Reporter's Notebook

Are You Local?

Pausing to answer the question, I considered the two boreal toads and the black bear I'd just encountered on this secret stretch of trail — friends of the forest with unassailable local credentials


I was concentrating on a bloom of wildflowers, trying to distinguish mountain bluebells from bellflowers, when the lone hiker surprised me.

“Oh, hello, I …”

“Didn’t expect to see anyone here,” the woman said, as if finishing my thought, which wasn’t a novel concept given that our paths had crossed on an obscure segment of the Continental Divide Trail. As we exchanged pleasantries and sized one another up, I inferred from her loaded pack that she was on a multi-day trip.

“I’m in it for the long haul. Or, for as long as I can haul between now and November 20th,” she said, smiling as the scope of her objective registered with me. “That’s my deadline. There are quite a few others about a day behind me. The snow is slowing us down.”

For southbound thru-hikers on the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT) between Canada and Mexico, the season has begun in earnest, even if unseasonable temperatures and record spring precipitation have combined to load the northern Rockies with snow and high water, choking its passes and bloating its streams. Each year, hundreds of people from all corners of the globe set out to hike the length of the CDT, passing through five states — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico — along the way.

For southbound (sobo) hikers, the typical start date is around June 15, meaning snow hazards and obstacles are commonplace along the route’s northern tier. This year, however, sobo thru-hikers are beginning their journey amid an unusual weather pattern, with record-low temperatures in April and May preserving the snowpack and yielding a later runoff, and record-breaking precipitation in June pushing rivers and creeks past their banks.

The woman would have learned this firsthand by now and didn’t need me to explain it, even if my local pedigree equipped me with a raft of relevant information for just such an expository monologue.

“Are you local?” she asked, as though reading my mind. I hesitated, considering the nuances of the question. I was as local as she was migratory, and our paths had intersected on a trail I’d become fiercely protective over, having learned of it from other “locals” who warned me not to “spray” about it, for fear it would become overrun with tourists.

“Don’t write about this,” goes the typical caveat, appended to a piece of classified information that someone more local than me has generously decided to share.

On the morning that I met the solo thru-hiker, I’d seen no other humans but had already encountered two boreal toads and a black bear on this secret stretch of trail — friends of the forest with unassailable local credentials. After parting ways with the hiker, I spotted a ptarmigan, a heap of marmots and several Columbian ground squirrels, a bighorn sheep ewe and her springy-stepped lamb, and a red fox, who even scowled at and ignored me, just like a local.

Moreover, all this rich biodiversity and wilderness that I regularly credit as my reason for moving to Montana 20 years ago lies within the traditional territory of the Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet Nation) who, along with the Niitsítapi (the Blackfoot Confederacy), the Séliš (Salish), Qlispé (Pend d’Oreille or Kalispel), and Ktunaxa (Kootenai) tribes are the original and longest serving custodians of the lands.

Indeed, their stewardship ethic dates back millennia, which outclasses my two decades, even if my fishing license says “resident” and my license plate is local.

“So, are you local?” the woman asked again.

“No, I’m just passing through.”

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