North. The word has power. It invokes images. Wild images of deep pine woods, dancing aurora night skies, wolves sliding through the shadows, fog rising off lakes, owls hooting calls to one another through the night. In the north everything intensifies: the sound of a twig breaking raises the alert, a recent bear scat invokes a glance around, the smell of decomposing vegetation a harbinger of changing seasons, of autumn in the not so distant future.
There is an urgency to this quest. The seasons are changing. The morning light is less than it was a month ago. The mind says move. The body, tired from the 2,000 mile journey thus far, does its best to keep up. At this point, that’s what this is – mental fortitude versus physical fatigue. But then there is something wholly unnatural about walking north in the face of a northern Rockies fall. Your mind plays games with you. Through it all, into the wild, we walk. At this point, it’s what we do.
After a quintessential northern night at Upper Brooks Lake – crisp air, a shimmering moon, a fire – we head northwest. A deep dew coats the land so we wear our rain pants to avoid a soaking from the dense vegetation. That’s a big change from the south…the plants are higher here, thicker, wetter, more.
The trail rolls thru the Absaroka Mountains. It’s a hard range to get a grasp of, to feel. It’s exceptionally jagged, in many places looking almost unclimbable. The rock is loose, the peaks towering. We pass thru, thankful for a route, because negotiating this mountain range without one would be hell. The northern Yellowstone elk herd does it every year of course, but they are – simply put – better than us.
Fire has ravaged this range. As recently as four years ago the Cub Fire burned thousands of acres. Black skeletons cover the hill sides, and in between them, vibrant flowers. Fireweed, the first flower to return after burn, resides prominently.
Our bodies are up and down in this segment, both from the land and how we feel. We have not had any real source of fat in a week, and the lack of that is making us inconsistent. Hills hurt a little more, endurance isn’t quite as deep. It’s a long haul from Pinedale to Old Faithful. From somewhere, Elaine leads us up a long 2,000 foot climb, and it feels like we are fresh again, moving fast, peppy. And then on the next climb, for no reason, we’re sluggish and slow. It’s like that at this point in time. Mental strength, always mental strength to do a marathon a day.
We pass a place called “Parting of the Waters.” Here, phenomenally, a creek divides, never to be rejoined again until it reaches the ocean. One branch heads east to the Atlantic, one branch to the Pacific. Being a human, I change the course of nature, taking a Nalgene full of Atlantic water and dumping it in the Pacific Creek. Always have to tamper with things, that’s the human way.
We camp at the edge of the national park. It is our last day without the requirements of a permit for some time. A site at the bend of the Snake River. I catch a cutthroat trout and release it back into the world. We’re hungry, but not too hungry to negate a life. Maybe later, but not now. It’s a great night – more fires, relaxation. It’s really part of the reason we are here. To be, not just to move.
We enter Yellowstone. The southeastern part of the park is basically empty of humans. The CDT follows the Snake River drainage west thru fire charred lands. This area was anihilated in the 1988 fire, that great inferno that changed western fire management forever. Thirty years later, and the land is alive. Twenty foot high pine groves are everywhere, healthy. Meadows with flowers abound. The land feels right. Like death, fire is not the end.
Rain greets us in the morning. We enter the cocoon of wool and Gore. We’re transplanted back to the Hardangervidda, to the far north, to the place of past and future adventures. We pass a lake, a stiff wind ripping across it, driving rain into us, making us wake up and feel alive. There is the smell of wood cutting, as rangers work on putting a roof onto a new cabin. We chat, traveler and caretaker, as a fog drifts over the top of Mount Sheridan. We are technically in Yellowstone, but right now we could just as well be in Alaska, the Yukon, Norway. It has that feel. I imagine Dick Proenneke building his cabin on the edge of Lake Clark in Alaska and envision Elaine and I doing that same thing, sometime down the line, in similar conditions.
We enter the land of smoke and geysers. It’s a land of mist and fire, Nyflheim and Muspell rolled into one, and it feels as ancient and godlike as those realms. The crust boils, a kaleidoscope of boiling water and steam. We reach into a creek, discover it’s hot – perfectly hot – and decide to take a dip as the rain beats down. It’s perfection in nature.
The days clears, we pass thru pine forests, rolling hills, a large lake, great beauty. In the morning we wake to a world of fog. It engulfs the forest, enters the body as we breathe, cleansing, bringing back to life. In my book, a foggy morning by the lake in the woods is nearly impossible to beat. At this rate, autumn isn’t some distant concept. It’s just about here. Beautiful goes to phenomenal as we enter more geysers, steam and fog mixing. What is this place, how is it that so much beauty can converge in one spot? We are a lucky duo to be here at this time.
And now, a brief respite at the largest campground in Yellowstone, Grants Village. Last night, beans in a can and hot dogs for dinner over a roaring fire, and a campfire talk from a ranger like we used to do as kids. It’s good to be back in civilization, however briefly. Tomorrow, we hike to Montana.
A thousand miles left. Less than two months. This thing is in grasp. The best part, the northern part, is yet to come. We are happy, we are well, we are loving the moment and this hike of the Continental Divide Trail.