After some weeks of preparation to break into backpacking, I was finally ready to hit the trail.
The day broke cold under sun shining through aerosol-sprayed skies. It was unexpectedly cold, actually. About 37 degrees Fahrenheit outside in mid-April. It seemed I had read the chem-skies right and they were spraying for cold. For a moment, I thought I might have to cancel my hike.
Then I thought, no. If I’m going to do this, I can’t just wait for ideal conditions before I take to the trail. I’ll wait for the day to warm up a bit, but I’m going.
So I collected my gear while I waited—my boots, socks, North Face hiking pants, polyester long-johns, heavy T-shirt, flannel shirt, and bush hat. I made a Black Forest ham sandwich for my lunch and packed it in my canvas fanny-pack along with 3 bottles of water and three trail-mix bars. With my large-faced, water-proof, Expedition watch and newly-sharpened Swiss Army Knife, I was ready.
I faced a little trepidation that morning. I was thinking: I’ll be alone and it’s been a very long time since I’ve done anything like this. And I’m older. Can I do it? Should I do it?
In the face of doubts, just push on through. So around 11:00am, I loaded my gear into the car, left my sons at the house studying, and made the short drive to the Sesquicentennial State Park.
Being Sunday before Noon, the park was far from crowded. I had no problem finding the Sandhills trail head, which was right by the parking lot. It was marked by a big, wood-framed and glass-covered sign that read:
Sesquicentennial State Park
Sandhills Hiking Trail
Looking at the sign and the trail’s start beyond, I thought there must be similar signs at hiking trails—real hiking trails—all over. The Pacific Crest Trail, The Appalachian Trail, The Inca Trail; maybe even the Camino. Though I realized this little trail was light-years from the status of those, still, I was standing at the edge of the start of something real. I wasn't just a Sunday stroller, I was wanting to test myself.
So I started out.
I immediately came to a fork with no blazes and had to make a decision. The lake was to my right and I thought the trail made a big sweep away from it, even though it then turned to trace a loop around. It seemed more sensible to go left, so I did. I soon came to a large oak tree with a white, diamond-shaped emblem nailed to it, printed with a black arrow. I had made the right choice.
The trail itself was asphalt, but was mostly covered by dirt, sand, and overgrowth. At this point, it was quite wide, but for the most part it was much narrower. And on this, the north side of the lake, the trail passed through the thick of a pine forest. The trail blazes were pretty frequent, so there was no chance of getting off track.
The air was quite cool at this point, but I had left my jacket in the car. It isn't a jacket for hiking and I was comfortable in my layered clothing, anyway. Only my hands felt cold, even a little numb, as I stopped periodically to work my camera. The hike warmed me up pretty quickly, however.
The trail was well-kept, and I noticed only one discarded plastic bottle. A number of bridges crossed shallow creeks and even a little bayou. There was a good variety of grades that climbed and fell gently, but enough to test my boots and they passed wonderfully.
I passed a few people, all coming from the other direction. Most were people my age or older, and many of them were walking dogs (which are allowed on the trail, but they must be on-leash). In my two hours on the trail, I saw only two other apparent hikers wearing backpacks. The rest were strollers.
I reached Shelter #4 when I was about 2/3 around the trail. This was an area of covered picnic tables, a couple of grills, garbage cans, and restroom facilities. I paused to take advantage of the facilities and eat a tail-mix bar. I was feeling good.
From here, the trail looped around the south side of the lake. The map indicated that the Jackson Creek Nature Trail was in this area, so I looked for the trail head. I found it marked by another big, wooden-and-glass sign next to a bridge under construction. A yellow tape stretched through the trees blocked the way to the bridge and indicated the trail to be closed. I though maybe just the trail head was closed off and set off to find another entrance.
I crossed a wide field to woods that struck me as possibly containing another entrance to the nature trail. This seemed to be part of the primitive camping area, with fire-pits, picnic benches, and areas that looked to be suitable for pitching tents. There was a trail and I followed it to point deeper in the woods where more yellow tape indicated the nature trail was closed. So I back-tracked to the Sandhills trail and followed it on to the parking lot.
This completed the Sandhills Trail and I stopped at a picnic table on an overlook of the lake to rest and lunch. My excursion looking for the nature trail had spent roughly an extra half mile, but I was OK with that. I was tired, but felt all right. Invigorated, even.
After eating my sandwich, I considered whether to go or do the trail again. I was tired, but not worn out. And I really didn't want to return home without feeling I had truly met a personal challenge, so I hit the trail again.
It was about Noon now, and I passed more people, many of them younger and walking dogs. I kept a good pace and concentrated on lifting my feet and “staying in the moment.” I did not want to fall into a numb stupor, just trying to get back to the car. And I didn't.
I enjoyed my second circuit as much as the first, though I was really feeling the workout by the time I finished. I spent a little over two hours on the trail, including the time for rest stops and lunch.
So I had broken the ice. I had gone outside and “done something.” I especially liked my first circuit of the trail, where I didn't know where it would lead, or what was around the next turn. I was buoyed by all the tales of trail-hikers I had read—Cheryl Strayed, Paulo Coelho, Shirley MacLaine, Robyn Davidson—and enthused to think I was following, in my own small way, their lead.
The only mar was the usual spraying going on overhead. And it was horrific. Parts of the spray-trails were even multi-colored, indicating their chemical composition. Mercifully, the forest canopy hid it from me much of the time, but the wide-angle photos I took made it obvious that even personal adventures must be carried out under the auspices of unspeakable evil.
Still, I’m happy to have made this hike, and am motivated to keep it up. I expect I’ll hit the Sesqui very often. Next, I’ll probably hike the longer, Loop trail that cuts through more woods and is about 1.5 miles longer than the Sandhills. The trails in this park are good for practice and testing gear, since they are so convenient for me. I take them as confidence builders, to transition me to “real trails.”
For me, though, this was a real trail, and another “first step.” How far can I go? I want to find out.
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To see why I say that we live “under the auspices of unspeakable evil,” go here.