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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Day 6 mileage – 25.4

Day 6 elevation gained – 4,635′

Total trip mileage – 160.1

Total elevation gained – 27,219′

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