Montana is not all burning…walking the CDT to Helena


If the news cast an accurate portrayal of the situation in Montana in autumn 2017, one might think we’d be unable to continue – if not already charred to death – as a result of forest fires everywhere. Images of burning woods, massive flames and smoke abound.  But if that were the case, how did we spend the last three days walking through beautiful woods in a relatively smoke free environment?

On the CDT there are the highlights – Glacier, the Winds, the San Juans – and the sections of infamy – the Red Desert, the ridgeline of the Idaho/Montana border, the boot heel of New Mexico – and then there is everything in between. These latter sections are like a blind date. You have no idea what to expect and no preconceived notions. The section south of Helena fell squarely into this category.


Sometimes you nail a town and sometimes you don’t. With Anaconda, we didn’t do so well. We ended up spending one night on a far end of the town, the next night on the other end, and didn’t really get to experience what the actual city was like. It’s an intriguing place though, an old Copper smelting town with beautiful Victorian homes and a head turned towards the future. The locals were really welcoming, and it’s easy to see that as times change, this town is working hard to change it’s image. The old smokestack and Superfund site loom on the outskirts, but inside city limits advertisements for skiing, mountain biking and hiking abound.  It reminds me of Leadville, Colorado 20 years ago.


We had about a 20 mile road walk out of town. Combined with our previous segment, and this was more than 100 miles of road walking straight. Elaine and I are not big fans of road walking, but in the west, in the late season when the snows have melted and rains dried up, it’s a reality. We are not the first class of CDT hikers to deal with fires, and we won’t be the last.

One of the main benefits of road walking is easy access to “trail magic.” Trail magic is essentially act of kindness performed by folks to make our lives out here easier. Sometimes it’s in the form of a cooler of soda and beer on the side of a dusty trail, or a ride to the post office across town, or a warm bed to sleep in at a stranger’s home. Heading out of Anaconda, we were subject to trail magic in droves.


If there is an energizer bunny of optimism out here this year, it’s in the form of a hiker named “Tour Guide.” We met her on a long climb outside Grand Lake in Colorado and were instantly boosted to a better place with her glowing reviews of the trail and overall stoke. We have some mutual friends in the endurance sports world, and I have a feeling this is just the beginning of a friendship.

As we were leaving Anaconda a car pulled over in front of us and a man stepped out enthusiastically saying hello. It was Tour Guide’s husband Keith. Keith is spending the summer driving around the west in support of Tour Guide’s hike. It turns out we just missed crossing paths with her again outside Anaconda, as she bumped north to Glacier after finishing Colorado to head south and finish her walk in Yellowstone National Park. Nevertheless, it was great seeing Keith and he told us to give him a call if we needed anything.


About half an hour later a truck came up besides us waving Ben and Jerries Ice Cream out the window. It was Keith, who had gone grocery shopping in Anaconda and decided to pick us up a treat. I’ll say this – there are few things better than Ben and Jerries Coffee and Toffee Bar Crunch Ice Cream while walking down a hot road through a Superfund site in Montana!


The magic didn’t stop there. After leaving the paved road, passing the Montana State Mental Hospital and crossing Interstate 90, we headed up a dirt road back towards the Continental Divide. Just as we were settling into a groove, we saw a sign beckoning CDT hikers. A voice with a distinct New England accent carried across the ranch land from a trailer, shouting “Come on over for some pie!” How could we refuse?

The gentleman of about 65 years old at the door step introduced himself as “Boston,” instructed us to set our packs down and led us inside. His trailer was full of wildlife pictures and bear skulls, but we were not nervous. Hunting is a way of life out here, and Boston’s mannerisms put us at ease. He gave us iced water and each a slice of Boston Cream Pie. He had just had hernia surgery that morning, and we were beyond impressed to see him up and spry.


Boston moved out west from the town with his namesake years ago, went to Colorado, got sick of all the people, and now lives in this trailer in western Montana. He makes his living as a hunting guide for wealthy tourists and lives a simple life in a beautiful, remote place. He introduced us to his two pigs. I’ve never been up close with a pig, and found they are personable fellows, about on par with dogs in this category. It was a little strange petting two animals that Boston plans on butchering in a month for winter meat, but he is giving them a good life before that fateful day.


