Our Journey to Hoot Owl Ridge Road
The big hike was finally approaching. It would have to wait a bit longer, however, for today was stash day. Jim, George, and I sat in Lori’s Restaurant in Caldwell chewing on some fourth-quarter strategy, as well as one of our last table meals for a while. I was doing my best to load up on vittles. I bragged to our waitress about our upcoming adventure, hoping she’d throw in an extra scoop or two of scrambled eggs and hash browns in my order. My plan seemed to work. She also commented on my heavy drinking as she poured my fourth refill of java. With two weeks of instant coffee granules in my future, I was loading up on caffeine as well.
It was decided that this day Jim and George would drive counterclockwise from Belle Valley, stashing water jugs in the Stockport and Whipple sections. I would head clockwise to stash water as well as some institutional-sized cans of never-dehydrated comfort food in the Road Fork section. We would meet at the end of that section in the afternoon.
We could have dipped and filtered our water much of the way around, but some advised against it since conventional, and now fracking, wells dotted the landscape, making some water sources questionable. The reason for stashing food was two-fold. First, we hoped to save our legs and backs a few pounds on this first stretch, and give us more time to develop manly hiker bodies for the last two-thirds of the hike. Secondly, and more vital to me, I could gradually wean myself off of tasty saturated fat.
As I drove through my section that morning, I encountered a large canine-with-an-attitude. It was right after Hoot Owl Ridge Road turned onto High Water Road and where, unfortunately, we would be walking on the third morning. He defied my car, standing his ground in the middle of the narrow road while having some kind of deranged barking fit. Being the compassionate dog lover I am, I steered the car around him, practically driving in the ditch, while he left his post to repeatedly attack my left front tire. Wait until the guys hear this!
We met at our designated place, a parking area at the trailhead of the Scenic River Trail. My Caravan would sit there alone in the middle of no-man’s land, six days and 57 miles away from our starting point in Belle Valley, proudly storing our restocking supplies for the second and third legs.
We rode in George’s car to Walmart in Marietta. I got more chocolate, just to make sure. After hearing the dramatic tale of The Dog on High Water Road, George bought some pepper spray. That would make two of us with protection. Though I’ve never used my spray, I had it with me. I hoped the wind would be blowing in the right direction. Pepper on us would just make a tastier doggy treat.
We went back to Wolf Run State Park to enjoy one more night of camping with hot showers and flushing toilets. When we weighed our packs Thursday morning, mine was 32 pounds, with Jim’s and George’s weighing in heavier. If they could do this, I had no excuse. We went to Lori’s one more time for good measure, then drove back to the public parking area in Belle Valley. We began the hike at ten o’clock. The sun was just popping out from behind the clouds, and George’s thermometer read 50 degrees. This was hiking weather!
After a few hours on back roads, we sat at the edge of someone’s yard to eat our lunch. We were soon interrupted by a friendly, clumsy dog that insisted on jumping all over us trying to grab a morsel. I thought I had heard a door open at the house. I wouldn’t have blamed the residents for letting Happy Pooch out to chase us off. We might have looked a little scary, even though we hadn’t yet cultivated our mountain-man beards. Or maybe they don’t see many hikers come down that way. I hope that changes. The area has a lot to offer.
We gathered up our food and moved farther down the road, finding a shady, dog-free spot to finish lunch. Thirteen cows came to the fence and glared at me. They must not have liked the idea of the meatballs in my spaghetti. Probably should have eaten the chicken meal instead.
Most people I hike with prefer ready-to-eat foods rather than meals they need to cook. I like a hot lunch and drink whenever possible. My comrades were willing to sit and relax a few extra minutes, though, to accommodate me, especially since the cows were not staring at them.
Those country roads amaze me. We saw five cars all day. I think this part of the state has the best on-road miles on the BT. After 9.7 miles—and maybe 50 whoop-dee-doos—we arrived at Archer’s Ridge Church. The time was only 4:15.
We had planned originally to stealth camp in the woods behind the church, but we soon changed our minds and pitched our tents above the radar on the church lawn. After all, no signs prohibited us from staying, and I believe Captain Blue camped here on his thru-hike. We tested George’s new twig-burning stove on the stone slab out front of the church. We had decided to use it as much as possible so we could carry less fuel in our packs. It was time consuming to collect and continuously load the twigs, but it wasn’t like we had a lot of other stuff to do. Just wave at the few people who passed us and honked.
The beautiful cemetery on the hill above was well kept. The building appeared to be used no longer, our clue being the old pews piled in the middle of the floor. The church lawn was cut and the privy behind it maintained. Maybe that’s for those who visit departed family members on the grounds. I thought of the history locked up inside the old sanctuary. How many verses of “Softly and Tenderly” came from the upright piano while the kids squirmed, waiting to escape and run free outside? How many souls saved, couples wed, goodbyes said to loved ones? I carried those thoughts into my tent as I stretched out to sleep. One day down and no worse for the wear. I whispered a prayer of thanks.
We were all content to take our time eating breakfast Friday morning to enjoy the view from the church door. We left the country church behind, but not before nine o’clock. I looked forward to the next ten miles. The part of the loop we would traverse that day is one of the most scenic road walks anywhere on the BT. After climbing a long gravel road, we stopped to catch our breath in front of a fracking plant. We must have lingered a little too long, for a guard came out to check on us. We continued on Fulda Road, the view of hilltops and valleys stretching across the countryside. Many of the leaves had already made their journey to the earth, but enough remained on the trees to paint beautiful colors on the rolling landscape.
As we turned onto Rado Ridge Road, I could see the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the distance pointing its steeple towards the blue skies, adding to my peaceful feeling. We stopped for lunch at a large cemetery, this being about the halfway point of the day’s 9.5 miles. A large tree inside the gate was encircled by a hexagonal bench. We took a long lunch on the sturdy structure while the breeze dried the morning’s dew from our gear. The low fence made a perfect clothesline.
The last 5 miles to camp were strenuous. I’ll be the first to admit it. I was taking a break when one of the few vehicles of the day approached, carrying mail and also bearing several layers of dust. The post lady stopped to check on us. We told her we were walking 150 miles, and she asked how many so far. When I told her only 16, it struck her as humorous. The comedy made its way into my weary brain as we walked the last few miles. Yep, I shouldn’t be counting any chickens yet. But I was happy that, besides the normal aches and pains of packing almost 20 miles in two days, I was still good to go.
We left Hoot Owl Ridge Road and walked a short distance through the woods to Herb’s Hostel. The first thing I did after I dropped my pack was retrieve our cache. The beef stew and green beans tasted especially good. After we ate we used the twig stove to heat water for drinks and to wash the dishes. Before retiring, we built a tiny fire, fueled regularly from a pile of dried brush only an arm’s reach from where I sat. I was getting into the rhythm of the Wilderness Loop, and the worries and stresses of life were beginning to drift away like the smoke rising into the starlit sky.