CDT day 110: The magical valley of wonder

August 22
Mileage: 22
2051.5 miles hiked

Climbing up into a green alpine wonderland of snow-capped ridges and hazy yellow light sunbeams reflecting off the rock and puddling on the green green meadows. It’s so steep and so high but oh man, in Colorado is it worth it. My new life above twelve thousand feet. Lunch at James Pass with Buck-30, he tells stories from his trail life while the day hikers go wild- day hikers firing guns out at the ridges, day hikers flying razor-sharp gliders close above our heads, day hikers letting their children run out onto steep snowfields with abrupt dropoffs and scramble up scree slopes. I almost can’t watch, it’s almost too much.

Then Spark, Track Meat and I hike down and up on the Silverthorne Alternate into one of the most enchanted lands I’ve ever seen- how to describe the emerald valleys and velvety ridges. I don’t think I can. We’d heard this route was nice but I wasn’t expecting this. The valleys and lush green peaks remind me of Goat Rocks in Washington on the PCT.

Up on the ridges a cold hard wind blows and we hike in our layers. It hails off and on for a few hours. The trail is hard- eroded, full of stones, or absent entirely. Down in the valley is warmer and we camp next to the Williams Fork river, pitching our tents before it’s even 6 p.m. Track Meat and Spark make a fire and we sit on a granite outcropping above the water, basking in its warmth. We could’ve hiked five more miles and dry-camped up on the cold windy ridge overlooking Silverthorne, but it is so so nice down here with the sound of the water and our fire and the sun doing its lazy thing.

“Is this what backpacking is supposed to be like?” I say to Spark as he breaks sticks for the fire.

“I think so,” he says.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 109: not all miles are created equal

August 21
Mileage: 19
2,029.5 miles hiked

It’s so cold- there’s a cold front and fall is here for sure. I wake up to an icy wind and frozen shoes. I put on a pot of water for tea while still lying in my sleeping bag, and then stuff my numb hands back into my sleeping bag to warm them while I watch the blue flames dance in the early light. Brrr!

We’re taking the old CDT today, as opposed to the new CDT- the new CDT is longer, nicer tread, and to the east. The old CDT is shorter but includes a bit of exposure and climbs over five thirteen-thousand foot peaks. Five. This is all well and good except as soon as I’m walking I know that my gut is having an off day- there are shooting pains in my stomach and I really, really just want to lay down on the ground. But instead I have to climb. Straight up.

I’m not sure how to describe the trail today. It follows the literal divide and so is an epic, rolling ridge without tread, climbing way up into the sky, the hazy earth falling away around us. James Peak, Mount Bancroft, Perry Peak, Mount Eva, Mount Flora. I wish I could enjoy the views but instead I just feel sick- I plod along in a black mood, imagining all the nice things I could do after the trail is over. Some days, for me, this hike is just a sufferfest. It’s just that kind of year.

As we walk Spark and I joke about the Hardcore Colorado Dayhikers- everyone we run into on the trails out here seems to be training for an ultra, or sprinting up a peak, or doing some sort of hardcore loop. We tell them what we’re doing and they hardly blink. They are totally unimpressed with us and I feel slow, struggling up the mountain as they jog on by.

Each ridge we summit has a steep peak in the distance, and that peak always ends up being the trail. There is talus and scree and a cool section where we’re scrambling along a narrow ridge that is like a bridge between two mountains, with notches in it where one can look out at one side of the earth or the other. The climbs are some of the steepest I’ve ever done- I one mph my way up them. At one point Spark and I are sitting on a ridge looking for the trail- there’s an impossibly steep snowy peak to the east and we keep saying, that can’t be the trail, that can’t be it. We turn the maps around a couple times, trying to convince ourselves that that is not, in fact, the trail. But of course it is.

And the wind. Icy 50 mph winds all day long, battering us. We struggle against this wind, lean into it. I’m out of water and dehydrated, but I don’t mind. At least my pack is light!

“I want the fuck off this mountain,” says Spark, at one point. “You can quote that on your blog.”

It takes me 4 hours to do the 4.5 mile section of the old CDT. Then there is a long descent to the highway, on real actual trail, and I am flying down it. At the bottom at Berthoud Pass I find a rest area with a “warming hut”- a warm little house with benches and sunbeams, empty except for Track Meat and Spark, their things exploded everywhere. Track Meat’s face is windburned and he’s sitting on one of the benches, staring at nothing. We’ve only done 19 miles but none of us care.

“I never want to leave this place,” says Track Meat.

“So warm,” says Spark.

We sit there for hours, watching the day-hikers come and go in the parking lot, wishing they’d give us snacks. I drink a liter of water and then I’m actually able to pee again. I cook dinner on the concrete floor of the hut. Finally, around dark, we emerge and walk just far enough into the woods to set up our shelters. Nineteen miles today but none of us care. I decide that when I get to Silverthorne I’m gonna take a few days off. This fatigue, and what’s going on with my gut, is just too much. Colorado is hard and my body is telling me to rest. Rest.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 108: Cold nights and tired days

August 20
Mileage: 26
2,010.5 miles hiked

The CDT punishes cowboy campers. Condensation comes in, soaks my bag, and then the cold descends, turning the dew to frost and freezing my shoes solid. I toss and turn for much of the night, cold. I curl my legs up and tense my whole body and when I wake I’m aching and sore. Dawn! I made it through! I sit up in my sleeping bag and boil water for tea as the sky lightens. Hot tea OMG!!

Today there are huckleberries and small wild raspberries and we circle lake Granby on shittastic trail and then climb up, up, up back above ten thousand feet. At one point there is a campground with a small store and the boys buy soda and slim jims and I eat salami sandwiches and we dry our sleeping bags in the sun. My stomach sort of hurts for the rest of the day- it’s one of those days. I have little energy and I climb in my lowest gear. We’re all sort of worn out for some reason- because of the altitude here in Colorado? The steep and dissapearing nature of the trail? Could be. Camp is in a flat pine forest with good bare spots for our tarps, the sound of a rushing stream nearby. I make my hot noodles and crash.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 107: Granby and Grand Lake

August 19
Mileage: 2
1984.5 miles hiked

I sleep badly again, if only because I’m in town again, in a bed. It’s such a comfortable bed though! What a strange world this is. I wake early, lay in bed for awhile, and then commence the slowest morning in the history of anything. I bought a loaf of GF bread and a dozen eggs yesterday so I make toad in a hole (aka circle bread aka eggy in a bready aka tits on toast aka dead baby in a shallow grave) for everyone, as well as some sauteed kale (not really sauteed, cooked in a skillet with oil, a little salt for osmosis. Skilleted?) Then black tea and dark chocolate and leftover chocolate coconut bliss. Then sitting in the guest room for a long time in front of my pile of stuff, texting friends and feeling tired. Then blog writing.

In the afternoon my aunt Christy, who also lives in town, drops by to say hi and offers us a ride back to Grand Lake. We’d planned on hitching, as Amy had to get up in the wee hours to go to work, so this is great. And I get to hang out with my aunt! Did I tell you basically my whole extended family lives in Colorado? They’ve been here for five generations. My great-grandparents homesteaded in what in Arvada. My family were cowboys, now they’re all mechanics. My parents moved to Alaska after getting married in the seventies. It’s a long story…

En route to Grand Lake we pass a stand selling Palisade peaches. Palisade is a town outside of Grand Junction, a desert town in western Colorado where much of my family lives. That area produces the best peaches I’ve ever had in my life. I remember when my grandparents adopted me in high school, and I moved from Alaska to Grand Junction. I’d never eaten fruit right off of a tree before. That fall the peaches on my grandparent’s trees ripened, the branches practically snapping under the weight. I stood in the warm dusk and tore open a peach, the juice running down my forearms. I brushed off the earwigs. It was one of the most memorable moments of my teen years.

The peaches at this stand on the shores of the lake aren’t ripe, though. They wouldn’t have shipped well that way. I get one anyway and try to remember the way the desert smelled at dusk, right before the crickets came on.

In Grand Lake we run a last few errands and then I sit at the library and finish working on my blog. Dinner is a burger and fries from the Dairy King and then we’re off, walking along the lake. We make it all of two miles before throwing our bedrolls down among some blowdowns next to a stream. The sky is clear and we get to cowboy camp! For the first time in longer than I can remember.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 106: The Never Summer Wilderness

August 18
Mileage: 20
1982.5 miles hiked

On this day in 2014 I finished my second thru-hike of the PCT. I think my body remembers that, and wants to be done. Or maybe it’s the giardia. Soon, I tell my body. Soon.

Just 20 miles today to the town of Grand Lake, Colorado. We’re in the aptly named Never Summer Wilderness- a cold front is rolling through, and an icy haze hangs over everything. Hot tea and dark chocolate with my breakfast has never been better. I slept badly and woke at 5 a.m. to my period. I lay in my bag for a long time with cramps before getting up to greet the icy morning. Track Meat and Spark are slow too. Nobody wants to hike when it’s cold like this.

This morning we take what I’ve come to think of as a “Colorado Shortcut”- a “shorter route” that requires one to climb cross-country up and over an insanely steep ridge with no trail. It’s fun and interesting and very hard and by the time I get to the top up near 12k feet I’m whooped. It’s only 10 a.m.

The rest of the day involves gentle hiking on good tread down to a series of dirt roads that will eventually take us to the town of Grand Lake. My cousin Amy lives in Granby, which is close to Grand Lake. Amy works as a mechanic and gardener for the city of Winter Park and has a little house she shares with her two cats. We’re the same age, and we’ve always been buds. We’ll be staying with Amy tonight, and I’m stoked!

In Grand Lake our nacho dreams become a reality- there’s a grill with peanut shells on the floor that sells plates of nachos so massive that neither Track Meat or I can finish ours. I’m so full afterward I feel certain I’ll never be hungry again. It is in this food coma state that Amy finds us and sweeps us away to Granby. At her nice cozy house with her nice couch and tea collection and cats we shower, do laundry, charge all the things and then, since hunger is inevitable in spite of all our efforts, we eat ice cream and kale salad for dinner. The boys put on a movie but I’m fucked-up tired so I crash in Amy’s tropical colored guest room, my gear exploded all over the floor.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 105: what kind of nachos

August 17
Mileage: 27
1962.5 miles hiked

I toss and turn all night, waking at one point to notice that the drizzle has stopped and there’s an eerie quiet up here on the ridge. So, so quiet. How often, in the built up human world, does one get to experience quiet like this? Never I think.

I wake for the last time at 5:30 and can’t get back to sleep. I lay in my sleeping bag for a long time, feeling warm and cozy in all my layers. It’s nice to finally feel warm. If only layers didn’t make my pack feel so heavy…

I use the last of my water for breakfast so I’m waterless for the first eight miles this morning. Hiking thirsty always makes me a little grumpy, so I’m stoked when I finally reach the little stream. I make hot tea and a salami sandwich. I’ve been packing out a loaf of GF bread, a pound of salami and a bottle of mayo for every section. It’s wonderful.

Today commences the hardcore Colorado ridgewalking that is like Montana but on steroids. High treeless ridges with no tread, going up and down and up and down. Looking at the elevation profile- does the trail really do that? Climbing one thousand feet in one mile, a bit of flat ridge, and then doing it again. All the way up to 12,300 feet. A thunderstorm rolls in and Spark and I hide in a cluster of trees, watch it roll over us and away. Up top you can see the entire surface of the earth, the wind batters us and there’s a shelter, everyone’s names carved into the wood. Hikers ahead of us, hikers behind. People who hiked in 2006, 2010. The way down is a narrow ridge with scree sides so steep I can’t look down. The wind chaps my lips and tries to steal my hat. I feel dehydrated and my knees creak. Going down just to come back up.

For the rest of the afternoon the three of us fantasize anout nachos. What kind of nachos would you make, if you could make any kind of nachos? Camp is in a spongy low forest. Dark comes early and cold does too. I lay in my tarp in all my cozy layers editing photos on my phone. Much happy.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 104: ridges and thunderstorms aka the Colorado Experience

August 16
Mileage 24
1939.5 miles hiked

I wake up at 6 a.m., even though I fell asleep at 7 p.m. last night. Dang, I must’ve needed that. Track Meat and Spark are in the same boat, just now beginning to stir in their tents. It sprinkled cozily all night, and I was so cozy and warm in my tarp. Have I mentioned how much I love my tarp?

I realize something as I’m sitting in my sleeping bag, heating water for tea on my magical alcohol stove- this is the third morning in a row when I haven’t felt like shit when I woke up. No crushing, flu-like fatigue with its attendant black mood, no stomach upset. I feel like myself- happy to be alive, happy to be in the woods. You know what? I think the herbs are helping. They helped when I had amoebas several years ago, when antibiotics failed me then, and I think they’re helping me now. I take them three times a day and I can almost feel them in there, slowly but surely changing the environment of my gut. My sugar cravings have gone down, and my vinegar/salt cravings have gone through the roof. And my energy level is improving, if how fantastic I felt during our 3 a.m. 5100 foot climb of Long’s peak yesterday is any indicator. Healing ones gut, tho, is a slow process, and I’m sure I’ll still have bad days. I likely won’t be able get back to 100% until after the trail, when I can focus more fully on my diet. But today I feel good and I’m fucking stoked to be here, and that’s fucking awesome. I never taking one of these days for granted again!

We’re lazy packing up and then within a mile of walking on the road we run into an older couple in a homemade camper, and they hail us over for coffee. They’ve hiked the AT, PCT, and parts of the CDT. They live in Florida and in a month they’ll sail to Cuba in a sailboat. We sit in camp chairs listening to their stories for a while and when we finally get to walking again it’s 9 a.m.

“I want to be like those guys when I grow up,” I say as we walk away. Seeing happy older couples living lives of magic and adventure always gives me hope- maybe it’s possible for the rest of us? Maybe?

The three of us are all feeling a bit sluggish this morning. I’m secretly glad that I’m not the only one that’s sluggish today, that Spark is sore from practically running to the summit of Longs Peak and back and that Track Meat is just generally sleepy. Maybe tomorrow my friends will be rested and ambitious and they will leave me in the dust, but not today.

Here is the Colorado Experience: the morning is clear and cool, the afternoon curdles and becomes oppressively humid, then thunderclouds, lightning, some rain. We climb ever so slowly up to eleven thousand feet, and that’s where we are when the storm comes in. We’re high and exposed but there isn’t much in the way of lightning, so I feel safe. For today. Spark explains to Track Meat and me how to do CPR.

“Is that what you do when someone’s been struck by lightning?” I say. “Because their heart stops?”

“Sometimes,” he says.

The rain continues all evening until we’re cold and grumpy. Camp is on a ridge, each of us tucked into the trees as best we can. I make hot noodle dinner, which is fucking incredible, and sit cozy and warm in my tarp, eating it. The rain lets up just before sunset and the lights twinkle on in some small town way below. It’s good to be alive.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 103: a side trip up Long’s Peak

August 15
Mileage: 13 (doesn’t count)

Even though I tossed and turned and slept maybe four hours, I feel great when I wake at 2:55 to Spark’s alarm. The three of us stuff our things away in the dark room, fumbling for snacks and water bottles, trying to guess how cold it’ll be and which layers to bring. This reminds me of Lia, Jess and my apline starts last winter- South Sister, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mount hood. I feel happy and excited- I’m going on an adventure with friends! To climb a mountain! It’s thrilling in a different way than thru-hiking- it’s its own special thing. I’ve missed it.

Speaking of layers, I have layers now! I was reunited with my tights and gloves in Steamboat, and I picked up a long-sleeve capeline as well. No more sleeping cold! As a result, however, my pack seems suddenly massive. Oh well.

We’re ready to go by ten after three. I eat a salami sandwich, pop some caffeinated jelly beans, and put on my shoes in the car. There’s no time to brush my teeth. I’m ready!

The trail to Long’s Peak climbs on gently-graded, well-maintained switchbacks. What a revelation this is! I can’t remember the last time I hiked on trail this nice. Not to mention switchbacks! It’s like the freakin PCT. I miss the PCT…

I feel really good this morning, and I feel even better as we climb, our headlamps bobbing like disembodied orbsย  in the dark. Seminole woke up with an epic earache/headache, and after a couple of miles he unfortunately has to turn around. Track Meat, Spark and I soldier on. We’ve got to make it to the top!

The sun rises when we’re just below the boulder field. The eeriest, reddest, most liquid-seeming sunrise I’ve seen. The sun practically quivers over the horizon.

“Red sun in the morning, sailor take warning,” says Spark. But nah, the thunderstorms won’t come until the afternoon. We should be good.

I’m slow crossing the boulder field- I’m not a magical balancing ninja like Spark. After the boulder field comes the keyhole, a notch in the jagged ridge through which we climb. It’s windy in the keyhole, the wind battering me. I sit there with Track Meat and Spark, looking out at the next part- a long traverse of the vertical rock wall via a series of narrow ledges/non-ledges/hand and foot holds/rock chutes that will eventually lead one to the summit.

I make it past the first hairy spot wherein one must hold on to the rock wall and if one were to let go one would fall to one’s death before deciding, you know what, this has been an awesome hike and I’m having a great time and why should I ruin that. Because I’m fucking terrified. Track Meat turns around not long after, and we start to make our way slowly down. Balancing Ninja Spark is having the time of his life, racing along the ledges/hold and passing all the other hikers.

The hike down the mountain on good solid ground in the warm sun is peaceful and nice. I feel so good today! Like actually happy! Morale is high. Everything’s gonna be alright!

We chill at the trailhead with Seminole, who is hella bummed about not being able to climb the mountain, until Spark returns, haggard and sunburnt. He chatters about how much sketchier it became after the point where we all turned around, how steep the rock chutes where, how much exposure there was. He complains about how slow the other hikers were on the descent- “Like they thought they were gonna die or something,” and how he had to work his way around them. Hmmm…

We all crash in the car on the three hour drive back to the trail, hungry and sleep deprived. We stop at a grocery store to resupply and Track Meat and Spark buy a huge fried chicken dinner. I get veggies and hummus. We spread out our picnic at the campground near Rabbit Ears Pass, and say goodbye to Seminole. Thank you so much Seminole for the adventure! Much food is consumed, and we set up our tents against the afternoon drizzle. It’s not even five p.m. but I really, really want to go to sleep. This has been a good triple zero- tomorrow we hike!

Photos on instagram

CDT day 102: my, ah, second zero in Steamboat Springs…

August 14
Mileage: zero

Track Meat and Spark are not hiking out today. So if I hike out, that means doing the next section solo. I’m not really stoked about hiking another section by myself, and the boredom that it entails… and plus, I miss my friends. It’s so good to talk and laugh with people again!

We talk to another CDT hiker turned Steamboat Springs resident, Seminole, and he offers to host us for the night. John Lennon must prepare the cabin to return to its owners in a week, and so he can’t host any more hikers. We go to the local pizza buffet with Seminole- and run into Buck-30! He’s looking sun-weathered and his faded green shirt is in tatters. He’s stuffing pizza into his face with determination.

Seminole tells us about a nearby 14-er (that’s a peak above 14 thousand feet), Long’s Peak, that he’s been wanting to climb for a while. He hasn’t been able to find anyone to climb it with. It’s one of the harder 14-ers, with exposure and class 4 scrambling. 14 miles round trip with 5100 feet of elevation gain. We’d have to leave at three in the morning. Do we want to climb it? Good, that’s settled.

Next thing I know we’re headed through Rocky Mountain National Park to Estes Park, where our buddy Ole from PCT 2013 lives with his trail crew. From there it’ll be only a 20 minute drive to the trailhead. When we arrive and spill from the car Ole is grilling burgers, and all his nice trail crew friends are standing about drinking beers. More people to talk to! What luck is this! I make guacamole, marveling at the magic that is fresh guacamole. What wonders this world holds! Also, in-season tomatoes. Is there anything better? And watermelon!

It’s grown dark by the time we’ve stuffed ourselves and we throw down our bedrolls in an empty building next door. Spark sets his alarm for 2:55 a.m. Fuck, what are we doing? I feel apprehensive- my energy has been super low on account of my gut stuff. Will I be able to climb this mountain? I did just double zero- that should help, at least. It’s stuffy where we’re sleeping and I lay half in my sleeping bag, feeling very awake.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 101: eat everything salty and try to find a laundromat: a zero in Steamboat Springs

August 13
Mileage: zero

For some reason I arrive in Steamboat Springs craving salt. Lots, and lots, and LOTS of salt. Here are some of the salty things I eat, each one positively euphoric tasting:

-3/4 a bag of chips and nearly an entire jar of salsa (breakfast)
-Three carnitas tacos, beans and rice (lunch)
-hummus and veggies
-Roast chicken
-cheap grocery store sushi
-the rest of the chips and salsa (dinner)

I want nothing sweet ever again. Not even cherry pie lara bars!

I also do my laundry (getting yelled at in the process of looking for a laundromat b/c I’m obviously a strung-out junkie, natch), go to the post office a few more times, find a new hiking dress (on sale!), ride the free bus (yay!) and resupply at the fanciest City Market grocery store I have ever seen, ever.

Track Meat and Spark appear in the afternoon, starving and fried from the sun. Is that what I looked like yesterday? I’m so excited to see them- friends!! After they’ve inhaled burritos we walk the long two miles back to the cabin in the afternoon pre-thunderstorm heat. We meet up with John Lennon there, who wants me to let you know that he’s a meth-addled recluse shut-in and sort of creepy. But actually he’s really nice and funny, and it’s great to have a new face around to joke with. Topic of discussion among the four of us in the cabin as Track Meat and Spark sort through their magic decks: the best way to dispose of a tiny baggie of meth, if one were presented with a tiny bag of meth. Best answer- hollow out one of the antique books that line the shelves of the cabin and stash the meth in there, with a note that says “free meth”. Second best answer: Super-glue the meth to some weed, super-glue googly-eyes to that, and smoke the whole mess in a bong. (Disclaimer: we are not doing meth, I have no interest in doing meth.)

Should I go back to the trail tomorrow, or double zero while Spark and Track Meat do their chores? Hmm…

Photos on instagram