All's well that ends well, and better if it ends with a Bengals win and better yet if it ends with iced tea

By Captain


"An honest tale speeds best by being plainly told."

  -Queen Elizabeth to Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene IV

Assiduous trees are deciduous but obsess over where their leaves fall, not wishing theirs to land atop another’s. Fastidious trees are coniferous and avoid falling leaves altogether so as not to be insidious ‒ much less invidious or, worse, precipitous. Be studious.

Good morning. We are up and around the campfire, Jet-boiling water for coffee and talking nonsense about falling leaves, inspired by a tip-tapping through the night that mimicked the sound of a gentle rain. John Hennessey said it was the sound of the leaves turning colors, as if every time green turned to blazing red there resulted the soft click of a camera shutter. It’s kind of a nice thought, leaves making this little noise as they collectively create the palette of fall. It is even sort of so. In September or thereabouts corky abscission cells come between branch and leaf. The cells are aptly named, as abscission and scissors have the same entomology from related Medieval Latin words that translate variously as to cut, chisel or tailor. Tailor is nice since abscission cells tailor the trees for fall, dressing the woods in cool, crisp hues. Natty, natural.

Here on the upper reaches of the Cumberland Plateau along the Sheltowee Trace Trail, the tailor does some of his best work. This is a forest of very tall trees, the tallest being the truly tall and utterly straight tulip poplars, those ready-made ship masts. Their fall foliage is yellow and gives this season of dying a brighter hue among a stand of poplars. To walk beneath the sunlight dancing off those yellow leaves in October is be cast into Monet canvas.

Our world is trimmed lawns and, of course, patios. We live in houses controlled by digital thermostats to keep the summers cool and the winters warm. Rain is an inconvenience, wind a potential insurance claim. Nature is on demand in high definition episodes of the ludicrously titled Naked and Afraid and Fat Guys in the Woods. So when we're asked why we hike, those asking don't really listen for an answer. They assume any answer will be inadequate because only a huzelnut would traipse into the wild, bearing his food and shelter on his back and showering with baby wipes. Well, we do it for the sound of leaves turning.

Not that there are not moments of doubt.

I carried a copy of Shakespeare's Richard III this trip. The dire and cruel Richard, who betrayed and beheaded his way to the throne only to find his royal riches and power worthless on the battlefield after his mount was slain, famously called out, "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse." An equine resurrection not being in the cards, Richard met his just reward and England was spared furtherance of his tyranny. When Woody Allen was side by side with Napoleon after Waterloo around a campfire in Love and Death, he sought to comfort the genius despot by telling him after the day's fateful defeat that it could have been worse. It might have rained. And then it did.

Rain and battlegrounds. These come to mind whenever a trip begins as this one did.

Some years back, fall of 2009 to be exact, a drenching rain in the Smokies and a night spent cold and claustrophobic in a leaking tent undid a few of us. Such a night is a kind of slow motion water-boarding, torturing you with sleep deprivation and, when you do doze, nightmares. Seems only fair that when plagued by one you should be spared the other. Steve Haughey, a worrisome man by nature, was on the 2009 trip and had not been back since. Time erases or eases some memories. Others, it augments. Haughey was never too far removed in his mind from being wet, shivering, and alone inside a space the size of a coat closet and the ceiling height of the basement crawlspace. He needed a peaceful, dry night to reset his appreciation of the woods. Our first night out, he didn't get it. No tip-tap of falling leaves. Actual rain fell, 14 hours of it, starting Friday evening. Haughey's tent gave way, leaking as in had in 2009. Had Shakespeare written his lines, they might have been, "A Hilton, a Hilton! My kingdom for Hilton!"

You know that John Prine song about a half of inch of water and you think you're going to drown? That could have been his tent's theme song. The problem was how Steve had pitched his tent. The ground cloth ‒ a small tarp ‒ underneath was protruding beyond the tent's roofline. Hence, it was a rain collector and a very efficient one at that. This was an easy fix. Just tuck the ground cloth in and stake the tent's fly out further to create a better roofline. Haughey wasn't buying it. He made coffee in the French press to which he owes his trail name, Frenchie, and offered a pour of the dark and viscous brew to anyone with a cup. Odd, inasmuch has he's more typically parsimonious with his joe. Then he started distributing four days of breakfasts. Who wants a fruit cup? Who wants a bagel? "Last night was miserable," he declared, his mood as dark as Richard's soul. "I didn't get any sleep. I'm going home." Wet, disheveled, poorly rested, and a little mad, he was unequivocal. He was going to make like a banana and peel. Pack it in. Head for the exit. Check out. Split. His fat lady had sang.

I have no idea what changed his mind. Something internal, I expect, because it's not as if we were all that persuasive. We were arrogant and pedantic on the subject of how to pitch a tent, which prompted Frenchie at one point to ask with irritation, "And why are you telling me this now instead of last night when it would have done me some good?"

So we had our moment. Our battlefield moment. It might have rained and it did. But as England drew relief from Richard's defeat and later Napoleon's, Frenchie, too, would draw relief from the turn this trip took. Richmond, soon to be Kind Henry VII, soliloquizes as Richard III hurls toward its finis:

Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again;
That she may long live here, God say amen!

At our campsite, the rain stopped and with its ceasing the wounds of 2009 were staunched Vanquished from Frenchie's pysche. I might end the story now, and just tell you trail ahead was a trail of sunshine and pleasantries. But why spare you the details?

The Sheltowee in this section ‒ the 20 miles from Peter's Mountain to Alum Ford ‒ winds through a verdant valley that looks as if it were once an ocean floor, now drained and carpeted in moss, mushrooms, and ferns. The mushrooms alone are extraordinary. Gilled ones. Ungilled ones. Brown ones. Red ones. Yellow ones. White ones, including a white one the exact size of a golf ball, its stem looking like a tee. Bill Anknebauer paused and, without removing his backpack, gripped his trekking pole as if it were a nine iron, took a backswing, and missed. The Patio Boys were having their fun.

The trail rises to one high point, with a rock outcropping and a view where we paused for lunch. Wet things dried in the sun, and thoughts of turning back dissipated. I made hot soup, adding some chicken from Hennessey's stash. Chicken soup for the soul, I guess. Maybe I'll write a book.

And then we moved on, passing boulders the size of buildings and two abandoned coalmine shafts, each labeled with a warning sign that read, in red letters, "Danger!" and for any Spanish speakers, "Peligro!" because you never know when Hispanic immigrants fresh from sneaking through President Trump's impenetrable border wall might head to the Sheltowee and mess around in an abandoned mine shaft. They probably got through the wall via a tunnel; so a mine shaft would be sort of nostalgic ‒ a reminder of their pathway to freedom and the American dream. To keep this from happening, the U.S. Forest Service had posted these signs, which work. We saw no Hispanic families tempting the treachery of the old mine shafts.

Though labeled as "strenuous" in the official Sheltowee Trace guide, this section of trail is not. It lumbers along, crossing creeks back and forth, at one point just beside a dear little waterfall, beneath which the stream pools and widens, the surface reflecting Appalachia's colors. Birch trees in shades of gray bend over the water's edge and blend in reflection with the leaves, many of which in fall are a color the Spanish speakers we did not see would call "naranja." The light renders the taller, distant trees as long, brown lasers, one reflecting parallel to the next and creating exclamation points that jiggle with each whisper of wind over the water.

One hikes so as to see such sights. Those who do not hike like to ask, "Did you see any wildlife? Did you see a bear?" We did. Shuttling the cars after the hike, a fat black bear waddled across a gravel, backcountry road. A bear sighting is sort of like seeing a shooting star. It's there. It's cool. It's gone. There were roadside turkeys as well. While on foot, we saw nothing so dramatic, only a salamander the length of a finger, which Bob Pauly picked up, curious and careful. A brighter orange than the aforementioned leaves, the salamander was every bit as impressive as the bear. Maybe more so. Tail down and head up, it wandered over Bob's hand in search of a way off. Back on the cool earth, it skittered off, unwilling to stick around for a Facebook moment.

It's in this stretch that a quarter-mile side trail descends to Koger Arch, 90 feet wide and comparable to the more famous National Bridge minus the people, the graffiti, and the tacky chairlift there and back. Mark McGinnis took a spill walking down, but didn't break anything. We're at an age now when that's more concerning than it once was -- and when snide remarks about chairlifts are less funny than they once were. Our ages added together, however, wouldn't match the age of the oak that had fallen and been chain-sawed in two to clear the trail. If growth rings were dollars, the dendrochronologist counting these could open a bank.

Our Saturday night was along little, tumbling, crystal clear Rock Creek, its rippling a soothing music at any time of day or night. With tents up, wood gathered, and dinner eaten, we settled in for a blazing campfire, having been deprived of one the previous night by the rain. The Ankenbauer brothers, Jim and Bill, came prepared for this, with matching saws. They didn't intend to run out of firewood. Nor go to bed early.

If ever you are lacking a genetic mapping apparatus but still wish to test for an Ankenbauer for authenticity, just ask the subject to build a campfire. The family's pyro-perfectionist gene will reveal itself or reveal the imposter. Each night, the brothers' fires were bigger and better than the night before. Friday's was a James Taylor thing, fire and rain. Every limb or log added had to dry out before any flames sputtered forth into the spitting night. Saturday's upped the ante, with a dry night and a few small pieces of coal, found along the trail.

