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Reflections on the Selma to Montgomery Trail

Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where it all started
Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where it all started

There is an old saying that one can never truly understand another person until s/he has walked two moons in that person’s shoes. This month, I had the opportunity to come closer to grasping a world very different from my own by walking the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama. The Selma to Montgomery hike, although not the most scenic or topographically exciting hike I’ve ever done, showed me the power of walking to absorb a bit of what it is like to live in another region, to live in another era, and to care about something enough to walk for it.

I had the great opportunity to meet Ranger Tina, whose grandmother marched from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago.
I had the great opportunity to meet Ranger Tina, whose grandmother marched from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago.

My impetus to hike the Selma to Montgomery Trail was the 50th anniversary of the date that 25,000 Civil Rights marchers started their journey to the Alabama State Capitol to demand, among other things, the right to vote. As an Asian American girl who grew up in one of the most racially diverse cities in the US and now lives in Colorado, I can’t help but feel like my life is far removed from the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, many young people have a hard time relating to the Civil Rights movement, or really any part of history that doesn’t involve what was consumed for lunch. Because I am an experiential learning, I knew that if I was ever going to really start to learn about the Civil Rights movement, I would have to walk to even start knowing the right questions to ask.

The Alabama River as seen from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. From this view, the S2M almost looks like a nature hike.
The Alabama River as seen from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. From this view, the S2M almost looks like a nature hike.

As I headed on the S2M, I was admittedly a little worried about my safety. Before I headed on trail, I read and researched the history of the Selma, and admittedly, this trail looked dangerous. For one thing—the entire trail is a roadwalk along a highway with cars going at least 60 miles per hour. But more importantly, I didn’t know how Alabamans were going to treat me as I marched. I was equally concerned that White Confederate sympathizers would throw beer bottles or swerve at me with their cars as I was concerned that African Americans would be offended that an Asian American girl from California/Colorado would walk a trail honoring African American voting rights in the South. Call me naïve or ignorant, but essentially, as someone who had never been to Alabama before, I was imagining a world that looked like the 1950s.

I didn’t sleep at the historic campsites (in fact, I’m not sure it is legal), but it was incredible to pass them exactly 50 years later to the day.
I didn’t sleep at the historic campsites (in fact, I’m not sure it is legal), but it was incredible to pass them exactly 50 years later to the day.

When trail runner hit pavement, traveling at 3 miles per hour from Selma to Montgomery showed me that some things haven’t changed from the 1950s. Much of downtown Selma looks the same. In some ways, the poverty in Selma and the rural communities around it seemed worse than I could have ever imagined existing in the United States. I saw children with the worst dental care I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Yet I didn’t see a Confederate flag on my entire walk (save at the Alabama State Capitol) and everyone I met—regardless of their color—was excited and enthusiastic about the march.

The Lowndres County Interpretive Center run by the NPS was a huge inspiration.
The Lowndres County Interpretive Center run by the NPS was a huge inspiration.

A man who was missing quite a few teeth offered to buy us drinks once he learned what we were doing. We didn’t have the heart to ask a man who lives in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states to purchase us drinks. But maybe we should have accepted. Even those who couldn’t walk wanted to contribute to the movement.

By the end of the first day, my feet were telling me that this march sucks. Road walking sucks. But you know what else sucks? Not being able to vote. Not being able to use public restrooms. Fearing for your family’s lives or for your job just because you want to speak your mind. Like a true pilgrimage, there were aspects of the Selma to Montgomery march that felt like each step was payment for the rights that we as Americans take for granted.

The last few miles into town had beautiful murals made by kids that commemorated the march. They were placed over boarded up homes and buildings, which did beautify the area, but also seemed like a bandaid on a much bigger wound.
The last few miles into town had beautiful murals made by kids that commemorated the march. They were placed over boarded up homes and buildings, which did beautify the area, but also seemed like a bandaid on a much bigger wound.

What struck me the most is that the original marchers were not the type of people who went on long walks for fun. They were people who worked so hard they didn’t have time to exercise. They were people who were afraid to go out at night because of the KKK. At the S2M National Park Service Lowdres County Interpretive Center, I saw the shoes of a woman who had marched the whole distance. They were fancy leather sandals. People marched in their Sunday best—in wool and suits and bowler hats and collared shirts and ties—because they wanted to look good to emphasize the seriousness of their cause.

After walking through so much poverty, the Capitol and downtown looked especially fancy and European.
After walking through so much poverty, the Capitol and downtown looked especially fancy and European.

There’s something profound about walking a trail that was not created because people wanted to have fun and highlight cool natural features—a trail that people walked because they had to. While the physical walking on the S2M was not difficult, the emotional impact of walking the trail still hurts.

We all have big shoes to fill. The crosswalk commemorating the Selma to Montgomery March taken 50 years ago.
We all have big shoes to fill. The crosswalk commemorating the Selma to Montgomery March taken 50 years ago.

It became clear by the end of my hike that Selma to Montgomery is every American’s march. Not every American has to thru-hike or backpack or even dayhike. Not everyone needs to enjoy walking. But the S2M march allowed me to see the power of walking, not just to transform an individual, but an entire society.

“We all have big shoes to fill”- Super Dave
“We all have big shoes to fill”- Super Dave

Rocky Mountain Ruck

ALDHA-W and the CDTC held the Rocky Mountain Ruck on March 14th at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, CO
ALDHA-W and the CDTC held the Rocky Mountain Ruck on March 14th at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, CO

Get to the hills! The Colorado hikers are in Ruck! This past weekend, ALDHA-W and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) completed their first Rocky Mountain Ruck attracting 85 people from as far away as Salida, Vail, Portland, and even LA! This all-day event attracted hikers in all stages of experience—from dayhikers to seasoned veterans to the long trails. No matter what level of expertise, everyone walked away having learned a trick or two, and the fellowship, fun, and beer made the event the closest Colorado has gotten to a Gathering yet (besides maybe Lawton “Disco” Grinter and Felicia “POD” Hermosillo’s wedding).

Outside demo
Outside demo

Held at the historic American Mountaineering Center in historic downtown Golden, CO, the event kicked off with speeches by CDTC Executive Director Teresa Martinez and ALDHA-W President Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa. To acquaint everyone to the terms, quirks, and nuts and bolts mechanics of a thru-hike, Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva and ALDHA-W Secretary April “Bearclaw” Sylva presented a funny and lighthearted intro to What is a Thru-Hike.

Pack shake down with Allgood and Annie
Pack shake down with Allgood and Annie

After a break with food and snacks provided by Great Harvest Bakery and Whole Foods Golden, the event jumped into the ever-important ‘Everything that Can Go Wrong on the CDT’—with applications for the Colorado Trail, PCT, and pretty much every other trail. Disco and POD used their humor and wide breadth of hiking experience to present a spectrum of safety techniques for various tribulations of the trail—from grizzlies to giardia.

Outdoor fording demo
Outdoor fording demo

From here, it transitioned to winter hiking teacher Pete “Czech” Sustr’s hands-on (read: powerpointless) clinic on fords and snow travel. The troop of hikers traveled outside to a park outside to enjoy the four surrounding mountains of Golden, the 70 degree temps, and a little lightning safety position practice.

Czech demonstrated walking on a not-snow-covered hill and then gathered everyone to Clear Creek where he and a lone brave volunteer forded the creek. Passerbys from downtown Golden stopped to witness the crazy.

The view of the ford from the bridge over Clear Creek. The downtown passerbys were gathered on the bridge watching these two.
The view of the ford from the bridge over Clear Creek. The downtown passerbys were gathered on the bridge watching these two.

The morning concluded with backpacking gear presentation by expert and ultralight guru Glen van Peski. Throughout the day, hikers had the opportunity to explore manned booths and touch, try on, and otherwise drool over gear from Montbell, Gossamer Gear, Katabatic Quilts, and the CDTC. Lunch outside transitioned into pack shakedowns with experienced hikers and trail Q&A in breakout groups. Those who brought their backpacking gear for one-on-one consultations were stoked at the level of attention, helpfulness, and insight the hour of gearheading provided.

Dirtmonger heading up a pack shakedown. What a nerd!
Dirtmonger heading up a pack shakedown. What a nerd!

Corralling people back to the classroom on such a sunny day was a chore, but well worth it. Paul “Mags” Magnanti gave a highly informative presentation on navigation on the CDT with a robust Q&A. Mags proved a hard act to follow, but Allgood and I came on stage to discuss serious business: pooping in the woods. We discussed Leave No Trace trail ethics and Trail Town Etiquette—two very important topics that to-be hikers need to know before stepping foot on trail. The session concluded with a cathole digging competition with participants using their shoe, hiking poles, sticks, tent stakes, rocks and potty trowel to dig the best hole they could in 45 seconds. Needless to say, the trowel got the job done.

Cathole digging competition
Cathole digging competition

The evening ended with a killer presentation by Junaid Dawud, who thru-hiked all the Colorado 14ers as a continuous hike. A minor Front Range celebrity, as well as a seasoned thru-hiked himself, Junaid’s photos were jaw dropping and his description of pioneering a trail and the suffering that actually doing it entailed somehow just made me want to hike it even more. Junaid told us during Happy Hour that it was the first time he had given a talk about the 14ers Thru-Hike. Everyone who heard that could not believe it—his talk was so well-polished that we had all assumed he had given it to numerous clubs around the Front Range. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Junaid has an opportunity to give his talk again sometime soon.

Cathole competitors put on their game face.
Cathole competitors put on their game face.

The night ended with a raffle of gear valuing thousands of dollars including backpacks from Gossamer Gear and others, numerous pairs of Altra Zero Drop shoes, DVDs of the Walkumentary and Embrace the Brutality, downloads of Guthook’s trail guide apps, Sawyer filter, a Montbell jacket, Katabatic gear bivy, a Hennessey Hammock, and much more. Nearly everyone walked away with some schwag (and everyone who came to the event walked away loaded down with giveaways from Probar, Whole Foods, Tecnu, and Dr. Bronner’s). We all gathered for a Social Hour and Q&A with beer provided by Colorado Native Lager.

The Gathering is about food, fun, and fellowship.
The Gathering is about food, fun, and fellowship.

It’s the end of Ruckin’ Season. Soon, hikers will hit the trail. But with the help of the Rocky Mountain Ruck, we hope that everyone will set foot on trail—whatever that trail may be—feeling more prepared for the journey ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildfire, blownout bridges, and beauty

Nearing the end of the journey, I can honestly say things have been getting more exciting. This part of the PCT dates back to the 1930s, the trail design resembles another trail built in the 1930s..the Applachain Trail. It’s a lot of up and down, but over some beautiful passes. I can’t help but think that these passes must be a little bit more gnarly for the Southbounders.

Smells like a forest burning down
Smells like a forest burning down

 

 

Right after Snoqualmie Pass, the trail dipped into a new valley and was incredibly smoky. It was hard to breathe and I put my bandanna over my mouth to do so. A couple of southbounders came through, bug-eyed and totally whigging. “The whole forest is on fire. Going through that was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” the one guy told us. “There is a ranger down there who will escort you through. But they say you’ll be the last ones.”

 

Don’t go there!
Don’t go there!

We booked it down there and got to a section of trail that was blocked off with yellow tape and a sign saying a ranger will come shortly to guide us through. We waited for 20 minutes near the side of the trail, until a 50 feet burning tree within 30 feet of us came crashing down. The ranger (a woman!) finally came and escorted us to a detour. Apparently, a lightening spark created the fire on the PCT, so the trail got rerouted. But then the fire spread to the reroute! So, now the ranger was re-rerouting us from the re-route. We made it out alive, but what an adventure!

 

A sunny day in Washington can be better than a normal day in California
A sunny day in Washington can be better than a normal day in California

After Skykomish, there is a section of the PCT through the Glacier Peak Wilderness destroyed in a 2003 landslide. There are many fords without bridges. There is an alternate route, but apparently it is long, less scenic, and with lots of elevation change. We opted for the old route and were ready to battle blowdowns. The most exciting part of the this section was where I had to hold onto a branch and swing, Tarzan style, over a section of the trail that had washed away to big fall away cliff. The blowdowns in this section were numerous and striking. These old growth logs which lie across the trail at heights taller than me that required rock climbing on wet bark skills to get over (or going around). It will almost be a shame when this part of the trail is cleaned up, such gentle giants these are.

Lost with Collywobbles

 

When we got to Mather Pass, the trail was covered in snow and we followed a  thru-hiker named Colllywobbles up what appeared from the map to be “Mather Pass.”  We couldn’t believe there were no footprints and it was awfully steep and terrifying to go over.

“Don’t look down,”  I kept telling myself as I saw a the steep snowfield I was traversing go down hundreds of feet below me.  “That’s going to be a bad slide if I miss my foot.”  In a couple spots, the snow became so soft that we post-holed (fell through the snow) up to our waists and had to dig ourselves out.

When we got to the top, we didn’t see Collywobbles anywhere, but I did see a recent rockfall/avalanche.

“Oh no!  Collywobbles is dead!”

It became clear that we were on the wrong pass.  The map made it look like the valley we looked down on might connect with the PCT, but it followed a river and some steep slopes—we worried we might face a waterfall and not be able to continue.

As much as I *hated* the idea of going back down the terrifying slope we’d just come up, we decided it best to go down and find the real pass.

By the time we got down and up and over the real pass, the snow was soft and I felt my foot slip twice at the top of the real pass.  We left a note for other hikers showing where the real pass goes. (Note: 4 years later, I learned that a friend of mine from the PCT, Super Dave, had found that note several days later and was incredibly thankful that he read it and didn’t end up the wrong “pass.” So glad that it ended up helping someone.)

Epilogue of this adventure: A ranger we met told us a few days later that we went over the old PCT-route.  Collywobbles found his way back to the PCT in what ended up being a shortcut.

Glen Gnarly

Not a good time to be up in them mountains
Not a good time to be up in them mountains

Our ascent over Forester was done in sunny weather, but soon the weather changed and we found ourselves about to cross Glen Pass (around 12,000 feet) in the evening with snow coming down on us.  Crossing Forester had drained me physically and taken an insane amount of time to cover a few miles.  Plus, crossing passes in the evening in soft semi-melted snow is a lot scarier and more slippery than in the early morning.  So…we camped at 10-11,000 ft below the pass next to a windy lake only to have 6 inches of snow dump on us.  We looked out through the crack between our floorless tarp and the ground to see snow pile around us.  Shoes and backpacks we used to line the gap between the tarp-tent and the ground had to be dug out of the snow.  With the new snow and a white-out, it was impossible to follow footprints of have any idea where the trail went.  After going the wrong direction, we used the map to find the steep gap in the mountains where we assumed the trail went.  Our response: “We go over *that*?!?”

The decent down was hairier.  We trailblazed new footprints down the 45 degree angle decent in a white-out, the only thought coming to my mind was “Avalanche.”  By the time we got down, we had barely eaten or drank anything since it had been too cold to stop to do either.   The sun came out and we dried our soaking gear, only for it to start raining again.  In fact, almost everyday in the Sierra, it rained or snowed on us and it’s cold at even 10,000 feet!
 

Forester Pass

Yes, those are plastic bags on my feet.
Yes, those are plastic bags on my feet.

When last I left you, storms were brewing over the Sierra. After 10 days of waiting out the weather, and being told the snow in the mountains would continue for two more weeks, we decided to stop waiting and hit the trail.

The next day, wet feet from fording frozen creeks became the norm.  Creek levels are always higher at night than in the morning, and we found ourselves crossing a raging Tyndall Creek right before bedtime.  We woke up to climb the much-feared Forester Pass, a snow-covered V-notch between two mountains, the highest point on the entire PCT at 13,200 feet. Though we were the first up it that day, we looked down to see nearly 15 people behind us—a veritable expedition up and over.  Although we were climbing straight up hard packed snow, admittedly, Forester was much easier and less scary than all the rumors had led us to believe. The snowfields as far as the eye could see did make us feel like we were in Alaska, though.

This is what I’d been dreading for 1000s of miles. Ain’t that bad.
This is what I’d been dreading for 1000s of miles. Ain’t that bad.