We woke up extra early just in case we had accidentally been camping on private property. The air was cold but very still and quiet. The crunch of our footsteps down the gravel road was the only noise in the area. We both were not yet completely awake, so we followed our map in silence for a few miles, winding down the mountain. Finally at the bottom of our decent, we heard running water. Since we both needed water, we planned on stopping at the first water source we saw. However, this particular creek was next to a new construction house and building debris sat in the water up against a culvert. Passing up water is always a dumb decision, but we pressed our luck after seeing a couple potential sources on our maps within the next five miles.
Continuing down the road, we came to a telephone pole where someone had drawn a CDT logo and an arrow directing us to head into tall grass. While locals may have seen this as sharpie graffiti, we saw it as a welcome sign for hikers and confirmation of being on the right path.
In a couple miles we came to a powerful spring not listed on our maps. Our wait paid off with ice cold fresh spring water. We sat down to eat a small snack, but didn’t wait too long. Today was not only a town day, but we also were going to be able to see a good friend from home. Thinking about this made us pick up the pace a little bit.
We climbed up and down pine covered mountains, on and off gravel roads and more frequently than we would have wanted, through big areas of blow downs. We startled a few antelope while walking through a small grove of trees at the top of our last climb for the day. The whole burn area seemed eerie as usual, but the antelope seemed so out of place in the woods. Tall grass framed the trail. Lightly scattered through the tall grass were single Thimbleberries bright red against the golden backdrop. Most had already been plucked but we each gathered four or five delicate berries to eat. The tiny bursts of flavor packed the taste of a whole berry pie. The sweets and sours were so rich and delicious. Oh and how fresh they tasted!
We finally got signal to call John and found out he wouldn’t be off work for a few hours. Perfect! We had time to hike the remaining three miles to the highway, hitch into town and eat some real food!
We quickly walked to the highway with excitement, passing an old signal tower used during the days of airmail. We got to the highway and had no luck hitching for the first 30 minutes. However, TenneSteve showed up back on trail and his ride agreed to go ahead and take us into town.
In town we ate at a funky restaurant that made bread in old soup cans then made sandwiches inside that bread. After eating we went to the laundry mat where John’s girlfriend, Alyssa, soon met up with us and took us to their house to drop our stuff off. After this we headed to the brewery to meet up with John. It was so amazing to see another good friend on trail. We had now met up with friends and family in every state except Idaho (no offense, Idaho).
The next day was easily decided to be a zero day. There was so much to see. Helena is a pretty great trail town. Plenty of places to stay, numerous breweries, an abundance of restaurants and a couple gear shops give hikers everything they could ask for.
The next day we woke up just in time to start coughing again on the thick smoke that filled the city and John and Alyssa’s house. According to Montana’s online fire report, the levels of smoke in the air were at a severely dangerous level and we could feel it. It felt like breathing through a straw. Our eyes were itchy. Our mouths were dry. We knew the fires were bad when even some of the older locals we talked to said they had never seen smoke like this before.
As we left their house, we ran into their neighbor Lisa who began walking with us and asking us about our hike. She ended up leading us on a shortcut route to the post office where we found out that we were at the wrong post office and that there were four in Helena. Fortunately, a kind older gentleman behind us in line offered to drive us to the building our packages were located. We enjoyed our ride with this man, mainly because he wasn’t really too interested in what we were doing and why we were doing it. It was kind of nice just to ride around Helena and make small talk.
After we picked up our box, he dropped us off near the first post office. We noticed a cafe nearby called “No Sweat Cafe,” and we immediately headed over. This cash only cafe was a nice place to sort our resupply plus they served incredible vegetarian friendly comfort food. It is definitely a recommended breakfast spot for future thru-hikers stopping in Helena.
As we left the cafe, we decided to procrastinate getting on trail a little longer, so we walked around the surrounding shops and bookstores looking for things we didn’t need. We ended up buying some cheap town clothes to mail to Garbelly’s friend Cheetah who we would be staying with in Calgary, but after finding out it would cost one hundred and fifty dollars to mail internationally, we ended up just sending everything back to Nashville.
Finally we began walking the few miles through town to get to the right highway to be able to hitch back to trail. We slowing wandered an hour or two down the road before someone finally picked us up. Conveniently his house sat directly along the trail where we needed to start walking again.
When we arrived, he kindly gave us each a Coke and we began down a one car wide gravel road. As we climbed up the road, we noticed how hard the hiking had become with all of the smoke in the air. We also noticed jet black clouds rolling into view. We couldn’t see any rain on the horizon, but we could see large lightning bolts stringing the mountains south of us. We decided to walk as far as we could until the storm was right on top of our heads and then set up camp. As we walked, Garbelly’s stomach grumbled and churned. It was not just a hungry grumble, there was a feeling of sudden sickness behind it. This mixed with the visible smoky air was enough to slow us down. We continued on but realized we were headed into an exposed ridge and lightning began striking all around us.
We decided to set up camp here. Beneath a couple large pine trees. Garbelly couldn’t stomach dinner, a very very uncommon occurrence. We sat quietly for quite some time until we saw a forest service fire truck drive by in the distance. We found out that the small few minute long thunderstorm had left over sixty spot fires in the area. We knew we needed to hike faster.
The next morning arrived without much improvement for Garbelly. We went back and forth on pushing through with big miles since we had planned our meals around bigger miles or regrouping back in town, since we knew we were headed into some funky hiking with all the threats of fires. Critter had taken her bail into town back in Colorado when the altitude sickness hit, now it was time for Garbelly to redeem his one bail. We headed back towards the highway, where we were able to catch a ride with a trail angel taking some more hikers down the pass. Young Blood, Treeman, and Jeremy were all crammed into the car with us. It was a nice reunion since we had not seen Treeman since the Mexican border, Young Blood since early Montana, and Jeremy since Breckinridge. Back in town, Barb let us sit on her porch while she ran some errands. Garbelly took a shower, drank loads of water and took a nap.
Trail decisions are usually not hard to make. However, when you do not feel well and you can feel the time crunch of fire closures and the first snow fall on your heels, trail decisions become the toughest decision to make.
Garbelly and Critter