Just south of South Pass City, Wyoming. That’s where I’m supposed to be right now. That is, at least according to a now defunct spreadsheet of trail logistics that could have only been described as “complicated.” It’s not a place of any particular importance, merely a small dot on the Continental Divide Trail that is connected by millions of other small, insignificant dots.
Continental Divide Trail 2020
Daily dispatches and photos from the Continental Divide Trail, a 2975-mile footpath stretching along the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada.
It's always strange when things you've looked forward to for so long are finally right in front of you. The past several years have in a very real sense all been leading up to this—a humble looking dirt path branching away from an otherwise un-noteworthy patch of road.
Every trail carries with it certain echoes of others, not unlike distinct branches of the same family tree. Terrain, weather, water sources, flora, and quality of tread all combine to make a trail its unique self. With so many overlapping qualities and in spite of their differences, it's as if all trails share some of the same connective tissue. Call it a Unified Trail Theory.
Over a long enough time horizon, eventually everything becomes hard. Beliefs questioned, patience tested. On the Continental Divide Trail, there's a saying: “Embrace the Brutality.” We all knew adversity was coming in some form or another, it was merely a question of when. I don't think any of us thought that day 3 would bring the first abject lesson.
I love trees. Always have. I can't say exactly when the fascination began but my interest in them has certainly grown with age. Perhaps it felt wrong to know so little about the companions I've walked among on my many journeys over the years. I'm far from an expert, but what little I learn brings me closer to understanding the world that surrounds us all and my place in it.
It started slowly. First a few drops, then a pause. It's also the way yesterday had ended, as a localized storm system brushed past the trail and its edges caught up with us like the wake from a distant boat. The tarps hanging over each of our heads were mostly a precaution, but one that was quickly proving a wise one with every passing drop.
In some circles I may appear as an experienced backpacker. In thru-hiking circles and even the wonderful trio of people I am with on this CDT journey, I am a definite rookie.
Winter Storm Warning. Not quite the weather headline we had in mind when we made it into town for our zero day, nor quite what you expect when it's nearly the summer solstice. But there you have it. It made for a fairly easy decision, one day off became two with the hope that the foot of snow that had been forecasted for higher elevations would quickly melt…
Most every day on trail I wake up knowing that I'm right where I'm meant to be, but on rare occasions I barely wake up knowing where I am at all. Today was definitely the latter. Whether from a night of poor sleep or from the drain of yesterday’s roller coaster, I woke up with leaden legs and eyes that could barely manage to keep themselves open.
“We’re gonna get wet.” Not exactly the “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” line famously delivered by Roy Scheider in the movie Jaws, but you get the idea. Hardly had the words tumbled out of my mouth before it was on top of us. The sting of the pea-sized pellets of hail against the back of my legs was what I felt first as we scrambled to throw on rain jackets and ponchos.
The last few steps had my heart pounding from the effort. Around the late lingering patch of snow that clung stubbornly below the crest of the divide, before easing onto a saddle devoid of the wind that must typically whip across it.
There's no denying it. This is an addiction of sorts. Less destructive than drugs or alcohol, perhaps, but no less of an obsession. I've met a lot of people over the years who think this long distance hiking stuff is downright crazy, madness.
The heat of the day passed well into the evening last night. The kind of stifling heat that you'd expect from a closed up motel room and that makes you feel as though even the fitted sheet beneath you is oppressive. The middle of the night brought a brief return to cool before the morning sun threatened to turn the thermostat back up.
While walking for hours on end each day, something I often think about is how much harder this would be if the trail didn't exist at all. You can get a small taste for this during the occasional bushwhack or stretch where the trail essentially goes cross country with little to no markings. But I'm thinking bigger than that even…
Thirty miles. That seemed reasonable given the perfect weather we were expecting and the gentle topography after the first few miles of climbing. It didn't go as planned.
Compromise. Deviation from the desired. Challenging concepts that we all struggle to face and to come to terms with from time to time. Peter, the father of my high school girlfriend once told me, after listening to my story of beating a retreat and abandoning an attempt to summit a peak: “The difference between a mountaineer and a fool, is that a mountaineer knows when to turn back.”
As I said in my previous guest post, I’m a rookie. What do I know? However, as we began planning for the CDT I quickly learned that conditions must be perfect (said to the tune of Flight of the Conchords, of course) in order to hike this big ass trail continuously and without performing any mental, logistical or geographical gymnastics.
The cloudless sky was one giveaway. The temperature in the 80s was another. I don't think we’re in Montana anymore.
Repetition, Monotony. Consistency, Banality. When does one become the other? Thru-hiking is about very little else if not repetition, the millions of steps that link it all together being merely the prerequisite for success. In time, the repetition becomes a foregone conclusion, the framework that allows your mind to wander and to wonder…
The sound was enough to wake me from a dead sleep. The confusion that followed was the kind that comes only when your brain, in its sleep-induced fog, strains to make sense of the unexpected. It was the sound of machinery, but it couldn't be. Not way out here.
For such a pleasantly warm summer afternoon, it sure didn't begin that way. Shoving off down the trail this morning, the air was as still as it had been when the sun had set and the moon had begun to rise the night before. In fact, it was comfortable enough not even to need a wind shirt, or so I thought.
The mountain pine beetle likely has no conception of its impact on the landscape. No larger than a grain of rice, it proves the adage that even very small things can pack an incredibly big punch. Unfortunately for Colorado forests, that punch has been right to the gut of millions of acres of lodgepole pines.
A few years ago, I came to a simple realization that if I had time to hike, to cook, to read, and have a project to dedicate myself to, life would be pretty satisfying. Those felt like the minimum ingredients for happiness, everything else being more or less superfluous.
Up a few more flights of stairs to the roof of Colorado, that's where we were headed. At a cruising altitude of 12,000 feet and with an idyllic summer day to enjoy it, it's easy to do the smart thing and let the snow-speckled photos do most of the talking.
When short days like this dawn, it's hard to think about much else than the shower and town food waiting at the end of the rainbow. But standing between us and that promised land was another 13,000 foot summit and a perfect morning to climb up and over it.
Another town, come and gone. Like always, the town tasks pile one on top of another and the temptation to fall back into a later bedtime proves too hard to resist. Turning off the lights at 11:15pm, the only thing we missed was the drunken argument and subsequent arrest a floor above us later in the night that Beardoh and Sweet Pea were treated to and we managed to sleep through. Real shame.
At 8.3 pounds per gallon, the weight of water is something you notice. While the heaviest of the commodities we tote around with us, it's also inarguably the most important which is why the decision of exactly how much to carry away from each water source is such a critical one. Fortunately, in spite of the rapid snow melt in Colorado, water sources have been plentiful.
It's not every hiking day that begins by rolling out of a hotel room bed, then walking down the trail and to a fast food drive-thru, but there ya’ go. That's Silverthorne for you. Not that we were complaining. A bit of extra sleep and a substantial morning injection of calories seemed like just the right medicine for four bodies that had been worked by yesterday’s sun.
In August 1914, with the world peering into the void of what would become the First World War, a wooden ship unique among all but one set sail from Plymouth, England bound for Antarctica. Apart from its cousin ship, Fram, no other wooden ship had been built—or has been since—with such attention given to strength and the ability to withstand the crushing power of an Antarctic winter’s ice floes.
Armed with a new spoon at last, I am ready for anything. “Why did it take so long?,” you might ask. Remember that box that didn't arrive in time to Grand Lake? Well, it turns out that it was there all along and the best we could do is forward it to our last town stop in Frisco, serving only to heighten the anticipation.
Oh sweet, sweet Colorado Trail. With another day in the books, I'm already thinking ahead to that day some 250 miles from now when the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail head their separate ways, and wondering whether the CT will take its pleasure cruise of a trail along with it. In the interim, there's nothing to do other than to enjoy the hell out of it.
Right on schedule, 45 minutes early. That's our friend Hoa, having changed her uber-punctual habits not at all in the years since she had left Seattle and relocated outside of Denver. Appearing from the woods for our rendezvous at 7am as we were, she was striding across the parking lot having driven all the way out to meet us for the morning. Marathoner, ultra runner, ultra human. That's Hoa.
It sounds like a reasonably long distance when I say it out loud. I can't even tell you two cities that are roughly 500 miles apart, but if I could my next suggestion would certainly not be to walk from one to the other. That's what planes are for.
Dryness: the ultimate luxury. Something you often only truly appreciate in its absence. Such has it been the past several mornings, waking to gear that all had a superficial dampness to it. Not the kind of moisture you'd expect from rain, but the kind that comes with the settling of cool damp air overnight. Not enough to condense, just enough to give everything that feeling of unpleasant clamminess.
Yesterday evening's late sprinkles had given over to a starry night, and when dawn came it brought with it an equally cloudless sky. That was certainly good news, since today would take us over an almost entirely exposed section of trail well above tree line through the Collegiate Peaks. The only question was how long it would remain that way.
Don't be an asshole. That's good life advice in general, but it's especially true when it comes to asking perfect strangers for a favor, even one as simple as a little help getting from Point A to Point B. But I'll come back to that.
Settled into a gentle curve in the Arkansas River, the town of Salida is beautiful little place even in the swell of a global pandemic. Our day off yesterday gave us a chance to run some errands in the downtown area where old brick buildings that harken back to days long since past lead right to the river, where whitewater kayakers play in the rapids.
Like a truck stuck in second gear. That's what it felt like when my feet took their first steps away from our camp this morning. The evening rains had left only to return a time or two overnight, ensuring that we'd be packing up wet tarps, at a minimum. There was no blue sky to herald the morning, only a thick cloud that we seemed to be finding our way out of little by little.
We don't give them much thought, but they sure are everywhere. Roads. Dirt ones, paved ones, gravel ones, long-since abandoned logging ones, and every other flavor of the road rainbow. Walking long distances gives you a new appreciation of just how extensive the totality of our road system really is…
Hike your own hike. It's a mantra you hear often on nearly any long distance trail. In real world terms, its meaning is simple: you do you. Hike at your pace, linger when you want to, and take the detours that most captivate your sense of adventure. Answer to no one’s whims but your own.