There and a Drive back again.
A Poor Planning Tale.
Thursday morning started out as planned. Two guys, two thirty pound packs and forty miles ahead to our destination. I had tried this trip once before. Carrying too much weight and wearing the wrong shoes I had set out on the Kal-Haven trail to the destination of South Haven. Two days and 60 miles later I had to give up and call to be picked up because my feet were beyond healing in a day or two.
This time I was smart enough to wear tennis shoes and doubled up socks. The weather was cool and I brought extra layers of clothes. Food was lighter having bought trail mix and high calorie nuts to eat while traveling. I brought a canteen instead of a plastic water bottle. For extra protein I carried a fishing pole on my back. Since the temperature was supposed to drop to around thirty degrees I also packed a wool blanket to help get through the night, with the sleeping bag.
Remembering how my feet and legs felt the last time I attempted this trip I brought a bottle of Motrin.
The first few hours of the trip passed at a pace of four miles per hour. We were making good time. In the first five miles outside of Kalamazoo it was clear we were out of the city. The sudden change in wildlife gave a clear sign of where we were in the world compared to civilization. The golden finch sitting on a tree is rare to see in the city. The red heron, also known as the reddish egret, sitting in the middle of a pond told me I was in a new world. I had seen the image on a cheap bottle of wine but I had never seen one in the wild.
A few miles outside of the city limit’s the thumping of wings caught my attention to see turkey vultures leaving the unknown remains of a carcass sitting in a drainage ditch. The large black blurs with their deep red heads and necks were not a common sight around here until this year. Two weeks before I had seen three turkey vultures while running the Celery flats trail. On that trail the sight of deer and turkey is common but turkey vultures have increased in population over the last few years.
At every available stop we sit down and snack for a few minutes. The water pumps had already been greased and painted with a fresh coat of green paint. The streams were still flowing from the winter melt off.
Through the bare brush and naked trees the sights of million dollar houses show through. The new siding, three stories, and wrap around porches slows us down while we watch the pagoda being build next to the full size swimming pool. I remembered when the house sat by itself a few years before. Now it had neighbors surrounding it with a few acres to play with for each.
The town of Kendall is the start of the old remains of the railroad this trail once was. A remodel train stop now functions as a shop with a new smoke stack outside. The old sliding doors to receive cargo are still in place. The brick building behind it is being closed up poorly hiding the fact a train stopped here at one time. New grey blocks sit in the old entryway waiting to be cemented in. the smell of maple fills the air as we walk by.
We are three miles away from the first camp ground on the trail. The town of Gobles is one of the large places along the trail. Where the trail crosses is less than a quarter of a mile from their main road. Just like in Kendall signs are set up pointing arrows to where one can find, food, water, and entertainment. Gobles had invested more into their signs and now had gas stations and a pizza place fifty yards from the trail. I doubt the trail was the deciding factor for where they put the pizza place but they made sure to put up a sign advertising Calzones.
By the time we reached Gobles our feet were sore. Muscles in the side of my legs I had not used much before were now angry and making it known. Ben assumed he now had blisters and kept asking where this camp ground was. After twenty miles of walking we were now at our camp. There were two hours of daylight left. I used the outhouse while Ben started a fire in the fire pit.
The fallen tree limbs and uncut grass was what I remembered from biking the trail two years before. Stopping for water on my bike trip I had noticed the fallen limbs left over from a wind storm that had recently happened a few days before. The green leaves were still full of life on the fallen branches. The tall grass told me the campground had not been taken care of all summer.
When we walked up, the same limbs and branches still lay in the campgrounds. The steel and concrete fire pits still looked new next to the rotted sign post where one could at one time put their permits. We did not have permits. The maintenance of the Kal-Haven has been up in the air ever since the state took over the trail. A few years ago one had to purchase a trail pass on either end in order to use it. You could buy one either at the caboose in Kalamazoo or in South Haven. The ability to enforce the buying of passes led to the state taking over the trail. The sad thing is that nothing had been updated on the trail except for a few signs now stating “no trail pass required.”
I set up my tent back by the brush and behind a fallen limb. The sun was setting and with the cold air nobody was on the trail. I changed my socks and found on pair had completely worn through. I had no blisters on my feet and popped 800 milligrams of Motrin for the pain in my legs. Ben checked his feet, they appeared red and sore but no signs of blisters at that moment. He wore his ARMY issued combat boots. During basic he had marched over 12 miles a day while wearing the same boots and thought they would be fine. The fire was burning and the heat was welcome. Sadly the warmth of the fire was not as inviting as sleep. I changed my socks, ate some of the spicy trail mix for the artificial warmth, and reorganized my bag. Ben finished cooking a bowl of top ramen noodles in the fire and chewed them down. I crawled into my tent and closed the doors. The tent I have has faired well in the past through rain and cold weather.
The moment I sit on the wool blanket I laid on the floor my body starts to shiver. I leave my coat and fleece on while crawling into the sleeping bag. I use my shoes and wool scarf as a pillow. I was unable to fit in sleeping bag with my coat on and decided to leave it on. Throughout the night I would feel the sting of cold ice on my face and adjusted the scarf I had covering my face. At five in the morning I heard the singing of birds in the trees and the sun was still over an hour away from rising. I fought to continue sleeping but felt the cold creeping up through the ground under me even with the wool blanket. Once I woke up I put my shoes on and exited the tent. I moved around and check on Ben who had three sleeping bags and a water proof tarp. He had slept outside next to the long burned out fire pit and was fine. His body was hidden except for the small space left open for air. Ben had slept better than me.
When Ben filled his camel pack he had trouble sealing the cap because of a build up of ice. luckily he found the leak before placing the pack in his rucksack.
At six a.m. with ten hours of sleep we now put our things away in our bags and snacked on breakfast. Ben checked his feet and found blisters covering both feet. One covered the sole of his foot from his toes to his heel . Ben changed his socks and had trouble walking.
“I need to make it to South Haven.” he said.
We both agreed to continue and check on things as we went along. We were already getting a three hour head start from the day before but Ben’s feet were a disadvantage now. A mile down the trail we stopped and Ben checked his feet. He took some Motrin and we continued waiting for the medication to kick in. I marched a few feet ahead trying to keep Ben moving. We came to a swamp that surrounded us on both sides.
“dude, did you fart? You could have warned me.” he said smelling the sulfur in the air.
The gasses in the air was rough and assaulting as we walked passed to a wooded area. Ben stopped and checked his feet again. Down the trail two deer stood two hundred yards away eating the spring greens growing along the trail. I told Ben to double his socks and reduce the friction on his feet. The muscles in the side of my calves were burning again. We had walked three miles.
After doubling his socks Ben had doubled his pace and we were on track again. A mile and a half later both of us were feeling it. The broken gravel trail turned into pavement and it felt like the earth was punching up into my feet. Ben’s feet started to feel the pressure and soreness again. Bloomingdale was ahead. The trail ran through town where the depot was turned into a museum. The water pump was removed. The outhouses still stood.
A sign was posted next to the trail. The images and text inside was bleached by the sun over the years and stated a $15 permit was needed for the reservation of a camp site where we spent the night. I wondered where that money went since the campsite had not been maintained in years.
I had a difficult time accepting that a hundred yards down the trail oils pumps still worked at pulling the black gold out of the ground but travelers couldn’t get a drink anymore. Ben and I sat at the picnic table to access the situation. He checked his feet again. One of the blisters had opened before reaching the park. His socks were wet again. After sitting at the picnic table he stood up to use the rest room. Five minutes later and thirty yards away he finally reached the outhouse. I knew what we would decide. There was no way he could continue on. I could still travel if I chose to but I wasn’t leaving Ben behind to make it to South Haven before nightfall. He tried to contact a few people via cell phone but never got a response. I contacted my girlfriend who lived close to the trail in Kalamazoo. She was able to come get us. An hour later she arrived informing us she had hit a turkey on the way out. She continued to describe the explosion of feathers everywhere as he loaded our packs in the back of the van. The front of the van was free of any sign the turkey had been hit.
On the drive back we came up to the spot where the turkey was hit. Feathers filled the grass on both sides of the road. The chest of the turkey was covered in blood and it was dead. The amount of visible damage to the animal told me there wasn’t much left worth salvaging for a meal. Ben commented on how everyone in the van had gotten a turkey one way or another except for him.
Ben and I were dropped off at my house where we started. Walking around we appeared to be a couple of drunks. The packs were heavy again. Ben went home to help his feet heal and I went inside to put my things away. Once I hit the couch House of Cards died into the back ground as I fell asleep and took a four hour nap to add to the ten hours of sleep I would get that night.
As of now I am still having trouble walking. Bugging out is regarded as easy and simple. To anybody who has done serious backpacking this is not an easy feat. Trying to bring anything along you have to measure the weight with the benefit it brings. To many people this math doesn’t add up.
At the start out packs weighed the same. Ben had chosen extra sleeping bags in exchange for a tent. For him the math worked out. I chose tennis shoes instead of hiking boots and the math worked out. In order to know how to bug out and figure out a plan it is important to know what items you will be using. To assume an item is useful because of its name is a mistake. Hiking boots does not make a good hike.
For a hike like this I can say bring Motrin or some kind of anti inflammatory medication, don’t leave that behind. Wear good shoes. Bring light weight, high calorie, food. Hike with a partner for motivation and making better decisions. I was in Ben’s position a few years back and I continued on. I hiked 60 miles before calling it quiets and being picked up on the way back home. My feet were torn up and I had trouble walking, standing, and sitting on the toilet for a week. This was not a situation I wanted to relive.
The hike was educational. I learned more details of how to plan and what to do in the future. Even after calling it quits Ben and I were discussing when to try the trip later and what to change. He hated his boots and knew now to have comfortable tennis shoes. The only problem we could find with trying it again was the first camp sight and how far it is on the trail. Instead of walking we focusing our sights on fishing over the weekend and made to do that instead, after a long serious of naps.
Matthew Gilman can be contacted on his author Facebook page and found on Twitter.