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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For someone who likes distance, this year has been hard. At first I was going to Scotland; that was obviously cancelled a while ago. Then I thought about hiking the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. That no longer seems feasible or responsible, as much of the state is still shut down, and a three-plus week thru hike would render it difficult to get supplies without potentially exposing small towns to the virus.
So I’ve made the decision to do neither of these things, and instead stay closer to home. Now sections of the Sheltowee Trace or the Buckeye Trail are on the table as summer plans. At first I resisted something so close, but the more I learned about the trails, the more I opened up. Why is it that I resist an experience just because it is close to home? How did I not know how beautiful a semi-local trail could be? Why is something only sexy when it is foreign or exotic or new?
There are amazing things everywhere, including Ohio and Kentucky. Over the past few months I’ve begun to scratch the surface of places nearby I’d never been to before. Here are a few of them.
Middle Creek Park, Burlington, KY
My mom and I stumbled upon Middle Creek by accident. We were trying to go to Boone Cliffs Nature Preserve one evening for a walk in place other than our familiar haunts in Villa Hills and Fort Mitchell. But when we got to Boone Cliffs, we discovered that it was closed, the parking lot gated shut. Noticing a sign back on KY-18 for Middle Creek Park, we followed the arrow to the left, past Dinsmore Homestead, and discovered a massive parking lot at the Middle Creek Park trailhead.
Flammulina velupites, enokitake
The beginning of Trail 1 at middle creek, near the trailhead
Collinsia verna, blue-eyed Mary
Intrigued, we parked and began walking, descending a steep hill to follow the creek. What struck me first was two things: the omnipresent fungi on logs and beneath trees, and the fields of Blue-Eyed Mary everywhere beneath the shagbark hickory, honey locust, elm, and sycamore trees dotting the low-lying plain by the creek. Morel country, my brain whispered to me. I found Flammulina velipites, the edible enokitake mushroom; Cerioporus squamosus, pheasant back, and a variety of other mushrooms. I was elated.
The park contains over five miles of trail, including a large loop that crosses the creek on a bridge and winds its way over flat forest floor and up and over hills on the southeast side of the park. Numerous smaller trails connect to them main loop, providing for an easy way to cut the large 3-mile route shorter, if you so wish.
That first night, my mom and I made it over the Trail 1 bridge and a bit past it, before we realized that it was late and we ought to be heading home. A week later, I took Wiggs back to Middle Creek and we completed the whole loop. It gets more difficult after the bridge, becoming a more classically hilly Kentucky hike, but there are fewer visitors farther east and south in the park, providing for a quiet, relaxing walk in the trees.
Middle Creek Park is located on KY-18 past Burlington and across the street from Dinsmore Homestead and Dinsmore Woods.
Wolsing Woods Trails, Independence, KY
In our manic quest to find morels, Wiggs and I searched several parks in Ohio and Kentucky in March and April. Though we didn’t find any mushrooms at all at Wolsing, this small park between housing developments was a pleasant surprise on a warm, sunny afternoon.
It’s a bit odd getting to Wolsing Woods. Approaching the park, the road takes a large dip and across a crowded railroad track. I almost got backed into by a large flatbed truck. I crossed the tracks quickly and, recovering, parked in the small lot at the edge of the trail.
These trails aren’t exactly quiet or wild; you can see the houses through the young woods at the tops of nearby hills, and a train line runs right past it. Nevertheless, there are some cool features. Many of the trees are labeled, so that walkers can learn how to identify honey locust, white ash, sycamore, maple, and American elms. The trail follows Bancklick Creek, a large tributary of the Licking River. When we were there, the whole area was covered in blooming Virginia Bluebells.
At one end of the trail, we followed the path all the way down to the water. It was here that Wiggs spotted a tiny baby snapping turtle, smaller than the palm of his hand! We held and observed the reptile for a while, admiring the prehistoric look of him and his wet shell glinting in the sunlight, before continuing on.
