East, sun rises anew,
Spring Equinox dawns.
West, waxing moon sets,
Capping winter’s rest.
Full moon awaits,
To rise in the eve.
Spring emerges complete,
Winter left to grieve.
East, sun rises anew,
Spring Equinox dawns.
West, waxing moon sets,
Capping winter’s rest.
Full moon awaits,
To rise in the eve.
Spring emerges complete,
Winter left to grieve.
Just before Jamie shuts the car off in the parking lot I see the air temperature. 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The expected high is to be in the 40’s, but that will be after we finish. I’ve dressed for about a mid 20’s start so it seems as though I’d better generate some heat.
We embark on the Mason Creek Trail in Staunton State Park, a park of the Colorado State Parks system that gets better every time I visit. They groom the trails in winter allowing hikers, fat tire mountain bikes and snowshoers alike to enjoy the winter trails.
The trail is snow packed, but not quite icy as we move into the Mason Creek drainage. It’s evident that it had been above freezing yesterday as there are deeper frozen footprints, but not so many as to rut the trail out and make it difficult passage.
On either side of Mason Creek the mountain rises steeply. The temperatures must be in the single digits here. I’m layered properly on my torso, but can feel the cold air on my legs, having opted out of wearing a base layer. My cheeks catch the cold air and I wiggle my finger tips to keep them warm inside my wool mittens. After some time I can feel the cold permeating the soles of my trail runners. The cold affects the tendon in my left knee, causing it to be a little more stiff. It’s all perfectly acceptable, just awareness in my body but little cause for alarm. As we rise out of the drainage the temperature will warm and eventually we will be in the sunshine.
One trail runner passes us, then shortly thereafter we hear voices and another pair moves past. Eventually we ascend into some aspens and the air temperature is much less intense. The trail dips and rises, winds and wends in and out of the aspens.
The sight of the aspens brings longing for summer days, sounds of hummingbirds and overnight backcountry trips. I reign in my anticipation, to not waste the day I have right now, a bluebird day, with clear blue skies contrasted by the bright white landscape.
Back home, even after the Bomb Cyclone a few days ago, I can see spring growth emerging and a neighbor’s crocuses blooming. But here, if one is to step off the packed trail, it’s at least knee deep snow at 9,000′.
At Staunton we’re still in the Front Range but not in the true high country. The big mountains have received an abundance of moisture this year, with every river basin in the state over 100% of average snowpack. This is welcome after the drought of last year and dreadful wildfires that ravaged significant portions of the state’s forest. It will be late June or even July until some of the high mountains are accessible.
Jamie and I pause in the aspens allowing the sun to beat upon our faces as we soak up the warmth. It is a windless day, which is absolutely lovely. Not wanting to posthole over to a log we opt to stand in order to take in a snack. Early on, I blew the line to my hydration bladder clear because it was so cold. I attempt to draw water through the tube and I feel like a kid trying to suck a thick chocolate shake through a straw, unsuccessful to draw any water through the tube. Some banging on my pack by Jamie and blowing back and forth finally breaks the ice dam free that must have formed, and I am able to take a drink.
Exiting the aspens we enter back into the darker timber. Not as many people have ventured here and I begin to remark that the trail is softer when my right leg sinks knee deep into snow. I do my own version of an Irish jig as I quickly step out of the post hole attempting to keep my balance.
I’ve been on this trail just once, I believe, and I was running at the time. So now, moving at a slower pace, and in winter, it all looks different to me. We comment how we’re hoping to intersect another trail versus having to backtrack when we finally arrive at the Old Mill, built here in the 1930’s. The old building stands defiant to the elements high on the mountain, nestled between the rocks that make up much of this park. I marvel at how they got various pieces of large equipment up here nearly 90 years ago. The resourcefulness and perseverance of the people impresses me.
We don’t linger long and venture lower on the Old Mill trail and intersect with a main trail that takes us back to the parking lot. Now there is much more activity with fat tire bikers, hikers and snowshoers. We have timed it right as the trail is now beginning to thaw out and muddy up when we arrive back where we started to a now full parking lot.
Reflecting on the morning warms my heart as we move into spring and the transition of longer days, blooming plants and more time afield. I look forward to many more trips this year, and hope to explore some new places as well.
I’d never heard of a bomb cyclone. It’s a new weather word to me.
One week into abstaining from social media and Mother Nature assists with a blizzard. We are currently without power so fortunately our gas fireplace is keeping the living room warm at 69 degrees.
I have a few isobutane canisters with a whisper of fuel in them. No good for backpacking, but perfect to heat water for coffee.
A new book arrived in the mail a few days ago. I should finish it today. It’s an account of Heather “Anish” Anderson’s record setting hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. It puts other books that turned into movies about the PCT to shame.
Enjoy your storms wherever you might be!
My wife Pam has an iPhone, I have an android. Apple has a built in app that tells you how much time you spend on your phone. I was really glad that my Samsung had no such device, but curiosity got the best of me and I went searching for one.
Of course, it revealed that which I knew to be true. I, like so many of us, spend way too much time on social media. I am especially adept at killing large chunks of time playing Words With Friends. I only really play with two people, my sisters, who reside in Pennsylvania. I enjoy the daily check in, occasional chats and especially the competition with my oldest sister. But the app revealed just how much time I could spend on the game. With a ping that a play was awaiting I would move my attention away from what I was doing and find a word to put on the board.
My spiritual journey at this point of my life is largely a personal one. I have my beliefs, my faith and I try to do my best to live my faith without putting it in people’s faces. I strive for compassion, understanding, trying to keep my mouth shut (which is a huge challenge), listen better and not judge each person that comes in my path. For I feel there is an overabundance of judging in the world these days.
So for the next 40 days I’ve taken social media away. I’ve been doing a lot more reading in the last year and look forward to even more of it in the coming weeks, especially without the distraction of Facebook, etc.
I’ve also been away from writing for much too long. There are no adventures looming immediately in my future but I am eagerly looking forward to this sense of a spiritual retreat, an opportunity to reflect more, to be a better listener, to pick up the phone and actually talk to my sisters and to detach from e-stimulation.
“But”, you say, “now you are posting on your blog, which is linked to your Facebook account and such.”
Yes, there are the links that announce that I may have written something. But it will be good for me to not see if someone “likes” what I have put out into cyberspace. It will be beneficial for me to not respond to a comment or even know if one has been posted. (Of course, I welcome comments and likes on the blog!)
I look forward to rambling on here about life and my thoughts. I intend to take more walks in my neighborhood and in the hills, if spring ever decides to show its face here in Colorado. In a few short weeks it will be one year since a dear friend passed away. I want to honor her by thinking about how she still impacts my life each and every day. I want to be more present for Pam and for Ben, especially before he spreads his wings and moves into his own space in about a month. Life trickles on, like a mountain spring emerging from a hillside. I’ll try to do a better job of following the flow and seeing where it leads me.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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′