Month 1: 6/1-6/30/22
In Waldron, Michigan, on the border of Ohio, I was dropped off at the end of a road, by a sign that read "North Country Trail. 1,150 miles to Wisconsin!" (that number has increased to 1,160 since that sign was placed). My partner, Andy, drove me there on a Wednesday morning, then drove away to see me 10 miles north in the Lost Nation State Game Area for one night on the trail together. This allowed me a last minute test run with my pack, feeling the full weight of what I had decided to bring, and an opportunity to shed excess.
North I hiked on a dirt mile road, along fields of sprouting corn and soy beans. The sky was overcast and the wind gentle. The excitement of beginning an epic adventure propelled me forward, little stones and sticks crunching with each movement. After about 6 miles, the pain set in. My feet throbbed, a vice-like pressure pounded against my heels, a stabbing sensation made me wince with each step. All the backpacking I had done in the past, the daily bike rides and walks, aerobic exercise and heavy lifting - none of it prepared me for my first month hiking Michigan. My mom calls it plantar fasciitis. I call it "conditioning".
Over the course of a week, I would develop huge blisters on the balls of my feet, despite my prevention methods. These would heal as layers of skin were debrided to expose a fresh, callousing surface. I would also experience 2-3 hours a day of what I called "torture-level pain". The intense pain in my feet after only half a day or less of road walking, and the determination I had to continue, hurting myself with each step, caused moments of sobbing, cursing, and de-motivation. Many times I wondered why I was continuing and if I even could.
Tip: Thanks to my trail buddy, Muse, for this one and for sending me some: Sock Liners. These helped my feet immensely by reducing friction and wicking moisture away from the skin.
I soldiered on, through small rural towns like Litchfield and Homer, then larger cities like Hillsdale and Battle Creek. Much of the land I passed was utilized for agricultural purposes, treated with chemical pesticides and manure fertilizer. These scents hung heavy in the air. On the east side of a large city, I witnessed hundreds of dairy cows suffering in a transfer station. They screamed, eyes wide with fear, as they were shoved into small stalls with no ability to move. I sobbed there on the bridge overlooking the facility. Further north, I saw large dairy farms with herds of cows huddled together in the corners of pastures. The ground ankle-deep in their waste. Flies so bad, they coated their faces and tried to crawl into their eyes. There I cried too.
Another difficult and reoccurring experience was all the signage for a close-minded politician. As if to live in a world of their own, many residents of rural Michigan fly the flags of their "messiah" as a statement of their conservative views. I saw blatantly close-minded lawn signs like "In America, there's only one true holiday and that's Christmas" and multiple racist memorabilia, decorating lawns and gardens. Even the name of a road I walked along was derogatory: "Sq--wfield".
Aside from the unfortunate aspects of rural America (poverty included), I was more often welcomed by residents. A few farmers stopped to ask me about my trip. A woman in a van nearly insisted on a ride, which I declined. An Amish boy offered "water or anything". A charming lady and her dog Fergie greeted me early one morning by a paved trail. Her energy, encouragement, and excitement for my adventure made the encounter one of the best I had during my first month. Seldom did I feel unwelcome. There were countless trucks and tractors passing me. Most would slow down and move aside as I hugged the shoulder of the road. Though some locals in their heavy vehicles or by their homes would glare.
My first resupply point was in Yankee Springs Recreation Area, with my mother and sister. I hiked 19 miles on my last day before rest to get there, wanting desperately to have extra time to heal and to see my loved ones sooner. There, I soaked my feet in Epsom salt, gathered additional medical supplies from my mother, and ate plenty of the fresh food she had brought. We kayaked, explored, and slept soundly in her beautiful tent.
After a weekend of rest (and a run-in with baby raccoons), I headed north through Barry County, camping in state game areas. Other than the road walking, the biggest challenge with hiking the NCT in southern and central Michigan is the lack of legal camping options. I did what I called "stealth camping" most nights. That is, I camped in state game areas outside of legal parameters (camping is allowed 10/31 to 12/1). I only camped in areas that seemed to have campers there previously. away from the trail, delicate vegetation, and water. I also pitched my tent along the side of certain nature trails through the towns and cities I passed through. This I assume is also not allowed, though I never saw anything posted against it.