Wiggs and the turtle
A baby snapping turtle we found on the edge of Banclick Creek
The Wolsing Trails are completely flat, and would make a nice easy stroll if you’re looking for a mild afternoon walk in the area. This park can be reached from Turkeyfoot road or KY-536. For more information, visit the Wolsing Trails website.
Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus, OH
This park isn’t exactly local if you live in Northern Kentucky or Cincinnati, I realize. But Columbus has become a bit of an adopted home for me, as that’s where Wiggs lives at the moment. We haven’t done as much exploring here as we have done in Kentucky, but this was one of the parks that we have recently visited, and I found it to be impressive for a city park.
Though Three Creeks is more of a bike-friendly park than a hiker haven, it is impressively large and beautiful for being right in the Columbus metro area. We started our walk at a parking lot near a pond where many people were fishing. We connected to the Alum Creek Greenway Trail, a paved bike path, and crossed Big Walnut Creek on a footbridge, following the path past numerous ponds, marshes, and even a large grove of pine trees. Along the way we happened to run into Wiggs’s friend Steve, whom we chatted with for a bit before continuing on the trail towards Heron Pond, another massive pond around which numerous fishers were gathered.
We followed a trail around this pond, returning to the main trail, and headed back towards the car. On the way we found a trail that leaves the bike path and enters the woods along Alum Creek to the Confluence, where Alum, Big Walnut, and Blackclick creeks meet. This path was quieter, softer, and flanked by massive sycamore and elm trees. Had it been earlier in the season, this may have been a nice morel hunting spot.
Big Walnut Creek
All in all, it was a pleasant day for a flat four-mile walk. I was envious of the bikers; I sold my bike a couple of years ago when I was leaving Flagstaff, and the prospect of such lovely paths made me miss it.
Middle Creek Park can be reached from numerous locations in southeast Columbus. For more information, visit the Columbus Metro Parks website.
Local Park Appreciation
Sometimes, as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I would find myself developing a large ego about the fact that I had been on the AT for so long, forgetting that the vast majority of trail users are day hikers and section hikers, not thru-hikers. After a thru-hike, a hike that lasts less than several days can feel too short, or not good enough.
But I don’t think this mentality is healthy. Being able to go on a thru-hike is an enormous privilege, and most people do not have the time or resources required to do it. But the outdoors is a critical part of life. Becoming more aware of local parks and green spaces has made me understand this even more. We need trees and creeks and paths like we need food. Until this is all over, and even after that, we need to appreciate the nature that is close by.
The pandemic has changed a lot of things: plans, travels, work, social life. One of the hardest things for me has been the inability to plan for the summer or for hikes. When our trip to Scotland was cancelled, Wiggs and I were pretty bummed. We intended to hike the West Highland Way, a 100-mile trail through the Scottish Highlands, and to visit with a couple of our friends from the Appalachian Trail. Though we’re working on alternate hike plans, and though other people are struggling with much bigger worries right now, it’s still a bit tough.
On the bright side, one of the things that I have enjoyed about the current situation is that it is making me appreciate the natural spaces available to me closer to home. Ohio has a reputation for being flat, boring, and uninteresting, but the truth is that there are lovely trails and parks all over the state. One of my favorite places is the area around Yellow Springs, particularly Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve and John Bryan State Park. Wiggs and I made a little day trip to the Gorge last week, and it was a perfectly sunny retreat from the news cycle and working at home.
Walking Through the Gorge
We met at the trailhead on OH-343 in the morning to begin our day. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot, and we soon realized that the main part of the trail was rather crowded. We did our best to leave enough distance between ourselves and the folks we passed on the trail as we began the walk down into the gorge.
After a flat section above the Little Miami River, the trail takes a rocky descent to walk right by the water. The path smooths out again once it is down in the gorge, where it is noticeably cooler than at the top. The river is narrow and gushing at the beginning of the hike, running between steep rock formations, before flattening out and becoming broad, slow, and peaceful at the Blue Hole.
As we walked, Wiggs and I fell into our usual easy conversation, much of which frequently falls back to hiking, the Appalachian Trail, and future travels. We have learned that being on a trail, any trail, often reminds us in small ways of our thru-hike: the repetitive rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, the feeling of the wind through the trees, the sound of water next to the path. After the initial excitement at the beginning of a day hike wears off, the instinct of walking takes over and the trail, any trail, feels like home.
Enjoying the Day
We followed the main gorge trail on the north side of the river until we reached the South Gorge Bridge. This footbridge was closed for repairs the last time we were here, but it was open this time, and we crossed it to the middle, slowly, avoiding the groups of other hikers and looking out at the river, now slow-flowing and glittering in the late-morning sunlight.
Deciding that we’d like to continue through the park to Glen Helen preserve, we crossed back to the north side of the river and walked on, as the Little Miami became smaller, rounding a bend. After this point there were few to no other hikers. We emerged from the woods at the Grinnell Mill, a restored grist mill and bed and breakfast. We planned to continue to the covered bridge at Glen Helen to have our lunch, but there was a team of workers putting up a barrier where the trail crossed the road and continued, so we turned around.
We found a lovely elm by the side of the Little Miami, where we sat and had our packed lunch. Wiggs also noticed a catfish in the river right near our spot, keeping us company as we munched on our turkey sandwiches. Shortly after we started walking once we finished our lunch, we found a flat, pebbly, sunny spot by the river. We stopped, I lay down and basked in the afternoon sun, and Wiggs skipped rocks across the water.
I’m not very good at staying in the present. That’s one thing that this pandemic has really shown me. For once, I can’t plan ahead or map out what the next period of my life is going to look like. This is difficult for me, but in a way, I see it as a gift of the pandemic. In a culture that is obsessed with growth and consumption and future planning, being forced to remain in the current moment is a healthy reminder that life occurs not in the future tense, but in the now. I thought about this as I lay on the pebbly ground next to the Little Miami, feeling the sun on my skin and appreciating being with Wiggs. We’re trail people. We know how to enjoy the little things. Sometimes we just forget, and we need to be reminded.
Ending the Day in Yellow Springs
We finished up the hike by exploring some of the caves in the cliffs on the south side of the river, finding some lovely young pheasant back mushrooms, then finally crossing back over and heading to our cars. As none of the restaurants in Yellow Springs are open for dine-in right now, obviously, we couldn’t go to Peach’s Grill, our usual post-hike Yellow Springs hangout. Instead, we opted to order carry-out gyros from Bentino’s, which we ate with relish in the park by the community center.
They were satisfying and hearty, and after we had finished we lay on a blanket, listening to the Grateful Dead and watching the evening clouds sail across the sky. Corny, I know. As if we belonged right in this crunchy, hippie hamlet right on the Buckeye Trail. Eventually we sighed, realizing that night was coming, and packed up the blankets and picked up our trash, and headed to our cars to return to our respective cities.
I looked at the windows of businesses as I drove out of Yellow Springs. There are shops, restaurants, and breweries that we love in this little town, and I hope they will survive the closures so that soon, people can come again and walk the streets and enjoy live music and buy books and drink local beer. But now, things are still, and birds dart across the sky in lazy loops, and the world is quiet. It will end soon, like all things do, and there will be noise and celebration again. But not yet. Not yet.
Amid all the hubbub and weirdness of quarantine-land, my brain has started to wander to trails and a desire to be on them (as it always inevitably does, but now more than ever). I’m reading Wild, finally, and I can’t stop thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail. When can I do it? When can I be walking again? And I wonder how much longer we’ll be allowed to go to state and local parks. Will they close the cemetery trails? Will Zaleski State Park stay open so Wiggs and I can do the backpacking trip we planned on? Is it irresponsible of me to go to my favorite trails and prowl the hills for morels?
In the scheme of things, I know none of that really matters. I hold so much privilege in this world, and having a house, an income, and enough food to eat during the pandemic demonstrate that. I shouldn’t be worried about hiking while people are struggling to pay rent and feed their families.
