We were on the highway again, working our magic with thumbs and cars. About 20 minutes in, a van stopped up ahead. As we ran up, the man got out to rearrange some things in his trunk, he waved at us to take our time. He worked (or at least volunteered) for the Montana Wilderness Coalition, I was surprised that such a thing even existed. He was looking for ATV damage along the CDT. He’d had trouble figuring out just where the CDT was located though. “I’m gonna have to order some of those yellow guidebooks.”, he said. “A damn enviramenalist…” as many of the locals called them. He lived in Wyoming. Most of the rides we got in Montana weren’t from Montanans, they were from travellers just passing through. The rides from Montanans were usually in the back of a pickup that started moving before we could sit down, and took off the second our feet hit the dirt again. I often wondered, if they were in such a rush, why’d they even stop for us? Too quickly, we arrived back at the trail. I was ready to start walking, but wanted more conversation… Mario and I were already running low on new topics.The trail started out quite nice – new tread that switch-backed through a forest of old trees and giant round granite boulders. We passed a series of crystal clear streams pouring from deep inside the mountain, their soft trickle sang, “drink me”. Magic. I was home again. As we rose, the mosquitoes multiplied. At first, they were enough to make stopping intolerable, then enough to make walking the same. With every 5 steps, I caught one sinking its plunger into the flesh of my left shoulder, whack! another took its place. I was spending all my energy to battle an undefeatable foe. For the first time on the trip, I resorted to chemicals – DEET – better than drugs. Relief was instant, the buggers couldn’t see me anymore. The DEET usually lasted around 45 minutes, then got diluted by sweat and dirt. It was long enough though, we rounded the top of the hill, headed through a wetland, and hit a road. The bugs were tolerable again. click to enlargeThe road took us above Delmoe Lake. ATVs had carved smooth, rolling double-tracks in every possible direction through the forest undergrowth. We tried following some of them, hoping they’d take us down to the lake. The tracks went in circles though. The ATVs didn’t take anybody anywhere, just gave them a cheap thrill of, “look at me! Wheeee!”. $2000 joy-ride machines… who’d like one? We cut cross-country, aiming for the lake. Delmoe Lake was a reservoir, the water was down a good 10 feet or so, leaving a stale ring of bleached earth around its perimeter. Rotting dead fish lapped at the shore – put out of their misery. I climbed up some rocks, headed for the dam, when a big white dog saw me and switched on – all teeth and voice, growling, hair standing on the back, tail straight out. “He’s a nice dog”, I heard from behind some rocks. I clutched my pepper spray, subconsciously hoping the dog did something stupid. I really wanted to try the stuff out. “He’s a nice dog”, the guy repeated, smiling, “Come on boy, it’s OK”. Dogs don’t like people with backpacks, poles, sunglasses, beards and hats. I saw myself in a mirror once, and understood why – I looked not quite human.We headed around the lake to a car-campground, tired, slept.
The next morning, we walked Delmoe Lake road all the way to another highway. The road had been slightly re-routed from the location on my map – made a little longer & gentler so people could get 40-foot RVs back to the lake. I hated Delmoe Lake road, its smooth boring turns, its white gravel, its white trash living on the shoulder, the graffiti on the boulders, turning to sand. Still, people came to the lake, the swill-hole, the irresistible force of flat water, any water, drew them there like flies to a cow’s rear-end. We passed some old men at a picnic area, unloading ATVs from a trailer. Another toxic puddle was nearby, just under I-90… People were fishing in it. I pumped water from a nearby well, and then joined Mario in a quick nap. The old men we’d seen zoomed past us. They wore the blank look of addicts, plugged-in to the drug machine, farting, vibrating, giving its fix to pale skinny legs and bloated bellies. We were slowly hiking around the back side of Butte… too slowly.The forest service map showed a trail following the divide through the forest south of Homestake Pass. None of our other information mentioned it. As we suspected, the trail wasn’t there, just some map-makers practical joke, or mistake, or dream. We cut down below the highway, heading for the suburban hills south of Butte. Our guidebooks suggested following paved roads for the next 20+ miles, southwest, then northwest. We’d had enough of that. Private property be damned, we were going straight through the subdivisions. I thought of the caption on a Far Side comic: “Tonga and Zuthu wander through the suburbs, plagued by kids, dogs and protective mothers.” We asked