July 11, 2021, 9:30 AM – In the air – flight from MSP to Bozeman, MT
It feels weird to be flying again. The last time I was in a plane was coming back from Portland, Maine after finishing the AT. Several entire lifetimes seem to have passed since October of 2019, and I’m so excited to be traveling once more. As my first flight took off this morning from Cincinnati, I remembered how much I always enjoyed the entire experience of flying. Sure, the cranky crowd at the check-in gate this morning was not exactly pleasant, and the security line was a little hectic, but the feeling of a massive piece of metal taking off into the air is one of the most exciting in life, in my opinion. It was raining a bit in Kentucky this morning, and little droplets of rain ran across the window like highways as we rose into the air.
The reason I’m going to Montana is because my friend Corey is getting married in Big Sky next weekend. I figured, if I was going that far west, I might as well wrap an adventure around it. I started searching for backpacking trails within the area, and I came across a 42-mile hike called the Gallatin Crest Trail, which runs from Hyalite Canyon in the north to the Buffalo Horn Trailhead in the south. It’s a rugged, low-use area that follows the spine of the Gallatin range. Most of the trail is single track across an exposed ridge, with limited water and unlimited views. Location-wise, it is absolutely perfect. I’ll be hiking it southbound after arriving in Bozeman, and my other friend, Lauren, who is also attending the wedding, will meet me at the trailhead on US-191 at the end–10 miles south of Big Sky.
I wasn’t that nervous about doing it alone when I started planning it back in April; I was just so excited for the chance to be in the mountains again. As the trip has grown closer, though, worries have begun to filter through my mind. It’s grizzly country, and while the statistical likelihood of even seeing a bear is not high, it still has me worried. Then there are the mountain lions. And the thunderstorms. And the lack of reliable water sources, with the exception of the first five miles and a lake or two.
I’ve watched hours of bear safety videos, I have a bear can and scent resistant bags, and I will not camp anywhere near my canister. I’m picking up bear spray in Bozeman, and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for signs of activity. It’s still scary, but it’s worth it when I look at the pictures of the mountains, when I imagine how bright the stars will be this week, and how I will sink into the rhythm of walking, walking, along a ridge, completely alive.
But right now I’m on the plane, and it feels difficult to imagine being free in the mountains. There’s a screaming baby. This bathroom is incredibly tiny and I can’t seem to relax. I’m in the aisle seat, mercifully, so I can escape whenever I want to, but the people in the two seats next to me put down their window shade. Who puts down the window shade on an airplane? Do you not want to see the Rocky Mountains as you fly over them?
No matter. I’ll be down among those mountains soon. It’s so exciting to have a little adventure to fly to. Montana awaits!
8:03 PM – Lockhorn Cider House, Bozeman
I’m sitting in a courtyard outside this place, which is a brewery except just for cider. Cider is not usually my go-to, but Anna—a friend of mine from high school who lives in Bozeman and who picked me up from the airport today—recommended their cucumber cider, and holy crap, it is divine. It’s refreshing for a hot smoky day like this.
I didn’t really think about the terrible fires out west right now, but when I landed in Bozeman today, I was mildly surprised that I could barely see anything out the window but a thick haze. When I exited the airport, the smell of wildfire was everywhere. It took me right back to summer in Flagstaff, except this had its own unique smell, like it was even hotter and dryer than Coconino National Forest.
Anna picked me up and drove me into town, which was so, so fantastic. I was really grateful that I didn’t have to Uber it. We caught up for a few hours while eating at Jam, a brunch place with a next-level biscuit sandwich. The server suggested that I get a side of Montana huckleberry jam and eat the biscuit open-faced, with the jam on one half of the biscuit, and I was really happy that I followed her advice. Highly recommended.
Anna and I weren’t super close in high school, but we were friends, and I always liked her, so I was excited when she reached out about getting together when I came out to Montana. We chatted about our mutual connections, our families, our work, and our outdoor activities. It was a really pleasant welcome to Montana and great to see her. Not to mention, the food was delicious!
Breakfast at Jam in Bozeman
After brunch, Anna dropped me off at my home for the night, Treasure State Hostel. I like it fine so far; it seems like a pretty standard hostel. Each bed has a little fan and a light, and there are curtains around the bunks. When I got there in the afternoon it wasn’t time to check in yet, so I wandered around town for a while.
First I walked west on Main Street until the interesting shops thinned out, then I turned left and found myself in a nice little residential area. I walked around the Story Mansion Park, then headed towards the Montana State Campus meaning to check it out, but I got distracted by a Bird scooter sitting by the curb. I remembered that I had some credits left on my Bird account from last summer when my friend Monica and I went scooter riding in Louisville. I was also feeling pretty tired from the early morning, so not walking for a while sounded nice. I had a rather jolly time scooting around the campus, then I turned around and scooted to the Main to Mountains trail. There, I left the scooter and walked towards Peet’s Hill.
From the top of the hill you can see south to the Gallatin Range, which I’ll be hiking, and north to the Bridger Range, where there’s a ski area in the winter. It was really, really smoky today, though. It has me a little worried about what it’s going to be like in Hyalite. But I guess I’ll find out! It’ll be beautiful no matter what, but I might need to be more careful about pacing myself so that I can breathe.
Eventually, I ran out of water and got a little tired from the altitude, so I headed back to the hostel and checked in properly. I went to take a shower, realized that there was no soap or shampoo in the shower, ran out to the sink to quickly get some hand soap, completed said underwhelming shower, and then felt marginally cleaner. After that, I took a much-needed power nap. I realized as I was texting with Wiggs and my mom that it’s been a while since I traveled outside my time zone, and I forgot that jet lag was a thing. Plus I got up really early today, so I needed a rest. But I was determined to experience more of the town before I went to sleep properly!
After my nap, I was going to cook one of my dinners, but then I realized I’d just have to replace it tomorrrow for the hike, so I went across the street to the co-op and got a little box of salad, which I enjoyed at one of the tables outside while people-watching. After that, I headed to Lockhorn Cider House. And that’s where I am as I write this! The cucumber cider is divine, and I’m enjoying this quiet little patio.
On my way back from Peet’s Hill today, I found a Chartres labyrinth outside the library. I was delighted. It reminded me of the labyrinth in Flagstaff along the urban trail and the one in San Francisco where I first experienced labyrinth walking. Something about a labyrinth speaks to me. Today, when I came across it, it felt a little divine. I’ve been feeling really unfocused recently. I feel like I have so much potential that I’m not realizing because I’m so mentally busy all the time. Even when I’m not working, I’m thinking about work. Even when I have everything under control, I’m worrying about the next thing that has to get done. I’m very rarely in the present, and very rarely focused on one thing at a time.
That’s why it feels nice to be here. I’m slowly letting myself let go of the “I have to do this… I have to that…” mentality that tends to characterize my existence. I still find myself doing it: I have to write this, I have to buy that. I have to know every single thing about this forest, I have to have the plan figured out. It’s weird, because I think that especially since the AT I’ve become a much more flexible person, much more okay with things not going according to plan, but I still feel such a need to control and plan.
That’s what I was thinking about today as I began to walk the labyrinth. I want to be able to focus, but in a relaxed way. I want to follow my intuition, like I did all day today. When I was hungry, I ate. When I wanted to take the scooter for a ride, I did it. When I wanted to walk up close to the mansion to get a clearer look at the architecture, I walked up close. I climbed the hill, I went to the places I wanted to go to, I walked right into the bar and ordered the cucumber cider I wanted. I didn’t think twice about it or consider all of my options. I was just honest with myself about what I wanted. Why is that so much easier on vacation than it is in usual life?
I was also thinking about how a hike is the opposite of a labyrinth in some ways, and on other ways, it’s the same thing. A labyrinth follows a wiggly pattern, not a (generally) straight line. Usually, a labyrinth is constructed for meditative purposes, and though it has no real tie to religion today, it has roots in spiritual belief. In these ways, a labyrinth is very different from a long hike.
The similarities are striking, though. A labyrinth technically only has one path, and there are no dead ends. Still, no one hikes a labyrinth the same way. You can do the whole thing at roughly the same speed, or you can take some parts slower and some parts quicker. You can do the whole thing, or just parts of it that feel good to you. You can walk it quickly or slowly. All of these are also true for a thru-hike.
There are more practicalities one has to consider for a thru, of course, and depending on which trail you hike, you may need to rush out of necessity sometimes, whereas there is no real reason to rush a labyrinth. I thought about how on the AT, even when I was enjoying the overall experience and didn’t want to stop hiking, I sometimes felt obsessed with the next stage, looking ahead to the next noteworthy thing instead of appreciating the beauty around me.
I also noticed that I was doing that same thing with this trip too. I thought about how early it was in the day still, worried about how I was going to spend all those hours until I actually start hiking, weirdly self-conscious at the hostel and around the town, as if I didn’t hike 2,200 miles with my own two feet, hike the Camino twice, or live abroad for two summers. I want to be confident, focused, and present. That was the trinity of thoughts I prayed as I walked the labyrinth today.
I feel those mountains to the south calling me. Despite the haze, despite the bears, I want to be in the mountains. I’m so excited. I’m so happy to be here.