Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, June 01, 2017

An unexpected turn of events...

You may notice a redesign of the blog -- when I signed in last night, there was a popup from Blogger informing me that new templates were available, and they were compatible with mobile phones. So I changed to one of them. However, on their little mobile phone simulator it still looks like crap. Sorry, mobile users.

I don't always post the name of the location where I have adventures. These are special places that I don't want to be overrun. Of course, with a little effort you could probably still figure out where we went this weekend.

When I last wrote, I was suffering from some overuse injuries -- knee pain and toe numbness. At the time I was much more concerned with the knees, but they were mostly back to normal in 2 weeks. The toe numbness, however, turned out to be due to an interdigital neuroma, which soon became very painful. After limping for a month I was diagnosed by a podiatrist. A neuroma occurs when the nerve is injured and begins growing in a disorganized fashion.

Hidden 20-ft waterfall, invisible from the trail

Mine got a little better over time, but steroid injections failed to produce any further results. I could hike several miles at a time now, but felt sure I wouldn't be able to put in the 5 weeks of consecutive 15-mile days I'd need to achieve the dream that'd been riding along in my head for the last 2 years -- hiking the Colorado Trail for my 40th birthday.

Based on what I'd read and been told by my doctors, the next step was surgery. But surgery always carries risks, so I wanted to try all the things people on the internet said had helped them -- special foot pads, more arch support, stiffer shoes, more flexible shoes, toe socks, toe spacers...  My plan was to give all these things a fair shot, then schedule surgery for the fall; I definitely wasn't going to waste the summer recuperating. Nothing solved the problem, although stiffer shoes did seem to help...

Behind the falls

I checked in with my doctor last month. To my surprise, he said the next step was alcohol injections to kill the problem nerve, a treatment that was supposedly successful in 80-90% of cases. I was a little shocked -- no one I'd spoken to and nothing I'd read had mentioned this treatment. If I'd known, I would have tried it much sooner and not spent so much time hoping one of the internet remedies would work so I wouldn't have to go under the knife and spend months recovering.

These frogs were actually jumping up the near-vertical cliff wall. We saw a lot of wildlife we didn't expect to see in the desert -- frogs, a toad, chipmunks and squirrels, and one very unexpected character you'll meet later.

I've now had three injection treatments and it seems to be helping... I completed our (admittedly low-mileage) weekend trip with almost no pain. Unfortunately, like many things that increase our options, it leaves me in a dilemma: do I now try to hike the Colorado Trail this year after all? I will need to decide within the next few weeks.

The stream had a dozen places where the water had sculpted the rock into pools and waterfalls that were deliciously welcome after hiking in the 85-degree full sun.

There are so many little things that figure into my decision:

1. It's been my plan for almost 2 years to hike the trail for my 40th birthday.
2. I'm burnt out and miserable at my job.
3. I might be trying to move from my apartment at the same time I'll be getting ready for the trail, timing dependent... this is unpleasantly similar to last year...
4. Even though my foot seems better, I have no idea whether it'd stand up to hiking almost 500 miles...
5. But, no one who hasn't done it knows how their body will stand up to hiking almost 500 miles.
6. I'd be rushing and stressing to get ready now, the antithesis of the peace I'm trying to cultivate by doing a long hike...
7. But, even if I'd been planning for it all year, I'd probably still be rushing in the last couple weeks. There's always more info to read, gear to tweak, affairs to put in order, etc.
8. I'm going to hate coming back to no job, no health insurance, and possibly no place -- or no place I would have chosen under better circumstances -- to live. All the calm I manage to achieve on the trail will be gone in 2 days...
9. But, how likely is it that I'll really be able to line up these things next year?
10. If I go this year, I'll be cheating myself of  a year of anticipation.

Clear desert night skies

The last point might sound ridiculous, but it's not. Researchers have found that most of the happiness we derive from vacations actually comes from the anticipation and planning of them. As this article states: "Vacations do make people happy... But we found people who are anticipating holiday trips show signs of increased happiness, and afterward there is hardly an effect." Being able to look forward to something all year -- as I expected to be able to do, before I realized last fall that my foot wasn't getting better -- is a lot more fun than a couple weeks of planning where you're too stressed and rushed to enjoy the anticipation.

Now that I have a partner for adventures again -- and my old tent is barely serviceable -- I bought a new 2-person backpacking tent. The new tent has an awning instead of a fly with vestibule. In the morning we just have to undo one zipper to look out at the landscape, rain or shine.

But as I'm writing all of the reasons to wait, they begin to seem unconvincing. How many of the people who set off on long trails every year -- including the famous Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail -- lack a similar list? There are plenty of reasons not to go after our dreams. A mortgage. A relationship that's on the rocks. A new relationship you don't want to leave. Parents with failing health, a near-zero bank account, a great job, a bad back, fear that you're too old, fear that you'll deplete your retirement savings, lack of experience, fear of failure.

The model is the Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL. It's a hybrid single/double wall design, which means that part of the tent body is mesh, with a nylon fly over it, and the other part is just nylon with no netting. It's lighter than a traditional tent; the downside is that it will probably allow some condensation to get on our sleeping bags once we take it outside the desert.

It has 2 "wings" on the sides for gear storage, with little zippers that allow you to access your gear from the inside. The idea is that ingress and egress are easy as you only have to work 1 zipper, and don't have to climb over your gear, as you would in a tent with traditional fly and vestibules.

Why do I want to hike the Colorado Trail to begin with? It's because backpacking is when I feel most like myself, and like I'm doing what my body was made to do. Well, with the apparent exception of my left foot. Also, I really like Colorado and want to know it better.

Near an old mine, fragments of what appeared to be malachite, azurite and amethysts littered the ground.

There was also this odd "geode," which turned out to be beads of pine sap inside of some kind of shell.

As I've written before, I don't have any illusions about finding myself or achieving lasting peace... I'm a voracious reader and listener of trail interviews and podcasts, and despite the neatly packaged tale in the book Wild, it's clear that people tend to finish long hikes not only with no answers, but with even more questions about their life than before.

One of my favorite podcasts is Sounds of the Trail, where thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail conduct interviews with other hikers. What brought you here, what have you learned, what's it like hiking with your daughter, etc... The interviewers' favorite final question is: "What would you say to people who are considering hiking a long trail?" And the hikers' answer is always the same: "Just do it." Apparently, it's something you don't regret.

And so here we are...

On Sunday I took a little day hike by myself so A. could have some studying time. I went off-trail just a bit to climb a rock and get a view. Hoping to see some rare desert bighorn sheep, I got excited when I heard some debris tumbling down the side of the canyon near me. I peered around the bushes to see:

Definitely not who I expected! It's a black bear, despite the coloring. The bear was plodding slowly along and went into a side canyon. There was nothing frightening about the experience -- it noticed neither me nor the other hikers who passed by below me on the trail, chatting away. The other bears I've spotted in the backcountry immediately ran when they saw people, and I imagine this one would have done the same.

I found this item that day as well -- it appears to be a tool made by native people. The edge of the rock has been flaked away to form a sharp edge. This may have been a tool for scraping hides. (I left it where I found it.)

Collared lizard

We would hike for a couple hours in the hot sun, find an area where the stream coursed over bare rock and play for a bit, then hike some more.

Camp on the third night... while I held the spot, A. went back to get her pack. She was gone a long time and finally reappeared carrying both packs, which together were over half her body weight, just to spare me some effort... 

This was the first real test of my new pack. Normally, I'm loathe to spend a penny, especially when I already have items that work perfectly well. When I finally decided last year that since backpacking was my passion, I was allowed to spend some money on it, I began looking for a new pack to replace the nearly-five-pound Blue Beast. But nothing was comfortable for me until I tried the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, which was nicely discounted for Black Friday. The pack is just as comfy as the old one but includes the amazing modern inventions of water bottle holders and hip belt pockets. It also has some distinctive innovations like a tent pocket and unique top closure.

Gossamer Gear is one of the many excellent "cottage manufacturers" whose gear can only be purchased online. I think the Mariposa is better than 98% of the packs available in stores today (and probably equal to the rest), so if you're thinking of upgrading you should take a look at it.

A. has been using my old pack; at 25 years old, it can now rent a car. I finally had to make my first repair to it last year and it's still going strong.

Beautiful evening view near the campsite... 

Beautiful morning view... the tent, I mean... tent comes with free tent-elf. 

Same little falls as at the beginning, but in different light...

I was trying out hiking with an umbrella for the first time. 

 Petroglyphs depicting the annual giant turtle hunt

 Collared lizard and prickly pear

On the long, shade- and water-less hike out, we passed a lot of day hikers coming in. It was Memorial Day. One woman said she'd give me $25 for my umbrella; I said $50. But no verdict on the umbrella as backpacking gear... not yet sure it's worth the extra weight. I will keep trying it.

It's always nice to try out some new gear, and a bit sad to retire some old gear. My faithful water bladder finally started to fall apart, after around a decade of use. This thing was tough as nails -- I remember the ad for it had a car running over a full bladder -- but the outlet hose attachment finally started to pull off. We had to affix it with gear repair tape to be able to finish the trip.

My orange plastic trowel also broke in half, but I wasn't quite so attached to that one.

We also had a lot of minor injuries on this trip, which didn't fit in so neatly with the pictures... I gouged my bare foot on a rock by the water, burnt myself on my stove's pot supports, and walked right into a pointed broken-off tree branch in the dark, so hard I have no idea how it failed to pierce my jacket, let alone my ribs. A. walked into another pointy branch and got a gash on her scalp. Trees are always trying to kill you. It's like in the Wizard of Oz, but real.

Well, my friends, I don't know what the future holds. Tune in again soon?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Post-trip scoop: North Collegiates Loop

OK, so I already made three blog posts about this trip (onetwo and three); that was the narrative, with all its emotional ups and downs. Here's the nitty-gritty about the trails I hiked and the gear choices I made.

