CT #11: Magic

As much as I tend to hike later than most backpackers, I still like to be in camp around sunset. Today that simply wasn’t possible; the last five or six miles of the day circled Twin Lakes, where, with a road and houses nearby, camping was neither wise nor socially acceptable.

I’m not about to complain, though, tired as I may be. Walking so late allowed me to look back at the lake as evening fell. I watched the setting sun transform the lakes’ surface to liquid gold and highlight each of the surrounding mountains’ undulating ridges in turn. As I crossed the dam, the underbellies of the clouds overhead were dyed pink and purple. It was magical!

I feel like I have used the word “magical” to describe a lot of things on the trail. A cottonwood grove in an arid canyon was magical. The way the eclipse, unseen behind clouds, turned the world suddenly cold was magical. Opening my tentfly to find myself staring at uncountable stars and the brilliant Milky Way was magical.

For this addition to my vernacular, I blame Pine Nut.

More than any other adult I know, Pine Nut is capable of keeping in mind both observable facts and subjective feelings. While spending four years studying science taught me to pursue objective answers above all else — that there is wonder in knowing exactly why something is so — Pine Nut taught me the beauty of getting caught up in the moment, of letting feelings share in my response to the world.

I think solo time in the wilderness is the perfect application of this both/and perspective. Here, where the sublime makes a daily appearance, it’s easy to let go and experience the magic.

CT #10: Return

When I woke up this morning, headed up to the hostel’s kitchen for breakfast, and found myself out of breath after that single flight of stairs, I knew I was in for a challenging day. But, there’s only so long I could wait at the hostel; I’d decided I was either hitting the trail today or getting back to Kentucky.

And so, after loading up my gear and getting hugs from the hostel managers, I set off with Ian (a Denver-residing EMT and the EABO whose comical disenchantment with thru-hiking I referred to yesterday) to hitchhike back to the trail. We got there eventually — after a trip down 91, another back up 91, and finally a hitch to Tennessee Pass.

The first couple we rode with were returning to Denver after a weekend in Aspen. As I was nauseated and exhausted, it took every ounce of mental fortitude I possessed not to ask to just go back with them. But, I kept my mouth shut, and at 10:00 I set foot in the woods once more.

There weren’t any easy miles, but the uphills were absolutely exhausting. Gasping for breath behind the buff that was keeping the air I was breathing blessedly moist, I stopped every ten steps or so. Eventually, I made it to the top of each climb.

And then, the woods began to work their magic on me again. I found myself gazing at high-elevation lake after high-elevation lake. I took in the wildflowers and the hawks. I savored the breezes and the blue sky. Yes, the miles were difficult, but they were worth it.

To top it all off, as I was nearing camp, I saw a rainbow.

CT #8-9: Zeroes

We associate the feeling of whiplash with sudden dramatic deceleration, with going from 65 mph to a standstill. But, anyone who’s gotten off trail knows that emotional and mental whiplash can also affect us when we go from 3 mph to a stop.

When you’ve been so focused on forward progress, standing still can be challenging. However, the fever, sore throat, and congestion that lingered in Leadville left me no choice but to rest.

As I did, I got to enjoy the Leadville Hostel & Inn, one of my very favorite hostels to date. It’s more pricey than AT hostels and is much more like many PCT or Hosteling International hostel in price and model. It attracts backpackers, cyclists, climbers, wanderers, and road trippers. On the deck, in the living rooms, and in the kitchen, we all intermingle, sharing stories of our adventures. The hostel feels organized and clean but also friendly and laid back — and it’s been a safe, warm place to recover.

I don’t feel 100% by any means, but my fever is gone, and my congestion is drying up. My throat is still sore, and I’m still tired. My plan is to hit the trail tomorrow morning and take it relatively easy — maybe just Rainbow Trot along.

CT #7: Fever

Every once in a while, I wonder at my sanity. The night I spent with a high fever on the AT in Virginia qualifies as one of those times, as does each of my two long, Lymey walks out of the High Sierras. And, today, needing to walk 17.5 miles over a whole lot of exposed terrain under stormy skies with a fever, congestion, and a sore throat also qualifies.

I woke up feeling absolutely awful, but I also knew I couldn’t dwell on it; I needed to get moving while the clouds were still light. I packed up and headed to the exposed trifecta of Searle Pass, Elk Ridge, and Kokomo Pass, better known collectively as Marmotland.

The landscape was stunning, but every step was difficult. Breathing during exertion can be tough. Breathing at altitude can be tough. Breathing with a swollen throat can be tough. Doing all at once was certainly less than ideal.And, then, just as I got under treeline, the rain started.

It would have made for a great misery party, but I pulled it together, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other all the way to Tennessee Pass. Eventually, I emerged from the trees, stuck out my thumb, and willed a car to stop and take me to Leadville.

Why do we do this to ourselves? An east-bounder (an EABO?) pointed out recently that, in the moment, not much that we do out here is actually fun. We sweat and we hurt and we shiver. Basic tasks take so much work. But, somehow, the cumulative effect of all of those uncomfortable, less-than-fun moments is something magical and life-changing. Talk about synergy.

CT #6: Rhythm

As much as I value embracing spontaneity and adventure, one of my very favorite things about long-distance backpacking is finding the rhythm of a hike.

Each trail has a different rhythm, which new hikers eventually settle into. Most pilgrims finished their days on the Camino early, allowing time to do their chores, get changed, visit the local cathedral, and then have a communal dinner. On the PCT, days stretched from dawn until dusk — with a siesta in the shade of a cottonwood thrown in. Part of the AT’s rhythm was break time at shelters, where it was important to read and write in shelter registers.

As on other footpaths, out here on the Colorado Trail, life is simple:

  • Wake up at the first light of dawn.
  • Eat and get dressed.
  • Break camp.
  • Hike uphill into the daylight.
  • Remove extra clothing layers.
  • Take lots of pictures of the most scenic part of the day.
  • At high point, put back on puffy, dry damp gear, eat, get dehydrated meal rehydrating, charge phone in sunlight.
  • Descend under treeline.
  • Filter water.
  • Eat, walk, eat, and walk some more.
  • Avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
  • Make camp below treeline on another slope.
  • Eat.
  • Journal.
  • Sleep.

Each day varies a little bit based on the weather or the terrain, but that’s the basic shape life takes.
Today, for example, there were two bursts of storms. I took shelter from one on the porch of a locked restroom facility; for the second, I nestled myself under a grove of pines. And, even though this was my shortest mileage day to date on the CT, when I approached the treeline of the day’s second ridge it was time to make camp.

Here, where the Colorado Trail is collocated with the Continental Divide Trail, it seems that the pop-up afternoon storms are the most challenging variable to master. New to this part of the country, I’d expected to be able to hike through the afternoon, that the sole determining factor of the day’s progress would be my endurance. But, thunderstorms have a way of encouraging humility, and it seems appropriate that the rhythm of such a dramatic trail would yield to them.