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.