CT Day 19: Magic Miles

July 17, 2017
Miles: 32 (!)
Trail Mile: 326
Segment 17 Mile 11.1 to Segment 19 Mile 9.7

The forest is half alive this morning instead of half dead. The trail is finally cruiser. And mostly downhill. Amazing what a good night’s sleep and morning sunshine can do to banish zombie-moods.

I continue along the last stretch of ridge, and then the single-track becomes dirt road for almost the entire day. Unlike the many small ups and downs that actually added up to serious elevation change yesterday, today truly has little elevation gain and loss, at least for mountain hiking. Just before noon, two hikers going the other direction tell me there’s trail magic in seven miles. Trail Magic! I plug in and march on, challenging myself not to stop until I get there. Over gentle hills, across stinking creeks thick with cow poop, along ranch roads all the way. Just as the day is really heating up, I come across a cow skull with sharpie announcing: “Trail Magic 1.2 miles.” I realize that this also marks my first 20 by 2 (twenty miles before 2pm) of the trail. Woot! 

And 1.2 miles later, under a tall tree in the middle of the driest, sunniest stretch of trail, a truck and a tent. It’s Trail Angel Apple with a cooler full of iced-cold Gatorade on this hot, dry stretch. And he has fresh water too for hikers to swap out their cow-piss creek sludge. The ‘water’ that was covered in enough flies to make anyone who thought it was simply ‘muddy’ reconsider.

After a two hour break, Steph, who has caught up as she does, and I head out into, yes, another round of thunderstorms. Though we miss the worst of the rain, I am majorly spooked by a stretch of walking in a wide open field under thunderclouds. And even if lightening is striking a mile away, that is still waaay too close for my scared heart.

But we pass through without getting zapped, and celebrate by heading for our stretch goal – the creek and a 30 mile day. But the steady drizzle makes exposed campsites look unappealing, and the tease of sunshine up the valley lures us on. But everything else seems even worse. Too rocky. Too grassy. Too knee deep in cow pies (not exaggerating). Too far from the water. And that, is how you end up with a 32 mile day. Camped just shy of the ford (too wet!), feet tingling with the effort, but no worse for the wear.

Advertisements

CT Day 18: Zombie Walking Through a Half-Dead Forest

July 16, 2017
Miles: 22
Trail Mile: 293
Segment 16 Mile 4.1 to Segment 17 Mile 11.1

I hear the engine first, then a voice yelling over the machine noise: “There are tents down there!” I retrieve my phone from the pile of clothing and electronics attempting to pass as a ‘pillow’ under my head. It’s 5:45am. So much for the whole walking miles past the trail head camping area to escape weekend noises. But so it goes, with motorcycles allowed and so many access points, and at least I am awake in time to see the sunrise and grateful to have survived without any stormy mishaps in the night (Steph later tells me that the storm circled and circled, keeping her up for hours. I have no memory of this).Today was a day of plodding along, of easy miles that felt hard, of walking like zombies through a half-dead forest. Sections 16 and 17 fall in the beetle belt – the rust belt for trees – where more evergreens stand dead than alive. In sections that are newly-dead orange-red needles coat the trail; in those longer-gone, a thick coating of chartreuse lichen gives the appearance of green branches. The trees suffer, but the forest is still alive with birdsong.We are at lower elevations all day, wandering up and down among the skeletons, with only a few glimpses of distant hills from the odd bald spot along the ridge. With few views for entertainment, I take up listening and hear:

  • Birds that sound like bicycles
  • Bicycles that make no sounds at all
  • A cat fight
  • A bird of doubt whose mocking call “don’t think you can make it” accompanies me all the way up a long uphill
  • Motorcycles

So many motorcycles that I can’t listen to music for fear of being run over from behind. I am passed by:

  • Three bicycles
  • One quad
  • Sixteen motorcycles
  • A large herd of cows

It’s quite the experiment in multi-use trail life, and I am still not exactly a fan. The dirt bike riders are the worst. Or they seem that way. It’s so hard to tell how friendly they are beneath their plastic armor of helmets and goggles and breastplates; and it’s impossible to chat unless they stop and turn off engines. Mostly I find myself leaping off the trail out of the way, somewhat annoyed.

But not as annoyed as the mountain bikers who are mostly mountain bike pushers today. Trail that looked cruiser on the maps turned out to be much rocks. And as a foot-dragging zombie walker, I tripped over every single one for 22 miles. Every [stab]. Single [kick]. Rock [stumble].

I’m having lunch at a trail junction, when Steph catches me. We pack up and start hiking, but neither of use is feeling it. So we stop for a nap at the next trail junction which is an impressive .1 miles later. Post-nap I’m not doing much better. The dead trees become the drowsy poppy field outside emerald city. So tired I can’t keep my eyes open. I look ahead, close my eyes for five steps, look ahead… until I decide I should probably just sit down. “I know what people mean when they say they are thinking of nothing,” says Steph, who while physically more awake, is not faring much better mentally.

As with most ridges, today’s are dry, thanks to water’s pesky tendency to run downhill and the whole ridges being on top of things thing. My drowsiness is likely the result of my lazy reluctance to carry more water. The same laziness leads me to skip the next water: a lake, inconveniently located far down from the ridge, as is a pesky tendency of lakes. The next (and only for today) water source after the lake is a creek my notes helpfully describe as “50% cow pee.” But to my zombie-brain diluted urine seems more appealing than a one mile detour off trail.

I end up walking 14 miles on a liter and bit. I’ve done worse in the SoCal desert (or better, depending on your perspective). I enter the cow-pee drainage with trepidation and am relieved not too see any cows relieving themselves. Or any cows at all for that matter.  With nary a fresh cow pie in site, I grab water and am chatting with hiker-friends from Salida, when Arcade and Glimmer show up. We find a family-sized campsite a bit further down the trail, and set up for the night. Just as I’m boiling water for dinner the first drops fall. It’s really a matter of when, not if around here. Luckily, for today at least, tents are pitched, camp chores are done and my teeth brushed before it really starts coming down, quieting inter-tent conversations.

 

CT Day 17: The (Thunder) Crack of Noon

July 17th
Miles: 15
Trail Mile: 271
CW5 Mile 10.8 to Segment 16 Mile 4.1

In the morning, peak-bagger-hiker and ever so generous trail angel Gazelle kindly drives us all the way back up to the pass – so many thanks, friend! Instead of hiking, we make excuses to go into the gift shop next to the tourist gondola that promises superlative views (to ‘return’ borrowed banana chips to the hikers box) where we stand around eating even more treats from the hiker box that has been much replenished since our last visit (Epic bison bars!). But then it is time to go. To hike. To face the weather. It is also noon.Walking away from town feels like walking into a dark cloud. Partly because we ARE walking into a dark cloud. I watch as a cartoon perfect bolt of lightening strikes the ridge where the trail continues about a mile away. We chill at a campsite with an easy descent path if needed, to give the storm a few minutes to move on. Or at least to give myself a moment to summon the courage to walk toward electric danger yet again.Despite the full packs and storm dodging, the walking is easy today. No massive passes, just a lot of very pleasant ridge walking some up high with views, some through forest carpeted in yellow sunflowers. We finish the last few miles of the Collegiate West option so worth it, even with the cornice to scale and the weather bombs. Today, at where the two trails reconverge, we stand completely content, having stayed up high where we can gaze down upon the ascent those on the Collegiate East have to make back up to these scenic ridges.This stretch of trail has been incredibly busy with mountain bikers, and then motorbike and signs of horses, each fresher than the last, joining the mix. So many different kinds of users somehow coexisting on these trail – though I have trouble imagining how horses and motorcycles manage crossing on narrow path.

