Day 46 – IAT Mile 889.5 915.4

Walking through towns is a mixed bag.  My day began with miles that passed through Delfield and Hartland, paved paths with easy access to gas stations where I picked up cold drinks and devoured Snickers bars before they had a chance to melt under the hot sun. The IAT passes through older main streets of both Delafield and Hartland rather than the newer box store areas with busy traffic and strip malls.

I knew today would be our last day with Penny, Curt and Athena, which was more than enough motivation for me to drive the morning hard and tap out 17 miles before lunch. Penny had been planning one more big trail magical lunch all week and finally had a chance to pull it off today.  By the time I walked into the temporary parking lot camp site, the girls had deployed big umbrellas for shade and a grill full of cooked brots.  Athena face kisses and food love <3.

Deciding not to carry my big backpack for long periods of time is always a gamble.  With only two hands to carry things, I find myself trying to decide whether my sunbrella or a hiking pole might serve me better.  I was able to carry one of each this afternoon since Curt was kind enough to shoulder the water bottle that would have normally been in my second hand.  Going without my poop shovel and wipes can be hard, but people walk for long distances all the time without having an emergency poop.

Curt & I took our time throughout the afternoon, enjoying the Holy Hill segment and it’s mixture of hilly forests and prairies. We enjoyed a beautiful view of the Basilica of the Holy as we marched across open land with landscape views.  The trail passes through Holy Hill lands but didn’t pass within walking distance of church building as far as we could tell.  

Day 45 – IAT Mile 864.8 to 889.5

Feet dictate my days.  If it were up to my tree trunk size legs, I’d be doing 30+ miles everyday.  The muscles in my body have always been quick to bulk up and adapt.  As a child, my friends were always bigger than me in both weight and height, but that never stopped me from tossing them around like rag dolls.  I didn’t always win, but rarely, if ever, was I out muscled.  My body’s ability to quickly build muscles and adapt always makes me wonder what life would have been like had I been raised a coal miner or farmer.  What an intimidating band of foot soldiers my short and stocky Urbany descendants would have made back in the days of axes and swords.

These musings and recounts of genetic prowess are not meant to say I was born with weak feet.  What I’m really trying to convey is a trail truth – feet break before the muscles do.  This is a truth for long distance hiking, a scale that begins to tip after a week or so, if even that long.  There are always other factors at play, of course, but not a single one matters if you’re feet aren’t up for the task.

My feet have felt great over the past few days.  A couple blisters have popped on my right foot, pinky toe & heel.  It’s hard to say wether the new foot fiends are a result of new shoes needing to soften up or from walking through sandy horse paths that flood into every shoe hole.  Whatever the cause, they are annoying but not game changers.  This is how the IAT can bring you down though, sandy trails to invade the shoe and road walks to grind the dirt against your feet as you pound the pavement.  Gaters to help stop dirt and periodic emptying of the shoe are my preferred methods of defense.  

Today’s hike through Scuppernog, Waterville and Lapham Peak were very beautiful and took me a little longer than yesterday’s hike.  The group met me along the trail again for lunch today, this time with BLTs.  Leave it to Penny to find an easy way to whip up warm BLT trail magic from the back of her truck in the middle of nowhere.  I had two fully loaded sandwiches before taking off, Curt once again joining me for the afternoon hike.

Curt & I’s favorite part of the hiking day was the Lapham Observatory Tower.  Aside from the little shit who poured water on us from the top, it was a fun place to break.  You can see for miles in every direction from the top of the tower and the climb to get there was not nearly as challenging as it looked on paper.  

Our paths turned into paved walkways as we left Lapham and headed into the town of Delafield. Delafield’s paths took us down a river walk and past veteran war memorial stones, one for each of the great wars with placards that told brief tales.  A very enjoyable walk.  Delafield is a cute little hiker, biker and dog friendly town, they even have an outdoor outfitter store next to an ice cream shop.  

Our day ended at the ice cream shop, for mint chocolate chip reasons.

Day 44 – IAT Mile 836 to 864.8

Hiking with a support team is so very different than hiking all alone in a strange land.  A support team removes obstacles, and in doing so, changes the landscape of things you’re likely to encounter while hiking.  Imagine pushing a family on a sled down a snowy hill that’s thick with trees, that’s what thru-hiking is.  The trees make it dangerous and thrilling at the same time.  Support removes some of those trees, allowing you to pick up more speed and find a different type of thrill.

Please don’t push people down snowy hills thick with trees.  That’s called murder.

It is unlikely we will meet many more people offering us hearth and home when we neither need nor want either of those things.  That’s only half true, we may not need them, but always are we wanting more.

This morning was different in that part of my temporary support team, Curt, would be joining me for the afternoon miles.  My resolve was to tap out as many miles as possible before lunch and the magic number ended up being 18!  18 morning miles is impressive, even to me, but things came together nicely and it was easier than it sounds.  

The morning was cold and thick with protective fog to shield me from the sun through early road walking miles.  The day’s road miles were unpleasant on the feet and body, as per usual, but did reward me with a beautiful park at the end of it.  The Lions club shelter featured an artisan well that’s been flowing since 1895.  I dumped my water to the side and enjoyed fresh cold water from the depths of Wisconsin.  Artisan wells bring back childhood memories of playing in the woods and getting into trouble with friends, activities I am still passionate about to this day.

Whitewater Lake & Blackhawk trail segments run through Kettle Moraine Park and were full of many rocky climbs.  Taking my time on the unsteady terrain was not an option though, the afternoon would be the same kind of difficult, only more hot, more humid, with a friend.

My personal trail angels set lunch camp up off the side of the road and next to trees just big enough to cast some shade.  The ladies greeted me with a sandwich for my stomach and an ice cold Gatorade for my lips.  This is what makes 28 mile days possible.  Well, this and a flux capacitor, but we can talk about time travel in more depth later.

Curt has been my hiking partner for over a decade now.  We hiked Pike’s Peak together and have logged hundreds of Smokey Mountain trail miles together over the years.  There was no doubt in my mind that he would be ok on this trail with me, I mostly wanted to make sure he didn’t get burned out after too many miles on the first day.  

Curt & I’s 10 afternoon miles went by quickly.  My fear of later day heat was clouded over.  My concerns of Curt being able to keep up became laughable, his pace was fast and out in front of me the entire time.  We even got lucky enough to chance upon an empty campground with running water, allowing us to splash ourselves in the face with cold water and refill our bottles before continuing on.

The night ended with a comradery, beer and 3 servings of a Penny’s homemade spaghetti!

Day 43 – IAT Mile 743.7 to 769.4

If I had bothered to research this area we temporarily skipped, if I had known what it would be, I might have tried for my first ever 50 mile day instead of leaving a few days ago and coming back today.  The thought that I may have tried that feat of insanity makes me feel a little thankful that I did not know then what I know now.

The first 15 miles of today’s trail have been all packed down dirt 2-track roads.  Packed dirt that’s mostly free of gravel is bee’s knees of walking high g’s speeds.  Green tree tunnels provided periodic shade through the morning and into the heat of the day.  If all that wasn’t enough, this trail passes directly by a Mobile Station where I was able to get a cold Mountain Dew.  I even passed through an old train depot with pit toilets and a drinking fountain where I was able to take a restfully long break.

Not long after my break at the train depot, I was walking by a picnic table near a mowed path and spotted a pickup truck driving my way.  A blonde girl seated in the front waved at me. “That’s nice.” I thought to myself waving back politely, not slowing my fast pace.  It might have taken 30 seconds to register, but it did soon register that the cute girl was Brianna!  Penny had picked Brianna up from the hotel and they had been driving up and down the path in search of me.  If they had been any later to this present spot, I’d have been long gone.

Brianna, Penny and Athena all had smiles on as they popped out of the truck.  Well, I’m not sure if Athena was smiling, per say, but I did get face kisses.  Penny whipped up some chicken salad sandwiches for lunch while we all sat at the picnic table and chatted for a while.  

Having Penny, Athena and Curt back in Wisconsin is a welcome sight and a reminder of how much trail people have invested in my last 300 miles.  It’s not pressure that I feel, it’s more like being down $100 at the blackjack table and pulling the last $100 out of my pocket.  The dealer is showing a 10 and I’ve been dealt a 16.  I know what I’m supposed to do, do I have it in me to do it?

