Yes! A townfood Bfast of mixed baby greens, avocado, also peaches & bananas!
Then, Free wifi outside library by the awesome town park where they allow free camping. And today there is a flea market (and tomorrow a fiddle-fest.) Lincoln is one cool little town.
Near the park we start hitching and within minutes two charming locals swoop us up. Tammy and Craig recently retired to their cabin here, and give us a ride 15 miles up to the pass even though it is 30 miles out of their way round trip. What sweethearts!
We hike 13 miles with much discussion about route finding and the patriarchy of internet trolls judging what real thru hiking is. What is thru hiking about when it’s choose your own adventure? Duration? Miles? Pleasure? The destination? The militant satisfaction of following a particular government-ordained route without variation (no thanks).
I’m on a deadline for this hike because of a family obligation in mid-oct. realistically, I can’t finish the whole route in 3.5 months. To do so would mean hiking 30 miles every day and no days off. So I have 4 choices: 1) traditional CDT routing thru Idaho and Wyoming and end somewhere in Colorado. 2) make my own route thru southern Montana to Yellowstone skipping the Idaho section, thereby “saving” 250 miles and a few weeks so I can maybe finish closer to the CO/NM border; 3) screw the idea of a continuous footpath and hike select sections along the trail until early October; 4) try to fly back after the engagement and finish in the approaching cold winter breezes. Groucho wants to hike with me and I with him, but he’s still committed to a continuous foot path of some kind. We spend a long time weighing options until we develop bickering emotional headaches attempting to stare into an unknown future.
These conversations also make me realize I am homesick… but in a new way. Not for particular friends or family… I’ve been connecting with people when I need to and the Interwebs and wifi make that a lot easier, (especially now that my network extends from Finland to Guatemala to Virginia to Washington to Spain to Colorado to Austria to Hungary to Alaska to California to New Jersey and Oregon.)
Instead I realize I’m homesick for a sense of steadiness. For a mooring of place in this space-time continuum. It might be time to settle down for a minute. A theme that will pervade my thoughts these coming days and weeks.
At dusk, we descend to flesher pass where a trail angel – Marc -cached water earlier in the week. There’s more than a gallon left so we top off with 1/2 liter each. 1/4 mile from the pass we find a trail head with a privy, a PICNIC TABLE and a flat spot to sleep.
A difficult morning. Still coming down from townfood-induced sugar high – and needing to dig multiple cat holes because of bad greasy food invading my gut – my emotions and systems are all outta whack. Also we are trying out hiking with treking poles again because of the steep descents, weak ankles, slippery fords and handiness of an extra leverage point when setting up our tarp. But this morning Groucho takes a dramatic fall/face plant tripping with his pole and though he appears uninjured, he fumes all morning.
Thankfully the terrain is smooth and flowing, and though it’s long distances between water sources, the hours and miles pass quickly.
We meet two rad section hikers Mango and Ron whom we will leapfrog with most of the day. It’s sunny, but cool at high elevation and in the trees.
We climb a big hill and run into an older gentleman from Marysville with his pup. I am disarmed by his sparkling grey eyes and clear desire to connect with us, however briefly. He carries a pistol in his belt, water on his back and bearspray in his hand.
We crest the climb, faced with a route choice, take the new CDT route over the mountain and see views at the observation tower, or take an old ATV road to a water source and bypass the peak. We opt for water and find it 30 minutes later with jeeps and motorbikes blazing by us on the dusty descent. The water hides in a lush gulch and bursts from the hillside cold and clear. We fill up our bottles. Why is water so heavy?!
10 minutes later we hit the CDT again and continue winding ever-southward and now… Upward. Our big climb for the day up up up to 8400 feet – black mountain. I’m tired and my calves burn, even with my new treking pole assistant “tripod.” We haven’t had a day off hiking since we began two weeks ago. Our shortest day was a 13 miler and my body lets me know as I trudge up the hill. We reach a tick infested grassy meadow where the trail disappears but we know we must continue up the ridge ahead. As we do dark clouds blow in from the East hanging on the side of the mountain in front of us. Then wind, then low thunder in the distance.
“so Groucho, what if we get to the top of this treeless ridge and it starts lightning on us?”
“We can descend to those trees in the East and throw up the tarp”
As we reach the steepest part of the climb the cloud speeds overhead. suddenly the thunder increases. We look at maps and realize our route would continue another mile uphill to the crest that lies before us. We can’t do that in this weather. We cut into the nearest set of living trees, off trail, and as it starts raining we throw up the tarp and crawl underneath. It’s 6:30pm. We sit and eat our hydrated dinners, pick tics off each other like apes, and chat as the thunder grows closer. Then heavy rain and hail pelt the cubanfiber above us. And we hi five. We are dry and electrocution-free.
30 minutes later, two dry hikers emerge with a folded tarp, full bellies, and 2 hours of light left. The sky even looks blue ahead of us.
We climb the ridge, then descend into a living, green, tree-filled saddle. So nice and sheltered here but still 1.5 hours of light! We press on, the sky – to the south ahead of us- so blue and clear.
A half hour later we begin an ascent and look at the deadfall around us. Half the trees rotted, cracked, fallen, and mossy, probably infested with Western pine beetles. They usually invade sick and weak trees but – word on the trail – climate change and extreme high/low temps here have weakened all the trees and the mass infestation transforms the landscape … green hills turning ever to grey. It’s sad and dead and dry out here, especially on this ascent. The lack of leaves and thinning forest gives me a view to the SW where, *oh crap* dark clouds blaze toward us.
We start looking for another sheltered place to bear down, but as thunder rumbles ever closer we see only dead and dead and dead trees. We make a run for it. A mile up steep switchbacks as lighting begins to glimmer to the near horizon. As we crest the hill the wind whips and thunder threatens. We’re at 8400 feet but there are some tall living trees around us. We feel unsettled but hopeful as we descend and begin to see larger patches of green. Finally Groucho spies a grip of trees where all the dead comrades already lie on the ground or at least against sturdier companions. We pitch our tarp and while lighting continues in the distance the storm moves away and we enjoy a dry night.
22 ish miles to MacDonald Pass/Helena
We wake with 26 miles to go until we reach the pass which leads to Helena. Town Day. It’s a bit soon since we just left Lincoln but my cheapie rain coat failed last week and with all these storms I need a new one. Also we’re 80% commited to try the super cutoff route and hope Base Camp Outfitter in Helena will have maps we need.
Our only water this morning is a spring in the middle of a cow pasture pouring into a cow trough. Thankfully it looks pretty clean but we definitely treat this one.
Then we take a Ley map alternate that roams dirt forest roads. It cuts 4 miles off our day and meanders thru pretty pastures filled with black cows. We run into a real life cowboy rounding up cattle with his beautiful young pup. One bull has a lame leg and the cowboy emerges from the truck with a shotgun. We recoil in horror until he pulls the trigger. A dart hits the cow in the flank. It’s an antibiotic shot that will cure the hoof rot.
The path is wide and clear but sunny so we don our sunbrellas. Instant cooling shade.
We intersect the CDT at Mullen Pass. I find a penny on the trail and slip it into my pocket with a wish for good vibes the rest of the day. Then 8 miles to town, half uphill. It’s blazing hot and my face sports a sunburn despite my hat. My recently laundered shirt drenches in salty sweat and my calves/ankles/feet begin to protest. My mind wills them along “bed, hummus, shower, bed, hummus, shower”.
As we near the crest of the climb, clouds swoop once again, another thunderstorm with lighting as we reach a bald. The white and brown cows here seem unimpressed, so I try to be too. With a little rain and hail following us, we race the last 3 miles down to the road. We arrive at a behemoth 4-lane highway with no shoulder on the hitching side and cars traveling 60 mph. Just as I despair, a car pulls out of the building at the trailhead and a window rolls down. The amazingly timed dude is headed to Helena and will give us a ride. The lucky penny is working!
Helena’s residents are rightfully proud of their mountain bike trails, their breweries, the Base Camp Outfitter, the Fire Tower coffee shop, and most of all The Bridge Pizza Joint.
We spend an hour at the outfitter talking to Tim about our desired route and figuring out which maps best serve us. The man spills a fountain of knowledge.
Then good groceries from Real Food a legit natural grocery and sleep at Budget Inn for $60 including tax.
16 miles to east glacier
Town day! But first, we walk through a long river valley than up, up, up to Pitamaken pass. Compared to the storms of yesterday it is gorgeous and bright at the top. On the long descent we accidentally take a non-mapped trail for a mile before noticing. We are confused when we realize and pissed to be 40 minutes farther away from town food. We turn around and Finally get to two medicine campground where we realize our unmapped path would have been a more direct route to the guard station, saving us an hour. Ugh.
After two nice hitches we hit East Glacier again, swooping a resupply box at the PO, mailing back our ice axes, eating food and finally around 5pm taking a shower and beginning to unwind. Town chores are tiring.
Bug and mud leave, headed to Wyoming for a side trip.
Groucho and I begin a new tradition of map review. The CDT is sort of chose your own adventure and in the next section we have some choices on which paths to follow.
I try to blog but am falling asleep sitting up. I startle awake from a dream where I hustle my weary muscles up a steep pass. I’m having thru hiking work dreams on my day off.
16 miles to summit campground
Breakfast of spinach, tortilla chips, blueberries and coffee, whilst blogging and writing postcards at the bakery. We Finally leave town around 12:30.
Thru a labrynth of dirt roads we make our way south back into national parkland. First we pass a huge truck blocking the whole trail. The elder and youth in charge explain they are gathering alder to burn at the Blackfoot celebration this weekend. They wish us well and “that you hear the whistling of the elks.”
We glue ourselves to the battery draining powers of the Guthook app for the next few miles. Guthook overlays our smartphone GPS location on a map of the CDT, in real time but without wifi or data required. We live in the future.
The park terrain continues prettily, all rolling hills, creeks and wild flowers and 1 moose sighting. At 7pm we’ve travelled 16 miles and reach a train track, road, and public campground. We cross out of Glacier and into Lewis and Clark National Forest and sleep at the camp ground. The luxury of a picnic table is hard to explain. But having a place to sit feels like a luxury so when a fellow SOBO walks by an hour later we can’t help but share. We enjoy a new acquaintance with “Recon.”
24 miles to blue lake
Like early birds, we rise before the sun and are hiking by about 5am. We take an alternate to hike along the S fork of two medicine creek. It’s pretty easy breezy. Later we meet an injured hiker who relays a mess of blow downs cluttering the normal route. His knee is messed up and he’s taking an on trail “zero” to rest and see if he can hike on. This freaks me out. He has enough food to afford to wait a few days, but we have only packed 7 days food for this 180 mile stretch… Not enough to accommodate an injury.
We follow bear tracks all day. Big ones with claws. Our singing grows crazy as the hours march by. (Singing is supposed to warn animals you are coming so they don’t react violently.) We wonder: What if bears are listening and saying ” what is wrong with these humans? we need to quarantine this area for mad human disease!” Or… “Guess there’s a free jazz show tonight”
We stealth camp high on hill above Blue Lake.
27 miles to dean lake
At night the cool air condenses and gathers in the valleys around creeks and lakes. As we walk in the early morning we can feel the drop of 5-10 degrees as we descend to the lake and are happy with our warmer selection of a site last night.
After a few easy miles the trail splits. We can take the CDT 2 miles around a lake or thru a meadow and save ourselves a mile. Blowdowns litter the real CDT and we immediately lose the trail. Meanwhile the alternate looks clear and simple, so we rush thru the meadow chatting happily and suddenly the alternate trail disappears into a knarled clump of trees. We follow footsteps around rooty potholes with twisted branches and dead fallen trees scraping our arms and knotting our hair. I feel like I’m in Tolkein’s Fangorn Forest and I might never leave this place if the trees get their wish. Then relief as we press thru the last cluster of branches into the light of the… boggy meadow. Ugh. There is no path. I pull out Guthook but this alternate path isn’t recorded there. All I know is the trail runs perpendicular to us a half mile further. We must move forward and try to try walk thru the bog. Our feet get soaked, then our ankles, then calves… we are descending into a swamp. A stinky swamp. This isn’t right. We trod backwards, and again thru Fangorn, and back to the last clear trail, this time spotting a shy clearing where we missed a junction before. The path loops wide around the marsh … it is dry and smooth. And then again we lose it. Now the real CDT trail is supposed to be about 500 feet forward so we bushwhack up a steep embankment and finally, finally are on trail again.
After breakfast we enter the bob Marshall wilderness. The area boasts an exceptionally high concentration of Grizzlies. It’s beautiful but our first several miles run thru burned forest. Pretty in its own way but hot and barren. We agree to take the Spotted Bear Alternate – slightly shorter and more scenic- and as we near I stop to pee and fall behind. 10 minutes later I reach the trail junction but Groucho isn’t there. We’ve been more diligent in this trail hiking close so we can check in on the many trail junctions and for safety in wildlife encounters. If he’s not waiting here, it might mean he didn’t notice the junction…so which route did he take? I’m literally 1 minute behind so I shout his name to no avail. Panic and frustration set in. I go down our chosen path about 7 minutes hoping to spot him thru clearings in the burned area with his bobbing silver umbrella, but nothing. Then I turn around, go back, and check out the other junction, it ends pretty quickly in a big ford. If he had gone this way he definitely would’ve waited at the ford. Ugh, so back I go down the alternate, upset but pretty sure I’ll find him soon at another river ford on this path. A half hour later I find him coming back up the trail toward me – having waited 20 minutes he was worried- and I’m so relieved to see him.
Next is a possible “waist high double ford”. The first has nice logs to cross on. The second we decide to take off our shoes and walk across, when we reach the bank we toss our packs, strip down and wash ourselves. It’s cold but worth it.
After lunch is our big ascent toward Dean Lake. I’m feeling strong but halfway up I tweak my Achilles and it smarts each time I step. I now start to worry about food. Our hunger increases each day, and if I injure myself we don’t have a lot of leeway to hang around and wait out here. As far as I know, we are 50 miles from a road in either direction.
Toward the top of this climb I feel scared and tired and – most of all – sorry for myself. I explain to Groucho I have feelings and he is nice about everything. A short, 30-second cry-fest relieves the pressure in my chest, heart and throat.
We reach the lake by 5:45 and are trying to decide whether to hike on over the pass, in the few more hours of summer light. As if to answer our question, a light rain begins. Up here at 7200 feet it is cold too, so we set up and get in the tent just as the downpour begins.
24 to Chinese wall
Rained all night and we walke to temps in the high 30’s and low 40’s. We freeze doing camp chores and bicker with each other. Once we start moving we are warm again and cheerful when we get to Switchback pass.
We descend to the river valley slowed by a bunch of Blowdowns. Then it’s flat terrain for many miles but our shoes are constantly drenched from creek crossings, intermittent rain and the “car wash” of the brushy trail.
Around 5pm we climb and by 6pm we rejoin the official CDT at spotted bear pass.
Around 7 we reach the amazing Chinese Wall and start looking for a campsite. For an hour everything is either windy, muddy, grassy or slopey. Not great camping for a tarp.
Finally, dusk comes, and we explore a little nobby hill that has a concave top. We find a spot that is sheltered by trees and boulders. We hope it doesn’t rain as it *might* be drainage. As we go to sleep a stag party arrives, 4 or 5 young bucks, with their antlers all fuzzy. They are a little too curious and we wonder if we stole their cozy shack. We later realize they mostly want to eat the foliage we have dressed with our nutriant-rich pee “salad dressing”.
24 to benchmark junction
Today we remember how to be thru hikers. We hike 4 miles before breakfast at a beautiful and flat pass. We take out all our gear to dry it in the breeze and scattered clouds. The sun appears today! Off and on but I’ll take it! We ford streams over and over.
We also begin to see more humans and their horse slaves. Seriously it bums us out to see a horse train of oppression where they bring luxury items like guitars out to the bush. In one instance the last horse in the train tries to drink at a creek and then is pulled along and trips over 3 logs almost toppling over. Major bummer. Plus, because of the rain the trail is completely torn up with horse hooves. This majorly blows for my newly aching-again Achilles.
We meet some awesome NOBO “slashers” (super long ass section hikers) which whom we trade tips.
Around 5 we find an amazing river and I soak my achilles in the sun.
By 7 we find a super cozy camp under a tree. Our dinner spot overlooks the river 100 feet below.
27 miles to Dearborn River
Best sleep so far! But the achilles aches worse today. At our first breakfast break I loosen my shoe and find a walking stick. This helps considerably. We take the Benchmark alternate saving a few miles and reducing elevation gain/loss since flat feels better on my foot. Also this section is forested instead of burn area.
Easy miles all day but we want town so badly. This stretch feels a bit brutal. Once we rejoin the CDT we recount movies to pass the time in long burn areas. As we settle down to camp we hear trees cracking and falling across the valley. We are safely in a grove of live trees.
22.5 miles to Lewis and Clark pass
Town is 30 miles away. Today we climb Up to the actual divide. We walk up and down and up and down ridges. beautiful but back-breaking. We ascend and descend around 6000 feet throughout the day on Appalachian Trail style climbs -straight up hill- with very few switchbacks. The day is bright and tough but the scenery incredible.
We approach a drier section and now will carry water enough for 10-30 miles at a time. Combined with these climbs I am a bit daunted to carry an extra 8 lbs of water on my back.
The day ends at Lewis and Clark pass where as we sleep we hear a whistle… Could this be the elk? Or maybe a moose?
8 miles to the town of Lincoln
TOWN DAY! I leave my trusty walking stick at camp because it seems happy with its brethren. We hike over four hills. We see a female moose from afar. Maybe she’s our whistler. By 9:55 we are at the pass and within 15 minutes get a ride to town! Lincoln is basically one street but possesses all the basics, pizza, grocery, post office, hotels. We stay in the Hotel Lincoln. A national landmark that was featured on the show Ghost Hunters.