It may look unappetizing to the uninitiated, but that is what is known in my neck of the woods as The Chocolate Cake. After you’ve tasted The Chocolate Cake, you can never eat other chocolate cakes without regret. It’s a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for “Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake” if you’re interested. Sean made it for the first time on my 20th birthday, and I shamelessly hid it from all of my friends and devoured it in secret. It’s that kind of cake.
It’s smooshed up in that baggie because we decided to go backpacking to celebrate Sean’s birthday last week, and the vacuum sealer was (er… is) still on the counter from all of the bacon-processing. We took the cake, took Friday off, and took to the woods with our friend Morgan (we were later joined by friend Andrew) to have an adventure on the Sylamore Creek section of the Ozark Highlands Trail.
By the time we reached the trailhead on Friday, it was 2:30. We’d had to de-mildew our gear and take care of the critters and run a few errands before we could leave, and the drive took nearly three hours. We planned on camping out and meeting Andrew a mile or two from the next trailhead (he’d hike in from that direction a little later in the afternoon). That afforded us a six or seven mile hike for the afternoon. Satisfied with the plan, decked in blaze orange, and full of chicken-salad sandwiches, we set off.
The trail is mostly well-marked with white blazes, though it clearly sees little use. We did the crunchy-leaf shuffle for miles, the rustling so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation. The leaves on the ground sometimes obscured the path, and we once lost the trail completely and had to just aim ourselves north until we hit a jeep road that we recognized from our map. Getting lost in the woods spiced our afternoon with adventure, but it also cost us some time, and when it started getting dark we still had miles to go. The moon was huge that night, and it broke the horizon orange like an egg-yolk, but not until much later. For the last hour or so, we walked in full dark, navigating from bright blaze to blaze along the trail and then following the wide swath of a jeep road. At one point Morgan stopped, turned off her light, then turned it on again. “It’s spiders!” she said, “there’s hundreds of them! Their eyes are glowing.” She handed me her headlamp but I couldn’t see it, no matter how I tilted the light.
We reached a wide-open feed plot at around 6:45, but it felt like midnight. The stars were bright on the sky like I’ve heard the eyes of spiders are bright on the forest floor. We built a fire in the middle of the jeep road and set up camp. We roasted home-made venison sausages and baked sweet-potatoes in the coals. Andrew joined us later that night, ready to hang out by the fire, but by then we were all half-asleep, curled up in our nests around the coals.
I got up just before dawn, chilly beside the ashes of the fire, and lit my stove to make myself some tea. When I sleep out, seeing the sunrise is a priority for me. I feel like a sunflower, smiling at the sky, getting my bearings for the day. I loaded up a bottle with hot tea, stuffed it into my sweater, and grabbed my camera. I found a nice corner of the woods and let the world light up with me in it.
When I got back to camp, dragging some dry wood, everyone else was still asleep. I re-lit the fire and built it up a little, then crawled back into my sleeping bag with my hot-tea-bottle to warm my toes. I pulled out Harry and read a little by the breaking light of the sun and the flickering light of the fire.
Too soon, everyone else was up, hustling to get coffee ready and start breakfast. We had bacon and eggs (ain’t nobody does deluxury backpacking like us folks) cooked in paper-bags over the fire. You rub the bacon on the bag to grease it, then make a bacon-nest in the bottom. You crack an egg into the nest, fold the top of the bag over, then spear it on a stick and hold it over the coals. To tell you the truth, a foil-pack works better, but the paper-bag scheme has a cool-factor that foil packs don’t offer, plus you can burn your cooking implement when you’re done, instead of packing it out. At one point, my bag caught fire and burned down to the bacon, but we slid the charred remains of the bag into another bag and I cooked on with great success (and at great length, this took something like an hour)
We spent Saturday on the trail and came across our first hunters only a short walk from our camp. Saturday was opening day for deer season in Arkansas, and we’d been concerned about hunters coming upon us early in the morning, especially sleeping as we were in the middle of a feed plot. I heard four-wheelers and some shots in the early morning, but there was another feed plot down the road a stretch, and our sleep had gone undisturbed. The hunters we met looked bemused to see us tromping through the woods, all decked out in orange and with heavy packs and no guns, but they were friendly and chit-chatted with us a while.
We filtered water twice in some cold pools in the bottoms. They weren’t flowing (trickling at best) but we pushed our concerns back and drank up. We’re still fine.
We camped the next night on a north face, and I pointed my hammock east. I didn’t have to break my cocoon to watch the sun come up: I just basked under the pink sky and read about Harry’s adventures at Poudlard (that’s french for Hogwarts, it seems). After a time, we all got up and reluctantly stuffed our aching feet into our frosty shoes and boots and set off down the trail to the next road crossing where we dropped our packs, hitched up our pants and stuck out our thumbs. A young man, unsurprisingly in a pickup loaded up with hunting gear, stopped for us, and (surprisingly) he didn’t make us ride in back but allowed our stinky selves into the cab. We chatted about spray-foam insulation and pheasants as the red hills swooped by, and he left us at Andrew’s car, ready for a pizza.