In the 1980’s, thirty two years old, Stephen Pern fancied an adventure. Always fascinated by the American West, it seemed the best way to experience it was to walk through it, south to north, from Mexico to Canada. It took him six months. He experienced the highs and lows, both topographically and emotionally. Written with self-deprecation, humour and wry observation, this is his account.
‘The Great Divide- A Walk Through America Along the Continental Divide‘ was written by a British author who grew up in the south of England. That said, his affection for America is palpable. He relishes the opportunity to engage with the people he meets and learn of their relationship with the country he is crossing. Offered a bed for the night, or a stop for a day or two at someone’s home, he accepts with gratitude but never prior expectation. Generosity and trust is two-way and there is a lesson in this book for all travelers- how openness can be richly rewarded. Our intrepid adventurer is mostly met with kindness and curiousity, sometimes indifference, just occasionally a hint of aggression. All are recalled with appreciation, honesty and understanding.
Stephen Pern finds few hikers following his route along the world’s longest watershed- where rain falling on the country’s spine heads either to the East, toward the great rivers, the Rio Grande and the Missouri, or to the West, toward the Colorado and Columbia. This is the Great Divide from which the book takes it’s title.
In New Mexico he finally catches up with two (honorary) hikers and their three horses and mule, all heading to Canada. It would be another six hundred miles before he meets another Divide hiker. Two mysterious Canadian ladies are backpacking the route ahead, always somewhere ahead, they remain un-met until 1300 miles into his hike.
Early in his walk he frequently sees no-one for days. Leaving camp he can walk without fully dressing, with little fear of offending sensibilities, for in wide open spaces he can see for miles around him. This tactic has its drawbacks. Crossing the lonely plains and approaching Pie Town in New Mexico, he stops to put on his shorts. He finds that he has left them at his night-time halt- “I did not go back for them, they are probably still out there, flapping happily from the windpump”. 250 miles later, fed up with rolling his trousers up to his knees, he takes a day off to go shopping for replacements.
Over the course of his 2500 mile hike following the watershed, terrain change wasn’t always gradual. It occasionally shocked. He had to rapidly adjust from the flats of New Mexico to Colorado:
“In New Mexico a mile had been a mile- twenty minutes there and twenty minutes back, if, for some reason, you had to go back. In Colorado a mile was irrelevant. Actual distance was about the last thing to be considered. In fact it hardly existed- exposed for miserable artifice by the realities of rock and deep snow, of inclination and outcrop; blown to shreds by the wind and the rain. Colorado wasn’t just a new state, it was a new way to think”
The rain fell for a week in the Wind River Range. On the foulest of Wyoming days, he resorts to contemplatively sucking the damp from his overlapping moustache, recording the flavour altered by circumstance- a rain-diluted peppermint and blood day- his toothbrush had abruptly broken in use, resulting in a swift stabbing uppercut to the nose. With rust encrusted nostrils, a month of barely any rain follows before being encountered again, at length.
“I stared morosely at the tent instead. It was beginning to look well used, My boots had obviously kicked about a bit too, the laces frayed, the soles deeply cut and scarred. They’d lost a lot of traction- crossing wet rock had been hard work lately. The stove wasn’t roaring like it used to either. The jet probably needed a de-coke. Perhaps I should record something of this deterioration on the tape machine? A few on-the-spot-thoughts about what it’s like to be stuck in thick fog with nothing but a second skin of old gear for company. But I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to get going again. I needed exertion. I was fed up with bloody Colorado, with crawling along at zilch miles an hour in the pissing rain for day after day“Fogged in while traversing the Rocky Mountains, depression briefly set in
The writer is not new to hiking when this story commences, he had already worked as a game warden in Nigeria, served three years as an officer in the British Army parachute regiment and been an instructor for the Outward Bound in Wales. His experience and resilience stands him in good stead as he trudges his way northward, encountering problems and barriers, enjoying both success and failure as he progresses. Brash confidence is interspersed with any necessary prompt lesson. These are recounted to the reader with humour and honesty in engaging manner. Not given to complaining (much), we are probably spared considerable actual pain and hardship, though it occasionally rises to the surface:
“somewhere out there in the haze was the Wyoming line and deliverance, and suddenly the strain of the past five weeks came flooding out. I hadn’t realised how much pent-up effort had gone into crossing Colorado, but to judge from the tears streaming down my cheeks it must have been considerable”
The book is split into five parts: Getting there, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, with chapters within these. There is an appendix listing the maps he used, though these are probably irrelevant to today’s hiker following a trail that differs in many parts to Pern’s self-divised route. Further lists of gear and food eaten are of passing interest. He advises the reader to boil and purify water to avoid giardia, though admits that he never bothered. I rather like his description of giardia- “a microscopic bug that can make the bottom fall out of your world, or vice versa.”
Anyone who has solo-walked for days at a time will empathise with his crossing the expanse of Montana- of an unfettered, and slightly bored mind stretched and clutching at links between slowly changing landscape and meta-concepts. In truth, I can scan over these parts with impunity for it isn’t Pern’s intellectual side trails that places me step-by-step, side-by-side, with this ambitious explorer.
“I made supper, sipped tea and thought. I was always sipping tea and thinking, but lately the colour of my thoughts was changing, the green- the go, go, go of a relentless journey- mellowing to orange“
When he hits the Anacondas, with 400 miles remaining, the snow sets in. He chooses to road walk 140 miles to ensure reaching the Bob Marshall Wilderness before the heights become impassable. One night invited to deliver a talk to the Montana Wilderness Bible College, days later he is asked to share his gift of two bibles with Elk hunters during the peak of their season. Having crossed the high passes of the Glacier National Park, a storm then shuts the mountains for the winter. A walk of six months duration is completed with less than twelve hours to spare.
This expedition was undertaken when a Continental Divide Trail was still in its infancy, an ‘official’ route not much beyond the planing stage. Now it seems as though every year, a new swathe of successful Continental Divide Trail hikers publishes a book of their trek. I have dipped into a few, but mostly avoid them as I would Covid. Few hikers these days seem armed with the ability to tell a story, fewer still have actually bothered to connect both with a landscape and the people that inhabit it. Stephen Pern was of a generation blessed with both curiosity and an ability to impart that to a reader in an engaging manner. Recommended.
Book from my shelves:
The Great Divide- A Walk Through America Along the Continental Divide, by Stephen Pern. Viking, published by the Penguin Group, 1988. ISBN 0-670-82100-4
It can be a little difficult to track down much more of Stephen Pern’s adventures. YouTube does at least give us opportunity to watch his hike through Japan, sadly no book followed. Also his self-imposed mission to hang a brass hook in every one of Britain’s bothies in his terrific film Hooks.
All of us have a few books that we like to rely on, or to which we frequently return. Here are links to some of mine