I was driving south out of Leadville when the views opened up again and I got a real glimpse of the mountains I'd be climbing into. And I thought, Dear God, why?? They're so high!
After poring over maps at REI, I'd chosen a 55+-mile loop in the Collegiate Peaks. In my core knew I could do it. I tend to be over- rather than under-prepared, by nature. But the trip I'd planned was more than twice as long as any loop I'd done in the past, and I'd never been to the Collegiate Peaks before, and, and, and. Between my excitement about the trip, the trepidation, and worries about my life in general, I'd gotten exactly 1 hour of sleep the night before.
Life hasn't been the smoothest lately -- I've been going through an extra-stressful period in the most stressful job I've ever had. Worse, I'm experiencing severe muscle wasting in my right hand due to a pinched nerve, and as the fibers die off, the lost muscle can't be regained. It's getting hard to hold a mouse -- or a trekking pole. I need to get into surgery as soon as possible before I effectively lose the use of my right hand. The doctor's office was trying to get me in right after my trip would finish up. It would have to happen, despite the fact that I'd also just found out my rent was going up $90 a month, and I needed to find a new place to live (and moving is hard enough when you haven't just had surgery). I asked my landlord if I could possibly stay a little longer without having to sign a lease; the answer was no.
I seriously considered cancelling this year's vacation just so I could maybe get moved into a new place before the surgery. In the end, I couldn't bear to cave into my fear. Things will get worked out somehow. Some day -- hopefully soon! -- this period in my life will be over; but I'll always have the memories of what I did on my summer vacation.
Now... from my experience hiking trails and listening to others who have hiked trails, including the big ones, I have gathered that if you go to the mountains looking for an epiphany, you will be disappointed. The idea of setting out on a 50- (or 100-, or 2,000)-mile walk and finding yourself and finally knowing what you want to do with your life is only an idea. In reality, you will be the same person you have always been. Your flaws and problems and areas of indecision will remain. Change may exist but it is subtle; in other words, this walk was not going to solve my life.
So I had a much more achievable goal for the trip: I wanted to see mountain goats. I really, really wanted to see mountain goats.
I'd seen them before -- up pretty close, even -- in Glacier National Park, where you couldn't avoid big wildlife if you were trying. But the one time I'd seen Colorado goats, it was from so far away that even with another hiker's binoculars I still couldn't figure out which white spots were goats and which were snow. I wanted to see goats for real. Not half-tame national park goats, but wild ones, shaggy on a mountain pass I'd worked damn hard to get to. My life was a mess; surely I deserved goats.
That was my hope as I set off. I'd chosen my parking place so that the loop would start out with the largest section of roadwalk I had to do; it's always a bummer to finish a big hike, triumphant but exhausted, and then realize you still have to walk four miles down a boring-ass road to your car. Best to get it out of the way first. It was 10AM and hot, and cars sped past, kicking up dust that set me coughing. I was at the tail end of a three-week cold, still a little congested, and just hoping my lungs were healthy enough for what I was about to do.
I looked at my boots. I'd never had pain before in these boots. They were the second pair I had owned of the same model and were crazily comfortable -- or had been, till now. Just a couple months ago I'd done a trip in them with no problems. Now, it felt like my toe was being crushed with every step I took.
I took off my boots and tried to soften the leather by rubbing a stone over it, so it wouldn't buckle against my little toe. No go. Then I stepped in a stream, hoping a soaking would make them more pliable. Nope.
When I looked closely at my toe I realized I'd developed some kind of cyst where the boots were pressing. It hurt quite a bit. I tried wrapping my toe; some thru-hikers stopped and offered supplies; but nothing I tried worked. I was afraid I'd have to give up on the trip when I'd barely started.
I limped back to the road and dragged myself pitifully in the direction of the car, exaggerating my limp and sticking my thumb out when an SUV passed. They kept going... then stopped a ways up the road. It was a family. They put the dog in the back and let me climb in, and I remain eternally grateful.
When I got back to my car I put on my trail runners, which provided some immediate relief, and drove to Leadville for more first-aid stuff. And a cold root beer (very important). I wrapped my toe a little better, stuck it back in my shoes and drove this time down the section I'd road-walked before so I could get back on the trail at a reasonable hour. I'd have to walk that section of road all over again at the end of my killer loop, but I put that out of my mind for now.
Hitting the trail -- again -- at almost 6pm, eight hours after I'd originally started
Demoralizing? Maybe a little, but I was so relieved to find I could hike with minimal pain in my trail runners that I forgave the lost eight hours.
