She started down the path with such authority that I figured she knew where she was going. Never mind that she was a newly turned one-year-old puppy who’d never been on the trail before. She was so insistent that I, attached at the back of her leash, followed her blindly.
We’d hiked two other trails at the north end of Stringer’s Ridge before, but never the Hill City trail. I didn’t know where it would lead us, but we had water and were fed and ready for a workout. We should’ve taken the trail’s name as a warning, but dogs can’t read and I was foolishly optimistic. As we ascended the mountain ahead of us, my legs started to burn and there were a couple hills that required Stella to get a running start. I used her momentum to propel myself up those hills, too. She pulled me along more often than not, and for once I was appreciative of her energy and tendency to pull on her leash. Going downhill was another story, but her excitement kept me going as my Fitbit ticked off flights of stairs climbed.
A mile and a half in, I started to get nervous. We were both getting worn out from the extreme hills and valleys we’d climbed up and over, and there was no connection point in sight. I wasn’t necessarily worried for myself, but I know Stella and I know she’s not an endurance dog. She’s a sprinter, and she’d blown through all of her puppy energy. I couldn’t pull up a map of the trail system on my phone, so I texted Ian and asked him how long the Hill City trail was.
10 miles total, he texted back. See you in six hours.
I wasn’t concerned about getting myself to the next connection point, even if it was 10 miles away, but the thought of having to carry a 32-lb dog out of the woods made that back part of my mind start to panic a bit.
We moved off to the side of the trail so we wouldn’t meet the business end of any cyclists flying by and had some water. I gave her some of the treats I’d packed and we listened to the wind slowly lilting through the leaves that were falling around us.
We were on a directional trail, so we couldn’t turn around and go back the way we came. I knew that the trail connected with three other trails at some point, but there was no map nearby and the one that Ian consulted didn’t include mileage. We trucked on, and I was glad I packed a liter of water. We passed a blaze and I figured a connection would appear soon.
After walking a while longer, a slow-moving cyclist approached us and I asked him how far to the next trail connection point. My relief was audible as he said “Just up the hill a ways, you’ll see the big parking lot.” We walked another half mile or so and came upon a connection point and a map, where I dejectedly realized the parking lot he was talking about wasn’t the trailhead we’d parked at but some other lot that wasn’t officially part of the park.
We’d started up at the very north end of the park and now were at the very south end. We’d only gone a little more than two miles, but it was the most strenuous two miles in the trail system. A man and three old women, along with their dogs, came out of a clearing and I swallowed my pride and asked them if they knew the fastest and easiest way to get back to the Spears Ave trailhead. They were nice and pointed out a good route on the map, one that had a gradual elevation change and not the thigh-burning ridiculousness we’d just encountered.
I gave Stella some more water and we headed out, up the Cherokee trail, and then cut over to the Strut, a trail I’ve hiked many times. She perked up when we hit the final passage of the trail, and pulled me down the hill and back to the car. I texted Ian that we made it out, turned the air conditioning on full-blast, and hauled our happy asses back to the house.
In total, we’d climbed the equivalent of 38 flights of stairs over 3.25 miles. That’s really not anything crazy, but I’d prepared to only go about a mile and a half. Luckily I always over-prepare with water, and luckily Stella is always game for a walk. She never once tried to quit. When I’d slow down she’d look behind me and smile, tongue hanging out, urging me on. She pulled me up countless hills. When she’d slow down I’d let her rest, but then encourage her to keep going. We were in sync, marveling at nature, getting our second and third winds at the same time.
And when we got home, we both resolved to do nothing else physical for the rest of the day.