Logging Off into the Wild
Breaking and rebuilding desk jockeys
By Andrew Norman
The rules were explicit: “There will be no women or whining, blogging or Tweeting. “There will be whiskey, blood, rocks, fires, snot rockets, swearing, heavily peppered meats, and probably a night or two of freezing our tails off,” the e-mail read.
Can four well-domesticated, NPR-listening, chair-swiveling journalists, pushed until they bust like cheap jump drives, turn into steel filing cabinets? It took two planning sessions at local dive bars, dozens of e-mail conversations and online chats before we set out to see. We did it under the auspices of the newly formed Northwoods Organization for Maintaining Authentic Allegiance with Michigan — NOMAAM — and with a plan to hike the 20-mile Manistee River Trail in the Manistee-Huron National Forest.
With our three-day reckoning fast approaching, our intrepid leader — inspired by not having much to do otherwise — e-mailed this rallying cry, a digital call to arms to forsake all that is digital:
“Here it is, D-Day Minus One, and I’m sure your thoughts are astir with evil forebodings and mortal fears. But let your hearts and minds be quiet, for we are on the eve of a voyage that shall be remembered generations hence as one of those moments in our fair state’s history when men faced great travail with courage, secure in the knowledge that their striving was not in vain, but that their blood should nurture the garden of knowledge where our sons may learn to be great men.
“Fortune favors the bold, the poet said, and so shall our steps be guided kindly by the fates.”
“Sounds good,” someone replied.
We arrived at the trail’s access point the next afternoon. It took about an hour at the car to force all our provisions — warm clothes, tents, a fishing pole, sleeping bags, canned and dried food, four ears of corn, a pot and pan, two bottles of whiskey and one roll of toilet paper — into our backpacks. After observing that our loads felt lighter than expected, we filled our water bottles and stepped off the highway.
In single file, we trudged with vigor on an ever-narrower dirt trail along a small lake. The rocks were loose, and I found myself leaning hillside to keep from falling. But we hadn’t hiked five minutes before I slipped, landed on my stomach and grasped a boulder in the trail to keep from plunging into the water.
By the time I regained my footing, the map was out and we learned the Manistee trail was a half-mile up, on the other side of the highway. On something of a fisherman’s footpath — an incredibly nimble fisherman — I had already skinned my hand.
There was even blood.
Ambitiously and naively, we had voted to start on the part of the trail with the most elevation changes, difficult ascents and infrequent water sources. Soon, we were experiencing the honest-to-goodness wilderness, out of screaming distance from civilization — aside from the 60-something woman who breezed by us while we huffed and puffed and handed me the driver’s license I dropped near our car. We were out of touch with jobs, wives, girlfriends, news feeds and fantasy football.
Like grunts on a mission, we humped our packs to the regular beat of tennis shoe stomps, muffled groans and frequent adjustments of nylon straps.
None of us had ever done anything like this. We were tired and thirsty. Our backs hurt. I changed my walking style four times to decrease pressure on different body parts. We later admitted questioning our ability to last two more days. The thought of the other guys waving to me as my still body swung above the trees on an orange rescue gurney as I was airlifted to safety kept me going — and made me want to lie down.
No one said a word.
Through sheer will — the kind that forces writers to grit their teeth and pound out a decent, maybe slightly better, story on deadline — we finally reached a camp spot by a brook. We flung off our packs, filtered water, set up tents and cooked dinner.
We had hiked nearly half the trail that afternoon and we knew we could walk the next two days as slowly as our bones, joints and new muscles allowed us.
Sitting on a log by a campfire that night, we talked of forests and streams, beginnings and endings. We shared dirty jokes and tinked, thumped, knocked and clanged a decent, maybe slightly worse, backwoods bluegrass drumbeat.
Over the next two days, we were outsmarted by rainbow trout, creeped out by a sea lamprey clinging to one seen below a footbridge and humbled by a shooting star in a clear black sky.
I experienced more untouched beauty and moments of uninterrupted clarity in September in northern Michigan than come in a lifetime of workweeks.
And on the three good legs between us, dented but made of steel, we hobbled to our car.
And grabbed our cell phones.
Andy Balaskovitz, Jeff Gillies and Andy McGlashen contributed to this story.