If We Can Do It, So Should You
Peer Pressure You Can Trust
You Might Feel Alone, But You Probably Aren’t
There is one addicting aspect about traveling not often talked about. Maybe because it’s not glamorous. Maybe because you can’t actually plan for it. Maybe because for most people it can be really scary. Whatever the reason, it is often one of my favorite parts about leaving familiarity behind to explore the rest of the world. What is this nicotine of travel you ask?
Why it’s just meeting strangers along the way!
Over the course of 2017-18, I pieced together a thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota. This nearly 300 mile journey was going to test my resolution and determine if I’d ever desire to hike again.
I would go alone, but even so I never really felt that way.
So who are the people that lace up heavy footwear, fill backpacks and walk through the woods for miles on end? Who else is just crazy enough to take their hard-earned time off from work and spend it sweating or swatting mosquitos? I’ve taken some excerpts from my journals and memories to help give you some insights.
That first day was a unique return to nature. Starting within one of the state’s larger cities; trekking through Duluth was a unique mix of walking on sidewalks, pavement, and disappearing into remote wooded areas. I couldn’t help but wonder where all the people were, I was imagining that living right on the trail meant you probably hiked it daily. Where I found them was in the parking lots. Always there were people there, starting walks with dogs, lacing up shoes for trail runs, heading into the Hartley Nature Center. Introductory conversations always started with the same questions, “Where are you from? What are you doing? How long have you been hiking?” I will say the repetitive nature of this is not my favorite but it opens up discussions to find more interesting talking points. Such as the woman who’s friend had recently thru-hiked the entire trail in 5-6 days. Most people take three weeks. These parking lot conversations were always short lived, the more interesting ones were the ones I had when I finally made it to camp.
White Pine Campsite
When I pulled into White Pine Campsite I was feeling good. Setting up camp was a guy about my age, John, friendly and working on his tent. He said pick any spot, they weren’t sure where the actual sites were but there was plenty of room. His dad was off in the woods gathering sticks for a campfire. I would take a pretty location amongst the pines and assist in the search for wood.
These guys had all the cool stuff. They had little rechargeable lanterns they could hang from the trees, a Jetboil, fancy freeze dried food that cooked up with just boiling water, trowels, a mini chess set, bear-proof food barrel for hanging in the trees. I caught up with them after filling up water bottles and got their story. Turned out, this father & son duo were actually out on their first camping trip ever! Because of this they weren’t doing crazy miles and that made the ready-for-anything packs a little more bearable over those short distances. I was so happy for them, listening as they described the gear they’d picked up for this or that. They talked about their plans for the following day, how they’d go back the way they came and hike a bit further in the northerly direction. Watching them I couldn’t help but see the similarities between my dad and I in the way they talked. “I used to play chess with him but it didn’t take long before he got better than me,” said Darryl. I wondered what it would have been like to have done a trip like this with my dad.
Sucker River Campsite
Contrary to the name, this campsite isn’t for sucker’s! But prior to arriving there I had a run in with a local trail volunteer. I had been walking down a hill and the forest was about to open up into a clearing when I saw a man wearing what looked to be bee-keeping gear. Apparently I had snuck up on him as he jumped when I yelled “Hello!” at him. His name was Roger and he was extremely pleasant to talk to, recommending I stop in at the Trail Association office and tell them “Hi” for him. It turned out his gear was a face mask and ear muffs to protect him from his job, clearing small woody plants that were invading the trail. He was a bit of a mystery man as to how he got out there. No one had seen him come/go past that evening’s campsite and to exit the other direction would have been quite a hike with the cutter and gear he was carrying. I chalked it up to a bit of trail magic.
At camp I met my next hiker. She was a Duluth native, had been on the trail for over a week, and reminded me of a mix between a former roommate and university teacher I once had. Resting her legs for the day here, Teena was a teacher at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and she was hiking the trail alone. Though not completely alone, she had just had a friend meet her for a leg of the trail, and her husband was picking her up the next day to re-ration and relax in a hot tub before getting back to the trail in a couple of days. It was great to talk to her, about the trail, adventures, masters degrees, and how we can change ourselves as people through giving up addictions and friend’s peer pressures. We discussed our favorite parts of the trail thus far, hers being the overgrown parts where the woods had been clear-cut, because of the metaphor that it was regrowing and with more diversity than it had had before. We even had the same boots! I was very inspired to meet a woman who was taking on the challenge of trekking alone head on; having had this discussion come up so often I would love to have more of my friends meet her.
Two Harbors Ski Trail
This was mail day, aka picking up mail to myself in Two Harbors. Turns out I arrived twenty minutes after the post office closed so I kicked it in the gas station. Which turned into going to the gym. Hanging out in the locker room was not the place I particularly wanted to meet people but it turned out a curious group of high schoolers and college students were discussing weight lifting tactics and were curious of the very dirty hiker in the corner. Who was me. They asked me all of the questions, why I was doing it, where I was going, how long I was going, and were genuinely impressed by my craziness. Although I didn’t feel like these men in towels and workout clothes wanted portraits done for this story I did benefit from their knowledge of the area. One of them worked at the golf course across the road, and suggested I set up my tent on the ski trail there for the night.
Silver Creek Campsite
Breakfast was had at the gas station. Whether it’s a Minnesota thing or a human thing, the old men of the town were gathered there for the daily gossip and drip coffee. As I’d been asked multiple times already, I was again asked if I was there for birding. I looked around and there were lots of old people with binoculars, having not researched this yet I can only assume this is a prime birding location and the people flock here for the opportunity. In trying to say goodbye to them conversation quickly went from ticks to Vietnam. “There are a lot of guys around here who are hero’s. Got shot up, did their thing, went back to Vietnam. They’re all dying now before their time. Not all are dying but they’re suffering.”
Other interesting characters were the woman who’s car died just as she was about to turn off of the highway. I sat in the laundromat drying clothes, and wondered why she was pausing for so long right in the middle of traffic. Once I recognized the situation, I used my car pushing skills to roll her SUV into a nice parking spot. On a three month road trip years ago my buddy and I delayed replacing the car battery and instead opted to always park pointing downhill and pop-start it. I had no idea I was learning life skills. Once I was on my way back to the trail I met a nice couple who gave me a ride from town to the trail head. Saved me a couple miles of pushing along pavement and turns out, they had known the grocer from my home town oh forty years ago. Small world.
If you want to really talk small world, check this out. This may blow your mind but just wait till the end. I had found my campsite and secretly hoped for a quiet night alone after having the entire afternoon so. This was not to be and a young couple showed up, quietly walking past me and setting up a tent farther in the woods. She would not appear again but her husband did and we chatted. When it got to the part about where we were from, it got weird. He was surprised to hear I was from Grand Meadow, as he had gone on a date with a girl there way back in high school. He had driven from Owatonna, hung out to watch a movie, then turned around and went home later that evening, never to see her again. Ok I’m adding a little drama at the end but it wasn’t meant to be for the two of him. When I figured out who it was I had to laugh, as this was not the first time I’d met someone randomly that knew of Grand Meadow because they’d dated the same girl. We laughed and yet again realized that all of Minnesota is really just one big, small town. HERE’S WHERE IT GETS REAL SMALL TOWN! One night having a beer with a fellow bearded actor friends I related the entire tale. He asked to see who she was and when I showed him a picture…”Yeah I know her. She dated my roommate in college.” I seriously believe we all know each other through one or two connections and all it takes is a good campfire and some bullshitting to find out just how close we are.
West Gooseberry Campsite
This was my pokiest day of hiking. I pulled into a campsite (I had been walking into all of them, each one has it’s own character and they’re awesome to check out) but this one was the first to have people mid-day. What I found was an interesting scenario. Two kids running around in their underwear (the day was quite warm), two dogs sniffing around and possibly eating wood chips, and two adults just taking it all in. I had told myself I wouldn’t drink anything on this hike but when I was offered a beer and conversation I threw it out the window. The can had a troll on it and when I asked if they’d seen ‘Troll Hunter’ (a Norwegian movie everyone should watch) they became my people when they said they had. I was also pleasantly surprised to find ‘Loon Juice’ being cooled in the creek, as it’s made a few miles from home and it never ceases to amaze me where I find it.
I had a great time chatting with Allen & Jen, who had brought these two industrious girls out into the wilderness for a fun and relaxed weekend. Ayla and Vaylia were more than happy to show me all of their camping gear, and the fun stuff they had purchased at the garage sale that weekend. We trekked a bit together but they would turn back when the miles were too many at the end of an already long day.
Fault Line Creek Campsite
I stumbled upon a great campsite of two groups of women. One pair had taken the high ground and strung hammocks amidst the pine. The other had closer proximity to the beaver pond and came with the cutest dog ever (known fondly as Rainy Gurl) and an armament of wonderful cooking supplies. They prepared Mediterranean pasta while we chatted about everything. Kristin and Catherine were longtime friends, since having little kids at the same time. We could have talked all night, Kristin had recently been to Iceland and Norway as had I. Catherine had worked many seasons at Glacier National Park which I would be visiting only a month later, had done some modeling, and even hitch hiking. I was most honored when I lent my guidebook and received it back with a note on the last page. Catherine had circled her name as one who had worked on the book’s production, with an invitation to swing by next time I was in Duluth. The kindness and generosity of strangers never ceases to amaze me and I hope one day to make that visit.
Ending A Section
Mornings always seem like the busiest part of the day. You want to put everything you have away, get an early start, and seize the day. I would hike hard and fast to make the next town of Beaver Bay where I had again had some mail sent. Rita and two giant poodles brought me into town. Unfortunately for me I was too fast off the trail and the Post Office would not open for a few hours. I killed time in the gas station chatting with old men drinking coffee about building the northern part of the trail. Then I would meet Harriet, who had business pamphlets the length of the trail and would provide rides up and down the length of it anytime, anywhere. She was enjoying her once-a-week jalapeño hot dog. A treat that was too unhealthy to have anymore often than that.
Once I received my mail, I stuck my thumb out to Highway 61. Soon I would be picked up and taken to Duluth on my ride’s way to the dentist. I will admit I liked this man and appreciated his help but he threw me for a loop when he readily admitted he might be a racist. He said he just hadn’t found success in trying to get along with some people. Not wanting to end this ride I had just started, instead I switched gears to his history as a logger and pilot. Again, strangely, finding ties to Grand Meadow. How a small town can have so many stories spread so widely I will never know. I would get dropped off at the Rose Garden and the adventure would pick up another time.
Those are just some of the people I met along the way, not including the owner of the only hostel in Minnesota, at the Hungry Hippie Farm Hostel. Or the voice over actor from Hastings who knew a friend of mine from college. The lady with the new camera who said it might be her last trip up on the trail. The awkward man that kept following and talking to me. The all female group of hiker friends. The school group of girls whose teacher was making the most delicious smelling quesadillas while they watched. The couple who would later reach out about wedding photos. All the solo men and women hikers, many going out on their own for the very first time.
Many days on the trail were spent completely alone. When words went unspoken long enough, I spoke them to myself. There were nights of pure contemplation without explanation to any other. These were the days I needed, the days I crave more and more the older I get. But as if I live on some perpetually doddering teeter-totter; the more I was alone the more I wanted to talk to people.
It is so ridiculously easy to stay in our comfort zones. The world around us stays more predictable. Our hands are rarely forced and we stick to routine. We shut down rather than open up, fearful of complications. Opportunities pass us by, because we are unable to open ourselves to them.
Hiking the Superior Hiking Trail is more than just a walk in the woods. It is a location, a physical space in the world, where you can give yourself to serendipity. It is a choice, to challenge yourself and grow. Meeting strangers along the path brightens the day and restores faith in humanity. When we can experience, struggle and grow together, we all come out of the wild a little bit stronger.
We all need to allow ourselves to grow. Perhaps now more than ever, we should take a walk in the woods.