Snow’s (Elaine) CDT Wrap & Impressions

The final wrap up for Team ThunderSnow!

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We did not hike the CDT on a whim. This was first our first thru hike, back in 2012, on the Colorado Trail, where we first uttered the words, “I want to hike the whole CDT.”

The Continental Divide Trail. I grew up in the shadow of the Continental Divide; as a kid, it blew my mind. I was micro-focused. I was captivated by the little things, fascinated by them, as I think most kids are, and the idea of this ridge of mountains stretching all the way from South America, through the whole United States, up through Canada to Alaska? It was something my mind couldn’t comprehend, and so it took on a mystical quality. I’m not the first, either – the Blackfeet called it the Backbone of the World. As I learned about trails, and then longs trails, and then learned about the Continental Divide Trail, my whole being swelled at the concept. Something about it tugged at me. Since I first understood the concept, it became something I wanted to do. And then, in 2012, Dan and I hiked the Colorado Trail, where I said it for the first time:

“I want to hike the Continental Divide Trail.”

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Our 2015 CDT prep hike, a fast 500-mile September jaunt from Wolf Creek Pass to Eldora. All that was left was to quit our jobs and commit to making it happen. That took another 18 months.

Five years later, I sit here, having done it. And I can’t even begin to process what just happened. Some people say they aren’t really changed by their hikes. Some people say that thru hiking will ruin your life.

For me, I have no idea where to start. I know I miss the trail – I miss it with a deep, painful throbbing that encompasses my whole being. It’s a constant flicker in my mind, a prickle in my eyes, a desire in my gut, an ache in my feet. A few days after being back home, Dan and I drove over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we went into the visitors center and watched the movie. It was longer than normal, and people came and left throughout the film – nobody else stayed for the whole time. And I cried. I cried that desperate, gut-wrenching, unrestrained cry that I usually associate with loss. Even now, just typing this, I finally make the connection. Because I am grieving. I have, even if temporarily, lost the Continental Divide Trail, the trail life, and I desperately want it back.

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The sun drops as we take our last steps out of the southern Rockies and into the Red Desert of Wyoming.

I know that mostly, it’s chemical. When the last of the aspen leaves rustle around on the ground, when the sky is tinted that brilliant morning hue, when the elk down valley from us bugle, when the sound of a chattering creek makes me break down – I know I can tell myself this is chemical. All summer I was in the sun, all day, every day. I’m not getting the endorphins of hiking a marathon every day. I know myself to be sensitive to chemical imbalances – heck, chemical imbalances were the story of my life for many years. I know it will come around, that if I do the things that I know work, I can rebalance my internal chemistry. But for now, while I’m deep in the mourning process, it feels devastating. (And I feel silly that it does.)

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One of those moments that makes you feel so alive. A ski traverse of the San Juan Mountains. Just north of Wolf Creek Pass

I am not sure I can explain it. Were there so many terrible, horrible times? Yes. I bruised my heels in New Mexico; those bruises turned to pockets of infected pus. I dealt with that for two weeks by ignoring it and eating pain killers like Skittles before going into the emergency room when I saw a streak of dark red running up the outside of my leg. We stood by a river in the San Juans in Colorado, pantless at 8pm, debating a crossing of a raging river that we backed out of and then yelled ourselves hoarse because we’d scared ourselves so bad. In Wyoming I dealt with two more infections in my feet, so painful that ibuprofen hardly touched it and I cut massive holes in my shoes so that I could still walk. In Montana Dan got tendonitis  and we had to road walk many miles around fires. In Glacier National Park, there was a night I got chilled, and found myself shivering uncontrollable and temporarily lost the ability to think clearly. I spent every day in pain; some days more manageable than others. My level of exhaustion climbed past what I ever thought possible. The Continental Divide Trail was ruthless.

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The hills on the Montana/Idaho border are almost inhumane in their steepness and endless dishing out of pain. 800 miles from the Montana border and feeling every inch.

Yet, I miss it.

I miss it.

I miss those moments: those moments of strength, when you’re body is aching, so tired, and yet you realize, simply putting one foot in front of the other is not that hard, and it turns out that you can do it indefinitely (or so it seems). It’s the moment of the sun rising up above the trees, filtering its golden beams onto the earth below. It’s trudging through 8″ of fresh snow, feet safely encased in gallon-sized ziplock baggies, enchanted by the cold beauty around you. It’s camping beneath the stars, no tent up, just a few miles from the Mexico border, the Milky Way a great glittering banner in the sky above you as the coyotes serenade you to sleep. It’s hiking down a massive, glacier-carved valley for an hour with elk bundling all around. It’s finding a water source in the Red Desert that isn’t terrible. It’s watching a herd of 150 wild horses thunder across the ground, feeling the pounding of their hooves shudder up your legs. It’s slogging for 14 hours a day through the San Juan mountains in Colorado, being exhausted, but knowing that you can’t let your guard down for a second, that you have to always be paying attention perfectly, and finding that you can. It’s putting your frozen shoes in the sleeping bag with you the moment you wake up so that you can actually put them on when you want to.

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We were warned Knapsack Col was uncrossable because of a huge cornice on top. The doomsayers are many out there. They are almost never, ever right. It went with a smile and a fist pump. – Knapsack Col, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

While I am still processing what the CDT means to me now, and what it is that I am taking from this experience, I do have two things that really stand out to me about what I learned while hiking the Continental Divide Trail this summer. The first is that being stubborn is not always a bad thing. I have had my stubbornness pointed out to me many times as a fault, and I will concede that stubbornness can be a detrimental quality. I will also fully claim that one needs a high level of stubbornnes (I would go as far as to say pure mule-headedness) to finish a long trail like this. There are a million and one reasons to not finish. In fact, most of them make a heck of a lot more sense than continuing. The second thing I learned is that flexibility is just as important. When I finally allowed these two traits to coexist (it seems like an oxymoron to say to be stubborn and flexible at the same moment), I felt like I was finally able to experience the trail in all that it was, and not try to force it to mold to my expectations – because the Continental Divide Trail is fierce and unpredictable and unyielding and uncaring. With these two traits combined, it felt like the obstacles the trail threw at me were manageable. I also think that maybe, just maybe, the right combination of these traits (one pinch stubbornness, two dashes flexibility) might be a good way to approach life in general.

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There will be many more campfires, starting with the Great Divide Trail in 2018. Snake River, Wyoming

This life – I suppose it’s “reality”. I’ve realized I want so much more out of it; maybe it is that I want less. All I know is that when I embarked this summer, I think I was maybe looking for answers, for some sort of epiphany. I had no epiphany. What did happen is I’m more thirsty than ever. I wish to drink from that endless fountain of adventure. And maybe that’s ok.

The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
She pulses, pulses with the breath of life
In, out
In, out
In, out
Ground swelling beneath my feet, heave
Heaving me forward, ever onward
In, out
In, out
In, out
She cradles me to her bosom,
Hold me close, close, closer
In, out
In, out
In, out
Scarlet, golden sky, explosionÂ
Basking me in her glory
In, out
In, out
In, out
Rivers flow, flow, flowing
Rushing, tumbling, chattering
In, out
In, out
In, out
Trees, leaves bursting with color
Rustle in the gentle breeze
In, out
In, out
In, out
The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
Pulse, pulse, pulsing with life
Breathing that life into me

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I’m friends with the trees, don’t you know
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me
Tree-ish love is not wild and passionate –
As the love of the sun is want to be –
Tree-ish love is strong and steady
They spread their boughs overhead, protecting
They offer their strength, soft and mighty
Quiet, unassuming, but consistently steady
The love of a tree is a thing of beauty
So I’m friends with the trees, (and so should you be!)
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me

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This summer’s end will be next summer’s beginning. – Chief Mountain, Glacier, Montana

 

 

Thunder’s (Dan) CDT Wrap and Impressions

Team Thundersnow was a cohesive unit on the trail and in life, but of course we are two individuals! As such, we decided to decided to each write our own “Impressions and Wrap-Up” post. Here is Dan’s…Elaine’s will be posted in a few days.

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It’s been 22 days since we walked to Chief Mountain Trailhead on the Continental Divide Trail, headed north on the final 100 yard section of paved road, and touched the Canadian border, officially ending our thru-hike from Mexico to Canada. In a word, the time that has followed has been, well, muddled. Muddled in thought, muddled in motivation and muddled between pride, happiness but also an overwhelming feeling that something is missing. People hike these trails to find clarity. I find just the opposite – things seem even more open than ever and that can be a little disconcerting.

