High Knob Campground to ShawneeMart, Eddyville IL, October 20 – 22.
Kirstin and I left town around 8am on Saturday to meet Heather at High Knob. Heather started her section Friday morning (after camping out solo at Elizabethtown, the Eastern terminus of the River to River Trail on Thursday evening.) She got stuck in cold rain, but hiked about 18 miles to High Knob where she arrived after dark. The campground owner lodged her for free that night which was just one of many kind gestures the people in the surrounding Shawnee National Forest would express to us that weekend.
When Kirstin and I arrived after 2 and a half hours of easy driving, Heather met us at my car where we grabbed all of our gear and walked back to where she was lodged for the night. A hostel style cabin with many rooms and beds; probably room for 20 people total – all to herself. High Knob is an equestrian joint. The entire campground was filled with horse trailers and RVs; along with very friendly people.
Heather had her gear strewn about in front of a space heater, mostly to dry her pack from the relentless rain she endured the day before.
After we filled our water bladders and bottles and fit everything on us comfortably; we set off on the trail. Our first pitstop would be 4 miles west at Garden of the Gods, and our campground about 2 miles further on top of a bluff.
It was very chilly when we were breaking; but the sun was out and the day was beautiful. One challenge that we immediately decided was for the birds (or this case, horses…) was a chewed up, very muddy trail. The R2R is both a footpath and an equestrian trail. While I love and respect horses, sharing a trail is not my favorite pasttime.Sucking, mucking, thick wet mud and horse poop; the color and consistency reminded me of the chocolate river on Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. At one point I was damn near Augustus Gloop. I slid in slow motion butt first almost into the muck, saved by a trekking pole and an arm hooking a slender tree and we laughed til we cried.We took a little break at a beautiful feature along the trail. We finally stopped for lunch and a water refill at the Garden of the Gods campground, which was expectedly busy on a Saturday afternoon. We probably spent a little too much time at this stop; a good hour and a half we sat and ate, refilled our water, used the toilets and then quickly walked through the GoG.
We chased the sun to our camp site and when we arrived there was a lone tent. We heard small grumbles coming from inside. “Is someone snoring?!” Heather whispered. It turned into barking.
“A dog!” We set our packs down and heard some rustling from inside the tent. A girl around our age emerged with a small dog named Ira that looked just like Cash! The girl introduced herself as Jennifer, and we all chatted enthusiastically while we set up our tents. We caught a beautiful sunset and even saw a bald eagle!
It was really cool to meet another woman out on the trail, especially one who was hiking solo. She shared with us she completed a chunk of California on the PCT, but had to get off the trail due to an injury after the Sierra. We all relished in trail stories, ate dinner and broke out the cans of wine we packed in. We didn’t get to make a fire that night but the wine and company kept us warm. Tunes from Kirstin’s little speaker drifted into the evening and we checked each other for daddy long legs before we said our goodnights.
I slept amazingly well that night, the cold wind rocking me to sleep. We had a long couple days still ahead of us but knowing the weather was going to stay lovely and the company as well; I wasn’t worried about miles in the least.
We packed up our dewy camp quickly, said our farewells to Jennifer and Ira and left early to get a start on the days miles. The plan was to hike the few miles into Herod and eat breakfast, fill our water and keep westward to One Horse Gap. Little did we know, Jennifer would be the last person we would see on the trail for the next 2 days.
We ate in the lot right next to the Herod Post Office, around 10am. Cars passed us and if it weren’t a trail town; I’m more than sure they’d think we were actually bums. After breakfast began a stretch of road walking, which we decided we rather enjoyed. The walking was pretty easy on a wide gravel road. This section also met up with the American Discovery Trail!We heard a car behind us slow down and then eventually pull up next to us. It turned out to be the infamous Shawnee/R2R shuttle driver and guide Bart Lane. After talking for a bit, he wished us well, handed us a card and let us know he’d be happy to assist us at any time if we needed to give him a call.
We stopped a little while after to refill our water before the trail headed back into the woods. We did a pit stop at a beautiful overlook about a mile before our stopping point. We were tired, a little grumpy and ready to stop. Our packs were really weighing us down. We ended up indeed camping at One Horse Gap (SO. MUCH. MUD.) but in retrospect, probably should have pressed on a few more miles to right before the cemetery, where we’d have camped by a creek and only have (what we thought was) 10ish miles to Eddyville, instead of the near 16 we inevitably had to do.
Hunger and laziness won Sunday evening. We knew our fate. Monday we’d have to crank out almost 16 miles back to the car. While we weren’t looking forward to it, we just simply didn’t acknowledge it.
We all spent about an hour to ourselves in silence at camp, setting things up, changing into camp clothes and enjoying the scenery. I think all of us worked on trying to start a fire with very damp wood for a bit before giving in. We finished off our wine, ate and shared some delicious dinner and then I turned in to one of the worst sleeps I’ve ever had while camping.
