In the early 1970s, after purchasing my Lotus Elan, I was working at Schaak Electronics in Rochester Minnesota. We were suffering yet another long and exceptionally cold winter. Little did I know, the following spring I was going to experience one of those self-realizations and experiences that would forever change my life.
Apache Mall was the home of Schaak Electronics. The store was managed by Gary Eiesland, who’d taken over from Carl Estey. Gary’s management style and creativity seemed like genius after the unfathomably odd and foolish projects initiated by Carl. Gary’s reign as store manager felt a bit like Obama following Bush, (if you’re a Democrat) or Trump following Obama if you’re of the opposite political stripe. Unlike all the single guys working at Schaak, Gary was a real adult, being married with two small girls. Besides being an awesome manager, Gary took me under his wing, sharing his outside-of-the store interests as well as coaching me on work duties.
One day Gary inquired if I liked to hike and camp. Given his Svengali-like mesmeric influence on me, I could only say, “Of course.” Soon Gary was bringing in camping, hiking, and outdoor magazines filled with adventures and ads for outdoor gear for me to read. A store selling outdoor gear, a precursor to present-day REI, had opened at the other end of the mall. Gary and I would head in their direction whenever business was slow and wander the aisles, fantasizing about all the places we would go and top-end gear we’d acquire. It must have been January when we made our first big purchase; real, expensive, genuine hiking boots. These boots were the precise ones you’d buy if you were heading off to hike the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail. We’d watched the salesperson demonstrate and pitch these boots many times, as well as carefully examined the cut-in-half version of the boot, done to illustrate its advanced features and superiority. To ensure proper break-in for our as-yet-to-be-determined epic hike, we wore the boots to work every day, along with our 3-piece suits. For some reason, the idea we may have looked ridiculous was lost on us.
The boots were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to gear acquisition. We needed a tent, sleeping bags, gas lanterns, portable cooking pans, foldable plates, canteens, a compass, and specialty dark glasses with yellow lenses to better illuminate game trails as one traversed through the woods. And of course, few visits to the hiking gear store were made without loading up on the survival food options strategically placed near the cash register to maximize impulse buying. Boy, did they have us pegged! We bought bars having the same size and look as a Hershey’s candy bar, but so full of concentrated protein a single square would keep a man alive for 3 days. Of course, we each bought several, although not always on every visit. We got a box of a dozen oatmeal-type roll-ups, with the promise that each one would keep a lost hiker from starving for a week. We loaded up – after all, you never know what might happen out in the bush, and most of all, we wanted to be prepared.
Our decision on which backpack to purchase involved studying a host of reviews followed by months of arguments and discussion. After all, the Pacific Crest Trail ran over 4,000 miles from Mexico to Canada. Buying the wrong backpack could be a disaster. So, we borrowed one backpack after another from the gear store, took them out behind the mall to the banks of the Zumbro River, and loaded them up with smooth river rocks. Then we would walk back and forth around the mall parking lot, making thoughtful and careful assessments to find the very best backpack for each of us. Which sleeping bag to buy generated at least as much attention as the backpacks: on the one hand, it would need to be light enough and supportive enough to safely suspend us on the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, yet be warm enough to keep us alive on Mt. Kilimanjaro where we’d read the temperatures got to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While that doesn’t sound that cold, that’s 20 degrees without wind chill factor. If there is one thing two Minnesota boys understood, it was wind chill.
The long winter contributed to a bit more shopping time than might have been optimal. Although we might have been able to get along without every single item, it never occurred to us we might have extras. One weekend the weather warmed and wishing to test our tent and gear, we pitched the tent in Gary’s backyard and set up camp. It had not been too long after we’d unrolled and crawled into our sleeping bags when Gary’s wife ambled into the backyard with Gary’s daughters. “Do you have any ideas on what I can tell our neighbors about why my husband is sleeping in a tent in our backyard with a guy from his work?” she asked.
Morning eventually came. We took the tent down and carefully packed it up as outlined in the instructions. Same for rolling up sleeping bags and mats, and with meticulous attention, stowed the gear in Gary’s garage. The day when we might be able to head out and use our gear on a real trip filled our brains like sugar plums dancing in the heads of toddlers before Christmas at the turn of the century.
Eventually the weather began to warm, the snow melted and we seriously began planning for our epic trip. It was decided that before spending the big bucks and traveling to a distant locale, we’d do a hike in our own region. However, it had to be properly devoid of civilization to give us a genuine sense of roughing it. This meant no civilization and no easy “outs” if things went wrong. We needed to test all of our newly acquired gear while putting our outdoor problem-solving abilities to the test. We eventually settled on a trip to northern Wisconsin.
Gary had heard of the unpronounceable Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, nearly to the most northern reaches of Wisconsin. He said there was nothing there but wild wilderness and wild beasts like deer and bear. It was settled, the very next Friday morning we would head north. He’d arranged coverage at work so we had the full weekend and truth be known, no one was going to worry if it took us another week to turn up back in Rochester.
Being this was before the Internet, our ability to research and plan every detail in advance was limited. But spiritually our goal was simple – drive into Wisconsin, a state known to be wilder and less populated than Minnesota and take every road going north, until civilization ran out. At which point, we’d be in the deepest, darkest forest, where we would hike, camp and forage. Yippee!
We’d decided to drive my Lotus. One feature of all the gear we bought was it was compact and fit into the trunk of the Elan. Plus, the car was fairly new, and the idea of a long road trip was exciting. Our first hint of not quite perfect planning was making far better time than we expected. Six hours after starting our trip we pulled into Bayfield, Wisconsin. Huh? With over 250 residents, this was a booming metropolis in our book. Driving around the tiny town we saw a Ferry terminal and several cars and a few people lined up to go out to Madeline Island. We learned there wasn’t much to do out there and most attractive to us, we heard it was the LAST FERRY of the day, and if we went out there, we’d be trapped overnight, at least, maybe longer if the weather got bad. We were hooked. They had room for just one more car. The Lotus.
Arriving on Madeline Island less than an hour later, a light mist was still falling. We drove past a large old hotel, trying not to look at it. Following the only road heading north, we took it out of town. In about a half-hour, the road gave out and turned into a logging trail. We kept going. Finally, we were out into the backwoods. Eventually the limited clearance of the Lotus required us to pull over. This was not a problem, and actually, it was what we were expecting and had prepared for. Out came our gear, backpacks were loaded, the car was locked and we pushed ahead north on foot.
Taking note of the compass and sighting in on a distant tree, we headed out. We hiked through the thick forest terrain, reaching the tree we’d seen. Using the compass, we spotted another tree and pushed forward. Now might be a good time to point out our second unexpected event. It turns out the light mist falling for most of the afternoon, had soaked the grass and brush. As we walked through the weeds, our pants legs soon became soaked. The water then worked its way into our hiking boots. Somehow the promises of being waterproof had not covered this eventuality. After about an hour, with our feet colder and colder, we began to think about finding a nice clearing and camping for the night. We decided we were suitably deep into the north woods. At just about that time, we crashed through some bushes and there, directly in front of us, was a nice red cabin. Shoot! Nothing smacks more of civilization than a cabin. We had to distance ourselves and fast. Gary pointed off to his left at another distinctly shaped tree and off we went, our cold feet making us more and more miserable and now realizing, no matter what we did, we’d likely not be more than a half-mile away from some damn cabin. Approaching a clearing, Gary pointed to a grassy spot in a small clearing and asked, “How about here?” I looked around and then noticed something odd. I pointed further to Gary’s left and said, “let’s try over that way a bit.” We pushed in that direction about 50 feet, came around a massive oak tree and there it was, my nice bright yellow Lotus Elan, right where we’d left it. I thought that tree had looked familiar.
We’d both read about people lost in the woods and their tendency to walk in circles, but had never assumed it could happen to us. It had felt like we were walking in perfectly straight lines the whole time.
But at this point we were tired, our feet were freezing and we just wanted to get warm. We unpacked and pitched the tent a few feet from the car. Before crawling into our sleeping bags, we tried to light a fire. However, the wood from the forest floor was wet and we couldn’t get it to start. Then Gary recalled a stack of wood covered with a tarp along the driveway of the red cabin we’d seen a ways back. He talked me into going back and stealing a few sticks of dry wood so we might have a fire. I did and we managed to get a small fire started, but no sooner would it get going than the rain would put it out. Nothing we did would keep it going long enough to roast the wieners we’d brought along for the occasion. But all was not lost – in addition to a bag of Cheetos, we had an entire box of emergency, super high-protein, keep you alive for a week, candy bars. Upon reflection, I can’t say if it was deep hunger or an artificially induced case of the munchies, but I know we ate every single one of those candy bars and fruit/oatmeal roll-up things and even raided the pockets on our backpacks where we’d hidden even more of these treats for emergencies.
In the morning, as soon as there was light, we crawled out of our sleeping bags, and rolled up the tent and other gear the way most men fold fitted sheets – but faster. We stuffed these balls of gear into the trunk of the Elan and headed back to the Ferry dock. We managed to get the first ferry back to Bayfield and from there, headed home to Rochester in the rain, with the windows down, allowing some of the most rancid farts ever produced to drift out of the car and pollute the road behind us.
This was a life-changing experience. Since this time, I’ve never once been seriously tempted to go on an overnight hiking trip. Been there. Done that!