Continental Divide Trail 2015: Afterword

I finished the Continental Divide Trail two weeks ago. The last two weeks have been super hectic for me- the job and housing situation I had set up for after the trail fell apart, there was lots of shuffling from one place to another while I bought a vehicle/tried to figure out my life, and I got a super brutal cold that lasted for a week. Now I have a new job and a new place to live for the fall and I finally feel like I can breathe. So, time to reflect on my CDT hike! Which I’ve been sort of dreading. Because, to be honest, I didn’t love the CDT.

I wanted to love the CDT. But the CDT is hard to love- as another hiker put it, β€œThis trail hates me and everyone who steps foot on it.” There are some beautiful sections on the CDT, but there are also many demoralizing sections. I’m going to write a more detailed post about this later, but for now, all I can say is that I didn’t love the CDT. And not for the reasons I expected. But I really, really wanted to.

I also had giardia for two months on this trail, and that really colored my experience. Maybe if I hadn’t been sick, this would’ve been my most favorite trail ever! The adventure of a lifetime! I really have no idea. Mostly I felt tired and sort of ill, and hiking felt like drudgery, with a few transcendental moments of joy and wonder thrown in. I hate to admit this- that I spent an entire summer hiking a trail and my heart just wasn’t in it. It feels taboo to say that- like I’m a failure as a hiker. But you know what? It’s fucking honest.

I love hiking. I love the PCT. I loved the Lowest to Highest Route. There are lots of other routes and trails I want to do. I’ve already started planning for them. I fucking love walking all day, overcoming challenges, and sleeping on the ground. But this was just not my summer. It feels weird to admit that.

It’s sunny and fall is here and I’ve started running again (it’s painful) and there are vegetables and absolutely everything and nothing is possible, all at once. I have a job and a place to live and dear friends to plan adventures with and even though the human world makes me feel like crawling into a hole to hide I know that it’s up to me, completely up to me, to make my own life and my own happiness and sometimes the pressure of that is so intense it feels like it will crush me. But it won’t.

Rihanna wrote this song abt the CDT, obvs:

CDT day 133: fin

September 14
Mileage: 35.5
2,590 miles hiked

It’s not as cold as I thought it would be, camped next to this stream with the wind, and I actually sleep pretty well. I wake up at six in the dark, and blearily boil water for tea as the sun lightens, still wrapped in my sleeping bag. Am I going to miss the bitter, high-altitude cold of September on the CDT? No. Am I going to miss sitting in my sleeping bag drinking tea and watching the sun rise? Yes.

Most of the trail today is cross-country, on a sort of high alpine plateau. Lumpy meadow that’s hard to walk on, alternating with piles of rocks. Lumps and rocks, lumps and rocks. From cairn to post to cairn. It’s slow going- all of Colorado has been slow going for me. I’m embarrased to say that, at the end of the day, I’ve been averaging about 2mph. I don’t know if my ability to hike fast is busted forever, I’ve gotten lazy, or if Colorado is just hard. Probably a combination of the last two.

Storms blow over all day, spattering me with rain and then the sun returns, roasting me. I feel meloncholy today on account of the trail ending, but also so excited about everything I have to look forward to. I keep bursting into tears and then feeling suddenly happy for no reason. My mood is like the weather- sad clouds mixed with bright sunshine. It’s not unpleasant.

My plan today had been to hike 30 miles, camp, and hike the last 5 miles to Cumbres Pass in the morning. In case you’re just tuning in, here’s the short story- I started my hike northbound from the Mexican border on May 5. When I got to the Colorado border/Cumbres pass the snow in the San Juans was too avalanchey, so I flipped up to Canada and hiked south. The ribbon of asphalt that is Cumbres pass will be my weird transcendental flip-flop terminus, journey complete.

