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!

Drop Me at the Mexican Border

Soon I will touch the wall between California and Mexico, turn around and take a photo, then begin hiking across the desert toward the first reliable water source at Lake Moreno twenty miles to the north. April 22 is my start date. I cannot wait.

The new monument marking the start of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) faces north, so most people post a photo of themselves next to it with the trail heading north in the background. What you rarely see is the wall between the USA and Mexico in the background, but it’s there and I intend to place my hand on it before taking my first steps. After all, I am planning to hike from Mexico to Canada – and do not want to short myself the first 100 yards or so of such a monumental hike.

It took two tries to secure a thru-hiking permit for the PCT and I was ecstatic when my application was approved. There appear to be thousands more applying for a permit than receiving one and only two permit lottery days. I could have found a way to hike it without a permit, but it would have been much harder logistically and may have meant I couldn’t hike the entire trail.

The first 700 miles are desert. I will hike for long distances through dry creek beds as this year has been a very low snow year. Even if some late snows come along, it’s likely to be far below average. Right now, most of California is measuring less than fifty percent average snow/rainfall.

Water is one of the major differences between the PCT and Appalachian Trail (AT) which I hiked in 2018. I expect to carry a lot of water as there are few sources and lots of desert sun to hike, while completely exposed to sun and wind. Because far fewer roads cross the trail, I need to be more self-reliant, too. There will be many places where I need to hike multiple days before I come to a road and can rethink my strategy, gear, or food and water.

Another big difference is elevation gain. Even though I will eventually hike to a few mountains which are twice the elevation of the highest point on the AT, the overall elevation gain is far less. This doesn’t seem to make sense until you realize elevation gain is measured from every low to every high, and the AT has lots and lots and LOTS of up and downs. The PCT, by contrast, goes up and down fairly slowly over very long distances. There will be plenty of steep places too, just not so many in relation to the entire trail. My uncle and I hiked to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous states, a few years ago. It’s a side trail from the PCT. This time, I plan to bypass the high altitude extra hike and just keep plodding along north.

Up in the Sierra Mountains, I will have many steep and dangerous places to hike. Lots of places to be careful of footing and fast streams to cross. The low snowfall lowers my risk of flooding rivers, so I will benefit later from the low snow year. I’m hoping it makes up for being so thirsty the first seven hundred miles.

In Northern California and Southern Oregon, I may have to reroute for fires. It’s generally expected hikers will be rerouted sometime on the PCT as fires have become such an issue the last several years. If this is the drought year predicted, it will be dicey in July and August. Once well into Oregon though, I only have to keep up a good pace and make it through Washington before the snow flies. In 2019, major storms came early – in mid-September. I hope to be done by the end of September, but we will see.

It seems like I’ve only talked about the hard stuff in this post. Oops! There is much beauty and good stuff, too. I’ll share it as I go along. I don’t know what possesses me to want to hike 2,650 plus miles, but the backpacking bug bit me and held. Maybe my posts from trail will give you a better idea of the appeal and not just the misery.

I finish at the Canadian border, and have a walk-thru permit from Canada to enter. There isn’t a formal border crossing, as it’s just a trail through trees marked by the northern terminus monument. No wall, barbed wire, big river or armed guards to navigate. Nevertheless, an entry permit is needed to legally enter.

Thank goodness I received one, as it’s only seven miles to E.C. Manning Provincial Park in Canada, but at least thirty-five miles back to a road in the USA. Plus, some of my Canadian friends may be waiting there to celebrate with me as I finish. Walking from Mexico to Canada along the PCT is another dream of mine. In just six weeks it will be time to move from dream to life!