At 5:45 PM on October 14, 2006, we completed our CDT (Continental Divide Trail) thruhike at Homestake Pass near Butte, MT in bright sunshine. The temperature was in the 60’s. By the time we got to town, got a shower and headed for dinner, it was raining. 24 hours later, it was 27 degrees and snowing. And 24 hours after that, the passes south of Butte were closed. When we left Montana the next morning, we had bright sunshine, no clouds and clear roads. In other words – normal Montana weather.
48 hours later, we woke up in Arizona, looking at saguaro and prickly pear instead of Montana fir and pines and snow, with the temperature well on the way to 90 degrees.
The only constant in life is --- change. Sometimes the change is welcome – sometimes not. But “change” will happen whether you want it or not. For some people, the prickly pear and saguaro would be paradise. For others of us, we’d rather be back with 27 degrees and snow. Not that we have a problem with “change” per se, but some of us actually love the trail, the country and the lifestyle and would rather not leave those things behind – not even for winter. That’s why, for some of us, the first snow isn’t the end of the trail, and the end of the trail isn’t the end of the story.
One of the things that strikes Ginny and me is the number of hikers who can’t wait to get off the trail – who roadwalk the last 100 or 200 ---- or 400 miles in order to “get-r-done.” Their commitment to finishing is admirable, but I’d still rather be “me” – spending maximum time-on-trail – and still finishing. I’d still rather be “me” – and not be ready to be “finished” at the end of a thruhike.
Before we started this hike my orthopedic surgeon predicted that we wouldn’t be able to finish the Trail – but we did. Finish, that is. And while it was necessary to stop at the time, there’s this thing inside that says – “Go back – you’re not finished out there yet - you’ll never be finished.” Is it an addiction? Or an obsession? Or does the Devil make us do it? Does it matter?
Sometimes we try to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. And sometimes we try to figure out why we’d want to grow up.
The thruhike was everything we expected – and none of what we might have feared if we’d been so inclined. Oh, it could have been worse – we could have started the hike a week or two earlier and run into the heavy snow pack that other hikers found on the trail because they started so early. Instead, where they found fields of snow, we found fields of flowers. Or it could have been 115 degrees in the Wyoming desert, as it was the week before we got there. We were much happier the temperatures were in the 80’s for us. In those respects, our planning and our timing worked as we hoped. Which also means we got lucky - it could have been otherwise.
In one respect our luck wasn't all that good, because our hike was affected by the many fires in Montana and Wyoming. The fires were not entirely unexpected, we just didn't know when and where they would require us to alter our plans. Four fires directly on our route were more than we had counted on, but we were able to adapt.
For the last month, we were alone on the Trail in Montana – all the other northbound hikers had finished early. And while we had about a week of cold, wet and snow, we also had 3 weeks of gloriously beautiful Indian Summer, complete with brilliant yellow aspen and larch against the backdrop of Montana firs, pines and rock. Even the snow wasn’t a negative – Glacier NP is beautiful under snow. And the wildlife is more accessible and visible because there are fewer people in the backcountry. With fewer people out there, it’s also more of a wilderness. In spite of the remoteness of some areas, there was very little wilderness in Colorado because there were too many people.
The Wyoming desert was also “wilderness” - remote areas with few people, gaggles of wildlife, beautiful sunsets – and little water. This was another drought year – the 8th. Some hikers can’t stand the desert – some have even refused to hike it. But I love it – because it IS wilderness.
The CDT – some people think it’s a line on a map that represents a fixed, immutable “trail” from Mexico to Canada – like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Not so. No matter how the future maps and guidebooks and trail organizations define it, the CDT will always be a “wild child.” And those who go out there for love of the journey and the country and the experience rather than for the “destination” will find new and wonderful routes and adventures. And the wildness that makes the CDT “different” from the other long trails.
That’s why, when Ginny and I do our next thruhike, it’s not certain, but far more likely to be on the CDT again, rather than on the more civilized AT or PCT. Only – again, we’ll be very unlikely to follow “official” routes – or established trails. There are too many alternate routes that we have yet to explore. We NEED to explore those other wild places – like Mt Zirkel and the west side of Glacier NP and the Flathead NF and the “new” CDTS route in southern New Mexico and ……. others - some of which we have yet to discover.
There are also other trails – like the Arizona Trail, the Great Divide Trail, the Grand Enchantment Trail, and the new Great Eastern Trail. And there are the “non-trails” – like the Brooks Range, and Willmore and Wrangell-St Elias and Kamchatka and … a few others. So many trails, so much backcountry, so much world to see – so little time.
The knees (you know – the ones the surgeon said would stop me from finishing the CDT) will keep on working as long as they keep on working. And when they stop working, we’ll deal with it – and then come back and hike some more in some other places. For me, hiking is life - and "not-hiking" is death. And I like living, so I’ll keep on hiking. Ginny says: "WE’ll keep on hiking."