The pictures started on February 6th. Fiona and I bundled up against a cold and gray background with the sign for Afton State Park photobombing us in the lower right-hand corner. We were smiling, despite wind chills below freezing and my recent exclamation that uphill is terrible (I used stronger language) just moments before as we trudged up and down the packed snow and ice for a meager 4 miles of hiking. The sounds of me panting and the snow crunching underfoot were punctuated by a raucous high school skiing competition being held just outside the park.
A few weeks later, I posted another picture of us in front of a sign. This time from Wild River State Park. Nerstrand, Whitewater, Carley and Lake Maria State Parks followed through the end of March. As of last Sunday, we had visited 18 different Minnesota State Parks, and hiked 116.24 miles together. Some of it was amazing, like the sandstone potholes at Banning State Park and the stunning hike along the Saint Louis River at Jay Cooke. Others were more death-marchy, like a wind chilled 8.7 miles across the tundra at Saint Croix State Park, sweating out a bonspiel on a Sunday afternoon at Interstate State Park, or our Quixotic sprint through a bug infested 2.2 miles at Moose Lake (Spoiler Alert: In this reboot, we were the windmills futilely swatting at mosquitos THE WHOLE TIME). With a short jaunt through Charles A. Lindbergh State Park this Friday where we hope to learn all about the baby, and a longer Saturday hike at Itasca State Park, home of the headwaters of the Mississippi River, we will have finally reached our goal.
“And what is that goal?”, you are probably asking yourself, or if you are on Facebook, have already asked me at some point since March.
Our goal certainly wasn’t to increase the overall handsomeness of the internet by plastering photos of the two of us all over Facebook.
Our goal was simple, and to us, an important one. In celebration of the 125 anniversary of Itasca State Park, the second state park in the United States, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources rolled out their 125 Miles by Bike, Boot or Boat campaign to celebrate. Propel yourself forward in any Minnesota state park (on a bike, canoe, kayak, or shoe) for 125 miles and get a sticker. A sticker that is 477% cooler than your 26.2 marathon sticker.
But why will it take us 175 days to cross that 125-mile threshold?
Because Fiona is an attorney, and because I like a thorough structuralist framework to inform my world view, we came up with a few more rules for our participation in the challenge.
1. We would only count miles hiked together. All those random trips I made from Fort Snelling State Park to Minnehaha Falls for a shrimp po’boy at Sea Salt don’t count.
2. We would only count miles hiked in a park once. All those random trips we made from Fort Snelling State Park to Minnehaha Falls for shrimp po’boys, could only be logged once. (This is why we’ll have visited 20 different state parks).
3. We’d finish the 125 at Itasca State Park, where the Minnesota State Park system began.
This covers what we were doing, but not the why.
I could argue that I’m just getting into walking shape for the Minnesota State Fair, or that nothing tastes better than brunch and a beer after gamboling over some rocks and through the mud for seven or eight miles, or even that there is little in life better than turning your phone to airplane mode by choice rather than aviation fiat. There are many healthful reasons to go hiking, but if you aren’t convinced here are some other reasons to go hiking:
1. It takes at least 2 ½ hours for your Candy Crush lives to recharge.
2. Since June of 2004, you’ve been running a severe “listening to Tom Petty while driving on the highway” deficit.
3. You enjoy seeing litter and/or graffiti in the most remote parts of your state.
4. The last item on your bucket list is to be eaten by a bear.
5. Showering on a Saturday is overrated, but you don’t own daytime pajamas.
The other reason why we are doing the 125, is that I needed a goal. When Fiona suggested this back in January, I thought it was a great idea, and that it was a nice midrange challenge for us. Something that we could accomplish, but would involve effort while simultaneously showing incremental results. Ticking off mile after mile (not picking
off ticks mile after mile) on a spreadsheet and stamping our Minnesota State Parks passport, gave us another weekend goal to reach beyond “well, let’s make sure we get the laundry done and get to Costco.” It was an opportunity to look forward to something during the week, even if it was digging through Trip Advisor or Yelp to find some cool place to eat a very sweaty post-hike brunch on Saturday. Or making the day a grand adventure by touring the August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm after a morning at Flandrau State Park.
Goals aren’t the only reason we are compelled to hike. Getting to all these parks gave us the opportunity to see some pretty amazing wildlife. Eagles and swans and deer and all sorts of creatures, but nothing tops the Godzilla sized turkeys we saw just hanging out in front of an apartment building in Saint Paul before we even got to nature! That’s not quite true. Minneopa State Park has bison. Other parks have squirrels the size of baby bison. This is a fact.
At Whitewater State Park, there was a sign to report any dead radio collared squirrels to the DNR office. I looked at Fiona and asked, “If we find a live radio collared squirrel, are we supposed to kill it and report it to the DNR?” She said no—probably because the squirrels could eat me whole and then go after Fiona. While we are up-to-date on how to survive a bear attack (yell, “Hey Bear!”), there aren’t many publications explaining how to repel a giant deranged squirrel.
There is a massive off leash dog park right next to Fort Snelling State Park that you can walk through on the way to Minnehaha Falls and for the dogs it is the best place ever in the history of dogkind. A dog goes flying past us, stops, looks in every direction and takes off again. He repeats this every five to ten yards. We realized his owner had tied his little bag of doggie business to his collar (assuming this dog is a male because all dogs are males) and the poor canine was trying to escape and couldn’t.
There are 75 State Park and Recreation areas in Minnesota (plus numerous other state forests and places of interest), and many of them are within a two hour drive of the Twin Cities. Just hauling yourself out of bed at the same hour as a workday means you can get to a park, enjoy some nature, have lunch and make it back home in time to mow the lawn (boo!) or take a restful nap (yay!) with time to spare before dinner. If you have a water bottle, sunscreen, Deep Woods Off! and some shoes, hiking doesn’t have to be a production. The Minnesota DNR charges $25 for an annual parks pass, which is probably the best deal in America this side of mailing a letter to Guam.
I would assume other states are the same. You don’t have to make grand gesture by hitting a National Park to get your nature fix (the one you might not even realize you need). There’s even a website www.stateparks.com if typing your state’s name into Google is too much digital effort. Either way, you probably aren’t too far from one of those handsome brown highway signs directing you to a state park. And if that isn’t compelling enough, let me share with you all the brochures I have about ticks.