My name is Slingshot. I’ve nearly walked the continental divide from Mexico to Canada. I’ve seen many things. I’ve seen it rain as the sun comes out. I’ve come face to face with a silvertrip grizzly bear. I’ve walked underneath the Milky Way through the desert. I’ve seen the full moon rise and set. I cried up high in the Wind River range, looking at the heavens. I have walked alone. I have walked with friends I love. I drank from the headwaters of the Yellowstone. The Fountain of Youth. That water is with me, in me. I do not know what tomorrow will bring. Joy? Maybe hopeful suffering in the face of an early winter storm. I still have miles to go. There are no answers, but that’s okay.
I wrote that in my journal before leaving Helena and embarking on the last 360 miles towards Canada. A little corny, but I’ve always been a sucker for corniness and trying to see romantic epicness in the world around me.
In the morning, Cowboy Stripper’s friend gave us — Cowboy, Handstand, Boston Chris, and me — a ride back up to MacDonald Pass. The weather report predicted cold weather and a potential snowstorm over the next few days. It was only 65ish miles to Lincoln, our next stop, so I didn’t worry about the weather too much… Upon getting out of the car, it was already chilly, and I was walking in my fleece and rain jacket for warmth along with my ripped up gloves. We walked through trees on top of the divide with the occasional open meadow. The clouds slowly surrounded us. I could only see about 100 feet in front of me at some points. The trail took us down into cow country and onto 4WD roads. We took a break under some trees as it began to rain. I made some coffee with my stove. I just got it back in Helena and also indulged in buying some grounds from the local roastery. Ethiopian beans, medium-light roast. Mmmmm.
We walked through the light rain that afternoon as the temperature dropped. We eventually found a super sheltered spot under some pine trees to crash in. There was cow shit everywhere, but I’m pretty used to that at this point and don’t really care about it. That’s what my groundsheet is for. It felt good to eat a hot meal on trail for the first time since before Steamboat Springs, CO.
I woke up and looked up. My tarp was slightly bowed in the middle under the weight of some snow. I knocked it off from within and grimaced as I looked outside. Our little sheltered area was pretty much free of snow, but beyond that it was a winter wonderland. I rolled over and made some coffee, still in my sleeping bag. I hummed, “well the weather outside is frightful…” and looked around at the others. Cowboy was still sleeping (classic) and Handstand was stirring around.
After some wishful thinking, I finally bit the bullet and took off my long underwear to put on my wet shorts. Now I had to move. I packed up as much as I could while still under my tarp then got out. I rolled up the icy cuben fiber with my bare hands and moaned because I thought they were gonna fall off. I shoved them between my thighs and groaned some more. It’s gonna be a long day, I thought.
I set off into the blizzard by myself. It was pretty much whited out and still coming down heavily. We had at least 4 inches at that point. Handstand quickly caught up to me, and we walked the morning together. The trail was on a dirt road, so it was still relatively easy to follow. I kept my phone inside my fleece, resting on top of my belly and hip belt to keep it warm. My battery drains and dies in the cold. We gained elevation as the snow depth increased and walking grew more difficult. At our highest point, I estimated the snow to be just under 10 inches. Despite my cold feet and no knowledge of when this storm was going to end, I had a blast all day. Maybe it was the brightness of the pure white snow, but I smiled for hours straight. We were doing this, walking through snow in shorts and sneakers. It was absurd. And I love the absurd. Cowboy caught up to us at lunch. Luckily the wind wasn’t too bad.
It cleared up a bit in the afternoon, and the snow started to melt. We found a pretty good campsite that night with a fire ring but were unable to start a fire because it was so wet. We didn’t try that hard though. The next morning I woke up to a gorgeous sunrise and painful achilles. I guess I put a lot more stress on my calves and tendons while walking through the snow. I hobbled uphill and shuffled downhill. I was in some serious pain and was a bit worried. The pain eventually got better, or I got more used to it, and we walked about 23 miles to Rogers Pass, where we would hitch into Lincoln. It took a while to get a hitch, but a sheriff eventually drove us into town where we split a motel room between the three of us and Boston Chris. A bunch of other hikers were in town recovering from the snow like us.
Winter was coming early. People were posting on the CDT facebook page about a series of winter weather events moving in throughout September. I guess we deserved it. The weather along this entire trail has been amazing. The thunderstorms weren’t too bad in Colorado and it hardly rained at all through Wyoming.
Our next leg was 180 miles through the Scapegoat Wilderness and Bob Marshall Wilderness to East Glacier, just outside Glacier National Park. Cowboy and I prepared to do it in 6.5 days since we weren’t picking up a package at Benchmark Ranch. The weather looked okay… okay as in very windy for the next few days and potential snow on the 5th and 6th days.
We left Lincoln in the afternoon and climbed up out of Rogers Pass. Up on the divide, we had to climb up and down hills and peaks as it got windier and windier. We saw a great rainbow and ran into a hiker we hadn’t seen since Colorado. The next morning I got a pretty early start and immediately ran into some wind and light rain up on the divide. I had my tattered frogg toggs rain jacket fully cinched and pulled my frigid hands into my sleeves. I dropped down briefly where a trail took me past a water source. I passed Elusive and also Fix-It and her husband. Elusive is 73, Fix-It is 71 or something, and her husband is 76… WOW! I hope I’m still walking when I’m that old.
I climbed back up to the divide and found myself facing a sideways hailstorm. Whenever I looked up, 50mph wind would slap and sting my face with ice. I was pretty much hike-jogging for over an hour until the storm subsided a bit. Cowboy caught up to me before lunch.
We looked at each other and laughed. “That was absurd,” he muttered through his bushy beard and mustache.
“And you’re wearing jorts,” I replied.
We dropped down a long ways into a river valley as the sun came out. Oh it felt so good. We dried out our gear and kept walking after that. We met a section hiker and walked with him throughout the late afternoon and early evening. We heard some hooting and hollering as we were looking for a place to camp. I thought it was Rampaige, Handstand, Lucky, and Boston Chris, so I started screaming back. “PENIS!” I screamed. “I LIKE PIZZA!” was the response. I crossed the creek, filled up water, and walked over to the patrol cabin where they were. A dog ran up and started barking at me. A man came up and talked to me. A bible college class from Augusta was taking a backpacking trip. There were a bunch of 18 and 19 year olds. They came over as I set up my shelter and asked a bunch of questions about my trip. They asked good questions (not the usual “so, you sleep on the ground every night?”) and shot the bull for a while. One of them had taken a big, 50 day road trip through all the states, so I asked him about that for a while. Cool stuff. They got me thinking more retrospectively and started my internal thought/day dream process for the rest of the trail. What was the significance of what I was doing? Why am I out here? What have I learned? Have I changed? What will I do when I finish? Stuff like that. Questions that spark answers that lead to new questions and then I eventually give up and slip into a fantasy about being a rockstar.
That night I slept pretty well despite snuggling with a field mouse. It ran up and down my arm a few times, but I didn’t really care. I got started in the morning before Cowboy. “See ya down the way,” I said. “Yup yup,” he replied as he ate oatmeal in his tarp. Well it turned out we wouldn’t see each other again until East Glacier (oops) because we took different routes that day. He ended up way ahead of me.
I stuck to what is called the “Ley red route”, the red line on the maps we have made by Jonathon Ley. It took me west and up to a cool rock formation called Hoadley Reef. Most other people (and I guess Cowboy, too), took the purple route to go through Benchmark Ranch. I walked that day alone and only ran into one older couple who were out for a few days. I climbed up to Hoadley Reef and over a pass. I saw a group of 5 bighorn rams. I’ve never seen rams before. That was cool. I got up to the pass and took a little break. As I stared out across the mountain sprawl, I had this idea pop up in my head: I should walk on top of the Chinese Wall.
The Chinese Wall is a cliff of about 1000 feet that stretches 22 miles. That’s huge. The normal CDT route goes up under the base and walks the northern half of the Chinese Wall for about 10 miles. I looked at my maps and saw that there was a way to get up to the southern terminus of the wall. I reached that turn off at the end of my day up and over Hoadley Reef. I actually decided not to do it and walked past the junction, but I changed my mind 5 minutes later. “Fuck it, I’m never gonna have this chance again,” I said out loud and turned around. At the junction, I drew a message into the mud “Slingshot went” and an arrow pointing towards the west. If Cowboy was behind me (he wasn’t) then he’d know where I went. I walked up Indian Creek until it was dark. I found a sloped campsite and set up my tarp as the wind increased. I fell asleep to elks bugling, a crying scream that is hard to explain in words. I can’t even make that noise myself. It’s beautiful, so beautiful.
