CDT 2017! Days 1-6: Lima, MT to Leadore, ID

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. 

Following the fence

Peat Bar in Lima

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. 

Buffalo Spring


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. 

One of the magical valleys


The view as we descended Elk Mountain


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. 

Leadore

Front porch contingent

Hattie Mae

The bar…

Days 44-47: The High San Juans, Part Two

July 3 – 6, 839 miles hiked

After two nights in the Squaw Creek valley, we woke to blue sky the next morning – finally! We were extremely restless and a little worried about our food supply. We still had 75 miles of hard hiking before Lake City, and only a couple days of food left. We hiked up the next pass out of the valley, and I savored the sun and blue skies, in awe of my beautiful surroundings. Everything had been hidden by clouds the day before.

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By early afternoon, clouds had started to roll in and rain sprinkled, but I didn’t care. I was so happy to be moving and no longer confined to the tent. We descended for a long time, following a gushing creek that soon entered a damp forest and then opened into a beautiful meadow. I saw people on horses in the distance. People!! I got really excited when we saw other people. We could see the next pass in the distance, and a rock feature called “The Window” that we would be passing by. You can see it in the picture below – it looks like a window has been cut into the mountainside on the left side of the pass.

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Beautiful meadow, our next pass in the distance

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Phil showing off his muscles

At first this meadow seemed really straightforward to cross, but soon the trail disappeared completely and we realized that there was a wide, meandering stream criss-crossing the whole thing. We tried to find a way across that didn’t involve fording this stream, but as soon as we thought we had, we’d come across another turn in the steam. We ended up fording it several times, and it all took way longer than it should have.

With soaked shoes, we climbed about 2,000 feet up to the next pass. It rained for awhile, but as the afternoon turned to evening, the sun came out and revealed some of the most beautiful country I had ever seen. The trail wound across green alpine meadows full of wildflowers, right along a mountain spine. The sun cast a warm glow on everything it touched. Below us were lakes that literally glittered among huge peaks. The mountains in Colorado seemed to go on and on. We hiked a few more miles through rolling green meadows and then found a perfect campsite next to a babbling creek.

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Climbing up the pass. You can see the meadow and previous mountains in the distance.

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The Window!

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The next day, the Fourth of July, was epic and hard. The steep ups and downs were constant and the 2,500 foot passes seemed never ending. It wore on our physical and emotional strength. We got lost in the morning and spent an extra hour bushwhacking our way up a mountain through the forest. When we finally found the trail, Phil kind of lost it and got REALLY angry at the trail. I rarely saw him this mad. The CDT was really frustrating at times. The trail often disappeared completely, we got lost almost every day, and we were constantly bushwhacking through tough terrain, using energy we knew should be saved. We were always watching the sky for rain or lightning and trying to calculate what elevation we’d be when the afternoon storm rolled in. And, hiking all day was just hard. I cried a lot. I think it was just my body trying to find a way to release the massive stores of emotional THINGS I built up each day: the thoughts and memories I dwelled on while hiking; the confidence I drew upon; the fear I often felt; feelings towards Phil, good and bad; frustrations and joy; physical exhaustion.

Although I knew it was aimless and unproductive, I, too, sometimes got really mad at the trail, and mad at myself for thinking this hike was a good idea. I often longed to be a day hiker, to be able to escape to the comfort of a car at the end of the day, to simply drive away, back to civilization, safety, and the indoors.

Yet, with those challenges came incredible privileges. We got to walk through the most beautiful places I had ever seen, largely untouched by humans. We got to sleep each night and wake each morning surrounded by unending mountains and alpine meadows. We got to follow our own schedules. We were basically free of the usual stresses and worries of normal life. Instead, we spent each day thinking only about food, water, finding a flat place to sleep, and walking north. The things we took for granted in normal life became incredible luxuries, and the joy and excitement I felt for these things was astounding: a hot meal, a shower, a can of soda, water that doesn’t need to be filtered, trash cans. Each day had a purpose: to walk towards our final destination of Canada. This sense of purpose was sometimes fleeting in my normal life, and it was nice to have that, even if it was temporary and rather arbitrary. Most of all, I felt alive all the time.

Around mid afternoon that day, we were on a long descent and saw a string of people far below us, making their way to distant cars at a trail head. At this point, we were almost completely out of food and still had about 35 miles until civilization.

“Hikers!” Phil exclaimed. “Maybe they’ll give us food!” We had lost all shame and were prepared to do almost anything for food. Phil ran ahead to catch them, and by the time I got there his arms were full of chips, donuts, trail mix, peanut butter, and several packages of ramen. Two different groups were finishing their backpacking trips and had given us some of their extra food. We thanked them profusely, once again saved by the kindness of strangers, and were on our way.

We hiked over strange, bare, green hills throughout the afternoon, surrounded by bigger mountains, and it rained much of the time. We passed the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The CDT merged with the Colorado Trail (which I’ll refer to as the CT from now on), and we met our first CT hiker, headed for Durango. I got really cold and miserable in the rain and tried to convince Phil to walk an extra 8 miles down a dirt road that eventually led to the town of Silverton.

He resisted my pleas, and I’m happy he did, because eventually the clouds cleared and the evening became one of the most beautiful of the entire trip. The trail hovered at 13,000 feet and wound through steep, green, rolling mountains surrounded by jagged peaks. Each viewpoint had its own set of green, mysterious valleys down below, so beautiful and inviting it was overwhelming. The light was golden and warm and there was no wind. I felt such a strong sense of comfort and happiness. The trail wasn’t going down anytime soon, so we spent a very cold night at 13,000 feet, listening to the Silverton fireworks.

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We woke early the next day, ready for a 26 mile day to Spring Creek Pass, where we would hitch to Lake City. The green rolling section continued a few miles more. We met three guys mountain biking the entire CT. Mountain biking! I was in awe of them. I could not imagine mountain biking this trail.

In the early afternoon, there was a huge climb to the high point of the CT – 13,271 feet. I listened to Taylor Swift’s 1989 and it pumped me up. Then a long descent into more rolling green hills and a forest, a few miles on a mesa-type thing, lots of ATVs (Coloradans love those), many more CT hikers, hours upon hours of podcasts, and, finally, the highway.

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silky green beauty

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tent/hat/seven days without a shower hair

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I was so excited for town I could hardly contain myself. Another hiker, Uncle Walter, was also waiting for a ride into town. He was in his 60s and section hiking. We chatted with him while we waited for a ride, and an hour later we were barrelling down the road in the back of a pickup truck. Lake City was a small, cute vacationy type town with a beautiful backdrop of red hills. Having a huge Jeep with Texas plates towing an ATV seemed to be a requirement for anyone inhabiting Lake City. Phil and I went to a pizza place and ate SO MUCH pizza. I discovered that my phone, which I hadn’t been able to turn on since the fateful day by Squaw Creek, was probably dead forever. We got a room in a very overpriced but not-that-nice motel. I tossed and turned much of the night – my body was fatigued in that way that makes it hard to sleep, like after a long run; I was worried about my phone; my stomach hurt from eating too much.

We woke around 6 and walked to the bakery, then washed our clothes and laid them out to dry in the town park. Our resupply boxes had been sent to Raven’s Rest hostel, and when we got there to pick them up, we discovered that Sass, Paperweight, Chipmunk, and Nightwatch were there! Friends!! It was so wonderful to see them. We chatted, sat around doing internet tasks, talked to our parents on the phone. Phil and I decided to stay another night. The six of us went out for pizza and beer, taking advantage of the magical large pizza and pitcher of beer for $15 deal. We sat around the table reminiscing about the rain, snow, passes, views, hardship, and beauty of that last section of hiking. The San Juans were over.

lake city

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Sass and Raven’s Rest Hostel

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Morning phone calls

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pw

Paperweight & Nightwatch!