The first thing I notice when I wake up is the silence. No rain drops pattering on the roof. No splashing of puddles. The next thing I notice is that it is cold. Inside the tent, my sleeping bag and camp clothes are dry, but all of my other gear, including the clothes I have to hike in, are still soaked. It’s going to be miserable when I have to put those on. But that’s not a right-now problem. There is silence, and the slight suggestion of the sun appearing through the trees, and I am grateful.
We still eat an in-tent breakfast, though, because it is genuinely chilly. But because it is not raining finally, we can open our doors and poke our heads out into the world. I savor my coffee and peanut butter tortillas and burrow down one last time into my sleeping bag, cuddling around my damp hiking clothes in a feeble attempt to warm them up before I have to put them on. It doesn’t do much, and I shudder and wail my way through putting the wet clothing back on my body. From the sound of it, Wiggs is experiencing the same unique misery.
We warm up quickly, though, once we get going. It doesn’t take as long today since the weather is better. We backtrack the way we came last night, down to a ridge with tall old trees, their leaves mostly fallen. We can see out into the valleys below and hills beyond. I stop for a second and breathe it in.
It’s so good. It smells like fresh rain and crisp shoulder season mornings. Like March in Georgia, after the first rainstorm, when the world is calm again and the trail stretches so far on. I love this. I love this forest, I love Ohio, I love whatever this is that a trail, any trail, makes me feel.
We follow the ridge and descend the steep hill we came up last night. Instead of going back across the same creek we consult the map and decide to take a different part of the loop, adding a bit of distance to the hike. We’re ahead of schedule and we have hit our stride. We ascend the short hills easily and coast across the ridges.
We wind up in a wet valley where the trail repeatedly crosses a creek with no discernible pattern. The rain has made it difficult to tell what is normal waterway and what is seasonal puddle, and we hop across sandbars, rocks, and fallen trees. There are more caves and exposed rock walls here. It feels like a tamer iteration of the Red River Gorge. I feel regret at the prospect that this hike is coming to an end. I’d take another three rainy days in the woods if it meant that I didn’t have to leave.
We reach the road, which has been flooded in parts due to yesterday’s downpour, and walk along the pavement back to the car. I change into the dry clothes I left in the trunk, trade my trail runners for my camp shoes, and stretch.
Three days in the woods and I feel calmer. Three wet days in the woods and I am more myself. Hiking never magically solves problems. It doesn’t pay my rent or resolve my dilemmas or do my work for me. But it does make me ready, remind me what I’m made of, and show me why it’s worth it.
I awake to rain on the roof of the tent. It’s a steady patter, decidedly not a drizzle, and it looks like the weather prediction came true. Though it was forecasted to be a downpour today, last night in my optimistic mind there was a chance that maybe it wouldn’t actually happen. But it did––it rained all day, in a thick, steady curtain of plopping drops. It wasn’t too bad when we were moving, but the moment we stopped for lunch or a snack, the cold smacked us hard and we didn’t want to stay still for long.
We got a pretty late start. I don’t think I even got up until after 9:00. We had coffee and breakfast in the tent and procrastinated getting moving as long as we possibly could, until about 10:30. Once we got going, it was actually a lovely day. What is it about hiking that makes even the dreariest of days an adventure? How can I be happier in the gray Ohio woods than inside, under blankets and with a hot cup of tea? (Don’t get me wrong, though. I wanted those all day too.)
Zaleski looks similar to Shawnee. That’s probably not surprising, considering that both are in southern Ohio, which in late fall is characterized by rolling hills, wet rocks, and deciduous trees in the last throes of autumn colors. But there are fewer ups and downs, and it didn’t really feel all that difficult for the most part. There were numerous caves, waterfalls, rock formations, pretty creeks, and cliffs with views across valleys. We also found a large flush of chicken of the woods growing on a dead tree. It turned out to be past its prime, but I was glad to have finally found some after looking for it all fall.
We stopped for lunch on a log under a couple of young beech trees. It was still drizzling, so we made a little canopy for ourselves by tying the corners of my polycryo ground sheet to the branches. Within moments of stopping, the chilly air bit through our wet clothes and my feet stared to go numb. But we brewed some hot lunchtime coffee and it tasted like the warmest, most comforting thing in the world. Immediately after we started walking again after lunch, we found a cave with a massive overhanging rock over a dry fire ring. It would have made a perfect lunch or camping spot. We considered stopping there for the day, but it was only 3:00 and we had so many miles left in us. Ah, well. Such is backpacking.
Considering that there are fewer ups and downs here than we’re used to, we made it to camp in pretty good time even with the rain. In total, we did about 11.5 miles today to camp 3. When we got to camp it had just stopped raining, but it soon started up again just as I headed down to the spigot to get water. We had a cramped in-tent dinner and finished off our wine boxes. The setup was not ideal, and I really missed having a fire, but such is life. This was followed by assorted camp chores, and finally, we lay down and settled in for the night.
Wiggs remarked to me today that I seem more comfortable out here, more like the person he met and fell in love with a year ago. I can agree. On the trail I know what I’m about. It may be raining, I may smell like garbage, and all of my gear may be soaked to the core, but I am comfortable here. I know how to handle things and carry myself. I know how to use my gear and how to get through. How do I harness that version of myself the moment I step out of the woods? I’ve been wondering over that question for a while now.
It has been beautiful lately, both in Ohio and in Kentucky. For the last ten days the sun has been shining, and while the temperatures took a dip towards winter today, it is still bright and crisp. Naturally, considering this, Wiggs and I chose the only three rainy days in the past few weeks to go for a backpacking trip.
In our defense, it’s hard to arrange for a three-day jaunt in the woods when we have to navigate between our bizarre work and school schedules. He reserved the day off weeks in advance, and I finagled my at-home grading schedule to get (somewhat) caught up. We chose Zaleski State Forest for our trip because we had been to Shawnee numerous times. We wanted to experience the cozy chill of late fall Ohio backpacking while being somewhere new. It’s not a far drive from Columbus, and it felt like a good choice for a three-day trip.
We checked the weather beforehand. We knew what we were getting into: 90% chance of rain all day, beginning late in the evening our first night out. We went anyway. Maybe it was the idea that we are thru-hikers and therefore made of tougher stuff, or maybe it was a semi-manic desire to get away from the infuriating COVID-19 at-home routine. Maybe–and I think this is the most likely reason–we needed to be reminded of who and what we are. Whatever the reason, we went. We got rained on, but I would take a rainy fall day in the woods over almost anything else.
Here are some thoughts I wrote on my phone while we were out on the trail.
Day 1: Wednesday, October 28
We got a late start today, of course. My friend Monica was in town for a few days and she left this morning, and I had some work to finish up, so Wiggs and I didn’t hit the road until close to 4. By the time we got to the Zaleski trailhead we only had an hour of daylight left to hike. I hate that about this time of year. Nevertheless, we laced up our shoes, buckled our packs, and headed through the woods for a quick two miles.
Zaleski already feels easier than Shawnee. There are hills, but they are short and manageable. The trail first winds around the side of a hill overlooking some wetlands, then meanders towards a cave. We considered the idea of sleeping in the cave tonight, but I though the rain could make that experience hit or miss. So we kept walking through the quickly-descending darkness.
We made it to the camp near point C on the backpacking loop. It’s sort of a gravelly ridge, with a long area for tents. The problem is that gravel means that we had a few issues getting our tent stakes in the ground. Wiggs’s headlamp is running out of battery, so we shared mine as we set up. We tried desperately to get the stakes hammered into the rock-hard ground, and eventually, after much frustration, we were successful. We had an enjoyable camp dinner, complete with small boxes of wine (also known as adult juice boxes, or AJB’s).
About a year ago, Wiggs and I went on our first backpacking trip together at Shawnee. It was rainy and dreary then, too, another classic Ohio October. But that weekend is, in my memory, nothing but comfortable rightness. A month removed from my finish of the Appalachian Trail, I settled back into the routine of wake up, eat breakfast, walk, camp, sleep. I felt so at home with Wiggs immediately. So perhaps it is unsurprising that a year later we are back in the woods.
Though we haven’t technically seen much of Zaleski yet, I am impressed so far. The trail meanders over easy hills, next to wetlands, and up to elevated campsites with fresh water sources. There are mushrooms and dramatic caves below trees shedding the last of their autumn yellows. Despite the gravel issues the campsite is nearly-ideal, with a fire ring and perfect sitting logs. It’s supposed to rain steadily all day tomorrow, but somehow I think it will still be good.
I have been struggling. This week has been hard, between the massive amounts of work-related stress, uncertainty about the near and far future, and endless worrying about money. I feel pulled in so many directions at once, and I don’t know where to start first. It’s so hard to be present. It’s so hard to realize that the way I feel now is not the way I will feel forever. Sometimes I feel like I have it together, but other times I feel bumbling and lost, with no real direction. I can’t see around the corners, and I don’t know how I’ll handle the winter and spring. But if the AT taught me anything, it’s that one way or another, things work out. Every morning, rain or shine, I will stand up, tighten my pack straps, and address the day one task and one step at a time.
Note to self: I am alive. Smell the leaves and feel the fire. Listen to the music and be grateful for the love that holds you. Here. Here. Here.
Today’s total: ~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.
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.
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.
Today’s total: ~11 mi from campsite on FS 909 to campsite near mile 61
Since we got to camp at a decent time last night, waking up at 6:00 am isn’t hard for once. It’s already hot, but not as bad as it could be, and as we cross back over the creek and head up the road we start to feel like the trail is taking a beautiful turn. We’re rested and our conversation is much more animated than it was this time yesterday. We leave the forest road and turn back into the woods, and soon we are hiking upwards through rhododendrons and around dripping sandstone rock formations. It strikes me that we are not far now from the Red River Gorge.
A couple of miles into our walk we come to the top of the hill and see a pine-dotted clearing to our right. We follow the short trail and then we see our first real view of the entire Trace so far: a sweeping sunny panorama out onto the leafy valley below, with a clear look at a sandstone arch spanning two hills in the distance. It smells fresh and coniferous, like Northern Arizona in the morning.
We take an unintended break at this spot, appreciating that the trail has finally opened up. But we’re trying to make it to town by lunchtime, so eventually we keep walking. The trail is hillier today than it has been, and we follow muddy ruts up to the crest of hills and back down again. I’m feeling okay until a gnat cloud swarms me out of nowhere, followed by a group of biting deer flies. I’m swatting at them madly, cursing becoming increasingly louder, as we walk down a gentle slope.
Something orange catches my eye, and then something else orange, and I realize we have stumbled upon the mother-load of fresh, perfect, juicy chanterelles.
I let out a cry of joy. “Look at them! There are so many!”
We start picking, Wiggs sliding the stems into the mesh on my pack. We want more, but there isn’t enough space. So I begrudgingly take off my head net, my last line of defense against the evil biting flies, and use it as a mushroom collecting bag. Not much later, we come across another patch and can’t resist picking even more. The bag is getting heavy and it looks like we’ll be having nothing but chanterelles for dinner. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
We come to the road crossing that will take us to Frenchburg, and we walk the mile down the asphalt into the not-quite-town. There is one restaurant and one grocery store, and we opt for the restaurant first.
The minute we walk in we become aware of two things: one, that we look and smell terrible, and two, that we are the only people in the entire establishment wearing masks. A group of unmasked older folks at a table openly stare at us as we walk in the door. We’re deep in Kentucky, a vividly red state, where the people are kind at face value but obviously distrusting of outsiders, particularly smelly hippy-looking outsiders wearing masks, one of whom has a a pack with Sharpie notes all over it that say things like “Black Lives Matter” and “singular ‘they’ is at least 600 years old.” I’m a little nervous. I walk to a booth as quickly as I can.
I think about how we often pretend like the outdoors is apolitical, like we can leave ourselves and our beliefs when we go into the woods. Thinking this is problematic. Who can “leave politics behind”? White people. Who can “forget about differences”? White people. White, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied people. White people like us can walk into a town in rural red Kentucky confidently and, despite feeling a bit self-conscious, not fear real harm. This has always been true. And yet, I forgot about it when I went into the woods and came back out. That’s privilege. How am I using it?
