I ended up going to Wild Oak. This place has a lot of memories for me because it was there where I got my teeth cut for my first backpacking experience.
My hiker friend back into 2017 planned the trip to go there for like over half a year. I didn’t know her then. However, every time she decided to go, something happened, she had to reschedule 7-8 times. From her write up of the trip, it was supposed to be a super hard trip and it was to be done in the winter with numerous water crossings (she mentioned like twelve). Unfortunately for her but fortunately for me, the trip was postponed till mid summer, when it was just me and her. Like most trips we did, instead of canceling again, she decided to move it forward.
So I got to do the trip with her, and my first ‘real’ bp. There were only two river crossings. One of them has a bridge to walk across! We ended up didn’t backpack at all but hiked the whole thing in a day, partly my fault, since I was super excited about my physical endurance having just done my first marathon early that year. I was ready to show the world what it like to walk 26.2 miles. It was one of the toughest hikes I did, with a full pack. We were supposed to drop pack and camp midway but our hike was super fast and by evening time, we thought we had only couple miles left (it was like 10 instead because they remade and extended the trail and added like 4-5 miles, and we were using an old map). We laughed at it every time it is mentioned, because it was so stupid, to carry a heavy pack and did not use it and for 28+ miles no less.
Since then I have gone back to this place year after year. Last year, we were there during the Columbus Weekend and we happened to encounter a race happening that weekend. If you know anything about me, a race is like the reason for my existent. I almost couldn’t control myself to run with runners instead of backpacking that weekend. So I said to myself, I got to come back this year to run with them.
There is a tradition for this race, not sure since when, maybe for 10+ year, the Virginia Happy Trail people would come out here to fatass this trail – that is to unofficially race on the trail but without requiring signup or payment. If you remember I recently did the ‘VDM’ with them last weekend. All their races are kind of weird/informally done like that. They are really too old school for my taste, especially with the no-signup thing of a year in advance. I think because it is on government land, they are not supposed to have an organized race, but they got around this by having a group of informal private citizens that happened to gather during a particular weekend. Now the race is no longer tied to Virginia Happy Trail (I think to avoid being sued), but people still informally come on Columbus Day Weekend to run it.
So this year, I decided to go there on Columbus Day weekend to run. I ran on the trail by myself last year when I had the Lyme disease. I think I did it in 8 hours, which was pretty good (I think is the par for the course). But this time I did it in two laps. The first was on Saturday at 3pm and I didn’t finish until midnight, which took about 9 hours. In the morning the next day, I ran another lap, started at 9 am but didn’t finish until 8:30 pm. It took 11:30 hours.
The Virginia Happy Trail people didn’t show up in force though. They decided to have it the next weekend instead, which I think kind of nice to us the holiday visitors because the parking lot was kind a small (can only hold about 10 cars). There wouldn’t be enough space to park if everyone showed up.
I ran into three other people, who were also running the whole loop. They were fast. I think it probably took them under 7 hours. They ran in clockwise direction while I did the loop counter-clockwise. We met up around 2 pm. I was at mile 11, about 1/3 of the way while they were probably at mile 17 or 18 (2/3 of the way). I told them I probably wouldn’t get back to the parking lot until 8 pm. I had 6 more hours to go, while maybe only 3 more hours for them. Lucky! Though secretly I was hoping to finish by 6 pm (at the 9 hour mark). I didn’t want to be caught on the mountain in the dark on a cold and rainy day.
But as luck and my ability would have it, I ended up spending seven more hours out there. They told me hope I can descend before dark. It was good I tossed a small handheld flashlight in my hydration pack before setting out, thinking just in case but likely I wouldn’t need it. The last hour coming down the mountain in pitch dark was something I don’t want to do, but ended up doing. The light from my handheld was just barely enough to lit the few steps in front of me. It has barely enough light to see anything. I think it was the fog and my beam was not penetrating it. I think there was maybe just a candle worth of brightness. It flickered on and off and I was praying hard, please have enough battery to last the trip down.
The trail was not easy. It was not the hardest trail there is but they have enough steep uphills and downhills and there are portions that are rocky and technical. The first climb was over 7 miles! The last descend was 5 miles long! Quad killer indeed. Ankle and knee killers too. It was not a hike for the average city folks.
I rolled my ankle twice on the first lap around at mile 8/9. On my second lap in the same place I rolled my ankle twice again. I tried to stop to find the stone or root that tripped me. The sad thing was that part of the trail was gentle and smooth. There were many places that were rougher or tougher. I usually roll myself at the easiest places. The part that is hard to accept is on my second lap, I had my poles with me – this kind of rolling shouldn’t happen because my weight should have shifted to my arms. I had to pause to consider should I quit, since hiking 8 miles back is easier than doing 20 miles forward. I decided to risk it by moving forward (sunk cost fallacy). Luckily I didn’t roll again, but that was a pretty gusty decision.
One thing I did that almost put my life at risk was the tropical storm Delta (down graded from Hurricane Delta) arrived at our area that morning. I knew about the rain and wind. I packed a rain jacket but at the start of the run, I felt I don’t need it and left it behind. It was not raining then. When I did the first lap (in the evening), I was not cold. I was hoping the temperature would remain constant. But on the second lap once the rain came, and temperature dropped, I was freezing. I was halfway through by then distance wise, with the time around 3-4 pm. I was thinking how I wish I have my rain jacket with me. I might go into hypothermia and it was late Sunday. If something bad happens, no one will be on the trail to rescue me until maybe next weekend. I got to get off of this mountain myself before my body freezed.
Throughout the run, I dared not think of the time remained to the parking lot because even if it takes an hour, it was just too long to accept. I was focusing on the distance instead. I was at mile 15, and in my mind I told myself just need to get to the next peak which was like 3-6 miles away. I knew the trail is about 27-28 miles long. I kept thinking in that line to give myself hope.
Maybe the cold and tireness affected my thinking. I got lost on the next peak, Hankey Mnt. When we went there as a group, we got lost there too. The night before though I didn’t get lost because – my hiking friend told me she fixed the sign and I found her small beaten fixed sign and followed it down. With full confident that I wouldn’t get lost again on Hankey in day time I ascended (I could bypass it that peak if needed). However, when I ascended I found the campsite my friend told me about (something I didn’t see the night before), but her sign I didn’t find. In place of her sign I found a new and official trail sign clearly marked ‘WILD OAK TRAIL’, so I took the left turn there. I thought it was a left. This is where the confusion came in. Apparently by taking the left I ended back up at where I was about a mile away. Exactly, how on earth did I hiking backward on the trail without realizing it! I think though the backtracking was on the *old* trail except it was newly blazed or earlier I was on the old trail while ascending! I blame the forest park people, why blazed an old trail. They got the sign confused there. I was at mile 18 earlier. However the extra backtracking added an extra 3 miles (an hour more).
If anyone is reading this and planning to hike The Wild Oak Trail, don’t ascend the Hankey Mountain, leave the Wild Oak trail take the Betsy trail instead to go around it instead because there are some confusing signs up on the top that would loop you back around. The funny thing is they don’t blaze the other side of Hankey Mountain where Wild Oak merged into Betsy (or Betsy into Wild Oak Tr), so even if you are on right trail you won’t know it until five miles later. So just avoid ascending Hankey altogether.
I kept telling myself only one more peak to go (Lookout mountain at mile 22). It took maybe 7 more miles before I got there (and that was about 3 hours later). The time then was 6:30 pm, that was original my goal to finish by. However, I was not upset. We get there when we get there.
I was pressing for time. I didn’t know how long it would take to descend Lookout mountain. My guess was 4 miles. I know it would get dark by 7 pm. The mud was slick and I was not wearing my trail shoes but the normal road running shoes. So basically I was skiing, sliding, and slipping all over the places. Based on the previous day, it took me an hour and half to descend. So I tried to do it again this time as fast as I could. But I didn’t have a bright flashlight on me this time. The one I had I could hardly use to see. I kind of make out a shadowy path in front of me.
At one point I almost went over a cliff. Thank God, I stopped in time. That was mostly my fault too. The previous day, the city light below the Lookout Mountain was beautiful, and I tried to see if there were any light (It was foggy). While trying to look, I walked straight out into the edge because the path has curved at that point.
Over all it was a good experience. I had 27 miles the first day and 30 miles the second.
I brought my tent but too lazy to use it. I slept in the car both nights, a real definition of car camping. The first night, I sleep in the flat bed of my truck. I was not afraid of bugs. The second night was rainy and I slept inside. The backseat only fits half of me. I slept in like hammock position, V-shape. My head was up and my legs were up. I didn’t get much sleep. I left the rear window opened for air.
I think I was not supposed to sleep/camp at the trailhead, but there is no one around to enforce it. This was kind of reminescene of the first trip where we had a tent but ended up didn’t use it.