words: Marla Cantrell
images: courtesy Jim Warnock
“When in doubt, take a step.” – Jim Warnock’s mom
Jim Warnock has worn down the soles of hiking shoes until they are as smooth as a pair of loafers. The erosion takes place over months, as he walks across hills, through valleys, beside waterfalls that catch the sun’s rays, throwing diamonds of light across an already breathtaking landscape.
When he thinks about what it means to hike, it seems to him that one of the great benefits is how it instills gratitude. Sometimes, standing on a ledge overlooking an expanse of trees and water, he feels connected to earth and sky and all the animals that inhabit them.
As he traces his love for nature, he draws a straight line back to his childhood in El Dorado, Arkansas, a town that now has approximately 19,000 residents. When he was seven years old, his dad cleared a narrow path on their property that bordered a forest, and told Jim it was his trail. At seven years of age, the world can be anything you want, and a trail all your own can be as miraculous as a moon rocket. Jim might have outgrown the glory of it, had his father not taken an interest in what it meant to Jim. There on their land, his dad answered his questions about what he was seeing in the woods around him. Jim learned to identify trees by their leaves. He learned to listen to the symphony that rises up in places that are far enough away from cars and television sets and the rattle of everyday life.
In those childhood years, he and his friends would sometimes camp in the woods, and he’d walk back to his home in the early morning hours to get fresh eggs from the chicken coop to fry for breakfast. He could stay away from home for a few hours at a time without causing concern, riding his bike, playing with friends, and looking back he sees that the freedom he took for granted doesn’t exist in a child’s world today. At school, when he heard his teachers read aloud, he was mystified. “I thought writing was magic,” Jim says.
So, the love of these two things, nature and storytelling, developed early in life.
Sixteen years ago, Jim took over as principal at the intermediate school in Alma, Arkansas. Part of the allure of the new position was how close the town is to the Ozark Highlands Trail, which starts at Lake Fort Smith State Park. After he and his family had moved, he hit the trails. Hiking brought new friends, and eventually, Jim started chronicling his journeys on his blog, Ozark Mountain Hiker.
The blog started as a way to keep track of his adventures. He took photos that kept getting better, and he began to gain followers. A few years ago, he started writing occasional hiking features for Do South® magazine. All this experience and a good dose of natural talent caused Menasha Ridge Press to come calling, asking Jim to write a trail guide for them.
Jim thought back to when he’d started hiking, and how nature photographer/writer Tim Ernst’s guides opened doors for him. On the trails, he’d consult his trail guide and marvel at Tim’s ability to describe, in such vivid detail, what Jim was seeing as he walked along.
So he said yes to the book. He initially felt a wave of trepidation, and then he remembered what his mother tells him. “When in doubt,” she says, “take a step.” And then he thought about the kids at Alma Intermediate, and what a gift it would be to show them that dreams do come true and that learning new things lasts a lifetime.
In mid-October, Jim’s book, Five-Star Trails: The Ozarks, debuts. Jim took the photos, hiked the featured trails at least twice, and carefully described every one of them. The book covers forty-three trails, split almost evenly between Arkansas and Missouri, and Jim can’t pick a favorite. He is excited, though, to share the Smith Creek Trail with readers, a place that is not as widely known. “I heard about that trail at a restaurant in Jasper, and it’s a little jewel on the Buffalo River.” Lake Alma Trail is another exciting chapter for Jim since it’s not been written up in any trail guide before.
On the cover of the book, is Jim’s dog, a black pup that adopted him while he and some friends were on the Ozark Highlands Trail. “This skin-and-bones dog came walking up on Mile 138,” Jim says, “and we did not have any interest in that dog. But she curled up and slept nearby, and the next morning she followed us at a distance, and it was cold. The second night we started feeding her tuna and beef jerky. She followed us for four more days, about forty-two miles or so, even crossing a creek with us, and when we arrived at the visitors center, we thought we’d find someone who wanted to take her home. When we got there, though, the center was closed because of a burst pipe.
“So I thought I’d bring her to Alma and give her away. When I came back home after hiking the OHT, my wife said, ‘You got a dog,’ and that kind of sealed things. And then I took her to the vet and she had two kinds of worms and had tick fever. She was about a year and a half old. She responded well to treatment, and she went from forty pounds to seventy. I call her my personal trainer. There are days when I don’t want to go around Lake Alma, but she’ll want to go. I named her Hiker.”
Jim smiles when he talks about his newest four-legged hiking buddy. He adds Hiker to a growing list of what this pastime has brought him. The friends he’s made are a joy. His health is good, and he’s been able to hike at the Grand Canyon, and just this summer the 211-mile Jim Muir Trail that runs from the Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, in California.
Asked what scares him while he’s off the beaten path and it’s not what you’d think. He’s only seen two black bears while hiking in Arkansas, and both were in quick retreat. His main concerns in his home state are dehydration and illnesses from ticks and mosquitoes. That’s his short and workable list.
As for what hiking has done for his spiritual life, it’s made him mindful. “You think clearer on a hike, away from the hustle-bustle. The things you’re thankful for are significant, and you have time to think about them. I’m so thankful, even if I’m tired. I think some of my gratefulness might stem back to my teenage years when I had to have corrective heart surgery. I’ll be climbing a steep incline at Lake Alma Trail, and I’ll just say to myself, I’m so thankful I’m getting to do this. I’m sixty-one, and I feel good. And when you take a picture, and it turns out good, you feel another level of thankfulness because you’ve gotten to capture that moment.”
Yes, hiking has done a lot for Jim Warnock. One of the best things is that he gets to share what he loves with other people. When his book comes out, he can’t wait to hear from readers who may find a new adventure because of the trails he’s written about. He can’t think of anything better, this man who embraces the untamed world and writes about it with the grace of a poet.
Best fall color hikes in our region of Arkansas:
White Rock Mountain Rim Trail
Redding Loop and Spy Rock Trail
For more visit Jim’s blog, OzarkMountainHiker.com.
Once it’s released, Jim’s book will be available at Chapters on Main in downtown Van Buren. He’ll be signing books there on Thursday, November 10 from 5-8pm, and on Saturday, November 12 from 11am-3pm.
You can also pre-order Five-Star Trails: The Ozarks at Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.