Summer on the Divide: A Thru-Hiker's Notes on the Continental Divide Trail

Our own Tessa McGee reflects on her time hiking the Continental Divide Trail. Words and images by Tessa McGee.

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I'm not sure how to tell this story. I'm not much of a storyteller and there are a lot of ways to sum something like this up. A recap feels a bit like trying to tie a little bow around some unruly pile of junk. I find it hard to talk about thru-hiking without making too much out of too little, or too little out of too much. It’s not for anybody else, so sharing it feels a bit uncomfortable. But here it goes - in the spirit of reflection in the start of a New Year - I'll try to strike a balance!

It was 136 days with 21 zeros (days off). June 28th - November 10th, 2017. Canada to Mexico through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. My hike was a little over 2700 miles.

I'm really proud of this one. I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, which I was proud of, but this one was hard. And maybe it was sweeter because it almost didn't happen. I failed a lot last year and it was humbling. I recently listened to Fitz Cahall wax reflective on his life and climbing on the Dirtbag Diaries episode 'Growing Down.' "Here's a few of the things I feel like I learned," he said, "I felt the most successful when I made myself vulnerable to failure... the unknown outcomes felt more profound." That resonated with me. It feels true, although it is hard to see in the moment. Maybe it’s just a way to reconcile or cope with failure after the fact... a way to move on. In any case, it’s a virtue of retrospect - to look back and be able to see the value of failure. (1)

The CDT was full of highs and lows. The trail itself was extreme in that way. Elevations from 4000 to 14,000 feet, well-established trail to cross-country sections and highway shoulders. Lows in the 10s, and highs in the 100s. Desert sand, and alpine snow. The most appetizing and most disgusting drinking water you've ever seen. It was all more beautiful, more difficult, more rewarding than my last hike. All of the turbulence was challenging, exasperating even, but it was also good practice. I got to practice finding contentment in some pretty disagreeable circumstances. In the wake of it all, I feel quite balanced and content... and for that I'm grateful.

In the end, I am out there because I love to walk. I love sleeping outside and seeing beautiful places. I love looking upon the world and people with thankful, unencumbered eyes. Hiking helps me cast off the burden of self-imposed and "self-indulgent negativity that [is] so much the malaise of my generation.” (2)

Here are some of my thoughts (and some of my favorite pictures) looking back on the hike state by state.

Montana
Glacier National Park is fantastic. Early summer it was bursting with bear grass and waterfalls. The trail was a hiker's dream - built well and cared for. The Bob Marshall wilderness is big and intimidating. It had some of the lushest green spaces and harshest burn areas I've walked through. Southbounders started this year in the midst of a Montana heatwave. It was so, so hot. The Anaconda Pintler wilderness became one of my new favorite places.

Looking south from Piegan Pass in Glacier NP. A group of hikers several hours behind me saw a mama grizzly bear with two cubs running down in this valley. Looking south from Piegan Pass in Glacier NP. A group of hikers several hours behind me saw a mama grizzly bear with two cubs running down in this valley.
Burns areas are hot, at times depressing, places to hike. But they are also spots of hope, reminders of natural of life cycles cycling along. Burns areas are hot, at times depressing, places to hike. But they are also spots of hope, reminders of natural of life cycles cycling along.

The landscapes across the whole state are imposing - from high passes to wide flats and big skies. The storms that brewed along the divide were big. The other hikers I met were generous with their enthusiasm for long distance hiking and all the wonderful and terrible things that go along with it.

There’s an alpine lake tucked behind those pines. There’s an alpine lake tucked behind those pines.
There was a big bear grass bloom in Glacier National Park. This charismatic wildflower daily plastered me with pollen where it overgrew the trail. I am also particularly taken with sunlight kissing the top of a ridge line. There was a big bear grass bloom in Glacier National Park. This charismatic wildflower daily plastered me with pollen where it overgrew the trail. I am also particularly taken with sunlight kissing the top of a ridge line.

Idaho
The Salmon National Forest provided the least expected and most needed beautiful days. It’s probably the most forgotten or overlooked section of the trail. The Beaverhead deserves some credit too, as the trail winds along the divide between Montana and Idaho for a few hundred miles. There were secret pockets of wildflowers and little alpine lakes - places that no one talks about and, as a result, were all the more delightful.

