A Thru-Hiker's Story of Why We Need Conservation

By Jenny Gaeng

I was twenty-six years old and standing – just barely – in New Mexico. My backpack was already digging into my shoulders. My feet, wrapped in shiny new trail runners, scratched nervously at the desert sand.

The hot air rippled like a curtain. Brown mountains rose in enormous triangles from the flat expanse; they could have been painted, like the backdrop of a play. Behind me stood a small barbed-wire fence: Mexico.

3,100 miles ahead shone a luminous bullseye: Canada.

There was a monument at the trailhead, a sturdy stone obelisk reading: Southernmost Point, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The route was engraved on the side: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana. It took seconds to run my fingers from beginning to end; I figured it would take five or six months by foot.

The shuttle to the trailhead had gone, and I was all alone. I was afraid to start hiking, afraid that I was really here and had no one to blame but myself. The path forward was littered with cholla cacti and wiry ocatilla, their tips like red arrowheads pointing at the sky.

I tried to imagine what I could not see: the promise of rivers and peaks, of strength and redemption. I pointed my body north and began to walk.

The Continental Divide Trail was created in 1978 under the National Scenic Trails Act, joining other long-distance hikes such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. While those trails attract thousands of “thru-hikers” each year, the Continental Divide Trail only sees a few hundred. This is due in part to the challenges of the trail: remoteness, route-finding, weather, and everyone’s favorite fear, grizzly bears. The trail is also incomplete. Today, 20 percent of the trail is on roads, from bumpy dirt roads to actual highways, where hikers’ feet throb on the scorching pavement as cars whiz by. About a thousand miles in, I started sticking out my thumb.

Future hikers may not have to, thanks to the amazing work of land management agencies, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and other partners working to complete the trail. This means fun work like mapping and trail-building, but land acquisition comes first.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created in 1964 to repurpose taxes from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund something that virtually every American benefits from: public land. Money from LWCF is used to purchase private land and give it back to the people – and it’s not just trails and forests; every state in the country has used LWCF to pay for parks, bike paths, and more. In this case, purchasing those last remaining parcels along the Continental Divide is instrumental in completing the trail from Mexico to Canada.

But these days, there’s not much that we don’t have to fight for. On September 30, LWCF is set to expire, and it will take an act of Congress to keep it afloat. If Congress doesn’t vote to save it, we could lose our most precious resources to the backlog of defunded yet essential conservation efforts. The Continental Divide Trail could forever remain a trail of broken links along the nation’s spine.

Hiking near Knapsack Col, Wind River Range, Wyoming

September 22 was the first day of fall. It was already bone-cold in Montana, ten miles from the border in Glacier National Park.

I woke up to water dripping through the seams of my tent. Everything was soaked: my clothes, my pad, my sleeping bag. I didn’t care. “Squirrel!” I yelled to my buddy, who had joined me for the last few days. “Wake up. Let’s get the heck to Canada!”

The trail had turned into a river of mud, two steps forward and big slides back. The rain made it worse. We followed a creek up, up, over a hill, gritting our teeth until finally-

Squirrel was ahead, and I heard him start to whoop. “Oh my god,” I whispered. I opened my throat to join in, but only air came out. I braced myself to feel – what was I supposed to feel?

A bleary parking lot emerged from the fog: a pit toilet, two flags, and a few lonely cars. Squirrel was staring up at the sign and shielding his face from the rain.

“This is anticlimactic,” he said.

“No!” I cried. This was the punctuation mark at the end of a very long sentence. It had started five months and two days ago at the barbed-wire fence, or maybe earlier – the first time I scaled a mountain, or saw the Milky Way, or sat in the city listening to sirens howl and thinking, I wish I was far away.

Wherever it began, it snaked here over five million footsteps. Ten for the sirens, one hundred for an illness, one thousand for a broken heart – and all the rest for the people who told me I wouldn’t make it. The Continental Divide Trail was every oozing blister, every misstep that sent me face-first into the dirt. It was every time someone asked, Are you alone? and their tone said, You shouldn’t be here. It was every basin that drained my breath, all the mountains that washed over me and carried everything else away.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund isn’t just about land or water. It’s the currency of the human spirit, of challenge and healing. It keeps us alive and free.

“I knew the trail wouldn’t let us down easy,” Squirrel groaned.

My nose was numb from the rain. I scraped my teeth against the my peeling lower lip and looked out at the fog. I didn’t know how to get home or even where home would be. But I knew that I could keep moving, even if it took another five million steps to get there.

I said, “This is perfect.”

Read more from Jenny Gaeng, Field Organizer at Conservation Colorado, and her outdoor exploits at adventuresofcloud.com. Next week she will begin a traverse of the Sangre de Cristo range, a wild area currently under threat from oil and gas drilling. Her blogs will explore the Sangres’ history, geology, and the intersection of indigenous activism and environmentalism.

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