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 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.

Shawnee State Park: The Sequel

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.

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Yours truly at the start of the backpacking loop at Shawnee State Forest. March 7, 2020

Spring Begins

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.

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A lovely lake scene on the southern half of the Shawnee Backpacking Loop. March 9, 2020

The Hike

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.

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Wiggs and me, enjoying the early March sunlight. March 7, 2020

Home

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.

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Wiggs, enjoying sunset from camp. March 8, 2020

And Now

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.

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Part of the southern half of the Shawnee backpacking loop shares a route with the Buckeye Trail and the North Country Trail. We might not be going abroad to hike this year, but it’s good to remember that there are trails everywhere, even close to home.

 

 

Shawnee State Forest, October 2019

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.

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Classic Ohio in the Fall.

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.

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Yours truly and Wiggs, October 25, 2019

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.

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It was a little bit wet, but there was a certain kind of comfy beauty in the rainy autumn world.

 

The Trail

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.

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Shawnee has a rather impressive network of trails, including a large backpacking loop. We did about half of the loop on this particular weekend, and will soon be going back to do the whole route.

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.

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Side trails to campsites are marked with white blazes at Shawnee, while the main loop is marked with an orange blaze. It was comforting to see this white mark, as if we had never left the AT.

Slightly Struggling

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.

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Wiggs resting on the second evening, before the torrential downpour that flooded both of our tents.

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.

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Wiggs. pack, and 2019 AT thru-hiker tag. From one trail to another, and onto a new adventure…

Maryland + Pennsylvania, Part One

Virginia is the longest state on the Appalachian Trail at about 550 miles. It was beautiful, but by the time I reached the end I was ready for a new state. Here are a few thoughts from Maryland and Pennsylvania (I didn’t write anything in the eight miles of West Virginia). More reflections on Pennsylvania to come, because it was a long and grueling state.

26 June, Maryland

We took a lunch break at Dahlgren campground. It was over halfway and the day was young, so KG and I lay down head to head on a bench, read our respective books, and took a nap. In between reading my favorite author and sharing a bench with my friend who had returned from big miles and three days off in DC, I looked up at the sky. Two huge poplars flanked the campground and they were fluttering in the wind. Perfect fluffy white clouds rolled by, and I felt completely present. This is the trail I wanted. Today I feel here. My head is swimming with love for writing and the world and The Graveyard Book and Aziraphale and Crowley and running water and summer and snacks. I am happy. So, so happy.

Midday nap time at Dahlgren Campground, MD

Annapolis Rocks campground, 21:30

We’ve just finished watching the sunset. Patches, Krazy Glue, Hermione, Slouch, and Nemo and I all sat there together, listening to chill music and watching the sky glow purple and orange and pink. I have felt varying things about my tramily and the very nature of having a tramily out here. On the one hand it’s frustrating to deal with logistics and differences, but on the other hand, a trail family means you can share experiences. You can look at each other and then back to a view, and say “wow” or raise your eyebrows, and get a response. The shared view is a mass around which the rest of my experience outdoors orbits. Here we are, with our vastly different personalities and motivations, all together and enjoying one thing.

I decided to go back to camp and get to sleep before everyone else. I’m tired today, and I’m starting to get into the rhythm of having time to read and write, and I don’t want to fall off the wagon. As I was leaving the viewpoint at Annapolis Rocks, Nemo asked me, “Are you writing a book?” And for the first time, with confidence, I said, “Yes. Well, maybe more a collection of essays than a book, but that’s what I want to do.” It felt like a switch, like how, after a certain point, you stop saying “that’s the plan!” when someone asks if you’re going to Maine, and switch to a confident “yes.” I have marked my plan and said what I will do. That feels good.

I want to write more thoughts but I am very tired, despite the nap today. I am so ecstatic to be this far through the trail.

Sunset at Annapolis Rocks, still one of the best on trail.

30 June, campsite past Pine Grove Furnace State Park, 20:15

Alone. The trees are whispering with the wind. Occasionally, a bird will chirp in the background, somewhere past the stand of bushes right by this fire ring. It is not silent, but it is quieter than shelters and quieter than being in a group. This forest, a young one by the size of the trees, feels like a blanket rustling over a mattress of earth. I am writing words on a page in English, but no English can be heard. As I let myself sink into this solitude I remember that the nature around me is older than language.

I am comfortable alone at first. At first I am rejoicing with relief. I set up my tent in a clearing where I see no other people. I eat a small dinner and write in my journal in complete unadulterated aloneness. I turn on an audiobook to pierce the silence, and turn it off, feeling that I am wasting my time to listen. Now I sit.

There is a road somewhere, maybe a few miles, to my left. This makes me nervous, but it would not make me nervous if I were not alone. I hear a sound that is probably a toad, but there is no water around here, so I start to imagine it as a boar, or a bear. A branch scuttles and I picture a black bear, Ursus americanus, waiting for sundown to accost my food bag. These are things I would not think of if I were not alone.

I do not think I am scared. If I am scared of anything out here, it is people. Especially after what happened earlier this year. And I am afraid of waking up and hearing a sound. I am afraid of a bear that is not afraid of me, a bear that I cannot chase away. Other than this, I am not afraid. This trail has nudged its way into the cords of my heart. I am home here, I am home and whole.

Patches (right) and me at the official (though incorrect) halfway point, just before Pine Grove Furnace State Park

1 July, Green Mountain General Store, lunchtime

This is the kind of place I want to put in a story. It’s the kind of place that’s right at home in Pennsylvania, all comfy and familiar, with an edge of country shabbiness that is elevated by its kind people and clean bathrooms and brilliantly delicious subs. The paneled ceiling is slanted and uneven, with a few fluorescent lights. The air conditioning is running at full blast in the little room up a staircase, and I am sitting right in front of it. (Which, I just realized, might be making the rest of the place stink. Oops.) I’ve just finished eating the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had the pleasure to consume. It was fresh and warm and perfect. I’m working on a cup of coffee now, which is what originally brought me in here. I woke up late today and thought, I wonder how it would go if I didn’t make breakfast but just started walking. So I did, and I felt like a zombie. But both the first shelter, where I was originally thinking about stopping, and this deli were 0.2 off trail. So I thought, real coffee and flush toilets trump whatever I have in my pack. I have no self-control when it comes to food on trail, but this place was worth the short but terrifying stint of road walking. It’s full on summer in the north now, here in southeastern PA, and forty-five minutes not in the sun are a merciful relief.

This is the kind of place in a small town where people know each other. The two girls behind the counter speak to customers who come in with friendly familiarity. Everyone seems comfortable and alright. It’s the kind of store where you could buy anything, if you looked hard enough for it. 2-liters of Pepsi and Mountain Dew, jars of peanuts, packs of oreos, fishing gear, bait, hope, wonder, potions. Wood-paneled walls and menu boards of the type that require individual letters to be placed between plastic lines. Large chunks of plastic-wrapped cheese, a basket of onions. Banjos on the walls made of old cigar boxes. Maps, t-shirts, thermometers.

I guess I should keep walking. But this air does feel nice. And the coffee is so much better than instant. And I am so happy to have had twelve hours of miraculous, beautiful aloneness. I feel like I am finally hiking my own hike, setting my own schedule and following my own rules.

Last night I felt a little nervous, and it took me a while to go to sleep. I eventually did so with the help of a chill playlist. I didn’t set an alarm, and I woke up at 5:30, but didn’t start moving until 8. It was quiet and beautiful and so miraculously solitary. I want to do that again, but I think tonight I’ll be forced to go to the campground just before Boiling Springs, since there isn’t much after it. Maybe I’ll try a big day tomorrow. Or maybe not. It feels good to have no rules, and I’ll have to remember to allow myself to make my own choices out here.

The only time I have truly camped alone was this night, just past Pine Grove Furnace. I had to go searching for it; a hiker on the AT is rarely alone.

21:46, Camp outside Boiling Springs, PA

I want to lie down. I want to watch Good Omens and fall asleep. But more than any of these things I want to remember the fireflies.

Walking back to the campground in the almost-darkness of twilight, KG and I watched in reverent silence to the spots of light dotting the fields and cornstalks. They make no noise, but they speak a language all their own in this special light. They are ethereal, walking the border between real and not. I stand staring at the lights, the uneven symphony. I am transfixed. I cannot pull myself away. I am reminded of times when the smallest movement of a stalk of grass on the Arizona Trail made me understand the significance of life, the worthiness of the world, why it would be worth averting the apocalypse for. These fireflies are a gift. This feeling will never come again, not exactly like this. They remind me that I am alive.

The Children’s Pond in Boiling Springs, PA. There’s not a lot in this town, but the sunset and the fireflies this night were delightful.

Virginia Reflections, Part Three: Shenandoah

14 June 2019

Calf Mountain Shelter, Shenandoah National Park, 07:18

It’s cold out this morning. As people wake up in the shelter—early, because most of them are doing a marathon day—they make jokes about the weather. “So,” says one voice, “are y’all hitching into Hiawasseee?” Everyone laughs. Hiawassee, Georgia was hundreds of miles ago, when we were still in the chilly grip of late March. In one way it feels like that was ages in the past, but then again, this morning the air is crisp and fall-like, and I am reminded that months are nothing in the grand scheme of time.

At this moment I’m still curled up in my sleeping bag, echoes of my injury radiating throughout my ankle. I’m only going 13 today, so there’s no need for me to be fully awake yet. But I’m enjoying this banter. The wind was rather rough last night, whipping through the campsite. I almost sent my puffy home, and now I’m glad I didn’t, and that I still have my 20-degree down quilt.

Right now we’re traveling in the orbit of a large group of hikers that I really like: Brew, Pizza Steve, Bumblebee, Gumby, Tortuga, Wiggs, Honey Buns, Tomatillo, Tigah Bahm. The atmosphere at the shelter last night was elated and light. Everyone seems to mirror the calm, contented excitement I’d been harboring about the Shenandoahs. Not that they’ll be easy, but they seem like a nice, 100-mile respite from the punishing uphills that came before and the rocks that lie ahead. We’re almost halfway, and this park is like a little dreamland. (Albeit a dreamland with ticks.) We are all comfortable with each other now, and comfortable with the life we have formed on the trail.

One of the first views in Shenandoah National Park. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of this mountain, but there was a rather fun boulder scramble at the top.

I do wonder what I will feel when this journey ends. A weird sense of loss, probably. There have been times when I have just wanted to sit and crochet and be in a house, but I always talk myself out of that desire by imagining my hours being filled by so much work. Walking is work, I guess, but look what I get to see. I get to listen, to the forest and to music and to words. I get to dream and to live a simplified existence. I think Zach’s advice in Appalachian Trials about finding a “new Katahdin” is well warranted. I am going to write a book. A collection of essays, more precisely. I’ve been wanting to do it for a while, since taking the Memoirs and Creative Nonfiction classes and beginning to write about walking. Big goals, I know. I need to get my essays together, need to braid my ideas into comprehensible works. But I’ve wanted to write a book for so long. That is my next Katahdin. Today I have committed.

Words, words, so many words. I love them and need them and nurture them. My hands are cold in this crisp morning air. It’s not so much June as it is April, but it will feel like a nice respite once I start moving. Hello, Shenandoah.

19:03

This morning Krazy Glue took off, bound for higher miles. I knew it was coming, but I guess I wasn’t prepared for how I was going to react. Tears appeared out of nowhere in my eyes as he approached the shelter, ready to hit the trail. Something just struck me: we’d traveled 870 miles together, the three of us. We’d weathered storms and dealt with humidity and checked for ticks and talked about the merits and drawbacks of shelter privies. I hadn’t consciously realized how much he had wedged himself into my heart. I have a lot of respect and admiration for him, and I hadn’t thought consciously about the level to which my hike had revolved around the three of us, as a three.

I felt a strange, great sadness, which I did not expect. I know I’ve spent too much time putting down the AT compared to the relative amazigness of the Camino, but apparently it has moved me and touched me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend until this morning. I feel so lucky to have found my little trio, and it feels weird to be splitting off, even if we do meet again, which I know we will.

Spoiler alert: We did meet again, in Maryland. Actually, our whole tramily met up and hiked together for a bit: Nemo, Hermione, Slouch, and KG, Patches, and me. On the right you’ll see Krazy Glue trying to surf into the sunset.

I was thinking about change during the morning. Everything about hiking is an exercise in appreciation and letting go. I’ve thought about this before, and I’m frustrated by how few words I have for it. But here it is. The golden light last night. I went to hang my bear bag and noticed the way the leaves were a shining gold in the windy evening. The trees swayed in the wind, moving with a velocity slightly less than what might be described as “violent.” It wasn’t violent yet, though; it was smooth and beautiful and autumnal. And this morning, it was cold as well. I thought about everything that is comfortable and warm, thought about my love for Good Omens and crocheting and Harry Potter and being with my mother and the particular slant of golden light in October. And I thought again about how so much of my soul strains towards the impulse of collecting and holding. I want to gather experiences and information and hold them to me, but I live a life that protests this. Hiking demands that you do not stop for too long in one particular place. See a sunrise, hold it, and let it go. A good day, a bad day, let it go. I strain against this, but I also lean into it. There’s something beautiful about knowing that nothing stays the same and that the stories will keep on growing and existing and breathing no matter how long you stay or what you do.

21 June 2019, campsite somewhere 16 mi north of Front Royal, 20:48

I know, I should write. But I’m so tired and I’m lying down and I spent all day listening to The View from the Cheap Seats, and even now as I narrate my own words in my head I’m hearing them in Neil Gaiman’s voice. My sentences start to crescendo and fade away like the author reading aloud in his soft tones from my favorite novels. As delightful as Neil Gaiman narrating my life would be, it’s kind of just confusing me at the moment and I want to watch a show. Fleabag, maybe, for the second time. Or Good Omens for the fifth. It’s a toss-up.

Still, I’m a writer, or I want to be, and I need to write every day to be a writer. So here’s a little bit to chew on.

This campsite is different than any we’ve been at before. It’s a small clearing in a dense thicket of kudzu and other tangly leafy viney plants, with no clear trunks to speak of. It’s windy tonight and I’m hoping it doesn’t rain because the head end of my tent is rather bunched up and less angled than is ideal. But the sky is beautiful tonight. Not cotton candy or trix yogurt but a smooth peach and blue. This is the kind of sky that makes me think of the ocean and sand and South Carolina and fills me with peace.

I read The Graveyard Book while I was eating my pesto dinner and felt delivered back to myself again. Child-me must be smiling from her respective dimension. The adult she grew into is not so boring and removed after all. She is here hiking a long trail, on an adventure, and still reading ghosts and Gaiman.

One of the last pages of Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Graveyard Book.’ I loved this quote so much that I wrote it on my backpack.

I was a little bit sore today and I’m hoping this is because I am breaking in new shoes, and not because the new shoes were a bad idea. The Cascadias were done but they knew my feet and fit me like a glove. Too bad they fell apart and rubbed my big toes to numbness. Tomorrow begins the so-called Roller Coaster, 14 miles of continuous steep ups and downs. I’m dreading it a little, but I’m also excited to take on the challenge.

I cannot wait to get my picture taken at the ATC in Harpers Ferry. I’ve been thinking about it for so long, imagining how I’ll pose and what I’ll look like when I get there and how I’ll post the photo on Instagram, feeling accomplished and excited and proud. I can’t believe we’re so close, but I also can’t believe it’s taken so long. It’s trite to say you finish a trail different than you were when you started. Of course you’re the same person. But also, maybe not. Maybe what you think about and listen to and read and learn and experience change you if just a bit, in a way that is hard to notice as you’re walking. But I know at least some things are different.

Shortly after writing this entry I arrived at Harpers Ferry, WV, what is commonly called the “spiritual,” “psychological,” or “emotional” halfway point of the AT.

Lower Antelope Canyon: Not Exactly Wilderness, But Totally Worth the Trip

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Close details of the waves and textures of Lower Antelope Canyon

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Janna and I went on a weekend trip to Page, Arizona, about 2 hours north of our beloved mountain town of Flagstaff. While the city itself is underwhelming, the two main attractions of the area – Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend – are some of the most photographed, most famous, and (rightly) most visited places in the United States. If you’re considering making a trip to Antelope Canyon, you’re probably weighing the cost of the tours, the logistics of getting there, and accommodation options. Here, I’d like to share my experience with this trip to help you make the most of your visit to this distinctly not wild, but beautiful, surreal, and totally worth-the-trip place.

Note: If you’d like to see just the photos from the trip, check out my gallery page.

Getting There

Page is remote – it sits at the northeastern corner of Arizona, mere miles from Utah. Like everything in the southwest, it seems to be far from everything else. But luckily, if you’re already in Flagstaff, it’s an easy 2-hour hop, skip, and a jump away, making it a perfect weekend destination.

Janna and I left Flagstaff around 5 PM on a Friday. The trip was simple, following 89A north of town and into the Navajo Nation, rounding corners with views of scraggly, otherworldly rocks and climbing up a steep hill that yielded impressive views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the far eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. We listened to a lot of K-Pop on the way, as we are wont to do, so it felt like a mere few minutes to get to Page.

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View of the Vermillion Cliffs and part of the Grand Canyon from the hilly portion of 89A leading up to Page

The Campsite

As we covered the last few miles and rolled into Page, we noticed plentiful accommodation – both affordable and mid-range hotels, it looked like. But we, being the outdoorsy and broke grad students that we are, were headed for a free BLM campsite just north of town, on the 89A near Lake Powell. Reading the descriptions online, we were a little concerned about the quality of the road, since I have an adventurous but tiny and low-clearance Grand Am. But we found the gravel to be perfectly drive-able for the first quarter-mile, which was the minimum distance campers had to keep from the road.

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Sunrise at our campsite (looking towards Lake Powell)

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Looking back towards the BLM land where our campsite was located. There was at least another solid half-mile worth of campsites along the road past our location.

The camping was everything car camping should be: free, quiet, located close to our destination, and easy to find. While we were eating dinner and reading, we got a few glimpses of jackrabbits bouncing through the brush, and in the morning we got to see the funky rock formations surrounding the area and a beautiful sunrise. There is absolutely nothing like waking up while camping in the southwest: the mornings smell crisp, clear, and full of potential. After gathering up our stuff and packing up the tent, we headed towards town, in search of breakfast, coffee, and bathrooms. We had a tour reservation at 11:30 and a few hours to spare, so we decided to go to Horseshoe Bend first before the tourists arrived.

Horseshoe Bend

Located just south of Page off the 89A, Horseshoe Bend is an impressively deep incised meander of the Colorado River. It’s a frequently photographed spot at a location conveniently close to Antelope Canyon.

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Horseshoe Bend

We visited Horseshoe in the morning, hoping to avoid large hordes of tourists and to get an opportunity to photograph the feature before the sun became overly bright. We planned it right with the tourists – when we got there, around 7:30, there were only a few other people present, but as we were walking back to the car, large groups on tour busses had begun arriving. But the sun at that time of day was a little challenging – there was a deep shadow in the canyon, making it difficult to adjust the settings on our cameras to capture both the shadowy and bright parts of the bend. But this also gave the view an interesting effect. If I ever go back, I’d like to try to be at Horseshoe at either sunset or sunrise to get some different light. I guarantee that any time of day, though, is very impressive for viewing this place.

One thing that Janna and I really enjoyed about being at Horseshoe Bend was sitting on the edge of the cliff and watching people down on the river. It’s fun to see boats come down one side of the bend, make the curve, and keep on going, and it was also cool to see the tiny little ant people down on the banks. It really gives you a scale of the depth of the canyon, and of how precarious the edge of the cliff really is.

Speaking of edges, at the current moment there are no railings or guardrails to keep overly zealous tourists from tumbling over. For some reason, I find this weirdly refreshing – in my experience there aren’t many places left in the States where large groups of tourists can get intimately close to an edge, relying only on their common sense to keep them safe. But we did notice as we were walking up to the vista that a rail was being constructed in parts of the area. I was glad to be there before it was constructed.

Lower Antelope Canyon

After our pleasantly long visit to Horseshoe Bend, Janna and I went back to town for breakfast and reading, since our tour was not until 11:30 (meaning we had to be there by 11). Though it was only April, it was already in the high 80s, so we were glad for a few hours in the air-conditioned sanctum of the McDonald’s. The time passed quickly, though, and we were on our way to Ken’s Tours at Lower Antelope Canyon.

A word about tours and visiting Antelope: The canyon is on Navajo land, so in order to go in, visitors must book tours with one of the guide companies ahead of time. The day that Janna and I booked our tour, it was a Friday in early April, and at the time of booking most of the tour spaces were open. However, three days later a friend of ours tried to book for the same day as us, and everything was filled up. We later learned that April is one of the most popular months, and obviously weekends are busier.

Upon arriving at the tour company, we picked up and paid for our tickets (the online system just reserves the space; visitors must pay in cash on the day of the tour), waited for our tour to gather outside, and then we were walked down the surprisingly intricate system of stairs and ladders to the start of the Lower canyon.

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The staircase and ladder system leading down to the start of Lower Antelope Canyon

Descending into the famed orange canyon was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole – you can see the pictures and imagine the formations all you want, but there is nothing like seeing the textures, the undulating walls, and the surreal landscape of the ceilings and cracks that comprise the canyon.

When I told a few of my friends that I was going to Antelope Canyon this year, a lot of them told me that it wasn’t worth it because it was crowded, rushed, and overly touristy. It’s true that there are a lot of people – if you’re looking for a quiet, solitary wilderness experience, this is not that. Not by a long stretch. At the beginning of the tour especially, there are a lot of people crammed into one space. But the guides do a good job of spreading out the groups of people and taking their time walking through the canyon.

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There are definitely a lot of people on the tour at any given time in Lower Antelope. But after this first bit, the crowds thin out, and the tour never felt rushed.

In the photo above, you can see the extent of the crowd in the first “room” of the canyon. It seemed like the guides used this room like a holding space or waiting area. We were kept here for a few minutes, then led up another set of ladders and stairs to begin the rest of the tour. After that point, the crowd thinned out, it became quieter, and we were able to view the features of the canyon in smooth, slow detail.

One of the reasons I was really excited about this trip was that I had recently bought a new camera – a Sony Alpha a6000 mirrorless DSLR – for my upcoming trip to Europe and other assorted adventures. So far, the camera has done really well in moderate to low light in up-close and mid-distance landscape settings, so I was excited to try it out in the canyon. Likewise, Janna brought her Canon Rebel DSLR to capture the famous formation. We both had really positive experiences with photography in Lower Antelope: the tour never felt rushed, the guide showed us a few good places for taking the best photos, and there were numerous opportunities for testing out a variety of angles.

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Janna, shooting some photos at the start of our Lower Antelope tour

After the waiting room, I began to really enjoy the tour. We walked slowly through narrow slots, looking up periodically to see a bird’s nest, an interesting formation, a hole in the rock, or a snaking crack offering a view of the blue sky above. In the canyon, looking at the wavelike walls, it’s easy to imagine how the soft Navajo sandstone was formed by rushing, cutting water. The very shape of the canyon screams water: the rock alternates between sharp points and smooth edges, with calcium deposits scattered throughout the walls. It’s the southwest at its most ethereal, most impressive best: geology in simultaneously slow and immediate motion.

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Lower Antelope Canyon: rock that looks like water.

It’s hard for me to justify or understand anyone’s claims that it’s not “worth it” to go to Antelope Canyon. Yes, it was touristy, but so is the Grand Canyon, and despite going there eight times and being increasingly frustrated with crowds every time, I would never say that it’s not “worth it” to see it. Of course I wish that Antelope Canyon had been quieter or more “wild.” But it was 100% worth it. Despite it being a prime photography destination, and despite all of the beautiful photos I got to take, nothing compares to being there, feeling the warm orange light and purple shadows creep across the walls. I was very happy that we had made the trip.

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Sunlight and shadows in Lower Antelope Canyon

One thing I do wish, though, is that the tour had been more informative. Our tour guide was friendly (and he spoke Korean, randomly enough, which came in handy with the one Korean family on our tour, and which really excited Janna!), but he didn’t give us very much information about the canyon. I wanted to know more about the geology, for example, or the meaning of the canyon to the Navajo people, or the statistics on visitation. I’d wager that this lack of information has to do with the fact that most people who come to the canyon seem to just want to take pictures – despite the lack of extensive tour guide-ish information, he did offer to take photos for us at multiple points during the walk. Or perhaps the canyon just doesn’t lend itself well to people shutting up and listening to a tour guide talk. Still, I think that a bit more information about the place would have enhanced the experience.

The End of the Tour and Heading Home

At the end of the tour, we climbed up another set of stairs and emerged on ground level, just behind the building where we began. It was crazy to look back at the slot that we’d just emerged from – from the top, it looks like nothing more than an unassuming crack in the ground, rather than the magical wonderland of color and light that we had just seen. The earth holds such wonders, I caught myself thinking. Around every corner, within every crack, in every walk, there is something amazing to see.

Our trip home was just as simple and quick as the drive to Page. Since it was earlier in the day, we got a clearer view of the Vermillion Cliffs and the edge of the Grand Canyon, and we made it back to Flagstaff by late afternoon, with plenty of time to spare for grading, homework, and essays.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I would strongly recommend visiting Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon. We didn’t see the Upper Canyon so I can’t vouch for that experience, but I found Lower to be a worthwhile destination. While it’s not wilderness, and while the tour is lacking some informative elements, the canyon was beautiful, breathtaking, and inspiring. I don’t know if I would travel across the country just to see it, but combined with Horseshoe Bend, Utah National Parks, the Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff, Antelope is definitely a worthy addition to any southwest travel list.