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.