The Journey Begins

I know this feeling. It's eleven pm and I'm scrambling to make sure I've gotten everything I'll need for the next few months. Tiny sunscreen? Check. Headlamp and batteries? Check. GPS messenger? Aha!

I pull up the Delorme website to set up the GPS that my PCT hiking partner lent me for this hike. Unlike the SPOT device I've always used, this thing can send text messages and store PDF maps in addition to the "Doin' mighty fine" message I send out with the press of a button and the SOS feature I hope I never have to use. I turn the handheld on and am greeted by a lovely colorful screen. It reads: "Device is damaged! Cannot receive or send messages. Contact tech support."

Great. Good thing I'm not leaving in four hours. Oh, wait.

I get my old SPOT device set up, a little bummed at having lost the messaging capability; it would have been very handy to have been able to give updates to the folks I'm meeting with for interviews, in case I were ever layed up by a storm or running way ahead of schedule. Oh well!

I realize I'm sweating. A lot. My stomach feels a little uneasy. Stress! It's been a while. I've always thought myself to be a naturally laid back, stress-free kind of person. While there may be some truth to this, I've come to realize that this perception is largely a product of the privileges I've enjoyed. More on that later. Right now I'm just worried that I haven't spent my time wisely; that I'll forget crucial gear, that I'll send my resupply boxes to the wrong towns or not fill them with enough food. I'm worried that I'll film amazing content in my interviews only to find I botched the shot, or that I'll end up needing the ice axe I didn't get my hands on in time, or that I'll completely forget how to navigate or end up with maps for the wrong section.

So I take a deep breath. I remind myself: I'm a hiker. This is what I do. Once I sling that beat up pack over my shoulders and get some trail under my feet, all my anxieties will melt away like the vegan Ben and Jerry's I'll be dreaming of at least once every five miles.

I stepped into the Missoula bus transfer center and called Jeff Smith, who works for a local wilderness org and is the co-chair of 350 Missoula, to let him know I'd gotten into town. While I waited for him to walk down to the station I used the free Wi-Fi to finish watching the season finale of Game of Thrones - I had to have some closure with society (hereon referred to as 'frontcountry') before I set off into the mountains.

We ate Thai food and talked about climate and energy in Montana. He told me about the formation of 350 Missoula, which happened in the wake of public opposition to "megaload hauls" of tar sands equipment through Montana and Idaho. We talked about opposition to the Otter Creek Mine and coal in general, the success of which is evinced by the large numbers of coal trains left abandoned along unused railways across the state. We talked about upcoming renewable projects in the region and what moves the people of Missoula to stand up and take action. Jeff emphasized the importance of climate activism's view for the future: what we're working for more than what we're fighting against. We made plans to meet again and do a proper interview when I return to Missoula in a few weeks.

Jeff went back to work and I hung out down at the riverfront watching Brennan's (sp?) Wave, a manmade feauture in the river where kayakers in playboats and surfers flock to shred the proverbial gnar. I was there to meet up with Schuyler, the younger brother of a friend from the PCT, who was driving me up to Kalispell. We got along wonderfully - we talked everything from backcountry skiing to music (yes, including climate activism). Schuyler is at UM studying ecological restoration; during the summer he's a ranch hand. I have a pretty good feeling he'll end up thru hiking in the near future. He ended up driving me all the way to Columbia Falls, where I was to be picked up for the final leg to East Glacier Village.

Caitlyn pulled up to the coffee shop I was waiting outside of, introduced herself and said, "Okay, so I have to ask: have you read the book Wild?" Brought me right back to the PCT, where I was met with that question a little too often. It doesn't bother me in the slightest anymore, though.

Caitlyn is a PhD candidate working in West Glacier for the summer. She does mostly quantitative work focused on Sperry Glacier, but in a broader stroke, her work is to study the role of the cryosphere in climate systems. We talked about the impacts of melting glaciers, whether upon water as a resource or sea level rise. She spoke to the difficulties of scientists trying to wear the "activist hat" while preserving objectivity in their work. I asked her about the intersection of the work she does and the human response to climate change. She sees it as her duty to be the best scientist she can be so that the numbers are as on point as possible for decision makers and the general public.

Caitlyn and I spoke a lot about what motivates people to not only accept climate science but to see it as a call to action of sorts: at least a call for reevaluation. How can one reach a person to whom the value of wilderness or non-human animals is not apparent, or does not fully appreciate the delicate symbioses of our biotic web and planetary systems? What can one say to the person whose response is: why should I care? Tricky stuff, to be sure, but we agreed that there is cause for optimism, and that we both see a positive trend of people looking for solutions and asking the hard questions.

I hopped out of the car in front of Serrano's: a hopping Mexican joint in East Glacier Village. Behind the restaurant are a few tiny bunk rooms and private cabins: Backpacker's Inn. I paid the hostess for a bunk and wandered through the side gate.

*This disclaimer is a bit overdue, but oh well: nobody on trail calls me Connor. Most thru hikers and section hikers are given "trail names" when travelling on a long trail. Mine is Bard. Many of the people I'll be writing about the next few months will have names like Happy Feet, Duke and Rocket Llama. If you want the stories behind the names, you'll have to track 'em down and ask for yourself. Also, we refer to each other as "hikertrash" - it's a term of endearmemt, I promise*

As soon as I got into the back yard I saw my friends Top Shelf and Laugh Track. I met both these ladies on the PCT in 2014. We caught up and I got settled in my bunk. We ate dinner at Serrano's with Anchor, another PCT Class of 14 alum, and his lovely parents, who were kind enough to offer us a ride to the border the next morning.

Anchor had gotten us our backcountry permits for hiking through Glacier Nat'l Park. He had chatted up a 72 year old ranger named Neil and convinced him to permit us to hike the (still closed today, 10 days later) Highline Trail. He had informed Neil that all four of us had hiked at least one long trail (he and Laugh Track have both hiked the Appalachian Trail as well) and that we were all equipped with ice axes and crampons…

We hung out in the yard behind Serrano's for a while that night with four hikers about to start the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from the same point I am starting from to the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle, WA. Their names are Karma, Easily Distracted, Veggie and Crosby - all four are Triple Crowners, which means they've hiked the entire Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails. There less than 200 triple crown hikers in the world.

I didn't sleep well on the foam "mattress," due to excitement more than discomfort, though. The sun came up sometime around five and it hit me: the day had finally come. It was time to hike.