Sheltowee Trace Day 8: July 12, 2020

Today’s total: ~10.5 mi from camp on mile ~73 to Natural Bridge Road and Miguel’s Pizza

It’s the last day on the Trace: bittersweet. I’m sticky and hungry and covered in bug bites that have become angry welts. I want pizza and a hot tub, both of which are waiting at the end. But I also don’t want to leave the trail now that it is beautiful. I will miss the creeks and the chanterelles and the conifers unraveling into mossy rhododendron forest.

I wake up grudgingly; I didn’t sleep well again last night. It’s been a rough trail on the sleep front. But I feel a lot better than I did late in the day yesterday, and after another slow breakfast we start walking. It’s a beautiful morning and there are no other hikers out yet. We take a side trail up to a rock formation called Cloud Splitter, which entails scrambling of a similar caliber to Indian Staircase, although this time there is a rope installed for assistance. The view from the top is sweeping, green and glowing in the morning light.

The Trace continues an easy meander through leafy valleys and up around caves and rock faces. Soon, we come to a road crossing and a massive suspension bridge spanning the Red River. On the hill on the opposite side we start finding more chanterelles, which we pick to take to the cabin we will be staying in for the next few days with my family. The trail turns downhill again, walks through a tall patch of grass, crosses a few creeks, and goes straight up. By now I am uncomfortably sweaty.

We find a lunch spot on a large slabby rock surrounded by short pine trees. I inhale deeply, yet again taken back to the Ponderosas of northern Arizona. I’ve been thinking about Flagstaff a lot on this trip, which is odd, because in general the climate couldn’t be more different. But up here on the rocky coniferous hilltops I could just as easily be on Mt. Elden as in the Red River Gorge. I can close my eyes and remember the wide western sunsets and the cawing of crows. I hadn’t realized until now how much I missed that place.

After lunch we have about five miles left. We climb a few more hills, cross a road, and start going down a leafy set of switchbacks into a valley following Whittleton Creek. We find ourselves in that state of delirium induced by a combination of heat and being near to the end of a long walk, and though by this point we have maybe a mile left, it seems like an eternity. A few rounds of 20 Questions and several moments of complaining later, the trail empties out onto a paved road at Whittleton Campground, and onto Natural Bridge Road.

“We made it!” Wiggs says, delighted. “We did it.”

Suspension bridge over the Red River

We cross to the Hemlock Lodge road, take a right, cross back over the creek, and find ourselves approaching the Katahdin of our section hike: Miguel’s Pizza. Legendary among rock climbers, the distinctive yellow building sits like a beacon right at the side of Natural Bridge Road. We walk magnetically towards it, ready for a feast.

The last time I was here it was also July, but in 2016. I came for a quick weekend climbing trip with my then-partner. There were hardly any people here, and it rained nearly the whole time, and there was still only one small room in the restaurant itself. Now, we can see the jam-packed parking lot and hordes of people as we round the bend in the road and come closer, the expanded section now added to the back. There are picnic tables scattered around the property under a stand of hemlocks, new indoor seating, and a long line of customers out front, spaced apart and masked.

We order a large pizza with chicken and green peppers and devour it in one sitting. We drink cold Ale-8s and pints of Rhinegeist Truth, because why not. My parents and our dog Emma come to meet us, and later we retreat to a cabin deep in the woods and down an wild gravel road (I use the word “road” generously). Showers, hot tub, more beer, and air conditioning. Hours before I had been sweaty and melting in the woods, dreaming of only this, and now I find myself miraculously comfortable.

It’s weird to stop hiking after only eight days. Though this is a fairly long time for any reasonable person, after a six-month thru-hike anything but weeks on end of hiking feels insufficient. I know that it’s the only thing that’s really possible or responsible for us right now, given the pandemic and work schedules, but it still seems short.

Though the Trace was hot, at times scarily scant on water, and full of biting insects, it felt good to get back into that rhythm. It felt natural to sleep in a tent and wake up with the sun. If anything, this little hike refreshed my desire to hike other long trails and put me back in a place where I feel completely myself. It gave us chanterelles and destroying angels and boletes; it gave us darters and crayfish and a sense that, despite discomfort, walking is a gift. The woods are always home, sweaty though they may be.

Sheltowee Trace Day 7: July 11, 2020

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

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

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

Horse friend at Corner Ridge

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

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

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

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

Lunch time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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