CDT Leadore to Darby: Steep Ridges and the Burning Bitterroots 

The long and serpentine path thru southern Montana has taken us to the farthest west section of the entire Continental Divide in the United States. We are in Darby, Montana, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. In a few days it will be September, the legitimate start of autumn. Smoke fills the air in all direction: Montana is burning. We are tired and a bit wounded. But we’ve come so far, almost 2,500 miles, and there are barely 500 miles left – maybe 20 to 25 days. So far away, so close.

The route from Leadore to here was as rough as we’ve seen. As has been the case since we entered Montana/Idaho, the trail follows the ridgeline of the divide. Switchbacks don’t exist. It’s essentially like hiking up the Ambush face at Eldora (and then down) over and over, every day. Because we’re on a ridge, water is very limited, necessitating heavy carries. The air resembles something out of the Hunger Games, smoke filled, blood red sunrises and sunsets, a constant haze. To add to the fun, a heat wave has smacked the northern Rockies, creating the perfect concoction of suffering, itchy eyes, scratchy throats and sweat. This isn’t the Shire…it’s more like Mordor.When Lewis and Clark came through here in 1805, the whole expedition almost failed. They were tired, they couldn’t find the way and they did not have the necessary supplies until the Nez Perce gave them horses to continue on to the Pacific. As we filled up our water at the distant spring on Lemhi Pass, 25 miles into this stretch, exactly where Meriwether Lewis did 202 years earlier, we couldn’t help but feel a kindred spirit of adventure. When I was 12 or 13, my mom checked out from the library the entire seven volume collection of the Lewis and Cark journals. I was fascinated and read the entire thing, spelling mistakes and all, cover-to-cover. It had an major impact on me and is a factor why we’re here.As we headed north, we entered true forest. The grassy hills of Lima went away, replaced by ever-thickening forest. The trail crossed high, talus filled passes with snow and dropped into deep river valleys, down to 5,800 feet, where the vegetation turned lush. Blueberry bushes were a constant distraction, and since we were moving slower than normal thanks to injury, they provided some valuable sustanence as food supplies grew short by the end of the ration. We saw a mother black bear and three cubs clambering up the talus looking for berries. Elk often crashed through the forest, already leery of the upcoming hunting season. We saw more wildlife in this section than we have anywhere since the San Juans. I had my first bout with injury in this 123 mile section to Darby. With the exception of a few nagging annoyances, I’ve stayed heathy on this journey, but on the second day out of Leadore, on a day with a 20 mile water carry, a near full ration and 7,000 feet of steep climbing and 6,000 of descending, I got a twinge on the outside of my ankle, a strain of a tendon or ligament. The body finally barked back. It got worse the next day and kind of stayed that way. It’s not torn or ruptured, it’s just tendinitis, so hiking in pain becomes something I have to manage for a bit.

Pain is an interesting thing. Dwell on the issue, and it can overwhelm you. But with the power of mental distraction, it’s not hard to continue on. Five percent of the body hurts. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the body is well. A wolf with a leg shattered in a trap can still function fine with three legs. Focus on what is right – almost everything – and the pain becomes a dull, distant thing. Of course working through injury that can do more damage is not good, but this is not the case here. Sometimes I think injury is just another excuse to quit, to fail, to distract. But it can provide the opportunity to get stronger mentally. 

The section also took a toll on the camera. An errant pack lower, and the lens got bonked and broke on a piece of talus. Little things like this are more frustrating out here than normal because it’s just another thing to deal with. But, as has often been the case, our support network came to the rescue, Elaine’s dad shipping out our replacement that will arrive at our next re-supply. Between her parents, her grandfather sending out our re-supply boxes with little surprises, my mom sending treats like spiced salami, cheese, Scottish chocolate, tortellini and all sorts of amazing items and, well, we’re exceptionally well supplied and blessed. 

This is the hardest part of the trail. But just when you need it most, the trail provides. We staggered to the end, a half-day slower than we’d hoped, and were looking at a resupply in Sula, a “town” that is essentially a gas station. It’s not really a great place to recover. As we walked down Chief Joseph Pass (there is an amazing nordic center on top of the pass), a gentleman named Curtis picked us up. Turns out, Curtis is an avid bikepacker who opens his home to human powered travelers. We had homemade soup and a sampling or 20 types of mead for dinner. It’s exactly what two struggling hikers getting our butts kicked by the Montana/Idaho border need. 

Tomorrow, we hope to move into the Anaconda/Pinter Wilderness. We’ll see. At the US Forest Service Office in Darby we got vague warnings that part of the trail ahead could close. Montana is burning more than ever, and the heat wave is settling in. Last night was filled with lightning, little rain and 50 mph winds so the situation will probably be worse in the morning. We’re praying for that first cold front with 3-4 inches of wet snow to help get control of the fires but it’s not in the forecast.  

As Lewis wrote in his journals when he arrived at Lemhi Pass, “immense ranges of high mountains” await. Between that and the fires, the CDT is hardly handing this thing to us, exactly as it should be. 

CDT Pain Cave, Eclipses and Wolves

As the long summer turns to the dog days of August, the trail follows suit. After the wild splendor of the lush Wind River mountains and the sublime beauty of Yellowstone, we’ve entered terrain that is a little less spectacular but no less difficult on the tired body. The Continental Divide Trail along the southern Montana/Idaho border tests the mind, body and spirit. 

The Continental Divide is not a straight north and south route. Nowhere is this more evident than in southwest Montana, where the route, following the divide, swings agonizingly far west, then north and then back east again before resuming its course to Canada. As summer turns to autumn and thoughts turn to future work, skiing and adventures, it takes energy to stay focused on the task at hand. 

The CDT is unique from the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in that it is accepted practice to hike “alternates” when the regular route does not work for whatever reason. For example, in New Mexico the official route follows a ridgeline walk through the Black Mountains. Very few follow this route, instead choosing the Gila Wilderness route. Simply put, the Gila is much prettier and almost everybody goes that way, CDT markers be damned.

As one heads north alternates abound. This seems to be especially true as the date grows later, as we hear of more and more “alternates” popping up to speed up progress and hasten arrival in Glacier. These alternates are tempting – that’s natural with the changing of seasons and the press of time. And when the trail gets tough, as it did between Lima and Leadore, a long road walk to cut off hundreds of miles of divide walking can seem especially appealing. But we’re not going to go down that route. For us, it’s not right. We have a certain way we want to feel about this hike when it’s finished. We want to have absolutely no regrets when we cross the Canadian border.


The trail straight out of Lima was some of the most difficult on the entire route. It’s 103 miles along the divide, or four approximately 25 mile days. Each day consisted of 5,000 feet of climbing, give or take a few hundred. We have not encountered terrain that undulating for that many days in a row since Colorado. The one thing that make it easier is that Montana/Idaho are simply lower than Colorado. Whereas the route in Colorado was at 11,000-13,000 feet, in Montana it’s at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. That makes a significant difference in effort, recovery and appetite. 

Day one out of Lima was very challenging. The route followed the sage covered spine of the divide, climbing steeply 200 to 300 feet at a time. On the profile map, this day looked like an EKG machine, with steep peaks and valleys. A long two hour consistent climb is much easier on the body than repeated short, steep, punchy climbs. Elaine and I reminded each other that this was great ski training, turned up the volume on the music, and suffered through it. If we have one ability, it is an ability to shut off the mind and suffer for hours on end. This was no longer a meandering hike through the west – it was intervals up hills behind our house, hour 23 of Expedition Amundsen, Richmond Ridge of the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, and the hours of pain training and racing that we’ve grown accustomed to. 

While the initial day was the queen stage of the route between Lima and Leadore, the other days offered similar feels. Long grassy ridgelines, steep climbs and descents, occasional forests, cows aplenty and a hazy atmosphere filled with smoke. There were exceptions, however. We camped at a place called Deadman Lake on night two, a beautiful blue oasis in a forest, and caught a couple Cutthroat Trout. The last day featured a climb up to the top of Elk Mountain that will be our last foray above 10,000 feet of the trip. The rock cut bench trail reminded me of the route up Lake Ann Pass in the Sawatch…it felt good to get up high.


Of course a highlight of this section was the much anticipated eclipse of 2017. For most of the hike, this eclipse has actually been something we’ve been nervous about, as we did not want to be in a town during the event. Hotel rooms that are normally $50 in Casper, Wyoming were selling for $600 on eclipse weekend. Our goal was to be deep in the backcountry during eclipse madness for the simple reason of expense. 

We timed it well. Our hiking during the eclipse was along a high ridge on the divide and there was nobody around. We purchased the glasses and enjoyed watching it grow. We decided to lunch early and witnessed a 99% totality, with about five minutes of very surreal beauty. The land turned sunset color but the shadows were still coming from directly above. And then it got cold, very cold, perhaps a 20 degree drop in temperature. Perhaps the most significant thing I got out of the experience is how life on earth basically is sun driven. Without it, I suspect life on earth would cease in a few years. It’s a fragile balance we live on. 

Eclipses aside, on a 3,000 mile hike one encounters much beauty. But honestly, sometimes it’s moving forward through terrain that is less inspiring. This would be an accurate portrayal of the section from Lima to Leadore. Beautiful in its remoteness and open western feel, but not spectacularly so. However, as we move north, the promise of more jagged peaks, deeper forests and true Wilderness beckons. We are entering the land of Lewis and Clark, wolf packs, designated Wilderness areas and one of the greatest National Parks in the land. Good things lie ahead, however challenging it may be to get there. 

Leadore is a fascinating town. A main road runs through a mountain valley surrounded by ranch land and sage hills. The town consists of a few houses, a restaurant/bar, a hotel and some very interesting locals. We are in the heart of the wolf controversy here. Indeed, google search Leadore and wolves and you’ll find numerous accounts of ranchers who have lost many heads of cattle and sheep as a result of wolf depravation. Wolf trapping and hunting is common here.

We had a good discussion with a rancher about this issue. Full disclosure – we’re about as pro-wolf as they come – but we wanted to hear the other side. This rancher and his wife have lost – according to their estimates – $100,000 as a result of wolf depravation. It’s not a theoretical issue for them…it’s real. He has killed 24 wolves in the past 15 years, all legally and reported, a result of them harassing cattle or sheep on his land. He told a story of how he shot a female wolf pregnant with nine or ten cubs. And then, a revelation. He said he was not happy about that. Yes, he was happy to no longer have that wolf or its future cubs harrassing his cattle, but he didn’t like having killed those pups. He talked about the majesty of wolves, how beautiful they are, and how he sometimes talks to them, gives them names as he watches them cross a distant ridgeline or disappear into the forest.

That revelation made me feel better about the situation. He’s not killing wolves because he’s a bad person. He’s doing it to defend his livelihood. I appreciated the conversation and the honesty within. He left because a call came over the radio of a car accident and he is an EMT. Rancher, wolf hunter, life saver. Life is not clean and simple and it’s certainly not black and white. 

I’ll never hunt a wolf, but I also won’t demonize somebody who does so with reasons like that rancher. We’re one but we’re not the same. That realization and lesson makes some steep up and down well worth the effort. 

Bumping Between Borders

After a double zero in Yellowstone, the legs feel much more recovered, and my headspace has improved too. It has been a lot of fun to walk around the Old Faithful area to look at all the geysers and hot pools.

The air is rich with smoke

Evening sun reflecting off a hot pool

It’s a vacation! Also, thanks for the birthday beads, Fran!

I came here a fair amount as a kid and remember feeling like I didn’t really understand the hype. I’m not sure if I was underwhelmed or overwhelmed, but now, sitting and looking into Doublet Pool, feeling the ground thump beneath us, I’m in awe of the whole Park.

Catching bubbles rising up

Morning Glory Pool

We walk along more pools in the morning, it’s a popular area, but it’s early yet, and the swarms of people haven’t made it out yet. Sapphire Pool blinks blue in the sun, and steam rises from the Firehole River.

Sapphire Pool displaying her glory

Streams raging with life

The day quickly becomes dominated by water sources, and we stop for lunch and water at Summit Lake.

Summit Lake

It’s a gorgeous lake, and I would take a dip, except it’s cold and clouds are moving in. We stop to look at the last geothermal area, enjoying our own personal hot pools and mud pots.

We cross the Idaho/Wyoming border and attempt to take one of those classic photos. But I’m uncoordinated and fall a lot before we get a decent shot.

Stop laughing, what is wrong with you?

Whoops

Hey look, Idaho!

We laugh when we leave Yellowstone National Park and are immediately dumped out on an old dirt road. So classic CDT.

Goodbye, Yellowstone National Park!

The next morning we are clumsy and uncoordinated. Trip, stumble, bumble, bobble. Maybe it’s a good thing we’re taking a cut-off through here. Maybe, at this point, the body is just not happy. Maybe it’s just tired. But we are close! Closer, anyway. Lunch is an incredible Chinese meal that catches us off guard as we walk through Sawtelle, where we meet a couple that we ate lunch with on Mt. Taylor, way back in New Mexico, Liam and Kate, and then a long climb up a dirt road before finally branching off onto trail again. Beautiful trail with purple, yellow, and red wildflowers.

As we neared the top, we stopped and chatted with a sobo hiker. He spent some time in Spain and hiked the Kungsleden, a trail in Sweden that we’ve talked about hiking. But the sun was setting, and we all respect the value of daylight. After a short downhill, we hit the source of the Missouri River. There is an ammo box with the story of how the source was found and after filling our bottles right at there, we spend the night in the tent reading this rather than looking at our maps for the next day.

Lewis & Clark never found this. The source of the Missouri!

Brower’s spring, the source

The rain patters on our tent as we fall asleep, and at one point, we wake to coyotes howling and yipping and an owl hooting. I snuggle deeper in my sleeping bag, searching for the pockets of warmth. It’s cold.

As we drag ourselves from sleep, the sound of rain pounding on the tent greets us. Gladly, I would tuck back in and sleep, but instead we pack up and head out, hoping there is a spot of sun sometime in the day to dry our things.

Lots and lots of green

It’s my birthday, and some might be bummed, but the rain is beautiful. A few miles down, we meet Kate and Liam as they are heading out for the day. Immediately afterwards, we find ourselves practically swimming through a swamp. I don’t feel much wetter than before, as it’s been raining so hard all morning. My rain jacket is delaminating, but I’m hoping to coax it through the rest of this trip.

It’s entertaining to walk and talk with people, and we tick off the time chatting. When the sun peaks out for a second, the four of us explode our packs to dry things out and take a snack break. Kate is from South Africa, and Liam is from Canada, so we all have fun talking about different places. Eventually, we drag ourselves up and continue on.

We’re literally on the Continental Divide in the section, and this involves lots of climbing up and down. I hear this is the story for the next couple hundred miles. We are crossing between Montana and Idaho all the time, and I can’t keep track. I’m tired, and I trip, but my legs aren’t burning with lactic acid all the time. That double zero paid, I think. The views are beautiful and the undergrowth has begun to change, reds and oranges beneath the trees.

Ridge walking in Montana

At second lunch, Dan surprises me with a whole box of Chips Ahoy that he brought from Old Faithful. This is truly delightful, and soon half the box has vanished.

At last we reach our water source, and Dan and I begin to set up camp. Liam and Kate decide to stay as well. Liam builds a fire (the Canadian says there is always dry wood, as a Colorado kid, I was convinced everything was soaked) and we spend a good evening cooking, eating, and talking as more rain falls. And then the sun has set and everyone is tired.

I am cold, cold, cold, and there is frost on the ground as we hike out. But soon forward progress come to a halt as we find berries.

Raspberries, and then huckleberries, and then blueberries. As we crest yet another rise, the sun peaks out – and out comes the tent to dry. Sarah and Liam show up and set up their stuff to dry, and before long, Numbskull does too.

It is one of those days that miles aren’t coming easy. I’m not that tired, necessarily, but definitely dragging. Dan says he feels like dog, which spurs a conversation on slang, as apparently that is a phrase not used in Canada or South Africa.

Finally we make it to the cross road we had set as a goal. It turns out to be Cow Area, with cow poop all around, but the option is to set up here, or to do a 2,000′ climb. It’s 8pm, and nobody wants to do that, so we set up.

Around our pots of food, we discuss social media, and how it has influenced people’s lives. We talk about #vanlife and all the “hip” things – how social media spreads the misconception of perfection and simplicity, yet the real story behind these photos is one of stress and time, definitely not simplicity. And then it is quite late, and we’re all too tired for this conversation anymore.

The walk to the highway is boring the next morning and so I plug in a podcast. At the start of the hike, I felt badly about this. On other hikes, we hadn’t even brought a phone. But at this point, I no longer feel that way. We’re out for a long time, and if a podcast is going to help in some sections, I’m going to do it.

It’s just a short wait at I-15, and then the guy who runs the motel pulls up. He gives rides to hikers to town, and the five of us pile into his truck. So far, I have to say, I’ve really loved this section. The hills, the expanse, the feeling of The North. I’m falling in love.

Numbskull, Kate, & Liam as we all wait for our ride

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A huge shout out to everyone who has followed and supported us on this adventure! You guys are all so amazing and bring us strength and inspiration every day.

— Dan and Elaine

North to Yellowstone National Park

Foggy morning in Yellowstone.

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. 

Out of the Winds

Sometimes, even after a full zero, it's still tough. The infected blister I got in the Red Desert didn't heal (shockingly) in one day. But options are low, and mostly the option is forward, northward, ever onwards. So despite green puss and a toe still too swollen to fit in my shoe, we finished up town chores and headed out to hitch a ride.

Part of the town chores involved picking up mail, one of those boxes being our Lucky Bums skis. Dan and I have skied at least once a month since October of 2010. We weren't about to let that streak die just because of a five month hike. So, after scouring the interweb, we picked these skis, little kids skis (I think they have a weight limit of 80 lbs) with plastic strap-on bindings. With them strapped to my pack, they garnered a fair amount of attention. A gentleman approached us as we stuck out our thumbs as yet another massive truck went whizzing by.

"Those skis?" He asks. I laugh and explain the story, and next thing you know, he's giving us a ride up to the trail head. Turns out this guy skied for the US Nordic Team from '76-'84 – quite the long career. We had a lot to chat about as we headed up, picking up TennesSteve (whom we haven't seen since Chama) along the way.

Soon, we were strapping on our packs, saying goodbye to our ride, and diving back into the woods.


The Winds had a high snow year, and things are still melting out.

The toe, the toe, the damned toe! It's such a tiny thing, but it was being a beastly little thing, and my speed was limited. We debated going over Knapsack Col on the way up – we had 11 miles to make the decision. The information on it was surprisingly differing: at the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, they told us that a group with crampons and ice axes couldn't get over it, and a thru-hiker in front of us said another thru-hiker did it with no gear, no problem. Which of the two extremes was true?


Little skis, big mountains.


Heading into Titcomb Basin

Of course, we decided to do it, and so took the turn to Titcomb Basin. As we climbed slowly, once again we were surrounded by the immense Wind River mountains. Some of the tallest peaks in the state towered high over great blue lakes, and finally we stopped, finding one dry spot amongst the swampy tundra to set up.


Titcomb Basin is popular, but we had this whole area to ourselves.


What's for dinner?

Before drifting off to sleep, the same incredible thunderstorms that we've been having at night hit, great violet bolts of lightning shooting across the sky and thunder cracking so hard you could imagine the stone giants tossing boulders around. But the deep exhaustion runs so deep in a thru-hiker that sleep won out before long.


Titcomb Basin in the morning

Up and out of camp the next morning, excited to see Knapsack Col. Soon we hit snow, but it was east facing, and so softened early, and huge sun cups pocked the surface, so traction was easy.


Things warmed up fast.


The last push before the top.

Up and up and up, slipping between two gigantic peaks, and then, one last push to the top, where we met TennesSteve again. We laughed and took pictures before heading down the other side – we saw some lower-angle snow down low that maybe wasn't as sun cupped.


Happy we took the alternate.

The ensuing moments were filled with hilarity as we strapped the tiny wooden kids skis to our feet (clearly the binding was meant for kids, too, as Dan's feet barely fit) and skittered around the snow, out of control and off balance, but laughing our heads off. TennesSteve walked by telling us he'd rather keep his streak of non-broken bones. Good point.


Not trying to pursue broken bones

But there were miles to be made, so down, down the valley we swept, past Peak Lake (complete with rock slide to scramble around without falling into the icy depths), over Cube Pass, and down, down, eventually hitting the official CDT again.


The trail around Peak Lake appears to have been taken out


The beauty of the Winds

I poked the trail with my trekking pole when we reached it – a habit I've picked up whenever we take an alternate or end up off trail somehow, I jab the trail with my pole when we come back, emphasizing in my mind that we are "back".


Into the woods


The Green River quickly becomes quite large.

The trail wound through beautiful forest, deep and green and mosquito infested. So infested with mosquitoes that when we set up camp along the Green River, we quickly barred ourselves inside our tent, feeling ever grateful for having a tent with a screen.

Walking along the Green River the next morning was incredible. This hike is full of those moments: I look forward so much to Knapsack Col, and then this little section captures me by surprise with its beauty.


The sections that surprise you.
Getting dumped into sagebrush land.

Soon we were dumped away from the Green River, heading up Gunsight Pass, back in sagebrush land. Both of us, a little traumatized from the Red Desert, rushed past, giving the poor sagebrush some serious side-eye. I don't trust it. This is not a section that is talked about by hikers, I know not what to expect. Do we go back into the desert? But the land only teases us. The expanses of sagebrush seem like they will go on forever, but we make it to the oasis of Lake of the Woods, which shockingly is not a mosquito nightmare, where we hear our first loon of the trip, and drift to sleep listening to that enchanting call.


Lake of the Woods was enchanting.

North, I think. We've walked to The North. I'm feeling a difference here. The bite in the cold, just a little bit, the call of the loon, the track of a wolf print, the shift in Polaris as I stare skywards in the evening. It's higher in the sky than it was when we started. Much higher.


This wolf print was as big as my whole hand spread out.

Dense fog rolls in that night, and we hike through it most of the morning. Afternoon finds us lucky with no thunderstorms as we bounce along a ridge we will learn burned four years ago.

Charred trees, black skeletons, stand stark against the bright blue sky and a true riot of wildflowers erupt in a flurry of colors at their bases. It is beautiful. Life. Death. The Cycle. We walk back, click click click with our trekking poles.


Fireweed, some of the first plants to come back. They help keep the soil stable while more plants grow.


Hiker hunger: when you find a Snickers on the ground, you smile and eat it.

The next morning is resupply day! We are picking up a package at Brooks Lake Lodge, and we have no idea what to expect. We hear there is nothing there. You cannot eat. I don't know how this works, as it's a place people stay (for $350/night, minimum 3 night stay!) and people usually have to eat.


Oh, hello.

We arrive early afternoon, packs light at the end of a ration. Donna, the nice lady at the desk finds two of our boxes, but not our box with my shoes and more food. We sit down outside and explode our packs, trying to do so in a contained sort of way, while we set the wheels in motion trying to find this box. UPS tell us they delivered the package three days ago. Someone else helps Donna search for the package, and I ask somebody else if I can buy food. I'm met with a crisp no. Finally, because I may be a bit of a freak and want to see things for myself, I ask Donna if I can help look, and we find our box. Happy, we sit back down.


Resupply at Brooks Lake Lodge

I have a slightly shameful moment of begging. I'm hungry. I know Dan is too, but he won't say anything.

"Is there any way there is any food I can buy here?" I ask Donna. (I may or may have embellished it into true begging.)

Before long, Dan and I each had a bowl of strawberry rhubarb crumble with whipped cream. Slightly embarrassed from my begging, but pleased with the results, none the less, I cherished that bowl of dessert more than just about anything.

It came time to leave, so we packed everything into our bags again, said our goodbyes to Donna, and headed up the trail.

Leaving Brooks Lake Lodge.


Nothing like the moon on the lake and a fire.

We didn't make it that far, as soon we came to Upper Brooks Lake, and the peacefulness of the area captured us, pulling us in until we set up camp and made a small fire, watching the full moon rise above the mountains.

CDT Journal: Into The Winds

Dense fog came rolling through the spires as we approached the top of the pass. Thick clouds, heavy with moisture, banked on top of each other, so close I could pull their damp woolen threads down around me. After a small snow climb followed by a bit of scrambling up (slightly unstable) rock, we were almost there – and none too soon.

Working our way up no name pass.

Having taken no more than a few steps down the other side of this nameless pass, thunder began crashing over us and the skies unleashed torrents of heavy rain. As we moved as quickly as we could beneath the towering Temple Peak along a sloping snowfield to Temple Lake, I thought to myself:

Welcome to the Wind River Range, Elaine!

South Pass City was a place of transition, for as we headed out of the small historical site, we were heading into the Wind River Range – a place I had been looking forward to seeing for a long time. Dan has spent a significant amount of time in the Winds, and as an employee at Neptune Mountaineering, I often helped people before their trips up here. But I had never been myself, and was very excited to be going there.

Heading out of South Pass City, closer to the mountains!

We camped not far off the north side of WY Highway 28, definitely feeling a bit shelled from the trek across the Great Divide Basin. I performed a short yoga sequence, with the hopes that it would help with some of my issues. Aside from coming out of Wyoming’s Red Desert with an infected toe, I was also just in a lot of pain. My elbows hurt, and my knees and hips hurt so bad that squatting to pee was a very painful experience.
It might look like typical hiker trash, but I cut this hole in my shoe intentionally, as my infected toe was swollen even it no longer fit in my shoe.

Of course, no matter how badly we wished it, we had not magically been transported to the Wind Rivers, and still had to hike through the transition zone. The desert and a mountain range with an impressive number of glaciers are really shockingly close in this part of the country. The next day was spent hiking through that transition zone. We would go through forests (with trees and undergrowth and brooks and everything!) only to be spit out on a sagebrush covered ridge.

The things that are green and growing!

But water was frequent enough and by afternoon we had passed into the Bridger Wilderness to camp next to Larsen Creek, where Dan, who brought along his Tenkara fishing rod, fished a bit and I did an extra long yoga session.

Dan enjoying some moments of peace on the river.

Tenkara and Hyperlite: all you need for the Wild Rivers.

Our next morning dawned overcast, with a ton of condensation clinging to the tent. Soon into our hiking morning we were rewarded with our first glimpse of a classic Wind River view. Little Sandy Lake sat nestled in a basin below us with great granite cliffs rising dramatically up behind, snow still clinging to the flanks of all. Laughing with the joy of being back in the mountains, we swooped down the trail to Little Sandy Creek, where we deviated from the trail. The official route went left while we went right, up towards those majestic peaks. That morning the clouds could not decide what to do, drifting heavily across the sky, followed by patchy sunshine, one moment of which we took advantage of to dry our tent and eat a snack.

With all this moisture come the mosquitos!

Such beautiful trail.

Soon we were by lake 10,800′ (which was still mostly frozen over) and planning our route over the pass to Temple Lake. As we crossed over amidst thunder, pelted by rain and some hail, Temple Lake proved to be just as incredible as the name implied. I had thought, when seeing Temple Lake on the map, that it must be a special place, and truly it was spectacular!


This is my temple.

Crouching under a rock outcropping to inhale another snack, the rain pummeled down and we stared in awe at the beauty surrounding us. Then it was up and moving again, down, down, down the valley to Big Sandy Lake where a bunch of people were coming in to fish, and then up another pass. Jackass Pass (so named because you cannot get a horse over it, as we were told by a passerby) turned out to be slower going than we thought, so we camped at North Lake, under the imposing shadow of War Bonnet Peak. I found myself crying. Not because I was in pain, or necessarily upset. We had been hiking for months, and now I was in a place that I wanted to stay. I had dropped our mileage down to 20 a day, but it felt like too much.
Impressive peak. War Bonnet Peak doing his name justice.

A little yoga at North Lake.

Stars popped out of the velvet night sky, surrounding War Bonnet. I found Polaris, as I have every night, and fell to sleep, enchanted by the Winds.


Some fun at North Lake.

War Bonnet puts on his colors for the morning.

The next morning was a finish up and over Jackass Pass down to Lonesome Lake, which sits surrounded by the Cirque of the Towers. It’s a popular place, though we only saw a tent and no people, and there’s no question of why! Giant cliff walls explode from the ground, rocketing up to the sky, drawing your eye up, up, up. Almost, my senses can’t even take it all in. We lay at Lonesome Lake, staring, staring, trying to make sense of it all. 

This is nonsense. How can a place be so…much?

Eventually the morning ticked on, and we had miles to make. So up we got, packs on backs, and began the huff up the creek bed. We distracted ourselves for a bit when we spotted a couple of climber on Pingora Peak. That’s true badass!

Pingora Peak is the towering peak behind me, lookers right.

Up Texas Pass.

Texas Pass.

On and up, ever up, up the creek bed, up snowfields, and then finally, up on Texas Pass. At Texas Lake, we ate, dried the tent, and watched a rock wren hop about, wondering what he was doing so high up. After snack it was down the valley for us, where we ran into a NOLS group.

Down to Texas Lake.

This triggered a conversation that lasted all down the valley until we rejoined the CDT, where Dan realized he had lost his knife. Reluctantly, we set our packs down and Dan headed back up the trail, looking hard, while I stayed with the packs (we both had nightmare visions of coming back to marmots having eaten our pack straps). After a while, Dan was forced to admit the knife was probably at Texas Lake, and was not going to go that far back. So we headed on, annoyed at our mistake. Usually when we take breaks, we inspect the area when we leave to make sure we aren’t leaving anything.

More thunder followed us, and then a massive storm, lighting flashing, thunder crashing, hail pummeling from the sky, forcing us to take shelter before we headed out exposed again up high. As we couched under a copse of trees, hands over ears, we screamed at each other, terrified by the storm, crazed laughter punctuating our shouts.

“Thor is very angry!” Dan yelled.

“It’s like a toddler is having a temper tantrum, except that toddler is Thor and his Mjolnir!” I shouted back.

Eventually we could continue, and we set up camp at Raid River, when I was so tired that I was tripping over every rock on the trail.

The following morning dawned straight up cold, and we hiked in our rain gear with mitts on for quite a while. The trail took us along a chain of lakes, one perfect alpine lake followed by another. How is it that one place can have such beauty?

Stopped to fish at Sandy Point Lake.

But as we neared Hat Pass, another high, exposed area, yet another thunderstorm rolled in. Instead of the whole song and dance of terror involved with that, we elected to head down to the Highline Trail, which stuck to a lower elevation, to feel safer as the thunder boomed over us. As evening fell, we found ourselves at Chain Lakes, and decided to stop.
Looking over the map for the next day’s travel, while holding my “food baby”.

The sun set as we cooked dinner under the raging sky, but hurried to bed as yet another thunderstorm crashed over us, so close we could no longer count the seconds between lightning and thunder. I fell asleep faster than Dan, pure exhaustion pulling me under.

When we awoke the next morning, there was a certain hurry to packing up, always brought on by the prospect of a town day. We hadn’t had a shower since Rawlins, and had hoped to take a dip in the lakes here in the Winds, but with the thunder storms, and a high amount of the lakes that we’d passed still having ice in them…it just hadn’t happened. And food. Our minds ever revolve around food, and today as we hiked, we let ourselves talk about food, a topic that is usually (but unofficially) off limits. We talked pizza, hamburgers, apples, orange juice, bananas.

A cold morning made colder when you get to start off with a “car wash”!

Saying goodbye to Chain Lakes for now.

It’s the Wind Rivers, and crossing rivers is the name of the game.

Soon, soon, we were at the trail head. No sooner had we stared trying to hitch, than a pickup pulled over. An awesome family sorted themselves around and squeezed us in. It turned out they had been hiking the CDT north of us, and we had a great time talking trail all the way to Pinedale.


At Photographer’s Point, a glimpse of the terrain to come.

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!