Hiking the Continental Divide

Perhaps there was a certain inevitability to this walk. Bill had already hiked the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Now he was looking for other hikes, other challenges. I, too, had spent a good part of my life in the outdoors, most recently teaching outdoor education and leading weekend trips for a variety of organizations. It was our shared love for the outdoors that had brought us together. Our first date had been a day-hike up Old Rag Mountain in Virginia; from there, our relationship progressed to weekend backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and canoe trips on the Potomac River. We both had shelves of books on outdoor adventure and dreams to match.

My dreams, at least lately, had been kept in check by the demands of urban life and the ceaseless routine of work, rent, and the pittance of two-week vacations. Bill had done a better job of assembling his world – he was a college professor with the luxury of real vacation time – but he was going to need more than that to walk the Divide. In the next year or so, he would be eligible to apply for a sabbatical. The more we thought about it, the more inevitable the trip became. We stopped saying”if” and started saying “when.”

Through the winter, we talked about getting married and buying a house – normal things for a young couple. And hiking the Continental Divide Trail. Not so normal. But the adventure bug had a bit. Bill went to Washington to climb Mount Rainier and Alaska to climb Denali. We found ourselves sneaking away for mini-adventures: Thanksgiving in a tent in Pennsylvania, Christmas week camping in the Tetons, President’s Day skiing in Washington, and Easter in Machu Picchu in Peru. In between, we commuted between my job as a book editor in Washington, D.C., and Bill’s job as a college professor. We had bitten off too much; we couldn’t, we finally realized, squeeze planning a 3,000-mile hike into lives already crowded with working, commuting, and traveling. We pushed the trip back a year, got married, and went to the High Sierra for our honeymoon.

It was an inauspicious start to my long-distance hiking career. We walked 200 miles. I got blisters.

When Bill’s sabbatical was approved, the planning began for real. Instead of spending weekends in the woods, we had to content ourselves with maps that conjured images of wild and remote lands: Red Desert, Wind River Range, Gila Wilderness. And also: Starvation Gulch, Dead Horse Creek, Massacre Peak, Calamity Pass. Not to mention: Bad Marriage Mountain

The prospect of walking 3,000 miles was daunting, but it was the planning that was truly overwhelming: We needed to choose a route, purchase maps, figure out where we could resupply, estimate how long it would take us to reach each successive resupply point, and pack the food we would need for each of these stretches. There was also the question of seasons: We could expect to walk through all four of them, from the blistering heat of New Mexico’s deserts to the snowfields on Colorado’s highest peaks. What seasonal clothes and equipment would we need? And when? Although we each already owned a complete set of backpacking gear  tents sleeping bags, boots, rain gear, stoves, and backpacks  we needed what amounted to shopping carts loaded with supplies we were likely to use up or wear out: dozens of pairs of socks, bug repellent, suntan lotion, pot scrubbers, film, notepads, soap, toothpaste, and first aid items. But by far, the biggest job was packing our food. One day, Bill returned from a trip to the grocery store with a dozen bags filled with nothing but instant soup and Ramen noodles. Another day, he filled two shopping carts with snacks. For the previous three years, I had stuck to a largely vegetarian and health food diet. Now, looking at the piles of chocolate, nuts, and sugared snacks, I suddenly realized that in the months ahead I would consume more junk food than I had previously eaten in my entire life.

But first things first. Before we could start packing, we had to resolve the most basic of issues: whether to go north to south, or south to north. Even this straightforward question became complicated. Walking from the Alberta-Montana border would require that we wait until June to start; Glacier National Park’s late-season snow-pack would make travel impossible any earlier, even with snowshoes. Between Glacier’s snow-covered passes and the swollen rivers of the Marshall Wilderness, a southbound hike guaranteed that we would be miserable for the first couple of hundred miles-and this we were broken into the trail. There would be a reward: a virtual romp through southern Montana and Wyoming. But any romp would come to an abrupt halt in Colorado, where the average elevation of the trail is more than 11,000 feet. It takes somewhere between six and eight weeks to cross Colorado, depending on your route and your strength. That would put us in the remote, high mountains of the South San Juan Wilderness in late October, just in time for winter blizzards. After that, New Mexico would be an easy finish  if we could get there.

A northbound hike had its own problems, and they were much the same. Starting in May would put us at the Colorado border in late June, before the snow that blocks the San Juans’ high passes would have had time to melt. Once through southern Colorado, we would be free of winter until it caught up with us again somewhere in Montana. Whether we would be able to finish or not would be an open question until the very last.

Of course, all that assumed that nothing else stopped us first. Physical strength. Emotional strength. Blisters. Illness, Giardia. Navigation. Our ability to work together as a team.

Back and forth went the debate, and finally, it came down to a preference for dry feet and postponed misery. We decided to start at the international border just south of Columbus, New Mexico.

Move on to >> Finding a Route