I made a final decision to hike the CDT about 4 months before I started walking. Two friends I’d met on the PCT were already planning the same trip, so it was a simple matter of adding my name to the list. Life intervened though, and with about 4 weeks to go, both my friends had to change their plans. I did care, but then again I didn’t. I was going anyway. I was going if I was the only person I’d see for the length of the trail, I was going no matter what the trail conditions were. I knew I needed a good deal of determination to complete the CDT and I had plenty of it. Luckily, the snowpack in the northern rockies was only about 60%-70% of normal. That, coupled with a warm sunny spring, meant 2001 would be an ideal year to hike the trail North to South.
I did want to start with some hiking companions. It would be a lot easier to trek off into the unknown with some company… at least at the start. Plus, I was sure that I’d overlooked some things in my planning, and would benefit from some second opinions. Then… there were grizzly bears.
I figured in a group of three, my chances of being mauled or eaten were reduced by 66%. The actual evidence of bear attacks didn’t support that hypothesis, but it made me feel better… It couldn’t hurt anyway. I arrived in the town of East Glacier on June 10 with a new backpack, an open mind and a shaved head. I was hoping to find someone… anyone who had made the same plans as me. Almost anyone starting a CDT thru-hike would have to pass through East Glacier, and they’d stick out like an American in Japan.
East Glacier was a small tourist town, just emerging from hibernation. The winters in East Glacier were long and harsh, the summers brief and glorious. I had arrived in limbo season. It was cold and drizzling. “The bad weather lasts for three days at a time, this time of year”, one of the locals told me, “this is day one”. I was still determined to go hiking… even if it wasn’t along the CDT. I headed up the eastern slopes of the mountains in Glacier National Park, which start abruptly just west of East Glacier. It was so windy I could barely stand. I called out and sang, trying to give the bears some warning of my approach, but it was silly. The noise of the wind overpowered my tiny voice. I spent the night back at the local hostel, windblown, tired and alone. I didn’t see anyone with a backpack, much less the perma-grin of a thruhiker ready to hit the trail.
I was in no hurry to start the CDT. I knew that at least a couple people (who I’d met through the internet), were starting their hike in a few more days. If nobody else showed up, I could wait for them. Also, the weather was supposed to get worse before it got better – no point in starting the hike in misery. I went for another day-hike into the outskirts of Glacier National Park. A woman who was staying at my hostel joined me. It was nice to talk to someone, and because of the threat of surprising grizzlies, I had an excuse to talk incessantly and loudly all day.
It was a nice day, and I was getting a feel for these mountains. They were the mountains of the prairie, the first bumps to interrupt a thousand miles of flatness to the east. Up the mountain sides, the life zones were compressed into little horizontal bands. The grassland gave way to forest at 4500 feet, and the forest gave way to the weather at 6000. Above 6000 feet, the hillsides were covered with progressively smaller flora, ending in rocky frozen tundra and steep naked peaks 8000-9000ft high. Glaciers still clung to the higher elevations and north facing slopes, vestiges of the giant sheets of ice that had carved out all the U-shaped valleys below. The landscape was foreboding and inviting all at once. It was a book, daring to be read.
That evening, I was having dinner at the Mexican restaurant (easily the best eatery in town), when I heard an unmistakable comment coming from a couple tables over. “blah, blah, blah, Gila…”. That one word told me there were a couple of CDT hikers who’d just been in New Mexico, and were now trying their luck at the north end of the trail. The hikers were a couple of 20-something guys, nearly beaten. They’d been hiking in Glacier for the last few days. Every day they’d been on the trail, in New Mexico and now in Glacier, something had gone wrong. Every day in Glacier they’d had snow, sleet or rain. They told me a story about losing the trail in a waist-deep wetland. They had 60 pound packs. They had crampons. They thought knew it all. They hadn’t met any other CDT hikers, and had never hiked a long trail. I wanted to give them advice and encouragement, but they looked at me like I was from mars… how could I possibly help THEM? I hadn’t hiked any of the CDT yet, what did I know? So, I nodded my head and listened to their tale of woe. They hadn’t learned the most important lesson – if you’re having a miserable time, change what you’re doing or at least change how you’re doing it.
