“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Along the holy pilgrimages in Tibet, known as Koras (སྐོར་ར), you will often see little rock piles that mark the path. Every few feet there is unmistakable evidence of those who walked before you.
It is not the responsibility of any one person to create the piles, bur rather each person that passes at some point adds a rock until some of them become massive (or so we observed). One stone at a time they become evidence both of the path and all those you share it with. It was a fascinating discovery.
Fast forward a bit…
As I’ve said before, I did not want my return to the States to mark the end of a life of travel. Naturally, after six incredibly busy months, it was time for new adventure. Last week, I found myself following trails of a different kind in the dense woods of the Mark Twain National Forest near St. Louis, Missouri.
However, this time we would not be spending grueling hours on buses with barfing people, hopping from city to city. We had planned it all out: meet at the designated location, strap everything we would need onto our backs (water included), hit the trail knowing we wouldn’t see people for a few days, and get some much needed time in nature. What could go wrong? Right…?
Well, the honest answer is everything.
Ever heard of Murphy’s Law?
“Anything that can go wrong, will.”
Well, needless to say it was closer to that than to what we originally planned.
After our respective six hour drives from Oklahoma and Illinois, we spent an additional hour driving around looking for each other due to lack of cell service inside the park. Once we settled the issue of being lost, we parked our cars at each end of the trail for any just-in-case situations, toted our gear, and set off into the wild!
The first day went without hiccup, and we were able put in 4 miles ending with a view that was well worth the walk. After dinner, card games, and a restless night dreaming of cheetahs harassing our campsite, things became a little more complicated. I think the cheetah was warning me now that I think about it.
It only took two miles walking to meet up with the main branch of the Ozark Trail the next day. At first I thought it was curious that the sign was pointing in only one direction, as the map indicated there should have been a T-crossing. I mean, there was. Only, one pointed toward to Bell Mountain, which we had just come from, and the other to the Ozark Trail. Since we planned on meeting the with the latter we chose that. There was supposed to be water in about 3 miles, so we made that our next goal. We had rationed our water from the day before to last, but only for the morning.
The miles went on and the hours slipped by. At one point we found ourselves in some rain that escalated into a full-on thunderstorm that had us running for cover. Occasionally Alex would ask how far we had gone and I would try to guesstimate where we were and tell her. Every time she commented that it felt like we had gone further. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that we reached the creek.
The sound of running water had never sounded so glorious to our ears.
We took a much needed break tending to blisters and filling our bellies with both food and water, knowing that we would have to get some more distance in before the day’s end. There was another creek in 2 miles, so we planned to camp there. However, when we set off again the trail went curiously uphill and continued that way for what seemed forever. We both found it odd, but kept going. Finally, when we could walk no further and found nothing more than a few stagnant pools we set up camp. The map had indicated that we would arrive at another reliable source, but we had nothing left to give and were exhausted. There was nothing left except to call it a day and make due.
That night, it was not a cheetah that harassed me, but rather ants. They were not kind enough to exist only in my dreams. They were in my tent, my gear, even my sleeping bag. I think I’m correct in saying they made off with small pieces of me too, judging from the bites all around my ankles. It was not a pleasant night, and I knew it would probably be another grueling day of wading through dense underbrush and combating an endless series of spiders whose pastime was setting up webs at the eye-level of weary travelers.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the weather had improved and stayed cool for much of the next morning. Using my filter we salvaged some water from the small, sitting pools and moved on, more than eager to flee from the ant-infested site.
Spirits lifted and packs slowly lightening we weren’t too bothered by the continued incline, until we came to an unexpected T. There wasn’t one marked on the map. It was then that I realized we had gone in the wrong direction. A whole series of realizations came flooding into my brain: a) it explained the compass pointing southeast more than northwest, b) it explained why the “reliable” water source had looked so parched, and c) it explained the seemingly endless incline.
I mentioned before that it seemed like we had walked further than what I was estimating. Well, on the second day I had estimated we walked 7 miles by trying to make what we had seen match up with the map. In reality we had gone 10, across terrain classified as “difficult,” with no map for reference. A call to headquarters set us to the nearest trialhead 3.5 miles away. Fortunately, at the end there was a campsite in addition to a shuttle on standby. It ended up being a lucky break. Moments after we were dropped off at my vehicle, a damaging windstorm tore through the area knocking limbs from trees and spinning up mini dust-nadoes.
Given our early end on the trail, we returned to the other car by the lake, cautiously avoiding falling branches and limbs on the road. It rained throughout the evening, which encouraged us to camp in the dry comfort of Alex’s SUV, where we reflected on our trip over an hour’s worth of card games.
Despite the difficulties I made one worthwhile discovery. Granted it was not the only one, but it lingers in a profound way.
On the second day, there came a point where I began to notice little rock piles where the trees were too scarce to hang signs marking the trial. In true Tibetan fashion, Alex and I occasionally picked up a rock and added it to an existing pile. In that moment, I was immediately reminded of Tibet, and of the kora (of sorts) that we had ventured on then. I realized that it was a camaraderie not only of those who had walked the trail before us, but of all those around the world who share the experience of the journey. Any journey. There was not amazing destination at either end of our hike (neither in the right direction or the wrong), but it was about all of the in-between moments. The inexplicable elixir of expansive vistas, the renewed appreciation that came with the discovery of water, and most importantly of embracing the fact journeying is for all. Not just millennials who make it a priority, or people who can afford it. Not only Buddhist monks on a sacred walk, or local herders.
Everyone. Make your own.
Until next time!