Day- 21 – 24
Location- side of trail in sloped burn zone
Elevation- 5,705 ft
Distance Traveled Today- 5 miles +0.8
Distance Traveled Total- 219.7 miles
Weather/Temp- 90s 80s, rain, wind, hail
Pain level- low
Spirits/Morale- “go figure”
Wildlife encounters- first real snake
Days without shower- 0
Days without laundry- 4
My last day of the long drive and my first day back to hiking were the same. I must admit, I mildly regret my decision to jump into the hiking so fast after such a long drive, but only because I didn’t check the forecast and walked myself straight into a hail storm about 5 miles out from Benchmark.
Rewind. So I left Florida late Wednesday morning hoping to get a long half day, then two full days of driving before reaching Great Falls, MT. The drive ended up spreading out over 4 separate days, and working out to be more like 3 full days of driving instead of two and a half.
The first day I drove maybe 6 or 7 hours, but I got really tired in the early afternoon and fell asleep for a couple hours in an Arby’s parking lot somewhere in Alabama. I ended up finishing that day in Grenada, Mississippi. It was the Shoney’s next to the motel I wanted that convinced me to stop a little early; plus I felt exhausted.
The second day I made it somewhere into southwestern Kansas after around 10-11 hours of driving and called it a day. Nothing exciting happened besides driving through a hellacious storm outside of Topeka. I felt tired the entire day.
The third day I put in another 10 to 12 hours and almost 900 miles to stop in Buffalo, Wyoming. Another mostly uneventful day, besides getting pulled over and ticketed $140 for going 88 in an 80mph zone; in the literal middle of nowhere, while fighting to get up a steep hill. In all my years of driving, I’ve never had a state trooper cut me a break in any circumstance, no matter how good my “cop etiquette” was; today was no different. I also breezed through a toll road that day, so it was probably karma. Funny enough, the last time I breezed a toll road, a trooper in Texas ticketed me $200 for going 89 in an 80mph zone about 6 hours later. I’m noticing a pattern… Don’t breeze toll roads.
The fourth and final day of the drive was a short 6 hours into Great Falls. I first went to an outfitter to grab a can of canister fuel and a fresh pair of socks, then hit up a car wash to vaccume and clean the rental. Next stop…airport.
I filled out the necessary spots on my rental agreement, then strolled up to the Avis desk to return the keys. I had two nice cracks in the windshield that I accrued my first day out of Montana, 8 days ago, and I was anxious to know what I’d be on the hook for.
It was a different guy at the desk this time around, so I walked up and set the paperwork and keys on the desk. “I only used it 8 out of 10 days, do I get a pro rate deal on it?” Was the second thing I asked after “How are you today?” The answer was “yes,” and I got $50 back off the total I’d paid before. Niice! The man behind the counter handed me a receipt. “SoOoOo…is that it?” I asked, a little surprised they weren’t going to do an inspection or interrogate me about the car. “That’s it!” The man said. “You have a great rest of your weekend, sir!” I replied, then walked out the terminal door. They didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell. I figure if it really becomes an issue, they’ll just charge my card for the cost. They either will or they won’t; I won’t be upset regardless.
So there I was sitting at the airport again, except this time I’d had multiple offers for rides back to the trail; approx 80 miles away. I hadn’t been sure when I was going to arrive in Great Falls, and didn’t want to put myself on a schedule, so I never set anything up with anyone ahead of time. Now it was 2pm on a Saturday, and I’m sure anybody I could have called would have been in the middle of something, or greatly inconvenienced to be suddenly called for a ride. If I was going to do that, then I’d need to set something up for the next day. However, I was feeling antsy, and also feeling like 8 days had been enough time to sit on my ass. Any money I would out towards a motel and food on a Saturday night could just be reallocated to an instant ride to the trail now. So I went with getting back to the trail right then and there.
(That’s an “AT” decal on an suv in Montana)
I summoned an Uber which was there in 8 minutes, and was on my way back to Augusta. My driver was an older man named Bob who’d led quite the life serving in the Navy, working for the Airforce, volunteering for a myriad of different programs and services, and oh yeah…was the brother of boxing referee legend “Dave Moretti,” who’d overseen more than 150 title fights with every big name boxer from the past 40 years, including the recent Mayweather vs Paqiao fight a couple years ago. Bob asked me to sign an online petition for getting his brother into the international boxing hall of fame, which I gladly did.
I told him I would share it on my blog for those interested, so I’m going to fulfill that promise right now. You can sign the petition (literally by typing only your name) by visiting GetPetition.com and looking in the sports section for Dave’s name.
So after 50 miles of paved highway, and 30 miles of gravel road, Bob finally dropped me off at the Benchmark campground. I changed into my hiking shorts, put my new socks on, then hit the side trail that would marry me back up with the CDT. It was already after 5pm
Just waking that fast with weight in my back for the first time in 8 days was a wake up call. Mainly due to my calves being a little tight. The trail wound along a river and stayed mostly gradual, but working its way slowly up. A few miles in I came across a horse camp with close to, or possibly more than a dozen horses roaming freely around a meadow. I saw heavy tent like structures, but no people. The horses seemed pretty rowdy, but I summoned my nerve and got past them with nothing more than some curious looks.
A couple miles after that, I was met with a non stop rolling of thunder, as well as a blanket of dark clouds pouring rain coming my way. I haven’t sighed that hard in a long time. “Really?! On my first day back?” I thought to myself… Probably 7 times.
The clouds were getting darker and more ominous, and the thunder louder. I was reminded exactly of the time I got caught in a tropical grade storm/micro burst outside of Boiling Springs on the Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t about to let this storm catch me with my pants down…or at least not all the way down.
I hurried until I found the first two trees I could hang between, plus fit my rain fly between as well. They were on a sloping section of a small burn zone, but only some of the trees immediately around me were burnt. I got my hammock set up in less than 2 mins, then moved to get the rain fly set up. I had the rain fly strung between the two trees, but not staked out on the sides when the rain hit. I quickly threw the rest of my gear in the hammock beneath the loosely set rain fly to keep them dry while I staked it out the rest of the way. I was finishing up the last two stakes when a wall of wind and hail hit me, immediately knocking down a small, burnt pine tree about twelve feet away. This made me look around a little bit harder before fully committing to this spot again. “No more burnt trees within falling range…good to go” I surmised.
I huddled under the rain tarp for a few minutes without getting in the hammock. I wasn’t sure how bad the wind and rain was going to get, so I wanted to be able to move around and do damage control adjusting the tarp if it needed it. Thankfully the wind abated and I climbed in.
After about an hour if sitting and writing this journal, I heard an incredibly loud splashing and crashing in the river below. It sounded like tumbling rocks, but it could have been anything. The rain and hail has stopped, so I hopped out to look around. I didn’t see anything, but the sky looked a little better. I wasn’t in love with this spot, so I made the snap decision to break everything down and move almost another mile down the trail to where I thought it would be a little flatter with more hanging options.
It was 8:30 pm when I started breaking everything down; 8:38 when I was moving again; and not even 9 pm by the time I found an open grove of healthy pine trees on a gentle slope that I decided to settle on.
I’m not even hungry from all the junk I ate during the drive, so I didn’t cook dinner tonight. This will be my first night camping alone on the CDT, and I must admit it’s an adjustment. With no one else here to bullshit with, it leaves me more in tune with all the noises around me, as well as my wild imagination. Two is one, and one is none; so I’m officially a zero. I don’t even qualify as a one and a half since katana isn’t here. I miss that little dog to pieces right now, and I’m jealous thinking of her curled up in her new memory foam bed at my parent’s house. Lucky little rapscallion…
So my plan from here on out is to rise with the sun and burn. Burn down the miles and make up for the 8 days I’ve been off trail. I know Schweppes already found two other hikers to hike with not long after I left, so I need to find other human beings who are wanting/willing/capable of doing the consistent big miles I plan on hitting/adjusting myself to over the next week or so. If not, I’ll just have to get used to hiking alone. I did nearly 1,900 miles of the PCT alone, so I’m no stranger. My body adapts fairly quickly out here, so I don’t think it will be long before I’m hitting 30s or better every day…granted there are no curveballs in the terrain/weather…which I’m sure there will be.
I’ve just never been alone in grizzly country; they are literally my soul concern out here. I’m told the bulk of Wyoming is where you don’t have to worry about them, so it would be cool to get there pretty quick and sleep/rest/hike easy.
It’s ironic, because I believe black bears have killed and mauled way more people this year in north America, but I’m still not worried about them. Do I think I could fight off a black bear of any size intent on killing me? No, absolutely not. Do I think I have an excellently better chance of fighting a black bear until it’s deterred and leaves me alone? Infinitely better than a grizzly. One you play dead for (grizzly), and the other you fight back against (black bear); I’d prefer to fight a bear right off the bat instead of waiting for it to begin eating me before I’m supposed to put up struggle. These are excellent bed time thoughts as I lay here…