some kids on bikes where the roads went, as the roads weren’t on our maps. Like most of the people in the area, they didn’t talk to strangers, just mumbled and pointed. We followed the curving roads to a dead-end, then found a dirt-bike path heading into the hills, going our way. We followed it for a mile or so, past a clump of abandoned buildings built near nothing, then to an abandoned railroad bed – “No Trespassing”. The railroad bed took us to another road, more “homes & land” land, these were bigger homes on bigger plots of land. We stopped for a break in the shade in somebody’s backyard, out of sight, we hoped, out of water, almost. It was still hot. We estimated our location on the map, and kept heading west to the end of the road, barbed wire, no trespassing, no people, just quiet island homes in an expanse of brown and green grass. The land was still there though, every place was some place, and there was a beauty to it all. We spotted a tank of water ahead – luck!!! Clean cold water was seeping out of the ground into a tub for the cows and horses and trespassing hikers. A couple more barbed-wire fences and we were back on public land… we figured, probably. We climbed a road (is it that road?, studying the map) and camped in light forest among pine needles and smooth decorative rocks. clicko to enlargeo
I was pretty sure of our location. The road, then more like a trail, took us a half mile west, then turned. We headed off the path and into the forest, following a red compass needle and directions of least resistance. Lucky for us, the forest there was easy to walk through, there was plenty of space between the trees, no hidden cliffs, and occasional views so we could make educated guesses about where we were. Was it Climax Gulch? or the next one over? the one not on my map? We knew if we headed west long enough, we’d hit another highway, then it’d be easy to pick-up the trail again. We followed a drainage down, west. Water flowed, the forest was peaceful, enchanting, nice. It was all smooth rounded boulders and a shaded pine-needle carpet. I imagined it was what Butte once looked like, before people had come to improve it. Why couldn’t we all just live in hobbit-holes in the woods? Oh, ya, telephone wires, automobiles, toilets, upholstery… all the complicated things that made life easy, that’s why.We crossed another barbed-wire fence, into somebody’s land, and came out to a ranch house. We could see the highway a couple miles off, down a gravel road that cut through an open plain. A mile down the road, a pickup towing a horse trailer pulled up. A man leaned out and said hello. We had obviously trespassed through his land to get to that point, but he didn’t seem to mind. He wore a dull cowboy hat, faded shirt, faded jeans, boots, and, believe it or not, spurs. That was right, honest-to-goodness cowboy spurs. We explained what we were doing, and he offered us a ride to the highway. We couldn’t refuse it. Beside the fact that it was blazing hot and shadeless, we’d had little contact with that “other” Montana, the one they advertise, the one that’s kind, helpful, gentle, smart and real. After our short ride, we got out and said our thanks. “If the good Lord had intended us to walk, he’da given us four legs.”, the man said matter-of-factly. I showed him my hiking poles, but he was only slightly amused. He actually understood where we were going and, probably even why. “Make sure you go up Nichola Creek when you get there.”, he advised, looking off to the horizon, “It’s my favorite place in the world.”. He smiled and shook his head, some memory sending him into a temporary contemplative bliss. Then he drove off, horses bouncing behind, headed toward Butte.We were standing right on the CDT. Amazing. Our plan had worked better than we’d figured it would, we’d cut off a lot of boring and traffic-laden roads. We still had to walk 3 more miles of hot, shadeless, bright gravel. I generally walked about 15% faster than Mario, we rarely attempted to walk together. It would have driven me nuts to be behind someone constantly, I hoped I wasn’t driving him nuts… I probably was though, oh well. I took a lot of breaks, long breaks. I’d wait for him to catch up, then wait another 15, 30, 45 minutes… However long it took until we telepathically decided it was time to walk again. The road led us to a trailhead, where we took a long break. Just below us flowed a little creek, the last water for another 17 miles. We’d already gone about 8 in the morning. The creek drained two dozen square miles of range-land, and tasted like a cow’s rectum… my filter didn’t filter-out stink. I went back down the water to wash my bandana, and half of a dead fish floated by. I tried not to think about it too much.The trail rose into the hills, Butte was behind us. Most of the trail was ATV trail, doubling as hiking tread. It actually made for pleasant walking, very smooth. We didn’t see any ATVs, that