Better Lessons / Deer

I’m back from the real trip, the one that went to an actual destination, instead of Seymour, Indiana. I learned some more interesting lessons on this one. Let’s see if I can remember them all, or at least the best ones.

  • Tire pumps are not indestructible, nor, indeed, are they necessarily even very sturdy. One’s tire pump may choose to break in two pieces for no readily apparent reason. In this case it will be necessary to ride on poorly inflated tires to the nearest gas station to pump up, and then after the incident one will simply have to trust in the sturdiness of one’s tires until a new pump can be gotten.
  • Not overloading my homemade saddlebags causes them to work perfectly. When overloaded, they cause lots and lots of trouble. Minimalism wins again.
  • After biking throughout the daytime for three straight days, wearing a fleece jacket and sometimes a heavy coat, one can wipe the grime off one’s face in little globs.
  • It can get lonely being on a bike trip with no one to talk to. However, if I’m in a natural setting, loneliness usually means I’m not trying very hard to enjoy the moment, and I should consider where I am more. For example, I could try sitting in a forest in the night and listening. It might happen that a deer will wander around a few feet down the trail from me. In this case I will feel less alone, because nature is something that I’m a part of, it’s just that I have to remember that sometimes.
  • Google Maps is by no means to be unconditionally trusted. I had already learned this lesson, but I now know it harder. I was supposed to get on the Tri-County Triangle Trail outside Chillicothe, Ohio. To do this Google wanted me to go down Musselman Station Road. When I got to it, I discovered that Musselman Station Road is a one-lane gravel road that goes past some horses and sheep and then plummets for about a mile. When I got to the bottom of the street, there was no bike trail. Instead there was a river, which I couldn’t cross, especially not with my loaded-down bike and an abundance of NO TRESPASSING signs. Later the next morning, I found a map in a gas station that showed the trail. The problem was that I was on South Musselman Station Road, and the trail is only accessible from North Musselman Station Road. The two roads don’t touch. They could, easily, with a bridge—South deadends at the river, and the map shows North deadending directly opposite from it, give or take a field—but they don’t. So I had to push my bike all the way back up the road and take the highway.
  • A tarp laid underneath and then folded overtop of one’s sleeping bag can serve as an workable substitute for a tent, but presents the problem of letting dew and frost collect on one’s face and any uncovered belongings.

That should give you the general flavor of the trip. But since you’d probably also like to know how it went in a chronological sort of fashion, I’ll write about that too.

Day one: I got up early at home and ate, and then managed to get out of the house and on the road by 8:30 in the morning, which impressed me. I biked out of Cincinnati via Loveland and the Little Miami Scenic Trail. Looking at my directions, I decided that Greenfield, Ohio, would make a good goal for the day. At 69 miles away, it was a good distance, somewhat over a quarter of the 250 miles I was going to be covering in four days. The road was flat most of the way there. Following Ethan’s meal plan for bike trips—eat simple bagels and peanut butter for breakfast, something from a restaurant for lunch, and a cooked-out meal for dinner—I stopped in Blanchester at lunchtime and ate an entire 12-inch pepperoni pizza that I got for just four dollars. Continuing, I headed on toward Greenfield. And I made it there at about 2:30. What else was there for it but to keep going? So I went to Chillicothe, making it about 83 miles. Getting past the Musselman Station scandal, I got there an hour or so before dark and found a park next to a disconnected part of the Tri-County Triangle Trail. I set up camp there a little ways away from a creek, in low ground, behind some tufts of dead tall grass. I cooked some fairly tasty fancy ramen noodles. Then I went to bed.

Day two: I got up and, despite forecasts that had warned me of rain, it was only misty. I ate my bagels and packed up my stuff and got going. That was when it started raining, but it wasn’t bad—just a drizzle. I didn’t even pull out my raincoat. But I did bike a little slower. I still covered about a day’s worth of biking, but no more. For lunch I stopped in a little carry-out place called Nichol’s. It was tiny, barely big enough to walk in and with no seating, but it had apparently been operating for four generations there. I saw at least two of those generations—the couple running it, and one of their moms, who was sitting in the front watching a TV barely as far away from her as the end of her legs. I got a meatball sub, because Mr Nichols said the meatballs were good, and also a “pizza bun”—pizza toppings on a hamburger bun, one dollar. Then I ate it sitting on their bench out front, watching their somewhat shy cat. Mrs Nichols came out a little later and asked about my journey, and when I told her my destination, she seemed impressed. I pulled into Athens and found another bike trail. It’s twenty miles long, but I only joined it in time to use the last two. I aimed for a park outside town, Strouds Run. But when I found the trail that led there, it said I had three miles to travel, and it was kind of steep. So I crashed for the night in a hilly field, separated from the subdivision I had come through by a construction site and a very big pile of dirt. That was the night when I sat in the forest and heard the deer. I left my hat where I was sitting, and didn’t realize this until I went to sleep. At that point I had to get out of my warm sleeping bag and trek all the way back up the trail to get it.

Day three: I’ll put in my journal entry for this one, because I think it’s one of my better ones lately.

Holy crap, I love this state. I biked for the whole morning down Highway 50 in Ohio. Just like it has been, it was not exactly hospitable, with often narrow shoulders, and hills. One motorist, in a big black SUV, honked at me and tried to hit me with an apple core. Also, I dropped my hat somewhere before Belpre, and at Coolville, I tried to pump my tire but my tire pump broke. I had to spend 75¢ at the nearest gas station to get the tire back to normal air pressure. These weren’t Ohio’s fault, really, and to be fair I did have a tasty lunch at Napoli’s just past Little Hocking, but it wasn’t the awesomest morning.

Then at 1:30 I crossed into West Virginia. There was a sign, right there on the bridge over the Ohio River, that said, BIKE ROUTE—USE SHOULDER. I was amazed. This state told people to share the road with me! After brief maplessness-based puzzlement, I found Parkersburg. And it just seemed like such a great city. Not huge, and with nature around, and—what I noticed most—it has lots of cool establishments, like the Smoot Theater, and some good-looking restaurants. I blundered upon the Visitors’ Bureau after I had given up trying to find it and had a nice long chat with the lady in there about such things as the North Bend Rail Trail and the sweet potato in the flowerpot out front shaped like a duck [note: in my journal there’s a little drawing of it here]. She told me that the Travelers Restaurant next door was actually closed, but there was an excellent cafe (whose name I forget now) and a great Lebanese restaurant. I had already eaten, but I would have loved to try any place here. Instead, though, I had to move on to the Rail Trail.

So then, after much confusion (Parkersburg is a confusing city to navigate), I found the trail. And it’s nothing but good. This whole trip, I’ve just seen everything built around cars. Highway restaurants, exit ramps, noisy roadways. And here? It’s all for people on bikes and horses, and before that it was for trains. So what I see is the backwoodsy places, the tumbledown shacks and houses with sign collections nailed on. And also the horse pastures and the grazing cows and rummaging chickens. And of course the woods and the rivers. This trail is as close to perfection as I’ve come on this trip or for a long time. In fact, I could see myself living in Parkersburg, or somewhere else in this state that’s equally great. (And if I recall correctly, a press I’m interested in is located somewhere in the state. [I was wrong—it’s in California. But I’ll let that go for the moment.] I don’t know if they’d likely be hiring, but it’s something to think about. (While I’m at it: there’s also mountaintop removal and other bad coal-mining problems in the state. These are something I could try to stop. I’ve given thought lately to what I’m going to make my life centered around, if I’m rejecting the standard formula where your job equals your identity and nothing important happens in your free time. Family is a big thing: I can hardly wait to raise some kids and do awesome stuff and teach them things. West Virginia is backwoodsy enough to do cool outdoors things with them. But after they grow up and leave, when it’s just me and (hopefully) my wife, then what? I think environmental activism is something I’d find fulfilling for decades, something I could spend a lifetime on. Here there would be something to try to stop. In Eugene there’s logging, sure, but there are so many activists out there already, and they’ve grown up with the forests there lots of them, and it’d be hard to make much of a difference when there are already so many systems set up to do what I want to do and so many countersystems set up to stop that from being done. That’s not to say I’m discounting the possibility of my moving to the west. But I know, as of today, that I could live here, that this is at least one place where I could live.))

So I biked down the Rail Trail, looking out at all this stuff, and looking for somewhere to camp. And then there was a picnic table, with level ground next to it. Perfect. Now I’ll make my spaghetti that I got at Kom–Pak in Parkersburg. The success of my lentils last night encourages me. I didn’t believe they would, but they got nice and soft and mixed in well with the onion from Kroger. It was almost too much to eat. But not quite. Also, as for this morning—the field was cold. Very, very cold. And the frost melted all over my stuff. So hopefully my sleeping bag isn’t too wet to be warm tonight.

After I wrote the entry, I went for a walk and then to sleep. While I was in the sack, a chorus of coyotes burst out around me. They sounded like they were on all sides of me. I was amazed, but also slept with my knife out.

Day four: I got up and it was even colder than the previous morning. I was out in the shade of all the hills now, and the landscape hadn’t thawed yet by the time I got rolling, which was a first for the trip and required me to defrost my bike seat. Everything melted while I was reading a trail signboard at the trailhead in Walker, West Virginia. I turned away from it and there were liquids again. I rode on and eventually came to the first of many tunnels for the day. Not far into it, the light disappeared. I could still see the light at the end of the tunnel, but around me it was totally black and the walls were invisible. Drifting through, with no footsteps to bounce me up and down, and unable to see my body or anything but the light ahead, I felt like a disembodied head. Who needs drugs when you’ve got tunnels? There were eleven of them that day, I believe. The last one was the longest, and came just before West Union, which was where I left the trail and followed a blacktop road to Nana & Papaw’s house. I hadn’t been down this way since I came to college, and I was grinning and whistling in my head the whole way, recognizing things I hadn’t seen in years. After ten miles, I finally pulled around the last bend and pedaled right up the long driveway, past Nana & Papaw, and put the bike in the garage, where Papaw tied it up so it wouldn’t fall over. The trip was done. Now it was time for Thanksgiving. I got in the mood by eating lots and lots of chicken noodle soup for dinner. I had arrived.

The big idea behind coming to West Virginia, besides Thanksgiving, was the deer hunt. Starting when the season opened on Monday, we had three and a half days to find a deer—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thanksgiving morning. The first two of these days, we hiked up into the wilds of Nana & Papaw’s hill and stayed there all day, but to no avail. The closest we came was at the very beginning, when we summited the rise to get to the flat area where the biggest cabin sits, and Micah saw three deer, far off behind too many trees for a shot, and they quickly left. Other than that, it was just me and Micah sitting in the cabin, looking out into the 360 degrees of forest enveloping us. I could think of many worse ways to spend a day. Though we didn’t see deer, I learned the forest’s daily routine, more or less. Like how all the squirrels come out an hour after dawn and an hour before dusk and scamper around making all the noise they can. On Monday night Micah and I actually slept in the cabin, so as to be up at dawn to see the deer moving, but it rained the next morning, and that causes deer to lie down and stay put. No deer, but it was a delightful warm morning anyhow, and we collected hickory nuts.

On the third day, Dad, the master of the hunt, stationed me where he had put me yesterday afternoon, on a knob with a commanding view of two valleys and a broad expanse of hilly land. I listened to squirrels all morning. Around 11:00, I saw some deer, but two of them were too small, and the other one was too quick to head up the hill and over the ridge. But, unluckily for the deer, up the hill was where Dad had positioned himself. I heard a shot. For a while nothing happened, so I just kept watching for deer. I saw one, actually, though it was too far away, and barely appeared over the ridge before it walked back over the same ridge and disappeared. Then Dad came down and said, “Hey. Did you see it?”

He had hit the deer. I told him I’d seen one, perhaps the same one, head south. He figured the one I’d seen couldn’t be the one he’d hit, if it was walking calmly like I described. His had run erratically downward from him. He looked around near where he had hit it, and found a blood splatter. “You see how foamy this blood is? That’s a lung shot.”

He trailed it away from the blood splatter, northward. I headed south, not following the blood, just looking for a wounded deer. Over the next rise, I saw a deer, but it didn’t appear any too wounded, because it got up and ran away from me. Still, though, it didn’t run out of sight, so I ran after it. The next time it was slower about getting away from me, and then I finally found it lying down next to a stump. From twenty yards away over a valley, I took aim with the gun Dad had given me, and stopped the deer from running any more. Then I walked over to her. She was sputtering from the lung shot, lying there, apparently knowing her time had come. I chambered another round and aimed, and took a point-blank shot. She died.

Now here I was, with what used to be a deer, and not knowing what to do with it. I yelled for Dad, but he was several valleys away, out of sight. After a time he came back from following the blood trail the wrong way, and showed me how to field-dress a deer. After we took most of her guts out, we trussed her up on a dead sapling by her feet and started carrying her. Uphill, Dad said, was the correct way to go to get back to the house, so we carried her that way. But we quickly discovered that she was very intent on remaining a body at rest. Getting her up to the top of the hill, in all the slippery leaves, was proving to be just short of impossible. We took frequent breaks, during which I would check out the terrain just ahead. When we got near the top, I went up to it to see which way to turn. But this was a ridge we had never crossed, adorned with a barbed-wire fence and an ATV trail. Dad came up to examine the situation, and pointed us in a way that seemed to me the exact opposite of where we should be going. He walked that way and tried to find the cabin, but it wasn’t there. So he tried going off in a perpendicular direction. Nothing there either, and I soon found out why: the cabin was where I thought it should be, to the north. I showed it to him, and he said, “How’d it get there?!” Then he resolved to follow the ATV trail to the house while I waited and bring back his truck so we wouldn’t have to carry it.

That seemed to me like cheating. I guess fate thought so too, because he came back not with his truck but with Micah. The three of us took turns carrying the deer, two at a time, in the direction I’d had in mind the whole time. It was up and down all the way to the cabin, and even such brawny men as us required breaks every minute or two. But once we got her to the cabin, there was a trail that was clear and downhill the whole way, so we got her back in no time from there. We untied her, and Papaw took her off to a butchering place. Then we collapsed into chairs and ate big meals.

The next day was Thanksgiving. I finally appreciated this family-reunion-style Thanksgiving for the first time. I learned a lot: for example, I had no idea that Papaw had seven siblings. I talked to one of them, Jon, about his days of hopping trains from town to town on the same route that had been turned into the North Bend Rail Trail. He also told me about Clay, an ancestor of ours who was so good at trainhopping around the time of the Depression that B&O offered him a job, which he held down for decades. I talked to a lot of other people, too. But most of it doesn’t make for anything interesting to read here.

So, lastly, I want to put down some reflections I’ve had on wilderness skills since spending a little time outdoors. My beef a while ago with some of the books I’d read about primitive skills was that they had a focus on wilderness survival, and tended to pretty much ignore the possibility of wilderness living. They were written for the person who thinks there’s a possibility that he’ll get marooned in the wilderness and need to survive long enough to get rescued. That sort of thing really happens to very few people. What I was looking for more was a book of ways to live off the land, in the wilderness, for the long term. Now I’ve begun to think more about something that I always knew, but didn’t really think about much: preindustrial people didn’t live right out in the wilderness. They lived in houses and shelters that they built. The primitive skills they knew weren’t the ones that you might think of when you think of survivalism, and they’re not the ones that a lot of places teach. They were more along the lines of how to find wild food plants, how to preserve those foods, how to hunt animals and preserve that also, and how to keep a nice home to live in. These are things that I’ll have to learn by doing for a long time. And I wonder to what extent they can really be taught. If I wanted to teach people wild living skills, I could teach them the basic, survivalist-type skills, like making fire with a bow-drill, knapping flint tools, and such, and that will equip them to stay alive for a little while—but people who know this stuff and nothing beyond it are people who will soon return to civilization after their he-man little outing in the woods. Or I could try to teach them how to really live off the land, with those skills that I mentioned before: food preservation, identifying wild plants, hunting game. But, to take just the example of wild plants, teaching this in any way that would help a person out in living off the land would require me to show them dozens of plants, what parts of them are available in what seasons, and if I wanted to really help them out, how to cook with these plants. That can’t be covered in a weekend class, or in a week-long one. You’d really want a year, to see all the different seasons. But that’s not practicable. So, if I want to teach (after thoroughly learning for myself) wilderness skills, what do I do? Teach what I can in limited amounts of time? Teach the little skills with cool-factor like firebuilding? Or perhaps I would go a completely different direction with it. I could live in an ecovillage and learn these sorts of skills from other people while also teaching whatever I know for myself. Or I could make a homestead of my own, learn stuff by experience, and then teach it to my child or children.

The trouble with the last two is that they don’t earn money. I wrote in a previous entry that I thought the career for me is in teaching wilderness skills. Now I’m having trouble even deciding what wilderness skills mean—in two senses of the word: what the words “wilderness skills” refer to, and what wilderness skills mean to me. But I’m going to stop there for now and come back later with a post that has thoughts about wage labor, time, and also the meaning of life. Things are complicated. But I feel like I can eventually understand a lot of them, even though I’ll never understand them all.

File under: adventure, biking, traveling, West Virginia, land skills

Note: comments are temporarily disabled because Google’s spam-blocking software cannot withstand spammers’ resolve.



What a wonderful journey and learning experience. I know that whatever you decide to do, you will do it right and be very successful at it–maybe not monetarily, but for the world's gain. But I'm also glad you are home safe and sound. Thanks for informing us of all your adventures. Grandma




I got so tired reading about your bike travels that I had to take a nap this afternoon. Aah! To be young again, then I would go riding with you. G.Pa.




I suggest opening a business of some sorts off of the Appalachian trail. There are people who make a living servicing the needs of hikers out in the bush. All along the trail there are places that only people "in the know", know about. Places where only hardcore wilderness junkies know about.


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