Bart Smith hopes to have the St. Louis Gateway Arch in his sights by Oct. 2.
That will be 50 years to the day of the signing of the National Trail Systems Act, and the final steps of his quest to complete all 30 national trails.
Smith, 59, a photographer from Lake Wood, Washington, made a stop in Helena Monday to shop for new boots at the Base Camp before continuing Tuesday on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. He is now two months and about 1,000 miles into a nearly 3,000-mile journey.
“It’s basically a project that got out of control,” he said with a laugh.
Smith hiked all of the National Scenic trails by 2008, in time for the 40th anniversary of the act. In 2009, three more scenic trails were added and he hiked those that year, taking photos and publishing six books of his work, with another six collaborative books.
“Photography has always given me a sense of purpose, to showcase the trails the best I can,” he said.
While scenic trails such as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail took Smith to remote areas, completing them sparked another idea.
“I started telling my wife that it’s not out of the question that I could hike and photograph all of the national historic trails in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary,” he said.
Unlike the scenic trails, many of the historic trails are not conducive to hiking and camping along the way, often following major highways rather than forested paths. Despite those travel challenges, by 2011 he began that quest to complete the 19 national historic trails, taking him on treks such as the Oregon Trail, Selma to Montgomery and Trail of Tears.
“It’s basically America’s natural heritage and historic heritage,” he said.
Smith chronicles his adventures and photography on his website: http://walkingdownadream.com/.
The Lewis and Clark trail from the West Coast to St. Louis is the last piece for Smith to complete. He pulls a baby jogger with his backpack and camera gear, and copies of the Lewis and Clark journals to read along the way.
“What I’m doing with the historic trails is definitely an outlier,” he said. “But in doing so I’m able to experience the landscape, the scale of the landscape in a similar fashion as the early travelers.”
Smith has seen his share of challenges, including 10 inches of snow that fell on him while traveling along Lolo Pass in June. Historic routes also often mean not traveling in a straight line, adding hundreds of miles at times to the journey.
Although he made the full 32-mile trip from Townsend in a day, Smith averages closer to 22 miles. His goal of reaching St. Louis by Oct. 2 is still attainable, although he is unsure if he’ll make it.
From Helena, Smith will hike to Fort Benton, where he intends to rent a kayak and continue down the Missouri River, his camera in tow.
“I love photography and I love walking, and it’s something that’s hard for me to express to other people because it’s such an odd thing to do,” Smith said. “Part of it is the allure of the adventure of never really knowing how the day’s going to work out. I never really know where I’m going to camp usually. Every day is different, every day has its own sets of challenges and surprises, and I’m good at just kind of going with the flow and enjoying it.”