Editor’s note:.This was a frustrating year for “Stormin’ Norman,” but as you will see he never gives up.
As I studied the Continental Divide Trail last winter I saw that the New Mexico portion involved considerable walking on gravel or paved roads and those suited to four-wheel drive vehicles.
My initial plan was to cycle through New Mexico in the spring, return home for a break and backpack the sections in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado later. A series of family emergencies arose and when everything was resolved, it was early summer and New Mexico’s scorching heat made the cycling part impossible.
Undeterred, I decided to hike the entire trail to save another long trip back east next year. The fact that I would be with several experienced friends strongly influenced my decision.
With only 25-30 intrepid hikers doing the CDT each year, it’s hard to find companions. I planned to meet my friends outside Lincoln, Mont., and hike with them to the trail’s end at the Mexican border. This year’s hike was monumental compared to my past adventures. Previously my longest hike was two months and 1,200 miles. Now I would be gone four months and cover 2,200 miles.
Never before had I hiked such varied terrain. I would traverse patches of snow in Montana, spend a week above the tree line at 10,000 feet in Colorado, trek the barren grass lands of the Great Basin in Wyoming and finish in the arid deserts of New Mexico.
Preparation began with printing 180-plus pages from a CD of geodetic survey maps of both primary and alternate routes. I loaded my GPS with more than 400 waypoints to mark water sources and major trail features I learned from guide books and online journals of past hikers.
Finally, I cross-referenced all the points on the geodetic maps. The process took about two weeks. A more time-consuming project was yet to come — preparing 23 boxes of food and/or equipment to be mailed to post offices, lodges and ranches along the way. Each box contained varying proportions of more than a dozen different items.
My diet was based on 3,500 to 4,000 calories daily, 1 and 1/4 pounds of freeze-dried meals, high-calorie energy/protein drinks and bars, and a homemade concoction of breakfast cereals. Still it was 500 calories short of what the Army determines is needed to sustain a 180-pound man in the field. I planned on making up the deficit in towns with burgers, milk shakes, ice cream, pizza and dessert — fat-loaded, cholesterol-filled, vein-clogging hiker food.
I carried pretty much the same gear I’ve used in the past, including my bear spray canister, a must for passing through grizzly territory. I added a lightweight personal satellite locater/emergency unit that would send an OK message and my location to my family each day.
It also had a 911 button that would send my coordinates to the nearest search/rescue unit in case of a life-threatening emergency. Finally, I replaced my bulky water pump/purifier with a much lighter, pencil-shaped UV device. With all these high-tech electronic devices, I’ve thought about changing my trail name from “Stormin” to “Gizmo.”
My pack with all my equipment and six days of food (excluding water) was 22 pounds, a far cry from the 38 pounds I struggled with seven years ago on my first hike.
I felt I was in pretty good physical condition, having just completed 300 miles of cycling to prepare for my ill-fated spring adventure. I focused on hikes around my home in Somerset mainly to break in the three pairs of shoes I needed for my travels. I managed to do 125 miles before leaving.
The journey begins
My original idea of “Saunter,” my former Pacific Crest Trail/CDT hiking partner, and I meeting two other hiking buddies in northern Montana was thrown in disarray when one of them developed a bone spur in his heel. They left the trail after a week, leaving us to start by ourselves.
My son-in-law drove me to the Greyhound station in Sacramento and after a heart-warming goodbye to my wife and young granddaughter Meiko, I was on my way. Saunter was waiting for me in Butte. His bus was delayed when it ran out of gas so we rode together into Great Falls. His friend Roger met us and took us home for the night.
Roger is a college teacher and an active outdoorsman and hunter. Trophies of hunts decorated the walls of his home. After his morning class, Roger drove us to the trail head at Louis and Clark Pass near Lincoln.
