words and image: Jim Warnock
“Oh my!” Kathy yelled with a panicked crack in her voice. Scott and Kathy were part of a group at mile sixty-four of the Ozark Highlands Trail when the unthinkable happened. The left sole of Kathy’s shoe came apart, bringing her to an abrupt halt. We huddled around like paramedics taping a wound but with duct tape. About one mile later, the sole once again flapped annoyingly, putting the success of the three-day backpacking trip in doubt.
Shortly, we came to where the trail crossed a dirt road. Hanging from a barbed wire fence was a dust-covered hiking shoe. Kathy leaned forward, staring at the suspended shoe. A slight smile formed as she saw that it was the same model and size as the now soleless shoe on her left foot. She continued down the trail with two perfectly good different color hiking shoes and completed the three-day trip. From that day forward, I began to notice that what we need is often found on the trails we walk.
While walking in Missouri’s Devil’s Backbone Wilderness Area during a dry fall, I was running low on water. Just as I was reaching the point of great concern, my dog located a small seep at the base of a rocky bluff. As I filtered the murky water, I penciled “Devil’s Seep” onto my map where the trail provided just what I needed, when I needed it.
On an Ozark Highlands Trail backpacking trip, my only eating utensil broke while I was cooking. I wouldn’t starve but did not look forward to eating with my fingers. While making camp that same evening, a buddy noticed a piece of silver metal sticking out of the sand next to Lynn Hollow Creek. It was the handle of a spoon probably dropped there by a hiker or hunter years before. Yes, the trails provide.
In 2001, Hyper-Feet, his trail name because of his fast pace, invited me to join a group of six for a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. Thus began an expanding circle of friendships that still endures. We learned that slow and steady is best for Grand Canyon hiking. Hyper-Feet spent several hours recovering from heat exhaustion before finally climbing out on Bright Angel Trail with his new trail name. After surviving the heat of that June trip, we revisited the Canyon in winter. Later, we sought out trails in Colorado, New Mexico, and California.
Hyper-Feet has had health challenges over the last few years, making it difficult for him to walk the trails. His wife contacted me and asked if I could help him experience hiking again since he was gaining some strength. I contacted another mutual friend (trail name, Wishbone) from those early trips and learned that neither of them had visited the Marinoni Scenic Area west of the little town of Cass in the Ozarks. Wishbone got his name because on one of his first hiking trips, he carried a whole roasted chicken for lunch and had to tote the leftover bones in his pack for the remainder of the day.
Though we hadn’t seen each other in months, we were best buddies the instant our feet hit the trail. We talked about previous trips while oohing and aahing at beautiful moss-covered rock formations framing Briar Branch. We’d never walked this trail together, but every scene brought memories to mind from earlier trips.
Hyper-Feet, now walking a slower pace, would occasionally pause and say, “This is great, so beautiful! Thank you for this!” He’d hesitate as if unable to describe the awe-inspiring scenes or what he was feeling. We smiled and followed his eyes high into the swaying tree canopy, rich with fall colors.
On our walk that day in the Marinoni, we found hope for our friend as he sought to improve his health and we renewed friendships formed on trails over time. While sharing stories of shoe soles, spoons, and water found at just the right time, we realized the most precious and lasting things our trails provide are friendships.
Fall is a great time to step onto the trails right here in the Ozarks and build friendships as you walk. The bonds you form will be strong, and the trails will provide exactly what you need.
Recommended Trails in Our Region
Shepherd Spring Loop at Lake Fort Smith State Park
Devil’s Den Yellow Rock Loop
Marinoni Scenic Area
Lake Alma Trail (to the waterfall and back)
For descriptions and maps of these trails and many more, pick up a copy of Jim Warnock’s trail guidebook, Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, available at Bookish and The Woodsman in Fort Smith and Chapters on Main in Van Buren. Follow along on Jim’s adventures at OzarkMountainHiker.com.