Double-header (or… double-footer?)

The weather forecast earlier this week called for back-to-back delicious December days: full sunshine with temperatures hitting a mid-afternoon high around 50 degrees.  Time to take action and put together a couple of substantial hikes.  On the Camino, every day will include a “substantial hike,” but for starters it seemed that two such days in a row were in order.  Way back in July I followed a 10-mile hike with a 7.5-mile one, but now it was time to up the ante.  With that in mind, I sent out an invitation to the WINNERS to see who might want to join me.

The WINNERS?  Yes, to the ever-growing ad hoc group of folks who had expressed an interest in taking on some hikes that were a bit–everything is relative, you understand…–on the “faster and the longer” side.  My initial “hiking list” included about 8 names; it’s now up to 26.  That’s a lot of folks wanting to get out in nature or at least hear about opportunities to do so.  For months we have limped along anonymously, loosely linked in my contacts under “hiking group.”  I decided it was time to come up with an acronym that might convey a bit about who we were, and I sent out a request for suggestions.

Here’s a quick recap of the names proposed:
KC  — Katy’s Crew
LAF — (Longer and Faster….   also could be: Ladies and Friends   or Laughter and Fun    or Lively and Friendly   or   Lost and Found   or   Leaping around Forests  or ….)
HH – Harmony Hikers
WEOH  – Walking Each Other Home
SOLAR SSTRS  (which I LOVED, but saying it made it sound like an all-women’s group)  — Sort of Long and Rapid, (but) Stop to Smell the RoseS; this name was submitted by Laurel who, during many of our summer and fall hikes, wasn’t stopping to smell roses but rather to gather edible mushrooms… picking up far too many ticks in the process…
Team SWIT — Some Walkers in Training or Team S_IT –Some Hikers in Training (good for a laugh and a release of tension, right?)
Team SWIFT  –Some Women (or Walkers) in Faster Training
HIP group  –  Hikers in Peace
THE  group — Trees Heal Everyone
SEEKERS   — not an acronym, but just a nice name
BOP —  Beauties on Parade
WEG — Women Exercising Group
FEF —  Females Exaggerating Feminism
POP FIT  — Pilgrims on Parade, Friends in Tow

But the winning acronym was…..

drum roll please…..

(The) WINNERS — Walking in Nature (Not Ever Really Slow)–proposed by hiker Terri.    Nickname: WIN  (Walking in Nature)….  Or The Winning Group…. Or the WINnies.  As I explained in an email to the group when announcing the winning acronym:

Tough choice from so many great acronyms offered.  This one covers the basics, though:  1) We ARE Winners when we are out getting exercise   2) We are WINNERS when we are out in Nature    3) We have all expressed interest in doing hikes that might be a bit longer and speedier than… than what …. than what our grandmothers did when they were our age, thus we aren’t ever Really Slow   4)  It’s easy to remember, and even if we forget all the words that it represents, it’s a good stand-alone kind of name that actually means something (WINNERS!  That’s us!)    5) It’s easy to pronounce (love those vowels)   6) It doesn’t imply anything about the group being all females.   W is for Walking, not Women .  Yes, the email list at this point includes 26 women and no men, but that may not always be the case.  And YOU are ALWAYS welcome to include your menfolk.
That email was followed by another in which I invited anyone to join me for a 10-mile hike on December 17th and a 13-miler (with a 10-mile shorter option) on the 18th.  Time to put the feet (and the legs and back) to what would be a real test for me.
A test that I passed.  Maybe not with flying colors, but that I passed nonetheless.  On the walk, my hips occasionally noticed the fifteen pounds I was carrying, but better the hips than the back, right?  Or, heaven forbid, the shoulders!  Upon returning home, my feet did a bit of complaining when asked to remain on duty while I folded the laundry and cleaned up the kitchen after dinner.  And the morning after?  The feet were asking for some empathetic TLC until a phone call requesting my immediate presence at a breakfast gathering a mile from home had me dressing quickly and dashing a mile–on human power, of course–to the designated gathering place.  My feet seemed to have become a non-issue.  Grateful!  Grateful!  Grateful!
In my hurry to tell you that the experiment, such as it was, was a success, I flew over the best part: the hikes themselves.  You’ve likely long since tired of my waxing poetic about the forests I’m lucky enough to live close to, but to not mention a few highlights of these lovely days would seem a shame.  Best of all: the WINNERS came on board, especially for the second of the two hikes.  To find seven interested women who were free enough one week before Christmas and willing to scrape the ice from their car windshields to arrive at the agreed-upon meeting spot by 7:30 am to walk at least 10 miles: that in itself is remarkable.

