• Mary Anderson

Working Around the Wildfires



It's not the bears I am most afraid of out here. Lightning on an exposed ridge scares me more. And even more than that, I am concerned about forest fires. I don't go around in constant fear of them, but I am more wary of them than I am of bears. I keep an eye out on the horizon for them. I smell the air and have gotten to know how to tell by smell when they are getting closer. I can't exactly explain it, but there are times when I actually smell the warmth from nearby fires.


I've had third-degree burns over 40 percent of my body. It is enough for me to know

I don't want to die by immolation. Last year the trail was twice closed because of fire within a few days of my passing through. In New Mexico I was pulled off the trail by a sheriff when the wind suddenly changed on a fire down there. It made me wonder what I would do and where I would go if I felt a fire coming close. I wondered if I would try to climb high above tree line or if I would try to go low and find a river to soak in. Luckily, I never had to find out.


This year there are fires raging around me in Montana. The trail is closed in a number of places.


Vermont artist Karen Deets, Mary's wildfire researcher.

I am really lucky to have a friend such as Karen Deets, who spends hours poring over maps to locate where the fires are in relation to the trail. Once she has this information and confirms it with online information, she looks for possible alternates. She checks with the Continental Divide Coalition to see what they are suggesting. She passes all this information on to me via my satellite device. When I have service, I call her for more in-depth updates. Not only does this give me much needed information, it also helps me feel a little less alone out here. Many hiker tramilies have spent hours talking about the different alternate possibilities. I've had to make my own decisions with help from Karen, who has made it clear that she is my off-trail tramily.


I spent more than an entire day and a half while in Helena trying to get information about the fire alternates. Routes were suggested, but none of them gave mileage or information about water. I was not comfortable going cross-country for hundreds of miles with no maps or information on where to find water or where to resupply, which is what a lot of hikers are choosing to do. If they don't find water or places to get food in 15 miles they can hike another 15 in the same day. At 65, I do not have that ability.


I decided to go the red route. The main route is known as the Red Line because it is red on the trail app. It is where most of the fires are currently burning. I decided to walk toward the fires and the trail closures and then make my way down routes suggested by the CDT Coalition.


By the time I reached Butte, I was wavering. I learned that the route I had chosen meant days of walking on a paved road. I had no interest in a 100-mile road walk. I bought a paper map that covered the fire sections, and made new plans. I would weave my way through the fire closures on dirt Forest Service roads using map and compass.


Then the fires grew. The sky was already hazy, and I didn't relish breathing in yet more smoke.


I met some hikers who gave me the confidence that I could do what people call the Big Sky Alternate. This route cuts off about 200 miles of looping trail, but it spends more time at higher elevation and crosses some gorgeous areas that the trail misses. It also spends more time in Yellowstone. Most important, it walks away from the fires, not toward them.

I reminded myself that others had gone ahead of me and so the chances that I could do it were good. I wished, however, that I was not doing it alone. Sitting in Butte, studying my paper map, I had to deal with all the emotional feelings that came up as I prepared to leap into the unknown by myself in just a few hours. I reminded myself that no matter how much I plan, even in life back home, many things go awry and usually I emerge okay. I had weighed my options, talked with other hikers, and done what I could to mitigate the risks. Now it was time to leap into the unknown, even if that was never in the plan. I tried to trust that if I kept putting one foot in front of the other I could do what was ahead of me. I told myself that whatever happened, I would accept the consequences, knowing I had done my best. I would even try to enjoy the challenge. That's all any of us can do when we make plans.


A Warm Welcome in Whitehall

From right: Mayor Mary Janacaro Hensleigh of Whitehall, Montana; Mary; and Shannon.

I took off from Butte not exactly sure where I was going. As I was about to embark on a very sun-exposed walk of about 20 miles with almost no water I met Derby, a really kind hiker. We wove our way together up and down the dirt road, his young legs encouraging me to walk faster than I would have done alone. Together we realized that if we were to get to water that evening we would be walking close to 24 miles into the town of Whitehall. When we hit some agricultural sprinklers watering a field of alfalfa, we stopped and stood while the sprinklers made two passes over us. We reveled in the coolness of that water in the excessive heat. It was nice to have a hiking companion to share that pleasure with, especially because I know he could have walked faster and left me in the dust.


When we hit a paved road four miles from town, I had to sit and take a break. A muscle in my groin was taking a beating from the over-three-mile-per-hour pace I had managed to walk while carrying a lot of water. I sat while Derby pushed on to town.


On the verge of tears, I stuffed some food into my face and huddled under my umbrella for shade, even though it was already near 6 p.m. Eventually, I got myself standing again. I called Karen, who hummed for me a Sousa march to give me the energy to keep going. A pickup truck came by and the couple inside asked if I wanted a ride.


Of course I wanted a ride, but I was not going to take it. I explained I was trying to walk a continuous line from Canada to Mexico and had just 700 miles to go. I thanked them for stopping. Then I mentioned I wouldn't mind walking without my pack. They threw my pack in their truck, and we made arrangements for me to hike down the road, past their house.

It was wonderful to hike packless. In trail terminology, we call this slack packing. It was just what my limping body needed. I thought about the trust it took to throw my pack with absolutely everything I had except for my hiking poles into the back of a stranger's truck. I can't say how I knew they were kind people. Maybe some of it was desperation, but a lot of it was trust. And sure enough, about two miles down the road, when I went past their farm house, Shannon came out to greet me with cold water. She asked me if I liked pizza and suggested they meet me in town in a while with a pizza. She also told me she had called the mayor, who informed her I could set up camp behind Town Hall! Things were looking up.


Shannon pointed out a dirt path I could walk to town, which was easier on my body than the paved road. I called her when I arrived in town two more miles down the road. They met me, and we had a lovely pizza dinner at the picnic table behind Town Hall.


Then the mayor came by. It was Sunday evening, and Mayor Mary Janacaro Hensleigh had company, but she left her home to open the building for me. She gave me towels and showed me where I could shower. She gave me access to electricity to charge my phone and battery pack. She made sure I had water and ran an extension cord to the picnic table so i could run the fan she provided! She apologized that the grass was not recently mowed! Best of all she shared her story with me, which included breaking the gender barrier and becoming the first woman elected mayor of this town.


By the time everyone left, I was exhausted. I showered, handwashed my clothes, and was just crawling in my tent to sleep when Derby and his hiking buddy came by! There was no room at the one motel in this town of about 1,100 people, and they had heard about Town Hall as an option.


People ask why I hike. It is for experiences such as these as much as it is about walking in nature. I am met with so many instances of what we call trail magic that I can't help but put worry aside and go with the flow, meandering where the trail takes me, one step at a time.


There is a saying out here: The trail provides. Today I am taking the day off, sitting in the shade in a lounge chair Shannon bought by this morning when she picked me up to take me to the grocery store. I will rest my complaining muscle, catch up on writing and contact with friends, and be eternally grateful for what the trail has provided this time, reminding myself yet again that worry has no place either here or at home. All I have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and trust the trail to provide.


Although I struggled with a sense of isolation as I made the decision, in Butte, to leave the official CDT and set off by myself into the unknown, I was also incredibly grateful for friends both new and old. I'm learning to appreciate the people I meet for only a day, knowing they are enriching my life, even if I will soon have to say good-bye. And I am especially grateful for longtime friends such as Karen Deets, who continues to send me fire updates and has my back. I've already had both wonderful and difficult times on the alternate, and so far I am finding my way. I hope I continue to find my way, both physically and emotionally.

 

When 63-year-old Mary Anderson set out to hike the southern half of the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail last summer, nobody thought she would make it. Hikers give themselves trail names, and Mary’s was Old Lady Hiker. A few days into her solo trek, she ran into some younger hikers who decided she needed a new name. From then on, she was known as Mary Badass. In the fall of 2020, Mary began writing her story in a Korongo workshop hosted by Kimball Library in Randolph. This summer, she is blogging from the trail as she hikes the northern half of the CDT.


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