"It's the intimate scenery that sets this trail apart," Tim Ernst says, relaxing in a spot that demonstrates just what he's talking about. He leans back against a sandstone bluff, under tall beech trees, in a compact valley (a "holler," locally) where the loudest sounds are the companionable twitterings of chickadees and kinglets and the patter of water falling over a two-foot ledge in the creek below. A sycamore leans beside the stream, its white trunk reflected in the water. On the hill above stand pines two people can barely join hands around.
Without the efforts of people like Ernst, this beauty and solitude might be out of reach. The Ozark Highlands Trail ranks among the longer of the country's more than a thousand official National Recreation Trails. Created by the National Trail System Act of 1968, this network of routes has grown to include segments in all 50 states (see pages 138-39). Yet despite the federal designation, Ozark Highlands and many other trails depend largely on volunteers, who often struggle to create, fund, and maintain their adopted pathways.
If Ernst isn't the Ozark Highlands Trail's father, he's undoubtedly its longtime foster parent. The trail was established by the Ozark National Forest in the granola-fed 1970s, when "John Denver was singing about Colorado, and everybody was wearing wafflestompers," as Ernst says—a time when backpacking and canoeing got tens of thousands of Americans out on trails and rivers. By the Reagan-era eighties, though, U.S. Forest Service budgets had shrunk, and the barely begun Ozark Highlands Trail needed help if it was to be completed.
Ernst had grown up hunting in the Ozark National Forest. Later, in college, he took long bushwhacking hikes through the backcountry. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing," he says. "I was wearing plain 100 percent cotton socks, and I had a Wal-Mart pack or something. I had blisters on my feet, and I was miserable the whole time, at least physically." But he fell in love with backpacking and with the sections of the trail that had been completed.
When construction on the trail stalled, Ernst called a meeting in his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. "My goal was to find out if we could have a handful of people who could take over maintenance of what was out here, and then maybe build a little bit every now and then. We had 50 people show up at the first meeting, and that's how the Ozark Highlands Trail Association got started."