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.

Summer of the Bear

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It was the summer of the bear. We saw eight black bears (Ursus Americanus) on our Continental Divide Trail trip: one each in the Gila Wilderness (NM), San Juan Mountains (NM), Cochetopa Hills (CO), Never Summer Mountains (CO) and a … Continue reading

Glacier National Park – or Where Did the Summer and the Miles Go?

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Breaking snow on the pass out of Glacier National Park.

Crunch, crunch, squeak. We’re postholing through mid-calf deep snow up to Triple Divide Pass. Dense clouds swirl around us, a sharp this-is-no-longer-summer wind biting the bits of skin we still have exposed. The trail winds through the cliffs, expertly chiseled between rock bands. Mountain goats leap nimbly on the bands above us, seemingly impervious to the late fall snow building up around them. The monolith of Triple Divide Peak looms above, the snow accentuating the great bands of rock wrapping around the peak. Hearts soaring, we continue punching our way up, our winter souls pulsing to the gusts of the wind.

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The Garden Wall rises into the mist.

All summer every footstep, every action, every decision, every motion Dan and I have made has been ultimately directed into movement. Movement north, north, ever north, the end goal being the Canadian border – and one hundred miles through Glacier National Park. When huffing over so many dry, dusty mountains, when there were injuries and infections to battle, motivations to boost, and tired bodies to move, the thought of this land of towering mountains, thundering waterfalls, and glistening glaciers pulled us on when nothing else could. Our hearts beat snow, our blood runs ice. Winter lives in our souls – Glacier National Park was the dream, the reason.

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Dan breaks trail up Pitamakan Pass.

While Dan and I both have been feeling the urge to get home and start prepping for ski season (there is also great amounts of wood that needs to be gathered), I think we even might have hoped to see snow before the end of this trip. Fortunately, northern Montana was more than happy to oblige! The evening before we left East Glacier, fat flakes fell heavy from the sky, and we spend a cold, happy couple of hours skiing around the golf course to get our September ski in.

Starting up out of town, the clouds hang heavy in the sky over us, and soon, as we wind our way through golden and scarlet brush, wet snow begins to fall, becoming heavier and heavier as we climb in elevation. Several big horn sheep pass us by, picking their way nimbly down the ridge by us, unconcerned by our presence. Passing by Scenic Point, we laugh, as we become completely engulfed by clouds. The trail wraps around to the northwest side of a peak, and the trail becomes obliterated by snow and Dan leads, his long legs an advantage in the deep conditions.

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Out of the plains near East Glacier, into the mist and snow.

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Who are ewe looking at? Big Horn sheep ambling about.

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They say it is scenic; I’ll have to take their word for it.

Soon we are down in Two Medicine Campground, we’re too late to talk to the ranger about backcountry sites, so we’ll do that tomorrow. Meanwhile, we eat dinner with the only other people there – a guy who hiked the AT last year and his wife. I’m clumsy and spill wine all over my rain pants.

“That’s something they never talk about,” we joke. “When you spill wine on your pants do they have to go in the bear box?”

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Dan navigating the insides of a ping pong ball.

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It just got real.

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Heading down to Two Medicine Lake.

Glacier continues to awe the next morning, gracing us with more snow overnight. We watch a bull and a cow moose foraging down in a swampy area before climbing up, up, up to the cloud land. We are up to Pitamakan Pass without seeing anyone, I think the cooler conditions are keeping most people away. The trail tops out at a heart stopping overlook of Pitamakan Lake. Good steps here. Don’t tumble over. Over Pitamakan Pass, we dive down into a lush valley, dense with crimson brush, the blueberries overripe and the aspens a deep gold. Autumn is getting on, and we scour the land for animals.

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That poised moment between fall and winter.

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Into the mist land.

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Overlooking Pitamakan Lake

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Don’t look now, but there’s kind of a drop off there to your left.

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The trail showing up faintly over Pitamakan Pass.

Triple Divide is a decent climb. At this point in the game, though the excitement level is high at being here, the body is also just tired. But the beauty pulls us up to where the clouds wrap their cold arms around us and the wind leaves cold kisses on our cheeks and nose. We keep stopping to gape around us, the beauty overwhelming. At the top is a snowman we are enchanted with, little shale rocks for buttons, his whole body icy from the pummeling winds.

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Serious work went into the trail over Triple Divide Pass.

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Dan rising above the valley floor.

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Do you want to build a snowman?

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Descending the other side of Triple Divide Pass.

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The last rays of the day.

The next day is golden, a watery autumn sun shining down, and we let our limbs thaw in the light. We don’t have to go far today, because of the way the backcountry sites are, so we stop for little things, lounging in the rustling of dying leaves. The smells of fall wash over us – sometimes the dank, over powering, too-much-mold smell; sometimes the sharp, bright, spicy smell that makes me dream of pumpkin pie and chai. We are giddy with it, drinking it in, breathing it deep into our souls, filing up with the pulse of life.

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Alpenglow on Triple Divide Peak.

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When they say “suspension bridge”, they mean it.

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Brilliant brush in a sea of standing burnt trees.

We pass Virginia Falls, and we marvel at the luxury of having the time to clamber around on the rocks, the mist billowing over us. The temperature is not quite warm enough for it, but we do it anyway. Finally, after hoping up and down the complex of falls, hands chapped red with cold, we continue down the trail. As we reach St Mary Fall, we see a couple coming up the trail towards us.

“Did you go to Virginia Falls?” They ask and we say we did.

“Is it worth it?” We blink. Worth it? Worth what? After coming this far, it better be!

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Enjoying the lower part of Virginia Falls

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The trail around St. Mary Lake had this stone. That’s quite an Eagle Scout project.

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You tell me: Is it worth it?

As we cross the Going-to-the-Sun Road the next morning, we gleefully pile our trash in the bin. Always glad to be rid of trash! Then it is climbing up to Piegan Pass. The legs fall into a rhythm. Though they are tired, one of the biggest things I’ve learned on this trip is no matter how tired the legs are, it’s not so bad to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. As the clouds hug the peaks again, we decide to take advantage of the wind and dry our tent before heading down the other side. Tumbling down the north side of the pass, the wisps of clouds twirl around the incredible towering presence of the Garden Wall. Huge and dark and slightly foreboding with the snow and the fog, it dominates most of the rest of the day.

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Heading down Piegan Pass

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The Garden Wall looms to the left.

We round a brushy corner and come upon a grizzly digging up the tundra, woofing quietly. He looks up at us, and I feel his eyes land on me. Then, as though shrugging, he goes back to his digging. We navigate down and around him, breaths fast in our chests and bear spray out.

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Fascinating snow formations

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Fortunately not interested in us

It’s our last night. We’re in Many Glacier campground, a crackling fire warding off some of the chill. A melancholy fills the air. Maybe it would be good to spend this night with others. There are a few tears. At times, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be done, but now that it’s so close, I think that desire was wrong. As the last embers die, we crawl into our tent, tucking into the familiar feel of the small space, all our things arranged just so around us.

We drag in the morning. Leaving camp for the last time? How is that a thing? But eventually we are all packed up and begin up our last pass of the trip. Not a mile into the day, we meet a lady moose coming down the trail. She is making odd grunting noises, and we hop off the trail to skirt around her. The trail meanders for a while before climbing up. We scan the wall ahead of us. There is the Ptarmigan Tunnel, and I’ve been trying to imagine what it even is. It is, it turns out, to be an actual tunnel! As we round a bend, we see it is a tunnel with doors, both propped open for now, but soon to be closed for the winter. It looks like something from the Lord of the Rings, and we walk through the tunnel listening for orcs. On the other side, it is not a stretch to imagine the stone giants living here, heaving boulders crashing over the cliff walls to the glacial carved valleys below. The trail is incredible, carved right into the cliff, but bitingly cold – it feels like this cliff rarely sees sun.

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Looking back from Ptarmigan Tunnel into the depths of Glacier National Park

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Inside Ptarmigan Tunnel

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Dan on the other side of the tunnel

Staring in awe up the next valley – Helen Lake sits beneath some of the tallest peaks in the Park, and seems like a good place for a future trip – we soon lose all the elevation we gained, meandering through the changing leaves. We can’t help but stop frequently to stare backwards at the peaks, rising mighty above us.

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The trail hugs the cliff wall on the other side of Ptarmigan Tunnel

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Looking up the valley towards Helen Lake.

But too soon, we are climbing, the very last of all the climbs on the trail. My parents appear around the corner – they are picking us up. And then the last sign post. There is a small CDT marker, as well as one for the Pacific Northwest Trail. Just a bit further is the boundary line between the US and Canada, and we get our passport stamped. Pictures at the boundary line – it feels surreal. Just this little spot, this mark on the map, is this really it? Where we’ve been hiking towards for months? But this is it, the finish. I don’t think my brain computes it. This little spot doesn’t seem like much, it’s not the most incredible place on the trail, but it’s the end.

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It’s the last trail head sign

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Sorry it’s over, but stoked to finish!

I think I thought I would have answers at the end of this. I think I thought I would feel satisfied. Maybe the thirst for adventure would be quenched. But for all the questions I answered, I have more questions than ever unanswered. We are not satisfied – I think the desire for adventure was a small flame, and we just poured gasoline on it. More, more – more wild, more mountains, more rivers, more vastness. The soul wants it all.

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There’s a heck of a lot more trail out there…

Snowstorm in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

At the mountaineering shop Elaine and I worked at in Boulder, Colorado, we sold a variety of maps highlighting regions and trails for adventure. Some of the maps cycled through quickly – the Indian Peaks, Summit County, Rocky Mountain National Park and Elk Mountain maps sold on a daily basis. And then there were the odd balls, the maps that sat on the rack, that almost never sold.

I always found the latter category fascinating. During slow times, I was known to pull out a dusty map of the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness or Himalayas, opening it on our big wooden table at the shop, looking at mountains, ridges and valleys and imagining routes through that landscape. On a hot, sweltering July day in Boulder, it was an escape to another world.

On the bottom corner of that rack, almost hidden, sat National Geographic map #725, titled “Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.” In the six years I worked at the shop, we sold this map one or two times. I remember an older gentleman came in looking for the map, and when we found it, with a knowing and distant look of adventure, told me in a hushed tone, “you need to visit the Bob.”

And so the Bob Marshall Wilderness was introduced to me. Research showed it was a place deep in the northern Montana Rocky Mountains, home of wolves, grizzly bears, inaccessible mountains and the best Wilderness in the lower-48. It’s a huge expanse, the fifth largest wilderness in the United States. It is known to have the highest per-capita rate of Grizzly Bears in the lower-48, more even than Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Grizzlies prefer more remote, more wild locales than even National Parks can offer.

It’s possible I never would have gone to the Bob. It’s not exactly a place you end up in accidentally. But, as the trail gods would have it, the CDT happens to take the hiker right through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Indeed, it goes into the heart of it, below something called the Chinese Wall, a seven-mile cliff face smack dab on the divide.

After our fire-induced road walk connecting Rogers Pass and Benchmark, the weather took a 180° change. A major cold front moved into Augusta on our rest day, blowing a swift wind and a steady rain down from the north – raw, cold, winter-like.  By the time evening rolled around, that rain was coming down more swirling, frozen and whiter in the form of a wet snow/sleet mix.

We pride ourselves in being prepared for cold weather, but our layering system was under-gunned for this type of wet cold. We headed into the local convenience/hunting store, and came across a couple $25 thick fleece jackets. Neither were the epitome of style – mine had a defined green camo hunting motif and Elaine’s black hoody could only be described as something that a 15-year old fan of dystopian fantasies would wear – but they were very warm. As we left the store and walked back to the lodge in the cold snow and wind tucked into our ugly fleeces, we knew we had no excuses not to head out.

It was quick turnaround the next morning. Since we had walked the section from Augusta to Benchmark two days earlier, we were able to accept a ride up to the trailhead and still maintain our continuous footpath. We hitched a ride to Benchmark with Mack and Connie who own the Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters. After a stop at the local bar to pick up some breakfast burritos, we began the 35 mile journey to the edge of the Wilderness. As the truck bounced down the dirt road into the mountains, snow swirling in the headlight’s glow, we found out that our hosts were, for lack of a better word, caretakers of the Bob.

Mack and Connie take visitors, mostly on horse, into the Wilderness to hike, ride, fish and hunt. On this particular trip they (and their staff, which included a girl with a Master’s Degree in literature – stereotypes be damned) were taking two gentleman from Oregon elk hunting.

Hunting in Wilderness may be a strange concept to some, and I’m sure folks on the left and right coasts of this country would disagree with it.  But before casting judgement, let it be known that Mack and Connie are on the front lines of the Wilderness movement and have fought hard for decades to preserve land in northwestern Montana. I suspect when these two walk into a meeting with a land manager or a politician, they command instant respect. They walk the walk and talk the talk. In our continuing education about the real American west away from the Boulder bubble, this was one of the best encounters we had.  They drove us right to the trailhead, and before departing Connie told us, “Enjoy the Bob Marshall. It is a magical place.”

The trail headed due north across the Wilderness boundary. A light snow fell, leaving the path wet brown but the trees and shrubs on the side covered with a thin layer of white. The contrast between the yellow and red underbrush was stark against the white.

Through forests and river valleys the trail meandered. Sometimes we’d be in ancient timber stands, hundreds of feet tall, and the next minute, walking though the skeletal remains of a burned forest. In these sections new stands of bright green pine have filed in the space between the burned trees, the rebirth of life under the remains of death. We will both be gone by the time this forest is ancient, but in some ways that is comforting, the cycle of life never ending, unaffected by our blip of time here.

We breaked under the shelter of an old patrol cabin, and then continued our way. The trail began to rise noticeably, and with it the snow grew deeper and fell steadier. Clouds and fog shrouded high cliffs in front of us, and a quick glance at the map confirmed we were approaching aptly named Cliff Mountain.

We circled the base of Cliff Mountain, crossed a small pass, and came to the southern reach of the Chinese Wall. A sheer cliff rose a thousand feet, dark and foreboding as the mist whisped around it. It extended north into the fog, the end nowhere in sight.

Darkness was approaching, the snow falling hard and it was time to set up camp. We tamped down the snow on a flat section under the wall and hunkered down. The wet snow required constant tightening of the guy lines and shaking off, but inside the tent we were warm and cozy.

The next morning was magic. Cold magic, but magic nonetheless. The fog lifted some, revealing the Chinese Wall in all its splendor, with the fog just kissing the top of the cliff wall. The world below was white, as about eight inches of fresh powder blanketed the land. Our core, wrapped in our $25 fleeces and a host of other layers was warm, and the plastic bags between our socks and shoes did an adequate job keeping the feet from freezing. Ahead on the trail, animal tracks jutted off in all directions. The world tells a story with a fresh snow.

It’s rare when place and time converge to create such perfection. If I’d custom ordered up the conditions I’d wanted to see the Bob Marshall in, this would have been it. Deep fall, moving into winter. Cold. The first snow of the year. Mystical and beautiful. Hikers a few days ahead had to endure this section in smoke. We were luckier. Sometimes being patient pays off.

After traversing along the base of the wall, breaking trail through the powder, we had to descend off the ridge thanks to a fire reroute. The reroute took us into a new Wilderness area that most CDT hikers don’t get to visit, the Great Bear Wilderness. But not before a chilling descent. That snow up high fell as ice and sleet on the trees, bending them directly across the trail. As we passed through, we got an icy car wash, soaking our gear and freezing us to the core.

The sun emerged and soon we were sitting back, drying our gear and enjoying lunch in a beautiful old growth forest. The rest of the day wandered through magnificent river valleys and forests in the northern Bob. Yellow leaves dropped from trees and the rich smells of decomposing leaves permeated the air. We camped that night under the stars in deep forest, the sound of elk bugling and wolves howling serenading us to sleep.

The next day brought us up and over Gunsight Pass, a 2,500 foot climb through a recent burn near a mountain that literally had a notch in a cliff wall. It was something out of a novel – a lonely mountain in the northern Montana Rockies that looks like a hideout for cowboys or banditos. And then, past serene creeks that carved through moss covered ground, and down into an old, deep, peaceful feeling forest. If the Bob Marshall is the land of mystery, the Great Bear Wilderness is a step beyond, an Avatar-like dreamscape that captures the soul.

As the the light waned, bear tracks. A horse rider had crossed the opposite direction no more than ten minutes earlier, and these large bear tracks were on top of those. A grizzly bear, heading the same way we were. We suddenly started raising a ruckus, singing bad pop songs and telling the bear in no uncertain terms that we meant no harm. The tracks continued on to the Flathead River,  requiring an icy ford at the end of the day.


Across the river the bear tracks disappeared, and we emerged at the Schaefer Work Station, a wilderness airport and a USFS ranger cabin. It was dark now, so we poked our head into the cabin, aglow and overwhelmingly warm from a hot fire in the woodstove. A group of rangers inside informed us there was camping nearby, and a gentleman walked the 300 yards with us to the campsite. He lives in Eureka, Montana, along the Pacific Northwest Trail, and after talking with him about it…well, we have another adventure to embark on! This country speaks to us…we will be back. That evening Himal and Chosen staggered into camp. They told of epic tales of avoiding fire and freezing. They did not have the $25 fleeces, and Himal only had shorts, not ideal for temperatures in the teens and 20’s. Himal is a minimalist though, and I suspect it’s as much his identity as being good in cold and snow is ours.


The next morning was smooth travel along river beds in perfect fall weather, flurries and rain mixed with sun. Somewhere on this section one of those moments hit me: perfect happiness. Not because we are finishing – in a sense I dread that – but because I was in the perfect place, with the perfect partner, moving exactly how we wanted. No bosses, no traffic, no stress other than those things that are real: water, food, warmth, movement. The way life should be.


The rain began to beat down hard. We put on every layer. The trail dumped out onto a dirt road heading north towards Glacier National Park. It was too cold to stop. We moved in the cocoon of rain, pitter patter on the hood, breath exploding in front of us. We crossed another mountain pass and soon hit Highway 2.

We turned right, avoiding the spray of 18 wheelers, rounded a corner, and saw it: the southern border of Glacier National Park. Grey mountains erupted from the valley, and snow capped peaks that were sheer, unlike anything we have seen. Our destination for the past five and half months, right there in front of us. It was a joyous, emotional moment, a hug and a few tears shared. We made it to Marias Pass and camped on the side of the road, an icy wind blowing down from the glaciers above.The next morning, it was back on trail for a 15 miles walk on the CDT to the town of East Glacier. We’ve been laying low for 36 hours as a storm rages in the mountains. This will not be an easy finale. The mountains have about a foot of snow on them and there are still 100 miles to go. But the route is open, the fires doused. For a snow-loving, mountain couple, we woudn’t want it any other way. I am giddy with excitement – we are going to Canada and we get to cross some of the best mountains in the world to get there to finish up this 3,000 mile thru hike on the Continental Divide Trail.

Touring Around the Fires

 

Several days before Helena, I was multitasking. Between making dinner, purifying water, and writing in my journal I got thirsty and grabbed a water bottle. Gulp, gulp, gulp – and then I paused, a mouthful of water still in my mouth, eyes staring at the bottle. Damn. This was the bottle I was getting ready to purify. I leaned over, spitting out my mouthful of water, spitting, spitting. I stared at the puddle of water slowly seeping into the ground. Well.

 

Now I’m not sure if that mistake was what caused the nausea, or if simply breathing smoke for weeks on end caused it, but for this whole section, I’ve had a moderate constant queasiness. The most depressing thing is a burger doesn’t even sound good!

The trail started a mixed bag out of Helena – some beautiful trail, some old forest service roads, and some straight ups and downs. It wouldn’t be the Continental Divide Trail any other way!

The gang’s all here!

We reached Dana Spring – I guess in the springtime there is water coming from an actual pipe, but this late in the season, it’s reduced to a puddle about 3′ down at the bottom of a metal tube. But the puddle provided water for all.

The water…I think I can reach it.

Most of the group stayed and cooked dinner there, as it was a fair stretch until the next water source, but Dan and I headed off (one of my favorite times of the day is dinner, and I don’t like to spoil it by having to hike afterwards). Almost immediately thunder and lightning rolled in. A brisk rain fell – the first since my birthday – but with the lightning and the wind ripping around, we wondered if this storm would do more harm than good.

Light rain – the first for us in a month.

Wind became the story of this section – battering us as we climbed up and down barren ridges, snapping backpack straps across our faces, and whipping dust into our eyes.

The wind howled all night long, whistling through the trees, and causing Dan and I to constantly peer about for a dreaded orange glow, wondering if a lightning strike fire was being whipped into a frenzy up the ridge towards us.

No tree fell on us, and no fire came roaring up the ridge, but that morning dawned on us groggy from lack of sleep. So it was off and at it again. Up and down dry, dusty, and now windy ridges, my stomach gurgled and moaned the whole way. I tried downing water, wondering if I was dehydrated. Most of our food was unappetizing, but I forced it down, as my body hadn’t started rejecting it.

Getting beat up by the wind.

This section would be a 28 mile stretch without water, except that there are some locals that stash water at two of the passes, so the day became dictated by the water at these passes.

We lunched at Stemple Pass, hiding in the trees, and watching folks drive by on the ATVs. The outhouse had a trash can, which we all delighted throwing our trash in. Moose, Dumpling and Wolfman’s dog, proved he was not pure lab by turning up his nose at every treat offered.

Lunch for all – except Moose. Moose has no time for such things.

After a somewhat blistering pace set to Flesher Pass (during which my stomach totally rebelled and required me to sit and try to quell it), we arrived in time for dinner for most.

Before the sky exploded.

Once again, Dan and I went on, stopping 8 miles from Highway 200 and Roger’s Pass, where the trail north of which was closed.

The sky exploded.

A raging sunset trumpeted the end of the day, and the wind howled.

Yet another night of terrible sleep with the buffeting wind found both of us dragging. Everyone passed us as we lagged out of bed. Finally, we were packed and ready to go. Most of the trail miles were on exposed ridge, where we were blasted by the wind all morning.

Autumn – it’s coming!

About 1/4 mile of beautiful trail, with red touched underbrush and aspens just turning golden graced us before we were dumped out on highway 200. And there the road walk began.

Yep, it’s closed, just in case you had any doubts.

For me, there’s not much to do on road walks but plug in the phone and zone out. It’s 38 miles to Augusta, and there was no way I was doing it without music. I had thought that we would have to walk 200 all the way to I-15, but a FS guy pulled over and told us about highway 435, a gravel road we could cut onto earlier. As we tramped down the highway, we watched huge smoke plumes billow up, sometimes even seeing the flames. It’s no wonder they don’t want us back there.

Gutpunch and his parent pulled over, giving us each a Mountain Dew – an appreciated sugar buzz. We just squeezed through on the road, as apparently they closed 200 for a bit after we passed through.

Yes, please and thank you!

As seen on highway 435

Another encounter with another FS guy gave us cold water (amazing!), and the goal to sleep under the bridge at Dearborn Creek. The chatter of the creek, and the absence of wind meant the first good night of sleep in a while.

The next morning was a 20 mile walk into Augusta.

Morning on the road.

Once again, it was plug in the earbuds and go. Just as we were nearing town a truck full of hikers pulled over. It was everyone – Sherpa, Wolfman, Dumpling, Moose, Lumber, and Moment. They were heading up to Benchmark – we’ll be behind them for the rest of the hike now. That’s how this trail works, there are so many decisions to be made, especially in the face of all the closures due to fire, and we may never see them again. But it was fun hiking with them for a few days!

Once in Augusta, we started weighing our options. The Bob Marshall Wilderness was open North of Benchmark (with a detour), but we still wanted our continuous footpath. This left one option: a 31 mile road walk from Augusta to Benchmark.

So the following day, we were out of bed and on the road by 5:30. We left everything in town except what we thought we would need for the day – our first experience with slackpacking. We had been told to get out early to catch the hunters going up, but there was no traffic. As we walked along, sometimes stopping (I absolutely don’t want to walk more than I have to) but moving because the morning was so brisk, 6:30 came around. A red Prius drove by, not even slowing down. Just as we were deciding to go back to bed, two guys in a truck pulled over. They were up from Great Falls, were just driving around for the day, and agreed to drive us up to Benchmark. We were lucky they stopped – the whole day we saw one other vehicle come up that way.

The leaves, they are a changing!

The first half of the road walk was much more pleasant than I thought it would be. The road had wound up into the mountains, and we followed along a gravel road, shaded by trees and with a creek right by us. But after 16 miles we were kicked into the rolling dusty valley, and it was back to the trusted headphones.

Would you pick up this guy if you saw him hitchhiking?

Finally, just as the predicted storm began rolling in, the first drops of rain falling from the sky, we arrived back at Augusta. Mission accomplished: we still had our continuous footpath.

Another blazing sun. Hopefully this storm cycle will dampen this.

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.