This post was originally published at TheTrek.co and has been republished with permission
At the time of this writing, my countdown clock says I have just over 18 days and 20 hours left before I am due to start my through hike. “The Final Countdown” is running though my head on a recursive loop, and my nerves are increasingly finding new meaning to the word “jangled.” And so it is that I went on one last shakedown hike through the Red River Gorge area of Kentucky.
“The Gorge” as it is often referred to by locals is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest area, and was ideal for my shakedown as it’s close to the Appalachian range, but less than a two hour drive from my home in northern Kentucky. There are a large number of trails in the area, many of which cover a variety of inclines and terrains. This is coupled with what is honestly some of the most gorgeous (no pun intended) views in the state.
I arrived later than I had planned, and began my hike after dark. I managed to get about a mile into the trail before I decided to stop to camp. I discovered the first lesson I’d need to learn from this shakedown: I have no concept of how far 300 feet (the distance you are required to be from the trail before setting up camp) is. Determining that distance in the dark is simply beyond my fairly sparse brain. I hereby sincerely and publicly apologize for my failure to properly camp to the National Forest Service. After getting home, I measured out 300 ft at a local baseball field. Holy crap did I underestimate.
Once my all too close spot was chosen, I hung my bear bag, pitched my tent, made a clothesline out of my trekking poles to dry my shirt on, changed into camp clothes, and tucked in to read for the night. I discovered the sleeping bag I had purchased was not as good a fit as I’d hoped, which meant it was a pretty chilly night and I tossed and turned a good bit. Eventually, I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I exited my tent, in the dead of night with a barely visible moon spilling light over the clearing, I came face to face with a large shadow just outside my tent, two front legs squared facing me.
Now you have to realize, I knew full well this was bear country. I passed several signs on my way in reminding me of such, and bear bins were available at a number of the parking spots. I didn’t know it at the time, but the next day I would pass a large number of bear tracks in the snow along the trail. I had hung my bear bag in a tree a good bit away from my campsite, but as I stared frozen at this large shadow, I wondered if it had been sniffing around looking for a more accessible treat. I thought through my options, and decided to start clapping- after all, the sudden noise might frighten him off. To my surprise, the shadow didn’t move a tick. Next I shouted. Again, no effect. What’s more, I was not surprised at all to hear the sound of fear creeping into my voice. Finally, I decided to pull out my pocket flashlight and turn it on, hoping the light would scare the bear away. In the back of my head I was worried it might get startled and charge. After all, it was only a few feet away, and if it decided to take any aggressive action, I was done for. I screwed up my nerves, pressed some hope, and hit the switch.
It was my frickin shirt hanging over the trekking poles.
With this bit of embarrassment done. (I did have a good chuckle afterwards wondering how this entire scenario would have looked to some third party observer, watching the crazy man exit his tent to first clap at, then yell at, his laundry hanging out to dry) I did my outdoor business then returned to bed. Again, the night got VERY chilly. In the Gorge, snow was still pretty thick on the ground despite spring temperatures having started elsewhere in the state earlier that week. I bundled up in my fleece pants and jacket, then tossed and turned myself to sleep.
The next morning, I broke camp, sat down to cook breakfast, only to realize I left the cooking fuel in the car, and had to hike back. I cooked my morning meal on my tailgate before heading back out. (I actually plan to only cook my dinners while I’m on the AT, but I wanted to make sure I had plenty of practice with my stove setup, so I cooked breakfast as well on my shakedown) Hiking back from my car, I was able to notice just how many footbridges I crossed over creeks in the dark the night before. While I was very happy with my headlamp, I was apparently did not have enough context to realize just how narrow some of these were without the bright light of day. Note to self, hiking in the dark on a regular basis is probably not a great idea.
Once on the trail, I started to find my pace and really enjoy myself. There was a nice variety of inclines and flat stretches to feel like I was getting my workout, and the woods had a wonderful sense of isolation. I didn’t see another human being for most of my trip, and the only sound I consistently heard was the rushing water of the multiple creeks I crossed. After about an hour though, my pack started to shift and became lopsided. When I was loading everything up the night before, I had a hard time finding room for all my gear. So I had packed my tent by using straps to place it on top of my bag. This was a huge mistake. For one, my tent was pretty heavy, coming in at 8 lbs (I’ve now replaced it with a two pound model) and for another, it was uneven in it’s weight, so as I bounced along the trail, it started to shift more and more to the side.
Hey, remember those incredibly narrow footbridges? Suddenly, now I did too!
There’s something wonderfully exhilarating about walking on a narrow piece of ice coated wood, suspended over freezing cold water, carrying every piece of clothing you have available on your back, then suddenly feeling sweet Lady Gravity grabbing your shoulder and saying, “Oh, come here honey, wouldn’t a lovely fall be nice? Let’s go for it.” Fortunately, I was able to catch my balance using my trekking poles, but after this happened a few times, I took my pack off and decided to rebalance things for now, swearing when I got home I’d be cutting a good deal of things off the packlist and chucking that tent into a firey abyss.
Back at it, I started to take the trail out of the woods and climb the side of the Gorge. There were some truly awesome rock formations along the way, the incline gave me a good burn. The vegetation growth remained thick, with both young growth trees and ferns covering the ground. This made for several turns of the trail where I could easily imagine myself playing the part of some pulp fiction explorer lost in the jungle, a sense that was only enhanced by the constantly falling water from the snow melting around me. Several times, I stopped hiking simply to stare up, the cliffs around me doing their absolute best to let me feel good and small.
After getting a few miles up, I decided to make my way back down since I wasn’t likely to find any resting spots on the side of the cliff. I came back to the car and crossed over the highway to explore a few other areas of the park, as well as take advantage of being lazy enough to leave my pack in the car for a while. Unfortunately, I also left my poles in the car, a fact I’d regret when a series of wind gusts decided to kick up at one point, nearly throwing me off the side of the trail, which -given the location- was less than ideal. Cutting back through the trail, I got some excellent views of some crevice caves, with some awesome views, as well as interesting rock patterns. I tried looking into some of the rock openings to see if I could spot what wildlife might reside therein, but it was difficult to get close enough to see without trampling on anything that could be some little beastie’s home. Either way, it was a nice place to catch some shade, munch a meal bar, and over all enjoy not looking at a spreadsheet anytime soon.
While it certainly had its challenges, I’m glad I got my shakedown hike in, it was a great way to help prepare myself mentally for what I was getting ready to do, especially as a reminder of the hard parts, not just the romanticized view I had in my head. It was hard, I got dirty, I got sore, I got down, then I got up again. (and you’re never gonna keep me down) That said, it was nice to come home, relax, pull a nice hot bath, and enjoy another beautiful view entirely. There are some Kentucky sights I will certainly miss. Only 18 days and some hours left to go.