July 6, 2009
An early night made for an early wakeup on my zero. I had a big day ahead of me and needed to get started on it. I wandered into the down town area of Anaconda, which seemed to have the same cancer that I saw last summer infecting many of the towns along the Pacific Northwest Trail. The cancer was in its early stages, but once started it would not stop. The reasons for the town's existence were slowly slipping away and it was clear that its best times were behind it. Many homes were boarded up. Businesses were empty. The downtown was not a place I'd like to be when the sun went down.
I wandered over to a dark, dank diner called Donovans, a place without windows or light other than the pallid yellow glow of cheap tungsten lights. The omelet was quite tasty, at least. As with other towns dying of the cancer, the library of Anaconda was exquisite, a beauty of a building that made one want to spend time in it. I was unsure why towns with the cancer had such nice libraries, but it seemed to be an established fact. I spent an hour and half paying bills online and answering emails. The girl with pig tails had responded. The girl from the Spring had written as well. My past seemed to be repeating itself.
I swung by the post office to pick up my bounce bucket and then headed back to the Tradewinds to sort gear, do laundry, and laze about. Lazing is important. Storm clouds were building over the mountains and a storm was expected later in the afternoon. With a man made roof over my head, I could care less what the weather was outside. I was safe and dry for now, and that was to be appreciated no matter what happened outside. I called home and found that the surgery was not yet scheduled. I was on trail to Leadore, 230 miles away from here. A long push, but one that would avoid a long, difficult hitch hike.
I called Springtime, and got only a voice message. Another time. Ten day of food takes a while to find, re-package, and pack up. And it weighs heavy. Fortunately Albertsons was directly across the street and I was able to man handle the many shopping bags filled with all the food I would have at my disposal for a long, long resupply run. Although the pack would be heavy, I wanted to be able to stay out for a long distance and preserve the feeling of wildness with me. Although I very much liked coming into town and enjoying the benefits of civilization, I also appreciate having the opportunity to spend such a large amount of time on foot through a wild land.
The day wore on and I spent as much of it on my back watching inane television and sipping bad beer. The light grew dim outside and I was almost asleep when the Spring called. We didn't have a lot to say, but she was concerned about me and wanted me to call when I got out of the wildlands. We've just never been at the right places in our lives at the same time. I fought to stay awake for as long as possible, not wanting the softness of the motel to end with sleep. Tomorrow I would be on a road almost all day with a heavy pack and a long, long path stretching in front of me. Tomorrow I would have to resume the hardness that existence in the backcountry requires. But for now I had all the softness I could possibly want.
Another poor sleeping experience in the motel. As soft and comfortable as the bed was, the room was hot, stuffy, and without air. I had night sweats and the town food and beer brought constant heartburn to me, as they always do on zero days. I never get the burn at home anymore, but after a bit of time in the outofdoors a diet of processed foods just kills me. I wandered over to the closest gas station for coffee and pastries and watched Fox News for a while. I watched so that I would be even more hardened to the stupidity of media. I was going to be on the road almost all day long, but I had a radio to help with that. The heavy pack, with ten days of supplies, would not help that. I hit the post office on my way out of town and mailed my bucket to Leadore, noting Jym Beam and Rain Queen's bucket waiting for them in the stack of other hiker boxes. West Anaconda was definitely better than East, for there were fewer abandoned homes and the lawns were well cared for. I dodged over on a side road that turned into a pretty gravel country road, which kept me off the main highway for five miles or so.
I eventually rejoined the highway and turned on the radio to drown out the sound of the cars going past. Road walking is a matter of faith: You have to have faith that you're not going to die at every moment from the carelessness of a driver, and you have to have faith that it will end eventually. You look around you and try to note things of interest. You imagine where different cars are heading to and why they are going there in such a rush. You try to imagine what sort of creature the drivers think you are. And you remind yourself that the road will eventually end. I was quite happy to turn off on Storm Lake Road, the most direct route into the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. A home was at the turn off and, after verifying that no one was at home, I took a lunch break at 1 pm under the eaves of the house, for the heavens had just opened up and a constant, though light, rain was falling.
The road quickly shrunk to an ill graded affair, yet there were several cars on it, moving slowly uphill but, in a very un-standard fashion, not offering me a lift up the hill. Storm Lake, the end of the road, was evidently a popular destination. I wandered slowly uphill, deploying my umbrella from time to time to keep the rain off of me and grumbling about how heavy the pack was. The first couple of days of a long resupply leg are always an adjustment. The mountains came into view and the forest thinned appreciably as I reached the lake, which sat at more than 8000 feet and was dotted with snow banks.
Storm Lake was quite scenic, hemmed in by snowy, craggy mountains and lined with trees. But it was also an unnatural looking affair. It didn't take long to figure out why. It was damned. The dam seemed to be more for flood control than for hydropower, which seemed fitting considering the few people in the area. But if there were only a few people here, why did the watershed need to be damned? There were four groups of people camped along the lake and I hiked across the dam, then rock hopped over an outflow, narrowly avoiding a dunking, much to the disappointment of three youths fishing near the outlet. I liked seeing young people in the outdoors, but this didn't seem to be a rare thing in Montana. Here, in the western, wild part of the state, the land was as much of a part of lives as the mall, or Facebook, was for people in the Sound. I crossed multiple snow banks and eventually found a patch of level ground with some shelter from the elements by a few stout trees. A perfect campsite.
