Part 1 in a series
For a long time I’ve pined to explore the Wild Azalea Trail south of Alexandria Louisiana – a national hiking trail that stretches from Woodworth Louisiana 24 miles through the Kisatchie National Forest to Valentine Lake near the town of Gardner Louisiana. Dispersed camping is allowed throughout, and it has side-trails sufficient to stretch it to around 31 miles if you are extra energetic. Louisiana’s only long-distance hiking trail, the Wild Azalea trail has been called, “Where the Wild Things Roam.”
In our church meetings for the past several months, we’ve been talking about spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditation, silence, fasting, etc. I’ve been working on some of these disciplines for a while now, but recently I decided I was ready to explore a handful of them a little more deeply. I thought that a several-day retreat during a solo hike would probably be just the thing.
But with job, scouts, church, homeschooling, soccer, judo classes, piano lessons, etc. it was hard to figure out how to fit in a Wild Azalea hike or a spiritual disciplines retreat.
British explorer, Alastair Humphreys is a big proponent for people fitting more adventure into their lives. When people complain to him that they can’t fit polar expeditions or Appalachian through-hikes or camel treks through the desert into their busy schedules, he suggests that they go on what he calls a micro-adventure. That is,
- Pick any weekend or holiday.
- Go somewhere nearby that you’ve never been before.
- Spend the night.
- Do something you’ve never done before – preferably something physically active.
- Then return in time for work at the end of the weekend.
That is Humphrey’s recipe for fitting all the things that make up a real adventure into the space of a weekend!
So I decided that this long, Labor Day weekend would be a perfect time for a micro-adventure to Kisatchie National Forest to do a silent retreat and fit in some solo-hiking, fasting, and meditating!
All the usual suspects
I got off work early Friday and drove through Roxie, Natchez, Vidalia, Frogmore, and Alexandria. I got to Woodworth and parked at Calvary Baptist Church, which reviews say is safer for your vehicle than parking at the trailhead outside of town.
When I got there it was early afternoon and 91 degrees. I got my gear, locked the truck, and walked the 1.7 miles from the church parking lot to the trailhead in the scorching direct sunlight. It only took me about 40 minutes but by the time I got to the trailhead I was already soaked with sweat. I rested for a bit, took some pictures, and then took off down the trail.
Even though this was to be a silent retreat, I didn’t unplug completely. I turned off all of the alarms and notifications on my phone but left my data connection live. That way, I could send Elise occasional updates telling her I was still alive. Frequent proof of life was her condition for letting me go off on this hike alone. I also planned to use my phone to track my progress with the Map My Hike app and to upload botanical observations to iNaturalist so I could call this jaunt a “citizen science” expedition.
The Wild Azalea Trail begins just outside of Woodworth as a narrow corridor of hard-packed earth, occasionally covered with sand or pine straw. When I say narrow, I mean always less than 5 feet wide and often as narrow as 1 foot. The trail proceeds northwest through an otherwise impenetrable jungle of privet and sumac and azalea tangled with muscadine, greenbriar, blackberry, and Japanese climbing fern.
Quite frequently there are animal paths diverging from the Wild Azalea trail corridor and sometimes this can be confusing, but the correct path is marked with yellow reflective diamonds nailed to trees above head height for the entire length of the trail.
As I made my way, I found myself brushing past shining sumac (Rhus copalinum) bushes, some taller than me, growing out into the trail corridor and already starting to turn red for the autumn. I had to look it up to make sure it was not poison sumac. That much poison sumac would have made this trail an utter disaster because it is a worse irritant than its cousins and our warming climate is causing plants like poison ivy, oak, and sumac to increase their concentrations of their oily allergen.
The beautyberrys and buckthorns were showing off with profusions of berries and I also saw blackjack (red) oaks with their bell-shaped leaves, post (white) oaks with their cross-shaped leaves, and plenty of shortleaf pine.
In all, my first impression of the farthest southeastern segment of the Wild Azalea trail was that it had all the usual suspects that you would see in a southeastern forest – mostly a repeat of my favorite hiking trail at Percy Quin State Park.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Where the Wild Things Roam!