I walked on for at least forty five minutes, through mud and past logging until, finally, on my right, there was a clearing. I'd been paying attention to clearings and odd looking wood because I needed to spot the ruins of a lumber camp, but this big grassy clearing had a great wooden sign out front that said Historic Lumber Camp. Here I probably was! I walked into the clearing to look around and there was the Hillbilly Hilton, in all its root cellular glory. Right next to, but not visible from, the road, tucked into a hill like a hobbit hole, with one little window and a stovepipe, and Hillbilly Hilton written on the front door. There were four crumbly steps down to the door. I turned the latch and, I was in. And it was fantastic. I'd been worried that the root cellar of the abandoned lumbercamp might be gloomy, or haunted, but it was a cozy little place. I suppose nobody gets murdered in root cellars, they just pop in to fetch stored vegetables. Right inside the door, I was already warmer than I'd been outside. I looked around the cozy little shelter and the first thing I did was decide not to set my pack on the bed. The two adorable board beds were set on opposite walls with foam padding and couch cushions lying comfortably on them and teetering close to moldy. The table between the beds had a cloth draped over it with a little candle in a dish set on it, and a drip dropping from the ceiling every two minutes and landing on the tablecloth that was already rotting and definitely not a place to put bedtime articles down on. It was an adorable arrangement until you noticed the mold. I moved the cushions off one bed and on to the other and then everything was fine. Besides everything made of fabric, the Hillbilly Hilton was tidy. A little broom stood in the corner by the woodpile and on the other side of the door was a woodstove and a little kitchen with utensils, plates and cups, and an ice cream bucket full of candles, all set on a red-checked tablecloth. There was a shelf of canned goods just in case, and there was water. So much water! I needn't have worried at all, and I was lucky, because without that water, I would have suffered. There were gallons and gallons of water in jugs and all kinds of milk and juice bottles set on shelves underneath the kitchen. Then there was a rod with clothes hangers over the table between the beds, shelves above each bed with bug spray and sunscreen and extra pillows, and a trail journal. I organized my stuff and sat down. It crossed my mind that I could've walked the three and half miles down to Highway 52 and tagged out the segment, but I was here and I wasn't moving again today. I had a trail journal to read, and it made me feel happy and supported by all the other people who'd passed through. They were a diverse and motley crew. The journal went back to 2010. Jerry the Wood Tick, who keeps up the Hillbilly Hilton, started it off, and from there it was a collection of everybody who's anybody in northern Wisconsin. Deer hunters, Boy Scouts, thru-hikers, day hikers, ATV people, and a few folks who just liked the Hillbilly Hilton and came out whenever they could. One couple spent their honeymoon night, which is a little extreme. It's a great place, but it smells like eighty years of basement, plus the rotten tablecloth, and mice running all over. I first heard a rustling, and I thought it was a murderer, then I looked up and straight into the eyes of a deer mouse eating a plastic bag.
I didn't light a fire because I didn't want to die of carbon monoxide poisoning, but I set up my stove and cooked a big supper of mashed potatoes. The thing about instant mashed potatoes in a Sierra cup is that they keep growing. You pour half the packet into the cup, add boiling water almost to the top, and the potatoes swell up. You shovel a few mouthfuls into yourself quickly so they don't spill over. Then you stir the potatoes up a bit, eat a few more spoonfulls and realize that the potato flakes near the bottom are still dry, so you pour in a bit more water and suddenly your cup is full again. You eat half the cup, stir the potatoes up a bit more, and decide they could be be wetter. Adding more water, you're confronted with a third full bowl of potatoes, and you have to add water once more to get it all mashed potato consistency and into your stomach. And you still have almost half a packet of instant mashed potatos left; if you don't eat them now, they will spill in your food bag and make a giant mess no matter how carefully you seal them up. So you top off the cup with more potato flakes, eat, refill the cup with water, and eat, and add water, and your cup is full again. At the end, I was full, and I realized I hadn't been eating as much as I wanted to on this trip. I'd eaten at all the mealtimes, but on the Mantario Trail and other trips in warmer, dryer weather with a less gruelling goals, I would eat my breakfast peanut butter and follow it off with a few handfuls of craisins, or follow up lunch with some sun dried tomatoes and an extra piece of cheese, or kick back after supper and leisurely eat a whole chocolate bar, whereas on this trip it was: peanut butter, walk!; lunch, walk!; supper, shove four squares of chocolate into my mouth, get warm! I wasn't hungry; it's amazing what a hip belt compressing your stomach will do to reduce your appetite, but more food would make more energy for me. So, this night at least, I kicked back with snack vegetables and my chocolate and drank two cups of cocoa. I could see my breath and I wondered how cold I would be in the night, but when I stepped outside for the last time, it was colder outside. Three deer were grazing in the clearing while I brushed my teeth and they stayed looking at me for a long time before they ran off into the twilight. I hung my food on a nail so the mice wouldn't get it, hung my clothes to dry, got onto my board bed, and I slept warm and well.