probably helped make it a pleasant experience. The CDT was well-marked. Wooden signs pointed the way at each intersection, it was nice to let the signs do the navigating for a change. The trail rose higher into a forest of douglas firs. The big trees seemed out of place here. They weren’t nearly as big as their cousins on the pacific northwest coast, but they were probably as old… at least those that were left. We passed through great swaths of clear-cuts – straight lines that partitioned the land. Oh, that’s right, trees were money, money was important, all important. I wished the big trees luck in avoiding the roads and chainsaws and people, “It’ll be all-right”, I told them. Then I turned my head so they wouldn’t catch me lying. click to enlargeWe caught some light rain and soft thunder – it matched the temper of the forest perfectly. I learned a new Dutch word, “Wulkin”, which meant clouds, I think. I wanted to learn more, but it was too easy to make Mario speak English. I figured I’d have to visit Holland someday to really get the hang of it. I wasn’t going to get very far telling everybody, “Wulkin”, and pointing at the sky. How would I communicate on a clear day? I’d learned one other word, “Pausa” which meant “break”. When Mario was really tired, English was too much effort, it was time for a “Pausa”.We hiked the 17 miles to Larkspur spring in record time, and ate dinner protected from the steady light rain by big trees. The sky cleared as evening came, and we made it to an open grassy hilltop. It was places and moments like those that made the trip worth any price of time, money or discomfort. The sunlight slowly faded, giving way to a calm, clear, quiet night. click to enlarge
We made it down to another paved road by noon. The Anaconda-Pintler wilderness was just ahead, bare rocky peaks were calling for us. But, we’d made a decision to have a pit-stop in Anaconda first. The road, hwy 274 (I’ll never forget that number), was empty. One car drove past as we were hiking up, it took a half-hour for another to pass, and it didn’t stop for us. 45 minutes, and another car, no luck. We started walking toward Anaconda, it was 20 miles or so. After 3 miles, we got a ride in a pickup… halfway… the people in the pickup had “something” to do in the mountains. 2 more miles of walking, and the same pickup came by again, we got a ride to the “main” highway, only 2 more miles to Anaconda, and there were lots of cars. It took only a couple minutes to flag down a ride, it came from a food distributor with a wife who worked at a restaurant in Anaconda. We had lunch and decided to spend the night – the sky was turning black with clouds. We’d heard rumors there was another couple hiking the trail. The man in the blue suit had mentioned them, the people in the restaurant had seen them. It took only a few minutes to track them down. Like me, Sunshine and Seehawk, had hiked the PCT in 1999. I’d never met them though, they hadn’t been in a hurry to finish that trail, and weren’t in a hurry to finish the CDT. They’d started about a week before us – undeterred by the late-season storm in Glacier. It was great to talk about the CDT with someone new, someone who really understood, someone who had the same questions and concerns…, “are you going through Mack’s Inn, or around the top???” etc, etc, etc… They were trying to avoid as many large towns as possible, they’d skipped Butte. They didn’t have a problem bringing extra food, good food, if it meant less hitching. They were from Santa Cruz, they swam in every lake, ate organic nuts and always packed a coca-cola to go… they were the energizer bunny.By that time, I estimated that Kevin and Sharon were a few days ahead and the man in the blue suit was just behind them. Drew was somewhere in Montana… we hadn’t seen him since the orange flags. John and J.J. were somewhere behind us. That was our community, a little traveling town of loners and couples scattered along a few hundred miles.Every fifth building in Anaconda was occupied, the rest were either boarded-up or forgotten. Anaconda had been a boom-mining town back in “the day”. Now, there was just one small mine north of town, barely worth a mention. The prosperous times had left gifts for Anaconda – they had a 400ft-high pile of black tailings, and a monstrous smelter-stack just outside of town. Then there was the movie theater. Everyone in Anaconda asked, “Have you been to the movie theatre?”. There was a sense of honest pride about it. Everything else in town had gone bust, but the theater was forever. It was decorated with tile mosaics and red carpet, lighted by chandeliers, built with detail and thought. Movies were only $3, “Pearl Harbor” was playing. The town may have been empty, but the theater was full.I sat in the doorway of the room that evening. The largest bolt of lightning I’d ever seen electrified the hill just above town, a sonic boom followed. I was happy to have a roof that night.
