The Journey

I’m exhausted. Fourteen miles into town on gravel roads, then asphalt roads with traffic from Highway 210 rerouted onto the same road I hiked …this isn’t what exhausted me.

The fours days prior with temps in the mid 90’s while winds howled 30 mph as they pushed me sideways along the dusty roads, causing a man we met to remark that we needed to shorten a pole on the wind side because we were leaning so hard against the wind …that isn’t what exhausted me.

The nearly 500 miles we’ve come in the first thirty-two days while sleeping on the ground most nights as ticks kept us trapped in our zipped up tents aren’t what exhausted me either.https://fromdreamtolife.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/img_7826.mov

We’ve actually slept well, and the previous few nights were helped along by people who either offered us a place to camp sheltered from the wind, or gave us cold beverages and snacks, invited us inside out of the wind for an hour or two, or even took us inside their homes for the night, cooking dinner and breakfast for us before we hiked away the next day. These people added energy back into our days.

In fact, I’ve come to believe it’s the people along the way who have kept us on trail. Sometimes I feel like each day a stranger picks up where another stranger left off, gently easing our path and giving us encouragement, as though they’ve formed an unspoken agreement to ensure we continued along our journey.

No, lack of a good nights rest isn’t why I sit silently in my hotel room. I’m thinking nothing and doing nothing. I have no will to take off my hiking shoes. I don’t make a move to take a shower, normally the first thing I prioritize when reaching a town. I’m thoroughly and completely exhausted.

It’s the thought of hiking more of the same which exhausts my entire being. I sit on the hotel bed minutes after checking in, eating chips and staring blankly at the wall. Wingman seems to be doing the same thing from the couch in our little suite. After a while I say, “I was serious,” and then look over at Wingman. “I will be happy to take a few days off to climb a couple mountains and then come back to the trail.”

“Me too,” he answered, “My sister can bring my truck – I’ve already asked her.”

By the end of the evening we went from thinking it over to a new plan. We will road walk the next forty-five miles of the North Country Trail over the next three days, then his Mom and sister will bring his truck to us in Frazee, MN.

We cannot wait. I’m a USA Highpointer, which means I climb, drive or walk to the highest points of every state. I’ve completed thirty-four and next weekend we will be climbing King’s Peak in Utah, followed by Borah Peak in Idaho a few days later. My ice axe is being shipped from California, where I had it held in anticipation of hiking the Sierra Mountains, to Wyoming – ready for me to pick up along the way.

We hope a few good things are different when we return. First, we already know the miles ahead change from nearly all road walking to mostly trail. Only about one-third of the trail over the next two hundred miles is on a road and further north it’s all trail. Trail is why we hike after all. Short roads connecting long trails are not bad. The reverse is just trudging across America.

Second, more trail maintenance will be finished. Some trail ahead is still thigh-high with brush and grass. The ticks are very heavy and include deer ticks which carry Lyme disease. I am now used to pulling several ticks – if not dozens – off my shoes, ankles and legs every day. Deer ticks are harder to see than wood ticks though, as deer ticks are no bigger than a dot. We soaked our shoes and socks in Permethrin for the upcoming miles, but if more trail has been cleared by the time we come back, trail life will be much better and ticks will be fewer.

We expect Minnesota will open more in a couple weeks. Right now, some showers and restrooms ahead may still be closed. Breakfast isn’t served in the hotels – just sugary prepackaged treats – and most restaurants are still take-out only. Even remote areas like those we hike need a little more time to reopen in Minnesota.

Finally, we expect to be rejuvenated mentally. I’m pretty stubborn, which helps me reach my goals. What I need right now is to enjoy the challenge of pursuing this goal more than I have this first month. Since we don’t plan to finish all 4,735 miles in one season, it really doesn’t matter how far along we make it before snow flies – my cue to go home.

If we come back to trail and find it isn’t the journey we want to spend our days navigating, we can take the truck straight to the Boundary Trail and Lake Superior Trail sections of this hike. There are a lot of good hiking days ahead. We just need a strategy for creating them.

Two days later, I’m resupplied and nearly ready for the seventeen mile road walk ahead today. We casually walked nine miles of trail in a big “U” through town yesterday, so we even hiked some miles on our day off. It was a really pretty walk with groomed trails on half of it and downtown on the other half. I only found two ticks, and the rain which soaked us mostly dried by the time we found a partially open restaurant downtown.

I’ve been told repeatedly Maplewood State Park is beautiful. It’s our destination today. Once we finish today’s road walk, we will be in the woods on a trail camping on the last available site. It looks like a pretty sunny low temp day. I think it will be a good start to our new plan.

