On Saturday, April 28, Jodi dropped me off at the Winters Bayou Trailhead of the Lone Star Hiking Trail (LSHT). I needed to test out my tent (Tarptent ProTrail), backpack (ULA Circuit), homemade alcohol stove, and the rest of my gear.
With the Canon T2i, both lenses, and the tripod, my pack weighed in at 27.5 pounds with food and water for 2 days. Crap that camera gear is heavy. 6+ pounds. I’m beginning to wonder if taking a DSLR along is going to be worth it. I have to believe it will be.
At the trailhead, I got a good taste of what was to come: mosquitos. I expected them and came packing the only real deterrent: DEET. I’ve tried “natural” repellents and some of them work OK. None of them really match the repellency of DEET. So, out in the woods where the mosquitos can block out the sun, I opted to go with the somewhat heavy equipment. I applied Deep Woods OFF! with 25% DEET immediately upon exiting the car as the mosquitos had already smelled blood and were swarming. Of course, there are also 100% DEET repellents, but I’ve never tried those. EEEKKK….the 25% already gives me a weird sensation on my skin. No burning or anything, just an abnormal slight tingling.
I put on my backpack, gave Jodi a hug and kiss, and told her to pick me up at the Mercy Fire Tower trailhead on FM2025 tomorrow (Sunday) around 1630 or so. Then I headed off into the woods.
It was right at 1330 and I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going to make camp for the night. My plans were to hike approximately 15 miles before it got dark. There was a primitive camp site just a little over 13 miles from my drop off point, so that might work.
The smell of pine forest was in the air. I had forgotten the fresh scent of pine needles and dampness and decaying vegetation and moist soil. I smiled as I walked through the perfume.
Most of the creeks and small ponds all had water in them on my hike. It had been a fairly wet winter so I was fortunate in that regard because I knew I was going to have to filter water and this meant I wouldn’t have to hunt for it. Additionally, with the ground being moist I think it kept it quite a bit cooler than if it had been parched dry.
There was clearly evidence everywhere of the flooding from Harvey. Debris fields in the forest could be seen all around the creeks and rivers. Numerous footbridges were dislodged at best and torn asunder at worst. It didn’t really impact the hiking as most of them were still negotiable and the rest had impromptu bridges constructed in their place or fallen trees had been swept by the flood waters to come to rest conveniently where the bridge used to be. It was still amazing to see the size of the areas around the creeks that had vegetation flattened due to the rain water from Harvey. They were absolutely beyond imagination. And at the same time, I suppose that’s nature: beyond imagination. Not that I ever lost respect for the natural world, but seeing that the forest had signs of the flood and that it simply took it in stride reminded me of the ever growing fragility of modern society and gave me a new respect for living in harmony with nature instead of trying to bend it to our will and wants.
As I was hiking along, right off the trail was a gigantic concrete support. It was just there. And a few feet from it was a steel drum of some sort. It was clear that there was some type of industrial activity in the middle of the forest at some point in time, but these two lonely pieces didn’t really lend any information to what it could have been. I pondered it for a few minutes and then continued hiking. My childhood sense of wonder and adventure was back. It was akin to finding a water well in the woods. Or that tombstone with moss and algae that made the markings illegible. Or a deer antler just laying amongst the leaves. What were they doing there? How did they did up in the middle of the forest at that particular spot?
As I hiked on, the trail made its way onto what I can only describe as a dirt berm. Occasionally, there would be a small pond on one side, but otherwise it ran through pretty much dry land. Now, in a few moments everything would intellectually fall into place, but right then, it was “What the heck is this doing here?”
I had to hike on a bit. And then a little more. Then it became clear: at some point in time there was a railroad that ran right through here. I found more concrete artifacts like abutments at a creek and what I could only presume were the anchors for cables of some type of suspension system. The berm was where the tracks ran.
As the day wore on, I began thinking about dinner. It wouldn’t be much. Just a ramen soup. And not even really a good flavor. Shrimp. I had eaten a few granola bars and gone through half my water and right now a hot meal was sounding pretty good.
Jodi and I had stopped at Kroger on our way to Cleveland. I had run in with only a few items to get. As I write this, I can’t remember exactly what they were save one. It was a Bic lighter to ignite my alcohol stove. It was the most important item on the list.
As I was thinking about this delicious, hot meal, I realized I had failed to purchase a lighter. “Crap,” I thought. I remembered seeing a Valero gas station listed on one of the maps I printed. I pulled out the zip lock bag with my maps in it. Yep, there was a Valero and it looked like a 1.5 mile hike off the trail. I’d be hiking an additional 3 miles. I made it to the Valero, got a Vitamin water and some pizza flavored Combo crackers. (Definitely not worth it, but I scarfed ‘em down anyway.) I combed the store for the lighter and finding none I went to the register.
