Nothing in my life mattered at this point apart from hiking. Hitching back to the trail, I felt good and was ready to lay down miles. The only considerations I had at this point were eating enough food, and not getting too lost. While in Missoula, I paid a trip to the outdoor store and bought a new bigger camping pad. I was becoming tired of sleeping on dirt. It was a plush Big Agnes Air Core insulated pad, around three inches of comfort, with raised rails on the side. It was like the Rolls Royce of camping pads. In some ways I preferred it to a real mattress. The down side, sitting for a prolonged period in the evening and blowing into it to inflate. But the extra weight and time I viewed as worth it.
The CDT through this area is poorly marked, and you will not find sign posts helping out. It was a maze of forest, small hills and large open areas. I was out ahead hiking on my own on the first day and sat in a wooden throne on a lakeside. I ate some Doritos, and contemplated this next section. My habit would be to study the next ten to fifteen miles of map, and paint a visual picture of what it might look like and where I might turn. I would note things like how high the hill would be on one side and how far up it I would need to be to find my path. The details that can be gleaned from a map can be quite surprising with practice. If there was no trail, I would pick a landmark in the distance and walk towards it. If I could not see a horizon, I would take a bearing on my compass and just walk, combining it with the knowledge I would hike around a mile every twenty minutes. Later that day when the others caught up, Trackmeet in a detectives voice stated ‘Ben, I know it was you sat on the throne at the lakeside, there were dorito crumbs, ranch flavour to be exact, and I know that’s your flavour.’ … Busted. There was no denying.
We hiked on a way and came across one of the most ‘American B movie’ sounding areas I have been to in my life. The “US Sheep Experiment Station”. Like something out of a Sci-Fi movie gone wrong. Who knows what black sheep lurk around the trees. I didn’t see any sheep but can only presume in this area they were bigger, meaner and more inclined to eat meat than their smaller cousins elsewhere in the states. In this section trees became sparser as I hiked and so did the trail. Often disappearing for 5-10 miles at a time. I had to pay a lot of attention and found if I didn’t check the map I would become lost quickly, and trying to reconcile yourself with a map in high heat with little water becomes draining fast. I know the others had an easier time using their phone to navigate, but there is a sense of satisfaction knowing you can carry yourself through the wilderness without aid.
On the second day I was coming into a large open vista that sticks in my memory, I stood on the edge of a hill looking at the miles I had to cross. Lighting was striking the ground maybe fifteenth miles off to the North. I double checked the map. The clouds were moving in the direction of the opening I was eyeing up. If it struck while I was out there, there would be no shelter. But like everyone seems to say, you gotta get the miles in. So I proceeded. It’s admittedly quite insane to hike into something you know will happen. Having lightning striking the ground within a short distance really makes you question what your doing in the middle of a large, flat opening on your own.
I picked up my pace and started across the clearing. But my effort was for nothing as right in the middle rain began lashing down and lightning began to strike. There was a small depression of ground that dipped maybe four feet and I hastily pitched my tent and crawled in to shelter. I suddenly didn’t fancy the few miles to the other side and bunkered down like this felt slightly more secure. It was like mortar rounds dropping around me without warning. All I could do was sit and hope the shallow scoop and 15d nylon tent was enough to protect me from the million volts spasmodically striking the area around me. But just as quickly as it had come it was gone and within a quarter hour it went silent. I packed up my soaked tent and hiked on. These sort of quick hitting lighting storms happen daily in the Rockies and trying to hike a ridge from one end of the country to the other exposes you to a daily barrage of fear.
On my final day in this section I was dropping off the ridgeline from one valley to the next searching for water. Earlier I had noted on my map it looked like the last water would be a stream before climbing onto the ridge, and made a mental note to MAKE SURE I PICK UP WATER. I forgot when walking past it and carried on up the hill. Near the top I realised the mistake but it was a big hill and I didn’t want to turn back. This turned into a torturous mistake. From maybe five miles along the ridge I dropped a little way into one valley, hoping for water. Nothing. I climbed back up, I then dropped off the other side of the ridge into another valley, still nothing. I climbed back up, I was wasting so much time and effort for being lazy in the first instance. I dropped into one more valley, there was a slow trickle of water in a cow infested area. It had Giardia written all over it, but I did have a filter. I slowly filled two bottles as mosquitoes stabbed into my neck, face, and legs. Swinging to kill them and dumbly holding my breathe through the agony. When the bottles were filled I brushed myself all over and ran clear, climbing up the other side of this valley and back to the ridge. On the ridge I sat down to eat biscuits and relax. I had just wasted a couple of hours I didn’t need to. The sky was clear and sun beating down on this weary hiker.
Off in the distance I saw a hiker approaching, and I figured I would wait til they caught up. At the speed I’d been going I still didn’t think it was Spark, Trackmeet or Carrot. I waited, glad to be away from the pain of the valley. The hiker caught up with me. ‘Hi’,. I said. ‘Hey’ came the response. ‘I’m Tribhu, you must be Ben’. We talked about how he had been a little behind me for weeks. How every hiker he had spoken to told him an English guy was just ahead. It must be crazy hearing every day someone is just a hair whisker ahead of you. Like a shadow that can’t be caught. Then we talked about the next road crossing. On the map there was a star mark with the annotation to call a number and refer to ‘the star’ for a ride. The number given was the motel owner in the next town and he would gladly pick up a hiker in return for a nights stay in the motel. It was on the edge of an interstate and as such not a place to be hitching. Tribhu said ‘Well, I’m a pretty fast hiker but my girlfriend is going to be waiting for me on the roadside. If you hike fast enough you can have a lift into Lima(the next town/gas station)’. More than happy with the prospect of a ride instead of 10 mile road walk, I joined him.
It was a scorching day and I didn’t want to miss this ride so I laid the pace hard. At the end of the first climb I looked back down to him. A moment later he reached the top of the climb and said ‘ Whoa, I didn’t realise you could hike this fast, I haven’t met many other hikers that can do this pace’. I didn’t say it, but the truth was I was hiking so fast because I didn’t want to miss my ride. We carried on chatting over the next miles both focused on the next point of water. Marked as a trough in a valley, we made particular note of it as it’s where we would drop off the ridge line, and it would be the valley we walk out of. As we descended, the heat intensified and the ground became flat and barren. We hiked at a near jogging pace for many hours, I think averaging around 4mph. The time ticked slowly while maintaining focus on pace. I was dehydrated and it was a bit exasperating. By the time we hit the road I was done for the day. Officially the trail paralleled the road for a mile but I decided that was enough. I felt like I had run a marathon and said goodbye to Tribhu. I would cross the road and wait for a ride here. I was burned.
Twenty minutes later Tribhu pulled in with his girlfriend and gave me a ride after finishing the extra mile. The Motel we arrived at ten minutes later was cheap and cheerful. Not renovated since the day it was built, it was a time capsule to a gone era. I did a shop for food from the gas station then showered, watching pools of baked on dirt wash off in waves. I chucked my clothes into a washing machine and sat back, trying to focus on an old rerun movie that was playing on tv. A short while later Tribhu was at the door to tell me he would be taking the following day off with his girlfriend and I could have a day off too or see him further down the trail. I went to sleep and the next day feeling rejuvenated, decided to hike. Waking late I went into the reception, a friend of the Motel owner was heading back in the right direction but only half way. I was grateful for the ride and left a quickly jotted note on Tribhu’s windshield. I ended up walking about an extra 5 miles that morning and although I lost an hour and a half to it, I wasn’t concerned. I felt bedded into the trail and was at home in my world.