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!

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!