We camped the first night on a ridge near San Luis Pass with a plan to wake and hike the mountain.
My alarm went off at 4:30 but I was already awake. We ditched our packs, left our tents standing, pocketed granola bars and departed in darkness for San Luis Peak – a side trip, right off the divide, a snowy cap at 14,014 feet.
The night before, we had the discussion.
“We’re right here, camped right at the base of the ridge,” I said. “There’s no way I’m not bagging that 14er.”
Toast and Chimi were of a like mind. Chimi suggested hitting the peak before sunrise. So that’s what we did.
We walked a long ridge of broken rock called talus under a sky Chimi described as cobalt. I was the last one to the top. There, we stood in the cold and admired the sunrise.
“Sunset is easy,” Chimi remarked. “Sunrise, you have to work for.”
The high snowy San Juan Peaks – the ones we labored to walk through over the past few weeks – were lit behind us in a pinkish glow. To the east, the sun splintered in violent orange and red off mountains I could not name.
“I think this is my first sunrise on a mountaintop,” I told my friends. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
From the top of the world we descended, down and down, dropping below 10,000 feet on good tread into the Cochetopa Hills – a chain of upland hills which bridge the La Garita Mountains with the Sawatch Range.
We stopped for a break at 10 a.m. and checked our mileage.
“We’ve already done 14 miles,” Delightful said.
This news was astonishing.
Before, while we were in the snow, we fought like dogs to get 11 miles before nightfall. The snowplowing undoubtedly conditioned us. When I started the hike, I weighed 155 pounds. I was in decent shape, too. I weighed myself in Lake City. I’m down to 139 pounds, according to that specious scale.
When I told this to Chimi, he said, “You’re like a 10-year-old boy.”
“I’m going to have to start shopping at the Baby Gap,” I said. “And if this keeps up I might even check out the Oshkosh.”
Every day I roll the band of my shorts to keep them from sliding off my hips. All of it is really quite ridiculous.
I attribute the weight loss to my body battling the cold in the San Juans, as well as the relentless postholing – a full-body workout that involves wrenching your lower body out of snow pockets as deep as wells to China. Okay. That’s hyperbole. But you get it.
“Football coaches in the off season should tell their teams to go postholing up mountains,” Chimi told me.
For this section of trail, however, we were mostly out of the snow.
We walked in the range of 25 miles a day – just throwing down marathons on top of marathons. It’s amazing the adaptations your body can make in the midst of a thru-hike. Some hikers even do 30s and 40s regularly. My style, however, is to go slower, take lots of breaks, sit around and swat mosquitoes in the shade as I admire sweeping views of America. If I tried to walk 30 and 40 miles, it would hurt too much. I’m a crybaby like that. I’d probably need my mommy and my favorite blankey.
For much of this leg, the trail traced alongside Cochetopa Creek, which ran through a valley with the biggest aspen groves I’ve ever seen in my life. We saw butterflies light on wild irises. We rambled in and out of forests and pastures on Sergeant’s Mesa. The Mountains of the snowy Sawatch Range stood in the distance amid a haze. They looked like sheeted ghosts.
These were languid summer days – hot and long and lovely – like the days of June when you sit by a stream and talk to friends or read a book. Let the breeze circulate and bugs crawl around on your arms.
At night in our tents – or cowboy camped beneath the stars – the song of the wood thrush lulled us to sleep.
“It has a flute-like song,” Maine Man said of the wood thrush. “It usually comes out right around nightfall. It’s one of my favorites.”
I decided, while walking, that I’m afflicted with a great physical and mental restlessness, almost an agitation, really, which can be sated solely by strenuous mountain walks, writing, and admiration of things pretty. The key is the movement in combination with the beauty. It makes me extraordinarily happy. In the mountains, you can daydream for days, lost in a reverie so complete you are unaware of all that surrounds you, lost in the woods of the world, of the mind – yet still the surroundings seep in, if not through osmosis, then by the sounds of the riffle run or the rolling thunder or the aspen leaves quaking; or even the brush of the wind against your skin.
The reverie is healthy – a delight. How could it not be? There is no doubt in my mind, the thin mountain air – breathing it – pumps life and vitality into a deflated soul. I for one would be a hopeless madman without it. And besides … the prospect of a morning adventure to a mountain lake is about the only force powerful enough to keep me from the bar.
When we camped in alpine tundra I found my favorite flower. The Alpine Forget-Me-Not. Royal blue. Smaller than a shirt button. Tiny clumps of beauty in stark rocky environs. And a poetical name to boot. I try to avoid stepping on them or pitching my tent upon them. I think of it as the most infinitesimal way to uphold Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, which is:
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
The trail took us to Monarch Pass, a hundred-mile walk in five days. We hitched a ride from the pass into Salida, a ride which took about an hour to get. Maine Man and Delightful stood at the road – beaming faces, thumbs extended. I went to the little store and got shot down time and again as I asked nicely for lifts to town. I felt like a beaten salesman. But we got here, and the people who gave us a ride were nice.
Whenever I get to town I always feel downright triumphant, and within the group there is a general sense of bonhomie, so we celebrate, and I sometimes tend to celebrate hard. Not always, but sometimes. And. Well. I’m ready to admit I got a little carried away in Salida. A celebration of what? … Well, living, of course.
Sometimes life deals you a hand of cards such that you find yourself dancing with a beer in the midnight streets in front of a cop car. This is risky business. We all know some police, depending on mood, can be a bit overzealous to give tourists a tour of the jailhouse. And I’ve seen the insides of those places. They’re either boring as hell or full of drunk and dangerous people. Always uncomfortable. Usually cold, dirty, rank and expensive. They’re places to be avoided, in other words. Places where freedom is removed. In fact, jail may well be the antithesis to this whole walk, actually, which is epitomized in almost absolute freedom.
In my mind, at least.
This particular officer must have been either nice or reasonable and besides I made the smart decision anyway, after a bunch of dumb ones, locked it up, went home, ate someone’s pizza out of the hostel refrigerator, woke up the next morning in my bed in my hiking shorts.
I feel bad about eating the pizza. The rest of it I’m okay with.
I hope by now you don’t think I’m a degenerate. But it’s impossible to control how people think about you, anyway.
The best I can do is just be honest. At least be honest and truthful and genuine, I tell myself. And I hope the theme here is more along the lines of living, not just carousing, because living is what I’m trying really hard to do. Not just surviving, mind you, but living – passionately and fully. Because one day I am going to die and the truth of it is the lack of life – the void of life, the absence of it – is sad and scary. When you love it so much. But the other side of the coin is dying puts the emphasis on living – now.
Where were we?
Where are you?
Scenes From the Trail
From left: Toast, Chimichanga, A Strange Loser, and Delightful
Chimi and Tom had a bet on the NBA finals. Here is Chimi leaving a little taunting note.
Can I get a one-time for San Luis Peak?? Count it !