THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION: Tecumseh man completes 738 hiking-mile goal, says he found many of life’s answers on the trail

Quite an accomplishment Tecumseh resident Bill Driscoll, 66, finished the 223-mile Ouachita Trail in November. The milestone, paired with his previous hikes of the Ozark Trail and Ozark Highlands Trail, completes the “Triple O,” a coveted hiking accomplishment spanning a total of 738 miles. Bill spent 63 hiking days over the last 15 years as part of the journey. He averaged 12 miles per hiking day. 

A very special woman Bill says he couldn’t have completed most of the trail without the help of his supportive wife, Laurel. The couple met at a church volleyball game one night in 1996 and went to the Huddle House afterward, where they stayed until 3 a.m. “just talking and eating grits,” as Bill tells it. They were married Sept. 20, 1997. The couple are pictured here in 2016 in the same booth after 20 years of marriage. 

Sleeping in a hammock Spending up to two weeks on the trail at a time, Driscoll carried all of his food, clothing, cooking equipment and sleeping gear in his pack during the day. When the sun set, he found a place to set up camp for the night. Instead of sleeping in a tent as many backpackers do, Bill opted to sleep in a hammock with a down quilt. “When you’re out there like that, it’s just you. No one else. I’m 66, and it’s still spooky. When you’re  down there in big bear country with only what amounts to a fabric the thickness of toilet paper between you and the pitch-black outdoor world, your mind starts going,” Driscoll said. Although Bill admits he has spent a lot of money on expensive gear to help lower the weight of his pack (he carries a base weight of 11 pounds), he says a lot of what outdoor salesmen try to sell isn’t needed. He said recycled materials can sometimes be used, and his cook stove is made out of reused cat food cans. This photo was taken in 2007 during his hike on the Ozark Trail, and he uses a similar setup now. 

One rough trail Bill says the Ouachita Trail is a rough one and about 222 miles of the trail is lined with large rocks as shown in the photo he took along the trail, above. During his first leg of the trail, he opted to leave after 100 continuous miles due to injuries to his ankles. “They were like hamburger” from twisting, turning and stretching so much during the hike, Bill said. 

Found in just the right moment With long days spent alone, Bill had a lot of time to think, and sometimes his thoughts were heavy. But it was in those darkest moments that he says God found ways to bring his focus back. A painted stone found at a picnic table along the trail and a handwritten note from Laurel were among the most meaningful reminders. 

Found in just the right moment With long days spent alone, Bill had a lot of time to think, and sometimes his thoughts were heavy. But it was in those darkest moments that he says God found ways to bring his focus back. A painted stone found at a picnic table along the trail and a handwritten note from Laurel were among the most meaningful reminders. 

The final mile After hiking 222 miles on the rock-covered trail, in the last mile Bill stepped out into a soft grassy area. At the same time, a meaningful song came through his earbuds and his wife and dogs came running toward him. It was that moment, he says, that many answers to life’s questions became clear. 

It was Nov. 2, 2021, when Bill Driscoll completed the 223-mile Ouachita Trail. 

As he crossed through a metal structure marking the end of the hike, he knew he’d completed a much-anticipated journey.

Sure, he’d finished the 223-mile Ouachita Trail. 

The completion of that day’s hike also meant that he’d completed the “Triple O,” as backpackers refer to the milestone. It means he’d hiked the three most prominent thru-hikes in the Ozarks area: The Ozark Trail, The Ozark Highlands Trail and the Ouachita Trail. The trifecta consists of 738 combined hiking miles. 

But, although those accomplishments are admirable, Bill says his most important achievement that day wasn’t a fulfillment of a certain distance or physical excursion. 

Instead, it was the journey he’d completed in his mind and in his heart that mattered most - one that began decades ago.


Life as a lookout towerman

“I was in conservation for 30 years. I started out in Cabool, and then I transferred here,” Driscoll told the Times, recounting his career with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

It was 1977 when Driscoll received his Ozark County assignment. 

He purchased a home on Highway 5, about five miles north of Gainesville, and began his duties as an MDC lookout towerman and fighter of wildfires in the Timber Knob district. The house sat just within the 10-mile radius from the Timber Knob fire tower that was required for Driscoll’s new position. 

Two years later he bought some property in Hardenville, built a home and moved there. 

“The job is just like it sounds. We watched for fires. But it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. We had to know how to read the fires. We had to determine if it was wild. If it was gaining smoke, getting bigger and bigger, then it was likely wild. You’d have to factor in how much wind we had, how much solar radiation, the humidity, the time of day, whether it’s on a hilly part of the country or flat - and you also learned to figure out whose fire it was. You always have fire bugs that burn every year and let it get it away from them. So, you’d need to pattern them.”

Driscoll said at that time, most of Ozark County’s volunteer fire departments had not yet organized. 

“There was Gainesville City [fire department] and us. We were it. Me and Dale Morrison fought all the rural fires in the county,” Driscoll said. “And it was intense. There was not much hunting or fishing in my free time. We were on fire detail all the time.”

Driscoll said he was three years into the job when there was a shift in Ozark County that affected the way fire fighting was handled in the area.


A shift that birthed the VFDs

“We had a big blow up in 1980. We worked all fall and winter of ’79 and clean on into the spring of ’80. We were only off three days that whole year in 1980,” he said. “We had the spring fire season. Then came drought, a world-record Missouri drought, and we had western fire conditions. It was 106 degrees during the day, humidity in the teens, winds would be blowing 30 miles per hour. I mean, it was just like being out west. People here hadn’t ever experienced anything like it.”

The conditions fueled devastating wildfires, Bill said. 

It was at that time that the population and land makeup of Ozark County also began to change, Bill says. The population increased, and the large parcels of land that had been owned by a single person had been divided into smaller pieces as residents died and younger generations inherited the properties. 

“We had better dozers, and parcels were smaller and cattle prices were up. So people started dozing the land. Then they started fertilizing their fields. Also, big bales started being stored along the edges of fields instead of small square bales housed in barns like before,” Bill explained. “So you’d spend several thousand dollars on bales and fertilizer and then your neighbor burns your field, and there goes all your fertilizer and hay. It was quite a loss.”

As land transferred hands, the new owners of land also began housing other valuable items on their property, like old antique cars and machinery.

“They finally passed a law in 1980 that said if you knowingly and willingly or negligently have fire go off your property onto someone else’s, you were civilly liable for it. And boy, the civil lawsuits were going crazy.”

Residents of the area began to discuss how to combat the problem.

“I’ll tell you, if you have a local problem, local people will take care of it. It was around then that all the fire departments began organizing. It started out in Theodosia, Tecumseh and Bakersfield, and then Eastern Douglas County and Pontiac. We had people moving in here that were professional firefighters like Joe McMahon and several others. They were quite type-A, organized people, and they just went around and made it happen. Then came the auxiliaries. The women started doing the fundraising and pie sales to raise money. So it’s been quite a community involvement, and the community changed at that point. They came together and became a community again.”


Heartbreak and ‘a lot of toads’

As the fire fighting efforts ramped up with the VFDs, Bill’s job as a wildland firefighter adapted too. He continued as a lookout towerman until 1989 when he transferred to another MDC position in Ellington. But his job wasn’t the only thing that changed at that time.

“My first wife and I had moved to Ozark County when we were just a couple of punk kids. We’d grown up here and had become spark plugs of the community,” he said. “Then, I came home one day and saw this manila envelope in my pickup. It was a petition for divorce. And just like that, 16 years of marriage was gone,” Bill said. 

Bill moved, alone, to Ellington for the new job, and the divorce took an emotional toll. 

After five years in Ellington, Bill transferred to a position back in Ava, where he served for a year. 

He then took a job at the West Plains MDC office. 

It was sometime shortly after he’d been working in West Plains that his life took another unexpected turn. 

While he’d dated other women since his divorce, he’d not found anyone he wanted to share his life with. Bill said he’d given up on pursuing a love interest. That is, until Nov. 19, 1996, after a church volleyball game. A woman he didn’t know had come to play volleyball that night and caught his eye. 

“After the game, this lady said, ‘Let’s go to the Huddle House and have coffee.’ I said OK. We got there a little after 9 o’clock, and we didn’t leave until after 3 o’clock in the morning… just talking and eating grits for six hours,” he said. “Then I asked her on a date, and I didn’t even give her a kiss for 10 days. I told her I wanted to do this totally right. We went by the book.”

The couple were married that next year on Sept. 20, 1997.

“I kissed a lot of toads and finally found my princess. I have the most wonderful wife,” he said.


Starting the Ozark Trail

Laurel and Bill lived in West Plains while Bill served in the position there for another nine years (12 years total) until 2006, when he retired. 

Laurel, a teacher at Fairview Elementary School, continued her work, which left Bill at home with a lot of free time. 

“I’d been living in West Plains, and you know, it’s just kind of a slow, meaningless death living in town like that,” he said. “So, one day in 2006, I was sitting in a coffee shop with nothing to do with another guy I’d worked with, Don Smith, a retired wildlife biologist. When I was working, I never had much time to do anything recreational. It was 24/7 on all the pretty days.”

Bill and Don, both slightly bored in retirement after such active careers, discussed hiking the Ozark Trail. 

Bill had been introduced to the Ozark Trail when he and his co-workers did some work in the Taum Sauk section. 

Bill told Don that he wanted to section hike the entire 400-mile trail starting from the very beginning, and Don said he was game. 

The pair jumped in enthusiastically, driving 155 miles northeast of home to the trail’s start within the Onondaga Cave State Park. 

They spent five days hiking the first 40 plus-mile stretch. 

Don had obligations that kept him from continuing the trail, but Bill continued on, completing the trail bit by bit. 

 “Laurel helped me quite a bit, because we had to shuttle,” Bill said, explaining that the couple would take two vehicles to the section of trail they planned to tackle. 

They would drop one vehicle at the end of that section, and they’d both get in the other vehicle and drive to the beginning of the trail, where the couple would start hiking the section. 

They would often backpack, sleeping overnight in a tent somewhere along the trail. When they reached the end of the section, they’d hop back into the vehicle they’d left at the end and have to drive to the trailhead to get the other vehicle. Then drive home separately. 

“So, that took a lot of time. We did a section of trail [each] weekend,” Bill said. 


A hard-earned final 11 miles

As the couple followed the section-to-section hike south, they began reaching territory near home. 

“I saw an alert that says in the North Fork section, near here, that said the first 11 miles is wild, and no one had done any work on it at all,” Bill said. “I’m just sitting at the house one day in February, and I thought, You know, I’m going to go for a walk. So, I drove up [Highway] 63 to Pomona. Then drove west on Z and went to a place they call Junkyard Hill. Well, that’s the trailhead, if you can imagine.”

Junkyard Hill was aptly named, Bill said, with “every holler and hill filled with trash” people had dumped on the public land in the age of nonexistent rural trash service. 

He walked through the unpleasant, trash-filled trailhead and onto the North Fork section of the Ozark Trail - if you could call it that. There was no trail, just the national forest with little orange flags peeking out occasionally.

“A lot of the flags were deteriorated, and all you’d see is a knot on the limb where it once was,” Bill said. 

He decided he was going to complete those last 11 miles of the trail while building it. 

“I built several rock cairns, you know, rock piles, along the way, and after a couple weeks I got the line established. Then I contacted James Murrell, who’s deceased now. He was such an awesome guy. He was a wilderness recreation manager [for the Mark Twain National Forest]. He’d been there since the 70s and had so much knowledge,” Bill said. 

Murrell provided Bill with loppers, sheers, signs and aluminum nails. He went down through the barely-flagged section and began installing signs that hikers could follow to keep on the trail. Then he went back through and started the hard work, knocking down trees and brush to create a corridor path through the area that would later become the established trail. 

He went and built trail nearly every day, putting in full days labor as a trail volunteer. Bill said it was hard and slow work. He’d often hike a mile in and then work his way back to the existing trail.

At some point, Bill became acquainted with Rick Henry, who was establishing a section of the trail south of the one Bill was working on. The two worked toward each other, establishing the trail each way with a goal of meeting in the middle. 

“But then the Ozark Trail Association said, ‘Hey, there are people down here that are actually interested.’ So, they started having trail maintenance outings. They’d stage at Noblett Lake and camp and have big feeds. They’d bring four or five dozen people. What they’d do in one day would take me three months,” he said. 

The OTA linked the two sections of trail Bill and Rick Henry were working on. 

The trail work took Bill several months in 2007, and he finally completed hiking the Ozark Trail, which ends at Norfork Lake near Tecumseh, in October 2007. 

Hooked on the Ozarks long-distance hikes, he decided to next tackle the Ozark Highlands Trail. He began that trail in the spring of 2010, completing it in three sections. 

“I did the middle section first, because it was the closest to us, and Laurel had to take me down there,” Bill said. “Then I did the first section, Lake Fort Smith to Ozone, and I did the last section, well, last.”

Laurel hiked the trail with Bill, and the couple finished the trail on March 13, 2011, during spring break at Laurel’s school. 

A new goal, fueled by a 

desire to feel better

The couple continued their life in Tecumseh, where they’d moved after Bill’s retirement, and Bill spent a lot of time fishing, hiking and “just living off the land,” as he likes to say. They hung up their long distance hiking boots for almost a decade before Bill got the itch again and decided to tackle the Ouachita Trail. 

The goal to complete the trail came at a time when Bill said his life started to shift again. 

“We were dealing with weight gain. I just couldn’t lose it. We used to drink. I’d been drinking for 50 years since I was 15. Then one day last August, I just poured it out and said I’ve had enough. I’m sick and tired of waking up feeling crappy,” he said. “But it’s hard to limit yourself. How do you do it? It’s so easy to stay in your routine, and everything tastes so good. I thought, you know, I’ll get out in the middle of nowhere doing 10 to 15 miles [of hiking a day], and I’ll burn some calories. And boy, I did. From August to November, I dumped 40 pounds. That was all liquor fat,” he said. 


Tackle the Ouachita Trail

In October 2020, Bill drove more than five hours to Talihina, Oklahoma, where the Ouachita Trail begins and started hiking. 

With experience from the two other hikes he’d done, paired with the logistical complication of having to work out the details without Laurel shuttling him due to her work schedule, Bill was prepared to do longer sections this time. 

“It’s glacier rock, and the trail is very bouldery. It’s 50 miles of literally stepping rock to rock to rock. You’re constantly bending, pushing, pulling your body,” he said. 

At the 100-mile mark, after seven days of consecutive hiking and overnight camping on the rough trail, Bill entered an area of the Ouachita Trail called Fiddler’s Creek. 

“Boy my ankles… they were like hamburger meat. It was rough. I got to the end of that section, and I was in quite a bit of pain. I’m a firm believer in the Holy Spirit, and something told me, ‘You oughta bail out of here and not become a victim.’”

At that section of the trail, there’s a road crossing that would allow Bill to get off the trail more easily than if he continued on to a further section. 

Because Laurel was not able to shuttle the Ouachita Trail trip, Bill used a woman at Lori’s Blue Bell Cafe in Story, Arkansas, who shuttles hikers on the Ouachita Trail for “just a few bucks,” he said. 

When he neared the crossing, he decided to try to call her. He retrieved his cell phone from his pack. It’d been shut off to conserve battery. He clicked it on, and there was no cell service. His heart sank. 

He turned it back off and walked a little further. He decided to try again. He clicked it on, and he had one bar of cell service. 

“I dialed her up, and she answered on the first ring. She said, ‘Hello!’ I was so happy that she’d answered. I said, ‘Lori, I have got some issues.’ She said, ‘Oh, I’ve been worried about you.’ I told her ‘I’ll tell you what, I think it’d be smart for me to get off of here now while I can rather than keeping on and being on my butt and have to have someone come with a stretcher to haul me out.’ “My legs were swollen plumb up to my knees. Not to mention the tick and chigger bites. I’d taken bandanas I had on the trail and made compressions,” he said. 

Lori picked Bill up at the crossing and brought him to his vehicle where he continued home to Tecumseh to let his body heal. During his recovery he anticipated completing the second part of the trail, which encompassed 120 more miles. Although he was eager to get back on the trail, it took awhile before the time was right. 

“It was deer season, and then it got brutally cold. Then comes fishing season, and I just cannot not go fishing. And that’s from February through May. Then summertime comes, and so do all the ticks and chiggers. I prefer to hike in the fall anyway,” he said. 

So, in early November 2021, Laurel drove Bill over to complete the second part of the trail. It took him two weeks to complete the last 120 miles. 


A journey of pain and light

“The whole thing has been a journey. We all have albatrosses in our lives, something that plagues us, and mine’s rejection. I don’t take rejection well at all, and I’ve been dealing with that a long time,” he said. “…and loneliness. They say the way to crack a hardened criminal is to isolate them. Well, I spend a lot of time fishing and hunting, a lot of time alone. Laurel works all day. So many days, the only time I talk to another human is late at night when she gets home. I used to talk to people all day long. It creates quite a challenge in your mind,” he said. 

“It plagues you.”

Once on the trail, completely alone in the quiet wilderness, those thoughts began to work their way into his mind, Bill said, explaining that he often found himself on the trail with heavy mental burdens.

But it was in the darkest moments, working through the difficult parts of his past, when God was revealed, Bill said. 

“I was kind of down one day, and I got to this area where I had a water cache,” Bill said, explaining that the “water cache” was an area where he and Laurel had come prior to his hike and buried water bottles for him to drink when he got to that area. “There was a picnic table there, and I walked all around it, and found this stone.”

The stone, painted in bright colors, said “U. B. U. and B the Best U Can B.”

The sentiment immediately resonated with Bill and lifted his spirits. 

“You learn God says ‘I’m with you. I’ll never not be with you.’ So, you get stronger and stronger after remembering that,” he said. 


A note that rang true

Probably the most influential moment on the Ouachita Trail came on the last day. He’d been on the trail 14 days at that point, covered 119 miles of mountainous terrain, hiking rock to rock from dawn to dusk for two weeks straight, and his journey was nearing an end. 

Exhausted physically and mentally, Bill said he was in a low place when he woke that morning. 

The day started with Bill pulling out his day’s food packet. He and Laurel put together the food at home prior to the hike, and each package included breakfast, lunch and dinner food for that day. 

Bill had been randomly choosing a package each day, and he was surprised by little notes that Laurel had snuck into each packet. 

That morning Bill pulled out a bright pink notecard. 

In Laurel’s neat handwriting, she wrote, “Deut. 2:3 Then the Lord said to me You have made your way around this hill country long enough, now turn north.; v. 7 He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness… and you have lacked nothing.”

Bill said chills ran down his spine. 

The note rang so true to his situation, the completion of his journey and his trip back north with his wife to his Tecumseh home. 


The last hour

After breakfast, he trudged on, until he was just one mile away from finishing the 223 mile trail. 

“It was in that last hour, all these questions were answered for me. I had that note that morning and thought, ‘Wow.’ And then all this knowledge started coming to me throughout the day about how Satan can’t read your mind, but he can put things in your mind. He knows how you’re going to handle it, and he wants to see you handle it by getting mad or drinking or whatever…”

Bill continued down the trail, focusing more on his thoughts than the terrain at that point. 

“But then I stepped out onto this grass, almost like a yard. So for 222 miles, the trail was this bouldery, rocky, rough-as-can-be, and just as I’m finishing, it completely changes to this soft grassy area,” he said. “It was unreal.”

Just as he took a step onto the peculiar carpet of green in that last mile, a song he’d never heard before came through his earbuds. The song was “Say I Won’t,” by MercyMe. 

The lyrics stopped Bill in his tracks. 

Today. It all begins. I’m seeing my life for the very first time, through a different lens…While I’ve been waiting to live, my life’s been waiting on me. I’m gonna run. No, I’m gonna fly. I’m gonna know what it means to live, and not just be alive. The world’s gonna hear, ‘cause I’m gonna shout. And I will be dancing when circumstances drown the music out…”

“I just started crying. I had another mile and half to go, but it was an amazing experience. Then I got to where I had less than 200 yards left to the end of the trail, and I saw something coming at me. I said, ‘My gosh that’s my dogs… and that’s Laurel,” he said. 

At this point, Bill said tears were streaming down his face, and he ran to embrace his wife who was running toward him. 

She held up a poster that she’d made congratulating him on his completion of the Triple O.

“I had no idea they were there,” he said. “It was like it all came together right at the end, and I suddenly understood everything in my life so much clearer. I learned that rejection makes you crazy, especially when you’re looking for love. But you will never have to chase love. It will chase you. It will run to you.”

Now, back home in Tecumseh, Bill says he’s learned that there isn’t much he really needs in life. But he says he’s thankful to have his loving wife and loyal dogs, good health, God’s grace and the pristine waters of Ozark County nearby.

Ozark County Times

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