Does Montana Even Have a Summer?
Back on the trail again! Craig from Lazy B’s Pizzeria dropped Giggles, Josh, and me off at the Benchmark trailhead, and we hopped straight onto a Ley alternate that cut off about four miles of official trail.
Not all the alternates Ley suggests are shorter: some are supposed to be more scenic, provide access to water, or go cross-country onto the actual Divide.
This one went down the road a bit, then on single track around a lake and straight back to the CDT.
Giggles, hiking in front, came upon a group of three horse-packers with a mule each. The horse in front wouldn’t settle down. The three of us went a few feet off the trail on the downhill side to give way. It was kind of steep, but Giggles and I were both leaning on trees. When the horse went by it startled and reared, causing Giggles to lose her footing and fall. The second horse, rider, and mule trio was a little spooked, too, but the third went by relatively calmly. They mentioned having turned around a few miles down the trail due to mucky conditions.
Josh and I thought that was a little odd. What would we find ahead?
It turned out to be a lot of flooded trail.
Not being a fan of wet feet at the end of the day, I took my time climbing over blowdowns and using what log bridges I could find. Josh and I planned to camp near a Forest Service cabin not too far away. Giggles decided to keep going to the next cabin, another six miles down the trail. We ate our packed-out pizza together at the spur trail Josh and I would take, and then said goodbye. She wanted to hike faster, cover more miles in a day, and it seemed like the best choice, but leaving friends is never easy.
Josh and I found the cabin we planned to camp at occupied. It was a little awkward because hikers aren’t supposed to camp within a quarter mile of Forest Service cabins. We would really much rather have camped in the cabin’s clearing where a dead tree wouldn’t fall on us in the night, seeing as all the trees for miles were burned.
After talking to the occupants we camped sort of on the edge where there were only a few trees to fall on us.
In the morning we packed up fairly efficiently. The trail went uphill for a few miles in a mellow fashion, and when the sun came out we got water at a stream and dried our tent and quilt. The next section was downright cruisey: downhill/flat for miles! I whistled and sang my way through the young dense trees, warning the bears of my presence, and we made it 14 miles by lunch time.
After lunch we set out to cross the Dearborn River. The sky had become dark and foreboding, and by the time we stood at the bank we could hear thunder moving in. Josh and I decided to retreat and stand in the shelter of some trees just in time before the hail started. It started pouring rain and the thunder continued, not too far away. We made the call to set up the tent and wait a while.
After drying things off inside the tent, Josh and I napped and lazed around all afternoon, waiting for the rain to end. One storm ended and another began.
We ended up sleeping there, as we weren’t eager to hike up the trail and end up on the ridge above if it was a stormy night.
In the morning when we made the climb up it seemed like we’d made the right decision, there wasn’t a sheltered spot for miles. Josh and I got to see Beast hiking in the opposite direction, who we knew from New Mexico and from the Great Basin. He seems to have an impressive ability to make miles in bad weather! I also found a cool skull.
The ridge walk itself was very enjoyable. It was very windy. The constant ups and downs started to wear on me in the afternoon, and when I slipped in some mud next to a snowbank, my mood turned fairly black for a while. I was covered in mud and hungry. Luckily Josh is an excellent partner, and when I caught up to him he made me sit down and eat lots of snacks until I had recovered partially. The fantastic hillsides covered in purple larkspur helped, too.
The trail in this section went straight up and down every single hill. There were no contours or switchbacks.
Sometimes I felt pretty mad about it and composed letters to the trail builder in my head. I wanted to tell them that I had tried to understand their point of view, but the situation had reached a point at which we could no longer agree to disagree. The switchback is simply an innovation in trail building that cannot be ignored, even by the most erosion-loving Swiss straight-up-the-mountain-inspired trail crews. And why go to the top of every single hill, anyway? I certainly don’t need to.
I survived, somehow, and we camped on an incredibly slanted spot near a spring. We only did 22 miles that day, but with 7,000 miles of elevation gain, I didn’t feel bad about it.
The next day had a lot more of the same hills. From the top of each hill I could pick out the trail going straight up the next one.
