Editor’s note: Stormin’ continues his mission of achieving the Triple Crown. After several tries on the Continental Divide Trail, he shares his early summer adventures on the CDT in 2009.
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I approached this year’s 225-mile hike across Wyoming’s Great Basin with an iron will to succeed after failing to achieve my last three Continental Divide goals.
I left the trail in 2007 when my hiking partner quit and I deemed it too dangerous to go on alone. In 2008 I was twice defeated by physical problems, forced to leave the trail at the Montana-Wyoming border due to a hairline fracture in my knee in early summer and later in the fall when I bypassed large sections in New Mexico because of foot problems.
I wasn’t worried about my safety hiking alone because I carried a personal satellite locator with a 911 button, which when pressed alerts the nearest search and rescue center and gives them my position.
During the winter I had my orthopedics modified and bought a different style hiking shoe. I programmed both water sources and potentially confusing intersections on my GPS.
In January I returned to my weekly routine of race walking, weight-lifting and cycling. Five weeks before departing I began a series of three-day-a-week hikes, increasing the mileage each week until I could cover 17 miles in six hours.
I was ready for whatever that old trail would throw at me.
My journey began in total darkness on my way to Sacramento International Airport for a 6:30 a.m. flight to Riverton, Wyo. My route would take me from the edge of the Wind River Mountain Range in south central Wyoming 200 miles southward across the Great Divide Basin and into the foothills of the Rockies of Northern Colorado.
The Great Divide Basin is a 3,900-plus square mile high desert saddle lying between mountain ranges where the Continental Divide splits going through Wyoming.
Riverton was 75 miles from the trail head so I did some serious “yoging,” the good-natured and skillful art of invoking an image of one so needful that strangers offer you food or a ride without you actually having to ask.
Once I reached the trail head, I began my trek southward and downward from historic South Pass, a passage first used by native Americans to cross over the Rockies and later by countless pioneers on their trek westward.
For the first half of my journey I traveled on a series of remote dirt and gravel roads. Descending down the road from South Pass I met two vehicles, both of which stopped, amazed to see someone on foot.
I passed several old abandoned mines and an historic gold mining town, now a tourist attraction. Little did I realize they were the last signs of civilization I would see for five days. The pine trees I camped under were the last I saw for 10 days.
Once in the basin I was surrounded by miles of nothing as far as I could see — no trees, no people, no houses, no ranches or vehicles of any kind. The only life I met were small herds of pronghorn antelope, wild horses and a few cattle.
Once I came on a mare with a young colt as I traveled over a rise. To my surprise the mare trotted up the trail right toward me, making me wonder if mama horses are as protective of their young as mama bears.
She stopped about 20 yards from me with head held high, her white main flowing in the wind, and pranced in a semi-circle around me. What a magnificent looking animal, so proud. After taking her picture I raised my hiking sticks and shouted and she and the colt took off down the ridge.
I passed some isolated meadows but in general 1- to 2-foot sagebrush dominated the terrain. I was amazed how green everything was. There was still enough winter moisture left to keep the vegetation fresh and green, but unfortunately it was too early to see any color from the basin’s numerous wild flowers.
Thanks to volunteers, 3-foot high posts bearing the CDT emblem generally marked the way. From time to time I also encountered concrete posts indicating I was crossing, or on, portions of the historic California or Oregon trails.
Finding drinkable water traveling through this barren wasteland was definitely a problem. My guidebook and maps listed water sources along the way. Some were drinkable, some were not.
Some memorable water sources included the Sweet Water River — not very sweet and rather muddy; Morman Springs — cold, but it came with mosquito larva; Benton Springs — a 1-inch narrow trickle in heavy brush contaminated with dead plant material that smelled like the bottom of a fish tank; Bull’s Spring — a green algae-infested pool; and finally, Magpie Gulch — no water, just partially shredded sheep fleece and some bones.
Nature takes no take prisoners. I treated all my water with chlorine bleach, one drop per quart. Then I added a fruit-flavored hydration powder to cover up any bad taste, replace lost electrolytes and provide a 100-calorie energy boost.
