North Country Quest: Completing my National Scenic Trail Adventure
Chapter 1- Too Fast at Car Speed
October 19,20, 2003
"The world moves too fast at car speed," I grumble into the tape recorder, the annoyance clear in my voice.
North Country Cache ended with an eagle "seeing" the whole trail. North County Quest begins with a grasshopper who can't see where it's going.
Two heavy green thighs push out, then thrust backward in unison, propelling the slim body of the grasshopper through the water with a frog kick. I laugh out loud at the absurdity of its cross-species motions. Who knew that grasshoppers can swim? He has taken on a daunting task, this little summer insect, to swim across a creek hundreds of times the length of his body. I wonder if he is even aware of the far bank, or is he just responding in desperation to an unintended watery landing after a careless jump?
I feel a bit like a grasshopper myself. Here I am again, sitting in the damp vegetation on the bank of some unnamed creek, soaking my hot feet and eating a crackers-and-cheese lunch in the middle of a hiking day, in the middle of a hiking life, in the middle of a hiking trail.
The trail is, of course, the North Country National Scenic Trail, and I'm beginning a theoretical second half of my quest to hike the whole thing. It's theoretical because this trail will be under construction for many more years. The exact length changes every year as new sections are built and taken off road, or previous routes changed for various reasons. Just two weeks ago my distance hiked-to-date totaled 2303 miles, just over half of the 4600 estimated miles of trail which stretch from New York to North Dakota. Thus, I'm now, like the grasshopper, past the point of no return. Every step and every day on the trail from this point forward will be a countdown to completion. It looks as if the grasshopper will make it across the stream before I finish eating. My journey will take longer.
In fact, I've already been working on hiking this trail for thirteen years. Mine is not a race to the finish line. Rather, I choose to sample the seven states of the NCT in smaller bites, savoring the local flavor of each piece. However long it takes is not the issue for me. Instead, I want to know this trail: its moods, its secret places, its windings through history and the local cultures. If it takes another thirteen years, so be it.
The hikes in this book begin just two weeks after North Country Cache ends, but you may be reading it years later. Following the frustrating non-conclusion to the most recent hike, where I ran out of time to connect to the next road and had to backtrack, I'm in an even worse mood as this hike begins.
No one seems to care about my hike. I'm a middle-aged woman, hiking an unknown trail, slowly. An occasional burst of media interest erupts in a news article, but for the most part, no one cares about this quest except me. I'm grumpy, stressed, up-tight, and nothing seems to be going my way to alleviate those negative feelings. I had to rush to get out of the house on time, complete a monthly work commitment, and attend a meeting with supposed friends which turned out to be highly contentious, all before I could turn my car south on Sunday afternoon. An accident being cleared in the opposing lanes reminds me that slowing down might be better than speeding to my destination. I cross into Ohio at three in the afternoon, aware that I have four more hours of driving ahead of me, and 16.7 miles to walk the following day. I'm not fond of high-mileage hiking days. That distance is certainly do-able, but I won't enjoy it. The world is simply moving too fast. I want it to slow down to foot pace. My body is wound like a steel cable, and all I can think of is getting the miles done and crossed off my list of unhiked sections. I also know that after I finish these miles tomorrow, I have three more hours to drive and must again find a place to sleep, hopefully before dark, so I can attend another meeting. My mind is a tangle of things to do with some walking thrust in between the snarls. This is not the kind of hiker I want to be. But an idea begins to take shape. There are 4.7 miles of my planned hike that are on rail-trail, the Little Miami Scenic State Park. Even if it gets dark, there won't be any problem following that paved treadway where there will be no danger from vehicles. I'll ride my bike to the starting point and walk back to the car. Dusky sauntering will relax me, if prior experience means anything. At exactly 8:00 pm I reach my car, much calmed by walking through the warm, still darkness, but with no place yet to sleep. I drive the curving, hilly southern Ohio roads cautiously, while local drivers in pickup trucks roar up to tailgate and tell me in unspoken language that they don't appreciate strangers slowing them down on their familiar routes. I pull off and let each one pass rather than accept the blinding lights shining through my rear window.
East Fork State Park, less than an hour away, is my destination. Surely I'll find a camping spot there. In velvety blackness, I park my car at the end of a road at the edge of a swamp where dead trees raise malnourished arms in dubious welcome. Supposedly there is a primitive campsite 200 yards away down a side trail. Ha! There are four trails snaking away from the road into the honeysuckle and greenbrier. No signage, of course. I'm not going exploring with a backpack in the dark in Ohio–always rampant with Poison Ivy–in hopes of finding a flat spot that might be legal (and not covered with the three-leaved menace). I fill out one of the self-registration envelopes, deposit it in the slot, and crawl into the back of the car to catch a few hours rest.
On Monday, the power of moving at foot speed calms me enough to allow me to take in the colonial architecture of several abandoned homes at a quiet crossroad–probably some early nineteenth century hamlet established as people spread north from the Ohio River at Cincinnati. For more than a mile the trail follows a road long closed to vehicles. Greenery has encroached and pushed through the asphalt creating a verdant treadway which is oddly solid underfoot. A gravel pit, actively being excavated, threatens my connections with civilization past, but I'm soon laughing at a red jeep being "driven" through a field by a grinning skeleton in a derby. His passenger, a headless jogger, sports a blue nylon suit with red racing stripes. They are friendlier than the train engineer who gives me a middle finger salute when I wave. The present intrudes again as I pass under I-275, with enough sandblasting in progress to make a person go deaf in ten minutes. This is followed by another quiet trip to the past in the form of a 1950 Chevy truck rusting silently beside a shed, incongruously sporting a rocket-ship hood ornament. Lunch with the grasshopper, another hour of brown leaves helicoptering, see-sawing and drifting downward past blue sky to snuggle together on the awaiting path and I reach my bike. One more hour, and I'm back at the car, having found a safer route for the return bicycle ride.
For the next few days, I'll attend an annual Triad meeting, a gathering of staff from the National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, and the North Country Trail Association. A few volunteers, including me, will be joining in. The Triads have helped us all to understand the roles and rules of each agency and organization. I'm honored to participate.
Following the Triad, I'll be joined by a friend for three days of off-road hiking through East Fork State Park. But before then, I need to find a place to stay for the Triad weekend, which is several more driving hours eastward. Three franchise motels are way beyond my budget range. One small motel that seems perfect has four rooms available, but the proprietor refuses to clean one of them for me. Do I look so disreputable? Land marked on my map as Forest Service property, where I could camp for free, is clearly all private with many houses. Night has fallen. A state park shows camping areas, but there are four roads to choose from, none marked and all of them are miles from the ranger station where one would need to go to buy a permit. I'm not crazy about searching unfamiliar, unmarked roads in the dark to camp illegally, setting up in the dark. Don't forget the Poison Ivy.
Finally, near midnight, I locate Forest Service land and follow a two-track, a really rough two-track, deep into the woods. The road forks at a gate. It seems unlikely that anyone else will venture here in the middle of the night, and I have to be out early for the meetings. So, I park by the gate, set my alarm, and curl up in the back of the car. Some time later a truck roars up the road and passes me. Soon, it comes back and pauses. Is the driver studying my car? In a couple of minutes it leaves, making a lot of noise. I stay down flat in the back of my Subaru Forester; hopefully no one can tell the car is occupied. By far, my most stressful experiences on the trail relate to other human beings rather than natural risks. And, someone driving at high speed through the woods at night is probably not on the list of people I'd like to meet right now. After another unknown period of time, a spotlight is suddenly aimed through my car window. I can't see a thing. A voice orders me out of the car, and I'm not liking the sound of this. Here I am, standing barefoot in the October woods, in southern Ohio, in my pajamas. Pajamas with cute little dragonflies, frogs and turtles scattered whimsically across my legs. It turns out to be the Sheriff. The truck driver has reported me as blocking the gate. OK. I have to wonder who needs to use that gate at whatever time it is. Two in the morning? Three? The man with the truck is there, too. He says that he does trail maintenance during the night, and his tools are stored beyond the gate. This sounds fishy as all get-out to me, but the Sheriff only asks me to move my car a bit, so the gate isn't blocked. I'm not hauled off to jail, and the other man opens the gate and drives through. I hope he's doing some great trail work in the dark, but since I'm apparently off the hook, I'm happy.
So begins another North Country Trail adventure.
17 miles this hike
Beech Road to Batavia
Clermont County, OH
2320 total NCT miles
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