CDT Days 41-47: The Winds Part I, Knapsack Bad Assery (+ nausea)

I heat up a maple sticky bun in the church’s microwave. Forty seconds later, you’d never even know it was a day-old. Don’t think the church’s microwave can work the same redemptive magic on Folgers, so I cross the street to a coffeeshop. Inside, a group of older, local Dubois men are gathered in what looks like a daily convention. They comment on people and cars that pass and demand explanation of origins and intent from out-of-towners that enter the shop. I feel like they should be sitting at the bar in a greasy spoon diner, but instead they’re making do with a few huddled high tops in a trendy coffee shop. Ch-ch-ch-ch-chaaaanges.

Hitching back to the trail is delightfully easy. I only make it a block with my thumb out before a man pulls over and rearranges his car to make a Double Happy sized space for me. Like most conversations I have these days, it turns to the topic of solitude. This happens because, well, I bring it up. But also because I believe the people of solitude seek me when they see me in town, on trail or on the side of the road alone. They know I’m one of them. My ride talks about how he personally spends time outside alone because it’s the most direct way he knows to get back to The Real, i.e. “when I can smell dirt and sunflowers.” (Do sunflowers smell?)

Back on trail, I am officially in my most anticipated section: THE WIND RIVER RANGE! I am so damn excited about what’s to come. But first, many miles of dirt road and then forty miles of grass and dried up trees. If the Winds are as spectacular as everyone says, then this grand creasendo starts at pianissimo.

On the morning of Day 45 I take a short alternate that follows an ATV track along a barber wire fence (I miss you too, Montana!) and offers distant views of the Tetons on one side and the Winds on the other. Small herds of deer like creatures (Antelope? Prong horns?) flee in all directions from my approach.

When I pass over Gunsight Pass into the Green River Valley, the creasendo gains momentum. Square Top Mountain is looking stark and beautiful in the distance. The scenery reminds me of a Ted Talk I listened to a few years ago about concepts of beauty. Turns out that regardless of culture, we tend to agree that pastoral landscapes (green lush hills, water, flora and fauna) are beautiful because our ancestral brains think: Yes. Excellent. I could create progeny here. Oh the progeny of mine this valley could support.

Right at the junction for the Green River Lakes Campground, I run into a nobo named Dixie. She’s debating hiking on, but I charm her into camping with me. “Does the campground charge for camping?” I ask a fisherman passing by. “Yeah, twelve bucks or something like that… But if you want you can use my tent spaces, I’m sleeping on top of my car.” Yes please! Dixie and I are sold. When Eric, the fisherman, gives us a ride up to his site, he realizes that he recognizes Dixie. Apparently I am in the glow of celebrity! Dixie is a YouTune thru-hiker sensation. At his site, Eric unleashes spontaneous trail magic on us: chicken apple sausage, mashed cauliflower, good bourbon and s’mores. Thank you, Eric!

The next morning I head south, Dixie heads north and Eric heads toward his Utah home. The only sound I hear for the first mile is the sound of aspens shaking in the wind — until: “Double Happiness?!” I turn around, and there stands Sonic! The other solo female southbounder I’ve heard about. A friend! We talk for ten miles straight and my response to everything she shares is “So much same, girl. So. Much. Same.” We both grew up in the Seattle area, we’re both roughly the same age, we’re both wearing Mount Rainier hats, and we’ve both felt deeply consonant highs and lows since Glacier. We’d be hiking partners of a lifetime!! If only we walked the same pace… She’s averaging 37-40 miles a day. LOLOLOL. Ah well, at least we get to share the entrance to the Winds and Knapsack Col today. I’ll take it.

Sonic disappears ahead as we head towards Cube Rock Pass, but fear thee not, we’ve planned for a lakeside lunch in a few miles. I have lunch plans, tehehe. The scramble over the pass is tough but immediately transports us into alpine wonderland. At lunch, I gape at the scenery as I wrap cheese and tortilla around a core of crushed Fritos. Meanwhile, Sonic wraps tortilla and Nutella around a core of crushed Fritos. Touche.

We get beta for the scramble up Knapsack from hikers headed in the opposite direction. Follow the drainage up, then climb straight up the col! My body is working hard. On the way down, it’s a mix of scramble, boulder hop and (reluctant) glissade. Man, my body’s working really hard. Oof. I feel nauseous. Sonic says she’s “gotta boogie” to keep her pace up for the amount of food she’s packed. She’s aiming for another 8 miles, but me? I gotta camp asap. I wave farewell and watch her slip ahead between the boulders and lakes.

I set up camp as soon as I meet a section hiker just a few minutes later. His name is Mark and he’s so, so friendly. He wants to show me the wild flowers by the creek and asks me questions I can’t bring myself to answer because my world is nothing but nausea. I try to eat dinner. And then, for the first time in years. I vomit. All the pre-cut Knorr Noddles I could swallow but couldn’t bring myself to chew are now nestled in the grass, looking just as they did in the zip lock bag ten minutes ago. Only softened. I chock it up to altitude. Even though I’ve been twice as high as this in the Himalayas without a hitch, it must be altitude.

Thank goodness I vomit, because once I do I immediately feel like a new woman. A new woman who has pitched her tent in the Titcomb Basin! On the night of a new moon and the peak of the Perseid meteor shower! Minute by minute, I arrive back, and the beauty of the basin floods over me. Mark offers me post-vom mints and some fizzy electrolyte mix called Aclim-Mate. Praises be for Mark! Is he an angel? Now let’s look at those wildflowers!

The next morning I feel 100% better. I take my time through Titcomb and beyond to revel and swim and generally luxuriate. I get a mile off trail somehow and have to backtrack the mile back — but even this feels like a gift given the area.

