Tales from the Trail: Dolly Sods Wilderness, Day 1

The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen closer,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the November sky.
                        Walt Whitman
                        from Song of Myself
Why do we venture out into the wilderness? What do we search for as we scramble through the rhododendron thicket or sweat uphill on a rock strewn trail?
The answers to those questions are probably as many as there are hikers on the trail.
During a recent solo hike through Dolly Sods Wilderness, this question was often on my mind. Why am I doing this? What do I look for out here?
Part of my answer to this is expressed by Whitman’s quote above. It’s the realization that there is a whole world out there beyond myself, beyond humanity even, where the juncos flit through the trees and the blueberries bloom, ripen, and fall regardless of whether or not I am there to witness it.
The realization is that the purposeof this part of the world isn't for me, isn't for the loggers or the botanists. Rather, its importance resides apart from that: not with us, but with the flock and the gander up there toward the November sky.
So does that mean I’m looking for humility? Perhaps.
The sound of the breeze is nice, too.
On to the hike itself.
Not long at all after the Otter Creek trip, I began to search for more local places to explore. A list of places within a few hour’s drive quickly grew, and number one on that list was the Dolly Sods Wilderness. I had seen pictures of the highland meadows, the rocky overlooks, and the windblown trees, and I wanted to feel this wind for myself.
I left on a Tuesday hoping to avoid the somewhat crowded trails that this area is said to experience. A 5 am wake-up and a two and a half hour drive later and I broke through the tree line on Forest Road 75 to a view in itself that was worth the trip.
I hiked in from the east on the Blackbird Knob Trailhead, through quiet pine groves, open meadows, and stands of birch and maple, all with the morning sun warming my back; and this was just the first few miles.
The trails were muddy and rocky and in places quite overgrown. But from the accounts I’ve read of the area, this is par for the course.

From the Blackbird Knob Trail, I turned south onto the Red Creek Trail which offered the same diversity of views as the previous trail. It was calming, yet unnerving at times: this was my first multi-day solo hike. I was both very excited and trying to be very careful. The weather cooperated wonderfully, and the few people that I did meet along the trail were as courteous as you would expect.

After a long morning of hiking (and with very sore shoulders) I camped just off the trail along Red Creek itself.

My first major hiccup in the trip came with trying to light a fire for the evening. I had brought along a bundle of newspaper and a couple lighters. I’d made fires this way before: it was usually pretty straightforward. This time, however, it was not. The only available firewood on the ground was still fairly green, but I was determined (read: stubborn). Two hours later, with bleary, smoky eyes and bruised knees, I had my fire.
It was somewhat worth it.
But I had a hot dinner and could finally relax for the evening with the fire for company.
Not a bad end to the first day.

Coming up: Days Twoand Three of the Dolly Sods trip.

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