Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CDT Part 1: Mexico to Silver City

Two trail towns. A hundred and fifty miles. So far, so good.

My 22-hour Greyhound adventure was, predictably, an adventure of the first degree. The first bus was more than three hours late, resulting in me sitting on a curb outside a Texaco station until 4:15AM. The bus driver on the next leg issued a stern warning to the entire bus, prior to the first stop, not to purchase or consume drugs/alcohol during the rest stop. The wonders of Greyhound. According to other thru-hikers I talked to, this was a pretty standard experience. One hiker was two days late getting to the southern terminus because of Greyhound troubles. Sigh.

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC), hte non-profit advocacy organization for the CDT, runs a shuttle to the southern border. It's a 3.5 hour journey over rough jeep roads to get to the border - only a lifted Ram 250 pickup is up to the task. By 10:45, I was hiking.

The southern section was probably the easiest terrain I've ever hiked. Most of it was flat, with only a few minor climbs. Although much of the route was cross-country, occasional CDT markers helped provide direction. I quickly learned not to worry if I didn't see a marker though; trust your map and head in the right direction. Eventually there will be a trail or some sort of marking.

Finally, a couple days ago, I encountered the first real climb on the CDT, up to 8,000' atop Burro Peak. Actual mountains - how I've missed you! The trail continues to be spotty - sometimes it's well-blazed along a constructed footpath, sometimes it's a dozen-mile roadwalk along a paved state highway. The former, needless to say, is quite a bit more pleasant.

Themes:

Temperatures: The Bootheel of New Mexico is a hot, hot place. The highs for the first few days were well in excess of ninety degrees. I took a nice long siesta during the heat of the day. Thankfully, the terrain was easy enough that I was still able to do 20-25 miles per day, even with the break in the middle. With hot temperatures and humidities hovering around 5%, I've drank more water in the past week than in any of my previous desert travels.

Wind: The wind out here is crazy. We had a major windstorm move through last week. At one point, I crested a small pass and the wind blew me right off my feet. There's another wind storm moving through today, but I'm comfortably in town for this one. I think I'll take a day and let a couple of minor aches and pains recover while it howls outside.

People: About 10 hikers per day are starting at the border. I'm definitely one of the earlier hikers, but not unreasonably so. Southern Colorado had a record low snow year this year, so I'm hoping to make it into the "real" mountains farther north earlier than normal. I saw exactly one other hiker between the border and Lordsburg, the first trail town. Between Lordsburg and Silver City, I saw several other hikers, mainly huddled around the few available water sources. While it has more people than the Hayduke (zero), the CDT definitely promises to be a more solitary experience. And that's just fine with me. Enough people to form friendships, enough solitude to have as much quiet time as I want.

Southern Border Shennanigans: One can't wander through southern New Mexico without encountering the constant presence of Border Patrol. Their trucks are everywhere in town, and on faint dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. And for good reason: I was camped a quarter mile away from a road one night, and heard a bunch of ATV's rolling through around midnight without their headlights on. Two hours later, a couple pickup trucks rolled through, also sans headlights. I heard mutterings and mumblings of voices in the distance. Whether either group was border patrol, drug runners, or immigrant parties, I have no idea. But that desert is a surprisingly active place.

Water: I still haven't seen a single natural water source. The CDTC caches water for hikers who use their shuttle service for the first 85 miles. Although not necessary, strictly speaking, the water caches do make things nice and easy for the first few days. After that, the training wheels come off. Thankfully, ranchers maintain occasional wells for their cows to drink from, generally wind or solar-powered. So I've drank from various cattle installations in varying degrees of nastiness for the past week. I haven't encountered anything truly horrid yet, but I suspect I will at some point.

What now: I'm currently hanging out in Silver City, NM with a good friend. Resupply, update the blog, replace the bashed-in tips of my trekking poles. The usual.

What next: The next section promises to be a big change-of-pace, as I follow the Gila River north, fording it several hundred times (no exaggeration). I'm preparing for wet feet and, finally, plenty of drinking water. Onward!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Leaving No Trace: Ignorance and Recklessness

I've been thinking a lot about outdoor ethics recently. And a couple of specific incidents have brought the topic to front of mind. 

The Uninformed:

I camped in the NPS campground a few nights ago. The campground host on duty gave me a sweetheart deal, even though the facility was fully booked. He jammed me and a few other late arrivals on a larger group site. A young couple from Las Vegas showed up well after dark. After unsealing the box their tent came in (clearly using it for the first time), and futzing around trying to set it up for about an hour, they finally got everything in order. And then proceeded to build a fire, not in the designated firepits (the site had two of them) but just on the ground in the middle of the campsite. I wandered over and, very nicely, asked them to let the fire die and not add more wood - campfire ash is a terrible polluter, is highly acidic, and kills grass. They replied that yes, of course, and sorry, they didn't think about that.

I don't fault them much. They were clearly new to the game and were trying to do the right thing (they saw ash in that spot on the ground already and figured it was ok). When confronted, they were agreeable. Not perfect, but nice and conscientious. I'll take that.

The Willfully Reckless:

When I got my permit for the Narrows, the ranger on duty was adamant - she would not issue me a permit unless I had a full drysuit lined up (they can be rented at several places in town). The water was 46 degrees, and the river would include several sections where swimming was necessary. She furthermore stressed that Thou Shalt Not Walk On The Banks Of The River, or walk on existing social trails on said riverbanks. The only permitted place to hike was directly in the rivercourse. She went through all the regulations - use of wag bags was required, no campfires, etc.

Fast forward a couple days. I was packing up my stuff at my designated campsite, when three young men came crashing through my site. None of them were wearing dry suits - as a matter of fact, two of them were wearing sandals. They were weaving and bobbing from riverbank to riverbank, walking on all the social trails, creating trails where none existed, in an attempt to avoid the cold river water.

I saw them again, a few hours later, and they were continuing to erode the banks of the river with their path. I said something to them. One of them, the self-appointed spokesman, said that they weren't prepared, like I was, and didn't want to get their feet cold. They'd keep doing exactly what they were doing, thank you very much.

I've never been one to tattle. But their actions and attitudes incensed me enough that I filed a complaint with the Wilderness desk when I got back to the Visitors Center. The ranger on duty noted to me that they had claimed they planned to rent dry suits and all the rest.

In summary:
  • The were warned by the ranger about the conditions they'd face in the hike and the necessary equipment
  • They lied to the ranger about their level of preparation and their willingness to comply with regulations
  • When confronted by one of their peers, me, they were brazen and unapologetic
These kind of people are who ruin it for the rest of us.



What can we take away from this?

The ignorant need to be educated, and the informed need to be held accountable. Ignorance isn't a problem - we can change that with a little education. But those who know better and simply don't care? It only takes a few of those to undo the good done by hundreds of other people following the rules. That's why I took a (nasty, grainy, zoomed-in) photo. And that's why I'm publishing it here. Because people who trample public lands, without shame or remorse, need to be called to account. Publically.

Our words must be seasoned with salt. I used a couple of unkind words with addressing our three willfully reckless gentlemen. If I'm going to call other people to account, I need to first pry that speck out of my own eye. I should have communicated the same message, but using kinder language. That's a sin. I repent of that. 

There is no middle ground. Each of us, whenever we're in the outdoors, are either making things better, or worse. There's no neutral position. Either we avoid those social trails and let the land heal, or we use those social trails and damage the land. So with no middle ground, every day we have a decision to make - am I going to make things better, or worse?

These lands belong to all of us. These are public lands. All taxpayers and citizens own these lands. When we abuse these lands, we aren't harming The Government, we're harming our neighbors. And for those of us who spend a lot of time on public lands, who identify strongly with creation - those lands are home for us. Gentlemen, you're trampling our home. My home.



Hayduke Trail: The Wrap-Up


I descended the crudely paved pathway, back and forth along a series of a million switchbacks. Below, I could see it. The parking lot. The end of the Hayduke Trail. And I felt... nothing, really.

When I reached the parking lot, no celebratory crowd greeted me. No sign marked the western terminus of the Hayduke Trail. People scarcely paid me notice at all, as they herded kids and pets and Uncle Frank up the trail.

It was the perfect end, really. A Hayduke-style end. The Hayduke isn't like the AT, the PCT, or even the CDT. No one knew or cared that an 800-mile backpacking route, the epitome of "wild and remote" in the lower 48, ended right here. When people asked what I was doing, I told them that I was out hiking for a month. Just that. Hiking for a month. The Hayduke flies under the radar.

I didn't hike the Hayduke to get 'likes' on Instagram. I didn't hike it to impress friends, or because it's a bucket-list goal in an otherwise well-rounded life. I hiked the Hayduke because I love hiking, love adventuring, love wild places, and love the desert Southwest.


I hiked the Hayduke Trail.

And that's remarkable in a way. Because I'm a very, very average person. I'm no backpacking guru with ten thousand miles on my feet. I'm no superhuman busting out 30-mile days. I'm the guy who always was the last one picked for games of playground kickball. And in terms of trails hiked, I came with only the Appalachian Trail under my belt. Presupposing that hiking the AT prepares you for hiking the Hayduke - that's like saying that operating a Sea-Doo prepares you for piloting an aircraft carrier.

And yet I hiked the Hayduke - in six trips over four years. Am I not blessed?

Themes:

Section 13 - the brutality: The Hayduke has a reputation for being brutal and tough and demanding. I found that to be an exaggeration, for the most part. However, Section 13 is an exception. Those miles are every bit as brutal as they're made out to be. Saddle Canyon - it's a heinous bushwhack, a steep and exposed ridge, and then a series of ice-cold plunge pools that you have to jump or slide down slippery limestone chutes into. Those four miles took me five hours. And I was lucky. Other hikers, much faster and stronger than me, have taken up to nine hours. And after Saddle Canyon, you continue with the 1-mph terrain, boulder-hopping down a rocky watercourse, fording swift and deep water. And then an endless rockhop down the banks of the Colorado River. And then up Kanab Creek, crawling over, around, and sometimes even under huge blocks of sandstone in an attempt to avoid the deepest pools of water. I called it the Thirty Miles of Chaos before I started the section - it lived up to its billing.

Section 13 - the beauty: I wasn't expecting it. Saddle Canyon was amazing. Thunder River is a huge spring, an entire river, gushing out of a random rock wall - as if Moses had spoken to it and/or hit it with his staff. Deer Creek Narrows were phenomenal. And Kanab Creek blew me away. Wow, wow, wow.

Humbled: While descending the sketchy ridge in Saddle Canyon, my right side water bottle pocket got bumped, sending a bottle tumbling and careening several hundred feet down, off a cliff, into who-knows-where. While not an immediate concern, I suddenly only had four liters of water storage capacity - and I was facing a 41-mile waterless stretch a few days down the line. While survivable, those miles promised to be extremely, extremely unpleasant on only 4 liters of water. So I swallowed my pride and shamelessly begged a group of river rafters I saw the next day for an empty Gatorade bottle. They didn't have an empty disposable bottle, but they had something else. And that is how I, having constantly ridiculed heavy waterbottles over the years, ended up rocking a radioactive green Nalgene bottle. Lesson learned, thank you God, and thank you rafters!

Hi, my name is LarryBoy and I'll be your Tour Guide today: I've never been asked so many questions in my life. Part of it is due to the fact that I went through two popular National Parks, but even still. The tourists (California plates, sorry Uncle Steve and Aunt Karin) who stopped me on the road in the Vermillion Cliffs - to ask me where the cliffs were and how they could get there. Look up folks! They're here - they're all over the place! Or the tourists who stopped me several miles down a very rough 4wd right to ask me if they were on the right road to a popular overlook at the Grand Canyon. Nope, sorry, you're thirty miles away and headed in the wrong direction. Or the endless parade of people in the Grand Canyon who asked me the same question about the same water sources. I've memorized my answer. Slate and Turquoise Canyons have nice potholes, I think there's water in Sapphire, and some other people said there's water in Ruby but I didn't see it for myself. Next question, please.

What are the chances: I met a very nice couple in the Grand Canyon out for a 25-mile dayhike. That in itself piqued my interest. We started talking, and I admitted that I was hiking the Hayduke in sections. They referenced an AT section hike, which began in 2013, the same year I hiked the AT. I pressed them for their start date - February 28, the same exact day I started. Turns out they were the Four Montanans (two humans, two dogs) whose shelter log entries I had read the whole way up the trail. They were a little faster than me, and so despite starting on the same date, we'd never met - until a random day in the Grand Canyon, five years later.

What now: I've been hanging out in Zion National Park this week, doing all the Zion tourist classics. Angels Landing, Emerald Pools, the famous Narrows of the Virgin River. It's been fun enough, but I'm sick of the tourists and the smalltalk and the lack of happy brain juices that come with hiking 20 miles a day. And this town is outrageously expensive. I've only paid to camp one night, but I've needed to get very creative/obsequious to achieve that end.

What next: Twenty two stinking hours on a Greyhound bus from St George, UT to Lordsburg NM. After that, Lord willing, I'll start the Continental Divide Trail on April 10 at the Mexican border.


Monday, March 19, 2018

The Grand Canyon... Impressive!

I didn't expect to be surprised by the Grand Canyon. I mean, it's a top flight National Park, and judging from the hordes of international tourists, definitely deserving of the "Seven Wonders" sobriquet it's often given.

But at the same time, I've hiked quite a bit through similar landscape over the course of several years. Besides being bigger, could the Grand Canyon really be all that special?

Yes, apparently! Walking on a narrow bench 1500 feet above the Colorado is absolutely magical. Everything is just so vertical here. I almost skipped this section of the Hayduke for geographic reasons. I'm so glad I didnt.

Themes:

Weather: pretty bad by desert standards. Camped in rain nearly every other night. Wind has been a constant - a little unnerving when you're walking narrow ledges with quite a bit of exposure.

River crossings: hitched a ride with a raft group, who spotted me a cold beverage. Score! Not too many river trips going on yet though; had to wait half a day for the first boat to come by. I've got one more raft ride to catch in a couple days; hopefully I have more luck this time.

Water: not too bad so far. I ran out of Aquamira though, so I had to drink unfiltered from the Colorado. Yuck. If I come down with diphtheria in two weeks, you know why.

Pack weight: 10 day food carries, back to back, are brutal. My pack is going to weigh 42 pounds leaving tomorrow. Yikes!

Photos? Nope, I'm too dumb to figure out how to get them from my camera to my phone via Bluetooth. And I don't have good enough internet to Google it. Next time, maybe.

Where next? The most brutal miles of the Hayduke await. I'll be spending the next week back in the Grand Canyon. After that? Marching to Zion!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

2018: A Year on the Trail


April 26, 2013. The last few days had been sunny, but a late season storm was now threatening this corner of the Appalachians. I had camped about six miles south of Hampton, Tennessee, setting up myself for a short day into the famous Kincora Hostel. I woke up early and beat the weather to the hostel.

Kincora is/was run by the legendary Bob Peoples, a giant among men in the hiking community. Bob had outfitted his hostel with hundreds of books, the perfect things on a rainy, snowy day like today. I picked up a curious-looking book, the Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook, by a thru-hiker by the name of Yogi. And as it rained, then snowed, I became transfixed.

That book was my introduction to the PCT and hiking in the American West. After hiking Appalachian Trail, I moved to Utah and soon found myself hiking through high mountain landscapes and deserts - the same kinds of landscapes that Yogi's book had described in almost mystical terms.

And over time, I learned about another trail, the Continental Divide Trail. Even higher, more lonesome, more remote than the PCT, it runs the backbone of the continent, up the spine of the Rocky Mountains, from southwest New Mexico to Glacier National Park in northernmost Montana. Like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the CDT takes between 4 and 6 months to hike in its entirety. Unlike the AT and PCT though, it's as yet unfinished, requires both roadwalking and advanced navigation skills, and pushes the limits of even the most savvy thru-hikers.

On that day, April 26, 2013, I decided that the AT would not be my last thru-hike. Although I settled in Utah and took a job that I really enjoyed, made a wonderful group of friends, and grew to love my amazing church family, the drive to thru-hike kept pushing me forward over the years.

That's why I gave my two weeks notice at work this week. It's not because I don't enjoy what I do - it's because I simply must hike. So this year, I'll hike.

Stage 1: The Hayduke Trail

Over the course of the last 4 years, I have section-hiked about two thirds of the Hayduke Trail in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Before I start any new hiking projects, I need to tie up some loose ends - the last 300 miles of the Hayduke. Essentially forming a giant "U" shape, this section of the Hayduke will start on the Utah/Arizona border, dip down to the Grand Canyon, and then turn northward, ending in Zion National Park. 

A worthy hike in its own right, this section of the Hayduke represents the culmination of what the last four years of my life have been - exploring the intermountain west on stolen weekends and short vacations, always adventurous, but always bite-sized. I expect this journey to take about three or four weeks, between mid-March and mid-April.


Stage 2: The Continental Divide Trail 

This one's the big ticket. The CDT spans 2,800 miles, give or take, between Mexico and Canada. It follows the Continental Divide, the hydrological apex of North America. West of the Divide, streams flow to the Pacific. East of the Divide, they flow to the Atlantic.

The CDT passes through some truly magnificent areas - the Gila River, the San Juans, the Wind Rivers, and Glacier, just to name a few. At the same time, it's an adolescent trail - it follow dirt roads through much of New Mexico, and slogs through the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming. That's part of the appeal for me - the CDT offers room for route options, for exploration, and for solitude.

I plan to leave the Mexican border sometime in April, and, Lord willing, arrive at the Canadian border sometime during the month of September. The weather window on the CDT is extremely tight - if I start too early, I'll be waylayed by late-spring snowpack in southern Colorado. If I start too late, and winter will arrive to the northern Rockies before I arrive in Canada. Hiking the CDT is a race against the seasons.
 

FAQ's:

1) How can I keep in contact with you? I will have cell service maybe once a week, once every other week. If you've got my number, feel free to text. I'll check email once in a while too. Don't expect immediate responses - life moves a little slower out there!
2) Will you blog/instagram/write a book? Maybe, no, and no. I'm pretty bad at social media in general, and being in the wilderness doesn't do much to sharpen those skills. If I had to guess, my sharing of the journey will follow roughly what I did on the AT - several posts at the beginning as part of an initial burst of enthusiasm. Then I'll post nothing for a thousand miles because I don't have the time or inclination to do it. Then maybe a post up north, and a weepy post when I'm done. I don't know. Ask me later. Don't expect much.
3) Aren't you going to die? Yes, eventually, unless Christ returns first. But I'm an experienced hiker, I've frankly done sketchier, scarier things before. This is just longer - instead of a hundred-mile hike, it's thirty hundred-mile hikes, all back-to-back. 
4) BEARS??? That's not really a question, but I'll address it anyway. Yes, grizzlies exist in the Greater Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems. They're a concern. But nothing that a little forethought and a can of bearspray can't handle. Something to be aware of, but no freakout necessary. 
5) How can I help/be a part of your journey? Sending little notes of encouragement is always nice, as is news from "back home". No need to send food/gear - I've got that lined up already. A small crew of family and close friends have volunteered to send me some stuff that I've already pre-packaged.
6) What will you do when you're done? I don't know, but I've got plenty of time to figure it out. Ask again later!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017 - In Review


Call it the Year of the Thumb. I think nearly every trip I took involved some hitchhiking. Not on purpose, mind you. Perhaps I've just become more open to considering routes that involve hitchhiking. But hitching allowed me to see some pretty cool things this year.

For the first time, I actually did more trips with friends than I did solo this year. I didn't intend to do it that way, it just kind of happened. And they were great trips! Great friends and great scenery are an unbeatable combination.

On to the stats!


Gear:
  • Shelters acquired: 1
  • Shelters used: 2
  • Cameras purchased: 1
  • Shoelaces broken: 4

Trips:
  • Overnight trips: 9
  • Sleeping bag nights: 41
  • Nights spent under the stars: 23
  • States visited: 4
  • National Parks Visited: 5
  • Solo trips: 4
  • Trips with friends: 5
  • Slot canyons hiked: 6

Highest/Lowest/Fastest/Slowest:
  • Highest point: crest of the Uintas, UT (12,600')
  • Lowest point: Lees Ferry,  AZ (3,400')
  • Highest point (metaphorical): Cruising a ridgeline in the Bear River Range and glissading down a snowfield with friends
  • Lowest point (metaphorical): Discovering that a bear had rendered all my food inedible in the middle of the wilderness
  • Most days spent without seeing a human: 4 (Hayduke Section 7)
  • Longest waterless stretch: 33 miles (Hayduke Section 7)
  • Heaviest packweight: 33 pounds (Hayduke Section 7)
  • Lightest packweight: 7 pounds (Hayduke Section 1)
  • Longest Day: 24 miles (Trans-Zion Traverse)
  • Shortest Day: 7 miles (Spring Canyon)

Number of Times:
  • Picked up while hitchhiking: 11
  • NOT picked up while hitchhiking: 1 (we finally caved and hired a cab) 
  • Car shuttling with friends: 2
  • Packed a stove: 1
  • Packed bear spray: 1
  • Packed a gun: 0
  • Stormed on: 3
  • Drank from a polluted river: 1
  • Got sick from a polluted river: 0
  • Got a suspicious rash from a polluted river: 1

Wildlife Spotted:
  • Moose: 2
  • Bear: 0 (but I heard one)
  • Bison: Hundreds
  • Sasquatch: 1
  • Elk: Dozens
 
Photo time!

The hiking season got off to a slow start. I didn't take my first trip until March, a quick hitter to Spring Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.


In April, I hiked the first section of the Hayduke Trail, making sure to camp just outside the boundaries of Arches National Park.


In May, I hiked the Trans-Zion Traverse with friends...


...and in June, hiked what I call the "White 'n Bossy Route" in the Bear River Range.


July brought a quick overnighter in Little Cottonwood Canyon... 


...and a wonderful ridgewalk in the east-central Uintas.


In August, I spent the night at White Pine Lake in Little Cottonwoood...


...and embarked on a 12-day trip to the Absaroka Range in Wyoming.


September turned to October while I was hiking Sections 7-9 of the Hayduke Trail and the Paria River.


It was a busy year. In a lot of ways, it was a tough year. I didn't get outside as much as I would have liked. But somehow, I think that will change in 2018. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

In Which a Grizzly Shares My Lunch


The Absarokas don't get a lot of love. To the south lies the magnificent Wind River Range. To the north, the Beartooths. And to the west, Yellowstone National Park.Although the largest single range in the Rockies, the Absarokas often are overlooked, even by people "in the know".

Over the course of three summers, 2015-2017, I explored the Winds, the Beartooths, and the Absarokas in turn. Each trip was a largely off-trail adventure in the very best scenery that the respective ranges offered. Each time, something derailed my plans. In 2015, it was injury. In 2016, it was weather. And in 2017, it was a hungry grizzly. But we'll get to that later.

The plan was straightforward: Drive to the northern terminus of my trip, in Cooke City MT. Hitchhike down to the southern terminus, at Togwotee Pass, Wy. Hike back to my car. I had two weeks off from work to complete the trip, and although I suspected I wouldn't need the full two weeks to do 170 miles, I played it safe. Very little information exists on the Absarokas. I was fairly confident that my route would be impossible at some point - I just didn't know when or where. So to allow for the likelihood of re-routes, mishaps, and weather, I padded my schedule with several extra days.


Day 1

First things first. I had driven to Cooke City the night before, where I would leave my car. I snagged a ride with a 70 year old who lives in an RV, a Danish couple, a couple returning from backpacking Glacier, and a pair of hippies from California. The hitching was generally easy, and by 1:30 in the afternoon, I had arrived at the top of Togwotee Pass (pronounced "TOGA-tee"). I followed a dirt road for a few miles and passed a dude ranch. After following a trail for a couple miles, I split off and began the big climb up to the Continental Divide.

The Divide in the southern Absarokas follows a high, undulating ridge between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. While there's some elevation change, it generally comes just a few hundred feet at a time. The climb up, however, was nasty. The underbrush was rather thick and scratchy, and streams carved deep gorges into the landscape. Steep, loose, and brushy sidehilling is not exactly fun. But no matter, I gained about a thousand feet and made camp on a tiny flat spot just before sunset.

Day 2

I got up early and immediately started climbing again. Although steep, the footing wasn't a problem and before long, I topped out at about 11,300 feet. A thick, smoky haze hung over the landscape, obscuring what would have otherwise been million-dollar views. I followed the Divide eastward, then northward. The ridge in this area took the form of a wide, gently undulating plateau, offering easy walking. Patches of snow and a couple small ponds dotted the landscape. The Absaroka Fun Route was certainly living up to its potential.


Smoke notwithstanding, the sun shone intensely overhead and a relentless wind swept over the wide-open landscape. I sipped water constantly, yet found myself dehydrated all the same. But with views like these, it was impossible to wipe the smile off my face. Midway through the afternoon, I took a small detour to climb Crescent Peak, an 11,300-foot peak whose stark black volcanic rock contrasted sharply with the browns and grays of the surrounding topography. That volcanic rock made a curious sound when stepped on - a resonant ring rather than the expected thunk. I've never seen anything like it.

After my diversion up Crescent Mountain, I continued along the ridge, following the Continental Divide as it twisted and turned its way generally northward. There were a couple of steep spots, but nothing that a little creative routefinding couldn't solve.


A half hour before sunset, I found a little spot protected from the wind at about 10,200 feet. I set up my tent and at supper. As I tied my Ursacks (bite-proof Kevlar food bags) to a tree for the night, I noticed that the OpSaks (odor-proof plastic liner bags) were already starting to fail. I could smell my food, which means that the rest of the animal kingdom could too. I made sure to tie them up a good distance from my shelter and collapsed in bed. A long day, but a great one.

Day 3

The day started off with more ridge-walking along the Divide. I didn't have much time to dally - I had to get to a good place to view the solar eclipse. The AFR was about to coincide with the 2017 eclipse's path of totality.


I went nowhere all morning. Well, I went somewhere, but my route formed a big horseshoe, heading east, then north, then west, all to avoid a deep drainage. After several hours of hiking, I was still within eyeshot of where I had camped the previous night. The scenery continued to impress, though, and I didn't mind taking a roundabout route. Like the previous day, the hiking consisted of fairly level plateaus punctuated by the top end of canyons that I needed to cross. Around 11:00, I topped out on a high ridge with a view to the Tetons to the west. I sat down and waited for the eclipse.

I was initially disappointed. Although the moon was beginning to cover the sun, nothing was happening. Aside from getting really chilly, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. As the coverage of the sun increased, though, a strange twilight fell across the landscape. All of the sudden, the Tetons disappeared from view, and I knew that totality was imminent.

The difference between 99% coverage and 100% coverage is the difference between between night and day - literally. Although totality lasted only about a minute where I was, it was surreal. Stars came out. A brilliant orange twilight occupied the horizon in all directions. And I watched the Sun's corona with fascination. My photos turned out terribly. I like it that way. It's a memory that I'll never, ever, lose.

Thoroughly  chilled to the bone, I hoisted my pack and continued onward. I skirted another 11,300 foot peak and noticed, to my surprise, three people near the summit. I crossed yet another high plateau, filled with snowfields and dropped into a small canyon.. After lunch, I ran into the three guys I had seen earlier. They were veteran Absaroka hikers and offered a couple of helpful route tips. I hadn't expected to see anybody out here, but were three guys in their sixties, doing a week-long trip in one of the most remote areas in the lower 48. If I'm half that cool in thirty years, I'll be a happy man.

Here the terrain changed dramatically. I left behind the wide-open plateaus and the Continental Divide and entered higher, steeper, and more glaciated terrain. I followed a trail briefly over Marston Pass and entered the South Fork of the Yellowstone drainage. Above me towered Younts Peak and the Thorofare, the two most remote mountains in the Lower 48 as measured by distance from a road. As I climbed up to the saddle between the two peaks, I noticed grizzly bear prints everywhere. Bears head up to talus-covered slopes in the late summer and autumn in order to feed on army cutworms, a species of moth that hides in talus and scree.

To my surprise, I found a decent trail at the top of the pass and followed it down the North Fork of the Yellowstone. The only suitable campsite in the area was right next to the raging river, and I endured a very damp and drippy night.


Day 4

After following the North Fork for a mile, I headed up a side drainage, paralleling a deep, rocky gorge. After a short 200-foot climb over a 10,600-foot saddle, I dropped steeply down a narrow, snow-filled canyon into the upper Thorofare drainage. Supposedly there's a decent outfitter trail around there somewhere, but I couldn't find it and endured a fairly horrendous bushwhack down a side stream until I eventually found the trail where the stream joined the main Thorofare drainage.
 

A trail! I'd only had a couple miles of it the entire trip, and it was refreshing to shut the brain off and cruise for a while. I noticed a large yellow tent in the bushes in the upper drainage, but other than that, saw nobody.After a couple of hours, I left the Thorofare and headed north on-trail toward Butte Creek. The trail sees heavy horse traffic and was well-marked, if a bit uneven underfoot. The two thousand foot climb sapped me of the last bit of energy I had. As soon as I got down into Butte Creek, I started looking for campsites.


And presto! An outfitter camp. The Absarokas see heavy visitation from hunters in the fall, and dozens of outfitters cater to the hunters. They set up camps in the backcountry with tents, meals, and whatever else a trophy hunter from Connecticut might need. It's a big business. I came upon a camp not currently in use. It was a clear and level piece of ground and had convenient stumps to sit on. This would be my campsite for the evening. I hung my food bags a few hundred yards away and went to bed, exhausted.

Around midnight I woke up to pee, and heard something out there. A bit nervous, I grabbed my bear spray and headlamp and clambered out of my tent. I yelled a couple times, shone my headlamp around. No sound. Probably an elk or something. I'd had several elk and deer walk by my campsites on this trip.

Day 5

I woke up ravenously hungry. After four days on trail, my body had started to protest the calorie deficit it was running. I had been too tired to eat much the night before, and I needed food NOW. I sauntered over to get my Ursacks...

...and something was definitely wrong.

Ursacks are normally white. But mine were brown. And wet and smelly. The tree they were tied to was denuded of bark. And sure enough, the weave had separated in tooth-like patterns.

That animal I'd heard last night? A grizzly.

Ursack should really hire me as a spokesman. I had two Ursacks, and both of them survived a grizzly encounter. I cannot say the same for my food however. I opened the Ursacks to find all of my food completely mangled and saturated with bear slobber. Completely inedible. Ursacks, you see, protect bears from your food. They don't protect your food from a bear. That was the OpSak's job - the OpSaks that had failed on Day 2.

As I sorted through my drippy food to look for anything salvagable, I kicked myself. I should have known better than to camp in an established campsite that had probably hosted delicious cooking smells regularly for years. I should have noticed the bear claw marks on several trees in this camp. I should have picked an out-of-the-way spot to sleep. I knew exactly why I hadn't, of course - I was tired last night and off my game. I hadn't been in any danger - I had stored my food away from where I was sleeping - but still, I never should have camped here in the first place. And the worst part - I still hadn't ever seen a dang bear!

I sat down to evaluate my options. I had no edible food. Forty of the toughest miles separated me and the resupply box I'd mailed myself. Bailout time.

Before I bailed, though, I scampered up the next pass on my planned route. I was pleased to see that it was in fact passable, and that a faint trail led around some cliff bands down the north side. Dejected, I headed back down to the trail, crested Deer Creek Pass, and headed down the east side, away from the crest of the range, my intended route, where I should be. The trail was okay - still horse-impacted, but very obvious and well-graded. I made quick miles, the oppressive heat notwithstanding.

For the first time on the trip, it clouded up in the afternoon. A little thunder started to rumble. The wind picked up and sprayed misted around. It had been so hot that the cooldown felt wonderful. I reached a stream crossing and paused for a moment, trying to find a crossing that would keep my feet dry.

"The HEEEEEL are YOU doing?"

I turned to find a horsepacker who had caught up to me. He was an older guy - 72 years old, he proudly told me. I'd seen his tent a few days prior in the Thorofare, along with one of his six horses. Why somebody needs six horses to head into the backcountry, I'll never understand. He was a funny guy, full of personality. We chitchatted for a few minutes and I tried to yogi a ride from him once he got to the trailhead. No luck - he didn't take the bait. My new friend Bill wished me luck and rode ahead.

Waiting for a hitch down a dead-end dirt road in a thunderstorm is not my idea of fun. So I put on my "shoppers walk", as my mother would put it, and busted down the trail at 3.5 miles an hour. If I got lucky, perhaps Bill would still be packing up his stuff when I got to the trailhead.

I nearly kept up with him, arriving at the trailhead maybe 15 minutes after he did. He seemed surprised to see me and remarked that if he knew I was going to be so close behind him, he would have offered me a ride to town. Success! So I helped him pack all his stuff into the truck and hopped in.


The horses, of course, didn't take well to being shoved in his trailer, and promptly started fighting. So out the horses came. One of them had been kicked and was bleeding fairly substantially. I grabbed his first aid kit and bandaged up the horse with a little gauze, duct tape, and triple antibiotic. That's my first and hopefully last time moonlighting as a veterinarian.

Bill is a really swell guy. He moved out to Cody forty years ago, from Howell, MI, and never found a reason to move back. It was a long ride into Cody, but time passed quickly, and he kindly dropped me off right in front of the outfitter.

