CDT

on being with bears

The best way of being kind to bears is not to be very close to them.

Margaret Atwood
Bear hang in Glacier National Park.

Do bear bells work? Is it best to play dead if you’re attacked? Is a gun just as effective as bear spray? Should anything that might possibly have come in contact with food be packed into a hard-sided bear canister including your clothing??

By the time I strapped on my first can of bear spray for a hike through Glacier National Park, I’d pretty much heard all the conventional wisdom passed down from hiker to hiker on managing bears while walking through their habitat, some of it contradictory. 

And those contradictions left me feeling pretty nervous because I couldn’t sort out what works from what doesn’t, and determine if I had the right tools should I meet a bear on trail. So I decided it was best to talk to an expert, a bear biologist who has studied human-bear conflict for decades and possesses the best data on the subject –Tom Smith. 

Dr. Smith is a Professor of Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He’s conducted research in Alaska, India and in bear country throughout the lower 48 states promoting bear safety and conservation – and has written, or co-written, nearly every important paper on the subject. What he shared with me underscored much of what I assumed, but also surprised me. 

Here’s what I learned. 

Number One: avoid meeting bears

In Smith’s work, he’s found that the vast majority of black, brown and polar bears want nothing to do with us.  It’s when we surprise bears at close range that they may respond in an aggressive-defensive manner. 

“I’ve come around a corner many times and a bear will be two meters away, I mean it’s right there,” Smith told me. “It startles the bear, it startles me. But in most cases, I just kept walking and the bear stayed there and nothing happened. That being said, bears come unglued when something approaches their food cache, something that represents weeks of foraging.”

That same response, of course, goes for a mother and her cubs. 

With only about 40 bear attacks per year worldwide, of which only about ten proving fatal, you’re far more likely to be killed by lightning or even a shark than by a bear. Still, heading into a bear’s home increases the likelihood of encountering one. As beautiful and majestic as bears are, we need to keep a safe distance and avoid meeting them. That’s why Smith encourages making noise while hiking. 

To prove his point, he conducted an experiment while leading a group of bear researchers in Katmai National Park. He sent a small group to walk about a quarter of a mile through thick brush without making a single sound. What happened was frightening – the researchers startled grizzly bears sleeping on their day beds, who huffed and grunted as they ran off in a mild panic. When Smith walked the same distance clapping his hands and yelling, “Hey bear!” the bears simply moved off ahead of him, without being seen or heard. 

Fortunately for the experimenters, these bears were just napping. Had they sensed a threat, the scientists could have been in serious danger. So the very simple act of making noise to alert bears of our presence allows the bear time to get out of the way. 

But do bear bells work or playing music? “From a biological perspective nothing in their world trains them that tinkling means anything,” says Smith. In one of his experiments, he used a recording of voices at 70 decibels, about the volume of a typical conversation. Bears hear it, but they ignore it because it’s unimportant. When Smith increased the volume level to 110 decibels, everything changed –the bears became alert, their ears pricked up and their heads began moving towards the source of the sound. 

So it’s a burst of sound – a clap, a “hey!” – that gets a bear’s attention. Of course, this is not to say when hiking you should be constantly making noise. “A hiker should make appropriate noise,” Smith emphasizes. Part of the beauty of being outdoors is the sound of birds, the wind, the water. But when approaching blind corners or brushy areas, these quick bursts can become the difference between safe passage and a surprise encounter.

I met a solo hiker on the CDT who played music from her iPhone while walking alone in Glacier National Park. Aside from the fact that playing music goes against all low-impact ethics, Smith pointed out that the sound is probably too soft and uniform to attract much attention. But headphones are not a good idea either, because you want to be alert to sound in the wilderness. Being alone also puts a hiker in a unique category that may encourage an attack. 

“The simplest thing to do is hike in groups of two or more,” Smith says. “Bears are much more likely to engage with a single hiker.” Hikers in groups make more noise just with their footfall as well as talking. They’re also more visually intimidating. 

In all of Smith’s research, he told me he’s seen no data on an attack of two people standing their ground. When I asked about a bear attack on a group of seven NOLS participants in Alaska, he commented that the victims were fleeing in different directions and the bear attacked each individually as if unique single threats. So grouping up also tends to discourage a meeting. 

Another important factor is managing odors that are attractive to bears. “We have a saying that ‘bears are where they find you,’” meaning if you attract bears, they will come!

That’s why it’s critical to properly store food in a bear-resistant container like an odor-proof Ursack/Lopsak combination or a hard-sided container like a Bear Vault, or by hanging your food ten feet above the ground and ten feet from the nearest tree. Incidentally, bears are attracted to bright colors, too, so it’s wise to store food in neutral colors. Other smart behaviors include cooking and eating away from where you sleep, not storing food inside your tent and never putting food scraps in the fire ring. 

“Humans and bears have an inverted priority of senses.” Smith reminded me. “Whereas ours is sight, sound and scent; theirs is scent, sound and sight. Bears learn the world through their nose.”

What was most interesting to me were his set of experiments with freeze-dried dinners, placing them in varying degrees of accessibility – inside ziplocs, closed, and opened.  It’s not that the bears didn’t smell them, but the food rarely produced enough of a scent to attract attention. And neither did clothing with food spilled on it. “Some of the things people say like strip off your clothes and put them in your bear canister is just crazy!” 

But Smith pointed out that it’s not the food odors in and of themselves that cause problems, but the connection of humans with the availability of food. Everything we touch has a human scent. That’s why you never want bears to get your food because it trains bears to see people, tents and backpacks as a source of food. That all sounds obvious, but Smith’s research changed the way the national park service and all natural resource agencies started managing their garbage – including putting up fences and bear proof containers.

On the other hand, sweet smelling soap like Dr. Bronner’s or Herbal Essence shampoo drew bears in, as if coming for a “150-pound strawberry.” So while food smells aren’t everything, it is important to limit your use of fragrances and secure scented items (not just food) at night. And, shockingly, he found cooking gas and capsaicin, the active ingredient in bear spray, were unusually appealing to bears. Imagine 100 700-pound grizzlies coming close just to check out those odors! 

Other scents matter too, like poop and pee, which should be left (for obvious reasons) far from your tent. But you also may want to check the wind direction before digging that cat hole, because any interesting odor can invite a curious bear. 

“A grizzly bear will see you, but the first thing they do is stand full height, wag their head and huff to pick up scent. They’ll run at you, circle, trying to figure out what you are. Once they have the scent, they might leave right away, even after they’ve been looking at you.”

Bears have a bimodal activity pattern and are mostly active at dawn and dusk. That means if a bear is hanging around after dark, you have a problem on your hands, because that is not normal. 

Neither is a bear that doesn’t move when you haze it with a “hey bear!” 

In the Grand Tetons with bear spray at my hip.

Which brings us to –

Number Two: deter bear encounters

“It’s basically irresponsible to go into (grizzly) bear country without a bear deterrent because you’re attracting these animals in their own home.” Smith said. “If you get involved in an incident it’s always bad for bears. It’s often bad for people too, but let’s not set them up to fail.”

Bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent designed to stop aggressive behavior in bears. Its key ingredient is capsaicin, a chemical compound derived from chili peppers. When delivered to the skin, it elicits (temporarily) intense burning, causes involuntary spasms that forcibly shut the eyes and restricts the bronchia, making breathing exceedingly difficult. 

If a bear charges, a hiker can deploy a cloud of spray (which is easily seen because manufacturers add a dye) and it hits the bear at a distance of about 30 feet. “That changes the bear’s agenda. He’s no longer interested in attacking because he needs to breathe!” Smith just laughs when I tell him I’ve heard advice to check the wind direction before deploying bear spray. “With a bear that can run 30 miles per hour, there’s no time. Just spray!” 

Smith is adamant about carrying bear spray and having it always at your fingertip whether on a pack strap or on your hip. Sadly, a recent double-fatality in Alaska occurred and it was discovered the victims kept their spray wrapped in plastic. I met a backpacker in the Grand Tetons who stored his spray deep in his pack and only pulled it out when he saw a bear at a distance. When Smith walks in areas with a high probability of surprising a bear, he actually keeps the clip off and swings the spray from his finger. 

I asked him about guns as a deterrent. Smith’s research showed hunters are hesitant to use lethal force, and often, hunting weapons like bolt-action guns, require too much time to ready to shoot and are not as accurate as a wide cloud of capsaicin. Ninety-eight percent of people who used bear spray escaped injury (with 2% being knocked over but not killed) as opposed to only about 50% of people using guns.

“With a deterrent, now you’ve got at least a little calmness and peace of mind to deal intelligently with this animal rather than last ditch crazy things like climb trees, run, or play dead.”

Speaking of “playing dead,” this was an area where I heard the most contradictory advice. Smith underscores that playing dead does have a place in the suite of bear safety messages, but should be the absolute last option. “If there’s no immediate threat, it’s akin to a sacrifice.” 

This goes back to the idea of hiking in groups. Standing your ground as a group represents a counter-threat to an aggressive bear and unloading a can of bear spray usually stops a charge. But most important of all is to leave the scene. Smith was called to help investigate a fatality in Montana where a hiker sprayed a bear then laid down to play dead. Smith felt he would have stood a chance of survival had he remained standing.

But without any spray at all, the chances of outrunning or out-climbing a bear are minimal. “The analogy I like to make about carrying bear spray is that I’ve driven a car for forty years and never had a wreck, so why bother with a seatbelt? People think it will never happen to them. But for a $30 product, it’s just not worth taking the risk.”

That being said, if bear spray doesn’t stop an attack, what does one do?  

A hard-sided bear canister like a Bear Vault keep out bears as well as “mini-bears.”

Number three: survive a bear attack

“As a general rule I don’t let hairy four-legged creatures make significant decisions for my life,” Smith quipped. He pointed out that it’s important to know the difference between black and brown bears. Black bears roam most of the United States and are very active in the Sierra, the Appalachians, the North Woods and many of our favorite trails. Brown Bear or Grizzly live in Canada, Alaska and in the lower 48, mostly in Montana, Wyoming and the Northern Rockies. 

One rule of thumb for dealing with a black bear who approaches: never lie down, ever. Black bears do not protect their young or animal carcasses and normally do not aggressively interact when surprised. Hazing usually works best to force a retreat, but if attacked, you should be prepared to fight. 

With brown bears, if threatened they may aggressively charge. Smith advises emptying your bear spray and if the bear keeps coming, turn away at the last moment so it hits your backpack and not your face. “Bears are four-and-a-half times more likely to bite your neck and head. That’s how they fight, because their biggest and most lethal weapons are their teeth.” 

But let’s say you’ve been knocked to the ground and your spray is out of reach. That’s when you use your last ditch effort: lying face down, hands behind the neck and legs akimbo so it’s difficult for you to be turned over. Smith suggests staying absolutely still (playing dead) until the bear leaves because his data shows that at this point, the bear perceives the threat has been neutralized. This means you should not check to see if the bear is still there because that could set it off again. However, if it begins nipping or biting, you should be prepared to put up the fight of your life – and hope a hiking friend has bear spray at the ready. 

Feeling terrified by Smith’s descriptions of bear attacks, I asked one more question that puzzled me. A hiker in Alaska told me there was no need to make noise until I actually saw a bear. While this runs counter to his studies, I was curious if Alaskan bears were different from the ones living in Montana. 

They are quite different and need different handling, he said. “Bears require a dynamic distance around them that is a function of the underlying resource.” Alaska is resource dense with about 30 giant bears able to share just a square mile of space. “If there’s food everywhere, fighting doesn’t make any sense because it’s dangerous. Their personal space amongst other bears is about the size of their paws.” 

In Montana, it’s inverted with grizzlies roaming large ranges of about one bear per 30 square miles of relatively resource-poor land. They’re smaller than Alaskan bears and far more protective. While it’s reasonably safe to simply sit and watch an Alaskan bear outside of 50 yards, their southern cousins require at least 100 yards. (Incidentally for polar bears, it’s 500)

The trouble with breaching this distance to get a closer look or a photo, is that it agitates the bear and it can charge. This is a conservation issue as well as one of public safety – when a bear mauls someone, the animal likely has to be euthanized. 

But keeping a distance is not all there is to bear safety. “The fact is, we don’t care about good bears who see you and flee. It’s the bear looking at you with no surprise, not running off, sizing you up and approaching that’s a problem.” 

Though they make up only a small percentage of bear attacks, predatory bears do exist. Oftentimes they’re called “garbage bears” that hang around a campsite until the auditory and visual cues stop. They need to be managed with the tools mentioned above like having a deterrent at the ready, hiking in groups, and making appropriate noise, as well as choosing paths and campsites carefully to make it more difficult for bears to approach. It’s also important to be prepared with a flashlight and bear spray should they come close to your tent, and to create a plan with the rest of your group. 

All this talk left me a little spooked and I wasn’t feeling so sure anymore about backpacking in bear country at all. Could I even enjoy bears in their natural habitat? Dr. Smith offered tips on using portable electric fences and “critter gitters” before assuring me that it is possible to share this natural space, even if I didn’t want to carry that extra weight. 

“You can take an entire wilderness with no bears and there’s just something fundamentally different about it. We love these animals; they’re wonderful. So I would never avoid going into bear country and I’m confident if you just do these simple things you can avoid a confrontation.” 

you can listen to our conversation on the Walking Distance podcast


CDT

grace

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.

Anne Lamott
This token is a reminder that every day is a gift and to never take it for granted.

Earlier this week, Two Bear Air Rescue in Kalispell, MT sent me a letter.

On July 8th, 2021, Two Bear responded to a call for help. This call ended with our team hoisting you out of your situation. Because of your special ride on our hoist, I have enclosed a token as a reminder that EVERY day is a gift and to never take it for granted.

Many people have never heard of Two Bear Rescue until we arrive on-scene to help them. There are no charges for our service because our number one goal is saving a life. Whitefish philanthropist Michael Goguen supports all costs of this program and believes that if we saved only one life then the costs would be worth it. 

The gold medal is adorned with the Two Bear’s logo and “Goguen’s Heroes” written above. Below is a phrase that makes me catch my breath. “By Grace,” it reads. “You are saved.”

grace noun 
grās
1. elegance and refinement
2. goodwill and unmerited favor
3. a state of divine sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance
4. mercy

The writer John Updike said “Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.” And Anne Lamott writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Yesterday, I took a stress echocardiogram which revealed a strong and healthy heart and, even when the technicians pushed me past my target heart rate, never triggered the debilitating tachycardia of the trail. Good news, even though I want to get whatever happened out there fixed before I head out again. There’s still more monitoring and appointments, so something might turn up. In the meantime I bike and hike and get stronger every day in body and soul.

But I find it a miracle that I was plucked out of danger by the grace of someone else’s kindness and generosity, by their willingness to share in their good fortune by helping someone in need. And I’m changed by it – just as I’m changed by the trail and the many gifts I’ve received.

But I’m also changed by having to accept the circumstance I’m in – and to do so with a kind of, well, grace, to be a less of a whiner and more of a problem solver, to be less of a catastrophist and more of a believer in abundance, and to be just as curious and full of gratitude off trail as on.

And it’s in that space, I know I’ll tap into my bliss again.

Blissful’s normal stress echocardiogram with no evidence of stress-induced ischemia and a normal left ventricular function and wall motion at rest and post-stress.
CDT

waiting

Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears.

Barbara Johnson
Afton State Park is made up of stunning restored prairie high on a bluff above the St. Croix River.

Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast ever, drops out of the team final; uncharacteristic for her – and for us. What does it mean to say I’ve had enough, that the “mental is not there” especially when there’s no visible injury? What does it mean to this thru-hiker who struggles with letting go and knowing when it’s time to stop, to see someone as strong and brave as Biles to say no to the world, really, to the sport, to all of our assumptions about being bad-ass? Well, it’s a kind of permission.

I’ve already said my no – and said my “enough” and right now, I’m waiting. Waiting for the results from my heart monitor. Waiting to take a cardiac stress test. Waiting to see if the cardiologists can fix me up – and get me back on trail. 

But I’m not just laying around. I’m exercising. The daily two-minute plank is back in the routine, and weights for my upper body. I do a bit of yoga, walk up and down hills and I even took the bike out on Grand Rounds where I sweated so much, I shorted out the first heart monitor and had to have another one sent to me. 

I feel in between– in between my plans and my life as it is. But also in between my body as it was and something that’s fragile now. Like Simone, the “mental is not there,” the feeling of flow, of connection, of being in the right place at the right moment. 

It made me think of a poem by Leza Lowitz, an American poet who lives in Tokyo. It’s called “Waiting.”

You keep waiting for something to happen,
 the thing that lifts you out of yourself,
 
 catapults you into doing all the things you've put off
 the great things you're meant to do in your life,
 
 but somehow never quite get to.
 You keep waiting for the planets to shift
 
 the new moon to bring news,
 the universe to align, something to give.
 
 Meanwhile, the pile of papers, the laundry, the dishes the job –
 it all stacks up while you keep hoping
 
 for some miracle to blast down upon you,
 scattering the piles to the winds.
 
 Sometimes you lie in bed, terrified of your life.
 Sometimes you laugh at the privilege of waking.
 
 But all the while, life goes on in its messy way.
 And then you turn forty. Or fifty. Or sixty...
 
 and some part of you realizes you are not alone
 and you find signs of this in the animal kingdom
 
 when a snake sheds its skin its eyes glaze over,
 it slinks under a rock, not wanting to be touched,
 
 and when caterpillar turns to butterfly
 if the pupa is brushed, it will die –
 
 and when the bird taps its beak hungrily against the egg
 it's because the thing is too small, too small,
 
 and it needs to break out.
 And midlife walks you into that wisdom
 
 that this is what transformation looks like –
 the mess of it, the tapping at the walls of your life,
 
 the yearning and writhing and pushing,
 until one day, one day
 
 you emerge from the wreck
 embracing both the immense dawn
 
 and the dusk of the body,
 glistening, beautiful
 
 just as you are.
The wild and scenic St. Croix separates Minnesota from Wisconsin and is fresh and cooling during the heat wave.

Leza Lowitz wrote that glorious poem, “Waiting” and it captures this kind of juxtaposition of urgency – a need to break out when all the while a need to radically accept what is. 

While I convalesced in Kalispell, a friend I made on the Pacific Crest Trail reached out and shared her struggle. A former competitive gymnast, she was raised in the world shared by Simone Biles and so many others who pushed through injuries, remaining stoic and fierce. Until the day it caught up her. 

Only this summer she was guiding young people in the wilderness and was suffering from such severe shoulder pain but was not offered relief from her superiors. Seeing no way out, she self-medicated with opioids putting herself and her charges in danger. Until she realized her health was paramount. It took a doctor reminding her she could do permanent damage and she simply had to stop, but it was traumatic and difficult – because her mind was certain she could push through and the culture she worked in demanded it of her. 

As I wait for answers and a path forward, I think back to Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and one I’d hope to summit until HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) stopped my forward progress. It’s basically fatal with the cure to get down to lower elevation, which is what I did as quickly as possible. Oddly, the morning I left, swollen and weak, the others in the party came out of their tents to hug me and the guide pulled them away. “Stay away from her!” he said. 

As sick as I was, I think I laughed. Did he think it was catching? Did he think my leaving the mountain to save my life would somehow cast a pall on their continued ascent of the mountain? It was strange, but maybe old fashioned and sort of like the TV show “Survivor.” Who knows. They never made it to summit anyway, and later I was told that the guide thought I would celebrate their failure. OK, maybe a little shadenfreude for him, but not the friends who take these uncontrollable aspects of life more in stride.

Does that describe Simone Biles – “I’ve had my Olympics,” she tells her teammates. “Now it’s your turn.”

Aha, and I’ve had my thru-hikes, too. We’ll see about more. 

Drying bee balm on the prairie still attract pollinators including hummingbird moths.

All my work is done for the day and my new heart monitor is scheduled to arrive this afternoon so Richard suggests I swim before I have to hook it back up and can’t get wet. It’s been so hot in the Twin Cities, that the lakes are a little dingy and filled with plants and algae. I hadn’t been in the Saint Croix River in a long time, so I decide to make my way out to one of my favorite parks, Afton State Park, prairie, and deep wooded ravines next to this wild and scenic river – a place I’ve trained, brought friends, brought my joys and my sorrows. 

There’s a beach I’ve walked past so many times, and this time I was going to use it. Funny, getting there in the 90-degree stagnant heat with the A/C on full is not easy. The main entrance to the freeway is closed, the detour sending me back past my house in the wrong direction before I could enter. Once I reach Woodbury where I play my flute nearly every week, the roads are closed and again I’m sent in a circuitous route around this sprawling suburb and finally out to farmland and massive fields devoted to potted trees and shrubs under sprinklers. 

I had to really want to get here, it would seem. And I did – more than I knew. The prairie is lush with color – yellow, purple and dotted with oak trees. As I crest the hill it’s already loud with crickets and birds. I’m not sure how this is going to go, but I take a pack with my towel, a chair, my umbrella for the sun and head down the bluff towards the river. A woman coming up tells me the water is wonderful. 

The trail along the edge of the river is an old railroad, straight and flat. I pass the beach itself to check things out further down as speed boats and jet skis rush past. One is parked on the beach and I walk down to look for a private place for my swim. It’s perfect in the shade, the humpy, tree-covered hills light blue in the haze, small wake waves touching the shore. I take off my shoes and wade in, trying not to step on a massive clam. But my feet sink in. It’s mud! Soft, yes, but not making it easy to wade in. Water plants sway in the current, grabbing at my ankles, silky, slimy. 

OK, it might have looked that way from above, but this is not the best swim spot. I sit in my wee folding chair and read for a bit before packing up to find a less muddy access. Maybe I’ll just walk a little bit more, to the end of the trail before it darts straight up into the forest. It’s hot, muggy, the air still and quiet. I move slowly as if swimming through the air. At the turn around, a doe looks up at me, startled but still. Two fauns with spots shimmy their bodies behind her, only their big ears and curious eyes watching me. 

I decide to go up – only for a little bit and just to get my heart going before I dunk in the water. The forest is dense in shade, though not especially cool. I’ve run up this trail in laps, but now my feet feel as if they are barely touching the ground. The trail curves, then flattens for a moments through a stand of pine before heading up again. A wasp nest hangs on a limb above my head, gray paper swirls. I’m deposited in prairie where a flycatcher clings to an erect gayfeather. 

Crickets hop ahead of my step, hidden on the path until they explode in brown wings with white fringe. I choose a different path to one I normally take and find myself momentarily disoriented. I see a familiar lean-to ahead, and realize it’s just a new way of seeing things. As if to guide me to this landmark, a tiny reddish-brown bird hops two feet ahead, turning back to see I’m coming. Sweat drips on my lip in beads.

I stop for a moment to listen in the shade, deciding if I want to go on. It’s all in sun next, a walk through the heart of the restored prairie. Ah, but I have my umbrella and head deeper in, alone, just me and the crickets. The trail is a mowed path through black-eyed Susan and purple bee balm, Queen Ann’s lace about to burst forth from a closed ball. 

Dragonflies buzz me and the slightest breeze moves my hair. Massive thunderclouds build and sunlight pokes out in long rectangular rays. My umbrella moves as a silver ship atop the high grasses. A hummingbird moth yellow and black flits from blossom to blossom, it’s massive tongue flung deep inside as its wings keep it aloft. 

I hear heavy breathing and it breaks the spell. It’s a trail runner who gives me a smile of commiseration that we are both here in the heat together because we want to be – we have to be. It’s bliss. 

Queen Anne’s Lace in tight fists ready to unfurl.

I think about this time of having to stop – knowing it’s mostly my choice, but also something out of my control that has to be fixed. Like Simone Biles, I got off trail before I really hurt myself. The coming weeks of waiting are going to take patience and grace to manage, and some figuring out. 

I think about a poem by Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate for the Library of Congress. 

Patience is 
wider than one 
once envisioned, 
with ribbons 
of rivers 
and distant 
ranges and 
tasks undertaken 
and finished 
with modest 
relish by 
natives in their 
native dress. 
Who would 
have guessed 
it possible 
that waiting 
is sustainable— 
a place with 
its own harvests. 
Or that in 
time's fullness 
the diamonds 
of patience 
couldn't be 
distinguished 
from the genuine 
in brilliance 
or hardness.

My thru-hike is in the extreme heat and over thousands of blow downs of trying to get back to myself, to figure out the puzzle of my health and remember what matters. Here at home is not the big mountains or the glory of thousands of miles walked, yet somehow in its quietude, it takes my breath away, it reminds me why I love walking, why I’m the Blissful Hiker. A bird, a bug, a flower, the sound of crickets, all of it calls me back to that place in my heart that’s most alive when I’m outside. 

I head back deep into the woods, steeply down along a finger of land above deep ravines and towards the beach, where indeed it’s sand all the way out into fresh water with wisps of ice cold freshness from springs. I swim until almost dark, then head back up the hill to go home and sleep in my own bed.  

CDT

off trail

Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time or the last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory.

Betty Smith
Life goes on at home, oblivious to the fact that I’m off trail.

I walk up Ramsey Hill for the third time this morning. The air is heavy with smoke settling in a sulphur haze over the city. It’s from fires far away, but it’s choking us as well, the heat and drought only making things worse. None-the-less, I push up the hill in long strides, my arms bent and pumping to make it harder.

I’m home now and the hill is just a few blocks from my house. On Monday, I was fitted with a heart monitor to try and track exactly what is happening with the erratic beat, but right now I feel strong. Strong, determined, and focused on this thru-hike of my neighborhood.

Coming off trail sucked. Just when I pulled away on my own and was finding a rhythm, I got, well, out of rhythm. I hit an SOS for the first time in my life and was pulled into a helicopter by a wire. I felt awful, but still managed to be astounded by the epic mountain views.

It’s a better view from here than from the trail.

It actually took two helicopters to get me to the hospital in Kalispell, one with the high wire act, the other, a life flight with an EMT team poking holes in my arm and shoving oxygen up my nose. But I loved those guys who never once made me feel guilty or ashamed that I hit a wall and needed to come out. They even made me laugh a few times and pointed out the best views.

Funny though, when the EKG and other tests showed my vitals to be absolutely normal, they thought maybe I was running low on electrolytes. Maybe, but I have an arrhythmia, supraventricular tachycardia – they think anyway. Not much to do here, but head home and see a cardiologist. But stubborn me was having none of that. Maybe if I just rest a few days.

Lovely Dr. Leonard suggested a kind of half-way house for people like me without anywhere to go right away and still pretty sick. Called Assist, it looks like a dorm with a shared kitchen, shared TV and shared bathroom. It was just me and two guys down on their luck. I can’t say it was luxurious – no Club Med, well, maybe Club “Med” is accurate.

Sarah hiked the Continental Divide last season during Covid. She’s glad she did it, but probably won’t do another long trail.
Mark stayed at the medical “halfway house” called Assist along with me.

It was boring. It was isolated. But that was just about the level I was at, on the phone most of the day trying to figure out my next move as the sky filled up with smoke from a nearby forest fire and the temperatures kept me inside most of the time watching Law and Order reruns.

I did visit with a local woman named Sarah who had walked the CDT last year during Covid. We had a beer at a local brewery and she shared info on her favorite parts of the trail. When I asked if she planned to walk another long distance trail, she gave an emphatic, “No!” I can’t say that I didn’t relate to her objections – the constant need to make miles, the focus on moving as opposed to seeing, the camping just anywhere rather than choosing somewhere soulful. Am I starting to think long distance walking is just too much?

There was a moment in my few days at Assist when a friend invited me to join his group and hike in the Wind River Range. I thought maybe I could do that, get some rest, find a ride south and just pick up where I left off. But my body had different ideas and suddenly refused to keep any food inside me.

More Law and Order, more hanging around with the two homeless guys, more talking to Dawn who painted the sunset in all its eerie orange against gray. It was obvious I needed to go home. I set up a Zoom meeting with my ardent supporters, who came on the screen with cocktails and advice.

Getting help carrying my pack to the train.
The train is the great leveler, its passengers diverse and from all over.
The mountains are a distant memory now.

We agreed that flying would be a stressful nightmare since I’d need to take three flights and be crammed tightly into a tube of sardines. The Empire Builder passes right through Whitefish, about 20 minutes north, so I got a ticket and prepared myself for 24 hours of a different kind of ride.

Yeah, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but the seats are huge and lean back like a La-Z-Boy. They even come with a sort of footstool extension. It wasn’t that full, so I had two seats all to myself. And I can get up and walk around, get a sandwich, and sit in the observation car, just as the sign for Marias Pass rolls by and I remember how happy I felt crossing these same rails as the conductor tooted twice.

In East Glacier I see packs of thru-hikers at the post office and feel so sad. How am I going to avoid despair now that I’m off trail? I went out there to find something, to feel something, to get a grip on where I’m headed, and right now it’s back to where I came from.

As we move and the mountains recede, it’s the ocean of prairie surrounding us, all the way to Saint Paul. Montana is dry, the towns sparse and small. Hay in neat rectangular bundles dot a field as far as the eye can see. All I walked and saw, only a memory now.

Oddly, North Dakota catches my fancy. Perhaps it’s the light at an angle, the grass turning a deep orange. There’s ponds everywhere filled with life – ducks, herons, gulls and pelicans. A cluster of bee hives is stacked far out close to a house that seems to have simply sprung up from the earth. I fall asleep but awaken in Minot where the train stops for a long break. Everyone soaks up the evening air, cool and fresh smelling.

Taking a break in Minot, ND
Cigarette break.
Music and sunset through North Dakota on the Empire Builder.

There are a group of tattooed men, overweight in cargo shorts and T’s; a young black girl with a huge grin and a cigar; a Mennonite couple in home-spun clothes stand together but slightly apart, he with a bowl cut, her with a weary and perhaps sad face beneath a tight white cap; a couple kisses goodbye touching foreheads and a skinny boy dances in high top sneakers.

“All aboard!” They really do sing that and we all head back, most beginning to cuddle in for the overnight stretch. I get a burger and sit in the dining car along with eight young women in brightly colored dresses and bonnets playing cards and speaking their German dialect while a man behind me plays guitar and sings, trying mightily to draw me into joining in song.

But I am so tired and have to decline. I’m heading home, to the cardiologist who fits me with a heart monitor and schedules a stress test, to our smoky skies and intense heat, where I still push myself to walk, stretch, lift weights, hold planks and change this story’s ending from one of loss to one of opportunity. There are a few surprises waiting for me, unexpected jobs and opportunities that make me wonder if perhaps the trail itself ejected me at this moment, sent me home to make a full reset on all fronts.

I’m surprised how happy I am to see Richard too, my best friend who doesn’t really want to backpack that far with me, but understands who I am and what matters to me. I read a book Greg from East Glacier recommended called “Breath” by James Nestor and start exploring how my breathing can control my stress levels and maybe even bring whatever is out of balance in my body back into balance.

He’s pleased I’m home because I can take him to a clinic for a procedure that he needs to get done and he won’t have to ask a friend to do it. This time, it’s not me who’s so needy as I sit in this busy and airy space of specialty clinics, listening to a programmed piano, off-kilter and out of synch.

No one seems to notice but us this poor instrument’s distress and disability, the keys barely depressed, only shards of melody emitted out of time like a gasp from a demented musician. The art on the walls is good though, some abstract bits of metal in lines and circles, wood cut and colored in shapes, a massive glass piece hanging from the ceiling. But my attention is drawn to works from nature – blown up images of leaves and flowers up close, each vein and ripple at eye level. And then there’s a series of lakes and rivers, each one familiar to me, yet hidden slightly by a birch or falling leaves.

As I study them, I see a place I’ve been that is precisely like the painting in front of me. That’s the night on the Kekekabic when the full moon grew out of the water. That’s the spring in Southern California, where the oak leaves were bright orange and red. That’s a sky in Colorado when I came down from Mount of the Holy Cross guided by massive cairns.

I am home, and my walks are limited by the heat, the smoke, my health and the unknown. But all of these moments I’m reminded right now happened to me. Soon, the 200 miles I walked in Montana and the extraordinary places I lived and breathed will become part of that tapestry. I’ll return to the mountains. I just have something I need to take care of right now. It’s a bump in the road and maybe the trail knew something I didn’t by kicking me off.

I can tell you this, when I go back in – I’ll be ready.

I’ve been inside this painting before.
CDT

CDT: Day 15, Miner’s Creek and out

Two Bear comes to my rescue at Rock Creek Station.

The sun filters in through the forest and I wake up to my bird friends and cool air. I’m still tired, but know it’s best to move when it’s still crisp and the sun hasn’t quite hit me full on.

My routine is always to let out the air in my mattress, roll up my sleeping bag, dress, pack each bag,then send them out the door. No one visited last night, but I still start singing a made up song, “Bears of the forest!” to let them know by my wobbly soprano, to stay in the forest and not come too close.

I’ve impressed myself with a professional food bag hang, again on a downed tree which created a perfect isolated and high bar. I take it down, do my business, have some food closer to the stream then pack up planning to stop again at an upcoming stream for second breakfast.

The pink light is unearthly, more like stage lighting in my private forest. I sing and walk along and suddenly, I feel a familiar kind of pressure in my chest.

Not this again!

My heartbeat begins to race and my body feels tired, like lead. I’m walking on flat ground and yet out of breathe, my backpack heavy and painful.

I move with slow, stumbling steps. I don’t feel well and I just want to stop. “Hey bear!” I yell feebly, my voice cracking a bit. “Bears of the for-rest!” I cross through a stream, and another, passing a tent I don’t recognize as any of my friend’s.

It’s an eternity to walk four miles, not really hot, just weighted from my being out of breath. When the trail rises slightly, I panic a little that I can’t keep moving.

Chris is all business ignoring my panic of having to be attached to a line into the hovering helicopter.
Wil and the stupendous view.
No farting on board.

By sheer will, I reach the cabin and crash on the porch. I take off my shoes and socks and lay them out to dry, then put electrolytes into my water and drink it all. When my heart races, I get nauseated and none of my breakfasts look appetizing.

But maybe something salty will. I make a lunch of fritos and an onion dip and gobble it up, starting to feel better in my little lair. The trees are huge here, reaching up tall and straight, puffy white clouds scattered on a blue sky.

I begin to perk back up enough to walk to the rushing stream for water, easily collected in a little waterfall. First I ensure my food is all packed up and I hang the bag on a nail before leaving.

It is a beautiful place, and coming up is a big climb to a ridge and finally the Chinese Wall, a massive piece of uplift like a curved edge of ship exposed from the ground and surrounded by other mountains in fancifully tipped shapes covered in snow.

Why am I suffering from this wild and sudden increase in my heart rate? What brings on this massive fatigue, dizziness and an inability to get enough air? I write Richard a note and tell him what’s going on, and that maybe I just need to rest here for a bit – or all day.

At first he’s supportive and gives me the encouragement I crave and never heard from the people I had expected would hike with and look out for me. “You’ve got this, love!”

I begin to cry, huge tears and gulping sobs. Why the hell am I out here alone and far away from Richard? I love what I see but I feel horrible both physically and emotionally. I write a note that tries to convey how much I miss him, to convey how sad I am that things didn’t work out with the friends we drove up with to the border and how deeply that hurts me.

His tone changes on the next message, worried about me and wanting me to make good choices. You have to understand that messages are not fast. We’re depending on satellites and sometimes they travel quickly, other times it can take 10, 20, 30 minutes to send.

He tells me that messages come out of order and don’t always make sense. I write that I’m feeling better now and will probably just rest here before heading up. He has this way of trusting my judgement even when he disagrees.

The Bob from above.
My view might have been better than the trail’s.
Montana is made up of metamorphic rock, uplifted and shifted.

And yet he is not agreeing right now. Why, he asks, are the people you ferried to the start not walking with you in bear territory when that was all you asked of them, not for gas money or to share the hotel, just to stay close?

I’ve told him over the last several days that they go too fast and are 30 years younger. I cannot keep up. I also can’t get where they’re going if I don’t leave very early and walk alone. Somehow a huge chasm in communication has grown in these past two weeks and we don’t confer on plans at all. I took a different route which would be easier for me – at least I thought it would be.

So now, I’m not with them at all. I’m alone and something is seriously wrong. Maybe the people in the tent I passed will come and I can talk to them, get advice, feel more grounded.

I vacillate between packing up and going and setting my tent at this forest service cabin – even though it forbids it – and sleeping off this awful woozy weakness.

My heart has slowed and I’m feeling more like myself. I breathe in and out deeply, I enjoy the warm sun for the first time not just melting in it. I eat food and relax. I’m content.

And then, I can’t breathe. It comes seemingly out of nowhere. I’m gasping, drowning. My hands go numb and I’m light headed, dizzy.

Oh for god’s sake, am I having a heart attack? Has my body just given up? It’s in that moment I make a choice. No one is here to help me decide what to do. I don’t want to die in this place alone. I have walked strong and well but now my body seems to be rebelling.

I press the SOS.

“Emergency Response acknowledged your emergency. This is the IERCC, what is your emergency?”

I have to use my phone and bluetooth it to the device to write a message, it takes time and you only get 140 characters to state your case.

Perhaps I thought we could discuss things before they took action, so I ask for advice first. I tell them I’m short of breath, I have a racing heart, that I can’t stand up without feeling like I’ll pass out. Maybe I’m just tired? or hyperventilating? Is this what a heart attack feels like? I don’t know. Tell me what to do!

Of course their job is not to tell me to just sleep on it. I’m 30 miles from a road, alone in the wilderness. Their job is to get me out of there.

“Do not move and wait for rescue,” they say. Oh lord. Now I feel the whole thing has become dramatic and complete overkill. Richard tells me they’ve called him and I keep asking if this is even necessary.

My window seat…
…just continued…
…to be epic.

The emergency services contacts the sheriff named Bill and gives me his direct contact. I write him and say the same that perhaps I just overdid it. But that message spins and spins in the ether, unable to find a satellite.

Richard finally gets through and we debate the merits of a rescue. I am laying on the ground, weak, nauseated, catching my breath in this beautiful place. The water is gurgling nearby, the wind in the tall pines and the air clear and fresh. It’s not hot yet. I am in the best place I can be. It’s heaven.

Richard tells me I can cancel the helicopter, but is that prudent? I am not just tired, I know that. My heart races on flat ground, my body feels like lead and I have to lay down, I’m gasping for air.

Still, shame wells up in me. Can’t I take care of myself? I am responsible for me and I should ensure I’m ok.

