The journey awakened a sense of duty in McManus.
When Melanie Radzicki McManus first started hiking Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail in 2013, hardly any of her friends knew about the trail.
That quickly changed as McManus’ hike progressed. Around that time, Cheryl Strayed’s hiking memoir Wild was exploding in popularity. McManus’ friends kept mentioning it in texts as she traversed the wilds of the Badger State, wondering whether the Ice Age Trail bore any similarity to the Pacific Crest Trail.
McManus was on her own “wild” journey — aspiring to become one of 146 “thousand-milers,” hikers who have completed either through-hikes or section-hikes of the approximately 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail, which winds through the state from Potowatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay to Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls. McManus completed a through-hike, meaning she did it all in one go.
McManus, a seasoned travel writer and hiker, details her experiences in her new book Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). Part travelogue, part history and part memoir, the book tracks the trail’s rich history, from its genesis in the 1950s to its recent expansion.
McManus — whose trail name “Valderi” recalls the cheerful refrain from choir favorite “The Happy Wanderer” — recounts her journey (starting in St. Croix) with a fair bit of humor, especially because she had a few near misses along the way. In one chapter, she and her husband, Ed (her occasional hiking companion), have a close brush with a black bear near Grassy Lake. She shares how blisters and a cellulitis scare (which necessitated a visit to urgent care in Wisconsin Dells and an antibiotics regimen) might have cut her journey short — to say nothing of surviving the August heat. Along the way, she posted to her blog, An Epic Ice Age Trail Adventure; most of Thousand-Miler is based on those initial blog posts, which included such things as the number of burrs McManus picked off herself (hundreds) and reflections on Wisconsin’s natural beauty.
In one passage, she writes about the silence in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest:
“Here in the remote Chequamegon, I feel like I’m a million miles away from the rest of humanity. The forest stretches skyward in a thick tangle of branches, blocking out all the sound from the outside world. But it’s not the same as the silence when you’re at church or in the library.... It’s like being wrapped in a thick, velvety robe, or a cushy layer of bubble wrap.”
McManus calls attention to the community of Ice Age Trail devotees, ranging from thousand-milers to volunteers and staff at the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and delves deep into the trail’s shifting history, as the trail is composed of a patchwork of bought and leased land. In many ways, its history is still being made.
McManus says hiking the Ice Age Trail changed her life and awakened a sense of duty in her. “I now regularly donate to the [Ice Age Trail Alliance]. Whenever there’s trail building [where I live] I go out and bake cookies for the workers.”
McManus hopes her book will inspire everyone to look closer to home when looking to escape city life or appreciate nature. “[The trail] is a wonderful asset for our state, and it’s something we should be proud of and protect and nurture.”