A big thanks to fellow thru-hiker VirGo for filming my presentation at the Mazamas in Portland in January 2017. Now you can watch it here:
A big thanks to fellow thru-hiker VirGo for filming my presentation at the Mazamas in Portland in January 2017. Now you can watch it here:
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.
I have an exciting development to share with you all…I’ve accepted a position as the Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator here in Bend! The 800 mile Oregon Desert Trail is one of the newest long distance trails in the country, and begins right outside of Bend and connects a series of remote mountain ranges in the high desert of south eastern Oregon.
This is an incredible opportunity to combine everything I love doing to help shape a long trail. Ever since my friend Sage Clegg was the first to hike the ODT in 2013, I have watched with envy as other friends and hikers jump on the trail. Before I even heard about the new position I wanted to hike the ODT next. It’s exciting to be on the other side of the trail community and really be able to dive into something I am passionate about.
It will be fun to keep this blog going and share my experiences on the other side of the hike, and yes, take you with me as I hike it as well.
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.
The milage is hard to gauge out here. While there is mileage I can reference when calculating how far I’ve hiked each day, within that day there are 100s of possible detours/alternate routes/and just getting “misplaced” for a while.
I think I tacked on a few miles of “misplacement” today, at least one mile! I woke up in the middle of a cow pasture, again huddled by a couple of bushes in the hopes they would block the incessant wind. It was a calm morning, and as I made my coffee and packed up I knew essentially that I just had to walk across a few miles of open range to get to Pyramid Peak where the “trail” or route or dirt road, or combinations of the two would be. So not looking too closely at my maps I started hiking. The CDT posts were infrequent here, but didn’t worry about it too much.
After a break of drying out the blisters (yep, the blisters keep coming), I turned on Guthook’s App (luxury of all luxuries, there is a GPS enabled App to tell you if you are on the trail, or route, or road). I was quite a bit off, so then I head still towards Pyramid Peak, but also in the direction of where the CDT should be.
I expect much of the trail will be like this. Not quite knowing where I am, and turning on the App (and checking my maps of course) to figure it out. Now, I didn’t think I would use the App at all, but damn, once I turned it on and saw how easy it was, I was hooked. I feel very fortunate since most of my friends who have hiked in previous years had to be lost for real. No app to turn on, just good ‘ol map and compass and a bit of GPS. Times have changed, and instead of fighting it, I’m rolling with it! I mean the CDT is hard enough, the wind, the heat, the dirt…I could go on.
In the first 85 miles it seems like well over half has been cross country with regular (sometimes not regular) posts marking the way, the rest on old dirt roads (bliss!) and 0% on trail tread. I hear that’s changing north of here and we’ll get some trail to hike. But really, that is what the CDT is. There is no intention to make a trail from Mexico to Lordsburg. The rugged, route-finding nature of this hike is what the CDT is. The new trail being built is often to take the walking off of paved roads, or heavily trafficked roads, but rugged it will always be. Brutal it will always be.
So I made my way back to the CDT after getting a bit off track, and made my way around the mountain to meet Kramers, a northbounder hiking south for a bit. He was the first person I’ve seen since the first day.
More hiking, more wind, but getting closer to my first town stop! I got to the 5th CDTC water cache and decided to take my phone off of airplane mode. I wanted to unplug for the first few days, but also wanted to see if Teresa, Snorkle & Val would be around when I got into Lordsburg later that afternoon. I found out I’ll be missing them, but get a chance to hang out with Bearclaw & Dirtmonger who rolled in a few hours before me.
After a few burgers at McDonalds (I know, but when you are on the trail you DREAM about shitty food like that) and got to the Econolodge where we are holed up for the night. A quick dinner with Radar, Peru, Old and Slow & Mike from Maine, I am now ready to pass out.
Good night all! I think I’ll let my blisters air out for the morning and see about getting them on the trail again tomorrow afternoon.
When Daniel “Ratatouille” Hepokoski first contacted me because he was interested in covering the topic of “hikertrash” on his new podcast series, Trailside Radio, I was happy to oblige…trying to define hikertrash for those who aren’t hikers can sometimes be a confusing discussion. Yes, it makes sense why we self identify as dirty on a long distance trail, but Ratatouille, like others I’ve spoken to over the years, wasn’t sure he wanted to call himself trash.
Thus the podcast. What is hikertrash?
Ratatouille will be getting on his first long distance trail, the PCT, in a few weeks, and will be attempting to continue this podcast series; an ambitious but exciting proposition. When he asked me why someone would want to call themselves hikertrash, I suggested he hike for a month and then we revisit the issue.
Take a listen to the Trailside Radio podcast:
Thanks for listening!
To expand on the podcast a bit, here are some photos detailing more about my hikertrash origin story:
As I said, getting dirty on the trail is the big equalizer. we are all hikertrash.
Wow, the CDTC fundraiser we put on last week was a great success! We filled the seats and raised over $1,300 for the trail. I’m grateful for friends, co-workers, and everyone who was just plain curious about these crazy people who quit their jobs to go hike across the country…again and again and again. And for all my sponsors and supporters for donating some amazing items to the raffle, thank you!
But don’t take my word for it, here some some pics (courtesy of Robert Curzon):
So much fun, now for the hike!!!
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.