I woke up before light and almost bagged my Chinese Wall plans. I ate a poptart and packed up. As I walked back to the trail, I looked at the clouds lit up red by the rising sun and turned west. I was gonna do this. I already bailed on my Wapiti Ridge attempt heading over to the ranch in Wyoming. I seriously regretted that. I had to get up there and see if the Chinese Wall was at least do-able.
It was do-able… kind of. I had to scramble up a few cliffy faces in order to get up on top, but once I was past Haystack Mountain it was smooth sailing. That first view, when I got on top, took my breath away. That wall, the horizontal grey lines of different sedimentary layers, went a long, long way. I was walking that. “Yeah!” I yelled and set off. I had to climb down to the west a few times (the cliff face was on the east) to avoid some technical bits, but I walked along the edge for most of the wall. It was amazing. It felt so right. This was the most intense thing I have ever done on trail. It was so worth the effort. I saw some mountain goats. I saw some hikers down below me and yelled to them. They stopped and looked up, but I don’t think they saw me. I would later learn that it was Rampaige, Lucky, Handstand, and Boston Chris.
It took me all day to traverse the wall. The northern terminus was sketchy. There were two peaks before Larch Pass where I would rejoin the trail. I went up to the first peak and sighed as I looked downwards to the north. Getting down was going to be rough. I had the option of going way west, off map, in hopes of finding a trail that would connect me back up to Larch Pass, but I decided to attempt the sketchy descent. Big mistake. I found some mountain goat paths that took me down steep chutes filled with loose pebbles over bedrock. I had no sure footing. I grasped rocks and clung to occasional bushes as I crouched, crab-walked, and butt-slid down. I started breathing heavily. “What the hell am I doing?” I muttered. I found myself on a flat island in the middle of what felt like a cliff. I started down one way, but quickly stopped as rocks and debris that I loosened slid and rolled over what looked like a 50 foot cliff drop beneath me. I climbed back up to my little flat spot and sat down. I might be in a little bit of trouble here, I started thinking. Before I let myself spiral into a panic attack, I drank the last of my water and told myself out loud, “You’re here. You have to get down. Freaking out isn’t going to do anything. Calm down.” That helped. I walked back over to the chute I came down. It kept dropping to the east, toward the Chinese Wall face. However, it looked like there was some green space and some trees before the wall dropped off. There was a goat path down there. This was my only way down. I tried to swallow my fear and began my descent. I was on my butt as much as possible. I had to climb down a few 5 foot rock drops. Those don’t really sound bad or scary. They’re not, but I had a backpack on and was going down feet first, with my back to the ground. I threw down my trekking poles ahead of me and sort of had to hop down those little drops. If my backpack caught on the rock behind me, it could send me somersaulting forward and sliding down the 45 degree slope until I would eventually end up going off the wall and falling 1000 feet. One slip and I could die. That’s why I was scared and shaking and breathing and muttering, “frick, frick, shit, shit,” as I crawled downwards. My mind was blank. I focused on each footstep, each handhold. I made it. I was on a solid goat path that took me down the ridge a ways until I got to a place where I could descend to the west and away from those cliffy peaks.
It took a few minutes for the adrenaline to wear off. When it did, my legs started shaking, and I started thinking. I could’ve died. Actually. I’ve never felt so close to dying in my life before. In the San Juans, I had an ice axe for those intense traverses across icy slopes, a lifeline. Sure, I got scared down there, but the possibility of death never crossed my mind. Death is a funny thing. I always told myself I was never afraid to die. Death is inevitable and makes our short lives beautiful. So I thought. That changed after I came down off the Chinese Wall. I was scared. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to hurt. I didn’t want to face the infinite nothingness that could follow. I wanted to see my family. I wanted to laugh with my friends. I wanted a future. I wanted to hold a lover in my arms and never let her go. I wanted to close my eyes to the sound of music. I wanted to see the ocean again. I wanted to be a father, a grandfather. I’m not ready to die. I’m not ready to die. The tears started pouring down my face, and I collapsed to the ground. I could’ve lost it all. I’ll never forget that moment. I sobbed. I still haven’t quite processed it, and it haunts me as I write this.
Weak and defeated, I pulled out some nutella and started shoveling it into my mouth with my broken spoon head. I thought about how funny I must look: a dirty hiker, sitting in the rocks, crying, with nutella smeared all over his hands and mouth. I laughed. I have to keep moving.
I walked the rest of the way down to the west and had an incredibly claustrophobic bushwhack to the trail I was looking for. I finally made it back to the CDT and checked my guthook gps app; I had only done 18 miles over the course of nearly the entire day. I had some catching up to do, so I hiked down the Spotted Bear River until it was dark. I found a spot by a river crossing. I plopped down and spread out my stuff. I ate dinner and fell asleep as daddy-long-legs crawled over me. I used my food bag as a pillow. I’m too lazy for bear-hangs. I got through the Thorofare without hanging my food despite seeing two grizzly bears, so I figured I’d be fine now.
I got up early the next morning and pushed it. I passed a few hunters who said a group of hikers were nearly 2 hours ahead of me. Must be Rampaige, Lucky, Handstand, and BC. I kept pushing up and over a pass. I stopped for a brief lunch, consisting of cold bratwursts and cheese sticks, dipped in mayonnaise. It was yummy then, but I gag at the thought of it now.
It started raining that afternoon. I eventually made it to a ranger cabin (they’re all locked up) and made coffee on the porch as I watched the rain turn to snow. Not again. I still had a ways to go before East Glacier. I spilled my coffee. Ugh. I got up and walked as the snowfall grew thicker and wetter. Plants hung over the trail, weighed down by water. I walked through them as they painted my shorts and thighs with frigid water. I felt stupid for not having rain pants. I had long underwear, but I wanted to keep them dry for sleeping. My gloves were wet, and my hands were cold. I eventually made it to a good campsite where Lucky, Rampaige, Handstand, and Boston Chris were camped. Everyone was holed up in their own tents as I pitched mine. We all told each other how cold and wet we were. “The hunters said it should clear up tomorrow,” someone said.
It didn’t. I woke up to a winter wonderland for the second time. My tarp was coated with condensation on the inside and ice on the outside. My sleeping bag was damp along with my pad and groundsheet. I groaned. I moaned. Then I undid my neoair and let the air rush out of my pad; I had to get up and keep moving. If I didn’t move, things would get worse. I slithered into my cold, wet shorts and packed up.
“Slingshot, are you really getting up right now?” Rampaige called out from her tent. I replied yes and told her that I was just trying to get as far as I could because I was running out of food. I only had enough for an unsatisfying day and a half. Luckily, everyone demanded I take some food because they had too much: Rampaige gave me breakfast shake powder with chai in it, Lucky gave me some tuna and a peanut candy bar, and Handstand gave me some nuts. That ended up helping a lot. Thanks guys.
I set off on my own in oddly similar conditions to the snow day between Helena and Lincoln. I walked on my own through most of the morning until Handstand caught up with me.
“Looks like it’s you and me in the snow again,” I laughed.
“Yup, let’s do this,” Handstand replied. He was a great hiking partner to have when the going got tough, and I really enjoyed his company. I had the pleasure of finishing the trail with Handstand along with Cowboy Stripper and Boston Chris.
We walked through the snow, always moving to stay warm. Just like the previous storm, the snow sort of subsided in the afternoon, and we even saw snippets of blue sky. Still, it wasn’t good enough to dry out our stuff. I was worried. Tonight was going to be cold. The weather report when I was in Lincoln said that this night would be well below freezing. Wetness and freezing temperatures are a terrifying combination to thru-hikers who only carry enough stuff to get by.
Luckily, Handstand and I made it to a patrol cabin where two wildlands firefighters were staying. It turns out they were fighting a small fire in the area before the snow hit and put it out. Now they were stuck here and hoping to get their 4-wheeler out in the morning. They let us come in to warm up around the wood stove and dry out some of our gear. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to sleep on the federal property. Bummer. Still, drying out our stuff was a huge help, and we confidently found a spot to camp.
