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 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.