No misery on the Sheltowee Trace – except perhaps for the deadly ticks

By Captain

Date: April 28-May 1, 2017
Location: Sheltowee Trace Trail, from Burnt Mill Bridge to Leatherwood Ford in Tennessee.
Hikers (9): Bob Pauly, Mark Goetz, Bill Ankenbauer, Jim Ankenbauer, Mark McGinnis, John Hennessey, Nathan Pauly, John Curtin, and Mark Neikirk.
Distance: 14 miles, plus a 5-mile day hike. Not all hikers completed all mileage.

Casablanca, the greatest movie ever made – even superior to Bobby Deerfield, in which love also tragically triumphs in a godless world – has more memorable lines than Carter has pills, as a saying contemporaneous with Casablanca went, and, among them, this from a peculiar pickpocket, who charmed his unwitting victim, a corpulent Englishman seated with his wife and assuming his visitor benign: "Beg of you, monsieur, watch yourself. Be on guard. This place is full of vultures. Vultures everywhere. Everywhere.”

Vultures. So regal from a distance as they lift and fall over invisible air currents. So disgusting when you consider their task – to find the dead and dine. 

But you must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss and Casablanca's ominous augury came within the context of a happy ending. Bogie didn't get the girl, but he got his soul back, along with Ingrid's heart if not her hand. It is said, incorrectly, that Casablanca had two endings and the actors were not told which it would be. Though legend only for Casablanca, the two-ending scenario, one happy, one not, in fact the story of our hike. The final ending pends. Our vultures still circle.

On the front end of the trip, our vultures were flash floods on the Sheltowee Trace Trail, our intended destination. Danger. Don't go. Stay home. So warned the Sheltowee Trace website. I made a phone call to Pickett State Park, which is near the trail's start. A young woman with the melody of Tennessee in her voice assured me there was no threat “It hasn't rained here in three or four days.”

Since three or four days is the life cycle of a flash flood, our trip would not end before it began. Off we went, and good time was had by all... until.

Upon our return, as we pulled ticks from our bodies, our metaphorical vultures morphed from  fear of raging waters into fear of Powassan, a nasty virus carried by ticks. It's the wannabe Zika of 2017. We were spared flash floods, and we may yet be spared Powassan. But as I write, my skin is crawling with phantom arachnids and the odd itch. Powassan paranoia is settling in.

I discovered one tick buried in my back. My wife, Kate, a doctor’s daughter and thereby ethereally educated in the medical arts, removed it (the tick, not my back) after watching a how-to video on YouTube – modern medicine’s vastly superior update of the old Red Cross First Aid book. Here’s hoping a swipe of bubbling hydrogen peroxide is enough ward off any possibility of Powassan, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme Disease, the disturbingly named Human Monocytic Ehrlichiosis, or any of the other menacing viruses the tiny tick, titan of deadly poxes, might have brought to the table – me being the table. Doc Guethner, who couldn’t make this trip but nonetheless is watching out for our well-being, warned: “Start looking for a red spot with red migrating margin that creates a target lesion, fever, joint pain, and a sore throat." Vultures everywhere. Everywhere.

Jim Ankenbauer found four ticks crawling on him while in camp, then pulled three more from his body while driving home to Florida. Mark McGinnis pulled a little bugger off his leg while on the trail, then found a larger one once home. John Hennessey found three on his waistline. And the reports continue to pour in. As Jim’s brother, Bill, put it: “I’m still looking.” This after he found one his leg just below his knee. John Curtin had one between his toes, and in his inimitable Silver Pops way, he reported the details of its removal: “Poured isopropyl alcohol over it first and put a hot match head on its underside. That’s what the Fort Mitchell boys did when we were kids. So far, no symptoms."

Alarmed by the possibility of Powassan, Silver Pops placed the pesky parasite pulled from his podiatric parts into a paper mouthwash cup on the bathroom counter and poured more isopropyl over the invader so as to preserve him for the forensics team should Powassan express, kind of like keeping the rabid dog around after he bites you. Next morning, the alcohol was gone. Pops half expected to find the tick, gorged on C3H8O, stumbling around the Curtin household, searching for a human to infect and too inebriated to be selective about whom. Ticks know to say whom. The science of this was simple. The alcohol had evaporated overnight. The dead or at least stuporous tick remained, biding time until a random, sleepy Curtin rinsed with the wrong cup after brushing.

