The Loop Routes That Don’t Show Up On The Map

hand drawn chart showing two interpretations of life

Last Friday afternoon, I locked my bike to a sign next to the trail and tried to convince myself it wasn’t that hot—it was 82 degrees in Missoula, with a forecasted high of 91. A hundred feet behind me, most sane people with the afternoon off were spending it floating down the river in inner tubes, drinking cold beverages, their butts in the cool water, occasionally paddling a little with their hands but for the most part as relaxed as they’d be sitting in a La-Z-Boy. I could hear a handful of whoops and yells as I clipped my running vest and clicked through the menu on my watch.

The trail above me was in the shade, at least, but that was about all the encouragement I could give myself. I had never tried to run all the way to the top of Mt. Sentinel, 1800 feet of climbing in 2.9 miles. I was tired after a long work week, had run yesterday, and could think of at least 10 other reasons to not do it. But Hilary had run the whole thing a couple days earlier and she didn’t die or vomit at the top, so maybe I could, too. It was going to go one of two ways, so I might as well get it over with. I clicked the start button on my watch and started shuffling, reminding myself to take it as slowly as possible so I didn’t blow up.

I only saw three other people the whole way, and thankfully, they all stepped off to the side of the trail to let me pass, maybe thanks to the early warning of my wheezing as I chugged up the trail. I would like to think when I pass hikers on the trail, I look fit and graceful, but I’m sure when I’m out of earshot, they’re probably saying things to each other like “That guy looked like he was about to DIE,” “Trail running looks like it’s really awful,” and “Do you think we should call for a rescue?”

I constantly had to remind myself to keep looking at the ten feet of trail in front of me, not 100 feet ahead. There are few truly flat sections of the Smokejumper Trail, many steep spots, some less-steep sections, and overall, plenty of opportunities for someone of my speed to consider taking up golf instead of trail running. My quads burned with every uphill step, my heart rate stayed around 160 the entire time, and I talked myself out of this idea and back into it approximately 100 times.

I made it to the saddle without walking, leaving about a half mile and 300 feet of climbing to the summit, so I tried to take a big gulp of air in and keep a respectable stride going as I moved up the trail.

I knew almost nothing about mountains when I moved to Missoula from my home state of Iowa in 2002 to go to grad school for journalism. I just knew I wanted to learn how to write, in a way that could lead to a job, or at least making a living. Part way through my two years at the university, I figured out that I also liked standing on top of mountains. By the fall of my second year of school, I had become a little obsessed, picking through hiking guidebooks to find the hikes that led to summits. I managed to get up a few peaks, some with my friend Tim, including Idaho’s Borah Peak, Lolo Peak near Missoula, and Mt. Sentinel via the Smokejumper Trail—which, in 2004, was a pretty big hike for me, even if the mountain was literally the backyard of the campus of the University of Montana, its southern slopes dropping down a couple hundred feet from the journalism building where I attended classes.

In my second year of grad school, I had to do a thesis project, and I mentioned it to Tim one day. He joked, “What’s it on, peak bagging?” I laughed and said that might be a good idea. My best idea to that point had been something like “newspapers and the internet.” I talked to the department chair and switched my thesis project to three magazine feature-style articles on peak bagging. I found three stories that I hoped might someday be published in magazines: a group of folks called the Highpointers Club, who tried to summit as many of the state high points as possible, from Denali to Florida’s 320-foot Britton Hill; the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, who worked to protect and preserve Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks; and the County Highpointers, a group whose common interest was finding and summiting the high points of counties of the United States (of which there are 3,143). Summits made sense to me: a clear goal, a distinct turnaround point, you either made it to the top or you didn’t. When I looked through guidebooks, I skipped the loop hikes and looked for the ones that ended on peaks.

If you count the three members of my thesis committee and myself, I believe a total of five people have read my master’s thesis from 2004—one other grad student read it sometime around 2009, I think. I never got the articles published anywhere, but at that point, I was realizing I didn’t want to someday write for Rolling Stone anymore—I wanted to write for Outside and Backpacker.

My adventure writing career got a slow start: I got day jobs at small newspapers and tried to pitch and write magazine stories on the side. I got rejected by all the outdoor magazines you’ve heard of, but started to write for smaller ones, and eventually, seven years after getting my first rejection letters, I finally wrote a couple stories for some of the bigger national magazines.

An editor from a publishing company emailed me one day in 2014, asking if I’d like to write a brief how-to book about peak bagging. I’d get a small advance payment, and if it sold well, maybe make a few bucks over the next couple years. I thought hell, why not. Since Tim had suggested the idea of a peak bagging thesis 11 years earlier, I had gotten up a few more mountains, and enjoyed all of them.

I wrote the book, got the check, and it was published in 2015. By the end of the year, I received my first earnings statement from the publisher and it was pretty evident that the book had not made the New York Times Bestseller List. Not that I expected it to. I shrugged and figured I had at least paid off a little of my student loan from the University of Montana with some of the book money, and that was pretty OK. Since then, I’d started trail running a lot more, getting into ultramarathon distances, and in trying to plan long training runs, I ended up doing lots of loops—big ones that took all day, and small ones I’d repeat as necessary to hit a mileage goal. I had different motivations, and they didn’t always take me over the top of peaks anymore.

Above the saddle on Sentinel last week, I kept my legs moving, hating myself and my idea of “winding down after a long week at the office.” A slight haze hung over the valley, blown in from wildfires somewhere. Another reason you might think twice about running uphill at about your VO2 max for the better part of an hour.

With maybe 40 vertical feet to go, my legs were screaming and I was in more physical distress than I’d been in years, thinking, really, what’s the point of running to the summit? This much discomfort, for what? It’s not like someone was waiting for me at the top with a $25 gift card to Taco John’s. If I stopped and walked, there would be no difference, besides it being about 90 seconds later when I stood on the summit.

But you can’t quit 40 feet from the top. I kept my feet moving, considering the very real possibility of vomiting on the summit for a few seconds, before the ground beneath my feet flattened out and I was on top. I stopped, took a quick phone photo, turned around and decided to let myself walk down the next few hundred feet of trail, in lieu of rolling up into the fetal position and having a good cry. My shirt was soaked in sweat all the way down to the hem, my shorts were about half-soaked, and I thought, you know, is 52 ounces of water enough for the rest of this run? At the beginning of the day, I’d decided I wanted to do more than an out-and-back; I planned a route down the back side of the mountain, and around the north side, back to my bike, a big loop. I figured it would be somewhere between eight and 12 more miles, and I had about 40 ounces of water left (it’s hard to drink when you’re wheezing and running uphill).

Reader, it was not enough water, not even fucking close to enough water. I conserved it while getting blasted by the sun in the now-90-degree heat, then ran out about two miles from my bike. When I finally got to my bike, I would have paid $50 for a single ice cube to be dropped in my dusty mouth.

Instead, I got on and began to pedal, considering my options. The most direct route would take me by a grocery store, only about 100 feet off my ride home. I hit every goddamn son of a bitching red light on the way there and stood straddling my bike, watching the walk/don’t walk signal tick down the seconds as I baked in the sun. How am I still sweating?

The grocery store I picked was way busier than I had envisioned it would be when I was fantasizing about cold drinks for the past hour. I found a sports drink and walked to what I thought would be a fast-moving line, my face sweat sticking to the mask I’d put on before coming into the store. I held the bottle by the cap, hoping to avoid having my warm hand heat up the icy drink even a few degrees before I could drink it. I hoped no one in line could smell me.

The guy at the register was wearing a University of Montana hooded sweatshirt, with the hood up, a visual that blew my mind as I stood in the freezer aisle, the hottest and thirstiest I’d felt in at least a year. The line was not moving. I glanced around. A shelf with a small selection of books sat next to the Hot Pockets, almost all titles I’d never heard of. The sign above it read “Montana Grown.” Ah, local authors? No, local huckleberry jam and candy. And some books, not necessarily written by local authors. At the far right of the shelf, through my dried-out contact lenses, I saw an image that looked very familiar to something in my memory, my friend Nick hiking up a trail as we made our way up South Arapaho Peak in Colorado in 2009 or 2010. Oh wait, that is Nick. I took that photo. That’s the cover of that book I wrote. About peak bagging. Next to the Hot Pockets.

I paid for my sports drink, then drained the entire thing standing outside in the heat, next to the bike rack. I thought the idea of “peak bagging,” about how much time I’ve spent picking out summit routes to attempt, and how as I get older, maybe it’s not always the summits that are so interesting, but the ways things loop back on themselves.

photo of shelf of Montana made food products, and some books

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—Brendan

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