After sleeping in, I emerged onto the last 20+ mile road walk of the trek. Even with all my gear shoved in my pack I managed to enjoy the "warm", 32-degree start of the day as the clouds broke and blue skies shone through.
Having been without book for some time I craved a little entertainment and listened to Bayside until I came across a perfectly placed little free library. Many interesting choices called out to me. Guns, Germs and Steel seemed a great read, but was much too heavy and besides, I was nearing the end of the journey; little time remained to read. Another good option called out to me, a fictional war story with some sort of deeper message to be learned. It was the right size and length, but seemed a little to serious.
I decided to comb through the children's section of the little library and decided on Stories from Winnie the Pooh. I walked on and read them aloud to myself, enjoying the profound simplicity of each story. Each character had their own way of the world, but Pooh seemed the most at peace within it.
The three short stories were consumed quickly as I neared Weyerhauser, my planned camp stop for the night. I scoped the best potential stealth campsites as I walked through town to a bar and grill. The barroom was empty and its calmness afforded me time to convert more of my journey into words to be shared. I ordered a drink, and made a spot at the bar to begin the task.
I may have gotten a few sentences written when the distractions began to arise: patrons walked in and sat near, bartenders inquired, conversations began. As it happens, sitting at a small town bar with a partially strewn out backpack of gear brings with it questions and conversations. I may have been distracted from the task I set out to attempt, but nonetheless reveled in the opportunities to share the adventure.
The person sitting nearest was nice enough to buy me a drink, and we stepped outside to enjoy a cigarette as a fiery sunset lit up the sky. It seemed all too easy to miss such a glorious display of nature, its magnificence blazing on outside as the increasing number of people in the bar carried on with their lives. I had grown accustomed to the changing colors of the sky and found myself sad to be missing any of the spectacle while enjoying the comforts afforded by a staffed kitchen and a bar's patrons.
Fred, the man who had bought my drink, heard that I was looking for a camp spot for the night and invited me over, offering me a bed, a shower, whatever I needed. Perfectly content with either prospect I ended up taking him up on the offer and after he bought his own and my dinner to go, we headed up the road to his house. The remainder of the night was spent with spirits, beer, and conversations. He even gave me a 1940's Zane Grey western that had belonged to his late brother. The pages were fragile and tinted orange with age and the title, The Last Trail, seemed fitting since I was nearing the end of my journey, although I hoped it would not be my last.
I woke up intermittently through the night, chugging water and eating snacks to offset the mix of alcohols brewing inside me. In the morning I slowly packed up, separating out a pile of gear that would not be needed for the remainder of the hike; forecasted temperatures were nearing 3-season weather conditions. I began eating last nights leftovers when Fred woke up. We shared coffee before he drove me back to town, dropping me at the post office where I fit the unneeded items in a box to be shipped to the west coast.
I snowshoed on through the warm day's wet snow, feet becoming soaked as the snow flicked up onto my shoes (now well past waterproof although holding together admirably).
I planned to camp after a water source, and upon arriving found myself at a small park with a nice cabin-like building containing picnic tables and even power outlets and lighting. Although a sign clearly stated "NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING", I decided to stay the night to avoid the coming rain storm. I performed my nightly tasks, unpacking, cooking, blowing up my air mattress, writing in the Rite in the Rain journal, and finally read another chapter of the western before nodding off to sleep.
Winds swirled throughout the night, banging the shutters against their moldings, the thought of my illegality conjuring up the fear of getting caught. I didn't want to bring a bad name to Ice Age Trail thru-hikers. I slept well despite the intermittent anxiety and lazily hung out in the morning, avoiding the inevitable: having to put on wet, cold shoes and socks. While waiting for the sun to show itself and warm the day, the sound of a car pulling into the gravel parking lot stirred me out of my sleeping bag. I hurriedly packed my things, milling over explanations and excuses. I peeked out of the building before heading over to the restroom, and saw a civilian vehicle unoccupied. No one around. Looked like I was in the clear.
As I headed down the trail, snow hardly present, snowshoes only slowing progress and quickly removed, I ran into the owners of the vehicle, two day hikers out for a stroll on their favorite segment of trail. We chatted a bit, spirits high, commenting on the beauty of the day, the breeze breaking up the layer of clouds and revealing the light blue underneath, birds flying overhead in V-shaped formation, communicating in their mysterious ways. I commented on my lack of day hiking when not thru-hiking. It's like I walk a huge amount all at once or not at all. The question of why? proved to be thought stew, brewing for the future.
My encounter with the nice wisconsin locals brightened my walk as I moved on down the trail, enjoying nice views of a river winding below me. The few hours of trail passed by quickly and I was happy to get back to a road walk to dive deeper into The Last Trail. Along the way I encountered a few short sections of trail just off of the road and next to a highway. While it may be a nice respite in warmer months, I would have rather continued on the consistent pavement, instead strapping on the snowshoes for an absurdly short time before being spit back out onto the road.
I crossed the highway and continued down the Tuscobia Trail, a snowmobile trail throughout the winter. Again, stupidly short segments trailed off to the left and right of the perfectly graded snowmobile trail, and once they ceased I happily returned to the story within the burnt orange pages.
I came across a massive dip in the trail and, enjoying the change from flat ground, I ran down one side and up the other, as if to use momentum to propel me onward. Upon reaching the top of the other side, I hollered out with joy, "Whoo! I did it!" embracing the child-like happiness of achieving something so miniscule. A little further and it was back to the highway for the last few miles into Haugen, where I stopped into the local grocery store to resupply.
I signed into the travelers book kept behind the front desk after skimming through its entries. Just as I was about to begin my shopping excursion, it dawned on me that, since the store was cash only, I could not pay with my credit card, and my debit card, recently cancelled due to a fraud claim, prevented me from using an ATM around the corner. I'd have to get by with the $25 in my wallet for the next four days of food. Could I pull it off?
I combed the isles weighing calories and price, and made off with what might be able to get me by. I could stop in the next town over, although it was 1.5 miles south of the trail, but wanted to see if I could make it work.
I strolled over to the local retsaurant, Cousin's Hideaway, to meet up with Anna and her boyfriend, Ryan, to hangout over dinner. Burgers were cooked to order, mine being a medium-rare mushroom and swiss, and I proceed to engorge myself on the best burger I'd encountered on the entire trip. Ryan even bought me a drink afterwards and conducted a casual interview throughout our dinner to write about in the Rice Lake newspaper, The Chronotype.
After Anna and Ryan left, I finished repackaging my rations and headed out to camp in the woods outside of town. I walked along the roads by moonlight, no cars passing, while blasting Defeater's Bastards loudly in my headphones. Once on the trail, I searched for a flat spot out of the wind to doze off into sleep.
The cold morning warmed slowly, and breezes balanced the warmness of the late day. I came across some interesting tracks in the snow, and soon found myself back on a road and heading into Barronett to get more food, as I felt hungry and only had 250 more calories for the day at 1pm, which was just not going to be enough. I stopped into a bar for a burger and a beer, and worked on my next blog post. Afterwards, I strolled over to the local organic food market and bought some nice snacks to supplement the next few days rations.
As I walked the roads back to where I had turned off and continued on to the next trailhead, the sun began to set, its colors invoking a strong nostalgia inside of me. Although the end of my trip was still days ahead, I knew I'd miss this, walking along farms, cows staring at me dumbfoundedly, gorgeous sunsets overhead, the light traffic of Wisconsin's backroads and how you can wave to each car and receive a wave right back. The fields and forests lie ahead, waiting to be traversed.
Sunsets go quickly, and I stared right into the bright light as it disappeared. How simple it was to be walking the trail, the path ahead clear, always a goal in mind: to move forward, to accomplish the task. And what comes after: uncertain.
With purple clouds overhead, I called a the chase claims department, as another charge appeared on my account that I didn't do. I enjoyed talking with the claims guy, we chatted about life and took care of business just the same before disconnecting.
Night fell and I was spit out onto groomed, hilly ski trails hiking by headlamp. I camped right at an intersection, the stars rotating through the darkness as the wind blew around me.
The sky glowed orange with the coming of the next morning's sun. As I continued down the ski trails I came across a ski hut, open and unoccupied, and indulged in a can of sprite while signing the register and sending a few emails in the sunny warmth of the couch-filled building. I didn't really want to leave the warmth, but had only hiked a half a mile, and it was already 9:30, so I did.
The trail left the groomed ski trails and onto narrower side trail covered in about 2" of snow, not enough for snowshoes, but enough to slow progress, every step a tiny posthole. I became frustrated at this prospect, but rationalized out loud that I was so lucky to be out in a beautiful forest on such a beautiful day, how could I be mad?
As the night ensued and my feet grew wetter, the trail wandered along a steep drop off to my right, a river flowing unseen far below. I decided to camp right in a flat spot on the trail to catch whatever views lied ahead in the morning. Although it was cold and windy, I knew it would be one of the last cold nights of my trip.
