This hiking trip rather snuck up on me.
In May, I arbitrarily requested two chunks of vacation at the end of summer for tick and mosquito avoidance purposes, and suddenly it was August and I was obligated to go vacationing. Annie and I had a Wednesday-Thursday hiking trip at Governor Knowles State Park, Wisconsin, then I worked Friday and Saturday, and on Saturday night I was far less prepared than I wanted to be and that was only a bit by design. My first hiking trip, I took two weeks to research the pants off my gear and route, went on multiple shopping trips, and planned. Since then, I've been feeling more and more like I know enough to throw stuff in a pack and go, at least on the Ice Age Trail. So I did that, more or less. I chose an area of Polk County trail that was mostly green (private land is mostly yellow), made a vague overestimate of how far I could get in three days, and contacted the volunteer IAT chapter head to check trail conditions. The Indianhead chapter head, Dean Dversdall, kindly invited me to park my car in his yard. I had plenty of food left over from hiking with Annie, so with the strategic purchase of certain foodstuffs at Lunds on Saturday that gained me a bounceback coupon for an iced coffee drink, I was easily ready. Though I was up 'til 2:00am cleaning. Not an auspicious start to a hike, but my pack appeared lighter than usual and I was full of enthusiasm and a large iced bounceback coffee beverage, I was hitting the road. With less guilt too. My neighbor Carol kindly agreed to give my bunnies craisins every morning so I knew that they would be extra-spoiled, and my parents would feed them every night.
I crossed the border and stopped for gas and a beverage, which wound up being a Mountain Dew Kickstart, the cheapest beverage available. I became worried when I realized that the Kickstart was having no effect on me, but the best thing I could do was press on and go to bed early. I arrived at Dean's an hour late, as Wisconsin is vast and confusing. He showed me where to park, between the pines by the boat trailer. Then he went and got his van. I was confused because I thought I was just hiking out from his house; I also wanted to pretend I would make it somewhere camping-allowed before nightfall. I said, "I can just hike from here so I can get into the state forest by tonight and camp." We were looking at my map. He said, "If you're with a group, yeah, but one thru-hiker, solo, LNT camping five hundred feet from the trail, and you're leaving by seven in the morning. No one cares." I've always suspected as much. I grabbed my pack and Dean said, "How much does that weigh?" It's a huge pack but, I had the weight down significantly. He was thinking he was going to have to throw away Cheryl Strayed's binoculars. I said, "35-40 pounds." That was okay. We drove off, I wasn't sure where to. But I was in a van with a kind person who wanted me to see the Straight Lake segment of the Ice Age Trail, the largest something in North America. Dean told me about other hikers while we drove. He'd just had the two veterans, Warrior Women, thru hiking after Iraq. He'd picked up a guy at the airport earlier that summer who'd moved from Chicago to Arizona for a new job, got laid off immediately, and flew back to Minneapolis to hike the Ice Age Trail back to Chicago and the rest of his life. Dean met the 20-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother who thru-hiked the Trail in two months ending in July. The 16-year-old is the current youngest IAT thru-hiker, but there's a 13-year-old who's talked his dad into segment hiking it so he's on track to take the title. Dean dropped one girl at Taylor's Falls. She'd hiked the AT with her boyfriend the summer before, and she was going to solo the IAT. She called him the next night and said she couldn't do it, no one to talk to while she set up her tent, got water, ate. He knew another group in the area so he shuttled her to them and they spent a few days together but he hadn't heard from her since. He'd helped so many people who'd come through. I was a solo female and he never batted an eyelash. He dropped me in a prairie near a house owned by the people who had gotten him and his wife into IAT volunteering.
I did a quick run through of supplies and realized that, with all the getting into the van, I'd forgotten my hat in the car. He offered me his own hat. I was very much obliged. It was a great hat: it said Ice Age Trail on it. I thanked him again heartily, put on his hat, and hit the trail. I was somewhere. And in beautiful, bounteous prairie with the wind waving the grass and the sun shining on my cool, borrowed hat. The prairie ended soon and then I came to bridge with little painted rocks on it, somebody's project, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and, "I took the road less travelled. That has made all the difference." It was nice to know that rock painters were pulling for me already. I walked along in the perfect weather and thought about setting an intention for the hike, like we do in yoga, and came up with Meghan. Meghan is my co-worker who moved to Boston to live with her parents and finish school. She cried sobbily at her going-away party. I had no idea she liked working in a bookstore so much. She was planning a solo trip for this summer, the Boundary Waters, a two day route over six days so she could camp and fish and relax and enjoy, not push. She had to scuttle her trip in the end because of time and expense. I set my trip to a walk of good intentions for Meghan and a focus that Meghan wanted to have a slow, relaxing trip and I could have a slow, calm, non-pushing trip too. I went through mixed forest and Straight Lake, big and delicious. A nice glacial erratic was featured prominently and there were spots of prairie and birch mixed in. I took my shoes off and dangled them in the first creek I pulled water from, like Meghan, and enjoyed the coldness on my toes. I hiked on while the sky vascillated between sunny and grumpy, and I hit the road to Dean's property right when the rain started. I stood for five minutes and debated whether to turn off and walk the half mile down to his house, bring his hat back, and grab mine out of the car, or keep going. It was 5:00pm by then, and I was quite tired from lack of sleep. I decided to continue borrowing the hat and press on.
Dean had mentioned that the Warrior Women stayed by the Straight River on his property. At the end of the county road abutting Dean's place, the Trail went down a hill into a marsh that didn't look like fun camping. There was a Big White Pine on the map and I looked around for it but didn't see it, or I saw at least eight big white pines and couldn't decided which was the biggest and whitest. The trail ascended the marsh onto a fantastic esker. I love eskers. I thought I was supposed to cross the highway and camp on the Straight River in that area, but checking my map, Dean had circled a spot before the highway and I was coming up on the highway so I might as well camp around here, if you can camp on an esker, which would be cool but bad in the wind and rain. The rain was getting a lot worse. I hiked along the esker and came upon... cabins! They were like the three bears of vacation housing. The first one was huge with stilts bracing it on the slope. You could easily fit the whole extended family in there for a weekend. The second was tucked neatly into the hillside with a lower level deck built into the esker, and the third was just a little cabin resting on the ridge. I hiked down the private driveway, found the highway, hiked back up the private driveway, and wondered where I was going to camp now that there was lightning in the sky. The esker was beautiful and in other circumstances I would have loved to camp on top of it in the wind and sun, but the wind and gushing rain had other plans, and I eyeballed a spit of land steep down next to the Straight River. Going down was a scramble. Going up and down and up and down and up and down to eat and bear bag and brush teeth, I would need multiple walks up a 120º slant covered in leaf litter and small trees, but it was nothing I couldn't handle carefully. A deer trail so clean it was almost terraced ran along the middle of the slope. At the bottom, I chose a nice spot on the flat ground by a tree trunk, squatted down under my soaked raincoat and ate a nut bar. What the hell should I do now? There were three things I needed to do: eat supper, hang my food up, and pitch my tent. I couldn't hang my food up without eating my food first. I couldn't eat my food without opening my pack. I couldn't open my pack without getting everything wet. I couldn't pitch my tent without everything getting wet. I couldn't change into dry clothes without pitching my tent. I couldn't stay dry in my tent without eating dinner and hanging my food. I pitched my tent wet. Bloody Northface. Tents are mesh nowadays because mesh saves weight. The rain fly is waterproof. My tent has clips instead of pole sleeves and it is impossible to lie the rainfly over the tent while one is clipping in the poles. Impossible. I just set it up and flung the fly over it and let everything wet. I was dissapointed in Northface and the whole tent industry and I was even more disappointed when I realized that getting in and out soaked my back rubbing up on the soaked vestibule. Stupid vestibule. But now that the tent was up, the rain pattered out. I bailed my tent with my pack towel and climbed my esker with my food bag to eat my supper: palaak paneer and a tortilla. Super fantastic beyond everything else ever. A couple deer ran by on their deer terrace while I was looking for a tree with a nine-foot high branch extending eight feet out, like in a camping manual. I did not find one. Trees on the Ice Age Trail are basically telephone poles. I hung my food in a thoroughly inadequate tree and carefulled my way down the slope to my tent where it was warm but not dry. My sleeping bag and sleepy clothes and all the important things that one needs to be dry were dry, but the tent was wet on the inside and my inside tarp was like an island that had some water on it. I was rather cheered though. There's nothing survivalish about rain on the last day of your trip when you can just pack everything wet and hang it out at home, but when it rains on the first day of your trip, you can use your impressive camping skills to dry everything out again, while camping. The rain started back up and I went to sleep. When I heard bumping and stepping around my tent at night, I knew it was deers and not murderers and bears.
In the morning, the rain was stopped and I ate a toasty, leisurely breakfast on the esker in my wet clothes which were slowly drying on my body. Then I spotted a little sandy spit down the other side of the esker and decided that instead of pulling water awkwardly at the Straight River crossing on the freeway bridge, I would go down to Long Lake and pull water there, where it was beautiful. There were more cabins across the lake but not many people around at 7:00am on Tuesday, although I could hear children somewhere. I dabbled my hands in the water and made a little cairn of pretty rocks. Then I rose vertically up the esker, went past the cabins of the three bears, crossed the Straight River and continued on my long and merry way.
Map 4f of the Ice Age Trail Atlas is the beastliest maps I've ever encountered, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Most IAT maps cover five or ten miles of trail and then you turn the page to the next map and feel a sense of accomplishment. Map 4f spans the length and half the breadth of the map, and covers fourteen miles of trail so you can hike all day and never leave the map. But the country is beautiful. First there's cultivated fields, corn as high as elephant eyes, and a mama turkey and some baby turkeys in a fallow field. I stopped to take pictures and more turkeys popped up and there were two mamas and twelve babies looking warily at me. Then there was a lovely swath of replanted diverse prairie with blue stem and cone flowers and hundreds of bees and a sign about the Wisconsin turkey stamp program. Then you climb a rickety step-over in a barbed wire fence and see somebody's elaborate deer stand. This person's land had a nice creek dawdling along with me, then there were a few miles of road walk so I waved at locals. It is very important when you are in the country to always wave at everybody. And then I was in the McKenzie Creek Wildlife Area, the long bit of the map, where a picture of the trail runs along a picture of a creek. The signs at the entrance to McKenzie Creek make it sound like it exists for hunting and trapping purposes but people are also allowed to look at the wildlife humanely as long as they don't run wild; McKenzie Creek is a shooting gallery during deer gun season, but you can't shoot things in August so I was golden. And there was McKenzie Creek, babbling along in luscouis wateriness with thick bushes growing on the banks and lovely melodic water noise pobbling lappily. I wanted to dangle my feet but I decided to wait for an easier egress. Then the trail began ascending a ridge and soon I was thirty, mostly vertical feet above the creek, kicking myself with the feet that should have been dangling in the creek when I had the chance, but enjoying the view and the mixed pine and grassy woods on my right. McKenzie Creek segment is absolutely beautiful. If I had to choose my favorite place on the Ice Age Trail in this segment, McKenzie Creek would be a strong contender. The trail clung to the edge of the cliff in places, like an Inca trail overhanging an Andean gorge, except Wisconsin. I yearned to dabble my feet in the creek and cool my body from the pleasant but insistent sun and deal with sock hotspots and live like Meghan Bedsted, and there was the creek down there, so close but so vertically inconvenient.
I finally did start descending and soon enough I was at the creek and I just had to find the right spot where I didn't need to shove past too many tall flowers and pokey plants to get my sitting down on. There was a rock here, with space to set my water bottles. I carefully squeezed myself through a few plants and flowers and removed my shoes. Then the anticipation of something is often sweeter than the fulfillment of that anticipation. The weather wasn't hot and the water was a little cold. I dabbled my feet a little, got chilled, and put my shoes on feeling more like an iceberg than a woodswoman. Still, it was beautiful and I'd made my socks clean. I hiked on to warm up. Once I left the creek past the bridge over Clam Falls Flowage, which was big deal Wisconsin trout stocking river according to a sign, I kept my eyeballs open for Dinger Lake, which Dean had recommended as a campsite. I found it, and it was getting to be the time to start looking for a campsite, but there were plenty of mosquitoes and the spot just didn't allure me as much as I wanted it too. Besides, camping in the McKenzie Creek State Wildlife Area is technically illegal, although, as Dean said, no one cares, and if I crossed the road into Polk County State Forest, I could camp anywhere, secure in the knowledge that I was doing the Right Thing. I pushed on, I crossed the road and felt joy. So many miles! One whole page of the map traversed! Polk County Forest was nice and varied. The sodden pines that I would sleep under if they weren't indicative of moist soil and mosquitoes, then the close-growing maples and oaks with all their branches and giant nuts on the ground. I hiked through the first bit of Polk County Forest with nothing that charmed me so much that I wanted to pitch my tents in its sylvan glades and drink of its trickling brooks, but your campsite standards drop as the day goes by. As everybody knows, you find the best campsites at noon, the really cool ones at 3:00pm, the okay ones at 4:00pm, and at 6:00pm the only piece of bare ground in the world is a damp, bumpy hill. It was getting close on 6:00pm and as soon as the Trail pulled away from the road, I found my campsite. It was just a little clearing, but it was nice, it wasn't buggy, and there was a grassy spot to put my tent. I would have a two-foot tree in my foyer, but that's interior design. Poor tree. I set up my tent, hung my food. I didn't really hang it over a branch, I just looped it over a nub because that was the only tree in the whole forest that worked. I had an exciting new supper: dried onion soup mix, that, according to the box, should be the secret ingredient in your casserole. It was a thin dinner of few calories, but I had an amazing guacamole trail mix from Lunds, a mini-bottle of blue vodka, and a bar of Ikea chocolate, and I was happy. My tent was warm and snuggly. I had to zip up my sleeping bag this night, but zipping is what sleeping bags are for. In the morning, I lollygagged in my tent a bit listening to music and being toasty and I didn't get going as quickly as I'd like. Then I kicked back in my chair with my Pratchett and boiled my water on my stove in the Trail. If I'm camping near the Trail, I usually just use a bare spot of tread as my kitchen. That wouldn't fly on the PCT but the Ice Age Trail is so underutilized that I'm significantly more likely to be clipped by a running deer than to actually encounter another hiker at six in the morning. I was down to one bottle of water and there was just one lake on the map, so I made a special detour as soon as I saw it through a gap in the trees. I bushwacked through the some knee high ferns and found that I wasn't quite at the lake, I was next to the lake in a beaver marsh. The lake was next door, through some old pines so uniform they may've been planted by foresters after some spot logging. The lake was shallow and a bit grubby, but I need my water. I got slightly turned around on my way out. I was through the pines aiming for the ferns and the trail and I came to the end of the pines at some other forest in the wrong place. I'm pretty confident in my orienteering skills, but it's scary to be lost in the woods even for thirty seconds. Of course, once I bore left a little bit I found my road of ferns and went onwards with water and a slightly de-elevated mood. Once I got going, I made my chipper way through the rest of the Polk County Forest and some private land to the Sand Creek State Fishery Area. The trailed continued on as rolling mixed deciduous with some boggy pines, and a beautiful stream right away. It gurgled cheerily and there was a tiny wee bridge adding romance to this beautiful dark red and green landscape. The bottom of the stream had thick red mud like pudding which I pray wasn't agricultural runoff, but I pulled water anyway and dangled my feet for the sheer pleasure of foot dangling. I liked that place. I kicked back and felt the pudding mud and breathed the pretty pine air. Eventually, I had to get up and press on. The Trail stayed simple and beautiful until Sand Creek itself which crossed over a bridge that looked pretty pedestrian but you could get a truck over if you needed to. I stopped for water where it was, appropriately, sandy-bottomed. Quick after that, the Trail joined a fire road over rolling hills with a red sand track and it was easy to walk on and beautiful around. I stopped for lunch toward the end of here after the trail left the fire road. The sky was cloudy and starting to mist and it could only get worse. My tortillas ended here. From now on, I was down to flatbread. Sad. Feeling vaguely deenergenized and knowing I would need to give one hundred and ten percent in the afternoon, the ten percent being rain, I lamented my sad hungry tummy and then I remembered that I had a pouch of chia goop that I got out of the clearance bin at Lunds. Apple cinnamon! This pouch was astronomically wasteful and I could only hope that chia loving lefties had let it go to clearance because no one needs a high-quality single-use package and grippy screw-off top for their four ounces of fruit mush. I enjoyed my delicious goo though. So fruity. So apple with a hint of squash. So chia power. Chia seeds aren't even real seeds though, they're just droppings from chia pets. They're last year's coconut oil and 2013's gluten free diet. But a satisfying mush is a mush that makes hiking in the sprinkling rain bountiful. I crossed 30th Ave and I was in the X-C ski area. This was one of the most beautiful segments of the whole trail of beauty. I entered by the parking lot where you would park if you were inclined to go skiing and then the trails divided. Hardcore skiiers over there, middle skiiers somewhere else, and the Ice Age Trail synced up with the snowshoeing trail so as not to cheese off the skiiers. So much serenity, so many wide trails, little meadow flowers, cool mushrooms. I wished I could camp there but the best campsites always turn up at 2:00pm, and it was. There were almost no bugs, but plenty of lakes, and the trail crossed a beaver dam so easily it was like the beavers were trail volunteers. At the end, I popped onto the incredibly empty road, like the only people who lived there were cabin people who weren't at home. I didn't see a single car. The trail turned onto a smaller road that rolled past a lake, and went up some kind persons' driveway and through their gate. They had a prominent, detailed sign on their front gate about sustainable deer harvest. "We promote the taking of not many year-old females and more year-old males." I couldn't tell if they were a sustainable deer management business or just some folk who were heavily invested in the idea. They had a huge amount of land, for hunting or croquet. Their mowed front yard was at least two acres and the trail skirted away from the house past the edge of the wood by a knoll and onto an ATV trail and summer ski trail. There was less undergrowth in this part of the forest than most anywhere else I'd ever seen. I thought about camping somewhere in the pretty forest in the rain, but at the end of this trail the map said I would find something wonderful: a toilet. No digging holes today. I passed a few signs with arrows. "Parking lot B" "Parking Lot G" "Parking Lot L" This was a skiing maze. Do we lose a few cross country skiiers in Wisconsin every winter and no one talks about it? I could see the clearing for Parking Lot A through the trees now. And here was a greying shack with a carved moon and a caving roof. I peeked in at the derelict two-seater and prayed it wasn't the toilet I was looking forward to. The trail twisted into the parking lot and now I had a modern toilet! I'd been hoping for a cement foundation, maybe dual-gender, a pump outside. I got a port-a-potty, but it was good enough. Garbage on the floor too: a bag of toilet paper rolls, some wads, and an ancient pad. I used it anyway, and it was warm and dry in there.
The ski club had a building across the lot and I went to check it out and see if they had any potable water in their faucets. They looked heavily closed for the season but I did stand under the awning on their porch and dig a fleece out of my pack because the temperature was dropping and the rain was pounding down. I would find a campsite somewhere in this land of timber, this timberland, this Timberland Ski Area. This IAT segment was the farthest I was realistically getting on this hike. I'd been on trail for two and a half days. Tomorrow I would ditch my pack, hike to the end of the Timberland Hills segment, tag it out and spend the next few days getting back to my car. For now, I needed a campsite. It was past 5:00, the rain was coming down hard, and I was chilling rapidly. I walked and looked. The forest on either side of the ski trail lay open, lightly tree'd and easy to traverse; if I wanted to I could get back in the ferns and camp anywhere, but nowhere was perfect. I kept walking. The rain pattered down and I kept moving to stay warm. When I did find my campsite I would be in a cold pickle, and it was going to keep raining. The sky was a wall of grey. The ski trail was amazing. Someone with a ride-on mower needed to go up and down it before the summer ended but it was so wide, so well-edged, so roadish and tidy. The pickiest skier in the world would fall in love immediately. I kept treading on with my tough little footies. Timberland Hills was an accurate name for this area. The terrain rolled gently up and down . I walked hard, because I needed to find a campsite. The rain was pounding down Where was my campsite?
I found it forty five minutes from the parking lot. A fallen tree lay across the trail. I climbed over it and dropped my pack. I camped in this lovely mowed trail instead of making the little effort to go a hundred feet away and camp somewhere a little bit more stick-y and branch-y. Unless Jim from the ski club decided that tomorrow was "get up early with a chainsaw and take care of those fallen trees before ski season starts," I was in an easy, safe camping spot, on flat ground, safe from vehicles. I scouted along the trail twenty feet to another fallen tree. A hawk swooped across the trail, followed by a buck, too fast to take in any detail, but I took it as a sign that I should camp here. It was beautiful.
My rain fly was on the outside of my pack and soaking. My tent was pre-wettened and I pulled it out and set up quick. Inside my tent, it was just as cozy and dry as a mouse house. I had to bail the tent floor a little bit, but that's to be expected. It's amazing how a mesh tent can be immediately warmer than the outside air. I leaned back in my chair and puzzled. I was wet and cold. I wanted to be dry and warm. I'd also been going sixteen or so miles and I wasn't ravenous but I probably should be and I needed to eat. To eat I had to get out of the tent and back into the rain. That wasn't dry and warm. To stay dry and warm I needed to stay in my tent and hide from the rain. That wasn't eating. This was an impossible situation and the solution went against everything I'd ever learned. I could eat in my tent, like this hilarious story I read about a guy getting attacked by a polar bear. (It was hilarious because he lived.) He and his buddy were on an extremely serious adventure in the Arctic. The problem with the Arctic, as he explained, is that there are no trees, nothing to break the wind so your stove blows out and your body is battered by Artctic gusts while you eat, so he and his buddy cooked in their tent, until one night when he woke up to a polar bear trying to gnaw him through tent and mummy bag. He was wrapped up snuggly with the drawstring pulled tight, "Like trying to untie a granny knot while your friend beats you over the head with a baseball bat." His friend managed to unwrap himself enough to fire off their shotgun and the polar bear bolted. Black bears are less into humans, but I didn't want them to know I had soup. I talked myself into. I could put my stove in the vestibule. I was really just heating water. I could minimize crumbs. I knew for sure that I wouldn't get enough calories if I went and froze to death in the rain. So I lit my stove in the vestibule and poured some cocoa and mixed it with a liquer and and nibbled some appetizers while my water boiled and then I kicked back in the toasty warm and and ate comfortably to the amount that I needed. This was nice. But never again. But so much kicking back. In my chair in my warm clothes. Then I painfully put some wet clothes back on and hung my bear bag on a decent tree while the sky moved to twilight and the rain poured down. My tent was much better than outside. The ground was comfortable and flat and my bag was warm and I had on plenty of warm things and I remained dry while all around me the forest got leaked on. I fell asleep cozy for many hours until the thunder woke me up.
