Great Seal State Park: March 5

Ah, early March. Glorious, hope-filled, golden early March. The world hangs on the edge between melting winter and waiting spring. The days–crisp, but no longer frigid–grow steadily longer, stepping ever more quickly towards flowers. My eyes are pulled downwards for the first time since October, searching the forest floor for mushrooms that I know aren’t there yet, but aren’t far away now, either. Winter has its perks but spring–spring makes everything worth it.

It’s the time of year when staying inside begins to feel pointless. I was craving a hike, despite growing piles of essays to grade, and so on Friday, March 5, Wiggs and I decided to check out a new hiking location. We settled on Great Seal State Park near Chillicothe, about an hour due south of Columbus. We only had time for a short hike, but it was a perfect afternoon and a satisfying hike on surprisingly steep terrain. We both highly recommend a visit, and I think it’s likely that we will be there again soon.

Wiggs among the trees

Getting There

As usual, it took us a long time to hit the road. Wiggs had some assignments to finish and I was working on a cover letter. Eventually, we got enough of our respective work done that we felt good about going. We headed south out of Columbus, and, after a few mishaps with directions, construction, and the ever-infuriating challenge of figuring out which way to go on I-270, we were well on our way, following route 52 straight down to Chillicothe. It’s an easy, straightforward drive, and the entrance to the park is right off an easily accessible main road – no gravel or Forest Service roads to contend with this time.

There are two parking lots at Great Seal, and we realized very quickly that we had parked in the wrong one: the disc golf and picnic area lot. So we drove back towards the main entrance and parked where we wanted to be: the campground. There was no one there that afternoon, but the sheer number of pull-in spots suggests that the place could get quite crowded on a non-pandemic summer evening.

A dead elm, we think.

The Hike

Our plan was to take the Sugarloaf trail to the Shawnee Ridge trail. We found the trailhead right by the campground entrance, and upon entering the woods, I felt that familiar sense of settling and relief that comes with being among the trees. I knew it was too early for mushrooms to be popping out, but I kept finding myself with my eyes glued to the ground, searching for the bright red of Sarcoscypha sp or, even less likely this early, a morel. Nothing mycological showed itself to me on this day, but we did spot a number of auspicious trees that may prove fruitful come April.

Very excited to be outside

We took the trail to Sugarloaf Mountain, which meandered towards the north side of the slope and then steeply up to the summit. By non-Ohio standards, this was really just a hill. But compared to the flat, glaciated center of the state, it was a pretty impressive climb. It shot straight up the mountain, Appalachian Trail-style, gaining almost 500 feet in less than a quarter of a mile. I was genuinely working to get to the top, and it felt extremely invigorating.

There isn’t much of a view from the summit, but since the trees were still bare, we could see fairly clearly down towards the plains and north to Columbus. We could also see other wooded ridges to the south and west. We took it all in for a moment, and then continued down the equally steep downhill on the other side.

Not a ton of sweeping views at this summit, but it was satisfying to get to the top!

At a fork we took a right turn, which ended up putting us back at the campground. We turned around, realizing our mistake, and continued past the fork up to the Shawnee Ridge trail. The path wound its way around the sides of the ridge, then down into the valley and across creeks, before climbing Bald Hill. It still felt like winter here, and no green leaves were peeking out yet. We did, however, see a large herd of whitetail dear and, adorably, a chipmunk poking its little head out from a hole in a log.

We both felt great and could have kept going, but it was soon around 6:00 PM and the sun was starting to set. We stopped for a quick snack on a log, got cold very quickly, and meandered back towards the car. Before we left we were treated to a lovely sunset over the ridge by the parking lot. Neither of us was ready to stop hiking, but it was still so nice to have visited a new place, climbed a legitimate hill, and been in the woods again.

Sunset from the parking lot

About the Park

Even though I know that the name “Great Seal” refers to the Great Seal of the State of Ohio, I couldn’t stop picturing it as the animal. Like, the kind that lives in the ocean. This is not the meaning, unfortunately. Supposedly, the first governor and the first secretary of state once saw the sun rising over the hills at what is now Great Seal State Park after an all-night meeting in Chillicothe. This sunrise is said to have inspired the image that is now seen on the Great Seal of the State of Ohio.

Nearby Chillicothe was once the original capital of Ohio, and before that, it was the site of multiple Shawnee settlements in the shadow of the hills of what is now the state park. The Scioto river was utilized extensively by the Shawnee people for transportation from town to town. Tecumseh was born near what is now Circleville, and not far from Great Seal is the location of Chief Logan’s impassioned speech swearing revenge on the white settlers who murdered his people – now memorialized at the Logan Elm Memorial.

The park features an extensive network of trails, a campground, a disc golf course, and a pleasant picnic shelter. It is an hour south of Columbus, and makes a fine, satisfying day hike in Central Ohio. For the former Appalachian Trail hiker, it will take you right back to early spring in Georgia. In other words, you will feel right at home.

The extensive trail system at Great Seal State Park

Mishaps Make an Adventure: Paint Creek State Park, January 5, 2021

I always think about hiking, but I think about hiking the most when it is winter. Ohio has been covered in over a foot of snow for the past few weeks. Just about when I was recovered from COVID-19, the world turned frigid and the sidewalks froze over. Every run becomes a perilous oscillation between running on the street and jumping out of the way of cars and back into the snowbank. When I get home, inevitably cranky and annoyed at the current frozen state of the outdoors, I stare at photos of trails in the summer with longing.

It’s been a while since I went on a proper day hike, but there is one that stands out from recent months. On January 5, Wiggs and I met up in the middle of nowhere in Ohio, deep in Amish country, meaning to go for a hike at Fort Hill Earthworks and Nature Preserve. That did not pan out, but we did find another place to hike, which had surprisingly nice trails. Here’s how it went.

Nothing like a good puffball cloud

The Drive to Fort Hill

I was still at home in Kentucky in early January, while Wiggs was working in Columbus. He had a day off on January 5, so we agreed to meet about halfway for a visit at Fort Hill Earthworks and Nature Preserve. This revered hiking area has 1300 acres of old-growth forest and a Hopewell hilltop enclosure, built about 2,000 years ago. This is an Ohio History Passport site, so in addition to experiencing a new hiking area, I was also excited to get another stamp.

I made the hour and 45 minute drive from Cincinnati in the dreary weather, which hovered somewhere between light snow and a drizzle. I took a wrong turn, and was rerouted down a smaller county road. Soon, I was passing white farm houses with black buggies parked out front, clotheslines running from windows to trees, and signs that read “Handmade Baskets for sale – No Sun. Sale.” I only ever seem to wind up in Amish country when I don’t mean to. I take a turn, find myself deep in the smooth country hills of Ohio, and end up in another era.

When I finally arrived at Fort Hill, the first thing I saw was Wiggs waiting in his car. The next thing I saw was a locked gate where the entrance should be. I pulled up next to Wiggs, who looked dejected. As it turns out, there was a deer management hunt on this day, and so the grounds and hiking trails were closed. We had driven too far to just turn around and go home, so we decided to drive up the road until we found service, and navigate to another hiking location in the area. We soon found service, pulled into the tiny gravel parking lot of a tiny country church, and searched on Google Maps. The nearest place was Paint Creek State Park, so we navigated there.

Trail closure sign at Fort Hill

Paint Creek State Park

When we pulled into the park, it was totally deserted. We drove down to the lake, which was low enough to have created a sandbar. We walked on the sand, noting freshwater clam shells and great blue heron tracks. There was driftwood, and something oddly peaceful about this dreary day by the side of a lake.

We drove back up the hill and parked by a sign for a mountain bike trail. The map on the sign showed a large network of trails that looped down towards the water, then back on themselves, then outward again. Taken together, they would make a decent day hike – maybe 15 miles. We headed into the woods, opting for the trail closest to the lake.

Clams and rocks along the lake

It was easy walking, alternating between flat grassy paths through underbrush and thinner, forested trails. At first, the views and the trees were unimpressive, but the trail gave way to clear views down to the lake and became populated with all kinds of trees, including ideal mushroom trees: tulip poplar, elm, oak, sycamore. We found a tree covered in oyster mushrooms, just past their prime – otherwise they would have made a great harvest. Given the density of the elms and tulip poplars, we decided to come back during morel season.

Oyster mushrooms growing on a tree next to the trail

We took a lunch break on a large log overlooking the water. It was cold, though, so we didn’t stop for long. After lunch we continued up and over hills, around small ridges, and across creek beds, until it began to get dark and we decided to call it a day. Before heading home we drove north to the town of Greenfield, where we found a little coffee shop called The Grindhouse Café. We got pastries and coffees, and drove to a park to eat them. Considering that it was gray and drizzling, we sat in my car rather than getting out. And considering that this was not a particularly nice park, and was mostly just a parking lot, this was probably preferable anyway. My cappuccino was warm and the pastry was sweet, and even though the day didn’t go quite as planned, we were still glad for the time outside and together.

The map at the trailhead of Paint Creek State Park

Make it Work

I was disappointed not to be able to see Fort Hill that day, but we made an adventure out of it anyway. Paint Creek may not be a world-class hiking destination, but it was fun, it was a new experience, and it might just be our next great mushroom hunting destination. Yet again, hiking provided a life lesson: Frequently, things will not go the way you want them to, or the way you expect. You can be upset, you can drive home in a huff, you can be mad that it didn’t go the way you envisioned it. Or, you can make it work. You can drive to a new destination and see what happens. I’m glad we made it work.

Winter Hike in Hocking Hills

A week and a half ago I started feeling the beginnings of a sore throat, and then the next day I woke up with a fever. I decided to get a Covid-19 test, and it was positive. I have been in self-isolation for the past nine days with persistent fatigue, lack of taste and smell, and now, a powerful cough. On the bright side, it’s cold out, so it doesn’t feel like too much of an inconvenience to be cozy in my apartment. But I am beginning to get a bit antsy, and my mind inevitably wanders to the thought of being outside and with other people.

I was fortunate to be able to go on a number of smaller hikes before Christmas. One of them, on December 18, was a lovely little trip to Hocking Hills State Park with Wiggs and his brother, Collin. Although I grew up in Northern Kentucky and currently live in Columbus, I had never been to this beautiful place before, so we decided to make the trip as a last hurrah to the fall semester. Here are a few highlights from this day.

In the gorge at Hocking Hills State Park

Getting Started

December 18 was one of my last days in town before heading home for Christmas. As a college writing teacher, I was also in the thick of grading final papers and managing a flurry of panicked emails before grades were due. I was stressed out. We debated the merits of going when Wiggs and I both had so much to do, but we ultimately decided that one never regrets spending time outside. So, although we got a late start, we still made the trip, and I am so happy we did. Wiggs drove, I stress-crocheted, and Collin sat in the back peacefully consuming a tray of cinnamon bites from Taco Bell on the hour and a half drive to Hocking Hills.

It wasn’t a particularly sunny day, but it had just snowed, and a graceful dusting of white covered the trees and grass. The highway ended and we made our way down a winding road, stopping at the Hocking Hills Coffee Emporium for a cozy cappuccino and snacks. When we got to the state park it was nearly empty, considering that it was winter and a weekday. It felt like we had the place almost to ourselves.

Wiggs at Upper Falls

Hocking Hills: A Brief History

Hocking Hills has a fascinating natural and cultural history. Its now-famous natural rock formations were created by millions of years of erosion into the soft Black Hand Sandstone that characterizes the area. Because this erosion formed an uncharacteristically cool and moist environment, certain species of trees, such as hemlocks and yews, are able to grow here, although they are not typically found anywhere else in Ohio.

