CT Day 1: A Lightning Start

June 29th
Miles: 20.5

Segment 1 Mile 0 to Segment 2 Mile 3.5 (the CT is divided up into 28 more easily digestible segments bordered by road crossings)

Slumberkat and Maestro, two of my favorite PCT 2015 peeps, have been totally upping their trail angel game. Yesterday Slumberkat picked Steph and I up from the train and took us on a hiker dream tour to REI, (vegan!) happy hour and a grocery store. This morning Slumberkat wakes up early to drive us to the trailhead, and generally fuss over us, making sure to take plenty of start photos and offering again, to meet us down the trail should we need anything whatsoever. You two are the best!At Waterton Canyon there are eight others, in ones and twos, starting out for sections and thrus at this same hour, a surprising number to me. I wonder if the CT will be John Muir Trail busy. Or worse, since so many have come here after bailing on the still snowed in Sierra.

The official first six miles of the CT follow a wide dirt road and are almost dead flat. Not a terrible start really, as the miles come easily and the river is pretty, if tamed by various bits of infrastructure culminating in a large dam.

Two miles in, and we are already grateful for company and conversation because the walking doesn’t exactly require brain power. I am kind of tired this morning, not exactly bubbling over with the combimation of excitement and nerves that often mark the start of a long hike. Maybe I just need to get some miles between me and my work life to get back into happy hiker mode. But what if I am bored with backpacking? I worry about this to myself and about work aloud.

There are pit toilets and picnic tables every mile or two. Most notably, the last one comes with a small herd of mountain goats (?) intently slurping some mysterious nutrients out of the gravel road. There are plenty of bikers, walkers and runners out this mornings too.

But soon the road ends for us and while the single track finally feels like hiking the way is mostly up. I distract myself with all the pretty flowers and plants along the way. Some familiar, like sky rocket. Some I only know from photos, like Colorado columbine. Which is much bigger than I expected in real life. And some, I have never seen before. There are delicious surprises too, in the form of tiny wild strawberries. I perform a unintended thigh workout, via a series of strawberry picking squats with fully loaded pack.

We stop for a “proper” lunch (read handfuls of various snack foods) at Bear Creek, which is still running well and clear at the main crossing. But, after carrying a few litres of water another mile up a steep hill, we discover that the seasonal upper creek is also still running – right across the trail in three places -further up as well. Yay for bonus water carries!?

It’s only four hours in to day one, but talk has drifted to town days. Here I am planning to eat eggs and spinach in six days. Mostly though, it’s generous switchbacks both up and down, and with our steady pace, segment one turns out to be not so hard. At 4:30 we reach the campsites just above the South Platt river. They are already mostly occupied and the spaces left are not so flat or welcoming. And there’s word that the pit toilet is a poo- smeared trash filled disaster. I cannot confirm this as I was unwilling to investigate.

We chat with one of the hikers already camped here who is carrying the full CT guidebook (too heavy for me, but seems to have more campsites listed than the data book or Guthook) and learn that the next campsites are in about 2.5 miles, up a massive hill, of course. And in a 13 mile waterless stretch. Through an exposed burn area. Fun!
We decide to go down to the river, and only water source, and think about it. But of course I already know I will not be dragging my pack backwards uphill today. So forwards uphill it will have to be.

Before the climb we stop for dinner on a dusty patch of riverside that almost passes for a sandy beach. I stand in the cool water and rinse off dust and salt. The air is so dry I seem to be sweating solid crystals. I had planned to get all the way in the water to rinse, but of course the clouds are at their darkest just at this moment. I eat my heaviest dinner before semi-reluctantly filling bottles with enough water to dry camp and make it 10 miles to the next source in the morning. At least we will we doing the bulk of this exposed climb in the cool evening air. But such effort it takes! My pack feels like a sack of bricks (even though it can’t be more than 26 pounds), and though they are switchbacks there are some steep sections.
But up we go, to hard earned ridges and the promise of camp. The sun even peeks out for some stellar late day illumination, brightening distant hills and peaks. Except when we reach our intended campsite, it just doesn’t feel right. The spots are super exposed on a ridge and a wind has kicked up and the afternoon’s thunderclouds have yet to dissipate. Steph decides she can manage one more mile. We plod on, imagining all kinds of flat spots that really aren’t (Steph even hallucinates a fire ring!). I must be overreacting, I think. We should have just stayed at those lovely first view sites. I must be too tired to know a good site when I see one, way too cautious with the clouds breaking up for the day. Both of us, however want the site to feel ‘right’ so we can get a proper night’s sleep after two travel-shortened ones. 

Then finally, exactly one mile later we find it: lovely, flat, cleared spaces among the trees with grand views between, slightly below the ridge and with a lot more tree coverage.
We set up tents and settle down for some good sleep all content with our big first day, feeling pretty accomplished for having conquered what was supposed to be most of tomorrow’s big climb too.

Until….

I wake in the dark listening as drip…drop…drip becomes a steady patter of rain against nylon above my head. I tuck in my groundsheet, close my tent flap and hope the stakes hold in the shallow soil. Hope Steph has everything inside where she is camped a few hundred feet away. Rain the first night. When I thought the cloud situation was clearing up. When I thought the storms were more of an afternoon affair. Colorado weather you are a mystery to me!

Then the distant rumble of thunder, and I am so relieved we pressed on that last tough mile to find somewhere more forested and somewhat less exposed than the first ridge. Hoping it passes fast and far off. Then the flash and rumble closer. I am live blogging this storm to myself (without service) as I can do little more than be a spectator at this point (other than run off a ridge into the dark rain in my pjs). Welcome to 3am our first night! So much for a good rest after a long day.

One one thousand… two one thousand…three…BOOM! Closer still. Lightening truly freaks me out. Scares me more than bears. More than hitch hiking alone.

FLASH….one one-thousand… twBOOM!!! And I am terrified, shaking a bit to be honest, thinking about death by lightening. Thinking about that one time on the PCT when the storm was stuck swirling against the ridge again and again for 12 hours. Please, please let the next flash shows signs of moving on.
And then, half an hour later it is gone. The rain tapers back to drips and the thunder fades into the distance, off to terrorize other hikers on other ridges.

I’m starving now that I have time for more feelings. But of course my food is all tied up in my ursack (a bear resistant bag) attached to a tree. And with my senses all riled up and over sensitive I think I hear footsteps in that direction. But maybe it’s just the last fat drops falling from the trees. Or a deer licking up my pee. It just might be time for the earplugs. Oh blissful oblivion! Much better.

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