Notes From the Harrison Hills
About six miles into my thirty-mile hike, I realize there’s no way I’m going to make it thirty miles this weekend. I’d gotten a late start this morning already, and when I was planning my route, I didn’t reckon on just how challenging this trail would be, nor on the rain and wet. In truth, the original plan was probably always too ambitious, but I’m stubborn as fuck and I like to push myself.
But I’m not going to be able to push myself hard enough to do thirty miles like this, so I take a look at my map and quickly rethink things. I will, I decide, at least make it to the top of Lookout Mountain tonight.
I’d gotten into my basecamp the night before, around nine. It was cold and drizzling rain, and I sat in the car for a while checking in with my partners to let them know I’d arrived and wondering whether I should set up the tent or just cram myself into the tiny backseat of my Fiat to sleep.
I pitched the tent by the light of the car headlights, snuggled into my sleeping bag, and passed out. A few hours later, I woke shivering cold. I wriggled into another layer of clothing while still inside my sleeping bag and went back to sleep. A few hours later, I woke shivering cold again, gave up, and took my sleeping bag to the car.
After a sluggish morning, I’m tromping along a swampy, soggy trail in northern Wisconsin, trying not to get my feet soaked. This does not, I think to myself, appear destined to be my favorite hike. There are frequent roadblocks in the form of downed trees across the trail. I have to climb over or under them (not an easy feat, when you’re carrying twenty-some extra pounds in a rather large pack on your back), or, more often, find a way around them through the underbrush.
I keep my eyes open for a likely-looking branch. When I spot a good straight one, I pluck it up and strip it relatively clean. I like to find a good walking stick for my hikes.
The mosquito presence is very strong. I’ve treated all of my clothes with permethrin, dutifully dousing each item with approximately three ounces of pesticide, as per the manufacturer’s guidelines. It does seem to have some effect — unfortunately, that effect is that the same number of mosquitos that would normally attack my whole body are now primarily focusing their efforts on my only exposed skin: my hands and face. I get bites on the palms of both hands.
In late afternoon, I arrive at a potential lakeside campsite. It’s really nice, and I’m tired, and I wonder if I should stop here, forget about Lookout Mountain, enjoy this breeze off the lake.
I debate this question for a while. The only person who cares that I promised myself I’d get to Lookout Mountain tonight is me. But the only person here making decisions is also me. I eat a snack and rest for about an hour. Then I get up. There are 3.3 miles of trail between me and the peak of Lookout Mountain. If I leave now, I should make it before nightfall.
Lookout Mountain sucks. My guidebook did note that there were several structures built atop it, but failed to provide a true picture of what to expect. In the approaching dusk, I emerge onto one of the highest points in Wisconsin and am greeted by a couple of large industrial buildings, machinery humming softly inside fences. The view features an area where logging activity is ongoing. There’s a dirt road that winds down from this summit and back in the direction from which I’ve just come.
I’m exhausted, the sun is setting, and rain is looming. I’m not glad I pushed on to Lookout Mountain, but I’m here now. So it goes.
I climb inside my sleeping bag just in time to hear the drops start pattering down on my rain fly. I hear some ATVs roar up the road and idle in the space between the buildings, then head back down. I settle in and try to read the book I’ve brought, one of the luxury items I make space for in my pack on these trips, but it’s dull and doesn’t hold my interest, so I give up and let the whirring mechanical noises lull me to sleep. Tomorrow, I think, I’ll trek back to my car and drive it to that beautiful lakeside campsite (which had road access), and stay there for the night.
Around 3 am, I am awake and cold. I revise my plan again — my sleeping bag clearly isn’t up to the weather this weekend, and I’m done waking up cold. I won’t be staying for the third night I’d originally planned. I’ll just wait for daybreak and hike out.
A few chapters more and I’ve given up on the book again. Screw it, I have a headlamp and I can night hike down the road easily enough. I’ve got data up here, so I Google for a map of the ATV trails in the area — it looks like if I keep following this road down, it’ll cross Turtle Lake Road, and I can pick up the hiking trail from there.
It’s still pre-sunrise and I’ve taken what has proven to be a wrong turn off the ATV road. It’s not precisely uncharted territory — the grassy routes I’m following clearly been used by vehicles in the past, though they mostly seem disused now — but I certainly don’t have a useful chart myself, and now that I’m back at lower elevations and off the beaten path, I don’t have any data to search for one. I do have a compass, and I know I need to head west to find both the trail and the road. I do also have a GPS dot on my phone, but my power is low and, while I’ve brought the backup battery, I’ve forgotten the cord, so I need to conserve what I have.
This is the sort of thing you’re not supposed to do — wander around off-trail. I wonder if I’ve made a critical mistake, but I don’t feel particularly alarmed or concerned about the situation I’ve gotten myself into. Does that mean I’m rightly assessing that this is fine? I’m not that far off-trail, I know there are roads and ATV trails that crisscross this whole area, and I know which direction to head. Or is my nonchalance the same kind of unearned confidence that got that Into the Wild idiot killed?
My compass and I head northwest-ish along the branching pathways through the forest. I hear, in the wooded darkness to the left of me, something large grunting and crashing through the trees. For a split second, I am sure it is a bear, and I swing my head in that direction, peering along the beam of my headlamp. Then my rational brain kicks in and tells me that it’s just the darkness and the quiet magnifying the sound of what was probably a badger or skunk or some other non-bear critter.
I reach a fork in the path and neither goes the direction I want to be going. I check my GPS. I’m at the edge of a small lake, and the hiking trail runs just past the other side of it. If I cut around the water’s edge, I’ll be nearly there.
It occurs to me, as I am bushwhacking through the scrub brush, keeping the water in sight on my right, that if I’m going to be eaten by a bear, this will be how it how it happens — surprising some poor ursine denizen of Wisconsin who isn’t expecting to have a human stumble into them when they’re just trying to enjoy the breeze off the lake.
I emerge suddenly onto a dirt road. Dawn breaks. No bears attack.
It takes me another fifteen minutes or so to locate the trail itself, which involves crossing the road and clambering down a steep embankment, but when I find a tree marked with a yellow blaze, I am briefly exultant. I made it. I blazed my own trail.
I live a comfortable life in a Chicago suburb. I work a desk job, and I pay people to clean my toilets for me. I am not a survivalist, though I’m working on becoming a more competent, better-prepared survivor. I’m an academic. I like books and computer games and arcane discussions about minute points of feminist critical theory and my memory foam mattress.
But being out on the trail speaks to something in me that yearns to be a little less domesticated, responds to some distant call of the wild.
I make it back to that lakeside campsite, where I find a couple and a dog preparing to hike onward to Lookout Mountain. We chat for a while, exchange numbers, then I take the access road out. I’ve not had enough sleep for the past two nights, my socks are damp, my feet are blistered, and I’m bone-weary, so I’ve decided I’ll just take the roads back to basecamp, rather than hike back along the trail. I’ve still got hours of trekking ahead of me, but at least it’ll be easier terrain.
The sun is pleasantly warm. The leaves are beginning to turn, and the green forest is peppered with spots of vibrant red and yellow. I realize I’ve left my walking stick back at the lakeside camp, and I hope it may serve someone else well on their own journey.
An old pickup truck pulls up alongside me, and an old man leans out of it. “You want a ride?”
I consider for a moment, then agree that sure, I’d like a ride. I tell him where I’m going. He says he’s given someone else a ride back to the same place earlier this morning. “I’m eighty,” my benefactor tells me cheerily.
“I’m smelly,” I respond.
“We’re out here for a bear,” he says as I clamber in and haul my pack in after me, and I think for a second that maybe that was a bear out there in the woods after all. He asks me about what I’ve been doing. “You go out there and you sleep in the woods?”
“Yep, got my tent in the pack here.” I look around the cab of the truck and see that he has a couple small images of very large-breasted nude women tacked up on the dashboard.
“You’re brave to do that alone,” he says. “Do you carry any protection at all?” It’s the sort of question that could easily feel like a threat, especially from a strange man who’s picked me up the side of the road. I don’t feel threatened, but I wonder briefly if I should, if this is just another indication that I don’t assess threats properly? My standard response to physical danger, for as long as I can remember, has always been on a spectrum between unflappable stoicism and self-assured swagger. My fight-or-flight instinct defaults strongly towards fight.
“I carry a fairly large knife,” I say.
“That’s good.” He pauses for a moment. “Now, you know, bears don’t generally want anything to do with people. Usually they’re just gonna steer clear of you. But, if a bear ever does come after you, chances are it’ll be a big boar. It’ll knock you down, and what you wanna do is… Well, I hate to say it, but you gotta reach down and grab its nuts, and squeeze ‘em, tight as you can.”
“Deal with them just like any other guy, huh,” I say.
He nods. “It works. I know a guy it happened to, saved his life.” He tells me the guy’s name. “I’m not telling you no stories, now, it really works.”
“I believe you,” I assure him. “Thanks. I’ll remember the tip.”
“Course nowadays it’s not just the bears you got to worry about. There’s so many weirdos around, you gotta be careful. Never know who you’re getting involved with.”
I agree, still feeling a little feral, wondering for a moment which of us is the weirdo, and then the conversation turns to other topics — to his daughter, who lives in the Chicago area; to football, which I pretend to care about because sometimes pretending to give a shit about sports is just easier than explaining that I don’t follow my local sports teams; to which woods he hunts in now, and which ones he used to hunt in but now stays out of because his philosophy is “don’t cause any trouble, don’t get in any trouble,” and hunting in those woods would be trouble.
He drops me at my car, and I wish him luck on his bear hunt. He turns his truck around and heads back the way we came. I slip the knife off my belt and Google the nearest Starbucks.