Medical descriptions, like this one from the National Center for Biotechnology Information six years ago, tend to obscure the threat: “Powassan virus is a rarely diagnosed cause of encephalitis, and is associated with significant neurologic sequelae. Although symptomatic infections with Powassan virus occur primarily in adults, we report a case of confirmed Powassan neuroinvasive disease in a child presenting to a Tennessee hospital, with symptoms and imaging studies suggestive of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.”

CNN, reporting more recently and more directly, quoted Dr. Jennifer Lyons, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School: “About 15 percent of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going survive. Of the survivors, at least 50 percent will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve."

There is a tick-sized tidbit of good news to this story. Not every tick is a carrier and not every bit person gets ill. What’s more, ticks are nothing new on the Sheltowee Trace; hence, the odds against death for a bit human appear favorable. Bob famously found one specimen where the sun doesn’t shine, (a tricky tick removal that). Bill Ankenbauer remembers a trip many years back when he and Bob pulled over 50 ticks off of each other as they hiked. The blogosphere teams with caution, including one hiker/runner who after a 40 mile out-and-back in May 2014 reported “no fewer than 80 ticks on me in that one day. Walk five miles, pick off five ticks, repeat.”

Sheltowee is said to translate as "big turtle" from Shawnee, the nationality of the tribe that held Daniel Boone captive long enough for the chief to adopt him and name him Sheltowee. Today the trail that bears this name is designated by trail markers inscribed with a turtle that looks rather more like a tick. 

All of this had Silver Pops thinking: "New Patio Boy rule is to move the trips to an earlier date before ticks are so common.” Alas, if you read our trip accounts regularly, you know this: Rule changes are not democratic. Votes are advisory. Actual action is by executive order, Trump-like, from our commander in chief, Bob Pauly. Given that Bob is a nurse, we can trust him to do the right thing on this matter, although we must prepare ourselves for his unique version of the right thing, which may be that we do what he did: tuck out pants into our socks, a sartorial solution that makes you look like a kid that Silver Pop’s Fort Mitchell gang used to beat up daily and twice on Sunday. Would you rather risk the consequences of looking like Steve Urkel with a trekking pole or dying of Powassan? Hobson, the choice is yours.

So there you have it, a looming threat – our vulture – of the 2017 spring Patio Boys hike, a trip that was otherwise uneventful unless you were the thumb of Mark McGinnis, which was rendered black and blue after Mark stumbled on a slippery rock and landed hard on the misfortunate digit. He nearly hit his head, but did not – though there was brain damage. Not to his brain, but to his iPhone’s, as it suffered a cracked screen and internal bleeding of its microchip. It functioned until the day after Mark returned home, then died. As you might imagine, we're hoping the phone is not an omen, a sign of vultures to come. A second ending.

You know how Casablanca starts with a map? Here's ours: down I-75 south across the state line into Tennessee and turn right toward the village of Elgin, which has a Post Office, 232 people, and not much else but is the front door to the southernmost terminus of the Sheltowee Trace. That, by the way, is a pretty good asset for a town, as the Trace is a spectacular bit of infrastructure for those of us who favor protection of wilderness and object to everything being Uber-accessible. At 323 miles in length, the Trace is mini-Appalachian Trail finishing in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest. Since a portion of the Trace passes through the Red River Gorge, most hikers with Kentucky experience have been on at least a section of the Trace. Much of it, however, is remote and sparsely visited. We’ve hiked sections and seen no one. The Trace is dear to the Patio Boys, as we owe our beginnings to it. The first among us started as an unnamed hiking group trying to cover the full length of the Trace in weekend increments. They finished before most of us had signed on. Only Bob Pauly, Bill Ankenbauer, and Leo McCallen remain active among the early crew.

Six miles north of Elgin is Burnt Mill Bridg, the new starting point for the Trace, supplanting its original starting point at Pickett State Park. Bob wanted to hike this section so that his Sheltowee coverage would be complete. The section also lent itself to our comings and goings. Parking lots every five miles or so provided a logistical convenience for us as we would be arriving and departing in waves. Staggered schedules characterize a Patio Boy hike these days. The old model was to leave simultaneously on Friday morning, car camp on Friday night, head out with backpacks on Saturday morning, continue hiking under a load on Sunday, and hike out on Monday morning, caravan home, stop for lunch. Everyone came together, hiked together, return home together. Today, not so much. We're all full-on in Bob Seger Against the Wind mode: "Those drifters days are past me now. I've got so much more to think about. Deadlines and commitments. What to leave in, what to leave out." One of us is here, one of us there. One us has to work on Friday, another on Monday. It's always been hard to get away. It gets harder.

Jim lives in Sarasota, Florida, and left home on Wednesday, arriving at the Burnt Mill Bridge on Thursday and slept in his car. John Hennessey, Mark McGinnis, and Bill Ankenbauer left together in John’s SUV on Friday morning. Bob followed later in the day, picking up his nephew, Nathan Pauly, in Lexington on the way down. Nathan, a doctoral student in pharmacy, could not give up a morning of his studies – proving that even the youngest among us is busy, busy, busy. Mark Goetz, knowing he would need to leave early, drove separately, also on Friday. Those seven managed to find one another at Burnt Mill Bridge and hike together toward Honey Creek, where John Curtin and I were to join them mooning on Saturday.

With work necessities on Friday, he and I left around 7:15 a.m. on Saturday, arriving just after noon at the Honey Creek trailhead, were we met Mark McGinnis and Bill Ankenbauer. By then, Mark Goetz was long gone. He’d risen before dawn and walked out alone, with family obligations awaiting at home. Bill, Mark, John, and I hiked the 1.5 miles to the night’s campsite, a small, flat clearing at the fork of two small brooks just beneath a hump of rock that was so steep and so slick that a rope with handholds had been installed as a permanent aid to its ascent and descent.

It was a hot, humid day – nearly 90. Much too muggy for the end of April. As Hillary might put it (remember her?), if April days were voters, they'd be a basket of deplorables. A week earlier, when some of us planned to cycle the Redbud Ride in London, Ky., it rained hard and was cold. Fewer than 400 of the 1,400 riders expected saddled up to shiver through a ride shortened from 100 miles to 30. They renamed the even the Wet Butt Ride, unofficially at least. A week later, when some us ran in the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati it was 36 degrees at race time, some 50 degrees cooler than our days on the trail. So in two weeks’ time, we had four seasons, though out of order. It was fall, then summer, then spring, then winter. April can be gorgeous. Just not for 30 days straight.

By now, you may be getting a picture of a today’s version of a Patio Boy hike. We aren’t yet putting payments down on RV’s, but neither are we in opposed to a little comfort. A little pat-tee-oh.

There was a time when the goal seemed to achieve difficulty. In those days, a Patio Boy hike wasn’t the real thing if it didn’t have hardship. Those were the days of the Pauly Death Marches. They gave birth to John Hennessey's favorite line: "Another fine mess you've gotten me into." He had many occasions to utter it. Hikes then were 15 or more miles in one day, often in foul weather. Steep was sought out, not avoided. On my first Patio Boy hike, angry clouds spit especially annoying pellets of cold, hard snow. The trail was either always going up or, when it was flat, forking. A dinner fork usually has four prongs. So it was with these trails. If you wanted to get lost, you'd come to the right place.

And then Pine Mountain happened. That was the Fall of 2012, and it remains the epitome of Patio Boy misery. Snow. Bitter cold. Shivering, separated hikers. Scarce water. No cell service. A high hell.

We’ve since learned of a nice little motto: “No misery.” We owe the knowledge to Mark Goetz, who mentioned that his hiking group (his hiking mistress, I suppose, since he keeps it on the side) isn't into hardship. We laughed about it then, laughter that might now be justly judged as the hubris of denial. No misery? Wimps! Wusses! As JFK intoned, we go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard.

Dave Heidrich was the first to cite the mistress motto as he bailed on the Redbud Ride in the face of a forecast that promised misery. "I'm going with Goetzy's motto," Dave told me, "I'm out"  As the weather app's map turned into those swirling colors of peril, each us made the same decision. We went to see a movie instead, "The Lost City of Z,' billed as "a true-life drama, centering on British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious  city in the Amazon in the 1920s," It seemed to faithfully render the colonel's misery and contribute to ours. Afterward, we renamed it "The Lost City of Zzz...," since it put us all to sleep. We have it on good authority from the voracious reader, Maryanne Curtin, the book was better.

I cannot say that the Patio Boys have fully embraced the no misery motto, but we’re getting close. Consider the accoutrements at camp. It today's Patio Boys camp, Helinox chairs have reproduced in the fashion of rabbits hiding in a log from chasing hounds (as in oft-told Arlo Guthrie story, in which Pappa Rabbit says to Mamma Rabbit, “We’ll just stay here until we outnumber ‘em.”) Our Helinox chairs are outnumbering the logs, by which I mean this: In the old days, no one really brought a chair except for John Hennessey, who had a milking stool purchased for a pittance at a garage sale. It was practically weightless, good for keeping your butt of the ground, and useless for back support. Most us just leaned against a log, whether or not there were rabbits inside making whoppee.

Enter the Helinox, a cleverly designed suspension chair that packs down to the size of a loaf of bread and, at 1.9 pounds, weighs not much more. Yet it can support 320 pounds – making the Helinox the sit-upon-equivalent of how an ant can carry ten to 50 times its body weight. As if that is not enough, the Helinox Zero (yes, it sounds like they ripped off Coke Zero, doesn’t it?) weighs just one pound. Jim Ankenbauer, who always has the best stuff first, brought one. The structural parts of the Helinox, including the legs and the stays that hold the suspended fabric, are like tent poles, held together with shock cord. They readily collapse into a neat bundle of parallel rods when the chair is ready to go back into your pack. How easy is that? Misery quotient: low.

There is one flaw in the Helinox. When you sit in it on soft ground, the legs plunge into the soil. Hence, you find yourself sitting lower and lower as the night wears on. I’ve taken my Helinox to Quetico Provincial Park and sat many wonderful nights, stargazing lakeside. But Quetico is all granite. The Sheltowee is soft and often sandy, with a bed of leaves above. A Helinox has rubber foot pads on the end of each leg, designed I suppose to ameliorate this problem. They don't work. Instead, when you pull your chair from the ground, the rubber pads are sometimes left behind. I left one in the Smokies last year. They are replaceable. Amazon has them for $20 for a set two, plus shipping. This for something that should cost a quarter. I know a sinking chair and a lost rubber foot pad are both low on the misery scale. But remember the motto: No misery. None. So the Ankenbauer brothers have taken to packing some furniture pads – those little plastic pads that resemble coffee lids or coasters and cost, like, nothing. One under each Helinox leg and, presto, no more sinking toward Middle Earth. No more misery.

One of the best no misery things at camp is a fire. Its benefits on a cold nights are obvious, but on a warm one it deters bugs if not ticks. And on any night, cold, warm, or in between, it’s a priceless focal point as dinner is prepped, served, and consumed, and likewise into the night as the bourbon flasks emerge along with the remembrances of things past and reflections on the human condition. With the Ankenbauers along, we really don’t have to concern ourselves with a lack of fire. They are masters. As I’ve written before, if someone says “My name is Ankenbauer” but cannot build a fire worthy of a Burning Man Festival, then assume identity theft. However, the Ankenbauers are better at building up a fire than at starting one. No problem. Jim now carries starter pellets that require barely a match before a rip roaring fire appears. The brothers also carry matching, folding Swedish saws to assure ample wood, cut to length. I also brought along my newest gadget, a Pocket Bellows that looks like a telescoping car antenna. One blows through the big end while placing the smaller end on a fire’s coals. A dying fire comes back to life immediately. No more contorting one’s self in all angles to get low and blow. No more misery.

Dinner can also bring misery. Start a stove. Assemble a pot. Cook this, add that. Afterward, clean everything. Cutting edge Jim now brings instant potatoes and a foil packet of chunked chicken breast. He boils water in a Jet Boil, a contraption that makes boiling water in the wilderness almost as simple as boiling it at home in the microwave. Jim pours the boiled water into a baggie with the potatoes and chicken. Voilà! Dinner is served. Afterward, the baggie goes in the fire and is consumed by Ankenbauer flames. No mess. No misery.

Another of the no misery innovations is the air mattress. My early camping stays involved a cotton sleeping bag that weighed more than me (I was a small boy) and no sleeping pad. Indeed, my first tents were Army shelter halves, which lacked even a floor. Getting one with the earth was literal. Some lucky campers had air mattresses, borrowed from the family's beach supplies. Invariably, the mattresses punctured and deflated by morning. Foam pads came along soon enough, and then someone invented the Therm-a-Rest. I’m guessing Therm-a-Rest did that. It was a self-inflating piece of foam inside a nylon cover, although self-inflating was a misnomer. They weighed three or four pounds. Doesn’t seem much but weight adds up fast in a backpack. Everything was heavier then. Tents weighed eight pound. Sleeping bags five. A stove, fuel, pots and pans weighed so much that people took to drilling holes in their spoon handles to at least feel like they were saving weight. Problem is, perception is not reality. A properly loaded weekend backpack today weighs 35 pounds max. A 1970s load was 60 plus.

Recognizing the problem, Therm-a-Rest and its competitors starting trimming weight. The first attempt was a joke. They just sold a three-quarter length version, which was about as useful to comfortable sleeping as a three-quarter length condom would be to safe sex. The 21st Century brought authentically lighter pads but they lost a little in comfort with each ounce lost. I have, I think, four pads, each lighter than the generation before it and none of them likely to ever be used again because these days we’ve come almost full circle back to the air mattress. Today’s models will set you back a Benjamin or more. But if a good night’s sleep in the woods is something you value, spend the dough. No misery. I'm pondering a book, Ambien and Air Mattresses: A Guide to a Good Night's Sleep in the Woods.

Totally eliminating misery in the woods is, of course, impossible. It’s a head to toe thing. Untold misery has been created by ill-designed or ill-fitting footwear. Here, you can get an easy win: a tin of foot powder weight almost nothing and is the No. 1 prophylactic against blisters. Boots are a personal preference, but each of the Patio Boys has found the proper mate for his own dogs. Jim, Asolos. Silver Pops, Merrills. Bill, Salomons. Me, Zamberlans. By evening, we break out our Crocs or Keens. No misery for the feet. They carry us here – and back home. As for the head, rare is the bare noggin, whether it’s covered by a kerchief, a beanie, a baseball cap, or – for the spare-no-expense boys – a Tilley Hat, guaranteed for life and advertised as if it were the Porsche of outdoor wear (though if a Tilley were car, it probably would be Volvo).

The real secret to anti-misery, I suppose, would be to not hike. But that would be a misery all its own, and we’re trying to avoid that. Times connect us to our youth. As kids, we were always outdoors, if not for sports then to just play in the woods behind our neighborhoods. In my own life, my grandmothers lived in Irvine, a town surrounded 360 degrees by the Appalachian foothills. I traipsed into those mountains every trip to Irvine or into their valleys, following a shale-lined creek or the soft bank of the Kentucky River. The time in the woods also connects us to each other. There's a reason that we now go to weddings, funerals, graduations, each other's 60th birthday parties, and the occasional bad movie together. The trail has built a bond, unbreakable and real. We have no closer friends, and this from men who, in many cases, barely knew one another before these weekends away.

It occurs to me that I’ve gotten this far without telling you much about the Sheltowee section we hiked on this trip. Isn’t that part of my job as scribe?

The section John Curtin and I missed on Friday was, reportedly, pretty hilly and generally not that great. A blogger, April D. from Nashville described it thusly: “We had to climb over several fallen trees. We were also covered in ticks - so if you do have to take this trail wear pants and a good insect repellent. The trail also shares a route with a multi-use road: horses and vehicles. Wide swaths of the road are covered in muddy puddles (for mudding vehicles I assume), rife with mosquitos. We really did not enjoy this part of our hike at all. It seems little used and we found out the hard way why! Don't be fooled by the sweet moniker, Honey Creek - this trail is anything but!” Well, April D., we offer to you what Goetzy's hiking group gave us, the wisest of wise counsel: No misery.

