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  • Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    The Knobstone Trail, Part Two
    - Number 69 on my life list.

    Part Two
    Go to Part 1, 2, 3, 4

    It was a warm night, so I woke up often. Eventually, I rolled the windows down due to the rising temperature and humidity in the car. This made me feel a little unsafe. Once realizing that a slightly rolled down window wasn't really going to protect me anyway, I put them down all the way and felt a cool breeze pass through the car. After that I had no trouble staying asleep.

    I was awoken the next morning by an early-to-rise fisherman parking next to me in a red pickup. I was coated in a thin layer of dew and thankful it was morning. The scenery around me was kind of pretty. There was a good-sized pond hugged by hills covered with dense trees. The fisherman was making his way around the pond to find his spot. After getting out and stretching my legs, I headed into the woods for the usual morning bathroom visit.

    Less than five feet into the woods I saw my first wild animal, an Eastern Box Turtle about five inches in length. I presumed I’d see wildlife, but seeing something after only hiking five feet was a good sign that there would be lots more.

    I headed back to Delaney to see if I could use their showers. One of the hardest things about living in the woods and hiking several miles each day under a hot sun is the lack of showers. I wanted to start my hike feeling clean and fresh. The teenage boy was there again, playing his guitar on a bench at the entrance. He let me in to use the showers. A typical campground shower with little privacy and no water pressure, but I knew if I had been here after the hike, instead of before it, it would have been the most wonderful shower ever.

    I agreed to meet my driver at 9 AM at the gatehouse. It was still early so I hung around the park for a little while. It was a picturesque well-tended park. They had camping spots in an open area, but right up on the lake, and others that were more secluded beyond a line of trees. The backdrop of lush green hills closing in the area was comforting. If this place was near home I'd be a regular.

    9 o'clock came and went but still no driver. I started to worry since I had no cell phone coverage and no easy way for us to communicate. 

    “Are you Ryan Grayson?” the boy yelled from the gatehouse window. He had a message for me from the driver that he would be arriving soon. I found a nearby picnic table, sat on it for a little while, and just stared out at the landscape. A crew of workers was out maintaining the grounds, a few people with towels started to gather near a sandy beach, and a woman was giving three small boys a ride on a golf cart. I was picking a tick off my pant leg when the driver arrived about 9:30.

    He was a really interesting and friendly person in his late 40s, dark long hair and unshaven. We drove back to the trailhead past the woman and three boys from the golf cart before, who moved to the side to let us by. My car got stuck in some mud for a few seconds as I tried to keep up with him in his 4x4. This is where my journey would end. My car would be waiting to reward my accomplishment with air conditioning and comfortable seats. 

    I loaded my gear in the back of his red jeep wrangler and hopped in the front seat.

    "I wish that lady wasn't there so I could take a leak." he said after getting in on the driver’s side. 

    He apologized for being a little late and said he was up all night working his night club. He owns a bar that has been in his family off and on for years and runs it by himself.

    "I brought in over two grand last night." He complained later about pains in his hand from opening so many beer bottles. 

    He prefers to do it by himself mostly because, as he says, employees just get in his way and he gets a lot more tip money. He told me some stories about what goes on in that bar that may not be suitable for this particular post. I'll just say I don't think he gets bored very often. 

    In some ways I related to him. I think we shared common philosophies. His brother is the CEO of a large company, that I know you've heard of, but he prefers the simpler life. He has a small home on the side of the hills in Southern Indiana with a good view, works for himself, and is immersed in his backcountry hobby by offering the shuttle and trail guide services to make some extra cash. He has spent over 700 nights on the KT and had plenty of advice to offer. Some practical regarding water sources and others of things I would have never thought of. 

    “Have you ever heard of a hoot owl? If you take a hoot owl call you can attract owls to your site. I once had a dozen at my campsite at once.”

    He seemed like a guy that truly enjoyed nature. He says his brother once told him that he envied his lifestyle because, unlike him, he's always under incredible pressure. Conversely, even with the millions of dollars and no debt, neither one of us envied his brother.

    The ride to Deam Lake took just under an hour. We talked the whole way. I talked of last year’s backpacking trip. He talked of his trips to Colorado and how a few days ago he accidentally gave his son over $450. His teenage son needed some cash so he handed him a tip jar from the bar, with what he suspected was about a hundred-plus dollars. Later when his son called him to thank him for his generosity he just kept his mouth shut and instead took the pleasure of hearing how happy it made him.

    "He's been hiding stashes of one's all over the place," his ex-wife said over the phone, who he also didn't tell of his mistake.

    I write about this mostly because I like to remember the interesting people I meet on my trips. My backpacking trips, so far, have been solo, but so far it seems I always take away stories of at least one interesting person that I meet along the way. 

    We finally arrived at the beginning of the KT. He got out of the vehicle and, after a long wait, got that leak he was deprived of at Delaney. He waited for me to unload my pack and offered one more piece of advice.

    "I'm shuttling three college girls up here tomorrow so you might want to take it slow and allow them time to catch up."

    I just awkwardly laughed knowing that even with that knowledge I would still try to get the miles I needed each day. I'm willing to except the notion that I, perhaps, need to reevaluate my priorities.

    Before he left he told me to call him if I had any trouble. It was nice to have that safety net. He suggested I camp just past mile marker six where there was a nice spot with a fire pit and a great view. I appreciated the advice but still planned on getting at least ten miles done today anyway. My goal was to hike ten miles on day one, thirteen on days two and three, and ten on the final day.

