Sheltowee Trace Day 8: July 12, 2020

Today’s total: ~10.5 mi from camp on mile ~73 to Natural Bridge Road and Miguel’s Pizza

It’s the last day on the Trace: bittersweet. I’m sticky and hungry and covered in bug bites that have become angry welts. I want pizza and a hot tub, both of which are waiting at the end. But I also don’t want to leave the trail now that it is beautiful. I will miss the creeks and the chanterelles and the conifers unraveling into mossy rhododendron forest.

I wake up grudgingly; I didn’t sleep well again last night. It’s been a rough trail on the sleep front. But I feel a lot better than I did late in the day yesterday, and after another slow breakfast we start walking. It’s a beautiful morning and there are no other hikers out yet. We take a side trail up to a rock formation called Cloud Splitter, which entails scrambling of a similar caliber to Indian Staircase, although this time there is a rope installed for assistance. The view from the top is sweeping, green and glowing in the morning light.

The Trace continues an easy meander through leafy valleys and up around caves and rock faces. Soon, we come to a road crossing and a massive suspension bridge spanning the Red River. On the hill on the opposite side we start finding more chanterelles, which we pick to take to the cabin we will be staying in for the next few days with my family. The trail turns downhill again, walks through a tall patch of grass, crosses a few creeks, and goes straight up. By now I am uncomfortably sweaty.

We find a lunch spot on a large slabby rock surrounded by short pine trees. I inhale deeply, yet again taken back to the Ponderosas of northern Arizona. I’ve been thinking about Flagstaff a lot on this trip, which is odd, because in general the climate couldn’t be more different. But up here on the rocky coniferous hilltops I could just as easily be on Mt. Elden as in the Red River Gorge. I can close my eyes and remember the wide western sunsets and the cawing of crows. I hadn’t realized until now how much I missed that place.

After lunch we have about five miles left. We climb a few more hills, cross a road, and start going down a leafy set of switchbacks into a valley following Whittleton Creek. We find ourselves in that state of delirium induced by a combination of heat and being near to the end of a long walk, and though by this point we have maybe a mile left, it seems like an eternity. A few rounds of 20 Questions and several moments of complaining later, the trail empties out onto a paved road at Whittleton Campground, and onto Natural Bridge Road.

“We made it!” Wiggs says, delighted. “We did it.”

Suspension bridge over the Red River

We cross to the Hemlock Lodge road, take a right, cross back over the creek, and find ourselves approaching the Katahdin of our section hike: Miguel’s Pizza. Legendary among rock climbers, the distinctive yellow building sits like a beacon right at the side of Natural Bridge Road. We walk magnetically towards it, ready for a feast.

The last time I was here it was also July, but in 2016. I came for a quick weekend climbing trip with my then-partner. There were hardly any people here, and it rained nearly the whole time, and there was still only one small room in the restaurant itself. Now, we can see the jam-packed parking lot and hordes of people as we round the bend in the road and come closer, the expanded section now added to the back. There are picnic tables scattered around the property under a stand of hemlocks, new indoor seating, and a long line of customers out front, spaced apart and masked.

We order a large pizza with chicken and green peppers and devour it in one sitting. We drink cold Ale-8s and pints of Rhinegeist Truth, because why not. My parents and our dog Emma come to meet us, and later we retreat to a cabin deep in the woods and down an wild gravel road (I use the word “road” generously). Showers, hot tub, more beer, and air conditioning. Hours before I had been sweaty and melting in the woods, dreaming of only this, and now I find myself miraculously comfortable.

It’s weird to stop hiking after only eight days. Though this is a fairly long time for any reasonable person, after a six-month thru-hike anything but weeks on end of hiking feels insufficient. I know that it’s the only thing that’s really possible or responsible for us right now, given the pandemic and work schedules, but it still seems short.

Though the Trace was hot, at times scarily scant on water, and full of biting insects, it felt good to get back into that rhythm. It felt natural to sleep in a tent and wake up with the sun. If anything, this little hike refreshed my desire to hike other long trails and put me back in a place where I feel completely myself. It gave us chanterelles and destroying angels and boletes; it gave us darters and crayfish and a sense that, despite discomfort, walking is a gift. The woods are always home, sweaty though they may be.

Sheltowee Trace Day 7: July 11, 2020

Today’s total: ~12 mi from camp on mi ~61 to camp near mi 73

The night passed quietly, without a drop of rain or so much as a scuttle from an animal in the forest. The tree didn’t fall, and I wake up semi-rested and ready to go. We pack up, eat breakfast, and then clamber over opposite steep hills for the morning cathole call. Despite trampling accidentally through a patch of stinging nettles, it is beautiful up on my side of the hill, and I take a moment to appreciate all the spongy yellow boletes dotting the forest floor everywhere around me.

The morning passes quickly as we continue up and over the muddy jeep track. The funky, dripping rock formations are more frequent now and we are just miles from the northern part of the Red River Gorge. There is a long road walk, in which I consume an inordinate amount of Sour Patch watermelons. Soon after this we arrive at the Corner Ridge Trailhead. There are large boulders lining a grassy area just before the trail reenters the woods, and behind a fence in the adjoining yard there is a young horse, who is staring at us and stomping his feet. We take a snack break at the boulders by the trailhead, appreciating the opportunity to sit on something other than the ground, and continue down the trail.

Horse friend at Corner Ridge

For the next few miles the Trace is absolutely gorgeous, alternating between completely flat or slightly downhill, and working its way through tracks of conifers before it meets a junction with another trail just before a creek. We take another break at a rock here, and are surprised by yet another patch of chanterelles. We pick some, but just a few today–yesterday’s haul might have been a little overkill.

We walk down the hill towards the creek–a large, deep, proper creek, a tributary of the Red River–and cross it. We debate stopping for lunch, but it’s still fairly early in the day and we’re feeling good. So we keep going. The Trace takes a sudden and unexpected turn straight up a hill, and back into the mixed coniferous and deciduous forest. Here and there, boulders lay strewn among the trees.

We come upon two other hikers–the only two hikers on the Trace we’ve seen this whole time–and we chat with them for a bit. Wiggs gives one of them a chanterelle, and they wish us good hiking. We continue a bit further, find another mushroom patch and harvest a few more, then come to a smaller but still gushing creek, where we decide to have lunch.

A few yards downstream there is a log lying lengthwise across the water, positioned perfectly for sitting and dipping our feet into the current. We drop our packs on a rocky patch on the edge of the water, remove our shoes, and begin to eat lunch while tiny fish nibble at our feet.

Lunch time!

We decide to cook our chanterelles at lunch today so that they are fresher. I slice off the bottom, rinse them, and cut them into little strips. I cook them in my pot with a bit of water and salt, add tuna and cheese, and wrap up this mixture in tortillas. It’s not as good as the beef ramen with seaweed and chanterelles, but it is pretty good.

Because the water feels so good, and because it is so hot, we don’t really want to keep going. We take a long time at the creek, enjoying the coolness and the peace. We splash around downstream, I lay on a log in the sun, and Wiggs appreciates the fish. Before we know it, two hours have gone by, and we pack up and start hiking again.

The trail is beautiful now. We walk up and over slopes that follow the course of rock formations and over tiny, trickling brooks. Down in the valleys, rhododendron and mountain laurel flank the path and the air is cooler. Eventually we come to a turn-off. We think this might be the trail up to the rock formation Indian Staircase, but we aren’t sure until a couple descending the hill confirms this. We drop our packs and head up.

At first, the trail goes through a gully full of tumbled rocks and roots. It feels like Maine. Then, the trees clear and there is a wide, smooth, steep sandstone rock formation that ascends beyond sight up the hill. We try several configurations of scrambling up. Wiggs finds a tree, while I struggle and flail over the smooth, hard-to-grip rock. Eventually we find an easier way up, and we follow the worn-in footholds to the top.

“Whoa!” Wiggs exclaims. “A view! This is amazing!” On hikes he is fueled by summits and sweeping panoramas, and he’s been view-starved for most of the Trace. I’m appreciating it too, although this appreciation is somewhat tampered by the swarm of biting deer flies that has managed to find me again. I crankily open a new DEET wipe packet and slather myself in an effort to get them away from me. It doesn’t work. Nevertheless, it is a rather breathtaking sight. Above the valleys of trees we can see gray rock peeping out here and there, and we can follow the path of the trail down into the gorge and all the way to the Red River in the distance.

We eventually realize how late it’s become, and that we still need to make a few more miles before we call it a night. Gingerly we descend down the smooth, steep mountain and emerge back on the Trace. All of a sudden, I feel bone-tired, dehydrated, and overheated. I take a long drink of water from my bottle and eat a few energy chews, but I just feel wiped.

I crawl through the next couple of miles, stopping too often and feeling like I can’t make my body work. We had planned to camp near or just after the Red River, but it has become clear that I can’t make it that far. As we trudge along, I spot another chanterelle patch just to my left–a big one, with fresh orange frilly mushrooms dotting the ground at the base of a tree. We collect a few, and take it as a sign to stop soon. We come upon a nearly-perfect campsite next to a creek a half-mile later, and decide to set up camp.

After some technical difficulties (“Why won’t this burn?!”), Wiggs gets a good campfire going. We enjoy one last chanterelle-based dinner on the Sheltowee Trace. As I lay in my tent before bed, exhausted and probably dehydrated, I marvel at the paradoxes at the heart of backpacking. Here I am, body sweaty, bite-covered, deprived of nutrients, and exhausted, so over the heat, and ready for pizza–and I still don’t want to leave the woods. I don’t want to work or toil or make choices. I want to hear the whippoorwills and wood thrushes sing me to sleep and the mourning doves and chickadees wake me up, sun streaming through gray silnylon.

No matter how hot, how sweaty, how dirty or momentarily miserable a hike gets, it is always satisfying and fulfilling. It is always worth going to the woods.

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 5: July 9, 2020

Today’s total: ~13 miles from Cave Run Lake to campsite on FS 909

Despite the great campsite, I don’t sleep well. I wake up groggy and slow, and it takes me a long time to pack up. It’s still a beautiful morning, though. The pines smell like Flagstaff and it’s early enough that it’s not ungodly hot yet. We eat our breakfast slowly (it’s a two-coffee morning) and then head down the trail. We stumble upon the actual creek we had been trying to find last night, and fill up on water. It looks like there are going to be more streams today, but apart from the thunderstorm three nights ago it’s been a dry couple of weeks. So I get a good two liters just in case.

The first part of the walk today follows a track through pleasant mixed deciduous and conifer forest. It’s clear that this is the Old Sheltowee; there are deep ruts where horses have worn the trail down to mud and as it heats up our pace gets slower. The new ST reroute follows the edge of the lake more closely. It is also three miles longer. We decided on this one last night.

We take a break after only a couple of miles, and decide that it’s a music day. We put in our respective headphones and walk the next few miles in our own land of jams.

Soon we come to a wide, flat creek bed that I think is Sulphur Branch. It’s dry except for shallow pools near the banks. I’m already almost out of water. I drop my pack; Wiggs does the same and wanders over to one of the pools. He makes a quavery high-pitched sound of delight.

Wiggs investigating the pools in the nearly-dry Sulphur Branch

“Look at the darters! And the crayfish! Tiny crayfish!”

The more I look, the more life I see in these little pools. While I snack and hydrate, Wiggs investigates the first pool. I walk over to another on the other side that is slightly deeper.

“Dude, check these out!” I say. There are tons of crayfish scuttling around the bottom, some three or four inches long and translucent, along with tiny darters. We decide to take our shoes off and put our feet in the pool for a while. It’s too early for a lunch break, but we can’t resist. The little fish come up and nibble at our toes. There is so much life in such a small space. The water is cool and perfect.

After our break the slog continues, through muddy tracks and up hills, around overgrown bends and through thick swatches of grass and stinging nettles. Wiggs and I are going at our own paces now, listening to music, and it’s helping me to keep moving. I soon come upon him sprawled out shirtless under a tree.

“It’s so HOT,” he says, rummaging in his food bag for lunch accoutrements. We sit under the trees and eat lunch, then take micro-naps, until over an hour has passed and we have to keep moving.

The trail turns left and dips down into a valley. Suddenly, everything is flat, lush, and cool. Towering trees give us merciful shade, and before long we come to a sign that indicates a trail reroute to avoid a landslide. The reroute takes us over a large creek and onto yet another Forest Service Road, which passes a gun range and then meanders uphill into the woods.

We’re running out of steam. I’ve developed a deep hatred of long walks on gravel roads. Wiggs stops every now and then to lean on his trekking poles, hanging his body over them like a deflated pool toy.

“You okay?” I ask.

“It feels good to rest like this,” he mumbles.

Wiggs in his preferred resting position along yet another gravel road walk

We’re going into Frenchburg for another resupply tomorrow. We wanted to get near mile 53 because the Trace Notes say there’s water there. But as we’re walking we see a campsite to our left that attracts our attention. It’s perfectly flat, surrounded by hemlocks, and right next to a creek that’s actually flowing with several inches of water.

“What do you think we should do?” Wiggs asks me as we look at the site.

“Let’s just be done.” I’m ready for it, and this place looks amazing.

He’s elated. “YES! I was hoping you’d say that! Oh HELL yes.” He almost sprints across the creek to the tent sites.

It is the most perfect spot we’ve camped at since we started this trail. It rivals even some of the better sites on the AT. It’s still early so I have enough time to leisurely set up my tent, blow up my sleeping pad, and crawl inside for a mini nap. I can hear Wiggs splashing around in the creek, reveling in the feeling of finally not being hot.

The most perfect campsite

I put on my camp clothes, gather wood for the fire, and take my turn in the creek. It’s up to my shins and ice cold and I could cry in relief. I wash off as best I can, splashing water everywhere, then go to sit by the fire Wiggs has built to dry off.

We enjoy a long, relaxed dinner. I found a couple more chanterelles on the ridge walk today, so we slice them up and add them to our food again. We watch the forest dip into twilight. We listen to the silence broken only by the gentle gurgling of the creek. This July hike has been brutal, but now we are a reasonable temperature and surrounded by hemlocks and next to a creek that hasn’t run out of water. Sweat or no, suffering or no, I wouldn’t trade a trail for the world.

Clusters of coral fungus growing from a hemlock at our campsite

Sheltowee Trace Day 4: July 8, 2020

Today’s total: ~14 miles from Morehead to Cave Run Lake

On the Appalachian Trail, one of the benefits of staying in town was the ubiquitous hotel lobby breakfast buffet. Even the cheapest Howard Johnson had pack-in-able muffins, mini cereal boxes, and bagels with cream cheese spread thick with plastic cutlery. This recollection crossed our mind when we reserved our hotel room in Morehead, but alas, times have changed. We are still in the middle of a global pandemic, and we are now living in a buffet-less world.

I understand and appreciate this, but this morning I’m annoyed, because it means we have to cross all those wild intersections again to get a decent breakfast before going back on the trail. We run across the road to the McDonald’s first, and I can imagine the syrupy processed delight that will be the McGriddle the moment it enters my mouth.

But a wise-looking silver-ponytailed man sitting on the curb at the restaurant stops us before we can go in. “The dining room is closed,” he says, with a slight smile. “You’ll have to go through the drive-thru.”

As it turns out, the McDonald’s drive-thru is not equipped to handle people on foot, nor is the Hardee’s. So we wind up ordering take-out from Cracker Barrel, totaling our Old Country Store patronage to twice in twelve hours and providing us with one last entertaining round of crossing the major intersection at a sprint in camp shoes.

One of the few views we saw in the first four days of the hike

Our trip out of Morehead is full of bumps and gyrations, including a stressed-out bus driver not understanding where we want to get to, and a woman at the bus stop down on her luck, asking to borrow a cell phone and telling us the story of how her son might need skin grafts because he got on top of a bike which was on top of a truck and then fell off.

Speed bumps and all, we ultimately end up back on the turtle-blazed sidewalk and heading south.

The Trace is a road walk for the first five miles of the day, first trudging alongside an ugly four-lane highway, across a creek, and making a turn into a quieter neighborhood, which dips into the woods and back out again into a wonderland of rolling fields, farms, honeysuckle, and wildflowers. The moment the sounds of the cars and the shadeless asphalt are gone, it feels like taking a deep breath. Wiggs and I meander in and out of conversation as we appreciate the scenery and listen to the sound of the little creek that follows us on our right.

When I was hiking the Camino Primitivo in 2018, I remember thinking often that it looked like Kentucky. Now, walking on a small, quiet country lane in the middle of farmland and foothills, I am reminded of Asturias, its clouds and cows, and hills that give way into gurgling mossy creeks. I am disappointed that we weren’t able to hike in Europe this summer. I wanted dramatic mountains and lochs in Scotland. I wanted to be in Spain again. But if I had gone there, I never would have seen this part of my home state: lush and beautiful, harder than I had imagined, and so worth seeing.

Along the side of the road leading out of Morehead

We stop for a break at the creek next to the road before re-entering the woods. I eat a snack and load up on water since there are supposed to be a few dry miles. After the gravel road incident on the second day, I don’t want to cut it too close. Wiggs plays with a cute crawdad and we slather on DEET and sunscreen. Then we head back into the woods and uphill.

The hills aren’t bad by AT standards, but it’s still in the 90s and I’m sweating within seconds. Every few hundred yards I have to catch my breath. On one such occasion, I happen to look down and to my left. There are bright orange mushrooms on the ground, frilly around the top and narrowing at the stem. Are those? … Could they be?…

“Are those chanterelles?” I ask Wiggs, pointing in that direction.

“I think they might be!”

We pick them and examine: No true gills, just ridges on the underside extending downward. Orange-yellow on top and a lighter-colored stem. No cap. Whiteish in the middle. Growing directly on the ground and not from a tree. Not the poisonous Omphalotus olearius, the jack-o-lantern mushroom, a common lookalike. These here are true chanterelles.

We are elated. We’ve gotten into foraging this year, and spent most of March and April combing the forest for morels, only turning up two and a handful of pheasant back, Cerioporus squamosus. It feels so exciting to have another edible mushroom under our belts. It feels like the forest offering and loving. Wiggs slides them into the mesh on the outside of my pack and we keep on walking.

We miss the supposed view at Amburgy Rocks because our map and notes are not easy to parse, but we take a side trip to Limestone Knob, the highest point in Rowan County, for lunch. There’s not much of a view up there, but on the way up we see another beautiful mushroom: a perfect snow-white Amanita bisporigera, the Destroying Angel. It’s as perfect as a mushroom can get: delicate gills and fresh veil and volva (the egg structure at the base of some Amanita species), thin stem and blinding white cap. Most people who take a bite of this mushroom enter liver and kidney shutdown within 24 hours and do not recover. That so much destructive power sits within a four-inch-tall mushroom in the forests of Kentucky takes my breath away.

Lunch isn’t exactly relaxing, because there’s what we think is a wasp harassing my feet and bear bag for much of it. Later Wiggs realizes it’s not a wasp but a really big hover-fly, whose black and yellow mimicry distracts from its harmlessness. I didn’t get my lunchtime nap, but we only have a few miles to go until our stop at Cave Run Lake.

I always find it harder to walk in the evening. We make it to the Ranger Station at Cave Run, but it’s closed, and there is no water spigot, which is disappointing because I’m almost out again. We follow the Trace around the lake and back out on the road. We walk across the dam, the sun blasting its last-effort rays on our faces, and I am suddenly so tired I don’t know how much more I can take.

Walking across the dam at Cave Run Lake

We ponder the idea of stopping to swim at Stoney Point, but when we get down to the parking lot, see all of the people in the lake, and realize we’ll have to take our shoes off and put them back on, we decide to pass it up. Instead, we take a series of wrong turns until we finally find the Old Sheltowee trail at an intersection off a gravel road, locate a perfect campsite with a big fire ring, and decide to call it a day.

The map says there’s a creek in about a half-mile, so we drop our packs and start walking. I’m trudging and quiet, ready to pass out at any given moment. We find what we think might be the creek we see on the map. It’s not flowing. There are only puddles here and there, still and grayish, but I’m tired enough to put all of my trust in my filter. So we bend down, scoop up a few bottles, and head back to camp.

We rinse, slice up, and cook the chanterelles in our ramen. Wiggs shares his seaweed with me. The mushrooms taste earthy and real, with a hint of crab and a sliver of sweetness. The fire crackles and I eat my mushrooms. It smells like pine trees. There are fireflies. I’m tired and full and so, so in love.

Two young Destroying Angels, Amanita bisporigera (we think), growing on the side of the trail up to Big Limestone Knob

Sheltowee Trace Day 3: July 7, 2020

Today’s total: ~1 trail mile; several frenetic town miles

I wake up when the sun hits my tent. The thunderstorm came and went quickly last night, and from my groggy, already-hot state I can tell I at least slept well for a couple of hours. I start packing up my gear, shoving my sleeping bag into its dry sack and rolling up my Thermarest. I’m excited to be in town, and I’m excited to get out of this hot greenhouse of a tent.

Outside, the morning is clear and bright. There is steam rising from the surface of Eagle Lake and the sun is throwing diamonds of light on the water. Yesterday was a bad day, but this morning is beautiful. That’s backpacking in a nutshell.

In town the Trace is marked with white spray-painted turtles.

I gather my cooking kit, retrieve my bear bag, and head to a shady spot where we will have breakfast. I lay down one of my water bottles on the ground so that I can open my bag, but the ground is deeply sloped and before I can stop it, the bottle rolls swiftly down the hill and––plonk!––into the lake.

“Aghhh!” I yell.

Wiggs hears me. “What? What happened?”

“My water bottle fell in the lake!” I whine and moan some more, making a dramatic ordeal of grabbing one of Wiggs’s trekking poles––mine are still holding up my tent––and trying to head down the nearly-vertical hill to the water. Wiggs comes over, and I hand him the trekking pole, not verbally asking the question he already anticipates.

“Oh. Am I getting the bottle out of the lake?”

I grin. He’s smaller and spryer than me; I reckon he’s the less likely of the two of us to accidentally slide into the lake. I’m right. He successfully fishes it out of the water. He hands the bottle to me and I feel sheepish.

“Sorry,” I say. “And thanks.”

Breakfast is quick today; we have air conditioning on the mind. We pack up and walk around the edge of the lake, through the woods, and wind up on the campus of Morehead State University. The trail turns into sidewalk and is now marked with spray-painted white turtles to indicate our path through the town. We pass dormitories and a dining hall and several science buildings, cross a major intersection, and stroll into the small, unassuming town of Morehead. We stop for a late second breakfast, which is really early lunch, at a little café. Then we browse an outdoor clothing store, and wind up at a bookstore/coffee shop/yarn shop called CoffeeTree Books/The Fuzzy Duck/A Good Yarn. It’s a mouthful, but it’s also my absolute ideal institution. I get an iced coffee. It’s divine. We browse the yarn section with wide, greedy eyes (we are both crocheters) before moving onto the books (we are also both readers) while drinking cold caffeinated beverages (we are both currently in dire need of drinks that are not lukewarm).

Wiggs in CoffeeTree Books, which is also The Fuzzy Duck coffee shop, which is also A Good Yarn.

Although we had originally pondered the idea of just stopping through town on our way out, we decide after yesterday’s ordeals that we deserve a night with air conditioning and showers, not to mention computers––I have to write an educational philosophy and answer a questionnaire tonight, before I lose cell service again. We reserve a room at the Best Western. The problem is, there are apparently two distinct parts to the town of Morehead––this one, where the university is, and another one, right off I-64 and three miles away.

We do our resupply at the local IGA, find a liquor store and buy a six-pack of local IPA, and then begin the process of trying to secure a ride to the hotel. We first try Lyft and Uber, but they don’t seem to service this area. I call the hotel to ask if they have a shuttle of some kind, but they don’t. We see information about a bus system, but the online schedules are very hard to read and the bus stops are not clearly marked. We don’t want to take a taxi, because that’s a lot of money. What to do.

Although it isn’t marked on Google Maps, my paper trail map says that there’s a Sheltowee Trace Association office in the town, so we follow the map and try to find it. But when we get to the road where the office should be, we see nothing. A man in a black SUV sees us looking and pulls over. I know this drill. I see Wiggs wind up into his friendliest, politest please-give-us-a-ride persona as the man asks us if we need anything.

“Well, we’re looking for the Sheltowee Trace Association office. We thought maybe they could help us find a ride to the Best Western…?” Wiggs trails off into a slight question.

The man doesn’t catch the tone. He continues chatting with us, asking about the hike. “So I’m not really sure if there’s an office up here,” he concludes. I’m sorry! Good luck!” He drives away.

“I thought that was going to work,” Wiggs says.

The main entrance to Morehead State University

We walk back to the main street, making a large loop in a return to where the Trace walks through the town. It’s now close to 3:00. We meander around for a bit, trying to decide whether to try to hitchhike. This would have been the go-to plan had we been on the Appalachian Trail. But since we haven’t seen a single other person hiking the Sheltowee and no one here seems to have any idea that the Trace exists, even though it goes right through their town, we don’t want to risk it. Around a well-established long-distance trail, hitching is a necessary part of the culture. Here, it could be sketchy.

We end up going back into the Fuzzy Duck, where the barista hands Wiggs a bus stop list, though they aren’t sure whether public transit is running right now or not. We deduce that there is a 3:05 bus stop at the university library. We walk in that direction, realize it’s too late, and then go across the street to Holbrook Drugs, where it is confirmed that another bus should be coming soon. To where? We don’t know. At what time? We don’t know that either. All we know is that we’re tired of trudging all over town with a blue plastic bag of beer and freshly resupplied packs, so we’re going to wait for this supposed bus.

All of a sudden, we hear a voice from across the street. “Are you two hiking the Sheltowee Trace?” He’s an older man with a wide grin, wearing a red shirt that reads, “We can’t be doin’ that,” in homage to Governor Andy Beshear. My spirits lift immediately.

“Yes! We are!” We chat with him for a bit, explaining our situation.

“So we’re trying to get to the Best Western,” Wiggs finishes.

The man smiles slyly. “Would you like a ride?”

I could explode with relief. We pile our gear into the back of his truck––his mercifully air conditioned truck––and he drives us the three miles to the other part of town. On the way we talk about the hike and our lives. The man’s name is Cap, he’s just returned from a paddling trip in the Boundary Waters, and he is elated that we’re hiking the Trace.

Wear a mask! The Fuzzy Duck said so.

When he drops us off, we thank him profusely.

“So now that you’ve given us a ride, you’re officially a Trail Angel,” Wiggs says to him by way of parting. Cap seems to like the sound of this.

“I’m glad I was able to help,” he says. “Good luck!”

Good luck indeed. The hotel is clean and I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier to be inside a building. The shower is divine, and we feast on Cracker Barrel across the street for dinner. I get my writing done, and I get an email offering me another job at a community college. A week ago I felt like nothing would ever come together, and now it’s all falling into place: the trail, the ride, the hotel, dinner, life.

It’s back to the Trace in the morning. Tomorrow I’ll remember what it’s like to be sweating and hot again. Not now, though, not yet. I have running water and air conditioning and town food to enjoy.

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

Exploring at 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.

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.

middlecreekparktrails
The trails at Middle Creek park

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.

img_2517
Fields of Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebell, at Wolsing Woods

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.

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.

thc-parkmap
Map of trails and amenities at Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus

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.

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.