No misery means we look these days for shorter hikes to camp, and then day hikes that can be taken without packs. Saturday's day hike was up that rock with the rope, which placed us atop a lovely ridge that undulated gently before the trail took dive into the mountains' belly of arches, cliffs, boulders the size of houses, and cascading waterfalls, one of which was all but underground. In such places, those warnings of flash floods made existential sense. You could see how a sudden rain could transform these hollows into a place of torrential destruction. But we had only beauty. It being spring, the plants were coming back to life and that almost fluorescent spring green dominated the color spectrum. The foliage is not yet too thick to obscure everything, so we had the advantage of seeing deep into the woods. The streams were low enough to cross without going over your boots. Every now and again, a toad jumped across the trail. The songbirds sang. The Saturday day hike culminated at the Honey Creek overlook of the Cumberland River, which is easily one of the more magnificent views along the Sheltowee. Had Mark McGinnis not slipped and injured his thumb, we might rightly say it was a day without misery.

Back at camp, we ended the day in conversation around the fire, our misery index lowered by beers we had cooled in the creek.

Our Sunday hike out was gorgeous – or at least mine and the Ankenbauers’ was, since we walked while the others shuttled cars. All the beauty of Saturday’s day hike was replicated and amplified by more of the same, including a tall waterfall near the end of the trail just before the O&W Bridge, which was a spectacle in and of itself. An old iron bridge, it remains opens to cars but is mostly not used by them as it connects one remote spot to another on either side of the Cumberland River, which is roiling and gorgeous here. Class III rapids cut over and through boulders, and tumble north toward more of the same. We hung out on the bridge for an hour or more, watching the water, watching the kayakers, watching the world. From there, we had a couple of miles of flat, wide trail that followed the Cumberland River all the way to our Sunday night campsite, a flat as a pancake ledge 200 yards above the river, close enough to see river but high enough to avoid any rising water should the rain come.

We erected our tent city, eight fellas, eight tents of varying colors and sizes. As comfortable as we are with one another, we don't share tents. We each prefer to snore, fart, and get up to pee in separate peace. So our camps looks like a KOA by the time the tents are pitched, the Helinox chairs sat up, and the big blue tarp stretched over a rope strung from trees some 20 feet apart. Mark McGinnis brings the tarp, for which we are eternally grateful. It occupies valuable space in his pack and, combined with the ropes, adds weight as well, a burden he bears with nary a grumble. If it rains, as it would this night, the tarp is a godsend. It's also why Mark's trail name is Tarp Boy. It come to our attention, however, on this trip that he is not thrilled with that name. "He'd like a new trail name," John Hennessey said, although Mark demurred. "No, no, I'm fine with it," he said, but you could tell he wasn't. Mark isn't the kind of man who aims to be the center of attention, so his instinct was to just let this pass. But John had a point. Have not Tarp Boy's contributions to our comfort -- and general lack of misery -- rightly earned him promotion from "boy?"

We considered Tarp Man, but it sounded to us too much like a 1960s TV super hero. "Na, na, na, na na, na ... Tarp Man! " Mark said he would take it if he could wear a cape. T.P was put forth, but quickly, ah, wiped from consideration for obvious reasons. Tarp Person was suggested but Bob thought that was too politically correct and he opposes being P.C. with a passion – though, it turns out, his hate has a footnote. He related how he always objected when studying to be a nurse that people would say, “Oh, you’re going to be a male nurse?” “No. I am studying to be a nurse. You wouldn’t say to a woman, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a female nurse,’ would you?” Bob’s trail name has long been Mooch, because of his propensity to pack as little food as possible (he brings a fork) by mooching off others. We don’t mind so much; everyone packs too much food anyway. And it’s a point of perverse pride for Bob. Most things are a point of perverse pride for Bob. It’s his charm. But he came dangerously close this trip to getting a new trail name: Male Nurse. Or maybe we'll just go with Male Mooch.

As for Tarp Boy, we’re still working on that. Maybe just Tarp. Or Tarpon, which has nothing to do with hiking but sounds more manly than Tarp Boy. We’ll see. We could just go a different direction and call him Tom Thumb. As for being P.C., limits were set. Silver Pops said a man is not a man until he has a few scars (not sure why he said that – channeling his inner- Chuck Connors again, I think). He is unwilling to accept a rephrasing: “A person is not a person until the person has a few scars.” Something lacking there.

Soon, the rain commenced. We strung up the tarp, a grand blue monster that, when the heavens open, is as welcome to us as NASA might have been to the dinosaurs had it existed in prehistory and turned back the meteorite that globally warmed the planet. We squeezed the Helinoxes tight beside each other beneath the tarp's protection, stoked the fire, and kept the party going long into the night. For me, that was 10 p.m., an hour past my camping bedtime. For Bob and Nathan Pauly, it was more like 2 a.m. Shhh, boys. Some of us are trying to sleep! Apparently, uncle and nephew had much catching up to do. Nathan had been with us once before, but a few years have passed and that particular trip was a monument to misery. Rain. Cold. Exactly what brought Nathan back he would have to tell you. Something atavistic maybe. The call of the wild. The company of elders. We, as those elders, like to think Nathan is building a bridge to the next generation of Patio Boys, who will one day hike to some of these same places, build fires, and shoot the breeze – maybe telling stories about Mooch and Silver Pops and the Bull and Tarp Boy and Captain and Knot Head and all the rest of the cast. 

They can tell this one: Because our final campsite was within walking distance of the cars, John Curtin and Nathan – who by now had earned he trail name "Tall Boy" because of the oversized cans of beer he kept pulling from his pack, as if he brought nothing else – decided to just take a quick drive into town. Our vehicles were close because we'd shuttled them from the other end of the trail earlier in the day given the threat of thunderstorms and an inch of rain coming overnight. A quick exit might be warranted. No foul weather was yet commenced, but so long as internal combustion engines were nearby, who not put them to use? John and Nathan returned with ice, a selection of soft drinks, a bag of popcorn per a request, some buns, eight hot dogs, and one can of Skyline Chili, which John had in his vehicle and brought from home.

If you are not from Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky, you might not appreciate the haute cuisine Skyline represents to us. Cincinnati-style chili, of which Skyline is the dominant player, is a runny substance the color and texture of something a baby in need of Pedalyte produces. Though unproven, it is said to have some beef in it, along with chocolate and cinnamon to complement the chili power. Texans tell us, "That's not chili,” if the dead cattle they stew is the only way chili can be made. Ours is of Greek origin and is properly ordered as a three-way (spaghetti, chili, and shredded cheddar), a four-way (add beans or onions), or a five-way (add beans and onions), A perfect evening meal is a three-way, a cheese coney with mustard and onions, and a Hudy. Someone from New York will tell us, "That's not a cheese coney,” but they do so with a closed mind as New Yorkers do most things.  And someone from some hip town out West (take you pick: Portland. Denver. Bozeman, Coeur d'Alene) will insult the Hudepohl. "That's not beer,” but a cold Hudy says ballpark on a hot summer day far better than an IPA, a blonde ale, or a Hefeweiszen.

As dinner wound down, a hellgrammite crawled toward the fire to warm his cold-blooded body. No living thing looks more menacing. The aliens in Alien may well have been modeled after this creature. Nathan put a small stick out, and the hellgrammite latched on as Nathan marveled at its tenacious grip before slinging it into the woods. A bit later, the hellgrammite crawled back toward the fire. Like it, we just keep coming back, too. Drawn to something. The hellgrammite is the larval stage of the Dobson fly. They crawl up from a stream or river when its time, and find a rock. Maybe that's it. We, too,  come for the metamorphosis.

The next morning, we broke camp, packed our things as the rain diminished to a drizzle, and then walked the short distance to the Leatherwood Ford parking lot, where there is a gazebo and indoor plumbing.  Assuming the ticks did not infect us with Powassan, we can put the Spring 2017 Patio Boys Hike in the books this way: If misery loves company, the lack of misery makes for good company. And so as we age, we seek less misery and more company. As for the Fall 2017 trip, round up the usual suspects. It could the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or more precisely, the continuation of several.

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