Fate's gift to the Patio Boys: The Perfect Hike

By Mark A. Neikirk
April 2010

Fate is a complexity, disguised to us often and revealed to us seldom but no less real for its shadowy routines and itinerant visits.

Backpackers know this, even when we quiet the disturbing voices that incessantly warn us that no amount of planning can assure that a trip will go as planned. Fate will have its way. Fate is a torrent of undammed water rushing over the bending reeds of the plans of mice and men, which when wisely made are firm but flexible.

Let me begin with the weather forecast because a weather forecast is modern science trying its damndedest to predict fate, which resists prediction and makes a mockery of certitude.

What is it that attracts us to the Weather Channel when we know better than to believe its posits and postulations? We turn in as if those beaming, gleaming meteorologists are in actuality soothsayers worthy of roles in an Aeschylean tragedy. They are not. They are highly paid charlatans who have a special talent for looking at Doppler radar and saying, "It will be partly sunny today and then become partly cloudy tomorrow." They live for something more.  Something dire. Nothing makes them beam and gleam more than some hint of the Apocalypse. Give them a thunderstorm and they clap. Give them a snowstorm and they feel like Christmas morning. Give them a tornado and they will twist and shout. A hurricane? My god, they've died and gone to heaven.

Did you know there actually is no such thing as Doppler radar? It's is just computer-generated gobbledygook that randomly imposes colors over a pixelated map. In Weather College, future meteorologists are taught how to smile, fix their hair and make-up, shop for suits and to point knowingly at the random colors while pretending to interpret them with solemnity.They might just as well be interpreting kaleidoscope. The stations using these maps should have the call letters WHOAX.

On this particular trip, the Weather Channel's big story was Mississippi, where high winds and possibly tornados had blown over some roadside signs. On air live, one brave reporter left the roadside and walked near a damaged sign, just to authenticate his reporting.

"See," he reported, "a damaged sign. And, Bob, I don't know if the viewers can tell from our pictures but this is serious damage. These signs will have to replaced." His artificially windswept hair was authentically windswept as he fearlessly delivered this frightening news.

Anchorman Bob was in the studio, furrowing his brow and warning us personally to not under any circumstances begin our planned 15-mile hike on the Sheltowee Trace Trail, lest we drop off the grid and never see the Weather Channel again.

Sadly, this fear mongering works its magic on many, including some Patio Boys – two of whom were swayed by the false fears fostered by the fiendish forecasters and their fatuous, fulgurating fulminations. They canceled outright on Friday morning. They heard the forecast and, wearing their prudence on their apparently un-Gortexed sleeves, decided to stay home and worm their dogs – or whatever it was they did. Four held off until Sunday morning before entering the woods, electing a cabin with beer, pizza, and an outdoor fireplace on Saturday night over the threat of a sopping night in a fragile tent beneath bending trees and high voltage lightning. But four Patio Boys car camped Friday night and headed into the abyss Saturday morning, unbowed by the forecast of 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Noah would be proud.

A word before proceeding about those two who canceled. We have ridiculed them endlessly, as is our right. But in our hearts, we get it. The memory of the drenching days and nights of the last two trips was enough to give everyone second thoughts. Thirty-two hours of rain was a lot of rain last fall. The Patio Boys were ready for a dry hike, dry clothes, a dry night around the campfire and a dry night in the tent.

We do not relish rain. We prefer blue skies, 58 degrees and no bugs to all other conditions. But what this trip proved is that a rain predicted is not a rain experienced. Yes, it rained on this trip. It rained, for example, while four us were at that cabin on the lovely deck. And it rained for several hours, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., on the Saturday hikers. But the rain never amounted to the sustained deluge predicted. The high winds? Nowhere to be heard or seen. The tornados? Busy with road signs in Mississippi.

Speaking for the Sunday morning crew – as I was among the four who slept in the cabin and headed out Sunday morning – rarely if ever have we entered the woods on a more beautiful morning. It was a cloudless, mild spring morning on a trail that was among the best we've every walked. This was the southern terminus of the Sheltowee Trace, a marvelous trail in many sections but never more marvelous that its first five miles, which descend into a valley, rise to a ridge and carry hikers through an Eden of waterfalls, sheer cliffs, open vista balds and steep, winding descents back to a mountain stream a clear and as righteous as baby's tear.

So having deconstructed the weather forecast as a force aligned with fate – as a phony force, a pretender to the throne – allow me to introduce the real thing, the Coke of forces, the Levi Strauss (i.e., "the original, authentic") of metaphysics: Fate itself, henceforth in this essay capitalized out of respect.

Fate can be with you or not. On this trip, it was with us. No matter how we messed up, Fate was there to rescue this trip, as faithful as an old dog, as sure as death, taxes and prostate exams after age 40.

The first expression of this theme is something I've already mentioned. The forecast called for rain. Fate called off the rain and in its place summoned one very fine morning. A textbook morning. A morning like in a postcard. A morning wedding planners want. A morning like in the Reagan commercials of 1980. A morning like the one in the Cat Stevens song that they put the Catholic missalette. A morning of glory.

Ah, but Fate was just getting started with us. It had many gifts yet to give.

Let me confess now that no one in the Sunday morning group brought a map. We should have. We did not. Each of us had been given a map, carefully copied from the Sheltowee Trace Trail guidebook by Bob (aka Mooch), our exceptionally organized Patio Boy leader and chief planning engineer, who unfortunately for the Sunday group, had stuck to the plan (a Patio Boy principle, for those who don't know). He went into the woods Saturday morning, as planned. He took maps. Those of us who went in a day later separately assumed that one or more others among us would bring a map and, as we each were trying to shave weight, decided against loading down our own packs with the extra half ounce of paper.

No map, no problem. This trail was marked. We'd looked at it all week and had the route in mind. Ingrained. Imprinted. Memorized. Besides, there would signs of the Saturday morning group to assure us we were on the right trail. Worst case? We would catch the Saturday morning group because they were late sleepers and slow walkers. We were fast walkers getting an early start. No map, no problem.

Fate knew better. At the five-mile mark, where the trail crossed a creek and split, Fate saw fit to deposit a map. It was one of the carefully copied maps from the Sheltowee Trace Trail guidebook, dropped unknowingly by Fate's agent, Mooch himself. His group, by the way, didn't need it, as they had additional copies plus they had Eric (aka One Match because that's one more match than he usually needs to start a fire). One match had downloaded iHike topos to his iPhone and purchased a fan-shaped portable solar charger that clipped to his backpack to keep Steve Job's little miracle device fully charged. Bottom line: the Mooch/One Match team was on course and properly informed to stay on course.

So, just to review, the Sunday morning group forgot to bring a map but, with Fate's intervention, was provided a map at the most crucial junction, when a map should be an invaluable instrument of navigation. More about this later but suffice it to say the Sunday Group crossed the creek, picked a trail and proceeded on, enjoying the gorgeous day, the gorgeous trail and the gorgeous opportunity to be in the woods again. Life was good.

The Sheltowee Trace Trail is marked by little white turtles spray-painted onto trees because Sheltowee means "Big Turtle" – the name the Shawnee Indians gave to Daniel Boone when they captured and adopted him for a time. This was Dan's trail back in the day – his way back to Rebecca's bosom as well as his escape to Kentucky for a few weekends when Rebecca pulled out the honey-do list one too many times. Plant the corn. Patch the cabin. Clear the forest. Kill the savages. Change Israel's messy diaper. Make a dugout canoe. Salt some jerky. And don't forget to weed the tobacco patch. Whew, a fellow just needs to get away every now and again!

