NCT Diary: Sept 9-16
Ironwood, MI to Duluth, MN (and all 210 miles of Wisconsin)
Sept 9: left laundromat at 10:30am with trail angel Russ and started back on the roadwalk where we had left off around 11. End of Michigan into the first 50 or so miles of Wisconsin are many many miles of paved road with short segments of state land starting about 15mi into the state. Honestly not mad about the long roadwalk, lets us get a decent chunk of miles done on a lazy out of town day. Got to the Wisconsin border around 3pm and felt... nothing in particular? Felt like something but finishing Michigan was not the milestone that escaping Ohio was. The end of Michigan kind of snuck up on us, especially since we spent the last night of Michigan in a town. Still, Wisconsin is such a short state (210-215 miles, depending on which map you believe) that it feels kind of like we're almost done this thing. We'll be done with WI in a week, and then only two states left! The end is in sight. But still, the highway sign for WI didn't inspire much, just an "oh, there it is." Getting more excited about it as I write this on a roadwalk now. Speaking of contradictory maps, not even 2mi into WI we ran into big confusion. C has the Gaia maps as his primary source while I use the Avenza maps because they have half-mile markings on them. But the WI Gaia maps and Avenza maps don't agree on the route. Eventually figured out that the Avenza maps I got from the NCTA website are for a trail extension that's in progress but not complete, and would have had us bushwhacking along a flagged but otherwise undeveloped route. Felt bad about leading us wrong for a few minutes but I suppose it's not my fault, maps for incomplete sections of trail should be marked as such and the original Avenza maps should still be available on the website, but they very much are not. True to form, the new "improved" route is longer and actually eliminates an opportunity for town. Gotta keep reminding ourselves that we're on central time too, and that the sun sets at 7:30 now, not 8:30. First time I've actually had to worry about crossing a time zone on trail - technically the PNT has a time zone crossing on it, but you're just barely into mountain time in Montana and you're way out in the woods for all of it, so I just kept my watch on Pacific and lived according to a single time zone.
Sept 10: mostly in the woods all day - short dirt road walk and then more confusion about old route vs new route. Stayed on old route to be consistent and it was of course longer and involved paved roadwalking but whatever. All my goddamn podcasts are about 9/11, no thank you. Got surprise trail magic from Bob and Susan who C met on Ice Age Trail 2 years ago, such kind people. Breakfast sandwiches and chocolate milk, and a promise to meet up later at copper falls. Copper falls was farther than anticipated but they still stuck around and gave us a sort-of dinner. Between the two trail magic breaks, we didn't have time to take lunch but felt well-fed anyway. Felt sad for no reason walking through the woods after roadwalk but pulled myself out of it. Fall colours just starting. Didn't think too much today, hard to write a full diary entry. (Added later: realized I felt sad because it's around the second anniversary of my dear friend Hayden's death. The fall colours reminded me of them.)
Sept 11: peaceful woods morning, having a nice day until we run into a non-fan in the middle of the woods, who seems to have gone out for a hike specifically to insult Constantine to his face. Unsettling - being the object of a parasocial relationship is strange. He seemed to think we would know who he was? Oh well. Saw lots of gigantic frogs today. Getting super tired and achey with bad shoulder chafe in the evening, just as the mosquitos were coming out. Terrain just up and down enough to be tiring with a heavy pack, but not truly steep - just consistently not flat. Micro-hills can be more exhausting than big ones cause at least you're up and over and then get to go down for a while on a big hill. Still beautiful terrain. Lots of people out and about enjoying it, including a group of 20+ college kids with massive packs on an outdoor leadership course. Caught a glance at their papers while we walked past them all taking a break on a bridge. I always always wonder what is in packs that big for a weekend. Like how do you do that?? My warm weather weekend setup would probably fit in a 20L daypack. Later, a guy from a local hiking Facebook group sticks a camera in our faces and tries to delay us at sunset! Doesn't even ask if we're ok with being filmed or interviewed, doesn't seem to know who we are or what we're doing aside from that we're hiking fast and hard. Bad vibe, if I was hiking solo I would have night hiked for an hour or two to get significant distance away from where he knows I am. Such weird interactions today.
