By Meredith Hughes
When you are 22, athletic, and have a free summer ahead, even during a pandemic, you go for it, especially if you have supportive Corrales parents. Nicolette Jones has it all, and in November completed the 3,100-mile trek that is the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, stretching from just above the edge of northern Montana to the Crazy Cook Monument on the Mexican border.
According to the Trail Coalition website, “The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) is one of the most significant trail systems in the world. Established by Congress in 1978, it spans 3,100 miles between Mexico and Canada, traverses five states and connects countless communities along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.” What may be more important, it separates the watersheds that drain into the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
The establishment of the Appalachian Trail in 1925 kicked everything off. Years later, the passage of the National Trails System Act in 1968 officially designated the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, and directed that 14 other possible routes be studied, including the Continental Divide Trail.
As Jones hiked on her own, over a period of four months, she posted entries on her new blog, “A Walk In the Park, on WordPress, whenever in range of a wifi signal. One of her early entries was this: “It wasn’t until my first day alone that the reality of my solitude hit me. I realized how much I would be missing my friends and family for the next few months, but all the same I was excited to be hiking. Being out on my own also made me appreciate how much getting here has not been an individual endeavor. I’ve had so much support and help from the people around me to make this hike possible! That day was filled with a mix of emotions while I saw lots of bear footprints and enjoyed some beautiful views.”
Yes, bears. Grizzlies. Montana is rich in them. And even though Jones recently graduated from Adams State in Alamosa, Colorado, whose mascot is a grizzly, she admits to being “bearanoid.” Jones was not carrying an actual tent —just material on which to lay her mat and sleeping bag, and a modest tarp to erect over her, as needed. Her first night was… relatively sleepless. But, she got with the program. As she put it, “I had always wanted to explore Montana and Wyoming, having never been there, the COVID-19 regulations were not strict, and the area was very hiker friendly.” Her backpack’s “base weight” was about 11 pounds, including a small stove, her sleeping gear, and minimal clothes. Food and water added about two pounds per day, and at one stretch she traveled nine deeply backpack-heavy days without reprovisioning.
Somewhere in Wyoming, she posted this: “The past four days have been hot, dry, dusty and filled with cow poop. This was one of the most difficult stretches for me. The days felt really long and the terrain was not always inspiring. The first night out, I realized there was something wrong with my stove, and, too tired to fix it, I just cold soaked my food for the past three days. Most of the time, I really just felt like I was walking from water source to water source, not really hiking. As a fun bonus, most of the water sources were littered with cow poop and cows pooping. Luckily, I was able to download some podcasts before I left so I had something to listen to other than the wind.”
Her parents back in Corrales periodically mailed her supplies, and kept a bead on her via a GPS tracker. Her mom, Heidi, is a long time mechanical engineer, and her dad was the parent-in-charge of the household of two sons and daughter. A couple of times her parents swooped in to relieve her, once from an unexpected snow storm, once when her boyfriend’s father fell ill and unexpectedly died. Jones and her boyfriend had intended to hike together for about a month, but that plan crumbled.
Along the way, Jones did some walking and camping with fellow hikers, but also stayed in what might be called hostels, and occasionally showered and bedded down in hotels, when she reached towns with grocery stores and laundromats. But she also became adept at washing undies in a plastic bag while on the trail. Water, environmentally correct soap, much shaking, rinsing, then hanging to dry from her pack.
One of the most strenuous portions of the journey involved an 8,000-foot climb among 14,000-foot peaks, then walking a ridge line trail at about 12,000 feet. No surprise — the CDT has been described as “the highest, most challenging, and most remote of the country’s National Scenic Trails.”
As you might imagine, shoes were key. She went through seven pair of Altras in four months. As of early 2021, the trail from the Crazy Cook Monument at the Mexican border to Waterton Lakes National Park at the Canadian border is 95 percent complete, with only 164 miles remaining to be protected on public land.
Now back with her boyfriend in Leadville, Colorado, where she will again be a ski instructor, Jones, an English major who also studied something called Adventure Leadership, a pursuit her mom dubbed “majoring in recess,” might indeed like to work with youth in outdoor education. But also, recreationally speaking, go bike packing with her boyfriend somewhere outside the United States post pandemic. She sees no need to commit to a career as yet.
As she notes in her blog, which she intends to continue, “This summer has been immensely rewarding, and in the face of the joy and strife I’ve experienced on trail, this stone marker [to the Crazy Cook] at the Mexico border seems like an awfully arbitrary ending to the endeavor. Of course, the perspective I have gained and the joy I’ve felt do not end at that terminus. The goal, after all, is to bring back those important things which can be gained from this sort of undertaking.”
Such as learning that the “crazy cook” was a kitchen worker who killed someone.
Her blog can be found at https://awalkinthepark906214396.wordpress.com.
Explore the trail remotely at https://continentaldividetrail.org