Sunday, July 25, 2010

There's this nondescript office building in my old neighborhood. It's across the street from a church property field that has a baseball backstop made of planks, telephone poles & chain link fence. Real old school & bulky. I also played tag & tackle football there. Jeremy's yard was beyond the backstop, so whenever i remember it I think of Jeremy's murdered father.

I meant to tell a story about a walk with my son almost a couple years ago, when we ventured into that office building on his lead, & I realized I'd never been in this building before, in spite of the familiarity of its surroundings, but now am wrapped up in memories of those surroundings.

I used to fly kites there. Once I used 1,000 yards of fishing line to send an old fashioned paper bow kite (w/ a cloth tail) speck high into the stratosphere.

I once encountered a group of friendly hippies tossing around a ball w/ a parachute. I joined them & they eventually tossed me into the air. Blue sky whee. I was light & I flew.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Walking the old neighborhood

Took a walk after dinner in my old neighborhood. The eerie pale light in the overcast sky drew me out. Jonny came with me. I was just going to hang out in the yard, but the restless 4-year-old first had me race him around the house and when that got boring he wanted to walk around the neighborhood. "But we're barefoot," I said. "Can you do a good job watching where you're going?"

He didn't listen too well, preoccupied with punching me in the butt and defeating the evil super foes that dominate his imagination, as I talked about how walking barefoot is different than walking in shoes. You've got to look where you're going, at your feet and always a few steps ahead. Even a small pebble, stepped on at the wrong angle, can bring much pain and despair. Little children know these things instinctively. Walking barefoot is natural. Shoes are a rather recent innovation.

Walking barefoot in the old neighborhood did make me feel a little self-conscious. If we encountered neighbors, they'd see our bare feet and the coffee stain on my shirt, and draw their own conclusions. But the ones we'd meet knew me when I was a kid. I couldn't fool them anyways. Plus, I have no control over what my parents would tell them, and they're prone to say anything. Sometimes they even tell the truth.

I divided my attentions between the boy and a pleasant nostalgic reverie with my own boyhood on these same streets. The sounds I heard of a summer evening 30 years ago are little different today. There was the whine of race cars miles away at the Rockford Speedway, the lights and din of beery cheers at the Forest Hill diamonds, and the laughter of children playing in their quilt patch yards.

Most of the houses we passed were aglow with the shifting reflections of televisions. That hasn't changed either. The TV's have gotten brighter, bigger, louder and flatter, a reflection and scribe of the society they serve.

The boy found a stick and turned it into a ray gun, speaking of a doom and death that are mere pleasant abstractions to him, part of his own hero's journey. Eventually, he had me tugging him by the stick, forcing him to trip and run to keep up. Who knows what those who raise eyebrows at a father and son's dusky barefootedness would think of this scene. The boy's actions did resemble those of a prisoner forced to keep up with the march. But he likes doing this. It's one of his rituals.

We made it back to my parent's in time to chase some fireflies around the yard. We only caught a couple. They're crafty little buggers, nearly impossible to see when they're not aglow, and their season is almost past. The last thing I saw before going inside was a golden swath of light high in the boughs of a maple tree a couple yards over.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wisconsin Death Trip, epilogue

This past May I went up to Wisconsin with Esther and Jonny to speak at an Ice Age Trail event near New Auburn. The two nights we were up there we camped at a campground near Black River Falls in the Pigeon Creek State Forest. The evening after the event, we drove into Black River Falls hoping to find a place to eat downtown.
Before coming here, I had read Wisconsin Death Trip, which gave me a strange sense of foreboding about this town. Getting off the exit of I-94, I saw a chain restaurant and a huge hotel and campground complex. There were the obligatory fiberglass wildlife replicas, including a huge fluorescent orange moose. Just down the road is a casino. If a gambling joint didn't suck the lifeblood out of the community, maybe it was the decision by some town leaders to make their city identifiable by such an eyesore of a monument. "Yeah, just get off the highway when you see the big orange moose. You'll know you're almost there." Classy.

Two things happened in our short stint in downtown Black River Falls that reinforce the creepy image I've gotten from books and videos. We parked and looked for a place to eat. Down one side street is what looks like an Italian restaurant and bar. We walked through the front door and about 10 old men, all sitting at the bar, stopped their conversation and in unison turned to look at us. Not knowing who we were, they turned back around, again, in unison, without so much as a hello. Feeling very self-conscious, and not seeing any other diners, we backed out the door.
Up the street there is a mural telling the story about a local taxi service and auto garage that used to do business here. As I was reading this, Esther and Jonny stood nearby at the corner, looking at something else. I turned around in time to see a man who looked like a religious fanatic. He had a short-sleeved button down shirt and short hair, with a couple cowlicks sticking up off the back of his head. He also had a look of religious fervor on his face. He walked up to Esther, who had her back turned to him, lifted a hand to tap her on the shoulder, but when he saw me his eyes widened in fright, he pulled back his hand, turned around and went walking back the way he came without saying a word.
And to top it all off, except for a ratty-looking pizza place, there was no place else to eat downtown.

The final bit of weirdness was a religious center that a strange, rambling message of salvation, damnation, and redemption written in soap on the storefront window. There was also a strange, very secret society looking design on the facade on that side of the street.

We ended up eating at the Perkins out by the interstate, right across the parking lot from the orange moose.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Doodle art

I finally completed a 3-subject notebook started in January 2008, my last semester of graduate school. I've doodled in all my notebooks, but for this one decided to take pictures of some of my best doodles. These were spontaneously drawn. I don't know or care if they qualify as "art." Any comments would be greatly appreciated, even critical ones.

I drew this while waiting for a perky REI sales representative to find replacement shoulder straps for my 12-year-old Wonderland Trekker external frame pack. It was a long wait. I wasn't surprised to learn they no longer have the strap in stock.

Musical notation?

The credit card monster.

This one kind of gives me an "Ent" vibe.


Gothic wheat.

Arachnid air attack.

The spitting fish is a recurring character in my doodles.

The Dragon. My favorite.

Triangle plant.

Nice framing.
Bigfoot spares the geometric flower.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A long-distance trail in Illinois?

According to the trail association's web site, the River to River Trail is between 160 and 176 miles long as it winds from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River across the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.

I hiked a short, but iconic section of this trail in the Garden of the Gods in December 2004. This was part of a winter car camping / hiking trip through the Shawnee. i saw a side of my home state few people even know exist. Ravines, limestone bluffs, high overlooks and wilderness areas. The last time I was down there we even took a trail to the remnants of an ancient native American settlement, complete with petroglyph. Ever since then, I've longed to go back, ideally in the fall, and spend a week or two living out of my backpack. It's definitely on the life list.


From Wikipedia: Its eastern end is on Battery Rock, overlooking the Ohio River, and its western end is at Grand Tower, Illinois, at the Mississippi River. It forms part of the Southern Section of the American Discovery Trail.[1] [2]

From east to west, the trail serves the following settlements and resources: Garden of the Gods Wilderness, Lusk Creek Wilderness, Eddyville, Illinois, Ferne Clyffe State Park, Panther Den Wilderness, Crab Orchard Wilderness, Giant City State Park,
Makanda, Illinois, Bald Knob Wilderness, Clear Springs Wilderness, Grand Tower, Illinois.

From what little Internet research I've done, I realize there are two guidebooks associated with the trail. The one available through the "official" web site and endorsed by the River to River Trail Society is River to River Trail Guide Across Southern Illinois (3rd edition) by John O'Dell. It is available on Amazon. The other is The River to River Pocket Guide by John Voigts (not Angelina Jolie's dad!). It advertises that it is a detailed guide, at 52 pages, and provides such needed info as mileage between points, water sources, trailheads, and GPS waypoints. It is neither available on Amazon or the trail Society site. It's only available here.

The pocket guide may be a needed addition to the official trail guide, which may give a detailed trail description, but be light on nuts and bolts info. This is how the AT guides are/were (I haven't checked lately). An entire cottage industry of companions and data books has sprung up around that trail and the PCT. Or... this Voigts character is a fellow trail nut publishing a wild, rambling manifesto about nature and society under the mere rubric of being a helpful and sensible trail guide. His nefarious goal may to not only to get the hiker physically lost, but to also lose all metaphysical bearings as well!

If anybody knows anything about this Voigts character's screed, give a comment below.


A short survey article about the trail.

The American Discovery Trail in Illinois

Finally, something said about Voigts's book

Voigt's blog about the trail It's got a lot of neat pictures, many taken on horseback! Okay, so after checking out his site, he seems pretty credible and not the least bit ill of intent. Darn! Those are always the interesting ones.

This site's got a Google thumbnail map of the trail and links to official sites for places the trail goes to or near.

A cool article from WGN TV about the Shawnee tribe

Here's the only video I could find, a musical slide show:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer school memories

Eight days ago I interviewed for a teaching position at a local middle school. While I haven’t heard back either way from them, I assume I didn’t get the job. This is a disappointment, but I didn’t stay down long. Taking stock, although employment is a missing and necessary equation to my existence, I am not mired in stagnancy and enjoy a full and enriching life. I have a loving family, good health, good friends and neighbors, keep active and am proactive about improving my situation. I’ve learned that failure is only a temporary obstacle, and just as fleeting as success.

I also have faith that I will teach again and enjoy a long and successful career as an educator. Times are tough for prospective teachers, especially in Illinois. I know I could go to Texas, North Carolina, Arizona, or Colorado and have an easier time finding a teaching job. But for once I am determined to stay rooted. Spending time with Jonny and being there for him is more important than any wage. This is why I’ve limited my job search to within a 75-mile radius of DeKalb. This is where I’m wanted and needed. This is home.

As I was looking for samples of student work to show at the interview, I came across the following exit statements from my 2008 summer school students at South Elgin High School. I’ve left the students words intact. Last names are omitted to protect privacy. Their words were very encouraging, and in a couple cases, prophetic of what the rest of my experience was like teaching in District U-46. They also demonstrate the writing abilities of the students I worked with and, through the lens of their experiences, what lessons stood out for them.


“My favorite writing assignment is was the sceneniro one where you had to have to my a dream like scenerro. The thing I dislike about this class was the long essay assignment. Also I liked going to the computer lab every time.”


“I liked the picture drawing because I like being creative.

I don’t like writing!

But then again that’s why I’m here.

You shouldn’t get mad so easily. Don’t take it personal! Your going to be a freshman teacher. I go to Elgin so im warning you be prepared!

They are immature.

But if your cool then they will participate but if you blow up then to them “you trippin” (big smiley face)


“My favorite assignment was the Monster book we got to read. I really liked it and I wouldn’t have read it otherwise. It was pretty interesting and since he’s our age it makes the book that much interesting. What I didn’t really like was the Narrative Essay Assignment. I really don’t like writing and telling stories so, it was sort of hard for me to complete the assignment.”


“I liked this class because we did a lot of exciting assignments such as reading “Monster” and making an ad council. Also, learning how to blog and watching School Rock, or something like that.”


“I a good time I learn how to use my pronouns. My favorite thing was the PSA [public service announcement] because we got to get out of class.”


"My favorite writing assignment is the one where we got the sentences from Monster and had to translate from slang to proper english. Then we had to write what we thought what a taste was. We also had to come up with three slang words and translate them to proper English. I thought that this class was pretty good.”


"* I enjoyed writting the blogs online. There were more opinion-based assignments involved and it was more personal. It's more fun to write about things that you actually care about. and you can get more easily involved. And teenagers are very computer savvy, so as long as they stay on task, it's a good assignment to give.

* What I would change: The PSA thing. I personally hate being in front of the camera and I feel like this assignment has taught me nothing about English. I really wish you would've offered an alternate assignment or at least given credit for all the work put into it, save for the actual video part."


"Some things I learned in this class was that I got to use the blogger web site that I've never used before. Another thing I got out of this class was that I learned how to use my parts of speech better. Some things I didn't like about this class was all the writting that we did. Some other things I liked was going to the computer lab and using the internet."


"The best assignment I have is the nightmare scene. It my best because I got a 30 out of 30. Also I gave a lot of imagination. Also it gave me a chance to write about something I want to. It let me express things I usally don't write. I liked that you were open minded. You agreed to things other teachers won't do in classes. Also you were a little funny. I would change the lame movies get something with color."


"You did a god job! Keep up the good work!"


"I thought that summer school sucked! Only because I couldn't go out at night with my friends, or stay up till four playing xbox. In class, what I liked about it was going to the computer lab. It made the day go by faster, and we could listen to music. The thing I didn't like was all the writing. I never wrote that much in my life."


"This class was, in general, a pretty good class. I thought that the blogs were a pretty good idea because most students already knew a lot about technology. The art projects were also good assignments because they appealed to kinesthetic learners. Something I didn't like was the "School House Rock" songs. I really didn't enjoy coming home with the words "Lollo lolli lolli get your adverbs here" playing over and over and over again in my head. It wasn't even the educational part that got stuck in my head. Another thing I liked was the fact that we didn't have to write down all the answers to the questions and just said them all out loud. Overall, the class had more good points than bad."


"In this class I liked doing the blog because it's fun going to the computer lab. Mr. Lacascio did a good job teaching us. I learned a lot about the different parts of speech and the writing process. Another thing that I liked was doing the posters. I liked the posters because I like to color and we didn't have to do a whole lot of writting. And when we did write it was mostly free writing, which was easy. We had a lot of freedom to do things in this class, like talk and listen to music. This class was a lot better than I thought it would be."

Monday, July 19, 2010

North Country Trail Journal -- June 21, 2010


June 21, 2010 Monday

I am actually writing the account of my last day on another Monday, July 19, 2010. I have spent the morning reading other Trailjournals entries and remembered I’m remiss on a bookend to my North Country Trail.

It ended badly. I suffered for a long time afterwards before getting an anti-biotic, flagyl, that treats giardia symptoms. I went to a clinic run by students at NIU, but buried in the back lot at Kishwaukee CC. The young, rude receptionist said, “Oh, he’s just here for diarrhea.” “Just?” I said. “How about just 10 days of it?!” The rest of my dealings with the queen of understatement were silent exchanges of forms and money.

It took another four days to get better. The little flagellates are but a memory.

That’s not where the story of my North Country Trail hike left off. I was taking a long, easy break at Tower Lake in the Rainbow Lake Wilderness, a place and a moment that in retrospect remains one of the fondest. It was my introduction to the lake country; boggy, buggy, rooty trail. Let’s not paint this idyll in the rosiest of tones. But that break spot was as much a state of mind recalled, a sense of peace and being in the moment, as it was the visual scenery, the shimmering lake, moss and roots, needle duff and fiddleheads (edible and quite good fried with butter), and a break from the bugs, which were not a big hassle after sitting still awhile. It was simply one of those moments that makes the effort worthwhile.

I left that spot recharged, even though my left foot still hurt something fierce. My New Balance 83’s have an inch and a half thick sole. Unfortunately, the instep collapsed and the shoe tilts inwards about 30 degrees. It is awkward walking and I walking at such a tilt that sometimes the inside of my foot comes down on the webbing rather than the sole. The arch and outside of my foot felt a constant muscle strain and bone ache. And the foot had seven blisters.

Sisu, who saw me (and my foot) when I got back, said I was a wuss for letting the condition of my left foot play into my decision to leave at Drummond. I agree. Her feet have looked much worse, and she’s continued on with regular dosages of ibuprofen and Finnish determination, once walking for two 20+ mileage days on the PCT in a flip flop. I’m blessed with super thick-skinned feet, especially the heels. Blisters callus up quickly. I usually do nothing with them except peel away dead skin when necessary. No mole skin. No lancing. I almost never need to use band aids or anti-biotics. But not on this hike, thanks to the fallen arch and tilted sole of my left shoe. When one blister callused, another formed. At least getting giardia saved me from using a sore foot as an excuse for leaving the trail, which would be a first for me.

This last day was also the buggiest. The trail took me by one scenic, remote, boat-free, seemingly people free lake after another. The downside of all this scenery is traversing the glacial terrain means constant up and down trail. Every little valley a bug haven of either long sedges or wet swamp and muck, to be traversed by treading on laid down branches and rocks. And the mozzies were horror show. I put the radio on for awhile, but any station came in all wavy because of the frequent rises and descents. At least a staticky classic rock song is better than the maddening buzz of insect wings.

Adversity always seems to be a motivation. The bugs made for shorter breaks, even through the heat of midday. Hot up here means in the high 70s/low 80s, which it was. Heat was not a major factor, though I did drink four liters of water, which is a lot for me. The trail was mostly shaded forest.

The last few miles to the road to Drummond seemed to drag on forever. I slowed my death march a little to enjoy the old-growth forest remnant just before the road to town. The tall conifers remind me of Cathedral of Pines, in the Nicolet National Forest to the west of here. These pines have no loud, cackling heron rookery in its upper limbs, like at Cathedral. Go there if you really want a “Jurassic Park” vibe.

I hobbled the last mile on the road into Drummond, ice cream fantasies and possibly a restaurant meal prodding me onward. The predictable sounds of civilization, internal combustion engine whines of various vehicles and appliances, were equaled by the birdsong and buggy buzz. Drummond is a sleepy community of vacation homes spread out across large, wooded lots. It is an island of private property surrounded by national forest. Actually, a closer examination of a Chequamegon National Forest map, say, the USGS 1:24,000 quads, reveals that the national forest withholdings are more a swiss cheese pattern of land than the solid green blotches a Rand McNally road atlas suggests. Each block of privately-held land suggests some sort of compromise, a protected piece of our national heritage lost. Or it could be the squares and rectangles of private lands are stalwart holdouts from before the establishment of the national forest 77 years ago, 1933. I doubt it.

Alas, my hopes of enjoying ice cream and/or a meal were dashed. The restaurant is not open on Sundays. And the gas station closed at 7 p.m., 20 minutes before I got there. This was not a major disappointment. There were some weird gurglings and shifts going on in my stomach all day. I’d eaten crackers to try and quell the rumblings.

There was a pay phone on the edge of the gas station parking lot. I called my dad and asked if he could come pick me up. I had had enough of the bugs, and my messed up left foot, and now nausea and an upset stomach. I also wished him a happy Father’s Day. Luckily, Esther and Jonny were visiting my folks, and Jonny came on the phone to wish me one as well. Our discussion was brief. He was in high goof mode, a common state of being in the 8 o’ clock hour for a 4-year-old, and we exchanged a series of made up words and farty lip flaps. It was great to hear his voice.

My dad said he would head out at 8 a.m. tomorrow and get to me between 2 and 3, and to call him before then if I changed my mind.

After I got off the phone, I headed south into the dusk, crossed Hwy 63, walked down a two-lane road, took a right on a gravel road, across a boulder-strewn glen and then uphill to a flat spot on a rise. I just set up the tent, dabbed some tannic-colored water onto my bandanna and wiped the day’s salt and DEET accumulation off my face, arms and legs. I massaged my feet, sitting up, and was serenaded by the call of loons in a lake down the hill from me. A dog barked in the distance. The hiss of vehicles down Hwy. 63 just as far away. In spite of the disappointment and discomfort, at least finding a good stealth spot was easy. I ate some more crackers and called it a night.

The next morning I was up early and left the tent and pack behind while I took a dawn stroll around Drummond. I saw the post office, which is a house, noticed the sculpture in front of the restaurant celebrating the Barstool ski races held each winter. Later, hanging out inside the gas station during a rain storm, I saw pictures of participants from the past couple years. I also stopped by the library, and was disappointed to discover it is closed on Mondays. My early-morning sight-seeing was hastened by a search for a toilet. The full-blown symptoms of giardia had arrived. I walked on my toes, as lightly as I could, to avoid jarring anything toxic loose.

The city park just up a trail from the library has an outhouse. I went through the door labeled “Buck’s.” Sorry to use your toilet, Buck, but it was an emergency. For the non-English nerd, that is a joke pointing out an unnecessary possessive apostrophe. A few days ago, in Solon Springs, I saw a banner for a charity softball game urging participants to “play until your out.” This error involves a missing apostrophe. Welcome to the north woods, home of serial killers, cheesy fiberglass sculptures, and bad grammar.

As I was hanging out on a boulder in front of the gas station, waiting for 7 a.m. and my first coffee in four days (a bad idea, in retrospect), this large-bellied guy with a scruffy beard, greasy comb over, overalls, and carrying a transistor radio, came over and started a conversation with me. He told me about a movie that was filmed nearby in Ashland, A Simple Plan, with Billy Bob Thornton, (I’ve seen it, a good flick, a creepy slice of rural relationships), and some obscure movie he was an extra in that filmed in his hometown of Mellen. This guy was a harmless oddball, known by all, making his morning rounds. He said he lost 83 lbs. walking every morning. As we talked, men pulled up and parked their pickups nearby. They stayed in their cabs and didn’t come out until the store manager came out from behind the store with two dogs in tow. I stayed and talked with the local yokel to let the initial rush get settled. When I went in, six men, most of them bearded, sat around a table drinking coffee, speaking in low tones while I crept the aisles looking for goodies, self-conscious of my outside status as I grunted a good morning when I passed the group. I bought some snacks and two newspapers, the Ashland Daily Press and USA Today.

I spent the rest of the morning laying in my tent and came back to the general store around noon. I was going to go back in the woods, but a thunderstorm rolled in. I read a Poe short story, Ligeia, the shimmering, phantasmagoric curtains in the story echoed by the wind whipped sheets of rain racketing outside.

My dad arrived at 2:30 in a lull in the storm. I took over the driving duties. We stopped by the post office, where I picked up our mail drop, then drove to Mellen, with its picturesque downtown of old buildings, and picked up the other mail drop. It was a pretty drive through the rollicking terrain of the Penokee range. I can’t wait to come back and hike through here.

Heading home, I had to take multiple bathroom breaks. The increasing symptoms of giardia reinforced my decision to leave, which was in doubt after seeing the beautiful terrain around Mellen. We drove south through a wall of storms. The lightning displays were impressive, as were the cloud formations, pink anvil heads lit up by lightning and dusk. Stopping at one gas station, I saw a Doppler radar image of Wisconsin. This system we were traversing the oncoming edge of was huge, spanning the entire length of the state. There were a few white knuckle moments during some of the fiercer moments of the storms - Dad even thought he saw a funnel cloud - but we just drove slower when the rain fell heaviest.

All told, I hiked about 100 miles, or half the planned journey. I’d like to go back up again ASAP and do the rest of the trip. Time and money willing, I’d like to use my bike to shuttle back and forth to a vehicle. And if Steve Jr. isn’t totally turned off of backpacking, he’d be more than welcome to join me for a 3-4 day jaunt on the North Country Trail.

Monday, July 05, 2010

North Country Trail journal -- June 20, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

I am leaning against my pack near the shores of Tower Lake in the Rainbow Lake Wilderness. I hear flies buzzing, bird call, bullfrog hiccup, the low drone of dragon flies, and the wind sigh through the trees. Conspicuously absent is the sound of any internal combustion engines, not even aircraft.

Today is Father’s Day and my thoughts go out to my dad and son. I wish I could be with them today, but here’s a pretty good place too. I’m feeling a little run down. Can’t seem to find the ol’ get-up-and-go. But it’s a beautiful day. I’ll get there.

I haven’t seen anyone on the trail in over 48 hours. I look forward to Drummond tomorrow, if only to interact with others. I love this solitude, but am at heart a social creature. [Later, as I took a break at a dirt roadside, a truck pulled up and a fisherman got out. He wished me a good day, breaking my on-trail drought of human contact. I never saw another backpacker.]

I overshot Lake Ruth by a couple miles last night. I realized this when I got to Muskie Lake Road and checked the maps. The map makes it appear as if the trail goes right by the lake, but it’s really a short hike down a forest road. Just as I realized this overshot on the map, I look up and see the trail sign “Lake Ruth 1.6 m.”

I never thought I would face a water shortage on this trip. But the last few miles have taken me across sandy soil, a glacial outwash, no doubt, and any standing water is soaked up out of sight. After overshooting Lake Ruth, exhausted and stumble footed, I stow my pack just off the trail in the woods a bit and, with water bottles in hand, hoofed it up the road towards Muskie Lake. I held up my empty water bottles to two trucks that passed. One slowed down and this beady-eyed inbred ingrate with a furious look stared at me as they passed slowly. His was the only face I saw yesterday. The truck stopped, and as I walked to it, they sped up and drove away, spitting gravel and leaving a trail of dust. Hee haw!

When I saw a lake, I ignored a private property sign and bushwacked to the lake. Unfortunately, the shore was all mud and standing water too shallow to dip into. I saw a dock nearby, worked my way towards it, and quickly, stealthily staying low, I filled up my two liters. But as I was walking back up the road, I saw an empty vacation home just off the road with a spigot on the side of the building. I did my best sneak walk, dumped my lake water, and filled up on well water. As I walked back into the national forest at dusk, a train of ATV riders passed along with a few trucks towing boats. This is what most people consider getting away from it all. I’ve lived in a different world the past few days. This brief respite back into civilization has been rude, loud, and dusty.

I made it back to the trail after dark, walked about 100 yards up the trail, and set up my tent right on the trail. I know this is a no-no, but was too tired to care. The trail is on an old forest road. There’s room for critters or, miracle of miracles, hikers, to pass. I tried to boil water, but my stove, which has been sputtering the past few days, now refused to fire up. I sent the alcohol stove back-up home with Steve. I tried to eat cold stuffing, but found it unpalatable. I didn’t have much of an appetite anyways. As I lay in my bag, nodding off to blissful, exhausted sleep, I heard a fireworks show nearby. That explains all the traffic. No matter. I’m in my world. They’re in theirs.

North Country Trail journal -- June 19, 2010

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Its been almost 24 hours since I’ve seen anybody, and as I sit to start writing, I feel a few sprinkles on my leg. It is overcast and cool today, a striking contrast to yesterday’s warmth, sunshine and humidity. Yesterday, I drank four liters of water and picked 40 dead ticks off my socks. Today, I’m not drinking as much and the ticks are less active.

Had a restless night, my first alone. I was awakened once by the territorial snorting of a deer or elk. It stopped after about 20 minutes.

There was only supposed to be a 10 percent chance of rain, but here it is… [a few drops smudge the page] But just as quickly it stops. Right after I put on my rain jacket and pack cover. The weather doesn’t know what to do. Dark clouds are rimmed by blue sky. The ferns, ticks, and I don’t mind.

Speaking of those bloodsuckers, I have declared some rules. Any tick found attached to me is sentenced to death. They don’t go easy, but die with a satisfying crunch. Any tick crawling on me outdoors is flicked away. But any tick attached or crawling on me in the tent is sentenced to death by nail clipper. The other morning I had a tidy little pile of tick halves to sweep out of the tent.

I camped last night at the Paul Schoch camp site. It’s nicely arranged on a wide mound. Down the hill is a piped water source. Another trail leads to an open air privy. I think it’s new. I made the inaugural dump. This is a trip for first be-soilings. A few days ago I broke in a port-a-pottie on some private property off Hwy. M [yes, I trespassed. Nobody was around.] There was nothing but blue water in the thing before I arrived.

I tried to eat an entire can of Spam with dinner last night, but had to sacrifice about 1/3 of it to the fire. It smelled like a really good barbecue before it charred out. I half expected a bear to show up with a paper plate in its paw.

Two foods I always take backpacking, but never eat at home are Spam and Snickers bars. Another trail food tradition is to eat a big steak dinner at the end of a trip.

“Here comes the rain again / raining on my head like a memory / raining in my heart like a new emotion.” -- the Eurhythmics

I am now at Erick Lake airing out my feet and summoning the willpower to make it another five miles to Lake Ruth, in the Chequamegon National Forest. I don’t know what time it is and it is cloudy. I guess if I don’t make it by nightfall I will get some water and find a flat spot. The last few miles have been up and down through rolling, glaciated terrain. I walked through an ugly clearcut after reading a note on a tree from the Bayfield County forestry department explaining the value of a timber harvest. Another timber harvest occurred here at Erick Lake, and there are many critical and defensive comments in the register book. One of the designated camp sites here is ruined, and the privy is totally out in the open. Whoops!