“Do you have any disposable lighters?”
The attendant didn’t say a word. He reached his arm out away from the register about 10 inches and touched a one foot circular display chock-a-block full of Bic disposable lighters. They were literally at my left hand. Here I was holding trekking poles, a 25 pound pack on my back, a sweaty full brim hat on my head, and I smelled of Deep Woods OFF! This guy was probably wondering how I was going to make it wherever I was going. I selected a fluorescent green one. Only because they didn’t have fluorescent orange or pink.
“Ha! If it had been a snake, it’d have gotten me,” I said with a smile.
He simply nodded with a straight face and handed me my changed. The lack of jubilant acknowledgement did not dampen my jovial spirit.
“Have a wonderful day.”
“You, too,” he finally responded.
He was working and I was hiking. It would take a real snake bite to make my day worse than his. And even then, it would have to be a cottonmouth to land the blow.
I stood outside the store for a few minutes drinking my drink and eating my snack. I watched the cars, the few that they were, fly down the farm road. A truck pulling a trailer full of goats pulled in to get gas. Someone coming out of the store recognized the driver of this truck and gave a boisterous greeting to which a wave and an equally raucous hello was returned. A conversation, I can only presume that was about goat farming, ensued. Small town rural America.
I discarded my trash and began the hike down the shoulder of the farm road back to the trail. I felt sorry for all the people in their cars whizzing by. They were surely headed off to some obligation I surmised. At the same time, I wondered what they thought of me. I’ve often see backpackers on roads and wondered what they were doing and where they were headed. Here I was walking on a farm road in the middle of nowhere. Did any of them even know of the trail? I surely didn’t when I lived in Cleveland.
I made it back to the trail and disappeared once more into the woods.
It was right at 17:30. I had about 7.5 miles to get to the planned camp site and that would take roughly 2.5 to 3 hours, depending. This meant I would be pitching camp around 2000. I had practiced setting up the ProTrail several times. But, never in the dark and always in a large open area. I wasn’t sure what the camp site looked like or even if it was going to actually be there. I decided to scout out camp sites along the way and also increased my pace.
I found one or two prospective sites for pitching camp as I walked along, but each time I would stop to better scout out the space, the relentless buzz and swarming of the mosquitos made me think again. All it took was a pause of about 20 seconds and the mosquitos were swarming around me. When this happened, I would decide to keep pushing forward. It would be impossible to pitch the tent and not have mosquitos inside the netting. I had the OFF! on and it was working, but I’m no fan of mosquitos buzzing right around my head while trying to sleep. And, even with the repellent, every now and then some singular stubborn female mutant vampire mosquito could penetrate the DEET barrier and punch its proboscis into and beneath my skin to siphon off blood.
My hunger and my desire to avoid the skeeters forced me on. Now, this may seem like not such a daunting enterprise as ostensibly it’s just a walk in the woods. But, there are trees across the trail that are waste high with the only path being either over or under. Balancing acts are required to traverse log bridges. There are small running creeks that require delicate footwork and balance to descend one embankment, cross, and then ascended the other embankment.
During one of these crossings, I had carefully planted my left trekking pole, then thought I had safely planted my right foot. To my dismay, when my left foot departed known solid ground, my right foot slipped down and out a good foot or more. My weight fell backward and I was now relying on the left trekking pole to save my butt. It did, but at the same time succumbed to soft pine needle and leaf creek muck and penetrated a good foot into the earth as it, too, slid forward a foot or so. It went deep enough to gain a foothold and save me, but the force of the whole exercise left it with a slight bow. I should expect as much from a set of $23 trekking poles, but I was left wondering if a $100 set would not have suffered the same fate. I was able to straighten the pole and now can’t tell which one suffered the demise.
On top of the physical challenges, you must remain constantly vigilant for trail blazes as there were more than several times when the trail either split or just kind of disappeared in mud. I took at least 2 wrong “turns”, which were actually “straights” as I missed the actual turn, due to not paying attention and just hiking on straight. Luckily, each time, in about 100 yards, I realized I had not seen any blazes and that meant I was no longer on the LSHT.
I soon encountered a section of the forest that, at some time in the recent past, had a fire. The smell of smoke and char was still in the air. I wondered if it was a “wild” fire or had been a controlled burn to clear undergrowth. Most of the mature trees were unharmed other than some scorched bark. The smaller saplings and undergrowth were all burned to death. Like any forest, however, new growth was rapidly coming up.
I hiked on and right around 2000 I arrived at the camp site. Much to my surprise, and relief, it was empty. Peace. AND, even better, by some miracle there were NO mosquitos here. How could that even be possible? I didn’t understand, but that didn’t mean I didn’t fully appreciate it. This small fact made me super happy that I hadn’t pitched camp earlier on the trail. I got out the ProTrail and set it up. My wild guess for its initial location on the camp site tent pad was wrong and I had to reorient it. I was surprised at how fast I was able to pitch it and have the lines situated so that the bathtub floor and netting were just about right. Maybe the trick is to pitch it without too much overthinking.
I broke out my cook kit and enjoyed a remarkably flavorless shrimp ramen noodle soup. My pot, homemade alcohol stove, homemade windscreen, and homemade pot cozy all worked great. I’m kind of leery about the longevity of the windscreen, though. I have serious reservations that it would be able to last 5 months.
I retired to my tent and slept extremely well. I woke up right at dawn, which is pretty much the same time that I wake up at home on the boat. No alarm clock needed. It was as I went to crawl out of the sleeping bag that I realized there was a TON of condensation on the inside walls of the tent. Apparently, I expel a lot of moisture as I sleep. I realized that the tent flaps must stay open, unless it’s raining, to allow maximum airflow and prevent the condensation. Yes, I had read all about this, but I didn’t really think it was going to happen in the conditions in which I camped. Lesson learned. Luckily, I had a small towel (washcloth) that I packed with me and I used that to wipe the condensation off the inside tent walls. It was well over half a cup of water that I wrung out of the washcloth. I left the flaps open to dry out the tent as I made my breakfast of coffee and oatmeal with peanut butter and honey.
I packed everything up and left camp at roughly 1000. From here it was just hiking along far enough that I could turn around and hike back to my designated pick up point and arrive at the right time.
The rest of the trail was pretty much an easy walk. I passed 2 young boys and, what I presume were, their fathers. They were essentially hiking “out” and I was still hiking “in”. There was also a couple that appeared to be out bird watching. These were the only other humans I saw on the trail.
The only real task that I had to do on this day was find a source where I could filter some drinking water. And that was easy enough. I passed a few small pondish puddles that were mildly stagnant and several very small creeks that had very slow flow. I opted to wait for a larger stream with a higher flow. It wasn’t too long before I came upon one.
The Sawyer Mini filter worked like a champ. I’ve read numerous reviews where people complain about the flow rate. On this day, it appeared to have an acceptable flow rate to me. I only needed to filter 1 liter of water. If I were filtering gallons of water at a time, I might become impatient with this device. But, seeing as how I will have to filter at most 4 to 5 liters (my carrying capacity), I can’t really see it being a problem.
With my water filtered, I began humping it along the trail. I made it into the Big Creek Scenic Area and took one of the side trails (The Big Creek Trail) that branch off the LSHT. It was half-way down this trail that I turned around and began my return hike back to the pickup point.
Somewhere around the Big Creek Scenic Area, my left shoulder, where my backpack strap sat, began radiating pain. In the beginning it was mild and I chalked it up to soreness. As I hiked more, however, it was clear that the way the strap was sitting on my shoulder was either cutting across a nerve or causing a muscle to cramp up. At times, it felt like a hot poker was under my strap. I adjusted my pack all sorts of ways. My right shoulder was fine. No pain at all over there. It was only my left. I at times hiked with my right hand balled into a fist and under that left shoulder strap to help take some of the pressure off. I honestly can’t blame the pack as I believe it is something with my physiology. I have, as long as I can remember, had pain in that area. Tension, I suppose, is what most of us would call it. A lot of it has to do with my left ear, if you can believe it. As my eustachian tube gets plugged up, I can only surmise that it gets inflamed, which transmits inflammation to other areas in my neck, which in turn, radiates out to my shoulder. While I’m writing this, I have that tension there. It just never goes away. I had a permanent tube put in my left eardrum many years ago to help ventilate my inner ear since my eustachian tube is always plugged up. I’ve even been to a chiropractor on numerous occasions to help alleviate it. I usually don’t even notice it as it’s pretty much a constant companion. A lot of people have hiked in a lot worse pain. And like the t-shirt says, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
I was still able to hike at the brisk pace of 3 miles per hour. And it was like clockwork. The trail has mileage markers, mostly. I was hiking at a very precise pace of 20 minutes per mile, which doesn’t seem very fast unless you are the one doing the hiking. I suppose that sort of like running, once you find your comfortable stride and get into a rhythm, you are simply able to maintain a certain pace. I would pass a mile marker at say 1400. The next mile marker I passed, I would look at my watch: 1420. The next: 1440. It went on like this right until I emerged from the trail into the parking lot where Jodi was waiting.
With the exception of the pain in my shoulder, everything went pretty much as expected. The pain certainly isn’t going to stop me from doing the long thru-hikes, it will just mean that I have to make some adjustments. I’ve been experimenting with the pack and fitment and maybe I can find a resolution that way.
My next hike will be a thru-hike of the LSHT from Cleveland to Conroe. That will be roughly 96.5 miles and 5 to 6 days. It will give me a better indication of how my pack, equipment, and I perform together.