Total Miles: 1265.2
I’m on some kind of ride at the county fair, which one I’m not entirely sure. The Tilt-o-Whirl maybe, or perhaps the Scrambler. It might even be the giant swirling swing ride. When my eyes open, I don’t see the lights of the midway though, only darkness. Turns out it was only partly a dream.
The hammock may as well be one of those rides, swaying from side to side as it is in the gusts of confused wind that broadside me from one direction only to do the same from the polar opposite direction moments later. Between the rocking, the noise of both the flapping fabric and the swaying trees, as well as the rising and sinking of the hammock as the trees I’m anchored to flex to and fro, I might as well be at the fair.
For all the excitement, it was more comical than anything else even in spite of the sleep it was robbing us of. Laughing to myself at the middle of the night ride in the hammock, I looked up to see stars that I thought might be blown away on the breeze at any moment.
Waking to a slightly mellower breeze, we started down the trail and it took only steps to notice that something felt very wrong with both of my feet. Shooting pain from each heel as they struck the ground had me shuffling downhill trying to walk with only the front half of each foot. The handful of water fords yesterday had managed to keep just enough moisture next to my skin long enough to puncture the armor that had built up over these past two and a half months. Right in the middle of the thick callouses that had formed, a large crack straight down to the dermis had split open on each foot. Just brushing it with a finger was brutally painful. This was going to be a long day.
The pain receded enough to walk, albeit abnormally, but with each break I’d get up and gingerly take the first few steps wondering if they’d ever become more tolerable. A soak in a cold stream at lunchtime was the best painkiller, and we did our best to dress and treat them so we could keep making forward progress.
To add insult to literal injury, when we reached the bottom of the descent from our overnight home, the Middle Fork Flathead River seemed to demarcate the boundary of yet another burn area. This is beginning to get old. For miles, we wandered through what has become all too familiar: lifeless trees making ghostly shrieking sounds in the wind with dry and dusty trail snaking its way through a charred landscape with nothing but fireweed.
Our time in northern Montana has been plagued by a closeness to fire, both its history and its more recent exploits. By late afternoon, the omnipresent scent of campfire signaled that we were only a few miles from the latest fire that is burning just west of the trail. Walking through fires past and smelling fires present made me think about just how prevalent fire is, particularly in the forests of the West.
Like the countless miles of the Pacific Crest Trail—particularly through Oregon and California—that have been touched by fire, the CDT clearly has its fair share. One thing you begin to realize after stretch upon stretch of forest stripped clean by flame is that wildfires are not what you might imagine. They aren’t merely rare, small events that happen out in the middle of nowhere with no one witness their aftermath—a fact that Californians know all too intimately. They happen everywhere, they can be massive, and they’re the predominant hand in both devastating and revitalizing the landscapes they ravage.
There’s a legend about the small cones of the Douglas Fir that goes something like this. As a wildfire threatened a great stand of them, all the animals of the forest ran for safety. The humble field mouse, unable to run fast enough instead sought shelter by climbing the great tree. Reaching the uppermost branches, it found safety by crawling in between the scales of the small cones.
If you look at the cone of a Douglas Fir, sure enough you’ll see that each scale looks like it has a tiny mouse tail sticking out from underneath it. It’s a helpful tale in identifying the Douglas Fir by its cones, but it’s also a tale of fire and its impact on the flora and fauna, a tale that continues to be told on a massive scale throughout our beloved wilderness.