Beard Length: Barry Gibb in the 60’s
Showers Taken: 6
Bears Spotted: 1
Zero Days: 2
The Colorado Trail reached a definite point of monotony after exiting the town of Salida. Although sometimes there can be a sense of beauty in the ordinary and boring. After having been walking through high alpine terrain for the past few weeks we found ourselves stumbling across the wide open plains. Still at an altitude greater than 9000 feet I have never seen anything like it before. So. Much. Land.
A definite contrast to the densely wooded forests of the Northeast, it became a challenge struggling through these sections in the middle of the day. The heat and lack of shade compiled with a seemingly infinite amount of dust that appeared magnetic to our bodies created challenges I had not met before in long distance backpacking. Worse than all of this though: the lack of water sources.
One night we were able to find a nice camp spot at the end of a long valley among a cluster of trees, a welcome reprieve from the unrelenting sun. We awoke the next morning to a fair amount of mooing in the distance. Not thinking much of this, we began the routine of breaking down camp. Outside the tent as I packed my bag, Lucy told me to look and was pointing in the distance. As I turned my head, I could hear the mooing get even louder.
A large herd of cattle, enveloped in a traveling cloud of kicked up dust was running towards us. I increased the urgency in my packing and we moved our gear closer to the trees. The cows would likely be frightened by us and keep their distance but we could not say the same for things like our sleeping bags, tent, etc.
15 meters before reaching us the entire lot diverged away from us to the east along the Colorado Trail. The next thing we saw was the most American thing Lucy has ever seen. A real life cowboy.
The man, who appeared to be in his 70’s, zipped towards us on an ATV with his faithful cattle dog diligently following. He gave us a wave and disappeared on a forest track into the trees. We sat on a fallen log, stunned at the events occurring in the first few minutes of our day while we watched the rest of the cows travel down the path we would soon be following.
As the last of them disappeared around the corner and the dust began to settle (have never used this expression literally before) we could hear the engine from the ATV coming back towards us.
The tanned man with a weather-worn face approached us and tipped his well broken in cowboy hat back on his head while he approached. His eyes squinted in the morning sun and the fat lip of chewing tobacco distracted from the other qualities of his face. Adorned in denim from top to bottom, dirt stained, holes, and patches all over the ancient coat and jeans. His tall brown leather boots (sadly lacking a heal spur) eased onto the break as he pulled up next to us. The dog, looking much more fresh and delicate, but amazingly handsome, could not have been more than a year old and stopped obediently next to him.
At this point, I was absolutely shocked and slightly disappointed that he didn’t tip his cap and say, “howdy”. Instead, he looked up at us with those squinty eyes and in a gruff southern drawl said, “Cold one last night”.
And indeed it was. Temperatures had been well below freezing which even required sleeping in my down jacket while zipped tightly in my sleeping bag. We chatted for a bit about how strange the weather has been in Colorado and around the world. The commonality existing between our adversities being the drought that Colorado now faced. We had told him that water sources had been few and far between for the past several days, often requiring us to carry three liters of water at a time. He told us that trend would likely continue for awhile and sadly the water sources that now lay immediately ahead would be soiled by the mass of cows that had freshly stamped through it.
The entire herd was greater than 260, and only a 180 had just come through. Speaking of such, he needed to stop the chatting so he could dash of to the other meadow and push the remaining animals through. One word of advice from the seasoned cowboy before he rode off into the rising sun: “Watch out for Colorado paint when you walk this morning.” Our quizzical looks implied we did not understand his warning. Then with a charming smile, he looked both of us in the eyes and said, “cow shit.” And him and his dog buzzed down the valley with an equally impressive cloud of dust on their tail.
Thankfully, the plains came to an end a day and a half later. We could see snowy mountains on the horizon and swiftly made our way into the La Garita Wilderness area. We ascended up our first 14,000 foot peak in Colorado, San Luis, on Thursday morning. It is one of 58 mountains affectionately known as ‘14ers’. When we crested the ridge onto the summit, there was a very light wind making it comfortable enough to stop and rest for awhile. The view in every direction was expansive, with visibility over one hundred miles in the direction we came from and where we’re headed. Being this high up truly gave me an appreciation for how impressive this state really is.
That night, we found a beautiful campsite next to a pond created by several tiers of large beaver dams. Within a minute of putting our packs down and before we could even begin to take the tent out, I spotted a beaver swimming across the pond and curiously poking his head up to inquire about his new visitors. This was massively exciting because Lucy has never seen a beaver before. We watched him move stealthily through the water, barely creating a ripple, as he swam back and forth adding more timber and water plants to his already impressive dam. This continued for over an hour while we established camp and cooked dinner. I’d argue this is the equivalent of Netflix whilst camping in the backcountry.
Further in the distance, too far for a good photo, a bull moose was visible (through Lucy’s prescription sunglasses) eating his dinner quietly. If another hiker passing by had not pointed him out, I doubt we would have ever noticed. This has also made me wonder, with my poor vision and adamant refusal to wear glasses for anything aside from driving and cycling, how many moose have I missed not just in Colorado, but over the course of my life?!
We watched both animals carry on with their nightly routines and marveled at the beauty of it. Perched on the edge of this pond, protected by high cliffs on all sides with their lingering cornices, in the middle of this vast wilderness area, no other person in the world would experience this at this moment but us. And there is something very special about that. If you’ve ever wondered what might calm someone after lighting a very expensive down jacket on fire on a camp stove, this is it.
Getting ever closer to the full moon, the white walls of my tent have frequently been illuminated with a bright glow that has decreased the need for head lamps. It’s been magical falling asleep with this celestial night light for the past few evenings. I awoke just after 1am to some very loud splashing coming from just across the pond. Peering out of the tent, even with the moon it was still to dark to see. So I pulled on my newly singed puffy jacket and went outside for a better look. As soon as I was out of the tent I was taken aback by how beautiful the night was. Moonlight reflected brightly off the snow that glazed the tops of the cliffs, and glistened over the pond before me. Even so, the stars shone widely across the glowing black canvas in all directions. The beaver made his way silently across the pond, ripples from his wake shimmered in the brilliance of the night. While I watched and waited I could hear the sizable mammal moving from across the pond, staying to the shadows until the faint outline of a bear traipsed back into the woods, snapping fewer branches than you would imagine. And this whole time I thought, how lucky are we to be living in this moment right now.
Arriving into a town on Fourth of July weekend is probably the worst thing you can do as a thru hiker. I remember entering Pearisburg, VA on the AT at the start of Memorial Day weekend in 2018 and having to do a really bizarre work for stay. After getting into Lake City the afternoon of July 3rd, we quickly realized that there was no where to stay. Being more hungry than concerned about the nights lodging, we went to the cafe to eat and use the WiFi since there is no service in town.
One of the few other CT hikers we’ve met this year, a Czech girl named ‘Mystery’ had gotten into town the day before and found us at the cafe. She had told us that she met an older couple while searching the town for anywhere to stay. Since there is no service here, they let her use their internet and helped her look up the names and phone numbers of all the lodging in Lake City. When she heeded the same result as us, they offered to let her stay in their old cabin which is now rarely used since they built their new home. The next day when Lucy and I arrived, Mystery inquired about us staying also and the couple graciously gave us a place to stay out of the rain.
So on the morning of the Fourth of July, I woke up in my sleeping bag in some old Colorado cabin that’s slightly worse for wear, but much more spacious than a tent. Having already resupplied, we had a nice full breakfast at the bakery before escaping back to the trail and avoiding the madness of a holiday weekend.
Not far to go now and I am glad that we’ve been experiencing more and more of the kindness I saw on the AT as well as meeting more friends. I’m very glad to be doing the trail with Lucy this year, I think it would have been incredibly lonely otherwise. We’ll likely finish the trail one week from tomorrow which is a relatively sad thought. It’s always very exciting getting close to the finish, but now that Durango is becoming ever closer, I admit I really don’t want to get there. This hike has been an entirely different experience than the AT in the sense that I did not set out to try to regain some sort of personal balance. This was about salvaging an adventure with my partner after the events of the world caused as to adapt and readjust. If anything, I feel more grateful to be out on the trail because now I know how easily that right can be taken away. I would have never expected a global pandemic to impact my hiking, but now I certainly won’t take it for granted. Each day out here is a gift, and I will treasure each one of these final days. This has been one of the best adventures yet.
Colorado Trail High Point (on a break to post this on trail because no cell service in Lake City)
July 5, 2020