The end of summer’s peak, the beginning of autumn’s nudge.

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Moody weather marks the end of summer’s peak at 8,800 feet above sea level.

Something happens this time of year. Perhaps it’s the subtle shift in the sun’s position in the sky, or the occasional morning in the high 40’s and not the low 50’s. Whatever it is, early-August marks the beginning of the change.

In modern western society summer begins June 21 and ends September 21. Around here, those numbers mean little. While June 21 feels like summer in earnest – the endless daylight, everything blooming, the insects and birds in full flight – late September is the heart of autumn here, not the beginning.

In late September the aspen trees are in their full regalia, donning their yellow caps. The mornings are crisp, and with few exceptions the high peaks have had at least one blanket of snow to cover the tundra and talus. Usually that snow melts off before real winter hits a month later, but there is no confusion about what season late September is here. It’s fall, the most beautiful and fleeting season there is.

In pagan societies, early August marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. The pagans had a name for this time of year – Lughnasadh or Lammas. It marked the beginning of the harvest season, when the wheat and crops were ready to be picked.  Pick now, for the turn towards cold is eminent.

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Dim evening light in the forest makes the river smooth.

In nature, the first evidence of the change can be found by looking toward the ground, at the ferns.  Aspens get all the glory, but the ferns lead the way. When the ferns go, a cold night – and the aspens – are not far behind.

There is a little hike near our home that loops underneath a pine and fir covered mountain. A stream runs thru the valley, and along this trail, where the cooler mountain air descends to the stream, there are perpetual cold spots. In the summer, one is likely to bump into a moose or a rabbit in these places, both seeking refuge from the baking heat of the day.

A few days ago on our walk, we saw our first yellow fern of the year. And then a little further on, in the very coldest spot in the entire valley, another and another.

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The first yellow ferns of the year.

The ferns know. Another autumn has almost arrived. The season to saunter in golden leaves and climb frosty mountain peaks is around the corner.

Energy

energy1Energy.

Without it, there is nothing. With it, anything is possible.

When Elaine and I got back from the land of ice and snow – ironically named Greenland – our energy fuel tank was empty. Two years of living in motion, a never-stopping pace, covering more than 5,000 human powered miles, left us drained and done when the rescue helicopter touched down on a small dirt patch in Tasiilaq, Greenland.

Finding the motivation to do anything since then has been challenging. On our days off from work, we’ve holed up in the cabin, done the necessary workouts to stay in shape, eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables and made the most concerted effort in the 8 years of our marriage to take the foot off the gas.

Like a well that is drained, but then not used for awhile, the energy is filling back up. It was a slow return at first, frustratingly slow, because while patience is a virtue it’s not one of our strengths. And waiting for life to happen isn’t something that comes naturally to us. We don’t really believe in dumb luck and fate, as we have found hard work and vision tends to create better results. Waiting is tough.

The motivation to train and play hard in the mountains is returning, but more importantly, the spark that creates new ideas and dreams has come back. At this point in my life, fitness is a fairly simple, predictable game. Work hard and rest enough to get the desired results. But the dreams and ideas of ways to make a better living, feel fulfilled and adventure further and deeper, those are something new, or at least a continuation of what was born and planned on the trail and across the snow.

There is a realization that what was good enough for us before is not good enough for us now. Quite honestly, we’re worth more than that. There is something about walking 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada that makes you realize anything is possible, that there is a better world out there and that going back to that “other” world isn’t enough. It’s not living up to potential.

This is all very vague talk – the kind that scares mothers unnecessarily – but it’s intentionally so. With the return of energy comes the return of ideas, and now, with the new realization that anything is possible, the determination to put it into action. But the ideas need more flushing, and then – action.

There was a lot of energy in the mountains today. We decided to go back to a familiar haunt, the trail to the Continental Divide, a geographical vortex of energy. We live close to it, but today we needed to go right to the source. We decided to take the late shift, the sunset view. The early bird gets the worm, but around here everybody is the early bird. At some point, early bird turns into night hawk, and on Colorado trails, things are trending rapidly to the latter. So we decided to gamble and head up as everybody else was heading down. It worked out well.

energy2From the get-go, I could tell today was different from the past two months, or even last week. When we moved in the mountains last week, Elaine did great, but I could tell there was some hesitation in her step. Not today. There was pep, lightness and strength to her movement, ever up rocks and roots into thinner and thinner air. Elaine was born and raised in these mountains, and like the prodigal son in “Legends of the Fall,” she didn’t leave, but instead explored them even deeper. She gets stronger every year, but more than that, watching her I get the sense that she is becoming one with these mountains. She always had a comfort in the mountains, but after the past few years, something is different. She has become a part of the spirit of the wilderness.

We rose rapidly through the pine forest, hopping across rocks to cross streams, gliding up switchbacks, the heart and legs working hard but comfortably. They know the routine by now, and smile when they get to be part of it.

We rose up a steep bench, the mountains exploding ahead. The setting sun lit our faces, providing warmth and more energy. We crossed onto Alta Flats. Alta means higher, and it’s also Elaine’s middle name. In the darkest time of her life, when she spent all her time inside, fighting the demons, we think her spirit decided to occupy this higher spot surrounded by granite, snow-capped mountains, waiting for her to return. And when her physical self did, that spirit sang.

energy4The few hikers we saw on the lower trail were wrapping up the day. We were alone, exactly how we like it, two hearts in a big, wild place. Past Alta Flats, the trail rises again, the krummolz shrinks and we are at that magical place: timberline.

A friend of mine once told me, “there are no bad days above timberline”. To me, there is no place on earth with more energy and beauty than the land above the forest. The thin air, the angular light, the crisp breeze and the emergence of near vertical mountains around and above brings me more happiness than almost anything.  And when things are impossibly complex, the alpine brings some sense of simplicity and peace.

With that joy created by landscape, we climbed up. The steady rhythm is fueled by that happy energy, like moving from 85 octane gas to 93. Just a little bit better. We conversed with marmots and watched elk gallop in the valley below as a cool wind graced our bodies. And then, with a final few steps, we reached the summit, the Continental Divide. We checked our watches. While we weren’t trying to hit a certain time, there is a satisfaction reading the numbers. Pretty good, and there is a lot of room for improvement. The energy is returning.

energy5Ahead of us, the Pacific. Behind the Atlantic. All around, 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks rise in every direction. The wind attacks from the north, the direction of legends, and we feel something different. This is no gentle summer wind. It has a slight bite. I have not felt that bite since spring. It is a bite of coming change.

We continue up, to a lake that sits impossibly at the very top of the Divide. We settle next to that lake, looking at remnants of the last ice age, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, remembering the past, dreaming of the future. Stella used to love this spot, and it brings back memories. But then I remember that she is playing in the high mountains with the spirits of all our loved ones who have gone before. In time, we will join them. But not just yet.

energy3The evening is growing late. On the down, we will be more cautious, as Elaine is still healing from her broken foot. Better to get down five minutes slower intact than aggravate things. The wind picks up even more, and as Elaine walks out onto her cliff and looks over her domain and home of the past 28 years since her birth, the cold wind blasts into us, energizing the land and making us smile. No doubt about it – it is a wind of change, of a returning autumn.

There is nowhere to go but down. On the descent we can’t stop talking about ideas and dreams. We don’t talk much on the uphill – that’s the business end of things. But on the way down – that’s the time to dream. The shadows grow long, evening colder, the sun drops under the western mountain range. We glide through the woods effortlessly and happily, not stopping till we return to our two-decade old pick-up truck just as the first stars shimmer in the Rocky Mountain night sky above.

energy6Finally, energy – the ingredient that fuels anything great – has returned.

Staying Sane in a Worrisome World

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Heading out of the Wind Rivers in Wyoming.

I’m not a cocky person. Usually, I have a myriad of little things running through my head, putting me in my place, so to speak. When I do have confidence, it’s usually for a good reason. When Dan and I finished the Continental Divide Trail last fall, I actually had confidence that I could transition back to a normal life, and that honestly, it wouldn’t be that challenging. I figured, how hard can it be? We have carved out a life that is pretty good. We live in an old cabin in a small town – 150 people in the summer time, and significantly less in the winter – with wilderness and forest service lands literally right outside our door. Whatever it is that we want to do – be it mountain biking, running, roller skiing, groomed nordic skiing, backcountry nordic skiing, AT skiing, telemark skiing – we can either do it directly from our door, or drive five minutes to Eldora. I’d have to say that we’re pretty darn lucky. And it’s always been good enough – until now.

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Home is pretty good.

There’s a lot of literature out there about thru-hiking – and in almost every single one, you’ll also read about a phenomenon called “post-trail depression”. There’s also a phrase used very regularly after people get off a trail: “thru-hiking will ruin your life”. I saw these, read about them, acknowledged them, and honestly, disregarded them. It’s not that I think I’m any better and any better adjusted (heaven knows I’m not) than any other hiker out there. It’s that I knew we were coming back to something that was pretty darn good. I know other hikers often end up back in cities – and I definitely recognized how hard it would be to go from living in the wilderness for five months to constantly being surrounded by the horrid hustle, bustle, noise, and stress of the city. Heck, I’ve never been able to stand it. I grew up in a town of 1,600 people, and it’s the largest place I’ve lived.

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Thru-hiking might just ruin your life…

I didn’t expect that deep, deep melancholy that settled over us after we got off the trail. Everything seemed so…tame. It seemed like nothing was worthwhile. On the trail, if we were trying to meet up with someone, it was within a several day time window. Or, as hikers coordinating a ride from town, even that would have an hour time frame.

“We’ll meet to ride back up to the pass around 9 or 10.”

“I expect we’ll be in Helena sometime between Wednesday and Friday.”

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Not usually a horse person, but after 80 miles of road walking, I’ll take the distraction!

The trail life invites freedom – in its most free form – into your life. It breathes in your very lungs, it is your heartbeat, it is the blood pulsing through your veins.

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Freedom is the name of the game during a thru-hike

But you can’t very well tell your boss that you’ll be at work around 9 or 10 – let alone that it might be between Wednesday and Friday that you’ll actually show up. There are things, simple things really, that you are expected to show up to in everyday life with. And this is true on the trail, but they’re different. If you forgot your rain shell, well you’d be a very unhappy hiker if the winds picked up, the sky opened up, and the rain cascaded down. In real life, it’s frowned upon if you walk out of the house without your wallet and phone – items I failed to bring with me for the first several weeks back.

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Everything I need is on my back

People are intense, too. Angry, even. They stand in line, glaring, sit in their cars, impatient. It was challenging. I wanted to be alone, to process whatever was happening inside me, but we had to go to work. It was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. There was too much and too little.

Heck, it was even the little things. I couldn’t just drop trou whenever I needed to pee, no matter where I was. I had to, gasp, find a restroom. It’s weird, but even those little things add up.

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Peace and freedom reign in Glacier National Park

Where freedom and peace of mind came so easily on the trail, I found myself fighting for it every moment back in the “real world”. In the middle of November, I realized that it just wasn’t going to come easy, and started making an effort. I tried to approach it like we would a challenge on the trail – slowly, steadfast, with single-minded determination.

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Every night, I incorporated a mindfulness meditation into my routine. I would make a cup of tea, drink it, and then let the calming voice of the woman who lead the meditation wash over me. I cried every night, even though I wasn’t sure why. Things got a little worse before they got better. I began crying at random times – driving down the canyon, I’d see something that trigged me, in the market I couldn’t focus on my groceries and became overwhelmed – anywhere and everywhere I became susceptible to the fountain of tears. But it slowly got a bit better: I began to be able to sort through the raging emotions locked inside my chest. When work was slammed and I was working with six people at once with more staring at me, waiting, I could breathe in and out, focusing on nothing but the breath, and come at my situation with a bit more clarity.

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Sometimes being on the trail was tough

I then brought a gratitude journal into my life. It seemed hokey, but the rate I was going, I needed something. The meditation opened me up to being grateful, and the gratitude journal allowed me to tap into all the little things I could be grateful for. Slowly, I began to heal. Ten people standing around me didn’t cause a panic stirring within me. I could shop for my groceries. I could be on time somewhere – and I’d even have my wallet and my phone. And gradually, the happiness came back as well.

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Made it to Canada – but now what?

I still miss the trail life with such a deep persistent ache the when I think about it, it’s actually painful. Thru-hiking might have ruined me, I’ll be honest, but in the most beautiful way possible.

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The fire-raved sky of Montana rages in the evenings.

Continental Divide Trail Gear List

by Elaine Vardamis

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The right gear makes map reading in mosquito-infested lands more enjoyable!

When preparing for such a long trip, a lot of thought goes into what you are willing to carry on your back. Gear choices are going to be a little different for everybody. That being said, here is the gear that, after much deliberating, I decided to go with.

A lot of our decisions that we made for this trip were strongly influenced by past trips. Two major ones, our most recent ones, had involved hiking through cold, almost hyperthermic conditions for most of the time, while also in pouring rain. We were also coming off a ski trip to Norway in which we encountered conditions with strong winds and -30 degree Celsius tempertures. So, our packs ended up being a bit heavier than they should have been. We most definitely could (and should) have done an overhaul of this list, taking into consideration the facts of where we were, and what time of year.

Items with an * next to them went through reiterations while we were out on the trail!

The Big Things:

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (lined with trash compactor bag*1)
  • *Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering UltraLite 5’6” (also has a trash bag to line the stuff sack – don’t want it wet!!)
  • Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite short

*1 The fabric is said to be waterproof, but after having significant leaking during a heavy downpour a few years ago, I always line my backpack.

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Full on sun protection

The Things on the Body:

  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • *Shoes: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
  • Insoles: Custom from Bob Egeland with Boulder Orthotics
  • Gaiters: Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • *Skort:  Lululemon Final Lap Skirt
  • Sports Bra: Ibex Balance Bralette
  • *Shirt: Arcteryx Fernie LS Shirt
  • *Sunglasses: Julbo Megeve
  • *Sunhat: Arcteryx
  • Sungloves: OR Chroma
  • *Trekking Poles: BD Distance Carbon
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While dealing with infections in both heels, I hiked in Chacos for a while.

The Other Clothing Things:

  • Warm Hat: Swix
  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • Sleep Socks: Zpacks PossumDown
  • Compression Socks: 2XU
  • Long John Top: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Long John Bottom: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Warm Layer: Ibex Hooded Indie
  • Tights: Fjallraven Abisko Trekking Tights
  • Down Jacket: Western Mountaineering Flash
  • Rain Pants: Arcteryx Beta SL
  • Rain Jacket: Patagonia M10
  • *Mitts: Zpacks Rain Mitt & Zpacks Fleece Mitt
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When you have to wear all your layers!

The Things of a Personal Nature:

  • Food Consumption: Snowpeak Spork
  • Cup: GSI plastic cup
  • Feminine Products: Diva Cup
  • Hairties 
  • Toothbrush: Oral B Travel
  • Lip Balm: Ski Naked
  • *Water Bottles: 1 Poweraid bottle and 1 Smartwater bottle (can buy new ones when they become gunky!) and 2 Platypus soft bottles (1 liter)
  • Journal: Write in the Rain, Write in the Rain pen
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Hiking with umbrella from the Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wy. Hey, when it’s the only way you get shade!

The Things with the Batteries or in Need Of and of Course, Accessorizing! : 

  • Headlamp: Petzl Zipka
  • Watch: Suunto Ambit 3
  • Phone: iPhone SE w/Lifeproof case
  • Battery: Goal Zero Flip 20
  • Earbuds: Apple
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest and the Tenkara USA Rhodo – at home in the Wind River Range in Wyoming

The Things that We Shared (Because Sharing is Caring):

  • *Shelter: Hilleberg Anjan 2
  • Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket
  • Cookware: Snowpeak 9000
  • Coozy: Handmade
  • Lighter: Bic
  • Stuff Sacks: Assorted sizes from Sea to Summit
  • Water Treatment: Aquamira Drops and Tablets
  • 1st Aid/ Repair Kit: second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, safety pins, Leatherman Squirt ps4, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, Therm-A-Rest repair kit, Trail Toes, sunscreen, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape
  • Extra Batteries: AAA x6
  • Sharpie
  • *Camera: Sony a6000
  • Camera Battery
  • Communication Devise: Garmin Explorer
  • Cords: Watch charger, phone charger
  • Maps: Ley Maps
  • Toothpaste: Lush Toothy Tabs
  • Floss
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • *Solar Charger: Suntactics
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She’s a real nowhere (wo)man, living in her nowhere land

 

The Things That Were Changed:

  • Sleeping Bag: Through New Mexico to our home in Colorado, we carried the Western Mountaineering Ultralite, where we switched to the Western Mountaineering Summerlite. We then carried the Summerlite through Montana until Augusta, MT, where we picked up the Ultralites again (it was snowing!)
  • Shoes: When I was buying my shoes (we bought all of our shoes before hand), La Sportiva did not have enough of my size shoe. So I decided to use the Altra Lone Peak 3 to start off with. That shoe did not work for me, but I know it works for a lot of hikers out there!
  • Skort: I used the Icebreak Comet through to our home, but was having terrible durability problems with it. It is not sewn along the sides (I can’t tell if they were glued or welded seams) and was constantly falling apart. At home, I picked up a Lululemon Final Lap Skirt. That thing was amazing!
  • Shirt: I wore the long sleeved shirt through Grants, New Mexico, but ended up switching out to an Icebreaker Cool-lite shirt. I had never hiked in a long sleeved shirt before, and it was worth a try. I did not like it, I definitely prefer to hike in a T shit.
  • Sunglasses: I wore the Julbo Megeve sunglasses from the start until Chama, New Mexico. There, because I knew I would be on a lot of snow, all day long (and I know my poor eyes are very sensitive), I switched to the Julbo Tensing sunglasses. They have a very dark lens that was very protective.
  • Sunhat: I wore a large, full brimmed sunhat from our start at the border of Mexico through the Great Divide basin. It was great for sun protection, but annoying, and I switched to a normal ballcap.
  • Trekking Poles: Dan and I skied the San Juans, and I used a pair of the Black Diamond Traverse poles while skiing. Extremely strong and also adjustable, they fit my needs better than the lightweight, fixed length pole I used on the rest of the trip.
  • Mitts: I hated the Zpacks mitts, both the rain mitts and the fleece mitts. In Grants, New Mexico, I switched both. I used the Hestra XC fleece mitt and the Outdoor Research Shuksan Rain Mitt for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, they were overkill for most of the rest of the trip, but this system was much more functional when I actually needed warm hands.
  • Water Bottles: When we started in New Mexico, we were carrying seven liters of water. (Also, I think too much, but there it is.) So I was carrying the Smartwater and the Poweraid bottles, one 2 liter Platypus bottle, and three 1 liter Platypus bottles.
  • Shelter: We started with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear DuoMid. We switched to the Hilleberg in Grants, New Mexico after sleeping on mud (and this was the mud of nightmares) during a snowstorm between Pie Town and Grants. Once again, in retrospect, I might have stuck with the Mid, as it is significantly lighter, but the Hilleberg did provide great protection, good warmth, and a mosquito free area!
  • Camera: We started with the Canon PowerShot G9X, which is a great little camera. We did switch to the Sony a6000. This was definitely a bigger camera, but we felt like the quality of picture produced was a great trade off for the weight.
  • Solar Charger: We started carrying the solar charger, but after it broke, we did not replace it. As on our previous, month long trips, we have never gone into town, the solar charger was valuable. But on this trip, we were in town often enough that the solar charger was unneeded.
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The standard procedure in every town: dump out the pack, reorganize, repack!

A note on socks: I started with too many socks, and somehow acquired even more as the hike went on. I love to wear compression socks at night, as I feel it helps me with feet swelling. But when I had massive infections in my heels in New Mexico, I stopped wearing them. I did, however, continue carrying them the whole way, which I was annoyed at myself for until Dan got tendinitis in Montana, and he had some relief from the pain when wearing them. 

The Things that Were Special:

For the San Juans, Dan and I decided to ski, so our snow gear list looked a bit different from others

  • Skis & Bindings: Ski Trab World Cup & La Sportiva RT bindings
  • Boots: Scarpa Alien
  • Skins: Pomoca Race Pro Climbing Skins
  • Ski Crampons: Dynafit
  • Traction: Kahtoola MICROspikes
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Because: skiing! I developed a whole new appreciation for this ski set up in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado

We will definitely do a write up on how the skiing portion went, that will also touch on gear. However, that will be a whole other blog post!

The Things for the Bugs:

  • Bug Repellant: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellant
  • Headnet: Sea to Summit
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Head nets are sanity saviors!

The Randoms: 

  • Sandals: Chacos 
  • Umbrella: Picked up from Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wyoming
  • Fly Rod: Tenkara USA Rhodo
  • Kid’s skis: Lucky Bums*I used Chacos for a significant portion of the time while I was letting the infections in my heel heal. The umbrella was a $1 addition to our packs through the Great Divide basin. It was my first experience with hiking with an umbrella for shade, and if we do something in desert style environment again, I will definitely consider it more strongly! We took the fly rod through the Wind River Range in Wyoming and into Montana. As far as the Lucky Bums skis went, Dan and I had had a strong streak of skiing every month going before we started the hike. We wanted to keep that streak alive and well, even during a five month thru hike. By skiing the San Juans, and then shipping these little skis to ourselves along the way, we succeeded, and finished our hike with 84 months straight of skiing at least once a month!
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The Lucky Bums skis after their debut skiing Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

 

Snow’s (Elaine) CDT Wrap & Impressions

The final wrap up for Team ThunderSnow!

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

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

“I want to hike the Continental Divide Trail.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, I miss it.

I miss it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Thunder’s (Dan) CDT Wrap and Impressions

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

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

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Snow and sky rage in the Red Desert, Wyoming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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