One summer day in 2007 I decided that it was finally time. I needed to go camping. And not just any camping. I didn't want to drive to some over-crowded car-camping site, with seven other cars and a few RVs around, with no real difference between that and sleeping in your own back yard. I wanted the real deal. Some place where you have to hike in, where there's no running water, where everything you have you bring in yourself.
So I proposed to my group of friends that we do just that. I thought, "Everyone loves camping, right?" Sure, the pregnant ladies will probably stay home, but this is the last chance for those guys to get away for a while, so they're bound to jump at the chance. And in truth, I did get a couple of interested replies. But not the excited replies I expected.
Eventually, toilets won. Of the 8 I invited originally, expecting maybe 3 or 4 to actually attend, I got 1. Well, who cares, I'm going anyway! Jim and I made our plans and packed our gear. We decided on the first weekend of November, as the first frost in our target area usually happens sometime during October, and we wanted all the bugs dead or inactive. We left on Friday morning for the Charles C. Deam Wilderness in southern Indiana, about 300 miles away.
The plan was to leave early enough to get there an hour or so before sunset, leaving just enough light to get to camp. As they say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.
The first casualty was leaving early. Chicago traffic, morning duties, life in general... they all got in the way. Still, we were on the road by 11:30, which wasn't that bad. It might be a little dim when we got there, but we should still be able to see for an hour or so -- long enough to set up camp, at any rate.
Then Cabela's happened. Have you been to Cabela's? They're an outdoor supply store, although describing them that way is a lot like describing Disneyland as "a park". A HUGE selection for camping, hunting, fishing, boating, hiking, archery, outdoor wear, outdoor-themed home goods, AND a cafeteria offering cold cuts and hot grill items made from various game, such as ostrich, bison, wild boar, and more. All in a gargantuan log-cabin themed facility, complete with mounted fish, deer, bear, antelope, moose, bobcat, boar, lion, elephant, and zebra, among others, and a huge game-fish aquarium. The first time I went, I spent 7 hours. The next time, I spent 6 hours. And here's another location that I'd never visited before, right in front of us as we're headed down the road, and Jim says he's never been to a Cabela's before. Well, that had to change. We stopped for some shopping and some lunch. As we're leaving the store, we see that it is now 2:15 pm. By the clock, we should be probably 100 miles further than we are. We know at this point we aren't getting there with an hour of light to spare, but we still might have 30 minutes. We take off.
Nothing more of note happened as we headed south, save for the fall of dusk while we still had 30 minutes of driving before us. At this point, we're excited about the prospect of hiking in the dark. Jim had a new headband LED flashlight that he was looking forward to testing, and I really had no objection to hiking in the dark. We weren't getting in terribly late, after all. It was only 6 when we got there. It was just dark.
The map shows a road -- Tower Ridge Road -- leading right up to a parking lot at the base of a trail that leads right up into the section of forest we want to be in, so we head for that. We had our headlights on when we finally found the road. Except it wasn't a road. It was a dirt and gravel path. Which we still had 6 miles to travel on.
6 miles later, we found the parking lot (the blue dot on the map at right.) As we got out of the car and slammed the doors, a sheet of dust cascaded to the ground. 6 miles of dirt road can get very dusty. It was a pretty spot, with the stars out overhead and a soft, cool breeze blowing. The lookout tower from which this spot derives its name -- the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower parking lot -- looms in the dark, unfortunately with goofy teenage voices giggling in the sky. Jim and I were too jazzed to wait around, so we started suiting up immediately.
As we looked around the lot, we noticed two prominent directions we could travel. There was a trail leading to the west and a road labeled "Cemetery Access" headed north. According to the map, we were supposed to be looking for a northbound trail. Just then a guy walked into the lot inbound on the cemetery road, so we asked him if there was a trail up that way. He reported that there were three trails that joined the road, but we could find the cemetery if we followed the road past all of these. Cool. We set out.
The first trail branched off to the right just a hundred yards or so down the road. Figuring this had to be the trail we wanted, we followed it. Not 20 feet in we found a sign: no horses. Shouldn't be a problem, right? Wait... the map shows a no-horse trail branching off from the trail we want a short distance away from the lot. Turned out the road WAS the trail. So we followed it to the end.
The strange thing at this point for me was the fact that I was completely not freaked. Hiking through the wilderness on a dark night and we come across a graveyard -- is there any MORE ideal time to be freaked? (Orange dot on map below.) We did decide, however, not to investigate the cemetery by starlight. Instead we wanted to head northwest toward a small lake marked on the map. (Just north of the campsite we eventually found, which is marked in red on the map.)
You'll notice on this map that there is a lot of verticality in this area. (If you're unfamiliar with topographic maps, lots of curvy lines close together equals very steep terrain.) If we had veered even a little off course en route to this small lake, we'd end up going straight down in the dark. I'm rather proud of the fact that we did not fall down any ravines in the dark. It means I can read a compass and navigate accurately even without daylight.
Hiking in the dark through the forest is very different from hiking along a broad trail in the dark. It took us at least as long to go the half-mile from the cemetery to the campsite as it did to go the 1.5 miles from the parking lot to the cemetery. Even with the aid of the mysterious path. We found a straight, clear path in the trees that led in our direction. It wasn't a maintained path, and there was definitely too much overhanging growth for it to be a man-made path. I've never seen a 5-foot wide game trail before, so I don't know what it was. Maybe it's the remnant of an old paved trail from the days before this area was a designated wilderness. Who knows? At any rate, it took us where we wanted to go.