A walk across Michigan

By Linda O’Neill
Sun contributor

Seeking solitude, Ruth Rombaugh of Northport said goodbye to her family last May and stepped out on a 220-mile walk across Michigan. She would be spending the next three-and-a-half weeks making her solitary way from Empire to Oscoda along the Shore to Shore Trail on a journey of self-discovery. “

At 61, I wanted solitude to focus on the complex aspects of my own mortality, but the longer I hiked the less I dwelled on those issues and instead grew into an awareness of the brilliance and beauty of life around me,” she said.

“Long-distance hiking and camping have always been a joy to me,” beams Ruth. “When our son and daughter were pre-teens, our family ventured on a canoeing and camping trip on the Manistee River. Later, my 16-year old son George and I spent five exhilarating and exhausting weeks hiking the 300-mile Vermont Long Trail. We had 65,000 vertical feet to ascend due to the low valleys and high peaks. On another occasion, after participating in an Earthwatch study of the Costa Rican mannikin bird, I embarked on a weeklong trek through the tropical countryside. In more recent years, my husband Charles and I have delighted in guided walking tours through Iceland, Newfoundland, and Italy.”

The Michigan Trail Riders Association established its Shore to Shore Trail in 1962 to accommodate those aficionados wishing to cross the state on horseback. It sponsors two or three of these treks each year. Negotiations with the DNR and agreements with private property owners helped secure the acreage for this “linear park”. The trail is comprised of 12 sections, each of which is kept open by its own members committed to maintaining a clear and functional corridor. These volunteers also create and affix directional signage. Fortunately, hikers are welcome to enjoy this resource any time of year.

Ruth does not consider herself an athlete. Following 20 years of teaching middle school, she earned a PhD and spent 13 years in higher education, first at Cleveland State University and then at the University of New Mexico. Now retired, Ruth is more fully free to savor her love of solitude and the out-of-doors.

“Pre-planning for a long-distance hike is as important as the walk itself,” explains Ruth. “Prior to my cross-Michigan journey, I insisted that the re-supply points be searched out, identified, and agreed upon. My daughter Maja and son-in-law Doug LaForest scouted a baggage route paralleling the Shore to Shore Trail. This parallel path is used predominantly for delivering daily supplies to horse caravans of 20 to 30 people who are making nightly stops on their traverse of the entire 220 miles. For my hike, the nearby lane proved invaluable for logistics. My daughter Maja met me every two to three days at a pre-arranged juncture on this path to bring fresh food and clothing. At this point, I covered only eight to 10 miles a day because I was shouldering a backpack. For the final stretch, I sometimes cruised along at 20 miles per day. I had no need of a rucksack with my husband Charles setting up camp each evening in anticipation of my arrival.

On the Shore to Shore rail, Ruth meandered through vast untouched areas in the counties of Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Crawford, Oscoda and Iosco. The terrain was fairly flat and also dry due to recent drought. It was unusually cold for May and black flies were absent. A lush canopy of trees enclosed long stretches of the trail. Conifers exuded a redolent turpentine vapor, which plays a vital role in cleansing the air. Near Kalkaska, wetlands predominated. On the second leg of the journey, the Au Sable River was visible through a screen of trees, fast moving and roaring, providing the pleasure of a range of river sounds. Osprey cut the air.

For much of her walk, Ruth had the solitude she craved. But not always. “Most days I could hike without seeing anyone,” she says. “But occasionally I did encounter people. Two gentlemen riding burros were quite a sight. Also, a large party on horseback passed me. Trail travelers were congenial and helpful and we thoroughly relished our time together.”

Each night, Ruth pitched her tent in an unobtrusive spot and ate a cold dinner. A small stove would have added unwanted weight to her 20-pound pack. “Having an adequate supply of water was the most crucial detail for me,” explains Ruth. By necessity, I carried all the water I needed from juncture to juncture, replenishing it fully each time I met my daughter Maja. Another challenge was staying warm at night. A substantial sleeping bag and dry long underwear that served as sleepwear kept the danger of hypothermia at bay.”

Because the trail is wide and fairly empty of vegetation, Ruth encountered few animals. One night, though, as she was falling asleep, a large animal was ominously pawing and stomping outside her tent. It may have been an elk protesting Ruth occupying its favorite bedding-down spot.

“For avid hikers,” offers Ruth, “I recommend Thru-Hikers Guide to America, a detailed account of 25 incredible trails, from those that can be completed in one week to others which require an eight-week sustained effort.” In the near future Ruth hopes to write her own guide of helpful hints for walking the Shore to Shore Trail.

“The beauty of long-distance hiking,” muses Ruth, “is that it brings life down to the elemental. Anxieties and worries fade. An inner quiet develops. Each morning I awoke with an outpouring of thankfulness. Rather than focusing on the end-point of my life, I found myself wholly engrossed in the present, drawing on my courage, curiosity, endurance and delight to celebrate this improbable adventure.”

In retrospect, would she do it again? “You bet! I plan to welcome my husband George on my next shore to shore walk, possibly this year.” With her joie de vivre Ruth will surely experience another memorable journey.