Date: Oct. 5-8, 2018
To: River to River trail / Garden of the Gods, in and around Elizabethtown, Illinois

By Mark Neikirk

As Dirty Harry said with prescience and patience: "I know what you’re thinking, punk."

You’re thinking he’s late in writing about this trip — slow as Christmas, which is now just four days away as I write. Well, as Shakespeare observed from the grave about the publication of his plays after his death: Better late than never.

You doubt Will spoke live while dead? Are you not versed in the works? From Richard III to Macbeth, the bard was obsessed with the apparitional. Remember how Hamlet’s murdered father summoned the waffling prince to revenge? Queen Gertrude taunted her son, questioning his sanity for heeding unseen spirits:

Alas, how is ’t with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with th’ incorporeal air do hold discourse?

So there. I’ve done it, quoted Dirty Harry and Shakespeare in one opening passage. Top that, Stephen King.

Really, though, I apologize. I should have written this essay in October, when the hike happened and the details were fresh and less, well, apparitional — less through a haze, a fog, a veil of artful and selective remembrance.

I just got busy. Work. Life. More work. More life. Also, the hike was the worst one we’ve taken. It is hard to get inspired by the recollection of it. I’ve been trying to forget the details not enshrine them in the permanence of prose.

For starters, we went north to Illinois. I don't like going north to hike. Too flat. Too agricultural. All those mindless corn fields might speak to Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones but not to me. Why do we devote so much land to the kernel? The endless, monotonous acreage of stalks renders only hog food and high fructose corn syrup, which is ruining our health faster than a Republican can say Obamacare.

The actuality of this trip did nothing to change my mind about going north. Just getting there was a bitch. I had to buy a tire to replace one that had a hematoma from a pothole. And the main event, the hike itself, was a misery clothed in woe. Though it was October, it was hot like August. There were bugs. Incessant, insistent bugs. With each call to arms, the bugs won, defeating even DEET — which is like a rat that evolves to feed on rat poison. Bob Pauly came home so badly bitten that his arms looked like smallpox vaccination test sites.

As if the heat and bugs were not enough, we were often thirsty because the trail lacked water. I vaguely recall one puddle by the trash heap with tadpoles and, I assume, mosquito larvae. But no streams. No springs. Nary a trickle. We had to keep driving back to town to buy water and then lug it to our campsites only to run low come mealtime, which meant another run to the local quick stop to resupply.  It was less like backpacking and more being an Uber driver.

There’s also the basic pretention of this trail, which is called the River to River Trail. It goes 160 miles more or less along the Ohio River from its official beginning at Elizabethtown, Ill., which sits on the Ohio, to Grand Tower, Ill., beside the Mississippi. The Ohio River is 981 miles long so if you want a trail that follows the Ohio to the Mississippi the trail should be 981 miles long. Simple enough. This trail is partial. It should be renamed the 16.3% River to River Trail.

Yet people buy into this fraud. Perfectly sincere sounding humans can be seen on YouTube collecting Ohio River water, which looks like the piss of man with serious kidney trouble, into a vial, which they in turn transport to the trail’s end and pour ceremoniously into the Mississippi, which charitably looks like a latte and uncharitably looks like the toilet bowl during colonoscopy prep. Seems absurd to do this, to carry water from one polluted river to the next. Don’t these social media obsessed hikers know that the Ohio empties into the Mississippi? The Mississippi needs a vial of Ohio River water about as much as Trump needs another Twitter account.

Admittedly, I’d be more lenient toward the vial concept – that is, consider it less vile (laugh please, I worked hard on that wordplay) – if the River to River Trail had been more pleasant.

Oh, it had is amenities. Where we started, there was a swimming pool, a big screen television, a couch and even a few refrigerators. Of course, all of it had been dumped in the middle of the night from the back of some hill jack’s pick-up truck under the protection of the unwritten rules of redneck garbage disposal practices, which I believe were codified to render a message to patio boys who come looking for a pristine wilderness experience with the expectation that the locals will accommodate the illusion. Here’s their message as I took it, translated from the original hill jack and stripped of the profanity: Before you get all willied up about how we treat our backyard, think about how you treat years.

In our own backyards, we slaughter the native flora with Scotts Turf Builder and the native fauna with Toyotas.So yes, there’s a hypocrisy on our part. If there’s a lake in your subdivision, as there is in mine, don’t dare eat the fish. They are fed all summer on ChemLawn and all winter on road salt. That can’t be good for fish or man. Look up the symptoms of sodium ion toxicosis, which is what you get from ingesting too much road salt. Nausea. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Abdominal cramps. How's this sound: "Cerebral edema may occur, and muscle tremors may be noted.” You might even get a swollen tongue, which metaphorically could result in the writing of excessively wordy and weird essays on backpacking.

Just as the rednecks trash their environment, we damage ours in our patio boyish ways. Still, for god’s sake, do you have to use the public trail as a public garbage dump?.

■ ■ ■

All of my excuses for writing this now rather than closer to the events herein reported are valid. But the actual explanation is harder to write about. The hike was a precursor to things much worse. I want to write about those – to tell you about those – except to do so might betray the privacy of those involved. Some things are too personal, too painful, too real.

Suffice it to say that life is not a beautiful and flawless trail, lined with scenic views and flowing streams. Rather, it is rough trail, laden with refuse and capable of leaving you terribly thirsty. It is an experience in which the son of a friend might be shot point blank in the face. In which the wife of a friend might be diagnosed with breast cancer, stage one, level three. In which the beloved mother of a friend’s wife will die, gracefully and gratefully of old age but die all the same. In which the absolutely essential mother of another will have a life-threatening infection and lose her will to live before finding it again. In which another will find his parents, both of them, hospitalized simultaneously, their survival in doubt.

Just writing this makes me want to knock on wood lest something anew arises and makes this road even harder. It is because of these things that I decided to host a party last Friday night and invited all of the men with whom I’ve slept with in the woods. I know the catcalls that sentence will evoke but I had fun writing it – almost as much fun as I had coining it during conversation at the party. Self-amusement is not the best kind of amusement, but it has its pleasures and its place. Even in wordplay. What else would I be talking about?

The party was a celebration of friendship found in the woods and in the mutual experience of sitting around a campfire. Or walking 1,000 feet up the side of a mountain, lungs burning and legs, too. Or boiling water for coffee on a brisk morning after wiping frost off the propane canister. Or seeing a shooting star on a black, black night. Or wading through an ice cold stream, toes numbed but heart warmed. Or balancing above the next stream on a log bridge and feeling like a Wallenda. Or any of the thousands of other delightful things the woods deliver.

On our first night out on the River to River Trail, an unseen animal made a noise like a hound of hell. It might have been a coyote or an owl or maybe just a hound of hell. There’s a good chance that years from now, around another campfire in another place, someone will say, “Remember that animal we heard when we were on the River to River Trail?” With that, we’ll remember not just that screaming, percolating laugh, but also the bugs, the waterless steam beds, the heat, the trash and also some of the things going on in our lives in October 2018. They will be memories then. Ghosts of another time, living on, whether or not Queen Gertrude approves.

We’ll remember, too, Tommy Curtin – joining us for his first Patio Boys hike in nine years and only his second one ever. On his first, he endured epic cold versus this trip’s epic heat. Then, he had a cabin near the Smokies. He, his brother John and I removed to the cabin to eat Pizza Hut pizza and watch an NFL game rather than spend a second night in a 12-degree deep-freeze. As his cabin bore witness, Tommy knows how to find comfort. Forced air heat, controlled by a thermostat. Beds with linens. Silverware that has been through dishwasher since its last use. Hot showers. All the comforts. This trip, he brought along a six-pack of beer inside a soft-sided cooler with ice. And he shared.

Eric Krosnes and I were late getting started due to the fact that I had to drive to Henderson, Ill., to buy a tire at Wal-Mart. So instead of starting where the others did, we met up later, guided to the rendezvous by a pin text from Tommy — an iPhone feature unknown to me until then but quite handy. A little red pin turns up on a Google map, telling you where the texting person is located. This made it clear that we were very close to the rest of our group. However, the tangle of trails and back-country roads show up on Google maps looking like a bird’s nest of fishing line, impossible to follow. If we turned around once, we turned around a thousand times.

By the time we found Tommy and John (when they picked these names, did the Curtin brother’s parents have a strange affection for the elbow surgery often needed by pitchers?) they were seated on a gravel road within sight of the trash heaps. Sweat soaked and exhausted, they both wore mosquito netting over their heads. They had started on the beers. Tommy brought the good stuff. Cans from a craft microbrewery. Mad Tree or Braxton or one of those. If you are going to be miserable, at least have good beer.

The Curtin brothers did not appear to be enjoying themselves. No one could while wearing a mosquito net, which renders its wearer about as uncool as is humanly possible. Don’t go out in public in one of these, not if you ever plan to be affectionate with a woman again. Also, you have to lift it to take a sip of beer. The mosquitos know this. They post a sentry to alert the swarm. I think the larvae in nearby puddle advanced their course to full-grown insects so they could join the party.

Eric and I were fresh and so led Tommy and John toward the intended reunion with the others. Within a mile, we were lost. Or as we like to say, “Misplaced.” This was the first of our experiences with the River to River Trail‘s erratic trail markings. It would not be the last. Whoever was in charge of painting the blazes on the trees to guide hikers thought his job was to return to headquarters with most of his paint unused.

Bob Pauly and Bill Ankenbauer, who had gone ahead of us find a place to camp, were well aware of the deficiencies of the trail markings and so had taken matters into their own hands, dragging a long branch across the gravel road at the place where the trail veered off and tying a scrap of cloth to a tree to further mark the spot. With yours truly leading, we stepped over the branch and kept walking. Were it a stop stick and we robbers fleeing the law, we would now be fleeing on rims, stupidly thinking we’d foiled our pursuers.

I also left the keys to my car in Eric’s Land Cruiser, which was not going to work since my car was at the end of the hike and was to be the shuttle back to Eric’s. Had I not realized this, we were destined to hike two days, arrive at the trail’s end and stare blankly at my car, knowing one of us at least was going to have to hike back to the Land Cruiser. As it was, we had less than a mile of walking to retrieve the key.

Once we got back to the Land Cruiser, Eric was a little antsy about leaving it parked where the locals come to misbehave. The remote intersection had all the signs of being the Saturday night’s ideal spot for the local Bud Light and weed party. A Land Cruiser with Tennessee plates might tempt the inebriated into doing something unlawful to it. So we decided to drive a quarter mile up the road to a homestead and ask the inhabitant if we could park there. But the property had a don’t tread on me vibe. A junkyard dog, with its blood-red eyes popped out and its menacing teeth bared, bolted toward us. Eric decided to play the odds and park at the trailhead.

The bulging tire. The bugs. The heat. The trash. The key left behind. Kujo on crack. This trip was getting off to a rough start and the night was young.

■ ■ ■

A bit about the tire. 

We stopped for lunch at a gas station in downtown Elizabethtown, which is like saying downtown Rabbit Hash except Elizabethtown has a gas station and a general store whereas Rabbit Hash has its general store only. Not that Elizabethtown is metropolis. The gas station and general store are one in the same.

We bought lunch. The gas station has a fry cook who makes a mean pork tenderloin sandwich and a respectable hamburger. Taking them outside to eat from the hoods of vehicles (outdoor dining at its finest), we walked past the passenger side of my car and Billy happened to look down at my passenger’s side front tire. Whoa! Look at that, he said. It was shocking, really. The size of a fist, the bulge looked ready to burst any moment. It was going to have to be dealt with and forthwith.

I was advised that the next town up had a used tire store that might have a tire for me. It didn’t. I barely said B-M and didn’t get to W before Butch, the owner, said, “No, don’t have tires for that.” He recommended Wal-Mart 30 miles away. I’d just driven 90 mph, probably with the bulge most of the way. But that 30 miles I took very easy and with a knot in my stomach the whole way. Pulling into town, I saw a spanking new tire shop that sold Goodyear tires, my brand.

Might you have a tire for a 2007 BMW 328i, I asked. Let me check, he replied. He checked. No, we don’t have anything V rated, he informed me. Though I do know now as I’ve Googled it, I didn’t then know what V rated meant nor care so long as the tire fit on my rim. I was a long way from home and I needed a new tire. Now. Please. He apologized but said he could not, as a matter of policy or law – I’m not sure which – put an H rated tired on a car the manufacturer said must have a V rated tire.

The Wal-Mart was across the street. The clerk said he had nine tires ranging in price that would fit my car. One was a Goodyear. I’ll take it, I said, and asked, “I that V rated.” He replied, “I don’t know what that means.” To which I replied: “I’ll take it.” Soon I was on the road. A V rated tire, by the way, allows you do go 240 kilometers per hour, which is maybe something you would do on the Autobahn but not on I-64 West, where half that is still over the speed limit. I still have the tire. Indeed, I bought a matching one and put them both on the back when I got home.

Adequately repaired, I headed back toward the trailhead to start hiking – getting lost only once, maybe twice, on the country roads of rural Illinois which are sometimes two lanes and then, with no warning, become one and it no wider than a driveway. At one spot, a farmer and his son had their cattle out, letting them graze the roadside and, if they preferred as some did, just stand in the middle of the road. They were not expecting anyone this evening and they were in no hurry to revise their expectations simply because they’d miscalculated the possible use of a public highway by a public other than themselves.

Allow me a second diversion to talk about how we came to hike this awful trail.
I blamed Mark McGinnis all weekend. I thought he picked it out and then had the temerity stay home, citing unspecified obligations. Mark doesn’t have the same aversion to going north that I have — I think because he has a greater aversion to elevation gains than I do. Curses, McG!! A pox on your future trail selections.

But a few weeks after the trip, Kate (my wife) and I were at a concert in Cincinnati, seeing the exceptional local band The Tillers. Turns out, it was the wedding anniversary of Mark and Jenny McGinnis and they’d come to see the concert, too. How was the hike, he asked, clearly disappointed to have missed it — which I did not expect.

He heard a condensed version of what you just read and then, “What were you thinking – sending us to there? It was awful.” And he explained he did not. The River to River Trail was the choice of Bob Pauly, he explained, and I should not have been surprised because Bob picks all of our hikes. He started this group. He’s large and in charge. He seeks input. And then picks, relying solelyon his own input. Now before you mistake that description for criticism, let me say emphatically that his choices have been – over years of selecting – fantastic. We put ourselves in his capable hands. 99.9% of the time.

By now, I was counting the days until I could see Bob and excoriate him for letting us think poor, innocent McGinnis was to blame for the River to River fiasco. Wrong again – which was my track record for this trip, whether picking a tire store, guiding the hike, or tending to the keys. Bob, without hesitation, said he had selected the trail. He imagined it romantically. A beautiful trail that we could hike in 10 to 20 miles sections in the coming years, until we had hiked all 160 miles. Instead, we were walking past places littered with beer cans and the kind of things you find discarded on a local lover’s lane where hours previously a Chevy truck was parked and rocking a little while somebody’s girl was steamef up the windows. Not the kind of romance Bob had in mind when he imagined the trail cutting through the Ohio River Valley, hillocks rising behind it and the great historic river rolling west toward the Mighty Mississippi.

■ ■ ■

Our course corrected, Eric, the Curtins and I did find Bob and Bill. They were trying to find a place flat enough to pitch tents. We had a small group this trip, six rather than the usual eight to twelve. And Eric and I were only going to stay Friday night and Saturday night, not Sunday as were the other four. But these woods were not accommodating even for a small group. Eventually, we found an area flat enough to pitch. We set up the tents, stopping to apply bug spray because the mosquitos were relentless. We soon started a fire, not for warmth as it was still unseasonably warm out, but for the smoke that might deter the bugs. We didn’t last long. The only bug-free oasis was inside the tents. Good night. Outside the netting, the swarms bided their time, knowing we would come back outside with our fast-food, warm-blooded bodies. The only thing standing between them and their next meal was the season‘s first frost and that clearly would not come tonight.

Next morning, we got up and decided to hike no further on this trail, which promised 20 miles of poorly marked trail, no water and no scenery. We made the short hike back to the Land Cruiser, shuttled to the Curtin’s car, and went to a store to buy water. Consulting our maps, we found a ridgetop trail that looked promising. Indeed, it was an improvement, and we found a good campsite at overlook a couple of miles in from the parking lot. Here was a rare commodity on this trail — a flat, spacious campsite with a fire pit and a view.

No water, however —which meant the site is a 3 on the 5-point Bob Pauly campsite scale, which awards one point each for flat, availability of firewood, scenery and water. The fifth point involves beautiful women and will never happen. 

To get to this site, we had to go down before we went up to camp, and you would think we would find water in the low spots. We found a steam bed but it was so waterless as to have weeds growing in it, as if it had been dry all summer.

We set up camp and tried hiking a little but without fail a mosquito or two would find each of us and buzz endlessly around our heads. It was stupefying. You could swat and shake and slap and spray and nothing worked. Zzzzzzzzzzz. You could not dissuade the little bastards. We finally made it back to camp, started a smoky fire and tried to relax with bourbon and pretzels. Big night!

Next morning, Eric and I were up early to pack and leave. We stopped first to see the Garden of the Gods, a remarkable park where the same grandeur of rock castles you might see out west was here in southern Illinois tucked among the dullest, most featureless woods imaginable. It even came with Chinese tourists who had expensive cameras and a sort of insular sense of themselves that I admire and covet. It’s as if they travel in a pod of Cantonese air together, transported to exotic places which they discuss in their native tongue with obvious glee — and photograph.

The Garden of the Gods is certainly worth photographing. It is a sort of Grand Canyon of the East, with giant mushrooms of rock protruding from the lush green woods. Until you’ve seen it, you’ve not really seen anything like it. Peter Jackson could have filmed his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy hear and fooled all of Tolkien readers into believing J.R.R. didn’t invent Middle Earth. God did. Or the gods. This park is called the Garden of the Gods. Plural. Apparently, Illinois is not monotheist state, or at least its park service strays from that orthodoxy.
Honestly, go see this place. It’s something.

As Eric and I drove home, Bill, Bob, John and Tommy slept in. Tommy toyed with an early departure, too, but decided to stick it out. In due time, the four of them got up, made coffee, packed their belongings, paid their own visit to the Garden of the Gods, and then drove to Hendersonville, not to buy tires but to have a beer and watch the Bengals defeat the Dolphins, 27-17. How about that? Something good happened on this hike.

They resupplied with water — and beer. Then returned to the 3.0 campsite for a final night under the stars, communing with the spirits, including those yeasty ones in the beer and the others, hovering in the incorporeal air. 

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