Day 46: Sam, the innkeeper, dropped seven of us off at Bannock Pass and picked up three northbounders who were heading into Leadore for the night. Among these NoBos were All-Good, who runs the American Long-Distance Hiking Association, and Tatu-Jo, a well-known hiker who has previously held a few long-trail FKTs (fastest-known times) and who had already hiked the Appalachian Trail northbound this year. They didn’t introduce themselves; Tatu-Jo simply asked: “You’re all heading south? Um, have you ever heard of a little thing called the San Juans?!” He shook his head and said, “Jeez, I wish you luck.”
This was pretty off-putting. We’d been hearing from a fair amount of NoBos recently that we ought to start hurrying – weather this, snow that, Colorado is tough yadda yadda. I know the intent is good, but we’d been moving at a pretty good clip and steady pace, and hasty admonishments aren’t going to help anyone. I remember running into SoBos in Oregon while on the PCT and thinking, “What, you’re only this far south? It’s late August already!” but then realizing that I was projecting my northern Washington snow anxieties onto them, that they were probably right on schedule, and more importantly, that it’s not my place to tell anyone else how they ought to hike.
It was already late afternoon when we hit the trail, so we all decided to shoot for the first water source – a spring ten miles south – and camp there. After a long but mild climb on a two track ATV road, we hit our highest elevation yet, just over 10,000 feet. Crazy to think that in Colorado we’d climb to elevations more than 4,000 feet higher than this. A couple more NoBos passed us, one of whom didn’t even slow down, and a woman named Double Shot whom I enjoyed chatting with. I love meeting women thru-hikers; all the male NoBos can’t help but talk about what kind of mileage they’ve been pulling off and often drop anecdotes that make them sound tough. It feels just like being back in society. The women on this trail, though, have all been full of smiles and useful beta on upcoming trail and water conditions. I don’t mean to generalize, but my experience on the CDT has been that female hikers have had a better grasp on the whole “journey not the destination” ethos and have seemed more comfortable and resolute in their identity as badass super-hikers without feeling the need to prove it.
Anyway, after catching my breath and dropping down from 10k, I came upon quite a scene at the spring. There were already three tents set up nearby – four NoBos. Eleven hikers camped together? On the CDT? Are you sure this isn’t the Appalachian Trail?
They were Zorro, Hikerbox, Veg and Sketchy. Veg, Sketchy and Hikerbox all hiked the PCT my year and Zorro is a hiker from Spain. We had some fun playing the “do you know such and such hiker” game, to which the answer is most often yes, but the most interesting nugget of conversation came from Zorro. Now, Zorro wasn’t intending to share this story, because hikers are, for the most part, responsible and bear-aware and he didn’t want to stir up any unnecessary fear, but another hiker had already gone and blasted this tale all over our CDT Facebook pages, so I guess there’s no harm in me telling y’all.
Back in Wyoming, Zorro was hiking through head-high willow brush near a creek, as we often do. Temperatures are much cooler down in the willows and near the water, so bears can often be found lounging about these areas on hotter days. He was hiking alone and spooked a couple mature brown bears. He continued on, but one of the grizzlies began to follow him. Suddenly, the bear charged. Now, Zorro had bear spray on him, which is your best bet at deterring an aggressive griz (yes, better than a firearm), but like many who have unsavory encounters with Ursos Arctos Horribilis, it wasn’t easily accessible or he wasn’t quick enough on the draw. Instinct kicked in and he threw himself on the ground; the charging bear didn’t even break stride and ran straight over him. After lying there for a few minutes, both out of caution and also in order to let his heart rate level out, Zorro hiked on with nothing but scratches, contusions and one hell of a story.
