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Through Love and Heartbreak, My Favorite Trail Was Always There

Through two breakups, career changes, and more, the Beaten Path has been a welcome constant—and a yardstick for just how much everything else has shifted.

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Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.

My first time on Montana’s 26-mile-long Beaten Path was six or seven years ago, with my then-fiancé. The trail wasn’t as popular as it is now and guides were almost non-existent, so we cobbled together what information we could and planned a shuttle, leaving my truck at East Rosebud and driving his back over Beartooth Pass to start outside Cooke City. 

The Beaten Path isn’t very long, but the terrain is heroic— the kind of setting that makes you feel like you’re on an epic adventure. Very few miles are below treeline: the trail starts high, then climbs even higher to the dramatic landscape of the Beartooth Plateau. There are open expanses of alpine meadow, flowing creeks that criss-cross the trail, and campsites near alpine lakes, all ringed by snow-capped mountains. 

We were in terrible hiking shape, and planned to do the trip as an overnight. A few miles in, however, we realized we’d left the fuel in my truck, and had miscalculated the amount of food we would need for a two day trip. Instead of turning around, we hiked the full trail in one day, essentially off the couch. Even through the struggle, it ended up being one of my favorite stories—the incredible views and glittering lakes were punctuated by stabbing pain in my knees and the helpless feeling of having no idea how much farther we had to go. I’ll never forget the relief I felt when I caught a glimpse of cars at the East Rosebud trailhead as the last of the sunlight faded.

Two years later, we hiked the Beaten Path again, this time with two friends. We’d ended our engagement and we were seeing if there was anything left to salvage in our relationship. 

“I’d thought that returning to these 52 miles of trail would fix something, reverse the series of events that led to the end of the relationship, but I was wrong. I had now ended two serious relationships against the Beaten Path’s dramatic backdrop.”

We were proficient backpackers now, thanks to an Appalachian Trail thru-hike the year before, but the end of our relationship had turned us unsentimental. Our friends were newly in love and also new to backpacking. They hiked slowly, stopping often to pull out a map and point out landmarks. My partner and I hovered nearby, impatiently waiting with our packs still strapped to our backs. 

We packed up quickly in the morning like we’d done for five months on the AT, looking around for our friends. We saw them through the mist floating off the lake—their tent was still set up and he was teaching her how to use a fly fishing rod, unaware that anyone was watching. My breath caught in my throat as I watched them untangle the line together. My partner turned and headed towards the trail. 

A few years later, I pulled into the Cooke City trailhead yet again, this time with someone else. I was in excellent hiking shape, I was experienced in the backcountry, and thanks to my new career in the outdoor industry, my gear was dialed. Despite its emotional baggage, the Beaten Path was now my favorite trail, and I was thrilled to share it with someone new. We were a solid backcountry team, and despite mishaps with the group we were hiking with, we felt confident and strong and capable. 

Then, like Groundhog Day, I returned to the Beaten Path the next summer, in the midst of yet another relationship’s end. My soon-to-be-ex and I hiked it as an out-and-back—52 miles in 2.5 days. Years after my first difficult trip on the trail, the climbs and descents felt mellow. We switchbacked up the canyon, climbed alongside the roaring creek to treeline, then out to the expanse of the plateau. Each turn felt familiar, each consecutive section of trail made sense. We were fluid and seamless as hiking partners, with more nights spent in the backcountry than I could remember. There was no hostility, just quiet sadness.

I’d thought that returning to these 52 miles of trail would fix something, reverse the series of events that led to the end of the relationship, but I was wrong. I had now ended two serious relationships against the Beaten Path’s dramatic backdrop. I stopped often to look around as he hiked ahead. I kept my mind as distracted as possible and pushed away the hollow feeling in my gut. 

It always surprises me how the passage of time can soften even the most extreme experiences. Returning to the Beaten Path again and again has given me a context to help make sense of the ways my life has changed. In my head, it’s a parade of little experiences: I might not remember the year it happened, but I do remember the trail junction where we realized we didn’t have any fuel. The rocky outcropping where we built a smoky little fire to chase mosquitoes away. The campsite where I watched our friends fishing together. The spot where I realized the first relationship was over—and the second one, too.

I know I’ll go back this summer, like I do pretty much every year. I don’t know what my life will look like in six months, but I’m excited to pull into that same parking lot and set foot on the trail that feels more familiar each time.


From 2022