I landed in Denver, late, on August 2nd, and took the train to Union Station. My brother’s apartment is spitting distance from the station, but I was hungry. I did some Yelp sleuthing and decided I’d walk a mile and a half to Civic Center Park for the Wong Way Vegan food truck. In addition to about sixty techy bros on electric scooters, I started seeing people wearing shirts that read “Colorado Energy Proud.” I figured this was some fossil fuel bullshit, but didn’t want to expend any energy on it. As I got nearer and nearer the park, though, I was seeing exponentially more shirts. At the park: a sea of gray Colorado Energy Proud t-shirts. Each left sleeve bore the logo of an industry player: BP, WPI, Noble Energy etc.
Dozens of food trucks line up here every weekday of the summer. There was clearly a huge industry conference or gathering of some sort in Denver that day, and they’d apparently all chosen to hit up the food trucks. On the backs of the shirts: “10 Reasons to Love Oil and Gas,” with such gems as, 2. Reduced global extreme poverty 90% -> 10%; 6. Shale Revolution = trillions in consumer savings; 10. U.S. per capita CO2 emissions lowest since 1964; and my personal favorite – 3. Saved the Whales. The head-assery here is truly astounding.
I lined up at the food truck, which had sadly sold out of damn near everything, and weighed going elsewhere as two young women wearing these shirts purchased vegan lunches. While waiting, at least seven different propaganda clad individuals pointed at the truck and said, “Where’s the meat?” and laughed.
I found a patch of grass away from the boisterous groups of fossil fuel industry workers, who ranged from executive-types to those who looked like they just walked off a rig. I think normally I would have engaged with at least one person, figured out what was going on, but I wasn’t confident I could resist an argument. What good would that do anyone? Considering what we know for certain about climate change and what we have seen and continue to see from the extractive industries, to celebrate fossil fuels is to celebrate terrible injustice. How do I communicate that to a stranger who depends on fossil fuels even more than I as a consumer currently do? How do I do so without eliciting an immediate emotional response? I’m not great at ducking punches, especially when it comes to something I’m passionate about.
So instead I watched squirrels while I ate about half of the vegan poutine I’d bought, which was decent. I stashed it in my carry-on bag (a plastic bag I rescued that I’d use to pack out trash), and hustled to my brother’s place, feeling as though I were in a dream. The poutine was greatly improved by hot sauce and solitude in my brother’s apartment.
I spent the next 24 hours getting everything ready for the hike, and I boarded the bus to Salida around 1:45. We hit abysmal traffic. I was banking on the bus driver agreeing to let me off at Monarch Pass, so I wouldn’t have to hitch up from Salida, but we were way behind schedule. As we approached Salida, I pitched my plan.
“I guess I can do that,” he said, for which I was supremely grateful. We got there around 6. I slipped him $10 for the trouble, and hopped merrily off the bus at the Monarch Crest store, which I had visited nearly two years prior on my CDT thru-hike. I went inside the store in search of Wi-Fi to let Laura know I made it to the trail safe and sound. No such luck. I did snag some extra snacks from the hiker box, and good thing I did – I would have rolled into Spring Creek Pass real hungry a few days later had I not.
A guy named Marcos was kind enough to lend me his phone to call Laura. She didn’t pick up, so I sent her a text letting her know I’d gotten here, that I hadn’t needed to hitch, and that the weather was grand. Marcos and I chatted for a few minutes – he was pacing a runner in the High Lonesome 100 Mile Ultra Marathon – you read that right. 100 miles of trail, over 22,500 feet of vertical gain, with a high point of 13,150 feet. His guy was currently in second place. Marcos would be running a 17 miles with him.
He offered to give me a lift later on if I found myself stuck in either Pagosa Springs or Chama, as he lived about two hours from each. I didn’t expect to need a ride, and I would feel uncomfortable asking such a favor, but I truly appreciated the gesture. I took off for the trailhead and had only made it about 60 yards before I heard him shouting my name and saw him running after me. Laura had called back. This dude is the best.
I found some discarded toilet paper almost immediately. I’m doing it, I thought, I’M KEEPIN THE GROUNDS!
I hiked maybe 6 miles that evening – a long ridge walk accompanied by a breathtaking sunset. This. This is what I’ve been lacking. This is what I need. I sang as I walked, despite being out of breath almost the entire time. I had just come from sea level to 11,000 feet, after all, not to mention the lack of physical prep. I found a spot to cowboy camp in a little stand of windblown trees and ate a quick dinner. I stayed up as late as I could to watch the stars reveal themselves, the satin shawl of the Milky Way billowed by cosmic breezes.
I woke up at some point in the middle of the night, my stomach in knots. I stood up to pee and almost fainted. I felt I would throw up, but I only had a half liter of water and didn’t want to waste any fluids or food. So I laid still as best I could. Was it the altitude? I don’t know what else it could’ve been. I eventually fell asleep again and dreamed I was in a plane that crashed into a train. I’d never had a dream in which I actually died before this. Fire, light, and peace. The other side was just like life, but weightless.
I woke at first light, my bag wet with more condensation than I’d ever experienced. Ah well, good excuse to sleep in. I stayed in my bag til at least eight, when the sun broke over the Divide and dried my bag to perfect crispiness. You know what I’m talkin’ bout.
I went to dig my first cathole of the trip with my brand new Deuce of Spades titanium trowel – love that thing – and was disturbed to hear lots of voices. There were mountain bikers just around the bend. Then more. I didn’t want to start anyone’s morning off with a poo-view, nor was I happy to have my solitude interrupted. I wandered off in search of denser tree cover, still feeling less than 100%.
Mountain Bikers. All. Effin. Day. It was Saturday, the weather was good, and the shuttle was running. People would get dropped at the Pass and just bomb downhill for a few hours, little work required. Technically, bikers are required to yield to hikers, but that almost never makes sense. So much easier for me to step off the trail for a second while they fly by.
I wasn’t moving my usual pace. My stomach was still a bit off and I had a headache. I plopped down at a spring a few miles into the day to fill up water and gather myself. Cue about 50 mountain bikers, some of who blasted through the spring run off at full speed, spraying me with water with either no awareness or no concern. I saw one of those guys a mile ahead, being helped along by his buddy. He had gone over the handlebars, knocked his head (thankfully wearing a helmet), and broken his finger. Think I’ll stick with hiking.
I’ll be honest. I got real tired of hearing, “How’s it going?” I saw over 100 mountain bikers that day. I stopped counting at that point — it may have been closer to 150. There was even a bachelorette party – the bride-to-be had a pink dildo attached to her bike helmet.
The climbs were kicking my ass but I still managed to catch up to some mountain bikers, who looked embarrassed to see me matching their pace. At a water source Guthook lists as “tiny stream,” a thunderstorm rolled in and quickly passed. I finally got myself fully hydrated, but my headache remained. The going was mostly easy, but any uphill travel made my legs scream.
At Seven Tank Creek, where I had indulged in some exceptional self-pity back in ’16, I saw three tents and met an older lady CT hiker. Apparently, the last sections into Durango had reopened. Oh well. I was glad to be doing my own thing regardless, and glad that I would be heading home to be with Laura sooner rather than later. When I told this lady I was hiking to Wolf Creek Pass, her eyes bulged.
“You’re doing the really high section? Alone?”
“It’s not any higher than what you’ll be seeing between here and Stony Pass.”
“But it’s so exposed! I just… wouldn’t be comfortable out there.”
Well, you ain’t me, I thought. She definitely got in my head a little bit, though. I’ve said before and will say again that the scariest thing in the mountains is lightning. Bears, cougars, wolves – there’s some predictability there, and they’re just trying to survive. Lightning, though, is indiscriminate. I have had some uncomfortably close calls with lightning and figured I was in for some more on this trip, and I didn’t want to dwell on it while the weather was good. I shook it off and hiked on, wanting to camp alone. Once I accepted that I wouldn’t find anywhere free from beetle kill widowmakers, I pitched my tent on an abandoned road and called it a day
Early, joyful start. Little songbirds whose names I don’t know darted across the trail over and over as I made my way towards Sargent’s Mesa, their trills vibrating the spider webs before me, causing them to shimmer in the early morning light enough that I could dodge them. The climb up to the mesa takes you through boggy meadows with lots of beetle kill. I have to say this section is strikingly different this time of year than in October, which is when I passed thru in ’16. The ground is almost completely obscured by an effusion of wildflowers of all colors, and the verdant hues offered by deciduous trees make for much more pleasant company than the drabs of fall.
I’d picked up a good amount of trash already: mostly micro-trash and a few heavier odds and ends. I realized that Grounds Keeping would render pointless the odor-proof food bag I was trying out as far as bears were concerned, but I had bought it primarily to keep rodents out of my food anyway. When I came thru in ’16 I just slept with my food like all the other thru-hikers. Months in grizzly country had cultivated a false sense of being impervious to black bears, but the last thing I wanted was a vessel of disease scurrying between my bars and trail mix, nibbling whatever they pleased, leaving droppings.
I heard thunder at nine in the morning. Every Coloradan throughout this trip would say, in response to any mention of thunderstorms, “Oh yeah, summer in the mountains! It’ll happen every day between two and four in the afternoon, like clockwork.” Utter bullshit. Maybe it’s climate change, or maybe that’s just my confirmation bias, but the weather was on its own frenetic schedule. This particular storm was away in the valley to the west of me though, which I took as a cue to get in good mileage while I could.
Just shy of noon I ducked under some trees for cover from rain and lightning. It begins! This bout was short lived, and the sky cleared completely afterward. A long uphill had me looking down at my feet a lot, which is how I discovered that the ground cover I knew couldn’t be poison oak, but which looked vaguely like it, was actually woodland strawberry! As I gained elevation, more and more berries appeared. Soon, raspberries or something similar were cropping up. I stick to LNT principles when it comes to foraging – leave plenty for the kin who depend on it and enough the next ten hikers to do the same. Luckily the berries were everywhere. Around each corner was a hummingbird, and I’d already seen six or seven deer. Beautiful, beautiful day.
At a trail junction just before the highest point of the day, I noticed cumulonimbus clouds creeping in out of nowhere. I decided to wait it out, then got antsy and pushed up trail a bit. Stopped at a switchback right around tree line. The thunder seemed to be growing more distant and after a few minutes later I got antsy again. Just before I started hiking on up to a treeless summit, the sky unleashed a torrent of golfball sized hail. I ran for cover under a windblown spruce and was lucky to only take hits on my knees and shoulders – which hurt like hell. Thunder rocked my heart around my ribcage like a pinball and the hail was so dense I could barely see fifteen feet ahead of me. I couldn’t help but laugh and be grateful that I wasn’t the tallest thing around nor underneath the tallest trees in the immediate area.
As it started to let up, I made hasty moves upward, knowing a steep descent was just ahead. The rest of the afternoon was touch and go like this, running across meadows through puddles and micro flash flood rivulets of hail melt. Only a mile from that spot another storm cell bore down on me. I threw my pack cover on and left the whole pack near the trail while I took cover under nearby trees and watched four dirt bikers hurry past. Lightning struck maybe a half mile from me; I could see the bolt. At last I reached the downhill bomb and let gravity carry me to what I hoped was safety, my feet soaked and muddy.
I encountered a few more dirt bikers and a solo bikepacker that afternoon. Just shy of Upper Razor Creek I stopped to fill up my bottles at a little trickle I remembered from 2016, which I imagine would have been dry if not for the hail. I filtered a liter while watching another storm cell blow in overhead. Even though I had lost about 2,000 feet of elevation, I was still pretty exposed. I figured I’d check the main creek where a grove of tall pines would offer shelter. Just as in 2016, the main creek fork was dry. The dark clouds opened up, unleashing sheets of rain, and thunder returned. I ran back to the now orange trickle, filled my Sawyer bag and headed for cover as lightning bolts danced around the valley.
To my right, about 40 yards ahead of me, a large black bear was likewise running for shelter. This cousin is much faster than I am, of course, and they disappeared into the forest after noticing me, but it felt as though in that moment we shared that panicky, immediate need for shelter that lightning evokes.
I made it back to the cover of the trees, a spot I camped at in 2016, just before the hail started. I huddled my knees to my chest and shivered a few minutes while lightning crashed within a quarter mile of me, shocking my vision white. I just sat there blank until the turbulence passed.
That was the sixth time I was in danger of lightning strikes that day, and the seventh time I had been hailed on. I did not make my mileage goal. I reached a campsite at about 17 miles for the day, just shy of what felt like the hundredth 500-foot climb of the day. What is this, the AT? Nope, just the Cochetopa Hills. The next day would be pretty dry, but all I was thinking about was the exposure of the San Juans. If it was this sketchy with lightning today, where I had tree cover 90 percent of the time, what would it be like on the Divide for a week? I may have missed the San Juan route in 2016, but I know that it isn’t special enough to be worth getting vaporized for.
Maybe I’ll just hike to Durango instead, I thought, do the rest of the mileage for Grounds Keepers back in the PNW. I won’t even enjoy the San Juans if I’m just running from lightning storms the whole time.
In the morning I hit Lujan Creek and Highway 114. Two years prior this was a morale low point for me. I was tired of being cold all the time, I hadn’t been getting all the interviews I wanted, and I had a nasty blister-cut combo deal on my left big toe unlike anything my feet had ever experienced. Each step was painful.
This go around was much better, though I was displeased to find a bunch of poster board arrows with “CT TRAIL ANGELS” written on them strewn about the road. I filled up at the creek in preparation for the reportedly dry section ahead, and there I met Keep Going, aka Tom from New Hampshire. While we walked on the shoulder of the highway, I stopped to pick up a bunch of trash, including a broken toy truck trailer, beer cans, two liter soda bottles etc. I filled him in on the whole Grounds Keepers deal.
“You can’t pick it all up, you know.”
“I can try! I can pick up everything I come across. I don’t have anywhere to be,” and winter isn’t nipping at my heels this time, I thought.
Across the highway was another creek, probably cow polluted. Keep Going stopped to do some washing and busted his solar charger out.
“Got to let the wife know I’m not dead.”
I could relate -- this was my first long-ish hike without a SPOT device, to Laura and my mom’s dismay. I hadn’t tested my solar panel on this newer phone yet, and it was a cloudless morning, so I gave it a go. Even with my phone off, I lost ten percent battery. Those of you who followed along in 2016 will recall this recurring drama. Dead weight in my pack once again. This time I was carrying no other camera, though. Phone equals maps, Guthook, photos, videos. I had to ration my battery til Lake City.
I decided to put some miles behind me to vent the frustration.
“I’ll probably never see you again,” said Keep Going. “Well, maybe – if you keep stopping to pick up all the trash,” he laughed.
“Oh, I will be.”
Two minutes afterward I found an empty gallon milk jug in a dry creek bed.
The trail climbs gradually out of the valley into ponderosa and bristlecone hills. It smelled absolutely amazing. At the top of the little climb is a cattle gate, which opens onto dirt road. I’d be on roads for pretty much the whole day.
I stopped just shy of Archuleta junction to put sunblock on my face, and as I crested the hill I saw a car driving by. My Gatorade! Nooooooooo! I was hoping for a little magic, not gonna lie. Two more cars passed me on the walk down to the creek and neither so much as gave me a second glance. They’re probably desensitized to CT hikers out here.
At the bottom of the road is a meadow full of cows. As I got nearer, I noticed it was full of bulls as well. As I got near the little land bridge where the creek runs through a culvert beneath the road, one of the bulls snorted at me and dragged his hoof menacingly. I figured I’d rather not tango with him, so I took a wide berth and managed to find a Coors bottle full of sediment. Yay.
I hiked on, keeping a steady pace all the way to Los Creek (actually the name of this creek… I know, right?) and used a zip lock bag to collect water from the meager flow crossing the trail. As I filtered, my essentially brand new Sawyer bag sprung a leak. Luckily, my Platypus reservoir — which I’d almost left at home — has threading that matches the Sawyer Squeeze well enough. I chugged what water I had left and took about three liters to go.
I took my time eating lunch in the shade, letting my legs rest; my mind remembered what it was like to hike 3.5 mph steady on the CDT treadmill, to borrow a phrase from SpeedGoat, but my body was still catching up. A man in an AT hat showed up, then two older guys who had been piecing together sections over the last few summers, and finally Keep Going, who was surprised to see me.
I talked to the guy in the AT hat – he hiked it last year – for a few minutes. He seemed to be about my age. We talked about the three big trails a bit and then I promptly took off.
“I’m sure you’ll catch me,” I said. “My lungs and legs are still getting acclimated.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent crossing Quemado Park, looking out to Cochetopa Dome. It felt like being back in the Basin, but with merciful cloud cover. Jeep roads, barbed wire fences, tons of trash. Ranchers and ATVers, just tossing shit out their moving vehicles, I figured. I saw a coyote duck through a barbed wire fence and dart up into a thicket. All the water sources I passed were dry, as expected: it was a long, mostly straight, dusty road walk. Why did I choose this section again? Prep for the San Juans, I had told myself, but in this moment I wasn’t sure I’d made a great choice.
In truth, it was beautiful. I was just beat and frustrated with all the trash. The easy tread allowed me to cast my gaze wherever I wanted, rather than watching for things to trip over. The aspens were a’quakin’ and the clouds put on a show. Plus, at least I was doing my duty as a Grounds Keeper. I found a package of ancient fruit snacks – the Scooby Doo kind – do they even make those anymore? There was even a gummy inside. If I’d been on a thru hike, I’d at least have considered eating it before depositing it in my dump trunk. Hikertrash don’t wash off easy.
I stopped to stretch and put some fuel in my tank, and was immediately bombarded by flies. It’s on account’a the cows, I reck’n’d. Pies bring flies, and hot damn there were lots of both. The buzz of winged insects ranks very high on my list of least favorite things. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they didn’t always go straight for my ears. What the hell is that about anyway? Is it just the heat escaping from there?
Once I started moving again the feeling of peace returned. I felt completely solitary in this vast expanse, and apparently that was just what my soul needed. This immense plain, cupped and cradled by crags on all sides, and I the only human within, the only human on earth. Nothing matters, the breeze sung into my mouth.
At one creek bed I found a nerf bar – which, for city slickers like myself, is a piece of metal indistinguishable from yet somehow different than a running board – from an F-150 Raptor. This cracked me up. Some hard-o in their fancy bro-mobile pushed it a little too hard running over all this fragile flora. Probably spilled his Monster energy drink in the process. I also laughed, because I was only four days in and I was about to throw out my Grounds Keeper integrity. There was no way I would carry this six-foot-long piece of metal to Lake City. What was I to do, sling it across my shoulders like a browbeaten disciple in a kung fu flick? And then what? Dump it in someone’s yard? Sorry guys.
I hiked longer than my legs wanted in order to find a good campsite. Got to a saddle above Cochetopa Creek and threw down near the edge of the aspen forest I’d just climbed up through. Thankful to have not had any rain or lightning that day, I shoved down my lingering dread – THE CDT PUNISHES COWBOY CAMPERS – and used my tent as a groundsheet.
I saw four meteors, and the stars were impeccable. But I also kept seeing distant flashes of what had to be lightning. Is my brain playing tricks on me? Is this the light of bolts travelling farther than the sound of thunder? In any case, it caused me to worry that rain was on the way. I hate setting up a tent in the middle of the night. On top of that, flies kept visiting my ears. No idea how much sleep I managed to get.
There wasn’t too much condensation on my bag, but much of my other gear – anything more than a foot away from my body – had frosted in the night. I took stock of which direction the sunbeams would be coming from, where shadows would be cast and so on, and went back to sleep to await the gift of warmth.
Just as I cinched my pack shut, two Escalades with Texas plates rolled up onto the saddle from a different road than that I’d walked up.
“Y’all have the time?” Such a clever chameleon I am, drawing on my Southern roots to distract from my day-glo orange short-shorts…
“We do! It’s 10 til 9,” said one of the cowboy hats. “But where you’re going it doesn’t matter!” Thas right, pardner. ‘Cept for I got ground to cover, see.
I followed them down the hill, stopping halfway to pull off into the trees to poop. Usually, on long hikes, my digestive track adheres to a strict schedule – I have sometimes dug catholes before bed in anticipation of my physiological alarm clock. High fiber diet, baby. This does not apply to nearo and zero days, as town food effectively throws a whole set of wrenches in the mix. But for the first week or two my gut is always confused.
The Texans were at the bottom of the hill, where the trail meets Cochetopa Creek, donning all sorts of fishing gear. “We meet again!” said the feller who told me the time.
“Fancy seein’ you here.”
Thus began the day-long courtship of Cochetopa Creek. I got water at first convenience, thankful to be off the rationing. Cochetopa is what we in the business refer to as a “real creek.” As in, more than six inches deep. Too bad there are so many cows around. There were trout, too, though.
The crick was flanked by aspens and flowering rabbit brush, the trail in turn enclosed by tall yellow grass. Fingers crossed against Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I ran into a dude with all UL gear, but who still somehow struck me as green. Apparently, the cottage companies are so popular now that they’re the norm – I saw more Hyperlite, Mountain Laurel, Zpacks, and even Pa’lante backpacks than on the PCT and CDT combined between Monarch and Stoney Pass. The times they are a’chaaaangin’. Anyway, he said, “Morning, hiker!” and kept on going.
The sky was empty. While that brought optimism about afternoon weather, I would have loved a little cloud cover. Humans are fickle beasts; comfort is a momentary phenomenon. I stopped in the shade of a tree to sunblock up – I’ve been using the natural zinc kind that leaves your whole face white until eventually the waterproofing fails and you sweat it off. Just after, a crossing of Cochetopa Creek. The Ley note said there had been a bridge here that had washed out, but when I walked up to the edge I saw a skinny aspen trunk strewn from bank to bank. It looked less than steadfast, but I’d crossed worse, and I really wanted to make this a blister-free hike.
I pulled out my phone and started recording. “Sketchy sketchy!” I said, taking my first two tentative steps across the log before it rolled and I landed ankle deep in the creek, laughing. Goes to show. I tried to dry my socks and shoes while filtering water, to marginal success, while every fly on planet earth came to greet me.
I climbed steadily through the heat of the day up to a trailhead and pit toilet – huzzah! That morning I had used up the last of the too-thin toilet paper I’d obtained in Denver. There was a guy there drinking a Gatorade and a beer, hanging out with his dog. He didn’t even acknowledge my presence as I sat in the shade of the pit toilet building reapplying sunscreen and snacking. Before I left, I approached him:
“’Scuse me – do you have cell service here?” Negative. “Are you just out for the day?” Yep, baggin’ 14ers (typical Coloradan). He pocketed the page I ripped from my journal and agreed to text Laura for me when he got back into cell range.
At last I was back on single track, having entered La Garita Wilderness, at last away from the cows. I caught up to a couple that looked to be in their fifties and clearly had their gear dialed. They were admiring the basalt pillars chiseled out of the mountains flanking the creek. As we spoke, another hiker going Durango to Denver (what do y’all CTers call this? DeBo? EaBo? NoBo?) sporting a USA flag tank top, a bro-y Lake City hat and a gnarly sunburn. Four hikers at once - a veritable pileup, eh?
The couple leapfrogged me as I filtered. We were all intending to camp at the second saddle between here and San Luis Pass, but they were considering pulling up short as they didn’t think they’d catch the noon shuttle the next day anyhow and weren’t inclined to hitch. I had my mind set, though. The climb up to the first pass was a slog through dense willow. Still waiting to acclimate to the altitude, I was sucking wind hard and taking micro-breaks every hundred yards or so. A few mule deer looked on, mystified, perhaps mocking.
At the top, I was granted a view unto the huge creek drainage I’d spent all day walking up, and only then was the extent of the beetle kill apparent. The whole valley was grey. The difference in kill just over the two years since I’d last hiked in Colorado was shocking. I’d heard the beetles have left the area, and I hope that’s true.
With no windbreak or shelter of any kind in sight, I pushed on ahead. The trail in this little cirque was very exposed, and I struggled to keep my eyes on where I was stepping rather than up at the rock spires along the ridge. Over the next saddle lay even bigger views – the San Juans revealed – and beautiful Bondholder Meadow way down below. It was here I found a single Nike sneaker.
“Cheryl?!” I yelled out, “You dropped another shoe!” (since no one was around to roll their eyes at my stupid humor, I figured y’all ought to be subjected to it. Not sorry). For real, though – how do you lose a shoe? I strapped it to the back of my pack, as the top was already occupied by the empty milk jug, and kept on going.
I reached Spring Creek as alpenglow kissed the surrounding peaks. I scrambled down loose scree to find the creek spurting right out of the mountainside. Clear, cold, and delicious, no need to filter. I found a bivy spot just beyond the creek and pitched my tent. As I ate dinner and rolled my legs out with a trekking pole section, I admitted there was no way I’d catch the shuttle into town; 16 miles by noon would take a concentrated effort when in actual hiking shape, and would be near impossible at present. I’d told Laura I would do my best not to hitch hike on this trip, despite having done so safely dozens of times, but I sure as hell wouldn’t be camping on the side of the highway.
I played out my options for the hundredth time: Durango or Pagosa. I came out here for the San Juans, but I was leaning more toward Durango. I’m not a purist to begin with, and taking the Creede Route isn’t yellow blazing. I wanted to see this fabled section but I also knew it wouldn’t move me the way the Cascades do. My heart is in the PNW in more ways than one.
In the middle of the night I was woken by a loud snort just outside my tent wall. I froze. Usually if I think a bear has entered my camp, I’ll yell out to them: “Hey! I’m sleepin’ heeyah!”; “Nothing for you here, cousin,” etc. This animal was so near my head, though, I was afraid I’d startle them and catch a claw or hoof to the dome, or at the very least get a new window in my borrowed tent. Moments later I could tell from the sound of steps that it was a deer.
I hit the trail fairly early, a few climbs right off the bat. At San Luis Pass I reached the Creede Cutoff. The San Juans. I’d bypassed in 2016 because it was mid-October and snow was already dusting the trail that high up, and because I had an interview schedule to keep and I’d fallen behind my predicted mileage amidst the short, frigid days. Now it was monsoon season, now it was electric. I had intended to get here in late August, when perhaps the weather would be slightly mellower. That was when I was planning to hike the whole CT. Oh well. That’s a problem for future Bard. Sucks for that guy.
At one of the forks of Mineral Creek I stopped for water and met five marmots and a chorus of pikas. In 2016 I hadn’t encountered any alpine rodents in Colorado; too cold perhaps. The hike was beautiful, and I was cooking steady. I only stopped for water and food on my way to Snow Mesa, taking in the sweeping vistas on the go. Just west of a dried-up lake on the Mesa is a creek. There I met Chuck and Jackie, a couple in their 60s who live within two miles of my parents in Houston, Texas. They were pumping water into a Katahdin filter, and had already stockpiled a few gallons for the night and next monring. After Chuck filtered a liter, Jackie would hit it with a SteriPen.
“I’m a nurse. I like to make sure it’s all dead.” I kept my opinions to myself. They were amazed by my Sawyer Squeeze and how quickly it filtered a liter. As I turned to hike on, Chuck stopped me.
“You find that shoe on the trail? Just toss it! They had no grip left, so that’s what I did with the other one.” Ugh.
I charged across the mesa under unbroken sun, knowing that the earlier I got to the pass, the better my odds of catching a ride. The last mile or so is a downhill bomb, and I let gravity do the heavy lifting until about a half mile from the road, when I had to stop and sit in the shade. I hadn’t been drinking enough water and, as I wasn’t hiking with a hat, I’d gotten overheated. I poured a little over my head and chugged the rest.
I had been on the shoulder of the highway for about 20 minutes when another hiker showed up. I figured it was the guy with the AT hat, but it was someone I hadn’t seen yet, which means he was hiking faster than I was. As he started roadwalking toward Lake City, a car pulled over. I thought they were stopping for me; they were letting off two hikers who’d gone into Creede due to illness. They were the other hiker’s buds and they all set off down the road together. Everyone has their own hitchhiking strategy, but most would agree trying to catch a ride with four people is not a great idea. I was glad they moved on. I’d have camped by the side of the road before walking another 20 miles into Lake City.
At long last a pickup stopped for me. A pastor and his college aged daughter from Montrose. Really nice folks. The pastor had been an English major himself, and asked me what my favorite book was. Now, I’m not one for choosing favorites to begin with, but I was overheated and exhausted, so it was out of the question.
His favorite is The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I told him I’d only read Crime and Punishment, but that I’d loved it. He said that the chapter “The Inquisition” is, in his opinion, the best chapter within the best book in all of literature. Strong words. It’s already sitting on my shelf, guess I’ll bump it up the to-read list.
They dropped me in town, and I made my way to Lucky’s place: The Raven’s Rest Hostel. I’d stayed here in 2016, the lone occupant, weighing the choice of staggering into fringe winter weather or cutting through Creede. This time it was almost full of hikers. I talked trail with Taz, Rescue and Angelface. They’re the ones I ran into back at the pass.
I went out to eat dinner with Clara and Emily – they were both on their first thru-hikes, and seemed more concerned with enjoyment than mileage goals. We ate at Packers – a restaurant named after the infamous local cannibal. After scarfing down a veggie reuben and upwards of 48 oz of Dr. Pepper, I decided to take a zero. The zero was glorious, filled with lovely hikers and hours of playing Lucky’s guitar. Circus, the aforementioned “guy in AT hat,” arrived that day, as did the couple I’d leapfrogged with two days prior, and the Texans.
At noon the next day I found myself in the free shuttle to the pass along with Circus, Symbiosis (who was section hiking the CDT), and Robert from Iran. I still didn’t have my mind made up regarding which route to take; I figured I would decide at Stoney Pass. As we climbed the winding highway to Spring Creek Pass, the sky filled with cumulonimbus clouds and we talked of bark beetle devastation. Sym and Robert headed out the way Circus and I had come, and we set off westward into the storm.
Trash packed out: 1.66 pounds, mostly microtrash. Weirdest items: single sneaker, broken toy trailer, ancient fruit snacks.