For anyone interested, here is a journal for my recent journey from Denver to Durango, Colorado, on the Colorado Trail, July 2-26, 2015.
In August 2014 Annie Waterbury, who had grown up in the house next door and was then 28, returned from a thru-hike of the 486-mile Colorado Trail. She showed up at our local Thursday night music event and both Sparkle (her trail name) and her dog Jude were in hiking trim, fit and hale and tan (well, not Jude).
I was instantly fascinated by her adventure and began to grill her. I’d heard of it previously via buzz about Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (1998), but I really knew nothing about “thru-hiking” — walking America’s iconic long-distance trails, end-to-end, self-supported — until 2006. That summer, Boulder’s Paul Magnanti, a true thru-hiking icon himself, and I arranged to have him send bi-weekly updates and photos of his trip down the Continential Divide Trail for publication in the Daily Camera, where I had expanded a weekly outdoor-adventure-sports section, Get Out!
Back then, smartphones were not routine, and the idea that you could just shoot photos, write text, and post from “out there” hadn’t become reality. So Paul mailed me CDs every time he went into town for resupply. I lived vicariously through his 2,000+-mile trek, but honestly never thought about doing it myself.
Strangely, despite my utter fascination with Sparkle’s and Jude’s adventure, even that didn’t really plant the seed. What did — yeah, I’m a big, fat cliché — was seeing Reese Witherspoon in Wild in December 2014. My wife and I had read and enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same name a couple years earlier, but it was only when I sat in a darkened theater in Hilton Head, South Carolina that the light-bulb flashed in my head.
I cleared my throat as Jody and I left the theater. “So,” I said offhandedly, “you know what I’m going to do now, right?” She nodded in mock resignation, but seemed slightly cheered that I was going to hike the Colorado Trail, a mere 500 miles, compared to the 2,663-mile Pacific Trail of Wild or the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, from Bryson’s book.
(Aside: Of the three “thru-hiking” books I’ve read, the above two and Gail Storey’s I Promise Not to Suffer, not a single author actually finished the trail he or she was writing about. More driven, perhaps, to write, than hike. That’s great, but sorry, Bill Bryson, despite your final insistence that, “We hiked the Appalachian Trail,” I can’t agree. You did hike 40 percent of it, and that’s cool. But that’s not the same as hiking the whole trail.)
But in a way, the inspiration for the trip goes back decades before Sparkle or even Strayed were born. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved “Going out your front door…” stories about journeys and adventure — The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Dove by Robin Lee Graham (true story of a 16-year-old who sailed around the world), Jean Craighead George’s The Other Side of the Mountain, Lonesome Dove, Into the Wild, and many more — an appetite merely whetted by Boy Scout adventures such as the 50-mile canoe and hiking trips I took with Troop 75.
From the moment the flashbulb went off in that theater, I was committed. I’d already spent the previous year trying new things — and not doing things I’d always done, like watch football — just to see what would happen. I started researching the trail and could barely stand the thought of waiting more than six months to take that first step.
It was a busy spring. We returned to Colorado, where I auditioned for, and got a part in Jesus Christ Superstar, in a University of Colorado production, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Soon, I was entertaining not one, but two, offers to write books on contract. Then, best of all, I returned to the remote island of Tarawa, where we recovered the remains of my grandfather, First Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient who had — along with hundreds of other Marines — been unrecovered for seven decades.
But I realized I couldn’t do all this great stuff while still commuting to a day job, and with Jody’s enthusiastic support, I quit. We also decided to sell our house (and lose the mortgage), downsize, and simplify.
The trail fit perfectly into that scheme. I was preoccupied with the media around the discovery of my grandfather, as well as finishing up the first book, before leaving for the trail. Between a flurry of interviews with media from Washington, D.C. to Toronto to New Zealand, I made final preparations, fretting over pack weight, calories of food and more (read below to see what the trail has to say about such puny attempts at control via quantification).
I knew I wasn’t going to be a true ultra-light hiker, but I certainly saw the value in not hauling more weight than necessary. I invested in an REI Quarter Dome 1 tent, a ULA Catalyst pack, a North Face Thermoball jacket and a few other things to keep things on the lighter side. I packed up boxes, to be sent to five resupply points along the way.
Note: As I drowned my phone in a terrible rainstorm, most of these photos were taken by fellow travelers, who are credited in the captions. Photos without credit lines taken by me; some of my early photos uploaded to the cloud!
D-Day (July 2) ~20 miles: And then, ready or not, on the morning of July 2, my mother drove me down to southwest Denver and dropped me off at Waterton Canyon. The day was humid, following long weeks of rain and hand-wringing by CT 2015 aspirants: Late rain had resulted in persistent snowpack and later, heavy runoff, keeping some segments closed. But my timing was perfect.
“Overall, a good, hard shakedown day,” I wrote in my journal at the end of that first day, which featured a gentle walk along the South Platte River, some scraggly bighorns, and finally, some actual climbing. In nine hours of walking, I traveled just about 20 miles, finding a campsite in Segment 2 around 6:30 p.m. Having hit my daily mileage goal, I felt pretty good. I slept hard and well.
D+1 (July 3) 20.7 miles: I rose naturally at 5:30 a.m. and got on the road. I found myself chasing after leftover media interviews, but managed to get some of that done before leaving Segment 2 — which is primarily the burned-out, hot climb through the area of the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire. I passed a few hikers, including Lykke Bonde, a Colorado College student from Denmark. At the end of the day, I encountered pretty severe chafing and did my best to manage with the “miracle salve” of Vagisil, which instantly took away the sting. My decision to “freebag” with a hiking kilt hadn’t paid off. I passed an older couple and the woman observed, “You are like a mountain pack pony” — short, stout legs that will go all day. Years earlier, someone else (a therapist, actually!) told me my hiking/mountain running style is like that of an Icelandic pony — maybe not “fast,” but strong and steady. And so I became Pony.
D+2 (July 4) 25 miles: Completely unexpectedly, I traveled 25 miles, for two reasons: I was trying to out-walk some rain, and I was feeling a need for company, having heard rumors from Sherpa Turtle (Lissa Forbes, who had been overseeing the Facebook CT 2015 thru-hike site) that someone named Booya might be there. She was, as were several others; it was a virtual Everest base camp (including the very late arrival of Sherpa Turtle),
and it was, in fact, nice to have a little company for Day 3. When they named Long Gulch they got it right — that was one long, but nice, gradual uphill climb. I got my first test with rain and some sleet/snow, and seemed to come out of it no worse for the wear. I also realized that I had started a 500-mile trail with some Hoka One One shoes that already had 400-500 miles on them, and I needed to replace them. But, I wrote, “Overall, physically, I feel good. Hip and shoulder chafe is just whatever.” I started thinking about what I could lose, weight-wise.
On my trail name: I got the name “Pony” on the second or third day of my 2015 CT hike. I passed an old guy who calls himself Slowman. His schtick is that he sets up camp near the trail and hollers out to everyone going by, “Slow down!” I took the opportunity to talk with him.<p>”What if I said to you, ‘Go faster!’ Wouldn’t that be strange?” I said. “But
what I do is different,” Slowman insisted. “I’m trying to get people to stop and smell the roses so they don’t miss the experience.” I explained that I wasn’t missing anything at all.”I’m not really even going ‘fast.’ I’m just short and stout and I go all day. I don’t like to stop a lot and I don’t like going to town much. But I’m soaking up the experience as much as any hiker.”Slowman conceded this might be possible.”So you’re kind of like a little mountain pack pony,” he said.Years before, I had complimented a woman friend on her fast, graceful running style, calling her a “gazelle.” She responded that I, in turn, was like an Icelandic pony — an unintentionally funny “compliment.”And so I became Pony.
D+3 (July 5) Johnson Gulch to Georgia Pass ~20 miles): I busted up and over Georgia Pass in pretty hard conditions, following cold, heavy rain on the climb from Jefferson Campground up to treeline. Got a late start (latest of the trip) at 7:30 a.m. The first 6.5 miles out of Segment 5 featured nice weather, but man it was depressing to hear the sound of traffic on 285 for the last 4 miles to the pass. The insane line of traffic back to Denver after the holiday weekend was already backed up to Kenosha.
Disgusting. It started to spit rain at about mile 4, where I stopped to fill up on water at an irrigation ditch in Segment 6. That’s where the “Noisy Boulder Bureaucrats” — group of 5 nice people who talked way too much — passed me, as well as Rick and Chelsea and their cute dog Boogie, passed me. It’s also where it began to sprinkle. I passed the noisy people at the base of the climb to Georgia Pass, thank goodness, but the storm got serious at that point and by the time I was near treeline, it was pouring. Rick (works for Montbell in Boulder) and Chelsea (works at Longmont Humane!) and Ed and Hunter (super-fast dad and son) kept walking while I tried to hunker down in the trees and lightning smashed all around us. Note to self: Unless you go whole hog and set up a tent to keep warm, just keep moving in a storm. I started again right after Rick and Chelsea and, to our good fortune, the electrical disturbance held back and the rain slacked off long enough for us to haul it over the 11,874-foot pass. It was, in fact, beautiful on top, misty and swirly and steep, like some Scottish gorge (or the “Bridge of Death” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). I made camp about two miles down the other side, where the sun deigned to come out for a bit and I was happy to stop. Besides the people mentioned above, I met Lt. Dan, the first CDT northbound hiker of several I was to meet. I realized I wasn’t eating nearly enough and vowed to get cheese and tortillas in Breck.
D+4 (July 6) west side Georgia Pass to Breckenridge ~19 miles: Music incessantly playing in my head: Kelpie by Jethro Tull, After the Thrill is Gone by the Eagles, The Valley by Tull, Sloop John B by the Beach Boys — brains are strange. In this day’s journal I admit that the Klymit Static V pad I brought just … sucked. Didn’t insulate well because I couldn’t inflate enough to keep all of me off the ground; hassle to inflate and especially to deflate and roll up; fabric hard to keep dry. I vowed to go back to a Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite in Breck. The trip down — and up — to Highway 24 was long and somewhat closed in by forest. I came across Rick and Chelsea at their camp 6-7 miles on and we tried to figure out what the heck this strange sound below was. I thought it sounded (though clearly it wasn’t) a snow-making machine. Chelsea was right: It was 100 dogs, sled dogs, barking, at a very nice and humane looking kennel operation in the draw we were headed down. Spoke to Canadian Broadcast Corp. reporter on the bus into Breck. I loved the Fireside Inn. As soon as I got there, they took my laundry away and it was done in an hour. I met Focus (Maya Rosenzweig) and Firstman (Adam), two CDT nobo hikers and took them to dinner. It was my first real taste of hiker camaraderie and I liked it a lot. I also met Wolfman (Jenkins) and Roel, a Dutch guy I later christened Rawhide (get it? Roelin’, Roelin’, Roelin’….) My left anterior tibial ligament was incredibly swollen, a little sore, and a lot itchy, but I got some kinesiology tape the next day and, more important, learned to ignore it so it would just go away. “Who knew I would appreciate town so much?” I wrote.
