By Mark Neikirk

There are men, many actually, who spend more of their money on tattoos than on dental work. Their overall goodness of spirit should not be judged based on this poor choice.

Within the confines of a shorter timeframe – say, one’s youth – it is easy to take teeth for granted and to yield to the temptation to get tatted up, perhaps to impress a girl. How can a boy be expected to know that an apple of his eye is destined, in time, to appreciate teeth more than ink?

It cascades from there. The boy becomes a man, his heart steeled against another betrayal. He bonds with other lovelorn males. The toys of their childhood are exchanged for the full-sized tools of manhood. Trucks. Tractors. Bush hogs. Backhoes. Maybe a gun or two.

They tell each other stories, probably about the girls who first stole their hearts and about love’s prickled path. They listen to country singers who understand it so well, none better than Hank:

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry

One’s imagination wanders while wondering lost through McCreary County, a place the economy left behind. So I may be imagining more story than exists after seeing a beaming young man behind the wheel of a faded red pickup truck that slowed down as it approached us walking along State Route 700 looking like aliens with trekking poles. The Men Who Fell to Earth.

The driver, in a sleeveless shirt that showed his working man’s tan and his arm art, looked at us, his eyes twinkling and his remaining teeth beaming white in the Saturday afternoon sunshine. Seated next to him was his newest pal, Mr. John, as he had taken to calling John Curtin. They had known each other for ten minutes but were, at this moment, best buddies. They were joined in common purpose: To deliver Mr. John to U.S. 27, where his chariot home – his GMC SUV – was parked. Comfortably riding in the truck’s bed was another of our number, Eric Krosnes. All three men were smiling as if they’d bet on the winning cock.

Their taunting accomplished, they sped away leaving us to deal with the snarling dogs drooling saliva as they imagined eating us for lunch and leaving our clothing, shredded and bloodied, in the tall grass along the highway beside the flattened Kentucky Fried Chicken and Marlboro boxes.

Oh, the indignity!


This hike was planned as a low key, straightforward venture. Close to home. Two nights out instead of three. Ten people. Leave Thursday morning at 7a.m. from Bob’s house in Fort Mitchell. Come back on Saturday so Silver Pops, as John Curtin is known for his mane and his age, could be present for the christening of his new grandchild on Sunday at Blessed Sacrament Church. No planes. No trains. Only automobiles.

A simple plan. What could go wrong?

It got off to shaky start when Bob sent an email saying we would be coming out on Sunday morning. Didn’t we agree on Saturday? No, Bob insisted. Sunday. In response, Silver Pops sent an email with a time chart showing it would be impossible for us to get up, get out and get home on Sunday with time to clean and coif so that he didn’t show up at the baptismal font looking and smelling like Grizzly Adams. Saturday it would be.

A synchronistic departure of ten people was always optimistic – and it did not happen. First, Steve Haughey injured his leg doing yard work. Ten people fell to nine. Next the Cincinnati Reds closed the season on a tear and made the playoffs. Mark Goetz, who works for the Reds as the players’ concierge, would have to travel with the team. Ten people fell to eight. Eric Krosnes would need to leave from Nashville, where he had been visiting family. Leo McCallen had a doctor’s appointment Thursday morning, and I had a Zoom for work, so we couldn’t leave until 11:30 a.m. Paul Guenthner was at his cabin by the lake and decided to meet us mid-trail on Friday morning. Four people could still depart from Bob’s house at 7 a.m. on Thursday, which they did. The rest of us would have to catch up.

A few other things were, shall we say, imperfect.

One vehicle missed the Cumberland Falls State Park exit off of Interstate 75 and hence found itself just past the state border in Jellico, Tennessee, where Siri condescendingly instructed the misplaced travelers to exit the interstate south, drive under the overpass, get back on the interstate north, and proceed to the correct exit 26 miles the other way. That is, to turn around. Why so snotty? Where was Siri when we needed her at the exit in the first place? Turns out, if she doesn’t have a bar or two of service, she gets in a snit and shuts down. I ask, is that just like a “personal assistant application for iOS that uses natural language processing to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to an expanding set of web services” or what?

Shall I also mention that one us had to walk back to the state park after a mile of trail because of a nagging thought: “Did I lock my car?” There is an insurance ad on television this year that ridicules aging adults for turning into their parents. This moment could be a script for such an ad. At least there was no Siri to scoff: “OK, Boomer. Turn around."

