Learning to Love and Leave: Glacier National Park to Canada

Above valleys filled with low white clouds, along a cliff-side of shattered stone, where mountain goats stand sentinel over u-shaped canyons and sub-zero winter winds and snowdrifts dwarf all the gnarled alpine firs, there began in me a realization that Glacier National Park would be this trip’s crowning jewel – if not for the park’s wildness, then for its dramatic scenery.

It drizzled all morning our first day out. The rain fell not from a dark ceiling of clouds but rather a swarm of swirling white ones. Many crashed into the peaks on our level, wrapping us in wind-borne mists.

We climbed high over the pass at Scenic Point. Clouds gathered in the dale below, curling catlike – as a moving fog does – into the creases of distant canyons. Light and shadow danced across the land.

Chimichanga, Hedgehog and I paused in the wind and rain near the top of the pass to gaze over fog-banked valleys.

“I can already tell,” I said, “that it’s gonna be hard to get anything done here. I can’t take three steps in a row without reaching for my camera.”




  

It was the first day of the last leg of our journey. Within our group of five, we all knew the CDT was in the bag. So we planned to slow the pace. To walk fewer daily miles. To enjoy ourselves – coasting, rather than racing, to the Canadian border.

The fact of finishing, however – the emotion and reality of it – made me uneasy. Before disembarking from East Glacier, I wrote in my journal:

“Strangely, the ending of this thing is making me confront the fact that I’m still trying to figure out how to live my life. I guess I’ll be doing that right up until the day I die; but right now everything feels fluid. Impermanent. Reality is a slippery fish. I can’t seem to get a grip on anything at all.”

We camped the first night at Oldman Lake and woke the next day to climb into a craggy wonderland, up and over Pitamakan Pass. Light from the rising sun angled up the valley, throwing peak reflections in crystal relief on placid lake surfaces. The trail switchbacked. When I reached the top, Chimichanga was on a side adventure – his lank figure a tiny dash crossing the crest of a razor-sharp wall in the distance.

Messed Up sat at the pass beneath a signpost in an obvious state of rapture, for the basin below was spectacular. I joined him to await Chimi, Dayglo and Hedgehog. I think we were both searching for words to describe the view’s beauty and the emotion it stirred in us – an endeavor bound for failure – so Messed Up simply said:

“This place is incredible.”

When everyone arrived, we took this photo:

From there we descended into the basin. Elks bugled and waterfalls roared in the valleys – the lush vales of stream bed and wood, of decaying thimble berry and blonde Timothy grass.

“I love that sound,” Messed Up said of the bugling elks. “It’s so wild.”

 

We took a gradually ascending trail up an enormous wall to Triple Divide Pass, so named because its watersheds drain into three separate oceans: The Atlantic, the Pacific and Hudson Bay. (Thanks, Bob, for that little bit of info!)

The trail itself was hewn into cliff sides, which rose above us to our right as we climbed, while to our left plunged the ever-growing drop to the canyon floor. We stopped now and again during the climb’s throes, not because we needed rest – by then, after more than 2,700 miles logged on our legs, we could simply climb mountains of any elevation straight to the top. In fact, Chimi sometimes joked about it, saying, “We’re invincible terminator machines now. We don’t ever have to stop.” But we stopped here and there on this particular climb because the scenery stopped us. We stopped to stand in thrall at trail’s rim, with the rocky massifs tearing up into the sky of driving clouds and the wind soughing in toothpick forests way down deep beneath our feet.


 

We lunched at Triple Divide Pass before descending again to a waterfall, where we filled our bottles. Dayglo remarked that the pooling stream would be a good place to swim, if only it weren’t so cold.

“It’s amazing how cold it’s been for this whole trail,” Dayglo said.

“Yeah, I feel almost like I didn’t get a summer this year,” I replied.

And Messed Up, hearing this, riffed on Mark Twain:

“The coldest winter I ever had was the summer I spent on the CDT.”

 

As we walked I kept thinking about how disorienting endings are. I told my friends that I didn’t know how to meet the monument at the Canadian border. Should I be relieved? Should I be happy to have accomplished this goal? Why does the thought of finishing make me sort of sad? Glacier National Park, meanwhile, was such a magical place. It felt perfect in a way. Almost as if the entire walk was meant to culminate in the park, which, for its superlative beauty, presented itself as the ultimate distillation of all that went before, so much so that when you got there, you simply accepted that fact on face value. You were like, “Oh, okay. Yep. I see how this fits. It’s a given. Duh.”

And I said to myself, “I don’t know why anyone would ever leave this place.”


  

One morning I looked up and saw a white dot high on the mountain. I couldn’t tell what it was until we neared. Then I saw it was a mountain goat posted at the lip of a high rock pillar. “That might be the coolest animal ever,” Dayglo said of the goat. And it’s true. The goat was super-duper rad, the way he sat there, right on the cusp in complete nobility. He didn’t seem to have an agenda other than to rise in the morning and find his post and gaze regally down into the valley, as if he were surveying his domain. We walked beneath him for about 20 minutes. Then, without prompting, he turned from the cliff side and moved away.

The recent fires at St. Mary’s Lake detoured us to St. Marys, a little gateway village to the park. We hitched up Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s polite to make smalltalk while hitching, but I left that in the deft hands of Chimichanga and Messed Up. Nowadays, for some reason, I can’t hardly stay awake in cars. I get in, feel the engine and movement, and snooze. I fell asleep in three of the last five hitches. It’s weird. I dunno. Anyway. On this particular hitch, I did wake, though, when we pulled aside to view a distant glacier. I read a sign that said all the Glaciers in Glacier National Park would likely melt out by 2050.

What will we call Glacier National Park then? … National Park?

We walked the Highline Trail alongside a feature called the Garden Wall, where we began taking side trips. We climbed steep trails to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, Ahern Pass and Sue Lake Overlook. When I reached Ahern Pass, Chimichanga and Dayglo were descending, and it was a cold early morning, and I was in the mood of deep thought. So much of day-to-day life is predicated on mood and mindset. Well, this last walk through Glacier was pretty dang lousy with reflective romanticism – at least for me. So when I reached Ahern Pass, I remember struggling with the idea of finishing and with the dawning realization that my life was moving on, while also pondering another question – one which I chew on frequently: Why has it become so important for me to spend time in the mountains? And, in connection, why do I feel the need to understand these mountain landscapes?

Do you know how you can often feel a truth before you can explain it? Well, that’s how it was.

And I stood very still on a rock in the howling wind and gazed down the valley east of Ahern Pass, a place of grays and browns, composed primarily of chunky boulders. In the bottom sat two silvery tarns, one draining into the other. I watched wind rake chevrons across their silvery surfaces. And I allowed myself to linger in the cold and ponder my relationship with the landscape – a meditation which I wrote down in my journal immediately after it passed:

I’m sad to be leaving this life, I thought. But I don’t have to be if I keep coming back to it. If I drive myself always back into the mountains. But why do I feel this way? I mean, what do these places stir in me? I think it’s a complicated question to ask, tied to upbringing and anxiety and existentialism and the mandate in my heart and mind lately that life should be spent in pursuit of beauty – in all its variegated forms.

There is certainly something in these landscapes, complex in relationships, that reduces all into an essence. Maybe it’s the raw contact with life: the fact that life and death happens here, in a pure form, in a form free from civilization’s interference. Perhaps that’s why coming out here feels so important. Perhaps it’s the action of standing here before such beauty, of moving through the great beauty, of partaking in it while also being receptive to it. You must tune your mind in a certain way for it to be properly receptive of beauty, which is why I want to understand what I see. At any rate, what the wild makes me desire, I think, is greatness – but not greatness in the sense of, say, Julius Caesar. No, looking at this glacial valley, at these wind-riled lakes, what comes over me is a desire, finally, to be good. By that I mean do right. Yes, the natural world makes me want to be a good man. I don’t know that it can show me how to be a good man. I don’t know that it teaches those kinds of lessons. It might. But what I’m sure of right now, in this moment, is that it sparks in me a simple desire to be a good man. And that must be enough; because, after all, it’s a point from which to start and re-start. Wilderness has always been associated with renewal. So this is it for me then: A place for always turning and re-turning, a constant rejuvenation of the good in myself, which occurs so readily in the alembic of this world’s operatic spaces.

I don’t know how long I stood at the pass. But when I came back down my friends were gone. The trail from there curved into a huge bowl. A cataract crashed on the far side, and I could hear it, but nothing else. Nothing but silence.

I thought, How can a place so big be so quiet?

I met up with my friends at the waterfall.

“You were up there for a while,” Dayglo said.

“Shit got spiritual,” I replied.

He pointed up at the waterfall. “That’s a spring, by the way. All of that water is coming right out of the mountain.”

I put my face in it and drank deeply and the water was fresh and cold.

Later we took another side trip to Sue Lake Overlook – a shelf on a high wedge of rock. We ate lunch there, admiring the cliffs and the pinnacles and the dying glacier. It might have been our most epic lunch spot yet. When it came time to move on, Chimichanga said, “I’ll be right behind. I’m gonna stay up here for 15 minutes or so.” Having come off Ahern Pass earlier that day, I knew what he was up to. And so I left him with his thoughts.

We camped our last night at Kootenai Lake, in a valley called Goat Haunt. In the middle of the night a bull elk came crashing through camp, not five feet from Messed Up’s tent. Day broke, and Chimi and I made a final side trip up a mile-long trail to a place called Goat Haunt Overlook. From there, we had an overhead view of Waterton Lake, a royal blue elongated body of water with curvaceous contours surrounded by birch and fir and pine trees.

Chimi pointed to the opposite shore:

“The trail goes right down the far side of the lake over there,” he said, “and then … well, really, that’s it. The border’s at the end of the lake.”

“There she is,” I said. “Our last stretch.”

We stood silently as that sunk in.

“Does it feel like it’s been a long time?” Chimichanga asked.

“Yeah, man, it does. At least I think it does. How about for you?”

“Not really. It wasn’t a drag. You know how when you’re working in an office and it can just get that drag. Well, I didn’t get that drag. Everyday – almost constantly – we saw something new. I think that made the time go by faster.”

“I see what you mean. When you think about it that way, it does seem like it went by fast. I guess I just feel like I’ve done a lot. And I’m still not sure how to feel about finishing this thing.”

We started heading back down toward the lake.

“If you think about it,” Chimichanga said, “it’s an absolute luxury that we get to do this. Not many people get to take half a year out of their lives to go walking wild and free in some of the most beautiful places in the world.”

He might have been telling me how to feel about finishing. I’m not sure. He might have been telling me to just be thankful.

We strolled up to the border on a sunny afternoon after jumping off a bridge into a crystal blue swimming hole. It was September 25. I rounded the corner to see Chimi staring out at Waterton Lake. He was standing on a beach by the dock. I didn’t realize where we were until he said – still staring out at the lake – he said: “This is it, dude. I haven’t gone up there yet.”

And then my eyes fell on the monument – which was, in a sense, the objective of our striving over these past 159 days.

“Holy shit,” I said, “the Canadian border.”

I went down to the beach with Chimichanga, reluctant to touch the obelisk.

I guess this is the end, I thought. Then: How do you christen a moment like this? What’s the proper attitude?

Our other buddies showed up – Dayglo, Hedgehog and Messed Up. I remember Hedgehog smiling and doing a funny little shimmy-dance. I remember laughing. Then I went up there to the monument, squared off to it, grabbed the point of it with my own two hands and screamed at the top of my lungs – screamed into Canada, into the north, which was always our direction of travel.

From that point, the celebration was on. We popped bottles, hugged and congratulated one another, stood in a circle passing various libations, then sat on a floating dock, sipping champagne, enjoying the warm sunny day and the imposing mountains and the autumnal foliage and the gentle rolling of the tide beneath the dock.


What a place to finish, that lonesome Waterton Lake. I’m not too sure how long we sat dockside. All I know is the moment felt perfect – good and long and warm and perfect.

Although we’d completed the CDT, the nearest town was still four miles off. We had to walk – or, well, more accurately, stumble – the whole way to Waterton Township. I pondered over and again how it’s funny to think a journey would end when in the end you just keep on walking.

After an imbroglio with Canadian customs we wound up the next morning in a Montana town called Browning. I needed to hitch to East Glacier, and Chimichanga and Dayglo were in the hotel business office searching for flights. None of us had much of a plan.

“This is such a weird situation to be in,” Chimichanga said. “I’m literally just clicking around on the computer trying to figure out where to go next – what to do in life.”

The existence of travelers: always at home, forever at sea.

Dayglo and I said farewell, then Chimichanga said, “I’ll come see you off.”

We went to the front of the hotel and stood in the portico.

“Well, this might be it,” Chimi said. “We’ve walked a long time together.”

“It’s been fun,” I said. “It’s been great.”

“I don’t care if it’s three years or five years, we’ve got to go on another adventure together.”

“For sure, man. There aren’t many people I could spend that much time with. I just get sick of people, you know. But that didn’t happen with you. It’s a good partnership we had.”

“Yeah, it was a good sidekick thing we had going on.”

We promised again to keep in touch, hugged and parted – me walking out toward the road, him turning back to the business of figuring out what the hell to do with his life. The wind blew as I crossed a dusty lot. I was thinking “how is it possible to feel sad and excited for life at the same time,” when I heard Chimichanga holler across the field: “Be strange, but don’t be a stranger!”

I waved goodbye and stepped onto the wind-blasted highway. My American flag bandanna flapped on my backpack strap. I saw a green sign that said “East Glacer 12.” “That ain’t so bad,” I said to a pile of dirt. And then I threw a thumb.

All of that would’ve been a fitting ending to this whole thing, but as fate would have it, Chimichanga and Dayglo wound up hitching to East Glacier as well. My train to Seattle was delayed, and we sat in a bar watching TCU play Tech. It was a close game. My train finally arrived when TCU finished the game-winning drive. I ran out into the street at dusk just as my train pulled away, sending me on a crazy hitching adventure racing the train to West Glacier. Some nice dudes drove about a buck 20 to get me to West Glacier in time. A wild ride, but by God, we made it.

We always seem to make it.

During the following days, for reasons unknowable to me, the goat standing cliff side on the pinnacle of rock kept recurring in my thoughts. The way I live my life I see symbols and layers in everything. It all tells a story. Living this way, I think, makes life more interesting. And I think about that goat standing sentinel over the valley and then I think about how, unbidden, he simply turned and walked away. Nothing prompted him. He just determined it was time and went on living his life. And I think that’s the way life goes. You just finish things and when their time is up you turn and carry them in your heart and walk on. That’s all I really know how to do, anyway, and so that’s what I’m trying to do now.

  
  

 

   

 

Somewhere in the Bob: Anaconda to East Glacier

We’ve walked into fall, and northern Montana is painted in the most marvelous palette of pastel colors: ochre-tinted rivers fringed in lemon-yellow willows, valleys of dead gray trees mixing in with the living ones — the somber brown and green pines and spruces and firs, and the bursts of bright yellow aspens, their fallow leaves clinging on till winter’s fatal breath; an understory of green-and-tallow grasses, rushes and sedges, and myriad other little plants whose leaves have darkened to gold or withered or rotted out into red-brown splotch-patters – little dots like lentigos; or, otherwise, leaves as dark and red as plumbs. Wildfires have charcoaled large tracts of these Bob Marshall forests, leaving trees burnt graphite black or silver. All around the larches have yellowed. The sky overhead is a ringing deep and royal blue, crisp and smooth enough to drink, and almost always adrift in gigantic puffy clouds, fast-moving and white as spun cotton. Dying leaves drop from deciduous boughs, floating in quiet solemnity to the morning’s frost-hardened soil.

Summertime is over. It reminds me daily that this trip is ending, too.

When we left Lincoln, we climbed high onto the ridges of the Scapegoat Wilderness. The divide here rolled through a series of ups and downs along spines and cliffs that rise abruptly and soar at altitudes of 6,000-7,300 feet. Chimichanga’s folks had met us in Helena, where we bought food and stashed it in their rental car — the plan being to meet them again at Benchmark, in The Bob, where we would resupply.

We had about 55 miles to cover in two days, so walked with intention, and camped the first night in a forested saddle near a creek. In the evening before camping we saw fresh piles of grizzly scat, replete with berries and half-digested fur, so that when we camped the Griz was much on my mind.

I lay my tarp and mat atop a soft fern bed and slept a wink, my head near a dark bend in the trail. Then I woke at 2 a.m. to an animal crunching branches in the forest. An elk in rut, it moaned and bugled and scraped its antlers on tree trunks for hours — a ghostly sound in the tangled, brooding wood.

It’s so close to us, I thought. If this elk doesn’t fear us, then why would a Griz?

And so I couldn’t sleep and sat up frightened multiple times at the forest sounds — the groaning trees and miscellaneous shufflings — sat up with my hiking pole brandished, ready to – ready to do what? To poke a 500 pound bear? And I thought, With the bear’s padded feet, I won’t even hear it coming down this dark trail. The first thing it’s gonna do is eat my face off.

Rationally I know all of this is silly. Bears rarely attack humans. But I have very little control over my imagination in the dark of night. I didn’t sleep for several hours and haven’t cowboy camped since — not in grizzly country.

In the morning Chimi was the first out of camp. He came across a grizzly sow and her cub within a half hour of leaving. So maybe my intuitions weren’t as off-base as I’d thought.

We walked 30 miles to Benchmark Ranch that day. Chimichanga’s folks rented a cabin and brought us pizza and fruits and vegetables and chicken sandwiches and beer. We feasted and talked into the night. Chimi played scrabble with his old man beneath the dim light of a gas lantern. All of us hikers had expected to camp. Instead Chimi’s folks kindly insisted that we sleep in the cabin’s beds. The next day began our long trek through The Bob, so we couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.

The Bob runs for about 60 miles on the Continental Divide, but the wilderness itself is about a million acres squared. When combined with the Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness, it forms the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex — a tract of protected wildlands large enough to encompass nearly 70 Manhattans. That’s more than 1.5 million acres for grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions and Canadian lynxes to call home. The U.S. Forest Service calls it “one of the most completely preserved mountain ecosystems in the world.” The place is named for the famous conservationist and forester (Bob Marshall), a man who regularly hiked 40-mile days through Montanan woods and whose efforts helped preserve 5.4 million acres of American wilderness – which, he wrote, would “contribute to the happiness of many exploratory souls.” I agree, Mr. Marshall, and thankya kindly.

I walked behind Dayglo at the end of our first day, taking switchbacks up a trail, monitoring storm clouds in the sky, when I heard him say, “Whoa.” I rounded the corner and had my first glimpse of the Chinese Wall, a dramatic escarpment that rises on average 1,000 feet from the surface. The 22-mile-long wall formed during the same mountain-building time as the Rocky Mountains, 170 million years ago. Colliding tectonic plates shoved the crust of Montana together, creating an enormous wedge known as the Lewis Overthrust. Many of the jagged and craggy mountains of Glacier National Park owe their formation to this event. The Chinese Wall is made of tannish rock, streaked throughout in black watermarks, so that it looks Gothic on a gray day, like a medieval cathedral with parapets and bastions and towers of solid rock.

 

We camped at the base of the wall as the storm brought rain, sleet, snow and ice. Messed Up walked into camp jamming Pink Floyd. The storm did not abate until 10 a.m. the next day, at which point we packed quickly in frigid weather. As we walked nine miles along the wall, craning our necks and gawking, clouds poured over the wall, scudding rapidly overhead. They boiled out and above a u-shaped valley to our east. Spots of sunlight shone through the rolling clouds and played all day along the wall’s enormous face.

Much like the mesas of northern Cuba, I was astonished to find the Chinese Wall — an impressive formation which I did not know existed until I began this walk.

The mornings are increasingly bitter with cold and darkness. We pack in bursts, slapping our hands together, blowing on them to warm our fingertips, then shoving gear into our bags until our fingers go numb again. The ground is stiff, blue and frozen. Beargrass bows under the weight of hoarfrost, straightening as noonday sunlight melts the ice. And yet there is much to enjoy in chilly hiking. It reminds me of skiing, the way the cold invigorates. You steel yourself against the frost. You feel alive and healthy, a kid on winter’s inaugural snow day: frisky, with frigid airs encasing your body.

It’s as if in the cold your warm heart beats hotter.

Our last day in The Bob we moved through a burnt and frozen landscape, where frost set in on a forest that burned not two weeks prior. Messed Up described it as “winter apocolyptic.” I walked behind Hedgehog, who fights wildland fires when he’s not hiking.

“Smells crispy,” I said.

“Smells like money,” he replied.

We’re now at the gates of Glacier National Park, 100 miles from the Canadian border. The last walk of the trip is set to end Friday.

Connecting Historic Passes: Leadore to Anaconda

   
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.”

   
   

Something and Nothing: Dubois, Yellowstone, Lima, Leadore

  If ever I doubted the world is strange, Yellowstone – where the land boils, bubbles, erupts and steams – will always remind me of Earth’s capacity for surprising variation.

   
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.  

  

 “Man, I don’t really even know what a shooting star is,” I tell Chimichanga as we hike. “Is it when rock particles fly into the earth’s atmosphere and burn up or something?”

“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.

   In my dreams I think I hear the baying of hounds. I wake when light washes over my tent.

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.

So.

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

   

    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

Wild in the Winds: Atlantic City to Dubois

  Two years ago, at a campsite near Lander, Wyoming, I spoke to a man from the Shoshone Indian Tribe. A middle-aged fellow, he grew up in the Wind River Indian Reservation. He wore a cowboy hat and dusty black jeans and his hair hung in a lank swath to his shoulder blades. We sat around a campfire. He was the campsite host. I asked him what he thought of the Wind River Range. His response was this:

“The Winds are wild, man. High rocky peaks, snowy winters, and remote. People get lost in there all the time. And we’ve got big animals up there, too, like grizzlies and wolves. Animals that can actually eat you.”

I still remember the firelight flickering on his face when he shook his head — lost in thought — and repeated himself.

“Yeah, man, the Winds are wild.”

Ever since that conversation, I’ve dreamed of walking the Winds — a range as hard-bitten as it is secluded. The place called to mind mountain men and rendezvous, Sheepeater Shoshones, Green River headwaters, big-wall climbers, glaciated granite spires, and deep circular valleys pocked with lakes and tarns. The Wind Rivers are a rare range in the sense that few Americans seem to know of their existence. They live in the dark-thrown shadows of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Their southern tip abuts the shadeless Great Divide Basin, far from any airport, making them difficult to get to. 

Such divergence from civilization imbued the Winds, in my mind, with a certain duende. Even the names of the mountains’ features became alluring: The Cirque of the Towers, Knapsack Col, Titcomb Basin, Dinwoody Glacier, Jackass Pass, Pingora, Wolf’s Head and Warbonnet peaks.

You can imagine, then, my excitement as we traveled out from the miserable desert at South Pass City, up a web of dusty roads, past fields of sage and tawny grass, fording the Sweetwater River — climbing toward forests, we pressed forward, now — around the Sweetwater Guard Station, scaring up herds of pronghorn, a cow moose and her calf, and pairs of great blue herons — climbing, climbing, and climbing, still —  until we knocked on the doors of the castellated granite spires of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

  

  

  

 Our plan was to through-hike almost the entire range, south to north, from Atlantic City to Dubois: Seven days, a 170-mile carry on the heels of a 120-mile stretch through the Great Divide Basin. All those miles without bed or shower. We also wanted to tag on two alternates — The Cirque of the Towers and Knapsack Col — which were in addition to whatever CDT miles we hoped to accomplish.

   
 The day we left, we bemoaned our heavy packs. All that food, and yet, by the end, it would not be enough.

We began in a group of seven friends, but most everyone hiked at different paces, so we split after the first few days.

  The second night, amidst our push toward the Cirque, we camped at Temple Lake, where a dusty glacier sat plaqued low on the cliff wall above the lake’s southern shore. We could see Warbonnet Peak — which looks like a headdress — tearing up into a sky turning violet for the setting sun. 

Here’s a pic of Chimi with the peak in the distant background, followed by a pic of me taking my Atlantic City breakfast coffee in a warbonnet, too.

  

  
  Tatanka? A man who goes by the name Wild Bill gave us some fishing line and hooks before we left Atlantic City. Our hiking friend O.D. found a dead cricket in his tent. He gave the insect to Chimichanga, who ran a hook through it, attaching it to some line tied to his hiking pole, which he then set up on the lake shore, weighted down with a rock.

Strong winds swept down cliff faces in the night, wracking our tents. We woke late. Chimichanga checked his line. He caught a little trout. We were all low on food rations, anyways, so he gutted it, stored it in a baggie with snow for freshness, and boiled it with his stove for lunch.

  We worked past lakes practically boiling with jumping trout and climbed the boulder fields near Warbonnet to enter the Cirque of the Towers — making our entry at Jackass Pass. The Cirque is a circular valley, bored out by glaciation, surrounded on all ends by either rocky walls or jagged towers of pure gray granite. Within the Cirque are the Warrior Towers; Pingora and Pylon Peaks; Lizard Head, Shark’s Nose, and Wolf’s Head, among many more peaks and buttes and mountains. I counted 18 major spires from Jackass Pass, to say nothing of the dozens of minor spires stacked side by side along the walls. 

   

 In the cirque, you can stand below these peaks, perhaps at Lonesome Lake — a green pool lodged deep down in the basin’s center — and marvel at geology’s handiwork. The glaciated hanging valleys, the aretes pointing up to above 12,000 feet. I’ve never seen a place quite like it. I could imagine myself spending an entire summer in the Cirque, fishing, gawking, learning to climb. It’s that big. It’s that varied. And it’s that amazing.

  We left the Cirque at Texas Pass, above a lake that looks (somewhat) like Texas, wandered down the Washakie drainage, and camped.

   

  

  

 Chimichanga and I decided to push for Knapsack Col the next day. Early in the morning, however, I got to daydreaming and wound up on the wrong trail. I walked for half an hour in the wrong direction before noticing it. Angry and panicked, I tried to bushwhack my way back to the CDT. I picked a waypoint on my GPS and made for it hastily, without checking my cardinal directions. I wound through thick forests, soupy bogs and over hills of white rocks, walking at a rapid clip, exhausting myself. By the time I reached the trail, I realized I had chosen a southerly waypoint — meaning the entire bushwack was in the wrong direction. It would have been faster, in other words, to simply backtrack once I realized I was lost.

I said to myself, “You know what, Chilton, if you’re gonna do idiotic things, you’re not gonna get any rest breaks. That’s your punishment.”

   

 I put the hammer down all day, walking about nine hours without rest, and caught Chimichanga on Lester Pass, just short of Island Lake.

Our first view of Island Lake was stunning: An oval-shaped body of dark-green water with a waterfall pouring into one side and a rocky island with trees in the middle.

  “I can’t believe this is here,” Chimichanga said. “You don’t picture things like this when you imagine Wyoming. I imagine cows and cowboys and grassy prairies — but this is amazing. I could see myself coming back here some day.”

“It almost doesn’t look real,” I said. “It’s so perfect, it’s like someone designed it for a movie. Lord of the Rings or something.”

 I woke to pee at 5 a.m. beneath a sky dark in clouds. It began to sprinkle. Chimi jumped up to put his rainfly on. Then it stopped raining, but the clouds remained.

As we broke camp at Island Lake, with a plan to push through Titcomb Basin for Knapsack Col — a saddle above 12,000 feet with dense boulder fields and a steep glacial sheet — I evaluated the heavens.

“I don’t know what to make of this sky,” I said. “There’s a lot of gray up there; but there’s also some blue.”

We were reluctant to go for so long on an exposed climb with a looming storm. But we packed up and went anyway. “This is what we set out to do,” Chimi said, “so let’s go do it.”

       

 It turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made. The clouds dispersed, allowing the morning sunlight to illuminate the peaks above Titcomb Basin, chief of which is Woodrow Wilson (13,502), a pointy mountain clefted with couloirs. Settled in a throne just below the mountain’s tip, elongated like a colossal white-blue tongue, is Sphinx Glacier. I never truly understood humanity’s recent fixation with glaciers until I saw the Sphinx. I’ve realized all along that glaciers are important for measuring the speed and extent of global warming. After all, what could be more stark and visible than a gigantic block of ice quickly and suddenly melting away? An important image. An important tool for proof of what’s happening, sure. But upon seeing the Sphinx I understood glaciers also stand for something more — or, rather, glaciers stand for nothing more than themselves. And that, alone, is more than enough. 

What I mean to say is I understood – while hiking toward the sunlit sphinx in its throne on the mount — that glaciers are a good purely because of their sheer grandiosity.  Yes, I understood, finally, the grandiosity of glaciers, and how that splendor is set within fragility, and how we are witnessing the rapid destruction of something big and glorious and beautiful. I understood, to wit, that glaciers are good in and of themselves, you see — because of their beauty. I mean, when I saw the Sphinx, I stopped in my tracks, set my hiking poles down, and said “holy shit, wow, this is fantastic, I mean, holy moly, this thing is absolutely amazing…” and I stood there dumbstruck near a stream and a rock for quite a few minutes just gawking like a stupid cow or something, before I remembered I had a camera and took a bad picture, one which is itself an injustice, an insult, really, to something so purely gigantic and old and dying and magnificent.

It’s really very sad to me now — having seen the Sphinx and others — that glaciers are melting. The destruction is irrevocable. Something beautiful will have gone from this planet. So I’m glad I went up there and saw the Sphinx while I had the chance.

Anyway.

 

  
 Chimichanga and I paused during our climb to the Knapsack beside a boulder the size of a city bus, which served to block the wind, and got to talking about how we were low on food, and got to pining for town – a shower, a bed, a meal, a day off our feet.

“I might quad-zero in Dubois,” he said.

“I might rent an apartment,” I said. “Find a girl. Get married. Settle down.”

“Raise me a couple kids,” Chimi continued. “Finish the trail in a few decades.”

   

 From the Col – which is a saddle – we had fantastic vistas of yet more peaks, lakes, glaciers and fields of broken rock.

   

  

  

  

  

  

 We dropped into the Green River valley, skirted Squaretop Mountain, and toured alongside the meandering river, teal-colored from glacial sediment. We encountered several southbound CDT hikers, stopping to chat with old friends whom we hadn’t seen since they flipped north from New Mexico. 

   


  

 We stopped near a creek to eat our dwindling snacks. 

“Rations have been reduced from meager to bare bones,” Chimi said.

“The children have scurvy,” I added.

“The children have scurvy and are cannibalizing each other.”

   
  

  

 The trail advanced through grassy fields, over Gunsight Pass, and near Lake of the Woods, where we camped.

   
 Cookie Monster caught us that night, having braved the Knapsack Col and Cirque of the Towers as well. We heard from southbounders of a “rogue grizzly” near the pass. It apparently circled a hiker’s tent, pawing and grunting all night.

In the morning, Chimichanga squeezed remnants of honey into his mouth.

“Hittin’ that honey bear for breakfast?” I asked.

“I’m hungry,” he grumbled.

“Whatever gets you through the day.”

“Some days, you eat the bear,” Cookie remarked. “Some days, the bear eats you.”

  The last 30 miles to Togwotee Pass were fraught with confusing sections of trail. We all got split up. I spent an hour wandering off trail, got back on, and spent another half hour mistakenly hiking south. Very frustrating. I don’t want to talk about it.

Toward the end of the day I ran into a game warden on an ATV. He was out looking for a griz that had killed a calf. 

“Where’s your bear spray?” he asked me.

“I don’t have any.”

“That’s really risky. I don’t hardly get out of my truck to pee without it.”

“I’ll think of getting some in Dubois,” I said. ( I didn’t)

I found a big bushwhacking shortcut on my map and got in front of Cookie Monster. He came up on me as I munched my last snack, which actually left me more ravenous than I already was. We walked together and kept finding shortcuts and wound up at the pass at 7 p.m., after hiking 34 exhausting trail miles. We hitched in to Dubois only to find that all the motels were booked. A hiker named Axel, from Austin, scored a stay at the Episcopal Church, and let us in at 10 p.m., after we ate a massive meal, as is tradition. Sans shower, I slept grumpily on the floor again. 

Chimi hitched in the next day after getting so lost (his navigating application broke) he spent eight hours bushwhacking northeast through the forest. 

  Dubois is really something else. Several motels along the drag feature giant bear and elk statues. The town boasts “the largest jackalope exhibit in the world.” I saw a sign that said, “Wyoming Population: 64 men, 200 nervous sheep.” To enter the “Laundro Mat,” you walk through the gigantic skull of a steer. We showered there in a coin-operated shower. Each quarter buys you 30 seconds. I put one in and the water didn’t warm in the first 30 seconds before turning off, so I kept feeding the box quarters, realizing all the while that jamming all those coins in simultaneously cut into my paid-for shower time. I said, “Well, now, this is quite a racket.” And then I changed into a Utah Jazz t-shirt, off-brand Nike shorts and New York Yankee sandals – my new outfit, which I bought for a grand total of $2 at the local thrift store.

  The next stretch takes us into Yellowstone. I’m very excited. 

Today, we continue north into the clouds
   

  

Scenes From the Trail

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

The Longest Road: Encampment to Atlantic City

  In Wyoming I walk down lonely dirt roads jamming “The Weight” on repeat. It might be the perfect song for waltzing through high deserts during the dog days of summer – perfect in the way it indulges the gypsy-souled, rambling mood, and in how it enhances the feeling that I’m nothing more or less than a dirty tired traveler moving full-heartedly through a great western American landscape.  


 (FirstMan cruisin)
I leave Rawlins with a plan to catch Chimichanga, who left a few hours earlier. About 12 miles in I see a rattle snake, then walk one more mile, and cowboy camp near a spring. I cook dinner in a culvert to block the wind. At 10 p.m. I’m about to fall asleep when I hear a sound like hooves scraping dirt. I fumble afraid out of my sleeping bag to see Cookie Monster. He’s standing there with his headlamp on.

“Sorry to come up on you like that,” he says. Then he camps nearby.

  
In the night a mouse eats one of my candy bars. I hear it scampering on the tarp near my head. I wake and bright it with my cell phone light. It flees and returns and runs over my sleeping bag, right over my stomach, and I pop up and send the little rodent airborne. It hits the ground stunned, revives quickly, and scurries off into the bramble. For two hours I battle the returning mouse, trying to smack it with my hiking pole as it makes raids on my food bag, until I’m finally too cold and tired to care, so I fall asleep.

Beginning late in the morning, Cookie and I walk a road that never veers. Twenty miles or more of two-track without so much as a curve. You can see the road; you can see your future; and you know: it’s nothing but heat and dirt and boredom. An entire morning of it, followed by an afternoon, an evening, a sleep, and more of the same, until we’ve stepped each inch of the 120 miles to Atlantic City.
The sun can’t kill me, I have water. Even though it feels like it can, the sun can’t kill me, can it? 

     
 Cookie and I walk and talk all day for several days, and I look for signs of Chimichanga. I feel bad that he’s traversing this desert alone. It seems so changeless. So hot. As much a mental challenge as a physical one. Every so often, at water stops, we find notes from Chimi. Sometimes he taunts us – “never gonna make it.” Sometimes he writes funny poems, “every time the wind whispers, it says the name Chimichanga…” 

  
  
FirstMan catches us at a water source just as we’re preparing to leave. At one point, his water bladder fell out of his pack. Cookie, who has capacity for eight liters, lends him a bottle. We press on.

  
We kick up dust and proceed ad nauseam down dry dirt roads in arid airs, surrounded by so much space and impossibly gigantic Wyoming skies. Cookie, a Bostonian, tells me of his travels. He spent a decade touring the world. One year he circumnavigated the entire globe, bookending the trip at Burning Man. He tells me about the Community Boathouse in Boston, the Mahoosuc Notch, Newburyport and Plum Island and his mini sailing adventures around New England. The dude is conversant on everything from artisanal brewing to the destabilization of the Middle East, and – as we hike like ants in a desert that dwarfs mountains – he teaches me the difference between bourbon and rye. 

  
The only thing longer than Cookie Monster’s beard is his trail-hiking mileage log. He’s hiked in the range of 7,200 miles. When he completes the CDT, he’ll have broken 8,000 miles. He’s got the sport down to an art. In fact his hiking style is a thing of beauty. Rather than sacrifice comforts for weight, he totes a monstrosity of a pack. The thing looks like a time capsule loaded for a launch into outer space. And if someone tries to give him lip about it, he says – with a playful smile – he says, “You know what, bro, it ain’t heavy if you ain’t weak.”

  
When I don’t talk with The Monster, my mind is out to pasture. An unspooling film roll of free-associating images, songs, random words, scraps of incomplete poetry, lists enumerating aches and pains, girls’ faces and bodies and snippets of scenes from the past; projections of the future. A reel of worthless thoughts:

– If the mountain-naming people let me name a mountain, I’d name it Ice Cream Cone Peak.

– The Red Desert is more greenish yellow.

– If people truly believed in fate, they’d take greater risks. How could any amount of caution guard against what’s already written in the books?

– There are train wrecks. There are love stories.

– This road is at least as long, dusty, and straight as it is idiotic.

– I would kill a man in cold blood for an ocean water from Sonic.

  
   

 Midday is insufferable. We search in vain for shade. Mornings and evenings are better. I enjoy the wild mustangs, scuttling horned toads, and pronghorns. I love the late days’ long light, how it illuminates the blonde blowing bunchgrass, glowing, and turns the prairies orange – almost as if they were burnished. I take pleasure in watching aqua-green sagebrush wave in winds unceasing, especially when the sage reflects light like disco streamers – waving, dancing, psychedelic streamers catching and throwing light in rainbows of darkish hues. In these moments, just before dusk, the sage appears to bioluminesce. 

   
   I think I also see an apparent artistry in the way watercourses sculpt the grassy hills and in how the full moon hangs above crescents of peach-pink wispy clouds, almost as if these scenes were designed artfully – with an aesthetic in mind. Almost as if they were created to appeal to the human conception of beauty – although, on the other hand, humans formed in the midst of these landscapes – part and parcel of these landscapes – so much so that our very lives and lineages are woven into the fabric of the wilds, just as the wilds are woven into the fabric of our instincts. So it would make sense, then, that we should find these natural scenes awesome, if we are as much a part of them as they are a part of us, and if our forebears for millennia have lived and died at the mercy of the natural world’s power. 

  
Oh, but all of this is just speculation. Really, at the end of the day, I don’t pretend to understand these things. 

At the end of the day I walk down a line in pain and think in circles about existence and girls and food and wondering how my family is and where my friends from home are and the silk liner within my sleeping bag.
I want this desert to end. I want to walk into the Winds. Do I want this trip to end? Yes, today, I do. But maybe not tomorrow. Maybe I want it to end right now, but I won’t want it to end in five minutes. It hurts, this trip, right now – a physical pain, not emotional.

I try to enjoy the desert. Really, I do. But the moments of beauty are so widely spaced, and couched within an attitude of weariness, monotony, and a constant yearning for rest and water. I’m filthy. Coated in dust. A film of sweat-salt and dirt and sunscreen congeals on my face, thickening each day, forming waxy clumps in my filthy beard. My stomach groans because much of the water is polluted by cow shit and pronghorn shit, and this makes me angry, because I’ve got myself into a situation where I have no alternative but to drink shitwater, treated with iodine. And my feet hurt. Each of my toes, engorged with blood from the pressure of pounding, feels as if it might explode. I remove my shoes. My socks are hard as cardboard with sweat and dust and pounding. My feet smell of sweat and funk, and they itch, and when I rub them lightly on rocks a tingling sensation ushering through the soles of my feet is almost orgasmic. My toes swell. They look like Lil Smokies. There is very little glamour in this desert, and even less comfort.  

  
But then we come to a pipe of flowing spring water – clear, cold, free of animal dung. Upon seeing it I say what everyone says – no room or need for creativity – I say, “WATER!”

We tank up. I slug two liters.
  
Our second to last day we somehow get the damn-fool notion to walk 40 miles. We get on the trail at 6:45 a.m. We walk all day – with three long breaks – until 10:30 p.m., at which point we top out at a hill above the Sweetwater River. A full moon shines at our backs. My moon shadow slides over sagebrush, and the sagebrush, lit wanly in pale white light, reaches south toward shadowy hills at the fringe of a silent landscape. It’s eerie how silent this desert gets at night. The river runs slowly, its glassy waters dark as black marble. 

We take a ridiculously late dinner at 10:45 p.m. – at which point we’ve hiked 35 miles – on a bridge above the river, get up and stumble through the desert for five more miles. A pair of zombies, we stop at the 40 mile mark, which, coincidentally, is right where the CDT intersects with the Oregon Trail. It’s 12:30 a.m., fully 18 hours of hiking. We’re so very weary that neither of us want to pitch a tent. Cookie Monster says, “I’m gonna sleep right here, right on the Oregon Trail.” I follow his lead and we Cowboy Camp right on the tracks of the trail that brought nearly half a million settlers west in the mid 1800s.
  
I recently read an Irish proverb in a roadside cafe. It said, “The longest road out is the shortest road home.” I think it means to say long journeys teach you about yourself. If that interpretation is correct, then these long roads taught me simply that I don’t want to walk long roads in the desert anymore. It wasn’t a long stretch in the the basin, but I’m ready for the mountains.

I’m writing this now on my phone at a place called Miner’s Grubstake in Atlantic City, a town with two restaurants and nothing much else. It’s a great stop, though, because we’ve got food and beer and air conditioning. 
Chimichanga just came in. His shirt is drenched in sweat.
“Dude, how was walking that thing alone?” I asked him.

“I actually liked it,” he said. “At times – like in the evenings and mornings – it was so quiet, there wasn’t even a single cricket chirping. I don’t think I really even opened my mouth for four days, you know, just because there was nobody to talk to.”
FirstMan came in just now, too. He’s surprisingly spry and jaunty for having traveled so many miles through that inhospitable desert. I guess each section treats everyone differently. The cool thing is we’re all here in good health and spirits. 
From here we walk into the Wind River Range, after maybe another day or two in the desert. During planning for this trip, I remember thinking, “Of all the places this trail takes us, I’m most excited for the San Juans, Glacier National Park, and the Winds.” 

   
   We’re talking about making a 170-mile push from here to Dubois, skipping the hitch to Pinedale. If we make it to Dubois, that’ll be 290 miles and likely 12 days of sleeping in the great outdoors – a new record for me. It’ll be good, though. I’m ready to throw myself to the Winds.

Colorado’s Closure: Steamboat Springs to Encampment

Chimichanga’s parents dropped us at Rabbit Ear’s Pass above Steamboat Springs after having arrived there around the same time as us, owing to a serendipitous encounter.

They were (still are) on a roadtrip in the West, and, while driving over Battle Pass, Wyoming, they pulled over because they saw a man hitching.

This man happened to be Maine Man, who we hiked with through much of southern Colorado.

Maine Man needed a ride south to Steamboat; Chimi’s parents were headed south, anyway; and we were, of course, hiking north to there, from Grand Lake. So we all met up for a fun night in our last Colorado town.

At the pass, Chimi’s Dad gave me a bag of cherries. His mom tucked two sticks of incense and a bouquet of tiny wildflowers into my shirt pocket. Then she did a cartwheel. Then Chimichanga and I backpedaled up the dirt road, waving goodbye, turned and departed.

Generally, I hate goodbyes. I get all mopey. But this goodbye was great. It was more a celebration of two intersecting adventures.

Our adventure took us through subalpine fields near Rabbit Ears Pass, dimpled with lakes and scattered with wildflowers. We saw Indian paintbrush and yarrow and sunflowers tall enough to brush the stirrup of a short-legged man riding a 17-hand horse.

We stopped at Lake Elmo in the late afternoon for a snack, sitting on a log near the shore. I bit into a “Cool Mint Chocolate” Cliff Bar.

“Wow,” I said, “this is a really good one.”

“You’ve never had that one before?” Chimi said. He was looking over his maps. “I can’t believe you’ve never tried ‘Cool Mint Chocolate.‘”

He seemed perplexed – maybe even a little offended.

I shrugged, looked at the label. “It has caffeine,”I said. “I wouldn’t have eaten it so late in the day if I knew it had caffeine.”

Chimi stopped what he was doing, set his map on his lap, took a breath and turned to me. “Dude,” he said, “you have got to step up your Cliff-Bar game. You have no idea, do you? I bet you’ve never even tried ‘Pomegranate Chia.'” He shook his head in disgust. “I thought you were the real deal.”

Then he went back to his map.

After that drubbing, I ate my Cliff Bar sadly.

Colorado’s Diminuindo

Following a night at Summit Lake — an idyllic setting wherein placid waters reflected pale moonlight, frosty stars and a row of pitch-pine trees — we worked our way into the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. 

All throughout the region we traipsed amid purple panicled flowers that smell like honeysuckle and look like lupine but are actually bluebonnets. Most of our days in the Zirkels were overcast, with light sprinklings of rain. We moved through rolling mountaintop parklands strewn with granite boulders. The trail’s grade was mild, so we made good time in the direction of Wyoming.

The Rabbit Ears Range and Mt. Zirkel Wilderness combined to form Colorado’s diminuindo. Unlike most of the state’s previous ranges – jagged, jarring, with severe elevation gains and losses – the final two were gradual and easy.

Colorado finished the way a good song does: coasting to a close.


Wyoming Day

We camped about 14 miles shy of the border. In the morning I woke and hollered to Chimi.

“Today’s a big day,” I said. “It’s Wyoming day.”

“Yup,” he replied. “Let’s go get it.”

We took a two-track road that turned to trail a few miles before the border. I could feel my gait quickening. I wanted that border. As we neared, the maps north of Colorado disappeared on my GPS, because I had yet to activate the Wyoming Topos. It looked like we were dropping off the edge of the earth.

The border was marked with two signs and crystal-colored rocks set in a row. One set read “WY;” the other read “CO.”

Crossing, we gave one another a fist-bump and took one photo looking like hoodrats. A mild celebration at best, which is strange considering this border had been a purpose of our efforts for nearly two months. Wyoming took a moment to sink in, I think. We needed to feel the arid winds, to see the wildlife, the people, the first town.

At the time, the border, for me, was simply a reminder – good or bad – that this journey is teleological.

Then we cruised into the Sierra Madres. In keeping with my tendency for doing gangsta things since ’87, I cowboy camped my first night in the Cowboy State. 

On a high ridge we cooked our dinners while watching the sun set over rounded, timbered mountaintops. Wyoming. Wyoming. I kept saying the word in my head, just to try the name of the place that would once again be my home – this time for a month or so.

By afternoon the next day – after working through a maze of subalpine forests and pink granite boulders, marking our way by use of numerous well-placed cairns – we hitched from Battle Pass into Encampment, Wyoming.

We are now in Rawlins. A little more than 100 miles into the state. The next post will tell of crossing the high desert.

The Euphoric Moment – Addendum

Many times during the walk, but especially during the mornings after coffee, I entered a certain – I don’t know what to call it – maybe a mood. A state of mind that coincides with exercise and mountain air and a special condition of atmosphere. Perhaps it’s a witching hour – although it’s a time independent of clocks, a time unstuck in time, as it were – when shafts of light slant through groaning trees and birds call at far-off distances and the air is clean and cool.

I began calling these times “euphoric moments.” And I’m trying each day to get a read on what prompts them. I don’t know much, but here’s what I’ve discerned:

The euphoric moment comes when you do away with thoughts of progress, like how many miles you need, where is the next water source, what do people think of me, what shall I do after the trail, who am I to be and what kind of man shall I someday become. The moments come only when you walk lackadaisically, without a care for the future, enjoying the place in its immediacy, because this moment – the one you are in – is like the Wyoming skies, specifically in the way it seems as though it alone will go on forever and ever.

The euphoric moment is ushered, often, on your breath. On your breathing.

