Welcome to "Laurie and Nate's Big Hike." This is a blog about our walk across the United States of America on the Continental Divide Trail. It will include posts about planning and preparation, the hike itself (dependent on time and internet access) and our subsequent re-socialization.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Plan is Made and A Team is Formed

So, I had decided to hike the CDT! But when? A CDT Thru-hike takes months of planning, both for the walk itself and the life disruption. So the thing to do was to pick a concrete time out in the future and then plan to have a CDT thru-hike at that time.  I decided, and in fact, made it my 2010 New Year’s Resolution, that in 2011, I would thru-hike the CDT.

The planning started immediately, with what could be called a “feasibility study.”  How much would this cost? When would I need to start by? How far would I have to walk each day? How difficult is the trail?

At first, I was unsure of where to start. So, I employed a technique that I use quite often in my academic scientific research. I call this technique “consulting with Professor Google.” Professor Google first pointed me to the website of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance where I found some basic information about the trail. Next on the list were BLM offices in New Mexico and Wyoming. I expected government bureaucracy boilerplate but was pleasantly surprised to find free downloadable and printable maps, information on recent trail maintenance, information on water sources and the locations of new “cache boxes” where the trail crosses the road and hikers can leave water in the Chihuahua desert.

This still wasn’t enough, so I looked further down Professor Google’s list and found various “trail journals” or posts from previous hikers. I started reading the first few I came across but was disappointed to find that they did not answer my questions of How much will this cost? When do I need to start by? And the other above questions. In general the first few trail journals I read were either very boring (“Day 115: I hiked some more today”) or gave the impression that hiking the CDT consisted of blasting down the trail as fast as you can so you can get to the next town, go to the bar and tell everyone what you did, then go online and tell everyone what you did. It gave the impression that you had to shortcut around the beautiful areas to get to the next town and that hiking the CDT did not entail any watching morning mist rise above the surface of a lake while the campstove heated water for coffee.

At that time, I started to doubt the wisdom of thru-hiking the CDT. Do I really want to walk 20-30 miles per day with a heavy pack and sleep on the cold hard ground? For the cost of a CDT Thru-hike, I could go to Hawaii for a couple of weeks and lay on the beach and drink fresh Mai tai’s. Wouldn’t I rather lay on the Beach and drink Mai tais in Hawaii than drag may fat ass and my heavy pack across the burning desert and cold windy mountains? Maybe I want to do a big overseas trip. Why not go back to New Zealand? New Zealand is really nice and I haven’t ever gone back since my exchange in high school. Or….. OK, maybe I really would rather go backpacking. But why 20-30 miles per day? Why something with sections on roads and ATV trails? How could I go to all the effort to do a backpack and then walk on a road? Why not take a few months and road trip from wilderness to wilderness and do a series of short backpacks? I could walk a reasonable number of each day and have plenty of time to relax next to beautiful lake and fish and swim. I could hike in places where I would not need to drink slimy green cow water. Or….. Maybe I really want to do a great big Thru-hike. Why not the Pacific Crest Trail? It is much more well-established. I would save a lot of money on maps because you only need one guidebook for the PCT. Not hundreds of dollars worth of maps for the CDT.

