Zachary and I sat on one of the many flat boulders near our campsite and ate a quiet breakfast together: peanut butter and banana slices on homemade tortillas. We broke camp, scattered the leaves over the bare ground, loaded up the packs, and returned to the rocky trail for the 10.5-mile loop to the top of Buford Mountain.
With a warm sun and a cool breeze, it was the perfect day for a hike. Behind the trees, the sky was a solid blue except for a single paintbrush-stroke of cloud on the horizon. As we walked, I noticed several birds, everything from chickadees and downy woodpeckers to a black-and-white warbler and cardinals. A summer tanager, a bird I had never seen before, flitted from tree to tree in front of us for a while. (“Do you think he’ll lead us to Narnia?” I asked Zach hopefully.) A few minutes later, for the first time in my life, I saw a scarlet tanager, a bird I have been wanting to spot since I was a kid.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch claims that this is the most challenging trail in the St. Louis area, and I would agree with them, though not necessarily because of the climbs. There were definitely some steep inclines, but the hardest part of the hike was the rough terrain: jumbled fist-sized rocks stuck out from the trickling water, making for unsure footing that made you constantly flex and tense your muscles to keep from twisting your ankles. The trail ran steeply upward for a couple miles, then branched off into a loop. We took the left-hand trail and soon found ourselves hiking through airy forests, broken by the occasional glade. These glades consisted of unbroken stretches of ragged stone, covered in a patchwork of lichen and moss. We sat on one of these boulders and snacked on homemade hummus and crackers.
Zach and I stumbled upon the mountain lookout, Bald Knob, unexpectedly: from the clockwise loop, the ascent was gradual. (“My lungs were most definitely not pumping like an accordion,” I said in a disappointed voice.) The view from the glade was restful and noteworthy, although not as breathtaking as the articles I’d read made it sound: a tapestry of green farmland with rolling hills in the distance. It was fun to perch on a boulder and look out at the verdant countryside with a cool wind whipping my hair around.
From that point, we hiked downward a bit, then climbed steeply to the top of the nearest mountain. Although there wasn’t an open lookout there, according to the area map, that peak is taller. After searching around on the site a bit, I’m still unsure which of the peaks (or both) is considered Buford Mountain! The trail then dipped into the valley on the opposite side and meandered across limestone stream beds before looping back into itself on the side of the mountain.
Zach and I took our time, stopping for snacks and breathers often. I loved these breaks because they gave me a chance to look at the surroundings even closer. I watched ants weaving their way across a mossy log. Zachary discovered a baby walking stick, green as a new twig. Springs and brooks sprouted from under every rock and found the path of least resistance downward. Birds sang constantly. Sunlight flickered through the trees’ newly-budded branches.
That afternoon, dusty and ankle-sore, we arrived back at our car with a sense of accomplishment. “The car looks really clean,” Zach said. “But I guess that after being in the woods, everything looks clean.”
We drove home in the glittering sunlight, listening to side two of the Beatles’ white album. When we arrived at our house, I laid on the bed, in the climate control, and listened to the silence. I had an awful headache. But I knew, with a sense of satisfaction, that I was now officially an amateur backpacker.