At the next trail head we meet the horse people. Actual thru-riders who I can ask thousands of miles worth of questions about how, exactly that works. But all my tired thru-hiker dreams of having a pack animal (horses! llamas! goats!) to take the weight is quickly shattered by the realities the responsibilities that come with caring for creatures other than yourself. “It’s like traveling with six children,” the horse people explain.Avoiding the trailhead parking on a summer Saturday night, we head to the next water. Which turns out to be way down a side trail off the the divide, hundreds of feet below. Trying to save time and make camp before the incoming thunderstorm arrives, we attempt to fill up at a small stream part way down. But it is an uncooperative trickle. Flowing slower than my sawyer mini-filter and far less clear.

We run back up the hill, not quite enough not quite clear water in tow, to pitch tents against the fat rain drops. The storm passes nearby, assaulting ridges just beyond ours. I am a totally nervous camper. Under too big a tree, too close to an open space, too close to a ridge. Making matters worse, the tree and most of its neighbors are dead. So here I am, far too exposed with nowhere to go and widow-makers all around (notice all the dead branch silhouettes in the photo below).

CT Day 16: Simply Salida

July 14
Miles: Zero
Trail Mile: 263

Oh town mornings on a true zero! Sleeping in. Blogging in bed. Making a perfect toasted breakfast bagel with hummus, spinach and artfully arranged avocado. The joy of cotton clothes and walking around in a ridiculous town outfit that consists of the following: white flowered dress worn as a skirt; marine conservation t-shirt; and men’s fruit of the loom boxer briefs size large, pulled brand new from a package in the hiker box. All the girls are wearing them these days. There’s a bit of a back up with the laundry, you see, and we have tired of sitting around commando in skirts among the city crowd.

The red rain jacket, dirty ursack purse and new sunglasses help add to the ridiculousness of it all as we drool over new hiking clothes at the the mountain sport store and rummage through thrift shops (where Steph tries to convince me to buy leather chaps, a bargain at $40, by insisting they are light weight since they don’t cover your butt).

I buy my resupply from Safeway, (just three easy blocks from the Simple Hostel = best trail town ever) where I find vegan cream cheese and organic tortilla chips and instant re-fried beans to pack out. And a pint of dairy free Ben and Jerrys and fresh veggies to eat in.We have grand plans with CDT friends, Glimmer and Arcade, and 14er hiker Gazelle: my first time paying Cards Against Humanity. Which turns out to be equal parts offensive and hilarious, and to go oh so very well with beer and new friends and a pint of ice cream.

CT Day 15: Lost at Ski, Salida Bound

July 13
Miles: 11
Total: 262

CW 5 Mile 0 to Monarch Pass

Though the rain stops in the night (and we are not swept away in a flash flood), we wake to incredible dampness in the narrow canyon too close to the river. And there’s only more dampness to confront: damp clothes, wet packs, soaked shoes. I put this off, if only temporarily, cooking hot soup for breakfast from the comfort of my relatively dry sleeping bag.

It’s only 11 miles to town and the promise of showers and laundry and dry everything. But of course the divide stands in between and here I am all soggy at the bottom. So on go the cold, wet clothes and soggy shoes, which warm up somewhat as I climb the steep hill, past lakes (Lakes!) until I am again walking right on the continental divide following a pleasantly crooked path past old looking stone cairns covered in lichens.
Much of the way down is a ridge walk. Which is pretty much my favorite, views on both sides, until the trail deposits me on the dirt roads of an off season ski resort. The roads are a maze and there are no signs. I tried up a steep, steep road, double checking my phone all the way only to get to the top and find out I was walking up a black diamond run.

I drain my phone batteries using GPS to navigate, wondering what happened to Steph who was right behind me until she isn’t. I later learn that she did some steep bonus miles, lost at the ski resort (her phone GPS hasn’t been working).

On and on, the trail seems to go, winding full circles around unnecessary mountains. I hike to see amazing views, but sometimes nothing is more amazing than rounding the bend to see a giant parking lot and a weathered mid century modern rest stop- gift shop.Inside, near dusty taxidermy porcupines, stone arrowheads and other curiosities, there’s a hiker box tucked in a corner. A giant air freshener has been strategically placed, synthetic floral aromas doing serious competition with hiker stench.

We score a ride to town with the second person we acost, a father from Leadville out mountain biking with his young sons. He deposits us near the hostel in Salida (though it is out of his way – thank you again!), which is rumored to be hiker friendly. But the big NO glows orange on the vacancy sign. Out faces droop in such sadness, but we go in anyway to see if they have space for tomorrow.

But they are so hiker friendly we can sleep on the floor for cheap and there’s bunk space for tomorrow. So much happiness. And Glimmer and Arcade are here! 
We don crazy town outfits from the loaner clothes pile and hit up the grocery store. Finally, two weeks later, we make the eggs and veggies we dreamed up way back on day one.

CT Day 14: Eye on the Sky

July 12
Miles: 25
Total: 251

CW3 Mile 7.3 to end of CW4

It’s morning high on the Collegiate West, with surprisingly lush meadows of flowers swaying in unison to the gentle breeze. Sharp snow-streaked peaks behind, and bubbling creeklets below. To use John Muir’s favorite adjective: it’s glorious.

I’m walking along peacefully, maybe a touch drunk on unfiltered snowmelt, when SHRIEEEEK! I’ve tripped the marmot intruder alarm and the warning reverberates across the basin. Such a loud sound from my cheeky, waddling alpine companions. There are gentler squee! squeaks! from the tiny bunny-with-mouse-ears pika-friends too, but there are much harder to spot among the rocks.

The trail makes lots of ups and downs, continuing along one side of the divide, then crossing to the other before leading back below the tree line. The clouds generously allow my passage, though I keep turning back to make sure nothing dark is sneaking up behind my back. I’m getting lunch-hangry and struggling up the (totally gentle) hill when I hear a big crash in the bushes. It sounds bear sized but then even tiny deer are elephants when you’re alone. But this is no Bambi: I’ve startled a mama moose who dashes into the willows with baby in tow and then, with just her head poking out proceeds to stare me down. Hard. Ears locked in my general direction.

There’s a mama moose in there (I swear!) and baby too.
Except the lunch spot I’m struggling toward is just up the trail where the creek crosses the exact same meadow. I’m already on thunder watch, and now angry mama moose watch too. But hunger generally outdoes fear, so I gingerly cross the meadow and plant myself in the middle of a tree fortress to block any moose stampedes. So far so good. But as soon as I unpack my lunch it promptly starts hailing.

I catch Steph (who passed by my moose-proof lunch spot without seeing me) in the late afternoon. She wants to power on to the end of the segment to be close to town. I want to cross one more pass and then camp, but the conditions have been so, so good today. The thunderstorms have stayed on other ridges and as we start the last big climb of the day, there’s even a nice patch of blue sky to the west. Of course the last, late miles are much tougher than the rest. We descend a super rocky drainage, navigating from cairn to cairn across ankle-testing rockslides. This is not the cruiser downhill we were hoping for. We do our best to hurry down a path slippery with the orange-dead needles of thousands of beetle-kill trees. The shaky, branch-dropping skeleton forest ensures safe camp options are practically nonexistent.

As always, I’ve had one eye on the sky and though I say nothing I can see low clouds heavy with rain pouring over the ridge to fill the valley where we are headed. Just one Mile to go. A few drops fall. I have a bad feeling and stop to put on my rain jacket and stow my phone. A few minutes later and we are walking through a torrential downpour. A twenty-five Mile day without incident and it dumps on us a mile from camp? Seriously Colorado?!

It’s after 8pm and getting dark and we are absolutely sopping wet when we arrive at the Boss Lake trailhead where there is supposedly camping. And I assume a lake. And maybe even people with RVs who will take pity on us or at least let us use their big tent shelters for cooking. And offer us hot beverages and kind words.

But there’s nothing there. No RVs. No Lake. Just a sign, and deep puddles where there should be campsites. Water pouring down from above, pooling up from below. We finally set up tents on a path/patch of not completely swamped ground near the river. It is still pouring down. I peel off my wet layers, put on my thankfully dry sleep clothes and burrow into a down sleeping bag that is doing its best to loft in this incredible dampness. Dry(er), for the moment, I suddenly become acutely aware of the roar of the too-close Arkansas river, and doze off wondering how close it is to flooding its banks.  Worrying about Steph who is camped closer than me, and who, I later learned was so tired she just assumed her air mattress would keep her afloat, and drifted off to sleep with that (infalted) confidence.
 

CT Day 13 Weathered

July 11
Miles: 21
Trail Mile: 226

CW2 Mile 11.9 to CW3 Mile 7.3

Today we weathered a storm, and are beginning to feel a bit weathered ourselves. The clouds arrived early or stayed late, but either way it’s not the clear morning sky I was hoping for. A bit of a late start and I can’t find my groove, stopping in the first miles for multiple costume changes, to pick up dropped trekking poles. To dig a hole. Combine my clumsiness with multiple (very easy) creek fords and hello wet feet. I manage to fall in not one, but two creeks today. Most impressively I brace myself for a grand leap across a narrow channel, jump and land, thinking I’ve made it. Only to slide off the bank into a thigh deep pool. While wearing my wind pants.

Texas creek is the ‘big’ ford of this section, possibly of the trail (mostly the CT has amazing bridges, for the bikers maybe?). It’s not particularly intimidating, just a resign yourself to wet shoes and get across situation. It’s over my knees skirt-deep, and certainly flowing but not especially cold or fast.The real challenge is what comes after: miles of fallen trees to play over-under-around, just in case I wasn’t already feeling slow today.

I crawl under one, thinking I will fit only to have my pack snag a branch. Unable to go forward or back, I try down only to end up stuck lying on the ground in the dirt. I have to sheepishly take my pack off to extract myself. 

Even without the extra leg lifts, dirt baths, an detours the climb through the forest would be a true slog. But slog long enough and the trees relent, until there’s more meadow and all views. I perch on the last ridge before the highway to enjoy lunch with a view and wait for Steph (who wasn’t feeling the best today either), watching dark clouds trailing rain traverse the sky behind me. By the time we are at the road, there’s thunder and the deepest darkest blue-grey clouds have again settled up where we need to go. But this time we are already above the treeline, at Cottonwood Pass, a parking lot on the continental divide. The expanse of pavement offers no shelter, and the trail promises to stay above the treeline for the next seven miles along the divide. Which happens to be exactly where the storm is angrily perched.

So with lightening striking, we drop below the ridge to sit under some small trees and hope it all passes soon. Except the clouds seem to be stuck circling the divide. The thunder grows more distant and then with a flash it is closer again. We reevaluate our spot and decide it will do. The rain comes down with a vengeance. Then hail. We shiver under our scraps of plastic ground sheet, rain finding ways to trickle down my back. We sit counting between flashes and booms until it is right on top of us with one great FLASHCRACK and then the rain eases and thunder seems mostly to be behind us, if still too close for my comfort. We wait a little longer until we’ve spent a hour and a half huddled in plastic wrap under dripping shrubbery.

We chat with an older couple back at the parking lot (the woman hiked the PCT in 1986!), who offer us a ride to Buena Vista to dry out. But the sky is a bit brighter now and after much debate, we decide to head on rather than lose a day. It’s only 43 miles to a Salida zero and the important things are still dry.

Up on the divide snowfields still hide some switchbacks, bootsteps now filled with hail. There’s some rock scrambling to get around, slippery with the rain, but nothing scary compared to yesterday. The sky stays grey, but the views still go on and on in both directions.

The trail climbs over the divide one last time before the faint promise of “possible” campsites (after a guidebook warning not to try to camp in this section). I’m so excited I follow footsteps waaay down what think is the trail, but isn’t. I trudge through the damp valley of my stupidity, through flooded meadows and across small streams, soaking my shoes anew, until I have climbed back up to the trail feeling terrible for dragging Steph through my mistake while simulraneously admiring the dramatic evening light.We poke around rocks and trees and melting snow patches until a magic cairn Steph spots leads us to a cozy spot under some trees. Just as I settle in my tent, I hear the first few gentle drops. I am too tired to worry about lightening, and fall asleep to the clatter of rain.