Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of stories called First Person, by readers and Star Tribune staff members, about experiences in the outdoors.
In May 2015, there existed a short and special window of opportunity in my life. After six years of undergraduate and then graduate school, I had three weeks carved out between the end of academia and the beginning of corporate America.
I decided to check something off the bucket list: a thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail. It was a lofty goal for someone who had a passion for the outdoors, the fitness level for a long hike, but only minimal camping experience. I found a buddy who was as excited as I was to conquer the northeastern corner of Minnesota. After a lot of planning, preparation and packing, we took a shuttle to the trail’s northern terminus on the Canadian border to begin our 255-mile journey down to Duluth.
We set out to hike the trail in 17 days. There were three food caches along the way. We would sleep in our hammocks at designated campsites along the well-kept trail. With 40 pounds of bulk on our backs to begin the hike, it didn’t take long to question the weight of everything carefully stowed in the packs pulling at our shoulders. There were items I would regret having, but also items I’d wished I had, like another layer to survive the first frosty nights. I woke up in the middle of the second night as it dipped below 30 degrees. I had to do periodic sets of situps in my hammock cocoon to stay warm until the sunlight swallowed our campsite.
After eclipsing the peak of pain on day three, our bodies grew stronger. We became more resilient to hardship, and we embraced the daily grind of getting from point A to point B.
There is something deeply therapeutic about doing a long-distance hike. My worries reduced to the weather and the wear on my body. I didn’t have a reason to check my phone. I didn’t need to know the time — I just needed to beat the sunset to camp. I became numb to the struggles of hiking, and hyper-aware of the obstacles in front of my feet. I spent full, continuous days in thought and reflection, all while consuming the unspoiled beauty of northern Minnesota.
I can’t think of a greater challenge or sense of accomplishment in my life. After increasing my pace, I found myself in Duluth 16 days later, averaging 16 miles per day. I was a few pounds lighter and whole lot wiser. What did I learn? I learned about the human body, like how fast it can recover with food, water and rest. Before the hike, I thought so many continuous days of mileage would be bad for the body. After, I was convinced that we evolved to thrive in that very lifestyle. We are all hunters, gatherers and explorers by design.
I learned that we are meant to be outside. After trading screens for scenery, my eye muscles relaxed and could see more clearly. My body temperature seemed to normalize with nature. By the end of the trip, I hardly noticed a 30-degree temperature swing, when just weeks before, I would have to shed layers when the heat jumped three degrees.
I also learned a lot about myself. I was reminded that I can find pleasure in the pain that accompanies accomplishment. This was something I had missed from my days of college athletics. I reinvigorated my love affair with the North Woods, too. I will never take for granted the wild beauty our great state offers. I found a deeper connection with nature. As a kid who grew up playing in suburban woods, I was reminded why I find so much joy away from concrete and metal. I learned how much I enjoy camping. It requires monotonous tasks but provides soul-warming joys, like finding the perfect two trees to hang your bed, or a having a warm, wholesome meal next to a crackling campfire.
The last thing I learned was that I was ready to propose to my soul mate. We got married a year later. Our honeymoon? Straight to the North Shore.