So yes, the white turtles were easily seen along the first five miles of the trail. And no, they were no longer seen after we crossed the creek, replaced instead by white blaze and a blue blaze. We reasoned that DB was not the revered figure in Tennessee that he is in Kentucky, and therefore the trail crews in the Volunteer State volunteered to simplify the Big Turtle by simply marking DB's personal trail with a white blaze rather than the more complicated stenciled turtle. What other possible explanation might there be? The least likely explanation, we assured ourselves, was that we might be on the wrong trail. Onward through the beauty we went, hubris personified.

Fate was considering a full intervention already, but decided on a minor step, compelling us softly – so softly, in fact, that we didn't know we were being compelled – to consult the map, which, handily, came with three pages of narrative that would say things like, "at mile 5.8...." and then would give a trail description. In our defense, trail descriptions can be a little generic. It is not that helpful, for example, to declare that the trail passes through a hemlock forest when every trail in East Tennessee sooner or later passes through a hemlock forest.

Not in our defense, but in celebration of Fate's caretaking of us, a sign on the trail said Highway 154 would be five miles ahead. Highway 154 isn't exactly Interstate 75, but in these parts it's a big road. A notable road. No trail guide would exclude it. Ours did. So we criticized the trail guide for this omission. What other possible explanation might there be? The least likely explanation, we assured ourselves, was that we might be on the wrong trail. Onward through the beauty we went. Arrogance, thy name is us!

It was a rough section of trail, scruffy in places with creek crossings and no Big Turtles anywhere. At one point, the map's narrative told us we would cross the stream on a footbridge, then go 100 yards to another footbridge and cross back to the south side of the stream. Here is what we in fact did: We crossed a stream, emphasis on "a stream" as it turns out the woods are full of streams and just finding a stream is not the same as finding the stream mentioned in a trail guide but we didn't think of that. We crossed our stream on a land bridge of debris washed into place by some past storm and then, sure enough, 100 yards or so along was a footbridge. It was a most distinctive footbridge, titled to 45 degrees by the force of some past flood. Interesting to cross. You had to lean almost 90 degrees to near parallel with the stream. Kind of fun. You'd think the map narrative might mention such a distinctive bridge. It did not. Damn map! Could it not get anything right?

Nor did our map mention the 40-yard tunnel through a mountain of sandstone directly opposite the crossing. This was without question the most distinctive geological feature we would encounter all day, yet the map's narrative was silent about it. Also, the trail was supposed to be on the south side of the stream after the second crossing. As our compass showed clearly, there was no south side of the stream. There was an east side and a west side. So we criticized the trail guide for these omissions and errors. What other possible explanation might there be? The least likely explanation, we assured ourselves, was that we might be on the wrong trail. Onward through the beauty we went, undeterred by these latest guidebook omissions and increasingly critical of the trail map industry.

There was a confusing junction at this point, with signs that had been uprooted and moved, thus rendering their arrows pointless. I'm going to write that again: Thus rendering their arrows pointless. It's kind of a cool sentence, and it has the added advantage of being true.

Using our exceptional backcountry skills, we located the white blaze and proceeded onward. When the trail emerged at predicted to Highway 154, Fate decided it was time to help us again. There was no traffic on Highway 154 and no one around; no one except one young couple parked across the highway, to whom we called out, "Do you know where the Sheltowee Trace Trail is over there?" No, they replied, but held up an object and called back, "But we have this."

This was a Sheltowee Trace Trail guidebook. The bible of the Big Turtle. Fate must love us! The obliging couple brought the guidebook to us, and passing around our one pair for reading glasses we consulted it. Nothing really seemed to match where we were until we used our vivid imaginations and decided, "We must be here."