If the moment is perfect, you might not even notice it, for it is an integral contentedness, organic and endemic, like when you’re drinking red wine on the balcony of a motel room and watching the sun sink slowly over a mountain lake, a time when time itself moves drippingly, and you can’t bother to be assailed by all the multifarious concerns of the greater world. The sweet moments, when all is suspended and the simple act of living is suffused with magic – these are the moments I live for.

And, I’ve noticed, the more time I spend on-trail, the more often these moments arrive, so that my way of being is defined more each day by tranquility, serenity and the peace of the present, rather than the anxiety of becoming. The mood is of being, rather than becoming. It is of enjoying now, truly, rather than some fabricated conception of later. At this point – which is the only point in time I’m guaranteed – I understand more than ever that I like to think slow, to move slowly, and to savor these fleeting moments in life, partly because each of them builds eventually, unyieldingly, toward death – a small but true part of why the moments are all so very precious.

Chimichanga is good at living in the present. He says often that “right now, your time and your youth are the most important things you have” and “the thing people overestimate most is their time.”

Little Chimyisms like that.

I don’t know. All of these thoughts, this long and difficult journey… it feels as though I’m arriving at something. But what? I can feel it. It’s like a penumbral sort of sensation, one of coming closer to something, of getting at something. An understanding, yes, like when you’re arriving at a truth.

Maybe I’m crazy. Or maybe you know…

Who knows?

Don Delillo said all plots tend deathward.

Maybe that’s why Thoreau said: “Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. …There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.”

Scenes From the Trail

  

        

Back in the Game: Grand Lake to Steamboat Springs

A ligament on the back side of my left knee felt tight and strained as I limped down Highway 34 in the direction of Grand Lake.

A man saw me, pulled over in his pickup, honked twice and fired up his hazard lights.

I wasn’t even hitching. I think he just noticed.

“Do you want a ride into town, pardner?” he asked.

I hopped in the bed and rode, relieved, the last two miles.

My Dad drove up from New Mexico to meet me in Grand Lake, which is a small touristy affair — more or less a line of boutiques, art galleries and restaurants set against the enchanting backdrop of a dark mountain lake. Speed boats trailed skiers in wakes across gray-black waters. Mirrored within Grand Lake’s depths were the timbered slopes of Shadow Mountain.

I rendezvoused with Dad at a coffee shop. He told me I smelled of body odor. I said, “What do you expect?” And we had a laugh.

Then he noticed I was limping. I gave him the news about my knee but said I needed to keep moving, to head north sooner rather than later, because, after all, time is short — as it always is.

“It feels like I’ve been in Colorado for about a hundred years,” I explained.

On the other hand, I told him, my knee hurts. “The pain is worse than anything I’ve felt since this trip began.”

Dad thought about it. “If you hurt your knee any worse, or if it keeps worsening, you’ll be out altogether,” he said. “It might be smarter to stay. But let’s just play it by ear.”

I remained in Grand Lake for two days – one more than I had originally planned.

Fattening Up

During the off-period, Dad “fattened me up,” as he put it. I ate biscuits and gravy, breakfast burritos, hamburgers, sandwiches, steaks, apples, bananas, various and sundry ‘vegetable medleys’ — gorging myself damn well near to repletion with all kinds of tasty delights — and chased it all down at every opportunity with desserts: blueberry scones, thick slabs of chocolate cake, ice-cream sundae s’mores, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

All decadence lost on-trail was regained doubly in Grand Lake.

My dad is a good dad – not so much because he buys me food – but because he cares. He takes time. He wants to take time. Not all dads are like that. So — I just want to say — thanks, Pops.

On Wednesday, I met with Chimichanga, who likewise took time off with his parents. It sounds like they had a good time, too. They took a loop through Colorado, visiting hot springs and several mountain towns and cities, before stopping by Red Rocks for a Wilco Concert in Morrisson.

Chimichanga seemed unconcerned about being behind on the trail.

“I think pretty much everyone’s ahead,” I told him.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Zero days are delicious.”

Come to think of it, though, I shouldn’t have expected any other reaction from Chimi: He seems to have a deep abiding faith in the universe unfolding as it will. He doesn’t put too much effort into changing it.

Chimichanga, in other words, just rides the wind.

A Storm from the Rabbit Ears

I didn’t say much, but the first few days of walking, I worried about my knee. ‘If I’m unable to push big miles now — at this point in the journey — this could be a game-ender.’

I fretted silently as we cruised through the Never Summer Wilderness – a section of heavily wooded trail, moist from all the recent rain. The first night we raced a storm over Bowen Pass, camping low in trees just before the clouds opened up. Then we continued on easy tread through forests and meadows. And these were the meadows of your dreams: acid green, ringed in forests, overgrown with hip-high grasses and sedges, flowing with creeks, teeming with wildflowers – white yarrow and bursting sunflowers and purple aspen daisies. Meadows that remind you of Huck Finn or games of Kick-the-Can or picnics in prairies with pretty girls.

We worked our way into the Rabbit Ears Range, taking the summit of Parkview Mountain – the tallest in the range – and pausing for rest in a derelict fire-lookout structure. From the promontory I could see the witches’-hat summits of the Never Summer Mountains; the Colorado Medicine Bows running north to Wyoming’s border, where they become the Wyoming Medicine Bows; the sprawling flats of North Park, Colorado; and, to the west, the mountains of the Zirkel Wilderness — the last range we’ll explore before exiting the Centennial State.

We descended a ridge, clambering over alpine boulder patterns – rock arrangements sitting half-buried in sinks. The declivities formed from frost heaving in the long, harsh, high-mountain winters. Once the boulders sink in, they succor varieties of wildflowers from wind. I saw Alpine Avens, Moss Campion, Narrow-Leaf Chiming Bell, Alpine Forget-Me-Nots and King’s Crown – all seeking refuge among the rocks or spongy matte plants of the alpine tundra.

That evening we watched a cloud burst open over yonder ranges. Where we walked, along a high ridge running off Parkview Mountain, the air was cool and calm. But the storm clamored over hills to our south. We heard booming thunder and said ‘whoa’ every time blue bolts of lightning forked across the sky.

“I’m loving this storm,” Chimi said, “as long as it’s over there.”

“It looks like it’s coming right for us,” I said.

“Let’s just see what happens.”

Haystack stood between us and the storm, which traveled north, trailing a sheet of sweeping rain.

Just before the storm reached Haystack’s flank, the winds changed direction. The storm hooked east. And we were audience to it as it washed up and over a set of hills opposite the forested basin. The mountain gods showed us — for what felt like the first time ever — that they are capable of mercy.

We circumnavigated Haystack Mountain, camped at Troublesome Pass, ascended Poison Ridge and dropped on forest roads from Sheep Mountain, clear to Highway 14.


     

And that’s how it went for most of the section. We moved quickly on easy tread through decent weather. It took three nights to do about 70 miles.

“You don’t get a lot of good days on the CDT,” Chimichanga remarked, “so enjoy them while they’re here.”

 Colorado Bleeding Into Wyoming

As we neared the highway Saturday morning, I looked out across the landscape. “Wow,” I said, “this looks a lot like southern Wyoming.”

“I was about to say the same thing,” Chimi said.

Ahead of us rolled hills of sage and rabbit brush, bounded on either end by bunch-grass prairies, creased with creek-carved sloughs – riparian areas which were themselves tangled in dark green willows.

We were picked up by the second car on the highway. The driver spoke with a drawl. “Don’t mind the occasional swerve,” he told us. “My daddy always said, ‘you just gotta keep it between the ditches.'”

He put The Doobie Brothers on loud; smoked some kind sativa out of what looked like a crack pipe; and swung his little Pontiac gracefully round the curves and down the hills into the wide flat farming dale in which is nestled Steamboat Springs. The Yampa Valley.

I didn’t notice until I got into town that I had forgotten about my knee. That it feels completely better partially vindicates my decision to double zero in Grand Lake.

Full vindication doesn’t come till Canada.

We’re leaving Steamboat tomorrow. The Cowboy State rides in our immediate horizon. Early on in Wyoming, we will transect the Great Divide Basin – roughly 150 miles of reportedly flat, hot, dry, upland desert.

I’m rested and I’m ready to begin. 

Scenes From the Trail

 

Rambling the Fogbound Divide: Breckenridge to Grand Lake

By the time I left Breckenridge the Monday after the Fourth of July, rain clouds had moved in over the surrounding mountains.

I got on the bus alone. The bus driver, a portly black woman with concerned eyes, said: “I’ll take you out there, honey, but you’re gonna get wet. You sure you don’t want to stay another night?”

“I’m used to it,” I told her. “We’ve been getting wet a lot on the trail.”

An elderly cowboy who looked like the Marlboro Man sat across from me – boots, leather vest, silver hair tied back in a pony tail. I noticed him appraising my pack.

“Howdy,” I said.

“You from around here?”

“Nope. Texas.”

“Well, you should know, then, that we’ve got cats,” he said. “Big cats. Bobcats and cougars.”

“I did know this,” I said. “I hope to see one.”

“No,” he said, “you don’t.”

“Yes, actually, I do. I’ve seen a mountain lion before in Wyoming. All they do is run away.”

I got off the bus annoyed. I don’t like it when people try to provoke fear – talk down to you from their artificial positions of authority.

I felt strong and brave and invincible.

It’s funny, though, how the mountains have a way of popping your ballooning head. Of pulling you up short right when you think you’re too big for your britches.

Twelve miles out, I got hit by rain just as I made camp. After that, it did not stop raining for three days.

  Fogbound Rambling

On the morning of the second day, I ascended 1,000 feet through fog to a place called Georgia Pass. For the past couple hundred miles the CDT was coincident with the Colorado Trail, meaning nice tread and easy navigating. At Georgia Pass, however, the trails split. All my easy miles were behind me.