As I approach the outlet to Pinedale, my mid-Winds resupply, I text my PCT friends Country Mouse and Shadow who are planning to be in the area. Next thing I know, they’re parked at the trailhead to pick me up! Seeing them is like seeing family. I cannot express how restorative it is to rest in their good company. Country Mouse, who taught me to mash pop-tarts up in my chocolate pudding, and Shadow who the first night we camped together on the PCT said: “this is your first thru-hike? Well… You’ve gone and f-ed up your life now!” They buy me beer and dinner and we laugh and swap stories all night. I feel so humbled that they’d make the effort to see me out here. It’s a relief to speak plainly about the ups and downs with them and not pretend it isn’t hard. Are they angels too? Is everyone out here an angel?? Must be the answers to my Beppa’s prayers for me.

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CDT Day 39-43: 2x Milestones and 2x Fears

On Day 39, I eat milestones for breakfast. I am too damn excited to wait for the sun to rise, so I’m packed and back to cruising down dirt roads just as the stars begin to wash thin. First, I hit the Yellowstone Park Boundary first (wheeeee! New national park for me!). And then… the Idaho-Wyoming border (new STATE for me!). There’s a scrap of orange metal that welcomes southbounders to Wyoming in black sharpie. Progress!! I shake together a celebratory, highly caffeinated beverage. It doesn’t feel quite festive enough, so I pump music from my phone and compel a dance break. There was only one choice for the soundtrack.

Now that I’m in Yellowstone, I better get myself to a permit office. I called a few days ago and the lady recommended getting it in person. It’ll be a push to get there before it closes at 4:30pm, but I have the energy for it.

Eighteen miles later, I pass the invisible and dramatic barrier between back and front country. Suddenly humans are everywhere. They file along the board walk past thermal pools of melted rainbows. Tripods, cotton sweatshirts, flip-flops and foreign languages I can’t place. Normally I’m a sucker for interpretive/educational signs, but it’s too much for me. I thread my way through the crowd, feeling uncharacteristically shy, and make a break for the permit office. On the way, I walk past Old Failthful in full geyser bloom.

I get to the permit office at 4pm. Victorious!! But wait… The sign says closed. Today is Sunday. And Sunday it’s closed. Noooooooo!!!!! I lapse into a lucid nightmare of paying $300 for a room at the Old Failthful Inn, when the door cracks open. “Are you a CDT hiker?” A woman in ranger garb pokes her head out from the unlit corridor behind the door. She beckons furtively. “Come on in, I’ll get a permit for ya.” And we’re back to victorious!!

I have two nights and two days through Yellowstone. The highlight of the park for me is Lone Star Geyser. I set my alarm for 5:30am and trudge the three tenths of a mile from my campsite to the geyser in my camp shoes. Two nobos show up momets after I do. We chat, try to stay warm and wait for the show to start. It’s well worth the wait.

Later that morning, I walk through Geyser Basin which is also very neat. The ground steams and bubbles like a jacuzzi tub showcase.

And then there’s Heart Lake. Siigh. My heart melts on the walk down to Heart Lake. The tall grass bends in the wind, making the valley look soft and oceanic. I sit in the sand on the shore and make dinner on my tiny stove. A beaver swims across the lake with a branch five times its size in its mouth. Something howls hauntingly from the far side of the lake.

I’m feeling a little light headed this section. I ooze my way through my last few miles to camp after Heart Lake. Too much rushing, I think to myself. How about I pump the breaks a little and gather my edges for a few days. I challenge myself to not push into Dubois, my next resupply stop.

In addition to the natural wonders of Yellowstone, I meet wonderful humans. I camp one night with a large group who’s also from the Bay Area! They all know each other through socialist party work and single payer advocacy. They share their campfire at night and coffee in the morning. It feels deeply restorative to settle into such good company. In the morning, I bid them farewell and one of the ladies gives me a hug. I didn’t know how badly I needed a hug. I tell her so, and she gives me another.

Perhaps most notably, I face my two greatest trail fears in Yellowstone.

Fear #1: Grizzly Meet & Greet
I’m an hour into an enchanted and frost faced morning in southern Yellowstone. I ford Surprise Creek and look at all the water that gushes through the mesh sides of my shoes with each step. There’s something satisfying, and dismal, about squishing wet shoes. Then I look up // and there’s a bear. BIG bear. Sauntering towards me, thirty feet away. Shoulder hump and profile add up to Grizzly. Hooooly shnikes. Grizzly. Before I know what I’m doing, I hoot at it, like an owl (a fascinating reflex). The Grizzly stops. I stop. Softly, I say “Heeeey bear…”

We have a Moment.

Then the Grizzly lumbers through an awkward three point turn and directs herself up the hillside, away from the trail. I give her some space and time and then hike on. Wait. I saw a Grizzly! And it went well? No one got angry and no one ran away. It was polite. Was the Moment tender? Or a game of chicken? Who could say. Either way, I’m calling it a win! I also I notice, with great amusement, that I unholstered my bear spray for aggro cows outside Helena, but not for a Grizzly in Yellowstone. Another fascinating reflex.

Fear #2: Lightning Death
I’m a half mile past the Wyoming border when I hear thunder. I turn around and the skyline behind me is black. I bet it’s headed the other way, I assure myself. But it’s not headed the other way. It’s headed my way. Suddenly, the black corner has become a black curtain pulled over the entire sky. Then there is lightning. Not just single bolts but networked webs of electric fury that fill the sky. And it’s purple! I’ve never seen purple lightning. I count between the flash and the thunder: six seconds, three seconds, two seconds… Then an ear splitting clap instantaneous with a flash. It is on top of me. By this point, I am squatting in lightning position on my foam pad, backpack discarded. Globs of hail start pelting me and I shiver silently, still crouching. I take inventory of my risk: I’m on a wide ridge, there are many clumps of trees. I’m not the tallest thing or topped with metal. But I am terrified. The storm passes after fifteen long minutes. I slump against a tree and just sit for a while.