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Snow and sky rage in the Red Desert, Wyoming.

There are no two ways about it – life priorities have changed. Look, when you’ve lived in such a beautiful world, when your morning wake up call has been elk bugling, coyotes howling, or a stiff wind rattling the tent for the past 160 days, it changes you. It’s unavoidable. They say a behavior can be modified with 40 days of consistent pattern changing. Imagine what 160 days can do? I’m beginning to realize, it can devastate or complete a person, depending on which path you choose to take.

Meriwether Lewis was a hero, a great explorer. A lesser known fact is that he took his life barely two years after the expedition across the western part of the United States ended. He failed at going back. He’d simply seen too much beauty, and lived to purely. How painful it must have been to know he would never see that kind of beauty again. In the end, it was too much. It ended him.

We are more fortunate than Meriwether Lewis. The return to this world is more subtle. We live in a glacial carved valley with trails everywhere and the CDT a mere two hour hike away from our doorstep. There are plenty of other outlets than the route Meriwether took. We will certainly not be going down that trail. But on some level, I can now relate to what he went through. I hope his world after death involved endless western prairies, grizzly bears, buffalo, glacial carved peaks and rivers that wound into the sunset.

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Triple Divide Pass, and into the Hudson River Basin, Glacier NP, Montana.

It’s common in thru-hiker world to “summarize” the journey in a final blog post, offer witty thoughts on the trail and tell how the hike changed them.  The latter is almost impossible for me to comment on, but there are a few things I’ve been struggling with, the main one being making decisions. Take work for example. I find myself reticent to commit to anything because I don’t want to close doors on beautiful things in the future. I don’t want to get myself stuck again. I’m still navigating exactly how far “back” to this world I want to go. After seeing so much beauty, after being so free, how do you go back to driving a scary road an hour and a half a day and giving away so much of your life in exchange? So we take baby steps, like a newborn moose calf walking on snow for the first time. Tentative and excited at the same time. All I know is I want to be surrounded by people who help me shine, who respect me as a core human being. And more than that, I want simplicity, I want nature, I want peace. A cubicle is not in my future.

The Continental Divide Trail, oh wonderful trail. My perspective on it? It’s perfection. What makes it perfect is the imperfectness of it all. It’s hardly a Disney-esque experience. Really, it’s a fucked-up, mish-mash adventure that winds through every ecological zone you can imagine and tosses things at you regularly that will make you curse and cry and sometimes land in the emergency room. I have heard that veteran thru-hikers who have completed the Pacific Crest Trail have a hard time with the CDT. They miss the endless perfect tread of that western trail, the comfort of having a group of people to hike with, the more consistent maritime weather, the trail magic, the sheer bliss. And someday I long for that bliss. But all these things, the CDT is not, and that’s what I like about it. In some ways we were fortunate. Being rookies, we had no expectations.

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There are a variety of hazards on the CDT. Afternoon sun melt snow balls is one of them. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

The CDT is raw. Much of it is wild and untamed. Sometimes there is trail and sometimes there is nothing, no tread, no sign, just a general direction. I saw things I never knew existed. I saw elk in the San Juans, starving with broken legs after a brutal winter. We crossed deadfall that made us scream at the top of our lungs after moving at a 1/4 mile per hour for an entire day. We drank water from cow manure filled troughs with dead rats floating in it. We had lightning explode seconds from our heads. We got brutalized by up-and-downs on the Montana/Idaho border so steep they caused tired legs at best, bad tendonitis at worst. We had blisters so bad we would not hesitate to put a blade to expensive shoes and feet to cut holes and ease the pain.  We were stripped to a core almost every day, forced to pull ourselves back up and keep going. Did we ever want to quit?  Until the very end of the trip, at least once every damned day.

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“Embracing the Brutality,” dodging lightning storms and climbing steep mountains with metal skis on our back. Carson Saddle, San Juan Mountains.

But if we’d quit, what beauty we would have missed. It wasn’t all the time – this is a massive, dusty, cattle overgrazed country – but when it was there, it made the soul sing and shudder. Have you ever cowboy camped near the Mexico border, where there is no light pollution or humidity to cloud the sky, and spent the night watching the Milky Way rotate around the desert as satellites and meteorites dance overhead? Or had a herd of wild horses, 150 strong, run along side you as you move absolutely freely across the Red Desert, as free as those wild horses? Or woken up to a bitter crisp morning with snow gracing the cliffs of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the best Wilderness in the entire nation? As the fog wanders in and around those cliff walls, you swear there are gods somewhere.

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Storm and snow greet the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

I can’t imagine never crossing Triple Divide Pass, entering a new watershed and seeing a world carved by the Pleistocene Age, the last Ice Age, and seeing waters running to the Hudson Bay. And then the next morning, heading down the valley as alpenglow danced on high remnant glaciers (dying but not yet dead), being serenaded by elk doing the autumn bugle not once or twice, but for a couple hours straight. That sort of beauty brings a person to tears, and indeed, for me, thinking back, it does. It’s too much beauty to take in without being affected.

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Snow where she belongs. Saddle of Triple Divide Peak, Montana.

The people of the CDT are almost as raw as the land. Take the hikers. Frat party-like pods moving up and down the trail are a reality on the other trails. They are nowhere to be found on the CDT. The CDT is the land of the lone warrior, or in our case the lone couple. It’s normal to go days without seeing another human being. After a few months, pretentiousness goes away, and the urge to move north takes over. It’s a migration, a humbling one at that, and there is no time to be arrogant. Head down and walk soldier, wind and lightning and snow be damned.

Or how about those people who live near the trail in forgotten towns like Cuba, New Mexico, or Encampment, Wyoming or Leadore, Idaho, who open their homes, who took us in, who gave us rides, who made life out here, if not possible, a whole lot better. This is no pre-determined, commercial trail magic. It’s genuine kindness from people who politically and socially probably have next to nothing in common with us. But they are good people, the salt of the earth, and they love the land. And despite our long hair, dirty beards and mountain stench we all wore, they respected us. On a lonely road in Montana, a man, an old veteran, saluted us as we walked past. To have done something to earn that sort of respect…well, that’s about as good as it gets.

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Living life the way it was meant to be. Cochetopa Hills, Colorado.

I’m proud but not arrogant about what my wife and I achieved on the trail. We were humbled and broken, but in the end we did it right. We didn’t skimp a single step. We faced the hardest sections head on: the San Juans in snow, the difficult passes in the Winds, the soul sucking hills of the Montana/Idaho border, the stark wildness of the Red Desert. The boring sections challenged us more, but we learned to keep moving and embrace them. The mundane sections were when we dreamed big and came up with plans to make those dreams real. I wouldn’t exchange that time for anything. Finally, I was especially happy we were able to integrate a big part of our life – skiing – into the hike. The ski across the San Juans has never been done before as part of a completed thru hike. First ever: that’s something nobody can take away from us, and that feels good.

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Snow skis a chute as part of the first ever ski of the entire San Juan Loop in a thru hike.

The United States is a great big complex country, and the Continental Divide is the wild backbone of it. It deserves to be travelled, one step or pedal stroke at a time. When a person is healthy and full of vigor, what a waste it is to be stuck in a mundane class or job, not rambling in the mountains and woods on a great adventure. We as human beings deserve to be free. Not some freedom. Total freedom. We deserve great adventures, adventures so big that they will break a person down and build them back up again stronger than ever. We deserve to go to bed to coyotes howling and wake up to elk bugling. These type of adventures will make a person question EVERYTHING, and that is good.

Where to now for us? A thorough recap of the journey and that world through a book, the realities of earning money, and then, more WILD-ness. There is so much to do. Hike. Ride. Ski. Paddle. Explore. Ramble. Climb mountains. Cross glaciers. Explore icecaps. To do things nobody has ever done before. And then, figure out a way, to inspire, to fight like hell to protect this planet for the next generation, for the future. We can do better. We must do better. And maybe, just maybe, a 3,000 mile long hike along the spine of the continent is the catalyst for it all.  – Dan aka Thunder

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Booting up a 1,000 foot couloir…another day on the CDT. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Dedication CDT ’17 – To my dad Alex. It was a honor walking the steps you couldn’t at the end. And our companion and best friend, Stella. You were with us every single step girl. 

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Stella hiked with us on our 500-mile CDT shakedown hike in 2015 from Wolf Creek Pass to home.