In the middle of August, when temperatures begin to break records, and when no one in her right mind would even think about hiking, I throw Carl in the truck and once again head east on highway 16. There is a serious attraction waiting, and the oppressive heat only sweetens the allure. Only an hour after sunrise, and I am already sweating, windows down, wind blowing, Carl panting with the regularity and intensity of a diesel engine.
Today I decide to let Wanda at the Combs café break my fast with biscuits and gravy, two eggs over hard, hash browns, coffee and conversation with the cook - about grandchildren, men, hunting, working, and growing up in the Ozarks. While I eat, she sits at a sewing machine repairing a large camo jacket that a customer has dropped off the day before. The sound of that machine is a powerful time bender for me, and if Wanda had looked up, she might well have seen a twelve year old boy sitting there at the table, scarfing down his breakfast before running off to catch the bus, with a quick kiss on her cheek as he passed.
There is a magical little window in the natural history seasonal calendar of this hill country, what the writer Gary Lantz calls the tick rapture – the big ones are gone for good, and the seed ticks haven’t yet appeared in numbers – so it’s possible to walk all day along a dry riverbed and not be inundated. But even if I miss that window, nothing could keep me from this spot along the Buffalo River, not intense heat; not humidity measured in gallons per breath, because it is the time of the spring-fed hole.
I park along the national forest road, check my pack for camera, tripod, water, dried apples and cashews, then drop steeply to the river and begin walking downstream in the middle of what will, in a month or so, be a torrent of impassable water. Today it is astonishingly hot and bone dry, the rounded sandstone river rock acting like a solar reflector oven. It is difficult to imagine that there ever has been water here. Carl hugs the bank where there is a few-inch band of shaded stone that eases his abused footpads. After a quarter mile, we reach a long shallow pool that has more psychological value than its bath-water temperature warrants. I don’t bother taking off leather boots, (they will dry later) and just wade in, continuing downstream.
Anyone who spends time in an Ozark riverbed in mid-summer knows that there will be an oasis within a bend or two, and true to form, in half a mile, a deep aqua-blue pool materializes on the near horizon like a desert mirage. Carl is the first in, drinking and wading and wagging with a rhythm of pure relief. One of the benefits of summer hiking on the upper reaches is that nary a soul will be seen all day, so I don’t even hesitate – there is a line of pack, canteens, clothing and boots that lead to the sandy spot I use as a launch pad.
The hole is so deep and cold I can only stay in a few minutes, just long enough to drop my core temperature back within the green range on the dial. Without bothering to get dressed, I unpack camera and tripod and try once again, and fail once again, to transfer the essence of this place onto film.
A person has to be careful here. There is magic. Bring someone with you, and you will fall in love. Bring children, and they will go feral right before your eyes. Come alone, and you may just wake up twenty years later, hair down to your waist, your friends all gone, your film fogged and useless.