It really was cold that night. Luckily all my gear was dry(ish), so I stayed plenty warm. It was just very difficult to get up in the morning. I eventually sucked it up and started walking with all of my clothes on: shorts underneath my long underwear, my shirt, fleece, puffy jacket, tattered gloves, and beanie. The sky was the clearest blue I have seen in weeks. It was beautiful. The trail was frozen at first with snowmelt, but as it heated up it quickly turned muddy and slippery. I ended up taking the official route up on a trail that no one had walked the previous day in the snowstorm, so I had to make all of my own footsteps in the snow and continuously pay attention to where I thought the trail was going. I encountered some bowhunters up there with gigantic packs. Then I ended up missing a junction right before Marias Pass and ended up way down on the highway below it. I decided to just walk the highway into East Glacier. It was simpler, I was sick of wet, muddy trail, and I really wanted to get into town after a long, grueling stretch. Handstand made the same decision and caught up to me a few miles down the highway. We made it into East Glacier and celebrated with a delicious bacon cheeseburger from Two Medicine Grill followed by some huckleberry pie.
Reunited with Cowboy Stripper, we stayed at Brownies, a hostel. I had an extremely uncomfortable top bunk, but it was lightyears better than what I had just endured in the Bob. We ended up taking a zero the next day for some extra recovery and to get our permit for our campsites through Glacier National Park. We were slotted to finish on September 19. It was really happening.
That last trip through Glacier was remarkable. I’m so glad I stuck to a northbound hike because ending in Glacier was more epic than I could have imagined. Those mountains are feared! Maybe even ultrafeared…
Our first two days were magnificent. The weather was warm and clear. Our first day was a big one, and we climbed way up high over a pass and took a high alternate that traversed the western side of the continental divide. The lingering snow made the walking a bit more technical that I thought it would be. The extra miles, extra elevation gain, and late start made for a night time arrival at our campsite. As we prepared dinner, Handstand pointed up and shouted, “Woah!” A comet soared across the sky from horizon to horizon. It was amazing. I wished for the same thing I had already been wishing for months whenever I saw a shooting star. The second day was chill, or chilean seabass as some say. We only had to do 15 miles up and over Triple Divide Pass, where the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay waters parted. Neat! We ended that day at a lake where we saw a mama moose and calf grazing in the water.
The next day was grey and dreary. Rain was surely coming. The morning went by quickly, as it should have since we had 30 miles to do that day into Many Glacier. Around lunchtime, we crossed the Going-to-the-Sun Road as it began raining. It really came down, and we had to climb up and over the huge Piegan Pass before getting to Many Glacier. The climb up wasn’t too bad, but once I got over the pass, the wind began. I’ve never been in wind that bad. It must’ve been consistent at 40mph with sustained gusts that reached and went well over 80mph. Water found its way into every little rip and tear in my rain jacket. The water ran down my pack and soaked my butt. I’d try to step up over a rock on the way down from the pass, but the wind would blow me sideways to the point where I was involuntarily stepping multiple times before planting my feet in an athletic stance against the wind. I screamed into the wind at the top of my lungs. I was on the verge of crying from the absurdity of it all. Every now and then, the rain would turn to hail and sting my face if I looked up.
Miserable and hysterical, I ran down the pass into tree cover. That helped to curb the wind, but it was still dumping rain. I worried about my gear, especially my sleeping bag. It was in my trash compactor bag liner, but I lost my waterproof stuff sack down near Salmon, ID. At least we were going to be in Many Glacier that night.
I made it to a little shelter thing where I found Cowboy, wet and downcast like me. “Everything is wet. I’m completely soaked. This is ridiculous,” he said.
“Me too, my rain jacket didn’t really work to begin with,” I replied.
We hiked around a lake and eventually made it into Many Glacier. We headed for the restaurant where we saw Handstand and Boston Chris dripping wet at the bar. I ordered a hot chocolate and buried my face in my hands. How was I going to make it to Canada on the route I wanted to go? It was supposed to storm tomorrow, too. High wind advisory. There were no rooms available tonight. The campground was pretty badly flooded, and it was still pouring outside. Ugh. I went outside and checked my sleeping bag; it was wet. Shit. I went back inside. I got wifi and exchanged texts with my friend, explaining my situation. She sent me words of reason and encouragement and also made me laugh about something from her day. I don’t think she realized how important her words were to me. They gave me something to hold, something to look forward to.
