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CHAPTER NINE ~ WINDY, WINDY, WIGGLY ROADS & A VISIT FROM A BEAR
From Bull Shoals, I drove to Withrow Springs State Park and then decided to take scenic highway 23 south. The views were breathtaking, and the road wound and wriggled its way through steep-sided mountains with thick, lush forest. I stopped at a hiking trailhead, thinking I’d go for a little walk along the Ozark Trail. There was a sign close to the trailhead warning that bears were present and hikers should make a lot of noise to warn them of their approach.
I set off down the trail, singing and making various noises, feeling like a woman of the world. The truth was I knew little about hiking in such areas as this, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the obnoxious number of mosquito’s that met me a few feet into the woods. They zoomed in on my white English flesh in a feeding frenzy of scary proportions. I’d walked maybe 60ft before I turned and fled back to the safety of my car, all the time swatting my face and hands. Out of the woods, the mosquitoes backed off but were replaced by the largest, scariest looking wasp I’d ever seen. He too seemed to think my white flesh was something to inspect. He chased me around my car and kept positioning himself between my body and the vehicle. Now I’m not one to panic around wasps and bees and the like, I’ve actually been known to talk to them, but this insect was different, he was mean! Finally, I managed to open my car door and jumped inside. Unfortunately, the wasp followed me inside, so I had to jump out again. Now the mean wasp was trapped inside, and I was at a loss what to do. It took me another ten minutes or so to get the rascal out of my vehicle. As I drove away, the stubborn insect actually followed my car until he couldn’t keep up with me any longer.
The stench of hot brakes emanated from my car as I drove down steeper windy roads, despite my putting the transmission in a lower gear. The drive was spectacular, and I loved the feel of being in the thick forest. I took 40W to 71N stopping along the way to look over the valley I had just traveled through. Green trees stretched out as far as I could see and a lake glistened in the sunlight. Compared to the cornfields of Indiana, this was an oasis of beauty.
Before camping that evening I needed to get some groceries and some gas for my car as the tank was almost on empty. The town I stopped at was barely a dot on the map. I pulled into the gas station, which was also the bar, store, café and local hang out. I was very conscious of the fact that mine was the only car in a parking lot full of rusty old pickup trucks, most of them sporting shotguns in their rear windows. I stepped into the store, and the breeze from the swinging door caused my pretty summer dress to flurry a little. Several grizzly looking faces looked up from their beer mugs, and all conversation seized.
Nervously I gazed around the room at the bearded faces and took in their attire of dirty jeans, plaid shirts, and greasy overalls. All eyes were on me and my first instinct was to turn and flee, but I’d already pumped the gas, and now had to pay for it.
I gulped and took a step toward the cooler, trying very hard not to meet any of those piercing eyes. The bare wood floors creaked as I crossed the room, and my hand quivered on the door handle. The swoosh of air escaping the cooler seemed very loud in the thick silence of the room. I reached inside and took out a single can of beer and some sausage links, which was the closest food item to hand. There were some sandwiches nearby and I grabbed one, not looking at the label.
Over my shoulder, a throaty, rumbling grunt escaped the lips of a large man sitting on a stool as he twisted his head my way to watch. I closed the cooler door and moved swiftly to the counter, slapping the items down.
The man behind the counter didn’t greet me with words nor look at my face, instead, he stared down at the items and added them up in his head. “$17.50 with the gas,” he said, while still looking down at the counter, and I handed him $18.00. I didn’t bother to wait for the change. “Drive safe,” the man said, as I turned to flee, and his voice sounded menacing. Outside I jumped into my car, locked the doors, and hit the gas pedal, a flurry of dust clouded my rear view as I sped away.
Devils Den State Park was my next stop. It was located deep in the forest, very rugged and wild. This was my wildest camp spot yet, and I was a little scared despite there being a couple of other campers nearby. When I chose my spot, I threw my tent on the ground to claim it then drove around all the other sites, collecting leftover wood. I had a nice big pile by the time I was done, leaving the other campers to scavenge in the woods. This time when I saw eyes peering at me from the darkness as I sat by my fire, I didn’t quiver in fear, instead I called softly to the animal, and sure enough, a lone dog came cautiously into my camp. He sat a distance from me, sharing the warmth of my fire. I enjoyed the companionship and it allowed me to talk aloud, without seeming crazy. The dog vanished as silently as he came, and I crawled under my feather quilt feeling content with the world.
In the morning, I decided to explore Devils Den Cave. A short walk through oak and hickory trees led me to the entrance of a narrow cave that appeared to be a crack in the mountainside. The brochure told me it extended 535 feet into the hillside. I stepped inside and was immediately engulfed by darkness. From deep in the cave strange noises drifted to my ears, and it took me a few moments to realize it was the sound of people talking. When they came out, I asked them what it was like.
“It’s cool man, a little scary. You have to crawl at one point.”
“Uh, Oh! Well, maybe I’ll just go a little way.”
The group vanished, and I stepped outside trying to decide if I wanted to go it alone. Then a woman came up and peered in the cave. She had a flashlight, and I asked her if she wanted to go in together, but she declined, saying no way she was going in there, even with someone. I stood around outside for a while, but it seemed that rush hour was over, and I was all alone.
Okay, honey, you want adventure, you want to feel alive, well, here’s your chance. I climbed into the cave and started to inch forward. Twenty steps, forty. I turned off my flashlight so I could absorb the darkness around me. It was as black as a witch’s cauldron. I forced myself to stand still for a minute, breath in the smell of damp rocks and listen to the echo of my breathing. I reached out my hand and touched the sheer, vertical wall. It was cold and slimy and I withdrew my hand sharply. Turning on my flashlight again, I inched forward, twisting sideways through some narrow areas. Now it started to get creepy as I heard the sound of pattering feet and flapping wings above me. When I pointed my flashlight up to the ceiling, I inadvertently disturbed the bats, and they started to fly around above my head. At the same time, I saw the tail of a rat on a ledge inches above my head. That was enough, trying to stay calm and forcing myself to breathe I quickly fled the cave. No way was I going any further on my own!
“Yeeeeeeeeeeee,” I screamed once I was out in daylight again, I shivered and brushed rat turds off my shoulders. It felt like I had crawly things all over my body and did a little dance, trying to dislodge the imaginary things. “Ugh!”
Once I got over the heebie-jeebies, I continued along the trail. The Boston Mountains are made up of Atoka sandstone and shale, in layers over 1500 feet thick, formed when this region was beneath the sea. Now I walked along trails that led by sandstone cliffs, dotted with caves previously occupied by Native Americans many years ago. It was wonderful to be around such ruggedness after the cornfields of Indiana. I’d grown up in the Victorian town of Macclesfield in Cheshire, England. Macclesfield is located at the base of the Pennine Chain in Derbyshire, a row of hills that are very rugged and rocky. I’d climbed and explored them for the first 21 years of my life, and had viewed them from my bedroom window through most of my childhood and teen years. Now I felt comfortable amidst these rocky crags and hummed happily as I bounced along the trail taking in everything around me.
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch provided enough energy for another walk in the woods. A steep climb left me gasping for breath but rewarded me with a spectacular view of the Ozarks from Yellow Rock. Sitting on the most jagged, jutting out boulder I could find along this rocky bluff, I drank in the beauty around me. How healing it was to sit and watch the vultures circling on the air currents, soaring high above this ravine with its crystal waters rushing way beneath my feet. It was so beautiful and I was so light with happiness I felt as though I could fly from that perch and land unharmed. Tuning into the sounds around me, awarded me with pleasing bird songs, crickets chirping and leaves rustling as the gentle breeze knocked them from their tentative grasp on the branch, and stirred them into a gentle waltz. The sound of the water drifted up and lulled me into a blissful trance.
Back on the trail, I walked silently, hoping to see a wild turkey. I’d never see a wild turkey, and for some reason it seemed very important not to miss this chance now. I searched the woods with my eyes, straining to hear anything moving in the undergrowth and was concentrating so hard that when I heard a piercing scream up ahead, I practically jumped out of my skin. What the heck! That was a human scream, is someone being attacked. Eaten. Uh oh! I wasn’t sure what to do, turn around and flee, but what if someone needed help. Cautiously I continued along the trail until I heard the sounds of a child sobbing. The family was standing on a wooden bridge and consisted of a woman in her forties, a small girl who was crying, and a boy about nine years old. The boy was holding his finger up high, wailing and sobbing as blood poured profusely from a deep cut. The mother, in a state of panic, looked through her pack for something to wrap around the wound and kept yelling at the boy to quit bawling and keep his hand up high.
I glanced around and noticed a knife lying on the bridge. Just above it, in the bridge railing was the freshly carved initial, B, the bottom part of the B was missing because the knife had slipped in the wood and embedded itself in the boy’s finger instead.
“Can I do anything to help?” I asked calmly.
“Oh dear, do you have anything to wrap this with. He’s going to bleed to death.”
“I doubt that it probably looks worse than it is.” I reached into my pack, brought out a tissue and handed it to the boy so he could wrap his finger, but mom snatched it from me and inspected it first.
