River to River Trail – Day 21

Herod to Garden of the Gods
8.2 Miles

Boy, we camped at wildlife central.  As soon as the sun went down the night birds were calling, the frogs were thunking, and the deer were barking loudly everywhere.  Arbor woke in the middle of the night to pee and I woke as well and realized that I’d hung the foot end of my hammock a touch too high and I wasn’t very comfortable.  I got out and adjusted it and went to pee myself, and at that point I was wide awake.  I laid in the hammock for 90 minutes trying to fall asleep again to no avail.  I finally got out my iPad and read half of my new book, finally feeling tired about 5am.  Woke up again at 6 and got up for the day.  Since I didn’t sleep well, I never really relaxed, so all my muscles were tense and sore – which didn’t bode well for a long day up uphill climbs.

We had a quick breakfast of bars and coffee and set to work to get packed up as quickly as possible.  We’d hoped to be on the road by 7:30, but didn’t make it til 8:15.

It was hard climbs right away.  It was a crazily steep gravel road.  I’ve been getting adjusted to uphill roads, but this one felt like mountain climbing for a half mile or so.  It was easier after that and we made quick work of the two miles to the post office.

Just before the highway bridge, you pass what was once a spring water pump made accessible to hikers.  From what I’ve read, it’s not been working for a few years now.  It’s a shame because it’s very well positioned in an otherwise dry area.

We had a short walk along a busy highway. You can see here how nerve wracking some of the road walking can be!

We got to the post office in plenty of time and we retrieved our boxes and sorted through what we kept and what got mailed back.  Susan, the postmistress, was quiet at first, but was very accommodating and helped me with tape and paper to use as a mailing label.  She as even able to give is cash with the use of our debit card!  She finally opened up and heard about our trip.  She exclaimed that you’d never catch her sleeping in the woods around here because there are black panthers in the area.  She saw one a couple of years ago while driving up by Garden of the Gods and even saw the yellow slits of the eyes.  She’s not the first person to mention black panthers here.  Becky from Bay Creek Ranch said she saw one galloping through a farmers field, also a couple of years ago.  It’s hard to believe, but I’ll definitely have to look it up when I get home. (Later in the trip, a local mentioned that there are black cougars, and she believes all the panther sightings are just that)

Susan is from Australia and lived in a shipping town where she met her husband.  She moved to Southern Illinois where they farmed for many years.  Her husband now works at the coal mine and she’s been with the post office for nine years.  She says it helps keep her mind sharp, as her father died of Alzheimer’s.  We talked about her family more and I really felt that we made a connection deeper than the usual trail talk, and it was a genuine pleasure to get to know her.  We took her photo, but she told us that it was against regulation to take any pictures inside of a post office, so as long as we didn’t post it online, it would be ok.

We left and hiked another hill a mile upward until we found the trailhead for the Garden of the Gods Wilderness.  For such a popular area, I was surprised at how rampant the poison ivy and oak were.  We hadn’t seen anything this bad since our first day.  Fortunately we were well conditioned and properly attired this time around.  Up and up the trail went, and then up some more.  The ascent this time just never really stopped.

About a third of our way, the thunder began.  It was loud and nearby and we pulled out our packas to be ready for the downpour.  There was a scenic lookout 2.28 miles ahead of is, and I could only imagine how great the photos could be if we got there before rain hit.  We decided to try and beat it, and hiked like we never had before.  We just never stopped our pace and pushed ourselves to the brink for the mission in front of us.  Incredibly we made it and were treated to some really cool sky.  You can see the rain coming down across the valley in the picture.

There was another lookout .20 miles away, so we rushed over there, but the rain began before we made it. And then suddenly it was over.  Just a tiny smattering of rain to go with all that bluster of lightening and thunder.  The second lookout was disappointing with too many trees obstructing the view, so we were grateful we caught the first one when we did.  We figured we were doing so well that we might keep going to make sure the trail stayed dry, and we kept chugging along for another half mile, before I finally hit a wall.

We took a break to eat some food, and Arbor needed a new water bladder because he’d already consumed his three liters.  I was only too happy to get rid of the extra 1.8 liter bag I was carrying, and it made my pack feel so much better when I put it back on.  Onward and upward we climbed until we reached the Garden of the Gods recreation area.  All in all, I’m confident that at least 6 of today’s 8 miles was uphill, and probably more than that.

click for a larger image

Garden of the Gods is a very popular tourist destination and we found benches to drop our packs and rest on while people walked by and over the cliffs nearby.  First we just needed to catch our breath, but it was high enough that it was the first cell signal we’d had in over a week.  We texted with the kids and friends, looked over any critical email, downloaded the weather for the rest of the trip and chatted with my mom.  It felt do good to reconnect with the greater world.  I know many people hit the trail in order to unplug for a while, but that’s never been a need of mine.  I have no conflict with nature and technology, and get as much out of one as the other.  In an ideal world, I could have both at the same time.

We eventually made it out to the cliffs ourselves, admired the view and took pictures.  Having satisfied that, we climbed down to find the campground.  The map was unclear, so we did a little backtracking, but found our way out to the road and over to the sites.  I was so glad we had money now to pay for the spot, what a relief.  There were several nice spots with good trees and I even spied two hammocks already hanging!

I walked over and introduced myself and met Brenda and her daughter Laura.  I asked about their setup, and they’re using Hammacka hammocks, a brand I’d not yet heard of.  I just love how expansive the hammocking world actually is.  We talked gear for a bit then learned that Brenda intends to hike the River to River trail next year!  Like us, she intends to go slowly and was glad to learn how long it’s taken us.  I rambled on quite a bit.  I don’t think I’d eaten enough for the days work, and so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself in front of these nice ladies.  

We went to set up, and Brenda mentioned she was heading to Walmart and asked if we needed anything.  I asked her for a cold Dr Pepper and went to get some cash, and she waved it away.  Such a small act of generosity made my whole week.  I’ve been craving a soda for so long now!

Alas, there were no showers or electricity.  It was a primitive campground with pit toilets and a hand cranked water pump.  Still, the ground was free of ivy and there was lots of room to spread out.

We got to work setting up our space immediately and efficiently.  This is pretty uncharacteristic of us as we tend to drop everything and just sit for at least thirty minutes until we find the will to get moving again.  Even after today’s exertion, we were like hammock machines.  It’s a good thing too because the thunder was suddenly back.  We went to Brendas camp and moved her few belongings under their tarps and then I quickly made dinner and we moved under my tarp to eat.

I keep making the mistake of setting up my tarp for dry summer days.  It’s higher and wider and allows for excellent air flow.  The moment I heard the thunder, I should have run for my tarp and reset it low and tight.  Instead I blithely ignored that wisdom, thinking about today’s earlier joke of a rain spirt.  It got very dark very fast, then the wind came roaring in and the rain hot on its heels.  The rain just blew in under the tarp and sprayed all over everything.  It came down so hard that all of the ground became a puddle, and I pulled up the tyvek at the edges to make a dry island for my pack as the water rushed around it.

I ultimately climbed in my hammock while poor Arbor hung out either squatting or stooping under the tarp.  He couldn’t sit anymore because of how wet the ground had become, and it was coming down too hard to make a dash to his own hammock.  Staying dry has become the holy grail of backpacking.  Fortunately the strong winds meant that the storm moved quickly, and it let up enough for Arbor to find his own shelter.

Just at the tail end of the rain, Brenda returned and brought the soda to me in my hammock, proclaiming “Merry Christmas!”  What a gift it truly was.  Sooooo good.  Arbor is presently napping while I write this, and the rain has stopped and the sun returned. 

I went back over to get Brenda and Laura’s photo and learned that Brenda is a hair stylist and her daughter is going to Columbia to be a writer.  They’re taking two weeks to camp and hike at a whole variety of parks and loving every minute of it.  They were both charming and funny and we had a great time getting to know one another.  We gave them a tour of our hammocks and hiking gear and I could see Brenda making mental notes and filing them away for when she plans out her own River to River hike.  I’m totally excited for her, and I hope she touches base with us before she leaves.  

Just as we were finishing up, I noticed the clouds over the ridge.  We walked out to the bluff, just off a campsite, and saw a line of cloud vapor snaking through the trees on the opposite side of the valley.  It was ethereal and hauntingly beautiful and I’m glad I caught it before the sun blasted it away in the morning.

It’s 8:53 and I’ll just read a little and try to make up for the sleep I missed out on last night.  Today certainly wasn’t the most challenging, but I do think it was the most physically difficult.  We hike past High Knob tomorrow, and then I think it’s largely downhill from there!


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