My tarp set up, I gathered water and began filtering it through my gravity powered filter, for lake water is always suspect, with very few exceptions. A fine pot of macaroni and cheese with olive oil formed dinner and several fig newtons made a pleasant dessert. The temperature dropped quickly and the wind picked up. I would sleep well tonight, back in the open air of the outofdoors. Although I sleep well at home, it is nothing compared to the comfort of a cold night in some place in the woods or mountains or desert. The air smells, no, tastes better. The bed is more comfortable, though most people would look at the flimsy foam pad I was carrying with some horror. And the morning is more delightful, free of alarm clocks and with the gorgeous morning light shining in. Under a tarp there is nothing to separate you from the environment. In a tent you can pretend you are at home. In a tarp, you no longer can. And so I bedded down and listened to the sound of the wind dancing in the trees above me, happy and content and thankful for the time that I had now and the path that was in front of me.
The windsong that had lulled me to sleep became a torrent, a
tornado, in the pitch black of middle night. Rain pounded the tarp
and the trees, but I stayed warm and dry and safe in the clutch of
trees under my tarp. I had chosen a good site. I listened to the
tempest outside and watched as the lake and mountain walls lit up
occasionally under the influence of a lightning strike. I went back
to sleep, unconcerned.
In the morning I spied thick clouds and delayed my departure, hoping for good weather for my entrance to th high country that was in my immediate future. I drank one pot of tea and then a second. I thought about something that I had read last night in Tolstoy. It was a passage that gelled much of what I had been thinking about during my trip so far. The question was neither original nor new. People had been thinking on it for millenia. Where does the Human fit into the Natural World? Every other creature in the natural world has a well defined purpose for its existence. It knows the way. Only Humans are confused about how they fit in. Only Humans wander about looking for a Home, looking for a place where they belong. Tolstoy had no relation to the Natural World as I understand the concept. He saw it through the lens of a upper class househoulder, much as Hesse or even HD might. Yet, as they had, he managed to see some large amount of truth in it and come to conclusions that, though flawed in subtle ways, were mostly correct. The power of mind, I suppose, though one allowed only to the greatest of minds.
The passage was from the beginning of Tolstoy's last full novel, Resurrection, written after he had renounced most of his wealth and had tried to put into practice a form of Christianity that Christ might actually recognize. He died alone on a bench in a train station in rural Russia. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are two of the gifts of civilization, but ones that must be taken together to form a complete whole. Each on their own some how fail to convey a message that is complete and rich, but when read together they create a unity that portrays well the existence that humans have to face every day. The passage that had struck me was nominally a description of the coming of spring in Russia, but held much more to it than a cursory read would show.
The sun shown warm, the air was balmy, the grass, where it did not get scraped away, revived and sprang up everywhere: Between the paving-stones as well as on the narrow strips of lawn on the boulevards. The birches, the poplars, and the wild cherry trees were unfolding their gummy and fragrant leaves, the bursting buds were swelling on the lime trees; crows, sparrows, and pigeons, filled with the joy of spring, were getting their nests ready; the flies were buzzing along the walls warmed by the sunshine. All were glad: the plants, the birds, and insects, and the children. But men, grown-up men and women, did not leave off cheating and tormenting themselves and each other. It was was not this spring morning men thought sacred and worthy of consideration, not the beauty of God's world, given for a joy to all creatures - this beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony, and to love - but only their own devices for enslaving one another.
I had hiked through the forest and climbed into the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness on my way to Storm Lake Pass. The trail was carved directly onto the flanks of the mountains and was one of the most beautiful stretches of trail since leaving the Scapegoat. It traversed several snow banks, but the snow was soft enough not to be too dangerous. I reveled as the storm departed and the sun came back. The precipitous trail led to the aptly named Goat Flats, a large, open expanse of grasslands high in the mountains.
I hiked along enjoying the sunshine and thinking about Tolstoy and his view on the natural world. There was no evil, or good, in it. It simply was. Predators ate prey when hungry and when able. Species procreated either in established couples, or simply came together at the right time, departing after their biological responsibility was done. Some actions in the Natural World would horrify our human morals. Adult, male bears will kill any young cubs they can in order to induce the mother to breed again. Certain trees will drop their seed equipped with a poison that will kill other kinds of plants in an attempt to secure it's supremacy. But these actions are neither good nor bad. They simply are what the Natural World does. Nature doesn't care about the individual. Nature is in the game for the species.
I traversed Goat Flats and made my way to the drop on the other side. Snowy and slushy, the walking was difficult, but the route finding wasn't especially difficult as parts of trail would show up every dozen feet or so, keeping me on track. But the brief sunshine wasn't going to last for very long. The storm was going to come back. The switchbacking trail eventually bottomed out and I took a break on a downed log near a stream, where I could drink water and replenish my supply. A few granola bars brought new energy to me. The woods were quite and hadn't been logged in quite a while, which was something rare in Montana. Something that made me smile. I started up toward Rainbow saddle, the next pass, as the weather began to worsen.
Man doesn't fit into the natural world the way a standard predator does. We have remorse, at least some of us do, and we have morals and qualms and we question our actions and debate which side is right and which side is wrong and ponder the efficacy of one solution over another and generally frustrate ourselves through inaction and doubt. Those that claim they have found the one true way are trying to sell you something and are to be avoided, much like every sensible person avoids rolling a dung heap. Humans are fundamentally unique in Nature and it seems to be the point of our lives to figure out where we belong and what our role is. To make matters worse, no two humans have the same role, unlike a wolf or cat or elk. We each have to work it out for ourselves.
It had been raining, then hailing, then snowing on me as I topped out on Rainbow Saddle. The views could have been spectacular and the saddle a place to linger in the sun, but the temperature, snow, and wind drove me from the heights immediately. My thoughts turned from the abstract, very human ones that Tolstoy had brought out to more animal ones. Survival. Aside from random dangers, the chief cause of death and distress in the outdoors is hypothermia. For now I was warm and relatively dry, but I was also sweaty from the climb, which meant that my body would rapidly cool as my exertion dropped. I hiked along quickly in an attempt to reach the safety of the lowlands which, with their trees to knock down the wind, would provide more safety than the scenic highlands.
I bottomed out, crossed the valley, and began the climb to Cutaway Pass, thinking not about Man and Nature and how humans fit into the world, but rather about the cold and the tiredness in my body. Fortunately the skies cleared as I neared the pass and I was able to take off my poor rain jacket and skirt for the last part of the climb to the pass. On the other side of the valley was Rainbow Saddle. And more storm clouds coming in.
I scurried off of the pass and dropped once more down into the next valley, hustling as best I could in an attempt to reach something like a campsite before getting dumped on once again. Though I really needed to cover 25 miles a day, I was tiring of the cold and wet and knew that I would be able to make up any short comings in the days to come. The rain came back, but I was on the valley floor and the trees kept much of it off of me, the umbrella taking care of the rest. I had been hiking hard for three straight hours and the climb to Warren Lake was a tiring affair.
I was quite happy when the trail leveled off and I began to see the signs of a lake in the landforms around me. I made my way through mushy, slimy trails and located Warren Lake and fine campsite just off of it, sheltered by thick trees and well drained. Though it was only three in the afternoon, and I would normally have hiked for another four hours, I stopped at the campsite and quickly set up camp. I had just retuned with a load of water and gotten under my tarp when the heavens openned up once more and rain came pouring down, followed by a ferocious hail storm. I shivered as water heated for tea.
I gradually warmed up in my down jacket and warm hat and gloves, with the hot green tea warming me from the inside. It was actually rather scenic under the tarp, watching the hail hit the ground and listening to them tick-tacking off my tarp. I was safe and warm and my mind relaxed from the animal state it had been in since leaving Goat Flat. Being bored wasn't a danger I faced. I had tea to drink and the weather to watch and Tolstoy to read and a journal to write in. Dinner to eat and to be thankful for. I watched the weather slowly clear and improve and by my bedtime (i.e, 8 pm) there was enough clear, blue sky to give me hope for good weather in the morning. It was going to be cold tonight and I bundled up with my water bottles near my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing solid over night. I slept well, without doubt or confusion, and with the reassurance that tomorrow I would awake in a place of beauty, with an open future in front of me.
It was very, very cold overnight and the outflow leakages of the lake were all frozen into solid ice. The mucky ground from yesterday had been transformed into iron. It had dipped down into the 20s last night and even with the blue skies and the sunshine in the morning it was still bitterly cold. I made tea and drank it quickly for warmth, then packed up and hiked over a small rise to drop away from Warren Lake.
I dropped down into the forest and ran into a man with a small pack and trail runners. Had to be a distance hiker. The man's trailname was Scotland and he was finishing up the CDT with his third and last section hike from Chief Joseph Pass to the Canadian border. We exchanged stories and talked for a while about the trail and various experiences before separating and heading our own ways. The trail was pleasant and pretty enough to Rainbow Lake, with nice views from the top to the Bitterroot Mountains, where I would be in a few days after crossing Chief Joseph Pass.
The Bitterroot formed the border between Montana and Idaho and I would have the fortune to traverse them for a few days to Lost Trail Pass, from which I'd head to Leadore. If I could make better mileage than I had been for the first few days of my hike out of Anaconda. As I hiked, though, the pack would get lighter and miles easier. The hike though the Anaconda - Pintler Wilderness had been one of a sequence of ups and downs, with very few lengthy ridgeruns. It made for tiring hiking without as much of a sense of having finally earned ones pleasure. Stunning, for sure, but it required work.
I found myself at Pintler Pass, looking out over the land and facing a decision. In a short bit I would have the opportunity to leave the CDT for an older version of it that required hard, off trail travel, or to hike a new trail with more elevation gain, but steady tread and fewer views. It sounds great when at home, in the warmth of dry, cotton clothes to always take the harder path. But when faced with the choice, everyone goes for the easy, sure route, just like I decided to do. A lot of mud and muck on the descent, and then some on the climb.
I had to make a critical left turn on a trail, away from the old CDT coming in from the right, in 3.2 miles. I marked the starting time and set off up hill, using the watch as a gauge for when to turn. The trail climbed and climbed through scrubby woods with few views. Shortly after an hour had passed I reached the trail junction, complete with an old, battered CDT sign heading toward the right. The left turn was marked with axe blazes and recent foot prints. I turned left. After forty minutes of descent on a mosquito choked, sloppy, not fun trail, I took a closer look at the map and found that I was on the Beaver Creek trail, which diverged from the CDT just a bit before I wanted to. And then it started to rain. I wasn't happy.
I sat under a thick tree for some shelter from the rain. Then it started to hail. I looked at the map and thought about options. To save myself from a two mile, uphill walk, I could hike several miles out to HWY43, then road walk that all the way to Lost Trail Pass over several days, staying in front country campsites and in cow pastures along the way. It would be a bit shorter than the CDT. I went back uphill instead, getting lost along the way on a cow trail. Fortunately the hail went away and once back on the CDT the effort was rewarded with the best views of the day.
The trail ran along a talus field on the flank of a mountain, with extensive views of the Big Hole below. The Big Hole is the western most valley in the Missouri drainage, with the Bitterroots as the western boundary of it. The Big Hole would be a constant, left side companion for me for the next five days until I made Leadore. It would, in fact, be with me until I started to detour off the CDT and head to Jackson via the Teton High Route, if I made it that far before going to Chicago.
I had intended on making it much further than I did, but the lack of water along the high, open route forced me to stop early at a set of mosquito breeding ponds called Park Lakes. Mushy and mucky, there were no good campsites to be had and I finally forced one inbetween a set of trees and settled in so that the mosquitoes could feed on me better. I lathered up in DEET and wrote in my journal, but mostly I felt sorry for myself. Stupid open tarp. Stupid rocky ground. Stupid bugs. Stupid me for coming out here in the first place. Better to stay at home and get fat. Remember what Bukowski said: "Don't Try". I tried to use my sleeping bag to keep the bugs off me, but it was too warm for that and I quickly broke out in the sweat. So I stayed awake and just killed bugs. I wasn't happy here and I didn't know what to do about it.
I awoke feeling better, especially since after 8 pm the temperature did drop and the bugs went away, hiding from the sub-freezing air as best as they could. Long distance hiking is primarily an exercise in holding your mind together. After the first week or two, most people find a rhythm to walking that their body's can maintain. Outside of a freakish injury (broken ankle) or an injury coming from over use (stress fracture) or a break down in body chemistry (malnutrition), the physical aspect of a long hike isn't the hard part. The mental one is. Outside of Scotland, I hadn't seen anyone since leaving Storm Lake. But simply seeing people isn't enough for a human. We need to have true engagement for a while. I hadn't had that since I left East Glacier, and that was starting to wear on me.
The trail was gorgeous in the morning. After hiking up and out of the slop of Park Lakes, it ran along a ridge with extensive views of the Bitterroots and the cloud choked Big Hole. I was at peace once again, though I knew that was due more to the early morning hour and less to any change I had made. I had experienced this feeling before on various long, solo trips that I had taken on trails or routes that didn't have much of a trail culture. There were plenty of hikers out on the CDT this summer, but they were several days behind me. I needed someone to hold onto for a while, to gather mental and emotional strength from, like a hiking parasite. But I also knew that they would be doing the same thing to me, and that it was a mutually beneficial relationship.
Solitude is one of the signs of a true wilderness. But solitude is easily transformed into isolation, and isolation is what drives people insane after a long enough time has passed. When the trail was stunning, as it frequently was, it was easy to enjoy solitude. When the trail turned ugly, solitude was more difficult to bear alone. Suffering by yourself is hard, but suffering with others, knowing that others must endure the same ordeals that you must pass, some how eases the burden.
The ridgeroute was stunning and the air was cold and crisp, with long distance views to beautiful mountains. Hiking was therefore easy. Even the burn areas that I had to traverse were appealing, with bear grass and fireweed sprouting through the blackened earth and charred trees. The route left the ridge and resumed its bouncing nature. I stopped and rested, taking long drinks of cold water directly out of a pristine brook that came down from the mountains above me. Life was indeed easy.
I was nearing the end of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, and with it most likely the end of well maintained, easy to follow trail. Miles would become harder to get and the chances of getting lost, more properly misplaced, would become higher. I was going to have to pay more attention to what I was doing and spend less time thinking about abstruse topics. Surprise Lake literally surprised me.
Just beyond the lake was the sign marking the end of the wilderness. I sat on a rock in the sun and lunched, with more pure brook water. The maps held many warnings about keeping an eye on the route, about a lack of trail, about paying attention. I slowly chewed on some cashews and really did feel fine. The weather was beautiful and the trail was good. I was in the middle of a sublime place that, even without an official wilderness designation, was just as wild as what I had just passed through. I set off and quickly found my happiness increasing. The trail turned into a cairned route, which was easy to follow along a high, slightly forested plateau.
It was clear that sometime in the last few years a trail crew had come in and built up the cairns, cleared trail, and generally made it possible to easily follow. Trail work is hard work, but work that I suspected the people didn't mind doing. Good, solid, rewarding work, unlike selling an insurance policy or a DVD player, whose results would be seen and enjoyed by many.
What would have been nice was a warning that there would be no good water along the new route until reaching Gibbons Pass, twenty five miles distant. The old route crossed water, but the new one was up high on the plateau and just didn't. Although the temperature wasn't especially high, the frequent burn areas meant that I was soaking up a lot of sun and grew thirsty quickly.
The trail climbed high and began traversing more and more snow. Invariably I managed to stay on route even across the snow, which brought some measure of pride to me. Pride of craft, rather than ego. I was pleased to be able to find my way out here. But after five miles the trail dipped low and ran into a very dull lodgepole forest. Rather than take a direct gravel road, the newly hacked out trail bobbed through the woods, crossing and recrossing the road many times.
I crossed one swampy area where it might have been possible for a desperate person to find water, but my thirst was not yet at that level. I rationed my water to last and knew that my body could handle some dehydration and still recover tomorrow. Moving slowly and trying to conserve sweat, I was pushing past the 30 mile mark for the day as I approached Gibbons Pass. Gibbons Pass was at a road. In one direction people could walk or hitch (unlikely on the gravel road) out to a town. I walked in the other down to a pleasant creek, where I found a nice car camping site and set up my tarp. Almost 32 miles for the day, and my body felt it. I drank several liters of water immediately and then set to making dinner for the night.
It had been a physically hard day due to the lack of water on the high route. My pack was getting lighter and I was starting to be able to see my entrance into Leadore in four days. I still had a long way to go to get there, but it was at least in site. Leadore could be the end of my hike. Or I could move on to Lima from it. That lack of clarity had not bothered me at the start of the hike, but now that I was starting to get further and further from an easy extraction point it was starting to wear on me. Unlike yesterday, my body was tired but my mind was happy, and that was a good sign for tomorrow. I needed to be strong mentally and spiritually in order to continue doing what I was doing, and enjoying what had been a spectacular summer so far.
Despite the road and the nearness of multilane highways, the hike in the morning had an empty feeling to it. It wasn't one of remoteness or of wilderness, but rather that it seemed like something was missing. The area was clearly a popular one for people in the winter, when the wide paths through the woods made for nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and snow machining. After a few miles on single track, I emerged onto a broad avenue and declined to depart from it when the CDT took a side turn. The two trails would both go to the same place, so there was no need to get back onto single track.
It was still early in the morning when I heard the drone of vehicles and came to a massive parking lot at Chief Joseph Pass and my first paved road since turning onto Storm Lake road several days ago. At the pass are where MT43 and US93 intersect. Hitching a long way on the first gets the hiker to Wisdom, Montana, while hitching a very long way on the second gets one to Salmon, Idaho. I was going to neither, as I still had four plus days of food on my back, enough to make it to Leadore, ID.
I took a rest on the other side of the highway and watched the cars and trucks rush by on their way to where ever. The day was heating up quickly, which was unusual for it had been a decidedly cool start of summer. The MT-ID border region, which I was just now starting, had a reputation for being hot and dry and the trail poorly signed and even more poorly kept. Lewis and Clark came this way on their way to the Pacific and it nearly broke them. They went a much easier way on their way back home.
I hiked into the woods and immediately noticed the lack of axe blazes or other signage. I followed the route I was on and hoped it was actually where I needed to be. Very quickly I met two horsepackers, heading north. Sonia and Gunter, from Germany, started the CDT last year at the Mexican border and were back this year to finish up. I filled them in on snow conditions on the trail behind me, provoking some mirth from them as I covered, at times, twice the mileage on foot they did on horseback. I thought this funny as well. We talked for bit, much less than I wanted, before we continued on our own journeys.
I was very quickly depressed, almost as if someone had come into my head and flicked the switched marked Bad Day. After my encounter all I wanted to do was to talk to someone. To anyone. I wanted people around me. I wanted to be somewhere else. It wasn't a gradual change of mood. Rather, it was a load of bricks that got dumped on me. The heat increased, as did the bugs. Rather than just the usual skeeters, flies of all sizes joined in. At the top of the climb I realized I had missed a critical water source and didn't want to go back down hill for it. No matter, I thought, I still have a liter left. The signage at a critical turn was nothing more than a bit of knife work on a tree.
The character of the trail changed completely. The grade of the route went through the roof, with the trail rarely having anything resembling flatness. My pace slowed to a crawl as I labored under the hot sun and swarm of bugs and began to think about water in an intense way. The views were very nice and had the trail been graded in accordance with what had come before, the route would have been much fun. But as it was, I was staggering and looking for any measure of relief.
The route led along a ridge broken by numerous passes, a ridge narrow and thin and frequently burned on top. Lacking sufficient water and tired and depressed, I couldn't enjoy what was in front of me and seemed fixated on all that I didn't have at the moment, which is completely the wrong way to live. I sat in the shade of a few trees and drank the last of my water as I looked over my maps, hoping for a water source somewhere near. There was a campsite off the ridge, not far up, and that would have to have reliable water. I hoped.
I hiked through a burned area to the top of a local knoll, which held a sign on top indicating water in some vague direction. I looked and sniffed, but wasn't about to wander downhill through the burn to try to find it. Parched, I kept on, knowing that I could hike for a very long distance without water until something really bad happened. I just had to suffer for a while. Shortly past the sign, the route descended to a notch, where a side trail headed down to Nez Perce camp. Of course, the trail was steep. It took a little while to find the water source, which was, of course, steeply downhill. I drank deeply from the ice cold spring.
After eating lunch and trying to rehydrate, I filled my water bottles and set off back uphill to the trail and my suffering. It wasn't much fun, even with water, and I was moving simply to move, to get somewhere, rather than enjoying where I was, when I was. I hated that. I was lonely and bored and needed to get my head in order, or to do something else. I stumbled along the ridge, barely paying attention to the long views and the remoteness of the land. I should have been intoxicated. Instead I wanted to be domestic.
I rested at timed intervals, for when I sat I had no desire to get back up again. I knew that I had to move out under my own power, but I didn't want to. I wanted someone on a magic carpet to fly in and pick me up and whisk me away to someplace where I could indulge in all the senseless pleasures of the flesh, like Las Vegas or Dubai. I was heading to Big Hole Pass, where a gravel road ran and where I faced a choice. I could follow the official CDT or try a short cut that seemed to get to the same place along a lower route with water. The choice seemed easy enough.
I hit the pass and dropped down away from it, heading toward Pioneer Creek, along which a road would lead me along and up to a pass, the other side of which I would pick up the CDT again. But the map wasn't entirely accurate. What looked like public land was, in fact, a ranch, and I had to go around a fence to continue along the road. And the road wasn't really a road: It was more like a track that someone on an ATV drove a few times a year during hunting season. The bugs grew worse. And I got more and more depressed. I sat by the creek and looked at the map while drinking water. I felt like crying. I didn't know what to do anymore. I didn't want to move forward. I didn't want to go back. And so after fighting back tears, I decided to head back to public land and camp for the night. When tired and depressed, it is best not to make any decision. And so I would spend the night and try to figure out what to do.
I set up camp and made tea, walking around to try to avoid as many bugs as possible. The maps gave me options. I could go back up to the CDT and follow it over the pass and eventually, in four days, to Leadore. I could hike out along roads, parallel to the Bitterroots and then back up to the CDT at a variety of points. But what I needed now was some softness. I thought on it as the night came on and decided to hike out to MT43 and walk that into Wisdom, where I was sure I'd be able to find a place to sleep and to rest in. And people to talk to. The air was still warm as I tried to sleep amidst the swarm of bugs. It was not going to be a good night.
One of the worst nights in the outdoors. The bugs were relentless and it never got cold enough to put them to sleep. Ants crawled on me. The sleeping bag made me sweat. The buzzing in my ears kept me awake. It wasn't hard to get started at first light. I had about twenty miles to hike to get to Wisdom which, being on roads, would not take very long.
The gravel road led through stands of lodgepole with a few long term campers parked in choice spots. A dog or two barked at me. But the forest stretches didn't last for very long and I reached the beginning of pasture and ranch lands with their resident hooved locusts, er cows.
The scenery was really rather pretty. I was in the Big Hole now, and the long, flat vista reminded one of the Midwest or Great Plains. But behind me were the Bitterroots with their sharp, snowy peaks and rugged foothills. Though it was nice where I was, there was a storm brewing over the mountains and I was glad that I was not in the heights at this particular time.
The mountains were where the CDT was and where part of me thought I should be. I should be up there, suffering in the storm and making progress down the trail. But that is thinking appropriate for people sitting at home in front of computers. That is the thinking of a mindless robot. I would get back to the CDT eventually, but first I would make a stop at Wisdom and see what is there. I needed a break from the isolation that I had been feeling on the trail and Wisdom would give me that. It would give me an interlude of softness in a trip otherwise filled with hardness.
To travel well is to be flexible with one's expectations and desires. Rigidity of goals is a great way to accomplish a very specific task, but it doesn't help much to do something worth doing. There was gorgeous terrain that I would be missing by taking the route that I was, but there would be great stuff ahead as well. And I would get to see Wisdom as well. I have a thing for small towns with interesting names like Wisdom. Or Liberal, Kansas.
As I approached MT43 the bugs increased to a crescendo and I almost prayed for the storm to reach me, for its rain would drive of the skeeters better than any DEET. They were everywhere. The cause was easy to see: The fields were filled with standing water. It must have been a very wet spring and early summer in the Big Hole. The rain did reach me about two miles before Wisdom, giving me some relief from the bugs but also forcing me to put up my umbrella and get my feet wet in the ditch of the road, otherwise the spray from the trucks and cars would have drenched me.
The mountains would have been a terrible place to be and I was very happy to walk into the hamlet of Wisdom. The town had only a few features. Motel on the edge of town. Two eateries. A store and gas station and post office and church. Being Montana, it also had several bars. Not much else. A few tourists lingered about and the rest seemed to actually live here. I walked to the far side of town and located a motel, but there didn't seem to be anyone there and I retreated to a local eatery. A group of van supported cyclists were finishing up lunch and trying to figure out which town would have the nicest hotel to stay at. A pretty, young waitress in a very, very short skirt brought me a grilled chicken breast sandwich with ham and swiss. I liked Wisdom so far.
I asked the waitress about the closed motel and she went off to ask a few questions. The owner and chef and mother of the short, short skirt came over and told me that the owners were out of town until the early evening. I told her my story and she immediately had a solution: She rented out a cabin a few blocks away and would knock $20 off the price for me. Done. She even gave me a lift over as it was dumping rain outside. A nice, homey affair and a much better deal than the motel at $45. It was nicer than my apartment back home.
The owner gave me a lift back to the main part of town where I paid up and bought some supplies for the afternoon: Soda, beer, and ice cream. Back at the cabin I showered and got cleaned up and then sat, wrapped in a blanket on the sofa, and watched Braveheart, beer in hand. I luxuriated in the softness of the setting. Burrowing deeper in the blanket, I napped for a bit, unworried about what tomorrow was going to bring. I called home and got some news. The surgery was probably on for the 23rd, eleven days from now. I wasn't sure what to make of it, so I drank another beer and ate some ice cream.
The day moved into evening and I walked into town for dinner at a local bar. There was no bartender, so one of the locals opened beers for me, keeping a tic mark on a beer coaster. The bar was pure Montana, with slot machines along the wall, separated from the family portion by a non-continuous wall. Smoking, of course, was perfectly expected. I drank a few bottles of beer and ate a bacon cheeseburger while talking to whomever happened to wander in. Unlike big cities, you tend not to pretend to not to see people in small town America. The tic marks on the beer coaster grew, and when I eventually went into the family part I brought the coaster with me in lieu of a tab. It was cold, wet, rainy, and the wind was blowing hard as I walked back to the cabin, very happy that I was in Wisdom and not in the mountains. I was ignoring what I needed to be thinking about, and that was the end of my walk down the CDT. I was ignoring it until tomorrow when I would have plenty of time to think over it. There was no reason to be depressed tonight when I would have plenty of time for it tomorrow on the road.
Rain beat against the side of the cabin. I pulled the blanket tighter over my head and ignored it for a while longer. When the sound went away, I drug myself out of bed and made coffee, wandering around shirtless and shoeless on the hardwood and tile floor. It felt good to do that again. When I eventually left the sky was only mildly angry and I managed to get to the restaurant without getting too wet. I ordered two breakfasts and more coffee, delaying my thinking time to later, to when I was on the road and not in town. I had to ponder dates and times and ease of extraction and my bounce bucket and the Greyhound and regional airports and many other things that would not be very pleasant. The road was the right place for that. The girl in the short, short skirt wasn't there in the morning and I couldn't try to tempt her to come with me, not that it would have worked. So I paid, shouldered my pack, and hit the road.
Some times I feel like walking and today was one of them. The sun came out and chased away the clouds, with just enough of a breeze to keep the skeeters from settling on me, though I'm sure the DEET helped as well. I started to do the math as two cycle tourists passed me, waving and smiling and wondering why I wasn't hitching. Ten minutes down the road I spotted them stopped in the distance. The male was walking back and forth in the road while the female road in circles around him. I wasn't sure what sort of dances cyclists do and wasn't able to guess until I got up on them. The bugs were bothering them so much, even through their tights, that in order to fix a flat they both had to stay in constant motion. This seemed rather funny for, though the bugs were horrendous, they weren't any worse than yesterday.
I started to do the math as I left them. The surgery was tentatively scheduled for the 23rd, giving me eleven days, including today, to work with. I could be in Leadore in another four days. With a rest in Leadore, I'd make Lima on the 21rst, which wasn't enough time to get back to Chicago before the surgery. Leadore had no facilities for getting out and I would need to hitch to Salmon, 50 miles away, to get to a Greyhound stop. Dillon was on MT43, my road, maybe 65 miles from Wisdom. It didn't seem to make much sense to go to Leadore. The only thing it had going for it was the fact that my bounce bucket was waiting for me there.
It took me five hours, including breaks, to cover the roughly 20 miles from Wisdom to Jackson, an even smaller town in the Big Hole. I dropped my pack at the only store in town and went inside for an iced tea and to ponder a bit more. I sat outside and watched a few cars cruise into town. The two cyclists had made it here a bit before me and were calling it quits for the day. I called my mother and talked to her for a bit. Dillon it was. It would be the easiest thing for me to do. I wasn't sure how I'd get to Dillon, or how I'd get from Dillon to Chicago, but something would come up. A solution would present itself.
That's how 99% of life seems to be. Concentrate on doing the small, simple stuff well and the big, complicated things will solve themselves. Or go away. Or kill you outright. I decided to stay in Jackson for the night. It wasn't the most charming of towns, but it had an authentic feel to it that I liked. And the views of the Bitterroots were stunning. Besides, the amount of public land in the Big Hole was small and I needed some place to sleep other than in a cow pasture. Some more cyclists rolled into town and I chatted with them. They had ridden the 45 miles from Dillon and were stopping for the day. This seemed to be a common theme for cycle tourists.
The Jackson Lodge was the only place to stay in town. I could camp for $15. Or stay in a room and bed for $30. Or in a fancy room with its own loo for $50. I objected to paying to sleep on grass, so I spent the $30 for a room and cozied up to the bar. This was the end of my journey, I thought. I might as well celebrate. Whiskey and 7-Up, an actual 7 and 7, was $3. I talked with the bartender and owner in between chats with the various cyclists who came in, loaded down with huge amounts of gear. Most of them had their own laptops. Pedaling 45 miles must be hard when you have to move 80 lbs of bike and gear down the road.
This was it. The end. But like Napolean's army in War and Peace I had inertia and I wouldn't actually stop for a bit further. I had to get to Dillon, after all, and then somehow to Chicago. And I now had the problem of what to do with the rest of my summer. I started thinking about buying a bicycle in Chicago and riding home. The cyclists I were meeting were like old school backpackers, hauling huge amounts of gear with them, most of which they probably never used and never needed in the first place. Maybe a thruhiker approach to cycling? I knew so little about it that it might work out. I hadn't ridden a bicycle in nearly 20 years, which made the prospects for success quite high: When you have no expectations about the right way to do something, you can't fail. That's the whole Beginners Mind thing. When you have it, everything works.
I drank a second, then third, then fourth, then fifth 7 and 7 sitting at the bar. I bought and wrote out post cards to tell people that the foot portion of my summer travel was ending a bit sooner than I had wanted. I had wanted to hike down the spine of the Tetons. To cross the Granite Highline in the Gros Ventre and enter the Wind River Range, my first backpacking locale in the West. The stunning high alpine lakes and granite walls called to me. Then the Divide Basin, a flat, hot expanse of desert filled with things like wild horses and pronghorn antelope. The Colorado Rockies. Parkview Mountains. The Never Summer Range. Brewpubs in Boulder with Mags. Sleeping on the summit of a 14er. Hanging out with Nitro on the flanks of Mount Massive. Going 230 miles without resupply in the pristine San Juan range and Weminuche Wilderness. Entering the Red country of northern New Mexico. Ghost Ranch. The Gila. There was a lot out there that I had wanted to see and do this summer.
I wandered over to the store for a six pack so that I could drink alone on the porch outside my room. It isn't true that the trail will always be there. That's one of those lies that we tell each other and ourselves to make us feel better. Sort of like saying that if a relationship was meant to be, then it will happen on its own. Or that true love will conquer all. I had the right mental state to do this this summer. I didn't know when that mental state would come around again. I had the time and was healthy enough. I took my shot at it and it wasn't assured that I would get another one. Time doesn't come again: Once you've lived it, its gone except in your memories. You can't get it back. I took comfort in the fact that this really was my decision and I was actively making it. I had thought about leaving things up to my sister. About showing up later in the summer. About hiring a nurse instead. But these things were repugnant to me. They felt wrong. They were wrong. I was doing the right thing for the right reasons, but that didn't mean that a part of me wasn't aching inside. The last thing she would want to be is a burden. She wasn't. Isn't. It was important to me, for me, to be there with her before, during, and after.
I drank a can or two of beer on the porch and then made dinner on my alcohol stove, in my battered cook pot, perhaps for the last time this summer. The lifestyle I was leading was a rewarding one that paid dividends to the spirit long after the journey was over. Even with bad days, like the one after Chief Joseph Pass, there was so much that was worthwhile that I was having difficulty letting go completely. I could lead that life for a bit longer, just a bit. I hoped that I would have more time, another opportunity, to live so directly. But it wasn't assured and it might not happen. Sitting on the porch, I realized that this could be it. Maybe I would get hit by a car and spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Or have an irate student suffering from PTSD shoot me. Or get married, have kids, and settle in a terminal, middle class rot. Another can of beer. I had things at home to look forward to. The fall was going to be fun, I was sure. But that this might be my last long trip was a possibility that I had to accept. And that was hard, even if I was ending it to do something that I wanted to do even more.
I wandered into the lodge and got a cup of coffee while pondering what to do. Might as well hang around and try to yogi a ride to Dillon. That brought me an hour of conversation with people heading to Tacoma, of all places, and their personal, pseudo-scientific theories on global warming. Much of it centered on a 24,000 year cycle of positioning relative to the sun. At least it was interesting. The cyclists were slow in moving in the morning, lingering over their gear and seemingly loathe to get on the road. They were planning on riding toward Wisdom. Might even stop there. Fueled on coffee, I gave away the last can of beer and walked outside, into the cold sun of the Big Hole. A sign said that Dillon was 48 miles from here. A fair piece.
I started walking for the rhythm of it. Step after step. 48 miles is a long way to go on the road. Probably have to camp somewhere along the way, which was a problem that I could solve when I had to. The two cyclists from yesterday caught me ten miles out of Jackson, having gotten a late start. They were heading to Dillon for the night and I might see them there. I doubted it. The ranch lands of the Big Hole seemed to go on forever, but were at least scenic in that sort of pastoral way that makes people like Europe so much. Only Montana pastoral was smelly, dirty, and very real. It wasn't Heidi at all.
I topped one minor pass and several cyclists heading toward Jackson passed me. And then some more. A British man stopped and chatted for a while on his way to the top, finding what I was doing to be quite natural. To him I wasn't a homeless person. I wasn't a hobo. That was a rare talent of vision, and not one that I would have thought Europeans capable of. But he had it. We talked for fifteen minutes about cycling before heading on. I didn't make it another half mile before another cyclist stopped me.
This one was different though. He actually knew me, or rather knew of me, when I explained that I was bailing off the CDT. He had hiked the PCT a few years ago and knew me from comments from me in one of his guidebooks as well as some of my online journeys. I asked some cycling questions as I had a thruhiker in front of me. Should be doable. Might be able to make it to Tacoma from Chicago in a month. Might be tight, sort of like pushing up a 30 mile per day average on a long hike. Maybe.
I had hiked for about 20 miles when a state highway worker, who had passed me several times in his distinctive red truck early in the day, pulled along side and asked me if I wanted a ride into town. Why not. I'd probably walked far enough for now, and hoofing it another 28 miles wasn't especially appealing. If my trip was over, let it be over. 550 miles in a month was enough. The man lived in Dillon and was on his way home from work. Two cyclists were broken down by the side of the road and we stopped to give them a lift back to Dillon as well, for they had just left it that morning before breaking a chain due to a poorly secured loaf of bread. I was liking the idea more. The highway worker dropped me off at the local Motel 6, but hauled the two cyclists to the Super 8 which, though on the main drag, was further from the center of town and the bike shop that they needed to visit.
The Motel 6 was clearly not like others that I had visited. Plush inside, appealing grounds, art of the walls. I got a $20 discount for looking pathetic and explaining my situation. And they had a computer hooked to the internet in the lobby, something I would need to arrange for my extraction to Chicago. I made a trip to the store for some beer and snacks before I took my shower. I like to have a beer in the shower when I get to town. I added a liter of Old Crow for celebrating purposes. The trip really was over. From here I'd be motorized the rest of the way to Chicago. Somehow. I stood on the porch in the warm, dry sunshine of the afternoon and drank a can of strong beer.
The afternoon wore on. I started looking for cheap tickets at various towns. Oddly enough, Bozeman, a small college town north of Yellowstone, had the cheapest flights to Chicago, beaten only by Salt Lake City, which was too far to go to. Mind working. Who did I know in Bozeman? Ryan Jordan, of Backpacking Light fame, lived there and had given me a lift up Hyalite Canyon in 2005 during my other aborted CDT hike. Then it clicked. Sam "Mule" Haraldson lived there now. I knew Sam only from the internet and from our common hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail. I was sure that he'd be up for a visit for a few days before my flight. I bought the ticket for the 20th and sent Sam an email. There was another email to send. This one to the girl in pigtails. For the future.
As it tends to do, afternoon passed into evening and I began to feel the ache of town and the pull back to the mountains. The food I ate was too much and too heavy and the beer and whiskey conspired together to give me heart burn. The television was inane. The air inside the confines of the room stuffy and overly warm. It was constricting. I went back out to the porch and stood in the cold air outside, glass of whiskey in hand, and looked at the lights of Dillon. How many times had I ended a long trip? I should have been used to it by now. But I wasn't. It was always bittersweet when you reach the end of the path, the road, the journey, whatever it is that you want to call it. Your labors have ended. But the joy is also gone. The thrill of every day, of not knowing what the new sun will bring to you, is something lost in the regular habits of daily life, when we do things that need to be done and neglect those things that bring us true happiness. The air was cold on my shirtless chest. The concrete cold on my bare feet. Maybe Bukowski was right after all.