Total Miles: 1402.4
The aftermath of the recent snow storm may be only a distant memory but the cold that it ushered in has persisted the last few nights, despite the eminently warm and comfortable days that have separated them. And as the cold lingers into the morning, a new pattern has begun to emerge: a slower start to the day as we resist the moment of emerging from our cozy down cocoons and one that ultimately finds us leaving camp while still wearing our down jackets, wind pants, and mittens.
Only a quarter mile from our sheltered camp among the trees, we had descended just enough to reach the floor of a broad, expansive valley. Pooling the cold air, it felt another 5 to 10 degrees colder than where we'd slept and it had the veneer of frost to prove it. Away went the feeling in our fingers and toes until we began to ascend the far side of the valley and into the first rays of sunshine. Minutes later, we'd shed all of our extra layers.
This particular stretch of trail has been a horse highway, occasionally widening enough to accommodate the width of a truck. At other times, it has resembled a multi-lane racetrack, with sometimes as many as 7 or 8 parallel treads having splintered apart, the result of pack trains not adhering to a single path.
Shortly before lunch, we ran into two northbound thru-hikers that we'd met briefly way back in July while hiking through Colorado: Not-so-fast and Chop Chop. For the second straight day, we stood in the middle of the trail commiserating with fellow hikers, an experience so few and far between. When nearly an hour had gone by, we all realized it was time to get back to work and move on down the road.
For the second straight day, we marched off into the afternoon sun and my body felt like the Tin Man in need of his oil can. With aching knees and a general sluggishness, my mind began to drift in the direction of an emotion that as a younger man I would've been in denial of: doubt. Doubt whether we'll have the weather we need to get through the remaining high mountains before the snows return for good. Doubt whether my body can hold up for as long as the hike will require. Doubt whether I can harness the mental stamina needed to see it through.
Not so many years ago, I would have pushed aside such doubt as if it were an infection that needed to be quarantined. But that was then. Hikes of this length invariably have their ups and downs, zeniths and nadirs, and their successful completion hangs by the thinnest of threads. Acknowledging those facts, and the internal adventure that goes along with them, is all part of the journey. To deny them, and to deny the doubts and questions that pop up along the way feels like a sanitized, disingenuous version of the truth.
The truth is that after 1400 miles and an even more exhausting set of logistics to try and piece this trail together, it's hard to look back on how much you've already given, the toll it has taken, and know that there's still so far to go. But zooming out too far can be a dangerous thing for a psyche, the scale of the entire endeavor far too large not to be overwhelming. And that's when you remind yourself to forget where you've been and where you've still yet to go, and focus on the only thing that matters: being present in the here and now. Tired, aching, and surrounded both by doubts and the very medicine for them: the vast expansive of beautiful wilderness that so few have the privilege to experience.