It's a magical world, I tell you. At least on the Ice Age Trail anyways.
After writing a quick thank you note to Mike, who had let me sleep in his workshop that night, I was back on the trail, feeling as fresh as the new year. I saw many people out hiking on the icy trails, starting off the new year in the glory of nature.
My Vargo Pocket Cleats kept me free of injury and allowed me to maintain a relatively steady pace despite miles and miles of iced-over tread.
As night fell, I still felt great and was torn between continuing down the trail and needlessly following the neon sign belonging to a bar in Monches. I stood there undecided for a minute, eventually deciding to fill my bottles so I didn't have to melt stale snow later on.
The bartender, Lindsey, inquired about what I was doing and as I explained my journey and told of my bouts of trail magic, she offered to buy me dinner and a beer. "The fish tacos are really good here," she told me, and she wasn't lyin'.
I continued up the trail happily, belly full and smile glowing. I soon found my self traversing peacefully rolling, hummocky terrain that I found to be my favorite so far. Hiking without headlight, I made my way to a cowboy camp under a clear and starry night.
The next day I encountered a vast array of walking surfaces: packed snow, ice, deep powdery snow, slush, dirt, mud, pavement, boardwalk, and different combinations of all of these. I was changing from the Pocket Cleats to Northern Lites Snowshoes to just plain shoes with a maddening frequency. Each of these transitions eat up lots of time and I felt that my pace was being slowed against my will.
Passing through Hartland, I found myself to be disgusted by the multitude of absolutely massive houses. The warm weather gave way to foggy drizzle which continued into the night and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated as I became more and more uncomfortable.
I cross examined my sour mood and came upon the following conclusion: I wanted things to go my way, but sometimes they just don't!
The next day greeted me with a sense of "blah". The trails couldn't decide if I needed to wear spikes or snowshoes or neither, and sopping wet feet weren't helping. After what seemed like a very long morning, I finally met up with Chelsey Lewis, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, at a parking area and she offered to treat me to lunch as she interviewed me about my hike. I enjoyed our conversation and was more than happy to get out of the dreary weather outside.
Getting back on the trail, things were looking better, thanks to Chelsey's kindness. I stopped early at a shelter and made a fire in my Trail Designs Caldera Cone Inferno to dry out my wet foot wear. The fire brought me a sense of comfort and reminded me to take things one step at a time, and also that things just take longer in the winter.
The wind kept up all night and I woke up to my first truly frigid morning, about 5 degrees (F) with strong winds. My pee froze instantly when it hit the ground. It is interesting how things acts when it is that cold: they seem more fragile, stiff, and desirous of stillness.
A very gorgeous day unfolded before me with sweeping views, hilly forests, and abundant sunshine. I ended my day cowboy camped next to a small bridge that led over a frozen river, acting as a sort of wind break. I saw the moon for the first time of my trip: perfectly in half, shining brightly among the stars.
Abundant wind and real back roads with no traffic greeted me the next day. I came across a man walking his dog, and as the dog was figuring out what the heck I was, the man invited me in for coffee and I could not refuse. Coffee led to breakfast, good conversation, playing guitar, and talking about gear with Jeff and Colleen. We got along just fine and I didn't want to leave when the time came to move on.
On down the road I arrived in the historic small town of Milton, where I admired the historic buildings and the stories they held. I followed blazes down the sidewalk and stopped into the Northleaf Winery, vowing to buy a bottle of wine for the night if it was under $10.
They didn't have any that cheap and as I indifferently turned to leave, two ladies at the bar said they'd buy me one. I couldn't help but take them up on their offer.
I left so happy that I kept missing arrows that pointed the way underneath the blazes and had to backtrack a few times. After stopping in a meat market to get some teriyaki beef jerky, I plugged in some tunes and finished the day at a tiny hotel in Janesville.
I took an off day, taking care of chores and generally chilling out. I made the mistake of enjoying myself too much and stayed up too late, waking the next morning feeling pretty crappy. I forced as much continental breakfast as I could manage before setting out on the paved trail around town. It was cold and windy and eventually a headache came on along with diarrhea and chills. I decided to stop just 7 miles in and at least take a nap to feel better.
As the sun began to set, I found myself pushing on, as though I was just being a baby and making too big a deal of it. I made it 4 more miles before calling it a night, cowboy camping near the trail. The night was a tough one: feeling hot then cold, layering then delayering, having uncontrollable bowel movements every few hours. I could hardly do anything but just lay there like a slug; taking a drink of water consisted of first laying there for half an hour, eventually making the effort to complete the simple task. It was miserable.
The next day was not better, but I at last had a trail angel offer me a place to stay that night in Albany. A 18-mile, absolutely straight roadwalk was my only task to accomplish, and it was grueling: sore muscles, throbbing head, chills, and the like. I had ran out of toilet paper and was forced to use the pages I had read from "The Shining" as toilet paper. I was forced to keep reading in order to come up with more material, and since I was on roads there was really nowhere good to go, except behind some kind of bush or tree in someone's farm.
Eventually, I made it into town and was treated to a hot chili dinner, medicine, and a warm and comforting environment alongside two friendly boxer dogs and two cats. Wayne and Carol were the perfect hosts and helped me take a turn for the better.
After a slow morning packing up, I got on the road feeling like a million bucks. I was able to keep a good pace and soon found myself walking into a pitch black tunnel where I discovered interesting ice formations, some looking like humanoid aliens evolving into life at the speed of ice. Creepy.
I carried on in the mild 25 degree (F) temps until it began to flurry sideways. I threw on down layers, head gear and my Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Poncho and continued as the snow accumulated easily on the pavement and swirled magically behind the passing cars.
I made it to real trail, switched to spikes and delayered. I had been counting on a water pump to be functional up ahead, and it worked flawlessly, its sweet singing springing forth fresh water right from the ground.
I checked the weather forecast and discovered above freezing temps and rain beginning overnight. Ground still frozen under the thin layer of snow, I doubted my ability to set up shelter. As I crossed a road, the trail ran right by a house that had a car idling in the driveway.
As I approached the car, a man stumbled out of the passenger side beer in hand. I asked how he was doing and began to explain my predicament as the driver rolled down his window to listen in. I told him how far I had come and that I searched only for an escape from the coming rain.
After he was able to make sense of what I was sayin', he let me into his heated garage (which had a solid collection of playboy centerfolds lining the upper walls and a fridge full of beer, mind you) and let me crash right there in the floor, claiming he could see in my eyes that I was not a murderer.
I thanked him for his kindness and for allowing the trail to run through his property and got ready for bed knowing I'd be up and out when he left for work at 5am.
I was awoken at 5am sharp, and found that it took me 30 minutes to pack up. I hit the trail in the driving mist, forgoing the poncho (which turned out to be a blunder), and hiked until I was soaked to the bone. It was 35 degrees (F), windy, and raining and the roads I walked were covered in ice, slush, and water.
A car stopped to offer me a ride as I walked down a highway and I declined, telling him I was hiking the Ice Age Trail and had to walk it all. He mentioned that it seemed like a miserable day to be walking, and how right he was.
As I approached a trailhead keyosk, I slipped on some invisible ice and landed hard on my butt and left elbow, holding back tears as a surging wave of pain subsided. Already miserably uncomfortable, that fall sucked. But it passed and I carried on, realizing about 7 miles later that my Spot device was missing. I checked its last ping location and sure enough it was right where I had busted my ass.
The rain fell harder still and I entered Verona, stopping into a Taco Bell to escape the misery and refuel. After hearing the McDonalds down the way had a fireplace, I headed there to dry out.
A guy came up to me, starting conversation and, after asking about his plans for the day, I asked him if he wanted to go on a treasure hunt. He didn't seem interested but, once I told him about the spot device and it's relatively close proximity by car, he agreed. We chatted easily on the car ride and I recovered the device right where it had popped out, nearly slipping again on the wet ice.
He dropped me back at the McDonalds and I resumed drying, setting up a place to stay in town with Andrea, who was eager to be a trail angel for another Ice Age Trail thru-hiker.
We chatted pretty much all night about all things hiking and she even drove me out to REI to get some hardsided Nalgene bottles to replace my leaky collapsible ones and to Half Price Books to get The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London for a mere $1.19.
We ate a hearty soup she had prepared back in the warmth of her apartment and called it a night with the intention of waking early again and hitting the road.