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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.

It’s day nine already? One’s perception of time warps on long trips like these, shifting from the count of days and weeks to peaks, passes, lakes, camps, and snacks. In fact, I’m daydreaming of peanut butter bagels while bashing down through chest-high foliage toward Hoadley Creek Trail and my first resupply at Benchmark when a hairy blob the color of dead pine needles stands up from the bushes just ahead. Bear!

Then a scarier sound: the scratch of tiny claws on rotten bark. A cub fires up out of the brush, climbing a trekking pole-thin lodgepole snag, and my heart falls into my boots. I’m uphill from Mama Grizzly; that, and her concern for junior is the only reason she’s not gnawing on my head. She hums oddly, the cub plunges obediently in a shower of bark flakes, and the two vanish in a fade-out of crashing noises.

I move on—fast—and roll into Benchmark Wilderness Ranch two days early. I overnight in their 1921 cabin, all dark wood, cast iron, and mounted heads—and whiskey left by previous guests. I slide beneath six Hudson Bay blankets and snore for 12 hours as heavy rain pounds the roof. Tonight’s mantra: No whining. No moving.

Two days later, and I can’t get back to the Divide atop 8,164-foot Scarlet Mountain. Too steep. Of course, scenery this stunning and solitude this deep shouldn’t come easy. I head through the forks of Ahorn Creek on trails ravaged by a 2010 fire to regain the continental rooftop farther north and camp, exhausted, on a tiny patch of tundra beneath Junction Peak. The bighorn sheep clinging to the side of it look at me like I’m the first human to ever bed down here. Who knows? The next day brings a fine gable-walk along steep ridge crests, until I’m forced to thread my way down hairy, gravel-covered ledges to reach White River Pass. A new maxim forms: Pay attention! Crawl if necessary!

From White River, I go cross-country on game trails, seeking a way up the famous Chinese Wall, a 40-mile-long, 1,000-foot-high cliff that forms the Bob’s scenic centerpiece. I want to walk atop it, not beneath, but as I scan the ridges, imagineering a way, a huge smoke column mushrooms over the Flathead Alps one ridge west. Driven by high winds, the wildfire cranks up quickly. Alarmed by smoke overwhelming my position, I abandon ridgeline ambitions and boogie north until I strike the Chinese Wall Trail, a roughly 18-mile track, overlapped by the CDT, that snakes along the base of the wall’s central section. After three days of tense routefinding, I’m happy to stroll the hardpack beneath these dark, 1,000-foot cliffs, ogling meadows growing thick with Indian paintbrush so red I have to squint.

Day 20: My pack feels weightless, my legs spring-loaded. If one measures wealth by alpine views, I could retire this moment and live like a king. Dean Lake at mile 155 is heaven. Pikas squeak from the shorelines, and the water is dead still. I chill my feet, staring at mirrored versions of immense Pentagon Mountain, an imposing, cliffy pyramid with ridgelines that spread like arms to embrace the lake basin.

Three days, 22 miles, and one resupply later, I ascend tributaries of the Teton River’s North Fork to fogbound passes beneath Corrugate Ridge. The weather is cold, and the peaks hidden by low clouds, as I thread the narrow corridor of Gateway Pass and drop through Big River Meadow. On the East Fork of Strawberry Creek, about three days from my finish at Marias Pass, I surprise a Montana Conservation Corps trail crew. "We hardly ever see hikers," smiles foreman Case Dunn. I linger for hours at their camp, trading stories and gorging on their Oreos and fresh cherries. The crew is excited about the route I’ve followed. "Sounds bigger and badder than the trails we work on," says one. I smile inwardly: I’m back in the game. 

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