We started our 9-mile walk after 3:30 p.m. and immediately faced a 2,000-foot climb to reach the pass. The higher we climbed the stronger the wind became. When we reached the exposed ridge above the pass after another 1,000 feet, the wind was blowing 50-60 mph. Without hiking poles to help stand upright, it would have blown me over several times.
We lost the trail twice — it just ended. Thank goodness for the GPS. It showed us where the trail was or gave us a bearing for a cross country scramble to the next major feature. We arrived at Rogers Pass at 9 p.m. It was a race between the rapidly fading light and pounding winds to set up camp, cook supper and climb into the luxury of my sleeping bag.
It was too windy for tents, so we cowboy-camped under sturdy trees. We passed the night safely while the tops of the trees danced violently against the moon and starlit sky.
Somewhat sore from the previous day, we started out at first light for another day of arduous climbing and descending. The CDT is all about magnificent scenery and pure virgin wilderness — one feels hundreds of miles away from civilization.
After 16 hard miles we stopped at 5 p.m. and set up camp. My only Bic lighter ran out of fuel. If Saunter hadn’t brought a backup I would have munched my freeze-dried meals. We cowboy-camped again, asleep by 7 and awaking once to the eerie wail of a distant coyote.
This was another difficult day with several short but horrible climbs. We ate lunch at Fletcher Pass, which had picnic tables, benches and a pit toilet. Lo and behold, I found a Bic lighter on one of the tables.
We camped that night in the woods at the edge of a large meadow, using snow from a nearby drift for cooking water. We slept in the open in spite of encountering our first mosquitoes. We lit a mosquito coil during supper and through the start of the night. Once it gets dark and cools off they don’t seem to be a problem.
Just after sunset a large angry elk stomped, bugled and ran up and down the meadow, apparently upset by our excursion into his domain. He never threatened us directly. Maybe the mosquito coil works for elk.
We hit the trail at 6:15 a.m. This part of the CDT is just one hard day after another. Our route constantly switched from foot path to abandoned, badly rutted four-wheel drive tracks, to no trail at all, forcing us to go by instinct or GPS.
We went through a beautiful valley after a 3,000-foot descent from the Divide. After three days we had yet to meet another person but boy did we see cows. Montana is open range and there are cattle everywhere. It’s difficult to set up camp at times with all the cow pies around.
After another 16-mile day, I pitched my tent for the first time because of all the mosquitoes.
I was out of cold cereal and cooked freeze-dried scrambled eggs, oatmeal and coffee for breakfast. We had an easy day as we stayed mostly on a smooth gravel road through a lush green valley full of cows. We passed a forgotten homestead cabin from the 1920s and an equally old dilapidated wooden trestle over which ore cars had passed from a nearby abandoned mine.
For the first time we fought swarms of mosquitoes as we passed through a low-lying, swampy meadow. We arrived at MacDonald Pass, the gateway to Helena, at 3 p.m. and were ready for a shower, clean clothes, a bed and real food — pizza, burgers, fries, chocolate shakes and ice cream.
It took only 10 minutes to hitch a ride down the mountain to town. We were picked up by two young girls with many facial piercings in an old car packed with their stuff and two dogs. I held onto my pack and my hat as all the windows were open because the air-conditioner didn’t work. We roared down the mountain to the sounds of screeching brakes and the pounding of heavy metal rock music blasting from the car radio.
It was quite a reintroduction to civilization.
The next day we did laundry, visited the post office to pick up my food drop, studied the next section of our hike and ate. I negotiated a ride back to the pass the next day with the son of the manager of the laundermat.
That evening I noticed I had blisters on the end of both my large toes. I lanced them and taped them and adjusted my shoe laces so my foot wouldn’t slide forward in my shoes when going downhill.
I called my daughters and found they had received my preprogrammed OK message every night. My granddaughter Meiko was particularly thrilled finding my location each night on the map.
After a big breakfast of pancakes, eggs, home fries, sausage and coffee, two young men gave us a ride back up to the pass in the back of their pickup. The extra day off re-energized me; the soreness in my legs was gone. I was ready for our upcoming 66-mile section to Butte.
With heavy packs and a 9:30 a.m. start, we did a short 15-mile day. We lost the trail twice, but quickly found it again using the GPS. We also met our first hikers, a preteen group on a short day hike.
We finished with an easy 2,000-foot climb amid a few rain drops. Tomorrow we will pass the 100-mile point of our journey.
After a minor rain shower in the night and light morning dew we were on the trail by 6:30 a.m. We lost the trail twice. One really has to pay attention — it’s so easy to miss the trail at a road intersection or in a meadow. We used our compass, guide book and maps to find our way back on course and never got so far off the trail that we had to use our GPS.
We hiked until 5 p.m., covering a record 18 miles and wrapping up with a 1,000-foot climb. The CDT knows no mercy.
We camped at the edge of a meadow and had another wake-up call from an angry elk. Upset by our presence in his territory, he stomped and bugled but was never was a threat.
It was another roller coaster day — climb to a ridge, descend, then climb back up. We passed two groups of America Corp workers doing trail improvements. They are heroes. The CDT is so remote and little used it’s difficult to find the money or personnel for maintenance or improvements.
It was a cool, cloudy day and we made great time as we pushed to make Butte the next day, Saturday, before the post office closed. It started to rain as we descended on a road into a valley. We wrapped the top of our packs with plastic garbage bags to keep our gear dry and pushed on. With thunder all around us and fighting a heavy, soaking rain, we sought shelter under a thicket of small trees.
Waiting for the storm to break, we discovered we had missed a turn and were going in the wrong direction. We were supposed to have taken a jeep trail to the top of a nearby ridge. With all the wind, rain and lightning all around us, for once I was glad we made a wrong turn.
The storm quickly passed and we were on our way, this time on the right road. As we climbed the ridge, we were met by the visual beauty of the valley below and assaulted by the fresh, pure smell of pine, lupine and mint enhanced by the recent showers. We made camp on top of the ridge after putting in a record 19.5 miles.
We packed up near darkness so we could start at 6 a.m. We would be on roads all the way to the interstate where we planned to hitch a ride into Butte. Just 2 miles from the interstate around 9 a.m. we encountered a car driven by a woman with her grandson.
Saunter asked for a ride and the woman offered to take us all the way to Butte, a 15-mile trip. Knowing how difficult it might be to get another ride so early, we accepted. I figured that the 2 trail miles we didn’t walk were more than offset by all the mileage involved in our lost and wrong-way antics.
What a fabulous person. Not only did she drive us to town, she took me to find the post office for my food drop and drove me back to the motel. We showered, did laundry and filled up on calories at a nearby restaurant.
We deciced we shouldn’t spend a full day in Butte as it would mean arriving at McAllister, a town with no facilities, late Saturday and we would have to wait until Monday to pick up our food drops.
While walking around town, Saunter met a fellow who had worked at his school in Seattle prior to his retirement. The gentleman was on vacation an offered to drive us back up to the pass. Some people are just lucky.
Aftr a huge breakfast we were on our way, starting right off with a 2,000-foot climb with heavy packs. Cloudy skies and cool temperatures aided our ascent and it was also the best trail we had encountered.
Too bad the day didn’t end that way. Approaching Lake Delmoe near the end of the day the trail simply ended. Our map showed a cross country scramble through the forest and brush downhill to the lake.
When we got to the lake it was hot and humid and teeming with mosquitoes — definitely not an ideal camping location. We decided to climb out of the lake basin and camp on higher ground where the air would be cooler and drier with fewer mosquitoes.
Before leaving we loaded up on water for the night and next morning. In my case this added another 4 pounds to an already full pack jammed with six days of food.
It took us longer than expected to find a suitable campsite — in all it was a 4-mile trudge, all uphill over rock-spewed, heavily tutted ATV tracks. We stopped at 6:30 p.m. after covering 16 miles.
Between the temperature, humidity, a heavy pack and scrambling over rough terrrain, I was totally exhausted. In addition, I had a severe bone bruise on the ball of my left foot.
Just before turning in for the night, two air-rescue helicopters flew over. Saunter, who knew I had a 911 emergency button on my personal satellite locater in addition to the OK button, shouted, “Hi Stormin,’ are you sure you pressed the right button tonight?”
It was another hot day of truckin’ along the CDT. Between the blisters on my toes and the bone bruise, my feet were really sore. We passed through a very unhealthy forest. Due to past droughts many of the trees had been killed by pine beetle infestation.
During the heat of the day we took about an hour break from our climb to 7,400 feet. While resting, a young couple came by on mountain bikes. There were the first people we saw using the trail since we left Helena five days ago. We passed several old abandoned mining/homestead cabins, earlier marks of the Montana wilderness.
Out of water with no other source, we came to a wide swampy area. Probing through the muck and knee-high marsh grass, Saunter somehow found a narrow stream of clear untainted water in this football field-sized bog. Nevertheless, I double-treated it with chlorine to make sure it was fit to drink.
We stopped early at 4:30 p.m. after our second 16-mile day.
We were up at 5 a.m. and on the trail by 6 hoping to beat the heat while crossing wide and hot Jefferson Valley. While hiking to Pipestone Pass we met three women running. Wow, we thought we must be near civilization seeing people two days in a row.
From the pass on we walked on asphalt or gravel roads and made great time in spite of my sore feet. It was hot and we managed to “Yogi” water from a ranch house along the way. We passed miles of open pasture with grasses mowed short by grazing cattle or burned brown by the blazing sun. We started seeing small herds of antelope.
We spent the night at Person’s Bridge along the Jefferson River after putting in our longest day yet, 21 miles. No sooner had we set up our tents when the wind picked up and it started to rain, thunder and lightning.
It was a strong storm. I didn’t have time to secure my tent properly and water leaked in from the sides wetting most of my gear. Fortunately, my sleeping bag stayed dry. During a break in the rain I cooked and ate supper. I was asleep by 7 p.m., too tired and wet to write up the day’s happenings.
We packed up everything wet and headed to the other side of the valley and the Bitteroot Mountains. What a difference from yesterday. The land on this side of the valley was intensively irrigated. Most of this acreage was in livestock feed, alfalfa, barley and other mixtures. We did see one large field planted with potatoes.
There were numerous small bird houses nailed to fence posts along the road, put there by ranchers and farmers to encourage a bird population to control potential insect infestations to their feed crops. We talked with several farmers and saw more antelope. There were also a number of high-end massive log homes under construction.
We met an old man and his dog along with a young couple while climbing out of the valley. They were on their way to hike to the top of a nearby 10,000-foot peak. Thank goodness the mountain we were on topped off at only 7,400 feet. However it was still a record 3,200-foot continuous climb.
We descended 5,500 feet into the next valley and found a gravel road along the Boulder River. An old man in a pickup trick stopped and offered us a ride. We asked him if he knew a good place to camp. So far all we had encountered along the road were fences, ranches and the occasional home.
The man’s name was Ozzie and he drove us to an isolated campsite on the river. It was great — plenty of soft pine needles to pitch our tents and sleep on along with the rushing sound of water as a bedtime lullaby.
We put our gear to dry. After four days on the trail I welcomed the chance to take a sponge bath, rinse my clothes and soak my tender feet in the ice cold water. I can see the local newspaper headlines now: “Authorities determined the recent fish die-off was caused by the two CDT hikers who contaminated the river by indiscriminately bathing and rinsing their clothing.”
About two hours later, Oazzie returned and asked if we would like to have coffee and pie at his house. He and his wife lived in a magnificent log cabin home constructed of hand-hewed massive timbers 12 to 20 inches in diameter. He also collected and renovated old toy vehicles, some dating back to the 1890s. What a wonderful and interesting couple. Meeting individuals like this on the trail restores one’s faith in humanity.
We left camp at 6:45 a.m. to start a record climb of 9,300 feet. This was the third record day in a row — the longest mileage, longest continuous climb and this day, the highest peak. We climbed 3,000 feet to the peak and sometimes it seemed like we were going straight up. The rocky uneven terrain was hard on my sore feet.
Going up we passed the ghost of an old mining town. Most of the log buildings had long since collapsed. Near the summit we came on an abandoned mine with scattered machinery from the 1920s and 30s and several dilapidated log cabins. It was an eerie scene.
We came down from the crest on a winding gravel road. What a difference from the steep, rocky, rutted goat path we had come up on. We hiked on this beautiful road the remainder of the day, stopping just inside the national forest boundary. Our campsite resembled a park with short green grass, several large shade trees and a nearby stream.
The abundance of dried cow pies quickly brought us back to the reality of camping in Montana’s open range. The stream was fenced to protect it from being contaminated by cattle so I slithered under it to get water for my evening meal and breakfast. I also soaked my aching feet in the snow-fed stream.
After a great night’s rest, I was up at 5 a.m. to cook a meal of scrambled eggs, coffee and oatmeal. It was a hot 10-mile road walk into McAllister and Ennis Lake. Along the way we saw two bald eagles and a golden eagle.
We picked up our food drops at the post office. The only other commercial building in town was a café where we ate one of its famous burgers and fries. Nicely stuffed we pressed on to a nearby campground.
An old man stopped just before we saw the campground and asked if we wanted a ride. He said he would take us to the road leading to the trail head, a 7-mile hitch that was still 5 miles short of the actual trail head. I turned him down as the campground was just around a corner — a big mistake. The place was a disaster — no shade and covered with knee-high weeds.
It was the hottest day of our hike. My watch thermometer read 95 degrees. We trudged down a shadeless road with no place to go, plodding along in a stupefied zombie trance until we came to a tree.
We decided to hitch 3 miles back to the national forest and camp and got a ride almost immediately. A fellow took us to a cool, shaded river canyon with a picnic ground — complete with a table, benches and a pit toilet. The place was a haven for raptors that lived off the fish in the river. Amazingly we also spotted several black and white pelicans.
We hid in the shade of some bushes and stealth-camped for the niight. I’ll never understand the prominent sign saying “No overnight camping” next to a powerful night light for finding one’s way to the toilet.
We started early the next morning to beat the heat. We had a 12-mile plus road walk to the trail head and the forest. My feet were really giving me a problem. In addition to the bone bruise, I had developed a blister on my heel. A growing pain in my left knee was more serious.
To save wear and tear on my knee and feet, we started trying to hitch a ride to the trail head. After an hour we got a ride by a ranch hand named Steve. At first he only offered to take us 3 miles but after Saunter told him about my foot and knee trouble, he took us almost to the trail head. This made up for my blunder of yesterday when I turned down a ride.
We reached the trail head where the road’s hard gravel was replaced by a soft pine needle-covered forest floor. A warning sign announced we were in grizzly territory. We had carried a canister of bear spray since leaving McAllister as a safeguard. Thankfully we never saw a sign of grizzly activity throughout our entire hike.
We stopped twice to soack and refresh our feet in snow-fed streams and met two day hikers, the first we had seen in almost a week. Coming upon a good campsite with a stream, we ended our day at 4:30 p.m. We had climbed some 2,500 feet and covered 19 miles between our ride from Steve and hiking.
I took advantage of the stream to strip naked, walk to the middle of the stream and wash off a week’s worth of sweat, bug spray, sun screen and trail dirt. I also rinsed out all my hiking apparel, possibly leading to another massive fish die-off.
