In part 1 of Unpacking The DuDe, I covered the more technical details about the gear and the systems that I used to travel as light as possible. In subsequent posts, I'll give insight into the decisions I made and offer a day to day run down of the trip. Surprisingly, recapping the journey has led to a larger than expected volume of details. Rather than packaging this into one cumbersome and unwieldy novel that you're unlikely to read, I'll break it down into two episodes which will hopefully be more engaging. So settle in to see how an amalgam of determination and delirium carried me 485 miles from Durango to Denver. If nothing else, I think the pictures and video are mildly entertaining.
Though having ultra running experience, the Colorado Trail would be my first self supported thru hike. I knew there would be a steep learning curve but my plan and confidence in covering around 50 miles a day came down to simple math. The average adult walking speed is 3 mph. Granted, this becomes more difficult depending on the terrain and altitude and if you're carrying a pack, but it's still a manageable and sustainable pace. Throw in some short, slow bursts running when the terrain allowed and that average pace could go up by a couple of tenths. With this understanding, 50 miles a day at say 3.3 miles per hour could then be covered in around 15 hours of moving time each day. Challenging? For sure. But I didn't think it was excessively so, as this schedule still allowed for 9 hours of stopped time, much of which would be spent sleeping. Thus, completing the trail wasn't really about moving fast, it was about moving efficiently, minimizing stopped time, and sticking to a routine.
With that goal in mind, now came the decision about what style of travel to use. There are basically three ways to do a trip like this. Going unsupported would mean carrying everything I need from start to finish, including all of my food, from the very beginning with no resupplies. If I were to go supported, the trip would resemble the ultra runner way of travel. I could take advantage of a crew that would meet me at along the way and could help with things like setting up shelter, transporting food, and potentially carry some gear. Self supported travel represents the middle ground of these two categories. It would mean that I couldn't receive any outside help and that I still carried my gear, but that I could take advantage of resources available to all other hikers. In contrast to an unsupported trip, I could lighten my load to some degree by using resupply points and shipping packages to myself along the way, while still maintaining some degree of self sufficiency.
After some thought, self supported travel seemed like the best fit. Planning and carrying almost two week's worth of food for an unsupported trip when I'd pass by at least a couple of convenient resupply points seemed intimidating and unnecessary, especially for my first thru hike. And as far as going supported, I joked that I didn't have anyone that liked me enough to follow me around for a week and a half. I'm sure I could have found a team but that's asking a lot from anyone. Plus, since most thru hikers adopt the self supported style, whether doing the AT, CDT, or PCT, I thought that traveling in this way would serve as good training in case I ever decided to take on one of those longer trails in the future.
As the pieces of the plan began falling in place, my next decision would be what direction to travel. Most Colorado Trail thru hikers go from Denver to Durango to allow their fitness to kick in for the bigger climbs at the end and to have the best views at the finish. My choice to go the opposite direction, northbound from Durango to Denver, was based on a couple of factors. Going northbound meant hitting the more exposed San Juan mountains early, allowing my choice of start date to be more impactful as I could select a more friendly weather window and minimize the impact of summer storms. I'd also have the less dramatic but "easier" terrain to look forward to towards the end as I approached Denver when perhaps more fatigue would be setting in. Scott Jaime has completed the trail in both directions but he chose to go northbound when setting his supported record. Scott knows what he's doing.
The final big choice to make was whether to take the Eastern or Western Collegiate route. Both routes are comparable in distance, around 80 miles, but the western route, which tackles iconic features like Hope Pass and Lake Ann Pass maintains a higher average elevation with slightly more climbing and descending than it's counterpart. Though it was likely the slower of the two options, in the end, I chose the western route in favor of it's greater remoteness, more expansive views, and more challenging terrain it would present. It may seem counterintuitive that I chose the northbound direction for speed but then opted for the arguably more challenging western route. In the end, I reasoned that there was a good chance that I'll only do the CT once. I thought that getting the full taste of adversity that the trail can offer, even if it cost me a little time, aligned more with the experience I wanted.
More than a week out, all minor details were being scrutinized. I made sure that my resupply packages had all shipped through the required USPS, Fed Ex, or UPS depending on the location's preference. However, as my start date, July 6th approached, I made one last call to the folks at Molas Campground, my first resupply point, and realized there was a very real possibility that I may arrive before the package. If this were to happen, it would effectively end my trip after only a day and a half. After some last minute brainstorming and scrambling I made up an extra box and would have a friend deliver it as a back up.
Many fantastic people helped me get from Manitou Springs to the trailhead in Durango with little effort on my part. After a final body and pack weigh in at Brian's place in the Springs, I drove to meet up with Renee and Anthony who treated me to lunch and let me stash my car with them in Salida. From there, I then hitched a ride with Kelly, Eric, and Hannah the rest of the way to Durango, and crashed at Brendan and Eric's abode the night before the trip. Of course, sleep wouldn't come before joining them, Anna, and Braz for a good luck shot of Sombra Mezcal before bedtime. Perhaps it was the agava de oaxaca talking, but going to sleep, I felt incredibly grateful. All the people I had encountered this day comprised a great cast of characters that had been a part of nearly all of my past adventures. From Rim to Rim to Rim, to Leadville 100, The Zion Traverse, The Stank, Western States, The UltraInclinathon, Nolan's and Hardrock, the company of these friends helped define each of those experiences. Having companions like these, willing to help before yet another big trip was truly special and it made me feel incredibly grateful. This had to be a good omen.
Day 1: 54 Miles
Segment 28: Kennebec Trailhead to Junction Creek (21.5 miles gaining 6557 ft, dropping 1897 ft)
I woke at 4 am and devoured my first bag of peanut butter for breakfast. At least the first one was delicious! Brendan graciously drove me from his apartment to the trailhead in the pre dawn hours to document the start and send me on my way. Ten minutes into the journey, I became aware of another headlamp behind me. Kelly had caught up with me and decided to follow and chat for about an hour of easy moving as we followed Junction Creek out of Durango.
All smiles at the beginning. Photo: Brendan Trimboli
Soon alone, I settled into my thoughts and the rhythm of movement. The gentle terrain allowed me to slowly run in short spurts. Just 20, maybe 30 steps here and there but I was excited to finally begin after months of preparation. When I hiked, I hiked with a purpose and when I ran, it was only on the nontechnical flats and downhills. My intention for the days ahead was to move. Not fast, but smooth, easy. A couple hours into the trip, fortune smiled as I saw friends Doggle and Lip Chunk (Sean and Scott), who were merely a handful of miles away from finishing their southbound trip. Shocked, not expecting to see them, “HEEYYY!” was the only thing that came from my mouth, startling them as well as myself. We stopped for a quick picture and I tried to imagine on what was going through their heads. How would I feel a week and a half later when I would be mere hours from finishing? Towards the end of the segment, the trail climbed above treeline, and made it's way to Kennebec Pass. Blue sky stretched above me and treated me to the first grand views of the trek.
Stapocles waxing poetic
Around this time, one of my first "trail voices" arose. Covering 485 miles self supported on foot, I was curious with how my body would respond, but perhaps even more curious as to how it would impact my mind. During the journey, I tried to pay attention to the thoughts that arose and came to identify various "voices" that spoke. The voices were not the pathological voices of other people. They were my voice, but I didn't identify them as "ME." Whether the product of a beautiful environment, fatigue, hunger, or other scenarios, there was a discrete difference among the thoughts that popped into my head. It didn't take long before began to label those distinctions as "voices." The first voice typically made an appearance in breathtaking locations, usually around sunrise, sunset, or going over mountain passes. I called it Stapocrates. Stapocrates was known for coming up with insightful sayings. Things that seemed so wise and discerning in the moment, but that held a healthy dose of ridiculousness and would likely be laughed at later. Things like:
-"Happiness, joy, pain, fatigue, hunger, thirst, bliss...you feel everything more deeply out here."
-"Long days in the mountains help you strengthen the signal by reducing the noise."
-"The most beautiful places to access in our minds and in the world are often the most difficult to access. With training, mindfulness, and meditation, we can deepen those grooves and strengthen those pathways so that we can gain access those wonderful places more readily."
Saying them now, these maxims seem a bit silly. But at the time, Stapocrates was an incisive companion.
