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.

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.

 

moresheep

 

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.

 

blackhawk pass

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 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 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.

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

Lost Creek Wilderness Loop – Day 4

Click here to see a map of my fourth day

Click here to see elevation profile, terrain, etc.

My last day and I wake early and waste no time in hitting the trail. I’m not exactly sure how many miles it will be until I am out to the car today. My recollection of the initial part of today’s trail is one of difficult downhill with a strong chance of blowdowns. I’ve only been on this trail once a few years ago, but I remember it being a bit of a grind.

Before long I pass the camp of the two gals I met late yesterday afternoon. There is an empty hammock but it seems too early for them to be up and about. There is also a tent and it makes me wonder if the tree sleeper got cold or timid during the night and elected to move into the tent with her friend.

The trail is indeed steep downhill for the first few miles but then levels out and I don’t remember this part from my previous journey here. I run into a gentleman that is hiking in to meet a friend. He tells me that he and his friend spend a lot of time every year doing trail maintenance around the state. Last year his friend cleared over 40 dead trees off the section that I just came through! I’m reminded of how much volunteers do for our trails and wilderness areas. I thank him for the work that he does and make a note that I need to get involved in such projects; either organized with a group of just with a friend on weekends throughout the year. It’s a great way to get outdoors, do some camping and take care of trails that need work.

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First columbines of the trip!

I’m soon on very familiar terrain at the Colorado Trail again. This is the trailhead for the beginning of Segment 4 and I anticipate that I will begin running into some backpackers. This also begins an uphill stretch of just over 1,000’ over the next 4.5 miles. I’ve been on this stretch of trail more times than I can count in my head whether it was a day hike, multi-day backpack trip or trail run. I’m motivated as I move up the old wide road anticipating beautiful aspen forests.

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Passable appearance after three days afield

I re-enter the Lost Creek Wilderness proper and bump into a group of three weekend backpackers. I plan to stop where the Payne Creek Trail heads north off the CT and have breakfast there. I arrive around 9:00 and partake of nutrients with two guys and dogs that are doing a two night loop. They have come off the Payne Creek trail and have not yet decided on a loop. I pull out my map and we take a look at it as I offer suggestions for potential loops. I make sure that they know about the tricky signage farther along the trail and in a bit I bid them adieu and make my way northwest.

I’m looking forward to this last stretch of trail. I have about nine more miles back to the car and I only know a small portion of this trail having hiked it with Pam a few years back. The tread is in great shape and I make good time. I’ve got some sore calves but I feel pretty good considering I’ve covered over 70 miles in the last three and a half days. Eventually I come to a low point in the valley and Craig Creek. It’s a pretty beautiful spot and the three backpackers I had seen earlier are looking for a camping spot. They’ll have a full day to relax and fish. Great for them!

 

Climbing out of Craig Creek, the breeze is strong but not so much that I would classify it as windy. The trail moves upward, the sky is bright blue with patchy white clouds. It is mid June and the world is alive here! Wildflowers are emerging in earnest, perhaps the greatest number I’ve seen in a concentrated area yet this year. Summer, officially a few days away on the calendar, is making its presence known in this part of the Platte River Mountains. I stop frequently to snap photos of this palette that broadens out in front of me. Butterflies flit about everywhere. Tiger Swallowtails dominate the scene, big, bold, yellow and airy as they ride the breezes landing upon flower after flower. I chase after them time and time again attempting to capture them on film.

Authors note: I must confess that this scene plays back in my mind as I write this in December. I have been obstreperous over the past six months, running wildly throughout Colorado, hiking, running, hunting, touring and having a wonderful time. Penning the last day of this trip had fallen off my radar, but now as Iook over my excursions of 2017 this few hour period finishing off this trip was one of the very best highlights of the year.

Backpacking in Colorado can be a fickle mistress. The season is relatively short, especially if you want to be in the high country. Much of that time can be spent dodging storms or drying out gear. One can get sucked into the trap that it’s all butterflies and meadows, stargazing while cowboy camping with no need for a tent. I’ve chatted with a friend about this and if you read the outdoors magazines you can be caught off guard once you arrive in the backcountry and experience it firsthand.

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A little bit of my heaven on earth

But on that day it was just like one envisions it to be. It is what calls to me now as I daydream looking out my window behind the keyboard of a laptop, thinking about trips for 2018 and nights spent afield. The few challenging days spent afield are wiped from my mental hard drive when I think back to finishing out this fourth day.

As I make my way up this trail I have now slowed down to the appropriate pace for observing nature. I am like a toddler, distracted by all that is amazing to me. A butterfly here, a flower growing out of a rock there, the colors are vibrant, more amazing than any colorwheel I have seen in art classes. I move into a magnificent aspen grove that moves from a draw, fed by a stream up and over the ridge of the mountain. I yearn to spend a night or two right here, to set camp, to wander aimlessly from ridge to ridge, aspen grove to deep timber, and back to another aspen grove. What treasures lie here? What is there to discover? How many come through this trail and how many venture off of it to find what lies in the deeper forest and timber? These questions are ones that force me to make mental notes, bookmarking this area in my mind as one that I need to come back to in the future. Much more exploration is necessary and I desire to learn the lay of this land, close enough from the trailhead that one can arrive here in a quick morning but far enough away that there won’t be much company.

I crest the top of the trail and enter the north side of the mountain, now moving into dark timber and making my way farther north. The trail becomes rockier, rather steep and trickier to navigate. I begin to run into people making their way south. They inquire about where I’ve come from and ask “how much farther to the aspen groves?” I try to give an accurate answer, but I’m never sure whether I’m much help with that or not. Groups travel much slower than individuals, much less gaining elevation on a rocky trail. I default to the “Romanian Answer”, trying to be as helpful as possible, offering hope, but knowing they are really on their own after I leave them.

I make my way easily back to the trailhead where I’ve left the car. Over four days I’ve not encountered a single drop of rain. This has been a great trip. I’m happy about the loop through this vast US Wilderness area, and excited that I have yet to visit every trail here, prompting reason to return and bring friends along.

Reflecting on the Past Year

Sifting through images I came across this video I shot in mid June during a 4 day backpack trip. It was one of the best hours of the past year. A gentle uphill trail, butterflies afloat filling the air around me, wildflowers in abundance and aspens 🌳 hitting their early chartreuse green. It was a magical morning on trail.