RIP City Slicka “Patrick O’Meara” (1973 – 2019): The Man Who Never Returned

RIP City Slicka “Patrick O’Meara” (1973 – 2019): The Man Who Never Returned

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“Pictured next to the A.T. archway at Amicalola Falls is “City Slicka” aka Patrick O’Meara from South Boston, MA who completed the A.T. southbound in February. It look him one year to complete due to some injuries that took him off of the trail for over 4 months” – Kathy Brigman March 5, 2013 (source: Facebook)

City Slicka (Patrick M. O’Meara), the thru-hiker from Southie (South Boston) with legendary calves and more than 21,000 Career miles on the Appalachian Trail (AT), is dead. City Slicka swore like a sailor, drank a lot of beer, smoked a lot of weed, embodied a lot of both the good- and bad- qualities associated with ‘Hiker Trash’ on the AT, and was part of my trail family (a trouble-making older brother of sorts). He was hiking the AT full time by 2012, and by the end of 2013 (the same year I finished my AT thru) he’d completed at least one ‘yo-yo’ (round-trip) of the AT. By the end of 2014, he’d completed another yo-yo of the AT, and his calves had become a thing of legend. For those of you that are having trouble imagining legendary calves, think about ‘Popeye the Sailor’, with massive, tattooed legs instead of giant arms, a backpack instead of a sailor’s cap, a can of bee-ah [beer] instead of spinach, and a wicked strong Southie Accent.

Year by year, as City Slicka continued ‘ponging’ the Appalachian Trail (ping-ponging back and forth up and down the trail from Georgia and Maine), the legends of his exploits and the size of his calves grew and grew, and we stopped counting the number of thru-hikes (and miles) he’d hiked. Instead of signing into log books with which years he’d completed his thru-hikes like the rest of us (FYI, I sign in as Patches AT ’13, PCT ’14, CDT ’18), he signed in as ‘City Slicka AT∞’, and that seemed right. He was City Slicka and he’d hike the AT an infinite number of times. City Slicka was a bit like the AT itself, in that we all sort of just figured that he would always be out there, somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. In July of 2019, City Slicka physically left the AT, but his spirit and his legend will be a part of the AT forever.

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AT logbook with City Slicka’s AT infinity sign-in and shout out to Riff-Raff! from July 16, 2018 (source: Rich Outdoors)

Our trail family first learned the news that City Slicka was dead in November, and before any of us knew much more than that, we found ourselves at an “Irish Wake” for City Slicka down at 4 Pines (the hiker hostel that City Slicka had tattooed on his famous calves) in Virginia. For three days the whiskey, moonshine, and beer flowed freely as we gathered, and grieved at 4 Pines. We were in the Appalachian Mountains, so it was cold and rainy the whole time, but thanks to Pound Puppy (who has mad skillz with fire), we had a raging campfire to linger around. We poured one out for City (by the end of the 3 days, it was probably closer to 750), we told stories, we laughed, we cried, we broke things, and we burned things in true Hika’ Trash style. City Slicka woulda been proud :)

As we grieved, the question, “Who was City Slicka?” kept popping up. For me, the thing that came immediately to mind whenever anyone asked was an old song from Boston that tells the story of “the man who never returned.” In the original song the man took a ride on the subway (the MTA), and got stuck riding back and forth forever, never able to make his way home… The song hit home for a lot of reasons, and whenever I think of City Slicka the refrain (with slightly reworked lyrics) runs through my head:

But did he ever return?

No he never returned and his fate is still unlearned (he may hike forever)

He may hike forever on the Appalachian

He’s the man who never returned

We had all known that City Slicka was from Boston, that he left home one day to hike the Appalachian Trail, and, at some level, most of us knew that he was never going to return… We just assumed he was going to hike forever. Though I have since learned City Slicka’s fate, I choose to remember him somewhere out there, hiking to infinity on the Appalachian Trail.

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“The others had run into City Slicka at Trail Days and we wondered where he was. Shortly after this was voiced, City Slicka showed up at McAfee Knob.” – Garrett Fondoules, April 24, 2014 (source: Facebook)

It is with sadness (and a wee dram of whiskey) that I sit down to share with you some of the stories that have made me laugh, given me solace, and contributed to the legend of the man I knew as City Slicka on the AT. For those of you that didn’t know him, a quick heads up, City Slicka may have been a legend, but he was no saint. Like a lot of the colorful characters on the trail, City Slicka was a polarizing figure… I’ve heard him described, affectionately (or not), as “a drunk with a hiking problem.” They weren’t exactly wrong, but those of us that were his friends knew that underneath his drunken, foul-mouthed, gruff exterior, he had a heart of gold, and a troubled soul. As one of City’s friends from college put it, “He was a brilliant man, a troubled man, and a great friend to me.”

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“City Slicka’s calves… –with Kristen McLane” (aka Siren) – Garrett Fondoules, April 24, 2014 (source: Facebook).

City Slicka And The Calves of Legend

“His calves are ‘uuge,” bragged City Slicka’s buddy admiringly.

“Oh yeah?” I smiled skeptically, took a sip of my beer, and glanced over at City Slicka. It was 2014, and though I’d met City Slicka in passing during my 2013 thru-hike of the AT, this was the first I’d heard of his legendary calves. His eyes twinkled with a confident smile, clearly enjoying the praise. He had the weathered look of a legit thru-hiker, with a long scraggly beard, scruffy brown hair, and the physique of someone that’s spent most of the last year hiking every day, but I wasn’t easily impressed. I’d just finished back-to-back thru-hikes of the AT ’13 and the PCT ’14 and had pretty impressive calves of my own.

“They’re the most finely sculpted calves on the AT,” chimed in another guy.

“I don’t know,” I replied, still unconvinced, “my calves are pretty sculpted.”

“I’ll show ya mine,” laughed City Slicka, finishing his beer, “if you show me yours!”

“Bring it!” I laughed, and before we knew it, City Slicka and I were rolling our pants up, and our socks down, and comparing the cut of our respective calves in front of a couple of highly entertained long-distance hikers.

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A photo of City Slicka’s calf in an all American Knee sock (photo credit: Tricia “Pop Tart” Jehn).

“Not bad,” acknowledged City with a nod, as we stood there, flexing our calves on the cool October afternoon. His calves were definitely bigger than mine, but when it came to whose calves were the most finely sculpted, we decided to call it a draw (he was being generous).

“I see you all have met,” interjected my friend Colonel. I knew him from the PCT, and City Slicka knew him from the AT in Maine.

“Ay-yup,” I replied as G-Hippie handed us each another beer.

“Well, ya know,” Colonel continued with his thick Philly accent, before switching into an attempt at a Boston accent, “ya both are from Boston, and you’re both wicked smahht.” I looked at him and rolled my eyes. First, because his attempt at a Boston accent was pathetic, and second, conversations about smarts make me uncomfortable.

“Wicked f**kin’ smaht he-ah with my bee-Ah” I shrugged, cracking open my beer and taking a sip. I grew up in Massachusetts and lived in the Boston area for over a decade, and the Worcester area for even longer, so there’s no doubt I could own a Massachusetts accent, but my accent wasn’t anything like the thick Southie accent City Slicka commanded.

“Ay-ya,” nodded City, “wicked fuckin’ smaht.”

“Well,” Colonel continued doggedly, “Doc-tah Songa’ he-ah went to MIT and worked at Ha’va’d.”

“So I c’n pa’k my ca’ in ha’vah’d yah’d if ya’d like,” I replied glibly, neither confirming nor denying anything Colonel said.

“Are ya done?” Colonel paused significantly, raised an eyebrow and said, “Well? Are ya?” I shrugged a shoulder with a silent noncommittal maybe.

“And City Slick over there,” he directed my gaze over to City, “has like three f**in’ degrees in like geo-f**in-chemistry and shi**, and …” he paused to take a quick breath before continuing.

“You both worked for some sort of NASA f**in’ sh** or sumthin’, and y’all are some of the smartest f**in’ people I know… so you should talk and sh**,” he finished his sentence and looked pointedly from me to City Slicka and back again. We weren’t helping him out at all, and just looked at him silently.

“So what are you all waiting for?” Colonel exclaimed, leaning forward and waving his arms around at us, “Talk Already!” He took a quick breath, clearly exasperated by the two of us, “… and Go!” he finished, leaned back expectantly, took a sip of his beer, and waited, eyebrows raised for us to follow his directions…

Following orders isn’t exactly my strong suit, and City Slicka didn’t seem to be in a hurry to comply either, so the lull in the conversation just kept growing. I looked over at G-Hippy to see if he was gonna help us out, but the answer was a smile and a shrug. Nope. He was just going to sit back and enjoy the show.

“Massholes,” Colonel muttered, half under his breath, “the both of you!”

“True‘n‘nuff,” I nodded, owning it.

“Born’n bred,” agreed City Slicka.

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Photo of City Slicka at Hiker’s Ridge Ministry Center in 2014 (source: Facebook)

After that, we got to talking about Massachusetts, which parts of it we’d lived in, where we were from, and the different accents from different areas. City Slicka had a super thick Southie accent that I couldn’t imitate even if I tried, and my accent (which I think mostly isn’t very noticeable) is more of the central Massachusetts accent, closer to a Wistah (Worcester) accent. We joked about Tollbooth Willie and the T (the subway system in Boston), and talked enough science and backpacking to suss out whether the other person was full of sh** or legit. There are lots of bullsh**ers on the Trail, but by the end of night I’d come to the conclusion that City Slicka was legit, and we’ve been friends ever since.

It was an unlikely friendship in a lot of ways, but wasn’t any the lesser for it. City Slicka was part of my trail family, and acted a bit like an older brother to me in the trail community. He is one of the only folks I know that has spent more time solo than I have, is a more experienced backpacker than I am, and understood what it was like to be both ‘hiker trash’ and a proverbial ‘rocket scientist’. We shared a lot of stories and advice, gave each other occasional pep talks, and though he knew I could take care of my own damn self, he was always looking out for me. There are lots and lots and lots of folks that try to give me advice about backpacking, but he’s the guy I knew I could turn to for trail advice when I needed it…. Like now. *sigh* (aside: I wouldn’t have had to explain to him how I managed to get poison ivy despite the 2 ½ feet of snow on the ground, and he would know the fastest/bestest way to get the urushiol off of my backpack and all my nice warm down winter gear and decontaminate everything. Sure, I can figure it out, but it’s a pain in my *ss, and it’s feeling like a daunting task right now, and City would have just known, and he would have managed to get me laughing about it (no easy feat) and thinking it wasn’t a big deal…) *sigh*

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From Wanderlustforlife (May 2014), “This is City Slicka with Daisy the Dog. City has given me lots of advice. He’s a yo-yo hiker and is in his fourth continuous hike. From Boston, he’s about 40 and says before the trail he weighed 280 and sat on a bar stool all the time. We tell him he’s a drunk with a hiking problem.”

City Slicka: Serious Talk

City Slicka didn’t talk much about his life in Southie before the trail, but occasionally he would stay with me in Boston (usually on his way to- or from- the bus station) when he was in town visiting family. I knew that his mom and his sister still lived in the area, that he loved them, and that the family dynamics were… complicated… He gave mad props to his sister for sticking around and dealing with sh**, and would explain with a deep sadness in his eyes that he just couldn’t… that he needed to get back to the trail.

“I know,” I’d say, giving him a hug, “I get it.” City and I both spent thousands and thousands of miles hiking alone, with rocks and trees as our only company. Over the years we’d talked about the solace and solitude of the woods and joked about how much easier trees were to deal with than people. We’d talked about long-distance hiking, post-trail depression, and the challenges associated with trying to come back to civilization, either to visit (like City was doing), or to stay (that would be me). I don’t know how to describe the bond that City and I had, the wordless understanding that coping was easier while walking, the relaxed banter of mutual expertise, and I don’t know… We were weirdly the flip slides of a coin… I was usually feeling angsty about returning to civilization, and he was usually feeling angsty about leaving it… I guess mostly I supported him and understood his angst about leaving, and he supported me and understood my angst about staying…

“Patches,” City Slicka had reminded me, “yo-a fuckin’ ha’d co-ah, and comin’ back do’n change dat,” (translation: you’re hard core, and coming back doesn’t change that). He looked me in the eye, very seriously, “I would come back if I could, but we both know that that ain’ eva’ happenin’,” then he got a faraway look in his eyes, “There ain’ no comin’ back fo’ me…” he paused as the weight of that truth settled on us both. We both knew that it was true. I could still function in society, so for me, coming back and re-integrating into society was a choice. For City? Not so much. “But,” he continued with a reassuring smile, “I’ve made my peace wid i’ ” (translation: I’ve made my peace with it). I nodded, and knew that he had. City Slicka wasn’t trying to sugar coat it, or wallow in it, he was just tellin’ it like it was.

“Well, I gotta take a piss,” City blurted out, breaking the somber mood, and abruptly leaving the room.

Patrick O’Meara Becomes City Slicka

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Photo of City Slicka (Patrick O’Meara) and The Great Gherkin (Thad McDonald) taken at the ATC in Harpers Ferry August 4, 1994 (source: the ATC)

Patrick O’Meara was already going by the trail name City Slicka in 1994. I found the above photo of him sporting both his given name and trail name, and then, I found a post he made back in 1997 explaining how exactly he got dubbed with the trail name City Slicka, and why it mattered. The title of the thread was “AT Traditions, and their downfall” and I’ve included City Slicka’s words below:

“It’s just that Trailnames that have a story behind them are so much more meaningful, whether you get them on the Trail or not. As an example, I started w/o one b/c I really didn’t care to think one up. Then at Deep Gap shelter in GA, while having a conversation with a group of local boy SCOUTS, ONE OF THEM ASKED WHERE I FROM, AND I TOLD HIM I WAS FROM BOSTON. He then got up and left, saying “I’m not talking to some Yankee city slicker”. From then on, my fellow hikers called me by this name, though I drop the ‘er ending for a more Bostonian ‘a. I guess I’m just being selfish w/ most of my comments, in that I want the Trail to mean as much to everyone as it does to me. And if have offended someone, I really don’t care. My comments are not racist, biased, sexist, or anything that could be harmful to someone confident enough in enough in themselves. “They’re only words, in and of themselves they’re harmless, it the context that you take them in that makes them bad” —– George Carlin” — City Slicka (Patrick O’Meara), AT ’94 – ’97, LT ’95

City Slicka: Life Before the Trail (The ‘70s to the ‘90s)

City Slicka didn’t talk much about his life and accomplishments before (or after) the trail unless you were already friends, or he was flirting with you. Although lots of people assumed that most of the myths about City Slicka’s past were greatly exaggerated, so far, all the things that he told me (and the folks I know) seem to check out. There are still some gaps, with nothing but rumors churning around, but here’s what I know:

In his pre-trail life, City Slicka’s friends knew him as Pat (Patrick Michael O’Meara). He was born May 23, 1973 and grew up in a rough and tumble neighborhood in Southie (South Boston). Everyone on the trail knew that he was from Southie. Partly because he’d tell you so, but mostly because he had a wicked thick Southie accent, the kind of accent that everyone associates with Boston.

He got into hiking in high school (the late ‘80s) through a program for troubled teens he called, “Hoods in the Woods.” We didn’t talk much about the high school antics that got him into trouble back in Southie…. Well, except when we talked about where I used to live in the ‘Ville (Somerville) and Wistah (Worcester)… but those aren’t my stories to tell.

By the early 1990s, City Slicka was ‘bit by the bug’ (the hiking bug) and started taking off on long distance hikes whenever he got the chance and by 1997 he’d walked the entire length of the Appalachian trail between Georgia and Maine at least once. When he wasn’t hiking, he did the college thing at Bridgewater State University (BSU). In the trail community, rumor had it City Slicka’s degree were chemistry or chemical engineering. He told me it was geology and chemistry. I talked to a friend of his from college (BSU) that told the story of how City Slicka ended up in Chemistry, “In college, he was a geology major, a friend of mine was a chem major and was bitching about the difficulty of Organic Chem. Well, Pat starts taking chem courses to get a job tutoring.”

I laughed, because that sounded right, but I wasn’t 100% convinced that the Pat he knew, and the City Slicka I knew were the same person until he told me the PAT-SA story, “In college, he would have a monthly food budget and it wasn’t much. Some months he would decide to treat himself to steak or something expensive, which would leave him with limited funds and he’d eat noodles for a week or two, daily. Well this led us to call him Patsa (think pasta pronounced with an emphasis on PAT) He took it all in stride until he didn’t and I can still hear him yelling “CALL ME PATSA ONE MORE TIME AND I’LL STAB YOU IN THE EYE WITH RAW SPAGHETTI.” By the time I finished reading the end of the story I was laughing instead of crying, and there was absolutely no denying that the Pat he knew and the City Slicka I knew were the same person.

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City Slicka (middle, orange shirt) enjoying a pasta dinner (some thing never change?) on the AT in 2012 or 2013 (photo source: the internet)

City Slicka graduated from BSU in 1995, and completed an end-to-end hike of the Long Trail (LT ’95) in Vermont with a friend that same year. City Slicka and I had both done a lot of hiking in Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the 1990s, and my first long distance trail was the Long Trail (LT ’98), which I hiked with my younger brothers. It was fun remembering the days when we were backpacking newbs, and talking about how much things have changed and how much they stay the same.

After finishing up the LT in 1995, City Slicka moved West, to Golden Colorado for Graduate School, where he was working on a doctorate degree in geochemistry. For those of you that thought that that part was bullsh**, I can assure you it checks out. His alma mater bragged about him in their 1997 magazine, verifying that, “Patrick O’Meara attends the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) as a graduate student in the geochemistry” (https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/48827220.pdf). He told me that he was in a doctoral program, but ended up finishing ABD (all but dissertation) with just his Master’s degree because his thesis advisor was, “bein’ a dick.” We geeked out about the science (I’ve since forgotten all of those details), but since I was in the process of moving from my pre-trail career in academia, to a post-trail career in industry, we mostly talked about the pros and cons of working for industry.

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City Slicka’s profile pic from a deleted facebook account

City Slicka: The Missing Years (the 2000s)

Rumors about what City did, and who he was, during the decade between getting his Master’s degree and settling on the AT as a full-time hiker are many, but most of them seem to hold at least a grain of truth… So, let’s get started with a game of City Slicka, fact or fiction?

He told people that he graduated from a renowned master’s program for chemical engineering. That was pretty much TRUE, he got a Master’s Degree from Colorado School of Mining, and he and I used to joke around about “bein’ engin’ ‘e-ahs” since I had a master’s degree in engineering too.

What did he do after he graduated? Those details are a little fuzzier.

He told me that after he left the Colorado School of Mines he worked as a contractor… I don’t remember if it was for Ratheon or Lockhead Martin or Boeing or one of the Big Oil Companies, but it was one of the big industry players, with a reputation for being flush with cash and flexible with morals. I was doing contract work for Big Pharma at the time, and we were talking about the pros and cons of going to- and working for- the DARK SIDE. We both agreed that the money was good, but the bosses were bad.

For City, the biggest advantage of working in industry was that he’d banked enough money as a contractor to support his hiking habit. It wasn’t a ton of money, and his budget was tight, but he skimped and stretched it, and it was “good’n’nuff.” He was by no means wealthy, but he had had enough to “retire” early (trail rumor suggests he was 32 when he retired) and become full-time hika’ trash (by 2012ish). I couldn’t fault his logic, but I did the math, and it was definitely a tighter budget than I thought I could pull off… I have a real fondness for steak :-P

He told Sisyfus (April 9, 2014) that he was “the inventor of something that was bought by NASA and used on the Mars Rover,” and though I can’t confirm that all of those details are true, I do know that at least some of it checks out. CSU, where City did his graduate work, has been involved in space research since the 1990s, and has been hosting a “Space Resources Roundtable” where academics, folks from NASA, and private sector industrial participants get together, talk shop, and make plans to mine the moon, mars, asteroids, or whatever else might be profitable. Although neither of us had worked directly for NASA, we had both been involved in research for NASA. We’d been involved in different aspects of the Space Program, so didn’t know any of the same people, but we had fun talking about how surreal some of the NASA conferences had seemed. Did City Slicka invent something that was purchased by NASA and used on the Mars Rover? Probably. I expect it was more like he was part of a team of contractors that invented/created something bought by NASA, but the story fits with what I knew about City.

We had a few other conversations about those in between times, when he was working as a contractor, but not many… just enough for me to have a sense of which rumors were complete and utter BS, and which things seemed about right… We mostly had these conversations while I was doing research on a military base… the running joke at the time was, “I could tell ya, but then I’d haveta kill ya.”

While I don’t know a lot of those in between details, I do know that when he returned to the AT to start his first thru-hike he was fat and out of shape. At one point I mentioned to City that I’d lost about 60 pounds on my thru-hike of the AT. He smiled indulgently, “I gotcha beat,” he grinned patting his belly proudly… “I must-a’ lossa’d ova’ a’hund-ed (I must have lost over a hundred).

“I was a chubby bastah’d,” he laughed. I don’t remember exactly what he said he weighed pre-trail, but it made the ~200 lbs I’d started the AT weighing seem like small potatoes. He told some other hikers in 2013 that, “before the trail he weighted 280 and sat on a bar stool all the time. We tell him he’s a drunk with a hiking problem…”

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City Slicka (middle, no hat) on the AT in Maine in 2012 (posted by Clark King March 17, 2013)

City Slicka: >21,000 Career AT Miles (the 2010s)

City Slicka re-surfaced on the AT sometime in the 2000s, and by 2012 his name began popping up in the blogs and posts of the other thru-hikers as he started racking up miles and sculpting his legendary calves as he ponged back and forth along the trails of the Appalachian Mountains. In 2013 alone, City Slicka hiked 4,153.4 miles (he counted ’em up and gave Doc Spice the total). By the end of 2014, City Slicka hiked the AT from end-to-end at least 5 times (4 continuous thru-hikes since 2012, and at least once in the ‘90s), with more than 11,000 career miles, and was well on his way to becoming an AT legend.

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Doc Spice and City Slicka on the AT in New York in 2012; according to Doc Spice, City Slicka had been bouncing back and forth between the AT (in the summer) and skiing in Colorado for the winter for between 4 and 10 years in 2013 (photo: from Doc Spice’s blog).

An article from November 2015 advised AT hikers to get to know 2 of the Appalachian Trail Legends: Baltimore Jack, and City Slicka saying, “City Slicka has been hiking the trail since 2012. Non-stop. He hikes to Maine. And then back to Georgia. And then back to Maine…etc. So he knows the way better than just about anyone, making him a great night hiking partner. The former chemist will show you where the closest liquor stores are, as well as give you a lesson on how to save your money (401K!)

Some people keep track of every mile they hike, but City Slicka told me that was bullsh**. “What’s the point?” he’d grumble, bristling (silently or not so silently) as some friggin’ peacock came struttin’ around thinkin’ they were hot sh** because they’d hiked a few thousand miles of the trail. He had more miles on the AT than just about anyone, and he knew it. He’d hiked the trail enough times that he’d quit counting, which wasn’t to say that he couldn’t figure it out-ish, it’s just that it wasn’t usually worth the effort.

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“City Slicka (in green). Two great guys and already well known along the trail.” – Travis Shepherd Hall, March 25, 2014 (source: Facebook)

Late one night, must have been 2016, we were chatting about total career miles (A friend of ours, Colonel, had been lecturing me, informing me in no uncertain terms that I should be keeping track of my total # of career backpacking miles) and City Slicka decided to try to count ‘em up. It was kind of hilarious, because he was trying to count out his thru-hikes on his fingers, but we kept getting distracted and loosing count. Before long we were both sitting there trying to count on our fingers, “Ay-ya,” laughed City, “Wicked f’in’ smaht he-ah, countin’ wid ah’ fingahs.” At that point he’d finished his 7th or 12th hike of the AT? (We never did manage to finish counting, but I’m pretty sure he was waving 2 fingers around when the conversation ended), had done the Benton McKay, and was working on blue-lining the AT (hiking all of the trails that connect to the AT).

Nobody is exactly sure what City Slicka’s total career miles were or how many times he ponged back and forth from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail, but the consensus seems to be that he had over 21,000 career AT miles, and roughly 8 continuous AT thru-hikes between 2012 and 2019.

Some folks thought City Slicka was a Triple Crowner (hiked the AT, PCT and CDT), but that rumor was FALSE. “Hrmph,” City Slicka mumbled when I asked him about it, before telling me in no uncertain terms that he’d never hiked those other trails and was never going to. I tried to sell him on the awesomeness of some of the other trails, but he wasn’t buying it, not even a little bit. He eventually conceded that the mountains in Colorado were pretty awesome and he’d hiked and skied there a bunch in his pre-trail days. The Colorado Trail, he admitted, might tempt him away from the East Coast ever so briefly, but the AT was his trail and always would be. Nothing and no-one would ever change his mind about that.

“It’s jus’ home,” City Slicka explained, a little misty eyed explaining that he knew every rock, root, and tree between Georgia and Maine like the back of his hand. And, more than that, the AT was the place where he felt like he belonged. In additional to sculpting impressive calves as he’d hiked up and down the trail, City had established a community up and down the trail. He’d found a group of folks, his hiker family, that appreciated his awesomeness, acknowledged his flaws, and loved him anyway…

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City Slicka and crew at Trail Angel Mary’s house for her birthday in July of 2018 in Pennsylvania (photo courtesy of Trail Angel Mary)

By continuously ponging back and forth on the AT, City Slicka had developed stronger ties to the people and places between Georgia and Maine than any of the rest of us could imagine. The sense of community, connection, and belonging he found on the AT was something I know he appreciated, because he told me so. His connection to the AT trail community was much tighter than mine, but he considered me to be part of his trail family, and when I was feeling disconnected and more alone than was good for me, he would remind me that no matter how far off the grid I was, my trail family was still with me. The last time I saw him, we were both getting ready to disappear into the woods for a while. Though solitude was a fairly constant companion for City Slicka, I’d been back in civilization for a couple of years, and where I was headed out on the CDT, I was anticipating (and got) a lot more solitude than I was used to.

“Ya know Patches,” City Slicka reminded me, “you may be hikin’ solo, but ya’r neva’ alo-en out the-ah.” City Slicka paused and looked at me with that intense look he had when we wanted to make sure that you were paying attention, and you know, actually listening. I nodded, and he continued, “yer trail family is always wid’ja.”

“It’s good ta rememba’ dat,” he concluded solemnly.

“Yeah, I know” I agreed, and then continued, “but reminders are good.”

We stood there lost in our own thoughts for a minute… we both knew that remembering that you didn’t have to do everything alone, that there were folks out there that would help if you let them, was easier said then done.

“Ya know?” I said, nudging us back out of the silence, and reminding him that everything he was saying to me, was also true for him.

“Yeah,” he agreed, abruptly standing up and walking away.

“I, a’,” he resumed, as he started rummaging around in his pack, “give me a sec, I got sumthin’ fo’ ya.”

I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t sure to expect… City Slicka wasn’t 100% predictable, but he didn’t usually have anything in his pack that he wasn’t going to need to bring with him to see him through the next stretch of trail… We had plenty of food and whiskey, and I don’t smoke, so… I had no idea where this was headed.

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City Slicka standing in Trail Angel Mary’s living room with his sleeping bag, wearing his Riff-Raff! shirt (Photo courtesy of Trail Angel Mary).

“It’s my reminda,” he beamed, a minute or two later as he triumphantly pulled a black Riff-Raff! bandana out of his pack. It was the sweetest gesture ever, but I hesitated, I couldn’t take City’s reminder, he needed it.

“It’s wash’t,” he explained hurriedly with a little self-conscious frown, “but it ain’ exac’ly clean,” he admitted.

“It’s not that, it’s just….”

“Oh,” Interrupted City realizing that I was worried about him, “It’s ok. I’m gonna’ gedd’a new-un nex’ week when I see ’em all.” We was referring to Riff-Raff!. For those of you that aren’t familiar with all of the AT sub-cultures, Riff-Raff! is a tightly knit trail family of thru-hiker alum and trail angels that has a reputation for partying hard. City Slicka was a ‘shirted’ member (think of it as being a card carrying member) of Riff-Raff!, and proud of it (he had the tattoo on his leg to prove it).

“Ya know I’m not shirted, right?” I said. He looked at me and lifted an eyebrow. “I have trouble with crowds,” I shrugged, “so I’ve never been to Trail Days. I always end bailing and doing a solo backpacking trip instead.”

“I ge’ it,” he nodded, “bu’ you sh’d go, Riff-Raff! are good people,” he paused thoughtfully, “well mostly,” he clarified, “but they’re my people,” he smiled distantly remembering something. Suddenly the smile faded and he looked at me, his blue eyes intensely serious, “they’d take care of yer.” I nodded, Riff-Raff! has a reputation for being the hardest partiers on the trail, but they’re also a fiercely loyal group that looks after their people.

“You should have this,” he re-iterated, handing me the bandana.

“You’re sure?” I asked impulsively. He gave me a look, the one that said don’t be a dumba**, I wouldn’t offer it if I didn’t mean it.

“Thank you, City Slicka,” I accepted the bandana, and pressed it to my heart. There was a lot more going on in this simple interaction, than just the exchange of a dirty black bandana.

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City Slicka sporting the black bandana on his pack (Photo: June 26, 2013, taken by Cj Polett)

Afterward

When I heard about City Slicka’s death, I immediately pulled out that dirty black bandana, pressed it to my heart, and cried. City Slicka left the trail in Virginia, boarded a Greyhound bus headed for Colorado, and killed himself (his body was found in Texas). It was absolutely heartbreaking to think of him dying alone out there, and I scoured the internet trying to find information that would help bring me closure. I didn’t find it. The things that have brought me solace are the things that City had told me, and the outpouring of support from his people (both the old crew that knew him as Pat, and the new crew that knew him as City Slicka).

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“Watauga Lake: Fresh, The Goat, Ghengis, Blue Deer, Stretch, Kamikaze, Peppa and City Slicka” – Hiking with Gandalf, April 17, 2014 (source: Facebook)

It helped that I didn’t have to wonder if he’d found peace somewhere out there on the trail, I know he did, because he’d told me so in his out-loud voice. I didn’t have to wonder if he knew that his trail family supported him, because I knew that he knew. He’d told me so in his out-loud voice. Not only that, he understood that truth so well that he’d tried to share that support with me when I was feeling the weight of a little too much solitude. I also know that his trail family helped him get professional help. It’s just that sometimes it’s not enough, and that may be the most heartbreaking part all. City Slicka is the second friend from the AT class of 2013 that I’ve lost to suicide. I’m afraid that he won’t be the last. I’m not sure that I know how to talk about it, but I’m going to try, because no matter how flawed, I’d like the colorful characters that I call friends to remain in my life soo….

I’d like to encourage everyone to get outside, to enjoy the trails and the wild places that the world has to offer, but at the same time I’d like to remind everyone that a thru-hike isn’t a panacea that will cure all that ails you… it’s an epic adventure that may help you ignore your demons for a little while, but it doesn’t usually make them go away… As one of City Slicka’s friends, I wish I could have helped him get the help he needed. I wish that he was still here and that I could help him fight the good fight, but he’s not, so I can’t. Instead, I’m going to listen to City Slicka’s advice, and try to remember that I don’t have to face my demons alone. I’m going to remember that even when I’m alone, my family (both on the trail, and off of it) want to support me, and I’m going to try to do a better job of letting them support me, and trusting that I’m not the only person that has my back… My family and community has my back, just as certainly as I have theirs… It’s what we do, and who we are.

So, pour one out for City Slicka, hug the people you love, get the help you need, be the help you can, and hike your own hike.

But did he ever return?

No he never returned and his fate is still unlearned (he may hike forever)

He may hike forever on the Appalachian

He’s the man who never returned

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City Slicka helping out with some chores at Trail Angel Mary’s house (source: Trail Angel Mary, July 25, 1018)

Appendices & References

City Slicka: Tales from The Internet

In 2017 City Slicka messaged me to tell me he was quitting Facebook and asking for my number so we could stay in touch. He was tired of all the fu**in’ pose-ahs (posers) and ah’m-chay-ah’ (armchair) bulls**t wannabe’s online. He had a reputation for being “wicked smaht,” and did a pretty good job of disappearing from the internet, but he didn’t get rid of everything. For folks that still want to know more about City, I’ve included some links to the blogs, posts, and other info I found about City Slicka as I was poking around the internet (First, a couple of stories, then a timeline with links and information).

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“Finally met the legend, City Slicka!” – Kestral the Backpacking Yogi, November 8, 2015 (source: Facebook)

Stories

“City has given me lots of advice. He’s a yo-yo hiker and is in his fourth continuous hiker. From Boston, he’s about 40 and says before the trail he weighted 280 and sat on a bar stool all the time. We tell him he’s a drunk with a hiking problem…” – May 2014, https://wanderforlife.com/2014/05/page/2/

“But then I met City Slicka’. The dude is old school hiker trash. He claims to be a previous through hiker, the inventor of something that was bought by NASA and used on the Mars Rover, a Triple Crowner (hiked the AT, PCT and CDT), independently wealthy, a graduate of a renowned masters program for Chemical engineering, and a whole slew of other things. It would seem that he hasn’t had a job in a while. He claims to have been on one trail or another for the last five years. He’s rocking one of the most impressive mullet/mohawks I’ve ever seen and maintains a pervasive odor of marijuana. He’s always smoking. And drinking. He also never shuts up. When I got to the hostel he had already been there for two and a half days and when I left he looked like he was setting up camp for a continued extended stay.” – Sisyfus (April 9, 2014)

“City Slicka has been hiking the trail since 2012. Non-stop. He hikes to Maine. And then back to Georgia. And then back to Maine…etc. So he knows the way better than just about anyone, making him a great night hiking partner. The former chemist will show you where the closest liquor stores are, as well as give you a lesson on how to save your money (401K!)” – November 2015, https://yuki.la/out/1640594

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“RIP City Slicka. I just found out I lost a dear hiking friend. I met City on the AT. We traveled many miles together. He was a special guy, a sweet soul who brought happiness to everyone he met,. He lived to hike, it was his world. I will miss you.” – Donna “Eagle-Eye” Dearmon (source: Facebook)

“Joe’s first lieutenant, at least while we stayed at the hostel, is a burly, equally grizzled, early-middle-aged hiker who goes by the moniker City Slicker (the -er is pronounced -ah. Slicker’s from Boston). Slicker has calves that bodybuilders pine for, and his legs are tattooed with symbols of the trail: the ATC, four shaggy pine trees for Four Pines, Trail Days, Riff Raff, etc. Slicker is one of those lucky souls who loves their life so much that they constantly seek out parts of it to complain about. Today, it was the upcoming bubble—the concentrated mass of thru-hikers who left Springer mid-March, and who have been averaging 12-18 miles daily. “The party crowd,” or “the fuckboy parade,” as Slicker knows them.” https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/the-four-pines-hostel/

“Later this guy City Slicka, an annoying and somewhat psychocotic vagrant from South Boston, showed up. He wouldn’t leave us girls alone but gave us good advice on getting to Walmart and a heads up that the cops swing by the hostel three times a day since the local meth heads had been giving hikers trouble. Gotta love the meth heads. J. Rex and I were stationed outside organizing our resupply we got from Walmart but couldn’t hardly get anything done because City Slicka was drunk and kept telling us these ridiculous reasons why he’s been living on the trail for 3 years (he retired at 32 after inventing the Mars Rover, was a too-smart doctor to work, etc.).” https://katiesappalachiantrailadventure.wordpress.com/feed/

“This hits me hard. City was like my Trail Dad in ’15 – first person I met on the trail, and saw him on and off throughout the whole experience, also hiking and hanging with him a bunch in 2016 on my full thru. Last I saw him was at a shelter just before crossing into ME where he gave me a moose femur to hike to Katahdin, as we hadn’t yet seen one. We saw our first moose later that night, and that femur now rests on my bookshelf. The trail lost one of the vert best- may your soul rest peacefully in paradise dear brother 🙏😭😭😭” – Brent Wander Borgemeister, Facebook

“APPALACHIAN TRAIL | APRIL 14 | DAY 51: Leave Four Pines after listening to City Slicka’s stories of last night, in which he chased away a fox with a rake. The fox tore up one of the chickens, but Joe will ‘take care of it’ later (with his shotgun, it is implied). Meanwhile we’re told that the Guinea Hens are on ‘tick patrol’ and used to rule the roost until Joe got ducks, and now the ducks rule the roost because they are ‘fuckin gangsters’. Alex and I head to Roanoke for a zero day and I finally get someone to look at my legs and prescribe some GD steroids for what turns out to be poison ivy. The pharmacist tells me I might feel like slapping anyone who says hello, and not to worry—it’s normal to feel ‘a little tense’ on heaps of ‘roids. We eat good food, drink good beer, and I get a full-body Epsom salt soak in the tub. Back on trail tomorrow!” -@hikeasaurustreks (April 2019)

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“Third annual 2013 AT Hiker Thanksgiving at Patriot’s house. What a great tradition! With Patriot, Mudmouth, Yardsale, Tin Cup, Whiskers, City Slicka, EagleRunner, Chapinlara, Shepherd, The Triplets, and Tugboat.” (Photo: Deb Van Schaack, Facebook)

Timeline

1970s & 1980s:

  • Pat (Patrick Michael O’Meara) was born May 23, 1973 and grew up in a rough and tumble neighborhood in Southie (source: “United States Public Records, 1970-2009”, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KLVW-G1B : 8 November 2019), Patrick M Omeara, 2001-2008.)
  • He started hiking in high school through a program for troubled teens he called, “Hoods in the Woods.” (source: personal accounts)

1990s: Total miles hiked > 2500 (AT Georgia to Maine + End-to-End Long Trail, VT). By the early 1990s Pat had started taking off on long distance hikes whenever he got the chance (source: City Slicka & college friends).

  • 1994 – 1997: Appalachian Trail (AT), Pat had been dubbed “City Slika” and completed at least one AT thru (source: City Slicka)
  • 1995: Graduated from college (Bridgewater State University): Degrees in Geology and Chemistry and completed an End-to-End hike of the Long Trail, Vermont with a friend (source: City Slicka, Bridgwater State and friend from College)
  • 1996 – 1997: “Patrick O’Meara attends the Colorado School of Mines as a graduate student in the geochemistry” (source: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/48827220.pdf).

2000s: Between 1998 and 2011 the only information I have about City is from conversations we had, and rumors of other conversations. Rumor has it that City retired when he was 32 years old, which would have been 2005, other rumors say he started hiking the AT somewhere around 2002, others say he started hiking 2011.

2010s: City Slicka started showing up in AT photos and blogs in 2012

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City Slicka on the Harris Homestead Trail (source: unknown)

Glacier: Snow What?! (CDT Day 145)

Glacier: Snow What?! (CDT Day 145)

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Some of the brightest, pinkest clouds I’ve ever seen rolling up over the snow-capped mountains of Glacier National Park (Sunrise: September 25, 2018).

I’d seen the forecasts and I knew that winter was coming with a vengeance, but I’d hoped that an epic 29 – mile day would get me through Glacier ahead of the snow. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. These are the stories and photos from that day.

Journal Entry: CDT Day 145 (9/25/18): Mile 2936.6 (Morning Star) to 2964.9 (Reynolds): 29 miles, 2500’ up, 3600’ down. Epic!! Today was an epic 29 miles. Finally settling in @ midnight. I hate permit systems FYI. Freezing rain/snow last night. Drifts of 12-15” of snow in the pass. Breaking trail for the first 6 miles of the day. They removed all the suspension bridges to make life more interesting. Ran into a moose. Awesome foliage. Night hike waterfalls. Feet wet all day. Poor feetsies. Didn’t see anyone all day.

(Click here for: Welcome to Glacier: Winter is Coming (CDT Days 143-144))

Snow Day

“Brrrrrrrr…” It’s hard to get up and out of my warm, cozy sleeping bag when it’s soo cold outside, but a 29 – mile day in Glacier is bound to be epic, and an early start isn’t optional, so as soon as it started getting bright outside I was up and at it.

Although the sleet and freezing rain had kept on through most of the night, by morning it had stopped. Unfortunately, that meant that my tent was sopping wet and partially frozen as I packed it up. Nobody seems to talk about how cold your hands get when you’re trying to pack up a sopping wet tent in the early chill of the morning. Even with my gloves on, by the time the tent is packed my fingers are uncomfortable cold and by the time I hike out of camp they’ve become a bit numb and tingly.

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Descending into the frosty cold valley as the pre-dawn light reveals the first hints of color of the day.

As I descend into the valley, the temperature plummets. The cold night air has sunk into the valley, trapped by there by the beautifully rugged peaks I so admired yesterday afternoon. It’ll be hours before the sun rises above the mountains and warms this valley. Though my layers are mostly keeping me warm, my feet are cold. It was amazing how quickly they’d gotten so cold. They’d been toasty warm all night and had maintained their warmth in the morning as I started hiking, but now they were cold. Very cold. They were cold and they hurt. “Suck it up, buttercup” I mumbled to myself in a war of wills, trying to force mind over matter. They’ll warm up, they always do, I tried to console myself, but my feet were still cold.

Thank goodness for small favors, at least the slushy mess of the trail from last night has frozen into a blessedly solid mass, so my feet remain dry.

The sky was getting brighter and brighter and the clouds began to turn pink with beautiful colors of dawn and the impending sunrise. It really was quite a gorgeous sight, watching the clouds fill with color over the magnificent peaks of Glacier, met by an even more impressive show of fall foliage on the ground. The colors were truly spectacular.

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Color above and color below, what a way to start the day!!

I continued through the valley, spotting mountain goats on the rocky slopes around me as the sun continued to rise and hit the peaks of the mountain tops around me. My feet were cold. Yup, still cold, and it was looking like it might be a while before the sun reached me in the valley I was walking across. My feet were definitely uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough that I started wondering what, if anything, I could do about it. Could I warm them up somehow?

I suddenly remembered the pack of 4 toe-warmers that I’d brought with me. Surely those would warm my toes up. Since they’re not a renewable resource, I wanted to use them wisely, and in general thought of them as a fail-safe in case of emergency. I rationalized that I would be out of the woods the following night, and had two sets, and they had the potential to eliminate the misery I was in in that moment. Besides, I had 2 sets so I could use the remaining set if I ended up in an emergency later.

I sat down, pulled them out, and activated them, while rubbing my feet to try to warm them up a bit. To my extreme disappointment, the toe-warmers didn’t get warm ☹. “Surely, they’ll warm up eventually,” I hoped, but hope was not enough, and they remained cold. I uttered a few choice words and looked at the packaging more closely.

Grumble, grumble mother-f***ing grumble! The store in East Glacier had sold me toe-warmers that were 6 months passed their sell by date. I let out an exasperated sigh. Now I was grumpy, angry, cold, and my feet still hurt.

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Deep oranges and reds lined the trail as I headed back up towards Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park.

Ok, so one set were duds. That was ok, I had another set. Future emergency be damned, my feet were cold NOW. I pulled them out, activated them, and waited. Nothing. NO warmth, nothing. *sigh* I looked at the date and sure enough, they were passed their date as well. Ever hopeful that I was just being too impatient, I inserted them into my shoes and hoped against hope that they would eventually provide my poor toes some warmth. As I laced my shoes back  up I grumbled about the store and the toe warmers, and the extra ounces that I’d carried and would have to continue carrying with absolutely no benefit to me…

Heavy little cold bricks of iron dust, grumble, grumble, grumble… Sigh. My feet would eventually get warm with or without their help (usually on the downhill, since they always remained cold for the uphill). Unfortunately, I had quite a bit of uphill to go (to get up to Triple Divide Pass) before my feet would be warmed by the downhill. My feet remained cold for the next half hour to hour, and eventually I stopped and pulled the dumb, cold, foot-warmers out of my shoes because they we causing my feet to rub uncomfortably towards blisters.

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Snow above and elk below, just 25 miles to go!

Eventually the sun began to rise above the mountains and my spirits began to rise too. The low angle light hit the peaks in front of me, and I climbed up the valley to meet it, and bask in the sun’s light. The moment I met the sun, I stopped and luxuriated in its warmth. Bathed in light, the bright colors of the fall foliage popped out of the landscape all around me. Snow glittered above me, the brush was aflame with reds, yellows, and gold, and there in the light green meadow below I watched two bull elk with large racks lock heads, putting on a show for a herd a short distance above. They strutted and postured, retreated and fought each other again, like gladiators in an arena, putting on a show for me (and the other elk present). Their sounds echoed up the valley to my ears, the only noise breaking the early morning stillness. My grumpiness faded away, replaced with awe at the beauty of the place I was in. IT was phenomenal.

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The view of Medicine Grizzly Lake looking back at the trail behind me and the valley below. It was absolutely breathtaking

The snow deepened as I got closer to the pass, and the color faded from the trail above me, replaced with the muted colors of rock and snow. It looked like their was 4-6 inches of freshly fallen snow. Step by step I made my way up towards the Triple Divide Pass. It was absolutely beautiful, but with a 29 – mile day ahead of me, and freezing cold temps, I moved relatively quickly.

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Triple Divide Peak and Norris Mountain looming above me as I hiked higher and higher up into the snow.

It was slower going than I hoped, but I decided that I might as well enjoy it. I stopped, put down my pack, and flopped into the snow to make a snow angel. I laughed at myself as I did it. It was ridiculous, and hilarious. Here I was hiking a 29-mile day on the CDT. A bad-ass thru-hiker, soon to be triple crowner, all alone in the wilderness, stopping to play in the snow. Whatever! YOLO, and sooo much snow!

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Stopping to make a snow angel on my way up to Triple Divide Pass

As I lay there expending precious calories creating an angel on the CDT, I reflected on all of the amazing trail angels that had helped me on this hike, and on my other thru-hikes. I wished there was a way that I could give something back to them, to let them know how much they meant to me. Maybe I could share my snow-angel picture with them and tell them with a picture as well as words.

I reluctantly stood up, looked at my angel, and kept hiking. I had many miles to go before I slept! I hiked higher and higher until I got to the pass. It had taken much longer than I’d hoped because of the snow, but most of the rest of the days hike would be downhill, which would be much faster. I ate a snack, made another snow angel or two, then began my descent 😊

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Stopping to make another snow angel at the top of Triple Divide Pass

The descent was much, much slower. On the Northeast side of the pass the snow had blown into drifts that were 2 feet deep and not even the faintest outline of trail existed. Soo much snow! I pushed my way through it, frequently wading through snow up to my knees. I could see the snowline below me, and I knew that once I descended far enough into the valley I would eventually get out of the snow and enter a world of golden aspens and a nice clear trail. Eventually. Yes, eventually that would happen.

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Breaking trail through deceptively deep snow drifts with an awesome view of Spirit Mountain and the valley below.

As my thoughts turned hopeful, I reach the next switchback, only obvious because the snow depth instantly went from 18 inches to 36 inches. I grumbled, suddenly up to my hips in snow, and took the switchback… the drifts had blown so much that the switchbacks were consistently filled with at least a foot more snow than the surrounding trail. Who knew that entering deeper snowdrifts would be the consistent indicator for me that the trail was turning.

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Descending towards the snow line and into the gorgeous valley below

The instant I descended below the snowline I stopped for a break on a set of dark gray cliffs. I rested there a moment, soaking in the sun, and drying out my shoes, insoles, sock, jacket and tent. “My pack will be sooo much lighter once I stop carrying this extra water,” I beamed.

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At long last I was out of the snow, admiring Spirit Mountain, and enjoying the foliage.

Below the snowline the foliage exploded into color: golden aspens as far as the eye could see, and red huckleberry bushes blazing the path of the CDT. The colors were insanely gorgeous as they formed their gradients of yellow and red. The base of the cliffs surrounding me were full of mountain goats, grazing and leaping around.

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Mountain goats were scattered near the bases of all the cliffs

And OMG the waterfalls cascading off of the cliffs and into the brightly colored valleys below were spectacular. I took hundreds of pictures, astounded as I was with the epic beauty of the scenery on this epic day of hiking.

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A waterfall cascading through the cliffs and into the colorful valley below

“Crash! Crash!” A noise thundered in the bushes beside me. My pulse quickened, as I realized that a large animal was in the brush beside me. Moose or Bear? Moose or Bear? I wandered.

“Hello,” I announced, in a loud, firm voice. The ground beneath my feet vibrated as the large animal moved a few paces away from me. I let out my breath. A moose, not a grizzly. A big enough moose that it caused the earth to shake with each footfall.

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Mr. Moose eyeing me from the bushes.

“Sorry buddy,” I apologized as I continued down the trail, spying him in the brush about 6 feet away. “The foliage is pretty awesome, isn’t it,” I continued conversationally since he was the only living creature I’d been close enough to talk to all day. I snapped a quick picture and continued down the trail as he crashed a few more paces away from me into the brush. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” I assured him as he stared at me and I continued on my way.

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Saskatoon berries nestled among the colorful foliage of the CDT and the well tread path to easier terrain.

The sun was bright and beautiful, and both the trail and the afternoon seemed to go by quickly as I descended into the burn zone below. It was rather sad and dreary compared to the beauty of the mountains I was descending from. Though the trail was good and easy to follow, I faced a new obstacle. IT was late enough in the season that the rangers had come through and dismantled the suspension bridges that normally cross the rivers and creeks along the trail.

“SIGH.” Ok, it was a really loud sigh, but that was only because the water was REALLY, REALLY cold ☹ The first time the suspension bridge faked me out. I thought it was probably pulled, so I went to cross the stream at a shallow spot, but when I got there it looked like the bridge might still be up, so I bushwhacked over to it since it’s cables were still strung across the water. But, no dice. The cables were up, but the wooden boards were stacked in a nice, neat pile on the far side of the water. This was a horrible place to cross on foot, and I didn’t want to have to backtrack… I wonder if I can just cross on the cables?

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Do I really need the wooden planks to cross? Yeah, yeah I do. #NoDying

I climbed the stairs to where the cables crossed the stream, suspended 3 to 5 feet above the water. Maybe? My feet were finally warm and I didn’t want to have to submerge them in the frigid water and make them cold again. I put my hands on the upper wire, and tentatively placed on foot on the lower wire… Maybe? I thought as I weighted the foot. I was confident that the wire would support my weight. Carefully holding the upper wire with both hands, I moved my second foot from the safety and support of the bridge platform and onto the lower wire. My body swayed left & right, and the wire on the bottom bounced up and down in a very unsettling way. I waited a moment to see if things stabilized and it sort of did. I tried to inch my weight a smidge along the wire, but the instability was ridiculous.

Yup, Stupid. It would be really, really stupid to try to cross along the wires. #nodying I reminded myself, and then I  retreated back to the solid and not wobbling base of the suspension bridge. Grumble, grumble. Having all the boards just piled up, lying there on the other side, seemed like they were adding insult to injury. “If they wanted to protect the boards for the winter they could have at least hauled them away,” I frumped.

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Bridges are over-rated. Sometimes you just need to get your feet wet.

I made my way back to the safe crossing spot, took my shoes off, crossed, put them back on and headed down the trail again. Before long I came to another suspension bridge with the bridge removed. Grumble, grumble, grumble. Normally I just tromp right through with my boots on, but my feet had been so cold that I wanted to keep them dry so I stopped and switched to my camp shoes for each stop. Killing time each time. I looked at my map. There was absolutely no way I was going to get to my permitted campsite before dark. My level of grumpiness suggested that it would be a good idea to stop at next campsite and eat an early dinner. Besides, it’s always nice to eat dinner while it’s still warm and sunny, and I should be able to make the last river crossing before dark, which is always important.

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Plenty of solitude, a sunny spot to eat dinner, a privvy, and a view. What more could a hiker ask for?

I stopped to eat at around 5 and took advantage of the break to finish drying out my tent in the afternoon sun, and to try to dry out my shoes and insoles, which were still wet from the snow. The food in my belly felt good and I set off with renewed energy, after making a quick stop to get water. The lake was pretty, but the burn zone was sad. The landscape, gray, dull, and dead. Eventually, after what felt like forever, I spotted the most golden copse of aspens I’d ever seen. They seemed to be twinkling in the golden-hour sun, giving them an almost magical air.

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Golden fall foliage and golden-hour light made for a magical combination

I crossed the final river crossing, not even bothering to change into my camp-shoes in my race against the dark. I scurried up the bank on the far side. There were fewer aspens, but the underbrush had an amazing medley of fall foliage colors, spectacular in every way. In places the reds, oranges, and yellows made the trail come alive with the colors of fire, but without the smoke and trauma of the real fires. I moved quickly, trying to get as far as I possibly could before losing the last light of the sun. I was also hoping that I might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the sunset hidden from me by the mountains to the West.

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The final river crossing of the day.

As I rounded the corner of the East End of St. Mary Lake the sun was getting low on the horizon. I still had more than 10 miles to go to get to camp, and any illusion I may have had about getting to camp before sunset or anywhere near sunset, completely disintegrated. It just wasn’t going to happen, but I kept moving fast, pretending it might be possible to get to the site my permit had assigned to me before it got too insanely late…

I dipped in and out of the trees along the lake as the light grew dimmer and dimmer, it was starting to look like the sun was going to set behind the mountains without giving me any good views of it. I was feeling a little bit bummed as I dipped into a thicker section of woods figuring that I wasn’t going to get much of a sunset view when I rounded the corner, and much to my surprise was greeted by one of the most spectacular displays of sunset colors I’ve even seen. The crisp gray mountains stood in stark relief against a fluorescent pink sky. It was gorgeous, it was beautiful, and it was breath-taking. I stopped and stood there, alone, in the middle of the trail appreciating it.

“Totally worth it!” I smiled, knowing that I had hours of night-hiking ahead of me, but I didn’t care. if I’d had any kind of sane hiking plan for the day I would have missed this sunset, and this sunset, was worth the challenges I’d already faced that day, as well as those that lay ahead of me for the evening. Totally.

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The camera didn’t do it justice. It was absolutely incredible

My pace was a little frenetic after that. I would speed through the areas shaded with trees, and slow way, way down for the lakeside views with their awesome displays of color until the last of the pinks slowly faded from the sky and darkness settled in.

I had many miles and hours of hiking in the dark to go, but I was a very happy hiker.

Into the Darkness

The darkness was thick and beautiful in its own right as I hiked beside the cold, windy lake. My awesome headlamp provided me with a wide swath of visibility against the darkness and I kept hiking, quickly, but carefully into the night, hoping that maybe I’d make it to my campsite by 10 pm. I hustled, but the trail was overgrown with brush (maybe cloudberries ?) and seemed to have had little traffic on it this year, except perhaps from horses early in the season, which had eroded holes into the trail at awkward and unpredictable intervals. I had to stay very focused on the trail to avoid spraining my ankle in any of those, or worse, tripping and rolling down the very, very steep embankment to my right.

The trail rose, climbed, and fell, and the solitude of my existence followed me with each step… it mostly feeling very fitting. Hiking in the dark creates a sense of isolation, but also narrows your attention and forces you to focus on a much smaller area and range of things… I looked for signs of bear (grizzly), moose, or elk, but didn’t see anything. Even still, I sang as I hiked to warn any and all nighttime creatures of my imminent arrival. After a few miles of rather contented night-hiking, I was tired and starting to get grumpy. I was on edge as I hiked through the dark along the edge of the forest, the edge of the lake, the edge of a cliff.

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Navigating steep drop offs near Saint Mary Lake by the light of my head lamp

“Friggin permit system!” I grumbled into the darkness. “If I wasn’t in Glacier, I would have stopped and found a place to camp for the night hours ago,” I huffed, before channeling the impetuous voice of my teenage self, “But No-o-oo, I can only camp at the designated site on my permit in Glacier, even if it is STUPID.” I then blurted out the reasons why it was stupid that I had to keep hiking: “Hiking alone on the edges of cliffs at night is STUPID! Night-hiking alone in grizzly country is STUPID! It’s STUPID that the park system is making me doing something that I think is UNSAFE! It’s UNSAFE and its STUPID…”

I’d allowed myself to whine and have a little self-pity party because I was exhausted and needed to vent even if no one was listening, but was I actually putting myself and my safety at risk because of the permit system? It was a sobering thought. The short answer was YES, which is why I was feeling so grumpy about it. In general, I feel that solo night-hiking is taking unnecessary risks, and those risks outweigh the potential benefits. In fact, the only other time I’d only stayed up hiking solo this late after dark was in Yosemite trying to get to the campsite designated on my permit there. Both then and now I was solo night-hiking in grizzly territory and was well outside my comfort zone.

Was it unsafe for me to continue? Would it be safer to me to break the rules, and find a place to camp now? I stopped in the middle of the trail and thought about it. The SMART thing to do would have been to camp at Red Eagle Lake when I got there at 5, but realistically, even without the constraints of the permit system I probably wouldn’t have camped there because I got there too early. I’d known I would. It was a Goldilocks problem, Red Eagle Lake Campsite had been too close, and Reynolds Creek Campsite was too far, but there were no Campsites that were just right, and I wasn’t allowed to make up my own. So my decision in advance, and also when I decided to leave Red Eagle Lake after dinner a few hours before had been to push on to Reynolds Creek. Under normal conditions, I would have made it to Reynolds Creek by dark, but the snow had slowed me down and worm me out a lot more that I’d realized or thought it would.

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Waterfalls cascading down by the trail at night.

“Answer the question,” I reminded myself, “Should I keep going, or should I try to find a place to stealth (camp) as soon as possible.” Stopping as soon as possible seemed like a really good plan, and if there had been a designated campsite with a bear cable between where I was and the sites at Reynolds Creek I absolutely would have camped there, but that wasn’t an option. The hillside I was traversing along the lake wasn’t particularly conducive to stealth camping and wildlife (including grizzlies) in National Parks more notoriously more problematic than anywhere else. Ultimately, I decided my best bet was to continue on to my designated campsite.

I stopped at a Falls along the lake to get water. Getting water from waterfalls makes me illogically happy, so on a long exhausting day it was worth it to pause and find a reason to smile and try to pull myself out of the funk I’d been. It felt cozy and peaceful there, but I wanted to keep moving. “No,” I reminded myself, “you have to eat!” I was tired and didn’t want to eat my snack bar, but I knew I was hungry, and with good reason. Logically I knew that I was super low on calories. It was cold and I was burning lots of calories, so I had to eat. I forced the snack bar down, before allowing myself to leave the spot.

Sure enough, by the time I got to the next waterfall my blood sugar was clearly up, and I was feeling better. The waterfall was beautifully framed in the darkness of night. It was at this point that I finally managed to embrace the night.

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Stopping to eat a snack and photographs waterfalls in the middle of the night

“Screw it,” I exclaimed to the darkness, it was so late there was absolutely zero chance that I’d get to camp anywhere near a reasonable hour, so I finally decided to slow down and just enjoy the night. Fully embracing this new attitude, I pulled out my camera and tried to get some night pictures of the falls.

“Click,” I pushed the button on 10 second timer after setting my camera on its rock tripod. I ate a snack and waited for the 30 second exposure and then the processing time, and then looked at my creation. It wasn’t quite right, so I tried again… and again… Eventually I got something that looked cool and headed non-chalantly to the next waterfall. The path was much clearer and nicer through here, during daylight hours it looked like it would have had lots of tourists, but long after dark, I had the area to myself.

From that point on I made my way, slowly, but surely, along the trail from waterfall to waterfall, each one more gorgeous than the last. I set up my camera on a rock, and went through the process of photographing it. But this time I ate one of my packets of almond butter while I waited for the extremely slow shutter time. Oops, not quite… naw, not that one, until finally I got one that seemed ok.

Saint Mary Falls was thunderously loud, and amazingly beautiful framed in the light of my headlamp, with the stars above. I looked off into the distance across St. Mary Lake, and wondered what the source of light pollution coming from behind it was… it seemed odd since I hadn’t noticed it earlier. I finished taking pictures and hiked a few more steps before I realized that that light was the moon.

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Saint Mary’s Falls was beautiful in the glow of my headlamp with stars twinkling above

I paused, wondering how long it would be before I lost the beautiful stars and the milky way to the epicly bright moon rising up through the mountains behind me. It was still below the mountains and I suppose it was just a hypothesis that it was the moon, and in that moment realized that I was missing a glove. What? How’d that happen? Oh yeah, I didn’t have my hiking poles anymore either… oops… I was definitely tired. I’d left them on the bridge where I’d photographed the waterfall. Luckily, I hadn’t gone that far before I realized my mistake, so I trotted back and got them. Yikes. Gloves in hand, and chopping down some trail mix, I set off down the trail again.

“Wait, What?!” I stopped, and there in the middle of the trail was a toad staring up at me. “Hi, Mr. Toad, what are you doing here?” I asked. I hadn’t seen many amphibians on my CDT thru-hike (probably due to the severe lack of water), but all the ones I had seen, I’d seen at night. I stopped, crouched down, and looked more closely at it. It was beautiful, with big, deep, black eyes. I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo or two before carefully stepping around it and continuing on my way.

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A friendly toad sitting in the middle of the trail just North of St. Mary Falls

“Ugh,” I was suddenly feeling very, very tired. “Maybe I could just camp here, in the middle of the trail,” I muttered as I slogged down the wet and muddy trail. I was getting so, so close, but I was soo so tired. I pulled out my tropical fruit mix, shoving handfuls into my mouth hoping to fuel my body to power through the last little bit. “Munch, munch, munch,” I paused to swallow and look behind me. Still no moon. I kept walking.

“Munch, munch, munch,” how about now? I stopped looked behind me. Still no moon.

“Munch, munch, munch,” ah, I smiled, there it is 😊 It peeked an edge up from behind the mountain. How quickly will it rise? I wondered, staring at it intently. Hmmm, too slow to justify stopping and watching it rise all the way up.

Only ½ a mile to go, “munch, munch, munch,”… only 1/3 a mile to go, “munch, munch, munch,” oooh, the moon is risen, “munch, munch, munch,” only ¼ mile to go. “You can do it!!” I encouraged myself, out of trail mix and really pushing myself to keep going. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I found myself at the sign for my campsite.

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The moon rising up over the mountains behind me as I finished hiking the last couple of miles.

“Oh no,” I mumbled, seeing the base and cables of a suspension bridge between me and the campsite I had a permit to sleep in that night. My heart sank since every single suspension bridge I’d come to so far had been dismantled. It was almost midnight and I DID NOT want to do a stream/river crossing now. Nothing and no one had said anything about a suspension bridge here. I frowned, shoulders slumping as I approached the bridge, hoping against hope it was there, but not believing it would be.

I climbed the stairs, and breathed a sigh of relief. The bridge, the bridge was there and waiting for me 😊 I was overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude and bounced my way across the bouncy, bouncy suspension bridge full of joy and relief. I was here! I’d made it my designated campsite.

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A photo of the suspension bridge crossing the river from the trail to the campsite that I took the following morning (September 26, 2018)

Exhausted I walked over to the bear-hang area, pulled out my food-bag, and grabbed a Milky Way. I sat on a nearby stump, pack off, staring at the bear hang wire above me as my mouth filled with rich chocolatey goodness. It was still frozen from the night before and rather chewy, but oh so good. As I finished the last crumbs, I put the wrapper into my food bag, and threw my bear rope up over the high wire. “Yes!!” I smiled, sugar beginning to course through my veins, I got it on the first try.

After stringing up my bear-bag I hefted my pack onto my back and headed for the closest campsite. I was tired and wanted to be done walking ASAP, but there, in the middle of the campsite was a pile of fresh bear poop.

Well, it’s black bear poop not grizzly, so there’s that at least. Still, I wasn’t going to camp there. “This,” I grumbled, “this is another thing that sucks about the permit system.” I grumbled turning to leave, and spotted a freshly mawed ptarmigan carcass. “Great,” I sighed, “just what I need,” signs of black bear + a predator I just startled off mid-meal, all in this campsite.

“This,” I mumbled, “this is why I don’t camp by rivers.” Wildlife tends to congregate by rivers, which is great for wildlife sighting, but less so for a peaceful night’s sleep. If I wasn’t in the National Park I would have hiked to a spot at least ¼ mile away from this evidence of active bear and predator activity, but here, that wasn’t allowed, and my best option was to choose whatever campsite was furthest from this one, and furthest from the water. I circled the area and settled for one with a much better strategic location. A small tree had fallen across it, but after verifying that there wasn’t any animal sign around, I moved the tree out of the site, and pitched my tent.

As I prepared to curl up for the night, the moon had risen, and I enjoyed the sound of the water and the gently swaying trees… This might be my last night on the trail I realized as I crawled into my tent. I checked the time, and it was just after midnight. “I made it,” I thought rather incredulously. My 29-mile day through a snow-covered Glacier National Park was done, and I just had a couple days of hiking before my CDT journey was over. Unbelievable.

Welcome to Glacier: Winter is Coming (CDT Days 143-144)

Welcome to Glacier: Winter is Coming (CDT Days 143-144)

Panorama of view from Pitamakin Pass

Panoramic view from Pitamakan Pass, Glacier National Park (September 24, 2019)

A year ago today I was hiking through the snow in an amazing fall/winter landscape in Glacier National Park, just days away from completing my thru-hike of the CDT. These are the stories and photos from September 24, 2018 as I hiked 12 miles from the Ranger Station at Two Medicine, over Pitamakan Pass, breaking trail to Morning Star Lake.

Prelude

Journal Entry: CDT Day 143 (9/23/18): Zero in East Glacier. Sick day zero.

I was sick in bed all day. Stayed at the Whistling Swan, lay in bed, watched Naked and Afraid, and only left the room to buy Gatorade and Ramen noodles. Went to Serrano’s again for dinner because I knew I needed to eat food. Miserable. Looked at the forecasts and realized that I was going to have to hike the following day sick or not because the weather was going to take a pretty big turn for the worse. Snow, snow, snow, and more snow. The only halfway decent forecast was for the following day. (Ate at Serrano’s for dinner; Pumpkin Donuts for Breakfast)

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Colorful fall foliage at low elevations near Two Medicine, Glacier National Park

OMG Snow!

CDT Journal Entry: Day 144 (9/24/18): CDT Mile 2925.4 (Two Medicine) to 2936.6 (MOR-Morning Star): 12 miles, 2480’ up, 1877’ down. OMG Snow!! Got two hitches to get back to the trail. Saw two great big black bears within the first 2 miles. 2-8” of snow on the trail. Ended up breaking trail from pass down to site.

I was definitely still sick, but at least I was feeling a little bit better than I had the day before. Looked at the forecast and made the call to get while the getting was good. My first hitch took me partway to the trail, and then, miraculously, a car full of people picked me up to take me the rest of the way almost before my feet hit the pavement. It was really nice. Chatted with the rangers and got permits for the last stretch of trail.

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Glacier Backcountry Permit complete with Bear/Mountain Lion Warning, Hypothermia Warning, and a 29-mile day.

“I don’t think you’ll see anyone out there,” the ranger mentioned as I was getting ready to leave the office and hike up into the clouds.

“Except other thru-hikers,” I replied, agreeing that the only folks I might see were other thru-hikers. “No,” she said matter-of-factly, “there’s no one else out there, not even thru-hikers. The last permits I issued were the day before yesterday.” She clarified, “I don’t think you’ll see anyone out there.”

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Beautiful, clear, easy hiking trail looking back into the valley before heading up into the snow.

The mountains were shrouded in clouds as I approached the shore of the nearby lake. I looked up, yup… of course… I was headed up into those cold, wet clouds. I nodded and set off in the drizzly, dreary weather to hike through Glacier, excited that my next resupply I would get to see my parents and I’d be almost be done… Somehow it just didn’t seem real that I only had a week of the CDT left, and that it was coming to an end.

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Black bear with a claw-full of berries

As I scanned the mountainside preparing myself for what was ahead, I spotted a big black bear on the slope opposite me on the far side of the lake. Glacier is famous for its wildlife, so it seemed rather apropos that less than 500 ft into Glacier and I had my first bear sighting. Bears are beautiful creatures, so I paused to watch it a while. It was a 250 – 300 lb bear, with thick, glossy black fur, no hump, and a light brown snout. It was raking clawfuls of juicy, ripe huckleberries into its mouth from the beautiful red- and yellow- huckleberry bushes, brilliant with the color of fall. Since both black bears and grizzly bears frequent Glacier, I double-checked the snout, ears, and shoulders before reaching the conclusion that it was definitely a black bear. Cool.

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Gorgeous yellow foliage highlighting the trail with snow-capped mountains in the background

“I suppose I should probably get back to hiking,” I sighed, somewhat reluctantly, took my boots off, and crossed the stream. I was excited, but tired, and I had a lot of uphill hiking to do before getting to my campsite for the night. Although the sky, and weather were dreary, the fall foliage was spectacular. The contrast between the dull gray & white of the sky, the dark gray of the rocks, the rich golden yellows of the aspens, with the reds of the huckleberries was absolutely amazing. Around each new bend, new mountain views and more amazing colors were revealed, and before long I forgot how tired I was and just marveled at the views.

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Black bear traversing a slope covered with low bushes covered in red and yellow foliage

Less than 2 miles later I rounded the corner and ran into another BEAR!! It was a 300-400 lb black bear traversing the boulder fields up above me to the left. The foliage here was more yellow, but it was a spectacular sight. I thought I’d be running into grizzlies in Glacier, which made the black bear sightings seem unusual to me; also, they were the first black bears that I’d seen since New Mexico! I hadn’t seen any black bear sign in 100s & 100s of miles, just grizzly sign, so when I encountered a giant black bear poop (full or partially digested Saskatoon berries) I was relieved that I hadn’t been mistakenly thinking black bear poop (full of berries) was grizzly poop (full of hair).

The weather cleared briefly, and I could see that the mountains and passes I was climbing towards were covered in snow… “Brrrr…” It was going to be cold, but there was no denying that the mountains were strikingly beautiful, blue skies, puffy clouds, brilliant white snow, golden aspens at lower elevation, stark black or rusty red trail, and red huckleberry and blueberry bushes ankle- to knee- high bordering the trail. I was lovely, and as the ranger suggested, once I got more than a couple miles away from the ranger station the crowds melted away and I had the whole place to myself.

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My snowy footsteps in the trail at Pitamakan Pass

The downside, however, was that I was hiking up towards tree-line, and as I climbed more and more snow and ice began accumulating in the trail. By the time I left the last trees behind there was between 1 and 2 inches of snow on the trail and coating the surrounding rocks. Through the middle of the trail was just one set of slushy/icy footprints from an intrepid day hiker earlier that day. The wind kicked up and it was beautiful, but cold.

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Unbroken trail above me (and leading down to my campsite) at Pitamakan Pass

I zig-zagged my way up the snow-covered trail all the way up to the pass, the snow gradually growing deeper and the tracks getting fainter and fainter until I got to the top of the pass. The views were spectacular, and it was very exposed. I had had the ridge and the trail to myself for hours, and now I had the pass to myself as well. It seemed likely I wouldn’t see anyone else until I made it to Many Glacier… As I entered the pass and headed up the ridge, the lonely footprints I’d been following disappeared. It was clear that whoever had left the footprints in the trail had gotten to the pass and turned around there and headed back down.

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The view from Cut Bank Pass

THIS. THIS IS WHAT FREEDOM FEELS LIKE. A beautiful, gorgeous amazing place, where your path isn’t obvious. You’ve got a pristine clean and clear slate, you just have to figure it all out on your own, knowing that somewhere hiding beneath that sparkling, glittery white, beautiful snow are right decisions and wrong ones, easy paths and hard ones, and you just have to figure it out.

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Snowy mountain view near Pitamakan Pass

There, appreciating the view and the solitude, I spotted a couple of people in the next pass up. Hmm… I wondered. Sure, it was uphill, and a bit of a detour, but I wanted to share the beauty of the place and the moment with another person, and I wanted a picture of me in the snow, so I started to break trail through the snow between me and them to say “hi.” They were a lovely couple, they happily snapped some photos of me, and I of them, and somehow they convinced me to keep climbing the rest of the way up the next pass to check the view, even though it was a fairly significant detour. I like hiking up, and hate heading down into the valley at sunset, so hiked up to check it out before returning to the unbroken trail of the CDT and the hike down to my designated campsite for the night.

It was beautiful up there, but since the afternoon was heading towards evening and I still had a lot of miles to go along unbroken trail, I headed back towards my original route. I marveled at the ruggedness of the mountains as I returned to my Northward trajectory through the cold, wet snow. The fact that the trail was unbroken, without any visible footprints on the CDT reminded me of how very alone I was as I continued North into the mountains.

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The view looking down into the valley where my campsite was waiting for me.

I descended into the valley, following the footprints of a fox for a while, and then a ptarmigan. The ptarmigan’s little footprints pointing like arrows in the direction it had gone.

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Ptarmigan footprints in the snow

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A ptarmigan stopping to question my sanity.

The clouds descended to keep me company, and as the snow got shallower it seemed the skies tried to make up the difference by starting the sleet on me.

“Well,” I sighed, in an Eeyore like moment, “at least I can see where the trail is now.”

Down, down, down I went, and the snow in the trail turned into a mushy slushy mess. My feet were soaking wet, and I had a feeling they were likely to stay that way until my trip was done. Eventually, as the sky turned gray and dull with the coming storm and the setting of the sun, I made it to my designated campsite. It came as no surprise that I was completely alone.

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A wintry mix (sleet/freezing rain/snow) descending on me at Pitamakan Lake

I pitched my tent in the rain, wandered over to the bear-line. Sat on a stump in the icy rain, ate my dinner, and hung my bear bag. The sleet had turning into a cold freezing rain, and I was incredibly happy to finish eating so that I could retreat to the comfort and warmth of my nice, dry sleeping bag. With almost 30 – miles to hike the next day I was going to want to get moving early the next morning and it was going to be a long, long, loooong day.

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Midstate Trail: Thru-Hiker Trip Report

Midstate Trail: Thru-Hiker Trip Report

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Sunrise at the summit of Mt. Watatic on the Massachusetts Midstate Trail

“You should do the Midstate Trail,” my brother suggested. I’d been stewing about where to take my week-long backpacking vacation with my freshly (hopefully) healed sprained ankle. As a thru-hiker, I’ve been interested in backpacking the long-distance trails in my home state of Massachusetts, and I figured that a week would be just about the right amount of time for me to hike the 95-mile Midstate Trail.

“I could do that,” I nodded and before I knew it, the decision was made. My brother handed me his Midstate Trail Guidebook, showed me the pictures from his end-to-end hike of the Midstate Trail (April 2004) and I began to plan.

Midstate Trail South

Massachusetts Midstate Trail (MST): Trip Report Overview

  • Distance: 95 miles from the NH border to the RI border
  • Official Guidebook: Available for $15 at midstatetrail.org (Proceeds go to the MST)
  • Activity: Backpacking; Southbound (SOBO) on the MST
  • Dates: July 10 – July 16, 2019 (took one rest day in the middle)
  • Hazards: Poison Ivy!! Bugs (Mosquitoes, Gnats, Blister Beetles, Ticks et al) & Bears
  • Cell Phone App: Gaia GPS (“Outdoors” layer has the Midstate Trail)
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Poison ivy growing up the tree and over the trail marker (yellow triangle) of the Midstate Trail.

Planning:

Although a lot of good resources exist for people looking to day-hike or section-hike the Midstate Trail (The Midstate Trail Guidebook, the Section-Hiker Guide, and the Google Maps Tracks), I only found one resource for Thru-hiking the Midstate Trail, and the information in it seemed fairly sparse.  This is because the Midstate Trail is designed as a hiking trail and NOT a backpacking trail. As a result, planning a long-distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts, or on the Long Trail in Vermont is easier than planning a long-distance backpacking trip on the Midstate Trail.

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A lot of the MST is shared-use trails. In many sections horses seemed to be the primary users (lots of hoof prints and NO footprints). Other trail users are our allies in conserving public lands, please treat them with respect.

As an experienced thru-hiker, I decided to take on the challenge of a Midstate Trail thru-hike anyway. I ended up using Gaia GPS (web & cell phone app) in conjunction with the Midstate Trail Guidebook to figure out the logistics of my trip, plan my route, and estimate my daily mileage.

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I didn’t need water at the time, but I stopped and recorded the location of this stream to add it to my Thru-Hikers Cheat Sheet (2 miles South of Convenience Store in North Rutland).

Since the Thru-Hikers Cheat Sheet for the Midstate Trail that I wanted didn’t exist, I decided to take a little extra time during (and after) my hike to create it. For this project, I used Gaia GPS to record notes, waypoints, and photos along my route, and then compiled it all into a color-coded 2-page table of mileage, amenities (water, food, lodging), and landmarks along the Midstate Trail. There were things that I missed, and probably mislabeled because the bugs were driving me absolutely crazy and I didn’t stop long enough to enter the data, but it may help you get a better sense of things when used in conjunction with the official Guidebook:

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Muddy Pond Shelter (3-sided) on the MST in Westminster State Forest is situated on the shore of Muddy Pond in an area frequented by both day-hikers and backpackers.

Camping:

One of the biggest challenges associated with backpacking the Midstate Trail is the paucity of officially sanctioned campsites and shelters and their uneven dispersal along the route. These options can be supplemented with stays at private campgrounds and Inns (call for availability). Even still, distances between options occasionally exceeds 20 miles:

  • 8.4 miles: Watatic Parking Lot to Muddy Pond Shelter
  • 24.5 miles: Muddy Pond Shelter to Trout & Pout Campground (+1 mile detour)
  • 11.7 miles: Trout & Pout Campground (+1 mile detour) to Long Pond Shelter
  • 7.4 miles: Long Pond Shelter to Buck Hill Shelter
  • 2.8 miles: Buck Hill Shelter to Moose Hill Shelter
  • 2.9 miles: Moose Hill Shelter to Leicester Country Inn (0.1 mile detour)
  • 1.4 miles: Leicester Country Inn (0.1 mile detour) to Sibley Tent Sites (0.1 detour)
  • 21.5 miles: Sibley Tent Sites (0.1 detour) to Sutton Falls Campground (+1 mile detour)
  • 11.2 miles: Sutton Falls Campground (+1 mile detour) to Douglas Shelter (0.5 from terminus)

As a result, many thru-hikers end up “stealth camping” or “stealthing” in undeveloped wooded areas at unofficial and/or unsanctioned sites along the route. If you are going to camp at an unofficial site, you should contact the landowners for permission. Although Massachusetts doesn’t offer guidelines for how backpackers should go about figuring out who owns what land and how to ask permission, they do provide this information for hunters, and much of it applies to hikers as well (see the land user pledge to the land owners found on the Land User/Land Owner Agreement Cards and resources for figuring out land ownership at the Massgis Oliver site)

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An abandoned factory on the MST that is riddled with bullet holes, full of graffiti (some of the most racist I’ve seen). It also has a fire ring in the middle, empty beer bottles lying around, and other evidence of people camping/partying. Some land owners may think that this is what people “camping” on their land without their permission looks like.

If you decide to stealth, please, please, PLEASE respect posted signs and private property, and be mindful of fragile habitats by camping in previously impacted areas. The existence of the Midstate Trail depends on maintaining the goodwill of the landowners along the route. Poor attempts at stealth camping that disrespect landowners and/or damage fragile environments put the existence of the Midstate Trail at risk. If you are stealth camping, be stealthy:

  • SKIP THE CAMPFIRE
  • Wait until dusk to pitch your tent
  • Take your tent down at dawn
  • Leave NO trace (use previously impacted sites)
  • Dig your cat holes twice as deep and cover them up twice as well

If you are stealth camping and people see you camping, or can tell where you camped, you are doing it wrong!

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The beavers have flooded the MST at Sacrarrappa Pond in Oxford, MA (shown here) and in many other locations on the MST.

Water

The Midstate Trail could easily be renamed as the Massachusetts Wetlands Trail, and there is water almost everywhere. For backpacking, assume all water is contaminated unless it is tap water. Almost every single water source on the Midstate Trail can be traced upstream to a beaver dam (except where the beaver dam is the trail, or is on the trail). It’s a safe bet that all the water on the Midstate Trail is contaminated with Giardia. Luckily most filters and purification methods when used correctly provide protection from giardia. However, many backcountry water sources on the Midstate Trail contain run-off from roads, commercial areas, and suburban neighborhoods. This runoff may contain chemical contaminants that your filters and purification methods do not protect. Runoff contamination is worst within 3 days of heavy rains and may contain raw sewage.

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At the North End of the Barre Falls Dam backpackers can fill their water bottles from the spigot on the front of the building by the 2nd door (as approached from the North). Backpackers can use the spigot during the spring, summer, and fall.

I choose my water sources carefully and carry both Aquamira (chemical purification) and a Sawyer Mini Squeeze filter. Potential water sources are listed in the Cheat Sheet without consideration of potential contamination concerns; use at your own risk and think before you drink.

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A gorgeous dragonfly gracefully perched in the middle of the MST in the Burncoat Pond Wildlife Sanctuary (Audobon Society).

Bugs

The bugs are another challenge for hikers and backpackers on the MST. The MST crosses through a lot of wetlands where the mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies can be incredibly ferocious. Bug spray, bug nets, and permethrin-treated gear are all highly recommended.

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The bugs and poison ivy were driving me crazy, the heat was unbearable and inescapable, and I was generally feeling miserable when I discovered the cleanest, coolest, most awesome composting toilet ever at Sibley Tent Sites. I may or may not have refused to leave the awesomeness of it’s bug-free world for almost an hour.

Thru-hiking in July after a slew of big storms passed through meant that I was constantly inundated with Mosquitoes and gnats constantly buzzing around me. My permethrin treated pants and shirt mostly kept them at bay, but those dang gnats would fly into my eyes, up my nose, and into my throat given the tiniest of chances.

The MST also crosses through a lot of fields and grassy meadows which are prime tick habitat and where hiking through the tall grasses is 100% unavoidable. On my July thru-hike I didn’t have any trouble with ticks. This may have been due to my head-to-toe permethrin-treated outfit, but was likely also because the ticks are less ferocious on hot summer days than cool spring and fall days.

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A big fluid-filled blister caused by a beetle that got crushed between my pants and my gaitors.

On the MST, crossing through the fields in Sutton, I had an unpleasant encounter with a new-to-me type of bug: a blister beetle. Blister beetles cluster around the edges of hay fields from July to early September. Blister beetles are full of a chemical called cantharidin, and if they get crushed against your skin it causes massive blisters to form #learningthehardway.

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Northern Terminus of the Midstate Trail at the Massachusetts/New Hampshire Border

Northern Terminus

Parking: Parking at the Northern Terminus is at the Mt. Watatic Parking Lot on Rt. 119, about 1.4 miles West of the intersection of 119 and 101 in Ashburnham, MA. This lot is relatively large, and on holidays and weekends fills quickly with day-hikers. The Ashburnham police note that you should leave your car locked and valuables out of sight. For those with Verizon, cell service at this parking lot is iffy. Leave your pack in your car while you do the ~3.6 mile loop to the Northern Terminus of the Midstate Trail and the summit of Watatic (either SOBO or NOBO).

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Best Day Hike: 3.6 Mile loop to the Northern Terminus of the Midstate Trail and the summit of Mt. Watatic. Note that in addition to the Midstate Trail Monument at the border, there are two additional monuments along the stone wall marking the Massachusetts/New Hampshire Line: the A & A Monument from 1894 marking the MA/NH line and the Borden Geological Survey Monument from 1834 marking the NH border as well as the border between the towns of Ashby and Ashburnham.

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Early morning at the Overlook on Mt. Watatic (500 foot detour from Midstate Trail)

Best Overnight: Watatic Parking Lot to Mount Hunger to Muddy Pond Shelter (great views of pond); include Northern Terminus Day Hike Loop if time and energy allow.

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Muddy Pond Shelter (3-sided) on the MST in Westminster State Forest is situated on the shore of Muddy Pond in an area frequented by both day-hikers and backpackers.

Southern Terminus

Rhode Island (RI) Parking & MA/RI Terminus Access: Parking at the Southern Terminus (RI-side) is on the shoulder of the road near 445 Buck Hill Road, Burrillville, RI. I would not want to leave my car here for very long. The section hiker guide suggests parking directly opposite Buck Hill Tower (I didn’t check out this option). Bring your pack. The Southern Terminus of the Midstate Trail can be accessed from Rhode Island via an ~3.8 mile stretch of the 78-mile North-South Trail that extends from the border of Massachusetts to the Ocean. There is a cute pond and cool rock ledges in this section. For those that are backpacking and setting off on a NOBO thru-hike of the Midstate trail, let me warn you that this stretch is quite rocky; if I was NOBO I would try to access the Southern terminus from the MA side. (Bring your pack with you)

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Southern terminus of the Massachusetts Midstate Trail and Northern Terminus of the Rhode Island North-South Trail.

Massachusetts Parking and MA/RI Terminus Access Trail: Parking for the Southern Terminus (MA-side) is a choose your own adventure out-and-back. I would opt for the pull off/parking option for the trunkline trail at the corner of Southwest Main St and Gore Rd in Douglas, MA (near the Connecticut border; Note Gore Rd is called High St in CT).  From there hike ~0.4 miles West (past the Trunkline trail) to the Midstate trail and then ~1 mile South on the Midstate Trail to the southern terminus for a total of 1.4 miles each way. This is a much easier trail than the North-South Trail in Rhode Island. NOTE: I accessed the trail from RI so did not check out this parking option.

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Midstate Trail monument at the Southern Terminus on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.

Best Family Vacation: Douglas State Park has lots of opportunities for hiking, biking, boating, and swimming making it a great place to explore for a family vacation with additional recreation options available in RI in the Buck Hill Management Area.

  • Coffee House Loop Trail, Douglas State Park Day Hike; follow the Coffeehouse Loop Trail West 0.6 miles to the intersection with the Midstate Trail, follow Midstate Trail 1.4 miles South to Southern Terminus, return 1.4 miles to Coffeehouse Loop Trail,
  • Cedar Swamp Nature Trail, on my thru-hike I took the 0.5 mile detour East to hike the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp nature trail (0.5 mile) since it is a rare and unusual habitat in Massachusetts and wasn’t a huge detour. I enjoyed it, and would add it to any Douglas State Park Hiking Plan.
  • Douglas State Park Backpacking: The southernmost ~8 miles of the Midstate Trail are I Douglas State Park as is one of the officially sanctioned shelters. The park is beautiful and backpacking within the park is something I would happily do again. However, North of the park there is a lot of road walking, so it may not be ideal for casual backpacking.
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Taking a break at the Parking Pullout near the Reservoir in Leicester on the MST to dry out my sopping wet gear (from overnight thunderstorms) and to cook dinner on my alcohol stove (each bottle contains enough fuel/HEET to boil water for one dinner).

Cheat Sheet Images:

I recommend downloading the pdf (click here), but I’ve included screenshots for convenience below:

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Links

Long-Distance Hiking Trails in Massachusetts

  • the Appalachian Trail (2013 Thru-hike)
  • the New England Trail aka Metacomet – Monadnock Trail (Sections 2014)
  • the Midstate Trail (July 2019)
  • the Mahican – Mohawk Trail
  • the Taconic Crest Trail
  • the Warner Trail
  • the Bay Circuit Trail
  • the Mass Central Rail Trail.
Winter Backpacking: Mt. Washington, NH

Winter Backpacking: Mt. Washington, NH

“Wow!!” I grinned, ear to ear, as I gazed up at the sparkling white, snow-covered summit of Mount Washington, set against the most amazingly clear bluebird sky I’ve ever seen in the White Mountains. It was hard to believe that just a few days before the winds had been blasting across the mountains at 171 mph with temperatures dipping down to -13F (-25C) since today the sun was shining, temperatures were rising into the teens, the winds were calm, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. Not a single one!!  I couldn’t have asked for better weather for me first winter overnight on Mt. Washington! (Trip report and gear list below)

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CDT Backpack Review

Snow Angel on the CDT

Making a snow angel on the CDT in Montana with my final CDT pack: the Lumina 60.

On my CDT thru-hike I used three different backpacks: my 2013 Exos 58, which finally wore out after 3,662 miles of harsh use, and two different 2018 Lumina/Levity 60 packs. Below, I review the two models (3 packs) I used on the CDT (see “The Gear That Got Me Thru (CDT Gear List)” for my complete gear list).

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The Gear That Got Me Thru (CDT Gear List)

The Gear That Got Me Thru (CDT Gear List)

Cowboy camping on the CDT in Wyoming. After >6000 miles, my sleeping bag is as cozy as ever.

“I don’t understand why my pack is so heavy,” I mumbled, heaving my pack onto my back, “I have all the ultralight gear.”  Peru laughed, “That’s exactly the problem. You have ALL of it!!” I laughed too. She wasn’t exactly wrong.

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