CouchtoCDT

Hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) Northbound in 2013- sharing my preparation for the hike and my day to day experience while I'm on the trail. Inspiring people to follow their dreams.


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Helena to Rogers Pass

P1010839 Taking a shower after 10 days is a great feeling.  The mud, dirt and grime of your body washes away, sloshing down the drain and quickly forgotten.  How much dirt and grime I put down the drain is a badge of honor and this time it didn’t disappoint. We were dropped off at the Lamplighter Motel, a collection of small individual ‘bunkhouses’ that accommodated various sized groups.  The owner was a kind man who offered us a little discount because we were hikers but crammed 5 of us into a 2-room bunkhouse.  It’s a crazy atmosphere with 5 people in one little room.  It’s a yard sale of clothes, groceries, beer cans, cell phones, drying sleeping bags and cameras being charged and prepared for the next section.  My first stop was the grocery store to pick up all the cravings I had during the last section including chicken, grape gatorade and popcorn.  With my food needs satisfied, the group settled in to watch the beginning of the NFL season with my beloved Broncos playing their season opener.  We slept that night two to a bed with the smell of nasty shoes and Taco Bell clinging in the air. The next morning came on like a tidal wave.  The guy who had dropped us off called and said he could take us back to the pass at 9 am.  It was 8:30 am.  I had hoped to hang out more in town and relax but a guaranteed ride is hard to pass up.  I couldn’t decide but soon opted for the guaranteed ride.  I now had 15 minutes to shop for the 64-mile section to Rogers Pass, which would get me to Lincoln for resupply.  You would have thought I was on the old 90’s  TV show Super Market sweep for how fast I got all my grocery shopping done. Before I knew it, I was riding in the back of the pickup, waving good-bye, ending my “lengthy” 12-hour stay in Helena. The trail snaked up and around the mountain.  I opted to take the Ley purple route, staying low in the valley versus going up high on the divide because of the thick clouds in the distant.  Walking the dirt roads for a few hours I found a nice patch of shade and had a quick lunch.  Surprisingly I got a call from my mom who lives in Europe and I Skyped with her awhile, sitting in the shade of the trees.  All was well until a large crack broke the conversation.  I quickly, and probably to my mothers horror, hung up while yelling something like ‘Here it comes!’.   I quickly threw on my rain gear and battened down my pack and walked right into the storm.  The marble sized hail came with a fury, slamming into my head and body from all angles.  Trickles of water quickly collaborated with the others to create large streams where there once was a dirt road.  I cowered under a tree that offered little protection and after a while I just said “to hell with it” and walked out into the bombing of hail.   The hail bombardment continued for a solid 30 minutes before letting up and the sun finally smiled on me again.

Hail bombardment

Hail bombardment

Twice this size before melting in my hand

Twice this size before melting in my hand

I was walking alone and climbed even higher into the Helena National Forest feeling great.  That day I learned that I actually enjoy being wet, cold and a little miserable while hiking.   Cresting a ridge I found my next water source, which I definitely felt in need of.  I opened up the lid of the spring and found it to be nearly empty.  I was able to get enough water out of it for that night and a little for the next day to make it.   I would later learn that the group behind me would find it in even worse condition, filled with dead squirrels that had fallen in. My nose awoke me the next morning.  It was a clean smell; a freshness that absorbed into my nostrils.  I rolled to my side, still in my sleeping bag and peeked out under my vestibule and saw that I was surrounded in mud thick fog.  I could barely see 15 feet from the tent.  It was a slow moving ghost of white that flowed over me like a stone in a creek. P1010842 I crawled out of my bag and stood outside my tent with my bare feet sending a cold mossy chill up my body as the fog engulfed me.  It was the freshest air I had ever smelled in my life.  I raised my arms out, puffed out my chest, tilted my head back, opened up my nose and took a long deep breath.  The air quickly ran down my throat, into my lungs and was absorbed throughout my entire body.  I was cleansed.  I was free and I knew it. The whole day was full of amazing hiking.  The fog rolled in and over me all day leaving the forest mysterious and medieval.  Pine trees with green moss hanging from its limbs and fog hiding everything else in the background.  The fog was my mistress, teasing me with quick flashes of distant peaks and trail.  I snaked up and down the crest of the mountain excited to feel its next move and tantalizing surprise. P1010845 This day had been an experience that I would soon not forget.  The day ended with a continued rain but I didn’t care.  I was happy and content.  I made it to Stemple Pass where a hunter invited me into his RV for hamburger steak and 2 tasty beers.  I slept that night with a smile stretched across my face. In the morning I woke to a revived spirit, one that was ready to tackle the trail with no worries, only focus on the end goal.  I hiked along the mix of trail and dusty dirt road having to choose between the confusing official CDT route and or the alternates.  Thinking I was on the alternate I headed around a mountain and came to a clearing.   An established trail was to my left; a more defined one was on the right.  I choose right.  Wrong choice.  I went for about 2 miles, always looking back, questioning my decision.  Finally I realized I had taken a wrong turn.  Instead of turning around and going back the way I came, I figured why not just go cross country and connect back up with the trail I should have gone with.  I was in the middle of the woods, following game trails that lead nowhere but somewhere.  I knew I was in the middle of nothing but kept going thinking that eventually I would hit a road I saw on my map but wasn’t particularly sure if I would.  The place was uninviting but not scary.  I decided to just keeping going, assuming it was the best course of action at this point.  Stop thinking and just go. P1010809 I hit a road about 2 hours later and followed it to what I figured was an intersection with the trail I should have been on from the get go.  I needed to clear my head so I sat there, drying out my gear from the night before, digging into my food bag finding whatever chocolate I had left.  I eventually went cross -country to meet up with the original trail and followed it until nightfall, giving up on the ridge walk that awaited me in the morning. P1010904 In the morning I woke up to beautiful conditions of more fog and clouds that covered my path.  It was glorious.  I was high up on a ridge that was obscured with clouds rolling through, up and over the ridge.  I felt like I was part of the clouds and not just passing through.  This lasted for about 15 miles before coming down the mountain to Rogers Pass and my highway to Lincoln.  I was semi-happy to have hit the road, not really needing to get to town other than to satisfy my stomach’s desire for the indulgences of town food.  I put out my thumb in the cold and waited for a ride.  No ride came.  I didn’t care deep down if someone stopped or not, I was in the zone, fully charged and ready to tackle the trail.  My trail friends popped out of trees and I noticed them out of the corner of my eye.  I felt happy to see them, and ready to abandon my hitchhiking quest. After standing by the side of the road for the better part of 2 hours I felt ready to hike, instead of hitchhiking. It was 53 miles to my next resupply in Benchmark.  My food bag was getting a little light but I had bought more food then I needed in Helena.  Maybe I would make it on what I had to eat or maybe I would go hungry for a day or so. What I lacked in food I made up in desire to keep going and not stop.  I was ready for the next section dubbed “The Roller Coaster”.


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Butte to Helena

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I arrived in Butte with a good spirit, having just joined my new group of hikers who allowed me to join them on the trail for however long I wanted to.  I was excited to be with a new group, to have some new experiences and learn from these 3 other hikers that were on their way to achieving their triple crown (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail & Continental Divide Trail).

We spent a couple of days resting in the cramped confines of a two queen bed hotel room for the 5 of us, 1 of them being a old friend of my new group from Oregon who was in the neighborhood.  We ate Chinese food, enjoyed the local brewery and I saw my first and only movie on the trail on Labor Day.  I was grossly disappointed with the movie but at least the movie theatre experience made me feel a apart of society again, that I was once again capable of doing normal things.  We spotted a Labor Day picnic at a community park hosted by the local electrical and pipe fitters union where there was free hotdogs and soda to be had and being cheap hikers we were obligated to stop by and consume our 3 hotdogs and 4 bags of chips like any true American.

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After a couple of days of leisure we started back on the trail right where we had stopped.  I was only about a mile outside of Whitehall but my other companions were about 4 miles behind me.  A farmers market that offered up fresh local produce and cookies that I was happy to buy and enjoy immediately distracted me.  My companions passed me after finding a too comfortable tree to enjoy my new food.  Walking the roads several people stopped to ask what we were doing and I gave them my regular response.  Most said that’s great but a few said that’s crazy.

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That day was all about road walking, going under the bridge of highway 90 as the cars and trucks zipped by at high speeds and then entering the local forest area on the east side of Butte.  Walking the gravel roads of forest areas is a big part of a CDT hike and they can be methodical and boring.  I was lucky enough to be recommended a new podcast ‘Things you should know’ and was enjoying learning about how ejector seats work, universal health care and diving bells.  Podcasts are a great way to make the miles just slip away.  That night we slept in a typical car camping spot while our friend from Oregon met up with us and brought pizza and beer.  The next morning we rose with a purpose but not the usual one.  It was Sunday and that meant that the newest episode of Breaking Bad was on AMC and we did not want to miss it. It would be a 17-mile day and we had to be done by 5 to get back to a hotel room that had AMC and watch our show that night.  We all walked with a purpose that day even if it was for a T.V show.

You hike for different reasons every day

You hike for different reasons every day

After we all injected or should I say snorted our Breaking Bad fix we were off again, entering the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forest.  We had 71 miles to go to get to Helena and we were back on the official CDT after taking the Big Sky Variant due to time restraints and fires.   We made it up Champions Pass and through some pretty normal hiking that had good water sources, easy to follow trail signs, big open views and old mining towns long ago abandoned.  Excitingly as we sat next to the trail one day for lunch 2 old friends happened to turn the corner and walk right into us.  We hadn’t seen them in several weeks and it was great to be back with them.  Immediately we started talking about which sections had sucked, what town was cool and what goodies we had decided to carry.  We had ourselves a little party at camp that night and it was great to be amongst friends.  I knew that night was one to be cherished and remembered as only a night like that can be.

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We all hiked at different speeds so it was a constant game of leapfrog as you went.  One person would stop for a break as the other person kept going until you started up again and caught back up to them.  Each person was in their own worlds, listening to their music, books, podcasts or the sound of their own feet.  The trail would take you up high to gorgeous views and then surround you in woods that looked like no one had hiked them in a long time.  You’re brought back to reality when you pass huge power lines as they buzz with electricity and make eerie sounds as the wind passes around them.

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After only 3 days we covered the 71 miles to McDonald Pass, which was our highway to hitch into Helena.  The view before you hit the highway was a vast expanse of forest and a large open valley to the east where Helena waited for us.  It was a gorgeous view and one that I will remember.  I arrived at the pass, second only to Bonelady, who was drying out her sleeping bag from last nights rain waiting for us to arrive.  I had chatted up some nice tourist at the ‘lookout’ but that did not lead to a ride into town.  It’s all about chatting up the people you can actually talk to to get a ride because that is much easier then putting out your thumb and hoping for the best.  Eventually 5 out of 6 of us were at the pass and a nice guy pulled over and immediately asked if we were CDT hikers.  We said yes and he mentioned how we were going to be the 15th hikers he was taking into town.  We had great trail magic with someone who knew what we were all about.   We piled into his truck leaving one person behind to catch his own ride.  Now this isn’t considered rude mind you.  We had waited for as long as we could and you can’t jeopardize a ride that can take 5 hikers to town.  If we had let this ride slip away we wouldn’t have been considered nice but idiots.  So we drove off heading into Helena for a day of rest and the fried chicken I had been dreaming about for the past several days.

HIKER TO TOWN

HIKER TO TOWN