My take on timber harvesting: Fine. Cut away your little patches of land to make money. The north woods, but for a few ancient remnants, was deforested over 100 years ago. Every town up here has a history connected with logging. There’s the obligatory pictures of log-jammed rivers and proud Scandinavians wearing long-sleeved wool shirts standing around huge saws. And logging is still a big business and necessary to the economy up here. But is it too much to ask for a 100-foot buffer zone around a National Scenic Trail? I wonder what the woods around Erick Lake looked like before they were denuded.

I give credit to the Brule-St. Croix chapter of the North Country Trail. The trail is well-maintained and marked. After a rude introduction a few days ago, the NCT is easy to follow. I will miss the trail registers and established trailside camp sites after I enter the national forest. The registers are in metal boxes on a post near trail heads and camp sites. I signed every one I came across.

The last people I saw on the trail was a young couple from Duluth who were leaving the Highland Hall camp site yesterday afternoon. I’m surprised. It’s a Saturday. This is a beautiful trail. Where is everybody? Anybody? I guess they’re scared away by the bugs.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

North Country Trail journal -- June 18, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010
I just finished hiking the Brule-St. Croix portage trail and am now sitting in a patch of shade on a mowed section of North Country Trail. The wind is really blowing today, but it is sunny with hazy cotton candy clouds drifting overhead. I am impressed with the boardwalk through Brule Bog. I met my first day hiker. He said he was glad to see a long-distance hiker. He told me he’s hiked the Penokee mountains east of Mellen, more than 100 miles away, and says I’m in for a treat. For the first time, I’ve hiked nothing but trail today.
I saw a big limb fall off a dead tree. There’s a Zen koan.
Doug sent me off with coffee, eggs and toast. Thank you so much for your hospitality and good company.
I am taking a shoes-off pack break at the Highland Town Hall campsite. This last stretch of trail is beautiful, on a piney ridge above the Bois Brule river. White blazes off the trail led to the old town hall. It’s an old log building with a weathered, plexiglass-enclosed signboard. The only poster is one of a huge marijuana leaf with a message urging anyone who stumbles across an illegal patch of herb to report it to the proper authorities. The rest of the signboard is plastered with handwritten notes from JFK the dump man. They all essentially say the same thing. JFK is the world-famous dump man and was born on Groundhog Day, and that he is the best dump man ever.
I tried the faucet in front of the old building, it was dry, but I looked around and across a road there is a newer building that looks more like a fire station. As I headed for that, a man appeared from behind a green gate -- the infamous JFK -- and told me in a lispy drawl where the faucet was. He just as promptly disappeared behind the gate. As I walked past, I noticed a tool shed. Its door and inside wall are papered with notes. A green truck was parked nearby. It had to be JFK’s. All the topper’s windows were festooned with handwritten notes. This guy’s got a Dr. Bronner kind of prolificacy, a simple message phrased in nearly every way imaginable. As I hiked back to my pack, I thought of others who share a similar eccentric singularity of purpose -- the guy who built Coral Castle in Florida (Edward Leedskalnin), or the Watts Towers in LA (Sabato ("Sam" or "Simon") Rodia), or even that janitor who drew and wrote another world in his spare time (Henry Darger) (Check out the documentary film In the Realms of the Unreal).
[JFK the dump man is world-famous, but not for being the best dump man. I discovered he supposedly has created the world's largest ball of twine and has it on display under a shed in his yard. Here's a few interesting links about the man. He is indeed world famous.

I’ve hiked 9.2 miles so far and want to go another 7 before I call it a day. I don’t have a watch, but judging by the sun, I have plenty of daylight to make trail miles. I’m going to lay down now and doze to the sound of creaking limbs and the rush of wind through the boughs.

