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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.