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Springfield couple hike 50 states in 14 years

Friday, May 2, 2014 | 3:45 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — There's the sharp smell of sulfur fumes emanating from the lava fields in Hawaii.

And the strange-looking deer they found tangled in a fence in Nebraska.

Oh, and the eight stitches she got from a nasty fall at Little Devils Tower in Colorado.

Relaxing in their comfortable center city home in Springfield, the memories come in a rush for Ester and Bill Bultas. Although they started hiking in their 60s — relatively late in life — in just 14 years, the couple managed to explore trails in all 50 states and parts of Canada. More adventures are on their horizon.

"There are places we never would have thought to hike, like Nebraska, but the Nebraska panhandle is incredible," said Ester, 70. "That's where we found this deer trapped in a fence, but it wasn't a deer."

She snapped a few photos and showed them to game officials who immediately recognized the animal as a young elk.

"We weren't expecting to see elk there," she said.

Ester, who taught high school science for 30 years, and Bill, 73, a retired Internal Revenue Service auditor, didn't set out to hike in all 50 states. But in 2000, they took a trip to Quebec City and Montreal and walked some trails. Something clicked.

The following year, they flew to Hawaii, where they trekked across the black lava fields of a volcanic caldera at the Big Island's Volcanoes National Park. There, they discovered the value of being properly equipped for hiking.

"I wore sandals and had no hiking gear at all," Ester recalled, laughing at the memory. "It was so hot from the sun. But it was otherworldly."

"That's an inspirational place, with the steam coming out from the rocks," Bill added. "We were overwhelmed by what we were seeing. You could see where people had walked (the sharp lava sandpapered the soles of hiking boots), and there was a sulfuric smell from the volcano that was just fascinating."

They never went the backpacking route, preferring to find places that could be hiked in a single day close to reasonably priced motels with a comfortable bed. They also explored close to home and have put many miles on the Ozark Trail in Missouri, at Busiek State Forest south of Springfield and along the Buffalo National River trail in Arkansas.

"When we were first getting started, our son took us to see the falls at Hercules Glade (south of Bradleyville), and that's where we learned about waterproof shoes," Ester remembers. "Our kids also got us Garmin GPS devices so we wouldn't get lost. They didn't want to read about us in the news."

With her science and biology background, Ester said she relishes seeing and identifying the vast range of plant species and flowers along the trails in different states.

"I'm the history guy. She's the flower girl," Bill quipped affectionately. "If you hike with us, it takes forever because she's always on her knees looking at some kind of plant or flower. But she really enjoys it."

During a hike at the Peck Ranch Conservation Area in southeast Missouri, Bill said he "discovered" the ruins of an old iron mill with a fascinating and uniquely Ozarks history.

He observed a massive and ornately decorated chimney that still stands and marks the site of the long-defunct Mid-Continent Iron Company.

"At the turn of the century, they built this iron mill and cut down the trees to melt the iron ore," Bill recalled. "They'd go through 25 cords of wood a day just to run the furnace."

The mill eventually failed shortly after World War I, and the state bought the land, initially to restore flocks of wild turkey to Missouri.

Peck Ranch most recently has been used to bring elk back to their native Missouri habitat.

The idea of hiking all 50 states didn't emerge as a goal until the couple had 30 states beneath their boots.

The prospect seemed doable, and they quickly began filling their small travel notebooks with snippets of memorable encounters.

"We were hiking the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a gorgeous place, and people around us kept saying we were stupid for not having a gun with us because of the wolves," Bill said. "We never saw a wolf."

At Glacier National Park in northern Montana, they encountered a group of hikers heading out from the wilderness trail.

"One of them said they had a tent demolished by a grizzly," Ester recalled. "We really didn't think anything about it."

But their hike took them up through dense thickets where they easily could have walked up on a bear.

"We were stupid," Ester added. "The game wardens were closing that area because of two rogue grizzlies."

Ironically, Ester said her most frightening animal encounter didn't happen in the wilds of Idaho or the bear-grazed blueberry fields in Alaska. It occurred on a trail in central Oklahoma — and didn't involve rattlesnakes.

"The most scared I've ever been was on a hike in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge," Ester said.

"We walked up on a herd of cattle, the ones with the really long horns. I started to back into a cedar tree so they couldn't see me — and there was one right behind me. It scared me to death, but it never moved. It just sat there watching us."

Ester and Bill say the opportunity to be outdoors and experience nature's greatness is what draws them to hiking. Both were momentarily at a loss for words when trying to describe how they felt upon seeing gargantuan redwood trees at Redwood National Park in Crescent City, Calif.

"You know, once a tree gets that big, it's just beyond your comprehension," Ester said. "They're just so huge."


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