The Kindness of Strangers

I am sitting in New Rockford, ND twelve days into our hike, feeling absolutely content with my belly full and body on a mild caffeine high. It was 48 degrees when I walked up to the only cafe in town at seven this morning. Just as I hesitated while reading the sign on the door “To go orders only”, the door opened and the owner asked if I wanted breakfast. I mentioned I hadn’t realized it was “to go only” and she remembered I was the hiker that had chatted with her the day before. We walked into town just as she closed shop yesterday. She told me to come on in and sit at the counter. “It’s time we set up a couple tables anyway”, she said. I was sooo glad to accept her invitation. “It’s too cold to eat outside. Plus, you walked all across town from that park to be here,” she added.

She had coffee ready in a heartbeat, made me breakfast and told me to stay as long as I wanted. Wingman arrived minutes later and we visited with her for a good hour. She invited us to come back anytime we wanted to be inside for awhile.

Every person we’ve seen in North Dakota has been very welcoming, and many have gone out of their way to help us out- just as the owner of the New Rockford Cafe did. It makes me believe there are kind people surrounding us everywhere. My fears and anxieties sometimes cloud my view and I worry people will be indifferent or flat out not want us here; Thru-hiking let’s me see once again that most people are good people and will more likely be welcoming than not.

We have had many acts of kindness along the way, which makes up for the mostly bleak and repetitive scenery. It’s actually quite surprising how many people have already helped us, because we hardly ever see people. The first days in 30-40 mph headwinds, we walked hours down gravel roads. Over and over, people pulled to the side to talk with us a minute, invariably offering encouragement and welcoming us on our journey. Each chat was a good lift to break up the challenge of hiking long distances.

We met Jesse the third day. He was watering his mom’s plants and hailed us over. Jesse was living at Turtle Lake until he could go back to Hawaii, and seemed to really enjoy the idea of long distance hiking. We told him we were headed to Bev’s Cafe and a bit later he found us there. He wanted to give us a bag of food and Gatorade for our journey. It felt so good to be encouraged, especially when we expected at least some people to be a bit put off that we had traveled to their state to hike. It had been a few weeks since restaurants partially re-opened, but most folks are still social distancing as are we overall. (ND never issued a stay at home order)

Near Harvey, ND the canal seemed to run dry for several miles. I called a camp park to see if they had tent camping, but the call went to their Chamber. It turns out we could camp there, but it was a city park and no one managed it onsite. That meant there was no one to ask for a ride to town, about six miles away. Ann, the Chamber President who also happens to be their Mayor, said to give her a minute and she would call back with info. Minutes later she was picking us up herself and driving us to the park!

The next morning at 6:45 we stood outside a cafe which normally opened at six, but a sign stated a 7:30 opening for now. A passing man asked if we wanted to eat, then told us to wait while he called the owner to open early for us. (He saw her car was already there.) She did, and later directed us to a group of men having coffee to see what they knew about finding a ride back. One of those men immediately took us the six miles back to where we left the trail. Absolutely amazing acts of kindness from the folks in Harvey.

Water appeared in stops and starts along the marshy middles of the canal, and sloughs along the way contained water. The challenge was wading through ticks, muck and algae to reach it. We hoped the extra pounds of water we carried from town would last until morning, hoping to delay needing more water until we reached the James River twenty-three miles from where we had been dropped off.

While leaving a bridge which crossed the canal about fourteen miles into our day – really the only tick-free place to take a break – a man passed in a truck. Moments later he was backing up, so we waited thinking he wanted to chat. He asked if we needed water. We said water would be wonderful! He asked about pop – Awesome! He told us to wait and a moment later came back in his four wheeler with water, Gatorade and Root Beer for each of us! Oh my goodness! We could drink up on a warm day and skip the climb down the steep walls of loose rock to the mucky canal! It was the best gift we could have been given right then.

All these kind strangers, giving us a little help along the way has certainly brought a smile to my heart. Sure, we could have made it without their help. We are resourceful and have what we need to survive on our backs.

However, it’s kindnesses like these that keep me wanting to continue the journey.

North Country Trail

The first steps looked picture perfect. Sunny skies, Lake Sakakawea glittering in the distance and warm temperatures. Wingman’s Mom and Dad waited for us to sign the register a ranger had kindly left in a safe place outside for us, then drove off with a wave as we stepped onto the trail – a mowed path between tall grasses and trees.

We stopped to snap photos at the terminus sign and happily walked along feeling easy and free – since Wingman’s folks had our backpacks. They were going to meet us 16 miles later and hand us our packs before driving home. Seconds later our fairy tale start turned into a two mile nightmare.

Wingman noticed lots of ticks on his shoes and ankles. I looked down and panicked. Four were visible and moving fast on my shoes and socks. They didn’t fling off easily. Balancing on one foot I took off my shoes and checked inside. Two more. I couldn’t move fast enough to check the other shoe, before another crawled aboard. I was horrified! Remembering the first past of the trail is two miles off-road and twenty-one miles on-road, I asked Wingman if he wanted to run for the road.

We took off, but the ticks kept coming. Whether walking or running, they jumped aboard and every ten seconds or so we had to stop and pick them off. It was awful. All I could think about was reaching the road. Once, as Wingman was bent over taking one off, he saw three more in the grass headed straight for him. I don’t know if it’s vibration or smell or what, but those blood-sucking insects knew exactly where we were and kept coming. Dozens and dozens were picked off in those two miles.

Finally I ran onto the road feeling like a character in Jumanji who passed the first obstacle without losing a life. I was never so glad to hike on a road instead of a trail.

When Wingman’s folks heard our tick tales and felt the 30 mph winds swirling around us, they took pity and drove us to a nearby town where we all had dinner and stayed in a hotel. It was delightful! They dropped us off on their way home the next day, and onward we went into the wind and hoping to stay tick free.

In the three days I’ve been on trail now, we have already had a few other surprises, both pleasant and not so much. Overall it’s really good though and I’m looking forward to telling more stories. The best part is that people are stopping to chat with us as they pass by and every single person has been kind and encouraging. A man we talked to coming into a town today even hunted us down at the cafe to give us a bag of food and drinks!

…and if you are wondering what happened to our Pacific Crest Trail plans, well this just isn’t the year for that hike. Here is the path from that plan to this one and a bit about the North Country Trail:

As COVID-19 took us inside and shut down travel plans, I waited and plotted. First, I hoped to start the Pacific Creat Trail a bit later, then I researched the Ice Age Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail, each of which are better to start later in the spring or even early summer. COVID kept coming at all of us and eventually those plans also seemed too risky.

Then I took a look at the North Country Trail. It’s long, the longest of the National Scenic Trails at over 4,700 miles. It crosses parts of eight states stretching from North Dakota to Vermont. North Dakota has a sparse population, very few cases of COVID – and never issued travel restrictions. Wingman and I decided this was our chance. Starting a bit late is fine as I never imagined finishing it in one year anyway. We will simply hike until snow flies and see what adventures we find along the North Country Trail!

Wait! You can’t leave just yet….

My permit start date is less than three weeks away – and within five weeks it will be too hot and waterless to be safe starting the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Southern California. Earlier this week, I cancelled my flight to San Diego, which was leaving April 17, because there isn’t a chance it will be safe to travel in just two weeks. Lots of friends have asked what is happening to my PCT plans this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic growing by the day, here is the short answer: I don’t know.

However unlikely I will start the trail before mid-May, there is no reason for me to make any other plans at the moment. I already have my gear, food box resupplies, and money saved. I’m able to stay hiker fit (at least for the moment) by hiking and walking in our neighborhood and at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Since I didn’t quit a job or sell a house – like many others who planned to hike this year – I don’t have to worry about where to live or a paycheck. In other words, I’m in a really good place to just wait and see what unfolds this spring. Excited as I am to hike the PCT, it certainly doesn’t have to be right now.

I’ll say this much: there are lots and lots of trails out there and a total of eleven National Scenic Trails. My back-up plan is to hike a couple thousand miles… somewhere else! Ever since I found out about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail a.k.a. Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), I’ve wanted to hike it. It’s kind of short, only 1200 miles, and not well marked, so I would need to learn how to use my map and compass better. It runs along the northern wilderness of Montana, Idaho and Washington states. It’s so far north, the Canadian border is closer than roads much of the time. Most people wait until July to start. That’s three months from now, and I pray the pandemic is well behind us then.

The Ice Age Trail is another trail that looks good to me, and it’s also 1200 miles. It wanders all through Wisconsin, staying in relatively accessible areas, and would be a good place to hike while waiting for summer to arrive. It’s possible my PCT window will close before the pandemic ends, and yet there will still be much snow on the PNT. In that case, I can begin hiking the Ice Age Trail as soon as travel is safe. I’ll be very excited to hike either of these other trails, or both, if a PCT hike is not in the cards this year.

In the meantime, I’m lucky to stay at home and away from the virus while watching the wildflowers bloom, and I have plenty of home and garden projects to keep me busy. So don’t be disappointed if I cannot start the PCT this spring after all. I promise to take you on another exciting adventure soon enough!