Trekking through deserts, mountains and snow may not seem like a fun way to spend much of 2019, but for a Webb City man, it’s given him a chance for an adventure of a lifetime.
On May 9, James Welborn set out to walk the Continental Divide, which stretches from the Mexican border in New Mexico to the Canadian border in Montana.
The trip has two goals: giving him a high-intensity adventure as he transitions to college and raising funds for fellow veterans through the Gary Sinise Foundation.
On Tuesday, Welborn was in Atlantic City, Wyoming, spending the day riding on a ranch with some cowboys he met along the trail.
By today, he planned to be midway through the Wind River Range, approximately 80 miles from Dubois, Wyoming. With snow hitting Wyoming and Montana, Welborn said he’ll probably bring out his snow shoes by the weekend.
How it began
To know why Welborn is hiking the Continental Divide, one must go back to 2015, when the newly minted high school graduate completed a 2,365-mile journey along the Mississippi River from its headwaters to the Gulf Coast. The then-19-year-old floated for more than 118 days, encountering a plethora of conditions. His journey caught the eye of producers from the History Channel, who documented a portion of his trip for the show Mississippi Men.
After that adventure, Welborn joined the U.S. Army and spent the next few years with the 82nd Airborne Division. When he finished his service, he left the army with the rank of specialist.
“I wanted to jump on the trail before I used the GI Bill or started my career,” Welborn said.
“I don’t know another time in life I could get up and be gone for six months at a time. This was a good transition point in my life.”
He began researching trip options as well as buying equipment throughout his time in the Army.
Welborn initially considered hiking the Appalachian Trail, on the eastern side of the U.S., and the Pacific Crest Trail, on the West Coast, before landing on the Continental Divide.
“This is one of the longest ones and the toughest ones I could do,” Welborn said. “I like challenges. Most of it is remote, and there are times you hardly see anyone because not many take it. I didn’t want to run into people every couple of hours.”
The trek along the divide also gave him a chance to experience what the woods might have been like 100 years ago.
“It’s some of the most scenic areas of the United States,” Welborn said, adding he’s viewed everything from the tall cactus in New Mexico to an assortment of animals such as moose, bald eagles, elk, jack rabbits, mule deer, muskrats and more.
“I was in the mountains, and I heard a dog fight between two coyotes,” Welborn said. “It was a vicious dog fight. I thought it was cool because you don’t usually hear them fight among themselves. You usually only hear them howling. This was a chance to hear how they are in the woods fighting for hierarchy and power.”
Journey of a lifetime
Walking in the Army was part of his job, whereas this trip would give Welborn a chance to enjoy his time in the great outdoors.
On the first day of his trek, Welborn ended up only walking 12 miles in 12 hours. He realized he would need to pick up his pace if he planed to walk more than 3,000 miles. He now averages between 19 to 20 miles each day, with an occasional day of rest.
When he set out, Welborn hoped to complete the hike at the Canadian border by early winter. A physical setback at the beginning of the expedition changed his plans.
In mid-June, Welborn’s left leg began to hurt. The ligament from his shin to ankle became so inflamed he could not flex his foot. He got a ride into Cuba, New Mexico, to have it checked by doctors.
What was first thought to be a stress fracture was later determined to be major inflammation. The doctor suggested a month’s rest before Welborn resume the journey.
“I was kind of pushing myself a little hard at the beginning,” Welborn said. “I was trying to have 21- to 23-mile days (carrying 35 to 40 pounds). I don’t think my body was able to adjust to that.”
After the diagnosis, Welborn spent a few days resting at a local motel before attempting to finish the 30 miles back into town. He couldn’t do it — he needed more rest, which lasted about a month.
On July 21, Welborn resumed his trip. He returned to Cuba, located about 130 miles from the Colorado border. He’s been on the trail ever since. Colorado was the first state he walked straight through without an extended break.
“I kept telling myself the whole time, quitting was not an option. I hate quitting anything I do,” Welborn said. “It’s crazy now, to see how far I’ve walked. (May 9) seems like ages ago.”
Looking toward the end
Welborn said he plans to keep walking as long as the Montana winter weather permits. He’s planned for the occasional blizzard and snow by purchasing winter gear.
“It ends in Glacier National Park, so I’ll continue walking as long as weather permits,” Welborn said. “Right now, I plan to walk through the week before Thanksgiving. I do expect to experience snow and the occasional blizzard. I’ll most likely finish it next spring.
“Once the weather starts hitting, I’m comfortable with my gear to go down to minus-10 to minus-15 degrees. But when it gets down to minus-30 degrees or more, there’s a fine line between pushing on and being stupid.”
Welborn teamed up with the Gary Sinise Foundation to help raise money for the organization’s outreach to veterans.
Throughout his journey, people have donated funds to support his cause. Welborn tracks the donations by adding them to his page on the foundation’s website. To date, he’s raised $1,065.
Sinise’s humility and heart, along with his passion for helping veterans and their families, fit with Welborn’s desire to give back.
“I knew he was the guy I wanted to raise money for,” Welborn said. “The more I read about what he does for both military and first responders, I knew this was an organization I wanted to support.”
Welborn said the hike along the Great Divide is challenging because he must keep moving if he wants to accomplish the mileage for the day. When he floated the Mississippi River, the current would propel his canoe forward if he chose to rest.
Hiking, with only what he could carry on his back, has also taught Welborn to be content with what he has.
“I’ve learned to be thankful because I’m by myself pretty much of the whole time,” Welborn said. “It’s given me a lot of time to think. It’s made me thankful for a nice bed and shower.”
The odyssey has also showed Welborn value of community.
“As much as I love being outside, in the woods out of civilization, it’s also good to be around people,” he said. “I need my community, my friends to talk to and share being with. I can tell my friends about this trip, but I can’t reminisce with them.”
Along the way, he’s learned about the dangers of first impressions.
“It’s funny, I haven’t shaved or cut my hair since May 9, so I kind of look homeless,” Welborn said with a laugh. “People will often walk on the other side of the sidewalk to avoid walking directly past me.”
He said during a stay in Breckenridge, Colorado, people reacted in shock when he said greeted them without a request for money.
“You see the other side of the spectrum, where how you look is how people will treat you,” Welborn said. “Appearances aren’t everything. If I sit down and tell them my story, then it’s interesting to them. Otherwise I’m just a homeless guy walking down the street.”
When he finishes the trek, Welborn plans to attend Kansas State University starting in August. He’ll use his GI Bill funds to obtain his pilot license.
He admits after traveling more than a thousand miles by himself, he’s ready to settle down and find someone with whom to share his life. He would also like to start a family.
Another adventure may be in his future. He’s looking at what it might take to travel along the Yukon River in Alaska.
“I’m not sure how I fit (extensive travel) in this into a normal life,” Welborn said. “I can’t be in the woods all of the time. This might be the big (trip). I’m ready to settle down and enjoy the comforts of home.”