One thousand miles down, about two thousand to go. I’ve just crossed from Idaho into Wyoming on the Continental Divide Trail, having walked from the border of Canada down through Montana and along the Divide that separates Montana and Idaho. This trail has been a challenge every step of the way; this is big, rugged country and the CDT is no cookie-cutter trail: there have been days where the “trail” is nothing more than a route plotted on a map, leaving me with topographical maps and compass alone. I’ve been in thunderstorms, hail, below-freezing and ninety degree temperatures all in the same day. Switchbacks are not a common occurrence; the climbs are steep and the tread can be treacherous. There have been thirty-mile stretches between water sources and I’ve had to hike through wildfire smoke on multiple occasions. I’ve encountered bear, both grizzly and black, and I’ve seen fresh sign from both wolves and cougars.
Yes, it’s been difficult, but it’s constantly humbling. The CDT has shown me breathtaking beauty, from the smallest wildflower to panoramic views that encompass multiple states and mountain ranges. Some days I find myself in areas so remote that I forget another world exists until the drone of an airplane butts in from thousands of feet overhead. Some days I struggle to explain to myself exactly why I’m out here subjecting myself to virtually constant discomfort, but every low is balanced by an ineffable sensation of peace, brought on sometimes by a sublime landscape and other times simply by a few seconds of cool breeze on a hot day.
So how did I find myself here? Why do I strap my belongings to my back each morning and hike twenty five miles or more through the Rocky Mountains? The answer begins at the border of Mexico in May of 2014.
Two years ago I hiked 2668 miles from Mexico to Canada. For roughly five months, I simply walked – through deserts, on ridgelines, over mountain passes and peaks. I walked across rivers, in snow, in hail, in thunderstorms and flash floods. I walked through ennui and homesickness, elation and wonder, humility and suffering. I walked amongst cacti, lichen, deciduous and old growth; with spider, mosquito, beetle and bee; rattlesnake, lizard and frog; raptor, grouse, hummingbird and owl; with mouse, marmot, cougar and bear. I walked on pine duff and marble, granite and mud, on glaciers, on 4,000 calories a day that were never enough, on power of will and my poor battered feet. These were the only stimuli I encountered – “natural” phenomena.
There were no screens, vehicles or advertisements, there were no guns. There was no status, greed, envy, discrimination or war. I was often alone, yet always part of a community more supportive and accepting than I have ever experienced. People from all walks of life. We were tethered by our shared suffering, our common goal and our sympathies – by our joint concession of our place in the scope of the universe and the resulting lightness we felt. We carried only what we needed and could fit on our backs. We drank from springs and hid from the midday sun under the cool wingspans of junipers. We stayed dry beneath overhangs of granite and warmed our weary bones by the gift of combusted wood. We harvested bounties from berry bushes without even breaking stride and slept beneath the seamless sky. We were healed and bolstered by the selfless kindness of total strangers. We lived in the Now. Every day was an exercise in mindfulness, a walking meditation, a declaration of love for all existence – a prayer, of sorts. Every day was a challenge. While on Trail, I was human. We all were.
I made it to Canada, my goal accomplished, only to realize that the cliché held true: it’s all about the journey, not the destination. A year and a half passed by and I was caught once again in the hectic web of modern society. It was exciting, overwhelming and frustrating. I felt comfortable but alienated, lost. I longed for the simplicity of life on Trail and the happiness it brings, the unnerving and revelatory solitude, the family I fell into. I longed for open space, for freedom of thought, for wilderness.
We are running out of wild places. Some would say there are none left. We are making progress in the fight to curtail environmental devastation, but much damage has been done. Biodiversity is being reduced dramatically. Hundreds of miles of the PCT were closed for wildfires this past hiking season and the Sierra Nevada saw its worst early-April snowpack levels in a century.
Species are vanishing from our planet at an alarming rate. With each extinction, a branch of the tree of life ends and the whole world dies. We are changing the earth irrevocably: the end of the world as we know it, as the saying goes. I feel a moral obligation of sorts to experience as much of the biosphere as I can manage. Who knows how many species, how many ecosystems and places will exist only in stories fifty years from now? Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail felt like saying goodbye to all the microcosms that it collides with, all the life – not in resignation, though, rather like a ceremony, an encounter, both greeting and farewell. I decided I wanted to continue this pilgrimage along the spine of the landmass I call home.
The Continental Divide Trail. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico. Embrace the Brutality, the slogan reads – tongue in cheek, but only slightly. Embrace the raw phenomena, the naturally occurring wonders, the interwoven variety of miraculous life from blade of grass to grizzly bear. Embrace the sheer ruggedness and nigh absurdity of such an undertaking. Embrace the suffering and the good it reveals. Embrace the humanity, the universe.
Why? Because it’s calling. We are ceaselessly overstimulated. We’re overwhelmed by the conflicting recognition of limitless possibilities and the nagging dread of finitude, by the weight and fetters of societal pressures and norms, by all-pervasive advertisement. We forget that such a constant influx of information is relatively new to us. For me, stepping back into the wilderness serves as a reminder that most of the anxieties that plague us aren’t founded in reality, that much of what we strive for is bankrupt.
As for the whole walking thousands of miles part, well, hiking is my practice. It is a lens through which I can better perceive the world we live in and better understand what is truly important to me. It’s a method of travel that allows for seeing far more than vehicles can offer. Plus, I do love a good challenge. Aside from personal reasons, though, I’m hiking to make sure my message is heard. To show that we are capable of incredible things. To show how little we need to thrive and how happy we can be when we step outside the bounds of a consumerist society and a throw-away culture. I’m hiking to show that individuals truly can make a difference, but that even incredible individual acts pale in comparison to what a community can do. I’m hiking to immerse myself in what remains of the wilderness and to reconnect with nature – to show the world what's at stake, what we’re fighting for.
Back in my “frontcountry” life, as we backcountry folks call it, I am a dedicated climate activist. It is my strong belief that addressing climate change is the issue of our time; hell, even the Pentagon cites climate change as a top threat to national and global security. How could I justify running back to the mountains when so much work must be done? As a global society we must embrace renewable energy systems and socio-economic models that acknowledge the reality that there cannot be unlimited growth in a limited system. I couldn’t simply turn my back on this crisis and excuse myself on the grounds that my on-trail lifestyle has a comparatively small impact.
I realized that I needed to Hike the Divide in more ways than one. While literally walking along the Great Divide, I would listen to and relate the stories of people and communities who are fighting for a livable planet, for a future worth living in, and weave a narrative of positive change in order to bridge the metaphorical divisions that are preventing us from adequately responding to the climate crisis – the divide between denial and conviction; between isolation and community; between apathy and action; the false divide between humanity and the “natural” world; between green-washed band-aid fixes and true solutions; between resignation and fighting for our future.
So far I’ve met and learned from people who are involved with climate solutions in many capacities, from pushing for renewable energy initiatives to engaging in civil disobedience like attempting to block coal trains and standing up to climate denial: risking life, liberty and reputation. I’ve met with people who overcame immense odds to keep over a billion tons of coal from being mined and folks working to sequester carbon into the ground by restoring soil biology. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of this challenge, to become apathetic in the face of a potentially bleak future, but these people and their stories of courageous action keep me hopeful. It takes courage to be hopeful, but we’re all capable of it, and the other option is a self-fulfilling prophecy: as soon as we tell ourselves we’re powerless to address climate change, we are.
There are infinitely many ways to get involved with solutions. The first step is to accept not only that climate change is happening here and now, and that human activity is driving it, but that this unprecedented challenge falls squarely on all of our shoulders. As Arundhati Roy said in her book The God of Small Things, “If there is any hope for this world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.”
We are the people we have been waiting for. Just as there is no silver bullet solution for climate change (though keeping fossil fuels in the ground would be a pretty good start), there will be no single hero in this story; rather, we’ll all have to be heroes. Isn’t that a better story anyway?
Over the next few months, as I hike through Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, I’ll continue to share the stories of the inspiring people I’ll meet. I hope you’ll come along for the remainder of my walk and learn with me. The easiest way to stay up to date is through my website, HikeTheDivide.com, where I’ll be hosting the mini-documentaries I’m been filming – the first of which will be released in late September. You can also follow along on Instagram and Twitter @HikeTheDivide, as well as the Hike the Divide Facebook page.