water bottles remained when we made it to the top of the first mountain.
We came to a clearing and looked out across the Ozarks. The mountains used to be higher than the Himalayas, but now they are mere shadows of their former size. The dark green of the mountaintops contrasted with the light blue sky, creating waves of hills for miles, and I was caught off guard by the sight. Many of us think we need to go to the ends of the earth—like Patagonia or Indonesia—to see wondrous, exotic landscapes. But, they are here, only a few hours away in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks.
Unfortunately, I had to snap back to reality. All we had to accomplish on our first day of hiking was to reach the first water source. We had brought a water purifying pump, and we needed more water than we could carry to make our dinners and breakfasts. From the trailhead, it was about six miles to the first creek on our map, but we thought there might be some smaller ones along the way in case we needed more water. After passing a couple of dry riverbeds, things did not look so good for us. We started conserving the water we had left and hoping the creek on the map wasn’t like the others.
It took about an hour to descend from the mountain crests. The sun started to set, and lucky for us, the creek we had been searching for was at the bottom of the mountain. Every good Boy Scout adheres to the “leave no trace” rule of camping, but we were pleased when we found a previously cleared campsite with a fire ring of rocks. My stomach grumbled uncontrollably as we gathered firewood and set up our campsites.
Dave brought the JetBoil, a nifty gadget that boils two cups of water in three to four minutes yet is still easy to carry. I looked on with disgust as we poured our boiled water into the freeze-dried food we brought with us. The package claimed to be beef stroganoff with noodles, but the mushy mess didn’t look like any beef stroganoff I’d ever had. But Jim, Matt, and Dave all raved about these meals, so I dug in out of hunger and curiosity. In the end, I felt bad about criticizing the freeze-dried food—it was amazing.
Once everyone had their fill, we set up tents and hung our food in a tree so the bears wouldn’t eat it. After an evening spent playing Euchre, we called it a night. Though I slept on rocks that night, I have never fallen asleep faster.
Our gourmet meal the next morning consisted of oatmeal and peanut butter bagels; both are high in calories, carbs, and protein—all of which I knew I needed for our first full day of hiking, which started with another immediate uphill climb. This climb went straight up; I went primal on all-fours. Twenty minutes into day two, and it was time for a water and snack break.
That day was our hike through the jungle. I have never been to the Amazon, but I doubt it looks different from the bottomland forests of the Bell Mountain Wilderness. It wasn’t warm, but it was noticeably humid. I brought my sunglasses but didn’t need them. A thick canopy of trees towered over our heads. We rotated leaders when one person got tired of getting covered in spider webs and swatting gnats away. Matt made the unfortunate decision to wear shorts instead of normal trekking pants, and the abundant thorn bushes were not kind to him.
Our next landmark was a highway; this would signal that we were almost to Johnson’s Shut-Ins, which meant we had hiked at least six miles and only had another two to go. Every time I came around a corner, I expected to see a road in the distance, but every time I turned that corner, it was still more forest. We were in the middle of the forest with no highway in sight all day. It wasn’t terribly discouraging until the sun started to set. We tried to stay positive, but as 5 pm came and passed, and 6 pm came and passed, we had to complain. And complain we did—about everything from the gnats to the lack of water to those darn thorny bushes all over the trail. We didn’t think we would ever make it to the water just beyond the highway. We fretted that we would have to hike back to our car or at least to the stream we stayed by the previous evening.
Then, while in the middle of our rant, we turned another corner in the trail. I could hear the rising hum of a car coming closer, passing us, and then moving farther away. I peered through the trees and saw a road in the distance. The clouds had parted, and the heavens shone down on this special piece of asphalt just a quarter mile ahead. Spirits lifted. The gnats weren’t so bad, and water would be just another mile or two after the road. It started raining, and we didn’t mind.
We hiked into Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park and followed the trail to a wide, shallow river. The trail went across the river, so we found a way across some rocks. Dave was the only one to slip and get his feet soaked. We sat on the riverbank to eat our dinner while the clouds spit little droplets of rain. I took my shoes off and let the soft river pebbles massage my feet. We started throwing rocks at a huge boulder; it became a game to see who could throw the farthest. I took it all in—the sound of the river running over the rocks as I inhaled the fresh, mountain air and played with my friends. I felt like I was standing in an Evian commercial, but I had better company.
We set up a campsite and dried our socks and shoes by the fire while it warmed our bodies. After more rounds of Euchre, we went to bed ready for the next day, or so we thought. The morning started out normal: oatmeal and peanut butter bagels, then a steep climb to begin our hike. I knew it was going to be a scorcher, though, when I was already sweating profusely from the combined heat and physical exertion at 11 am. Most of the morning was a relentless uphill slope. We wanted to find a nice lookout for lunch like we had on the first day. With no lookout in sight, we settled for some shaded large boulders.
While eating our lunch of tuna, crackers, and summer sausage, we began a heated discussion about who lived in the superior town. We sat there debating while slapping tiny red bugs off our legs. It was hot, and each whap at the bugs fueled the fire of our argument. We agreed to disagree, but there was lingering tension among the four of us.
We pressed on. Without checking, we knew the heat index was climbing well into the 90s. If yesterday we had been in the Amazon, today we were hiking across the African Savanna, but on an incline. I decided to forego my “tough girl” attitude and started asking for frequent water breaks, a far cry from my first night of hiking when I had cut my toenails with a pocketknife because they kept jamming into the front of my boots. The guys were impressed with that, but that bravado was long gone.
What kept me going through the heat were the mile markers along the trail between Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. We all searched for them as we trekked along, feeling accomplished when we saw them in the distance. During our pursuit of mile seven, we encountered the rattlesnake. My blisters hurt, I feared heat stroke, and I smelled almost as rank as the guys. I could handle all of these things. But not the rattlesnake.
When I saw it, I sprinted away to cower by a boulder. I could hear it rattling at us. We took another break to calm down and decide what to do about it. Jim, being the largest of us four, kept arguing that if someone got bit, he would get a big enough adrenaline rush to carry that person to Taum Sauk Mountain and drive to a hospital. Our biggest issue would be if Jim were bitten, because no one could have carried him. The best decision was to go off the trail and around the snake. For the rest of the day, every dark spot among the long blades of grass was another rattlesnake. Placing my foot between rocks and grass became a skill; I thought about each step while searching for another predator. We hiked faster and more carefully than we had in the last three days. Our trip around the snake made us miss the mile seven marker, and I felt cheated. When we found water, we stopped for the night. It had been a long, rough day, and I was completely spent.
We ate and set up our tents on the least rocky patch of ground we could find. The exhausting day took us to bed early, and we slept on top of our sleeping bags, trying to cool off. I fell asleep dreaming of sandwiches and iced tea for our drive home the next day. The last day’s hike felt much easier, as our journey would be over soon. The terrain was just as difficult as the previous three days, but anticipating a shower lifted our spirits. We came to Mina Sauk Falls, which signified only a mile and a half to the parking lot. The Ozarks had been dry all summer, so there was no water in the falls. We sat at the top of the empty waterfall looking out at the wilderness we had conquered.
I marveled at the sea of trees, knowing I had trekked 29 miles through the Ozark Mountains. Here I am, a 120-pound young woman with no real muscle, and I carried a pack that was a quarter of my body weight on my back the whole way. I slept on rocks, swatted my way through spiders, cut my toenails with a pocketknife, and escaped a rattlesnake. What did I learn? I am strong. My body can accomplish so much when I have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other. Incredible journeys are close to home. Most importantly: nothing brings friends closer than sweating out 29 miles together.