It was hard to leave in the morning. I liked my little new root cellar house and wanted to live there always. Outside, there was frost in the ground. My breakfast was cozy inside, and I dawdled a bit more than I should have, but I did leave finally, to walk the unexciting part of the IAT again. The frost went away, but it was cold and I had far to go backwards to where my car was. I walked hard out of the Lumbercamp segment and crossed the highway. The Peters Marsh State Wildlife Area was beautiful in the morning, but it was also flat and constant and I'd just hiked across it yesterday. The grass had grown since then and I was annoyed about the uneven ground and the constant careful stepping. I fell over once. Everything was quiet and lonely and my InReach clearly wasn't working. I was hurting. I was hiking another twenty mile day. And Tim didn't love me. It was after noon when I crossed the road from Peters Marsh and got back into county forest. That was an easier trail at least. I got lost once, when the trail ended at a logging road with no indication of where to turn next. Turns out I had to go downhill a quarter mile to pick it back up again. I walked and walked and walked and walked on logging roads and ATV trails and finally the trail went back into the woods and crossed the spot-logged hills and descended down to Game Lake. I crossed the pretty board walk and tried to enjoy the view, but it looked like another lake in Wisconsin and lunch couldn't come soon enough. Past the Game Lake campsite, the Ice Age Trail splits off from the Veterans' Memorial natural trail and it took me five minutes to realize I'd missed the turn-off. I could've stayed on the IAT, but I wasn't going to pass up unlimited potable water and a bathroom. I backtracked the five minutes and crossed the little footbridge between Game and Jack Lake and that's when it started to rain. The rain pitter-pattered on my hat and I could appreciate the sprinkle, but then God really turned on the faucet. I didn't want to freeze to death again, so I stopped in the middle of the deluge and pulled on my rain jacket. The campground bathroom, with its roof, was a welcome site. I used the toilet, the sink, the hand dryer, the mirror, all of it. I brushed my teeth again. But there was no question: Eating lunch in the women's restroom would be weird. I had to go. I went around the building and sat on the bench and fished my cheese and flatbread out of my pack. The cheese was getting moldy. The rain was pounding down on the roof and Tim didn't love me. I was cold. I started sniffling looking for my knife to cut off the moldy bits and then I was crying. Eating and sobbing. A week later, when I was home and warm, I had two people in one day tell me that they admired me for adventuring alone like this. If anyone continues to be impressed, they should picture me crying and eating old cheese on a bench outside a restroom. It wasn't even the women's restroom. I was on the bench outside the men's restroom because the women's restroom didn't have a bench. And I was getting too cold. A middle-aged couple drove by and drove by again and I thought about asking them for a ride back to my car. I ended up texting Dan and venting and that got me calm enough to get up and move on. I decided to roadwalk to 4-H Camp Susan and its environs. County Road J and Kosperick Road run parallel to the Ice Age Trail along the Old Railroad segment. A lot of RVs passed me on the way out of the campground road, so Veterans' Memorial Campground isn't so empty in September, just on the weekdays. I tried cutting back to the Ice Age Trail at the end of J and realized that raindrops falling on my pants were annoying, but raindrops on the tall grass could saturate my pants in less than a minute and start the coldness that I was trying to shake after sitting so long next to the bathroom. So I stuck to the road, took a right on County Road B, and found the gate to 4-H Camp Susan, with a sign out front that said, "You're finally here!" I hiked up long driveway. I'd been thinking about camping near the drive, but there were cars passing me, not a lot but three or four, more than you'd expect to see. So 4-H Camp Susan was having an event. The woods here were still stunningly beautiful, maybe more so in the rain with everything glistening in the pale green light. I was warm by then, perfectly warm, but if I stopped walking I would freeze. My right leg wasn't flexing again. I limped into 4-H Camp Susan right behind a car, and I was thinking about leaving. Just bumming a ride back to my car and driving home to the bunnies and the warms and dries. I followed the car around the main building and it parked in front of the camp office. A lady got out and went around to unload some things. I walked up to her and said something stupid and confusing, which was, "I'm hiking and I don't know if I should ask you