EMINENCE, Mo. -- John Mark Brewer bounced down a gravel road in his beat-up pickup truck, taking in the sights, Ozark-style.
He had no real destination in mind. If he got lost, fine.
When you're touring the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park, as Brewer has done for most of his life, time and destination really don't mean much.
"We call it 'backroading' down here," Brewer said as he drove through an emerald forest interspersed with the white of flowering dogwood trees and the purple and red of wildflowers. "A lot of people down here just like to get out and tour the area.
"It's like in the city, where people take a Sunday drive. The only difference is that you look at buildings. We go out to see natural wonders."
Brewer, 34, didn't have to travel far from his home in Eminence, Mo. Just a few miles from town, there was an endless display of nature at its best.
Brewer got a reminder when he rounded a curve and pulled up to Broadfoot Flats. He was greeted by a rare sight -- a herd of wild horses. He coasted to a stop and admired the beauty of the white, brown and calico animals, whose manes waved in the wind.
Then he began counting. Minutes later, he said, "Thirty-six. That's one of the biggest concentrations I've seen. But they like it here. Broadfoot Flats is one of the places where you have a good chance of seeing them."
Historical accounts indicate that the wild horses have been in the region since the Depression, when ranchers could no longer afford to feed their domestic horses, and set them free. Descendants of those horses have roamed the forests and fields along the Current River since, adding to the intrigue of Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
But Brewer will tell you that the wild horses aren't the only sight that makes this land special. Many in the region are proud of the fact that this is where the Missouri Department of Conservation is reintroducing elk. And the national park is filled with unique natural wonders at every turn.
There are 58 springs in the park, many of them known for their blue water and the rushing current they produce. Hiking trails lead to those springs and pass through verdant forests that glow with green at this time of the year.
Fields of wildflowers of every color add to the beauty. And the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, the centerpiece of the national park, are alive with canoeists and fishermen throughout the spring. In fact, Eminence is nicknamed "the canoeing capital of the world."
With its wild, free-flowing rivers, the region attracted national attention in the 1960s when supporters of the region pushed for it to be protected from the trend of dam-building.
In 1964, Congress provided that protection when it designated 134 miles of the rivers and the rugged terrain along their banks as the first national scenic riverways.
Here in Shannon County, wildlife is more common than people. It's one of the biggest counties in Missouri, covering more than 1,000 square miles. Yet, it has one of the state's lowest populations, 8,500 residents.
Brewer said that the federal and state governments own 65 percent to 70 percent of the land. That doesn't leave much for people and businesses. That's why Shannon County is also one of the poorest in the state.
But the people here see that in a different light.
"Economically, some people here are struggling," said Jim Anderson, mayor of Eminence, who runs Shady Lane Cabins and Motel. "But we feel rich, living in the middle of this."
Brewer, whose family owns an ice business and is a promoter of tourism and economic development in the area, agrees.
As he hiked along a trail with rocky outcroppings to one side and a forest with purple Sweet William wildflowers to the other, he was reminded how lucky he was to live in the area. When he reached Welch Spring, those feelings intensified. The remains of a rock hospital stood along the banks and a blue spring spewed a rush of clear water down a riffle.
"This is one of my favorite places," he said. "It's so peaceful."
Brewer later toured Cave Springs, paused at an overlook of a valley, hiked along the banks of the Current River and took photos of wildflowers. Just another day in paradise.
"I'm lucky to live here," he said. "I don't have to travel far out of Eminence to be in a different world."
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