I vaguely remember hearing my 5am alarm and then falling asleep. Just before my 6am alarm went off, I was awoken by the sound of thunder, loud and close.
I sprang into action, going out into the pleasantly cool and stormcloud-darkened morning to fetch my pack et al. in under the protection of my rainfly. It started raining. I rearranged things underneath the rainfly to keep everything dry, then crawled back into my sleeping bag and went back to sleep. At the time, my thoughts were along the lines of “I would happily take a trail zero right here if it meant not hiking all day on the rain.” But I fetched the weather report on my Garmin, and it said the rain would be gone in an hour and the rest of the day would be fine.
I woke up again well into the 9 o’clock hour. It was starting to get uncomfortably warm. I had only intended to wait out the storm, but it seems my body wanted a lot more sleep. Fair enough. I could hike a short day and put in some big miles tomorrow.
I hiked out by 11am in my slightly drier socks. The damper ones were strapped to the outside of my pack to dry as I hiked. I crossed Bowl Creek and then lost the trail immediately. There was no sign whatsoever of the turnoff. I had to backtrack along trails I hadn’t even seen.
The trail to Sun River Pass was at least a mile of blowdowns across the trail. All expected, which is why I had decided not to try to camp at the top of the pass. Better to jungle gym navigation on fresh legs.
I met two trail crew guys two taking lunch just beyond the pass where the burned out forest began again. They informed me that they had just finished clearing the trail ahead, welcome news since I was expecting two more miles of navigating blowdowns.
I stopped after a bit over two hours, my breakfast drink not even finished, for lunch. I found a nice shady campsite on the edge of a meadow on the bank of Fool Creek. I also took the opportunity to lighten my load, fill a hole, and bathe a bit in the creek. I added the contents of my magic avocado to my normal lunch wraps. All told, I was stopped there for nearly two hours. Yep, short day.
Almost immediately upon leaving, a stray branch on the trail got caught between my legs and sent me face first toward the trail. The real Montana CDT was clearly going to have me falling far more often than anything in New Mexico. There were half a dozen near-falls on just this short day alone, and at least two actual falls. Bipedal motion is stupid.
From here, the trail soon entered a lush, densely overgrown, and not at all burnt forest above Open Creek, the kind that also harbors dense clouds of flies. Generally speaking, I was fine as long as I kept moving. But eventually I did remove my hat and swap it for a net. The latter was far more efficacious in the jungle.
At one point, the trail crossed the creek at a place where I would have to get my socks wet or stop and change into water socks. I took the third option, climbing the hill to stay on the same side of the creek until it recrossed less than half a mile down. At first this seemed like the easy obvious choice, but I erred too close to the creek and the vegetation got dense enough to slow me down. Plus there were many side streams to avoid and little puddles too. And then at one point I stopped in a meadow to check how far it was to the trail on the map and my legs were immediately covered with extremely fast-moving biting ants. I couldn’t brush them off faster than they could climb, so I had to run into the trail grass in hopes that would brush them all off my shoes. Anyway, I can’t say whether it ended up saving me the time I would have spent taking off my boots and putting them back on, but it did certainly keep my socks dry in the end.
Although the whole Open Creek Trail was a climb, it was after this that it started getting steeper and throwing in switchbacks. At the point where I finally crossed the headwaters of the creek and continued further up the hillside toward Lake Levale, I started to feel a little limp and disconnected from my body, like the end of a long, hard workout. It was unexpected since it had been a very short day both in terms of mileage and time spent hiking. Perhaps it was related to the heat.
I figured I had reached the lake when I saw a man next to an enormous pyramid style tent. He was making dinner while reading his Kindle when I surprised him, but he was happy to let me check out the tent. It had no floor but enough space inside for two people and their packs. He said the whole system weighed three pounds. More than I would want to carry for solo hiking, and less than I would want to carry if sharing a tent with someone else (because there was nothing to keep the bugs out or the dampness of the ground out), but maybe something I would consider as a communal space for a four-person winter camp if we also packed in the portable heating stove he described.
The lake was beautiful, blue, and full of very active mountain whitefish. (That guy told me they can survive being frozen in ice if the lake freezes through in winter. Not something I’ve ever heard of.) It was a perfect spot for dinner.
After dinner, I hiked on another me of miles into increasingly open views and increasingly diverse kinds of wildflowers. I made camp in a meadow under a huge crumbling rock walk. The sound of rocks tumbling into the talus pile as I lay in my tent went on so long it sometimes sounded almost like a herd of mountain goats walking by. But it really was just the natural process of the side of the mountain eroding off.
So, not much hiking done, too much falling done, but good prospects for the trail ahead.
Trail miles: 13.6
Distance to Benchmark: 53.5 miles