A Forced March in the Woods. Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

We continued hiking toward Sampson Lake, figuring we’d get there with enough time to rest a bit, gather some firewood and decide what we were going to have for dinner. We didn’t have a ton of choices. We’d been shoveling homemade granola into our faces like squirrels all day, courtesy of Greg’s wife, but we were getting ready for more substantial fare.

When we finally reached the lean-to we were pretty beat. We dumped our packs and went down to check out the water. It’s a weird feeling when you take that 40 pounds of lumpy misery off your back -- you feel simultaneously off balance and like you don’t weigh anything. It makes you run around like a toddler for few minutes until you get used to it. The lake was small but pristine. And we were the only ones on it. It was glorious. I could have been sitting ten feet away from the body of a footless hiker and I probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but we had made it to our first waypoint. I activated my spot and sent the “all good” message to our wives and started getting some firewood together, and in the meantime I collected some lake water and started it filtering so we’d have it ready to boil when we were done gathering wood. I was looking forward to a hot meal and some relaxation.

I was pretty well stocked up with Mountain House freeze dried “Gourmet” meals, however they are gourmet only when compared to other large scale, commercially produced freeze dried meals which means that on a practical level, they suck slightly less than the competition. On the plus side, since they are freeze dried, they are very light, and cooking them basically means you only need to boil water, dump it into the envelope, let it sit for twelve minutes then shovel a giant sodium bomb into your pie hole. Seriously, they are so salty that they’d probably stop your heart if you had to eat them for more than a week. If you look at the ingredients, there’s anywhere from 880 to 1600 grams of sodium in each serving. The kicker -- each meal is 2.5 servings. Taste-wise, some of them aren’t too bad, and if you stick to the basics you’ll be OK for a few days. You probably won’t shit for a week after you get home, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen when you’re deep in the woods with a single hot spare pair of underwear.

The Beef Stroganoff is pretty good, and the spaghetti and meatballs isn’t horrible if you don’t mind “meatballs” the size of peas that have the texture of rubber pellets. I’m not sure if they’re actually meat, but they do add some texture. Frankly, it all tastes pretty good by the time you’ve hiked a bunch of miles and had nothing to eat but a few handfuls of granola and a power bar. Some of them are spectacularly bad, however. Scrambled eggs and bacon, for instance. When you first open the package, it looks like squares of yellow styrofoam and dirt -- and after you cook it, it looks like wet squares of yellow styrofoam and dirt. I had it for the first and last time when I went camping with my brother and my six-year-old nephew. My nephew took two bites of it and said that it “tasted like a recycled fart.”  I’m not sure I want to know the arcane and probably disgusting process involved in recycling a six-year-old’s fart, so I’ll just have to take his word for it.

The lean-to was nice, except that it had a stream. Normally that would be a feature and not a bug, but the problem was that the stream in question ran directly under the lean-to. It wasn’t much, a trickle of water really, but the ramifications were that if you sat on the edge of the lean-to, your boots were in the muck. It was perfectly positioned to get mud all over everything, including the floor of the lean-to. If you moved the lean-to three feet in either direction, you would have missed the water completely. It was almost as if it had been designed that way on purp-- Chad! You bastard!

Dinner for Greg was Spaghetti and Meatballs. Dinner for me was the infamous Chicken and Rice. You’d think there wouldn’t be much they could screw up with chicken and rice, but you’d be wrong. This was the first time I had it, and it sucks. It’s deceiving, because it smells pretty good when you’re cooking it. It has kind of a "Ramen noodles in a college dorm" kind of smell to it. It continues to fool you as you take the first few spoonfuls. After about the fifth spoonful, however, you realize that it tastes like buttered armpits on a hot summer day, and all you can think of is how horrible it would taste coming back up. Unfortunately for me, I had packed more than one of these horrible meals. I thought about trying to pawn one off on Greg, maybe trade him for a chili mac, but it was too late. Instead of giving him the old Tom Sawyer routine like I should have, I instead told him how gag-inducing it was, and after that he wanted nothing to do with it. I finished it, because it was our first night and I didn’t want to waste food, but it was painful.

After dinner, we hung out a bit then walked down to the water to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful still night and so peaceful, it already made the whole trip worth it. I wished I sucked it up and brought a good camera, but all we had was a couple of crappy point and shoots that couldn’t do it justice.

Sampson Lake Sunset
I thought we’d stay up a bit after we walked back to the lean-to but we were both so beat we decided to turn in pretty early because we wanted to get an early start in the morning.  We unrolled our sleeping pads and bags, and Greg discovered his pad wouldn't hold air.  It was surprising because it was a Thermarest and those things are generally indestructible. So much so, they have a lifetime warranty.  I've owned the same two for over 20 years and never had an issue. Unfortunately, when you are 20 miles from nowhere, a lifetime warranty isn't worth a recycled fart.  He was going to have a few rough nights ahead of him. The bummer of it was he had to carry that useless POS the rest of the way or he couldn't send it back for replacement.

I assumed I would fall asleep almost instantly, but Greg had other ideas. Or I should say that a certain part of Greg’s anatomy had other ideas. Get your mind out of the gutter.  I’m talking about his freakishly long uvula. And now I realize that probably doesn’t make it any better.

To make a long story longer, Greg fell asleep the second his head hit the sleeping bag, and he snores. With Gusto. And I mean "capital G" Gusto. And I had forgotten my earplugs. When I first closed my eyes and he drove that freight train directly through the lean-to, I thought, Holy shit, that’s loud. It’s like there’s a hibernating bear ten feet from me. Then as it got exponentially worse, I actually started laughing. I was so deliriously tired. It was like a Foghorn Leghorn snore wrapped in Three Stooges snore, then marinated, wrapped in drunken Shrek snore and cooked for an hour at 375 degrees. It was the Turducken of snores.

There was no way I was going to be able to sleep through that. Not without NyQuil or Yukon Jack, anyway. Since Greg doesn’t drink, and I didn’t have a head cold, neither of those two solutions was at hand. It was like having a 454 big block with a radical cam idling next to your head, with the driver goosing the throttle every once in awhile, just to keep you on your toes. I turned on my headlamp and dug around in my pack until I found my toilet paper, and I rolled a couple of pieces up and shoved them in my ears. Then I had more than his snore to worry about, because I had made one of the damned things too small and it went in my ear to the point where I couldn’t reach it. I grabbed my ear and wiggled it, I poked in there with my thumb and index finger and tried to grab it, but all I did was push it deeper in. It was just beyond my reach. Right about the time I started to panic a little, and give serious thought to waking Greg up to assist, I remembered that I had a pair of tweezers in my pack in case either of us picked up a tick. I grabbed them and gently dug around in my ear until I was able to grab a bit of the TP  and pull it out. I tossed them both and grabbed more toilet paper and made two more, probably twice the size as the originals. Unfortunately, they did no good at all -- It was like they weren’t there. I thought briefly about dunking them in water to increase their sound blocking capabilities, but then I figured that (a) I’d get one stuck again, only this time for good, and (b) I’d spend the next two days hiking down the trail feeling like my ear was being fucked by a monkey.

As I lay there wide awake, I tried all of the same tricks I use on my wife when she starts snoring. I knew from experience that if I could get him to wake up, and if I could fall asleep before him, chances are that I’d be able to stay asleep, given the amount of tired I was. The first thing I did was cough a few times. Nothing. I tried clearing my throat really loud. Nada. I yawned and made a sound like Chewbacca after he hit his shin on the coffee table, and that also had no effect. I was beginning to think he was deaf. I tried thumping my feet, which is easier to do on a mattress than a wooden floor, but it made a satisfying thump that didn’t even slow him down. I thrashed around like I just took a taser to the nuts, and when that didn’t work either, I gave up. I thought about maybe grabbing my tent and heading down to one of the nearby tent sites, but it was late, and cold, and I was already in my bag with my boots off. Short of getting out of my bag and kicking him, I was out of brilliant ideas. Then right when I was resigned to just staying up all night, I thought of one more thing to try. I fished my 2 watt LED flashlight out of my pack, and shined it directly into his face. It lit up the entire lean-to in a bright white light. He stopped snoring almost immediately, thrashed around a bit, mumbled something that sounded like "No...no...not again" and then rolled over into the fetal position. It's also possible that I had been watching too many X-files episodes and what he really said was, "Get that fucking light out of my face" but I guess we'll never know for sure. I said something about hearing an animal, and turned the light off.

