When we last left our hikers, they were descending from Fifty Mountain into a thick cloud of fog on their last day hiking the Continental Divide Trail, Canada-bound. We lose the morning sunshine, disappear into whiteness, barely making out channels of river cut below, damp and lush.
The trail is fogged in for miles, and we wonder whether we will be able to see anything at the border. We reach the southern shore of Waterton Lake – which is still in the United States – and a customs office. I open the door to see if we need to check in. Oops – I open it right into the leg of a grumpy customs agent. There’s no public area or counter, just him in his chair, glowering. The agent takes himself and his leg very seriously. Fortunately, I do a good innocent ditz, backing out with bubbly salutations, and we stride out of there quickly. These are the Last Miles. Knowing they’re the Last Miles makes it hard to just hike and be. They feel monotonous, slow and fast at once, and before we know it, we’re looking back at a sign that greets people headed the other way. “Welcome to the United States,” it proclaims, followed by an admonishment to visit Mr Grumpy at the customs office four miles south. Which means that ahead of us… is Canada! We are here!
The obelisks. The border. A tiny pier. And the Cut: on the 49th parallel, from Washington to Maine, there’s a gap of about twelve feet. There must be a huge number of workers spending their days weed-eating and pruning for thousands of miles, including over mountains and many places nobody else will likely ever see. (In some ways, this denuding is the opposite of a border wall. But equally as poor a use of resources, IMHO. Although I’m not sure who pays for it, the US or Canada…) It’s a strange sight.
But it’s a sight! Did I mention that we can now see more than thirty feet ahead of our toes? The fog finally melted under strong rays of sun, which beam over Waterton Lake.
(We considered bundling up in all our clothes, pretending to shiver, and posting a prank photo to make people think it’s already winter here, but the sunshine is such that nobody would believe us.)
A British Omahan (perhaps the British Omahan; how many can there be?) is kind enough to take our photo, and hangs out to chat as J. smokes his celebratory cigar.
You may also notice he is wearing a Burger King crown. This is thru-hiker tradition, representing the Triple Crown of hiking: completing the AT, the PCT, and the CDT. He asked me to pick one up back in Butte. It’s strange to go into a BK and ask for a crown when you don’t have a kid. But I did it, glued trail insignia on each cardboard jewel, rolled it around the cigar, enclosed both in double Ziploc bags, and brought it all this way.
J. tries out the phrase, “I’m a Triple Crowner,” as we amble our way past the finish line a few more miles into Waterton Townsite, where we’re camping tonight and will meet our kind friends Jane and Garon to enjoy a little of Canada before we head home and re-enter “normal” life…
It’s time to ice the cake. Jane, Garon, J and I wake up and gather our day packs for a social jaunt to Carthew Summit, one of their favorite spots in Waterton. We catch a free shuttle bus to the trailhead and begin.
It’s a relaxing change to take the ascent slowly, at a tourist pace, purpling our tongues and fingertips with fat huckleberries.
Our packs are full of luxurious town foods from the little general store: bagels and strawberry cream cheese, juicy snap peas, wasabi almonds, gouda!
I run to the top of the ridge, gratefully aware that my ankle doesn’t hurt. All summer it was giving me grief, and I feared I wouldn’t be able to make this trip with J. comfortably, or at all. On top of the rock outcropping is a worldview I can support 100%: Canada, the United States, who cares, indistinguishable, all mountains and trees and blue glacial lakes, cerulean sky and fresh air that we are lucky to breathe for this short while. After I run back, J. says that he finds a woman with strong legs, running up a mountain, a very sexy sight. Hubba hubba.
Jane and Garon take the same route down, to catch the shuttle back to town, but J. and I decide to walk all the way back on another trail, past several gorgeous lakes. It’s a bit longer than J. wanted to hike today, but gentle… and this way, we won’t have to sit and wait for the bus. (Waiting is one of our least favorite activities.)
At the end, we snack on a park bench by the last waterfall, as tourists swarm and take selfies. We realize, looking at a map, that we have just done one of the three legs of a feat called the Waterton Triple Crown… so J. has unwittingly started another Triple Crown less than 24 hours after finishing the last one! Haha, we will have to come back again and finish it someday. (Travel hint: always leave something undone, so there’s a reason to return.)
Back at camp, we revel in unlimited, private, clean, hot showers in the campground’s heated restrooms. Canada, you know how to treat hikers! Then we head to town to visit the Prince of Wales Hotel, which is the thing on all the postcards so of course we must see it, and see if they’re serving dinner.
The main restaurant is hoity-toity, pricey, and booked for hours… but we can eat in the informal cocktail lounge off the lunch menu. It occurs to me that despite suggestions that I’m a pinchpenny, what I prize isn’t cheapness per se, but finding a level that feels right: not wanton, not wan, just nice.
The lounge is Goldilocks’ bowl of perfect porridge in this regard. We order hearty, simple pub food, chat and laugh with our friends, and gaze out the big glass picture windows facing south over Waterton Lake, back toward the USA.
Then the floor show begins… the sun slants pink on the mountains, and as we dine, two big thunderstorms slowly pass across the vista, with rain, lightning, dramatic clouds, breezes, and gaps of sunset as intermissions.
We are glad not to be in our little tents, but instead watching from above, cozy and full. We all feel very rich in the things that matter.
On our way out, the hotel is luminous, lit at every window like a magic palace, and unsettled clouds glow in the last castings of daylight.
And our gear is dry in the tents. I don’t know how it works, that tiny little pyramid of synthetic fiber with barely a lip over the groundcloth, but we sleep tight and warm.
These past few weeks, hiking from the full moon to the new moon, this would sometimes occur to me: “I could leave all that.” That being my job in Missoula, my sign painting business, the little life we have carved out. It is always possible to be reborn, to have a different life. There are so many lives out there. We get so specific. We forget. It’s good to be reminded, and a long hike does that.
But although we could leave, and survive, and thrive, we don’t. Our little life is good. We’ll hike again. But for now, look forward to gathering in the picnic shelter in the chilly morning, heating oats and bananas and huckleberries and Jane’s homemade granola, and coffee and tea, on the little camp stove. To staring out the window of the backseat as our friends drive us away from Waterton, out of Canada, toward Chief Mountain, the plains stretching out to the east. To a belated anniversary kiss on the shore of Lake McDonald. To our way home.
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.
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!
Zippy is actually hundreds of miles past Wyoming, but I had been too busy to write. Still am… so the photos will do the heavy lifting today.
The finale of Colorado, at its northern border, was the Rocky Mountains National Park, including these astonishing blue columbine:
And then he marched into Wyoming, land of flat jeep roads, long vistas, cow pastures, and as a result, questionable water sources. We have few photos of the flat roads, because honestly, why photograph that? But do not be fooled: there is plenty of the CDT that is not dramatic or stunning. There is a bit of drudgery involved.
On the road to Rawlins, Zippy came around a bend and heard little whizzing sounds on either side of him. He’d heard gunshots earlier, target practice, and realized that he was in the line of fire. He jumped onto a hillock and waved his hands for the marksmen to stop. (I would’ve dropped to the ground and shouted, but to each his own.) Thankfully, they saw him, and were properly aghast.
Zippy kept a wise distance from the creature, who looks as though she is regrowing some quills. He is in good health, and unscathed except for a bruised knee, which he acquired while climbing a fence in the Winds. He tripped on the top and fell off the other side, on his knee, on a rock. And onward…
And then came Yellowstone. I had hoped to meet Zippy there and hike with him, but the logistics didn’t work out. And I confess to feeling very jealous – a rare emotion for me – when I learned that he had scored a room in the Old Faithful Inn.
He’d walked up, exhausted, many days since sleeping anywhere except his tent, and asked if they happened to have an opening. “No,” she said, then “Oh wait!” Despite high tourist season, there was a cancellation. He got to chatting with the seasonal staff as they booked his stay, and they were curious and fascinated to learn about his journey. He was the first thru-hiker they’d ever met. (Although there are at least four northbound hikers farther along than J.: Double Magic, Mammoth, and these two dudes from the Bitterroot, but apparently none of them had asked for a room at the Old Faithful Inn.) And when Zippy checked out the next day, refreshed, he learned that they must have given him an amazing discount, as his bill was $40 less than expected. Very kind!
So that’s it for now. Idaho is next… in which we are finally reunited after three months apart!
The intrepid Zippy Morocco is hiking northward from the Mexican border. After three weeks, he’s almost through New Mexico. Want stories and photos? He’s got no interest in blogging or writing. So I’m all you get: secondhand, better than nothing…
On April 30, he took a plane to Tucson, an Uber to the bus station, a Greyhound to Lordsburg, and on May 1, an ATV shuttle to the border. He started with all these folks but they are likely far behind him by now. He’s excited, doing thirty and forty mile days. He says he doesn’t get physically tired, just sleepy, and that’s when he stops and makes camp. That’s all he does: walk and sleep. He loves it. He loves being alone. Loves walking, walking forever.
It’s a desert. The middle six hours of the day are darn hot, and nary a sliver of shade. But it is less hard on him than the desert of the PCT was. He credits that to better electrolytes. He’s taking Hammer Endurolytes every day, and eating better – no gag-inducing peanut butter tortillas, he’s getting high quality Good Food Store bulk grub for every meal. Corn chowder, split pea soup, couscous pilaf, refried black beans with tomato powder, mashed potatoes with stuffing and dried herbs, freeze-dried veggies, Pro Bars, granola with organic coconut milk powder… fella is set up.
The CDT isn’t really a trail, usually. It’s a route. Map and compass all the way. Even when there’s a sign, it’s not exactly clear…
…or else, in New Mexico anyway, it’s just walking along the side of a road.
It’s flat in most of the state, so he’s had a lot of cell phone reception. We sometimes chat while he’s hiking. He freaked out his mom by texting her a photo of a rattlesnake in real-time, mid-call, as it shook its tail at him and she urgently reminded him exactly how many times its body length a rattler can spring:
Despite the desert, water caches and pumps and streams – even a beautiful hot spring – crop up occasionally. One day he called to tell me about his latest water source: a big water tower with a spigot at the bottom. But he didn’t want the water from the dirty ol’ spigot. He wanted the water that was shooting out of what looked like a bullet hole in the side of the tank: higher water, better water. He tried to catch the stream as it shot every which way, and got a refreshing shower in the process.
He skirted El Malpais National Monument, the famous arch of which he viewed from above, and not below, as in most photos you see…
And he takes photos of wildflowers, only because he knows I like them. Otherwise, he registers that flowers exist, but pays them no mind.
At night, we look at the moon. We both see the same white globe, thousands of miles apart, but it is as if we are close.
So he’s closing in on Colorado. Snowpack in the San Juans is at 144% of normal. This is the point where I get nervous and he gets excited. Our friend Samson is plowing through, ten days ahead. It’s heartening to hear that it is possible. And there’ll be one more week, at least, of snow melt (we hope) before Zippy’s turn to posthole his way into the highlands. I’ll keep you posted.
Disclaimer: It turns out I did not actually meet R Crumb! In a bizarre case of mistaken identity, I was fully convinced for several weeks that Montana artist Rich Lande was R Crumb. You can read about that foolishness here. But you should still totally check out Crumb! He’s awesome!
When you unexpectedly meet a celebrity, do you immediately think of what not to say? Such as…
Can I take your picture?
Can I have your autograph?
Oh my god, you are just so great, I can’t even believe you’re standing here, like, you’re unreal, gush gush gush…
Oh man, I love [that long-distant thing that the person is known for and that they are probably extremely tired of hearing about].
Hey, will you [sing/do an impression/perform like a trained monkey]?
It is much harder to think of what would not be stupid and annoying. This is on my mind because on April Fool’s Day, I met R Crumb. (If you are also my Facebook friend, you may have witnessed my explosive gushing about the evening. Sorry.) If you are not familiar with R Crumb, well, you surprise me – I thought everyone knew his work. He’s one of the founders of the underground comics movement, and a fine illustrator and artist. You may remember him as the creator of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and that ubiquitous “Keep on truckin'” t-shirt (the mention of which would probably fall under What Not to Say #4).
In fact, the gigantic, locally owned health food store where I work was originally a tiny, hippie, health food co-op known as Mr. Natural’s Good Food Store. His illustrations of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang” are sheer perfection, if you can find a rare copy – most editions, inexplicably, are text only. Lately he has made a serious graphic art version of the entire Book of Genesis. If you are curious, DO NOT google his images at work, because a lot of it is obscene. Do, however, watch the movies Crumb and American Splendor.
So, on First Friday, April 1, I was strolling past the Downtown Dance Collective and noticed that the lights were on and the place was full of R Crumb original ink portraits of jazz and blues musicians. Weird. That venue wasn’t even listed as having an opening this month. There were only about seven people inside.
I spotted a guy I know and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be wild if R Crumb were here?” …and John says, “He’s right over there.”
I have to scrape myself off the ceiling. He is one of my art idols. I will kick myself forever if I don’t say hello, but all I can think of is What Not to Say. So I just look at the drawings and pretend not to be having an aneurysm.
When I finally summon the courage, he is very nice. “Hi, I’m Rich,” he says. He looks nothing like his self portraits, which often depict him as miserable. He’s laughing and talking with friends. We talk about art and paper and jazz and hand-made stuff. I ask him about some thin goop on his portraits that looks like white-out. He uses fine point Sharpies, nothing fancy. On a large scale, india ink with sable brushes. Sonny Boy Williamson’s portrait, he shows me, is drawn on the back of the piece of glossy paper that comes with a ready-made frame – the page with the happy family printed on it. That kind of paper is less porous. Why let it go to waste?
He drew these musicians’ portraits so people will know where the music came from. Everything comes back around, he says. We just don’t know how long it’ll take. I tell him that I paint windows and I have noticed that although vinyl sticker signs are convenient and popular, a lot of people want something that looks like a person actually touched it at some point. “Yes! Human DNA!” he says. He’s hopeful for the future of hand-made. “Never give up!” he says. Awesome.
So perhaps R Crumb is not a celebrity by most standards. But it was a thrilling evening for me. And if you’re in town, his work is up for the rest of April and May – worth a look!
In other news, within two weeks, my main squeeze J. will be hitting the trail. Heading from the Mexican border to the Canadian border via the Continental Divide Trail. It’ll take him about four months, god willin’. He is so excited and ready to go, it is nearly intolerable. But it is also hard to give him up!
Maybe I should include a bit about his progress when I write. It is likely that he won’t be keeping a trail journal of his own. He loves the privacy and undiluted solitude of long-distance, wilderness hiking. I think it is a joy for him to just live it, and a chore for him to write, though his writing is fine. So perhaps I will spill what I hear. And he has promised to photograph some wildflowers…
Thus I’ll be on a journey of my own this summer. My own solitude, albeit surrounded by friends and cityfolk. Missing one’s sweetheart sounds like great fodder for art, no?
I plan to join him for two weeks along the way, as well as personally deliver a passel of delicious care packages once he hits Yellowstone and points north.
Au revoir, intrepid Zippy Morocco! May your hike be beautiful and amazing.
P.S. One more goodbye: the Brink Gallery is closing. What a gem it was! Not intimidating or stuffy or jargony, just friendly and fresh, and whoever chose the exhibitors was willing to go out on limbs. A person may not always like what’s in the Brink, but it is always interesting. I guess the woman who runs it wants to do art of her own, and now she will get her chance. I had very privately dreamed of one day having a piece in a group show there. That will not be happening – except that in a very minor way, it will: If you visit the Brink this month, you’ll see stacks of self-addressed, blank postcards. Take one, make something, send it back. All the returned postcards (Postcards to the Brink, ha ha) hang in the window, spinning slowly as the air moves. So I took one home and inked a panther slinking off the edge, out from behind bars of dripped watercolor paint. “Slink off to stalk your passions.”
It’s not too late for you to get in on the action!