Colorado Vacation: Part 6 – The Trip Home

This is a multi-part trip report. If you haven’t already, you should start with Part 1. Remember that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

Mandy and I turned in our Junior Ranger badges at the Fall River ranger station, and answered the quiz questions, and endured the cheerful announcement about ‘our newest Junior Rangers’ and the applause of all the people in the gift shop. Next door, at the even-bigger gift store, we spent far too much money on sweatshirts and earrings and magnets, and then it was time to leave the park and head back home.

The car smelled terrible, like body odor and sweaty boots. It’s evidence of a good vacation: we can’t run the a/c on recirculate because of the smell. Back in Estes Park, we ate a nice breakfast at the Mountaineer Cafe, a place Bryan remembered from an old climbing trip with friends. We stopped at a liquor store for several six-packs of local brew (souvenir beer) before leaving town.

On the plains of Colorado, we drove into another storm we’d been watching for miles. We could see the whole thing – from blue sky in the north, through the tall grey clouds with sheeting rain below, through to blue sky again to the south. We watched a rainbow too, not a full one like last week’s but fragments of color appearing and disappearing bit by bit as we approached the rain.

What exactly does it mean when a motel’s only slogan is “NICE”? I think it’s a little worrisome. We hurried to get to Salina before our reserved hotel pool closed for the night, only to find it entirely crowded with a loud family playing football. We left the pool and walked across the Hampton Inn parking lot to the Wendy’s, then went back to our room and snuggled into the clean white sheets and watched hours of a stupid reality tv show.

After a slow start involving hotel-lobby waffles and bacon, we repacked the car and headed home. We ate excellent woodfired pizza at Il Vicino in Wichita. The diningroom was pleasant, the staff was friendly, we could see into the wood oven, and the food was wonderful. Most people seemed to have come there straight from Sunday’s church services, though there was also a woman in sliver high heels, tattoos, and a black tank top that said “Squirrel: It’s Not Just For Breakfast Anymore.”

The last “Roadside America” attraction for this trip: a fencerow chimney sweep sign.

Then there was one last food stop, for burgers and shakes at Feltner’s Whattaburger in Russellville. And then we were home, at bedtime, in our own house, in our own beds. And we dreamed of mountains and storms, meadows and streams, cheeseburgers and pizza.

Colorado Vacation: Part 5 – Long’s Peak – Foiled Again

This is a multi-part trip report. If you haven’t already, you should start with Part 1. Remember that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

“DON’T LET BROKEN RELATIONSHIPS DICTATE YOUR FUTURE” is written in Sharpie inside the left-hand stall in the women’s bathroom at the Rock Inn Mountain Tavern in Estes Park. “LIFE IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT” says another note on the same door. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen better advice in bathroom graffiti.

Finally, we were back at the Rock Inn – Bryan and Mandy have been looking forward to this for a year. It was still dark and friendly, they still sourced almost everything locally, and they still had great cheeseburgers. The guy who took us to our seat was wearing swim trunks, though the bike with the crash pad strapped to it wasn’t parked outside.

Our tents looked right at home at Moraine Park campground, and there was a pile of little bicycles at the entrance to the amphitheater, evidence of kids commuting from their campsites to the evening program. Bryan was feeling better and we had high hopes that the rest of the trip would go as planned.

It had rained a bit overnight but it was a breezy morning, and our tents dried out quickly. After a quick breakfast of sweet rolls in camp, watching squirrels play and stretch on the rocks near our campsite, we packed up and headed to town. A couple of hours at Dad’s Laundry gave everybody clean clothes again, and we packed up to hike in to Goblin’s Forest in preparation for the trip up Long’s Peak.

Goblin’s Forest is an easy two-mile hike from the trailhead. We set up Mandy’s tent with fallen branches, since she’d need her hiking poles early the next morning. Despite having just eaten an enormous barbecue lunch at Smokin’ Dave’s, Mandy was ready for a two-person serving of freeze dried spaghetti, which she polished off easily.

And then we packed our bags for the morning, and put away the bear canister with the next day’s food on top. We all sat in Mandy’s tent and talked until the last light was gone, and then it was time to go to sleep in our clothes.

And then it was time to get up again. At 2:30 am we were awake, pulling on jackets and hats and packs and heading for the trail. Last year, we’d stayed on the ‘back side’ of the mountain, hiking totally alone in the pre-dawn darkness. This year, I requested that we hike on the more popular side – if I have to hike in the dark, I figure, it makes me worry less to do it with hundreds of other people.

We hiked uphill for hours, in the dark. Before long we were above treeline, and we could see the lights of Denver, miles and miles and miles away. Dawn came just past Granite Pass, and we watched the outlines of the mountains below us come into view. With the dawn there also came a furious wind. We guessed it was sustained around 20mph but gusting to 40mph. As we climbed higher, the rivulets crossing the trail turned from water to ice, and the wind continued and got stronger as we climbed the switchbacks to the boulderfield.

Below, I’d traded hats with Mandy – she’d forgotten her warm hat, so I gave her my warm buff and took her baseball cap. But I couldn’t keep the cap on, so I put it in my pack as the gusts whipped my short hair into my eyes over and over. It was hard to see, and walking was impossible when the wind gusted. Bryan stumbled over and over, I fell once, and Mandy fell several times on the switchbacks. We watched as the wind shoved her straight sideways.

At the boulderfield, Bryan found a sort of depression in the rocks and we hunkered down together, trying to warm up, digging out full rainsuits for protection from the wind even though the sky was clear blue. I put my rainsuit hood on for help keeping my hair out of my eyes, and we put on our sunglasses. And shivering, in our hole, we decided together that though we wanted badly to summit Long’s Peak, the wind was clearly too strong to do it safely, and so we turned back.

We’d hoped that morning would bring calm, but it didn’t – if anything, the wind became stronger and less predictable as we descended. First the gusts would come from one direction, then the opposite. The wind was still vicious at Granite Pass. Bryan poured out my water bottle just so we could laugh at the water, falling horizontally and spraying out into the air.

We stopped at the privy above Chasm Lake. As the day progressed, it got warmer but the wind didn’t abate at all. We stopped several times, when we found shelter from the wind, to enjoy the view. Even though we didn’t get to climb Long’s, we’d worked hard to get above the treeline and wanted to enjoy being there.

And so, for the second time (the third for Bryan) Long’s Peak eluded us. We returned to camp for food and a long nap. My chest hurt, and Mandy was headachey, and our eyes were all dry and bloodshot – the result of nearly ten hours spent hiking in the dark and the wind.

After a good night’s sleep, we hiked back to the car. The register at the parking lot showed lots of comments about the wind, but hardly any hikers who claimed to have made it to the top of Long’s. 

Colorado Vacation: Part 4 – We Play Tourist in Grand Lake

This is a multi-part trip report. If you haven’t already, you should start with Part 1. Remember that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

Back in Grand Lake, we checked out a few places before settling on the Lone Eagle Lodge, a motel-style park-in-front with hanging baskets of purple petunias. We got a two-bedroom ‘room’ right next to a deck with a grill and a hot tub. Supper at the Sagebrush Cafe – big cheeseburgers and trout and onion rings and local spinach – was yummy.

In the morning, Bryan and I spread out the map on the motel bed and revised our plans, replacing the failed loop trip with a couple of days’ dayhikes. We planned routes above treeline for Mandy, but with easy ways for Bryan to bail out if he felt worse again. We packed slowly, letting our tents and sleeping bags dry in the sunshine outside our room, and re-sorting the laundry and the gear and the food. I always feel better when things are put away.

And the headache DID get worse, after the drive up Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine visitors’ center. We were amazed to see a group of bikes parked in front – the ride up must be terrible, but the ride down would be tons of fun. Bryan walked with Mandy and I for a few hundred feet on the Ute Trail, then drove back to town for more Advil and a nap.

It was a beautiful day above treeline, sunny and breezy. We could see for miles and miles.

I rounded up, when I estimated the time it would take to hike the four miles or so from the visitors’ center to Milner pass, and I did it intentionally. After the twenty miles of hard backpacking of the last couple of days, I wanted a nice, easy wander, with time to stop and enjoy just being here. And that’s exactly what we did on this hike, with a long lunch break and a couple of stops just to sit still and look at the mountains and the sky. Mandy and I still arrived at Milner Pass too early, so we headed up the steep trail toward Sheep Rock, stopping at around 11,000 feet. She napped in the sunshine, while I sat looking across at the friendly green peaks nearby and the more distant, more imposing purple ones.

Somewhere during the day, Mandy’s smile returned. What are days like this, to her? How do long walks outside, and naps in the sunshine just at treeline, change her? How do they shade and color the person she is, the person she’ll be? Does it matter if I don’t really know the answer?

And then we were at Milner Pass, and Bryan arrived to meet us. He’d called his mom on the phone, who suggested that he sounded a little stuffy. He’d picked up some good cold medicine at the store and spent the afternoon napping, and was beginning to feel better. He grilled brats while Mandy read a book and I puttered around, unloading the car again and straightening up our things. (That’s Mandy on the left, under her purple bat blanket.)

After supper, we sat in the hot tub together for the second night in a row. We were all MUCH cleaner, at that point in our trip, than we’d intended to be. I walked to the Dairy King down the street for milkshakes before bedtime.

Grand Lake’s a nice town to be stuck in unexpectedly. Nearly all the buildings are brown and calm-looking, and there are boardwalks instead of sidewalks, and there are giftshops and useful little stores and a nice public park with bathrooms.

The next morning, after another trip to our favorite bakery (the Blue Water Bakery) we checked out of our motel and headed across to the east side of the park. We did an above treeline hike on another part of the Ute Trail, and Bryan felt well enough to come with us this time. Apparently his altitude problems had combined with a head cold to make him miserable – once the cold symptoms were treated, the altitude didn’t bother him as much. We walked out to an enormous pile of rocks and climbed it, and sat there together looking east toward the rest of our trip.

Colorado Vacation: Part 3 – Tonahutu Meadows, and Back

This is a multi-part trip report. If you haven’t already, you should start with Part 1. Remember that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

The sites were full when we arrived at Timber Creek campground, and it seemed likely that we’d have to drive all the way back to Grand Lake and search for a place to stay. But the campground hosts said there was someone who’d share a site, and so we met Sarah, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from Ft. Collins. It turned out that she’d grown up in Mayflower, Arkansas. As we set up our camp next to hers, we had a nice talk about her hometown, and about climbing and hiking. The campfire program, about women important to the history of the Park, was interesting.

Poking our heads out of our tent, first thing the next morning, we saw a whole herd of mama elk and babies grazing through the campground.

They nosed through our campfires, oblivious to our interest. Our neighbors awakened their kids and held them, still sleepy-eyed and wrapped in blankets, to watch the visitors. The elk slowly wandered away, into the woods they came from, and the people went about their morning things feeling a little more a part of the park.

We’d intended to spend the early morning at our campsite, setting up our bags for the first backpacking trip of the week. But the rain from the night before still hung around the edges of the morning, and as soon as we’d spread our things out on the picnic table, it would start to rain again. It was drippy and wet, so we put everything in the car and headed to Grand Lake, where we knew we’d find a picnic pavilion out of the rain.

After picking up our backcountry permit, we arrived in Grand Lake to find a craft fair in full swing. We ate breakfast and then spread out our things in the picnic pavilion. We took up four tables, getting our backpacks ready for the trip.

Starting to hike before noon would have been unsportsmanlike, of course, so we waited. Or we just weren’t ready before then. We had about ten miles to hike on our first day, nearly all of it uphill.

The first part of the hike went well. We all felt good, fueled by a good breakfast and the excitement of finally getting on the trail. Big Meadow (so named because it’s the biggest meadow in the park) was prettier than we’d expected, all flatness and thick grass in the wind, ringed with trees.

Just after stopping at Big Meadow, Bryan began to feel tired. We thought it was just an ‘out of shape’ tired, a ‘we’ve been driving a lot’ tired. But as we climbed higher, farther up into the mountains, he felt worse and worse, needing to stop and rest every few minutes. By the time we reached Granite Falls, he was feeling nauseated and we realized that the altitude was a problem. Too much, too high, too soon.

Mandy did well on the hike. She walked up to see the falls and I joined her, while Bryan rested on a fallen log. Our destination for the night, Tonahutu Meadows, was only another mile or two ahead, only a couple of hundred feet of additional elevation. Despite Bryan’s troubles, we decided to hike on toward that goal, since going back down would be an eight-mile hike.

We arrived at Tonahutu Meadows with about an hour of daylight left. We’d made good time for our first day in the park, hiking nearly ten miles, uphill and loaded, in just over seven hours. Arriving before dark was a big relief since Bryan felt terrible and Mandy and I needed to set up camp while he rested, leaning back against a tree. We gathered up our supper-cooking gear and walked to the creek to eat and to watch night fall.

Bryan was able to eat and began to feel a little better. We packed the bear can under a bowl of stars, talking about the rest of our hike. We’d planned a great loop, and we’d been looking forward to it for months. Early on day two, we’d break treeline and hike above the trees on the the Continental Divide for most of the day, going down to camp. Day three would be a ‘rest day’, with the option of a five-mile dayhike to see a really remote alpine lake. And on day four we’d hike out for a cheeseburger.

It didn’t happen, though. Despite only being around ten thousand feet high, Bryan woke up in the night with a monstrous headache. About three, it began to rain, a slow determined drizzle. He was willing to hike out alone and hole up somewhere in town, letting Mandy and I finish the loop as planned.

Every once in awhile, I get a glimpse of grownup Mandy. When her hair’s a certain way, or there’s a certain expression on her face, or the light hits her eyes at a certain angle, I see the future, and it gives me this funny sad-proud feeling. Mandy’s been looking forward to this hike above treeline. She was disappointed– “VERY disappointed” she said. But as we discussed our plans for the next few days, she told me that didn’t feel safe letting poor sick Bryan hike nearly ten miles alone in the rain, besides which splitting up a family vacation for several days wouldn’t be right. After breakfast, she and I packed our gear and clothes and her tent, letting Bryan stay warm and dry until the last minute. Then we helped him get his backpack ready for the trip down.

The rain stopped before too long, and we got to see Granite Falls again. Bryan began to feel better pretty quickly (Altitude is a bitch!–Bryan), and by the time we reached the impossibly broad, impossibly green Big Meadow again he felt okay, though tired. Mandy’s new boots had started rubbing a hotspot on her heel, which he patched up with moleskin at the edge of the meadow. And we all finished together – not the hike we’d planned, but a good hike anyway.

Colorado Vacation: Part 2 – A Good Day in Denver

This is a multi-part trip report. If you haven’t already, you should start with Part 1. Remember that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

First on Saturday’s to-do list: the final exam for my world religions class. It was a Saturday-only, timed test, so I settled in to use the free wifi at the front of the state park’s Visitors’ Center. What began as a quiet spot quickly became more distracting, as the visitors’ center opened and all the reservation disputes and campground arguments from the night before began to appear at the front door. Have you ever tried to write an essay comparing Jainism and Sikhism while sitting on the ground ten feet from a guy who’s been kicked out of a building for arguing over campground reservations?

I almost got an A. Under the circumstances, I thought an 88% was pretty good.

After a snack at Starbucks and a visit to the REI customer service counter to return Bryan’s de-laminating Chacos, we enjoyed browsing through their ‘flagship’ Denver store. It’s beautiful. We got the items on our list, and enjoyed people-watching in a place where most of the customers are slim and happy-looking and have good bags and interesting shoes.

Next, we rented bikes from a B-cycle kiosk next to the REI store. (It’s $5 each for a days’ membership, and rental is free if you keep the bikes for a half-hour or less.) We rode from REI to the Patagonia store downtown, and ate lunch at Noodles and Company

We rode a few miles on the bike/pedestrian trail, getting on city streets only long enough to find another kiosk, turn in our bikes, and check them out again.  The trail system in Denver is great (7mb PDF) – there’s lots of trail completely separated from car and truck traffic. The busier trail we were on even separated bikes from pedestrians for a portion of its length.

It was fun to be part of bike traffic in a place where bike traffic is accepted. Nobody acted as if we were out of place, even when we were on city streets. There were lots of other bikes everywhere – on the streets, on the trails, parked in front of stores and restaurants.

The B-cycles themselves are pretty neat. They’re three-speed, with easily adjustable seat, generator-powered lights and baskets for your things. They’re sort of ugly and not what I’d want to ride for hours every day. But they’re comfortable and work really well for what they’re designed to do.

After turning in our B-cycles, we headed through the mountains toward Grand Lake. We spent a lot of time on the phone at this very pretty gas station in Winter Park. Our credit card was locked up due to ‘suspicious charges’. (Apparently, the VISA company didn’t mind that we’d been making large purchases in states where we don’t live – but the three $5 charges at B-cycle freaked them out.) We bought groceries at a super-fancy Safeway and stopped at a thrift store to look for ski poles to make into bike polo mallets.

And then we were in Grand Lake, just before dark.

We drove through town and into the National Park, looking for the west-side car-campground. By moonlight, we saw the plumes of campfire smoke before we saw the campground sign.

Colorado Vacation: Part 1 – The Trip West

Remember that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

After working all day Thursday, we left home about suppertime. We made it as far as Bryan’s Aunt Julie’s house, in Oklahoma, where we spent the night. On Friday, we drove to Muskogee for breakfast at Braum’s. (Mandy: “Is a chili cheese frank just more direct than a chili cheese hotdog?”) Last week, Bryan spent two dollars on an app for his iPhone called “Roadside America.” It’s software that helps find oddball tourist attractions near where you’re traveling. The first Roadside America stop on this trip: a statue commemorating the first Girl Scout cookie sale. (Bryan: “That was SO worth two dollars.”)

In spite of a lengthy and bitter argument about whether gummy bears are inferior to gummy worms (Bryan: no Mandy: yes) we made it to Wichita in time for lunch. The food was good at Chipotle, but I had to walk next door for good signs. No one would pose next to the “Free Smells” sign.

The next stop suggested by the Roadside America app was the World’s Tallest Mennonite Sculpture. It was supposed to take twenty minutes to get off the interstate, snap a couple of photos, and get back on the road. A missed turn and an ill-timed train caused the stop to take over an hour, but we did get to see this sign, apparently for the First United Church of Unicycles.

And then, finally, the Mennonite Sculpture. It wasn’t very exciting. Sometimes, Roadside America is more fun when it surprises you.

And there are always surprises, when you look for them. Near Wakenney, Kansas we watched a popup storm form and dissipate, along with a full rainbow, almost double, over fields and fields of sunflowers. At a truckstop in Colby, we pulled up next to a truck pulling a flatbed trailer. On the trailer was a pink Nash rambler, full of with cages of crazy-headed birds. There are always surprises.

Hours later, we passed the birds again. The driver of the truck looked like a regular, normal person, just out for a drive. Pulling a pink Nash rambler full of crazy-headed birds. There are always surprises.

There was a bad storm on the western horizon for what seemed like hours, with dark evil clouds and the most amazing lightning any of us had ever seen, lighting up the whole sky with snaky tentacles of electricity. We listened to Gogol Bordello and drove through the dark, toward the storm.

We reached Limon, CO just as it began to rain, and walked into a little warm-colored Mexican restaurant full of old people chatting and the owner’s chubby daughter waiting tables. We ate warm sweet homemade chips and watched the rain.

It’s funny what becomes important to a person as we build ourselves. One thing that’s important to me is that, when I stay in campgrounds, I’m a good neighbor. We arrived at Cherry Creek State Park in Denver, well after bedtime. But we’d known this would happen and we packed well. We unloaded a single plastic box, and we set up tents, pads, and sleeping bags in near-dark and almost-silence. We went to sleep quickly, listening to the Interstate traffic we’d been part of all day.

Hike Little Rock

On the day I picked Mandy up from ecology camp, I got to meet Inge, her favorite other camper. Mandy said that Inge is from Little Rock, so I said hello to Inge’s mom and got her email address. We made some arrangements earlier this week, and picked up Inge for a hike along the River Trail near Burns Park. We walked up the Emerald Park trail to the knife-edge bluff overlooking the river, then across the back of the old quarry, past the backyard of the VA hospital, and down to the River Trail again.

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After our hike, we drove downtown for a little unicycle practice near the Clinton Library. Mandy was pleased to show off a little for her friend, and her friend was suitably impressed.

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We all enjoyed Inge’s company. She’s smart and silly and unselfconscious in a way that most twelve-year-old girls aren’t. We called her mom to ask permission to keep her for awhile longer, and Bryan and I took the girls to the Purple Cow, a local hamburger place, for supper and milkshakes. After dark, we drove the girls out to Pinnacle Mountain for a ‘star party’. The local astronomy club sets up in the parking lot there, sometimes, to let people who don’t have telescopes come out and enjoy looking at things. We saw Saturn and Venus, and the Dumbbell and Ring nebulas, and we still had Inge home right on time.

Boy-Free Backpacking Trip

Last fall’s all-girl backpacking trip was such a success, Amy and I began planning a second one. I was busy in March, and she was busy all April and most of May, so this weekend before Memorial Day was the first we could use. I reserved the group camp at Blanchard Springs for Friday night, figuring that it would be an easy place for everyone to find. (Plus it has a cool shelter cave, and is only $10 a night, which is amazing.) Debbie and I pulled in just at dark to find Pic and Sue there waiting for us. Amy arrived at bedtime.

Saturday morning, after breakfast and packing, we ran up to the visitors center for parking passes and a map to help find the upper trailhead where we needed to start. We ended up with four maps, all of which looked completely different, and all of which indicated completely different road names for access to the trailhead. (In this area, roads have county numbers, forest service numbers, logging company numbers, as well as names involving actual words.) Any intersection may be marked with zero, one, or eleven road signs, any of which may or may not be visible above the weeds or actually have anything to do with the maps of the area. It took us awhile to find the turnoff to the trailhead. The mixup was clearly my fault, since I hadn’t planned well, but the other women were great sports about it.

We were glad to be finally at the trailhead, so we unloaded our gear, threw it across our backs, and launched ourselves down the trail. Launched ourselves so fast, in fact, that we didn’t have time for a group photo, and I completely forgot my poles leaning up against Debbie’s truck. About a quarter mile into our hike, I sent the rest of the group ahead while I flew back to the truck for them. Starting out again, I nearly stepped on a HOLY SHIT THAT IS A HUGE RATTLESNAKE. I waited on the trail for him to move, and I told myself it was to see his rattle, to be certain my identification of his markings was correct. But really, it was because I could not move.

It was a hot, hot day, and humid, and it’s happened quickly this spring, so we aren’t accustomed yet to the Arkansas summer. Fortunately, four-year-old Izzy had helped Amy pack, so she wasn’t as bothered by the heat.

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The extension to the Sylamore trail is new and very overgrown, largely because it’s been closed and underused due to damage from a recent ice storm. There were times I felt that we were walking through a rain forest.

I know Sue as a caver, but I had no idea that she’s also quite an accomplished bird-person. She spent the weekend listening for bird calls and identified quite a long list of birds just by their songs. She carried a beautiful Sibley guide along.

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At Cole Fork, we stopped for lunch. There’s a road crossing here, though there’s not much of a road. We ate lunch and rested next to the little creek, and an LEO stopped by to inquire whether to cars parked there were ours. He kept asking silly questions: where had we parked our cars? (At Cripple Turkey.) Did we have cars on the other end of the hike? (Yes, sir.) Where was that? (Blanchard.) Did we leave them in the day use area? (Yes, sir, right where we were told to, with day parking passes on the dash.) We asked him some questions, which he didn’t know the answers to. We invited him to eat a plant we found. Amy said “He doesn’t know what it is, he has a gun.” We had the very clear impression that he wanted us to be doing something wrong.

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The extension trail apologizes for its difficulty by sharing its waterfalls with those who visit it. There are two very nice little waterfalls on the ten mile extension, both tucked into pretty little shelters, both big enough to bucket water to filter, both just right for sweaty hikers to stand under.

Six o’clock found us lined up on logs, close together, in a high little pocket of cell phone coverage. Sue cursed quietly at her phone, since she’d been missing work-related calls all day. While she took care of serious business, Amy gave her father instructions on helping four year old Izzy with bathroom things, and pic sang happy birthday to her boyfriend. I leaned gingerly over Sue, deep in conversation, and tried to disentangle Mandy’s earring from her pack strap.

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We hiked down into the creek bottom, tired and ready for supper and a swim. The campsite we had in mind, which had looked so perfect last October, was completely overgrown and terrible. We found a likely-looking gravel bar and crossed the Sylamore to set up camp there. After cooling off in the creek, Mandy and Debbie set up a bear bag line while the rest of us pitched tents and started supper.

Of the five adults on the trip, four of us brought wine, and the fifth only decided not to at the last minute. We enjoyed cabernet sauvignon with supper and pinot grigio with dessert. I’ve decided that I despise all dehydrated backpacking meals, and in protest made a lovely onion/mushroom/garlic pizza on a Pocket Rocket. I also made six individual chocolate pudding pies, which I thought was hilarious, at least after drinking wine all evening.

We realized at some point that Amy was actually drinking wine out of a plastic cup with a big cross on it, from some long-forgotten church event. This, like the pie, was made much funnier by the fact that we were all drinking wine. Much later we discovered that a slug had pooped in the cup.

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Pic announced during the evening that this had been her longest backpacking day ever. I was completely shocked–she’d done beautifully, even with a heavy pack, extra layers of clothes (she’s very allergic to poison ivy) and a harder-than-expected trail. We pointed out that the next day, at eleven miles, would let her set that record two days in a row.

After the moon set behind the wooded hills, Mandy was the first to announce “I’m going to bed.” “Why?” we asked. “Because I am a little kid.” I guess she thought we’d forgotten. Later, Debbie and Amy managed to soundlessly raise all our food and trash into the trees while I bathed and Sue and Pic slept.

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Morning dawned clear and pretty on our private creek.I woke to find that Sue had already retrieved our bear bags, and I put on my boots and took a few photos while our camp began to stir. Sue requested, from her tent, that we repay her by making her some coffee. I think I heard three people volunteer.

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Mandy had some trouble getting started, too, but a good breakfast helped us all and it wasn’t long before we crossed the creek again to start toward Barkshed. (It was at this point that, balanced strangely with a heavy pack, I almost fell off a tall rock onto my head, but I’m not going to tell that story because it’s extremely stupid.)

The Barkshed campground, even with its usual redneck population and pit toilet, was a welcome sight. No stranger to pit toilets, Amy was well prepared to visit this one.

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I decided to ‘pack heavy’ so that Mandy could be light on the second day, which allowed her to hike in sandals. She enjoyed being able to wade (or jump) into the creek anytime, without worrying about shoes and socks.

The section of trail between Barkshed and Gunner Pool is my favorite Stone County trail, and one of my top three in Arkansas. It’s beautiful, and it’s interesting, and it’s easy. We all enjoyed it after the overgrown jungle of the extension. We stopped at the swimming hole just before Gunner to have lunch, spread out in the sandy shade above the creek. There were a few other swimmers, but it wasn’t at all crowded, and most of us got into the creek to cool off before eating.

Sylamore Trail - Spring 2010-5 (Large)

Sue started first, and we all trailed across the bridge at Gunner and through the campground to take the turn in the trail to head toward Blanchard Springs. Debbie and Mandy and I hiked in the middle, with Amy and Pic working on their wildflower catalog in the rear. Just as I caught a glimpse of Sue’s pack, two deer ran down the hillside behind us, faster than I’d ever seen deer run. What had spooked them? Debbie thought they were being chased by something big, and I was glad that we were all together right then so I could be confident that everyone was safe. When we caught up to Sue she had three more birds for me to add to her list. Amy reported having seen a beaver.

We saw a turtle along the trail in this section, and a black snake. Mandy seldom hiked with me, but was usually nearby. I heard funny conversations: “Is it poisonous?” “No.” “Oh, good. Can I pick it up?” “No.”

Sylamore Trail - Spring 2010-12 (Large)

Not long after this stop, the trail turned onto an old logging road and headed uphill. And uphill, and uphill, and uphill, up what must have been the longest hill in the county. It was hot, and we were tired, and grateful that we had only another mile or two to hike. Amy, Sue, and Debbie made a group and went a little faster; Pic and Mandy and I trailed behind a little. By the time we reached the top, I was convinced that we’d lost the trail turnoff, and I was right. We continued on a bit and found that not only was the condition of the road improving quickly, but that we could hear traffic noise close by. We decided that since we still didn’t know where the turnoff was, we’d be best served by just hiking out to the road to meet up with our friends at the ending trailhead, so that’s what we did.

Sylamore Trail - Spring 2010-3 (Large)

The last couple of miles on pavement was hard for me. My pack was heavy and I’d been nursing a wet, sore foot for several miles. We arrived at the cars to find that our friends Paul and Dee McIntosh were there to meet us. Sue, Pic, and Amy had been there for a half hour or so, and Amy had just gone back up the trail to look for us. I dumped my pack at Mandy’s feet, Debbie topped off my water bottle, and Paul and I took off up the trail chasing her.

I was relieved when, only five minutes later, we met Amy returning to the trailhead. We were all tired, and jealous of Pic, who planned to spend another night camping at Blanchard. Sue and Amy took off for Missouri, and Mandy, Debbie, and I went with Paul and Dee for a fabulous Hardee’s supper (involving unlimited free fountain drink refills) before heading back toward Little Rock.

I had a great weekend. I learned that the wine store sells little tiny boxes of wine. I learned to bring better maps, and to be sure that everybody has a copy. I learned that I can make good pizza on a backpacking stove. I learned that abject and paralyzing terror is an excellent way to cope with rattlesnakes. I learned never to plan a backpacking trip in Stone County in late May.

More important than any of this, I got to watch my daughter spend a weekend with women who are like the woman I want her to be. Strong and intelligent, graceful and kind. This is what I want for her. This is what I want for myself.

Thank you, Amy, and Pic, and Debbie, and Sue. When the blisters and bug bites and sore legs are all healed, I hope you’ll hike with us again.

Sometimes you just need to camp

It’s been a long, icky sort of week, so we decided this weekend to camp at Lake Ouachita State Park. We planned to stay in the campground and go for a couple of bike rides from there. Mandy’s had a bad cold, though, so the 25-mile route Bryan had planned for Saturday was scrapped in favor of just exploring the state park.

Since the park’s mostly oriented toward fishing and watersports, it’s very quiet in the wintertime. It was nearly deserted on Super Bowl weekend. We took the outermost walk in tent site, on a little peninsula, and had the whole place to ourselves. The water was glass-smooth and the woods were completely silent. It was almost like backpacking, but with a lot less work, and a warm bathhouse.

We call this ‘Still Life with Camp Shoes and Kleenex.’

Mandy spent a pleasant, chilly evening sniffling and poking at her campfire. We had grilled brats and chips and beer and cream soda, which felt like a special treat compared to our usual fare of freeze dried backpacking dinners.

The low overnight was around freezing, and the morning didn’t warm up as expected. This, combined with Mandy’s persistent cold, meant that we cancelled our Sunday ride and rested after breakfast instead.

It wasn’t a weekend of high adventure, but we enjoyed the quiet lake and the winter woods.

Jellybean Storage Epiphany

I’m pleased to report that with this past weekend’s hike, I’ve perfected my jellybean routine. Really, this is such an important point that I’ve removed mention of it from the actual backpacking blog entry and made it an entirely separate post. That’s how important it is that you understand.

For years, Jelly Belly beans have been a sort of ritual for me. I always hike with a baggie of them, and I eat them one at a time and make a note of what flavor they are. For years I’ve fought ripped jellybean bags and been frustrated by floppy Ziploc and sticky beans spilled out in pack pockets and left to fuse themselves together in the damp darkness.

I recently had a Jellybean Storage Epiphany and bought this fabulous rectangular Nalgene from the Container Store. It fits perfectly in my hipbelt pocket and makes me very happy. I cut out the ‘flavor guide’ or whatever it’s called, cut it in half, and stuck it to the sides of the bottle with packing tape.

And then I asked Bryan to take these excellent photos of my Jellybean Bottle. That’s how important it is that you understand. (Thanks sweety!)