Day 8 – A Ridgeline Walk and Orphan Butts!

I have slept well because I don’t remember much about it. This drainage is supposed to be loaded with elk according to things I’ve read, but I have not seen nor heard wapiti since I arrived here last night. Just like elk…they are hard to pattern.

I get an early start, but I don’t really know why. After speaking with Jerry Brown last evening I change my plans for my last two days. I am just 47 miles from Durango. Originally, I planned to go 23 miles a day plus some change. It would be a great relaxing way to finish the Colorado Trail. But, the trail changes you and you learn to adapt. One does not act overconfidently on this trail. I heed the advice of Jerry meaning I’ll go just 17 today. Which also means I’ll want to cover 30 the final day; it will be a challenge right up to the end.

Up I go for just a 6/10 of a mile in the dark, ascending Blackhawk Pass. I’m rewarded with another pretty sunrise to begin my day. I only go another two miles and I have to stop to get more water. This water stop presents my biggest decision of the day. I potentially will not be able to get water for 22 more miles; meaning I may need to make my water last all through today and tomorrow morning until I get to Taylor Lake. There are potentially one or two sources. My two resources refer to them as “seasonal spring source”, “sometimes find water trickle on trail” and “a small seep”. This did not inspire enough confidence for me to risk only traveling with 46 ounces of water, so I “camel up” and fill my Platypus container with two and a half additional liters of water.

 

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Sunrise from Blackhawk Pass

 

This puts a challenge into my “short” day and I move on. The good news is I only have to go 15 more miles and my day is done. I’m looking forward to the short day and not thinking about the long day that will come tomorrow. I have plans to get to a nice camp, read, nap and eat. I am excited!

 

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The photo belies the vertical nature of the trail

 

It’s an uphill trek for the first part of the morning, then most of the way is a really cool ridge walk. I had looked over this particular section of trail on topographic maps because of the reputation of Indian Trail Ridge. I have had the words of David Fanning from his book, Voices of the Colorado Trail, (I highly recommend this book) running through my head for the last day and a half. In David’s words, speaking about lightning on the exposed ridge, he says, “I once spent a terrifying 45 minutes in a lightning posture, preparing to meet my maker on this ridge!”

But I’m miles from that area and for now I have tremendous views to my left which is looking east into large green drainages and then heavy timber of the San Juan National Forest. Directly to my right and the west all I can see is heavy timber, and I walk the ridge line between the two.

 

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Miles of views like this looking east off the ridge walk

 

I have posted a topo map of the ridge below, if you find interest in such maps it is interesting to look at. Looking at the map later I see that I was literally walking the county line between La Plata County and Montezuma County. Who knew?

 

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I’m struggling a bit as I reach the ten mile mark. As per usual, after a solid but strenuous effort the previous day, I’m feeling less than stellar. The additional five and a half pounds of water handicaps me a bit. I toss off my pack at one of the beautiful overlooks and make myself some mashed potatoes and a cup of coffee. I enjoy sitting on my little seat pad and leaning up against a log, relaxing during my mid morning break.

The calories and break do the job and I’m feeling better as I move on. I keep my eyes on

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Grizzled

the skies, knowing that their is a forecast for heavy rain right in the area where I plan to camp. I’ll be low enough that I may get wet, but I’ll be safe. I keep scanning the terrain in front of me trying to get an idea of what Indian Trail Ridge will look like. What I have pictured in my mind will likely be different from what it is really like. All morning I wrestle with the name Indian Trail Ridge, often thinking of it as Indian Ridge Trail. It’s embarrassing how many times I pull my databook out to re-check the name.

Another name that I have had a lot of fun with since last evening was Orphan Butte. Connie, the woman that was with Jerry last evening, told me that they were planning on camping there tonight. All morning long I shout out loud “Orphan Butt” and then I laugh at my own juvenile joke. I find it even funnier because I worked with orphans for two and a half years in Romania and saw my share of orphan butts! “Orphan Butt, Orphan Butt” I yell, which at any other time would be ridiculous but since I’m here all alone I can act in a childish fashion when I want to. I guess I’ll never grow up!

Sure enough, I come along the trail just east of Orphan Butte and while I do not see any orphans or butts, I see a ton of coyote shit. It’s so thick that the Colorado Trail must be their personal highway. It’s frequent enough that it smells like dog doo along this part of the trail in particular stretches. And as I look at Orphan Butte, I’m a little disappointed. The name is better than the landmark in my opinion.

The clouds begin building overhead now as it gets close to 1:00. I come to the “seasonal spring source” and wander around in the swampy area. There is definitely water here but most of it is in the form of a spongy mess. I go back and forth and then find a little pool where I can dip my scoop so that I can put it into my Sawyer bag to filter. My scoop is actually a tennis ball container that has had the top cut off. I love this little piece of equipment because it came from my wife, Pam, an avid tennis player. I have had it for years now. Every time I use it I think of her and it always brings a smile to my face. Once done, it works as a great container for both the rolled up bag and my filter, fitting right into the side pocket of my pack, next to my water bottle.

 

 

I fill the bottles in a hurry and realize that I probably did not drink enough water up to this point of the day. But it was a quandary because if I had drank copious amounts of water it would have left me short for dinner tonight and my first eight miles tomorrow. The skies continue to darken, preparing for the beatdown that will occur shortly. I’m pleasantly surprised because this whole area is still heavily timbered, not exposed. If I can get to the campsite and set my shelter, I’ll be in good shape. It’s 4/10 of a mile and 210 feet uphill on the switchback trail. I’m hauling ass now, really wanting to have camp set before a big old storm lets loose. It feels really good to huff and puff up the switchbacks and I’m shortly at a nice campsite, higher up from the dampness of the water below. A nice fir tree provides good shelter in addition to my tent and I’m safely in camp before the storm.

 

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After a rough start, the shelter performs admirably for the trip

 

I read, I nap, I giggle at the fact that I am done for the day and lounging in camp. There is a bright flash, then there is a violent crack of thunder; ear splitting loud. I contemplate putting in my ear plugs, but it’s sort of cool. I feel safe here, so I’m not concerned about that. The rain sprinkles but never pours. After some time it stops and I make myself dinner.

I walk out to the overlook which is a 270 degree view of the area that I came through earlier in the day. I see two other tents and talk at length with a couple who has been section hiking the trail for a few years and will be finishing in a few days.

 

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Panorama from the Overlook

 

 

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Sun battles clouds

 

After sitting out at the overlook for a time, I walk back to the CT proper and go a tenth of a mile to another “seep”. This water source is not as good as the one further back the trail, but I play around and form a pour off using a small triangle shaped rock which acts as a tiny spout. It would require patience, but one could fill a bottle here in an emergency. I make a note in the Guthooks app regarding what I’ve done. Who knows, perhaps it will aid another traveler in a few days or a week if it continues to rain.

Once back at my tent I count the remaining calories that I have for tomorrow’s 30 mile finale. I have 2200 calories if I eat everything I have with me. I really need to finish tomorrow or I’ll be foraging for food! I shoot a note off to Pam to please bring along some snacks. She and Jamie will be hiking in to meet me tomorrow.

Meddling about camp I don’t see a woman twenty yards away. “Are you Matt?”

I reply that I am and I realize it is Connie from last evening. She looks different not being crouched down inside a tent. “Jerry and I were wondering all day if you made it across Indian Trail Ridge. He thought that you might because you’re pretty fast.”

I laugh out loud, “No, I listened to Jerry’s sage advice and decided to camp here for tonight. I’m wise enough to listen to experience!”

“Oh, I’m not telling Jerry that, it will go to his head! Were you up here for that storm? It was intense.”

I tell Connie that I was and that it was not too bad. She makes her way back down the trail the half mile to where she and Jerry decided to camp for the night, below the Cape of Good Hope. They want to be able to get up and off Indian Trail Ridge first thing in the morning, as is the case with all of us camped here.

The interactions with the other people on the trail adds to the whole experience of being here. Moving solo brings about a completely different experience than partnering with another person hiking the trail. But not having much interaction would make it a much lonelier experience. When I run into people on trail or retell stories at home and relay to them I have not seen anybody for nearly a day, they think it to be a wonderful thing. And while it sounds nice, most have not spent days primarily alone in the wilderness. I crave the solitude at times, but also am a person of community as are most people at heart. There are very few people that do well without any social interaction. We truly do need each other and being alone for long stretches reminds me of that fact. While I may be able to exist with an independent approach on trail, I appreciate the differences and diversity in people, and each of them have something to teach me, if I am wise enough to listen to their story.

Day 7 – Soaring Spirits

I’m a morning person. My best energy and attitude generally is as I wake and then it drifts as the day goes on. With backpacking by the time I crawl in my tent I’m spent. It is then that I think about the days remaining on the trip, how residual fatigue begins to build, and my motivation can then wane. A message from my wife, Pam, will do wonders to help me re-focus. “You are doing an amazing thing” she writes. Am I?

When I awake each morning on the trail I observe in wonder how the body can recover from day to day. This morning I am grateful for the pit toilet at the campground. Not so

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Frost frequents Colorado’s high country

much that I can sit on a toilet, because I don’t mind squatting, but I tire of digging cat holes and bagging used toilet paper to haul back out of the mountains. (Yes, I believe in doing this now. I didn’t always do it, but it has become a big enough problem, that I firmly believe in the Leave No Trace principles.)

I sleep in until 5:00 and take my time getting moving at 5:55. Before it is barely light I can make out a mule deer buck bedded 50 yards off the trail. I’m surprised he just stares at me and doesn’t stand up. I barely move further down the trail when I see a small group of elk off in the distance. They are much more wary, and even at 500 yards or more I stand out to them and they move away. I count eighteen, making it a great morning and I have not walked more than a mile thus far. Before I get to where the elk were at I see another mule deer.

I cross Highway 550, which seems like playing Frogger after so many miles on a dirt trail. I’m now on segment 25 proper and it’s a continued wildlife bonanza this morning. I see a pair of bucks, then four does a few minutes after them. I have a very light spirit this morning as I make my way toward Durango, still 72 miles away. I only have three days left and now I am beginning to grieve the end of this time on trail. I intend to move more slowly in my head today; observing, taking photos and seeing the smaller things.

 

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Deer strike the perfect pose and spacing for me!

 

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Throughout the San Juans the geological layering is impressive

 

The landscape becomes more open, with vast, expansive views of amazing striated mountains. Photos do not do them justice so I try to commit them to memory. There is a feeling as I walk in the early morning that is palpable. It’s a committed memory, something that I know I can always reflect upon with a sense of awe and wonder; a memory that will always take my breath away, cause my heart to skip a beat or bring immediate lacrimation. A week afoot on trail has shed the “toughness” that needed to be tenderized. I have realized that I am fairly insignificant in the scope of this amazing world, that I am vulnerable, reminded that all that separates me from this world, I carry on my back. My resume, my accomplishments, my bank account and my worldly possessions mean nothing to the deer, elk, mountains, sky, clouds and grandeur that surrounds me.

 

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Yellowing Corn Husk Lily hints at autumn approaching

The trail is “all day trail” and even though I am at 11,500′, it feels like I am at sea level. The steps are effortless, the body feels grand and the grades are manageable. After days in the tundra, I am happy and “at home” back in sub alpine forest. The trail flirts with tree line only rising above it a few times during my day as I cross a “low” pass of 12,500′.

Different spots of the mountains appear jade like green in nature. I ask a mountain biker if he knows anything about the local geology, hoping to find out why the sides of the mountain are green. I find out he is not from the area, but from Utah and is riding to Durango on a supported bike trip along with two friends. I see quite a few cyclists today along with a few trail runners, but not many backpackers.

I continue to see single and pairs of deer throughout the day. I pass my now third herd of sheep for the trip and even though I could see the sheepherders tent from a distance, once I arrive at the actual flock, there is little order to the group. They are wandering everywhere doing their own thing, very different from yesterday’s herd. I wonder if the sheepherders of Colorado are anything like the ones I had met when I lived in Romania, for those fellows also made friends with the local brandy while out tending sheep; which could account for a missing sheepherder if he is sleeping one off in his tent.

 

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A new plant begins to emerge in this part of the state. Corn Husk Lily nearly creates the feeling of walking through a tunnel on certain parts of the trail. It seems to proliferate at the elevation where the landscape changes from sub-alpine to alpine, right at tree line. Perhaps due to the severe drought that western Colorado is experiencing it is drying out and yellow in nature; but it makes for a striking contrast and also a reminder that the short Colorado summers are coming to an end and autumn is approaching. Many wildflowers past their peak confirm the pending change of season.

 

 

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I move out of segment 25 at Bolam Pass Road and move on to the short segment 26 without missing a beat. The skies turn a little darker and it begins raining hard enough to warrant my rain jacket, of which I have not used in a few days. Now with just a few hours of light remaining, and having not seen anybody for a some time, the feeling of loneliness creeps in. It’s amazing how the mood can change throughout the day; not as in a bad mood, but merely experiencing and acknowledging the change in mood.

I filter water to get me through the night and to begin tomorrow morning. I have already eaten my dinner so I can walk until close to dark. I’m with my thoughts and maybe even chatting out loud to myself as I often do, when I see two tents off to the right of the trail.

 

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Falls at Cascade Creek. Initially, I was not thrilled with this photo, but when editing, I was drawn in by the brown and bronze coloring in the rock.

 

I crane my neck forward looking right and see two figures in one of the tents, what appears to be a floorless tarp tent. I shout hello and get a response in return. I take a few steps off trail engaging in typical conversation. A man and woman are relaxing together, having settled in at their camp for the night.

After some conversation, the gentleman advises me not to be on a certain part of the trail in the late afternoon tomorrow. This goes contrary to my plan, which would put me on Indian Trail Ridge late the next day. There is something about the way he says it which implies I should listen to him. I think I know who he is and ask him his name.

“I’m Jerry Brown”, and this tells me enough. Jerry Brown is a surveyor and has marked every data point on this trail which makes up the Databook for the Colorado Trail. The Databook might as well be the Bible. In fact, for CT users it gets read more than the Bible, as it contains information regarding every trail intersection, water source, camping spot and scenic sight to see, all in a handy little pocket edition. I thank Jerry for his sound advice and tell him that I’ll make changes in my itinerary. (Jerry went on to finish his seventh through hike of the Colorado Trail three days later. Amazing!)

I leave the pair and venture on, wanting to get to a spot below Blackhawk Pass before dark. A mile or so before my stop I’m passed my one more bikepacker, farther along I almost keep pace with him as he has to walk his bike up the steeper, rockier trail approaching Blackhawk Pass. I wonder whether he will be camping at the same spot, but then see that he is already higher than where I will be stopping. I sigh inwardly, thinking it would have been nice to have company tonight.

 

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I made my camp below the low saddle, Blackhawk Pass.

 

I make my camp with enough time to go sit on a log and gaze into the valley below me, making notes about my day. This was my best day on the trail. I saw an abundance of wildlife today, 19 deer, 18 elk and 6 grouse. Toward the end of the day, as I tired of just being by myself I became a play by play announcer for the elk vs. deer daily count. And in the end, just toward evening, I rounded a bend in the trail to see a doe and two fawns. It put the deer over the top 19-18 and I made wild crowd noises announcing to the forest around me how amazing it was the two “rookies” brought home the tying and winning runs for the deer, overcoming an 18-1 deficit that the elk held early in the day. My imagination, along with the raw edge of reality in this wilderness creates the perfect narrative to my day.

Day 6 – More High Ground, a Sheep Herd and a Race for more Food!

I set the alarm for 4:30 am. I wanted to be out and down trail early and quickly today. My routine was getting better, even working in the dark and taking care of morning bathroom duties I was on my way by 5:10. It felt a little strange leaving camp without saying goodbye to my campmates, but everybody hikes their own hike and it is the accepted way. They all knew I was knocking out big days and I had told Ron that my hope was to get to Lake Molas Campground before the country store closed at seven o’clock in the evening. I had 25 solid miles to cover, but I knew that I’d be climbing 1,400′ in roughly 2 1/2 miles right at the end. I didn’t want to flame out for some odd reason and I really didn’t want to have to rush to get to the store.

Getting to that store was going to be pivotal. I had enough food to get through today and for dinner tonight, but nothing really after that. If I can’t get the food I need at the store I’ll have to go into Silverton, which will require hitch-hiking and losing valuable time. It will probably mean I’ll finish Sunday instead of Saturday. That means driving directly back to Denver the same day; something I really don’t want to do after being on trail for nine out of ten days. I knew I am rolling the dice hoping to re-supply at the store. Everybody is telling me that they only have snacks there, but I had seen photos somebody had posted of the shelves of the store that had Knorr rice packets and instant mashed potatoes. That is all I need to get through to Durango.

As I start in the dark I immediately notice flecks of debris in my headlamp. Weird. But then I smell smoke and I know that the southerly winds are blowing smoke up from forest fires down in the Durango area. It smells like a campfire and at this altitude it doesn’t make it any easier to breathe. I pass three tents in the first 30 minutes and am surprised by how close I was to three more groups of hikers. All are quiet, zipped up and still asleep. The sun begins to brighten the sky and the smoke does make for a beautiful sunrise. I attempt to catpture the scene in the slideshow below.

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Per my normal morning routine, I hike five miles, stop, make coffee and breakfast, chow down, move on. Even pulling my stove out and heating water it is only a 20 minute process. It’s good to have some initial miles under the belt when I do this.

Moving from my breakfast spot down the valley I look for wildlife but only see some ravens or crows feeding on some kind of carcass below me. A few minutes later I hear the bleating of sheep and then realize what has perished. This is the second herd of sheep I have come upon in the last two days. This one has five dogs and a sheepherder. As I move above the flock on the trail, the Peruvian sheepherder begins whistling and working the dogs. Two of the dogs are herding dogs, border collies from what I can determine. The other three are Akbash, turkish dogs bred specifically for protecting herds of sheep. Akbash, translates literally as “white head”. I took some video and even though it is from a distance you can see the dogs doing their job along with their sheepherder. I find it amazing. (You can read a very recent article on the sheep operation here) It reminds me of days when I lived in Romania and seeing very similar operations. I mention the paint pony in the video, which you actually can see on the upper, right side.

 

 

I finish out segment 23 and unceremoniously begin segment 24 crossing Stony Point Pass. I gaze up at Canby Mountain – 13,478′ – which is in direct vicinity of the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, where I had breakfast just an hour or so before. The view to Canby Mountain contains a field of fireweed. The fireweed has been a show stopper this whole trip and this morning it is in its full glory as the early morning light shines upon Canby in the background.

 

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A field of fireweed lies in the shadows as Canby Mountain is lit in the morning sun.

 

I quickly change into lighter clothing and plan to begin to make better time on trail.  I be-bop down the trail. It’s undulates and not long after I look behind me and see another hiker. I think to myself, “Where did he come from?” I’m shocked somebody is right behind me. I’m used to having the entire landscape to myself, occasionally catching or passing people, but nobody has caught me in a week, so this seems strange. I sense I must be lollygagging and I have a lot of ground to cover, so I set a quicker rhythm. As I crest and descend the next few rises I look back not seeing the person. I come to a big view looking down into a valley and can see a pair of hikers preparing to leave  their camp. They are far off but I can see what they are doing. I move down the switchbacks, at times, even jogging a bit. Once I arrive in the bottom, I look behind me and see no sign of what I am now wondering was perhaps a ghost. Weird.

Throughout the morning I pass many more people, some filtering water, others still at campsites. I cross paths with a gentleman coming northbound and we meet on the high tundra. He is a veteran backpacker. I can tell by his demeanor, knowledge of the trail as he tells me about the reroute that occurred here many years ago, and the weathered nature of his backpack. I like him a lot and we discuss the fickle nature of the high San Juans, that even on a “perfect” day with no threat of bad weather, one still feels very vulnerable and always on the lookout for clouds that may seem amiss. He is another that I rather enjoy my five minute chat with, and we go our separate ways.

For the whole of my trip up until now I have been concurrently on the Continental Divide Trail as well as the Colorado Trail. The CDT runs from Mexico to Canada, the longest of the “long trails” in the lower 48. But I come to the spot where it heads south toward Wolf Creek Pass as the Colorado Trail heads west toward Silverton.

 

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By all means, take the arrow that is the CT!

 

I soon come to where I am looking down into the Elk Creek drainage. And when I say look down, I mean look down! I can see some hikers below me and I am so glad that I am not hiking up out of that drainage. The number of switchbacks is amazing and the side of the mountain is steep. In the photo below I have attempted to edit it so that you can see not only the trail switchbacking down the mountain but also how the trail feeds into the drainage below.

 

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Foreground switchbacks and trail wayyyyyy down below. Don’t fall!

 

As I drop into Elk Creek the highlight of my time along this trail is watching the water flow over this patch of moss that is in the creek. It rolls along in rivulets over the moss like water running off of suede. It is mesmerizing and if I wasn’t on a schedule today I’d love to sit and watch it for a long time. I’m grateful for seeing it now.

 

 

After lunch as I get going again it is 1:30 in the afternoon. I have about ten miles to get to the campground. I should make it in time, but my left shoulder is bothering me. Specifically, it is my Levator Scapulae muscle and it is not happy. I feel as though the often narrow trail that is lower than the surrounding tundra has at times caused me to overuse my left trekking pole and compromise this muscle. It is uncomfortable enough that it is making me slightly cranky. I stash my poles and focus on covering ground.

I eventually come to a significant point in the trail, the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge rail line and the Animas River. I walk the rail line for a very short stretch, then cross the river on a nice bridge. Immediately I begin the crazy switchback climb. It is steep and it goes up in a hurry. I decide that I won’t take a break for 30 minutes, forcing myself to find a pace I can manage and grind through this thing.

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The view from the switchbacks. Mount Garfield is the high peak, 13,074′. Look into the valley and you can see the Animas River and just to the left the narrow gauge railroad that goes from Durango to Silverton. Yes, I came from down there!

 

I finish the grind up the mountain and shortly take the trail that goes to the campground. I arrive with two hours to spare! I can get a shower here for $5.00 which will get me a five minute shower! I am so excited! I enter the Country Store, a very small store and expectantly look at the shelves of items that they carry. There…is…only…snacks. My heart absolutely sinks. I have covered 52 miles in two days with the purpose of finding a re-supply here. I look to the young lady behind the counter. “Don’t you have any instant mashed potatoes or rice packets.” I admit that I’m a little overwhelmed and having a hard time taking in all of the food that is here, sort of like re-entry after being in a foreign country.

She nods her head over to the side of store and toward the floor. “There is a free hiker box under that bench, look in there.” I pull the cardboard box out from under the bench and begin to rummage through the items. I find two dehydrated Mountain House meals; Chicken Teriyaki and a Breakfast Skillet, 600 and 750 calories respectively. I find four packets of instant mashed potatoes, 400 calories each. I’ll only need two of these. I grab Honey Buns, Grandma’s cookies, Slim Jims, candy bars, orange cheese and peanut butter crackers, Pringles and other items. I want to patronize the joint so I inquire about a tent space for the night. I have no interest to head back to the trail tonight after I grab my shower. Before I call it an evening I make an additional trip back to the store for a microwave burrito and more snacks, to be sure I’ll have enough calories to make it three more days. I have dodged a major bullet, but I’m reminded of what so many before me have always said about thru hiking long trails. “The trail always provides.” And for me, I am very grateful that is has. In more ways than I can count.

Day 6 mileage – 25.4

Day 6 elevation gained – 4,635′

Total trip mileage – 160.1

Total elevation gained – 27,219′

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Lake Molas and the oasis, Lake Molas Campground beyond the lake

 

Day 5 – The Literal High Point of the Colorado Trail

On my zero day in Lake City, CO (population of year round residents 350), I ate well, reorganized my gear and looked around their local museum. Lake City’s claim to fame is Alferd Packer and his cannabilistic exploits of 1874.

Tuesday morning my pack was loaded with only two days worth of food and I had intentions of resupplying with more food at Lake Molas Campground. I wanted to get there in two days and the store at the campground closed at 7:00pm. I need to cover 52 miles before then to remain on schedule to finish by Saturday, when Pam will pick me up in Durango. My hope today is to cover close to 30, so I wouldn’t be racing the clock into LM Camground.

The first few miles of trail flirts with a walk in trees but opening up to expansive parks (meadows). I walk up on a cow elk in one of the parks. We eye each other and I reach for an elk call that I purchased in Lake City. I slip the diaphragm call into my mouth and give her a little chirp. It calms her down but she moves across from left to right in front of me. She chirps back and then barks once, then twice, exactly like a dog barks. This indicates that she knows something is awry and she trots off into the edge of timber. I give her a few barks back and then a longer squeal, bordering on a bull bugle.

About 500 yards away I see two more elk that I had not noticed before and they are running toward me on a string. They veer off a bit to the cover of an island of trees and I wait for a few minutes as they emerge from there, now settled down and feeding in the park. Some mountain bikers come along and stop to view them as well. Eventually I grow bored and need to move on, the elk grow weary of my movements and trot back in the direction they came from.

I move on and come to Jarosa Mesa, a transition area from a subalpine ecosystem to alpine tundra. After the mesa I now move above 12,000′ elevation and it is here and higher that I will remain for the next 36 miles. The CT creates a ribbon of trail through the tundra and even at this altitude there are wildflowers. The dominant one that I see is Fringed Gentian, and it causes me to drop to the ground and take some time to get more interesting photos of this late season star in the world of mountain wildflowers.

 

Fringed Gentian

 

The expanse is great in my view ahead as I walk on the high tundra. Because I got back on the trail early this morning, I expect to see other hikers, having been told before my zero day that there were a number of them just ahead of me. For now, I follow the trail, being able to see ahead for over a mile, sometimes more.

 

A single ribbon of trail beckons in the high tundra.

At times, the weather is serene and calm and it’s hard to imagine just how high I am. As I crest yet another high point, I begin to dip down and can see dots in the distance on the trail. There are at least two people. After a bit, I realize there are three, one heading in my direction northbound and two others heading southbound. I wind down in elevation, north a bit and then back south, now catching a lot of wind because of the contour of the mountains. I chat with a really nice guy who was the one I saw coming northbound. We speak for only a few minutes, exchange information and as I leave he strikes me as the kind of person I would have liked to talk to longer,

Finally, I reach the high point of The Colorado Trail. Everybody takes their photo with this sign. I do a few silly shots of myself to document that I was here. Except for the sign itself, there is nothing extraordinary about this spot. It isn’t even really on top of a mountain or even a hill; just on the contour and 63 feet below Coney Peak.

As I descend into Carson Saddle I catch up to a father and his two college aged children who are hiking the trail. They are from Spokane. After we exchange pleasantries I meet another duo hiking together.

A few miles later I stop to filter water, heat up water for lunch and am resting up after a solid day so far. I had seen two bright orange backpacks quite a distance ahead as I was approaching the creek. The Spokane trio stops at the creek as well and then we are joined by a man that comes along in the opposite direction asking if anybody has a dog. We all shake our heads no, look at each other and then the gentleman is followed by his wife, who has two llamas in tow. “$55 dollars a day! They carry the heavy load and we just have small daypacks. We leased them out of Silverton and we are camping in style” he exclaims. The couple are from Lawrence, KS and ask one of us to take their photo because the outfitter would like some shots of his llamas. The pair of animals are as gentle as can be and I’m glad I’ve seen them because I see their tracks for the next day and I would have wondered what made that kind of track.

I love her smile!

 

The Spokane trio leave before me, but after I get on the move I pass them up the long pass toward Cataract Ridge. The climb below Carson Peak is a grinder in the afternoon sun, and I, who typically abhors sunscreen is lathered up today because there is no respite from the high sun here in the alpine tundra.

 

I find myself often looking back into valleys as I climb the mountains

I hit the top of the saddle in pretty good time and realize that my body is adjusting well now to both the high altitude and the constant elevation gain that I face every day. What was once a mental hurdle is no longer so. I am cruising along, enjoying the bluebird day and fact that there is no threat of bad weather in these high mountains. That is a welcome relief.

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Hoodoos are more common in Utah, so they seem a little out of place this high in the San Juans

I quickly come up on Cataract Lake, one of the most photographed areas of the Colorado Trail. I have a big view of the lake and can just make out a large bull moose in the water. It’s amazing how he sticks out to the naked eye. He is large, jet black and I can see his large paddles even from such a great distance away. He must be massive looking up close. I snap a few photos of the lake. Can you see him there?

 

Where is the moose in Cataract Lake?

 

Cataract Lake is a popular place to camp and it is tempting for me to stop here and do so as well. But it is too early in the day, so I decide to make dinner and filter water instead. There is a family of three here and I have heard about them in previous days. I understand that they are from China and I say hello. I converse with the father and he tells me he his son, who is playing at the water’s edge is seven years old. They have come from Denver and took the more difficult Collegiate West route. I am impressed by their effort and the little boy is doing well carrying his weight.

They move on and I finish my dinner while relaxing at the small lake which lies just west of the larger lake where I saw the moose. The Spokane trio comes along just as I finish up and I wait to leave until they arrive.

They strategize about water, how much to carry and their plan for the rest of the day. I like watching them work together. They are now a well oiled machine having come so far together, 380 miles in about a month. The father and son always discuss their decisions and I love how the father, Ron, interacts with Travis, his son. There is an easygoing nature about all three of them. They are challenged by their journey, but they move as a team, a family unit, on the trail.

We talk about campsites for the night and I realize that because I have seen so many people today and visited quite a bit that I am not going to hit 30 miles today, nor do I see it necessary to do so. I decide to go about two more hours and they tell me that a young couple will be camped at the area; that they have been camping with them and they decided earlier to camp there together. I ask if it is okay if I join them for the night. Ron says sure. I am happy to camp with others tonight especially since we’ll all be in the open tundra.

I’m off before they leave and I tell them I may very well be asleep by the time they roll in to camp. I sense I will sleep well tonight.

My favorite scene of the trail thus far. I love the benched layers of green leading up to the high bowl left of Half Peak.

Of course there is more climbing to tackle and it is now taking a toll on me. The high energy I had earlier in the day begins to wane. After 22 miles, it is about persevering. As I come through another rise and round the trail I am treated to a marvelous site. I check the map and see that I am looking at Half Peak, 13,841′ high and the 86th highest peak in Colorado. It is the 8th highest in this range, hence its prominence when I first see it. Yet, I am more taken aback by the greenscape that is on its western edge. I’m reminded of mountains I’ve seen in Austria and Switzerland. If I had more time, I’d love to climb the green plateaus on its western edge and camp there. It looks fascinating and the layers of the mountain mesmerize me, especially in the evening light. It stands out as the most amazing mountain I’ve seen yet on my trek. I immediately fall in love with it, and it makes my heart skip a beat, its massiveness causing me to feel  insignificant in the scope of this big, bright, beautiful world.

I traverse around the mountain and keep looking back at the mountain to gain different perspectives as I distance myself from it. A couple of marmots sit upon a rock and seem to enjoy the evening view as well.

 

Not a bad view to look back upon as I reflect on my day

 

I keep looking for a tent, ready to finish my day. Finally I see one and arrive at about 7:00. I’m ready to stop and I’ll need an early start tomorrow to make it to my destination campground in order to resupply for the rest of the trip. I introduce myself to Andre and Brooke and joke about having a reservation for one. It’s old man humor and I catch them off guard. I put my tent up in an area with surprising deep, lush grass at 12,500′. I have never slept this high before and just before dusk Ron and his son and daughter roll into camp. I welcome them and sure enough I am not great company at this point, having worn myself out for the day. The group of five catch up and discuss details for their next day. I quickly drift off to sleep and am surprised as I wake in the middle of the night how calm it is up at this altitude. It’s amazingly serene and I sleep fairly well. It had been a great day in Colorado’s high country meeting new friends on the trail.

 

Day 5 mileage – 28.7

Day 5 elevation gained – 5,725′

Total trip mileage – 134.7

Total elevation gained – 22,584′

Day 4 – Enter the San Juans…Enter Big Mountains and Big Views!

Sleep did not come well. While dry, the dampness of the Cochetopa Creek was severely affecting my ability to remain warm. Most of my gear was working well, but this whole year I have had a challenging time staying warm outside on cold days. I would be grabbing a silk liner I had placed in my resupply box to help on colder nights.

I relented against trying to sleep and began to pack up in the dark. Getting out of an even somewhat warm sleeping bag is akin to jumping into cold water. The first thing I always do is roll up my sleeping pad. “If you want to get warm, start working” was my daily morning mantra. Because I was up early, I went ahead and made a cup of coffee while I gathered everything together. I was out of camp at 5:00 and walking through wet willows in my rain jacket and pants to avoid getting wet first thing in the morning.

Undersides of wet willow leaves reflect upon the light from my headlamp

Walking before first light on a trail that I have never traversed leads to anticipation of what the dawning of the day will bring. I am like a child at Christmas as the sky slowly brightens revealing what is hidden behind nature’s veil.

As the day brightens I’m surprised to not see any wildlife with exception of a single doe a few hundred yards off feeding in willows. I crest the saddle and 14,014′ high San Luis Peak rises above me, an easily attainable 14er if one is inclined to scale it. Indeed I can see a figure on its peak, arms spread wide and a shrill cry lets loose from the silhouetted body.

 

San Luis Peak looks more like a gentle rise, but is another 1,400′ higher at 14,014′

 

 

I am amazed by the huge bowl that is now in front of me and I begin to descend into an amazing area. Again, I scan for wildlife but do not see any until I round further across toward the next saddle and then spot what at first, I think are elk, but as I take the time to sneak over an edge to get a better look I realize they are mule deer, with some beautiful large bucks in the group.

Each time I cross over a pass or a saddle and get new views I try to determine what route I will be taking. Often, there are numerous trails, not just the Colorado Trail, so it can be a game, guessing how I might traverse the landscape in front of me. At times, I am disappointed that, yes, the trail is going to go straight up that steep mountain, and at others, I am relieved that it bends around a contour shoulder.

 

 

The Colorado Trail angles up from the left toward the saddle, you can barely make it out.

 

The sun plays back and forth on the mountains, lighting up an eastern facing side but then as I cross over the saddle and descend down the west side I get to see the sun crest another hillside and a brand new light display play out in front of me.

 

I cross over into another area that dips down into more willows; shrubs that flirt with treeline. As I come around a bend in the trail I meet a woman standing and brushing out her hair. She is the first person I’ve come across that I can talk to today. We stand and chat; she is hiking the full length of the trail. “I’m not a hiker, I’m not a backpacker, but I’m out here doing my best.” I inform her that since she has now traveled over 300+ plus miles she qualifies as both of those things and she is doing a phenomenal job. She tells me she is enjoying meeting friends along the trail and seeing all that it has to offer. She hails from Albuquerque.

I cross San Luis Pass, the official end of segment 20 and immediately begin segment 21 without much fanfare. I find a nice new sign that is posted paying tribute to a group of volunteers that have helped to maintain this section of trail. I shall like to note here that the Colorado Trail is a non-profit foundation that is maintained by and large by volunteers and teams of volunteers that raise money, maintain trails, survey needs and generally make it a wonderful place to trek. Many individuals “adopt” sections of trail that are maintained with a group of others to keep it passable and in good shape. It is an amazing movement to support the nearly 500 mile trail.

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The day is filled with ups and downs, literally, ups and downs. I climb a side of a mountain to see another huge mountain in front of me. It is now quite exposed a lot of the time but I dip down into timber, walking through dark forest, seeing more deer and crossing creeks before climbing sharply, sometimes on switchbacks to gain more ground. In the back of my mind I am aware of the passing time and do not want to arrive at Snow Mesa, a long relatively, open, exposed mesa, too late in the afternoon. It will take a few hours to cross and I do not wish to dance with thunderstorms today.

I dip into the forest once more from the tundra. I see a tent that is set up in a really nice spot. I stop and gaze over by the campsite. The tent is zipped up and I don’t see any movement. At 9:30 in the morning it seems late for a backpacker to still be in camp. However, the archery hunting season will begin in the last week of August, so I think that it could also be someone camping up here and scouting for the upcoming hunting season. I refrain from shouting hello and continue westward.

I go down to a creek and immediately uphill again. This is one segment of the trail that I am seeing more downed trees and I have to navigate walking around them as many hikers have done before or crawling over top of them. The trail turns up again and I ready myself for yet another hill climb. Behind me, where I just came from, howls begin to emit from coyotes. It’s hard to tell how many, but it is enough that it sends a chill up my spine. When you don’t see anybody for a long time, then a seemingly vacant tent, followed by eerie coyote howls, the mind begins to play interesting games. The sounds of the mountains fascinate me.

 

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Looking south climbing up out of San Luis Pass

 

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Peak 13,111 – With 637 peaks above 13,000′ in Colorado they don’t all get names!

 

Shortly thereafter I meet some northbound hikers, a pair of young women who just got on the trail where I will be getting off today. I give them some insight into water, trail conditions, etc and then make my way up to the saddle.

 

 

 

It continues on this way and I am entertained throughout my journey today by repeated sightings of deer. Some of the ascents are steep enough that they require switchbacks and the degree of incline and higher altitude requires me to knock it out in “chunks”, stopping to catch my breath and recover before laboring on. The “saddles” that I am crossing are at elevations such as 11,857′, climb to “saddle” 12,247′, climb to “top of climb” 12,772′ and “begin descent”. After this last high point I begin the long crossing toward Snow Mesa and then across it, now 7.2 miles from the road and where I will get picked up for my zero day.

 

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The last seven miles of the day becomes a grind,plain and simple. I have pushed hard the last three days with the objective of getting off the trail to enjoy a nice rest day. In my excitement I realize that I did not drink quite enough water and should have stopped to eate something hot. But I also did not want to get caught up in a storm; and that sums up life on the trail. Many think it is just a walk in the park, with all day to look at puffy, white clouds, reflect on life and solve the world’s problems. But, in reality, at least for me and also others I have met over the years there is indeed stress. The biggest one, for most, is the threat of storms and avoiding them. The other is water and gauging water stops and needs accordingly.

Today, I lost some focus on that need and nutrition. Now, I labor a bit to get to the end of the segment.  I come to one last place on Snow Mesa where I can filter water and I do so for the remaining hike out.

 

snowmesa

 

As I get to the edge of Snow Mesa it is now a two mile drop losing elevation in order to get to Highway 149. I drop about 1200 feet in the last two miles and notice immediately that it is much warmer below 12,000 feet. After sitting at the pass for a bit, my wife, Pam and her sister and our great niece and her friend pick me up to head in to Lake City.

I am beat, tired, hungry and thirsty. I’m not great company, but enjoy my first shower in four days and eating at an outdoor restaurant. Back in the little cottage we have rented, I watch Law and Order SUV and pass out after an episode. It is a good sleep.

