CDT day 99: A shepherd, a sheepdog and climbing to 12,000 feet

August 11
Mileage: 26
1896.5 miles hiked

I’m sitting on the ground eating breakfast when a man walks up, a big white dog trotting behind him. The man is Latino, wears jeans and work boots. A plastic sack, one quarter full of dog food, is slung over his shoulder.

The man stops and smiles. He points up the trail towards distant meadows and explains that he’s a sheep herder. He doesn’t speak english. What am I doing here?

I try and wrack my brain for the last bit of spanish lodged there. I’m walking from Canada to Mexico, I say. A hundred people do it every year.

“Are you married?” He says, eyeing me. “Where is your husband? Do you have children?”

I try and think how to answer his questions. I can tell from the way he’s looking at me that he thinks of women as property- and here’s an unclaimed one, just sitting on the ground in her sleeping bag, eating granola. But he doesn’t seem creepy, really. Just hopeful.

“I am married,” I say. “No children.”

“Don’t you want children?” He says. Then, looking at my pile of gear on the ground- “Don’t you get cold? What do you eat?”

I show him my food bag. “Chips. Jerky. Bars. What do you eat?”

“Potatoes,” says the man amicably. His big white dog, previously shy, has sidled up to me and is now lolling about on my collapsed tarp.

“And sheep?” I say.

“Sometimes sheep.”

The man’s face is weathered and dark beneath his baseball cap, his hands gnarled. He smiles and tells me he is thirty years old. I imagine that he’s always been a shepherd, moving through these mountains with his flocks of sheep. Then he asks, inexplicably-

“Aren’t you afraid of bears?”

“No,” I say. “When the bears see me they scream and run away.”

The man laughs at this, and then he leans over and reaches for the cup of granola in my hands.

“No!” I say. “Goodbye!”

The man backs away with a million polite apologies. I say goodbye again, less awkwardly. We wave at each other and then he’s gone, walking slowly up the trail with the sack of dogfood over his shoulder. I think about what it means to be a woman hiking alone- certain types of people might assume you’re an easy victim. This man meant me no harm, he was just curious. But what if I crossed paths with someone shadier? I shouldn’t camp next to the trail, I remind myself. I know this. It’s just been a while since I camped solo. I should always set up my tarp somewhere out of sight.

Fifteen minutes later I’m packing up and I hear a noise- it’s the man’s big white dog, standing in the clearing watching me.

“Hello,” I say.

The dog follows me at a respectful distance for about a mile, to a river crossing where the bridge is out. I rock hop to a partially submerged log, and scoot my way up the log to the opposite bank. It’s not the best crossing, and I don’t even keep my feet dry- it’s just the one that was in front of me, and I didn’t feel like looking for a better one. I turn to see the dog rock-hopping where I crossed, and then scooting up the log on his belly. Well how about that, I think. The dog comes over to me and I notice suddenly how thin he is under his white fluff, how mangy and scabby his face is. He half wriggles with happiness/half cringes while I pet him. Food, I think. You really really really want food.

I walk down the bank to fill my water bottles and when I turn around I see the dog nosing my pack.

“No!” I say. “Hey!” The dog ignores me, so I throw a rock in his general direction. All dogs everywhere understand the language of the thrown rock. The dog lopes away and then turns back theatrically, a hurt look on his face.

I thought we were… friends? I thought you might have some… food?

I watch the dog sidle down the log and rock-hop back across the river. He pads up the trail and is gone.

I am not as tired today as I was yesterday. That feels nice. I turn on my audiobook and cruise on autopilot. I’m climbing, today, from 8400 ft up to 12,000 feet, over the course of seven miles. I take my time with this climb, stopping for lots of breaks. Up top I’m in an alpine wonderland of small clear tarns, jumbles of boulders, lumpy meadows full of flowers. Thin air. The big sky clouds over and it starts to drizzle, but it’s not too cold. The view is beautiful- mountains in all directions, valleys down below. The drizzle follows me all the way to camp. I reach a glassy lake ringed in pines right at dusk, throw up my tarp against the rain. 10,800 feet. Inside the tarp I am safe, I am dry. I arrange my things around me in the dark. Tomorrow is Steamboat Springs!

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