Our plan was a 15-mile walk along the Sheltowee Trace, starting at the state park and ending just outside Whitley City. The first day would be four or five easy miles along the Cumberland River, much of it still within the state park boundaries and, as a consequence, pristine and gorgeous before passing through what is, unfortunately, the reality outside the park boundaries – unfathomable trash, most of it plastic. Beer bottles. Pop bottles. Pill bottles. Anti-freeze bottles. Detergent bottles. A traffic cone. Ice bags.One Croc. Half of a doll house. Should coal pass into history, as it will and nearly has, the Kentucky mountain economy might be saved by setting up a plastic recycling center. It could operate for decades on the refuse along the Cumberland.

The writer Wendell Berry, our state’s conscience and perhaps our nation’s, too, traces our disregard back the Johnathan Swift’s lost mine. As the story goes, the Englishman found silver in the Kentucky mountains in 1760, though where exactly is lost to time and the whole story may be folklore – the original fake news. Swift's mine, or at least the fable of it, Mr. Berry postulates, gave birth to the misguided Anglo-European view that Kentucky, a land of bounty, exists for exploitation, not stewardship. Extract and go. Indigenous nations had lived here for centuries with respect for the land, but Swift and his progeny drove that ethic out and supplanted it with their own unethical view of privileged abuse of the resources. Here we are 260 years later, still treating the land with the utmost disrespect. In the 1800s, we clearcut the forests. In the 1900s we stripmined the coal and, in doing so, fouled the water. And in the current century we still do both of those, while also treating every hillside and roadside as if they were the town dump. What the hell is wrong with us?


As evening fell on our first night out, we were camped on a vast slab of sandstone along the wide, shallow river, which flows from deep in the Cumberland mountains to arrive here, and then continues on until it reaches that place where the riverbed dropped 69 feet to create a small wonder of the world, the Cumberland Falls.

The view up and down the river is grand, expansive. Most often, hiking in the Appalachians is an intimate matter as if walking through an above ground cave. Dense trees block the sun while rock walls delay its rising and setting. Everything is dark, damp. Our second night’s campsite was in such a place and, though it has been a dry fall, the dead timber we would use for a campfire was wet and soft from rot. Here was nature’s factory for making soil to nourish and replenish the forest. Worms and water conspire toward life's continuation, with ample assistance from their friends, fungi.

There is a beauty to this intimacy as you are brought into communion with what’s nearest to you. You begin to see things and appreciate them. Small things, like a wildflower or a spider or a salamander. Even the biggest things, a tree or the wall of a cliff, are experienced differently when your attention is devoted to what’s nearest. Leo and I passed what at first appeared to be one tree, double-trunked. It was instead two trees, one a beech, I think, and the other a fir. A hardwood and an evergreen. They had sprouted many years ago from the same inch or so of soil and grown massive and mature together. There, in their abiding of each other, was a lesson for our divided times.

Down the trail, we passed an outsized boulder balanced atop a smaller one, as if the smaller one were an ant and the larger an oversized breadcrumb the ant was hauling home. All around, the flora flourished. Were you pause for a time with a guide to plants, you might be identifying until dusk dimmed the lights too much to see plant or print. When seen unspoiled, Kentucky is an Eden, exquisite to behold.


At bedtime, Bob asked what time we wanted to start hiking the next morning, Friday. Silver Pops said, “After we get up. What’s the big hurry, Bob? Do we have someplace to be?” We didn’t, but Bob wasn’t about to tolerate ambiguity. For a man who dresses in a 30-year-old rugby shirt and tucks his pantlegs into unmatched socks, he has a military streak in him. Rigor. Discipline. Nine o’clock. That’s when we would depart. Remember how they said of Sinatra, it’s Frank’s world, we just live in it? Well, Frank should go hiking with Bob Pauly. By day’s end he’d be drinking bourbon instead of martinis and singing John Prine instead of Gershwin.

Old Blue Eyes might have stayed for the campfire, which nearly tickled the stars. The big flat rock was a depository not only for garbage but also for driftwood. So our Thursday evening campfire was something to behold. And, like the smaller fire the next evening, seemed to draw the old girlfriend stories out of us like an 18th century, blood-sucking, medical leech drawing infection from an ailing George Washington. What is it about campfires and old girlfriend stories? An angel dances through our dreams, a torment of what might have been.

I brought a Kindle so I could read a little, and I did get through a chapter of a new JFK biography. Something about the Trump presidency makes me reach back to Kennedy, a visionary who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” versus a narcissist who tells the racist Proud Boys to “stand by.” It is, of course, unwise to put too much faith in any politician, and the Kennedys as a family prove as much. Don't like how Trump hides his health from the public? Jack Addison's Disease but concealed it. Don't like Trump's tanning bed glow? Jack was the original orange president. Don't like the whole Stormy Daniels mess? Jack’s saucy side was stripper Blaze Star, and his blackbook also included Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner, Marlene Dietrich, and Mimi Alford. He came by it honestly. The chapter I read was about the 35th president’s grandfather, Honey Fitz, who was mayor of Boston as the 20th century began. Seems he had, as his son and grandson would have, too, a loose zipper, and was especially fond of a blonde cigarette lady, Toodles Ryan, at the local tavern. Blackmailed by another Irish politician who wanted his job, he dropped out of the race for mayor but not before a jingle materialized that included the fun rhyme “a whisky glass and Toodle’s ass.”

As our campfire stories grew more interesting than Honey Fitz and Toodles, I put the Kindle away. One story was about an expected marriage that went poof after a long courtship. Another involved a hooker who wanted $500 at closing time but would take less. And then there was the tale of a fair young lass who grew up to be a kleptomaniac with bipolar tendencies made worse by her husband’s betrayal of the marriage vows. It was a sad story. Listening, you could not help but root for the once happy bride. Maybe she will put her life back together, find peace in her old age and stay away from pawn shops. Queue the Sinatra:

It's not just sentimental, she has her grief and her care
But a word that’s soft and gentle makes it easier to bear
You won’t regret it, women don’t forget it
Love is their whole happiness
And it's all so easy, try a little tenderness.


An interlude.

No account of a hike is complete without talking food. The dinner of choice for most everyone is Mountain House and, of its recipes, Chili Mac rules the roost. I prefer to be a little creative, and so I prepared just-add-water meals at home to feed two, Eric and me. The best of them was a new recipe. Here it is for posterity:

  • 5 cups of freeze-dried beef, which comes in balls that look like Cocoa Puffs or rabbit turds, pick which you prefer to visualize.
  • 1 pack of peppered gravy mix, which is 99 cents on the grocer’s shelf.
  • 1 pack of mashed potato flakes to feed four. If you buy to serve two, someone will be left hungry.
  • 3 teaspoons of powdered milk, 2 of freeze-dried butter, 1.5 of freeze-dried onions, and some salt and pepper. A bit of garlic. I used one clove. Powdered garlic would work, too.

Boil water, add the beef. Boil five minutes. Let it set another five. Drain, saving the water. Mix the gravy powder into the water and stir. Pour over the beef and set aside. Boil water for the potato flakes. Mix together with the milk, the butter and the spices. Serve the finished potatoes with the beef and gravy over top.

This will stick to your ribs.

Breakfast was frosted shredded wheat and instant coffee. Starting the day with that makes you look forward to dinner.


Another interlude.

Paul’s arrival on Friday morning went perfectly. His wife, Sharon, dropped him off on the side of the road next to a house with chickens out front and man with a Glock sidearm who was cleaning his crossbow for deer season. Paul stashed his pack beside a garden enclosed in wire with a sign that said: “Private property. No trespassing.” Not sure what was plated there. Not tomatoes. Regardless, a patch so protected would be a safe for a pack, so long as Paul could retrieve it without getting shot. He sent Sharon on, walked to the trail and trusted we had gotten the rendezvous timing and location correct. Let us applaud his faith in us, however unfounded it might have been. Getting time and place right is not our strength, but this was an instance when we did.

Paul came bearing news: Trump had tweeted that he and @FLOTUS had contracted COVID-19. Who calls his wife @FLOTUS? Did he forget her name? Just don’t call her Stormy, Bub. 

Lacking cell service, we were spared the punditry and counter-punditry. It was a good time to be off the grid.


Did we hike?

You might reasonably ask such a question given how few words I’ve spent on that aspect of the trip. Answer: We did hike. Four miles one day. Six or seven the next. A few more the next before hitching a ride back to the vehicles.

But walking is putting one foot in front of the other, and as such is not that interesting. Were I to write about it, it would read like this: We put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes we were on flat ground. We put one foot in front of the other, moving about 2 miles per hour. Sometimes we went downhill. We put one foot in front of the other a little faster. Sometimes we went uphill. We put one foot in front of the other a little slower. I can convert this into miles with some exactitude because two of our group wore Apple Watches, which also tracked not only our miles but also our steps, floors, and calories:

  • Thursday: 4.8 miles, 10,922 steps, 13 floors, and 1,778 calories or 9 Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts.
  • Friday: 3 miles, 17,860 steps, 74 floors, and 3,282 calories or 17 Krispy Kremes.
  • Saturday: 1 miles, 11,568 steps, 42 floors, and 2,135 calories or 11 Krispy Kremes.
  • Three-day total:2 miles, 40,350 steps, 215 floors, 7,195 calories or three dozen Krispy Kremes plus one to share.

As you can see, there wasn’t much climbing on Thursday, at least comparatively. But Friday was the equivalent of taking the stairs at the up the Carew Tower, Cincinnati’s iconic skyscraper, and the three-day total was like walking to the top of the Empire State Building (102 floors) twice. Have a Krispy Kreme., you earned ii.

It’s fun to see an Apple Watch explode with inordinate numbers; but those numbers fail in describing the glory of the Sheltowee Trace. It doesn’t deserve to be taken for granted but it is. It’s the hometown trail, and not as spectacular as the Appalachian Trail, which is older and longer and more storied in the hiking community (but not in history; the Sheltowee was Boone’s route through Kentucky and, as such, a trail that opened the West and expanded a new nation to continental scale). The West’s big trails – John Muir and its companion, the Pacific Crest – are sexier, what with Cheryl Stayed’s saga, with its hook-ups and condoms and movie starring Reese Witherspoon in a fetching white, sleeveless knit shirt and shorts as she carried an impossibly large pack. All the hype about the other trails has pushed the Sheltowee to the back of mind.

Out West, you can find yourself on trails that look like gravel roads passing through a rock quarry. Places like Yosemite or Glacier or the Tetons compensate – overcompensate – for their dull trails with take-you-breath-away views of snow-capped mountains, many of which look like a wildly magnified saw blade. Below the mountains are valleys from another galaxy. Vast. Wide. Gaping. Paired with one another, the mountains and valleys strike awe.

None of that is the Cumberland Plateau. Ferns brush against your legs. Mushrooms, some as white as snow others in technicolor, populate the damp forest floor. They come in curious shapes. A morel looks like spearhead made out of a sponge. Chanterelles are like day lilies that have put on a little weight. The Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric, is one of the most recognizable in the world with its red cap that seems to have a white measles all over it. It a gem of a plant, but unlike the morels and chanterelles, not to be eaten.

The trees dominate. To pass through a tunnel of rhododendrons is pass through an artist’s brushstrokes. To walk beneath a stand of tulip poplars, which are impossibly tall and straight, is to walk through the masts of great sailing ships, but where are the sails and rigging and decks? It is only the masts, and they exude the power of a thousand navies. In a patch of evergreens, the smell of Christmas wafts and wanes. The soft needles absorb sound. Everything is quieter, even your thoughts.

Great cliffs of sandstone hide behind the trees. Each is like the face of a wise man, crevassed and distinctive. As the worry lines on a great-grandfather’s face are etched by time, so is the face of each cliff. Typically, one side of the trail is that – a cliff, rising tall and sure toward a ridgeline above it. The other side plummets down a hillside woven with trickling springs, their waters seeping from the mountains’ innards and then flowing down to some tiny stream that sneaks under brushy trees that reach their branches over it like the arms of wooden octopi. This land, untouched by the glaciers and volcanoes that shaped the West was made by such streams, knifes of water cutting into the flesh of rock and twisting the blade to carve all manner of shapes.


We hike for the beauty of a place but we also hike to be in one another’s company. For fellowship. For conversation. Our talk turns as often as not to things that matter. Family. Faith. Finances. It is surprising how often on the trail the topics are serious ones and how infrequently daily life’s conversations are so weighty. How ya doing? How’s the weather? Those are not trail questions. What is the nature of God? That’s a trail question. Or are you taking your Social Security at 66 or 70?

In this year, the year of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the nation’s weird acquiescence to white supremacy, it was inevitable that the topic of race would come up. Leo and I were walking together, both marveling that our country seemed to be moving backward. “There are no white people in the Bible,” Leo said, stating something utterly obvious about a book that records the history of the Middle East. Yet the thought had never occurred to me. My childhood Bible was full of white people. In the illustrations. Moses was an angry white man, slamming the tablets against the mountainside. Jesus was sandy-haired and blue-eyed and could have been a Doobie Brother or worse, an Eagle – those purveyors of banal, self-absorbed lyrics “Take it easy, don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy?” What’s that supposed to mean? I’ll tell you want it means: nothing. The Son of God could have a least been a Beatle. All you need is love.

We tend to pair off on the trail. Two people walking at the same pace are together for a time, and so the conversation is between those two – as Leo’s and my conversation about social justice was. Later, you are with others and the topics change. In one such pairing, the topic was cancer. All of our families have been touched by it. Certainly mine has. My sister and mother were successfully treated, multiple myeloma and ovarian respectively, killer cancers. Each morning and evening on this trip, I put chemo cream on my forehead to treat a small patch of skin cancer, hoping it works. My Dad died of complications from the same cancer in 2002 – also the year I was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is one of the more treatable cancers, though it, too, can maim and kill. This past year, my friend Dave Gerner, barely 60, was diagnosed and dead in a matter of months. I could name others. I can also name those who, like me, made it. However it plays out in the end, the diagnosis – the day you first hear the words, “You have cancer” – is chilling. You go from in an instant from thinking with amusement that what’s between your legs (to quote the old civil engineering joke) as a playground beside a sewage plant to instead thinking of your equipment as the possible source of your death. Not fun.


There came another moment that would an indelible mark on this trip. It took place on State Route 700 on the same Saturday afternoon that the fellow in the faded red pickup truck shuttled John and Eric back to our parked vehicles so we could head home.

We ended up on Route 700 because we took a wrong turn on the Sheltowee Trace. The trail bore right, we bore left. We found ourselves in a high meadow surrounded by the forest and with tiny pond hidden except for the cattails rising from it. Later, we would remember this spot mainly for the chiggers we bought home. Ankles. Legs. Nether regions. As I write, I itch. None of us escaped the near microscopic clutches of these sons of trombiculid mites – sons of because it’s not the adults that get you; it's the larvae. Little bastards.

We checked maps. We checked phone apps. We check a compass. Nothing seemed clear except that the trail was behind us not ahead of us. We were lost. Or, as we like to describe it, misplaced. 

Bob recommended turning around and finding the split we’d missed. I recommended walking up to State Route 700, which was now nearby, and then taking a forest service road back to the trail. That way, we would not have to backtrack, which I hate. After some deliberation, my suggestion prevailed. It should not have. The map showed three forest service roads. We were to take the third. So simple. What could go wrong? We never found those roads. “The maps are about ten years old,” Bill would tell me later. “The roads may not be there any longer.”

Walking on the road put some space between us. Silver Pops and Eric lagged back, and in doing so found that ride in the truck and the kindness of a stranger. Leo, John, Paul and I were together when they came by in the old pickup truck, exuding their “We’re riding, you’re walking” bravado. Glee, thy name is Chevy.

Up the road we would encounter Bill Ankenbauer, who had been walking ahead with Bob. Bob, he told us, had thumbed a ride to our cars, one of which he would retrieve and then return to give us a ride. 

It was a beautiful, sunny fall afternoon, and the news Bill would deliver was incongruous with the setting. We stood a lip of the highway bordered by the Daniel Boone National Forest. Looking through the trees, you could see a blaze of orange leaves, the harbingers of colors to come in a week or two. Bill had just taken a call from his sister-in-law. Their nephew had died in the wee hours of the morning in a single car accident in Boone County, where he lived.

The only comfort Bill had on the side of State Route 700 was us, and we knew we were not enough.


The woods are a restorative place. At least, they have been for me. I walked in them near my grandmother’s house in Estill County when I still aged in single digits. I remember being at her house the Sunday after President Kennedy was shot. I was in the third grade and we arrived at my grandparent’s home – my grandfather was still alive then – just after Ruby shot Oswald. It was played and replayed in black and white, the only kind of broadcast there was in 1963. There was gnarled tree in my grandparents’ front yard, and I climbed it to sit above the world. Beyond it. What’s nine-year-old boy do when the world is torn asunder as it was that November?

Most of my excursions in Estill County, whether to that treetop or to the top of knobby mountain just up the dirt road, would nudged by something less dramatic than an assassination. Well, of course they were less dramatic – as nothing in my lifetime has been quite as dramatic JFK’s death, at least not nationally. Personally, there were traumas and loses and heartaches and all the rest, each of which were soothed by the woods. So if you ask me what’s the attraction, I would answer as I have.

We need the woods. Each of us. Their solitude. Their beauty. Their timeless feel. Their power to assure. To absorb our grief, if they must. Bob, who sings as he walks, kept singing a verse of John Prine’s last song, “I Remember Everything.” With simple chords and lyrics, it is a perfect farewell from Prine, who died of complications from COVID-19 on April 7. His words seem to celestial to me, with an alchemy of joy and sadness:

I remember everything
Things I can't forget
The way you turned and smiled on me
On the night that we first met
And I remember every night
Your ocean eyes of blue
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew.