Month 4: 9/1-9/30/22
Cars stream down Jefferson Avenue, driving to and from the Detroit city center and its outliers - towers of concrete, brick, and glass, stretched and gleaming over pale blue sky. Trees fill the spaces between buildings - dark, light, and yellow greens, shimmering. I listen to motors rolling past and hear the waves of Lake Superior lapping - wind rustling leaves, whispering, "come back to me." I miss the woods already. I miss the simplicity of a backpack home, of responsibilities capped at mere necessity, of daily traveling. Yet surrounded by the comforts of a modern home - electricity, running water, warmth, belongings - I am happy. I am happy and I am straining to hold onto the hard happiness of a life outdoors.
October 1st, I returned to my apartment near the Detroit River, late on a Saturday night. The club a few blocks away vibrated the pavement below me. Club-goers stood in fine clothing, heels and button-ups, outside waiting to get in. The street lined with their vehicles, many receiving parking tickets, or cruising slowly by with subs bumping. My trail buddy, "Muse", was welcomed to the city by this weekend energy. We unloaded packs and garden veggies, rode an elevator to the tenth floor of my building, then entered the home I left 4 months ago. Upon seeing my bunnies emerge from their cubbies, behind ends tables and out of boxes, I started crying - the longing for their gentle energy erupted from me as I knelt on the floor for their soft nuzzling.
Returning home from my journey has been a surreal experience. I'm adjusting to life in a busy city again, to home upkeep, social obligations, and an 8to5 work schedule. I'm daydreaming about the places I hiked away from last week. When I last wrote to you, reader, at the Marquette Public Library - clicking "Publish" seconds before the library computers shut down for closing - I was about to embark on the final leg of my trek. It was late that evening as I followed a sidewalk to the pedestrian pathway along Lake Superior. I made phone calls as the sun drifted below the horizon, knowing I may not be able to where I was heading. A woman approached me, introducing herself as a friend of my trail angel, Amy, and a member of their group of badass female adventurers, "The Wildflowers". She presented a picture Amy took of me that morning after we parted ways in the library parking lot. Amy had posted it proudly to the group's social media page. I felt like a celebrity.
From Marquette I climbed 1,000-foot Sugarloaf and Hogback Mountains, through the foothills of the Huron Mountain range further north. I camped by the big lake near Presque Isle Point, waking to howling wind and waves crashing. West along the Little Garlic River, experiencing what the Chippewa call "Manito", spirits, ghosts of the water and woods. There by the Little Garlic, I would be startled awake throughout the night by the sound of growling, animals scraping the ground around my tent, a mother calling to a little boy laughing. Gone were the days of easy sleep as I entered lands more remote than any I'd known, with less food than I needed, and a body constantly sore and throbbing. I wondered if the supernatural happenings I would witness were due to lack of calories. Or if I was feeling the Earth as I never had before, learning her voice more fully.
Southwest for a week of climbing up and down 1,000 to 1,500-foot peaks, belly always rumbling. Berry bushes were barren. Mushrooms were shriveled and decomposing. I was hungry. Though with each peak came the reward of a mountaintop scene - creeks trickling over rock and boulder, water falling, vistas showing the Dead River Storage Basin and leaves slowing turning. In the McCormick Wilderness Area, at the highest point in Marquette County, I sat even higher on a boulder for lunch, checking in with loved ones via call and text as cell signal was strong on the summit. It occurred to me that these mountaintops were my connection to others. Whenever I would reach a high point, I could count on my phone working, albeit still limited with low battery. The cellular isolation I thought I'd experience through the western UP was intermittent.
One day I hiked 10 miles on Red Road - a flat sand and gravel road that winds around mountains, past fields, surrounded by pine and lichen. Trucks passed every so often, rousing clouds of dust with their wheels, fine granules that coat the ferns and low plants beside the road. I was reminded of what the Odawa man I'd met at the Aadawegamik Trading Post said a few weeks prior, "We're walking The Red Road." Contemplating his words, I acknowledged that it was my choice to hike that road named "Red" - that I chose to make a pilgrimage hundreds of miles, experiencing pain and hardship. This was my doing and I would go home to a life with a home in the city, as a woman with her needs met and future sparkling. What I strove to understand through my wanderings - the past, the present, and the future of cultures different than my own, cultures suppressed by the majority - I could only experience momentarily. I could never live a life outside my own. Despite my efforts to appreciate other viewpoints, I was and always will travel this existence as myself. I kept this recognition with me as a reminder to accept my own perspective in my continued quest to see the world outside my head.