I attempted to capture the density and variety of flowers here. Not 20 minutes later, I pitched my tarp in a low spot between two passes to ride out a mid afternoon thunderstorm. I attempted to capture the density and variety of flowers here. Not 20 minutes later, I pitched my tarp in a low spot between two passes to ride out a mid afternoon thunderstorm.
This morning I stood on a high point of this ridge, for a little while just watched the sunrise and cried. This morning I stood on a high point of this ridge, for a little while just watched the sunrise and cried.

I continued to feel humbled by the weather and the scale of everything unfolding everywhere. I felt constantly in awe of what stretched out before me on either side of the divide. There was some spectacular ridge-running. It was beautiful and raw - exposed. To personify nature, it highlighted the divide’s apathy for any tiny hiker walking along the trail. After all, "living in the woods, subject to the whims of nature, offers a great deal of autonomy but not much control." (3)

It seemed like something was always brewing. You can see for miles and miles – you’re bound to see weather somewhere. Sometimes it’s a little spot of rain like this, other times it’s something more nefarious. It seemed like something was always brewing. You can see for miles and miles – you’re bound to see weather somewhere. Sometimes it’s a little spot of rain like this, other times it’s something more nefarious.

Wyoming
There aren't many trail miles in WY, but they are heavy with expectation. The miles lived up to it all. I understand why Yellowstone is crowded - it is a geological wonder and worth visiting. Get into the backcountry there!

People often describe Yellowstone as ‘otherworldly.’ But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Look again. This is earth. This might be the closest some of us get to earth – what it is at its geological core. People often describe Yellowstone as ‘otherworldly.’ But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Look again. This is earth. This might be the closest some of us get to earth – what it is at its geological core.
Lone Star Geyser – doing earth things. This is ever so slightly off the beaten path and I had it practically to myself. Charmed timing, I checked it out on a whim and inadvertently got there right as it was erupting. Lone Star Geyser – doing earth things. This is ever so slightly off the beaten path and I had it practically to myself. Charmed timing, I checked it out on a whim and inadvertently got there right as it was erupting.

WY is also home to the Winds and the Great Divide Basin - so different and both incredible. I was lucky enough to be in the Wind River Range during the solar eclipse. I really, really lucked out. I didn’t care about the eclipse until I saw it. I just happened to be in a special place and witnessed totality. It moved me. The Great Divide Basin is astonishingly vast. It's hard to imagine crossing that kind of terrain long ago - before it was largely tamed and the West "discovered."

The Winds are an undeniably beautiful range. This is one of the more subtle views. I love the reflection in the standing water. The Winds are an undeniably beautiful range. This is one of the more subtle views. I love the reflection in the standing water.

In Wyoming, I also fell in love with white marsh marigolds.

A white marsh marigold. A friend sent me a book - a field guide to Rocky Mountain wildflowers. It was an excellent reminder to look down and pay more attention. It is easy for me to overlook a flower or to forget it, letting it blend into the background because I don’t know its name. The book refreshed my perspective. A white marsh marigold. A friend sent me a book - a field guide to Rocky Mountain wildflowers. It was an excellent reminder to look down and pay more attention. It is easy for me to overlook a flower or to forget it, letting it blend into the background because I don’t know its name. The book refreshed my perspective.
A mid-morning sunset. The eclipse was unexpected. I looked condescendingly upon the hype, refused to buy in. I decided, indifferently, to climb to the top of East Temple Peak to watch it, because I happened to be there. It was brilliant, remarkable, and phenomenal. Awestruck tears and reverential snot gushed from my previously smug face. A mid-morning sunset. The eclipse was unexpected. I looked condescendingly upon the hype, refused to buy in. I decided, indifferently, to climb to the top of East Temple Peak to watch it, because I happened to be there. It was brilliant, remarkable, and phenomenal. Awestruck tears and reverential snot gushed from my previously smug face.

Colorado
Colorado was beautiful and high. It was wearing - the weather, the wind, the altitude.

Concerned with how close I had decided to camp to a large herd of cows, concerned about how many miles I had to do tomorrow, concerned with things I’d done and things I’d yet to do, and then concerned with getting this picture... I almost missed this sunset. Concerned with how close I had decided to camp to a large herd of cows, concerned about how many miles I had to do tomorrow, concerned with things I’d done and things I’d yet to do, and then concerned with getting this picture... I almost missed this sunset.
Ride the Divide. Tree line always seemed far away in CO and tough weather often loomed. Ride the Divide. Tree line always seemed far away in CO and tough weather often loomed.
There were also glorious sunny days and aspens. There were also glorious sunny days and aspens.

I had to bail out of the San Juans because of early season snow and harsh weather. I missed the jewel, the carrot at the end of the stick for every southbound hiker - the Southern San Juans. It was disappointing, but so it goes.

The San Juan mountains. I didn’t have the gear, the stamina or the desire to ride out and contend with the snow and weather that set in after this day. I got to see just a little bit of this range before backtracking and heading to a low elevation alternate. The San Juan mountains. I didn’t have the gear, the stamina or the desire to ride out and contend with the snow and weather that set in after this day. I got to see just a little bit of this range before backtracking and heading to a low elevation alternate.

What was more disappointing was ultimately going home soon after I got to New Mexico. My diet of anxiety and pop tarts finally got to me, and I went home. I had to accept the unacceptable - that I might not finish. In general, I try to be prepared (rather than have things strictly planned). So, even when things don't go according to plan, I'm still prepared! But I realized that I wasn't prepared to fail. So, that was tough. I went home for 10 days. Luckily, with rest and a lot of care from my mom, I got better and was ready to get back on the trail. I’m so privileged and grateful to have the chance, the support system, to do all of this.

New Mexico
I was so thankful to feel healthy and to be back. The sky was still big, the landscapes enormous, but it was all more gentle and kind. I was also more gentle and kind to myself. It was relatively warm and the weather was more stable and inviting. I was welcomed back to the most hospitable desert.

Mesa country. Desert terrain is different. There are still peaks, passes and valleys – but there are also these sweeping expanses. There are gradual climbs and steep descents. From a great flat rises a sheer canyon wall. I had developed a habit of constant searching for ‘a way down.’ Even in fair weather I would keep stock of a bail out route – the quickest way off the divide in case of a storm at any given point. The weather in NM was more forgiving, but often times the terrain was not. It would sometimes be a long way forward or back to get down, the route traveling along a high, long, steep-sided plateau. Mesa country. Desert terrain is different. There are still peaks, passes and valleys – but there are also these sweeping expanses. There are gradual climbs and steep descents. From a great flat rises a sheer canyon wall. I had developed a habit of constant searching for ‘a way down.’ Even in fair weather I would keep stock of a bail out route – the quickest way off the divide in case of a storm at any given point. The weather in NM was more forgiving, but often times the terrain was not. It would sometimes be a long way forward or back to get down, the route traveling along a high, long, steep-sided plateau.

I even enjoyed the road walking. Pastels, reds, golds, and yellows. I felt at home in the unwelcoming arms of ocotillos. Everything about the desert says 'don't tread on me' - hostile by evolution and reputation - but it was wondrous. I loved it there.

People say the light in NM is magic. That it’s different somehow. I can’t be sure of that. But I’m certain it’s true that this was a moment of special light. People say the light in NM is magic. That it’s different somehow. I can’t be sure of that. But I’m certain it’s true that this was a moment of special light.
The Gila. The Gila River gets a lot of attention from hikers for being beautiful and a pain in the ass. The bushwhacking was thick and the fords were cold. I left some blood in the Gila, but it was bewitching, unique, and my time there short. The Gila. The Gila River gets a lot of attention from hikers for being beautiful and a pain in the ass. The bushwhacking was thick and the fords were cold. I left some blood in the Gila, but it was bewitching, unique, and my time there short.
The panhandle of NM is quintessential desert. Miles that made me want for more miles. The panhandle of NM is quintessential desert. Miles that made me want for more miles.

What's next? This year 2018, I'm planning on hiking a section of the PCT in Washington in July and the Hayduke Trail in the fall. I want to revisit some of my favorite PNW places and cruise butter trail before tackling the more remote, less established Hayduke. It feels like an important time to visit the special and threatened places in Utah and Arizona. I feel inspired to make it about more than me - to share on purpose - and try to make a difference.

As part of that... we are having a Public Lands Fundraiser at the shop on February 8th, 2018! Please join us for some beers and for a cause.
Public Lands Fundraiser on Feb 8, Feat. Joe Grant

The end! The end!

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(1) Cahall, Fitz. "Episode 113: Growing Down." The Dirtbag Diaries. Duct Tape Then Beer, December 2017. http://dirtbagdiaries.com/growing-down/
(2) Davidson, Robyn. Tracks. Narrated by Angie Milliken, Audible, 2014. Audiobook.
(3) Finkel, Michael. The Stranger in the Woods: the Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Knopf, 2017. Print.