Dangerous lessons on the Lick Creek Trail

As I plotted a six-mile hike through the Orange County wildness this past week, I knew following the footsteps of early 19th century free black men and women would be an arduous task. If it weren't, the trek to the Lick Creek African American Settlement would be a bit of a letdown. Let's just say the 90-degree-plus temps fit my vision perfectly.

Tuesday was decision day at IU Press on my Guidebook to Southern Indiana Natural Areas proposal. I figured a day spent in the Hoosier National Forest photographing Wesley Chapel Gulf and hiking the Lick Creek Trail would keep me preoccupied mentally and spawn some appropriate karma as well.

Had I known the experience would end with me staggering out of the woods, dehydrated, knocking on strangers' doors, begging for help, I would have reconsidered my plan. Well, the plan worked perfectly. It was my execution that failed.

***

The light and weather were perfect at Wesley Chapel Gulf a couple miles south of Orleans and west of State Road 37. This collapsed, eight-acre sinkhole in Orange County karst country provided ideal photo ops and a rare view of the Lost River's subterranean flow through the region's limestone bedrock.

The Nature Conservancy says the river runs 85 miles to its confluence with the East Fork of the White River in Martin County, 23 miles of it underground. It sinks in a farm field five miles northeast of Wesley Chapel and rises again at Orangeville two miles to the southwest.

In retrospect, the first warning sign appeared when I started down the mud bank to the water for a better photo angle. I only went down a few feet and snapped a couple images before realizing the maneuver was ill-fated. I dug footholds with my hands, muddied my knees, and extricated myself from this precarious situation.

The Lick Creek settlement dates to 1811, when some African Americans, traveling in the company of Quakers, migrated there from North Carolina in search of a home without slavery. The biracial, agricultural community they established prospered for the better part of a half century, peaking at 1,557 acres in 1855, when census data shows 260 blacks lived in Orange County.

While history doesn't record why, an exodus began in the 1860s. The Civil War, growing racial tensions in rural America, and industrialization in urban areas are suspected. The last African American-owned piece of Lick Creek property sold in 1902.

All that remains today is a cemetery with a dozen or so marked graves, some foundation stones from the homesites and daffodils that bloom in spring.

***

Those were my destinations on Tuesday. And reaching them was a breeze.

The trail, a 4.5-mile inner loop with two spurs to separate trailhead parking lots, was well-marked with blue diamonds painted and tacked onto the trees. It was hot, but the forest canopy kept the trail shaded. And a breeze kept the humidity down. Assiduous attention to the map got me to the settlement site according to plan.

The Forest Service, understandably, is cautious about publicizing cultural sites. As an agency spokeswoman told me, details are released on a need-to-know basis. Consequently, I found no signage at the 90-degree turn the trail takes, where the map simply says "Lick Creek Cemetery."

Venturing off the marked trail on a path with a sign prohibiting horse travel, it was easy to imagine the now-wooded, flat-top ridge populated with cabins, barns, and pens. Eventually, a sign pointed to the Roberts & Thomas Cemetery.

Photos taken. Mission accomplished.

***

I won't confess all the dumb things I did on this hike. But the biggest was believing I could find my way out of a woods I'd never been in from my memory of the hike in. (As weak a defense as it is, the route was one turn short of a straight line.)

Having conserved my water according to plan, I felt comfortable finishing it after re-crossing a dry streambed I recalled from the walk in. Every few yards or so I got glimpses of light through or over the trees that felt like the edge at the parking lot.

But even though I never lost the blue diamonds, the trailhead didn't appear. In short order, I stopped sweating and started spitting cotton. My lips had started shriveling when I reached the only pond I passed on the journey, located less than a half mile from the settlement site.

I had taken a wrong turn and hiked the entire 4.5-mile inner loop by mistake. And my car was still three miles away. I figured the best plan was to walk the 1.5 miles to the Grease Gravy Road trailhead and seek help.

A young man answered the fourth door I knocked on and refilled my canteen. After smoking a cigarette and saying she never went in the woods – ticks, snakes, bobcats, maybe bears – his mother drove me to my car.

IU Press was down my list of mental preoccupations as I drove back to Bloomington. When I got home, I learned my guidebook proposal had been approved.

Missions accomplished. Lessons learned.

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