That Time I Hiked 16 Miles By Accident

 All photos shot by a refurbished iPhone 4 and a GoPro Hero3+.

What I planned: a 6-mile hike, then a leisurely tubing trip down the creek. What actually happened: a 16-mile hike, a massive thunderstorm, and nothing leisurely at all. I respect the difference between a well-planned expedition and a stupid one, but I’m prone to getting overzealous about new adventures. I get giddy with anticipation. It’s a pre-exercise endorphin festival that often leads to questionable choices.

starbucks doubleshot vanilla
There’s a fine line between liquid courage and stupidity.

Almost immediately, my plan hit the crapper. The wooden walkways over the swamp were coated in slime and were dangerously slippery. I had to inch along, adding a lot more time and effort to my hike. Banana spiders’ webs crisscrossed the trail, mostly at face-height. I walked into so many that I stopped counting. I took those webs to the face because I was constantly looking down for snakes. Perhaps if I’d been looking up, I’d have avoided the webs but stepped on a water moccasin. Write your own ending to that one.

lifejacket backpack
Lifejacket strapped to backpack. Ready to go tubing.
wild hibiscus
One of the many beautiful flowers I carefully stepped over on the trail. I think it’s a wild hibiscus, but I’m no botanist.

The air was 90 degrees in the shade. As hour two arrived but the creek did not, I should have turned around, but I so badly wanted to swim. I’d lugged a lifejacket and an inner tube all those miles and didn’t want the effort to be for nothing. So I kept going, despite the common sense alarm going off in the back of my mind.

juniper creek trail sign
New junction signs made me feel more at ease compared to the last time I hiked this section. By the time I snapped a selfie, I was drenched in sweat and really looking forward to swimming in the creek.
gopro blackwater sky
My view of the forest, plus a bit of my hiking pole in the top left corner. No sign of any impending storm.
juniper creek small beach
Finally on the first small beach, marking the sand so I’d know where to get out of the water later as I floated downstream. The sky was getting cloudier but still showed lots of blue. Sweat dripped off my face and I was quite ready to swim.

I got to my tube-launching point about the time I realized I hadn’t packed enough food for my efforts. No matter, I thought. I just have to relax and float for a while, then hop out of the creek and hike a short distance back to my truck. I raised the lifejacket above my head. In that instant, lightning shot straight down to the beach. Thunder slammed the air, and rain pelted my face. There was a backcountry shelter about a quarter mile from the beach, and it was the only place of refuge for at least six miles in any direction. I sprinted for it through rain so thick I couldn’t see three feet in front of me.

juniper creek big beach
Thick but not threatening cloudcover as I finished blowing up the tube that would float my backpack.

The rain beat so loudly on the metal roof of the shelter that it sounded like someone was shaking a tin can full of pennies. Two huge spiders—not banana spiders, but ominous and gray—lurked above me, and rain blew in the open side of the shelter. My feet vibrated on the shelter floor with every blast of thunder.

juniper creek trail shelter
The little backcountry hut where I took refuge from the rain and lightning. Well aware of the metal roof, I stood in the middle of the shelter and didn’t touch the walls as the storm pounded the forest.
juniper shelter
Drenched after running back to the shelter when the sky broke open. The lightning and thunder were almost simultaneous. I was directly underneath the worst of the storm.

The storm stopped almost as suddenly as it started. The trail was flooded and of course I didn’t have snake waders. I worried that another storm would hit while I was on the open water and realized I needed a Plan B. I looked at my map and planned a return route along forest roads instead of risking the flooded trail. I knew I had to hike a little over a mile to get to the closest road, but the rest of my calculations were terrible. I’d never driven the roads on the map and definitely hadn’t walked on them. I had no idea what to expect but I hoped my map was accurate. I badly underestimated the added distance of my new plan.

country road
The road ahead. Nothing but state forest and farmland.

Other than being several miles longer than I anticipated, the roadside hike was pretty awesome. The state forest is dotted with small sections of private property, so I got to see some interesting pieces of civilization. I fantasized about someone bringing me a ham and cheese sandwich, even though I eat neither ham nor bread. I briefly considered hitchhiking, but was only passed by three dilapidated trucks during my entire walk, and each one was going at least 80mph and seemed like stock from a horror movie. I kept my thumb to myself.

you shoot we prosecute
“YOU SHOOT WE PROSECUTE.” I can definitely get on board with the idea of not shooting.

Rationing the last of my homemade granola muffin was an exercise in self-control. I wanted a supreme pizza and a ride home, but I could tell by the map that I was in for a longer haul than anticipated. The forest alongside the road was beautiful, and I focused on the power lines that paralleled my route and pretended I was zip-lining along them. A church sat like a mirage at the top of a long hill. The chapel was completely surrounded by forest, except for a cemetery and an open field. No cars were parked in front, but a decent-sized overhang looked like a great place to rest for a while and get out of the sun. I’d been walking for more than four hours without once sitting down, and since the storm, I’d been sockless. My feet looked like white raisins.

church in blackwater
Take me to church! Or at least to the church’s porch. Sign says “The light in the forest.”

The concrete was as welcoming as a new mattress. There were no spiders, no ticks, no mud—just a blessedly clean, level surface. I took off my pack and stretched out my legs, enjoying the stillness of my body. I’m generally a person who loathes keeping still, but I could’ve laid down and slept on the church’s concrete. I knew, though, that if I didn’t get up soon, I might not be able to. I’d already felt the fatigue give way to threatening spasm in my calves, and too much sitting would allow lactic acid to settle, rendering me useless. I pulled out some dry socks, scooted them over my damp feet, and reluctantly put my shoes back on. I wanted to call someone to pick me up, but I’d made the mess, and I was intent on cleaning it up. Besides, I wasn’t sure if anyone could find me.

compass
Checking my compass to make sure I was heading where I thought I was heading. I got worried that I was hiking the wrong way. I wasn’t—I’d just underestimated the distance I needed to travel.

By the time I reached the road where my truck and a cooler of watermelon waited for me, I was exhausted. I tried to appreciate the beauty around me and feel some sort of satisfaction about my soon-to-be completed adventure, but mostly I just felt stupid and tired. The chrono feature on my watch said I’d been hiking for 6.5 hours. Traffic started appearing, so I knew I was getting close to the parking area. A man on a golf cart rode toward me, and I flagged him down. He stared at me with one eye, a fleshy hole where the other one used to live. He told me he’d seen my truck “1,000 yards” up the road. “No, I meant 1,000 feet,” he said, changing his estimate. I thanked him and felt a weight lifted, but he was wrong. Fifteen minutes later I finally got to my truck. It was a very long fifteen minutes filled with colorful language.

gopro fisheye forest
The disorienting fisheye effect of the GoPro pictures summed up the way I felt by the sixth hour of hiking—like everything was distorted, surreal, and unsettling.

I ignored the healthy food in my cooler and went straight for the potato chips. I sat on the bed of my truck and drank a can of La Croix in under a minute. I demolished the family-sized bag of Lay’s in even less time. My feet, swollen and sore and hideous, hung toward the pavement and throbbed. I’d walked ten more miles than I originally planned, survived a biblical thunderstorm, experienced life in ways I never imagined, but still hadn’t gotten to go tubing. Maybe next time, I thought, and a little bit of that familiar adventure-planning tingle danced in my blood.

juniper creek trail bridge
Crossing a bridge high above the water around hour 2 of my hike when it was all still fun and games.

Solo Hiking in Spring

bear lake hiking
I saw several turtles sunning near the water.

I did my first solo hike of spring, and the state forest was exactly what I needed. Pitcher plants were in bloom, a young water moccasin let me pass without incident, and the swamp was loaded with turtles. I love being in the woods without smog and cell phones. I didn’t camp this trip, but I hiked for three hours and wished I could’ve stayed longer.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “you live your life how you live your days.” It’s simplistic and true. I tend to spend a lot of time regretting past mistakes and anticipating the future. The forest always humbles and grounds me and reminds me to take deep breaths and appreciate the gifts in my life instead of focusing on stress.

bear lake hiking
Bear Lake beautifully reflected the sky during my hike.

It’s easy to feel stuck. Career worries, astronomical health insurance premiums, past choices that haunt the present… my list of ulcer-inducing thoughts goes on and on. But doesn’t everyone’s? The choice I have—every minute of every day—is this: what am I going to do right now?

Feeling stuck, I think, is a symptom of ignoring my blessings. Is my life perfectly how I want it to be? No, but I’m damn lucky for the love and adventures that surround me every day, and I feel better physically and emotionally when I celebrate the good things rather than wringing my hands over the bad.

My path is mine to choose.