I was chatting with Sue (mom) on the phone when I decided to pull the trigger on another long trail hike. Was trying to organize a bike ride down the continental divide that involved too much hassle. Didn’t have a passport, luggage, gps, ride to Canada, or a bike. Sorted most of it out but after a tird sandwich who just happened to be from England, bailed on a craig’s rideshare I was out. ‘Sue, screw all of this, I’m just going to go walking.’
The following morning I was sitting on the I-70 entrance ramp in front of Vail Village.
All I had to do was get my ass to Durango, CO that was it. The CO trail is 485 miles from the SW corner of the state diagonally across the rockies to Denver. The Colorado Trail Foundation describes the trail as “the most beautiful long trail in the world.” I figure that if it were somewhere between that and wal-mart parking lot it would be pretty rad.
Plan was to hitch to Grand Junction, spend the night with a friend and probably catch a greyhound down to Durango. Rides in Colorado came quite easily. Got a ride to Eagle with a knee doctor. Next ride was with a sweet old lady down to Gypsum. Next ride was a really nice dude who took me to Glenwood. Black guy, almost didn’t believe him when he told me he was born and raised in Aspen. G-wood Crunk City had a K-mart which stocks an aluminum pot for 7 bucks. Lighter and far cheaper than titanium, boom boom.
A Mexican dude brought me a few more miles west to New Castle. A pretty dead exit, I set a number of 35 cars before I walk down the long entrance ramp to catch cars moving by on the interstate. Car number 30 was a fancy Lexus truck. A traveling vacuum salesman from Denver. Got along quite well. Got a nice ride to Rifle, CO. Salesman made a sales call and picked me up where he dropped me off, gave me a ride exactly where I needed to go in Grand Junction. DingDong.
Stayed the night. Visited Wal-mart. Bought a tin of Vienna sausage which made a decent cook stove and I was set up. Bus to Durango and disappear. Bink-bank-bonk.
I arrived to Durango around dark. Bought some eye drops and Clorox which would be water purification and I was set. Walked my way 3 miles out of town to the southern terminus of the trail, snapped a photo and went to sleep. I had completed the most difficult portion of a long trail, getting there.
I hadn’t calculated the reality of completing the hike in the time I had allotted myself but I was looking at an average of 26 miles per day to arrive in Denver for a flight I had 19 days later. Do Work.
20 miles into the first day I had hiked from Durango to tree line and got my first taste of southern Colorado’s monsoon. Thunderstorms moved in and I reluctantly set up my tent next to Taylor lake of all places. Gorgy alpine lake, first of many.
Felt like a big pussy when an older couple came over the exposed ridge into view from my tent in the middle of the afternoon t-storm. Was happy to make camp with the gnarly older hikers. Muleskinner, Woodrose and Retro were cronic long trail hikers. Cool to be back out on trail and meet freakshows like me.
I had been gifted a liberal amount of cheeba before starting out on the hike which transformed me into the Colorado Basil fairy. A really awesome thing for a northbound hiker on the CO trail and I’ll tell you why. Most who set out to hike the CO trail start in Denver and end in Durango for reasons mainly dealing with the difficulty of the terrain. The southern portion of the trail snakes much above tree line in the enormous San Juans, arguably the most extreme of the Rocky Mountains. The sections of the trail outside of Denver are decidedly less demanding physically; a good warmup. Since I was flying out of Denver in 19 short days my hiking direction was a given, but most choose to do it the opposite way. So strapped with green nuggets, I was in a good position to stage wilderness pow-wows with the ever numerous southbound thru-hiker, and because the devil’s lettuce was a gift to me I felt obliged to roll up fatty J-zzles for anyone who was cool enough to pow-wow. On a guess, ~9% of southbound hikers pow-wowed down.
Just a taste of the San Juans…
My first resupply was in Silverton, Colorado; a short 78 miles into the trail. Hitched in with a couple southbounders (non-powwow types) with a wilderness firefighter, hit the stupidly overpriced general store and hitched back with a cool couple back to the trail (powwow types).
