Into the vortex and beyond to the end of the line

Spring 2012 backpacking trip - Twin Arches, Big South Fork, TN, April 21-23

by Captain

In the primordial days of prehumanity, the stream that would one day run though Jake's Place lanced the soil and rock of what is now Tennessee's Pickett State Park with the millennial power of water over time, making its own art as it cut through the valley like a brush dipped in oil paint and drawn over a canvas.

Shoving one pebble against another, it reshaped both, and then millions more like them, to create a stream bed to await the awakening of life. Newts. Minnows. Hellbenders. Bugs of all sorts. In time, those would come to inhabit this Garden of Eden, shaded today by oak and birch, and fragranced by sassafras and pine. Ferns and the rest of the low plants would fill in the forest floor, completing the masterpiece.

But before any of that, the water had to make its way in the world. All along its rushing, raging route, it smacked headlong into one bank, where the rock was soft, and wore it into a sharper angle, sometimes by as much as 90 degrees. An elbow was created. Where the rock was harder and resistant, the water ricocheted off. In those places, the stream was left to run straight as an arrow, though arrows weren't yet. Either way, the water etched patterns into the basin. And when it tumbled over falling shelves of flat rock, it swirled backward in hydraulic rhapsody and did a little damage underground, as it were, before reemergence for downstream progress.

So it was that that the Vortex was born and my water bottle cap was lost for all eternity. Somehow, in those early days of the planet, the interaction of land and water left this miniature but powerful Vortex right in the handiest spot for filtering water into Nalgene bottles.

And so it happened: John and Paul were kindly purifying water for the all of us when the cap to my bottle slipped out of a hand and into the water. It began floating gently upstream in an eddy below the little waterfall. Plainly visible, there seemed no urgency to rescue it. Then, in the wink of an eye, it was sucked down by the Vortex under the ledge of the falls. Still, why panic? This falls was to Niagara as a paper airplane would be to a Boeing 747. The water in this spot has power, as rushing water always does, but not Grand Coulee Dam scale of power. More like water spigot power. So John reached under the ledge to retrieve the cap. It wasn't to be. It was cavernous under there – an abyss. It was like reaching into hell itself, only cold. So cold, in fact, that none of us could keep a hand and forearm submerged for more than a minute of probing. We kept coming back over our two days at Jake's Place, trying one after another to find that bottle cap. Not because it mattered much. The aluminum water bottle from which it came was bling from a corporate conference, or something equally uninspired. This wasn't a water bottle to love and cherish. But our pursuit was never about the bottle cap. It was always about challenging nature. About going against those primordial forces that had created the Vortex.

So now you see how exciting a Patio Boys trip really is. We have been reduced to rescuing worthless bottle caps from ankle-deep streams, working in teams of two and giving up easily.

Lest you laugh, let me tell you the soulful value of this, as well as the practical value of it. The latter first. Would you rather me tell you of a rescue involving one of us, which on this trip included Paul, Paul, John, John, Mark, Mark, Bob, Bill and Jim? By the way, I did not list anyone twice. It is just that naming boys in the 1950s wasn't as creative as it is today. There was not a Barack among us. Nor a Mitt, for that matter, his name being an anomaly in any decade. For the record, expected but not attending were Dave, Steve and another Mark, who even in their absence contributed to our array of monochromatic first names. Also for the record, we openly acknowledge that were you to discover our middle names you would find more pepper and spice. In the 1950s, young mothers didn't lose their attraction to rebellion. For every Johnny Depp there was a James Dean, for every Russell Crowe an Elvis. So, in that era, middle names became the vehicle for middle-class rebellion.

There were dangers in the Pickett State Park and the surrounding Big South Fork forest, but employing wile and wisdom, we avoided each peril. Also, the dog that wanted to eat us was on a leash. The Australian who wanted to shoot us was still on his first cup of coffee. The bears that had defecated all over the place, and which were the stars of every Forest Service Poster (don't feed the bears, don't pet the bears, don't talk politics or religion with bears) were mercifully out of sight and out of mind. There also were many dangerous cliffs to climb, and we climbed them; but they came equipped with wooden staircases and handrails. We also were required to use sharp objects, such as saws, knives and our collective wit, but no one was cut permanently. So, except for the lost bottle cap, we enjoyed an uneventful Sunday, Monday and Tuesday in the woods. So, you might rightfully ask at this point, why read on? If nothing happened, what's the point of an account. Fair question. No read on.

There have been times when we have been rained on for days on end, times when we have been snowed upon and nearly become frozen stiff, times when we've been hopelessly lost (excuse me: misplaced), times when our meet-up logistics have been so elaborate that we arrived on different days at different campsites, times when we've collectively afflicted ourselves with enough truly painful and unsightly blisters to cause an upswing in Dr. Scholl's stock price, and times when those who drink their bourbon with Diet Mountain Dew (I do not) have exhausted their Dew. There also have been times when Bob has embarrassed us with questions directed at the innocents who sometimes stop by our campfire for warmth and conversation. So it is not as though we've been without hardships while backpacking. This trip was graciously free of hardship if you discount the lost bottle cap and perhaps the thinning supply of bourbon the last night, although from the crash Ank experienced ("Anyone have a Tylenol?") we think we know where much of that bourbon went and perhaps being out of it was a very good idea at that point.

Why was this so? Why, in our pursuit of adventure and challenge, did we instead find comfort and convenience? While my assignment for these accounts is to report and report only (and I've tried to be faithful to the calling), I believe it is high time that I added some analysis to my Patio Boys journalism. The facts are not enough. Explanation is required. Cavemen drew on cave walls in literal reconstructions of their hunts but art advanced to Picasso and Pollock, Matisse and Monet, to Chic Young and Charles Schultz. Art began to interpret humanity, God, the culture -- and to question. So I am going to move beyond stick figures rendered on cave walls in charcoal and tiger blood and take you into the minds of the Patio Boys. Here's is my in-depth analysis: There was no real hardship because we hiked in about 3.5 miles, the shortest hike in our history. Hard to get over your heads when you hike just 3.5 miles. On such trips, hardship is defined in terms of lost bottlecaps; not "127 Hours" style of hardship.

That's it for depth. Now, back to the story. And the facts.

This trip began, as each trip does, with discussion at the last trip -- the winter trip to the Red River Gorge and to the magnificent Cloudsplitter. Bob began to suggest options. The Big South Fork was his choice, but that still left a lot of options. They don't call it "Big" for nothing. Because the Gorge experience on the Sheltowee Trace was so favorable, I suggested another section of that trail, which bisects southeastern Kentucky along a path Daniel Boone is said to have walked. The Sheltowee was what got the Patio Boys started. Bob, Bill and a few others -- including Leo and Sean, who still hike with us occassionally -- because hiking the Sheltowee one weekend at a time, in the fashion that section hikers conquer the Appalachian Trail piecemeal. The Patio Boys had not yet acquired the name, and most of us were not yet part of the group. Nonetheless, this original quest is our origin, and we take some pride in this heritage. Furthermore, the Sheltowee rarely disappoints. It is a Kentucky treasure. That section in the Gorge is beautiful for every step, and spectacular often. Bob began to mull the options, and he recommended a route between Cumberland Falls and Laurel Lake of about 25 miles, point to point. This seemed to have strong support early on, but then, so did Herman Cain. Yet, like Cain, you just knew the support was temporal. Allegiances would shift. New candidates rise. And fall. A consensus would form around something acceptable to all if not inspiring to anyone. A milquetoast (Mitt toast?) choice.

The selection process began to muddy the moment McG's opened his copy of "An Outdoor Guide to the Big South Fork" and found Middle Creek and Twin Arches near Pickett, with easy in, easy out options and circuits rather than point-to-point. With circuits, or loops, cars can be left in one place. Point-to-point requires shuttling, with one set of vehicles at the starting point and another at the end. Logistics. We are from Kentucky. We watched that damn UPS commercial all through March Madness with ad nauseam replays of satanic Christian Laettner defeating us and the ad's sickening tribute to logistics. So this was a particularly bad year for a trip heavy on logistics. Footnote to Duke and UPS: Kentucky won the NCAA this year, I hope you noticed. Kick the hornet nest often enough, and you will get stung.

By the time we had gathered for the Planning Party around the patio fire at Doc's house to finalize our destination for the Spring 2012 trip, momentum was shifting to Middle Creek and Twin Arches. Briefly, Sheltowee Trace had the votes and was the choice. Done. Then the "Guide" was passed around, with its gushing descriptions of the Middle Fork Trail, as if it were describing Marilyn Monroe's curves. Someone mentioned logistics, and reminded us that one group was coming Saturday morning, two on Saturday evening, one or two more on Sunday morning, and one was leaving on Monday not Tuesday. Logistics. Recount. Victory for Pickett, and its circuit simplicity.

At that point, the logistics looked like this: Doc, Silver Pops and Bull would drive Friday to Doc's condo at Cumberland Lake, lodge there for the evening, then head to Pickett the next morning. Ank would make it down somehow on Saturday morning, possibly with one of his brothers. Bob would drive himself from Louisville on Saturday night, after his son's AAU basketball game. Frenchie would hustle down from northern Ohio, where he needed to be for a meeting. Dave and Mark G figured on connecting late Saturday or early Sunday, get to the trailhead and then plan to head out Monday morning so they wouldn't miss two days of work. And I would go with my betrothed to Oak Ridge, Tenn., on Saturday morning in time to see our daughter row for the University of Louisville NCAA novice team at 8:30 a.m., and remain in the Nuclear City for the Cardinals final races Sunday morning, before being ferried to Pickett and the trailhead. And Mark McG was going to chaperon some Boy Scouts at the Gorge before driving Sunday morning to Pickett. Whew! For people against logistics, it was a lot of logistics.

In the end, life was simplified. The AAU game was canceled. Dave, Mark G and Frenchie dropped out. Ank found two Ank brothers, the Guru and Paul, to come with him, along with Bob, and they left Saturday morning. Doc and crew bailed on the Cumberland pre-trip, and instead came down Saturday as well, roughly at the same time as the Ank brothers and Bob. And McG graciously agreed to pick me up at Exit 141 on Interstate 75, the Oneida exit, where Mrs. Captain shuttled me after the races had concluded -- and then McG and I could hike in together and connect at the pre-selected Jake's Place campsite.

And that is how it went. Two groups left Saturday morning within a couple of hours of each other, and then car camped Saturday night in one place. And McG and I connected without incident late Sunday morning, drove to the trailhead and hiked together to the amazing Twin Arches, and then on to Jake's Place, where the other seven Patio Boys already had set up a base camp. We set up our tents, turning Jake's Place into Villa Hills South, and set about gathering firewood, purifying water and quibbling over where to take a short evening hike to Slave Falls, 1.5 miles away. By 6 p.m., we were back and making dinner. Four of us were in the Food Consortium, which meant I would cook for them, and the meal was chicken, rice, vegetables and gravy atop. The Ank brothers made some pretty darn good spaghetti using Darn Good Chili as the mix, while Bob and McG mixed up their Mountain House freeze-dried dinners.

As the sun settled behind the mountains, a coolness arrived and the campfire was set ablaze. It should have been visible from your house, whoever you might be and wherever you might reside. It fact, it probably was visible on the moon if not Uranus. Ank set up the iPod doc, and the music flowed.

Warmed and lit (by fire and bourbon), the Patio Boys settled in, and the conversation began. This is about the point when I feel asleep, so I'm unable to report on what answers were given when Bob asked his Hot Tub Time Machine Question: What would change in your life if you could go back in time? I can tell you that some in our group have not forgotten or forgiven slights from high school, 35 years ago. Also, some torches are carried. This much I gathered, even as a sleeping reporter. Sleeping worked for the late Bob Fogarty, who covered the courts of northern Kentucky for the Kentucky Enquirer in this fashion for years, borrowing notes from friendly Kentucky Post reporters who may have hated the Enquirer but couldn't quite bring themselves to dislike Bob, who had not a mean bone in his body and who clearly needed the rest. It was also advantageous to the afternoon paper to be sure that the morning paper -- since it came out first -- got no scoops and Bob sleeping was rock solid assurance of that, at least on the courts beat. RIP, Bob.

We had cut and stacked enough firewood to power a steam locomotive over the Transcontinental Railroad, so we were in no danger of going to bed early, although some of us did. Temperatures had dipped into the thirties by nightfall, and I had my 40-degree bag. Not good. It was one of those nights during which to doze off, wake up cold, crawl deeper into the mummy, doze, then wake up again, and pull the mummy tighter. Rinse and repeat.

Come morning, we ate a light breakfast -- oats, bars, coffee -- and set out for the day hike of 12 or so miles, back to Slave Falls and to the Middle Creek Trail, which was, as billed, beautiful. The trail rambles, a little up and down, but is well-maintained and, in contrast to trails in Kentucky that are well-traveled as this one is, strikingly trash free. What's Tennessee doing that we are not? We need to learn.

We hike at different paces, some fast, some slow, some in between. So the whole group was never together except at lunch, and even then we were missing Bob and Ank, because Bob already had hiked Middle Creek on a previous trip and he wanted to check another trail off his bucket list. They went to Station Camp Creek, a similar distance.

Middle Creek has some loop options, so we were able to see a few different scenes on the way back than on the way out. These are great trails if you like rock structures, including arches -- some of which give Natural Bridge a run for its money in scale and others that are just interesting. Needle Arch is a skinny little bridge, sufficiently fragile that the park officials ask that you stay off its top and note in the kiosk that it will one day, in the not too distant future, crumble to the ground.

We enjoyed all of this on a beautify day, cool and sunny and perfect for walking. Back at camp, we prepared dinner, and then took up our positions around the campfire for another night of music and stimulating conversation. I have one piece of advice: Don't ask a gastroenterologist to talk shop unless you have the stomach for it. I'll just say, there are some places an electric toothbrush should never be used, neither by man or beast.

It was on this night that we discovered what might be the true theme song of the Patio Boys -- the Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line." It helps that the Wilburys were sort of the ultimate middle-aged guys band of brothers, who played and sang for the joy of one another's company. If the Patio Boys were aging rock stars, we'd be the Wilburys. If the Wilburys were a hiking group, they'd be the Patio Boys. And so we sang with them:

Well it's all right, even if they say you're wrong
Well it's all right, sometimes you gotta be strong
Well it's all right, As long as you got somewhere to lay
Well it's all right, everyday is Judgment Day

Maybe somewhere down the road aways
You'll think of me, and wonder where I am these days
Maybe somewhere down the road when somebody plays
Purple haze

Well it's all right, even when push comes to shove
Well it's all right, if you got someone to love
Well it's all right, everything'll work out fine
Well it's all right, we're going to the end of the line.

Don't have to be ashamed of the car I drive
I'm just glad to be here, happy to be alive
It don't matter if you're by my side
I'm satisfied

Well it's all right, even if you're old and grey
Well it's all right, you still got something to say
Well it's all right, remember to live and let live
Well it's all right, the best you can do is forgive

We weren't in tune, but that didn't matter so much. The best you can do is forgive.