Editor’s note: Somerset section hiker Norm Stoldt, trail name “Stormin’ Norman,” was hoping the “Triple Crown” — hiking the Appalachan, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails — was within reach.. He planned and prepared to finish a portion of the Continental Divide Trail the summer of 2010.
“The man who goes afoot, prepared to camp anywhere and in any weather, is the most independent fellow on earth.” — Horace Kephart, 1917
This adventure would take me 250 miles through Yellowstone National Park and parts of northwestern Wyoming. The legwork of this journey began even before reaching my destination, as I strolled through the Salt Lake City Airport concord by the numbers — gates 4, 5, 6 … and on and on until gate 65 — to reach the small regional aircraft that would take me to the town of West Yellowstone.
Arriving, I checked into a motel and revitalized myself with one of my prepackaged high-energy breakfast cereal packets. Then I was off to find a park ranger to confirm my campsite reservations and get my back-country permit. You are only allowed to camp in the park at designated sites reserved in advance. The ranger at the park entrance didn’t seem to understand; he wanted to issue me a vehicle permit.
He’d never encountered anyone entering the park on foot, much less walking its entire length. He finally directed me to the visitor center in town where I met a back-country ranger. Finally success!
After watching a video on back-country dangers and etiquette, he verified my reservations and issued me a hiking permit. The cause of all this confusion? Just about every Continental Divide Trail hiker takes the official route that enters the park well to the south. I was the exception. In 2008, a friend and I hiked down from the north, taking an alternate route that left us 20 miles north of the entrance where a hairline fracture and foot problems forced me to end my journey.
I was starving by the time I got back to my motel room. It must have been that long perilous journey through the airport. To satisfy my hunger I combined a breakfast cereal packet with a freeze-dried meal for a 1,500 calorie supper.
I was up at 6 a.m., took advantage of the motel’s free breakfast and headed out to spend the day completing the bypassed 20-mile section. I would hitch a ride out to where I had been forced to stop and then “slack pack” (hiking term for toting a near empty pack with a minimum of food and water) back into town.
I had prepared a “Hiker to Trail” sign to facilitate getting a ride but never had to use it. Crossing the intersection where I planned to start, a truck stopped for the light. I stuck out my thumb, the driver waved me over and I had my ride before I finished crossing the street.
The weather was perfect — cool with a light wind. I made great time, covering the 20 miles back into town in just under seven hours, a blazing nearly 3 mph pace. But I had felt some foot discomfort in the last 3 miles or so and on checking my feet, I discovered to my consternation that the bottoms of both feet were swollen. I also had several deep dark-colored blisters on the balls of my feet.
Due to a prior back injury, I have lost most of the feeling in my feet. Thus when I do have foot problems, I don’t feel anything until conditions are pretty severe. I was in big trouble. I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening icing my feet.
The next morning the swelling was down, but the blisters were still intact. The logical thing to do was to rest a few days until my feet recovered. However with motel rates going up to $100 plus a night and the park’s advance reservation system for campsites (it is not always possible to get the sites you want), it wasn’t too practical.
I decided to try and go on. I had only one day of road walking left and maybe if I went at a slower pace my feet would hold up and be able to heal on the softer surface of the back-country trails.
So after another big free motel breakfast, I was on my way. I showed the ranger my back-country-hiking permit at the park entrance, but was told that only allowed me to hike inside the park. I had to pay an entrance fee if I wanted to enter. I reluctantly paid the second fee. Had I known, I could have simply cut through the woods and avoided going through the gate. Oh well.
Down the road I went. There were several traffic jams as tourists eager to view the park’s wildlife slowed down or stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures whenever they encountered animals.
At one particular slowdown, rangers drove up with emergency lights flashing to speed up the flow of traffic and prevent people from getting out of their cars to disturb a herd of grazing elk and possibly endanger themselves.
Stopping for a snack and to soak my feet in the cool waters of the Madison River, I noticed that the blisters had broken and my socks were lightly stained with a mixture of liquid and blood. My feet didn’t seem to hurt as much so I pressed on. If I made it to my campsite, I could soak my feet in the refreshing waters of a cold mountain stream.
But when I came to a long uphill stretch of road my feet began hurting more than ever. I was concerned that if I kept going I might tear loose the weakened skin from the soles of my feet. I realized that as long as I kept hiking my feet would never heal even on the soft terrain of the back-country trails. It was time to call it quits.
I stopped at a pull-off spot and stuck out my thumb. The first car to approach stopped. The driver and his family were from Holland and the vehicle was already packed with camping gear but I managed to squeeze in. They drove me back to the Madison campground. From there I was able to hitch a ride from a park worker back to town.
The next morning I headed to the airport and home. Unable to get a cab ride, I made a “Hiker to airport” sign and used it to get a lift to the terminal’s front door by an airport employee. I had a six-hour wait for my flight home.
As I waited, my mind drifted back over my past backpacking adventures.
My journeys have taken me some 6,500 miles through 21 states. I’ve passed through our country’s most prestigious national parks, experiencing the awe-inspiring raw beauty of Glacier, the turquoise blue-green waters of Crater Lake, the boiling caldrons of Yellowstone, the meandering great river and hardwood forests that make up the Shenandoah National Park and the veiled ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Added to these were numerous state and national forests and recreational areas.
My travels have taken me across the Rockies, the Cascades, the Sierra, to the lesser-known Poconos of Pennsylvania and the Whites of New Hampshire, to the deserts of Southern California, including the Mojave, and the high desert of the Great Divide plateau of Wyoming. Over the last 10 years I’ve viewed the very best that our country has to offer in terms of wilderness beauty.
