Brown County State Park was my first experience with anything that could be likened to real hiking. Before we took off on this trail, my “hikes” were confined to paths that were meticulously cleared, at least three feet wide, and always within a few minutes’ walk of an open road.
Brown County was different, and a completely unexpected departure for this city girl. This was the journey where I learned what hiking might actually mean; and it was definitely a trip where I fell in love. Like most things worth experiencing, it was a challenge that came with more than a few good lessons. If you’re new to trails too, perhaps you can take a few notes and save yourself some missteps. And if you’re on the more experienced end of the spectrum with my hiking partner Adam, you may get a few laughs in along the way.
Always Take the Map
Having no real concept of what I was getting myself into, I chose the longest trail in the park (9, if you’re interested in following our footsteps) and left the map in the car. To be fair, Adam let me. But two hours in, he wasn’t the one panicking that we might just be in the park till our dying day, which could very well be tomorrow, because it seemed like there was no way out. Nope, that was me.
In the many hikes since then, I’ve come to have a love-hate relationship with these maps, which seem more like rough guesses about the trails than actual guides. However, if I’d had a map of Brown County on that particular day, I would have at least known that I was on a loop, the campground was in the wrong direction, and it was going to take a really, really long time to get back.
Hop Off and Follow the Creek
Left to my own devices I would have stayed meticulously on the trail and missed out on some of the best parts of the day. Adam, in all his trailblazing wisdom, knew better. Whenever we found a creek, we hopped off and followed it as far as we could. This is where you find the fish, frogs, and other fantastical discoveries. Heading to the creek has never steered me wrong since.
…but Don’t Step on the Green Rocks
Unless you’re up for simply sloshing through the water, climbing up a creek bed takes a bit of balance. If you’re lucky enough to be shadowing a pro, just put your feet where he does and hope your legs are long enough to follow his tracks. If you’re extremely lucky, you may even find a hiking partner chivalrous enough to turn around and toss a few rocks in your path to make it easier. (If you find this person, keep him. They’re rare, wonderful, and completely irreplaceable.)
If you’re picking out your own stepping stones, just stay clear of the green ones. Those are the rocks that make you fall, and nothing good happens after that.
Duck When You’re Told To
It’s probably a spider. It’s probably big. Thankfully, I didn’t learn this lesson the hard way. I just ducked when I heard the word, and I always will. Hit the trails with people you trust and heed the warnings first. You can clarify later, but if you’re too slow to act you’ll probably have a faceful of web.
Pack a Bag
We did not take a bag. We didn’t even take a water bottle. The only part of the 10-mile hike that I didn’t enjoy was the hungry, thirsty part. Fortunately, we did have water bottles in the car which seemed about as valuable as gold by the time we reached them.
Know yourself at least a little and shoulder a bag if you’re headed out on a longer trail. Adam was fine with a pocketful of sunflower seeds, but if you’re more mortal than demi-God, just take the water. Always take the water.
Play in the Rain
A little bit of rain is no excuse for staying indoors. We didn’t have a sunny forecast, but it ended up being the most comfortable weather I could have asked for. The light rain barely trickled through the trees, and when it did, it was a welcome misting after hours of going uphill. Those moments when you throw your arms out and turn your face to the rain are the most memorable ones you’ll have.
Always Keep Moving
When the trail dwindles down to a tiny path and you think you’ve lost your way, keep going. When the hills loom endless above you, keep going. When your legs burn and your shirt is damp, and your feet are tired, keep going. If you’re not the most seasoned hiker in your party, you may hit that wall where you think you can’t possibly take another step and you should probably just sit down for good and make your peace living in the woods. But just on the other side of that wall is one of the best feelings in the world.
It’s Absolutely Worth It
Making it back up the hill, out of the woods, and on to Ogle Lake after nearly 10 miles, 23,000 steps, and 63 flights of hiking was downright euphoric. There are plenty of trails I can tackle without breaking a sweat, but the best ones to me are those where you have a moment of impossibility, pass it, and come out on the other side.
Do it right and the sore muscles and tired legs are worth every single step. In fact, you’ll head home wondering when you can do it again.