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


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. 

T -22 days. Getting my head straight. 

With just 22 days till go time, the emotional side of preparing to leave my family and my job is a constant rub. I’ll share with anybody that I see a social worker every month or so for a precious 50 minutes. It’s one slot during the month that’s all about me. Well sort of. Because me really is how I relate and interact with others. It’s a chance to talk about those relationships; how to sustain and cultivate the good ones, and how to diminish and minimize the destructive ones. It’s not mamby pamby stuff. It’s about being a good human being in search of continual improvement. 

The next five months are all going to be inside my head. Resetting my head is a big part of why I need this journey. I’m tapped out. The last six years as a superintendent/principal with some side gigs doing anything else imaginable within a small school district has left me physically and mentally exhausted. I’m constantly in a survival mode these days. Allostatic overload. I need a break to steady out my head.  

Therapy has helped prepare me as much as possible to work with my wife, Michelle, as together we take on this event of me voluntarily going away. She’s giving me a gift, so I can come back stronger with my brain reset. That’s love. That’s the strength of our love.