The winds whipped wildly through the shagbark hickories and red oaks as we crested the dome to set up camp. We planned to spend three days hiking around the St Francois Mountains with Devil's Wall as our base camp. We missed the spectacular show of fall colors by only a few days, dominated this weekend by deep brown leaves in the colder valley with splashes of yellow on the ridgetops. By Tuesday, with full force gale winds penetrating even my trusty Kelty tent all night, the autumnal display was virtually over.
No trip to the southern Ozarks would be complete without encountering windstorm debris from the May 2009 derecho that toppled thousands of acres of the woodland canopy. Backpackers who follow the Ozark Trail don't have to worry about remnant trees; the Ozark Trail Association had boots on the ground the day after the windstorm to make the trail accessible as soon as humanly possible. But venturing far off trail to reach the high point of the rock wall meant tackling downed trees, one step at a time, across the saddle. Through time, these symbols of that fierce spring night will melt away through natural processes, leaving breaks in the canopy and a rich understory that was gratefully spared the bludgeoning by salvage logging that occurred throughout the region.
With the thick, untrammeled vegetation, it was obvious that our chosen campsite had not seen overnight campers in at least a year. Hikers who visit this area conscientiously use the same fire ring that someone set up many years ago with igneous rocks, allowing the area to retain its naturalness by sparing it from randomly spaced campfire scars. The wind picked up at sunset, which meant blacklining around the campfire ring to remove the flammable post oak leaves and thin, wispy stalks of poverty grass. Darkness set in by 5:30 and the thick cloud cover brought in by the cold front masked what is undoubtedly an impressive starry sky with no light pollution for miles.
Many years ago, my mother bought me an MSR Dragonfly campstove, integral to campfire coffee. It's a fantastic and lightweight stove that boils water in a matter of three minutes with hot coffee ready in five. The cold, 20 mph sustained winds sucked the heat from my enamel cupful of coffee almost immediately the next morning. I usually have to let the coffee cool off for a short while, but not so this week. Within seven minutes, my coffee was as cold as creek water.
With the glade map in hand, we scrambled down the hill into the creek valley to refill water bottles. We trampled across slick igneous boulders covered in lichens and into the maple-filled valley where we neared the first glade of the morning. A few stray asters remained in flower, but mostly in seedheads. Large populations of Aster ptarmicoides covered the glade that is undoubtedly a Mead's milkweed site. The glades here are among the best quality in the entire region with thick grass cover and prairie plants like prairie parsley and Liatris pycnostachya. The igneous-loving Hypericum gentianoides dotted the openings on the glades. Miraculously, the glades in this area were spared a lot of the destructive grazing that occurred in the St. Francois Mountains; granted, goats traveled all over the place, but these glades are not barrens, and the grass thatch and deep soil are remarkable.
Atop a massive glade belt, one can look down and into some of the signature examples of dry igneous woodland in Missouri. Large, old growth trees are widely spaced with grass beneath allowing for fire to creep through the area every few years. Rugged country, the calderas of the Ozarks, and plenty of opportunities for solitude, for an unparalleled wilderness experience in a landscape reminiscent of those survey notes from the early 1800s before the age of extraction began to change the shape of the beautiful Ozark Highlands.