Weekend Wanderers

"Not all who wander are lost." J.R.R. Tolkien

For my family, a weekend with good weather is a weekend that is meant to be spent out of doors. One of our favorite things to do is hike, so when Saturday dawned all cool and sunny and delicious, we knew we had to get out and hit the trail!

There are several state and national parks close by, and sometimes it is difficult to choose one. This time, we voted to choose a trail we had never done before in a park we visit with some regularity. Having learned from past mistakes when we stumble back home exhausted and starving, I set out our dinner. All we needed to do was toss it in the oven for 15 minutes when we got back. We packed water bottles, apples and some bunny crackers for the trip home, and we were set.

We got to the park in less time than I had expected, and we were feeling fine.  One thing we enjoy about this park is that we don’t usually see very many people. We squashed our dismay at seeing the parking lot nearly full. Apparently someone was throwing a birthday bash in the closest picnic shelter. A raucous one. Oh, well, we thought. We’ll get back on the trail, and we won’t even realize that they are there. We parked the car and sun-screened ourselves. We forgot the bug spray, but what difference does that make, really?

After taking small ones to the restroom, we checked the trail map. 2.7 miles. No problem. A casual stroll for our family. We’d be home and eating dinner by 5:30. We grabbed our hiking poles, popped Squish into the Ergo and headed out.

The trail was nearly flat at the start, and nice and wide. After about 15 minutes of brisk walking, we noticed that we could still hear the merry-makers at the picnic shelter. Quite loudly, as a matter of fact. It was some party. Apparently the trail begins by looping back to the east and makes a very gradual turn back toward our destination. It took over half an hour of hard walking to finally get away from the noises of civilization and finally feel like we were back in the woods.

The trail sloped gently upward as we climbed the hill. My first dilemma of the hike came sooner than I expected. The kids were the first ones to find the scat. Yes, even when I write about hiking, I will still find a way to mention poop. After careful examination (from a distance, I will add), my 9 year old announced “That animal ate berries.” And he was right. The rest of the family dashed blithely on ahead as I debated whether or not to mention that turd was left by a bear. I decided against it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The sun was so hidden by the trees that it appeared as though we were on the verge of a huge storm, but as I found myself continually rubbing gnats out of my eyes, I left my sunglasses on. The big kids slapped at the bugs that were chewing on their arms, and Squish choked once or twice on a gnat. Next time, we’ll actually use the bug spray. But nothing was going to spoil this day.

The weather was cool but humid. The ground was littered with green leaves and small branches, evidence of a recent and rather severe storm. But we shouldn’t have any water crossings, according to the map. We pressed on.

The trail narrowed significantly, until it was more of a suggestion than a path, barely wider than my two boots. A steep drop-off was on my left, a tangle of branches on my right. Thank goodness for hiking poles to give us a bit of traction. The kids counted enormous millipedes and woolly worms, both of which we found in abundance, discussing the differences between a centipede and millipede, and the niche each occupies in the ecosystem.

I realized about a mile in that I had worn the wrong boots AND needed another pair of socks, but bravely I plowed on. Another mile, and we began to have some doubts about the accuracy of the trail map. We’d have 2.7 miles behind us really soon, and the trail showed no sign of ending. Ever. Each time we crested a hill, our triumph turned to chagrin as we saw a still larger peak ahead. I wondered more than once if we had actually been transported to Middle Earth, to a mountain that was fighting back. Oh, did you not know that I’m a geek? Consider yourself enlightened.

At times it did appear that the mountain had a mind of its own. Remember that storm? Not only had it dropped so much bright green leaf-litter that we could barely see the path, it also took down a few trees. Over the trail itself, as it so happens. We found ourselves sliding down rain-softened earth and scrambling up steep hillsides to pick up the trail again. And more than once we had to leap and limbo over the trunks of massive trees that had lost their battle with the storm. My daughter stayed close behind me to keep a visual on her baby brother and prevent me from knocking his head off as I slid under tree trunks with him perched on my back. American Gladiators has nothing on me.

After awhile, no one talked. We were too tired/daunted/annoyed to speak. And suddenly my husband said “Look at that!” And so we did. We crowded close to examine his find. It was no millipede. He had discovered one of our favorite things to come across in the forest, a carcass. This particular animal had been dead a few weeks, it’s pelt peeled partially back from its skull. The teeth were fascinating, consisting of large, thin, curved canines. Definitely carnivore. The rest of the remains were a bit of a puzzle. Long tail, tawny colored fur, once-powerful long legs designed for jumping. We spent the rest of the hike speculating what it might have been. It appeared to be a young animal, as there was another set of canines beginning to make their appearance, much more substantial than the first. I do love a good mystery.

After forty-five more minutes, the shine had worn off of that particular mystery. We began to wonder when and if the trail was going to crest and begin to loop back toward the east again. My biggest fear was that, having laid a long, gently sloping trail that stretched for miles, the trailblazer would have lost interest on the home trip and blazed a steeper, shorter trail for the return.

And so it was. The upside was that going downhill took pressure off the backs of my heels and allowed my boots to chew on  a different part of my feet. We did learn something, too. When a trail is named after a creek, that sometimes means that the trail once was a creek. Complete with large, slippery, moss-covered creek rocks. It makes for an exciting and sometimes unexpectedly speedy descent!

The trail seemed to improve marginally for a bit, and then we came to this:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

This is the actual trail. The photo doesn’t quite do it justice. The portion that you see is actually about 25 feet of rock. Steep, slippery, rippled rock with a lovely rock pit below ready to offer a landing you’ll never forget should you miss a step. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to slither across the bottom rim. Have fun! This photo represents our next dilemma. Do we attempt this crossing, or do we turn back, knowing that we will have three miles to cover should we double back.

My husband was ready to throw in the towel. “We can’t do this,” he said, shaking his head in frustration. My 9 year old considered carefully. Is he brave or was risk of injury preferable to hiking back three miles? A little of both, I think. He and my daughter studied the footpath and said “Oh, Dad, we can do this! Just put your feet here, and here, and then you hop over.” My husband did a test run for us, and we discovered they were actually right! It was way easier than it looked at first glance. Lesser people may have turned back, but we will not be vanquished! On we plowed.

Gradually, the trail began to smooth out. Fewer rocks and a wider path  meant that we could speed up a bit. We were done. Ready to go home. Enough fun for one day. And a mile and a half later, we made it back to the car.

We arrived home an hour and a half later than I had really hoped, my feet had been completely chewed by my boots, my hips were so tired from lugging Squish’s nearly thirty pounds that I could hardly move. And as the sun rose on Sunday morning, the first words out of my mouth were “Yesterday was so great! You want to go for another hike today?! ” We didn’t manage to find the time to do it again, but you’d better believe we’ll be out next weekend, if the weather holds and the creek don’t rise. Adventure awaits!

2 thoughts on “Weekend Wanderers

  1. The Becomingcliches persevere!! Best. Hike. Ever. I always say it isn’t a real hike until someone gives me the map and we get terribly lost! I do not know why I can teach statistics but “left” and “right” are so difficult for me to master… My family of two would have turned around upon encountering bear scat. I say this with certainly because we did just that on a hike two years ago.

    • On one memorable hike, we weren’t technically lost. We could see our vehicle. Across a raging river. And I wasn’t too worried about the bear. It was a smaller one, judging by the size of its dump. I think the five of us could take it. We make enough noise when pressed.

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