Hey folksies, this is Sean, not Katie Mays.
I’m writing with news of our journey. It is simultaneously good and bad, happy and sad.
We were the first thru hikers of the PNT this year. We were blazing trails. At first, this was exciting. We were the first of the season to camp at beautiful Lake Frances. We were the first to go through Browns Pass in Glacier for the season. We met young animals that had not likely seen a human before, and they were curious. We saw bears, elk, and more bears. We walked along fresh grizzly tracks for a whole day, stepping in scat that grew increasingly fresh every mile. We saw the clearest and cleanest glacial lakes I can imagine. We heard our echoes bounce through valleys, across lakes, and off mountains. One day, we yelled across a lake, and over five seconds later, we heard our voices come back, as crisp as can be. It was truly hard to believe we were the only ones out there, and that our echoes were not two other hikers messing with us on the other side of the lake. We got nibbled on in the middle of the night by a moose, and then stayed up scared to death for hours. We fell in love with the little town of Polebridge and the lovely, patient people there. We befriended a caring and charming man named Oliver. Oliver owns and runs the North Fork Hostel, and is a trail angel like no other.
Things began to turn foul on us. We were already feeling tested by the abundance of large animals that kept wanting their fair share of face time in our story. And then the little animals: the mosquitos. I’m okay with mosquitos, and even went through a phase a couple years ago when I refused to kill them or biting me (they don’t know any better!), but they were swarming us. We couldn’t stop to pee or have a bite to eat without a cloud of them resting on our shoulders. Going to the bathroom (1 or 2) in a cloud of mosquitos is a challenge no one can master. At one point, they were so bad, I managed to kill 10+ in one quick slap on Reith’s head (she was warned, and we got 10+). Then the weather blew into the Whitefish Mountains on the Continental Divide. Those mountains seized the storms and nurtured them as they grew more and more intense while we attempted to pass through. We were pelted by hale larger than a quarter. That hurt. Thunderstorm after thunderstorm slowed our progress. Our lives became cold and wet, and seemingly nothing more. We saw rivers rise several feet. We crossed them, carefully, but they were growing less and less safe. We had 50 miles until the next town, and some pretty nasty passes to cross, without a sign of good weather for the next couple of days. Only colder temperatures, heavy rain, snow, and thunderstorms. So, when we saw a van next to a pit toilet we were planning on sleeping in for an opportunity to dry off, we hopped in. They took us back to Polebridge, where Oliver welcomed us in, gave us our own room for a cheap rate, and helped us warm our soaked bodies. We felt like wet dogs. We were wet dogs. We stank. We had blisters, bruises, soaked everything, soreness and pain throughout our bodies, and mosquitos nesting in our hair.
Believe it or not, none of those obstacles led us to this post. Much of that, we can laugh at, love, and fondly hate. We dealt with the mosquitos. We adapted to the weather. The pain became secondary to our daily tasks. The animal encounters grew less scary every day. We wrote off the all of these things as a “test” of the trail. When it grew truly unsafe to continue last week, we could have waited out the weather in Polebridge, with Oliver, and attempted the whitefish mountains one more time a couple days later. The people in Polebridge thought we were getting off the trail because of the endless downpour, fierce thunderstorms, or the beating we took from the hale and weight on our backs, but these “tests” just gave us time to really think about why we were doing this. The trail shed a light on something far more important than its conquering.
I’ve spent the latter half of my life engrossed in the lives and well being of those around me. I thought I needed some time away to concentrate on myself. I wanted a chunk of time for self-discovery, undistracted by the business of our daily lives. I got just that, only I didn’t need 3 months of it. I learned how much of myself is tied up in people. Not just my family and friends, or the people I worked with and served through HomePlate, but everyone. Three months in the woods isn’t as enjoyable when you crave that human interaction. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the phrase Ubuntu, which is the Zulu proverb that translates to something like “I am who I am because of who we are.” When I cut out the we, I no longer felt like me. I felt totally disconnected. This trail became, for me, the defiance of love. I realized how much love I had pushed out of my life by selfishly pushing away almost everyone in my life and disappearing off the grid and into the woods. Reith and I craved the opportunities for simple communication with strangers. We wanted to watch people, attempt to understand or relate to them.
We shared a low point one afternoon between Polebridge and Eureka. I asked Reith, “What are we going to do to get through the next couple of days?” She responded, with a big eyed smile, “You keep singing, and I’ll keep smiling.” Our only fuel to continue was each other, our forced smiles. We never felt lonely, as we had each other. We felt disconnected.
I do not want to say that all trails are a defiance of love. I do not think everyone has the same mental and spiritual experience that I did. We were the only ones on the trail, there isn’t a large community of hikers or support along the trail, and I personally struggled with the feeling of disconnectedness.
I don’t love the fact that I had to go hundreds of miles into the backcountry to realize I didn’t want to be there, but it happened. Looking back at the last couple of years, I realize how much I lived for the people in my life. I found meaning in my work everyday because of the people I worked with and for. I went home, excited to see my roommates. I chose social hobbies and activities. Most of my vacations included quick trips to visit people. I absolutely do not regret going on the trail. It was one of the best things I’ve done. Nor do I regret leaving the trail. Leaving felt honest and fair. I learned some valuable lessons, and am starting fresh with a better understanding of who I am and what I need to be happy.
What’s next for me? I don’t know. Chicago for a bit. I’ll visit my sister and brother in NYC. Some friends and I are thinking of doing a long road trip, visiting good folks, seeing favorite bands and national parks along the way. We’ve talked about finding places to volunteer in different places. We will see. Ubuntu. People will be a part of this. Maybe that will be the title of my next blog. Maybe I won’t blog. Let’s be real…I probably won’t blog. Nor will Katie Mays blog for me.
Thanks to all of you for your support as I prepared for this experience!
With lots of love and gratitude,
Lake Frances, with Mt Cleveland, the tallest mountain in Glacier Park in the background.
Getting ready for another high river crossing. It was swift.
Big bear track.
What can Brown do for you? Deliver a package to a tiny package in the tiny town of Polebridge, MT.
Some unmaintained trails, but beautiful nonetheless.
All of the lakes in Glacier were this color.
Some big hale. It was in the middle of a thunderstorm, so we were on a mat. Luckily, we grabbed our rainfly and we held our water bottles on our heads to provide some protection from the hale.