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Pyrrhic Victory (aka Monty Smith Memorial Wildwood in a Day)

Friday, November 26, 2010
The Wildwood Trail, in Forest Park, is, at 30.5-ish miles, a long trail. It's hard to imagine such a trail in and near Portland, but it's there. It's been a goal of mine for a while to hike the whole thing.

As soon as I found out about the Wildwood-In-A-Day hike with the Mazamas (the group that does the rambles I participate in), I wanted to do it. Last year I missed my opportunity, but this year I was able to go on the Monty Smith Memorial Wildwood-In-A-Day hike. (Monty Smith used to lead them, until his death this past year.)

So this year I was up with the Black Friday shoppers and met up with the group at the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial (near the Oregon Zoo) at 6:30 AM, just as the sun was about to come up. From there, after a brief misunderstanding about where we were all supposed to meet the hike leader, we scrambled and carpooled over to Newberry Road, to the end of the Wildwood Trail.

After getting everyone signed in, we were off at about 7:25 AM. Though we'd all brought flashlights, we didn't need them because we were a little behind in getting going; there was already enough light. The ramble leader set a demanding pace right from the start, with the result that I was breathing hard after just the first few minutes. I knew I wasn't alone in that, though, as others around me remarked how fast we were going.

With 20 of us on the trail, and all with slightly different speeds for hiking, we tended to cluster in groups of people going the same speed. The hike leader did something I appreciated: every 2-3 miles or so, the people in front would take a quick break and allow the group to compress. He'd wait until the person in the back (the "sweeper", making sure we didn't lose anyone) was caught up and then, after a moment, we'd get going again.

And it was muddy. It wasn't raining hard, just frequent big drops and a fine Portland mist that, combined with the melting ice, left the trail a quagmire of mud that we slogged through. It was only and inch or so deep, but it was enough that every step my foot would slide an inch or two downhill.

My muddy shoes are down there somewhere...

After the first 14 miles, we reached a convenient halfway point (near Saltzman Road's winding path) and that was the first bailout-point. We met up with a replacement hike leader (and sweeper), gained a few last-half hikers, lost a few more of the first-half ones, and took a quick break with water and donut holes.

At this point I briefly considered calling my hike over. I was already a little tired, and I'd mentally established that I'd do the first half, then see how I felt for the second half. I knew, standing there, that the second half was going to be hard. It was steeper. My legs were already starting to feel the use after 14 miles. Yet I realized that, if I didn't finish it, this hike would still be out there, taunting me. So I decided that, damn the consequences, I was going to finish it.

The interesting thing about picking up a new hike leader is that, after hiking almost 15 miles, many of us were tired and he was not. Also, his habits were slightly different. For instance, if we got used to having a short breather every 2 miles and compressing the group with the first hike leader, we needed to get out of that habit with the new one.

So we took off again, at a relentless pace led by a fresh leader. I started off toward the back of the group after helping a fellow hiker. From there, I barely saw the rest of the group for a couple hours. Every time we, at the back of the group, would almost catch up, they'd take off at a pace I couldn't keep up with. It was like that for 6 miles - we'd almost see them, then the five of us (including the sweeper) at the back of the pack would be on our own again, hustling to keep up in the slippery mud. Finally, with only 10 miles left - having gone 20.5 miles so far - we rebelled. The back of the group needed a break. The sweeper radioed to the leader to call a break for everyone else and I sat down to change my socks, my boots having long ago given up being "waterproof".

We took off again after everyone was ready and, at mark that said we had just 7.5 miles left, the whole group finally compressed and we took an actual break. It was nice to catch up with the group and have a chance to mingle again, even with the rain dripping down around us.

And then, yet again, we were off, not stopping until the stone house with 5.5 miles left. We took a quick break and pressed on. At this point, I knew the trail, hard already for me, was going to get worse. I'd hiked the 1.5 mile segment from the stone house up to the Pittock Mansion many times before; it's a steepest segment of the Wildwood Trail. The difference is, I'd never done it 25 miles into a hike before. This was my first time for that.

Usually I can charge my way up that hill; 1.5 miles is not a long hike, even on a steep hill. This time, I was beyond tired. I had stopped hiking long ago and, like those around me, had instead adopted a trudge. It was only "I think I can" that got me up that hill. I will mention, though, that there were other hikers out doing much shorter segments and several along this part recognized us and quietly cheered us on. That part was nice.

Shortly after the Pittock Mansion, as the we descended into the Hoyt Arboretum, the group stopped again for a meeting. While it was still light out, the hike leader was content to let us trudge along at our own pace. It was approaching 4:30 PM by this time, however, and the sky was growing dimmer. He wanted us to be in groups and to have our flashlights ready. Mine was.

With my little group I made my way the last three miles to the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial parking lot by the zoo. I turned on my flashlight permanently after a point; slipping in the mud was jarring but by this point I was used to it; still, we were all starting to stumble over tree branches and the light helped save us from that. As we approached the end our spirits picked up considerably. Yes, we were muddy. Yes, we were all exhausted. But yes, we were also all thrilled to be done.

And done we were, as I rolled up to my car just shy of 5:20 PM. Little in the world has seemed as wonderful to me as dragging myself along a 30.5 mile hike and just seeing my car in the parking lot waiting for me at the end.

Landing at 5:20 PM meant that it took only a few minutes under 10 hours for me to hike the Wildwood Trail. My average pace, then, was a hair over 3 mph, even including breaks. I was beyond exhausted at the end. I was so tired, in fact, and my legs felt so dead, that for the first time ever, I wished my car was an automatic. (Only for a few minutes, of course.) Even on the drive home, after briefly stretching in the parking lot, I could feel my legs start to tighten up.

I was going to be sore.


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