Out and Back Again – Chapter 1

I recently began segment hiking the Ice Age Trail (IAT) with the goal of doing every segment in both directions. The project has come to life on its own, taking shape and definition as I log miles. (I’m up to 70 miles in five months as of this writing) For lack of anything better to do with my time I’ve decided to start logging my trips.

The project was born out of preparation for a backpacking trip with my cousin Mike. I needed to shake down my gear so I took off on a couple local segments of the IAT doing them as out-and-backs because it was the easiest and most logical choice, and because as a climber, I find security in redundancy. In keeping with the theme, Mike and I would eventually decide to out-and-back the Harrison Hills segment, but that’s a little further down the line.

Maybe I should jump back in time and tell that story… this is chapter one after all, and there’s room for context. Plus, I love a good back story. So, here’s where my connection with the IAT comes from:

In June of 2018 I drove to Madison to see a girl. On the drive I passed the Nordic Muir trailhead and the name stuck in my head. What the hell did Vikings have to do with John Muir, I thought? I passed that sign several times over the following couple years as I repeatedly drove to Madison in pursuit of political jobs, and one night looked up what it was after I’d gotten home. Discovering that it was a trailhead for the Ice Age I spent a bit of time researching the trail. I immediately put it on my list of things to some day getting around to doing.

Fast forward three years to early this summer when my cousin Mike hit me up asking if I wanted to go paddle a river for a few days. I told him sitting in a boat for a few days didn’t sound like something I wanted to put my lower back through, but having recently purchased a 65 liter Gregory Baltoro, I asked what he thought about going on a backpacking trip instead. He enthusiastically responded something like “Sure, whatever. I just want to get out of the house.”

Cousin Mike and I have been adventuring together our whole lives. I am 15 days younger than him and we spent several of our formative years living in neighboring towns, a 20-minute bike ride away, so some of my first ever adventures and explorations were with him. I don’t think I’ve mentioned him yet on my blog, but you’ll hear more about him.  

The trip was the reason excuse I’d been looking for to outfit myself with some gear, and as good sense dictates, once you get a bunch of new gear and a new back pack, you have to go shake it down before you set out. I packed what I had planned on bringing for the trip: What I thought would be about three or four days of food, my sweetheart’s Jetboil, the Nemo Cosmo 3D I got a sick deal on in the REI garage-sale, my Half Dome 2, my Kelty Cosmic 40, two changes of socks and underwear, an extra shirt, a few other odds and ends, and a big fucking knife.

Now, I may take a bit of criticism for my choice to always bear a large knife with me, usually an antler handled affair with an 8” clip point blade of 100-year-old high carbon steel sheathed in a thick leather fold-over that’s covered in fringed brain tanned buckskin. And while it is considerably larger than your light weight folder you most often see on the trail, I would much prefer to have mine than yours if we get in a knife fight. That may sound a bit intense, but I live in Wisconsin. People get stabbed to death on trails here.

I picked the Brooklyn Wildlife Area segment because it was near my house, far enough away from towns, the description gave it a 3 out of 5 in terms of how hilly the terrain was, and it was short. Three miles, out and back again, for a total of 6 miles. Perfect. Not too much, but enough to really get a feel for everything. I grabbed my poles, packed a couple PBBs (that’s peanut butter and banana sammies), smoked a fat bowl and drove to the trail head at the segments’ southern terminus.

The trail quickly dives into tree cover and I was thankful for the shade. About 150 yards in I decided to turn around and get that bug spray I’d forgotten in my car. I stashed my pack, hurried back, sprayed myself down with picaridin and hurried back. Ok, I thought, off to a good start. When I got back to where I’d stashed my pack I ran into two sisters of the trail (they had a sticker on their car calling themselves such, and I like the term quite a lot). They were clearing a fallen tree in preparation for a marathon that was taking place the next day. The race course was the length of trail that I walked that day.

The hills were what I’d call rolling, nothing too steep. It was mostly wooded, wandering through a few meadows, some more forested spots, through areas thick with mosquitoes and then into more meadows and wooded areas. The trail is what I would describe as very southern Wisconsin. I moved slowly and patiently, like a punk rock hippy turtle with his house on his back.

An hour and a half later I got to the end of the Brooklyn Wildlife segment, and feeling rather proud, walked across the street to eat a sandwich under a large oak. I hadn’t intended to do any of the Montrose segment, in fact, I hadn’t realized the two segments butted up. But I was feeling better than I had anticipated and despite knowing I’d hurt far worse tomorrow than I thought I would today, I decided to do the first 3 miles of the Montrose segment.

At this point I was sure that I’d need something more appropriate for my feet than my Asolo secret agents. Some people laud light running shoes for hiking unless under true alpine conditions. That’s fine, those are their feet and their journeys. My feet are flat, my ankles are week and roll when I hit a change in grade on a sidewalk, and given my personal and professional past, I’m quite used to covering long distances in boots. So, given the light weight and cushioning of modern hiking boots I prefer something that comes over the ankle when I’m carrying any kind of load and going over anything above class two terrain.

Also at this point in my hike I was beginning to suspect that my pack was a size too big. I’ve always been a solid medium in everything. But in the past year I quit drinking, quit smoking, and gave up eating animals/animal products and I’ve also been reducing saturated fat, sugar, and processed food, so I’m more of a s-medium these days. A fact that my pack was making me painfully aware of. (A return trip to REI later that would confirm that I wear a size small in Baltoros.)

The Montrose segment, or the southern end, was a bit tougher than the Brooklyn segment. A couple big hills that were a little steeper, a long stretch along a corn field that in the July humidity felt like it took forever, some muggy forested areas, a long bend in the trail that went through a wide completely exposed field that made me wonder “why doesn’t the fucking trail just go straight?” because oh my god it was fucking hot, and humid, and I was wearing long sleeves to block the sun. And pants. And about 30 pounds of dress rehearsal on my back. Honestly, that part of the trail sucked and going back through it really sucked.

See, that’s one of the things I like/dislike about out-and-backs, both good and bad, you live through everything twice. And you know it. So, when you see a cool waterfall, you’re like “Oh maaaan, I can’t wait to see that on the way back.” Or a good bench: “Ooooooh man, what a great place to drop our packs on the way back and have a smooch and smoke a bowl.” Or a painfully long stretch of trail through a field with no shade and no wind, just the sound of cicadas, my own labored breathing: “Ooooooh mmmmmmaaaan, I know that relatively this is not all that bad, but this is uncoooooomfrotablellllllle!!! And I’m going to block out the thought that I have to do this part of the trail later because it is going to suuuuuuck…” Redundancy.

I was looking for a good place to turn around when I saw a soccer mom and her two kids that were having a far easier time than me, given the sun and humidity. My god. What am I doing out here, I thought? I slowed my pace and the soccer mom and her two offspring slowly picked their way down the last wooded mile of trail. I followed them past another field (you pass a lot of crop fields on the southern end of the IAT. A lot) and then to the parking lot, where I dropped my pack at the bench/overhang and let myself relax a while. I ached profoundly and vacillated between a sense of accomplishment, having reached the end (sort of), and of dread knowing that I was only half way done.

This is the other part I love/hate about out-and-backs. When you reach the midpoint you sit there and go, “Damn. Now I have to do it all over again.” There’s a split second where it just seems so incredibly pointless, I have to quiet myself down, assure the protesting parts of me that there’s a very good reason for all of this. Fortunately, they never ask what it is, because I’m not sure I have one that would amount to much more than a long-winded philosophical diatribe meant to confuse and misdirect the listener so they forgot what they were upset about in the first place.

Except for some reason, to some strange parts of me, it feels good, it feels right. It’s like Hayduke says in the Monkey Wrench Gang, about it just feeling good to walk under a heavy pack. To me, it’s it’s purifying. Being on the move with everything you need to keep you going on your back is an exercise in self-sufficiency. It’s an exercise in a lot of self or inward directed things, I think. Clearly that’s a huge draw for me. Backpacking is hiking with added pain and suffering. The dichotomy of suffering so profoundly in a beautiful and healing environment is a contrast that offers a unique perspective into the self, and the relation between the self and the outside world.

There at my turn around point I rested a bit longer in the shade and talked to a lady that was planning on running the race the next day, a half marathon, she said, not the whole thing. “From where you started to here. What’s the trail like in the middle?”

I said something like “Fair amount of elevation change. Humid. Lots of bugs.” She thanked me as I said good luck and she and the man she was with left.

Stepping out from the overhang’s shade the cicadas screamed and a blue jay yelled back. I ached so bad I could feel it in my teeth. My right shoulder strap had aggravated a nerve over my collar bone and my shoulder/neck would get shooting pangs of numbness if I lifted my arm too high. My knees felt like they were wrapped in a belt of small people with large sledge hammers taking out their childhood frustration. My back, my poor back with its degenerative disc disease and the discectomy a few years ago hurt with such an intensity that it opened doors to new levels of understanding in my mind. My shoulder blades tried relentlessly to pry themselves from my spine. Inside, a dozen different voices screamed in agony.

Winding my way into the woods as I started the six mile trek back I mused to myself: I just backpacked half a marathon. Work is gonna suck tomorrow. And so, I reassured myself: You’ll find relief in the shade. You’re half way done. Relax into your stride. Imagine your favorite color and breathe that into the parts that hurt. Every step is a step closer to the car. You have the advantage; you’re chasing a stationary target. All those things I tell myself when I’m doing something I don’t have the energy or desire to do.

I repeated one of my new favorites: “You’re like a turtle,” I said to myself as I started up the first hill of the return trip. “Just walk like a turtle.”

And how’s a turtle walk? I asked myself.

“One step at a time like anyone else, only with a whole lot of patience.”

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