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Flirting with Winter

When was the last time you moved your body for 8.5-10 hours per day for 5 days in a row? Through mountains, carrying a pack weighing 25% of your body weight, in freezing temperatures? This is what Nick and I call “Type A fun” and Madeline translates as “suffering.” 

The thing is, this trip was “luxurious” compared with the usual suffering kind of “Type A fun,” where limits are pushed and boundaries played with. The Ozark Highland Trail section hike was a more laid back backpacking venture where the goal wasn’t about mile crushing, but rather to move with a more relaxed cadence. There was no rushing, no intentional sleep deprivation, no rain, no bugs, no wet feet, and plenty of time for day-dreaming and strolling through the woods; savoring.

Yet still, with this “relaxed-ish” intention, our excursion was pretty hardcore. We encountered ZERO other hikers on a pretty popular trail during peak season for thru hiking the OHT. The freezing weather was likely a deterrent to most and our daily mileage was way above average. 5 days unplugged and getting to enjoy this incredible wilderness completely to ourselves seems surreal. 

Road trip!

Day One: 18-ish miles

We started the day with a one and a half hour shuttle drop off from our car (which we left at the finish) to the start of the Ozark Highland Trail in Arkansas. Madeline, planner, extraordinaire, had been an active member of the Facebook group for this trail and found trail angel Mike who does a lot of trail maintenance in the area and gave us some good beta about what we should expect in the upcoming days along with a much-needed ride at an early start time. I wish I could say this shuttle ride was uneventful, however, Nick pulled a live tick off of Bentley (the pup) and it definitely got into my head as I began to worry about ticks on this trip. It has been many years since I've treated my clothing with Permethrin, so it was a good reminder to treat my hiking gear before the next adventure.

Mike drove us a few miles beyond the start to look at a river crossing we would encounter. He showed us where the trail joined on the other side of the river, and where the best place to cross would be. It would be our most sketchy crossing, so it was good to have the beta ahead of time. The tick and the river crossing caused me to realize this was not going to be as easy breezy as I thought it would be.

Nick crossing the freezing river

I embarked on this five day, 85-mile, journey with my friends, Madeline, Nick, and their eight-year-old black lab Bentley. The four of us hit the trail at around 9:30 am in the morning and we faced the most treacherous river ford of the trail within the first 2 miles. We took our shoes and pants off as it was above knee-high and fast moving water. I wish that was the worst part of it, however, the temperature of the water is what ultimately made me shed a tear toward the end. I was screaming and howling in pain from the cold shock of the water temperature on my feet and felt like I might die for about 3 seconds.

We marched on, and had a few more crossings that involved taking shoes off, but none as deep or as wide or as cold as the first. We had postponed this hike by about four days due to rainy weather and we were so grateful to have blue skies and sunshine on this first day. Stories, laughter, and camaraderie kept us moving. We did not stop for any breaks other than to take our shoes off for various creek crossings.

We kind of figured that we would be hiking into the dark to arrive at White rock Campground. The thought of a general store pulled us energetically, as we all wanted a few extra snacks, a restroom and a fire. Madeline had looked up the general store hours and noted that it was open until seven. The sun sets at around 5 o’clock and it is dark by around 530.

The evening sky on this first day looked like a painting. The horizon was streaked with many shades of pinks and purples, and it took my breath away every few moments. We are headed eastbound, but the trail meandered in such a way that we were lucky enough to be hiking west, or toward the sunset to be able to savor this mute, beautiful magical sky.this magic moment and golden hour, quickly faded into a dark frigid uphill dredge fest. Madeline and I were both a little overdressed and the heat and sweating and steep uphill March to the campground, was probably a low moment for us both. We kept questioning Nick in the front if we were headed in the right direction, but indeed we were. Still, no signs of any kind of campground or general store.

Eventually, we summited the cliffside and little cabins with lights welcomed us. In the distance we saw a structure with Christmas lights hanging on the outside that looks like the general store! Hallelujah! My body temperature began to plummet from the sweat and freezing temperatures. We arrived in the dark, three weary travelers and our pup, and saw the sign said open 10 AM to 6 PM. Nick looked at his watch and said it’s 5:58 to which I responded "quick go in!"

We went in and Amber, the general store and campground manager, greeted us with the warmest of welcomes. She remained open for us to rummage around to get snacks, and she even gave Bentley some dog treats. She gave us the closest camp spot to minimize additional walking and we purchased some "dry firewood." We found our way to our flat tent pad and set up our tents. Having filtered water just 20 steps away from a spigot was also a luxury that we were thrilled to take advantage of. Nick was enthusiastic about starting a fire, however, the "dry firewood" was anything but dry. He attempted to start a fire for us for probably around 30 minutes before we all gave up. Thank you, Nick!

We all cooked curry that night. Mine was store-bought from Outdoor Herbivore and was way spicier than I recalled that particular meal being. It was also slightly undercooked and not hot when I ate it. However, it did the job and I felt satiated enough. I quickly began shivering. Nick brought out his quilt for me to sit at the picnic table with them a little bit longer but I couldn’t hang. I just got way too cold and had to retire to the tent to get my sleeping bag. It was windy as we were high up on a vista and I probably could’ve done a better job of staking down my rainfly to help block the wind. I put on all of my clothes, got inside of my 20° bag and 10° sleeping bag liner, and froze that night. I could not get warm the entire night. I remembered that my sister had reminded me to make a hot water bottle for my feet to put in my sleeping bag, but it was too late.... Brrrrr...

Day Two: 18-ish miles

General Store (morning pic!) -- Madeline & Bentley
Steep spur trail to campground

We woke up just before the sunrise to begin packing up camp. I went to use the campground bathroom in hopes for a number two, but was unsuccessful. Madeline and Nick seemed like they were a few minutes away from being ready so I proposed I would get a head start to hopefully get warmed up.

My morning solo hike was quite enjoyable and relaxing. There were a few more stream crossings, which involved taking off shoes. They weren’t as cold as yesterdays and my feet actually felt better hiking after the submersion. The sun popped out around my favorite section where we the path meandered along a beautiful babbling brooke with cliffs waterfalls all around. The moments of sunshine were limited and short lived. The rest of the day was overcast and dreary. 

My bathroom goals were never achieved that day, but I had been writing in the registers my progress with timestamps so Madeline and Nick could gauge how far apart we were. I also texted Madeline a few times where I was and what time because I began to wonder if perhaps they had somehow gotten ahead of me. At the very beginning of the day, leaving the campground, I had some trouble finding the trail and even got lost for a moment. Luckily, this trail is on Guthook (FarOut) and it was easy for me to relocate the trail. But, could that moment of being lost been a time where they got in front of me?

Eventually around midday, I had service and saw Madeline‘s text pop in and I realized they were only about 10 to 20 minutes behind me. I stopped at a water source to filter water and waited for them and we reunited. I worried we might be hiking in the dark again that night, if we were to maintain the same pace as the morning.

With about 3 miles left of the day I took a spill where my right toe caught a root, and as I tried to catch myself, it caught another rock sending me forward all the way down, landing along my left side. I couldn’t catch myself well with my gloves stuck in my pole straps and I was tilted on the side with my pack weight pulling me against my center of gravity. I yelped for Madeline, who was right behind me, to help me and she pulled my pole free and helped me unclip my pack at the hip belt. Nick came over to give me a hand and help me stand up. I told them I needed a minute as I was pretty shaken up. I had assessed that I was uninjured, however, the feeling of my pack weight pulling me against my balance, felt like I was trapped, and left my heart racing. I stood there, bent over and slightly shaking, and began to cry. Releasing the tears helped me process through that shaken feeling I had. Moments of previous falls flooded into my mind. I was tired and felt more skeptical about my steps, causing me to lose my balance occasionally in rocky sections. 

I caught back up to Nick, Madeline, and the hound and we shared the final miles together. We had picked up the pace dramatically in the afternoon compared with the morning and made it to our destination with plenty of daylight. Phew! Camp chores in the dark and cold are not my favorite.

Our destination that night, according to guthook, was a “stone structure.” We were leery about the water source, so Nick and I had grabbed some extra water a few miles  prior just in case there was no water at the spring at the hut. The stone structure was part cave, part stone wall, and it was enormous! We were thrilled to call this our home for the night. Madeline and Nick dropped packs and backtracked toward a spring about 0.2 miles back to fetch additional water, while I began to cold soak my dinner and put on many layers to avoid getting as cold as I had the night before. 

That evening, Madeline pulled off a tick from Bentley! Again, I worried and remembered to stay alert regarding tick checks. Cowboy camping in our shelter was quite a bit warmer than my tent had been on the exposed ridge at the campground the night before. However, the dirt ground was pretty filthy, and I had squirmed quite a bit during the night and found my sleeping bag covered in dust in the morning and halfway off my sleeping pad.

We cooked dinner, and I enjoyed my typical homemade beans and rice meal, piping hot and fully cooked this time! I decided to make a hot water bottle to sleep with that night to avoid being as cold as I had been the night before. It was absolute luxury! It was worth every spare ounce of energy and second to heat up water and bring blood flow to my feet, Nick and I were tucked in our sleeping bags by around 6:00 PM while Madeline finished up some of her camp chores. We chatted and wondered how we would lay here for 12 hours. We figured with bad sleep, we could at least hope for 6 hours of sleep and give our bodies rest. 

Day 3: 18-ish miles 

Waking up and not having to deal with putting away the tent was a massive perk to staying in a shelter. It made the transition to cold hiking easier. I reheated the water in my bottle to have a warm, hot chocolate Soylent breakfast. The sky was overcast and the temperature was very cold that morning! (Low 30s).

We all started out together and hiked most of the day together. Madeline‘s enthusiasm for each marked mile on the trees, earned her the trail name “mile marker.” She takes a selfie or a picture at each posted mile marker and loves figuring out where we are, our daily mileage, and regularly updates us with estimates for how many miles we have left in the day. The next mile marker brings her just as much joy as the one before it and the whole process started over again. It’s very cute. 

About 10 or 11 miles into the day we decided to take a little break at a stream crossing where we had to remove our shoes. I took a moment to do a quick splash bath and soak my feet in the arctic waters and drink a Soylent smoothie. My feet are holding up nicely, but occasionally I have hotspots or niggles, but they go away after a few miles or a shoelace adjustment. My hips definitely felt bruised from my hip belt today. My upper back and neck felt a little sore, but nothing too notable. After about a mile of uphill walking together, I began to feel my bowels in action. I decided to pick up my cadence a bit to see if I could work some magic. Hiking a bit faster, I had two semi successful poop stops!

My main issue of the day, which I was very reluctant to admit out loud, was that I realized I had a full-blown yeast infection. It had been slowly building over the last few days and on this day it was finally causing me to feel pretty bad. I felt I had a low-grade fever and headache, not to mention, all of the symptoms of a yeast infection. I continued hiking at a bit of a quicker clip as wintry precipitation, which we called “drippy drops” were consistently coming down at this point. 

The mossy path we called our "yellow brick road" (Nick & Bentley)

We arrived at our campsite on the early side (3:30ish?). We opted to call it a day to avoid a wet dog and hiking in the cold precipitation. Plus, the campsite we decided to call home was described to us by trail angel Mike as “magical” and indeed it was. It had a beautiful fire pit with three reclining stone “chairs” and flat tent pads.

We set up quickly as the precipitation was enough of a factor to warrant taking shelter. I soaked my beans and rice and went to fetch some more water so I could make miso soup and a hot water bottle that night and not have to deal with filtering water in the morning. We cooked in our respective vestibules and I sat with my warm pot of rice and beans in between my legs in my sleeping bag for about 10 minutes as I waited for the rice to fully cook. I then went over to Madeline and Nick’s tent to hang out and eat dinner and snuggle with Bentley.

As 5:00 (darkness) approached, I went back to my tent and made some miso soup. Note to self: I should have used WAY less water as drinking half a pot of miso soup was not easy to get down and caused me to have to leave my “warm” sleeping bag THREE times to pee! I made another hot water bottle and put it at my feet. I skipped wearing socks and my feet and body were much warmer than they had been previous nights. I slept with two pairs of pants, two shirts, a puffy jacket, and a buff over my head. I have yet to have a good night’s sleep out here as I am tossing and turning and trying to optimize warmth about once an hour it seems. I plugged in some headphones and listened to NuCalm and I think it helped some. 

Day 4: 20-ish miles

I heard Madeline and Nick talking at around 6:15 am and when I heard Nick‘s stove light up for coffee at around 6:30 I decided to begin to move. I took a few extra moments to reheat my water bottle and enjoy a hot chocolate Soylent breakfast. After a few sips of Nick’s disgusting instant coffee, I felt I might be able to poop if I began walking a little bit. I packed up and left camp at 7:17 AM before Mile Marker, Nick, and the hound. After about a mile of walking, I found a lovely area where I had my first truly successful morning elimination. I continued on as the temperature hovered at around 32 to 33° and the sky was a wintry overcast. 

Throughout the morning the temperature seemed to continuously drop and during a windy ridge walk I had all my layers on and still felt as cold as could be. My buff covered my face as my breath kept me a tiny bit warm. I shoved my poles under my left armpit and took a lesson from Nick’s book and put my hands in my pants pockets. This helped a lot.

1:00-1:45 pm

I wasn’t freezing anymore and figured it was maybe the warmest part of the day (still low 30s), so I found a water source to chill at and wait for Mile Marker, Nick, & the hound. I warmed up some water and enjoyed a hot chocolate Soylent beverage for “lunch” and tried to comb through my knitted hair and braid it. It has been so cold and my glove-off time is so limited, I haven’t been braiding or tending to my hair. Wearing it down has kept me warmer and for the most part been easier, but after some wind and lots of buff, hat, and hood wearing for 4 days the tangle situation needed tending to.

I decided that if I finished my drink and the crew still had not arrived I would hike backward to find them. After seeing a second skeleton, seeing ZERO other hiker humans, and hearing very loud howling, i began to feel a little creeped out. My fairy wonderland started to turn sideways and eerie just when the three of them rounded the bend. Bentley, the pup, ran up to greet me. I topped Mile Marker (MM) and Nick off with some filtered water and we left together. 

Chatting and stories helped the time pass in the afternoon lull. The overcast days make it hard to know what time of day it is and the days begin to feel gray and monotonous. 

With about 1.5 miles left, MM and I decided to try out each other’s packs. Hers felt SO empty I felt like I was cheating! My pack is certainly heavier than hers, plus I had an extra top and pants I panic grabbed last minute because I was afraid of the cold (not needed though).my pack had a liter of water and the tent, a stove and rain cover along with other miscellaneous items, but it was shocking to feel how light her pack was!

When we got to camp there was a beautiful river and much was chilling with his feet elevated. My feet were tired and elevating them seemed like a great idea. Nick earned himself the trail name “Maximalist” as he is quick to point out any extra ounces someone else is carrying, thus labeling their gear and style “maximalist.” So whenever I discover he is carrying something unnecessary like a journal and pen, or THREE pairs of socks, or TWO pairs of gloves, I call him out for not being his usual die-hard minimalist self and therefore being “maximalist.” lol.

MM went to the river in 38 degrees for a mermaid bath (brave!) and Maximalist began building a fire.

We gathered around a baby fire and ate dinner. My mole, quinoa, beans, squash, and corn backpacker meal was really not to my taste and MM so kindly and generously offered to trade meals with me. I enjoyed her ramen so much and appreciate her kindness to trade. Maximalist then shared dessert with us (Nutella filled Bombas!) they were SO delicious! We called it a night around 6:00 (sunset was at 5:07).

I enjoyed another hot water bottle at my feet and for the first time all trip I wasn’t shivering as I went to bed! I was almost comfortable!

Ailment update: each night when I lay down, my left hip aches from my running injury (I had taken about 4 weeks off running and went to PT to address this prior to the trip. I had hoped hiking might help… I don’t notice any hip pain while hiking, but bending over and sleeping amplify the pain and ache feeling. My yeast infection did not get worse today and seemed to improve slightly. I wore baggy pants (no spandex or second layer underneath) to let my undercarriage air out and heal on its own. I had brought some homeopathic “yeast guard” which I had applied yesterday and today so that may have made a difference as well. I think the biggest game changer was the ventilation. I was super grateful to not feel feverish again like I did yesterday.

I do these hard things and put myself in uncomfortable situations to remember the big picture, to zoom out. I am nourished, tough, self-sufficient, and acutely grateful for the little things like ramen, good company, getting to enjoy watching dancing burning coals, and the warmth of a hot water bottle on my cold and tired feet. If and when we see the sun again, I will be grateful for each day of warmth and brightness! I can’t wait!

Day 5: 13-ish miles

We got an early start as we knew we would have a long drive home after finishing our day. We endured our coldest night and my sleeping bag was frozen on the outside from condensation. Getting out of my sleeping bag cocoon at 3:30 am to pee was semi-torturous. My hot water bottle was long turned to cold and I cinched up my bag and liner all the way and wondered if it would be possible to suffocate. I occasionally experienced some claustrophobia in my sleeping bag when I would wake up and not know how to open it. The mild panic when you need a breath of fresh air while sleep/freezing gets the heart pumping quickly.

When I woke up for real, everything was frozen: tent, shoes, water bottle… I heated up some water and drank warm Soylent. Mile Marker, Maximalist, & the hound left camp about 10 minutes before me. Collapsing frozen tent poles with numb hands is one of those tasks that reminds me how tough I am. 

I quickly arrive at a large stream and hear Bentley barking and see MM and Maximalist. MM had taken her shoes off for this crossing, but 21 degrees and numb wet feet seemed like too much pain for 7:30 am. Maximalist showed me his rock-hopping beta and while it was pretty scary, I made it across the slippery, frozen rocks with dry feet. Phew.

MM in bare feet!

We continued on and realized the sky was blue and the sun was shining on parts of the mountains around us! “Lead us to the sunshine, trail!” After 4 days of gray, overcast, mundane daytime lighting, the bright morning sun rays were a welcomed sensorial overwhelm. The feeling of the warm rays on our faces along with the colorful orange and red trees, shadows (!), and the rainbow-y sparkle of the frost-covered leaves and branches felt like we were suddenly in a magical painting. This visual orchestra was a perfect distraction from my numb, stinging, icy fingers which were balled up in fists inside the palm part of my gloves.

We crossed a few more streams, marched up and down a few more mountains, crunched on millions more fallen leaves, and ate some more bars. Our packs were light, spirits high, but we were pretty worn and hungry when we finally reached the trailhead where we parked our car 5 days prior. 

Flirting with winter had its perks and its challenges. I loved being able to see through the trees and feel the vast landscape around us as the branches were mostly bare. The sparkles from morning frost and snow flakes brought me childlike giddiness everyday. The lack of ALL bugs was a gigantic perk to winter hiking (although we all three pulled ticks off of Bentley, so I’m not sure there is ever a true escape!). Moving in cold temperatures is mostly sweat free and totally doable with the right clothing (which I would say I had). Sleeping in cold temperatures is challenging for those of us who run cold! I would bring a zero degree sleeping bag instead of a 20 degree bag next time I camp in temps under 40 degrees. Even with my liner and hot water bottle, my core body temperature was chilled and tense, making it difficult to relax, recover, sleep, and feel at ease in the 12 hours of the day we were not hiking. 

I’m so grateful to have other humans and a dog to go out and enjoy the woods with! Walking and moving through nature strengthens my inner spirit in ways normal life cannot, and sharing this internal cleansing with others makes the whole experience much richer.

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