Storm Cells, Farewells and Foreboding Signage: Helena to Anaconda

Day 25: The same couple that took us into Helena ended up giving us a lift back to the trail. From the pass there's a windy dirt road up the hill to where the trail picks back up; at the very top we found Bright Eyes and Sadie, as well as a school bus.

The school bus is home to Miles, Chelsea and their baby, Fibonacci (yes, after the mathematician). They were pretty surprised to hear what we're doing and were quick to offer us food and tea. Seeing as we had just left town, we settled for a tour of the bus.

It was pretty well thought out, with a sophisticated electrical system, sink, fridge, lofted sleeping area, bathroom (they're soon switching to a composting toilet) and tons of storage space.

The trio has been living out of the bus since May, working remotely on laptops. They hope to change gears soon and make their living by teaching folks how to install solar, set up net metering, build permaculture systems etc. Not a bad life!

By the time we began hiking it was nearly seven, so we put in a quick six and stopped to set up camp in a meadow. Anchor stayed another night in Helena and while I envied his proximity to real food I was glad to have saved money by heading back to trail.

Day 26: Most of the day was spent on a dirt road. For all the country-rock songs that glorify dirt roads, I'm not so convinced. Those guys weren't walking. I was passed by trucks, ATVs, and dirt bikes; I passed cabins, RVs, campsites. The road seemed interminable. As we gained elevation we saw fewer buildings and more No Trespassing signs.

Once the road gave way to trail we climbed up to some open ridges. Atop the first climb we came across the body of a very young fox. A reminder of how rough it is out here. I would guess heat, thirst or starvation, as it seemed only flies had gotten to it so far.

This section, like basically the entire planet, has seen lots of pine beetle kill. The pines that have grown in the wake of the die off here have come in scrawny and clustered like bamboo. Hiking through the dense little forest felt like a worm hole or a race track.

 Keeping an eye out for Mulder and Scully

Keeping an eye out for Mulder and Scully

When I hiked back into an area with more of an understory and properly robust trunks, I saw my first elk of the trail. The elk, like most wildlife in these parts, took off at first notice of me.

We set up camp in a meadow just shy of an alternate junction. That’s about all I’ve got on the day.

Day 27: What better way to start a day then climbing a tree? The carabiner from my food bag got stuck on a broken branch where I'd hung it so I got to climb on up and unhook it. Yay…

The junction presented two choices: to summit Thunderbolt Mountain or skirt it to the west. We all elected the former. Up near the top there was a big vista. Bright Eyes said, "This is why we do it, right here."

I wasn't sure if I was just in a bad mood or what but this did not resonate with me. Sure the view was beautiful, in the way that everything out here is beautiful, but I was pretty underwhelmed. That view is definitely not why I hike.

The trail ran around Electric Peak and brought us to some fairly mucky seeps that I had to get water from. We hiked some switchbacks and ran across a herd of seven elk including two calves, which was a morale boost for sure.

We popped out of the trees into a cow patty minefield of a meadow, which is becoming a frequent occurrence. There was a pipe fed spring, fenced in to keep the cows out, and as I filled up my bottles I watched a storm creep into the valley, dropping a deluge on what I figured ti be Racetrack, MT. Thunderheads rolled in from all directions and it got loud quick.

Lightning got closer and closer so I pulled off into a stand of trees to cook dinner. While sitting there. Anchor rolled up. Clearly he'd been hiking with a bit more urgency than the rest of us the last two days.

The next few miles are better described by pictures than words, though the photos truly do no justice to what I experienced.

Day 28: Got an early start and hoofed it down to yet another piped spring to cook breakfast. This was my last morning with the gang for at least a week, likely a few weeks. After about seven miles of crossing the same road over and over, we reached the split of the Butte and Anaconda routes.

I've never hiked with a group before, let alone one so big and for so long. I walked away from my friends with a big smile on my face, having realized just now how close we'd grown and hoe much fun it would be to reunite down trail. That being said I was looking forward to a little trail solitude.

I flew down the dirt road toward Anaconda. I was passed by a couple pick ups, including a Forest Service truck, and saw some little homestead ranches. One property had its own little pole and post lumber operation going on, as well as about forty head of sheep. 

I was planning on meeting my partner, Laura, about 22 miles into the route at the junction of I-90 and Highway 148; she and I were heading back to Missoula to hang out and get a few more interviews in.

However, when I turned my phone on about five miles out, she informed me she was running behind.

I had considered this possibility my first few steps on the route; if I hiked all the way into the town of Anaconda, itd be a 32 mile day. I was kind of taken with the idea, and more or less knew that was how the day would shake out.

Whereas the road walk down into the valley was pleasant, walking along the highway for over ten miles was not. Highway walking is so demoralizing. Cars fly by you going eighty, you can see for miles and miles ahead and behind you, and the pavement and redundancy of movement are murder on the legs. I also had the pleasure of hiking through a Superfund site where the Clark Fork had suffered the consequences of mining in Butte. 

Once I was within two miles of town, three different people stopped to offer me a ride. Maybe if they'd asked two hours earlier I would have caved, but I was on a mission. 32.

I arrived to find a sort of bust town complete with massive coal pile, stationary oil trains, boarded up houses and fast food restaurants. The town was built on the boom of copper mining, and when smelting came to a halt in 1980, the area essentially became a Superfund site. The sign on the highway reads: "Anaconda Welcomes You." Why do I feel like I just got sorted into Slytherin?