With only 6 miles left in my hiking day, I threw my pack into the back of Penny’s truck and continued walking with only my sunbrella and a liter of water.  5 of my last 6 miles were road walking due to a trail closure.  The trail closure kind of bummed me out.  The Stewart tunnel through the Monticello segment seemed like a rare trail feature that’s been closed for flooding or some other safety reason since 2019.  I am not, and likely never will be, a fan of road miles, but I knocked them out in a little under 2 hours.

Tomorrow is shaping up to be an interesting hiking day.  Terrain is going to be rough through the kettle moraine and it’s looking like a high 86+ degree day.  It sounds like Curt will be lacing up his trail runners and joining me for a bit as well – may the odds be ever in our favor.

Day 42 – IAT Mile 809.3 to 836

With the 20 mile Albany & Monticello segments temporarily jumped yesterday, today is the day I actually hit 800 miles hiked.  It sounds like I will be making up the missed miles tomorrow for a shorter day, which will leave a poultry 300 miles of total trail left.  This whole thing could be finished in 12 more days if I’m able to push hard enough.

Starting my day out with an Uber was weird.  My brain has trained itself to walk through towns and expect to never see them again and these past few days have been so much the opposite; options limited such as they are.  I had to get an Uber to the middle of nowhere from Janesville because of how Uber geofencing for rides works.  Simply put – the Uber app has no problem finding me a driver from a big city to a small city but once you are in the small city, you lose access to all of the drivers in the big city, even if that is your destination and mileage is the same.

It took a few tries but I was eventually able to land a pretty cool driver, Brad.  Brad runs his own transportation business and hands cards out to people he picks up on Uber.  Pretty genius, right?  His business is really designed to help solve the problem I described above, which may come in handy for me if I am to make up our skipped miles.  He also recommended an Uber hack that I think is pretty sly:

If you are ever in a town that shows no drivers available, just lie about your location until a driver is found.  Once a driver is found, you can call or message the driver directly and explain the situation, offer cash for assistance.  It’s a shot in the dark, but the first step in asking for help us finding a person to ask.  Trail truth < – > Life truth.

I have been trying to decide if pushing for big mile days and taking time to enjoy the hike are conflicting approaches.  I pushed really hard today and still found time to break next to streams and relax.  There was actually about a 1 mile stretch today where a doe was within arms reach of me.  We chatted and walked together for until she jumped off into the woods and I sat down next to a stream.  She was back and hanging out on the opposite side of the water within 5 minutes, this time with a fawn that was taking turns between feeding on mom’s milk and eating plants.

Walking slow sounds nice and probably is the best way to go for most people.  My body is 42 days into the trail with muscles built for hiking.  Speed, for me, is more relative to terrain and pack weight, weather and distance.

At this point, you may be thinking, “hiking fast is probably how you got yourself into this solo hiking predicament in the first place.”  If so, I can see where you’re coming from, though I do not think that’s true.  The climb where Brianna’s back injury began, up Devil’s Lake State Park, was about 2-3 miles into our day and our packs were light as they had ever been, each with only a day worth of food.  The night before her injury was spent at Willowwood Inn on a soft bed where each of us had a good night’s rest.  No, I think this injury is a reminder that shit happens, particularly to those of us with pre-existing injuries.  We will do more to reduce the likelihood of injury, like daily stretching, pack weight distribution, massages on trail and all that, but our risk factor will always be high.

Today’s hike through the town of Milton and back into Janesville was enjoyable.  This area is rich with parks and paved walkways for the city people to get out and enjoy.  Aside from the road walk at the beginning, I was in the woods but still walking on cement for most of the day.  Cement is easier than walking through knee high grass and bogs, to be sure, it is also harder on the knees and feet.  My speed on cement is always slower these days.  The best thing you can do is take the same approach long distance runners do – take shorter strides to reduce impact up the feet and into the knees.  It’s a common misconception that larger strides are better because it takes fewer to get you where you are going.

Penny and Athena are arriving tomorrow with Brianna’s car and will be hanging out for a week!  With Brianna in good hands, we’ll see what these hiker muscles can really do.

Day – 41 IAT Mile 769.4 to 809.3

The IAT trail miles are about to get confusing and there are a few reasons for it.  

