Four Hikers Attempt the 900-Mile Idaho Centennial Trail 

The lost trail spans the length of the state

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Every sip was taken slowly and carefully. The four hikers from Boise who decided to walk across the expanse of southern Idaho's desert on June 30, watched with worry as the water levels dipped in their plastic Nalgene bottles.

Clay Lindquist had one liter of water left. Clay Jacobson and his girlfriend, Kelly Bussard, had 2 1/2 liters between them. Nate Malloy only had one cup. The next water cache was still 14 miles away.

By noon, the temperatures had reached 114 degrees. They pitched their tents and waited out the heat, hot and thirsty, and soon realized they were in trouble.

The whole thing was Jacobson's idea. He decided five years ago to hike the entire length of Idaho but, on that day in June, he and his friends had only made it five miles.

Already, his girlfriend's feet were torn up and forming blisters. An evening thunderstorm rolled in, giving the group a break from the scorching sun. They took their chance while the air cooled to make it to the next water cache—one of several carefully spaced across the desert by Jacobson a few days earlier. Bussard started to feel sick.

"Every time I tried to eat or think about eating, or even stand up, I just projectile vomited everywhere," she said.

She was sobbing; she couldn't eat or keep down water.

"That's when I started to panic," she said, "thinking I was going to die out there."

Without consulting the group, Lindquist made the decision to call for help on his satellite phone. A friend drove through the night and reached the group at 4 a.m., bringing them back to Boise. Thus ended Day 1 on the Idaho Centennial Trail.

Making Plans

Jacobson, 30, has lived a vagabond life. In the past decade he's ridden freight trains across the country; hiked the entirety of both the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, logging nearly 5,000 miles between them; and worked as a wildland firefighter. In the winter, he operates lifts at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area.

After finishing the PCT in 2010, he set his sights on a much more obscure hiking challenge: the Idaho Centennial Trail.

The 900-mile trail begins on the Idaho-Nevada border by Murphy Hot Springs, weaves from the canyonlands and foothills of southern Idaho into the Sawtooth Wilderness, through 600 miles of the Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses, and along the Continental Divide Trail on the Idaho-Montana border. The trail ends near Priest Lake, not far from the U.S.-Canada border.

"I would guess 10 people have thru-hiked it," Jacobson said. "In history."

Thru-hiking has enjoyed a boom, fueled in part by Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild, and its film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon, as well as Bill Bryson's book, A Walk in the Woods, chronicling his time on the Appalachian Trail.

Jacobson wants to show those same opportunities exist within the Gem State.

"Thru-hiking isn't the mentality here," he said. "It should be. We have a huge trail, we have desert sections and wilderness sections and incredible scenery unparalleled by these other big trails."

click to enlarge KELLY BUSSARD
  • Kelly Bussard

Hikers on the ICT face a challenge bigger than distance: much of the trail is lost.

Established in 1990 as part of the state's 100th birthday, large sections of the trail haven't been maintained since. Jacobson said some of the trail in the Frank Church probably hasn't seen hikers—or trail crews—in more than a decade.

Leo Hennessy, the Non-Motorized Trails Program manager for Idaho State Parks and Recreation, said there isn't any money to maintain it.

"I would love to hire some staff to work with the Forest Service to cut trees and work on the trail, but my boss says, 'Leo, you don't have the money to do that. Do something else or you'll be out of here,'" he said.

Instead, he focuses on things that bring in money to his department, like yurt rentals in Idaho City and pay-to-park cross-country ski areas. His budget is "gutted," he said.

Hennessy said Jacobson's estimation of how many people have successfully thru-hiked the ICT is high—Hennessy thinks it's closer to seven or eight. By comparison, 650 people thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and nearly 2,500 people attempted it last summer alone.

The Idaho Centennial Trail doesn't attract that kind of attention.

According to Hennessy, the trail is managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the desert and the U.S. Forest Service in the mountains, but neither agency has the funds to send in trail crews.

Getting a crew into the remote wilderness is hardly effective anyway, he said. It takes three days by horseback to get to the trail, then a crew may spend two days working, then take another three days getting out.

"And we only did three miles of trail work," he said.

It's not possible to keep up with the amount of work the trail needs, either. Hennessy said every big storm, washout, avalanche or fire causes more trees to fall across the trail. Because of fires burning in Idaho's wilderness this season, "those trees are going to fall for the next 20 years and there will be hundreds [of downed trees] every year," he said.

The solution lies with the United States Congress, and Hennessy wishes it would give the Forest Service enough money to keep up with both wildland firefighting and maintaining recreational opportunities.

Part of Jacobson's goal in tackling the trail is to raise its profile and help make the case for more maintenance. With a degree in English, he decided to gather all the information he would need to write a guidebook. He figured if he could start laying the groundwork, other hikers would follow.

Hennessy pointed out that because of the way the trail changes every year, a guidebook won't stay accurate for long, but it's something he would tell interested hikers to pick up. Trouble is, even with more attention, he doesn't think the trail will get more maintenance.

"We can't even get to trails that outfitters and guides use, where people are paying big dollars. We can't even get those trails maintained," Hennessy said. "We need millions."

Hennessy said he hopes to make his own thru-hike out of it when he retires in the next few years. So far, he's done about three-quarters of the trail in sections.

"We had these great plans when we created the Idaho Centennial Trail," Hennessy said, "but no money to do them. The Centennial Trail isn't the most important. I'm doing this on the side to keep the thing alive."

The four set out June 30 with the goal of doing just that. They planned to reach Canada by Aug. 22.

Having no idea what she was in for, Bussard, 25, decided to make the trek, regardless of trail conditions and regardless of the fact she and Jacobson had only started dating for about five months. What's more, she had never spent a day in her life backpacking.

"I had never even heard of thru-hiking," Bussard said. "I didn't even know that's a thing people do. It was just one of those moments in your life when you feel like you meet the right person to do something like that with."

From the start, it was clear Jacobson was the right person for the undertaking. Referred to by some of his fellow hikers as the "stoner Confucius," he wears a scraggly beard and draws on a reservoir of patience and encouragement. He thinks any problem can be solved if you just keep walking.

Bussard felt a strong pull to take up the challenge for her own reasons. In April 2014, she went to the emergency room with what she thought was appendicitis. The doctors took out her appendix, but a week later, she got a phone call from the hospital.

"My doctor sat me down and told me it was cancer," she said.

Shocking, because Bussard was healthy. She's slender and smiles all the time. Cancer would be the last thing she expected to interrupt her young college life. Her final surgery was in June 2014—one year before her meltdown in the Idaho desert.

"Things like that make you realize how precious life experiences are," she said. On a whim, she was in.

The couple started training in the spring, getting accustomed to increasing distances and elevation gains. They plotted towns they could send supplies to and mailed themselves packages of dehydrated meals, granola bars and pizza-flavored goldfish crackers to be picked up along the trail.

Each person tagging along with Jacobson had his or her own reason. Lindquist, 26, recently graduated from Northwest Nazarene University and figured this was his last chance to do something crazy before starting a career in business administration.

Malloy, 38, spent enough time riding the bus up to Bogus Basin with Jacobson, hearing stories about the Pacific Crest Trail, that it sparked his interest in the undertaking. Most of his hiking had been done in the military, so he was interested in taking a hike for fun. Walking the Idaho Centennial Trail became a goal he wanted to reach out before he turns 40.

"Growing up in Idaho, it would be cool to say I've walked all the way across," Malloy said. "It's going to be soul searching for me."

On Trail

After that hellish day in the desert, Bussard went home and thought hard about whether she wanted to follow Jacobson anymore. She felt panicky about getting back on the trail and spent a lot of time talking it over with him.

Then, she took everything nonessential out of her pack and they started again, this time skipping the desert due to the summer heatwave.

The quartet regrouped in Mountain Home and started toward Highway 20. Conditions were measurably better. A car stopped and gave them free beer on the first day. They made the hard climb up Ross Peak—elevation 9,773 feet—and looked across the valley where the Sawtooth mountains begin. Their exhaustion was replaced by a sense of accomplishment. They started to understand why they picked this challenge to consume the next two months of their lives.

Then, at the summit, Lindquist sneezed and blood poured out of his nose and all over his shirt.

"Yep," Jacobson said. "That's what victory looks like."

click to enlarge Clay Jacobson decided to trek all 900 miles of the Idaho Centennial Trail five years ago. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Clay Jacobson decided to trek all 900 miles of the Idaho Centennial Trail five years ago.

After six days of hiking, the group dropped into Atlanta during the Mountain Music Festival. They spent a day listening to live music, diving into the all-you-can-eat taco bar, and soaking in hot springs and intermittent rainstorms.

Lindquist got to see his girlfriend and ate seven hot dogs. A few of Bussard's friends met up with her in a happy reunion. They found a friend with a cabin and took showers and slept in beds. Bussard's friends decided to join on the backpacking trip for a few days, as did Malloy's girlfriend. They all felt pretty good.

The next day, the larger group left again with 60 miles to their next resupply point in Stanley. They'd make it there in four days.

It drizzled throughout the day as they walked on a steady incline along a side of the Sawtooth mountains that most people never see. They waded through creeks and regularly climbed over fallen trees taller than their waists.

"Any other day, it would be easy—maybe even kind of fun—to hop over them," Lindquist said. "But wearing a 35-pound pack on your back makes you realize how awkward and cumbersome you are."

For that reason, Lindquist and the others kept their pack around 20 pounds. They accumulated scratches and bruises as the day wore on.

Partway through the afternoon, the expedition came to a halt. Jacobson looked over an avalanche field about 100 yards across. The snow had long since melted, leaving behind hundreds of fallen trees, brush and rocks, making the trail below invisible. It was not a happy sight.

They navigated slowly, picking their way through the debris. They had to laugh at the absurdity—the avalanche path being symbolic of the Idaho Centennial Trail, untouched by hikers and trail workers alike.

click to enlarge Clay Lindquist (left) and Clay Jacobson navigate through an avalanche debris field that completely hid the Idaho Centennial Trail. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Clay Lindquist (left) and Clay Jacobson navigate through an avalanche debris field that completely hid the Idaho Centennial Trail.

One image held firm in the hikers' minds: Spangle Lake. It was their camp spot for the night, and as the switchbacks grew steeper and seemingly unending, the vision of cresting a summit and looking down at a beautiful mountain lake kept them strong.

"It's all mental," Bussard said. "Your body will make it up the peak of that mountain. It'll make it down and it'll make it up to the peak of the next mountain. You just have to find a way mentally to push yourself through it."

Bussard did that by counting her steps. One, two, three four. Then, four more steps, four more steps.

At 11 miles down and six to go, the rain started again. The thought of having to stop one more time, take off the packs, rummage for raincoats, zip them up, heave their packs back on, clip the straps and keep moving was infuriating.

The rain took on a new vigor, cold and forceful, and drenched the party in minutes. Thunder rumbled nearby. Still, the group pushed on along the ridge line in the craggy Sawtooths, exposed but hellbent on Spangle Lake.

Thunder cracked again, echoing off the peaks, and the rain turned to pelting hail. The wind picked up and blew hard against the hikers, knocking them off the trail in gusts.

Malloy kept his head down and pushed on. Fighting the adrenaline-fueled urge to get out of the storm numbed aching feet, legs and shoulders. Lightning flashes turned the trail a pinkish-white. Being cold and wet stopped mattering and it became more important not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All day, the hikers imagined their arrival at Spangle Lake as a moment of triumph—coming over the summit to see a blue mountain lake nestled in the peaks of the Sawtooths, bathed in orange and gold alpenglow.

Instead, after almost 10 hours of hiking and 17 miles covered, they came over a small, soggy hill. Lindquist pointed toward the highest ground, shouting for everyone to head in that direction. The lake was gray and choppy, swollen by the rain. The group split up, each in search of a patch of ground dry and flat enough to pitch a tent.

No one emerged from their tents for the rest of the night.

Trial By Trail

Sun baked their tents until it was too hot to sleep anymore and the group awoke to a flawless blue sky. They were rewarded with the sight they anticipated the day before. The lake wrapped around the crevices of mountains, spotted with green and purple grass and wildflowers, miniature waterfalls trickling into the water.

The hiking was easy going, mostly downhill, and the weather held until noon. Sunlight shone between brief rainstorms, but no one cared about being wet anymore. The trail wended its way along a waterfall spilling down large granite slabs.

Jacobson claimed one of the rocky platforms for the group and pulled his gear from his pack to dry in the sun. The whole slab was soon covered in rain jackets, socks and extra layers.

Bussard napped in the sun. Malloy soaked his feet in a pool of water from the South Fork Payette River. Lindquist turned the pages of his wilderness first aid booklet. Jacobson produced a large black Moleskin journal and started writing.

Clay Jacobson records every detail of the trail so he can write a guidebook at the end of it. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Clay Jacobson records every detail of the trail so he can write a guidebook at the end of it.

He recorded the trail conditions, where it was blocked or overgrown, where water was available. He made a catalog of anything that could be used as a mile marker or possible campsite.

Nearly two hours of the late afternoon passed. When Jacobson finally stood to rouse the party, there was a collective sigh. The group expected to reach the next campsite within 15 miles of Spangle Lake, but they had already surpassed that without seeing any suitable place to camp.

Jacobson and Lindquist consulted their maps and GPS coordinates. They realized they had at least four more miles to go, then debated over who should have to break the news to Bussard. It was news she never took well.

"The miles are never adding up," she said. "I expect to walk three more, and we walk five or six more. It just makes me the angriest person. I just want to get to camp and eat more than anything at the end of the day, and it never happens like it should."

"She's the hangriest person I have ever met," Lindquist said.

Rarely do the miles on the maps and GPS match the actual trail—something Jacobson hopes to correct in his guidebook. Trouble is, the trail changes every year. It gets destroyed, rebuilt and rerouted constantly. Being unable to predict the trail frustrated Bussard to no end.

"I'm grumpy half the time and I'm usually a happy person. And I just want to kill everyone and yell all the time, because it's hard," she said. "It's harder than I thought it was going to be."

The group hiked 19 miles before finding an old Boy Scout campsite. A sense of satisfaction hung over the hikers for covering so many miles. There was a sense of deep exhaustion, too.

Lindquist built a fire and they ate their dehydrated meals in silence. Every night, Jacobson played the audiobook Of Mice and Men and they listened, staring into the flames. They called it story time.

click to enlarge "'OK,' you tell yourself. 'I can go to bed and wake up and do that again tomorrow.'" - KELLY BUSSARD
  • Kelly Bussard
  • "'OK,' you tell yourself. 'I can go to bed and wake up and do that again tomorrow.'"

Bussard and Jacobson pitched their tiny tent. Her temper calmed and she settled into her favorite part of the trail.

"You get to eat your dinner and relax at the end of the day and at that point, everything you went through during the day is over and you're OK with it.," she said. "'OK,' you tell yourself. 'I can go to bed and wake up and do that again tomorrow.'"

Their socks hanging by the fire to dry, each hiker summed up the Idaho Centennial Trail in one word.

Jacobson called it "rugged."

Lindquist said it was a "battle."

Bussard said only "fuck."

When the sun rose on day No. 11, Jacobson took Bussard in his arms as they were shouldering their packs.

"Ready to go for a hike?" he said.

A Chance to Leave

Conditions on the trail change rapidly. When the sun comes out, it's easy forget that an hour before you were drenched with rain. One minute, it's a nightmare of unending uphill switchbacks; the next, it's a gentle downhill slope you could trot along all day. Your body feels strong and capable of carrying everything you need to survive, then a blister on your foot tears open and every other step is agony.

Day 11 took the hikers only eight miles before they reached the Sawtooth Lodge in Grand Jean. The trail wasn't difficult, but knees hurt, blisters needed nursing and morale dipped.

At the lodge, the hikers ordered reubens and BLT sandwiches with extra meat, potato salad, macaroni salad, milkshakes and beer.

Nearby campers took notice of Jacobson and his crew. When they found out about the 900-mile trek, they were awed. They offered words of encouragement and good luck. One woman handed out granola bars for everyone.