All night I tossed and turned. I woke up every hour, despite my melatonin intake. It was FREEZING. I woke up shivering a handful of times even though I was sleeping in a thermal base layer shirt, a fleece sweatshirt, my Ghost Whisperer puffy, fleece leggings, wool socks, stocking cap, Brian’s 30 degree sleeping bag with my 20 degree quilt wrapped around that and lying on top of my insulated pad. I never sleep cold; and I always sleep well at camp but that night was miserable. I would drift off, then either have to get up to pee in the 20 degree night and come back to try to warm up again or I’d finally get comfortable, doze off and wake up shivering.
Packing was difficult as we were all doing the hiker shuffle. I was sleepy, cold and I think we all wanted to get a move on as fast as possible. After such a sleepless night; I should have known it would undoubtedly lead in to the hardest mental day I’ve ever had on any trail. It tested me (all of us, really…) from sun up to sun down; where we eventually had to hike with headlamps. Darkness comes quick in late October. We have about 9-9.5 hours of solid daylight before it begins to get dusky.
Our morning started rather strong, see. We hiked to the creek and stopped for breakfast and refills which was an easy 2.5-3 miles from One Horse Gap, then we explored the cemetery and continued on where we found a sign.
The first sign we’d seen in a long time appeared with mileage, and I let out a “Woohoo!” It was 10am, and 10 miles was nothing. Looking at mileage and maps though; it didn’t make sense. Where were the remaining 2-3 miles? (Come to find out, on the trusted River to River Trail compilation website that sign was apparently wrong.)
After I prematurely celebrated, I realized we’d only hiked about 3 miles and still had a long way to go. I decided even though I slept like crap and I was achy, I was going to try to enjoy the day. Heather expressed her concerns about entering Lusk Creek Wilderness due to it not being well blazed and having many spurs that lead to different areas.
We did get turned around a couple times, but quickly retraced our steps. We also came across some creek crossings. The first 2 weren’t bad at all. The first one was actually quite fun, bopping across the tops of flat river stones in a shallow but wide creek.
The second one, we had to get crafty and walk off trail to find a way down into the creek bed so we didn’t have to get wet.This is way, way steeper than it looks!The third one came later; after we got lost. LOST. I pictured the floating LOST intro on a black background; wishing and hoping for Jack Shepard to come out and lead the way. Instead, Avenza maps and screenshots of maps saved us! It turns out, we were walking on the old R2R route, and what gave it away was faded blue spray paint on a tree. The trail was still there but overgrown. We may have been off our intended route, but we followed the GPS Avenza map and kept cross referencing it to the screenshots and ended up intersecting back with the trail we needed. We kept our cool, discussed our feelings we had experienced in the last 25 minutes (rage, exhaustion, tears of both rage and exhaustion, pain, slap happy laughter…) and found our second (…third?) wind.
And then. It happened. The thing that made all of us break a little. A creek crossing with no way around it but to get wet. I mean, the trail went straight into the water, which was shin to knee deep. Truly, not a big deal. But when you just want to be done and there is obstacle after obstacle presented in your path – you hit a breaking point.
“Eff this.” I said. “Let’s just effing get on with it.” I took my boots and socks off and put my Crocs on, and didn’t even wait for the girls before I started across. The coldness of the water took my breath away. It was so cold, within 5 seconds my feet were completely numb. I won’t lie, while I was entirely pissed this was happening, it felt amazing on my tired legs and feet to take an icy cold dip.When I made it to the other side, I turned around to capture this moment. It was the moment we all kind of snapped; where we saw each other’s true colors. Impatient; tired; crabby. Our mental states severely tested. But some of us (me) shoved the second Snickers of the day in our face and carried on.
Not long after; we left Lusk Creek Wilderness. I think we all shed a happy tear.
It was a little after this point we moved on to the last map. We had 3 maps to go through this final day; and we reached the last one. Just about 3 miles left, after we hit the Lusk Creek Trailhead. It was getting dark, and we now had about a mile, mile and a half of road walking to get to the ShawneeMart.
A solid 2 and a half days of hiking, 30lbs on our backs, a range of emotions, a new level of friendship achieved, and very stiff, achy bodies. When we made it to Heather’s car, we sighed in unison, in relief. We each had a few hours drive home, but decided that the most important thing at that point was stopping for sodas and snacks.
We were starving, wiped out and smelly, but the short drive to the gas station before Heather dropped us off at my car was so enjoyable. We recounted all of the ridiculous things that happened over the course of the last few days and swore we’d never make our longest day our last day again.
All in all; this was one of my favorite trips. It was so much fun, but it also posed me with a great challenge. I wanted to give up multiple times. I didn’t think I could do it. But I did. And it felt awesome.
I took this picture of myself right when I got home and before I got in the shower just to document all my crazy feelings.Proud, dirty, excited and ready to plan the next section with these girls on the R2R.