NCT Diary: Sept 17-27
Duluth, MN to Grand Marais, MN
Sept 17: getting back to trail always takes a while. Wake up after only four hours of sleep feeling like a truck hit me, but we must hike. Ride back to trail from Paul, then up a rough dirt path through typical birch woods, up up up and then pop! Open field plateau and a deep velvet blue pond surrounded by golden bullrushes, all movement and light like an impressionist painting. There's even a swan. Walk through this dream landscape for a while, a hallucination of autumn and air, we even sit for a while on trail amidst the reeds and just... sit. Become sunshine. Sleep deprivation makes me free associate and go wild with metaphor. We meet a shy rottweiler dog with sweet eyes and a bold blue cattle dog who nips our heels, then we are back on a paved road and almost at Minnesota. The sky is cloudless and almost solid with the intensity of blue, the kind of Platonic ultimate blue you only ever get in September. It is a minimalist painting, iconic, stable and infinitely deep in its blueness, as vertiginous as the milky way. It is the perfect static backdrop for the trees, which are all in motion, their edges popping off the vibrant canvas as if outlined in ink. But the trees are not mere drawings - they are sculptures, dynamic and flowing and alive and vivid against the hard flatness of that perfect sky. And then the haybales, the barns, the small purple flowers by the roadside, the burgundy ferns and russet bushes - all these objects clash and vibrate, each inhabiting their own plane. I feel as if I am inside of a Cezanne, my sleeplessness revealing to me the non-euclidean reality of perception. Vanishing point? What vanishing point? I can feel my eyes dancing through their saccades. This is the spiritual realm I seek. And then we come across the pipeline construction, and just like that, it’s gone. They are working right where we’re supposed to meet the trail, so we have to parallel it for a while next to the train tracks, deafened by the noise of the machines. It's all in the name of fossil fuels. Later, catching up on the day before I fall asleep: wooden arch into Minnesota, superior hiking trail, excited to be on a trail that's "real", many dogs, so tired I was dizzy and had to listen to podcasts even tho it was beautiful. Home environment, feels reasurring b/c it's just like Manitoba. Moon so bright it wakes me despite my exhaustion.
Sept 18: I hate how the superior hiking trail maps don't have mileages on them! They have dots so you can count up, one by one, the miles, but the dots aren't labelled. Therefore I have no idea how far we've gone tonight, only that it's not good enough. I thought we would be through Duluth and past it tonight but no, we have to camp super early on the bluffs or night hike until ten or eleven pm to get to a paid campground on the university's forest study grounds. I want to push late but C is scared to walk through downtown after sunset, even thought it's a cute bougie downtown, and so we’re having another horribly indulgent, short day, and it's all my fault because I slept in and he let me because I was awake all night the night before. I feel awful. I want to punish myself for this laziness by not eating, but I know I won't be able to crush miles tomorrow if I don't eat. I need to do some kind of penance. Failure failure failure, we're never going to finish this stupid trail and it's all my fault for not pushing us harder and keeping our laziness in line. I hate myself.
Later, feeling a little more calm because I'm deliberately distracting myself from the miles we didn't do. Ate a home-dehydrated meal sent by C's mom, which was... spinach-forward let's say. Very liquidy and spinachy, except where it was unpleasantly crunchy. I forced myself to eat the entire thing, so penance achieved. Time to make a spreadsheet and try not to panic because we only did 23 miles.
Sept 19: takes forever to get through the ups and downs and around of the bluffs of Duluth. Severe thunderstorms forecasted, we're arguing all day about my despair over ever finishing this trail, and the rigid focus on time and miles it's giving me. C hates feeling rushed, I’m afraid we won't finish this trail if we don't rush. In fact, I'm certain we’re doomed to fail and this is all futile. We end up calling for a ride back to Duluth after only 27 miles to zero again and wait out the rain tomorrow. Feeling like a failure.
Sept 20: zero day, sleepy, made decision about arrowhead route
Sept 21: battery not plugged in all night means we get out of town late, big thanks to Caroline for providing an emergency back-up ride. Constantine turned himself into a pumpkin by eating too much. We hiked 24 miles and felt fine about it, figured out how to add my own pins with mileage markers to the SHT maps.
Sept 22: very pleasant morning through red maples and fall colours, much cruisier terrain than around Duluth - big relief. Reroute around gun club had me on edge, some guy shooting off a big loud gun at a sniper target. At the same time, two large aggressive dogs come running at me. I put my pepper spray away in a dumb spot thinking I wouldn't need it, oops, so I stand there on the road fumbling as a big growling mastiff-mutt comes barreling towards me. Fortunately he stops at the road and I don't end up needing to use the spray. It takes me a full 30 secs to get it out, much too slow. On edge as the sniper fires another round, making me yelp. Other than that, a good day. 34 miles and got to camp late but felt good, fairly easy walking in the afternoon, last 4 miles bike path. Relaxing now that we've accepted the inevitability of night hiking, we can chill for five minutes here and there instead of racing to beat the sunset
Sept 23: amazing views but you've gotta earn 'em. Pushed hard all day and only got 26.5 miles in but I am not upset about it, we did our best on super tough terrain. Amazing amazing amazing campsite on a cliff overlooking the valley, the river, the fall colours coming out, beautiful orange sunset. Part of our slow pace was the punishing hills but part of it was having to stop to take it all in - the SHT is like the AT if the AT had views. Rocky, rooty, straight up straight down, chunky boulder hopping, ankle breakers everywhere, but it's all worth it. My legs are actually tired for the first time in ages. Like, muscle-tired - I got a workout from all the stepping up and jumping down and balancing and not-falling. Too tired to write more. Nice to finally feel relaxed abiut this trail, this and the Kek are the last major obstacles between us and the terminus.
Sept 24: nice day, too tired. The leaves changed to orange overnight. Maples are too red to be real. Amazing.
Sept 25: didn't take contemporaneous notes this day. It was pretty cruisey, lots of colours, very busy campsite when we got there. Surprise bonus miles around Cascade river, will have to watch video to remember this day in detail. Saw an owl.
Sept 26: also forgot to take notes today. last day before Grand Marais II, aka Grand Marais, Minnesota (as opposed Grand Marais, Michigan). Still feeling good and grounded and in touch with trail. Thought it would be super bumpy & tough hiking like the day around Silver Bay but turned out to be pretty easy. Leaves have mostly fallen, we're back in stick season.
Sept 27: nearo day! Best nearo in a long time. Stayed at the campground in town and actually got to walk around doing Real People things instead of holing up in a strip mall motel and watching bad tv all day. Awesome little town, actually feeling revived and ready to go after this nearo. Almost sub-1000 miles left to go on this trail, and only ~140 miles left of difficult terrain. C had to go to the dentist, poor baby