My next resupply was at Craig Lake State Park on the eastern border of Baraga County. There a good friend from Detroit met me with my supplies and good company. I washed my clothes in a bucket he brought and half-charged my power bank in his truck. He drove on to meet climbing buddies at Silver Mountain, further northwest, and I hunkered down for a long day of cold rain. The chill that wetness sent through my body frightened me, knowing my shoes wouldn't keep my feet dry and my poncho wouldn't keep my limbs from frigid dampness. My cold weather gear had been lost in the missing Marquette resupply. I couldn't get through to my parents and partner that day and I felt panic setting in as I worried I wouldn't be able to ask for a hat, gloves, or rain pants to borrow and protect me from the elements going forward. Fortunately, the trail out of the state park took me along M-28 and US-41, where I was able to make contact before losing battery.
Onward and westbound, passing roadside waterfalls frequented by tourists, skirting the Sturgeon River and crossing many others, through Baraga Plains, an expanse of flat land and low trees, moss and lichens. At my 1,000-mile mark, I entered the Ottawa National Forest, then I followed the Sturgeon River to Silver Mountain, a mile from the trail, where I took a rest day and met Andy. He would travel with me, driving to a campsite along the trail each night as I continued my trek west to my final resupply point at the Old Victoria ghost town, east of Norwich Bluff and the Trap Hills. Andy brought a car full of food and supplies from my parents, his mother, and the grocery store. My eyes welled with the sight of so much fresh food. We camped at the base of Silver Mountain the night we met and the next morning I laid everything out on a picnic table, like a nourishing art piece, taking a photo to remind me of how much love can be shared through fruits and veggies.
Being with my partner got me through a few of the toughest days of my journey. It rained almost the entire time Andy was visiting. I hiked over the east, middle, and west branches of the Ontonagon River. There were bogs to navigate, roots to use as footing, mud to cover my pant legs and water to fill my boots. Though I hiked with only a day pack for 3 days and, each night, had the love of my life lying next to me. I took my final rest day earlier than planned, when at Bob Lake Campground the sun emerged for an afternoon of warmth and light. We swam and explored the forest, made delicious meals and watched a vibrant sunset across the lake before the storm returned with thunder and lightning. The next day Andy drove and I hiked further west to Old Victoria, an historic mining town with a hiker shelter beside it. We had our last night on the trail together, standing in the middle of a road to see the stars and an unexplainable light hovering and exploding. The next day we parted ways and I continued alone into the Trap Hills.
The Trap Hills are one of my favorite areas of land in the UP. Named after the mining company that purchased the land in the 19th century, it rises and falls some 1,700 feet in certain places, the foothills of the Porcupine Mountains. My pack was heavier than it had ever been with 11 days worth of food and extra gear. Though ascending each hill (or mountain as I call them) was a welcome challenge. At the summit of many of these tall peaks, I could see both east and west, to the mountains I climbed and the ones I would be climbing. Trees were shifting from greens to orange, yellow, and red. I watched them change on the autumn equinox. My heart beat faster with the excitement of my favorite season approaching - the smell of dead leaves, of the weather cooling, the night arriving sooner each evening. And with less than 2 weeks left of my journey, the thoughts of home began to overcome me. I'd daydream about my life in the city. I'd tour my apartment mentally, deciding what I would no longer need after living out of a backpack for months. I'd get lost in the future, recognize it, and take deep, grounding breaths to pull myself back to the present - to a land of beauty, quiet, and mountains rising.
From the foothills of the Porkies, I crossed the Iron River, west branch of the river, and the Little Iron River, into a land I dubbed "The Iron Triangle". While following the trail west along the river, the blazes began to take me north. They disappeared and plastic ribbons tied to tree limbs marked the path. I used my GPS watch to check where I was - off the trail I had been expecting. I thought that I missed a blaze and returned to where I last saw them, only to follow them to the same ribbon-marked path northbound. I obliged and soon saw more blazes, now off the page of the map I had printed. This confused me. I realized I was on a re-route, headed north instead of west, and I expected to be taken back south to the river again, to continue to the southern boundary of the Porcupine Mountains State Park. This did not happen and the trail continued north, to the middle of the state park, 7 miles further than I had anticipated. A hiker exiting the park gave me a map and told me the re-route was new and the maps online hadn't been updated. I studied the map and saw it would add an additional 10 miles to my trek, taking me to the north end of the park and further from the site I had reserved at the southern end. While walking and staring at the map, I ended up in a spot I had passed already. I felt lost in the Bermuda Triangle of the western UP until finding my way at the park boundary, hiking into the night towards the original trail route, covering 20 miles unexpectedly, eventually returning to the route I had planned months prior.
I hiked the Little Carp River Trail through light rain and old growth forests in the Porkies. There are no stunning mountain vistas on this route, though the giant trees were magnificent. I pressed my hand against the bark of many, listening. After a full day of hiking, I emerged from the woods on the shoreline of Lake Superior. I jumped into the lake, now several degrees colder than I had last felt it, west of Marquette. I followed the Lake Superior Trail to the western boundary of the state park, along the Presque Isle River. The trail crosses the river via slabs of shale rock formations. I sat in the middle before reaching the other bank and was slapped by pouring rain and pea-size hail. I could hear the big lake roaring at the mouth of the river. I laughed at the intensity of it all, perhaps to calm myself or feel better about being wet and freezing.
From the Presque Isle River, I headed west and back into the Ottawa National Forest, to Black River Harbor, where the mouth of the Black River is protected by break walls from the mighty Lake Superior. At the campground there, a couple trail angels gifted me a free campsite, a hot meal, and fireside company. A rainbow danced through pink light in the dimming sky that evening. Along the Black River, there are about a half dozen large waterfalls as the river descends towards the lake. I marveled at each while passing. Hiking along this river I felt a growing sense of nostalgia for the trail. This would be my last stretch of completed trail and my last night on it before 29 miles of road walking to the Wisconsin Border. The temperature hovered in the 30s and 40s.
Westbound from the Ottawa National Forest to Copper Peak, where I bought a ticket for a ski-lift that carried me to the summit of the mountain. At the top, I climbed a 300-foot ski jump and metal stairs to witness a view of 2,500 square miles through the western UP. I could see the Porkies, the Black River snaking through the trees, Lake Superior shining, the Apostle Islands floating on the horizon, the land ahead I'd yet to explore They say this is the longest, unobstructed view in the Midwest. I was dazzled by the glory of distance.
Onward back to the road - the flat, even ground was easy to hike and I made good time, hiking 14 miles to a small river where I found a place to camp not far from the road. On my second to last day hiking, I had a 9-mile trek to Little Girls Point Park, where a campsite had me placed overlooking the big lake and the Porkies back east. There I met Muse in all her glory and cheer, bringing homemade granola bars and pickles, soup and kettle corn, her beautiful voice and profound musings. How poetic that she could finish this journey with me as she was the person who inspired it. Read about when we met in 2017 here (link coming soon).
That night, we slept near dying embers, under a canopy of stars. I held the cool night air in my lungs, holding and releasing where I'd be going and where I came from. I felt time slow and woke for sunrise, dreaming. Later that morning, Muse drove to the Wisconsin border 6 miles west and I continued with a daypack, hiking the road, the last of my journey, stopping to forage greens for my bunnies and medicinal herbs for Andy. I walked slowly, savoring each glint of light off metal signsroad , the quivering of leaves in the breeze, the copper of pine needles and pale greens, grays, and blues of lichens. Yet home called to me. I could smell the sweet hay wafting from bunny fur, hear the stream of Jefferson whooshing, the Detroit River I would see glinting gem-like from my window.
Muse met me a few miles from the border. The pavement had a slight change of color at the boundary line. I stood below the sign "Welcome to Wisconsin" as Muse cheered and danced excitedly. I didn't know what to say. I played a little ditty with my flute. Then we hiked back to her car in Michigan and our long drive to Detroit. We stayed that Friday night with my partner's family, west of the Mackinaw Bridge, to much fanfare, good food, and the cleansing powers of a hot shower. The next day we crossed the bridge to the LP and drove south, visiting my family in the Lansing area for hugs and dinner before returning to the big city late that night. Now I sit on a comfortable chair, in a temperate room, free of insects and harsh winds, full of luxuries and food. I'm not sure how to end this article because I don't see it as an end. Rather this is a beginning to my next set of dreams, to a future ripe with fresh understanding and determined passion. I can say this: I pledge to dedicate my life to loving nature, loving others, and living fully. I will strive to help others feel the magic and empowerment of outdoor adventure - to promote inclusivity, humanity, and sustainability - to continue to be a woman who radiates love, bravery, and strength.
To all who have supported me on this journey: my parents, John & Gwen, my siblings & their partners, to the love of my life, Andy, his family, and to my friends and co-workers. To the strangers who became my angels along the way: Virginia & Craig, April & her son, Amy "Grilled Cheese", Amy & Lyle, Russ & his dog Anya, Janelle, Shelly & John. To Muse, Amy & The Wildflowers of Marquette for their inspiration. To all the volunteers who build, maintain, and ensure the North Country Trail thrives, such as Old Jim, Tim C., to John working tirelessly, and to all those I've never met who made my path a reality. Thank you all for being a part of my journey, for supporting and encouraging me. I have never felt so blessed. I cherish this feeling. As the sun sets behind the city, tall buildings become mountains silhouetted, a road becomes a river, birds carry the wind, the air a reflection of memory. Here I am, awake, still dreaming.