Friday, April 26, 2013

A Walk in the Woods

I finally got the Blogger page to work on my new computer, although it still won't load pictures unless I use IE instead of Firefox, so I'm still a little handicapped, but I'll make do.

Anyhow, my plan for Thursday was to get my doctor's appointment knocked out, then head across the street to my secondary 'corner' office at Panera Bread and get a bunch of writing done, but I got sidetracked nine ways from Sunday.  First, of all, I called my sister Sherry who lives nearby and asked her if she wanted to come by and meet me for lunch--I could take a break from the keyboard and could use the company.  She suggested that I just come over to her house and work instead, because she was working too and had plenty of wifi to go around.

So I skipped coffee and bagels at Panera and headed over to her place.  I soon as I plugged in my new toy and tried to start working, I ran into my first obstacle of the day--one of my USB ports on my brand-spanking-new, less-than-24-hours-old computer didn't work.  And all of the pictures were on my keyring flash drive, which it wouldn't read (but had worked the night before when I was loading documents), nor would it charge my iPhone when I plugged a different device in, trying to find out if it was just that the flash drive was corrupted.  Nothing worked.

So I got online with the HP tech support service and we did the usual reboot and troubleshoot stuff, but nothing worked.  They broke the unfortunate news to me that I likely had a defective USB port and they'd either fix it or just replace the machine, but that I'd have to send it back to HP. 

That really pissed me off.  Nothing worse than getting a brand new computer and finding out that it's broken.  So that was a huge setback and kept me from concentrating, so I just turned the damn thing off and hung out with Sherry. We ordered Chinese food and played Ruzzle while watching some brainless daytime TV. 

After awhile, I figured I'd at least try to work on some other stuff, and without even thinking I plugged the flash drive in, and like a miracle, it worked fine.  I tested the port with my phone and it lit right up!  I don't know how it happened, but I'm not complaining.  Sherry suggested that it was Buster, her 100 lb yellow lab, who fixed it..  He was lurking around looking for attention, and licks EVERYTHING, and well, you know how dog slobber has amazing healing properties...  I don't care how or why, but after that I got the pictures loaded. 

But then the Blogger site wasn't working at all, so I couldn't even type a rough draft, with or without pictures.  By then my frustration had reached it's apex and I gave up for the day. 

Eventually I got things working about 90% of the way, and as long as I load the pictures with IE, I can post like normal.  So now that you have the background, on to the good stuff...

Y'all know that I'm a member of several Nashville Meetup groups, and although I spend about 90% of my time with the writers, I do, on occasion, hook up with the hikers and other singles groups, too.  About a month and a half ago, I went to a Backpacking 101 class they held down at REI in Brentwood, and met a bunch of really smart and experienced people who sounded like they went hiking and backpacking damn near every weekend.

I spent the afternoon with them learning about new gear and getting some good hints and tips for a successful backpacking trip, and also managed to get a spot on beginner's weekend backpacking trip out to Pickett State park, which we did this past weekend.

The plan was to meet up in the parking lot of Home Depot out in Lebanon (about 30 miles east of Nashville) at 7:00 in the morning.  Amy's party was the night before, and lots of Sangria was consumed around the firepit that night, but before I went to bed I had Reverend Dave go through my backpack with me, he having about 50 more miles under his boots than I.  We managed to eliminate about a half pound of unnecessary stuff, but I drew the line at my titanium pot lid, my poop shovel, and my briar pipe and pouch of Captain Black tobacco. 

I finally managed to get to bed around 12:30 that night, utterly exhausted, but like a kid waiting for Christmas morning, it was a fitful sleep. I was really worried that I'd sleep through the 5:00 alarm and miss the whole trip. 

Not to worry though--I actually woke up about fifteen minutes early, raring to go.  I took my shower, put on my all-synthetic clothes, and laced up my Oboz hiking boots.  I got all my extra clothes and stuff loaded in the trunk, and was on my way by 6:00 am.

I got to the Home Depot parking lot with about ten minutes to spare and found that I was the first one there.  A few minutes later a guy pulled in and parked next to me and introduced himself as Chad, and with all of the hiking decals on the back of his SUV, I recognized that I'd passed him on the freeway about ten minutes earlier.  Everyone else started trickling in, introductions were made, and while I'd only briefly met two of the nine people on the trip, it seemed like a really fun group of people.  We figured out the carpooling situation, and I decided that I'd rather leave my car out in the woods at the trailhead overnight instead of as a tempting target in the shopping center, so Chad rode with me.

It's a looooong drive to where we were headed.  I'd never heard of Pickett State Park, but it's way up by the Kentucky border, a little more than halfway between Nashville and Knoxville.  And while we could take the freeway to the little town of Monterey, it was all back roads after that.

We stopped for a potty/food break at Hardees, and went over the driving directions to the park in case we got separated.  But we made it to the ranger's station at the park by around 9:30, did the requisite paperwork and secured our backcountry permits, and then drove down to the trailhead parking lot about three-quarters of a mile away.

It was a pretty brisk morning, but the rule is to start hiking cold, because when you're schlepping a 34 lb pack up and down hills all day, you're gonna warm up in a hurry. We got our gear together made sure everyone had their keys, permits, plenty of water, and everything strapped down and ready to roll.  After an impromptu 'trail yoga' session of stretching, we had a quick briefing from our leader Kerry about what to expect, along with the do's and don'ts of our upcoming day.  We took a few pictures and were on our way.

In addition to Kerry and Steve, our trip leaders, there were three other fairly experienced backpackers in the group, while I was one of the four noobs.  Kerry took the point and I fell in behind her, while Steve stayed in the middle, and one of the other more experienced girls took the tail-end-Charlie position as our 'sweeper', making sure nobody got left behind as everyone has different walking paces. 

But the plan was to take frequent breaks and make lots of stops for rest and water, and after all, we were only going about five miles and we had all day--there was no hurry.

The loop we were doing was called the Hidden Passage Trail, which is almost exactly ten miles long, but there was a spur trail down to our campsite which added a half mile each way to the trip.  Eleven miles wasn't much.  Hell, when I was a kid, I did fifty in three days (of course, I was miserable, but still, I did it), and I can easily walk seven miles in three hours down on the greenway in White House, which I do a couple of times a month.  I figured I was ready to kick ass and take names on this trail!

The first mile was fairly easy--the trail was smooth and well used, and although it went downhill to a creek and back up the other side to the first trail junction, it was about what I expected.  Tougher than a day hike, definitely more hilly than I expected, but just being out in the woods was a lot of fun.  It was a beautiful clear day, and my traveling companions were a good-natured sort, so we had a lot of laughs as we wandered through the woods. 

The first trail junction led off to the left, which we bypassed--it would be part of our return loop the next afternoon, so the last mile or so of the trail would be the only thing we'd repeat.  A few minutes beyond that, we got to the actual 'Hidden Passage' which was a huge rock overhang that form an almost grotto-like passage around the side of the mountain.  While the roof came down low, it never got so low you had to crawl, although my backpack is officially 'broken in' now, with all kinds of scrapes on the upper frame.  It was cool and shady in there and although it was a long drop to the bottom, it was a great spot for a break, as long as you watched your step. 

You can tell it's still early in the hike by the body language.  Everyone is smiling and clean, and nobody is hunched over trying to catch their breath.  That would change before long...

After a short break and a few pictures, it was time to move on down the trail.  It started getting a little more rugged from this point forward--there were TONS of blowdowns blocking the trail that we had to step over, crawl over, or scoot under.  Although it's expected out there in the wilderness, after about the twentieth time, it started to get annoying.

A few more hills and obstacles later, there was a sign for a side trail down to a place called Crystal Falls, and of course we weren't going to miss that.  It wasn't a long side trip, but it was steep and overgrown, reminiscent of the opening jungle scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Luckily we had no tarantulas or headhunters to deal with, and the payoff was spectacular.

On a hot day, it would've been an ideal cool-off spot, but even though it was sunny out, it was barely 60 degrees, and that water was ice-cold, straight out of a limestone mountain spring, so instead of frolicking around in the swimming hole, we just took a few pictures.

