Trail Magic

By Yolanda Deloach, Thousand-Miler
Yolanda Deloach on the Ice Age Trail. All images in this article were taken by Deloach on her thousand-mile journey,
Yolanda Deloach on the Ice Age Trail. All images in this article were taken by Deloach on her thousand-mile journey,

The human experience allows for growth and change if we are open to it. During our life experience, we may find ourselves lost. Lost in a situation we could not have imagined we would ever encounter. Ultimately, it is our choice to stay on the wrong path or seek a new one.

My year on the Ice Age Trail helped me to leave a spirit crushing path. During my newbie trail days, someone had told me that there was magic on the trail. I was intrigued, but I also thought it was cliche–something cool to say about trail hiking. But as my miles added up, this magic began to reveal itself.

Yolanda discovered the joy of a sunrise hike and coffee.

The trail began for me in my home county of Marathon on the Plover River Segment. Because the trail winds around Marathon County, I was able to access many miles of the trail within an hour’s drive. This was perfect, as the time I chose to begin the trail coincided with the beginning of Covid. April 2020. The magic of the trail introduced itself to me on a sunrise hike. Sunbeams filtered through the trees, illuminating the carpet of ramps that spread as far as I could see.

I did the Marathon County segments twice in April of 2020, I have a Facebook hiking page and I didn’t want to promote unsafe travel while being asked to shelter in place. By May, I moved on to segments in surrounding counties. I utilized my bike to shuttle myself. My high school daughter shuttled me for all of Langlade County where bike shuttling would have been quite long. Getting a teen out of bed before dawn took bribing with Kwik Trip coffee and donuts. Her contribution allowed me to experience the magic of skinny dipping on Summit Moraine and listening to loons call at Camp Susan on Highland Lakes.

I camped throughout the north, which I wanted to complete before the start of November’s gun deer season. By now, the magic of the trail was everywhere. The stars over Taylor County sparkled and pulsated with enough energy to wake me during the night for a quick peek. A deer bleating next to my tent during the night startled me awake in Polk County. I had never heard that before and was unsure of its source. It leaped away through the woods, cueing me that it was a deer.

Camping on IAT. Photo by Yolanda Deloach - square

In the Chequamegon National Forest, I awoke before dawn to October snow, the magic of the season’s first snowfall. Wolves howling on a late October night in Rusk County, where I lay in my sleeping bag with no cell service, let me know that we walk this earth with incredible creatures. It was comforting to know that Fiona (my 2019 Nissan Frontier) stood guard a few yards from my tent. A fox darted across the trail in Chippewa County. A porcupine scurried up a tree in Taylor County. And ticks and mosquitoes made sure to announce that the forest’s smallest creatures could make an impact.

I bike shuttled much of my way through the north. Both of my bear sightings took place on remote gravel roads. But trail magic also showed itself in those who took their time to shuttle me. They held gems of knowledge about their area. The minutes I spent driving with them became mini tour sessions. Throughout the trail I learned interesting facts that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Bike Shuttling on IAT. Photo by Yolanda Deloach

I completed from Polk County to Portage County as planned before gun deer season. I thought maybe I would be emotionally healed by the North’s completion. I was on my way. But I had to keep moving. It was time to head south. I thought I was leaving behind the best of the trail. The beaver dams, the bear, the isolation, the ruggedness … everything I loved about the trail. But the southern portion of the trail brought a different kind of magic. People.

If I was going to head south, I decided to start at the state’s bottom. Green County. I would move north to do the central portion of the trail. Then I would hike from Rock County to finish at the Eastern Terminus. It would be winter during the southern portion of the trail. Dispersed camping options with a vehicle were not available as they were in the north. I couldn’t stealth camp because Fiona would give us away. I was able to camp at closed for the season campgrounds such as New Glarus Woods, Mauthe Lake, Ottawa Lake and Point Beach. But that wasn’t enough to get me through the trail.

