The CDT south of Rawlins followed another waterless paved road for about 12 miles. We didn’t really want to hike the road but were afraid to hitch-hike… the prison was nearby. Beside the fact that it was often illegal to hitch near a prison (as you might be mistaken for an escaped convict), there was the added risk of getting a ride from some guy named Bubba who was flat broke and just returning from a visit to his partner in the pen. So, we walked. Cars rolled by, fewer and fewer as we distanced ourselves from Rawlins.
We’d hiked about 6 miles on the road, never did see the prison. Apparently, it was hidden behind some hill somewhere, out of sight and out of mind. We halfheartedly decided to hitch the next 6 miles, so we wouldn’t have to camp near the road. Additionally, Mario had hurt his back in town while carrying heavy boxes to the post office. The stiff surface of the road was making it worse. I made a sign, “6 miles”, and stuck my thumb out at some passing cars. We’d just about given up when one of the cars turned around and pulled up along side. A young woman poked her head out the window, “Hey, you want a ride?”.
The car was small and old, but we managed to stuff our packs in the trunk and stuff our bodies in the back seat. 3 girls sat in the front. They were high-school stoner chicks, probably 18, 17 and 16 years old. The oldest one bounced a small child on her lap as we sped off. The girls had left Thelma and Louise in the dust and were headed straight for Jerry Springer. Freaky rap/hip-hop music blasted from the speakers behind our heads. Too late, we realized the ride was probably a bad idea. The girls were destined to get in trouble somewhere, we just hoped it wouldn’t be in the next 6 miles. We sat in the back seat, making as little conversation as possible, hoping the girls would just consider us dull. They let us off where the CDT turned from the paved road. In a flash, they were gone, we were alone, in the desert again. The sun slowly set as we hiked down a hill, out of sight of the road. We made camp in a random spot of flat gravel among the sage, always near the coyotes.click to enlarge
I didn’t figure that water would much of an issue south of Rawlins. A series of small ponds lined the side of the trail ahead. Early the next morning we reached the first one, the largest. Something didn’t feel right… didn’t smell right as we approached. After one taste of the water, I placed the odd smell – the ocean – the water was completely saline, undrinkable. A quick study of the map hinted that all the ponds for the next 15 miles were the same, if not worse. The water was good enough for cows though, a giant bull, so muscle-bound it was barely able to walk, stared at us from across the water, grunting. We got back on the trail, holding out hope for some kind of miracle. In the worst case, we figured we wouldn’t actually die in the next 15 miles, just be very thirsty.
That road, that desert, for some reason held little appeal. The mountains were starting to return, the divide was nearby, the Basin was behind us. There were no trees for miles, everything just looked dead, tired and dirty. I fiddled with my new radio. At the top of each hill, I was able to get a myriad of stations, at the bottom of each dip, nothing. Time after time, I got to hear bits of great rock ‘n’ roll hiking songs, only to lose them to static halfway though. I kept forgetting that I had headphones in my ears. Every time I took off my pack for a break, the headphones caught on my shoulder strap and ripped from my head. Dammit! I found I could extend the range of the radio by holding it near my hiking pole, and holding the pole above my head. The moments of clear reception were hardly worth all the time spent fidgeting though. The radio represented all the things I was walking away from, all the distractions of modern life, distractions from real life. I didn’t want those things following me, I didn’t want to carry them. In the next town, I mailed the radio ahead. Perhaps I would find a use for it some other time, but there I couldn’t use it, I couldn’t bear its burden.
Halfway through the day, we were all out of water. It was hot. Mario was in pain, but tried hard not to show it. A jeep pulled up. A man leaned out the window, he was excited, and asked, “Are you hiking the CDT?”. It was Ray Hanson, the BLM manager we’d missed in Lander, the one who’d mapped all the water sources and marked the trail through the Basin. He was driving 3 or 4 people along the road, along the CDT. The other people were doing some sort of mapping project for the CDTA. Ray was excited to meet us. In all the years he’d been working on the trail, he’d only met a couple actual hikers. It was great to be able to thank him in person, on the trail. The people had some fresh carrots and extra water, it was just enough to get us to the next water source, Muddy Creek, which Ray endorsed as reliable. It was a wonderful unexpected little meeting. There were actually people out there who cared about the trail and cared about what we were doing, people who understood. My spirits were lifted, just at a time when they’d needed a boost.
