Flipping the Table, Hiking the Divide

It’s the last day of March, and our Ann Arbor house is cluttered with hiking gear and resupply boxes in progress. My husband Todd and I have given notice at our very good jobs, and enlisted friends to watch our cats. We spend our evenings poring over our ever-growing to-do list, trying to fit training hikes between chores like “update cat care document” and “put velcro on new shoes.”

Despite all of the scrambling we’re doing—and the giant map of the Continental Divide taped to our kitchen wall—it’s hard to believe that in a few weeks we’ll be in a hotel room in New Mexico getting ready for a three-hour shuttle ride to the Crazy Cook monument to start our ~3000-mile walk to Canada. I am so looking forward to replacing my imagination of this long-awaited journey with the first real footsteps north. 

For now, I’m too busy getting ready to fully understand the leap we’re taking. I know only that I need to take it, come what may. 

Somehow I convinced this guy to miss baseball season. Miguel Cabrera’s last game, 2023.

Catching the backpacking bug—from a seven-year-old 

I’m 49 years old, and have been in love with the outdoors all my life. I’ve been backpacking since 2013, when our then-teenaged son Isaac and I set out on what we thought would be a one-off adventure in the Canadian Rockies after years of planning. One day when he was a little kid, riding in the back seat while I drove, he asked, “Mommy, before I go to college, can we hike the Appalachian Trail?” I of course said yes, as parents do in these scenarios. Unlike most of those scenarios, the idea stuck.

Seeking adventure

By the time Isaac was a teenager, neither of us were very interested in the AT in July: too many people, too hot, and not wild enough to be satisfying on a two-week section hike. Where could we go that would feel like a real adventure? Somehow we found Willmore Wilderness Park, north of Jasper and Banff along the Great Divide. The few online resources we found warned us it would be rugged and muddy, that the trails were intended for horses, not people. In exchange we were promised solitude, spectacular views, and bighorn sheep. Surely the trails weren’t that bad? We drove across Canada in three days, and headed into the great unknown with heavy packs and very little idea what we were doing. 

Willmore Wilderness Park, 2013. Our motto: Will it rain more? Yes, it will.

Learning the hard way

Just as we had been warned, Willmore hiking was tough, and our 50+ lb. packs didn’t help. We frequently lost the trail when it washed out in a river bed or disappeared on a mossy mountainside. It rained nonstop for at least half the 12-day trip. Our gear wasn’t warm enough, and it could never get dry. We took an on-trail zero trying to wait out the worst of the constant downpour, and set out the next day in weather just as miserable. Our state-of-the-art Magellan GPS almost immediately turned into a brick, so we got a lot better at map and compass on the fly. We also got braver: by the end of the hike a pile of fresh bear scat was no longer an omen but perhaps a blaze for a great shortcut. (We never did see those sheep, though.)

I will never forget how sore, exhausted, and filthy we were when we showed up at a hotel in Calgary to rest up and do laundry before beginning the long drive home, nor how thrilled I was to go through the Taco Bell drive-through after a week and a half of wishing a pizza would fall from the sky. 

I was immediately hooked on the exquisite suffering we had just endured, which I would later learn has a special name: 

Type II fun. 

Fun in hindsight. What could be better than that?!

For the drive home, we chose a scenic U.S. route. We hadn’t even made it to Mt. Rushmore when I was already plotting our next wilderness adventure. 

The author's son trying to dry his wet socks over a fire in Willmore Wilderness Park in 2013.

Mmm, barbecued socks! Soooo many socks. Willmore, 2013.

Getting serious 

I had caught the bug. I hiked more, and got lighter. I read Backpacking Light, swapped out my 6.5 lb. Gregory Deva pack for a 2.5-lb Octal. Packing for trips switched from “how can I cram more into this pack?” to “what else can I leave behind, and still be safe and comfortable?” I switched to zero drop trail runners, made a Fancee Feast stove, and replaced my 3.5oz folding knife with a tiny Swiss Army knife that weighs less than half an ounce.

On tough hikes everywhere from Yukon to South Africa to the Upper Peninsula, I learned the power of electrolytes, of eating well, and of getting enough sleep, which led me to switch to a hammock wherever possible. I learned I’m cool under pressure, but that my stubborn determination needs to be tempered with taking care of my body. And no matter how far I hiked, it felt like I could never get enough of being out there. I read long-distance hikers’ accounts with envy.

The CDT started calling my name. I bought Yogi’s guide, and started dreaming.

But I couldn’t see how a thru hike would fit into my life, and thought I would have to settle for CDT section hikes until retirement, 20 years away.