At midday we had to walk some distance off-trail to get water, which is always annoying.
Shortly after getting back on the CDT we found Giggles waiting for us at a trailhead. She had gone into Lincoln the night before, and decided that she wanted to do the Big Sky Alternate, also known as the Super Butte Cut-off. We talked it over, and Josh and I wanted to stay on the CDT, but she would hike with us to Helena.
And so the three of us hiked on together, reunited for now, to find camping in another forest full of dead trees. Site selection was a challenge. In the morning the trail led us up some steep fire roads, which were, excitingly, freshly cleared of deadfall. Josh and I had met the trail crew responsible the day before, riding out on horseback.
I’ve heard since that the town of Lincoln has a very active trail maintenance community. Thanks guys!!
The rest of the day brought more of the steep ups and downs. I led the way up the biggest, walking as fast as my little short legs could sustainably go. I got a runner’s high and felt fantastic until it wore off on the way down, loose rocks requiring me to slow my steps. At the bottom of the descent we went to a spring at a cow trough for water and ran into Stretch and Rain Skirt. Josh and I had met them the morning before at the highway into Lincoln. When we hiked on we took a Ley alternate and Stretch caught up to us. Josh and I told him silly stories about people we knew back home and we all hiked together until 8:30 p.m., when Josh, Giggles, and I found a spot to camp and Stretch hiked on.
I was thinking a lot about bears that evening. The three of us were lazy and we ate near our tents. There was a path leading into the trees that I walked down a little way to pee before bed, and I imagined it was an animal path that would lead the neighborhood bear straight to us in the night.
The three of us were walking by 6 a.m. the next morning on the road going back to the CDT from the alternate. The first group of cows we walked by seemed very curious and interested. A few began to moo and move toward us as we walked.
More followed, and soon the whole herd of cows was running up against the fence line, following as we walked down the road.
It was very strange, and the only explanation I could come up with was that they were used to humans giving them treats. The cows ran from the corner of their field over to a gate that was away from the road, where they milled about and mooed and made other strange noises. Some free-range unfenced cows in the next field over went over to go check on them as if they were a little concerned.
I took a break to deal with some underarm chafe and Josh waited for me. We fell behind Giggles for a few miles, but found her waiting at the junction with the CDT. The three of us continued on through a pine forest, dappled morning light falling on low green currant plants and red paintbrush.
At the top of the hill there were some radio towers, or whatever those things are, and I put on headphones to listen to all my music on shuffle for the last three miles down to the road.
I found Giggles and Stretch sitting at the trailhead with Barb, a trail angel from Helena, who Josh had texted with to set up a ride into town. It turned out that Giggles had a friend from Bozeman who was also going to show up momentarily, so we had multiple ride options! Oops. Josh and Stretch went with Barb, who dropped them at Walmart to resupply, and Giggles and I went with her friend.
The four of us had been talking up this all-you-can-eat sushi place in Helena that we read about on Guthook.
With our hiker appetites going strong, I think we did some good work, and the server told us that only high school football players have eaten more than we did. I was very, very full and it was excellent.
Giggles, Josh, and I stayed at the home of a local trail angel who Barb connected us with. We shared dinner, wine, and stories. Our host had lived in Alaska for most of her adult life, and had some great tales to tell about taking kids on canoe trips. In the morning we took our time, getting ready and drinking coffee. Josh and I made a spinach, bacon, and egg scramble. I definitely miss cooking and eating simple, homemade meals. We said goodbye to our host and I walked downtown with Josh and Giggles to the La Pa Grill.
I got a two-scoop ice cream cone and ate it while staring at the menu trying to decide what kind of wrap-burrito-thing to pack out with me. The grill gave us all free beers just for being thru-hikers!
Montana has great beer selection almost everywhere.
New Mexico has other stand-out qualities, but sadly, a range of tasty beers was rarely one of them.
Josh and I were saying goodbye to Giggles here, this time, for real. She would go with Barb to pick up a rental car and then meet up with a friend from home, who would join her for the Big Sky Alternate and beyond. Giggles gave me a big hug and we all waved as we walked onto the street. New adventures were calling.
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