I had the honor of hiking with Section 1 of Alpha Team as they started the 2020 Sheltowee Trace Association Challenge on Saturday, January 11 and 12. It was a great hike with a mix of experienced and novice hikers who signed up for the eleven-month Challenge.
The combination of old and new hikers provided a great opportunity for everyone to share and gain knowledge about the trail, hiking, and the motivations that drove us to set foot onto Kentucky’s long trail. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm and interest that the 2020 Challenge participants exhibited.
During the course of the weekend, those of us who have hiked the trail before fielded many questions. We were happy to share our experiences and to support the group. I have endeavored to encapsulate the most frequently asked questions with my lighthearted answers below.
- How much farther do we have to hike today?
The answer is zero. You do not have to hike anymore. Not today – not ever. You can sit down and go no farther should you choose. If you choose to keep hiking, the answer is until we get to the end of today’s hike or the goal. I know it sounds rather harsh but the Sheltowee is a challenge- of a physical nature but more importantly of a mental nature.
Choose to look at the Challenge as an opportunity to test your limits rather than something you have to do. Enjoy the trip and smile while you do it. Embrace the hard times and relish the fun. I can assure you there will be both. Remember you volunteered (and paid) to do this. Think of this little walk as a privilege rather than a task. Just think of the “uphill stories” that you will be able to tell your grandchildren about the year you hiked the entire Sheltowee Trace.
- Is it all this steep?
Yes and no- much of it is steeper. You will find that a great deal of the trail is downhill. There is a great saying on the trail: “The Trail giveth and the Trail taketh away.” Just like in life, for every easy downhill, there must be a challenging uphill to make you appreciate the down. Every climb leads you to a great view somewhere down the trail. Every step you take is one that is behind you. There are some fairly steep elevation changes on the Sheltowee but they are relatively short and trails are generally designed to minimize the difficulty. On those uphills, remember to shorten your steps and rely on hiking poles planted behind you as you venture upward. Even the slowest turtle eventually climbs the hill. This is not a race.
I love to remind hikers on the Challenge that “it is all downhill, except for the uphill parts.”
- How much food do I need?
Not nearly as much as you packed. Most people on the trail will pack enough food for a week-long hike. You do not need that much food or weight unless you have dietary or health-related restrictions. Make smart choices in planning and packing. Snack and hydrate frequently (at least once an hour) with some small portable delights. Trail mix or peanuts work great.
Most of the time when you arrive at camp, you are much too tired to prepare some elaborate meal or occasionally too tired to even boil water. Remember, the Challenge keeps you out there one night (or possibly two) each month. I generally bring snacks or energy bars, two liters of water, and several slices of leftover pizza or a sandwich for my hikes. This works great for me. Uneaten food only adds weight to your pack and pains to your back. Adjust what you bring to fit your needs.
- Why is my pack so heavy?
Probably because of that six pounds of food and the Coleman Cook Stove lashed to your pack. Once on the Appalachian Trail in 2016, I encountered what appeared to be a slow and laboriously moving Sherpa headed to Everest Base Camp who had gotten lost somehow and was now on the trail just north of Blue Mountain in Georgia. He was carrying approximately 100 pounds of weight including (I learned at the next shelter) a hand-cranked sewing machine.
In your pack right now are at least 15 things that you will not use and do not need on your 2-day hike. After every Challenge weekend, reevaluate your pack. Take out what you do not need and reassess why you take the items you do. Most hikers carry a lighter and a fire starter but never start a fire. Pack smart and your back and feet will thank you.
- Does it get any better?
Yes, it does most definitely gets much better and it gets so much worse. It will be much, much hotter. It will rain and storm around you. I guarantee you will get wet on this ride. You will walk more blacktop than you ever have before. It will be long and tiresome. You will learn exactly how fast a dog can run. It will be cold and will likely even snow. But there will be great views. You will meet wonderful people.
The images of the diverse sections of our wonderous Commonwealth through which you will walk will burn their beauty into your memory forever. Life-long friends will find each other on these worn tracks. It gets better in that your body becomes more conditioned to the hike and its challenges. It gets more difficult as the mileage increases each month. Embrace the good and overcome the bad.
The trail is just like life- either you stand by and let it beat you up or you take control and conquer what lies ahead. Yea, it definitely will get better.
- Do we always eat this good?
No! Absolutely not! The Cave Run Chapter of the Sheltowee Trace Association is something special. They maintain and operate the trail north of the Red River Gorge with efficiency and in a manner that could well be adopted by others along the trail. They occasionally provide food as “trail magic” during the first few hikes depending on the camping location. They prepared and fed to us from time to time as a labor of love. Remember- it is just that- Trail Magic. It is not guaranteed and should not be expected. It is just that magic.
If you ever encounter magic along the trail or especially from the Cave Run Chapter, there are several ways to show your appreciation for their efforts. Say “Thank You” first and support the STA’s mission by becoming a member of the Association and participating in their trail workdays. Keep the trail clean while you hike it and observe the best practice of Leave No Trace.
- Is the trail in this shape the whole way?
The condition of the trail varies from section to section. The northern sections are in great shape. There will be from time to time blowdowns in every section, but they are generally attended to very quickly in the sections maintained by the Cave Run Chapter. There are several volunteers who maintain other sections to ensure easy passage and consistent blazing. I take great pride in my section at Arvel and will have it ready for hikers when you arrive there in a few months.
Not every section is as well maintained as the northern section. The great news is that this is where you can help. There are sections that are up for adoption by individuals and section chapters that need support from trail lovers like you. Contact Steve Barbour at the STA for more information about sections that need our attention. More importantly, watch the Association website for announcements about workdays and trail opportunities.
- Why did I get wet when it rained?
Face the fact: Again- you will get wet on this ride. At some point (and probably many different points) in the completion of the Sheltowee Trace Challenge, you will get rained on and you will be wet. You will either get wet from the sweat inside your rain suit/jacket or wet from the rain. The secret is how you learn to handle the wet.
To paraphrase Bob Marley, “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.” On this walk, you will do both. Experience all that nature has to give you. Rain, cold, heat, and wind are an important and constant part of the Challenge. Embrace it and keep moving. There will be sunny days too. Think about them while you pick up one foot and put down the other in the middle of a rainstorm.
- Can we get a pizza delivered here?
The long discussion and debate as to whether a Dominos would deliver to Holly Fork went unanswered (despite my hunger). I heard several discussions centering on if an Uber driver might come this far out. Sadly, the answer to these questions is NO. They will not deliver that far out and no, Uber has never heard of Holly Fork or most of the other places we will camp. A very important part of this challenge is to become a more self-dependent hiker. Uber and Doordash do not help with that effort.
- Do you think I will finish the trail?
Yes and no. Odds are really good (remember my trail name is “Bookie”) that you will finish if you choose to finish. The 343-plus miles of the Sheltowee National Recreation Trail challenges the body, mind, and soul. You will have days (usually once in every hike) when you want to just sit down beside the trail and move no more. There are days when you swear that you cannot go any further. I slept more than an hour with the curb as my pillow on a particularly bad and hot day at Cumberland Falls State Park. My determination was to cut the day short and head to the air conditioner at the Dupont Lodge. I pulled myself together and finished with the great joy and pleasure of a climb up Thunderstruck (you will see).
The truth is that everyone will not complete this Challenge. Many will drop out after the first hike, and there is no shame in that. Family requirements, jobs, and physical issues will claim many others who start this quest. But YOU CAN do this. Yes, you can finish if you set your mind to it and work hard to accomplish your goals. Honestly, you will finish if you choose to finish. There is an old expression that says “if you think you can, or you think you cannot- you are right.”
Work on completing the trail by reading, hiking, and continuing to refine your pack and kit. Exercise and hike during the off weeks to prepare for the next hike. Always remember, you are completing something that very few people will ever accomplish. Currently, the trail has been completed by .00852% of the 4.468 million people of Kentucky. If it was easy, everyone would already be in the exclusive club of End to Enders.
You Can Do It!
My experience is that the Sheltowee Trace and the Appalachian Trail are the best and worst things you will ever do in your life. The experiences are great and life-changing, but you will never be able to get them out of your mind. It will change you forever.
I often drift back to my AT and Sheltowee Trace hikes that I have completed. I find it difficult to concentrate when the sun shines through my window or the white cumulus clouds float through the sky on a cool, bright day. The trails keep calling you back and it always will.
I write my answers to several simple questions I heard during the Alpha in January 2020 hike to encourage you to push yourself and your limits over the next eleven months. You will never know what you can do until you try. Never give up when the pain starts and the hill is steep. Smile, ice and heat what hurts, and prepare for the next hike.
I often use this quote on my volleyball team, but I believe it with all my heart: “The greatest regrets of mice and men are not what was but what might have been.” Complete this Challenge with no regrets.
Who knows what adventures and memories the Sheltowee Trace has in store for you?
Join the Sheltowee Trace Association or find out more about trail volunteer opportunities here: Sheltowee Trace Association.
Steve: Nice post. Good information. Now, had I known you wanted Pizza, I would have gone to town and picked some up and brought it back for you…. 🙂
Thanks, Sumoflam. I appreciate your support of the STA Challenge. I was not too hungry until some of those around me started talking about pizza. After that, the more I thought about it that golden, stretchy cheese seemed a million miles away.
Thank you for this information. Now I’m all ready to complete the challenge ahead of me.