This 58-mile loop I pieced together in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is definitely a good one for those looking to challenge themselves. While I did the loop in 4 days, there's nothing to prevent you stretching it out more (or even compressing it... though, yikes). You could also add a resupply or visit to Cottonwood Hot Springs into the trip. The loop incorporates three high passes and you can visit several nearby 14ers as well. It can definitely be made longer with side trips. Can it be made shorter? Only if you're willing to hike off-trail.

The loop can be found in its entirety on the Trails Illustrated topo map #148. (Note that the edition of this map currently in stores is inaccurate as to the current route of the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail around the beginning of the Texas Creek section. All the trails that you need to hike for this loop are present and in the same locations as on the map, but the trail junction signs won't reflect the map in terms of what route the CT/CDT takes, which caused me a moment of confusion when I was out there.)

I chose to go counter-clockwise, leaving the most difficult climb for when my pack would be the lightest. I started at the Missouri Gulch trailhead. Head south out of Leadville, CO on Rt. 24. After you pass Granite, look for Rt. 390 on your right. The Missouri Gulch trailhead is well-marked on the left.

Symmetry in mountain and beaver lodge as seen from 1st roadwalk

From the parking lot, walk west on Rt. 390 until you come to the Sheep Gulch trailhead, about 1.7 miles. (This is one of two short sections of road-walk in the loop.) It's a short but steep climb up Sheep Gulch to get to the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail, where you will turn west again. Though the forest here is very dry, when I went in late July there were plenty of small streams for water.

Furled gentian

The trail takes a left-hand turn and continues on a 4wd road, though I remember it being more trail-like than road-like... this becomes the Lake Ann Trail which, as it climbs, turns into one of the prettiest sections of the loop. Here you can make a side trip to climb 14er Huron Peak if desired. Lake Ann itself is one of the gems of the trip. Camping would be beautiful here in good weather; otherwise, there are spots lower on the trail. Lake Ann Pass is likewise one of the highlights of the trip.

Lake Ann

Over the pass, the trail descends into the forest for a good long time. When it finally reaches Texas Creek, make a left. Campsites are easy to find in the lower part of this valley. You will leave the CT/CDT here and continue until you see the sign for Browns Pass. Cross the creek and begin climbing. The area below Browns Pass is especially lovely, with a perfect little campsite among meadows of wildflowers. Views are awesome too.

Looking down Texas Creek valley from above treeline

Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to finish the Browns Pass section before afternoon storms hit. The trail zigzags above treeline for a couple miles, crossing the Continental Divide three times and finally descending to Kroenke Lake. From the lake to the road, the trail is smooth and well-graded, pleasant walking. A side-trip to climb Mount Harvard could be made from here, though that would add another 11 miles.

Elephant heads from above

At the trailhead you'll need to just keep walking, down North Cottonwood Road, to pick up the Colorado Trail (Collegiate East). The road-walk turns beautiful quickly with towering aspen. Where the CT intersects the road, turn north. There won't be too much to break up the forest here, but occasional views out to Buena Vista and the pretty Harvard Lakes are nice. You'll cross the Frenchman Creek trail and eventually find yourself at the Pine Creek trail, where you'll be turning west into the last leg of the trip.

Old mining settlement along Pine Creek

The Pine Creek trail is largely exposed, with less shade than elsewhere on the loop. There are some interesting mining settlements here. You'll pass Bedrock Falls, which struck me as more of a rapids than a falls. Coming up into the Missouri Basin is awe-inspiring; the basin is massive and ringed by giant peaks. Here you could make side trips to climb 14ers Missouri, Belford or Oxford. Belford especially is appealing as it adds only half a mile and 1,000' of vertical gain to your trip.

I had planned to climb Belford originally but in the end chose not to, in order to finish my trip a day sooner. Either way, you'll be heading over killer 13,245' Elkhead Pass, one of the highest in the state. Take your time on the steep descent back to the car.

Trail conditions: A-
Certain sections were overgrown or oversteep and eroded, such as between the Continental Divide and Kroenke Lake, but most trails were well-groomed. There were no bridgeless river crossings.

Campsite & water availability: A-
There were many established sites with fire rings and logs to sit on, and outside of that the dryness of the forest and lack of undergrowth made it easy to find a place to lay down a tent. In late July at least, I rarely walked more than an hour without crossing a stream.

Views: B+
When there were views, they were stunners. High points include the Lake Ann Trail, Browns Pass area and Pine Creek/Missouri Basin. Outside of these, the forest was fairly enclosing and much of the loop is just a peaceful walk in the woods.

Wildflowers: C-
This area is very dry, and flowers are minimal. Exceptions included the Lake Ann trail, the section between the Texas Creek trail and Browns Pass, and around Kroenke Lake.

Solitude: B
It's certainly quieter out here than around Denver and Boulder, but I never went more than a few hours without seeing another person. It is fairly easy to find a place to camp where you'll have solitude.

