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 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.

CT Day 7: This is Not a Drill

July 5
Segment 7 miles: 4
Backtracking for emergency phone service: 1
Evacuating to Frisco: 4
Segment 8 hiked: 5
Skipped because bus driver: 1.6
Total hiked today: 14
Trail Mile: 124

Segment 7 Miles 1-4; Segment 8 Miles 1.6 to 6.6

I wake in the early morning, and lying in my triple bunk with the window fan running and my mouth so dry, I can’t help but imagine we are all slotted like stacked trays in a giant food dehydrator making hiker jerky. I peel myself out of my bed-tray and jump in the shower which is stocked with quality shampoo and such. Not the cheapest hostel, but truly one of the best. I grab a place of watermelon and sausages (no judging) and sequester myself away from the animated hiker conversation to knock out some blog posts.

Town has a tendency to breed anxiety. I have options that are not just keep walking. There’s a hiker here with the tightest set of gear and I have major pack envy. And ongoing worries about the abusive relationship between my shoe and left tendon. I want to go but am becoming shy and uncertain, wanting company for the bus ride to the trail as much as I want to be alone. At the post office I mail home my microspikes. I’ve had conversations with many hikers about this and have decided my skill and risk tolerance leans more toward the CDT hikers, who either didn’t carry or didn’t use them on the coming segments. So off they go, hopefully no regrets. CDT friends from last night are on the bus and someone makes a comment about the smoke in the valley from the fire north of town, how can there be a fire when there’s still so much lingering snow? “Yeah, the snow is on fire,” I add.

It’s mid- morning as Steph and I start walking and sweltering hot too. Sweat streams down everywhere, so much for doing laundry. I trudge uphill, chanting to myself “My pack is full of helium balloons it has no earthly mass.” I push hard, trying to walk off my town anxieties and find a little space for myself on trail today.

The smoke in the air seems thicker now, a stinging haze that burns eyes and washes out the view. Then a few miles in I see a pillar of grey smoke rising from the woods. It doesn’t seem particularly large, just bonfire sized, so I continue, while keeping an eye on that general direction. Then I reach a junction and pause. The fire seems close now, less than a half-trail mile off, and wider than before. One of the many passing bikers confirms it is indeed a wildfire but doesn’t know more. I pour over my topo map. Double checking. And again, it appears that the fire is directly in my path just up the trail. Then the semi-steady stream of bikers suddenly seems to stop and Steph, who I thought was close behind has yet to catch up. So I sit at the junction working out what do, as smoke continues to billow up. I try calling the sheriffs number in my data book, but the connection is too choppy. 

I mull over the conditions: beetle kill trees down every where, tinder dry conditions and it’s the hottest day of the year so far. Plus the trail goes above the fire (fires move fastest uphill) and the wind, which always seems to pick up in the afternoon could change things rapidly.

I semi-reluctantly side with caution, heading back out toward Steph and proper phone service, walking up a large hill I just came down until I find both. Steph calls 911 to report the fire and we are told trails are closed and to hike back out. Just then a couple of hikers show up and suggest hiking out toward Frisco, the general direction of the trail, downhill and away from the fire. We leave a note so those behind us know to get out too. Steph and I take off, at a good, steady clip (the other couple stops for lunch?!?). I still am feeling alarmist as if I am over reacting and it’s no big deal. But then the planes start circling again and again. And there’s a police officer closing the trail closer to town. “Don’t worry, the helicopter should be here any minute now.” Says the cop. Not words I was expecting to hear today. Or ever, really. Then we watch as a team of hot shot smoke jumpers parachute into the heavily treed area close to the fire. Aparently they just hope to grab branches and climb down? In any case, fear I was overreacting gives way to relief we did the right thing.

At Whole Foods a crowd has congregated outside, eyes to a now thick, dark cloud of smoke billowing upwards behind the ridge we just walked down and out. The fire has expanded, says the news to 70 acres in a few short hours. Our little note could very well have gone up in flames by now.There’s no way segment 7 is going to be passable anytime soon, so we opt, miraculously in the only place on trail this is possible, to take the free bus over to the next segment, fire stories in tow and move on. And as if the day hasn’t had enough detours and complications, the bus driver delivers us to the wrong stop. We end up starting a mile and a half in to Segment 8 instead of at the start, after wandering lost around the ski resort. Five miles up there trail, there’s a guy whose made a freaking campfire. We go over to “chat” and, as politely as we can, make sure he knows Breckenridge is on evacuation alert and that the rangers have been asking people where they camped and if they made fires. Is there ataully a ban he asks? Does it even matter, I think to myself. We are breathing smoke from a wildfire (and yes, there was a totally county fire ban). It is just Too Soon!

