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Some of the worst things can happen in the best places. Sam A. Baker State Park 3/15-3/17 2013

March 31, 2013

So I had convinced Melissa to go backpacking with me at Sam A. Baker State Park in Patterson, MO up to the hiking shelters along the Mudlick Mountain Trail. Sam A. Baker is just about 2 hours south of St. Louis, and is the result of work by the Missouri chapter of the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the legislation enacted by FDR in order to get us out of the depression back in the 30s.  The hiking shelters were some of the many structures in the park built by the CCC, and they are a place that I had visited many times in my youth, starting when I was 17 (half my life ago). We camp at this park at least once a year, but I hadn’t been up to the shelters in a few years so it was definitely past due.

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These pictures don’t convey the beauty of the place anywhere near to actually being there.

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Sat right there on a good amount of nights, watching the stars and listening to the earth.

We had decided to only stay up the trail one night (Saturday) but we had all weekend so we went down Friday and stayed that night at the campground below the mountain. We got there in the early evening, and due to it being off season the camp store wasn’t open yet, so we spent our first half hour gathering firewood from the surrounding forest. It was a calm, cool evening, and after our dinner we sat by the fire and appreciated the quiet of the nearly deserted campground. We discussed plans for the next day and got off to bed at a reasonable hour.

The morning came and we got up and made coffee and breakfast. As we were packing up the tent and bedding, we also got our packs and gear finalized for the hike. It is somewhere around 1 and a half to 2 miles up to the first shelter, and about another half mile to the second one. The first one has the better view, but it also gets a lot of traffic so you have less privacy. I was betting on the earliness of the year to grant us some isolation. It wasn’t quite spring yet, and the nighttime temperatures were still dipping into the mid to upper 30s.

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The REAL challenge in all this is finding someone to take the group photo

Let's go, Dad!

Let’s go, Dad!

After driving to the trailhead that I prefer (also the start of the “Shut-ins Trail”), we got our packs on and headed up the road and up the hill. The first section of trail is a steady ascent. Not too steep, but enough to get the lungs going. This is probably the steepest part of the trail if you are only going to the first shelter. After you get up this section, it follows the curvature of the mountain, ducking in an out, and crossing over the watersheds that have sculpted the hillsides and gullies. During the springtime, when the weather is typically wetter, this is quite a lively trail and waterproof shoes are greatly appreciated. On this particular trip, it was all the felled trees that were a nuisance. Maybe there had been recent severe weather. Maybe I haven’t hiked this trail so early in the year and maintenance hadn’t started for the season. Whatever the reason, there were quite a bit of trees and branches littering points of the trail that required some ducking and climbing.

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Eventually we made it to Hiking Shelter #1, and to our happiness nobody had occupied it yet that weekend. The hiking shelters are first come/first serve, and had this been a summer trip it could easily be filled with a boy scout troop already, hard at work tying knots and whittling. We were in luck. So we dropped our packs and surveyed the area. Back up on the main trail just at the turnoff for the spur trail to the shelter was a big tree that had fallen and taken two younger trees with it. After we had eaten and relaxed for a bit, I grabbed the saw and walked up to the mess. I spent about an hour cutting up the tree and clearing the trail with Melissa dragging the more seasoned logs back to the shelter, and then we spent the next hour cutting those logs up to fit into the fireplace and provide us with whatever warmth we could get that night.

To describe the shelters, they are 3 walled, stone structures with a gable roof and 2 columns evenly spaced on the open side. The floor is stone, and on either end there is a fireplace and chimney. On one trip up here, years ago, my friend Jeremiah and I spent an entire Thursday dragging logs to the shelter, breaking them up and stacking the firewood between the two columns. We got that pile about five feet high. That weekend in early April we had both fireplaces going and it was comfortably warm and toasty within the structure. This time however, we would only have one fire burning. In order to trap some of the heat and block the wind, as well as protect us from the rain (the roof looked questionable) I brought a tarp and strung it up over our sleeping bags at a slant in front of the fireplace. Something else that I didn’t remember from my earlier trips was how uncomfortable it was to sleep on the stone floor. Sure, we had out thermarest bedrolls that work great on the soft, loamy forest floor. But this was hard, unrelenting stone. Solid and sturdy against time and the elements, and definitely NOT cushions.

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Melissa, preparing our hot dog sticks.

So we explored a little bit. Walked up a steep section of trail and around to the second shelter, which was also empty, and then back to the nearest watershed to filter drinking water. Back at the shelter we got a little fire started and sat and enjoyed where we were going to get to spend the night. We were visited a couple times by campers hiking through, and we encouraged them to take a minute or two and appreciate the view. Occupying the shelter should come with an understanding that other people deserve to share the area, and nobody singularly owns the right to such a pretty spot.

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So the sun went down and we cooked our hot dog dinner on the sticks that Melissa had found and whittled. We sat on our backpacking chairs in front of the fire, and then eventually on our sleeping bags. I wasn’t even done with my second beer (a luxury that I am willing to carry on such a short hike) when I got up to step out of the shelter and to the edge of the woods to use the facilities. It was dark at that point and I had stepped off the stone deck to the ground about a foot below that day so many times that I had no fear or awareness that anything could go wrong. But as I stepped down with my left foot, thinking about the current subject of conversation with my gal and the pressing urgency of my bladder, a rock below me sat half submerged into the ground with the intent of changing the course of the evening, and possibly the current direction of my life.

So my foot came down, and in one smooth movement caught the edge of the rock and rolled inward with all my weight directed on my now sideways-bent ankle. I dropped to the ground, knowing in a mild panic that something bad had happened. This is not good, I thought, as the searing pain brought tears and sweaty chills. I lifted myself up to sit on the deck of the shelter, with Melissa behind me in front of the fire. I took a few moments trying to assess if my ankle could still take the pressure of my weight. Hobbling painfully back and forth, I hoped that I could just walk it off.

I couldn’t walk it off.

I walked to the edge of the forest, to the established pee corner, and relieved myself. Struggling back to the shelter, I tried to calm myself and reassess what the next 24 hours might bring. I didn’t think it was broken, but it was wobbly and painful. We had to hike out of here. I was supposed to start a new job on Monday. I had no health insurance. After sitting in front of the fire for a couple more minutes, I concluded that the best thing right now was probably to try and get some rest and stay warm. I am notoriously a big heater, generally exuding quite a bit of energy to anyone near me. Melissa commented that she had never felt me as cold and shivering as I was.

So I tried to sleep.

After a few hours of randomly waking up and throwing more wood on the dying fire, the pain was too much and I took some ibuprofen. This was more than just a minor irritation, and after probably half an hour the pain subsided a bit. The problem now was the physical realization that sleeping on a rock floor sucks too. There wasn’t much sleep that night for either of us, and I felt a bittersweet happiness when it started to get lighter out, knowing that the hike out wasn’t going to be easy. It had started to rain too.

We got up and started wrapping our gear up in preparation to go. I pulled the ACE bandage out of my first aid kit and secured my ankle as best as the little bandage would allow. I got the saw and hobbled up to the fallen trees I had cleared off of the path the previous day and cut myself a primitive crutch. After we got everything ready to go, we sat for a while, hoping that the rain would stop. It didn’t, and I had to get this hike over with.

So we set out.

With it having rained pretty steadily for a few hours already, the trail was muddy and the watersheds had become a lot more active. All that coupled with the downed trees along the trail made this more of an obstacle course than I would have wanted. We walked along as determined as we could. Step, half step, step, half step. Around the knobs and hills, through the mud, under the branches. I alternated between using the heavy green-wood crutch, and holding it over my head to give my shoulder and right leg intermittent breaks. As we made our way, through the pain all I thought about was the awful and eerily coincidental timing of this accident. I hadn’t been working full time since August. I was supposed to start a new job with a previous employer the next day. The construction industry has been drowning and cannibalizing itself for a number of years now, but it is finally slowly coming back. I had by this point lost my health insurance though, and my house has entered foreclosure. I was finally getting some good news. The timing of this was too notable and depressing to be ignored. So as I struggled along, jolts of pain with every step, and I looked around at this beautiful sacred place that I love so much. We were surrounded by life starting to wake up from it’s winter nap, with the warming soil that spring brings and a replenishing rain falling all around us. This is one of my favorite natural areas to be in, and after years of adventures, I can attest to a connection with the energy of this mountain that I know to be true in my heart. Suddenly the difficult hike was internalized and I found myself trying to understand why any creator or God or life-force that governs our existence would allow such a thing to happen to me in such a personally holy place. This is my temple, my sanctuary, the forest. Soaked and hurt, gear on my back crushing the throbbing weakness that was now overcoming me, this was the last place on earth that I wanted to be.

And in the rain and the mud and the pain, I broke down, with a mile still to go.

We finally got out, back to the car. The pain had dulled somewhat, as well as my emotions. We loaded our wet packs, got the soaked dog in, and hit the road. On the way back to town we discussed the plan to go by an urgent care facility and that we would be missing dinner at my parent’s house in Barnhart. We just wanted to be at home. I called my potential boss and explained the situation and that it would likely be a handful of weeks before I would be able to work. He shared my disappointment and told me to call them when I was in good shape. We got home.

My ankle ended up severely sprained, with some torn ligaments. Whatever moral or conclusion exists, it escapes my vision currently. Something really awful happened in a place very special to me at one of the worst possible times. But I guess it could have been worse, and I got off relatively easy. My ankle could have been broken. We could have had 10 miles to hike out. It still sucked though.

Maybe something good will come out of this. Maybe it will teach me to always look before I step. Maybe it will be an example to someone in the future, including myself, of the truth that all things are just temporary and what matters is that we are breathing and with people we love.

This is just the latest upward incline on the path of my life. And I will return to that special place again, having shared a different intimacy with it this time than neither the mountain nor myself were previously accustomed to.

Thanks for letting me share this with you.

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5 Comments
  1. Been there, and I know it’s no fun. Get better soon!

    • Thank you. It is in remarkably better shape now than it was then, two weeks ago. A calmer perspective comes with time, but man, when you’re in the experience as it is happening…it’s a killer. Overall it wasn’t the worst experience of my life, and I’m thankful for having gone through it. Could have been much worse.

  2. I stumbled across your blog and glad I did. I hiked a major chunk of Missouri as I am writing about Lewis and Clark. Some of my best camping experiences thus far have been in Missouri (I live in Colorado Springs). I have had some crazy experiences as we have progressed into Nebraska. I enjoyed your writing style, it is similar to the style I use as a journal my experience. Keep hiking, best of luck in all your endeavors. I live by the saying Solvitur ambulando- “it is solved by walking.” I will stay tuned….

    • Thank you for checking it out. This experience was just over three weeks ago and my ankle is a lot better. I have been through Colorado Springs once, and southern Colorado. The beauty there is unreal. It has been on my list of places to move to if I wasn’t so tied down to St. Louis. I am now following your blog. As the St. Charles area has more of the Lewis and Clarke history and enthusiasm, I get exposed to their story now and again. I have always been astounded by how they could travel UP-river. I haven’t had any canoe experience on a big river. Again, thank you…and I really like that quote, “It is solved by walking.” Take care.

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  1. Sam A. Baker State Park, Patterson, MO 4/12/2013 | Camping Missouri

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