By noon the next day, heavy rain had turned to a thick wet snow. The season was going backwards, what had happened to summer? I felt nervous, thinking I was doomed to some kind of curse that would last the entire season. The winter had been mild, the law of averages seemed to be working its magic against me now. The two hikers I’d met the previous evening were back on the trail somewhere in Glacier, no doubt having a miserable time. I spent the day mulling about town. I talked to a couple european tourists who assumed Glacier was always so dreary. I also read a book “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance”, which both gave me confidence and freaked me out. The previous night, a grizzly had destroyed some garbage bins behind the hostel where I was staying.
The next day, the weather improved somewhat. I decided to take one more day-hike… that time, along the CDT (which is routed right through the town of East Glacier) south of town. The trail headed off into the woods behind a golf course. One of the workers at the fancy lodge showed me the way. “This is it”, he said, pointing to a non-descript forest. The only thing that indicated a trail was a piece of metal nailed to one tree about 8ft. off the ground. I chuckled to myself… it was the CDT I’d heard of – obscure at best. As I started off through the woods, the path became a little more distinct. A startled herd of cows scampered off into the underbrush as they heard me approach. I slogged through mud, and walked along an old forest road. The forest canopy seemed endless. Nobody hiked the trail. It didn’t really go anywhere interesting… except to Mexico. I hadn’t even started my “real” hike, and I’d already tired of singing songs to ward off bears. After 4 or 5 miles, I turned around and headed back.
I had decided to bring one piece of “dead weight” with me on the hike. I had a strumstick – a slender 3-stringed instrument that was played like a mountain dulcimer, sounded like a banjo, and looked like neither. I couldn’t play anything too complicated with the strumstick, but it was a nice distraction, and had an infectious sound. While I did some laundry in town, a little girl came over and made up words to my improvised melodies. A little while later, the strumstick broke the ice with some RV’ers who’d parked nearby (they were headed from Kansas to Alaska). The strumstick was well worth the pound it weighed.
My mystery internet hiking buddies were due to arrive that evening on the train. I decided to kill some time at the local bar. The bar was about what I’d expected – small and populated by a bunch of afternoon drunks. A sign on the wall listed those banned from the bar. I counted 79 names. East Glacier had a population 250. “I guess that’s why nobody’s here”, the bartender commented. George Thorogood’s cover of “one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer” played incessantly on the juke box. I could only stand one beer.
I headed over to the other, cheaper hostel, behind the Mexican restaurant. The two hikers who I’d met a couple nights ago were there. They’d spent the last couple days on the trail, and were now about ready to quit altogether. With them were three new arrivals. These three had also hiked the CDT through New Mexico, then flipped up to the north end due to a combination of heavy snowpack in southern Colorado, and concern about the dryness up north (predictions were for a bad fire season in Montana in late summer – exactly when northbound hikers would be passing through). One of them, Drew, had hiked the PCT the prior year, and the AT (Appalachian Trail), the year before that. The CDT would be his third long trail in as many years. The other two hadn’t hiked any of the long US trails, but were seasoned if by nothing other than their experiences in New Mexico. John was from Idaho, and Mario was from Holland. The area around the hostel was soon swimming in stories from the CDT and beyond. A lone non-hiking Aussie, who was also staying at the hostel, of course thought we were all completely nuts. A little while later, my mystery hikers arrived. Sharon had hiked the AT among other things, Kevin had hiked the AT 3 times, and the PCT once. It was a hiker convention… or hiker zoo, take your pick. I introduced myself to Kevin and Sharon and we decided to head together out the next morning. The weather looked good, and Kevin had arranged a ride to the trailhead.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I couldn’t shut off my mind. There was too much to think about, too much to talk about, too much to imagine. I felt I was in the hold of a ship bound for a new world, a blank space on a map where the dragons be. I wanted to see a dragon more than anything.
I didn’t really need sleep anyway, I had enough energy to stay awake for a week (or so I felt). It was a good 60 miles up to the trailhead from East Glacier. Along the way, we stopped to register with the National Park Service. Glacier NP required all backpackers to stay at designated campsites scattered throughout the park (as did most National Parks). Reservations were required. Among other things, this reduced human impact on the land, and helped avoid habituation of the local grizzly population. When we laid out our itinerary for the well-meaning lady at the desk, she looked concerned. “Nobody’s been back there yet”, she warned, “Are you sure you can cover 15 miles in a day? that’s a really long way”. Between the three of us, we’d hiked over 13,000 miles, but there was no point in being snobby. “We’ll be OK”, we responded. We got permits with the words “itinerary not recommended” stamped on top. A short while later, we were at the border.
The official CDT route through Glacier NP starts at the head of the Belly River, where the road crosses the US/Canada border. Just about any hike through Glacier NP would be memorable, but all three of us wanted to take the most scenic route possible… which wasn’t necessarily the “official” CDT. Kevin had come up with a plan – we’d start at Belly River, then hike over Stoney Indian Pass and pick up the Highline trail south from there. After a couple photos at the border, we hit the trail. Before I had time to contemplate it, I’d started what would turn out to be 5 months of continuous walking.click to enlarge
The weather was a bit clearer that day, but the tops of the mountains were still covered in clouds. A couple miles into the hike, we were treated to our first spectacular scene. A giant meadow of dandelions stretched out toward a couple mammoth mountains. It was a dramatic and appropriate, “hello, welcome to the CDT”. As we traveled further down the Belly River, the clouds got thicker. We took a break and it started to drizzle. Kevin set up his huge tarp and we huddled under it. I had a thousand little concerns racing through my head – How deep was the snow? Would we be able to get over the passes? What if the weather stayed bad? Would I lose my determination to continue hiking? What if my equipment broke down? etc… I had no choice but to put these aside and live in the moment. All that mattered were the things I had direct control over. Fate would decide everything else. The rain became intermittent as we continued deeper into the mountains of Glacier. I had a chance to try out my rain poncho. I had made the poncho a couple months before the hike, but hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to try it out. I just hoped that it’d work. I had figured out a way to lash it around my body so it didn’t blow in the wind so much. It was a little difficult to take on and off, but it seemed to be keeping me dry – one less thing to worry about. click to enlarge click to enlarge
Soon we were passing through old forests along ancient lakes. The low clouds made the scene intimate. I spotted my first sign of bear – a black bear print & some wet green bear poop with fur in it – some poor critter had met its end in the belly of a bear. We passed by a couple young women carrying heavy hand tools – pulaskis and shovels (a pulaski is one part axe and one part digging hoe, named for a fire fighter who came up with the design). They were working for the park, and were clearing trees that had blown down over the trail. By the looks on their faces, I could tell they were living a dream in a place where doing so was easy. I wanted to tell them everything I was thinking, everything I was planning to do. But I had my own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If people didn’t ask me where I was headed or what I was doing, I didn’t talk about it. It was my own way of tempering my annoying urge to blabber about the trip. The women hadn’t been up Stoney Indian Pass, and didn’t know how much snow was up there. They continued their walk, in the opposite direction. click to enlarge
In the early evening, we arrived at our campsite along the shore of Glenn’s Lake. All the designated campsites in Glacier had the same setup: First, there was a food preparation area with a fire pit. Then, about 20 yards away, there was a place to hang food – a steel cable strung about 15 feet above the ground. 20 yards in another direction was a pit toilet, and scattered here and there were 3-4 tent sites. It was a remarkably organized system… almost too organized. But, it was one of the most popular national parks in the country, I couldn’t think of any better way one could manage the throngs that would be arriving in a month or so. For the time being though, we had the park to ourselves. We didn’t see another person for two more days.
As the light of the day grew dim, I sat on the edge of the lake and thought about where I was. The clouds occasionally lifted to show a vertical wall on the other side – the base of a giant pointed peak that kept watch from a thousand feet above – Pyramid Peak. Somewhere in the middle of the misty lake, a loon called out, a perfect accompaniment to the stillness of the water. Back in the forest, the call of Swainson’s thrushes echoed like ethereal water whistles. As darkness took over, the only sounds left were a gentle breeze and the light patter of raindrops on my tarp. I smiled as I sunk into my down sleeping bag. I didn’t need angels, I was already in heaven.
