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Backpacker Magazine – November 2009

The Lost Boy of the Ozarks

After three decades of silence, a reporter reveals the story he was afraid to write.

by: Neville Franks

Illustration by Tomer Hanuka
Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

Goodnight Hollow, Missouri - A boy walked into the woods and no one worried. In those days, 5-year-olds skinned squirrels and giggled and a child could open a sow's throat with a single steady swipe. Before they were taught figures, daughters learned how to season steaming possum meat. Sons of slaves plowed the rocky soil and mothers bled to death in childbirth and if a little girl cut her finger, and the cut oozed green and the finger swelled, then her father measured the child and he started nailing together a tidy box of pine.

In the hidden hollows of Missouri's Ozark Mountains, which is where the boy lived, times were hard. It was 1903 and the boy had just turned 8, but there was game to hunt, hogs to butcher, and there was no pine box or preacher or slab of limestone to mark the boy's passing, because there was no boy. The woods had claimed him. Adults paid respect in private, on sagging elm porches, late at night, over lonely, guttering flames. They remembered the child's pale green eyes, the coonskin cap he always wore. They remarked that his stutter must have made his short childhood more difficult than most. Wives murmured to husbands that the missing boy was surely in a happier place, but what they remembered was that their own children had avoided the boy the way pack animals avoid the diseased and the crippled; that ever since the boy was born, he had carried in his downcast gaze something ghostly and damned.

Time passed, and when visitors from nearby Abesville and Reeds Spring and Chestnut Ridge found themselves walking in the woods where the boy had disappeared, they remembered beatings they had suffered when they were young and–worse–they suddenly recalled the welts they had left on their own children's flesh. They conjured visions of their little boys' and girls' quivering lips. Mothers looked up through the thick, fetid canopy toward a sunny and benign forgiveness they longed for but which the woods made them doubt, and they blinked back tears. Fathers heard the wind make ghastly, forlorn noises in the trees and the men felt cold, and then the strangers hurried out of the woods and after awhile, very few walked in those woods at all, though no one could explain exactly why. More time passed, and then the only reminder of what had happened was the way some of the stooped, white-haired waitresses at Gus's Diner, hard on State Highway 176, would squeeze their lips together whenever a family with a little boy with brown hair and pale green eyes would sit down at a table. And sometimes if the boy giggled, one of the ancient waitresses would have to take a cigarette break, and tourists would see her outside, sitting on a pine bench, her shoulders silently convulsing.

Then even the old waitresses died off and mountains of Oklahoma dust swirled over the land and noontime turned to night. The Great Depression came and engineers built Bagnell Dam and, later, developers carved Branson out of the state's blood-soaked red soil. Midwestern millionaires started flocking to The Lake of the Ozarks, and amidst violin-playing Japanese and joke-telling Russians and cigarette-shaped speedboats that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, people forgot about the little boy who walked into the woods and never came out.

Time passed, and men stood on the moon and a peanut farmer was elected President, and life wasn't as hard anymore, and a family from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, just across Missouri's southern border, drove north toward St. Louis to visit relatives. After an hour on the road, the father pulled over at a shady spot and announced to his wife and two children that The Gateway to the West could wait a couple of days, because they were going on a little adventure first. The kids groaned and the man's wife smiled a hidden smile–she was in on the plan and she loved her husband's belief in the healing properties of the outdoors.

The little girl, 5 years old, had long red hair and freckles and wore sandals with sunflowers separating her big and second toes. The brown-haired, green-eyed boy was wearing blue shorts and a blue T-shirt and blue sneakers. He had just turned 8. They were bareheaded, so mom slathered their faces with sunscreen while dad pulled backpacks and sleeping bags from the trunk.



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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

ALL READERS COMMENTS

Chris
Jul 19, 2012

I feel sorry for those who need to know up front that the article is fiction. If you didn't pick it up after the first paragraph or 2, or even at least enjoy it that bit more because you weren't sure, then you are really missing out.

