There were no trees, just thousand-foot waves of
sage. Actually, there were a few trees, isolated in little clumps, little
stationary villages, but they didn't come into play much, they were just
distant decorations. My map showed there was once a railroad tunnel under the
divide. We'd read about about the old railroad on the little historical marker
back at the pass. We took a little side trip to investigate the tunnel.
Somebody had closed the tunnel entrance 50 years ago... mostly. A large berm
had been plowed up in front of it. It was an easy climb over the berm and into
the tunnel. The tunnel was cold, dark and about 100 yards deep, beyond that it
had collapsed. It was a hidden island oasis. Anything rare was valuable. We
stepped back outside to a sky filled with angry swallows... which looked a lot
like any other swallows, except for the squawking.
The trail took us up, for the first time up over
10,000 feet. Elk Mountain.. From the top, we could see a line of jagged peaks
in Idaho, paralleling the divide - the Lemhi range. The Lemhis looked amazing,
what was going on over in those mountains? what was the view like from there?
why couldn't we be walking over there instead? But, I thought, if had been
there, surely I'd have been looking lustfully back at the divide. The place for
dreamy thoughts was right under my feet.
The trail continued over more rolling
green-brown mountains. The land was huge, made of tiny plants and tiny rocks
and a tiny two-track road with two tiny people. We picked a spot, as good as
any, and enjoyed the dusk.
The next day continued the same - a speck of two
people moving slowly over a huge land. It was hard to take it all in, to really
appreciate and comprehend the views that had become so routine, the life that
had become routine. We descended to a spring - pure water trickling out the
base of a mountain - time for another break, back on the grass, flowers, sky,
wind. Time paused for us there.
We came to another lake that was at the end of a
road. A couple had parked at the lake, and they were staring through a
telescope pointed at a high mountain slope. They'd spotted a few bighorn rams,
relaxed bighorns. Most of the time we saw wildlife along the trail, it was
running from us. It was reassuring to know that the animals got to take breaks
too. The couple had come up there because, "We saw the road on a map and
decided we'd discover where it went", we had that in common.
The trail continued below the mountaintops,
winding among foothills along little used roads. The high lands above us were
gentle, open, and inviting - calling us to come up and explore. After a couple
hours, we'd had enough, and decided to cut up to the mountaintops a few miles
before the CDT did. I wandered up a creek, slowly rising, and something caught
A boulder had crashed from a cliff high above.
It was filled with small fossils, about the size of gum balls. The fossils
looked to be some type of ancient sea creature, a barnacle-like thing. I
thought, how little we knew of that other dimension, the one of time. The
fossils made the mountains look young. It had taken millions of years for them
to have become rock, millions more for them to have been uplifted by geologic
forces and broken off the mountainside. Yet, that rock had probably been
uncovered, sitting there, since before people even existed, let alone lived
nearby or hiked the CDT. We didn't even exist in time, we only got a still
photo, one that shifted almost imperceptibly during the course of our short
The land continued to open up, with each step,
more and more of the surrounding country was revealed. Distant peaks and
valleys and rivers and lakes, they slowly appeared to us. Slowly the picture
changed, the scale changed, the word "far" took on new meaning. We surprised a
group of about 5 bighorn rams. We'd uncovered their secret hideaway, and they
reluctantly trotted off, out of sight, to another hideaway. We reached the
divide, then dropped down a little to a stream to cook dinner.
It was already getting late. Where had the day
gone? Our little dinner spot overlooked dozens of square miles of land. We were
treated to a symphony of sounds from places near and far - a screeching hawk,
yelping coyotes, bugling elk... Why was it that even the harshest language of
nature was music to our ears?
We continued, following our maps and occasional
CDT signposts along the divide. We climbed to another high grassy mound, it
looked as if we'd be in for another evening light show - puffy clouds were just
overhead, soon the sun would dip to an orange angle that lit up their bellies.
Sunset soon happened, right on schedule, but the clouds didn't dissipate like
I'd hoped. Instead, they gathered their forces.
The clouds above our heads were being drawn to
the east, where a huge thundercloud was forming - a mass of low pressure. The
sucking wind ripped over our grassy hilltop - taking the clouds above with it.
To the north, another thundercloud was already going to work. Elk Mountain,
where we'd been a couple days earlier, was being bombarded with lightning. As
the sky got darker, the Elk Mountain storm intensified - one silent flash every
few seconds. I began to worry, was that going to be our fate too? We were in
about the worst possible position for lightning - on the top of a 9000 ft.
mountain, in a landscape where the tallest plant was 1 ft high. There wasn't
enough light to see the clouds anymore. I tried to estimate their size and
location by looking for stars - a big black void told me where the nearby storm
was gathering. It started to rain. I just laid low and hoped for the best, I
was too tired to think about moving downhill, plus, it was probably 3 miles to
the nearest tree. As I drifted off to sleep, the rain let up, the wind
slackened, and by morning we had blue skies. The sky hadn't quite enough
ammunition to get us.
In the morning, after a brief detour to get
water from a rocky spring, we headed up Cottonwood peak. It wasn't on the CDT,
but it was on the divide. We'd been looking at Cottonwood Peak for a day,
getting closer and closer... of course when we reached it, we had to go up. The
summit of Cottonwood was a rounded area about 30 yards in diameter, beyond that
it dropped-off, out of sight. To the southwest, a giant brown valley sat
beneath the jagged peaks of Idaho's Lemhi range, rising on its far side. To the
southeast, the divide continued, becoming a series of un-navigable crags of
steep loose rock. To the northeast, the mountains gave way to the big hole and
the hazy green color of sagebrush. A few drips of shimmering blue were visible
below us. Harkness Lakes. We'd be there in a couple hours.
We scrambled down the steep northeast slope of
the mountain, the loose rocks shifted beneath our feet. The absence of a trail
didn't faze me anymore, every place was just another place to go. I realized
that the whole planet was open, it was only a matter of taking enough careful
steps. To where else could I lead my feet?
A half dozen pronghorn bounded away as we
approached the little group of little lakes. We continued over more foothills
as the heat of the day grew. The flies steadily built, opportunistically
grabbing tastes of sweat and skin, then sticking around for more. We stopped
for a break under some small shady trees. I covered myself in nylon... it may
have been hot, but it was better than bugs. I couldn't look at all of them,
couldn't focus on one individual before it was gone and another had taken its
place nearby. The flies had all shapes and sizes and agendas. A freaky 2-inch
long nameless alien bug, covered in antennae and probosci, slammed into Mario
then sped off, in a hurry to be somewhere.
As the walk continued, I looked ahead and
noticed an unmistakable pattern of black and white on the trail just ahead. It
was a badger. It saw me and stomped off in the other direction, down the trail
surrounded by tall grass. A mile later I saw another one... then I thought, it
must have been the same one. After all, what were the odds of living an entire
lifetime, never seeing a badger, then seeing two in 20 minutes?
The trail headed along a creek, up a beautiful
mountain valley. Grey peaks rose high above the rounded green bottom. A deep
blue sky dotted with clouds provided a perfect backdrop. It was Nichola Creek.
I remembered back a few weeks ago, to that rancher we'd met - the real live
cowboy. It was where he came when he came to the mountains, his "favorite place
in the world". I could see why. The trail turned away from the valley though. I
wanted to go up Nichola Creek, and was sorry that I hadn't planned to do it. It
would have taken an extra half a day, and I didn't have enough food. I felt
like I'd let the cowboy down somehow, I wanted to see what he had seen, to
understand a little more of that place. I promised myself that I'd return
someday. Yes, that was it... a perfect reason to come back, to think about that
day. Nichola Creek, I'd visit you yet.
We came to another lake, Deadman Lake. It was a
small lake, population 4 - Mario, myself, and a father & son fishing team.
We cooked our dinner, and watched the fishing. 10 seconds after every cast, Dad
pulled up a trout, took the hook out out of its mouth, and threw the fish back.
His son, probably 10 years old, wasn't having much luck, and started to lose
interest, as if there was something about fishing that he would never
understand or appreciate as well as his Dad. "This lake isn't stocked", the Dad
told us, "these are the same fish that the pioneers fished". I was glad that it
mattered to him, glad that he was there with his son, showing his son what
mattered to him and why. It was quiet at Deadman Lake.
After dinner, we headed up another hill, another
steep climb, and found a place to spend the night, back on the divide. We were
just settling in when Drew came up. He'd started a half-day behind us. All that
time I'd been looking around, knowing there was nobody out there, Drew had been
behind, a speck in the green. How many other unknown specks were out there?
Maybe weren't as alone as I'd believed.
Drew left early the next morning, before Mario
and I even started making noises. I never saw him on the CDT
Early in the morning, we passed high above a
herd of Elk doing their daily business. There were probably 40 - 50 elk of all
sizes, a community of them. They were disappearing into a patch of forest, one
by one. The crisp cool morning fit the elk well, I wondered what they'd be
doing in the heat of the day - sitting the shade most likely - the elk were
smart, they'd been there a long time. Mario and I headed toward points unknown,
further exploring our home, slowly learning what the elk already
I pulled off the trail and signaled to Mario
that I'd see him up ahead. I didn't need to say anything more, he understood.
It was a daily ritual. I sat there, squatting above miles of empty land, making
my little contribution to the earth. People had invented a thousand euphemisms
for it, but it was one of the most basic things that people did, one of the
things that reminded us of our fundamental natural heritage, of our legacy.
What was wrong with that? In isolated shrines all over the world, people
squatted, seemingly ashamed that they indeed had to poop. Everybody pooped, but
discussion of it was usually met with either giggles or shudders. On the trail,
it was an accepted topic of conversation. It was celebrated. A good poo meant a
good hike. A scenic poo? what could be better?
We came to bannack pass, the other one... Up
ahead I could see a white cliff. Limestone. It was an oddity, it stuck out,
half uncovered like an ancient skeleton . I remembered the words of the man
who'd sat in the dirt with me at Lemhi Pass. We had to look for the bison
caves. We got to the top of the cliffs, and spread out. The cliffs themselves
were something to behold, a unique frame from which to view the giant green
expanse. Mario called out from behind me, "Here, I think it is here.". A dark
cave, the walls made of soft horizontal grey/white bands, snaked vertically
into the ground. It was as if the wall of the nearby cliff had slightly
separated from the ground behind, allowing water to slowly erode the rock. We
climbed down. The walls glew with sunlight, dimly illuminating the floor. The
bottom of the cave, 20 feet below the ground, smelled like an unused basement,
a faint scent of stagnant moisture. The floor was covered with bones, I had no
idea how old or how many. If they had been bison, somebody had already removed
the horns and skulls. All that were left were vertebrae, ribs, and limbs. The
bones went down to an unknown depth. I thought about a bison, getting trapped
there in a winter long ago, breathing heavily, and slowly realizing its fate,
calling out to its companions above, the calls becoming faint, the big animal
sitting down, never to stand again, the last breath and the slow
We picked up the CDT, and came to a stock tank.
According to the map, we were near something called Buffalo Spring. A hose came
out of the ground, and emptied into a large red tub. We found a valve hidden
nearby which turned the water on. We had no idea where the water was coming
from, but were too tired to worry about it. We figured, who would poison the
water? and if it came from a dirty source... well... it'd be hard to catch
anything to which we hadn't already been exposed. The water tasted good, and it
didn't kill us.
The trail leading away from the spring started
out nice, but within a mile, it was completely gone. My home-made maps were of
no use, I had only written on them, "trail in here somewhere". The guidebook
was somewhat helpful, but, basically, we just headed toward the divide. There
were a few CDT trial-posts, but no trail. The lumpy ground underfoot was hidden
by thigh-high grass, every step became an experiment in stability and a test in
ankle strength. Above us, a great mountain face - the Red Conglomerates - kept
watch. The Red Conglomerates were like a grassy hill, with a section removed.
The inside of the hill was made of rust-red banded rock. What else was hidden
under these mountains? I wondered. What did they look like a million years ago?
What would they look like a million years hence? I wanted to stand right there
and get a fast-forward preview of the future, shards of red rock crumbling down
into a heap, being covered by grass, the whole mountain melting into the
countryside... Why do we have to be cursed with a human
We stopped for dinner on a windy ridge, then
bushwhacked some more... luckily coming to a road-end where we camped. As
darkness fell, we could hear a group of people a quarter mile away, partying,
probably drinking beer around a bonfire... It was Friday night, they were out
there, cramming all their living into a night they'd probably forget by
The next morning, the trail disappeared into cow
land. It seemed like every cow in southern Montana was crammed into that few
miles. The cows had trampled paths crisscrossing all the hills. A few scattered
CDT markers were placed here and there, one couldn't be seen from another, and
some had arrows pointing the wrong directions. We just followed the guidebook,
followed written directions, looking for treasure. Every stream we came across
was destroyed by the cows, turned into muddy puddles that had been stomped to
death. We finally found a trickle of fresh water coming out of the ground,
about 12 inches below, the water ran into a moist lump of cow
We climbed back up to the divide, smaller and
smaller plants grew in the rocky soil. The rolling hills around us were all
completely barren and windswept, they looked like thinly-disguised sand dunes.
The wind was blowing hard from the southwest. As the walk continued, the wind
intensified. The wind flowed up the slopes on the Idaho side of the divide and
rolled over the top, right through us. I yelled at the top of my voice and
heard nothing but the white noise of wind circling through my ears. I turned my
head, and the wind ripped my hat off, ripped out the little string under my
chin - the string that was supposed to keep the hat on my head. By the time I
turned my head to look at it, the hat was but a speck in the blue-white sky,
headed forever upward. The trail rolled up and down and up and down on bumpy
soil, tracking the divide. We had to lean into the wind to keep our balance and
avoid being blown into the barbed-wire fence, which was strung along our side -
the Montana / Idaho border fence. We took a break just under the ridge on the
Montana side, the leeward side. Below a height of one foot, there was little
wind. We laid there for temporary relief. I amused myself by throwing bits of
plants into the wind-stream above, watching them take off horizontally,
instantly gone. An occasional grasshopper or bird whipped by, flying futilely
against the current, flying backwards. Finally, the divide turned so the wind
was at our back, we descended to the flatness below and ate dinner behind a
parked car - a poor windbreak.
In the evening, we camped in a tiny patch of
pristine green grass, it was a bit of streambed fenced off from the cow
traffic. It was all that was left of the way everything once was. I tried to
imagine what the land looked like B.C. (before cow). It was difficult, the face
of the land had been altered too much. What wealth of beauty laid underneath
The next morning, we walked the remaining mile
to the highway, the first pavement we'd crossed since Salmon. After a few
minutes of thumb-waving, we had a ride. A few minutes more, and we were in
Lima was once somewhere, a railroad stop. But,
the railroad had been replaced by the highway. The few cars that actually
stopped in Lima were the only reason the town was still there at all. We had
lunch at the cafe, an older couple from Lake Havasu sat with us... even bought
us lunch. A woman at the gas station offered to help with our laundry. John and
J.J. showed up, they had another hiker with them. Todd was a teacher from out
east, hiking a chunk of the CDT before the summer ended. He'd started at the
Canadian border with his partner, Dave, but the two of them had gotten
separated somewhere in the last section.
That night, we wound up at the bar. The bar had
never made the jump from railroad to highway, it still faced the tracks,
surrounded by abandoned buildings. The old man who ran the bar was a relic of
the old Lima. He was the living essence of the place, a personified metaphor
for the town itself. "Welp", he told me, staring off in the distance, "I've
lived the best life I could." He slammed his hands on the bar. He was
satisfied. He knew that it was all nearly over, and in the end all that
mattered was not having regrets. All things passed, nothing could be done about
Dave showed up the next morning, severely
sunburned but unconcerned about it. He had a pack smaller than a schoolboy's.
He subsisted on twinkies and doritos. I told him about some of the side trips
we'd taken in the last section. "Oh, you're actually looking at stuff?", he
commented. He had a different agenda, for him the CDT was a test of endurance,
a race against his own physical limitations. He was trying to average 30 miles
per day, including time-off in towns. Todd was doing his best to keep up with
him. For them, the trail was work, it was deadlines, "gotta get to ___ by ___".
They'd started 2 weeks after us. I wished them luck.
Mario and I hit the road. It was the busiest
highway we'd seen since Butte. Surely, we thought, getting a ride wouldn't be a
problem. But, I didn't have a hat, Mario had lost his during the ride into
town, he'd left it in the back of the pickup. "It is fate", he'd said as the
truck had driven off. Mario's shoes had been falling apart, and the driver had
given Mario a replacement pair, size 8.5.
I knew the lack of hats would be a problem, I
didn't realize how much. Vehicle after vehicle zoomed past, 70, 80, 90 miles
per hour. We started walking. It was 15 miles back to the trail. More cars
whizzed by, we didn't even get a sympathetic glance, not even a shrug of the
shoulders, which meant... I had no idea what it meant. I hated the shoulder
shrug. 3 miles. I hated the highway. 6 miles. I hated the cars. 9 miles. I
hated the people driving them. I shouted profanity at the speeding vehicles. I
screamed, "You are what's wrong with society!!!" I jumped up and down. I
kneeled on the pavement. I used my other finger. Nothing. We'd given up. Only
then, of course, a truck stopped ahead of us. 5 hours and 20 minutes after we'd
first hit the road. After 11 miles and about 600 cars, we'd finally gotten
ride. "I'll signal you when we need to get off.", I shouted from the back of
the pickup. We sped onto the highway. 4 miles later, I waved in the rear view
mirror. The driver signaled, "I'll stop at the next exit". There, he stopped...
2 miles too far.