Segment 27: Kennebec Trailhead to Hotel Draw Rd (20.6 miles gaining 2922 ft, dropping 4186 ft)
The Databook informed me that there'd be a 20 mile dry stretch without water during this segment. I topped off my 16 ounce squeeze bottle at Taylor Lake and, due to user error with getting water to flow into the spare 2L and 1L bottles from the banks of a still lake, I added maybe another liter between the two of them. Above treeline, I encountered my first snowfields of the trip and crossed paths with a couple of bike packers finishing up their last day. My plan of eating about 200 calories in the form of a LaraBar every 2 hours seemed to be working as I maintained a steady and sustainable level of energy.
Segment 26: Hotel Draw Rd to Bolam Pass Rd (10.9 miles gaining 2551 ft, dropping 1827 ft)
Towards the end of this segment, as the sun sank behind the horizon and dusk settled in, I had my first "this is real" moment. I felt like something was watching me and picked up my pace a bit, howling into the air in a halfhearted effort to offset my fears and intimidate anything that may be stalking. In this moment, I began to appreciate my vulnerability. In a way, it was like any other adventure I'd done. But being self supported, I recognized there was some additional level of survival skills requiring me to be aware, to take care of myself throughout the trip, and be mindful to not sacrifice my safety for extra miles.
The first day ended around 8:30 pm at Bolam Pass Rd where Segment 26 and Segment 25 met. As I passed near Celebration Lake, I was initially hesitant about stopping so close to the water in fear of shelter condensation and mosquitoes. But knowing 435 miles awaited, and not wanting to push too far on the first day, I reasoned that the slight breeze would make this an acceptable place to stay. A dog barked nearby as I searched for a soft, flat piece of land to set up camp. Another traveler had already settled into her bivy. Across the lake, a moose dipped his head for an evening drink. Within an hour of stopping I had set up the tarptent, ingested one of the bags of peanut butter dinner, and perused the datebook for what lay ahead tomorrow. Sleep came easy.
Day 2: ~50 miles
Segment 25: Bolam Pass Rd to Molas Pass (20.9 miles gaining 3578 ft, dropping 3799 ft)
I woke early and was excited to move again. After efficiently packing up camp and covering the first mile or so with a headlamp, I realized my pack felt incredibly light. I took great joy in knowing that today I would hit my first food resupply point. On the way to Molas Pass, I came across Eric who was cycling southbound to Durango and offered his well wishes.
Day 2, a new voice emerged. "DJ Stapo" was the entertaining crooner who spouted off lyrics tangentially related to the surroundings. With hits from the Beatles, Nelly, Tina Turner, The Beach Boys, and originals like "What's the Marmot Say", a hip cover of Ylvis' "What's the Fox Say," DJ Stapo was one of my favorite characters to spend time with.
DJ Stapo is born!
The initial 5 day forecast from my start day predicted sunny skies with essentially no chance of rain. Fortunately, mother nature was cooperating as overhead, there were no signs of building clouds along the way to Molas Pass Campground. It was going to be another beautiful but hot day. As I approached the end of the segment, roads and trails began intersecting and I made sure to slow down and double check signs and directions. Taking a wrong path would cost no only time, but morale.
After resolving some minor confusion on the exact location of the campground office, I saw Anna who had graciously agreed to play the role of Frosty's Federal Express. Also there was Anna's friend Emma Rocca with her family. Fearful that my package wouldn't arrive, before leaving I had arranged with Anna to deliver my backup resupply box to the campground staff, just in case. This turned out to be a huge help since the original package I had mailed to Silverton Town Hall weeks before had not yet made it to the remote campground.
Once inside of the office, I was greeted by the friendly employees and was reunited with the box of resupply food I had prepared. I sliced opened package with trekking pole and resupplied my pack with 3 days worth of peanut butter and day snacks. The stop lasted maybe 30 minutes and before leaving, Anna asked if she could join for a short part as she was tapering for Hardrock. Before hitting the trail again, I realized there was an extra packages of tuna that hadn't fit into my pack. So standing in front of the dumpster with the strong mid-day Colorado sun beating down, I tore open the sealed bag of fish with my face and devoured it in seconds like a rabid raccoon. Sick. It seemed that outside living had already stripped away any ounce of etiquette that I once had.