The CDT dropped and climbed along high mountain spines while dense mist and intermittent rain soaked all my gear.

In one day, I climbed:

– Glacier Peak – 12,858

– Whale Peak – 12,999

– A random summit – 13, 189

– Geneva Peak – 13, 194

– Sullivan Mountain – 13,093

– Santa Fe Peak – 13,180

Between each peak, the route rollercoastered into saddles – meaning high elevation gains and losses. I hoped to get off the mountains to camp in a drainage through which ran Peru Creek, but after 23 miles, I was freezing and exhausted. As I looked for a place to camp up high – a berm or swale or in the lee of a hill – thunder rumbled overhead. I could actually hear the crackling of the electricity in the lightning bolting through the ceiling of clouds.

Quickly, I found a spot that was doable. Unzipping my backpack, I realized the rain soaked through my jacket sleeves and drenched my hiking-shirt sleeves – which, in turn, chilled the tendons in my forearms, making it difficult to move my fingers. So when I tried to pitch my tent in howling winds and rain, I couldn’t do it. I had to get on hands and knees and clench the strings between my molars to pull everything tight.

Tent pitched, I climbed inside, shivering, and sulked in my sleeping bag. A very dreary mood.

Something about the fog and rain – the inability to see anything beyond 30 feet – made me feel lonesome and desolate. I wrote in my journal:

“I keep thinking back to the Fourth of July in Denver, all the fun I had and how I was surrounded by friends. There is something difficult and poignant about the abrupt transition from being immersed in the revelry of friendship to this sudden solitude on the stormy divide. There are no comforts around me. I can’t even see anything or talk to anyone to cheer me up. All I can do is trudge along – cold and wet – hoping the rain and the bleak white clouds will just go the hell away. Oh, this is terrible. And in a way I am ashamed of it, because here I am, whining and complaining about the first time I’ve hiked alone since New Mexico’s boot heel. Really, though, I just need sunshine, a view – something around which to orient myself – not just physically, but emotionally. Maybe there will be sunshine tomorrow. Please let there be sunshine tomorrow…”

Toes on the Ledge

I poked my head out of my tent in the morning. More misty grayness, thunder, flowing clouds of unfathomable depths.

I thought about staying through the morning in my tent, but was intimidated by what lay ahead on the trail. When I feel anxiety about something, my tendency is to want to get it over with. So I got up and broke camp and began navigating the trail-less ridges in fog. To do so, I turned on my GPS and left it on in my hip belt. That way it would track my movements.

In my head rolled some high-lonesome country song about a lovelorn bloke whose shorty left him up a creek.

“Come and sit by my side if you love me,

Do not hasten to bid me adieu,

and remember the Red River Valley,

and that cowboy who loved you so true.”

The world is filled with so much love and heartache, joy and loneliness – passionate people swinging violently between the poles. Better to take these chances in love and life, though. Better to let your guard down; to make yourself vulnerable; to rush heedlessly into relationships; to entangle your soul with that of another, so that it gets harder and harder to say goodbye – regardless of the damage it might cause.

Life is fuller with your toes on the ledge.

Once lower, I was out of the clouds. Though more rain threatened, I tried to eat some breakfast and dry my tent. Pitching a wet tent and climbing cold into it provokes a feeling that is patently dismal. And yet no sooner had I exploded my gear out of my pack than it started drizzling. I cursed the weather and put everything back in my bag and set out on what I knew would be a tough, scary day.

That’s because on that day I had to go up and over Grays Peak, and I knew it was going to storm.

Racing over Grays

The route followed the Argentine Trail along a high rocky ridge. The mapmaker put a note on the map saying the ridge involves exposure and scrambling. I knew it would be a challenge to navigate in the icy rain, scudding clouds, and misty fog. My mantra of the morning was, “Just get over Grays, Chilt. Stay focused. Make it happen. Everything’s better after that.”

Atop the ridge, fog blanketed everything. It felt like walking in a cold tunnel except with the frightening spacial sensation that you stumbled blind upon a mountaintop, with drops on either side. As the ridge narrowed, I found myself climbing with hands and feet over rocks, wind buffeting my jacket, water sloshing off the brim of my cap, the rushing vacuum of a long fall pumping that telltale feeling of dread into my stomach.

Why am I doing this? I thought. What is the point?

It took me about three miserable hours to climb to the 14,278-foot peak of Grays. I stopped to breathe during the snowstorm for about 45 seconds before bailing quickly into the valley below.

That night more rain threatened. The trail cruised low down Ruby Gulch before hooking beneath I-70. As I passed through the underpass, I suddenly stopped.

I said, “Well, here’s a roof over my head.”

And so I pitched my tent right beneath I-70, sleeping under the overpass like a bum. I wouldn’t even call it a low point in my life. The only thing I hate more than trying to sleep to the sound of interstate commerce is three nights in a row of soggy gear.

 Ridgerunning the Divide

The next morning hundreds of pale-blue, pale-purple Colorado columbines studded the meadows along the trail leading up Herman Gulch.

The route went above timberline for about 15 miles, a fantastic experience in sunshine ridgerunning.

As I neared Berthoud Pass, I ran into two hikers – Cookie Monster and FirstMan. At the pass, there was a warming hut. Chimichanga’s parents had left hamburgers and beer and apple pies – all of which I devoured greedily. Cookie Monster, FirstMan and I decided on a whim to hitch in to Winter Park on account of we wanted a beer.

The next day we returned to highway 40 to hitch back to the trail. As our ride pulled up, I said, “Bon voyage, Winter Park. We were here for a good time, not a long time.”

“In and out and nobody gets hurt,” Cookie said.

We piled in to the bed of a truck, gave it a double-tap on the cab, and were off – back on the open road. Free to move about as we please, to range widely within the bigness of this world, without a single tether holding us back.

Oh, you gotta love it.

 

We felt like reined up race horses, slavering at the bit for our riders – the weather – to let us off, to put the spurs to us, to give us a good hard roweling across the ribs.

In the late evening we summitted James Peak (13,308-feet), traversed yet another ridge, outrunning an impending storm, and dropped below treeline. We crossed an old trestle with badly deteriorating woodwork to camp on the flat grade of an old railroad bed. Cookie Monster made me a cocktail which I drank inside as rain beat down on my tent. We talked about the day; surviving the peaks; the rainstorms nipping at our heals. We discussed our hiker dinners and hiking styles, how Cookie Monster packs a bag with a convenience store’s worth of amenities – including (but certainly not limited to) five pairs of socks, a speaker, three types of spiritous liquors and a bear canister jam-packed with food.

So we talked, in other words, about topics related to the trip, because we were all thoroughly enmeshed in the adventure of it – filled up with the joy of having survived another day in the Game of CDT.

I love hanging out with dudes for whom life consists in so much more than getting money and chasing panties. That’s a crude way of putting it, I know, but crudeness has its place in the world. Piety often shrouds corruption, whereas crudeness tells nakedly of the truth.

Anyhow.

 The Smallest Bar in Colorado

The next morning we highballed it 25 miles in the direction of Grand Lake. I tweaked my knee during the days of summitting, so have been limping badly every day after about 15 miles. The pain is bad and worries me, which is why I’m taking a rest in Grand Lake.

That night I limped down the road near Monarch Lake to discover Cookie Monster sitting on the porch of a random forest lodge with a beer.

FirstMan came up and said, “Some bikers gave me some bratwursts.”

And so we grilled them over an open fire pit.

 

A man who looked like Santa Claus took me inside the lodge and opened a door to a backroom. “You’ve just found the smallest bar in Colorado,” he said.

It was a boxcar of a room with liquors on shelves and beers on tap. I thought I had found the Shangri La of the American West.

The Arapaho Valley Ranch. We had a great time.

I walked in to Grand Lake on Sunday. My Dad is here and my knee hurts so I am taking a double zero. I really hope my knee heals quickly. I am disappointed by it, because my body has held up well thus far, and for a problem like a knee to hit me now is bad news. Colorado has slowed us considerably. I have to hike 23 miles every single day, with no stops in town, to finish by September 21. Everyone keeps saying the terrain beyond Grand Lake is easier, though, so I am hoping to push big miles.

Scenes From the Trail:

 

              

Mountain Passes and Moonlight Sonatas: Salida to Breckenridge

 

We left Salida on a hot, sunny day. Three hikers flushed out into the city – into the busy Monday streets – with a collective intention: Find a ride to Monarch Pass.

That’s where we’d get back on the trail.

As we walked down a neighborhood street, Delightful said “we might as well start hitching.” She put up her thumb. Israeli Tom and I followed suite. Within minutes, a young woman in a Subaru pulled over. “I can take you up to the highway,” she said, “but that’s as far as I’m going.”

We piled into her car.

The woman looked at Delightful, who was riding shotgun. “I’m looking for eggs,” the woman said. “I can’t find eggs anywhere.”

“Um,” Delightful scratched her head. “Have you tried the Safeway?”

“I don’t want those eggs,” the woman replied. “But don’t worry; I’ll find some.”

She let us out on the highway. We hitched and walked for about 20 minutes before another vehicle pulled over — a woman and her son in an F-250 towing an empty flatbed trailer.

“We can take you up to Poncha Springs,” the woman said, “but that’s as far as we’re going.”

She let us out at at the juncture of highways 50 and 285.  There was an establishment with a sign reading “IScream and Other Stuff.”

We set our bags on the floor, stared unhappily at the heatwaves coursing over the asphalt, stared longingly at the IScream Shop.

“Should we get ice cream or something?” I said.

“I think we should get ice cream,” Tom said.

So Delightful got an ice cream cone and Tom and I got milkshakes.

Then we went back to the hot business of hitching.

Standing on the side of the road, I said, “This is kind of a funny way to hitch, just standing here drinking milkshakes and stuff.”

Tom took a pull on his vanilla. “This is the only way to hitch,” he said.

Whaaa!?!?

We sat on the side of Highway 50 – which runs alongside the Arkansas River – for about an hour as all the busy Americans throttled by in their cars, trucks and SUVs.

“I’m beginning to lose my faith in humanity,” I told Tom.

“Maybe you could climb on my shoulders,” he said. “On the PCT, I got a few hitches doing that.”

“I don’t want to climb on your shoulders, Tom,” I said.

“Okay.”

Finally a guy named Dan pulled over. He wore his hair disheveled and a Despicable Me t-shirt with yellow Minions and letters reading “Whaaa?!?!”

Out of politeness, we tried to make small talk with Dan as he drove us to the pass. It turns out he was a rather taciturn fellow.

“Where you coming from, Dan?” Delightful asked.

“Denver.”

“What were you doing there?” I asked.

“Visiting family.”

“Did you have a good weekend?”

“It was all right.”

“Where you headed?”

“Gunnison.”

“What do you do in Gunnison?”

“I’m a night auditor.”

“Oh.”

When he dropped us off at Monarch Pass, I said, “Well, thanks for the ride, Dan. We were getting pretty desperate out there.”

“Some people just don’t understand that other people need rides,” he responded.

A regular old philosopher – that Dan. I can respect that.

A young Bodhisattva

We walked a ways up the trail. That’s where we found Chimichanga.

He was sitting in the shade of a pine tree, straight-backed and cross-legged, like a young bodhisattva.

“Muy buenos dias,” he called. “I just had the best hitch of my life. I’m half drunk right now.”

He smiled broadly, revealing teeth stained the color of plumb-red wine. On the ground beside him was a pair of red-and-yellow pears. Two bananas and a soppressata salami protruded from the top of his pack.

He launched into a story about how he hitched with a woman who worked as a traveling cheese salesperson. When he got in the car, she offered him some Dale’s Pale Ale and various types of cheeses. At the pass she asked him, “You want to hang out, drink some wine?”

And so they split a bottle of red wine.

“Then she just started giving me all this food,” Chimi said. “I have so much food right now.”

In his pack – in addition to the aforementioned items and a full load of trail food to get to Twin Lakes – he had a huge wheel of artisanal cheese and a hamburger.

“We can have a feast tonight,” he said. “I can’t carry all of this. We’ll dine like kings tonight.”

“Yeah, we can have a Viking feast,” I said. “I packed out a bag of cherries. I’ll contribute those. But let’s get to walking.”

And finally, after much adieu, we got on the trail.

Improvisational glissades

  

We pressed quickly into a forest that ran alongside the Monarch Pass Ski Resort. Afternoon thunderclouds swept over the Cochetopa Hills, trailing thin sheets of wispy virga – streaks of rain that hung in the distant atmosphere like gossamer-web theater curtains.

I began to notice moths rising from the forest soil – hundreds of moths that multiplied into thousands. They kicked up at our feet, flew erratically in the spaces between the pines, flitting to and fro like some sort of deranged circus act.

“This is wild,” Chimi said. “Try to follow one with your eyes. You can’t do it.”

“It’s almost hallucinatory,” I said.

“I just hope they eat mosquitoes,” Tom said.

After the rain came and got us wet, we climbed up above a cornice — a spot where snow packed up against the ledge of a ridge. Chimichanga sat down and ate his hamburger. Then we tried to find passage around the cornice, to no avail. I saw a relatively safe spot where other hikers had kicked steps down the snow. As I investigated, however, Chimichanga was making his way over the ledge. Suddenly, I heard Delightful scream, “Chimi!”

I turned and saw him slip and land on his butt and go sliding rapidly down the slope.

“I guess I’m glissading,” he said as he slid. And then he went crashing roughly into the boulders at the bottom. “Owww,” he said.

“I guess I found a way down.”

The trail from there climbed in and out of steep passes. We went through Tin Cup Pass. We cruised through the Collegiate Wilderness. We dropped into forests and took refuge under trees during rainstorms. We forded Texas Creek, taking a line through rapids, feeling the waters’ hydraulics surge steadily against our bodies.

We crossed the divide at a pass near Lake Ann, topping out at an expansive view of Sanford Basin. To our south was an enormous cirque, a place where an ancient glacier sat and wallowed and ground a throne befitting a giant king. Now that the glacier has melted away, it left behind the blunted end to a valley where streams and waterfalls feed into forests. The forests’ trees fell away into the basin before climbing again in a vast serape up the slopes to the shoulders of more mountains, where they stopped at timberline, as if in deference to the peaks’ rocky heads.

“Climbing to a ridge crest is like getting a birthday present,” Chimi said. “You’re like, ‘What’s it gonna be? What’s it gonna be?’ And then you get to the top – ” he trailed off. “I just wasn’t expecting this.”

 Then came our final climb ahead of Twin Lakes, a 2,500-foot ascent over Hope Pass, which is itself a saddle between Hope and Quail mountains.

As we neared treeline, I pulled over in a shady spot to pant. Chimichanga approached.

“Taking a breather?” he said.

“Yup.”

“That’s cool. We’re in no hurry. I’m feeling good, though. I’ve got some pump-up jams on.”

“Word.”

“I’m gonna press on.”

“Word.”

I gathered some strength and followed, climbing and smiling and feeling good. I thought about how wonderful it is to throw yourself against a mountain like this.

What a joy it is to be young and lithe in a great American wilderness.

And I thought also about how life and love and youth and friendship and vitality — all of it is here — all of it is bound up in the embrace of this great, long trip — and all of it is magnified, now, in the throes of this intensive climb.

Approaching the saddle, the crest, the crescendo, I could feel it all: the valley laid out behind me, the rushing coulee to my left flank, the Collegiate Peaks, the Cochetopas, the San Juans, the San Pedros; all the ranges clear back to New Mexico — where we passed through deserts and river canyons — all those miles stretching back to the Mexican border; and I thought also about how I am in the middle. So much of this journey remains ahead: Twin Lakes and Copper Mountain and Breckenridge – immediately, yes – but also so much more: Wyoming and Idaho and Montana.

And beyond?

My whole life is ahead of me.

 At the top I threw down my poles and beat my chest and threw my hands in the air. A cairn with tattered Tibetan prayer flags flailed in the gusting winds. 

Standing in that saddle, I looked ahead, and it might be weird to say, but I felt like a young man poised on the brink of the rest of his life.

Chimichanga said, “That was a doozie of a climb. I was about to stop, then John Denver ‘Rocky Mountain High’ came on, and I just powered through to the top.”

And I said: “John Denver is your pump-up music?”

Delightful made it to the top and cheered, then we hung out for a while, taking photos. A mountain goat descended Quail Mountain and passed within 30 yards of us.

  

A Mountain Above the Rest

We camped that night near the shore of Twin Lakes and resupplied the next day before moving out again. My brother Clent drove up from Denver along with our friend Rey. We woke the next morning to bag Elbert.

  

At 14,440, Elbert is the tallest mountain in the Rockies and the second tallest peak in the continental United States.

On the way up, I cajoled the city boys, saying, “C’mon now, boys — let’s get to that next rock. This mountain ain’t gonna climb itself.”

They put up a fine effort, and we all made it to the top by midday.

As we neared the summit, Clent said, “Here it is: The first 14er of my Colorado career.”

“It’s a good one to have notched on your belt,” I said. “Wait — did you say first?”

“Yup.”

“Your first 14er is the tallest in Colorado,” I said. “You started at the top.”

My brother looked at me with solemnity. “I don’t play games, Chilton.”

…Well, okay then, Mr. James Bond…

 Delightful departed for Leadville that evening. Chimichanga and I pressed big miles past Tennessee Pass and into Copper Mountain. I hiked my first 30-mile day during this stretch.

Moonwalking into Breck

As we left Copper, a full moon was in the forecast. We decided to night-hike over Tenmile Range – home to Breckenridge ski resort – using the moon as a spotlight.

We set our alarms for 1 a.m., made coffee, packed our tents, and broke for treeline. The moon rode low and to the east for most of the night, casting a wide wash of pale light over the alpine tundra. In the talus it felt like we were walking on an alien planet. A slight breeze, but the mountain was utterly silent. Our eyes adjusted quickly, and we followed the trail with ease.

At the top we circumnavigated a long cornice. Then we sat above a cliff, quivering in the cold, drank coffee, and awaited dawn. Thunderheads hung over the mountains between us and Denver. Purple lightning forked through clouds that were collapsing into the mountains ringing Breckenridge – a town asleep in the valley’s crease. “Quasi una fantasia.” The sounds of serenity, like in the Piano Sonata No. 14. The Moonlight Sonata.

At daybreak, light came gradually, turning the sky gray-blue, then illuminating it in hues of orange, yellow and red.

“Everything that ever happened lead up to this moment,” Chimi said.

“Everything that’s happening in the universe is happening right now – at this exact moment,” I said.

“At this moment,” he said.

“And now – at this moment.”

In Frisco we stayed with family friends: Colleen, John, Bob and Tinsey. (Apologies if I misspelled a name!) We sat on their porch and in the kitchen and talked for a long time about everything in the whole wide world before eating a satisfying meal of spaghetti and turning in for the night. Everyone had a great time. Thanks for the hospitality!

Clent drove me down to Denver where I spent the Fourth of July with friends.

After what’s been a long but good break, I’m getting back on the trail today, going from Breckenridge over Grays and Torreys peaks, skipping Winter Park, and heading straight for Grand Lake. That’s 130 miles. Chimichanga left yesterday. I am somewhat behind schedule and need to make up time, so will be walking fast.

(Once again I am indebted to Chimi for many of the photos in this post.)

Scenes From the Trail: