I was riding in a stolen truck the first time I traversed the Great Divide, en route to Reno, Nevada, as fast as the sorry machine would go. I was fresh out of college and running from the seeming inevitability of working life in an office building among the wharves of East London. Delivering vehicles (in this case an old Chevy purchased at a police auction) is a shoe-string traveler's staple, and a glorious way to meander across the West. This time, though, I had dawdled too long, and there was a car dealer in the Silver State who expected delivery of his investment in just a few days. That first crossing of the Divide, in arid New Mexico, passed unacknowledged.
Each car told the story of its owner, who waited patiently in some distant city. The Nevada car dealer, the wealthy vacationers, the eastern student returning to school in California, the divorcee starting a new life in the Midwest. The routes I traveled that summer sound routine, like business flights: Oklahoma City to Reno, Los Angeles to Lansing, Detroit to Seattle, Seattle to St. Louis. But I remember each route by the hiking opportunities the freedom of a car afforded. That glorious summer, I explored the backcountry of the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yellowstone, accompanied by a growing realization that it had taken me twenty years to discover these wild places. I had a lot of catching up to do.
I traversed the Rocky Mountains many times that summerthe easy waybehind the wheel of an automobile. Even from the air-conditioned comfort of those little steel boxes the mountains seemed intimidating; a feeling of awe that grew with every crossing. I marveled at the obstacle these peaks must have presented to the first European explorers, as they tramped those same hillsides covered in spruce, fir, and aspen. I knew that I wanted to explore this country myself, away from parking lot crowds and delivery deadlines.
In Leadville, high in the Colorado Rockies, I left my jacket in the car and jogged back to retrieve it. Within a couple of blocks, my heart was pounding and my head throbbing and light. Maybe it was a lack of oxygen that was responsible for the crazy thoughts that were racing through my mind as I recovered in a little coffee shop, but the idea of a hike along the Great Divide was born. I was a backcountry neophyte then of course. Just a few months earlier I had never even hoisted a pack onto my back and headed to the woods. Nevertheless, as the summer progressed I found myself poring over maps of the West, while daydreams became puzzles about the logistics of a long distance hike. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail was not a part of my vocabulary then, but the idea took root and I began to research in earnest.
That autumn, I arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, to start a graduate program in biology. As I wandered the university campus that first, lonely night, I came across a note stuck on the wall: "Aussie bloke looking for backpacking partner for trip to mountains this weekend." In an uncharacteristic bout of forwardness, I copied down the number and that was how I met Darryl Riches. That weekend, as we explored Mount Robson Provincial Park, I found my first friend in Canada. He walked too fast and continually insulted my country of birth, but he was an engaging and humorous traveling companion. On the last morning, as we shook ice from the tent, beneath the glistening ramparts of the highest peak in Canada's Rockies, I cautiously described my foolish hope to one day hike the Continental Divide Trail. His enthusiastic response took me by surprise. I think we had planned the expedition by the time we reached the trailhead.
That chance encounter was more than two years ago now. Darryl still walks too fast and delights in mocking all things English, but next month we travel to Columbus, New Mexico, to begin the long trek north along the Continental Divide Trail.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication