After nearly a year of planning and guesswork, it is a relief to be back on the trail.
As with any hike, it has proved to be much different than I could have imagined. Nevertheless, I can't help but acknowledge the good omens that have led me to some of the most improbable of situations.
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
Days before I left Portland, OR for the Midwest my Northern Lites snowshoes were stolen out of my family's 4 Runner. Jim York was ever so helpful in getting a pair overnighted to the Midwest despite holiday season craziness. Thanks Jim!
After a spending a night with good friends (shout out Nick and Gillian Venzon for hosting me!) in the Chicagoland area, I was ready to head out to the trail head to begin the hike, only the snowshoes had not arrived on time at all, and I had no option but to wait another day.
Wait I did, and as they failed to arrive the next day, I began to become helplessly unsettled. I spent hours on the phone filing a claim to "find the package", and when I was told I'd hear back in 2-3 days, I began thinking about how I could refuse this package if it did ever get here and get another pair overnighted to me somewhere on the trail. What a mess! Or so it seemed.
But just as I was about to set that whole plan in motion, the snowshoes were hand delivered by one of the postal workers I had been speaking with. Luckily she caught me and my friend just as we were heading out to run errands and I was able to sign for the package. What luck!
Alas, I could breath easy as I knew I could begin the hike the next day. Beginning just one day later than my intended start date of the winter solstice was no major set back at all.
Little did I know this was a much greater blessing in disguise.
My former band mate Billy Taylor got his shifts covered with hardly any notice and we had a lovely drive up to Potawatomi State Park sharing good tunes and conversations. And how happy I was to be embarking upon yet another long hike!
The first few days offered beautiful weather and flat terrain, mostly on roads and snowmobile trails. Of course, this meant a very heavy frameless pack and my body nearly overheating while wearing only my baselayers. The biggest speed bump was dealing with newly formed blisters on my feet as my RBH Designs VAPRTHRM insulated socks were indeed too warm for the 30-degree (F) temps. I found that to be rather comforting, knowing my feet will remain warm as the weather (hopefully) becomes bitterly cold.
As each and every day passed, a growing sense of peace came over me. Each night, wonderful sunsets painted the night sky indescribably, and the stars overhead lit the way as I hiked into the dark.
On Christmas Day, I found myself in Mishicot, well ahead of schedule. I had booked a hotel room for the night, and as I rolled into town, I saw two bars, both open and had to decide which one to indulge in for the first time on my hike.
I asked the first person I saw which one was better. She said she didn't go to bars and did not know, but she thought she had been in one of them once before. Seemed like a good enough reason to head into the bar named Cutter's.
Every head in the place turned and stared at me as I burst in the door. Clearly I wasn't from around there. So I set down my stuff and went grabbed a Spotted Cow from the barkeep who waved off my attempt to pay. Keeping a tab, I supposed? I proceeded to FaceTime the family back home while enjoying the roaring fire outside, perfectly contented in a foreign land.
A local had come out for a smoke, and as we chatted I learned that this particular bar was closing its doors in a week or so, and all the drinks and food were "on the house" all day! What?! It was almost unbelievable that I just happened to be there on that day. And to think, if my snowshoes never got stolen or if the second pair had arrived on time, I would have missed out on one hell of a Christmas miracle.
After spending the night at a hotel, I headed out the next day with clean clothes and plastic bags for socks since it was 44 degrees (F) out. Strong winds were blowing me around on the open roads, but I was jamming out to The Chariot and Lil' Wayne and before I knew it I was walking over snowy sand dunes toward Lake Michigan.
And so my journey continued, stopping in here and there for a bite to eat, but otherwise alone among the myriad cars passing by on roads and the frozen rivers along short sections of trail.
As soon as the one-week-mark rolled around I noticed a change in me. I sensed the world around me with a hightened awareness, and fully embraced all things and conditions. I felt at home in the world, and inside myself. I felt at peace, content with life.
Where I want to be and where I am have become one and the same.
I made my way into the Kettle Morane State Forest well after dark, the stars overhead illuminating the way and allowing me to forgo artificial lighting altogether. As I wandered through the woods, new ideas suddenly revealed themselves to me, as if they had been hiding behind a thin veil that had been drawn back by Mother Nature herself.
My dreams for the future stood before me, clearer and more concise than ever before. I had moved from the flatlands into the ancient stoney hills left here by massive ice sheets long ago. The topographic relief around me mirrored the relief I felt inside myself.
The next day I noticed a day hiker had started up the trail as I read an informational sign about kettle lakes. I caught up with him after some effort and we spent the next few hours chatting alongside each other over the sound of our snowshoeing.
Only once I was alone again did I notice how quickly that time seemed to have passed.
It was also around this time that the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the group of "thousand-miler wannabes" had posted on Facebook about my hike. My inboxed swelled with people reaching out and offering their support in so many different ways.
So I made plans to meet up with some people as I made my way to West Bend.
I rolled into town and quickly resupplied at a grocery before Natalie and Eric picked me up and drove me to their house. Conversation came easily, and before I knew it I was drinking beer and eating shrimp salad before we headed out to the local fish fry with a few of their friends.
How pleasant to pass the time with such lively and interesting people before heading off to sleep. The trail life is the good life, made all the more meaningful when shared with such open-hearted folks.
The next morning, after eating a hearty breakfast, we played the Appalachian Trail board game after a short time of quiet writing. I found it quite fitting that I received the "trail magic" chance card that ultimately helped me win the most points in the game.
Soon after we were heading back to the trail where we met up with Garrett and his dog Glacier to hike the next section of trail together. Again the miles flew by as did the conversations.
I hugged Natalie and Eric goodbye before they looped back to their car, unable to adequately repay them for all their kindness.
Garrett and I continued on to the trailhead where his truck was parked, and he bestowed upon me a multitude of treats that I couldn't help but accept with the utmost gratitude. I hugged him goodbye as well and continued on down the road about as happy as I've ever been.
With my nose buried deep in Stephen King's The Shining , I carried on through the chilling wind. A dog's barking snapped me out of the Overlook hotel and back to reality. Running clear across a large yard, the dog seemed to ignore its owners commands to come back, so excited to see someone walking down the street. I slowed my pace and came down off the road to aid in reuniting the two of them, when the dog's owner, Mike, offered me a place to sleep for the night.
Despite feeling quite fresh and full of energy, I found myself graciously accepting, and soon I was let into his workshop to crash on the floor.
As I sat out of the wind, doing the "social medias", I hear a knock at the workshop door.
I open the door to find two young girls outside, their car idling softly behind them.
"Our dad told us you were out here, so here's some food"
and she handed me a grocery bag full of yogurt, jerky, potato chips, candy, cheese, sausage, and a Christmas card which read:
If that's not trail magic, I don't know what is!