A Winter of Fits and Starts

Note: This was supposed to go up last week, but I accidentally didn’t set it to publish before leaving town to hike to Badwater Basin. 

Michigan seems to be the heart of the NCT, the NCTA is headquartered there, and I had near constant contact with trail volunteers for much of the state. It should be noted however that I wasn’t in touch at all throughout OH, PA, or NY, so its hardly a complete sample. The first bit of real harsh winter was mostly mitigated by them, although slack packing daylight hours in winter does cut the mileage just by virtue of not holding myself to 13+ hours a day of trudging. One of my longer stays was with my Aunt Kim, who breeds puppies on the side. She mostly deals with smaller breeds, but she has an enormous dog named Bao, that I spent a couple zeros debating… physically. I somehow don’t have many pictures from this period of my trip, probably due to cold, photographic apathy, negligence, or having written off this blog as untenable. So while this is still the Internet, I have to withhold animal photos. (Sorry)

The thaw is often worse than the freeze, and such was the case, many times on the NCT. Leading up to crossing Mighty Mac we had a pretty good thaw, enough that I thought winter might be over and I would have to zip thru to ND quickly if I wanted to avoid the mosquitos of the north woods. Mostly it lead to me charging across breaking ice in wilderness state park over a flooded section of trail. Not the main route, I took a slightly more southern route thru the park to try and check out their shelter. Didn’t find it, got wet up to my thighs anyways. I’ll call that a win for adventure, and a loss for me. It could’ve been a lot worse though, in almost typical MI fashion I was spontaneously rescued by a trail volunteer’s walking partner. (Thanks Nancy, that one would’ve been terrible for a week.) 

Also around this time, I had my second birthday on trail. It was much nicer than the first, In which I spent a cold day, hiking up a steep hill to a clouded out fire tower, while being pretty sick, but that is no longer either here nor there. This one was spent with Yorkshire Pudding and people who have a suspiciously similar last name to mine. (Thanks Bob and Patti!)

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A Return, Greeted by Winter Haze

Returning to trail after an extended holiday stay at home, I found that I had skipped what would’ve been the easiest portion of winter, as temps were still barely holding below freezing. western OH is mostly follows an old canal line, occaisionally with bike path routed on it. this makes for excellent stealth camping as few bike through even the light snow. I passed through Dayton, an inadequately stealth camped, and thus was woken up and evicted. It happened without much trouble or fanfare, but I’ve become a little more cautious as a result, next time may not be so easy. Little in the way of running ground water was left, and I found myself melting snow for water each night and again each morning. This practice, while simple enough is incredibly fuel intensive, leading me to run dry near Defiance. I was able to reach out to the NCTA and the Buckeye trail Association for some assistance and was greatly helped by Anita, Clark, Greg, and Joe in finding an extra fuel cannister. Getting in touch successfully this time lead me to a series of trail angels, whom would pass word of me forward, leading to many, many, more homestays than I anticipated. I probably could have avoided camping entirely if I had wished, finding ways to slack pack instead. I think I ended up spending about four in ten nights inside, throughout northwest OH and most of MI.

Overall this Section had only a few notable mishaps, including accidentally opening up my waterbag inside my sleepingbag on one of the colder nights. This lead to much discomfort, and quite a few crunches as I tried to use body heat to dry my various down garments. Overall the next day was sunny which helped me warm up, although the nightly ramifications lasted for several days. This would be my second worst accident of the season. 

Aside from being aided by Trail volunteers (of whom there are too many to thank individually, without specifically making this post about it) it was not uncommon for me to be offered a homestay when I would stop into a cafe or bar seeking some water I didn’t have to melt. One such encounter that was particularly interesting; I was passed by a man and child in a car, walking on a minor country road, north of Lowell MI. They stopped, and backed up; asking what I was up to. After a short explaination he offered to let me stay in a home he was nearly finished remodeling with the intention to flip it soon. I took him up, and once I had found my way to the home he asked if I liked pizza. (what kindof question is that?!) Leaving me there, I did my evening chores and slept in the empty living room, only to be awoken by the man who now bore Pizza and beer! Turns out, in addition to flipping houses he owns a pizzeria in Lowell. I spent a couple days in town as I passed thru Lowell, I was able to cover a bunch of gear maintenance, cleaning some mold off my sleeping pad, drying out my sleeping bag, and getting my pack swapped out on warranty from the nearest outfitter. Semi-relevant as I recently replaced that pack some 5000 miles later, and some minor patching of my tent.

Dog Towns and Cat Hotels

One of the common threads amongst people who took me in while I passed thru Southern OH, was a surprising number of animals per home, and because this is the internet, pictures of them must be shared.

These Puppies belonged to a couple of American Discovery Trail Hikers, the ADT and NCT run concurrently in South OH for a while. They had set out westbound with a pair of dogs, whom helped them pull carts of gear and water. (The ADT is almost entirely roadwalk, making carts and strollers a surprisingly common strategy.) When they were moving an old man offered them to rent a trailer for cheap, (free? Or in trade for labor?) and thusly their progress halted for about eight months before they saw me walk past. I am a little doubtful they continued after I left either, they seemed to be putting down roots. Including building improvements to their trailer, and collecting more animals. Not pictured are two cats, four more dogs, and some gerbils (hamsters?) I spent a night and the better part of a day with them, as they caught me early.

I made a big mistake in missing the window for a maildrop the saturday before Veteran’s Day, which would’ve put me waiting for two days in a town without easy stealth camping access. Unacceptable. Even moreso in that I was to receive a new fuel cannister that ration, so I found my way to a hardware store and began to work on making a Soda Can stove. Nearly done I was spotted by a man who recognized what I was upto and offered to help me out. I ended up with a couple cans of Sterno, a wire mesh potrest, groceries, and a homestay in an old camper he had aquired with the intention of fixing up. His home had been built entirely out of recycled, found, and scrap material, giving it an awesome almost cartoon-like aesthetic. He had nine cats roaming about, including a couple little guys who’d come snuggle in the camper, and a little dog whose face was the spitting image of an Ewok. His Ewok-lookin pup was well trained and accompanied him while he would work as a trucker. The Cats were kept outside the house and were very interested in my pack, to the point where they would stay atop as I harnessed up.

Lastly, and the most vortexed I’ve gotten, in Cincinnati I re-connected with Little Bird, making it to her parents home just in time to be invited not to spend Thanksgiving alone in the woods. Little Bird’s Mother operates an Animal Rescue in their basement, and had nearly forty cats and maybe ten dogs. Although a few of the dogs weren’t rescues. While helping move what could’ve been a couple tons of cat litter to their basement, and being in a good place to slackpack and figure out my plans for returning home for Xmas and some pressing business. (mainly getting health insurance, as I was about to fall off my parent’s plan.) I offered to earn my keep by helping to put in a DIY elevator capable of moving a few hundred pounds of animal supplies, and cut the distance they would have to move things by 80+%. (The route through their house and down the stairs was not straightforward at all.) Also got to play with tons of Kittens.

Open Roads, Open Doors

As the trail began to stretch out unto road I began to experience a great deal of chairity. Many times I would stop into a little café or diner, strike up a quick conversation, and find that some unknown benefactor had bought my meal. I’d heard that these kinds of interactions are somewhat common on the AT during its regular season, but seldom experienced it. I must’ve been quite novel to them, as the NCT is so much less travelled. On occasion I was offered motel rooms, attics, or the bed of a camper van parked on a nearby lawn. It was very striking for me, exiting the woods and receiving such a reception in civilization. At first it made me uncomfortable, and I turned a couple such offers down, feeling that I was undeserving of such chairity when I had chosen and prepared for this lifestyle. In part I still feel that way, but I also no longer reject kindness when offered. One such time I was approached, sitting on the grass median of a big box store, polishing off my second pint of Ice Cream, (gotta jump when they’re BOGO) and was given two $20 notes. I returned them, and the man who had offered seemed taken aback, saying something to the effect of “I dunno what you’re doin’ but buy yourself another meal or two.” His kindness towards me was less predicated on a perception of my destitution, and more upon his ability to see himself in me. When younger he could’ve been me, I see this interaction repeated, and no longer reject such connections. The NCT has its share of dedicated Trail Angels, and while I was not yet dialed into their networks, I crossed paths with them aswell. Staying at Lake Piedmont Inn, and eating with the caretakers and their dogs. (the first of many domestic animal encounters South and East OH, would provide.) Or Shew’s Orchard, drinking cider and camping behind the barn, while very thankful for my tent as the wind howled, funneling between the rolling hills, tossing sheets of corrugated roofing about, yet not quite collapsing my tent with each burst.

Once joined to the Buckeye Trail (BET) the days began to blend together, and I spent many nights bivvied in a roadside thicket. That isn’t to say they were without wonder, and with Autumn’s slow arrival there was yet greenery on the branches. The veil between the natural world and civilization wore ever thinner. Punctuated by nights spent in cool tunnels running beneath the interstate, or following a river to a dammed reservoir, where the waters are still couched in forest. It had its moments however, there is some rugged country in the southeast of OH, and the Hocking Hills area in southern OH is particularly beautiful, with many embankments built into the stone, bridges that span the chasm at various heights, each adding to a confluence of nature and architecture, setting it apart as a major highlight of the eastern half of the NCT. It is capped westbound by Ash Cave, a massive undercut cavern with a tiny dripping waterfall at the center. The day I spend there was overcast, almost foggy, and added a distinct ethereal feeling, but detracted equally from the lighting conditions…

Long Trails, and Road Walks

The first of the road-walks between the AT and the NCT was mostly uneventful, I set myself up to cross NH in a day (up at the skinny point) and it worked pretty well. I even got a sort of pseudo homestay just inside VT, a guy I met at a pizza place pointed me to his cabin and I hitched out to it from near the NH/VT border. Got a little lost and tried to hitch to somewhere I knew where was, and got even more lost. (I wasn’t carrying very good maps for this bit, and no tablet or GPS enabled device yet either) then got righted by some college age kids. (maybe younger?) Even with that misadventure though I put down the road mileage pretty fast.