We press on toward a more enticing meadow spot, as thunder grumbles. What else does this day want us to go through? Calling 911 and self-evacuating isn’t enough???!

We end up camped on the pretty meandow and I feel kind of terrible squishing a few plants, but the more durable sites are taken and there are fire pits here and the grey remains of an old log cabin. Though there’s absolutely no way I’m lighting anything other than my stove tonight. The thunder clouds have thinned to whisps (smoke?) pink with sunset. And the almost full moon rises above the red hillside as the alpenglow glow fades into night.

CT Day 5: The Divide

July 3
Miles: 23.3
Total: 104.4

Segment 6 Mile 9.4 to Breckenridge

Finally, the forest relinquishes control of the landscape and we are truly above the treeline heading toward Georgia pass. This is why I hike. This is why I wake up at 5am. Snow patches brighten shady creases and hollows, but the trail itself is all clear. I am reminded most of Sonora Pass green slopes and snow splotches, with patches of trees. Today we finally reach the divide, sharing paths with the continental divide trail (CDT), that like the PCT stretches from Mexico to Canada. But today is also a day divided, geography echoing my mood. A tale of two hills.

We snap photos on the pass just as a big dark cloud hides the morning sun. Clouds have moved in even faster today than the day before. It’s not even 8am. Still it is glorious up here and, mentally, Breckenridge, our first resupply, is all downhill from the pass. 

But there’s the minor detail of a 1,200 foot climb. Not especially massive, but between pushing for town and pushing the last four days for fun it becomes a significant hurdle. Elevation is so strange. When I’m feeling strong I haven’t noticed at all. But when anything is a bit off high elevation is all like “oh, you wanna go up there? Fine. But do you really need oxygen? And here are some thunderclouds and raindrops 4 U. MmmmK?

A quarter of the way up and my relatively empty pack seems full of rocks, my legs are lead. Even the metaphors are hard. At one point the long switchbacks angle just right to make it feel as if we are walking uphill toward the pass again! Then the rain falls in fat drops just insistently enough to require repacking my pack. And then stops 2 minutes later. The weather in these Colorado mountains goes from sweaty hot to shivering cold in a single puff of cloud.

This is a head down keep plodding situation. Except, as the day goes on I am increasingly interrupted by mountain bikers. I want to listen to music but would probably get run over. Then there are so many bikers it’s impossible to get a rhythm going. I find myself on narrow switchbacks, almost constantly stepping aside as they zoom by. They far outnumber the hikers we see today. Some are incredibly polite, announcing their presence and group size and wishing us good hikes. Others not so much. Steph is convinced one guy, rushing downward with music blasting was actually aiming for us. Finally I have LTE phone service and can check on possible rooms for tonight. We have reservations for tomorrow but have arrived a day early on a busy weekend. If the bikers are any indication town must be packed. And Sour Patch has zoomed ahead so now we are only splitting 2 ways. It seems the whole town is booked up for the holiday, or at least the bits of town that can be yours for under $300 a night. What to do? We are only 7.2 miles from the road and it’s not even 2pm. The only other option seems to be camping at the last sites before town which appear to be under the power lines. In beetle kill forest. By the Blair Witch trail?!?!

As a last hope, Steph posts to the women of the CT Facebook page on the chance that someone in Breckenridge wants to split a room with us, before resigning ourself to another night out. But showers! And food that doesn’t required added water! So close. And so out of reach.

And then, like magic, we have an offer of a spare room with friends of a Facebook friend, Len and Chris. Steph steels herself up to call Len. It’s always a bit intimidating to call a complete stranger to ask for a favor, especially one that involves staying in their house. “Hi, I’m Stephanie I got your number from Betty Cook?” She begins. “I don’t know any Betty Cook” comes the reply. Her face freezes, in deer-headlights mode. But of course it is all a joke. And we are most welcome. Then there are a few last miles out and a free bus to town, where we wander the isles of the grocery store scoping out resupply options before mulling over dinner food possibilities. Len kindly picks us up from the grocery store and takes us on a mini tour of nearby Frisco, with an adorable single Main Street tucked right against the mountains all decked out in flags for the holiday.

