During the dark times of the COVID-19 pandemic my sister, Penny, found escape and entertainment by watching hiking videos on YouTube. There were several women whose blogs she followed, and she’d often share some of those videos to my inbox. Honestly, I found many of them tedious to watch. I didn’t have the time or desire to spend 20 – 25 minutes watching someone else’s hike. Though I’d lost some weight during the pandemic and taken up walking several miles daily, I couldn’t relate to these hikers. I had neither the body…having ridden mine quite hard in my younger days, nor the time to devote to through-hiking. I still worked full time, was challenged by occasional flair-ups from fibromyalgia, and not an athlete by any definition. Yes, when I was younger, I thought about backpacking a trail somewhere…even doing the Appalachian Trail…but honestly, life happened and by the time I reached my sixties I figured that whole weathered ship had sailed.
I am a mother to two adult sons and their half-sister; my daughter by choice. I have worked in the human services field all my adult life. Early in my career I had some highly stressful jobs; Children’s Protective Services, working with state ward juvenile delinquents, and investigating abuse/neglect of vulnerable citizens in the adult foster care system; to name several. Nearly twenty years ago, I lucked into the job I have now. I am the program director for a group of professional Service Coordinators who work primarily with lower income senior citizens, as well as families. I find great meaning in their work and consider myself the behind-the-scenes, puller of the levers and gears that keep the program running. I’m very fortunate, but I have to say that the last several years of pandemic-related issues have really taken their toll. Beyond that, I like beer and used to enjoy yoga but eventually it became the revolving door to physical therapy for me. My 63-year old hips, knees, and shoulders did not enjoy the practice nearly as much as my mind did.
Now, my sister Penny is the picture of healthy, clean living. She worked as a very well-respected band director until she retired in 2008. She became a vegetarian in her early 20s and about 5 years ago, shifted into a vegan lifestyle. She sips an occasional wine, or small glass of weirdly flavored stout beer. She has incorporated strenuous exercise into her life for years, from running, to cycling, to kettle bells and other various forms of maintaining her health and appearance. She has a beautiful smile, and a vibrant personality. She had a run-in with cancer over 17 years ago but has continued to stack the deck in her favor since then. She would be a great role model to follow…for someone willing to follow.
Sometime in December of 2021, Penny loaned me a book. In retrospect, I think Emma Gatewood sealed my fate. The book was “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail” by Ben Montgomery. “Grandma” Gatewood was over 65 years old when she first walked the length of the Appalachian Trail by herself, in sneakers, and with a homemade sack to carry her belongings. I was inspired and intrigued.
And so it happened one day when my 68-year old sister was lamenting that no one ever wanted to do what she wanted to do…that I asked her, “What would that be?” And that is how we began our discussions and planning to hike the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore portion of the North County Trail. (She reminds me that initially she had proposed hiking only part of the trail. It was me who proposed that we do the whole thing…all 42.4 miles of it. My mother used to say that I was a glutton for punishment!) By mid-March Penny had reserved our campsites and arranged the shuttle that would take us from the parking lot at Munising Falls, where we would leave a car, to the Grand Sable Visitor Center at Grand Marais, Michigan.
We Googled and studied what we could find in terms of the trail, how to pack ultralight, helpful tips for preparing our bodies; and began counting down the days to August 17th, 2022 when we would head north. This was originally Penny’s dream, and I was still working fulltime, so I happily ceded all the planning to her. We both began adding extra distance to our daily walks and imagining our days on the trail.
The closer we got to our date of departure…the harder we worked to ensure our success…the fates began to conspire against us. In the first week of June, thinking I was building my strength, I loaded a felled tree into the back of our truck. While I reveled in my get-it-done attitude, I was subsequently diagnosed with calcific tendonitis of my rotator cuff requiring roughly 6 weeks of physical therapy. Two weeks later, I broke the middle toe of my left foot. My daily walks were minimized. Then, the day after I graduated from physical therapy, on July 23rd, I hurriedly attempted to re-enter my house for a forgotten item…and had failed to open the storm door all the way. I jammed my right knee into the door edgw…patella into femur…and thought I’d just ruined our hike for good.
Meanwhile, sister Penny was nursing her own illnesses and injuries. She developed a summer cold that just didn’t want to let go. Thankfully, it was a cold and not COVID. Once fully recovered she began training in her all out, over-the-top, way…by carrying her pack on her walks down some paved roads. Penny can never be accused of under training. This intense preparation resulted in the development of plantar fasciitis, an extremely painful foot condition. Not to let that be enough, several days before we were to leave, she strained her back.
Neither one of us wanted to be The One responsible for killing this dream. We both found ways to manage our respective injuries and return to walking. One week out from our hike, I sent Penny a soundbite of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” with the encouragement, “We’ve got this!”
We’re leaving together
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back
to Earth, who can tell?~ Joey Tempest
Our Journey Began with Just a Little Stutter-Step
We each left our homes at the butt-crack of dawn on August 17, 2022, to reach our Clare, Michigan rendezvous site. I had kissed my darling Bill good-by that morning, thankful that he would have houseguests for much of the time we’d be in the woods. I suspected the lack of cell phone contact would be worrisome for him. Penny bid her husband Dave good-by in Clare, and we headed north. We needed to get to Munising, Michigan in time for our 12:15 PM Altran shuttle to Grand Marais. Not being 100% sure of the time the shuttle would drop us at the trailhead, Penny had opted to have us spend the first night at the Woodland Park campground in Grand Marais before we started our official trek from Grand Sable ranger station. The tentative plan was to hike 2 miles east to our campsite and then backtrack those miles to the official beginning of the trail. I say “tentative plan” because I harbored other hopes.
It was an absolutely beautiful day for a drive. The sun shone brightly in a blue sky with occasional fluffy clouds. We needed to enjoy it. We’d kept an eye on weather reports that were trending more and more towards rain for four of our six days on the trail. We resolved that we would hike in the mud if that’s what we had to do. No turning back. My written goal was to “stay in the moment; to savor each day, to love my aging body for what it can or cannot do, and to be open to whatever lessons I am meant to learn.” I planned to do this by employing all my senses; to see what was to be witnessed both micro and macro; taste what I could along the way; smell the scents of the forests, earth, streams, and blossoms we might encounter; feel the bark on the trees, the water as it rushed over my feet, and all the sensations in my body; and hear the birds, waves, and animal chatter. To focus on my senses would help keep me stay grounded in the experience…help me hike MY hike.
We arrived early in Munising. We drove to a scenic overlook just north off MI-28 for our first official photo together. In the background was Grand Island where Penny had experienced hours of kayaking adventures. Penny enjoyed a vegan pastie from Miner’s Pasties and eventually we made our way to the ranger’s station at Munising Falls where we anxiously awaited our shuttle. This was it. We didn’t plan to return here for another six days. We grabbed our packs and loaded into the Altran shuttle promptly at 12:15 PM. Apparently, there was to have been one other hiker on this shuttle. Our driver waited 5 minutes and then we departed. What had influenced our first night was not having knowledge of how many stops the shuttle would make on the way to Grand Marais. As it turned out…none.
In less than an hour, our driver pulled into the Grand Sable parking lot, pointed and said, “There’s your trail.” I asked if that was the trail to Grand Marais and Penny explained to him that since we weren’t sure how long it would take to get us to the trailhead, we’d booked a night there. Then I posed the loaded question, “You don’t happen to need to get gas in Grand Marais, do you?” After a brief check of his watch, our driver told us to sit down and in short time, delivered us to the edge of our campground. Awesome! We checked in and headed to our assigned spot. Along the road we heard this strange sound. Penny thought it was a child crying. I wasn’t so sure. As we walked by a little camper trailer, I made eye contact with the source of the sound…a darling, little girl. She smiled at me as she broke into the chorus of the song whose instrumental intro she’d been singing… “It’s the final countdown!” Whoa.
Penny had friends in Grand Marais, Russ and Karen, with whom we’d be having dinner. We checked in with them and returned to our camp to explore and organize. We thought we had perhaps the least desirable tent site in the place but at least we had water and flush toilets for the night. We also realized that we may not have needed this stay at all, but our plans were made with the information that was available. We’d make it work.
We enjoyed our time with Russ and Karen though our “last meal” was unremarkable. We were grateful when Russ picked up the tab but even more thankful when he offered to drop us at our trailhead the next morning. We parted company and opted to walk about a while after dinner…it was still several hours before nightfall.
Our walk took us all the way to the end of the breakwater for some beautiful views of Lake Superior, a stunning sky, and the shoreline to the west. Instead of walking on the road back to our camp, we opted to walk along the very rocky shoreline. It seemed nearly a magical evening with very few people left on the beach and twilight setting in; however, the campground was farther down that rocky beach then I first thought, and the walking was tough. As a result, I acquired my first blister before ever getting out on the trail! We eventually slept.