Date- July 17, 2019
Location- Darby, Montana
Distance Traveled Today- 27.1 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 520.6 miles
Weather/Temp- overcast, 50s/60s
Pain level- none
Wildlife encounters- deer
Days without shower- 0
Days without laundry- 8
Today was a transitioning point for me. On every one of these long hikes (usually within the first several weeks), there comes a day when you feel yourself settle into “the groove.” The day when the trail becomes home, and not just the “home away from home.” Today was that day for me, and I’m surprised it’s taken so long to arrive – but… I’m home.
It’s hard to explain or describe the feeling, but when you feel it set in – you know. I was traversing a burnt out ridge full of bear grass around mid- morning when this feeling of absolute serendipity fell over me. Don’t know why. Don’t know how. It just did. And in that moment I knew I was where I needed to be, doing what I needed to be doing – in complete harmony with my circumstances and my aims.
Although I started the day at my usual later time, I guess Jetpack and Woodchuck left later than they usually do, because I caught them both within a couple hours of leaving camp. The three of us took a long snack break at the last water source for 30 miles (on trail) before heading out one by one – me last.
I again passed Woodchuck within half an hour and was expecting to catch Jetpack soon after – but encountered someone else instead.
The first thing I saw was a massive 90 liter pack lying against a tree next to the trail in a heavily wooded section. Then I noticed a man walking next to the trail – not on it, and away from me. He was moving in a strange zigzag motion while carrying an empty water bottle and making strange motions with his arms. Based solely off this first glance, he struck me as mentally ill.
I walked about 10 yards behind him for 50 yards without him noticing me. I couldn’t figure out why he’d dropped his pack, why he was carrying an empty bottle, why he was walking off to the side of the trail, or where the heck he was going. There was nothing here, and certainly no water.
He finally stopped and happened to notice me as he looked around. He appeared to be in his late 40s to early 50s and very red in the face. As soon as we made eye contact I said, “Hey, how’s it going?” He mumbled something that I didn’t catch, and I assumed he was returning a rhetorical greeting. I didn’t respond and was past him in several more seconds, with him standing about 8 yards off the trail away from me, separated by a thin line of trees.
No sooner had I passed him, I could hear him mumbling again – inaudibly. I couldn’t understand a thing he said, and half assumed he was talking to himself. However, since there was no one else around I figured he might be talking to me. So I turned and said, “What’s that?” He’d already had his back to me, but also turned around when I spoke and very defensively, sharply, and aggressively replied, “Oh, I was just wondering if you were deaf. I said something to you.” For a split second I felt my serendipitous disposition replaced by a flash of aggravation, and I had the briefest impulse to escalate this offer of insult to wherever he was willing to take it. This initial reaction passed quickly and I almost said, “Actually, I have been going deaf lately.” Instead I said, “No, I didn’t hear you.” He didn’t reply. So I asked him, “Is everything alright?” He answered, “Everything’s fine.” I didn’t say anything for a few moments and we just stood there looking at each other. Then I re-noticed the empty water bottle in his hand. “Do you need water?” I said. “No, I’m fine,” was his reply. Again, several seconds of silence and us just looking at each other. I decided to test him further by asking a question I already knew the answer to, “Has anyone else passed through here?” “Yes, a woman about 3 to 5 minutes ago,” was his answer. I knew this to be accurate, and I felt a little more at ease despite his strange demeanor. Had he told me a blatant lie or played dumb, I would have grown suspicious, become worried, and pressed him further. The guy already struck me as a flight risk, I just wasn’t sure how much of one. A possible danger to other hikers? Lone females? After the machete murder on the Appalachian Trail earlier this year, I don’t put anything past the strange people I meet in the woods. I never used to, but I do even less now. “Thanks,” I said and continued on.
I caught Jetpack 15 minutes later and asked her what her experience with the guy entailed. She said he had talked down to her and tried to offer unsolicited advice while questioning where she was going, and making rude comments about that as well. Some people are their own worst enemy. Here’s some advice for them… If every person you meet seems like an asshole… it might be time to ask yourself, “Hey, maybe it’s just me?”
I hiked with and around Jetpack for the rest of the day. The terrain was mild and the miles came fast. We hammered out the last 8 miles of the 27 mile day to the road in just over 2 hours. As of the conclusion of this day, we hiked progressively longer days for four consecutive days; 23, 24, 26, and 27 mile days respectively. No easy task when you’re getting more and more worn out with each day.
As we emerged onto Highway 93 into Darby, Jetpack was about 75 yards behind me in a gravel turnout a little ways off the highway. At that moment, a large black pickup truck pulled off the highway, drove past me without a glance, and drove into the gravel turnout.
Of course when they did this they stopped and asked Jetpack if SHE was ok. I was chopped liver, but she was worthy of checking up on. This is just how the world works. Like clockwork, the damsel in distress gets picked up before the barbarian every time.
This exchange quickly turned into a ride for both of us. Before we knew it, we were piled into the back of the truck, squeezed in with their black lab and tan Akita who were giving us kisses the entire ride.
On the way in we passed Chief Joseph Ranch, which is the filming location for the show “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner. Super cool!
It was after 9 pm when we finally got into Darby and everything was closed, except for one bar called “Dotson’s.” It was a small local joint, but they had an amazing Huckleberry Honey Beer and the most greasy, delicious, frozen buffalo chicken pizza I’ve ever had. All told, it was an awesome end to a fantastically serendipitous day. Just one of those days where everything falls into place and goes right.
Most likely going to take the day off tomorrow in preparation of a very grueling push through the rest of Montana and Idaho over the next 300 miles…
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