A new podcast, Boldly Went (think The Moth), came to Bend recently and invited a few people to the stage to tell some stories of DISASTER… I shared a harrowing tale of catching myself, the forest, and most of my stuff on fire when I thru-hiked the CDT two years ago. Take a listen and don’t do what I did. (my story starts at minute 14)
I haven’t touched this video project in a year and a half, but who knows when I’ll get to working on it again, so here we go!
Here’s a rough cut of a rough trail.
Epic in so many ways.
CDT, I love you.
And yes, the video ends at 2:11, unless you love the Gorillaz, and then listen to the end of the song.
I wrote an article on my CDT thru-hike last year that was published in the current issue of Passages, the CDTC’s newsletter. Click on the image to read the whole magazine.
Lessons Learned from a CDT Thru-Hike
“If the Pacific Crest Trail is a purring kitten, then the Appalachian Trail is an angry house cat that still has its claws, and the Continental Divide Trail is a mountain lion about to take your face off with one wrong move.” – Day 3 on the CDT
Thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) has always been a difficult endeavor. Yes, the trail isn’t complete and crosses terrain that is strenuous and/or paved. Yes, the weather can throw down the gauntlet, and the isolation and remote conditions can gnaw into the psyche of even the most stalwart of hikers. But the reward for pushing through all the snow and rain and loneliness is well worth it. For me the challenge of completing a CDT thru-hike was so much bigger than merely walking across the country.
My 2015 thru-hike came many years after my other long trail adventures: it had been 13 years since completing the Appalachian Trail, and 9 years since finishing the Pacific Crest Trail. Prior to setting foot on the CDT this past April, I’ll be the first to admit I had doubts. Could my almost 40 year old body handle the miles? Could I spend the whole hike solo if I didn’t find others to hike with? Could I handle the harsh conditions that are often found on the Divide?
Now that I’m at the reflection stage of the hike I know the answers, and after reading back through my daily journal I am able to look back at a few things I learned, or was reminded of, along the way.
It’s ok to be Uncomfortable
“I was going to town! Now I know I just left Pie Town, but there are towns where you have to wash your hair in a trickle of warm water with dish soap, and there are towns with hotel hot tubs, Denny’s restaurants, and just about any kind of fried food imaginable.” – Day 24
I knew going into the hike that big goals like walking across the country can be scary, and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is a great way to grow. The CDT is definitely scary and uncomfortable, but I knew that by trusting in my abilities that I could handle what the trail could serve up and possibly learn a thing or two.
I had moments on the trail where I knew for a fact that there were no other thru-hikers within a few days ahead or behind me. The isolation is real, and at times I was nervous about the implications of needing help in such situations. So I would dig deep, remind myself this level of solitude is quite unique in our connected/populated world, and try to revel in the freedom of hiking alone…sometimes.
“Getting grumpy when you are hiking by yourself really doesn’t mean much. If you have no one to complain to, what’s the point? This is the second day in a row that I haven’t seen anyone, and all I wanted to do was bitch about the wind and terrain (yes the same terrain I loved this morning).”
I had to be my own cheerleader and companion, and trust myself to make the right decisions. Sometimes that meant going low, bypassing a summit, or carrying extra water. It usually came down to making safe, smart decisions.
Oh yes, being uncomfortable can also mean the simplest pleasures are magnified. “The suffering was expected and highlighted every small pleasure to an excruciating degree. Being dry was a luxury. Warm? Even better. Food took on a mythical status and prior to getting to each town stop I would daydream about what I would stuff in my face.”
Self Reliance leads to Flexibility
“I’m just going to go ahead and not worry about it.” – Words of wisdom from fellow thru-hiker Pimp Limp
I was prepared to be make decisions on the ground. A lot of the CDT is an unknown until you are in the middle of freaking nowhere and need to decide how to get up that mountain without hurting yourself. I liked to call the CDT the PhD of hiking trails because often I had to draw on other hiking/backcountry experiences to make the right decisions. That came in the form of very little advance planning.
The CDT is a trail with hundreds of alternates, I knew trying to decide which routes to take as I was packing my boxes and splitting up my maps would be next to impossible. Instead I sent myself all the materials I would need to make those decisions on the ground and let the trail and weather and my body decided which way I would go. And I knew I could trust myself to make those decisions because I had spent most of my adult life in outdoor/backcountry environment. I could draw on those experiences.
Here’s a journal excerpt from one particular day that I couldn’t plan for after burning myself in a stove accident: “As with my lost sunglasses, burned up thermarest, patched but trashy repair jobs on my tarp and down jacket, burned tyvek, broken watch, and lost handkerchief, I swear I thought it was a decent day. Oh and I shouldn’t forget needing to keep the blisters on my fingers, hands, and arms clean and uninfected.” For all intents and purposes it was a disaster of a day, even though I didn’t realize it until my end-of-the-day tally. But instead of throwing in the towel and hiking out on the nearest road, I patched what I could, cleaned the blisters best I knew how, evaluated my health and safety of continuing to hike to the next town, and just did it.
Snow and storms were a major stressor this year, but again, having backcountry shoulder season and winter experience came in handy when I had to deal with the wettest spring New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming had on record. I was prepared; my gear was prepared. Gortex socks, gaiters, and pants came in handy in Colorado. Rain mittens, extra trash bags, and an umbrella helped keep me dry in the storms, and shoe bindings on touring skis kept me on top of the snow instead of slogging through it. If you think you might encounter snow on your hike, go hike in the snow. If you are worried about staying dry in a rainstorm, go hike in a rain storm. I believe having faced these conditions before gave me an advantage, especially when faced with how to keep myself safe out there as a solo hiker. It’s not really an option to go in unprepared when the stakes are as high as they can be on the CDT.
This is my Vacation
“Two weeks on the trail, 200 miles, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Sleeping when the sun goes down, waking just before the day begins…it’s as if I’ve been transported to an alternate universe where time takes on a different pace. Two weeks back in Bend pass quickly…the routine of the everyday has certain qualities that are blissfully absent out here. No bills to pay, no obligations other than to my feet and stomach. I’ve already lived a lifetime in these two weeks, and the prospect of 4-5 more months of this is pretty exhilarating.” – After a soak in the Gila Hotsprings, NM
At the heart of my 160 days on the CDT was the fact that this was my vacation. It had been years since I had taken any real time off of my job; I was working a desk-bound, weekend warrior existence, and come rain or snow, I was determined to enjoy my thru-hike.
How an experience is framed can mean all the difference. Yes, completing the CDT this year would mean earning my triple crown. Competing the CDT would mean I can hike through challenging conditions, but really, hiking the CDT meant I could do what I enjoy doing more than almost anything: backpacking long distances in the backcountry.
Having that as my main goal changed the way I hiked. I enjoyed getting to camp early and reading. I took lots of zeros and neros because I wanted to. I connected with friends I hadn’t seen in years, and took the time to meet new people and make new friends. I carried a french press coffee mug because I wanted to enjoy a great cup of hot coffee in the mornings, and slept on an inflatable pillow because I could. Why not? It’s my vacation!
Put one Step in Front of the Other
“One step at a time.” – repeated over and over and over on my approach to the 14er Grays Peak, CO
Due to the various challenges I would face (sometimes daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes even by the minute) I found it essential to focus on one step at a time. I had to be completely present in those times, or would risk missing an important turn, falling off a mountain, or getting swept away in a river. Each step needed to be intentional.
During my second week on the trail I received this message loud and clear. Navigating what might have been my 60th river crossing of the day in the Gila River, I found myself in a foul mood. I had wet feet with the promise of continued wet feet. I started to wish I was out of the river canyon and walking on dry ground when Woosh! I slipped and fell in the river. Yes, I was crossing a slippery, mossy rock shelf, but instead of paying attention to my footing, I was dreaming of walking on dry ground until the Gila slapped me in the face. It was a very clear message: “Pay attention.”
When I was picking my way across the knife’s edge between Edwards Mountain and Gray’s Peak in Colorado I simply couldn’t let my mind wander. The ridge was so steep and the consequences of one wrong step so severe, I had to be 100% present. In fact I even muttered the mantra, “One step at a time,” to keep myself calm and on track.
Each day required focus, and this little tidbit from my journal speaks to that: “The consequences are immense with one mistake out here, I’m confident in my abilities, but I’ve never been on a trail with this many challenges. Today, the wind.”
What is in my Control?
“I had several plans for the day and my plans had plans. But really who can plan on the CDT? What I had for the day were vague ideas of what I would do if certain conditions existed…and back up ideas. Plans on the CDT are for suckers.” – On whether I would continue skiing the divide to Spring Creek Pass
I am normally not an anxious person, but at times had a lot of anxiety on the trail and had to find a way to deal with it. Much of the stress came in the form of how to properly deal with sketchy conditions.
In mid July I was racing across a 10 mile section of above-treeline trail towards Berthoud Pass as storm clouds threatened to unleash their fury. At 11:30 in the morning 15 people were hit by lightning a short distance from where I was hiking. I descended the ridge that day at 1:30pm, well after the recommended noon hour on storm days in Colorado. The next day of hiking looked to be another long section above treeline with the continued storm cycle, and I really didn’t want to go back up there. I started stressing out, so much so that it was manifesting in an upset stomach and feelings of panic. After a calming phone conversation with my boyfriend, he reminded me of what I had forgotten. What is in my control? Can I control when and where the lightning will strike? No. Can I control the fact that I would need to hike 25+ miles tomorrow, primarily above treeline? Turns out I could. I had already needed to find alternates around a very avalanche-prone section in the San Juans; I could find an alternate around my current problem too. I pieced together a series of roads to bypass the high country…an exercise that was as much for my peace of mind as it was for not getting caught in a lightning storm above treeline. The decision helped remind myself of what was in my control, and that it was my hike to hike.
But it wasn’t always easy to make those decisions: “I left the mountains. Amid some self-berating about taking the easy way out and not rising to the navigational challenge of the trail ahead, was a deep sense of relief. I would be safe today. And tomorrow. I would get myself out of these mountains safely and not get caught in a potentially dangerous situation of hiking through the terrain ahead alone.”
Readjustment is Hard
Thru-hiking the CDT has been a goal for a long time. Completing the hike felt amazing, but was soon followed by a gaping hole where that goal had been. What now?
Fortunately I live in a community with dozens of thru-hikers who understood that hole, and as I was struggling with the absence of what had consumed so much of my time and energy over the past few years, they reminded me it was ok. It was ok to feel a bit lost; it was ok to be unsure of my next steps. I needed to give myself permission to struggle.
Ultimately what these past few months have highlighted is my desire to have another goal. It’s time to dream up something scary to do. Something I’m not sure I can do. But I know this much, I’m capable of so much more now that I’ve hiked the CDT.
There is almost too much to do, so I choose to do nothing. It’s as if I were preparing to hike a long distance trail, and the thought of 2,000 miles makes the first mile unimaginable. That is what getting home after an almost 6 month absence is like.
I want to look at my 6,000+ photos and hundreds of little videos and make movies. I need to unpack from our 2 week road trip. I want to see friends. I need to go through all my mail. I want to go to yoga. I want to read all the magazines I missed. I want to veg in front of netflix. I want to go for a walk. I need to work. I want to write lots of blogs and reviews. I want to packraft. I want to make things.
So I don’t do any of it, or I do it slowly and distractedly.
Did I just hike across the country? Man, seems like years ago now.
Day 1 – 17ish miles
I’m on the CDT!
What a relief to finally be on trail and find my body remembers what this is all about. The walking, the sun, the water, the maps, I love it all!
After another sub-par night of sleep, I woke to my alarm at 5:30am…just enough time to pack up, hit the continental breakfast at the Econolodge in Lordsburg, and meet Teresa, Val, and Juan who would be shuttling us to the border.
Getting to the start of the CDT is not an easy task. While there are traditionally three spots folks can start the trail on the Mexican border, two are not ideal, either passing through private property, or containing looooong road walks. The Crazy Cook monument is the spot most people start, and it is in the middle of freaking no where.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition offers shuttle service to the border, and since I’m their trail ambassador this year, I was able to catch a ride down the day before the official shuttle service started. So did Bearclaw, Dirtmonger, and True with her dog Billy. For $120 the CDTC will take hikers the 3 hour drive over nasty rutted dirt roads to Crazy Cook, and will also maintain 5 water caches for hikers along the 84 trail miles to Lordsburg. A real deal considering others offering rides charge more and don’t cache water for you.
We loaded up the vehicles and were off! FINALLY.
We rolled up to the border about 10am, and yes, the road is nasty. We all took obligatory photos, turned around, and set off!
The first few miles were cross country, but posts with big CDT symbols made it easy to navigate the great wide open. I had a perma-grin on my face the whole day. I’m on the CDT!!
Soon the trail started following a dirt road and I hiked a bit with Bearclaw & Dirtmonger…taking lunch with them in a dirt wash. Oh life! Dirt and trail food and sweat!
We all played leap-frog with eachother the rest of the afternoon, in and out of deeply cut washes. The sandy-rocky footbed was pleasent and flowers of the brightest yellow and deepest purple carpeted the desert in places.
We’ve heard the desert is greener than it has been in a while due to a wet winter. Score!
I caught up to Bearclaw & Dirtmonger once again at the first cache, and found Rambler, who had decided to hike south from Lordsburg.
Filling up on a few liters of water, I set off for an evening stroll. I had carried more water than i needed from the border, and have much too much food, but hey! Other than that the first day went amazingly.
A bit before dusk I cleared out some rocks for a place to sleep; I’ll cowboy camp (sleep out in the open without a shelter) since the sky is fairly clear. I have my shelter handy in case it does decide to rain tonight, but i want to be out in the open, I want to watch the stars twinkle into existance as the sun sets (right now!) and soak in my first day on the CDT.
The major hurdle for northbound thru-hikers on the CDT pivots on snow levels in Southern Colorado. This is a major point of stress, and rightly so. Stories of thigh-deep post-holing for miles (a veritable swimming pool of spring snow) may sound sweet if you are a skier, but as a backpacker intent on making it to Canada before NEW snow falls on THOSE mountains, anything that slows your pace down to 1 mile an hour deserves the panic. Just ask anyone intent on heading out on the CDT what their snow plan is, and see the wild look that comes into their eyes. It’s a real fear.
Since moving to Bend, and taking up several new outdoor sports, backcountry touring has been one of the most enjoyable ways Kirk and I spend time outside. We’re not talking about skiing sick lines off of Broken Top or South Sister, but traveling long distances over snow. Really, it’s backpacking…in winter.
So Kirk and I got to thinking after hearing our friend’s horror stories (or lack there-of because they skipped around the heavy snow sections) about these “spring skiing” conditions on the CDT. Spring skiing is some of the best skiing out there! The snow pack is relatively stable, the air warm, the sky blue, and the snow slushy in the mornings, icy at night. I feel pretty comfortable in those conditions.
And then Kirk, ever the searcher of cool experiences and amazing adventures, commented that he had seen shoe bindings made for polar expeditions that would probably work if I wanted to ski some of Colorado. What!!?!
OF COURSE I WANT TO TRY THAT.
Needless to say I liked his idea, and we decided that some old Atomic Rainier metal-edge touring skis that he had were light, and would work well for the job.
So now to make the binding.
Now please don’t think I’m any sort of McGyver type here. This is all Kirk. I would still be in snowshoes if it wasn’t for this man. He can make anything, and I think we are a pretty damn good team.
Things came together over the past 4 months. Some of that time was spent sitting on the couch talking about the idea of how great these would be if they worked, but for practicality, I was eager to try them, could this really work?
Cut to this weekend.
Kirk finished up the bindings on Saturday and mounted them on the Atomics. We headed to Dutchman Sno Park for another amazingly clear “spring” day in Central Oregon.