I was most surprised by the weather. It was the same every day. Cloudless mornings became uncomfortably warm by noon. It would gradually cloud up by early afternoon and the wind would pick up, sometimes to 25-35 mph. It felt like the temperature dropped 30 degrees and then came the distant thunderstorm activity. The thunderstorms abated and the wind died down in the evening.
I cowboy-camped under star-filled skies in the middle of the trail all but once. To keep from being run over in the middle of the night by a wayward four-wheeler, I planted my hiking sticks 50 feet both up and down the trail from my campsite and tied colorful bandanas on each to further mark my spot.
I brought a tarp instead of a tent, figuring the chance of rain in the high desert was slight. I also used it to get out of the sun during the day. It was actually a large 4-by-8 super light poncho.
I got caught in the rain just one night. Fortunately I came on an abandoned horse corral so I tied one side of my tarp to a railing and sloped the other side, securing it to my hiking sticks. I wrapped what I could in a large plastic bag and crawled under my makeshift shelter into my sleeping bag.
The arrangement wasn’t perfect. At times the wind blew rain under the tarp but for the most part I stayed dry, snug and warm. Between the pitter-patter of rain on the tarp and a 25-mile day, I had my best night’s sleep yet on the trail.
The next morning I pulled off my first tick. Fortunately it hadn’t dug into me yet but unfortunately there was more to come.
On the sixth day I came to a paved road that would take me to the major highway leading into Rawlins and saw the first sign of civilization — a Fed Ex truck. I eventually hitched a ride into Rawlins with a uranium mine worker. I was tempted to ask if he glowed in the dark or needed headlights at night but thought better of it.
The first half of my trek was over. I got a motel room for two nights and while showering, I noticed a tick implanted in a sensitive area where no tick had gone before. I debated whether to pull it out and decided to let it fall off naturally. If I didn’t get it all out and left the head in it could lead to infection and possibly jeopardize my hike.
The official end point of this next section of the trail, Rabbit Ears Pass, was still snowbound. I devised an alternate route to climb out of the Wyoming desert into the Colorado mountains.
I would finish the last 95 miles road walking and tough it out in motels at Baggs, Wyo., and the Colorado towns of Craig and Hayden, ending up at Yampa Regional Airport.
I hired a shuttle to drive me back to where I had hitched the ride so I could complete the section into Rawlins. What a difference the 16-mile walk into Rawlins was from the quiet desolation of the past week. I was still surrounded by desert terrain but now there was heavy traffic whizzing by at 65 mph on a two-lane highway. There was a bike lane but I was grateful when the heavy trucks moved to the other lane.
The next day a motel worker dropped me off 20 miles north of Baggs to start the second half of my adventure. I could see the still snow-draped crests of the Rocky Mountains as I walked southward. The emptiness of the surrounding desert was broken by an occasional oil and gas well.
I still put up with traffic whizzing by but there were far fewer vehicles. About a mile and a half from Baggs large raindrops started to fall. I didn’t want to get drenched so I got a ride and was dropped off at the Drifter Motel, Café and Bar.
After starting my first “truckin’ the road” day with a huge meal of pancakes, eggs, sausage and coffee, a young oil rig worker drove me 20 miles out of town. From there I walked back to town. It was a cloudy start but I avoided the usual afternoon thunderstorms. A 35 mph tailwind helped speed me along the way.
I ate another hearty breakfast the next morning — I was starting to like this kind of hiking. It was Saturday and there weren’t too many people in the café. I wondered about a ride. After two days and 40 miles I was getting the reputation as a “crazy highway walking guy.” Knowing my situation, a waitress found me a ride.
I was let off where I started the day before but this time I headed 20 miles south. The weather was opposite of the previous day. Instead of overcast conditions, the sky was cloud free; instead of 35 mph tailwinds I faced a 35 mph headwind; and instead of sagebrush and empty desert I saw cattle ranches and farms, green pastures and trees.
So long Great Divide Basin of Wyoming and hello Colorado.