    He pulled away and I lifted my pack onto my shoulders. The sound of tires on gravel faded away and I was left standing there in near silence with only the contents of my pack, my car 46 miles away, and a sign that said Mile 0. I felt a sudden sense of isolation. I was loving it already. 

    Somewhere between mile four and five I stopped for my first break at a creek under a green canopy of tall trees. I was glad to slide the pack off my shoulders and dip my towel in the clear water to put over my face to cool off. I opened up my pack to get my filter and filled up my hydration pack and plastic bottle. 

    While filling up, two women passed by on an intersecting horse trail. No matter how many times I see horses on the trail I still stare in awe like a child.

    "Hey look it's a human", they said to their horses, not to each other. "He's getting himself a clean drink of water. You fellas want one."

    They stopped to let the horses drink from the same stream I was filling up in. This along with their “it’s a human” comment made me feel sort of like just another feral animal living in the wild… a wild animal with a water purifier, hiking shoes, and state-of-the-art fabrics for shelter and warmth but still wild nonetheless. 

    I pulled out my cook stove and made a pot of instant buttery mashed potatoes. Dessert was dehydrated apple chips I made a couple of days prior. I sat a little while longer, drank my water then topped off the bottle in the creek. I hoisted the pack back onto my shoulders and headed north again. 

    Less than a mile later I made it up my first "peak" and got my first taste of how difficult this trail could actually be. I was amazed that I was this high up and in the normally flat Indiana simultaneously. It was high enough to see the Louisville skyline in the distance about 15 miles away. Some of the locals call these mountains. I'm not sure I'd call a thousand foot high hill a mountain but still very beautiful and unexpected. 

    Just after mile six I found the spot the driver was talking about to stay for my first night. It was situated on a small flat plateau on top of a steep knob with a 360 degree view of the valley below. It was an excellent spot with four logs surrounding a fire pit in the middle and room for a few tents around the perimeter. I sat on one of the logs and tried to repair some hot spots on my feet. 

    I've gained some calluses from previous hikes but was still developing some potential trouble spots. As unattractive as it may be I welcome the calluses. I have less blisters each time I go hiking. I'm willing to guess that this will be the only blog where you’ll read about the hardening of one’s foot skin due to hiking... and you’re welcome. I should bring this up sometime on a dinner date. "So Ryan what do you do for a living?" "Oh some stuff with computers anyway let me tell you about my foot calluses… each time I go hiking I start building up these hard patches of skin that..... Hey where you going? Come back I'm not finished with my stories? You gonna finish this chicken?" 

    Anyway, back to the trail, a father and son passed by and sat on the log next to me. Wanting to explore this chance of meeting someone else interesting I tried to start a conversation. No luck at all. I didn't get the feeling they wanted to talk, so I left after pulling three more ticks off my legs and taping up potential future blisters. 

    One thing I will not, and cannot, forget about this trip was the dozens of ticks I had to pick, peel, and flick off my body. They constantly attempted to crawl up my legs trying to make it past my first line of defense, wool socks pulled up past my ankles. 

    They scaled my legs like they were the walls at Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings. Occasionally one managed to get past the wool wall and made it to skin. They were no match against my second line of defense, however, sensitive nerve endings and leg hair.

    Every once in a while I thought I felt one tucked away under my sock or in my shoe; perhaps waiting for me to fall asleep to make their next move. I pictured a video camera zooming in under the sock revealing to a breathless audience of movie-goers the one castaway slyly concealing itself, waiting for my slumber. That would have been an excellent place for an act break in a movie about my journey with Lyme disease, if it happened, but it didn’t. Either way, I still itched at imaginary bugs even after I was safe in my tent. And I'd still see them at night when I closed my eyes. If the unholy pests can't get burrowed into your skin they find a way to get burrowed into your subconscious. 

    I didn’t take any other breaks on this day. Instead opting for getting more than the ten miles I needed. I crossed the path of a couple snakes, a Green Tree Snake and one I identified later as a Northern Water Snake. I know Southern Indiana is home to a few poisonous snakes but I wasn't really concerned about that. A few years of owning a pet store got me use to things I never would go near as a child. I had also passed a couple of fence lizards and blue-tailed skinks, both female and the beautifully colored males with their bright blue markings. 

    As I passed mile 13 I started looking for a place to settle down for the night. I found a nice clearing that had obviously been camped at before. There were a couple fire pits and the ground was flattened by backpackers whose trips had come and gone. I setup my tent and laid out my tarp to give myself a tick-free place to sit and rest. 

    I ate what I could from my pack that didn't require starting up the stove. So that meant some homemade trail mix, turkey jerky and dehydrated apples, and a foil packet of salmon. I tied a bag of my uneaten food to a rope and hoisted it over a tree branch to keep critters from stealing it. Then I organized my things and laid down in the tent with the rain cover off so not to trap in unwanted heat. 

    I sat up for a while watching the trees sway through the clear mesh tent ceiling. This is one of my favorite backpacking moments; lying there in a bug-free tent, resting my tired body and listening to the sounds of nature. Birds chirping to each other in their unique way trying to be noticed in a world flooded with sound, the communal harmonics of an ensemble of cicadas, and trees creaking and wailing as if they too had matters to communicate to fellow species.

    I fell asleep, but soon woke to hear a light rain’s rhythmic patter join the cicadas. I grabbed my head lamp and got up to put the rain cover on. When I got back in my tent I hoped for a little more drizzle than what I got purely for the sound it makes when it taps the rain cover. I love that sound the most.

    Part Three >
    Go to Part 1, 2, 3, 4