THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE – Imagine slimming your backpack, trekking poles, boots, clothes and socks to 15 pounds and then hiking 3,000 miles.
That’s without food or water, but such minimalist extremes are common among hikers who tackle “the king of trails.” As winter snows close mountain passes in wilderness, backpackers dream of long summer days. The most adventurous contemplate hiking the Continental Divide Trail – the longest, most remote, and most challenging of routes.
This summer, I met Louis Maurer, 29, from Beaverton, Ore., and his wife Jasmine, 29, from Homer, Alaska. Jobless, and with a tight economy, they decided to take a hike.
“I just finished grad school, and I needed a break,” Jasmine Maurer explained. “We don’t own a house and we don’t have car payments, so we started looking for adventures.”
Louis Maurer added, “We wanted to do something physical and long.”
I met the pair at Ghost Ranch, N.M., after they’d hiked 700 miles as the last couple of the season intending to walk north all the way to Canada. They had also gotten lost a few times because the Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, is only 80 percent complete and notorious for twists and turns that leave even experienced hikers wondering which way to go and which ridge to cross.
Hiking from Mexico to Canada, it’s easy to get lost. So Durangoan Jerry Brown is mapping the entire 3,200 mile trail.
Longer than either the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail embodies wilderness values and American character. Hiking it is a major athletic and personal achievement. Of those who start, only half finish. I’m a section hiker, having done a little bit here and there, primarily in the South San Juans, so I am in awe of the “through hikers” who take five to six months and walk the spine of the continent.
I’m also impressed by Jerry Brown, GPS mapping specialist for the Continental Divide Trail Alliance. At 61, with plenty of “high-mileage years,” Brown has a formidable task, and this summer he worked with Durangoan Karen Gordon and Eric Herbst from Denver.
“People always get lost in New Mexico on the CDT,” Brown explained. “It’s poorly defined and poorly marked. The process of building it has been extremely slow, though it’s kind of fun because of it.”
Brown has learned how to accurately map routes intentionally in the middle of nowhere.
“We carry an antenna and three GPS receivers running all the time because something’s always messing up,” he said. “By carrying three, we average it out.”
He added, “One works best in heavy timber, and the other two work extremely well everywhere else. ...
“We’re very conscious of intersections,” because that’s where people get lost, he said.
Brown’s goal is to have the entire trail mapped by September. This spring, his team worked in New Mexico, and in the summer, in Montana, where, he said, “We ran into grizz and black bears, but we had no unpleasant encounters.”
With mapping equipment, they hiked “The Bob” – the Bob Marshall Wilderness – with a whopping 122 miles between roads, though one of Brown’s favorite stretches of the CDT is the 90 miles between Wolf Creek and Silverton “in my backyard.”
Like me, Brown has respect for the through hikers, men and women typically between 25 and 40 who have embraced ultra-light camping.
“They sleep without a tent and eat without a stove,” he said. “They don’t really have good shelter. A lot of them don’t cook or take anything to cook with.”
As for me, I’ve got to have tea at least twice daily, and sleeping in the rain makes me grumpy as a wet owl. But the minimalists cut their toothbrushes in half and then drill holes in the handle that’s left.
“If you see someone on the trail that looks like they’re out for a day hike – they’re the through hikers,” Brown said. “The folks all loaded up are the segment hikers.”
And then there’s the Zen philosophy of mind, body and spirit that comes with dedication and distance.
Brown said, and other hikers agree, “A cool thing about the monotony of a long trail is that you’re completely on your own. All strings are cut.”
Through hikers shed not only extra clothes and extra weight but also their names.
This summer, I met “Aussie Dave,” who proclaimed, “The best trail names are given to you.” He’d hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, but “the Continental Divide Trail is the one that takes grit and endurance,” he said. “It’s true isolation, and because of terrain and few visitors, it’s easy to get lost.”
Brown may help solve that problem, but what the CDT really represents is ingenuity and self-reliance.
“You set a goal and determine to achieve it,” said Aussie Dave, 63, a retired Australian engineer, brown as a hazelnut with blue eyes. “It’s not just a hike. Setting targets and goals and accomplishing them is a simulation of working through life.”
For him, hiking the CDT is an extended fast where he loses about one pound a day.
Familiar with Buddhist thinking, Aussie Dave said, “Hiking the trail lets you know all those things in life you don’t really need that you think you have to have. It all changes when you can live 35 days out of a backpack.”
Durangoan John Jursa has hiked the backbone of the West.
“The longest stretch between resupplies was eight days – the length of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, my favorite section of the entire trail,” Jursa said. “The scenery was spectacular, and the solitude was exceptional.
“We did not see a single bear in Glacier National Park, although we did come across a few steaming piles of scat,” he added.
Jursa’s favorite animal sighting was near home.
“My single best animal encounter was watching two bull elk fight over 40 waiting cows near the top of Nebo Pass in the San Juans,” he said. “Unfortunately, I was too intrigued to remember I had a camera.”
So hats off to the through hikers. On their long trek, they learn important things about themselves and the best of wild, American landscapes. They learn about endurance, how to read trails and how to sleep under stars at night.
I’ll probably always be a segment hiker, but who knows? Maybe I, too, can cut my toothbrush in half and drill little holes in it.
firstname.lastname@example.org Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College.