My shoes and socks are crispy now, my feet dry in my flip flops. I have all I need to wait and though my bad-assery can’t accept that I’m in trouble, I begin to see the wisdom in calling for help.

Richard writes that if I go on like this, I might collapse and then rescue might be too late. Funny, my hips and legs are strong but something else is giving out. I think of how often I’ve fallen on this walk. I’m not as nimble and feel not quite connected to my body, which I’ve bruised and lacerated.

I’m calm, not panicking, but I feel awful. Whatever this heart racing episode is, it shatters my body and sucks out all the energy. I use my bear bag as a pillow and lay on the ground. Flies buzz around me, some landing to lick up my sweat, but none biting.

I hear the chug-chug of a chopper and stand up to put everything tightly in my backpack. I tell them there is nowhere to land in one of my notes, but two helicopters – one red, one blue – circle seemingly looking anyway.

Red leaves and blue hangs in the air, a man emerging on a line rappelling down to the ground as the chopper hovers. Chris comes to me all business, ensuring I’m ok then putting me in a kind of large harness and placing a helmet on my head. He puts my backpack on his back and stuffs my phone, hat and glasses in his own bag.

This strong, blissful hiker limps over to the line still touching the ground below the helicopter. “I’m scared,” I say. “I’m terrified.” Chris is trained to ignore this and asks me to kneel, then attaches my harness to the line. I check my carabiner is locked.

I was transferred to a life flight because they could not land at the cabin.
Never at any moment did the medics make me feel ashamed of my condition.
When I gasped for air, even on oxygen, they told me a dumb joke to keep up my spirits.

He’s a small man, so I hardly feel him sit his body on my knees and we’re both hoisted into the sky, above my beautiful swaying trees, light, gentle, floating.

There’s a kind of landing pad that I’m sucked into where another man named Wil – with one L – hooks me to a different carabiner and pulls me in. The door closes and off we go.

This was what I will not see from the trail. Massive mountains in uplifted and shifted forms of layered rock, snow caught in bowls, the trees a fringe below. The Chinese Wall! A reef of billion-year-old creatures, layered, pressed, cooked, squeezed into this glorious masterpiece of nature.

The land is like a carpet, snapped at one end leaving folds and ripples throughout. All of this is ancient as time, but appears alive, caught in motion as waves on the sea. It’s a better view from here than from the trail.

They give me a headset underneath an oxygen mask. As I ooh and ahh, they point to more views and I try to twist my body to see. “Not bad for Chris’s first long line!” the pilot quips. “Not bad for your first flight!” he quips back.

I tell them to shut up and laugh. They’ve got to be joking, I think. We leave the most spectacular mountains and arrive in a field with picnic tables and the red helicopter. It seems this is the life flight from Kalispell Regional Hospital with two EMT’s aboard. If they could have landed, I would have met them first.

Jason and oh, dear, I didn’t catch his name, meet me at the door, ask me my name and date of birth, then get to work, stabbing me with an IV and attaching electrodes to my chest. They can’t roll up my sleeves so ask if I can take off my shirt. I warn them I’m middle aged and get a laugh.

Everything is normal – ‘the blood pressure of a 20-year-old,’ heart rate of an athlete, plenty of oxygen in the blood, good color. Well, what the what now?!? They have me stand but I almost fall over. Kneel down, they say, and they’ll carry me on the stretcher.

That’s when I lose it.

Is it my bruised knees, my scratched and bloody calves, my absolutely shredded body from all those blowdowns? I can’t seem to kneel. I know I eventually find my way into that stretcher somehow and now it must appear I’m simply an hysteric, the hot sun blinding me.

“You guys look like pall bearers!”

“Only if your name is Paul!”

They lift me on the count of three, then slide me into the next helicopter. I say goodbye and thank my first team ‘Two Bear Rescue’ for coming for me, actually apologizing that this wasn’t necessary, that I wasted their time, making them promise they won’t talk badly about this stupid woman after they leave me.

There are views I see through my feet, mostly trees on mountains but also rocky peaks with some snow. I begin to gasp for air again, drowning in small sips. One of them tells me all is well with my body except for this ‘thready’ heartbeat, fast and narrow. They think I just didn’t drink enough, or my electrolytes went haywire. What a stupid person I am.

I finally calm as the Flathead Valley comes into view, wide and green. I ask again if I’m wasting their time. “Nah, I had to be plucked out when I was kayaking once and couldn’t get out.”

But embarrassment for such overkill floods my thoughts, even as we land and I’m wheeled into the ice cold emergency room.

Nurses hustle around me, the medics disappear and a collections agent hovers as they wheel me to a bed. Tracy pulls out my earrings and takes off my shoes, socks and pants. Tests are performed, X-rays taken, questions asked. I call home and Richard wonders why I pushed the SOS.

“This isn’t the nurse helpline!”

Finally Dr. Leonard comes in. They have real trauma to manage – a bleeding hematoma and some other dire emergency, but he’s patient with me. It’s not just nutrition, the heat or going too hard, he says you have an abnormal heartbeat.

Supraventrical tachycardia. Right. Well I know that, I get low on some vital nutrient and my heart races, right? No. It’s an unknown extra electrical impulse that sets the heart racing. My blood pressure drops to nothing and I feel heavy, gasping and ready to pass out. Oh, and if it lasts longer than a few seconds, my heart could stop.

Well there’s that.

Lovely.

He tells me to go home – or alternatively to hike with someone. “They’d be there when you pass out.” He then proceeds to share a story of a woman who broke a bone in The Bob, set it with her walking stick and walked out, all the way stalked by hungry animals.

On oxygen, an IV, attached to electrodes and strapped to a gurney, gawd, I hope we have decent insurance.
I was really struggling, but the pilot kept pointing to the gorgeous views.
Looks like perfect camo spots.
The ride of my life, that might have saved my life.

At home, they’d hook me up to a heart monitor and come up with a plan, maybe medicine of some sort. Mostly people do vagal nerve stimulation like bearing down while holding the breath or putting your head between your knees, all in an effort to throw off that signal and switch things back to normal.

Other than that, I’m fine.

So, it’s not my hips, it’s my heart. My wonderful, healthy, got-me-all-over-the-world heart that’s got the problem, something he says shows up only in healthy people. Funny, my doctor heard something off about 12 years ago, but a cardiologist friend suggested I just drink more red wine. I guess not wildly off since it’s high stress that can often activate those rogue electrical impulses.

The debt collector is back to shake me upside down for the money I owe, even as I’m undressed lying in a pile of dirt I brought with me from the forest smeared into these sheets.

What will my insurance pay for? I’m out of state, using life flight transport and I suddenly think of all of those news reports of surprise bills and denied coverage. Richard and I talk again and he reassures me we’ll figure it out and that I did the right thing getting out when my symptoms kept getting worse and they couldn’t get to me fast enough to help.

The hospital ‘trail angels’ me by putting me up at an assistance facility until I figure out what to do. There’s no charge for my little dorm room, a shared bath and a stocked refrigerator. Dawn’s on call and we hit it off right away.

So this SVT is a thing now, and really there’s no sense in second guessing getting off trail; it might have gone past the point of no return and I could have ended up a snack for bears. Funny my mother-in-law cracked a joke when Richard told her I could lose consciousness and needed help, “But aren’t you supposed to play dead around bears?” <groan>

The collections man cometh.
The driver takes me to ‘Assist.”
Carla and Dawn kept a close eye on me and made sure I got better.

Still, I’m pissed. Angry that I have more limitations to deal with, angry that I managed this without friends on trail, angry that I have to change plans. My brother shared a quote from Mike Tyson with me to cheer me up, probably paraphrasing it, but something like, “Plans are great right up until someone punches you square in the nose.”

He also compared my ordeal to the Tour de France. “Crashes happen, Al, and you’re going to have to improvise.” Ain’t that the truth. Looking back, I see gorgeous pictures and read my writing that expresses wonder and joy – but I also read about struggle. I was not enjoying it entirely, certainly not the group I was with or how hard it became when my heart raced or the intense heat that sucked the life out of me.

I’m stopped now and talking to friends here in Montana to see if it’s possible or wise to go forward with a complete reset. I have the gear, the provisions, I’m here and the trail awaits.

One young friend shares an ordeal with trying to ‘push through’ excruciating pain because that’s the culture she lives in as a ‘bad ass mountain woman’ then coming to find out she may have caused permanent damage.

Another warns me this is wild country and not only was a woman killed by a grizzly last week, but another is lost in the mountains, somewhere, no one knows where, even after they found her tent.

Still another suggests I hook up with artist friends and see a show, get myself around friendly faces. Her friend, a life coach, is convinced the universe is telling me to stop right now. She asks if I really want to die out here.

And then another tells me to get back on trail.

Whatever I do, I have to learn how to move and find joy within the parameters my body has set for me. I have to change tactics because I can’t hit the SOS a second time – and I can’t afford to feel like I did before: isolated, exhausted, incapacitated. I probably can’t be totally alone either.

The truth is resetting and entering the next phase with intention takes courage, to go outside expectation and write my own ending will require a clear focus, flexibility and a willingness to let go of what doesn’t work for me.

I don’t know yet what that will look like. I’m still tired and overwhelmed, but I’m safe and as they say, ‘the trail will provide.’

Perhaps something awaits me better than I’d originally planned, different for sure, but richer and more appreciated because my ability to do all things is slipping away. It may not be a thru-hike and it probably won’t be fast, it will be small steps, but I can do that much I’m sure.

Somehow that makes this bump in my journey, this learning experience of listening to my gut, making better choices and believing my body when it’s screaming for help, all worth it.

And perhaps in reframing and resetting, the very real possibility I’ll encounter will be to reconnect with my bliss.

CDT

CDT: day 14, Fools Creek to Mine Creek, 19 miles (Bob)

Looking for a campsite beyond my lumpy site was futile.

