I cut like a ship through oceans of spider webs. Taking up the lead on the trail, I set the pace on the rough trails littered with chert, sandstone, and flint. We hiked through sere creek beds, empty of streams at this time of year, and up through bottomlands lush with tall grasses. Mounting rocky hillsides, the trail ascended to long ridges where mature forest opened only occasionally to sky.
Our journey constituted something of a swansong. For years now, Nick and I have made trips to the wilds. We have been backpacking, canoeing, and fishing. Yellowstone, Oregon, the Missouri River. I can’t recall all the places we’ve been over the last 14 years he’s been with us.
But now he’s 18. In less than a month, he starts college. He’ll live at home but will be making new friends and exploring facets of life yet presented to him. The close father-son relationship we have now will change. Likely, he and I will not have the opportunity to take off for the woods for a while until I’ve become old.
So, this moment was ours and we functioned as a highly efficient duo. We packed our backpacks on Sunday night, reducing our choices of camp equipment to necessities. Since we had to carry our own water, about six liters each, we needed to be as light as possible.
We didn’t rush to get on the road on Monday, easy with the knowledge that we would have a safe and snug camp spot no matter where we wound up. We arrived at the Big Piney Trailhead in the Paddy Creek Wilderness (just south of Fort Leonard Wood) after a four-hour drive through driving rain. Neither of us worried much about hiking in the downpour. Our ponchos were ready, our packs water-resistant.
Out of the car, we donned our raingear standing among nickel-sized drops falling in curtains. But almost as soon as we set off on the trail, the rain stopped and soon we’d dropped our packs to get out of our ponchos. The heat was already on us and we knew that the five or six miles ahead of us would be hard but good ones.
We have been to Paddy Creek before, but not for several years. I’d earned enough leave at the Post Office for a week away, and I needed a break from what I have now termed the “bag factory.” The vacation time, I figured, would be a good time for Nick and I to get away. Paddy Creek came naturally to mind. I first went into the wilderness in 1983 or 1984, shortly after Congress deemed these 7,000 acres of the Mark Twain National Forest a wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. This move preserved the Paddy Creek watershed, a tributary to the Big Piney River.
Once underway, I encountered an interesting if not pleasant fact of trail life. Spiders weave their webs across the open space above the forest path. Nick has a crippling case of arachnophobia and could not lead us through the forest. I took up at the head of our tiny expedition and pulled spider webs from my face and glasses for the next three days.
When we’d made our goal for the day, Nick had his eyes peeled for a good campsite.
“What about here?” he said, pointing to a copse of tall shortleaf pines in the thick oak-and-hickory forest. “The floor is clear and open. There looks to be plenty of wood for a fire and a place for the tent.”
“If you think this is where we ought to spend the night, it’s good enough for me.”
We set off our packs and went to work. Planning to sleep in the open air, we decided to pitch the tent in case it decided to rain in the night. Since we’d left the car, the day had been hot and clear, but we had no way of knowing whether the rain would return. After wrangling the tent, we set our canvas, self-inflating mattresses, and bedrolls in a comfortable spot in the duff. I commenced to cooking dinner and Nick gathered wood.
It was only about 7 p.m. and we had plenty of time. I set to reading and Nick took up wandering the forest, exploring what it held for us. He chose a spot and cleared it of pine needles and built a fire, a small one.
“We’ll have to keep it small,” he said. “Regrettably. But these pine needles are like paper. We don’t want to start a forest fire.”
He pulled a deck of cards from his pack. “Game?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s your poison?”
“I don’t know, what do you think?”
I wasn’t in the mood for cards, being deep in my book. But these moments are few. “How about gin?”
“Good enough for me,” he said. He sat on his mattress and dealt cards. He won five hands in a row.
When night fell, we turned on our headlamps, read a little more. Our eyes began to snap shut.
All around us forest sounds, rhythmic pulsing buzzes and burps. “What is that?” he said.
“Tree frogs and leopard frogs,” I said. “They’ll be with us all night.”
As I fell asleep, I listened for my favorite sound, the call of the whip-poor-will. I was disappointed until toward dawn. While both of us slept restlessly through the night, I fell sound asleep after I heard one of these cryptic birds call and another answered.
The next morning, we were off from our perfect campsite on the trail again. We decided to hike to another great site for camping atop a bluff overlooking Little Paddy Creek. It, too, was in a pine grove. The view, we knew from a previous trip, was breathtaking. Getting there meant 10 miles of hiking over rough country. I was up for it, as I regularly walk 15 miles a day for my job. I wonder if Nick could stand the long walk and the heat. But we’d be wary for the symptoms of heat exhaustion.