The Adena people – the same people who built many of the mounds in Ohio – are thought to have lived in the area, followed by the Shawnee, Delaware, and Wyandot peoples. Hocking Hills derives its name from the Shawnee word “Hockhocking,” meaning, roughly, “bottleneck river,” due to the shape of the gorge and the narrow channels of rock that the river flows through.

One of the most famous areas of Hocking Hills, and one that we visited, is Old Man’s Cave. This formation is so named because of the hermit Richard Rowe, who was said to have lived in the cave after moving to Ohio from Tennessee in the late 1700s. Supposedly, Rowe is buried in the cave.

Stepping into the gorge at Hocking Hills is like entering another universe. On this day, it was a peaceful, cool, fragrant, snow-covered universe, one that I was enormously happy to visit.

Inside Old Man’s Cave

Hiking in the Gorge

We started the hike by descending the staircase on the Grandma Gatewood Trail towards the Upper Falls. We admired the deep, clear pool and the cascading stream of water, mercifully free of any other visitors. We continued down the gorge, passing the Devil’s Bathtub, and enjoying the rock formations, caves, and meandering trail crossing over and back over the creek. We walked up towards Old Man’s Cave, admiring its vastness, then down further into the valley to the Lower Falls.

The Lower Falls, in particular, struck me as extraordinarily beautiful. The hemlocks on the cliffs above and the boulders below were dusted with a fine layer of snow. The chilly air brushed against my face. It smelled fresh and clear, and I was so glad to be outside in this beautiful place instead of staring at a computer screen.

Lower Falls

We continued down the trail towards Cedar Falls. The path followed a flat, pleasant walk through the valley. We meandered first towards the creek, then along the side of the pocketed sandstone cliffs, and then back down again. I couldn’t get over the smell. It was so clean and fresh, with the water and the snow and the hemlocks. It didn’t feel like Ohio, or anywhere else I’d been. It was just beautiful, quiet, and serene.

We stopped for lunch at Cedar Falls. Here there were more tourists, including one who decided to sit on a rock right in front of the waterfall for a considerable length of time, thereby subjecting everyone’s lovely nature photographs to the addition of a strange man vaping on a rock. Everyone should be able to enjoy the beauty of a natural area, but friends, please be self-aware, and don’t be that guy. Inconsiderate visitors aside, it was a lovely location for a sandwich and a cup of hot tea, brewed by Collin, who is just beginning to get into backpacking and who brought along his stove. I was grateful for the warmth of the drink in the chilly winter day.

Cedar Falls (strategically photographed to avoid the vaper on the rock)

Hiking Along the Rim

I didn’t want to leave the waterfall. It was so beautiful and serene. But it was getting late, so we climbed the stairs to the top of the falls and made a loop back around on the Ash Rim Trail overlooking the gorge.

This trail is smooth, flat, and wide, and since it is in the woods above the creek rather than down among the rocks, we covered the distance more quickly. Though it is arguably not as scenic as the trail down in the gorge, it is still beautiful, and it was especially beautiful in the snow. There was an overlook out towards the hills on the other side of the valley, and the pines and hemlocks were dusted with a light, frothy layer of snow.

The trail makes its way past the south shore of Rose Lake. We stood looking at the snowy trees on the other side of the water. Wiggs found a large stick that made a fun whooshing noise, so he and Collin had a fun time playing with it on the edge of the lake. Classic antics.

We continued through the forest, eventually arriving at the A-frame suspension bridge over the gorge that leads back to the Old Man’s Cave visitor center. It was by now almost dark, considering that it was winter and that we’d gotten quite a late start, so we loaded back up in the car, calmer and happier, and made our way back to Columbus.

Fun time at Rose Lake with a stick

You Never Regret a Hike

Although going for a hike didn’t make any of my work disappear or magically make me more motivated to grade thirty argument essays, it restored me and refreshed me and put me back into a positive mindset. I am the kind of person who lives and breathes by to-do lists, measuring the value of my day against how much I got done. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, in the long run, tasks and minute daily accomplishments don’t really matter. There’s a balance to be had between getting one’s work done and doing what has meaning. I have a feeling that managing this balance is a lifelong lesson, and one I look forward to learning.

What I’m really trying to say is, just go for a hike. If you have a lot to do but you want to go outside, just go outside. If you have papers to grade but your soul is begging you for a day in the woods, go to the woods. Smell the waterfalls and the hemlocks and play with a stick in the snow. Be with your friends and love the world. You never, ever, regret a hike.

The suspension bridge over the gorge, leading back to the Visitor Center

Wildcat Hollow: December 9, 2020

Keeping my writing up-to-date is one of my numerous New Year’s resolutions. I struggle to write as often as I’d like, despite the fact that, if I’m honest with myself, I really do have the time. But instead of updating my blog I sometimes decide to do things like binging all of The Queen’s Gambit in one night. I justify this by telling myself that I can crochet while watching TV, so it’s not a waste of time. But in reality, I only get half of a cactus done because my eyes end up glued to the screen. Ah, well. It’s something to work on.

Anyway, let’s talk about hiking! Back in December Wiggs and I took a day to explore a new (to us) hiking area in Ohio called Wildcat Hollow. It was a beautiful day, a fun ride, and a great place to hike.

Puffballs and their spores

To The Trail

We got a somewhat decently early start on the morning of December 9, packing lunch and snacks and heading east out of Columbus. The drive was easy at first, following I-70 before an exit onto OH-33 and then a series of smaller county routes. The road grew smaller and narrower, until it was a gravel path passing small towns and abandoned houses and leading into Wayne National Forest. Finally we located the trailhead, parked, and began our day.

