Ask The Tree: Volume 4

What first led you to walk years ago? Are there certain people who inspired/mentored you?

How did running for Coach Tompkins in Fremont help lead you where you are today?

Will you see the world differently after this journey and how will you keep this experience alive in the years to come?

Getting into the long walk

In 1989 I read an article about the Appalachian Trail in Reader’s Digest. National Geographic had done a feature article on the trail. Never did see a copy of the full length piece. 

My brother, David, happened to read the same article. In a conversation we found out we both had entertained thoughts of giving it a go. 

In order to attempt a thru-hike, you have to have time, money, and health. I’d just graduated from Calvin College with a BA in English Studies in May of ’89, so I had time. My mother, Peg, died in September, so the estate sale of her belongings and property brought the required monetary funds. I was 23, 195 pounds, and had played basketball for the Knights for the previous four years. I had the health. 

I can’t remember now what date we started on the trail the next spring. We were late in the pack, but still plenty of people around as the AT had its first boom in hiker population following the National Geographic article. 

Early on in that first long walk, I found a peace in the hard work and simpleness of measuring a day by footsteps, by feeling time go by instead of constantly measuring it. It let my mind bury my mother and be okay with it. 

This time around

In 2015 Michelle, Maggie, and I drove to California and walked 200 miles on the John Muir Trail through the Sierras. On one of the final days, we had to turn to climb Mt. Whitney where the JMT ends. The Pacific Crest Trail, which the JMT basically follows with a few small deviations, continued on south. I begged Michelle to keep going south. She and Maggie laughed and headed towards Whitney while I peered southbound and wept.

I knew then I had to go long again. 

Twenty-one years in Walkerville Public Schools with the last six as the K-12 Principal/Superintendent had worn me out. I had to be done. I had the time. 

Good financial choices along the way allowed me funds, as well as, the superintendent experience which should allow me to find employment when I return gave me the dollars needed. 

My fiftieth birthday comes in two weeks, so I knew it was now or never for a shot at a thru-hike of Continental Divide Trail. I’m 25 days in and I hurt all over, but that’s to be expected. I’m hanging tough. If I take care and stay healthy, I should be able to get this done. 

People in my head as I walk

First is always Michelle. My heart has a hole in it without her, but I’ve been able to talk to her daily lately and it’s helped. She has balanced my life. I’d have been lost without her. I say, “I love you, Michelle” a hundred times a day. 

My mother has surfaced in my head a lot too. It’s been 28 years, but it still hurts that she’s not here. I think she would understand that I had to go for this. That I had to risk it. 


Coach Tompkins has been in my thoughts too. He taught me about pain and discomfort in way that benefits me everyday. You push through. There might be ache sometimes, but you are not the pain. Your being is separate from the physical hurt. Put it aside and keep going. 

That and ibuprofen now that I’m old. I only take it at night, so I can sleep. I need to listen to the pain during the day. 

Looking forward

I needed this time to reset my brain. Wired too tight. I needed this shot to believe I still had the toughness to do it. That I was still an athlete enough to get it done. 

Those things will transfer well no matter how this journey ends. I’ll have spent time sleeping the ground watching the stars. I’ll have walked the spine of United States of America. I’ll have felt the grace of God as I stand as tiny speck of matter on the passes and in the valleys. 

I’ll be able to sit on my porch and share stories about “this one time on the CDT.”

Till maybe that wandering Jones hits me again. (But don’t tell Michelle yet.) 

If it ever does happen again, she’s going. My heart couldn’t do this again without her. 

Kindness matters

Truckin’ on

Tree


Hanging in Helena–Finding my groove

Sunday morning and the sun was fresh, and I was standing at the flashing yellow light in the middle of Lincoln pondering my route out of town. The only thing I knew for sure was I was leaving that ashtray of a town before it was fully light. 

Lessons

Lincoln had been fun. Pitchers of Heff, a night at an early 1900 haunted log cabin hotel, big burgers, and a bunch of aging bikers. It also reminded/taught me some lessons to remember down the rest of the trail. 

  1. When your pack is packed, get out of town. I’m independent operator. 
  2. Don’t stay in town a second night just for drinks. 
  3. Spend the money on a quality place to sleep.
  4. Make sure to accomplish tasks to improve hiking through the next section. i.e. Laundry, general cleanliness, consumption of food that will improve health. 

I did none of these things in Lincoln. I had a damn good time, but I didn’t set myself up for the next 50+ miles. Now, I’m in Helena making sure I don’t repeat those mistakes. 

We’ll see how I do on #1 and #2 tomorrow morning when I head out of town for Anaconda. 

