CDT Colorado: Winter Has Come

Sonic and I rise at our usual 5:30am. It’s been getting colder at night, usually in the 20s. But with all my layers (5 in total, plus my rain pants and two pairs of wool socks) I’m pretty warm, especially once I start walking. I keep my water filter close to my body at night and while walking in the frigid morning air. If my filter gets too cold then the expanding, freezing water crystals could destroy the sieve. Giardia roulette is not my idea of a good time, and I purify every milliliter of water I don’t get from the tap in town.

Not having had the opportunity to dry out my belongings the day before, I awake to almost all of my things frozen solid. My tent is a solid sheet that I have to shake in order to get it non-rigid, and I just shove it to the bottom of my backpack. I can take care of it later in Winter Park, the next town stop.

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Sonic and Pounds taking a water filtering break.

Town day! We’d originally been planning on doing the Grays Torres route, in which the official CDT goes over 14k feet, but the cold has been scaring us so we’ve opted to instead do the Silverthorne route. So we’ll only need about a day’s worth of food from town. If we’d known we’d be doing the low route we wouldn’t have bothered with hitching into Winter Park, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

First we have to climb 3300 feet out of the sheltered valley to summit Mt. Flora. It’s cold and windy on the long, sinuous switchbacks scaling the peak. But it’s a clear day and I see a black bear bolt away on my way up, so life is good.

I don’t stop at the top, the intense cold and excitement of going into town propelling me forward. I just want off this f@#king mountain and to feel my fingers again.

Hitchhiking solo is not my favorite activity. I hate the uncertainty of it, never knowing how long it’s going to take. I passed Sonic on my way up the trail, and I have no idea where Dingo, Baby, and Pounds are so I’m on my own. Hitching can be fun with a partner, but… After an eternity that’s really only 30 minutes tops, really not bad for a hitch, I’m barreling down the highway to the semi-upscale ski resort.

“I’m fluent in Spanish, and if you speak Spanish from Spain then Latin American Spanish is almost impossible to understand,” the driver’s girlfriend tells me. They’re about my age. I just smile and nod. I neglect to mention that if you call the language Spanish in Spain then you’re going to get attacked by an angry mob of Catalonians or Basque (it’s castellano, NOT español), and that I had no problem conversing with the locals in my six months in South America.

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EMBRACE THE BREWTALITY. I think pumpkin spice lattes are the only thing getting me through Colorado.

They drop me off at the McDonald’s, where I get my pumpkin spice latte and wait for Sonic. We’d gotten separated near the peak, but she’s a big girl who knows what she’s doing and before long she joins me.

There’s a free bus to the nearby town of Fraser, which has a supermarket and thrift store. Sonic and I peruse the latter, trying on cold weather gear. The benefit of being in a ski town is that there are lots of good, practically new thermal long underwear options in the thrift store.

“It smells like…,” a shop worker fumes as she stares daggers at us, not voicing the mystery smell. “It’s smelled like that since this morning!” Uh oh, crazy shopkeeper alert to DEFCON 1.

This morning Sonic and I were drinking stream water and trying not to get blown off a mountain and we’ve only been in the store for 15 minutes, but the woman running the shop doesn’t seem like the type to let facts get in the way of her fun.

“Okay, we’re out of here. They think we’re psycho hobos,” Sonic murmurs to me. We grab our stuff, pay quickly, and bolt.

At the Wendy’s we lay out our tents, clothes, and sleeping bag on the lawn while we eat inside.

“I’ve been in your shoes before, and I know how hard it can be. Here’s some extra food,” the cashier tells me.

“That was so nice of her. But she doesn’t look like the hiking type,” I tell Sonic what transpired and hand her the extra burger.

“Yeah…oh. Wait. She probably thinks we’re hobos. Which, I mean…we’re both living in tents in the Rockies…so,” she trails off. I shrug. Free food is free food.

Pounds walks in, wearing his rice farmer hat he bought online from China and a shirt with the sides haphazardly cut off with a pocket knife to aid ventilation. Not helping our hobo look, but the friendly staff gives us a marker to help make a sign for hitching back to the trail.

It takes over an hour to get a ride, but finally we’re picked up by some dude in a jeep. He’d done the Appalachian Trail (AT) a couple years ago, and we do trail talk.

Although I love the CDT much more than I thought I would, I feel a little bummed that I don’t have the crazy stories you get from the PCT or AT. On the drive up Pounds and Sonic discuss a guy named Special Game Night Dinner, who killed a protected species of bird with a BB gun on the AT and ate it, and his girlfriend Fire Hugger, who was such a pyromaniac that she kept kindling in her bra. I mention all the self-professed witches I met on the PCT, and the host of other oddities. Like when some hiker rented a u-haul truck, filled the back with 18 fellow thru hikers, and drove to San Francisco for the weekend. They were pulled over by the police and each given a ticket for not wearing a seat belt (apparently hammocks strung up in the back to fit more people does not count in Cali). That didn’t stop them from continuing to San Fran and enjoying a baseball game. Instead, I just have tales of bear encounters, thunderstorms on exposed ridgelines, and getting five inches of snow while in my tent.

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For part of Colorado we join the Colorado Trail, a 486 mile walking path stretching from Denver to Durango that is waaaaaaay better maintained and graded than the regular CDT.

The dude drops us off back at Berthoud Pass, which has a warming hut set to 80 degrees. “It can go higher,” Pounds calls to us as he inspects the temperature gauge. “No!” Sonic and I call out in unified horror. After spending most of our time in temps ranging from 25 to 40F, this is almost too much.

It’s later than we’d anticipated, and we’re averse to heading out on a higher elevation exposed ridgeline in the dark. There’s a NO CAMPING sign behind the warming hut, which almost certainly means good campsites, so we hang out in the warming hut until dark. Then we make camp.

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The bit of the Colorado Trail I’ve done while the CDT joins said trail has been phenomenal. Lots of awesome hostels, great campsites, and an overall well maintained trail.

The wind that night is intense in tents, and I end up sleeping on top of mine after it collapses in a strong gust. This frightens a disoriented Pounds, who in the dark thinks I’m a policeman about to give us a citation for illegal camping. In the morning we hang out in the warming hut, and don’t leave until 8am.

The wind isn’t as strong as before, but is still pretty bad up top. We descend back to the valley, collect some water, and return up.

This time it’s really rough, and Sonic gets thrown against the rocks in the 60mph gusts. I have trouble staying upright at times, but I’d been through bad winds on the PCT and manage to hold my ground and make it back to the valley.

We take refuge behind an abandoned building next to a stream, shell shocked.

“I’m not going another fucking step, this is my home for the night,” Sonic says, and I don’t blame her.

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The Silverthorne Alternate is a lower, shorter route that takes you right through the town of Silverthorne. The official route heads further south near Breckenridge. A couple women who had hiked 86 miles in 36 hours in the Great Basin of Wyoming bailed off, quitting the trail on the high route. So that, coupled with the intense winds and cold, made us decide to take the low route. I’m glad we did.

She meets back up with me in Silverthorne at the Starbucks, where we have our 346th pumpkin spice lattes of the week. We’re in the Breckenridge area, and the posh customers stare at us.

“You’re not helping,” Sonic hisses when I just stare back at one glaring woman. It also doesn’t help when I strip to my waist outside the coffee shop, changing into warmer weather clothes.

Soon I’m off, trying to get over a high elevation section and into Leadville before a snowstorm hits.

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I made it over the (relatively) high section with clear weather before the storm hit. I was quite glad.

On my way out of Silverthorne some guy asks me how far I’m going. “Mexico,” I call out. “You’re going north!” he responds. “Yeah, but I’m southbound,” I reply, not stopping. The trail meanders about, not always in a straight line directly from Canada to Mexico. You go around mountains, follow sinuous ridges, and take scenic detours. There are also a lot of people who just can’t comprehend that the distance between two towns on the highway is not the exact same distance on the trail. Usually I try not to mention what I’m doing (hiking 4.5 months) or where I’m going (Mexico) because I just get the same, stupid questions over and over again spiced up with lots of misguided judgment (you know there are tons of grizzlies here, right? Actually, there aren’t. you can’t get protein from plant products or peanut butter. We must’ve taken different biology classes. there are lots of dangerous people out here. Well, I see a human on average every three days so they certainly aren’t showing themselves to me! If anything, I’m the crazy person who lives in the woods; you must be rich to do this. It doesn’t cost a lot to walk all day and sleep in the woods). I usually prefer to just tell people I’m hiking in the Rockies for a bit this summer, because then I don’t get lectured by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

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I took a bus from Leadville back to Silverthorne, where I hit up the REI and added four extra guylines to my tent to aid in stability during storms. I also got a much more powerful headlamp for night hiking, and a sleeping bag liner that’s added a decent amount of warmth to my 10F down bag. Then I took another bus to Breckenridge, where I relaxed in an amazing hostel and ate tons of ice cream and pho while it snowed outside. It melted very quickly.

 

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Hitching back to the trail from Leadville took about 30 minutes. Every time a beat up car approached I thought come on dude you obviously make bad decisions plz pick me up.

 

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I took a low route, knowing a storm was coming with 4.5 inches of snow forecast at higher altitudes. I woke up at 3am and, dazed in a sleep fugue, instantly thought something is wrong. A second later I realized that the patter of rain had stopped and that my tent’s roof was strangely low. Snow! I spent the rest of the night batting the snow off the sides of my tent until dawn, not wanting it to collapse on me from the weight of all the frozen wasteland awfulness. At dawn I hiked 13.5 miles through the snow to the highway, where a kind elderly couple gave me a ride to the town of Salida. “We’re retired and don’t have anything to do. We’ll take you anywhere!” my saviors, recently having moved here from from Texas, told me.

CDT Colorado: Winds of Winter

Sonic and I get up early after having camped just a few minutes from where our ride out of town dropped us off, and we set off in the dawn light to knock out the 11 miles of highway walking. Other than a few semis barreling down, there isn’t much traffic. And there’s a shoulder to walk on. Highway walks are far from ideal, but this could be worse.

Partway through the morning I call out to what I think is a hiker, sitting down absentmindedly in a field by the highway. Oh wait, just a hobo, I think when he doesn’t respond. Then he looks up.

“Hey, you hiking the CDT?” he calls out. Okay, maybe a hiker. Just semi oblivious to the world around him.

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Clad in all my layers above the treeline. 

Pounds started a few days before me from Canada, and took the insanely snowy highline trail that I’d heard was really dangerous. After a few minutes of questioning about it, I realize he was the hiker I’d heard about so much coming out of Glacier.

“Yeah, after I reported seeing another hiker fail to self arrest on the Ahern Drift the national park service detained me until he was found. But they put me up in a hotel, so I guess it could’ve been worse,” he shrugged. I’d only heard about two hikers making it across the Ahern, a steep bank of snow over a steep pile of rocks, back near the Canadian border.

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In the right conditions, Colorado is pretty awesome. 

Pounds ends up being annoyingly clingy, but it’s pretty easy to get ahead of him.

“I don’t think getting up at 5:30am is good, might have to start hiking at 8am instead,” he mentions.

“You’re more than welcome to do that, but I’m not,” I reply.

Sonic is a lot of fun to hike with, and we end up camping together almost every night. Even if there’s a large campsite, if I’m camping with other CDT hikers we almost always end up erecting our tents with overlapping guylines. We spend so much time alone, pretty common with only 35 others on the trail going southbound spread out over hundreds of miles, that when we find each other it’s like we’re making up for the days of not seeing another human.

Camping with her is a lot of fun, and we stay up late (like 9pm) laughing each night. Our senses of humor seem pretty similar: dark, twisted, and bizarre.

“I’m a level five fire wizard,” we decide to tell people when they give us doom and gloom about the trail. “Snow isn’t really relevant to me with my extensive repertoire of fire spells.” That usually ends conversations pretty quickly.

“Where’d you hear about this trail?” is another common question.

“Prison,” as a response also terminates the discussion when I’m trying to make miles.

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This is me descending on the ridgeline, trying to race a storm to get below the treeline. 

I know the day walkers don’t necessarily have bad intentions, but they’re really irritating after having been out here for a while. They often try to lecture us about hiking and wilderness survival. They’re usually well meaning, but we’re doing three times as many miles a day (28 to 35 a day) and have a much higher tolerance for discomfort compared to them. Usually I try to speed up past day hikers and weekenders, which gets a lot of comments like: “Why are you running uphill?!”

To which I reply, “Winter is coming!”

Sonic and I get separated in the Never Summer Wilderness, an apt name for Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountains National Park. Earlier we’d been talking about how the difficulty of the CDT has been vastly over hyped. This section makes me regret that comment. The trail gods probably heard it and have justly punished me for my insolence.

Rocky Mountains National Park is beautiful, and has an 18 mile loop that can be done as a day hike, but at this point we’re all just rushing to get through Colorado before it’s too late. The signs of winter are everywhere: bright yellow leaves on the aspens, cold nights, and shortening days. Winter is coming, the clock is ticking, and I need to get to New Mexico before it’s too late.

Grand Lake is a cool little town just outside the national park. It’s also right on trail, so no need to hitch. The lodge, on a hill overlooking the town, has dorms for hikers. It’s incredible, probably one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in, and has a large selection of teas in the common area. It’s also accessible by a short nature trail from the Rocky Mountains National Park visitor center, and I get a lot of strange looks for zooming down the easy path with all my camping gear.

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I would definitely not want to be up here in a storm. 

There’s a retreat of some sort in the lodge at the same time as our filthy hiker selves swarm it, and they shoot us puzzled looks as we pore over our topographic maps.

It’s been over a week since I last showered, and even longer for Sonic (“I got soaked in that rainstorm, that’s basically a shower,” she told me). The lodge provides us big, fluffy towels and we snack on a couple dozen fried eggs we cook in the kitchen. Life is good.

Walking on the street I spy a familiar Australian Shephard leashed up outside the public restrooms. Luna, my favorite southbounder! She barks and wags her tail when she sees me, and her owner finds me lavishing attention on her dog when she steps out of the bathroom. Her boyfriend is soon to follow. I haven’t seen them for a while, and I missed hanging out with them. But they’re off to camp on the trail before it gets too dark, though I’m sure I’ll run into them again soon.

That night it rains a lot, but I’m warm and dry in my bunk. Bliss.

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I’d love to come back and appreciate better the nature out here. But in July or August, not the middle of September. 

“There’s a breakfast buffet, they’re super hiker friendly and it’s awesome,” Sonic texts me in the morning. The cafe is the only place open in the morning with a seat available, which Sonic kindly saved for me. The buffet is phenomenal, with a plethora of pastries and hot food, and we both stuff ourselves.

After resupplying at the local grocery store, not the best I’ve encountered on trail, I set off around noon. I’d originally planned on staying until the evening, but I feel good and figure I might as well make some miles.

Grand Lake is a popular area for day hikers, who all ask me where I’m heading.

“Mexico!” I call out while I keep going. They just laugh. Nobody believes me when I say what I’m doing. And they roll their eyes when they ask how long I’m out for, replying that I started two and a half months prior in Canada and expect to have another couple of months to reach my destination. On the PCT everyone had heard of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is almost universally despised by long distance hikers for various reasons, but the CDT has no comparable work. It’s pretty obscure, and few people attempt it.

I night hike for an hour, having done 22.7 miles by 8:30pm. Setting up my tent in a dark parking lot in the middle of nowhere next to a sign that prohibits camping without a permit, I also spy a sign warning about bears in the area. There’s an optimal nearby tree for a bear hang, so I toss rope over a branch and suspend my food 10 feet in the air. By the time I get back to my tent, which was wet from rain prior to Grand Lake, it’s frozen solid. The ice crystals are beautiful, but if it’s this cold at 9pm then I know I’m in for a frigid night.

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Hiking in the morning after having camped below the treeline in a sheltered spot. 

I’m not wrong, and my 10 degree bag is barely enough to keep me comfortable with four layers of clothing. At 4:30am I wake up and pack up, trying to get over the 13,300 foot James Peak before the predicted storm that afternoon.

I later find out it got into the middle teens Fahrenheit that night, but I’m fine with my layers as long as I keep moving. There’s a confusing stream crossing with a broken bridge that takes me 15 minutes to figure out in the dark, but after that I’m cruising down the trail.

“You miss so much night hiking!” I hear constantly from non-thru hikers. But if they could see the way the dawn light illuminates the ice crystals on the grassy meadows, and hear the coyotes surprisingly close howling as a pack, I’m not sure they’d say that. Dawn is my favorite time on trail.

By 8am I’ve caught up with Baby, Dingo, and my favorite trail dog. Baby had sent me a panicked series of messages previously about single digit highs at James Peak, not having realized it was in Celsius.

It’s not super cold on the way up to James Peak, but non-flowing water is all frozen and doesn’t seem to be melting.

The wind is blowing hard at 12,500 feet, and we’ve still got almost 1000 feet to climb. Baby is concerned about Luna, who seems to be feeling unwell, but I literally run across the rocky terrain to charge up James Peak. It’s beautiful but cold, and I immediately scamper down into the valley to find a sheltered campsite.

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Autumn is here, and winter is coming. 

It’s already pretty cold when I get to the bottom of the valley. Although it’s early, I just camp at the bottom in one of many campsites hidden in a grove of trees. After dark I see a red flashlight shining through the forest.

“Sonic!” I call out. She comes over and camps nearby.

“What are we doing out here?” she asks. “This is so insane.” We’d just got confirmation when we had cell service on the ridge that a low pressure system was bringing cold and snow soon.

“Beans and her group did 86 miles in 36 hours, and they bailed off Gray’s Peak,” she mentions. There’s a pause while we think that over.

“I’ve been thinking of dropping low and taking the Silverthorne cutoff instead of that route,” I add slowly. I feel like I should enjoy the high routes in Colorado while I have the chance, but I also don’t want to be cold and miserable.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same,” she replies. And with that it’s settled. We’re not going to tempt the fates in Colorado. It’s hard enough in late September as is.

CDT Colorado: A Hike of Ice and Fire

The 30 mile water carry turns into 35 miles because I misread the pretty vague instructions on the maps. But it’s fine, and my five liters get me through it.

Sonic catches up with me, and we take shelter from the heat under the first tree we’ve seen in almost a week. The road walk is kind of boring, but it’s flat, easy walking. I know Colorado will be neither of those, and that soon enough I’ll be wishing for heat, so I try to enjoy it while I can.

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The general route of the CDT in Wyoming.

Getting to the first water source in a day or so is a glorious experience, especially when it’s cold and not infested by cow shit. I filter and immediately chug a liter, with the sun setting and the mountains of Colorado visible to the south.

Tomorrow we’ll climb up, up, and up out of the basin back into the peaks. But tonight we camp at the end of the road walk, as a surprising number of cars zoom past us on the gravel road. We’re in the middle of nowhere, why are there so many cars?!

We agree to set our alarms for 5:30am, concerned by how early it gets dark now, rather than wait for the sun to wake us. The desert is frigid in the pre dawn, and although my headlamp isn’t very powerful the sun starts to rise shortly after we set off on the sinuous, ever-rising route to Colorado.

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We’ll do something like this route through Colorado. The weather may force me to lower trails and cutoffs to avoid inclement weather and snow.

We follow dirt roads up to a ridgeline, and I pull my phone out to check when we start the “super difficult” climb I’d heard so much about. Turns out we already did it… This trail can be tough in spots, and late season in Colorado can be rough, but so far the difficulty of the CDT is way over hyped.

It takes around 90 minutes to get a ride into Encampment, the last town stop in Wyoming, on a mountain highway with very little traffic.

When I connect to wifi I get messages from Baby, saying the fire closure is now 25 miles. She’s been on the phone with the forest service, and they have a 35 mile road walk to detour the closure but advise walking it ASAP. It should be good for a few days, but they expect the fire to only grow.

Got us a ride back to the trail, meet me at the bar. Sonic messages me. I’ve already paid the $10 to camp at the RV park, but it’s a hard hitch out and I want to get back to the trail ASAP.

“You kids like to smoke dope?!” the older woman asks excitedly when we get closer to the trailhead, after we’d told her stories about our trans-America hike thus far. She and her husband are super nice, but we don’t think it’d be a good idea to night hike drunk and stoned into a wildfire area during hunting season. So we politely decline.

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Colorado at last! Because of the fire detour I couldn’t enter my fourth state of the hike via the trail, but it was still exhilarating seeing the sign. There were lots of hunters in the area, as well as forest service cars, so I felt pretty safe.

“I’m pretty sure she’s the same one who gave us a ride back to the trail from Encampment,” another hiker later told me. “She told us ‘stop being such a pussy and take a hit’ when we told her we didn’t want any.”

My first night in Colorado I was unable to find a suitable campsite by dark. I started going into a bit of a mental downspiral, having to jump off the road whenever a car came by.

What am I doing out here? This is so stupid. What if there’s snow on the ground and I can’t keep hiking? What if I wake up to multiple feet of snow? What if I get hypothermia in the San Juans? What if I need cold weather gear but I can’t get it? 

I realize all these thoughts are counter productive, but Colorado is going to be really tough. The weather can change in an instant, and is notoriously unpredictable. Late September in southern Colorado is a dicey prospect, but there are ways to deal with it. Low routes and cutoffs proliferate the worst of it all: the San Juans. There’s not much I can do other than hike on, pay attention to the weather reports, take low routes when appropriate, and try to enjoy it as much as possible. The latter is easier said than done, and I feel like I have a deadline hanging over me. But the worst part is I have no idea what that deadline is!

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The road walk around the fire wasn’t that bad. Lots of water, and most importantly there was a cafe along it! “Time for brunch!” Sonic called to me from the restaurant.

I catch up with Sonic and, as per usual, she’s having the exact same thoughts as me. “The San Juans are usually good through early October. Sobos have made it for years on similar timelines, we’ll just have to play it by ear,” she mumbles while eating her massive, hot breakfast at the café.

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Sonic in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, a few miles after the end of the fire detour road walk. We took a scenic alternate and it was well worth it.

Hitching into our first Colorado town was easy, about 13 minutes for Sonic and I to get a ride at 8am. I pet the driver’s dog while we descended into Steamboat Springs, and I only wish the other Coloradans were as friendly as him. Our first stop, after the post office to pick up some new shoes and Colorado maps, was McDonald’s to get pumpkin spice lattes and eat a massive breakfast.

“Disgusting,” some woman muttered.

“At least we’re not eating at McDonald’s without walking 30 miles a day,” Sonic growled.

“Colorado is beautiful and I hate everyone in it,” I decided after we kept getting looks of disgust around town. I’ve never felt like hikertrash as much as I have in Colorado, being constantly judged by all the pretentious jerks from Denver.

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Desperate hitches call for desperate measures! Pounds is another sobo from Los Angeles. I took a turn holding this sign while hitching out of a later town, Winter Park, and couldn’t help wondering what my crazy orthodox Jewish grandfather would’ve thought.

We leave in the afternoon, and it takes almost 90 minutes and two hitches to get a ride back to the trail. The guy who picks us up doesn’t really believe us when we explain we’re walking 2800 miles from Canada to Mexico. This seems a pretty common reaction. The CDT is fairly obscure, and there are probably only around 140 thru hikers this year. Compared to 2-3k each on the PCT and AT.

There are menacing black clouds of death on the horizon when we start the 11 mile highway walk in the direction of Grand Lake, our next resupply stop. We hurriedly set up our tents in an unofficial camping just off the road, but the storm passes along without a drop of rain. The weather in Colorado is so bizarre.

Rather than thunder, we’re kept up by the angry squeals of a squirrel. We seem to have set up camp in his territory. “Wish I’d brought my bb gun,” is the last thing I hear from Sonic as I fall asleep.

My apprehension about the difficulty of late season Colorado is replaced by excitement. It could be a lot worse, and so far things seem to be going well!

CDT: Great Basin

Descending down into Wyoming’s Great Basin, you get a feel for the contours of the land. It’s a giant bowl of desert ringed by mountains and makes for easy, flat walking.

The basin has no protection from storms, but what it lacks in shelter it makes up for in hordes of cows. There are also herds of wild horses roaming the landscape. Although I complain about it a lot, and it was rough in the middle of the day, it was overall a pretty neat section of trail. 

The trees disappear and are replaced by cows. Not a trade I’d generally prefer, but after constantly having wet and freezing feet for the past two weeks I’m willing to make a few concessions.

I cross Highway 287, where you can hitch into the town of Lander, and keep going an hour and a half to South Pass City. South Pass is a Wyoming state park, and consists of a few old restored 19th century buildings. In lieu of hitching into Lander hikers can send a box of food to South Pass, which is what I did. Another hiker was camped out in the grass next to the restrooms, which the historic site keeps open at all hours for hikers.

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Not a lot of people live in the basin. But this tiny town was pretty cool and super hiker friendly. Wyoming is awesome. 

Judge Judy (not his real trail name, but I’ve renamed him without his consent for being such a judgmental old man and it’s stuck) is harassing the woman running the place, and I push my way through this insanity to send my father a postcard. Then I bolt, because there’s no restaurant here and I want to get dinner in Atlantic City before the region’s sole restaurant closes.

Like the rest of the basin, the 4.5 mile walk to Atlantic City is flat, dry, and on deserted dirt roads. I sit at the bar with a bunch of locals in cowboy hats and inhale a massive burger and peach cobbler. It’s the kind of place where the bartender calls any youth under 65 “honey” and seems to spend much of her time chatting.

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The basin is pretty much like this for a week. 

I walk half a mile outside of town and camp by the road. I’d done 20 miles by 2pm, plus another 4.5 to the restaurant, but I’m not sore at all. I feel strong, but not as strong as the wind that hammers my tent all night and makes sleep neigh impossible.

The Atlantic City episcopalian reverend lets me spend the night on the couch in the community center, which is my first time sleeping off the floor in about seven weeks. I hadn’t taken a day off for five weeks, so it’s probably time to do so. There’s a kitchen and lots of supplies, and I cook dinner before falling asleep at 8pm. Bliss.

The basin is cool for the first couple of days, but then it gets ungodly hot in the day and makes me hate everything. I don’t see another human for 47 hours, and I can see why. It’s a dust bowl in the middle of nowhere, with cows and some of the most disgusting cow-defiled water sources imaginable.

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I scared away the cows at this spring and sat in a wooden enclosure while the midday heat fried what little remains of my sanity. Then the cows came back and started mooing at me. Whenever cows annoy me I just dream of getting a burger. 

Hikers do all kinds of crazy things in this section, like 62 miles in 24 hours, but the midday heat fries my mind and I do only 25 to 30 miles a day. I try night hiking but the howls of coyotes all around me are a little disconcerting, so I just follow my usual dawn to dusk walking schedule.

The night before arriving at Rawlins, 120 miles from the last highway, a strong wind makes me collapse my tent and sleep on top of it.

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No highway sign can tell me what to do!  A police car briefly turned on his siren when he passed me but didn’t do anything, so I kept going. Oftentimes the police in these tiny towns are older guys who are very hiker friendly, and getting a ride into town from the sheriff is not unheard of while hitching. 

In the morning I walk in the dawn light along the highway into Rawlins, and upon learning it’s an 8 mile round trip walk to the laundromat and campground just book a room. I spend about 23 hours in the Days Inn which has a hiker discount of $20 off.

The other hikers and I don’t really leave the hotel other than to get food. It’s amazing to have a room to myself and go down to pet Luna when I get the urge.

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My favorite southbounder! She’s already done the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. I’ve been meeting so many awesome trail dogs, and I’m actually starting to like dogs. 

Sonic, who I met at REI in Columbus, has caught up with me. We hang out in the McDonald’s drinking pumpkin spice lattes and putting off leaving town. I’ve only met around 11 other southbounders since Canada, so meeting a new one is a pretty big deal. It turns out we went to Ohio State at the same time, and probably passed each other on campus walking to class. Small world. Or maybe not, considering there are almost 50k undergrads there.

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Thankfully I’ve downloaded audiobooks from the Columbus Public Library to my phone to keep me occupied in the basin. Right now I’m listening to Endurance, about the Shackleton antarctic expedition. It’s not really visible, but a herd of wild horses are running across the road. 

It’s 35 miles to the next water source (at the time I think it’s 30 miles, but soon learn the error of my ways). That’s pretty long, so I stock up on 5 liters and head out. I’d originally wanted to go all the way to Steamboat Springs in Colorado, which is about 150 miles away, but carrying five days of food plus all that water seemed masochistic. So I’ll stop in Encampment. There’s a small fire closure, so I’ll need to go into town to check on trail conditions anyways.

Eclipse in the Winds

“It’s so cold!” Murphy calls with a laugh from her tent. I’m usually the first one to wake up and start hiking, but they’ll catch up with me pretty quickly.

Last night we’d crossed the Buffalo River to get to an amazing and spacious campsite. I’d left my socks to dry from the easy crossing on top of my tent.

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Will it storm? Who knows. I sure don’t.

“My socks are frozen solid!” I call out, also laughing from how cold it is. Somebody with a thermometer later told me it was 24F/-4C that morning. Going through my pack I realize I’d left one of my liner socks on the other side of the river.

“Totally not worth it,” Murphy agrees when I say I really don’t want to cross the river there and back again to get it. Yay for my father’s Amazon Prime subscription! I’ll just have new socks mailed further down the trail.

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Sometimes you just have to scramble on the trail.

We set off in the Teton Wilderness in the early dawn light, taking off layers as I climb and warm up from the movement. Getting up is always so hard when it’s cold and my 10F/-12C sleeping bag is so toasty, but within a few minutes of walking I’m usually fine. It’s just difficult to get to that point!

There’s only 15 miles/25 km from our campsite to the highway, where we’ll hitch into Dubois, but there’s no rush. There’s no way we’re doing the 37 mile hitch to Dubois before or during the eclipse.

 

I got some eclipse glasses in Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park. Didn’t want to start off Wyoming by going blind.

 

There’s a bit of dirt road walking towards the highway before cutting across a field with a barely discernable trail, which abruptly drops me off at US 26. There’s a lot of traffic in both directions and although the cars are going pretty fast, I get picked up by the second car.

 

Shortly before totality. The stars came out, the birds stopped chirping, and for two minutes it was totally dark. To the north and south we could see light on the horizon. I later heard it dropped 17F/8C degrees during the eclipse.

A Parisian and his boyfriend on a cross-America road trip drop me off in Dubois, and I immediately head to the Episcopalian church to reserve a spot…just to find out that at 3pm I’m the first one of the day. They let hikers and bikers sleep on the floor, which is nice considering the Super 8 Motel is $1000 a night, two night minimum, due to the eclipse.

Dubois has about 1800 people in the summer, and it’s not as packed as I thought it would be post-eclipse. Some woman at the Cowboy Cafe thinks I’m an employee, which sends some northbounders into a fit.

 

They had tea and popcorn at the Dubois church! I was so in heaven.

 

“Your shorts cut off mid-thigh, your beard is insane, and there are streaks of dirt all over your face. Of course you’re a waiter here,” a hiker says once the woman has disappeared.

The church is awesome, and Dubois has everything a hiker would need. Some coffee shops are an excellent bonus, and the laundromat has pay showers inside. I ask a cyclist from the church if he wants to split a washing machine since we both have so few clothes, and he looks at me as if I’d asked if he wanted to shower together. The cyclists are weird, and come across like princesses compared to the hikers. Motown, who remembers me from the PCT in Kennedy Meadows (I honestly have no recollection of her), asks if I want to split a dryer with her and her boyfriend.

Hitching inside the city limits of Dubois is illegal, but the point is rendered moot when some weird guy in his 80s asks if I want a ride back up to Togwotee Pass. He keeps offering to take me to random other places along the trail to cut off a day or so, and I have to tell him four times to just drop me off where he said he would. Like I would accept a ride from a stranger onto a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

I give him $10 for gas (it’s a long drive) and wait until he’s gone before I set off so he doesn’t know which direction I’m going. Never tell strangers the exact route you’re taking, and never tell them where you’re spending the night.

 

The Winds are pretty spectacular.

 

There’s a 17 mile detour to Elkhart Trailhead, where you can hitch 15 miles into Pinedale. Everyone loves Pinedale, I’m fairly fast, and there’s no way in hell I’m doing a 180 mile stretch after all the northbounders shared their stories of running out of food.

 

I saw nobody for hours along this route.

 

Getting a ride into Pinedale is easy. There’s very little traffic at 9am, but the second car stops and a trio of South Dakotans make room for me. The Episcopalian church in Pinedale lets hikers sleep on the floor and use the kitchen, and there are three other hikers already there when I arrive.

 

Another shot of the Winds in the Bridger Wilderness.

 

One is a northbounder, which is strange because there’s no way he can reach Canada before winter. As a southbounder I have to reach New Mexico before the snow starts, but I have many fewer miles and a good deal more time than somebody trying to reach the Great White North. So it’s no surprise when he’s cagey about what he’s actually hiked, and I get the impression he’s just taking advantage of the hospitality of the church. The other two southbounders I haven’t seen before, but they started 12 days before me and took a different route. They also seem to be taking multiple days off in town, which is quite atypical with the tight weather window on a CDT hike. There’s just something off about the others, and it’s further compounded when they stay up late watching TV. I’ve never seen thru hikers be able to stay up past 9pm, also known as hiker midnight. I go upstairs, find a quiet corner, and try to sleep.

 

Around the end of the more spectacular parts of the range.

 

I can’t hear the television, but I still can’t sleep. Having trouble sleeping in towns was a common problem I remember in myself and others on the PCT. It’s just hard to sleep without the cold breeze, and my one night each in Dubois and Pinedale are the first times in over 6 weeks I’ve slept inside. It’s definitely an adjustment.

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Near the northern boundary of the Bridger Wilderness at the Green River Lakes Trailhead.

I make a “CDT HIKER TO ELKHART” sign and stand by the side of the road with my thumb out. Within two minutes I’m in the car of a local, not much older than me, who’s on her way to do some hiking. It’s a Sunday morning in August, and it seems like everyone else in the northern Rockies is of a similar mindset.

“Little late for a southbounder, aren’t you?” is a familiar refrain that I hear fairly frequently from old white dudes who apparently have nothing better to do than strongly suggest I’m going to die in the snow in Colorado. This is part of why I avoid humans on trail.

“The others all came through a month ago,” I hear from one hiker. “September is a terrible month to hike in Colorado. The snow was nearly vertical when I was there in July, I normally do 25-30 miles a day and could barely manage 11! Plus, you know what happened to Otter when he went through late season.”

Here’s my response to this bullshit:

  1. Not even Anish, who holds the fastest unsupported records for most of America’s long distance trails, had been through here a month ago. I pay great attention to where everyone is, and I’m in the middle of the pack of southbounders that aren’t yellow blazing (a reference to following the yellow blazes on the road by hitching, rather than the blazes on the trail).
  2. In a typical year, September is the best month for hiking in Colorado. The monsoon season is over, but the snow and cold hasn’t started yet. October starts to get iffy, but I should be in New Mexico by that time.
  3. Doing 11 miles a day in Colorado in July is a little ridiculous, considering the snow has largely melted by then.
  4. If it takes you four months to reach the halfway point and it takes me two months, then we’re going at very different speeds. Your times are not likely indicative of what mine will be.
  5. It’s true that a hiker with the trail name Otter doing a section of the CDT died in southern Colorado, with his body being found by a northbounder the following season. But he was hiking in November, two months after I’ll be in Colorado.
  6. If winter comes early this year, there are lower routes I can take.
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It normally rained lightly in the afternoon.

