By Jonah Brown
“Why did they make such an insane journey? Another wonder…” – David James Duncan/My Story as Told by Water
It is little wonder that seven of us were laying in the grass after 30 miles and nearly eight hours of running. We found ourselves in the literal center of the most primitive area in the Lower 48. Not lost, but wondering whether the “bonus” side-trip up the 9,200-foot Scapegoat Mountain was a wise decision. Half of our group had opted to continue around the peculiar summit and were now miles ahead of us. We wondered how much later in the evening we would arrive at our destination, and whether there would be any scraps of food left for us.
As we contemplated the 20 miles still ahead, I thought about why we felt compelled to make the climb. It didn’t take long to understand that the simplicity of experiencing a wild place unknown to us was reason enough. The place is surreal. We had thrust ourselves into a paradox of contentment and pain. Understanding the beauty and importance of where we were, yet being tested by the elements that we sought to navigate.
This story is about a protected place in Montana that perpetually remains untrammeled in its pristine condition. For the past 4 years, an unassuming, unlikely group of “runners” from Missoula have made a pilgrimage to this place for the simple purpose of traversing 50 miles in a day.
“There could be no better place to learn than the Montana of my youth. It was a world with dew still on it. More touched by wonder and possibility than any I have since known.” – Norman Maclean/A River Runs Through It
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (“The Bob”) consists of three contiguous wilderness areas: The Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Great Bear. The Bob is located in northwestern Montana and is split down the center by 200 miles of the Continental Divide. Together, the three wilderness areas make up more than 1.5 million acres of roadless public land.
The Bob is an immense place, sparsely populated by the fisherman, the backpacker, the hunter, and the grizzly bear. Since its wilderness designation in 1964 by the United States Congress, the Bob has remained a truly wild place—as any who have entered its borders can attest. The closest thing to civilization within the Bob are a few outfitter camps and backcountry cabins separated by miles of rugged terrain. The Bob, like all other wilderness areas, is a roadless area, closed to motorized vehicles. The only way to access its depths is to navigate aspects of the 1,700 miles of trail either on foot or horseback as a short-term visitor.
The Run Across the Bob (“RATBOB”), as defined by its creator—my Dad—is “an annual Montana-style adventure run, roughly 50 miles in length, that enters the Bob from east, crosses the Continental Divide, exits somewhere on the west, and never follows the same route twice.”
RATBOB 2016 required navigating what typically is a 5 to 6 day backpacking trip in a single day. The route my Dad conceived for 2016 began at the Straight Creek trailhead, west of Augusta, Montana, and generally headed south, finishing at the North Fork of the Blackfoot trailhead near Ovando, Montana—where we would camp and celebrate with copious amounts of pasta and beer. The base route was roughly 43 miles, with an optional seven-mile scramble to the summit of Scapegoat Mountain.
2016 was the fourth edition of RATBOB, and my first experience with it. I had grown up at the margins of the Bob, but never truly appreciated its importance until I joined a ragtag collection of individuals, embarked beyond cellphone service and roads, and into the depths of the unknown.
MILE 0 – 15
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed . . . we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” – Wallace Stegner/The Sound of Mountain Water
We set off from Missoula for the Rocky Mountain Front and the Benchmark trailhead on a sweltering late July afternoon in a handful of cars full of lawyers, doctors, medical residents, physical therapists, students, a cattle rancher, and everything in between. Some were RATBOB veterans. They shared stories of previous RATBOB experiences as we rumbled along the southern edge of the Bob, over Rogers Pass, and into Augusta. After eating every last piece of fried chicken at the Buckhorn Bar, our convoy turned toward the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and followed a dirt road to the Range’s abrupt edge. We reached Benchmark and the extent of vehicle allowance, where we would camp for the night. The rest of our journey would be on foot.
This route would not have been possible if it weren’t for public lands. I’m not sure I quite grasped that fact until we set off at sunrise the following morning. Every footstep we were to take was protected—uninterrupted by fences, homes, buildings, or roads. We felt alone as we trotted along at a modest pace early that morning. As we made our way along the buffed out single-track, previously felt only by hoofs and hiking boots, the place was silent. A world with dew still on it. The first ten miles consisted of an old burn area, consumed by fires in the 1980s that had been left to devour every conifer in reach. We made our way over Elbow Pass, and down to our first of many creek crossings, where we encountered the only other human presence we would see that day.
“Did you say run?” The lone horseman asked, first questioning his hearing and then our sanity, as he looked at our running packs and was told by Jeff Rome where we were going. “So are ya’ll a part of some running club?” he then inquired.
“Nope. Just a bunch of folks out here enjoying the place,” Jeff answered. Runners tend to love when people ask questions like this. Ultrarunners love it even more when people question their sanity. I imagined this was an encounter that would be quoted over and over after the trip. I was right.
“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” – Kurt Vonnegut/Slaughterhouse Five
We left our new friend and continued southeast toward the Green Fork cabin, where we would then turn south toward Scapegoat Mountain and the Continental Divide. At mile 20 or so, we reached a fork in the trail and the decision whether to climb the extra couple-thousand feet and tack on seven bonus miles. Most had decided before we left camp whether they were going up or not, but a few changed their minds as we stood in the shadow of the peak. The day was hot and the extra climb was going to be grueling—the trail upward was eventually going to end and it would be a scramble over boulders and scree fields to the summit, and back to where we were currently standing. We remained for about five minutes at the fork while those wavering one way or another made up their minds. Our group eventually divided in half and set off in respective directions.
The climb was indeed grueling. The decision to go up, I would soon learn was going to be the highlight and low point of the run. We followed the primitive climbers trail which eventually ended, spilling out upon what seemed to be the path of least resistance, looking up to the summit occasionally for insurance.
After about an hour of hiking with hands on thighs, we reached the top, finding a bighorn sheep skull and 360 degree views of the wilderness. We were now deep in the center of the wild place and couldn’t see a road in any direction. This was undoubtedly the most remote place I had ever been. But, I was spent. I sat at the summit and admired the immaculate mountains and valleys in every direction, and then laid down for my first nap of the day.
I awoke five minutes later exhausted and hungry. At this point, I recognized my one significant logistical mistake and that was over-thinking hydration, and under-thinking food. The Bob is filled with clean mountain streams that you can drink from without filtration, which I took full advantage of. However, the only food I chose to pack was 20 gels and some beef jerky. I had eaten six gels and was nauseous at the thought of choking down another. It didn’t help to see others around me had packed grilled cheese sandwiches, chips, and sweet potatoes. I couldn’t bear to look at the gourmet cuisine, knowing what I was stuck with. I ate some peach-O’s my Dad generously offered and got ready for the descent back down to finish up our detour.
I had no legs left during the descent. I’ve always enjoyed running downhill but this was different. My quads screamed and I worried about rolling an ankle on a loose rock. I quickly fell to the back of the pack, pulling my camera out to take some pictures so others wouldn’t question if I was okay. Despite the pain, the descent inevitably took half as long as the climb. We reached the fork where we would merge onto the trail that the other group had taken a few hours earlier. Realizing they were now probably getting close to the end, gave me a sense of deflation knowing that we still had half of the run to finish. It was hot now. Well over 80 degrees and we wandered off the side of the trail to a small lake where each of us jumped in fully clothed with the hope of a lasting cool as we continued. This brought me back to life. For a short time, anyway.
We had a low pass to climb over before entering Halfmoon Park—location of the deepest unexplored cave on earth. It was here that I noticed I wasn’t the only person struggling. People were starting to slow. Until this point, I had intentionally been running toward the back, along with a few others, to act as a kind of “sweeper,” ensuring people didn’t get left behind. But now I was concerned whether I was one of the people that others should be concerned about getting dropped and attacked by a bear.
The run is supposed to be separated into groups of fifteen in order to comply with wilderness regulations, but inevitably that system broke down. The groups eventually disbanded into smaller parties of six or seven as the miles rolled on. There were now seven of us at the back and we were moving slowly. We stopped atop a grassy rise in Halfmoon Park and laid down to rest. My second nap of the day.
“Westward always, into the sun…” – Edward Abbey/The Fool’s Progress
I got up with stiff legs after what was probably too long of a rest and began running again, more slowly this time. I occasionally slowed to a walk to inspect the wildflowers. I drank out of each passing stream, cascading down from the Continental Divide, working together to build the headwaters of the Dearborn River. My legs slowly started to find momentum and I eventually was running alone, which was not advisable. I reached the top of the final pass and looked out over the west side of the Divide. The group that was ahead of me was waiting there and we stopped while those at the end caught up. My Dad made his way up shortly behind and advised that he would take care of sweeping, shooing the rest of us on ahead. I obliged as I felt I should try to keep moving as efficiently as possible for the last twenty miles.
Thinking back, the final miles are blurry. However, I recall following an impeccable trail as the afternoon faded away. I was again able to pick my head up and look around, enjoying the place and taking in the remote beauty of where we were.
As the sun began to set, I stopped to fill up my water bottle at the last drinkable water source—six miles from the trailhead. The group I was now with, eager to be done, continued on along the North Fork of the Blackfoot. I was alone again. It was getting dark fast and I slowed to a walk to better enjoy the sunset. I switched on my headlamp, pulled out my bear spray and called out to the bears as I rounded every corner. I passed a Missoula friend who had driven up to camp and had hiked in from the end trailhead. He offered me some Jelly Beans and beef jerky, which I gladly gobbled down.
These final miles of trail are the only ones I had previously been on and I knew when I was getting close to the trailhead. As the light from my headlamp shown over the final rise, I heard cheering from down below. A bizarre sound after a day of silence. I reached the campground well after 10:00p.m., saw familiar faces and was offered high fives and a beer.
I sat down in a chair and recounted the day with those who had finished before me, those who drove to the North Fork trailhead and ran in a short way, and those who came to drive the shuttle vans or help make dinner. More headlamps made their way down into camp, and shortly before midnight, my Dad came through. The mastermind, ensuring at every step that his idea turned out flawlessly.
A WILDERNESS UNTRAMMELED
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” – Edward Abbey/Desert Solitaire
When we returned to Missoula, I took comfort in knowing that the Bob would be there again next year, uninterrupted and unchanged. I found myself months later still thinking about the depths of the Bob. As the memories of running began to fade away with time, the details of what we found along the way remained clear. This place is ours to explore and navigate as visitors—something that is easy to take for granted. RATBOB is an example of people from all walks of life coming together for the common purpose of being there. The simplicity of moving across the land on foot or horseback has become a rallying point for all who enter the Bob.
I have never met anyone who told me they wished the Bob wasn’t there. And in the midst of a land transfer movement that dominates the news, the Bob should serve as a prime example of what happens when we protect our public lands. This place belongs to every American, controlled by its borders, yet uncontrollable within. The peace of mind that we have knowing RATBOB will happen again in 2017 is important, and that kind of satisfaction should be felt for all public lands.