It was almost dark again, we’d spent the whole day just getting to the trail. In a way, walking was walking, but walking next to speeding cars had been maddening. Whatever. It didn’t matter anymore. We were back on the CDT. I looked at the map, “US Sheep Experimentation Center”. Hmmm. I looked around. Sheep. Loads of sheep. The sheep were fenced-away from the roadway on which we were walking, incessantly chattering, “baaaaa”, with a sense of urgency. What were they trying to say? They sounded like a chorus of bad actors practicing their death throes but never quite getting it right. For a while it was novel and cute. But, what if they simply never stopped? 24 hours a day of “baaaa”? no wonder shepherds saw strange things in the desert at night.
I’d drunk almost all my water while walking along the highway. There was a stream flowing nearby, but it drained from the sheep field. The field was nothing but dirt and shriveled-up sheep terds. I imagined the water tasted the same. An indian rode by on an ATV. He had a plump round face and a body to match. He was grinning and staring into the distance… the sheep had gotten to him. He rode up to a little cabin just off the road. I figured, if he lived out there, he must have a supply of water… what a good plan. We walked up to the little white cabin, a pack of mangy puppies scurried under some wood stacked nearby. Bits of junk and barbed wire lay scattered, dropped wherever they were last used. “Do you think we could get some water?”, I asked. A few moments later, he processed the information and walked inside. We followed. The inside of the cabin consisted of bare floorboards, a chair, and empty walls. He pointed to a sink. We took the cue and filled our water bottles, all the while the indian sat in the chair, grinning. He spoke. “We los da ’ems… lit’en”. What the hell was he saying? “I’m sorry?”, I asked. “’ems”, he repeated with more emphasis. I didn’t know what to say except, “Thank you so much for the water, we really appreciate it”. The indian just sat there, smiling, staring. We hurried out of the cabin, anxious to put as many miles as possible in before dark. The water was warm and stale. It tasted like the kind of water that’d give a person brain damage. Things started to make sense. “I think it tastes OK.”, said Mario.
We reached a flat piece of earth a few miles away. As we set up our tents, we saw the indian, riding his ATV up a distant hill, heading for another little cabin in the sheep zone. Oh, “RAMS…”, I realized, some rams had been killed by lightning strikes… he was trying to warn us… maybe… or make small talk. I didn’t drink any water that night.
We awoke to a cold misty morning. The trail continued along dirt roads and little-used two-track paths. We passed a herd of cows – all their eyes tried hard to focus on us. It was the same routine every time we passed cows – just as we passed and started heading the other way, they panicked! They ran in front of us, ran in our direction. They lost control of their bowels, and sprayed half-processed cow poop all over the road-bed. A hundred yards later, we’d reach the cows again and the process would repeat. Cows had to be the most pathetic animal on earth.
The trail faded in and out much of the day. We took a break at a nice creek, Camas creek, and looked to the horizon. A giant peak stood out, obvious and dominant. Grand Teton, there was no question. I was overjoyed, energized. I’d made it… somewhere, and I was headed somewhere new. It was true afterall, there was such a thing as Wyoming. Montana really didn’t last forever. I saw more signs of change as the trail went on. Pumice! that meant volcanoes, that meant Yellowstone! Only a few more days…
We ended the day at a flat spot near Salamader pond, in a forgotten corner of Montana… or was it Idaho? or did it matter? How far had I come? My hiking poles were messed up, they didn’t extend and retract anymore, I’d had to lock them in one position with duct tape. I’d jammed pipe-fittings onto the tips to make them last longer, and those were now wearing down. My shirt had a giant hole in the back where it rubbed on my pack. My ankle gaiters were shredded. My shoes were cracking and peeling. How long has it been? I couldn’t esimate, it felt like forever, I’d always been on the trail. My body felt wonderful though – the one thing that always improved with the work, improved with the miles. I was eating 2 dinners every night. Still, I was always hungry. Yellowstone was coming, Wyoming was coming… it was something different, finally! Yellowstone also meant Grizzlies… again. But it wasn’t anything to worry about, just another thing to be excited about. For the first time in a while, we hung our food. My mind was fractured, scattered, healing.
The next morning, we had almost-new trail. We descended to a river, huckleberries were growing nearby, almost ripe. “Are you sure you can eat those?”, Mario asked. “Sure… probably”, I feigned uncertainty and handed Mario a berry, and smiled, “They sure look a lot like huckleberries…”.
We passed a small lake. An old man was slowly making his way around the path. “Whoa, where’d you come from?”, he asked as we skated down the trail. “Canada, this is the continental divide trail”. “you mean right here? Well, I’ll be…”, he was excited for us. Then, I understood something. I was hiking for him too. He couldn’t do what we were doing – didn’t have the body anymore, never had the time, maybe never had the dream. But, he had some dream, tucked away in the back of his imagination. He remembered his dream, whatever his dream was. Perhaps his dream had nothing to do with the trail, or hiking, or nature… but by seeing us, he saw a dream being lived, and knew it could indeed be done. The man was my fuel, I saw him and knew I had to keep going.
We reached the trailhead, another road-end, a mile from the lake. A trail register was there in a wooden box. The long list of names and entries were all the same: 7/23, 4 people/1 dog, 1 day, the lake. A couple stood out, odd entries from a short parade of CDT hikers. I put in mine: ?-now-?, 1 nut, 2001, canada-mexico via CDT. Who would read it? What was it for?
One of the people had written, “need to put more fish in the lake”. I rolled my eyes. Fishing a stocked lake seemed to me like hunting cows. What was the point? But then, there were just too many people, the lakes had to be stocked. Fishing, real fishing, had been loved to death. It had become a business, a sport, a check-mark on a survey form. It was like golf.
The trail turned into a mish-mosh of old logging roads, ATV tracks, open meadows and sheep trails. We passed 3 men on horseback, 3 generations of family. “You’re our kind of people”, the middle one said. “Not like those damn machine-heads, they just don’t get it.”. They’d lived in the area all their lives, but they were out exploring places they’d never been. While we sat talking to them, some ATVs zoomed up a hill ahead of us, up the CDT and out of sight. We walked ahead to the junction of the CDT and the road, a faded sign riddled with bullet holes read “Area restriced, No Motor Vehicles”.
Further on, another faded sign, a big one, in the middle of nowhere – no road, no trail – explained the wonders of the sheep experimental station. Apparently, it was a joint venture between some university in Idaho, and the US government. They were doing experiments to prove that sheep farming was a viable, environmentally benign enterprise… if done responsibly. It went on and on about pasture rotation and grass regeneration. We later heard that experiments were also done on the sheep in the area. There were reports of sheep with see-through rib cages, sheep with one eye removed, sheep with bizzare genetic mutations… Though, I found it hard to feel very sorry for the sheep. “Baaaaaa”.
We headed up a hill covered in wildflowers, and got to the top of a mountain ridge – the divide again. An old road wound along the ridge-top to an abandoned open-pit copper mine, it was just a big hole in the ground with a puddle of muddy water in the middle. It had taken thousands of dollars and man hours to make the hole, but nobody had bothered to clean it up. Cows ran in front of us – there was still money to be made from the mountain.
We wound down the far side of the mountain. It had been a long day, it was getting late. We pushed ourselves only because we’d run out of water. We’d missed a spring a few miles back, and there was no point in going backwards. We finally came to another road. A small metal cylinder, no bigger than a 5-gallon bucket, poked out of the ground. Water was seeping out of it. We decided to camp right there.
A huge flock of sheep was on a hill not far away, “baaaaa”. We could hear distant whistles of a shepherd controling his dogs, controlling the flock. Part of the flock came our way, moving like, well, like a herd of sheep… or maybe like fish. A white dog flashed past them, keeping the herd tight. But the sheep defied any organization, they flowed in bunches like big drips of water. The sheep gradually surrounded us while we cooked our dinner, then slowly drifted back to rejoin the larger herd below. A dog stayed behind. It crept slowly toward us, keeping its entire body low to the ground, and all its muscles tense. It sipped the water that was flowing from the tank, but never took its eyes off us. I tossed the dog a piece of beef jerky. I didn’t care if I messed up its training, the poor thing looked worked. Cautiously, it picked up the gift, then looked surprised… it almost let down its gaurd. A distant whistle sounded, and the dog remembered everything. It raced off, over the hill, like a child who’d been caught talking to strangers.
I thought, who’d come up with the idea of “counting sheep” to fall asleep? Sheep had absolutely nothing to do with sleep. “Baaaaa”.