Sunday night's would be a fire for the ages, the logs stacked like a chimney, laid in squares of diminishing diameters so that the base was broad and the top narrow. Through this vertical tunnel, flames rose in long,hot, orange streaks. Burning Man might be rightly be jealous. The Ankenbauers were on the job. No one would be cold. No sock or boot needed to go to bed wet. No story would lack for opportunity to be told. And oh the stories! Did you know that Mark McGinnis once played the porter in Macbeth, which involves not a lot of lines but one that famously sums up the effects of liquor on sexual performance, which McGinnis paraphrazed as producing three things: lechery, sleep, and urine. It is a fun line, and a reminder of Shakespeare's bawdy insight: "Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him." Viagra was not yet available in 1606.

To get to the site of this epic fire on Sunday, we had to hike briefly out of the woods and beside a two-lane highway. It was like walking through a dump. For reasons I am not in the mood to explore right now, country Kentuckians are world-class litterbugs, as if Richard III had returned from hell and, unable to rule a kingdom, simply decided to trash a paradise. The Devil is easy to please, I suppose. You can wantonly kill brothers, nephews, and servants who graciously address you as, "My liege." Or you can wantonly destroy the Cumberland Plateau.

The trail finally rises to the road, and we found ourselves at the doorstep Little South-Fork-Gro, according to a sign which ran out of room the last two syllables of grocery. A lone man in sandals smoking a cigarette sat outside and told us the store had not opened yet. Anon, an old, rusting Cherokee slid in and out stepped Tommy Winchester, tall and rail thin with hair on his chin, a born sly grin, and "sorry about that" in his eyes. Running late, he said. Too much moonshine and rum last night, he said. Good drunk, though, he said. No hangover. Maybe a little. Must have been the rum. Whew.  Tommy Winchester is a frenetic talker. He talked of bush craft and spoke of an old man who taught it to him. He showed us his forest firefighting pack, minimalist and light. Our packs were SUVs to his papal Fiat. He sold us lunch, mine being a thick bologna sandwich, fully dressed, for $2.25. A cold milk paired as perfectly with it as Viognier with sole. What I still don't understand is how the milk could have an expiration date of January 6, 2016. Tommy Winchester stocked his store for the Zombie Apocolype.

As we ate, a skinny and pretty kitten came in on little cats paws, looking for a bite to eat. John Hennessey poured her a bit of milk into bottle cap, which the kitten ignored at first and then lapped up. A man arrived in a red pickup truck, looking as if he might have just come from church. Bald, round, and pink cheeked, he could have been a Chicago banker until he smiled and spoke. He smiled as only a country man can. Instantly friendly. Instantly welcoming, as if willing to show you his pocket knife. And when he spoke his voice was mellow as if aged in oak, like a whiskey. He said, "Hikin' ain't cha?" All one word. He walked briskly into the store, a man on a mission. He came out shortly, his chore accompliished, carrying bread, milk, and, for the ride home, a single Mountain Dew. The pickup had Glasspacks, and so our banker roared off with the noisy panache of a Dukes of Hazzard rebel teen.

And we carried on. The trail re-entered the woods just across the Yamacraw Bridge over the Little South Fork of the Cumberland River, which at this point is on its last run before the Cumberland Lake backwater deepens the flow, cuts away the soft mud of the shore and erases the natural contours that give river its character. Something ugly begins to happen as the river ceases to be a river but is not yet a lake. The Cumberland is too striking to lose its beauty entirely. Big boulders hold their place and define the river's timeless self. But the damage is severe.

The trail leaves the river quickly for short loop along, over, and then above Little Lick Creek, a handsome stream that now has a bridge over it, above which is Princess Falls. Little Lick Creek spreads herself over a ledge of slate and tumbles into a curtain of water in perfect imitation of Cumberland Falls, scaled down. This section of trail is canopied, cool, comfortable and, for a section so well-traveled, clean. A high wall of rock rises to the right, and to the left an extended bank drops to the Cumberland River. After Princess Falls, the thing to see is Negro Creek, which warranted mention in a 1996 New York Times story on offensively named places in Kentucky. Everyone here says "Nay-grow," the Spanish pronunciation. Maybe those coal shaft warning signs need to be bilingual after all. If that really is the name, then this is simply Black Creek. Indeed, the creek is within the dark recesses of small gorge, squirming around and under big rocks that permanently shade the water. If there's one color that comes to mind when you look down on the creek, it's black. Negro. If there weren't so many Confederate flags down here, that explanation might fly.

Our final night on the Sheltowee was spent on a broad shoulder of land above the Cumberland. A good campsite has tent sites, firewood, ready access to water, and cell service, though Bob Pauly would dispute that last item. If fact, he'd rank a site higher if it lacked cell service. But this was Sunday afternoon. NFL primetime. Bill Ankenbaurer had one bar. Ever the technical whiz kid, Bill squeezed enough WiFi out of his one bar to get the NFL.com blog and check on our Bengals. 4-0 coming into the week, Cincinnati was hosting the Seattle Seahawks, winners of Super Bowl XLVIII and runner's up in XLIX. Bill picked up the game in the third quarter, Bengals down 24-7. C'est la vie. 4-1 is a good start. We are more used to 1-4.

Not so fast. Fourth quarter. Seahawks punt. Adam Jones takes in on the 35, blows down field to the Seattle 35. The Bengals were on the march. We were like 1930s families huddled around the radio for an FDR fireside chat. Give us the news, Billy! His signal came and went, but when it came it brought good news. Somehow, Marvin Lewis hadn't screwed this up. Andy Dalton had become the new Joe Montana. The Bengals had the Big Mo. By the time Ank called out the final score, 27-24, the outcome already seemed a foregone conclusion.

It was a fine a way to follow a football game with one minor criticism. Bill Ankenbauer is by profession a television cameraman, and he's been on the field and behind a camera for countless Bengals games. His job is to remain calm and get the shot. He is not there to get excited. So when he gave us the final score, he delivered with the same level of enthusiasm you might order an iced tea, please. Show a little enthusiasm, brother! The Bengals were now 5-0!

Speaking of ordering iced tea, we did so at Frisch's in Somerset one the way home. It arrived the color of pee and tasted like water. Our young, pallid waitress might have been 20 but she had the innocence of a child and seemed badly miscast in any job that involved interaction with anyone other than her mother. It seemed almost cruel to complain but you do what you must.

"Ma'am, the tea. It's a bit weak."

"Would you like a refill?"

Hmmm. How to reply and still be nice? A refill was not the remedy. Let me fast-forward to a little conference between our waitress and a ranking member of the Somerset Frisch's management team, who soon came to our table to explain that the iced tea machine was broken. What's an iced tea machine? A tea bag? Come now. We had not challenged the kitchen: tea, Big Boys, fries, pumpkin pie. Frisch's standbys.

Moving along, the pie came as did the manager to tell us the machine was now fixed if we wanted some tea. With pumpkin pie? Don't think so. Hennessey, though, thought a robust iced tea sounded good for the road, so he asked for a to-go cup. And our sweet waitress brought him exactly that. One to-go cup, with a lid and straw but no tea. When the waitress returned, she seem honestly surprised to learn that he'd expected tea in the cup. May God bless and find her a career that's a better fit. She took the cup back to refill, and we never saw her again. She did leave our bills, each listing a charge of $1.80 for iced tea. That's weak.

On the road home, we learned of the death of Carolyn Jean Crone, younger sister of Silver Pops, our senior member who had decided not to make this trip citing a wedding the following weekend and not wanting to miss so much work. His decision, providentially, meant he would be home on Sunday when the call came that his sister's body had finally failed her.

Carolyn's life had never been easy and in recent years a collection of illnesses, most of them chronic, had made her burden so much more to bear. The Curtin siblings had taken care of her, talking her through fears and sadness, taking her to doctors, wa tching out for her at every turn. Life is easier for some people than for others. Unlucky by that measure, Carolyn was lucky in another: Her family's love. And so when the Curtins gathered at the church of their childhood, Blessed Sacrament in Fort Mitchell within walking distance of where they grew up, they were a family grieving. A family saying farewell. A family aware that one of their own had gone to a peace she'd earned. Maybe now she was with Dad, her burdens lifted. A family together at such a time is sight to see. So little else seems to matter at such a moment, and to be with them in their church was a grace.

The Patio Boys had come to give Johnny Curtin, to Silver Pops, our heartfelt condolences and to tell him we grateful for the example he set of how to be a brother, how to love a sister. As we hiked, we had missed Silver Pops. But somehow he was part of the trip and now the Fall 2015 hike was ending not at Alum Ford but in the center aisle of Blessed Sacrament.

Farewell, Carolyn. Thank you for sharing your brother. We are most appreciative. May the fall leaves land gently atop your place of rest. Assiduously. Fastidiously. Lovingly.

Where: Peter's Mountain to Alum Ford, Sheltowee Trace Trail, McCreary and Whitley counties, Kentucky

When: Oct. 9-12, 2015, Friday to Monday

Distance: About 20 miles

Attending: Bob Pauly, Bill Ankenbauer, John Hennessey, Mark Neikirk, Jim Ankebauer, Mark McGinnis, and Steve Haughey