Back in the Game: Grand Lake to Steamboat Springs

A ligament on the back side of my left knee felt tight and strained as I limped down Highway 34 in the direction of Grand Lake.

A man saw me, pulled over in his pickup, honked twice and fired up his hazard lights.

I wasn’t even hitching. I think he just noticed.

“Do you want a ride into town, pardner?” he asked.

I hopped in the bed and rode, relieved, the last two miles.

My Dad drove up from New Mexico to meet me in Grand Lake, which is a small touristy affair — more or less a line of boutiques, art galleries and restaurants set against the enchanting backdrop of a dark mountain lake. Speed boats trailed skiers in wakes across gray-black waters. Mirrored within Grand Lake’s depths were the timbered slopes of Shadow Mountain.

I rendezvoused with Dad at a coffee shop. He told me I smelled of body odor. I said, “What do you expect?” And we had a laugh.

Then he noticed I was limping. I gave him the news about my knee but said I needed to keep moving, to head north sooner rather than later, because, after all, time is short — as it always is.

“It feels like I’ve been in Colorado for about a hundred years,” I explained.

On the other hand, I told him, my knee hurts. “The pain is worse than anything I’ve felt since this trip began.”

Dad thought about it. “If you hurt your knee any worse, or if it keeps worsening, you’ll be out altogether,” he said. “It might be smarter to stay. But let’s just play it by ear.”

I remained in Grand Lake for two days – one more than I had originally planned.

Fattening Up

During the off-period, Dad “fattened me up,” as he put it. I ate biscuits and gravy, breakfast burritos, hamburgers, sandwiches, steaks, apples, bananas, various and sundry ‘vegetable medleys’ — gorging myself damn well near to repletion with all kinds of tasty delights — and chased it all down at every opportunity with desserts: blueberry scones, thick slabs of chocolate cake, ice-cream sundae s’mores, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

All decadence lost on-trail was regained doubly in Grand Lake.

My dad is a good dad – not so much because he buys me food – but because he cares. He takes time. He wants to take time. Not all dads are like that. So — I just want to say — thanks, Pops.

On Wednesday, I met with Chimichanga, who likewise took time off with his parents. It sounds like they had a good time, too. They took a loop through Colorado, visiting hot springs and several mountain towns and cities, before stopping by Red Rocks for a Wilco Concert in Morrisson.

Chimichanga seemed unconcerned about being behind on the trail.

“I think pretty much everyone’s ahead,” I told him.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Zero days are delicious.”

Come to think of it, though, I shouldn’t have expected any other reaction from Chimi: He seems to have a deep abiding faith in the universe unfolding as it will. He doesn’t put too much effort into changing it.

Chimichanga, in other words, just rides the wind.

A Storm from the Rabbit Ears

I didn’t say much, but the first few days of walking, I worried about my knee. ‘If I’m unable to push big miles now — at this point in the journey — this could be a game-ender.’

I fretted silently as we cruised through the Never Summer Wilderness – a section of heavily wooded trail, moist from all the recent rain. The first night we raced a storm over Bowen Pass, camping low in trees just before the clouds opened up. Then we continued on easy tread through forests and meadows. And these were the meadows of your dreams: acid green, ringed in forests, overgrown with hip-high grasses and sedges, flowing with creeks, teeming with wildflowers – white yarrow and bursting sunflowers and purple aspen daisies. Meadows that remind you of Huck Finn or games of Kick-the-Can or picnics in prairies with pretty girls.

We worked our way into the Rabbit Ears Range, taking the summit of Parkview Mountain – the tallest in the range – and pausing for rest in a derelict fire-lookout structure. From the promontory I could see the witches’-hat summits of the Never Summer Mountains; the Colorado Medicine Bows running north to Wyoming’s border, where they become the Wyoming Medicine Bows; the sprawling flats of North Park, Colorado; and, to the west, the mountains of the Zirkel Wilderness — the last range we’ll explore before exiting the Centennial State.

We descended a ridge, clambering over alpine boulder patterns – rock arrangements sitting half-buried in sinks. The declivities formed from frost heaving in the long, harsh, high-mountain winters. Once the boulders sink in, they succor varieties of wildflowers from wind. I saw Alpine Avens, Moss Campion, Narrow-Leaf Chiming Bell, Alpine Forget-Me-Nots and King’s Crown – all seeking refuge among the rocks or spongy matte plants of the alpine tundra.

That evening we watched a cloud burst open over yonder ranges. Where we walked, along a high ridge running off Parkview Mountain, the air was cool and calm. But the storm clamored over hills to our south. We heard booming thunder and said ‘whoa’ every time blue bolts of lightning forked across the sky.

“I’m loving this storm,” Chimi said, “as long as it’s over there.”

“It looks like it’s coming right for us,” I said.

“Let’s just see what happens.”

Haystack stood between us and the storm, which traveled north, trailing a sheet of sweeping rain.

Just before the storm reached Haystack’s flank, the winds changed direction. The storm hooked east. And we were audience to it as it washed up and over a set of hills opposite the forested basin. The mountain gods showed us — for what felt like the first time ever — that they are capable of mercy.

We circumnavigated Haystack Mountain, camped at Troublesome Pass, ascended Poison Ridge and dropped on forest roads from Sheep Mountain, clear to Highway 14.


And that’s how it went for most of the section. We moved quickly on easy tread through decent weather. It took three nights to do about 70 miles.

“You don’t get a lot of good days on the CDT,” Chimichanga remarked, “so enjoy them while they’re here.”

 Colorado Bleeding Into Wyoming

As we neared the highway Saturday morning, I looked out across the landscape. “Wow,” I said, “this looks a lot like southern Wyoming.”

“I was about to say the same thing,” Chimi said.

Ahead of us rolled hills of sage and rabbit brush, bounded on either end by bunch-grass prairies, creased with creek-carved sloughs – riparian areas which were themselves tangled in dark green willows.

We were picked up by the second car on the highway. The driver spoke with a drawl. “Don’t mind the occasional swerve,” he told us. “My daddy always said, ‘you just gotta keep it between the ditches.'”

He put The Doobie Brothers on loud; smoked some kind sativa out of what looked like a crack pipe; and swung his little Pontiac gracefully round the curves and down the hills into the wide flat farming dale in which is nestled Steamboat Springs. The Yampa Valley.

I didn’t notice until I got into town that I had forgotten about my knee. That it feels completely better partially vindicates my decision to double zero in Grand Lake.

Full vindication doesn’t come till Canada.

We’re leaving Steamboat tomorrow. The Cowboy State rides in our immediate horizon. Early on in Wyoming, we will transect the Great Divide Basin – roughly 150 miles of reportedly flat, hot, dry, upland desert.

I’m rested and I’m ready to begin. 

Scenes From the Trail


Posted in Backpacking.

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