"What time is it?" my sleeping brain asked. "Time to get in lightning position," my safety brain said. I sat up, folded over my sleeping mat and squatted like a non-conductive object. My watch said 3:30. The thunder boomed and the lightning lit up the sky. How was this possible, meteorologically speaking? It was 3:30 in the morning! The sky was cold when I went to bed. Thunderstorms come from too opposing air currents rubbing together. Was the cold air I'd been walking in yesterday rubbing against some even colder air? I counted between lightning and thunderclap. Six. This storm was three miles away? Good heavens. My book and headlamp were carefully retrieved from the floor, hoping that the moment I touched them wouldn't be the moment the lightning hit the ground, or any of the trees. I held them and thought about reading but I was too tired. I drifted near sleep, squatting. At 4:00am, I modified my position because my ankles were asleep. At 4:30 the storm was still booming a ways away and I just couldn't keep squatting anymore. I laid down and went back to sleep for an hour. When my 5:30 alarm went off, it was cold. So cold. I forced myself to sit and my ankle itched. I scratched my ankle for a while. The rain was globbing down like a billion angels spitting exuberantly. But I had to pee. Finally I went out, unhung my bear bag, and got back in the tent and my sleeping bag, which was a faux pas. Rolling up your sleeping bad is the first thing you should always do so that you can't get back into it. It was so toasty though. I said, "I'm on vacation. Today is my tagging-out-the-end-of-Timberland-Hills-and-going-back day. I can stay in bed. I'm on vacation. Some people spend their whole vacations lying down in warm places. I can lie down in a warm place on vacation." And I fell back asleep in my toasy warm bag while the rain globbed around me. When I woke up again, it was 10:00am. The rain was still coming down, though possibly with less bulk. I made the executive decision to eat in my tent again. Bad bad bad bad bad. But I would barely be eating, just peanut butter, jelly, and coffee. Being crumb careful. It was marvelous. Like being at a bed and breakfast spa. I had so much warmth. Just kicking back in my sleeping bag with my cocoa and my peanut butter, listening to the rain pound on the roof. It struck me that, before this trip, I hadn't been cold in about two months. I might have been a bit cool in air conditioning, or walking down the grocery store freezer aisle, but I hadn't experienced cold since May or so. I didn't care for it. But I couldn't snuggle in my warm tent all day. I was on a hiking trip! I put my wet clothes on and stashed my pack. The sky wasn't dropping globs of water but it was misting heavily. My plan was to tag out the end of Timberland Hills, come back, grab my pack, and hustle on back to the car (for two and a half days). The path was still wide and even, like a road made of tall grass. The forest beyond had heavy canopy and low underbrush, the kind where people and animals could move freely and still be sheltered by the trees. Forests should look this way and yet they rarely do because of logging and lack of burns. I'd never felt closer to the First Nations and their gods, the Manitous, and how they still lived here, right now. I felt immense respect and loss and I was glad they still had some place in this, their land. Simultaneously, I'd never seen a better ski trail. I wondered vaguely if these hills had actually been bulldozed into perfectly even, gently rolling, slightly curved, shape. Every time I peaked a hill I went "Swoosh!" because everything about these hills made me need skis. I held the Manitous and the skiiers in my mind while I walked and admired the beauty. Little flowers bloomed on tall prairie stems when the land dipped and opened up on a wide lake. My boots wicked the rainwater from the tallgrass into my socks, and then the trail became a puddle four inches deep. The waterproofing on my boots has been shot for ages. I had my breakaway camping pants on in shorts position and my legs were all scraped by sawgrass and its cousins. The trail went up and skirted the lake with woods on another side and went uphill, and got a little sloppier. I descended and came into a logging run. If you're going to shop at IKEA, you have to accept logging. Keep us in paper, Wisconsin. All the gouged earth and tree bits look terrible, but I know I'm walking through tree farms. The trail crossed a logging road and at the bottom there was a nice little spring that poured clear water over clay, ran under the road and down into the fresh forest. I stopped to pull water and sniff the air. Beautifulness. From here, I went uphill and around another little lake. A random cabin came out of nowhere, then a bit of road, some more trail, birdhouses, and a Muir bench. I went farther than I thought, but at the end, it was worth it. I came to a road and a farmhouse, fields, civilization, took a picture, and headed back the way I'd come. Descending a hill towards the little weird cabin, I thought I saw a red clay lady face stuck to a log. Faces in the sky and face shapes and nature, faces in the dark, they fade out and you realize that what you were looking at wasn't a face at all, just a piece of driftwood, or a crack in the rock, or your own fear, but this maintained its faceness as I approached, and as I got closer I realized it was Art. Mermaid lady, and she was stuck on a giant fish carved out of a log with dorsal fins made out of planks. Cool sculpture!
More than an hour later, I got back to my pack and the rain was gearing up again. I grabbed it and followed the signs back to the ski club and the toilet. It was warm in there and I spent a while texting and enjoying not being rained on. I went back onto the trail and walked on and on forever now that I was shopping for campsites. I was also walking onto private land at some point and I'd avoid camping there if I could. Really, I wanted to sleep in the X-C Ski Area, but I wasn't going to make it. And that was okay. I was walking through acres of decent campsite, but I was still holding out for a good campsite. It was too late to find a great campsite. And then a ray of sunshine cut through the trees. The drizzle stopped for the first time in two days, and I beheld my campsite. Sunlight shone on this magical junction of three ski trails. Dry path, no standing water, a little road shoulder that would be my tent site because the sun's sparkling rays could make my tent less wet. I set it up, hung my wet shirts in a tree and put on two dry long underwear tops and a sweater. In the sun. So warm, I hung my bear rope and squatted in the grass making a delicious cup of beans, and drank a little blue vodka. I brought my book along but I decided it was nicer to squat back and listen to the birds and the wind and all the moist earth and naturey noise and motors in the distance. My little blue vodka and my chocolate were so yummy and I was so warm and dry and buzzed and I realized that it was a very important time, which was Wednesday between 6:30 and 7:30 and it was time for Wednesday Zumba. I did all my favorite songs loudly in the road and flexed and stretched and jumped and shook some of the forty pound pack off my knees. It was fun. Bailando, bailando, tequila, fantasia, Margarita, etc. And baile maraca, maraca, maraca, en Italia, en Francia, baile maraca, maraca, maraca. That song involves sticking your butt out. Also the caballo song, which is about riding a horse. I kept up my Zumba mix for half an hour and it felt good. I did still crawl into my tent before dark and when the sun set the rain started again, but I was pretty warm. Not super warm. But I was good. I told Tim I was a little cold, and he offered to drive the hour and a half to where I was and bring me a blanket, but then I would have a blanket to carry. I told him I wasn't on the road where his creepy stalker phone said I was, I was heaven only knew where on a ski trail and possibly on private land. I went to sleep snuggly but slightly damp in my bag and when I woke up the sky was still dripping. I put on my wet clothes happy that they weren't too cold at least and pulled down my wet food. The rain was slowing and there was sun over in the south and while I was packing up my tent, the rain stopped completely and I got a sunbeam. I waved goodbye to my pretty campsite and its big sunny space and walked forward, or backward considering I had already come that way, to see how close I was to the yard and the house I'd passed. I hoped I'd not been camping in their backyard but I also wanted to be close enough. I'd definitely hiked a ways from the ski chalet and I felt that I'd gone a good firm distant and should meet the road pretty soon. Happily, after twenty minutes of trudging I was circling these kind people's yard again. Twenty minutes meant I was probably camping on their property but I wasn't hanging around sleeping pervertedly at the end of their driveway. I spent a long time in their yard though, circling around. The thing was massive, mowed, and moundy. What could they be doing with all that mowed space? Family reunion? Two rugby games at once? Herds of sheep? Three acres of green grass. But they were good people who let the IAT use their yard and practiced quality deer management including the correct harvesting of one-year-old bucks and non-interference with does. This all seemed sensible as I slipped out of their gate and headed down the road, wondering where the bathroom was. Those people didn't have a yard bathroom, and there was no bathroom on the road. I hiked quickly into the X-C Ski Area and found a nice, private bathroom. Ah. The X-C Ski Area is simply beautiful and I saw a swan. I've only seen a pair before once, in a run-off pond off 494. This swan swam swanningly in a small lake. He wasn't interested when I started taking pictures of him, he just floated around in the mist of the beautiful morning while I contemplated simply being within nature versus attempting to photograph it. I wish the whole trail could be the X-C Ski Area. The perfect mix of wide, wet trails and dense-ish forest, but it was only around 10:00am when I crossed the road into the Sand Creek State Fishery Area. The trail went through a bit of forest and cut on to the fire road made of wet, red clay. Everything was wet, especially my shoes, even though the rain was over and the sky had warm and sunshine pouring out of it. It was a nice morning for bears to be out because there were definitely some enormous bear prints in the road. Long claws. Huge. I took a picture and went on a few feet and the bear prints went on too. With me. He hadn't just crossed the road, he was using the road to get from point A to point B. The rain stopped at 7:30 in the morning so these prints were fresh. So there was a bear. And he was going faster than me probably. Unless he was stopping to eat at one of these roadside berry bushes. I was travelling where a bear had been not less than two and half hours before. I could stop and hang out for a few hours, but I might run into a returning bear or some bear friends, and I had miles to go. I pulled my bear mace out of my holster and undid the safety wedge and then I started yelling Camelot. I didn't know I had the lung capacity. IN CAMELOT! CAMELOT! I KNOW IT SOUNDS A BIT BIZARRE! The bear tracks kept going. I expected them to turn off somewhere, wherever the bear had business eating berries and doing bear things. WHERE ARE THE SIMPLE JOYS OF MAIDENHOOD? At the end of the day, he was, of course, more scared of me than I was of him, which meant he was already gone or getting wary because I'VE NEVER STRAYED FROM ALL I BELIEVE, I'M BLESSED WITH AN IRON WILL. He had probably been by earlier and was already long off the road because I was making plenty of noise. AND SHOULD I LEAVE YOU RUNNING MERRILY THROUGH THE SNOW I wasn't seeing any speed marks or turn-offs so we were probably closer to two hours apart. On the other hand the tracks kept going and the map showed a long straight until I hit the bridge crossing Sand Creek. THERE WAS WONDER FAR AND NEAR, WOULD THE KING BURN GUINEVERE. How long could this fire road go on? ONCE THERE WAS A FLEETING WISP OF GLORY CALLED CAMELOT There was no end in sight. What really got to me were the inch and half long claw prints in the red clay. I ran out of songs and switched. WITH MY FREEZE RAY I WILL STOP THE PAIN I barely remembered walking down this road before and now it was eternal. LOOK AROUND AT EVERYBODY'S HEART AND HEAR THAT BREAKING SOUND I was going to follow a bear forever. But I could belt like I never knew. SHINY NEW AUSTRALIA Finally the trail turned off the fire road and the bear tracks stopped. I didn't investigate too hard. The bear might have crossed the bridge too, but I couldn't see the prints. The warm sunshine and the bridge and the lapping water flowing under the creek barely accessible through the thick aspen and grasses and foliage. I managed to fill my water bottles and made myself the last of my mango caffeine aspartame powder packet combined with a black raspberry lemonade powder packet that tasted unconvincingly but deliciously like fruit. Since Rainbow closed, I've been unable to find my good old Kool-Aid individual sachets and am forced to drink powdered adult flavors of juice, which are mostly worse than Kool-Aid and terrifying. I bought the mango aspartame in a moment of desperation at Cub because I needed something flavorful to bring camping with Annie, and then I found the lemonade packets at Lunds. They are "natural," which means stevia, and every little packet says, "Only 10 calories." Every time I tipped one of them into my water bottle, I said, "Only 10 calories! I can't stand up on ten calories. I need two hundred calories! How am I supposed to hike for ten hours on ten calories of lemonade?" I can tell, too, that drinking low-cal beverages give me less of a power boost than simple Kool-Aid.
