My friend Rich and I have begun hiking the Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail this winter in our quest to eventually hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail in Missouri (to this point we had completed ~230 miles). The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County and traversing rugged terrain in the Mark Twain National Forest along the west side of Wappapello Lake as it courses north to Sam A. Baker State Park. The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers built and manages Wappapello Lake primarily for flood control in the rich farmlands the lie just downstream in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain in extreme southeastern Missouri. Because of this, stretches of the Ozark Trail are subject to frequent inundation.
Such was the case the day after Thanksgiving, when Rich and I tackled the northernmost 10-mile stretch of this section. Because of the flooding, we had to bushwhack to higher ground for a significant portion of the hike. This sounds easier than it was—elevational relief in this rugged southeastern portion of the Ozark Highlands is as much as 500 ft, with steep grades and thick leaf litter atop loose, cherty soils. We did our best to stay oriented using a basic contour map and the experience we’ve gained over the years in judging terrain.
Sometimes, diversions from the trail lead to unexpected discoveries. On an earlier hike, we had gotten lost trying to find our starting point (not a designated trailhead)—we drove through hill and dale and ended up on a losing 2-track that was quite obviously not where we wanted to be. While turning the vehicle around in the tight space between the trees, we noticed something white peeking out from under a black plastic tarp, and upon investigation discovered the clean and nearly complete skeleton of a horse (or mule? These are the Ozarks, afterall). A shattered left occiput and lead projectile protruding through the right maxilla of the skull told the story of this sad beast’s demise. Despite its gruesome origins, I simply cannot resist clean, whole skulls of any kind, so I placed it in the vehicle before we resumed our search for the trail. It now rests permanently in my “museum” and has been named Horace (sitting next to an even cleaner skull of a feral hog that I found a few years earlier—named Boris. Get it? Horace the horse and Boris the boar?).
On this day, as we blazed our own trail on higher ground roughly parallel to the actual trail, we happened upon the gruesome scene shown in these two photographs. Natural historians that we are, we began conducting our own “crime scene” reconstruction—first determining the identity of the remains, then hypothesizing the reason for their placement there based on what we could observe about them. As far as we could tell, the remains of at least three individuals were present, each in a different state of decay from the others and with no apparent evidence of trauma. Rich and I are pretty sure we know what these are, and we have our own ideas about how they got here and why, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think (click photos to embiggen).
This scene made me a little nervous—not because skeletons give me the creeps, but because the Ozark Highlands have a reputation for harboring what many people insultingly refer to as “hillbillies.” The stereotype that this term engenders—i.e., a barefoot man with a long beard and ragged clothes, banjo in one hand and shotgun in the other—may be an extreme and unfair caricaturization. Nevertheless, the presence of this mass grave, with apparently no effort to conceal it, made at least the shotgun part of that image seem a little too real for comfort.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010