Sunshine and Seehawk had arranged a ride to the trailhead in the morning. An honestly excited woman (she cleaned the rooms at a hotel) kept us talking all the way up the hill, she loved it in Anaconda. “You’re going up to where there’s no trees… up there?” she said, looking out the window, “I don’t know if I’d like that so much”. I tried to explain how it was amazing, beautiful and free, but could barely put it into words, “you’re up there, with miniature plants, stark rocks, snow in July, looking over miles of land, and you’re a monarch…” She was excited for us all the same. Sunshine and Seehawk were headed up the official CDT route, Mario and I had another plan.The official route went through about 20 miles of forest, gradually rising to meet the divide at Goat Flats. Mario and I headed straight up into the mountains… well not “straight up”, but over crazier terrain anyway. We’d had enough of the tunnel. The morning had started out absolutely clear, but by 10AM, storm clouds were forming to our south. By 10:30, the mountains to the south were being pounded with a barrage of lightning. The rain didn’t concern us but the high voltage did. We were headed up a giant mound of rock covered in little more than grass and sagebrush. We were as good as lightning rods on top of the hill. The storm clouds were heading north, straight for us. It looked like we’d have plenty of time, until we didn’t. I looked back at Mario, and saw a bolt of lightning strike a mile behind him, right where we’d been 20 minutes prior. I raced down the hill, and aimed for a thin clump of trees – they’d have to do. Mario caught up, and we sat there, crouching, waiting, getting wet. The storms never lasted long though, and in 20 minutes it was blue skies again. We figured we’d have a couple hours till the next wave. We crested the hill and headed down a steep wooded mountainside. Well, it was more than wooded, covered in thick underbrush that blocked, tugged and pulled. I slipped on a loose rock and cut my leg, not bad, just skin. It was frustrating, but the only way. Somebody owned the entire mountain valley, we had no idea who. We owned it, at least it felt that way… what was the point of owning something just for the sake of calling it your’s? They weren’t there, they weren’t seeing it. We were ghosts, what could they do about that? If a hiker hiked through private land, and nobody saw him, was he trespassing? The trick was in “not being seen” (should’ve paid attention in Monty Python class…). The owners of the land had built a giant gravel road up the length of the valley, thanks. The road was wide enough for a double semi to make a U-turn. I wondered just what the hell were they doing up there? We tried to keep our breaks to a minimum, we wanted to move as quickly and quietly as possible, plus, the mountains were getting “cool” again, we… well, I had energy. About halfway up, we saw a black bear with two cubs… They promptly ran when they saw us.We got to a lake at the end of the road and relaxed – fairly sure that we didn’t have to worry about the ‘trespassing thing’ anymore. Bare cliffs and rounded rocky mountaintops rose above us, storm clouds were gathering. We had one more bit of open land to cover, and decided to do it before more lightning came. We continued cross-country, past progressively smaller trees, across slopes of budding grasses and flowers, and even over a lingering snowbank. We reached the top of the ridge and surveyed the other side. click to enlarge click to enlargeAn old guidebook described the path ahead as “the steepest part of the entire route”. It was a believable review. We had to lean over the edge to see exactly what we were dealing with. There was really only one way down… straight down. Carefully, we picked our way down the rocks, trying to remain close together so any rocks we set loose wouldn’t have time to gain dangerous momentum. We had to throw our hiking poles down as we needed our hands to hold on to the rocks. Halfway down, I came upon a rock that didn’t appear to be steady, it was about the size of a coffee table. I gave it a little test-step, and it slid off the cliff face, free-falling a good 50 feet before it exploded into shards. The sound was like thunder, a dusty smell I could only describe as “crushed rock” wafted upward. I admitted to myself… it was pretty cool… especially in contrast to the environment, where little changed quickly. At the base of the cliff, a millennium’s worth of fallen rocks lay in a steep heap, we scrambled down those and continued into the forest below. select to deshrinkThe terrain below the cliff was gorgeous. Clear mountain rivulets snaked through lush flowered meadows. In places the soil had grown over the water, so that the streams disappeared and reappeared. They seemed to come from all directions. The forest was old and balanced, all manner of life grew on everything – fungus, lichens, moss… We headed off into the woods, following our compasses, and peeking at the mountaintops to keep an estimate of where we were. After a couple hours, we finally crossed a trail that was marked on the map.We stopped for dinner at a lake, then followed a rudimentary trail along the shore. The trail became less and less distinct, then we realized… it wasn’t a trail at all, some bozo had managed to get an ATV up to the lake, and ripped a path through the lake-side plants. The tracks led to a wetland, where apparently, the motorhead decided to back up. I picked up a couple cigarette butts in the muck. Asshole. We got back on trail, through woods that an ATV couldn’t get through, not without a chainsaw anyway. The trail rose, back to more lush meadows and clear water. The mosquitoes were getting progressively worse. By the time I set up my tarp, I’d squished so many that I had a mosquito paste on my hands. I had a love and respect for so many creatures, but it all stopped at mosquitoes… I didn’t even like reading or saying the word. I absolutely hated them. They were so persistent and suicidal, so 100% instinct, that they weren’t even alive to me. I was jealous of Drew, he had figured out a way to rip their little stingers off through mosquito mesh – great entertainment – I wanted to torture them too, death was too easy for a bloodsucking bug that just didn’t care. I examined the hundred or so mosquitoes, clinging to the mesh hanging from my tarp. A few of them always managed to sneak in during the night.
The morning continued where the evening had left off – more mosquitoes and unexplored land. We came to a lake which was also the dead-end of a road, an unloading point for people headed into the Anaconda-Pintler. I saw something I hadn’t seen since the Bob – people with backpacks. I wanted to talk to them… kindred spirits, I thought. They were wrapped-up in their own little adventure though, pulling all manner of nylon and aluminum out of their car, too distracted to notice us. We headed up to Storm Lake Pass.From the top of the pass, we had a view down the valley we’d bypassed – where the official trail was routed. A short traverse along a steep mountain slope, and we’d reached the CDT… and the divide itself… again. We wandered over a plateau called Goat Flats, a rolling expanse of short grass and flowers at 9200feet. Mountains poked-up from the horizon all around. We were back! The doldrums of Montana were behind us. “you could play soccer up here”, Mario pointed at the plateau, using the American word. We descended to a valley below. click to enlargeThe trail through the Anaconda-Pintler was laid out like most trail through rough terrain – a lot of up and down over passes. As soon as we’d descended, we had to climb 1200 feet, back above the trees, to a ridge that connected the divide to Rainbow Mountain. The day was a euphoric one for me, a warm sun beat down, giant white puffy clouds floated and reformed above us, we among tiny grasses and flowers and rocks covered in bright orange lichen. There was also a special sense of accomplishment and relief. It was one thing to be in that place, it was more to have come there by foot, from far below, from far away… heart still pounding and head dizzy from straining the thin air. It was a rocky mountain high.click to enlargeWe saw more backpackers in the Anaconda-Pintler than we’d seen the entire trip thus far. It had more to do with the time of year than anything, summer was happening in the world below, it was still spring up in the mountains. A train of horse-packers rode by as we filtered some water, their hooves dug into the tread, packing it down and ripping it up all at once. We were always “in the way” of the horses, somehow it was never seen as the other way around… at least not by them. There was plenty of trail and plenty of land though, no need to get pushy, at least they were out there. I thought about how many people were watching Oprah right at that moment. A little while later, we passed a group of lads, about 14-17 years old, headed the opposite direction. The boy in front looked up at me like a fairy tale prince, run away from home. “Are there lakes and streams up ahead?”, he asked, with an accent that came from England, circa 1885. I stood there baffled, I wanted to laugh, I wanted to take him by the hand, point to the sky and say something profound. “Well, I don’t know… if you go far enough, I guess, but you’d have to go downhill through the woods…”. He’d picked the one valley in miles that did not have a lake… or even a good fishing stream. They trotted past, fishing poles in hand. I had to think, hadn’t the kid looked at a map? What were they thinking? I hoped they’d find something better than a stream, if they’d only go “up”. We steadily rose to our next pass, Cutaway Pass. Gigantic larches, the biggest I’d ever seen, dotted the bouldered landscape. Larches seemed to do best in harsh environments, it was the only reason I could figure why they were growing there. The largest of them reached their maximum sizes and died, standing for decades, naked of bark. The wood was colored in vertical stripes of gold and yellow, rust and white. It seemed that larches reached the pinnacle of their majesty long after they’d died. I approached the top of the pass and saw a familiar face, “Dude!”John was standing there, grinning, laughing, and shaking his fuzzy head. I hadn’t seen him since Lincoln. He was pumped. He’d convinced J.J. to walk the actual divide from Goat Flats to Cutaway Pass. The route had taken them over a series of steep rocky peaks. J.J. soon came around a corner. He had a look of exhausted relief, shell-shock. He hadn’t done anything like that before, and didn’t seem too sure that he’d actually made it. The four of us traded notes from the last couple weeks as headed down from the pass.We finally came to a flat area in thick forest. We were small among the giant mossy trees – pillars of wood covered by layers of soft ornamental decoration. Why did people even bother with art I wondered, I was walking through the living Anaconda-Pintler gallery.
We passed Seehawk and Sunshine early the next morning, the lake behind their tent was covered in morning mist – water beginning its daily march skyward and back down again. The trail took us past fields of beargrass – rounded tufts of coarse grass that supported a single 3-foot-high stalk which ended in a bulb of tiny white firework flowers. Beargrass was common in all the high country of Montana, of all the northern Rockies and Cascades… Still, most people had never even seen it. I thought, what isolated lives these plants led, never once travelling down to the world below. What wonderful lives.John’s pack strap broke. We sewed it together, a temporary, no permanent, no, temporary field repair. Things just didn’t last. They didn’t heal. Entropy, bringing it all down. My shoelaces had broken a few days earlier – I had expected it. My shoes would last another few hundred miles I guessed, my shirt was getting thin, my shorts were ripped. But, my body grew stronger every day. That was the difference between the living and the dead I thought, where do the mountains lie? the earth? the sky? all the rest of it?The four of us decided to take another alternate route. It wasn’t some crazy idea, just a way to avoid going down and up, a way to stay among the beargrass and rocks a little longer. Thunderstorms rolled past, south to north still. The clouds built up all morning, then all at once broke like a giant squeezed sponge, the dark water falling in slow motion in the distance, an occasional outburst of electricity thrown in for a little pizazz. Clouds were strange, magical things I thought, we were lucky to have them. I understood the rain-dance. click to enlargeAs we continued south, another color took over – black. The previous summer, an entire forest had burned. In places, the flames had stopped at the divide, giving us a “before” picture to our left, and an “after” to the right. In the heart of the burn though, the only thing that survived were small sprouts of beargrass – their roots had been protected from the heat, and were already sending up new growth – taking advantage of the abundant sunlight filtering through the empty trees. We stopped for dinner at an oasis of sorts, a spring oozed from below, supporting a small patch of fresh green grass that grew like a freshly re-seeded suburban lawn. A mile later, we made camp on an edge of the burn. The mosquitoes were thick again, and I took pleasure in killing as many as possible. I clapped my hands together every second for 10 minutes, killing 1 sometimes 2 with every clap. Usually, I was able to keep the mosquito population in check by culling the numbers, but not there. The forest was super-saturated with them. I gave up. click to enlarge
The next day, Mario and I drifted ahead. The trail continued to follow the divide closely, following the burn. The heart of the Anaconda-Pintler was behind us, our foray into the rugged peaks was too brief. The rain started earlier than usual. The clouds sunk low, covering the tops of the mountains, covering us. We walked through the thick fog. The tread disappeared, and the “trail” became nothing more than a series of cairns – piles of rock, about 3 feet high. It was 75 yards from cairn to cairn, but we could only see about 50 yards. We continued straight, what we thought was straight, past cairn after cairn, the next one always taking shape in the mist. Then, nothing. Which way had we come from? Where had the trail turned? The world was a small circle of sameness – scattered trees, piles of rock… is that a cairn? nope, just some random rocks. We took our best guess and zig-zagged in the general direction our compass said was correct. Another cairn, it was a game of hide-and-go-seek. The cairns either ducked behind trees or small hills, or disguised themselves as part of the terrain. We hit some actual tread again – a nice solid line of dirt – and continued downhill, out of the fog. It was time for a pausa at Shultz Saddle.click to enlargeThe trail ahead followed a road. There was only one road on my map, about a dozen on the ground (why the hell did they need so many damn roads? Of course, money.). Naturally, we took the wrong one, then hit an intersection and took another wrong one. Crap. Where the hell were we? All the hills looked the same, the roads weren’t on the map. It took a bit of guessing and deduction, but after a mile sideways through the forest, we came to what we figured was the “right” road. It was headed in the right direction anyway. It was a long day, a lot of miles. I never did learn the Dutch word for “stop”, but I was sure Mario had mumbled it under his breath.
