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!

It’s All About the Bars

I’ve done something new while training for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I’m trying out lots and lots of bars. Food bars that is. Nutrition is one of the most challenging parts of a long-distance backpacking trip. I struggled finding healthy, easy to pack and yummy food during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Thank goodness for the proliferation of  protein bars, breakfast bars, or whatever bars. Simple to pack and easy to eat. By the end of my hike, there were a lot more bars in my life than when I started. And that turned out to be a good thing. Then I came home and discovered Thunderbird bars, which are made right here in Texas. Seriously?! I could have had them all along? Aargh.

You can’t imagine how long I would stand around in stores wishing I had better options. Even stuff I liked to eat became loathsome when faced with the same items at every store for months on end. Trail towns are usually quite small and always one of three particular chain stores determined your selection choices. Add in factors like portability, no refrigeration, little prep needed, etc. and your choices became a pathetic array of the same old stuff. Every time I walked into a store to resupply, I searched the shelves trying to find something new. I tried pudding cups and they were okay, but too heavy, and the containers didn’t squish down well once empty. I bought hard cheeses and those lasted a couple days before all the oil separated out. Even trail mix often came in large, heavy bags, or the same four mixes in snack bags.

All that time I could have enjoyed a dozen DIFFERENT flavors of Thunderbird bars, if only I had known about them and sent them in my resupply box.

Somehow I missed discovering them last year. Then my wonderful husband put a few in my Easter basket this year and I tried them. Pretty good. Made of real food, too. This summer our local grocery ran a special on them and I tried some more. Yum! I went to their website. Oh my goodness there were lots of different varieties and flavors. Right then I decided to pack a bunch into each of my mail drops for the Pacific Crest Trail next year.

While looking through their website, I found they offered an Ambassador Program and decided to apply. Ambassadors promote the brand and receive discounts and perks for doing so. I thought my experience reaching big outdoor goals as well as motivating others to reach theirs would make me a good candidate for their program. And guess what?! They agreed. So here I am, a newly minted Thunderbird Real Food Bars ambassador. I think it will be a good fit.

Next week, I kick off this ambassador role by hosting a giveaway. Thunderbird bars sent me a mixed box of bars and told me how to set up an Instagram giveaway. Hosting it will be another first for me. So if you are on Instagram, look for the giveaway posted by @lorriegirltx. You might find yourself liking a new kind of bar, too!

Day 187 – Slacking

Ahhhh, it’s a wonderful feeling to carry six pounds on your back when you usually carry thirty plus pounds. I’ve been the lucky hiker who has been able to “slack pack” over three hundred miles at the end of my trek thanks to two Trail Angels – my husband, Marc, and Santiago’s wife, Laura. We are a couple days from beginning the 100-mile wilderness, and even in that desolate stretch Laura has found a way to meet up with us every few days so we can light-pack at around twenty-some pounds.

Marc started our stretch of slack packing at the end of August, and after he went home a couple weeks later, we found kind shuttle drivers who took some of our stuff up north so we could light pack the days between his visit and Laura arriving. Not only does a light pack make the days lots better – easier footing on steep slippery rocks and less wear on my knees, but it usually means we stay in a hostel, hotel, or off-trail campground that night. Showers, electricity, and restaurants are greatly enjoyed when you’ve been living in the woods for six months! We still camp out a night or two every week, because we hike through such remote areas. Slack packing has made the camping out in between fun again. Even when it’s raining or dips down close to the freezing point, we aren’t too glum because we know in a day or so we will be warm and dry.

Friends and followers, we are only about twelve hiking days from finishing our 2,190.9 mile trek! I have been enjoying the journey far more these last weeks than we were in the middle, thanks to Marc and Laura. It’s been tough and challenging, beautiful and humbling, …and ever so much better since our favorite Trail Angels came to help lighten our load.

Day 128 – Dropping Like Flies

The thru hiker drop out rate tracked by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) shows only 20-25% of those who start an AT thru hike go on to finish. I’ve passed many milestones and plan to summit Mt Katahdin in early October, …and surprised each time someone I’ve met decides to leave the trail for good. Even though it’s taking much longer than I expected, anyone who is near me on trail has plenty of time to finish before Baxter state park closes for winter.

Many hikers quit in the first couple weeks and another wave quits before the second month. That was expected. There are so many of us at the start we couldn’t know most of those who quit, but it was clear our numbers were thinning as I moved into the third month. I saw fewer hikers each day at different break and campsite areas. It even started feeling like no one else was on trail, as I would go hours without seeing another northbound thru-hiker. We can literally hike just a half mile apart and not see each other for days. Other times, we catch up with fellow hikers at a rest spot when suddenly everyone chooses the same off trail space or shelter to take a break or camp for the night.

Lately though, word is spreading fast when someone quits the trail and it’s catching me by surprise. Somehow, I had it in my head that those who made it past Harper’s Ferry and had their photo taken at the half way check-in at ATC headquarters would be hiking all the way to Maine. As we approached Harper’s Ferry, and spent time there avoiding the rain, I realized a lot of people were leaving the trail for good right after they checked in at the ATC.

Many hikers were people I knew that seemed very capable of finishing, but each had something pulling them off-trail. Some were simply tired of doing the same thing every day, particularly when it kept raining all the time. Others cited aches and pains that wouldn’t heal, or running low on funds. A couple hikers seemed just plain homesick after two to three months on trail.

It seemed every couple days word came around about who was leaving trail and why. It was unsettling, and I did my best to spend time with people who were working to stick it out.

A friend and I hiked out of Harpers Ferry into Maryland and there we ran into two more hikers quitting that very day. It sounded one was determined to leave and the other was leaving because she would no longer have a hiking partner. That is happening a lot: one hiker leaving soon after their hiking partner went home. I was glad Wingman would be rejoining me on trail as soon as he came back from visiting family, as hiking on my own isn’t as appealing as I thought it would be. I had invitations from other hiker friends to join their tramily (trail family) and could go along with them, but I know they hike very differently in pace, distance, and days off from what works for me. I planned to hike near them for a little while though, to keep me connected to the trail life.

Wingman rejoined me just a few miles into Maryland and we three went another fifty miles and passed the true half-way marker, where I was sure anyone that reached it would stay on trail unless injured, sick, or bad news from home. I was wrong again. Over 1300 miles into the journey, a hiker talked about leaving and an hour later turned around on the trail and headed back to the last road crossing to catch a lift to the airport. He said it wasn’t fun anymore and he didn’t want to “waste” time doing something he didn’t enjoy.

His reason for quitting is actually the one that scares me the most. I don’t want to fall into the trap of giving up just because it’s very unpleasant. Lots of goals require long stretches of physical and mental discomfort and this is definitely one of them. I want to prove to myself I will finish regardless of how much my idea has lost its sparkle.

It’s hard to find joy in the trail some days though. Other times I hike along happy as can be for awhile and then find myself weary of it before heading into a neutral zone – all in the course of a couple hours!

As the pointy rocks continued to litter our path, the boulders became harder to climb with our packs and poles, and the rain made all of it more treacherous, I realized I needed a good break. We planned to take one after fourteen straight days of hiking, but moved it up a couple days. It was a great idea to move it up, and when Mountain Dew suggested a third day off, we took her up on it. We originally had six hikers planning to take zero days (zero hiking mile day) together, but the rain drive three of them to start a couple days earlier than us. Wiki said if she hadn’t left trail right then for a break, she was about to leave for good. She hasn’t posted since she headed back on trail a couple days ago, but I’m hopeful she is still heading to Maine.

Wingman and I are headed to Fort Montgomery, NY and will be in Connecticut in just a few days. Crossing state borders is always a lift of spirits. Then we have a couple other nice milestones before reaching the White Mountains where Marc is going to pick us up and drop us off each day for a week of slackpacking, which means only carrying what you need for the day. Having Marc visit plus slackpacking to look forward to will help us keep our focus on the trail and making decent mileage.

The Whites are really tough – and a bit dangerous – so I’m glad to have the extra comfort and support from Marc. In the meantime, I’m still on trail and hoping to hear my remaining thru-hiker friends are still on trail, too!