We hung out down there for a bit, but the once we climbed back up to the main trail, it took us up the side of the hill to cross the stream that fed the falls.  It was only a few feet across, but it was covered with slippery moss-covered rocks, and it was a long way down to the bottom.  It was one of many times that weekend I was thankful for my trekking poles.

After the side trip to Crystal Falls, the trail got even more rugged the further we got from civilization.  We crossed dozens upon dozens of blowdowns, always slowing us down.  They got to be a real pain in the ass, and my only real complaint about the trip. Instead of walking in the woods, I spend a good portion of my time climbing over and under dead trees.  Normally, when I'm doing my regular dayhikes, I keep up a two-and-a-half mile-per-hour pace.  On this trail, we barely did a mile an hour.  Not because we were slow, but because Mother Nature had set up hundreds of road blocks in our path.

On the other hand, the scenery was nothing short of awesome.  A good portion of the trip was along the edge of a spectacular gorge that dropped off a hundred feet or more in most places.  Yeah, it was tough to enjoy it as much when you were spending most of your time watching your step, because six inches the wrong way and it was adios!, never to be seen again.  But we paused often enough while climbing through the downed trees to be able to enjoy the views.  If anyone in our group was afraid of heights, it didn't show.

A good portion of the trail was just scrambling along bare rocks that dropped off into the canyon below.  The camera doesn't do it justice, but there were plenty of opportunities for gravity to reach up and kill you.

Since walking along the edge of the cliffs, punctuated by the constant creeping through the blowdowns required full concentration, the cameras pretty much stayed tucked away after the first hour or so of the hike.  Eventually the conversation slowed down as went along, the trail sucking the energy out of us one by one. 

After a couple of hours, we had a lunch break in a wide spot on a cliff face.  The overhang provided a little shade, and there were a few flat rocks to sit down on, so we relaxed for about a half an hour or so and broke out the feed bags.  My lunch consisted of pepperoni slices and mustard wrapped in a tortilla, along with a bag of cashews and some turkey jerky.  It was interesting to see what kind of trail food people brought along, and since it was just an overnight trip, we weren't limited to freeze-dried 'expedition' food. One girl brought along whole avocados to eat, and there was plenty of fruit and trail mix variations, too.  A couple of people even brought sandwiches that they kept on the top of their packs so as not to get smashed up, figuring it would only be a couple of hours before they got eaten, anyways.

It was nice to relax and take the pack off for awhile (I used mine as a recliner), and rest the feet.  Since I was wearing shorts, my legs got beat up pretty good--I had dozens of cuts and scrapes, and one gash on the back of my calf that looked like I'd been in a knife fight. I had few handi-wipes to clean up with, but I knew I'd be feeling it for the rest of the week.

We had lunch around 12:30, having been on the trail for two hours.  Steve had a GPS with him and I will admit that I was a little disappointed to learn that we'd only covered a little more than two miles.  It already felt like ten.  But that's the deal with backpacking--basically double the miles from doing a packless dayhike.  If you're doing five miles around the neighborhood on a weekend, put on a backpack and it feels like twice as much distance--it's just that much more work. 

Eventually, we got going again, and right after lunch we had a monster climb to the top of the ridge we were on, but at least we had the energy from resting and eating to help power us through.  We contended with the blowdowns and rough trail conditions for a good part of the afternoon, but there were always great places to slow down and enjoy.  Just before the five mile mark, there was another awesome overhang that had a small waterfall coming down from above, and we stopped and rested for a bit before pushing on to the campsite.

By the time that picture was taken, I was full-on into are-we-there-yet? mode. We'd been on the trail for over four hours and that five miles had completely kicked my ass.  It was rated as a 'moderate' hike as far as difficulty was concerned, but my fat carcass hauling a 34 lb. pack up and down those hills and through all of the downed trees and just about had enough. 

Nobody was happier than me to see the spur trail to the campsite a few minutes later. 

Double Falls was the name of our campsite, and although it was only 2700 feet away from where that picture was taken, it felt like 2700 feet straight down.  Actually it was only about 300 feet down, but it was all in a half mile, which made for a STEEP descent.  I remember thinking to myself Man, this is gonna be a cast-iron bitch climbing back up this mofo in the morning!  I was not looking forward to that.

