My Stupid Adventure Along the Continental Divide Trail: featuring Me, a 49 Year Old Bicycle, and a Skull I Named “Magic Geoff The Dead Coyote”
I began hiking southbound along the Continental Divide Trail on June 26th, 2022. For the first month, everything went along quite swimmingly. Leaving aside the unexpected 70 mile road walk that greeted me at the beginning of the expedition, the endless blowdowns of the Bob Marshall wilderness, the nightly storms that would threaten to yank my tent out of the ground and the incessant swarms of mosquitos, life on trail for those first few hundred miles was, mostly, really quite pleasant.
Suddenly, Disaster Strikes!
This idyll, however, came somewhat crashing down about halfway between Whitehall and Ennis, MT (a little ways into the CDT’s popular “Big Sky” alternate). Along a particularly rocky and steep section of one of the forest service roads the route follows, a local chap and his son-in-law-to-be had managed to get their newly rebuilt 1960s era truck stuck between some large boulders on a rather steep and perilous-looking section of the track. For some three hours, my two friends and I (as well as a couple of helpful ATVers that stumbled upon the situation) did our best to push and dig the truck out of its predicament.
Unfortunately, at some point during this wild trailside excursion, a disc in my lower back started to slip. Then, nearly exactly 24 hours later (with about the same number of miles to go to arrive in Big Sky), every footstep, with no warning, suddenly became excruciating beyond belief. I assumed that if I tried to stretch it out before I went to sleep (my knowledge of yoga is, admittedly, limited), the pain might ease – but not so. In fact, it seemed to feel even worse in the morning – a problem I compounded by cleverly managing to slip while descending along the Bear Basin Trail and falling directly on the area that hurt.
After spending five days at a trail angel’s house just outside of Big Sky (where, of course purely for the health benefits, I made sure to dip myself in the hot tub every day), I knew that I needed to rethink. The pain in my lower back, having not eased at all, was rendering me essentially immobile – and the thought of picking up the trail again (as well as soon heading into Yellowstone and the Wind River Range) seemed daunting to say the least. Additionally, Big Sky didn’t really have the medical facilities I needed to fix myself – so I bade farewell to Couscous and Noise Complaint, my wonderful companions with whom I’d hiked across Montana, and boarded a midnight Greyhound from Bozeman to Fort Collins, Colorado. I’d spent a happy year there on a study abroad placement from the UK a few years before, and ended up staying in town for a couple of weeks either eating, writing, or lying in front of Brian, a friendly chiropractor who did his darndest to fix my back and get me back in hiking shape.
Benny The Super Hip Rides Again!
By that point, however, I’d been off trail for nearly three weeks – enough time not only to fall behind schedule, but also to lose the trail legs which, by the time of my injury, had really just started to kick in. I asked Brian for his thoughts on what I should do. His advice, unsurprisingly, was to take things easy on foot – but had I thought about cycling? I hadn’t; and I don’t know why I hadn’t. I’d successfully ridden my bike, a beautiful 1973 Schwinn I’d named “Benny the Super Hip”, from Fort Collins to Moab a few years before – and he (i.e. Benny) was sitting quite happily in a friend’s garage on the other side of town. Without so much as a second thought, I knew that Benny was the key to forward progress along the divide. His road tyres were never going to make the gravel roads of the GDMBR, so I decided I’d just follow the highways south from Big Sky and pass through the trail towns I would’ve hitchhiked to on the CDT. I do realise that by this point, I was absolutely taking the CDT’s catchphrase “choose your own adventure” to a whole new level, but miles are miles – and I wanted to make them!
Thus, on the day after my 26th birthday, my friends Matt and Cassidy drove Benny and I up to Jackson Hole, WY – from where I proceeded to hitchhike with my trusty metal steed the remaining 180-ish miles north to Big Sky. Over the course of the next ten days, we cycled eagerly south. We passed through Yellowstone and over Togwottee Pass, freezing in the rain. We rode into the desert and the gusty, dusty Great Basin – on the roadsides of which I picked up numerous lost license plates and a rather fetching coyote skull as a mascot for Benny (“Magic Geoff”, I named it) – before crossing the border into Colorado and getting hit by the almightiest of headwinds on the ascent up Cameron Pass. Then, whilst bombing down the Poudre Canyon, my resupply stop in Fort Collins almost in sight, a truck passed too close to me. With nowhere else to go, I was forced off the road (at some speed) into a pothole the size of a small canyon; which led to a rather dramatic bounce and the subsequent discovery that Benny’s entire front pannier rack setup had cracked upon impact with the aforementioned hole in the ground. With 17 miles to go, we limped and squeaked down the highway; my left hand holding the handlebars, my right gripping the front rack (which, by this point, was now only being held on by one screw on either side). When we finally rolled into Fort Collins, I knew that Benny’s adventure was over.
From Roadsides to Ridges
After a couple of days rest, I returned to the CDT. I figured that after spending a couple of weeks on the bike, my back pain would’ve had a good chance to settle, so I decided to get back on trail by heading up Gray’s Peak – the CDT’s high point (go big or go home, right?). And though, mentally, it felt great to be scrambling about up in the mountains again, something in my joints still didn’t feel quite right. I spent a few days moving slowly along the trail before deciding, reluctantly, that the big mountains of Colorado would have to wait. I knew that I’d be truly stuffed if my back pain returned with a vengeance, and I happened to find myself in the middle of the San Juans hardly able to move. I had a thought, however, that if things did get worse, I’d have more chance to bail off trail from a slightly less remote area – so I stuck my thumb out.
After a wild series of rides through Colorado’s great central plains, I hopped out of the last pickup truck at Wolf Creek Pass in southern Colorado and started hiking again; and oh my, did it feel fantastic to finally be out in the hills! For two weeks I moved along, pottering southbound through the great South San Juan Wilderness (where hailstorms would be a near-daily occurrence), crossing the state border into northern New Mexico (where endless elk screams kept the chilly nights interesting) and descending finally out of the trees into those great sandy mesas of the desert; huge, weird rock formations dotted about in all directions out on the horizon.
Then, about 30 miles south of Cuba, just when all seemed to be smoothing out, I missed a step – and my lower back said no. Within twenty minutes, I knew it was over. By the end of the day, I was icing my sacrum again, this time in a wonderful trail angel’s house in Santa Fe, and trying to figure out my way back to the UK.
Skip forward eight months, though, and here I am; severely jet-lagged, packing my backpack at 05:30 in a dingy motel in Lordsburg NM, back pain fixed (mostly), and about to head down into the Bootheel to start connecting the dots of my expedition along the Continental Divide: Firstly between the Mexican border and Cuba (on foot); and secondly between Wolf Creek Pass and Fort Collins (on Benny’s rickety old two wheels).
I’ve got no idea how many people are still going to be out in the desert (if any), I’ve hardly done any training, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion that my water filter’s only about three days away from an untimely demise. There’s only 550 miles (everything’s relative in long-distance hiking, isn’t it?) between the Mexican border and Cuba, but knowing the somewhat unpredictable ways of the Continental Divide, I’m confident that literally anything could happen. Let’s see.
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