CT #21: Gratitude

My last town stop on the Colorado Trail was going to be Lake City, the town northbound thru-hikers have been talking about since Leadville. But, honestly, it wasn’t the town’s free movie for hikers or its amazing eateries that called to me; Lake City had a library.

Even in the age of smartphones, libraries remain a key destination in trail towns. They have computers with keyboards, they have WiFi, they have warm and dry places to sit, and they always seem to welcome hikers.

The Lake City library held a special appeal to me, as it was where I would finally iron out the (rather complicated) logistics of getting back home and purchase the tickets for the key legs of the journey.

And, since I finally have an appetite, by the time I got to Spring Creek Pass, the Lake City “exit,” I had just run out of food.

Perhaps, then, you can imagine my frustration as I stood on the side of the highway and not a car went past. Not one. Thirty minutes passed. Sixty minutes. Ninety minutes.

I began to get desperate. With the limited cell phone reception I had, I started looking for shuttles, but the one run by local trail angels had stopped for the season. I decided to start walking the 17 miles to Lake City.

I hadn’t gone a mile before a white truck came driving up. I stuck out my thumb, unable to hide my desperate hope. They drove past. I kept walking and then noticed the truck pull over and begin slowly backing up. I ran as fast as I could, pack and all, to the truck.

Val and Gary, a grandparently couple of native Coloradans, made room in their vehicle and welcomed me inside. They were camping nearby and were coming into Lake City for laundry and food, as well.

I wanted to cry or say a prayer of gratitude or dance for joy. My pathetic morning had just turned perfect.

We did laundry together, as I unloaded my resupply box and repacked my pack for the next leg of this journey. Then, we said our farewells, as I went to the library and they headed to the grocery store.

Lake City was a precious small town, and I enjoyed walking to the library and saying “Hi!” to locals in what I’ve been told is my southern way. At the library, I sat on a picnic table, charged my phone, and opened far too many browser tabs and apps as I worked to coordinate various transportation schedules.

No sooner had I figured it out (Huzzah!) and was preparing to call my family to let them know that Val called my name. They were heading to lunch and then out of town, past the trail. I could join them, if I’d like.

I had just decided that I’d make myself comfortable for a little while longer, grateful to be able to count on a friendly ride back up to the trail when it registered to me that I was being invited to lunch, too. This was too much!

How special it was, after three weeks in near-constant solitude, to share a meal with kind people! We talked about our families and our love of the outdoors. I had a delicious, non-rehydrated meal and wanted to “Ooo” and “Ah” over it, but I tried to remember that normal people don’t fantasize about food every moment of the day!

Eventually, it was time to head back into the mountains, and, eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the people who decided they were my “adopted grandparents.” I fought back happy tears as I hugged them and wished them well.

Then, I set off into the mountains, where, with tickets in my inbox, good food in my belly, and friendship in my heart, the miles were easy.

Who am I kidding?

There was a hailstorm! But, even the cold ice didn’t stop me from smiling.

CT #20: Wilderness

When hiking, rock climbing, and mountaineering are depicted in pop culture, the emphasis is usually on empowerment, on accomplishing something and feeling good about it.

As I’ve said before, one of my favorite things about being around mountains is getting a sense of how very human-sized I am in a very magnificent world.

My hike began 20-some miles and 5000 feet of elevation ago — not insignificant sums when you’re at 10-13,000 feet — and, all day long, I experienced the raw power, and the beauty, of nature. I woke up to a widespread frost, and I worked to keep myself warm as I began to walk.

My first climb of the day was to the saddle of San Luis, a rocky behemoth. From that rise, the world was barren, wind-blown and weathered into a lifeless rock. I zipped up my jacket and descended, grateful when I saw the greens of trees and grasses again.

Next, I climbed over San Luis Pass to the saddle of Peak 13,111. There, I worried as the clouds began to build, and the wind whipped around me as I worked to stay on trail. And, above me was a mountain, a very tall mountain whose name is merely its height.

I climbed in and out of a valley a couple of times and then climbed all the way up to Snow Mesa. Along the way, most appropriately, it snowed. I pulled my hood around my face and put on my gloves.

Then, it was time for the long, exposed walk across the Mesa. I was alone, without another human as far as I could see. Beyond the Mesa’s edge, a whole range of peaks rose, periwinkle against the pink sky of evening. Rain fell in bursts to my left and right, but I stayed dry, alone, and quiet in the vast wilderness I was so privileged to get to walk in.

CT #19: Lowlights

Yesterday, while I was sitting on the side of a Jeep road, eating my lunch and admiring a tiny waterfall that disappeared into the ground, a day hiker on his way to the trail pulled up beside me. He wanted to assure me that this was the boring section of the hike, that what was coming next was beyond incredible.

I wasn’t worried, I told him. Sure, nothing that I’ve been walking through recently has been especially impressive, but I hadn’t even given the absence of dramatic peaks a passing thought. If you spend enough time walking long trails or peakbagging, you’re going to find that, to get from trip highlight to trip highlight, you have to walk through what he called some “lowlights.”

The Appalachian Trail has its mid-Atlantic; the Pacific Crest Trail has its wind farms; the Camino has its Meseta. Along with the Lafayettes and the Skylights, there are the Hales and the Couchsachragas.

If I’m honest with myself, I’ve enjoyed each of these “lowlights.” For me, they’re part of what makes these long trips different from an isolated dayhike. When the scenery gets a little monotonous, I take that as my cue to do some of the mental work I always set aside for each trip.

So, today, as I walked along the Jeep roads, over the cattle guards, and under the blazing sun, I thought about the art festivals and galleries I’m hoping to be part of next year. As the miles ticked by, I planned and goal set.

And, then, I descended a gravely path and found myself in the beautiful Cochetopa Creek valley. The mental work will have to wait for later.

CT #18: Road Wariness

Every time I leave for a long backpacking trip, people wonder about my safety and my fears. Generally, I feel comfortable saying that I don’t feel afraid in the wilderness. I don’t consider this being foolhardy; I think it’s more the result of understanding the risks and doing my best to mitigate them.

People always ask whether I’m afraid of large animals — moose or bears or mountain lions. I try to explain that it’s the little ticks that they should be asking about.

People then ask about the other hikers, whether I’m afraid of them. No, I explain. It’s been my experience that, with a few exceptions, most people who come all the way into the woods are too tired to cause trouble.

In fact, most of the dangerous situations I’ve heard about on trail have happened close to roads, where people can access the trail with much less effort. For this reason, I make a habit of always sleeping at least a mile from trails.

The Colorado Trail has made this a little challenging, as Jeep roads criss-cross the state’s backcountry, but it’s still possible to plan campsites accordingly.

But, last night, two dirt bikes vroomed past my campsite after dark. This made me uncomfortable.

Hikers and mountain bikers and horseback riders all have to put in a lot of sweat equity to get out here. Motorcyclists can get up hills much more easily, and their speed is so very different from ours. Suddenly, in my mind, the whole trail may have been a road, and it was no longer safe to camp near it, at least until I’m out of dirt bike and ATV country.

I have nothing against any of these machines or their riders. It’s just that I felt afraid and vulnerable when I usually don’t. Do other hikers feel this way? If so, how do you overcome it?

CT #17: Socks

It was once pointed out to me that, to a large degree, backpacking is just a matter of learning to go without.

We go without frequent showers, without flushing toilets, and without sinks and mirrors.

We go without beds at waist height, we go without sheets, and we go without pillows.

We go without cars. We go without electricity.

We go without a change of clothes. We often go without hot meals.

(This is part of what can make reentry so overwhelming. When you’re comfortable living with very few things, realizing you have living quarters just to house a bunch of stuff is a little traumatizing.)

Today, I decided to go without something else: socks. I’m tired of them falling down and bunching up. I’m tired of their seams. I’m tired of them making my feet hot.

Sometimes, the real gift of going without is to realize what you now have room to let it. But, in this case, all I’m likely to let in is the Colorado breeze and a few new calluses.