With Covid surging, social distancing was crucial. I felt a responsibility as a nurse to advocate for responsible Covid behavior. I began to reach out for assistance and the response was generous. I stayed in garages, setting up a camping cot next to Fiona. I tented in yards. With minimal contact, I arrived at a convenient time for my hosts, always bearing a gift of maple syrup from my area and was gone before sunrise. One of my garage hosts in December was a Thousand Miler, who I had hiked with a couple of days Up North. We wore coats and ate socially distanced dinners together in her garage. Covid was sweeping through both of our workplaces.

A couple from Illinois messaged me the directions to their land for camping. A shuttle volunteer offered their lake house for shelter when early spring rain was forecasted. I slept in the basement of a couple’s home who offered a wonderful meal and homemade cookies. A friend in Sheboygan hosted me the last two nights on the trail after campgrounds officially opened for the season. It didn’t occur to me to make reservations early for Potawatomi State Park as I was used to empty campgrounds. I resorted to getting a motel twice during the trail year. Those were last minute decisions in Janesville and Algoma.

Camping in Garages. Photo by Yolanda Deloach

Winter on the trail came with cold nights either in my tent or a garage. I got up each morning in the dark, drove to the trailhead where I ate a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. Fiona offered heat while I enjoyed coffee and NPR before starting the day. Each day was a race with the sun to complete as many miles as I could before dark. The winter’s highlight was hiking Holy Hill on a foggy Sunday. I was treated to the basilica’s noon bells as I made my way through the snow and heavy fog. Magic.

Winter on Holy Hill. Photo by Yolanda Deloach
Winter on the IAT. Photo by Yolanda Deloach

In Manitowoc County, I reached out to a monastery and a convent. I was invited to witness the monk’s chanting prayers and share meals. Conversation was allowed at the first night’s dinner so we could get to know each other. But the second night was in silence, as that is their norm. These monks from around the world added richness to my trail experience and gave me a history lesson of St. Nazianz.

North of the monastery, the Holy Family Convent gave a different experience. Sister Carmen Marie led me to a quiet garden house behind the massive convent which housed well over one hundred nuns. I thanked her and watched her walk away carrying the large jug of maple syrup and flowers I had given her. I was left to myself. The garden house offered two nights of respite after each day of hiking. I wandered the convent’s cemeteries and marveled at those women who gave their lives to service.

While my feet walked a trail’s path, my mind released a destructive one. I began walking the new path I was seeking. The Ice Age Trail showed me that life changing trail magic is real and available to anyone willing to believe.

Closing in on the Eastern Terminus required long road walks, as did previous portions of the trail. Winds roared across open fields. I began to wear a bandana over my face to protect against wind burn. Road walking was actually appealing to me. When I was twelve, in 1980, I read both of Peter Jenkins’ books telling of his experience road walking across the country. The Walk Across America and The Walk West had a lifelong impact on me. Road walking offered an experience that a footpath through the woods did not. A chance to experience every day America. The farms, small towns and hidden burgs that make up Wisconsin’s countryside were highlighted along these routes.

I was closing in on finishing the trail by late April 2021. That would be perfect…to complete the trail from one April to the next. But I chose to delay the finishing by three weeks. My youngest daughter was on an extended visit with her brother’s family in Texas. I wanted her to be there at my finish. After an eight day stretch on the trail in late April, I drove home, leaving the Sturgeon Bay segment for May 15.

I celebrated the completion of the trail with nearly a dozen fellow Wannabes, three of my five children and one of my grandchildren. A year on the trail came to an end. I accomplished what I came to do. I solo hiked 85% of the trail, which allowed time for reflection, healing and growth. Most of the 15% done with others came near the end of the year after the magic had done its work.

While my feet walked a trail’s path, my mind released a destructive one. I began walking the new path I was seeking. The Ice Age Trail showed me that life changing trail magic is real and available to anyone willing to believe.