I’m not sure who named Flat Creek Trail, but I suspect they have a twisted sense of humor. The first half mile of the trail is virtually straight down to a creek. The second is almost straight up. This repeats several times. I’m not sure where the “flat” part came from. Since it’s close to 5Pm by the time we leave and sunset is around 8:30PM these days, we calculate how long we have before we need to turn back around. Given that we’re on the shady side of the mountain, it will get darker earlier. We decide we want to be off the mountain in 2 1/2 hours and that we should allow 15 extra minutes for the return trip. This is a habit we have developed after many years of hiking together. We always assume it will take us longer to return since we seem to always choose trails that end uphill. However, we always take far less time on the return than on the way out. This is mainly because I want to stop and shoot frequently on the way out, but rarely on the way back. In any case, since we’re always relieved to be back in plenty of time when we’re racing against nightfall, we continue to pretend the return will take longer than the way out.
We work our way down the steep mountain trail and I relish the feeling of my feet sinking into the earth. That is what I most love about my fivefingers shoes–the feeling of being barefoot when I’m not. However, the thing I love the least is how it feels when I kick a rock with my pinky toes–something I seem to do every third or fourth step. I wonder how long it takes to learn to keep track of your pinky toes after they have been sheltered inside a toe box for so many decades? As we work our way down to the bottom of the trail, the trail gets narrower, encased in berry bushes. If it were a month earlier, I’m confident we would find an entire bear family cheerfully munching on the berries, but since this berry crop has been completely stripped, there is little chance of a beer encounter here. That’s a good thing. As much as I want to see a bear, these are the kinds of tight quarters where the risk of sneaking up on one accidentally is too high and too dangerous.
I continually hear rustling in the bush as we walk. I stop frequently and ask Pat if he hears it. He doesn’t–although he asks me if I’ve heard the gun shots that keep going off in the distance (I have). Each time I stop, the noise stops. This is usually a sign that I’m hearing something rubbing that I’m carrying or wearing. Each time I start again, I try to figure out what could be making the noise I hear. I am never able to figure it out, but then Pat starts hearing noise in the brush. We stop and spot wild turkeys at the side of the trail. By the time I get my camera in position, on, and the lens cap off the last one tucks her head behind a weed and they disappear. I decide to leave my camera on, although I do put the lens cap back on.
We walk on and I continue hearing the underbrush noises that I can’t quite reconcile with any explanation that makes sense. Then Pat stops me again. This time, it’s a female pheasant (I think–I’m not too good with game birds) working her way back and forth on the path ahead of us. I manage to get a couple of shots off this time, but who knows if they will be clear? We wait for her to find her way up into the woods before we pass, keeping our eyes open for any friends or family that might be lurking near by. However, she appears to be alone and we continue down the path.
We come to the first creek crossing and walk carefully across a single-log foot bridge. It’s smooth under my feet but my fivefingers grip the surface securely (another thing I love about them). We both manage to cross without getting so much as a toe wet. We see interesting mosses and lichen growing on the trees near the creek. Pat always spots the most interesting fungus. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my macro lens with me and neither lens I do have is good for these kinds of shots–my wide angle won’t focus from close enough and my telephoto requires brighter lighting for close up shots. I pass on taking the time to try to get a shot, knowing what I’ll get won’t likely be worth the effort.
We trek on, crossing a second creek. This time, we work our way across on the tops of rocks. Pat opts for the path most travelled, while I head up stream a bit for a route that seems a little drier, not wanting to walk in wet feet. My fivefingers make me feel like a rock climber the way they stick to the rocks. I cross with dry feet and we continue on.
When we get to a flat area (maybe that’s what the trail is named after?) where the creek runs through fern-covered ground and the trees are small and young, we spot many small birds flitting around the branches that hand low over the water. I do not even try to shoot them in the dim light. I have a hard time shooting song birds in bright light because they are not so cooperative when it comes to sitting for my camera. We spot a yellow-rumped warbler and a goldfinch, but several others remain a mystery, silhouetted against the sky. We watch for a while, catching our breath and waiting to se if more of the birds will fly down to reveal what they are. I ask Pat what time it is and if we need to turn around. He tells me he left his phone in the car. Neither of us has our phone or a watch, so now we have to guess at how long we’ve been hiking and whether it’s time to turn around or not.
Pat votes for turning around given that it’s getting darker faster than we expected and we have a lot of uphill climbing to do to get back. I agree and back we go. now we are on a mission. I’m not exactly sure what it is that worries us so much about getting caught in the woods after dark. We have a flashlight with us and it’s not like we’ve never hiked at night. But, for some reason, getting back to the car before dark seems imperative. Maybe it’s more about our growling stomachs and only one paltry bag of salted peanuts in our day pack that drives us to set this artificial deadline? In any case, we put our heads down and hike out like there’s no tomorrow. We pass by another group of wild turkeys, but otherwise see no more wildlife. Whatever the sound of something in the underbrush was that I kept hearing on the way out, I don’t hear now.
When we get to the final climb, we slow down and pace ourselves. Our goal now is to finish our hike without smelling so bad that we can’t go out to eat. We prepare ourselves for a long, slow, uphill climb and are surprised when the total climb is less than half as long as we expected. I comment that maybe it’s like the first time you drive somewhere–it always seems a lot longer on the way there.
Returning to the car, we get out wet wipes and clean shirts and clean up the best we can on the side of the road. As we stand there cooling off, a ranger pulls up in a pick up truck and asks if we’ve just come off the trail. When we affirm that we have, he asks if we saw any wild boar. Apparently, wild boar are a problem in the area. They were first introduced here by Europeans for hunting hundreds of years ago, but they have become an invasive species in the woods of the South ever since. After the ranger leaves, we wonder if that’s what they were shooting.
After making ourselves semi-presentable for a casual dining spot, we once more pile into the car and head down the road.