Day 4 mileage – 21.1

Day 4 elevation gained – 5,068′

Total trip mileage – 106

Total elevation gained – 16,859′

Day 3 – Today is About Miles

I realized that doing roughly 25 miles for the first four days was not going to work in order to get to Spring Creek Pass by Sunday. That plan meant I would need to climb 6,000’ in elevation on the last day. This left too much to chance in case I had a bad day or encountered a bad storm that I had to wait on since there would be exposed areas above tree line in the last half of that distance. I really wanted to spend two nights and one full zero day in Lake City with family. So I switched up the plan.

I’d go 30 on Saturday and then 21 on Sunday. It still meant that I’d be climbing 5,000’ Sunday, but five miles less equated to roughly two hours on flat or slightly uphill ground, definitely more if I had significant climbing.

I was feet on the ground at 5:55 and past the hiker’s tent that I had talked to the previous evening at the 1.7 mile mark. The trail was wide and easy to walk; more like a forest service road. It was downhill and it was quick. I used my trekking poles like a metronome to establish a pace that would propel me along quickly.

Within no time I came to a bonafide dirt road and would walk that for half an hour then turn onto a numbered forest service trail. In this stretch I encountered my first cattle and began mooing at them like I am prone to do. A few had calves and I was enamored with how cute they were. When I had turned on to the road I could see a trail to the northeast so kept moving toward it. But it seemed like I had gone pretty long and still was not to that trail. I came to a cattle guard. I then pulled up the CT app on my phone to verify where I was. In my playing with the cattle I had walked right past the turn off and was one half mile off course! Shoot! So much for making such great time.

I found my way back to the right road and was off and not quite running but making good time. Starting early would get me through this dry, exposed segment before it got too hot. This was classic Colorado cattle country, stuff that doesn’t make many postcards but holds its own unique beauty. I had read some less than glamorous reports about this dry, dusty section but I liked it.

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The typical view of segment 18

The day was about accruing miles, but I was still taken aback by the wide open spaces in this area south of Gunnison and north of Saguache and Creede, Colorado. I passed a big ranch that stood out in the valley and then saw a couple horseman ride up toward the aspens. This would be a wonderful place to view the aspens in autumn and made a mental note to come back here another time.

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Moving into segment 19 we move from lower sagebrush country to higher aspens

The small lake doesn’t seem to be holding any water, just cattle!

At 20 miles I was crossing the Cochetopa Creek, the only creek that requires true fording on the Colorado Trail from what I had read over previous years. This year, however, in a low snow year, and now in August it was anticlimactic and I was able to rock hop across it with barely getting my trail runners wet.

The above scene was almost apopolyptic. Old forest fire burn and crazy grasshoppers buzzing about! Sound up!

I was cruising into the Eddiesville trailhead marking the end of segment 19. I began to think about my neighbor, a 20-year-old young lady currently attending CSU who had completed the trail earlier in the summer. She told me about how she had run to this very trailhead and sought shelter in a toilet there to avoid a storm. It was looking like I might be repeating that performance with clouds building overhead. I arrived there at 3:30 and found a few cars and people milling about. Beside a couple of cyclists I had yelled hello to earlier in the morning, they were the first people I had seen all day.

I settled down by a rock in the parking area and proceeded to make myself dinner. The clouds continued to build and eventually rain fell. I fell back on an old adage from my days as a cyclist. “I’ll get caught in the rain enough times, I don’t need to head out in the rain.” I propped open the door to the toilet with a rock, threw my pack inside, sat on my seat pad and began reading while it rained gently outside. It didn’t last long and I was off on the trail for the evening part of my hike.

There was a small ranch in the valley and I thought back to a friend of mine who had photographed a cowboy who was an artist that lived in a valley somewhere in the last half of the CT. I wondered if this was the valley. It sure lined up with the story I had read, at the time. I made a mental note to inquire about this with my friend, Dave. I could see why the man would not sell his land to the USFS; it was a beautiful valley, completely surrounded by the La Garita Wilderness.

I forged ahead up the long valley, the miles now beyond 20+ and what I considered bonus miles. Everything I could log today would be less I would have to log tomorrow.

7:00 was my target time to stop for the day. I met up with a fisherman who was fly fishing the Cochetopa for the day and then a father/son duo from Golden who were backpacking and fishing. The clouds began to build and less than a mile from where I wanted to stop the rain and hail began. I reluctantly threw on a rain jacket and covered my pack, continuing on up the trail.

This presented a dilemma. Nobody likes pitching their tent in the rain. And really it is quite pointless at the end of the day. I have changed my thought process on quickly throwing up my tent, crawling inside and attempting to beat a storm. If I get the tent up before the storm and weather it while inside, I now have a wet tent to deal with in the morning. Especially if I have to camp in a valley next to a creek, one of my least favorite places to camp. Most campsites are set up next to water for the obvious reason of having water conveniently close by for cooking, etc. But I was not cooking in my camp on this trip, so dry camps were much more appealing. However, there was no avoiding a camp in the creek bottom on this stretch.

I decided to roll the dice and keep walking, knowing that most storms will pass quickly and while I’ll still be camped in a wet valley, at least my tent will be dry come morning and thus, be lighter to carry. Sure enough, the rain stopped, the sky brightened somewhat and a nice spot appeared to my left. I set my camp, having covered a lot of ground for the day. Tomorrow I would be seeing Pam and family by day’s end. I was ready for them and was excited to get some sleep before tomorrow’s shorter leg.

Day 3 mileage – 31.75

Day 3 elevation gained – 4,132′

Total trip mileage – 84.75

Total elevation gained – 11,791′

Day 2 – Rain, elk, Soldierstone, 🌺, and rattling chains

The rain falls gently throughout the night. The bull elk has moved to the north side of the huge meadow that I am camped in. The change in barometric pressure has caused him to become unusually vocal for this time of year; he lets out a weak squeal from time to time.

I’m concerned that my tent is sagging and damp with condensation on the inside. I like this tent because it is light and easy to erect with my trekking poles, however it does not like low, wet areas. The walls are damp enough on the inside that I’m alarmed that it may have lost its ability to shed water, being a few years old now.

Over the past four years I have spent up to 25 nights a year in the backcountry and it always amazes me, heading back out for a trip, it’s almost like I forgot how to do things. Not having the tent taut was a mistake and I mentally kick myself for the error. The alarm goes off at 5:00 and I contemplate my day. I linger a bit, but decide that it has stopped raining at least for now and I need to get moving. By the time I pack everything up, leaving the tent accessible to dry out later, it is 6:18, later than I would like.

I had not realized that I was so close to Sargent’s Mesa, a vast open area marking the end of the segment. Less than five minutes on trail, I see a cow elk grazing. I stealthily walk along and then see deer. Wait. I thought I saw an elk. The rain from the night silences my footsteps as I walk up the trail. Sure enough, three or four much smaller deer feed right along with the elk. This is interesting because while I have seen them in the same area, it is not often I see them literally feeding side by side. There are quite a few elk and I take photos and shoot some video trying to capture the vocalizations of the elk, who are communicative animals.

Two cow elk look behind for a second pair

Eventually, I need to get moving and the elk see me and eight of them move away from me. However, to the left of the trail are four more elk and they run off as well. In the distance I can see even more slipping in and out of the edges of the timber that abuts Sargent’s Mesa.

There is another diversion, one that I have planned on visiting. Soldierstone is an amazing memorial and tribute to those who served and served soldiers of the Vietnam war. It is a mere two tenths of a mile southeast of the trail. If you didn’t know to look for it, you would miss it. I walk through the shin deep, wet grasses to pay my respects to this monument. I recommend reading more about this memorial and the vision behind it. It’s a fascinating read.

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After an hour of watching elk and visiting Soldierstone I make my way down the trail. I am met by a younger woman walking out of her camp and then a couple who are packing up their tent getting ready for the day. I amble down the trail on this cloudy morning working my way through segment 17. It is largely an up and down amble for most of the day, and while it is a forest walk, wet in nature and rather verdant, there is not a lot in the way of water access. I forego walking off trail to a lake, doing well enough with my water supply. I don’t make great time, though, because I have to stop twice trying to take advantage of a soft breeze to dry out my tent. I “leapfrog” with the woman I met earlier in the morning who has been trekking from Denver for a few weeks now.

Passing Razor Creek I encounter numerous motorcyclists that are touring the area on the trails. This section of the CT is open to motorized travel and while some parts are a bit chewed up due to the machines, the people riding them are courteous and I have some brief conversations with a few of them. They are all nice enough and enjoying the backcountry; they just enjoy it in a way that is different than mine.

The area is rich with wildflowers and one mountainside is full of raspberries, thicket after thicket of beautiful raspberries. I know that the bears will need this for winter fattening, especially after such a dry season, but I help myself to one, maybe two handfuls to verify that this food will be safe for the ursus. 😉

It’s been a day of off/on with the rain jacket and it is beginning to wear on me. My right knee is also still annoyingly uncomfortable and it affects my mood. On my way down the mountain toward where I will stop for dinner I run into a mountain biker. He has a son who is bikepacking with a friend and is on his way up to meet them. We chat for a few minutes, laugh and talk bikes. As I make my way further on, my spirits are lifted by the encounter.

At Lujan Creek I stop at 4:00 after 21 miles to have dinner, filter water and check my feet. I brew a cup of coffee as well, and drink a bottle mixed with a Nuun tablet for electrolyte replacement. I spend an hour here. It’s 2.2 miles out to Highway 114 and then I will begin segment 18. It’s amazing what an hour does as I have a lift in my gait moving down the road.

I run into the father of the bikepacker again and he asks if I’d like a Pepsi or anything. I feel so good that I decline because my body feels wonderful. He takes out some of my trash for which I am grateful and as I cross the creek into the next segment I “camel up” with extra water because tomorrow will have even less access. I fill my Platypus bladder that I have brought along with an extra 2.5 liters of water. It will be added weight but lessen my anxiety about water availability. It is an acceptable trade off.

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Clouds settle between ridges

The evening walk is blissful even though it is primarily an ascent. I finish at a saddle, my idea of a perfect campsite. I have to unlatch the chain to a cattle gate and immediately set my tent in a great spot at 7:00 in the evening. I’ve already eaten and there is no threat of bad weather. I love dry camping. It offers solitude, a dry tent in the morning and is generally warmer for sleeping.

I’m reading in my tent when I am surprised by a backpacker. I didn’t think anybody was close behind me as I’d only seen three other hikers all day. We exchange hellos, chat about wet tents and he tells me he is going another few miles. He will be setting up close to dark.

Darkness sets in and I fall asleep while reading. I hear the chain rattle a little after 9:00 and I’m awakened from my initial slumber. I look out the tent to see only a flashlight and someone walking, looking at a map. I can’t even really see a backpack. Somebody is making a long day of it. I drift back off to sleep.

Again, I’m awakened by a noise. Out in the dark on the other side of the fence I hear the crinkling of a foil wrapper. I can’t make out a person but somebody is trying to eat something. Other hikers have been talking about the Colorado Trail Mountain Bike Race that started the previous Saturday. Roughly 100 riders have begun an informal, “unofficial” race that goes the length of the CT. They ride all day and sleep little. Some even ride through the night. Apparently the winner had already finished but many remain on their way to Durango. It seems that perhaps one of them is eating not far from my tent. It reminds me of my father elbowing me in the ribs when I was a child opening a hard candy wrapper in church, making a racket as Pastor Stoner was coming to the main point of his sermon. I want to reach out and elbow this cyclist as well.

But there is an additional racket. Clank, clankety, clank as now another cyclist is messing about with the gate. He mutters something unintelligible to Candy Wrapper. The Gate Keeper is perhaps 25 yards from my tent and now I’m awake enough to be curious about the whole scene. I wonder whether they even know that I am here lurking in the darkness.

As I take in the evolving scene, I am aware that I am a little gassy, not unusual for the first days of eating trail food. Immediately, however, my own little green cloud is overcome by a powerful, powerful stench. The air must be moving from Gate Keeper to my tent and I’m overpowered by stink so foul that I begin to gag. I have been around dead carcasses that I would have rather rolled in than be exposed to this pungent, foul smell. How could a human emit such an odor? Not quickly enough Gate Keeper finally passes through the gate and his headlight shines upon the mountain as he begins his descent down the trail.

I cough silently in my tent while Candy Wrapper continues to be about as popular with me as a fart in church, which I would have preferred to stinky Gate Keeper. I want to yell, “For God’s sake, man, open that damn thing and be on your way! The bears and I need our sleep!” Finally, finally, he, too, fumbles with the gate and in a less speedier fashion rides down the trail. Gratefully, I follow this scene with a fantastic night’s sleep, left to dream about bicycles, hikers and stink bombs.

Day 2 mileage – 27

Day 2 elevation gained – 3,921′

Total trip mileage – 53

Total elevation gained – 7,659′

Back on The Colorado Trail

This is the year that I am going to finish the Colorado Trail, the footpath/bicycle path that goes from south Denver in Waterton Canyon to Durango, spanning 475 miles through the Rocky Mountains. I began backpacking the CT in June, 2014. Since then I have completed 261 miles of the trail covering both the Collegiate West portion as well as the Collegiate East section. After knocking out a few segments each year and doing a ten day trek in 2015, I decided to finish out the remaining 230 miles from Monarch Pass to Durango. An earlier blog post this spring gives a little bit of the backstory as to why I decided to push through to finish this year.

The venture will be an aggressive one. I have ten days to cover 230 miles. It is not a given that I will complete the task. I have a specific start and finish date due to business and family situations. I plan on a rest or “zero” day in Lake City, meaning I have decided to take nine full days to complete the route. In short, I will need to walk the distance of a marathon each day to make it to Durango by Saturday, August 11th. Not just walk, but don a backpack averaging 25 pounds and climb an average of three to four thousand feet each day largely at an altitude of 10,000-13,000’. I have once again taken on a challenge of which will be outside the scope of anything I have done before. In 2015, I chose a fairly leisurely 10 day trip, stopping to fish with sidetrips, etc and averaging about 13 miles a day. This will be double that.

Starting off from Monarch Pass between Poncha Springs and Gunnison

I leave Broomfield with my good friend, Jamie, who has also completed half of the trail. We will walk the first five miles together, after which he will head north for a few days on trail he has not explored while I continue on toward my destination of Durango.

Our separation point is where the East and West portions of the Collegiate routes come together south of Highway 50 and Monarch Pass. I make myself a cup of coffee, we sit at 11,900’ on a calm day, devoid of any wind. Nearby are some other hikers chatting while we hang out. After ten minutes or so, Jamie and I do the fist bump thing and he descends down into Fooses Creek while I head south along the ridge of the Continental Divide. It is great beginning with him and hard to say goodbye. Going solo, well, is solo, and hence can get a bit lonely from time to time.

I am splitting the trip into two parts with the rest day in between. However, in order to afford this luxury I need to cover 104 miles in the first four days. Today, I only began at 8:30 so I am already giving away some good light. Yet, the trail is fast and smooth, allowing for pretty good time and miles covered. But I really need to ease into the trek and not go crazy on the first day.

Fleabane

I am on the trail well after the “bulk” of hikers that started the complete trail earlier in summer. Many are anxious to head out in June, and I, too, have done that in the past. But with an early start comes lingering snow fields. July is a great time to be on the trail as the wildflowers are peaking in the mountains, but with July, also comes monsoon rains and dangerous electrical storms. By leaving in August I am hoping to to avoid the heavy monsoons but still catch a good dose of wildflowers. I am not dissapointed early on, as I have good “eye candy” with wildflowers throughout the first day.

Come mid afternoon, I run into some motorcyclists traveling northbound. Parts of the trail are open to motorized travel and segment 16, which I am on now, is one of those segments. A group of four are riding some really nice BMW 1200 off-road touring bikes with panniers, much like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman used in Long Way Round. Two riders pass by and then I come upon a third, walking the trail, one arm holding onto a nature made crutch of a stick. “How’s it going”, I ask.

“It’s been better”, he replies, “I think I broke my ankle.”

I carry an emergency transponder device with me so I can satellite text my wife, Pam, and it also doubles as a SOS device for emergency situations. “Do you need any help with anything?” thinking perhaps this guy needs emergency evacuation. He replies that he has all that he needs and seeing he has buddies with him, I move on down the trail. He is a pleasant enough chap considering he has a potentially serious injury and also that his other buddy is looking for their own lost GPS device that had bounced off another bike.

I continue to run into both day hikers and thru hikers. I keep a good pace, only stopping for a quick lunch and later to filter enough water for the rest of the day. I know that from many past treks I will average 2.2 mph overall for the day. I never want to fall below that number and know that on good sections of smooth trail I can move faster. The amount of uphill does not make as much difference to me as much as the condition of the trail. If it is smooth “all day” trail, I can motor along at a consistent pace. If it gets rocky, it will be my downfall. I don’t move quickly through rocky trail so I always try to make the best of the good trail when I have it. Below is a good example of “all day” trail.

All Day Trail, like I wish I had this all day to walk on!

I do encounter some tougher trail by late afternoon, but I trudge through it, my goal being a stream where I can filter more water, have dinner and then carry on for another hour or so. Sure enough, I arrive at Tank Seven creek with a good day in my legs. As I filter water above the creek, I can see other trekkers at a camp. There is a lot of laughing and talking going on; backcountry thru hikers enjoying a beautiful evening and nice camp. I yell hello to them and they let me know that they have space for another tent. I reply that I’ll be going further, but after I heat and pour boiling water into my food pouch, I cross back over the creek and join them while I eat.

We exchange names and hometowns and within five minutes we are all laughing and joking. “Walking Man” is probably about my age and I quickly find out that he has hiked the Appalachian Trail as well as the Arizona Trail. The other two are an older couple, very easy going and immediately likeable. All three started in Denver and are going through to Durango. It is what I like about this trail. We are all here for the same reasons, we love to hike, camp and experience trail life. I’d really like to stay and linger but want a few more miles today. I bid them goodbye and am on trail again by 7:00.

I walk another hour, moving into Cameron Park and just beyond. It is the “golden hour”, the time of day just before sunset when wildlife is beginning to move about. Sure enough I see four mule deer, two of them majestic bucks as I move into the open park. I’m forced to show my hand as I move through and they bound ahead of me. I see one of them later and she poses for a nice photo.

The whole day has been smoky, from the fires in Northern California. It has kept the sun off my body, but now night is quickly approaching. I come upon a huge open meadow and quickly make camp, pitching my little single wall, one man tent. I’m sleeping at 11,300’. As I settle into my bag, I acknowledge that while my body performed ably during the day, my legs are throbbing, especially my right knee. This is slightly disconcerting because I felt this same thing earlier in the spring after an aggressive run. It did not resolve quickly then; I hope this is not the case now in August. As dusk turns to dark, a bull elk lets out a squeal above me high in the meadow. I already miss Pam, as is always the case, the first night out on a solo venture. Sleep is fitful and it rains during the night off and on. I keep waking and remind myself that I am dry and somewhat warm. I’ll take care of wet gear once it is daylight, which will come after my alarm goes off in the morning.

Day 1 total miles traveled – 26

Total elevation gained – 3,738’

Comanche National Grasslands – Picket Wire Canyon

The choice was either Utah or Southeast Colorado. My wife, Pam, got to choose and she had been to Utah three years ago on spring break, so SE Colorado it was. Again, she was entrusting her trip to the husband; she is easy that way.

The Comanche National Grasslands encompass a huge area. To be exact the grasslands are 440,000 acres or 692 square miles. Much of that is high prairie grasslands where antelope play and tarantulas live and do their own special thing each fall. (I plan to make that trip one day as well!) There are, however, amazingly beautiful shallow canyons that contain petroglyphs, pictographs, Spanish ruins and the top allure to Picket Wire Canyon, dinosaur tracks.

Looking down into Picketwire Canyon.

Looking down into Picket Wire Canyon from the rim above

It is an easy four hourish drive to La Junta from Denver. Head east to Limon and then south to melon country. It’s worth stopping in La Junta at Lucy’s for either a late breakfast or early lunch before heading the remaining half hour to Picket Wire Canyon.

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A view of the canyon while camped on beach like sand

We arrived there early afternoon, set our tents, and each of us went about our business. It was Pam, J Rubble, his 11-year-old son, The Dude, and myself. I took a little nap and then did a cursory tour of the area refreshing my memory from two years ago when I was here with J Rubble. The landscape is marked by juniper trees, cholla cactus and plant life emerging from winter dormancy.

I did find this sign as I made my way to the trailhead.

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Be prepared, or prepare to die

Apparently there was a bit of a problem here last summer, which is another reason this is a good area for early spring or late fall. It’s an easy 800 foot descent into the canyon and then you follow the Purgatoire River for about as long as you want to. Two years ago we hiked to Rourke Ranch, just under 10 miles one way. Unfortunately you cannot camp in the canyon itself (likely due to the great chance of death) so it is day use only. After a great dinner of venison steaks and brussel sprouts we all got a good night’s sleep and chance to test out the waterproof capabilities of our tents as it rained heavily through the night.

The next morning we took our time having breakfast and headed down the trail mid morning. J Rubble and The Dude brought bikes for the nearly twelve mile round trip to the dinosaur track site. Pam and I headed along on foot. The trail is almost road like in nature, but the tread can be loose because of the sand. This morning, however, it was packed pretty firm due to the overnight rains and was even muddy in a few spots.

 

 

En route to the dinosaur tracks we stopped to check out the petroglyphs and Spanish mission and cemetery. There is amazing history in this canyon and I could easily spend many days doing a more thorough job exploring.

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The Purgatoire River in Picketwire Canyon.

The big draw is the dinosaur tracks, over 1200 of them to be exact. The area is home to the largest dinosaur track site in North America. The tracks are of Therapods (meat eaters) and Sauropods (plant eaters). They were from the Jurassic period 150 million years ago. Yes, that is not a typo. This was before the Rocky Mountains were formed. The area of Picket Wire Canyon used to be a huge, marshy lake bed. Apparently the dinosaurs had walked along the marshy, mucky edge of the lake leaving their deep footprints. The lake eventually dried out and the tracks literally turned to stone. There is an excellent article from the New York Times about the ongoing work being done in the area. (Hover over the images below for the captions and descriptions of tracks)

 

 

 

We relax by the river and I heat water for coffee and tea as we soak up the sun on this fine late March day. J Rubble and The Dude have crossed the river in sandals while Pam and I are content to watch them play about. There is one other couple here, from Montana, according to the signed trail register, and they, too, are relaxing in the sun on the other side of the river.

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Lunch spot on the Purgatoire River

Eventually, Pam and I begin to make our way back, now with the sun higher overhead and warming our backs. The boys play leap frog with us on the bikes and later on we find them bedded down underneath a cottonwood tree. It seems that The Dude decided to climb the tree and had a bit of a mishap, falling out of it and scraping himself up

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Oops!

pretty good on the belly. There doesn’t seem to be any internal damage and we make our way  back to camp.

After another good meal and windy night I awake the next morning to the sounds of turkeys gobbling and coyotes yipping in the Juniper filled canyon below. We’ll load up the cars this morning and make our way another couple hours south to the other part of Comanche Grasslands and Picture Canyon, our destination for the day and night.

Colleen’s Last Homework Assignment – My Eulogy for Her

Blooming in my garden on the day of her memorial service

This could lend itself toward being a bit on the heavy side, so I’ll open with something a little lighter and allow us to laugh with our friend Colleen. Since Colleen’s death, a nagging question keeps coming to me. Is the entry to heaven now based upon a keyless entry system or does it require Colleen to actually have the keys, for if it does she is at the gates waiting upon AAA or Frank Ping to help her out in order to get in, for nobody loses keys like Colleen did.

I’ve know Colleen for over 20 years. I don’t remember ever actually meeting Colleen for the first time, but we attended the same church. Colleen was one of those people that you heard about first and met later. Then all of a sudden, I’m asking myself one day “Who is this woman? Who is this person asking me deep questions and making me think and look into my soul?”

My prayer over the past days has been how I will speak about a dear person, a dear friend. It is my humble intention today to give great honor to Colleen, and also to Jesus Christ, of whom she was a steadfast, devout follower. It is a tremendous honor to speak about Colleen to all of you, because if you are here today, she taught you something. Colleen was a teacher, she was also a student. She sought out learning and went about teaching. If you are here today, you loved this incredible woman. I hope that you will hear something that resonates with the Colleen Kanemoto that you knew and loved. I’d like to share about the friend I knew.

Exactly one week before Colleen’s passing I was having breakfast with her daughter Grace. “Mom said she wants you to speak at her service.” This was news to me.

A few days later, her husband, Tom, called me and we had a similar exchange. “Apparently you two have had this conversation” he said.

No, Colleen, we did not have this conversation. And I have been left with the question of what exactly she wanted me to share with you all today.

Colleen was an integral part of Broomfield United Methodist Church back in the ‘90’s when I first knew her. She directed Vacation Bible School, was an employee, and then a teacher at Apple Tree Christian Pre-School. She had always wanted to work with children, to be a teacher. I’d like to share some thoughts from some of Colleen’s pre-schoolers.

  • She made us learn without knowing we were learning.
  • She wasn’t afraid to get dirty, she didn’t get upset about play-do in the carpet or spilled glue on the tables or beans from the playground in our pockets.
  • She pushed us super fast on the tire swing. I remember learning about butterflies in her class. They grew in our classroom and she would show us their progress everyday and explain what was happening.
  • Mrs. Peketz always made sure that we crazy 3-year-olds were happy and learning, despite the fact that we were surely little devils.
  • She kept her patience and always had something insightful to say in any situation.
  • She never stopped smiling. Like ever. Even when we were annoying.
  • Ms. Colleen was always an optimistic person, and showed her love for every single kid that she taught.
  • She made preschoolers believe that anything was possible.
  • I remember how contagious Ms. Colleens’s smile was in the classroom, the way she would tell students stories, and then smile. It just allowed her students to always be happy, laugh and love learning.
  • I personally believe that those smiles and laughs have carried with me throughout my entire academic career 13 years later.

I gathered these reflections from four teenagers, 17 and 18 years old and in high school and college.

Colleen made more than a half dozen trips to Romania to serve children there, and we think she made her first trip in 1997. She, along with her kids, Sam and Grace stayed with my family for a month in the summer of 2004 when we were serving as missionaries there. She held babies, brought suitcases full of crafts and loved on the kids. Colleen had a heart for the children of Romania. I’d like to share something from two of the children that she knew and loved.

“I remember the summers in Romania, the crafts you were doing with us and how we used to play with your kids. While the tears are rolling down my face, I remember I’ve never seen you sad. You were always smiling, what a beautiful smile! I pray for your family to be strong and follow your example of loving Jesus. I will always remember you.” That Romanian child is now 26 years old, a university graduate, speaks three languages fluently, happily married and has a daughter, Sara.

“For me Colleen was a very good friend because she taught me to smile no matter if I’m sick or well in my life. I’ve learned to move on no matter what the hardships will be through life. Colleen loved so many children and devoted her body and soul to the children’s mission. The first time she came to Romania she was like a mama to me.This was shared by a 28 year old woman who was 13 and living at Ana’s House in Romania when she first met Colleen.

Colleen volunteered her time at the Boulder County Homeless Shelter handing out blankets and she was a volunteer at all of the different churches she has attended since I have known her. She was a lover of the outdoors, and enjoyed solo hikes in the area of Fern Canyon and was known to ascend Bear Peak, the highest peak in the area of the Flatirons. She then shared the beauty of some of those same trails with her students on field trips, moving at a pace to where a child could explore, imagine and learn. She took many full moon hikes that always included a time spent listening to her friend Earl play his flutes in the dark, star filled, moonlit sky. She learned to paddleboard and enjoyed doing that on Union Reservoir and didn’t let dropping her phone to the depths of the reservoir diminish her passion for SUPing. I believe she loved english lavender.

She was an avid reader of books and she often shared those books with me; philosophical books, spiritual books, books that explored the amazing extraordinary walk with Christ. Colleen was one of the most spiritual people that I have known.

When she was living alone a group of us would regularly attend church together, then gather back at her cottage for a meal, filling the space with stories and laughter and memories, both old ones that we all cherished and new ones that we were creating; just living in the moment, each of us pausing in our lives to love each other.

She was there in a moment of tragedy six springs ago, at the core of a small group of us that had to bury a friend that died much too early. I’m grateful that our friend DJ was there to welcome her and give her a first tour of heaven.

She loved to ask questions and learn new things. A few years ago she sat at my kitchen table late into the evening listening to a Romanian describe Apiology, the study of bees. We all laughed and laughed as the study of the sex life of bees was described in two different languages, Colleen asking questions about the lives of these amazing winged insects. “Wait, hold on a minute!” she would exclaim, wanting further clarification on a scientific point.

Colleen was the mother to two beautiful children, Grace and Sam. I’ve had the privilege to watch these two grow from toddlers to teens to amazing young adults. She was tremendously proud of both of you, of who you are and what you are becoming as adults. I know many people have told both of you this over the last days, weeks and months, but I need to tell you as well. Your mother was an amazingly courageous, faithful woman full of strength and resolve. She loved you both very, very dearly.

Colleen had a great love in her life and whom she desired to know at a deeper level every day that she lived. She would go away to spend time with this love at personal solitary retreats in the mountains of Colorado. Over the years I saw a transformed Colleen who sought to understand God’s heart and know Jesus ever so intimately. I can not stand here today and not tell you about Colleen’s faith, her love of Jesus Christ. If I didn’t speak to this I truly believe she would make her presence known in this room and say “Matthew, how dare you not speak of my faith today.”

David, of the Bible, was described as a man after God’s own heart. I did a little looking around online and found something from Ron Edmondson. He uses the following words to describe the heart of David as seen in David’s own writings.

  • Humble
  • Reverent
  • Respectful
  • Trusting
  • Loving
  • Devoted
  • Recognition
  • Faithful
  • Obedient
  • Repentant

Each one of those words, I believe, describes Colleen’s heart for God as well. I’d like to share something from Colleen that is directly from her blog that she wrote as she moved through the process of cancer and reconciled that with her faith.

“This has been a journey that hasn’t tested my faith, it’s allowed my faith to lead me, encourage me, and offer me peace in the chaos that comes with this new normal. Oh, I can lose my shit every so often, but I have a place to return to once I blow my nose and wipe the tears. It’s a place of peace and comfort and relationship. I cannot explain how my science-loving brain and Jesus-loving heart work together, but I feel blessed, and it has nothing to do with answered prayers, miracles, or prosperity. I don’t worship God the magician, I have this unexpected relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that I inexplicably chose one night when I was 7 and sad but praying in a way no one had taught me to do- just crying and conversing as if he were my dad. I am “at home” with Him every day and experience love, peace, and comfort. I’m good with that.”

Toward the end of her life Colleen found another love. She told me about this man she had met and their second time together at some gathering or little party. They were sitting on a curb in the street chatting and they had wonderful conversation, and for Colleen, I know this was of utmost importance, for she loved to have deep conversations about all things regarding the world and life. Colleen met Tom Brown, her Prince Charming, and she was madly in love with him. Tom, while your time was cruelly cut short with Colleen, you gave her the happiest of days, and filled her heart with love and joy. She lived happily ever after and she worried more about you than she did herself in the last eight months of her life.

In closing I have something to share with all of you that are grieving this loss of Colleen and the abruptness with which her life was cut short. I know that many people have regrets that they could not see Colleen toward her end days.

I have had the tremendous privilege to have been her massage therapist for 16 years. We’ve travelled internationally together and she had been a rock for me during some very difficult times of my life. When it became clear that her time on earth was short, I had so many questions for her.

“Are you excited to meet Jesus?” “Are you scared, frightened or anxious?” “Do you feel a sense of freedom or relief that you’re leaving this state of affairs of our current world?” These were just a few of the questions that I had for her.

But each time that we met I sensed in my gut that Colleen needed space, that she did not need to give me answers to my questions. And again in the final days of her life, I so desperately wanted to know what it was that she wanted me to convey to each of you as we come together to celebrate her life. On the night that she passed, I truly felt that she was teaching me that I only had to rely on my own faith, to speak about who she was, what she loved and how she lived.

Colleen was a teacher, at heart. She taught children face to face and as adults we have so much to learn from her. As you struggle through your grief, because, let’s face it, we are all struggling with this passing of this wonderful woman. I beckon you to look deep into your own heart, much like Colleen did as she sought out her heart, and ask just what exactly has she taught you through the relationship that she had with each and every single person sitting here today. If you aren’t learning something from Colleen, you’re not doing justice to the life that she lived.

Colleen’s life was cut dreadfully short, but she did not, under any circumstances, live her life in vain. She lived her life fully and to the fullest. She shared with me last fall about a positive attitude. She said to me, “It’s not about having a positive attitude, it’s about living positively.”

Two days before she passed Colleen sent me a text.

Colleen: I have another night at the hospital…

Me: Want any company or are you beat?

Colleen: I’m fine

Me: Okay, love you!

Colleen: ❤️U2

And I think she wants each of you to know that too.

Meeting my Mistress

John Muir said “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

It is too easy to not take advantage of beautiful spaces that lie close to where I dwell. Quite often I am easily distracted and miss an opportunity to move toward an adventure. Or I may desire a larger adventure, overlooking something shorter that might offer simple beauty. If pressed for time, I’ll opt for a run instead of a stroll, catching bigger vistas and not seeing minute effects of nature’s brilliance.

This week, despite ten degree temperatures, I took advantage of an open morning to go for a short hike. The trail was snowy yet fairly packed since the previous day’s snowfall. I was looking for interesting items to capture in order to have “keepsakes” of the time afield. I may walk for an hour but I can spend far more time creating stories from images. Especially during this time of year, when the journeys might be much shorter, it provides fuel for my desire to be able to make longer trips or multi-day extended trips. Then, it may become harder to reflect on the adventures, because time is spent cleaning gear, working and getting ready for another adventure.

I enjoy reflecting on the outdoors and how it speaks to me, to my soul. I am moved by how I will feel differently about life after even a short while on a trail compared to the excess energy that may have been building up before I left. Stress can, at times, dissipate, and I may even forget about what might have annoyed me earlier.

Nature has tremendous staying power. Trees, plants, mountains, butterflies, hummingbirds, insects will never feel artificial heat provided by a furnace. They endure a harsh winter or perhaps migrate to a warmer clime. As a human I come to them on their terms, in their territory, to gather what I may from them. Largely, leaving no trace, or intending to do so, being a good guest of their beautiful dwellings.

Upon returning home, or to work, I reflect back upon the experience, attempting to capture a feeling that I had. I often draw that feeling from a photograph, memory of the trip or even a conversation with another guest that I might meet on the trail. The memory becomes a daydream as it morphs into a future trip. I quite literally will feel my heart skip a beat, as I think back to a treasured journey or plan ahead for another escapade. Nature becomes my mistress, yet one I happily share with my partner, my family and my friends.

Her impact on my soul is so great that it brings forth words from which I scratch out in my journal, or assembling into a work for others to see, I gather the thoughts together as an essay on virtual paper. I think so much of her that I’ll pore back over my words to make certain I did her no discredit; a love story and profession of impact that she has had on my heart.

Nature beckons for all who yearn to meet her on her terms; a sunny day, in the face of a biting wind, caught in the power of her storm as lightning creates the incredible sense of insignificance in the midst of a strike. If you’ve not found the time recently to go visit nature, I suggest that you do so. She is waiting for you, she is a mistress that we all desperately need.

Next Steps

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Eldorado Canyon as seen from the Fowler Trail looking west.

I went for a short solo hike today. It is already February. After finishing off the R2R2R last November, I’ve allowed my body the opportunity to de-condition from regular running. Truly, I did need my left foot to have some time off from the running as I had jammed my big toe a few times in autumn, exacerbating a Hallux Rigidus condition that has developed over the past few years. I’ve spent more time in the yoga studio, focusing on getting stronger, attempting to develop some upper body strength and playing with more and more inversions.

Every year, I lay out some goals for my physical body, but this year I have needed more time to sort out what they might be. My massage therapy business has kept me quite busy over the past five months and the days and weeks begin to meld. I’ll do some trail running this year, but it will be as a way to build strength to move quickly through high mountains. My soul missed nights spent in the wilderness last year, and the slower deliberate pace feeds my very soul.

My wife, Pam, and one of my backpacking partners has expressed an interest to venture forth on the tread of the Colorado Trail once again. We’re starting with bi-weekly hikes to see how her arthritic knee will handle time afoot and afield. We’ve cleaned up some messy eating habits and feel good with the effects on our bodies. Now in our fifties, we cannot get away with bad habits regarding physical and nutritional health as we thought we once could many years ago. I have a client, a wonderful woman who has told me “Getting older is hard work. Getting older is not for sissies!”

I have many clients in my practice, spanning the ages of 11 to 85, various demographics, interests, professions and lifestyles. In the past year, I’ve had four people who have been battling cancer. All four are in their fifties. One, in particular, is facing a tough battle. Making this more challenging is that this person was a friend before they were a client. This friend has been there when we’ve had to bury another friend. And that just makes this tougher; this is a friend who has been a rock for me over the years, a person who brings about tremendous peace in me, tremendous honesty and tremendous reckoning in my soul.

The previous fall, when I was questioning whether I’d attempt to run back and forth across the Grand Canyon, I thought about the future. I don’t know my own future; I don’t know what the end point of my future is. And with that, I said, screw it, I’m going across the Grand Canyon and back, I’m not putting this off.

Last July, when I was logging long miles running, I had a notion to run on part of the Colorado Trail and meet a wonderful gentleman whom I had never met in person. We had met through a Colorado Trail Facebook group and had exchanged some messages. I saw he was going to be on a section of trail south of Bailey, where I was planning on running that day. I caught David Fanning just a few miles into my run in the Lost Creek Wilderness. Upon introducing myself we laughed and traded stories. It was great to finally meet each other in person. David has through hiked the Colorado Trail four years in succession, written a book about the people on the trail and is a wealth of knowledge regarding this wonderful span of nearly 500 miles. I told David that I have been “section hiking” the trail for a few years, knocking out 250 miles and completing the Collegiate Loop. I’ve not been in a hurry to complete the whole trail and told David that “I have the rest of my life to complete it.”

He looked at me, adorned by his trademark “tilly” hat, tilted it to one side ever so slightly and replied, “Maybe.”

His retort has stuck with me since then. Maybe I do have the rest of my life to knock out the remaining part of the CT in sections over years. But, perhaps, I may not. I can’t tell the future, but I can make some plans. Thus, I’ve decided that this year I will hop back on the trail at Monarch Pass and walk the remaining 230 miles or so to Durango. It will take me through the peak part of the trail, the San Juan mountains. I’ll hit it sometime in summer, hopefully meeting other trail souls along its path. I plan to hop off and hitchhike to Lake City and spend a night there. I’ll likely do the same in Silverton, the details I’ve not yet laid out. But, having done enough longer treks and long days it will all be fine.