While bathing, I discovered we were not alone. Up the hill someone had left some gear on the ground and tied a bear bag from a tree. About sunset three young hikers returned. Comfortably tucked away in my tent I heard them chopping wood from which they made a huge campfire. There goes the neighborhood.
We started our day at 6:10 a.m., leaving our noisy neighbors still asleep. After a 1,500-foot climb we went over a 9,300-foot crest. We dropped down a bit then summited a second peak at 9,400 feet — the highest point on our hike.
This was our most spectacular day for scenery. We walked for hours across a series of rolling meadows with snow-draped mountain peaks on both sides. The meadows were ablaze with a multitude of red, white and purple wild flowers.
We slowly descended back into more forested terrain. Our route alternated between a little-used hiking trail and an abandoned logging road, making it difficult to stay on track. We got lost several times. Once a set of mortocycle tracks was our only guide back to the trail. During this time I lost one of the crocks I had tied to the back of my pack.
We stopped at 6:30 p.m. after a 19-mile day. I no longer had any foot pain, but the pain in my kneee persisted and increased. I worried for the first time that I might have to leave the trail.
This was our coldest night. I woke up and put on an additional shirt to keep warm. By morning there was light dew on everything and moisture had condensed on the inside of our tents. We decided to pack up and eat down the trail when it warmed up.
Saunter took off at a fast pace to warm up and I valiantly hobbled after him. I was in trouble. I knew that I was not going to make it the 30 or more miles to Mammoth Hot Springs, our next scheduled stop.
We finally warmed up enought to stop and eat breakfast. After checking our map and GPS, we found we were only 6 miles from a highway that would take us to the town of West Yellowstone and the park. We decided to hike to the highway and hitch the 35 miles into town. It was a long 6-mile walk and climb.
When we arrived at the road I tied a large white bandana around the knee and placed my injured leg in front of my pack for oncoming cars to readily see. As cars passed, I hobbled in place and pointed to my bandaged knee. Sometimes I even clasped my hands in prayer.
It worked! After 30 minutes a pickup truck stopped and we had our ride. The driver said he couldn’t pass up anyone who went through that many theatrics to get a ride.
We got a motel room in town and had a giant breakfast. Saunter made arrangements to meet another hiker who had planned to join us in the park and I made airline reservations home. My attempt to backpack 2,200 miles to the Mexican border was over.
We took advangate of the motel’s continental breakfast, did laundry and finalized our plans. I was booked on a 7 p.m. flight for home. Saunter revised his route through the park and got campsite reservations.
The hiking season was both rewarding and frustrating. My spring bike ride through New Mexico failed to materialize, my two friends were forced to leave the trail before meeting us and I had to leave the trail after 330 miles, far short of my goal.
For the first time in four years I was plagued with foot problems. This was the third time I had called it quits because of an injured left knee — the Appalachian Trail in 2001, the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004, and now the CDT.
Still I have no regrets. I enjoy the challenge of navigating between roads and trails with a compass and GPS or simply keenly observing my surroundings. I met some wonderfully kind people, in particular Ozzie, who gave us a ride, helped us find a campsite and invited us to his home. I appreciated all the drivers who went out of their way to give us rides and to those who stopped to apologize for not being able to help.
I am grateful to have the health, time and financial resources to attempt such an endeavor. My hikes wouldn’t be possible without the support of my family and friends.
I am eternally appreciative of my wife of 40 years, Tomi, who endured her eighth season as a backpacking widow, our daughters Elizabeth and Melanie, who provided all manner of support to me on the trail and their mother at home, and to my son-in-law, Kevin, the family mechanical genius who keeps things running in my absence.
I saw some of the mining and homestead history of Montana firsthand and enjoyed the inspiring raw beauty of the towering snow-draped mountains that form the Continental Divide itself. Finally, there was the indescribable experience of walking with and being part of nature.
After X-rays and an MRI revealed that I had a stress fracture and there was no permanent damage, I can’t help but ponder the possibility of a fall hike through New Mexico.