The Great Divide Basin. A sharp contrast from the crowds, water, and wild peaks of the Winds. This land appeared stark, empty and wide open. For me, it was a welcome change of scenery. The Basin felt mystical. It was also very uncomfortable at times. As far as you could see in all directions, it appeared there was not another human being to be found. It was hot and exposed. There literally was not a single spot of shade for 20 miles at times. Water was scarce, most sources dried up or completely fouled by cattle. My longest water carry in between sources was 29 miles.
My first day on the basin was a memorable one. Most of the day was spent walking amongst ankle to shin high sage. Views went on forever. A hot sun beat down from above. White, fluffy clouds dotted the sky. A strong desert wind blew from the west. Colorful rocks were sprinkled amongst the sandy soil. Small herds of antelope could be seen on low ridges, keeping guard like soldiers, then running with great bursts of speed and energy when they deemed I had ventured too close. By evening, winds had died down. I approached an area called Sweetwater Canyon. It was a literal oasis. One lone antelope paused to watch me, perfectly positioned between two plateaus miles off in the distance. The trail had also just intersected with the Oregon Trail a mile or two before. I imagined those plateaus being landmarks along the pioneer's journey. The canyon offered the first shade and water of the day. It was almost 6pm. I took off my shoes and socks to dry out my feet, unrolled my ground pad, and took a 30 minute nap in the cool shade of a bush along the slow moving Sweetwater River. I awoke, cooked dinner, drank water, and felt the stress of the day melt away. By evening, I was on the trail again, enjoying the peace of the desert sunset. The trail climbed along a low ridge. Below I could see the Sweetwater River meander like a green snake. On the desert floor, the last rays of sun were catching another small antelope herd running to and fro, like a flock of birds changing direction on a whim in the wind. Again I was struck by the starkness of the land. It appeared I was the only human inhabitant on earth.
After the sun went down, I found a spot to camp off the trail amongst the sage. I didn't bother with a shelter, just rolled out my sleeping pad and my sleeping bag and got ready to catch some Z's. The night air was crystalline and warm, and the sky offered a collection of stars in a way that only the desert can. I felt very vulnerable. The sky was so big that I started to get a tingle through my body that one gets when they are afraid of heights. I felt like I was about to fall off the earth, into the sky. It was dead quiet, except for the ringing in my ears. The only other time I've experienced such stillness was on a solo back country trip into Joshua Tree National Park a few years ago. Soon, exhaustion took over and I was fast asleep.
I awoke in the middle of the night to the howling of coyotes not too far away. This experience was not like the one I had in Montana last month. This time, I felt a shiver of fear run down my spine. I was very alone. What else does a pack of coyotes have to do on a late summer's night than harass a lone human, sleeping out in the open? The howling, barking, and yelping provided a background soundtrack to my restless night's sleep. I was also startled to observe the constellation Orion in the eastern sky just before the sun came up. I've always associated that constellation with winter. It was a reminder that the season is getting late, and I still am only about half finished with this journey. Of course, when I finally awoke, my coyote fears were unfounded. The sun was beginning to rise and I prepared myself for another day on the Continental Divide trail...