I no longer felt like an impostor in a heavy pack from the 90s, but like the real thing. I did know what I was doing!
That night, I managed to dump beef stew into my clothing, just before bed. In bear country.
The beef stew was my only freeze-dried dinner. I used to eat these more in the past, but since I'd discovered it was easy to make your own instant-cook dinners out of potato flakes or microwavable rice in a ziploc, I'd pretty much stopped buying the name-brand offerings. I'd brought only one on this trip, for a treat and some variety. These dinners cook best if you keep them insulated while they rehydrate, and I'd always done that by closing the seal on the bag and carefully placing it in between my insulation layers and my rainjacket. Well.
There I was, sitting on a log doing some chores when I thought, Wow, I can really smell that stew. Then I thought, Hm, I can really smell that stew. Like, more than I should be able to. And I opened up my jacket and yes, my friends, the package had leaked: the outside of my down hoody and the inside of my rain jacket were both covered in brown slime, peas, and tiny cubic chunks of carrot and potato. It was approximately 8pm and the sun would be down soon.
Using my in-line Sawyer as a gravity filter... yes, I know really the filter should be toward the drinking end of the tube.
(Interestingly, and unbeknownst to me, my shampoo had also quietly unsealed itself in the car and was slowly leaking out of my holey toiletries bag and onto my clean clothes.)
Though I wasn't crazy about being coated in stew in bear country, I wasn't afraid either; the honest truth is that we all smell like food all the time to bears, whether or not we can actually see the food on our bodies. But we get bits of food and drink and sweet-smelling toiletries on our clothing and skin throughout the day. Our packs smell like food. Our breath smells like food. (One might even argue that we are all, inside our skins, effectively stew.) And I wasn't alone here; there were several groups camped just a stone's throw away, so if a bear wandered in we could hopefully scare him off together. I would wash as much of the soup out of my clothes as I could and not worry about it.
While I wasn't afraid, I was annoyed and demoralized; I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, but now I had to stay up another half-hour wiping and scrubbing and wringing. And I felt like a fool. The thing I had always done -- insulating food packages in my clothes -- suddenly seemed like something only a total idiot would do. And this was the third major thing that had gone wrong on the trip so far: first was the shoes, and second was my filter.
I'd been using a Sawyer Mini, one of the lightest filtering solutions. In the picture above, it's the blue-and-black cartridge below the bladder. I'd heard some people complain about their Minis, saying the flow rate inevitably got too slow and the filter too annoying to use, but I'd never experienced it -- until now. Though I'd backflushed the filter a couple times on this trip already, it wouldn't clear up, and water was barely coming through.
It wasn't a life-threatening situation -- I had iodine tablets, and could also boil water if I chose (and drinking straight from a stream won't necessarily make you sick) -- but I had let it result in something not so great. Because I had the filter in-line on my bladder, I was sucking water through it, and only a little was coming through with each pull. This meant, er, I had to suck longer and harder, but I guess despite my efforts I just didn't drink nearly as much as I usually do. And the urination situation was not great that evening. I knew I had to do a much better job the next day of getting enough water into my body, for my kidneys' sake. In the picture above, I had set up the bladder so that gravity would slowly force the water through the filter and into my bottle while I was doing camp chores, and then I could drink freely from the bottle and let it refill.
Cold morning at Frenchman Creek
The next morning I woke up in a bad mood. All of a sudden it didn't seem fun anymore -- the dry, half-dead forest, endless chores of packing and unpacking and cleaning, cold nights and mornings, being out here alone. It's so hard. Why am I doing this, when I could be having a hot shower and hanging out with my friends? Something easy? I got out of my tent. The morning was a cold one. A part of me was happy, though, since that meant I got to keep my down hoody on -- usually, I make myself take it off before I leave camp since I know I'll be hot after 20 minutes of hiking.
And the bad mood didn't last long. Morning is the best part of the day for me on the trail. It's so silent and peaceful and a wonderful temperature for hiking. When 9am hits, the day is "ruined" already -- hot and crowded with day-hikers. (Of course, it's still better than any day at the office!)
Fireweed in the morning light
I hiked from 6 to 9am without seeing anyone. It was blissful. I wished it could have lasted even longer, but a dozen noisy members of a youth group from Minnesota were climbing up toward me.
I think when people imagine me going backpacking alone they imagine that I will literally be alone in the wilderness, but in fact that three hours was the longest I went all week without seeing other people.
By 10 the magic and the good mood of the early morning had already faded. I had reached Pine Creek valley and the sun was beating down. Here I would leave the Colorado Trail and its community of friendly thru-hikers for the last time, turning west into an area where I'd likely only encounter climbers bent on bagging as many 14ers in a weekend as they could. I sat down heavily in the shade by the creek and, whether it was physical discomfort or frustration or loneliness or just exhuastion, felt tears come into my eyes.
I was tired and sad. I'd wanted to spend this week with others, sharing fellowship with friends or members of my hiking Meetup group, but once again this year it proved difficult to corral people who had the time or fitness level for a such a trip, or even one half the length. The people who did this sort of thing were out there -- they had been streaming past one by one and two by two any time I was on the Colorado Trail -- and I wanted to be with them.
I got up after an hour of moping and snacking and walked to the signpost where my trail turned off. It was there that I spotted a brilliant blue gentian -- the first I'd seen in days. Why here when they weren't at Kroenke Lake or Texas Creek? It's a mystery why flowers grow just where they do. I actually laughed.
Coming down the trail toward me was a thru-hiker. I don't know how, but it was usually possible to tell at a glance who was out there for the summer and who just for the weekend. It was a multitude of things, I think. A purposeful stride, open gaze, certain cliched thru-hiker gear items like Smart Water bottles, or just that they looked comfortable in their own skin and under their packs. This fellow stopped when he got to me and we talked for a while. He was from Tennessee and yes, was trying to hike the whole Colorado Trail.
Another thing about thru-hikers: they were more likely to be alone. I think most that I met were hiking with a buddy or partner, but many were alone, including one woman I had spoken to the day before. "Sorry for my off-key singing," she said as she approached from the north. "I do that whenever it gets a little too quiet on the trail."
"I do too," I said.
She looked like she'd just gotten out of college. I asked if she was a thru-hiker. "Trying to be," she replied. She seemed to still be a little uncertain about the trail and being out there alone, though I admire her more for it. When we parted I looked behind me and saw she had a sign stuck to the back of her colorful pack:
I wished I'd taken a picture. You'll have to settle for the guy above instead.
Resigned to some loneliness, I turned left and headed up Pine Creek valley.
Looking at the map before the trip, it had sounded wonderfully cool and shady. To be brief: it wasn't. It was gloriously open, which can be wonderful under the right circumstances, but it was a terribly hot and cloudless day by that point. I humped my way up the trail thinking, where are the pines??
A couple hours in, I was growing more seriously depressed. The trail was pure dust. The grass around me was dead, with a handful of dying flowers sprinkled in. This wasn't what I had come for. In fact, most of the landscape of the Collegiate Peaks had been a disappointment up close. Aside from a couple sections, it looked like it had had the life baked out of it. All year I'd been waiting to get away on my July trip into the cool heart of the mountains and see real green and rushing streams and meadow after meadow of wildflowers, and there had been very little of that. And I was bitter.
I'd had my mishaps and was feeling a bit beaten, and now there wasn't even a blooming flower to balance out the bad. At this point I thought, well, vacation's a wash for this year. That's just the way it is. I picked a place and it was the wrong place and things went wrong and it wasn't fun. The promise of that first night headed to Lake Ann won't pan out. I'll finish up and head back to my miserable life and try again next year.
I took a break at an old mining settlement, where I saw this little whorl of stones half-hidden in the grass. I walked it as if it were a labyrinth, and back out, and then stared around me at the same grass and withered buds.
The chinks of the log mining cabin were covered with flattened tin cans. Say what you will about its natural beauty, or lack thereof (I just did!), the Collegiate Peaks area certainly isn't lacking in history.
And I kept walking, because what else was there to do? A half-hour later I smiled when I spotted some wild strawberries ready to be picked.
Finally a live columbine (with friend!)
In the hottest part of the afternoon I indulged in a little bath at a bend in the creek that was hidden from the trail. It was too cold to get all the way in, but I splashed water over myself, scaring the trout. It was a pain, the rocks were sharp, and it took way too long to get it done and get dressed again, but I was still glad I'd done it. You can't just go through life year after year without taking your clothes off and getting in a creek once in a while. You can't.
By late afternoon I was finally approaching the upper reaches of the valley. I'd originally meant to stop here for the night. In the early morning I'd break camp and march up steep Mount Belford and then down to the car. But there was still light left, and maybe if I camped just a little closer, I'd have an easier climb tomorrow... so I kept walking. And walking.
I was in the Missouri Basin. I'd never seen anything like it. It was massive, many times the size of any alpine basin I'd visited, and ringed by 14,000' peaks.
Feet photo for Mom
It's impossible to illustrate the scale of the place with a photo. While still sore about the dead grass and flowers, I was beginning to feel impressed. The weather was pretty fine, still hot and windy now but not threatening to storm anytime soon, and I could have camped there above treeline with that amazing view all around me. But I was beginning to have thoughts.
If I skip Mount Belford and just keep hiking, they went, I can get back to my car and hit Cottonwood Hot Springs tonight. And I'll still have a few days of vacation left. Tomorrow I can go to Aspen just over the pass and see some real green, and real flowers.
Mount Belford was supposed to be the crowning triumph of my trip. On the fifth day of hiking, with a heavy backpacking pack, I'd muscle up to summit my first 14er, silently thumbing my nose at all those who were climbing it with a light day pack after a good night's sleep in a hotel.
But, you know what? 14ers aren't my thing. Wildflowers are. And I was sorely missing the color green.
There was some green, of course, and patches of stunted flowers here and there, as you see. I'll allow that some of it wasn't half bad.
Ahead of me was still Elkhead Pass, one of the highest in Colorado (the second-highest, in fact, on this Wikipedia page of same) and certainly the highest one I'd ever tried to climb. In the picture above, it's the lowest spot in the wall in front of me, and it looks so short! It would be another two hours before I was on top of it.
I was moving so damn slow. I don't know how much was exhaustion and how much the high altitude, but I could only take a few steps before I'd have to stop. There wasn't much to think about. Just one foot in front of the other slowly, for a long time. And then I was at the top: 13,245'.
Looking over the pass. The saddle in the middle distance is Hope Pass, at the bottom of which I first hopped on the trail with ill-fated boots.
Evening would come on soon but for now it was still hot as the blazes. Thanks to the shifting orientation of the trail, the sun had been precisely on my left all afternoon, and would continue. I was barely keeping ahead of having my left arm burnt to a crisp by repeatedly slathering on sunscreen. It was a relief to finally descend below treeline and get out of the sun for the first time in hours.
I still had a long way to go. It was 3,500' of vertical drop from the pass to my car, most of it on very steep trail. I was fixated now on the idea of making it to Cottonwood Hot Springs for an evening soak. No, I didn't want to wait till morning; by the time the place opened at 8am tomorrow it'd already be hot in Buena Vista. I wanted to soak in the cool evening air. It was going to be tough, though, as I'd read that they closed at 10pm, and it would be a stretch to make it to my car by 8.
I practically ran.
Though I've always been a bit clumsy on trail, twisting an ankle at least twice per hike (no, I'm not exaggerating), I didn't stumble once in the two hours I was racing down the trail. I was focused. And though it'd been a long day, my body now felt fine -- no aches and pains, no sore knees. I was flying.
One of the blissfully less-steep sections of the Missouri Gulch Trail
Still, not fast enough. When I burst onto the road, I wasn't finished yet. There was the dreaded road-walk. And I knew I wouldn't make it unless I could get a ride.
There was no one around. It was wednesday, dead mid-week.
Still, I picked up the pace, striking out hopefully through the dust. After half an hour, I heard wheels, turned around and stuck my thumb out. She stopped. It was a nice woman who was driving up and down the road looking for a friend who was supposed to be camping in the region. She told me to hop in. My car was safe and sound where I left it, and I turned and spontaneously opened my arms to this near-stranger for a hug, then stopped, embarrassed. She hugged me anyway.
I raced to Cottonwood Hot Springs. They didn't have any tent sites left, but I paid to soak, and took a long shower beforehand, washing out my trail clothing. I discovered at this time that my shampoo had emptied itself into my toiletries bag. Thinking the damage minimal, I rinsed the bag out and went to go soak.
It was dark at the pools. I found a quiet niche and lay on my back, watching the stars and fading in and out of sleep. While I was pleased to be here and proud of myself for doing another 18-mile day to make it, completing a loop that turned out to be about 60 miles with the boot-sponsored backtracking, I was really too tired to properly enjoy it. Plus, my legs were getting wobbly. At one point I tried to take the stairs into another pool and when my legs decided to stop supporting me I collapsed into it, laughing.
I did enjoy the hot springs after a manner, especially the slightly eerie feeling of not knowing what the place where I lay actually looked like, seeing little but the stars above and being half-in and half-out of sleep all evening. The pools were in fact open till midnight, and I exited only just before, heading to get dressed and then discovering that the shampoo was in fact all over the inside of my clothes bag.
I was up after midnight washing everything out. The shampoo was ridiculously frothy and tenacious. But if I was heading back into bear country tomorrow -- and the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness is definitely bear country -- I didn't want anything on me to reek of fruity, flowery shampoo. While I scrubbed, staff members wandered in and out of the locker rooms impatiently, wondering when they could close up.
At 1am I was beyond exhausted, searching for a place to camp on the dirt roads outside town. I finally found a place on National Forest land to pull over and conk out in the passenger's seat.
Alpine fireweed (?), only slightly withered, from the hike down from Elkhead Pass
I didn't set my alarm, but the elusive 8 hours of sleep I'd been unsuccessfully seeking all week still failed to materialize, the sun pouring through my front windshield in the morning. I looked around. I'd parked right next to where the Colorado Trail crossed the road, a ways south of where I was last on it. I wondered if anyone I'd met on the trail had passed by while I was asleep.
It was thursday; I didn't have to be back at work until monday. Four days. Hey, you know what's a great four-day loop outside of Aspen? Why, the Four-Pass Loop. One of Colorado's most beautiful and most famous trips. I'd done a section of it last year, but I was waiting to return until I could gather companions. I didn't want to be in the most beautiful place in the state and have no one to turn to and say, "Wow, look at that!"
However, the way things stood... My hand was growing weaker by the week; even now it was difficult to grasp the zipper pull well enough to close up my jacket. It was withering like the flowers I'd seen in the Missouri Basin. And though I was going to be having surgery, it wasn't a sure thing that the surgery would fix it; there was even some small chance it would make things worse. In short, I didn't know where I would be in a year, a decade, or whenever I could find friends to do this with me.
Was it really so bad to experience great beauty alone?
A vista from last year's trip in the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness
Flexing my hand open and closed, I decided to do it. But that meant I had to get moving. I had to buy a new filter and maps and rent a bear canister. I rued the expense -- I already had the right map as well as a bear canister at home -- but it didn't make sense to drive back to Denver, and anyway, I'd spent nothing other than gas money on my trip so far. Was $60 really too much to spend on a week-long vacation? I know from experience that bear canisters always seem to be the first things out of stock at outdoor stores; true to form, the Buena Vista and Leadville shops were all out. I called the shop in Aspen. They had them, and I was on.
I also really needed a cold Dr. Pepper.
The Dr. Pepper was a little easier to secure than the bear canister. Unfortunately, when I opened it, it exploded all over me and the inside of the car.
I gave a big sigh. In so many ways, this was just not my trip. I pulled over at a gas station to re-wash my formerly shampooey clothing and the passenger compartment. But I was feeling committed now and excited about getting onto the Four-Pass Loop. I was really going to do it! The trip I'd been reading and dreaming about for years, always thinking I'd never be in good enough shape for it. My back-to-back 18-mile days had convinced me otherwise pretty well.
I headed over Independence Pass to Aspen. When I arrived in town to pick up the bear canister, I saw I finally had T-Mobile service again. And I had a voicemail. Against my better judgment -- I was on "vacation"! -- I listened to it.
The insurance company had denied my surgery.
My heart went cold and heavy. I pulled the car over and listened to the message again. I tried calling the doctor's office back, but no one answered. Tears were coming to my eyes for a third time this week. What part of permanently-losing-use-of-my-right-hand made this an elective procedure? Surely there was some mistake... but right now, I was tormented with visions of everything I would lose -- was losing, moment by moment -- as my hand withered. I wanted to race back to Denver and get the whole thing straightened out.
In the end, I pointed my car again toward the trailhead. I felt hollow inside, and wanted to cry a lot more than I had. My God, this year! But if I couldn't enjoy great beauty with a light heart, I could still take comfort from it with a heavy one. It didn't seem like the worst idea in the world to hike back into the wilderness for a few more days. Heaven knows, the ability to set one foot in front of the other on the trail now seemed the only thing in my life I had control over.
When I finally pulled up to the National Forest ranger station, they told me that overnight parking was full. (The loop has gotten quite popular in recent years.) I'd have to enter via another trailhead, adding 10 miles to my trip. Fine. I could do it. Though it would mean hiking into the dark, and I'd told myself I was going to be stopping by 6pm from now on and actually get 8 hours' sleep.
But I really wanted to do this, and what's one more night of pushing?
It was about 6pm when I was finally able to start. The moment I stepped onto the Maroon-Snowmass trail, I took a great, deep breath. Everywhere around me was green. It was rich and lush, a thick understory beneath bone-white aspen. I immediately felt better. The trail itself was red from the eroding sandstone, and patches of colorful flowers peeked on either side. Though it was getting dark, I was happy.
Sunset on sandstone
I don't particularly like hiking in the dark unless it's a deliberate night hike, done with friends on a trail chosen for its safety, and I especially don't like having to make camp in the dark when I don't even know what my surroundings look like. But I was resigned to this because for me to do 36 miles and four 12,000' passes in just over three days was going to involve some hiking in the dark, and I'd rather get it out of the way first thing. Besides, I knew this trail. I'd taken it last year and I knew the locations of the very few campsites there were, carved out of the thick understory. There was a particular one I wanted to make it to before I crashed for the night.
I hit the steep part of the trail as it turned dark enough for me to need my headlamp. Rocks and roots loomed out of the darkness. This wasn't much fun now, and it wasn't going to be much fun till morning. This was now The Thing I Had To Get Through in order to get to the good stuff. As it became completely dark, I began to sing and didn't stop.
I sang everything I could think of, back to back. A random song would pop into my head and then I'd sing all the rest of that artist's songs that I could remember. There was a lot of Simon & Garfunkel (though not I Am A Rock, nor Sound of Silence). There was a little Arlo Guthrie and maybe some Joni Mitchell. I refused to let fears creep into my head, instead filling up the space with music. It was a challenge because I was moving steeply uphill, but I'd sing one verse, breathe heavily for a bit, then sing the next. Lawdy, I sang and sang.
I know I don't make the same choices other people make. I can't think of a single one of my friends who would have done this, or at least not my female friends. And really, was I afraid? I was what I usually am when alone in the woods in the dark: highly alert and a bit uneasy, but not filled with fear. Aspects of it were pleasant. I do love to sing, and I definitely loved how great the finally cool air felt, and how gorgeous the stars were. The forest was silent. In all it was a moment of great wonder and beauty, and spookiness.
Yeah, I did that.
And now 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.