When my co-worker, Paul, came into my office several months ago with a sly grin on his face, I had a hunch he had something up his sleeve. An avid backpacker over the past decade, Paul has been known to disappear for weeks at a time to solo hike the Ozark Highlands Trail or the Ozark Trail. Since it was August, I knew he was busy planning his annual fall hike and I had an inkling that maybe I was about to get invited to come along.
Man, I’m good at reading minds.
Paul was mapping out a trek along the Ozark Trail – cramming 125 miles of trail into just 7 days. There was a stretch of his journey that he needed a re-supply bucket, and asked if Mike and I would be available to deliver it to him when he reached Himont Trailhead. And… if we were up to it… we could hike the last twenty-two miles with him.
I’m lucky to have an office right across from Paul’s at work, and as I’ve begun to learn how to backpack, I am constantly peppering him with newbie questions. What better way to learn from the master than to join him on a hike?
Without even consulting Mike, I told him we would most definitely deliver his re-supply bucket and we would be SO EXCITED to hike the last portion of the trail with him.
In my excitement, I failed to realize that I was in effect agreeing to cover TWENTY TWO miles of trail with him in TWO DAYS. I mean… I’m no math genius, but that’s ELEVEN MILES A DAY – on very hilly terrain – with PACKS ON OUR BACKS. And, since we’re newbies, our packs are heavy. I would realize this about halfway through our first day of hiking…
But, more on that later.
In the weeks before our hike, I made checklists and gathered everything we needed. Mike gifted me a two-person backpacking tent for my birthday, and we had lots of gear from our first backpacking trip and adventure elopement. The only thing left to procure was food and a sleep system. I was able to borrow a couple of (heavy) sleeping bags, and we purchased a couple of Klymit insulated sleeping pads on Amazon to add to our stash.
I visited the local Alpine Shop and chose a few freeze dried meals, extra water bottles, and a couple of stasher bags that could contain our morning oatmeal. It’s pretty difficult for me to find breakfast options with my food restrictions (dairy & egg allergy + celiac), so mixing up my own special oatmeal in these silicone containers would work perfectly.
To prepare physically prepare ourselves, we took my daughter and her friend out to Painted Rock Conservation area one week before our trip to test out our fully loaded packs on an easy two mile trail. It was a harsh reminder that this challenge with Paul was NOT going to be easy. Our packs felt HEAVY!
When the day of departure finally arrived, our packs were fully stocked with food and water. Though we were both a little nervous, we were excited to see Paul and embark on our journey with him.
Himont Trailhead is located in the Roger Pryor Backcountry south of Bunker, Mo., and to get to it, we drove down highway 63 to Rolla, highway 72 to Salem, and then highway 32/72 until turning off on some gravel roads. Before leaving civilization and cell service range, we stopped at Subway in Salem to pick up some dinner for us and for Paul. We figured after roughing it for days on end, he’d appreciate a meaty sandwich.
The windy roads through Dent County rise and fall through beautiful country. The fall colors were in full array, and having lived in Salem as a youngster, I felt at home.
When we arrived at Himont, Paul wasn’t there. And in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, it was impossible to contact him. I started to worry, but after a few minutes of nail biting, he finally appeared. Apparently, he arrived before we did and was worried that we got lost and went around looking for us. We were so relieved to find each other!
It was getting close to sunset, so we set up our tents and gathered wood for the fire. We munched on dinner, and Paul happily sipped on his fifth of Jim Beam he found stashed in his re-supply bucket. He was already 100 miles into his solo-trip, and I’m sure a little bourbon and some company did wonders for his soul.
As darkness grew, we sat by the fire and discussed our plans for the next two days. We agreed on a time to start hiking in the morning and settled in our tent for a much needed night’s rest.
The next morning, we busied ourselves with breakfast and prepping for the day ahead. My homemade oatmeal bowl was so tasty! It included a pack of instant gluten-free oatmeal, a few dried blueberries and apples, plus a pinch of cinnamon, and salt.
To prepare it, I emptied it into a Stasher bag, poured boiling water on top, stirred, and waited a few moments. Pretty soon, it was rehydrated and ready to be drizzled with a packet of Justin’s almond butter. Yum!
Before we knew it, 9:00 rolled around and we needed to get GOING. We had at least ten miles to cover, and I knew it was going to be difficult.
Paul led the way. We were off at a pretty good clip, and I was impressed at how much ground we covered in the first couple of hours. Our legs were fresh, attitudes high, and I was LOVING being out in the woods. I kept stopping to take pictures of the fall leaves – they were gorgeous! The views of the tree covered hills in the distance reminded me of a patchwork quilt filled with autumn colors of orange, yellow, green, and deep red. My soul lit.
As we passed rock outcroppings and caverns, I dilly-dallied with my phone. I wanted to capture everything and to remember how amazing it felt to travel through such beautiful, secluded scenery.
After a few miles, it was difficult to keep up with Paul. All picture taking and reveling in nature’s beauty ceased. My attention turned to maintaining my pace and energy. Mike was struggling too. The steep ascents were painfully long – exposing our lack of conditioning. Physically and mentally.
As I was struggling up one particular hill, I had an epiphany. Back in my old endurance-training days (half marathon, Bike MS, and a sprint triathlon), I used music to pace and distract my mind.
Swimming laps, it was always Ravel’s Bolero. The steady beat of the snare drum lick (if you know, you know) was the perfect tempo for my strokes and breaths.