We only had about 6 miles to go the next morning. Then, town. A day before a town, it dominated my thoughts, a day in a town and I couldn’t wait to leave. The CDT took a big detour to the north, a loop through half-burned forest along the divide… or so we guessed. Instead, we took a short-cut, down another trail. We took a break at a road crossing, and watched an unlikely parade of vehicles. First, a minivan filled with Asians from California. Then a pickup drove by: two older, well-dressed men from Montana. Finally another older pickup from Washington passed with two younger men, missing teeth. “Your friends went up ahead”, I said, hoping I hadn’t stumbled into some backwoods mafia dumping ground. The dirty guy leaned out his window, and nodded at me lustfully. We kept going. Later, I decided the parade was looking for mushrooms. Morels were in season, rare, very tasty, so I was told. Morels were money too. Mario said he saw one, “Looked like a brains”, he described. I never noticed one. We cruised the last few miles of roads to Lost Trail Pass. A sign across the highway read “Welcome to Idaho” !!!!! A man sat in an information booth across the road. Information on what? I wondered. There was nothing there. He wasn’t very talkative, didn’t have much information. Maybe I scared him? It was 60+ miles to Salmon, ID. We needed a miracle. I scribbled the word “Salmon” in thick black letters on the back of one of my maps. We took turns holding the sign. I waved at cars, smiled, bowed, grabbed the rim of my hat. I only had 2 seconds to make a good impression. A bus rolled by, “community transit”. Hey! It didn’t stop, I couldn’t believe it! 2 hours later, it was cold, windy, and getting ready to rain. A pickup stopped (Oregon plates of course). “You need a ride to Salmon?”, “Ya”, “That’s where we’re going”. It was all the conversation I had with them. We sat in the back of the pickup, watching mountains, forests, rivers… all of it rolled by too fast. We were in Salmon. We’d covered the distance of a 2 day hike with a 1 hour ride.We quickly boiled the town down to it’s elements: Grocery store, Laundromat, Hotel, Cafe, Post Office. We could make do with just a post office if required. Whatever couldn’t be mailed was a bonus luxury. I took a shower and walked up to the laundromat. I sat there and read the newspaper, lulled by the din of heavy machinery. I watched a little girl get scolded by her trash-talking mother for doing nothing other than playing & dreaming. “You quit that right now”, Whap! on her bottom, the little girl sulked and sobbed, she crawled into herself. The mother wore an expression of permanent gloom. I wanted to tell the little girl to run to the woods, to read, to live her dreams, to be curious and kind. She could be better than her mother. I knew that by the time she’d be old enough to understand any of that, none of it would matter, she was on a one-way dead-end road to a miserable life. People were so sad. So pointless.
I spent the next morning wandering about town. A bumper-sticker tacked to the wall of the cafe read, “Can’t Log it, Can’t mine it, Can’t graze it, Let it BURN!”, with “burn” in proud fiery letters. I actually agreed with the statement of facts, but the philosophy behind it was irksome. It basically said, “the mountains are mountains of money”, a message of unabashed greed I saw drilled into everything and everyone, over and over and over. What people were going to do with all that money, die with it? I didn’t understand.I stopped at the town’s museum. I learned that Salmon existed because of the Salmon river, because it was the place to cross the river. People had gradually built Salmon into a place to trade, etc… I walked over to the river. That was why the town is there? The more I thought about it, not much had changed. We had gotten one of the last hotel rooms in town. People now came to raft down the river rather than to cross it. It sounded like fun.
I remembered the community transit bus that had passed us. I tracked them down. It was only $7 for a ride back to the pass. The bus left at 11:30AM – perfect. The bus driver was an old forest service employee, Mario and I were the day’s only passengers. It was socialist economics. Finally, something in America made sense to Mario.The bus driver dropped us off right at the trail and wished us luck.