Sept 12: rooty, toe-stubby trail all morning, lots of info signs around Owen Lake. Lunch - C packed out 1lb of cheese for some reason, so his sandwich was "cheese forward" (half a pound of cheese in a tortilla with hot sauce). Later, trying to access something like that fierce meditative joy of motion and mostly failing to find the flow state. Trying alternatively to tap into the "almost done" feeling of being near the end of a trail, and it's close, but we're still slightly too far away to find that motivation. Tired of this hike being a math problem; this much motion plus this many breaks equals sucess. Tired of doing averages, tired of the calculator being the third-most-used app on my phone. After today, less than 1400 miles to go, assuming the Kek opens and we don't have to take the Arrowhead cutoff. If the Kek stays closed, it's less than 1000 miles to go. Tired of not knowing how long this goddamn trail is. Rainforesty vibe, ferns and moss and sunshine. Trying to appreciate it but mostly I wanna be done so I can go home. 1400 miles is about 466 hours of walking. We walk about 11hrs a day so that's 42 days. We have 47 days left until our target finish date, so that's five rest days. We can do this.
Later, same day, after leaving Chequemegon National Forest and walking the last few miles through gorgeous sunset-lit birch, felt like I did find the flow and the peace of it after all. Got to Erick Lake campsite but it was already occupied by section hikers so after grabbing water we moved on to Morris Pond campsite. 34 miles today, and we still made camp before dark. Reassuring that we still have it in us and can crush miles when the terrain is cooperative. Absolutely stunning sunset, Morris Pond so clear and still that it reflected the trees like a mirror, crickets and frog calls through crystal-cool evening air accompanied by honks of migrating geese. A perfect pine-duff campsite under birches and large firs, and even a picnic table to eat dinner. This is what normal people picture when you say you camp every night, I wish we got to do it more often. Pleasantly tired, ate enough food out of my pack so that it finally doesn't feel too heavy and painful by the end of the day. Mashed potatoes for dinner. Ended up being a really nice day.
Sept 13: Should have double-checked the maps rather than believe section hikers. Water was 19 miles away, not ten. Day started out pretty cruisey, up on the edge of a bluff. Views would be pretty in winter but right now there's too much foliage. Back into summer, very few autumn leaves to be seen. Lunch on a bench in the sun, gave C some water to get through the next ten miles. Then it was a very old clearcut, mostly healed but still hot and exposed. Didn't mind - open oak/pine woodland is my favourite kind of trail I think. Dry sweet-smelling grass and furled ferns and the dappled shadows of branches and gnarled old shaggy tree bark, smells like happiness, the light tinted with a special saturation you only get in these places. Then it got even hotter and thirstier, still smelling the pine duff and grass but rationing water as the trail loses shade and the sun starts to make my face too hot. I can feel the salt leaving my body. The stillness starts to feel oppressive. So beautiful, so tough. Wisconsin in a drought year feels like northern California - who knew? Get to the water tap with only a sip left and we take a break. Despite my urging to get going, it extends to twenty whole minutes as Constantine is desperate to rehydrate. I want to push, we can still make our target 33 miles before dark if we go NOW, but he just can't, feels rushed and pushed by me and my reliance on the time as a motivator. I think we wouldn't be having this argument if he wore a watch. I see the time with every footstep as my arms swing for balance. I track our pace constantly, except for when I get in a fast rhythm. That's the only time I don't worry about minutes and miles and finishing this trail, when I hit a fast stride and just cruise on the pleasure of motion. After our water break I overcompensate and my pack is too heavy for speed, and I relent on the goal. We'll camp outside of Solon Springs instead of at the fairgrounds, saving us two miles and 40 mins of walking tonight. We would have gotten to our original camp at 7:30pm if we had kept to my estimate in camp, but now we'd be getting there at 8:15. I still kinda want to push there but C is feeling annoyed by my militant focus on finishing. Lots of pretty peaceful woods but I tune out for most of the afternoon, last three miles to Aden Creek are a roadwalk where C gets service and sees a storm coming starting at 8pm. I concede, we set up camp at 7:20 and are smugly dry in the tent when it starts raining.
Sept 14: a cold damp day and a late start, spent some time reconfiguring logistics in Solon Springs after we get an accurate distance for the Wisconsin border to Duluth. It's longer than we thought, so we arrange a ride in for the 15th and change our hotel. Only about 12 miles of trail today and then it's all dirt road so I'm not too worried about time. Overcast, sky is pewter and heavy and chilly. I don't mind - open scrub plains again, sparse trees and small beaver lakes. There's a cabin from 1920 that you can go inside and explore, but the floor creaks alarmingly and we're in a hurry so I just poke my head in. Headphones out as we dip into a stand of pines, listening to the hush of wind on branches, examining how the hues of the leaves change when the light is cool-toned and silver rather than gold. Vivid lime greens pop against russet bark. A broad, peaceful, soft path. It's calm in a different way than the still, hot afternoons, and more soothing, lulling me into quiet rather than fierce appreciation. Wisconsin is gorgeous, the sleeper hit of the NCT. Roadwalk for the rest of the day. Towards evening, saw a small animal wandering around on a road. Not moving like a squirrel, so what is it? Is that ... is that a rat?? It was a rat! A plain old regular rat. Just hanging out, crossing the road from one marsh to the other. Just realized this is the first time I've ever seen a wild, non-city dwelling rat in its natural habitat. It amuses me that I have only in this moment realized that a rat's natural habitat is not a subway tunnel. Obviously! Rats evolved before subway tunnels, of course there are wild rats. But it was a surprise. Also it was a really big rat. Bedtime - ducked off the road into state game land following what we thought was an informal hunting trail but must have been a very well-used deer path, because the woods were super active all night long. Sticks breaking, deer huffing in surprise as they saw our tent. I think I heard an owl kill something - a breaking of branches, a whomph noise, and then squeaking that was suddenly cut off. Didn't get much sleep - adrenaline shots kept waking me up as my ancient prey-animal instincts reacted to the presence of large animals in the dark.
Sept 15: roadwalk all day, only 1.5mi of trail in the 28.5 before we get picked up. Meditating on the word "peregrine", why I like it so much. It occurs to me that one reason I feel so dissatisfied with this trail is its lack of contact with the divine. On other trails you are free to wander, and it doesn't take long when you are entirely removed from human constructions to wander in a spiritual direction. You cannot avoid being moved when you are small in the midst of mountains, or traversing austere desert, or alone in an endless woods. The NCT is too long to allow for wandering if you're trying to do it in a single season - it's an extreme marathon, the ultimate expression of thru-hiker-as-athlete. You've gotta have a goal and hit your goal every single day if you want to finish, and it's so frontcountry that you see roads and humans and pavement every day. You cannot lose yourself or your sense of time within even the most remote section because winter is coming and you are on a schedule. Even the GDT, brutal and life threatening as it constantly was, was also a revelatory and ecstatic experience. It was a revelation of a raw, harsher divinity than I had yet known, but it was divine nonetheless. Romantic, in the art history sense of the word - human overwhelmed by the vast power of nature. I have not been propelled into spiritual flight on this trail, and that is a real loss. I now realize that a huge part of why I thru-hike is to connect myself to the animate earth, to experience what I think of as my religion of movement.
Sept 16: errands errands errands errands, stupid American War on Drugs means I spend a total of seven hours trying and failing to get my mental health meds re-prescribed. The Kek is open - we have to do the whole damn trail, as I suspected we probably would. It's 3am, I'm still too awake with all the stress of trying to wrangle my way through a bureaucratic nightmare. I've gotta hike tomorrow and I need to sleep, but first I need to read one more article about how climate change will kill us all. Can't forget that I need to post this in the morning, and clean my water filter too - there was too much shit to do yesterday, I have tasks leftover for the morning. Didn't rest for even an hour, I was so anxious about attempting to obtain drugs to alleviate my anxiety. Ugh!