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Rather than another extremely early alarm on Saturday morning, I drove down to the area on Friday Night. Our camp spot was just outside of Red River Gorge at the John Swift Campground. The location was in a valley by the Red River, but mosquitoes were pleasantly absent. After a quiet night, we left our vehicles near the entrance of the campground and took the provided shuttle back to where we had ended the long road walk in July.
I’d like to say the road walks were over and we were back in the woods. I’d like to say it, but I can’t. The day started on the road and stayed on the road. For good measure, the trail/road climbs one of the biggest hills on the entire route. One saving grace was that it was mostly cloudy so there wasn’t too much melting in the sun. After about four and a half miles, there was a 2nd saving grace, the Conveniently Country Market, where cold pop, candy bars and the “best bologna sandwich” on the Sheltowee Trace awaited.
Sufficiently refueled, it was back to the asphalt for another five miles. I walked the stretch with Marty, a retired railroad worker. We also had the company of Siri, who Marty had set to alert him every half mile. She also announced our overall minutes per mile pace and the last half mile speed. With her bitching at us, we kept up a pretty good pace, 18 minutes per mile or less.
After so much asphalt, turning onto gravel Virginia Ridge Road seemed like wilderness. Certainly animals abounded.
They were cows, horses and goats, but animals none the less. After a few miles of gravel, there was finally a stretch of trail. The rain began just as we reached it. As warm as it was, it felt pretty good and no raingear was required; until it started pouring. By the time we reached the crossing at Sinking Creek, my feet were soaked, so I just waded across in my hiking shoes. Thankfully, even wet, I had no blister issues.
All too soon it was back to asphalt and gravel roads. The final eight miles of the day remained on road and included possibly the longest, steep hill of the entire trail. The rain had stopped by then and in the heat and sun I was dry in no time, even my socks.
After a bit over 20 miles total, we reached our planned camping spot in a patch of woods. There was plenty of spots for several tents and hammocks. In addition, Steve had dropped off a couple coolers with ice cold pop and beer. What a great place to stop! There were even a few cans of Strohs buried in the cooler. I hadn’t seen that old favorite this century.
Despite it being the perfect spot to stop, the Tennessee Hikers, a group of six, were pressing on. They just had small daypacks with them and were staying at the Natural Bridge State Park Lodge, four miles further down the trail. The lodge also offered an all you can eat buffet.
About Dinner time, it began to rain again. As much as I enjoy huddling in my tent eating freeze-dried Chinese food, several of us took Steve up on his offer for a ride down to the buffet and back. As I emptied several plates, the rain just poured down outside. Not to insult Mountain House Dinners, but the buffet was a great choice.
The rain eased up after dinner, but didn’t quit completely. A few folks sat together under a tarp, but I just called it an early night and headed for the tent. A couple storms rolled through during the overnight, but my tent and I stayed mainly dry.
There was still a bit of rain falling when I got up in the morning, but I was able to pack up fairly quickly. As much as I enjoy standing in the rain eating oatmeal, then maybe heading into the woods with some soggy toilet paper; the Lodge’s breakfast buffet was calling. I was on my way as soon as it was light enough to hike without a headlamp. Time for an early forced march.
The rain scaled back to some fog and low clouds as I made good time along the trail (no road!). Within a couple miles the trail enters Natural Bridge State Park and the scenery was quiet and pretty in the misty morning. Notes about the trail indicated that there were at least two trails that dropped to the Lodge. I passed the first in order to cross the park’s namesake bridge. Always impressive, the rock bridge was especially so with wisps of clouds all around. Not seeing the 2nd trail down, I turned back for the short walk to the trail I knew that led to breakfast.
I was just back to the intersection when I met Marty heading the other way. I explained I was heading down for breakfast, but the Natural Bridge was just a little way further. He replied he’d seen it on his honeymoon and didn’t need to see it again. Apparently a 40 year old memory was good enough and he joined me on the steep trail down to the lodge. (I’m no purist, but if you care, the trail we were following was the official Sheltowee Trace in that area.)
Once at the Lodge, we had breakfast with the Tennessee Hikers. They were planning on relaxing a bit more and getting a late checkout before heading out with their tiny daypacks. (I believe one of them was a My Little Pony brand.) I did ask if they were going to tell their friends that they’d been “backpacking.” They assured me they’d be talking about hiking and the trail. Perhaps some misdirection, but no outright lies.
After breakfast, Marty and I (and Siri) headed back onto the trail. We were soon out of the park, but still in scenic Daniel Boone National Forest and heading into Red River Gorge. The trail was steep at times, but well maintained over the next several miles with some nice vistas. A few times we had to cross Chimney Top Creek. At this point I just waded across, but Marty was on a mission to keep his feet dry whether that meant rock hopping or tight roping on some questionable downed trees.
Regardless, he was successful. By early afternoon we made it to the Red River, across an impressive suspension bridge and done for the weekend. Another 32 miles down and maybe 75 to go.