TRAVERSE CITY — Michele Oberholtzer is a practical, level-headed mechanical engineer who, until this summer, tracked toward a promising future with a high-powered New York City consulting company.
But the Chelsea native, 28, decided to chuck it all and returned to Michigan to follow her heart, a decision that led her on an adventure of self-discovery.
Oberholtzer has the notion that reflecting on life doesn’t necessarily mean looking back on where you’ve been. It also can mean deciding where you’re going. She also realized she needed a hiatus from the noise and pressures that seemed to accompany her life, and in early July, took off on a soul-searching, solo backpacking trek across a 700-mile stretch of northern Michigan from the Leelanau Peninsula to the Keweenaw Peninsula.
She chose Suttons Bay as her starting point, a throwback to a family vacation, and followed the TART Trail to Traverse City where she spent several days deciding if she realistically could make the trip.
“A critical point was how unprepared I was for this,” she said.
Oberholtzer carried about 45 pounds of basic gear, plus provisions she bought along the way, and survived on peanut butter, tuna and trail mix when not near a town.
“I picked up the North Country Trail just east of Traverse City near the Sand Lakes Quiet Area, and I would camp in state parks or just plop down by the side of the trail.”
She got a hotel room on two occasions when the weather didn’t cooperate. Oberholtzer celebrated her birthday along the route and decided to commemorate it in a special way.
“I realized I was 28 miles out of Petoskey, and I started walking, dedicating one mile for every year of my life and reflecting on what I was doing at each age,” she said. “It gave me a perspective on my life up to now, and I plan to do something similar every year.”
She wrestled with the solitude as the days wore on and found respite in writing a journal; she often paused multiple times a day to write.
“Spending time in solitude to the extent that I learned to feel comfortable being alone was one of my goals,” she said. “Whether by choice or not, I was very alone. I only had a few brushes with other hikers around Pictured Rocks and on Isle Royale.”
Oberholtzer carried a can of pepper spray and a cell phone that often was turned off to conserve power, but went with the basic assumption that most people are good.
“I learned to ask for favors out of desperation,” she said. “I had a few stories prepared in my head, because I realized I was in a vulnerable position, but I didn’t use any of them. Most people were wonderful, and I’m grateful to everyone who helped me along the way.”
She only experienced real fear during a stretch of three consecutive nights when she went to sleep very afraid.
“The first night wolves were howling close by. The second night I heard a moose snorting by my tent and feared I would get stepped on by the large animal. The third night I heard the tire squeals of a car being driven wildly along a two-track, and I realized there are both animal and human threats out there,” she said.
Oberholtzer made daily progress toward her destination, but had difficulty deciding how to officially end her trip.
“My original goal was to finish in Copper Harbor, but I decided to walk from Copper Harbor to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. I walked by moonlight, and the sky was filled with stars,” she recalled. “I took one last swim in Lake Superior and called my family to come and pick me up.”
She returned to Chelsea on Aug. 19.
Oberholtzer isn’t certain she’d repeat the trip on foot, but might consider biking.
“I’ve traveled extensively through Europe, South Africa and New Zealand. The world is full of wonderful places, but only one place on Earth is home, and I wanted to see it. I knew Michigan was beautiful, but it was incredible, especially just being on the lakes.”
“Looking back, some goals I did accomplish. Some I didn’t. I didn’t look at it as an escape, but rather a confrontation of my life. I think it’s important to have a time in your life when you can excuse yourself from it and do that,” she said.