Chert, Trolls, and the Art of Starting a Fire: 24 Hours at Blue Mound

In my last post, I alluded to this past weekend’s camping trip being strange and random. Well, let me explain.

We were originally scheduled to camp at Blue Mound State Park on the weekend of August 12-14. But we decided to move it so we could watch Olympics that weekend. I was able to find an opening on the weekend of September 9-11, so we decided to run with that. I would love to say I was optimistic that pushing back a month would allow us to avoid the heat, but September is still pretty warm around here so I wasn’t holding my breath. We were just glad to free up that weekend in August.

Well, the short week leading up to this past weekend was oddly stressful. We had just traveled to Iowa for Labor Day weekend, and after we got back on Monday my whole sense of rhythm and routine just felt off all week long. Between training runs and Kevin having things going on during the week, we never found time to prep for the trip. Faced with the possibility of having to do a hard workout Thursday evening, then drag my butt to the grocery store, then prep our camping stuff, then wake up at the butt crack of dawn on Friday to get my workout in, all so we could leave for camping after work on Friday, I suggested that we just wait and go Saturday morning. Kevin happily agreed. I was able to do my workout Friday evening, then we went to the store, got things ready and planned to leave early Saturday.

It should be smooth sailing from here. Kevin only needed to stop at work on our way out of town, and then we would be on our way. But as we neared the highway exit for Kevin’s work, we noticed that it and the next one were blocked off. Huh? That’s when it dawned on me: the Brewers race is today. A bunch of streets would be blocked off and Kevin’s work is right in the middle of all the closures. Yup, that’s right, my morning was derailed by, of all things, a race. We ended up having to take a long roundabout way to Kevin’s work that put us almost an hour behind schedule. Now we were looking at not arriving at Blue Mound until almost noon. Was it really worth it to drive two hours out there and not even have 24 hours there? It was tempting to say F it and just go home, but I had paid for the campsite, we’d bought groceries, we’d come all this way, we might as well go and enjoy some fresh air instead of going home and sitting on our butts all weekend. So we went.

We drove through a lot of rain but skies were clear and the air was crisp and lovely by the time we arrived and checked into our campsite. We set up our tent and in the process realized that in our grand ol’ rush to pack for a sub-24 hour trip we had managed to forget:

  • Pillows
  • Kevin’s hatchet for pounding in our tent stakes and chopping up firewood for kindling
  • Toothbrushes – both of us
  • Tinfoil for cooking our baked potatoes
  • Paper plates to eat said potatoes on

So, before we could get started on our hiking for the day, we had to leave the campground and drive to the local general store we passed on the way in. There we managed to pick up everything we needed, except for the pillows and a hatchet. So, we would just have to hope that the sticks we picked up (still wet from the morning’s rain) and the paper we brought would get enough of a fire going for the logs to catch.

So, essentials restocked, we finally started on some hiking. It was a gorgeous day on Saturday – temps were in the mid-60s, the humidity was low and the sky was partly cloudy. I actually wore LONG SLEEVES on our hike!


Blue Mound State Park is located on West Blue Mound, the largest hill in the southern half of Wisconsin. The many mounds of the area are monadnocks, hills or mountains created through centuries of erosion.

BMSP’s defining feature is several lookout points from the top of the mound that offer scenic, sprawling views of the surrounding countryside. There are two observation towers on the hiking trails that offter this view, as well as a couple clearings in the trees surrounding the flat field atop the mound.

The view, and long sleeves in September!

Kevin and I hiked about 3.5 miles worth of the trails at Blue Mound. On the first trail we hiked, the Flintrock, we weaved among several massive boulders that we learned were composed of chert. Chert (or flintrock), is a very hard, erosion-resistant rock that was formed by silica-rich water that flowed over the land millions of years ago. The silica is what makes it so hard. Native Americans actually used the chert to make arrowheads and start fires. We learned that apparently, much of the land used to be covered in a big layer of chert but over time, most of it eroded except for the highest points – aka, the top of Blue Mound. So the mound has this unique top layer of chert, and the boulders along the trail are pieces of it that broke off and tumbled down the mound over time.




After this hike, it started to rain. Neither of us brought rain jackets, naturally, because there was no rain forecasted for this afternoon. Our first thought was our campsite – we hadn’t closed the rain flap on the tent door, because of course we didn’t, so our heads filled with fear that our sleeping bags were getting soaked in there. As we dashed down the trail about .4 miles of our campsite, the showers intensified and the woods towering above us could only provide so much cover.

Luckily our sleeping bags were spared, but the firewood we left outside was not so lucky. A lot of it was covered in plastic wrap but still, it was wet. The sticks we had collected for kindling were wet(ter). It started to rain again and Kevin and I ended up just sitting in the car for a while, putzing around on our phones and wondering what else to do with ourselves, because #SoOutdoorsy #LegitCampers. Finally the rain let up and the clear skies returned just as late afternoon, sitting-in-the-car-lethargy was starting to set in, but I was determined to rally, so we drove to a nearby trailhead for more hiking.

We logged a couple more miles of hiking and the next trail we hit, the Indian Marker Trail, was really cool. It was shorter but more technical, and it was really pretty.

We then hit up the observation towers and discovered the clearing in the trees around the top of the mound that offered lovely views of the surrounding land.






So for all that had gone awry this day/trip, we really nailed it on the hiking. This was probably the best hiking I’ve had at any of the parks we’ve visited except Devil’s Lake.

But the weirdness isn’t over yet. For a camping trip, this really turned into more of a hiking and exploring the nearby small town trip. After the hike, we were going to go back to our campsite to start a fire and cook the dinner we brought with us. Except…that didn’t happen. I guess all the mishaps from the day had sapped my willpower, because Kevin had mentioned a brewpub in the nearby village of Mt. Horeb, and suddenly nothing sounded better than sitting down to a beer. Indoors. So once again we piled into the car and drove out of the woods that was supposed to be our peaceful weekend reprieve.

We drive by signs for the Mt. Horeb Grumpy Troll Brew Pub every time we go to Iowa, and have always been curious, Kevin being the beer aficianado that he is and me just enjoying the chance to drink craft beer in relaxing environments. At least now we would get our chance, right?

With a population of about 8,000, Mt. Horeb is typical of most small towns scattered about the Midwestern countryside, except for one thing: TROLL EVERYTHING. The Grumpy Troll Brewery. The Thirsty Troll Brew Fest. The signs on I 151 luring road-weary travelers onto the storied “Mt. Horeb Trollway”. The troll carvings. And the unique distinction of being the “Troll Capital of the World.” A cursory glance around the town’s main street area quickly revealed a proud Norwegian ancestry, but I had to know, where does all this troll stuff come from?

It turns out, decades ago one of the local businesses used to feature carved trolls imported from Norway out on their lawn to attract customers. Back then, I-151 went right through Mt. Horeb, so all the truckers and passers by would see the trolls. When the state of Wisconsin decided to create a 151 bypass around Mt. Horeb, the locals were worried they’d lose commerce from the travelers passing through, so they created signs and a marketing campaign around the “famous Mt. Horeb Trollway!” to lure drivers from the highway back into town. A local wood carver made several trolls to place around town so that the trollway was actually, well, a trollway and thus Mt. Horeb became an official home for trolls.

I’d love to say I learned all this by striking up a conversation with a local, but, I looked it up on the internets later (source). I know, I know – such an adventurous and savvy traveler, I am.

Back at our campsite, we decided to start a fire to relax the night away. Well, with wet wood, wet sticks, and no ax to make kindling, things were not going our way. The paper we brought would light easily but those fires weren’t hot enough for the logs to catch. Frustrated, Kevin gave up. But I was like, dude, this can’t be impossible. People at campsites around us were laughing the night away over their raging fires, I was determined that if they could do it, so could we.

Well, it took a tireless amount of persistence but finally, I started to make headway. Tearing bark pieces off some of our logs helped create flames hot enough for the logs to catch, and very gradually we started to get ourselves a real fire. It still took care and effort to maintain it, as it started to go back on life support a few times, but I was able to keep it going and give it some momentum. The logs were still not catching very well due to the wetness, but finally, my little fire baby was able to shed its training wheels and cruise off on its own.


At this point, Kevin couldn’t fight the fatigue anymore and retired to the tent to crash. I was tired too, but god damnit, I worked my butt off building that fire and after the day we’d had, I wasn’t going to quit now that it was finally going! So I stayed up with my fire, alone, tired and soaking up the solitude of the night. At some point I realized the nearby campsites had gone to bed and all was quiet outside the gentle popping of the flames. I’d love to say I contemplated life, the mysteries of the universe and how to fix the ills of society, but my thoughts drifted aimlessly. They bounced around from Mary Lou Retton and Olympic gymnastics, to an old episode of Law and Order about a woman who had supposedly died in 9/11 but actually her fiancee killed her the night before and moved her body to ground zero so that it would look like she died there, and then several more odd stops on the random thoughts train in between. Of course, the more I wanted to go to bed, the more my fire happily roared bigger and brighter, so up I stayed. I got down to three logs left and decided that was a good place to call it a night – not bad for two bundles of firewood. It wasn’t even midnight yet.

The next morning, we got up eager to go to the “coffee and conversation” that the host campsite apparently had going every Saturday and Sunday morning, but no one was there. Another one bites the dust. So, we packed up our things and said goodbye to Blue Mound.

We breakfast’d at a little cafe in Mt. Horeb. The food was great, but we were eager to be on our way home. Except for one thing. Just as we turned off the famous Trollway, headed for 151, we were stopped in our tracks again by road closures. It was – you guessed it – another race.

Which race would be closing roads all the way out here in the countryside? Why, it was none other than IRONMAN Wisconsin! Mt. Horeb is nearby Madison and apparently smack dab in the middle of the bike leg. Cops were directing traffic and allowing cars to cross the course when gaps in the riders opened up, but after waiting a while it was pretty clear there wasn’t going to be a gap for a long-ass time. So we turned around and headed back toward the park to get onto 151 there.

It was actually really cool to watch the Ironman bikers, but I couldn’t believe that on two separate days, in two towns two hours apart, our travel plans were derailed by races. What are the odds?


So that was our magical, outdoorsy weekend at Blue Mound State Park. Despite such a brief, disorganized trip full of hiccups and cop-outs, it was nice to get out in the fresh air and spend time in the woods.

The whole time, though, I felt like a bad camper. We like to camp and do it often. We’ve never totally bailed on campfire cooking to seek the refuge and modern comfort of a restaurant before, and I feel like that decision sort of branded me with a scarlet letter “I” for Indoor Wussy or something. But for whatever reason, I just wasn’t having it this time. And I guess the moral of the story is, despite what you see from all the outdoorsy folks on social media about the deep connection and total harmony with nature, sometimes even avid campers just don’t hit one out of the park. And that’s okay. Nature, like the rest of us, isn’t perfect either. Shit happens and not every outdoor experience is some glorious soulful wonder. But that’s okay. After all, if everything had gone to plan and I had been outdoorsy enough to make REI proud, I might not have learned about the unique quirks of Mt. Horeb, or had the chance to (briefly) spectate an Ironman, or been able to experience any cool hiking at all.

Life is messy, and no one is perfect. But if you look hard enough you might just find those experiences are worth it anyway.


7 thoughts on “Chert, Trolls, and the Art of Starting a Fire: 24 Hours at Blue Mound

  1. What an incredible weekend lol. I think you made the best of what was going on. Gotta be honest, pretty funny that you were stopped by two races lol.

  2. Oh man, I went back and forth while reading your story between “this is why I don’t camp” and “that sounds really cool.” 🙂 Those views from your hikes are incredible! Despite the rain, it sounds like you guys had a great time on the hiking portion of the trip. You set up a tent, you built a fire, and you slept outside – you get an A+ in camping from me even if you did go out for dinner. How weird about being stopped twice by a race! What are the chances? Glad you were able to make the best of it.

  3. Oh the best laid plans……..We always forget something when we go camping – pillows, paper towels, can opener. I’ve also done sitting in the tent waiting for the rain to end. But at least it was an adventure. My theme for this week seems to be “You don’t get points for living life in hard mode”. So if you want to go and check out the local craft brewery then why the hell not? And kudos on the fire – I usually get someone else to do that for me – I don’t think I could survive in the woods by myself.

  4. This reminds me of when Ryan and I went car camping at the Olympic Peninsula and forgot that it was a rain forest. It took hours to start a fire and then Charlie and I whined the whole time because we were cold. We went home after one night and saw a movie instead. Sometimes it’s just not worth it!
    And forgetting toothbrushes is the worst when camping – especially backpacking. We always forget something – toothbrushes, bug spray, gloves, warmer clothes because it’s 20 degrees colder at the top of the mountains. But that’s half the fun of it – how imperfect it is!

  5. Toothbrushes are probably the number one thing I forget when I’m packing for a trip. You can’t pack them the night before, and they’re hidden away in the bathroom.

    Anyway, your description of the old Law and Order episode reminded me of a story I read about a woman (she went by Tania Head) who *faked* a 9/11 survivor story. It’s one of my favorite WTF scam stories.

  6. My friend raced Ironman Wisconsin!

    Anyways…Mt. Horeb & the troll town sounds like one of those little places I would love to find.

    And as for camping fails…in 2015 we went camping, the campground was desolate because it was set to POUR all weekend, but we said, damnit, we paid our $20, we’re going. But our air mattress had a hole in it, that we discovered upon arrival. All the firewood was soaked, I forgot a blanket & a sleeping bag & a pillow, and then it poured our whole first day & everything was just swampy. We definitely ate dinner at a nearby hole-in-the-wall that first night. No shame.

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