Sue, Liz, Eleanor, Barb, Gayle, Shari, pictured at our “lunch break” adjacent to the Hays Family Cemetery plot on the Grubb Ridge Trail (in the Deam Wilderness)

All smiles (and sun grins)!  We had a lot to smile about.  Like the way the sun gradually did both its warm-up magic as well as its enhancing magic when it made the creek down below us sparkle as it snaked its way through the valley.  Or the way the trail builders had created wonderful switchbacks so that, though the 13-milers among us climbed (and descended, right?) 147 “floors” in all, no ascents were steep enough to demand a catch-our-breath pause at the top.  Or the way there were almost enough strategically-placed stones to keep our feet mostly dry during the multiple creek crossings.  As ever, the patches of pine trees delighted the senses, as did the view from the ridge top of the white-boned sycamores lining a significant portion of the creek.  Conversation flowed.  Advice was given:  “come back in the spring to see the bluebells and the blue-eyed Susans”; “catch this trail when it snows”; “be sure to stretch to avoid muscle aches and cramps.”  Advice was sought, about hiking poles; about socks; about other good places to hike; about life.  The usual.  For all of us: a tremendous sense of gratitude for the blessing of being out in nature, “far from the madding crowd,” for blessings of health and energy which we recognize cannot ever be taken for granted.

You may be thinking: come on, Katy, it can’t ALL have been THAT good.  How about full disclosure?  Okay, so…  I’m thinking, I’m thinking…  There was mud, mud that even with the generous cushion of oak and beech leaves underfoot still oozed up in an attempt to envelope our shoes.  Um….  On the return trek, the sun was sometimes in our eyes making it hard to take in the surrounding beauty.  Let’s see….  I am already hearing-challenged, but to add insult to injury, one of my ears seems to be almost completely blocked with wax these days and so I missed some of the conversation and the bird songs (if, indeed, there were any…).  We didn’t see any soaring eagles or lolloping deer, no woodpeckers…; the wildlife pretty much gave us a wide berth.  And this: one of my little stumbles against a root had me on the ground ever so briefly, but I’m applying the three-second rule: if you are up within three seconds and your hiking mates didn’t even realize something was amiss, then it is not to be considered a fall.

I have a fun app (AllTrails) on which I can record hikes and then share trek statistics and photos.  Kind of fun for those who like that kind of thing.  So what the heck: if you are interested, check out either of the hikes at the links below.  The first is from December 17th (6 miles with Shari; 4 more on my own); the second from the 18th (10 miles with 6 others; the final three with 2 others)

Assuming you don’t feel moved to check out the above links, below is my favorite photo of the “double-footer.”  Yes, I am really standing up straight!  Yes, plenty of room!.  I might easily have spread my lunch out inside and enjoyed a picnic there. With at least one other person!

Come on in! Plenty of room for company!

One set of sort-of-long back-to-back hikes does not tell me that I’m ready to do as many as twenty-four such duos, but each little challenge met is a step in the right direction.  As they say in Spanish:

Poco a poco se va haciendo

(roughly translated as) Step by step one gets things accomplished

And of course we all know how a journey of a thousand miles begins.  Let’s get going!

