In September of 2020, I and 2 friends tackled a new route being developed in Oregon called the Blue Mountain Trail (BMT). The trail is a 588-mile route that takes a serpentine course through the Blue Mountains of NE Oregon, one of the most rugged mountain ranges in our state. The Blues as they are called in Oregon, have a long and storied history in our region. These mountains were the ancestral home to the Nez Perce People, who through a sad history eventually lost this land and were later pursued by the US army in one of the saddest sagas of our countries persecution of native people. If you want to learn more about this event in time, I highly recommend the book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce by Kent Nerburn
This route is being developed by the Greater Hells Canyon Council, as part of their ongoing work in the region. Originally thought up by Loren Hughes, Dick Hentze and Mike Higgins; the original idea was a Camino de Santiago type route where people could hike from BNB to BNB with all the luxuries like slack packing and nights spent enjoying warm food, cold beer and a soft bed. However, after many years it was decided that instead of having people view the Blues from afar, it would be better to let them experience the blues by immersing themselves into the mountain range.
Jared Kennedy formerly of the Outdoor Project has been working hard to map this route out for GHCC, and through some mutual connections, like Renee Patrick of ONDA, I was put in touch with Jared to help with their ground-truthing efforts on the route. However, since I love to thru-hike more than day hiking, after some talks with Jared with numerous warnings that he didn’t think it was ready for the thru-hike I said what the hell and decided to go for it anyway.
Knowing that staying safe was paramount for me and others I may encounter I devised a plan to hike as safe as possible during these crazy times. Wanting to limit my in-town time was paramount and given the remoteness of where I was going would make this easy. An added benefit to hiking in my home state was a great support network. Friends and family to help me and partners along the way. My boss Ron “Falling Water” Moak was more than willing to come out for the first 2 weeks to be our mobile bounce box so to speak. Ron would carry our resupplies for the first two weeks and meet us periodically along the way to resupply us with food, charge our electronics, and make us some awesome meals to fuel us up for our next stretch of trail. Luckily Ron has a new Dodge Promaster Van that he built out in 2019, this trip was not only a great escape for him but also an opportunity to continue to shake down his rig for his around the world drive when it’s safe to travel internationally again.
Hiking During COVID
2020 has been a weird year for sure and even weirder for the long-distance hiking community in the US. Back when the pandemic started the hiking community started to eat their young and for months anyone still on a trail was referred to as plague rat, and threats and insults were made online with the favorite mantra being, “thanks to your selfishness my grandma is going to die”. Knowing this I myself canceled my own 2020 plans, a thru-hike of the Arizona Trail. With so much uncertainty this year, and a spike in infectious rates in AZ I knew that going down there was not an option for me for this year, or the type of thru-hike I wanted on the AZT, I knew this was the responsible thing to do. Then like a light switch come summer the long-distance hiking community switched their opinion on hiking and instead of hordes of hikers on the big three trails AT, PCT, and CDT folks flocked to shorter hikes like the Colorado Trail, Arizona Trail, and the Tahoe Rim Trail. All of a sudden it was Ok and cool to be back on the trail. Still, I had no desire to be around tons of hikers or people for that matter during these times, so the thought of tackling a trial no one had done become even more alluring.
Other plans to stay safe included, mailing ourselves packages later in the trip to save time and limit exposure in towns, carrying and wearing masks when we encountered other people, and making sure we all practiced good hygiene while out on trail. Lastly staying close to home allowed us to travel in a car to and from the trail with my wife Suzy being the driver, and also having the safety net of being able to be quickly extracted and returned to home if needed.
I know that any hike has its risks especially during a pandemic, but after weighing the risk, formulating a plan to minimize said risk, I figured this was my best option to get this year and satisfy my itchy feet.
Since this hike was going to be full of challenges, any time you are the first to hike anew route these challenges are compounded because of so much unknown, I knew I would rather have some company. Together we would be able to enjoy the suffering together, help each other along the way with route finding, and also spend some quality time as a team working out solutions to problems as they arose. My two hiking partners for this trip were my close friends Mike “FeMike” Unger and Naomi “The Punisher” Hudetz, are some of the coolest and most accomplished hikers I have the pleasure of knowing. FeMike and The Punisher have hiking resumes that include 3 triple crowns between the two of them, multiple hikes on the Arizona Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Great Divide Trail, and a slew of other hikes that would take days to list. Besides being badass hikers the two of them are both super level headed, extremely intelligent, and two people that set the best example of what to strive for in life, a balance of independence from societal norms to pursue what you are truly passionate about, for all of us it’s walking for hours at end in remote places.
Since the pandemic started FeMike and The Punisher are some of the only people I have seen or done activities with this year. This spring we all decided to jump into the bike world and bought bike packing rigs. Over the spring and summer, we took some bike packing trips together and chatted about their canceled plans for 2020 and their desire to get out for a hike somehow. The more we spoke about the BMT the more we knew we needed to go tackle this together.
Knowing that a month of challenging route finding, and hiking can take a toll on the best of friendships, I felt that this was a minimal risk. I had the pleasure of working with The Punisher for years together on the board of ALDHA-West, in addition, the three of us and some other friends had done a shorter hike a few winters back on the Trans San Diego County Trail, and from that weeklong hike we all knew we would get along fine on the trail. So, with a plan in place, maps and data books printed, and a desire to get out and explore our state, we departed Portland on September 2nd to Joseph, OR, and the start of the BMT