Segment 24: Molas Pass to Stony Pass (20.2 miles gaining 5,119 ft, dropping 3475 ft)
Anna accompanied me for about an hour down the switchbacks to Animas River and across the train tracks. I enjoyed catching up and wished her well for Hardrock. After the train tracks, the trail entered the Weminuche Wilderness area and began a long climb up Elk Creek headwaters to reach the Continental Divide. I remembered how much of a grind this was when I had accompanied Scott on his self supported trip over this stretch. The climb was slow but beautiful and Stapocles chimed in with his mantra to "Just Keep Moving."
Finally topping out and linking up with the CDT, I took comfort in knowing that the next 70ish miles would be familiar territory. With the sun shining at full strength and no one in sight, I decided to take my first and ultimately only full bath of the trip. In the absence of other humans, I stripped for a quick soak in one of the 12,000 ft alpine tarns. The water was delightful!
A bath with a view!
Partial Segment 23: Stony Pass to Carson Saddle (8.1 miles ~1500 ft up and 1500 ft down)
Arriving at Stony Pass, albeit short, I was relieved to encounter the downhill gravel road stretch. Heading towards me, a runner, who I presumed to be european and doing some last minute Hardrock work, trotted up the road and we exchanged nods.
The second day turned out to be a rough day for my gastrointestinal system. My ulcerative colitis symptoms weren't great in the months leading up to the trip but seemed to really be aggravated now. Whether diet or activity related, I was't sure. But frequent periods of mucus leakage meant I got to practice with identifying the best toilet paper foliage and experiment with new hygiene techniques. Above 12,000 ft where nothing large grows, I found the "dog butt scoot," which is exactly what it sounds like, to be particularly effective on the alpine tundra. Fortunately, during my packing, I had enough foresight to include some VSL #3 packets and I downed a package of the 450 billion freeze dried bacteria before chasing them with a couple swallows of water. This isn't the recommended mechanism of delivery to your intestines and I had no certainty that it would actually help. But I felt better about doing at least something to relieve my symptoms. Belief, placebo, whatever you want to call it can be a powerful tool. Fortunately, my gastrointestinal issues did gradually settle over the course of the trip and it seems my symptoms are in a bit of a remission to this day.
During the evening hours on the second day, I passed by another northbound hiker and we chatted briefly. He had started in Durango but ran into complications with his feet and planned to end his journey in Lake City. The encounter served as a reminder that with the boggy terrain, yet one more thing to be mindful of was foot care and blister prevention practices. I had brought two pairs of socks to change each day while the other pair was washed and dried. Keeping my feet reasonably clean and as dry as possible would be as important as eating if I wanted to have a successful journey.
Flowers Facing East
Above treeline, days lingered on forever as the sun was reluctant to drift below the horizon. But when it finally did retire, darkness was quick to shroud the landscape. Choosing a dry, flat, sheltered from the wind campsite above 12,000 ft proved challenging. I eventually settled for a small saddle at what I though was well beyond Cataract Lake. After another peanut butter dinner, I was sound asleep within minutes. Comfortable and surprisingly warm at the high elevation, I was unnervingly awoken by the sound of howling at 1:00 am. Startled, I instinctively howled back into the night through my flimsy sil-nylon shelter and spent the remaining hours before dawn yelling "GIT!" towards any rustling within earshot.
Home is where the tarptent is
Day 3: ~46 miles
Finishing Segment 23: Stony Pass to Carson Saddle (6.8 miles ~1500 ft up and ~1500 ft down)
Waking before sunrise, I packed up camp and was on the move again within 30 minutes of waking. Once on the trail, I had some confusion about whether or not I was on the right path as, according to the Databook and where I thought I was, trailhead should've been just ahead. Self doubt then crept in which led to another voice being identified.