Snow was present throughout the next day but not enough to permit the wearing of snowshoes. I planned to stay with Jordan that night, who had reached out to me on social media and lived less than a mile off-trail. I accidentally got off trail a few times, looking down at my feet and missing the yellow blazes, backtracking to where I had strayed. I walked the road to his house and he greeted me with his friendly dog, Ansel. He invited me inside and we drank a few beers while chatting. Interesting pieces of art covered the walls of the house. He had been cooking all day and we enjoyed a feast of a meal, the same he had had over Christmas, as vinyl records played in the background, Ansel making it well known he felt left out of the feast.
After dinner we chatted outside around a fire pit, continuing our discussions about life and whatever popped into mind. Jordan mentioned that I had made him think of a lot of things, and he was glad to have met me. I felt so grateful for the companionship and hospitality he offered and while he fell asleep to the sounds of the television, I went upstairs to the guest room to journal and scroll through the various social media feeds before calling it a night.
The next morning we enjoyed fruit smoothies and I made sure to play on his acoustic guitar a bit more before leaving. I walked back to where I had left off and continued through the woods that Jordan had grown up playing in, admiring various rock outcroppings before coming to the Gandy Dancer multi-use path that led me to Cafe Wren. I had finished The Last Trail and was thoroughly appalled at the shit-ending, which seemed thrown in merely to incite a final bang to the plot which ended happily after a mystifying sequence of events that seems to counter the entire rest of the book.
I ordered a sandwich and a shake and sat down to write more of the next blog, chatting with people who sat around. I read through the cafe's thru-hiker book before adding my own entry and before heading back out on the trail I gave The Last Trail to an employee and received a baked good on the house in return. Not far down the Gandy Dancer I found myself in the town of Luck, where I shipped a few more things back home and stopped in to get a haircut, no longer needing extra hair to keep me warm.
The next day was forecasted to be in the 50's and would be my last of the journey. I chatted with the hairstylist and listened to his stories, about how he used to buy junk cars for a few hundred bucks and then race them around on his backyard dirt race track. Sounds like a blast! I walked on into the dark, less than 20 miles from the Ice Age Trail's western terminus, a blazing sunset lighting up the sky off to my right. Once the light faded, I found a flat spot to camp off to the side of the trail.
After sleeping in and eventually getting to my feet I felt tired and sick. I hadn't treated any natural water sources for the past month and it seemed that may have gotten the best of me. All signs pointed to Giardia, but I'm not a doctor. I stopped into a restroom in Centuria that had water fountains and a little library. After taking care of business, I skimmed through the little library outside, finding nothing that seemed worth the read.
I took many rests throughout the day in the warm sun, content to be where I was and not really in any rush to finish my trip. On one of the last stretches of road I listened to an Alan Watts lecture on What Is, enjoying his use of silence in between his talking points and his lack of filling said space with ums and other meaningless sounds. He said what he wanted to say and no more, allowing time for the listener to ponder his ideas.
I traversed into more commonly traveled terrain and strapped on the Vargo Pocket Cleats to stay upright on the packed snow. As I approached a park, I was irked by a parent who, sitting in their car, made use of the horn and shouts to discipline the children that ran about the playground. As I continued on my way, the bursts of horn growing ever distant, I couldn't help but think how some people are quite strange. I guess we all are in our own ways. Soon I was walking past school yards and into downtown St. Croix Falls where I stopped into a candy store to get ice cream and write more before finishing my journey.
As I went to pay, the employees pointed out a "Pay it Forward" board where people can buy ice cream for certain types of people. I was directed to the one that said "Hiking the Ice Age Trail" and used it to pay for my cone. The nice ladies behind the counter did a nice job of hinting that they had put it there and I thanked them for their kindness before heading out to conquer the last of the trail.
Up and over the Hospital Esker, a massive hill created by a glacial river as the last ice sheet retreated, and down the road to Interstate Park, the sun setting along side me. I began to race towards the end, knowing I was less than mile from it. Down rock staircases, around sheets of ice, snow packed smooth from thousands of footsteps. I rounded a corner and saw the plaque in time to catch the last of the day's light.
I was done with my hike. I had reached my destination, the small plaque on a rock.
The night was growing cold. In just 16 hours I would be picked up by friends over 1,000 miles back to Chicagoland, home to over 9.4 million people. One more night to sleep out before heading back, to what, I did not know.
It is always odd to reach a destination after a long journey. All of a sudden, there it is. The destination that has been in mind for so long. The Ice Age Trail had now been thru-hiked in winter, and it was quite different than I though it might be.
The best part wasn't that I had completed the hike, but that I had fun along the way, and stayed plenty safe and prepared in the conditions. This gave me confidence as I continued to plan future hikes. Although there still remain many question marks . . .