for a ride or keep going." She looked confused. I said, "What kind of event are you having here this weekend?" She said, "It's a family reunion." Then she said, "Where are you parked?" I said, "County Road B in Lincoln County, it's about twenty five miles." She made the facial expression of a woman who doesn't want to drive an hour in the rain to help this weirdo. She said, "You know what? You could stay here. No one's staying in Bunkhouse B because the kids said it smelled like skunk. You could have it all to yourself." Huh. This was a turn of plans. I'd more wanted a ride than anything, I hadn't reckoned on a building to sleep in. This was also a family reunion. I'd assumed this lady was the camp director or the caretaker based on age and parking spot, but she was just a woman from a large, organized family, who had no idea she was twenty feet from a National Trail. Nonetheless, I let her lead me into the dining hall, and I was shocked. The dining hall was detail by detail identical to YMCA Camp Warren's dining hall in Evelth, Minnesota. You know, you go somewhere and you think you're in a uniquely romantic expression of northwoods architecture, and then you walk into a cookie-cutter building six hundred miles away and realize that there were probably only one or two architectural firms building summer camps in 1922 and they didn't vary designs much. (Thank you again, Abigail Van Slyck!)
There were kids running around the dining hall, and some people at the middle table chopping vegetables. My new protector introduced me to Katie, definitely the older sister, and Katie wasn't expecting a sopping wet hiker either, but she agreed that I could stay in Bunkhouse B and even come have supper with them. I wasn't so sure by now. Sleeping in Bunkhouse B was an imposition on this large family of kind people giving me funny looks over their colesla;, and I wanted to be tough, too. I could take another night in the forest. I made some apologies, filled up my waterbottle in their sink, thanked them, and left the family reunion a little more confused than I had found it. I went on my way down the Ice Age Trail. I didn't get that far. I only went about ten minutes down the trail, back to the educational forest of birches. I could have gone back to Camp Susan in the night and curled up in their dining hall if I'd felt like it. There's only about twenty minutes of trail between 4-H Camp Susan and the four-mile Forest Road segment. Also, I was on an esker between three lakes in one of the most beautiful little forests in the world. I chose a spot off the trail and set up my tent wet.
It was so pretty in the rainy twilight under the birches. Since Wednesday when I got soaked through, I'd been wearing this weird, mid-weight wool, '80s, short-sleeved sweater as a t-shirt, plus I had my long underwear on. Tonight was colder than Wednesday, and I was warmer than Wednesday, but I was chilling rapidly. I ate a quick supper of cookie butter, dried onions, chocolate, and a mini peach vodka, and got beautifully drunk for fifteen minutes. Crouching on the ground organizing stuff into my foodbag, I looked up and the trees were so vivid, everything so bright, and I was warm again. Warm! I picked up my foodbag and it was like dancing. Now, this was camping. In health class, they told us alcohol makes you feel warm but it actually makes you colder; that's clearly a silly thing teachers tell young kids to make them doubt themselves years later while they hang their food in trees. Food hung, I realized I was getting cold again and the colors weren't shimmering and stunning anymore. Ah well, warm tent next. In the tent, I realized I had only managed reading twenty-two pages of my book in four days. Twenty mile days take up all the time to do other things. I'd only taken six pictures, mostly of the Hillbilly Hilton, my journal entries were short, I didn't have time to eat enough. But I was in my sleeping bag now and, with the sun going down, I could find my head lamp and read for a few minutes, and... Oh no, my headlamp. Where was my headlamp? Was it in the clothes bag? No? Was it in the... There wasn't anywhere else for it to be. Was it in the Hillbilly Hilton? I'm not that careless. Did I throw it in the foodbag this morning? Um... There was only one thing to do: Go get it. It wasn't raining any harder than it had been while I was eating supper, but I was wearing my bed clothes and I needed to stay be dry because if all my clothes got wet in this rain at this temperature, I wouldn't get warm again. Then I realized I had the ultimate raincoat: a garbage bagl. Two arm holes later, I was winching my bearbag down from the tree and digging through it in the dark. Here was my headlamp! I needed to never do that again. Back inside, I realized that, even with the stupid mesh walls, my tent is still much warmer than the outdoors. Cozily, I went to sleep.
