I have always been drawn to adventure, though sometimes not in healthy ways. In college I drank too much, not only because it was the norm but also for the way that normal rules disappeared and I never knew what would happen. After drinking, friends were more likely to go skinny-dipping or dance without embarrassment. Of course, I probably don’t have to tell you that we were also more likely to make poor decisions.
Maybe I would still be an occasional binge drinker if I hadn’t found a more rewarding type of adventure. In the past two years, I thru hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and all of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). I loved not knowing what was ahead—who I would meet, where I would sleep, or what the trail would look like.
That kind of healthy, positive adventure is hard to find in regular life. Most of us stay around the same people and places every day. There are obvious benefits to routines and community, but as a twentysomething it sometimes feels like most jobs are administrative or service-oriented and most time off is spent sitting in a loud bar. Thru hiking is a fantastic short term solution to boredom because the trail is always changing and, unlike drinking, you aren’t likely to regret it.
Technically, I could spend every year thru hiking. In five months on the CDT I only spent about $3,000 (or $600 a month) not including gear and transportation to the trail. It was possible to save that much during the rest of the year by working three service jobs and living as a caretaker in a rural zen center with cheap rent. Having a natural aversion to spending money and no student loans also helped.
But then, there are those other seven months. While working three jobs and planning for hikes, I struggled to find time and energy for other interests. As friends enrolled in grad school, I felt aimless. Backpacking is not a career direction, and doesn’t contribute much to society aside from a low carbon footprint. On trail I ran into weekend backpackers who told me they wanted to thru hike, but didn’t want to leave their jobs. They were jealous of my long adventure, and I was jealous that they loved their work. The bind appears to be permanent: Now that I’m back in Chicago, in school for design, I love my work—but I still ache for adventure when friends post photos from life on trail.
In April I read an article about Alistair Humphreys, who won the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award in 2012 for a series of small, local trips he calls “microadventures.” The idea is that it’s not necessary to spend months in the most magnificent scenery to have an adventure. In his mind, adventure is just about getting out of your routine, physically challenging yourself, and seeing new places and people. It’s something you can do anywhere, even with a full time job.
I loved the idea of fitting smaller, less extravagant adventures into regular life. I thought of Annie Dillard and Thoreau, who each wrote about wilderness while living in suburbia.
So I searched for a trip that would be close, quick and cheap, and I found the Ice Age Trail (IAT). It’s a flat, thousand mile trail that winds through the small towns and glacial landscapes in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin isn’t known for dramatic beauty, and the Ice Age Trail doesn’t attract many thru hikers. According to the website, only 110 people are recognized as completing the entire trail, and most of them did so in sections. It’s obscure enough that the trail association commented on my instagram photos to thank me for visiting.
In 10 days and about $300, I hiked over 250 miles of the IAT. I walked by a small zoo in a town park, a mystical church on top of a tall hill, and a lot of farms and swamps. I snacked on cheese curds and grocery store muffins and tried to find a hot meal once a day. When it got dark I crawled into a clump of trees and laid out my sleeping bag.
The best part was that the adventure came without the long-term stresses of a thru hike. I had no end destination and no daily mileage quota. I didn’t worry about minor injuries, which on a long trip could grow into a major problem. Instead of navigating while panting up hills, I followed a flat, well-marked path and caught up on audiobooks and podcasts. When it rained, I spent a guiltless rest day watching movies.
After a week and a half, I had met lots of locals but hadn’t run into any other IAT section hikers. The weather forecasted a week of rain, and I woke up with a spider bite on my lip. Lonely, exhausted and refreshed, I was ready to come home.
I know that hiking alone through the woods and swamps of Wisconsin isn’t everyone’s idea of a good vacation. And if I had unlimited money and time I might be in Iceland or Alaska. But Wisconsin has its own charm, and plenty of unknown for a small adventure.
I start a new job this month, which is sort of an adventure in itself. I am not sure will happen. But in case that isn’t exciting enough, I also ordered this $21 inflatable raft to explore Lake Michigan. And I’ve booked my weekends with mini adventures like hiking a marathon around the city, sleeping on my roof, and taking a bus to a far away lake to swim.
I am hoping that the combination of interesting work and miniature adventures will keep me from quitting and heading back into the woods, though I can’t be sure. I just learned about the Hot Springs Trail, which goes from Santa Barbara to northern Idaho stopping at over 80 hot springs. It seems like a good backup plan for the next time I get restless.
Myla Fay is a designer and a long-distance hiker living in Chicago.
Illustrations by the author.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.