In the beginning.

In the beginning, I was in darkness, and a voice moved over the face of the waters, and a voice said, “cash or charge?”

And so my hiking hobby began. Actually, there was no voice, because it was all online. My first few purchases were through Amazon or REI or some other site. No human interaction required (see, hiking has SOME benefits).

The thing is, over time and through the learning process, you acquire what can only be described as a “crap load” of extra stuff. Stuff you used once and thought, “well this sucks”, or stuff you used for a little while until you found something better, or even something you used and were quite happy with, until you got a gift card or just wanted to try something else because MAYBE, just maybe, there was a better way to do stuff.

I went though that with cooking. I have an entire spare cook kit, because I originally thought using a couple of different pans or mugs would be a good way to do things. But you know what? Metal is HEAVY. So I went back to my one metal cup and a couple of silicone bowls. I use a cat food can stove I made myself, so I have a spare canister stove.

In addition to that stuff, I have an extra sleeping bag (I use a down quilt set now, which is lighter and better for the hammock) and probably somewhere around 150 feet of paracord (I can never find the perfect stuff, I finally found some neon pink WITH the reflective strips, but I’m really wanting the same stuff only thinner). I have a hammock chair that I made, which doesn’t really work that well, because it sucks for rest breaks. By the time I string it up for a break, everyone is ready to go. It also doesn’t move around well in camp, so you’re stuck where you hang it.

I have two rain flies, the small one that came with my hammock, which doesn’t really protect me well from a pouring rain, and I have the large one I bought separately, for bad rain. I have a second hammock, because my first one has a built-in mosquito net, and the second one doesn’t – it’s also half the weight which makes for better winter hiking when I carry more clothes and don’t need to worry about bugs at night. I had an REI gift card and my member refund check, so the hammock basically cost me nothing (since I had no idea what else to buy at the time).

So, like all good hikers this time of year, I start looking at excuses to improve things, and also since it’s the season of greed (only five weeks until X-Mass kids, get your shopping done early!), I’m seeking new things to buy anyway.

First: A bear bag. Up until this point I’ve been putting my food in a nylon bag, throwing a rope over a limb, and hauling the food up for the night, in order to protect it (and in a way, me) from bears. Sounds simple, right?

Wrong. First, finding a good limb in a forest is NOT that easy. Yeah, yeah, trees everywhere you say. True, but a lot of the BIG trees drop all their lower limbs, so if you’re camping in and old-growth forest, the lowest limb may be 65 feet off the ground. The smaller trees have, of course, much smaller limbs. There are certain rules to bear bagging. The limb should be 20 feet or so off the ground, your food should be 6 feet or so away from the tree, yet the limb should be flexible enough not to be able to support a bear. The rules go on and on. Then there’s the hanging process: Untangle bear bag rope from last trip. Find rock. Put rock in bag. Find limb. Toss bag over limb. Untangle rope from briars. Toss bag again. Wander through the forest looking for bag and rock. Retie knot in bag. Toss again. Clip food sack on rope. Pull food sack up. Untangle rope and food sack from rotten branch in bed of poison ivy. Search for new limb. Repeat. All this, while your camping partners laugh at you.

Once you finally find a decent limb, get the rock sack thrown and the rope rigged correctly, and begin to haul your food up, suddenly everyone having a laugh at your expense comes running with their bags. “Can you hang mine, too?” Have you tried hauling 50 pounds of dead weight up a tree with a 1/4″ rope? Try it sometime…

So my first wish list improvement would be the Ursack:

http://www.ursack.com

What is an ursack? Basically a bullet-proof vest for your food. Stick food in Kevlar sack, tie sack to tree. Done. Bear can’t rip through the cloth. No tossing stones around camp, no carrying tangled lines, extra carabiners, or wasted time looking for that perfect tree limb. Although I’m sure sooner or later someone will ask, “Hey, do you have room in that sack for my food?”

Second item:

New Pack

Yes, I like my pack. But it was the first thing I bought, and it’s a little big (although starting out I carried too much and NEEDED it) and heavy (over 6 pounds empty!). It has served me very well and likely could continue working well for years. But when I’m struggling up a hill panting and gasping and wanting to cry (which I feel like doing, sometimes) and swearing I might just drop the pack and leave it… having a lighter pack could make the whole thing more enjoyable. If I had my choice, I’d probably go with this one:

http://gregorypacks.com/en/GM326_cfg.html?dwvar_GM326__cfg_gmp_color=reflex_blue#start=1

Gregory has a good name, and this one looks so comfortable (of course I would want to try it out and load it up, but it looks perfect).

Yes, I know, its a HUGE pack. 70liters is large, a lot of AT hikers have little packs, at 45 liters or so. But, here’s the thing – I hammock camp. I use a big rain fly, I have the under and top quilt. My stuff is Bulky. Its about as light as I can get without getting into exotic and expense fibers, but it’s not getting any smaller. Plus, the 60 liter pack is only 1 OUNCE lighter than the 70 liter pack – so what’s the real savings? I’ll take another 10 liters for an ounce, I would still save over 2 POUNDS on my back. I’ll just eat the heavy food, first. There, ounce saved.

Third – now we’re just getting into fantasy world here.

I hammock a lot, but it really limits me to places with trees. There are some really insane campsite on tops of bald mountains and open flat lands with no trees. The tops of Tennet Mountain and Black Balsam come to mind. Beautiful places at over 6,000 feet, without a tree in sight. Can you imagine camping on top of one of them, looking around at the stars before crawling into bed?

Not in a hammock you can’t.

If I was going to “go to ground” as the other Bear Tacos say, I would chose this:

http://www.tarptent.com/contrail.html

I’ve seen them in use. They are great little tents, and I do mean little… but they are all integrated. There’s no separate rain fly or roof to carry. The whole thing fits into a package the size of just my hammock, or smaller. Truly small and light, and sets up really quickly from what I’ve seen.

Four:

Of course, that means I would need a pad to lay on, and there’s about a hundred different ones. The Z-rest is my best bet there, but for what the Tarptent saves in space, the Z-rest takes up.

http://sectionhiker.com/thermarest-zlite-sleeping-pad/

Basically the Z-rest is an accordion shaped foam mattress. Yes, you need a mattress or pad or something. The ground is cold and sucks up your heat, especially in the winter. It’s not for comfort (unless you count being alive in the morning as ‘comfort’).

So, I guess that’s it. In the season of greed, its always good to think about what’s important. Sure, there’s a lot of little things. Theres this little titanium poop-hole digging trowel for $30 that weighs nothing and is no bigger than a spork (really how effective can it be? When you’ve got to go, you can’t mess around with something tiny like that). A few more buffs for my head would be nice (I can’t always wear the same one, plus one of my hiking friends has the EXACT same one – and that just looks odd). Trekking poles – another set would be great. On day three of one of my hikes I slipped in mud and put a permanent bow in one of my poles.

But anything that helps me get out is a good thing. Some people like five star hotels. Personally, I’d rather stay in a five million star hotel.

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My favorite stuff.

There was a post I read on a Facebook hiking group called “Gear Talk” last week where they asked a question, “What’s your favorite piece of gear?”

An aside – Facebook is becoming much more than pictures of kittens and grandkids. It is interesting seeing it evolve. The “groups” are starting to take the place of a lot of message boards and online forums. Instead of belonging to eight different hiking pages and having to keep up with names and passwords and all, you just log onto Facebook and browse groups like “AT section hikers”, or “hiking gear talk”, and they notify you endlessly when someone responds to something.

Anyway, that started me thinking, “hey me – what IS my favorite piece of gear?”