If you are paying attention to the IAT miles in my subject lines, you will have noticed that we jumped from starting at mile 743 to 769.  This jump is for logistical reasons.  We will be going back to hike those miles after Penny gets into town and hands Brianna’s car off.  The horsemen left for Michigan this morning and the only lodging we could reserve for tonight is in Janesville, WI, a 50+ mile hike if we didn’t make a temporary jump like this.

Another mile mystery you might have noticed is how it looks like I hiked a 40 mile day today.  I may be capable of such a feat, but that is not what happened today.  The official IAT connecting route through this area goes wide north and is 33.7 miles long.  Since the IAT allows you to make your own connecting routes (road walks) and the logic behind their official route made no sense to us, we cut through on a back road, reducing the connecting route miles to about 17.  My actual mileage for the day was around 25-26 miles.

Even with the reduced mileage via our hack, my day still started out with a long 17 mile road walk.  I wanted more than anything to have Brian drop me off on the other side, on actual trail, but I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth.  Hacking off miles seemed like more fun than cheating them, I guess.  My decision was rewarded about halfway through the road walk when an older gentleman in a boon hat walked by me from the opposite direction and stopped to ask if he could turn around and walk with me for a while. More than happy for the company, I replied, “yes, please do!”

I can’t for the life of me remember the gentleman’s name, but we talked about life and adventures for a solid couple miles.  He was a GM retiree and was able to directly relate to my modest Michigan origins.  He also recounted a tale from when he was in his 20s.  He didn’t explain why he did it, but he hitchhiked from Wisconsin all the way down to the Florida Keys.  He agreed with my assessment of Wisconsinites being a generally good and helpful folk.  He was also a firm believer that most people in the US are good and wanting to help others, it’s the bad people that get all the attention.

The rest of my road walk, after parting ways with my newest friend, was filled with sun and exhausting to the core of my soul.  Hiding in ditches alone is just not as fun as it is with Brianna.  The last 3 miles were on a busy road with nearly no shoulder space.  It’s takes a long time to make 3 miles when you have to jump into the weeds every few minutes to avoid getting hit by trucks.  I also had my sunbrella out, which would get taken by the wind of passing by vehicles, wanting to suck me into traffic if I didn’t react and retract quickly enough.

I was able to complete the road miles and make it to actual trail on the Janesville segment by around 2pm.  A long 7 miles separated me from Brianna and I was out of both food and water as I carefully stepped my way through the Devil’s Staircase, which was beautiful and definitely worth seeing.  Reaching the end of the Devil’s Staircase was especially cruel, but not for the reasons I would have expected.

If there is a hiker heaven, it would include fresh food, ice cream, pop, water, the works.  Today found me stepping down from trail and into the Riverside Park Music Festival.  There was a live cover band with people sitting around the stage in camping chairs.  Lions Club was roasting big chicken legs and selling everything I could have wanted.  There was however, just one problem, it was cash only and Brianna carries the cash.  I’m not sure what the people were thinking as I, a homeless looking dude, descended the stairs and made my way through the crowds.  What I do know is that no one offered me any food or drinks.  Not that anyone should have, I just wanted to be clear in that they did not!

I am a firm believer that not having Brianna here, my shield, dramatically reduces my approachability.  That said, today has proven that I am not completely unapproachable, homeless as I may look.  Soon after finding a drinking fountain at the park to fill my water bottle at (no cash needed), a shirtless and muscle bound dude, Timothy, called me over to his grill and insisted I try one of his world famous chicken wings.  He explained that his technique was learned in prison back when he was a bad guy, but he is a good guy now and I look like the road has been long and rough.  The chicken wing was delicious, thank you, Timothy!

The rest of today’s hike hugged close to Lake Koshkonong outflow river, leading me into town and to exactly where Brianna was waiting for me.  The horsemen were kind enough to drop her to our hotel on their way to the ferry over Lake Michigan.  Brianna had to wait from 10am until 3pm to check in, her own set of challenges and adventures that were probably as frustrating as a 17ish mile road walk.

Since we have no vehicle and Brianna is not yet ready to hike again, our plan for tomorrow will likely be for me to catch an Uber 27 miles northeast of our hotel and hike back into town.  We push on!

