We pulled into the parking lot. The temperature was 27 degrees. As expected, Dave and Elliott were waiting for us. After dropping a vehicle at the planned ending point (19 trail miles away), we arrived back at the lot just minutes before Mike and Kaylee arrived. It was 8 AM on December 29th. The forecast that day was clear of rain, with pockets of sunshine and mild winds, but the temps would not reach 40 until near midnight.
As we arranged our gear, and made some last minute modifications and double checks, our crew of eleven took off from the backpacker’s parking lot at Garden of the Gods. Our eight youth ranged from ages 10-17. For Kaylee, this would be her first backpacking adventure, and for all except one of the youth, it would be their longest trek. On December 23rd, 2019, I and my 4 oldest kids, and Dave and Elliott, had taken off from the easternmost terminus of the River to River Trail (R2R) in Elizabethtown, Illinois, backdropped by a tiny (semi) replica of the Statue of Liberty overlooking the mighty Ohio River. Unlike our current forecast, that day would find us hiking the first leg towards our overnight campsite in unseasonably warm temps. Having done two shorter segments as day hikes with friends and families since that first day, we now found ourselves at mile 21.6 of the 160 mile trail, with hopes of section hiking the entire track over the next four years.
Within minutes of leaving the lot, we were treated to beautiful vistas on multiple overlooks within the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area. Root beers, seemingly brought along for a treat that night around the fire, were quickly “cracked open” by a couple of kids who couldn’t resist the sweet allure. As the trail meandered up and down on the ridgeline, gradually descending and ascending through the forest, we eventually spotted the road that the trail would jump on for a half mile into the town of Herod (the kids clearly didn’t appreciate the “dad jokes” about hiking into Herod during Christmas time).
Arriving in the sleepy town, and upon finding out that the Post Office did not have public restrooms, we settled into a covered picnic area behind the local Baptist church. After scanning our surroundings, we suddenly laid eyes on our first trail magic of the entire route. There was a small refrigerator replete with food, drinks, propane, first aid equipment, and even spiritual guidance for any hiker who cared to partake. Eureka! It was just the little pick me up the kids needed, as having done about 6 miles, we were just about halfway to our planned campsite for the night. As we remained there relaxing and trying to soak up the sun, while working to avoid the cutting breeze, Matthew and Charlie entertained the group by swinging on the undersized playground equipment next to the basketball goal.
After about 20-30 minutes, with a goal of arriving in camp at least an hour before sunset, we took off across Highway 34 and headed up Raum Road to the junction with William’s Hill Road, the route to the highest point (1064 feet) in Southern Illinois. Raum road eventually turned to rock, and after about 2 miles, the R2R dove into the woods, officially entering the One Horse Gap area. Within a few hundred yards, we hit our only major creek crossing of the day, and with the mercury still hovering around freezing, we looked fervently for a way to stay dry. Not far off the trail, we found a large log spanning the stream. As the kids quickly made short work of it, we Dads surveyed the area to see if there were any other options than testing our 40+ year-old balance, especially since a fall meant 3 plus feet of a pre-New Year’s polar plunge. Finding nothing overly promising, Mike (the fireman) finally convinced us that the log was reasonable, and we slowly, deliberately made our way across with no mishaps. Maybe we weren’t that old after all.
Hours later, with the sun going down, we found ourselves and our weary travelers within a mile of One Horse Gap, one of the (many) signature areas of the R2R. Known for its high bluffs, Native American history, and just beautiful scenery—including a valley the locals call the Promised Land—this particular area is a geologist’s and hiker’s dream. After finally coming upon One Horse Gap after repeated assurances to the younger crew that we “were almost there”, we ascended through the no more than 1.5 meter wide gap into our campsite for the night. Just to our east were beautiful, varied rock outcroppings, with a valley below where the dripping of a tiny waterfall could be heard. We had arrived, and everyone was ready to rest their worn legs and dive into all the well-earned, culinary delights (including marinated New York strips my cousin had brought along).
With the last full moon (Cold Moon) of the year brilliantly rising in the east, and only a breath of wind to shift the crackling fire, the dark, still wilderness was suddenly filled with youthful jabs and childish shenanigans. As we fathers vacillated between laughter and admonitions, and all of us prepared for an early escape from camp in the morning (just as the rains arrived for a sloppy, 6-mile hike to the end), the last rays of the antepenultimate day of 2020 gave way to the soft, enveloping moonlight. Despite all the difficulties and sorrow of the previous year, for a brief point in time, 2020 had been reduced to the basic joys of friends and family huddled around a campfire for warmth, food, and fellowship, perched high above the valley below. It hadn’t been easy to get there, but neither did it seem easy to get anywhere in life that was worthwhile. On this particular occasion, our hardships had not chosen us. Rather, we had chosen our hardships. And we had fun along the way.