Of course I love my hammock, but it’s just an off the shelf Hennessy or ENO, nothing really special. My Hammock Gear quilts are VERY nice (and should be, for what I paid for the set), but they are necessary. They keep me ALIVE. Justifying the expense of a nice set of down top and under quilts seems difficult, until you start thinking, “I’m going to be 10 miles from the car, if I don’t stay warm enough tonight, I will die”. So, great stuff, but not a “favorite”

My pack is okay. Its a bit too large and heavy, but it rides well and has served me very nicely. Again, its more a necessity, because carrying armloads of crap through the woods and over streams wouldn’t work. I have looked at a smaller, lighter version, but It will set me back a bit and I owe Minnie Mouse some alimony, so I won’t be getting a new pack any time soon.

So that’s the core four out. I guess at the right time, a favorite could be my “hygiene kit” which is my trowel, toilet paper, hand sanitizer toothbrush and baking soda (separate baggies inside one storage bag!)

My ENO Twilights are a nice way to light the tent, but I don’t need them. The pillow likewise is a luxury, although with 2 layers of climashield really it serves an important job of helping insulate my head, so maybe its not all luxury.

Of course there are all the little things. Water purifying kit, rain kilt, rain coat, headlamp, GPS, pistol, knife, etc. But they fit into categories of necessities (the aforementioned ‘don’t want to die’ thing), or just plain basic gear.

I guess my favorite piece of gear would be my cook kit. The cook kit was really what started my camping journey, after all. It was the first thing I got, and although it has changed a LOT over two years, I still use the basics: My titanium mug and spork are still the same, and a little worse for wear. A cook kit is not a necessity. You could hike for days or weeks without one, eating cold foods or dry stuff like GORP and beef jerky. It won’t kill you. But there’s nothing like a steak in the woods or hot coffee to wake up to, or a nice cup of warm Chai Latte tea right before bed to help warm you up.

Someone asked for my complete cook kit explanation, so I made this video – it makes it a lot easier.

 

I’ll be panting around the mountain when I come…

Especially when I walk two miles out of the way and have to turn around and come two miles back to camp.

This weekend I completed part of the foothills trail from Highway 178 down to the parking area at Table Rock state park. Four of us were scheduled to go: Sunshine, Mighty Mouse, Cowboy and myself. The biggest problem with a one-way hike is always how to get back to the car at the end. So, when Sunshine said she might not be able to go the whole way with us because of knee issues, that meant we had a shuttle driver. It also made for a much easier first day.

We started out at Highway 178 and the foothills trail. Sunshine dropped us off with our little day packs. I had some water, snacks, gps and map, and my poles. Very different experience than I’m used too. We walked East along the trail 5 miles or so to the top of Sasafrass mountain, which sits on the border of North and South Carolina.

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Crossing 178 from the parking area, Mighty Mouse in front of me and Cowboy leading the way.
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Yes, the camera was level.

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Along the way I got behind, because I like to stop and take pictures and look around. It was one of my favorite hikes since I have started this. We were able to relax and take it easy, and I could stop and look around and play with my camera. There wasn’t a huge push to make miles and get to camp before dark – which happens sometimes and makes the hike feel more like a forced march than a relaxing walk through nature.

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I was far enough behind I felt like I was alone, and was able to work out a few things. For one, I remembered some of the words to The Common Pastology, and finished my own verse:

Praise, Sauce from where all spices flow, Drink up ye pirates here below.
Until the county school board calls, praise pasta, sauce, and meaty balls
As it was this past September, Olive Garden will remember,
Bowls without end, RAmen, RAmen.

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Walking through the woods singing that, someone might have thought I was a bit nuts, so I was a little glad to be alone. Finally I met up with Cowboy and Mighty Mouse at a road crossing, and we took off up the Side of Sassafras mountain together.

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I like to geocache, and although I had found a few online to pick up on the way up the side of Sassafras Mountain, I neglected to actually put them on the GPS. Oh well… we ran into a pack of boy scouts earning their hiking merit badge. From the panting, gasping, bent over, about-to-puke looks some of them were displaying, I am willing to bet this was the first trip away from the x-box for some of them in a while. I give them credit though. We were carrying four or five pounds of stuff on our backs, they had to be lugging at least 25-30 pounds each.

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Resting while listening to boy scouts panting up the hill

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We finally got to the top of our first goal, Sassafras Mountain . I stood in both states for a few seconds. It is the highest point in SC but is NOT, however, the highest point in North Carolina. The highest point in North Carolina is about twice as high. Sunshine had left her car in the parking area, and walked down to the campsite to claim space. She also left me her remote, which meant we could get into the car to get our regular packs, and CAKE! There were three slices of cake, laid out on plates in the trunk. It was just awesome. More hikes should end with cake.

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Standing in TWO states at once.

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Sassafrass Panorama looking East. Note the power lines for the cell phone tower…

 

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Sassafras looking Southwest
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Sassafras Western panorama
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The trail down from Sassafrass

After closing the trunk, we started downhill from the parking area. I fell to the back sooner or later, with Cowboy and Mighty Mouse out front. They hike faster than me, and like I said, I don’t mind being in the back. I tried to keep up with them for a while. After all, the campsite was supposed to be “a mile or so” from the road. I marked the road crossing on my GPS, and kept track of miles.

 

 

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If you have followed me at all, you will know I like my technology. It’s hard to get lost on the foothills trail, most of it is well marked and blazed and really it is only one trail for LONG stretches, not like Panthertown, for example, where trails are constantly intersecting and there are few markings. So I really could have left the GPS in my pocket and wandered around, taking pictures with my phone (the iPhone camera really is pretty neat, with its built-in HDR and panorama stuff that my wife’s cheap point and shoot doesn’t do well). So between looking at the GPS, the wife’s camera, or the phone, something happened on the way to the campsite.

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This actually might be the very spot where I was messing around with technology and missed the camp site…

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You see – when someone says “the campsite is a mile or so” – that could really mean anything. To me that says “at a minimum, one mile, perhaps as much as two”. So around the time the GPS said I had walked .95 miles (I remember looking at it) I figured I better start looking for camp. Something was also telling my brain camp was on the left. Around the time I was at 1.5 miles in, I started getting a bit concerned. Sunshine’s knee was acting up, and I was doing a LOT of downhill. I figured she probably wasn’t going to want to walk up all this in the morning. Plus, I was on the side of a mountain, and there was no way anyone was going to be setting up a tent there, unless they put the door to the side, and not directly up or down the 20 degree slope. So I kept going.

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Tree falls into crotch of other tree. Hangs out twenty feet in the air forever…
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Strange tree near my turnaround point.

At around two miles, I was really a bit worried. I wondered if I missed a sign post, and Every few hundred yards I stopped and did my best ‘Squatch call, figuring someone might hear me and scream back, or that I would get to take a blurry photograph of something brownish. No answer, but the land was leveling off, now that I was at the bottom of the hill. I looked at my map, and compared it to my GPS. I was only a little farther past my guess at where camp should be, and kept going. I was making good time along a flat section, when I finally determined I was WAY off from where I should be. I turned the phone on, hoping for some sort of signal. Standing on a stump and holding it up, and straining just the right face muscles, I was able to communicate with camp via text. “You’re two miles past us, turn around”. Turn around? And do this all again tomorrow? I walked five miles to sassafras, then three more. I was up over 8 already, had to do 2 more all UP hill, and beat the sun to camp? I said I would just find a spot and they could see me in the morning. I was browbeaten into submission and began the trek back. I had come down in elevation over 800 straight feet (not counting little ups and downs, on the valley floor looking up at camp, if it were right next to me, it would be 80 stories up).

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My first option for water as it drips over the edge.

