To say the truth my heart was somewhat drained of its vitality when we reached Lemhi Pass. For a few days I perambulated across these vast grassy mountain landscapes in a sort of dazed struggle — a delirium of exhaustion and boredom, a confused, hidden despondency, wherein my knees and feet and ankles hurt and my mind was mired in vagueness.
Other hikers — my friends — buoyed my spirits. We chatted and joked. But it felt all the while like I was walking every day, day after day, all the livelong day, for no other reason than I didn’t know what the hell else to do.
“Whats the matter with me?” I asked myself hourly. “What’s happened?”
Wildfires burned in northern Montana. I walked under the smoke-blotted sky, and the fogginess of it had seeped into my heart.
I had forgotten something important. It took an overlook at the historic pass to bring me back to center.
Lemhi Pass is where Meriwether Lewis, accompanied by three men of the Corps of Discovery, first crested the Continental Divide. Upon reaching the top, he “discovered immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered in snow.” Though he must have felt close to completing his charter – being the first American of European descent to see the lands west of the Rocky Mountains – he had to have known then that he yet had a long ways to go.
My friends and I walked 27 miles in a day to get to Lemhi. Then we took a side road to the east to visit the Sacajawea monument. I fell behind the group on the short climb back to the top. As I limped along, I kept subconsciously glancing over my shoulder at the magnificent valley below. I was thinking of other things at first, but the landscape seemed to tug at me — a whisper, a gravitation, a summons — until finally I woke to the call.
“Hey, man, something’s happening here,” I told myself. “You need to listen.”
A scene from the end of the Dharma Bums popped into my mind, the part when Ray is following the trail down Desolation Peak and stops to take a knee. At the book’s close, Kerouac writes:
“And in keeping with Japhy’s habit of always getting down on one knee and delivering a little prayer of gratitude … I turned and knelt on the trail and said, “Thank you, shack.” Then I added, “blah,” because I knew the shack and the mountain would understand what that meant.”
And so inspired, I stumbled off the road and onto a knoll overlooking the valley, where I sat cross-legged amid the bramble and took a moment to pause my forward progress, an interval in time to breathe and meditate and study the landscape.
Here’s 15 minutes of re-grounding, I thought; 15 minutes of gratitude.
Before me was a scene of absolute sublimity. The valley up which Lewis rode in the summer of 1805 is picturesque and grassy, a place where opposing hills slope downward into a v-like crease, where coniferous forests of dark green, stately trees grow in patches or strips up gently-graded mountainsides, where the air is bracing and fresh to breathe, where a dirt road ribbons like a snake up the meadow’s northern inclination, climbing up to the Lemhi saddle, before falling off toward the “immense ranges of high mountains to the West;” a place where grassy yellows blend with earthy greens, and where the distant horizon is a jagged line formed of tall, ghostly ranges tearing up into smoky Montanan skies.
And I took this moment to let my eyes sweep back and forth over these American lands, studying the patterns and the lines, and it reminded me, at last, of the greatness of this journey. It reminded me that I am doing exactly what I want to do. That I am following my plan and leaning into my nature. That I am, essentially, digging into something real.
But digging into what, exactly?
The dirt, the soils, the woods, my wild heart and wild heartlands and the earth itself and my life and life itself and all of its atomized-and-yet-connected essences. Yes. It reminded me that I am taking hold of this earth with mine own two hands and wrenching life from it — not wrenching life away from it, mind you – but ringing out the little essences of life through toil and travel and discovery.
Oh, how I breathed deeply and contentedly as I sat contemplatively on that hill at Lemhi Pass.
I walked off it later, with an amelerioated spirit, and said “blah like Jack” and added that, “This, this is what I am doing.”
The next day I slaked my thirst at a special creek beneath the pass. It is from the writings of Meriwether Lewis that the spring – called Most Distant Fountain – gets its name. After drinking from it, he called the stream “the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights. Thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years. Judge then of the pleasure I felt in allying my thirst with this pure and ice cold water.”
Having drunk of the same, I can now say that, within the span of this journey, I’ve allayed my thirst at or near the headwaters of the three largest rivers of the American west: The Rio Grande in the San Juans, the Colorado in The Never Summers, and the Missouri in The Bitterroots. We can also tag on the Green River, the largest affluent of the Colorado and the nation’s 15th largest river, which rises in the Wind River Range.
That evening we topped out at a ridge of busted rock. I sat for a break on the peak with Hedgehog, and he said, “I packed out a little wine. Want some?” And he poured a dram into my water bottle, and we made a toast:
“Another day above ground, another day on top of mountains.”
We camped in a group on a high ridge past Goldman Pass. I lay my tarp and mat near the ledge. At night the inversion drew all the drifting smoke from the sky into the valley below. When the waxing moon rose I woke and peered off the cliff into the basin – a murky gray sea of wildfire smoke. It smelled of burning woods and looked rather haunted and desolate and called to mind Nietzsche’s famous admonition: “When thou gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into thee.”
We climbed or passed features with odd names: Cowbone, Darkhorse, Jhanke and Slag-a-Melt lakes; Fourth of July and Bloody Dick creeks; Big Hole Pass and Ajax Peak. The trails fed through burned forests. Gray squirrels with bushy tails darted and bounded athletically along a network of dead-fallen logs. They carried pine cones in their mouths. They climbed trees, stopped in high boughs, held their pine cones like corncobs, stared down at us walkers, and chittered vehemently. In response I invoked the Fresh Prince: “It’s your world, squirrel. I’m just trying to get a nut.”
I saw a bear at Lena Lake, an incipient wildfire in the woods off a ridge.
Dozens of grouse bedded down in the foot-high ferns all along the trail, flushing on our arrival. The sudden burst of high-pitched, fluttering wings sounded like the launch of a surface-to-air missile.
Chimichanga and I caught a ride from Lost Trail Pass in the bed of a pickup. “Riding in truck beds never gets old,” he said. And the diesel engine roared as we sailed happily down the Bitterroot Valley, alongside the famed river of the same name, passing hills of burned woods, farms with roaming horses, and rows of bushy cottonwoods in their flowing green robust bloom.
In Darby, a one-horse Montana town, with a few kitschy shops, some fine cafes and a good little brewery, we had a barbecue. With the exception of Cookie Monster, who barbecued a monstrous tri tip, most of us cooked cheap steaks on a simple metal grill. We sat around picnic tables talking and laughing and listening to music, enjoying the cool Montana evening, musing on Kurt Vonnegut and trail-hiking and the feast at hand. It was a good American night on the road, spent among friends – a convivial night. And then, when it came time to leave, when the night reached its end, I walked down the sleepy road sadly, returning alone to my motel; and I remembered something about myself. I remembered that it’s hard for me to let go of good things. Be it a relationship with a girl, a night among friends, or simply a day in the life – I always want it to last a little longer than it does; I always want to hold onto it; to stretch the situation past its time. It’s a nostalgia for the present, which seems impossible. A contradiction. But impossible desires are desires all the same. Irrational, yes, but in existence nevertheless.
In Vonnegut, however, I find some consolation:
“If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.”
Hedgehog, Dayglo and Messed Up thumbed a ride for the team up to Chief Joseph Pass, named for a remarkable leader of a band of the Nez Perce tribe. Born in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon, Chief Joseph – whose original name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountains – defied the U.S. Government, which issued a mandate forcing the Nez Perce off their ancestral lands and onto a reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph and 700 men, women and children retreated from the U.S. Cavalry over the pass – along the same ridges and valleys we walked – staging a guerrilla resistance as they fled. When Chief Joseph finally surrendered, he published this heartbreaking statement:
“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed… It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death… My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
He surrendered understanding he and his people would return to the Wallowa Valley. Instead they were forced onto reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma, where many succumbed to epidemics. Chief Joseph died in exile in 1904, according to his doctor “of a broken heart.”
It’s a tragic irony worth noting that Chief Joseph’s travails occurred not 70 years after his people aided the Corps of Discovery during their journey over the Rockies – the very expedition that opened the floodgates for their eventual subjugation.
We took a cutoff toward Anaconda, leaving the section where we traced the Montana-Idaho border. In one day we knocked out five roughly 1,400-foot climbs, racing storms over passes and ascending into the mountains’ misty shrouds. It’s always ominous and exhilarating to witness clouds flowing fast like tidal waves over craggy peaks, down rocky cliffs, and into forested basins sprinkled with emerald lakes. The rain held all day in the clouds, but atop Goat Flats, the storm overtook us, blanketing the world in white. Having dealt with this before, we met the whiteout with a sort of calm familiarity.
It rained, sleeted and snowed during our last night and morning in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. I lay in my tent and read The Winter of Our Discontent and thought about how I hope it doesn’t stay this cold for the last 450 or so miles.
Talk of the end is ever on our lips, but wildfires up north threaten to make finishing tricky. It feels as though we’re trapped between fire and ice. Go slow to let the fires burn out. Go fast to beat winter.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness, recently ravaged by fires, begins north of Helena. It’s been closed on account of the blazes, but we’ve heard rumors that it might reopen soon. I see it as the last big test, a long, rough, isolated wilderness standing between me and Glacier National Park. Once we go in there, we won’t come out for more than 250 miles.
Till then I walk and appreciate the trip. I don’t want to fall into the trap of smelling the barn, of rushing pell mell up to Canada.
“It’s been a very long way to walk,” I tell myself daily. “But there will never be another one like it. There will never be another day like today.”