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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
The humans are onto me! Most thru hiker conversations are about something like gear, weather, route options, and resupply strategies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We see a few northbounders and eventually leave the park, entering the Teton Wilderness (not Grand Tetons National Park).
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.
Although the campsite is large, we set up in a tight formation and talk until we fall asleep. Tomorrow is the eclipse!