“So I’m thinking about walking around the fire” is how it started.
In Lima a week earlier, I first learned that the Trail Creek Fire had closed 30 miles of the CDT, a span so negligible to Dad that our working plan when he reached the closure (in 200 miles) would be to skip it. I’d pick him up south of the fire and deposit him north as though nothing had happened. But the fire grew, as fires are wont to do, and after a chance encounter with a Forest Service ranger, we learned that they would soon be closing over 130 miles of trail, just north of (what would have been) our next meetup. This news warranted a zero day—his first thus far—on day 35.
The plan, I reassured our family via group text, remained the same: if the trail was burning, it no longer existed, thus the only “reasonable” thing to do was to skip it. But my sister phoned with concerns. Having met Dad at the end of the PCT in 2014 and the AT in 2019, Katie was dead set on achieving a triple crown of her own: meeting him at the end of the CDT this year—which was going to be no easy feat given that the nearest road to the northern terminus is in Canada and the trail border-crossing remains closed due to the pandemic. Therefore she has been preparing for a 55-mile backpacking trip to reach the end, having never backpacked a mile in her life. But more pressing to her than that was that when she met Dad at “the end”, she meant the end in both the geographic and holistic sense. She didn’t want to haul a 30-pound pack for 55 miles if he felt incomplete having skipped those 130 miles.
“Tell me why this is a bad idea, and I shouldn’t do it” was his follow-up request. I could only chuckle in response. The truth was, I couldn’t. What I knew from his past experience was that roadwalking is mind-numbingly, morale-crushingly boring. It melts the brain, destroys the feet, and can reduce a thru-hiker to a husk of their former self. And that was only after a single day (usually less than 30 miles). When we finally did the math, the roadwalk he was contemplating would stretch for 101.5 miles and take 5 days before he returned to the CDT. No surprise that he spent a good part of his zero day downloading audiobooks.
It goes without saying that he was planning on slackpacking this 5-day roadwalk. The downside, something I neglected to mention in my previous post, was that slackpacking keeps me on a pretty tight leash. On a normal slackpack day, though I’d have a leisurely morning to myself, I’d need to reach our meetup spot by noon since Dad could show up anytime after 1, and I’d sit tight to be there when he arrived. If I thought those vanilla slackpack days didn’t leave me with much free time, I was in for a rude awakening—4:30am to be precise. I’d need to set my alarm to wake at the same ungodly hour Dad woke naturally, so that I could drop him off at the start of each day’s walk (the first two were over an hour away), drive 20 miles north, wait for him to arrive many hours later, and then whisk him off to the quaint RV park in Wisdom, Montana (at mile 80 of the reroute) that we chose as our base of operations.
6 hours and 40 minutes after I dropped him off at Bannock Pass, Dad showed up with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face, tickled with his perfect (and previously unattainable) 3 mile-per-hour pace. Thanks to the audiobook (and a new pair of shoes), the miles had flown by. Off the CDT, his Guthook app couldn’t pinpoint his progress, but the road had mile marker signs IRL! It couldn’t have been more perfect. Sure his feet were sore, but his morale was high. On the long drive to Wisdom, we pulled over to hand out cold sodas to 5 southbound thru-hikers who were doing largely the same roadwalk in the other direction. We crossed paths with them again on day 2, as well as 2 others and a handful of bikepackers on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. We were having more social interactions on this forced march than we’d had during the entirety of the hike thus far! On day 3, Dad finished so early (he was setting off earlier as the drives from Wisdom were getting shorter) that we were able to grab pizza for lunch at the bar in Wisdom. On day 4, before Dad reached the RV park, I was able to reclaim a few hours of sleep. Finally on day 5, I could turn my alarm off and Dad could leave of his own volition. Later that morning, I drove ahead to the end of the roadwalk, a trailhead roughly 5.5 miles south of the CDT. Dad arrived at 12:15. After 40 days, he’d hiked 610.4 miles. The next morning I received the following inReach message: 8:firstname.lastname@example.org back on CDT. Success!