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From the LT’s northern terminus, you can see this ten-foot wide swath cut into the woods as the only thing separating the Canada from the US, there are some pylons noting the Treaty of Washington, which without googling, I would guess is the document that formally specifies the border’s location geographically, maybe some other stuff too. Heading south, the LT is about as tough as anything the AT had to offer, save the notches. I was lucky in that I saw little rainfall, which drastically helped the mud situation, even so there were a few deep mud pits. (I was able to stick a trekking pole down to my wrist, and I didn’t try for much farther…) Overall however only one day dropped me below 20 miles per day, and that was because I happened upon a mountaintop wedding, and decided to stick around and watch,which then turned into cowboy camping on the deck of a ski chalet. In a bit of a moment where worlds collide, the wedding was for a friend of a friend of Dosu Kinuta, an AT thru-hiker I had brushed elbows with. (My parents gave him trail magic while they were slack packing me.) I got his contact info and was told he was gonna finish the LT NoBo starting in a week or so. We missed one another, (and pretty narrowly I think) as he was getting back on really close to when I was getting off.

Overall the LT was really pleasant, a nice change of pace from the relative hustle and bustle of the AT, I had a lot of nice simple interactions with folks on trail. Even got a homestay from a couple, Root and Woven, who were almost done with their NoBo and happened to live on a homestead really close to my route, and at a really convenient midway point, enabling me to make it between the LT and NCT without any  stealth camping, which is a plus. Most nights on the LT had a few people around, there were some college outdoor clubs out in force, and my last night I got to spend some campfire time with a few people, including two musical vagabonds, and someone involved in the administration of the LT. Which lent an additional positive light to my memories of VT, and maybe elevated it to my favorite of the eastern states. On my little bit of road-walk between the LT and NCT I also ran into Transplant’s father, whom I had briefly met on Katahdin, I had to decline his offer of a ride, but he gave me some advice on where to find food in Middlebury. I also ate many Maple Creemees on the way, and was able to make Crown Point without too much trouble, though I did have to hurry a bit going forwards.

The Way Back.

Returning to trail after finishing the AT was at once wonderful, and very melancholy. Taking my time and sparing no side trail I worked my way through the hundred mile wilderness much slower than before, taking eight nights to my previous run’s two. I was able to help out a couple south-bounders just starting out, gave one some food after he ran out near the end. In the course of a day I found about four thirds of a trekking pole, for a complete extra, (It was even a carbon fiber pole with flick-locks!) only to find someone who had snapped a trekking pole. I had matching parts so I fixed their pole on the condition that they carry out the broken pole sections I had packed up while scavenging out their replacement sections. The hundred mile wilderness is one of the best sections of the AT, (VT to ME is the best quarter of the AT in my opinion) and if you know where to look there are a couple AMC huts that gave me pretty easy work-for-stays even. The other side of the return trip, is that every time I meet up with one of my friends I had passed, it’ll probably be the last time we see one another. All the registers are filled with the parting thoughts from  friends since finished, many of whom I had missed entirely. I certainly had a longer good-bye to the AT than was I was immediately ready for. (Although, looking back on it I remember it very fondly, but at the time it was bittersweet.)

Managed to serendipitously run into Desolation Row, and Baby Blue. The second father child pair, (two twelve-year-old kids did the AT in one year. So no excuses if you really wanna do it.) this time the twelve year old in tow was his daughter, we swam in one of the hundred miles’ many lakes and caught up for a while. Also met Little Bird, whom I had briefly met on my way North. She had attempted a thru 2 years prior, and broken her wrist, she came out the following summer to finish and caught Lyme’s disease. This year she was finally going to make it. She lives on the North Country Trail (NCT) so she’ll come up later on.

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SoBo out of the hundred I stayed at Shaw’s, and for quite a while, there was a bit of ration difficulty. I had a resupply box sent there for me to pick up on the way north, but since my parents met me earlier I had no need for it, and resolved to use it on the return trip. The resupply never showed up, it should’ve been there even a week or two before. I waited a couple days, (The town vortex at Shaw’s was strong, and I got along pretty well with Poet and Hippie Chick) then caught a ride out to a decent grocery store for a real resupply. Getting a hitch back took a while, but it was worth it, I ended up getting picked up by a 2002 thru-hiker, Machine, after hiking he’d become an organic farmer, and hooked me up with a whole bunch of fresh veggies! Lots of beans, peppers, and celery. I read Orange is the New Black, (found in the hundred miles) watched the Perseids and in general just relaxed a lot, dropping to about 20 miles per day before finally making Stratton, ME where I would drop from the AT and cut west for the north end of the LT. Changing my life style into Road walk, stealth camping, and getting eyed by the border patrol agents zooming around.

NCT Down

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Finished up the NCT on tuesday (June21) at about 8pm. Met my father at Lake Sakakawea State Park in ND just in time to dodge the big storm that came through that night! We’ll be hanging out together for a little while so I can slack pack a bit, get some logistics work done, and maybe not even have to slow my pace.