We hadn’t gone more than a mile when we heard a squeal in the forest not far from us.
“What do you think that was?” he said, listening to something speed away through the leaves.
“Bobcat,” I said. “I’ve heard them a lot but never seen one.”
Shortly after came a snort, the sound of a long cough. A herd of deer sped away from the trail just ahead.
We hiked talking from time to time about what was going on in the forest, what was happening in his life, and sometimes about nothing at all. We came out on the Slabtown Road, a gravel one-lane with some isolated houses along it. But things didn’t look right to me. In all the times I’ve hiked the Big Piney, I never saw houses.
“Well, we’re on a road,” Nick said. “So, we’re not lost. We’ll wind up somewhere.”
We took a right and hiked around two miles to the intersection of a Forest Service road that led to the Paddy Creek Recreation Area. Once Nick made out the sign, he was satisfied that we weren’t lost.
Another two miles on, we came to the picnic area and trailhead that would take us another 7.5 miles through the forest and back to the car. Paddy Creek ran quietly over the road and down into pools beneath the oaks and hickories.
“It looks like heaven,” Nick said.
“We’ll fill our bottles from the creek,” I said. “We’ll sterilize it and make sure we have enough to get us back.”
“Ahrg . . . Another fifteen pounds on my back,” Nick said.
The creek was cool and the fish nibbled at our fingers and toes. The heat of the day eased out of us. We filled the bottles and waited in the stream for our water-purification tablets did their work. The sky spoke of rain but not for some time. When we’d had enough of our stream, we packed our water and took off toward our second night’s home.
The trail ran through creek drainages and up steep hills. Going was slow until we reached the top of a long ridge. We listened to the birds and the chitter of chipmunks. Wind soughed in the trees and we stopped on occasion to drop our packs and recover from the trail. Nick seemed to be holding up well, though he said his feet were sore.
“Every day,” I said. “That’s how my feet feel at the end of every day. When I sit with them up, it feels like they’re reinflating.”
“I get it,” he said. “I get it now more than ever.”
We hiked another hour in silence. When we stopped for a breather, Nick asked about how much longer we had to go. “About an hour,” I said.
“All right,” he said. “It’s 3:05. I’m sore. My feet hurt.”
I thought that we could stop anywhere that looked like a good spot. But if we could only make it to the campsite I was thinking of, we would be rewarded with great views of the night sky and plenty of open space and soft pine duff to sleep on.
“Just a little while longer. Do you think you can make it?”
I could tell his mood was deteriorating. He was tired and getting grumpy. But he would follow my lead. As long as he didn’t show any signs of heat exhaustion, we would be fine. I was sopped, head to toe, a condition to which I’ve become accustomed in this summer heat on the route. I ran through a checklist for myself but showed no signs of dizziness, headache, flushed skin, and so on. We soldiered on.
At 4:05, Nick piped up. We had just entered a pine grove where large limestone plates joined at the top of a rise. “It’s been an hour, how much longer do we have to go?”
“Let’s drop our packs. We have time. I think we’re close. Let me take a look.”
Sure enough. I walked up the trail about 200 yards and found the spot we wanted. I looked at my pedometer. We had made about 10 miles.
“We’re right here,” I said. “Another little bit up the trail. There are two sites, both are real good. One is set back on the side of the ridge opposite the overlook. It will be better if there’s a storm.”
I let Nick pick out our campsite. He chose the one sheltered from storms. We pitched the tent and I cooked dinner. I was reading peacefully when the rain started. I skittered with my mattress into the tent. Nick put on his poncho and spent an hour just watching the rain from the top of the cliff.
We were stuck in the tent. It’s not a bad place to be. The sound of the rain on the canvas soothes me. It reminds me of other occasions when rain tethered me to the inside of a tent. Family vacations. A long weekend with a new girlfriend so many years ago. Stuck alone on glacial moraine in Wyoming.
We played cards and turned off the lights as night fell. I had wanted to see the comet from the overlook, but thunderstorms came in the night. We slept like dogs.
We were silent on the hike out to the car. The 2.5 miles went quickly. We arrived at the trailhead with some sadness. This was the end of our expedition, possibly the end of our time together as father and son alone in the woods.
“I think it was worth it,” he said, changing into clean clothes. “It was hard yesterday toward the end. I thought it wasn’t going to be worth the time and effort. But sitting there on the bluff watching the rain fall on the trees below. Well, just that was worth the pain.”
Nick drove most of the way home. I read and napped in the passenger seat. I dreamed of his growing up, becoming more and more his own man with every trip we took. I woke and listened to him humming to himself. This was it and he was right. This moment was worth the pain. The memory of our time together in the woods would sustain me through the pain to come.