July 17 – 22, 108 miles hiked
We are back on the trail!
Phil and I made it to Lima, MT last year before returning to work and normal life in Eugene. I still vividly remember our last moments on the trail, walking down that long dirt road into the sunset, the bare hills of southern Montana stretched out before us and Interstate 15 winding below. Two specks moved towards us on the road- they were my parents, who had driven out to meet us! We spent the night at the Lima Motel, ate at Peat’s Bar (amazing cook-your-own steak), and the next day my parents dropped us off in Whitefish and we were on an Amtrak train headed home.
I was determined to come back and finish the trail this year. I felt that if we didn’t do it this year, the CDT would become a distant memory, as trail experiences tend to do, and we would lose our momentum and desire to finish what we started. So, here we are. My parents once again drove us out to Lima (thank you, dear parents!) and we did all the same things as before, but in reverse and with the anticipation of starting a new adventure – motel, Peat’s, drive to the trailhead. We said our goodbyes, and we were off.
The first day was hard. It was hot, exposed, very hilly, and our bodies were not used to hiking. The trail climbed up to the divide and then followed the ridgeline of bare mountains for the rest of the day. There was no trail – the instructions were to simply “follow the fence.” We thought there would be a spring at mile 16 but it was dry, so we ended up hiking 21 miles to Shineberger Creek, the first water. It was a rather rude reintroduction to hiking actually. All those things about the CDT that I’d forgotten, or maybe blocked from my memory, came rushing back. The cross country hiking, losing the trail all the time, exposed ridges, constantly tripping on mounds in the ground and sagebrush branches, steep ups and downs, the remoteness and isolation. It was strange to have such a sudden change in our lifestyle and daily activity.
Yet, it was so beautiful. The mountains were rugged, pale yellow giants covered in sagebrush and wildflowers. The rocks had orange specks on them and purple lupine were everywhere. Little bright green plants grew. From afar a hillside just looked beige and uniform, but up close the colors were so vibrant, together forming the perfect combination.We continued on the next day, our bodies stiff and sore, adjusting to our new reality. The trail wound through valley meadows, then over a rise, then down into the next valley. This continued until a big climb up into some stark, reddish mountains, then a long descent through rolling hills and meadows. We camped by Buffalo Spring, where there was glorious water running out of a pipe.
The next few days, the terrain switched off between sagebrush hills with tons of cows and high, jagged mountains. It was a strange juxtaposition. In between were hidden, magical valleys with perfect creeks winding through. There was such a variance in terrain and views. We passed the time by listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Phil listened to a book about the civil rights era and I listened to a book about dogs and countless episodes of Planet Money. We ran into a few southbound hikers, who all seemed weathered and lonely. “I’ve hiked by myself for the last month,” one said. “I’ve started talking to the chipmunks, but they don’t respond.” Most had started at the Canadian border in mid-June and hiked through hundreds of miles of snow to get to this point.
Our thoughts and feelings about hiking changed constantly, at least mine did. Some days I felt really low, and questioned our decision to come back to this trail. It sometimes felt pointless and selfish. I missed our dog and two cats, and had a relentless ache in my heart when I thought about the fact that we had left them, again. Yet sometimes we were walking along the divide at sunset and the light was perfect, the wind gentle, and I felt free of worries and constraints. Sometimes I literally thought, there is nothing better than this.
We woke the morning of our fifth day, determined to get to the next town of Leadore by that evening. The trail followed a dirt road along the divide, and for once it was easy hiking and the miles passed quickly. About nine miles in, we climbed to the top of Elk Mountain. Some southbound hikers had told us we could call Sam, the owner of the Leadore Inn, from the top of the mountain, and he would give us a ride from Bannock Pass down a dirt road to Leadore. We called, and he agreed to pick us up. After a 12-mile descent through sagebrush-covered mountains stretching as far as the eye can see, we were at Bannock Pass, and Sam was waiting.
Leadore is a perfect tiny town of about 100 people that looks like it’s from an earlier century and basically consists of one restaurant, a store, and the inn. We had burgers at the restaurant/bar and when we opened the front door, four dogs came streaming out to greet us. When we got back to the inn that evening, Sam was sitting on the front porch, surrounded by a contingent of locals.
We spent the next day eating, making trips to the mercantile, and sitting on the front porch with Sam and some southbound hikers. It seemed everyone in town just hung out on that porch, often with dogs in tow, smoking and drinking something out of thermoses throughout the day. “Closest cops are 50 miles away. We do what we want,” Sam said.
Sam took us back to the trail around six that evening, we said our goodbyes and thank yous, and made our way up the trail. We hiked a few miles to the next water source and camped for the night in a clearing. It was 123 miles to Chief Joseph Pass, where we would hitch to the next resupply town of Darby, MT.