I set two simple outdoor fitness goals this year – hike and summit at least one 14,000-foot peak, and segment hike a 50-miler.
I tend to go west for mountains, so I decided to try east for my 50-miler. I researched extensively, and narrowed a list of 16 trails in the continental U.S. with at least 50 miles of trail to choose from. I meticulously compared the trail mileage, driving distance relative to available days, best time of year to hike, whether the trails were loops or out-and-backs, segments of a whole trail or segment-hiking a trail end-to-end. I made lists, checked them thrice. I carefully packed everything I would need for 7 days in another state, with a dog, hiking in the summertime, in the woods during tick season, all neurotically organized into travel cubes.
The weather was flawless on the 7+ hour drive from Kansas City to the Indiana/Kentucky state line. Traffic was non-existent, the sun was shining, and driving through the national forests was getting me excited for the trail. Poppy and I had trained for this for the last several months, doing pack hikes through our hilly neighborhood. There was a little rain in the forecast for the week, but it looked manageable. This was shaping up to be a pretty solid hike with my brother.
Day 1: Oxley Memorial to Elk Creek Trailheads, 6.5 miles
The first day was planned to be on the shorter end of our segments to get acclimated to the trail and figure out our way around. It started raining within minutes of starting our hike, and stopped raining within minutes of finishing the hike. The tree canopy was good rain cover, but we were soaked within the first hour and would stay that way for the rest of the hike.
From the trail reports, I expected it to be buggy with tons of spiderwebs, especially as a low-trafficked trail we would likely be the first people on each morning. The web-whacking stick helped, but I still got mouthfuls of spider silk the whole time. We also anticipated ticks, dressed accordingly, and brought all of our best anti-tick products.
The trail had lots of steep and muddy ravines to push up and slide back down when crossing creeks, but they were generally short-lived. Late in the hike, Poppy paused for a quick drink from the creek and instead decided to plop down in the middle of it to cool off.
As for wildlife, I saw two does at the beginning and end of the hike, box turtles, and numerous tiny frogs. The weather wasn’t cooperating, but the wet conditions did lead to quite a lot of tree fungus photography, ultra-saturated greens, and a bit of misty fog in the early mornings when we started our hikes.
We found this gigantic burl (often colloquially called a “tree tumor”) on one of the trees on this segment of the Knobstone trail as well.
About 2/3 through the hike, my brother wasn’t feeling well, totally gassed with general malaise. His dog was slow-going. Even my athletic dog with boundless energy seemed over it toward the end. We were all soaked to the core. I was eager to finish the day not because I was struggling, but because I wanted to end the suffering for everyone else.
Tiny trail tip: Keep a pair of sandals in the car for day hikes, or something light if you’re backpacking. Nothing better than taking your shoes and socks off immediately after a hike, especially if they’re wet.
I wrote in my trail journal after the hike, “Hopefully won’t have to hike too much of this 50 miles alone, but I’m feeling good and planning to finish regardless.” I even mused that I might add a 5-mile loop in the afternoon, energy and weather permitting just to get ahead on my mileage. (Spoiler: I fell asleep and that 5-mile loop did not happen.)
Day 2: Elk Creek to Leota Trailheads, 8.5 miles
This was a soggy slog of a hike. A “7-mile segment” according to my research that almost reached 9 miles by the finish line. Our shoes were drenched again within the first mile, the rain falling much heavier on this morning than the previous. The rain was steady and constant, making for slippery, muddy trails. So much mud.
The hills were tougher, more frequent, and longer on this segment of the Knobstone trail, but certainly not unmanageable for those of average fitness. I saw wild turkey and deer en route to the trail, and on the hike itself, hawks when we crossed through clearings, box turtles galore, an army of frogs, and spiders within centimeters of my face at the last possible second. With the weather conditions, tree fungi continue to be the primary subject matter for my photographs.
Tiny trail tip: When sections of hiking are at their absolute worst, my mental method is to set a number of big push steps I have to take to get to the next mini-milestone, then I pause and take 5 deep breaths, then repeat as needed until the gradient is less severe.
Though I am not enjoying a number of moments on the trail this day, my energy, strength and endurance are holding up well. The real test was of my mental and emotional fortitude. My brother started strong, but soon was struggling again on this hike. He is beginning to talk of tapping out, but I’m silently hoping this is just temporary trail misery talking.
I spend much of what’s left of this swampy hike trying to re-work my plan with the trailheads that go from car lot to car lot. If he stayed in town, I could still use him as a shuttle at the end of the trail. But if he decided to head home, my chances at completing the full segment hike of Knobstone Trail from end to end would be over; I would have to pull it off with out-and-back segments instead.
Tiny trail tip: Keep fingernails and toenails clipped short. Toes hurt more in hiking boots on declines, and digging in your pack sucks, with longer nails.
About this time, we should have reached our last mile marker for the trail. Why did it feel like it was dragging on much longer than the map and my estimates suggested? This trail segment was supposed to be about 7 miles, but when I finally reached my car at the end, my smart watch tracked more than 8.5 miles. I immediately peeled off my socks and shoes and sat in the back of my car waiting for my brother to catch up. By the time he plopped into the passenger’s seat, exhausted, muddy, soaked through, he knew he wasn’t going to keep going.
We drove through a quiet Amish community on the way out of the forest. We saw a solitary man building a home with his bare hands who waved at us from the would-be roof. I exchanged shy smiles and waves with curious young children in the back of a horse-and-buggy.
Tiny trail tip: If you have more than one car for day hikes, park one at the beginning of the trail, then get in the same car and drive to the end of the trail to start. Then shuttle yourselves back after the hike.
Day 3: 50-mile hike officially canceled.
The cards are stacked against my 50-miler. Unpredictable thunderstorms and lightning today and every day for the rest of the trip. Not getting many photos and a miserable time trying. Brother is planning to leave a day early. Dogs are bored and antsy. I’m very frustrated. I keep missing my wagers on when the weather will flip between massive downpours and blazingly hot steam room.
Days 3-5: Time to kill in Louisville.
My brother and I decided to scrap it and make do with a last-minute, half-cocked exploration of the Louisville area. Among the things with odd hours of operation we pulled together:
Muhammad Ali Center
The Muhammad Ali Center was excellent, and very thorough. I had learned a lot about Ali’s story before, but I was thrilled to find lots of new knowledge at this collection in his hometown. I love how the floorplan and exhibits were organized around his core values, like conviction, respect, dedication, and confidence. I could have happily spent several more hours here.
Kentucky Derby Museum
The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs was interesting enough. They have a unique opening film, “The Greatest Race,” on a 360-degree screen. It walks you through what it takes to host one of these massive events, where something like $80 million in cash changes hands on-site.
Mega Cavern Walking Tour
We signed up for a strange and touristy-sounding walking tour at Mega Cavern. We ended up being the only two people on this 1.8-mile tour on foot, while families chose to take the tram instead. I don’t know what I was expecting from this visit, but I have to say it wasn’t this. Yes, it’s weird to tour a giant limestone quarry that uses a hodgepodge of badly dressed mannequins to illustrate its history, but our guide was armed with all sorts of weird history knowledge and we had a great time. We even saw horseshoe crab fossils from the dinosaur age in the limestone.
Logan Street Market
We checked out a local urban market called Logan Street Market, which housed stalls for local businesses, restaurants and an avent space. Seems like a good place to shop local, grab a bite or drink, and hang out. I got some Thai milk boba tea at Boba Fête, dog treats for the girls at another stall, and some locally made desserts.
Fossil Beds at Falls of the Ohio State Park
We started our makeshift Louisville visit by visiting Falls of the Ohio State Park. Perhaps it was the oppressive humidity or the midday heat and brown concreteness of the dam area, but I found the lower fossil beds underwhelming.
Ohio River Bridges
We also walked part of the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge at Clarksville, Indiana and photographed the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge.
This trip was not what I expected. Certainly not what I planned for. The saying, “We make plan, God laughs,” comes to mind. At the end of the day, you can’t control the weather. But you can choose your attitude and make the most of the situation. And you can try again. I am conjuring up a plan to hike 50 miles in 4-5 days later this year, and much closer to home so the stakes are lower if things don’t according to plan. Happy hiking.