Once I start hiking again, I pass a couple headed north. “Scariest storm we’ve been in all trail,” they say. To shake off my shook feeling, I return to the milestone of starting a new state. I decide to do a post mortem on Montana and Idaho. I start with Day 1 and talk through my highlights of each day, one at a time, until Day 39. I do this out loud, because (a) grizzly country and (b) the longer I’m alone the more I talk to myself. It takes hours to get through all the highlights! You go, memory. By the end, I’m feeling revived by the power of gratitude. Silver linings are everywhere, like not having my brain scrambled by lightning today.

After the Yellowstone boundary, the contrast of the geography sharpens. Wider meadows and steeper cliffs. I stick with my intention of not pushing and waltz into Dubois feeling no aches or pains. An awesome couple swoops me from the pass and drops me off at the church that let’s hikers stay for free.

Last but not least, remember that time I was arrested for indecent exposure in Wyoming? Jkjk, I was not arrested. But I was accidently indecent. Washing my clothes at the laundromat means I don’t have any clothes to wear while they’re washing, except for my rain layers. I go to the bathroom inbetween the wash and dry cycle and have a mirror revelation. My silver rain skirt. It’s transparent. I’ve been traipsing around the neon lit laundromat with nothing left to the imagination. No wonder no one would make eye contact with me.

Days 32-38: The Last Hundred Miles of Montanaho

In the morning, Sam brings out a mug and a thermos of coffee to the porch for me. “Did you sleep well?” I ask. “I always sleep well,” he says. I tell him about the cop and 2am flashlight interrogation. He’s intrigued. “We don’t get action very often around here.”

I chug water on the ride back to the pass, no reliable sources for twelve miles ahead. Sam tells me to be careful, “there’s no place to pee up there!” When he drops me off, I see what he means. It’s bare and short shrubbed mountains as far as the eye can see. See if me or my pee cares.

When asking other hikers about what to expect this section, three independent sources used the word ‘rollercoaster.’ And a rollercoaster it is indeed! Steep jeep track, straight up and straight down. In the first 10 miles, it’s mostly straight up though, all the way over 10k ft (first time this high on the CDT!) to the top of Elk Mountain.

I know I say this every section, but the vastness in view up here is bananas. I keep stopping to do a full 360 scan and shake my head. Bananas. Huge clouds rove across the sky and cast dramatic, mile long shadows over the roads, ranches and yawning space. It’s drier than the previous section. Nothing but shrubs, tufts of grass, bleached dead fall and brave little flowers. I have such affection for the brave little flowers.

In the evening, I see a nobo walking towards me from a literal mile away. Her name is Robin, she’s from the Netherlands and has a feather stuck in the side of her straw hat. She tells me that I will love this trail. She says she doesn’t want it to end, so she’s taking all the add on alternates she can find. I’m sorry… Come again?! Nearly every nobo I’ve met thus far has talked about how ready they are to be done. God bless Robin for bringing a new narrative to the CDT. The trail isn’t long enough for her. I love it.

Over the course of this section, I go from seeing a nobo a day, to four a day, to seven a day to NINETEEN in one day. I make each of them stop to talk even if only for a few word exchange. Acknowledge meee! On the nineteen-nobos day, I spend over 3 hours talking to them as they pass. The perspectives I encounter are all over the damn place. Here’s a sampling:

  • I don’t know about the ’embrace the brutality’ stuff. This trail really isn’t that hard.
  • This trail has been way harder than we bargained for.
  • Wyoming was the best state!
  • Wyoming was a bitch.
  • Everyone was despondent by the end of Colorado.
  • Colorado wasn’t too hard, you just kinda snake through the mountains.
  • I don’t even like hiking. No part of me looked forward to this trail and now I’m almost done.
  • My family doesn’t get why I do this. But to me, this is life.

It’s both entertaining and liberating to hear so many disparate interpretations of the same dirt. Good heavens we are unwitting pros at shaping our own experience. The variety I hear reminds me that I’m not beholden. Be gone ye tyranny of expectations!! The CDT gets to be whatever it will be for me. In the words of indignant hikers everywhere: Hike Your Own Hike.

Like this section to Lima, for instance. It’s not a praised section, but it may be my favorite so far. It enchants me. I keep thinking the phrase God’s good green earth. I have a run of beautiful campsites at Morrison Lake, Deadman Lake and then a windy, windy ridge line saddle. The mornings are delightfully cool and slow to heat. Even when the sun is well along it’s ascent, the sage brush pools cool air around my ankles. Besides the surprise pockets of aspens, it’s mostly tree-less spaces where the tread disappears and I’m either following a fence line or post to post.

The morning I head into Lima, there’s gauze wrapped around the mountains. Mist? Clouds? Nope, it’s smoke. A hiker says it’s from a fire in Dubois ID. Locals in Lima say it’s from California. I pitch my tent at the Mountain View Motel in town, but when a thunderstorm rolls through I hardly blink before I’ve packed up and upgraded to a room. I feel indecently luxurious in my private room. I go to Peat’s Steakhouse for dinner, home of the “cook your own steak!” I’ve only sat down for second before I’m greeted by a local. I can’t remember his name, but he has white hair, a cream colored ten gallon hat, and had a cotton T-shirt tucked into his jeans. Somehow the first topic that comes up is his late wife, who’s ashes are spread in the Centennial mountains I’ll hike towards next. He tells me about being a lost soul since her passing, a lost soul that haunts Lima and Butte. He then tells me that Butte is the best city in the world. As he explains: “Everyone there…” (He draws band across the table between his thumb and fingertips) “…everyone there is the same and everyone salutes the flag.”

When I leave Lima, my mind is nothing but WYOMING. So near! I ride with Mike, who runs the motel, and share the ride with two other solo female hikers! We are all amazed at our convergence. Alas, they’re both headed north.

The Targhee forest I hike into next is bursting with green, trees and berries. The trail smells *exactly* like a box of Blueberry Morning cereal. Blueberry Morning is a deeply rooted olfactory memory. I forget the specifics of how it happened, but my family had a multi year supply of that cereal growing up that filled a corner of our garage. I’ll never unsmell that cereal. Not even in this forest.

On Day 37, my second day out of Lima, the smoke cometh. The morning starts with the same thin gauze that’s hung around lately, but then the wind comes and brings thick, California smoke doom with it. There are no views but smoke from my hours of ridge walks. I wipe my face and the back of hand returns coated in black grime. I wipe my teeth with my finger and it also returns coated in black grime. I pass a hiker who says I look like a coal miner.

But like all things, the smoke is impermanent. When I wake up the next morning it is sparkling blue skies. I take the Macks Inn alternate which means I get a bushwack and a road walk straight through a town. When I pack up, I reinstate the bear spray to it’s seat of honor on my left shoulder strap. Grizz country rears its head once more.

The “bushwack” from Lillian Lake is low hardship. In fact, it’s enjoyable. I’d say the light tread is on par with the rest of the CDT. It traverses the steep hillside above Hell Roaring Creek and man oh man the wild flower + sunrise combo is something to see.

When I get to Macks Inn that afternoon I make four stops. First, all the beverages: Kombucha, Powerade and chocolate milk. I sit in my filth in front of the gas station and sate my thirst three ways. Second, a Mexican restaurant. Third, an ice cream parlor. Fourth, a grassy, shady spot under a tree next to the Henry Fork river for phone calls and stretching.

After town, it’s dirt road walking till dark. The ATVs and Saturday traffic grows increasingly thin. My shadow grows increasingly long. My feet tell me when it’s time to stop and I listen. There’s no water around here and therefore.. no bugs! That means cowboy camping — a small celebration for my last night in Montana/Idaho.

A fox visits me multiple times tonight. It has a full, almost bushy white tail and patches of red. Are you a friend? I toss a piece of bark at it to see if it’s aggressive or playful. The correct answer is ambivalent. I decide to let the fox watch over me and I’ll watch the storm of stars.

CDT Day 27-31: Sunrises and Sunsets Carry Me Through Idaho

I get a free ride back up to the trailhead in the morning with a guy from the RV park. We talk about local fire history, and for the second time in Montana, I’m told that “at least fires around here are natural, in California bunch of arsons are setting fire to their own forests intentionally!” Is that happening? I know I’m from California and that I graduated from Berkeley, but I promise I’m not an arsonist 😬. He starts talking politics and my chest tightens. He begins to feel a world away from me // but no. I make myself snap out of it. He’s not a world a way. He’s sitting next to me, breathing the same air and doing something kind for a stranger (me) simply because he can. When he waves goodbye I look at his face and all I see is kindness. I smile and wave back.

The human encounters continue. I run into two nobo dudes just as I set out down the trail. “You smell clean… you smell SO clean!” one of them says. “And your face is clean!” the other says. I sniff the nook of my elbow… maybe I used too much detergent? Oh hiker trash! What a beautifully upside down subculture. Only here can I feel genuine shame for being so flagrantly well washed.

A few miles of forested road walk later, I meet another nobo dude. We have a nice conversation and at the end he asks for my trail name. “Double Happiness,” I say. “Ha! Seems more like Single Happiness at the moment.”

…Excuse me? I instantly harden. Don’t tell me how happy or not happy I am!! That’s my side of the net!! I feel grumpy and have no distraction from it for miles. Instead of being the person I aspire to be and work off an assumption of generosity and good intentions, I assume the worst and make up a story that what he’s really trying to say is that I’m miserable and never gonna make it. An actual rain cloud follows overhead and spits on me.

A few trail bends later, I hear chain saws and am greeted by an Idaho Conservation Corp worker. He says they’re building new trail but it won’t be ready for a few days… so I should take the old trail straight up the gully. He smiles apologetically. The “old” trail is fiendishly steep. My achilles and knees and quads screetch over the next ten miles. Oo baby. I am white knuckling my way through hiking today.

After mad ups, the trail drives me into a deep leafy, berry and stream filled valley. I could camp… Or I could put a dent in the 3000ft climb ahead? Naw. I should camp. And I’m glad I do, because in the morning I don’t have to white knuckle it anymore. Good sleep and fresh legs (and a change of socks) change everything. I think of a saying my old boss Krishna used to say: you can’t cut water. This was provided to me in the context of customer service, but applies to physical exertion as well. If I approach this trail like water, it can’t cut me.

The farther I get from Chief Joseph Pass, the more enchanting the walk becomes. And thankfully, the more hopeful and resilient I become. This is great trail. High passes, alpine lakes, meadows and dramatic walls of peaks. Fairies must live here, I think to myself as I trace the edge of a cascading stream.

In the middle of this section, I go 24 hours without seeing another soul. I tell myself that being alone does not equal lonliness. I tell myself that enough times that I start to believe it. There’s a long steady climb up toward Goldman Pass — 10 miles of steady climb — and my body takes it like it ain’t no thang. If only I liked the downs as much. Heel blisters say the downs are def a thang. From the ridge line, I see the bustlin town of Salmon winking in the golden hour light below. Verizon bars appear here too! I call my friend Natalie and bask in the cozy of a familiar voice talking about familiar things. She sends me a song about being alone but not lonely. It becomes my anthem for the next week.

I sleep that night at Goldstone Pass, the beginning of a 20 mile waterless stretch. When I wake up it’s 4:30am, and I think to myself: what the hell. Let’s get this dry stretch started early! My early rise is immediately rewarded. The moon is so full and bright and the pass so flooded with liquid silver light that no headlamp is needed to pack up in the pre dawn dark. The climb up and out of the pass is breathtaking. Steep and pretty will do it to ya. The ridge line becomes a knifes edge and I see the sun rise and moon set at the same time. For a while, they share the sky. The sunrise a molten yolk, the moon a cold copper coin. Enter a spiritual moment.

The waterless miles to Lemhi Pass go easy on me. In a blessed lapse of CDT brutality, it is shaded and (relatively) flat. Eventually the trail hits a local maximum and opens into fields of sage brush and wild flowers down to Lemhi. Sunbaked sage. Mm, mm, mm. One of my top three woodsy smells, after rain and sweet pine.

By the end of the day, I’ve gone just over 30 miles! Easy to do when you start before sunrise. I walk a bit further to a wide and high flat spot. It’s windy, but the 360 view from a tent is too tempting to pass up. My tent glows with the colors and warmth of the sunset. I fall asleep blissy eyed.

The next morning, I watch the sunrise show room my sleeping bag with a treat-myself-flourish of hot coffee in bed. I have full blown tunnel vision for town once I’m packed up. I do nothing but crush miles until I’m at Bannock Pass. It’s a dirt road with low traffic… a notoriously hard hitch. But I’m charmed and the first car to pass picks me up! It’s a young couple that works on ranches in the area. At my request, they give me the cow etiquette lesson I’ve been waiting for.

I hang out the rest of the day on the porch of the Leador Inn. Sam, who runs the place, is beyond hiker friendly and provides everything I need: a sewing kit, a shower, a space to pitch my tent, wifi and a shaded porch swing. Other hikers and locals come and go from the porch. It seems to be the town establishment. I’m the longest hold out though. I sit until the sun is set and it’s too cold to sit any longer.

I am so, so, SO ready to sleep hard as rocks in the backyard of the motel, but Saturday night town sounds keep me up. At 2am a police officer shines a spotlight in my tent asking if I heard fighting. Excuse me.. what?

Alas. I sleep like anything but rocks.

CDT Day 23-26: The Pintler Float

Taz points at my feet as we head out to breakfast: “Already have your shoes on, eh?” Yes they are, gaiters and all. My hike angst is showing. But first bring me a biscuit with eggs, sausage gravy AND sausage patties. This is gonna feel great under my hip belt. As soon as we finish, I collect my pack and say goodbye to Ted and Taz who still need to hit the post office once it opens. “Hope to see you again,” says Taz. I assure him I will (but who really knows?).

The road walk would be mind and feet numbing but I have a call lined up with a friend in Oakland! We talk for two hours until I lose service and it makes the miles fly. We’re in such different contexts right now, but the questions we’re in are the same. Everybody’s got their wilderness. The connection puts more distance between me and loneliness. He shares a poem that sticks:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Multiple cars stop to offer me a ride to the trailhead but I hold firm to my road walk (#integrity). One car offers me water and jerky, which I gladly accept (#hikertrash).

At some point in the afternoon I turn off the road onto a trail to Twin Lakes and suddenly everything is beautiful. Meadows! Rushing creeks! Forest cathedrals! Alpine lakes! Even though the air is thick with bugs, I strip and swim in one of the Twins. The velvet mud swallows my legs up to my knees as I wade in. It is everything I want it to be, plus one million mosquitoes.

Who do I run into a few miles later, but Taz! He took an alternate to the alternate and is now setting up camp next to a stream. He makes a strong case for camping there, but my legs have miles in ’em still and I want to honor that. I make dinner while he sets up and then hike on, assuring him I’ll see him in the morning. But sadly, I won’t. This is the last time I’ll see Taz on the CDT.

The single track trail leads me over a pass and then unexpectedly, to a car campground on Storm Lake. I meet a nice woman from Butte and she recommends a campsite that’s a little more secluded. It’s lovely but thankfully not so secluded that I’m spared the Bruce Springsteen tribute that blasts all night. Yay car campers.

***

On Day 24, I am in a groove. Oowee do I feel good! The Anaconda Pintler Wilderness is so much more than I anticipated. I somehow feel welcomed here. I catch myself smiling goofily to no one but myself. There is a generous amount of climbing, up to maybe 6 or 7,000ft total. I feel like I float rather than hike over it all. There are moments of incredible views but only after I’ve earned it with steep switchbacks. Great names in this wilderness too: Goat Flats, Queener Basin, Rainbow Pass. Even the water sources look mythical. I’m smitten.

I hike alone all day, but meet people headed the opposite direction. A few are northbounders (nobos), others are locals, and they all think I’m in for something good ahead. “You’ll be Quadruple Happiness by New Mexico!”

***

I climb up Pintler pass first thing the next morning. I have to actively pump blood into my fingers and hands. It’s chilly. At the top of the pass I slam my rocket fuel mixture of whole milk powder, carnation instant breakfast and multiple VIA packets. I feel buzzed and cheeky and flit through a short yoga flow before descending down the other side of the pass. Color me invigorated.

My Anaconda Pintler bliss is still flourishing, at least for the first few miles. Then the splendor sputters out into long stretches of burn. Just in time for peak heat. The sun’s a blazing asterisk of fire this afternoon. Burnt tree trunks and kush balls of yellowing grass do little for shade. I no longer float down the trail. Instead I’m sweat drenched and resolute. At least there’s a breeze every now and then. I’m cursing the burn and confused by how quickly I lost my wonderland. But rest assured, I’m back in creek filled healthy forest before the end of the day. I recover quickly.

I hit 26 miles and pick a camp spot just below a ridge line — a mountain balcony with a view. As I arrange my home for the night, the valley below begins to pool with blue. The blue rises and pushes the rose color of sunset further up the eastern peaks until the moon is bright and the world, inky. My feet squirm, kicking in the narrow toe box of my sleeping bag. I’m blissed.

***

The miles from my magical sleep porch to Chief Joseph Pass are a flash in the pan. My consciousness doesn’t record much. Burn. Too much sunlight. Must chug water at Schultz Creek. Herd of elk! Forest. Road walk. At Gibbons Pass there’s a warped sign board about the Nez Perce trail that passes here. The narrative ends with an antiseptic clif hanger… but I take it Gibbons plays dirty.

