CDT day 86: diamonds on the grass

July 29
Mileage: 30
1580 miles hiked

Another cold night. In the morning our tarps are stiff with frost and our water is frozen again. I sleep til 6:30 like the cozy, hedonistic thru-hiker that I am and when I wake the sun has just come up over the lake and its warm rays are beginning to melt the frost on the grass. Spark and Track Meat are just waking up as well. How can we get up early when it’s cold like this?

Who am I kidding. We never get up early. It’s awesome.

The lumpy meadows are beautiful covered in frost- I walk through them, numb hands pulled up into the sleeves of my down jacket, wishing I could somehow capture the way the ice sparkles like diamonds in the sun. But nah, it’s just there.

We climb up to Gunsight Pass, which from a distance looks like a notch in the mountain. Carrying a heavy pack is starting to bother me today- I’ve got shooting pains in both my shoulders, and my knees are sore. Again, how do regular backpackers do it. How.

We have lunch next to a gorgeous clear river, our shoes, wet from the meadows, drying in the sun. Then the rest of the day is flat- meadows and forests, meadows and forests. In the afternoon we come around a grassy bend and there is Green River Lake set against some granite peaks- it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on the CDT so far. We must be getting into the winds! The water is an impossible blue color, on account of the glacial silt washed down from the mountains. There’s a cluster of ancient cabins on the shore of the lake, and we poke around inside. I jump in the water, gasping at the cold. Spark and Track Meat won’t go in.

The trail follows the Green River upstream after the lake, and I look at the sparkling water as I walk. What a magical planet we live on. Camp is at the base of the climb that will take us up to Knapsack Col, which is said to be one of the best parts of the CDT- tomorrow we climb to 12 thousand feet!

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CDT day 85: a perfect day

July 28
Mileage: 32.5
1550 miles hiked

We wake up to shelters crusted in ice and water partially frozen in our bottles. How did this happen? July in Wyoming. Go home weather, you’re drunk.

This weather feels nice once we start walking, though. Cool and crisp and sunny, and the trail climbs gently along the forested ridge. We’re wearing all our layers. We pretend it’s a brisk fall day in Maine.

We make up an alternate partway through the morning- the trail makes a big arc to go around a steep rock bluff but we decide to go up and over it. Its steep scree but the scree is big and it feels safe and fun to maneuver on. Once on top we’re warm from all the climbing, and we have a sense of accomplishment. Hiking is fun!

I feel freaking fantastic today- I slept like a log in the cold last night. And I’m starting to feel strong again. I’m carrying 6 days of food, the most food I’ve ever carried at once, but oddly my pack doesn’t feel too bad. The elevation profile continues to be gentle and kind- there are faded jeep tracks along rolling ridges, broad lumpy fields of waving brown grass with trail that comes and goes. Springs, small clear streams that trickle through the grass. Thank goodness for Wyoming.

At lunchtime the temperature peaks at a balmy fifty degrees. We sit next to a pond wrapped in our sleeping bags eating strange combinations of junk food, watching our shelters dry where we’ve spread them on the grass. Afterwards I listen to Willie Nelson’s Stardust cover album as I plod through the meadows and fields, the ragged peaks of the Tetons on the far horizon.

Time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much

Camp is at Lake of the Woods, a largish lake spotted with lily pads, the waxing moon reflecting off its surface. Track Meat is there when I arrive, building a fire in the fire ring. We rarely build fires, but what a genius idea! The temperature is already plummeting and we huddle around the fire, absorbing the magic heat and consuming our underwhelming dinners. Ah, winter camping. A loon or something is calling in the woods. I am happy!

Photos on instagram

CDT day 84: snow in July

July 27
Mileage: 3
1517.5 miles hiked

I wake up at 2 a.m. in our motel room, thinking it’s morning. But it’s only… 2 a.m. I’m awake for a while in the dark, answering emails and doing errands on my phone. Everything piles up when I’m in the woods, unawares- it piles up and piles up, and then when I get to town and have reception it’s like a deluge. I think of the main character in the Dave Eggars book The Circle, and how she would “open the chute” every morning at her desk job. It feels like that.

I wake again and it’s morning. I feel like another version of myself in hotel rooms- clean but wearing dirty clothes, hair fluffy, sunburn washed off. This version of myself goes to the cafe in front of the hotel for breakfast. The Kowabunga Bandits, freshly laundered, order huge plates of sausage and eggs. The cafe is also a donut shop, and many donuts are consumed. I am now in a glutenfog. Then begins the hustle and bustle of a town day.

We do so many things, and yet by the time we hitch out at 6 p.m. all the things are not even done. My backpack feels crazy heavy- this next stretch to Lander, Wyoming through the Wind River range is 165 miles, the longest resupply any of us have ever done. We want to do the section in 5.5. days, but we’re carring 6 days of food just in case. It feels like there’s an anvil on my back. Fuck! How do regular backpackers do this? There are two really cool alternates in this section, that are the same length as the CDT and that most everyone does- Knapsack Col and Cirque de Towers. I think about these words as I pack up. Col. What is a “col”? And towers! This section is supposed to be really difficult, and most people bring at least seven days of food- but hey, we did Montana. Every day that passes in blissful gentle Wyoming makes me more fully aware of how hard Montana actually was. So much steep climbing, never ever flat. I think my blog posts in Montana actually got pretty negative for a while- especially when I had giardia. Sorry about that folks. Sometimes shit is just bummersville.

“Are you sure you want to hitch out tonight?” Says the woman who gives us a ride back to the trail. “It’s supposed to get down to 33 degrees.”

“Yes?” We say, knowing she means in Dubois- it’ll be even colder at the pass, up where the trail is. At the pass we shoulder our packs and set out- we’re wearing all of our layers and a frigid wind is blowing. We hike just a few miles to water and set up our shelters in the trees. Soon the sun is blocked by great dark clouds and presently it begins to snow. Bitter cold snowflakes, falling down around us. I realize as I’m eating my cold-soaked quinoa dinner mush that I forgot to check the weather, and I have no idea how long this cold front will last. I wonder what this section will bring…

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CDT day 83: Dubois!

July 26
Mileage: 30
1514.5 miles hiked

I wake up at 4:30 in the freezing dark (coldest hour of the night!) so that I have enough time to hike the 30 miles to the pass and still hitch into town. I shiver through my breakfast in the dark but then the first light of dawn comes over the mountains while I’m walking and it’s all worth it. I wish I woke up this early every day. But to do that I’d have to be asleep by eight… and it’s not even dark out by then. Soon, though. Fall is coming!

Three long climbs today. I take the wrong trail for a halfmile and fall behind- and then I crash. I sit on the ground next to a stream blearily eating chips. I’m tired. My body is tired today! Onward. Climbs! The trail has a million junctions, it’s hard to keep track of where I am. Oh and I only have a bit of jerky and a few spoonfuls of nut butter left, for food. Oh this day.

I never catch up to Track Meat and Spark. The only reason I even see them each day, being the slow walker that I am, is because we usually take an hour lunch, and I’m often about a half hour behind. But no lunch today, in the rush.

A few miles before the pass the trail winds pass Brooks Lake- jagged mountains rise up on both sides of the wide flat water, giving me a taste of what I imagine the Wind River range will be like. Wyoming is really beautiful today, and I know the epic-ness has only just begun.

It’s a hard hitch from the pass into Dubois. I get there at 5:30 and I’m standing in the hot sun for almost an hour, but then Dude in a Pickup Truck comes to the rescue, per usual, and ferries me along. Wherever you’re hitching, no matter how stuck you are- Dude in a Pickup Truck will eventually stop, even when no-one else will. Dude drops me off in two-block Dubois, which features a string of homey motels and a couple of quiet cafes. Buck-30 and our english friend Benjamin are there, as well as Shera, who is hiking northbound and whose blog I read! It’s fun to follow someone online and then meet them at last. It’s good to be around hikers! I only wish she were hiking south, instead of us passing like ships in the night. It’d be fun to hang more!

Dinner is a burger from the diner, a wonderful shower is had, much online errands are done and then I collapse, listening to the sound of the Wind River through the window of our motel room.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 82: the kowabunga bandits

July 25
Mileage: 32
1484.5 miles hiked

I have the most magical dreams and when I wake up on my neo-air in the frozen morning air with the dew on my sleeping bag I feel happy for no reason. It’s amazing to be alive, you know?

Long slow climb this morning, out of the forest back up into the flowery alpine meadows with their granite peaks. Way up to ten thousand feet! We’re in the Teton Wilderness now. My legs are tired after that climb and I zone out all the way to camp, which is in a river valley between green mountain slopes. I saw a black bear today! Nosing about in a burn amongst the fireweed without a care in the world. It didn’t see me. In camp Track Meat, Spark and I sit in the wide, muddy trail, made convoluted by invisible horses, and make up the story for our bandit gang as we eat our dinners in the gloaming. We’re called the kowabunga bandits, and the setting is medieval Europe, roughly. We’re vigalantes who take out feudal lords and redistribute wealth, after keeping some of it for ourselves. We hike mostly at night and disguise our camps well. Track Meat’s character is called The Red Sweater- he was high up in the king’s guard but deserted after becoming disillusioned after a string of particularly unethical raids on villagers. The Red Sweater has access to much resources and connections and provides us with our hideout deep in the mountains. He’s handy with the hand axes in a fight. His weakness is his bum knee, and he has a characteristic limp because of it.

Spark is Creator the Blight- a super-ninja of sorts who can descend into a room and snap the necks of every person in it without making a single sound. He’s deadly with a tomahawk, guillotine wire and a long knife. Creator’s ethics, however, are questionable, as he seems to be in the gang mostly for the killing and the money, and we don’t quite trust him. When he speaks he has a super whiny, annoying voice, and he only talks about himself in the third person, prompting The Red Sweater to regularly declare- “Shut the fuck up!” His weakness is that he’s illiterate.

I’m Ol’ Blindy, the intel/logistics/infiltration specialist of the group. I’m also the most passionate about our do-gooder mission, which can sometimes cripple us. I do the legwork to figure out how to sneak into these large estates, bribe guards for uniforms and information, slink around in the dark collecting intel and formulating a plan. My weakness is that my vision is terrible and I hate combat, so I’m totally useless in a fight. I pretty much just run away.

Tonight our gang of vigilantes sets their alarm for 4:30 a.m.- we’ve got 30 miles to the pass in the morning and we need to make it there with enough time for what is a notoriously difficult hitch into Dubois.

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CDT day 81: flat trail and hot creeks

July 24
Mileage: 29
1452.5 miles hiked

Spark set his alarm for 5:55 a.m. last night, as that’s when the sunrise is and we’re camped at a really nice lake with optimal sunrise views. At first I was grumpy about this, as I hate waking up to an alarm more than anything and am likely to sleep poorly if I even know than an alarm is set- even so, at dawn I am grateful. Because this sunrise is fucking awesome.

I feel like crap this morning, sort of tired and out of it, but as the day goes on I start to feel better. The part of the CDT through Yellowstone is completely flat- just monotonous pine forest with the occasional geyser. We’re in a super-valcano, apparently. With wolves and bison.

We meet more northbounders! “The snow people” I am calling them- the people who went through the snow, instead of taking time off or flipping. We meet The Reverend, Karma, and Maniac. It’s so fun to see other hikers. The way everyone is split up on account of the snow has turned this into quite the lonely year to hike. I wish there were more people around to hike with.

In the afternoon we stop to fill our bottles at a creek- and the creek is hot! It’s called Witch Creek. So cool! At Heart Lake we find the spot where Witch Creek empties into the lake and Track Meat and I jump in, paddling around in the tepid bathwater. Then more hours cruising through the flat forest, to camp.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 80: old faithful village overwhelm

July 23
Mileage: 22
1423.5 miles hiked

Old Faithful village is a bit of a nightmare. Even on a Wednesday in the rain the crowds are so thick that I feel like I’m at some sort of sporting event- hundreds of clean people in bright clothing clustered along the boardwalk around the main geysers, waiting for them to erupt. People jostling for things, people going in and out of doors. It rained hard all night last night and then we hiked here this morning in the cold rain- I just want someplace warm and dry to explode my pack and maybe get an overpriced sandwich or something. But these people. Walking fanned out in slow motion down the boardwalk, slowing our progress. After the first few geysers, which are like cool jewel-colored portals to another world, I can’t even enjoy them anymore. I just need to get away from the crowds.

There’s a big fancy lodge and we post up in the lobby, after consuming lots of expensive food in the cafeteria and table-diving even more. For some reason I can’t manage to get anything done- the internet on my phone won’t work, even though it says it has 4G, so I can’t check my email or upload blogs, and the post office here, much like the one in West Yellowstone, has sent my package return to sender after fifteen days. We do manage to dry our stuff, spreading it in the grass behind the lodge in the warm sun that has just come out. Spark overhears some people talking about us-

Did you see those mountain people? To come into a nice place like this and smell that B.O.!

The people here are decked out in gortex jackets and quick-dry zip-off pants, and this is a national park with a thousand miles of trails, but they seem never to have heard of a thing called backpacking. They stare at us with open hostility. We gotta get out of here!

Since my box was sent away I end up doing my entire resupply at the small general store, where there is very little that I can eat and everything costs at least double what it should. I end up with mostly chips and granola, plus some jerky. Time passes at a dizzying rate and by the time we hike out it’s 3 p.m. We only have eleven miles to go, to our designated campsite at a lake. The trail here is completely flat and before I know it I’m sitting on the shores of such lake, eating chips and watching Track Meat wade out into the water. The clouds are light and fluffy and there’s a moose in the meadow behind us. In 90 miles we’ll be in Dubois, which is supposed to be a perfect hiker town.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 79: Wyoming is gentle and kind

July 22
Mileage: 28
1401.5 miles hiked

We wake at six under the gazebo. We were up late, telling stories, and now I feel groggy. But it’s a beautiful morning! Time to hike.

A big cup of earl grey tea from the gas station for the dirt roadwalk. Spark and Track Meat eat breakfast burritos from the hot bar. The elevation profile is cruiser today, and in 19 miles we’ll be in Wyoming. In fact, the elevation profile for the whole state of Wyoming is cruiser, compared to what we just did in Montana. I look at it while I walk. Yes! What even is this!

I think about Montana as the sun rises above the flat pine forest along the road. Montana: it was always hard. And it was never flat.

Wyoming, though. Wyoming! And have I told you that I’m feeling better every day?

We pass a hiker, sitting on the side of the road in a bit of shade smearing sunscreen on his face. He’s wearing faded running shorts and an even more faded t-shirt. A big floppy hat is pushed back on his greasy hair. His pack is tiny, and he’s walking northbound.

His name is John Z- actually, his trail name is Carrot, but he dropped it when he heard there was another Carrot on the trail. John Z started at the Mexican border on May 2, three days before us. He didn’t flip, and he didn’t take the low routes. He hiked through all the snow in Colorado, in spite of the avalanche risk. And now he’s here, at the Wyoming border- just one state left.

“I think you win,” I say. “I think you win the CDT 2015.”

“I haven’t seen anyone in a month and you caught me sitting down,” he says, sort of staring off into space. “I don’t ever take breaks.”

I tell him that he should keep the name Carrot. Carrots are obviously rare special individuals, and I would gladly share the name with him.

“You should be Fast Carrot,” I say.

We eat lunch at our one water source of the day, before camp- a spring in some flower-filled grass that we must follow an enchanted series of cairns to find. Then more walking, through the flat woods. We cross into yellowstone and the dirt road turns to singletrack. There is a sulphurous smell. And then- we’re in Wyoming! What an accomplishment! Two states down, and hopefully these final two will go more smoothly than the last.

Camp is at summit lake, a small unremarkable pewter-colored thing where the mosquitoes like to hang out. It starts to pour as we’re eating and before long we’re hiding in our tents. Old faithful village tomorrow.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 78: in everything beautiful there is something strange

July 21
Mileage: zero

I wake up at four a.m. again, and can’t fall back asleep. Why? It’s frosty and dark in the campground, and then there’s a little light and I get up to walk to the showerhouse, barefoot in the dirt and realize that I’m been bleeding all over myself. Ah, that’s why I woke up. Surprisingly, it’s not that hard to clean blood out of neon-yellow running shorts- even if all you have is some shampoo that someone left. Who knew?

We’re hitching to West Yellowstone today- I have a resupply box there, although it would’ve been way easier just to resupply at Sawtell Mountain Resort, where the Mack’s Inn alternate crosses the highway. They’ve got an awesome grocery store, and the campground has deleriously wonderful showers. I guess this is what happens when you don’t do research before a trail…

It takes us almost two hours to hitch the 20 miles to West Yellowstone, which is a crowded tourist village of overpriced burger joints and useless outdoor stores. Our kindly ride drops me off at the post office… where they tell me that they’ve sent my general delivery package back returned to sender, as it was unclaimed. Unclaimed? I sent it two weeks ago. Don’t hikers mail packages here every year? Luckily it was just food, and there’s a big grocery store here. But what if it was gear I needed, or this was a town without a store? I’ve heard of trail town post offices being finicky about the amount of time they hold packages, but this is the first time it’s happened to me. Luckily the grocery store has an awesome gluten-free selection, and I find gf brownies, gf bagels, and gf chocolate rice chex, which is amazing! I get salami and mayo packets for the bagels and pick up some wavy lays. I have leftover instant beans and dried vegetables for dinner. It’s only 40 miles to Old Faithful village. I’m set!

It takes us a long time to get our backcountry camping permits for Yellowstone. We have to meet with a ranger in her office, and the ranger is hella grumpy- I guess I would be too if I worked here, with all the crowds? The ranger says we have to hang not only our food and smellables at night, but our packs and clothes too. Say what? We watch a silly video about hiking in the “back country” (don’t feed the animals, bears are not for cuddling etc) and then we are finally free. It’s late afternoon and we’re starving and, miraculously, there is a taco bus. Adorable/screaming children swarm around us while we wait for our food. We watch the storclouds move in as we eat so many tacos. We gotta get out of here!

A nice nineteen year-old mormon girl picks us up just as the rain begins to fall, and drives us all the way back to Sawtell resort. Thanks, mormon god! The young woman is about to go on a mission in San Francisco, and is incredibly enthused about everything in life. Sometimes I wish life was that simple- be mormon, here’s a bunch of answers, happiness forever. But nah. what’s the quote?

I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.
– Charles Baudelaire

Or

In everything beautiful there is something strange.
-Constantine Manos

Or one of my favorites-

When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.
-Dr Who

It’s coming down hard now and we duck under the gazebo in the park, watching the rain thunder down in the long evening light. It’s so peaceful here, it’s good to be back. West Yellowstone was crowded and loud but here at this nowhere road crossing in the rain there is room to breathe, and watch the weather and contemplate the nature of life. Soon we’ll walk to the convenience store across the street to drink rootbeer and play magic but for now we stand, watching the rain blow sideways. A boy who looks to be about twelve emerges from the subway, climbs a light-pole, and starts dancing on the pole in the rain, as though it was a stripper pole. He throws his hair back, and swings his hips back and forth. He’s wearing glasses, and laughing. The light above the mountains turns fire-pink and the rain falls down harder.

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CDT day 77: a bushwack and a roadwalk

July 20
Mileage: 32
1373.5 miles hiked

I have a dream I’m on a frozen lake in Alaska with Track Meat and Spark. It’s nighttime and there are ice-skaters and then the northern lights come out, pink against the white mountains. The black ice begins to melt and we’re in a boat, paddling around the lake. I miss Alaska.

I miss the PCT too. The other day, on instagram, I saw a photo of a lake in Oregon along the trail. In the photo there was mist on the surface of the water and the lake was ringed in dark trees. I was surprised by how much emotion I felt, looking at that photo. I almost started crying. If I was on the PCT, I thought, I’d be in Oregon by now. I’d be on my way to Washington. I’d be racing the rain. There’d be blackberry pie waiting for me at the bakery in Stehekin.

I guess there’s really nothing like your first trail.

I wake up to pee at dawn and then can’t fall back asleep. I’ve got a little bit of a sore throat- in fact I feel, as one hiker wrote a few trail registers back, “like a shit sandwich”. Well hell. I guess today will be another slow day.

Except the feeling passes a few miles into the day. There’s an epic climb up to the flowery ridge and I’m crushing it. Then down through some dewy meadows to the junction to the Mack’s Inn Alternate- this is the route we picked to get to Yellowstone. I’ve never been to Yellowstone- what even is it? Originally we’d planned to spend some extra days there on a side trip but now that we’ve taken all this extra time off we’ve decided to just hike through, in order to still finish the trail by our planned finish date in September.

The first five miles of the Mack’s Inn alternate is a literal bushwack. Impenetrable willows, water, steep lumpy hillsides. The route follows a stream through a forested canyon up to it’s source, which is apparently “the most remote source of the Missouri river.” That’s pretty cool. Once I relax and accept my 2 mph pace, this bushwack becomes one of my favorite parts of the CDT so far. There’s just something about navigating upstream without a trail. Something about making one’s way. There are springs, lupine and paintbrush, gentle yellow sun. I’ve only taken one break today, but I feel fantastic- the best I’ve felt in a while, actually. I can hike! My legs are strong! There’s muscles in there! Go muscles go!

The source of the stream is way up near a pass and on the other side of the pass is a gravel road- the road will switchback all the way down, to the highway. Spark and Track Meat are ahead of me- partway down I get a text from Track Meat- There’s a subway at the end of the road.

There is a subway. And a campground. Benjamin is there, our English friend, and he lets us share his campsite. I find the boys playing magic and eating pints of red velvet cake icecream and I sit eating my salad from subway, which tastes really really good, watching the sun set pink over the mountains. Suddenly it’s cold- I can’t wait to sleep.

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