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!

Hike Like A Kid

It’s hard to believe the day is here and in just a few minutes, we will be flying off to Atlanta and making our way to a hostel near the start of the Appalachian Trail. One of my worries – and believe it or not I have a few! – is I will focus so much on finishing each day’s hike that I will miss being present on the trail.

It’s a well ingrained habit of mine to focus on what I want to accomplish, and one which keeps me stubbornly persistent in reaching goals. It has a flip side though and that is to be ignorant of the present while pressing onward to the finish. I’ve been working on balancing both for years, and a recent hike with my young neighbor reminded me it’s rather easy to live in the present if you simply allow yourself.

Identifying Quartz

I took Collier, five years old, on her first hike to Enchanted Rock a couple weeks ago. My original plan to hike with a full backpack for about five miles was quickly tossed aside when her Mom, UnMi, said she could go on a  hike with me. My new goal was two-fold: spend an hour and a half with my thirty pound backpack on my back while hiking as far along the trail as Collier wanted to go. She was so much fun, and it was an insightful hike.

 

Not all young hikers, or grown hikers for that matter, are fun, but Collier was full of wonder and curiosity, excitedly spotting moss balls which became the ends of fairy wands on a dry grass stalk, or looking for insects and minnows in the little streams we passed. She had never been to Enchanted Rock before and was delighted to climb the boulders near the high point of the trail, so we could see how high we had climbed. Best of all, she was sensible about climbing and didn’t skitter to the edge of the rocks like I thought she might.

We stopped for a snack on a wide open expanse of rock and Collier created nature art with the sticks and leaves she found. The girl is full of creativity and it was interesting to see all the new ideas pop into her head as she created things from all that was around us. That’s when I realized how much fun it was to just be in the park absorbing everything different about where we were, how it looked, and how it felt.

In one of those moments, I locked in the reminder to enjoy my Appalachian Trail hike more vividly and in the present moments. Some of those moments (okay, many) will be uncomfortable or downright miserable. I don’t care. As my AT hiking partner, Karen, said, “I’m looking forward to the good parts, the bad parts, the excitement and the misery.” Watching Collier’s delight with the world around her as she hiked without wondering how far to go or when we would finish, I resolved to hike like a kid more and like a goal oriented zealot less. Let’s see how well I do. Tomorrow is Day 1 of the AT.