The people working the Sawtooth Lodge gave the hikers a discounted rate to use the hot springs and kept the kitchen open an hour and a half later so they could get their fill of real food. Jacobson told them they were trail angels.

A payphone on the porch gave everyone a chance to call their families, but it also offered temptation. Malloy sat on a knobby, wooden bench and watched other hikers who joined the trail for only a few days—including his girlfriend—call for rides home. Within an hour, they were picked up and heading back to the world of cellphone service and soft beds.

"There goes another way out," Jacobson said, watching cars roll away down the dirt road. "The more times you pass up the opportunity to quit, the easier it becomes to keep going. Once you go home, it's all over."

The following morning, Malloy made the decision to quit. His knees hurt and he suffered from severe shin splints. As the other hikers loaded into a suburban to get back to the trailhead, they gave him a final glance as he sat on the same knobby bench, waiting for his ride.

"I wanted to cry," Bussard said. "I wanted to go home with Nate so bad."

"I couldn't even watch it," said Lindquist.

He missed his girlfriend and worried constantly about his ankles rolling.

"Clay [Jacobson] will die before he doesn't finish this trail, though. He has more focus than anyone I have ever met," Lindquist said.

He was especially nervous to hike into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The trails are some of the most remote in the state and most haven't been maintained. Should he roll an ankle or suffer a serious injury, getting help would be extremely hard.

He stayed on for a few more days through the wilderness, then his girlfriend picked him up after he suffered from a stomach ulcer. Lindquist spent the rest of the summer off and on the trail, periodically meeting up with Jacobson until he let it go for good in mid-August.

Jacobson and Bussard trekked some of the best miles and some of the worst miles through the Frank Church. They met rafters on the Salmon River and scored a free ride several miles downstream. Bussard's purple Brooks trail runners fell apart and she had to sew them back together to keep going. They met some people running a Forest Service lookout and got drunk on Moscow mules. Bussard thinks she might have gotten giardia. Her trail name became "Bush Barbie."

click to enlarge Kelly Bussard sews her shoes back together after they tore open in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. - KELLY BUSSARD
  • Kelly Bussard
  • Kelly Bussard sews her shoes back together after they tore open in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

She made it 400 miles, then decided to head home when she and Jacobson hit U.S. Highway 12. Their families met them at a campground near the highway on Aug. 7.

Coming Home

"I cried when I saw my mom," Bussard said. "She was, like, gagging when she smelled our clothes. She threw away all my stuff instantly. I was kind of sad. I don't know why, but I wanted to keep my shoes. They were so gnarly."

The time since Bussard has gone off trail has been bittersweet. She went back to her waitressing job at O'Michael's Pub and Grill and started another semester at Boise State University. She finally has everything she wanted so badly on the trail—clean clothes, fresh food, all her friends, a shower, beer in the fridge. But it's not necessarily what she wants anymore.

"In the moment, I hated [the trail]," she said. "I tried to quit so many times. Like, every chance I had to get a way home, I was contemplating it. I was so mad at Clay because he wasn't being super supportive of me wanting to go home. He would say, 'You can do this. I think you should stay.' And I was like, 'No, look at how many other people are still here. No one.'"

Since leaving the trail, Bussard's attitude about the trek has softened.

"This is obviously a really hard thing and I didn't understand why he kept pushing me, but I'm so happy that he did," she said. "I have this incredible accomplishment that I wouldn't have had without Clay. He's the first person in my life who's ever given something like that to me. Looking back, I could do that again. I miss living outside. Coming home, I just want to take my sleeping bag and go sleep in my backyard."

Jacobson has already planted the seed in Bussard's mind to hike the Continental Divide Trail with him—a 3,100-mile primitive trail that runs from the Mexico border through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to the Canadian border. She's also thinking about taking on the Appalachian Trail—2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine.

Even though Bussard walked 400 miles in 37 days, she feels slightly disappointed in herself. She tells people she "only" went 400 miles, while Jacobson is going almost 1,000. She wishes she would have kept going.

Now that she's back, she's getting used to people bombarding her with questions everywhere she goes. "How was the trip?" "What was the hardest part?" "We can't believe you did that." "What did you learn about yourself?"

They are questions she struggles to answer. The trip was good but it was hard. She did it by counting her steps along the way. She doesn't know yet how it might have changed her.

"I'm still processing what I've learned from the experience," she said. "I'm definitely not as afraid of things as I was before. After doing something like that, you're just like, 'Fuck it, I can take on the world. I can do anything. What's that weird noise in the dark? I don't give a fuck. I'll be OK.'

click to enlarge Kelly Bussard 9left) and her friend hike through the Sawtooth Wilderness, enjoying a brief moment of blue skies between rainstorms. - KELLY BUSSARD
  • Kelly Bussard
  • Kelly Bussard 9left) and her friend hike through the Sawtooth Wilderness, enjoying a brief moment of blue skies between rainstorms.

"I feel a disconnect from a lot of my friends," she added. "Everyone really wants to understand this experience and I want to help them understand what I went through all summer, but the reality is, you just have to go out and do it."

Lone Wolf

There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Jacobson would finish the trail. He hiked on alone, determined to finish the last few hundred miles.

As the miles wore on, Jacobson's beard grew thicker and his cheeks more gaunt. Along the way, he saw wolves and moose, bear prints and bones. Without anyone tagging along, he easily tackled 35-mile days, hiking for 12 hours at a time and often into the night.

"There's no secret," he wrote via Facebook messenger. He can only check in with friends and family when he reaches a town and enjoys a brief moment of cell service. "It's hard. If you are setting out to hike a trail, you just have to accept that it will be hard, you will want to quit. Just don't. Before long, things will start falling into place. Your body will adjust. You will evolve into a backcountry ninja. You can't let the trail beat you up. Got to accept the challenge a trail presents and then pick it apart with your lean muscles flexing and your head held high."

Jacobson said there were times when he wanted to quit during his first long-distance thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He started in leather work boots and heavy Carhartts. His feet were destroyed, everything he owned was rain soaked and he had less than $200 in his bank account.

"I was just a dumb-ass kid when I started hiking with no clue what I was doing," he said. "Everyone around me told me I could do it even when I was ready to quit. The only thing that turned me around was changing my mind: everyone is rad. I am rad. I can hike. Anyone can hike."

Jacobson hiked the last few hundred miles of the Idaho Centennial Trail during one of the worst fire seasons in the past 100 years. He was constantly rerouted, pushed off the trail and miles into Montana. Parts of the forest in Idaho's Panhandle were completely closed. He popped into town hall meetings on the fires and checked updates online when possible.

While he was supposed to finish around Aug. 20, he had to push the date back more than three weeks. Despite all that, he walked to almost the end of the trail on Sept. 12. The last seven miles of the trail were closed due to a fire and he tried to bushwhack along a hillside, but gave up­, covered in pine needles and spider webs.

He accepted the closure and walked along the road to the end. It was, in his words, "underwhelming."

His family and Bussard traveled to north Idaho to greet him with a feast. Bussard agreed to drive him back to Boise—so he doesn't have to walk— but Jacobson isn't through with the Idaho Centennial Trail. He still plans to hike the desert section so he can begin his guidebook.

"This trail does have a future," he said. "It totally can and should become a big part of the Idaho outdoor experience. There is a lot of work to do in order to bring this trail to life, but if it gets done, the ICT could become a premier way to experience Idaho's wilderness."

Jacobson doesn't recommend a thru-hike of the trail for most people, though. He said the trail lacks a support system for hikers. He wants to see someone step up and stay vigilant over the trail—update trail conditions and watch out for the wellbeing of prospective hikers.

"I would love to be that guy," he said. "I would love to see this trail grow and to be part of ICT's future. ... I have a bond that stretches across the state and is shared with all the people that I met and who joined me along the way."

click to enlarge The hike began on June 30. From left to right: Clay Lindquist, a friend, Clay Jacobson, Kelly Bussard, Nate Malloy and another friend. - KELLY BUSSARD
  • Kelly Bussard
  • The hike began on June 30. From left to right: Clay Lindquist, a friend, Clay Jacobson, Kelly Bussard, Nate Malloy and another friend.
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