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.

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