After three months of working, painting, and packing mail drops– and, for Zippy, three months of walking in heat, snow, up and down and flat– we reunite! In a beige mobile home dropped in a valley of sun-bleached sagebrush, essentially a tin can baking in the late July heat. Our gear sprawls across the floor and we hang out as if we’ve never been apart. It’s so casual it’s strange. I cut his hair, revealing the border between tanned nape and Irish white above. He shaves his beard, we shower, and he eats the food I brought from Missoula (his request: a veggie wok bowl from the Good Food Store), plus a half-gallon of Meadow Gold chocolate ice cream from the gas station down the highway.
I drove down to Leadore, Idaho this morning to meet him, the truck cab packed with hiking gear, treats in a cooler, new shoes, the bathroom scale (we learned his weight was the same – just solid muscle now), expired Starbucks Via packets bought by the hundred on eBay, and a jug of Dr. Bronner’s Tea Tree Soap.
En route, while stretching my legs in Hamilton’s Hieronymus Park trail along the Bitterroot River, J. called to ask me to pick up a few things for an ailing hiker. Collin, Brit and creator of the tightest, most awesome cuben fiber tent we’ve ever seen, has not been able to keep anything down for four days, and he needs:
- A loaf of plain, white bread
- Oral Rehydration Solution, sugar-free, powdered if possible, whatever that is.
Two hours later, I roll into “town” (Leadore has not so much as a traffic light, nor a store selling such luxuries as apples or bread) to deliver the humble trail magic and meet J. We have never seen a guy so grateful for a cheap loaf of bread, which Collin insists is far tastier than the last loaf he procured. The Leadore Inn has accidentally overbooked, so the friendly proprietor Sam puts us in the mobile home, which is actually an upgrade, as we have it all to ourselves. Sam rolls cigarettes on the inn porch, calls himself lazy, but Zippy shows me an old boxcar filled with Sam’s amazing wood carvings–eagles and bighorn sheep heads and skittering chipmunks chipped out of blackened tree burls.
We eat dinner at the one restaurant in Leadore (population: 103), and another hiker strides in and pulls a soda from the fridge. She and Zippy start talking, and I ask her name. “Angelina,” she says in a Russian accent. Holy smoke! I met her on the John Muir Trail last year, and now here we are in the Silver Dollar Grill & Bar (staff: one). What are the odds? Pretty good, actually: the long-distance hiker community is surprisingly tight-knit and these sorts of long-shots aren’t uncommon.
It cools off graciously overnight, and after a leisurely c-store breakfast of bottled OJ, raspberry fritter, and expired Via coffee, we drive the 13 miles up to the CDT junction.
I hike with Zippy for a few miles, so he can get a good look at my backside after such a long dry spell. We feast on tiny strawberries growing in the duff, and gentian and big-pod mariposa lilies bloom along the trail: both things he never would have noticed hiking alone. It is hard to turn back and hike away after three miles, but the goodbye is sweetened by knowing we will meet again at Lost Trail Pass in a few days. And of course, more strawberries. (Wild strawberries, which are ripe even before they turn red, have an ecstatic floral savor not found in even the best farm-fresh, juice-bomb, cultivated kind).
Also, once I get back to the truck, I aim to do some touring of my own. Zippy does not get all the fun (though, this year, he gets significantly more). Now mid-afternoon, it’s way too hot to hike, so I stop at the Sacajawea Center and walk near the river, past tipis and a woman weaving beautiful baskets from cured willow twigs. I learn the incredible but woefully short life story of Sacajawea. In the town of Salmon, I amble around the shady side of Main Street, sampling the candy shop (stale but friendly) and the natural food store (homemade vegan tamales!). Then I drive south toward my holy grail: Goldbug Hot Springs. It is still hot even after six pm, but only a two mile hike, and the springs are gorgeous. Eight or ten pools stack one above the other up the creek, each gradually cooler as the water rushes downhill, which is perfect since the heat takes its time dissipating.
There are three naked dudes up there, one of whom recognizes me from the Good Food Store (sigh… the minor celebrity of working at the health food mecca of the West! glad I am not naked myself) and we are soon joined by five Utahans enjoying their first mushroom trip. We watch the stars come out, and the water is wonderful. When the oldest naked dude asks if I would like to exchange back massages, despite knowing I’m married, I decide that’s enough for tonight, and hit the tent. (If there were nothing sexual about his request, as I’m sure would be his defense, then why did he only ask the lady and not the gentlemen to partake? Harumph.)
The morning after, I hike out in the fleeting cool before the sun hits the canyon. I stop at a fishing access along the sparkling Salmon River, reading How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran under a shady tree while I wait for the oats to simmer.
Then I drive north, stopping at the grocery in Darby for Flathead cherries. Two hikers are resting outside, about to resupply. One of them is Double Magic, a friendly, lanky guy, one of only four who is farther north than Zippy. I urge them to sample the rare joy of these only-in-Montana cherries: “Trust me! I just washed my hands, and the cherries!”
My last stop before home is Lake Como, named after the eponymous body of water in the Italian Alps. I have always wanted to hike all the way round, but J.’s not interested in this, thus, a perfect solo hike. Looking for the trailhead, I meet an older man who knows it well. “I used to walk around this lake every day after teaching school. It is a great walk, just beautiful–” he gestures, kissing his fingertips and opening his hand to the sky– “and you know, being out here, away from people… it helps up here.” He points to his head. I couldn’t agree more. I thank him and begin my walk, carrying a sunbrella for the first time. It yields funny looks from the beach-bunny types, but not from the hiker types. The deep blue lake sparkles under the Bitterroot peaks, a few of which still have snowy caps despite the week of egg-frying weather. The serenity is pierced by Ski-Doos and motorboats of cavorting weekenders, and it’s about 94 degrees, but I choose a private spot for a personal beach, wade into the water and swim and laugh all by myself like a loon. The sweat is gone, I am clean, it’s cool, pure pleasure. Any day now a fire could start. We are all waiting. But I’m satisfied, having honored each day with a bit of time in the natural world.
Indeed, as I begin the drive home, a plume of smoke rises from somewhere to the west of Victor. Fire season has begun. Within 24 hours, a 7,000-acre blaze will erupt in Hamilton, engulfing several homes and creating a wall of flame visible from the highway, and a mushroom cloud of pink-black smoke trailing miles eastward. It is wonderful to have Zippy close enough for day-trip visits… to see him, to have an excuse to explore on my own, and to know I could help out if he had to reroute due to an inferno. Our next visit will be in Sula, Montana… yes, he will arrive in his home state at last! Home stretch, baby, well done!