The whippoorwills perched in the trees above deafened us. The other sounds of the night on that pine-topped bluff—snakes after mice in the duff, the titter of nuthatches, and the footfalls of deer in the hardwood forest on the hill below us—disappeared under the whippoorwills. The calls haunted us. First one percussed far off across the valley where the creek crashed from recent rain. Another closer to us answered. The cacophony rose, each calling after the other. The birds in the trees above were so close we could hear the cluck that started the calls.
Nick stood up from the log where he was sitting to put more sticks on the fire. His movement upset the birds, which began to growl and caw, warning us from their territory. After they settled back down, they dove through the campsite just beyond the light of the fire, their presence no more than a whisper of wings on ether.
Nick’s face glowed in the light of the fire. Though night had fallen on us, I could see that he had gotten plenty of sun. He stared into the fire, expressionless, relaxed. This was his first time in the woods. We had gone camping plenty before in state parks with car bumper sites that pulled up to picnic tables and fire rings. But here in Paddy Creek Wilderness Area in the Mark Twain National Forest in south-central Missouri there were no amenities. We were in raw woods on the northern edge of the Ozark Plateau miles from the nearest road. Except for the whippoorwills, we were alone.
I’d been on this bluff above Little Paddy Creek for the first time thirty years before. I had never been in the distant woods without road, picnic table, or fire ring. I sat across the fire from Doug, a guy I worked with at a Kansas City liquor store. In our conversations in the beer cooler stocking shelves, he impressed me with his wide knowledge of the outdoors and he grasp of backpacking. When I asked him where he usually went on his trips, he explained that Missouri had seven National Forest wildernesses. They were areas in otherwise well-used forest left alone, left to grow or die or burn on their own. No cows grazed in them. Logging was off limits. They were not virgin or pristine forest, he explained, but pieces of remote national forest set aside for solitude and escape, where nature could take its course. The wilderness areas in Missouri had all been cut over or settled at one time or another. But from the time they were set aside, motorized transport—cars, motorcycles, ATVs—was prohibited. In fact, tools with motors were also disallowed. Rangers had to conduct their administrative and field work with hand tools. Anything could happen in these un-peopled realms. Nature had reclaimed what humans had taken. The animals had returned, flora that had languished under agricultural cultivation had made its comeback.
One night he told me he was going to Paddy Creek, would I like to come along?
When he brought me here, I was a novice. My only backpacking experience had been with a boy scout troop in the Rockies, a disastrous trip that ended with us lost in the Sangre de Christos and two scouts in the hospital on the edge of death with giardia. With Doug, I wore the same backpack I used on that scouting adventure a decade before. My sleeping bag, a flannel-and-canvas model weighed in at almost nine pounds. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I stuffed my pack with all sorts of things I didn’t need—extra jeans and shirts and shoes and canned goods.
Fortunately for me, camp-savvy Doug had unpacked my bag and discarded the things I would not need for a weekend in the woods. We stood in my basement apartment and he asked if he could see how much my packed weighed. He lifted it with a groan. “My god,” he said. As I watched, he opened my pack and pitched the canned beans and chili, and replaced it with freeze-dried meals made specifically for backpacking.
We drove down from Kansas City to Roby, Missouri, on a Friday evening after work. Miles of hardwood forest lined the ribbon of pavement beyond Fort Lenard Wood. We wound around and between steep rises and leveled off into broad valleys. Night had fallen when we turned off Missouri 17 and hit a gravel road into the dark forest. We parked a few miles in where the road ended in a circle. In the moonlight, I could just make out Roby Lake, a small body of water just beyond a stand of woods. Picnic tables and fire grills on poles stood under the trees.
I thought we’d make camp at the park at the trailhead and hike into the wilderness the next morning. Doug parked the car, got out, and donned his backpack. I was puzzled and a little frightened. Where are we going? I asked.
“We’re hiking in,” he said. “You don’t think we’re going to stay here, do you?”
I looked around. It seemed fine to me. But shoving my uncertainty and fear behind a façade of manly assuredness, I pulled on my pack too. I flipped on my flashlight and made ready to go.
“We shouldn’t really use thee flashlights,” he said as we crossed the road and walked through a gate into a large field. The woods loomed over the far edge of the meadow. “You can see better without the light.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“When your eyes adjust, you can see farther into the woods than with the light on. When the light’s on, you only see where the light falls. It’s better to walk without the light.”
He couldn’t see the puzzlement in my face. But I took up behind him as we lit off across the field. We entered the edge of the woods and walked through another gate.
“You can feel the trail beneath your feet,” Doug said in a quiet voice, the woods looming over us and making us feel small. “You can feel when you wander off. The ground will be softer and you’ll hear yourself walking through the undergrowth.”
In the moonlight falling through the canopy, I could see Doug in front of me. I was frightened but decided to put my faith in him. He knew what he was doing, I reasoned. I’ll just learn as I went along.
The forest smelled of wet leaves and stone. It was quiet but for whippoorwills in the distance. We hiked for what seemed like a long time, the trail weaving between rough hills and along creek drainages. The fear I was holding inside began to abate and I wondered what I had been so scared of. I found that, indeed, I could see into the forest. Things weren’t distinct or definite, but I soon found that navigating at night was a different skill and I took it up quickly. Every now and then, we spooked a deer, that whipped off through the leaves to join others now fleeing. Off in the distance came a scream. A shiver ran down my spine and into my boots. Hair stood up on my neck.
“Bobcat,” Doug said.
Settled again, I hiked behind Doug. We were quiet. His boots scrunched on the stone. Once in a while, Doug would give me a direction—“Left here . . . “ “Bear right here . . . “ I felt like I was playing along with a game, not knowing where we were going or how long it would take to get there.
The trail zigzagged up the side of the hills and then down again to follow the banks of intermittent stream that now had no water in them. We made a steep climb, winding left and right, until we came out on top of a long ridge. The forest changed quickly from hardwoods to pine. The gravelly trail turned into limestone. Soon, Doug slowed down and said, “We’re here.”
He took his pack off and set it next to a fallen pine. He beckoned me to follow him after I rested my pack against the tree.
“We’ve come three miles,” he said. “This is what I want to show you.”
The pines opened to the top of a bluff. We looked out over treetops, the moonlight laying silver on the dell below. I could see where the bottoms let out to hills in the distance. The whippoorwills were the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.
“Little Paddy Creek,” he said.
The sound or water coursing through the limestone lifted from the bottoms below. Behind us the limestone spread out on a plateau wider than a football field. Pine needles covered the stone. We sat down at the edge of the bluff and shared a tipple of fine brandy from his flask.
We stayed there a long time, taking in the night. I felt no urgency, no need to hurry to do anything. Our time was our own.