We bought laundry tokens and threw all of our wet gear into the dryer. I took a steaming hot, 8.5 minute shower. Ah, much much better. We decided to sleep on the bathroom floor at the trailhead. It was warm and dry, and nobody was going to go there at night. I reached a new low. We redefined the definition of hikertrash. And it felt good. It felt so good, despite waking up to the view of a toilet bowl three feet from my head. That was kinda gross.
The weather the next day wasn’t that bad. We climbed up and over another pass and got on the highline trail on the west side of the divide. There were lots of stormy clouds, but we would get little waves of light rain and light hail — very manageable. We made it to our campsite that was only 7 miles from the border after a gorgeous day of hiking and even seeing a wolverine. It was a great last campsite right on a lake. We had a fire. I made a delicious trail dinner. I read Shantaram into the night and slept well. I had hot nutella cocoa for breakfast and set off for the final miles of the CDT.
I wish I could tell you about some profound inner dialogue I had through those last hours of hiking. Like the rest of the trail though, I didn’t think much, and I didn’t think much about not thinking much. Sure, I thought back through the whole trail: meeting Cowboy before Lordsburg, wading through the Gila, fun times at the Toaster House, the desert beauty of northern New Mexico, the epic beauty of the snowy San Juans, good friends throughout Colorado, setting off on my own from Steamboat through Wyoming, wild horses in the Great Divide Basin, the Wind Rivers, soloing the Thorofare to Rimrock, hiking with Zoe and Mary-Clare through Yellowstone and Eagle Creek, catching up to Cowboy before Leadore, aqua-blazing to Darby, walking the Chinese Wall. Those memories were with me and will never leave me. Still, I didn’t linger on them long. My mind was filled with the thought of getting to the border and what was next. I was seeing Boz in a few days. I was going home. I was going back to school. I was planning my next hike.
What I’m about to describe might not make sense, but I want to try to explain it, at least a little bit. Walking the divide, I reached a special state of mind. When I walk, my mind shifts into a different gear. It hums. It’s simpler. It does not worry or think too deeply about meaning and purpose and life. It sees the path in front of me and all the beauty around me, swallowing me. It dwells on good memories, on smiles, on laughter, on love, on green eyes, on morning sunlight. It is utterly present yet also hugs my past — the people who love and support me — and feeds on my potential future.
I made it to the Canadian border around noon on September 19 and hugged my hiking comrades. It felt great. I set out to accomplish a goal, and I did it. That’s cool, I guess. I felt a little numb and overwhelmed at the end. It’s hard to process 2700 miles of your life. I probably won’t make sense of it all for a while, but I’ll try. Maybe I’ll figure it out on my next hike, which I’ve already started thinking about.
To those of you who have followed and read my story, thank you. It means so much to hear that people enjoy and are inspired by my adventures. I definitely encourage going on a long walk. Thru-hiking taught me so much. At the same time, there are so many different ways to capture the spirit of a thru-hike in everyday life. Hug your friends. Cherish good food. Help out someone who is having a bad day. Think about the next step forward. I’ll be trying to do the same thing.
I’ve written a little poetry on trail and thought I’d leave it here:
I’ve learned the smell of aspen trees
I peer into their eyes of broken bark
their hearts on display
I’ve learned to see again
their bright green hands
unlike my body
drink the rain and dance the wind
they live together
even me and my loud footsteps
planted in the dirt
they watch me
I’m nowhere closer to the man I want to be
to the boy I was
I’m nowhere closer to the secrets of the universe
or why we fear death
I haven’t discovered the secret formula to happiness
except, maybe, a snickers at 10:10 or a dreary-eyed sunrise
a stubborn pine tree in the middle of a meadow
a towering jagged peak
and nowhere closer to where it all began
but I am here, now, and that’s all there is
maybe all I need
all I want
an appropriate song:
“It’s gone away in yesterday
Now I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the Great Divide”
– Kate Wolf
video made by Handstand, from East Glacier to Canada