Foreword: I wrote this story several years ago after my friend, Larry Williams committed suicide from acute depression. It was a way for me to heal, and also a way to honor him as a friend. Before this was published, only a few people had read the story, but I think he would have liked it to be published. You see, Larry had written several stories and wanted to be published, but he never got around to having it done. The photo below was taken from one of our many backpacking trips, and he always said, "This is the photo for my dust cover."
I've toyed with the idea of expanding the short story into a broader novel, but have also lacked the time and initiative to put my thoughts into words. The direction of novel is also in question, but know I want it to be about backpacking. -K
The day started early, a typical early fall Saturday morning at Steele Creek Campground. The air was clean and crisp with a slight chill. In a few more weeks, the frost would start gathering on the leaves, with the sun rising and birds waking shortly after. It was time to start gathering the gear and get ready for our day's hike. The routine was the same: boiling water for coffee and oatmeal, making packs small, and checking the area for trash. My friend Larry was already waiting in the truck, along with my day pack.
The drive to Compton trail head takes about forty minutes. It's a drive where your mind
likes to wander. We had often talked about what this country must have looked like before the white man invaded or where the Osage Indians would have set up camp. These hills had a lot of good memories for us. If I had to guess, we had taken at least twelve backpacking trips together in addition to planned meetings on his solo hikes. He had been coming up here even before it was a National River and had seen many of the changes, both good and bad, for himself. It seemed as though every trail head and dirt county road had a story between the two of us. We had finally arrived and it didn't take long to grab my pack, a bottle of water and his staff. Larry and I headed out from the trail head.
Larry Williams was many things: cook, backpacker, bartender, Americorp volunteer, Ozark Eco-tour guide, AT&T operator, writer, canoeist, but mostly, he was a “hippie.” Most people were defined by their jobs, but he defined himself. Few people knew that he was part Indian, but he was modestly proud of the fact. He introduced dozens upon dozens of people to backpacking and canoeing, but mentored only a select few. I happened to be one of those lucky few. I met him when I knew him as a cook, and we quickly became friends. We would often spend hours talking, drinking, and listening to music into the wee hours of the morning with a small circle of friends. Every autumn, when the leaves started to turn, he would start to get wanderlust. Until seven years ago, when his ankle finally gave out, he had spent the fall backpacking this area; adding a week every year until he was wandering the Upper Buffalo Wilderness for sixteen weeks at a stretch.
His only real claim to fame was that he had survived a fall off of Cedar Creek Falls at Petite Jean Mountain. At that time, he was one of only seven to ever survive the fall. He once told me that when he was falling, he felt “that Mother Earth had wrapped her arms around him and held him safe.”
Our friend Steve was with him on that trip. I once asked him what he was thinking as Larry was falling; he told me that he was thinking , “He has the keys.” Larry had a different outlook on life after that experience. He had a greater respect for the earth and shared that respect with others. He was secretive about his special places he had discovered on his “long rambles”, as he liked to call them.
Hemmed-in-Hollow, today's hike, was one of those places. Even though quite a few people know about the falls and the hollow from floating the Buffalo River, he knew this place literally from top to bottom. We were going to do “The Grand Tour” as he had once called it. It involved starting at the Compton trail head and dropping down to an abandoned cabin that had belonged to Uncle Vic. From there, we headed southwest towards the eastern rim of the hollow that overlooks the Buffalo National River and Hemmed-in-Hollow waterfall. This prime no-fire campsite was a destination of a spring trip in 2000. A narrow foot trail hugged the top edge of the bluff line, northward to the top of the falls, and arced around to California Point on the western side of the hollow. The trail finally became big enough for two people to comfortably walk side by side at this point, and headed in the hollow itself. We reached an old gnarly cedar tree along the way to the bottom that a biologist was “gonna name the tree after Larry if it was a new species”. The trail continued under the waterfall, and would get you wet when the wind was right. The trail from the top ended near the opening into the hollow.
As I walked further into the hollow, I thought about the times we had been here before. We had been here twice by the river and twice by foot, but this would be our last time. This is where Larry and I would end our last hike together: I was here to scatter his ashes. I thought long and hard about what I would say when I got here, but sometimes saying nothing is best. We had been like brothers for a period of years and had said everything that needed to be said. It had been an honor to carry his staff for this last time. I firmly planted it into the highest point in the hollow underneath an old weathered beech tree. I opened the box and scattered his ashes among the leaves, rocks, and new growth. It seemed appropriate that his energy would always be here. Larry's final request had been fulfilled and I smiled thinking that Larry would float the Buffalo one last time as it began to rain.