Total Miles: 1288.9
A guest post by Ace
We did it. We finished the Montana miles we set out to having arrived at Marias Pass on 9/4 (the same day as Mt. Man’s birthday). Quick aside: Can you believe it? He’s finally 40! It’s about time.
As Mt. Man said in his Thimbleberry Lane post, we are saving Glacier for another year when the CDT is open in the park and the Canadian border is open. As disappointing as that is, I’ve started to dub this our northern terminus “for now” knowing we will be back to experience Glacier in its full glory.
In two days, we will begin our third flip from West Yellowstone where we will hike south through Wyoming to Steamboat (#4 on the lovely map Mt. Man drew up below).
This morning provided a lovely, easy, brisk 4 mile hike to the pass, filled with thimbleberries and our third grizzly bear sighting in two days. The real treat waiting for us at the pass was our dear friends Lynn and Paul and their twin boys. They happened to be vacationing in Glacier and took time to see us and play an integral role in helping get us to the next place on our geographical jujitsu of a thru-hiking journey. Words cannot express how wonderful it was to see them and how grateful we are. And for those of you who know Lynn, are you surprised by her generosity and kindness? Of course not. It’s in her DNA and is one of the many reasons I love her. That, of course, and her banana bread.
Mt. Man and I have enjoyed hiking these Montana miles together. In addition to all the wonderful, interesting things we’ve seen trail-side each day, we also had the opportunity to engage in many Q&A-type conversations while waiting for our dinner to cook each evening. So, in honor of his birthday, here it is, the latest installment of the Trailside Chats series—a rarity, where the man behind the prose of Stone & Sky allows me to turn the “cameras” on him.
Mt. Man likes to call himself boring but I couldn’t disagree more. He is my perfect complement and I only wish we were able to spend a full day on the trail in honor of his birthday.
Ace: The CDT is the third national scenic long trail you are hiking, having completed the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2004 and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2016. What makes each trail different?
Mt. Man: There’s a lot of things that make them different so it’s hard to answer.
I’m sure the AT has changed quite a bit since I did it but in my opinion, the AT is certainly a more social trail. Less removed from towns, and you get to know people. I felt like I got to know quite a few hikers really well on the AT. Also, that trail is deceptive. It’s the most physically challenging of the three despite it being the shortest. It is also guaranteed to rain a lot.
The PCT is mile for mile just a beautiful trail. It’s well built, the scenery is spectacular—particularly the Sierras and the North Cascades—and you know how much I love Crater Lake.
The CDT is more in its infancy. I think it’s still finding what it is, especially as it is evolving from a route to an official trail. There’s a lot of road walking. There’s some navigation but nothing too intimidating. I think largely, people are probably intimidated by what they hear about the CDT but I think more people should be hiking it, really.
Ace: Could people also be intimidated by the length of the CDT? I mean, the stated distance of the trail is 3100 miles but it actually varies. Can you explain the variance in distance?
Mt. Man: Yes, the length could be intimidating. I think what’s really fascinating and fun about the CDT is the fact that it isn’t just one route. There are a lot of “official” alternate routes that a lot of people take which alters the distance. I mean, almost no two people are ever going to hike the same entirety of the trail unless they hike together. I think that makes it fun because it means you kind of have your own unique experience on the CDT which is different than what you’d have on the other trails.
Of course, now I’ve lost track of the question, rambling away. What was it again?
Ace: How does the length of the CDT make it different?
Mt. Man: Well, as of this year, the actual length of the officially signed route is something in the 2900-ish mile range not 3100 as stated. There are also a lot of alternate routes from the designated official trail that can impact overall trail length. For example, there are typical alternates that 40% to 50% of people take (or more) like the Anaconda cut off and others, which means the route can shorten pretty quickly to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2700 or 2800 miles.
Ace: Do you have expectations going into each hike? If so, what are they and has this hike met them so far?
