We leave before noon and enjoy a flat and well maintained trail around the lakes… Then the Colorado River. It’s Labor Day Sunday and motor boats are the prevailing mode of transportation.
On one trail I see (and finally get video of) a big black bear.
We hear there might be a store open near Monarch Lakes at Arapaho Lodge. Our dream is a single soda or beer. But much to our delight this family run lodge, bar and store is hiker friendly. It is hopping with a reunion and toddler birthday party but trail magic abounds from a round of beers bought by Ryan? to triscuits brought by an anonymous stranger, to free camping in the lawn offered by the owner Todd as we settled up our very, VERY reasonable bar tab.
I feel like part of a tight knit community talking to locals out enjoying their Labor Day weekend. And go to bed hearing the extremely drunk reunioners singing Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, proudly, at the top of their lungs.
Today it’s my turn to feel like crap. I got belly aches all day. There is some elevation gain, but nothing unreasonable. The day passes quickly with scores of day hikers out for Labor Day. Lots of them excited and incredulous asking about our backpacks and learning we are thru hikers.
At the end of the day we ascend to around 12,000 feet elevation and I start dragging hard core. I fall behind Groucho again and again. My belly aches and my body produces a hot box of death smell that adds to my nausea. I can see Winter Park, our next resupply, 4 miles west as the crow flies, but we still have 21 trail miles (and a 12 mile hitch.)
We sleep in a shrubby area that protects us a bit from wind.
I’ve never dropped acid myself, so I can only believe certain friends who tell me that today felt like a very bad trip. Almost throwing up, crying about 15 times, the sensation that the rocks are moving, a feeling like I can’t catch breath all causing me to dissolving into hysterical gasps and literal wailing/ugly cries. but eventually I learn tears are like super powers: providing endorphins, huge gulping bellows of air, a chance for my feet to stop and heart rate to slow, a clear sinus passage for better breathing (after blowing several snot rockets), and a moistening for my dry eyes, which have burned from sun and wind exposure. Also a firm resolve. I will not succumb to this. I WILL keep walking. I will get out of this. I will feel better. Pain is temporary.
Over several mountains. Climbing Over 5000 feet of elevation. Reaching higher than 13,000 feet several times. The day just doesn’t get easier.
In addition to altitude problems we are cross country following faint or non existent paths much of the day.
Tho the terrain is tough and I feel like crap… Well it’s just SUPER BEAUTIFUL up here. Also we enjoy a lengthy lunch break with Crunchmaster and Happy. Friends we’ve followed since the AT but haven’t seen in more than 3 years they are hiking this section NOBO. Crunch as a thru hiker and happy – his dad – as a short summer vacation following a knee replacement. Happy is so freaking nice and cool! Also he gives me pistachios so I love him forever.
Ok so then much later in the day we decide to take a Ley map “shortcut” ascending steeply to 13,000 and walking the literal ridge line. It’s… how can I put it… INCREDIBLY FREAKING DIFFICULT.
And up here it starts to snow. Snow?! It can happen anytime of year at this elevation but as we walk into fall the sense of an early winter is upon us.
It feels like the most effort I’ve ever expended to step after step and get back to trail. But I do it. And then we descend to the road. My tears dry up, my altitude sickness alleviates and we get a super fast hitch from two amazing vacationers from Arkansas. They are so merry and warm. And they ask if they can help us with any prayers. How cool is that?
People are good.
We get to town and enjoy a drink and shower and hotel. We sleep. Tomorrow is a day off.
We tune in… To Facebook, friends, weather forecasts, inspiring activism in North Dakota, and to our own needs and feelings.
People are starting to go off trail for the winter. Coming back next summer or a future year to finish. Others are shuttling ahead, skipping this section for now, trying to hit the 14,000 peaks and exposed sections of Colorado in the next week or so. If the weather holds, maybe they’ll come back to fill in this section later or just continue to the desert of New Mexico thru October. Tho the forecast for next week is snow above 9000 feet. That’s like the whole Colorado section of Trail.
And Groucho and I have consensus. It’s time to get off trail this season.
I love being here. In many respects, I love being anywhere but I’m tired of moving. I feel ready to sit for a minute. And reconnect, build, create and be a part of a geographically located community. I’m ready to digest and see if I can extend the lessons learned thru hiking to my everyday life: Operating in person. Not sweating the small stuff. Eating snacks when cranky. Tuning out of divisive capitalist-driven messaging. Tuning back into social justice, public spaces, communication, humans.
Sooooo… Here in Winter Park, CO is where Groucho and I will deviate from the set path of the thru hike. Instead we carve our own path forward, toward an idea of home.
Leaving town Groucho and I receive rides from 2 excellent humans. First Clint who is on his way to get dental work in Silverthorne. He offers us a joint (we are in Colorado after all) as he confesses he doesn’t have enough money to pay for gas home. Lucky for him our practice is always to offer hitches gas money. The $10 I offer is exactly what he needs. The ride is exactly what we need. Win win.
Clint drops us at trail which turns out to be a 10 mile paved road walk. But then comes Bret, a buffalo and cow rancher whose property goes right by the trail here. He gives a ride even though it is out of his way. Such a great dude. We enjoy hearing his ethos about raising meat and hunting elk. For 4500 people can pay Bret to stay on his property and shoot, slaughter and pack out a wild elk with like 75%+ success rate. He takes such pride in feeding his kids wild, non-chemical meat. I respect it.
Bret drops us at trail which is actually a dirt road. We walk for 15 miles until we reach a flat spot with a snotel sensor. We sleep here since most of the snags have been cut to protect the snow measuring equipment.
The hills turn to mountains. Suddenly elevation gain is back in full effect as we pass landmarks with ominous names like troublesome pass trail and never summer gulch.
As the air thins, the trees spread out and we frequently walk above tree line. Beautiful – but affording us a view of encroaching thunder clouds every afternoon around 4pm.
I reflect on winter approaching: the frost on our sleeping bags, the scattering of dry snow when it’s precipitating above 11,000 feet, and these long above tree line sections. I realize I am triangulating signs from the universe… what does it add up to?
I think of CDT thru hiker Otter who died from exposure last year in a campground in northern New Mexico. He’s on my mind because 2 recent hitches, first our Rawlins angel a few days ago, and then just yesterday Bret, mentioned him as an old friend. Someone they hosted or gave a ride to. Someone they remembered. The repetition makes me alert. When is winter coming? And how best do I live my life so I can embrace each day?
Groucho is ill. Very ill. Doubled over. Groucho is strong and usually crankiness is the only sign of pain but today it’s visible. He needs long breaks, and to sit, and to dig multiple cathodes. Altitude? Food poisoning? Giardia?
By 6pm we reach a clearing and see Curtis already set up. He too, it turns out, has been slowed today by the stomach bug. We camp with him hoping both buddies will feel better tomorrow.
In the morning, Curtis asks where the nearest bail out point is. “Nine miles… But over the next 13,000 foot hill.” Hearing he feels worse we insist on hiking in proximity till the road where he wants to hitch.
The terrain is open country ridge walking. Again above tree line. Very difficult, even though I am healthy. I feel so bad for the poopsie twins. We summit Parkview Peak with a cool old fire lookout and take a long break. Then descend a mile in 45 minutes- very slow- cause it’s basically loose rock.
We reach the road but no one will pick Curtis up. The poopsie twins rally and decide they can hike on. Another 27 miles to town.
We encounter so many raspberries. I say to Groucho “I have to say I’m a pretty good berry spotter.” He replies “That’s true that’s one of your many talents. Do you think it’s genetic?” Haha. Totally since my dad has been foraging roadside berries into discarded mcdonalds fry containers since I was a small kinder.
We summit Bowen pass at dusk and descend rapidly to the cover of trees to camp with Curtis. Passing not one, not two, but SEVEN moose at the creek. Amazing world.
We wake to rain at 5:30am. No matter it’s another town day! We pack up and race thru the Never Summer Wilderness as it pours for hours. All downhill tho, so we reach town by 1pm. Right on trail is the glorious, volunteer built Shadow Cliff lodge and hostel. A beautifully homespun, loosely spiritual community where instead of 80’s movies one can spend hours playing board games with strangers.
Curtis has decided. His hike is over. It’s not the same without Christiana, and sable’s old paws are cut up. It’s time for them to call it.
Groucho and I decide to take a zero. It’s cheap to stay and so comforting here.
Grand Lakes sports excellent pizza, good coffee and a nice outfitter. We enjoy free computer time at the library and more board games with new friends – hikers, volunteers and travel weary road trippers.
Today we hike in trees again! lovely, cool trees. The social interactions in Rawlins and our angel visit have rejuvenated me. The morning passes easily.
Around midday we pass a huge backpack by a log. So huge, I don’t notice at first there is a person attached. Here we meet Tugboat, a 52 year old retired firefighter who started in Glacier on June 1st, trudging thru snow with an 80 lb pack. Tugboat is old school and didn’t know about the hiking culture which allows for hitching to town every 3-7 days for more food. Therefore he’s carried 21 days of food at a time, as well as his slingshot, pistol and pole so he can hunt, fish and grill game along the way. Amazing. A dude who really can survive the apocalypse. I am so impressed. Now that he’s realized he can go into towns he’s about 20 lbs lighter and much happier. And hella ripped.
Groucho and I pass him and take a different alternate, but I feel happy knowing he’s out here.
At dusk it starts to rain and we pitch our tarp for the first time in days. There are actual trees to pitch between!! We are almost to Colorado.
This morning we see Curtis (hiker) and Sable (dog) who we met in Lander. They hiked out a day earlier than us from Lander but our ride from the Rawlins angel helped us catch up. Curtis is admittedly lonely since his lady friend had to get off trail for work. We happily hike with these buds.
Around 11am we reach the Boarder of WY and CO!!
Then a nice leisurely walk into the hills and short mountains. Curtis gets ahead in the afternoon but we catch up at the dinner break and I let him know that, tho he is faster than us, he’s welcome to hike with us if it would be good for his spirit I know it will be good for mine.
A few hours before dusk we begin a long descent into meadow. Then a long burn area. We pass up several sites because of so many snags (dead trees). Finally Curtis chooses a meadow and though it isn’t perfect, we submit. There aren’t any dead trees for about 40 feet in any direction.
At midnight a huge cracking sound and an earthquake-like shudder in the ground wakes me. Lighting? “What was that?!” I ask. Groucho replies… “A tree fell.” A big tree. Very close. I count my lucky stars and try to fall asleep again but it is hella cold and damp in the meadow.
We wake with frost frozen on our sleeping bags.
Today we enjoy a 3500 feet climb over 10 miles. I feel weak and tired. Altitude?
It’s the beginning of bow season and all day long we pass happy hunters decked in camo or hunter orange with bows slung over their shoulders.
There is so much dead forest here because of pine beetle kill that we can’t help but sleep amongst some snags. It’s barely worth it as all night I feel awake. Staring at a sillouttte of a snag hanging over our heads. And by 4am hunters start tromping by our site. I need to get me some hunter orange gear lest I be mistaken for an elk or deer.
Im so excited to get to town! The morning passes quickly passing many hunters and day hikers and lakes. It’s almost all downhill.
I do a movie-length retelling of Little Women and suddenly (2 hours later) we are at the trailhead! 2 lovely day hikers are parked and offer us a ride to Steamboat Springs. We accept and stay at the awesome Rabbit Ears Motel, across from the PO and natural food store. Sooooooo many vegan snacks.
We expect it to be hot and decide to check out of the hotel in Rawlins as late as possible. Watching “the mummy” marathon last night soothed my unhinged mind and the prevalence of tampons here makes me feel more relaxed. I’m ready to hike out.
We call to hear the local bus schedule and actually talk directly to the driver who picks us up like a taxi. And it is only 50c. I love Rawlins!
Clouds cover the sky and it’s cool out but I feel… Well… Good. I *could* be worried about the infrequent (and commonly alkaline) water… or which route to take (30 mile road walk vs 50 mile country road walk) or the incoming clouds and likelihood of thunderstorms. But we are strangely calm. I’ve loosely set my jaw in determination. I will hike out of town. I will be okay.
We start the long road walk outta town and shortly a red 88 ford truck goes by. I comment “nice truck” and 5 minutes later it’s back and the gentleman offers us an unsolicited ride.
We allow it to happen. It’s not necessary. Technically we’re on trail and resigned to the road walk. But something about our serenity allows us to just say yes. I start accepting messages like this as… Well… acts of god. Angels. Unspoken manifestations.
We say yes. “Sure. A ride a few miles would be great.” And we are delivered the gift of learning about this incredible human. At times I really think God is talking to me. He repeats “you only live once you should have fun.” And “The most important thing is to help people.”
He shares wisdom about hunting and meat and using the whole animal. Wisdom about these hills. Which streams are running and which lakes are alkaline. About his desire for Freedom from government. His Apache grandma. His views which my mother would consider conspiracy theories.
He keeps offering to take us a little further. A little further. We submit as he confidently states “I know exactly where you need to go.” I really believe… If he’s an angel in disguise I should probably let him take me. Sure Friend. I trust you. Take me where I need to go.
Then he asks me about politics. He is aghast about Hilary. It dawns on me he is a trump supporter. A reluctant, anti establishment Trump supporter. A low-income, on disability, Native American who will likely vote for Trump. After expressing my concerns about Trump’s racism, I change the subject. The most important lesson I’ve learned “out here”: people are good. The problem is we are -ALL OF US- fed damaging messages about other Americans. Other humans. We are intentionally divided by those in power as a distraction so we will avoid real resistance and they can stay in power.
And I’m reminded of this poem I saw on my friend Arne’s Instagram feed months ago, by Brenda Shaughnessy:
“This is how we do it to you: we keep you extremes to either side
And parade down the middle while you cheer us on. ”
Because if you meet an angel in a red Ford truck in Wyoming who drives you 53 miles out of his way, and gives you a beer just because he likes being kind to people, he might be voting for Trump.
I am broken open by this person.
Politics (like mainstream media, like blockbuster movies, like the cult of capitalism) gets in the way from our basic humanity. Can’t we talk to each other more face to face?
This is why I thru hike.
We ride back to trail with hiker Corbett, and her local sister Sydney – a super cool school teacher in Lander. We talk of the upcoming Great Basin section, a 120 mile trek thru the flat, dry, hot, shadeless desert.
We hike out with Corbett and soon encounter a NOBO! Hobb, an elder, has been bouncing around, trying to finish the trail in major sections. His wife joined him for this wind river section. They together have completed the PCT and AT (3 times I think?!!)
The non profit stewards let hikers walk thru the area, and hold our resupply boxes for free! As we unpack our box, Corbett says good bye, pulling my heartstrings. I’d been looking forward to a new hiking buddy, but she is faster than us, by far, and once she walks off, I know we won’t see her again on trail.
The terrain is gently rolling -or flat- but strenuous in its own way as suddenly we are forced to walk miles cross country with only an occasional far distant fiberglass trail marker to assure us. We dodge sagebrush and cacti, but sometimes it’s so thick we must scrape our shins to make passage.
Whereas on the AT I wondered if I would ever NOT have a mosquito bite again, on the CDT I wonder if I will ever have shins not covered in a latice of scabs.
The ground is also uneven, and after multiple ankle wobbles I study the maps at a break and realize that if we find a nearby country road we will end up where we need to go, saving a few miles and providing some precious zone out time. the mental attention needed for cross country travel demands significantly more energy.
Soon we reach the dirt road and a short time later an oasis…. The sweet water river where we eat dinner in shade. Then along comes Weather Dan. A hiker who lost his crew when he had to hang back in town treating his Giardia.
Dan is quiet but amiable and we hike off after dinner up another country road until the light fades and we realize there really isn’t shelter out here. We will sleep aside the dusty Trail/road among the dry grasses and with a sage bush as a foot rest.
Around 4am I wake to a startling sound. Thundering hooves approaching, passing. Too loud for antelopes or deer. A cattle stampede? Disoriented and wary I sit up and see nothing.
Then the herd circles back around to check us out again. And I am in a mystical universe as I behold a group of 6 wild horses. Their approach is much in the styling of Tolkein’s riders of Rohan. Graceful, curious, assertive, powerfully strong. “What news from the mark?!”
The head honcho neighs with blustering lips and a bobbing head. Asking something… Maybe just “What are you doing here?” His 5 companions peaceably standing in a row, silhouetted in the full moon light.
Then suddenly they are off again, hooves easing amicably around sage brush and dry grasses, in the darkness of the night.
I can barely return to sleep, alivened by the intricate choreography of meaning in their head gestures and their almost empathic forces communicating actively with each other and us. Obviously extremely intelligent beings – by any measure.
We wake an hour or so later with orange sun behind haze, starting early to beat a heat that’s soon to come, but hard to imagine in the crisp dawn air.
We pass sign after sign for Oregon trail and Seminoe Cutoff/California trail reminded of the western expansion and hopeful families treking thru this waterless plain for days and days with wagons and oxen and maybe a map sketched on a napkin. Hoping to find water, game, shade and cross the far mountains before winter.
In this stretch we regularly walk 15 miles between water sources, which we can always spot coming because of the uptick of birds, bugs, flies, grass and cows.
Otherwise our terrain is quiet except for wind thru sage brush and the occasional horned toad scuttling across our path.
And every so often we see a group of glorious prong horned antelope. Running. Running. Always running. A relief to see such vibrant life! “Don’t run!!” My heart cries against centuries of acclimation. “I don’t need to eat you I have ramen.”
Weather Dan gets ahead at some point in the afternoon and Groucho and I walk alone again. It’s comfortable though and I feel resigned to our solitude on this journey.
In the afternoon we walk up a hill and spy a cluster of 3 horses against a distant field. They watch us carefully but do not approach or retreat. A little while later we reach a trail junction encountering a huge pile of horse shit. Like a large accumulating pile, right at the crossroads.
What the hell? Then Groucho reminds me that Sydney spoke of communal horse poop piles as a common occurrence, especially at the edges of territory. Intelligent indeed.
Finally, on this the day of the horse, I spy a gleaming white skeleton of a horse just off trail. Pulled apart and picked clean by coyotes but still commanding respect.
I feel a familiar emotional vulnerability that comes on at onset of PMS. A strong desire to be on my own. Not forever. Just like a sabbatical. To make my own choices. Follow my own derive. I stubbornly don’t want to follow a path or walk behind another person. And yet I am terrified of breaking with what is expected of me. Still. After all this self actualization I still have to exercise complete mindfulness in my autonomy, my relationship and balance the rewards of perseverance with the satisfaction of impulsivity.
Do I want to keep hiking? In the heat of day this question pummels me every hour on the hour. I relentlessly check my phone. Not for service. (I haven’t had service since Glacier National Park.) Just clues. About terrain and mileage and water and where can I stop moving? Where might there be shade. And what will happen next? And what next? I am having difficulty being fully in this moment. Im afraid if I fully inhabit my discomfort, crankiness, the heat, the heavy pack, the dusty socks and new blisters that I may falter. If I really succumb to the present, how can I possibly choose to stay on trail?
most importantly I fear letting down Groucho. He who is determined, creative, strong. my partner in wanderlust and seeking and questing and asking. He, the most generous, intelligent, poetic, detailed, steadfast, hilarious. He, the most grumpy, sullen, quiet, introspective, gassy, existential and obsessive. He, my buddy on self actualizing. My travel companion spiritual co-explorer.
What does it mean for him if I stop hiking now and spend a little time alone? And what does it mean for me if I don’t? Historically Groucho and I spend several weeks/months apart each year. And it’s liberating and refreshing and rejuvenating for both of us. So I’m not worried about our ability to weather time apart. But I am worried about deserting Groucho’s thru hike.
This day passes like a liminal purgatory. Step after step in sand, and miles between water. For lunch we find a small grove of trees by a dry stream bed. The shade is delicious and I crawl under the scrubby branches into a tree cave. I never want to leave.
After another dozen or so miles, we find a blessed solar well the coldest, clearest, cleanest water pouring out of the sand into a barrel. We celebrate with a Fig Bar and move on as dusk approaches -determined to walk past dark and take advantage of the cool breezes. We tell movies to pass time. Me: Brokeback Mountain. Groucho: terminator 1,2,3
Again I feel the layers of time folding close together in these hills. The me that resides here in Wyoming pressing against the me’s on the precipice of choices I’ve made through all the decades of my life. Who I would’ve become had I made different choices at any point. What do my choices say about me? Am I a loner at heart? Always choosing to leave? Often choosing solitude or pain?
Speaking of pain: Probably a result of PMS – my tissues swell, including my brain, which presses against my skull popping the enormous latent cyst that is my pain body. Who am I? What am I doing here? Waaaaay out here. How can I be so strong hiking 25-30 miles a day and yet feel so emotionally weak?
The trail runs flat and mostly one direction toward the road until it dead ends along the freeway – where we tackle the slow scratchy trek of cross country travel into the hills. We could bail and hitch in several places down at the highway but something keeps us moving on the dry track to rawlins.
I wake with the excitement of a town day. I really need support and want to talk about the choice to keep hiking. But Groucho needs quiet time. Tho I understand his need for solitude, I feel frustrated beyond belief, fearing without the opportunity to talk, I will definitely get off trail. And I want to make this choice with Groucho in mind.
A few miles from town we break the ice and start having better conversations about things. Then we see a rattlesnake. And finally my cramps double me over just as we start the 3-mile road walk. I cry intermittently to relieve the waves of pain. I see a penny and pick it up wishing for the pain to end in the next 1 minute. Then, it does.
Town is uplifting. Everyone in Rawlins is so damn nice. It’s like a cheerful Twin Peaks. From the amazing(!!!) post office staff to the free 2 hours of library computer access to the hiker discount at the days inn and the super great Thai food and the chatty liquor store clerk. And several hiker boxes and trail registers! Also I get new shoes and maybe my feet will stop being so darn sore.
We heart rawlins.