Day 4 – Dangers of the Road and the Long, Hard 8.3

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Thursday, June 1st, 8.55 a.m.- Departed from the Squirrel Cage Motel in Willow River, MN.

Conditions: Temp – 51* / Wind – Calm, but picking up out of the NW to 10-20 mph and becoming more gusty later in the day. By evening, the winds were again calm. /  Sky Conditions – Clear skies with patchy clouds. The blue skies and brilliant sunshine were very much like yesterday, but today it got much warmer. Temperature exceeded 85* in the late afternoon.

7:10 p.m. – Arrived Willow River, MN, 15.7 miles, 45,750 steps, 524 miles remaining.

Today on the road was something of a roller coaster. When leaving the motel in Willow River via the Willard Munger State Trail, I was happy, well rested and optimistic. Jill had come down to see me the night before, bringing a few items I requested and helping me to eliminate some unnecessary ones from my pack as well. It wasn’t possible for her to stay the night, but I was most grateful for the chance to see her. Even two days apart had seemed like a very long time, and with her presence fresh in my heart and mind, my steps were lighter, and the morning walk was beautiful and effortless. The trees were a brilliant green, the skies a deep and endless blue and the air smelled of lilacs in full bloom and sun-warmed pined needles. It was the kind of morning one imagines and hopes for when planning an adventure such as this.

Sometimes the most spectacular things seen spending time in nature are anything but the largest. As I learned in my Nature Writing class with Yvonne Rutford at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, there are fascinating worlds to be observed on the miniature scale as well. As I happily strolled down the trail on this particular morning, a tiny but fascinating spectacle stopped me dead in my tracks. A column of ants roughly an inch wide was crossing the paved foot path under my feet. There were thousands and thousands of them, and they continued to emerge from the grass on one side of the trail. In a hurried but organized fashion, they streamed across the pavement, making me think that it was “moving day” for this society of ants. I’ve never seen anything like it before, nor do I expect I ever will again. Here’s a link to the video I took of this rare sighting: https://youtu.be/atsPAEn46bQ. I would encourage you to check it out!

After traveling four or five miles, I arrived at the small town of Rutledge, MN. The intensity of the late morning sun had already increased significantly, and it seemed that a break in the shade was in order. This was also the place where I was planning to leave the Willard Munger State Trail and instead walk on the shoulder of Highway 61. It gave me a much more direct line to Sandstone, Minnesota and to my eventual destination for the day: the Field of Dreams Airport in Hinckley, Minnesota. Passing through the quiet little town with a population of only a few hundred people, I searched for any place I might relax for a few moments out of the sun.

My search led me to a tiny bait shop/convenience store, the likes of which I had not seen since I was a kid. I asked the owner if he would mind my sitting down in the shade on the side of his store, and he agreed without hesitation. Feeling the heat of the day, I purchased  a couple of electrolyte enriched waters and consumed them as I rested. Even though it was only 10:30 a.m., the temperature had already climbed to nearly 80 degrees. I finished the waters, had some salty snacks, and prepared to continue on with my day. As I hooked up the trailer and began moving, the establishment owner and his friend (sitting in chairs at the front of the store) began asking questions. I explained what my journey was all about, and as they listened with fascination, I asked if I could take their picture. The owner was reluctant at first, but his friend assured him that there could be no harm in it. I offered to step back and take a picture that showed less detail, and the deal was made. They were a couple of pretty cool old fellas, and wished me nothing but the best as I departed south on the shoulder of Highway 61. It was at that point that the bliss of the morning walk began to slowly erode away.

The Dangers – Because Highway 61 runs nearly north and south, there was little opportunity to find shady areas. The farther I went, the less shade was available, and I could feel the sun draining my energy and burning my skin. My goal was to get to Sandstone, Minnesota, but it soon became apparent that walking for three hours in the midday sun to cover the 9 mile route was not going to be possible without some sort of a break. After about an hour and a half of walking, I was seriously looking for a place to get off my feet, get into the shade and sit out the worst heat of the day. The temperature had risen to 85 degrees, and the light breeze at my back was doing little to keep me cool. I marveled at the fact that, just 48 hours earlier, it was everything I could do to stay warm!

At the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 18, I found the Country Fit Fitness Center (pictured). While it may not look like much of a place to take a break, it offered the shade that I was desperately seeking, and a means to get free of the sweltering pavement. I sat in the shade offered by the eave of the building for nearly two hours, waiting for the worst of the heat to pass while re-hydrating myself. At 2:15 p.m., I gathered my belongings and returned to the shoulder of Highway 61 to cover the remaining 4.5 miles to Sandstone, Minnesota. I set out feeling more refreshed and optimistic, but far more wary of the effects of the sun.

Through out the earlier part of the day – and during the rest of the afternoon – I began encountering a hazard that I had anticipated, but not really seen up to that point: dogs. Especially in the country, I expected that dogs might come running out to the road to harass me, and during this part of the walk, they most certainly did. From small poodles to giant german shepherds, no less than nine dogs came barking and chasing after me. I had prepared for dog attacks by researching their behaviors, and by arming myself with the same “puppy pepper spray”  that is on the belt of many postal carriers. Although it was in my hand several times, I did not have to use it. Based on the numerous dog run-ins on this stretch of road, I made a pact with myself to keep a keener eye out so as to anticipate their movements. Most of them are just curious, but some of them appear to downright mean. I’d rather not find out which they are…

I arrived in Sandstone, MN around 3:45 p.m. Because I hadn’t really had a solid meal all day, I was looking forward to sitting down in an air conditioned restaurant and enjoying a big lunch/dinner. Amy’s Country Cafe in Sandstone, Minnesota had been my destination all along, and I was excited and relieved to arrive there. At that time of the day, there were relatively few people in the place, and I was able to spread out, relax and have a good meal. At about 4:30 p.m., I finished up, collected my gear, and prepared to finish up the final 8.3 miles of the day. My server Melea wished me the best of luck, offered me some nutritious beverages for the trip and sent me on my way feeling really good about what I was doing!

The Long, Hard 8.3 – Most of us learned when we were small children that the shortest distance between to points is a straight line. Generally speaking, that wisdom holds true. However, in the case of this walk, the shortest distance isn’t necessarily the safest, easiest or least offensive route to travel. There’s a learning curve involved with an adventure like this one, and the 8.3 miles traveled between Sandstone, Minnesota and the Field of Dreams Airport in Hinckley, Minnesota taught me some valuable lessons.

The Old Military Road travels south out of Sandstone, Minnesota.  The road is nearly a direct line between there and the Field of Dreams Airport in Hinckley, Minnesota – my destination for the evening. At some point along the way, it turns into the Government Road, but there’s no appreciable difference in its quality. It’s a rolling, curving, tree lined gravel road that is relatively well traveled by local residents. 8.3 miles of walking would normally take me about 2 hours and 50 minutes to complete. This particular stretch took nearly 3.5 hours, and I was nearly at my wit’s end by the time I’d finished it. Here were some of the important lessons I learned:

  1. Never, ever again travel on gravel roads.  Fast moving traffic throwing up rocks while passing very closely is not a good thing. Also, breathing gravel dust while working significantly harder  pull the trailer through soft gravel really takes the fun out of things.
  2. When traveling just before sunset on a gravel road that cuts through the forest, one should expect to be harassed by a mosquito or two. In some cases, one should expect to be swarmed by mosquitoes. The latter was the case. Had it not been for the TerraShield bug repellent given to me by my good friends Jeff and Selma Stephenson, I may not actually be writing this at all, or it might be written in crayon. I can handle a few mosquitoes. This was an all out assault. Apparently there isn’t a lot of “fresh meat” that’s stupid enough to walk down that road. I was popular…
  3. LISTEN when people warn you not to take a certain route. Others had suggested that a different route might be better; I had even driven the road in advance and seen the potential for problems myself. Yet there I was, covered in dust and sweat, and getting more and more aggravated with every step I took. Never again.

There was some light near the end of the tunnel: a small black bear popped out on the road in front of me, and I was able to get a picture of him. Honestly, though? I’ve seen bears before, and a lot closer than that one. It was cute, but really not worth the agony. Huffing and puffing my way up out of the woods to see the Field of Dreams Airport was a sight for sore eyes. For the record, they weren’t the only things on me that ere sore.

Exhausted and frustrated with myself, I walked on to the airport property. I was greeted there by Brian Weidendorf, owner of the airfield. He made sure I was well taken care of for the evening. I got a shower, pitched my tent in a beautiful spot by a pond and watched a stunning sunset while pondering my difficult and sometimes dangerous day, and the series of questionable decisions that led to it. Live and learn, right? I learned a lot on Day 4. Thankfully, I’m still alive to write about it. Hopefully, I will make better decisions tomorrow.

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