At 2:30, all 24 miles are behind me and I’m thumbing it to my box’s resting place: the Sula Country Store. After maybe 10 cars pass, a lovely couple named Diane and Doug pull over and invite me in. They’re from Eugene and remember when my sister was a news anchor for KVAL! I am very famous by association.

They drop me at Sula, which I would describe as a blend of gas station, convenience store, RV park and amusement center. Bad news: the kitchen is closed on Mondays 😭. Good news: there’s a lady here who loves hikers! And she makes me a ham and cheese sandwich despite the closure. “I spoil my hikers!” She says. Her name is Lori (trail angel name: Lollipop) and she takes ridiculously good care of me. Soon I have a campsite with power access, towels and showers, detergent and laundry and a care package of tuna salad and veggies for dinner. All hikers should stop at Sula!!

I pitch my tent on the grass and later take a seat by the campground host’s fire. His name is Mike and he got a text from Lori saying to take good care of me. He worked in trail maintenance, building remote bridges, for a many years. I ask him about solitude. He makes a strong case for embracing it while I have it.

CDT Day 19-22: Deerlodge Forest & Anaconda Road Walk

I leave Helena lookin’, feelin’ and smellin’ like a million bucks! By which I mean, I bathed, laundered my (only) outfit and purchased new Altras. To top it all off, 20% of my resupply (by weight) is chocolate chips. Onward to Anaconda!

Barb, our host, gives us a ride back to MacDonald Pass. She stands by the truck, waiting patiently while we fiddle with our packs, straps and sticks and then waves us off down the highway. What a lady. I fight the urge to hug her farewell, because not everyone’s a hugger (or at least so I hear).

Ted, Taz and I have an oddly hard time finding the trail on the other side of the pass. It takes all three of us and each of our respective maps and apps to get on track. Let’s try this again: onward to Anaconda! After a few miles we hit major blow downs, which may I remind you is the same thing that happened the last time Taz and I hiked together. We each blame the other for the bad luck. By the time we get back on clear trail it’s nearly camping hour. We find flat spots on the side of a dirt road and tuck ourselves in. As I nod off, I can hear Taz talking to himself in his tent: “A little bit of tea, a little bit of chocolate… [sigh] life is good.”

Hear, hear, Tassie.

***

The format of the trail this section is the inverse of what I’ve grown used to. It’s been a high effort, high reward routine for a while now. Now the trail has mild switchbacks and rare exposure. It’s gentle. Appreciate when the CDT does you gentle.

I’m locked into a steady morning rhythm, jamming to musical theater, when thunder cracks. I look up and suddenly big sky summer is dark and curdled. At the top of a climb, I run into Taz. We de-pack and waterproof our things just as the buckets begin. It will bucket for hours. But I just pull my umbrella out, feeling unfussed and sassy. Taz and I walk together through the storm and share his tuna at lunch when it finally relents. I learn about his family and the AT. Taz tells me I will hike the AT eventually. “You can hike 1 or 3 of the triple crown trails, but not 2!”

At the top of a long tunneled climb, there’s a sign pointing towards an outcropping of rocks, saying “SCENIC OUTLOOK.” Catnip for a Koopkat! I scramble out, survey the land and then call Weekend. I’ve had a great day today, but as I debrief on the phone, most of what drivels out is anxiety. Maybe tears. It’s easy to incubate dark moods under moody skies. Weekend listens and acknowledges how easy it is to project our here/now slumps into our vision of the future. Damn. That clicks. I think back, and yeah, all my lows on the CDT coincide with a flagrant lack of presence. I project whatever emotion is filling the low (lonliness, anxiety, fear, fatigue) over the next four months and 3000 miles and think: wtf?! That’s untenable! The good news is, the projection is just a story I’m telling myself about the trail. Not what’s happening now. But man it’s easy to catastrophize, amiright? So how can I break that worm hole and take this adventure one day at a time? How can I be more present? Those are questions I could live in for a lifetime. But I have a few ideas. Namely, sketching 😂

***

The sleep by Cottonwood lake is buggy at night but perfect in the morning. “Lake” is a generous term. It’s more of a grass carpeted swamp. But a pretty swamp. The kind you can stop and stare at while the sun rises, which is precisely what I do. The Deer Lodge Forest that follows is soft hiking. When I catch myself thinking unnecessarily about future sections and states, I note to myself that I’m ‘doing it again’ — the anxious not present thing. Then I make myself sit down in the dirt and sketch for a few minutes. For some reason, it helps.

Something new and different today — I run into herds of cows. And I immediately realize how… unprepared I am for them. What is cow etiquette? They’re making me nervy? I mean, cows are cows. Docile, right? But I also imagine them charging en masse, and wouldn’t that pulp-ify me real good like? I keep a wide berth and talk to them in dulcet tones as I pass. All cow heads turn towards me and a few start trotting towards me! Not okay, cows! I tell them. Not okay! I may or may not unholster my bear spray as they advance. I’m glad no one’s watching.

I have lunch with Taz by a spring and he tells me to relax about the cows. They’re great company, he says. I’ll take his word for it.

Today’s the day we split from the official CDT for a few days and follow the Anaconda Cut Off. It’s a popular alternate that shaves some miles and goes straight through a town. The cost is the road walking it entails. Taz and I are a few miles along the gravel road when we run into our first northbounder! He’s a section hiker named Speed. Only the top button of his shirt is buttoned, the rest left open, and his shorts are mesh. So much ventilation must mean much speed.

***
Word on the trail/internet is that a sobo a few days ahead of us quit when he got to Anaconda. He wasn’t having fun anymore. The news makes me anxious about this section. Will it somehow break me? I steel my heart and mind for this road walk into Anaconda. Don’t break! I tell myself. Spoiler: I make it to Anaconda today and I don’t quit.