Section-hike dreams thwarted by pandemic

In early 2020, for our annual big adventure, Isaac and I had made a plan to hike from Benchmark to East Glacier on the CDT, mainly because it goes through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a truly wild section featuring the highest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48–and that doesn’t require contending with Glacier’s notorious permit system. When the pandemic first struck, we were hopeful that by August things would be better. But by mid summer the COVID rates in the communities around Yellowstone and Glacier were high, hitting Native communities especially hard. We reluctantly canceled our travel plans.

Tahquamenon Bay, first glimpse of Lake Superior on the NCT, 2020.

What could we do instead? The state and national park campgrounds were all closed, but the national forests were still open for dispersed camping. Was there a trail in driving distance from Ann Arbor where we could camp? Years before on a hike in the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula I’d noticed a blaze that said “NCT,” so when I opened OnX Backcountry and saw the North Country Trail, something clicked. It turned out that of the NCT’s 4800 miles, ranging from Vermont to North Dakota, more than 1165 miles are in Michigan, and many if not most of those miles are in national forests. Suddenly our plan B felt more like a long deferred plan A.

Walking across Michigan on the North Country Trail

In September 2020, Isaac and I spent a week hiking the beautiful and remote 130-mile Hiawatha Shore-to-Shore section, from the top end of the Mackinac Bridge dividing Lakes Michigan and Huron, to the Mouth of the Two-Hearted River on Lake Superior. I was blown away by the ecosystem diversity: turkeys hiding in oak savannah, bears foraging along glacial lakes, mushrooms and coral fungus in video game colors, and rainbow trout tumbling over each other in sandy-bottomed creeks.  I spent the winter planning solo hikes on other beautiful sections, with a plan to tackle the Manistee National Forest section the following June on my own. Unlike the far-flung Rockies, the trail in Michigan was close enough to make frequent section hikes possible.

Author's son taking a break on a bridge over a slow and shallow river.

Many fewer socks, many more skills. Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the North Country Trail, 2020.

The following spring I set out on my first solo long weekend hike, in the Manistee Forest. By late summer ’21 I had hiked enough of the Michigan NCT to realize I wanted to hike every step of it. In September 2022, I reached my goal, having hiked over 1165 miles in sections ranging from day hikes of 15 miles to 18-day sections of 260+ miles, in just over two years. Isaac joined me on the final 260-mile section from the Wisconsin border to Marquette, bringing the project full circle.

Porcupine Mountains State Park on the NCT, Michigan, 2022.

Dialing it in

The logistical challenges of hiking every last bit of the Michigan NCT in an efficient way was incredibly helpful for dialing in my pack contents and hiking style. I learned what it means to be “stupid light” in lower stakes situations than remote Yukon peaks, and found a happy medium between arriving to town with days of extra food, and screaming in under the wire with a handful of jellybeans and a single Taco Bell fire sauce packet.

I also learned I really, really love hiking alone—for the meditation of walking in silence, the pride of self-sufficiency, and the freedom to set my own pace.

Taking a break high above the Manistee River, 2021. These steep banks were used to roll old growth timber to the water.

I can make it on my own, but do I want to? 

In summer ’23 I hiked section G of the Great Divide Trail, which starts southeasterly at Kakwa Lake on the 54th parallel before heading into Willmore (hello, old friend!) and then onward toward Jasper. In seven days and 100 miles I saw more grizzlies than people, meeting only three other hikers, all of them heading northbound. The physical side didn’t phase me much, though I forded the chest-high Jackpine River over and over, had my shins battered by bushwhacking through willow, and plodded through bog and swamp. Mentally, though, I felt a little off my game. Maybe because a CDT thru hike had been on my mind, for the first time I was able to imagine clearly what it would be like psychologically if I were out there for five months. Even though the hike was only a week, and I felt perfectly confident and safe, being in such a remote place entirely on my own just wasn’t as fun as it could be with my best friend. 

Not gonna lie, it got a little lonely.

I watched a grizzly family from a safe distance and felt homesick. When a curious and playful caribou followed me for half a mile, I was grateful for the company even while worrying just a little that he might get too close and hurt me out of fear. Communicating with my husband by Garmin, trying to convey what I’d just experienced going over Big Shale Hill in a storm, feeling tired and lonely, I started to doubt if I even wanted to do a thru. Was it really worth it to be apart for so long, and to have such a big experience we couldn’t share? But when I reached my chickenwire-wrapped car (porcupines love brake lines!) at the Blueberry trailhead, I felt torn in two: needing to be home with him, and wanting to keep on walking. 

Willmore is still my happy place. Great Divide Trail section G, 2023.

I should mention that while he doesn’t need to backpack the same way I do, Todd is no outdoors slouch. His happy place is in a kayak on the Huron River, or sitting by a fire on a Lake Michigan beach, or jumping out of a plane. He’s a great partner who has always supported my hiking obsession. For the NCT project he frequently sacrificed his free time to help me drop a car at the far end of a 100-mile section, to meet up with me in towns for elk burgers and beers, and eventually to join me for a few multi-day sections. But the idea of asking him to drop everything to go out there for five months seemed like a bit much, and not fair to him. Why should he have to put all of his energy and time into my passion project, rather than into one of his own?

Better Together

So when I started to dream seriously about a thru hike, my default understanding was he’d meet up with me here and there on the CDT, but that I’d mostly hike it alone. This bittersweet knowledge, that in order to do this amazing hike I’d also have to be away from my best friend for over five months, was heavily on my mind as we decided if I we could make it happen in 2024. And yet I knew that if we determined it was possible for me to go, I had to do it. I knew that the regret I’d feel for not trying would be more painful in the long run than missing him for half a year.

Then he surprised me: in early December, as I presented yet another set of hypothetical meet-up options on my nascent itinerary, he asked, 

“What if I came with you?” 

Now we had a whole new project, to figure out how to walk away from our off-trail lives together. The four months since then have been a wild ride, and now it’s almost here.

The author and her husband wearing their top quilts like jackets.

No puffy, no problem.

Why why why? (A pre-trail FAQ)

We get it, you love backpacking. But quitting your jobs in mid-life, just to HIKE? Why are you doing this crazy thing?

  • We’re 49 and 52. Would it have been ideal to take our first thru hike in our twenties or even our thirties? Maybe, but we were busy going to grad school, working, and raising kids. Now we have an empty nest, and our bodies are still strong.
  • It’s time for a big break–a mental reset. I am looking forward to each day’s responsibilities boiling down to “stay alive,” and “make forward progress.” I hope that while I walk my brain will bubble up all sorts of good questions to work through, in service of a happy second half. 
  • I refuse to look away from how humans are changing the planet, but it’s a joyless path if all we do is sorrow over it. I need to love the world as it is. In the words of Aldous Huxley, “It is not enough to protect the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.” In a time of strife and confusion, joy and delight can be radical states of being. 
  • I’m hiking the CDT because I want to prove I can!  

Why the CDT? Isn’t that a weird choice for your first hike over 260 miles? 

  • The CDT is still wild, unfinished, and relatively lightly traveled. I bet it won’t always be this way. It has challenging, diverse terrain, lots of way-finding, and long stretches between towns, which means more time in wilderness and less time in civilization. 
  • If it turns out I can only do one of the Triple Crown trails as a thru hike, I want it to be the toughest one. I bet my 70-year-old self will enjoy those AT bed and breakfasts, and meeting the next generation of hikers on trail!
  • While it’s an unorthodox choice as a first thru, I’m confident in my skills and endurance. A 3000-mile hike isn’t exactly the same as stringing together 12 250-mile hikes, but I have proof of concept. With actual trail legs anything is possible.

Misery loves company on the Franconia Ridge Loop on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire, 2023.

Why NOBO? Doesn’t everybody know the CDT is better SOBO?

  • Hiking northbound lets us leave chilly Michigan spring and start in the New Mexico desert, where we’ll get to build our bodies back to summer shape before the elevation gets serious. 
  • I’d rather be walking toward my happy place in the Canadian Rockies in the home stretch. I’ve read several accounts from SOBOs who talk about their final week in NM as “boring and not worth it.” I’d like to be in the desert with different expectations.
  • Hiking NOBO makes the weather window a bit longer, and is a better fit for our careers. We’d like to reach Canada in late September, rather than reaching Mexico in November and returning to real life just as the holidays are kicking off. 

Michiganders can’t help grinning in the desert in spring. Catalina State Park, Arizona, 2023.

What’s Next? 

Please subscribe for updates and follow along as we figure it out! 

Coming soon: 

  • Gear — what I’m carrying, what’s new for this hike, and explanations of some unorthodox choices
  • Food — nutrition, special treats, and resupply logistics
  • First night on trail 

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Comments 6

  • Chad Engelhardt : Apr 1st

    You’re living the dream! Thanks for sharing with us back home in A2.

    • Liz Seger : Apr 1st

      Thanks, Chad! Hope you have some great adventures this year!

  • Donna Brooks : Apr 2nd

    Enjoy your big adventure! My husband and I live in Pagosa Springs CO and have a summer cabin in platoro Co so maybe we’ll see each other this summer. If you can, hike the mountains not the roads, so much more beautiful.

  • Michael W Hoag : Apr 2nd

    You had me at chicken wired car. Lol any pics?

  • Dimples : Apr 3rd

    You will never regret the time together on this adventure! Good luck and have fun and listen to your body.

  • Laura Gray : Apr 8th

    So excited for your adventure and the opportunity to follow along. Enjoy the sites and time together. Be safe, have fun!


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