Our second night in the park, Chimichanga, Cookie Monster and I cowboy camp on a pebbly beach at Heart Lake. To our west, beneath the setting sun, a geyser smolders eternally. Nightfall brings a meteor shower. I wake at 2 a.m. and watch enraptured as dozens of lasers streak across the starry sky.
By morning chilly air lifts mist off the geyser-fed lake, drenching our sleeping bags. We wake cold. Cookie Monster hangs his bag up to dry. Chimi and I march off in search of a backcountry hot spring listed on our maps.
“How am I supposed to know?” he replies. “I’m not a rocket surgeon.”
“Oh,” I say, taking a few steps. “It’s funny. This whole time I thought you were a rocket surgeon.”
Soon we discover a place of simmering water holes, geysers, fumaroles and mudpots – geothermal formations surrounded by a crusty sediment called sinter. A sulfuric smell pervades the air, an odor not unlike rotten eggs. Hot water ushers from the bubbling pools, feeding into a creek called Witch Creek. As we turn alongside Witch Creek, I see it steaming, stumble down the hill, touch the running waters, feel that the waters are hot, holler back to Chimichanga, dash across the stream, explode my pack, drape my soaked sleeping bag on pine boughs, undress and submerse my sore body in the stream.
Chimichanga does the same, then hops into the stream in front of me.
“It’s like a running bath!” I exclaim.
And we both soak for about an hour before reluctantly returning to the hike at hand.
We walk 21 miles through the park, breaking for lunch on the shore of Shoshone Lake, before entering the Shoshone Geyser Basin. Chimichanga approaches a deep blue thermal pool, stands at its edge, peers down into its depths – where the boiling water is clear as Caribbean seas – and says: “That’d be such a terrible way to die – falling into that thing.”
We bushwhack a quarter mile off the trail in hopes of finding yet another hot spring. This one, called the Washtub, is reportedly at the confluence of Fall and Shoshone creeks. We test the streams for warmth here and there, then find a spot where hot geyser water spills into the creeks. Just before sunset we wade across the frigid stream and sit to soak in the Washtub. Boiling water runs in waves down rivulets of hardened sinter into the stream. You can see the waves of hot water coming; it looks like oil upon the surface; and it surrounds your body, burning, until you back away toward the colder waters behind.
Southbound hikers tell us about Lone Star Geyser. It erupts every three hours, jetting water 40 feet into the air for 30 minutes. We want to see the geyser, but we also want to hit an all-you-can eat buffet at Old Faithful Village in the morning. We decide to hike six miles into the night to have our geysers and our breakfasts, too.
Arriving, we cowboy camp in the trees nearby. A log book tells us Lone Star is set to erupt around 11 p.m. We sit on logs near the geyser’s cone – a place and time of utter solitude – and, when Lone Star explodes, Chimichanga illuminates it with his headlamp. The plume arcs and sputters overhead as shooting stars from the meteor shower streak across the blackness of night.
The next morning, while breakfasting at Old Faithful Lodge, Chimichanga sums it all up:
“That was an incredible day, if you think about all we accomplished: Woke up on the beach of Heart Lake, where we cowboy camped under a meteor shower; bathed in a flowing hot spring at Witch Creek; ate lunch on the beach; walked 29 miles and hit another hot spring – all before watching a geyser go off in the middle of the night beneath a sky full of shooting stars.”
Rooms at Yellowstone do not comport with a through-hiker’s budget, so we pay $5 to bathe and use a laundry room, the plan being to hike out late afternoon. We drink cheap red wine while watching Old Faithful erupt from the lodge’s veranda.
Afterward, the trail leads us through the massive geyser basin spread out around Old Faithful. Chimi and I stumble through the basin in a mutual state of amazement, standing in the sulfuric steam, admiring thermal pools and blowing geysers and fulminating fumaroles – paying little attention, all the while, to the sky, which is quickly filling with a mass of dark clouds.
We tuck into trees off-trail when the clouds open up, and lighting rends the heavens. As we sit there getting soaked we can hear the jollity of people back at Old Faithful Lodge – children laughing, people making toasts.
“We’re not even a mile away,” Chimi suggests. “We could go back, find our friends and stay in a hotel, instead of just sleeping tonight in this soggy rainstorm.”
“That sounds fantastic,” I tell him.
Back at Old Faithful, however, our friends are nowhere to be found. The hotels are all booked, so we go to the bar to brainstorm. There we meet two rad girls (Sup Bee!? Sup Kat!?) who generously let us crash in their room for the night.
The next day I sit with Bee and watch Old Faithful erupt one last time. Chimichanga, meanwhile, hikes out, taking the wrong trail. I walk 10 miles to Summit Lake, expecting to find him. I camp there alone, however, sleep in fitful fear of the Griz, walk 27 miles the next day, passing out of Wyoming (hail yess), and into Idaho. Chimichanga catches me that night, tells me the story of his getting on the wrong trail, backtracking, and stealth camping at night – only to realize in the morning that he was in plain view of the parking lot all along. He broke camp quickly and walked 34 miles to make up for lost time.
Cookie Monster, in the meantime, stays on the official CDT (whereas Chimi and I took a shorter alternate.)
Wondering where Cookie is, Chimi and I camp at a site set up by shepherds, near a lake, where cut wood and benches surround a fire ring near a wooden cross. The shepherds arrive at dusk – two men from Peru, sitting horseback, accompanied by four sheepdogs – boisterous canines, which seem capable of savagery if not under the influence of the shepherds’ commands. Speaking Spanish, Chimi invites the men to camp with us, but they demur, saying they’ve another spot up the hill.
It’s 10 p.m. I poke my head out of the vestibule.
“Roar,” Cookie Monster says. “It’s a bear. Roarrrr…”
He unpacks and tells me a story about walking alone in the dark forest when the light from his headlamp suddenly illuminates a single eye. What the hell is that? he thinks. And then, off to the left, a pair of eyes pop open in darkness. Those look like canine eyes, he thinks. That must be a wolf. Advancing down the trail, he approaches the single eye cautiously, and realizes, as the beast turns its head, that it’s a horse standing on the trail. Cookie rounds one horse and another, warily monitoring the eyes of the canine, when his headlamp beams down the valley, whereupon “a sea of floating green eyes” glare up at him from the darkness of the quiet woods. All at once Cookie Monster realizes – Those are sheep! That’s a sheepdog!
And the dog begins growling lowly, and three more sets of canine eyes pop open, floating in darkness, and soon they are charging at him and barking ferociously; and Cookie Monster scolds them, saying, “Back, pssst! back dog!” keeping the dogs at bay, hiking quickly away from the sheep, while one relentless dog hounds him at his heels for half a mile until, finally, it allows him to continue his nightwalk in peace.
We trace the Montana-Idaho border, a rollercoaster of ridges through the Targhee and Beaverhead national forests. Dozens of fires burn throughout the northwest, filling the sky with a smoky white haze. These could mean trouble up ahead, but that remains to be seen.
We catch a ride into Lima, which consists more or less of a gas station, a cafe, a restaurant where you cook your own steaks, and a wonderful motel called “The Mountain View.”
Chimichanga and I get a bottle of red wine with a zombie on the label and wander under cover of darkness into a Lima junkyard, where he flops down in the tall weedy grass and I sit in the bucket of a wrecked front-end loader, and we fill little plastic motel cups with cheap red wine – a page out of the playbook of Mac and the Boys, ya dig? – “the Fates, the Glories, the Beatitudes” – to hear il Maestro Steinbeck say it – and we talk about big and small things and gaze up at gray-smoked skies wherein the waxing crescent moon burns in a shade of palish auburn. The thought occurs to me that I would not likely, in my pre-thru-hiking life, elect to lounge in a junkyard. But distance hiking on the cheap often puts you in close communion with society’s rubble – and, besides, on the trail, you live close to the ground, anyway – always dirty, always in the dirt. I’ve come to think there is a certain dignity in it: in being grounded, poor, living life an hour at a time, far from the “lap of luxury,” as they call it, confronting only the essential things in life. The trail is Walden Pond stretched long. Not to mention, I’m pretty sure it’s a good inherent to avoid always participating in society’s ruthless pursuit of comforts, as if the piling on of comforts teaches anyone anything or makes anyone interesting anyway. I mean, let’s call a spade a spade: The piling on of comforts only supplies the illusion of delaying the inevitable. On the flip side, there’s beauty in the struggle, baby, as the rappers sometimes say, and much to be learned from hard circumstance.
There we were chillin’ getting drunk in the junkyard when we took to philosophizing about life and death the way we do.
“I don’t understand why people say they want to live forever,” Chimichanga says. “Eventually – given all that time – given endless time – you’d just get bored. You’d be begging for death.”
But I argue in favor of living forever. “In a universe of endless variation,” I say, “with a curious mindset, a person could find all kinds of new things to explore and investigate. Plus, I like living. If the alternative is simply not existing – well, if the alternative is nothingness, I’d just as soon be alive.”
Chimi’s on his back in the weeds looking up. His eyes are watching God or the stars or something – which all may be one in the same – and he says,”So do you think all of this is just chance?”
“I think there could’ve been nothing, just as simply as something.”
The sky grows hazier during the 110-mile hike from Lima to Leadore, Idaho. Much of the walk is on the actual divide, so we go up and down grassy ridges, walking in an environment made strange by the opaque skies.
“This smoke is so weird,” I tell Chimichanga. “I feel so trapped by it, like I’m in the Twilight Zone. Look at the sky. It’s just blank. It’s like a blank freaking canvas.”
“What if we get to the pass,” Chimichanga says, “call the guy to pick us up, and it rings and rings, and he doesn’t answer. So we try to hitch, but nobody comes. Then we have no choice but to walk to Leadore; but, when we get there, the town is deserted. Nobody’s there. And then we find out, eventually, that there’s nobody left in the whole world.”
“That would be a trip, dude.”
And I lean forward, feeling very far away from everyone I love.
We take a zero in Leadore at a place called the Leadore Inn, owned by an awesome dude named Sam, after slack-packing from Bannock Pass to Lemhi Pass, where the Corps of Discovery first made passage over the Rocky Mountains.
Sam reminds us of the Big Lebowski, the way he wears Birkenstocks with tube socks, plain white t-shirts and cargo shorts, and also in the way he’s copacetic with everything. I drink a glass of wine with him on his front porch, sitting there in the dead of night – me sprawled lengthwise on the porch steps, my feet propped against the balustrade, him in a padded rocking computer chair, a quilt draped over his legs – just basking in the pinkish glow of a Leadore street lamp; and Sam sips his wine, and he tells me:
“There’s a little piece of God within you, Chilton. There’s a little piece of God within everyone,” – and he swigs his sangria, a finger aloft to indicate he will continue. “It takes lifetimes, of course, but your purpose in life is to work toward becoming like that little piece of God within you – to merge with it as much as you possibly can.”
I ponder this little nugget of wisdom for a moment. Then I say:
“What happens when you merge with that little piece of God? I mean, do you become God?”
“Nope,” Sam says, setting his glass down. “You combust and vanish. Immediately.”
I watch his face, thinking he’s joking, but he does not smile, so I remark – profoundly – I remark: “Holy moly.”
“Poof,” Sam says, with a little flourish of his fingers: “Wherever you are, you go up in flames.”
“Are you being serious?”
“It’s happened before,” he says, “but to very few people; because, like I said, for most people, it takes lifetimes to fully merge with God.”
“But why do you combust?”
“Because,” he says, “your purpose in life is complete. You no longer have any reason to be here on Earth.”
The winds howl through windswept Leadore, where wildfire smoke drifts invisibly in the low black sky.
“That’s just wild,” I tell wise old Sam. “I’m going to bed.”
Scenes From the Trail