Total Miles: 1734.4
The last day of September. Somewhere along the way, summer slipped into the distance without us hardly noticing. The cold nights of the past few weeks heralded the start of autumn, but with the return of cloudless sunshine and 70-degree weather it feels like the perfect time to be out hiking.
Shoving off from Rawlins, we had a decision to make for the remainder of the trail through the Great Divide Basin. Just south of town, the trail would split off from a paved road while an alternate would continue down that same road, saving nearly 20 miles. The bad news? It would mean a 40-mile stretch without water, nearly all of it on the shoulder of a paved road. Gluttons for pavement punishment apparently, we opted for the shorter alternate and shouldered 6 liters of water apiece to last us until tomorrow evening. Twelve and a half pounds of water. It felt about as good as that sentence sounds.
With only sporadic traffic and a decent shoulder to walk on, it was about as pleasant as a stroll alongside a highway could be. The warm sun was welcome and un-oppressive, and a cool breeze of only a few miles per hour would occasionally brush past us, enough to perfectly offset the sun.
Walking along our paved trail, it was like taking the world’s slowest road trip, complete with rest breaks in the ditch alongside it to rest our feet from the hard pavement and the extra water weight. In the early afternoon, a truck going our direction pulled over and a man jumped out to hand us each an ice cold bottle of water. Not wanting to add it to the stockpile already on our backs, we drained them on the spot as we chatted with him beside the road.
The water in this southern region of the Basin is already notably different than what we’d encountered north of Rawlins. Although it continues to be scarce, we did spot several sources of surface water within a mile or two of the road we walked, but much of the water here is essentially undrinkable owing either to its salinity or to its extreme alkalinity. Dry, white scars in various places in the distance pointed to areas where shallow saline lakes had once been before vanishing beneath the summer heat.
Just before stopping in the gutter yet again, this time to cook dinner, we noticed a random blue cooler chained to the infinite fence that and been paralleling the road. On the ground beside it, a laminated sign announced that this was for hikers and bikers only, and in it was a small stockpile of cold water bottles that was as precious as any buried treasure.
The final few miles pointed us squarely in the direction of a very large plume of smoke on the horizon that was reminiscent of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Beneath it, a wildfire rages safely to the east of the trail.
The sun exits stage right and minutes after it does, a full moon enters stage left rising as a golden orb over the golden waves of grassland that extend for miles all around us. Taking it as our cue in the dwindling light, it was time to make our home for the night in the only place befitting of the day: in the proverbial gutter mere feet from where the pavement dissolves into sand and scrub.