I somehow manage to sleep in my lumpy, sloping space because the birds sing and I ‘roll’ over and knock off. But it’s not enough and I’m wasted from yesterday’s jungle gym of tree fall.

I see pink on the mountains from my ridge spot, then throw everything in my pack – delighted my bear hang brought no visitors – and I head off for the alternate. Along the way, I look for any possible camp spots and see nothing, just lumpy ground with overgrown plants.

The trail is clear at the moment, which amazes me. What criterion do they use to clear or not to clear? A deer stands alert at the junction, his fur a deep orange in the morning light. He suddenly leaps away, whit tail flashing. If only I could leap.

I reach the North Fork of the Sun River, rushing, cool and one I will follow but never be this close to again. I spy five bags tied up a dead tree as if the top decoration on a Christmas tree. I wonder if whoever hung these is aware black bears can climb trees, and fast.

I meet one of the owners, Caleb, dressed in pajama bottoms and packing heat. He’s also got a rod and reel and tells me he caught a trout snd cooked it up last night.

Charred trunks like alien creatures.
Alone and happy.
Mild blowdown.

He’s here with five friends and tells me they got their asses kicked walking in here – the ascents, the blowdowns, the heat, the bugs. I’m surprised such young men are phased by all this, though they admit big boys do cry.

“You’re alone? How do you cope?!”

I don’t, I tell them, I just keep pushing through. Before I go, Caleb mentions they were quiet for a bit and a bull moose ran across the trail right in front of them. I make a note to keep being loud and making my presence known.

I climb high up above the water on an eroding (slowly) cliff. The views to the mountains are superb. I choose a log to sit on and make breakfast, the ground at my feet filled with wildflowers – and a ground squirrel hole. I enjoy the crashing water, the light breeze, the mountain view and constant peeps of warning.

The trail winds away from the river into a corridor of new growth, perky bright green pines crowding into the full sun. Clouds move in too, giving the burn area a spooky touch. I much prefer cloud cover, since I usually cover every inch of my body in the sun. The air, though, is humid. Rain? I wonder.

Caleb at breakfast.
My breakfast spot.

The trail veers down to make a cross and I meet a young family from Great Falls on a horse pack adventure. Yes, they really wear jeans, plaid shirts with snaps and ten-gallon hats. They ask me about my hike, the mom interested in the fact that I’m married and out here doing this thing.

Then Brent offers me a ride across the ford. I haven’t been on a horse since I was a teenager! He tells me to simply wear my pack, put my foot in the stirrup and heave myself on behind him.

OK, maybe that was possible a few years ago, but now I’m bionic, also my pack adds 20+ pounds and my legs are destroyed from the blowdowns.

But still, I go for it. Up and over and not quite on…I forget that this is a living animal, moving under me as Brent tries to calm her – and encourage me. I ask the daughter to take my picture and she politely avoids snapping while I’m still in mid-air.

“I can’t quite get up there.” I say, winded and embarrassed.

“You’ve got this!” he says as I give it all I’ve got and fall in behind him, terrified I’ll fall off.

“We’ll both go if you go,” he tells me, meaning what exactly, that I’d pull him off? I am very nervous, grabbing tightly as this huge animal begins to move quickly for the cross. Your body moves up and down and forward with her motion, it’s exhilarating to feel such power.

Brent tells me she senses my nervousness, so I get quiet and just let the ride happen. She is surefooted through the rapids, I can’t imagine how her hooves find purchase, and then, we’re done.

Brent tells me to simply lift my leg and slide off, and somehow that motion is easy after all the huge downed trees I’ve straddled this week. They’re right behind me and I thank them for such a fun diversion. The young girl’s horse trots and she rides with such ease.

Horseback riding family from Great Falls.
Blissful morning.
“Just swing your leg over!”
Waiting out the blowdown cuts.

They invite me for burritos down a trail four miles ahead, but we soon hit blowdown, which slows things down for everyone. Brent has a saw, and walks his horse with the two pack horses behind. It’s tedious finding a way through the logs, but apparently this alternate is more cared for then the official trail. In fact Brent tells me one section of the CDT will never be cleared and I suspect that’s the first section.

As I wait for them, I look at my Garmin and Richard sent a message that a woman was killed in her tent by a grizzly not too far from here. On dear. Well, I make a lot of noise, eat my food away from camp and keep all odors tied up high. I also have bear spray at the ready, but I guess not much can be done in a surprise attack.

My walk through a burn does bring fallen trees, but also great views into the mountains. Suddenly, I come upon a checked fleece jacket. This must be the wife’s! I throw it over the bag and keep walking.

A shoe! I try to wedge it into my side pocket as I move, and then I find the other shoe. This time I take off my pack and stow it, thinking I’ll carry it to burritos. But then the clothes piles increase – tights, shorts, water shoes, a special spray for horses to keep flies away.

I decide to make a neat pile and tell them where it is when she comes running over. I wonder why she doesn’t ride her horse and she tells me she loves trail running. Passing with a giant armful, she hands me my hat I must have dropped picking up her things! That would have been a disaster to lose.

I sort of hope we’ll share a meal, but the sky is turning black and I hear long rolling thunder. I take the side trail part way and call out, but no one answers. It’s still far to Gates Park, so I continue on as it begins to drizzle.

Storm brewing.
Port in a storm at Gates Park.

Rain coat? It’s so hot and I’m so sweaty, I decide to use my umbrella instead as the rain gets heavier. I’m mostly dry as I enter a gate which takes me to an enormous area of grassland surrounded by mountains.

My pants, though are soaked from the vegetation, and my sneakers muddy. All I want now is to get to the cabin where I can sit this out under an awning.

The trail goes on and on and I see no sign of a cabin, just an enormous field and sparse woods, where even here, there’s blowdown to crawl over. Two red headed cranes crackle in the grass.

When I finally reach the cabin – really a group of buildings and cabins – I’m soaked and miserable. No one is here and there’s a covered porch just for me. I strip off wet clothes and hang them, then get water from the spigot, which comes out filled with dirty particles so I filter it.

I’m absolutely exhausted. My body is worn out and all I want to do is sleep. But instead I make food as the sun comes out and the breeze picks up. My things are dryer and I’m in better spirits in this gorgeous place.

I eventually pack up again and head off the last mile to the CDT and a few more to a camp spot. A red hawk shrieks high above, a distinctive sound often used as a sound effect for a bald eagle which has a wimpier call.

I come to a river far below me and work my way down to cross, then right back up into a verdant wood. Am I to finish this day with not a single blowdown? It looks that way as I walk on easy trail in dappled light, mosquitos clinging to my headnet.

The spot is an actual, bonafide site with perfectly flat ground. I set, get water, then eat food out of camp. The mosquitos are blood thirsty, so I wrap my feet in the bug burka while I eat. I have another fallen tree a bit higher than last night’s, but manage to hang my bag in an ideal spot, then turn in at 7 to rest up for tomorrow when I’ll pass the Chinese Wall.

My forest lair is the perfect place to sleep – thrushes singing and the creek a gentle roar.

CDT

CDT: day 13, Cox Creek to Fools Creek, 20 miles (Bob)

The mist kept things cool and created a mysterious setting.

I’m up with the birds every day now, eager for the cool air and what lays ahead. I hung my food bag with Emily last night and told her I like to go at about 5:30.

And she’s right on time, dressed in rain gear to protect her skin from the biting insects. I tell her I plan to take the Spotted Bear alternate with the group even if there are lots of blowdowns. She asks why it’s hard for me and I say the surgery does make me a little less limber, but let’s face it, I’m getting older and can’t do everything I used to do.

She’s surprised I’d admit that and says if it were her, she’d fight it. I’m all about pushing myself as far as I can and defying odds, but I also live in reality and try to work with what I’ve got.

I take off into a misty morning, creating mystery in the burn section. It must have been a extremely hot fire to leave only charred trunks like totem poles and small trees bent into arches.

But it’s loud with birds: mountain chickadee, the ever present two toned thrush and a woodpecker, it’s hollow hammer echoing through the forest. Flowers carpet the way in bursts of color next to gray: massive paintbrush, purple harebells bobbing in the wind as well as gentians only just blooming in the filtered light.

Foggy burn area.
Mariposa lilly
Verdant life juxtaposed with tragic death.
My cheering squad.

The walk is flat and I move fast. The blowdowns have been sawed apart and pushed aside in massive piles. I am ever grateful to the trail crew for their work. Butterflies in all colors flutter from flower to flower – orange, yellow, blue. What would it be like to have wings like that, as big as our bodies? I try to take their picture, but they refuse to hold still.

It’s a perfect morning and I feel strong and alive. I sing the Beatles, “Strawberry Fields” as i approach huge Strawberry Creek, then take s pause to fill up water and have a shake.

I come to a few blowdowns difficult for me to pass over and think about some of the information I’ve received. There will be miles of blowdowns on the alternate, and I am slow and awkward on them. It will be more up and down, which makes them far more difficult.

I had a lovely night last night with my friends and really enjoyed my short visit with Emily this morning, but I’m ready to be in my own, and there’s another alternate coming up which heads into shaded forest with very few blowdowns – so they say.

So I decide to stay on the CDT main route and make it my own. Things seem lovely right now, the trail maintained well and the views superb, opened up by the burn to mountains, many still with snow.

Strawberry Creek
Stunning uplifted metamorphic rock mountains.
Year-round snowpack.
Downed trees like so many toothpicks for giants.

I pass the junction and make a large switchback towards a ford, just as Austin and Emily arrive. I yell across a hello and Austin spins his trekking pole like a baton. I tell them I’m moving on and we’ll meet somewhere down the trail. How nice was that timing? Just right.

The air is crispy dry and I need more to drink. But I also need to dry my poor feet, plus socks and shoes. I find a tiny bit of shade and make lunch as my socks crisp up. I may need a week for my feet to go back to normal though. A hummingbird hovers close by, droning the zinging away.

My food is working out well so far, filling me up and giving me the energy I need. I know this recipe is supposed to be salsa, but it turns out more like soup and I just dump in the fritos.

I’m so relaxed here, I hardly want to move on, my feet protected from burning under my umbrella. I eventually do into total exposure, the sun hot and intense, though a cool breeze feels like I’m taking a shower.

I follow the creek far below with me on a balcony walk surrounded by large peaks. The wind whistles in the dead trees mournfully, it’s singed branches hanging down like so many arms.

Flowers burst out bushy and pink smelling like grandma’s. One lone tree, magnificent and proud, survived the fire. I walk under it’s shade and the temperature drops by 10 degrees.

Gems in the meadow.
Like grandma’s perfume.
Robust life in the burn zone.
Sunlight on hare bells.
Thick with mountain paintbrush.

I stop for water at a stream in low full sun, drinking a liter and saving a half just in case. Below is a meadow, bright green and full of peeping pikas in stereo.

I reach another stream with gorgeous flat grass, but it feels to early to set and I’m not really thirsty. I just give my pruny feet a rest and trade socks before pushing on, only a little over two miles to another stream and a good time to stop for the night.

The first thing that happens is I lose the trail. I can’t imagine how as I was following one that was very well used. I have been warned that the CDT tends to do that, sending a hiker the wrong way because the most obvious way is usually wrong.

I end up triangulating and climbing up over bushes and small trees to meet the trail. It’s not too hard going and the pass is obvious. It’s when I hit the trail that the nightmare begins.

It’s like a ski jump in reverse heading straight up and all I can see ahead of me are blowdowns. I made a few mistakes – not camping where the ground was flat and inviting next to water, and only bringing a half liter to drink. What’s ahead of me is going to take time and is uphill in sun.

I refuse to drink yet, and simply focus on what has to get done. These are complicated falls, trunks on top of trunks, twisted and piled high. Sometimes a see a trail carved by the last attempter, and find the way through. I climb up on logs and heave over, twist around a drop, swing my butt around or do a massive high step.

All this while biting flies and mosquitos attack.

It’s not easy to tell exactly what’s ahead and I breath heavy, but a kind of angry determination comes over me. Here’s a koan – if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear Blissful utter every dirty word known and unknown, did she really crawl through?

Yes! And I have the scars to prove it. Scrapes, tears, gouges, bruises, even somehow on the side of my boob. My hands are black from soot and I’m exhausted, navigating a maze of maybe 200 logs.

Communing with nature.
A massive blowdown steeply up to Sun River Pass nearly did me in.
This is not a campsite, but it will have to do.
“Always do everything right.” An expert bear hang on, you guessed it, blowdown.

Near the top, I find a sock that must have dislodged from someone’s pack. I hope I’m full intact after this trial.

A sign tells me I’m at the pass, leaving The Bob (briefly) for the national forest. It’s deep green and fresh up here and I tell myself it’s smooth sailing to the stream as I guzzle the half liter I’ve been carrying.

It is clear for about 100 yards, then the excitement continues with massive logs smashing right through tiny bridges. I scream and begin to cry, but what good will that do? I can’t stop and simply have to get to water.

The views are lovely, but I don’t care. All I look at after the final log is where I can pitch my tent. The stream comes soon enough, and I filter water right away. There’s a small lumpy spot for the alicoop and I make four attempts before deciding lumpy will have to do. There’s nothing better back or beyond – I checked and only found a single Croc – and I refuse to cross another log tonight.

The bugs are vicious and all I want to do is crawl in my tent to get away, but still, I ‘do everything right’ as I was once told when out in the backcountry.

So I ensure I have plenty of water and expertly hang the food bag on a blowdown in mid ‘down’ held up by trees and miraculously 12 feet from the ground and six feet from any other trees.

It was a day of stunning beauty, magical moments, independence, ferocity and now, perhaps horrible sleep.

But at least the bugs can’t get at me!

CDT

CDT: day 12, Badger Station to Cox Creek, 18 miles (Bob)

Morning view into The Bob.

Dawn breaks cooler and with puffy clouds and fog hanging on the peaks. Nothing to be worried about but could mean cooler temperatures at last. I fall back asleep for a few minutes, but then decide to get up and take advantage of this gorgeous light.

Our bear bags are all tied to a fence post and sitting high above the ground. I pump water to carry to the summit for breakfast, pack up and set off.

It’s grassy in the valley surrounded by mountains then up switchbacks through high plants. The trail is obvious, but the plants crowd all the way in, and up to my neck, thankfully not wet overnight.

It’s hard to tell where the top is. Just as I reach what appears to be the summit, a new summit appears. It’s steep now, just straight up topping out at rock where I make a shake. The view is stunning of mountains all around and cottony mist. From here, I can still hear the train over Marais Pass.

I’m technically not in ‘The Bob’ yet, but in Lewis and Clark National Forest. It’s absolutely quiet except for birds, bugs and the wind. Some of the surrounding natural features have been given interesting names, like Bullshoe mountain, Slippery Bill mountain and Goofy Gulch.

The weather was noticeably cooler.
Joyous yellow mountain daisies welcomed my climb.
Morning light is my favorite.
The trail over the saddle was magical.
Long shadows looking back towards Glacier.

I contemplate what I’m doing out here and if I have both the physical and mental stamina to see it through. The views are huge and I have this to myself, but there are so many ups to go, literally taking my breath away. This is not Glacier, but there’s a subtle beauty of entire mountainsides all trees, the whitish rounded mountaintops and the clouds changing shape.

I see human and elk footprints in sand, flowering plants grab hold in small humps. There’s more and more steep climbing in a kind of C over this entire mountain. Pika peep at me over and over, one on his haunches, his tiny paws touching in front like groomsmen unsure of what to do with their hands.

He’s small but mighty, that peep loud and penetrating. What is he saying, “Here comes another one of these aliens walking through our territory! Maybe my screech will encourage them to walk on by!”

I reach a stream for a second breakfast, bright yellow flowers of different varieties everywhere. Butterflies flit from one to the next. Here the rock is white and I pass a mini Stonehenge perfect for Spinal Tap.

I reach the top, then head down to a river steeply on sandy soil, then in the forest, saying goodbye to my views. This is where an alternate meets the trail, one that cuts miles and stays in the forest. But from here, it’s up again on long, leisurely switchbacks.

The big mountains await me in a few days.
Most of my hiking was all alone.
Breakfast nook.
Natural water trough.
Ground squirrel town square.

Over the top, I enter an even more magical forest. The breeze is fresh and cooling in the dappled light. The fragrance is rich with balsam and pine. Butterflies are everywhere. Beargrass lines the path, sharp tendrils, green and blue underneath. An orange inchworm inches across the path.

I meet another stream, sparkling in the light and cool on my feet as I cross. But I need to dry my feet because they are pruny and becoming painful. I do this at the turn off for Blue Lake, me high above it with flies buzzing around, some biting.

Muskrat Pass is here, a sort of large clearing. I hit a rock and trip, falling onto the grass. Fortunately no cliff to fall off from. A sign tells me that I am now officially in the wilderness and to please leave my bike and hang glider at home.

It’s only a bit more to the huge campsite near Beaver Lake. I set up, do camp chores and sit down by a fire to eat dinner. Oceana has the map spread out and most everyone wants to take the Spotted Bear alternate.

Bob henge
Bob henge 2
Spring flowers thriving in rough conditions.
Bright colors in a deep forest.
The Bob, Montana
Up close and personal with a thistle.
Gentians ready to pop.
Field of yellow.
Typical Northern Montana.

There will be blowdown, but it’s supposed to be beautiful and cuts off 16 miles in this very long section. I hate blowdowns because they are very hard to negotiate, but my pack is lighter now and I’m getting stronger every day.

My tent is covered with mosquitos and a few buzzy flies. As I lay down at ‘hiker midnight’ (9:00 and still light) I think about this morning. When I left camp, happy yellow mountain daisies lit up the hillside. As I ended the day, the same flowers welcomed me with their sunny faces. I think I’ll give the more adventurous alternate a try. The worst that could happen is I move slowly, but I planned for that with all that food I’m carrying!

After this, the trail moves deep into forest.
Beaver Lake.
Prune feet.
Change of venue.
CDT

CDT: day 11, Summit Campground to Badger Station, 15 miles (Bob)

The ‘blowdown’ begins like so many hurdles.

Last night I became pretty concerned I’d run out of power, so I wandered the campground and found a man tenting and hanging out at his picnic table with a book.

I asked if I could charge my HPS and phone, and he pulled out a double and set me up while we chatted at his citronella candle, one that gave off a good amount of smell but was totally ineffective against Montana mosquitos.

I wake up better than the night before, ready to roll, and head straight off on the wrong trail. I figure it out within a half mile, but it’s a half mile back up the hill – which somehow set off my tachycardia of fast beating heart and heavy breathing.

All right on schedule to enter the blowdowns. I was warned of seven miles of blowdowns, like pick-up-sticks, and that’s exactly what it looks like. Massive trunks laying directly across the trail on top of each other and with sharp, pointy branches.

I meet John in the first pile and he’s decided to go back because of a sprained ankle. We talk for a while as I eat my cereal and I begin to wonder if there’s an alternate, like maybe the trail I took by mistake.

The start into the long and rugged wilderness section known as ‘The Bob.’
Most of my day was spent solving problems on the jungle gym and trying not to break anything.
Trees fell upon trees and required climbing, straddling, shimmying, limboing and jumping.

And this is not a flat trail, rather it’s steep up and down and all out in the relentless sun. I can’t really jump off the logs, but I can climb up and straddle and find a creative way to drop down to my foot.

But there are holes I fall into and sharp edges that rip my pants and shred my skin. Many of these logs are burned and leave black char on my pants and hands.

Sometimes I have to go under, which usually means going down on my knees and shimmying as low as I can go. The logs catch my backpack and shred the big pocket, then pop out the bottles threatening to launch them out of reach.

The only consolation is the mosquitos aren’t especially horrible in the blowdown. It’s only when I stop at water do they buzz in, especially biting flies which happen to be easy to kill with a satisfying slap. The others arrive as I try to increase my electrolytes and bring down my heart rate.

The others fly through the blowdowns and are far ahead as I struggle, each new pile of logs a puzzle to figure out. It’s empowering trying to get over and under each new challenge, but utterly exhausting and confounding.

The views are nice from the burn area, to high rounded mountains in gray and small bits of snow. But my focus is on moving ahead without breaking a bone. I almost fall several times, and get caught by branches or hung up on my pack.

The burn area provided views but also total exposure to the heat.
Sometimes I just stopped and cried.
An arch formed by a high heat forest fire.

Suddenly, I’m heaved into a wood where the trail is easy, wide and shaded. Could this be the end? The light slants in through the trees, birds sing and butterflies flutter from flower to flower. It’s Eden – for a very short moment before I exit back into a burn area of more fallen trees.

The work is absolutely exhausting. My strategy is to walk to each stream and stop for water to rest and hydrate. There are so many about two miles apart, but this time, I crawl across some of the worst dead fall with sharp branches and seemingly no way through. I hear a stream ahead just as I ask the goddess for some sign that I will make it through. When i arrive? the others are sitting in the shade eating and tell me they’d heard the blowdowns end at this stream, nine miles in.

I woot with joy and also with surprise that I managed to walk so far in spite of crossing so many dead trees. I linger after they leave, eating, drinking and killing flies. It does seem the next section is clear – for a bit and then I’m right back in it.

I’ve perfected a technique of stepping over, lifting my leg straight up or straight back, or using other logs to stair step over. But I’ve just about had it.

I come to a campsite on a river I ford up to my shins, the cold so relaxing on my tired legs. I lose the trail for a moment, and my composure. But what I notice is the trail junctions with one I recognize. Of course, the trail I got lost on at the beginning of the day!

Easy walking the last six miles.
The ranger cabin.
View from my tent.

That might have been a smarter move to take it because as I walk it now, it’s completely clear of blowdown, wide for horses and easy walking. I no longer have the distraction or variety of my wood puzzles to cross, but it’s a straight shot to the ranger hut, where we eat on the porch with a stunning view deep into The Bob, then set our tents (illegally) on the lawn after a bit of yoga.

I struggled today and it was damn hard going over that massive number of blowdowns over nine miles worth. But i did it and kept moving through, making good decisions and staying injury-free.

This is a huge section and it makes me feel panicky uncertain I’ll make it through, but Andrea tells me to think of all the factors logically: I have plenty of food, I have shelter and I have others going through too offering perspective and groundedness.

I had thought they were walking together super fast and leaving me alone to fend for myself, but that’s not the case. They all walk each step on their own and manage the hardships as best they can. Knowing that makes me feel less lonely even though I walk alone.

A big climb awaits tomorrow and the weather is changing as the wind picks up and clouds move in. Another adventure, and this time I hope without blowdowns.

Dinner.
Shoes drying after many river crossings.
Bear bags.
CDT

CDT: day 10, East Glacier to Summit Campground, 15 miles (Bob)

“The Bob” is the longest and most remote section of the CDT.

What a glorious and unexpected gift to spend the night at Greg’s. He gave me the ‘master suite’ with my own bathroom and I slept deeply, popping awake at the appointed time before dawn to pack and go with only the essentials needed for the day.

I had a bit of trouble orienting myself at first to find the exit, a road leading to a gravel road then a dirt track and finally a trail through thick foliage. The air is still cool and the sun has yet to hit me, but it’s buggy, mosquitos in a fog about my face and arms.

I put on my bug net, then a hat and finally the full kit pulling my hood over my head and putting on gloves. I keep from burning, that’s for sure, but it’s muggy and plants push into the trail, most taller than my head.

I yell out for bears and my voice echoes. There are peaks above me as I am still walking in Glacier National Park, but I never come close to them, rather I work my way up and down, over stream beds and around folds in the land. It’s a jungle as the trail disappears under the plants. It’s not like I ever lose it, just that I can’t see if a rock or hole lurks beneath.

So I am very careful where I step.

A helpful sign as I leave East Glacier.
Morning light on a long, brushy walk.

Two large streams converge, crashing through the brush and trees. I am in forest, but it never really feels shady. Lupine and mountain paintbrush line my walk. St. John’s Wort and yellow daisies smile in the heat.

Two backpackers approach as I pass the sign for Ole Lake. They’re sweaty too and take the turn. The trail they just left improves to plants only at knee high. I walk faster.

Greg gave me a couple of sodas and I need to stop often to drink and rest. It’s much harder to get down and especially back up. I don’t know if I’m swollen from walking or the surgeries. Probably both. I lumber on and on after a pause, finding this patch of forest relentless in its sameness.

Two hikers approach. running. It’s Austin and Andrea slackpacking from the other side. They tell me all of our group was dropped off and is walking this way. Andrea mentions my big hill coming this way and I’m not sure I remember any specific hill.

I wish them luck then see the others, Oceana suggesting a good first day’s walk tomorrow. We’ll enter “The Bob,” notorious for blowdowns. Apparently they’re worse closer to the start, just when my pack will be at its heaviest.

The trail’s in there somewhere.
Mostly green and brown, the forest also boasted delicate wildflowers.
A ‘high grass’ moment with voracious plants taller than my head.
Everything feels outsized in Montana.
Bugs surrounded me all along the way.

I’m game to try for that spot, though there is plenty of water en route and hopefully plenty of flat spots. Kimmie and Scotty take a different approach. In it for ‘the long haul,’ they’re moving slowly to preserve their bodies which really hurt right now.

I am tired too and wonder how I’ll manage this remote section with a long food carry. It’s such a challenge to manage the long hours on the feet, the distance and how that affects us physically, as well as the mental challenge, especially when our minds scream stop.

And this spot is not particularly lovely or inviting as the water is tricky to access for wading, the sun is intense and the bugs are ever present.

I see a sign ahead which should be for my final turn off. I haven’t paid precise attention to my distance, so I decide if it’s still five miles, I’m going to need to have a real conversation with myself.

It’s .9

I come to Marias Pass, important to the Blackfeet as well as the Great Northern Railroad, which sent a scout to search for it in the middle of winter. The reason being it’s the shortest link from Minneapolis to the Pacific.

I think of something Greg said, that a lot of Minnesotans end up here because the railroad brought them, they fell in love with the land a the locals, and stayed.

I linger at the sign designating the Continental Divide at 521 feet (someone crossed out a zero) A BMSF locomotive dragging a load of cars is moving towards me slowly and I realize I’ll probably have to wait or end up being a statistic.

The conductor yells out asking if I need to pass.

“Yes, I do!”

“I’ll wait.” he tells me, holding the line for this lone slackpacker to stumble across.

“Thanks!” I yell over the din with a wave, to which he toots twice.

The conductor stopped the train so I could pass, and tooted me a good luck.
the ‘divide’ at Marais Pass
The campground – aside from the trains – was one of the quietist I’ve stayed in.
Trail Magic at the pass.

At the parking lot I read about the stunning rock I’ve walked under all day. It’s called the Lewis Overthrust Fault and is made up of precambrian age sendiments a mile thick thrust up above newer rock, all metamorphosed from ancient seabeds. The argalite up there is 14 billion years old!

Another sign honors George Grinnell who drew attention to this remote corner of Northeast Montana where “lies an area of unparralleled scenic beauty.” That would be Glacier which became our seventh national park in 1890.

Funny how we assume these wild lands have always been with us, but it takes an advocate to preserve them for future generations, so we can have the pleasure of scenery, but also birdsong, wildflowers and, yep, insects. I hate ‘em but the ecology needs ‘em.

I want to eat my lunch and realize I packed my spoon with the gear I left with Greg. So I approach a truck towing an RV and a cute woman in a red mini skirt pops out laughing, “You need a fork to eat your hiker food!”

She disappears in the back and reappears with a beer – and a fork. She and her husband are former ski bums who spend every weekend biking and hiking with their dogs. We chat about Montana politics and where to live in the state before she piles me up with more food.

“Do you need anything else?”

“How about a ride to Mexico?”

At the campground, I meet Evie the camp host who invites me to set in her area. Within minutes Greg and his Aunt Mary arrive with my gear and I’m able to offer them some of my booty – Milano cookies and spicy peanuts.

An older hiker named John arrives and I realize they’ve met when Greg shuttled him to the border. Mary is a social worker and John a counselor, so they chat while we share a few more cold beers Greg packed, plus the lunch I can now eat with a plastic fork.

They tell me to call if I need anything and leave just as a young and fast hiker named Mike arrives. Mike ends up being my cheerleader when I notice a large tear in my Thermarest and need to repair it.

So far, it’s just us here tonight preparing to head into the longest section of the hike. John nervously plans out each day and parses his food. Mike starts to hike, hits a blowdown and feels a muscle pull, so returns to rest and start fresh.

I call Richard and he urges me on – to be careful about bears and move slow and methodically, but to keep moving. I’m not nervous so much as uncertain. I have my SOS should things go badly. I wish it was cooler and the bugs not so awful, but I feel I can get through if I take lots of breaks and drink – and soak in – plenty of water.

It’s 8:00, Hiker Midnight and my bedtime. Adventures and their stories await beginning tomorrow.

Thru-hiker Mike got to the blowdowns and immediately turned around.
Greg and Aunt Mary delivering my very heavy backpack.