Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017: Part 2

A few months ago, I declared that the theme of this year would be healing. I have a lot of healing to do in my life, from unpacking the damage my brand of the Christian faith did to me to recovering from my upcoming divorce and redefining who I am as a person. This spring, I ran (aka mostly walked) my first half marathon, and this summer I went on my first backpacking trip. Both of these brought with them significant healing effects, like homeopathy, natural and subtle and hard to evidence, but very real to me. (A little crunchy skeptic humor for you.)

The Awesome Stuff I've Done So Far in 2017
Part 2: Backpacking the Shores Lake Loop
My suddenly becoming an outdoorsy person goes back to at least last year, though really when it comes to camping, I've always been a fan. From camping in my backyard and at campsites with my family as a kid to camping off the side of the side of the road in college with friends (Wes, Chris and Andrew - remember that?) to TMI camping on Merritt Island, FL and in Kilmacolm, Scotland, I love sleeping in a tent outside and sitting around a camp fire and bonding with people who smell just as unshowered as me.

I love Stacy and Chris.
But last year, I became reunited with an old friend from college, Chris. I am so thankful we became reunited for many reasons far more important that this, but Chris and his wife Stacy (whom I'm also so thankful to know) are pretty outdoorsy, which reignited my interest in camping. In March, just weeks after Scott moved out and I was facing the reality of how lonely it is to be single, Chris, Stacy and I planned a camping trip in northwest Arkansas. I was in Tulsa, OK, the week before, and oh what a week that was! Wildfires in the panhandle, a DR Level 2, and was that the week we had a tornado in Fayetteville and a train derailment in Oklahoma City? Anyway, a camping weekend was much needed, but as I drove from sunny Tulsa into Fayetteville, AR, the weather was turning colder and greyer. By the time I arrived at Chris and Stacy's house, the rain had started, and it was cold and everything was started to ice over ... and our camping trip got snowed out. 

So I spent the weekend under an electric blanket inside their cozy, beautiful house, watching the snow fall, being mothered by Stacy and having the most relaxing and healing weekend I'd ever had. I get emotional just remembering that weekend and how it was exactly what my soul needed in that indescribably painful point in my life. 

After that, between the busyness of all our lives and the summer heat encroaching upon us, we never managed to schedule another camping trip. I continued to research camping gear online and create lists and wishlists of things I'd need or want for camping, and through that I became interested in backpacking as well. My gear list was getting long - and expensive!

I went out on a date with a really cool guy who was big into backpacking, and we spent nearly the entire date talking about camping, hiking and backpacking. Nothing ever came of that date relationship-wise, but about a month later as he was planning a backpacking trip, he invited me along. The timing could not have been more providential. I was sliding fast into depression at that point; my new job was overwhelming me, my heart had recently been badly broken (yay rebound relationships), and my single parent responsibilities were crashing in on me. I felt like I was drowning fast. A weekend in the mountains sounded like an ice cream sundae smothered in chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles. 

But I had yet to actually purchase any gear off my wishlists, and I'd done zero exercise or training in months. I'm an overachiever though, so when David confirmed the trip was on, I said yes.

I had one week to get a backpack, hiking shoes, a sleeping bag, a hammock, trekking poles, a water bladder, a cook stove and all the other tiny essentials necessary for a weekend in the woods. I spent all week texting David and Chris about which brand of this and which style of that was best, and by the weekend, I was extremely broke but had everything I needed to go backpacking.

Just a few of the essentials.
There were two slight concerns though. Not even setbacks, just concerns. One was that everyone David had invited hiking with him had either backed out or were unavailable. It was going to be just me and him - and we'd only ever met that one time. The other was the weather. Forecasts couldn't decide if it was going to be sunny all weekend or stormy. The chances leaned towards sunny, though, so we decided to take a chance and go for it. Early Saturday morning, July 1st, David and I hit the road and drove two hours to the Ozark mountains for our 13 mile backpack around the White Rock Shores Lake Loop Trail. 