We got to Muddy Creek and followed it upstream. The water got less and less muddy, less salty as the miles wore on. We stopped for the night at the third crossing, where the water tasted fairly good. Thunderstorms electrified the surrounding hills as we cooked our dinner. Like every night, I sat there cross-legged, staring at my bubbling noodles, mesmerized by them. I savored each spoonful, and when my pot was emptied and my stomach full, I let out an, “Oh yeah!… Whew! That was damn good.”. Mario and John did the same. We all ate well.
The road continued up to the headwaters of Muddy Creek, back to the divide. The divide was almost like a friend, slowly meandering near our course. “Hi, how’ve you been?”, I’d ask the divide. It just smiled back. On the way up, the water got better. I had broken my filter earlier in the day – it had become so clogged that I over-pressurized it and the plastic housing cracked. We passed near a spring that was absolutely raging – clear water poured out the side of a hill with the force of an uncorked fire hydrant. I crawled under some bushes near the spring and filled my water bottles. I figured if I had been susceptible to giardia, I would have already been sick. The biggest advantage of the filter had been that it strained the little “floatie bits” out of the water. Oh well, those wouldn’t kill me.
The terrain was notable only for the fact that it was plain. We were slowly climbing mountains, higher and higher, but the land changed little. Rolling hills covered in sage and occasional drab trees spread out below us. The hills were gentle enough that people had built roads along the divide, so that’s where we walked, on roads that nobody drove. Occasionally, we dipped down to cross some other empty roads that connected valleys on opposite sides of the divide. At the end of the day, we dropped down to a nicely flowing stream of clear water. John had a filter, and since we had time, we decided to all use it. His filter was so clogged that it took 10 minutes to fill one liter.
Sunshine and Seehawk showed up late in the day. They had almost been struck by lightning the day before – they had been hiking just behind us, on top of the barren hills we’d seen being blasted. As we cooked our dinner that evening, another storm opened up. It didn’t go away though. The rain came down hard, and the wind rattled my thin nylon tarp. It poured for 4 hours, through the end of the day. It was still drizzling as I drifted off to sleep, more comfortable and safe in my little portable home than I would have been in any mansion built from brick and mortar.
We were still on a road. It didn’t feel like we were making much progress even though we’d hiked two solid days out of Rawlins… what was that? 55 miles or so? In a way, that distance almost seemed further in a car, where the land whizzed by in a blur. Travel was obvious in a car. On foot, it crept up… each step was such a small one, that it was difficult to put them all together. What did they all add up to? I spent my time thinking about the next 2 or 3 miles, not the next 100. 100 was too much to consider, too much for which to plan at a walking pace.
By noon the next day, we crossed into a national forest. The change in the land was quick. Within a couple miles, we were back in forest, back above 10,000 feet, back on a real trail, all for the first time since the Winds. I had forgotten how much I loved hiking through the woods. In the woods, the view rarely extended more than a couple dozen yards. So, those couple dozen yards got all my attention, they filled my eyes and ears. I stopped at a small stream and found myself singing again, in love with the trail again. I put down my pack and ran into the woods, losing myself in them, making love. I laid down on the soft forest floor, thinking. I had almost forgotten where I was, what I was doing, or why. The woods had reminded me, the dirt footpath had reminded me. I thought about all those miles behind… I had just as many ahead. I was standing in the heart of the CDT, but it wasn’t the CDT that people dreamed about, it didn’t make the cover of glossy magazines, it was just another patch of forest – from the outside not much different than any other. But, from the inside, it was glorious, it was mine.
I had gotten ahead of Mario and John. Earlier, I had raced across an open hillside to beat a thunderstorm, I figured they’d both waited. The trail climbed higher and higher, climbing out the other side of the forest, the top side. I looked south and saw pointed mountains all the way to the horizon. Colorado. I hadn’t even thought much about Colorado before, I hadn’t even been to the state since I’d been 12 years old. There it was, that land so many considered synonymous with mountains. The views gave me energy, and I powered up the hills.
I stopped earlier than usual, and set up my tarp. John and Mario showed up just as I was getting ready to cook. John smiled at me, “I was wondering if you were going to stop.”. We didn’t have to talk about why. “Why” was laid out below us. We sat on some nearby rocks, staring at Colorado, eating our thick noodles as the clouds cleared and the sun set to the side.
We quickly reached the top of Bridger Peak the next morning. It was cold and windy on top, 11,000ft. We took shelter behind a small metal shed – some kind of army communications relay. Bridger Peak was the highest point for dozens of miles in every direction. I pulled out my radio, the dial was jam-packed with stations – all on top of each other, the reception was too good – it was difficult to isolate anything. But, we all managed to tune-in to a well-timed broadcast of “Teenage Wasteland”. I played air-guitar on Bridger Peak, the CDT was rockin’.
On the way down we passed a pickup that was headed the other way, up the bumpy road. It was Sunday, and it appeared the older couple inside was out for a drive in the mountains. We all waved “hello”, but the woman just pulled her arms up tight, the man stared blankly forward at the road. There was something about them that said they didn’t even talk to each other anymore. But they were so old, it had ceased to matter, it was too late to change anything. I imagined them reaching the end of the navigable road where they’d briefly step out of the still-running car. He would say, “yup”. She would say, “It’s cold”. Then they would get back inside, drive down the hill, down to their little house, and spend hours watching re-runs of re-runs on TV.
We got to Battle Pass, a relatively well-traveled road. There was a car-campground nearby. Pre-teen kids were taking turns riding ATVs in circles through the dusty gravel. They were creating forgettable childhood memories, memories they would unconsciously consult as they wandered in circles through the rest of their lives. We walked a quarter-mile down the road and took turns holding a sign, “Encampment”. I hadn’t originally intended to stop in Encampment, but I was starting to enjoy the chase, enjoy the slices of life we got in the towns below. 45 minutes later, we were in the back of another pickup, crammed-in with some fishing gear.
We decided to take the rest of the day off. Mario’s back wasn’t getting any better, and he needed the rest. He would never admit it, but he was in serious pain – it showed on his face and it showed in his pace… he had been walking at half his normal speed. Encampment was another of those boom/bust mining towns. It was a little different though. They seemed to have known the boom wouldn’t last, so they prepared for the bust. Rather than trying to build a giant town that would one day be empty, the old population had lived in a tent city on the outskirts of Encampment. Today, the change in times was apparent. Encampment, built on mining, was fading away. Riverside, a mile away and built on tourism, was slowly growing.
We headed down to Riverside and split a cheap hotel room. I then went back up to Encampment to buy some groceries. Encampment was small enough that people knew about the CDT. I met a woman in the store who offered me a ride back to Riverside. The store clerk chimed in, “You know, what he’d really like is a ride back to the trail tomorrow. There was a guy here last week who stood over on the corner there for hours, couldn’t get a ride from anybody…” I asked him what the guy had looked like. I started to laugh as he continued, “Strange feller, wore a blue suit, seemed a bit odd.” The man in the blue suit hadn’t considered one major drawback of the suit – it made him look like an escaped convict or mental patient… I wasn’t surprised nobody had been eager to pick him up.
That evening there was free music and free food in the park. It wasn’t advertised much, it was something intended for the local population, not the tourists. Still, we were welcomed as guests. The three of us sat there, mesmerized by the sounds of Siucra, a trio of Irish musicians from Boulder. I hadn’t heard any live music since well before the start of the hike. I had almost forgotten that humans could be so beautiful, could create something so apart from nature yet make it sound so natural. Music was one thing that always reminded me there was more to being human than just being, that there was more to life than the tangible. I ate 6 burgers.
In the morning, the woman I’d met in the market picked us up. She and her husband ran a bed and breakfast in town. It was so hard to say a proper “thank you” on the trail, I had few ways to repay favors. I figured the least we could do would be to visit their bed and breakfast, to just see it. I figured it would be something they were proud of, something they’d want to share. I had no idea.
Lynn and R.G. had lived in Riverside for years. Their house had slowly evolved into a elaborate expression of their selves. It was open, natural, friendly and elegant. R.G. was a professional artist. The house was filled with his art, and that of other’s with whom he’d made trades. They hadn’t originally planned to run a B&B, they joked, “We had so many people visiting, we figured we might as well start charging…”. Among other things, they had researched and then built perfect replicas of native and pioneer clothing. These were hung in the closets of the rooms, an unexpected bonus for guests in a playful mood. In back of the B&B was a large deck, overlooking a gentle river. Most people spend their lives looking for something, but Lynn and R.G. had already found it. They sent us off in grand style – a ride to the trailhead and slices of some delicious “breakfast pie”… why not have pie for breakfast? What a great idea.
We were back on the trail. The rest seemed to have helped Mario, his sore back had turned a corner. He later told us that he’d nearly decided to quit and fly back to Holland, it had hurt that bad. The trail quickly entered a small designated wilderness area, where the land immediately took on another character. I often had that feeling when crossing the boundaries of wilderness areas. I didn’t know if it was because of the legal protection of the land, or if it was just that lands of a certain type were more likely to be protected. Perhaps it was a subconscious mental switch. In any case, the land inside the wilderness felt right, it felt settled, ordered, like everything was how it was supposed to be.
The trail passed through a series of lofty meadows, the soft brown grasses moved in waves with the wind, the gentle swoosh of a million knee-high blades rose to a soft crescendo. I sat down at the edge of one of these meadows while a group of horse-packers prepared to leave. One of them looked at my pack and commented, “Looks like a lot of work.” She then proceeded to pick up some heavy leather and steel riding apparatus. I wanted to tell her my secret, tell her that it wasn’t any work at all, that in fact I’d never felt better in my entire life and that I owed it all to hiking. Instead, I smiled and nodded my head. click to enlarge
We took a break on top of some large smooth rocks on top of a mountain. I jumped around from rock to rock, exploring every nook and notch. The warm sun beat down, causing the rocks to glow a deep red that contrasted perfectly with the deep blue sky. A few moments later, black clouds moved over our heads and it began to hail. We stood there, on the edge of the hailstorm, waiting for it to pass. The sun still beat brightly on the trees below us. The hail wasn’t going anywhere though, and soon enough we gave up and moved on.click to enlarge
We camped that night near a small stream. John nervously set up his tent under a large overhanging cliff-face that looked ready to collapse. “If that thing goes”, I tried to reassure him, “then it’s just your time.”click to enlarge
I passed a short-tailed weasel the next morning. It was slightly smaller than the size of my forearm. It stood in the grass upright, balancing on its two rear legs. Its light underbelly contrasted sharply with its sleek dark brown back. It sniffed the air for few moments, then bounded away like a living slinky. I’d seen so many animals in so many moments like that one, but the encounters never grew mundane. They just reminded me there was more happening in the land than I could ever observe.
Somewhere in the middle of a nondescript patch of forest, I crossed into Colorado. I had heard that the Colorado section of the CDT was the best-marked, most-travelled, and least “roaded” part of the entire route. That didn’t apply to the first few miles just south of the Wyoming border. The trail continued up a road, and there were no signs. I did pass a mountain-biker on the road though, he was the first person I’d seen actively mountain biking during the entire trip.
Soon afterward, a train of 12 ATVs passed by. All of the riders had that same “ATV grin” that I’d started to recognize… maybe it was caused by the vibrations of the machines? I didn’t know. They slowly, loudly wound around the forest road, audible for a mile. I just didn’t understand. To me, the point of going to the mountains was that they were quiet. The point was that they were an area not conquered by man. The point was that it took an effort to get out there. I didn’t really care if these people rode their ATVs down the road, I just wished they knew the mountains like I knew them.
I hadn’t seen Mario or John since the morning. I’d slowly drifted ahead and I figured I was out of their “break range”, that is, they were taking breaks back there somewhere, reducing their chances of catching up. I stopped near a meadow under some trees and laid with my back flat on the ground, my feet on my pack. I’d found it was a good way to get the most out of a break. I was just getting ready to leave when a lean backpacker with a big black beard came up. “Hi, I’m Brian Robinson”, he said.
I had heard about Brian before I started the trip. Brian put my little walk on the CDT in a new perspective. He was trying to be the first person to hike the “triple crown” in a single calendar year. That is, the 2100 mile Appalachian trail (AT), the 2650 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the 2500-3000 mile CDT… back to back to back. He’d started on the AT January 1, gotten to somewhere in Vermont by April, then jumped over to hike the New Mexico portion of the CDT. After that, he’d hiked the entire PCT – Mexico to Canada. Then, he came back over to the CDT. He’d been hiking south from the Canadian border for the past couple months, quickly catching up to us slow-pokes. Once he finished Colorado, he planned to go back to the AT, and finish the little bit that he’d missed. His schedule made me dizzy.
Brian hadn’t hiked with anyone since one day in the Winds, and he had hiked with people on only 4 separate occasions the entire year. I was happy to give him a little company. “Well, aren’t you hiking with Mario and John?”, he asked. I rolled my eyes, “All we talk about anymore is our bowel movements… it’s the only reliable news.”. Brian had done a lot of hiking and understood.
We arrived at a small spring in about a mile. I borrowed Brian’s plastic scoop to get some water out of a shallow depression. He didn’t have a filter, just a scoop… and some chemicals. I was about to sit down for a few moments, but Brian looked impatient. I found out then that he simply did not stop, that was his secret to hiking 7000+ miles in a year. We walked that night until it was already dark, then ducked under some big trees along the side a road. I’d decided to stick with Brian until Steamboat Springs. I thought it’d be fun to get the “Brian Robinson Experience” even if it was only for a couple days.
According to me, the morning hadn’t even started when Brian sat up, “Ok, I’m getting ready to go…”. For him, all that meant was packing his things, putting some snicker bars in his pocket, and heading out… maybe 5 minutes total. It was still dark. We continued along the road to another trailhead/car-campground. We had already put in 5 miles by the time I usually woke up. click to enlarge
Near the trailhead there were signs posted about a giant windstorm that had swept through the area a few years back. It had knocked-over a lot of the trees. Some trails still weren’t cleared. The route we planned to hike looked OK though.
At the parking area, there was an information kiosk covered with full-color illustrations of pastel-clad happy families, hiking through the woods, smiling and pointing. It looked like something from a 1950’s cold-war propaganda film. The theme of the information was about the benefits of logging. According to the kiosk, responsible logging freed-up the land and allowed new trees to grow, thereby diversifying the forest and keeping it healthy. I had always thought the forest had done just fine all by itself for millions of years. Apparently, I was wrong… Big trees, the ones worth lots of money, were bad for the forest. They needed to be culled. As for the forest life that counted on old and dying trees? The kiosk didn’t address that, but I’m sure they’d considered it. I thought about how the science of forestry had originally been developed by logging companies – they’d written all the first books. For decades, all that was taught to forestry students were the profit/loss potential of trees. That was just starting to come into a little more balance. I understood that we did need wood, we did need to cut trees, and they did grow back, I just hoped that others understood it wasn’t only money that grew on trees. Trees had other values.
Another sign told how a huge area of the national forest would be closed starting the next day due to helicopter logging – it was dangerous. I didn’t know how they planned to get all the animals out. But it didn’t affect me, I was hiking with Brian, and we were flyin’.
