This trail memoir was originally published on Liberty.me in September, 2014, and is based on a backpacking trip taken in the spring of 2014. I had an unusually long backpacking hiatus leading up to this trip due to preparations surrounding the birth of my daughter in March, and subsequent time spent enjoying family. I promise a proper trail summary at some point, so stay tuned!
For a long, flat stretch of Interstate 39 between DeKalb and Rockford in Illinois, I had no 4GLTE coverage. This wouldn’t have been a major issue if sufficient 3G coverage was provided, but I was left with EDGE, 1G, or GSM. A few times I turned on my screen only to reveal a red “X” where there should have been bars. Our plight continued this way between Rockford and Beloit, from Beloit to Madison, and from Madison to our destination.
It was early on a Saturday morning and three friends and I were headed out for two days and one night in the wilderness (at least as much wilderness as one can find in Wisconsin). It is obviously my own issue, but I have a hard time enjoying a backpacking trip while my cell phone has reception. It should be useless by the time we hit the trail. Dead-weight. However, the road trip to my wilderness destination needs to be crammed full of music as I’m switching gears into “wilderness mode.” The music should be abundant and varied until the cell signal fades, drops intermittently, and finally forces me to surrender hope for another song and kill my phone. This transition acts as my indication that I’m reaching the outer limits of the noisy, abrasive world and entering an island of peace and quiet; that I’m going from reliance on external stimuli on-demand, to internal stimulation and self reliance by necessity. There were two different cellular carriers among the four of us, and both were equally useless to us in our effort to squeeze every last drop out of Pandora before we left the interstate for two days of radio silence.
Three hours into our four and a half hour drive and after hours of auto-scanning dozens of stale rural radio stations in search of a decent song, we invaded a gas station just north of Madison to fuel our vehicle and ourselves. I got out of the car to stretch my legs and couldn’t help but notice that the temperature had risen considerably since we left the western suburbs of Chicago earlier that morning. It was shaping up to be a hot, sunny day. I had packed my bag in a hurry the night before and stuffed my cash deep inside one of the inside pockets, neglecting to consider the possibility that I might wish to buy provisions on our way to the trail-head. Out of sheer laziness I ignored the nagging instinct that compelled me to walk fifteen feet into the convenience store to buy water. I’m a spoiled suburbanite, after all; I don’t have to work for water, even if that work consists of merely loosening a few straps and then refastening them a few moments later. It’s all too much of a hassle for something as simple as water.
Once on the road the SUV’s air conditioning promptly aided me in forgetting any regret that I felt for missing a chance to hydrate. We found a radio station that played a mix of music from the 1970’s and turned off the scan mode. This would suffice, and singing ensued. Ten minutes from the trail-head and I had just enough GSM signal to send out a final “farewell” text to my wife before the red “X” reappeared and stayed put. It was my stand-in transition to wilderness mode.
It was a two-day trip and “we were just going to Wisconsin,” I reassured myself as I justified packing a few heavy luxury items the night before. It didn’t matter that this was my first real hike in 10 months, or that I had spent the better part of Chicago’s recent eight-month winter becoming soft. A few bike rides and some infrequent push-ups in recent weeks should be enough preparation. Plus, my 59-year-old father was three weeks into his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail with my similarly aged stepmother.
The Midwest’s “Driftless Area” is characterized by topography that is uncharacteristically interesting for the Midwest, due to the fact that the area evaded the last few glaciations. Our destination, Black River State Forest, is on the edge of the Driftless Area and as a result offers mounds, moraines, bluffs, and other geological features that my home turf in northern Illinois tends to lack. It was these features, as well as the prospect of seeing a bear or of hearing wolves howling in the wild, that inspired me to propose a nearly five-hour drive to my fellow hikers to begin with.
My careless dismissal of the possibility that challenging terrain could exist in Wisconsin was misguided. The serpentine trail on the back of the long, rolling ridge that we had climbed was high above its surroundings, and the grade of the slopes on either side offered little ground conducive to the growth of large deciduous trees – the type of trees that lavish shade upon less ambitious hikers on flatter, lower trails. Three miles into our hike and my water was getting low. Regret crept back into my mind. No worries – in two more miles we’ll arrive at our first source to refill our water bottles and hydration bladders. In fact, it was the DNR’s map which showed several creeks and wells that inspired my confidence in using only my 1.8 liter hydration bladder (with no back-up bottle) in order to save weight for my luxury items. I reserved a few gulps for later and trudged on.