Day 40 – IAT Mile 713.9 to 743.7

This morning started early.  I had my eyes set on another 30ish mile day, my feet and I had a long conversation last night and it was unanimously decided that running would not be an option today.  If running was out, I’d have to keep a consistent pace throughout the day with shorter breaks as needed.  Brian was more than happy to get up before sunrise and cart me back to the IATA HQ building for starting my day.

Walking all these road miles has given me the opportunity to see how this area of Wisconsin has changed and is changing.  There are old country roads with old farm houses on one side of the road and huge boxy shaped modern houses on the other side.  We saw a lot of these different architectures at Lake Wisconsin, which is kind of expected on waterfront property, right?  Seeing large amounts of money go into property development in the farm area from people not farming has been an odd thing to see.

Weather since Brianna’s injury day has been the best hiking weather we have seen in over a week.  Ironic, annoying or lucky?  Highs in the low 80s with zero chance of rain have really helped me put on the big miles.  Even so, today’s Valley View trails & road walks left me exposed to large amounts of sun all morning.  I spent most of the day with the sunbrella out and made sure Bob brought one out for his afternoon hike with me.  This is my first hike with a sunbrella and I wouldn’t go on another without it.  Too much sun ruins a good day, ruins a good body.

Today’s approach to the miles was a little different than normal.  Instead of starting at point A and hiking to point B, we did a sort of ‘flip-flop’.  I hiked from IATA HQ and into the city where our hotel is, Verona, and had Brian pick me up.  From there, Brian drove Bob and I to the south end of the hike and dropped us off so we could hike back into the city.  A day hike like this was a convenient way to hook up with Bob and not make Brian drive 20-30 minutes to pick us up at the end of the day.  Also, Bob only wanted to hike 10 miles and this approach let me map out what that would look like a little easier, have fewer road miles.

Bob & I’s 10 mile hike through the Brooklyn Wild Life Area & Montrose segment was mostly flat and enjoyable terrain that ended with a 3 mile ATV/bike path.  The journey took us around 5 hours as we walked and talked the whole way.  We cherish alone time together and are never short on topics, particularly those related to family life and adventuring.  It was precisely this kind of Bob & Marty conversation that got us joining the Air Force together 23ish years ago.

A Horsemen visit wouldn’t be complete without some kind of video game experience, particularly when my predicament robbed my friends of some planned arcading, so the boys took a drive to the I/O arcade bar in Madison.  My feet hurt and it was hard to stand, neither of which prevented me from having a beer and getting down on some Dig Dug, Frogger, Guitar Hero, Mortal Combat and NBA Jams.  It was past 11pm by the time I got to bed.  No regrets!

Day 39 – IAT Mile 682.0 to 713.9

The Horsemen friends rode into town last night.  They gave up a full night of arcade gaming to arrive to our hotel early, ensuring they would be here in the morning to help me get back on the trail where I left off back in the town of Lodi and help Brianna with whatever she needed in my absence.  Their energy and enthusiasm to help invigorated me for a big day, with over 30 miles hiked, it was my biggest ever.  I emptied my pack of all unnecessary weight, let them take care of Brianna and help plan out what the next few days of supported hiking might look like.

Hiking alone is not nearly as much fun as hiking with Brianna.  Alone time was fun for the first few hours, the Lodi Marsh, Springfield Hill & Indian Lake trail segments were all very well maintained and full of easy trails with rare overlooks of the small towns and prairies.  It’s easy to stay distracted when surrounded by beauty, it was the road miles that broke down my protective mental walls, blistered my brain with needless doubts.

How did I hike 30 miles in just under 12 hours?  My pack was light.  I ran down hills, I ran up hills, I ran to reunite with Brianna & friends.  My new shoes hugged my feet tightly, more hindrance than helpful, but there was nothing to be done save loosen the laces and run on.  I streamed so much music and played on my phone so often that I burned through an entire Anker battery pack.

Brianna & Horsemen made a point to brighten my day with surprise trail magic on the far side of the Indian Lake segment, just before I was to start a 5 mile stretch of road walk.  I drank a cold Mountain Dew and ate candy while we all joked around and chatted, quoted random movies, made fun of each other.  Reuniting with old friends is a rare and amazing thing at any time, especially as we get older and life, this visit is something even more than that.  How fortuitous their visit has ended up being.  Planned for a fun visit with a side of help, received a rescue with a side of “we’d be screwed without them.”