This was the voice of negativity and I called it "Boo Brandon". The voice never really questioned whether I could complete the trail but it lacked confidence in smaller details. I realized that with nobody else to balance this doubt, if I fed into those misgivings, the doubt would only grow stronger. I couldn't silence the voice, but the decision of how much attention to give it was still mine. Like Stapocrates, this voice wasn't "ME," it was simply one of many attributes of my personality that arose depending on my internal and external environment. I could still choose how much power to give it. And after thinking about it some more, I began to accept that it's presence wasn't necessarily malignant. If kept in perspective, a degree of doubt was there to protect me, to make sure I didn't get lost, that I was taking care of the little details to ensure that I stayed safe. The challenge for me was to acknowledge but not dwell on this voice. I needed to proceed with confidence, recognizing that while a little bit of doubt was healthy, too much could turn sinister and become paralyzing if left unchecked. From then, I resolved that to quiet "Boo Brandon" in moments of uncertainty, I would keep moving forward unless met with irrefutable evidence that the decisions I was making were wrong.
Segment 22: Carson Saddle to Spring Creek Pass (17.2 miles 2,385 up and 3,829 down)
The start of the northbound Carson Saddle segment involved a steep jeep road climb. I recalled how Scott Jaime, Rick Hessek, Matt Trappe, and I had sat here and munched on breakfast burritos three years before. I also remembered fumbling around in the dark then and appreciated how different things looked now in the daylight. Over the course of this section, I came across a sign indicating that I had reached the high point of the Colorado Trail. I guess it was downhill from here!
Segment 21: Spring Creek Pass to San Luis Pass (14.8 miles 4157 ft up and 3116 ft down)
The previous segment was exposed to the sun and left me dry and in need of water. I consulted the Databook which listed a seasonal creek 0.25 miles down the road from the Spring Creek Trailhead. Debating whether the additional mileage was worth it, I ultimately decided that I couldn't wait and needed the fluids. I left the trail followed the road until I came across the mosquito laden drainage and ingested another bolus of peanut butter. I began to realize that another downside of my PB plan was that it made me really thirsty and I risked choking if I didn't have an abundance of water handy.
Once retracing my steps and joining the trail, I crossed the road only to find that the "Spring Creek" trailhead was, appropriately, named for Spring Creek. Instead of going half a mile out of the way, if I had simply followed the trail 30 ft further, I would've had to literally leap over a healthy flowing creek. Oh well.
Making the climb up to the mesa, darker storm skies began to form. Though ominous, the clouds still seemed a safe distance away and appeared to threaten more with precipitation rather than electricity.
Settling back into a groove, I decided that I'd try to push to get beyond San Luis Pass and as close to the Eddiesville Trailhead as possible before stopping for the night. Ahead, I noticed a hiker with running shorts. He had stopped to put on a jacket, but since I didn't have confidence that the storm would amount to much, I decided to keep pressing. As I hiked with arms raised overhead, grasping my trekking poles to stretch my shoulders, I saw that the hiker in front had now turned towards me and began to stare. I stared back. Just as he finished donning his jacket, I got close enough so that facial features became more distinct. The hiker called out “Is that Brandon?”... “Billy!”
The running shorts, it turns were being worn by none other than Billy Simpson who I had met briefly at Hardrock last year. Billy was planning a triple crown of sorts, finishing the Long Trail earlier in the year, checking off the Colorado Trail now, and would be culminating 2016 with the John Muir Trail. I knew he was out here somewhere and I knew he was going northbound, I just wasn't exactly sure if and when I'd see him.
Upon seeing him, I gave Billy a strong man hug and he asked how I was. I told him emotional but good. Until then, I hadn't fully realized how the vulnerability of the experience made me incredibly appreciative of any human interaction. We spent the next hour or so hiking together, talking of adventures and philosophizing over why we take on the silly challenges that we do. After a while, Billy feared he was slowing me down and told me to get going, but the short time we had together I think fueled us both emotionally and helped us scare the storm away.
Overhead, the storm continued it's presence but never delivered more than about 100 snow pellets. This would be the closest to "bad weather" that I'd get throughout the entire trip as amazingly, I never once had to don my poncho. Now separated, Billy trailed behind, but only slightly. As I dropped into the valley's, I'd hear Billy release a primal yawp as he topped out on a pass behind me. I couldn't help but yodel back. This encounter with Billy left me feeling inspired. Whether yipping, howling, or screaming, his exuberance reminded me of the importance of celebrating. It wasn't enough just to feel good inside. To maximize joy and to give happiness it's true power, you had to express it. That's what made it real.
Segment 20: San Luis Pass to Eddiesville TH (~7 miles within 1478 ft up and ~2000 ft down)
The trail ahead crossed many saddles, each one leaving me to believe that it was San Luis Pass, and each one leading to some disappointment that it wasn't. I'd climb to the crest of a ridge, only to find some more waves of mountain passes ahead separated by deep valleys between. Still, I tried to remain patient. Even though this wasn't the pass I wanted it to be, it still offered a reason to celebrate as each step forward represented progress. Finally, as I crested the true San Luis pass and saw no more climbs ahead, I yelled out "THE DUDE ABIDES!" and descended down into the final valley. I think Billy would've been proud.
With nightfall minutes away, I began looking for a suitable place to camp as I followed the creek drainage and dipped below treeline. Under a canopy of tree branches, I found a dry sheltered site where I set up camp and ate some more food. With the San Juan’s behind me, I was looking forward to a respite from the climbing and the opportunity to see new, unscouted portions of the trail in the days to come.
Day 4: ~51 miles
Completing Seg 20 from San Luis Pass to Eddiesville TH (~5 miles down ~1000 ft)
I unintentionally slept in a little more this morning but was still on the trail before 6:00 am. Ambitious plans to wake at 3:00 am always proved better in theory than in practice. With temperatures being coldest in the moments just before dawn, many times I would hike in some combination of the warmer clothes I wore to bed, easing the transition from the cozy sleeping environment to the crisp mountain air. On most mornings I would hike for at least an hour wearing running tights and some combination of gloves, down vest, and hooded wind and water resistant jacket. Once warmed by the movement and the sun, I'd then change into shorts and shed the other layers.
Segment 19: Eddiesville TH to Saguach Rd (13.7 miles 1442 ft up and 2239 ft down)
The trail now had noticeably less elevation change as it followed Cochetopa Creek. Still, footing remained challenging for some stretches as hardened mud from hiker boots and cattle hooves left ankle twisting depressions in the terrain. Nevertheless, I was thankful that the ground was dry. This looked like the kind of terrain that could easily steal a shoe if it a hard rain had softened the terrain to mud.
Consulting the Databook, I knew that at some point I'd be looking for the trail to cross the creek. Unfortunately, with several game and cattle trails around, the hiker trail became less distinct and was easily confused by a number of alternative paths through grass and brush. Eventually, the path I had followed turned into thicker and thicker shrubbery and I soon found myself thrashing through willows 10 ft high. This was definitely not the trail.
Now lower in the valley, the brush prevented me from gaining perspective, but I knew the creek should've been just to the east. Trail reports said the bridge was out and wading would be necessary, so I decided to just find the creek from where I was and cross, hoping I'd reunite with the trail on the other side. A minute or so more of thrashing and I spotted the Cochetopa. After picking a line across the thigh deep water, I removed my shoes and socks and carefully made my way to the other side. After re-shoeing, I scrambled up the bank and was thrilled to find the trail again. Thankfully, the trail was now more defined on this side as it transitioned into jeep road tracks, offering smoother terrain for running.
Double track jeep road continued to evolve into to dirt roads. While I felt like I was moving well, limited signage offered opportunities for the doubtful voice of "Boo Brandon" to become louder. Reminding myself that the doubts only had as much power as I gave them, I tried to focus on the positive things. Knowing that I had covered more than 150 miles and was feeling great physically helped reduce my anxiety. I was right where I should be. Going from the mountains to flatter terrain meant I was making progress. I was moving across Colorado, powered by my own two feet!
Segment 18: Saguach Rd to Hwy 114. (13.8 miles 1534 ft up and 1447 ft down)
There wasn't a day that I moved in total isolation. In fact, most days, I encountered a number of hikers, it's just that our paces and directions never really aligned. And even though the opportunities for conversations beyond quick salutations were non-existent, acknowledging the presence of others by making eye contact, saying hello, and smiling was still a valuable exercise. A mere 3 seconds of human connection at a time wasn't much, but it could still be an incredibly powerful thing.
During this stretch I encountered small herds of cattle on the trail. Mentally preparing for the CT, I anticipated seeing moose, marmots, pika, grouse, and maybe a bear if I was lucky. I didn't expect to see so many cows. Cows mooing. Cows walking. Cows standing. Cows grazing. Cows getting frisky. Cows humping. Cows doing their cowly thing. Though I found this entertaining at the time, it would not be my last bovine encounter. Little did I know that by the end of the trip, the unassuming presence of these mild mannered beasts would become incredibly intimidating and invoke a great amount of fear.
Cows making a conga line
Segment 17: Hwy 114 to Sargents Mesa (~18 miles with ~4,000 ft up and 2,000 ft down)
As afternoon bled into evening, I found myself in one of my biggest lows of the trip. The terrain was challenging but not any more so than what I had already traversed. The trail never rose above 12,000 ft and held plenty of atmospheric pressure for trees to thrive. But having limited opportunity to gain visual perspective on what climbs awaited had my thoughts trending towards negativity. This, compounded with worsening dehydration made the mountains seem steeper and more unrelenting than they actually were. I was ill prepared for this 10 mile stretch without water. Running this distance without fluids was commonplace. But hiking meant that it would take 3 hours and while my kidneys seemed to be doing fine and my urine never got scary dark, the sensation of dryness in my mouth became miserably uncomfortable. With chapped, bleeding lips and a throat so dry it hurt to swallow, I eventually resorted to hiking with my lips glued together, creating a tight seal on my mouth just to conserve saliva.
It was during this experience of physical discomfort that some level of paranoia began to arise. As I came across more and more travelers over the days, I began taking note of little details to keep my mind occupied. I started noticing shoe tracks and for cognitive stimulation, would then try to identify what kind of shoe they belonged to. After a while, I then I wondered what kind of person they belonged to and what adventure were they on. What direction they were traveling would give me insight as to whether they were taking the CDT or CT. These simple questions and observations soon evolved into insecurities. I wondered then if the person that made these tracks were moving as fast as I was? Perhaps they were also going for a record? I became obsessed with trying to catch them and when I never did, found myself dealing with a lot of unnecessary anxiety. It took me several days to put this game to rest. What others were or weren't doing didn't matter. "Hike your own hike" was a popular adage I'd read from other trip reports. In moments of weakness, fatigue, and discomfort, I needed to remember to heed that advice.
Finally, after reaching Razor Creek, I collapsed on my belly sipped straight from the stream, desperate for fluids. The Sawyer mini filter was working fine but the extra seconds it took for water to flow through the filter into my mouth were more than my patience allowed for. From that moment, I decided that if the water source wasn't around livestock or a pasture, I felt reasonably safe in drinking straight from the source and would only use the filter for suspicious streams. Besides, I'd heard that the effects of giardia took several weeks to manifest and I'd be done with the trip by then.
As I sat by the creek, a couple of CDT hikers I had spoken with briefly minutes ago had caught back up to me. We sat by the stream and chatted for a several minutes as I wrapped myself in space blanket for protection from mosquitos and choked down a bag of peanut butter. They were from northwest, a nurse and violinist, and I admired their ability to fit an adventure like this in their lives. The conversation we had had been and would serve as the longest talk I’d have with other hikers and it gave me a great appreciation for talking with strangers and hearing their stories.
I continued for a couple more hours that evening and, despite my struggles with dehydration that day, I still didn't learn my lesson to carry enough water leading up to bedtime. As the sun went down, I set up camp and went to bed with painfully blistered lips. I dreaded waking up to the same drought knowing that the next water source was still a couple miles further. Going forward, I knew I had to be more vigilant with my fluid intake and even though it would mean toting more weight, I had to make sure I was carrying at least a little water over long stretches.
Day 5: ~42 miles
Finishing Segment 17 Hwy 114 to Sargents Mesa (~2 miles with 800 ft up and 800 ft down)
I woke with a couple miles to go to finish off Segment 17 and found that the coolness of the morning and open views along grassy balds were contributing towards a more positive mindset from the night before. Climbing out of the trees onto these grassy hilltop mesas offered a broader perspective literally and psychologically. The things that I felt had nearly broken me down the night before now didn't seem as quite as burdensome. My thoughts were trending back towards optimism again. DJ Stappo and his rendition of Ylvis' "What's The Fox Say" was proof of this.
DJ Stapo premiers "What's the Cow Say?"
Segment 16 Sargents Mesa to Marshall Pass (15.2 miles with 2,405 ft up and 3,184 ft down)
Continuing along, I spotted the Soldierstone spire southeast of the trail which seemed underwhelming from afar, but that may be the point. The periodic stretches of green mesas continued and creeks became more abundant. The terrain offered a feeling of nostalgia and was reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountain balds of North Carolina where I grew up.
Segment 15 Marshall Pass TH to Ridge Above S Fooses Creek. 6 miles before diverging on the Collegiate West Route with 1608 ft up
Now, moving closer towards my second of three resupply points, I would be looking for the trail to split and I'd be taking the Collegiate West option. Most of the time, knowing the day of the week on the trail would've been easy information to disregard as non-essential as it really didn't matter. But the fact that today was Sunday meant peak cycling traffic and frequent yielding to the downhill riders. Still, it was nice seeing so many people enjoying the outdoors and despite the regular intervals of stepping off trail for the cyclists, a light pack and beautiful views made for happy miles.
CW5 Ridge above S Fooses Creek to Boss Lake. (15.7 miles with 2271 ft up and 37500 ft down)
A perma-smile adorned my face as I entered the Monarch Crest Souvenir Shop. After days comprised largely of solitude, I was now surrounded by multitudes of tourists as they wandered through the gift shop. After introducing myself to one of the employees and telling her I was expecting a resupply package, I stumbled around the store. In the back was a restaurant offering an assortment of greasy food and ice cream and all around were racks of various snacks for purchase As the lady handed me my resupply box, I dumped my pack in the designated hiker corner and made my way back to the restaurant section to order and immediately devour a frito chili bowl.
Between bites of melted cheese, I unboxed my shipment and discovered that oils from my peanut butter bags seeped through the double layered plastic. I threw away around 5,000 calories that were intended to get me through the next 3 days. After initial panic, I recounted the calories available. With the big meal I just had, if I used the summer sausages for dinners and supplemented with a little candy from the hiker trail magic box, I should still be able to make it 3 days.
After a leisurely 45 minute stop, I knew I had to get going again. I left the convenience store, crossing the road and resumed climbing up the ski resort. As I approached the ridge, I encountered a lady who asked me if I’d seen the Sangres. “They’re on fire!” she said. Naively, I thought she meant wildflowers were peaking or that the view was exceptionally beautiful. Little did I know that just ahead at the pass, views towards the east opened up and you could see that the mountain range was literally on fire. In the days I had been out there, disconnected from cell phones or television, or really any sources of information beyond my senses, I hadn't spent much time considering what was happening in the outside world. Seeing the fire though made me sad and I think for the first time, consider what other bad news I was missing.
Fire and Wind
CW4 Boss Lake TH to Tincup Pass. (6 miles with 1500 ft up 2000 ft down)
Most days had a natural rhythm. I'd wake moving stiffly for a short period of time, easing in as the legs would eventually found their flow. Consistently, running felt most effortlessly before noon. From there, my energy would slowly wane, hitting it's nadir around the 3:00-5:00 pm hours. Then, with the realization that the day offered only three to four hours of light, I'd put a little more giddyup in my step and move as far as I could before sundown.
On the fifth night I camped below Hancock Lake and chasing the sun, tried to distance myself from the water as much as possible in hopes of finding a warmer, drier campsite. As the trail sank down into a valley, I realized that my options were less than ideal. The depression in the landscape was functioning as a terrific wind funnel which led to some of the worst conditions for sleeping that I'd encounter. With Earth's breath unrelenting, it took me several tries to erect the Tarptent. Additionally, soft ground and space constraints between willows didn't help the cause. Now, the shelter set up skills I had practiced and thought were refined felt inefficient and clumsy. When I eventually surrendered to bed, I could see the A-frame walls of the tent creeping in towards me and I worried that the trekking poles wouldn’t withstand the gusts. Certainly the walls of the shelter would collapse and I'd be smothered, suffocating in a synthetic burrito. But the Tarptent is a trusty shelter and it survived the blows from the big, bad wind. I lived to hike another day.
A recap of the remainder of the trip will come in Part 3. Until Then, here's a sneak peak of what's to come. (Hint: there's more bad a cappella karaoke)
"Down in Kokomo"
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