By George Brown
This was no ordinary backpack adventure, even though there was no need to fear an encounter with ferocious beasts. The only wildlife to be seen were gray squirrels, a few whitetails that bounded away at the sound of my boots, and a red tailed hawk that glared from a tree as I passed by, yet this was the most memorable hike I’ve experienced in a very long time.
I had decided to welcome in the New Year with an early morning hike at Eastfork State Park. The temperature was a brisk 22 degrees when I arrived at the north entrance where, unfortunately, almost all of the trails are bridle paths. Horsemen campers love this, but the bridle paths make for some rutted and sloppy hiking on foot, especially this time of year. Nevertheless, with high-top hiking boots I decided to give it a try.
I embarked about 8 a.m. and hiked for several hours, soaking in the park’s winter beauty, but as the sun warmed, the trail became sloppier and my boots began sinking into the mud.
Rounding a bend, I arrived at a point where a large tree had fallen across the trail. I climbed on top of it and eyed a large frozen puddle below, or so it appeared. When I leaped from the tree both feet broke through the ice and I immediately sank waste deep into a quagmire of half frozen mud.
My predicament might have been worse had my backpack not acted as a buoy to keep me from sinking deeper.
“Take a deep breath and don’t panic,” I said to myself. I relaxed and looked around trying to spot something to grab hold of. The log I had leaped from was too large to get an arm around and an overhanging limb was just out of reach. “My cell phone…I’ll call for help,” I thought. But as I squirmed trying to get my hand into my submerged pants pocket, I only sank deeper. As a last resort I tried to loosen my backpack, hoping I could use it to snag the overhanging limb, but in the process of trying to get it loose I sank all the way to my shoulders in the freezing mud.
I know it sounds crazy, but at that moment I suddenly imagined the story the editor would run in lieu of my column in this week’s Clermont Sun.
“It is with great sadness we report the passing of our friend and longtime Clermont Sun columnist, George Brown. Tragically, his frozen body was found in a mud pit at Eastfork State Park on New Year’s Day. Yvonne, his dear wife and companion of 47 years, said she takes comfort in knowing that George was doing what he most loved to do. ‘He always said he wanted to die on a scenic trail with his boots and backpack on,’ she sighed through tears of grief.”
Accompanying the column would be a picture of me with only my head still visible above the frozen quagmire, with my eyes closed and my head resting serenely upon my backpack.
The final lines of the editor’s eulogy would read, “Large unidentified paw prints could be seen all around the mud pit where George was found, which we can only surmise were made by some fearsome creature George had encountered along the trail and from which he was fleeing at the time of his tragic demise. The irony of this dreadful experience, we believe, is that it confirms that the stories George so often shared in this paper about mysterious encounters with wild creatures were, most likely, all true. But sadly, on this occasion, George’s backpack proved to be the final resting place for his weary head, rather than a means of saving himself from this awful death. As a tribute to George’s memory, we will reprint a series of his critter encounter columns over the next few months.” – The editor.
I was trying to shake these thoughts from my mind when I heard a thumping noise behind me, and then a long piece of wild grapevine fell over my shoulder. I grabbed hold of it and held on tight as the person (or so I presumed) who had thrown it slowly pulled me out of the mud pit.
Finally scrambling to safety, I saw my rescuers for the first time. There were three of them and there features were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Each stood about three and a half to four feet tall, they wore no clothing, and their wrinkled little bodies reminded me of the fictional extraterrestrial, ET. All three were smiling broadly down at me from where they stood on the fallen tree. “Come with us,” the tallest of the three said in a raspy voice. “We’ll feed you, get you dry, and send you on your way.”
With that, the three little creatures hopped from the log and dashed up the trail with me following close behind. After crossing a creek, they turned off the trail and passed through a deep grove of cedars, then pushed some brush aside revealing a little round door. Opening the door and scurrying inside, the last and smallest of the three called to me, “C’mon in.”
I stooped low to the ground and crawled inside. A warm fire burned in a little fireplace on the far wall and in front of it stood a tiny table upon which sat a loaf of dark bread and a large chunk of cheese. “Take your clothes off and hang them by the fire, and eat away,” one of them said. As I took my clothes off, which was not easy in the cramped quarters, I asked, “Who are you and what are your names?”
“We’re the Hobbits of Eastfork,” they exclaimed in unison. “I’m Grubs,” “I’m Smugs,” and I’m Pugs,” they said in order, giggling at the confused expression on my face. Then Grubs added, “We lived along the riverbank under the Twin Bridges before your fellow humans built the dam and flooded the valley. Now we live here.”
Of course I had no idea where “here” was, but I thanked them for rescuing me and gladly ate a large portion of the bread and cheese. After my clothes had dried, I dressed and said to the Hobbits, “I’ve been gone a long time; my wife will be worried.”
“Follow us,” Smugs said. We crawled through a long winding tunnel and arrived at the inside of another round door. “You’re close to the parking lot now,” Smugs told me.
Before opening the door to leave I thanked them for their hospitality and asked, “Is there anything I can do to show my appreciation for all that you have done for me?”
Broad smiles again came upon their faces and Grubs said, “We don’t mind if you tell people we’re here because they won’t believe you anyway, but we would love to have a backpack like yours.”
“I’m happy to give you mine. I have plenty more at home,” I said. So leaving my backpack with the Hobbits I crawled through the little round door, quickly found my way to the parking lot and drove home, all the way giving thanks for my new friends and the beginning of a new year.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.