The Mark Twain National Forest includes 1.5 million acres spread out over 29 counties in southern Missouri. The Northern Route of the Trail of Tears passes through it in four different places. I had been looking forward to this section since I first mapped my course simply because I would be in the forest instead of farmland. Little did I know then that these public lands would be one of my few chances to pitch a tent on the whole three month trek. Finally, I was there and I hit it just right: I was going to get to properly backpack for three days and two nights in a row!
I started the first day in Caledonia and had a ways to go before getting to the forest boundary. There were a wide variety of four-legged fans watching me that day: miniature horses and painted ponies, sheep, goats and their kids, a pot-bellied pig and a little black calf that was born just moments before I arrived. That evening, I enjoyed a frosty night under a starry sky that was lit by a nearly full moon.
The second day brought one surprise after another. Walking down the road, I saw what looked like a memorial for a car crash victim – but it turned out to be the grave of an unknown soldier from the Civil War. Soon after, I crossed the Ozark Trail. When completed, it will be a non-motorized path starting in St. Louis and stretching 500 miles to the Arkansas border.
And speaking of that number… I walked my 500th mile just before 10 a.m.!
Continuing on, I found water flowing over the road in many places and each time I had take off my boots and socks to ford the creek. One crossing was so wide and deep that I lost feeling in my feet! At Huzzah Creek, I found a cabin on a piece of property known to be a TOT camp and burial site. It was nearly time to stop for the night, but I was in the town of Huzzah and everything looked privately owned. I asked a passerby if he knew where I could stay and he offered up the lawn at his church! It was another great night outdoors, though this one was much warmer and my zero-degree rated sleeping bag was really too toasty.
On the third day, I met many more nice and helpful people including Jay, a dozer-driver who came by just as I lost my way. He pointed me in the right direction and showed me the problem: kids are tired of smashing mailboxes and are now working on the street signs. Honestly, youth is truly wasted on the young! A few miles later, Carolyn pulled alongside me to chat for a while and then called the local newspaper. Amy from the Steelville Star came right out and we sat down at a pond for a quick interview.
When I finally got to Steelville, I found a big surprise, my wife had hooked up and pulled our travel trailer 60 miles over a mountain, all by herself. In the four years we’ve owned the trailer, this was the first time she’d tried either. Another milestone!
The 17-miles from Steelville to St. James were along Route 8 which was lightly travelled on this Sunday morning. I know it wasn’t, but it sure felt like the whole day was uphill! I plugged away, knowing that I was approaching two Certified Sites on the Trail of Tears.
The first was the Snelson-Brinker House. This two-room cabin was built in 1834, served as Crawford County’s first courthouse in 1835-36, and is the oldest structure remaining in the county. The property was a camp site for some of the Trail of Tears removal detachments in 1838-39 and is known to be the final resting place of four Cherokees.
The second certified TOT site was Maramec Spring. It’s the 5th largest spring in Missouri, gushing an average of 96 million gallons a day! In the 1830s, the swift water powered the nearby Massey Iron Works. Today, it’s the centerpiece of a park that’s popular for trout fishing and camping. It was a warm day, so I had to stop and take a drink, like I’m sure those who came before did.
Kristal wanted to see those sites with me, so she had been loitering around the area in our truck. Now she had a few hours to wait before picking me up in St. James. On her way back to town, she stopped to take a picture of a field of daffodils. The owner of the property came out, offered her a bouquet and suggested she stay and visit until I passed by. Kristal was treated to a tour of their property, a picturesque ranch that has been in the family for 99 years. She also got to see where a 1974 archaeological dig on the homestead found evidence of habitation dating back 6,000 years. Some of the artifacts are in the Meramec Spring Park museum and the dig site is now known as the “Verkamp Shelter” on the National Register of Historic Places. After that, they sat on the front porch swing, sipping Cokes and enjoying the first day of spring. When I got there, I also had a Coke and a nice chat with the Verkamp family before continuing up the hill.
An hour later came a moment I had been anticipating for what seemed like forever. If you look at a map of the Northern Route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, you’ll see that they walked a big rainbow across parts of six states. Well, St. James, MO, is the northernmost point on the Northern Route. I’ve been walking northwest across the map for over two months now, so when I arrived in downtown St. James I felt like I was on top of the world! Anyone who watched me make that left-hand turn after the train tracks didn’t think anything of it, but now I’m heading SOUTHwest – directly toward Arkansas and Oklahoma. I like to think: “It’s all downhill from here!”
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