Now for the gear! There were several items that were getting their first extensive trial on this trip.

Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL1 tent: A-
I do like this tent. I'm not in love with it, but it is what I wanted: light (about 2 pounds), easy to set up, and looks good in photos. I'm serious. The HV model was just introduced this year, with a redesign to give slightly more head/shoulder room and a more vertical door to prevent rain entry. I've had 9 or 10 nights in the tent now and it's only a hair slower to set up than a traditional dome tent. I thought I wouldn't like the front entry door, but I do. I don't find it any more awkward than side-entry, and there are some advantages... I can reach for my gear in the vestibule without having to sit up, and the vestibule itself, while small, is more pack-shaped than the traditional triangular vestibule. I love the 3 mesh pockets on the inside for organizing my junk at night. The tent does have kind of a coffinlike feel to it, and my shoulders brush the sides when I sit up, but it turns out that doesn't bother me too much.

I had chosen this tent over a TarpTent Notch because I didn't think I'd want to fuss with getting the pitch right on a trekking pole tent when I was at my most tired every day. Oh, why am I not in love with it? I'm not sure it's possible to be in love with a tent that makes you feel like you're in a coffin. But the weight : ease-of-use : cost balance was right for me, considering there was a 20% discount and REI dividend in the mix. So far,  I've been pleased with my decision.

I don't know if I'll use the tent forever. The problems that I had with my knees definitely made me renew my commitment to going light... and I enjoyed being outdoors for a week so much that I was finally thinking, maybe I'd actually enjoy just sleeping under a tarp. We'll see.

Homemade polycro tent footprint: A-
Since Big Agnes is staffed by crazy people who charge $60 for the footprint to my tent, I made one myself out of polycro, AKA window shrink-film, for about $1. This plastic is puncture-resistant. (It's not heat-resistant, obviously, so don't leave it in your car all day... like I did with the first one I made.) It works well and I'm definitely pleased with the cost and weight savings. It's just a little tricky sometimes to get it laid out because it wants to blow away even more than a traditional footprint. I did duct-tape some bungie to it so I could fasten it to the tent poles.

Darn Tough light hiker wool/poly blend crew socks: A+
Wow. I love these socks. Maybe I'm odd but I think they're my favorite piece of gear right now. So soft, not too hot during the day, warm at night, just cushiony enough so that I don't feel all the grit that gets in my shoes. They also don't stretch out of shape. Plus, Darn Tough has a warranty where if you manage to wear out their socks, they will send you another pair for free.

Pacerpoles trekking poles: A+
These poles definitely get the Gear MVP Award for the trip. Pacerpoles are a brand of trekking pole with an especially ergonomic grip, allowing you to get more thrust with less strain on your body. I relied heavily on these to get me and my aching knees down hills. I could put quite a bit of my weight on them and never experienced any hand or wrist strain. The company offers free shipping to the US and a free trial period; check 'em out.

Note that I'm still using my 1992 Camp Trails Catskill backpack, which could delicately be called bombproof. I'd review this pack, but pretty sure it went off the shelves some time ago. Nonetheless, I do want to mention that I finally had something break on it: the stitching connecting the hip stabilizer strap to the pack ripped, which is why my hipbelt looks asymmetrical in the pic. I stitched it back up, of course. I've been trying on packs but nothing is as comfortable as this one, so it could be a while.

Sawyer Mini filter: D
This thing crapped out on me on the trip. The flow rate slowed until it was almost impossible to get water through, and repeated backflushing didn't help. So, while I loved it up until now, I think I'm going to abandon it and try the higher-flow-rate Sawyer Squeeze.

Adidas Terrex Agravic trail runners: ???
I was kinda forced to hike in these when my boots started giving me trouble in the first 6 miles of the trip (I had to hitch back to my car and start over; see link to part one of the story at top). Despite my worries about the soles being too squishy and about twisting an ankle, they did awesome. Except that at the very end of the week, a couple of my toes went numb and my foot swelled up. The doctor said my toes are hypermobile and are going to want to bend up too much. Soooo... honestly, I loved the experience of backpacking in trail runners, but it's in question whether I can actually wear them without injury. I would like to try some of the things he mentioned (taping my toes, different insoles) before I go back to boots though.

Leukotape: A
I put some tape on problem spots on my feet the first day of the trip and it stayed on all four days. Great stuff. Hard to find in stores but you can order it online.

Wet Ones sensitive skin hand wipes: A
I'm used to washing with a bandana and some camp soap while on the trail, but for this trip I switched to twice-daily "wipe baths" on problem areas. It worked well. I tend to get breakouts on my hips and shoulders where the pack rests, and the problem was cut about 75% with the wipes.

And a bonus:

Oatmeal: D
Oh, my God. Instant oatmeal becomes completely gross when you're forced to eat it every day on the trail. Never again.

I've discovered I get especially sick of sweet stuff after a few days, which is not only surprising as I have a huge sweet tooth in everyday life, but also kinda sucks because it's the sweet stuff -- Clif bars, candy bars, etc. -- that's the most cheap and convenient. Jerky, nuts, and the few kinds of savory bars that exist are a lot more expensive, and I can't digest cheese... I guess I'm thankful to like peanut butter as much as I do. But if anyone has suggestions for fairly healthy savory snacks that won't break the bank, let me know.

I tried to have more variety in my food this year than I did on last year's trip, but I still kinda failed. For anyone planning a long-distance trip, I don't think I can possibly overstate how much variety matters.

Finally, a bit of news: today I got word that my surgeon had spoken with the insurance company and I'm now approved for surgery on the pinched nerve in my shoulder. I don't know when it will be yet but I know they're trying to get me in as soon as possible. That, along with the fact that I'm waiting for my foot to heal, might mean no adventures for a while. But since there's apparently some interest in my continuing to blog, I'd like to see what else I can come up with to keep you entertained. See you soon!

Friday, August 05, 2016

Rough Meditation

This story is a continuation. Click for Part 1 and Part 2.

It was 10pm and pitch black, and I couldn't find the campsite I was aiming for. All I could see in the glow of the headlamp was thick plant growth. I rounded a corner and my headlamp swept across logs... just logs, as far as I could see. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. I'm already at the logjam. I had overshot my intended campsite in the dark.

There was no way I was going to cross 100 tangled floating logs in the dark. I turned and went back down the trail, looking for anything that might be a campsite. In the end I threw down my tent on a flat spot right next to the trail. I took my bear canister 300' away, sat and ate a bar, singing between bites. I wanted the security of knowing my camp didn't smell like food.

Then I settled in my tent, singing "Edelweiss" to myself. It was comforting. But I was jumpier than usual, exhausted, and startled at every noise. I kept clapping my hands just in case it was a bear. I hoped there was no one camped nearby that I was scaring half to death. Morning couldn't come soon enough... and then it came too early, as I'd finally gotten to sleep and didn't want to wake up.

There was someone camped in another tiny flat spot just down the trail from me. I'm still wondering what time he got in and whether I drove him insane.

The logjam. Vaster than the picture really conveys, it has to be crossed to continue on the trail.

Packing up camp, I noticed my knees were swollen. In fact, I could barely bend them (peeing was a bit of a challenge). I was concerned about this -- I'd never had it happen before -- but they weren't too painful, so while I briefly pondered whether I should turn around, it wasn't much of a thought. They would loosen up as I walked.

The loveliness of the final hike up to Snowmass Lake made me glad I came. The lushness of the area around Aspen is unbelievable -- and it seemed even better than last year. Not only were there more flowers, they were gigantic. In the Collegiate Peaks there were occasional, dusty little bluebells up to my calf; here they were everywhere and up to my chest, with larkspur and cow parsnip as high as my head.

Snowmass Lake, at which I stayed only a moment; I had camped there two nights last year


I had chosen to do the loop in a clockwise direction, so I'd get the segment I'd already done last year "out of the way." That meant that Buckskin Pass, arguably the hardest pass, was up first. And by 10am, it was killing me. I'd had a hell of a time getting up the pass last year, but this year, ostensibly in better shape, I was having an even harder time. There was no "oomph" left in my legs. I had to accept that the 60-mile trek through the Collegiates had taken a lot out of me.

(By the way, the odd phenomenon I'd noticed last year was still happening, and it wowed me: as I climbed higher and higher, Snowmass Peak in the distance also seemed to grow with me, soaring higher with every step. In person it felt like a planet-scale optical illusion.)

I really struggled to get to the top. I told myself that once I made it I'd spend more than 2 minutes there -- last year I'd had to get down quickly due to a storm, and didn't get to relax and look around in the most visually stunning place on the hike. But when I arrived, the wind was blowing too hard to relax. I snapped a couple photos and headed down the other side even faster than I had the first time.

Snowmass is the double peak in the far distance. You can also barely see, below and to the right, the blue of Snowmass Lake where I'd been a few hours before. It's just awesome to be able to see how far you've walked.

Some goofball

Looking down the very steep east side of the pass

The east side of the pass seemed to go straight down beneath my feet, carpeted in red and yellow and green. The flowers blew my mind. I'd thought they were crazy last year, but this year it was otherworldly.

I began to descend, taking photos along the way. It didn't take long to realize that my optimism about my knees that morning was unfounded. Going down hurt. And they were swelling even more; my left knee was round, pudgy. Soon I was limping. I stopped, confusion and consternation bubbling up.

I didn't know what was going on. Obviously the back-to-back 18-mile days, and the race down the steep Missouri Gulch -- all of which had felt nearly pain-free when I did it -- had done some damage. But what exactly had been done, and what would make it better? I had no idea if this was a harmless, temporary bit of inflammation that would clear up as I walked, or if it was serious damage and I should be doing nothing other than elevating my legs and icing them.

Experimentally, I continued down the slope, just seeing if the pain would lessen as my knees got used to going downhill again. Unfortunately, it worsened. So, downhill maybe not so good. Still, there were only a few more miles of downhill, and then the terrain would be gentler for a while. I'm being a pussy, I thought. If I keep walking gently they'll probably loosen up, and I'll feel better tomorrow and even better the next day. I continued down the slope. Even worse.

But I loved these paintbrushes. Who hasn't felt like the odd one out?

I pulled over at a campsite (and my, do the campsites above Crater Lake have amazing views) and took an hour-long break, placing my hydration bladder, filled with ice-cold stream water, over my knees. But at hour's end, I felt no better. While still afraid I was being a wimp and giving up on something great "for no reason," I decided it was best to turn around. And so I hauled myself back up Buckskin, tears of fatigue and frustration forming in my eyes. I was crying. Again.

I was feeling pretty low when I heard a rock bounce down the steep eastern face, and I thought, that could be goats! I looked up: nothing.

And then I looked again.

High above me were a nanny goat and tiny kid, scampering over the sandstone. The nanny disappeared over the pass, but the kid came back and stood watching me. It called for its mother a few times in a high whistly voice.

I stared. I wanted to absorb everything about this goat: the way it moved on the rocks, what it was eating, how it interacted with its mom. I knew nothing about them. I tried to focus, despite the interrupting voice of the guy on top of the pass telling his buddy about how he worked from home in New Jersey.

The kid wandered so far away I could barely see it, so I turned to finish my climb up Buckskin. Soon, New Jersey Guy appeared at the top and yelled to me, "There's a goat over there!", pointing to where the trail continued.

I said, pointing, "I know, its kid is over there!"

Then I stepped up the final steps to the top of the pass, turning round the final corner -- and the nanny goat was RIGHT in front of me. Oops! The first thing I did was back a few steps away. The second was take out my camera. Holy wow!

After giving me an initial beady-eyed stare, the goat continued what it was doing. Which was wandering toward me. It got within ten feet of me and I got a little nervous and backed up. And it continued browsing like I wasn't even there.

If I hadn't turned around, I thought, I never would have seen them. Surely there's some consolation in that.

I watched the goat for about an hour, but mostly it kept its nose to the ground, feeding, and I started to get a little bored. I realized that if I got a move on I could be back at Snowmass Lake by 6, and make camp in daylight surrounded by lots of cheerful backpackers and mountaineers, instead of making camp in the dark somewhere alone.

But as I started walking, I noticed a funny thing. The swelling in my knees was gone. I could bend each of them almost to their usual limit. The pain was gone too. What was happening? It seemed unlikely that I'd just been blessed by magic mountain goats. I thought perhaps that my knees were healing all along, despite the earlier pain, and they'd continue to feel better as the hours went by. I filled with a firm sense of confidence inside, a deep conviction, utterly lacking earlier, that everything would be all right. I would be fine. I was going to do the Four-Pass Loop.

I set again off in the opposite direction, away from Snowmass, and walked my heart out.

OW. NOPE. Nope, nope, nope.

There was absolutely no denying it. This hike was not going to happen. And I didn't know now whether to continue steeply down to the nearest trailhead and somehow get a ride back to my car, or to go back the less-steep way I came. Faced with the uncertainties of trying to hitch a ride from the average Aspen resident, I decided on going back the way I came.

Alas, this time I'd made it even further down than before, thanks more to determination than sense. It was a long way back up to Buckskin. I looked way above my head in the orange evening light. The pass was beautiful, beautiful, almost unbelievably so, studded with red and gold and sheer as a wall, and I was wrung out. Somehow, I still wanted to climb it -- I think mostly because I knew I could.

Looking back

I went slow. And I noticed that the swelling in my knees and the pain disappeared again. I don't understand why, but my knees liked going up. Well, I wasn't going to fall for that old trick.

I was partly resigned to the climb, but mostly, strangely, joyous. I still got an endorphin rush from climbing with a pack on my back, even now. Somehow, it feels, has always felt, like what my body was made to do. And I was broke down and frustrated and terribly sad, but I was all of these things in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, a place I'd had the privilege of treading up and down and up and down for eight hours now. It was horrible and it was heavenly.

I didn't quite want to leave. I took a whole bunch of pictures of the paintbrushes, my favorite flowers, trying to capture all the colors in case I could never come back. Red, magenta, pink, orange, yellow, green, white, grey, blush...

And then I was at the top again. It was 6pm and shadows were getting long. I'd climbed Buckskin three times in one day and I didn't know whether I was foolish, stubborn, or determined. I took a bittersweet portrait at the top. At least I was getting to see the sunset from the top of a pass, a rarity for any backpacker.

But I was at 12,462' and the only way out was down. Now there would be no making camp in the warm daylight with other hikers at Snowmass Lake. Coming down the west side of Buckskin was misery... though less steep than the east side, it sure was steep enough, and I limped, cursing all the up-and-down I'd chosen to do that day. Why am I so clueless and indecisive??

I leaned heavily on my trekking poles. One step at a time.

I knew there were many campsites on the west side of Buckskin, but once again, as darkness fell, I couldn't find any of them. I went down switchback after switchback, thinking at each corner that this time, there'll be a campsite, and then I wouldn't see it. It was dark when I found one.

That night was the low point of my trip. I lay in my tent with my knees throbbing, thinking how stupid it was to have pushed so hard in the Collegiates, soaked for hours directly afterward in a hot springs when I really needed ice, not turned back at the first sign of infirmity, and, finally, chosen to come back over Buckskin instead of continuing down to the closer trailhead and thumbing for a ride. I didn't know whether I'd done permanent damage. And I didn't know how long it would take me to get out.

I wasn't in any danger... I wasn't injured injured, and I had plenty of food and water, and the Bells are crawling with people anyway. But I went to sleep with visions of misery in my head, of another day -- or two, considering how slow I was going -- of creeping downhill under a load of pain. Whatever it was, it would have to be done, and it didn't bear much thinking about. I would get it done.

I slept. For the first time in over a week, I slept eight hours and more. And as seems usually to be the case, everything was better in the light of morning.

My knees were in slightly better shape and I was able to walk at a respectable pace for most of the day. I even enjoyed myself for some of it. Have I told you the flowers are amazing up here? It seemed like there were billions of people on the trail, all of them asking me, "Did you just do Buckskin?" or variations of the same. I was honest with some of them. "Sort of. I hurt my knees and I had to turn around."

Two young women congratulated me on listening to my body. (I wasn't sure I had done such a great job of that.) I said, "Yeah, I did a 60-mile loop before this and I guess I just wore my knees out." Their jaws dropped.

"Wow. You are a badass," said one. "You inspire me." And hot damn, that just made my whole day. I don't believe I've ever been called a badass before. Then I realized I'd left my gloves a mile back and (foolishly, stubbornly) decided I wanted to go back to get them because I have such a hard time finding gloves that fit. So I did. It took an hour. Badass.

Ahead was the stretch I was most dreading, the steep section I had come up singing in the dark two nights before. It was exactly as bad as I feared and I winced down it at a snail's pace in the baking sun, praying every minute that the trail would flatten out around the next bend. This was now The Thing I Had To Get Through to get home. I turned my mind off. If I could finish this today, I would still have a day of vaction left...

When I couldn't take the pain anymore I let myself stop for a break. I sat down on a rock and had some flatbread and peanut butter. A man came up the trail toward me. He stopped and asked if I'd climbed Snowmass. I laughed. "No way," I said, flattered. As he passed on a cloud covered the sun and a breeze came up, and in that moment it was like all the weight dropped from me.

When I write my trip reports it's hard for me to tell, from the inside, whether I'm really painting a picture of beauty or of misery. It's hard to convey just how the latter makes the former. I was never, never so grateful for a word and a breeze as I was in that moment. It made me light and clear inside. I stood up and finished the rest of the steep section. There is no breeze like the breeze when you're struggling under a pack on a hot day, no taste like the first bite of dinner, and no ecstasy like the first shower after five days in the woods.

A new flower for me -- what could it be?

And a new orchid, Goodyera oblongifolia. I never would have spotted this if I hadn't happened to take a break right beside it.

I made it to the car around 4pm. I didn't want to go home; home wasn't a happy place lately. What I wanted was a nice flat stretch where I could walk easily and keep my knees from stiffening up. I looked at my maps. The flattest thing was the trail that winds around Twin Lakes, conveniently halfway between Aspen and home. That's where I would spend the night.

Somehow during my brief time in Aspen I'd forgiven my grudge against the dryness of the Collegiate Peaks area, and was actually looking forward to going back there. I was especially looking forward to it being easier to find a place to camp.

Back on the CT/CDT.

Hard to see, but it's a baby aspen growing in an old fire ring. Choose your metaphor.

The section of trail I'd picked surprised me by being truly beautiful. Little waves lapped on the shore of the Twin Lakes, the sound bringing me back to my Connecticut childhood. For once, there were no bugs.

I actually felt relaxed. I'd been coming to realize over the days that I was very much the same person in the backcountry that I was at home: always with my eye on the future, rushing through one thing so I could get to the next, better thing. And maybe we're all like that. The stunner was that, despite my early certainty that I wouldn't be having any epiphanies in the wilderness, I felt distinctly like a different person than when I'd set out a week ago.

For starters, I felt like I'd been out a month rather than just a week. I'd certainly had a month's worth of experiences. The emotional ups and downs were extreme. I felt like I'd been cored, hollowed out, and most of what was missing were fears.

The fear of having to find a new apartment and move all my belongings right after I have surgery.
Fear that I was being priced out of the city I love, and wouldn't find an apartment I could afford at all.
Fear of what it meant to be no good at my job.
Fear that if I followed my joy and spent more time on the trail and less in town, I'd never find love.

In the place these voices used to occupy was silence. They were gone -- if just for now. I realized that in walking almost a hundred miles in the wilderness I'd been undergoing my own private meditation retreat. I felt older too, in a good way, if that makes sense. Just a few days ago in Pine Creek I had believed my vacation a wash, blighted by poor choices; now I was overwhelmingly glad I'd done it. I slept near the shore of the lake, glancing at the clear sky and deciding to leave the fly off my tent. If it rained, well, I'd only have made another mistake.

I woke up at 2am. It was raining.

I was sprayed with a fine mist as the drops spattered through the mesh. I looked up again at the perfectly clear sky and all its stars -- Colorado! -- and went back to sleep. I woke again at 6, a split second before I recognized the clacking of trekking poles. A thru-hiker was passing by under purple dawn skies.

Twin Lakes at sunrise

There was a really lovely historical site out there. The building was unlocked and open to exploration, with a note to please latch the door when you leave.

Oh, Smokey.

On the trail that day I experienced again a phenomenon I'd been noticing that, before this trip, I'd only heard about. I'd read from thru-hiker accounts that after enough time in the woods, you stop noticing your own smell, and your nose becomes much more sensitive to the artificial scents of shampoo and deodorant. Now, all the day hikers and trail runners I was passing reeked of perfume. I could still smell them a minute after they'd passed. And another thing I'd never had happen before: I saw that the skin over my hipbones was getting thicker from so many miles with the pack. What do you know?

Hope Mountain is the rounded one peeking out at left.

I walked out as far as the turn-off for Hope Pass -- on the other side of which was where I first started, a week and forever ago -- and then turned for home.

I said a while back that I would speak about the CT & CDT, and now I will. The Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail are two of the country's "long trails," or trails over 100 miles. They share the same path for a good ways in Colorado. While the CDT is about 3,100 miles, stretching from Canada to Mexico across the spine of the continent, the CT is "only" 486, from Denver to Durango. Both trails, along with other popular long trails such as the Appalachian Trail, have a culture of "thru-hiking" in which backpackers strive to complete the whole trail at a go. It's a friendly community with its own history, vocabularity, traditions. I love this.

And I love this sign:

There's a lot going on here. At this junction, the Colorado Trail does the splits. Both are official routes: either you can take the easier, less scenic route to the east, or the more dangerous, visually impactful route to the west. They rejoin some 80 miles later. (The CDT officially follows the western route.) The Collegiate West lingers above treeline for stretches of up to 20 miles at a time, leaving hikers exposed to Colorado's notorious lightning storms.

There was a slip of paper at the top of the sign.

I got West, for the record.

When I came back through this part of the trail, there was a young couple having a lunch of hot ramen. I spoke with them for a while. They were struggling to decide which way to go.

"We have until lunch is over to decide," said the young man. "We know West is supposed to be prettier, but we're from Seattle and we're really afraid of lightning. The weather isn't supposed to be very good the next few days."

"Did you flip the coin?"

"Yeah," said the young woman. "We flipped it three times and got West each time."

I'm afraid I subtly encouraged them to go West, because that's the way I want to go. My heart was burning already with the desire to get back to the trail as soon as I could. My legs wanted to walk. I wanted to be out here with these people, doing what I loved. I wanted to keep going.

I was only a few minutes further down the trail when I ran into another thru-hiking couple. I didn't want to go home, so I made them stop and talk with me. Their trail names -- a thru-hiker tradition -- were Blue and Forrest Gump (AKA Sarah and Drew). They had hiked the Appalachian Trail last year and were looking for something a little less all-consuming for this year, so they chose the Colorado Trail.

I asked if they were going Collegiate East or West. They said they didn't know when they were planning that West was supposed to be more beautiful, and had sent their resupply boxes to the east side. I told them where to get off for Cottonwood Hot Springs. Then I realized that though I'd been talking with people all week, I hadn't taken a proper picture of another human being the entire time. So here they are.

I forgot to ask the story of how they got their trail names. But y'all, look at how their arms are linked! 2,000+ miles together and they're still on speaking terms.

I very much want to do this. I don't know what's going to happen. Stepping off the trail means heading back into a world of uncertainty, and it seems too much right now to wish for. In my real life, all of this year has been The Thing I Have To Get Through, and it's time to put my head down again and get back to getting through it. (As I write this my knees are still in pain, I have two numb toes that I acquired toward the end of the trip from who knows what, and my right arm is going numb as well from the pinched nerve. I await more news from the doctor. Hang in there, body.)

I was returning with dread, but also with joy for everything I had just done and wanted to do. They were both fierce in my heart.

I wanted to write all this because I had to hike alone, and there was no one to go through it with me. Now you have gone through it with me. Also, because it was beautiful.

I pulled out of Twin Lakes in search of another root beer and a gas-station hot dog. Clouds were forming over the mountains, true to the forecast. Thunder rolled. I thought about the couple with the ramen and Blue and Forrest and whoever else might be out there, and hoped they would all be well.