In the morning, we hiked down an old road to Blair Lake. The shore of the lake was all hard-packed dirt, and exposed roots – ATVs had made sure of that. A few miles later, we came to Lillian Lake, not accessible by ATVs. The plants around the lake were lush, the grasses soft and tall. We took a break in the grass, under the trees. I wondered, did the ATV riders who visited Blair Lake know what the shore once looked like? much like Lillian lake I assumed… Or, had it been so long that they come to accept the crusty dead dirt as “natural”. Or, did they just not care?
We were not on the official CDT anymore. The CDT made a big loop to the north, following the divide around the Centenial Moutain group, west of Yellowstone. We were heading straight east, straight though Mack’s Inn. The trail we were following quickly ended. The next few miles were cross-country over fields of bumpy flowers and on improvised pack trails, beat into the ground by some horse-packing outfit. We spotted a radar antenae, over the next ridge. “See that?”, I said to Mario, “We have to head to that thing”. I shot ahead of Mario.
I took a little detour to look for the place where the water started flowing, the source of Hell Roaring Creek. There it was, a trickle of water flowing out of some rocks. It was the most remote source of water for the entire Missouri River drainage. The water that was flowing under my feet took longer to get to an ocean that any other flowing water in the world. I snapped a photo, and thought about the ride those drops of water were about to undertake. All downhill…
I got to the top of the ridge, and waited for Mario. And waited. Where was he? I called out his name, nothing. I walked back for a better view. I didn’t see anyone. Mario didn’t have a map of the area, I was concerned that he’d gone up a different drainage or something. I walked along an abandoned road toward where I thought he might have gone, “Mario!!!?”. I heard no response but the distant rush of water far below. Great. Mario has probably broken his ankle, and fallen under a boulder somewhere. There was probably a grizzly feeding on his arm while I was just standing there, waiting. I went back down the hill, then back up to the ridge… still no sign of him. I decided to leave a note for him under some prominent rocks on the ridge. Hopefully, he’d show up in Mack’s Inn that evening with some crazy story. I took a moment to wave goodbye to Montana – it was the last time I’d cross out of the state. I walked along another abandoned road, then along a nice hiking trail, back in the woods, and out to a trailhead parking area. One car was parked there, it appeared that the trail led to the radio tower. I started down the road… What if he doesn’t show up? What will I do? What am I going to tell his family? How do I get a hold of them? I’d read an article about how Harrison Ford (yes, the actor), had rescued some boy scouts near the Tetons recently in his helicopter. I figured l’d have to give Mr. Ford a call… The road was hot. The white gravel reflected the sun. Dust swirled around me with every footstep. I was nearly out of water, and it was another 8 miles to Mack’s Inn – 8 miles on that road. A pickup came by, down the hill. I had to take a ride, had to figure out the Mario thing. Two more miles down the road, and there was Mario, walking down. He’d hiked straight to the radio tower, then down to the trailhead. He waited for me, then assumed I was ahead of him. It had been a classic case of the leapfrog. I then realized how an incident on the PCT had impacted my concern about missing people. I’d learned on that trail, they didn’t always come back. click to enlarge
Mack’s Inn was… well… Mack’s Inn. A once-rustic resort that constituted a town, it had become part of a corridor of resorts, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other mountain getaways extending south from West Yellowstone to who knew where. Summer was in full swing in Mack’s Inn. Cars raced everywhere, kids swam in the river, parents loaded up SUVs with inner tubes. It was chaos. I focused on one thing at a time. We walked up to a nearby restaurant, then over to a car-campground to spend the evening. The campground was full, so we ducked into some woods behind it, and passed away the night unnoticed by the throngs.
The next day was a day off. A zero day. 0 miles of CDT progress – the first such day of my entire trip. We hitched a ride up to West Yellowstone. I needed a new hat and shirt, Mario need new shoes. West Yellowstone was Mack’s Inn x 100 – Everybody vacationing on top of everybody else. They were attracted there by the natural beauty, but spent most of their time looking at people and cars. We got some Yellowstone backcountry permits… designated camp sites again… I broke in my new hat on the way back to Mack’s Inn. It took 10 seconds to hitch a ride from an elderly couple in a Cadillac. It was an awesome hat.
Back in Mack’s Inn, John & J.J. had shown up, Seehawk and Sunshine were there too, I hadn’t seen them since the Anaconda-Pintler.
The next morning, J.J. was done. School was starting in a few weeks and he had to get back in that routine. He donated some extra food to our cause. Then, around 11AM, Mario and I walked out of town.