Discovering Community on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

By Jenny Gaeng

Blink and you miss it. That’s what I thought the first time I laid eyes on Lincoln, Montana. But our driver slowed to a halt outside the grocery store, and I stepped out onto the one road, no stoplights.

We thanked him for the ride. “My pleasure,” he grunted. “Just don’t tell my wife. She doesn’t like me picking up hikers unless they’re paying for a room at our motel.”

My hiking partner and I surveyed the town. We could resupply at the grocery store, and get a hot meal at any of the local bars. He noticed that one of them advertised Live Poker, and suggested that we stay the night. “I’ll pay for a motel room with the money I win,” he assured me.

There are many ways to hike a long trail. Some people keep their heads down and eyes on the prize, storming through towns without pausing to rest. Some people split motel rooms and sequester themselves for a well-earned zero day, watching TV and taking multiple showers. And some people, like me and my hiking partner, hit the town.

On the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, you meet a lot of people. Some of them have lived in CDT-adjacent towns their whole lives, with no idea that the trail exists. You can’t expect trailside magic or hiker discounts. But when people learn what you’re doing, they get excited. They call across the bar to their buddies: “Hey Mark, you’ll never believe this!” They buy you beers. And sometimes, they welcome you into their homes.

That was what Steve did in Lincoln, Montana. It was mid-September, we had 300 miles to go, and the forecast called for snow. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I had started to question if I had it in me to finish the trail.

Steve lived alone in a little house with a screened-in porch and a guest bedroom. He offered it to us immediately, saying that we must need the rest. “And if you want to stick around for a few days,” he offered, “I’ve got some work for you.”

The work he referred to was cleaning the garage, which only took a couple hours. What he really wanted, we soon figured out, was company. So we stayed for a week. We watched other hikers come and go through the town, and off into the snow. Steve made us smoked meat and fish sandwiches. He let us ride his ATVs into the mountains and set up a target to shoot his guns. I was in a whole new world, and I never wanted to leave.

But Canada still called like a siren song, so on the seventh day, we packed up our packs and went. Steve had insisted on outfitting us with new jackets from the Costco in Helena, and a big drum of rolling tobacco. “Remember,” he told us, “nobody on this trail fed you as well as I did.” We offered enthusiastic assurances that this was true.

Some people hike solo, but nobody hikes alone. There is no hiker that doesn’t rely on the kindness of strangers, whether it’s for a ride into town or a bolstered faith in humanity. Our week in Lincoln was just one tiny week in our long lives. But I carried it with me – a link had been forged between a hiker and a town.

This summer I returned to Lincoln, now an employee of Continental Divide Trail Coalition. I had longer hair and different glasses, plus the wardrobe of a business professional. I didn’t know if Steve would recognize me.

I made my way to the park for our Gateway Community kickoff event. In a town where the mining industry had dried up, they were looking to the CDT as a new economic driver. Townspeople eagerly peppered me with questions: what do hikers need? What can we do to bring them into Lincoln?  You have a town full of Steves, I thought. Everything we need is already here.

Before I packed up and left, there was one more stop to make. It had been a year, but I remembered the way to his house: take the road behind Lambkin’s, past the church and the park, and towards the forest. I found Steve in his front yard, tinkering with a lawn mower.

“Hello,” I called.  He looked up at me, and for a moment, he paused. Should I take off my sunglasses? It had been a year, after all, and only one week of his life. Blink and you miss it. Then Steve’s face broke into a grin. “Where have you been?” he cried. “Well, come inside. You must be starving.”

Jenny and Steve

Jenny and Steve

Jenny Gaeng was the Gateway Community Coordinator for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition.