Great Seal Sate Park Part 2: Signs of Spring

Wiggs and I were so impressed by our first visit to Great Seal on March 5 that when another Friday rolled around we decided to make a second visit. This time, on March 19, it was exactly two weeks later. In the spring, two weeks can make a big difference. The first time we went it was a frigid late-winter day and we didn’t see anything green. This time, the earth was showing clear signs of life, and I was very excited to watch the world waking up.

Mossy rocks on the Shawnee Ridge Trail

Seeing Red

Last year I became interested in (read: obsessed with) foraging mushrooms after reading Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone. It was the perfect year for it, with working from home during the beginning of the pandemic allowing me to spend more time than usual out among the trees. One of the first mushrooms I found when I started going to the woods was the scarlet cup, or Sarcoscypha mushroom. Since then, the Sarcoscypha has had a special place in my heart.

I was hoping to find some of these bright red beauties on this trip to Great Seal, since I hadn’t found any two weeks earlier. I had even made a crocheted version of the mushroom that morning, and I brought it to the woods with me just in case I found a real one to compare it to. (You know. For science.)

I started the hike as I usually do in the spring: With my eyes glued to the ground, hoping to catch a spot of bright red on the forest floor. I saw no mushrooms for the first few miles, but Wiggs spotted trout lily, with its characteristic mottled leaves and graceful, droopy white flowers. I remember finding and learning that plant last year on my first forays, and seeing them again made me smile.

White trout lily, Erythronium albidum

We climbed the steep slope to the summit of Sugarloaf once again, and again, I marveled at how hard of a climb it was, especially for Ohio. We came down the other side, took the correct turn this time, and continued on the Shawnee Ridge trail. At this point I had not seen any mushrooms, and I had given up trying to find one, working on the assumption that it was still too early.

Then, out of nowhere, as we were cresting the ridge on Bald Hill, I spotted one: a bright red scarlet cup partially hidden beneath a leaf. I gasped dramatically and dropped to my knees in front of the fungus. I was delighted. I took out my crocheted version and compared it to the real one: the outside of my handmade one is slightly too pink, but it’s pretty close.

Wiggs found another cluster nearby, and the more we saw, the more we kept finding. I love the vivid blood red of the inside of the cup and how starkly it contrasts with the earth tones of the woods, how tiny they are and how they tend to cluster together. To me the scarlet cup is a welcome sign of all the life that is to come, a harbinger of morels, pheasant back, mayapple, ramps, and flowers. I have so many fond memories of last year’s spring, and I can’t wait for another one traipsing in the woods.

Cluster of Sarcoscypha sp. mushrooms, also known as “scarlet cups” or “red elf cups.”

Rock On

Since we started slightly earlier this week than we did the last time, and since we now have an extra hour of daylight, we had more time to go farther on the trails on this second visit. Instead of turning around at the top of Bald Hill, this time we continued down the ridge, into the valley, and up another hill.

We found another couple of tiny Sarcoscypha and plenty more trout lily. There were a few rusting pieces of abandoned cars and a little pond that will probably be a mosquito paradise in a few months. The trail made a few steep switchbacks up another hill, and then meandered for a while down in a valley, before coasting upwards.

The path grew rockier, with boulders strewn here and there. Wiggs commented that he remembered a friend telling him about a “rock garden” around here somewhere, and soon enough, we were at the top of another hill and sauntering among a jumble of mossy sandstone boulders.

The Great Seal boulders

It quickly became clear that these were great boulders – bouldering boulders, the kind loved by climbers. Evidence of this fact was everywhere: chalk dust was smeared on slopers, crimps, and comfy jugs all around the area. I was thrown back to my climbing days in college and grad school, and the feeling in this place was not unlike that of Rocktown, a beautiful bouldering area in northwest Georgia.

We dropped our packs and sampled the climbing. I walked to the top of the hill, where an abandoned foundation of an old building was buried among a field of grasses and soon-to-be-blooming wildflowers. It was sunny and crisp, and the air smelled like leaves, and like memories, and like the spring life that was about to burst forth.

The light started getting that evening slant, and we realized that it was becoming late. We bid farewell to the boulders, promising to return with someone who owned a crash pad, and headed back the way we came.

Wiggs sampling the sandstone

Spring Peepers

I’ve experienced spring differently in the past two years than I ever have before. In 2019, I was on the Appalachian Trail, and I got to watch the world waking up slowly as I walked north. I didn’t know much about mushrooms or plants then (and I still have a lot to learn), but it was a joy to watch the world become green. In 2020, like most people, I was working from home, and I observed one piece of the earth gradually sliding into bloom. This was a closer, more systematic observation than on my thru-hike, as my eyes were more trained on the minute details of a place, over and over scanning the dirt for a hint of mushroom; scanning the trees and plants for recognition.

There’s no way to pinpoint the exact time when one season tips into the next, but this hike felt like the line between cold and warm, dead and alive, the not-yet and the already-here. I love Great Seal. It’s one of those places that just has something. I’m sure I’ll be back soon to look for the little details of spring.

My crocheted Sarcoscypha
The tiniest pair of scarlet cups you ever did see

Great Seal State Park: March 5

Ah, early March. Glorious, hope-filled, golden early March. The world hangs on the edge between melting winter and waiting spring. The days–crisp, but no longer frigid–grow steadily longer, stepping ever more quickly towards flowers. My eyes are pulled downwards for the first time since October, searching the forest floor for mushrooms that I know aren’t there yet, but aren’t far away now, either. Winter has its perks but spring–spring makes everything worth it.

It’s the time of year when staying inside begins to feel pointless. I was craving a hike, despite growing piles of essays to grade, and so on Friday, March 5, Wiggs and I decided to check out a new hiking location. We settled on Great Seal State Park near Chillicothe, about an hour due south of Columbus. We only had time for a short hike, but it was a perfect afternoon and a satisfying hike on surprisingly steep terrain. We both highly recommend a visit, and I think it’s likely that we will be there again soon.

Wiggs among the trees

Getting There

As usual, it took us a long time to hit the road. Wiggs had some assignments to finish and I was working on a cover letter. Eventually, we got enough of our respective work done that we felt good about going. We headed south out of Columbus, and, after a few mishaps with directions, construction, and the ever-infuriating challenge of figuring out which way to go on I-270, we were well on our way, following route 52 straight down to Chillicothe. It’s an easy, straightforward drive, and the entrance to the park is right off an easily accessible main road – no gravel or Forest Service roads to contend with this time.

There are two parking lots at Great Seal, and we realized very quickly that we had parked in the wrong one: the disc golf and picnic area lot. So we drove back towards the main entrance and parked where we wanted to be: the campground. There was no one there that afternoon, but the sheer number of pull-in spots suggests that the place could get quite crowded on a non-pandemic summer evening.

A dead elm, we think.

The Hike

Our plan was to take the Sugarloaf trail to the Shawnee Ridge trail. We found the trailhead right by the campground entrance, and upon entering the woods, I felt that familiar sense of settling and relief that comes with being among the trees. I knew it was too early for mushrooms to be popping out, but I kept finding myself with my eyes glued to the ground, searching for the bright red of Sarcoscypha sp or, even less likely this early, a morel. Nothing mycological showed itself to me on this day, but we did spot a number of auspicious trees that may prove fruitful come April.

Very excited to be outside

We took the trail to Sugarloaf Mountain, which meandered towards the north side of the slope and then steeply up to the summit. By non-Ohio standards, this was really just a hill. But compared to the flat, glaciated center of the state, it was a pretty impressive climb. It shot straight up the mountain, Appalachian Trail-style, gaining almost 500 feet in less than a quarter of a mile. I was genuinely working to get to the top, and it felt extremely invigorating.

There isn’t much of a view from the summit, but since the trees were still bare, we could see fairly clearly down towards the plains and north to Columbus. We could also see other wooded ridges to the south and west. We took it all in for a moment, and then continued down the equally steep downhill on the other side.

Not a ton of sweeping views at this summit, but it was satisfying to get to the top!

At a fork we took a right turn, which ended up putting us back at the campground. We turned around, realizing our mistake, and continued past the fork up to the Shawnee Ridge trail. The path wound its way around the sides of the ridge, then down into the valley and across creeks, before climbing Bald Hill. It still felt like winter here, and no green leaves were peeking out yet. We did, however, see a large herd of whitetail dear and, adorably, a chipmunk poking its little head out from a hole in a log.

We both felt great and could have kept going, but it was soon around 6:00 PM and the sun was starting to set. We stopped for a quick snack on a log, got cold very quickly, and meandered back towards the car. Before we left we were treated to a lovely sunset over the ridge by the parking lot. Neither of us was ready to stop hiking, but it was still so nice to have visited a new place, climbed a legitimate hill, and been in the woods again.

Sunset from the parking lot

About the Park

Even though I know that the name “Great Seal” refers to the Great Seal of the State of Ohio, I couldn’t stop picturing it as the animal. Like, the kind that lives in the ocean. This is not the meaning, unfortunately. Supposedly, the first governor and the first secretary of state once saw the sun rising over the hills at what is now Great Seal State Park after an all-night meeting in Chillicothe. This sunrise is said to have inspired the image that is now seen on the Great Seal of the State of Ohio.

Nearby Chillicothe was once the original capital of Ohio, and before that, it was the site of multiple Shawnee settlements in the shadow of the hills of what is now the state park. The Scioto river was utilized extensively by the Shawnee people for transportation from town to town. Tecumseh was born near what is now Circleville, and not far from Great Seal is the location of Chief Logan’s impassioned speech swearing revenge on the white settlers who murdered his people – now memorialized at the Logan Elm Memorial.

The park features an extensive network of trails, a campground, a disc golf course, and a pleasant picnic shelter. It is an hour south of Columbus, and makes a fine, satisfying day hike in Central Ohio. For the former Appalachian Trail hiker, it will take you right back to early spring in Georgia. In other words, you will feel right at home.

The extensive trail system at Great Seal State Park

Wildcat Hollow: December 9, 2020

Keeping my writing up-to-date is one of my numerous New Year’s resolutions. I struggle to write as often as I’d like, despite the fact that, if I’m honest with myself, I really do have the time. But instead of updating my blog I sometimes decide to do things like binging all of The Queen’s Gambit in one night. I justify this by telling myself that I can crochet while watching TV, so it’s not a waste of time. But in reality, I only get half of a cactus done because my eyes end up glued to the screen. Ah, well. It’s something to work on.

Anyway, let’s talk about hiking! Back in December Wiggs and I took a day to explore a new (to us) hiking area in Ohio called Wildcat Hollow. It was a beautiful day, a fun ride, and a great place to hike.

Puffballs and their spores

To The Trail

We got a somewhat decently early start on the morning of December 9, packing lunch and snacks and heading east out of Columbus. The drive was easy at first, following I-70 before an exit onto OH-33 and then a series of smaller county routes. The road grew smaller and narrower, until it was a gravel path passing small towns and abandoned houses and leading into Wayne National Forest. Finally we located the trailhead, parked, and began our day.

I don’t know why we didn’t think to bring overnight gear. There are several great-looking campsites right by the parking lot, and there is a Forest Service privy right at the trailhead. Dispersed camping is also allowed, and we passed numerous sites throughout the day, though the water quality might be doubtful considering the heavy agricultural activity in the area. We kicked ourselves for this oversight all day. We passed up a chance to sleep in the woods! But now we know, and we will be back.

Wiggs and the carnivorous sign-eating tree

The Hike

It was a glorious day. Everything was bathed in a warm, golden light as we began the hike in the muddy valley. The trail forked right, and climbed a small hill to a ridge line. Though it was winter and the woods were lacking in color, the sunlight and blue sky made up for the absence of foliage. As I breathed in I was thrown back to Georgia in March on the Appalachian Trail: no green, no shade, but crisp chilly sunlight, fresh air, and the excitement of everything that lay ahead.

The trail at Wildcat Hollow is well maintained for the most part, and the hiking was fairly easy. We followed the ridge for a while, then dipped down into a valley. This pattern repeated for a while: ridgeline cruising, valley creek crossing. Ridge, valley, creek. We also stumbled upon a beaver bog, punctuated by gnawed-down trees. I crouched quietly behind a stump for a few moments, hoping to see the creators of the wetland. None appeared, but I always love seeing the evidence of their engineering.

We also found a large fallen tree riddled with moss and puffballs. Wiggs poked them, coaxing a cloud of spores out into the forest. There was also, less beautifully but no less interesting, a slowly deteriorating TV with its magic board of switches and sensors strewn about the forest floor. How did this TV get here? And how many mushroom spores have brushed against its forever-lasting plastic and metal?

Natural intricacies

I felt good on this hike, almost as good as I did on the AT. I’ve been running a lot over the past few months, as I want to run a half-marathon in 2021. I felt better than I remembered on any recent day hike, like the climbs barely affected me and like I could go on and on. Wiggs and I meandered in and out of conversation, sometimes about what was around us, other times about what was not. We always orbit back to the Appalachian Trail, reminiscing, then fly away again to other worlds. Until I hike another long trail, this will be the gravity around which I stake my life.

We had a quick lunch after about five miles, and then we headed back the way we came. I cut my hand on a branch and nearly fell into a creek, but such are the usual casualties of a good day of hiking. We finished the loop we had started, passing first an RV and then a small house before heading back into the woods, around another ridge, and downhill to the valley where we started. We bade the mushrooms and trees and sunlight adieu, and got into the car.

I wished we’d thought to look up camping before we left, but it was still nice to spend a day outside. It was a bit of a trek from Columbus, but I’d still be more than happy to go back for a campfire and a clear spring morning among the trees.

Go beavers!

Location and Information

Go see it for yourself! Wildcat Hollow is located in Wayne National Forest, about 40 minutes north of Athens and 1 hour and 45 minutes southeast of Columbus. There is a five-mile day hike loop and a 17.1-mile backpacking loop. The hiking is mild and it is possible to complete a long day hike fairly quickly. A USFS vault toilet and several excellent campsites await at the parking lot, and dispersed camping is also allowed on the trails. I might suggest bringing enough water for the whole trip, however, as the area sees a lot of agricultural activity and the water in the creeks may be iffy.

More information about the area can be found at the Forest Service website.

A printable trail map is also available.

Enjoy!

A wild Wiggs at the Wildcat Hollow sign

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 3

Friday, October 30

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.

Ridge walking in the morning

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.

Wiggs, a cave, and a touch of blue sky

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.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 2

Thursday, October 29

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.)

Chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulphureus

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.

Our lunch setup. We felt so clever!… And then it stopped raining five minutes later.

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.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 1

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.

Yr two favorite stinky hikers at the backpacking loop trailhead on State Route 278

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.

Zaleski is more visually interesting than other hikes I’ve done in southern and central Ohio. For one, there are really cool caves!

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.

Rainy, dreary, and cozy

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.

Sheltowee Trace Day 7: July 11, 2020

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

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

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

Horse friend at Corner Ridge

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

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

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

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

Lunch time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheltowee Trace Day 6: July 10, 2020

Today’s total: ~11 mi from campsite on FS 909 to campsite near mile 61

Since we got to camp at a decent time last night, waking up at 6:00 am isn’t hard for once. It’s already hot, but not as bad as it could be, and as we cross back over the creek and head up the road we start to feel like the trail is taking a beautiful turn. We’re rested and our conversation is much more animated than it was this time yesterday. We leave the forest road and turn back into the woods, and soon we are hiking upwards through rhododendrons and around dripping sandstone rock formations. It strikes me that we are not far now from the Red River Gorge.

A couple of miles into our walk we come to the top of the hill and see a pine-dotted clearing to our right. We follow the short trail and then we see our first real view of the entire Trace so far: a sweeping sunny panorama out onto the leafy valley below, with a clear look at a sandstone arch spanning two hills in the distance. It smells fresh and coniferous, like Northern Arizona in the morning.

We take an unintended break at this spot, appreciating that the trail has finally opened up. But we’re trying to make it to town by lunchtime, so eventually we keep walking. The trail is hillier today than it has been, and we follow muddy ruts up to the crest of hills and back down again. I’m feeling okay until a gnat cloud swarms me out of nowhere, followed by a group of biting deer flies. I’m swatting at them madly, cursing becoming increasingly louder, as we walk down a gentle slope.

Something orange catches my eye, and then something else orange, and I realize we have stumbled upon the mother-load of fresh, perfect, juicy chanterelles.

I let out a cry of joy. “Look at them! There are so many!”

We start picking, Wiggs sliding the stems into the mesh on my pack. We want more, but there isn’t enough space. So I begrudgingly take off my head net, my last line of defense against the evil biting flies, and use it as a mushroom collecting bag. Not much later, we come across another patch and can’t resist picking even more. The bag is getting heavy and it looks like we’ll be having nothing but chanterelles for dinner. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

We come to the road crossing that will take us to Frenchburg, and we walk the mile down the asphalt into the not-quite-town. There is one restaurant and one grocery store, and we opt for the restaurant first.

The minute we walk in we become aware of two things: one, that we look and smell terrible, and two, that we are the only people in the entire establishment wearing masks. A group of unmasked older folks at a table openly stare at us as we walk in the door. We’re deep in Kentucky, a vividly red state, where the people are kind at face value but obviously distrusting of outsiders, particularly smelly hippy-looking outsiders wearing masks, one of whom has a a pack with Sharpie notes all over it that say things like “Black Lives Matter” and “singular ‘they’ is at least 600 years old.” I’m a little nervous. I walk to a booth as quickly as I can.

I think about how we often pretend like the outdoors is apolitical, like we can leave ourselves and our beliefs when we go into the woods. Thinking this is problematic. Who can “leave politics behind”? White people. Who can “forget about differences”? White people. White, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied people. White people like us can walk into a town in rural red Kentucky confidently and, despite feeling a bit self-conscious, not fear real harm. This has always been true. And yet, I forgot about it when I went into the woods and came back out. That’s privilege. How am I using it?

At lunch in Frenchburg with our chanterelle children

The server doesn’t seem overly happy to see us there, and I can’t say I blame her. We stink. Badly. She brings us sodas and sandwiches anyway. The Philly cheesesteak and curly fries are divine. We sit in the booth in the fantastically cold restaurant, remembering the familiar feeling of relief of walking into a building after being outside for days on end. I go to the bathroom and wash my hands for much longer than is strictly necessary, watching the dirt run down the drain and feeling a thousand times cleaner.

After lunch we do our resupply at the little neighborhood IGA. What it lacks in variety it makes up for in character. We buy a package of watermelon and, after rearranging the contents of our food bags, sit under the awning of the city building next door and eat it while an unexpected thunderstorm rolls in, pelting rain on the roof and leaving the world smelling of petrichor.

There’s a long road walk after the town, first on a busy two-lane major road and later on smaller streets in a residential area, before becoming a jeep track and properly re-entering the woods. The rain didn’t last long and now somehow it’s even hotter than it was before. My feet are screaming in retaliation against the pavement and I have to stop more times than I would like. When we get to the jeep track the trail is suddenly shaded again, walking next to a wide, flowing creek. All of a sudden, there is water everywhere: in puddles, in creeks. It smells like oxygen. Finally, there was rain, and now there is water.

We see a good campsite not long after this track begins, but it isn’t far enough yet, so we keep walking. We end up regretting this move a bit, as the campsite we do eventually find is soggy, next to a dry part of the creek, and right under a severe slope that was clearly the site of a few landslides. I set up my tent in a tired fog and then sit by the fire ring Wiggs has constructed.

Finally, a wide creek with lots of water!

He looks at my tent, and then across the creek to a tree that is leaning severely and darker than ideal. “Uh…” he starts. “Is that tree a widow-maker?”

I look at it. It is certainly bent at a precarious angle. I imagine a storm scenario. It looks like it wouldn’t take much to knock it down. But I’m not sure if it’s even dead. And I really, really don’t feel like moving my tent.

“Ugh,” I wine plaintively. “Is it even dead? Do you think I’ll die? Is it even supposed to rain?”

Wiggs looks at the tree from some different angles, and discovers that it’s still alive and full of leaves, they’re just hard to see. He assures me that it’s probably okay, that it’s not even supposed to rain. But the whole evening I eye it, unconsciously begging it not to fall on me. It would have taken five minutes to move my tent somewhere else, but the only other spot is full of mud and wet leaves and is right under the worst of the landslide zone. I decide to trust the tree.

Our ramen is about 75% chanterelles tonight. They’re delicious, but we decide to only pick a few from now on. If we were just foraging and not hiking, we could have picked pounds to bring home, fry up, or sell. But in backpacking, you don’t carry more than you can manage. You have to be frugal and principled. You take honest stock of what you can do and how much you want to carry and you align all of your behavior with this reality. It’s something that would benefit me in non-hiking life as well, but somehow, the minute I exit the woods, it’s harder to hold onto.

I sleep fairly well, once I stop fretting about the tree. It doesn’t rain, and nothing falls.

Sheltowee Trace Day 5: July 9, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Wiggs investigating the pools in the nearly-dry Sulphur Branch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most perfect campsite

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

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

Clusters of coral fungus growing from a hemlock at our campsite

Sheltowee Trace Day 4: July 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Along the side of the road leading out of Morehead

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

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

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

“I think they might be!”

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

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

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

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

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

Walking across the dam at Cave Run Lake

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

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

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

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