CDT Journal: Crossing the Great American Desert


Let me tell you what walking 1,000 miles does to you. You have plenty of time to think; you have plenty of time to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. You have plenty of tests of your faith and conviction along the way. You have plenty of opportunities along the way to change your mind. To stop or to go back. A bunch of people along the way might tell you how crazy you are for doing what you are doing. Every day has its own test of faith and endurance. After awhile you just expect it, and when it shows up along the trail, you recognize it for what it is, and trudge on.

– Charles Decker: carried mail along the Pony Express and crossed the Continental Divide 49 times in the 1840’s, 50’s and 60’s. 

There are a million reasons to quit. More, if you really put your mind to it. Blisters. Illness. Boredom. Fatigue. Money. Hell, our dog died – nobody would say anything if we ended the hike for that reason alone, grieving. It would almost be the expected thing to do. Sometimes you have battles with yourself. Things like, “well, I know how to ski and bike, so this hiking thing is just for people who can’t do other sports.” It’s an easy out, a way to save face and be “better” than the trail. But deep down, you know that’s not true.  

Before leaving Rawlins, Wyoming on our four-plus day trek across the Great Divide Basin, we were anxious and pissy. We took an extra rest day, and sat around doing nothing. We needed the rest we told ourselves. Maybe we did. But really, deep down, I think we were just scared. 

We’d heard the horror stories of this part of the trail. Endless miles of nothing. Zero water. One hundred degree plus temperatures. The difficulties on this section of the trail extend beyond just the two dozen or so folks hiking the CDT this year. It’s historical. The Oregon, Mormon, California and Pony Express Trails ran through this area, smack dab where the CDT was taking us. Many people and animals died and countess hardships were sucummed to. We had 200 years of history staring in the face of our mid-July 120 mile crossing of the Great Basin, the Great American Desert, the Red Desert.

Before we departed Rawlins we got a message of encouragement from our friend Jill. Jill is the picture of endurance and persistence, a multi-time finisher of the Iditabike and Great Divide bike race. She wills herself to do things most can’t. She inspires Elaine and I. She comes from a heritage of people who cross the Mormon Trail, who struggled on it, who almost drowned in the Sweetwater River trying to make it to a better life. Her story stuck in my head, gave me something to think about. Because while there is a 200 year history of failure, there is also a 200 year history of persistence and overcoming the odds. It was a well-timed, perfect message. 

There is a certain consistency to the Basin that doesn’t lend itself well to blow-by-blow daily accounts. Like the terrain itself, the story is more flowing and melding. It’s a series of memories, both good and bad, of endless landscape, massive skies, thunderstorms and a place so wild it defies modern logic. 


Did we suffer? Absolutely. The heat – it was incessant. There was no escape. There are no trees in the Red Desert. We picked up two umbrella from the Dollar Store in Rawlins and they provided our only shade from the 100 degree heat and direct sun. Our pale nordic complexions scorched, blocked only by the clothes we wore and SPF 50. 


When we moved, the heat wasn’t so bad. Even walking at three miles per hour, there is something of a breeze created. When stopped, the heat clamped down like a vice, coating every inch of the body, oppressive, baking from above and below. The cracked ground, cacti, shrubs, a hollow shake of a rattle snake’s rattle betrayed the heat of the area. Sometimes the wind blew, and that wind was a welcome relief, a cause to smile and realize that at that we didn’t have it so bad. 


We both suffered in the heat but Elaine fared worse. She does not have desert feet. They swell and blister and explode. She is designed for cold places, and I suspect after this trip we will adventure almost entirely to places of high latitude or altitude. Sixty degree north sounds like a good future guideline! But in the Basin, her feet blistered, and her big toe blew up to such an extent that we had to cut holes in her shoe to accommodate the swelling. You do what you have to do to get the job done, to finish and see it through. She is, without a doubt, as tough as they come.  If her weakness is her feet in hot conditions, her strength is her fortitude and strength. The latter will win every time. 


Water was not as big a problem as we thought it would be. A system of springs is well documented. Names like Immigrant Springs and Mormon Springs make it clear we are not the first to rely on these water sources between long stretches of dry. Beyond the springs, in an ironic twist, the oil and gas industry boom has helped the situation. As a compromise for drilling and because there is an infusion of cash, they have constructed out-of-place but heaven-sent reservoirs in the middle of the Basin. These “lakes” provide water and even a chance to swim and escape the heat, dust and sweat. Beach like? Not quite, but better than nothing.


Beyond the heat and water issues, the other challenge of the Basin is the sameness of the terrain. It’s often very flat, and the two-track trails we followed didn’t meander very often. On day two in fact, I don’t think the route did anything but go in a straight line deep into the horizon. Thank goodness for podcasts, audiobooks and music. 


I think there are two ways to approach sameness of terrain. Suffocate in the lack of stimulation or allow your mind and imagination to flow with it. To travel, to wander, to drift. It was here, on the endless plains of the Basin, that Elaine and I may well have come up with the idea for our future, a plan for prosperity and freedom and adventure, and I dare say it’s a good one. People talk about these epiphanies and life changing things that happen on the trail. Maybe you need the boring terrain, the almost zen meditative places, to make that happen. We had that in the Basin. To have quit and missed that would have been tragic. 


Scarier than the heat is the lack of coverage and protection in the Basin. When lightning storms roll in, and they did every day and night, there is nowhere to hide. It is essentially a gamble that you will not be in the place of the storm when it hits. And except for once, we were not. The storm that was came at midnight on the first night, and the seconds between flash and boom was under two. The world exploded and then fell dark till the next round.  We crouched on our sleeping mats in our tent, fingers over ears, and basically practiced faith, like the many who crossed before us and encountered the same fear. We lived, we were not electrocuted, and that’s a good thing. 


If we had not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would never have travelled in the exact footsteps of the emigrants who crossed this nation during the great western migration. As we approached South Pass, the California, Oregon, Mormon and Pony Express Trails merged into one distant two-track wagon route disappearing over the divide into the horizon. We camped directly on the trail for two nights, watching the sunset, feeling the coolness of the day finally take hold, the birds feeding on mosquitoes and black flies. The sage plains take on a beautiful life in the evening, the golden glow bathing the land, the crickets chirping, the coyotes howling. It’s easy to sit and imagine the excitement and hubbub 150 years ago, the sounds of wagons rolling, the calls of the pioneers, the tromp of mule and oxen. Today, it’s quiet, but you can’t help but feel deeply connected, part of something bigger. 


If we had not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would have never enjoyed the simple pleasures that only extreme conditions and hardship can make you appreciate.  The clear cold water at Mormon Springs defies belief, for it sits in the middle of the hot desert, and yet it quenches the thirst and tastes sweeter than any water I’ve had on the planet. Or sitting down for a burger in Atlantic City, at a place where gunslinger Calamity Jane used to haunt, enjoying the sensation on the taste buds of meat and cheese and other things unavailable in the land of dust and heat.




If we had not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would have never known the magic of wild horses. In the Basin, they thrive, huge herds of them thundering over the ground, making it rumble and come alive. It’s a disconcerting sensation to have a wild animal come TOWARDS us, but that’s exactly what wild horses do. There are sentinel guard horses, perhaps eight to ten strong, who turn, drop their head, and gallop directly at us. And then they stop, maybe 30 feet away, lined up in a row and stare our way. These are not tame horses, they are maginificent creatures, every fiber of muscle showing, their manes blowing in the wind. When we walk, they walk, creating a barrier between us and the main herd. This continues until we leave their valley, when they relax, go back to playing, running and making the entire earth shake like ancient Norse gods. The Basin may be where the deer and the antelope play – and we saw many of them – but it’s the wild horses who turn the land into magic.




Had we not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would have experienced none of these things. The memories of this place are ingrained in my mind as strongly as anyplace on the trail. Dread and fear became respect, awe, and maybe even a smidge of love for the land that tries, tests and then provides the ultimate reward. 


Thank you to all who contributed to the Care Packages and Donations fund. Your help means more to us than you can imagine. We would love to send postcards from our stops to contributors. Please click the “Contact” link and send us a good address and expect a regular stream of good old fashioned, handwritten, snail mail from the American west!


5 thoughts on “CDT Journal: Crossing the Great American Desert

  1. I’m happy my comment about my pioneer grandfather had a small positive influence on your journey. It sounds like it was an incredible experience.

    I know it takes no skill or specialized equipment, but for this reason I think walking is the purest form of travel. One of my major life goals is to one day walk the entire Iditarod Trail, and I believe a thru-hike across this or another continent is climbing the list. What you two are doing is amazing. I look forward to the book!

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  2. I will admit that I never even knew such a place existed. The Great Divide Basin was to me, before I read this, absolutely unknown. I am delighted to learn that such a place exists. You have served as scouts for the rest of us who will never see it in person. But now I feel like I have traveled there. And I am so grateful for your rich description and deeper insights. Wonderful! Inspirational, and for me, utterly new. As a devotee of wild horses and extreme weather, I also very much loved reading about your close encounters with both. Extremely glad you survived! Hope Elaine’s foot is improving somehow. Not sure how that happens when you’re actually continuing to walk!

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  3. Between your night walk to Rawlins and the amazing sunset/thunderstorm we both saw that night, your trek across this part of Wyoming might just end up being the most memorable and spiritual of your whole journey. Very powerful area. VW Bob

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob, WY took us by surprise, which can result in the best experiences. As you said the serendipitous nature of that whole episode really lent a certain spiritual aspect to the walk. Thanks for following along still! (PS We talk about going up to ski in the Snowy Range since meeting you!)

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