I am sure there are more creative ways for a person to quit smoking than the method I chose. Maybe some magical new herbal remedy, or nicotine substitute; those fancy light up e-cigarettes could be an option, or if all else fails- the classic Nicorette gum. After trying many different times to quit, and failing, the choice was simple for me: I needed to walk my addiction away. I couldn’t think of a better place than Idaho’s remote, rugged Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
The decision to quit – and the ensuing epiphany as to how I would- came finally, after almost 5 years since I began poisoning my lungs with blissful pleasure. One morning, I awoke at 4am before work, and had the sudden urge to smoke a cigarette. Now, my nasty habit had taken an even nastier turn the months prior to that morning. I had smoked at least one pack a day for a long time. More recently I was breaking into a second pack every day, and starting far earlier in the morning than usual. There were a few 6-7am smokes, but that was still really early for me. When I finished the cigarette at 4am, my chest hurt, I found it hard to breath, and not ten minutes later, the urge came back stronger, and I smoked another. This was too much, and I knew it. Enough was enough; I needed to quit.
In one of those quarter-life crisis’s that I seem to keep having again and again, I impulsively packed my Subaru Outback, and left my Kansas City hometown one night. I drove westward. Hardly any of my friends and family even knew I was gone, when I arrived in South Dakota early in the morning. Late the second night, I passed out on a hotel room bed in Lewiston, Idaho. I had a mountain of backpacking gear and topo maps spread across the floor, where I left them to organize the next day and plan my trek.
During the drive, I kept smoking cigs to my heart’s content, knowing they helped keep me awake. But now, standing on a remote trailhead deep in the Selway-Bitteroots the third day since i departed from home, the time had come to get rid of my nasty habit. I emptied the remaining smokes on the ground, urinated on them in a ceremonial farewell, and then kicked them into the dirt with my boot until they were grounded into nothing. The plan was simple, I would enter the backcountry with no cigarettes, and walk as far back as I could. I would remain there for 3 days, or 8 days- however long it took to get over the withdrawals and cravings. Then, when I was ready, I would re-emerge a new man and nicotine free. That was the plan at least.
Before I knew it, my feet were moving, clawing at the earth; propelling me further into the wild immersion. Every bend in the trail was a discovery. Small brooks of clear water with shiny pebbles flowed into green meadows. Brilliant whites and reds and purples of summer flowerage radiated from little boughs. The farther down the trail winded, the greener the terrain became. I met rolling hills, and large boulders covered in ancient lichen. Smells of pine and the sounds of strange bird calls echoed off the trees. My senses were overwhelmed. I breathed in, the clean air purging my lungs of nicotine with every breath.
Ever so often I stopped and followed animal paths, always discovering new things. I followed mule deer tracks up an avalanche chute and onto a hilltop that had seemed like good terrain from bellow, but I could now see was head high and thick. I clawed my way forward, with no particular route. Then I found myself on an outcrop of rocks. I sat down and peered into a near drainage. I imagined myself an old mountain goat, surveying the land indifferently; a thousand years of aging and not a single note of change documented.
I entered an old growth forest next to a small, clamoring river. The damp air smelled of rotten wood and mushroom. The large eyes of a frog peered out from beneath bright leaves. A young golden eagle soared across a small peak. Lower down in a valley, everything opened up. There was a mud hole next to the river with a mess of deer and elk tracks. Two small whitetails ran at my approach. I crossed a creek in bare feet and followed a barely discernible trail. That’s when the old tracks disappeared and I fought my way through thicket after thicket for 3 miles.
I packed light, carrying little more than a sleeping bag and tarp, titanium cookware with dehydrated food, and no stove. I cooked my meals on open fires in river bottoms to avoid causing wild fires. At every break I opened up the only source of entertainment I brought: Sir Conan Doyle’s classic, “The Lost World.” On no other adventure had I brought more appropriate literature.
That first night, with light failing on me, I crawled into the thickest timber I could find, trying to bury myself in the dense stuff. I slept in the open in my sleeping bag. Every few hours I awoke in a dream like state, staring at the explosion of stars in the clear sky; my head emptying into the galaxy. The morning came, and the familiar feeling of waking in an unfamiliar place greeted me, and I opened my eyes exhilarated.
I fought half the day to remain on the completely covered trail, but now it got far too thick. I couldn’t move 100 feet without fighting for a half an hour. I turned back to retrace my steps. I nearly stepped on a moose shed from last season, partly eaten. I should have left it, but I couldn’t help but pick up the souvenir, and save it for a record of the walk. It was heavy, and my arms soon grew tired, but I gripped onto it the whole way. I followed my old path, intent on a fork in the trail I had passed, and hoped to take a new route.
That night, sleeping once again under the stars, next to a carefully prepared fire, I clung to the moose antler like a teddy bear, and drifted into sleep, exhausted.
It is like this the next few days: wake up fresh, walk until I can’t walk anymore, and then sleep wherever I stop, under the stars with no tent. Large drainages opened up. Ridge tops granted me views 30 miles distant. A secluded ridge spine revealed the tracks of a small mountain lion. I stopped to inspect every wolf and bear shit I found. I slept under the stars, in the open. I repeat the process each day; the scenery and discoveries always new.
On a bend in one trail I caught a flash of movement and red fur. Then I noticed beady eyes stare at me from tree branches. A large, long tailed weasel- bright in his red summer coat- fixed his eyes on me curiously. He bobbed his head, in and out of the cover of the pines. He couldn’t quite figure out what I was, so he kept looking. I stopped and had a long conversation with the animal before I realized- I was actually talking to an animal. Such a small creature; so obscure as to be unremarkable to the rest of the world. I noticed every muscle and ruffle of its beautiful fur. I smiled, as I departed, “Goodbye new friend.”
It was three more days that had passed before I made it back to the car. That time, I had watched a doe and fawn whitetail feeding calmly in a tiny meadow in the middle of an overwhelming old growth forest. I climbed ridge tops and scanned valley floors for miles in the distance. I came across two cowboys on horses and greeted them, to find only a few minutes later, bear tracks on top of their horse tracks; a sow and two small cubs. I reached an obscure mountain on the map. Climbed it. Cooked a small meal on top of it. Climbed down. And then walked back to my car.
Every day in the mountains, I awoke with a dry, sore throat; the lingering healing process of a freshly smoke-cleared esophagus. I grinded my teeth at night, in an absence of my nicotine dose. But over-all, I did not miss my health depriving habit. I was too distracted by the wilderness stimulation I was immersed in. There was so many things to see, I did not have time to think about terrible tasting cigarettes. Ironically, it was only when I returned to Kansas City, and the smothering, comforting social bubble of my friends, did my withdrawals come with vengeance, and then intense cravings. I knew to really quit for good, I had to resort to a “Plan B.”
Well, my Plan B was packing my car once again, but this time with my entire life’s belongings, and migrate Westward. I settled in Bozeman, Montana, where I knew not a single soul, and have begun to make a life for myself there. I think my master plan worked: for two summers now, I have spent nearly every day running the trails, and almost every weekend backpacking alone in grizzly country. In the summer of 2013, I ran my first 100 mile ultra-marathon, and have extensively explored the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness and the Lee Metcalf wilderness. More importantly, since the move, I have been smoke free for 25 months and counting. I can attest that the mountains are the best medicine for addiction.