Instantly, a song came to mind that coordinated perfectly with my footsteps. I soon realized that as long as my feet hit the ground in time with the song, I could keep going. Whether my strides were short on a steep uphill or longer on a level stretch, steady plodding did the trick.
Something else I noticed was that even though I struggled physically to round the top of a hill, once I reached the summit, my heart rate recovered rapidly. I could thank the cardio training I’d been doing during the months prior.
Mike didn’t fare as well. About six or seven miles into the day, I noticed his mental state plummeting. He struggled even on level ground, and the ascents were nearly impossible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so discouraged. It’s just not like him.
Paul found a spot for us to rest and reassess. Rain was moving in, and to give us enough time to set up before it washed us out, we would need to camp just short of our distance goal for the day. This meant a longer hike the following day – something Mike and I could barely fathom. If at all.
After we ate, stretched and rolled out our feet, we pushed through the last few miles to our camp at Big Creek. Relief washed over me as I spotted the flowing water. A signal that our grueling day was almost over.
We crossed the creek and climbed up to our camp – a flat grassy area with plenty of fallen logs to perch upon. Quickly, we pitched our tents, filtered water and cooked dinner. As soon as we did, the rain started to invade, and we happily retreated to our tents to call it a night.
The thing about sleeping in a tent while it’s raining is that if it isn’t well-ventilated, it will rain inside too. It was an uncomfortable (and smelly) night trying to stay dry in our stuffy tent. We must have, because before long, a drippy dawn opened my eyes to remind me that we had more hiking to do.
As I lay on my sleeping pad listening to Mike’s snores, I had an urgent call from, well… nature. Before the trip, I was certain that I could will my bowels to a standstill – you know, until we could find a flushing toilet, but wide-eyed at the crack of dawn, I cursed myself for choosing the Mexican dinner pouch last night. Such a rookie move.
Admitting defeat, I pulled myself out of the tent and stumbled around with my trowel and toilet paper until I found a sufficient spot. How humiliating. As I squatted for my very first backwoods poo, I silently (and fervently) prayed the boys wouldn’t wake up.
It was a weirdly empowering experience. I felt like a bad ass (pardon my pun) participating in something humans (and all of God’s creatures) have done for thousands upon thousands of years. Outside. On the ground.
All I’m saying? Don’t knock it till you try it. (And also, please dig a hole, cover it up, and DON’T bury your t.p.)
Once the boys emerged, we coaxed our sore bodies through the morning – eating breakfast, packing, and pumping ourselves up for the hike ahead. The twelve mile stretch to Echo Bluff State Park seemed impossible. Praying for a miracle, we hoisted on our packs and took our places behind Paul.
At first, I was surprised at how easily my legs loosened up. Paul managed our expectations by telling us up front that we had three big hills to climb for the day. I carried my tactics from the day before – breathing, stepping in time to a song in my head, and naming all of the things that were good. The rain had mostly stopped, and the temps climbed into the mid 50’s – perfect hiking weather.
And, at the summit of one of our climbs, I was finally rewarded with a view of the Current River. The teal blue beckoned me from below – I would’ve given my left toe in exchange for a kayak and a paddle…
The rest of the day was difficult. The scenery between Big Creek and Round Spring bored me. Trees… trees… more trees. Mike’s energy and morale nosedived through the midday hours, and I was caught trying to both keep up with Paul and making sure Mike was okay.
My least favorite part about weaving through the woods of river country, though, was the painful angle my ankles suffered while hiking on the sides of hills. At one point, Paul took an accidental short cut and we were hiking a steep down hill (it felt like the slope of a mountain), and I could barely keep my balance – even with trekking poles.
We took very few breaks – only so we could filter water and catch our breath. On one of our breaks about 5 or 6 miles in, we took stock of the situation.
Mike and I were ragged and tired – Paul needed to push faster to finish the hike so he could get back to his family. We were nearing an intersection with a trail that would go down into Round Spring Campground – cutting 2 to 3 miles off of our day.
At Paul’s suggestion, we decided that instead of pushing ourselves all the way to the end, Mike and I would turn down to Round Spring, while Paul continued the trek to Echo Bluff, retrieved his truck and came to rescue us at Round Spring.
I was a little bummed that we wouldn’t actually finish the mileage we set out to do – but it was absolutely the right call. We many reasons to be proud, including surviving two days of backpacking – our longest trip yet – AND covering just shy of ten miles each day. We learned SO much from Paul. We pushed ourselves physically and mentally. We worked through an uncomfortable situation together and still liked each other when it was done. And, at least for me, I came out of the situation knowing that it was something I’d definitely do again. If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is.
Crossing the long bridge over the Current River passing into Round Spring brought an immense sense of relief.
Awe of my body and what it can handle. Awe of my mind and what it can overcome. Awe of my life and these adventures I get to enjoy right here in my home state.
Sitting in the picnic area waiting for Paul’s rescue, I peeled off my smelly, damp burr-infested clothes and exchanged them for dryer, less prickly ones.
And, as Mike hobbled to the river to filter more water, I thought about how empowering it is to carry everything you need to survive on your back.
Sure, it’s heavy and cumbersome – and it can feel pretty painful. It’s not some Instagrammable fantasy – it’s grueling, and it sucks. We both walked bow-legged for a week after we got home. It’s just not sexy!
However, I’m starting to learn, that when I embrace the suck – when I accept it for what it is and then search for the beauty within it – I come out on the other side absolutely changed.
What’s more? I have a battle buddy who understands and can reminisce with me about our weekend in the trenches.
The big question is, do you think he’ll let me drag him on another backpacking trip? Only time will tell.