All in all a great first run. We started to ski into some more varied terrain, but after falling a few times it sunk in: I was not in my plastic touring boots, I was in low-top trail shoes (no ankle support). I think these shoes will be perfect if I have a deep snowy section of less than a week. If it happens that there is a blizzard Armageddon in Colorado between now and June, and I think I’ll need the skis more than a week or two, I would get high-top hiking boots instead for the extra ankle support. That, however, is unlikely.
And here’s a short video I put together of the ski.
My impending hike has been leaking out into my day job quite a bit lately. Well, to be honest I’ve been talking about it for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, the position has been incredibly rewarding; I’ve been able to really engage with the arts community, which has been fantastic, but I need to stretch my legs, see a new part of the world, and sleep on the ground for a while.
Each month in Cascade A&E, the arts magazine I’m the editor of in Bend, I write a short column, and for the February issue I found myself mentioning the CDT. You see one of the things I love about long distance hiking is the flow of it all, and I had been thinking specifically about the thru-hiking flow when the artist I interviewed for the cover story this month mentioned it. She plays music when she paints; and lets the rhythm and energy make its way to the page. It flows, without thought, and some pretty cool stuff can come out of that.
Now I don’t know about you, but I can walk for hours on a ridgetop, feeling like I’m flying and listing to Radiohead or just the wind, and I’m no longer thinking of the steps I’m taking, but I’m just being, in its most pure form.
So I wrote about flow this month. And I get home from work thinking maybe I’ll write another blog post about the OR Show when I find Kirk watching kayak videos. Kirk has been paddling whitewater (the crazy big stuff) for the past 20 years and he is to water as I am to trail. Anyway, we’re watching a video that is pure flow. The editing is beautiful, and there is music of course, and they fly down Class V gorges in Norway with you along for the ride, and you feel like you can do anything, that you could paddle that waterfall if you really wanted to, soaring through the air on a mixture of adrenalin and red bull.
I love that stuff. Since Kirk and I have been packrafting for the past 3 or so years, I’ve had fun making short videos (not quite the caliber of the Substantial Media guys), but I’m getting better! (geek out ahead: I met Evan Garcia at the Summer OR Show as he was getting some badass kayaking award! Cool!)
So since getting a GoPro for my birthday last year the quality of my little movies has gone up quite a bit, and I’m thinking about taking it on the CDT…oh the movies I could make!
Here is one I made of Kirk and i R2ing his new raft on the North Umpqua River this summer. I think you can see where I’m getting at with the flow here…
And that reminds me of another great flow video, J.P. Auclair’s Street Scene. Just watch:
I was sad to hear of J.P.’s death in the mountains last year. These things we do, these adventures we take, and places we go do have certain inherent risks. We take these risks, but so do those who don’t wear helmets or don’t floss after meals or eat too much sugar…not to mention a sedentary lifestyle…
Knowing your risks, knowing how to keep yourself safe in the wilderness and not only survive, but have the most mind-bendendly amazing experience ever, is the flow. Going with it. That’s right, going with the flow. It works on and off the trail, but one is definitely more scenic than the other
What 2015 really means.
The new year, as I expressed in one of my last blog posts, isn’t just about hiking the Continental Divide Trail in 2015, it’s part of a progression I have come to see as normal. Work, hike, study, hike, work, hike, work, work, work, hike, hike.
Yes, my resume to some seems scattered and patchy…and some might see that as flighty and unreliable…but if you ask me, everything I’ve done since college has had a logical progress based on what I’m passionate about.
Summed up? new experiences, creativity, knowledge, wilderness, optimism, people, passion.
And seeking that has taken different forms: long distance hiking, writing, design, travel, volunteerism, graduate school, real jobs.
But at the core of my progression from Peace Corps to hiking to museum work to grad school to a design job, back to hiking, trail crew, hiking, wilderness therapy, hiking and now a sweet job as the editor of a local arts magazine (and then some more hiking), has been that quest to learn something new, to see a new place, and have a new experience; it has always been a progression.
2015 means continuing the progression.
And I can’t wait to find out what I’ll get up to next!