Two men from England set out four months ago to hike the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada.
“We decided to challenge ourselves,” said hiker Joe Boot.
“To get out of our comfort and get back to nature,” added his companion, Joel Strickland.
Back then, neither Strickland nor Boot had any idea how far out of their comfort they would be.
The worst, they said, was Colorado, where a 20-year record mountain snowpack made every step difficult and often dangerous. They fell many times per day as they struggled through the deep snow. Once, they sat in their tent as a snowstorm raged outside, wondering if they’d make it off the mountain alive.
Both men ended up with frostbite on their fingers and their toes. Sometimes, they had to stop because ice had frozen between their toes inside their shoes. It took a couple of weeks for the numbness in their toes to go away, they said.
The other extreme occurred when they walked 120 miles through Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin, part of the Red Desert, over five days in July. There, they experienced heat from the relentless sun without trees to provide shade, found few places to get water, and they often felt too hot to eat.
“Sometimes, you put a tarpaulin over your head for shade,” Strickland said. “And there were bugs — horse flies, deer flies, black flies — all trying to eat you.”
Boot, 23, is a graduate of the University of Leicester in Leicester, England; Strickland, 25, is a student there, working toward a doctorate degree.
In addition to challenging themselves, the men are raising money and awareness for MQ, which funds mental health research, and for Widening Participation, a program at the University of Leicester that helps disadvantaged students gain valuable qualifications for employment.
Last week, after months of trekking and trudging 2,000 miles through snow, heat, rain, mud and everything else Mother Nature has thrown at them on the trail, they jumped at the chance to take a couple of days to rest and relax in Powell.
Meeting the Kreskys
Pam and Denny Kresky picked up the hikers in Yellowstone National Park on Aug. 2 and took them to their home in Powell, where the men spent two days resting, showering, eating, touring — then resting, showering and eating some more.
“They were pretty much exhausted,” Pam Kresky said.
The Kreskys have followed Strickland’s and Boot’s journey via their website and Facebook page since shortly after it began.
“I read an article about them in the Powell Tribune, then we started following them online,” Kresky said. “I just mentioned to them that, when they got to Yellowstone, we would be happy to pick them up, offer them hot showers and good food. And they took us up on it.”
While in Powell, Boot and Strickland told the Kreskys and the Tribune about their adventures so far along the 3,100-mile trail that follows the Continental Divide along the ridges of the Rocky Mountains.
“We reached mile 1,500 about 50 miles before the Colorado-Wyoming border, which was the halfway point of the trip,” Strickland said.
They’ve now walked 2,041 miles. When they arrive at the Canadian border, they will have traveled on foot the equivalent of 3 1/2 times the length of the United Kingdom. Their timeline says that will happen Sept. 25, two days before their flight back to England.
Before starting their trek at the Mexican border on April 1, neither man had done any serious hiking before.
“We’ve met 30-40 people doing the same thing as we have,” but most are more experienced, Boot said. “We’re novices ... I think that’s what people find captivating.”
“You might as well start off with the hardest trail in the world,” Strickland said.
Both men are noticeably thinner than they were when they began their journey, and they’ve both grown beards.
Their diet consists of things like PopTarts, granola bars, bagels, peanut butter, ramen and sunflower seeds — foods that will provide energy without spoiling or adding much weight.
Stickland said he lost 20 pounds, but his weight has stabilized now. He’s found that he needs to eat 5,000 calories every day to maintain his weight.
Life on the trail
Not every trial on the trail comes from the weather conditions. Some are things they didn’t expect; others are things they have to conquer within themselves.
One of the greatest challenges to overcome is “learning to be happy in the moment, knowing you’re going to be uncomfortable,” Strickland said. Rare is the day when the temperature is just right; they’re usually either hot or cold.
To keep themselves going, Boot said, “You set little goals throughout the day: At 10 a.m., I can crack open a Sour Patch Kids bag. Then, two hours later, I can do something else. Take each chunk of the day at a time.”
“At 9 p.m.,” Strickland added, “I get to say I’m going to bed. I’m exhausted.”
Boot said their thoughts when they started out tended to end with, “If we finish.”
“Now, it’s ‘When we finish,’” he said.
Many things are different from what the explorers expected.
“We thought we would sit by the campfire and relax,” Strickland said. “But you don’t get time to relax. You’re too tired, too cold, [and] you’re going to get bit by something or attacked by something.”
Boot, who is more of an introvert, tends to enjoy the isolation of the Continental Divide Trail, while “I’m more social,” Strickland said. “I’m not enjoying it as much. I find the trail is quite a challenge in that respect.”
Similarly, Boot liked the Great Divide Basin, but “I found it boring,” Strickland said. “You wake up dirty and smelly, and you get more dirty and smelly.”
But, Strickland added, “I’m not wanting to say we’re hating every moment. There’s things every day you enjoy.”
Things like magnificent scenery.
So far, the Wind River Range is their favorite for its beautiful vistas.
“An eight-day, 170-mile hike through some breathtaking scenery,” Strickland said.
And things like wildlife.
In England, the only wildlife you’re likely to see are foxes and an occasional deer, he said.
But along the trail, they’ve seen “lots of elk, porcupines, deer, one black bear, beavers, marmots, mountain goats, rabbits, a rattlesnake, coral snakes, wild horses, bighorn sheep and tons of birds,” including eagles and pelicans, Boot said. They encountered a moose as well, but appreciated it less when it started chasing them.
The hikers haven’t run across a grizzly yet, but their gear includes two cans of bear spray, just in case.
Back on the trail
The Kreskys took Boot and Strickland back to Yellowstone on Friday, giving them a quick tour of the national park before dropping them off at the Continental Divide Trail.
The men are carrying a satellite device that posts updates about their location online; those updates said the men had hiked through the Idaho portion of the trail and were well into Montana by noon on Wednesday, where they probably were walking through grasslands.
Boot and Strickland have plenty of time to think while they are hiking the trail.
“We live in an age of distraction,” Strickland said. “But when you’re on a trail, you don’t have those distractions. You have other distractions: I’m tired. I’m hungry. I need a toilet.”
Audiobooks help alleviate boredom on the trail, he said.
Many of their thoughts these days are about returning home.
“I’ve planned my life for the next 10 years,” Strickland said, starting with a good restaurant meal with his parents, with food that includes plenty of curry.
“There’s no curry here,” he said.
Boot plans a similar homecoming dinner.
Strickland and Boot also appreciate the people they’ve met and those, like the Kreskys, who have helped them along their way.
“We’ve met such a diversity of people. We’ve met some characters, some national forest rangers, two people, country people, people who don’t understand why we’re doing this. Some people just don’t get it. Others say, ‘I take my hat off to you guys.’”
Boot said he’ll remember the people — including the “Trail Angels” who leave food and drinks along the trail — as well as the hardships and accomplishments during their sojourn on the Continental Divide Trail.
“We’ll remember for the rest of our lives what we did in 2017,” he said.
You can follow Joe Boot and Joel Strickland’s journey along the Continental Divide Trail online. Their website — joelandjoewalkthecdt.wordpress.com — includes links to donate to the causes they’re supporting; to their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages; and to live updates on their current location.