Park’s eyes and ears Man honored for 35 years as park volunteer, hiker, leader

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 10, 2004

If a historian ever wanted to write a book about Oak Mountain State Park, Les Miller would certainly be the man to talk to.

Likewise, if a hiker got lost in the 10,000 acres within Oak Mountain, or a curious naturalist wondered where to find the elusive reindeer moss that dots scattered hillsides within the park, Miller could help.

For 35 years, Miller has walked through Oak Mountain State Park.

He knows the park well enough to lead hikes every month, as he has for the past 23 years.

Even at night, Miller’s familiarity with the park enables him to safely lead wary hikers through the Alabama twilight.

In February, Gov. Bob Riley and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources honored Miller as a VIP, or Volunteers in Park.

Miller helped found the Vulcan Trail Association in 1976, and he has led hikes for the group on the second Sunday of every month for the past 23 years.

He usually leads between 10 and 15 people during the regular hikes. Those who make it enjoy his signature blackberry tea and chocolate chip cookies at the end of the trail.

Some people continue coming back for the second Sunday hikes with Miller, the park’s unofficial trail historian.

&uot;You get the funny feeling it’s the only time they get out,&uot; he said of some hikers.

Not Miller. He spends about four days at the park each week. The other three he spends working as a beauty products salesman in Birmingham.

Hikers are entertained with stories about the park, as well as Miller’s unique sense of humor.

He doesn’t mind disturbing the wildlife lurking around bends in the trail with his thunderous laugh or his jokes.

Hikers who walk regularly with Miller know that when he says &uot;George,&uot; he’s referring to a non-poisonous snake that may be coiled along the trail side.

If a hiker hears him say &uot;Sam,&uot; they know to be on the lookout for a poisonous &uot;Mr. No-Shoulders,&uot; as Miller calls them.

Mysteries of the park

Oak Mountain State Park itself is lucky to have Miller.

According to the man who has walked the ridges and valleys of the park for more than three decades, no one has ever written a history of the park.

Most of that history remains caked in the bootheels of people like Miller, who come to the park to enjoy long walks through the Alabama wilderness.

As an amateur archaeologist, Miller has uncovered dozens of park mysteries.

He offers a few theories and encourages visitors to come up with their own.

For instance, on a recent hike, Miller and a friend discovered a pile of rocks that he believes may be an old family cemetery or remnants of a church. Nobody knows for sure, he said. There are no records of any church or cemetery within the park.

That’s strange, considering that Miller believes up to 40 families called the park home before the federal government acquired the land in the 1930s.

Records show that 27 families were removed during the process of the park’s opening.

On a Sunday afternoon in early March, Miller followed an invisible trail through a thick bed of longleaf pine needles as he led the way to a conspicuous hole.

The hole, also unexplained, might have been a well. It lies about 10 yards off one of the park’s dozens of old, washed out roads. Some of the roads served an old limestone quarry that Miller shows to a few lucky visitors.

Miller knows certain details about the park that many historians might not.

For instance, in the early 1900s, nearly every stream in the park had a moonshine still in operation.

Miller points to slightly trodden paths along stream banks as partial evidence. He notices things novice hikers generally miss.

Miller knows which areas of the park have never burned, either by nature or by the sometimes-prescribed burns.

He knows that the Red Trail, popular among mountain bikers, was originally completed as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure.

Miller also knows that the park does host woodpeckers, despite the Alabama Audubon Society’s claim to the contrary.

Miller points to a series of gaping holes in the trunk of a tree as evidence.

&uot;A raccoon didn’t do that,&uot; he says.

Also, Miller knows there are no skunks or porcupines in the park.

You will find fox, weasel, possum, raccoon, armadillo, turkey, deer, bobcat, as well as the occasional heron and an array of turtles and beavers.

With thousands of acres to explore, Miller said he still manages to surprise himself with new discoveries.

He continues to stumble across areas he has never seen before.

&uot;I find them all the time,&uot; he said.

Miller knows the look of the park under a blanket of snow, and when the air is warm and heavy.

He notices things most visitors miss, such as when a recent rain fills the mountain streams and rock beds with gurgling water. The park’s sparse waterfalls get louder, he said.

On a recent hike, he pointed out a trampled fern on the forest floor, indicating where a deer had eaten the vitamin-rich inside of the green plant.

He ventures from the trail more frequently during cooler months, when timber rattlesnakes are less likely to hide in the pine needles along the forest floor. Miller says he prefers to walk in giant circles as opposed to following the same path in and out of the woods.

The force of the forest

When asked what keeps him coming back to the Oak Mountain wilderness four times a week, Miller says he needs some work.

Miller believes in what he calls the force of the forest &045; the rejuvenating effects he says he receives each time he walks through the park’s canopy of shag bark hickory trees and longleaf pines.

In order to receive the forest’s benefits, Miller reminds hikers to leave their troubles at home or, at least, in the car.

&uot;Let the place work on you,&uot; he said.

During a Sunday stroll through the woods with Miller this month, the man with the plaid flannel shirt and burgundy hiking stick stopped suddenly and asked hikers to close their eyes. He asked what each hiker was seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling. Once, he even encouraged hikers to cling to a fat oak tree in order to get the full effect.

&uot;Do you feel the strength of the tree?&uot; Miller asked.

On a ridge top scattered with short pine trees he lovingly refers to as &uot;little people,&uot; the March sunlight splintered through the tree canopy and decorated a floor of pine needles with shadows.

The wind through the tree tops rustled limbs and scattered leaves, electrifying the scene.

&uot;Everything out here has its own energy field,&uot; Miller said. &uot;The force is very strong with me. If I stay out of the forest too long, I’ve got to come out and get the battery recharged.&uot;