Leland tucked his business card into the door of our pickup truck at the Rattlesnake trailhead. He’d seen our hiking bumper stickers and recognized kindred spirits. That’s how we met our local hiking buddy last summer. Now, he’s also our trail angel: on August 17, he shuttles me to the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness to join Zippy for the last 230 miles of the Continental Divide Trail.
We get a sleepy start that Saturday, drive a couple hours to quiet Augusta on the mountains’ eastern edge. At the general store, Leland buys a tea bag,and I use a flush toilet for the last time in the foreseeable future. He smokes a cigarette on the one, deserted street, then we get back in his little hoopty car and rumble the 30-mile gravel road to Benchmark Airstrip, the trailhead to the Bob. (If only he had a little airplane, Leland thinks.)
We spot J. on the side of the road, waiting for us. At last! Let’s do this! …but not without a feast first: Zippy needs some town food. So we sit in the gravel of the parking cul-de-sac and spread out a picnic: sodas, fresh grapes, homemade zucchini brownies, bagelwiches stuffed with farmer’s market tomatoes and smoked tempeh, and Leland’s mother’s leftover chicken curry.
We hike out fast and energized. Leland joins us for the first day, to visit the Chinese Wall, which he missed during his own CDT thru-hike, due to a fire closure. Under the warm sun, we talk about religion and politics and all the things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite company.
I am amazed that there’s been no discernible growth in this area since we were last here in 2012. With its short growing season, the Bob recovers very slowly from the burn, which happened the year of Leland’s birth. He and all the little trees rising out of the charcoal and fireweed date from 1988.
Late afternoon rumbles of thunder hint that it’s time to pitch camp. Leland starts a fire near our little clearing by the river. He brought a pack of sausages, which the omnivores roast on sticks. The weiners drip fat into the flames as darkness fills the sky. The boys cannot eat them all. Soon, the bear line hangs, not far off, containing three raw, aromatic tubes of meat. The doused campfire probably reeks of pig too, and when J. comes into the tent I turn to kiss him and exclaim, “Your head smells like sausage!”
It’s a little hard to fall asleep.
The Chinese Wall is named as a reference to the Great Wall of China, but it’s not manmade. It’s a geologic feature ten miles long. We reach its crest at late morning, saying goodbye to Leland, who heads back toward his car and his phone full of messages, back to the life of a realtor. Zippy and I descend deeper into the wilderness, using an alternate CDT route that promises more dramatic scenery. The trail is thick and green, traversing ridges, and feels for all the world like the Appalachian Trail. Also AT-like: increasing clouds and ominous thunder. Then we notice a distinctly western touch: green signs stapled to tree trunks, ordering us not to camp here, as “the US Forest Service is in in the process of catching and removing grizzly bears from this area between 8/16-8/28.” Which is now. So we keep on, pitching the tent a short way after the signs stop. We dive inside just as a cold rain pours down around us. Narrowly avoiding being caught in a storm is one of hiking’s finest pleasures.
Next morning, the rain’s gone, but it’s still chilly and damp. I holler my way across the frigid river, thinking we’re so remote that I couldn’t possibly awaken anybody, but there is a ranger station right across the river. Oops. Fortunately, the three scientists inside are already up frying pancakes. They are the folks behind the green signs. In order to study grizzly bear DNA, they’ve been scattering cow blood in the restricted area to attract griz to capture. Don’t camp there, indeed!
Once we warm up, it is a magnificent day’s hike, all alpine ridges and little basins filled with wildflowers and berries. Only, Zippy has this thing where he doesn’t take sit-down breaks. Doing so is a waste of time, he believes. (As is carrying a stove to heat coffee and meals. He even hikes while brushing his teeth.) I decide to be open-minded and try his approach. Fortunately, visiting with another hiker (our friend Carlos again), changing out clothing layers, and digging through one’s snacks are all acceptable, functional reasons to stop, so I do get a few– well, don’t call them breaks– pauses, shall we say?
After trying Zippy’s approach to lunch, which is to pour water into a Ziploc containing dried potato mix, then carry it in your hand while hiking for the next 20 minutes as the grub rehydrates, then spoon it into your face while continuing to hike… I decide I’ll wait today for one of his functional breaks. At 4 pm, we arrive at an unmanned ranger station. Lucky for me, J. needs to make a privy stop, so I have a luxurious fifteen minutes to swing my feet off the porch and eat my potatoes and stuffing while resting on my backside, as God intended.
And now, for the gourmands, here are the best instant breakfast recipes on trail:
- From Leland: Grapenuts and powdered milk. Oh man. Those little crunchies stick with you.
- From Carlos: Instant oatmeal, a spoonful of sugar, and tons of dried milk. It’s almost like pudding the way he makes it. Damn. Thank you, amigo!
- And from us: Granola, cold Starbucks Via coffee in place of milk, and fresh huckleberries. The perfect combination of sweet, bitter, and tart.
There are so many berries here, including the fattest huckleberries we have ever seen. It’s an amazing year for berries! Which means it is also an amazing year for bears. We spot our first, a black bear, near another ranger station. We whoop and holler and it flees like two conjoined black balls bouncing along together, its front and rear halves, adorable especially given its trajectory in the opposite direction.
(All told, we will see nine bears on our two-week trip, and probably three hundred colorful bear scat right on the trail– bears use trails too! The scat consists almost entirely of hucks, thimbleberries, raspberries, whortleberries… you get the idea. Later this month I’ll step over an almost delectable-looking apple scat. All of these encounters are comfortably far-off, unlike our Jewel Basin experience. Even far away, however, the two grizzlies we spot are hair-raising. You can just tell they are grumpier and more assertive than the others. We carry bear spray and make noise as we go, and that’s all we can do… a risk we accept in exchange for living in such a beautiful place.)
Our heartbeats quicken as the first glimpses of Glacier rise on the horizon. Then we take an alternate that turns out rutted and muddy thanks to some recent erosion-preventive bulldozing, the kind that has to look worse before it looks better, I guess. The trail’s not scenic, and it crosses the same big river at least eight times. No bridges, of course – such luxuries await us in the national park, but here in the Bob we’ll keep our feet wet.
Excited to be headed to town today. How quickly five days have flown!
Nearing Highway 2, it’s strange to hear traffic again. Whooshes and rumbles that we first try to parse as natural sounds, then realize our beautiful, unusual error. The campground by the highway sports a handwritten sign: “CDT Hikers, See Campground Host.” So we walk the loop past all the RVs, but we don’t even reach the host before she crows out to us in welcome. Janet pulls out two chairs, a lap blanket for chilly me, some blue Gatorade, and a Tupperware full of homemade chocolate oatmeal cookies. We chat and enjoy her cheerful company for half an hour, as her tiny dog patrols the area. She loves to talk with travelers, and we tell her about our dream to be campground hosts ourselves when we retire. Her kindness extends to all the people she meets, and she calls out to each guest who walks by. What a natural. Thank you, Janet!
It’s nice to have that kindness in my tank as we cross windy Marias Pass, entering Glacier at last – the crown of the Triple Crown – because the trail up and over into East Glacier, cutting through the park, is incredibly brushy. Zippy’s legs are calloused and tough, so he barely feels the knapweed and other scratchy plants that hog the trail, seeking more light for their sustenance. My legs, however, are fresh and soft, and before we’re done, they’ll be etched with red and white and drops of blood. I make Chewbacca noises as we descend through a recently logged forest. It is a bit depressing: all the trees are the same age and growing so close together, it is a tinderbox without canopy or understory. We pass into Reservation lands and notice that thinning has taken place. It looks a little better. I guess that is the next step, and hope that thoughtful management continues. If we have clearcut, the least we can do is shepherd the land back into healthy forest, and harvest sustainably next time.
Late afternoon brings us to the town of East Glacier, Montana. J. buys a pound of Red Vines to hold him through the wait for a dinner table at Serrano’s. Then we dump our gear at Brownie’s Hostel, which we are relieved to find wonderfully quiet after 10 pm. J. and I have a room with two single beds, which we drag together so we can snuggle. It is worth the effort.
Dawn on a day so windy and smoky, we can barely see the mountains from town. It’s a great day for a Zero – a day where you just rest, you don’t hike at all. We head over to Luna’s for breakfast, past a woman conked out right on the roadside, her head lolling on a tiny pink backpack, her boots an uncomfortable-looking black witchy type.
Over breakfast, we wonder about her story. She’s going to sunburn out there… why doesn’t she move a few feet off the road, into the grove of pines? Is it desperation, depression, loss of hope?
We pick up our hiker box from the grumpy lady at the post office, who seems to want us to grovel before we claim it, to admit her power over such things. We’d addressed it to ourselves, c/o Brownie’s Hostel, so technically she can refuse to release it to us, instead requiring one of their staff to show up. But I am an excellent suck-up when need be, and make a big show of gratitude for her generosity in giving us our package. I’m not too proud to beg.
Then we relax in the East Glacier Lodge for an hour. J. manages to doze with a cup of coffee in his hand while I call my folks. 50 years ago, my mom spent a summer working as a housemaid at this lodge. She tells me that she used to spend a lot of time sitting and reading in the lodge, as it was more comfortable and pleasant than the worker dorms, and I wonder if she’d curled up on the very same couch we occupy now.
A historical kiosk in town displays photos of young park workers a hundred years ago. Women in overalls, men raising their arms, everyone completely smashed and hanging out riotously in the clapboard building that is now Brownie’s Hostel, festooned with signs proclaiming it a 24-Hour Dance Hall. The way we envision gender roles in the past– they obviously didn’t apply here. The kids look like they could have been cavorting yesterday at some jolly punk concert. All dead now. How strange, wave upon wave of generations, each taking a turn, then unwinding into foam. It is our turn, through no choice of our own. So we take it, wandering outside when we can, just as they did. How strange!
After another breakfast at Luna’s, we buy tribal recreation permits and head back into the mountains. (Huckleberry pie counts as breakfast… right?) I get a bit of navigation practice as we wind among cattle trails toward the Glacier Park boundary, at which point everything becomes clear and there is only one trail. At the boundary, we meet the woman who was sleeping on the side of the road yesterday, whom I dismissed as despairing. In fact, she is just a super-low-budget hiker. She cannot possibly have a tent in that little backpack! But she spent last night out here… She is a bit turned around, but we point her in the right direction and she should be good to get back to town. Unprepared and eccentric as she is, she’s out here living the life, so good for her.
We’re joyful because the smoke has blown away, and the wind has mostly died down.
We climb to Scenic Point with gusto, passing other hikers left and right. “Get out the shovels!” J. teaches me to think, when we spot day hikers ripe for passing (er, “burying”)– all in good fun, of course. Heading down the other side, I make J. trek a tenth of a mile off-trail to a waterfall vista. (Did you know that hiking even a single step off-trail is anathema to a thru-hiker? By their logic, it is better to hike six thirsty miles to on-trail water rather than walking 0.2 off-trail to a nearby source. So getting Zippy to agree to this is a major coup, testament to his generosity.)
We switchback down to Two Medicine, a beautiful spot on a lake with a very nice campground. The walk-in backpacker site feels deluxe after our time in the backcountry: food storage boxes, flush toilets, potable water at every turn… and ranger programs to geek out on! Tonight we will learn fun facts about wolverines from a woman in an awesome ranger hat… heaven!
Leaving Two Medicine, the hike is beautiful and gentle up toward Pitamakin Pass, the morning air wonderfully clear. Little blue lakes, like gems, glow turquoise in the holes poked out by glaciers…
We don’t have many miles to go, and we reach camp by 4:30. Fortunately, there are two other couples there, and we hang out until dark at the food prep area, sitting on logs and chatting with Becky, Mike, Sly, and Sandra. Mike and Becky are ex-smokers who became hikers, to the bewilderment of their friends. They are fiftysomethings, proudly “child-free,” and recommend the movie Sausage Party. Sandra and Sly are Quebecois, and we discover that Sly did the AT in 2010 and the JMT last year, just a few days ahead of me!
Sand, a firefighter, makes a handy little campfire for us all to enjoy. As darkness descends, she pulls out a pedometer she found on the trail earlier… it is Becky’s, which she thought was lost forever! Sly and Sand tell us they left a knife on the pass we will be climbing tomorrow. Maybe we will find it and can return it to them, completing the circle…
We meant to set the alarm so we could get a jump on our longest day in Glacier, 26 miles. But oops, we forgot! Oh well. Plus, if we’d gotten up sooner, would we have seen the two silly yet regal moose on our way toward Triple Divide Pass? We also find Sly’s knife, right where they said it would be, blade still out, fresh from slicing cheese. An extra six ounces we will gladly tote for the rest of our trip, for the pleasure of mailing it to them later.
We do a bushwhack to cut off two useless miles of trail, and it is very satisfying: less than a quarter mile, just a wade across the creek and there we are! Haha! Zing!
Interestingly, this is totally legit on the CDT, though it would be taboo on the AT. Thru-hiker culture varies by trail. The CDT is more a route than an exact path. No blazes to dictate the way, so hikers are free to choose the path that suits them best. Only thing is, no hitchhiking or skipping sections, though most hikers do it periodically and still might consider themselves true thru-hikers. Zippy is a bit of a purist in this regard, and I hear many on-trail discourses about The Definition of Thru-Hiking during these two weeks. Needless to say, Zippy has not skipped one bit. Not even when the trail’s on fire… but that’s a story for another time.
We begin to descend toward St Mary Lake. Clouds pool over the mountains on the other side. Despite what looks like rain coming, perhaps a cold rain, we set a piece of driftwood on two rocks and have a sit-down lunch for ten luxurious minutes. I don’t regret it, even as fog socks in the mountains, and a bit of what looks like snow. It begins to sprinkle and we pull out our umbrellas, shrinking from the wet bushes along the path.
Then we finally enter tourist territory: Virginia Falls and St Mary Falls. It is chilly, but with rain gloves and hoods, we are comfortable enough. The tourists look at us and our strange clothing. We must look funny. We are out for days in our sil-nylon and Cuben fiber gear with umbrellas in funny colors, whereas they are only out for an hour, so they can afford to wear cotton.
After a few hours of rainy hiking, we are happy to spot our camp across the suspension bridge. I collect water while J. puts up the tent, then we get cozy and dry inside, with our food bags in the vestibule. We snack on Pringles and nap until the rain lets up, canoodling and watching TV on J.’s phone. Maybe this is an odd idea for a romantic date, but it suits us perfectly.
It dawns chilly, wet, brushy… but with clear skies! From Piegan Pass, we see a dusting of snow at 8,000 feet, left over from last night’s precip. The views in Glacier get more and more astonishing. We have hiked in this park so many times, but it keeps revealing new delights. There is a seemingly endless supply, even as the glaciers subside. If only we humans could treat the land as generously as it treats us!
We descend to a lake beneath Grinnell Glacier, and find a private spot to have what thru-hikers call a “yard sale.” That’s when you spread out every piece of gear you own, weighed down by rocks or sticks, to dry out the past day’s moisture. It’s a laughably cluttered sight in contrast with the backdrop:
We arrive at the Many Glacier Lodge between meals but are able to order sandwiches in the dining hall. I kick off my stinky shoes and we sit at a corner table so as not to be scent-offensive to other guests.
By the time we get to our campsite at Swiftcurrent Campground, I am pooped. Today was not a long hike, but my body’s not used to these sustained miles. J. is kind enough to do all the work of pitching the tent while I lay on the groundcloth in the dappled sun beneath a swaying tree. It’s another night of “deluxe” campground camping, complete with soft serve machines at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, and heated bathrooms with coin-op showers that spurt hot water so long that even taking our slowest showers ever, we can’t use all the time allotted. I wash out my gaiters and socks and hang them in a tree to dry.
The power’s out on the east side of Glacier this morning, making us glad we didn’t splurge on a hotel or cabin. Everyone’s a camper now! We make tea and coffee using the last of the hot water from the general store, then hike out.
It’s our one day to hike in wind and smoke. We’re nearly blown up Swiftcurrent Pass. The clouds look mean and grumbly, and we doubt the “Accu” portion of the Accuweather forecast (0% chance of precipitation?). But oh we of little faith: once we cross the pass, we notice that the clouds are all stacked on the eastern edge of the Divide. Some unknown force of the high ridge keeps them stacked harmlessly on the other side all day.
We turn our gaze westward to the Granite Chalet, adorably nestled among a 360-degree range of wonderful peaks:
From there, the CDT’s path is one of neverending, gradual ascents and descents traversing the Garden Wall: it’s PCT-like hiking in that one can see the next six miles of trail at any point, thin straight lines drawn across the mountains. Still, there are surprises: a waterfall that bursts out of a rock (fed by a glacial lake far above), and five bighorn sheep that browse, nonplussed, as we pass:
A family of four bears trundles down-canyon when we walk near, probably bummed to be put off their berries for a few minutes. And as we weave in and out of exposed windy areas, the lee sides of the range are lush and dense with the season’s last wildflowers, ferns, and mosses. We stop on a sheltered rock near a cool spring, sick of junk food snacks, and heat a pot of hearty corn chowder for a late lunch. I insisted upon carrying a stove for the second half of the trek, and I stand by my decision. You can’t beat hot lunch!
Then, a historic moment: we realize that the next little rise is the last time J. will cross the Continental Divide in his 2,800 mile trek. Uncharacteristically, he drags his feet toward the top. “Feeling sentimental?” “Yup.” Ah, the eloquence of a mountain man.
Our destination tonight is Fifty Mountain Campground. It’s 2000 feet higher than any of our other camps, and with today’s wind chill, we wonder how it’ll feel. Will this be a frigid night to remember? We look down on the bench with little glistening pools– springs– sparkling across the terrain, but we don’t see our home for the night. Is it nestled in the pines on the edge of the bench? Or will we be out in the open? Finally, we spot colorful squares: tents! And four men lying comfortably on their backs in the sunshine, reading books, spread out in the meadow. They look extremely content. I think we’re going to be fine.
In the camp circle that night, everyone’s dinners bubbling away on Jet-Boils and Whisper-Lites, we trade stories with the men, as well as a couple of the palest Floridians we have ever met, and a strapping Texan who strides up at dusk. One guy tells us that he counted to find out if one could really see fifty mountains from Fifty Mountain, “but it was only forty-three, if I’m being generous. I guess Forty-Three Mountain doesn’t have the same ring to it!”
Day 12… the Last Day
It’s gonna be a great day. The dawn is blue and friendly. We slept surprisingly warm. And, like the Hanukah miracle, our fuel canister sputters empty only after steaming the water for this morning’s coffee and chai. Tonight we eat in town… in Canada!
But what happens as we descend into Waterton Valley, where signs are noted in both miles and kilometers, to the Canadian border, is a story for another day.