US-Canadian Border to East Glacier
June 14, 2005
There was nowhere left to run to, no place to hide in, no way of escape. It was 5:30 in the morning and I was awake in a bed for the last time in a while. I showered and dressed and met Kristine downstairs a half hour later. She was, for the second summer in a row, driving me down to Waterton National Park so that I could start a long trip. Last summer I hiked north on the Great Divide Trail. I was bursting to start that trip; enthusiasm, a feeling of freedom and joy, mixed with a slight fear of the unknown, had characterized that morning. This morning I felt only dread, hollowness, emptiness. I had things at home that I should have been dealing with. I had thoughts and feelings and emotions that screamed out to me: GO HOME. But I was here, and going home wasn't going to change the way that things were when I left. Looked at from one perspective, nothing had really changed. Only my knowledge of the situation had. There was nothing to go back to, and I knew it. At least I knew it in my mind, for my heart hadn't gotten the message yet.
After a stop for coffee we zoomed south, my eyes scanning the mountains for snow (gee, there looks like a lot of snow up there for a low snow year) and the horizon for clouds. The weather looked good for now, but in a few hours it could change completely. I hated starting a hike in the rain and prayed for good weather. I needed some easy times to help start the healing process. I didn't need rain first thing out. Kristine and I talked on the way down, sometimes about mundane things, other times about jobs in Calgary. Sometimes about my situation at home. Kristine was a source of great strength for me and I appreciated her more than I could possibly tell her at the time. It wasn't long before we entered the park and stopped at the warden station, where I could arrange for backcountry permits for Glacier National Park. I had to watch a backcountry video and fill out a form. A ranger from Glacier called me back and told that the Highline trail, which I had planned to follow once I got back to the States, had gotten two feet of snow recently and was buried for twenty miles. Avalanche danger. No problem I thought, I'll take a route over this other mountain, hit the Going-to-the-Sun road, and hitch down to pick up the CDT. First problem solved, and it was an easy one. The ranger wasn't very optimistic, but I got my permit, complete with the full board of warnings so that the park could avoid liability incase something bad happened to me. Kristine dropped me at the trail head and took that obligatory starting picture before driving back to make a meeting she had later in the day.
I sat in the grass on the edge of the parking lot and looked at the trail that led south. South to Mexico. South to nothing, I thought. The trail is far too long. Three months is far to long to spend like the last few days. Time is too precious, etc, etc. I gave myself all the standard lines and they did little to help the emptiness that I felt. Now that Kristine was gone, there was nothing to do but to hike, at least to East Glacier. I shouldered my pack and set out down the trail that I had hiked (out and back) at the start of my GDT hike. Easy, mostly flat, with occasional pleasant views of Waterton Lake.
I began to recognize features in the land and knew that Boundary Bay was close by, near by. Not that I especially cared beyond the fact that it got me a few miles closer to going home. Almost at the border, I ran into the backcountry ranger for the Goat Haunt area down in the US. She was out on patrol and was going to take the boat back. We talked for a bit as she checked my permit for Glacier, mostly about conditions up high on the CDT. Flattop Mountain, my alternate route away from the Highline, was supposed to be completely open after a forest fire a few years ago. Should be a lot of snow up there, she thought. No one had been in this season, apparently not even hikers. I thought this odd as several CDT hikers had started in front of me, or were supposed to, and this was the main route through. Odd. She added that one person had been planning on going up to the Highline today, but she hadn't much information on him. After parting I found the border five minutes later on and, once again, took the obligatory pictures. The pictures that everyone takes. Me at the border monument. The worthless picture.
The first CDT sign was just on the other side of the border. How many more I would see was in doubt. Not just because I couldn't imagine myself walking much past East Glacier, but because the CDT is barely marked. In some places, many places, there isn't even a trail as such, or even a designated route.
I set off into the States and watched as clouds started to poke their heads over the mountains rimming Waterton Lake. Not what I wanted to see, but at least I had been able to start out in dry weather. Rain couldn't make me any less happy about hiking, so it didn't really matter what was coming. The trail ran away from the lake far enough so that a swinging bridge across the Waterton river could be built. The swinging bridge didn't exactly inspire confidence, but it was better than trying ford the river.
I ate down a King Size Snickers bar after crossing over and made the short walk to the Goat Haunt ranger station, where I had to check in with the rangers for immigration purposes. My blue sky was long gone and replaced with an iron one, making the season feel more like early spring than summer. I showed my passport to an intense, young ranger with a pistol on his belt. I hoped he wouldn't ask about the Syrian and Lebanese visas in it. They always provoke questions from border agents, though in this case it might be welcome news to be refused entry into the US. To have to go home, to get some kind of closure with things there. The intense ranger handed back my passport without a word and then checked my park permit. And that was it.
I sat in the pavilion for a while watching a tour boat come chugging toward us. I didn't especially want to start hiking, but eventually motivated myself by thinking that if I set out quickly, I could get into camp sooner and crawl into my sleeping bag early today. On the way out I asked the rangers if they had any snow information for the highline area. No snow at all. Totally clear. I smiled, and wanted to believe them, but knew that this was probably not very accurate. Just after leaving the area rain began to fall, though I had enough shelter in the trees to not need to put on my jacket or pack cover. The rain began to fall harder and penetrate the forest canopy, prompting me to start looking for a dry place to gear up. I passed the Stoney Indian Pass trail junction and then almost ran into a blond backpacker coming in the other direction. I told him I was heading up to the Highline. Good luck, he wished me. Totally snow covered. Post hole nightmare. I moved on, wanting to get out of the rain and wondering if I should just turn around and go home. Back to Waterton, hitch to Pincher Creek, take a Greyhound back to Lakewood. But I walked on. A hundred yards later I ran into a work cabin along the banks of Stoney Indian creek and took shelter on its porch. A dry place to eat dinner and, hopefully, wait out the rain. And, more time in a dry place to think about whether or not to keep going south.
I put on water for kimchee ramen noodles and relaxed under the shelter of the porch. At least something was going right for me now. I hoped that this was a sign that things were going to get better, that I would be able to get into the right frame of mind to do this thing that I was setting out on. Without focus, long distance hiking, particularly in isolation, is just too difficult to enjoy. But, when everything is aligned in the right direction, and your commitment is total, a long journey becomes a powerful, almost divine experience. I was hoping for the latter experience. I was hoping that I could put the past behind me and ignore that which was out of my reach, and indeed always was. My water was boiling.
Just before my noodles were done, a work crew came walking down the trail, complete with packs and chainsaws on their backs. They had just come in for the season, hiking up and over Stoney Indian Pass this afternoon before the rain hit. They went about getting their cabin in order and occasionally coming out to chat with me about my trip, including comical commentary on the quality of information that the immigration rangers at Goat Haunt provided to me. We had a good laugh over it. As I finished dinner, the rain passed and the forest came out with that pure smell of earthy life that can't be replicated in a lab or captured in a bottle. You have to come out to the deep woods directly after a soaking. Or, read a Russian novel. That is a pretty good substitute.
Ten minutes from the cabin I spotted a cow moose on the trail in front of me. The moose didn't seem to know what to do, so it started walking toward me, down the trail. I told the moose repeatedly that the river was to its left, and that that was where it should go. I yelled at it and that seemed to make more sense, as it turned around and trotted back to where it had been standing, then moved off the trail, uphill, a few feet. Then stopped to look at me. I took a picture, and the clicking of my camera seemed to tell it come toward me, as that is what it did. I repeated my yell, though this time with more profanity thrown in. Same result as before, though it did get a few more feet off the trail this time. I backed off, hoping it might go somewhere else if it didn't see me. Rain was falling again, so I put on my jacket and cover and then returned up the trail. The moose was still seven feet from the trail. More profanity and oaths and vulgar sayings seemed to move it twenty feet off the trail. Closure than I wanted, but I was tired of standing in the rain. I managed to slip by the moose and proceed up trail.
The trail began to switchback and at the second turn I met the moose again. Again I unleashed my vocabulary upon the animal. This time it seemed used to my voice and just stood still. Having a nemesis made me feel better, although I wouldn't see the moose again. As I lifted above the valley, sweating hard despite the cool air, I actually felt good. Positive. The view into the green valley, with cascading waterfalls on the other side, was pleasant. But, I think that it just felt good to exercise a bit. To breathe some mountain air. To be heading south and into the mountains. Someone once said that the only thing you'll find at the top of a mountain is what you bring with you. That didn't bode well for my future, I thought.
After a short break I came quickly upon the snow that had turned the blond hiker back. It was indeed deep and soft and unpleasant. I should have been looking at my map, but instead I was following his postholes. These ran out after a mile or so, although I could see various other tracks from his wanderings. And now I knew I was quite far from where I needed to be. Just go up, I thought. So, up I went, trudging through the snow as best as I could. My friend Sandy had asked me once what you do when snow buries the trail. I gave her some answer then, but the true thing needed is just a lot of persistence and faith that things will eventually work themselves out. I went up and along and started traversing along the side of a ridge (I should have gone directly up to the notch in between the ridge and the main mountain chain). Through the snow I plowed, losing energy quickly, until I finally came to the top of the ridge and could see my mistake.
The Highline trail was a death trap. Running along the side of the main mountain chain, it was buried in avalanche chutes. Fresh slides could be seen. With infinite luck, an avalanche would not sweep a hiker away as they labored along the twenty miles or so of buried trail. With immense effort, one could traverse that stretch. I had no desire to test my luck or my strength, and so looked across the valley to what had to be Flattop mountain. It was much lower, still snow buried, but with luck I could get across it and pick up the trail that I knew ran over it. How I was going to pick up the trail with all the snow was something I decided it wasn't good to worry about. That I had only the start of it on my map wasn't good either.
I plodded along the other side of the ridge heading toward the low point before Flattop. I had no intention of camping where I my permit said I should. No reason to, as it would be buried in snow anyways. Following grizz tracks, I wound through the snow until eventually reaching a burned forest where patches of open ground could be seen. Tiring, I came off a minor ridge and ran straight into a trail. My trail. There wasn't much of it, but trail it was. I was happier than I had been all day and gave a war whoop to celebrate. There was a pleasant creek close by and I found just enough mostly flat, dry ground, out of the way of widowmakers, to pitch my tarp on.
I was very tired at the end of the first day and quickly hung my food and curled up in my sleeping bag, glad to be done with the first day, but distinctly wishing I was somewhere else. The sense of loss inside of me was almost overwhelming, and it wasn't going anywhere. The alcohol I carried was for cooking, and would have blinded me (quite literally) anyways. I pulled out a pocket edition of the Tao Te Ching and read a few passages, mulling over their meaning. I should have read and thought more. Or, I should have thought constructively about the past. I was too weary to do either. I slept instead, and hoped that dreams would not come.
The cold air of the early morning. The grey silnylon directly above me. Thoughts of the recent past. I didn't want to get started, didn't want to hike. I had to. I had a long day in front of me and needed to get started moving south. I had tons of snow in front of me and only part of my route on map. I finally persuaded my body to leave the warmth and safety of the sleeping bag with the promise of making hot tea before setting out. I put the water on and then struck camp, eating breakfast while the tea finished brewing. It was going to be a hard day. But, a hard day tends to wipe out mental activity and that was something to look forward to.
The bit of trail that I found yesterday ended after 300 yards when it ran under the snow that covered Flattop mountain. Looking at my map, I started climbing in what I thought was the right direction. Kicking steps, postholing only moderately, I made it to the top of Flattop with sweat on my brow and before the sun had fully struck the mountain. That was a good thing, given all the snow, for I might have reasonable walking on the hard crust for a few hours. I picked my way along the mountain and was quickly off of my map. I knew that the trail ran across the crest of Flattop before dropping off into a valley to my right. Forward along the mountain I went, picking up what looked like a trail corridor through the trees.
This was mostly guess work on my part, however, as Glacier seemed not to blaze their trails, I suppose assuming that no one would come up here while there was still snow on the ground. Flattop had burned hard a few years ago and the open terrain provided great views of the Divide and the CDT route along it. Suicidal, I thought, at this point in the season. As the day warmed and the sun struck the snow, I began to post hole more and more. All of the downed wood under the snow provided many rotten places to fall through, and I did so on numerous occasions despite my best efforts. The corridor that I was following would run out at times, but I always seemed to find it once again after pushing my way through a few trees. After two hours of hard work, I took a break on a log jutting out from the snow at what seemed an important place: The corridor was beginning to run down hill, following a creek system. That would have been good had it not been dropping down into the valley opposite from where I wanted to go. Still, the corridor seemed very natural. Exactly where a trail should go. I thought for a while, and then decided to go against my instincts and make a sharp right turn toward the correct valley. [Note: When I later looked at a park map, the corridor was going the right way. The trail dropped down the creek system, and then bent to the right into the correct valley.]
