A red dotted line squiggled its way over Bear Creek Pass from Idaho into Montana—at least on some maps. The line remained conspicuously and uncomfortably absent on others. Agonizingly familiar with soul-sucking, energy-draining Bitterroot bushwhacks, I knew dotted lines on a map did not guarantee the existence of a trail. Yet, I clung to the wiggling red marks I had seen with unrelenting tenacity. I insisted upon the trail's presence.
Last year, my friend Greg Peters and I initiated an annual rite of completing a long, single-day trek by making a 28-mile loop hike of the Fred Burr drainage and Mill Creek in the Bitterroots. For this year's outing, the teasing red line inspired an even more lofty goal: 30 miles through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness over two passes, with the questionable existence of a trail. I managed to convince Greg that a track climbed the northwestern aspect of Bear Creek Pass, connecting Big Creek with Bear Creek. My husband Joshua, on the other hand, was not a believer.
"There's not going to be a trail back there," he warned.
"Yes, there is," I said.
"No, there's not. It's going to be a bushwhack—deadfall everywhere. You're only planning one day for this?"
My husband's skepticism registered clearly and threatened to shake my cheerful optimism. I delivered the only rebuttal possible.
"Well ... I choose to think positively." My chin jutted forward in defiance.
"Thinking positively doesn't change reality. There's not going to be a trail."
I tried to ignore my husband, but the idea of a monstrous bushwhack lying in wait 16 miles into the wilderness caused my stomach to churn and my palms to sweat, so Greg and I planned on leaving the Big Creek trailhead early enough to allow for the possibility of a death march. And because attitude means everything, we armed ourselves with the hope that at least one cartographer knew his trade.
After a groggy, barely-lucid breakfast in Hamilton at a time of day I would normally refer to as "night," Greg and I drove up an uncharacteristically empty Highway 93 toward the trailhead. With a final check to ensure the car keys found their way safely into my pack, I took the lead down the trail. It's not that I was dying to get out front, but Greg, less cautious than I, did not bother to pack a light.
To travel by headlamp is to enter an unearthly world—to tumble down the rabbit hole. Within the fuzzy blue circle of light, colors disappear into a muted palette of grays and silvers. Shadows merge into incongruous shapes and sizes, and familiar objects take on an unrecognizable character. Outside of the bubble, the darkness pressed against us, while the loamy, fragrant smells of the ancient forest saturated our nostrils.
Our stumbling footsteps concerned me. I wondered how rough miles 10 and 20 might become if we were already tripping over roots this early in the game. I attempted to voice my concern, but I was too tired to say anything. Half of me remained nestled in bed.
Gradually, the black sky gave way to a gray dawn and a single, resounding trill from a bird sounded the morning's reveille. Angry chatter from a squirrel answered the bird's call, and like a Marine barracks, the forest awoke at once. Our steps quickened as we shook away the last tendrils of darkness. We then began the sticky task of removing the cobwebs that covered us as we rushed up the trail toward Big Creek Lake.
"We're here already?" I asked Greg as we crested a steep hill.
We had blitzed the first nine miles to the lake in three hours—good time. After a quick stop to filter water and greet a party of horse packers, we made our way toward Packbox Pass. Our rapid pace slowed as we climbed the four miles to the Bitterroot Divide.