In the morning, I wore my garbage bag and I wore all my long underwears under it, because it was cold. The rain had stopped and there was no frost like yesterday, but I could see my breath. Wearing a garbage bag made me toasty warm on the inside, though. I ate my sensible breakfast squatting because my chair was soaked, forwent my sopping hiking pants for a day in long underwear, doffed my makeshift poncho, and hit the trail. Not so much trail though. Ten minutes of hiking brought me through the sylvan forest with its labeled trees and deer poops and out onto Forest Road, where people live. Nobody was up yet, however. The cool felt good while I was walking and Bogus Swamp had a glow of early morning tamarack wetland. Then I was in a more residential zone, with all the houses a quarter-acre away from each other and plenty of woods out the back. Some were trailers with foundations, some were proper built, and people were starting to wake up and do some yardwork. I took a right on Kleever, and passed a house with two men, one old, one young, standing in their garden pointing at things and discussing. I waved at them but they didn't notice me. A spaniel-type dog bounded out of the yard and ran right past me onto the fire road. This was right where the paved road ended and the forest began, although I'd be on fire and logging roads for the next 5.8 miles. The dog bounded and gamboled in front of me while I hiked through the trees, past the antique truck and someone's deer stand. Looking at this dog made me pity every sorry, pudgy canine I've ever seen, because this dog was sleek, solid muscle, barrel-chested and taut. Not an extra ounce of fat on her, and not a bit skinny. She ran up to me and sniffed, rushed off to sniff a leaf pile, she ran behind me to mark a tree, and back to sniff me. I said, "Shouldn't you go back to your people, Ms. Dog?" but she stuck around. I was almost at the next turning when a truck pulled up next to me, with the two men from the garden in it. The old man rolled down his window and said gruffly, "What are you doing with my dog?" I froze. There was no way to tell whether he was an angry old man who thought I stole his dog, or a friendly old man feigning gruff for laffs. I erred on the side of, "Sorry. She just followed me. Sorry about that." He laughed. Phew: friendly, feigning gruff. He said, "Are you hiking around here? Aren't you afraid of bears." I said yes I was afraid of bears, showed him my bear mace and asked if he'd had any bear problems. He laughed but didn't tell any stories. The young man in the passenger seat called the dog and she straightaway hopped into the backseat and they drove off. It wasn't eleven in the morning yet and I'd hiked at least six miles. So I hiked some more, and it hurt. It turned out I was wearing the pair of socks that slide down all the time, my long underwear slowly flayed the skin on my inner thighs, my heart was broken, my right hip was acting up, and my pack wasn't fitting right. And I had so far to go. I stopped at the south fork of the Eau Claire for a snack/water/sock adjustment and a guy drove by me on a souped-up four wheeler with a gun case on the back. We waved, and he forded the river on his giant tires. The next two hours walked uphill in boring terrain: logging roads and jumbled forest. I was pushing it so I could eat lunch by Townline Lake. According to my calculations, I could make Townline between 1:00pm and 2:00pm, and I did make Townline at exactly 2:00. I threw my pack on the picnic table for a full break with toilet facilities and water bottles and texting and Kool-Aid. The wind was blowing off the lake, so I put an extra sweater on top of my other sweater, my mid-layer, and my fleece vest, and five minutes later I was shivering as I spread my cookie butter. The sun came out and warmed me while I ate dried onions, and then I was off again, up that long segment that had fooled me into thinking I was closer to Townline than I was that first night. It was beautiful up there, with views from the fire roads, forest walks over trickling streams, birch farms, and this little anonymous lake. I stopped to take pictures of it this time. The stretch of moss down to the shaded water and everything so emerald green. I thought about camping down in the emerald green, or up in the sunlight where I could find a nice spot to kick back and dry out my stuff before another cold night. On the other hand, there was no grilled cheese in the forest. If I wanted to camp, I should camp now. On the other hand, I could hoof it and subsequently grilled cheese it, and be sad about Tim at home where there are distractions. I hiked on, up hills and through a rushing stream of piney brown water. It was almost 5:00pm when I came to Five Cent Road and I knew what I had already chosen: Grilled cheese. God, my feet were tired. The Ice Age Trail crosses Five Cent Road and runs a bit north to the Prairie River ford and the miniature town of Parrish, Wisconsin, where it crosses County Road H at a bar. Five Cent Road runs west to County Road H and from there I could walk H north, cut through Parrish's other residential street to Highway 17, walk southwest on 17 for two and half miles to Lincoln County Road B and walk another mile and half up B to my car and drive to the grilled cheese. I could also drive to the french fries and maybe I could drive to the Vaseline because my thighs were burning. Finishing my hike today, taking the road was much better than the trail: if i was caught by the dark, I could make my way on the road. I took a left at Five Cent and waved at some ATVers zooming by. They waved back at me. There was supposed to be an ATV water and toilet stop here, but I didn't see it. Plenty of ATV people though, men and families. For the next hour, my hike went: nature, nature, nature, vroom, vroom, vroom, wave, wave, wave, nature, nature, vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom, wave, wave, nature, nature, nature, nature, nature, nature, vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom, wave, wave, wave, wave, wave, wave, wave, wave, head nod. It's hard to wave and control an ATV at the same time. Finally, I limped off the ATV track and into the parking lot on H and thought really hard about asking someone for a ride, but a combination of timidity and stick-to-it-ive-ness dettered me.