I don’t know why we didn’t think to bring overnight gear. There are several great-looking campsites right by the parking lot, and there is a Forest Service privy right at the trailhead. Dispersed camping is also allowed, and we passed numerous sites throughout the day, though the water quality might be doubtful considering the heavy agricultural activity in the area. We kicked ourselves for this oversight all day. We passed up a chance to sleep in the woods! But now we know, and we will be back.

Wiggs and the carnivorous sign-eating tree

The Hike

It was a glorious day. Everything was bathed in a warm, golden light as we began the hike in the muddy valley. The trail forked right, and climbed a small hill to a ridge line. Though it was winter and the woods were lacking in color, the sunlight and blue sky made up for the absence of foliage. As I breathed in I was thrown back to Georgia in March on the Appalachian Trail: no green, no shade, but crisp chilly sunlight, fresh air, and the excitement of everything that lay ahead.

The trail at Wildcat Hollow is well maintained for the most part, and the hiking was fairly easy. We followed the ridge for a while, then dipped down into a valley. This pattern repeated for a while: ridgeline cruising, valley creek crossing. Ridge, valley, creek. We also stumbled upon a beaver bog, punctuated by gnawed-down trees. I crouched quietly behind a stump for a few moments, hoping to see the creators of the wetland. None appeared, but I always love seeing the evidence of their engineering.

We also found a large fallen tree riddled with moss and puffballs. Wiggs poked them, coaxing a cloud of spores out into the forest. There was also, less beautifully but no less interesting, a slowly deteriorating TV with its magic board of switches and sensors strewn about the forest floor. How did this TV get here? And how many mushroom spores have brushed against its forever-lasting plastic and metal?

Natural intricacies

I felt good on this hike, almost as good as I did on the AT. I’ve been running a lot over the past few months, as I want to run a half-marathon in 2021. I felt better than I remembered on any recent day hike, like the climbs barely affected me and like I could go on and on. Wiggs and I meandered in and out of conversation, sometimes about what was around us, other times about what was not. We always orbit back to the Appalachian Trail, reminiscing, then fly away again to other worlds. Until I hike another long trail, this will be the gravity around which I stake my life.

We had a quick lunch after about five miles, and then we headed back the way we came. I cut my hand on a branch and nearly fell into a creek, but such are the usual casualties of a good day of hiking. We finished the loop we had started, passing first an RV and then a small house before heading back into the woods, around another ridge, and downhill to the valley where we started. We bade the mushrooms and trees and sunlight adieu, and got into the car.

I wished we’d thought to look up camping before we left, but it was still nice to spend a day outside. It was a bit of a trek from Columbus, but I’d still be more than happy to go back for a campfire and a clear spring morning among the trees.

Go beavers!

Location and Information

Go see it for yourself! Wildcat Hollow is located in Wayne National Forest, about 40 minutes north of Athens and 1 hour and 45 minutes southeast of Columbus. There is a five-mile day hike loop and a 17.1-mile backpacking loop. The hiking is mild and it is possible to complete a long day hike fairly quickly. A USFS vault toilet and several excellent campsites await at the parking lot, and dispersed camping is also allowed on the trails. I might suggest bringing enough water for the whole trip, however, as the area sees a lot of agricultural activity and the water in the creeks may be iffy.

More information about the area can be found at the Forest Service website.

A printable trail map is also available.

Enjoy!

A wild Wiggs at the Wildcat Hollow sign

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 3

Friday, October 30

The first thing I notice when I wake up is the silence. No rain drops pattering on the roof. No splashing of puddles. The next thing I notice is that it is cold. Inside the tent, my sleeping bag and camp clothes are dry, but all of my other gear, including the clothes I have to hike in, are still soaked. It’s going to be miserable when I have to put those on. But that’s not a right-now problem. There is silence, and the slight suggestion of the sun appearing through the trees, and I am grateful.

We still eat an in-tent breakfast, though, because it is genuinely chilly. But because it is not raining finally, we can open our doors and poke our heads out into the world. I savor my coffee and peanut butter tortillas and burrow down one last time into my sleeping bag, cuddling around my damp hiking clothes in a feeble attempt to warm them up before I have to put them on. It doesn’t do much, and I shudder and wail my way through putting the wet clothing back on my body. From the sound of it, Wiggs is experiencing the same unique misery.

Ridge walking in the morning

We warm up quickly, though, once we get going. It doesn’t take as long today since the weather is better. We backtrack the way we came last night, down to a ridge with tall old trees, their leaves mostly fallen. We can see out into the valleys below and hills beyond. I stop for a second and breathe it in.

It’s so good. It smells like fresh rain and crisp shoulder season mornings. Like March in Georgia, after the first rainstorm, when the world is calm again and the trail stretches so far on. I love this. I love this forest, I love Ohio, I love whatever this is that a trail, any trail, makes me feel.

We follow the ridge and descend the steep hill we came up last night. Instead of going back across the same creek we consult the map and decide to take a different part of the loop, adding a bit of distance to the hike. We’re ahead of schedule and we have hit our stride. We ascend the short hills easily and coast across the ridges.

We wind up in a wet valley where the trail repeatedly crosses a creek with no discernible pattern. The rain has made it difficult to tell what is normal waterway and what is seasonal puddle, and we hop across sandbars, rocks, and fallen trees. There are more caves and exposed rock walls here. It feels like a tamer iteration of the Red River Gorge. I feel regret at the prospect that this hike is coming to an end. I’d take another three rainy days in the woods if it meant that I didn’t have to leave.

Wiggs, a cave, and a touch of blue sky

We reach the road, which has been flooded in parts due to yesterday’s downpour, and walk along the pavement back to the car. I change into the dry clothes I left in the trunk, trade my trail runners for my camp shoes, and stretch.

Three days in the woods and I feel calmer. Three wet days in the woods and I am more myself. Hiking never magically solves problems. It doesn’t pay my rent or resolve my dilemmas or do my work for me. But it does make me ready, remind me what I’m made of, and show me why it’s worth it.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 2

Thursday, October 29

I awake to rain on the roof of the tent. It’s a steady patter, decidedly not a drizzle, and it looks like the weather prediction came true. Though it was forecasted to be a downpour today, last night in my optimistic mind there was a chance that maybe it wouldn’t actually happen. But it did––it rained all day, in a thick, steady curtain of plopping drops. It wasn’t too bad when we were moving, but the moment we stopped for lunch or a snack, the cold smacked us hard and we didn’t want to stay still for long.

We got a pretty late start. I don’t think I even got up until after 9:00. We had coffee and breakfast in the tent and procrastinated getting moving as long as we possibly could, until about 10:30. Once we got going, it was actually a lovely day. What is it about hiking that makes even the dreariest of days an adventure? How can I be happier in the gray Ohio woods than inside, under blankets and with a hot cup of tea? (Don’t get me wrong, though. I wanted those all day too.)

Chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulphureus

Zaleski looks similar to Shawnee. That’s probably not surprising, considering that both are in southern Ohio, which in late fall is characterized by rolling hills, wet rocks, and deciduous trees in the last throes of autumn colors. But there are fewer ups and downs, and it didn’t really feel all that difficult for the most part. There were numerous caves, waterfalls, rock formations, pretty creeks, and cliffs with views across valleys. We also found a large flush of chicken of the woods growing on a dead tree. It turned out to be past its prime, but I was glad to have finally found some after looking for it all fall.

We stopped for lunch on a log under a couple of young beech trees. It was still drizzling, so we made a little canopy for ourselves by tying the corners of my polycryo ground sheet to the branches. Within moments of stopping, the chilly air bit through our wet clothes and my feet stared to go numb. But we brewed some hot lunchtime coffee and it tasted like the warmest, most comforting thing in the world. Immediately after we started walking again after lunch, we found a cave with a massive overhanging rock over a dry fire ring. It would have made a perfect lunch or camping spot. We considered stopping there for the day, but it was only 3:00 and we had so many miles left in us. Ah, well. Such is backpacking.

Our lunch setup. We felt so clever!… And then it stopped raining five minutes later.

Considering that there are fewer ups and downs here than we’re used to, we made it to camp in pretty good time even with the rain. In total, we did about 11.5 miles today to camp 3. When we got to camp it had just stopped raining, but it soon started up again just as I headed down to the spigot to get water. We had a cramped in-tent dinner and finished off our wine boxes. The setup was not ideal, and I really missed having a fire, but such is life. This was followed by assorted camp chores, and finally, we lay down and settled in for the night.

Wiggs remarked to me today that I seem more comfortable out here, more like the person he met and fell in love with a year ago. I can agree. On the trail I know what I’m about. It may be raining, I may smell like garbage, and all of my gear may be soaked to the core, but I am comfortable here. I know how to handle things and carry myself. I know how to use my gear and how to get through. How do I harness that version of myself the moment I step out of the woods? I’ve been wondering over that question for a while now.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 1

It has been beautiful lately, both in Ohio and in Kentucky. For the last ten days the sun has been shining, and while the temperatures took a dip towards winter today, it is still bright and crisp. Naturally, considering this, Wiggs and I chose the only three rainy days in the past few weeks to go for a backpacking trip.

In our defense, it’s hard to arrange for a three-day jaunt in the woods when we have to navigate between our bizarre work and school schedules. He reserved the day off weeks in advance, and I finagled my at-home grading schedule to get (somewhat) caught up. We chose Zaleski State Forest for our trip because we had been to Shawnee numerous times. We wanted to experience the cozy chill of late fall Ohio backpacking while being somewhere new. It’s not a far drive from Columbus, and it felt like a good choice for a three-day trip.

Yr two favorite stinky hikers at the backpacking loop trailhead on State Route 278

We checked the weather beforehand. We knew what we were getting into: 90% chance of rain all day, beginning late in the evening our first night out. We went anyway. Maybe it was the idea that we are thru-hikers and therefore made of tougher stuff, or maybe it was a semi-manic desire to get away from the infuriating COVID-19 at-home routine. Maybe–and I think this is the most likely reason–we needed to be reminded of who and what we are. Whatever the reason, we went. We got rained on, but I would take a rainy fall day in the woods over almost anything else.

Here are some thoughts I wrote on my phone while we were out on the trail.

Day 1: Wednesday, October 28

We got a late start today, of course. My friend Monica was in town for a few days and she left this morning, and I had some work to finish up, so Wiggs and I didn’t hit the road until close to 4. By the time we got to the Zaleski trailhead we only had an hour of daylight left to hike. I hate that about this time of year. Nevertheless, we laced up our shoes, buckled our packs, and headed through the woods for a quick two miles.

Zaleski already feels easier than Shawnee. There are hills, but they are short and manageable. The trail first winds around the side of a hill overlooking some wetlands, then meanders towards a cave. We considered the idea of sleeping in the cave tonight, but I though the rain could make that experience hit or miss. So we kept walking through the quickly-descending darkness.

Zaleski is more visually interesting than other hikes I’ve done in southern and central Ohio. For one, there are really cool caves!

We made it to the camp near point C on the backpacking loop. It’s sort of a gravelly ridge, with a long area for tents. The problem is that gravel means that we had a few issues getting our tent stakes in the ground. Wiggs’s headlamp is running out of battery, so we shared mine as we set up. We tried desperately to get the stakes hammered into the rock-hard ground, and eventually, after much frustration, we were successful. We had an enjoyable camp dinner, complete with small boxes of wine (also known as adult juice boxes, or AJB’s).

About a year ago, Wiggs and I went on our first backpacking trip together at Shawnee. It was rainy and dreary then, too, another classic Ohio October. But that weekend is, in my memory, nothing but comfortable rightness. A month removed from my finish of the Appalachian Trail, I settled back into the routine of wake up, eat breakfast, walk, camp, sleep. I felt so at home with Wiggs immediately. So perhaps it is unsurprising that a year later we are back in the woods.