Guess what I did after our 15-20 minutes of trail magic ended?  I ran some more.  My Mountain Dew sugar rush of enthusiasm lasted right up to the last 3 miles of the day.  

I arrived at the Cross Plains trail segment and was immediately greeted with a series of steep hills.  With my energy zapped and only cheese crackers left for fuel, I sat on a bench at the foot of the hill and lamented on the day and my situation as a whole.  People often say “misery loves company” as one of life’s negative truths.  In my hiking world, not having Brianna there to share my pains with, makes it all seem so very pointless.  These hills, both the metaphorical and the very real one in front of me, had to be climbed.  An hour and a half later and thirty minutes tarty of when I told everyone I would finish, I walked past the IATA HQ building and collapsed onto the closest bench I could find.

The night ended as I would have expected, Friday night fish fry at a local diner with a couple Spotted Cow beers for good measure.

My feet hurt and I’ve got new blisters but I’m going to try for another 30 miler tomorrow.  Bob is planning to walk 10 miles with me towards the end, we’ll see how far I can get.  Brianna is feeling better, still a ways to go before jumping back in the trail again.

Day 38 – IAT Mile 669.8 to 682.0

🎶

I tremble

They’re gone eat me alive, if I stumble

They’re gonna eat me alive

Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer

Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer

🎶 (Help I’m Alive, by Metric)

The words you never want to hear on a thru-hike, “I don’t think I can hike.  I think I’m done.”  That’s a paraphrase, it was around 0500 and emotionally blurry.  Brianna’s back had tightened up overnight in a painful and familiar way.  I squeezed her hand. There is no appropriate response, nothing that will do.  Thoughts spiral and shoot from this hike and on into the future, if you let them.

I’ve always had it in my mind that one of us would eventually go down with a back related injury.  Expecting and experiencing are two very different things.  Back problems are part of who we are, and not by choice.  These situations challenge the best in all of us.  Do we bow to the devil’s staircase or do we keep looking for a way push up and over? 

Conversation quickly moved to how she could still help me finish the hike, we didn’t have to both be done.  Now it was my turn for internal strife.  Do I want to finish this hike alone?  Do we Romeo and Juliet the adventure right here and draw curtains to a close?  Too much.  I tabled my doubts for future discussions. We were at our new friend Jess’s house (who we didn’t want to worry because she would have dropped everything to help us) and I had no phone to help with our logistical problems. If I am going to continue hiking, we needed to quickly find Brianna a ride to Lodi and somewhere to haven while I walk into town.

One of the many amazing things about Brianna is how effective she becomes when angry, and she was furious at the situation.  She had a ride lined up with the local IAT coordinator, Carla, on the other side of the Merrimac Ferry by 0630.  Brianna would hang with Carla at her wellness center while I hiked and we would figure out what to do next afterwards.  Things like getting me a phone would have to wait, so I took Brianna’s and did my best to push through the miles and reunite with her again quickly.

I made the 10-12 miles into Lodi, WI in good time, was in town and stuffing my face with the fresh fruit Carla had left me by 1pm.  Verizon does not have much coverage in Lodi, which made planning more speculative than specific. We knew that the city of Middleton wasn’t more than a 20 minute drive and had hotels next to a Verizon store, so that became the day’s next goal.  Brianna had seen a chiropractor for the first time in her life while I was hiking and was feeling better, but still very sore, walking for her would be kept to a minimum.

After listening to our plan, such as it was, Carla introduced us to Crystal, an amazing lady who would hook us up with a ride into Middleton.  If I had to guess, Crystal is around my age and has had a life full of adventure as well.  On the drive over to Middleton, she recounted stories of Peace Corps in Africa, camp counseling troubled youths in the Uintas of Utah, a life of service that was also self-serving to an adventurer’s heart.  Our time with her was short and impactful, a person worth mentioning and remembering, a starchild to be met again.

I was able to acquire a new phone and book a nearby hotel rather quickly after Crystal dropped us off in Middleton.  The Horsemen were in Illinois playing arcade games when I alerted them to our new and complicated situation.  In classic horsemen style, they have booked a room in our hotel and are riding into assist a day earlier than originally planned.

