Film chronicles rigors of walking Continental Divide Trail

La Ventana Arch is located in El Malpais National Monument, southeast of Grants. Courtesy photo

New Mexico is often described as lying along the “backbone” of North America — that is, the Rocky Mountain chain and the Continental Divide that separates the river waters of the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean.

A rough foot trail — the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, often simply called the Continental Divide Trail or CDT — now parallels this backbone, running 3,100 miles from the Canadian border to the Mexican/New Mexico border. Hiking its length is a huge physical and mental challenge, but more and more people are undertaking it as the various segments of the trail are finally stitched together.

Now, a film about the CDT and the rigors met while hiking it has been created. Walking the Great Divide will be screened Sunday at the Center for Contemporary Arts as part of a 14-day, eight-city tour in Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and California.

The film was written, shot, produced, directed and edited by Mark Flagler, and he spent 42 days in New Mexico walking segments of the trail.

In a recent phone interview, he said, “One of my favorite places of the entire trail is located in New Mexico on San Luis Mesa, which is covered with hoodoos and the adjoining Rio Puerco Valley, dotted with volcanic plugs. Another highlight was walking in the Chihuahua Desert from the Mexican border. The Gila Cliff Dwellings were fantastic, and the Malpais section [southeast of Grants] was incredible too.”

Every section of the trail has its challenges for Flagler. In New Mexico, he said the primary obstacles “were the lack of water in the desert segments and navigation.” Due to private land holdings and Indian reservations, the CDT in New Mexico has yet to be permanently designated, and hikers are forced onto roads at various times. He was told by through hikers (those who aim to complete the entire trail) that “New Mexico has the most confusing segment of the CDT due to this.”

Flagler shot the film in 2006-07, covering almost half the trail himself. He did extensive research, reading literature and talking to authors and hikers, identifying most scenic and worthwhile places and sections to visit and film.

“So before I set out on the trail, I had lots of ideas about where to go and what to see,” Flagler said. “But once you get out there, it’s kind of organic — unexpected things come up and it kind of grows.”

Flagler called the most distinguishing characteristics of the CDT are the “beauty and wildness. It is untamed and you have to rely on yourself. You really have to know what you are doing. You can get seriously lost, there are lightning storms above treeline, heat, snow and wildlife — including grizzlies. It can be scary, daunting and intimidating. It’s an experience like no other.”

In addition to documenting the trail, its beauty and wildlife, the film also focuses on hikers he met along the way, as well their own struggles, motives and rewards.

“The film is really their story,” Flagler said.

Since its release, Walking the Great Divide has been shown on PBS several thousand times to more than a million households, and won a Telly Award for best videography. The movie followed a similar film he produced about hiking the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Impressions, which PBS has aired to close to a million households.

Flagler hopes to complete the “Triple Crown” of America’s long distance trails with a film on the Pacific Crest Trail. In the future, he hopes to undertake a huge project to document what is called the International Appalachian Trail, which follows the approximate route of the ancient mountain range extending through what are now Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Europe. The range once wound through the ancient super-continent of Pangaea.

And how did the 41-year-old filmmaker’s love of trails begin? He grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., where he learned backpacking and hiking from his grandparents just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“I used to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail before I knew it existed,” Flagler said.

Flagler now lives in Ireland, where he is involved in many commercial and documentary film projects, including work for the government agency “Jump into Ireland” — sponsors of this tour. He met his Irish wife on the Appalachian Trail.

“Great and lasting friendships are often created on the trails,” Flagler noted. “We hiked 900 miles together. You spend all day, day after day, together, at times tired, hungry, cranky and dirty. It is a shared experience, and you get to know one another so well.”

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