Lessons learned, #1: Don’t listen to your body. OK, listen, but treat it like a spoiled child: Sometimes, it’s just whining. Having spoken to many thru-hikers now, and done my own trek, if you aren’t feeling discomfort every day, you probably aren’t doing it right. We coddle our bodies in “comfy” life, and every little ache, pain or sore is cause for fretting and hand-wringing attention, like that from an overprotective helicopter parent. So, IMO, our bodies expect the same on a thru-hike when, frankly, that isn’t going to fly. I read in Yogi’s Colorado Trail guide book that, if it hurts in the same place day after day, it might be a problem, but if the pain/problems move around, you are probably OK. And I agree. You never know what discomfort is going to decide to show up on any given day, but trust that it will resolve without a lot of worrying.
D+5 (July 7) zero day in Breck: Picked up mail, bought food, fretted (pointlessly) about the ankle, hung out in the hot tub, was thrilled to death I was missing the horrible, cold, soaking rains that poured down most of the day.
D+6 (July 8) Breck to 6.5 in Seg 9, above Copper Mountain, ~19.5 miles: In an effort to get up and over the Tenmile Range before the storms (ha), I ordered a taxi from Summit County something-or-other for 5:30 a.m., since the bus didn’t start running until 7, and soon-to-be Rawhide and Wolfman
were going to come along. The taxi never showed, so we hitched/bused and got to the trailhead at … 7 a.m. Nice business practices. W and R headed on while I rearranged some gear and went to the woods below. On the way up I encountered Lykke again. I learned I am very much a solitary hiker, preferring no company most of the time, but thank goodness for Lykke (who later became Blue Mountain). If not for her, the brutal slog over the Tenmile in driving sleet would have been miserable and probably scary. Instead, this Colorado College philosophy major from Denmark and I talked the whole damned time, about everything — sex, religion, politics, America, literature, philosophy — and kept ourselves occupied.
It was pretty harsh, that passage. I left Lykke in Copper and met Alex Ammons, a recent CC grad. She didn’t like her trail name from a 2014 CT thru-hike — Courage, based on an evidently cowardly dog on TV — and I suggested Supertramp (after Chris McCandless) and she liked it. Lykke came along and the three of us camped in a nice place about 5 miles up Guller Creek; the sun came out!
D+7 (July 9) Guller Creek to Tennessee Creek, ~22.6 miles: Both Supertramp and Blue Mountain blew out of camp earlier than I did, even though I was up first. It was clear when I left camp at 6:30 a.m. but gray and chilly for the climb up and over Searle and Kokomo passes, above treeline. Beautiful vistas all around. I passed Blue just after Kokomo, then passed Supertramp at Camp Hale. The climb up to Tennessee Pass must be one of those parts of the trail people find “boring” or uninspiring. Certainly that last bit up the railroad grade was long and dragged, and I was thrilled to make the top, where Wolfman and Rawhide had set up camp. Supertramp came by and said she didn’t want to stop. A nice old man who had finished his section hike gave me some extra food and I went on at 3 p.m., hoping to reach water. I foolishly passed up a couple of opportunities for water, but eventually got to Tennessee Creek, which was running strong, after passing Supertramp about mile 3.
“My feet are hammered,” she said. I knew how she felt. The two of us then enjoyed a hard-core, 20-minute downpour of … hail … which piled up around my tent at least two inches high. Everything was wet and the next day I would get my first chance to “back dry” my tent by hanging the pieces off my pack.
D+8 (July 10), Tennessee Creek to Willow Creek (July 10) in Seg 10, ~20.5 miles; est. 5,300 feet of climbing: I’d been climbing plenty already (more than 30,000 feet), but this day both Supertramp and I felt the effects. “20 a day is doable, but with climbing it’s tough,” I wrote. I pondered zeroing in Twin Lakes to give me legs a break; my next planned zero, at Princeton Hot Springs, was still three days off. For the first of just a few times, I went to bed feeling discouraged.
Lessons learned #2: All miles are not equal miles. Seems obvious, but really there are three things to consider: Total miles traveled in a day; time on your feet (probably the most critical factor); and elevation gain/loss. Take advantage of “flat” days to travel more miles in less time, for example. On big climbing days, perhaps not as many miles. (But, see how this changes as time goes on.)
D+9 (July 11), Willow Creek to ~ mile 19 in Seg 11: This day was a relief, with “just” 2,900 feet of climbing into and out of Twin Lakes.
But my stupid USPS box didn’t come to the store (it bounced all over hell before finally making it back home; no more mailing resupply for me), so I had to buy. Still, they were great, and it didn’t bother me too much. In reality, I should have bought more (and better) chow here, because PHS was pretty thin and I got pretty thin on food the 6 days after that zero. It was a great recovery day. “Overall, great day. Last night I felt so discouraged, but realized I just needed to take advantage of this ‘flat day,’” I wrote. “Not to get too cocky, but two big days to PHS — 21+4,800 feet climbing and 20.3+4,200 — then a break.” I saw Booya and Rawhide stayed in Lake City, as did Booya. “So much easier without f***ing rain,” I wrote.
Listen to Jim Salestrom’s Bristlecone Pine. This song is my personal anthem.
Lessons learned #3: I would never bother sending resupplies by mail again. First, the USPS is not reliable, even when you pay $20 to get your package there and send more than a week ahead of time (“Usually two or three days” me arse). In addition, as I learned in Breck, how do you know you aren’t going to be sick of what you thought you wanted to eat 2-3 weeks ago? And no, unless you dry your own food (and even then, include the cost of the machine, remember), with the postage it’s probably not saving much money. Finally, I think it’s great PR to spend money on the local economies.
D+10 (July 12), to 18.5 in Seg 12, 21.5 miles+4,800 feet climbing: I camped near Wolfman and Chris and Ashleigh from Kentucky (plus K9 Paxton).
I loved this day. The self-consciously “cool” people like to trash Collegiate East, but this day exemplified the variety of landscapes you get to see, from peering out over the expanse of the sleepy Arkansas Valley to the gorgeous Clear Creek Valley, with its sage and pine-covered hillsides. “Weather for first climb was perfect, cool and sunny/cloudy,” I wrote. “Luckily, two major climbs were done by noon.” But, I noted, “Wish muh balls would dry out.”
Lessons learned #4: Again, perhaps obvious, but: I had to learn to balance the need for water and not wanting to haul full water weight up climbs. This necessitated more planning than I’m used to (or like to bother with), but I finally began taking only the water I needed, based on next assured source, especially for climbs. Don’t haul weight you don’t have to! Plan, instead.
D+11 (July 13), to Princeton Hot Springs, 20.4 miles, 4,296 climbing: I slept well and woke to actual warm air, thanks to cloud cover. Packing up is so much easier when your tent is not wet. This was the ridiculously steep (7 percent grade, by my math) ascent from Silver Creek for 3.4 miles, with nary a switchback in sight. Thank goodness it came in the morning. At the very top I took a tiny side trip to “Weathertop,” 200 feet up,
to see the nearly 360 views. Lovely and cool and perfect weather. On the next crank up, shorter but still very steep, I met two Michigander girls with enormous packs who would turn out to be Bilbo and Pippin when I saw them at the hot springs. Then, the last 9-10 miles into PHS were long, long, long, mostly because of psychology, I think.
Lessons learned #5: Zeroes are fraught with danger, among which is that they take your mind off the moment and keep you in anticipation and desire. I also found that I threw my poor GI system out of whack but the sudden influx of “big food” and beer and so on, and my stomach objected on the first day or two back on the trail. Zeroes are great, for me, necessary on this trip. But they are a weird interruption. “The danger of a luxurious zero, from filth and exhaustion to soft bed, fancy food, TV, hot springs,” I wrote. “Doubts creep in: Can I do this? But then, I’m ready. I just am. I’m packed and even antsy to get going by noon.”
D+12 (July 14), zero in Princeton Hot Springs: PHS was great for my legs, as I spent many hours in hot spring water. It was fun communing with Bilbo, Pippin and Nathan, as well. I also met, for the first time, Dan Barklund, whom I would later christen (and he would accept) Bigfoot.
Six-foot-seven school teacher from Denver, very nice guy, moves along pretty quickly. I bought food here, but it wasn’t inspiring, and in the end, I really didn’t get enough, foolishly thinking about weight rather than my energy needs. “Six nights’ worth. I’ll be OK.” I was psyched to be sleeping inside while it rained. “Tomorrow I will be halfway,” I wrote. “Wow. PHS has been great. Onward.”
D+13 (July 15), PHS to 19.5 in Seg 14, 22 miles, 4,200 feet climbing: “Felt odd waking up in the hotel room, but mosied on at 6:30 a.m., away from all that spoiling comfort.” I loved walking on the dirt road past all the sleepy, shaded cabins and fishers and felt strong for a day I knew would involve a good bit of climbing. This was an amble along the foothills that turned into a lot of up-and-down — which may be the most tiring kind of day … on Tuesday. On Wednesday maybe it’s a long, steady 10-mile uphill slog.
“Overall good. Some blistery things, but big deal.” As I came down a hill in the afternoon a cute teenage girl, Tess, said she was scared to go down, where her father was photographing a moose. I went on down, excited, only to find out it was … cattle. Had to do a little afoot cowboying to get the girls and kids to veer off back into the aspens and then, amazingly, I stopped to scrutinize an odd dark patch in some greenery down a draw and saw a young male moose. So I got a moose anyway. Bigfoot came along an hour or so after I camped, a mile to the end of the segment and US 50.
D+14 (July 16), .9/Seg 14, all of 15, 4.1/16, 19.3 miles, 4,000+ climbing: “A little concerned about chow,” I wrote. “What an annoying choice — food vs. weight. I am simply not eating enough to fully fuel these hard-core climbing days. Nothing to be done about it until Lake City. At least a couple milder climbing days upcoming.” Bigfoot decided to hitch up to Monarch Crest and come down Collegiate West; it was a long, steady, not super-steep, but tiring climb up Fooses Creek,with an incredibly steep last mile. We got to the saddle at just about the same time and man, I felt whacked. I found myself looking forward to upcoming segments with less climbing. “If I can get a less crazy climbing day maybe I can walk a few more miles.”
Lessons learned #6: My very favorite lesson from the Trail: It may be fun to weigh and count and figure before setting out on the CT, but the Trail will show you almost immediately how foolish such puny efforts at control really are. None of those numbers means a thing once you start; after that, you are listening to your body, and the Trail itself
— Calories? Who cares? Question is, are you hungry? Pack weight? The Trail will show you very quickly if there is stuff you can lose and send home. Miles per day? I was glad to have a 20-mile/day goal, and kept close to it, but about halfway through, I was stronger and hitting 20 miles by mid-afternoon. All that planning, fretting, calculating — all those attempts to control — are utterly meaningless. I love that. It feels like an indictment of our mindlessly measuring society.
D+15 (July 17), Silver Creek trailhead to end of 16 (15.2), 10.8 in 17 to Razor Creek (21.9 miles); ~4,000-4,200 feet of climbing: It’s hard to decide what’s harder on my body, a long, steady climb, or lots of up and down. This day was the latter, but I remarked, “Definitely didn’t feel as trashed as after Fooses Creek.” Following the advice of the guide book, I filled up at Tank Seven Creek. But it turned out not to be necessary to haul all that water weight up the long uphill, as the creek burbled happily nearby the whole time. For really the first time, I had a slight water management problem, however, since I didn’t feel like taking the extra mile to hike to Baldy Lake,
and between the beginning of Segment 17 and Razor Creek, that was really the only water. When I first hit what I thought was Razor Creek, it was dry … luckily, that wasn’t it, and just down the hill I found Bigfoot filling his bottles. He had marched on all the way to Tank Seven the night before — a haul — where he camped with Supertramp, so while I went downhill and made a nice camp on the creek, he headed on. Later Psalmist (Jacob) and Natalie came along and camped with me. I built a fire that we all enjoyed. I also concluded, “Better to haul the weight than not have enough food.” Bigfoot kindly gave me some extra calories he had in his pack, which made me feel better about food. Oh, I lost my old Trailflex hat, which has traveled around the world with me.
Lessons learned #7: If you want to hold on to your hat — or gloves, or chapstick, or anything at all — you must snap, strap, Velcro or tie that thing down. I stuffed my hat in my chest strap but didn’t secure it, and boom, gone. I walked back maybe ¼ mile looking for it, then gave up (Psalmist said he found it and put it on the Baldy Lake sign).
D+16 (July 18), 9.9 out of 17; 13.8 in 18, ~4 in 19, 27.7 miles, ~3,000 feet of climbing: My longest day yet, by virtue of the “flat” character of 18, but still quite a bit of climbing. Getting stronger, I guess. “Everyone bitches about 18 being ‘boring,’ but despite a few dull bits — trundling down the jeep road wasn’t great — the park vistas and sagebrush flats and hills and cattle are all pretty cool. Fuck all the ‘hip’ people who can’t see the beauty. Serious flowers, too.”
Despite my first (and one of just two) slight issue with water the day before, I accepted this day that I simply didn’t have to worry about water, courtesy of the late rainfall and snowpack — “Every seasonal source is running, and more.” I camped in some aspens and felt cranky and tired when it decided to rain on Van Tassel Gulch, but overall, a great day. “37.4 to Spring Hill Pass and Lake City zero — needed!”
D+17 (July 19), 9.9 out of 19, 12.7 in 20, ~4-5 miles in 21: An absolutely great day turned into the worst night of my whole trip, courtesy of a cold, soaking rain. The weather was overcast and perfect for hiking most of the day. I passed Bigfoot just 5 miles beyond me on Cochetopa Creek, where he’d weathered a scary lightning night. He said Moonbeam was up ahead. The log bridge over the creek was submerged; my feet were already totally soaked from rain-washed foliage, so I just splashed through, then squeezed out socks on the other side; Bigfoot did the same. Met Highway 81, CDT NOBO hiker (late) on other side. I felt “good and strong” all day for what must have been 6,000 feet of climbing, by the end, marching steadily up Cochetopa Creek after reaching Seg 20 at Eddiesville. The trail was incredibly wet; my feet would stay wet until Lake City. Motoring up the creek, I met Robin and Bill, and photographed a huge, beautiful bull moose.
I also passed and briefly met Moonbeam at the base of the saddle below San Luis. Weather stayed just perfect until I hit the end of the segment. I thought about setting camp at “San Luis Pass” (not much of one) but it didn’t seem very sheltered and it looked like rain was on the way. So, I soldiered on up the next, steep hill … and when it started raining, I was too committed; I wasn’t going to scurry back down and do that climb again. I figured I could just outwalk the rain. Yeah, right. It just came down harder and harder, and soon enough, my Mountain Hardwear jacket was leaking badly; later I would discover that the pack cover worked OK, but water running down my back seeped into the pack, resulting in a wet tent and damp sleeping bag. Finally, a little freaked out about hypothermia, I dodged off the trail (later determined to be Middle Mineral Creek basin) and set up a wet tent under a wet tree on wet grass and climbed in. I had deliberately put my iPhone in the pocket of my raincoat to “protect it,” and it totally drowned. I was incredibly cold, even in drier clothes, inside the wet tent, and the rain just kept coming — “I hope tonight isn’t hell,” I wrote. It really, really sucked, but eventually I got warm enough and actually slept pretty well.
Lessons learned #8: It’s not something I do, but I decided that asking “How far is it to X” on the trail is foolish. First, it makes you look incompetent — can’t you read a map and a compass? Second, the answer you get might be wrong or right, but it’s usually not helpful. If it’s “far,” you’ll be bummed anyway.
D+18 (July 20), 10.8 out of 21: “21 not been berry, berry good to me,” I wrote. Worst night of the whole trip. “I managed to survive quite well, all things considered. Tent was like it had been thrown in a pool, but since I was going to town I knew I could just wad it up, toss into a garbage bag and go.” It was freezing and wet at dawn, but there was some sun as I began my hike out of that basin and into West Mineral, then up and over. Alas, there was a ton of foliage and every time I touched it, it was as if someone tossed a quarter cup of very cold water on that spot. With everything else still very wet, I walked in long underwear and my short-sleeve shirt and puffy; soon enough, I just put on my wet clothes to “steam” them dry. But the sun didn’t last long, and I was in the middle of a cold, foggy cloud for the hike out to Snow Mesa; thankfully, no rain. I finally dropped out of the
cloud onto the mesa, which was beautiful and spare, but these were “town miles” and they felt long. A hundred feet up from the highway I saw a note in a tree that someone would pick up hikers at 1230 p.m. I got to the pass at 11 a.m. and felt relieved at the thought that I would not be stranded. But in the end, I got a ride from Rick Hernandez and a couple of other guys who work for Hinsdale County and it was great. Learned all about beetle kills and they dropped me right at Raven’s Rest Hostel. Man was I grateful to be sleeping inside. Moonbeam came in later, as did Bigfoot — everyone had a pretty miserable night in the Deluge, as I came to call it. “I am so relieved to be here. Zero days can be necessary. My legs this a.m. made the big climb fine, but felt done by the time I was walking the mesa.” I stuffed my face with all kinds of unnatural foods and paid for it with weird stomach issues the next 2+ days. I bought not very good pizza and beer for Moonbeam, Bigfoot, Porcupine and the odd non-hiker, Mark. Bearclaw and her husband Dirtmonger are apparently legendary thru-hikers. They are helping Lucky run the Raven’s Rest b/c Bearclaw broke some bones in her foot while she was NOBO CDT and Dirtmonger was doing his own, custom “Desert Trail” from Mexico to Canada through the Western U.S.
Lessons learned #9: The perils of town: I was very grateful for each of my three “zeroes,” but town is full of peril. First, the day I’m heading in to town I find myself not being present, instead fantasizing about food, warm bed, drying everything out, and so on. This only serves to make the miles go by very slow. Once in town, I indulge in calories to the extent that I messed up my GI system for the next couple of days on the trail.
Lessons learned #10: I had an epiphany while talking with Moonbeam.
As with all my epiphanies, it may seem obvious to others: “None of my aches, pains or worries are unique. In fact, just at (the dinner) table people echoed all mine — Moonbeam gets the neck nerve pain, worries and anxieties about and cursing the weather, dealing with wet tents and failed raingear. All of it is shared. That that is a comforting thought.”
D+19 (July 21), zero, Lake City: The last of my zeroes. I bought groceries and Glacier Gloves and $2.50 clear plastic poncho in hopes that I would not become quite so freezing and sodden again. Went to the library, used the Internet, talked to Virgil Young about services for my grandfather in Tennessee in September. My stomach was bothersome, but not terrible, all day and I wondered if I had picked something up from insufficiently treated water; but I refused to dwell on it, assuming it was probably just grumbly and fickle because of the sudden change in pace of town. Others came in, Asia and Josh (Colorado Christian University kid who gave me some leukotape) were NOBO CT, while Hurricane was an older Kiwi NOBO CDT, Frost and his non-hiking sister, and Papa Smurf and his son Dorian. “Ate some more. Ready to roll.”
D+20 (July 22), 22.9 miles, 17.2 in 22, 5.7 in 23 to Cataract Lake, climbing ~4,500 feet: I had a good, strong day off the zero in Lake City. Kevin, local guy who likes to support hikers, picked Bigfoot and me up at 7 to take us to the pass and we hit the trail right around 8. The segment begins with a nice, long, steady climb. Bigfoot strode out front and we passed a wilderness outfitters camp, followed by a group of 12-15 mostly older hikers. I walked with Bigfoot some, but his strides are longer than mine and he was soon out of sight. The climb to the high point, 13,271, was weirdly deceiving. A few steep places, to be sure, but mostly fairly gradual and lots of false summits. I passed Bigfoot for the last time near the top of the first big ridge, as well as two younger guys, Dan and Tony, on the way to the top. The weather was, to be honest, perfect: No precip, mostly sunny, periodic clouds, and actually very chilly on top, necessitating a tryout of the new gloves — good, but my fingertips were still freezing. From the drop down into Carson Saddle, the weather got a little warmer. The long, gradual climb up the Lost Trail Creek drainage was
hard work, but pleasant; about 1,000 feet and 3.5 miles or so. I hit the unnamed pass at about 4 p.m. Kept rolling off there to Cataract Lake, where Robin and Bill (from Cochetopa Creek and bull moose) were camped, along with two kind of surly guys with the sweetest black lab, Tenille — smiley and adorable little chunk, and Porcupine (who had said he was NOBO CDT at Raven’s, but turns out maybe he’s sort of a trail drifter). Evidently the yurt at 8.7 in 22 was kind of gross, according to Porcupine (and later, Moonbeam), so they wound up tenting. I wrote, “Plotting everything out, if I hit 20+, nothing crazy long, I’m just five days out of Durango — 104 miles, so 21s will do it. Wow. Right now averaging 22.4 over 17 days of walking.”
Postscript: Well, well, well. Even a month later, the trail continues to teach me and show me wisdom. I just learned this morning, while reading a story headlined Blind Faith: Sightless CU grad hikes entire Colorado Trail — thanks to a special dog, that my judgment of Tennille’s two people as “surly” was uninformed and unfair. I perceived them as
standoffish, yes, but I didn’t make much effort to engage either, except to pet Tennille. Now I wish I had, because what Trevor Thomas did, hiking the trail blind, is 100 times more challenging than what I did. Pretty cool. And yet another lesson in not judging people. Thanks, CT.
Lessons learned #11: Sociability. I am, at heart, a loner, and as a hiker, I almost always prefer to walk alone. It’s nice to have company when the going is tough — Blue Mountain over the Tenmile, Supertramp after the hail, commiserators for the Deluge in 21 — and I enjoy interacting while in town. But my tolerance for on-trail socializing is pretty limited.
D+21 (July 23), Cataract Lake, 10.4 in 22, then 15.2 in 23, Animas River, ~2,500 feet climbing, 25.6 miles total: “Well, as I told Moonbeam, and she concurred, what am I going to do if I stop at 4 p.m.? So I walked on down the hall. Now I just have 2,000 feet of climbing in 5 miles to Molas.” The night at Cataract Lake was freezing (literally), and absolutely gorgeous. When I went outside for a final leak, the moon was riding high, the stars were ablaze, and the air was utterly, perfectly still. Songs: Christian Island, “They will know we are Christians by our love…,” Crazy on You, Scotland the Brave, Ticket to Ride. Woke at 4:45 to Porcupine’s rustlings and groanings, but managed to go back to sleep until about 5:45, when he was departing and grumbling, “I hate mornings.” I passed Tennille where she was rolling in a snow bank — “Are you having fun? Is that fun?” said her owner. Up and over the top of that ridge, then motored on and saw nobody else for the rest of the day until I spied Moonbeam’s Creamsicle shirt far ahead of me. I finally caught up to her at the “headwaters of the mighty Rio Grande,” where Porcupine had just left her sitting in a meadow. She was feeling a little blue, since she was planning to bust all the way to the RR tracks to Silverton. It was gorgeous walking, beautiful weather, sunny and some clouds for relief, cool and breezy, for what amounts to 20 miles of “skywalk” between 12,000-13,000 feet.
I couldn’t have asked for better weather. Moonbeam was close behind across the top, which was dotted with little ponds, and took a break on the Divide when I went (steeply) down the Elk Creek drainage.
Man! I would not enjoy slogging up that; it’s steep and steady, about a 3,000-foot drop in 8-9 miles. We met again right as we were coming out of the Weminuche Wilderness and walked together to the tracks, where she headed to town, her journey over — she would take the train next day to Durango, meet with her boyfriend, and head up to Glacier in Montana — and I made camp, feeling very tired.
She and I might actually have been suitable hiking partners, pace and distance wise. There was a group of young guys there who had lost a companion between Molas Pass and the river. I was just about to lend them my SPOT tracker as they headed off to search when the guy came down the tracks from Silverton. He’d gotten lost and — smart enough, I guess — went back to the road, hitchhiked to town, then walked back on the tracks (“That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”) I ate, cleaned up and made a fire in a circle that had coal (from the train) that burned for a long, long time. I noted that I was 78.9 miles from Durango. “The weather across 22-24 has been fantastic,” I wrote. “Near perfect.”
Random advice: Don’t bring a short-sleeve shirt, which serves just one function; you can always roll up sleeves. Weather is a key determinant of enjoyment. Chafe management — “commando” doesn’t work that well; having the Nike boxer-briefs turned out to be a lifesaver; Vagisil rules; I would bring Body Glide
next time (and thanks to Bigfoot for sparing a bit). On the CT, people should expect to camp above 12,000 feet at least 1-2 times, and expect that it will be cold. Forget weight and get the best possible raingear you can, Gore-Tex, armpit zips, etc.; I also recommend bringing along a lightweight rain poncho that will cover both you and your pack. Rain mitts are a must.
D+22 (July 24), Animas River to Molas Pass, 5 miles, then ~18 in 25, 23 miles, 5,000+ feet of climbing: I wrote, “Fuck you 21!” and now, “I guess I can say, ‘Fuck you 25!’ — But really no fault of your own.” The climb up to Molas was steep and steady, but I got to the campground and picked up my box (only the second one for the trip that actually got there) at 8 a.m. The two people running the campground were great, and the place did actually sell some food. I do not know what I was thinking when I packed that box; there was enough food in there for 6-7 days.
The hosts let me call Jody and I got my pick from the box packed up, all in less than 45 minutes (“You’re way faster than anyone we’ve seen,” said the woman.) For the first and last time on the trail, I did a little bushwhacking and — surprise — it didn’t really turn out. I walked up Highway 550 to rejoin the trail, and turned toward Little Molas Lake. Now, if I’d stayed on that dirt road, would’ve been fine. But I beat through the woods, then the marsh, then the marsh, then the woods, etc. and got wet. Had I stayed on the road, the CT intersected with the terminal parking area. “My cuts, short or long, do not go wrong,” Aragorn says. I cannot say the same. Anyway, probably wasted 15-20 minutes in that nonsense. For the rest of the day I walked in sporadic rain. Not a downpour, but enough that it just irritated me as I climbed … and climbed … and climbed. I hit the pass west of Rolling Mountain at 2 p.m., just after I’d passed a guy and a woman.
Josh, the guy, started up right behind me and I never like that, so I was cranky, but he stopped; I was also cranky when he passed me at my campsite later, but learned after I finished that he was hiking after being diagnosed with leukemia. I get cranky when I’m uncomfortable, allowing myself to judge and complain; this shows me just how stupid that is. I passed a bunch of people camping at 14.8 and around, and just kept going, despite feeling really tired and tired of the rain. The CT Databook overemphasizes some things that are either not there or hard to find, and I never saw the alleged campsite at 17.3 By the time I stopped I knew I’d hit around 18 or so. Good spot, but still spitting rain — “Fucking stop raining!” But the advantage was I was that much closer to getting out of 25, my second least-favorite section (only because of weather). I noted that I was 55.8 miles from Durango, and for the first time, the thought entered my head … “Could I do this in two days?”
Lessons learned #12: How many times in my life have I, hiking, running or biking, cheerily advised fellow travelers, “You should go faster!” That’s right: Never. So why in the world do people (more than a few) feel compelled to tell me I’m “going too fast,” or I need to “stop and smell the roses”? Years ago I learned that the way I like to hike is … to hike. My legs work best when they just keep going, so I don’t do a lot of breaks or sitting around in meadows admiring the scenery. Which doesn’t mean I don’t admire and enjoy it, because I absolutely do. Why do people do this? HYOH, always.
D+23 (July 25), ~3 miles out of 25, 10.9 in 26, 11.7 in 27, 25.6 miles, 3,500 feet of climbing: “A perfect day. I peeked out of the tent at 5:45 to see a blue sky, and it stayed that way all day. Gorgeous. Hot in places, and definitely dry — first time the Databook oogie-boogie about water has been correct.” Just after reaching the saddle, about a mile from camp, I saw four big, beautiful bull elk with huge, velvety antlers in the meadow in front of me. Then, hundreds of smiley axolotls swimming around in the chill waters of Celebration Lake at Bolam Pass (which would be a really cool place to camp).
I passed Josh’s camp and that of another guy early on, as well as three nice older section-hiking women. After that, tons of cyclists, no hikers. Not a single one until I got to the “seasonal seeps” — not super apparent — at 11.7 miles, where there was a group of nine SOBO section hikers and K9 Lily. Was a great place to camp, with water enough from the trickle and a little shelter from the trees. It did not spit even a single drop of rain that night. I made a fire and chatted with a couple of the hikers, and forced myself to eat two Ramens and a tuna, even though I didn’t want to. It was a beautiful day, really the first one that felt like actual summer, though, “Today in the still, warm air I could really smell myself in all my glory. If I can smell myself….” I also mused, “How close will I get tomorrow? I’m sure I’ll be tempted to punch it through, but that wouldn’t be very smart. One more camp, then I’m out.”
D+24 (July 26), ~7.9 miles out of 27, 21.5 in 28, 29.4 miles, ~3,000 climbing: I woke at 5:45 to the sound of coyotes singing to the red crack of sun in the east in the trees at 11,000 feet. But the sun was soon gone, disappeared into the gloom of low, heavy clouds, like the gloom of Mordor. I broke camp quickly — so much easier when nothing is wet! — and made good progress toward the Indian Ridge/Highline trail, some 5 miles above tree level.
As I climbed, I could see stormy clouds in the west, despite the early hour. So naturally, just as I climbed past treeline, I found myself walking in cold rain. I wasn’t thrilled, but somehow it didn’t bother me that much. My new gloves were great and I just put my head down and climbed steeply toward the skywalk. In truth, I missed what appeared to be a much wetter part of the storm, and even seemed to walk out of its path while heading south across the top. Plus, I got to see a couple of cow elk running along in a meadow far, far below. Luckily no lightning at all, and by the time I was at the summit, it was chilly, but no longer raining. That’s when the endless string of mountain bikers began to flow past; boy, that trip down must be a hell of a lot of fun for so many people to be willing to hike-a-bike up some really steep parts of the trail; I only had to descend the “Ho Chi Minh” down to Taylor Lake, where scads of them were walking up … with bikes! Wow. I reached Kennebec Pass and stood looking down the Junction Creek drainage, and at that moment I knew I would probably press on to trail’s end instead of camping somewhere along the way.
It was 7+ miles down, steep (more and more bikers coming up!) until I hit Junction Creek, where I should have filled up with water, but didn’t. The hike up “Heartbreak Hill” — the last major climb of the CT — was long and sometimes steep, though I did get to see a horned toad and a mule deer doe. The lone trickle of water I found was mucky, though I managed to get my lips and tongue wet after filtering it through a bandana. When I reached the top of the climb, a mountain biker told me it was 2:15.
About 10 miles left. Of course I was going for it. But it wasn’t easy, even though mostly downhill. It was long, hot and I was out of water. I never even say the “year-round spring” at 16.9, though later hikers said it was just a muddy puddle. My feet hurt, I was thirsty, and definitely feeling my long day when I got to Gudy’s Rest (17.4), further than I thought I’d come. Then, just below that, a blond mountain girl asked if I’d seen her boyfriend and his dog. I hadn’t, but some bikers told her they’d seen up on the pass at 2 p.m., when I was 11 miles ahead of him. But she lived in Durango and seriously, her simple words, “I run this trail all the time and you are three and a half miles away. Congratulations, you are almost there,” got me through those last few miles. Soon I was able to fill my bottles at Junction Creek and even though my feet were hammered, I knew I was home free.
On that final wind, I just pounded down the trail and soon started seeing overweight families. When I hit the CT sign at 20.3, I thought I was done. But Beth McKeon, a cyclist, who was kind enough to take my photo, said I’d be better off continuing another 1.2 miles to the main parking lot, the real end of the trail, if I hoped to catch a ride. It was a long mile but then I was … done.
I scribbled out “To Durango” on a piece of paper and started wearily trying to hitch, slumped at the side of the road on my pad. After about a half hour a pickup truck’s taillights flared, and it backed up. The woman said, “We don’t have room for you up front, but you can ride in back.” “Yeah, you don’t really want me up there anyway, the way I smell!” I sat in back just soaking in the sun and fresh air and within 15 minutes they were dropping me off near the City Market, where there were tons of hotels. I paid up at some budget hotel, showered, ate at a Chipotle-type place called Zia, including margarita, and bought beer (Santa Fe Freestyle Pilsner). “I’m thrilled. I fucking did it.”
Last advice: Put everything in plastic bags. All the time. Thru-hiking is in part the art of putting stuff in plastic bags.
- 21 and a half days of walking (1/2 day out of 21 to Spring Hill Pass)
- 3 zeroes (Breckenridge, Princeton Hot Springs, Lake City)
- 486 miles 24.5 days of hiking — 22.6 miles/day
- First 11 days (to Princeton): 21 (20.98) miles/day
- Last 10.5 days (PHS to Durango): 24.2 miles/day
- Longest day: 29.4 miles, Segs 27/28 into Durango
- Shortest day: 10.8 out of 21
- 4,100 feet climbing per day