After hitting the outfitter and the Pizza Hut buffet, I wandered town, looking for a place to spend the night. The dumpy motor lodge was full, the Super-8 was going for $189/night, and the campground's office had closed a few minutes before I arrived. So I wandered the campground for a few minutes, found a happy drunk couple and made friends. Soon enough I was tenting on their site and sipping a couple Budweisers - all in exchange for entertaining them with tales of adventure. I took the opportunity to wash my stuff (including the nasty Ursacks) and went to bed, full, happy, and very blessed. Tomorrow I needed to get out of town, hitch to the dude ranch where I had mailed my resupply box, and get back on-trail.


Day 6

I rolled out of bed early, left a nice note for Happy Drunk Couple, and headed up to Walmart to buy a couple things. It was a decent walk to Wally World, and I snagged a couple of Five Dollar Footlongs at the in-house Subway. I'm sure the employee there didn't expect to make a pair of Chicken Teryakis at 6am, but oh well. After another long roadwalk, I finally reached the outskirts of town and found an ideal hitching spot. There was a nice paved pull-off there and plenty of traffic so I figured it wouldn't take long to get a ride.

Boy, was I wrong! I got there at 8:00 and hung out my thumb. Nine o'clock rolled around and nobody stopped. Ten o'clock... still nothing. I waited until 11:00, a solid three hours, before a nice couple gave me a pity hitch. Future thru-hikers - don't stop in Cody. It's a black hole whose event horizon you simply can't escape.

I swung by the dude ranch and grabbed my resupply box. The owner is an absolute sweetheart. She held my box, offered me lemonade and lunch, and told me to make myself comfortable for as long as I liked. For a deep wilderness trip, this journey had certainly involved a lot of wonderful human interaction! I packed up all my food, slid her a few bucks as a thank-you and took off around 1:00.

I stopped by a different dude ranch and asked about trail conditions up my intended route, Gunbarrel Creek. The owner informed me that the trail no longer existed and that the entire area had burned badly a couple years ago, rendering the terrain impassible. I had suspected that Gunbarrel might not be doable. So I hitched a couple miles up the road and started hiking up Grinnell Creek.

The trail proved excellent - well-marked, smooth, flat, and fast. I made good progress all afternoon and set up camp on the only clear piece of ground I could find. A brief rainstorm pitter-pattered me to sleep.

Day 7

Turns out that hiking a quarter mile farther would have been a good idea. A few minutes after breaking camp, I stumbled across another unoccupied outfitter camp. This one, though, had a metal bear box to store food in. Could have saved myself the hassle of bear bagging last night! Oh well, onward.

The outfitter camp was significant for another reason, too - beyond the camp, the trail barely existed. It clearly hadn't been maintained in a decade, and the trail was almost impossible to find, much less follow. Sigh. Another bushwhack. I spent the next several hours schwackpacking through dense brush, over downed trees, through marshy areas with knee-deep water. You know, the kind of thing they put on the cover of Backpacker magazine.

Three frustrating hours later, I emerged from the trees and made a beeline for a pass that would dump me a high alpine basin where I knew there would be trail. I climbed the pass relatively quickly, perhaps more quickly than I should have. But when I crested the pass, I looked to my west and saw a million pickup sticks.

 
The summer of 1988 was a brutal one. Wildfires burnt a third of the Yellowstone area with ferocious intensity. The Park Service had suppressed fires in the park for a century, allowing dense, dead underbrush to accumulate that would have otherwise burned off due to natural wildfire activity. So when the fires of 1988 started, they burned hot. So hot, in fact, that they sterilized the soil in many areas of the park and killed all the seeds that otherwise germinate after fires. Biologists estimate that many of those areas will take a couple hundred years to recover.

All of this to say that the Silvertip Basin was completely torched, thirty years after the fact. Not a single tree was standing; everything was knocked over, gray, and dead. Progress, once again, slowed to a literal crawl.

A couple of tedious miles later, I reached an above-treeline area where the walking became much easiesr. The clouds moved in though, and it began to rain sideways. I headed for the nearest clump of (living) trees, and to my surprise, found another outfitter camp, complete with bearbox and knocked-over mining cabin. I set up my shelter, threw my food in the bear box, and listened to the rain.


After maybe an hour, the rain let up. It was only 5:00 and I considered pressing on. However, the next five miles were all above treeline and very exposed to the elements. Considering the shaky weather, I did not want to get caught above treeline in bad weather, especially at dusk or overnight. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to stay there for the night and catch up on my calorie deficit. The decision to stay in Silvertip Basin turned out to be a wise one for multiple reasons.

Day 8

I woke up, rolled out of my sleeping bag, and winced. It was back.

Over the course of my hiking career, I've dealt with recurring issues with my left Achilles tendon. It generally complains after I put too much stress on it in a particular day. If caught early, it's fairly manageable - just take it easy for a day or two, walk at one mile an hour all day, and it'll be fine the next day. If I try to ignore it or refuse to baby it, however, it quickly becomes completely unbearable and makes walking impossible. It turns out that crawling over eighteen trillion fallen trees is really hard on an Achilles, and I knew that today was going to be a slow, slow day. I was instantly glad that I hadn't pushed it farther the previous day - if I had, who knows how bad of shape I'd be in today.

I found the trail, an old mining track, and followed it to near a 10,700 foot pass. There was an impediment to travel, however - a gigantic snowbank on a steep slope. I gingerly (on a bad ankle I remind you) climbed up the steep, loose mountainside, around the snowfield, and back down to the track. It proved a bit sketchy and made me really glad to be back on trail. The entire endeavor took about half an hour to go fifty feet. I was glad to be doing it in the morning, rather than racing weather and impending darkness the night before.


I followed the mining track for a couple more miles, over another pass. A little smoke hung over the mountains, but the sun shone brightly. I bumped into a half dozen guys on horseback. They asked if I'd seen any bears - of course I hadn't, but they had. Typical. I took a five minute break every twenty five minutes in order to avoid overworking my bum ankle.

I descended to Sunlight Creek, past a couple dozen ATV'ers. I followed the trail westward, paralleling the creek. The trail was very nearly flat, but dozens of blowdowns blocked forward progress. I gingerly climbed over, under, and around them. At some point I had a Sasquatch encounter. It might have been a bear, but more likely a moose or an elk. It was big and dark and I could barely see it through the trees.


After soaking my feet in the stream for a few minutes, I followed the trail away from the stream and up a side canyon. I had about two thousand feet to climb to get up to the main Absarokas crest. I decided to do a thousand feet tonight, and a thousand feet tomorrow. My Achilles tolerated the climb relatively well, and I settled in to a beautiful campsite just a mile or two from the Yellowstone border.

Day 9

What a day! I woke up to an ankle that felt nearly 100%. The final thousand feet to the crest passed quickly, and I found myself on the spine of the Absarokas in the early morning light. What a treat! I followed a trail northward along the crest for a few miles.


Just south of Hoodoo Peak, the trail took a turn to the west and headed down a canyon into the park. I, on the other hand, continued along the ridge. The climb up to Hoodoo Peak proved rather interesting. Soft sedimentary formations, reminiscent of southern Utah, dotted the landscape and formed steep draws that were a pain to clamber in and out of. It took a little poking around, but eventually I found a flank of the mountain that offered a doable path to the summit. I arrived at the 10,400-foot summit around mid-morning. Continuing northward, I climbed a few other bumps in the ridge before dropping quickly to Bootjack Gap.


After a quick lunch, I climbed north out of Bootjack Gap, still following the crest up an unnamed 10,200-foot peak. I had been fearing this climb for a while, and it turned out to be as sketchy as I'd thought it'd be. Perhaps I just wasn't in a good mental place, but the terrain made me very cautious about steep-and-loose volcanic crap for the rest of the trip. The rest of the afternoon proved fairly easy - cruising the gentle ridge to Canoe Lake. I watered up at Canoe Lake, walked a hundred yards to the east (to ensure I was camping on Forest Service land, rather than on National Park land), and fell into bed.

Day 10

Another beautiful morning. I rolled out of camp a little late and resumed the ridgewalk. As I journeyed northward, the ridge took on a more alpine characteristic. It was narrower, steeper, and each little bump was higher than the previous one. Many peaks looked impossible, but up-close, I found ways to skirt or summit all of them. I paused for a few minutes to watch a huge herd of elk pass. Each time I saw elk, they always ran westward, into the National Park. You wouldn't expect wild animals to understand the nuances of American land management policy, but here they were, running to where they knew they'd be safe from hunters.


The size of my smile increased with the elevation. Here I was, way off-trail, way above Yellowstone, on the crest of the mighty Absarokas, and I was having a blast. I had studied my maps carefully and had made note of each potential bailout point, should the ridge prove impassible. I had heard whispers that somebody, years before, might have actually hiked the entire ridge, but it was just a rumor.


Perhaps the rumor is true. Perhaps the entire ridge is hikable. But I came across a very small bump on the ridge - perhaps 30 feet tall, too insignificant to even show up on a topo map. But there was no easy way around. I tried going right over the top - cliffy. I tried the west side - steep and loose. I tried the east side - doable, but very high consequences on terrain that wasn't exactly rock-solid.

The east side was passable. I felt confident that I could do it. And I knew that, should the ridge farther north prove impassible, I could always reverse my route safely.

And yet I turned around.

I know that hiking involves risk. Hiking alone involves more risk. Hiking alone, off-trail - doubly so. And I made a promise to my family and to myself, years ago, that I would never do something that I couldn't tell them about with a clean conscience. This thirty-foot section, though doable, represented an escalation of commitment that would be inconsistent with that promise I had previously made. It wasn't even a question - I had decided my level of risk tolerance before this trip. And now, in the moment, as much as I wanted to push on, I knew what the right thing to do was.

So I backtracked a half mile. I descended a very steep two thousand feet into an unnamed drainage. And I encountered the worst burn area yet.

Nothing was alive. Nothing was upright. A fire had obviously swept through here years before and killed everything. Trees lay scattered everywhere. Seven miles of tedium lay between me and the nearest trail. I picked my way slowly downstream, searching in vain for a suitable campsite. I finally found a meadow that wasn't covered in downed trees and set up camp in a grove of stinging nettles. Not ideal, but I had no good options.

  
Day 11

I got an early start and immediately returned to the full-contact hiking I'd been doing the previous day. The going was slow but by late morning I had reached an honest-to-goodness trail, my first in several days. It's amazing how fast a trail feels after having been off-trail for so long. I made good time as clouds periodically dropped a few sprinkles. I climbed Republic Pass, the last of the trip. At the top of the pass, I paused for a few minutes and looked over the mountains stretching endlessly to the south. I gazed north at the Beartooths, where I had been the previous year.

The trail north of the pass was beautiful. The fire had obviously burned the south side of the pass, but not the north side. I walked through a wonderful green forest over more easy trail. The six miles to Cooke City seemed to take forever. I reached my car around 6pm, got some good food and drink, and celebrated another terrific hike.


Afterward

In some ways, the Absarokas Fun Route was a disappointment. For the third straight year, I took an ambitious trip into the trailless environs of the greater Yellowstone. For the third straight year, I was unable to complete my intended route.

But a trip like this never goes as planned, for one reason or another. I spent a week and a half in some of the wildest, most remote, most beautiful country in the lower 48. I experienced the kindness of strangers and hopefully showed a little of my own. I watched a total solar eclipse - a once-in-a-lifetime event, in a once-in-a-lifetime place. I saw grizzly tracks, glaciers, distant vistas, bubbling stream, and crystal-clear tarns. I pioneered a route that holds great promise for the enterprising hiker. If that's failure, I'll take it.