It was also around this time that my companions and I began to notice how frequently we were having to remove ticks from our pants, socks, boots, and occasionally our skin. Two among us had relatively little exposure to ticks in the past, and this state of affairs was beginning to bother them greatly. It’s not to their discredit; every city boy’s first tick experience can be a little traumatic, especially when it involves one of the little critter’s heads burrowed firmly into one’s softer areas.
I was beginning to slow down; each time we reached the top of one of the ridge’s many peaks I’d try to stop and rest for a few seconds, preferably in whatever tiny patch of shade was available. I was also beginning to overheat. I could easily have consumed double the water that I initially carried, and while the temperature had stabilized at 91 degrees, the humidity was well into the 90’s and rising. I contemplated removing the zip-off legs of my convertible ExOfficio BugsAway pants, but the dozens of ticks that I had already removed from them left me appreciating their bug-barrier properties more than I lamented their insulative ones.
Between my growing irritation with the swarms of vampire bugs and my real and growing fear of dehydration and/or heat exhaustion, I realized that I was forgetting to pay attention to the things that drew me here to begin with. I reminded myself to look around and urged my friends, who seemed equally discouraged, to take in their surroundings as well. We were on what seemed to be, from this little hill in Wisconsin, the top of the world. The view went on for miles despite the settling, milky haze that was turning our walk into a steam bath. We were immersed in verdure and bird song and surrounded by wildflowers in full bloom. And for the moment, all was right.
We began a quick descent into what seemed to be a very intentional, but mature, pine forest. Many years’ worth of long brown pine needles covered the path and felt wonderful under foot compared to the hard and rocky trail that we left behind. The scent of pine was thickened by the moist air. It dominated the senses and refreshed my spirit. A slight breeze picked up and occasionally cooled my forehead. The humidity was still oppressive, but we were less than two miles from water and the much welcomed shadows were more abundant and becoming longer with the passing of time.
We were all encouraged when we arrived at the well pump in a trail-head parking lot. We found a picnic table in a nice, shady spot to eat our lunches. My lunch had been in my top pouch for easy access, but the time spent in the sun had made a mess of things. My salmon jerky had turned into wood chips, and my Green & Black’s 85% organic cacao bar was hot chocolate soup. Still, no worries – my salmon would be reconstituted in my stomach when I consumed my last two gulps of water, and my chocolate bar would be my breakfast in the morning after the cool night returned it to its proper consistency (even if its shape remained somewhat strange). We removed most of our clothing to discover that our tick-checking diligence on the trail had paid only modest dividends. After killing dozens more of the stowaways (which is your duty as a warm-blooded creature if you have any empathy whatsoever for your fellow animals), two of us grabbed our empty water containers and headed to the pump while the other two continued taking turns checking each other and continuing the slaughter.
My numerous experiences with wells in the past can all be described as follows: person A mans the handle and pumps a few times, water pours forth, person B sips the water and/or fills their container with it. Person B then returns the favor for person A. Not unrealistically, I had similar expectations for this experience – and after all, it was a government well, on a government property, marked clearly as a water source for hikers and skiers in a remote location on a current government map.
After a companion and I took turns pumping for what had to be seven or eight minutes straight with no results, my concern was growing. I just expended the equivalent of my last two gulps of water in sweat while trying to coax my next drink out of the ground. Our next water source, according to the map, was a creek still another four miles away.
There was resistance on the handle, so I was certain that water was down there somewhere. We called our other two companions over to have them join the rotation, hoping that it would permit us all to rest more frequently, and thus be able to pump more vigorously when our turn came. Finally, after several minutes under the new system, we had our first drops appear. Bottles and bags were held ready to catch the water, but no one moved. The few drops that came out were thick, brownish-reddish sludge, with a metallic smell that I cannot otherwise describe. The man on the pump slowed down his pace to see what all of our exclamations were about, but after a few seconds at a reduced rate of pumping, all of our progress was lost. We would have to start over.
One of us (not myself, admittedly) had the bright idea of hand-tightening all of the nuts on the pump. This had the effect of requiring only half of the work previously required to bring the water up from the bottom of the well. But when it came up, it was still the same opaque sludge that first trickled out moments before. We were desperate; we filtered four liters into a yellowish, but clear water-like solution and split it among three of us, one man refusing to consume it due to the image of its recent incarnation fresh in his mind. It tasted rusty. It tasted something else too, but I wouldn’t know where to begin to describe it.
Biting gnats, black flies, mosquitoes, and horse flies came out in greater numbers in the afternoon, apparently jealous of the feast that the ticks had been enjoying. The temperature was declining, but the humidity continued to rise. We hiked only another two miles before both heat and physical exhaustion caused us to give in, and we set up camp at the first place that we were able to spot flat ground. Once our temporary home was established and our temporary structures erected, we all enjoyed our dinners – bugs included.
A well-drawn wilderness map will indicate that streams and lakes are seasonal or inconsistent by drawing them in dotted blue lines, while year-round streams and lakes will be drawn in solid blue. One man held out hope that the government map was right about a solid blue line on the map indicating that a creek was just over a mile away. He grabbed his filter and a large dromedary bag and set out to look for more water. Two men, defeated by the bugs, chose to endure the heat and still air inside of the tents instead of staying outdoors. Overheated just hours before, I decided to continue my battle with the hungry critters if it meant that I’d feel the benefits of a few degrees and an occasional breeze.
The lone hiker hadn’t returned after an hour, and I decided to go find him. The benefits of this were twofold in my mind. One, I am a firm believer in the buddy system and was concerned for his safety. Two, I had a theory that walking would reduce the number of bites that I received from bugs that flew, although it meant that I’d collect more ticks. Ticks don’t itch, or buzz, or fly into your ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. I could live with that.
The second benefit held greater prominence in my mind at the time, and fortunately my decision seemed to pay off. A third and unforeseen benefit began to take shape after a mile or so of hiking: the views. I rounded a bend and had to look twice – the side of a hill in front of me was covered in tiny blue flowers which, imperceptible on their own from my distance and in that particular light, made the hill look as though I was standing in an impressionist painting. Upon reaching the top of the hill I was greeted by a panoramic vista of various mounds and ridges in the distance, their dark profiles standing out against a pink sky.
I was near the edge of a thick, dark forest and the sun had set. I began to feel uneasy, wondering what large carnivores might be watching me from the woods. After taking a few moments to enjoy the view I began walking back to camp. I heard a wolf howl in the distance, and smiled. I found the missing hiker back at camp; he reported that the creek bed was bone dry.
The first half of the night was hot and still with a light drizzle, making sleep broken and difficult. Sometime in the early A.M. I awoke to a rumbling in the distance. I listened for a while, trying to determine what caused the noise. I had all but ruled out thunder due to the fact that the sound was so constant. I dozed off again, but was awakened a short while later by a bright flash of light accompanied almost immediately by clap of thunder that shook the ground beneath us. The skies opened up and a torrent poured down with a thousand crackles on the thin nylon fabric that was pulled taut over our two shelters. I could tell why the rumble was so constant earlier when I heard it in the distance – a minute did not go by during the storm in which there were not several nearby flashes of lightning. The light show from inside the tent was impressive, making me wish that the rain fly was transparent. As the storm passed and the noise subsided a cool breeze blew into the tent. I covered myself in a silk sheet and slept soundly until morning.
I had left my backpack out in the rain overnight hoping to catch some fresh water, but I had forgotten to remove my mesh food bag before going to bed. As a result I had wet, grass-fed beef sticks (pretentious Slim Jim) for breakfast in the morning. The chocolate bar was dry somehow, and it had hardened overnight as expected. It was a welcome addition to breakfast. The water captured in my backpack was not appetizing due to the ants and mosquitoes that had crawled in and died, lured by the beef stick tea. I continued to rely on the yellow water from the previous afternoon.
The morning was cooler than the evening beforehand, but it was still extremely humid. Our hike back to the car was just over half of the distance that we had hiked the day before. This was a welcome development for all of us. Our path took us past the same well that we visited the day before. We all thought it best to load up on water even though we each had some left over from the evening before. We all drank our fill immediately, including the companion who had been squeamish about the water less than eighteen hours beforehand.
A fog covered the forest floor up to the tops of the trees during the early hours of our hike, but the sky overhead was clear. Sunbeams cut through the canopy illuminating odd patches of the forest floor with golden traces in the haze. We began to notice the ticks perched atop grass blades in clusters with their front legs outstretched, hoping for anything with a pulse to graze them and take them for a dinner cruise. We generally weren’t as diligent to check for ticks that morning, our main concern getting back to the car. The hike took us along the foot of some of the hills that formed the ridge that had given us such a workout the day before. The views were less dramatic from the trail below, but the rolling topography was still a welcome sight to me.
As I approached the car I stripped down to my skivvies and caught some glorious morning sunlight while I searched myself for any last, unwelcome hangers-on.
I reached into the center console to grab my telephone to turn it on and reconnect with the noisy outside world, when I noticed an old iPod that our driver had forgotten was there. That would be perfect, but only after a few minutes of riding in silence. My first text received was from my father, who had just given up on his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I put down my phone and didn’t feel a need to look at it for the next two hours. I drank the rest of my yellow water and ate a handful of trail mix.
We connected the iPod to the car radio. It was perfect. Singing ensued.