North Country Trail Journal -- June 17, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010
I woke up in my tent just before sunrise and saw streaks of purple and red just above the conifers. Since I camped on a lawn, condensation was heavy in my dratted single wall Tarptent. I don’t mean to put down this tent. It is super light and roomy. After careful seam sealing and proper staking, the TT kept me dry during the last t-storm. When its beaks/vestibule is deployed, getting in and out is difficult. This can be obviated by separating the beaks. They are joined by a foot-long Velcro tab. But putting this back into place is a pain and I don’t want to wear out the Velcro. So I do the TT vesty belly crawl.
In these moments, and when I’m wiping up condensation, or accidentally knocked over the hiking pole keeping the front end up, or have bounce-in rain on the sides or front, I long for a three to four season two wall, free-standing tent. Steve used the double-wall Kelty Zen. Its seen its better days. Its been through an AT thru-hike and another 10 years of sporadic use. It weighs about 5 pounds. For the PCT thru-hike, we took an 8x10 sil-nylon tarp sewed by my mother and an OR double bug bivy. This combination weighs about two pounds and worked well. I still like the versatility of the tarp. Although the bug bivy is also nearing the end of its life (the floor is wearing through, and many small runs in the netting are nail-polished), it is still serviceable.
When times are less tight, I will replace the Zen with another 1-2 person, two-wall non-freestanding tent, get a 3-4 season two-person, freestanding, two-wall tent, and someday a 4-season bomb-proof freestanding tent. More often than not, I like to use a tarp. This is because my preferred method of camping is cowboy style. It’s great to wake up in the middle of the night and look up at the stars for a few moments. Also, if anything is stalking about, I can see it. A ground cloth and maybe some bug netting over my face. What I often do is before bed scout out a nearby tree conducive to tying the tarp to. I have a way of setting the tarp up, taught to me by PCT hiker Wicked, so I call it the “Wicked” method, where you tie the front end of the tarp to the trunk of a tree and just stake out from there. I tried this in the pine grove a couple nights ago, but wasn’t very successful. I’m out of practice.
Yesterday afternoon I sprayed the tents, packs, and hiking clothes with permethrin. This morning I noticed how well it works. For the first time in memory, no bugs crawled on the tent or mosquitoes hovered outside. A slug worked its slimy way along one tent wall. The sun illuminated it in such a way I could see the browner blob of its inner organs. I hate handling chemicals, but they’re a necessity up here.
Doug’s shooting buddy Jay joined us for breakfast at a restaurant in Hawthorne (Doug’s treat). Doug flirted with the waitress, who knows him by name. He said he can get away with a lot more at his age. I listened to the voices of the people around us, hushed grunts, a throaty guffaw. This is right off Hwy. 53. The diners are all men, working men on their way to work, contractors, loggers, energy and utility guys, truckers, lonely men who respect the silence of their trade by not being loud over breakfast. They wear their camouflage caps low and drive diesel pick-ups with heavy deer grills.
After breakfast, Doug took us down to the pond to feed his fish. I saw some huge bluegills. When I asked Doug if he caught any, he said he didn’t because it wouldn’t be fair. The fish gather at the sight of him. Steve made a pass around the pond on Doug’s ATV. I tried it and was too quick on the throttle, spilling Abby, Doug’s dog. I then drove fast around the pond, too fast according to Doug. He ribbed me about it, but wasn’t mean. No man likes to see his dog get thrown off an ATV.
Steve has decided to go home. This is a good decision. I’d rather he go home than see him hobbling along in pain. He’s gotten a taste of the adventure and enjoyed a little trail magic to boot. I hope this experience whets his appetite for more.
We spent the rest of the day resting and watching TV -- a couple episodes of The Twilight Zone, some NFL highlights, District 9, a couple hours of UFC, and then game seven of the Lakers-Celtics NBA finals. The Lakers came back from 13-points down in the third quarter to win their second championship in a row.
Steve’s dad and grandma showed up around 11:30 p.m. When I greeted Steve Sr. at the car, he was worried about a pair of eyes he saw in the headlights on the way in. I didn’t help his worries when I told him Doug has seen bears and wolves cross his land. Doug brewed a pot of coffee. Steve Jr. said a groggy goodbye, and I stood in the dark and frog peeps and watched the headlights retreat up the long drive. Abby the dog sulked for awhile after Stevie left.

Friday, July 02, 2010

North Country Trail journal -- June 16, 2010

We finally made it to Solon Springs! What a turn of events. Trail angels even exist on the North Country Trail. Right when we got into town we stopped at a Dairy Queen across the street from the county park we planned to camp in. While we were sitting at a red picnic table enjoying our first non-trail food in four days, an older gentleman walked over and asked about our trip.

He said he’d seen us walking into town and saw Steve limping. When he heard we were camping at Lucius Woods County Park across the street, he offered to let us camp in his yard. “The trail goes right by my place and I have a hot tub you can use too,” he said. “At least we’re not hitchhiking,” I told Steve, remembering my promise to his dad. Steve whispered back, joking, “If he gives us any trouble, I think we can take him.”

Doug told us he’s almost 80 and was taking care of a 7-year-old boy, Jake, who I thought was his grandson. He took us up the street to the post office, where I picked up our food drop, and sent Steve across the street to the grocery store (Note: We’d just met Doug, and although he seemed safe, I didn’t want to leave Steve alone in the vehicle). As I was picking up my mail, a guy in line asked me about the hike. Our exchange was brief, but he was very encouraging. The postal worker who gave me my package said, “Hey! I remember talking to you on the phone.” I’d called the post offices in Solon Springs, Drummond, and Mellen to get their hours and let them know what I was sending. I also called for a silly reason. I wanted to hear people talk in a northern Wisconsin accent. It’s just a slightly more tamed clipped sound than that heard in Fargo.

Doug’s place is a beautiful 35-acre spread. The yard is bordered by forest and a pond he dug that has an island on it. He told us he wants his ashes scattered on the island. We set up our tents just beyond the unmowed wildflower patch next to the pond. We took showers, hung up wet gear to dry, and even did laundry.

Steve has been deliberating going home. His big toe has an ingrown toenail that has slowed and hobbled him. It is leaking green pus. I said, of all the various foot injuries, rashes, and sores I’ve seen hiking the long trails, his was somewhere between mild bother and disfigurement. Hikable, but painful, I bet. I told him I wouldn’t be disappointed if he went home. He hiked almost 50 miles. Pretty darn good for his first time. He was beating himself up over the decision.

I remember when a hike was a quest. I treated my first thru-hike 10 years ago like that, and sometimes acted like a drill sergeant to myself and my hiking partner. If Steve had joined me then, I would have thrown a fit and tried to shame him into staying on the trail. But all the miles since and a whole host of other factors, such as being a father and teacher, have softened me. This ain’t no big deal.

I plan to continue, even though my left shoe is giving me problems, two heel blisters, two toe blisters, and a huge popped-turning-to-callus one on the center sole just below the toes. My right foot is blister and pain free. My parents or Esther can pick me up in Hurley.

Doug prepared a pot roast dinner while Steve and I sat around his living room socializing. Scott, Jake’s dad, came to pick Jake up and take him to a baseball game. The two of them and their friend Pete joined us later for dinner.

Like many trail angels, Doug has enjoyed the vagabond lifestyle. A licensed pilot, he flew to Alaska in 1995 and spent a year there. He told us about flying to tiny fishing villages on Kodiak Island. He’s also roamed around Arizona, living out of his RV. It’s nice how long-distance hiking connects you to kindred spirits. A backpack says a lot about a person, or can lead an observant person to make certain conclusions. Nature lover? Healthy? Leg strong, lungs strong? Driven? Free? Easygoing? Tired? Hungry? Such conjecture only applies to long-distance hikers. Weekenders never end up in town with their backpacks on. They’re never seen to be considered.

It seems so long ago, but this day started in the pines and fog near Harter Road and county hwy. M. I felt sore and unmotivated after yesterday’s ordeal. For the first time, Steve was ready to go before I was. We finally joined the NCT as it crosses M and was happy to see easy-to-follow trail for the second time on this trip. We were also almost to the nice NCTA maps, and after Solon Springs continuous trail for a nice long stretch. [post-script: I had continuous trail right after leaving Doug’s place. We actually yellow-blazed the trail through the streets of Solon Springs as Doug drove us to his place.]
We’ll be using NCTA map WI-02 for the next 80 or so miles. Goodbye photocopied DeLorme pages. On-trail distances can now be determined to the 10th of a mile.
[P.S. - The latest DeLorme atlas shows the North Country Trail route.]

North Country Trail Journal - June 15, 2010

Today was one big adventure, but one not to be repeated. I’ve learned that some of the worst trail experiences make the best stories, but before I get to that, let me get up to speed…

After we left our cool break spot on the driveway of someone’s weekend retreat, we continued south down desolate county highway A. Time passed as we talked and I sang songs. Steve said one of his teachers loves The Proclaimers, the Scottish artists who sang “I Would Walk 5,000 miles. Steve brightened when I told him I saw these guys being interviewed once and, in addition to looking like twin Buddy Hollys, their brogues were nearly indecipherable. Steve said his teacher brought that up as well.

Just before we turned onto Jackson Box Trail, a car pulled alongside and the passenger, a young man with rotten teeth and the word “Peace” tattooed on his neck, offered to feed us. Although a woman drove and a young child was in the backseat, I got a bad vibe from the guy, which is probably not fair on my part. I told him we had too much food, which is the truth. He said he’d done the Bear Grease and other long-distance dog sled races, and knows what we are going through.

Jackson Box Trail is a desolate dirt road, used mainly by hunters and ATV enthusiasts. We stopped after a couple miles on a grassy spot right next to the road. Steve said he’s got shin splints on his left foot and is favoring it a bit. Road walking can be hard on the dogs.

A thunderstorm rolled in early this morning. I woke as it began and listened to it build and recede. The seam seal job I did on the Tarptent worked wonderfully. I felt nary a drop. There’s nothing I can do about condensation inside the tent except stop breathing. This same technique repels mosquitoes as well.

We packed up in a break in the rain and resumed walking. The woods around us are thick with young trees, virtually impenetrable. A person could easily get lost in these thickets. Mosquitoes were horrible. The map shows us going right through the middle of Empire Swamp. DEET needed to be applied frequently as it was washed away by the rain.

We finally reached County Highway M and rejoiced! This is the last leg of the road walk. Soon we will be following the blue blazes of the North Country Trail. My plan was to join the trail at Stuckey Road, but as we passed by Harter Road, I saw blue blazes on the trees and vaguely remembered reading about this road on the North Country Trail Alliance web site. We followed the blue blazes until we came to a carsonite post -- the NCT! It said “temporary connector,” and here’s where we made our big mistake.

I don’t have a map for this section. The NCTA doesn’t publish one. We relied on the blue blazes to steer us in the right direction. We took “thumbs up” pictures at the sign and resumed hiking. The trail started out very nicely, with a boardwalk over a bog and newly-constructed bridge over a creek. But then the blue blazes are replaced by yellow tape and we walked through knee-deep muck and water. I know from trail work on the Ice Age Trail and hiking the Arizona Trail, that tape signifies the trail is under construction, I just hoped it would lead us somewhere. And it did.

When we weren’t trudging through a swamp, in the muck and up and over exposed roots, the trail took us to dry islands where ancient pines and junipers soared majestically skyward. They were spared the sawyer’s axe, no doubt, by the difficulty of the surrounding terrain. We took a long oatmeal break in an old stand. The moss, huge trunks, and ever-present ferns gave a very pre-historic feeling to the place.

And as we continued, the trail became harder to follow and more overgrown. Flat shale rocks tipped over with every step, some crashing onto my toes. Exposed roots tried to trip me up, and branches grabbed and prodded at my now-bulky external-frame pack. But I still held hope that this soon-to-be trail would lead to a road or established trail.

Alas, it was not to be. The pink tape turned to orange tape and then disappeared altogether. I had Steve wait at the last marker while I walked in a circle looking for the next one. I found one and called out to Steve. He said, “That’s the way we came.” Doh! After a couple passes, no new marker could be found. We had two choices -- continue to bushwack until we came to a road or backtrack. As we stood there deciding what to do, another thunderstorm rolled in and skies opened up with the mother of all deluges. I got out the compass and consulted the map. It looks like we hiked south until we met the St. Croix flowage. It looked like a wide, powerful river from the “trail.” But shortly before the tape ended, thank goodness, the “trail” was going southwest. We decided to backtrack. We could have bushwacked east to make progress, but would have had to deal with at least two creek crossings.

Once, the flags we were following led to a deer stand and stopped. We had to backtrack again until we found a familiar landmark. Because of the cloudburst, all the water we walked through was a little higher on the return trip. Steve was worried, but he never lost his cool. I reassured him we had plenty of food and water, and shelter if we needed it. He kept a quick pace, though, on the backtrack, and I grew winded trying to keep up with him. We made it back to Harter Road and took “thumbs down” pictures at the same sign we’d been so happy to see hours earlier.

We backtracked to a pine grove just off Hwy. M and, loopy and exhausted, set up our tents, ate dinner, and called it a night.