Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham

Mike O'Brien Circumnavigates Idaho on foot

There's only one person who has walked around the entire state of Idaho. After he hiked the Centennial Trail in 2009, Mike O'Brien decided he needed another long hike. So in 2012, he and a buddy set out on May 17th to walk around the borders of the state of Idaho counter-clockwise. His friend had to drop out along the way, so it became a solo trek for O'Brien. He finished on September 17th. O'Brien is hoping to make the trek one more time, at the age of 70. Bruce Reichert talked with him in January of 2014.

Give us some of the logistics.
I averaged 25 miles a day and it took about 100 days. It was about 2,500 miles; about 100 miles of that was me walking in circles trying to find out where I was going. So if I was to do it again, it would only be 2,400 miles.

Where did you start and what direction did you go?
I started in Clarkston, Washington, and headed south on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon. I would have liked to have gone right up the middle of Hells Canyon where the border is but I couldn't find a trail. We wanted to get through the flammable forest before the fire season started and through the desert before it got too hot. We went counter clockwise, so by the 4th of July we were in southeast Idaho and heading into more moist forest.

Mike on the trail, in eastern Idaho
Mike on the trail, in eastern Idaho

And you went alone?
My partner didn't make it the entire way the first time. But this next summer I'm going to do it again; he'll meet me and do the part he missed.

Do you know anyone else who has done this?

How did you come by this idea?
I concluded the Idaho Centennial Trail, and I was looking around for another hike to do. I looked at the other organized long trails, and it just seemed like there were too many people doing them. I started thinking about where else I could go, and Idaho seemed to be a state where there was public land all around the edge, so I could put together a hike all the way around.

So I asked around and found a guy in Montana who was real experienced. I knew I couldn't figure it out by myself, and this guy knew what he was doing and dropped what he was doing as soon as he heard the idea. So we put together a hike. It took us 4 or 5 months to figure it all out.

Were there sections of the state that caused you more trouble than others to figure out?
The Owyhee desert probably, across the southern edge of the state. It didn't seem like anybody knew anything about that, at least nobody I knew.

A map of Mike's trip
A map of Mike's trip

What about food?
My wife sent a package of food to little towns; and in the bigger towns I'd just go to grocery stores and buy food.

Did you use a GPS?
Yes. It would have been pretty difficult without it. I'm really good at map reading but it would have taken a lot longer without the GPS.

How did this compare to the north-south Centennial Trail?
On the Centennial Trail you're in wilderness almost all the way. You don't meet many people. I think the year I did it I was the only one who hiked all the way. This route around Idaho you go through a bunch of little towns and meet people. I just met some great people and learned about some neat little towns, like Paris. You've probably never been to Paris, but it's a neat little town. Instead of 4th of July fireworks, they have a band, and everybody comes down and just enjoys the music.

Priest Lake in northern Idaho
Priest Lake in northern Idaho

You must have come away with some impressions of Idaho.
Well, besides it being lots of up and down, the main impression was that there are really nice people out there. I was just really impressed. You walk down a road and talk to somebody and it was just delightful meeting all these people. There was not a bad occurrence anywhere.

When I started, I didn't know if I could make it, and so that goes to the definition of adventure. Mine is a trip you take where you don't know how it's going to turn out. For the first half I was just obsessed with the idea of making it all the way. And then I just got rolling and realized, I'm going to make it! And then I started to enjoy every step of the way; and by the time I was coming south again, down out of northern Idaho, I was a little unhappy that the trip was ending. I could have kept going.

One thing I didn't do right, there was a closed trail so I had to go cross country and rock climbing. It took me a long time, and so I was behind schedule. And if you know me, I have to eat. If I don't get food, I don't go. I was trying to hurry to make up time, and I tripped and fell and tore a muscle in my leg. Don't hurry, just relax.

You say you're going to do it again. Will it be the same trip?
Pretty close. We pieced together this trip from little places we know and gaps where we didn't know. And in some places I walked down a dirt road, and later I learned I could have walked over that mountain instead of walking down this dirt road. So I'm going to pick up those bits that are more interesting, because what we would like to do eventually is make a map so that anybody can do it.

Mike pores over maps
Mike pores over maps

Anything else you'd like to add?
A couple of months after I finished, I got a phone call and it was a cowboy, an old cowboy I'd met just before I entered the Owyhee desert, a guy named Frosty. And he said, I've called everybody – every O'Brien from northern Idaho down – and I finally found you. He said, could you send me some pictures and a journal of your trip? If I had met you 10 years ago I'd have gone with you. And that was kind of cool.

It was a long walk. I wanted to see, had I been born a century earlier, if I could have walked the Oregon Trail. Now I know, and lots of people don't know.