CDT day 114: the Colorado Trail is a glorious dream

August 26
Mileage: 30
2198.5 miles hiked

I sleep the sleep of a dead person and wake at 7 a.m. feeling groggy and completely rejuventated. Not exactly early but hey, it was worth it.

The CDT is the same as the Colorado Trail for this stretch! That means consistent signage and glorious, PCT style tread. There are even switchbacks. I am in heaven and even though I got a late start I’m able to make good time, climbing 2,500 feet up and over Searle Pass and along Elk Ridge as a thunderstorm brews above me. I hear thunder but don’t see lightning and I’m back below treeline before the worst of it hits.

In the afternoon I’m walking on a bit of dirt road when I see a mama bear and two cubs, strolling casually in my direction without a care in the world. I love that moment before a bear notices me- they just seem so at ease. The mama bear sees me and pauses- she swings her head back and forth, trying to smell. What means me? Then she turns around and begins strolling just as casually in the opposite direction, cubs in tow. Act natural, I imagine her saying to her cubs. As soon as she hits the trees she breaks into a run, sticks breaking beneath her. Run! I imagine her saying. Run as if your life depended on it!

After the initial pass, the elevation profile is gentle and rolling for the rest of the day. And this nice tread! What a glorious break this is. The day is cloudy and cool, and it sprinkles a little and then stops. I pass Colorado Trail hikers, but they’re all northbound so I don’t get to chat for long.

A few miles before camp there is a cooler! Full of sodas! The first trail magic I’ve seen on this trail! Sadly I’m off the sugar wagon for my gut so I just hold open the lid of the cooler and look at the jumbled, shiny cans. Just looking at them makes me happy. Those bright colors, those promises of caffeine…

Camp is in a lush meadow, a stream running through the center of it and mountain ridges on either side. Presently the waxing moon rises and bathes the dark ridges in purple light. I heat water for beans and pitch my tarp. I get to sleep on the ground again out here where it’s peaceful! The good life.

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CDT days 112 and 113: a double zero in Silverthorne/Frisco/Breckenridge

August 24 and 25
Mileage: zero

Ski towns may not have souls but the food sure is good. Cheap sushi, jerk chicken, beef brisket, salad and tahini dressing, olives, dolmas, real potato salad. I am speaking, of course, of the whole foods hotbar. Also, I eat at Chipotle four times in two days. Coconut bliss in our motel room. South Park marathon on the TV. When I was a teenager this show was full of hate and kind of too violent- it seems to have become smarter and mellower since then. Still, I can only stomach so much of it. It’s just so… bro-y. I’m already over-bro-d out here. And my dude-friends are like the least bro-y bros there are! Taking the free bus around running errands. Outlet shopping for synthetic athletic seperates and then returning everything. Feeling sleepy. An excellent afternoon nap. At bedtime the three of us simulate our natural habitat in the motel by turning the A.C. on high, until it’s freezing. The only way any of us can fall asleep. I almost stay a third night- Buck-30 is in town and a friend of his has an apartment where Track Meat, Spark and I can crash- but at the last minute I decide to hike out. Everyone is watching Animal House and drinking vodka out of pineapples and I suddenly get the awful sensation that I’ve been in town too long and if I don’t get back to the woods and curl up on the good hard ground in the dark I’m going to lose my mind. I take the shuttle back to the trail and hike exactly one mile before setting up my tarp in a light drizzle, feeling the anxiety slough off of me. I’m free!

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CDT day 111: climbing over castle walls

August 23
Mileage: 17
2168.5 miles hiked

As soon as it’s dark an icy wind comes rushing along the stream we’re camped next to, transforming our idyllic balmy campsite into Antarctica. What do they call this- the catabatic effect? When you camp next to flowing water and there’s a cold, cold wind? This wind is blowing right in my face so I put my pack there, between the bottom of my tarp and the ground. It is so. Fucking cold.

I wake up stiff from sleeping curled in a little ball but we’ve got a long climb over Ptarmagin Pass first thing, and that warms me. Once on top of the pass we can see all the way down into the town of Silverthorne. Town! Food!!

Track Meat and I take a wrong turn on the trail into town and end up on a dirt road that leads to a paved road that winds past some barns and horse pens… we don’t realize we’re on private property until we reach a tall stone wall and massive wrought-iron gate at the end of the paved road, town on the other side of it. The gate is locked so we pretend we’re being chased from a castle and climb over the high stone wall, saying Oh no! They’re coming! Quick! and laughing a lot.

There is a chipotle in Silverthorne. The mythic on-trail chipotle of the CDT! We meet Spark there- he managed to stay on the right trail- and large quantities of food are consumed, which leads to great contentment. Afterward we wander around Silverthorne, which is nothing but an endless sprawl of outlet malls, until we’re thouroughly depressed. We then walk seven miles on the paved bike path to Frisco, which we’d heard was less expensive, and I secure a room for us on the outskirts of town, near the walmart and the whole foods. There’s nothing good on the TV and eventually we fall asleep.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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