This post about our camping adventure in the Mark Twain National Forest contains a little something for everyone: a helicopter, the 8 Preachers of Berryman Trail, foraging for food, sheriff’s deputies, local trackers, ax restoration, and lost hikers. No, this isn’t a plot line for a Walt Longmire Mystery. It’s just another day When You Wander with Tom and Liana.
Mark Twain National Forest
After leaving a rainy Hannibal, Missouri, we headed further south past St. Louis to the Mark Twain National Forest about 20 miles west of the lively small town of Potosi. Our destination was the Berryman Trailhead Campground. Surrounded by lush pine and oak forest the Berryman Trail offers a 24 mile loop—half of which is part of the greater 500 mile Ozark Trail. While this sounds amazing for two backpackers such as us, the real draw to this specific campground was the cost. Free. When living on the road we need to take advantage of these hidden gems.
As we rolled in Thursday the sun was shining and it was turning into an amazing day, but we still didn’t know what to expect with the campground. The only info we had was what Liana could find on freecampsites.net. As we drove in we saw a group of backpackers returning from a trek and laying out all their gear in the sun to dry. After a quick chat and learning that they just spent a few wet days on the trail, we said our “see ya’s” and went to check out the camping sites. YES! Perfection. Clean, well maintained, fire pits with grill, picnic tables, and not too gross pit toilets! AKA: Heaven for two nomads.
With the campsite selected, Stan parked, and camp chairs around the fire we have home for the next few days. We knew it would be a perfect evening for a campfire so I grabbed my “new” ax and headed out into the woods. Thirty minutes later we had our fuel to cook dinner and enjoy a night in the forest.
As we sat around our fire one of the backpackers we met earlier walked by searching for phone service when he eyed my ax stuck in a log.
“Hey, can I see that?” he asked in a slight southern accent. “I restore old axes. Search swap meets and antique stores for ones like this. It’s a beauty!”
I guess now is as good of a time as any to talk about my ax. When I said it was “new” it was really “new to me.” Ten days earlier I drove to Northern Wisconsin to see my aunt and grandfather. We had lunch and headed to his cabin. My grandfather’s land is in the heart of the Flambeau State Forest and near the metropolis of Oxbo. A town which boasts a population of 7 and is home of the famous Wood Tick Races. Men and women alike can be seen sporting T-Shirts with “Nice Ticks” set under two strategically placed wood ticks. The land was handed down to my 93 years young grandfather from his father and is now entrusted to my mother and aunt, so it has been in the family for well over a hundred years.
Among numerous tools in my grandfather’s shed, a moderately rusted 29-inch ax caught my eye. I picked it up and instantly knew it would have a place in Stan and on our upcoming journey. As I turned to ask if I could borrow it, grandpa said, “You want it? I brought that with me on every camping trip I’ve gone on since I was young.”
I immediately and thankfully accepted, and after presenting the absolute necessity of the ax to Liana, she agreed with rolling eyes. Her reluctance may have been because this ax would be added to the other 4 wood cutting tools already packed. Hey, this may seem like a lot, but each of these 5 tools has its own specific use. Really, they do. Campfires are a pretty big deal in my family. My grandparents had a saying, “when you cut your own wood, it warms you twice” framed on their wall all through my childhood.
Okay, back to the campsite. The hiker explained to us my ax had a Hudson Bay style head and they were his absolute favorite. In fact, he had one very similar and wanted to compare. In addition, he offered to re-edge and sharpen it for me.
With a new sharp edge I also gained some instructions on how to restore the head and handle along with the knowledge that our new friend and his 7 companions were college buddies on an annual backpack trip. Each year they meet at a different location for a long weekend and long hike. He also told us that they were all preachers, and hoped that didn’t weird us out. While it was a little surprising, we thought they were the nicest group of backpacking preachers we’d ever met.
Things Get Interesting
After dinner we sat by the fire and let it hypnotize us almost to sleep. Pretty much the exact minute we decided to retire to Stan the Tan Van, “MWAAAAAAA!….MWAAAAAAA!”
What is that?
What are 8 Preachers doing with a fog horn? As we sat confused, one preacher ran over to tell us the noise was not them, but the Washington County Sheriff’s department. They received a call from two hikers on the Berryman Trail asking for help because they were lost. Cell reception was not established since, and the only witnesses to see the couple were, of course, the 8 Preachers of Berryman Trail.
“They couldn’t have gone far,” one said. “That sleeping bag was huge.”
“We tried to stop them,” another added. “We knew this would happen.”
As more of the search party from Potosi’s rescue department arrived with numerous off-road vehicles, one officer asked the group, “Could you describe the two?”
OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION (from the mouths of preachers): One man, one woman. Early 20’s. Man wearing grey shirt, brown pants. The woman was wearing a blue shirt and jeans, you know the ones with all the glitter. No. Not all over, just on the butt. And pink shoes. They looked pretty green, like it was their first hike, ever. Oh, and they had all the beer and wine they could carry.
A Rescue Operation
I jokingly mentioned to a few of the preachers it would be funny if the local tracker “who knows these woods like the back of his hand” was called in. I pictured Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of Hugh Glass. Not three minutes later, we overheard a deputy say, “just got off the radio with Bucky Bill.”
“Who’s he?” another asked.
“He grew up ‘round these parts, and been ridin’ horse up here since he was knee high.”
With nods and “yups” the search party accepted these credentials with the same revere as a lawyer with a Harvard degree.
Well, Bucky Bill didn’t look like Leo, but his credentials must have been legit because about three hours later the couple was found (just in time for the search helicopter to begin circling over the campsite on a very expensive ride). The couple was just a few miles in, got turned around, and freaked out. While I depict this humorously, everyone was relieved they made it out safe and before the expected rain began.
Hiking and Foraging
The final 36 hours of our stay were pretty uneventful compared to our first night, but it was exactly what we were looking for. A beautiful hike on the Ozark Trail and meals by the campfire (our new dining room). One of the meals was perfectly accompanied with some wild chives Liana found right in our campsite. Which we ate only after consulting Liana’s mom and taking her advice of, “if it looks like onion and smells like onion, it’s safe.”
I highly recommend this place to any car camper or backpacker. We plan to return someday and make this spot a base camp for the 24 mile hike. But for now we say goodbye and set our compasses to the SW as we continue to wander the US.