Month 2: 7/1-7/31/22
Deep in a dark forest, surrounded by night, by creaking trees and bellowing toads, buzzing insects, moths crashing towards the light, the silent surge of nutrients through mycelium, root networks, and burrows, blood pulsing softly through my limbs, a river rushing endlessly - I am never alone. Every moment spent outdoors, I am immersed in the lives of other beings and my own. And through each second of the day, there are loved ones thinking of me, immersing themselves in my life mentally. I am amplified by their energy.
My second month on the trail has made clear that I am fueled by love. Love of the outdoors, for adventure and challenge, plant medicine, wild animals, starry skies and rain - these passions allow me to feel fulfilled by my time in nature. Love from my parents and siblings, my partner and his family, my friends, co-workers, and trail buddies - these familial and social support groups sustain my well being. Without the love I feel from other human beings, I would not be able to accomplish these feats.
At the beginning of July, outside of Baldwin, I continued to battle ticks. They latched onto my pant legs and climbed up my body, looking for exposed skin. Mostly, I was able to flick them away, though not always. The Earth was dry and they were prevalent for most the week. A skill I've honed this year is to not let insects scare me. If you understand how they function and how to protect yourself from them, you'll have a much better time outdoors. Fortunately, the further north I marched, the less ticks there were.
The trail guided me to 1,150 foot peaks in the Ward Hills, a collection of relic sand dunes, then to Udell Hills, where mountain bike trails rolled over tall hills. I crossed US-10 and M-55 and grew excited as I neared an area I was familiar with, the Manistee River. Before reaching the river, I looked back from a high peak through an opening in the trees, and could see miles south. That perspective of the distance I traveled empowered and inspired me. I turned away and continued north with a renewed sense of pride and wonder.
I camped near the river for many nights. One day, I decided to take the Manistee River Trail for about 9 miles instead of the NCT. Nestled near the MRT is my favorite campsite in Michigan - the first place I backpacked to and a sight I've experienced in many moods and seasons. I stayed there blissfully. A few miles south of downtown Mesick, I met my parents for another resupply at a modern campground on Hodenpyl Dam Pond, a stretch of the Manistee River that has grown into a lake due to dam operations. My mother and I kayaked to the dam on my rest day. My dad and I chilled fireside that evening. Across M-115, I continued to follow the Manistee River. I finally had some rain. Mushrooms sprouted and I collected fresh chanterelles. I was lead to higher ground atop dunes overlooking the river and miles of forest. I hiked against the flowing water, wishing my parents were there to see the vast landscape stretched beside me, pushing the current of my energy forward, my pack, "Old Greg", slowly ripping.
My journey has always been challenging physically - the daily grind of pushing my body, of sleeping on hard ground and exposed to shifting weather. The month of July placed more mental obstacles in front of me than I expected. My last day following the big river, I was burdened with repetitive worry. Each step would cycle through my breaths and emerge as persistent thought. I felt that I wasn't good enough, as if 10 to 15 miles a day and 10 days worth of food was inefficient. I feared the closeness I had with loved ones would fade, that the bubbling fortune of my life would pop and my happy life would collapse onto itself. The repetitiveness of hiking accelerated these obsessive thoughts and there was a breaking point which sent me grasping the nearest tree. The feeling of a sturdy being against my skin grounded me and I allowed myself to appreciate the intensity of the moment. I continued.
After heading east along the Manistee River, the trail turns north again, hopping from lake to lake. Wading in a lake one evening, I met a loon, watching, diving, disappearing. A few of my girlfriends/bandmates visited me for their first backpacking trip a day later. We met at the Boardman River, had an exciting night hike through "The Valley of the Giants", which I had passed through earlier that day, then hiked to a few lakes the next. Our time together was limited, though their bright spirits lasted the rest of the week - a mental reprieve during a few long days road walking. At one lake, I spent an evening becoming acquainted with my campground neighbor, a mother and her young son. She fed me watermelon and stories.
Almost every night for a week, I camped near a beautiful Michigan lake. A few had rare nesting pairs of loons (only 300 in the state), their howling conversations echoed eerily after sunset. I opted for a longer day of hiking to arrive at the Jordan River Valley early, allowing time for an extra rest day. At a walk-in campsite near the scenic Jordan River, I spent an entire day pampering my body (in a rustic way). I washed my hair under a water pump (which is difficult to do alone), slathered oily herbal pain rub on every inch of my skin, collected medicinal herbs and drank pots of tea, detoxifying. The rest was painfully liberating.
