I’m writing this from the balcony of my room at the lodge at Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky. I was supposed to be an assistant leader on a beginner’s backpacking weekend on Saturday and Sunday, but a freak late season snow storm forecast for tomorrow made the leader decide to cancel (hazardous road travel for participants, plus too much hypothermia risk - despite our specific instructions not to, most of them show up in jeans, with a cotton sweatshirt for an “insulating” layer. Mixed with snow and sleet, there’s too much chance that it won’t end well.) My wife is attending a quilting retreat at the same park this weekend, so I came on down anyhow. (Not sure who the quilters lost to, or where the battle took place.)
So, today was a bright, beautiful clear day, temps in the low 40s, and I hiked a 5-mile trail I’d never had the chance to hike before. (I’d post pictures and video, but at 68 I’m too low tech, and the granddaughters who could make it happen are in Georgia.) As I ate lunch, I contemplated how great a small place can be.
I’ll preface all of this by saying that I realize that nothing in my small places remotely compares to the grandeur of the western mountains, or even of the eastern mountains. But, as age continues to ratchet up (a good thing), and other demands on my time limit me mostly to weekend trips (or 3 or 4 day trips at most), I find that my priorities are no longer on the “great” places, but the quick getaway, for a few days of hiking and camping, are more important to my well-being.
The hike today wasn’t anything dramatic, but I did carry my full pack (I’m still debating whether to camp out tonight, and hike in tomorrow morning’s snow.) It was new trail for me - and that’s always a joy for me. I was delighted by it - it didn’t intersect roads or even service roads, there was a fair bit of elevation gain (maybe 500 feet, several times), and the trail wound around and down some ravines with streams. I saw 3 natural bridges (2 of which I’d never seen before), and “discovered” two backcountry campsites - one on the ruins of an old Daniel Boone-era homestead (foundation was all that was left), and a newly constructed AT-style shelter. (That set my mind racing about the possibility of an “advanced beginners” course.) I can lay out a 5-6 mile hike in to each, with a 3-mile segment to finish the loop the next day. Again, not a “high adventure,” but it certainly makes those I’v-only-got-the-weekend backpack trips a possibility.
This was definitely a “calm before the storm” hike. The day started with an achingly beautiful blue sky, and I was in zip-leg pants and light fleece over a set of long john top and bottoms. (I finished in shorts and the long john top and bottoms.) The hike was strangely quiet. After seeing half a dozen deer near the lodge staring point, I saw no other wildlife the rest of the hike (except a few squirrels.) I also heard no birdsong, and saw no birds on the wing. I also met no other hikers - the sense of solitude was great, and much-needed. No wind. As I finished, the clouds were moving in, and starting to lower.
Because we’ve had a wet winter, all of the side creeks, and the main creek in the park, were running full. With no other noise, the music they made as they splashed over and down some cascades was hugely relaxing. None were full enough to require wading, just rock-hopping.
I finished the hike back at the lodge, pleasantly tired and at peace.
I guess what I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be spectacular to be wonderful. As I continue to age, and continue to live with one and a half feet in the everyday world, I am finding that I can’t (for various reasons) keep myself in good enough condition to tackle the Smokies and Appalachians that drew me when I was younger. Now, I’m finding myself drawn to the smaller, simpler trails that are less than a day’s drive away (including the Twin Valley Trail that’s 35 miles long, and expanding, and is only a half hour’s drive away from my home in suburban Dayton, Ohio.) I’m amazed at how many of these have enough trail for a backpack trip (considering my 6-10 mile per day pace), with backcountry camping available. None have windswept vistas from which you can see twenty miles or more - but all are secluded and peaceful, and overlooked by the thundering herds. And for me, right now, that’s enough.
I’ve read several posts lately from folks who, because of age or diagnoses, can no longer do what they used to, and are looking for ways to still backpack. While lighter gear and conditioning, plus fewer miles per day, can still allow them to go to the great places, I’d encourage them to also look for the small, overlooked places. They can find a huge portion of what they’re seeking in such places.
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
Great post Glenn.
I've been doing these exact kinds of trips here in the mid-west since I left California over 30 years ago.
For me, it's always been about finding a secluded super scenic spot and spending time there relaxing and exploring the area in detail and I've been able to do that in here to my hearts desire.
The few times, when I was young, that I hiked with others on a trail it seemed they had no interest in stopping to explore an interesting spot or go off trail and I always came back regretting I'd missed out on opportunities to go places everyone else was passing by.
I have had the most fun in my life here just meandering the "hills and hollows" off trail without a destination. I have been places here that I tell "ol timers" about and they tell me they've never been to or heard of. Old homesteads and hunting camps and springs that are mostly completely forgotten now but were the stomping grounds of generations that knew them intimately just 50 years ago.
I've camped all alone next to beautiful little streams and waterfalls and pools, that I know no one has been to in years, most of them not more than a 1/2 mile from popular trails and campsites. And it's the best thing ever. If people knew about some of those spots they'd be beating a trail to them, but they never go off the trails anymore and now almost no one knows about them.
Every now and then I run across a hidden campsite that is used. They'll have a fire ring and some rocks for sitting on and you can tell how often they're used and how long it's been since they were. Some of them haven't been used in years or decades, and others you can tell are used at least once every year and probably during hunting season.
Almost all of them are clean. I've seen very few where trash was left behind recently. But over the years since I've been here fewer and fewer backpackers or hikers go off trail, even a little way off trail. I haven't run into anyone off trail in over 10 years now. I see a lot of hikers on the trails, and I can hear them in the distance, especially at night talking around their campsites, but they almost never, ever, go off trail. Not even a little ways off trail.
Beautifully put, Glen. We can all get caught up in trying to cover lots of miles and elevation gain (I know I certainly do sometimes) but the core pleasure of being in nature for me is to observe and be rooted in where I am. A short mindful hike in the beauty of nature is infinitely more rewarding than a long fast race that does not give you opportunity to observe and understand and feel the place where you are.
Glen - Shissssssssssssssssssh...don't let out the news. Seriously though, there are so many spots like you describe in the Catskills where I get to explore. Some of them are actually "on trail" but the trails are so little used. In fact, in some places within NYS the trails are only maintained every 5 years or so if it's found they don't get much use. I was on one with my backpacking class a few years ago where the markers were few and far between and no real maintenance. It made learning to read a map all that more important; we don't allow GPS units in our classes. Anyway, I too have found many old foundations and old apple orchards while out on these small trips. They really are a highlight for me. Hopefully this year I'll get back to one of them and spend a few nights with my current pup on her first overnight. My guess is we'll have a delightful time.
That's all for now. Take care and until next time....be well.