As we continued up the road the pine trees closed in and the bare ground gave way to green and reddish meadows of Kinnikinnick. The air cooled and the feeling of being in the mountains returned. With it, an edge came off and as we set up camp in a forest meadow a happiness to be back in nature returned. We fell asleep to nearby elk bugles and distant wolf howls.

The next morning we quickly returned to the Continental Divide Trail. We didn’t know what to expect, but were greeted with miles and miles of smooth, flowing, well-graded singletrack. The trail meandered over and around mountains, river beds and ridgelines and traversed through some beautiful autumn woods. The ground cover is betraying the change of seasons, turning deep orange, red and amber. The occasional aspen patch is dotted with yellow leaves. The elk are making a mating call ruckus, the shrill, haunting pitch of their bugle echoing through the hills.

Bow hunters are a regular site now. Clad in camo, they move silently, in search of prey, of food for winter. I respect bow hunters. The range for bow hunters is about 60 yards from their prey. Given that we’ve been out here for five months and have gotten within 60 yards of an elk or deer less times than I have fingers on one hand, well I’m convinced bow hunting is a difficult endeavor. They are earning their meat.


On smooth trail like this, with such peaceful forest, it’s easy to let the mind wander. And wander it does. Thoughts of life after the trail abound. What will we do this winter? What other adventures await and how do we make them a reality? And while friends all seem to be settling down, why do we still feel this urge to move, to explore, to see more and more? I feel an urgency, I want to see it all, experience it all. I thought this hike might quench that desire. Instead, it seems to be like pouring gasoline on a bonfire.


One thing is for certain. I am lucky to have a wife, a partner like Elaine. Somebody who shares passion for the outdoors, for skiing, for big bold adventures. She is strong, a natural athlete, somebody who just belongs in the outdoors. She is not a limitation, somebody I have to get permission to do something from. She is an empowerer, and she is dauntless. Want to ski across Greenland next spring or down Denali? How many wives would say “hell yeah,” and start researching permit processes?  Mine does just that. She always tells me most husbands or boyfriends wouldn’t want their significant other on such adventures. I coudn’t imagine it any other way. When the shit hits the fan, and things get critical, you want somebody you trust and know is on your side.


We spent the second night camped in a tight forest in a space just long and wide enough for our tent. Five months into a trip it’s easy to recognize the perfectly shaped spot, no matter how precise the fit. It’s all automatic now, setting up camp, cooking, the day-to-day hiking life activities.


The next day was more of the same, meandering trails, fall smells, dreamy forests. We played leapfrog with the hiker Moment for awhile before joining forces with her for the last ten miles before the road to Helena. Moment is the real deal – humble, understated, strong as heck. A female, solo hiker who hasn’t short cut anything and has hiked alone for 95% of the route. While exceptionally friendly, she’s admittedly introverted, a trait I find I like more and more in humans. My boss at work Larry says, “You have two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly.” It is something I aspire towards – say what needs to be said and spend more time listening.


Before long, we were at the top of McDonald Pass, and after hitch-hiking for 30 seconds caught a ride in the back of a pick-up truck into town. Our friends Wolfman, Dumpling, Sherpa, Chosen One, Lumber and Moose are here. It is good to be reunited with the pack. We may join forces tomorrow and negotiate what we have been told is the worst fire section of the entire trail to Augusta.

Helena is turning out to be a little gem of a town. It’s an island of progressive thinking, cool little indendepnt shops, easy access to the mountains and great food. It kind of reminds me of what Boulder must have been like 40 years ago before big money came in and the population grew to the packed place it is now.

Tomorrow, up ahead, mystery clouds the path. There are fires in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier. The trail may or may not close. But there is no sense in worrying about this. Rain or snow may also come. It’s a dice roll, like everything in life. We tend to want to control everything and dictate the outcome. If I’ve learned anything on this hike, it’s that things unfold how they will, maybe not how we envisioned, but generally exactly as they should be. Worrying does no good, except for increasing gray hairs and wrinkles on the face. And there is no time for that, especially since big adventure awaits.

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