In spite of my doubts I continued to work my way down Professor Google’s list and came upon a website by the hiking team “spiriteagle” http://www.spiriteaglehome.com/index.html or Jim and Ginny Owen (Thru-hikers have a tradition of giving themselves “trail names” which usually sound silly or hippyish to outsiders, probably because they are). They met on the Appalachian trail and have subsequently thru-hiked the CDT twice, in addition to numerous other adventures. The Spiriteagle website includes pages and pages of both technical and mental considerations that go into a CDT thru-hike, inspiring stories of adventure, and an entertaining opinion section written by someone named Bun-Bun. I learned from Spiriteagle that one of the most important Thru-hiking concepts was that I must “hike my own hike” and allow others to “hike their own hike.” This means I must hike MY hike, in the way that is right for me not someone else’s hike, in the way that was right for them. The way that was right for the author of the journal I was reading was to get to the next town as fast as possible. But that was the way that was right for him. It did not have to be the way that was right for me. If my hike includes hitting the scenic highlights and watching mist rise above a lake in the morning while water heats for coffee then that is how my hike should be. You must not hike someone else’s hike, you must hike your own hike and allow others to do the same. This applies to both thru-hiking and life in general. I would be further inspired by the well-written journals of Jonathan Ley http://www.phlumf.com/travels/cdt/ and by watching the 15-minute and 2.5-hour videos made the two funny British guys, Cookie and Paul, about their CDT hike. (Available for streaming or download
http://www.made-in-england.org/videos/cdt/ ) With adequate inspiration, the big walk was back on.

Spiriteagle also had the information I needed for my “feasibility study”, namely mileages, information about town, information about trail difficulty in various areas. Armed with the information, I made a spreadsheet. It included essential information about resupply stops, including the mileages in between them. Next to the mileages, I added a column labeled “days” in which I put the number of days I thought it would take to hike each section. In the next column, I put programmed in a formula to calculate the number of miles per day that we would average in that section. I then added column for rest days and columns for the date at which I would reach each town.  After doing this for the entire trail from Mexico to Canada I had a tool by which I could adjust the pace of different sections until the date at which I would reach Waterton was reasonable (as in, not too late in October). Importantly, I could change one parameter such as the start date and the entire spreadsheet would update. I could see how changing one thing would change when I would reach each section of the trail and when I could finish. I adjusted the miles per day for each section to do more on the easy parts and fewer on the hard and the beautiful parts. I also made spreadsheets outlining the costs, and the distance between potential water sources in the dry sections. Upon completing these planning exercises, I concluded that my plan was indeed “reasonable.” (My standard of “reasonable” is one of exhibits that people refer to when presenting the argument that I am, indeed, crazy). My spreadsheet is on Google Docs and you can look at it here: https://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0Al5wrQfoHk3odG1GRVFQVGlPS290T3VIdFY1eG9sZXc&hl=en&authkey=CJ-MsJIF

Until now, I hadn’t spent any significant money nor told anyone about my plan. Starting to purchase maps would put me out a significant amount of money should I change my mind.  Because the CDT is more of a route then a single “path” it presents a significant route-finding challenge and hikers carry two or three maps for every section. For detail, hikers get what is called the CDT-ROM. It was made and updated by Johnathan Ley and it includes printable, annoted topographical maps showing the entire CDT and many alternates. In addition, hikers another set of maps showing the broader view, trail and road numbers, and land ownership. Dependent on the section, these are BLM maps, Forest Service maps and/or trails illustrated maps. In the end, I would end up spending about $700 on maps and guides.

Then there is the question of when to start telling people about my plans. Telling people about my plans then changing them would cause an ego injury. It’s probably only my male readers who sympathize with the direness of ego injuries. But now, with the feasibility study complete it was time to slowly start telling people my plan and purchasing maps.

The first person I told was my mother. I had gone up to Whitefish for a weekend and we were skiing along Grist Road on the North Shore of Lake Mcdonald towards Rocky Point.
“Hey Mom,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“I am going to hike the continental divide trail in 2011.”

During the past few years my mother had worked as a cashier at Super One Foods in Whitefish. As in most grocery stores, the cashiers at Super One are instructed that they must always be polite to the customers, no matter how weird they are. There are people with very “interesting” views on life who wish to share these views with others. These people tend to end up mostly sharing their views with grocery store cashiers, because cashiers are in a public place, are not allowed to leave and not allowed to request that the other person leave. During her years at Super One Mom had developed a certain facial expression, the humoring you expression, which would appear on her face when a frizzy haired woman with smoker’s breath would go into a hissy fit upon being informed that she had $0.05 in left in her food stamp account and start screaming that Obama had taken HER food stamps out of HER food-stamp debit account and was going to give them to lazy stupid poor people. Because Obama is a socialist! Or the “humoring expression” would appear when the rather odiferous 40-something man who would explain to her how he uses his dental fillings to communicate with the aliens that will come soon to be our overlords.  I noticed that, upon hearing my continental divide trail plan, my mother was now wearing her “humoring expression.”

“Are you going to be done with school?” She asked.
“Yes I will.” I said.
“Who are you going with?” She asked.
“I’m going solo.” I said.
“No you’re not, I am coming too.” She said.

Now it was my turn to give her the “humoring expression.” Mom had been talking about hiking the continental divide trail as long as I can remember. She had some guidebooks that she had bought in the 1970’s back before she had children to hold her down. However, I also knew that when we would backpack in Glacier it would sometimes rain or frost at night. Mom would always be very displeased by these events. When thru-hiking the CDT you simply need to plan on getting snowed on, a lot. And when that happens you can’t run out to the car, go home to the nice warm cabin, build a fire and take a hot bath. You have keep to pushing towards Canada through the snow.

“You know, we will get snowed on right? A lot?”
“I’ll have a warm coat”

Well, that didn’t work. Maybe the water situation would convince her

“You know we will have to drink slimy, green cow water in New Mexico right?”
“We will have a filter.”

Dam! Maybe the difficulty will get her.

“You know we have to maintain an average pace of 20 miles per day right?”
“I can get in shape.”

I wasn’t convincing her. Maybe, as one of my favorite movies would suggest, it was “Viking stubbornness issues.” Over the next weeks and months she would realize that I was really was serious and I would realize that she too was serious. I would stop and think: Of all the people I know, who has both the physical and the mental strength to complete a CDT Thru-hike? Who could I get along with for that long? I could think of very few people and Mom was at the top of the list. And so, the team for CDT-2011 came to be.

-- Coming up Next: Orchestrating an escape.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The far-off dream and how the great hike came to be

A question every thru-hiker gets asked, or should ask himself, is “why do you want to do this?” Why do you want to disrupt your life by giving up your job and your apartment? Why would you “jeopardize” your career by having a six-month gap in your resume? Why do you want to go six or more months with zero income? Why do you want to do nothing but walk and walk and walk, mile after mile, 20 or even 30 miles per day, day after day, week after week, month after month? Why do you want to walk and eat and sleep day after day in the cold, the heat, the wind, the rain, and the burning sun?

These are valid questions. Many people think I am crazy. Those people are probably right. For them, I do not have an appropriate answer.

One morning a while back I was browsing the internet was informed by my Facebook Newsfeed that Ranjana Sarma “likes” “Triathalon: If you have to ask why, you wouldn’t understand.” This sentiment can also be applied to Thruhiking and backpacking.

Although I didn’t know it, the CDT hike was in the works for many years. Growing up adjacent to the amazing Glacier National Park, I loved hiking, climbing backpacking and exploring. I loved the state of mind that one gets from leaving the flickering computer screens and fluorescent lights and going to the wilderness. The state of mind that comes from smelling the sappy trees, the meadows and the flowers. The feeling that comes from waking in a silent forest next to a lake. From watching the sun rise over nearby mountains, the moring mist rise from a lake while water heats for coffee over a campstove. I love exploring new trails, hikes and climbs in glacier. I always loved walking a little further down a trail. To see what’s around the next bend, behind the next tree, over the next pass.

But there is one trail in Glacier that is special. It starts in Canada’s Waterton Lakes National park, crosses the border and goes all the way across Glacier national park. But this trail doesn’t end there; it exits the park and continues across the vast and empty Bob Marshall Wilderness complex to the South. Then still it continues, it loops around Helena and Butte then visits the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. And still the trail continues, along the Montana-Idaho Border following Southern Bitterroot Mountains and the Centennial mountains.  The trail continues into Wyoming. It wanderes through Yellowstone’s famous bubbling hot pools, then turns south and goes the entire length of the amazing Wind River Range. The trail exits the Wind Rivers and crosses the vast empty and dry Great Divide Basin, hundreds of miles of dry, windswept sagebrush steppe.

This trail reaches the Wyoming-Colorado border, about 1500 miles south of Canada. But it is not finished, not even close. It continues across Colorado. It visits its fourth National Park (counting Waterton), Rocky Mountain National Park. The trail continues to follow the Continental divide. Through the great Colorado rockies, over the top of Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado and for over 100 miles of broad ridges above 12,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.
This trail then reaches New Mexico, but it is still not the end. It wanders through the grand southwestern desert, climbs the 11,000 foot Mt. Taylor, crosses America’s oldest wilderness area, the Gila, in which it visits ancient cliff dwellings and backcounty hot springs.  The trail continues across the desert and then, nearly 3,000 miles from where it began in Canada, the trail ends on the dry and dusty U.S.-Mexico border.

This trail is the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), the longest, the most remote, and the most difficult of America’s great trails. It connects the great wildlands of America’s Rocky Mountain West. Completing the CDT in a single season is one of the most difficult hiking challenges there are. Each year, only a few elite hikers attempt the journey. More people have stood on the summit of Everest then have completed the CDT in a single season.

This grand trail passes right through my hometown, East Glacier Park, MT. When I was little, and would wander on the trails near town, I learned that one trail goes all the way to Mexico. And I knew that someday, I would do that hike. It wasn’t a concrete thing, it was always a hazy dream of something that would happen in some far and unknown distant future. 

Life continued on. I attended Whitefish high school, a year of which was spent in New Zealand. I graduated. I went to Montana State University and studied Cell Biology and Neuroscience, then stayed on for the Biochemistry PhD program. I was a starry-eyed young first year doctoral student. I was going to study science and I was going to have wonderful and nurturing mentor who would help me realize my potential and I would do great work and I would get a great job and I would advance humanity’s under standing of our world and, and, and……..

Life was mostly good. But every now and then, I would remember the hazy and distant dream of hiking that greatest of trails.

Then, starting in the summer of 2008 between my first and second years of Graduate school, things changed.  I was in a state of chronic stress due to,…….. lets say…… “advisor difficulties.” These “difficulties,” I learned later, would only escalate through all my time in grad school. My project was always such that I was constantly chasing better-staffed and equipped competitors. Up until grad school I always had perfect 120/80 blood pressure. But after the chronic stress began, it rose to 130/90 and has never gone back down.  Then, in March of 2009, my Father died after a many-year long journey through Cancer and it’s side effects.

The 2009 Holidays came, Christmas and New Years. The time when we reflect on the past year and look ahead to the next. I realized then that 2009 was probably my worst year ever. I looked ahead to the future and it looked depressing. I was deeply invested in a career path that I no longer loved.  My difficult situation had no end (i.e. graduation) in sight. I grew very depressed.

Then, something happened; It happened on my morning walk. Since my Father had died I had taken up the habit of waking up very early in the morning and taking a four mile walk from my apartment, across campus, along a trail that runs follows Bozeman creek and back. This walk had turned into an essential time for quiet reflection. I walked, I thought about my life, my past and my future. I came to a bench, in a grove a willow bushes next to the creek. I sat in the early morning dark and looked at the creek. A thought came to me. Not just a fleeting thought but a strong idea. Almost as if I were being told by a voice. The though was “it is time.” “The time to hike that greatest of all trails, is now.” The next morning, I had the same thought, and again the following morning.

And over the next few weeks, the hazy and distant dream of hiking the greatest of all trails would become no longer a hazy distant dream but a concrete event that would happen at a concrete time in the future.

Up Next: Making a dream into a reality.