In Lowell, I stopped at the NCTA National Headquarters. The lady in the office was kind enough to let me in after store hours. There was a bit of merchandise for purchase and she offered the number to the county fairgrounds and a "trail angel" back south as camping options. Outside, I heard music coming from along the Flat River, near the Lowell Showboat. I was excited to find live music that evening, part of a historic summer concert series put on by the Showboat. I sat in the grass with my pack listening to a jam band. A local "trail angel" came and introduced himself, told me about his campground off the trail, offered the number of his friends at the north side of Kent County, which I was now traveling through.
I never sought the assistance of anyone offering help to hikers. Not that I didn't want the help, rather I always found my own way, a relatively safe place to camp, and never wanted to rely on a stranger. Plus I had the support of loved ones coming to see me every 9 days or so. My second resupply at Duke Creek Campground was alone. My bunnysitter back home mailed my supplies and I stayed at the campground for two nights, in a rustic cabin all to myself. On my way there, I was cussed at by a driver who seemed mad I was walking along the side of the road. I also took note, yet again, of how often people were surprised that I was not "part of a group" or that I didn't have a partner with me. I wonder if I were a man, if people would have the same reaction. Fourteen miles north of this resupply point, via road, I finally reached the Manistee National Forest near Croton Dam, where "the real trail began".
The gifts of Earth are bountiful.
How privileged I am to walk this land and soak in her glory.
Her wind songs and rich color fuel my days, propelling me forward.
At night, I listen to moths and squirrels, owls and bird lovers calling back to her.
I reply with my flute, smelling of cedar and lavender, filling with the hot air of my lungs,
beckoning a time when truck exhaust, DEET, and manure did not permeate my nostrils.
Alas, I am a weary traveler, having hiked hundreds of miles on hot tar roads
by the ebb and flow of motors, waves rushing the shore of the forest.
And yet I am a dreamy traveler, for I continue,
hopping islands of trees through this vast sea of civilization,
wandering through thoughts of pure magic.
The Manistee National Forest brought me the peace that I had been seeking for weeks. The woods surrounded me in serenity, with acres of trees to shield me from the groans of trucks and boats. Instead of worrying about hostility from humans, my concerns shifted to other beings: bears and raccoons, as well as to my needs: where to get water. The land I walked on went over 2 weeks without rain. Dry ground encouraged the movement of ticks. Creeks were dry. Though I adapted. By reading the sky, I could predict the coming of rain. And by studying maps, I sourced water. My snack pack did fall victim to a raccoon before entering the forest (my mistake), but I had extra food to keep me sustained.
A particularly magical location was the trail over the White River, west of White Cloud, north of M-37, and south of M-20. There I swam in the low waters, sunbathed on a bridge, camped in a cleared area nearby, and met a porcupine! I also met fellow hikers and nature lovers, a sky-diving backpacking novice and his ex-military/minister buddy. Ethel and her dog Lucy, the only person I hiked the trail alongside, and an absolute pleasure to share conversation with. Old Jim, an NCT volunteer, maintaining the trail and reminding me of the importance of supporting those efforts. And a cowboy on his horse, Flash.
I'll be back White River!
Further north, by small lakes, through wetlands, out-running "forest vampires" and flicking ticks, I hiked until I came to Baldwin and the Bowman Bridge Campground. It was there where I met my mom and dad, who brought their camper for my rest days. We've explored the area by car, down forest roads, through Idlewild ("The Black Eden"), and in search of public lake access. We've eaten well and have been productive. Now I sit in the Pathfinder Library, downtown Baldwin, typing as fast as possible so that I can get back outdoors.
To the woods, with trees swaying around me, the sound of wind tunneling past my ears.