Spent the next couple days through the San Juans with a dude from Boise. I named him Bones because he was an archeologist and a seemingly talented one at that. He as constantly picking up bits off the trail and dating the surrounding mines based on the most obscure shit. Definitely a scholar. We put in a couple 20 miles days which was digging me quite the hole if I wished to complete the trail in a single push.
Bones and I found ourselves in the middle of a afternoon monsoon t-storm while hiking over 12000’ on a section of trail that was above tree line for over 25 miles. When there is no cover and it begins to lightning it get my attention in a real way. I always think about the phrase ‘about as likey as getting struck by lightning.” I also think about another hiker who broke down the “likelyhood of getting struck” into its factors. Like, most people live inside, or at least around things that are taller than they are at elevations much lower. When you find yourself as the tallest object on a ridgeline at 12000’ thoughts about what’s on TV that night aren’t the ones that tend to fill your head.
Bones and I decide to make camp on a saddle where the trail in front of us climbed onto another ridge. A pretty heavy rain was falling, like it did for the first 10 days of the hike, and I was quick to find rocks to aid the pitching of my 1 1/2 man tent. Bone’s on the other hand was rocking a hammock. A hammock that he was quite proud of I might add. Hammocks are sweet when there are trees around but in their absence hammocks suck donkey balls. I made room in my tiny tent and we sat out the storm under 16oz of silicon impregnated nylon.
Driven by pride Bones got out of the tent when the showers subsided just after dark, only to be driven back in when more precip hit us again that night. Within the period of bones sleeping outside, both of us were awaken by the presence of numerous mega fauna very near to us. The bugles made it obvious that it was a large herd of elk very near to our sleeping area on this exposed saddle. As the monster mammals made their way by us one caught a glimpse of us through the darkness. When one elk get spooked they all seem to got nutty and Bones and I found ourselves in the midst of an elk stampede. I can’t really comment on the scale of the herd of running elk as it was pitch black but it fucking sounded like a lot of them. Our headlamps only illuminated the last elk running away and their eyes reflecting at a distance. Really? Elk stampede? Boom boom boom.
Spent the next night with Bones in a backcountry yurt complete with stove and wood burning fireplace. Almost disappointed because it was the first day it hadn’t rained but that night the water hitting the canvas roof of the structure was like music.
Split from Bones early the next morning. If I were to continue at out moderate pace I wouldn’t be able to finish in time. I at least wanted the option of finishing the trail if it were to present itself and 20 miles a day wasn’t going to do it.
I hiked hard all morning and stopped for the first time at a campground around spring creek pass. There was an outhouse and I needed some TP. I saw another hiker approaching the latrines and I opted for the women’s side. A few seconds later we made each others acquaintance while rolling up our stolen toilet paper. As I went to put it in the mesh bag were I keep toilet paper I got real sour real quick. FUCK! The mesh bag that makes a sweet place for TP also houses my wallet, phone, and bleach sunscreen etc. Gone. Must have fallen out. First reaction, “FUCK!” Wait one minute… “oh well.” What’s it matter where I’m walking. Settle down.
Began hiking the 9 miles back to the yurt that I had so gingerly covered that morning. Had the pleasure of sharing the walk with my fellow toilet paper thief. A young dude like myself from Decorah, IA, going to school at Carlton College, a short 45 minute drive from where I grew up. Pow-wowed for sure.
Ran into Bones, no sign of the bag. He suggested that it would have been sitting next to my morning tird…in close proximity to the yurt. 7 more backwards miles away. An 18 mile round trip. Oh well. 2 options, be pist or don’t be pist. Had a bit of difficulty locating my morning bathroom but finally did and there it was, my mesh bag. Boom.
Pow wowed the yurt and I set off, 18 miles into the day, from where I had woken up that morning.
Hustled back to the latrines at spring creek pass over trail I was now intimately familiar with, 27 miles into the day. Added another 6 miles that night and made camp. Didn’t even make it to where Bones was camped. Oh well.
Caught up to bones the next day. Whatever my new daily average was going to have to be it was big. Started making some big days. Next day was a 37 mile day which was quite stout considering the limited length of day.
