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.

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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 10: Elbert is My Shasta

July 8th
Miles: 4.1 CT + 7 for Elbert 
Trail Mile 176.5 

Way back in May, I made mid-June plans to Climb mount Shasta with PCT friends Shuffles and Dribbles. But a storm blew in, dumping 7″ of fresh snow on our “Avalanche Gulch” route (how safe), and plunging temperatures at the peak into the single digits Fahrenheit. Too much for summer gear and novice skills that were already going to be stretched to the limit.

But today I get a chance at a 14er (14,000 foot peak) redemption. I wake in the almost dark, with the mountain looming more than 4,000 feet above. The trick in Colorado is to make it up and off the summit before a thunderstorm rolls in. This is usually around noon, but a man on the way up tells me the storms are predicted to be ahead of schedule today. Well. At least I got started before sunrise. I load my pack with water at the very bottom. Though there’s still a bit of snow melting somewhere up there, the trail appears to follow dry ridges up and down. Laden with liquid I join the steady stream of peak baggers; runners in short shorts and little water vests; parents with toddlers on backs and older children in tow; day hikers with their tiny hydration packs and bright clean clothes; and bros with camo backpacks that charge ahead and then take a sit down break every few hundred feet. I look like a crazy lady in my dirty-stinky hiker shirt and giant tattered pack. but I do pass most of them (except the runners!) so they can only judge so much! Pass I might, but hardly with flying colors. This trail is steep! Most of the gain is in just a few miles (3,800 feet in 3.5 Miles), the air growing scarcer with each step. There are few switchbacks, mostly it is just up. Near the top, loose scree slides out underfoot just when you are in most need of solid ground. 

One foot in front of the other, and eventually you run out of up and hit the top. Woot! After some victory photos, I have a brief conversation with a woman in a running vest who turns out to be a) pianist Amy Briggs and b) someone who knows my friend Erika. Giant peak. Small world. 

As I am basking at the summit the few white puffy clouds have become thick and grey. Sheets of rain are falling in the far side of the valley, and dark clouds have snuck up behind Elbert too. Time to go. I hauled my pack all the way to the top up the North trail (cursing my stupidity all the way) and as reward can now hike out the South trail for new scenery and to land closer to Twin Lakes (congratulating myself all the way for the same reason). The North trail is much more pleasant with fewer people and more switchbacks, especially near the top where you need them most. I trot back down toward the forest, grasshopper wings (legs?) clicking madly like the ignition to a gas stove as they leap about the grassy meadows. I stop among them to rest my knees and take in more of the view. At the Twin Lakes store I find my resupply box and a vitamin water and hiker box treats. I conspire to share a room for the night with a CDT hiker German Mormon. The catch is that there’s only one bed and GM is a dude I’ve known for about five minutes. “Well I will take it until 2am and then we can swap,” he jokes. “Like sailors on a submarine” I giggle. Except we think this is so funny we decide to do it.

The room is in a massive old farmhouse, with narrow stairs and a dark wood paneled parlor. Occupying another room are two more German CDT hikers, the kind and generous Walkabout and Skipper. The house has a kitchen with a mishmash of new and old stoves and furniture and spices (mostly old) where I eat hiker box rice and lentils from ancient chipped china. The rice is organic but also the kind you reheat in the plastic pouch. It seems like these might cancel each other out? There are fifteen identical packages in the free box at the store. Who left them? Why did they have so many? 

Just as I gag down the last of the (bland, plasticy) lentils, Walkabout starts chopping potatoes with a vengeance, admitting he is a professional chef and has bought far too much food for dinner. I sit at the kitchen table, basking in the smell of frying onions and potatoes. German Mormon has found a piano to play piano in the other room, Simon and Garfunkel. And somehow accommodations for the night become a family home, if only for a little while.

CT Day 9: The Set Up

July 7
Miles: 23
Trail Mile: 169

Segment 9 Mile 3.5 to end of Section 10

If yesterday was a day of three distinct passes, today was a day of three far less rewarding hills. There was much slogging up and down through forest with few good views, with one exception: the Holy Cross Wilderness with its beautiful meadow of oh mah gorgeous. But the way out is up and the walls are rather imposing. I gasp my way along. It’s day 9, cardio where are you? Perhaps my I hate exercise program is finally catching up to me. What? Can’t I just go from desk to twenty mile days at elevation? A thousand mosquito coaches nag me onward, nipping my legs if I break for more than a few seconds. 

