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The Trail Less Traveled

Hiker by North Country National Scenic Trail Western Terminus sign
Aaron Landon poses for a photo before starting to hike the North Country Trail in North Dakota in March of 2022. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Landon)

The North Country National Scenic Trail is 4,800 miles long, and connects North Dakota to Vermont. It crosses the Adirondacks and the Alleghenies, cuts through bogs, rocky ledges along Lake Superior, pine forests, prairieland, and more. It is the trail for the Great Lakes region.

It doesn’t get the attention the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail get. Over three million people visit the A.T. every year, with 3,000 of those folks trying to hike the entire trail. But less than 20 people have ever hiked the entire North Country Trail.

In this episode, meet a Minnesotan who puts his name to the list of those who’ve completed the entire trail.

Credits:
Producer: Patrick Shea
Host / Editor: Dan Wanschura
Additional Editing: Peter Payette
Music: Blue Dot Sessions, Gillicudy, Lobo Loco

Transcript:
DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: This is Points North. A show about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.

Today on the show, a story about a trail. It’s 48-HUNDRED miles long, and it runs through the heart of the Great Lakes region.

Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called the North Country National Scenic Trail. And a lot of the care and maintenance on this extensive trail is done by volunteers – people who care deeply about it and give their time and resources to it.

Well, this podcast tells stories that connect people to places all along that route. And just as the North Country Trail is free to hike and enjoy, this podcast is free to listen to.

That’s because listeners just like you give what they can so we can continue to tell sound-rich stories that inform and entertain.

If you enjoy this podcast, please support it during this season of giving. Go to pointsnorthpodcast.org and click the big red donate button. Thank you.

Now today’s episode: The Trail Less Traveled.

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Joan Young, 74, is well on her way to walking all 4,800 miles of the North Country Trail. (Photo: Patrick Shea / Interlochen Public Radio)

(Hiking ambiance)

PATRICK SHEA, BYLINE: Alright Joan, where are we today?

JOAN YOUNG: We are in Duluth, Minnesota. We’re starting to hike at Prindle Road, and we’re headed for Enger Park.

SHEA: About how many miles ahead of us?

YOUNG: 14.7.

SHEA: 14.7? Oh. Sounds good! (laughter)

(Hiking ambience)

WANSCHURA: That’s a longer hike than reporter Patrick Shea was expecting. He’s following Joan Young of Scottville, Michigan, down a rocky trail about five miles from Lake Superior.

Joan is 74 years old, and she’s trying to hike the entire North Country Trail.

SHEA: Most people might think about retiring and then sitting around and going on vacations. What made you want to do this?

YOUNG: Well I am on vacation, right? I love the North Country Trail.

SHEA: I hope I’m as active as you when I’m 74.

YOUNG: Ok, thanks…Well I was trying to work it out to do 15 miles a day and I realized that I could probably do that if I did what's come to be known as a North Country Trail flip-flop.

WANSCHURA: A flip-flop means hiking from one end of the trail to a half-way point; then driving to the other end and hiking back.

The idea is to avoid the worst of winter, and finish somewhere a little less snowy – like southern Michigan, or Ohio.

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Joan Young is enjoying her own kind of vacation as she hike the North Country National Scenic Trail near Duluth, Minnesota. (Photo: Patrick Shea / Interlochen Public Radio.)

Joan started in Vermont, and walked to Michigan. Then she drove to North Dakota, and started walking again.

(Road noise ambience)

YOUNG: Okay, so we have a roadwalk here I think.

WANSCHURA: About 1,600 miles of this trail are on roads. A lot of distance hikers don’t like that – it’s not as peaceful as walking through the woods, and all that pavement is hard on the feet.

Joan says that’s why some people write off the NCT – but she doesn’t think that’s fair.

YOUNG: People say, ‘Oh I don’t want to do the North Country Trail; that's still all roadwalk.’ We have over 3,300 miles off road, which is more miles than the A.T. is long.

WANSCHURA: A.T. as in the Appalachian Trail.

More than three million people visit the A.T. every year – and around 3,000 of those people try to hike the whole thing. That’s called a “thru-hike.”

YOUNG: I don't think this trail will ever have the number of people attempting to hike the whole thing as some of the other trails because it’s just so big.

WANSCHURA: Thru-hiking the NCT is extremely rare.

According to the North Country Trail Association, less than 20 people have ever done it since the trail was founded in 1980. But in the farm country of northwest Ohio, one more name is about to make that list.

Reporter Patrick Shea takes it from here.

SHEA: If you’re like Aaron Landon, you might have been on the North Country Trail without knowing it.

About 20 years ago, he was canoeing in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

AARON LANDON: There was one day – I believe it was on snowbank lake – I was at a campsite and I just kind of wandered into the woods; there was a trail that went down there. And there was a blue blaze on the tree and I had no idea what it was, it just kept going into the woods which is not normal for the boundary waters.

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These blue trail blazes can be found along the entire route of the North Country Trail. Two blazes offset mean a turn is coming soon. (Photo: Patrick Shea / Interlochen Public Radio.)

