To paraphrase a J.R.R.Tolkien literary character, adventures are “dirty, nasty things that make you late for dinner”. We’ve found this to be largely true. This is the account of an adventure which we experienced in 1999 – voluntarily, happily, and with great enthusiasm. We courted this adventure, we longed for it, we prayed for it, we planned, schemed, and prepared for it for three and a half years. So whatever you read here cannot be construed as either criticism or complaint.
The adventure in this case was a long distance hike along the Continental Divide Trail, through the Rocky Mountains, eventually walking the distance (and more) between the Canadian border at the Glacier/Waterton International Peace Park and Palomas at the Mexican border. For six months we walked through the high country of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. And we had a wonderful, terrifying, life-changing and extremely satisfying adventure.
From small seeds come big dreams. We’re Ginny and Jim Owen and we hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 1992. Afterward, both of us missed the Trail, the lifestyle, and the freedom that we found in long distance hiking and we both wanted to do another long trail. For most long distance hikers, the more common sequel to the AT is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but that wasn’t where Jim’s heart wanted to go. For Jim, the idea of hiking the Continental Divide Trail was a seed that had been planted during the preparations for the Appalachian Trail. That seed lay dormant after the completion of the Appalachian Trail - until 1995. Then a poster in an outdoor store brought to immediate full-flowering life an overpowering desire to hike the Continental Divide, and triggered the decision to walk what was billed as a 3000 mile trail. The decision was made that night, but the roots of our odyssey began long before, in stories of western pioneers, in films and books that showed the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, in music that made our souls soar above the mountains.
Everything we had read or heard about the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) appealed to us. We liked the idea that it was not yet complete, and that there are many alternate paths, so hikers could choose their own routes through the mountains and the deserts. In that way, every hike becomes unique; no two hikers will make exactly the same choices all the time. We knew the country was beautiful and remote and that there would be few other hikers out there. We also knew it would be difficult, a real challenge, both physically and mentally. Hiking day after day for months at a time is never easy, but snow and water scarcity and remoteness add their own extra challenges and risks. The fact that large parts of the trail have either not been designated or were never constructed or haven’t been maintained for years makes route finding a constant challenge. For three years we researched the trail until we thought we had a fairly clear idea of what to expect. As usual, the reality was so much more. The beauty that surrounded us was incredible, but the difficulties were also greater than expected.
Long distance hikers are often told by non-hikers, “That sounds so exciting! You must have had so many adventures. Please tell us about your adventures.” And usually the mind goes blank - how do you sum up the experiences of five or six months into a simple adventure story?
Truth is, most of long distance hiking is not that adventurous. You rise with the sun and walk all day, eating when hungry, drinking as often as possible, and just hiking on until you decide it is time to stop. Yes, there are moments of danger, episodes of being lost or coping with difficult weather conditions, or running out of food or water, but good planning and a bit of common sense will prevent most really nasty adventures from happening.
Most of the time the experience is much more basic than an “adventure.” It is listening to the chattering of squirrels, the howling of coyotes, or the eerie bugling of an elk. It is smelling the heavenly scent of pine needles underfoot, or sage after a rain, or snow on the wind. More, it is the sight of snow-covered mountains, a herd of elk wheeling on a grassy hillside, the sapphire hue of a glacial lake or the heart-stopping glimpse of an eagle soaring overhead or a bear running down the hill. It is the joy with which you top the first ridge in the morning, the freedom you feel when you see miles of trail unrolling before you, or the deep peace that comes as you watch the first stars appear in the evening. It is the connection you feel with the world around you. It is also the satisfaction that is felt after overcoming innumerable difficulties to reach your goal, whatever that goal may be.
We are also frequently told, by those who don’t know, “Spending six months in the mountains, that must be so much fun!” And we laugh because we know it isn’t fun to be constantly hungry, dirty, wet, cold and thirsty — usually all at the same time. It isn’t fun to be tired and in pain, feeling as if you’re 112 years old. It isn’t fun to deal with rain, sleet and snow, sliding in the mud or over wet rocks and roots, or wearing smelly wet clothes day after day. It isn’t fun to walk and walk and walk, mile after mile all day, every day until you’re too exhausted to continue. And those things are a part of any long hike.
And yet, there are a lot of moments of fun along the way, either through interactions with other hikers, or laughing at the wildlife, or at the absurdities of your own thoughts or actions. There is tremendous satisfaction to living life at its most basic, in spending long periods of time with no distractions and no walls between ourselves and the natural world, or between ourselves and the inner workings of our minds. Attempting as physically, emotionally and mentally challenging a feat as walking for several thousand miles can bring a happiness that is deeper and longer lasting than mere fun. So we laugh, because we know that while it is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, we will return again and again, for the satisfactions that come out of the experience far outweigh the difficulties.
The main part of what follows is Ginny’s trail journal with Jim’s comments added where appropriate. As you’ll see, every day had both challenges and rewards. It was a terrific hike, and we’d do it again next week if we could.