But the top, oh my. Even better than the valley: The usually solid forest is broken up by granite chunks, if not quite slabs. It’s almost the Sierra up here, complete with a tiny reflecting pond (and proud birthplace of a million mosquitos). Or rather, with so much green lushness, it reminds me of the parts of NorCal that remind me of the Sierra. I barely notice the second bit of uphill, distracted in part by the almost familiar beauty and by the odd snow patch across the trail that requires a wee bit of careful navigation.I have lunch with Glimmer and Arcade, a couple of CDT hikers who are doing Colorado southbound because of snow. Yay for cool people heading the same way at a similar pace. But the after lunch special is the steepest hill ever (so far on the CT). A brutal slope up, with almost no respite until near the top. And the reward at the top? A dirt road and crackling power lines. And mosquitos. Why trail? Why?

At first, I cant tell if it’s misting or if it’s just all the bugs in the air. But then with thunderous confirmation, rain begins to fall. Though still in the tree cover, I am up higher than I like and the trail climbs over one more ridge before heading back down. I pick up the pace, half running over the shallow saddle as the thunder grows nearer, then march on until I am back down to the relative safety of a creek in a narrow valley. Then there’s one last hill until camp, and decisions to be made: side trails to Colorado’s two highest peaks are near and we need to set ourselves up for early starts to beat the afternoon storms. Steph decides to camp near the turn off to Mt Massive, while I continue on a few more miles with plans to summit Elbert – Colorado’s highest and the second highest in the lower 48 states. Steph might attempt both, but the weather appears to be worsening in the next few days and I am content to wager my weather window on an Elbert shaped basket (mixed metaphors much?). My knees are currently holding up well, but back to back 14ers could be the death of them. Here’s Elbert looming above the trail just before camp:
I end up camped with another fast CT hiker I first met a few days ago. I’ve been kind of wigged out the past few times I’ve seen him because he bears an uncanny resemblance to an old ex of many years. We chat some, and the weirdness just continues as he, like the ex, is an economist. I panic mildly to myself. What if this is the same person? But that’s impossible, he grew up in Texas. What if this is all lies and it is the same person and he’s made up all his past to make me crazy?
On that (completely insane I am losing it out here) note, it’s early to bed tonight because tomorrow promises enough steep up and downs to make today seem like a joke. Hopefully the weekend crowd camped at the roadside trailhead across the river will stay quiet. And, as if on command, a tiny rain shower commences to ensure they do just that.

CT Day 8: Three Passes

July 6
Miles: 22
Trail Mile: 146

Segment 8 Mile 6.4 to Segment 9 Mile 3.5

Searle Pass is a proper pass. The kind with just enough climb to feel rewarding, with an unquestionable high point and worthy views on both sides. There are some snow patches obscuring the trail proper here and there, but giant cairns mark the way. There’s even a melting snow bridge to cross if you dare. I tackle these minor obstacles one by one, content to walk alone this morning, though admittedly worried about what the Collegiate West section coming up next week will bring.

I was hoping the far side of the pass would be smoke free, hoping for a break from breathing the acrid air that leaves my mouth dry and throat burning. Being above 12,000 feet is enough of a challenge for these lungs. But smoke blankets the next valley too, an obvious layer suspended in the sky. So I try to forget about breathing and focus on the flowers instead. The high Meadows are all abloom, like all the plants were like “1, 2, 3 FLOWER!!!!” Sky Pilot is still a favorite, all purple among the fields of yellow and white. Even the snow seems to be flowering. On Elk Ridge, I am given the side-eye by two resident marmots, while pikas squeak away among the rocks. The scenery is surreal: neon orange and pink paintbrush and blue butterflies that would make me wonder what was in my water if I hadn’t just witnessed it melting out of a snow patch. 

Kokomo Pass is downhill from Searle, which makes it less of an event, even if the sign is a CT icon. Toward the left, a whole mountainside has been mined into giant steps, though it’s hard to see through the smoke. Thankfully the trail veers away to the right down a drainage where the skies are clear. 

And by down, I mean DOWN. For miles and miles until my quads tighten and my knees start to complain about the extra work. Down until there are aspen again, and day hikers at a little waterfall, and some minor dirt road walking and a large herd of sheep. The storm clouds move in again, spoiling a cold waterfall shower opportunity with rain. The way to Tennessee Pass begins steeply, but it is mostly show. After a few miles the grade lessens until it is almost imperceptible, the last few miles following the gentle slope of an old rail bed. The pass itself is for cars. There’s a parking lot for leaving cars. And a road from driving them to and from places like Breckenridge (which is apparently no longer on fire – phew!). CDT hikers lounge in the gravel parking lot, and we chat about trails we’ve done and gear and mosquitos (which are about to become a thing).

When Steph arrives, we set off together. I’m feeling much refreshed after some alone time and welcome the company for the last miles and for camp. And now, I’m being held captive in my tent but a hundred ravenous mosquitos (as advertised) and my efforts to hydrate have finally caught up to me. For added excitement I can hear both thunder and gunshots in the distance.

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.