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Big Wild Empty: The Bob Marshall Wilderness

Think there's nothing wild left in the Lower 48? Don't tell the grizzlies on this traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

I catch a ride from Great Falls, Montana, to the Rogers Pass trailhead with an honest-to-God Air Force nuclear missile technician. It’s oddly appropriate—there are so many ways this trip could blow up in my face. I’m heading solo into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, a 1.5 million-acre swath of mountainous no-man’s land. I’m worried about the long and steep approach under a crushing two-week load. I’m worried about crossing tundra freshly tilled by foraging bears. I’m worried about how much I’m worrying before I even take the first step.

"The Bob," as it’s called quite reverently in certain circles, comprises three contiguous wilderness parcels; Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, and Great Bear. Together, they house more than 200 miles of the Continental Divide between Helena, Montana, and the southern border of Glacier National Park. My plan is to cut a high route right up the center of it, from Rogers Pass to Marias Pass, hugging the actual Divide rather than the valley-hugging Continental Divide Trail. The trek (estimated mileage: 220, but I know it’ll be more) will take three or four weeks, with two resupply stops.

Why tackle such an audacious route, alone? I need wilderness with a capital W after enduring two long years of chronic pain and four short months recovering from hip-replacement surgery. My passion—heck, my career—has always been serious backcountry adventure, and recently I’ve felt benched. Time to get back in the game.

Too much, too soon, too out there? I whisper a not-so-gentle mantra: Quit whining. Keep moving.

The divide snakes northward over bare summits and brush-choked saddles. Wildflowers highlight the tundra hillocks like multicolored sprinkles on God’s own donut. After an eight-mile, 800-foot initial climb, I top the Divide’s first summits and have a look. Creeks and wetlands ring my horizon, shimmering like mirrors in the hot July sun. The only sounds are wind, distant thunder—and the unnerving squeak from the kilo of chrome steel that is now my left hip. I alter my stride. Quit whining. Keep moving.

Over the next several days, I routinely shoo bruins off my intended course and fight unforeseen obstacles. Like now, on the afternoon of day four, looking down from the summit of 9,079-foot Flint Mountain over a surprise set of cliff bands and crumbling pinnacles. It’s a dead-end requiring a two-day detour.

Official trails, unmapped trails, game trails, and bushwhacking interweave. When the routefinding gets tough, I orient by GPS waypoints bombsighted on my home computer. These lead me through dense underbrush at every saddle and across open ridges occasionally complicated by blowdown. It’s slow going, but by day nine, I’m growing confident the route will work.

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