I was lumbering along the trail, sweat pouring out of all my pores and dripping from the brim of my hat like a leaking water tower, clothes soaked through to my undershorts, covered in spider webs, bug bites (everywhere), thirsty and exhausted beyond my normal effort range. There was a clearing of trees where I could see two fit guys wearing cutoff technical shirts, in Kayaks gliding along the lake like sunlight over silver. “Why didn’t I fucking choose that hobby?” Is the question that crossed my mind at that exact moment. Answer. Because I didn’t.
Saturday, day two, began at 6 am. Alarm going off right next to my head in my 1 person tent at the Burr Oak State Park campgrounds as the forest night just began to thin. I had hiked in the day before from Wildcat Hollow bursting out of the tree line like a raging bearded, spider-covered, dripping wet, tattooed, trekking pole wielding mess.
There was a funny, yet crass, review of this trail on All Trails about two weeks ago by Corey Andres. The author compared the Burr Oak trail to an “angry grumpy man that crapped himself.” So yeah. This dose of reality, after 8 months of personal research, just before heading out to do this hike. The 22 mile Burr Oak trek was to be my pre-Olympic mountain zenith. A shakedown trek before heading out to the Olympic Mountains with Doug in about a week now. A week.
Burr Oak? He really made me work for it. I’m physically and mentally spent. Yet, with most things in life, if you present, don’t back down unless it’s a bear, he usually returns in kind. I have to mention, and give credit to, Jason Wish for his excellent YouTube video of his hike of the same trail. I’ve watched it like 40 times. He makes it look so effortless. But yeah, back to the grumpy old man.
The Ohio Trail connector from Wild Cat Hollow was foul. Wet, muddy, humid, hot and close. It reminded me of how Tolkien described a fen with dead soldiers from ages long since past at the bottom. Rotting. The word “fester” comes to mind. Then again, and I used this technique through the whole west side of the trail, it was absolutely teeming with life. I was just a visitor. Perspective. The trail, going counterclockwise from Wildcat Hollow, all the way down to the State Park was like this. Easy to miss the beauty because you had to focus on not to losing a boot to the suction of the deeply muddy equestrian trails full of horse shit, water, and toads. On the incline. Hills mind you. It was pretty intense. Something I will watch out for in the future while planning hiking trips. No horses or ATV trails. Ever.
Still, the effort was the effort. I hate to look at it like that because it really was pretty damn beautiful country. But this is my shakeout trail. My hike. The one that will help me to mentally brace myself for the alien terrain of the Olympics. But that’s a future story that has not happened yet.
As I mentioned before, my night at the State Campgrounds began with me bursting out of the treeline. Sweat dripping through my shirt and in a regular stream from my running cap brim. Spider webs now woven into my beard along with newly cocooned spider food dangling like bits of falafel that my co-workers would kindly tell me “um, Jeff, you have something in your beard.” Well, Friday? I had a whole spider feast in my beard. I was a smelly mess.
Thankfully, they had a shower and the kind lady at the front desk proffered a free bar of travel sized soap for me to use. I’m not sure if that was there for similar situations or not, but I appreciated it tremendously as I skipped on packing soap in favor of going “light.” I was thinking that “in bear country I won’t want sweet smelling stuff.” Little did I know about the reality of Burr Oak country on a hot August day with intermittent rain.
I got camp setup then showered. After that I got to the business of brewing coffee and making one of my favorite trail meals. Dottie’s Chicken and Dumplings by Pack It Gourmet. So damn good. I had hung my clothes on a para cable line. This was supposed to be for my bear bag exercise, but everything was dripping wet, including my pants, so I decided to pivot. Fortunately I had a Patagonia lightweight climber hoodie and extra underwear for the next day that looked like swim trunks to hang out in as the night fell.
I finished Brené Brown’s new book “Braving the Wilderness” that night. While it has little to do with being outdoors. It has everything to do with it. I made a ton of notes on my Kindle while reading this. Note to self, send aunt Lora a copy because I think they think exactly the same way about people, life and connection. Nothing about what tribe you put yourself into and all about the risks you take with those whom you know and don’t know. That woman is amazing. Both of them.
My neighbor at Burr Oak State Park was this super-hot, cut, half-naked guy in his early 30’s. The strange thing is that I made that observation, very discreetly, within a 2-minute window on Friday night. After that? He stayed inside his tent. And remained there until after I left the next morning evidently. Cooking sounds. Smoking smells. Screen lights. All inside a synthetic material bubble. No campfire. No conversation. Of course, that’s OK. It’s just not my take on what it means to be outdoors among people. I want to ask questions. Say hello. Be seen. Hear others stories. Share what we have. He made me think about Brené’s closing statement to her readers as I headed out that morning for the second part of my three-day hike.
“You are the wilderness.”
After my heart attack, I turned to running. It was a way for me to set milestones along my path. Something to keep me motivated to take care of myself. I got pretty decent at it for my age. Not great. But I held my own. So it was that I ran a race called the Big Bad Wolfe Run once. The 20-mile race. I meant for it to be my shakeout run for the Columbus Marathon. I finished. I was second to last. Still, I finished and I knew what it was like to feel my feet, calves, knees, quads, glutes, arms and lungs on fire. What it taught me was huge. I learned that Sunday after my shorts got pulled down because of a water belt malfunction. Mooning everyone around me. The lesson? I am not a marathon runner. I might be capable of doing it. But it’s not what drives me. I love running to this day. But I love a little bit of the random more. Taking on something like a marathon takes crystal clear focus and balls of steel.
