Our first ride, in the back of a pickup, took us 5 miles down the road. The next one, on the flat bed of a flatbed, took us 4. We started walking, still 9 more miles to go… another car stopped. The driver was late for an appointment and headed the wrong direction, but wanted to help. He drove us half a mile, until he had to turn off a side road. One more ride in the cab of yet another pickup, and we were at the pass, back on the trail. click to enlargeIt had taken about 5 hours to travel the 18 miles from Lincoln to Rogers pass. It was already getting dark when we started walking. We made about 100 yards, and called it a day. For the first time on the trip, I didn’t bother using my tarp. The sky was clear, and the forecast for many days of hot sun. I laid on some lumpy slanted ground, and covered myself with my sleeping bag. Darkness rose.The forest was another world at night. If day was the realm of the plants and insects, night was that of the mammals. Mice, bats, skunks, possums, etc., even deer and bear were mostly nocturnal. Throughout the trip, I often awoke to sounds of creatures crunching through the dead leaves in the middle of the night. It wasn’t troublesome, it just “was”.
We climbed up to the divide early the next morning. It was a nice trail, maintained by some local horse-packers. We were no longer in a designated wilderness, just a forest, but still wilderness all the same. The designated wilderness areas had special attractions, they had visitors. The national forest was a lonely place, not as visually striking, but challenging and beautiful. The trail, carved out of green-covered soil and rock, traversed near the crest of the divide. We had views of gently rolling mountains – waves of green that stretched to the hazy horizon and beyond. Summer was finally taking over, it was hot, even hotter with a full backpack, 8000ft closer to the sun. We found occasional shade. Then, the trail entered the forest and we found only occasional sun. After a dozen miles or so, we zig-zagged down to Flesher Pass, another highway that came peeking through the mountains.A couple cars stopped at the pass, their occupants walked around, looked, pointed, then sped off – always in a hurry to be somewhere else, never satisfied. I headed down the road, looking for a spring. I found it a half-mile away, a trickle of water flowing under the empty highway. I sat down in a clump of lush grasses, pumping water, swatting at flies. Water was getting more scarce, so we had to plan how much to bring. On average, it worked out to 1 liter per 7 miles for me… I could stretch it to 10 if desperate. Plus, I needed exactly 1.5 liters to cook a meal & wash it down. We planned our day around water. I didn’t want to carry any more than necessary. Mario had already hiked through New Mexico, at one point he’d walked an entire day on 1 liter in the southern sun. The misery of that experience was still with him. He always carried “the maximum”.South of Stemple Pass, the trail entered an almost unbroken forest of skinny lodgepole pines. It was easy walking, soft, shaded, not steep. In 10 miles, we got a brief view ahead, took a break, and then returned to the tunnel. The trail was well marked, except where it needed to be. We’d walk along an obvious path, passing CDT signs and blazes that didn’t need to be there. Then, the trail would disappear, nothing… Oh, there it is… I think… We came to another pass, another road, a gravel road, Stemple Pass. click to enlargeI was out of water again. I headed down the road, arms full of empty bottles. Mario took a nap on a picnic bench… hmm… didn’t seem fair. There was a blue line on my map, about a half mile down the road. There wasn’t a stream on the ground to match though, just a dry ditch. All the water was intercepted by somebody’s backwoods dream home up above. Bastards. I kept walking, water would appear further downhill… and it did. By the time I returned to the pass, I was pooped. After dinner, it was dark. We walked 100 yards into the woods and set up camp.A couple hours later, in the darkness, someone parked at the pass. They had a floodlight and were determined to use the damn thing for something, even if it was stupid and pointless. For 20 minutes, they flashed the trees with the light, “No, let me have it…”, “ha, ha, ha…”. Morons. They were people and their stuff, trying to be happy and failing. They drove off. The real woods were ours again.
The trail quickly hit a large grassy meadow. The path became a two-track jeep road. The roads only got used by vehicles in the autumn, when ranchers came to collect their fat free-range cattle. For the time being, there were only us, the grass, the flowers and the flies.click to enlargeThe flies were peaking. They were part of the eco-quation, just another limb of life. I was sure the flies had names, categories, both scientific and common, but I had no idea what those were. So, I just gave them my own descriptions. First, there were the tiny grey ones, 1/4 inch long. They seemed to prefer smelly socks and I was fine with that. Next were yellow and black flies, disguised as bees, but harmless. They would hover in one spot for a while, then land and slowly crawl… a lot like their stinging counterparts actually. Then, there were the shiny flies, they came in a variety of sizes and iridescent colors. They were attracted to poop and rot, their shiny bodies kept them clean… clean for a fly anyway. The tiny 1/8 inch biters were easy to miss, until I wondered why my wrist was itching, and found it covered in little welts, the bastards. I caught one in the act, scooping out a hunk of me for dinner – it was his last act – squish! Finally, there were the giants. They were loners, striped like zebras or escaped prisoners, they circled like sharks. Sometimes, they waited for ten minutes or more, looking for an unprotected bit of flesh. Usually, they were easy to spot, as they were unafraid, taunting us. There was only one way to get rid of them. Stop walking, wait for them to land, get comfortable, then whack! – they buzzed into the dirt. It usually took a stomp or two to finish the job. Occasionally, one got through – a sharp sting on my neck was always fatal for the fly. They hadn’t evolved to feed on humans and couldn’t deal with our swatting hands. I examined one of them, their mouth consisted of a boney white razor blade, 1/8 inch long. Their method was to slice open skin, and drink up blood. On people, the flies never got much past the painful slicing part.We got to a grassy saddle a few miles north of Nevada Mountain. Time for a break. A few flies buzzed in, attracted by our sweet stench, and then a few more, then dozens, then hundreds. My pack, a feast of salt, lay on the grass, covered in a swarm. Most of the flies didn’t bite, but at critical mass they made breathing and eyesight difficult. We weren’t able to stop for more than 5 minutes in the heat of the day, any longer and they took over.The trail faded in and out, usually out. We knew where to go, the terrain was open & visible and I had good topographic maps. Still, we sometimes had to wonder, were we really on the CDT? The flies kept us moving. We reached Dana Spring in the early evening – a fenced-off patch of soggy grass, and a pipe that led to a holding tank. It was all there to keep the cows from destroying their own source of water. The flies started to relax as the sun got lower. We cooked dinner. Just as we were getting ready to leave, Drew caught up. He’d spent an extra day in Lincoln, and had apparently been hiking non-stop since then. Mario and I had decided to take a short cut over the next few miles. The divide made a semi-circle to the north and the trail followed the divide – no water on the route. Instead, we could follow some roads along a creek and pick up the trail in about 10 miles. Drew agreed it was a sensible plan. We decided to meet up at Polly Spring, a few miles down the creek.Polly Spring was nothing more than a field of cow prints and dried poop – no water. Stupidly, I hadn’t brought much water from Dana, not enough for a comfortable night even. I left a note on the trail for Drew, and we continued down the dry streambed… there had to be water somewhere soon. As we descended, we passed more and more cows. In their brief artificial lives, their only encounters with humans had all been miserable. They saw us and panicked, they ran direction-less, they bellowed and mooed, “help, oh no!”. The cow was a pathetic creature, it had become more of a plant than an animal, just a carcass on four moving stalks.3 more miles, still no water, what were all these cows drinking? Then, I heard it, a stream! Another valley, dotted with cows, fed into the main channel. It was dark by the time we set up our tents. In the distance, we heard more cows bellowing, running from Drew. He stopped before he reached us though. Mario lit a couple firecrackers he’d bought in Lincoln… Oh, that was right… It was the 4th of July, and the only one who seemed to notice or care was Dutch. A full moon lit up the landscape in shades of grey and blue. Crickets sang, an owl swooped by, silent and cool.It’d been over 300 miles since the border of Canada. I had already become removed from the ordinary, a thousand steps back from the routine, asking “why?” and laughing. I was immersed in a new reality, my reality. The CDT was fast becoming a home, a life-style, more comfortable every day. I felt lucky because I had over 2000 miles left to go. I thought about the two hikers I’d met in Glacier, the ones that had quit before I’d started. Where were they now? and where did they want to be?