I hear Taz start his morning routine at 4am, but wait till 4:45 to get mine in motion. Town day! There are 20 miles of road between me and Anaconda, and I’d rather cover them before peak heat. It’s suprisingly scenic at the start (for a road walk). I can see the Anaconda range across the valley as I walk past ranches and barbed wire fences. Ag vibes abound. I’m comfortable and crushin miles in the long, cool shadows of early morning. Just before I-90, I meet a trail angel named Boston. He works for a ranch nearby and is on his way to look for varmints and make em dead, but he turns his 4×4 around when he sees me and invites me to his trailer. He kindly makes me cowboy coffee. I spit coffee grounds for the next three miles.

When the dirt road becomes black top highway, the walking is all business. For hours, I make straight line progress toward the smelter stack that looms over Anaconda. Just outside of town, I walk past a huge mountain of black sand. Some copper mining byproduct, according to Taz.

I spring into a flurry of chores until they’re finished. Then I lounge on the grass in a public park to make phone calls and stretch. I notice I’m still immune to what hikers refer to as the Town Vortex. Can I hike out, already?

CDT Day 16-18: Lincoln to Helena Round Up

It’s a three day’s journey from Lincoln to Helena. The days have a common tone and rhythm. So much so, that the seams between them feel arbitrary, so I’mma share an all-in-one round up. Because the rules are, there are no rules.

THINGS I SEE:
Seas (on seas on seas on seas) of ridge lines. The only interruption to the endless sprawl of mountains are train tracks, power lines and the sharp glint of lone roofs. The trail is similar to the Scapegoat Wilderness I just left: tracing the divide head on. When I stop to look behind me, I can see a thin ribbon of trail stretching north, up and over peaks, for miles and miles. The visible record of my progress is satisfying. Then I think of how much there must be tucked behind each fold and ridge… I’m only skimming the surface.

I also see many bees. They get down on my legs, backpack padding and food bag like it’s cake every chance they get. And suddenly, I’m not afraid of bees anymore?

FEELINGS I FEEL:
Oofta. Well, I feel more peace, albeit fickle. I find myself appreciating camping alone (big reframe for me). I get x-tra picky like with my campsites and only settle for spots where I can watch the sun both rise and set. I wake up eager to hike and cradle the excitement.

The water sitch gets tricky with longer carries and off trail sources, etc. Nonetheless, I manage my water security like a champion. Hott damn am I well hydrated this section — and I feel unreasonably smug about it.

Ah yes, and I have my first trail cry. I’m surprised it took till mile 330 for it to happen, but even more surprised by how unprompted it was. The scene: I’m walking through golden hour light, Fleet Foxes is playing faintly from my hip belt pocket, and I’m thinking about how I’ll pack a Mountain House Berry Crumble dessert to share with Fivestar (a PCT friend headed nobo) when we cross paths… and outta left field, it comes. My eyes sting, face muscles pinch. What?! Now? Only five tears roll before I stop walking and shake it off. Strange. Cathartic. But what was underneath it?

And of course, there is fear. Not the same solid mass of fear I started with at the Canadian border, but bits of it still float through my system. Fear of objective hazards (e.g. death by mountain lion, swift and wide creeks, a bad fall). Fear of lonliness. Fear of not being tough or strong enough. Fear of not being enough, really.

PEOPLE I MEET:
A white haired man named Gary gives me a ride from Lincoln back to Rogers Pass. I find his name and number typed and taped to the door of a diner: “CDT HIKERS: FREE RIDES!” Gary also maintains a cache of water for hikers at Stemple Pass so he’s big time trail angel. I only wish the ride to the pass was longer. He’s kind and interested and interesting. He points out the historical marker on the side of the road that says something about the lowest recorded temperature (70 degrees below zero). Maybe I won’t move to Montana. He asks my name and takes my photo for his seasonal record keeping before I hike out.

Twenty four hours later, a man in camo waves to me on his hurried path between his car and the pit toilet at Stemple Pass. Yay human interaction for the day!

Near Nevada Mountain, I meet Rob and Barb, a couple from Helena. They’re on a long day hike and say things about HAM radios and “activations” that I don’t understand but nod eagerly to. Rob names all the peaks that lay ahead of me on the divide like characters in his favorite novel. Barb’s hair is wild with silver and worked into a braid that lays untied yet intact across her shoulder. They say Taz is just a few hours ahead of me!

As fate would have it, I get to see Barb and Rob again. I text Taz on the way into Helena and he says there’s a spot for Ted and me at Barb and Rob’s house tonight. Bed, laundry, steaks and sundaes included. So. Much Joy.

THINGS I DELIGHT IN:
“What kind of toast?” the waitress working at the Bushwackers Saloon asks me at breakfast. “What are my options?” “White, wheat, english muffin or pancake.” That’s right. PANCAKE. Lincoln is the promised land, where pancakes and whipped cream come as easy as toast.

When I climb up to Granite Butte Lookout, I turn my phone off airplane mode and a minute later, DirtyBowl calls! I miss DB. She’s sending me a package to Lima which def makes the delightful list.

I find myself tracking the intermittent piles of fresh wood shavings, remnants of recent trail maintenance work. Everytime I see one, my morale gets a little boop-boop-bee-doop boost. It’s the confetti of the trail community! Saying: “Yahoo! Welcome to the wilderness!!! We’ve been expecting ya!” And yes, I cope by projecting community where I can.

THINGS I NOTICE ABOUT MY BODY:
There’s a few flecks of black manicure still holding fast to my thumbnails. The vestiges of lady grooming. Good riddance! But also, wait! Stay, because you remind me of my sister Heather and our day together in Seattle before I started.

I spend the majority of my days this section listening to my knee. The tweak comes and goes and only turns sharp on one steep descent. What do you want? What do you need? I elevate it at every break and try to make it happy. Please be happy.

Last but not least, a delight/body noticing double feature. True confession, I like the smell of the sweatband inside my hat. It’s the only BO I will smell willingly and intentionally. I’m proud of all the sweat and sunscreen that’s created its musk. Vulnerability for the day, complete.