But I’m a hiker, and for all the falling-apart madness in the world, I really miss hiking. I’m also a writer, so the closest I can get to being on a long-distance trail is writing about it.
Shawnee Trip #2: March 7-9, 2020
In early March Wiggs and I returned to Shawnee State Park, where we had met up last fall and started our relationship. This time we did much more of the loop, skipping just a couple of miles in favor of making it back to our cars in time to grab a beer in Portsmouth. It was a rare window of three perfectly sunny days, and now looking back on what happened just a few days later, I am so happy we went.
Here’s a bit about it, with photos, to take you out of your head and into the woods.
Winter in southern Ohio isn’t necessarily cold, but it is depressing. Clouds hang low in the sky like soggy gray cotton. It rains—constant, thick drizzly rain—for days at a time. When we scheduled this trip we knew we were rolling the dice.
When I got out of my car at the trailhead on that Saturday morning, I was so glad to see that it was a warmish, hesitantly sunny day. In contrast to the torrential downpour that flooded our tents when we hiked this loop back in October, this weekend would turn out to be miraculously dry.
The first night was cold. We had to sleep with our water filters to keep them from freezing. The next morning our shoes were covered in a fine layer of frost. It was hard to get going, but when we eventually did, it warmed up. The sun blazed down on the still-brown trees and leaf-strewn paths, and I found myself actually warm outside for the first time since the fall.
Back in October, the rain prevented us from doing as much of the backpacking loop as we had planned. This time, though we didn’t technically get through the whole loop since we took an alternate and slightly quicker trail, we got much farther.
The northern half—from the backpacker’s trailhead, past the Copperhead Fire Tower and down to Camp Oyo—was just as hard as I remembered from the fall. The hills are steeper than one would expect from a state as notoriously flat as Ohio. I had to pace myself on the steep inclines and pause at the top to let my lungs and joints rest. In a way it felt good to be this challenged. I hadn’t done any properly difficult hiking since doing this same route in the fall, and it felt in a way like being back on the AT again.
The southern half of the loop, which we did not get to do in October, was gorgeous. There were more views and longer ridges. It was still hilly, though not as bad as the northern half. On the second night, we ended up at a campsite on a ridge that juts out from the main trail. The temperature was slightly warmer, and we set up camp next to a tree and had a little fire. We sat and chatted, cooked dinner, and drank wine as we watched the sunset from the other side of the ridge.
There are a lot of things I like about hiking: the freedom, the untetheredness of living out of a pack, the sense of distance, the people. But the feeling of being content next to a campfire at sunset is pretty high up on the list. Especially when you’re calm and happy, and with someone you love.
Eventually, the three days passed and the hike ended, like all hikes do. We spent the last day zooming along a ridge, playing 20 Questions and fantasizing about cheeseburgers. I didn’t pack enough food for the weekend, having overpacked the last time, so I ate the last of my snacks for lunch and we sped back to the parking lot. We spent a few moments at the lake, watching the geese again and enjoying the feeling of spring about to bloom.
Then we went back to our cars, changed into sandals, and drove to Portsmouth Brewery for beers, burgers, and a massive plate of fries. It was shocking how fast the hiker hunger came back to me, and I was struck by how natural it felt to go from the trail and into a town. It felt so much like the AT, like hitching into Manchester Center and descending upon a restaurant. Soon, the meal ended too, and Wiggs and I said goodbye and headed home to our respective cities.
I thought about the woods as I was on my way home. I thought about how right it felt to be at Shawnee and how comfortable it feels to be there, and anywhere, with Wiggs. I feel confident in the woods. I feel strong and capable, despite a hill destroying me or the persistent pain in my ankle. I feel like I know what I’m about and what I can do. I feel home.
So it’s April now, a month since that three-day trip. If you had told me then that soon after I’d be teaching from home while a pandemic ripped through the world, I might not have believed you. Though the coronavirus was known at that point, it wasn’t yet clear to me how serious a situation it was about to become.
I feel so bad for all of the prospective thru-hikers who quit their jobs and sold their possessions in anticipation of a 2020 thru-hike. It is not easy to give up on plans, especially when they involve hiking. I know this intimately now: yesterday our flight to Scotland was cancelled. We won’t be hiking the West Highland Way this year, as we had planned.
Other hikes are being called off too. As of last week the Appalachian Trail Conservancy requested a formal closure of the Appalachian Trail in its entirety to ensure that people stayed off it and away from each other, in hopes of containing the virus. While many hikers have made the difficult decision to stop, postpone, or cancel their hike, there are still some people out there, despite the warnings.
As a hiker I know how hard it is to stay in one place. I miss the trail all the time, but I miss it more than usual now. Though giving up plans for a hike is nowhere near as difficult as the situation many people in oppressed communities are going through, it is still very difficult. At the same time, the last month has been an exercise—like the Appalachian Trail was an exercise—in accepting the present and learning to be adaptable. Hikers, let’s stay home now so that we can hike later.
To anyone reading, I hope you are well. Dream of trails, wash your hands, and hang in there.
In late October I went backpacking at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. It had only been a few weeks since completing the Appalachian Trail, but in those odd days following my summit of Katahdin, every day of not hiking felt like a confused century. The opportunity to walk again—through a forest heavy with the scent of changing leaves—was irresistible.
I had made the plan to go with a friend I met on the trail, Red Wiggler, aka Wiggs. I realized, through the power of social media, that he lived a mere two hours north of me, in Columbus, and sent him a message casually offering to serve as a semi-local hiking partner if he ever found himself missing folks from the AT. To my delight he responded almost immediately, and plans were set in motion for our three-day mini-adventure.
I was gleeful. I went to Walmart to buy food for the trip, and got oddly nostalgic. It felt like I was in town along the Appalachian Trail. I imagined being with my trail family, carefully evaluating weight versus calories versus flavor and tallying up my purchases. By the end of my thru-hike I was sick to the point of nausea of rice sides, peanut butter, and oatmeal, so I didn’t buy any of those for Shawnee. But I did splurge: dehydrated bacon, bagels and cream cheese, and a non-perishable noodle concoction so extravagant that it came with its own massive plastic pho bowl. I sent a picture of my shopping basket to Wiggs as I sauntered around the store: I feel like I’m resupplying!
On Friday, October 25, I drove the hour and a half over winding rural Ohio roads to the parking lot at the Shawnee trailhead. I saw my hiking partner as I pulled up. For a moment, I wondered how it would go. We knew each other on the AT, but not well—our tramilies tended to travel at slightly different speeds, so we sometimes ended up at the same place, but he and I hadn’t talked as much as I would have liked to on the trail. He always seemed cool. I kind of had a low-grade crush on him. I didn’t know, though. Would I remember how to talk to people like I did on the AT? Would it be awkward?
All worries dissipated immediately as I parked my car and got out. “Wiggs!” I proclaimed. “Passport!” he proclaimed back with a miles-wide grin. We hugged, took a selfie, and sent it to all of our trail friends, and I knew the weekend would be something good.
No Sun, No Problem
We hoped for sunshine, but this was Ohio in October. Rain was in the forecast for all three days, and it delivered. Oddly, it didn’t seem to make a difference. If anything, the rain made it feel even more realistic, like the thru-hike had never ended.
It was also a prime time to go backpacking, as the leaves were just about in their peak. They weren’t the same shades of vibrant red and yellow that defined Maine in September, but they were still lovely: lively yellow and a calm Ohio ochre. As we walked up and over hills and across ridges, I started to realize how beautiful this state could be. Like the AT, the beauty isn’t overt or dramatic. There was no above-treeline sweeping view, but there was a kaleidoscope of leaves and a certain peace in the soft dampness of the Midwestern autumn world.
Shawnee’s trails aren’t the AT, but they are impressive, especially for Ohio. There is a main backpacking loop that measures just under 40 miles, as well as many options for side trails, cutoffs, and alternate routes.
We didn’t make it through the whole loop as we planned. The second day we were there it poured rain in the morning, so we sat in our tents at camp and talked, enjoying a luxurious breakfast and multiple cups of coffee before beginning to hike around noon. We made it about part of the way through, and planned to do the whole loop in the spring.
What we did see was highly enjoyable. Shawnee is sometimes called the “Little Smokies of Ohio,” as its scenery looks somewhat like that of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Having hiked through the Smokies just a few months before, I could see the comparison. Not only are there vistas of gently rolling forested hills, but there are also fire towers and picturesque campsites, pretty little gurgling creeks and benches by a lake full of geese. We saw only a few other people the whole weekend, and the trail was blanketed with a sense of quiet autumnal peace.
Campsites with privies and water spigots are available throughout the loop, spaced at regular-ish intervals of between 6 and 10 miles. The first camp we stayed at had a lovely fire ring with a makeshift stone bench, and it was on this bench that we sat the first night while we ate our dinner, watched the fire, listened to music, and talked. The second night was a little soggier, but given better weather it would have been a superb place for sitting around and cooking. There is also a lake with a picnic area, and on the last morning we wound up there for about an hour, watching the geese fly over the water.
Having just finished a thru-hike, the trails did not feel overly difficult to me, though they were challenging for Ohio: there were frequent steep hills (though no long hills like on the AT) and the trail was sometimes overgrown or obstructed with blown-down trees. There were a few times when we had to navigate over or through massive brambles, but for the most part the trail was wide enough to walk two abreast and fairly well maintained.
Despite being less than a month from my AT finish, and despite the relative ease of the trail at Shawnee, I struggled a bit over the three days. I sprained my ankle on the AT in Virginia and it probably never got a chance to heal properly, so that was still bothering me on this trip. Besides that, I discovered that trail legs disappear shockingly quickly. My calves were not the rock-hard boulders they were in Maine, and I was not able to tolerate the hills as easily as I might have, had I still been on my thru-hike. But I suppose this is the way of things.
The weather also presented its own set of struggles. On the AT, despite multiple days of heavy rain overnight, I never experienced a flooded tent. That changed at Shawnee. On the second night Wiggs and I inadvertently set up our tents in what would soon become a swamp in the relentless rain, and I woke up in the middle of the night to water all over everything I had with me. Oddly, I wasn’t really bothered by it, because I knew I didn’t have to hike all the way to Maine with that gear. I could just toss it in my car and go home the next day. But it was still a bit of a struggle to get out of my tent, relocate to a drier spot, and wring out my soaking clothes before hunkering down for a few more hours on my sad, worn-out three quarters of a Z-Lite.
I realized after this trip that I’m going to need some time to regroup on the gear front and heal properly before my next thru-hike. It was miraculous to be in the woods again for three days, and I can’t wait for the next time I wake up and hike day after day for six months. But for now, it’s good to have a rest, and to enjoy other parts of my life.
A New Adventure
Although Wiggs and I didn’t know each other very well on the Appalachian Trail, we still knew each other. And it was that knowing—that intuition from the AT, that immediate understanding of another thru-hiker—that made us comfortable with each other, opening up easily, connecting. When I arrived to the trailhead that morning I knew we’d get along, and I knew we would have a good time. I definitely didn’t expect, however, that Shawnee would lead to a relationship. And yet, that is just where it lead.
So we stumbled unintentionally into love. Isn’t that how it always happens, though? One minute you’re sending a message on Instagram to someone you met on the trail—If you ever want an Ohio hiking buddy hit me up!—and the next you’re driving home over windy rural roads with the pungent smell of hiker wafting from the backseat and a goofy smile on your face, wondering what would happen now.
Here’s what: An adventure of an entirely different kind. Comfort and challenge and distance and closeness all wrapped up into one. That weekend at Shawnee was both a return to the world in which I feel most myself, and the start of a great big something.
So go there, if you want. Tread the wide paths with their leaves and frogs and Branta canadensis honking on the water. Sit at the campfire and breathe in the soft Ohio woodland air. Drink the water from the spigot and feel wild. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll fall in love.