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Trip Report: Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

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How does one sum up 5-plus months of hiking from Mexico to Canada? That is something I’ve been struggling with since finishing my thru-hike on September 20. Eager to hear all about my experience, friends and family ask, “How was it?”

How can I explain what it was like to wake up, rain or shine (and there was a LOT of rain on the Continental Divide Trail this year) knowing I have to hike 20-30 miles regardless of the terrain? How can I explain that each hour of each day had a different challenge, a different presiding emotion, and a different state of mind? How can I explain the utter freedom that comes from only having to answer to myself each and every day? How can I explain the drive and determination to make it through one of the snowiest springs in Colorado, finding ultimately the best way to manage was to strap a pair of touring skis to my Oboz and ski the Southern San Juans?

All I’ve been able to come up with so far is, “Great!”

So let’s break it down:

New Mexico

Renee Day 1
Self portrait on Day 1. All images: Renee Patrick

I began the hike on April 14 in the boot heel of New Mexico. During the first 83 miles to the desert oasis of Lordsburg, I reveled in the simple fact that I was on trail.

Bushwacking through the arroyos, hiking long hours in the shadeless landscape, and walking into a wind that seemed to parch every last cell in my body was a challenge, but I loved it. I was on trail!

New Mexico turned out to have one of the wettest springs on record, and as I hiked north and was pummeled regularly with rain and hail and even snow, not much could wipe the smile off my face.

The suffering was expected and highlighted every small pleasure to an excruciating degree. Being dry was a luxury. Warm? Even better. Food took on a mythical status and prior to getting to each town stop I would daydream about what I would stuff in my face. My feet toughened up, and once I switched over from the Oboz Emerald Peak to the Luna I knew I had found the shoe that would take me to Canada.

Colorado

Renee Shoe Ski Binding
An innovative shoe-ski binding helped Renee traverse Colorado, where late spring snows presented numerous challenges. Each pair of Renee's Lunas lasted 1,000 miles.

While it was raining in New Mexico, it was snowing in Colorado. I reached the state border at the end of May to find heavy, deep, wet snow covering the San Juan mountains. Since one of my favorite activities in the winter is backcountry skiing, my boyfriend and I made a pair of shoe bindings for some touring skis so I could ski the divide if needed.

And it was needed.

Renee Ski Colorado
Skiing through the spring snow!

For about 40 miles I skied while other hikers sunk in the fresh, unconsolidated snow. Unfortunately the avalanche danger was so high and the terrain so steep, that ultimately I found it was safer to drop down and walk roads and trails around the high country. I came to embrace the trail’s many alternates to create some alternates of my own and reveled in the fact that there is no one CDT.

The snow slowly melted as I walked north, but Colorado wasn’t done throwing down the gauntlet. The afternoon storm cycle brought new challenges as I began sections of trail that had 20+ mile long stretches above tree line. I woke before dawn to hike as fast as possible to get down before becoming a human lightning rod.

Despite the stress of Colorado, the flowers finally bloomed, summer slowly arrived, and I found myself at the Wyoming border in early July. Oh, and my first pair of Lunas lasted 1,000 miles!

Wyoming

What a surprise! Having never been to Wyoming before I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have to say it might have been my favorite state along the divide (it was also the shortest!).

The trail crossed incredibly diverse landscapes: from high alpine meadows to the Great Divide Basin, and the granite peaks of the Wind River Range to spurting geysers of Yellowstone. I clocked in my highest mileage days at 37 and 34 miles, and fell in love with the kindness and generosity of the people I met along the way.

Montana

Shera moves in Glacier
She-ra moves in Glacier National Park.

Leaving Wyoming, the CDT traverses the Idaho/Montana border for a couple hundred miles. Unfortunately the grassy and rocky divide was marred by a massive number of wildfires throughout the west. The fires were far enough away that I was able to hike without the fear of incineration, and I thoroughly enjoyed the remote trails and some of the best wildlife viewing on the whole trip. In the span of two days I saw two black bears, a cougar, and a huge wolf!

Rain and snow just after Labor Day helped to put out the fires that had closed the CDT in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier Park, preventing me from hiking a couple hundred miles on highways to Canada.

The last stretch covered some of the most beautiful terrain I had encountered over the entire trail; it would have been a shame if I had to pass that up for a paved road. Glacier National Park was an absolutely stunning way to end the hike, and a warm and sunny last few days of summer made my heart sing when I made it to the Canadian border on September 20.

Renee at Canadian border
Made it! End of the trail.

I did it! 160 days on the Divide.

ReEntry

Returning home is bittersweet. It feels like a whole lifetime has passed in the six months I was gone, but to the rest of the world nothing has changed. The difficulty of “readjustment” is no joke, and as I try to figure out how to answer the question, “How was it?” I also need to figure out how to go from unparalleled freedom to work and bills and commitments. In the mean time I’ll be looking at my 6,000+ photos and dreaming up the next adventure.

Renee “She-ra” Patrick is a freelance writer and graphic designer living in Bend, OR, and co-owner/founder of hikertrash (stuff for hikers). The 2015 CDT was her 8th long distance hike chronicled on her blog: www.sherahikes.wordpress.com.


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