CDT Days 71-83: Idaho and Southern Montana
Idaho Border to Lima
I woke on day 71 along the Mack’s Inn Alternate, which would take me through the community of Island Park instead of West Yellowstone. The walk was smooth and along a dirt road. Miles came quickly, and by mid morning we were resupplying at the local grocery and enjoying Subway sandwiches. Cleansweep surprised me with a tall can of beer on the way out of town. It was hot along the dirt road, and the cool beverage was welcome. That evening we bushwacked through a grassy canyon to reconnect to the official CDT. Not a bad day overall – we managed to resupply and charge our batteries, but still hiked a modest 31 miles.
The sound of bugling elk echoed across the sky the following morning. I was hiking before sunrise, per usual. Trail snaked along a series of ridges. It was mostly tall grass and wildflowers, with the occasional deer or elk in the distance. Around lunch time I met my first true sobos of the CDT. These two set an expectation for southbounders moving forward: most of them had fresh clothes, bright eyes, and a bounce in their step. Afternoon brought a more forested environment, riddled with beetle kill. We made camp around 9:15 that night high on a hillside.
Day 73 began with a 700 ft. climb. Around 6:30 AM I get reception and managed to fire off a text to the owner of the local motel in Lima, who offers shuttles for hikers into town from the highway. We arrived at Highway 15 by mid morning and were picked up by a woman named Edith. She had a rough way about her, but worse, she was a truly awful and dangerous driver. In town we secured a rundown room and choked down a poor meal at the local cafe – in hindsight, the Exxon next door was a better choice. I spent the rest of the afternoon wallowing on the motel bed and annihilating ice cream.
Lima to Leadore
Day 74 began with a pancake and hashbrown breakfast. I joined two bikepackers at a table. It was so interesting to get their perspective on things – because they can cover so many more miles than hikers can in a single day, they had been on the trail a fraction of the time I had by this point. Afterwards I visited the post office to mail home a pair of leggings as well as my stove and cook-pot. Moving forward, I’d be stoveless and instead utilize a cold soak jar. We were back on trail by 1:30. At this point in the afternoon I was full of licorice and pancakes, so I was grateful for the dirt road we were following. The evening brought a series of challenging PUDs (pointless ups and downs) through cattle land. We made camp at the bottom of a muddy valley.
The following day began in the company of cows. Lots and lots of cows. Like, cow fecal matter and mud everywhere, cows. We slogged through the valley for a few miles before rising out of it. I enjoyed views of the Red Conglomerate, a local rock feature, and chatted with a few hunters I met on trail. In the afternoon I spotted the first badger of my life. It was running through sage brush on a wide hillside. We lunched at Dead Man Lake, climbed up a small pass, and had a few shots of Fireball each. Buzzing while walking along the cool river valley of the section was a nice way to spend the evening.
Trail brought us up a series of climbs through cattle pastures the following morning. The sun was beating down upon us before long, and with this section being so exposed, I quickly felt lethargic and tired. It was all I could do to stay hydrated (I must’ve had over 7 liters that day). By now it seemed we were entering the sobo bubble. They still had so much fuel left in their tanks, and each encounter left me feeling energized and uplifted. The evening was spent plodding along a rocky, steep dirt road and up onto Elk Mountain.
I woke up early on the morning of the 77th day, as is my custom when entering town. The grassy hillsides seemed to absorb and radiate heat. Even though it was only 11 miles into town, I was already drenched in sweat by the time I reached Bannock Pass. We lucked into a nearly immediate hitch into Leadore. In town I picked up my resupply box, had breakfast (what’s with the lack of child labor laws on the divide?), showered, and socialized with sobos. Cleansweep’s family friend, Scotty, arrived in town and gave us a ride back up to the pass. Welcoming us back to the CDT were about 10 sobos all looking for a ride. Scotty said goodbye to us and picked up some hikers; Cleansweep and I hiked another 8 miles into sunset. Along the way I noticed my deet bottle had unscrewed in the side pouch of my backpack. I scrubbed the fabric of my pack best I could with what water I could spare, tried to rinse my hands, then enjoyed dinner. Camp was made on the fringe of the forest in one of the most scenic campsites I had enjoyed in some time.
Leadore to Darby
I choked on my own breath in the night. In the wee hours of the morning I felt a burning, acid like discomfort deep in my core. Somehow, I manage to not retch. We broke camp and set-off on the brink of sunrise. While I struggled along the hillside I considered the leaking deet in my backpack from the previous evening. Looking back, it must have been deet poisoning – not something I ever thought I’d experience. Otherwise most of the morning was smooth an uneventful. Around 20 miles in we arrived at Lemhi Pass, where Scotty, who we’d just seen back in Leadore, was waiting with trail magic. It was a nice lunch with cold water and tall beers. The evening would be a waterless stretch through a tightly-knit forest, but at least the trail was flat and easy.
Day 79 began with a mosquito infested section through a burn. This gave way to a series of ridges that were covered in bear grass. More southbounders crossed our path while we dropped into a deep and grassy valley. The heat had been a persistent nuisance since Yellowstone, and by now, I was growing impatient with the constant fatigue. Occasionally I would dump a bottle full of dirty water into my shirt just to have some relief. In the evening we hoped to camp at Rock Island Lakes, but there was no good camping, so we ended up pitching our tents in the following lake basin.
The 80th morning began much like the 79th: dodging mosquitos. It was a section full of glaciated basins, lakes, and semi polished granite features. Unlike the day before, I felt much more appreciative for the flowing water and bear grass that dotted the landscape in the morning. By lunch we had hiked 20 miles and decided to break near Sheep Creek. Not long after, I passed by an old cabin and came across my first black bear since Colorado. On the way out of the gulch with the bear I spot something ahead in the grass – a pine marten! What luck it was to see a bear and a marten in the same afternoon. Unfortunately the trail would lead into a heavily burn scarred area, so we needed to make camp along an ashy section of hillside.
My eyes opened at 4:30 AM on the next day. It was a dry and dusty morning, but at least it was less than 11 miles into town. We crossed paths with a number of sobos, grabbed some water, and hit the highway for a hitch. After unsuccessfully hitchhiking for over 30 minutes, some southbounders showed up who were also hoping to get into Darby, MT. Rather than join our hitching endeavors, let alone even acknowledging our existence, they walked up the road in an effort to upstream us. In short, where they positioned themselves, prospective cars would see them before seeing us. I don’t think it was an intentional slight, although I do believe it is bad etiquette within our community. What sealed it was when they were dismissive of me when I tried to say hello. The joke would be on the southbounders, however, as we got a ride before them into town and secured the last cabin available at the local RV park. I enjoyed a delightfully large meal at the Montana Cafe, resupplied my food, and rested well that afternoon.
Darby to Johnson Lake
We took our time exiting Darby. I enjoyed another breakfast at the legendary Montana Cafe before even considering hitchhiking out. Chris, a lift mechanic at the local ski resort, gave us a ride to the brewery outside of town before taking us back to the CDT. Back at the pass we run into Sure Does, a fellow nobo, and her parents. They share a few beers with us before we head back into the woods. Darby was relaxing, and the afternoon heat quickly reminded me that the CDT was far from over. Our goal for the day was to hike 20 miles out of town, and we barely hit that mark before setting up camp.
Day 83 consisted of mostly burn areas all morning accompanied by a side of blow-downs. Luckily, the trail began to take on more scenic elements of exposed rock faces and cool water features. Still, it was a grind to make our miles in the hot sun. In the afternoon Cleansweep and I arrived at a pivotal juncture on the Continental Divide: Johnson Lake. The lake itself is scenic and in the fashion of most lakes in the region, but more importantly, it is where the Idaho/Southern Montana map ends, and the Northern Montana map (aka THE LAST MAP) begins. We celebrated with a few drinks of whiskey, then climbed over Rainbow and Pintler passes in the evening.
You won’t hear most thru hikers reminisce about the Idaho/Southern Montana section of the CDT for a reason: it is hot, not as scenic as other sections, and its towns are rough at best. These are sentiments I agree strongly with. It wasn’t necessarily awful, and it did have redeeming qualities every now and again. Overall, I felt it has a poor value in terms of energy expended vs. fulfillment. Outside of Darby, none of the communities had much to offer, and worse, I had a couple of run-ins with locals who made some bigoted comments. Perhaps most noticeably, in this section the true fatigue of the thru hike began to set in. I was so deeply tired everyday. It became more and more difficult to find motivation to leave town. Sun and mosquitos kept me in a restless state for days on end. Regardless, it was 329 miles in 13 days. One step closer to Canada!
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