We awoke to the sounds of terrified cows, Drew was getting closer, then passing us. We gathered our things and headed out. Walking on the soft dirt road was easy. We passed some parked RVs, celebrating the holiday? the people inside were still sleeping. Wherever the forest gave way to meadow, the flowers were spectacular – hillsides of color stretching to the sky. We slowly passed above a gigantic ranch – a square mile of tiny yellow flowers flowing downhill from our feet. The ranch house was a tiny mansion in the middle. We caught up to Drew and to the CDT. There was a new section of trail… mostly. It took us by an old forgotten railroad trestle – rotten wood, planks missing, probably haunted by some lost engineer-spirit. History never stopped, was the fate of the trestle the fate of everything? The trail disappeared into a meadow and the terrain got confusing. We walked in circles for a bit then consulted our maps.Before the trip, I’d downloaded all my maps from the internet, traced-out the trail and some alternate routes, and printed them. It took way too much time, but it was paying off… so far. The maps were as topographically detailed as one could get, they were the USGS 7.5 minute quads, shrunk a bit and altered. Every other topographic map was based on these, the only problem was that the man-made ingredients of the map kept changing. Roads closed, or more often, were added. Buildings were built, jurisdictions changed. To supplement the maps, I had a set of guidebooks, written and meticulously updated by Jim Wolf. He’d originally written most of the guidebooks around 1980. They contained useful information like, “…Crawl beneath another fence. Go over a minor ridge at 16.7 and then, at a junction at 16.8, make a sharp turn to the right…” He was a lawyer by trade. Mario had a set of the other guidebooks. They were newer, with color photos and laid-out with an amazon.com motif. They looked really nice, but we didn’t use them often as they just didn’t have the detail we needed. Usually, we also had forest service or BLM maps, covering whatever area we happened to be in. These usually had the most updated road number and trail info, and covered a wide area. We were in the Helena National Forest.None of the guidebooks or maps were much use in that one spot. We followed a couple dead-end wildlife trails, and then just followed a compass-heading south. The compass was one thing we could always rely on.We climbed past some radio towers, then descended to MacDonald Pass – named for a tollbooth operator, a true American hero. We took a break at a car-campground. Some kids were driving their ATVs in circles in the parking lot near the highway – communing with nature in their own way. I was discovering that few Montanans exercised without a motor. Discussions about the CDT usually led to questions like, “So, where’s your car”, or “What road are you taking?”, or “Who’s picking you up?”. All I could do was chuckle kindly, anything else was fruitless.We headed over more grassy hilltops. Afternoon storm clouds were building over neighboring hills, but we had sun on ours. An occasional stirke of lightning flashed and echoed… 5 miles… 6 miles away? We finally camped on the trail, which in that case, was an old logging road covered in grass. click to enlarge click to enlarge
The route continued on forest roads much of the next day. 2 miles of flat and overgrown road, winding around the mountaintop, 2 miles of trail, 6 more miles of road – hot with bleached-white gravel, a mile of steep rocky jeep tread, more old road, tilted and grassy – we saw every type of road imaginable. We stopped to dry our belongings, it was a daily ritual. Every morning, we woke up wet from either dew or rain. Every afternoon, we laid it all out in the sun – the thirsty air sucked up the moisture rapidly.We came to a decision point of sorts. A section of trail was described in the guidebook as “flagged, but not built in 1998”, it was all the information we had to go on. Surely, I thought, they must have built it by now… Drew decided not to risk it, and took a different route. Mario and I hiked on, and arrived where the junction was supposed to be. There was nothing but a piece of plastic orange marking tape tied to a young pine. It looked about 3 years old. The trail still hadn’t been built, but it was only a couple miles, we could manage.It was two miles of hiking from orange flag to orange flag, through thick young trees across the steep slope of Thunderbolt Mountain. Solid footing was rare, so was space between the trees. The orange flags had mostly fallen to the ground. The few that remained were well hidden. True to the mountain’s name, rain and lightning flashed from above. We got wet, but we managed to make it through somehow. At some other time, it would have pissed me off, but somehow it was funny on the CDT. Sometimes the trail was wherever we made it.We pushed ourselves the rest of the day, trying to make up for time lost to the orange flags. We climbed a couple thousand feet and reached Leadville. Leadville wasn’t a “ville” at all, just a bunch of abandoned mining equipment and cabins, rusting and rotting. The people had been practical, the only reason to go to the mountains was to extract money. When it didn’t pay out, they left their trash behind and moved on – litter in the guise of history.We finally made camp at 8000ft, on a grassy hilltop with views east to Butte, and views south to… somewhere… to tomorrow.