Passed a couple of sheep shepherds tending their herd high in the San Juans. Caught one wiping his ass as the other was quite a distance away. Kinda bummed I never got a shot to chat with these crazy assholes. I had heard that they were from Argentina or Bolivia up here for the sheep herding season I guess. Was threatened by one of their dogs but an anticlimactic encounter and the shepherding dog made a U turn after some stern words.
Other wildlife encounters were mainly dominated by cows. Shitloads of cows. Big bulls with big bull boners, momma cows who seemed to be quite aggressive. All the while walking through area that have been totally ravaged by the animals. The whole public lands ranching seems to have gotten a bit out of control.
Also got to see a bear. Seemed like quite a sizable bear at a distance that was borderline uncomfortable distance away. Bones and I also spotted a couple moose as well. Mule deer and elk were very numerous as well.
The next couple days were quite solo over very remote sections of the trail. I named one section ‘the tunnel of insanity’ because I was always questioning whether I had already been there. I also saw 0 human beings for a couple solid days adding to the insanity. The first person I encountered coming out of the tunnel was a mountain biker who had come up from Salida I would guess. He probably found it a bit odd that I would be so eager to converse. After him there were a number of others in the much higher use area around Salida and Monarch Pass. It was a section that I had actually ridden on mountain bike before. Got slightly mixed up following the bike route from my memory and missing a few miles of the CO trail near hwy 50.
Hitched down into Salida for my second resupply. Old dude with a mini van full of mountain and road bikes along with some backpacking gear. Called it his sports car.
Tried to grab a room at the hostel in Salida but settled for a shower and laundry after discovering that they were full; compliments of a yuppie guided bike tour stopping over.
Had a nice dinner and resupplied at the Safeway. Walked outside of town and bedded down in a hoarse pasture. Was bothered a bit by raccoons but was happy to be sleeping out for the first time on the trail.
Hit the Wal-mart to steal some TP and hitched back up to the trail to resume the stout pace I knew I had to keep to be in Denver before take off. Hiking with a deadline is definitely not something I recommend at all.
Made it 27 miles when I was greeted by 2 brothers and a sister from new jersey. The one brother had lived in boulder for a while but the other 2 siblings were fresh out of the east coast. Awesome trio. They had been doing 10 miles or less per day since denver. There was no way I was missing out on their company, plus they had a campfire already going. The Boulder brother had left his piece around 9 miles back on the trail and gave me articulate directions on how to find it…his gift to me. Thanks guy. We pow-wowed and I rolled a gun for the road.
Over the next couple days I travesed the trail through a few wilderness areas including Mt. Princeton, Collegiate peaks wilderness, Mt Massive wilderness. One day I at the majority of special mushrooms that I had packed out for exceptionally beautiful sections of the trail. Boom Boom. Awesome stuff. I picked the section from the data book with the highest elevations and it paid off. Really mind altering stuff. Ran into a younger hiker mid trip, maybe around my age. I recall that he smelled quite pungent even for a hiker. He was wearing some sort of rain or wind layer that had a lot of sweat on it and long pants. Its always been my personal style to hike in shorty shorts and a t-shirt and I don’t like to cast my opinions over another but if you are sweating your balls off in a rain layer…take it off? He also got right up in my grill and started asking all about my gear. Don’t get me wrong, I’m into the whole gear side of hiking as much as the next guy but if the first piece of conversation out of your mouth is about my backpack it’s a bit off putting. That combined with the psychedelic mind state made me laugh.
Some great sections of trail in the Collegiate Peaks area. Left my camera behind at a lunch spot around 2 miles back from where I set it down for a self timer upping my superfluous trail mileage to 22.
On my last bits of food coming into hwy 24, the last option to hitch into Leadville, CO. Many tourist, no rides for quite some time. Finally got in. Saw a bumper sticker that read “Leadville, we’re here cause we’re not all there.” Accurate. Love that town. Checked into the hostel for a shower and laundry and this time around, a place to sleep. Ended up sleeping at a grow-house with a dude that I met at one of the few $1 PBR establishments. I got the tour of his operation and in the flowering room he let me choose any bud that I desired. Fucking CRAZY!
At the edge of Leadville I made a game time decision to skip the next section of the trail, the one that runs right behind Vail from Tennessee Pass to Copper Mtn. Ski resort. If I were to leave it as is it would mean an average of 30 mile days until Denver but I wanted to leave to option to hike with someone else toward the end of the hike at less than 30 miles. It would also allow me to fill in the section closest to home versus having to do so outside of Denver. I like to ‘stay true to the thru’ (Lint Hikes) but I would have to compromise just this once.
Ended up running into a mountain marathon above Copper Mtn. I was sharing the trail with hundreds of marathoners. Slow ones at that. I was able to keep pace with most of them for a long time until the novelty wore off.
In the midst of the chaos I ran into 2 older ladies that had been section hiking the Continental Divide Trail over the past couple trail. What a delight the two women were. We chatted for about 20 minutes about the trail and lightweight hiking strategies. I got the biggest kick out of one of the ladies who stopped a marathon ‘runner’ to take our picture. He was less amused than I was.
Busy sections of trail around Breckenridge Colorado. Ran into a couple alternative kids from Portland thru-hiking southbound. We pow wowed and I wished them luck.
The next morning I found myself hiking more superfluous miles after a retarded trail marker sent me miles downhill toward Keystone ski resort. One big clue for me in deciphering trail junctions is the angle at which trail blazes face. One blaze should face me and the other should be facing the southbound hiker. In this case, the strategy failed me. Walked at least 2 miles down into a valley before resolving that an error had been made. 26 is now the count of extra miles. Bonus miles we’ll say. Bonus enjoyment that most hikers will never get to experience. Hiked back and carved a more obvious arrow into the trail market post with my chinsey razor.
The trail from Keystone to Denver is relatively mellow but not without its own character. I spent another day walking without seeing other people. What broke the unaccompanied stretch was a couple of very interested people. The first I met in the middle of a long stretch through an enormous cow pasture. Nothing for miles but the two of us. She was interesting even at a distance. Natty short dreads, died blue, plugs in her ears the sized of 50₵ pieces. It had been raining all day and she was in a big flannel and blue jeans. A big pack covered by a blue painters tarp. If I were to see this girl, gutterpunk would be accurate, in the middle of Minneapolis I don’t know if I would have noticed but out here was another thing altogether. How the fuck did you end up here. Alone. I mean, I’m weird, but I’m wearing a fucking rain jacket?!
I step off the trail and greet her. Keeping her head down she mutters something like a hello and then hikes right by. Like a mirage. I looked back after she was a few hundred yards away just to make sure I hadn’t imagined the encounter. Fucking nuts.
Not an hour later I was taking a break from the rain under a thick pine tree when mirage #2 comes sauntering by. Half jog, half walk, I ask him if he’s walking the whole trail. “Nope, I’m running it.” He had an oversized fanny pack on with a bed roll and Jesus sandals on. Had to wonder if I had imagined him too. Too much.
30 miles a day until the last day when I was met by Zoe, a friend from Vail for the last two days. The plan had worked out well because we had less than 15 miles days until Denver. I talked her into walking into Denver and figuring out the shuttle to her vehicle when we got there. I was thoroughly impressed with the last sections of the trail. Very beautiful and some of the burn sections seemed almost exotic.
Spent the last night on the trail and an epic campsite with a big campfire.
When we got to the northern terminus of the trail we walked out on the road and were immediately picked up by a welder heading east. Sedalia was a hole in the wall south of the southern suburbs of Denver. Stuck our thumbs out and in under a half hour we had a ride all the way back up to just about where Zoe had parked the truck two days before. Ex-ski bum like us said his gas was on the company dime. Never under-estimate the power of a vagina when hitching. Another quick ride got us the 16 miles down the country road and that was that. Boom Boom Boom.
Got a shower in Denver so I could get on the plane. Couldn’t have worked out better.
Dear Colorado Trail,
Are you the ‘most beautiful long trail in the world’? Hmmm, debatable. But I’d hit it. You are as epic of 500 miles as they come. You made me wet, a lot. You were desolate and busy. Diverse, definitely. I enjoyed our time together immensely.