This adventure may yet be saved.

Day 37 – IAT Mile 657.4 to 669.8

It was another hot day, and by the end of it, I’d be carrying two backpacks and will have lost my phone to the bottom of Lake Wisconsin.

Devils Lake State Park is as treacherous as it is beautiful, and beauty is the reason it ranks #1 in Wisconsin for visitors each year.  In some parts, rocks are cemented into winding staircases that go up and up and up.  In other parts, jagged rocks have been worn into footpaths where we, and the others before us, had to step/climb our way up.  It was a challenging day, though far from the most challenging day we have had so far.

The Devil’s lake hike has three major climbs in about a 5 mile span.  We got through the first climb without much trouble, stopped to enjoy the lake views and even made a funny video as we went.  Somewhere during the second climb, Brianna noticed a familiar pain in her back that seemed to get worse as we went along.  We did our best to stop more frequently so she could stretch, take some Advil, even moved some of her equipment to my bag to lighten her load, nothing seemed to help.  Our bags have been as light as they have ever been, so I was even able to carry her entire bag strapped around the front of me for a couple miles to see if a walk without weight might help loosen the muscles.  No luck.

In addition to Brianna’s worrisome pains, we were also trying to outrun another storm with tornado potential.  The goal was to make it to a pub just before the Merrimac Ferry, and we did make it just before 3pm.  We would wait out the storm at the pub and plan out what the rest of the day might look like, try to figure out how we might get Brianna to a bed and be more comfortable, how to get out of the sweltering heat.  Our hotel for the night was still a solid 10 miles away and Uber options didn’t seem to exist.

Brianna & I were sitting at a picnic table waiting for our pub food to arrive when a woman and her daughter, Jess & Bella, sat next to us and struck up a conversation.  Jess asked about our hiking and offered us her basement as a spot to crash for the night if we were interested.  I’m not sure how these people keep finding us in our hours of need, but Jess is another solid new Wisconsin friend.  We ate our pub meals and piled into her car for another chance night at a random kindly stranger’s house.

Of all the people we have met on this trip, Jess is probably the one we have gotten to know the best in the short time we had together.  Her husband passed away about five years ago, shortly after they moved to Merrimac, and they have been there ever since.  Instead of going back to her house to crash, she called her friend Dave and got us a boat ride on and a proper tour of Lake Wisconsin.  Brianna’s back was feeling modestly better by this point, or at least not worse, so we went on a boat ride!

A moment of honesty here.  Before today, I had no idea Lake Wisconsin existed.  Turns out that it does exist and it’s more of a dammed river than it is a lake, with hidden stumps and sand bars, all sorts of danger to water-crafts with uninformed captains.  We floated around for a bit, got some dam pictures, shot the shit about life.

Both Dave and Jess have history in Michigan and the surrounding area.  At first I thought it was weird, such a coincidence that we have been to the same places and experienced some of the same things, but now I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all.  Brianna & I have had a lot in common with many of the people we’ve met along the trail and it doesn’t even have anything to do with the trail itself.  I’m only now, at the age of 39, coming to the realization that the more you do, the more things you experience, the more people you will be able to relate to.  If all you do is play video games and work, ride 4-wheelers and farm, then your relatable world stays within those boundaries.  If you continuously put yourself out there, travel and try new things like video games with a stranger one day and 4-wheeling on a farm the next day, your world expands dramatically in just a small window of time.

The boating trip was amazingly fun, right up til the end.  To disembark the boat, we had to slide off the front end and into the water.  I have a hiking habit of putting my phone into the right pocket of my shorts, where it sticks out halfway because my pocket isn’t deep enough to fit the entire thing.  When I slid off the front of the boat, I slide right side first, popping the phone up out of my pocket and into the murky waist deep waters of Lake Wisconsin.  We all searched the lake floor with our feet, no luck.  Brianna tried calling it to see if the screen would light up and be visible, we saw nothing.  It was gone, forever.

I want to say today was a good day.  The best I can say is that it was a day that could have been worse than it was and I’m glad that it wasn’t.  Jess and Bella are awesome new friends, we’ve got that much!