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,
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.
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.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?
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.