I pressed on for another while and finished what I'd started HOME IS WHERE YOUR HEART IS, SO YOUR REAL HOME'S IN YOUR CHEST and went uphill through some late season raspberries yelling pop songs. Finally I decided that any bears nearby were probably different bears so I could stop singing and it was almost lunchtime, so I needed to find the lunchroom or cafeteria. I crossed into Polk County Forest looking for the cafeteria and I was happy when I found the best one ever on the top of a ridge among some blowing pines. It was warm enough that I could take off my shirt to dry out but cool enough that I needed to put a vest on over my naturism. I was starting to have back prickles I didn't understand. I had peanut butter and jelly which, without burritos, was getting a little old. Still, it was delicious and full of protein. I was developing dots on my hands. I felt good, though. And happy. I liked this section of dark, thick second-growth with the gushing streams where three days ago there were dry creekbeds. I'd been worried about water, hiking later in the season, but I'd been fine and now I was more than fine. My feet were never going to dry out. I was walking through a long puddle that was actually a trail and there were frogs everywhere. I was coming round a bend downhill when I saw a real thing! A person thing! Another person thing! Another actual hiker! I yelled out "Hi there!" loudly so I didn't scare the bejeezus out of him, and he kept plodding along like he was waiting until we reached a sensible distance to start talking to me. He approached. I approached. He approached. I could tell he was a hiker not a murderer because he had trekking poles and he was wearing a technical hat. When we were at a normal-tone-of-voice distance, he said, "You're the first hiker I've seen in ages!" I said, "You too!" He said, "The trail back there's completely flooded." I said, "Okay." And he kept on walking! Manners? When you meet another hiker, you're supposed to stop and check in. He'd barely done that. He looked pretty clean cut. Maybe he was a fundamentalist Christian who wasn't allowed to talk to girls alone in the forest wearing sweaters without bras. He was right about the flooded trail. It was pretty much identical to the flooded trail I'd already been on, but I almost slipped on some underwater leaf litter so I took it more carefully now that I was thinking about it. I chugged through the forest enjoying the challenge, picking half moon burrs off my pants and re-seeding them accidentally. I passed the place I'd camped three nights ago and knew that I was for sure on track to camp in the McKenzie Creek Area. I stood in a relaxing stream with my boots on because my feet were so wet it didn't make a difference. I crossed the road into the McKenzie Creek State Wildlife Area and read the sign again about making the Clam River happy and walked for longer than I remembered going before I reached Dinger Lake, where Dean Dversdall made a circle on the map for a good campsite, but it didn't grab me. There was a lake, sure, but there were boat put-ins that made me feel exposed to roads, and the rain had kicked up an army of mosquitoes. So I was going to camp above McKenzie Creek on the beautiful ridge overlooking the pattering water! I just had to find my campsite. McKenzie met me and I waved at it because I had already filled my water bottles at Dinger. The trail ascended and I was up in the pretty place looking down, with a thick forest alternating to decent camping spots on my left. I'd already dangled my feet in McKenzie so I was happy up on top enjoying the view. There were plenty of spots where I could've camped easily, grass and well-spaced oaks, but the whole McKenzie area was more or less nice camping and I wanted to see if I could cross County Road W before I settled, so I pushed on and the trail veered down and away from the creek and into a wide grassy alley that also would have made a decent campsite and I crossed W (no traffic) and got back to the McKenzie and the dire knowledge that it was almost 6:00pm and I needed to find a campsite now. And suddenly all the thick grass and well-spaced trees were gone and I was left choosing between thick trees and ferns. Of course there was the perfect campsite up ahead and forty of them behind me, but for now I should settle. So I chose a nice patch of ferns and little trees ten feet from the cliff edge and gratefully put my pack down on the ground that was drying and the air that didn't have drops of water flying through it. I gave my tent a good shake and hung up everything worth hanging up. There was nowhere to hang my bear rope, of course, but I threw it over an easy branch far enough away that if a bear did eat my food, it wouldn't be thinking about me while it ate. I'm generally not too worried about bears in unofficial campsites anyway. Following general rules of bear safety is important, but bears are sensible animals who won't go banging through the woods at night looking around randomly for food hanging inconveniently off trees where food has never hung before. Most of our knowledge on bear safety was developed at places like Yellowstone, where the bears know that five nights out of seven there is going to be a food piñata hanging in a tree nearby and a stray pack of hot dog buns on the picnic table. With those bears, it's important to go above and beyond every element of bear safety. Bears on the Ice Age Trail think the IAT is shamefully under-utilized and there aren't enough bags of food in trees to bother with. I made dehydrated beans of awesome for supper. I never cared much about Rainbow Foods while it was alive, but once my dehydrated spicy beans run out, that's it. On the other hand, they do bean things to your stomach so I'm always a little bit wary of eating them. With food and tiny vodka in my tummy, I realized that it was still early enough that I had time to relax in the sunset. I did. With my book. It was warm and pleasant out, and my tent was snuggly. I was still having having back prickles that I didn't understand, so I photographed my back, confirming a massive red back rash. I remembered the phrase "wool rash" and I'd been wearing a sweater over bare skin all day so I texted Laura because she has babies and knows about these things. She confirmed that wool rash is a thing, especially when wet wool is worn. That bottle of a calamine lotion in the car was going to be magical. I went to sleep all snuggly and mostly dry and that night I woke up and checked on the stars. There were oodles of them! Annie is whimsical and was excited to stargaze when we went camping and then the sky clouded over, so I'd been looking forward to seeing stars eventually. There they were. There was the Big Dipper, Orion's Belt, possibly the Pleadies, and all the other ones I don't know, and all the ones that are so far away they're just a blur, and the ones beyond that. All those stars. I do get scared being out of my tent at night so I kept it short, but it was beautiful. In the morning I got up at 5:30 as usual. I'd been debating getting up at 5:00 to get going earlier, but I'd stayed up until 9:30. Wild, I know. I had breakfast and got hiking. Ten minutes up the trail, I found the grass and scattered trees I'd been hoping for last night. There were some deer hanging out on a slope and when they saw me, they ran up the 180º hill quick as lightning. I saw more deer everywhere from then on. The trail went close to the ridge over McKenzie creek and then it went down and there were pines and a little bridge at the turn-off for a different trail. Everything was lush green after the rain, but the trail was dry. My boots never dried out and they were rehydrated by the morning dew, but I wasn't walking through puddles anymore. I was sad to leave the McKenzie Creek segment, but I had hours more private land and mixed weirdness to go through before I got to my car. There was a road segment with a farm but no farm people about this time. A bit of wood and another road. Then there was a great spot of restored prairie, thick and wildish, between the road and the highway. It was little but it was beautiful. The sun was getting warmer and grasshoppers started doing their freaky little jump around my feet. Bees buzzed like they weren't endangered and there were prairie flowers dappled everywhere. True to my goal of honoring Meghan, I hiked over to a depression in the grass that absolutely wasn't a buffalo wallow because there are no buffalo here anymore and kicked back in my relaxing mode with all the coneflowers and the blue stem and the tall grass. Then I got up and trudged on. It was lovely out. I passed two deer stands, some ag fields, more woods, a step-over gate, and more woods, and then I came to a lake and it was Straight Lake, which meant that I was quite almost more done than not done. I could stop at a diner and get a grilled cheese on my way home. There was another bench, because the Indianhead Chapter is all about Muir benches, and lovely access to the lake water and little fish. The trail skirted the lake for a while before it moved off and went uphill and crossed Highway 48 again. Now here I was on the private approach to those three cabins on the esker like the three bears, one excessively modest, one sensible, one ostentatious. I would live in all of them, although the excessively modest one had a garage as big as the cabin that didn't look great. The sensible one had cabin decor and a little lovely garden and a lower deck. The ostentatious one had two tiered decks and a balcony off the master bedroom. I could handle that. There was an alarming deer stand right past the cabins that was about 25% through the process of falling down the hill. My campsite was still down at the bottom of the slope and there was my beach and then there was so much green and the lakes on either side of me. I took a sitting down break on the esker Muir bench and then I pushed on. This was the home stretch but it was a longish home stretch. There were lovely views of green and careful stepping and a boardwalk through the marsh in a valley of pines. I could've stayed there forever but there was no grilled cheese. Then there was the Big White Pine. There were actually a lot of Big White Pines. I still couldn't decided which was the biggest and the whitest. I was on the backside of Dean Dversdall's property and my journey was sadly coming to an end. Nothing could replace the serenity of this forest except a grilled cheese. The trail went up past even more pines that were big and white and I left the forest and walked along the edge of a farm field that was not growing grilled cheese. My feet were tired and there was a road up here somewhere, farther away than I remembered. I hit it, turned left, went a few hundred yards and turned off the Trail onto the road that led to Dean Dversdall's place and my car. The last few hundred yards were difficult, hot and longer than they should been. Dean has an extensive driveway. I was so happy when I rounded the third bend and saw my car sitting there happily where I'd left it. I dropped my pack and stuck my hand under the passenger tire where I'd stashed my key in case Dean needed to move my car while I was away. I'd been worried that the key would wash away in the rain, but I had the opposite problem. My car settled into the mud while I was gone and the key was embedded in muck. I could just feel the tip poking out from under the tire but there was no way to grab it. I scraped with my hands in the dirt, but it was buried too far. A piece of bark lying near made a crude shovel and I scraped the earth away and pulled out my key. My key! My car! I put my pack down and walked to Dean's house but he and his wife were out. I left Dean's hat on a porch chair and walked back to my car. That was the last walking I did for a while. I changed my clothes as best I could and went away from the Ice Age Trail. But my journey was not yet ended. I needed grilled cheese. Luck, Wisconsin was the nearest town and just up the road. The sign said, "You're in Luck!" Luck has two streets and I pulled up on one of them outside Grandma's Diner, which sounded like the perfect place for grilled cheese. It was closed. Who closes a diner? It hadn't been open in some time, by appearances. How could Luck, Wisconsin mock me with the potential for a diner and then take away my grilled cheese? I was parked directly in front of the Autism Association Store, Donations Welcome, and all the junk left over from the garage sale was weighing down my car. I gathered my remaining strenght and shoved most of everything into a bag. The old lady at the counter was flabbergasted by such a quanitiy of Things, but she had lived through the Depression. I handed her the bag and the weight of it nearly pulled her down. I browsed for a few minutes but they had nothing. One rack of clothes, some kitchen implements, fifty copies of Goosebumps #38, and a bin of pens personalized for people named Bryan, Harold, Katelyn, and Suzie. They did not have any grilled cheese. I left Luck and its shameful lack of Wisconsin diners behind me and headed to the next town, which only had one street. Good. I drove down it. No diners. One establishment said, "Breakfast menu! Breakfast menu! Try our breakfast menu!" but it looked like a bar. I parked my car and got out to check. It was a bar. There was another bar across the street. Where did the citizens of this town get their coffee and pancakes? Plenty of businesses ran along the highway but they were all selling siding and tires and not grilled cheese. I was confused and hungry. Then I saw it. The Gandy Diner! It's name was a pun on the Gandy Dancer Trail and logging legacy and it was a diner. I whipped my car into the parking lot. Grilled cheese! I went in and it was perfect. They had dead fish nailed to the wall and baked goods and it was basically empty except for two hard-working men talking quietly in a booth. I ordered a grilled cheese and a malt and I even got coleslaw. Everything was perfect and happy and my grilled cheese was delicious and my malt was full of fat and protein. I ate and drove home and my trip was over.