Me and my new backpacking buddy David
The hike started out great. I was immediately grateful I'd taken David's advice on bringing hiking poles! The first few miles were pretty easy. We saw a beautiful waterfall and some really cool campsites. I got to test out my Sawyer water filter and was impressed that the filtered creek water actually tasted pretty good. We spent some of the time talking and a lot of the time in silence, me often lagging ten feet or so behind but thoroughly enjoying the scenery, the sweat and my own thoughts. It's funny how you think you're going to have all of these deep revelations while hiking yet I spent half the time singing in my head, "We're going camping now, we're on our way! We're going to climb up a mountain and run and jump and play!" (Psalty the Singing Songbook anybody?)

Our map promised that mile 6 was full of great campsites. We'd already past some pretty nice ones, so the mile 6 campsites were sure to be fantastic. Our plan was to hike 6.5 miles both days, and with the early start, we guessed we'd be able to set up camp around 4 or 5pm at the latest. That would give us plenty of time to hang our hammocks (both of us had new ones we'd never used before), start a fire, get some food in our bellies and relax for several hours before getting a good night's sleep.

We passed mile marker 5. In a mile, we expected to find somewhere to set up camp. But the next mile marker we saw said 7. The trail we were on had merged with the Ozark Highland Trail, but according to the map the two trails should only have been merged together for a short time. We'd been following the blue flashes but by mile 7, the flashes continued to be both blue and white, signifying the two merged trails. By 7 we should've been getting back to blue only. The map showed all the turns we were taking to be part of the Ozark Highland Trail only. We hiked for another mile before being certain we'd missed the turn off to continue the Shores Lake Loop alone.

I was getting tired. Again, I'd done no training prior except a 4 mile walk with a friend two days before. We'd started our downhill hike and now we were going to have to turn around and go back uphill again. But it was better than getting lost, so we turned back around and hiked back up the hill almost another mile before running into only the second person we'd seen on the trail all day. 

He was doing the Shores Lake Loop also and was getting ready to find camp too. He was pretty sure we had been on the right track, so we turned back around, and the three of us continued back downhill in the same direction we'd been going to find the nearest campsite.

Allen and David
David and Allen (our new hiking friend) chatted together several feet ahead of me, while I struggled to keep up. It was starting to get later than we'd planned, and my exhaustion was starting to show. I slipped and fell a couple of times. (Falling and trying to get back up with a 27 lb backpack on your back sucks.) The mile markers had suddenly gone from 7 to something in the 20s, which must've been marking the Ozark Highland Trail. I had no idea how far we'd gone, but with the back-tracking, we were going on 8 or 9 miles. This was much more than I'd anticipated, but I kept up. Barely.

Then we heard the thunder.

We still had an hour before sundown, and Allen, who'd done the trail before, was certain the campsites were just up ahead. We stopped momentarily to put our rain covers over our packs and put on our headlamps just in case though, and we carried on. The rain came on and the trail grew pretty dark pretty fast. The wet dirt and rocks caused me to slip one more time. I was going to have to get control over my exhaustion!

We expected it to get dark around 7:30-8, but the storm brought on the darkness sooner than we expected. We were all getting pretty concerned about the lack of campsites. It wasn't even that we had to have the comfort of a designated campsite; the woods were so thick and overgrown that it would've been entirely unsafe to set up camp anywhere along the trail at that point. With the darkness, the vegetation, the poison ivy covering every inch of ground beyond the trail, we would've easily gotten lost in seconds if we left the trail to set up camp. David and I had already experienced that earlier in the day, when we walked off the trail less than 15 feet to investigate a campsite and were completely unable to find the trail again. Allen decided to run along ahead of us to see if he could find a campsite. He was running out of water, I was running out of steam, and David kept turning around to me and apologizing profusely for how this was turning out. It was okay though. I was just grateful I had two experienced hikers with me!

Thick vegetation and poison ivy

David and I thought we heard a whistle. It was pitch black and the rain was heavy, and we really hoped it was either Allen alerting us he'd found a campsite or our imaginations, because I really had no idea what we'd do if there was a lost or injured hiker out there somewhere! (Though I did have my first aid kit with me because I'm Red Cross Ready!)  A little ways further, we saw Allen's headlamp. He'd found a campsite! According to GPS, we'd walked 10 miles of the 13 mile trail. It was late by then, somewhere around 8pm.

The rain was heavy and there was no chance of getting camp set up. The three of us decided the best bet was to set up an emergency shelter and wait for the rain to stop. With a tarp, guideline and some tent stakes, we set up a triangular shelter between two trees - not really noticing we'd set it up right over a bunch of uncomfortable big rocks. We three of us huddled under the tarp sitting on rocks with our packs and tried to wait out the storm. We shared out snacks - granola bars, beef jerky, water. The storm wasn't letting up though. In fact it was drawing closer. The lightning and thunder indicated the storm was only a few miles away then right on top of us. The creek nearby was rushing and rising. Rain water was running all around us, creating rivulets and large puddles. I'd been sweating out water all day, but now I had to pee like I'd never had to pee before. 

We discussed just finishing the last three miles of the hike in the rain and going home, but I knew I didn't have the energy left in me. We were also worried about the rain and the slick rocks and what would happen if one of us twisted an ankle or become otherwise injured, and it just didn't seem safe. So we devised a plan.

Allen had a two person tent. David and I had only hammocks. Between the three of us though, we had tarps and para-cord and tent stakes, so we decided to set up Allen's tent, create a lean-to over and beyond the tent and build a shelter that would accommodate the three of us and our three backpacks. In the pitch dark and pouring rain, using only the lights from our headlamps, we build the tent and the lean-to and soon had a very wet but sheltered sleeping quarters. After we'd built our shelter, I told the boys to look the other way and tiptoed only a few feet into the poison ivy to finally pee. I didn't want to get lost, or swept away in the currents, and figured I'd rather take my chances with the poison ivy.

Incidentally, peeing in the woods as a female is way suckier than it is for males. 

We were hungry, but none of us had the energy to stay up any later and cook. So the three of us put our packs on the ground tarp outside the tent under the overheard tarp lean-to and crawled into Allen's two person tent. The three of us, all essentially strangers when you think about it, got very well acquainted very quickly in that small tent. The tent was leaking from the heavy rain and from being assembled in the rain. David and I hadn't brought a change of clothes, so we were soaking wet and shivering in the leaky, cold tent under a single unzipped sleeping bag. (His down sleeping bag wasn't waterproof so we were sharing mine.) Our biggest concern was the creek and the potential for flash flooding. None of us slept very well, but under the circumstances, it's amazing we slept at all.

By the next morning, the rain had stopped. We made breakfast on the cook stove, refilled our water bladders with filtered creek water, dismantled our shelter and cleaned up the campsite. We only had three miles left of the trail. The ground was slick and muddy, and I was extremely glad we hadn't tried to finish the trail during the night.

"Cool Tree Cool"
The last three miles seemed much longer than only three miles. But early in the morning, we finished our hike, and I've never been so relieved to see my car sitting in the parking lot, waiting to take me home. Allen and David seemed to feel the night before had made the whole trip a disaster, but I looked at it as quite the adventure! We'd all gotten a chance to test our survival skills, and now had a story to tell for the rest of our lives! We exchanged Facebook details, and Allen went his way while David and I drove back to Little Rock.

Allen, David and me - we made it!
Despite the rain and the cold and the overexertion of the night before, my first backpacking trip was exactly what my soul needed. My body felt strong and durable, my mind felt refreshed and clear, and my heart felt rejuvenated and light. I felt capable, resourceful (though the resourcefulness was 100% Allen and David) and empowered. Though most of my thoughts during the hours of silence trekking through the mountains were simple, shallow and unimportant, I did have several small epiphanies that helped lift me from that sinking slope into depression. I found strength in myself I didn't know I had, and I fell in love with nature and the outdoors again that weekend.

It's been stiflingly hot ever since, so I haven't been backpacking again yet, but my pack is the corner of my bedroom, cleaned, full and ready for our next adventure together in the woods.


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