Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why Question?

Careful.  This is a tricky riddle.  It's the deepest inquiry any conscious being can explore.  It has two precisely opposing, perfect answers but only one correct response.

Stumped?  Here is the correct response:

(This is not Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism.  It is Budai, a Chinese deity or folk figure who lived around 907-923AD.  Some faith traditions say he replaces or will replace Gautama Buddha.  A Zen kōan describes his central teaching.  While handing out candy to children, he was approached by a monk, who asked "What is the meaning of Chan [his religion]?" He responded with "How does one realize Chan?"  Kōans are meant to be deliberately perplexing - paradoxes at heart.)

When distilled to its essence, the question is a paradox.  One of the best I've found.  The balanced response to all life's intractable problems is to dwell on them only so long - long enough to distill them down to the inherent paradox (every problem is rooted in one), then to accept the absurdity, throw up your hands, and have a good cleansing laugh.

So what are the two perfect, precisely opposing answers?

The apostle Paul, from out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, has offered a fine version of one side of the argument.

My father clued me into this answer during one of our deep philosophical discussions.  I was arguing that Jesus could not possibly be the one and only son of a truly universal God.  He would have no relevance to an intelligent civilization at another time in a far away galaxy.  They could never even hope to receive the good news of the Gospel.

My wonderful Dad, who I miss and think of daily, summed up his unshakable faith with this simple wise answer: "It is sufficient."

Why question, indeed?  Doubt is the devil's tool.  Never question.  Accept.  On faith.

Paul even threw in a great paradox that is another way of explaining Budai's Kōan.  When we accept our weakness, yield to our human inability to resolve the intractable problems of existence, only then do we find perfect strength and unlimited power to actually realize (tap into) our personal God.

The modern critical thinker offers the opposing perfect answer.

Seek to beat back the unknown.  Minimize uncertainty at every opportunity.  Maximize awareness so that we can more fully and successfully navigate this existence.

This answer has been in vogue among progressives for a couple centuries, but I think the pendulum is swinging back the other way now - back toward balance.

Einstein himself, late in his life, may have contributed to this trend, writing in his 1949 book "The World as I see it":

"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

Seeking balance.  I've found it is the most productive endeavor one can pursue.

Balance between beating one's head against a wall in order to break through it and beating one's head against a wall because it feels so good when we stop.

Balance between balance and imbalance.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The White Pine Trail - Too Good to Miss

Riverwalk, downtown Rockford, where the North Country Trail joins the White Pine Trail.

The North Country Trail put me on this 92-mile-long Michigan 'Linear State Park', but I'll be damned if it's gonna get me off.

After forcing me to do another dreary road walk from near Lowell to the town of Rockford, northeast of Grand Rapids, the North Country Trail joins the White Pine Trail, a well-supported rail trail with state funding and its own web site.  The NCT follows the White Pine Trail for 7.4 miles to Cedar Springs and then leaves it, launching the hiker on yet another long road walk.

Another road walk? Really? When, stretching northward before my feet lies a long, beautiful, finished, non-motorized trail with peaceful country walking well away from aggressive dogs and harrying traffic - just beckoning me to follow it?

Here's what Hat number nineteen says to that.

I recalled the advice from good old Yogi Berra, who once said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

And as venerable old Abe Lincoln said, while agreeing to pose with Hat 21 in Rockford, "Be sure you put your feet in the right place [PJ] ..."

So I did.  I've been enticed to leave the North Country Trail once again.

Hat 22 along an unpaved section.

It doesn't hurt that it's a short-cut too.  The White Pine Trail will take me 77 miles from Cedar Springs (at NCT mile 215) to Cadillac, then I'll have an 18 mile road walk to rejoin the NCT at mile 411.5.

The North Country Trail will meander through National Forest land on foot-only trail and I'll be following a bicycle trail.  Mistake?  I don't think so for at least five reasons.

First, bike trail provides more variety.  I've hiked National Forest all over the country.  Unlike parks, National Forests are there simply to preserve and manage trees.  Trails in national forests are 'Green Tunnel' all day.  You see lots of trees and are hard pressed to find much else worthy of note.  Not so on bike trails.  In the midst of the long road walk to Rockford, the NCT used another short bike trail, just four miles--the Cannon Township Bike Trail--and it gave me a significant boardwalk over a wetland, where hat number twenty posed

and some artfully constructed revetments.

Second benefit of bike trails.  Cultural enrichment.

This is the fourth bike trail I've hiked that doubles as a preferred Amish thoroughfare.  I had hat 23 pose before a field of hand-gathered hay, the hundreds of neat stacks barely visible through the morning mist.

The Amish Settlement here, between Morley and Stanwood is among the most conservative anywhere.  Had I taken the North Country Trail I would have been oblivious to this Amish settlement and its contribution to the farm-to-table healthy lifestyle movement.  Conservative?  Well, this particular Amish Farm has its own web site and Facebook page.

Reason three - Infrastructure.  Bike trails are better funded, get more government attention (including maintenance), than hiking trails.  Trailheads are abundant and spacious, usually have restrooms, and often have other services nearby.

Reason four - although there are dogs, they aren't aggressive.  This includes the kind out walking their humans on leashes as well as this unaccompanied mascot of Ferris State University at Big Rapids, who happily posed with Hat number eighteen.

Finally, reason five - serendipity.  I'll be hiking lots more trail in the woods once I finish the White Pine Trail.  In most places the hiker doesn't have two distinct options to choose from.  But here I had a chance to do something different.  A chance too good to miss.

The five days covered in this report started near Grand Rapids and ended at Big Rapids.  Here are the screen shots of the GPS tracks.

And here, for reference, is the interactive map - the big picture, which can be zoomed to see much more detail.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Surging through Lowell - Home Base of the North Country Trail

NCT trail headquarters building on a quiet early Sunday Morning

I stormed into town on a Saturday with the streets jammed.  The town of Lowell was abuzz.  The streets were packed with tourists and celebrants.  It was their annual Riverwalk Festival.  Every parking spot downtown was full.  The only spot I could find was 'Fifteen minute parking only'.  But that was enough, because in the heart of all the swarms of people - the town's biggest attraction of the summer - the North Country Trail Headquarters office was closed.  Their office hours are 1-4PM M-Th., 10AM-4PM on Friday, and they apparently saw no reason to make an exception for the festival.

Maybe they had a vendor booth that I didn't notice in my allotted fifteen minutes.  But as circumstances worked out, I never did get a chance to return to town when the offices were open.

It would have been just for talk - just to check in - a feel good moment.  I already have the t-shirt and hat (number 24 in my rotation)

I already have all the maps I need, and I'm already a member.  My only questions were answered on their web site. (They have had just sixteen end-to-end hikers in the trail's history.  They offer a patch and a rocker to long distance hikers at various mileage levels and state completions.)  If I just wanted to look around, then I think I managed to do it all by peering through the windows on the quiet Sunday morning when the photo up top was taken.  The space inside was small.

The Lowell Riverwalk itself is small -- only three blocks long. (Note that the on-the-ground trail blazes and the 2013 handout map from the NCT web site [shown below], tell the hiker to skip one of those three blocks, between High Street and King Street.  The online interactive map includes that extra block.)

The best of the North Country Trail hiking in the area starts a mile north of town and goes through some hilly landscapes with deep woods.

There is a high bluff above the river with what can only be described as a knife-edge ridge walk

And there are a few high barren spots where the soil is too sandy to support vegetation.

Hat number seventeen got to pose for both of those cameos.  But this report starts two days earlier when I was wearing Hat fifteen and coming out of the north end of Barry State Game area.  This looks like an old nursery or Christmas tree farm.

Next, coming into Lowell from the south there is a walk along the Paul Henry Rail Trail along the Thornapple River through Middleville.

Everything looks peaceful and normal in the Friday morning downtown market scene above, but it's deceptive.  All the power in town was out and it would stay out until Sunday.  Just before dawn on that Friday morning a horrendous severe squall came through.  Fifty-five mph winds had ripped down dozens of trees.  I had to crawl through several major blow-downs like this in a few miles of paved rail trail.

After the Paul Henry Trail, there is a short section of really pleasant woods trail through the Middleville State Game Area, then there are nine miles of road walk to Lowell - corn fields with blue sky and roadside sky blue cornflowers for hat number sixteen to pose with

This road walk includes a little dip into Dolan Preserve, with a section of dead end trail beside the Coldwater River

and it includes an inexplicable bypass of the considerable boardwalk trail through Maher Audubon Sanctuary.

With a little bushwhack from Woodschool road along the ridgeline between wetlands I easily included Maher Sanctuary in my hike.  NCT could easily build trail along that ridge.  I'm surprised that they haven't already.

All in all an eventful and variety-filled three days along the North Country Trail.  For another perspective I present the screenshots of the GPS tracks.

And for the more inquisitive, you can delve into as much detail as you wish on the interactive map below.

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Now, I don't normally do this, but I have built up some concerns about the NCT management.  It seems to me that there is a disconnect between the North Country trail leadership and the trail hiker experience.  If they can't even correctly blaze the trail within three blocks of their headquarters, it tells me that something is wrong.  If they don't care enough to open their doors one Saturday out of the year when the festival named after a section of the trail is taking place, then to me, there is something wrong.  What?  My impression is that management is too focused on managing the trail on "paper".  Too much time in the office.  Too much emphasis on talking the talk - on the bureaucracy and politics associated with managing a National Scenic Trail, and not enough about 'being there' on the trail for hikers.  Just my two cents.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Happy 200th Birthday, Thoreau

1938 portrait of Thoreau by Dwight Case Sturges

Who speaks for the silent?  Amidst our harried, frenetic, modern, gadget-addicted existence, who has the courage to remind us of our humble, simple roots?

As I'm fond of saying, we are the ape who left the jungle to explore the world.

Henry David Thoreau sends us back there - into the woods - to live deliberately, to reconnect with the very marrow of life.

To be sure, there are others who have done the job well.  John Muir is a true icon.  But for me, there is no better spokesman for the wild than Henry David Thoreau.

Excerpt from "Walking" as it appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1862.  Thoreau considered this his seminal work.  He said of it "I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter."

Today, July 12, 2017 is the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth.

We remember Thoreau today because he was an eloquent spokesman, a pathfinder in a world of followers, and a man of principle, willing to live his beliefs.

Two hundred years from now, if Thoreau is still remembered, we will be able to say that we have not yet lost our way.

Some well-kept Trail - a hero who keeps it so, and the frightful road walk to get there

"Carry on Bravely" is Mick Hawkins' signature valediction..  Mick is a trail maintainer and active member of the Chief Noonday local chapter of the North Country Trail Association.  Dedicated trail-loving volunteers like this are the Heart and Sole of every good Trail.

Situated halfway between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Yankee Springs State Recreation Area is a popular destination for outdoor activities, including hiking.  It's trail through very pretty mature woods.  Here's Hat number 14 with proof.

This is the spiritual core of the Chief Noonday Chapter of the North Country Trail Association, one of 40 local chapters and affiliates that are the National organization's 'boots on the ground' when it comes to making the trail work.

Whenever I run into a maintainer on the trail, I go out of my way to thank them for their work, and that was the case when I met Mick Hawkins in Yankee Springs doing a trail reroute around a sensitive habitat area for a newly Federally Listed threatened rattlesnake, the Eastern Massasauga.

We had a nice chat there, and then met again a couple hours later as I was finishing up a trail leg and Mick arrived to replenish brochures in the Kiosk.

Mick is low-key, but he's a mover when it comes to his local club.  And his local club's section of the trail stands out among the others as being better maintained.  Best of all, they have blazed their road walks.  Here's Hat number thirteen with an unusual trail marker, placed by a local enthusiast who actually lives on the route.

Of the North Country Trail sections I've hiked from central New York to here in SW Michigan, only one other local chapter has stood out as head-and-shoulders above the rest.  That's the Wampum chapter in far western PA.

The North Country Trail through Yankee Springs Rec Area features a close encounter with Hall Lake with its two significant islands and water lilies in bloom.

And just north of there it features a significant climb to Graves Hill overlook.  It was about 125 feet according to my GPS.  The actual overlook is on a side trail, and it's overgrown so that it no longer has a view, but just the climb was something significant for me after 400 miles of flat hiking.

These hills are made up of glacier-deposited piles of sand and gravel.  And unfortunately where there is a resource like that just sitting there ready for the taking, there are people ready to exploit it.  On my road walk approaching Yankee Springs from the south, I was regularly blown off the road by the monster tandem gravel trucks.

The roads here have little or no shoulders.  There's no place to hide.  Can't blame the local chapter for this, unless it's for not finding off-road trail options--a nearly impossible task through privately held land.

So I just clenched my jaw and 'Carried on Bravely.'

Here's the GPS Tracks of the approach road walking and a topo map with the route through Yankee springs showing the many various gravel and sand hills, many with geometrical shapes from having been dug up and hauled away.

If you want more detail of the route, zoom in on one of the maps below - the segment through Yankee Springs, and my overall Personal Continuous Footpath track.

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Walkin' in the Woods again - and back on the NCT

North Country Trail (NCT) spans Augusta Creek on this elaborate footbridge.

The big Michigan cities of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo are closing in on one another.  A couple more decades and they'll squeeze together into one big megalopolis.  But for now there's still some country between them, and still some laid-back small town flavor too.  The comfortable little town of Augusta splits the distance between its big neighbors east and west.  And the North Country Trail uses Augusta to launch the hiker on his/her northward quest into the heart of the state.

I like little towns - towns that aren't growing and sprouting suburbs, towns that feature a block or two of businesses, where you can see one end from the other.  In the case of Augusta the trail passes just three blocks east of downtown and that's enough to keep you in a residential neighborhood for barely four blocks.  Heading north from town there is rural trail that skips what there is of a downtown, following the edge of a cornfield instead.

And just south of town is the Fort Custer State Recreation Area (FCSRA) with many, many miles of well groomed and well-marked trail, none of which the North Country Trail uses.

I chose the River trail, used mostly by horses.  It follows the east bank of the Kalamazoo River, connecting to roads at a gate on the far SW corner of the Recreation Area and emerging in the north at the Recreation Area's main entrance where my footsteps finally actually joined the North Country Trail.

I had planned my connecting road walk from Defiance, Ohio to reach the NCT here.  The climax of the road walk took me through another great little town named ... wait for it ... Climax.  Here I had a chance to let Hat number Eleven pose with their American Legion Post's memorial tank.

It was a long haul from Defiance, so it felt *so* good to be off roads and back on real trail.

The River Trail provides a nice view of the big lazy Kalamazoo river.

The trails in FCSRA are well groomed and meticulously marked with 'you are here' maps and directions to the next marker post.

It passed all too quickly, and I was in Augusta.  At the Augusta Road trailhead I finished the four block road walk and let Hat number twelve pose on the trail register box.

Then came the walk beside the cornfield and on into the Kellogg Biological Station with the covered bridge (photo up top), and I was back following the blue blazes.

That particular blue blaze had a matching companion - a dragonfly every bit as blue as the blaze.  It's called a Spatterdock Darner - Rhionaeschna mutata - and it's quite rare across most of its range.  I don't think I've ever seen one before.

Through the vast Michigan State U Kellogg Biological Station's holdings, the trail provides wonderful variety.  There was perfectly groomed footpath in the woods,

a walk beside Duck Lake,

and open trail through fields

including this oddly placed bench with a view of cows in a pasture.

It's good to be back in the good graces of the NCT, doing some more of their 'certified' trail.  I actually dislike that designation, because as a result, NCT seems much less committed to trail continuity.  Many of their road walks are not blazed at all.  The impression is that there's no real route connecting the certified segments.  That's one of the reasons that I feel free to choose my own route.

So here's the map of the day where my personal choice re-connected with certified NCT at Augusta.

And here's the hike of my own choice through Climax and into the Fort Custer Rec Area that I did the previous day.  It is a wide view that shows how I targeted the gap between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo

More certified trail to come!  Stay tuned.