“This isn’t good,” she fretted, “We’re a long way from the hospital. He’ll need stitches. He’s bleeding so much, and who knows what kind of germs were on that knife.”
I took the boys hand and looked at the cut, he would need stitches, but he wasn’t going to bleed to death. “I see you were cutting your initials in the wood, what’s your name? Billy, Brent?” I smiled at him ignoring the fussing woman.
“Yea, my names Billy, how’d you guess?”
I pointed to the carving, picked up the knife and closed the blade. Just then, a man appeared on the trail.
“I don’t know which way is the right way,” he said to the woman, “All these trails look the same.” Then he noticed me and held his hand out for the knife, which I handed over dutifully. “Stupid kid,” he mumbled.
“I can show you the way, and I have bandages and hydrogen peroxide in my car if you want to use them.”
The family looked relieved and we set off down the trail, Billy walking alongside me. I asked him about his hike and told him about mine, keeping his mind off his injury and his parents and little sister who was a good distance behind us. Every time his mother snapped at Billy in her high pitched, too fussy voice, he got upset and noticed his finger all over again, but with his mind distracted, he forgot his pain. By the time we reached the parking lot, the blood flow had slowed and Billy was ready to go and look at the awesome bluff I’d told him all about.
Mom and dad, however, wanted to go directly to the hospital and refused my offer of peroxide. They headed to the car, forgetting to thank me, and took off a little faster than necessary.
“Well, thank you too,” I mumbled aloud. I’d cut my walk short for them, and Billy had scared away every living creature for miles.
Back at camp, I went on another hunt for firewood around some spots that had been vacated while I was hiking. I smiled at an older couple just starting a fire and they asked me where I was from. I told them the usual story about leaving my husband, and they wished me good luck. They looked to be in their seventies, so I was a little surprised to see they had a tent rather than a camper. The gentleman had a very strong British accent and called the lady “Miss,” at which she blushed every time. I got the distinct feeling that I was interrupting some sort of romantic rendezvous, so left them alone, surprised to find that I too was blushing.
Now the campground was filling up, and soon I had a neighbor. A young woman came over and asked if I’d be willing to share some of my wood with her and her husband. In exchange, they invited me to share dinner with them. While chowing down on tamales, I decided I liked the barter system. We didn’t visit for long, as I sensed that this couple also wanted to be alone. They sat holding hands by the fire and barely noticed when I left. With all this romance going on around me, I expected to feel lonely, but I’d met so many different, friendly people, I’d not had a chance to feel lonely yet.
The temperatures that night dropped, and when I ran out of firewood, I crawled under my feather quilt with flashlight and book in hand. The book I was reading captured my sense of adventure. It was about a woman who rode her bicycle all around the world, on her own. She slept in a bivy sack, whatever that is, I wondered and carried everything she needed in two little panniers. She slept in fields alongside roads, rode up mountains in the snow, traveled around Europe and much of the world, all on her own, on a bicycle. She didn’t even have the luxury of a car or a tent, like me.
With so many people in camp that night, I felt safer than previous nights. I fell asleep while reading my book and snacking on some potato chips. The book fell from my hands and I barely found the energy to turn off my flashlight before drifting off to la la land.
It was the crunching noise that woke me. At first, my foggy brain couldn’t quite grasp what it was hearing. Then I heard a loud grunt, and the fog cleared as though it had been sucked up into a super-powered vacuum. Once again, I found myself frozen in place, holding my breath and quivering uncontrollably. Whatever is out there is no camp dog. This thing is big. I decided to risk moving a little to reach for my knife. What I expected to do with it wasn’t clear, maybe cut my way out of the tent and run like hell, should it try to come in. As I turned, I heard a plasticky kind of rustle and realized I’d fallen asleep with the potato chips at my side. “Oh shit!” I exclaimed between my teeth, as the crunching noise ceased, and I felt the bruin’s mass focus on my little tent.
I wondered if maybe I should throw the chips out of the tent, or yell, or do something. However, other than holding my now pathetic little knife in my quivering hand, I could not get my body to move to any sort of mental command at all. Just the act of breathing seemed like a huge undertaking at this moment.
Then the heavy plod, plod of the bear’s huge paws headed my way, and a loud sniffing noise came just inches from my tent. I managed to move some of my quilt over the potato chips, as though that would lessen the scent of them. The sniffing grew louder and faster, and I focused my vision on the inside of my tent right at the spot I knew the bear would come in. I could see his snarling face, envision his huge claws tearing apart my flimsy shelter, I was transfixed with fear.
Then the sniffing stopped and for one second that felt like an eternity, I waited for the end to come, but to my surprise, the next sounds I heard, were the retreating, plodding steps of the bear as he turned, and walked away.
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