The yearning for adventure is a pretty common human trait, along with the practical good sense to not get into a situation you can’t handle. The old Scout Motto is “be prepared,” a creed intended to make one think practically and plan ahead for potential disaster. There’s a colorful expression for those who are not ready for life’s misfortunes; they find themselves “up Shit Creek without a paddle.”
Not wanting to drift helplessly in liquid feces, people often put off serious adventure and plan to check their dreams off a “Bucket List” at some point between the impractical now and the day before it becomes physically impossible. When a Bucket List goes as planned, it’s a beautiful thing. More often than not, of course, it ends up being a list of unfulfilled wishes. That’s generally preferable to premature death in pursuit of pretty scenery, so lament accordingly.
There are also those perfect people in the primes of their lives, dressing up in expensive wingsuits and gliding majestically down from the world’s most spectacular cliffs. Are they the sons and daughters of the obscenely wealthy or did they persuade a gear manufacturer to sponsor them? Maybe both. Don’t be jealous. You probably wouldn’t take that leap if you could. I know I wouldn’t.
Every day there’s a story about someone who did what was thought impossible and another story of someone who died trying. Whether it’s an outdoor survival adventure, extreme sport, ultra debaucherous party, high-stakes card game or general larceny, the closer you come to death, financial ruin or prison without actually experiencing them, the bigger the adrenaline rush, the better the story and the more interesting your life. Once you go too far, you’d gladly crawl back to your innocence if it weren’t too late.
In my case, I just wanted to go for a walk in the woods. Reading the complete works of Henry David Thoreau in college must have been life altering, for better or worse. Everything is life altering, really, if you’re predisposed to philosophy. A simple walk could be a life and death struggle. When would I be ready for a walk?
“If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk,” says the melodramatic transcendentalist.
Had I listened to ol’ Hank Thoreau I’d still be trying to straighten out my obligations before getting started on my adventure. Fortunately, I’ve also read the opposite perspective and find balance in T.S. Eliot’s response to the overwhelming question.
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
So with all that in mind, in the year 2000 at the age of 27, I decided I should hike the full length of the Superior Hiking Trail without really planning much or worrying how long it would take. I would bring maps and food and a variety of clothing and a tent, but I wouldn’t study up on everything in advance and bring cooking supplies and save money to buy the best gear. I would be practical without throwing up impossible barriers to getting started.
It worked. I completed the 310-mile trek 15 years after I started. Needless to say I took a lot of breaks in between. I can’t say it’s undisputed, but I believe I hold the world record for the slowest successful hike from the Canadian border to the outskirts of Duluth. It’s arguably the laziest record in endurance sports history.
When I started my quest to conquer the Superior Hiking Trail it was only a 200-mile goal. As I chipped away at it over the years, another 100 miles of trail were added. New loops are still being built, allowing me to continue to break my own record. The title of this series is “Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail,” not fifteen, so clearly my accomplishment needed some updating, which you’ll learn about in the final chapter.
In future Saturday Essays I’ll tell some stories about struggling to find water, getting lost, begging for rides, knife-fighting a black bear, partying with glow sticks and whatever else I can remember from my various outings. Consider it an old-fashioned American explorer serial told by someone who walked a simple well-marked trail for a few days here and there and hardly suffered at all.
“Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail” Index
Part one: Introduction
Part two: Preparations
Part three: Swamp River to Cascade River
Part four: Cascade River to Temperance River
Part five: Nonchalance
Part six: Temperance River to West Branch Bar in Finland
Part seven: Duluth Sections
Part eight: Finland to Silver Bay
Part nine: Silver Bay to Split Rock State Park
Part ten: Two Harbors Vicinity
Part eleven: Leaves, Needles, Mud
Part twelve: Loss and Lost
Part thirteen: The Double Finish
Part fourteen: Ely’s Peak Loop
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