"How many days have you gone without seeing another human being?" asked John, a man from Chicago that I met on the Amtrack train a couple weeks ago. "Hmmmm, I think it's only been about 24 hours. Most of the trails I have hiked usually have people on them, despite their remoteness," I answered. "That's it?" asked John. "I once went 11 days without seeing another person when I did some camping near Mt. Adams in Washington State a few years ago." "Wow, 11 days?!" I exclaimed.
Well, I just broke my old record of 24 hours without seeing another human being this past week. My new record is now 48 hours! I know, it's not earth shattering. It was however, a very quiet week and a half of hiking through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or "The Bob" as it's also known. One of my favorite Carl Sagan quotes is "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." I know it sounds cheesy, but that's sort of the experience I had this particular section. I hardly saw anyone on the trail, and it seemed very trance like. I was simply watching, listening, smelling, and feeling the wilderness around me, although often in somewhat severe physical pain. Hiking solo, everything seemed magnified 100 fold. The highs, the lows, the successes, the failures, the good decisions and the bad. After the intense experience in Glacier National Park, the trail really mellowed out south of Glacier. Often I found myself asking, "Is this really the CDT?" As soon as I became lulled into a false sense of security, the trail dealt a punishing blow just before Lincoln. It was some strenuous, strenuous hiking.
A couple of days ago felt like a war. Hiking the CDT is like trying to tame a wild beast, and so far the beast appears to be winning. A couple of evenings ago, I happened to be hiking into an area of intense beauty. The trail began climbing in a way it hadn't since Glacier. It was around 6:00 in the evening and I wanted to put a couple more hours of hiking in. Eventually, too exhausted to go any further, I was at the top of a particular mountain with an incredible 360 degree panorama. I usually don't like camping at the top of mountains because I know how moody they can be. One moment they are giving you a hug and a kiss, the next moment they are unleashing hell's fury upon you. However, this particular evening seemed like every other evening I had during the past week. Warm, sunny, overall good weather. I decided to give this particular mountain peak a chance. Not only would I camp at the exposed top, but I would cowboy camp (sleeping without a shelter) so I could enjoy the stars. I found a spot to unroll my sleeping pad and sleeping bag amongst some stunted pines. The spot also offered the ability to set up a quick shelter if the weather did take a turn for the worse. I cooked my dinner, enjoyed an incredible sunset, hung my food, downed a couple of Ibuprofen, and quickly fell asleep. At about 1:00 in the morning, I heard the unmistakable sound of rain drops hitting my sleeping bag. "Dammit, is it raining?" Sluggishly, I tried to comprehend the situation, but instead closed my eyes again in an attempt to fall back asleep. Just then I saw a flash behind my closed eyelids. "Oh shit." I forced my eyes open just in time to see a brighter flash. Thunderstorm's rollin' in! I bolted out of my sleeping bag and quickly set up my shelter as the rain began to intensify. "Dammit, what am I doing camping at the top of this mountain?!" Upon further inspection, it became clear that the storm was moving to the east of where I was camped. My peak had dodged the bullet. While I lay in my shelter still exhausted from the previous day's hike, I had to wrestle with my mind what to do next. It felt too dangerous to remain at the top of the mountain, but I was too tired to break camp, and dreaded the thought of a night hike to a lower location. While I tried to make a decision, the rain let up. It was clear there was no way I was going to be able to comfortably sleep where I was. I decided to break camp. Before long, I was marching down the trail with my headlamp, in search of lower ground. Lightning continued to flash all around the mountain. Eventually, I found another spot amongst stunted pines near a saddle. Still pretty exposed, but at least a little lower. I set up camp once again, tossed my ice axe several feet away from my camp in a grassy area. I did not want that lighting rod anywhere near me. Before long, I was back asleep.
I awoke to a glorious morning. The sun was shining, the wet grass sparkling in the light. Something felt odd though. I slowly began packing up my things. For some reason I decided to leave my shelter up, perhaps still anxious from the night's events. Everything was just about packed when I happened to look over my shoulder. A wall of black clouds were bearing down on my mountain. I had another decision to make. Pack up the shelter and make a run for it, with the hopes of reaching even lower ground, or hunker down and hope for the best. Stupidly, I chose the former. The black clouds stretched as far as I could see. I quickly took down my shelter while the tempest drew closer. Everything was in my pack and I was ready to make a run for it. It was then that I realized I did not have my ice axe. It was lying somewhere in the grass where I had tossed it the night before. In the five minutes it took to locate my "lightning rod," the winds began to increase noticeably. By the time I finally retrieved the ice axe, an oozing black cloud bank began pouring over the ridge into my valley. "This is going to be bad!" I exclaimed. "Hunker down!" I threw down my pack and pulled my shelter out once again. Thick raindrops started falling out of the dark sky popping on my rain jacket. The wind began to howl. I fumbled with my shelter, the wind making it extremely difficult to separate the corners. My hands were shaking. "Hold on Lord, just give me a minute!" I tied the two ends of the tarp to two separate trees. "Lord, I know you've got work to do here, just give me one more minute!" Lightning flashed followed by a loud boom. I staked down the four corners as tight as I could while another flash lit up the black sky. I threw my pack under the tarp, unfolded my sleeping pad and dove under the protective thin layer of carbon fiber, just in the nick of time. Rain, thunder and lightning pummeled my mountain peak. I was uncertain how long this storm would last. It was 8:30 in the morning, I thought it could be an all day event. 20 minutes later however, the rain let up, the thunder dissipated, and a line of blue sky could be seen to the west. I was spared! I started laughing. It was the first time I had laughed in a week.
I could go on and on. That day was probably one of the hardest hiking days of my life. A couple more storms rolled through while the trail remained mostly on beautiful, exposed ridge lines. It was extremely nerve racking, yet incredibly fantastic. There was something moving about seeing the endless peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the west, north and south, and to see the plains of Montana to the east. I could imagine the once bountiful herds of buffalo dotting the eastern landscape. I felt in awe of the early mountain explorers who came to this land in search of fortune, adventure, or a sense of duty and a love of country, I felt sympathetic for the plight of the the natives who once managed to thrive in this land, and now who have been forced to scratch a living on the reservations. What a country, and what a history we have. I was fortunate to see a grizzly, a black bear, elk, and what appeared to be a couple of caribou running up the mountain trail when they saw me approaching from below. The silence and solitude have been both awesome and lonesome at times. I find myself at the back of the "herd" as it's called in hiking terms: Most of the other CDT thru hikers are several days ahead. I'm expecting this, and still trying to prepare myself for many more solo days ahead. For now, I hope to still experience the trail as it comes, as it presents itself. Lincoln has been a great town to rest and take a zero hiking day in. Tomorrow I will again head south, this time towards Helena. Until next time, thanks for reading...