Mother Nature has been busy!

I had the opportunity to revisit the Three Lakes Trail in Morgan Monroe State Forest a few days ago.  I feel so fortunate to have access to this outstanding trail so close to home: just 45 minutes from the time we’re backing out of our driveway ’til our packs are on our backs, our poles at the ready, and we’re setting off down the trail.  We, in this case, were myself, co-pilgrim Barb, and friend Sue.  Here you see us near the end of our trek and you’ll note: we’re still smiling!

From left: Sue (the PCT hiker), Barb (the birthday girl), and myself (photographer, “reporter,” and by far the most bundled up of the trio)

I’ve logged nearly 350 training miles and over 60 hikes since I began keeping a record back in July, but only a handful of them have been 10 or more miles in length.  This one tops the list at a bit over 11 miles, and I’ve done it not once but twice this fall.  Ah, but what a difference 65 days can make!  Sure, the two lakes seem more or less the same (and please don’t ask me why it is called the Three Lakes Trail when it has only a pair of lakes; there’s surely an explanation, but I am not in the know); the creek bed and the occasional rock wall are still in the same position; the switchbacks that help hikers negotiate the steeper climbs are in place; the hard work done by trailblazers and trail builders is as obvious in early December as it was in late September.  The same 159 “floors” of climbing were recorded by my Fitbit on both occasions.

Oh, but Mother Nature has had some busy weeks indeed!  Earlier this fall I delighted at the occasional leaf that had turned, but had to accept that I was a good three weeks early for the real deal in terms of color display.  Now: the forest floor is thick with the fallen leaves.  Those damp leaves hide from view not only the tree roots and stones just daring us to stumble but also the seemingly endless variety of acorns that had caught my eye on my earlier excursion.  And while the hills and valleys hadn’t changed one iota, with the leaves gone we had an uninterrupted view of them.  I swear: green really is my favorite color and no one loves a trek through a lush forest more than I do, but this is equally true: there is tremendous beauty in a naked woodland, especially one with the variety of terrain as in this hilly area of Morgan and Monroe counties.  (And then there’s this: at this time of year, no ticks to worry about, no insects to annoy, no sweat running down your back, no fear of heat stroke…) In September I was really drawn to the abundance of what I am going to call “mushrooms.”  Six or seven weeks later, it was the “fungi” begging to be photographed.  September’s creek wasn’t as full and didn’t require the rock hopping or the big jumps that December demanded.  Whereas a brilliant sun back in September fought its way through the foliage to warm my back and to coax marvelous smells out of the fallen pine needles, in December the miniature snowballs (or snow “pellets” perhaps, for they were not what one would call “flakes”) fell unemcumbered through the bare branches and landed on our noses and on the fungi clinging to fallen trees.  Oh, another difference: the abundance of white blazes painted on the trees!  The trail was really well marked.  I don’t remember having such access to the blazes when I walked this trail earlier; perhaps the leaves interfered with my viewing them then, or perhaps they have been repainted recently.  At any rate, the blazes were comforting reminders that indeed we still were on the trail.  We weren’t lost.  We weren’t going to end up, against our wills, with an extra three or four miles by trail’s end.

September 29th: Early fall photos

December 4: Late fall

My previous hike was on a Saturday and coincided with opening day of “youth hunting season.”  Mind you, this does not refer to a day on which youth are to be hunted down, but rather a week-end when those ages 17 and under can bring down one antlered deer and one or more non-antlered.  It was, I’ll admit, a bit unnerving to hear shots that day, and, believe me, I was decked out in blaze orange.  My hearing leaves a lot to be desired, but I only counted five “explosions” that day and they all seemed distant.  My guess is that the youth were tired from all the thumb exercises they had performed on their phones’ keypads the night before and thus most of the would-be hunters had slept in that morning.  Again, though, I note how much can happen in a few weeks.  Youth season lasted only a week-end, and the short firearm season had come and gone by the time my friends and I went into the woods.  We were alone.  We saw neither hunters nor hikers nor outdoor enthusiasts.  Only trees.  Hillsides.  Decaying leaves, so damp from recent rains that they had lost their crunch and crackle.

So it was quiet?  Are you kidding?  Three women friends quiet?  Hardly!  But here’s the interesting part:  Barb and I are getting ready to tackle the Camino, so you would think we have a lot on our plates, much to discuss as we share what we have learned or read about this major undertaking.  That might certainly be true were it not for the fact that our upcoming adventure seems like a mere Sunday afternoon walk in the park compared to what Sue and her husband are embarking on a few weeks after Barb and I head to Spain.  Sue and Steve have gotten the go-ahead via a lottery system for a through-hike of the 2500+-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT to those “in the know”) that runs up the coast from the Mexican border to the Canadian.  It is impossible to refrain from asking Sue a million and one questions about the logistics of this upcoming endeavor.  Among the things that she has to worry about: carrying enough water to get through the desert; having bear-proof canisters for food; (possibly) needing to carry out rather than bury as much as a week’s worth of bodily wastes at a time; preparing the boxes which her son can send to various post offices along the route with appropriate supplies; getting along with a spouse in such close quarters for the five months it will take them to complete the trek; washing out clothes and preparing meal after meal after meal when resupply possibilities may sometimes be as many as ten days apart; etc., etc.

I think just listening to Sue, of whom we are in absolute awe, is very calming for Barb and me.  We will pass multiple sources of water and food each and every day.  We will be sleeping indoors.  We will probably never be out of sight of fellow pilgrims for more than 10 minutes.  The Camino is only 500 miles.  Absolute piece of cake!  Thanks, Sue, for putting it all into perspective!  We admire you no end.  We might wish we were youngsters like you, and we might tell ourselves that if that were the case we might consider doing at least the Appalachian Trail… but, truth is, we’ve got a good ten years on you.  And so we say: better you and Steve on the PCT than us; we’ll be more than content with bagging the Camino.  Nonetheless, we’re going to keep asking those questions because 1) your adventure is so daring and exciting, and 2) doing so keeps us from having to focus on all the little decisions we need to be making.  All in good time.  All in good time.

It’s currently 20 degrees in Bloomington.  Winter, supposedly, is a good two weeks away yet.  But as my mother used to quote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”  Can’t wait!  Winter is often thought of as a blah time of year, a “dead” season.  But I imagine Mother Nature will continue to keep herself busy.  That’s what mothers do.  They worry.  They fuss.  They certainly don’t sleep much!  More than anything else, they busy themselves with work.  So I wonder: will there be another Three Lakes Trail hike this winter where we can observe what Mother has been up to?  Branches draped in snow, creek frozen over, icicles dangling, maybe a brilliant sun making everything sparkle?  Sounds enchanting.  And the geese at the lake’s edge whose honks the other day told us in no uncertain terms that we were trespassing?  Will they have headed south to open waters and warmer days?  Maybe I’ll find out come January or February….

As I reflect on the changes wrought within one single season, in the course of a mere 65 days, I recall that, give or take a few days, that’s how long I’ll be in Spain.  My trek will begin rather early in the spring and it will end a few weeks before the official start of summer.  Is there any season that produces as many dramatic changes as spring?  Of course, I won’t be walking and comparing the same 11-mile stretch of ground.  Nevertheless, as I make my way west across northern Spain, nature will be working her spring magic and I’ll be all eyes to take in the thawing, greening, and rebirth that characterize the months of April and May.  I’m hoping that it’s not just the landscape that will be changing and experiencing growth and maturity during my pilgrimage days.  Walking the Camino changes the walker, I’ve been told.  I hope that’s true.  I hope I come alive and respond to the sun and the warmth and all the spiritual blessings the Camino offers to those who are open to them.