Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Braving the Knobstone Trail

Well,  my hike is over. And I wanted to reassure my tens of readers that I'm alive.

As I sit here by the computer while my wife paints a British-style subway sign for our wall, I'll try to recount the details.

My friend and I planned to go backpacking for about 26 miles on the Knobstone Trail in Southern Indiana. We had two and a half hard can that be?

So, Sunday night we rushed down to the trail in two vehicles, leaving clean water at two trail heads (because of the recent drought) and a car at the beginning and end of our hike. By the time we returned to our beginning point darkness was falling. And in the darkness I managed to assemble my little nylon pup tent wrong.

So it collapsed.

Not a good beginning.

But, forever optimistic, I tried again and got it almost right. Night fell with a cool fog, the chirping of innocent crickets, and the urge to sleep.

Good luck.

The thing about sleeping on the ground is that ground is HARD! I had a foam sleeping pad that backpackers carry, but it was a thin, cheap one, not the quality, self-inflating one my partner had. So as he snored softly and peacefully in his tent, I did the kind of thing you do with hot dogs on a barbecue. You know, turn and turn and turn them so they cook nicely on all sides.

I turned and turned and turned on my foam pad. When I found comfort, I drifted off. Until the pressure on my hip bone and shoulder got bad. Then I woke up and turned over. Often. All through the night.

I think I got about two and a half hours of actual sleep. But in the morning, I felt energized after a delicious instant oatmeal breakfast cooked on my new MSR Pocket Rocket Stove. I felt ready to hike. The deep woods was calling us! Adventure!

It felt so good to be walking in the deep woods. Nothing but trees in every direction, and not even the sound of traffic. The birds were singing, the daylight brightly shining.

There was one problem.

My backpack.

How could I have possibly checked every single item in this pack for weight, and still come up with this kind of load?

My completed pack weighed about 30-35 pounds, but after the first ten hills it felt like 900 pounds dragging me toward the earth. Does moisture in the air collect in backpacks and make them heavier?

And my partner...he was a man of steel! He just walked and walked and walked at this amazing rate of speed, never seeming to actually have to breathe. His backpack didn't bother him! I think he could have carried a mule without noticing.

I began to wonder if I'd made a bit of a mistake.

After about five hours of hiking we hit our first major snag. At the Rutherford section of the trail, we crossed this dirt road and were met with a sign that said this part of the Knobstone Trail was being logged and we weren't allowed in and don't even try it because if you do you'll be met by a conservation officer who will order you to leave in a harsh, critical tone of voice.

My buddy and I looked at each other. We had no car. Someone probably traveled this road about every two weeks. Or three.

"We have to try it," we agreed. "We don't have a car."

So we tried it, climbing this huge hill (I think the hills were gaining altitude--possibly a seismic thrust from deep within the earth).

The former trail was a wreck. Bulldozer treads had removed every trace of the trail, chain saws had slaughtered trees--including the trees with white blazes that showed we were actually on the trail and not in Alabama. The ground itself was rutted and filled with roots that turned your ankle every third step. After fruitlessly looking for blazes for most of an hour, we surrendered and labored back to the road.

And stood there.

Suddenly, we heard a motor. And saw an older guy on a four-wheeler putting down the road toward us. He had all the time in the world. He didn't have to walk 26 miles in less than three days. With a cursed 900 pound pack.

Seeing him approach, I longed to offer him my wages for the next ten years if he would just sell me that four wheeler. My partner would be okay, right?

But grasping at my last shreds of inner strength, I refrained.

Then the guy offered us hope!

"There's a detour about 300 yards down the trail," he said. "It's the Knobstone Trail--they changed it because of the logging. There's a mailbox right across the road from it."

We found the detour, rejoicing.

But the joy was short-lived.

Through this was an actual detour for the Knobstone Trail, it was so little traveled that it was hard to detect any path. And the white blazes were few. Another enterprising soul--may he be blessed forever--made up for most of that by thing pink and black ribbons to trees.

This should have solved our problems, but there weren't enough white blazes or ribbons. Many times we would travel only about 20 steps before we had to stop, scan all the trees, backtrack a few steps,  and suddenly see a ribbon. Then do it again. And again.

Not only that, but the makers of this alternate trail apparently hadn't had time to construct switchbacks. A switchback, for those who don't know, is a zigzag trail that allows you to climb a hill at several 25 degree angles instead of one 95 degree almost-vertical angle. So I climbed.

With a cursed, life-sucking 900 pound pack.

Finally we broke back onto the original, much clearer trail. And hiked up more hills. And more. And more. 

And came to Highway 56.

We'd traveled an whole 7 miles. All day.

I told my friend, "I can't do much more of this."

Which left us with a problem. Again, no car. And we were at a section of highway that was so low we couldn't even pick up a cellphone signal. There was a white pickup by the side of the highway, but nobody was in it, so I guessed it was broken down.

Now, sometimes backpackers find themselves in a pickle like this, and what they do is flag down a car and catch a ride. I forget what the term for this is. Perhaps "will to survive" might be it.

But after some lame attempts at hitchhiking, at which nobody even appeared to consider stopping, we gave it up.

Suddenly I turned my head at just the right second and noticed a young man with a shotgun walking out of the trees to the pickup.

"HEY!" I yelled without even thinking. "Can you HELP US?"

And he did!

You may consider that this hunter, returning to his truck at just the right time, was a coincidence.

But I know he came because God loves me.

We climbed into the truck and he gave us an eight-mile lift to the Leota Trailhead.

Now before you say it, I know I didn't walk those eight miles.

My partner could have, munching on sassafras roots for sustenance. Carrying a mule.

But I will remind you that hitching a ride is a well-known, accepted, absolutely common backpacker practice, and also that we no longer had time to hike the remainder of the trail.

We pitched camp near the trail head that night.

With me turning like a hot dog.

And my partner softly snoring.

Finally the morning! Facing another countless series of hills with my cursed, life-sucking 900 pound pack.

Suddenly, another idea! My partner had told me about how people on the Appalachian Trail had done some "slack packing" --that is, leaving your pack behind, walking without it, and picking it up later.

Weren't we right here at a trail head? To finish the hike this very day?

So I announced that I was going to stuff energy bars in my pocket, carry a water bottle and "slack pack" that day.

I felt SO good!

I removed all my valuables from the pack--cellphone, car keys, Garmin hand-held GPS. Irish whistle and wallet. Then I stowed the life-sucking, cursed 900 pound abomination behind a tree.


I was no longer gravitationally challenged! I felt light as air.

And in this manner I managed to keep up with my partner's unbelievable pace (he was still carrying his pack) for the final five miles.


I am such an outdoorsman!

I felt that way too, until we drove back to the Leota trail head and found my pack gone. With the new MSR  Pocket Rocket stove I'd purchased for the trip. And my new Kelty sleeping bag.

Maybe next year I'll camp out in my back yard.

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