Interesting shapes or places on a map frequently move us to go and see what's there. It might be an island, a peninsula, an isthmus, a continent. For Loreen Niewenhuis, it was Lake Michigan.
At age 45 after being married and the mother of two teenage sons, Niewenhuis wanted to do something for herself by herself, that was bigger than herself. It seemed fitting, since she had a lifelong love affair with Lake Michigan, that she make the 1,000-mile journey all around it -- by hiking it.
Her husband, sons, brother, other family and friends didn't always understand her yearning but they knew the headstrong woman was determined to go for it. Occasionally, when one or two of them joined her at different points of the journey, they discovered both the lake's captivating effect on her as well as the electric drive she had within to complete the "lake trek."
Niewenhuis was well-prepared for the journey. She studied maps and satellite images of the lakeshore, its parks, beaches and cities in order to divide up her trip into segments. She brought her GPS, cell phone, camera and notebook. She calculated her day's walk and picked overnight places to stay. She spent the fall and winter conditioning herself for the long walk that began in March 2009. She even contacted reporters in various towns to tell them of her quest and most of them obliged with stories.
Throughout her journey, I found myself walking with her, anxious to hear how she drummed up courage to get through such tough places like Chicago and Gary. I enjoyed her descriptions of the picturesque beauty and solace of the more remote areas, especially from South Haven to Traverse City, places I have visited and loved. (It was around Muskegon that I first saw and became captivated by Lake Michigan!) And, I cheered for her, too, as she crossed from Wisconsin into Illinois and then met family and friends on the last 10 miles of her "hike" into Navy Pier in Chicago, the place where she launched her walk six months before.
Niewenhuis remains steadfast in her mission to traverse the perimeter of the entire lake. A couple times she went back to ground not trod, which included the five-mile walk across the Mackinaw Bridge on Labor Day. After all, this is the area where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet! Such attention to the integrity of the trip makes her more convincing and heroic, actually.
However, Niewenhuis gives readers more than just a travel story, as good as it is. She discusses the historical, geological, geographical, biological and environmental aspects of the lake and draws upon books and experts in the field for background. This effort gives readers an opportunity to become more intimate with the lake and to understand the extent of the breakdown of the lake's ecosystem, which began in the mid-1800s and is resulting in fish extinction, species invasion and industrial pollution. Her book could be a good springboard for action for reading and environmental groups.
As with any trip, Niewenhuis suffers some mishaps like losing her water bottle filter (she drinks lake water so that its molecules can become a part of her); living through blistered feet and leg cramps; contending with scrapes and scratches from climbing over rocks or big blocks of cement; scaling sand dunes; weathering wind, rain and even snow; enduring unforeseen detours; dodging prowling big cats and bears; getting around off-limits sites like the Palisades nuclear power plant; and camping alone. Fortunately, she remained safe throughout the trip and did not encounter any dangers she couldn't overcome.
What greatly helped her were constant communications with family or friends throughout the trip, which I'm sure eased their concerns over her safety. Such are the conveniences of modern travel unlike the hardships and blind navigation of early explorers. But that was another time. Today we travel into different territory where we seek answers to questions about who we are and how we relate to Nature. These are spiritual questions that require different ways of thinking and using our bodies, as Niewenhuis shows. What's interesting is that she inspires others -- particularly women -- to pursue similar treks in seeking answers for themselves.
The motivation behind her trip was to be alone for a while "to see if I still liked who I am at my core." As she took one last look at the lake at her endpoint, she reflected on what she had accomplished.
"I had time to see what stores of resolve and strength and courage resided within me. Time to be fully alive, solitary, and completely present in the moment. And, at the end, I found I was content and confident within myself."
Niewenhuis got to know herself in a new way, and as a writer, she has the gift to share it with others through her book.
I highly recommend A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach, especially for women travelers who want to achieve a particular goal in their lives. All it takes is picking two points on a map and following them through to the end. And it just may change your life in ways you can't imagine.
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