I had a heavy pack and I loved it – 6 more days of romping through the mountains. The trail felt different, we were walking along the border of Montana and Idaho… and would be all the way to Wyoming. Phase II. We started out on some easy road through forest and forest and forest, right on the divide. 12 miles whipped by before we even stopped. Salmon had given us energy. I had no idea what the terrain ahead was like, so I looked hard for sneak previews. I’d looked through the maps, but couldn’t remember anything… plus, the maps only tell half the story. I didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who’d talked to someone who’d been to that part of the country, much less hiked it. The nearest big city was… Boise maybe? it wasn’t even a thought. We were nowhere, well somewhere, we were exactly where I wanted to be most.
We walked past a tree that had exploded a couple days earlier, when the recent thunderstorms had pelted these hills. Little bits of wood were scattered over the road, the tree was twisted into ribbons, limping and dieing. We only had light rains to deal with, not so bad, 10 minutes under a big tree and it was sunny again. We made it to Big Hole Pass, a dirt road… we wouldn’t hit pavement again until Lima – 2 towns away. I hiked down into a swamp to get water, a stream had cut a trench 5 feet deep. I leaned over the side and dangled my filter in the stream, pumping, then stopping occasionally to slap mosquitoes that were feasting on my back. Ah, the joys of the CDT. We camped near the pass, thunderstorms rumbled through the night, invisible.
Two and a half miles into the next day, we realized we missed a turn a mile and a half back. I thought of bushwhacking down the slope to pick up the trail, but Mario smartly vetoed that plan, pointing, “I thing we go back and find the trail”. What was the point in rushing anyway? There was a new section of tread, about 2 miles or so, leading to another rocky road. They were called roads, but they were more like fat trails. The way was so steep and rocky it was difficult to walk on. Nobody could drive these roads, on many of them, nobody was allowed to. I thought about all those snazzy computer-generated SUV ads on TV… A jeep Cherokee on a mountaintop, the marlboro man standing nearby with a tight smile, squinting at the mountains and nodding his head. Right.
We took a break at a stream crossing to rest and dry our belongings, each of us lying in his own little fiefdom, just within earshot, each hoping the other would wait just another 5 minutes… The only bugs were butterflies and those little nameless gnats that glow like gentle shooting stars in the sunlight – decorations for the flowers and grass. The trail soon faded, it was forgotten and neglected. There was evidence of a trail, an old sawed log, a blaze or two, but basically, we just followed the river, and when it seemed time, climbed back up a mountainside. It was all part of a long detour, down then up, to avoid some cliffs along the divide. Some variety was nice I suppose.
The trail maintenance was never consistent. Just when I figured it’d disappeared all together, we came to a new section of tread. Somebody had done a ton of work. I looked at the trail all day, every day. I got to know it’s nuances better than I knew my own. I knew how the ground would feel and sound before I stepped on it. I knew how the rocks would move under my feet – which would stay put, which wouldn’t. I’d see a log 20 yards ahead, and immediately know if I had to adjust my pace a little in order to step over it without breaking stride. My poles were 2 extra feet, 2 extra hands. I used them to push me, to absorb jumps downhill, to push aside obstructions, to point, to feel things – poke some moss… isn’t it soft?
Sometimes the trail was like a living creature that sniffed out the best way through the forest, 20 yards at a time. I rode on the back of the snake, gliding. But that was good trail. Bad trail was like a tangle, random, frustrating and forced. Most trails were good. That trail was good. It continued, bringing us forward like a smiling south Asian servant, bowing, eyes forward, arms outstretched to the land beyond, saying, “see?”, “look.” “this is a gift to you”. I marched forward, pretending not to be impressed, dreaming and thinking… We exist in a tiny band of fuzz between a sphere of rock and the void of space. Yes, it was all clear. All clear in my dizzy head.
We’d climbed out of the tunnel of trees, back into the high country. The beargrass and indian paintbrush and multicolored rock gardens returned. The clouds were closer – they moved fast overhead. Why was the most harsh land also the most beautiful? or was it because. We ate dinner near a pond under cool cloudy skies, season was irrelevant. Another mile or two and it was a full day, different than all the others, but still the same. click to enlarge click to enlarge
I’d pulled 3 ticks off myself during the day, got them before they got me.
We climbed around to Slag-a-melt lake. Who named that one? We passed countless “bear” mountains and “blue” lakes, “fish” creeks, and “east fork south fork north elk” rivers. But Slag-a-melt? Somebody had run out of ideas, “Say, Charley… got any more names for these lakes?… what did you say? put that beer down and say it again slowly…” Then it was Luna lake. All of the lakes were alone, quietly waiting for quiet visitors to come and go in peace. Their shores were broken boulders, their backs were mountains, their feet were flowers and trees. The lakes knew a secret or two, I was sure I could see them smiling.
We came to a section of trail that had been marked in 1953… by some dude. Some dude named Pete I think. He’d painted orange spots on the rocks to keep… to keep from getting lost I guessed. People had followed the marks, and where people walked, a trail was created. Some rocks and trees were cleared from the path, but it was still a guerilla trail, put there by rebels and friends rather than some government edict. Just when I was starting to develop affection for it. It disappeared, or maybe I disappeared.
We continued over green mountainsides covered with an array of tiny flowers. The flies quickly got thick. They were thicker than I had ever known possible. I couldn’t easily breathe. We were a feast for them, a feast of salty sweat, a feast of concentrated biomass, an odd fascinating treat. The flies couldn’t be swatted or deterred, it was a feeding frenzy and we were the food. They flew fast, we couldn’t lose them with our pathetically slow walking speed. The only real escape was through the mind, hoping, knowing they wouldn’t last. click to enlarge
We crested a ridge and a slight breeze picked up. The flies thinned, but I wanted them gone. I also wanted to get the very best view possible. I walked out the ridge while Mario sat in the wind. It was all rock, few of the flies found me. I surveyed my position. I was in the mountains, real mountains. I snapped photo after photo, the only way I felt I could prove the place existed. I took a photo of a mountain, then, a minute later took another of the same mountain, one photo just couldn’t be enough, could it? Far off, I could see the valley of southwestern Montana – the “big hole” where a few people and a whole lot of cows lived. All water flowed down to the big hole, all that water came from beneath my feet and above my head. It flowed down past the big hole, down to some mythical ocean somewhere… click to enlarge click to enlarge
We continued down from our little ridge, one more steep valley to cross, then one more ridge to climb. We paused at the tree-line, waited for a storm to pass, then made our run over the top. We were paralleling the divide, up and over the ridges that separated the headwaters of every creek and river. The land was getting too rough though, the divide was more vertical than horizontal and there were no trails though. We had to go down toward the big hole, around, defeated, but looking forward to a break.
We headed down an easy grade, 2 guys with 90 pound packs were headed up, they were gonna do some fishin I reckin’d. I half opened my mouth to start blabbering to them (we hadn’t seen anyone since Salmon), but they were beat. They’d probably hiked 5 miles with those packs, 5 miles after hundreds of hours in a desk and chair. I didn’t have anything to say that’d make them feel better except, “you’re almost there”. One of them looked at me like a refugee.
We still had ridges to climb over, but the scale of elevation was smaller – 4,000 ft up to 7,000 ft instead of 6,000 ft to 9,000 ft. The trail crossed a river and turned straight up through the woods. I put down my head and powered up the tread. It was steep, really steep. Not dangerous steep, but angry steep. Anger kept things interesting, let me appreciate the trail. Anger gave me energy when I thought I had none. Anger at what? it didn’t matter. The trail? the weather? society? Anger was also balance. I couldn’t be cheerful all the time, it had to be balanced somehow, or it would cease to matter… like life on prozac. There was a side-effect of using anger though, it was building… seeping out in little snide comments and cynical expressions. The power of the dark side was easily abused.
I got up that hill though and the anger turned to joy as we started a smooth walk down. It was one more thundershower, one more dinner, one more agreement on where exactly to camp, one more day on the trail, one less day of my life. Well spent. click to enlarge
We quickly hit a road the next morning. Each of these mountain valleys had its own road, its own trail at the end of the road, its own lake at the end of the trail, and its own fishermen at the lake. We passed a couple of them, slowly riding their ATVs. They were real people, happy people, we exchanged thoughts about the weather, the merits of fishing and the merits of walking across the country. They knew how to enjoy life.
We walked more roads, south, past a couple more valleys. Just before turning back up to the divide, we passed another group of fishermen. A couple of them were laying out a feast on a picnic table behind their RV, another was unloading ATVs from a trailer. They avoided my “hello there” stare as we walked by. We took a break under some large bushes nearby, on the other side of a small stream. I ate nuts and crackers as they sliced up a big pepperoni, I filtered some water as they cracked open pepsis. I asked where they were going fishing and was answered with a nervous “uh..” and a lazy hand wave toward the mountains. “Think we’ll get more of those afternoon showers?”, I asked. No response. I retreated back to Mario and the bush. I overheard one of them utter a tone of disappointment, they’d forgotten something. One got in a truck and sped off. What in the world could they have needed? they already had everything… but apparently, it wasn’t enough.
Halfway back to the divide we passed a group of backpackers who were headed the same direction. I was almost ecstatic, kindred spirits unite! They were taking a break by a stream that ran across the old road. They’d only gone a couple miles and were tired. They apologized for being in such bad shape. I didn’t care though, I just wanted to spread my “oh ya!” vibe, and thought they might resonate. They tried, they were patient with me as I blabbered away about the CDT. They were a nice group of people, people who lived in Montana and walked from place to place – uncommon people since the invention of the horse and the engine.
The road went all the way to the lake, ATVs went all the way to the lake. ATVs had killed everything under the trees, only packed dirt remained. People on ATVs had drug up bits of plywood and metal – a lame attempt at a table that sat rotting and rusted – trash. Of course, it wasn’t the ATVs that were responsible for any of it, rather it was the people who rode them, and only some of those people. Signs lined the road, reading, “Motor vehicles restricted to roadway”. The forest service map showed which roads were restricted, which weren’t, even explained why… “habitat protection”, “soil conservation”. But for those “some of the people”, it was just an example of the government taking away their freedom – that evil federal government who didn’t know squat about nutin’.
The road ended, there was no trail. There had once been a trail beyond the road, but all that remained were just one or two crusted blazes on giant trees – the couple trees that had actually lived that long. In a few years, any history of the old trail would be gone. It was the fate of everything. We bushwhacked up to the divide. We couldn’t see the clouds until we were on top. They were black clouds, but at least 4 miles away. We figured we had time for one more mountain, Goldstone mountain – a bare pile of rock. The trail went right over the top of it, 9000ft, the highest thing for a mile. The storm was getting closer, a peak to our south, a mile away, a twin of the one we were standing on, was getting electrocuted. The sound of thunder cracked and rumbled, loud in the otherwise tranquil air. We ran down the other side of mountain, and aimed for a scrawny clump of trees, barely taller than our heads – they had to do. We ducked under them as it started to snow. The wind picked up. We sat there and tried to stay warm, knowing it couldn’t last long. It lasted until dark. I shivered as I put up my tarp, then ducked inside, safe and warm, instant comfort. There must have been some kind of primal love of shelter, left over from our caveman days, still embedded in our brains, I decided.
Our latest traipse through jagged peaks was ending. Somebody had said they were called the Beaverheads, it sounded good to me. It was a cold, wet, sunny morning – perfect. The trail would follow the divide (or very close to it) for the next couple days. By 10AM, we were back in the tunnel. It was a nice tunnel though, soft shady ground and a gentle grade. We passed a couple more backpackers, headed the other way. They were hiking about 100 miles of the CDT, heading back to Big Hole Pass. Mario and I had seen their car there – a minor mystery was now solved. We exchanged information about sources of water, conditions of the trail, confusing intersections, and alternate routes. Unfortunately, most of the people I met along the CDT were headed another direction, conversations never lasted too long. click to enlarge
The rolling forest continued, a lot of side trails went this way and that… ATV tracks? I didn’t know. We dropped off the divide to pick up some water. A stream flowed through a small patch of short grass. I picked a spot, half in the shade, half in the sun, and positioned myself so that it would stay that way as the sun moved. I took off my shoes and socks, unrolled my foam pad, leaned my head on my pack, and put my hat on my face. It was what a break was supposed to be. The only sound other that of the water was an occasional gunshot from somewhere above us. I hoped they were aiming at something solid, but I figured if I got hit I could die there happy. Either way, I was covered. click to enlarge
The route descended out of the forest to Lemhi Pass, sagebrush. It was there that the Lewis and Clark expedition had first crossed the divide, a year after they left St. Louis and headed up the Missouri as far as they could get. It was Sunday. Occasional tourists passed by to see the famous view first described in writing 200 years ago – rolling grey mountains stretched into what was later called Idaho, as far as the horizon was visible. We were going the other direction, perpendicular, on the Jonathan and Mario expedition.
I sat in the dirt under the sign, too tired to get up and say a proper hello to an older gentleman who came by. I gave the 20 second CDT summary and he responded, “Oh, then you’re going by Bannack Pass”, his interest piqued, “I have to show you something… no, don’t get up”. He reached in his car and pulled out a map. He got down in the dirt with me, and proceeded to tell me about the bison caves. “Oh, Bannack pass, or Bannock pass?” “Bannock pass, here.” The bison caves, he explained, were vertical caves formed in some limestone. Over the course of ten thousand winters, bison fell through the snowpack and into the caves. The bison couldn’t climb, so instead, they died. The floor of the cave was supposedly littered with old bones. It sounded cool, I had to believe an old man who got down in the dirt to whisper secrets.
Just below Lemhi pass was the spring, the one described in so and so’s famous journal entry, “…I was finally able to straddle the mighty Missouri…”. The water still flowed out of the mountain there… although the forest service had to “improve” the source a little as it had almost been visited to death. I stood over the trickling stream, “Mario, take a picture of me.” I asked. He shook his head, “I don’t understand this Lewis and Clark business”. “Hey man”, I told him, “it’s all the history we got.” Silly Dutchman. While we hung out at the little picnic area nearby, a minivan pulled up. The occupants looked around from inside, then they drove off, probably believing they’d actually been there. I felt sorry for them.
We climbed to 9000ft on a huge mound of thin browning grass, on the divide. The clouds were breaking up. They’d not reached critical mass during the day, and were being beaten by the clock. The sun set below them, lighting up the sky. It was an immense sunset. It was to the west, to the east, to the north and south, straight above. I felt I could touch the sky, certainly, I could feel it. Then it was gone. Nighthawks danced curves in the twilight, gracefully snatching unlucky bugs. The stars came out – all the stars, steadily filling the sky with a chaotic pattern of pure beauty. I spent the night up there, with them, in the heavens. click to enlarge
We awoke to wind, pouring over the top of the divide, balancing the pressure between somewhere and somewhere else. We carted our stuff over to some trees, loaded up, and headed out. The high rolling green/brown continued. A few cows made a showing – the money. We followed a two-track non-road… a couple lines in the dirt next to a barbed-wire fence. The fence was there to separate cows from cows, those from Idaho and those from Montana. A few Idaho cows stared at us through the fence. They looked drunk, they always looked drunk. “Mmmmmeeeeuuuu”, they told us. “Whatever you say…” click to enlarge
The CDT continued to follow the divide, our trail didn’t. We decided it would be a lot easier to keep following the road for a little while, then cut through some sagebrush up ahead. A zebra fly came by, stop, smack, bye bye. I looked ahead and saw 4 people with backpacks crossing a barbed-wire gate… could it be? more CDT hikers? They were headed our way. I was excited. I raced to meet them, and jumped over the fence. “HI!!”, I said, bursting. One of them had a splatter of cow shit on his shirt. They were volunteering, I thought, from the CDTA, I thought, they thought I was on drugs… I thought. They were mapping part of the CDT, although they weren’t actually on it. “you’re here”, I said, pointing proudly at my map, “There is no trail where the CDT is supposed to be”. “Oh”, one of them responded. I told them our plan, “We’re going to cut down this sagebrush, then walk up to Bannack Pass on the road”. A couple of them thought that sounded like a good plan, efficient. The road they’d been following would take 3 extra miles to get to the same place. Mario and I jumped into the sage, skiing down the hill like the sage were so many moguls. “you know, I kind of like this road…”, I heard from over my shoulder. I didn’t look back.
The road over Bannack Pass was dirt. We needed to hitch to Leadore, 15-20 miles down the dirt, into Idaho. It was gonna suck, I prepared myself. I had enough food to spend a night on the side of the road. It was 3pm already. I just finished my sign – black letters spelling out “LEADORE” – when a van slowed down. A window rolled down, it was incredible. They were Dave and Dave Jr. from Utah, starting a hike on the CDT the next day, starting at Bannack Pass, heading north, spending the night in Leadore. They were Mormons. I almost became a Mormon right then and there, Brigham Young had to be pulling some strings with the big man. 20 minutes later were in Leadore, in heaven.
Drew was in town, dear long lost Drew. One broken shoe and a P.O. SNAFU had slowed down his pace, what else could he do? Kevin and Sharon had left that morning, longer lost Kevin and Sharon, ghosts, names in a book. Mario and I split one of the 4 rooms in town. CDT hikers comprised a substantial part of the town’s population… there were two more camped-out across the street – drifting north – I never caught their names. Leadore was an outpost on the perimeter of planet Idaho. It was high desert, sagebrush, dust, even cactus. It was roasted in the summer, frozen in winter. I thought of the name “Lead” + “ore”, it used to be a mining town. I shared my observation with a local who responded, “Oh, ya, I never thought of that.” Was he just teasing me?
The post office opened early the next morning. There was a CDT register in the post office. Trail registers were common on the PCT, rare on the CDT. It was a treasure. Virtually everyone who’d hiked the CDT, ever, had signed the Leadore register. The entries went back to 1980. The old writing sounded ancient – long-winded prose about communing with nature – seeing one’s soul in the still waters of a lake… and such. My entries were always short and tired: “I was here, I am going crazy and I love it.” That was my community, the history of my world – scrawled in ball-point pen in the holy scroll of the temple of Leadore. I didn’t feel worthy of it, not yet anyway.
I stood outside the PO. There were John and J.J., marching down the middle of the street, suddenly… just… there. They were lost brothers of the clan, we were all lost, being lost was the plan of the clan. We had a real “hello”, a genuine one. We never really knew when or if we’d see each other again, any of us. Plans never lasted more than a day or two… and those were expected to change and change again. We traded stories of stories and sights, of paths not taken and those that were. We drank from the cup of euphoria and proposed a toast to all of it.
Mario and I headed out, just walked out of town… that was our plan of the moment… that, and our thumbs, and a sign that read, “Bannack Pass”. A few miles later, we had our ride, a campground host from a campground in Montana. Why was he driving the road? Fate? Brigham Young? I looked back at Leadore from the bed of the pickup, in a 45mph backward wind. What had I missed there? What secrets? It was behind me, no time to reflect. There was only one direction in my world, south, ahead. “Right here?”, our ride asked, perplexed. “Yup”. We waved “thank you!”, then Mario and I turned away from the road and started walking through the sage and grass.