By that point, I'd contracted a severe case of 'get-there-itis', so I took the point and led the pack train down the hill.  That last twenty minutes or so was easily the longest half mile of the day, and once we got to the flat ground of the campsite, I couldn't take my pack off fast enough.  I was spent.  I drained my water bottle and sat down at the base of a tree, glad that the hardest day of hiking I'd ever done was finally over. 

It took us almost exactly five hours to go five-and-a-half miles, and I felt every step of it.

The first order of business was to set up camp and gather firewood, so we all went our separate ways looking for spots to pitch our tents.  I was impressed with the area though--we couldn't have asked for a more ideal backcountry campsite.  There was plenty of cover and firewood available, and it was a huge area, easily a football field's worth of flat spots for tents, along with ready-made firepit.  Plus there was a creek running alongside the campsite providing drinking water and ambient noise.  Perfect is the only way to describe it.

Although I was moving slowly, I managed get my tent set up and change out of my boots into my camp shoes--a pair of Crocs slides that don't weigh anything, but are damn-near indestructible. I was getting a hot spot on my left heel that was forming into a good-sized blister, so I couldn't wait to take my boots off. 

By the time I got my stuff all set up and my mattress pad inflated, it was all I could do to gather a couple of armloads of firewood.  I made the damn-near fatal mistake of not hydrating enough throughout the day, and I had the worst cramps you could possibly imagine.  I crawled into my tent and laid there for over an hour, shooting pain in my thighs and calves, and even in the top of my foot.  I couldn't move--I just sipped water and laid there grunting in pain every time I tried to bend over to take my socks off.  I was miserable!

Everyone else was scattered about doing their own thing, so nobody really heard me over in my tent swearing to myself and not-so-silently enduring my misery.  I was a pit panicked, wondering how I'd ever climb up that hill, much less haul my ass five-and-a-half miles back to the trailhead, as I was literally unable to move.  Eventually, after about a half-liter of water and an hour of trying to lie still, the pain finally subsided and I was able to change into warm clothes and stand up again.

I went down to the creek to filter more water and top off my bottles, plus I had a half-gallon Nalgene 'canteen' that rolls up small enough to keep in a pack pocket, which I happily shared with my trail-mates for cooking dinner.  It was the most relaxing thing in the world at the time, sitting there on a log on the creek bank, filtering water and soaking my burning feet in the ice-cold stream.

The sun started setting behind the hills and the temperature started to drop, and I realized that I'd forgotten to bring my long hiking pants.  I have a set of synthetic convertible pants (basically cargo pants that you can unzip the legs from and use as shorts). But somehow I'd left them in the trunk of my car instead of putting them in my clothes bag.  Luckily I had a pair of merino wool 'base layer' long underwear, so with those, a wool shirt, a fleece jacket, socks, and a beanie hat, I managed to stay pretty warm as we gathered around the campfire for dinner.

Those few hours around the campfire that evening were the highlight of the trip.  Yeah, it was a great hike with some incredible scenery that day, but the sense of accomplishment after a long day on the trail couldn't be beat.  Plus, relaxing around a fire with good company and a hot meal is always a favorite way to end the day.

For dinner, I made a Knorr side of chicken-flavored noodles in my cook pot, and busted out a hunk of aged cheddar with bacon and a bag of jalapeno beef jerky as a side. I passed the cheese around and it was a big hit--it was that expensive stuff I picked up at the wine tasting earlier in the week.

My kitchen.  A can of fuel, and canister stove, a titanium pot, and a spork.  Thankfully, it doesn't weigh much.

Everyone else kind of had variations on the same thing--freeze-dried or dehydrated meals with veggies and meat added in, fortified with cheese or olive oil, plus dried fruit or trail mix.  One girl tried to convince the rest of us how awesome chicken Vienna sausage was, but I don't think anybody was buying.

There was a lot of passing around and sharing, which was quite the bonding experience--almost like a family dinner.  But it also served to give us rookies ideas for a variety of foods to try on the trail.  Lipton noodles and Mountain House bag meals get old after awhile.