I set myself up for #3 by sleeping just 5 miles from MacDonald Pass, so I could sleep later under my tarp than normal and still get into town by 10am or so. Extra rest on the trail and in a room of my own in town. I don’t mind sharing a room, but what I learned in Lincoln after sharing a room with Buckeye, Magpie, and Stoked, is that you get some sleep, but don’t get enough nor do you accomplish little cleanliness things that set you up to keep moving forward. 


Lincoln Log Hotel

I also learned that if you sleep in a tent site at an RV park you can leave your site at 7pm and come back at 10pm to find it flooded from the sprinkler system. Moving to a bivouac at 10 isn’t my favorite. Neither is then realizing that because you’re camped next to the highway, the Harley’s are going to be leaving town for the next four hours. 

Another night in town, more dollars and no progress on prep for the next section. 

Finding the groove

It’s 2pm in Helena. I’ve had a great breakfast with bowl of fruit, had a bath, dried all my gear, done a bit of snack shopping, and my wash is going. 

I’m going to take a nap! Dinner shopping and some route planning tonight. Hitch to the pass tomorrow morning and on to Anaconda. 

Beer checking the map on our alternate route. 

Surprise snow cones when we scrambled down to a late season snow bank. 

Thunderstorms moving in. Forced us twice to take cover down hill. Ended up camping on a side hill. Had to shove my food and gear bags under one side of my sleeping pad to try to level off enough to sleep. 
Glorious sunrise the next morning. 

Kindness matters

Truckin’ on 

Tree 

Out of The Bob–And down to Lincoln, MT

The Bob Marshall Wilderness was a tough walk-physically and emotionally. 

Physical

I pushed hard leaving Marias Pass. Walking was just the best medicine. Unfortunately, the trail passed through a burn with hundreds of blow downs. Nothing too hard to get over, just tedious because of the number. With the wilderness status, blowdowns are cleared with axe and crosscut saw. The two man crews do an incredible job, it just takes a long time for them to clear all the trails. 


Twenty to twenty five miles took me from 12 to 13 hours a day to cover. I didn’t stop much nor eat much for the first couple of days. Traveling was just easier. 

Lots of bear sign. Tracks, scat, and claw marks but no sightings for me. It might have had something to do with the fact I was yelling, “Hey, Bear!” every 5 seconds. 


The approximate 170 miles between Marias Pass and Rogers Pass took from June 30 to July 7. Eight hard days of walking.  The Chinese Wall and the last two days actually on the Divide were the highlights. 


The wall was visible from a Spotted Bear Pass the morning before I finally made it there. It was massive. Mountain goats climbing high on the wall with eagles and hawks catching the thermal drafts. 

In between the Wall and the last two days high on the Divide were long hot days through thick river side walks or long hot days through dry burns. One blowdown was literally 25 feet of solid trees. No way through or around. It was on the side of a steep hill. Over was the only way through. It sucked. Lots of scratches from that one. Burns have their own special beauty. They explode with flowers and the sight lines for what’s around you are greatly expanded. 

Finally getting up on the Divide was exhilarating. Mountains as far as I could see to the north, south, and west with the plains stretching out to the east. (Cell service again too after six days without.)

Getting up above tree line is hot too! These photos are from around 8500 feet. Photos do not depict how hard the trail was. Lots of sedimentary loose rock. Going up means sliding backward and going down means falling on your bum. First time is funny. After that it hurts. 


Staying on trail is different on the CDT compared to other trails I’ve walked. The Appalachian Trail and the North Country Trail are paint blazed. None of that happening on the CDT. After having made several wrong turns resulting in extra miles, I now consult my GPS app religiously.  

Mental

After I walked away from Michelle and Maggie, I spent almost three days without seeing another person. Just as I was looking for a bivy spot around 7pm, a couple appeared in front of me at Dean Lake at 7200 feet. Their dog Stella was with them. They had a baby too! I was so surprised to see them, I didn’t ask any questions. 

The three days alone (I camped alone all but one of the seven nights) gave me time to think about a lot. Most of it was pity. I didn’t handle the initial separation from Michelle and Maggie well. Luckily, having to be Bear aware, climbing over dead falls, and crossing rivers/streams doesn’t let you just become mindless. The CDT demands constant awareness. 

I had been so caught up in the physical preparation that I wasn’t ready for the mental stress. With Michelle and Maggie slackpacking me through Glacier, I was always walking to them. Without that thought, the “head” hiking was harder.

Prior thoughts about how I would feel on the trail were not accurate. For the first few days I was miserable thinking about being away from Michelle for five months. Doubt about what I was doing was a constant thought. 
Lincoln, MT

I’m at mile 294 on the trail. My mileage is slightly different due to starting at Chief Mt. and taking the Spotted Bear alternate. Tracking miles isn’t my thing, so I just go by the Guthook’s app mileage. 

The pain of the trail bonds you to others doing the same thing. I’m enjoying a zero day in Lincoln with some of the other hikers on the trail. Lying in my tent now resting up for an evening of Biker Days replete with a stunt motorcyclist and a 70s/80s rock band, Shades of Blue. Caught them last night when I pulled into town.  


Sketch having a burger at a local establishment. 

Tomorrow 

It’s been hot, so I’ll pull out early tomorrow morning and head for Helena, 70 miles or so. After Helena it’s another solid five or six day walk to get to Sula.  

I’m getting there. 

Kindness matters

Truckin’ on

Tree

PS. I DID FEEL THE EARTHQUAKE. Woke me up and after an instant of wonder, I knew what it was.  I could hear rocks falling off the cliffs around me. Pretty cool. 

Zero Day-Going to the Sun Road

Since I’ve been walking for a little over a week and Michelle and Maggie say, “Good-bye” tomorrow, we decided I should take the day off. A zero mileage day. 

A little rain greeted us this morning at National Forest Campground at Summit, MT. Marias Pass is at Summit. Finding the pass allowed the Great Northern Railroad to construct a direct route from the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Pacific Ocean. 

After a slow start due to the rain we headed to West Glacier to see if the Going to the Sun Road had opened. The road has just opened for the season. It made for a nice late morning/early afternoon drive through the mountains. 
Tomorrow I’ll have a heavy heart and a heavy pack. Michelle and Maggie, who’ve slackpacked me through Glacier National Park, will head home to Michigan. (Slack packing is where you don’t carry all of your gear because you’re meeting up with the car that is at a road crossing. Through the park I’ve never had to carry more than two night’s worth of food because of the numerous road crossings where I could meet up with them. It’s been a nice way to break in my legs.)

When I lit out from Marias, my eyes were filled with tears.

Didn’t get to sleep that night till I wrestled with my fears. 

Said I’ll walk but I’ll take my time. A friend of the mountains is a friend of mine. 

If I get home before December, just might have a hike to remember. 

Then, I head into the Bob Marshall Wilderness for 11 to 12 days. The Bob, as it’s known, is one of the biggest designated wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. Grizzlies, blacks, mountain lions, and wolves all call it home. 

I have a resupply box in Benchmark 7 days and 110 miles in. From there it’s another 70 or so miles to Lincoln where I’ll resupply again. Lincoln is near where the Unabomber used to live. The trail passes within a few miles of where his cabin was. 

So this is it for 12 days or so till I make it to Lincoln. 

Kindness matters

Truckin’ on

Tree

Beargrass and Beyond-Climbing Piegan Pass

“I wonder if that tree branch will hold my weight,” I thought as I wiped the sweat off my face with my sleeve. Grabbing ahold I pulled myself up over the rock ledge. Half-way up Piegan Pass and I was bushwhacking out of fear and stubbornness.

Read the rest at The Trek!
Occasionally, I submit pieces to The Trek. It’s a hiking website. 


Kindness matters

Truckin’ on

Tree 

Days 1–3. Chief Mt. to Many Glacier

Bears. Bears. Bears. There’s “danger bear” signs. Rangers giving bear presentations. Bear sighting notifications at the camp ground. And you have to have bear spray. I freaked out on bears before I even started down the trail yelling, “Hey, bear!” every time a bend in the trail came in sight. 

I survived. It does put a bit of an edge on the old walk though. My new line is: “This is a public service announcement…with BEARS! Thank you to The Clash for that one. 

Just stumbled through the first afternoon trying to stop looking up at the mountains. Camped at Gable Creek. Glacier is on a strict permit system, so I didn’t get what I wanted which made day two a little bit longer. 

Day 2 was a climb to Red Gap Pass (7200). Took most of the morning in a fierce wind. I was pushed around repeatedly. As I neared the pass, the wind gusts became intense slams that staggered me. I could hear the bursts coming up the mountain, getting louder, building and building, and then each one would rock me forward or backward depending on where I was on the switchback. 

I was happy to finally make the pass. A cairn marked the top. It was past time for lunch, so I was looking for shelter, but there was nothing at the top. So down it was. But I couldn’t find the trail. It just petered out on me. Sat down and had something to eat even with the wind. After that I went back to the top where I last had the trail and came back down again. I found the turn I’d missed. It’s easy to miss when everything is broken rock. 

Poia Lake was the next camp. Big mountain lake. Buggy and windy. Spattering of rain throughout the night. Quick 7 miles or so downhill into Many Glacier. I saw theses old bear scratches. 


Many Glacier is where a lodge was constructed in the early 1900s for worldly travelers. This is a shot from the back. Pretty nice looking place. 


Michelle picked me up and hauled me back to where she and Maggie are camped. I’m now standing in line to pull a permit for the next leg through Glacier National Park.