Jackie
Mar 02, 2012

Still can't throw out my nov 2009 issue because I want to re read this story, came to website for more by this author.

ed
Jan 14, 2011

I couldn't read the article as it was written in a horrible manner.

So I came straight to the comments to get the gist.

It's fiction? ok, nothing to see here, move along... I'm a realist.

Greg Hall
Dec 09, 2010

I couldn't stop reading it, very compelling, I loved it!!

WayneB
Dec 09, 2010

Nice story, what there was of it. But it kind of makes you wonder, if BP is doing fiction now, how many other articles are fiction also? If I want to read fiction, I'll go to Barnes and Noble.

Donald E. Park
Nov 08, 2010

Don't send anymore reprints of stories that end part way through the story. I'm not about to spend several hours trying to find my copy of a magzine published well over a year ago.

Brian
Oct 29, 2010

Great story, great writing!

Brian
Oct 29, 2010

Great story, great writing!

Carlito
Oct 29, 2010

I loved this story when I read it in print... all you cry babies complaining about Backpacker not labeling this as fiction up front are lame. It's obviously fiction, but it's fun to imagine it is real for those of us that actually retained their imagination when they passed into adulthood.

Carlito
Oct 29, 2010

I loved this story when I read it in print... all you cry babies complaining about Backpacker not labeling this as fiction up front are lame. It's obviously fiction, but it's fun to imagine it is real for those of us that actually retained their imagination when they passed into adulthood.

Anonymous
Oct 28, 2010

that sucked

Sam Mudd
Oct 21, 2010

This is really fun

BJ Hopkins
Oct 21, 2010

This is real.

Dale Garrison
Aug 20, 2010

Great read. Thank you Backpacker and Steve Friedman.

Leo
Aug 14, 2010

Journalistic integrity took it on the chin in Backpacker after this article.

Steve
Aug 13, 2010

Should have been labeled as fictional from the start.

Megan
Feb 04, 2010

Really fun read! Where is the rest of it?! I read the article in the magazine, but have lost it (don't ask me how!) ofcourse this is the one I can't find. I want to share this story with some friends... have them read it and enjoy the suspense! Where can I find the rest of it?

Joan Littlefield
Jan 16, 2010

I would love to read more from this author. Where can I find it?

Nick Davidson
Dec 01, 2009

Having said that, no blame to the writer. I was entranced by the story. Just wish Backpacker would have been honest about this fictional anomaly.

Nick Davidson
Dec 01, 2009

Great story. If it were real. Too bad we readers had to be tricked into reading it, and only found out in a vague contributors note at the end of the article. This is sloppy and irresponsible journalism. A note should have appeared at the beginning of the article that what we were reading was not real. I'm pretty disappointed about that.

Wilber Marquez
Nov 20, 2009

I love it! Brilliant writing, my emotions wanted more! I had to read this over and over to make sure i did't miss anything.

D
Nov 09, 2009

Wicked tale telling! And SOOO believable!

Jason
Nov 02, 2009

What a great story. This was "The Blair Witch Project" slimmed down to 5 pages...and was just as good, if not better. If I had a million dollars, I'd make this into a movie in no time flat.

Ryan Hayes
Nov 02, 2009

this had me fooled as well. I live in the area and started to feel conflicted because some of the geographic locations don't jive but then when I realized it was fiction I loved it.

E
Oct 31, 2009

What! I don't get it at all, is there a page missing or something?

Brian
Oct 30, 2009

THAT WAS GREAT! :)

Don
Oct 28, 2009

Brilliant writing! I was so duped. I thought this was real until the very end. It started so plausibly, and I wanted to stick with each eerie twist. What a great Halloween treat!

Wayne Hobbs
Oct 28, 2009

I have grown up hiking, backpacking, canoeing and camping in the Ozark forests and now am in my 50's. I feel far safer deep in my southern forests than in the large cities that blight our nations landscape.

I loved the story. The author has a gift and would be welcome at my campfire anytime.

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