I lazed in bed for an hour after waking, writing blog and churning through pictures while College Gameday played on ESPN. At 9:30 I had an omelet at the breakfast buffet downstairs (included with my room, WOOT) and then embarrassed myself by filling an entire luggage cart with the stuff I’d brought up from the car. It looked like I’d been living there for months. There was even a ROCK on the cart. Just sitting by itself. A rock. Am I a fucking caveman?
Before leaving town I went to the Lewis & Clark museum. See, Great Falls is named after a series of five waterfalls in quick succession on the Missouri River*, which Lewis & Clark were misfortunate enough to run into as they paddled west. So they took 31 days—that’s a month—to portage their canoes and all their gear around the falls, across prairie covered in prickly-pear cactus, wearing moccasins. In honor of their miserable freaking time, or something, Great Falls now houses a 5,000-square-foot exhibit that basically tells me to STFU about how difficult my backpacking trip was.
Also, apparently trees just sit on top of the water here.
About 1 in the morning, it started to drizzle. You’d have thought the Vicodin would make me groggier than a drunken hibernating bear, but with a pit-crew efficiency that impressed me greatly, I leapt out of the tent and threw the rain-fly over the tent, stowing my shoes under the cover, and jumped back in my sleeping bag. Still got it!
By the morning, my feet (surprisingly comfortable this whole time) finally caught up to the rest of my body in soreness. Other, brand-new parts began to ache as well: right thigh, left pinky. By mid-day my body was a cacophonous symphony of ouch.
Despite all the physical effort, I seem to be rather untalented at sleeping while in the wilderness. From about 2:30 til 3:30 AM, I was wide awake and reading a book on my iPhone. (No, I didn’t have a cell signal.) At some point I stepped out of the tent to answer nature’s call and was struck by the moonlight bouncing off the trees and the Wall above me, rendering everything a ghostly white.
Fear of the dark is not something I normally deal with, but it hit me a few times while here, miles from any help. The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and so I made tremendous efforts not to think of it as I lay in my tent, which inevitably turned into a game of “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” That part where they hear the baby’s cry—GAH SHUT UP THINK OF HAPPY PUPPIES Still, all I heard in the woods that second night was the rushing wind through the trees. When I finally slept, I dreamed there was a carnival of tourists there with me at the Wall. When I woke, of course, it was quite the opposite.
I was up with the sunrise as usual. It was funny how little I wanted to actually do now that I was here; I was reminded of a quote by an explorer upon reaching the South Pole, who said “I had finally reached my goal and all I wanted to do in the world was sleep.” It was certainly a journey-over-destination kind of thing. There’s not a lot to do when you get to the South Pole either, come to think of it.
I hit the trail at 8:30 the next morning, and just like that, my big road trip was on its back nine. It was a full sixteen hours after I’d stopped the previous day. It had been a bit of a boring time, but I sure as hell wasn’t in a situation to move much of anywhere. I struggled mightily to make it back up the saddle from the previous afternoon, doing one mile per hour if I was lucky. The best part about the return trip, though, is that you can’t give up.
I woke at about 4:00 in the morning to what I thought was wind moving through the nearby trees. Then I heard the sound again. It wasn’t wind.
I lifted my head out of the sleeping bag and held my breath, listening keenly. Off in the treeline, maybe 100 feet away, I heard a branch snap. Then another. I made sure my bear spray and knife were in arm’s reach.
In retrospect it’s amusing how ABSOLUTELY SURE I was that a bear had made off with my un-hung food bag during the night. I was mentally cataloging how many Clif bars were in my backpack to live on, and how I’d be able to boast that I had indeed been attacked by a bear (it was a supply-line attack! It counts!) But as the sun finally rose and I found my food bag undisturbed, I chuckled at my own skittishness. Hitting the trail in search of fresh water, I wondered whether it had even been a bear I’d heard. Then five minutes later…
There was bear scat a bit farther down the trail. Yep, so that was my official close encounter with a bear. I started singing or talking to myself as I rounded corners or walked into the wind. …
I woke up at the trailhead. It was 35 degrees and I couldn’t feel my fingers. I still had food to sort out; I knew I’d overpacked, but didn’t know by how much.
At the picnic table I sorted everything out and filled the waterproof, odor-proof bag with what I thought was five days’ worth of food, tossing out extra bags of couscous and Clif bars. Olive oil, peanut butter, tuna packets? Y’all can stay.
One of my last to-dos: repairing my broken pole strap, with its useful but amusingly vague built-in compass. (“North is, uh, that-a-ways. ish.”) I managed to do this in the process:
Just as I was finalizing everything, I heard the clop of hooves, and marveled as an enormous line of pack mules sauntered past me and onto the trail. It was bad-ass old-school cowboyery in effect.
Final pack weight: 52 pounds. I was hoping for more like 45. But I could still stand upright. With a warm weather forecast, I made one last risky decision and left behind the waterproof REI jacket that I’d paid dearly for.
I was a bit late to work that day. I think it was after 9 AM when I started my car. JB and Sandy, on Mix 94.7, were talking about two planes that had hit two separate towers. I didn’t quite get what they were talking about, but I distinctly remember assuming it was something that had happened in a foreign country. …
I was up and on my way at the usual time. I crossed back into Glacier just as the ranger was raising the flag, but only to half-mast, and I had to ask her why she’d done that. Oh yeah, it’s September 11th. I was kinda happy to have lost track of the date like that.
First trail of the day was to Iceberg Lake, a walk in the park (literally!) compared to the Highline from the day before. Good thing; my joints, especially my left knee, were achey. I hobbled along with the help of my poles. It’s 4.9 miles from the trailhead to the lake, just under 10 miles total.
That’s still a ways, mind you. I’m accustomed to distances as far as cars take them. Bear bell jangling, I made my way deep into the northern part of the park—this particular trail had been closed due to “bear frequenting” all the way up until the previous day, and the entire area to my right was still closed off. So I was scanning the area rather keenly.
I turned west into a mile-wide “cul-de-sac” formed by incredibly high cliffs. Iceberg Lake was at its base. It came as advertised.
(Author’s note: Okay, I’m out of time here. Still have several pre-written blog posts to publish, but you just gotta wait until I get back.)
Just south of and bordering Glacier National Park is a large area that goes by the romantic name “the Bob Marshall Wilderness”—or as it’s known to locals and REI shoppers, “The Bob.” And in the heart of the Bob, comprising part of the Continental Divide, is an enormous rock formation known as the Chinese Wall.
A bunch of you just started humming the Game of Thrones theme. Those who didn’t—uh, you’ll eventually be reading a lot of jokes about “taking the black” and the “White Walkers” that you won’t get at all. Sorry.
The Chinese Wall is my destination for the core of my big road trip. It’s a continuous 22-mile “cliff escarpment” (whatever that is) that rises 1,000 feet above the land to the east. I literally found out about it by turning on the Images part of Google Maps while I was poking around Montana and initially sketching this trip. I decided I wanted to see it in person. And I quickly learned that it’s a 2 1/2-day hike from the nearest parking space, or as far as I can tell, about the most remote location you can find in the lower 48.
I started researching my big backpacking adventure based around a singular goal, to stand at the base of this mammoth wall, and make it back bear-attack-free.
So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next five days.
Tonight—right after I post this, actually—I’m leaving Choteau, this small island of Wi-Fi accessibility, and driving back into the wall of mountains to my west. I park at a place called Benchmark, and first thing tomorrow, hit the trail.
As far as backpacking adventures go, it’s not too awful; I follow a river bed the whole way, giving me access to plenty of water (yes, rivers have WATER in them here), which means I don’t need to carry so much. (Water is heavy, y’all.) The route is relatively flat and low-elevation until the last couple of miles, when it rockets up 1200 feet in about two miles:
And then I’m there.
It may shock you to hear that I’m not posting daily blog entries the whole way. If you want to see what I’m doing in detail, though, I’m basically plagiarizing the route taken by this Montana nature photographer: