CDT Montana Day 17: Trust the Trail

Today’s miles: ~20.5 (according to Sultry’s phone tracker)

Miles to date: 311.2

In the morning Whiz announces that the mileage today may be off from what our GPS apps say and that navigation may be wonky for a bit. Okay then. We continue on the dirt road walk for a long time this morning. I hike alone, trying to find ways to enjoy this slow uphill on a road, private land on both sides of me. (Lots of driveways and other areas with signs posted saying no trespassing. This feels very strange after some of the super remote areas we’ve previously been immersed in.)

My left shin begins to hurt on this roadwalk. It hurts just above the ankle, the same pain in the same location that I experienced on the PCT near Hikertown and on the aqueduct. I am not psyched about it, especially because it is familiar. But there’s not much to do except keep walking. I try to focus on my gait and posture.

After I finally turn off the road and back onto real trail, there’s a steeper uphill with nice views. At the top I find Cowboy, Snotfish, and Whiz having a snack break. It feels great to sit in the shade and chat with them, eating an assortment of things from my food bag. We hike downhill (my shin hurts more on the downhill, also consistent with the PCT pain) to what is marked on our maps as a spring but is really just a shallow pond in tall grasses. Not the water source I’d hoped for.

When Sultry arrives, his phone pedometer shows we have indeed done more miles than our GPS app indicates, so we decide to break here for lunch (and, for some, naps). We discuss our plan for the afternoon: there’s an alternate that is said to be easier, more scenic, and with more water, and cuts off about two miles. The catch is that, according to our trail notes, the alternate doesn’t exactly follow what’s marked on the map, and you have to “trust the trail” to lead you back to the CDT. Adventuring!

After lunch I hike uphill through lots of pine forests, my shin still hurting despite lunchtime massage. We meet up again at the junction for our alternate and take another snack break until some clouds start rolling in. I eye them warily. Time to get moving.

Luckily, the alternate takes us down into more forest just as the storm comes on hard. We get some rain but no hail this time, and I count seconds between lightning and thunder. But we’re way down now, so even when the thunder is incredibly loud (I turn back to look at Whiz once and she shouts “It’s right on top of us!!”), I feel protected by the forest and the low elevation. By the time we hit the river at the bottom, the weather has downgraded to just a light drizzle.

As expected, there is some brief confusion here as to where the trail should go, exacerbated by the river crossing, and we huddle around a few phones to study maps and gps. Whiz figures things out and though the trail seems circuitous for a bit, it begins to go uphill and then takes a left turn at a sign that says “to CDT.” Success!

It’s a long climb back up — steady and gradual at first, but I fall behind when I have to stop to remove my sweaty rain jacket. Then I’m sure I’m falling back even more as the trail gets quite steep. My leg hurts, and I’m really working hard on this climb. Just as I near the top, rain begins again. It’s early evening, and though I put my rain gear back on, I feel cold. I try to hike faster on this flattish portion, but it aggravates my shin.

At last I reach the junction for the CDT. I can go back north about half a mile to the lake we’ve said all day that we’d camp at, or I can continue south and see if my friends camped further on. It seems unlikely that they’d go backwards, adding mileage, but I decide to trust that they’re still meeting at the designated meeting spot. It’s raining and cold and I am very tired. I go north toward the lake and hope.

A few tenths down, I think I hear voices, and round a bend to find a pair of trekking poles pointing down a small side trail. I chose correctly! I take this trail down and find Whiz, Cowboy, and Snotfish already set up in a very lovely campsite under the trees. Sultry arrives just after me. We’re not sure where Dad Jokes is. As I collect water from a small pool with Whiz, I tell her I really took a chance at the junction. “But we left arrows for you!” she says. “We made one with sticks and drew one in the trail with ‘AJ’ next to it!” In the cold rain and my desire to just get to camp, I completely missed these signs. It’s still raining, but I pitch my tent under some trees and get into my dry clothes, warming up under my quilt. We’re all pretty sure Dad Jokes went on further south, and I suspect we’ll catch him tomorrow.

One of the more creative ways to mark private land, I guess.
Views from morning roadwalk.
View near the top of my mid-morning climb.
Soft trail through pine forests after lunch. I didn’t take any photos during the rain and cold!

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