KALISPELL — Sarah "Princess" Williams can count the number of showers she's taken since April on her fingers, toes and two trekking poles.
"In Missoula I took two," she recalled fondly while walking down Camas Road on the edge of Glacier National Park in late September.
On May 4, Williams started walking north along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), in Lordsburg, New Mexico, about 100 miles north of the Mexican border.
The CDT is the longest and most rugged of America's long-distance hiking trails. It stretches roughly 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada, paralleling the Continental Divide the whole way. By the end, hikers climb and descend almost a half million vertical feet, and pass through 20 national forests, several wilderness areas and multiple national parks.
Williams first had the idea in 2018, while hiking up to Numa Lookout in Glacier National Park.
"I was getting ready for another backpacking trip and just thought, 'Gosh, I really like this; I should try a thru hike,'" she said. "And then it was true. That was my entire process of deciding. There's no bigger purpose to doing this — I just wanted to."
Four months, two weeks, five days and more than 2,500 miles after setting out, Williams woke up in Polebridge with her hiking companion, Peter "Moonshine" Weinberger. They packed up camp, ate a huckleberry bear claw from the Mercantile, and enjoyed their final 21-mile hike to the Montana-Canada border.
"I wasn't 100% sure I'd make it to the halfway point, much less Canada," Williams said. "It wasn't until I made it through the halfway point that I realized it wasn't if I would finish; it was when."
To hike, or not to hike
Leaving civilization behind during a pandemic might sound like the perfect way to achieve true social distancing, but members of the trail community were split on whether anyone should be thru-hiking in 2020.
Over the spring, articles sprang up in The New York Times, Outside Magazine and NPR about the ethics of thru hiking during COVID. There were two schools of thought: those who suggested there's no better way to socially distance than by walking through some of the most isolated terrain in the United States, and those who worried about potentially bringing the disease to rural communities along the trails and straining emergency services in already stressed towns.
In March, the Appalachian Trail (AT) Conservancy urged hikers to "postpone your section or thru-hike" for the year. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) Association asked hikers to "avoid long-distance travel on the PCT," instead advocating for local, self-supported day hikes.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition was less clear on guidelines. Hikers were urged to stay home and enjoy "local trails and outdoor spaces," but other than stopping water-caching operations in southern New Mexico and shuttles to the Southern Terminus, the official position was to follow all guidelines from the CDC, state and local public health departments.
"At least online there were lots of people saying, 'It's unethical to hike,'" Williams said. "That stance I think changed over time, but they never actually closed the CDT down like they did the other trails, and I never checked again."
On the CDT, one of the few official closures was the section through Glacier Park, as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation closed its western border along the park. Williams and Weinberger rerouted out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness along Hungry Horse Reservoir and stayed on the western edge of the park instead.
Along the trail, Williams said that the reaction from locals was overwhelmingly positive. Hitchhiking from the trail into towns was never an issue, and numerous "trail angels" bought food after hearing the story — coffee, pounds of dried apricots, and donuts all were made possible through "trail magic."
Of the three main long-distance trails, the CDT could be considered the safest to complete in 2020 due to a large popularity discrepancy. In 2018, only 92 hikers reported completing the CDT, compared to 1,128 on the AT and 1,177 on the PCT. The AT is crowded, with more than 3,000 attempts per year, whereas the CDT averages fewer than 200.
"On this trail, there's probably less than 50 northbound hikers and we've only met like 25 of them," Weinberger said, contrasting it with his time hiking the AT when every night he would end up at a shelter with 40-50 other hikers. "After a while we stopped running into them because we're all going the same speed and we're all spaced apart. We went hundreds of miles without seeing any other northbound hikers."
When Williams set off from Lordsburg, her dad flew out to hike a few days with her, but then she was on her own. Unlike the crowded AT or PCT, where hikers routinely congregate at shelters, bump into hiking companions on trail and swap groups whenever pace or interest dictates, odds were much slimmer of finding someone to cover the CDT with.
About 300 miles into her hike, Williams met Weinberger while staying at a Super 8 motel. He had started from the Southern Terminus a week before she had set out. A rollercoaster painter most recently from Massachusetts, Weinberger didn't plan to do a thru-hike this year.
In early spring he was grieving: his cat had just died and the virus was picking up steam. Then in April he heard that the Massachusetts governor was about to announce a stay-at-home order.
"That was basically the catalyst," Weinberger said. "I was getting really stressed about the virus and the response and figured it would be good to reflect out in the woods, so I just flew down and started hiking."
A few weeks into his hike, Weinberger was taking an extra rest day (a "zero" in thru-hiker terms) at the motel to deal with swollen ankles. He had heard that Williams was packing Epsom salts and hoped they would get him back on the trail.
The two began hiking together and, other than a few short stints apart, spent every day together until Canada.
Weinberger isn't a newbie to thru hiking. He completed the AT in 2017, and the Colorado Trail in 2018. His trail name, Moonshine, was established on the AT, when he popped into a liquor store on a town day and all he could find was local moonshine. As the only hiker in his group packing liquor, it stuck.
Soon after meeting up on the trail, Weinberger bestowed Williams with her own trail name: Princess.
"At the beginning, every night after I got off my feet I would clean off, get all my supplies straight and neat, and I'd always sit on my mat instead of the ground because I didn't want to get my sleeping bag dirty," Williams said. "So he gave me the trail name Princess, but there's not too many people out here to call me that, basically just Moonshine."
The two hikers quickly settled into their self-described "boring" routine.
"I mean, honestly, we walk every day," Williams told the Flathead Beacon. "It's not always exciting or an adventure; it just becomes what you do."
Mornings started around eight, depending how dark and cold it was. The duo would make breakfast and hike through the day in roughly two-hour stints, broken up by lunch and snack breaks. Hiking 8-12 hours a day was necessary to make it through the mileage goal of 20-25 miles a day.
Weinberger had the highest single-day mileage total when he covered 60 miles to get across a section of the Great Divide Basin. Other than that split, the two were together most days, occasionally walking solo but starting and ending each day at the same camp.
"We pretty much always talk, and I'd like to say he retells a lot of stories," Williams said.
The duo quickly figured out they had opposite views on politics and trail conditions — she can't stand heat; he hates the cold and wet — and different ways of approaching hardships.
"It's a really good thing this trail has thrown us together because I don't think we would have sought each other out in the real world," she said. "That's really cool, especially in our current political sphere. You have to look the person in the face and disagree with them instead of just screaming over your keyboard."
As trail companions, Williams and Weinberger operate on a very blunt level with each other. That was made even more important after Colorado, when they got caught high in the San Juan Mountains by the Derecho windstorm.
They were hunkered down in a tent with another hiker sipping whiskey when Williams peeked outside and saw Weinberger's tent was gone. The wind had unstaked it and flung all the contents across the mountainside.
By the time they collected everything, a gust of wind had snapped Williams' tent pole, driving it straight through the rainfly. She sent her tent home and shared Weinberger's two-person tent the rest of the journey.
"It became more important to communicate and listen to each other because you couldn't just zip yourself in your own tent," Weinberger said. "But we have our own side of the tent and it's very consistent."
"It was always a bit of a shock coming out of the woods," Williams said. "We both traveled with masks the whole time but we never really got into the rhythm of living in a COVID community."
Off the trail, the world is concerned about the global pandemic, upcoming elections, whether fans are allowed at NFL games and undulations of the stock market. On the trail, life was simpler and insulated.
"Our anxieties are miles and having food — and bears," Williams said. "You kind of think of Maslow's hierarchy and we're very much at the bottom of it — shelter, safety, food and water. And when any of those things get potentially threatened, that's when we get stress and anxieties."
Over five months, there were a few times when any of Williams' basics were put on edge. One moment was in Colorado, when she ran out of water purification tablets. Her options were limited: she could wait for Weinberger and bum some tablets off of him, or continue on.
"That was a big moment for me as far as assessing the level of risk I was OK with. In the bigger picture it was very small, but in the moment it was this big, big thing of, 'Am I going to go out into the woods by myself and drink dirty cow water?'" Williams said. "My threshold for taking risks has exponentially grown, especially physical risks."
At another point, after getting bad data on a section of trail that led to an extra day of rerouting, Weinberger had to ask for food from day-hikers after running out of his own. Since directly asking for support is a thru hiking no-no, they perfected the art of "Yogi-ing," the practice of casually talking about how difficult it was on the trail and angling for that last Clif bar sticking out of someone's pack.
In general, Williams' food supply and overall support was one of the most impressive feats of her entire hike. She spent more than six months before her hike cooking and dehydrating all of her food. With her mother coordinating food drops, Williams received curries, gumbos and self-packaged olive oil for meals, along with baked goods her mom routinely included.
"The amount of support she's had is just ridiculous," Weinberger said. "I've never seen anyone on a trail like that."
Over the course of the trip, six people joined the hike for separate stints. One of Williams' roommates organized letters from various friends and sent them to a trail drop.
"Taking a step back and seeing my relationships come to me and being so fulfilled by it was one of the biggest things to come out of this," Williams said. "Once I'm back I want to be able to return the love I felt."
After a short recovery stint in Kalispell, Weinberger will leave for his home in Texas. Williams will have a few weeks of downtime before she has to report to her job at Youth Dynamics in Kalispell. The downtime is eagerly anticipated.
"I expected this trail to be more contemplative and more creative, too," Williams said. She kept a journal on the trail and wrote in it nightly, but along the way, entries devolved from detailed musings on the day to merely listing mileage covered. Added up, it details 147 days on the trail.
"I don't think I'll realize how big this actually is for a while," Williams said. "I think it'll take time, maybe looking at a map and realizing that's five months and almost 3,000 miles of my life."
While that sinks in, Williams will be happy settling for a meal that hasn't been dehydrated and her 23rd shower in five months.
"I'm looking forward to having a more varied routine — we're very regimented out here in what we actually can do," Williams said. "And I'm excited to wake up and not have to walk anywhere."
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