So instead of hunkering down all dusty and sad under the power lines in the haunted half-dead woods, we are all cozy and ever so grateful in plush robes, waiting for our laundry with the comfiest beds awaiting. We were offered our own separate rooms, but perhaps inspired by the Giggle Twins, thought sharing a room with twin beds like sisters would be more fun. 

CT Day 4: Friends-Day!

July 2nd
Miles: 16.6
Total: 81.2

Segment 5 Mile 7.4 to Segment 6 Mile 9.4

After yesterday’s unplanned almost-marathon we have a lazy morning stopping to chat with all kinds of hikers hoping to find our bubble or even better, a potential trail family of cool people doing similar miles. Those with smaller packs are definite contenders and we see tons of ULA today. Except they are all going in to town in a few miles and we are not. Bummer.

The second half of segment 5 continues to impress. We curve up and around a series of hills that alternate between forest shade and grassy Meadows with stunning views of the still-snowy continental divide which we will finally reach tomorrow. 

The morning is hot though and most of the day is up. So instead of breaking at Kenosha pass (other than to make excellent use of the pit toilets), we head on to get more elevation out of the way before the real heat of the afternoon. The trail seems to follow some old train tracks (this was a major obligatory passage point for three railways back in the day), and we have so much fun walking them we veer off trail for a few minutes. Oops.But the main factor shaping today, aside from yesterday’s big efforts, is the impending Georgia Pass. Doing twenty miles today would land us exactly at the top, above the tree line at 12,000 feet. Not exactly a safe place to camp in a thunderstorm. Luckily, a women headed north confirms camping at mile 9.4 a) exists b) has water and c) is below the tree line. “Just turn left at the moose bones,” she explains, as if that’s a perfectly normal set of directions.

And of course the thunder clouds are gathering. By the time we stop for lunch among the aspen at the pretty Guernsey creek, the sky has darkened, the wind kicked up and all signs point to a downpour. A local car camper (with a massive tent-shelter we were admittedly hoping he would offer us to hide under) assured us that he though it would all blow over without raining on us. I have to admit I was rather skeptical, but he was right! After a few tiny sprinkles the sky lightened and was well. Even better, we soon meet two cool hikers, both from Texas which gives me hope for my move next month. There’s Jesse who is hiking with his sweet lab-collie mix Juniper who massively makes me miss my dog Onyx. And there’s Sour Patch, a compete bad ass Appalachian Trail hiker who is out here pulling 30 mile days with a pack that weighs twice as much as mine. Here we are feeling like we are crushing it and she started at day later! I am seriously impressed.  We join forces, talking our way through what can be slumpy afternoon miles, winding up forest slopes until we all decide to stop just this side of the pass. Partly because the dark clouds are still hovering and there’s thunder in the not-so-distance. Partly because it sets us up well for tomorrow to camp just short of Breckenridge instead of spending more money on accommodations in town. And partly because of the great company. Though I am feeling pretty strong still, getting to camp before 5 is a welcome luxury after a series of long days. So there are seven humans and one dog at camp tonight and while we are all generally getting along fabulously there are lot of different styles converging here. Take for example the range of food storage strategies: sleep with (2); bear piƱata (2 sharing one bag); ursacks tied properly to tree but not hung (2) and opsack in an ursack in a dry bag hung in tree (1). This last woman admitted that she spent the last week hanging a bear canister (!!!) in a tree (!!!). Despite this incredible caution said woman sprayed her tent and the ground around it with about a half can of flowery scented bug spray that proceeded to waft all over my tent. This all reminded me of a time in girl guides when one person convinced the other girls to smear deodorant all over their tents to repel bears (when scented products can attract bears as much as food LOL).

Still, much awesome conversation at camp tonight. There’s a pair of hikers, The Giggle Twins, who are absolutely hilarious in all the right ways. The have some chlorophyll powder they have been eating straight to help combat the elevation but it turns their lips dark green. I totally assumed they were awesome goth hikers, when they are awesome feminist apothecaries. They were so excited that Jesse was just behind us, they ran down the trail to meet him and insisted he camp here with the ladies. And he did. Hopefully because this is a rad group of interesting, energetic folks and not just because it’s the last water this side of the pass.