His trail name was “Barefoot,” for obvious reasons.
On Labor Day Monday, Ninemile resident Dave Murray completed the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada without the comfort or protection of boots. A records search hasn’t been completed, but it appears he’s the first person to bag the trail shoeless since the trail was congressionally designated in 1978.
“It took three seasons, but I got ‘er done,” Murray said on Tuesday, shortly after returning from the Chief Mountain border crossing. “I’ve definitely got callused feet now.”
True to the mix-and-match nature of CDT hiking, Murray’s route took a lot of alternatives and reversals over its combined seven-and-a-half months of trail time. Forest fires and grizzly bear activity forced some detours. Work and injuries required some withdrawals. And Murray’s goal of going border to border with his toes in the breeze necessitated some snow-related scheduling.
“We have no information regarding barefoot hikes of the CDT, so unfortunately I can't confirm that he is the first person to do it,” said Amanda Wheelock, Continental Divide Trail Coalition communications director. “But it does seem unlikely that someone else has done it before.”
Murray owns Industrial Technologies Corp. with his wife, Connie. They recently finished the deconstruction and salvage of much of the Smurfit-Stone Container millsite by Frenchtown, and have numerous projects involving steel construction going on around Missoula. Keeping that going meant they usually could only spend about two months consistently under backpacks.
They started in New Mexico right after filing their taxes in 2016. Connie planned to make the full trip (fully booted) but wrenched her back and had to drop out. Murray made it to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, with Connie serving as "trail angel" resupplying food and other logistics. They leapfrogged north to complete the Wind River Range, Yellowstone National Park and Monida Pass section.
“We ran into a monsoon season I didn’t know existed,” Murray said. “Lightning was my friend all along the treeline in Colorado.”
In 2017, Murray reversed direction and went from Marias Pass, on Glacier National Park’s southern border, south through the Badger-Two Medicine area and Bob Marshall Wilderness complex to the Anaconda-Pintlar Wilderness, along with the remaining parts of Colorado. This year, he completed the Monida Pass-AP Wilderness segment before skipping back north to Glacier.
“We saved Glacier for last,” Murray said. “That’s the traditional finish.”
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He’d hoped to meet a friend at Granite Park Chalet, but the Howe Ridge fire complicated that plan. The Boundary fire blocked the usual finish line at Goat Haunt on the southern end of Waterton Lake, so he had to detour through Many Glacier and over Red Gap Pass to the Belly River drainage. Ptarmigan Tunnel was blocked by grizzly activity.
Nevertheless, he had four grizzly encounters on the journey, including one just two days short of the finale. He was surprised to see how few Continental Divide Trail hikers carried bear spray.
“The people who do this come from all over the world,” Murray said. “They would start the trail in New Mexico or Colorado (which have no grizzlies), get in the middle of Wyoming and realize there’s grizzly on the trail. Once they find out you have bear spray, they all ask, ‘Can I stay with you tonight? Can I put my tent by you?’”
Murray reported several scary encounters, but nothing like the man from Spain (trail name Zorro) who had a sow grizzly knock him down and do push-ups on his backpack. The man had gravel scratches on his face from being pushed into the ground, but no other injuries.
“I don’t know if he went back to Spain or finished the trail,” Murray said.
In his injury department, Murray had to take one break when a sharp rock cut his foot, and another when a fall stubbed two toes hard enough he felt he might have broken them.
He’s preferred going barefoot since he was 14 and accidentally shrunk his only boots drying them on a campfire at a remote worksite in Idaho after getting chased across a creek by a bear.
“It took about three weeks, but it finally got to the point where I could walk barefoot without anything bothering me,” he said in 2016. “The only time I need shoes is when it’s really cold. Then I’ll feel the sharp rocks. Otherwise, my feet just flex over the rocks.”
More conventional CDT hikers report wearing out three or four pairs of footwear during their treks. They also spend more time in snow, which requires packing snowshoes and enduring wet boots. Murray figured the trade-off was worth it. To keep his feet in shape off season, he hiked hundreds of miles in the Nevada desert, where he has a winter home.
“I don’t think I’m going to do any more of the big trails,” Murray said from his Ninemile home. “Next time, I may do a canoe trip up in Alaska for a month or something. Stay off the feet for a while.”