CDT Day 15: Wide Open Spaces To Lincoln

It’s a cold night and a colder morning. Sleeping by water in a valley is a fool proof recipe. The trail gets right back to climbing though and beats the chill outta me quick. It’s the same format as yesterday: up and down and up and down, tagging the peaks of the divide as the come. Highest elevation yet and I am digging it! Ugh. I love hiking and mornings and everything in sight. Cue Wide Open Spaces and all the 90s lipstick.

The CDT markers are manic today. At one point, I pass four within a few hundred meters. Then the trail will disappear for miles with no markers in sight. Some markers are better than none!

The climb up to the top of Green Mountain is mega steep. My lungs and legs work at full tilt. Ted finds a tiny lockbox up top with a crispy, yellowed notebook inside signed by forest service fire crews and hikers. I add my name to the scroll.

On the descent to Highway 200, I start to feel a tweak in my right knee. Ruh roh. All the uppy downy is catching up with me. I can’t handle a bum knee right now, I just can’t. I think feather light thoughts and try to use my muscles rather than my joints on my continuous controlled fall downhill.

I put my thumb out on the highway — and would you believe it — the first car to pass pulls over. I still got it! The drivers name is Grace and she rearranges her car that is currently serving as her home to accommodate both me and Ted. Grace has buzzed grey hair and is on a road trip from Canada. She’s very excited about the American tradition of free camping in national forests (something I’m grateful for too, now that she mentions it). She drops us off at the Lincoln post office, 15 minutes before it closes. Whew!

As I wait to check into the Blue Sky Motel, I sit on a bench and poke my tweaky knee. Be happy, knee! Please be happy. Suddenly a woman on a motor bike materializes in front of me. “You want biofreeze for your knee, young lady?” Why the hell not! She goes into her bag and squats down by my knee to lather it in freezing hot gel.

Lincoln, I love you.

CDT Day 14: Smack Dab On The Divide

I have series of nightmares, each conveniently set in my creekside campsite. Bears are central characters. As soon as the sky shows signs of grey light, I pull the plug on any reruns and force myself awake. Coffee, swollen chia seeds and sunrise put good distance between me and the bad dreams.

I walk for two hours in the shade of a hillside until I finally meet the sunlight. Sometimes I think this Moment (meeting the sun after a cold morning miles) is why I hike. When the trail dips low, it’s completely flooded and braided with creeks and streams. I only tell the strands apart by the power of GPS. Then the trail climbs high and stays dry the rest of the day.

I’m an hour into a Bill Withers jam session, when I hear voices. I round the corner and there’s a group of four men spanning three generations crossing a creek. They’re finishing their final section of the CDT this year. And on the other side of the creek, I see Ted! (Ted from East Glacier)

Ted and I sit on the sand and catch up on how the sections are going. Then we stand up, walk and talk the rest of the day. Ted is roughly my age and just finished the Hayduke trail before starting the CDT sobo (#hardcore). The Hayduke was a very solo experience, and he talks about wanting to not be such a solo hiker this time around. He also admits that when he saw me behind him this morning in the distance (miles/hours before I saw him), his immediate reaction was to bolt. So there’s tension there. I get it. And I’m stoked to have company for the day.

We each talk through the few soboers we’ve met and can’t count more than ten combined. A rare breed this year! We both get the vibe that morale is… dampened. It’s been a challenging start.

In the late afternoon, the climbs suddenly get steeeeep. We gain 3000ft, lose a few thousand, gain em back and repeat. Definitely not animal grade trail like ye olde PCT. I am smack dab on the divide! The ridge lines I trace are bare of trees, and the scale of the space I see in all directions is wild.

We find an established campground around 8pm on a lake and claim it. I look at mileage — 28 miles today. Longer than I think wise after 10 days of not hiking. Oh well. Over dinner Ted and I talk about the complexity of thru hiking. Somehow you’ll never feel stronger and never feel smaller.

CDT Day 13 (and 10 days inbetween): A Big Fat Both/And

Before Day 13, let’s talk about the 10 days inbetween Day 12 and 13, because they are sublime. The day after the bathroom sleep, my parents pick me up and help restore my dignity with a shower and town food. This rendezvous is happening for a raft trip down the middle fork of the Salmon River with 20 family members and family friends. I was curious how this trip, which has been on the calendar for nearly two years, would feel after just scratching the surface of my hike. Would it be overwhelming?

Nah, man.

If anything, it is a balm.

Now, on July 10, I’m bumping down Benchmark Road to re-enter this CDT experience. I get to the trailhead just before 4pm and say goodbye to my parents. They are angels for crossing multiple statelines to enable both hiking and the raft trip of a lifetime. My pack feels heavy so I poke around for something to shed. The only expendible item I can find is a party size bag of crushed Tim’s Cascade chips. In a lapse of judgement, I toss them to my parents. Why the chips, though???

It takes a few miles for hiking to feel familiar. There are no rain cycles this time. It feels like I’m hiking into an entirely new season. Summer?! Is that you? Nothing but clear blue skies and stunning silence — a silence that shatters when a dead tree crashes down 100m off trail in front of me. That’s gotta be one of my greatest fears: death by dead fall. Hike till it’s healthy!

I climb up and over Elbow Pass. I’m hiking later than usual and it’s the closest I’ve gotten to golden hour light. My mind goes back to the evening hike I took with Weekend and my niece a few nights ago in Idaho. God I miss them. I’m happy to be back on trail and also mourning the departure of all the deep community I relaxed into the past week. It’s a big fat both/and.

After ten miles, I make camp on the bank of a creek. The sky is clear and the bugs thin so I happily cowboy. The sound of rushing water is a comforting holdover after sleeping on the Salmon for a week.

As I brush my teeth, I see a moose! My first moose. She sees me before I see her and continues to stare unflinchingly. Then she slowly wades across the creek and disappears.