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Snowy winter trail…rust emblazoned on iron…winter’s cold framework.

There will be many other nights afield as well this year. I’ve always wanted to do a month’s worth of nights in the out of doors. Maintaining a business, where I am the sole massage therapist, with no paid vacation, makes that a little tough. But I think this is a good year to carry out this idea. Pam and my backpacking pal, J Rubble, will be looking to log some good miles on the CT. I have a nephew who is planning on coming here next September for an archery elk hunt. My 22-year-old son Ben, with whom I’ve had some great backpack trips, wants to get back at it. We have another father/son duo that we’ve done a trip with. It would be a good time to do that again.

What I love about time afoot on trail and field is that it sparks my thoughts for ink on paper. I started a new journal this year. It is 400 pages. So far, in five weeks or so, I’ve filled over 50. While this journal is not “ultralight” it will go in my pack. It will contain all of my being for 2018. From its pages will come the stories of my year, for trips where I will not have access to a device to quickly log thoughts at the end of a day hike.

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I saw more of their tracks today than I did of two legged animals

I look forward to what this year will bring. I look forward to nights alone looking at stars and I look just as forward to nights spent under stars with friends. There will be days of sunshine and splendor. There will be days of rain, wind and even snow. It will all be good. I know time spent away in the mountains creates a renewal of spiritual riches. It makes coming back to community and friends a great experience and renews daydreams of time spent away. Let not waste a day nor an hour, let not waste a sunrise or sunset, let not waste an opportunity to tell one that they are loved.

A Yoga Story

I’m up early every weekday. On Fridays, I hit a regular yoga class with other early yoga birds that begins at 5:45. Today, as I move about on my mat and check in with hips, knees and ankles, it feels especially warm and humid in the room. I gave up trying to figure out the degrees of heat and percentage of humidity for each type of yoga class. “Just show up and embrace what happens” is the mantra I try to maintain. Yet, I decide to take a drink and go fill my water bottle to the rim.

As we venture into the sixty minute class, it becomes a journey of valleys and peaks due to my internal thermostat wanting to go haywire. I set an intention to pick which postures I will fully embrace and then recover, finding savasana in the midst of another posture. For me, I need to be able to draw upon savasana at any moment, during any aspect of my life, capturing a few seconds may suffice to get a grasp on a situation.

Opting out of going “full on” represents some growth in my practice as I choose not to feel compelled to dive into each posture, risking poor form and potential injury. I suppose that some years of practice and hundreds of classes has taught me where “not to go”.

I check in with my breathing, attempting to gain some control. My focus gently on the mirrors in front of me, I gain a peripheral perspective of the other students around me, this group of dedicated yogis that I see on a weekly basis, some of which I know by name, others I recognize by sight while some may be here for their inaugural session. I sense grace in movement transpiring around me. Flying squirrels, handstands and figure 4’s surround me as I stand in a passive posture, absorbing the grandeur of a class coming together in the practice of yoga.

In my early days of practicing, well over a decade ago, I would fall into the trap of being self-conscious and ultimately distracted by others around me. I struggled with my practice and my lack of strength. I marveled at the more experienced practitioners. I learned to focus through the chaos in my mind. My focal point became my “hara”, the energetic spot in the vicinity of the navel. I would look in the mirror and hone in on that spot like a laser. It worked and was effective, allowing me to be unaffected by those around me in the room. However, as time passed, I had a revelation that I could not look myself in the eye while facing the mirror. Meeting my eyes, I would begin to teeter, losing focus. I felt this had more to do with my emotional self than my physical self. This…was beginning to feel like deeper exploration of self.

In time, working from standing bow, I discovered the courage to truly kick into my hand, lengthen through my outstretched arm, arc my back through the spine, roll my shoulder open and allow the anterior aspect of my spine to open, looking forward and over my head past those critical eyes envisioning my foot coming from behind my head toward the ceiling.

I embraced the vulnerability and risked my emotional self to explore a new dimension. Standing on my left leg, at times I feel the harmonious length through my hamstring and the yoga magic happens, for a few seconds, once in a very great while, I experience the yoga high.

Today, back in this room as I practice, I am overheating and a little dizzy. I recognize that if I move into my standing bow, tipping forward like a teapot, I may very well become a falling, fainting spectacle. Wisely, I opt out of the posture, again admiring my classmates without judgement, finding such admiration for these early morning yogis. I’m honored to share this space with them, to be here, with this group of people, connected in a quiet, silent energy.

By conserving my resources I discover I can challenge myself in other postures. The class collectively moves into a prayer twist, we’ll be here for a few seconds, allowing for a little “play time”. I move beyond the posture into familiar side crow, and for the first time I extend a leg, taking a leap of faith, I gently counterbalance the extended leg by shifting my weight forward, imagining my ten fingertips creating impressions in my mat, which is now my only point of contact to Mother Earth and I feel an intricate point of balance. I have now moved toward a scissor side crow.

At home I re-created the movement.

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Here in this room, with 52 years of experience moving through space as a human, my brain sends an impulse through efferent (motor) neurons to my spinal cord, diverting off to the sciatic nerve and then to a smaller nerve to fire the Gluteus Medius muscle which abducts my hip and pulls it off my bottom leg. Simultaneously, signals transmit via the femoral nerve to the Rectus Femoris, one of the four quadriceps muscles, so that my knee will extend and my leg will straighten. My body has done something new, it has never before been in this position! I am elated to have moved into a new space in my body this morning. ♦

The class moves toward its end. I have experienced valleys and seen the mountain top this morning. I am wrung out, perspiring profusely even after showering. My whole body has flushed this morning; emotionally, spiritually, physically.

I reflect that the greatest gift of the morning was when I gave myself permission to pause at standing bow, gaze from the mountain top and absorb the soft view of my classmates in their amazing practice. From this, I gathered strength for the day. Namaste.

♦ Physiological references derived from the text Trail Guide to Movement – Building the Body in Motion by Andrew Biel

R2R2R – Endeavor in the Grand Canyon – Part two

This is Part Two of R2R2R – For Part One click here!

Monday morning, six days from the R2R2R run date my legs felt sorer than I had hoped they would. Not surprising, but not confidence inspiring either. My hope after a 10 miler and 8 miler over the weekend was that it would “shock my system” and serve as a wake-up call that there was still some work to be done yet this year.

With only a short run scheduled Wednesday I went about getting my mental game together. I bought a NatGeo Trails Illustrated map of the Canyon so I could get a visual overview of the trails. I double checked information from the very helpful Facebook group Grand Canyon R2R2R Run! for the latest water information from people that had run the route over the previous weekend. The weather forecast looked to be ideal.

I spent some time in a favorite activity which is my best indicator of current level of focus; putting arrows into a paper target with my Samick Sage recurve bow. I felt that the mental preparation would be critical toward success. Mahting and I had already discussed that negative talk would not be allowed during the run; get busy and get focused.  I felt that from a safety standpoint this was vitally important.

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North Rim and trail

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Good groups indicate a focused mind

Mahting and his wife, and my family and myself all flew out of Denver for Phoenix at 7:00am Saturday morning. We drove a rental in a leisurely fashion to the South Rim and arrived just at sunset. After looking down into the canyon we checked into our respective abodes and met for dinner at Bright Angel Lodge.

Following dinner as we walked out of the lodge we saw two women hobbling and listing a bit. “Have you just run R2R2R?”

“Yes”, came the reply, and then a comment that it was harder than they thought it would be. We proffered congratulations, and this confirmed much of what I’d read from completers of the effort. As I walked toward my room I was slightly envious that they were done.

I gathered my things in my pack and laid everything out on the floor. Scheduled departure from South Kaibab trailhead was 0400. Mahting would pick me up at 0345 and his wife would drop us at SK.

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It’s all stuffed and ready to go.

I didn’t sleep very well after initially crashing. The little monkeys in my head had me double checking my list and day ahead. I really wanted to be 10 miles into the thing and started.

Up at 0305 for two cups of coffee, other necessary morning duties and at 0400 precisely we had our photo taken at the South Kaibab trailhead. A slight hitch came as Mahting realized he left his watch back at the hotel. We started Strava apps on our phones but packed them away. Off we walked and soon began bobbing down the trail under a clear, starry, crescent moonlit sky.

The strategy was ultra conservative on the initial descent for safety sake and preserving our quads from the stressful eccentric contractions that result in tearing up muscle fibers. We stopped a few times to look at the awesome vastness of the sky from below the rim. It was almost a blessing not seeing the grandeur of the canyon and task that lie ahead of us. At this point, little step by step chunks seemed enough for us.

Below the cutoff to Tonto Trail we spied a light but had no idea where it was coming from. A few minutes later I said, “Hey, there’s a bunch of lights down there”.

Mahting chuckled and replied, “Yeah, there are two lights. When all you see is black for a period of time I guess two seems like a bunch.”

We quickly arrived at the Black Bridge and crossed the Colorado River in the dark. Soon thereafter we encountered a hiker looking out toward the river. In short order we were coming into Phantom Ranch and there was pre-dawn activity of campers walking back to Bright Angel Campground and what seemed like Phantom Ranch employees beginning their day. We had to ask where the water was and did a lap around the canteen until we found it. Dawn was threatening but we still needed headlamps as we began to knock out the 14 miles to the North Rim.

For the next seven miles, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the trail was. While it was rising in elevation it was completely runnable and I felt every mile we could run was a mile we didn’t need to powerhike. Four hours and 14 miles in we stopped at the Ribbon Falls area to mix some Tailwind in our bottles and double check the map. I commented that after we covered our next 14 miles, we would be at this exact spot. I’m not sure if that was daunting or encouraging.

By the time we came to Manzanita we had pulled out our trekking poles to get over the little “humps” and then swoop on the downhills until we hit a little uphill again. We were able to chat with some backpackers at this water stop who had knowledge of the trail from the north rim. We were just over five miles from the north rim trailhead and one said it was a bit of a grind until we got to Supai tunnel. We loaded up on water hoping not to need it again until we came back to this spot in just over 10 miles.

We began the chug away from Manzanita and Mahting was easily powering away from me on the uphill sections. A few miles before I had begun to feel a little less than stellar. Part of the problem was lower abdominal pain. My lower abs are my weakness and I felt I had given a little back during the two week layoff, even with doing some plank work and dolphin yoga poses during my period of inactivity. Additionally, I ate a little bit too much on the travel day Saturday so there was a little bit stress from that. But we pushed along, shuffling and jogging along on the occasional flat sections of trail. It became evident that the push to the north rim trailhead would be a grind.

We took a quick break at Supai tunnel and the last 1.7 miles to the top was quite nice. We began seeing people both dayhiking and backpacking down from the rim and this was a nice spirit lifter for both of us. We topped out at exactly 7 hours into the day at 11:00am. We didn’t dally long as the gnats were horrendous and we had plenty of water to make it back to Manzanita. The weather was overcast and the temps were perfect. We could not have asked for a better day.

As we now ran back toward the canyon bottom I hit my high point of the day. At 24 miles everything felt good from foot to head. The trail was good, the views were awesome and barring emergency we were going to finish. How else would we get back to the south rim?

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We filled water again at Manzanita and made off for Phantom Ranch nine miles away. Through here Mahting’s knee began to give him some fits, so I set pace and we cruised along. We passed by Ribbon Falls again and at this point the biggest challenge was the water bars. At points they seem like they are two feet off the trail and I continually had to assess whether I stepped over them or bounced off the top of them. Again and again, either way I wanted to get over them without tripping. At one point I commented that I didn’t feel it was necessary to parkour in order to get over the highest water bars, but after 30ish miles it sure felt like I was doing that.

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Amazingly, it’s not all steep on North Kaibab, at times it levels out nicely for a change in terrain.

Somewhere just before Phantom Ranch I made a comment that I hoped would not bite me in the ass. I told my running pal that after ten hours I felt I could make an assessment on R2R2R. The run was not turning out to be as difficult as I had imagined it would be. Now, lest anyone reading this thinks “Hey, sweet, I can easily do this crazy thang!” let me explain. Our weather was perfecto. The trails were clear of any potential winter detritus. The sun never shone brightly, keeping temperatures in the 60’s or maybe low 70’s for highs midday in the canyon. I can’t remember there being any significant wind. There were enough people on the trails to keep our spirits high but not so many that we felt it impeded our pace. Finally, we went super conservative on pace. We never stopped for long, but we also never ran too fast. Granted, we didn’t get full appreciation for the sights of the canyon because we were fairly focused on good foot touches all day long and the sun didn’t present us with the brilliant colors off the rocks because of the cloudy conditions.

I had estimated that we’d make Phantom Ranch at 2:30 and when we came in I grabbed my phone and it was right on the nose! Sweet! We grabbed some candy bars, pretzels, lemonade and settled into a nice snack time at a picnic table. With nine miles to head out of the canyon via Bright Angel we even laid back on the picnic benches to rest our eyes. We spent 30 minutes there and then headed up toward the south rim.

As we made way to depart, another runner that we’d seen earlier heading to the north rim caught and passed us. We met him again shortly where he was filling water at a spigot below Bright Angel Campground. He had spent the whole day alone and asked if he could join us. Sure thing! The three of us journeyed on and took some photos crossing the silver bridge, with the turbulent green waters of the Colorado river coursing underneath our feet.

The first few miles were runnable here and we encountered a couple just off the trail. They seemed to be hiking, but the gentleman was laid out and did not look real well. Upon inquiring if they were okay, she said they were just going to the campground and that they would be fine. But when our third amigo, Mark, passed by them just after us, she said they were heading to Indian Garden, miles further and up! That sort of puzzled us and I’ve thought often about them, hoping they got on okay.

It brought up an interesting feeling for me. With 36 miles under foot at that point I was feeling fine, yet I’d been out there for a very long time already. It’s a little harder processing situations after that much time afoot. The reality of the canyon is that you accept quite the responsibility for yourself when you head down. If she had said, “Hey, we really need some help here.” I certainly would have stopped. But I don’t think I was in the state of mind to make an honest assessment of how they really were.

We had a DeLorme InReach for shooting off messages to our wives so they would know we were doing well and not in trouble. It also gave them coordinates with each message so they could see exactly where we were at. Had it been necessary we could have sent an SOS, heaven forbid. But since the run I’ve thought about people that climb Everest and pass by climbers that may literally be dying before their eyes. I cannot fathom what that must be like. I was grateful for having an emergency beacon/device with us, for I rarely head out without it anymore.

The remainder of the trek was perhaps a little anticlimactic. Put one foot in front of another. Keep moving. Keep eating. Keep drinking. We didn’t catch many more folks as most of the day trippers were out of the canyon. A mile from the top we donned the lights to finish in the dark, hitting the top 14 hours and 44 minutes after we started.

Mahting wondered whether we would really come back out to eat if we headed for showers at our respective lodging. Wisely, we opted to head right into Bright Angel Lodge for dinner with our wives. It was a wonderful way to end the day.

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Mahting, left, thought he looked a little angry in this photo and that I just looked tired. Fact is, we were pretty glad to be done.

Come Monday I moved more gingerly and slowly than I ever have in my life, requesting help to get down off the curb at one point in the day! But it was all muscle damage. Neither of us suffered blisters and while Mahting had a tweaky knee and foot we were pretty well off considering what we’d done.

Some notes for those either doing this for the first time or even a 2nd time.

  • In my opinion it is wise to calculate and know how many calories per hour you will need and stick to a plan on fueling and drinking.
  • In the week before, begin making a concerted effort to hydrate the body. Especially if you are flying into the area from out of state.
  • Tailwind worked really well for Mahting and me. He used three PB&J’s in addition to Tailwind and I used primarily gels with the Tailwind plus some pretzels for solid food.
  • Pick a general pacing plan but don’t stress if it goes long on the outward leg. Taking into account it was two miles longer and we stopped for 30 minutes at Phantom Ranch we did negative splits coming back.
  • Not having GPS or watches on our wrists was very freeing. We moved by feel and trusted our bodies. It worked out great.
  • Strongly consider taking along either a Spot or InReach device. It provides tremendous peace of mind and it’s nice to be able to shoot off a pre-loaded text indicating to loved ones, friends or support that you are doing fine, maybe behind schedule but still fine or send a real time message if you are having problems or issues.
  • The Facebook group has all the information needed to do this and was an invaluable resource but was not overwhelming if you use the search function on the group page to find out the answers to the questions you might have!
  • Respect the canyon, prepare for it to be harder than anticipated but hope for it to be better than that. Be positive and know if will involve discomfort and some suffering. I felt, that given some unknowns around my downtime just before the run that I could always just hike out with my headlamp given that I do a lot of backpacking and hiking.

R2R2R – Endeavor in the Grand Canyon

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Really, you want to run down into that?

The sensation is intense, like needles being plunged in and out of nerve endings in the area of my left hamstring. I try to breathe through the burning, knowing this is not the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I attempt to relax my grip so as to become one with the discomfort.

The nurse practitioner gently tugs the gauze packing out of my leg and says “This isn’t getting better. I’m going to ask your doctor what she thinks”.

It’s now Tuesday and I’m in the sixth day of a serious staph infection. I’d been to the ER on Sunday and even after numerous antibiotics and a now open 3.5 centimeter wound in my leg where they dug out pus and infection, an area from the back of my knee moving toward my hip is red, inflamed, taut and warm to the touch. A culture has indicated staph infection resulting in cellulitis. I have no idea how I picked this up, but it’s putting a serious kink in my activity level.

I’m 20 days away from running down into the Grand Canyon, up the other side to the north rim and a return trip to the south rim. It’s a trail run (not a race) that is known as Rim to Rim to Rim, or R2R2R. The route is 44.2 miles long with over 10,000 feet of elevation loss AND gain. Trail runners complete it as a sort of “rite of passage”.

I think I first heard about this when a friend of mine, many years younger, ran it for the first time in 2015. He then did it a second time in 2016. When I read about his account it was the first year that I had taken up running and backpacking. I believe I secretly thought to myself, “That is pretty darn impressive.” I probably googled around on the subject and quickly discovered that this was not something for the faint of heart.

Sometime in 2016 a client shared with me how she had also done R2R2R. I was helping her through an injury as she was preparing for another trail marathon up and down Pikes Peak. I was duly impressed that she, too, had conquered the Grand Canyon. Again, I investigated online about this demonic run, and again, realized that this was currently far beyond my physical capabilities. In 2016 I had done my 3rd and 4th trail half marathons, but less than ⅓ of the distance that would be required to complete the Grand Canyon run.

However, sometime last year I think I first voiced my secret desire to try and do this. I felt that the old biological clock was ticking and I needed to do it sooner rather than later. (I later found this not to be true, at least for me) I confided in my good friend and running partner, Mahting, but pretty much left it at that.

With a hole in the back of my leg vast enough to stick the entirety of my thumb into, it is necessary to have gauze stuffed into the wound on a daily basis. It’s called a wound, like I’ve been shot, or I have diabetes and I now need wound care. Gratefully, a good friend, who is a physician’s assistant has acquiesced in helping with the daily chore. Actually, she didn’t really acquiesce because when I asked for her help she replied, “Oh, you don’t need to twist my arm, I love pus!”. This was a statement that I found to be true of most nuts in the medical community. As a different medical professional shared with me, “We feel like we’re doing real good when we can take pus and infection out of a wound, because it happens right before our eyes.”

I’m now in my home as my friend changes the packing and my wife observes, somewhat aghast, hence the reason to recruit the friend to do such dirty work. “How soon before I can run, exercise, sweat, etc?” I ask.

“Matt”, she patiently replies, “I can see your hamstring, that is how deep the wound is. I don’t think you should be doing any running at this point.”

I begin to fully comprehend the severity of what has been going on with this infection and my leg. I’m fine with possibly not doing the Grand Canyon run and to be quite honest, maybe even a little relieved. I’m very grateful at this point for the medical community, their knowledge and expertise and the fact that if I lived in a different country, this could have been quite, quite serious. I begin to find peace in the fact that the run may not happen. But I decide that I won’t out and out cancel the trip. My whole family and Mahting and his wife are going as well. At the very least it will be a family vacation for four days.

One of the morose attractions of attempting R2R2R is the fact that people die in the Grand Canyon; a lot. Once dumping into the “Big Ditch” and beginning to cross to the other side there is no option of calling ones significant other and asking to be picked up. If there is an emergency it involves a Search and Rescue team and substantial financial resources in order for a person to be pulled out of the canyon. I read at an interpretive sign on the south rim that there are 250 rescues a year in the Grand Canyon. Upon investigation I find that there are rather interesting maps such as this one.

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You can find out gory details around deaths in the canyon!

770 people have died in the Grand Canyon since John Wesley Powell and his crew made the first river exploration in 1869. On average 12 people die in the canyon each year by suicide, accidental falls, exposure, drowning, aviation accidents, rockfall and even mules falling on people. This ain’t no walk in the park folks.

I shared with a cycling and running friend earlier this year that Mahting and I were going to attempt to do this challenge. “You’re crazy! You’re going to hate the training involved, you’re going to hate the preparation and you’re going to hate actually doing it.” Gee, what a buzzkill.

In reality I enjoyed the training all summer and even the preparatory 40 mile Grand Traverse race that I had done over Labor Day weekend. But truth be told, I was running on fumes in preparing for this endeavor. I had archery hunted ten days in the month of September in weather that at times was snowy, foggy, rainy and cold. While I had succeeded in filling the freezer full of venison for our family, I had lost about five pounds over the course of the month. I was a little mentally burned out from a long year of running, hiking, camping, etc. I believe now that my body and immune system was effectively wrung out; creating a prime situation for a crazy bug to nab me.

I knew that I had all the base mileage I needed for the GC run, but I felt my remaining training was best invested in runs involving heavy elevation gains and losses. So I spent my time on the trails around Boulder, finding 5 mile loops that afforded me at least a thousand feet of vertical per lap. My last long run was to be five loops around Mt. Sanitas in Boulder. It would be about 27 miles with over 6800’ of elevation gain and loss. What typically has worked for me in past preparation for long endurance events has been topping out my training at 70% of the distance required. With the running, I try and match that number for the elevation as well. It worked fine for the Grand Traverse, so I was comfortable with the R2R2R preparation. And it was during the time after the Grand Traverse that this whole ultrarunning thing became much less mysterious and scary to me. At a point in the summer I had moved beyond the distance of 18 miles in my runs which had been a bit of a hurdle. My body had become accustomed to the steady tap of many hour runs and miles beyond 20 in a single shot. The body is amazing. And I’ve been fortunate to have a body that has always adapted well to hard work and long hours. I’ve also become wise enough in how my body works that at 52 I have much more confidence in my ability than I did 30 years ago. But the staph infection put its grip on me two days before that last long run which in fact would never materialize. I would not have the mental peace of mind that I had put in the proper physical preparation for the R2R2R.

However, I was at peace as to whether it was necessary to accomplish the feat this calendar year. I decided that if it wasn’t meant to be on November 12th, I would just come back in the spring and do it. On October 25th Mahting and I exchanged some messages about my predicament. I assured him I was still on for the trip and going to be doing something in the canyon and I was sure to be rested!

After just over two weeks of no running or physical activity related to exercise the gash in my leg had healed enough I felt that I needed to do a few runs to see what transpired. Eight days out from our run date in the canyon I drove to Boulder to do a few laps on Sanitas. With the music motivating me on the drive up I decided that this was going to happen. I couldn’t go into this with any doubts about completing the run. I just had to decide to do it. And at that point there was no turning back mentally. I was all in.

For part 2 of this story, you can jump right to it by clicking here.

Grand Traverse 40 Mile Trail Race

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After 40 miles in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. Photo courtesy Mahting Productions

Pam and I drive past Western State College in Gunnison, my first time here, and make the right hand turn on Highway 135 toward Crested Butte. Cruising into town with Mt. Crested Butte off to our right, I look at Pam and say, “What the hell was I thinking? There is no way out of this place but up!”

Of course I knew this. When I signed up for the Grand Traverse 40 mile mountain trail running race a few months ago I saw that the first 17 miles were largely uphill; with miles 10-17 gaining altitude from 9300’ to 12,340’. Yet, on paper it always seems benign compared to literal feet on the ground. In total the race had about 7,000’ in elevation gain. For 20 miles from 15 to 35 it would never dip below 11,000’. It was a classic mountain trail running race. In the previous two years I had run four half marathon trail races and have done a large amount of backpacking. This year I have had eyes on running R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. My friend Mahting felt the Grand Traverse would be a good prep run for R2R2R.

The alarm starts singing at 4:20 am. The race starts at 6:00. As per my usual training I forego eating before the race. The glycogen stores are full. Eating now will just create digestive issues later. I have two cups of coffee and we’re off to Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Along with Pam, are Mahting and his wife, Erika. Mahting suffered a foot issue a few weeks back so he is here as good friend and giver of race advice. He has finished various ultras and a 50 miler last year. It pains him to not be running today. Along with Erika, we have had some training runs together in the weeks before this.

 

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The hour before the event, anxiety casts itself upon my body as nervous energy.  Photo courtesy  Mahting Productions

There are a few things I wrestled with regarding equipment in the past week. Largely which shoes to wear, bringing along trekking poles and using a headlamp at the start. The sky is brightening and I don’t want to bring the headlamp for just the first 20 minutes or so. My three cohorts tell me it’s foolish to risk a fall and not using it. I go with the headlamp. I also opt for the trekking poles even though the majority of folks do not have them. I want something to help me keep pace on the steep climb to Star Pass. I go with an old set of shoes that already have 450 miles of wear on them and have a newer cushier pair in a drop bag at an aid station 23.5 miles into the race.

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She’s been with me through a lot of endurance events over the last 25+ years! Photo courtesy Mahting Productions

6:00 comes and the race is off. It is slightly downhill the first mile before turning into single track as we wind our way through aspen forest. I’m forced into a pace. Hundreds of runners line out and I have no choice but to follow. I feel like I am on a elementary school trip and we are in a line “indian file” jogging through the forest.

I’m not used to running in a line with so many people as 95% of my trail ventures have been solo this year. We’re maybe four or five miles into the race and I’m trying to watch the roots, rocks and things that might trip me up. We come along a slight downhill bend and I see barbed wire on the right edge of the trail. I think to myself, “Don’t fall on that” and immediately I am on the ground! Thankfully, I fall straight on the trail and I bounce up immediately knowing people are right behind me. I am dirty, cut up but have mostly just hurt my pride. From behind I hear “You’ve gotten your fall out of the way early, you’re good to go”.

The first aid station is at mile 9.5 and I’m slightly alarmed. The pace has been faster than I want, mainly because we’ve been on some forest service road and also because everybody is running really fast in my opinion. I have a pretty good idea of what kind of average pace I can maintain for the race. According to last year’s results it would have meant about 35th place overall. But I was running way faster than that pace and there were well over a hundred people in front of me, probably more. One of two things was happening. Either a lot of people were going to blow up, or because there were almost twice the entrants from the year before, there was greater depth to the field.

Mahting’s sage advice to me, which was also repeated by Erika numerous times was that in the early parts I needed to A) go slow and B) eat a lot. I cover the first 9 miles in about 1:36 and change, translating to a 10:43 pace. This is way too fast for this early considering how much elevation needs to be ascended. I’m slightly panicked but fill up my water, move some things in my pack and move on. The aid station has broken up the single file action and after just a short while I need to step off the trail anyway. Even with not eating before the race and usual morning rituals, there is some rumbling in my gut. Nature calls. I spend what I feel is too much time resolving this issue but am much better in the digestive area when I get back on the trail.

I finally put the trekking poles to use with the steeper trail ahead. For a while it is a mix between short jogs and power hiking. I begin leap frogging with a few runners and one is a young lady in a tutu. I remember seeing her in the first few miles. As she comes by me I say “I’m nicknaming you ‘The Bishop’. Think about that for a few hours and let me know when you figure it out.” Nothing like some older guy throwing riddles about in the midst of a high altitude endurance event. (After the race I saw her again and she had to ask her parents what I meant. She was overthinking it!)

The trail is now really steep and it is pure hiking at this point, with the exception of one person coming behind. A woman on the shorter side, light in weight and my age or a little better is actually jogging up the mountain toward the aid station and Star Pass. She goes by me and I never see her again the rest of the race. She is impressive!

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The view after crossing over Star Pass! This is worth the climb!

I reach Star Pass, 17.5 miles into the race. This is what I consider my first of three phases of the race for me. I arrive here about 15 minutes later than I had hoped. But I’m happy to be here and at the highest point of the race. I strap my trekking poles to my pack, finished with them for the day. The first bit of downhill off the pass is still not easy. The trail is very rocky and it’s a shuffle going down. But now I’m mentally preparing for what I feel will be the hardest part of the race; undulating terrain for 17 more miles all between 11,000-12,300’. In fact we’ll hit 12,300’ two more times during this stretch.

I now begin to pull people back. My strength is the long haul. I’ve sacrificed all speed in my training for endurance, the ability to diesel along for many hours at a time. This is where a life of being an endurance athlete reaps benefits. I’ve ridden long miles on bikes, and covered long miles with a backpack. Now, I only need to keep moving forward, with a relatively light pack on my back.

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Big vistas and alpine lakes

The next aid station is at mile 23.5 and I’ve been contemplating whether I will change out my shoes and socks. Earlier on there were numerous creek crossings, with two of them in shin deep water. The wet terrain was now largely behind. When I get to the aid station I decide to switch out my shoes and socks; for no other reason than to have a few more minutes to sit down. I’ve now been gone for over five hours and it’s all becoming a blur. By placing a “drop bag” of things I might need, I am able to don the new footwear, leave my poles here and get rid of some other items like my headlamp and a base layer that I know I won’t need because the weather is absolutely perfect. I keep the rain shell in my bag just in case and finally get out of the aid station, probably having spent too much time here. I grab a handful of potato chips from the food table and power hike up the remaining bit to Taylor Pass.

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Reaching the top of Taylor Pass

Things have really stretched out now with the participants. I can see just a few people ahead of me and the vistas are long. Where is everybody? I climb the pass with two others and we begin a “shuffle” down the other side. I am with a guy and a girl, the guy commenting that his stomach is in a bad way. I leave them behind and have two men in front of me for the next five miles. They are only a few minutes ahead of me most of the way until we arrive at the next aid station at 28.5 miles. They get in and out ahead of me and a younger guy arrives just before I leave, as I had passed him a mile or so before. I wolf down half a dozen slices of watermelon before departing and this is the best tasting thing I’ve had all day. My fuel has consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the first five hours and now I’ve switched to stroop waffles and gels.

 

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Looking back after Taylor Pass, keep moving forward!

A half mile out of this aid station I realize that I have foregone hourly stretching during the race. I stop, doing some horse stretches, deep squats and twist my lower back while opening my shoulders. This feels soooooo good. When I begin running again I feel anew! On a rocky downhill section my legs feel really stable and I motor by one of the two men that had been just in front of me for the previous six miles or so.

The other of the two is ahead of me on a long climb shortly thereafter and he and I link up with about nine miles to go. I spend more time with him than anybody else all day. Before the race I had looked at the registrants and the majority of runners were younger than me. I roughly figured that I was probably one of the 20 oldest in a race of 226 registrants. This is slightly unusual because in the world of ultrarunning there are more and more people over 50 running these longer distances. My new friend John tells me about a young lady of probably 20 or so that he saw vomiting after about 15 miles. “Those of us that are older tend to do better in these ultras. We’ve experienced a lot of “suck” in our lives. So this doesn’t seem that bad”, he says.

Interestingly I had thought about this a few miles before catching John. I was far enough into the race to make an evaluation on the effort required to finish. My assessment was that while it was challenging it was not the hardest thing I had ever done physically. When compared with emotional challenges I have had in my life, it was a piece of cake. It was mainly about patience, good sense, proper fueling and perseverance. I had coined my own mantra for the day. JKM, or Just Keep Moving. As long as I moved in a forward motion it would eventually be over.

John and I worked well together and with about six miles to go a number of people popped into view. Most of them were walking and none of them looked well. There was one sitting just off the trail, head in his hands. A kid of about 19 was walking and not having a good time of it. I could now “smell the barn” and began to jog up a slight hill. I passed two more guys, one of which was holding his hip and visually limping along. All of this motivated me as I picked up the pace.

Since I’ve been a teenager I’ve always been a racer. And I’ve learned over the years how to become a good finisher. I found a true stride for the first time in 34 miles and opened up the throttle. I flew into the last aid station with one thing in mind, Coca-Cola. The gentleman at the aid station exclaimed, “It’s a 35 mile warm up and a 5 mile race”. I drank some coke, filled my 500ml bottle with the same and set off flying down the mountain. The final five miles dropped 3200’ zig zagging on single track down the Aspen ski hills. The first mile after the aid station was through dark timber, on soft peat trail. Emotion began to well up inside of me as I began sobbing thinking about my son, Ben, my wife, Pam, Mahting, Erika and a host of others that had been more intimately involved in helping me prepare for this race.

I began to catch people all the way down the mountain as I ebbed in and out of this crazy emotion that would rise in my throat and then subside. Finally with a mile to go, I was caught by a young man and I followed him in to the finish. I saw Pam holding her phone for a picture as I crossed the line. I stumbled for a bit and then fell on the grass, fairly exhausted but feeling more emotion than I have in any other endurance event I’ve ever done. The race did require an intense amount of concentration and it was a relief to relax. In the end I was correct in the fact that the field held an incredible amount of depth. I ended up being 90th across the line. The same finishing time a year before would have yielded 34th place. I remain in awe of how fast people can move across high mountains on a trail run. It is a testament to the high level of fitness people maintain. In short, it’s just pretty damn cool to be a part of it.

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Finished! Photo courtesy Mahting Productions

  • Notes on my training plan in the months leading up to the event for those that find that interesting.

Having been an endurance athlete most of my life, I have experience about how my body works. However, it has taken three years to adapt to being a runner from having been a lifelong cyclist. About ten years ago I began practicing yoga, but never maintained the practice during summer months. Last November I took yoga up again and have maintained the practice all summer for the first time in my life. Yoga played a huge part in me finishing this race.

I ran throughout the spring building an aerobic base, running maybe 2-3 times a week. In mid June I did a four day backpack trip then took one week completely off before more specific training for this race. I used a very rough plan over 13 weeks to prepare for this race, mostly in 2-3 week blocks and largely going off perception of how my body felt. I do not use a heart rate monitor while running but go by perceived rate of exertion. I did this race wholly “by feel” as my Garmin watch battery won’t last for nearly ten hours. I tracked my race using the Strava app on my phone which I looked at periodically throughout the race.

My totals and averages of activity over the 13 weeks leading up to the race and including the race were as follows. I ran three days a week only four times during the 13 weeks. I consumed roughly 225-250 calories per hour during the whole of the event. I ate one last gel with 5.5 miles to go and finished it out on Coca-Cola. I never came close to bonking.

  • 312 miles of total running
  • 24 miles per week average running
  • 2 runs per week average
  • My highest week was 36.8 miles of running three weeks out from the race
  • My longest run was also that week and was 28 miles and just under 7 hours
  • 167 miles of total hiking
  • 12.84 miles per week average hiking (this is a bit skewed b/c the backpack trip was 84 miles in four days) which was week 2 of the 13 weeks
  • 35 days of yoga
  • Average of 2.7 days a week of yoga
  • Link to Strava Data

Bald Mountain 2017.08.11

  • Friday, 11 August 2017
  • Bald Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1017
  • Elevation – 9,031’
  • Warm, sunshine, clouds, and inversion below
Weather

Storm clouds move in from the top right as an inversion dominates the scene in the lower left.

After a long hiatus from sitting still for an hour, I am back. Spring came, the world outside came alive and I needed to be moving. I’ve spent much of my time this summer on the move, covering many miles in the mountains, running, hiking, backpacking. In a few weeks the activity will become a dichotomy. On Labor Day weekend I will be running a one day mountain trail race called the Grand Traverse, 40 miles of high country running from Crested Butte to Aspen. During the month of September I will also be spending a number of nights in the backcountry pursuing Mule Deer and Elk during the archery season. Hunting is a part of me and has been for most of my life. There are many opinions on it, but it is where I found my first connections to the wilderness. It involves immense amounts of time not moving, being still, listening and tuned in to creatures that move at a very slow pace, slower than the human race and in turn completely tuned in to their surroundings. I think I’ll share the experience of being outside, vulnerable and alone during those times in September. So I invite you to stay tuned for that. It will not be a story of a harvest as much as a story of the experience of pursuing something elusive.

This morning, however, I am sitting on Bald Mountain facing east looking at Sugarloaf Mountain. I drove up out of a cloudy, foggy Boulder and rose above the inversion. This is a strange area. In all directions I can see residences of people that live in the hills above Boulder. To them, I am sure they feel like they are “getting away” from the city. But in short order, one crosses many different roads in this area. It is busy with campers, hikers, locals, transients and a weird existence where they all come together. I don’t find much comfort here because man has imposed so much of himself into this area that it doesn’t seem wild, only weird. Behind the mountain to the southwest is a huge scar from a wildfire that was caused by an out of town transient visitor last summer that had to have a campfire. Many are drawn to this area because Colorado has become a land of milk and honey, or, weed and edibles.

But I am literally above all of this. It feels great to sit back directly on the damp ground. My butt gets a little wet, but today it’s sunny and summertime. I’ll dry out quickly. The breeze is soft, the sun warm. Insects buzz about, birds chirp and grasshoppers flutter and buzz about like dying helicopters. An insect I cannot identify goes ‘tick, tick’. A cacophony of flying bugs creates a chorus of music here in this meadow atop the mountain.

The hillside is gorgeous. Tall grasses tickle my arms. Mountain Mahogany lies off to my left and slightly uphill. Butterflies flit about, one being an American Lady, who upon

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American Lady

inspection of a photo, later reveals that it has been battered about here on the mountain. There are various wildflowers including dwarf lupine and asters. Berries are also close by and reminds me that the bears of the mountains are entering into hyperphagia, a period where they consume up to 20,000 calories a day in preparation to fatten up before hibernation in the winter. As berries ripen they will feast on them and be happier than Yogi Bear at a pick-a-nic!

Sinister clouds begin to form behind me to the west, rolling in from the Continental Divide. It is the monsoon season and while on the front range we do not experience the deluges like they do in the deeper San Juan mountains, we have had some heavy rains in the previous days. An inversion remains below me in the Boulder Valley and I sit in sunshine between the threatening high clouds above and the oppression of higher humidity below. Cooler air blows up from the valley below me.

It’s now 10:59 and I realize that everything is moving quickly and I have not stopped enough in the past months to see all that is happening around me! Summer is fleeting and it leaves a sad pit in my heart. There is now immense calm on the mountainside and it seems a storm is imminent. Voices carry up to me from below, either hikers, locals or campers. Tiny raindrops begin to dot my pants at 11:04.

As I finish out my hour I’m thankful for the time here. It is a new place and one I wanted to check out. Yet, I doubt that I will come back here anytime soon. The views are fantastic, but there is too much actiivty for my liking. Perhaps I’ll bring a friend back for a winter hike, but in summer, the high country calls to me more. I desire places where the air is thinner, the weather a bit more unpredictable and the solitude easier to find.

A Journal Entry

Thursday, August 10th, 2017 – 5:10am

The pen feels especially good in my hand these days. The ink flows easily to the paper and is smooth compared to the scratchiness of the fountain pen. The Bic Ultra Round Stic Grip, a "cheap" pen bought in a multi pack does a better job. For more than a year I have been forcing the issue with the fountain pen, a gift from Wilson, my father-in-law. Sentimental reasons contribute to my attachment of the the pen as well as nostalgia and a connection to the "old ways" of doing things.

I would take the fountain pen apart, clean it, allow it to dry and the load a new cartridge into it. The pen never was happy with this particular paper from this journal, an exact replica of the journal I received from Wilson during Christmas of 2015. For a time I had a journal with paper that had a sheen and the ink moved more freely along those pages.

I glance now at the blue and silver Cross pen, picking it up, its touch cool to my thumb and forefinger, the surface temperature also the same as the room temperature which has cooled from the night air. I uncap it to write and I am pleased as ink flows, but by the fifth word it ceases to finish the task. I give it chance upon chance, a shake, a twist, a squeeze of the cartridge, taking it apart and putting it back together again. At times it has made an outright mess of my journal, a big blue blob masquerading as a Rorschach ink spot.

We hold on to imperfect things in our lives. Giving perhaps so many second chances we lose track of the times we pardon. Perhaps these become boundaries and the pen burns us repeatedly. I don't know. I'm a big believer in second chances even if they become exponential. I want to see the pen succeed, but sometimes the "cheap one" performs better and might win the job in the long run.

Day Hikes Start in the Dark

I’ve done this trip enough times in the last three years that I can almost do it in my sleep. The ritual goes like this; set the alarm for 3:30, out the driveway by 4:00 and hiking from the trailhead at first light just after 5:00 during this time of year.

When I first began making my way back into the reaches of Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Arapaho Pass I would have trouble sleeping. Last night I awoke only once at 1:30 and looked at the clock, toyed with the idea of leaving early but quickly went back to my slumber.

Part of the restlessness is the nature of the trip. The first three miles gain in elevation from 10,100′ to 11,900′, so it’s a gasper right out of the parking lot. The trail is fair enough and the views are phenomenal. This time of year if you know where to look and have good binoculars you can see elk feeding at dawn above timber line on the high ridges to the south. This morning I could see three elk silhouettes with the naked eye and my binoculars revealed they were three bulls hanging out in a “bachelor group”.

However, the stopping and looking at wildlife extends the trip to the Continental Divide at Arapaho Pass. So I make my way west and up, now fully exposed to the wind on the ridge top, but not so cold as to stop and put on my light wool gloves. I make my way 1,000′ down in elevation switching back and forth on the trail until I am down into the area of Caribou Lake. The trail has been snow free to this point, but wet off and on. Because this area is notoriously wet I have worn boots today. I rarely do this anymore choosing to do most of my hiking in Altra Lone Peak trail runners. Very light, very comfortable and quick on the tread. However, during my archery elk hunting trips last year my feet were wet for five days straight on two separate occasions, thus the need to go with waterproof footwear. Today is a trial run of the Gore-Tex boots, yes waterproof, but much heavier and very clunky.

As I move north of Caribou Lake I now head off trail through the swampy, grassy meadow area. I’m heading to a shortcut that the elk use that I discovered two years ago. However, there are still heavy snow fields here and I see that the elk have not used this route as of yet. We had very heavy snows in May and it has made it difficult for summer to fully shine through. Once I navigate my way to the bottom of the draw I see a set of elk tracks that seem rather large. They could be moose, but I think they are elk because the tracks go higher in the direction I am moving. The elk has left behind two large cloven hoof marks with dew claws dotting directly behind. It seems that maybe two elk moved through the area.

I know exactly the route the elk take and it also provides me with the easiest way to a little spot that rests higher above the dark timber. I note that quite a few trees have fallen since last fall as I pick my way up the mountain. As I come closer to an area that the elk “play” in during the warmer summer temperatures I slow my pace more out of habit than really expecting to see any elk in the area. As I peek out into a small meadow that is typically a bog in the summer I see that it is completely covered in snow and frozen over. There are two lines of tracks moving through the area, but it looks like one elk came and went and the tracks are frozen hard in the snow.

White Tailed Ptarmigan change clothing with the season so as to blend with the surroundings and conceal themselves from predators. It seems to be working!

I pull my pack off my back and am glad to put the 18 pounder on the ground. It’s heavier than necessary but I was liberal with throwing things into it, so that I could get some light “training” with the heavier boots instead of the usual light trail runners and a running pack. I pull out a trail camera which operates on a motion sensor that I will place over the area. It will be a while before the elk frequent this area, but I want it in place so I don’t have to worry about it. Last summer, I had hundreds of images and video of elk playing in the swampy area, typically on rainy days.

The one drawback to this area is the distance required to get here. I’m now six miles from the car and it’s been a haul to get here; and that was taking a bushwhack shortcut. The advantage to it being so remote is that I rarely see anyone once I am off the trail. In fact, where I am at right now, I have never seen another human, which is why the elk like the area.

I get the camera set and having felt fatigued from the beginning of the hike I decide to begin to make my way back to the car. I drop off the mountain eventually gaining the Arapaho Creek trail. It still holds plenty of snow and there are a few old boot tracks on the trail. I pick my way along the trail climbing back up to Caribou Lake and meet my first person of the morning. We greet each other and I begin the hike back up to the Continental Divide.

It’s a nice walk back and I now encounter more hikers making their way in. Numerous folks ask me about trail conditions, how far I went and just what time did I start? I’m back at the car just before noon. Seven hours, 12 miles and time to get home and catch a well deserved afternoon nap before turning on the switch to give a massage this evening to a client. Business has been slow this year; not so great for paying bills but great for enjoying the mountains and beauty of Colorado! I’ll always enjoy the latter!

It will be a good wildflower season in the Indian Peaks Wilderness this year

Day 3 – Lost Creek Wilderness Loop

Click here to see a map of my third day.

And click here for the profile, type of terrain and such.

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Looking southwest from my camp of the second night

I sleep in a little bit compared to yesterday. I leave myself enough time to have TWO cups of coffee before I pack up and hit the trail. By 6:10 I’m off and the sun is shining brightly. I have a finishing point in mind today and estimate it will take me 22-24 miles to get there. There is also the prospect of a short side trip to Refrigerator Gulch, one of the main attractions of Lost Creek Wilderness. However, I had a hard time incorporating it into my intended route, so I hope to skirt down to check it out.

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Chartreuse early season aspen contrast against the red granite and blue skies

The views early in the crisp morning air are fantastic. My body feels pretty good after the long day yesterday and in about a mile I am at a trail junction and heading south. Shortly thereafter I take a left and up on the Lark Park Trail, a route that I was on with my son Ben just over a year ago. I miss him immensely as he has just gone off to boot camp with the US Navy. He dominates many of my thoughts during this trip.

A few hours into my morning and I stop in Lake Park for some food and a chance to relax. I’m pretty tired after just five miles and as I sit upon a log I feel as though I could take a nice long nap. I snap some photos with my phone and keep moving along. Shortly thereafter I’m doing my deep breathing at nearly 11,000′ when I look to my right and see two young women having breakfast on a log. We chat for a bit and then I continue on.

I sense that with today being Friday I will see many people coming into the area for the weekend, especially since I will be heading to the extreme southeast trailhead, Goose Creek trailhead, which is one of the most popular entry points for the Wilderness area. I’m not sure why it is so popular because it is not particularly easy to get to and requires driving through almost 25 miles of burnt out forest from the Hayman Fire in 2002, which at the time was the largest fire in the history of the state, burning 138,000 acres.

Sure enough as I move from the Lake Park Trail to Hankins Pass Trail heading east and down, down, down I come across many people heading into the forest for the weekend. With 11 miles underfoot I find a wonderfully shady area by Goose Creek just before noon to have some lunch, filter water and wash up.

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One of the most prevalent wildflowers I saw on my trip, appropriately called Shooting Star.

As I gather my things to move on, the sun is now high and it is warm. I opt for a long sleeved button shirt which has UV protection to keep me cool. I have my goofy hat which covers my neck and I head up the trail, tick-tocking along as my trekking poles tap out a metronomic rhythm on the trail.

The trail is gloriously wide, with nary a rock and rises gently along Goose Creek. After just a mile or so it meanders away from the creek and I begin to get some views of the granite domes which are the signature landmarks of the southern part of Lost Creek Wilderness. The trail steepens at times and then falls away, only to rise again over the miles. The weekenders that were ahead of me begin to come back quickly and it motivates me as I motor along. Day hikers come the other way along with occasional backpackers. I have never been on this trail and while I have read so much about it I confess that I am underwhelmed. The views from within the steep canyon are not as spectacular as those I have seen from above on different trails overlooking the rock formations.

Farther along, the trail becomes narrower, steeper and rockier. I begin to pay the piper now for my ego fueling me along earlier. I’m beat and my left shoulder is taking a beating from my pack. I stop along the trail, check my GPS app to see where I am and find I’m not far from a trail junction. I re-don my pack and make it the short way to the next spot where there is another backpacker and two dogs.

He left the same day that I did and is doing a popular loop of Lake Park, McCurdy Park and back Goose Creek. We sit for a while and talk about our different treks and wait for his friend, who is climbing up to where we are from Refrigerator Gulch. His gentleman arrives and I know that he is 60 years old because the friend told me so. He comes over to sit down, big gray beard, cutoff Carhartt type pants, old cotton T-shirt and an aluminum external frame pack with his tent rolled up inside his foam sleeping pad strapped on the bottom and a sleeping bag strapped to the top. “That is a classic pack” I tell him.

“Yeah”, he replies, “I think I got this back in the mid 60’s”. We commence to talk about anything under the sun. The younger of the two pulls out a ceramic pipe and asks me if I smoke. I tell him no and he and the older guy pass the weed pipe back and forth. It’s life in the backcountry, there is no judgement. Everybody has walked a long way regardless of miles traveled and the atmosphere is one of relaxation and not caring about the little shit of the world. It is paradise.

Lake Park

The view at Lake Park early in the day while ingesting some calories.

I fill them in on the trail where they are going and offer suggestions for camp and available water. They are appreciative of the information and we part ways. I head north and climb up for another mile before heading down the other side and out of the Tarryall Mountains toward Wigwam Creek. I had been in that area one other time about four years ago and knew of a nice camping area by the creek where I could take a nap, filter water and make my final one mile push up toward a saddle to camp for the night. I had decided against checking out Refrigerator Gulch, leaving that for another trip in the future.

Dragging myself along the trail I come to the campsite I had in mind and find two people sleeping on logs where I had envisioned myself resting! Goldilocks and Goldilocks Jr fill my space. I dejectedly walk past and see the trail heading up and north where I will need to go. However, I need to filter water so I turn around to head back to the creek, seeing that one of the two is now sitting up. It is a woman and she says hello and asks if I know where she is at.

I am grateful to walk over and sit down as I throw my pack to the ground. It seems that she and her now also awake friend headed on the wrong trail the previous evening and were not quite where they thought they were. I get them oriented and we laugh about heading down wrong paths for I have done the same with friends and family in the past.

Eventually they move on for a late day hike and I filter my water and hump it up one mile to my camp, giving me 22 for the day and stop at a splendid little spot I remember from years ago, albeit fairly busy with mosquitoes this evening. It is the end of what ended up being much more of a grind than I had anticipated; however, quite normal after the big day yesterday. Tomorrow will be my last day and should be pretty easy heading out.

As the mosquitoes attack the netting of my tent while I read after dinner, I am grateful for the bug net and not having opted for a tarp tent years ago. Again, my eyes are shut before natures lays the sun down to set for the day.

Lost Creek Wilderness Big Loop – Day 2

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Just after dawn my shadow casts long in a saddle at 11,600′ on the Ben Tyler Trail.

Click here to view a map of Day 2

Click here to see elevation profile, type of tree cover and land cover!

I sleep like I typically do in the backcountry. Waking up through the night as I turn from one side to the other. At one point the intensely bright moon wakes me as if someone is shining a flashlight in my face. Unless it is raining heavily I always sleep with the fly open so I can stargaze when I awake at night. Later, my phone begins its gentle crescendo at 4:00 waking me from my slumber in Craig Park.

Today is my birthday and I’ll celebrate 52 years hanging about in this world. I’ve backpacked and hiked many 20+ mile days but I have never done a 30 miler. Today will be the day I go for that goal; in fact I’ve decided to make it a 52 kilometer day which converts to 32.5 miles.

I heat water for one cup of coffee under my headlamp, tear down camp quickly and am on the trail at 4:50. I have to navigate some snow as I move through the dark timber and one puddle I come to has a skin of ice on it, verifying freezing temperatures I experienced during the night.

In the first hour I am treated to a beautiful expanse at 11,600′ of open terrain dotted by rocky hills. The sun shines so as to cast long shadows from my lanky frame. As I cross the park on a trail that is marked by posts dotting the way I begin to drop down in elevation. I look on the horizon and make out one, then two elk feeding in the early shadows. They are fairly distant and I can just make out six or eight as the impending sun makes it difficult to discern the shapes of the large grazers.

The day will consist of time on new trail and trail I have traversed times before. I keep dropping in elevation and see a camper parked in a small clearing by  Rock Creek. I’ve come six miles and dropped down to 9700′. A gentleman is outside and we stop and chat for awhile. He comments that his furnace in his camper was non-functional and asks if I felt that it was very cold last night. He inquires about the weight of my pack, my route, etc. I tell him of where I came from and he indicates that that is where he will go explore today. I’m only a few hours into my day but I haven’t had a human encounter since 1:30 the previous afternoon and as I make my way onward, with a marathon yet ahead of me, my spirits are lifted by the brief visit.

I hit the junction with the Colorado Trail heading east. Previously I have come the opposite way with my friend Jamie and a different time two years ago with Pam. I recognize the trail well and know landmarks which tell me where I am on the trail. In an area surrounded by Bristlecone Pines I see a group of four dainty orchids a step off the tread. I drop to the ground, pack still on my back and begin taking photos of the Calypso Bulbosa,

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Fairy Slipper (calypso bulbosa)

commonly called Calypso Orchid or Fairy Slipper. Two years prior when here with Pam I had stopped and photographed these same four flowers. Each year, they rise and flower after heavy winter snows. Lying just one literal step off the trail they are a prime example of what LNT or Leave No Trace is all about. And if I get a little preachy and political forgive me. As a visitor to this dedicated Wilderness area I agree to abide by the guidelines that have been established to protect this area. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in 1964. You can read in the link above what those regulations are, but Wilderness in conjunction with Leave No Trace means you leave it as you found it or in even better shape, i.e. taking out trash you find. If I had picked these orchids two years prior, they would not have been here for me and hundreds of hikers on the Colorado Trail to enjoy this year. Theoretically I could bring a grandchild here 20 years from now to see these same flowers! Taking care of our environment is not a “today” table item. It’s not even a “lifetime” table item. It is a philosophy and responsibility that spans generations, centuries and millenia. I think there are certain high ranking politicians in our country that fail to understand the scope of this concept. I choose to leave the beautiful, delicate Fairy Slippers as they are. Not just for my fellow American visitors that may come across this spot but for my fellow man of all nations who visit this area and might enjoy it. We must come together as a world of people to preserve our planet as we enjoy it, during our miniscule period of time in the scope of personal history before our physical bodies become a part of it.

Before noon I come to the west end of Lost Park and the North Fork of Lost Creek. I lose my pack and sit up against a tree to have an extended break. I’ve covered half of my distance for the day. I’m on schedule to finish before sunset as long as my body does not rebel. I eat some cheese, pumpernickel bread, sausage and head down the trail.

Lost Park is another long narrow park, just like Craig Park of the previous day. I’m looking forward to losing 700′ of elevation over the next nearly six miles. I estimate I’ll get to the east end of Lost Park in the neighborhood of 3:00 and have roughly 22 miles under my belt for the day. But the trek through here is a disappointing drag. The sun is shining on my pack causing me to be hot and sweaty. I maintain my fluid intake so as to not become dehydrated beyond repair later in the day. I eventually pop out on the east side and filter some more water for the last 10 1/2 miles.

As I regain the tread, now heading south on the Brookside-McCurdy trail I am off the CT and back onto brand new trail, making things a little more interesting again. I stop to answer a question another backpacker has. He is an older gentleman with a yellow lab by his side. The dog is sleeping soundly. The man has his tent pitched and we trade information about routes, where we have camped, where we are going and stories about the wilderness and those who have perished here! As we chat, I envy him. He is done for the day and relaxing at a lovely little spot. I am having to move 2,000′ higher into the late evening and possible changes in weather. However, the potential regret of not finishing out this day as I have planned, outweighs the temptation of company for the remainder of the day.

Over the next miles I pass established campsite after established campsite. One group numbers over a dozen teenagers with adults mixed in. A bit later, there are the bearded 20-30 somethings with their tarp tents. In a bit, the trail pitches so sharply upward that after 28 miles in my legs I am forced to count 100 steps and then stop to regain my breath. I am approaching the area of Bison Peak and the trail tops out at 11,800′ and it is a steep pitch.

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The area of Bison Peak. Note the snow capped peaks to the back right of the photo. Elevation at this spot is 11,800′.

I have expansive views in all directions and the wind has nothing to stop it here above treeline. As I huff and puff to crest into the high meadow I am amazed by the sight. It is beautiful. An area big enough to host numerous soccer fields fills the scene marked by huge granite domes. I make a mental note that this will be an area to come back and bring others to enjoy this site.

It is now just a 5k until I am done for the day. My whole attitude begins to shift and I am elated that while my head is pounding a bit and my left shoulder is aggravated from my pack, my legs are relatively fantastic. The lower body has held up tremendously and I begin to try and estimate where I will finish for the day. I now begin to enter the Ghost Forest of the Wilderness. Over 100 years ago a forest fire burned through this high mountain area. The trees, while dead from the fire, remain as burned out sentries standing guard over this stark, exposed, eerily pleasant area in the waning daylight hours of my birthday. The trail ribbons its way ahead of me and I can see it peeking in and out of the landscape disappearing over the knolls.

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Appearing as totems, dead trees begin to mark the beginnings of a ghost forest.

I think about the significance of these dead trees. Over 100 years old, still standing, still evident of a century of history, having survived season after season, high winds and all that nature has to offer. How much longer will they be here? 100 years after I am gone will my life remain so tall and gracious for the world to see?

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Dead for over 100 years, yet standing as sentries for visitors to this ghost forest.

As I tick down the final steps of my day, my phone chirps indicating that I have cellular service. I have just a few tenths of a mile to walk until I cross my “finish line” and I can make camp for the day. I pull out my phone and call Pam and amazingly she answers! I am elated! We talk as I finish out my day and it is the perfect gift on my birthday. As I talk to her, after having walked for 14 hours and 32 1/2 miles I am physically and emotionally spent and I profess my love to her like we are childhood sweethearts. As I say goodbye and wend my way forth looking for a spot to camp, I am nearly in tears. Emotion of family and the relationship to my wife and my son overcomes me. I finish my day a little more complete than when I began it back in the darkness of Craig Park before dawn.

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Rock dome in Lost Creek Wilderness. 

Lost Creek Wilderness Backpacking Day 1 – Big Loop

 


Click here to view a map of the first day

Click here to see cool stuff like elevation profile, slope, tree cover and land cover!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Four of the last six years I have gone backpacking during my birthday which is June 15th. It began in 2012 after one of my best friends passed away that spring. I missed the following year and I missed last year. If my birthday falls on any day except Wednesday I shut my business down for a long weekend and make anywhere between a three and five day trip of it.

This year, I had blocked out the time but didn’t have any big plans or a spot picked out to venture to. A lot has to do with how much snow remains in the high country and typically mid June still holds much snow above 11,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado. However, the Lost Creek Wilderness missed the big May storms of this year so it became an eligible area for a four day trip.

Because I was going solo it also allowed me to chase some backcountry goals that are better pursued alone, versus having another being succumb to my crazy ideas of fun. The Saturday before I did a 15 mile trail run up into the Platte River Mountains to see if the hills held much snow on the north facing slopes. As luck would have it, there were only a few patches of snow and as I dropped into the area of Craig Park between the Platte River and Kenosha Mountains it was blissful. I had decided on my loop.

I’ve always been an endurance athlete with some years-long breaks over the past nearly 40 years. Since I began backpacking I also began running and trail running to complement the off trail experience. Last October I picked up a dropped yoga practice from the past decade and have had a nice balance of yoga and trail running this spring. I had not donned a 20-30 pound pack yet this year but felt confident in my base fitness. The fact that I’ve spent over 50 nights sleeping in the wilderness over the previous two years, I felt that my body and muscle memory would serve me well. So, I decided to go big for my 52nd birthday trip.

I had one massage to give on Wednesday morning and had packed my bag the previous day. At 11:00am I headed south on highway 285 to Bailey, Colorado. I parked at the Payne Creek Trailhead and hit the trail shortly after noon. It was pleasantly warm as I headed south and up with my beginning elevation of just over 8,000’

It felt good to just walk and not be running. Albeit my long trail runs have been at three and a half hours and this would be a four day trip using most of the light each day. The north part of the wilderness goes from drier areas through mountain timber and after just a mile and a half I came to four younger people having lunch at a creek crossing. “Where you headed for the night?” I asked them.

They looked about at each other and one young lady replied “We’re not really sure”. With four of them, hopefully they had the resources to figure it out and not need help. Last year I invested in a DeLorme Inreach satellite device of which the big selling point for me is the the ability to satellite text to my wife or friends and also to throw up an SOS if an emergency should ever occur. In addition I leave a map with my wife of my intended route and also leave the same information with an experienced friend that knows how to come help if I don’t return on time. When I left the parking lot I sent out a text to both of them that said, “I’m parked here (with GPS coordinates) and off on my trip!”

LCW Permit sign

Lost Creek Wilderness requires you obtain a permit from a handly little box station. Fill out the card, where you’ll be spending your nights, leave part in the box and take a small section with you. It’s used primarily for research purposes.

I hiked steadily until reaching the saddle of the mountain 3,000’ higher from my departure point and then descended 500’ into Craig Park. Craig Park is a park or “meadow” that is roughly 1,000 feet wide that runs in a NW/SE direction for about six miles. Craig Creek runs right through it and it is surrounded by marshy areas with occasional beaver dams and potentillas on the upper edges. The Platte River mountains rise to the north of the park about 1,000’ up and the Kenosha Mountains are south and slightly higher at 1,500’ above the park. Small peaks of both ranges rise and fall on either side of the valley. It is a beautiful area that is not well traveled by evidence of the scant trail running through it. The trail was narrow enough as I hiked northwest that potentilla scraped my calves and after a bit I collapsed my trekking poles because they kept getting caught on the shrubs along the trail.

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Craig Park looking south with Platte River Mountains left, Kenosha Mountains to the right and lots of blue sky and “Toy Story” clouds!

I walked for a few more hours until I arrived at the upper reaches of the park. I still had daylight left but did not want to drop down into the dark timbered forest. Even though I would be sleeping at 11,500’ it would be warmer higher and drier. I was camped well away from the creek and I had filtered water a mile or so back, so I had plenty to cook with and begin my day the next morning.

I quickly pitched my tent even though there was no looming bad weather. It’s a habit that is hard to change. Nobody likes putting up a shelter in the rain and it is always the first priority once the decision to stop has been made. Rain and hail is not a horrible thing if you are warm and dry. But…once wet it can be uncomfortable and downright dangerous in the high country.

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Camp! Night #1!

I had climbed about 3,500’ for the day, trekked 12.6 miles and my pack would only get lighter now from my beginning weight of 32.5 pounds. I made myself dinner and as I brushed my teeth a short distance from the tent I saw some elk feeding on the opposite hillside. After sauntering a little closer for a better look I headed back to my campsite and was in my bag and looking at the stars with my fly drawn back on my little tent. I set the alarm for 4:00 in the morning. I wanted an early start to what would be the longest single day of backpacking in my life. Everything was in place, I just had to execute tomorrow.

Question on Bear Peak – 2017.04.05

Question on Bear Peak

  • Wednesday, 5 April 2017
  • Bear Peak, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1006
  • Elevation – 8,241’
  • 40℉, windy, but sheltered, blue skies, new snow
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Looking northeast from Bear Peak to Boulder and beyond

It’s getting to the time of year where I want to be doing more and longer hikes and trail runs. With an open schedule I planned to do a run/hike somewhere near Golden, Colorado. But Tuesday brought snow and much of it to the slightly higher elevations. This meant that a) I would need to get an early start before it warmed up to 50℉ and b) I needed to go high to avoid a sloppy muddy mess for my hike.

I change my mind, sticking close to Boulder starting at South Mesa Trail as I leave the car at roughly 7:00. I pass a runner, then a hiker with a dog and have the snowy trail to myself. After two miles I stop to put gaiters on as snow begins to sift through the tops  of my hiking boots. I come to the Fern Canyon trail and I know things are about to get serious. Over the next 1.3 miles I have to ascend roughly 1,600’ to get to Bear Peak, a 8,241’ high point above Boulder, Colorado. I will do a loop but have not picked out a spot where I will actually sit for an hour. Going up Fern Canyon is steep but I prefer it to coming down and this counter clockwise loop is my typical route for this hike.

I stop before the trail tilts up in earnest and peel off a top layer so I only have a long sleeved top and sleeveless base layer underneath. I begin climbing, trekking poles making no sound in the deep snow. At spots the trail requires me to pull myself up rocks and get good purchase with one foot above my waist as I do a reverse one legged squat to pull myself up the trail. But the trail is good, with switchbacks the first half mile. And it is during this portion of the trek that I decide on stopping at Bear Peak.

It is already an unusual day because I am the first one to climb this trail today. This is somewhat incredible in this hotbed of recreational activity. I decide that being the first one up the trail for the day allows me to play king of the hill once I get to Bear Peak. I’ll sit there for one hour and ask a certain question of each hiker that comes up after me. This gives me purpose as I hit on up the trail with renewed vigor.

I hit the saddle which gives me a view of Green Mountain to the north. I snap a few photos and now head directly south on the ridge to climb up to Bear Peak. The trail disappears and as the wind has swept across the ridge it has deposited snow resulting in thigh to waist deep drifts at times. I burn some good calories by the time I arrive at the post and trail marker at 10:06.

I hit the stopwatch immediately because I’m not wild about being up here in a sweaty state and getting sick. I settle in to observe what is happening around me.

I am not actually on the peak but just beneath it sheltered on the east side out of the wind. It is calm, warm, serene. The sun is bright as I pull my ball cap down on my ears and switch out sunglasses. A knife ridge runs north/south here, a popular route for people that do the “traverse” bagging the various peaks directly west of Boulder. From where I stand I have views east surveying the plains and west to the Continental Divide.

Bear Peak behind me

20 minutes pass and I predict that I am not going to see a soul up here on the peak. Regardless that it is a weekday, that not one person would be on Bear Peak between the hours of 10:00 and 11:00 is incredible. I have to wait and see what happens.

I look to the east and decide to inventory the bodies of water that shimmer in the sun amongst the white snowscape. I count, lose track, start over, and eventually quit at 25. As I look farther east high clouds create shadows making it difficult to distinguish landmarks.

Roads, creeks and trails create dark ribbons against the contrast of the new snow left from the day and night before. As a black vulture rides the thermals below me, I, too, have a bird’s eye view of Boulder, Jefferson, Broomfield, Adams, Larimer, Weld and Denver Counties.

I had passed budding shrubs earlier, but now snow clinging to branches and rocks brings about the look of winter instead of spring. But it is indeed a wet, heavy spring snow that has allowed me to pack down a spot in which to stand. I inadvertently left my seating pad at home and I stand for the entire hour. In fact, by the time I reach the parking lot I will have been on my feet for six hours without once sitting down.

At one point I begin whistling “My country ‘tis of thee” very softly as I take in the views from Divide to Plains. The hour draws to a close and is anti-climactic today with not one person arriving to answer my question. While the views here are fantastic, the trek to get here was more stimulating and full of adventure. I don my pack for the two hour, four mile descent back to the car. Gentle smoke drifts out of two chimneys from houses to the west as I step through the deep snow finding the trail on the west side of Bear Peak. I”ll save my question for another day, another trek, another time.

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Clouds form a line shrouding the Continental Divide in the distance

52 Weeks – An Hour at a Time

An Exploration of Observation

The idea for this project came quickly and without much thought. I was reading a Facebook post from a virtual friend who was testing out some clothing for outdoor activities. He walked into the forest, sat for one hour, and wrote a review of how the clothing performed.

It can be challenging to sit for an hour, especially in the outdoors. Boredom can set in quickly and quite often there doesn’t seem to be much happening. Quite frankly, sitting still and observing nature or the world around us is a skill. Attention spans can be short, we lose patience, “nothing is happening”. So we move on. And quite often may miss something spectacular. 

My goal is to sit outside for one hour each week over the span of 2017. I have some preconceived notions about what it will be like. I imagine it will be a spiritual experience. I hope to see some wildlife. I hope to observe people and their habits. My intention is not to do this when the weather is always favorable. People rarely die from exposure in an hour and it’s okay to be uncomfortable from time to time. However, I do look forward to some some days with the warm sun on my face.

I’ll try to succinctly gather some thoughts and observations about the experience. I’d like to have a photo each week to capture what is happening in this world. I invite you to follow along and let your imagination wander during this exploration. And if you like what you read, what you see, what you feel as you journey with me then perhaps share this project with a friend. And, once in a while, stop for a few minutes and observe what is happening in your own world.

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Backpacking Buffalo Peaks Wilderness June 2016

Walking to Durango, the Trek Comes to a Close

Scanning my campsite in the dark, my headlight shines in the area where I am packing my gear up for the last time this trip. I walk down the trail, having rested for longer than any time of the last ten days, with exception of my zero day in Lake City. I make my way to Indian Trail Ridge proper just as the sky brightens through the trees.

I am rewarded with serenely beautiful, warmly lit skies to the east. My decision to wait a day is confirmed as a good one. It is calm, it is peaceful, it is perfect. The undulating trail is stout enough to cause me to breathe more deeply at times. I stop frequently to capture the light on the ridge, at times jogging back and forth on the trail to get the best images that my phone will allow. It is at times breathtaking and heart rending. The day dawns on me figuratively and literally. This is my last day on trail and like so many before me have said, it is bittersweet. I am more than ready to be with my family and comforts of home, but will miss the time alone on trail and waking up to such beauty outside my tent door.

I make much better time than anticipated and descend down to Taylor Lake. There is nobody camped there, to my surprise, and I stop to filter some water, have breakfast and my morning coffee. Within 20 minutes I am off again finishing segment 27 proper and embarking on the final 21.5 mile segment. I climb through Kennebec Pass and again am moving downhill toward Durango. I’ll descend 6,557 feet by the time I reach the end of the trail in Durango.

Having cell service, I take the opportunity to call Pam and Jamie to let them know my ETA. I cross Junction Creek numerous times and am in shade for the whole morning. It was cool at the start of my day and I haven’t needed much water. After twelve or so miles I stop to take another break, eat something and reflect.

I cross a nice bridge over Junction Creek and then begin what will be the last climb of the Colorado Trail. I’m

fifteen miles into my day and have a four mile climb before the downhill to the end. All of the descending has caused the tib anterior muscle in my left leg to get a little angry; what some might call shin splints but it actuality is just an overused muscle issue from the long downhill stretch. It’s annoying and affects my gait a little bit; one last surprise that the Colorado Trail has for me before I finish.

13.3 miles from the end and about 16 miles into my day I stop to filter water for the last time. I fill both 23 ounce bottles that I have and deem it enough to carry me through roughly a half marathon. I make a note on the Guthooks app about the water source. “Good flow if you have a scoop. Maybe enough to carry you home! Almost there!”

I continue the short climb but am acutely aware that it is much warmer now. I’m now at an elevation of 9016′ and as I continue to descend the landscape changes around me. Junipers begin to dominate the scene, along with a pebbly trail and more arid climes. I spy a horned lizard, the first that I have ever seen. He obliges for a photo or two.

Horned lizard

Before I top out on the uphill section I meet a woman having a snack. She is finishing the trail today as well, having section hiked it over a few years much as I have. She is only the second hiker I have seen today and we congratulate each other on our endeavors. She is yet one more interesting person that I have had the privilege to meet on the trail. I bid her goodbye and am grateful for the encounter, buoying my spirits.

I top the climb and begin the last ten miles home! I snap a photo of my watch and figure with a good pace I can knock this out in three miles. It is 1:05 pm.

A much smaller horned lizard

But now it feels really warm, much warmer than anything I have experienced in the last week. I had not counted on the effect of the lower elevation and the increasing heat, while certainly not hot, it is much warmer than I have been used to. I decide to stop, take a break and air my feet out. I relax, with my socks and shoes off and even attempt to catch a little nap. Pam, Jamie and his son will be walking in to meet me but I don’t expect to see them before the last four miles.

Further down the trail I’m now consuming copious amounts of water, far more than I have at any other time. It feels really hot now and with about six or seven miles to go I have consumed the last of my liquids. I intentionally slow down because I don’t want tot have a bad experience here at the very end. There is one more water source, but I think I will see Pam and Jamie before that.

But now I am beginning to sidle along. My speed has dropped considerably and I just don’t feel very good. I think to myself that I have come 225 miles in the last ten days, I am merely five miles from the end and I am beginning to flounder. My pride takes a hit and I worry about the woman behind coming up on me as I walk around in a stupor. I keep checking my watch to determine where I am at on the trail. I hope to see Pam and Jamie at Gudy’s Rest, a bench at an overlook that commemorates the “mother of the Colorado Trail”, Gudy Gaskill.

I get to Gudy’s Rest and have a seat. It is am impressive bench, big enough to lie down on, it begs me to take a nap and I toss off my back and decide to just sleep for a little bit. As I drift off, I begin to hear voices below me, a woman’s voice. Pam! I hop off the bench and strain to see down onto the trail below me. I can see the trail on the other side of Junction Creek but it is too steep directly below me to see the switchbacked trail where the voices are coming from. I hesitate to yell down below and instead quickly don my pack and grab my trekking poles.

I have been instantly rejuvenated and think to myself, “I only have four miles to go! Get off your ass and get moving!” It is the motivation I need to finish this thing out. Moving quickly down the trail I hit one switchback and then another. I can hear Pam’s voice and then Jamie’s, I think I even hear the higher pitch of Jamie’s son as well. Tears begin to well behind my glasses and I get a little emotional at the thought of seeing the three of them.

Finally, I see them as they being to come up the trail and we are all moving toward a switchback where we will be reunited. Except it is not them. It is a man and woman hiking up the trail on a day hike. Ugh. My spirits are deflated. I immediately put on a fake smile, “Why hello! It’s a beautiful day isn’t it? Enjoy your hike!” And as I pass them, my emotions change from one of elation to feigning agitation. “Where in the hell are they? I need some water and food!”

But, alas, another half mile and I now see them in the flesh, sitting on the trail. And I am so glad to see them. Jamie has really cold water in his backpack. As I sip out of his Camelbak tube I don’t think I have tasted such good, clean, fresh, cold water before. Pam has snacks for me, I hug her and I plop down on the trail next to Jamie’s son. It feels so good to eat, drink and see my friends and wife.

From here on out it is a day hike with friends. The last three miles take longer than I would like. I don’t yearn for more miles, to have it last forever, today, I just want to be done. As we finally come to the end of the trail I have been thinking about how I will have my photo taken at the trail head for the traditional photo commemorating finishing the Colorado Trail. I decide to do handstand.

Note: It is now weeks after I have finished the trail as I write this. I began this trail with a group of people and finished a large portion of it by myself. Over the past few years I have done more and more solo backpacking. Going solo is such a different experience than hiking with others. This past Labor Day weekend Pam and I backpacked segments 9, 10 and part of 11 going from Tennessee Pass to Twin Lakes Village. I hope to accompany both Pam and Jamie as they too, complete the Colorado Trail.

Recounting my trip via this blog has also been an enjoyable experience for me. I think now about this trail and I don’t think I am done with it. I often think about “my legacy” and what I will leave behind once my days trekking this earth are done. Unfortunately our relationships that we build over our lifetimes diminish once we are gone. We have memories and oral history but they disappear over time. For me, I feel my writing is a way to preserve my history and experiences. So with that, I would love to write a few books before I am gone. I think one may be about a northbound thru hike of the Colorado Trail, taken more slowly, more intentionally. Another would be about trekking in Romania, another place I love and would like to explore more, visiting villages and getting to know people in different parts of a country that I love.

All of this presents some serious challenges, risk of perceived failure if nobody gives a damn about a book that I might write and changes in my life in the near future. But it is fun to think about. Happy trails to all of you and thanks for reading along about my adventures.

Professor Nature

Autumn officially arrives in eight days. I took the photo above pausing to rest and reflect, in the mountains of Colorado, while pursuing elk during archery season. The three weeks of the season thus far has proved incredible. I’ve seen or heard game every day except one, afield this season.

I’ve had to relearn to slow down, to be still, to listen, to observe, to be intentional but not predictable. I’ve bugled back and forth to bull elk and been in a staring contest. Each day the elk outsmarts me means an additional day observing an amazing world.

Sure, I could observe nature without hunting, but I would not stay afield until dark. It would mean missing out on the beauty of a bull elk’s white ivory tipped tine as I catch his face in my binoculars.

I arise at 4:00 am to walk back into the Aspen forest in the pre dawn light. I wait and listen for a bull to bugle first and give away his location. He remains silent, forcing me to walk noisily in the forest. So the game goes, me learning new lessons by living in his world for a short time.

So too, have I learned new lessons from bears, deer, turkeys, pine squirrels, grouse, bees, ants, crickets and grasshoppers. I’ve witnessed the Aspens morph from chartreuse green to brilliant orange to golden yellow.

In my 53rd year I am grateful for a worn but healthy body to continue to be taught by mother nature. Spending much time outdoors in different recreational activities every year offers a multitude of perspectives. In this I pray I function better in comunity with my own species, the human race. My wish is to learn and never know it all, for how mundane and boring would that be?

Summer Clings Like Raindrops

Raindrops settle on Aspen leaves,

A breeze may send them to earth,

The leaf soon becoming bronze,

It’s job as a shelf finite.

While high up on mountain peak,

Snow already forms,

Relentless in its pursuit,

To hasten autumn days.

While summer clings,

Like drops on an Aspen leaf.