After dinner we built the fire up a little more to give off more heat--it was getting downright COLD that evening, and the more experienced group busted out the goodies.  I brought my pipe along, which everyone loved, but smarter folks than me had flasks full of whiskey and red wine to pass around, which everyone really appreciated.  Good times.

I made it till around 8:30, but by then I was done.  Spent.  Ready to check out.  I cleaned out all my gear and packed up my kitchen stuff, and shuffled back to my one-bunk Hilton for the rest of the night. I'd brought a trail journal with me to do some writing, but I was just too damn exhausted to keep my eyes open.  I crawled into my sleeping bag and zipped it up around me to ward off the chill, and promptly passed out, the effects of the Evan Williams Honey Reserve helping to dull the aches and pains of the day.

The conversation and laughter around the campfire lasted for a bit longer, but I was the first domino to fall.  One by one everyone else called it a night, and by ten o'clock, the fire was down to embers and the campsite was silent, except for Chad's snoring off in the distance...

I woke up around six in the morning, not quite warm, but not quite freezing, either.  My feet were a little cold, although I was wearing wool socks inside of a 25-degree down bag.  Luckily, the cramps were all gone and it was just general soreness I had to contend with that morning.

It took me a good half hour to finally crawl out of my sleeping bag and get dressed before heading off in the woods to do the necessary.  A few other people started stirring, and somebody was kind enough to get the fire started before I got back to camp. 

Breakfast was a little more subdued than dinner was, as morning coffee was a higher priority than conversation.  My niece is a manager of a local Starbucks, so she hooks me up with those instant Via packs.  I mixed one of those with a pack of hot cocoa and touch of powdered creamer, and it was damn good.  I'd planned on having grits and cheese for breakfast, but the thought of scrubbing my pot out again didn't appeal, so I just ate two coconut Cliff bars instead.

One of the guys had extra Gatorade powder, so he offered it to me to help keep my legs from cramping up again.  And I had to drink it with 20 ounces of water, so I was good and hydrated that morning. In addition to that, I had a side of ibuprofen with my breakfast, too.

Breakfast at Emily's.  And I recall, I recall, we both kinda liked it.

While I enjoyed warming up by the fire and socializing with my trail mates that morning, there were chores to be done.  I had to fix the blister on my foot (moleskin and duct tape!), get my tent taken down and all my stuff repacked, and we had to filter more water for the hike out.  And that big-assed Everest of a climb was still ahead of me, too. 

Breaking camp

It took a couple of hours for everyone to get up, eat, do chores, and break camp, and we were ready to hit the trail by 9:30.  Knowing that the hill wasn't going to climb itself, I took the lead once again, quite certain that everyone else would eventually catch up, if not outright pass, my slow but steady ass.

About a third of the way up.  Oh, look, another downed tree to climb over...

Surprisingly, the climb up was much easier than the climb down the previous afternoon.  Maybe because going up is always easier than going down, or more likely because we were well rested and freshly fed and watered.  No matter the reason, it was a lot tougher in my mind than it was on my feet.
Leading the charge up the hill

Once we got to the top, we had a look at the trail map and Kerry told us that we were in for a much easier day--the inbound loop was much more maintained and we wouldn't have nearly as many blowdowns to contend with.  And also, the last two miles would be relatively flat.  That was good news.  While I didn't have to deal with cramps, I was still pretty sore, and there was a nice-sized blister forming on my left heel, too.  So while it was going to be an easier day, it wasn't going to be an easy day.

Once we got back to the top of the hill, we had a relatively easy and flat ridge walk to a place called Thompson's Overlook.  I wish the pictures could illustrate just how cool it was up there, but they don't capture the view, or the ridiculous drop-off below.

Your humble correspondent atop Thompson's Overlook

There were only a few climbs after the overlook--it was probably the highest point on the entire trail, but there were still several ups and downs before we got close to the end.  One in particular was a beast, but we made it through the entire trip without anyone taking a spill  And while we still had a few blowdowns to deal with, it was nothing like the day before. 

A typical section of the trail.  More climbing up and over than actual walking.  I used muscles that I didn't even know I had.  Even Sadie the trail dog was like 'fuck this' after awhile and just stopped when we'd come to another tree blocking the path. 