As I hike I realize that I don’t want to camp five miles from the end. No matter how tired I am, how will I be able to just set up my tent and go to sleep when I know that the end is so close? I’ll have to hike until late to reach the highway, but so what. The little bones in my feet are sore from all the lumps/rocks, but so what. I don’t have to hike tomorrow. I can take a hundred zeros if I want to. Tomorrow I return to the land of chairs, the land of things made by humans, the land where you don’t hear elk bugling every night or notice the ptarmagins turning white or listen to the coyotes yip as the sun sets. The land where it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or if the wind is too strong for a tarp or how many hours you have before dark comes. The land where water doesn’t flow magically out of a hole in the mountain and the nights don’t rotate between silver-white and pitch-black as the moon waxes and wanes. The land where animal/nature magic is smothered beneath the asphalt, and a little part of you dies as well. The land where the stick-breakers don’t dance around you while you sleep, in a circle, holding hands.

Oh, I’m going to cry again. It’s cold as fuck and the wind is blowing and the night is black and there aren’t any stars, and the elk are on the bare ridges watching me pass, and the trail is an eroded ribbon through the heart of all things, and I want to keep walking it forever, just to see what I can see. But my feet are sore and my body is tired and I’m all empty inside. It’s time for me to return to the land of the humans.

It’s late when I reach the highway, and I’m so weary I can barely stand. Luckily the last twelve miles were on good tread, and I was finally able to cruise a little bit. Everything is dark- there’s a trail register (meant for day hikers but I write in it anyway- CDT hikers take what we can get!), a railroad trestle, the smell of creosote, the black ribbon of the highway. Where am I? I don’t know. I’m tired. What? I pitch my tarp badly beneath a huge tree next to some trampled corn-lillies and crawl inside just as it begins to rain. I manage to stuff food into my face, blow up my neo-air, and crawl into my sleeping bag. The damp, lumpy earth cradles me, and water drips off my tarp as I fall asleep. I’m done.


CDT day 132: we all have our vices

September 13
Mileage: 24.5
2,554.5 miles hiked

I have all sorts of crazy dreams but sleep ok then wake up, eat salami sandwiches while watching the sun rise, start to hike and then promptly sit on a rock to get some things done online that I forgot to get done because suddenly I have service. Turns out that this year on the CDT I’m a spacey, A.D.D. hiker, lots of stopping and starting. I’m also very addicted to my phone. Spark once said

“It’s hard for me to imagine you without your phone.”

This coming from someone who has only ever known me in the woods. In the woods! I cringed to imagine what he would think of me if he saw me in the regular world.

“We all have our vices,” I said. I don’t drink or smoke drugs or gamble or play video games, so…

The tread is nice again today! Not Colorado Trail nice, but very, very good for the CDT. There are lots of cows in this section so far, and I give credit to them. If I learned anything in New Mexico, it’s that cows are excellent trail builders/trail maintainers. What tidy footpaths they make! Not like all the horses in the last section. Do horses erode trails? Is that why the last section was so jacked? I don’t actually know.

There’s some cross country today, but only short stretches. The trail stays between eleven and twelve thousand feet, and the elevation profile is gentle. Green ridges, nice trail maintained by cow friends. Sun and clouds.

In the evening I see a tarptent next to a stream below a ridge- oh my god another human being! It’s a woman named Samari, out here to hike the Colorado section of the CDT. She lives in Lake Chelan, Washington, near Stehekin!! And every year her work gives her six weeks off to hike. I’d planned on hiking for another hour, but it’s too nice to talk to another human and also now it’s suddenly getting really cold. It’s gonna be a cold one tonight! Cold front coming in, said the man who gave me a ride back to the trail from Pagosa Springs. You’re finishing just in time.

I set up my tarp, feeling glad for the company. I was really missing my friends today, and the social aspect of trails in general. I’m also PMSing, and so everything seems super dramatic. I keep imagining myself reaching Cumbres Pass the morning after tomorrow, which is the Colorado/New Mexico border and the end of the trail for me, as that’s where I got off to flip up to Canada after hiking New Mexico in the spring, and wondering if I’ll cry. And then of course I start to cry.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 131: 2 Feral 4 Town

September 12
Mileage: 8.5
2,530 miles hiked

I barely sleep in that special hotel-room way, everything being too cold/hot/loud/quiet/unnatural seeming and animated from within by electricity, like a big machine. How am I supposed to sleep inside a big machine?

