Another Day at the Office
Well, I’ve finally managed to push too hard and put myself in the hospital. Well, not really in the hospital but in the casino. Alright, maybe I should just back up a bit and tell you the story of my day.
It was June 13th. I woke without the alarm at 4:30 A.M. or so and soon rolled out of the bivy to face the chill. It was unusually cold for June, 34°F, and there was something approaching frost all over the low-lying plants. But the cold really was to be expected here at an elevation of a little over 5,000 feet here in the northern Rockies. Before 5 A.M., the austere rock faces to my north were already well lit and dawn was spreading into every little rocky alcove. This was Marias Pass and after breakfast I would take a few steps and cross from the Columbia River watershed into the Mississippi River watershed.
I lit my little wood-burning stove for the first time in days. The bears seem to rule in the vicinity of Glacier National Park and I hadn’t wanted to provoke any encounters. Cooking food probably would have been the best way to do it if I had wanted to though. Now the smell of incinerated wood portended coffee and the smell of coffee portended breakfast. I remembered that this was probably my last morning with the Zip stove and I savored everything all the more. But if anything could compete with deluxe oatmeal, raisins, and coffee cooked over wood, it was the color now being painted by a rising sun onto the rock wall just north of camp, rising a couple thousand more feet to a series of snowy caps.
Then breakfast was behind me and all my belongings were folded, snapped, wrapped, stowed, and fastened to my back for transport east. I was smiling when I stepped out onto the road. This morning, this moment, now, was my reward for ten weeks of hauling that pack across some of the great northwestern mountain ranges.
I stopped at the Marias Pass obelisk for obligatory photos and reading of numerous placards. While I was at it, a minivan pulled in behind me and a moment later I was approached by a scholarly looking young man of about ten, thick glasses and all, who said his name was Zack, not short for anything, just Zack. Zack wanted to know where I was walking to with such a big pack and so I shared something about the hiking part of the mission and a very short version of the previous ten weeks.
Zack, remaining open-mouthed, seemed appropriately enthralled. His taller brother had been standing close enough to hear the last of it and now, with little explanation, pushed a banana nut nutrition bar in my direction—one of the really nice ones that generally remain a bit beyond the budgets of most long-range hikers. I shook both their hands and got back on the road, now really looking forward to the long, speedy climb down I’d earned over the last couple of weeks.
Almost immediately I noticed a tiny brook whose path I traced through the low vegetation until I was sure—this stream flowed in the wrong direction, not back downhill toward the Flathead River but generally moved in an easterly direction, flowing the way I was headed. I’d just come to a very small part of the mighty Mississippi River. And it was incredible to think, at this moment high in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, that this water was headed into the same flowage that collected the waters of tiny Turtle Creek back in Western Pennsylvania. This water makes its way to the same place as all the water from all the waterways I like to frequent in that far-off state. Make an extra portion for dinner Susan—I’m almost there.
My watershed-induced reverie was broken suddenly by something minute that had just punctured my left knee. I swatted and was satisfied to see the bloody splatter where a mosquito had just been. But I needed to move now—there would be more. Seconds later a bump on my forearm revealed a buffalo gnat, a blackfly—something I’d hardly seen elsewhere on my journey and there were certainly more of these. Already I’d accrued my own little swarm. Now my gentle morning’s romp across the high mountain pass evolved quickly into a sort of race against pestilence.
I’ve rarely encountered mosquitoes I couldn’t outwalk but here they were by the hundred—speedy things that bumped my exposed arms and legs constantly and sometimes gained purchase long enough to initiate drilling. I assumed that at some point I would outrun them or get beyond where they were breeding and so I kept going—constantly pushing for more speed and constantly failing to elude my tormentors.
I’d been assuming that after all the climbing I’d done to reach the pass this morning, I’d soon be enjoying a similar down-climb between the crest and Browning. This was not the case, however. There was a very gradual downhill slope to things at first but not the hoped-for descent. There continued to be very little road shoulder as there had been on the way up and this was an issue in mountain weekend traffic. The mosquito situation did not improve.
I found myself about midday at East Glacier, a much-anticipated place of snacking and midday resting. I sat on the first bench of any kind I could find and realized I was sitting on the platform for the Amtrak train. It occurred to me that I could hop on board the next east-bound run and be home in Pittsburgh in three days. And that wasn’t easy to just get up and walk away from. The last week had been trying, a week filled with rain and climbing and bugs, the constant threat of bears including grizzly, and close brushes with cars as I wished for an actual road shoulder. It could all come to an end very quickly. I’d just have to put on my mask, step on board, and go.
There was one convenience store in sight and I was salivating as I approached the front door. But inside I was immediately accosted by a young man insisting that I needed to mask up if I wanted service. I was gone again as quickly as I’d entered, with nothing. It was about another 12 miles to Browning and I’d find food there.
Incredibly, the mosquitoes became, if anything, worse beyond this point. There were now prairie pothole ponds where the flies bred and swarms were blown toward me by the wind that seldom really relented. These were certainly wind-adapted prairie mosquitoes and I’d seldom encountered anything like them. They managed to keep up with me at whatever speed I moved. I had itchy bites from head to toe.
And so I found myself on the high plains of Montana being chased by the mosquitoes that had been so nearly absent during most of my hike through the mountains. It was hot, sunny, and windy and the ’skeeters were all over me. I pushed for more speed as the temperature reached at least the mid-80’s and, trying to get by with the little water I had, I drank nothing extra.
Browning was immediately uninspiring. This was an Indian community on the sprawling Blackfeet Reservation. Upon approach, the first thing a visitor would see was the glossy new casino. The next thing was lines of impoverished trailers and other third-rate housing. I’d just set a daily distance record for this hike at 24 miles, my feet were a mess, I was exhausted, sunburned, and I itched all over. I had no idea where I’d spend the night and prospects looked bleak in this neighborhood. Police sirens were frequent and a high-speed SUV chase had already passed me. Stray dogs limped around in the shadows. I actually had no idea what I’d do to sleep tonight. This was not the way I’d imagined celebrating my crossing of the Continental Divide.
I found chicken and taters at the grocery store and took these to a nearby park bench, a place where the idle poor congregated in small groups or wandered around aimlessly, drunk. Only a few prairie dogs congregated around me and this seemed like a group of friends I could trust. There was sparse phone reception here for the first time in days and Susan called from Pennsylvania to check up on me as I finished my potatoes.
Susan’s sometimes been my “eye in the sky” in rough situations and this seemed like one of them. She got to work remotely trying to find me somewhere—anywhere—to spend the night as camping options seemed pretty bleak. And there seemed to be nothing—really nothing for me here and no hope of moving on with feet in this condition. We ruled out the casino hotel immediately—much too expensive and listed as full. The couple of other low-class options were also full and equally as expensive right now. Talking this over with Susan, I was suddenly light-headed and nauseated, a condition I hadn’t felt for years. I started to tilt dangerously forward, gaze fixed on the sidewalk.
“Susan, I’ve gotta go. I need a break. I’ll call you back...” and I hung up as I sank to my knees and simply sprawled on the ground, eyes shut. My stomach convulsed and abdominal muscles locked up hard as I fought to stay conscious.
When I opened my eyes, the prairie dogs were standing around watching, looks of acute concern crossing their timid faces as they ate my taters. It occurred to me immediately that when any type of ground squirrel is eating your supper, you’re really defeated. I groped for my phone.
“Susan, can you get me into the casino?” I pleaded, doing my best George Clooney, that is, if George Clooney had just pulled his face off the sidewalk of an Indian reservation after passing out from severe dehydration. Susan has certain skills in this realm I lack and it somehow would not have gone as well had I simply walked myself two buildings over to the casino and asked for a room.
Twenty minutes later, I was opening the door to a ground-floor suite I’d just paid below the list price for. I felt like crying; the comfort was that overwhelming after the last week in the mountains and the day that was just ending. There would be a shower tonight and a shave in the morning.
A little later, I watched rows of purple cumulus clouds roll eastward across the mountains of Glacier Park. I was indoors, as safe as I could be, and I was very likely to survive the night. I’d been drinking a lot and eating, too. And in a sense, this had been the perfect day out here in the Rocky Mountains and on the plains: great challenges offset with breathtaking moments of great reward. And after telling others to adapt, adapt, and adapt again to the wild, it was now time for me to adapt again as I took on the challenge of the great American prairie. This is as it should be.
Stay thirsty my friends.