I arrived back at the pass, finished my beer and said goodbye to my ride. I walked a few miles up the trail til it petered out into unblemished forest. I pitched my tent in the light and ate my salad with ranch dressing. This was a peaceful evening and I was glad to have it. One thing I have barely mentioned to you so far this trip is my camping pad, which is the lightest inflatable camping pad in the world. It inflates with one breathe of air and rolls up smaller than a can of cola. It has a point of support for my head, my shoulders and my backside where it abruptly ends. Supporting only half my torso, my legs lie on top of my rucksack for warmth. There is little padding to it and it’s not great for a side sleeper, front sleeper or back sleeper. It’s more a token gesture to comfort. The pad features cut out patches marketed as ‘lofting areas’ for ones sleeping bag and comes in outdoor orange, the coolest of colours designed to attract those with a wallet and no common sense. In the first few days on trail my sleep is poor, and improves only a little after some warmer temps were encountered. When sleep is mildly hypothermic it is only mildly adequate, but the pursuit of warmth is main reason I could wake so early every morning without any complaints and start walking. The starting walking was also a painful experience though, with a little Plantar Fasciitus. My explosion to high mileage would begin to plague me more and more over the coming weeks. Too much too soon, but then again, I did, so it was not.
I hiked half of my first day in this section with a ridiculous dragon back ridge line rising and dropping hundreds of feet every half mile. It was a leg burner that forced me to stop at each high point, something I had not had to do on this hike til now. Reaching a small pass, lightening struck and thunder followed putting me off hiking over some high ground ahead. I pitched my tent to wait it out through a splatter of rain. Half an hour later I hear a ‘Hello’. Outside were three more hikers. Carrot, Spark and Trackmeet. I should also explain most hikers have trail names, nicknames if you will. The rule is you can’t pick your own. It has to be picked for you, and you have to accept it, it can’t be forced on you. The hikers I had met all tried numerous times to name me, but to their dismay I kept to Ben. The new hikers were also flip-floppers who had already hiked New Mexico, and invited me to join them. And so I did. The pace was faster and for the next few days I would hike with them most the time. Carrot was a famed writer and well known on the trail, but since I hadn’t heard the term thru-hike til a month prior I was non the wiser. They hiked in a very fluid and smooth manner. And when switchbacks became ridiculous and overlong, would walk straight down the hillside. It was like free-ride skiers. They navigated using a mobile app and when the trail meandered they would go straight. Sometimes this would work well, on others, the reason the path meandered became more obvious. It was a fun approach.
On one such point the trail came to be on one side of a crescent shaped valley, and we all could see where the path would end up on the other side. It seemed blindingly simple. If we descended a couple of hundred feet, walked across the valley floor and up the other side it would save a lot of time. Launching down we found the valley was full of old mining works and cabins long abandoned. On reaching the forest the line of sight was gone and it became mildly disorienting to walk on blind. The bushwack climbed steeply, then dropped on the other side of a rise to reveal a very steep shingle and dirt hillside. We had to climb this to rejoin our trail. Trainers could not kick into the hardened dirt of the hillside, and small stones would tumble down with each step. Falling onto hands repeatedly then moving like a lobster slowly up to slide a little more down. I used the spikes on my hiking poles, stabbing aggressively for the slightest grip. We traversed to the side and over steeper ground where a slip would have a sand paper rash at best, and cataclysmic at worst. Reaching larger still loose stones, we delicately clambered up the remaining hundreds of feet to the top. On the other side of the valley we stood side by side. Except for Carrot. She was no where to be seen. We started shouting for her. It was an anxious moment. Had she been behind us? Did she get lost in the forest? Several hundred yards further along comes a faint response. On a seemingly near vertical part of the cliff, Carrot was half way up looking like she was free solo climbing. ‘Do you see which way would be best for me?’ she yelled. It was like waiting for teeth to be pulled, such was the tension. A fall out here wasn’t an option. Finding a small eroded gully she clambered up. At this point we had covered 30 miles in the day. The trail became relatively easy. We all felt good but hungry so went another five or so miles before sitting for supper and laughing at Carrot’s climbing epic.
The final day after a lunch of ramen noodles with the guys, I was out ahead a little way on my own. I had some cross country (without trail) walking on a compass bearing, the finish to the pass had the option of a forest walk or a sagebrush wack. I fancied the bush wack and soon found a glorious rash all over my legs which would result in puss-filled blisters later. It was a sore and unwelcome end to this section. I was also aware as I walked that this was probably a good place to come across rattlesnakes, and was hyper aware of each step. As I approached the pass I realised it could be a hard hitch into Leadore, Idaho. The pass was a dirt road and I had yet to see any cars during my few miles approach. Ten minutes later Trackmeet came out and joined me. There was no sign of Spark or Carrot but a pickup was rolling by and offered a ride and we didn’t want to miss it. In we hopped and rolled down to the town.
The town was small and mainly deserted, but with friendly locals and a welcoming gas station shop. A local farmer found what I was doing pretty cool and bought me a burger and fries to enjoy. After chowing down, Spark and Carrot arrived. The three said they were going into Missoula for a day off trail and invited me to join them. With the pain I had under foot a day off could be a welcome recovery. Within seconds of sticking thumbs out, a car filling with gas offered a ride. We could see the husband and wife have a conversation, then walk over and ask if we wanted a ride. Along with his wife and two kids he now had four hikers and their packs. With every inch of the vehicle occupied we set off . On route they pulled over for a quick spot of fishing he promised his kids he would do, and afterwards they even dropped us off at the house we were staying at. One thing the trail taught me was the kindness of people who knew what they offered couldn’t be repaid but still wanted to help. Back home in the UK I would often give hitchhikers a ride in and out of my local Lake District and never really questioned it. But to be on the receiving end of so much kindness so often is pretty incredible at restoring faith in humanity.
In town Carrot had a trip to the hospital and then we all went out for a binge on mexican food, ice cream, and a great BBQ place on the evening. Pictured here is me eating a family ice cream tub to myself, it said ‘great for sharing’ but I went all in and finished it off, I was already burning away my body at an incredible rate.
I want to highlight that while the writing is skinny in a lot of detail, the real detail comes later as I go more and more into my element. Each section of this hike is 100-180miles roughly from one pass to another. Each day my aim becomes to hike around 35 miles, I believe on many of these days I managed a little more. I aimed to carry around 4500kcals each day, but this isn’t enough for 12 hours of fast hiking with a pack. I lose weight with each day hiked, which then aids hiking even faster. In a month or so when I eventually weigh myself I get quite a shock.