As I climbed into the mountains on the Lake Ann trail, the forest got cooler and wetter and more beautiful. The sun was setting on the peaks to my left, turning them orange, and ahead of me were the jagged silhouettes of the Three Apostles. My heart filled up with joy, and my eyes actually filled up too. It was so beautiful I was literally crying. I couldn't believe I got to do this -- that I had the privilege of being in this place, seeing these things. I was in disbelief that such beauty even existed. I was also embarrassed and hoping I wouldn't pass anyone else on the trail just then. But that awe and ecstasy are what I live for, why my "vacation" was walking 55 miles with 30 pounds on my back. And I began to sing. First, "How can I keep from singing," and then any old thing, from Methodist hymns to Herman's Hermits. I was very happy.
The Three Apostles
As it got dark I set up camp in a meadow. Though I'd passed many people on the trail and there were others camped a bit downhill from me, it was my first night in the woods alone in a while, and it was spooky as ever. Every noise startled me. I had also set up the tent on possibly the lumpiest patch of ground I'd ever managed to camp on, and I only increased my sleep debt from the night before (though I will say I managed more than 1 paltry hour).
When I woke up, it was cold. There was ice on the tent. WTF, July? I was only at about 10,600'.
Frosted monk's hoods at dawn
But the trail was just lovely, with abundant flowers and views. In fact, I would recommend the Lake Ann trail to anyone looking for a nice overnight trip. When I reached the lake I ran into a group of four hikers who were out for the week; we would leapfrog each other on the trail for the rest of the day.
Above turquoise Lake Ann
Columbines from behind
Almost to Lake Ann Pass!
Looking north, with La Plata peak the highest point in the distance, on left
My trail runners were working just fine and I had very little foot pain. I was here! And I'd planned the loop so the biggest climbs and best views were for last, so surely everything was only going to get more beautiful from here. I dallied a long time at the top, taking photos and trying to figure out what distant peaks and ranges were with my map and compass. Most of Colorado's ranges have their own distinctive look; the Collegiates themselves I have always admired from the car, with their bare triangular facets.
As noon approached storm clouds did too, so I followed my new acquaintances down the other side of the pass and into the forest. I want you to know a thing: while my trip reports (and probably everybody's) are filled with lovely pictures of peaks, passes and flowers, depending on the trip, most of it may in fact look like this:
Here we are, walking for hours through the trees... in the rain
I'd always found the forest sections quite a bit boring, and when I'm bored my body seems to hurt more and the miles stretch on and on. But this time, perhaps because I knew just how much walking I had ahead of me, I seemed to go in with a more patient attitude and found the forest sections meditative rather than boring. I soon noticed just how empty my mind was -- and how much I liked that. My head felt clearer than it had all year.
I was walking south along the west edge of the Collegiate range, with a big basin and other, distant ranges glimpsed sometimes through the trees to my right. I caught up with the other hikers at a stream for lunch and we stared as a group of motor bikes plowed through. The forest was dry and devoid of any understory beyond the tiny green plants you see above, but just occasionally, the water table would near the surface and the forest would turn to aspen and flowers in a little oasis. I would cross a tiny creek and within steps the forest would be dry and dusty again without a flower in sight.
Toward the end of the day I descended into a gulch, with big peaks right in front of me. It was time to turn left into the Texas Creek valley. Abruptly the character of the forest changed, with big orange-barked pines standing aloof from each other along the flat valley floor. One of my favorite things about hiking in the mountains is getting to see just how much, and how suddenly, the plant communities can change as you walk. Before I stopped for the night I came upon a lone bunch of monkeyflower, one of only two places I spotted this plant all week long.
I don't see the resemblance.
That night I was slightly less spooked in my glade not far from the monkeyflowers, but still didn't manage to get eight hours of sleep. In the morning I passed the junction where, if I turned right, I would continue along the CT/CDT to Cottonwood Pass and then onto what was supposedly one of the most beautiful sections of the whole Colorado Trail, Cottonwood to Tincup. Unfortunately I hadn't been able to work that into my trip, but I knew that the four friends, behind me now, would be passing that way. They would have to enjoy it for me.
I climbed up through the Texas Creek Valley, passing sleeping backpackers in their tents but no one hiking. As soon as I crossed the creek to take the trail to Browns Pass, it was like a switch was flipped and everything became gorgeous, with flowers cropping up on either side of me and little streams trickling through everywhere.
When finally above treeline I looked back and thought, wow, I walked that whole valley.
I was alone on Browns Pass.
The path continued up from here -- usually, a pass is the high point! -- as it crossed and re-crossed the continental divide, and I walked for an hour alone above treeline while the trail meandered toward Kroenke Lake. Once again my heart sang and I felt immeasurably privileged to be here. There is a high I get from backpacking, a combination of endorphins from a good workout and awe at the incredibly beauty, and it's very much like a drug. Also like a drug, it doesn't last, but thankfully the only side effects I know are missing my friend's parties on summer weekends and the tendency to spend too much money at REI.
I looked at the mountains in front of me, and by God, I thought again, I walked that! I had come from completely out of the picture on the right, walked around the furthest-out peaks on the left, and then up the long valley. I had simultaneously a great awe for my own body and also for the people before cars and trains, who walked across this continent and every continent. If I could do it, then it really isn't such a big deal, is it. But look at it! Look how far that is! And that was in less than 48 hours.
Eventually my little cloudwalk ended and it was time to descend the east side of the divide, toward Kroenke Lake. Here the going got rough, the trail steep and overgrown with lots of roundish rocks that liked to roll out from under my feet. There was still plenty of snow on the east side of the divide, and more flowers.
Almost iridescent-looking penstemon
After I took this shot I realized my trekking pole was in it, and took another shot without it, but perversely I decided I liked the first better for its symmetry. Elephant heads and Kroenke Lake
Now I was really getting into the groove of things. After lunch at the lake, I descended the long and nicely-graded trail through the valley, stopping to indulge in a new ritual I'd developed: washing my feet and socks in the stream. I'd never bothered to wash clothes before mid-trip, since most of my trips weren't long enough to warrant it, but the trails were dusty here and my trail runners were getting a lot more stuff in them than my boots had.
I scrubbed my socks under the water and attached them to the back of my pack to dry, taking the now-dry socks I'd washed the day before and putting them on clean feet. A little bit of civilization in the wilderness. As I continued on through the week I would come to really appreciate the routines I'd fallen into for setting up and breaking camp and for mid-day washings; they kept me on track when I was exhausted or demoralized, and restored a sense of normalcy when I was lonely or scared.
It was a hot day despite the clouds, so even though washing my feet in the freezing river had actually left me chilly, I still wanted to soak my shirt in the river too. I dipped it in the 40-degree water and pulled it on over my cold body, and it was still ecstasy, like the shock of jumping into a mountain lake and the first sip of a cold root beer combined. And somehow -- just like the one hot shower I got on my trip last year -- that moment and the ten seconds that followed were the absolute best of the trip.
My stint on the Kroenke Lake trail finished with a short road-walk through the tallest aspen trees I'd ever seen. I descended enough that I was finally seeing scarlet gilia; lovely but a little bittersweet, knowing that every thousand feet I came down, I'd have to climb back up again before I made it back to the car.
As I examine this sign now while writing the blog, it's making me learn things... ok, so the Collegiate Peaks aren't a range, but a section of the Sawatch Range. I'm not going back to change it. I'm tired.
I turned left here onto the Colorado Trail, Collegiate East section. (More on the CT and CDT later.) Now as I hiked north, I could look out to my right through gaps in the trees into a broad basin and out to Buena Vista. The forest was dry, dry, dry, but every now and then another aspen oasis would appear.
My first-ever sighting of bear claw marks on an aspen tree, above my head
My first-ever sighting of a high-heeled shoe on an aspen tree
I was feeling disappointed for not seeing any wildlife, when I looked to my left and realized I was seeing wildlife -- not just wild, but crazy: giant iridescent bugs, each over an inch long, clustered on a lupine plant, eating and mating. They were striking. I had never seen these things before. And I'd passed a bazillion lupine plants by this point, but only this plant had bugs on it. Nature, you wacko.
Some thru-hikers wandered in from the north, noticed I was staring at nothing, and then noticed the bugs. We ended up watching and talking about them for half an hour. In the end they thanked me, saying the random bugs were awesome and they'd never have noticed if I hadn't been there. (I'm embarrassed to say that when people pass me on the trail I'm often off to one side staring at something that nobody else can see, like a spider or a bit of slime mold, or nothing at all.)
That evening I had planned to stop at the Harvard Lakes, making a whopping 15.5 miles for the day, but I was astounded to reach them at just 4 o'clock. There were at least four hours of daylight left, and while I was tired, I wasn't too sore. It made all the sense in the world to keep walking. So though I was pretty slow on the uphills, I walked on to Frenchman Creek, hitting it at 6 on the dot. Time for dinner and bed! I had done an 18.5 mile day, twice as far as any day I'd backpacked on any previous trip in the mountains, and I felt just fine.
This bowled me over. Thinking back a couple years, I remember how I struggled to do 5 miles a day on our Rocky Mountain NP trip, or what a Herculean effort it was to make the 8 miles up to our camp below Conundrum. While I'd heard of (purported) human beings doing 20- to 30-mile days on thru-hikes, I thought you had to be in some insane kind of shape for that. I had my doubts that it was something I would, or could, ever do.
Now, suddenly, I felt as though I were "for real." In my mind the possibility opened up of hiking the whole Colorado Trail, even longer trails... 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.
Camp at Frenchman Creek
Stay tuned for what happens next!