One guy near a trailhead (I try to just hike fast through these, I hate everyone) asks me where I’m from. “You Ohioans are always coming out here and don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into-” I ignore him and just pet his dog as he goes into the “aren’t you a little late for a southbounder?” tirade. I like his dog but not him, and cut him off to brusquely tell him bye halfway through. Who the hell says that? No wonder your wife left you last year (I’m also not sure how that was relevant to the conversation or how it came up). And how many Ohioans can be coming out here in the middle of nowhere in the least populated state in the country?

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My maps said the detour to Pinedale wasn’t very scenic, but I have to disagree.

Although the Winds were visually stunning, I was glad to get out and enter the rolling, dry desert prairie of the Great Basin. Maybe I’m becoming too much of a misanthrope, but on the PCT I got to the point where I just avoided anyone who wasn’t a thru hiker. And I think that’s happening again on the CDT.

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The start of the Bridger Wilderness is at the lakes.

Yellowstone

When I finish the cross country bushwack, still soaked from the storm, I emerge onto a gravel road that descends somewhat steeply to the east. The rain has thankfully stopped and there’s enough sunlight for me to walk another 80 minutes, setting up camp just off the road.

August 14th – 7.5 miles

It rains hard most of the night. Usually I try to be on the trail by 6:30am, just as the sun lights up the mountains, but today I wait until 8am to take down camp. The rain just doesn’t stop until then, and being just a couple hours’ walk from Sawtelle Resort I don’t really see the need to put myself through a cold, torrential downpour.

Yesterday evening I could see all the way down the valley where I’m headed, but this morning everything is shrouded in a low-hanging, pervasive white mist. The sun isn’t visible, but I just plug in my headphones to my phone and listen to some music to help pass the road walk. I think most hikers hitch the road walks on the CDT, and hike your own hike, but I want continuous footsteps all the way from Canada to Mexico.

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Road walks aren’t that bad on the CDT. 

I’m surprised that my commitment to continuous footsteps hasn’t faltered out here, especially as the rain comes back. It’s pelting hard against my raincoat as my numb, wet hands cling to my trekking poles.

It feels like an eternity before I get to Sawtelle Resort, which is just a hotel, campground, small grocery store, and a few restaurants on the side of a busy Idaho highway. If this weren’t a short walk to town kind of day, I don’t know if I could’ve motivated myself to hike through that hell.

Subway is the only thing open at 10am. Dropping my pack off in the shelter of the covered awning in front of the restaurant, I plug my portable battery into the wall and survey the breakfast menu. It seems kind of weird to get a sub for breakfast, but I order a massive beef-egg-pepperjack cheese-lettuce-spinach-tomato-mayonnaise-chipotle sandwich. My hands are still so numb that I have trouble getting my credit card out of my card-money-charger bag, but the cashier is patient. Which might be because I’m dripping wet and the only person there.

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I’m walking through Yellowstone. 

In the bathroom I run my hands under warm water until I can mostly bend my fingers again. It’s hard not to marvel at what a luxury it is to have hot water on command! And electric lights! I take a few moments to put my face under the hand dryer, basking in the warmth. I’m getting so feral out here.

I’ve heard that some of the most intense feelings of happiness and contentment come from deprivation, and as I get the mayonnaise and chipotle sauce all over my ridiculously thick hiker beard I feel that I can vouch for its veracity.

While I eat, I read this amazing fundamentalist Bible tract in Subway called Flight 144. An elderly couple sit next to a murderer on the plane. The plane crashes and everyone dies. The couple spent 50 years helping people in Africa but didn’t try to convert anyone, so they burn in hell. The murderer converted his cellmate to Jesus so he goes to heaven. Beautiful.

I buy food for the next stretch, just 36 miles to Old Faithful, and set off. Mack’s Inn is just a couple miles down the road, and thankfully there’s a dirt road paralleling the highway so I don’t have to deal with walking next to cars.

It looks like it’s going to storm again that evening, so rather than hike on and stealth camp in the woods I opt to stay at the forest service campground. $15 seems pricey for one night of camping, but it’s better than the $42 at the RV park across the street.

August 15th – 26 miles

The storm didn’t materialize, for which I am quite thankful, and I pack up camp to get breakfast and coffee at the gas station before heading out. I take my time eating my microwave breakfast burrito and drinking my machine French vanilla cappuccino, while I purchase on my kindle a new book by one of my favorite authors. Most of my hiking breaks are spent reading, if I have time after filtering water.

The sky is clear and it’s an easy walk along empty dirt roads toward Yellowstone and the Wyoming border. It soon gets hot. The temperature swings from night to day are often around 40F, and I’m definitely feeling it. Each morning I don’t want to get out of my warm sleeping bag into the 25F cold, but once I get walking I usually start stripping off layers within an hour.

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At last! The border is actually crossed just inside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. 

There are these annoying mounds of dirt with pits hidden behind them in parts of the dirt road, which I’ve heard were put there because the forest service wanted to close the road. But I’m not sure why they were necessary for over a quarter mile, one after the other every 10 meters. They’re easy to walk around, though, and soon enough I’m filtering water at a spring hidden off trail.

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“An arrow points the way to the spring, which is not visible from the trail,” my maps say. 

I just need enough to last me…15 miles?! I must’ve miscalculated the distance last night while looking at my maps. I definitely thought it was shorter to Summit Lake, my assigned campsite for the night in Yellowstone. No breaks in my 26 miles today!

Storm clouds are threatening in the distance, and within a couple hours it starts to rain. Not heavily, but enough that it’s kind of annoying and I don’t want to stop and talk to the northbounders I meet. Plus, night is fast approaching. I know there’s no invisible bear barrier I’m breaching upon crossing into Yellowstone, but my bearanoia goes up all the same. I rush to Summit Lake, trying to outrun night and the dark clouds to my west.

I make it just before sunset whereupon I set up my tent next to the three others already there and asleep, hang my bear bag, and crawl into my sleeping bag.

August 16 – 14.5 miles

There are creatures outside my tent! I think as I grab my bear spray, heart going a thousand beats a minute. Then I remember I’m camping with strangers in Yellowstone and relax. It’s 5am, the sun still an hour away. Early even for hikers. Weirdos, I think, and fall back asleep.

I next awake to a panic from the smell of smoke. These kind souls, section hikers that I probably woke up last night with my arrival, have made a fire! I take down my wet tent in stages, stopping periodically to warm my hands next to the fire.

“Jesus, do you not breathe at night?” a northbounder asks me as she comes out from around the bush, brushing her teeth. “How the hell do you keep your tent free of condensation?”

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Welcome to Yellowstone. 

The humans are onto me! Most thru hiker conversations are about something like gear, weather, route options, and resupply strategies.

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On the way to Old Faithful. Literally nobody was here because it’s more than a 30 second walk from the road. 

It’s an easy ten miles to Old Filthy, which is just as chaotic and overwhelming as I remember from my four summers working in the park. While looking for a spot to cross a stream without getting my feet wet I fall into a mud pit, and just walk through to the other side. Screw the log bridge.

It’s weird walking amongst the clean tourists, who avert their gaze and pretend I don’t exist. Did I ever really look that clean?

My first port of call is the Old Faithful Post Office. I’m reading the CDT hiker notices, which definitely weren’t there when I worked in Yellowstone. The trail seems to be gaining in popularity, as much as a 3000 mile five month trek through remote backcountry grizzly bear areas can be popular.

Then Murphy and Movin’ On appear! We have a happy reunion, not having seen each other since Helena. By coincidence we’re all sharing a campsite tonight an hour and a half walk south of OF.

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I have no idea why this ice cream was so massive. But I’m not complaining. 

The OF backcountry office prints off our permits, which they’d emailed to us a week prior, and let us drop off our packs while we eat massive amounts of ice cream and watch Old Faithful go off numerous times.

There’s another CDT hiker, 5 Cup, and his Swedish friend visiting him. She’s surprised to find that I’ve hiked the Kungsleden trail in Arctic Sweden, and I’m surprised to find an amazing campfire that she’s kept running all afternoon. The five of us stay up until dark talking around the fire, and it’s a wonderful moment.

August 17 – 19.7 miles

Murphy and Movin’ On have backcountry permit issues, having been assigned a campsite that’s much farther than they were told. Not wanting to night hike in a part of the park notorious for grizzlies, they join me on my trek to the South Entrance Road and a hitch to Grant Village.

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Murphy fell into a mud pit, and luckily we eventually got her trekking pole out of it. 

Most hikers skip Grant because it’s only a day more to Old Faithful, which doesn’t need a hitch, but I’ve spent four of the best summers of my life there and want to go back for the first time in four years. Just to walk around and see it one more time.

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Crossing a stream. 

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The Shoshone Geyser Basin is really cool, and fairly far from the road. 

We barely stick out our thumbs before we have a ride to Grant, from a Chinese couple and their young son on a road trip through the American west. They’re a bit shocked when I chat with them in mandarin, and also when Movin’ On mentions her daughter married a Chinese man and lives in China with her granddaughter.

“Are you serious? That’s my family’s hometown!” weird coincidence, not the biggest town.

I thought it would be weird being back, but it’s not. The weird part is walking around and the employees not recognizing me, and not seeing familiar faces. But I’m hanging out and hiking in the park with friends, which is the whole spirit of my four summers here. So it feels right.

The Grant campground has spots reserved for CDT hikers, and they charge the three of us just $13.20 in total for an entire group campsite to ourselves. It’s nice, and we fall asleep after chatting.

August 18 – 12.5 miles

When the backcountry permit office opens, the three of us go to get the campsite assignments worked out.

“The campsite is almost full, but we can squeeze you into Connor’s,” one of the rangers says. After chatting I realize they’re the same ones as from when I worked here, which makes sense considering they say they’ve been doing this job together for 28 years. The way they bicker they must be married, and we surreptitiously notice they have the same surname on their name tags.

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Hitching out of Grant. 

Our hitch back to the trail is almost as easy as the first, and since it’s a short day (other campsites we wanted weren’t available), we take it easy.

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Back in front of the Grant Village Restaurant. The employee dining room, where I ate 12 months of meals, is next door. 

The “full” campsite has just us, and with all the grizzly markings on the trees everywhere, the two grizzlies we see near Heart Lake, and the news that nearby campsites are closed from nocturnal grizzly visits we set up our tents clustered together. It just feels safer that way.

August 19 – 23 miles

It’s 35F in the morning when we have to cross multiple streams, our feet cold and wet. It’s almost painful how cold it is with wet feet, but eventually it gets better.

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A dry crossing on a log. 

We see a few northbounders and eventually leave the park, entering the Teton Wilderness (not Grand Tetons National Park).

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Looks a lot like the Bob. 

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Looking back at Heart Lake in Yellowstone. 

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Hanging my bear bag for the night. 

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Our three tents at Two Ocean Pass. 

On our way up to Two Ocean Pass we see more bear scat in an hour than we would in a day in the Bob. It’s a little disconcerting, and I rush to catch up with them. We mutually decide to camp high on the pass, and definitely think it’s a good idea when we see other tents. Not alone tonight!

August 20 – 26.5 miles

It’s a beautiful, easy walk alongside streams to the Buffalo River. We cross the frigid water and set up camp.

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Just trucking along. 

Although the campsite is large, we set up in a tight formation and talk until we fall asleep. Tomorrow is the eclipse!

Leadore to Mack’s Inn

Ten miles from Bannock Pass, where Sam from the Leadore Inn will take me into town at 10:30 tomorrow morning, I stop to camp with a northbounder. I’ve only seen a few so far, and I’ve seen even fewer southbounders apart, so I camp with him. Big mistake.

“Women are just naturally weak. You know what I mean?” That doesn’t even merit a response, especially considering that women have a higher completion rate of long-distance trails than men. I’m cowboy camping under the stars, hoping to get up before dawn and hike fast to get to the pass on time.

Lots of fence hopping, but there are usually these useful ladders. I was trying to flee a storm in the distance, the usual afternoon Rocky Mountains summer activity. 

“I understand the meaning of the words you’re saying,” I respond.

“Have you ever packed up after setting up camp, just to go farther? Seems like it’d be a lot of work.” He adds. No, but I’m seriously considering it now! The campsite is slanted and uneven, and the company is less than stellar. But I’m tired and slink into my sleeping bag with my headnet on, hoping the mosquitoes will go away when it gets cold.

They kind of do, but I have trouble sleeping. Before long my alarm goes off, and I shove all my things into my pack and head off downhill towards the pass. I don’t see anyone except tons of cows, typical on the CDT. Get out of my way, cows! Sometimes I think the CDT stands for Cow Dung Trail.

I arrive at the pass an hour early, having done 10 miles by 9:20am. Not bad. Sam shows up in his pickup just on time, and takes me to town.

It was kind of hard getting a photo of Leadore, but here it is. Population 100.

“Leadore used to have 104 people, like the sign says, but this winter some died. So it’s really 100 now,” he mentions as he shows me a 19th century Prince Edward Island coin he found in the area, with what I realize must be Queen Victoria on the front.

Sam seems to understand that I need to get something to eat before I can figure out where I’m staying. Life in Leadore seems pretty slow paced. It’s not much more than a collection of buildings on a lonely stretch of Idaho highway, but it’s charming in its own dusty, remote way.

“You can sit with us,” a couple guys in their 60s say after I ask the dual waitress-cook where I should plant myself in the crowded (and only) diner.

I’m getting used to the incredulous looks I get when I casually mention I’m taking five months to hike the continental divide from Canada to Mexico. They seem to get it, and mention they think it would’ve been fun to do that in their 20s.

“I’m telling you, you don’t wanna piss me off!” shouts the waitress, who is a 20 year older version of Pennsyltucky from Orange is the New Black. “I piss on the graves of my enemies. And I once bought the house of a woman who I hated just so I could evict her.”

I just wanted to pay. I eventually do, and take a shower in the RV park Sam owns in addition to the Inn. He lets me set up my tent in his yard, and I hang out on his porch while the locals come and chat the night away. They’re all into hunting, and know the mountains well. Not that we can see them now, with the smoke blocking it all out.

Sam from the Leadore Inn drives hikers to and from the trail, if you call him a day or so before you get to the pass (no cell service on the trail where it crosses the dirt road to Leadore). He also accepts packages for hikers, lets you camp in his lawn, use his wifi, and provides laundry and a shower. 

I meet a cool northbounder whose name I instantly forget. He’s worried about the fire closure I just came out of, but I can’t give him much help.

Sam gives me a ride back to the trail the next morning, and I follow a dirt road up and up and up. It’s so dry, and although it’d be annoying I wish for some rain. That’s better than getting blocked off by fire closures. I bushwack to a spring a five minutes off the trail, and push onward to an uneven semi-sheltered campsite in the few trees on the exposed divide.

The divide is beautiful, but absolutely terrifying during thunderstorms. 

The walk to Lima, 100 miles and four days, is pretty. I see no other hikers apart from a few northbound section hikers. Most of them are finishing up the trail after having gotten off last summer, opting to instead do the CDT over a more leisurely two seasons. I can totally see why. It’s kind of a crazy rush to Canada or Mt. Taylor in northern New Mexico before the first winter storms, much moreso than on the PCT and AT.

Should probably find a campsite soon, but it can be hard to find a sheltered spot. 

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I took this panorama during a particularly powerful storm. I ran back into a couple of retired section hikers here who reminded me that I’d got my wish for rain! I just kept walking, and after an hour or so it died down. 

A northbound thru hiker tells me he’d picked up the water filter of two other southbounders, Sunshine and Killer, and was hoping I could give it to them in Lima, the next town stop.

“Uh, the math definitely doesn’t work out for me catching them, but maybe I can mail it to them?” I try to be helpful, but he’s not the brightest guy I’ve met and didn’t seem to realize that because he saw the couple 24 hours ago doesn’t necessarily mean they’re 24 hours ahead of me…I mean, it’s possible. But I highly doubt they stood in one place for 24 hours on trail. And if he walked for a day north and they walked south a day, that’s two days from our current point. I try to explain this and quickly realize from his glazed look that it’s not gonna work. Sometimes it’s better just to smile and nod.

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I met Endless on the PCT. He’s really nice, and has one of the thickest Massachusetts accents I’ve ever heard. We ran into each other during stormageddon, when we got caught on an 8 mile stretch of trail on an exposed ridgeline during a thunderstorm. Not fun. I tried to bail off the divide and cut cross country to the interstate, but the brush was too heavy and I figured it was best to just stay on trail. 

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Walking on a side road paralleling the interstate. Mike from the Mountain View Motel will pick you up from the interstate and drive you to Lima, MT. It’s basically just a rest stop with a gas station, Mike’s motel and RV park, and a greasy spoon known as Jan’s Cafe. 

Lima is a bit overwhelming with hordes of northbounders. This is the most hikers I’ve seen in a trail town on the CDT. This must be the “bubble,” the most concentrated mass of thru hikers. But there are only 15 or so in town at a time, with Mike doing a shuttle to and from the trail multiple times a day.

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Medicare Pastor, at 76 years old, is 180 miles from finishing her 15 year section hikes of the triple crown trails and being the oldest to do so. She said she needed something to do in her retirement, and I’ve met dozens of other retirees who’ve said the same thing. 

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I ordered new shoes sent to Lima from Amazon. I generally get about 700 miles out of my Altra Lone Peak 3s, the most popular shoes in the long-distance hiking community. 

I camp with Dingo, a guy I met in Glacier and have seen off and on since then, and Baby. Baby is hiking with her Australian Shephard named Luna, who has already done the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.

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Dingo (L) , Baby (R), and Baby’s dog Luna. 

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Luna has her own pack, and a raincoat. She doesn’t like either very much. 

I send Sunshine and Killer their water filter, making it to the post office at Old Faithful in Yellowstone. I’ve never met either, but I’ve heard Killer is such a nice, sweet Canadian that a bunch of guys on the PCT thought it’d be funny to name her Killer.

The only other two southbounders (three if you include Luna) and I hop on the 2pm shuttle to the trail, after calling the Yellowstone backcountry office and arranging for camping permits. You can camp pretty much anywhere on trail, except in Glacier, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountains National Parks.

We don’t beat the afternoon thunderstorm, and end up huddled together for an hour with a strip of tyvek under a tree rather than walk in a thunderstorm on an exposed ridgeline (again). Luna runs between us, herding us and making sure we’re all sticking together. We camp together that night after 12 miles in a sheltered, warm expanse of forest with lots of campsites.

At dawn Luna starts patrolling our tents, telling us we’ve slept enough. She goes ballistic when I get out of my tent, running around and wanting to play. I leave camp shortly before the others, somehow immediately getting off trail and having to bushwack back on. This section is notorious for people inadvertently getting off trail. It’s easy to do on the CDT, and I can’t imagine how difficult this trail would be without a GPS on my phone that always tells me where I am and how to get back to trail.

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Bridge over a stream. Like many others, I got really off trail near here and had to bushwack a mile to get back on (being stung by a wasp along the way). 

I hike with the aforementioned others until we all get lost multiple times and consequently get separated, somehow passing each other constantly without seeing each other in the process. That’s the CDT.

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This lake was popular with day hikers and weekenders. Which we usually don’t see because the CDT is so remote. 

We take the Mack’s Inn cutoff, which cuts across Island Park, Idaho to Yellowstone and involves some road walking but saves three or four days. More time for good weather in Colorado! The race against winter is full on.

“Stay on the north side of the ridge. There’s no trail, just do that or you’ll end up waist deep in beaver ponds and thorn bushes,” my maps say. It rains nonstop and it’s cold, the CDT once again standing for Constant Downpour Trail. But I keep on trucking, knowing that Island Park will be reached tomorrow morning.

Idaho! Plus wildfires

Story of the CDT: I’d planned to be at the highway to hitch into Darby, MT in the evening, but it didn’t work out that way. I was tired, it was getting late, and I decided to just camp four miles (about an hour and 20 minutes) from the road and hitch into town in the morning.

I follow the Idaho/Montana border to Wyoming.

Near where you can hitch into Darby.

How long am I gonna have to wait? I impatiently wondered, thumb out, while smiling at potential rides from the side of a not-terribly-busy highway.

Seven minutes, and then I had a ride. Hitching is such a crapshoot when it comes to waiting time.

“I can only take ya 13 miles to the turnoff to the hot springs,” he said, which didn’t bother me. I’d heard it could routinely take three hitches to get into town.

“My wife does a lot of maintenance of the trail! She and I are looking forward to soaking in the thermal pools.” He noticed I’d been looking around the empty truck for her, confused.

“She’s in the car behind us,” he noted. Does she exist? Is he insane? I decided I didn’t care as long as I got to where I was going in one piece.

After he dropped me off I walked 10 minutes down the road for a better hitching spot. 45 minutes later I gave up, walking down the road with my thumb out to a further spot that looked like a better place to solicit a ride. Winter is coming, I could be eating a burger right now, I’m never going to get a ride, my dehydrated mind kept insisting.

One step before getting to the better hitch spot a car pulled over.

“I’ve got a concealed carry. Want a ride to Darby?” asked the Alaskan wedding planner, aka my savior.

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The sunset as viewed from the campground in Darby with smoke from fires.

She was fun to talk to for the 40 minute ride to Darby, which isn’t that close to trail. If I could do this over again, I would’ve just sent a package to the Sula gas station. Much shorter hitch.

Darby is a nice one street town.

“We had a 14 person group stay four nights. I hate to say this, but it’s nice to just have one hiker tonight,” the campground owner told me. Shower, laundry, camping, and wifi was $14 altogether. Not bad.

I bought food at the Family Dollar, getting such novelties as tropical sour patch kids (disgusting) and other foodstuffs (is it really food?) that other stores (probably wisely) don’t want.

The first part of the trail was on a forest service road.

Hitching back up to the trail took over an hour of waiting and two rides, but eventually I’d made it back home.

The fire was pretty small, but close to the trail.

Soon planes and helicopters were flying right over my head, dumping retardant on the fire. The smoke began to block any visibility of the surrounding hills, and as night approached I could see individual trees light up as they became engulfed in flames. So I camped in an uncomfortable spot by a log, laying out my sleeping bag.

Not the most comfortable night, waking up to some rodent crawling on me a few times. This is nuts, I’m out of here. Better to do a 90 mile road walk than asphyxiate, I reasoned. After 20 minutes, though, I turned around. I could get to a forest service road, near the fire, and talk to the fire crew. And walk off the trail if need be, shortening the road walk by a day.

A northbounder who’d camped the previous night with the fire crew said everything was fine, so I booked it and got through. Within an hour I could barely even tell there was a fire. Some other hikers, just out for a bit, said the forest service was telling people to evacuate. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Fire truck! 

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It was hard to get info on the fire because neither state nor national Forest was wanting to claim responsibility, since it was on the border. 

Idaho, or at least the border it shares with Montana along the continental divide, is spectacular. Lots of water in some places, though when the divide goes high it can be quite dry. I’d been having an upset stomach, though nothing too bad, and it began to get better every day. That’s why I always carry imodium with me on all my backpacking and foreign trips! Food poisoning in Bolivia at 11k feet is not fun. At all.

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Camping next to the ruins of a cabin was weird, but it was a great campsite.

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The view from the campsite.

There’s a helicopter above the trail, but it doesn’t seem to notice me. If it does then it doesn’t care, and I make it through without incident. I don’t see a single other person post-fire, which isn’t that strange because there’s hardly anybody on the CDT.

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Right after I saw the helicopter. Note the blue skies and lack of smoke.

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Seeing this gave me a heart attack until I read the fine print.

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Idaho is gorgeous.

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Descending into the next valley.

The morning after the fire I notice some smoke when I eat breakfast by a stream, but I’m more focused on some GI issues (which end up resolving quickly). An hour later, when the trail crosses a deserted forest service road, I notice a neon orange sign. CDT CLOSED. My heart goes a thousand beats a minute until I realize I’ve just completed the closed section. They closed it while I was on it. And the next section seems open. That means I’m good, right? I plow on, meeting a few people out for the weekend.

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Closure order.

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Looking out from the continental divide.

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Still some snow!

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Back in the forest.

There’s a tough 19.5 mile water carry, difficult mainly because it’s the end of the day, I’m tired, my back is sore, the trail is just loose rock that I stumble on every other step, and water is heavy. I can just envision my brother Kevin telling me the same thing he always does whenever I complain about anything: stop being such a whiny little bitch. My brothers are full of such sage advice.

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I camped here on the 19.5 mile water carry.

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Descending to Lemhi Pass, which Lewis and Clark visited.

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Bannock Pass, where Sam from the Leadore Inn met me and gave me a ride to town.

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Big Sky RV Park is awesome! I’d read on the CDT southbound Facebook group, where the more up to date trail info is posted (and moderated by some crazy Jesus wacko). $18 for camping and shower, they also have a laundromat.

Downtown Anaconda.

Downtown Anaconda has been restored and preserved to look as it did around 1900.

Well, I can stay the night and decide in the morning what I’ll do next. Rest or keep going? I thought to myself. The siren call of clean clothes and feet proved too strong to resist, and I spent two nights at the RV park. After paying a couple visits to the pizzeria and eating a massive amount of food, of course. My hiker hunger hasn’t fully set in yet…but I think it’s coming.

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Spotted this walking around town. 

In a perfect world, I’d hang out in town until 5pm and then hike off into the sunset. Technically the sun doesn’t set here until 10pm, but in New Mexico in November I think that’ll be more apt. Sleeping in the woods is just more relaxing, but it’s 15 miles from here before camping is a viable option.

What the hell, I’ll just zero here. Winter is coming, but I’m making good time.

The barista at the cozy coffee shop on the main street definitely thinks I’m a hobo, and I don’t blame her. The last time I trimmed my beard and cut my hair was a couple months ago in the Peruvian Amazon. She seems relieved when I pay with cash and don’t start yelling about being possessed by evil government spirits (witnessed that on the PCT in Ashland, Oregon).

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Walking on the highway out of Anaconda. 

Anaconda is long and narrow, but all the places I need to visit are within a half hour walk of the RV park. It’s a pleasant place to take a day off, walking around town getting errands taken care of and watching the new Game of Thrones episode at the library. There’s no shortage of local diners where everyone seems to be a local and the waitress asks, “What can I get for you, sweetie?”

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When possible, I took side roads paralleling the highway so as to avoid traffic. 

The locals think it’s obvious from my accent that I’m not from here, and a lot of them (plus a lot of people from north of the border) ask if I’m Canadian. Calgary is called “the city” in northern Montana, and I’ve heard that further south that title will go to Salt Lake.

The owner of the RV park is super friendly, showing me how to lock up the office so I can use the laundry machines after he goes home for the night. While waiting for my clothes I befriend a retired second grade teacher from Wisconsin who’s on her annual summer road trip with her husband, and she seems amazed that I’m walking across the country (even more when I mention that it’s my second time doing so).

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The divide is somewhere around here. The trail doesn’t always follow it exactly, but it’s usually very close. 

In the morning, fully rested and semi-clean, I set off on the 10 mile road walk out of town. It’s a mile to the grocery store, where I stock up on victuals, and another 15 minutes to the gas station at the edge of Anaconda.

Arming myself with some snacks and a cup of Mountain Dew, since I remember my father saying that has the highest sugar and caffeine content of just about anything out there, I lay out my provisions on the sidewalk in front of the gas station.

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Taking refuge from the rain, with my feet helping me stay on a semi-steep slope. The day before I stood under the shelter of some branches during a severe albeit brief hailstorm and stayed dry. 

100 miles to the Idaho border and my next town stop…will this be enough? The eternal question. It’s so hard to gauge how much food I’ll need on each section.

There aren’t any customers inside, so the cashier comes out to chat and ask about the hike. She wishes me well when a car pulls up and a couple guys file inside, and I head off on the highway.

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Looking off at some storm clouds. 

Like on the road walk into town, multiple locals pull over to make sure I’m doing okay and that I have enough water. Montanans are so friendly!

It starts to storm when I pull off the highway and onto a dirt road, but I’m just so happy to be off the pavement and back in the woods that I couldn’t care less.

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A trail marker.

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The trail was really well maintained in this section. 

I camp by picturesque Storm Lake right after the storm, which seems appropriate. 25 miles in less than 11 hours, not bad. I crawl into my warm, dry sleeping bag just as the rain picks back up, falling asleep to the rhythmic drops falling against my tent.

I wake up at night hearing an animal running around. I think I hear voices yelling at it to shoo, and I bolt upright. Something is in my food, which I hung from a nearby tree! After a few seconds I realize the sounds are coming from the opposite direction of my bear hang, and I go back to sleep. Not my problem.

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Lots of water in the mountains here. 

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The wildflowers were in bloom at the higher elevations.

It’s cold and wet in the morning, and I have trouble motivating myself to leave the dry warmth of my down sleeping bag. Eventually I do so, and fill out a registration form for the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Never done that before, but there’s no CDT permit like there is for the AT and PCT, so I decide to play it safe. And there’s a big registration desk in the middle of nowhere, so maybe it’s important.

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I camped at this lake. You can see the ripples of the raindrops in the water. 

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At least it wasn’t too hot and sunny! 

Entry location? Canada, I scrawl. Exit? Mexico. Where will you camp each night? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ How long will you spend here? As long as it takes.

Who knows if anybody will actually read that. I hope so.

The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness is amazing, hopping between alpine passes above the treeline with lush, lake strewn valleys in between. The trail is well maintained, and I cruise on the soft dirt beneath my feet. Every night I camp by a picturesque lake with snowcapped mountains looming above me.

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High ridgelines. 

I see few other hikers here, and even go 41 hours without seeing another human. It’s surprisingly not strange to wake up and go to bed without seeing another person, maybe because there are so few people on this trail and I’m used to the solitude. I love feeling like I have the woods to myself, but it’s also nice running back into Vanne. A 60 year old section hiker from the area, I met her previously in Helena National Forest and I enjoy talking to her for an hour.

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Morning on the CDT. 

On my last full day on the trail before getting to the highway and the Idaho border, I stop as a small black bear runs 30 feet in front of me. We stare at each other in mutual shock for a split second before he bolts off. A few minutes prior I’d been wishing I had a coffee, but that episode does the trick of waking me up! I haven’t even left Montana yet and I’ve already seen five black bears and a grizzly since Glacier.

Helena and Deerlodge National Forests

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The general route of the Continental Divide Trail through Montana and Idaho.

The thought of getting to town with all the restaurants closed was just too painful to fathom. Rather than try to hitch a ride on the highway at 8pm, I laid out my sleeping bag in a bush to get out of the wind and hoped no animals would harass me. None of the windbent, scrawny trees were ideal for a food hang, so I just hung my smellables from a branch and hoped for the best (no bears got past my shitty bear hang, success!).

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Smoke from the fire near Lincoln.

The smoke had cleared up dramatically from the previous night and the wind had quieted. It was peaceful in the early morning as I worked my way down a series of switchbacks in the green tunnel to highway 200, my first paved road in eight days.

Seeing the cars whizz past at 70mph was a bit of a culture shock, and my heart was pounding as I stood by the asphalt with my thumb out. Best road to town, but a hard hitch, my guidebook advised. Hitching is kind of nerve wracking the first time, but after doing it a couple of times on a hike I think nothing of it. Statistically, I’m way more likely to get hit by a car than have an issue with a hitch.

 

After 35 minutes of standing by the highway I’m in the car of a retired geologist, whizzing down the highway 18 miles to Lincoln.

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High on the divide.

Where East Glacier was touristy, Lincoln is redneck. And I mean that in the best way possible. Redneck beats touristy any day of the week. $8 gets you camping, wifi, and a hot shower at the RV park, and I get to journey to the trailer park for the town’s only laundromat.

“BULLSHIT, BONNIE. BEST KEEP YOUR DAMN CHIHUAHUA AWAY FROM TIGGER IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”

“I OWN THIS PLACE AND IF YOU DON’T WANNA BE HOMELESS TONIGHT YOU BETTER KEEP YOUR CAT AWAY FROM HIM!” Trailer park entertainment came free with the laundromat, where I think if I touched anything I’d probably get tetanus.

I’d planned on leaving town early after a restful night in the quiet campground, but it’s not until noon when I hitch a ride back to Rogers Pass and the divide. I’m still able to do 17 miles by 7:40pm.

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View from the trail.

It’s hot and dry on the continental divide above the treeline, but even in the green tunnel of the forest the trail has got its own special charm. It’s peaceful, and I’ll see at most one other person a day. The constant solitude and prospect of not seeing anybody for days on end was a little discomforting before getting on trail, but it’s now my favorite aspect of the CDT. I hate everyone ❤️

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Water cache laid out for hikers.

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Some road walking.

Once again I find myself standing by the highway early in the morning, pack on the ground and thumb out as cars zoom past me. Hitching already feels pretty natural at this point in my hike.

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Not shown: how goddamn hot it is.

Basically my life right now is walking a marathon a day, trying not to get lost, sleeping in the dirt, and hitchhiking to and from small mountain towns. I’m fine with that.

After 25 minutes a car pulls over. Gonna give me a ride or…oh shit, government license plates. Wondering if I’m about to get ticketed for soliciting a ride, I walk up to the car.

“Heading to Helena? Hop in!” the federal prosecutor calls out, and I oblige.

“You’re on the right track. I used my 20s to do stuff like this, though I sailed the Pacific and rafted the Colorado rather than hike across the country,” he told me. “I went to law school in my 30s, and I have no regrets about taking time to do the things I wanted.” He then insisted on getting me a coffee before he headed over to the courthouse and dropped me off downtown. This was a nicer welcome than all the people who think I’m homeless and avert their eyes. Montanans are so friendly!

I head to the cafe my guidebook recommended to get a smoothie and wifi.

“You hiking the CDT?” another patron asks. I chat with him and his friend about the hike, and he gives me his number.

“If you want a ride back to the trail, just call me and my wife or I will take you back up,” he adds. No need to stand by the side of the highway and hitch!

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In Helena I ran into Murphy and Movin’ On, two of the people I did the Bob Marshall Wilderness with.

Helena is spread out and, I think, the largest town I’ll visit on trail at 31k inhabitants. But it’s surprisingly pleasant, with pedestrian areas and lots of hipster cafes.

It’d be even better if there were a hostel or campground, but I’m not interested in getting a motel room so I call up the cafe dude and get whisked back to the CDT.

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Back on trail! 

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Glad this was here, definitely thought I was on the Appalachian Trail. Not sure why they put this in the middle of the woods far from the road. 

Somewhere in a jungle gym of blowdowns I get off trail and have to spend 20 minutes bushwacking back on. I take a wrong turn an hour later, getting my flashlight out since it’s now dark. I’d like to just camp, but I’m almost out of water and need to get to the stream just a mile away.

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More road walks. 

Walking the dirt roads, I get the feeling that I’m being watched. I hear a branch break along with something moving about 100 yards or so behind me. I stop, and whatever is out there stops too. I walk some more and it picks back up, stopping when I do.

This happened once before, back in northern California on a stretch of trail with lots of reports of getting stalked by cougars. I take a deep breath, yell a lot, and just keep going. I set up my tent, hang my bear bag, and get to sleep by 11pm.

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Morning on trail. 

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Not as dramatic as Glacier, but still quite nice. 

It’s hard waking up the next morning after going to bed so late, but I’ve gotta make the miles so I don’t run out of food.

This section involves a lot of forest walking, which would be fine if it weren’t so goddamn hot and dry. The waterless stretches are up to 20 miles, for which I’ll carry 3.7 liters.

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The road walk to Anaconda was mostly like this. 

Like almost all other hikers, I’m taking the Anaconda cutoff. Although the divide curves around towards Butte, it’s possible with 20 miles of highway walking to cut across west towards Idaho and rejoin the divide near the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. It saves four or five days, giving more time to take scenic detours in Wyoming and Colorado.

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Filtering water from a cow trough with my pack and trekking poles in front. There was a jet of water from a pipe above the trough, so it wasn’t disgusting. 

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Walking along the highway to Anaconda in the evening.