Tales of the Trail

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The following stories first appeared in Jim’s newsletter, Wild Wind.  

On the Way OutJim_in_Sierra_for_site.jpg
A Canyon Country Adventure
Yellowstone to the Yukon
Montana’s Mountains of the Heart
Along the Pacific Crest Trail
Northwest Montana
The Nevada Trek

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On the Way Out

      The swallows are already swooping and diving in the canyon when I awake. The rain from the night before is long gone, but the smell of wet slickrock fills the air. The overhang I’ve slept under has provided a cozy shelter from the storm. I watch the swallows from the comfort of my sleeping bag, hating to move as if it might shatter the peace of the stillness I find myself in. Somewhere a canyon wren’s trill spirals down the sandstone walls.

      This is my last morning out. It has been a short trip. For six days I’ve been wandering Cheesebox Canyon and exploring its nooks and crannies. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to come back to for several years. After the past few days, I know I’ll return once again. It’s a wild place, part of the vast White Canyon roadless area which many concerned citizens have been trying to protect through passage of America’s Redrock Wilderness Act. The solitude has been wonderful, the scenery incredibly beautiful, and the feeling one of complete awe.

     The hiking has been difficult with a full pack. In fact, sometimes it was more climbing, leaping, stretching than it was just walking. But I needed that. After a serious back injury last summer and not being able to backpack, I was excited to put the pack on and feel good about it.

     But now it is time to head out. I rouse myself out of the sleeping bag and fix a quick breakfast. In no time I’m shouldering the pack and walking a ledge above a sharp narrows. In minutes I come to the junction with White Canyon. The pack must be lowered by rope down a small cliff, and then I follow with an easy downclimb. In the rocky wash of White Canyon I turn downstream and follow its smooth, streaked walls.

      On a previous trip Leslie and I had walked nearly the entire length of this canyon as part of a 5-week loop hike with a couple other canyon systems. It’s easy walking and the silence is soothing. My footsteps are the only sound, crunching lightly in the sand or scraping across the bedrock ledges. I poke along and after just a few bends in the canyon find myself wondering about the ledges overhead. They look like a likely place for shelter, a place that may have been used hundreds of years ago. I’m in no hurry so I decide to take a look.

     Stashing the pack, I find some good toeholds and climb up the wall to one ledge, and then another above it. After a couple more pitches I’m on the level I want to explore. It’s easy to walk the sandstone ledge now and several minutes later I’m under a protective overhang. The remains of a rock pithouse excite me. And then bits of pottery, some painted, and chips of rock that have been worked. I was right. This was someone’s shelter hundreds of years ago. On the back wall are rosy displays of cliff art left by the resident artist. I sit down. My mind flies back to another age.

     Eventually, I check out another higher ledge and follow it around a bend in the canyon. I find a hidden spring with some more rock chips nearby and enjoy poking around the secret nooks that never see footprints anymore. The climb down is always more difficult for me, so I find an easier spot and soon have retrieved the pack.

     Another bend or two of the canyon and I’m studying a high notch with a natural bridge, actually more of a hole in the wall. It looks like I might be able to make my way up to this hole in the rock. I should give it a try anyway.

     After leaving the pack this time, I must crawl under a pile of gigantic room-sized boulders before scrambling up a jumble of rockfall. It doesn’t take too long before I’m under the overhang where the hole is. I find that there is a beautiful pool of water directly beneath the hole reflecting the smooth walls of the keyhole above it. Fifty feet below me is another one. It’s cool in the shade of the rock ledge and I could stay here forever, but then I notice that I could probably climb up into the hole.

     I pull myself up the smooth, sculptured walls into big swirls of stone. Deep tubs of water lie in the bottoms of some of these swirls, but I’m able to climb around or jump across. Soon I pop out in a little bay. I think I’m in paradise. Just above me is a hanging garden dripping water onto the slickrock. A shady overhang provides good shelter. The view is spectacular. I don’t find signs of the old ones here, but I can’t help but think they visited this unique spot.

     Much later, I make my way down White Canyon to the old trail coming down from the canyon rim. It’s the hot part of the day so I find a shady spot, take a soak in one of the canyon’s pools, and hang out until the day begins to cool. When the sun starts to sink over the rim, I will climb up the trail and sleep on the slickrock overlooking this favorite canyon. It will be a good place to say thank-you for the last several days.

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A Canyon Country Adventure – May, 2000

     The slot canyon we’re following gets narrower and narrower. The walls here, still shaded from the blazing sun, are cool to the touch. The air smells of rock and sand. The gusty wind is just a memory. Here the air is still. The only sound is the crunch of our footsteps, the scrape of boot on rock.

     We round a bend and the canyon ends; or at least our route does. If water flowed here this would be a waterfall. And a spectacular one at that. Now I look up at the slickrock pour-off envious of the canyon wren, longing for wings. I could get up another 20 feet, but beyond that it is impassable.

     Leslie starts up a route way off to the left, and I follow. We climb just a short way before deciding against it. Then it’s back down the narrow canyon, back into the sun, back onto the broad bench where we left the packs. We heft our gear and start down the wash, heading for the main canyon.

     The water has been high in the canyon we head toward. The fording has been difficult early in the day. Afternoons see the water level going down. We’ve stayed up on the benchland all morning, paralleling the canyon and avoiding the high water. Walking on the slickrock has been a dream, but now I worry that if we don’t drop back into the canyon soon, we won’t be able to do so further south.

     We decide to follow a likely looking side canyon back down to the creek. It’s a good choice. Lots of interesting swirls and tubs of rock. It narrows and drops. The last pitch to the canyon floor is another pour-off, but we climb down a deep seam of rock off to the side of it. We’re back on the canyon floor.

     Our goal for today is the confluence of two well-known canyons. We set off and in no time find ourselves facing a ford of the rushing stream. The water is fast and powerful. We struggle across, walk a short way, and are forced by the narrow canyon to cross again. This spot looks deeper and more difficult. The canyon being as closed in as it is doesn’t offer any alternatives.

    Starting across, my feet feel their way through the muddy water. A sturdy stick braces my wire tight body against the rushing current. It’s a tough ford, and I’m almost across. I tell Leslie to wait; that I’ll come back for her pack, but before I can put down my backpack she starts into the racing stream. I’m trying to get up the opposite bank when I hear her. She’s in a spot where she can’t go forward or back. She’s just straining to keep from getting washed away. In slow motion I watch her try to go back. Her feet are swept away. Down she goes. With my pack still on, I jump in and struggle toward her. She is slammed against a big boulder on one side while I grab her arm on the opposite side. We struggle into the bank, wet and scared. That was close.

     Time for a lunch break. Maybe the water level will go down a bit more. We find a big old ponderosa, one of the few we’ve seen, and kick back for a lunch of leisure. It’s a neat spot. When we move on the water has indeed dropped another inch or two, but storm clouds are building. This canyon won’t be a good place to be in a rainstorm.

     We know we’re close to the junction of the two canyons, only a mile or two, but the travel is very slow. Each crossing (and there are many) takes much time and careful consideration. As we descend the canyon the walls draw closer together funneling the water into a much narrower streambed. It gets deeper and faster. Each ford is an adventure of its own. This hike is getting interesting.

     Finally we come to a much narrower spot. I start in but the water is very deep. Retreating to the entry point, I take off my pack and balance it atop my head. I try it again as the water gets well up to my neck. My feet bounce off the bottom, the current carries me along, and I’m across. Tossing the pack up the bank, I turn back to my small wife. “You’ll have to swim. Let me get your pack.”

     I struggle back across, retrieve Leslie’s pack and paddle across. She comes in and is like a little leaf caught in the current. Away she goes. She reaches for me. I stretch out and barely catch her hand, swinging her into the shore. We’re across. Now what?

     Fifty yards later we see that we’ve gotten as far as we can. We’re only a couple hundred yards from the confluence of the two canyons, but the canyon here narrows so there are no banks to walk upon. Only the rushing muddy water remains. Not our choice for travel right now. Luckily there is a break in the canyon wall right here and steps have been cut into the solid rock by the old ones. They save us.

     We climb up the slick rock and find a flat spot against a rock wall. It is a perfect spot to finish a rather exciting day. The wind dies and we do our camp chores in the stillness of the canyon. It is a holy place this evening. It has given us beauty. It has given us joy and fear. It has given us a look at each other and ourselves. It has given us reason to celebrate this life and this story we’ve been blessed with. Later, the rain comes and the water rises once again.

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Yellowstone to the Yukon
Summer 1998


The little jeep road is getting harder and harder to follow. It’s shrunk from a busy dirt road, to a quiet lane, to a little traveled track, and now is fading to a pack trail. This is progress as far as I’m concerned. I hadn’t wanted to walk the road along the Upper Old Man River, but a series of clearcuts and a maze of logging roads had forced me into the lower elevations for a day and a half. Now, I’m getting back to some wildness.

     The sun has been shining, but now a raft of dark clouds float in as I climb higher back toward the Continental Divide. As sprinkles begin to fall, I reach the intersection with Canada’s Great Divide Trail. This is a short section of established pathway which I will follow for the next few days. I don’t know it at the time, but I’ll have those days all to myself. I turn north feeling a surge of joy to be back on a genuine foot trail.

     The red blazes lead in short order to a tiny lake blasted by wind. I huddle in a clump of spruce trees until the rain passes, and then set up camp sheltered from the wind by the sturdy trees. The place feels wild. Walking around the little lake I watch the sun beaming through the storm clouds to light up the peaks above me. Each time I gaze out at the surrounding mountains they look different. A golden aura lights their rugged faces in waves of glory.

     The next day the trail leads me in and out of a series of small subalpine basins right at the foot of the Divide. The Tamarack trees look wiry and tough. A herd of bighorn rams scrambles up a cliff above me. The fresh grizz tracks encourage me to walk with all senses primed. I round a series of knobs and am blasted by a joyous wind. In a few miles clearcuts appear below me, much too close to this part of the Continental Divide. It makes me realize how thin this Y2Y corridor is in places. And also how easily parts of it can be cut off.

     That night I sleep near an abandoned logging road near Lost Creek. In the morning I begin to climb again, higher and higher. The forest thins out as I reach a broad ridge. The day is too nice to keep to the trail. I head up the wide open Cataract Plateau; a vast plain of grassland, carpeted with wildflowers hanging high in the Alberta sky. The wind is howling. I drop my pack behind a clump of krumholtz. Without the pack I’m like a feather blowing with the bowed heads of the flowers. I’m a falcon soaring across the spacious plateau. I’m a speck of gold in this vast treasure of an Earth.

     The Cataract Plateau, with its open acres, biting wind, and dancing wildflowers, dwarfs me. I welcome that smallness. It humbles me, but expands my world view and fills my heart. The high I grasp in those hours on the plateau will carry me through some darker, harder times ahead. I know it will.

“Way down inside of me, that’s where I hold,
It’s the peace of the wild things and I let them unfold,
  When times are getting rough
  and the clouds are draggin’ low,
It’s there when I need it, that’s where I go.”

                                                            ……from “Wilderness Walks Within” by Walkin’ Jim Stoltz

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 Montana’s Mountains of the Heart


C & L Creek. The Big Hole Divide.

I’m struck by the beauty of the place. Topographical maps can only show so much. They leave out the cold morning light playing in the trees. They never mention the bird songs on the still canyon air. They neglect the creek murmuring and winding its way through the narrow canyon, or a cow and calf moose trotting up and over the hillside, deer bounding through the aspen. The place is alive. Maps don’t tell you that.

     The Big Hole Divide is the ridge of low mountains separating the watersheds of the Big Hole River from that of the Jefferson. It’s a minor range running from the summits of the Continental Divide to the peaks of the Pioneer Range. It’s been hit hard from the impacts of human activity. The route I’m taking attempts to skirt those impacts, searching out a pristine path among the maze of roads and extensive clearcuts.

     The trail is good. The kind of trail I like to see. It hasn’t been overused. Nor is it worn deeply into the ground like some trails. It’s narrow and faint, soft on the tread. It twists and turns through the clearings and the forest as if a deer had made it. On this morning I feel like a deer myself, stepping lightly and watchful. I’m poking along, stopping often to listen, wandering off the path to observe. The pauses are not drawn from anything in particular, just the forest itself. It seems sharper, more defined this morning, requiring an extra look, a deeper appreciation.

     The morning slips past. The little trail leads me to a wooded pass where I veer off the track to make my way up the steep, wooded slope. A well worn elk trail, like an expressway, happens to be heading my way. An hour later I’m stepping out onto the top of Bloody Dick Peak at the crown of the Big Hole Divide. A refreshing breeze plays over the exposed summit. The cool bite is invigorating, while the sweeping panorama stretches my spirits just a tiny bit wider. Before me, in every direction, stretch mountain upon mountain, representing some of Montana’s most beautiful, and still wild country. It’s easy to sit and stare, soaking up the vast spaces, filling up my heart with that special mountaintop exhilaration.

     Much later, I move on, traveling a mostly forested ridge. The crest narrows for a time, marked here and there with the scars of old fires. Ghost trees bleach in the sun, hugging to the rocky crust, while new growth struggles to gain a toehold. Clark’s Nutcrackers flit from tree to tree, squawking and generally making more of a racket than I would prefer to have preceding me. I wish they’d hush up.

     The going is slow due to the scrubby trees, jagged rocks, and precipitous drops. Marmots and pikas abound in this stretch. I expect them. I do not expect to see anything else. The nutcrackers will see to that. Besides it’s the middle of the day. Not a good time to see critters.

     The ridge skirts a steep bowl. It’s bare of trees, laced with boulders, and almost covered with snow. I don’t know why I’m so surprised. This is a north facing slope, and I’m above 8,000 feet. Snow should be here, but with these last few days being so hot, I just haven’t thought of it. I’m starting to traverse above the bowl when another patch of white catches my eye. It’s more of a creamy white set against the snow. And it moves.

     A mountain goat treads slowly over to the base of the bowl. He moves as if each step were an effort; as if he had just enough energy to make that one placement of his hoof. Two others lie sprawled on the tongue of snow. He joins them, plopping down as if it too were an effort. This heat today is hard on them. They’re lying in the snow, panting heavily.

     The average response of a mountain goat to intruders is to run. And to climb. I don’t want to drive them to flight this hot day. It might kill them. I watch them for a few minutes then back off to the south side of the crest. I make my way along that side of the ridge confident that my noise will not disturb them. The ridge becomes broader and more heavily forested. The distant views are gone. I need my compass to tell me where I am on the mountain. I walk over an unnamed knob. Then another. The dense forest offers a cozy security. Also, a monotony which allows my thoughts to stray with each passing knoll. I’m drawn back to that view from Bloody Dick Peak. I’m trekking miles of green tunnel, and I’ve got panoramas of mountain upon mountain on an endless reel playing in my mind. Beautiful mountains. Wild mountains. Mountains of the heart.

     These wild mountain ranges dotting the Montana Rockies are the heart. They are the last strongholds sheltering the living core of the region. The year’s water flows from their snowfields. The remnants of the last wild populations of various species dwell in their untouched reaches. The uncut forests offer sanctuary to untold numbers of organisms. Their natural character shapes and directs the mood of this entire corner of the state.

     The biological integrity of the area is wrapped and woven with the health of these remaining wild ranges. A who’s who list of biologists ten pages long can vouch for the importance of keeping the untouched places just the way they are. Each range in the Northern Rockies still has a significant roadless area which should be kept so. But there are other reasons besides ecological health to leave them be.

     We as a species need to experience nature. Plain and simple. We need something to remind us of where we came from; something that says “you, too, are a part of this planet.” To often “nature” is but the roses in our suburban yard, or green grass in the neighborhood park. The fish in the aquarium are our only glimpse of wildlife. But they don’t count. These are imitations. Pruned, fed, and pampered imitations. Nature is a living system; a living system which can stand on its own. Wilderness is nature as it was meant to be. It just is. It’s birth and being does not revolve around human whims and whiles. Unfortunately, it’s presence in today’s overpopulated world often does depend on human care. Caring enough to leave it alone.

     The existence of natural areas has always been taken for granted in our society. There has always been a place for young people to go ; young people of all cultures, to seek their own visions, their own directions from the spirit of the Earth. There has always been another side to the mountain. A wild side. Land “out West” to find solace and silence in. Places “up north” to lose oneself and stretch our inner limits.

     Today those wide open spaces continue to shrink, and with them, the visions. The neighborhood forests and fields of our childhood have been paved over or buried under by super highways and monster malls. Where will the new generation go to find a soothing connection with their own planet? Where will humankind be reminded of our own wild heritage, the animal within us? Can a child feel at home on this Earth when contact with its rhythms, systems, and fellow beings does not occur? Can Life be nurtured by a computer game of ultimate reality?

     Reality is often a matter of perspective. It seems to me we’re watering down our quality of life with each compromise on the environmental front. We lose a bit of nature and then we get used to it. We lose a bit more and get used to that. Soon we’re living in a polluted, crowded world and we think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The strength and spiritual connection wild places hold for the human soul is a value that cannot be measured in forest plans, fiscal budgets, and biological surveys. It dwells in the very root of the Earth’s existence, and thus, in ours. When we cease to have a connection with nature, and start to accept it’s imitations as true, we risk loosing something in ourselves, a little piece of our heart. Yes, these are indeed mountains of the heart.

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Along the Pacific Crest Trail

      On April 10, 1996, Jim set out from the Mexican border on the Pacific Crest Trail. Exactly 5 ½ months and 2766 miles later he finished his trek at the Canadian border, having traversed the length of California, Oregon, and Washington. The following tale is an excerpt from his journal written in the Cascades the third week of September. This was published in the Fall 1996 issue of Wild Wind.

I am up and going early this morning. I’ve gotten used to the rain and snow, but it’s dry today. The clouds are hung high, draped over the skies like a wrinkled tarp. They cloak these mountains in a dull, steel grayness, adding a chill to the air just by their somber mood. And the canyon is cold. The ground is frozen solid, the snow patches as hard as granite. Ice coats the log and the rocks I’d planned to cross the creek on. The stream tumbles down from the glaciers above. Ice to water, to ice. It’s slick as, well… ice. It’s quite some time before I find a safe place to cross.

     The trail wanders in and about the shoulders of Glacier Peak, traversing one high basin, then another. As I top the first side ridge and scan the open slopes before me, I note a large black object moving slowly across the steep mountainside. It’s a black bear. Though nearly half a mile away, the sighting thrills me. I wonder if it’ll still be there when I get over to the trail above it.

     The ice and snow on the trail crunches and cracks as I make my way around the big bowl, in and out of little pockets of stunted trees. I’m halfway thinking I may frighten the bear away with all this racket, but as I step from the last stand of forest he is still down there, moving steadily over the slope, sniffing at this and pawing at that.

     I’m so intent on watching the big bear below me, that it’s quite a surprise when I realize someone else is watching from above the trail! It’s Mama Bear with two cubs, and she’s very much aware of this strange critter with the load on its back. A scant 50 yards separates us, but the cubs are another 40 yards up the slope, chasing and tumbling over each other heading toward the trees.

     I stop in my tracks, waiting and watching. Mama Bear peers down at me. A curious look passes in a flash before she goes back to her huckleberries, raking them into her big mouth, catching them adroitly with her smooth tongue. I must say she has her priorities right. My own tongue has been purple for days from chowing on all the tasty berries covering these mountains. Once the cubs are out of sight and Mom has her rump to me, I continue along the trail. Soon she’s out of sight as I crest another side ridge and come down into another high basin. For a moment I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Another bear! I pass well above it on the trail, stopping to watch it through my telephoto lens. For a time I almost have myself talked into believing it is a grizzly bear. But no, as much as I’d like to see one of the rare Cascade grizz, this is another black bear.

     I walk on, higher and higher. The snow gets deeper and the air gets colder. The peak is no longer visible as the clouds have dropped a bit. But I can still see for miles to the north and west. As I approach Fire Creek Pass I’m crunching through 6 inches of snow and the wind is stinging cold.

     I crest the pass and find a place in the rocks to stop. Time to put on some warm clothes and gobble a Thunder Bar. The view is spectacular. The Pacific Crest Trail is often like that in this country. I’d like to linger, but it’s too cold. Got to move.

     I head down, coming to a narrow ridge separating two more basins. Leaving the trail, I walk over for a better look into the western bowl. I can’t believe this! Two more bears! These are both on the smaller side, but clearly enjoying the berry season here in huckleberry heaven. Seven bears in the space of a few hours. I’m a lucky man.

     The trail leads me down, down, down, through a boulder filled basin, past Mica Lake, down a few thousand feet to the murky waters of roaring Milk Creek. Then it’s back up a couple thousand more feet of elevation to a high ridge and another vast basin. The clouds are hanging ever lower and a few sprinkles are falling, but I’ve got bears on my mind. I stop every hundred yards to scan the slopes. Dozens of marmots; fat and sassy ones, but no more bears.

     To the west a dense wall of clouds is approaching. I know it’s more rain. And I accept it. No use fighting the weather. I’m seven miles from the river where I’ll camp and nearly 5,000 feet of descent. Down I go, humming along, down, down, down, back into the big old growth, the lush mossy forests that radiate a vibrant sense of green and growing.

     By the time I reach the Suiattle River the rain is a steady patter on the bill of my hat. I cross the bridge into a dark climax forest. The big firs and cedars offer some protection from the rain, but they also cut out the limited remaining light. I find a window of cleared ground above the bank of the river and set up my tent. Then a hasty dinner and a few camp chores before slipping into my cozy shelter and dry clothes. The welcome warmth creeps into every nook of my chilled bones as the guitar tops off the day and the tent rings with song  and images of the trail, the mountains and … bears.

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Northwest Montana
Finishing a 1000-Mile Trek

This tale originally appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of Wild Wind, Jim’s newsletter.


It’s a gray, wet March day here in Big Sky as I write this. The snow alters between snow and rain as if not quite sure of the season. We’re hurting for snow this year, and it looks like it’ll be a mighty dry summer if we don’t get more moisture. Sitting here in the cabin, I’ve been watching the clouds dropping over the mountain, hiding everything, and then rising again, cloaking the forest in a fresh, ghostly frosting. Finding myself daydreaming, I keep shaking myself out of it, but it’s hard not to think about all the days like this that I’ve spent in the wild country, and under conditions not quite so comfortable as this snug cabin.

     I’ll never forget a three-day stretch of walking, up in the northwest corner of Montana several years back. It was the last few days of a thousand mile hike that pretty much took me the length of Idaho, with a little bit of the very northern part of Montana thrown in. Back then I never carried any raingear. If a storm blew in, I’d do one of three things: put up the tent and pull out a good book, find a dense stand of trees to shelter me from the worst of the rain and then walk on, or just put a garbage bag over the pack and keep going, resigning myself to getting wet. The choice depended on my mood, and how bad the approaching storm looked.

     On this particular occasion I had been poking along all summer at my own pace, but from my last food drop I had notified my wife of my finishing date, in order to arrange my ride home. I hate to have to hike to meet schedules, but found myself determined to be there, come hell or highwater. It turned out that the highwater wasn’t too far off the mark.

     Northwest Montana has some incredible stands of old growth cedar and hemlock. These areas remind me of the ancient forests  of the Olympic Peninsula, with huge, amazingly old trees, and green moss and ferns carpeting the forest floor. When I set off in the morning from my camp in the lush, canyon bottom, the air glowed a dull green. The day was very overcast, the clouds hanging like gray flannel over the mountains. It was warm for September and I walked up the trail and into the clouds, clad only in my T-shirt and hiking shorts.

     I remember thinking how good it felt to  climb; how strong my body felt after an entire summer of hiking. I felt energized that morning. Like a young colt fresh out of the corral, I fairly zipped up the trail. The old giants were left behind, and the forest became more like the Montana I knew, with scattered fir and open meadows.

     The trail led me higher and I found myself walking a ridge, skirting knobs, dipping in and out of the misty clouds. It was cooler here and I slipped into my wool shirt. The rain hadn’t started, but each twig and blade of grass clutched its own droplets of moisture rung from the invading clouds. My boots were soon drenched. But it seemed that day that nothing could squelch my soaring spirits. The views which I knew were missing at each clearing, hidden snug and tight behind the dense bank of clouds, bothered me not at all. I reveled in the haunting mist creeping quietly through the trees, entire forests disappearing on a whim, and the meadows sweeping off into the nothingness of gray.

     As I tramped through one cloud, I chanced upon a steep, sloped clearing, the trail traversing the upper part of the meadow. My steps took an abrupt halt when movement below warned me of the presence of fellow cloud-walkers. At first I was only aware of a large black blob moving slowly through the curtain of mist, but as my eyes focused I realized that I was looking down on one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen! The fact that this was a Mama bear was soon evident as I noted three little balls of fur further down the slope. All the bears were very intent on their grazing and totally unaware of my presence 50 yards above them. I’d heard that a sow with three cubs had treed a couple hikers a few days before in this area. I was obviously watching the same bears.

     Uneasy at first, I soon realize that I had the perfect observation point. Hunkering quietly on the trail, I watched Mama graze peacefully across the slope while the cubs seemed to bounce here and there off of each other and from one patch of forage to the next. I could hear Mama’s lips smacking with grunts of gastric pleasure. The whine and playful squeals of the cubs was fainter, as they were farther down the slope, but each bearsound was like music. I thrilled to this closeness, this unmarred glimpse of wild life, this meeting of mist and mind, bear and mountain clouds.

     I’m not sure how long I watched the bears. Looking back now I don’t think it was more than a few minutes. But it seemed much longer at the time. Soon the clouds rolled silently upon the scene, devouring the hillside. Hidden from view, but still peering intently down the hill, I rose and walked quietly up the trail.

     The rain came riding on raven’s wings, silently and unnoticed. Somewhere the mist had turned to full raindrops. I got out the garbage bag for the pack, a wool sweater for me, and continued along the rolling, mostly forested ridge. Through the raining clouds, I roamed the drenched clearings and dripping forests, my world suddenly shrunken by the clutching fog of the day. For several miles I enjoyed this rich, dripping green world, but as the temperatures dropped and snowflakes came dancing sporadically within the rain, I withdrew farther into myself. The legs worked like a well oiled machine. No thought was needed to keep them going. Even following the now overgrown trail was automatic. My thoughts went off in flights of fantasy; mostly thinking of food and a cozy woodstove waiting at home!

     After nearly 15 miles, I was feeling soggy. The hands were stiff and getting numb. Time to stop for a warm up. I found a sheltered nook and built a small fire. I was hungry and devoured a healthy lunch that would have filled three good sized horses. It felt so good to have the heat inside and out! Fully revived, I slipped wool socks over my hands (the best mittens) and trekked on.

     It was nearly dark when I approached the Yaak River after nearly 22 miles. Needless to say, I slept good that night, snug and dry in my sleeping bag and tent. Starry skies that night only served to tease me as I awoke the next morning to the sound of pouring rain. I lay there for a couple hours, reading and listening, thinking of all the miles I’d come that summer. Only a few days left to go.

     I packed up the little tent in the rain, crossed the Yaak River on a road, then began a long climb to a high ridge along the Idaho-Montana line. The rain had stopped by the time I got up into the higher reaches, but the heavy clouds still hung lazily over the mountains. The dull day was brightened considerably by finding extensive patches of ripe huckleberries. My spirits soared with the extra treat, and though the overcast thickened, my purple tongue yelled encouragingly to the heavens, “Come on, Sun!!” Over and over, the echo filled the ridges and canyons, but it never heard. The rain came crawling back over the open ridges.

     The trail, like a good majority of the trails out west, had been built by the CCC back in the 30’s. Abandoned for many years, the skill and effort poured into its construction was still plainly visible. The extensive rockwork in places was masterful; very artfully done. Much time and thought had gone into that path. In the dense mist, I lost it for long stretches, but then found some nice sidehill sections still intact. Along the open crest I didn’t really need a trail, but in the whirling rain and clouds it reassured me and gave me something to relate to.

     The topo maps allowed me to keep track of each up and down, and twist and turn, but when at last I came to the saddle below Buckhorn Mountain, I could barely see ten yards in any direction. The rain had turned to a hard, icy snow. Making camp amid the clouds, I peeled off the wet clothes, thankful for my portable shelter and still dry sleeping bag.

     The morning came like a yawn, not sure if it was here or not. The clouds hung just as ominous as the day before, but now it was much colder and I wore long wool pants, a down jacket, wool cap, and my heaviest socks for mittens. The rain began soon after I started, alternating between sloppy snow and misting rain. I got wet, mostly from the heavy brush I found myself wading through. The two bull moose I stumbled upon gazed at me with an almost humorous look on their faces. Indeed, my soaked, drowned-rat look must have appeared silly. I laughed back and hiked on.

     Ten miles into the day the snowy rain ceased and I built another fire for lunch, drying my clothes and stoking up my energy with a good lunch. As I stood hunched over the snapping blaze, a thin ray of light began to crack through the dense cloud cover. Suddenly, like a dam breaking, the sun’s magic spilled through. For the first time in three days I was bathed in sunlight. Hoots and whoops echoed through the dripping forest as I jumped and jigged with joy.

     The sun came and went, sharing the day with brief showers and rosy rainbows as I made my way over Canuck Mountain and a series of unnamed knobs. The land became more rugged. I began skirting the cliffy ridge. Wilderness is a matter of sense, and I had felt the land growing wilder with each mile. A coyote loped across a nearby clearing. A marmot whistled a warning. Water oozed slowly back into the track of a grizzly bear. The rains washed everything clean. Each rock, tree, sight and smell was sharper and more clear. My awareness flooded with each rich gift presented to it. The cold, dreary miles were behind me, but also a part of where I was now standing. How can you get somewhere without traveling every foot of the way? And isn’t the Way the entire journey? Each mile of the approach is a mile closer to the end, but also a mile of its own, added to the heart of the traveler.

     Coming to a sloping field of car-sized boulders, I hopped and leaped from one wet rock to the next. My boots never let me down, griping like a treefrog to the slick surfaces, but on three occasions the huge rocks began to tilt and groan with their new weight. My jumping became a bit faster at such times.

     At last I topped Davis Mountain and looked north to my last peak of the trek. Northwest Peak was being pounded with wind and rain, but I could still make out the outline of the old fire lookout atop its summit. Making my way slowly along the rugged ridge, I was soon sheltered in the battered little shack, each gust shaking and rattling the stalwart building. Some day those wintry blasts will succeed in sending the old hut to the rocks below, but that night I used my weight as added ballast, and welcomed the four walls. The  wind pounded away with groans and screams, but brought only thoughts of the thousand miles behind me, each one full of its own magic, its own time, and its own stories.

jimtracks.GIF
 The Nevada Trek


In 1986 Jim walked home to Montana from Arizona, wandering through the western part of the Grand Canyon, up the eastern edge of Nevada, across central Idaho and back to the Yellowstone  country. On that trip, he fell in love with the vast desert valleys and snowy, rugged mountains of Nevada, often walking for days without seeing another soul. The space and the place inspired him, and songs flowed from his old, trailworn guitar, Stella. He’d always wanted to go back, so in 1995 Jim walked 400 miles through central Nevada, experiencing one of his most unique, memorable trips. He wrote this piece for the Fall ‘95 issue of his Wild Wind newsletter.

Waking to the cry of a Clark’s nutcracker, I roll over and sit up in my sleeping bag. I’m not using a tent this summer. Sleeping under the stars is the way to go in these Nevada mountains. Last night I bedded down in a tiny clearing surrounded by a healthy stand of aspen. Now I’m shivering in the crisp  morning air at 10,000 feet.

     From the comfort of my sleeping bag I put some water on for a hot breakfast. While the water heats up on the tiny woodburning campstove, I lay back against my pack and survey the canyon around me.

     This is Moore’s Creek in the Toquima Range. I’m in an area known as the Alta Toquima Wilderness. It is relatively small as wilderness areas go, but unique in ways I am about to find out. Yesterday I tried to follow an old trail, but ended up making my own way into this high, beautiful basin. Stands of large aspens, and even bigger limber pines, dot the rocky landscape. Water cascades down the steep canyon walls from dense snowfields still hugging the upper reaches. Things look green and alive; certainly not the typical image most folks have of Nevada.

     After breakfast I’m heading up the slope in the direction I think the trail would go if it still actually existed. The steepness has me stopping every 50 feet, gasping for breath. But I keep at it and am soon climbing out of the shade and into the sun. Here, on the steepest and rockiest part of the slope, I find an intact section of the old trail.

      Starting up the switchbacks I’m startled to see a footprint. Not just any footprint, but that of a vibram sole; another hiker. It’s an old track, pressed into now rockhard mud, but its presence surprises me. I’m going into my third week of the six week trek and have not seen any other backpackers. The last time I saw any people at all, was 6 days ago. It’s reassuring for me to think that there are some other folks who occasionally travel this country on foot. I don’t feel quite as alone with that old track lying there. My link with my fellow humans is rekindled.

     A bit further, as I near the edge of the cliff dropping back into Moore’s Canyon, I decide to stop for a photo opportunity waiting at the precipice. A little flat spot looks like a good place to set the pack down. I lower it to the ground and prop it upright with my walking stick. In the process, I realize that this bare bit of ground has a reason for being that way. Rocks are piled up on one side of the spot, forming a shelter from the  wind; also a blind for anyone hunting the cliffs in that direction. This is an ancient hunting shelter.

     With the realization of where I’m standing strikes me, I’m easily transported back a few thousand years. A glance over to the cliff edge shows a large flat boulder, a perfect place for a hunter to sit and watch for game, or to chip away at a piece of rock that will soon become a spear’s point or arrowhead.

     Leaping upon the perfect lookout point, I scan the cliffs sheering off from just below me a thousand feet to the open canyon floor. Closer, on a foot wide ledge just below my perch, a piece of red chert catches my eye. Right where the hunter dropped it all those years ago, a point lies waiting. It looks fresh, as if the flakes of rock were but recently chipped from it’s sides. The years have been kind.

     This spot holds me for some time. I hold the point in my hand, feeling each cut with my fingers, smooth and clean. I walk from the rock wall to the boulder several times and again look over the edge. What are the chances that no one has seen this before? Sitting on the lookout rock, I study the mountains, the canyon below, the shoulder of the ridge I rest upon. How different was this scene when the hunter sat here and dropped his point?

     Much later I retrieve the pack and finish the hike up to the broad summit plateau of Mount Jefferson. The vastness of the view draws me to a halt and I plop the pack down again. This high ridge is nearly eight miles long and a couple miles wide; all over 11,000 feet of elevation. Too high for trees, the ground is littered with rocks, patches of snow, and flowers. A nice combination.

     The rocks are coated with lichen. The color leaps out in outrageous neon greens and oranges. Blacks to browns and grays, too. The flowers are violet asters and white phlox, with an occasional stunted cactus, perfectly round and low to the ground.

     Before me to the west is the broad Big Smokey Valley. It looks more sinister and foreboding than it did when I was sweating across it several days ago. The Toiyabe Range looms across the valley and range upon range of mountains for as far as I can see.

     Amid all this space and vastness I stand alone in the middle of the wilderness and look down at my feet. Another arrowhead lies next to a clump of phlox. As I walk the high plateau, weaving back and forth along the rim without the confines of a trail, I find point after point. This has been a hunting ground for at least seven thousand years. There is much evidence of it today.

     Most of my hiking day is spent not walking, but wandering; drifting here and there as the whim strikes me, stopping often to gaze across hundreds of square miles. The day is clear. Utah is visible to the east; California in the west.

     Near the Middle Summit I find a pool of snowmelt and decide I should camp up high tonight. On that Summit, in the jumble of rocks, I find a ledge just big enough for my sleeping pad and slightly protected from the endless wind. This will do just fine. The rock outcropping becomes my home for the rest of the day. I find more points, watch a herd of 30 desert bighorn sheep, and later sing the sun down over the Toiyabe Range.

     The alpine glow on the surrounding mountains is golden, then pink, rushing to a dark blue.  Without the sun a piercing cold creeps over the plateau, stalking the high country like a big cat. From the comfort of my sleeping bag I can look out over the miles to the dark silhouette of the Toiyabe Range with a faint halo of light highlighting each peak and saddle. My last thought as I dose off is, “I’ve walked those mountains way over there.” And with that thought is a great contentment and satisfaction. I know them now, and it feels good.