By the time I left Breckenridge the Monday after the Fourth of July, rain clouds had moved in over the surrounding mountains.
I got on the bus alone. The bus driver, a portly black woman with concerned eyes, said: “I’ll take you out there, honey, but you’re gonna get wet. You sure you don’t want to stay another night?”
“I’m used to it,” I told her. “We’ve been getting wet a lot on the trail.”
An elderly cowboy who looked like the Marlboro Man sat across from me – boots, leather vest, silver hair tied back in a pony tail. I noticed him appraising my pack.
“Howdy,” I said.
“You from around here?”
“Well, you should know, then, that we’ve got cats,” he said. “Big cats. Bobcats and cougars.”
“I did know this,” I said. “I hope to see one.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t.”
“Yes, actually, I do. I’ve seen a mountain lion before in Wyoming. All they do is run away.”
I got off the bus annoyed. I don’t like it when people try to provoke fear – talk down to you from their artificial positions of authority.
I felt strong and brave and invincible.
It’s funny, though, how the mountains have a way of popping your ballooning head. Of pulling you up short right when you think you’re too big for your britches.
Twelve miles out, I got hit by rain just as I made camp. After that, it did not stop raining for three days.
On the morning of the second day, I ascended 1,000 feet through fog to a place called Georgia Pass. For the past couple hundred miles the CDT was coincident with the Colorado Trail, meaning nice tread and easy navigating. At Georgia Pass, however, the trails split. All my easy miles were behind me.
The CDT dropped and climbed along high mountain spines while dense mist and intermittent rain soaked all my gear.
In one day, I climbed:
– Glacier Peak – 12,858
– Whale Peak – 12,999
– A random summit – 13, 189
– Geneva Peak – 13, 194
– Sullivan Mountain – 13,093
– Santa Fe Peak – 13,180
Between each peak, the route rollercoastered into saddles – meaning high elevation gains and losses. I hoped to get off the mountains to camp in a drainage through which ran Peru Creek, but after 23 miles, I was freezing and exhausted. As I looked for a place to camp up high – a berm or swale or in the lee of a hill – thunder rumbled overhead. I could actually hear the crackling of the electricity in the lightning bolting through the ceiling of clouds.
Quickly, I found a spot that was doable. Unzipping my backpack, I realized the rain soaked through my jacket sleeves and drenched my hiking-shirt sleeves – which, in turn, chilled the tendons in my forearms, making it difficult to move my fingers. So when I tried to pitch my tent in howling winds and rain, I couldn’t do it. I had to get on hands and knees and clench the strings between my molars to pull everything tight.
Tent pitched, I climbed inside, shivering, and sulked in my sleeping bag. A very dreary mood.
Something about the fog and rain – the inability to see anything beyond 30 feet – made me feel lonesome and desolate. I wrote in my journal:
“I keep thinking back to the Fourth of July in Denver, all the fun I had and how I was surrounded by friends. There is something difficult and poignant about the abrupt transition from being immersed in the revelry of friendship to this sudden solitude on the stormy divide. There are no comforts around me. I can’t even see anything or talk to anyone to cheer me up. All I can do is trudge along – cold and wet – hoping the rain and the bleak white clouds will just go the hell away. Oh, this is terrible. And in a way I am ashamed of it, because here I am, whining and complaining about the first time I’ve hiked alone since New Mexico’s boot heel. Really, though, I just need sunshine, a view – something around which to orient myself – not just physically, but emotionally. Maybe there will be sunshine tomorrow. Please let there be sunshine tomorrow…”
Toes on the Ledge
I poked my head out of my tent in the morning. More misty grayness, thunder, flowing clouds of unfathomable depths.
I thought about staying through the morning in my tent, but was intimidated by what lay ahead on the trail. When I feel anxiety about something, my tendency is to want to get it over with. So I got up and broke camp and began navigating the trail-less ridges in fog. To do so, I turned on my GPS and left it on in my hip belt. That way it would track my movements.
In my head rolled some high-lonesome country song about a lovelorn bloke whose shorty left him up a creek.
“Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
and remember the Red River Valley,
and that cowboy who loved you so true.”
The world is filled with so much love and heartache, joy and loneliness – passionate people swinging violently between the poles. Better to take these chances in love and life, though. Better to let your guard down; to make yourself vulnerable; to rush heedlessly into relationships; to entangle your soul with that of another, so that it gets harder and harder to say goodbye – regardless of the damage it might cause.
Life is fuller with your toes on the ledge.
Once lower, I was out of the clouds. Though more rain threatened, I tried to eat some breakfast and dry my tent. Pitching a wet tent and climbing cold into it provokes a feeling that is patently dismal. And yet no sooner had I exploded my gear out of my pack than it started drizzling. I cursed the weather and put everything back in my bag and set out on what I knew would be a tough, scary day.
That’s because on that day I had to go up and over Grays Peak, and I knew it was going to storm.
Racing over Grays
The route followed the Argentine Trail along a high rocky ridge. The mapmaker put a note on the map saying the ridge involves exposure and scrambling. I knew it would be a challenge to navigate in the icy rain, scudding clouds, and misty fog. My mantra of the morning was, “Just get over Grays, Chilt. Stay focused. Make it happen. Everything’s better after that.”
Atop the ridge, fog blanketed everything. It felt like walking in a cold tunnel except with the frightening spacial sensation that you stumbled blind upon a mountaintop, with drops on either side. As the ridge narrowed, I found myself climbing with hands and feet over rocks, wind buffeting my jacket, water sloshing off the brim of my cap, the rushing vacuum of a long fall pumping that telltale feeling of dread into my stomach.
Why am I doing this? I thought. What is the point?
It took me about three miserable hours to climb to the 14,278-foot peak of Grays. I stopped to breathe during the snowstorm for about 45 seconds before bailing quickly into the valley below.
That night more rain threatened. The trail cruised low down Ruby Gulch before hooking beneath I-70. As I passed through the underpass, I suddenly stopped.
I said, “Well, here’s a roof over my head.”
And so I pitched my tent right beneath I-70, sleeping under the overpass like a bum. I wouldn’t even call it a low point in my life. The only thing I hate more than trying to sleep to the sound of interstate commerce is three nights in a row of soggy gear.
The next morning hundreds of pale-blue, pale-purple Colorado columbines studded the meadows along the trail leading up Herman Gulch.
The route went above timberline for about 15 miles, a fantastic experience in sunshine ridgerunning.
As I neared Berthoud Pass, I ran into two hikers – Cookie Monster and FirstMan. At the pass, there was a warming hut. Chimichanga’s parents had left hamburgers and beer and apple pies – all of which I devoured greedily. Cookie Monster, FirstMan and I decided on a whim to hitch in to Winter Park on account of we wanted a beer.
The next day we returned to highway 40 to hitch back to the trail. As our ride pulled up, I said, “Bon voyage, Winter Park. We were here for a good time, not a long time.”
“In and out and nobody gets hurt,” Cookie said.
We piled in to the bed of a truck, gave it a double-tap on the cab, and were off – back on the open road. Free to move about as we please, to range widely within the bigness of this world, without a single tether holding us back.
Oh, you gotta love it.
We felt like reined up race horses, slavering at the bit for our riders – the weather – to let us off, to put the spurs to us, to give us a good hard roweling across the ribs.
In the late evening we summitted James Peak (13,308-feet), traversed yet another ridge, outrunning an impending storm, and dropped below treeline. We crossed an old trestle with badly deteriorating woodwork to camp on the flat grade of an old railroad bed. Cookie Monster made me a cocktail which I drank inside as rain beat down on my tent. We talked about the day; surviving the peaks; the rainstorms nipping at our heals. We discussed our hiker dinners and hiking styles, how Cookie Monster packs a bag with a convenience store’s worth of amenities – including (but certainly not limited to) five pairs of socks, a speaker, three types of spiritous liquors and a bear canister jam-packed with food.
So we talked, in other words, about topics related to the trip, because we were all thoroughly enmeshed in the adventure of it – filled up with the joy of having survived another day in the Game of CDT.
I love hanging out with dudes for whom life consists in so much more than getting money and chasing panties. That’s a crude way of putting it, I know, but crudeness has its place in the world. Piety often shrouds corruption, whereas crudeness tells nakedly of the truth.
The next morning we highballed it 25 miles in the direction of Grand Lake. I tweaked my knee during the days of summitting, so have been limping badly every day after about 15 miles. The pain is bad and worries me, which is why I’m taking a rest in Grand Lake.
That night I limped down the road near Monarch Lake to discover Cookie Monster sitting on the porch of a random forest lodge with a beer.
FirstMan came up and said, “Some bikers gave me some bratwursts.”
And so we grilled them over an open fire pit.
A man who looked like Santa Claus took me inside the lodge and opened a door to a backroom. “You’ve just found the smallest bar in Colorado,” he said.
It was a boxcar of a room with liquors on shelves and beers on tap. I thought I had found the Shangri La of the American West.
The Arapaho Valley Ranch. We had a great time.
I walked in to Grand Lake on Sunday. My Dad is here and my knee hurts so I am taking a double zero. I really hope my knee heals quickly. I am disappointed by it, because my body has held up well thus far, and for a problem like a knee to hit me now is bad news. Colorado has slowed us considerably. I have to hike 23 miles every single day, with no stops in town, to finish by September 21. Everyone keeps saying the terrain beyond Grand Lake is easier, though, so I am hoping to push big miles.
Scenes From the Trail: