My first backpacking trip was an ambitious one, 26 miles in two days. There’s a romantic allure to piling everything you need to survive on your back and heading out the door to explore and backpacking had been something I’d been interested in since i was in my early 20’s but life being the way it is always kept me from pursuing it and now finally I was off.
Not far from Killeen is Georgetown Lake and Goodwater Loop, a 26 mile trail that loops the lake. It was close, it was a challenge and so it was planned. 2 days, 26 miles. It’s never a good idea to hike alone, so my considerably younger buddy Dave packed with me, he’s young and fit and the 65lbs we had attached to our backs didn’t seem to amount to much more of a workload for him than walking along as he would through Walmart. We had spent an extra night at Russell Park so that we could hit the trail early Friday morning,It provided a chance for us to practice setting up gear and then repacking for the hike ahead.
The orange glow of Friday morning’s sunrise got us up and out of our tents, after a quick oatmeal breakfast we packed up and were off on our adventure. Going through the normal checklist to make sure we have everything we needed. Water being the most essential and also weighing the most we opted to carry more of it and so shed as many vanity items we could to lighten the load. “No need to bring along that heavy bottle of rum” Dave reminded me. We were fortunate, Central Texas weather in the fall doesn’t seem to start to cool down until the end of October, but our first day out the weather was moderate. Temps settled in the low 90s with nice puffy cumulus clouds drifting by.
Day 1, start at the Russell park trail head end up at Cedar Hollow camp before sunset, a meager 14.5 miles.
Day 2, Cedar Hollow back around to the Russell park trailhead where our cars were parked. 12 miles to the finish line.
We hit the Russell park trailhead about 10am and headed south through an abundance of tall post oaks and fragrant cedars. Dew was still settled on the ground which made some of the up an downhill passages slick and a little precarious. We took our time through here, fearing slipping and getting hurt so early on in the hike and ruining the trip. Time ebbed and flowed in weird ways. Sometimes it would feel like we were hiking for hours and would find we only had moved a mile. Other times it would seem we instantaneously arrived miles from where we had last logged time. Even with 65 lbs on our backs this part of the hike we hardly felt fatigued, we were both energized and eager for the miles ahead.
We kept on at about a Three and a half mile-per-hour pace up gently rolling hills and across openings full of dead dry grass the terrain was mostly soft with the foliage of the trees and some moss on the rocks. We marched on at this pace for close to two hours, with no breaks or slowing down and it wasn’t until after crossing the 6 mile mark that our feet begged for a break and our stomachs growled in discontent, it was time for a rest and for lunch.
We were lucky enough to have stopped between the Jim Hogg trailhead and the Overlook trailhead at a nice little cove with a gently flowing stream seeping down the rock face into the lake (mile marker 21 on the map). We slung our packs on to the ground as to have something to lean against and stripped off our boots. The stone cliff face we were laying on was cool and the clouds kept us shaded while we munched on peanut butter and homemade cherry jam sandwiches, it was now close to noon and we still had plenty more ground to cover that day.
Like most breaks that are well deserved, It felt like it had just started when we had decided to pack back up continue the hike, though we had wasted 45 minutes of our day lazing around it didn’t seem enough.
In the next few miles we would be crossing over the dam, an easy but mostly unscenic walk. Unfortunately there’s no way around this little break in the nature trail and while the asphalt does break the illusion of wilderness, the view of the lake from atop tries to make up for it. Once across, there’s a steep daunting hill that you have to muster up to get to the entrance of Cedar Breaks park and the trailhead there. This is where one of our cars was parked with a much needed cached water case. 10 miles in on day one and we stopped again for a break at the top of the hill by the entrance to Cedar Breaks park. David sprawled out on the road and i restocked our water rations before getting off my feet and taking a break. We were now only 4.5 miles from Cedar Hollow, our camp site for the night and we only had a few hours of sunlight left. It was close to 3 pm before we took to the trail again the sun was still high but it was rushing toward the horizon. We made haste to the trail head and tried to keep a fast pace to make up for time, which was not on our side. One thing we were sure we did not want to do was hike in the dark, or get to the camp site in the dark, and we were right on the edge of doing just that. I will say this about the trail. Up until this point it had all gone relatively smooth, the terrain wasn’t very difficult, our packs were heavy but not obtuse, and we were all in good spirit. That all changed after Cedar Breaks.
The terrain on this part of the trail changed. The path right at the start of the trail head was gravel, it was nice. The familiar crunch of the pebbles underfoot creates a rhythm to keep pace to. It wasn’t until after the first mile or so from the trail head that things really started to change It was like walking on the moon. Weird swiss cheese looking stones, stumps sticking half out of the ground, awkward step ups and downs, it was just unpleasant and awkward to walk on. The sun was getting closer to the horizon and time was running thin, but we needed a break and we found it in the Crocket Gardens area. Now, I don’t know if it was the fact that my pack might have been too small for my body, that i stepped off a rock wrong, i’m just getting old or a combination of the three, but right before our stop at Crocket Gardens on our last stretch of trail just 2.5 miles from camp, i felt a pain in my hip. i ignored it at first, thinking it was just fatigue, but it grew more annoying with each step. Within a mile of leaving Crocket Gardens i was at a hobble. My hip felt like it had a knife stuck in it and every step caused it to dig in further. I was at a slow crawl of a walk and had to stop frequently. The combination of our now slower pace and stopping to rest means that time had run out and we were now hiking in the dark. Our distance at this time became fuzzy. We could see fires from the camp ground so we knew we were close, but how close was uncertain. A mile maybe? Two at most, whatever the distance it crept by at a snail’s pace as I flinched in pain with every step.
Dave’s dog Rex, a seasoned old beast of a dog, large with reddish brown fur maybe a mix of a retriever and a heeler, made the decision to lead our group the rest of the hike to camp. Whether he was playing the father figure role and protecting his pack, or tired and knew we were close to camp, he would tramp along ahead of us until the next bend, or until he left the glow of our headlamps, then pause and turn his head to look back to see if we were still following along giving us enough time to catch up before he was off again.
Just as it was with mileage, time was lost to me at this point. All i could focus on was the sting in my hip, i think we kept our crawl of a pace for close to an hour before coming into clear view of the fires at Cedar Hollow. We were the last to the campsite and were lucky enough to be able to take the last site available. It was right on the side of a hill, slanted, rocky and right along the pathway to and from the campgrounds. Ideal, no, but warmly met. Packs were slung down and we rested, boiled our water for our dehydrated meals and rested some more before ever bothering to set up tents. I think i might have even dozed off laying on the bench of the picnic tables provided at the camp grounds. I was beat and in pain.
The night went well, a gentle breeze pushed through the mesh of my IKEA Half Dome tent, possibly my favorite tent ever, pushing out the warm humid air caused by my body, crickets chirped,I tossed and turned in the warm humidity and what seemed like the instance my eyes closed the sun was up pestering us to wake and get moving again. Anyone who has slept in a tent knows that there is no sleep when the sun is up. When he gets up, you get up. Another blue bag Mountain House dehydrated meal for breakfast, eggs, sausage, potato and tortillas for breakfast burritos. Possibly one of the best breakfast inventions ever. What little rest I got that evening was good for my body. The sting was dull now, but still present so It was then at breakfast i told Dave that i didn’t want to quit but i didn’t think my hip would make it another 14 miles and that we would likely be stuck in the same slow crawl of a pace sooner and for longer than we had been that night and not make it to our destination in any reasonable time. So there we were, after some discussion about whether he wanted to continue on or head back with me, that we decided to part ways. After helping each other fold tents, douse our fire and double check our site we shook hands and split ways. Dave had 14 miles in front of him, and i had 4.5 to get pack to cedar breaks. It was disheartened that i wasn’t able to finish the trip but I plugged my headphones into my ears and hit the trail heading home.
I went at a leisurely pace on the way back, my hip still stinging with dull pain i didn’t want to over work it and limp the four miles back. So i took my time, enjoyed the birds, trees and warm sunlight a bit more. Half way stopping again at Crocket Gardens for a snack Cliff bars go a long way in helping curb hunger. I looked around the Gardens a bit more, took a trip down to where the water falls off the cliff and i laid down on a nice green bed of grass listening to the wind rustle through the trees. It was so calm and relaxing i ended up taking an unexpected 45 minute nap, my head against my pack, leaves falling on my face. I was reluctant to finally decide to move on and was forced when i checked my water supply. Only having a liter or so left i couldn’t afford to laze around all day. The rest of the hike was pleasant. I stopped when i needed to, talked to a few travelers as they passed me, and caught up to another team of hikers who were also doing the 26 miles but in the opposite direction, one of them was injured also and they were ending their hike 7 miles early. I had just gotten to the Cedar Breaks trail head finishing my last bit of water, relieved to be back to my car and the weight off my hip. I called Dave before i hit the road home to see if he needed any water or to be picked up and was surprised to hear he had made the 7 mile trek from Cedar Hollow to Tejas Park in the time it took me to make the 4.5 miles back. I blame the nap. He later called to tell me he completed the whole 26 miles right before sunset and that the second half of the trail was much easier than walking on the moon rocks we had been. Though defeated, I’ve since gotten better equipment and put a few more backpacking hikes under my belt, I plan to tackle this adventure again in the near future, as William Henley says, “My head is bloody but unbowed”
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