Now, especially because I’m not honoring Zorro’s initial wish to keep the story on the down-low, I want to emphasize a few things: more people are killed by moose than all types of bears combined each year; I’ve only seen one bear, a young grizzly, in the three months I’ve been on this trail and all my previous encounters with bears (all black bears, admittedly) have been peaceful; when you hike in grizzly country, you are a guest in their realm, and there are dangers you must accept. The fact that this is the only person I’ve ever met who has been “attacked” by a bear is testament that, for the most part, respect, awareness and knowledge of proper practices (like bear-proof food storage) are sufficient protection against dangerous bear encounters. No need to be bearanoid.
Zorro almost quit the trail that day, and I think everyone would have understood that decision (deep down, even that tiny percentage of toxically masculine hikers), but I have to think that he walked away from the encounter with some deeper understanding of human-bear relations, because he kept hiking. He does have his bear spray at quick-draw reach on his hip at all times now. Probably a good call.
Day 47: The next morning was a glimpse into the future: we hiked on dirt two-track for miles with countless small gains and losses in elevation, as we would be for the rest of the Montana/Idaho section. We crossed paths with a couple more NoBos before noon; no doubt we were in the heart of the Northbound bubble now.
After lunch at a little seeping spring, Toppy, Smokey and I headed up to Morrison Lake. This is apparently a pretty popular fishing spot and we came across quite a few trucks. We stopped and talk to one man who only hikes during the winter and has completed the 990 mile Montana/Idaho section of the CDT – all in the dead of winter.
Not two miles later we ran into a NoBo named Freebird whom we talked to for almost forty minutes, mileage goals be damned. Of course, up walks his friend Hot Shot, a woman from Etna, California: “Yep, one of the six hundred,” she said. Etna is a tiny Northern California trail town on the PCT that happens to have a fantastic brewery. Their little claim to fame is that the town’s population hasn’t changed since the gold rush. These two had reached the Wyoming border and pumped the brakes hard – with the northern terminus looming on the horizon, they realized that they weren’t in any rush to get back to front country life. It was nice to talk to NoBos who weren’t chomping at the bit to get to Canada and in turn urging us to hurry.
Finally, the road gave way to trail. Of course, we ran into even more hikers, Squirrel and Earlybird who ALSO hiked the PCT in 2014. It’s a small community, if you haven’t caught on. They had just held our friends up for a good half hour so we didn’t chat for long. A thunderstorm was rolling in as we left the valley behind for ridgelines. Always seems to work that way.
That trail I mentioned? Very short lived. As the route climbs up onto a big bench between a smattering of stubby peaks, it becomes cross-country. There are some cairns, but they were actually misleading, so we just navigated by the topography. It seemed like the perfect place to spot some bighorns or mountain goats, but I wasn’t so fortunate.
Smokey, Toppy and I fell a few miles short of our goal for the day, camping next to a creek about 27 miles from where we started.
Day 48: We passed Hart Lake pretty early on, which was hardly a pond, and were glad we had stopped short to camp somewhere with tree cover. At a creek a couple miles south we took a break in the shade. A long-tailed weasel shot out of the underbrush and pounced on a mouse, just a few feet to my left. It apparently hadn’t been aware of our presence; upon seeing us, the weasel dropped the mouse and retreated into cover. It eventually came back out for its kill, figuring we weren’t going to steal its lunch.
That afternoon, after a few cross country purple route shortcuts, I went for a swim at Deadman Lake. Pretty chilly, but here’s some life advice: I’ve never regretted jumping into a natural body of water, no matter how cold. I have, however, chickened out on occasion, which is a decision I always regret. While I dried and warmed in the sun, a hiker named Dirtmonger came cruising down the hill. We had run into Dirtmonger back in Leadville. I know Dirtmonger from the PCT – I once left my trekking poles in a brewpub in Cascade Locks, Oregon, and he found them and got them back to me. He had already hiked the PCT again this year. What’s with all these crazy multi-trail super hikers? I don’t think I’ll ever be there.
We set out not long after he left and after passing a few more NoBos – Linus Cloudbuster and Kiros – on an uphill, I caught a glimpse of Dirtmonger not a quarter mile ahead of me. I knew the next ten miles or so were relatively level so I decided I would try to catch him. I popped my headphones in for the first time in a while and listened to my favorite album to hike to: Stranger by Balmorhea, an instrumental band from Texas. The trail gives way to two track as it enters a massive valley and approaches Bannack Pass (not to be confused with Bannock…) and maybe it was the music or the way the sun was playing off the clouds, but I was feeling ecstatic and I was gaining on Dirtmonger.
About ten miles later, just as the trail begins to regain elevation, I pulled off to a string of large boulders. The view was too good to pass up on and these boulders provided the first bit of shade I’d seen in three hours. I sat on the tallest boulder and played my guitar while I waited for my friends to catch up.
There’s a note on our map right in this spot, informing that there’s a big hole in the ground nearby that is full of bison bones. The theory is that the opening becomes covered by snow in winter, and when bison would walk across it they would fall in and be unable to climb out. Who knows how long those bones have been lying there? I didn’t want to miss it.
Sadly, I had no say in the matter. There’s a seemingly abandoned lime mining operation on the spot of the “bone ditch,” as we’d been calling it. All we found in the marked place were an old truck, an excavator and a bunch of garbage. I felt like hurling a rock through the window of the excavator, but what would that solve? We walked on, dejected, but were at least granted the consolation of a downright glorious sunset.
Turns out I did catch Dirtmonger, in a way. He and the rest of our little SoBo crew camped just 100 yards up trail from us. I know this not because I saw him in the morning – I’m awful at getting out of camp early and that’s half the battle of big miles (DM is a master at this) – but because we camped even closer to three NoBos. Man, it’s getting crowded out here!
Day 49: This was a hot one. Toppy and I were both not feeling very motivated and fell behind Smokey on the first climb. We found a beautifully clean spring and hung there for almost an hour, despite only being four miles into the day. Ten miles in we reached a creek next to a dirt parking lot and plopped down in the shade. Smokey strolled up, having fell asleep by mistake on the other side of the lot. We realized that, still being over twenty miles from I-15, where we’d hitch into Lima, we’d be night hiking no matter what. We ended up sitting in that spot til about three in the afternoon, probably the longest break I’d taken since week one in Glacier.
There’s a ten mile stretch in this section that everyone refers to as “the rollercoaster.” That’s because the trail, following the divide, climbs up 1300 feet only to drop 700, up 600, down 500, up 400, down 600 or something close to that, over and over again. The NoBos we met on the way up the first climb – Handstand, Darrel, Boston Chris, Cloud and one whose name is escaping me – all warned us of the difficulty. Never a good sign, after all, they’ve got about 1000 miles more of conditioning and at higher elevations.
The views up there were phenomenal – a thunderstorm sounded behind us, out of reach, and rays of sunlight broke through the cumulonimbi casting golden panels on the dramatic facades – but it was a total asskicker. Just around sunset we hit the one water source along the coaster: a spring located about 500 feet down off the trail. We filtered and ate dinner, and just as we packed up the wind began to howl, bringing hail with it.
I found it easier to hike this section in the dark. I couldn’t tell whether the hills ahead of me were 200 feet up or 2000, so I could just put my head down and power through. Toppy and I hiked until about one in the morning and set up our tents at the beginning of the descent to the road. Smokey soldiered on so that he could get water.
Day 50: Hit the trail at first light. A blood red sun rose up through a solitary wisp of rain, and I couldn’t help myself: I sucked in as deep a breath as I could and belted, “NANTS INGONYAMA, BAGATHI-BABA!” Who knows, I may never find a more appropriate time to scream the lyrics to “Circle of Life.” Can’t risk that kind of regret.
A dirt road led us to the interstate, where the owner of the sole motel in Lima, Montana picked all seven of us up. We had him drop us at the diner across from the motel. We ate breakfast with a NoBo named Cowboy Stripper.