Though we haven’t technically seen much of Zaleski yet, I am impressed so far. The trail meanders over easy hills, next to wetlands, and up to elevated campsites with fresh water sources. There are mushrooms and dramatic caves below trees shedding the last of their autumn yellows. Despite the gravel issues the campsite is nearly-ideal, with a fire ring and perfect sitting logs. It’s supposed to rain steadily all day tomorrow, but somehow I think it will still be good.

Rainy, dreary, and cozy

I have been struggling. This week has been hard, between the massive amounts of work-related stress, uncertainty about the near and far future, and endless worrying about money. I feel pulled in so many directions at once, and I don’t know where to start first. It’s so hard to be present. It’s so hard to realize that the way I feel now is not the way I will feel forever. Sometimes I feel like I have it together, but other times I feel bumbling and lost, with no real direction. I can’t see around the corners, and I don’t know how I’ll handle the winter and spring. But if the AT taught me anything, it’s that one way or another, things work out. Every morning, rain or shine, I will stand up, tighten my pack straps, and address the day one task and one step at a time.

Note to self: I am alive. Smell the leaves and feel the fire. Listen to the music and be grateful for the love that holds you. Here. Here. Here.

Sheltowee Trace Day 6: July 10, 2020

Today’s total: ~11 mi from campsite on FS 909 to campsite near mile 61

Since we got to camp at a decent time last night, waking up at 6:00 am isn’t hard for once. It’s already hot, but not as bad as it could be, and as we cross back over the creek and head up the road we start to feel like the trail is taking a beautiful turn. We’re rested and our conversation is much more animated than it was this time yesterday. We leave the forest road and turn back into the woods, and soon we are hiking upwards through rhododendrons and around dripping sandstone rock formations. It strikes me that we are not far now from the Red River Gorge.

A couple of miles into our walk we come to the top of the hill and see a pine-dotted clearing to our right. We follow the short trail and then we see our first real view of the entire Trace so far: a sweeping sunny panorama out onto the leafy valley below, with a clear look at a sandstone arch spanning two hills in the distance. It smells fresh and coniferous, like Northern Arizona in the morning.

We take an unintended break at this spot, appreciating that the trail has finally opened up. But we’re trying to make it to town by lunchtime, so eventually we keep walking. The trail is hillier today than it has been, and we follow muddy ruts up to the crest of hills and back down again. I’m feeling okay until a gnat cloud swarms me out of nowhere, followed by a group of biting deer flies. I’m swatting at them madly, cursing becoming increasingly louder, as we walk down a gentle slope.

Something orange catches my eye, and then something else orange, and I realize we have stumbled upon the mother-load of fresh, perfect, juicy chanterelles.

I let out a cry of joy. “Look at them! There are so many!”

We start picking, Wiggs sliding the stems into the mesh on my pack. We want more, but there isn’t enough space. So I begrudgingly take off my head net, my last line of defense against the evil biting flies, and use it as a mushroom collecting bag. Not much later, we come across another patch and can’t resist picking even more. The bag is getting heavy and it looks like we’ll be having nothing but chanterelles for dinner. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

We come to the road crossing that will take us to Frenchburg, and we walk the mile down the asphalt into the not-quite-town. There is one restaurant and one grocery store, and we opt for the restaurant first.

The minute we walk in we become aware of two things: one, that we look and smell terrible, and two, that we are the only people in the entire establishment wearing masks. A group of unmasked older folks at a table openly stare at us as we walk in the door. We’re deep in Kentucky, a vividly red state, where the people are kind at face value but obviously distrusting of outsiders, particularly smelly hippy-looking outsiders wearing masks, one of whom has a a pack with Sharpie notes all over it that say things like “Black Lives Matter” and “singular ‘they’ is at least 600 years old.” I’m a little nervous. I walk to a booth as quickly as I can.

I think about how we often pretend like the outdoors is apolitical, like we can leave ourselves and our beliefs when we go into the woods. Thinking this is problematic. Who can “leave politics behind”? White people. Who can “forget about differences”? White people. White, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied people. White people like us can walk into a town in rural red Kentucky confidently and, despite feeling a bit self-conscious, not fear real harm. This has always been true. And yet, I forgot about it when I went into the woods and came back out. That’s privilege. How am I using it?

At lunch in Frenchburg with our chanterelle children

The server doesn’t seem overly happy to see us there, and I can’t say I blame her. We stink. Badly. She brings us sodas and sandwiches anyway. The Philly cheesesteak and curly fries are divine. We sit in the booth in the fantastically cold restaurant, remembering the familiar feeling of relief of walking into a building after being outside for days on end. I go to the bathroom and wash my hands for much longer than is strictly necessary, watching the dirt run down the drain and feeling a thousand times cleaner.

After lunch we do our resupply at the little neighborhood IGA. What it lacks in variety it makes up for in character. We buy a package of watermelon and, after rearranging the contents of our food bags, sit under the awning of the city building next door and eat it while an unexpected thunderstorm rolls in, pelting rain on the roof and leaving the world smelling of petrichor.

There’s a long road walk after the town, first on a busy two-lane major road and later on smaller streets in a residential area, before becoming a jeep track and properly re-entering the woods. The rain didn’t last long and now somehow it’s even hotter than it was before. My feet are screaming in retaliation against the pavement and I have to stop more times than I would like. When we get to the jeep track the trail is suddenly shaded again, walking next to a wide, flowing creek. All of a sudden, there is water everywhere: in puddles, in creeks. It smells like oxygen. Finally, there was rain, and now there is water.

We see a good campsite not long after this track begins, but it isn’t far enough yet, so we keep walking. We end up regretting this move a bit, as the campsite we do eventually find is soggy, next to a dry part of the creek, and right under a severe slope that was clearly the site of a few landslides. I set up my tent in a tired fog and then sit by the fire ring Wiggs has constructed.

Finally, a wide creek with lots of water!

He looks at my tent, and then across the creek to a tree that is leaning severely and darker than ideal. “Uh…” he starts. “Is that tree a widow-maker?”

I look at it. It is certainly bent at a precarious angle. I imagine a storm scenario. It looks like it wouldn’t take much to knock it down. But I’m not sure if it’s even dead. And I really, really don’t feel like moving my tent.

“Ugh,” I wine plaintively. “Is it even dead? Do you think I’ll die? Is it even supposed to rain?”

Wiggs looks at the tree from some different angles, and discovers that it’s still alive and full of leaves, they’re just hard to see. He assures me that it’s probably okay, that it’s not even supposed to rain. But the whole evening I eye it, unconsciously begging it not to fall on me. It would have taken five minutes to move my tent somewhere else, but the only other spot is full of mud and wet leaves and is right under the worst of the landslide zone. I decide to trust the tree.

Our ramen is about 75% chanterelles tonight. They’re delicious, but we decide to only pick a few from now on. If we were just foraging and not hiking, we could have picked pounds to bring home, fry up, or sell. But in backpacking, you don’t carry more than you can manage. You have to be frugal and principled. You take honest stock of what you can do and how much you want to carry and you align all of your behavior with this reality. It’s something that would benefit me in non-hiking life as well, but somehow, the minute I exit the woods, it’s harder to hold onto.

I sleep fairly well, once I stop fretting about the tree. It doesn’t rain, and nothing falls.

Sheltowee Trace Day 2: July 6, 2020

Today’s total: 14 mi from the Clark shelter to Eagle Lake

We sleep in, of course. The sun isn’t quite showing by the time I get up, but it’s late for hikers, and especially for days in the mid-90s. But we still have a luxurious breakfast and enjoy the process of getting ready to hike. We load up on water, head up the trail, stop for a cathole break, and continue on the trail along a flat valley and meandering creek. We chat easily, enjoying the even terrain. We come to the suspension bridge over Holly Fork and decide to get more water, as it looks like a dry stretch is coming up.

This turns out to be a good decision. There is a long road walk today and we aren’t sure about the water situation. After the bridge we continue through a grassy meadow, up and over another woody hill, and finally we come to a Forest Service Jeep track. There are large puddles of muddy water every few hundred yards, and we can see frogs hopping hastily away from each as we approach. We call these puddles “frog villages,” “frog outposts,” “frog towns,” and “frog cities,” depending on the relative size of the puddle. There are scores of tadpoles swimming energetically around in these civilizations, and if we approach slowly enough, we can see little froggy eyes poking out from the surface of the water and minuscule tadpoles motoring around beneath.

We walk farther on this road, and for the first time since starting the hike we have proper cell service. I check my email, and discover to my delight that a school I have applied to teach at has invited me to continue the application process. My first major victory in COVID-era teaching applications!…but they’re asking for answers to a long questionnaire and a teaching philosophy, which I do not have ready to go. It looks like we’ll be spending the day in Morehead tomorrow so I can work on it. I’m okay with this. It’s getting really hot.

We come to a paved road, follow the white turtle blazes left, and walk on a bridge across I-64 before turning right on Forest Service Road 977. Our notes say that this is a six-mile walk, and our map shows that there is little, if any, potential water. It’s nearing 100 with the heat index and the road is a slow, painful slog. I’m sweating all over and the backs of my knees are killing me. Wiggs starts off okay, but grows progressively more loopy as the walk goes on, especially after lunch.

He looks into the trees. “Do you see that?” he asks, peering into the forest. “It looks like a reflection, like water.”

There’s no water. Just trees. Trees and gravel and blazing July sun. We start to get worried that we won’t find any water, and that we’ll have to do a longer day than planned. We see a couple of ranger trucks pass by, and the next time I hear one coming I wave it down. A young ranger looks out at us dubiously.

“Hi, quick question,” I start. “Do you happen to know if there’s a water source up ahead, and if not, do you have any water?” Before I’ve even finished, he’s reaching for a water bottle, which he hands to us with a look that lands somewhere between condescending and concerned.

“I’m not sure. This is federal land, and I’m state,” he replies in a smooth Kentucky drawl. “But I don’t think you’re going to find any water up here. Do you want me to call someone to come get you?”

I shake my head. “No, we’re okay. We’ll make it to Eagle Lake.” He looks worried, but relents. He backs up and turns away out of sight, and Wiggs and I start guzzling the water from the flimsy plastic bottle.

A field just after crossing Holly Fork and before the long road walk

Up and over more gravel hills, and finally, mercifully, the trail goes back into the woods, crisscrossing the Forest Service road until it finally rounds a corner and goes back into the woody ridge for good. It’s beautiful now, with the mushrooms we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and gentle moss growing across rocks lining the trail. It feels more like the AT now, going up and down dramatically and wearing me out, to the bone, pain rippling through the undersides of my knees and my hamstrings and my shins. I can’t remember my legs being this sore on the AT. I’m sure they were, but I feel like I can’t even fully straighten them, and my feet burn every time I take them away from the ground and put them back down.

Finally we begin to descend, and as we come closer to the bottom of the hill we can see Eagle Lake, on the northern edge of the campus of Morehead State University. I could cry. I might. We find a campsite right on the edge of the lake. It’s a tight squeeze, it’s covered in old fishing lines and trash, and it’s barely a foot and a half from the edge of the water, but we make it work.

A large moth that we found early in the day

We’re just about to head uphill a bit to a spot by a tree where we planned to have dinner, when we hear the sound of––is that… a motorcycle? It is. Two men with fishing gear, one walking on the trail and one riding a motorcycle. The sight is strange.

“I deserve an award for walking point-nine miles with all this,” the one walking, and carrying all of the gear, says. The motorcycle-riding man parks and together they walk to the spot we had set sights on for dinner to set up their evening fishing operation. I sigh.

“Hey guys,” says Wiggs, who is almost always the friendlier of the two of us.

“Howdy,” one of the men replies.

We plop down in the strip of gravelly sand in front of my tent and have a cramped dinner while they fish, smoke, and drink beer.

But it’s okay. The night goes on and twilight falls. Eventually, the two fishermen leave, motorcycle and all. As we look out onto the lake we can see large fish swimming to the shore, and then a beaver pokes its head from the surface of the water and starts swimming towards us. It’s curious and sleek, gliding smoothly through the water, past the shore, and deeper into the lake. The day finally cools down and I begin to feel calm.

It was a difficult day and an uncomfortable night, but our campsite was rather picturesque.

I finish dinner, put all of my supplies away, and then Wiggs and I go up the hill to brush our teeth. When I get back into my tent I start to change into my sleeping clothes, and then the thought strikes me.

“I’m going to do a tick check,” I say. Then I look down and see them: three tiny ticks, the size of sesame seeds, alternately crawling across my leg and burrowing into my skin.

Wiggs has them too. We trade the tweezers back and forth, and then I realize the extent of the infestation: they are not only appearing as if by magic all over my skin, but they are also crawling toward me across my sleeping pad and running all over my hands. This is war. Alex comes over to my tent and checks my back and neck, and I do the same for him. I pull five ticks out of him; he pulls around ten out of me.

Heat, lack of water, and a next-level tick infestation. I decide it can’t possibly get any worse, and decide to go to sleep. I leave my vestibule doors open to get some airflow.

I wake up suddenly a few hours later. The wind is picking up wildly, whooshing in massive gusts across the lake. My tent is shaking violently, and I remember with annoyance how hard it had been to get my stakes into the ground, and realize that I have to get out and fix them. There’s thunder and lightning; it’s not raining yet, but I know it’s going to. I crawl out of my tent and readjust the stakes and tie-outs and close my vestibule. Wiggs has to get out and put his rain fly on.

Now it’s raining properly. I go back into my tent. A few minutes later I can tell something isn’t right. I go back out. I’m soaked within seconds. A stake has pulled right out of the ground. I hammer it back in with all the force I can muster, crawl back inside, and resolve to sleep no matter what.

It’s been a rough day, but at least exhaustion gives you that: a peace and an amused acceptance of chaos. I now have the ability to pass out anywhere, even if anywhere is the middle of a tick attack and a surprise thunderstorm over a campsite a foot and a half from the lake.

Everything ends up being fine. Morehead is right down the street and time passes, like it always does. You sleep, you wake up, you keep hiking.

Sheltowee Trace Day 1: July 5, 2020

Today’s total: 9.5 mi from the Northern Terminus to the Clark family shelter

It’s our first day on the Sheltowee Trace, and it was a hot one. We started the day with a two-hour drive through the rambling farmland and foothills of Kentucky. My parents sat in the front seat, our Pomeranian Emma in between them the whole time. There was some directional mishap, but we ultimately arrived at the trailhead, an unassuming gravel parking lot at the northern border of Daniel Boone National Forest. We took pictures, said our thanks and goodbyes, and started walking south.

Starting out at the Northern Terminus!

It was a hot day. Actually, this whole week is supposed to be a little steamy. It was in the mid 90s today, with a heat index of nearly 100, and it was humid and sunny and migraine-inducing. The trail was well graded, though I struggled on the hills in the heat. We stopped for lunch around the halfway mark, eating sandwiches and tortillas with salmon from packets (once a thru-hiker, always a thru-hiker). I felt better after lunch, but Wiggs was having a bit of a hard time with the heat as we continued along the ridge. We stopped for a long water break, which seemed to help. There is no water for the first nine miles of the Trace, except for a creek at the beginning, so we were sure to load up. I was glad that we did.

One of the best parts of the day was the wildlife. Within ten minutes of hiking we saw a box turtle right on the trail. It felt appropriate, since “Sheltowee,” the name given to Daniel Boone by the Shawnee, means “Big Turtle.” The Trace is blazed with white diamonds with little turtle logos. We saw two more turtles right on the trail over the course of the day, which felt like a fitting way to start the hike.

An example of the Sheltowee Trace turtle blaze

We also saw a large variety of mushrooms, more than I’ve seen on a walk in the woods in a while. They weren’t all varieties that I was familiar with, but we are pretty sure that one we found, a large, yellowish mushroom with pores and a bulging, spongy cap, was a type of bolete. We also saw an amanita variety that I’m fairly certain was Amanita bisporigera, the Destroying Angel. There were also a variety of amanitas that were about to emerge from the egg-like structure called a volva. It was a silver lining on this hot day for a couple of amateur mycophiles.

This large mushroom was growing from the side of a bank next to the trail. We think it was some kind of bolete.

The Trace started to descend a gradual hill, and we ended up at Dry Creek. We had been hoping that the creek was not, in fact, dry, but alas, we were not in luck. We were concerned for a moment, but then I consulted the Trace Notes–PDF files with information about the hike meant for Trace Challenge hikers–which mentioned a picnic shelter maintained by the Clark family and open to hikers for camping. We passed the creek, turned to the right, and discovered that the shelter had a water spigot. We decided to spend the night.

We set up our tents and had a luxurious dinner under the shelter and with fresh (if lukewarm) water. I love the first night of a backpacking trip. It feels like settling in, like becoming accustomed again to eating pasta and Oreos and sitting by a fire with wine. We chatted as the night went on and eventually noticed a field of blinking fireflies across the creek. I stood, remembering this time last year and the thousands of fireflies in a corn field in Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Trail, and I felt like I had gone back home.

Picnic shelter on the Clark family property