The server doesn’t seem overly happy to see us there, and I can’t say I blame her. We stink. Badly. She brings us sodas and sandwiches anyway. The Philly cheesesteak and curly fries are divine. We sit in the booth in the fantastically cold restaurant, remembering the familiar feeling of relief of walking into a building after being outside for days on end. I go to the bathroom and wash my hands for much longer than is strictly necessary, watching the dirt run down the drain and feeling a thousand times cleaner.
After lunch we do our resupply at the little neighborhood IGA. What it lacks in variety it makes up for in character. We buy a package of watermelon and, after rearranging the contents of our food bags, sit under the awning of the city building next door and eat it while an unexpected thunderstorm rolls in, pelting rain on the roof and leaving the world smelling of petrichor.
There’s a long road walk after the town, first on a busy two-lane major road and later on smaller streets in a residential area, before becoming a jeep track and properly re-entering the woods. The rain didn’t last long and now somehow it’s even hotter than it was before. My feet are screaming in retaliation against the pavement and I have to stop more times than I would like. When we get to the jeep track the trail is suddenly shaded again, walking next to a wide, flowing creek. All of a sudden, there is water everywhere: in puddles, in creeks. It smells like oxygen. Finally, there was rain, and now there is water.
We see a good campsite not long after this track begins, but it isn’t far enough yet, so we keep walking. We end up regretting this move a bit, as the campsite we do eventually find is soggy, next to a dry part of the creek, and right under a severe slope that was clearly the site of a few landslides. I set up my tent in a tired fog and then sit by the fire ring Wiggs has constructed.
He looks at my tent, and then across the creek to a tree that is leaning severely and darker than ideal. “Uh…” he starts. “Is that tree a widow-maker?”
I look at it. It is certainly bent at a precarious angle. I imagine a storm scenario. It looks like it wouldn’t take much to knock it down. But I’m not sure if it’s even dead. And I really, really don’t feel like moving my tent.
“Ugh,” I wine plaintively. “Is it even dead? Do you think I’ll die? Is it even supposed to rain?”
Wiggs looks at the tree from some different angles, and discovers that it’s still alive and full of leaves, they’re just hard to see. He assures me that it’s probably okay, that it’s not even supposed to rain. But the whole evening I eye it, unconsciously begging it not to fall on me. It would have taken five minutes to move my tent somewhere else, but the only other spot is full of mud and wet leaves and is right under the worst of the landslide zone. I decide to trust the tree.
Our ramen is about 75% chanterelles tonight. They’re delicious, but we decide to only pick a few from now on. If we were just foraging and not hiking, we could have picked pounds to bring home, fry up, or sell. But in backpacking, you don’t carry more than you can manage. You have to be frugal and principled. You take honest stock of what you can do and how much you want to carry and you align all of your behavior with this reality. It’s something that would benefit me in non-hiking life as well, but somehow, the minute I exit the woods, it’s harder to hold onto.
I sleep fairly well, once I stop fretting about the tree. It doesn’t rain, and nothing falls.
Today’s total: ~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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Today’s total: 14 mi from the Clark shelter to Eagle Lake
We sleep in, of course. The sun isn’t quite showing by the time I get up, but it’s late for hikers, and especially for days in the mid-90s. But we still have a luxurious breakfast and enjoy the process of getting ready to hike. We load up on water, head up the trail, stop for a cathole break, and continue on the trail along a flat valley and meandering creek. We chat easily, enjoying the even terrain. We come to the suspension bridge over Holly Fork and decide to get more water, as it looks like a dry stretch is coming up.
This turns out to be a good decision. There is a long road walk today and we aren’t sure about the water situation. After the bridge we continue through a grassy meadow, up and over another woody hill, and finally we come to a Forest Service Jeep track. There are large puddles of muddy water every few hundred yards, and we can see frogs hopping hastily away from each as we approach. We call these puddles “frog villages,” “frog outposts,” “frog towns,” and “frog cities,” depending on the relative size of the puddle. There are scores of tadpoles swimming energetically around in these civilizations, and if we approach slowly enough, we can see little froggy eyes poking out from the surface of the water and minuscule tadpoles motoring around beneath.
We walk farther on this road, and for the first time since starting the hike we have proper cell service. I check my email, and discover to my delight that a school I have applied to teach at has invited me to continue the application process. My first major victory in COVID-era teaching applications!…but they’re asking for answers to a long questionnaire and a teaching philosophy, which I do not have ready to go. It looks like we’ll be spending the day in Morehead tomorrow so I can work on it. I’m okay with this. It’s getting really hot.
We come to a paved road, follow the white turtle blazes left, and walk on a bridge across I-64 before turning right on Forest Service Road 977. Our notes say that this is a six-mile walk, and our map shows that there is little, if any, potential water. It’s nearing 100 with the heat index and the road is a slow, painful slog. I’m sweating all over and the backs of my knees are killing me. Wiggs starts off okay, but grows progressively more loopy as the walk goes on, especially after lunch.
He looks into the trees. “Do you see that?” he asks, peering into the forest. “It looks like a reflection, like water.”
There’s no water. Just trees. Trees and gravel and blazing July sun. We start to get worried that we won’t find any water, and that we’ll have to do a longer day than planned. We see a couple of ranger trucks pass by, and the next time I hear one coming I wave it down. A young ranger looks out at us dubiously.
“Hi, quick question,” I start. “Do you happen to know if there’s a water source up ahead, and if not, do you have any water?” Before I’ve even finished, he’s reaching for a water bottle, which he hands to us with a look that lands somewhere between condescending and concerned.
“I’m not sure. This is federal land, and I’m state,” he replies in a smooth Kentucky drawl. “But I don’t think you’re going to find any water up here. Do you want me to call someone to come get you?”
I shake my head. “No, we’re okay. We’ll make it to Eagle Lake.” He looks worried, but relents. He backs up and turns away out of sight, and Wiggs and I start guzzling the water from the flimsy plastic bottle.
Up and over more gravel hills, and finally, mercifully, the trail goes back into the woods, crisscrossing the Forest Service road until it finally rounds a corner and goes back into the woody ridge for good. It’s beautiful now, with the mushrooms we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and gentle moss growing across rocks lining the trail. It feels more like the AT now, going up and down dramatically and wearing me out, to the bone, pain rippling through the undersides of my knees and my hamstrings and my shins. I can’t remember my legs being this sore on the AT. I’m sure they were, but I feel like I can’t even fully straighten them, and my feet burn every time I take them away from the ground and put them back down.
Finally we begin to descend, and as we come closer to the bottom of the hill we can see Eagle Lake, on the northern edge of the campus of Morehead State University. I could cry. I might. We find a campsite right on the edge of the lake. It’s a tight squeeze, it’s covered in old fishing lines and trash, and it’s barely a foot and a half from the edge of the water, but we make it work.
We’re just about to head uphill a bit to a spot by a tree where we planned to have dinner, when we hear the sound of––is that… a motorcycle? It is. Two men with fishing gear, one walking on the trail and one riding a motorcycle. The sight is strange.
“I deserve an award for walking point-nine miles with all this,” the one walking, and carrying all of the gear, says. The motorcycle-riding man parks and together they walk to the spot we had set sights on for dinner to set up their evening fishing operation. I sigh.
“Hey guys,” says Wiggs, who is almost always the friendlier of the two of us.
“Howdy,” one of the men replies.
We plop down in the strip of gravelly sand in front of my tent and have a cramped dinner while they fish, smoke, and drink beer.
But it’s okay. The night goes on and twilight falls. Eventually, the two fishermen leave, motorcycle and all. As we look out onto the lake we can see large fish swimming to the shore, and then a beaver pokes its head from the surface of the water and starts swimming towards us. It’s curious and sleek, gliding smoothly through the water, past the shore, and deeper into the lake. The day finally cools down and I begin to feel calm.
I finish dinner, put all of my supplies away, and then Wiggs and I go up the hill to brush our teeth. When I get back into my tent I start to change into my sleeping clothes, and then the thought strikes me.
“I’m going to do a tick check,” I say. Then I look down and see them: three tiny ticks, the size of sesame seeds, alternately crawling across my leg and burrowing into my skin.
Wiggs has them too. We trade the tweezers back and forth, and then I realize the extent of the infestation: they are not only appearing as if by magic all over my skin, but they are also crawling toward me across my sleeping pad and running all over my hands. This is war. Alex comes over to my tent and checks my back and neck, and I do the same for him. I pull five ticks out of him; he pulls around ten out of me.
Heat, lack of water, and a next-level tick infestation. I decide it can’t possibly get any worse, and decide to go to sleep. I leave my vestibule doors open to get some airflow.
I wake up suddenly a few hours later. The wind is picking up wildly, whooshing in massive gusts across the lake. My tent is shaking violently, and I remember with annoyance how hard it had been to get my stakes into the ground, and realize that I have to get out and fix them. There’s thunder and lightning; it’s not raining yet, but I know it’s going to. I crawl out of my tent and readjust the stakes and tie-outs and close my vestibule. Wiggs has to get out and put his rain fly on.
Now it’s raining properly. I go back into my tent. A few minutes later I can tell something isn’t right. I go back out. I’m soaked within seconds. A stake has pulled right out of the ground. I hammer it back in with all the force I can muster, crawl back inside, and resolve to sleep no matter what.
It’s been a rough day, but at least exhaustion gives you that: a peace and an amused acceptance of chaos. I now have the ability to pass out anywhere, even if anywhere is the middle of a tick attack and a surprise thunderstorm over a campsite a foot and a half from the lake.
Everything ends up being fine. Morehead is right down the street and time passes, like it always does. You sleep, you wake up, you keep hiking.
Today’s total: 9.5 mi from the Northern Terminus to the Clark family shelter
It’s our first day on the Sheltowee Trace, and it was a hot one. We started the day with a two-hour drive through the rambling farmland and foothills of Kentucky. My parents sat in the front seat, our Pomeranian Emma in between them the whole time. There was some directional mishap, but we ultimately arrived at the trailhead, an unassuming gravel parking lot at the northern border of Daniel Boone National Forest. We took pictures, said our thanks and goodbyes, and started walking south.
It was a hot day. Actually, this whole week is supposed to be a little steamy. It was in the mid 90s today, with a heat index of nearly 100, and it was humid and sunny and migraine-inducing. The trail was well graded, though I struggled on the hills in the heat. We stopped for lunch around the halfway mark, eating sandwiches and tortillas with salmon from packets (once a thru-hiker, always a thru-hiker). I felt better after lunch, but Wiggs was having a bit of a hard time with the heat as we continued along the ridge. We stopped for a long water break, which seemed to help. There is no water for the first nine miles of the Trace, except for a creek at the beginning, so we were sure to load up. I was glad that we did.
One of the best parts of the day was the wildlife. Within ten minutes of hiking we saw a box turtle right on the trail. It felt appropriate, since “Sheltowee,” the name given to Daniel Boone by the Shawnee, means “Big Turtle.” The Trace is blazed with white diamonds with little turtle logos. We saw two more turtles right on the trail over the course of the day, which felt like a fitting way to start the hike.
We also saw a large variety of mushrooms, more than I’ve seen on a walk in the woods in a while. They weren’t all varieties that I was familiar with, but we are pretty sure that one we found, a large, yellowish mushroom with pores and a bulging, spongy cap, was a type of bolete. We also saw an amanita variety that I’m fairly certain was Amanita bisporigera, the Destroying Angel. There were also a variety of amanitas that were about to emerge from the egg-like structure called a volva. It was a silver lining on this hot day for a couple of amateur mycophiles.
The Trace started to descend a gradual hill, and we ended up at Dry Creek. We had been hoping that the creek was not, in fact, dry, but alas, we were not in luck. We were concerned for a moment, but then I consulted the Trace Notes–PDF files with information about the hike meant for Trace Challenge hikers–which mentioned a picnic shelter maintained by the Clark family and open to hikers for camping. We passed the creek, turned to the right, and discovered that the shelter had a water spigot. We decided to spend the night.
We set up our tents and had a luxurious dinner under the shelter and with fresh (if lukewarm) water. I love the first night of a backpacking trip. It feels like settling in, like becoming accustomed again to eating pasta and Oreos and sitting by a fire with wine. We chatted as the night went on and eventually noticed a field of blinking fireflies across the creek. I stood, remembering this time last year and the thousands of fireflies in a corn field in Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Trail, and I felt like I had gone back home.