A Harrowing Tale of Walking
“So this is how it’s gonna be?!?” I thought to myself. I was no more than a few blocks from my starting point and had picked up what I thought was an auspicious find. That unopened bottle of water in the gutter would wet my whistle for a little while and also cleaned up the street. Double-Whammy Win! But there was a smell now. An airy, lingering smell that wouldn’t quite go away. I didn’t want to but knew I had to, check the only new compadre on this journey. I lifted the bottle to my nose and took a whiff. “Yup. That’s dog shit all right.”
Perhaps it was the enduring celebratory Patron that had me thinking street water bottles were a good idea. That too had backfired, a gift for my cousin who had promised to pick me up at the end of this two week trek. The idea was to conquer as much of the Superior Hiking Trail as I could, starting in Duluth, MN. I had forgotten how college kids drank when I suggested we have a sip to celebrate the start of the journey. Throw in the fact that they only drink the throat burning stuff and the bottle disappeared smoothly. The nearly 150 mile hike started the next morning.
Because headaches I was unable to think on it too much. The journey at hand was underfoot and I had to focus on not getting lost before even making it out of town. Though my cousin’s house was essentially on the trail, it also wasn’t. Some slight navigation was needed to get to a point where directions referenced the streets I was actually on. Finally arriving at the University of Duluth’s parking lots, I could officially say I was on the Superior Hiking Trail, also referred to as the SHT. Commence ‘Bucket List Accrual Mode’ now.
That first day was interesting. And boring. All rolled into one. It took a little while to escape the clutches of dwellings and people. I was high on this adventure, having initiated it all on my own. My cell phone mostly didn’t work and the relief from leaving it off was immense. The day was warm and summery. An out-of-breath, slightly sweaty me took in Lake Superior from the first and last of it’s viewpoints I would see for days. I found some ticks looking for ways to burrow into my skin, cut them in half and hid them in the hiking guide. Right on the page that said, “June is the worst month for biting insects.” This was June 5th, and I was in the wild.
Mostly I was alone. For hours at a time there was nothing to do but walk, avoid mud, reference map, slap mosquitos. My voice would lay silent except for occasional moments I would speak and surprise myself. Slowly my mind shifted from the cares of the regular world to those relevant to survival. “Whoa, two liters of water a day are definitely not enough,” or “In what way shall I ration this food so that I can make my next post-office food pickup?” There would be people to talk to in parking lots but never on the trail. No sharing of adventure, but lots of comparing of notes in camp.
Dropping that backpack on the first eve’s finish was the best and worst thing I did. The straps felt as though they had fused into the flesh of my shoulders. Knots of muscle had kneaded and reshaped to accommodate them. Maybe this is what flies feel like when nasty children pull their wings off. Still operating on ‘Day 1’ strength I collected firewood, chatted with the new neighbors, took photos and ate the fanciest food I would have the entire trip. By bedtime I was still full of the biscuits and gravy from a bag. A horror podcast put me to sleep and the cries of an animal self-performing throat surgery (no idea what else could make those sounds) reminded me that rules were different out here.
Soon patterns emerged. Morning bug checks revealed ticks that had laid in waiting. Oatmeal and coffee distracted me from timely camp teardown. Once packed walking time began. Lunch happened when appropriate and significant mileage was achieved. Cliff bars and dried fruits at intervals kept me jazzed. Constant body-losing of water made purified river hydration taste splendid. I would question if I had missed my campsite. Time moved soooo sloooowly. Eventually camp emerged.
Each day the pack would get a little lighter. Each day my legs took me a little farther. Each day was a little more painful. Each day I pushed a little harder. By Day 3 I exceeded my expectations and I made just over 16 miles. I didn’t want to die but I thought maybe I would anyways. Exhausted I laid back on the bench, fully aware that ticks were on me somewhere. Ten minutes till my next bottle of water purified for drinking. Five minutes and it was finished. My feebly attempted fire faltered from a rock falling on it. Thunder and lightning came that night to prove my tent was a waterproof winner. I was surviving and growing.
Day 4 saw me roll into Two Harbors. I channeled my old hitch hiking skills and like riding a bike, they had not been forgotten. Only a few cars passed by before someone offered a ride into town. The purpose of stopping in Two Harbors was to pick up food I had mailed ahead to myself. My problem was I underestimated my superiorly buff legs that got me here a day early, but just late enough the post office was closed. Pro Tip: General Delivery to post offices is the craziest, weirdest, coolest thing you can do and if you’re a person who can plan ahead and estimates your own pace…do this. To pass the time I chatted with the gas station cashier and picked up cardboard for recycling she was dropping. She gave me a hot tip on a gym that would sell me a day pass, located back up the road. After eating two hotdogs with spicy sauce and drinking a bottle of A&W Rootbeer (you’re supposed to pig out right?) I cleansed clothes and myself in the gym shower. The high schoolers working out were impressed by my travels and tipped me off to a hiking trail I could stealth camp on.
For the first and only time on the trail I woke with the sun. Turns out that trail circled the golf course and the manager often arrived at 5:30. I was gone without a trace before anyone arrived and soon was posted up in front of the post office. In minutes that beautiful sunny morning became inundated with chilly mist backed by a brisk breeze. Two hours of this and my shower clothes were none the drier. At 8:32 I joined the line, because there was a post office line, at 8:32. I grabbed my box and proceeded to the Superior Hiking Trail Office. Where sadly they had no supplies, nor any hard information on where to get them. They did recommend the laundry mat down the street and I walked even farther into town to dry clothes, repack the bag, and save a woman who’s car had stalled on the highway. Tales have been told about my ability to push immobile cars, I can now add the North Shore to my already respectable list of the US East Coast, Canada, and Iceland. I finished off my stop with a gas station salad, and at fuel pump number who knows what, I met the couple that would take me right back to the trail where I had left off.
This was to be my easy day. I had squandered enough hours for a full work day in town, and only needed four miles to make the next campsite. Leaving the bustle and distraction of Two Harbors I retreated back into nature and made camp on Silver Creek by 2pm. My ankle spoke loudly and assured me that Pain said it was ok to stop. It felt wrong to not walk as far as possible but instead I journaled by the river, dipped my feet in it’s frigid waters and laid in the sun. I am not sure if I have ever been so bored. It only took biting flies to ruin the moment and force my clothes back on to fend them off.
Can anyone actually drink from a Nalgene? Every day I spilled so profusely upon myself I was tempted to give up water completely. I should have stashed 30-packs along the way to resupply from, I never have problems with beer cans. Wet-faced and bushy-tailed I began this landmark day. So far as I could tell it was exactly four years ago to the day that I had tried hiking this trail before. Before descending into the Crow Creek valley, a view of Wolf Rock became visible. History and failure sat across that valley, and an infinite climb of stairs and rock was all that kept me from rewriting it. I crossed through the Castle Danger parking lot where I had parked once before. Pausing on that first rise, that exposed outcrop of rock that had felt so monumental the first time, I pondered successes and failures over the past four years.
Watch for ‘Part Two’
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