The next morning, I was eager to get over Stoney Indian Pass. The pass was almost 7000ft, and would be a good indicator of the snowpack ahead. I shot out in front, singing to the mountains and bears. I came to a clump of fallen trees that had yet to be cleared from the trail. A chaos of wet branches and trunks blocked the way. On some other day, it would have been a headache, but I was almost happy to work my way through the mess. It was like a natural gate that made the trail more mine. The trail then cut up a hillside, switching back and forth parallel to a roaring waterfall. The landscape was a lush soggy green. I looked up just in time to see a large sandy-colored bear staring back at me.
The bear was standing on the trail, on its way down from the pass. It had just rounded a blind corner about 75 yards ahead. I wanted to do… something, but I knew that the best thing was to just stand there and evaluate the situation – same as the bear was doing. I’d read that one shouldn’t stare at a bear, as that might provoke it. That was impossible. I was alone with the bear. My hiking companions were at least 15 minutes behind. I clutched my little can of pepper spray, a puny item of last resort. I wasn’t sure how long we stared each other down, 10 seconds? 30? But, before I had time to consider making a move, the bear did an about face and ran back around the corner. Relieved, I sat down and waited for my companions to catch up. I couldn’t help but think of my lucky timing – if I’d left camp a minute earlier… if any number of things had happened, I would have found myself face to face with the bear at the corner.
While I was waiting, a movement on the other side of the stream caught my eye. A Black bear was running away, up the mountain. A little cub trailed behind, likely terrified of whatever hidden danger had startled its mom. They had already seen me, and didn’t consider the huge waterfall enough of a barrier. I’d never seen any animal, any thing, climb up a hill so fast. By the time Sharon caught up to me, the black bears were a couple of specks high on the mountain, still climbing into the mist. After Kevin arrived, the three of us proceeded cautiously around the corner where I’d seen the first bear. The only evidence of the bear was an occasional paw print. It appeared to be a grizzly, but it was hard to tell. Black bears were often colored similar to grizzlies and the two could be difficult to tell apart. One of the best ways was by looking at the space between the top of the paw print, and the mark left by the claws. More than a couple inches, and it was probably a grizzly. The space on these prints was about 2-3 inches. The only problem was determining which bear had left which print. There were bears galore. We didn’t see the bear again though, and it was one mystery I was happy not to solve.
As we climbed higher, the snow on the trail became more frequent. But, it wasn’t getting thick. By the time we reached 6000 feet, there was enough snow to hide the trail, but not too much to make hiking difficult. We followed a set of fresh prints, left by a bear headed in the opposite direction (possibly the same one I’d seen) – down from the pass. We reached the top of the pass without much difficulty. 1 to 2 feet of solid snow covered the ground. Kevin and I looked at each other, grinning. We’d both hiked the PCT in 1999 and knew from that experience how a heavy snowpack could change things. It could make an easy trail frustrating and slow and it could make a difficult trail dangerous or impossible. The light snowpack was a blessing, it made the trail easy to love.
After a long break at a lake on the other side of the pass, we headed down toward the Waterton River, in the heart of Glacier. Everything was a lush deep green in the indirect light from the grey skies. Occasionally, the clouds moved aside and let the sun peek through, igniting the hillsides. It looked the way one imagines the best of the earth looks, a realization of a child’s dream of the mountains. I looked around, alone… “Why isn’t everyone out here?”, a quote from a friend who… wasn’t there. Why isn’t everyone everywhere all the time? If it was ever possible I would be, I would be a god, watching everything with amazement – the slow progression of the natural order. click me
The trail followed the course of the river a bit, then cut up a hillside covered in a thick ordered mess of green and rusty brown bushes. The bushes were over our head, impenetrable. Without the trail, progress would have been impossible. Bam! The sun blasted a hillside across the valley, a hillside just like ours… sans trail. The sun faded quickly and quietly, the rain came, the rain went… I had trouble deciding just when to go through the effort of donning my poncho. Somewhere along the way, I got distracted and lost my hat.
I looked ahead, and there he was again – ursus rounding the corner ahead of me. He was headed the same direction I was headed, about 30 yards ahead. I saw its big brown rump of raw wildness ramble around a corner, out of sight. Kevin quickly caught up. He saw the bear peeking back at us. We cautiously and loudly rounded the corner – no bear. It had melted into the bush, we couldn’t see 2 feet into the tangle, much less think of moving through it. The bear lived on a different scale – it probably weighed 600 pounds or more – the bushes were nothing.
Our trail rose higher, and the bushes faded out. We came to a high snow covered plateau – an unbroken sheet of whiteness. To our left, the snow rose into the clouds, to our right it dropped into a sea of evergreen. The trail was nowhere in sight, but we knew where had to go – we could see landmarks for miles, and had good topographic maps. Somewhere in the whiteness, we were supposed to find our designated campsite. We came near the place where the camp was supposed to be… we thought. Nothing. We could camp nearby, but we figured if we were going to ‘wing it’, why not put in a few more miles? It was still early in the afternoon, we had a whole day to kill. The warnings of the park ranger, “I don’t know, it’s really tough…” were laughable. The rain had given way to snow – showers came and passed. Clouds whizzed by our heads, sometimes the sun broke through for an instant, no more. enlarged if clicked
We ambled over snowy boulders and shrubs, eventually hitting the trail where it was lower and uncovered. There was no place flat to spend the night. As it got later and darker, we got tired and hungry. We finally descended to a deep green valley below, far off the trail. It was lush, open and level. As we looked for spots to pitch our tarps, a cold steady rain drenched and chilled us. I put up my soggy tarp and sat under it, wet and tired – staring at the mosquito mesh for an hour as darkness came. The rain broke just long enough for a quick meal outside, then it was time to rest & hope tomorrow would be kind.
Everything wet (which was… everything) froze in the night. But, the morning brought clear skies. The sun was taking over, and slowly, it marched down our shaded mountain valley. I shivered as the heat got closer – 100 yards, 50 yards… I couldn’t wait, and ran into the light. I stood on a rock and basked like a lizard. We spent the next few hours drying our possessions in the ever-warming sun.
Glacier was alive in the sun. The trail continued its mountainside traverse above the trees, snowy peaks rose from our feet to the horizon, and all places in-between. Giant waterfalls, hundreds of feet high, poured off moutainsides miles away – vertical white lines interrupting the green and grey carpet. We quickly arrived at the Ahern Drift. click away
“The Drift”, we had been warned, was one thing that could put a crimp on our blissful little romp through Glacier. The Drift was formed by snow that slid off a high north-facing slope. At the bottom, it formed an enormous pile of ice that rarely, if ever, melted. The trail was routed straight across it. There wasn’t a good way to go around the drift either – it would mean miles of steep boulders and thick virgin forest. During the height of the summer, the park service actually shoveled out a path through the drift, but we were there before anyone that year, the drift was solid and untouched. We started across, at first able to sink our feet into the soft snow, then able to kick steps with a little more effort. As the slope got steep and icy, we had to chop steps with our ice-axes – chop out a level footprint, move your foot, chop out another, and so on… all the time keeping a good sense of balance and awareness. A slip would mean a steep slide down to some boulders hundreds of feet below. An ice axe might be able to brake a fall, but it was better not to fall in the first place. The last 15 yards of the drift were the stiffest and steepest – about a 60 degree slope. Then, we made it to solid ground. Looking back, we thought, that’s it? Sure the drift was a little challenging, and we did need our ice axes, but, it didn’t live up to the hype. As with so many things, the challenge was relative – compared to a walk to the K-mart, impossible – in the scope of a 2800 mile hike, it was a side-note. ain’t it cool
The trail and views continued. We arrived at our next designated camp site by 2pm. We weren’t about to just sit around all day. It was only 7.8 miles further to the Swiftcurrent campground near Many Glacier Lodge, and most of that was downhill. We voted to head for the lodge – clouds had been steadily building, and we didn’t want to spend a second straight night on an exposed mountainside. Pizza at the restaurant below sounded more appealing. As I rounded the top of Swiftcurrent pass, a couple of wary bighorn sheep scurried up a hillside to the north. The trek down from Swiftcurrent Pass was one of the most memorable on the trip. The trail was blasted out of a cliff face most of the way. Two thousand vertical feet of rock, banded in horizontal earth-tones, led down to a series of glacial lakes far below. The sun hit the lakes, causing them to glow like a necklace of emeralds. A family of mountain goats heard us and scrambled away across a sheer mountainside – their kids no more than white dots following close behind. We finally encountered another person just before we arrived at the Swiftcurrent campground. click to enlarge click to enlarge
Just before I devoured a pizza, I met a couple who was planning to hike the CDT next year. They were scoping-out Glacier. They were anxious – they’d been ruined by the PCT the previous year. We met up with Mario, Drew and John in the campground. They’d taken a different route to that point, but we’d be following the same route south of there.
After a hot breakfast at the restaurant, and a stop at the ranger station to update our permits (we were one day ahead of schedule now), we continued our trek south. We got some ice cream at Many Glacier Lodge, summer tourist season was just starting. A family from New Jersey was preparing to get packed-in to the backcountry. I overheard a guide talking to them, “Now, our sherpas will meet us on day 3…” I wanted to puke. I realized that some people needed guides to get into the backcountry, and I was happy to see the family was making the effort, but did the guides have to be such complete dorks?
On the way up to Piegan Pass, we took a long break on a meadowy mountainside high above the tree-line. The sun radiated down on us, slowly warming the cool spring air. Mountains were everywhere, each one had its own character, its own history and future, yet, they were all the same mountain in some ways, all connected, and bound to each other through more than the earth. I tried to home-in on what it was about mountains that stirred in me a primal sense of euphoria. What was it that made them special? I suppose it didn’t really matter, I just enjoyed the moment for what it was – bliss. I rested my head on my backpack, my body cushioned by miniature grasses, decorated by alpine flowers, heated by the sun and cooled by the wind. The three of us didn’t speak a word for an hour. Then, all at once, we packed up and continued on, it was time to get moving again, there would be other mountainsides on which to slumber.
The hiking was actually more fulfilling than resting. Every step brought forth a new scene, and each scene was spectacular in its own right. My heart raced to keep up with my legs, and my lungs filled with crisp thin air. I felt every sense, I could see, hear, touch, smell, feel … even taste the world around me at every moment. All of my body and mind were in motion, in synch. I was fully aware and alive. This was what life was supposed to be, I thought. This was why I had legs… why I had eyes, arms, ears, and all the rest of it. click to enlarge
We topped that pass and headed back down. South of Piegan Pass, the trail was buried under 3 feet of stiff snow that was shaded from the sun by a high thin forest. I attacked the snow, plunging ahead heel-first, skiing with my shoes, and keeping balance with my poles. I raced ahead of my companions, on a mission to just… go. I popped out onto a road, the “going-to-the-sun road”.
The road was as close as most park visitors would get to the backcountry of Glacier. Sure, there was plenty to see from the road, and from the lodges below, but all could think was, “push yourself dammit!”, “go farther”, “climb a mountain, then keep going”. I wasn’t angry, I was happy, and I wanted as many people as possible to know my joy. Instead, they crept out of their idling cars, pointed at the mountains, “look mom”, and drove off – cramming as much power-vacation as possible into their hectic lives. . I walked up to a nearby lookout/parking area, where some people were gazing at distant peaks. One of them had a thousand dollar camera focused on a mountain 5 miles away. The light was terrible for photos, and it was only a mediocre view. I wanted to tell him everything, but as I approached, he scampered back into his car and sped off. Smelly and rejected, I headed back down to my own path, the one that cars didn’t notice. After a few steps I was back in my world.
We met up with Drew, Mario and John at the designated camp site. We made a fire and sat around in simple conversation. Mario got up to follow a friendly mule deer with his camera. He came back a few minutes later with a look of horror, “I saw da grizzly!”. He had a close encounter with an ursus crossing his path. “I know what you mean, man”, I thought to myself. The bears kept us honest and humble.
I woke up to an inch of fresh snow the next morning. Kevin had already started hiking, and Sharon was getting ready to leave. I decided to hook up with the other guys. Their routine was closer to mine – more type B than A – more “get up late & enjoy” and more “be there when you get there”. There were no obligations or responsibilities either way. I could have hiked alone, I could have quit, I could have done anything I wanted and been greeted with an, “OK, whatever”.
We only had 10.5 miles to hike for the day. It was basically a half-day. The way the designated sites were laid out in Glacier, we didn’t have much choice. It was either a lazy 10.5, or a grueling 24 miles. To us, the choice was clear. The 10.5 miles was flat. The trail passed by a couple waterfalls, and along the shore of Saint Mary Lake (one of the larger lakes in the park). Far below, we spied on a boatload of tourists motoring up the lake – a speck of white in a big deep blue. click to enlarge
We reached our campsite by 2pm, taking a couple long breaks on the way. I had a whole afternoon to enjoy. I rinsed out my smelly clothes and hung them on small trees. I strummed my strumstick. I thought about food. I found a tick, munching its way into my bloodstream. Yuk! Oh ya, that was right, ticks, mice, mosquitoes, flies, dirt, blisters… there was a long list of things to get a person down on the CDT, but none of them came close to matching the good, ying for yang.
Warm and dry, I curled into my puffy sleeping bag. I read a book as evening rains pelted my tarp. A clap of thunder echoed through the mountains for a full minute – from all directions. I didn’t understand how that could be allowed by the laws of physics, but there it was. It got dark, I slept. It was all just too good. Did they know? How could they let me get away with it?
The next day was another short one. Another pass. More mountains – amazing as always. The weather was getting progressively better. The mornings were clear, each one warmer than the last. The pass was Triple Divide Pass, a point where watersheds draining into Hudson Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean all intersected. John and I wandered off the trail on the way up. We headed up a mountainside covered in suitcase-sized rocks, just north of the pass. We had all the time we wanted, time to wander along the mountaintop. We took our obligatory long break on the pass. Marmots and pikas, oblivious to our alien bodies, came up to us – not looking for handouts, just looking the grass under our butts. I wanted to hike further, but we were stuck again by the layout of the campsites. It didn’t matter, there would be plenty of full hiking days ahead. It was a time to relax, and enjoy the gifts of Glacier. click to enlarge
A couple miles down from the pass, a sign was strung across a side trail, “DANGER: All area behind this sign is closed because of bear danger”. A mile later we arrived at our campsite. Back in East Glacier, I’d heard that particular valley was notorious for grizzly problems and was often entirely closed to backpackers. We were there early in the season though. The bears hadn’t yet sent Joe and Jill backpacker running from the woods. That would all come later, we’d be hundreds of miles away, right in the middle of somewhere else. We poked at our fire and learned about each other, about ourselves, about the trail and about life.
Another day, another pass. It was called Pitamakan. The trail was covered in snow, but the route was obvious – up to the sag in the ridge, any way you can. We sat down at the top and surveyed the landscape. The trail dropped down to a valley on the other side. The trees were all dead, victims of globalization. Europe’s beetles were multiplying down there, and there was nothing to be done about it. Our bugs and weeds were over there, doing much the same. The pests mimicked the people… or was it the other way ’round?
There were a lot of options on the CDT. It had been said that no two people had ever hiked the same route, yet dozens had hiked what was called the CDT. The terrain all along the trail was so open, so inviting, that it was hard to stick to any “official” route. “Hey, let’s go over there instead”, became a popular refrain all the way to Mexico. I wanted to take an alternate from Pitamakan and so did Mario. We headed up and around the pyramid-shaped mountain on which we were resting. The narrow trail was cut high across a steep ridge, all covered in snow. But it was soft snow, it was easy. We crawled out on a side ridge that ended in on a big flat rock, it was almost too perfect. Mario spontaneously let out an “AAAAOOOO!”, Dutch for “wow” I presumed. click to enlarge click to enlarge
The trail led us down to the Two Medicine campground. It was a car-campground, complete with a camp store. John and Drew were already on their second ice creams. We sat on the porch of the store for a while, canceling out perfumed tourists with our natural-body scents. Everyone who came by was in a good mood – friendly and full of smiles. For some, Glacier was an annual pilgrimage, for others, it was all new. We all shared something – we’d all decided to go there, and nobody needed to question why.
We headed over to our little assigned plot in the parking lot, set up our tents, then over to a little talk one of the rangers was giving. The ranger was talking about “leaving no trace” in the woods – a noble attempt – it wasn’t an easy subject to make interesting. While swatting at the mosquitoes – which were worse at lower elevations – I touched my nose and blood poured out. For a week, I’d been blowing my boogers in the bushes and breathing dry mountain air – turning the inside of my nose into a cracked-up time bomb. I’d had nosebleeds all my life, but it was one of the worst. The blood wasn’t dripping, it was pouring. Alarmed, I headed for comfort at the campground host’s RV. A middle-aged couple had volunteered to spend the summer in Glacier, keeping an eye on the campground in exchange for “free rent”. They had ice and they had bug spray. It took a little time, but the bleeding stopped and I managed to remain conscious. I vowed never again to blow my nose on the CDT. It was going to be tough… I loved blowing my nose.
It was June 21, the summer solstice. There’s a tradition on the Appalachian trail called naked hiking day – celebrate the summer, free yourself, run amok through the woods… naked. We figured the idea needed to spread. We did make one exception though – covering the jewels of the crown a la the red hot chili peppers. I figured if they could get away with it on the cover of an album (that’s been in stores for the past 10 years), certainly it wouldn’t be a problem in Glacier, where people were naturally happy and free. Thusly under-dressed, we headed out through the car-campground. Few people were awake. The few that were greeted us with confusion and encouragement. We had to walk past the ranger station. We hoped they’d see the fun in it. They didn’t. One of them (every ranger I met in Glacier was a woman) called us back, like a teacher reprimanding a troublesome student. There I stood, dressed in a glove and a backpack, trying to explain why it was OK. “we’re just going over to the trailhead and we’ll put our clothes back on.” There really wasn’t any point being naked in the backcountry – nobody was out there. The whole point was to ignite peoples’ imaginations. The ranger reluctantly let us go, what was her other choice? Cuffing us and sending us to the Blackfeet jailhouse? What could be more harmless than 4 mostly naked hikers? We passed a couple more cars on the way to the trailhead and waved hello, “welcome to Glacier!”. We put our clothes back on, and headed up the trail.
We were hiking on the edge of the park, high above a giant expanse of flatness to the east. All of Montana was laid out before us. The CDT was huge, no, the earth was huge, we were small, no… I didn’t know. We just kept going over the windswept foothills, 8 more miles back to East Glacier. To think any further ahead was pointless.
The trail went to hell… or at least to mud… the moment we stepped out of the park and onto Blackfeet land. The reservation charged anyone walking the few miles from the park to East Glacier $10, $10 that got washed into the reservation’s “general fund”. What was the general fund used for? Nobody could be certain, except that hiking trails were about the last thing on the list. There was a strange sort of battle going on though, the reservation’s cows roamed into the park, where the park’s bears ate them. Seemed fair to me.
I couldn’t believe it. An actual park ranger cop (a woman of course) was waiting for us at the trailhead just outside of town. It seemed that we’d frightened some people with our little freedom march earlier in the day. The people had complained to the park staff, “If this is the sort of thing that goes on here, we’re leaving!!!”. We figured we’d done the park a service, who needed people like those in the national parks? Through a questionable reading of the parks “laws”, we were charged with disturbing the peace or some such thing. The fine? $50 – the going rate for any park infraction.
We spent the rest of the day in East Glacier, eating, buying food, doing laundry, eating, beering. News traveled fast in a town of 250. Before long, we were minor celebrities – we’d stood up to da man! It was $50 well spent.
The next morning, we had to get out of East Glacier. Among other things, a 6ft blackfoot brave with a perm and a smile had taken a liking to Drew. We got ice cream to go, shuffled past golfers, “Look out for those bears…” (like we hadn’t heard that one before), and headed down the same bit of trail I’d tested out a week earlier.