I learned a couple of important things. One, when someone’s sense of hearing is overloaded with whatever internal circuits make it possible for them to simultaneously snore like a chainsaw and not wake themselves up, the sense of sight is still working, even through closed eyelids. Two, Greg mostly only snores when he is on his back. So now I have a plan for our next trip, and it involves making him a mandatory sleeping shirt. It has pockets on the back which I will fill with these to keep him sleeping on his side. Or maybe these. I haven’t decided yet. I know he felt bad about it, so I hope he’s not pissed when he reads this, but it’s all in fun. I just need to go to sleep first is all. Barring that, if it’s not raining, I am going to sleep about 100 yards away, and "guard the camp perimeter" with my earplugs.

The next morning, I felt pretty good for having gotten about three hours of sleep. I must have dozed off at some point, because I actually woke up, which is generally a good indicator that you have, in fact, gone to sleep. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and immediately regretted it, but not as much as I thought I was going to. Sure, my legs and feet were a bit sore, but other than the normal “sleeping on the ground” stiffness in my back, I was ready to roll. I put my boots on and got ready to face another day of hiking. For breakfast, I opted for oatmeal and some mountain house “granola and milk” which looked like dried nuts and berries in a bag of cocaine. You were supposed to add water and shake it up, then pretend it was milk. I think it needed more water than the directions called for, because the milk had the consistency of latex paint, but I ate it anyway. Greg opted for another couple handfuls of homemade granola, and I think he probably got the better of the deal. Luckily, his knee didn’t feel any worse than it had the day before, so we were able to postpone the “point of no return” decision until later that morning. We were still a few miles away from the actual halfway point in our hike. We figured we’d take a break right between West Lake and South Lake and decide what to do. At that point, we could either turn around and hike back the same distance over trails we knew the condition of, or we could continue on into the unknown. The plan was to take stock of the knee situation, and as long as it didn’t feel like it was getting worse, we’d press on.

All my thoughts about how good I felt disappeared the second I shrugged into my pack and had the full weight of 40 pounds plus water pulling down on my bruised collar bone and hips. I felt like an astronaut coming back to earth after a month in the international space station. Every step sucked, and because the main trail was back UP from lake level, it was a shitty way to start the morning. But after the first mile or so, the kinks were worked out and we felt pretty good.

The first day was filled with insightful and entertaining conversation, but by the second day most of our sentences were comprised of two words or less, and usually one of them was some sort of profanity. A typical conversation went something like:

Greg (looking at map): Ugh.
Me: What?
Greg: Hill.
Me: Bad?
Greg: eh.
Me: Far?
Greg: 1000 feet.
Me: Shit.
Me: Knee?
Greg: Good.
Me: Good.

It wasn’t just our language we lost. We lost most of our humanity. It hadn’t even been a full two days and we were already blowing our noses directly into our hands and trail farting without remorse. At first we’d do the decent thing and give the guy hiking in the back some kind of warning, but by the end of the second day it was every man for himself. You had to recognize the signs, or you only had yourself to blame. The good thing about being in front was that you didn’t have to deal with the crop dusting. The bad thing was that you were the one who got to do the I-just-got-a-spider-web-across-the-face-dance. It was probably a fair trade.

We got to the halfway point pretty early, and Greg said his knees didn’t feel much worse. That was good, but there was no guarantee they’d stay that way, so we gave it some thought while we rested. It would be a shame to go back, but the devil you know and all that. I told him it was up to him; I was good to go if he was. I then said that I only paid for the airlift rescue insurance for myself, and that if I had to hit the little red SOS button on the SPOT! tracker because he couldn’t walk, I couldn’t guarantee that they’d take him along. I also told him that I thought I read in the fine print that they just shoot the lame ones, but he decided to chance it and we continued on with our original plan. We’d try to make the lean-to on the south shore of Cedar Lakes by late afternoon. Failing that, if it got dark before we reached the lake, we figured we’d camp off the trail somewhere along the way. Either way, that would leave the last hard part (Cobble Hill) and a short hike to the north side of Cedar Lakes to the other lean-to for day three, and spend the last night there. We’d wake up in the morning, take our time, and hike the four short miles back to the car. We knew the next day called for rain, and we figured a short hike from the south side lean-to to the north side lean-to might be just what the doctor ordered. Besides, we wanted to see some of the cool bridges that we had heard about.

Since this loop is pretty far out in the wilderness, most of the bridges haven’t been repaired in quite some time. A lot of the bridges over certain streams had been washed out, so you were forced to rock hop across. Sometimes that could be tricky with a pack on, but it wasn't too bad because the water level was low. Now I know why people use trekking poles - those extra balance points while rock-hopping across water can come in handy. Also, you can bet your ass I’m going to have at least one strapped to the back of my pack going forward. Luckily, none of it was deep enough that we had to take our boots off and wade across. My favorite bridge had to be this one - it was a bitch to cross, since it was slippery and at a 40 degree angle in some places:

Here’s another longer one that took us over some wetlands:

And this one probably won’t be there next year. Also a little iffy to cross:

We got to the South end lean-to around 4 pm, and while it was in good shape, there was quite a bit of left behind old junk. There was a table for cooking nailed/tied to a tree, and a good-sized fire pit. There was also a dock that was high and dry, because apparently an old dam had collapsed and the Cedar Lakes are in the process of becoming the Cedar River again. It’s a slow process, but it’s happening.

 Apparently it’s due to the state’s rule about not repairing structures on land that has a wilderness designation. I’m wondering if they have a similar rule about their outhouses. I made the mistake of going to check the state-sanctioned pooper. It was completely full of shit. It wasn’t at Michael Moore levels quite yet, but it was close. Put it this way -- you could see the pile inside the hole while still standing outside. For those of you who don't camp where there's no indoor plumbing, that’s not normal in an outhouse. That’s not even normal in Guanabara Bay. I closed the door and walked back to the lean-to.

“How is it?” Greg asked.

“Put it this way,” I said. “Be careful of where your junk swings if you decide to sit down,” I replied.

He laughed. I think he thought I was kidding.

“I think you think I am kidding," I said. "I'm not."

“I might have to suck it up and make a visit,” he replied. “That granola has been trying to get back out of me for the last hour.”

“Good luck,” I said. “Hope for shrinkage.”

He was gone for a bit, and in the meantime, I got the stove set up and starting looking around for some firewood for later. When he got back, he had a haunted look on his face. I think being told about it and experiencing it directly were two very different things. I asked him how it went and he shuddered a little and said, “I just...hovered...and..added to the pile.”

We were pretty gross and sweaty from the hike and Greg decided he wanted to go swimming and get cleaned up a little. It was a good idea, but the water was damned cold, and I wasn't sure I was up for it.  I figured I'd let him go first.  I was glad I did because he didn't last long.  I tested the water and immediately came up with a different plan, and fired up my camp stove.  I mixed a liter of boiling water with a liter of lake water and put it in an MSR dromedary bag, and hung it on a tree. There's a little flip valve on it that let out a stream of water, and I used that to take a nice, warm backwoods shower.  It felt like I was getting pissed on by an angry god, and it was probably the best shower I've ever had.

After we were cleaned up and in fresh clothes, we scavenged some wood for the camp fire and I scoped out a place for the bear hang while it was still light.  It's always easier to find the perfect spot and get it set up before you need it. I've done it in the dark many times, and it's a pain in the ass every single time. After dinner, we made some coffee (Thank you, Starbucks, for your ridiculously overpriced instant coffee packets that are perfect for backpacking and taste almost like real brewed coffee) and hung around the fire talking.  It was night time, so we were back to full sentences. After the fire burned down, we headed toward our bags, and mercifully, I was able to fall asleep before Greg and he must have slept mostly on his side because I only woke up a few times during the night, once because what sounded like a 300 pound chipmunk was rifling through the camp looking for something to eat.

The next day was a bit colder and a lot more dreary, and looked like it was going to rain.
We got a pretty early start figuring that we'd beat the rain to the next lean-to.  I had my rain gear packed in an outside pocket for quick access, and I had given Greg an old surplus military poncho that I had used to cover my pack on previous trips.  According to the map, it looked like we had the highest bit of elevation ahead of us, Cobble Hill, and neither of us was looking forward to it.

It turned out to be not too bad, but it did start pouring buckets about half way to the last lean-to.  It was pretty much an uneventful put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other slog in the rain, looking at not much else but our own feet because of all the rain in our faces. We made pretty good time regardless, although the hardest part was not slipping on the leaf-covered rocks and roots that littered the trail.  When we came around the corner and saw the lean-to, it was just about lunch time. The rain was starting to let up, so we checked out the lake, and got some water filtering for a hot meal.

View from the North-End Cedar Lakes Lean-To.

The lean-to was well-provisioned.  Someone had left behind a brand new foam sleeping pad, the latest issue of Penthouse, and an unopened bottle of Gentleman Jack.  It was enough to make us wish we had hiked the loop counter-clockwise instead, because then Greg would have been sleeping on something softer than pine boards, and I would have had a bottle of Jack to help me ignore the snores.  As for the Penthouse, well. We're above that sort of thing. Also, I already had that issue.

As we sat there in the rain eating our lunches, we took stock of the weather.  The next day wasn't going to be much better, and spending a wet night in a lean-to with no fire didn't really sound too appealing to either one of us.  So we looked at the sky, looked at each other and decided to hike the rest of the way out to the truck.  When we finally got back to the crowded parking lot, this is what we saw:

Luckily, The World's Loneliest Comedian wasn't sleeping in the back. We made it back to my house in record time.   Greg helped me get my gear into the basement since there was no way my wife was letting us in the front door with our muddy boots and soaking wet clothes.  While he wasn't looking, I stuck my last chicken and rice meal into his pack.

A few days later, I got this picture in an email from Greg.  It's a guy who does drawings in the shape of animals by hiking or riding his bike while tracking on his GPS.  The subject of the email was:  "I don't think our hike was ambitious enough."

I sent him this back, with the subject of "I don't know. I think we did OK."

A few minutes later, I got his reply.  It simply said:  "Damn, that hike was a lot harder than I remember it."

And that's why I love my friends.  They can all stoop to my level with such effortless grace. 


  1. "The Turducken of snores." I think I've been served that dish by my wife a few nights.

  2. For the Mountain House meals. Use the MRE finesse, enough tabasco will make about anything palatable.

  3. This makes me glad that the long hike I did this summer (Hadrian's Wall in northern England) included beds each night. And, earplugs. Good on y'all for undertaking this adventure while you're not "getting any younger" though!

    1. Nice! We have a photography foray to England/Scotland planned for next year. I heard there's a lot of sheep dung all over the place.

    2. Your sources are not wrong ;)

  4. I love your humor!!

  5. Okay, I've obviously been reading your blog for FAR too long. Before I even scrolled down to see the image of the path that you hiked, I was sure I knew what the image would look like. Apparently I don't have to stoop to your level. I was already there.

  6. That was awesome! Love your stories and am so glad when I see you've posted. I'm such a chicken when it comes to camping so I have to live vicariously through these posts. ;)

  7. Love your posts! I get so excited when I check and see you've written something new.

  8. Virgil! Where the hell are you!? I've read everything you've written on this blog plus your books. I'm going to have to go back and read everything again but some new content would be nice. Make it happen!!

    1. I'm on it. (I'm lazy, but I have some time this weekend. I'll see what I can whip up....)

  9. So glad you're writing again!

  10. The lake certainly looks beautiful.