The next day, the love of my life came to me with a resupply and thousands of hugs and kisses. We enjoyed the solitude of our campsite for an evening, then hiked north the next day towards the Warner Creek Pathway. We camped near a highway after spending our daylight hours enjoying the Jordan River. He hiked back to his car the following day and I continued north, then we met again for another evening of savoring each other's company. It was nightfall again by the time we reunited, hindering our ability to find a decent campsite near the trail and a place to park his vehicle, so we drove to Boyne City and camped at a state park on Lake Charlevoix. We had fun in town after the sun came up, exploring and eating well, then he took me back to the trail to continue my journey. Saying goodbye was heart wrenching.
Tears gathered in my eyes as you vanished round a bend,
your arm stretched out the window,
hand blazing a trail of white light through the air
still felt placed against my chest.
The heat of your body fresh on mine,
I pull it inside to warm my heart another time.
Gazing down the road,
I soak in the sparkling light you left behind.
Fulfilled knowing I'll be feeling your love again each night.
Fighting the feeling of loneliness, I trudged forward with many miles to cover. By some statistical miracle, I crossed paths with two trail acquaintances - a couple, section-hiking the NCT, that I had met when I first started hiking along the Manistee, who I ran into near the Jordan River, and whom I was now startled to encounter again further north in the Chandler Hills. We laughed at the coincidence and exchanged contact info. They had been following me in trail logs, much as I have been following two thru-hikers, weeks ahead of me. Their kindness and encouragement erased the sinking loneliness lurking within.
Soon I was in Petoskey, climbing the trail to a shelter donated and maintained for hikers by a local couple. I called the number on the door of the spacious shelter (more like a cabin) and was greeted by the friendly voice of the owner. She gave me the code to get inside and explained how to get water down the hill nearby. I slept on one of their perfectly constructed wooden bunks that night and marveled at the fact I hadn't used my tent in nearly a week. I awoke at dawn to light rain pattering on the roof. It stopped and I hit the trail to downtown Petoskey and Lake Michigan. When I exited the woods and started a short road walk, I could see the big lake sparkling in the distance. My heart raced with excitement.
From the road, I entered the North Central Michigan College Natural Area. Rain welcomed me. I hiked along Bear Creek, through campus, then crossed a street to continue along the creek until it took me to Lake Michigan. Stunned by the immense expanse, a body of water I'd known my whole life though had reached by my own two feet, I sat before crashing waves and held back tears of joy. How blessed I am to follow my dream, exploring this great state, and be so thoroughly loved and supported along the way. Incredible. I camped at the state park on the lake, swam, hopping big waves, and watched the sunset colors brighten the horizon. A trail buddy from my first Isle Royale days visited with a bundle of wood. We chatted, then I sat by myself with the fire warming my face, till rain cooled my shoulder blades.
I pushed myself the next day, hiking nearly 20 miles north, past Harbor Springs. It was after sunset by the time I pitched my tent and crawled inside. I was deflated to find that the arrowhead I found during my travels down-state, a precious artifact I treasured and kept strapped to my flute, had slipped out on the way that day. I scrambled to use the last remaining minutes of light to search around camp, then grabbed a headlamp and returned to the trail. I hiked for hours in the dark, frantically scanning the ground with my light, praying that I'd see the arrowhead there, back-tracking 5 miles until, delirious and running on empty, I decided to turn back. I wrote about the loss in a trail log and ran sloppily back to my tent. I suppose some objects are too magical to possess. When I found the artifact in June, roadside amid rocks and dirt washed by rain from freshly churned earth, I debated with myself whether or not to take it with me. Its sharp edges between my fingers, throbbing energy of time, I put it in my pocket and decided it'd accompany me on my journey. Perhaps it served its purpose and had to return to the Earth. That lesson I am still hoping to learn as I crave the coolness of it against my skin.
My parents and brother met me the next morning at a trailhead. My folks took my pack and my bro hiked the 22 remaining miles to Wilderness State Park with me. His good humor and strength were my guides that day, as I forced my sore limbs to continue. We hiked woods and roads, through the remnants of BlissFest with handmade wooden stages and geodomes. We sat beside Lake Michigan in full sun before crossing the state park boundary line. Swatting at flies through wetlands and by beaver dams, powering up hillsides and pounding down inclines - my bro and I laughed and daydreamed about the food we'd eat later. Eventually making it to my parents camper. Here I've been spoiled with the comforts of their presence, good company, fresh food, and a comfy bed. Beach days and starry nights. How lucky I am to be alive.