The charm of town wears off a soon as I am no longer hungry. Get me out of here! In town people stare at me. They think I’m a smelly homeless person and there are taboos against that. And there are people everywhere, always looking, always expecting you to act a certain way. In the mountains I am free. In the mountains I can poop in a hole. In the mountains I can floss my teeth with a piece of grass. I can lay down in a meadow and eat a sandwich. I can pee where ever I want. The mountains and forests are my home right now and that is where I live. There may not be hot showers or interesting meals there but everything in my pack and everything that I do makes sense. In the woods I might be hungry or cold or lonely, but I am never dirty or homeless or poor.

I get a text message from Track Meat- he and Spark had to stay an extra day in Lake City to wait for a package, and won’t get into Pagosa Springs until tomorrow. I wanted to hike this final section with the two of them, but I already bought my plane ticket back to Oregon, and waiting an extra day would make me miss my flight. Dammit! So I’ll finish the trail solo. There’s probably some sort of zen lesson in all of this.

I finally hitch out at 3:30 p.m., and hike just eight miles once I get to the trailhead. There’s a forested saddle there, a low point around 10k feet before the trail climbs back up again. I want to be warm tonight, so I’m camping here. I eat all sorts of things for dinner- I purposefully packed too much food for this final, 69 mile section. I don’t want to worry about food now at the end. I just want to really, really enjoy myself. Salami sandwiches for days!

I can’t believe I’ll be finished so soon.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 130: Pagosa Springs

September 11
Mileage: 5.5
2,521.5 miles hiked

Today feels like a holiday. I get to eat! Eat! I am ecstatic as I walk to the highway in the warm morning sun. I stop to chat with all the bow hunters on horseback, looking for elk. What a wonderful world!

I’ve been hitching for ten minutes when a rental car pulls over. Inside is a burly white dude with a shaved head, covered in tattoos and listening to metal. This is all well and good, except this dude seems super twitchy, like drugs twitchy. Am I about to have a sketchy experience? Hitchhiking alone as a woman is actually pretty fucking dangerous. Like legitimately so. Hitching with another person is not really dangerous. And if you’re a dude (or if you look like a boy from the side of the road, as I did in my twenties) you’re also less likely to be seen as a potential victim. But hitching alone as a woman- 99.9 percent of people mean well… until you get the one who doesn’t. When I was 21, a friend of my housemate’s was raped and murdered when hitching alone from Portland to Seattle. This is always in the back of my mind when I’m hitching alone, and I wish I didn’t have to do it. But it’s pretty much unavoidable on a long-distance hike, especially if you ever want to hike solo!

This dude, of course, turns out to be totally harmless. He’s just really twitchy and looks like an ex-con. Not that I have anything against ex-cons. I guess it’s just the twitching that I find alarming. The man is headed back to Arizona, for work. He works outside. Manual labor. He’s always done manual labor. My heart softens. He’s Dude In A Pickup Truck, only in a rental car! I didn’t recognize him without his truck. Patron saint of hitchhikers!

Pagosa Springs is a bit of an anti-climax, but then I’m not sure what I was expecting. It’s pretty spread out, and manages to be touristy and rundown at the same time. Straddling the line, like many small Colorado towns. I eat yellow curry in an asian restaurant and drink green tea. I order their house-made kimchi. Everything just tastes like salt. Then a cheap hotel room with its 1970s furnishings, awkward showerhead and thin walls letting in all the street sounds. Resupply in the small supermarket with no hippie icecream but a whole half-aisle of novena candles. I wish I had somewhere to put novena candles, I would buy a dozen. The sacred heart. St. Francis of Assisi. Money luck.

Dinner is tacos at the place next door- they’re actually really good. I’m still hungry back in my room so I eat GF toaster waffles. Only 69 miles until Cumbres pass, where I’ll reconnect with my footsteps headed north. And then… I’m done. I’m bringing lots of food- this last section will be a feast!

Photos on instagram

CDT day 129: no longer grossed out by anything

September 10
Mileage: 29
2,516 miles hiked

The wind goes all night long, flapping the walls of my tent. The rustling sounds like a million things and my imagination goes crazy as I drift off, alone on the high dark ridge. I’ll be just about asleep and then- rustle rustle rustle! Bears? Deer? Coyotes? No, just the walls of my tent. This goes on throughout the night and the rustling enters my dreams, becomes all sorts of distressing plot twists. The wind grows icy, and sucks the warmth from my tarp. Eventually I wake up from the cold, drift in and out until dawn.

So I’m tired in the morning. And I’m still rationing food, so I’ll be hungry. And it’s too windy to be able to use my stove to heat water for tea. But morale is high! Because tonight I’ll camp within six miles of the highway, and sometime tomorrow I’ll be eating incredible savory greasy things. Can you even imagine it!

The trail stays on or just below the literal continental divide all day. This means lots of sweeping views of shimmery brown ridges all nestled together, their slopes covered in dull beetle-kill forest, and lots and lots of PUD. Short steep up, short steep down. Short steep up, short steep down. Repeat. The sky is the clearest it’s been for a while and as soon as the sun comes up I feel like I’m being cooked from all directions in a high-altitude oven. The trail traverses a forested slope and suddenly there are lots of blowdowns and the trail dissappears several times in the waist-high grass. It takes me a minute to get through that stretch. The trail continues to dissappear throughout the day, and to be generally difficult. I try not to get frustrated, but I’m hungry and worn out from the PUD and the sun. Every time I check my mileage I seem to be going even slower. I want to lay down in a patch of shade and go to sleep. Instead I walk.

I’m listening to an audiobook in which the main character is always hungry, and that helps. I mean, I’ve been hungrier on the trail before. I packed around 3,000 calories a day for this section- pretty good but less than I need, especially towards the end of the trail when I’m fairly depleted. Not total starvation, not like on the PCT in 2013 in Washington when I hiked 50 miles on 1200 calories. This is a sort of low-grade hunger, nagging me all day. It reminds me of when I was anorexic in high school, and would count all my calories to make sure I always had less than I needed. How did I do that? It was worth it at the time, to feel like I had some semblance of control over some small corner of my life. But fuck, what an awful feeling.

I realize in the afternoon that I’ll have to night-hike to make it to my planned campsite six miles from the highway, and this depresses me. But then the hot, oppressive sun sets and the air turns chilly and I get a second wind. I pull out my headlamp and cruise, until I can see the twinkling lights of several small towns way down below me. Town! They will have hot food there! The stars come out in the black velvet of the sky and I startle a few deer, their eyes glowing yellow on the stalks of their long necks. Hello deer, I say. Just you and me in this dark night. I reach my campsite, next to a small murky lake, and find a windless spot just above the lake behind a large boulder. I realize too late that this large boulder is a place where people who camp at the lake come to dig their catholes- there are tidy piles of earth here and there, large rocks placed just so. I tip over one of the rocks and see the mummified remains of some toilet paper. Oh well. I set my tarp up carefully in a bit of long grass behind the boulder, figuring there are no catholes in the grass. Or maybe I’m too tired to care very much. Or maybe I’ve been hiking for so long, shitting in holes and then poking at my poop with a stick to make sure it’s all the way in the hole, blowing my nose on a snotty hanky, bleeding all over my pee rag when I’m on my period (and then hanging the bloody pee rag off of my pack), making tea in a pot still crusted with last night’s dinner, never washing my spoon, sweating and farting and dribbling pee into my clothes until they smell, as my friend Chance puts it, like cat piss onions- that I’m no longer grossed out by anything.

It’s perfectly still and windless and flat behind this boulder, and I couldn’t be happier. I make my hot rice-noodle dinner and put lots of salt in it, kicking myself again for not packing any olive oil. An 8-ounce bottle of olive oil and an 8-ounce bottle of mayo and boom, I would’ve had enough calories in this section. As it is I’ll probably wake up hungry a few hours after falling asleep. No matter- I have one bar for the morning, I’ll get to the highway and have a low blood sugar hitch into Pagosa Springs, and then I will Eat All The Things.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 128: a felt cowboy hat and some whisky

September 9
Mileage: 24
2,487 miles hiked

Ah, sleeping on a slant, curled on my side so I don’t roll down the hill. I’m awake more than I’m asleep, or was I just dreaming?

First thing in the morning the CDT cuts cross-country over a broad, icy meadow and there are four stream crossings in a row. No trail, just posts. It’s good to be back, CDT. Bring on the nonsense and confusion! At least the views are good- the San Juans do not disappoint. So much climbing today- three thousand feet, then 1,200 feet, then seven hundred feet, and then more. Up and down and up again. Bronzed ridges and fields of talus and beetle kill. The signs of horses everywhere. I take an hour lunch, almost falling asleep in the warm sun and then back at it. The trail is a deep rut, impossible to walk in. The trail is full of water. The trail is so overgrown with bushes that I have to go around it. Branches, braids, unmarked junctions. Etc. I wonder what it would be like to know these mountains so well I didn’t even need a trail to follow. I’d wear a felt cowboy hat and ride a horse and I’d talk really slow and say things like Over in that bowl over there, not the first one but the second one, at the lake, the small lake not the large one mind you… And I’d know all the pika alarm signals- I’d hear a pika MEEEEEEP in the dusky hours while I was cooking over my campfire and I’d know if it was a coyote, or a mountain lion, or an owl… and I’d never be cold because I’d wear wool and waxed canvas and thick socks and have a good double-wall tent and insulated mugs and a cast-iron skillet to fry eggs. And I’d have to start drinking whiskey.

There will be no camp in the forest tonight. The trail will stay along the literal divide from now until it drops down to the highway at Wolf Creek Pass. It’s getting dark and I’m cruising in all my layers along the narrow eroded trail that hugs a very steep slope (which kind of scares me a little bit), thinking about where to camp. On my topo map there’s what looks like a shelf above the trail in a half mile so when I reach a spring running over the trail I get water there and then I climb, hand over hand, in the dark night up towards the stars. At 11,800 feet the shelf is a barren alien place with a cold wind woo-woo-woo-ing but it is flat, it is flat thank god! I pitch my tarp and wonder what animals, if any, come up here, and I try and light my alcohol stove for dinner but it’s too damn windy so we have a bit of a struggle, human vs. alcohol stove, and at last my dinner is sort of warm. Woo woo woo! Goes the wind, and I think of the elk bugling and the coyotes yipping and I wish I had a felt cowboy hat and some whiskey.

Photos on instagram

Day 127: The Weminuche Wilderness

September 8
Mileage: 23.5
2,463 miles hiked

I’m almost, but not quite warm enough, and I toss and turn- but then at some point in the night the condensation on my tarp freezes, adding an extra bit of insulation, and I sleep like a baby. I wake tired. Tea and breakfast and the sunrise, melting the frost on the grass. Time to hike.

I’m having one of those days where I’m affected by the elevation- climbs are extra hard and I have a deep longing to nap. I realized yesterday, though, that I didn’t bring quite enough food for these 4.5 days, and that I have to ration. This means that I’ll be a little hungry until Wolf Creek Pass, where I can hitch into Pagosa Springs, and that there can’t be any extra-lazy days. So I hike.

So slowly though. There are three high passes to climb over today, each with about two thousand feet of elevation gain, plus some bonus climbs in between. I’m in the Weminuche wilderness now. Midway through the morning the CDT splits with the Colorado Trail, and I’m back on CDT tread. It’s almost comical how quickly the trail deteriorates. Suddenly the trail is heavily eroded, overgrown, or missing entirely. Ah ha! I remember this. Combined with the altitude and the elevation gain, it makes everything more of a struggle. Thick scratchy bushes over the trail, trail that goes straight down the mountain, full of loose rocks. Trail that dissapears completely in meadows or tall grass and then picks up again somewhere counter-intuitive. It’s slow going and I feel annoyed, although I’m not sure at who or what. I’m not actually on the CDT, anyway, but a trail whose specific name I do not know- the CDT is just a route that mostly takes advantage of already existing trails and jeep roads. I wonder who routed this trail I’m on, who built it and who, if anyone, maintains it. It’s not a system which I even pretend to understand.

It’s mostly sunny today and warm, and this feels wonderful. Then right before sunset I feel something start to shift and I think Oh fuck! because I’m up at 12k feet and it’ll be dark soon and that means that Antarctica is coming. I have to get down, down, down from this inhospitable planet, into the trees if possible. Luckily the trail dips and follows a stream down into a bowl, at the bottom of which is a broad valley. I know that the valley will be a freezing inversion, and that the ridge up high will be as cold as black empty space, but the forest in between- perfect. Unfortunately there is nothing flat and I end up pitching my tarp on a slant among some beetle kill, but if I lay just so on my neo-air I’m pretty comfortable. Almost.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 126: Staying high in the San Juans

September 7
Mileage: 27.5
2,439.5 miles hiked

It’s hard to leave the yurt in the morning. Outside the high-altitude world of the San Juan mountains is windy and cold and the still-warm woodstove begs to have another fire built inside. If I had enough food, and if I hadn’t just bought my plane ticket home solidifying my finish date, I would probably zero. Alas!

The trail stays high all day today, undulating between eleven thousand and thirteen thousand feet. It’s beautiful but cold as fuck- strong icy winds and storm clouds building up and blowing over all day. I feel like the mountains are trying to tell me something, namely The season is over little mammal, get yourself down to lower elevation before I crush you. I feel a strong desire to seek out shelter, a longing for the indoors. It’s that time of year. The great North American summer is closing up shop, putting all away until next year. What was that annoying song on the radio when I was in high school? Closing time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.

Many many smallish climbs today. The trail wears me down a thousand feet at a time. Death by a thousand cuts. And the cold! I hike in my layers, gloves and a hat. I probably don’t drink enough water. Mercifully, it only rains a tiny bit.

I see the cute rumps of three different pikas, scooting down their holes. I hear the bugling of elk. I long for forest, for something other than the wind and velvety brown grasses. But the trail stays high.

It’s clear enough in the evening for a fiery sunset, the clouds pink and golden. Light does all sorts of things on the ridges, things I can’t capture with the camera on my phone.

I camp at 12,200 feet, selecting my campsite carefully so as to avoid an antarctica situation. The wind wends its way around the rock, one can find small pockets of stillness. There are bushes here, which is fortunate. I am not next to water. All these things are good. Perhaps I will be warm!

Photos on instagram

CDT day 125: birthday yurt!

September 6
Mileage: 9
2,412 miles hiked

I wake up and it’s my birthday. I’m 33. How do I feel? I feel… happy and light. When did this happen, exactly? How did this happen? I don’t know. I’ll take it!

I go to breakfast with Stealthy and Mule at a little cafe. Stealthy was on the T.A. last winter with my friend Chance! That’s pretty cool. After breakfast Stealthy and Mule get a shuttle back to the trail and then it’s just me, melting into the couches at the hostel and trying to motivate to sort my resupply.

Track Meat and Spark roll in at ten a.m., looking like cold, hungry drowned rats. My friends! And is that what I looked like yesterday? No wonder the restaurant hostess was so confused. I make them eggy in a bready/dead baby in a shallow grave/toad in a hole and then we walk around town, caffeinating and talking about how awesome the trail in Colorado has been. There’s a yurt with a woodstove on the trail nine miles south, and my plan is to hike there in the afternoon. I could wait until tomorrow and hike with my friends again, but I’ve been really enjoying the solo thing and the sense of confidence it’s been giving me on the trail. I’ve never actually hiked completely solo before and now here I am, doing it. And I’m not even scared when I camp alone at night. I’m drunk on my own power and I don’t want to stop! Also it’s my birthday and I’m feeling introspective- I want to be in the nature thinking about my life. Not so much hanging out here in town with the ATVs.

At 3 p.m. I’m finally ready to hitch and by 4:15 I’m back at the pass. The trail climbs back up to twelve thousand feet, onto the wide open spine of the San Juans, and the light does crazy things with the clouds. Three hours later I find the yurt, a wisp of smoke coming out the chimney. Mule the sobo CTer is there, drunk- he’s been hanging out since the afternoon, drinking whiskey. Presently he collapses on one of the bunks and falls asleep. The world of the San Juans is frosty and growing dark but it’s cozy and warm in the yurt. There are carpets and bunks and a roaring woodstove. Outside the sinking sun is setting the clouds on fire, and while my noodle dinner is cooking I sit in front of the woodstove, writing my intentions for the next year on scraps of paper, as well as the things I want to let go of. I toss the scraps into the fire, swinging shut the heavy iron doors of the stove. My intentions go out into the world via the stovepipe, rising up and mixing with the stars.

Photos on instagram