I plowed through the snow and the brush and the dead trees and began descending cross country. The snow was only patchy on this side of the mountain, which provided some relief for my tired legs. Unfortunately, now that I was out of the corridor, I had the Bush to contend with. Scratches began to accumulate. My ankles rolled and twisted incessantly. I began to ponder the wisdom of my directional change. I scampered and climbed down minor cliffs, hoping I'd cut the trail somewhere. Instead, I only reached the tops of cliffs that plunged a thousand feet down to the valley. Stopped dead. I climbed back up and then continued running along the side of the mountain, beginning to worry. I knew I was far from a trail, and any small mistake on my part could have very serious consequences. This thought of mine struck me as rather odd. During previous summers, I knew the same fact. However, it hadn't bothered me then. If I died, then at least I would have died doing something I loved. Today the fact bothered me significantly. I didn't want to die out here, doing something I wasn't even enjoying. Sort of like being killed on your way to work at McDonalds. I needed to survive this summer. I needed to know how things were back at home. I needed a future. There was no present for me.
After another hour of traversing through the brush, I dropped down again, getting a few hundred feet lower than before. Again, however, I was completely cliffed out. Back up I climbed. More traversing. Downclimb again. Same result. The Fact bothered me even more. If the trail was anywhere on this side of the mountain, I would have cut it by now. I climbed to the top of what was left of Flattop and spied the end of it. Nothing but cliffs. Forward progress was done. I decided to make one last attempt to find the way through by cutting across the top of Flattop and down the other side, hoping that I might intersect the trail or find its corridor. Nothing. I sat in the snow to consider my options. I had been floundering for six hours and was very tired and not really any closer to reaching the valley. The other valley between the CDT and Flattop would lead eventually to the Going-to-the-Sun road, but it would be a long bushwhack and I only had part of it on my maps. Just where my map ended it looked like there would be a cliffout. I wasn't taking the CDT. I decided to retreat out.
Unfortunately, the snow was now soft enough that with almost every step I sunk in to at least mid calf. Frequently to the knee. Occasionally to the hip. Sweat poured off of me despite the cool air. I was tired, and I was nowhere close to getting off the mountain. In my despair, I got turned around and made bad decisions. I went here, I went there, I recut my tracks from a few hours earlier. I got off the snow and rambled through burned out areas far from where I should have been. The Fact hung over me like a scolding teacher. When I did take a break for food or water or just for rest, I couldn't relax. My mind and heart were elsewhere sitting in a cloud of uncertainty.
The only pleasure I could take on my cross country jaunt was that I was seeing terrain that probably few others had seen before, despite sitting in a national park. After all, there is no reason to come out to this area unless you are lost. It is just too much work to get through the brush and the downed trees, especially when there are nice, manicured trails that one can take. A cascading waterfall drew my attention and I sat along its steps drinking down its water with cupped hands, enjoying nature's bounty. The waterfall would only be here as long as the snow remained, and would then only become a terraced bit of rock. That was something, I thought, that I could enjoy.
Very tired, I finally got turned in the right direction and reached the end of Flattop mountain. I dropping quickly down the snow and returned to my camp of the previous night by a some what circuitous route. I flopped over and wanted to weep, Usually the simple act of being out in the wilderness made me feel special, alive. I didn't feel like that right now. I felt like some sort of slave to an idea. The sun shined on me and I decided there was no rush to set up camp or eat or do anything like that. Instead, I leaned against a tree by the banks of the creek and thought about why I was so drawn homeward. I could think now, now that I didn't have to plow through the snow and worry about the Fact. I pondered and asked myself all the obvious questions. I came up with a simple, though unsatisfactory answer. I wanted to be back at home, with her, because she made me feel special. Unsatisfactory because I didn't really know what I meant by special. Unsatisfactory because we had no future together that I could see. Going home wouldn't change that. I didn't want to think about it any more and so set up camp right where I had the night before and ate dinner.
It was still very early when I got into my sleeping bag and tried to read the Tao te Ching for a while, making an effort to understand what I was reading. When we read, frequently we simply pass our eyes over the words, much as people pass their eyes over a television program or movie. To read and understand takes effort. My effort lasted only a half hour before I decided sleep was better than a thousands of years old text.
It was extremely cold overnight and I had serious frost on the tarp when I crawled out of my bag sometime before 7. I skipped tea and packed quickly, wanting to get a start on the retreat out. I was planning to hike over Stoney Indian pass and out to the Chief Mountain trailhead, which is right next to the border. Then, hitch down to East Glacier. Enough of this snow stuff. The trail leading up toward the Divide was uncovered for almost a half mile, and then it was rotten snow the rest of the way. Climbing higher and higher, I reached the plateau and spotted day old tracks heading in the direction of the CDT. I couldn't believe anyone could be so foolish as to try it, but other people have a higher risk threshhold than I do. I wished the hikers luck, and I thought they would need it.
I saw exactly how I had gone wrong the other day and headed toward the notch in between the Divide and the minor ridge on the other side. Through the damn snow. Despite the physically difficult hiking, knowing where I was going put my mind at ease. Unfortunately this also allowed it to wander a thousand miles away, and backward in time. Words, phrases. Actions, inactions. Little things. Nothing concrete or complete, but rather a jigsaw of memories that I couldn't piece together into a coherent whole. I was distracted and found myself on a high snow slope, in a place I hadn't been before. Looking around me, I could see the valley far below me, the valley I was supposed to be in. Assuming that the trail was in front of me, I began dropping elevation and headed toward some open ground that I spied. I ran along the open ground until it started getting cliffy. I should have turned back. Instead, I began scrambling delicately along the cliff system. I stopped and rested. I should have looked at a map and turned back. No, I kept scrambling, this time going high. Tiring of the rock, I got onto a snow slope and stepkicked my way up its fifty degree slope. The Fact from yesterday burned itself into my mind, and still I went higher. I do not know why. Sense finally overtook me when I contemplated that this was perfect terrain for a mountain goat, and then looked up to see one standing on a ledge thirty feet above me. It was neither shocked nor surprised to see me. It just ambled off. I traversed over to a ledge and sat down to rest again. This time I looked at the map and spotted my error: Directly after leaving the notch, I was supposed to have followed a drainage down. I had traversed across. Stupid and senseless.
I carefully made my way down the snow slope and across the cliffs, then back along more snow and again more cliffs. I spotted the drainage across a long expanse of snow and powered down to it. Following the creek, I ran right into the trail. First solid trail of any distance that I had had in some time. Forty minutes later I was down at the Stoney Indian patrol cabin eating lunch and drying my tarp in the sunshine. My foolishness on the cliffs and snow above me seemed so impossible to me, but it had happened nonetheless. I was tired and still had Stoney Indian Pass to go over, which was sure to be snowed in. My mind was weary and my heart was sick. I wanted a chopper to come and take me away. Take me anywhere but here, anywhere. I slowly pulled myself together and repacked, knowing that the only way I would get out would be if I walked out. So off I set.
I was forcing this, I thought. I knew that my body was more than strong enough to handle the climb up to the pass, but I was exhausted anyways. When the mind and the heart are not behind the actions of the body, when things are out of alignment, physical action becomes difficult. I was laboring. Slowly I crawled to Stoney Indian lake, where I got my first sighting of the pass. It didn't look too bad, I thought. You've done much harder, snowier passes than this, I told myself. Piece of cake. But I was spooked anyways. Out of alignment for sure.
I rested for close to thirty minutes by the shore of the lake, eating a little more food for energy and trying to keep calm. I put on my shell and sunglasses and took out my ice axe, reassured myself once again, and then set out for the pass. The trail was buried in snow, but I had two day old tracks to follow around the lake. The trail crew that I had met two days ago had come over the pass, which meant that I could go up it. Their tracks had been partially obliterated by the sun, but I could still mostly follow them. The route up the pass seemed more or less clear: Stay to the right, work up the snow, avoid the obvious cliff system near the top. Now, I just had to do it.
Moving at a slow, sustainable pace, I took a direct route up through the snow, postholing constantly and generally pausing slightly to breathe between steps. Om, I would say. Take a step and breath. Mani, repeat. Padme, repeat, Hum, repeat. Chanting my way up the slope forced me into a slow rhythm that conserved what little strength I had. Near the top of the pass I encountered a bit of trail that was not buried in snow. While I should have just kept climbing on the snow, I followed the switchbacked trail and quickly had to traverse a near vertical snowbank that sat on top of the cliffs that I had seen from below. Facing into the snow, and really using my ice axe, I worked my way along the steep bank to a sort of basin, and from this was able to make a final five minute push up to the pass. A man and woman in shorts and T-shirts sat there looking at me. "You did that right, man," said the dude. He pointed to some tracks that had apparently tried to come up, or go down, on the opposite side. I wanted to laugh at that person's foolishness, then remembered my own from earlier today. And yesterday. And for coming out here in the first place instead of cleaning up the wreckage back home.
I sat on the pass talking with the man and woman for thirty minutes, and then for another fifteen, alone, when they left to descend the other side. They were camped down below and had just come up for the day. The pass was pretty, but I didn't care very much. I was in a place of immaculate beauty, but I just wanted to get down and out to the road as quickly as possible. Afternoon clouds had begun to build, but a storm wasn't imminent. The snow on the other side of the pass was much patchier, and the grade was gentle and nice, which meant that I could rumble downhill quickly; I caught the two hikers in ten minutes.
I dropped to one plateau, ran around the lake it held, and then began descending to the next. Far in the distance I could see the plains of Montana. In a straight line (which is really a curve on the globe), the first actual mountains one would hit going east would be something like the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
I trundled down the path, very happy to be snow free and with solid trail underfoot and a clear direction. I tried to fit the jigsaw, the broken puzzle, together, to fix it, to repair it, to make some sort of order out of it. When I got back home, whenever that might be, how did I want things to be? Things couldn't be the way they had been. That statement was haunting to me. Could I really keep on like that? I decided that I couldn't, but my decision carried no weight. It had no power because I was a weakling at this point, something like a cripple. I couldn't even walk through one of the world's most beautiful places and be happy. An hour passed. Two. I sat down in a clearing where people staying at a close by campground made their food. I ate. I was mechanical.
Just after finishing my dinner, within literal minutes, it began to rain on me. The rain came down softly and pleasantly, rather than harshly. I needed some gentleness in my life right now and was almost happy to have the rain for a companion. Unfortunately, the rain began turning the trail to mud, which made walking difficult. Avoiding the mud gave me something to concentrate on besides those things that I should have been thinking about. The rain let up after two hours and I rested at a dry place beneath a large tree, watching the world come out from behind the storm. The greenery of the terrain and the mist and the lakes and the mountains and the trees and me. I should have been composing poetry, or working over societal structures, or pondering some meaningless point of metaphysics. Instead I was thinking about my sleeping bag and how warm a refuge it was from the cold world around me.
Remembering that I actually had to walk in order to get to the bag, I set out once again along the muddy trail, reaching the Belly River Ranger station not long after my break. I had thought I might sleep on the porch of the ranger station and was saddened when I saw horses in the corral next to the station. That meant, probably, that someone was around. I went to the station anyways to check things out. No one was around and so I left a message on the board and then sat on the porch to rest. I was beat. I put on my thermal top, but shivered anyways. I ate some food, which helped, and watched as the clouds began to part, slightly, and let the sun shine upon the station.
The ranger station was located in a rather idyllic setting, with a massive backdrop of mountains to gawk at. After plowing through the mud to reach Gable Creek campground, just down the path, I didn't know whether to curse the park planners or laugh at them. Why put a campsite in such a miserable, viewless spot? Why not put it next to the damn ranger station and have an nice, attractive sight? Instead being in a pretty place, I was on hard-packed earth in the middle of a clump of trees. I suppose it was at least sheltered from a storm.
I pitched my tarp quickly and hung my food from the bear wires, then dove into my sleeping bag. I just wanted some sleep. Tomorrow I'd make Chief Mountain and get to town. Maybe get my head cleared up and be able to salvage the summer. Think of something. Do something.
Rain. It was raining in the morning. Rain in the morning, in the mountains, usually means it is going to rain all day. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, but still I heard the rain. When it slowed and became only drops falling off of trees, I got out of my bag and packed up in a foul mood. My left foot hurt. My right knee hurt. The trail was a solid mass of mud. The rain came back. I slipped and slided along the trail, trying not to face plant in the horse chewed trail. I wished I was a northbound CDT hiker heading for the end of the trip, the end of the trail.
I reached the parking lot at Chief Mountain and stared at the US border station just 100 yards down the road. I had been hiking for three days and a morning, had covered some 65 hard miles, and had made a grand total of 100 yards of southerly progress toward Mexico. Not that it mattered. I wasn't going to Mexico. I was going to East Glacier and then probably home. The rain fell and the wind blew and I was cold. I could feel the mist working itself inside of my clothing, chilling me to the bone. I stood by the road, though I knew not why. Every ten minutes or so a car would drive by me, ignoring my thumb. A sign did tell me that a shuttle would be coming by at 3:30 to take me to East Glacier, which at least meant I would get there today and enjoy whatever pleasures the town held. When the rain came down harder, I had recourse only to the outhouse or an open Park Service horse trailer. I chose the horse trailer, despite the manure in it. Despite wearing all my clothes, I was still cold. I watched as the rain beat down with increasing violence. Two cars pulled into the parking lot and their occupants started gearing up, in the rain, to start a hike. I wanted to yell at them to get back in their cars and wait the rain out. Or, better yet, postpone the hike for a day and give me a ride to East Glacier. But, I didn't. I just shivered, felt sorry for myself, and stood in the horse trailer.
When the rain would slow, I would try to hitch, but without luck. Occasionally I'd move back into the horse trailer to escape from the wind and rain. Around 1:15, with still no ride in sight, something like a miracle happened. The northbound shuttle stopped in the parking lot and offered me a ride to Waterton. While it was in the opposite direction, I took it anyways. Rory was heading up to the Prince of Wales hotel in Waterton for some lunch and to pick up any hikers who might be there. From drugs and prostitution, to which cities were good and bad, to the Blackfoot Nation and the war in Iraq, there was never a quiet moment in the car. Rory even bought me lunch at hotel, then drove me back to the border. And then all the way to East Glacier, stopping at various tourist sites along the way to see if hikers needed a ride. It seemed I was the only fool out on this particular day. In East Glacier, Rory dropped me at Serrano's, a local Mexican restaurant where he sometimes worked. In back of the restaurant was the Backpackers Inn. For $10 a night I got a bunk and access to a shower, along with a nice lawn to lounge on. It was too late to get my bounce bucket from the post office and they had no Saturday hours, so I would be here for a while, which was probably for the best. I needed some time to think.
I plowed through a massive chimichanga at Serranos and several pitchers of beer with Rory before hiker midnight rolled around and I began to feel sleepy. I ran out to the gas station for a couple cans of Steel Reserve malt liquor ($1 gets you 24 ounces of 8 percent alcohol beer) and then found Rory and an Ohioan with a 10 gallon hat talking in front of Serranos. I drank down my two cans with them and then stumbled off to bed, mostly drunk, and completely dead.
The other occupant of the bunkhouse was up and moving around 8, which was about as late as I could sleep. Manzanita had flown out to Missoula and then hitch hiked to East Glacier. He was planning on going to Chief Mountain and then hiking through the park along a slightly lower, but much less avalanche prone, route than I had tried. I filled him in on the details of my time in the park and showed him some pictures. He decided to call the rangers and try to get a recent trail report for the lower CDT route. I showered and got into my raingear, which smelled less than my hiking clothes, and headed off in search of breakfast, finding it at the Two Medicine Grill. Inside was an interesting collection of locals and tourists, and a stunning 6'1" waitress. While the sausage-cheese omelet wasn't even close to an omelet, and the hashbrowns were standard frozen things, and the toast didn't have enough butter, and the coffee didn't have enough taste, the second round of breakfast, a short stack of sourdough pancakes, brought forth a giggle from the waitress and were quite tasty. Not as good as the sourdough pancakes that I shared with Indy on the AT in Manchester last summer, but good enough. After I finished eating an older man with a three foot beard, sitting next to me, asked me if I was hiking the CDT. Gandalf was setting off north himself in order to head south through the park and we talked for a bit before I cleared out.
I returned to the Backpackers Inn and found Manzanita packing up and getting ready to leave. The rangers hadn't given him much reassurance and he was just going to head south into the Bob Marshall Wilderness rather than deal with the snow. I'd do the same thing, I thought. I am doing the same thing, I thought. That is, if I decide to keep hiking. He had been able to pick up his mail from the post office, including a drift box he wanted me to forward and a food drop that he invited me to pick through.
My day off flowed like just about any zero day. I met a few hikers in town, including Skywalker, who had hiked the PCT in 2004 and had made it along the Chief Mountain route. Looked beat. Did laundry. Resupplied. Started drinking at 2 in the afternoon. I had been thinking about home, perhaps calling, to see, to ask, to...? I couldn't. Not now. I needed to decide what I really wanted, and now that I had some measure of luxury I might be able to do it. I was well into my second 24 oz. can of Steel Reserve when Blister walked into my life.
Blister Bitchen Sister, her full trailname, had seen me at breakfast and made me for a hiker immediately. She was out for an 800 mile stretch on the CDT down to Yellowstone, but first had to deal with getting permits and up to Chief Mountain. She was stuck in East Glacier till Monday, as I was, to do postal things. We became acquainted, but she had things to do. I felt better after talking with her than I had for a while, and much better than could be accounted for solely by the malt liquor I had consumed. I went out to do a few more chores, including buying more malt liquor, and then returned to the pleasant picnic table in the backyard of Serranos. I went over everything in my head, inventorying the past and thinking about the future. Could things really be as bleak as I pictured them? Maybe I was wrong, and a future was possible. These doubts were crushed rather quickly by the analytic part of my brain. No, there was nothing left at home. I swilled more beer and waited for Blister to return.
An hour later, with margaritas in hand, we were both rather happy. As hikers normally do, especially while drinking on a zero day, they have conversations approximately like this:
Me: "Man, I'm retiring after this summer."
Blister: "Not me. I'm hiking forever. I'm addicted to the lifestyle."
Me: "I'm going to pay for haircuts and shave and be all domestic-like."
Blister: "Don't be an idiot."
Me: "I'm going to move to Florida and take up golf or something."
Waitress: "Would y'all like more margaritas?"
I wanted to tell Blister the full story, but couldn't get it out. I just couldn't that night, despite wanting a woman's take on things. Kristine had been so good for me with this that I couldn't figure out why I couldn't just unburden myself on Blister. I think I just wanted to have a good time for once.
After drinking too many margaritas, we stumbled down to the Exxon station for more beer and then retired to the picnic table to swill the cheap beer and swap stories. I don't think I'd had so much fun for weeks.
I had exactly the same dream that I had had the night before reaching Jasper on the Great Divide Trail last summer. It wasn't a similar dream. It was the exact same one. It had been powerful then, and it was equally powerful now. I awoke, feeling awkward with the memory of my dream sitting in my head and looked about. A Japanese man, fully clothed, was sleeping in the bunk next to me. It was only later that I recalled seeing him come in yesterday afternoon. I must have been working on a can of beer or something. I ate again at the Two Medicine Grill so that I could ogle the pretty waitress. This seemed mostly to depress me. I slunk back to the Backpackers Inn and moped. I can't do this all summer long, I thought to myself. This waiting for the summer to end just has to stop. I knew full well what was at home and what was not. I knew that, if this continued, at the end of the summer I would return to find the obvious and then be even more depressed knowing that I had wasted an entire summer. Three months of my life spent being miserable. I had to pull things together. I was not going home just yet. I was going south.
I went for a walk to see the world's largest purple spoon, which I had spied when Rory gave me a ride into town on Friday. Propped up outside a bakery, the spoon is taller than me and painted in a deep purple color. Having seen the requisite tourist attraction, I bought some pastries and ate them on my walk back to the Backpackers Inn. Being past two in the afternoon, I bought some beer and a sandwich, then spied two young people looking at me rather intently. I thought I knew them, but couldn't quite place them. The woman began talking to me and, almost immediately, I got it. Zack and Buddha from the PCT in 2003. I met them at the Saufley's in Agua Dulce, but hadn't seen them since. They had gotten into town yesterday and were not sure of when they were leaving town. They had taken nine days to cross Glacier National Park and were rather tired.
I went to my favorite picnic table in the yard and looked over maps while drinking the malt liquor that I had bought. I wanted to deaden things, to take a break from thinking and pondering. Unfortunately for my liver, malt liquor is cheap, quick, and, as Billy Dee Williams once said, "It works every time." Blister returned from somewhere, providing me with an opportunity to talk more. As things started rolling, three obvious hikers rolled into the back yard. Leslie, Dave, and David had hiked the New Mexico portion of the CDT and then bussed up to here to start hiking south. It was something like a record snow year in Colorado and the trail was supposed to be impassable. My friend Will, from the PCT, was hiking through there right now. I hoped he was doing all right and wasn't dead.
Two more hikers rolled in. Steve had hiked the New Mexico part, come up here, and had just gotten through Glacier. Jerome, from France, had also hiked New Mexico, then hiked part of Wyoming, then came here. For a trail as unpopulated as the CDT, this was a huge convention. Counting myself, there were nine hikers in town at the same time. And a bunch just a day south. I returned to my malt liquor to let the others shower and get clean. I was feeling fine now, and not just because of the alcohol. Rather, being in the hiker community was fun. We were all experienced and understood what the others had gone through, knew what sorts of ordeals and trials we had faced.
We had a large dinner together on the back porch of Serranos, complete with many margaritas for Blister and I. I've got to keep this groove going, I commanded myself. I was actually happy again, and couldn't remember two consecutive evenings where this had happened since, perhaps, April. There is way too much out here to spend my summer moping about things past. Blister and I retired to the picnic table for some more malt liquor that we bought at the gas station, telling our final rounds of stories and just talking. Talking, with someone intelligent and who has had an interesting life, is far more entertaining than any television show about reality. I didn't want the night to end, but I had been drinking beer and margaritas for the last nine hours. Besides, tomorrow, I had to start walking south.