Looking at the three trails in general, the Appalachian is the shortest — 2,100 miles compared to 2,600 for the Pacific Crest and 3,100 for the Continental Divide Trail. The CDT is by far the most physical. It’s been said that hiking its entirety is like climbing Mt. Everest 25 times. There are places in the northern most sections where the trail ends at a vertical rock wall and hikers must scale the wall. I even experienced situations in which a ladder was in place at a rock face too sheer or too high to climb safely. Hiking across the Appalachian’s many boulder fields was like spending all day on a stair-master machine.
I found the PCT the most enjoyable. It had gentle switchbacks and good weather (with the exception of Washington State where it seemed to rain everyday) and the absence of an overwhelming population of carnivorous insects. I think the CDT is the most beautiful, from the multicolored rock striations of the mesas and arroyos of New Mexico to the wild unspoiled allure of Glacier National Park.
It is also the most isolated, making it the most challenging of the three to navigate. Map reading and compass skills are prerequisites for the CDT. I traveled nearly a week across the barren outback of Wyoming without seeing another individual, a house, barn, paved road or power pole. My only companions were Pronghorn antelope, some wild horses and a few lonely cattle.
At the other extreme, coming out of the backwoods of New York State one Sunday on the Appalachian, the trail led me through the middle of a park complex where thousands of people were barbecuing, swimming and enjoying some kind of special event.
I encountered some dozen rattlesnakes on my journeys. With the exception of one, after sounding they all slithered away off the trail — but the mother of all rattlesnakes held its ground and forced me to make a wide detour around it through knee-high grass. All I could think of was, “I sure hope these things don’t come in pairs!”
One evening my campsite was staked out by a mountain lion. I could hear the breaking of downed branches as a creature circled my tent site. I initially thought it was a young bear checking me out. I’d yell, make noise and I could hear it move away but then quickly return. I finally turned on my light, broke a large branch against a tree and at the same time yelled the Buddhist mantra, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” as loud as I could. It was then I heard the lion’s spine-chilling scream as it made its final retreat into the woods.
One time on the Appalachian I came upon some cows and young calves bunched together under a tree. As I maneuvered my way through the crowd, there was rustling, then a deep bellow and out of the brush came the largest Braymer bull I’ve ever seen. As he loped toward me I was about as mobile as a turtle carrying a 30-pound pack on a steep hillside.
I felt my long-term career as a hiker was over and my short-term career as a matador was about to begin. Then 10 feet in front of me he stopped and rubbed against a cow. She responded to his advances, they started doing what nature intended cows and bulls to do and I sped away.
In addition to the animal encounters, two situations I will never forget involved the challenge of terrain and weather. Crossing with friends over an exposed pass in Glacier Park we experienced an early summer storm. We were bombarded by snow pellets and blistering 50-60 mph winds. Any exposed skin quickly became numb. At times only my hiking poles kept me from being blown over.
Hiking with my friend, whose trail name is Saunter, in the northern Cascades, we encountered a steep snow/ice patch blocking the trail. I slipped and fell while attempting to cross — we didn’t have ice axes for chopping footholds or crampons for our tennis shoes.
I dug the point of my hiking poles into the snow, which slowed my descent and pulled me sideways. Instead of speeding 100 feet down the mountain to a possible fatal crash onto the rocks below, I slid off to the side after traveling only a dozen or so feet and escaped the ordeal with only a badly skinned knee and scratches.
The many people I have encountered over-shadowed any hardship I may have experienced. I shared the fellowship of the trail with hikers from all parts of America and a half a dozen foreign countries. I can never forget the compassion and generosity shown to me and fellow hikers by trail angels, those individuals who go out of their way year after year to assist the backpacking community.
I’ve had people open their homes to me and provide transportation. The town of Damascus on the Appalachian Trail even sponsors a “Hiker Day” celebration. Its citizens and businesses provide free food and lodging and stage various hiker activities. There is a hiker parade, contests like broad jumping and balancing on a log with a full pack and many other fun events.
This was the fourth time I had to leave the trail because of injuries — twice because of stress fractures, once when I was rescued by helicopter after developing severe tendonitis in my knee, and now due to foot problems. Moreover, for the last three years I’ve experienced similar foot troubles to one degree or another.
I’ve tried extra cushioned type shoes and had my inserts modified by a podiatrist, all to no avail. In addition to the above I’ve lost half the cartilage in one knee from 20 years of running being a runner, have two partially herniated discs in my lower back, survived six hours of surgery to rebuild a shoulder and have suffered the permanent loss of three nails on my feet from too many toe-jamming, knee-wrenching, ear-popping mountain descents.
At the age of 69 my body is beginning to show the wear and tear of an active lifestyle — some would say an over-active lifestyle. Also the fiery spirit to challenge the trail and myself after 10 years has diminished. While I have only 700 miles left to complete the Continental Divide Trail and finish the prestigious “Triple Crown of Hiking,” (the completion of the AT, PCT and the CDT) I may be at the end of my long distance hiking career.
I plan to focus my energy the reminder of this year and the start of next on racewalking. I have participated in 188 competitive events as either a runner or racewalker the last 19 years. I want to complete 200 before I turn 70 in 2011. After that, who knows?
In the long term maybe completing another 100 before turning 80? In the short term maybe completing the Triple Crown? What keeps me going? It’s my faith and the love and support from family and friends.
Though I hope not, this may be my last journal report. So I’d like to leave my senior readers with this thought: While we can’t keep from growing old, we can certainly keep from being old.
In talking to Stormin’ it seems the fire is rekindling. He hopes not to have to leave the trail without completing the Triple Crown.