The wind came at me like a fist. I was a thousand feet higher than I intended, and the weather was letting me know it. I looked at my watch as the gusts regrouped for another punch. Almost dinner time. Hikers shouldn’t be on ridgelines in Montana’s high country this late.
But I wasn’t hiking. And, before the menacing weather chased me away, I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be than this very spot, 5 miles deep in the wilderness without another soul in sight.
Earlier in the day, the sun had emerged after a week of rain—and I had a few free hours. It was the kind of fate a visitor to Bozeman, Montana, doesn’t think twice about.
I wandered northeast of town and joined the horde on the short loop to the white “M” plastered to the side of Baldy Mountain. Foot traffic congested the trail as I approached the turnoff to the “M,” but over my shoulder, I spied an empty ribbon of singletrack. It stretched onward and upward, curling through shattered limestone and conifer forest like a siren song.
I didn’t know where the path led, and with just two hours until a planned dinner with a friend, I also knew I didn’t have time to find out. At least not at a hiker’s pace.
When I was a student at the University of North Carolina, I had plenty of time for long hikes. But now, like most of the gainfully employed, I have to squeeze backpacking trips into weekends or precious vacation days. So I started running. Suddenly I had time for after-work “hikes”—6 miles before dinner? No problem. My runs grew to the size of weekend epics. I saw the backcountry even when the clock said I shouldn’t.
So when all other circumstances suggested I had no time for a 10-mile hike that early-fall day in Bozeman, I tightened my laces.
The Bridger Foothills Trail leapt gullies and ducked into valleys. I hop-scotched rocky downhills, hurdled logs, glided flats. Four miles in, I was tired, but I didn’t want to stop; there was more ahead to explore, and with the adrenaline pumping, the miles flew by. To a would-be dayhiker, they felt stolen, and that made them even sweeter.
It took a little over an hour to gain the ridge, a fracture of limestone in the foothills’ shoulders. I hadn’t found the end of the trail, but it was enough. As I gazed out, a gale ripped over the hogback and nearly bowled me over. It was time to turn around. I stood my ground for one last glance down the valley. The trail unspooled beneath me, the Bridgers cresting the horizon and rolling away to the north and east. I soaked it in. Stolen miles, stolen view.
On the descent, I skipped beneath the pine boughs and yellow aspens. The sun glowed copper through the grass by the time I could see windshields glinting in the parking lot. The day was ending, but I’d covered twice as many miles as I’d set out to see.
And I would only be a little late for dinner.