My alarm rang at 3:45 in the morning. I wanted to get in line early to secure a backcountry permit for Dad so he could complete the final 95 miles of the Continental Divide Trail within Glacier National Park. Though my sister had planned to backpack with him to the end, when the border with Canada reopened in early August, Katie opted instead for a mercifully shorter dayhike in Canada’s adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park. Hikers still couldn’t cross the border, but there seemed to be no prohibition against peaceful assembly along the 49th parallel. I was second in line 3 hours before the ranger station opened at 8. Even though I had checked and rechecked the backcountry sites I was going to request, I was still anxious that I might have overlooked some constraint or created a “strange loop” when I accelerated the itinerary after Katie’s plans changed. My nervousness was unfounded. I gave my permit request to the ranger, paid the fee, and walked away moments later, golden ticket in hand.
One row, highlighted red, near the bottom of the spreadsheet we use to manage the hike, has been giving us “the evil eye” since the beginning. This row has been threatening Dad with a 118-mile stretch of the CDT in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, between the popular Benchmark Trailhead in the south and US Route 2 in the north—without any intermediate access roads. It so dwarfed every other section that had come before (and will come after) that I was certain there must be a dirt track that crossed the trail somewhere in there. Spoiler alert: there is not.
As directed by the Wilderness Act of 1964, “The Bob”, as it is informally known, is to remain roadless.
It had been a while since I’d stretched my legs, so late one morning I threw two sodas in my daypack and started hiking southbound. After the Roadwalk Reroute, things had started going according to plan—Dad had hiked 200 miles, all of it on-trail, and we’d met up half a dozen times with nary a hiccup—which for him (and somewhat for me) meant the hike was fast becoming a grind. He broke down when I reached him, repeating between sobs, “I need a zero day. I need a zero day.” Anticipating this, I’d already booked a room in Helena, Montana for the following night. All that stood between him and a hot shower was a 19.1-mile slackpack day.
“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 in Dad’s mind that his 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.
Once outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, Dad took off, hiking nearly 22 miles in a single day. Though our 12th meetup was supposed to be 3 days after I left him in the park, he ended up hiking to a point where I could reach him after only 2. This set in motion the potential to slackpack every day for the following 5 days. And then on the 6th day he nero’d (with a full pack).
Last year, Dad treated slackpacking as a novel luxury. For the uninitiated, this meant he’d swap out his fully-loaded backpack for a small daypack with water, snacks, and his inReach, but only on the rare occasions when I could meet up him on the same day. It wasn’t until after we were stuck in the snow in the Jeep that I “weaponized” a series of high-mileage slackpack days to get him to the finish line. With this latter approach in mind, Dad hoped he could make up for the perceived miles he lost to the blowdowns in the Wind River Range (in terms of his daily average), since it appeared that I could safely reach him every 19–23 trail miles over the course of our next 5 meetups.