The route down passed across a long soggy meadow. A spring created a clear stream that cut down the middle of the meadow. ATVs had ripped across the meadow though, and diverted the stream. Instead of its natural course, it flowed through quickly-eroding muddy tire-ruts. ATVs let anyone get to the woods. They didn’t require the drivers to have a brain, conscience or soul. That ancient meadow, Long Park, was altered, wrecked by the clueless in an instant. They were still clueless no doubt. It was human history in a nutshell.The trail wound down over fields of Lupine. We could see all the way to the Anaconda-Pintler – jagged peaks on the horizon. It had been a lot of miles since our last foray into terrain like that. We’d be on the horizon in time though, it wasn’t that far, another week perhaps?click to enlargeThe trail took us back into the forested tunnel along little used roads… What were they all there for? Oh ya, money. Trees were money, rocks were money, rivers were money. They were my money too, they were a bank from which I made continuous withdrawals. I needed to feed my habit: walking, breathing – I couldn’t do those things well without the bank.There were almost no CDT markers on the roads. A half-dozen intersections and a couple lucky guesses brought us to another car-campground, same as the last one. We sat at a table, exhausted and running low on food. A family had taken over the space next to us. They were taking turns riding ATVs up and down the parking area – Dad, then Brother, then Mom, then Sister and her friend, even the family dog got a ride. Walking was not done. I took a nap.It was another 5 miles to the highway that led to Butte. We walked 3, out of the national forest and onto “no trespassing” land. We picked a spot and ducked under some barbed-wire. Out of sight of the nearby house, we spent the night.
We hit the highway quickly the next morning. It was Sunday morning, cars flew by impossibly fast… one by one. I started to think we’d never get a ride – they couldn’t see us going so fast. A pickup shot past us, slammed on its brakes, and backed-up. It was a miracle. We got dropped off in the suburban sprawl south of Butte. I felt embarrassed. Mario had never been to the US before, and I wanted it all to be impressive. I tried to explain that it was better than Butte – It wasn’t all Walmarts and K-marts, McDonalds and TV, at least not yet anyway. But… it was real, it was the America of our own creation, we’d been found out. I explained the history of the “blue light special” to Mario – a story that wasn’t in any book or national monument’s guided tour.Butte was a big town, not designed for walking… not designed at all actually, just thrown together – the quickest way to make money. We walked anyway. I bought a bunch of new equipment – a new sleeping pad, a new food bag, titanium tent stakes, nylon rope… The biggest attraction in Butte was an old pit mine, a giant hole in the ground. We didn’t see it though. Instead, we split a hotel room and ate pizza. The man in the blue suit rode by on a bicycle he’d bought for $10 at a thrift store, “This thing is great”, he said, “It’s the only way I can get around this place.” It was a clever move.
On the way out, we stopped for lunch at one of the dozens of nameless casino-restaurants scattered throughout the town. I ate a BLT and watched cigarette smoke filter though the hair of a chubby wrinkled old lady. Her hand was attached to a slot machine. It was the sickest thing I’d seen in weeks, I had to get out of the place, why did people live there, I wondered? How? We passed a rehab center next the the highway, the addicts were having lunch, some of them were walking in circles around a track, metaphors for their lives.