Burr Oak echoed the same lesson. I will admit, I had illusions of doing a trough hike. After Burr Oak? No fucking way. While I love nature. Camping. Exploring and getting lost. Things would go horribly wrong in my head if I ever did a Cheryl Strayed and left City life behind to trek through seemingly endless trails. In a weird way, it makes me want to return to running again. On familiar City streets that I absolutely love.
These are the thoughts that coalesced in my mind on the second day of the hike, as I conversed, man to man, with the cranky old trail. I had every intention of staying overnight at a camp along the way but it didn’t come to pass. The campsites I had marked to check out on the East side of the Lake going North, counterclockwise, were jam-packed. People who were just coming out to the lake for a night outdoors of drinking, laughing and having all shades of fun.
I kept going North and stopped at the Nature Center to ask questions about the last two campsites ahead. The kind attendant showed me a shortcut using another trail. This was less twisty-turny than the Burr Oak route. I thanked her, filled my water bottles using her garden hose, and headed off to the new trail. At the end? I found myself in a grassy opening with picknick tables, shelters, a makeshift outdoor amphitheater and open hills with what looked like campsites. It was almost “Twilight Zone” perfect. Exhausted, I picked a hill under tree cover but still open. Stopped. Shucked my shirt, horse shit covered boots, socks, and headband. Unrolled my bedroll. Grabbed a water bottle as sweat was still pouring off of me like light from the sun. Only grosser. Thinking that it would be amazing to be here at night. No light. Clear skies full of stars. With absolute privacy. Buck naked if I wanted to. But where was the Buckeye Trail? The shortcut didn’t directly connect back to the main trail I was on. Given that I only had three days and I had no idea what shape my body would be in the next day, I suited back up and decided to attempt the remaining trek back to Wildcat Hollow. And my car. But again, I will get to that in a bit.
From the State Park Campground, it was a short walk over to the access trail. Marked by two wooden posts with yellow blazes. It was an awesome, paved, walkway out to what would become 21 miles of OMFG. I had to work through some pain that I had not experienced since my 20-mile race. Out came all of my coping skills too. The breathing exercises. The mantras. The cussing. Music. Talking to myself. Everything all while my beard collected more and more spider webs and half-digested bugs. My trekking poles were covered in the same as I used them as spider web clearing devices two-thirds of the time.
Still, there were sweeping views of the lake. The dam. The spillway. The rotting picknick table that Jason Wish documented along with the wooden walkways and the metal bridge he captured. It felt as if I had been there before in a way.
Maybe I had. With a couple of my toenails bruised from being in sweaty wool sock encased boots across twenty plus miles Saturday, I can’t help but think about the Big Bad Wolfe Run again. What is it that drives us? Does it teach us something about ourselves or others? My personal answer to that is “I’m working on it.”
I think that is what drove me to take down my armor, to borrow a Brené phrase, and let myself go gay camping at an awesome place called Freedom Valley last year with my husband’s support and encouragement. He’s not a camper. And gay camping? Well, that’s a lot of fancy at times. Big 8 person tents for 2. Titanic-sized air mattresses. Disco lights. Electric fans. But I love the fact that both straight and gay folk are all the same.
But, as with the people around all of the free sites Saturday and the lonely hidden campsites along the trail. There’s something archetypical about spending a night outdoors with other people or by yourself. Burr Oak was a noteworthy companion this weekend. It felt familiar. Not just because of the months of watching Jason’s video, doing research and buying/testing gear then editing and re-editing my kit. I think because I have been here in my life before. Places in time like the Big Bad Wolfe Run. Moving to Dallas with my husband. Going to various art shows Eddie had been in. Traveling with him to places like Chicago and New York City.
Every experience is an opportunity to either learn something about yourself and others or, quite simply, to learn how to be in the moment and let the events happen and just observe and enjoy. Like getting out of my tent at 2:30 am to relieve myself only to look up and see this blinding display of stars through the tree line overhead.
And so, body aching, on Sunday. My thoughts now turn to the journey ahead. Cleaning my backpack, boots, sleeping bag and other gear in odor free and water repellent soaps. Packaging everything up and mailing the stuff that has made it possible for me to spend so many great times outdoors. Thinking ahead to what the next adventure is going to feel like. What in the hell does a bear actually look like? What does it feel like to touch a glacier? Soak naked in a hot spring off the trail? What does a rainforest sound like? All these things are, as of now, possibilities. Just like this exact moment. Yesterday, while crawling back up the asshole of the cranky old trail on my return approach to Wildcat Hollow, toward the end of my hike, I envisioned sitting at my desk, on my laptop writing with a cup of coffee, my cat Monkey sleeping on my bed, Eddie fiddling around up front in the kitchen with a good movie on in the background. Home. As a heart attack survivor, I have learned that you never know what is going to happen from one moment to the next. The space between all of our experiences, however, is sometimes more important than the actual goal itself. There is a magic outdoors that lives in those slivers of consciousness which exist in the most common of places.