SHEA: That “blaze” is a light blue stripe about six inches long. Aaron was surprised to see them painted on trees in a wilderness area.

LANDON: When I got home, I did a little bit of research and it just blew my mind that from that campsite I could go basically halfway across the country.

SHEA: These blazes are an iconic symbol of the NCT. They let hikers know they’re on the right trail. And Aaron Landon has been following them for a long, long time.

LANDON: I’m at 256 days right now. So it’s been eight months and 11 days that I’ve been walking this trail.

SHEA: When he got back from that canoe trip, he immediately joined the North Country Trail Association, which sent him detailed maps of the entire route.

LANDON: I wallpapered my bedroom with those maps, and I would just stare at them as I laid in bed, next to my music posters. I talked about it, but it was more just a pipe dream talking, more of just fantasy talking, not really expecting to ever actually do it.

But several years later, he tried his first thru-hike in Florida. And he enjoyed it – a lot. That’s where he was given his trail name – “Soda.”

LANDON: I was talking with a group of hikers down in the Everglades, and they all laughed at the way I kept saying I was from “Minnesota.” So one of them eventually, after a bunch of hiking, gave me the name Soda because of my Minnesota accent.

SHEA: After that hike, the NCT didn’t seem like a pipe dream anymore.

LANDON: My mother was actually the one that was pushing me for it. I’d come back from Florida, and Florida’s got an awful lot of roadwalks. And she was like ‘now that’d be really good for that section of the North Country Trail down in Ohio or North Dakota that has a lot of roadwalks. That was a really good prep hike for it.’

I would come back from different hikes and say the same exact thing to her. ‘That’d be good practice for if I did it.’ And she would correct me and say ‘when you do it.’ So she was the first one that actually pushed me into making me believe that I could do it.

SHEA: Why do you think she wanted that for you, I guess?

LANDON: Mostly because she saw what it did for me. When I left for Florida, the very first time, I wasn’t really going down there to thru-hike. I was going down there more because I was at a very lost place in my life. And she saw what that first thru-hike did for me. When I came back, I was a completely different person. And I know that it’s this big cliche thing of ‘hiking saved my life.’ It truly, literally did for me. I was suicidal. I was at my wit’s end, and I found a reason to continue on. And a passion is actually a better way to put it.

SHEA: Aaron came to love these long walks. When he finished one, he was already planning for the next. As the years went on, he made a list of seven thru-hikes that would prepare him for the NCT.

LANDON: And it was somewhere like around three or four that I checked off where it was like, ‘holy crap.’

SHEA: You were getting there.

LANDON: Exactly. It was no longer like a fantasy, it was more like, ‘This is actually realistic. It could actually happen.’

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Aaron Landon poses for a photo before starting to hike the North Country Trail in North Dakota in March of 2022. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Landon)

SHEA: And now, it’s about to. I’m walking with Aaron on his final day of hiking the NCT. We’re following the historic Miami-Erie canal in northwest Ohio.

LANDON: It’s kind of a strange feeling because as much as I do want to soak that in, it’s not really happening that way. I’m just walking, you know? It’s no sinking in that tomorrow I don't have to get up and do 30 more miles.

SHEA: Aaron has followed this trail across the prairies of North Dakota, and through the bogs and pine forests in Minnesota. He walked along the North Shore of Lake Superior, cut across the top of Wisconsin, and traversed Upper and Lower Michigan. Then he crossed into Ohio, and stopped in the town called Defiance.

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The North Country Trail weaves through pine forests, including the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Landon)

LANDON: It’s kind of why I made that actually my end point, cause I kind of like the name of that town.

SHEA: Defying the odds, right?

LANDON: Well, I also thought it would be a great place to buy a train ticket out to Vermont and flip.

SHEA: From Vermont, he headed west. He crossed the White Mountains, then the Adirondacks in New York. When I first got in touch with him, he was hiking through the hills and hemlocks of the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania. And when he reached Ohio for the second time, his route meandered for around 1,000 miles.

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New York’s Adirondacks are one of several small mountain ranges on the North Country Trail. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Landon.)

LANDON: It takes you through middle America…You’re talking to a lot of people as you’re coming through these towns, and you’re getting a sense of what that local community’s like. And the history, the towns, it’s an absolutely wonderful trail to come learn what America is truly like.

SHEA: Yeah. You know if I didn’t know you were doing this hike though, I would’ve not noticed the blue blazes on these telephone poles. Like it really, would’ve just gone right by me. Like, have you come across anyone that lives on the route that didn’t know they lived on the route?

LANDON: That is – it happens so often, and it’s one of my favorite reasons for hiking these obscure trails. Like I’m telling them out in North Dakota, ‘you can walk all the way to Vermont from your backyard. You have something special in your backyard.’

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Where trees are sparse, the North Country Trail’s signature blue blazes are often found on telephone poles. (Photo: Patrick Shea / Interlochen Public Radio.)

SHEA: On all of his previous hikes, Aaron kept in close touch with his mother; he’d give her updates on his progress, and she’d encourage him to keep pressing on.

LANDON: Every single hike I would call her at about this point right here, and she would walk across the finish line with me on the phone. And this is the first hike that's not gonna happen.

SHEA: Aaron’s mother passed away in 2020. He took care of her the last few years of her life. Then he quit his job, moved out of his apartment, got rid of most of his belongings and put the rest in a storage unit. He was all in.

LANDON: I promised her I would. There was no reason not to. Every single reason I had not to hike the hike was gone. Everything was pointing to do it. Financially, mentally, spiritually, physically, to actually take that leap of faith and believe everything’s gonna be ok.

SHEA: But there were times when that was hard to believe – moments when Aaron really didn’t think he could go any further. That was especially true as he approached the NCT’s official halfway point in Lowell, Michigan. He started thinking about everything he’d been through so far.

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Aaron “Soda” Landon poses at the North Country Trail headquarters in Lowell, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Landon.)

LANDON: The snow I went through in North Dakota or the infection that sent me to the hospital when I was coming through Maplewood, Minnesota. The flooding that I had to deal with in the boundary waters. And I just started thinking back about all this stuff and all these things that had happened, and it became so overwhelming to me. That was so far back and so long ago, and I had the same amount of time and distance ahead of me where it wasn’t an exciting moment, it was actually a disheartening moment of ‘oh my gosh, I don’t actually know if I can actually go on.’

SHEA: He thought about hopping on a bus in Grand Rapids, Michigan and going home. But Aaron says what kept him going were his friends – some old, and some new – that he met on this trail.

LANDON: So there’s a number of people, about five or six people within a week period there around my halfway point that {were} really responsible for pulling me out of that funk and getting my mindset to the fact of ‘I don’t want to quit.’ That I do want to continue this hike and carry on.

SHEA: Two of those people are waiting at the finish line, in downtown Defiance.

BUCK HOUGH: Well we came down yesterday and we stopped at Subway and got Aaron some lunch for the day just to surprise him. We found him on trail and set him up with a Subway sandwich and you know.

SHEA: Buck and Jenny Hough live in Alto, Michigan, pretty close to that halfway point.

They’re what’s called “trail angels” – people who help out hikers by bringing them supplies, or even giving them a warm place to stay. Aaron spent a few nights at Buck and Jenny’s place this summer, and quickly became close friends.

HOUGH: I keep in contact with regularly on Facebook and texting with him, but just to see his smiling face again was just – it was great. It was great.

SHEA: Aaron was telling me that there’s been some times when he really was kind of looking for a way out, wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep going. It seems like you and other trail angels have really been rooting for him, you know? You want to see people finish the North Country Trail. Why is that?

HOUGH: We really do. You know, the trail being 4,800 miles, it’s not necessarily a physical game; it’s a mental game.

JENNY HOUGH: You know these people have walked so far and been alone for so long. If I can cook for them and do their laundry and mother them a little bit, it makes me happy, you know? And it brings joy to them.

SHEA: Near the banks of the Maumee River, Buck and Jenny are throwing together a last minute party for Aaron. They tell folks from the visitor’s bureau, the city government, and the local newspaper what’s going on. And Jenny’s setting up some signs for Aaron at the finish line.

JENNY HOUGH: My husband made that one: ‘Things I lost on the North Country Trail.’

SHEA: It’s a cardboard sign with a bunch of drawings of all the stuff Aaron’s lost along the way.

Looks like we’ve got some sporks, some camping utensils, a hiking pole, some cash. Oh, I like that, it says, it just says mind. He lost his mind. Three pairs of sunglasses. The trail.

JENNY HOUGH: The EarPods, his hat. He lost a hat.

SHEA: The list goes on.

Buck heads a short way up the trail to join Aaron for the final mile. And as the small welcome party waits, Buck and Aaron come into sight, side-by-side walking across a bridge.

JENNY HOUGH: There they are.

(Sound of noisemakers, and people congratulating Aaron)

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After eight months and 11 days of hiking, Aaron Landon finished his thru-hike of the North Country Trail on December 5th, 2022. (Photo: Patrick Shea / Interlochen Public Radio.)

SHEA: Aaron takes off his backpack, and rests his hand on a North Country Trail marker. He’s grown long hair and a shaggy beard over this hike. And now, a huge smile spreads across his face.

No pressure but, speech?

LANDON: Speech? No, I have nothing to say. I just gave you an hour and a half of speech.

SHEA: I know you did. Any closing thoughts as you’ve now officially completed the North Country Trail?

LANDON: It was a long ways, man. That is basically all I have to say. That it’s a long, long ways and I can’t believe I’m standing here. Looking back a year ago, man, about how I’d think about this moment – I don’t know, I’m speechless. It’s nothing like I expected. Nothing,

SHEA: Well, congratulations.

LANDON: Thanks, Patrick.

SHEA: It might take Aaron a while to find the words to describe this moment, what finishing this journey really means to him.

But one thing’s for sure – the North Country Trail brings people together; people who know a thing or two about perseverance and the kindness of strangers.

Patrick Shea is a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.