Some of the hills were a real bitch, but the thing that kept me motivated for the climbs was Major Payne's voice in the back of my head saying 'ONE tubby tubby, TWO tubby tubby' as I put one foot in front of the other

Eventually, we got to the side of the mountain with less wind, thus fewer blowdowns, and the trail leveled out considerably.  Our pace picked up quite a bit, and although we took a few stops for lunch and water, we shaved an hour off of the previous day's hiking time, even though it was the same distance.

At one point, we had to road walk along a forest service road for about a half mile, and instead of using the trekking poles, I just carried them.  And I was ready to stop walking, too...

Notice the gash on the back of my right leg.  Luckily chicks dig scars, because I got lots.

That service road led to a group campsite, and from there it about a half mile downhill to the trail junction we hit the day before.  And from the junction back to the car, it was less than a mile back to the trailhead.  But that last mile was one more big downhill to a creek and then we switchbacked our way up to the top once again.  After the third switchback, I could see my car through the trees and it gave me the motivation to go those last couple hundred yards.  Yeah, I was wiped out, but as was everyone else, but I'm sure I was the most out-of-shape hiker in the group.  But I made it, and it was quite an accomplishment.

There were honestly a few times out there when I was huffing and puffing my way up a hill, or getting pissed off and scraped up as I crawled over or under another dead tree where I thought backpacking just wasn't for me.  That shiat is hard.  But I played a few psychological tricks on myself to keep going.  The obvious one was reminding myself of those awful days in the Vanderbilt ICU where I had machines and tubes hooked up to me and couldn't walk thirty feet. Like the ad said, you've come a long way, baby!  I felt like I owed it to myself to keep walking no matter how hard it was, just to prove that all that was in the past.  Also, there was no other way out of there--I HAD to walk my ass out.  One of the more creative thoughts that kept me going was the history major in me thinking about old Revolutionary War soldiers having to walk in bad shoes, or no shoes at all, with heavy, usually wet, equipment, poor food, and no end in sight.  I kept thinking to myself that I'm a freakin' pussy compared to them, and the least I could do was walk my tired ass five miles in my high-tech boots and light equipment.  And then drive my ass the last hundred-and-fifty miles home.

Whatever it takes, right?

Once we all made it back to the trailhead, it was a mad scramble to get the boots off and change into different clothes, then pack up the vehicles.  We drove back to the ranger station to take advantage of the flush toilets and clean cold water out of the tap.  We cleaned ourselves up the best we could, and I spent a whopping $3.75 for a clean and soft cotton t-shirt from the gift shop.  The ranger said she was thinking about us last night--we were the only people in the park and it got down to 17 degrees that night.  No wonder my feet were cold!

After everyone got cleaned up and changed, we made plans to rendezvous at a restaurant in Cookeville, about sixty miles away.  We were kind of stinky and loud, so they were kind enough to put us on the patio by ourselves.  But it was a great meal, and we had a lot of laughs retelling stories of our adventures. 

We caravanned back to Nashville and said our goodbyes in Lebanon, making plans to all get together again soon.  One thing about life on the trail--you make fast friends.  I don't know if it's because misery loves company, or adventure just brings people together, but whatever the reason, I had a great time and made eight new friends.

And even though if I'd been offered 10 grand to do it again on Sunday afternoon, I would've flat turned it down, I can't wait till the next time.  My body has healed and I've expanded the envelope of my limitations.  It's probably a good thing to keep doing it.



Jamie in PA said...

Excellent report! And you look amazing!! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a nice adventure! Any plans to do Smoky Mountains National Park?

Jim said...

awesome read, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great to read about your journey Mikey. I just found out you have the blog back up and I am so happy. You are always entertaining. I've missed you.

Amy said...

Love it! What a great account of your hike.

bdog said...

Nothin in the world like some good ol' dog slobber!
Good luck with your new computer. It's great to see you out and about, and blogging again.
Thanks for the great post.

Moe said...

Just as epic as the Vegas trip reports!

Little Drew said...

Great recap of a great hike. Loved the pics!