Mt. Man: I try not to have expectations going into a hike. I think some people come into these hikes with expectations, especially if it’s their first long hike. They might have some expectations either from books they’ve read or people they’ve met who have thru-hiked these trails before. In general, I think having expectations is probably detrimental and could prevent me from being open to whatever transpires, whether positive or negative. Generally, my thinking is, if you have expectations coming in, they’re bound not to be met. So coming in and saying, I’m hoping that the hike, the walking, the towns are going to be a certain way is probably a recipe to end up leaving the trail or just not enjoying it in the way that you could if you were open to all the possibilities, mishaps and experiences that might occur.
Ace: So, you have hiked the previous long trails—the AT and PCT—solo. I mean, obviously you met people along the way, but you embarked on those adventures alone. What makes it different hiking the CDT with your spouse? What has been challenging, surprising or most enjoyable about that? And, be honest…
Mt. Man: The evolution has been interesting. Although I started the other trails solo, I’ve met some of the best people in my life on these trails. People like Semicolon, Footloose, Camel and many others on the AT. Gazelle, Beardoh, Sweet Pea, Proton, Dreamcatcher and many others on the PCT. This trail has been different obviously as it’s more quiet, in general, than the other trails but COVID has really made it even more quiet. So we don’t really have the social aspect.
I think doing so much alone when I was younger was wonderful at the time and something I wouldn’t change. But after I lost my dad—this was several years after the AT—I started to appreciate the fact you could share these experiences with people either while on trail or after the fact through the retelling of them. While my dad couldn’t be with me on my adventures, he always loved hearing about them and losing him made me value the shared experience more than I had before.
I also think part of it is just getting older, and realizing that experiencing things alone isn’t nearly as satisfying as sharing them with someone else. Things are just better when shared. It’s something I witnessed firsthand helping my Mom accomplish her goal of hiking the 46ers. It’s not just sharing the really fun times or when the scenery is spectacular. When times are hard it’s helpful to know there’s someone else with you who’s probably equally as miserable. And it’s a shared experience that we will look back on laugh about, but we’re going to be miserable together in the moment.
Ace: Not trying to lead the witness but……While on the PCT I remember you saying town days or zero days could sometimes be stressful. Is this one way having a spouse/partner is helpful?
Mt. Man: Yes, that is definitely true. Downtime, as you know, it’s kind of a paradox that it’s all relaxation all the time when in reality it’s not. I mean, you’ve seen firsthand how many things have to get done on our town days, and how time vanishes so rapidly between eating, doing laundry, cleaning gear, showering, calling family and friends and writing something to post to the blog. All of a sudden it’s past our normal trail bedtime and we have to be on the trail the next morning. To me, that all becomes stressful and having you help and do at least half of those things is huge and makes it way more enjoyable.
And, to more specifically answer your question what it’s like hiking with you, it’s been really nice to share the experience with you. This is something you know I love to do. We’ve obviously done shorter thru-hikes together but this is the first time we’ve done such a long trail together which is always something I wanted you to experience because, at some point, you just have to be there to know what this experience is like. And I felt like it was such an important part of my life that I wanted you to have the firsthand experience of long distance thru-hiking for yourself.
Ace: The audience at home wants to know: what’s been your favorite trail snack on this hike?
Mt. Man: This is an easy one. My favorite snack is a new one that we didn’t even come into the trail knowing about. Nature Valley coconut butter biscuits and almond butter biscuits. Thanks for the introduction Beardoh!
Ace: What advice would you give a novice backpacker attempting their first thru-hike?
Mt. Man: Ha! Listen as little as possible to people like me who’ve done thru-hikes before (laughs). It’s sort of funny, but it’s true. I think you’ve heard me say this because it’s an expression I’m very fond of: “An expert is somebody who knows more and more about less and less.” I mean I’m not trying to bad-mouth expertise—the world needs lots of it—but I think it only goes so far, right? I also try not to be in the advice giving business period because I don’t think I’m any good at it.
However, if pressed, my advice would be to find somebody who has experience and who you trust in their objectivity because it’s easy to talk to anybody who thru-hiked any long trail and all you’ll hear is a ton of subjectivity.
I would say get yourself physically prepared. For the AT, be prepared to be around people, but learn a few ways to find solitude if you want it. Be prepared for a swelteringly hot summer, and quite likely a very cold start or finish to the trail. And be prepared for some brutally difficult hiking.
For the PCT, it might be good to pickup a few skills to gain more comfort in the snow-covered Sierra as well as for dealing with some of the crazy snow-melt driven water crossings that you’ll likely have to ford.
For the CDT it might be some rudimentary basics about orienteering and snow travel before they are going to feel comfortable being out here. But other than that, I think it’s mostly just an issue of just getting out here. Try to start small with overnight trips. Scrutinize every piece of gear you have. Take only what you need. There’s a million ways to hike these trails. There’s no one right way. So don’t pay attention to what other people are carrying or doing. By all means, ask questions, be curious. That’s how you evolve and grow and have more fun. But don’t get hung up on having the latest and greatest things or having as much experience as somebody else.
The one memory I reflect on, quite heavily, is from the AT. I remember going into that hike and thinking there’ll be a lot of people who are very experienced. But by the end, the group of fantastic people that I finished with, I mean, largely, we had nothing in common. We were different ages, had different experiences and backgrounds. What we all did have in common was we wanted to be out there every day, regardless of what the conditions were like or what our experience level was when we started. And that’s really all these trails require.
Ace: What other long trails do you have an interest in hiking?
Mt. Man: Well, I wouldn’t count out doing the Triple Crown trails again at some point, but not right away. I’m more interested in doing a combination of smaller more manageable trails like the Arizona Trail. I’d like to do the Long Trail in Vermont again since I haven’t done it since my friend Ian and I did it as a first thru-hike in 2002. I also would love to do the John Muir Trail again—I could do that trail every year and wouldn’t get tired of it.
Another trail I’m interested in is the Hayduke which is off the beaten path, less well known, and not very heavily traveled. There’s also the Pacific Northwest Trail. I think it would be cool to hike an East-to-West trail from Glacier through Washington to the coast. It would be fun to have that mix of wilderness and of an almost suburban adventure through the area we live.
Ace: I’m in support of all those. This is your first long thru-hike where you are hammocking (having previously been a ground dweller for the AT and PCT). Can you tell us about your evolution to hammocking? It’s benefits and challenges?
Mt. Man: I loved being in a tent for those hikes and I wouldn’t shy away from doing so again, on occasion. But I really do love being in a hammock.
I think the exposure to what Beardoh and Sweet Pea’s experience was like on the PCT and getting to know them and hearing their hammock experience certainly precipitated me getting into hammocking. When I made my hammock with them that was also a lot of fun. I’d never made my own gear so it was a fun project that seemed like a new thing to try. When I did try it I realized hammocks are just very, very comfortable. It’s really nice to be off the ground. It’s really nice to have a more modular system where the body of the hammock is separate from the shelter of the tarp. There’s more versatility. There’s more flexibility.
The cost of that flexibility is having the technical acumen to navigate the hammock which can be more challenging than a tent in certain situations which both you and I have experienced on this trail. With a tent, you find some sort of roughly level, even ground and that’s good enough. Maybe your challenge is pitching it when the wind blows. With the hammock and tarp there are definite challenges in the wind. But there are other variables that need to be considered to ensure an optimal or at least a safe hang. What’s the understory like? What types of trees are there? Are they thick enough in diameter? Are they alive? Is the ground underneath them sloped or uneven?
And that’s before you even have a conversation about the tarp. With the tarp setup you have to make sure the trees are far enough apart, for starters. Their size matters too so that the tarp doesn’t go slack when you sit/lie in the hammock. Bottom line, there’s just a lot of rules of thumb that you need to figure out to get a good pitch with both the hammock and the tarp and I think a lot of people would find that overwhelming at first. I think we did. But I also think the payoff is great and the flexibility of it all, plus its comfort, outweighs the learning curve we had and any associated problems.
Ace: Your colleagues at IBM—well Chris Berry and Chris Gonzalez at least!—and Rick in Jackson, Montana identify thru-hikers as hippies. We are definitely not hippies. How would you define thru-hiking and how influential and formative has it been in your life?
Mt. Man: (chuckles) Yes. I find it comical because I consider myself just about the most square, most boring person alive and very far from a hippie. But relative to others I guess I’m as close to wearing tie dye and Birkenstocks as the next guy.
Regarding the definition question: thru-hiking is just hiking an entire trail in its entirety in some continuous fashion. It’s not a statement about how you do it. Whether you’re flip-flopping like we are on this particular trail or you’re going entirely in a single direction, it’s attempting to hike the entirety of a trail in a single season. That’s really as basic a definition as it gets.
Regarding how influential and informative it has been for me, that’s a bit harder to answer. Of course it’s been influential. I mean, it sort of grew out of an extension of just pure enjoyment of the outdoors. As a boy scout or from hiking, camping, and boating with my family, it kind of grew organically from there.
I also think there’s a ton of life lessons to be gleaned from thru-hiking that you can take with you in “real life.” Of course you have to like the outdoors and find enjoyment in the experience come rain or shine. But you also have to value self-sufficiency and stripping your life down to the basics—the antithesis of materialism. Thru-hiking allows me to get away from the fast-paced, constantly multitasked world that we all seem to live in. By thru-hiking, I’ve gained perspective about what adversity is and I’ve gained the ability over time to separate real strife from imagined strife. Thru-hiking also serves as a good reminder for me to place more value in relationships rather than things.
Ace: What’s been the biggest challenge on the CDT thus far? What’s been the biggest surprise?
Mt. Man: The logistics have been by far the biggest challenge. The logistical gymnastics began when we delayed our start due to COVID and then when we had to initiate a completely different plan once we started due to snow and bad weather. The logistics are doable and we’ve managed to do it, but it has come at a cost of lost hiking time and added expense. I don’t think any of us would say this is how we would prefer to do this hike yet we are grateful to be out here. So that’s been the most challenging, I think.
Maybe a second—a distant second—challenge is the amount of road walking there is on this trail. I knew going in it was going to be significant, I believe somewhere on the order of 700 to 800 miles of the trail run on roads. The roads are either paved or forest service type roads so walking is “easier” yet not very engaging which I find disappointing. I know this trail will evolve away from that into more single track trail, but until then it is what it is.
Regarding the biggest surprise, as I said in response to your earlier question I don’t really set expectations so nothing has really surprised me. I’m just enjoying the miles.
Ace: Final question. Those who’ve been reading your blog consistently will recognize the significance (and sarcasm) of this question. Besides your long spoon (which you were without for a stretch), what’s the one piece of gear you couldn’t live without?
Mt. Man: Well, I could live without the spoon because I just shared yours. That wasn’t so bad.
Ace: You were bemoaning it’s loss for a few weeks, especially when we couldn’t get it from the Winter Park post office.
Mt. Man: Fair enough. Gotta have something to complain about!
So, if this is a serious question, then the obvious answer is my Chaco sandals. I don’t know what my “thru hiking career” would be like if I hadn’t found my way to Chacos while on the AT. I really don’t. I mean if you can’t move yourself from point A to point B reasonably comfortably, every other piece of gear doesn’t really matter. So, I think finding something that worked especially on the heels of having so many foot problems before that point was a total game changer.
Before the AT, I had plantar fasciitis that I wore night splints for for months. I used Ace bandages to create splints for myself in my sleeping bag the first couple months of that hike. I tried every shoe imaginable from boot to trail runners and then finally found my way to Chacos. It was a perfect fit right from the beginning and I’ve never looked back.
Even when situations don’t seem conducive for sandals—like, you know, trailblazing through snow!—I just take neoprene socks for the cold and soldier ahead because I know the walking won’t be a problem and while my feet may be cold, they won’t hurt and they’ll continue to get me from here to there.