Parrish, Wisconsin has a street with houses on both sides of it, and a sign that says "Welcome to Beautiful Downtown Parrish." It has a store-shaped building that isn't a store anymore. From Parrish, I turned left on 17 and it was torture. My feet ached and the roadside was hard and beating the poor things everytime I stepped down. Plenty of cars went by and I even vaguely tried to thumb a ride once, but she didn't stop. I considered caching my pack, but I didn't like the idea of trying to find it again in the dark. Finally, I remembered that my head is a vast repository of bawdy songs and I kept my feet moving for over an hour along the side of the highway until I finally found B. I wasn't walking fast now, and I took a sitting break to fix my socks and gaze at some horses. A car went by and I jumped up fast to thumb a ride but thought better of it and confused the car people. I could do this. There were only so many footsteps to go. So many footsteps. My feet burned. I walked as best I could because I couldn't stop. I did stop. I needed to stand and drink water and fix my socks, but I couldn't stop for good. I need to walk further. I needed to go where the road curved, but the road fooled me and curved again. I needed to walk. I needed to shuffle if I couldn't push myself. I needed to move even if my feet were dragging and the road went on forever. There was a hill that could be the hill, but it hadn't been the hill already and it probably wasn't the hill. My feet thumped slowly and brought the dull pain, and the chafing thighs, and no Tim. I was hobbling around the bend and here I was. A parking lot. I put my feet down again and again and I barely could. I was at the mouth of the parking lot. I was in the parking lot now And my car. A cheer went up from the crowd! I was confused. I hadn't ordered a crowd. I looked up and there were six or seven ATV friends sitting around having a last chat before they all went home from the evening. "How far did you go?!" a lady called out.
"Eighty-seven miles!" I said. "In five days."
"We went fifty nine miles," she said. "On ATVs!"
We laughed. She asked me what I ate, and I said, "Chocolate!" We chatted while I shuffled around getting my clean clothes bag out of the car and arranging my pack in the hatchback. I was not moving at my normal walking speed, not even when I switched from boots to sandals. My feet were in rough shape. Five hot spots and swollen, which has never happened to me before. My thighs were raw and my hips weren't bending like they usually do. I was hobbling. My cheering section left while I was in the bathroom, so they didn't have to watch me slowly grunt my way to the car and lift up my right leg with my arms and place it in the car because I couldn't raise it more than five or six inches off the ground. I did twenty-four miles that day. I have never gone that far before, and it hurts. Twenty mile-plus days are for Backpacker magazine, and ultra-marathoners, and people who've gone on more than four walks since their hiking trip in June. I waved goodbye to the Ice Age Trail and drove to a beautiful diner where they served grilled cheese and coffee and they refilled my coffee so many times and it was warm there, and wonderful. Then I drove somewhere, took a nap in the gas station in Thorp, Wisconsin, because they have an Amish community. The woman behind the counter gave me free coffee at midnight. I sang along with the Buffy musical twice and some BBC, and got home around 2:00am. The next day Bethany gave me a Thai massage on that fixed my hip. And that is how I hiked 87 miles in five days.