Arctic Blasts and Pigs

I was looking forward to writing this blog post in a few days time. I had it all planned out; pictures of my camp set-up with some new gear from Christmas, getting to comment on the use of new gear items in the field, and then getting to talk about how well my practice hike went and how prepared I was for my thru hike.

Unfortunately, life happened.

Let me preface this by discussing the bizarre winter weather we get in the South. I know that it’s not as dangerous as it can be further north. Schools and cities here can literally shut down if there’s even the mention of the possibility of snow in the forecast, and we rarely deal with long-lasting, sub-freezing temperatures. Instead, it’s cloudy, rainy, and just nasty. During the week before Christmas and the week after, parts of Mississippi and Alabama got upwards of 6 inches of rain. On January 3rd, I had to hunker down in our laundry room with 4 people and 6 dogs (we’re dog lovers, what can I say) because of tornadoes. And then it proceeded to rain some more. Then all of this was followed by one of those damn arctic blasts…and it got cold. Legitimately cold. Like…wind chills around 4 cold. I understand that in comparison to other states temperatures, 4 isn’t that bad. However, to a Mississippian, 4 feels like the end of the world. And all those flooded creeks and nasty, deep mud puddles from those 6+ inches of rain froze over.

Back to the attempted practice hike

I got all packed up with my new Christmas goodies, specifically a Jacks r Better underquilt and a LifeStraw, as well as my sort-of bulky, slightly heavy, and not-quite warm enough sleeping bag, and headed to the Sipsey Wilderness.
I had a 28.9 mile loop hike over 3.5 days planned. I love Sipsey;it’s usually fairly empty, the trails are usually well marked, and there are awesome campsites. The only downside (previous to this trip) was the hog problem. Hogs are a problem in most southern states. In areas where hunting isn’t allowed, they become an even larger problem.

Solomon and I got to the forest around 11 Friday morning. It was cooler, in the upper 30’s, and the temperature was expected to drop to around 13 that night. The trail, though slightly boring at first, got more gorgeous the further in we went. Big limestone drop-offs with walls of ice hanging down them surrounded us. We made our switch from trail 201 to 206 just fine, and we were attempting to find trail 208. We were following the river at this point, and it was again, gorgeous. Slightly swollen from all the rain, and a deep turquoise color. I saw two signs, both saying 209, but with different directions;one going across the river, one pointing the direction I had come from. I didn’t think anything of it, because I remembered that about 2 miles back, before I descended from the ‘ridgeline’, I had seen a trail splitting off with a 209 marker. I kept going the direction I’d been going before, but the trail kept disappearing. I’d find it again, only to have it disappear once more. This whole time, my feet were breaking through ice into 4-5 inch deep mud puddles, soaking my shoes and socks with freezing cold mud water. Eventually, the trail disappeared under a wall of blown down trees; I don’t know if they were blown down by a tornado or straight line winds, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to continue that way any further

After falling off the unmarked trail in an attempt to get back to what was a clearly marked trail, I had a minor melt-down. I’m guessing it was the combination of not being on a clearly marked trail for a mile or more on top of just general life stress (I thought life got easier after graduation???). Fortunately Solomon gave me a sardonic look that clearly said I was being ridiculous and needed to get a hold of myself. Once we found the trail again, I decided that I would go back to where I had originally seen trail 209 split off and just adjust my loop from there.

After an hour of hiking uphill, we found the split off for 209. The trail took us back down the hill, but this time, it followed a creek. Or was meant to follow a creek. Because of the rain, the trail was a creek. A rock, covered in ice, covered in flowing water, creek. Thank goodness my sweet boyfriend bought me some Yaktrax for Christmas, they probably saved my life. After a slippery hike down the rocky icy path, we got down to the river again. We followed the trail and saw two signs for 209: one pointing across the river, one pointing to the left. I think nothing of it, and follow the trail to the right. Until I get to a tree that I recognize from having to crawl under it an hour or two earlier.

Have any of you seen the Blair Witch Project? There’s a scene where they’ve been following the compass North, but it turns out they’ve done nothing but gone in a giant circle. In that moment, I felt like those three students, and I was convinced that I was going to have my teeth ripped out of my jaw and mailed to my family.

I turned around, and hiked as quickly as I could back to the two 209 signs. I figured that I should try crossing the river, since the other trail options had failed me. The point I crossed at wasn’t too deep, and it’s a slow moving river despite the excessive rain fall. Solomon and I made it to the other side, both of us soaking, and one of us (hint:me) significantly more miserable than the other. We followed the nice, clear cut trail, until it INEXPLICABLY ENDED. AGAIN. In a huff, I turned around, hiked back across the freezing cold river, and decided to head back to the car. There was still plenty of daylight left, and I knew I could go to another trail head and start again on a different loop.

Instead of hiking the 2+ miles, uphill, that I had originally hiked to get to the trail split, I went back to the icy, waterfall trail to get back up. I figured that since I was fine going downhill, I could do it going back uphill, right?
Oh the error of the youthful mind.
I almost made it.
I was so.damn.close.
It was almost the end of the rocky, icy, waterfall trail. Just a few more steps and I would have been fine. Unfortunately, I leaned just slightly too far forward. My awkwardly balanced, bulky, external frame Kelty backpack decided that it needed to take me down, so down I went. With a nice little pop and twist to my knee. I was able to crawl back up to where the trail leveled out, stand up, and realize ‘Oh sh** my knee f***ing hurts’.

I began hobbling back up the trail, trying to decide whether I should try to still continue my loop or go home. I eventually decided on staying the night and seeing how I felt in the morning. I didn’t want to admit defeat, I didn’t want to go home because of the throbbing knee, soaked shoes, and wounded trail-seeking ego. I had seen a campsite about a mile from the car, and limped there to set up camp for the night. As I was going to tie Solomon to a tree so I could set up camp, he let out his ‘retarded-seal’ bark and went stiff, pointing down the hill. I went to look and saw a pig. Not just any pig. A big, fat, momma pig, with at least 6 little baby pigs. And thanks to Solomon’s bark, she’d seen us too. Or…she at least heard us..I’m not sure how well pigs can actually see.

At that point, I did give up.

Throbbing, horribly painful knee, I could have stood at least until the following morning (although perhaps that would not have been the smartest decision with the car so close). Soaking shoes I could deal with; I know that I’ll be dealing with soaking shoes for a large portion of the trail. Wounded trail-seeking ego had already gotten over itself with the implementation of a new plan. But those things, on top of what looked to be an angry, dangerous momma pig with lots of baby pigs was too much.
I threw my backpack on and limped/hobbled/wiggled my way back to the car as quickly as I could, listening for the angry grunting that I was certain was going to follow me and run me down. I got to the car and got my pack and Solomon’s pack into the back. We both hopped in, and I drove back home, feeling like a complete failure.

Two days later, I’m glad of my decision to come home. Despite laying down in bed and on the couch most of the two days, it’s still painful to bend my knee or put pressure on it. I think it’s just a twisted ligament, but I’ll be getting it checked out on Monday to find out. I also learned a lot from my 6+ hours on the trail.

1. I’ve got to learn to control my mind. It’s never been an issue before, but on this trip, everything seemed to be the end of the world. For example, it was completely irrational for my first thought after seeing the same tree twice to be ‘Omg the Blair Witch is going to come down from Maryland and rip my teeth out’. I mean, what the hell??? Who thinks that way?? Besides me of course. Also, saying ‘If it’s in a word or it’s in a look you can’t get rid of the Babadook’ ad nauseam is not good for mental health either.

2. BE MORE CAREFUL HIKING ON ICE. Trekking poles would have definitely helped with this, but I don’t have any yet. I know I will encounter ice on the trail, especially as fall hits and I’m still hiking south. I obviously should have been paying more attention. Maybe I wouldn’t have fallen.

3. I need to consider investing in a different pack. It isn’t in the budget, and I could make it with my current pack, but if the opportunity to get a lighter pack comes along, I will definitely be grabbing it. It would be great to get a lighter sleeping bag too…

4. Solomon is my hero.20150109_123521 His signature sardonic look snapped me back from being ridiculous. He would help me find the tiny trail that led to the clearly marked trail by following where we had been. He warned me about the pigs. His ridiculously happy attitude the entirety of the short lived trip was just incredible. Plus the snuggles on the way home helped a lot too.

Knowing what problems I need to address, especially attitude problems, is humbling. I’m grateful for my terrible hike, because it highlighted what the trail could (and I’m sure will) be like at times. The more you know, the stronger you are.

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