Personally, I have no interest in ever seeing the Sheltowee Trace Trail guidebook again, as I'm sure a second consult would only demonstrate what an imbecile I was for not knowing then and there that somewhere we had taken a wrong turn. But in the moment, we convinced ourselves that the trail crews had somehow confused things, that Highway 154 – which had a new bridge – had somehow been rerouted after the map was made. Facts be damned. We criticized the trail guide and trails crews again. What other possible explanation might there be? The least likely explanation, we assured ourselves, was that we might be on the wrong trail. Onward through the beauty we went, walking down steps that ended with a sign that warned: "Numerous creek crossings ahead." Truer words were never spoken, and you would think perhaps the trail guide for Daniel Boone's footpath might have mentioned this. Did Daniel have a perverse thing for creek crossings? It wasn't for us to question. It was our job to trudge on into the beauty. And we did.

We began to wonder as we crossed the stream time and time again why there were no footprints in the soft, sandy mud. Had not the Saturday Morning Group crossed here earlier in the day, since they were ahead of us? And what about those spider webs across the trail? Wouldn't four hikers passing through an hour or two earlier have knocked those down? And the downfalls from some long-forgotten storm that blocked the trail often never seemed to be disturbed by human crossing. It was as if they fell last year and no one had been over them since until us. We searched deep in our collective brains for an explanation – and it came to us: Clearly the Saturday morning crew had either gone on home by some other route or they were lost in the woods. What other possible explanation might there be? The least likely explanation, we assured ourselves, was that we might be on the wrong trail. Onward through the beauty we went.

In due time, the trail headed uphill toward an old and rarely used logging road. OK, the map showed a logging road. We're good. On we hiked, until we reached a resting point and took another compass reading. Again, the map was out of sync with our reality. It was at this point that Scout – a member of our party – noticed he had one half bar on his phone. Fate had decided once again to help us out. And would, once again, not appreciate the gift. Dave (aka Scout because he was once a leader of them) dialed home, reached his son, and reported, "Tell Mom we're lost but we're OK." And then his battery died. Nice message for the family back home, that.

On we went, and each time the road had a fork, we took it, wondering still why the forks were not on our map. We studied the map some more. Cursed it some more. The road on the map left the edge of the page and then returned to the page at the top of the page, ending near the Kentucky campsite where we wanted. We convinced ourselves that we were on Divide Road – the road on the map. We were not, and when whatever road we were on came to an end at T-junction with another road, it became unwelcomingly obvious that our hike, which started at 7:40 a.m. through the beautiful and gracious forests of East Tennessee, had proceeded for us along some unknown course to end at this junction of Store 14 Road and Blackhouse Roads, both plainly labeled on the road sign in front of us and neither on our map.

This did not keep us from staring at the map, taking numerable compass readings, gazing off toward one horizon and then the other, as if answers would appear – as if these two roads would someone show up on the map if only we looked away from the map for a moment. If there had been stars, we would have consulted those. But it was barely past 5:30 p.m – late enough, thought, to be making camp and dinner. It would have been nice to be at our destination, which we most obviously were not. It would have been nice to be near a water source, which we were not. It would have been nice to be on the grid, which we were not. It would have been nice to be within earshot of a road we might hitch a ride along, which we were not.

Fate, so kind to us all day, seemed unkind just now.

Being highly evolved and well educated, it took less than 10 minutes of reflection, map reading and general bewilderment to conclude: We were lost. We hadn't a clue where we had come to. We hadn't a clue where Blackhouse Road went, other than that it went east one way, west the other. We also knew we could follow Store 14 Road back, retracing our steps, but we really didn't know where we would be going back to.

We knew we were in Tennessee because tiny signs along the roadside mentioned the Tennessee agencies of state: forestry, wildlife, oil and gas. We didn't pay that close of attention to the departments. Just the Tennessee part. We're macro people. Big picture thinkers. Not detail people. It's what got us into this mess. Macro: The Sheltowee follows "the" stream. Micro: There are an abundance of streams in the forest. Macro: The Sheltowee is marked. Micro: You have to pay attention to them. Macro: Somebody brought a map. Micro: Not me.

We deduced from tire tracks that more people used this road from the west than the east, and so we headed west. This put us on the road to Graceland, which gave us a Paul Simon song to hum and a new purpose: We were looking for Elvis.

Fate was not impressed with our ability to save ourselves. It felt compelled to intervene once more, and so – on a road untraveled by motorized vehicles during our time there, the sound of motorized vehicles arose, as if the volume on the radio were low and being turned up. Louder, louder, louder.

The Blackhouse Road was coming after a quarter of a mile to another T, and coming from the north of the adjoin logging road were two ATVs whose riders, as Fate would have it, had parked their double-cab pickup trucks right there at that T.

Jody, James and Jody's 7-year-old son, Austin, were completing a 60-mile Sunday afternoon ride just as we arrived at the T. Exactly. Precisely. NASA, are you listening? The Patio Boys should be in charge of logistics for the next lunar landing. We're that good. Oops. Didn't mean to get arrogant. Wasn't us that did it. It was Fate.

"You boys need a ride somewhere?" Jody asked.

Well yes we do. To Pickett State Park. How far is that?

"About 10 minutes from here."

Ten minutes? We'd hiked 10 hours with 40-pound backpacks and arrived 10 minutes by car from where we started? Can you say circle? Can you say WTF? Can you say stupid?

Let me just say that Jody Doe (we don't know his last name) owns the finest pickup truck this side of Detroit. It's American. It's black. It has leather seats. It is clean as a whistle. It had room for Jody, Austin and four Patio Boys. James was going another direction, but was willing to give us a ride too. "Five dollars each," he joked – or at least we thought he was joking. But Jody had it under control. He was to rescuing lost Patio Boys in East Tennessee what Captain Sully was to landing a disabled plane in the Hudson River.

Off we went, directly to the trailhead where we had left our vehicle that morning parked next to One Match's Land Cruiser, which was there to mock our earlier assertions that apparently the Saturday hikers had wimped out the rain and gone home early. Clearly not. We offered to pay Jody a little money or at least buy dinner for him and his boy. No, he said, he just hoped that ever he was lost someone would do the same for him. Fate, you listening, buddy?

Here's a question for you: How many pay phones are left in America? The answer is one, and it happens to be in Pickett State Park in East Tennessee. We went there so Scout could call home and correct the record. Did we say we were lost? Not so. We were right here at Pickett State Park, dry and happy. Fate, thanks for the pay phone.

Next task: Get to the other end of the section of the Sheltowee Trace Trail , which was Hemlock Grove and Great Meadows, where perhaps we would find the Saturday hikers, or perhaps not. We weren't sure how far they might have gone on Sunday. They could be a few miles south of Great Meadows. Having been to that spot before, I remembered that a logging road follows Rock Creek – a noted trout stream – and the trail follows the creek on the opposite side. We could drive the logging road to Tennessee, parallel to the Sheltowee Trace Trail. I mentioned this but it didn't register right away with my fellow, weary Sunday morning hikers. What they wanted right now was something to eat, and beer would be nice.

Fate was on the job. A little country grocery appeared. It was of the sort they might fabricate in Hollywood if someone said, "Build a little country grocery." We enter. It's made of barnwood. Real barnwood. Not Home Depot barnwood. To the left is a little lunch counter with 1950s Formica tables. To the right is a plethora of home goods. Admittedly the store was understocked by superstore standards, but it could boast at least one of everything from a can of Comet to a toilet plunger, from No. 10 nuts to, well, nuts you eat. You name it, it was on a shelf somewhere in this store.

And there, just inside the door, stood a table with a sort of railing along the edge that made a recess to old chipped ice, a cardboard sign and some sixty or more bottles of cold beer. The sign said in handwritten Sharpie script: $2. Disturbingly, a sign on the adjacent cooler read: No beer sales on Sunday.

"What about these? Can you sell the singles," one of us asked, fully cognizant of the likely answer since statutes and ABC regs usually are note written to say: "No beer sales from the cooler on Sunday but if you put singles in a makeshift ice table with a makeshift sign, then it is OK to sell them for $2 each in whatever quantities the market will bear." That reg may seem unlikely to you, but it was in fact the reg in Tennessee, and we bought a requisite four bottles of ice cold beer, including two bottles of Guinness which cost extra because, as the cashier explained, "It comes from some foreign country and so I'm going to have to charge you boys a little more for those." Fair enough.

He also sold us a map, too, which clarified how we got lost. That first steam crossing five miles into the trip and apparently about 12 miles back from where we ended was not Rock Creek as we thought it was but another similarly sized stream. Rock Creek was about one millimeter south on the map, which means in real life we were about 100 feet from it, I guess. We should have turned right, then left. We turned left and left again. We had hiked due west, as our compass had often reminded us. And yes, we were supposed to be hiking northeast all day. We have no explanation for this. No defense. No excuses. No contrived explanations. We simply were going to Graceland, Graceland in Memphis Tennessee. We were looking for Elvis. This was a noble calling, indisputably.

To review, Fate had delivered us a map at exactly the most confusing junction of the trail. It had directed us to take compass readings. It had placed a young couple with a guidebook on Highway 154 just for us. It had provided us with a half bar for a phone call in the woods, with Jody/Austin/James and their pickup trucks, and finally with cold beer on a Sunday in the Bible Belt. What more could we ask? We asked no more. In fact, we never asked for those things. They just came. Fate picked us. We didn't pick Fate. And Fate wasn't through with us.

Off we went on the logging road network toward Hemlock Grove, taking every wrong turn we could find at each fork because that's what we did best on this trip. Oops. Wrong way. Turn around. Etc. and etc.

And then John (aka, Silver Pops for his dignified hair and his seniority) happened to look down at his gas gauge and remark, with casual panic: "I should have gotten gas in town." His Jeep has a gadget that tells you how many miles of fuel you have left. Aerospace technology is perhaps more reliable; Jeep technology in contrast is more approximate than precise. It told us we had 44 miles of gas left when we were going downhill; 26 miles when going uphill. We had no idea how far Hemlock Gove might be – probably less than 26 miles. As for the next gas station, who knew? Probably further than either number, 26 or 44.

On we went, casting our fate to Fate.

By now, we were sure of one thing: We weren't hiking any more today. We would drive to Great Meadows and camp. Those other guys can find us Monday morning. But I repeated the one bit of reliable information that I'd given in a day of giving unreliable information: We probably could drive to their campsite, assuming they hiked to the Kentucky border, and if not they couldn't be more than a mile or so from the border. I had been here before, trout fishing. I knew this road. We should be able to find them and camp together. And, I suggested, we ought to. As Patio Boys, we should stick to the plan. The plan was: Camp together on Sunday night. Build a campfire. Tell stories. And now we had a story.

Indeed the road was as I recalled it. It followed Rock Creek contour for contour, and once we'd passed the car camping zones and entered a wilder part of these woods we rolled down the window and scanned the shore for a campfire, calling out the Patio Boys signature call, "Hudy who! Hudy who!" And in short order, a call came back: "Hudy who!" And a campfire could be seen in the woods just beyond Rock Creek's opposite shore, blazing warm and inviting.

And so we backpacked again, all of one tenth of a mile across the creek, where we set up our tents on a lovely, flat patch of land along the Sheltowee Trace Trail. We made dinner, sipped some bourbon, exchanged stories, and around 10:30 or so, with night falling, a light rain began to fall. We retreated to beneath the tarp and then to our respective tents to a dry and restful night in the woods of the Big South Fork along the lovely and perfect Sheltowee Trace Trail. The next morning, we packed up, drove out and made it to a gas station with a sip of gas to spare, just as Fate would have it.

Fate, you are a goddess. Our goddess. Hike with us anytime.