It was at this point my water bladder was starting to run dry, and I realized I was tired and my legs were wobbly. The only water source I remembered passing was a boulder with a little stream of drips coming over it, about 1.5 miles back. Determined to make it that far, I ate a nutri-grain bar and a special K protein bar, hoping the sugar and carbs would perk me up. So I trudged back up hill towards camp. At one point I gave up and sat down, panting and wondering who was playing drums in my head, figuring I had another mile to go. It was then I heard water and looked down, and about 30 feet down what could only be called a “steep ass hillside” was a little steam pouring over the rocks. I took out my “dirty water” bag, half slid down the hillside, grabbing rhodos to slow myself, straddled the stream, and let freezing cold water fill my bag. I put the top on, slung it over my shoulder, and crawled on all fours up the hill again. I finished off a Cliff bar while I waited on the dirty water to run through the filter into my camelback so I could drink it. Dirty is a misnomer… it was clear and looked fine, but in the mountains, Thou Shalt Not Drink Directly From Streams unless you want to risk getting a case of something that will leave you soiling streams for days. It tasted SO good and cold. Someone came by and asked if I was okay, to which I replied “yes, just lost and thirsty”. I headed up hill for the last “mile or so” and finally reached camp. Sunshine and Cowboy were on the trail waiting for me.

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Cowboy (far left), Mighty Mouse (hand in fire), random people, and Sunshine (sitting on Rockalounger)
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Sunshine waits on her steak
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Cowboy stoking the fire

Thankfully, they had built a fire already, and I set my tent up pretty quickly. I sat my stuff out to fix my food. I had brought a half-cooked steak, which I cooked in a pan over my alcohol stove. It was OH MY GOD worth every HOLY CRAP extra mile of walking to YES YES YES! eat that thing in the woods. Some of the boy scouts sharing the large camp site were giving us looks. I cooked Sunshine’s Steak afterward… which is one of the reasons she was so anxious for me to walk back. Who knew the little steel pan from my daughter’s old play kitchen would work so well in camp? The little Chinese slave kids at the Fisher Price factory make some good stuff. It just fits inside a quart size ziplock bag.

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We light our fires, for the night is dark and full of terrors.
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Steak in the woods! Cooking on a playlet toy steel pan, using a windscreen made from aluminum flashing, over a fifty cent stove made from a cat food can. The steak cost more than the stove setup. 

Steaks done, mashed potatoes and bread consumed, two Chai Latte’s later, I was ready to hang my bear bag and lounge around. It only took me three tries to hang the bag, and I didn’t hit myself with the rock bag once. I’m getting better at this. I still want an Ursack… for reasons I will mention in the next paragraph.

 

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Dragons dance in the flames. See it? Head top left, body down toward the right, little legs out front.

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The night went fine. The scouts turned in early, leaving just us up until around 830 or 9, when cowboy spread out his tarp next to the fire. I got in my hammock, fought my blankets into submission (you ever try undressing in a hammock in the dark and slipping into the equivalent of two sleeping bags? No? It’s an adventure), put my vest over my head, positioned my phone, and tried to relax.

On cold nights, or nights where the moon is on full brightness, I take my down camp vest and position it over my ridge line so it will block a little breeze and cut down the light. The phone case also fits on the ridge line in such a way that it hangs over me. I can lay in the hammock and watch a movie over my head. It’s pretty awesome. Thankfully I peed before bed and was a little dehydrated I think, because I didn’t have to pee until I got up again. You know what sucks? Climbing out of a warm hammock at 3 am when it’s 30 degrees outside, standing half naked in the woods trying to pee before the shivers begin wracking your body so hard that you can barely hold onto what you need to hold onto so you don’t pee on your feet, then fighting your blankets into submission again. So – none of that happened.

At 6am cowboy commenced breaking wood and relighting the fire. I dressed and went for my food. Unfortunately I had a bear bag issue, and something got caught. I pulled hard and the tree came down. I guess it was dead to start with, and it wasn’t very big, but the whole thing fell over. I drug it back to camp and told cowboy “There was a slight bear bag issue, but I brought wood”.

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After bagels, grits, and another Special K bar (I don’t want to look at one for a week, seriously), we packed up. Sunshine urged the scouts to finish off the marshmallows and M&Ms she brought with her, and we left her to fend for herself. After all, she only had to walk a mile to the car. We had 9 to go.

We started off and I regaled them with tales of my previous night’s adventure, pointing out certain spots where I stopped and certain places I thought they might have camped, which lead me down the dark path. I found my little stream again and pointed it out, but for the life of me couldn’t find the little cut tree that showed me “hey here might be a good spot to go down”. We continued past my second rest stop (a BIG trunk in the middle of the trail) and got to my turnaround point (a small stump in the middle of the trail). 150 yards ahead (seriously, like just around the corner), we crossed a bridge with a GREAT water source right ON the trail. Had I given it a few seconds more I wouldn’t have had to dog crawl up the hill. Having about 1.5 liters in my back, I stopped and grabbed another liter or so in my dirty water bag as a backup.

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Looks a little witch’s house in the horror movie woods creepy, right? “No, come on into the tunnel, it’s safe, I promise!”

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Then it was up the side of Pinnacle. Everything Sasafrass wasn’t, Pinnacle was. Steep, punishing, brutal. A steady up hill for three miles, switchbacks around rocks bigger than houses, and now with 25 or 30 pounds on my back instead of 4. We got to an overlook just as I ran out of water, and I filtered my backup water into my main bladder. The overlook was beautiful, and we rested for a minute.

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Drawbar overlook on the back side of Pinnacle Mountain
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Good view while filtering water

 

I fell behind agin as the mountain continued up. I was panting, exhausted, and my legs were screaming “NO!” but I had to go on. There’s no stopping and wimping out (unless you have time and supplies for another night).

Finally we got to the trail intersection near the peak, and started down. We came out on Bald Knob, which is beautiful and scary.

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Table Rock. Theres a trail over to there… if you haven’t already walked 6 miles its a good place to go.
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Mighty Mouse surveys the landscape

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You can look out over the valley below, but there’s nothing to keep you from walking right off the edge hundreds of feet above the trees. Mighty Mouse took a great picture of me and Cowboy, and we headed on down.

 

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Depressed? A few steps and you can sleep with the eagles.

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The next 3.5 miles were all downhill. Sure, that sounds great. 1800 feet of elevation drop on a trail is pretty brutal.

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No scale here, but that brown overhang is 25-30 feet overhead.
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Might mouse is barely visible beside the little rock center frame, about 1/4 the way up from the bottom.

Twists, turns, roots, rocks, and everything make life really interesting. Just don’t talk about how the poles save you from falling, because Karma will throw you a curve ball and put you on your butt (yes, I fell – thankfully I slipped and fell backward, so my pack took the brunt of it, like falling back on a big mattress).

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Back to civilization – only a few hundred yards from the parking area.

By the time we got to the bottom, I was feeling awful. I hadn’t eaten enough, and was feeling wobbly and nauseous.

Thankfully after a slight confusion (and Mighty Mouse getting stung by a yellow jacket) everyone got together and we headed to a local eatery. We were very dismayed by getting our hopes up, and having them dashed to the ground. There’s no menu of fried goodness on Sunday, they have a “country cooking” buffet. While we were contemplating going somewhere else, one of our party got in line. Decision: Made.

I ate a piece of fried chicken, five string beans, half a roll, and drank 3 quarts of sweet tea. I know It was 3 quarts, because they served us in large moonshine-sized mason jars. I guess I needed either lots of sugar, or lots of water, one of the two.

All in all, despite the extra walking and screaming muscles and the one point up the side of Pinnacle I really thought about crying, I had a great time. Having hiked with this crowd twice, I knew what to expect. The easy pace (at least the first four miles), the dessert surprise, the orgasmic steak, and the new scenery were all magnificent. I’ve knocked out another chunk of the Foothills Trail, and only have the last 30 mile wilderness section to do.

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