Annie Nelson has a simple answer to the question, "What did you do last summer?" She hiked. From May to September 2019, the St. Paul resident backpacked more than 1,500 miles on the North Country National Scenic Trail, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to northeastern Minnesota. Although this epic solo walk still fell short of her goal of 2,400 miles, Nelson calls it "an amazing experience" that changed her mentally and physically. The Minnesota stretch of the North Country National Scenic Trail includes all of the Superior Hiking Trail, which Nelson previously hiked from end to end to write her book Thru-Hike the Superior Hiking Trail. That trip only whetted her appetite for a bigger adventure on the North Country, a trail in progress that one day will stretch more than 4,200 miles from Vermont to North Dakota. We caught up with Nelson during the backpacking offseason.
Q |What inspired you to go on this hike?
I found on shorter trips, say weeklong trips in the Boundary Waters, I was never ready to go home. We'd be out of food, desperate for showers, everyone else looking for a cold beer and a hamburger—and I would be trying to figure out how I could stay. That clued me in to the fact that I might be interested in a long-term adventure in the woods.
Q |So what happened to you out on the trail?
A really powerful and magical transformation. There seems to be a two- or three-week demarcation point when I call it going fully feral. I strongly and deeply believe that long-term or long-distance hikes offer something that weekend and weeklong hikes cannot. Because when you are forced to adapt to being outdoors for that length of time, your body and your mind start to show up in super interesting ways. It's amazing to watch your body unlock these ancient abilities to hike 15, 20 miles a day, day after day after day. When I'm back in the city for a while, if it starts raining on a dog walk, I get annoyed immediately. If I've been out in the woods for a couple of weeks and it starts raining, I either barely notice or I am actively celebrating the fact that I'm going to get cooled down a little bit if it's in the summer. Also, my understanding of food has totally changed. Now I really understand how it's fuel. My relationship with pain is also much more understanding.
Q |What sort of pain did you experience?
The two worst ones were my feet and just fatigue. You can get fatigued to a point that feels painful. It's really kind of more of a psychological pain, but for me that was very real. Especially as I started to lose more and more weight. But yeah, I pushed my feet too hard, too early. I jumped up to doing like 18 miles a day my second week, and I think I caused myself an injury. Eventually it healed on its own, or my feet just got strong enough.
Q |Some people are intimidated by the idea of solo wilderness travel. What draws you to it, and how do you stay safe?
There are additional safety risks you take when you go alone. There are ways to mitigate those risks. And for me the benefits of going solo outweigh the dangers. I love backpacking with other people, but on this hike I was really looking for a profound connection with nature. If I'm hiking through the oldest, biggest grove of maples I've ever seen in my life, and it feels like a natural cathedral, and the sunlight is green, I just want to able to stop and stand in complete silence for as long as I want and absorb that magical moment. Those are the moments that make me profoundly grateful to be alive on this planet and feel profoundly connected to the earth.
Q | Was your trip at all influenced by Cheryl Strayed and her book WILD, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail?
I have not read the book. I did watch the movie. I was watching it at my mom's house and she said, "You're going to do that, aren't you?" I guess she saw something in my face. So was it [Strayed] alone? No. But I've been exposed to Wild and what it did for her. More so for me, it was this generation of YouTubers, like 'Dixie,' Jessica Mills [homemadewanderlust.com]. It's very inspiring to see someone who is your age and looks like you and accomplishes these amazing things. It makes you think, well, maybe I can do this. I'm not as athletic a hiker as Dixie. I didn't make it to [my goal], but I still had an amazing experience. And I think that there are a lot of people like me who, even if you can't do 30 miles a day, if you can do 15 miles a day, you can walk for six months and transport yourself by your feet only from Michigan back to Minnesota. It is so empowering.
Read more about Nelson's outdoor adventures at wildstory.site.