I had a faster walking pace than Brian. All day, I would slowly drift ahead and take 5-minute power breaks. Brian would then show up, and instead of taking off his pack and sitting down next to me, he just said, “hello” and keep walking. I started walking even faster, hoping to get more breaks. That had the unfortunate side-effect of speeding up Brian’s pace. Before long we were almost in a race. We crested the top of a 12,000 foot peak just as lightning struck another peak a couple miles ahead. There was nothing between the two peaks but an 11,000-foot-high open plateau of rock and grass. We didn’t really have any options, we just hoped for the best and started across… quickly. Halfway through, lightning struck behind us. The trail gradually angled downhill, and we reached the cover of trees. Somehow, we’d managed to avoid the storm clouds. click to enlarge
By 3:30pm, I finally managed to get Brian to sit down for a second. He looked through his maps, “Wow, we’ve already done 32 miles…”. Brian thought a lot about miles, he had to. In the past I had met other hikers who’d considered ‘putting in big miles’ the ultimate goal of hiking – the only goal. These people constantly critiqued other’s hiking styles, saying profound things like, “you should be carrying less weight.” People like me made fun of them behind their backs, labeling them ‘Jardinites’. Before I met Brian, I had half-expected him to be one of those people. He wasn’t though, he understood there were a thousand ways to have an enjoyable hike. He was doing his own thing, and respected everyone else as they did theirs.click to enlarge
We took it easy the rest of the day and hiked closer together. I got to hear all about Brian’s hike, and he heard all about mine. We even stopped to talk to a couple of tourists who were out for a drive in the mountains – they were from near my home-town. We finally stopped at dusk in some light forest, 37 miles. Brian looked up, “Oooh, only three short of a 40-day.”, he probably wanted to keep hiking.
Early the next morning, we passed Seehawk and Sunshine. They hadn’t stopped in Encampment. It felt like Brian and I had put in an extra day’s worth of hiking somewhere, like we’d been hiking at warp speed. My brain was already starting to fragment – just trying to process 37-miles without really stopping was enough to drive me crazy. I didn’t know how Brian managed mentally. What happened to a person, when all they saw every waking moment of every day was the world moving by at 3 miles per hour? I figured whatever kept Brian going was beyond my perception, perhaps he’d evolved some new endocrine glands or something, the hikerthalymus?
We hit the road by noon. It didn’t take long to get a ride to Steamboat Springs. Brian quickly got his resupply box from the post office and headed right back out to the trail. He had calculated that if he spent just a few extra hours in each of his ~70 resupply stops, it would add a week to his hike. When I had first heard of Brian’s plan, I hadn’t given him much of a chance, but there he was… he had less miles left to hike than I did. Just before he left, I told him, “There aren’t many things left in the world that you can be the first to do… looks like you found one.” I found out later that Brian did indeed finish his hike, he would forever be the first.
While we were sitting outside the post office, a woman stopped and asked, “Are you hiking the CDT?”. Before I even had a chance to exchange names, she had invited me back to her house for dinner that evening. But, she had an appointment and couldn’t stick around. I met her at her office later in the day. She was a massage therapist. As we drove to her house, just outside of town, I finally got to introduce myself.
Christine and Pete lived in a cozy home at the end of a road in a small patch of aspens. They’d been there for a number of years. They were two people living simple and wonderful lives. They seemed to understand what it took to be happy, and that it didn’t take much. For them all it took was a greenhouse, a two bedroom home, a wall full of books, and a spirit of generosity. And if something didn’t work out, they were smart enough to make changes… to go on vacation… to move… to grow… I was extremely tired from two days of hiking with Brian, but I tried my best to make intelligible conversation. Possibly the best feature of Christine and Pete’s house was a soft warm futon. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Early the next morning, Pete dropped me off on his way to work. Mario and John had arrived in Steamboat, but wanted to spend another night there. I was ready to move on. I loved hiking with them, but I knew there was another trail out there, one that I hadn’t yet found. It was one that I had to hike alone. John and I shook hands and made vague plans to meet in the next town. But, we both knew it wasn’t likely to happen. It was goodbye.