I took the free bus from Steamboat as far as it went, then switched to my thumb. Within 15 minutes I had a ride, for a change, it was in the front of a pickup. The guy who’d stopped was a lean half-indian with long hair and big teeth. He worked at an oil rig somewhere in Colorado, but lived on a reservation in North Dakota – 1 week on and 1 week off with a 12 hour commute in-between. “You know”, he told me with a curt indian accent, “I used to work in Alaska. I went snowboarding once from the top of this 23,000ft mountain. Got a ride up there from a helicopter. On the way down, there was this avalanche following me, I outran it though.” I knew this was impossible for a number of reasons, but what could I say except, “Wow.”. He continued, telling me more fantastic stories about his life and adventures. He told me about the time he persuaded a dozen loggers to throw their chain-saws in a lake. He told me about how he was once in the special forces, and could outrun anyone despite the fact that he smoked a pack a day. He also told me about the time he had to pull a gun on an suspicious hitchhiker. “I can’t get lost”, he boasted, “it’s in my blood… I can be anywhere and I know right where to go”. I was sure some truth was buried deep in each of his stories, I was just sorry I couldn’t figure out where it was. He was a nice enough guy though, he dropped me off back where I’d left the trail. Rabbit Ears Pass.
The divide was interrupted by a large swath of private land for the next 10 miles, so the CDT was routed along a paved road that went around it. I was alone, the cars whizzing by didn’t even exist… I knew they were there, but they were like blades of grass – insignificant. There was only a huge flat grassy expanse encircled with mountains. I’d only been hiking alone for a few miles, but everything already felt different. It was absolute freedom. I had no commitments to anyone but myself, no one to persuade, no one to listen to, no one to talk to. I was a bubble, sealed off from the outside, floating along the crust in my own dimension.
A thunderstorm engaged the land. It was spectacular. I could see for miles, I could see the peaks being struck, I could hear the crack and rumble across the wide valley, I could feel it. It felt large, immense, it was everywhere and everything. As the blanket of rain approached me, I donned my poncho. The rain became heavy. I felt exposed on the road, like I was about to be sacrificed to the clouds, so I ducked down to the side and knelt on the ground. My poncho made a little spot of dryness, a little shelter. I ducked my head inside like a child that hid under his blanket so the monsters couldn’t get him. I was safe in there. I munched on a snickers bar as the rain bounced off the outside of my poncho. I peeked outside a couple times, but it was cold and scary out there, I waited for the rain to stop.
The rain gradually eased. The clouds continued ripping apart and reforming, arguing with each other, forming brief alliance and breaking them just as quickly. Occasionally, the sun cut through – a bright beam moved across the landscape then switched off like it didn’t find whatever it was looking for. I liked that road, it was different somehow. Cars came by about every 10 minutes. I’d see them as dots miles away, then, slowly the sound of tires like velcro on the pavement got louder and louder. I’d catch the occupants in a freeze-frame, in the middle of talking or turning their head, but more often staring at the road, mouths slightly afrowned. One car slowed down and stopped. The woman inside leaned out. She had thought I was somebody else. Another pulled up, the driver was perplexed that I didn’t want a ride. What kind of a nutcase would want to walk that road? I suddenly believed it was impossible to criticize anything. I understood a famous quote. I walked the road “because it was there”.
I left the main road, and travelled on gravel that led back up to the divide. A hunter pulled up. “I can give you a ride, you know.”, he offered. “No thanks.”, I smiled at him blissfully. But he insisted, “Really, I think it’d be a lot safer to be in a car.” He was concerned about me, perhaps even a bit angry. “There’s a storm coming in”, he continued, “Every year, we gotta rescue people off this mountain.” I told him confidently, “I’ve walked this far, I think I’ll be OK.” He shook his head. “Well, we’ve been having a lot of bear problems up ahead, you be careful.” He drove off, convinced that I was a clueless idiot, convinced that I was unprepared and inexperienced. But my reality was so far removed from his, that he just couldn’t relate to it. I passed his camp in a few miles. There were a bunch of dirty pickups and SUVs parked in the mud. A few hunters with bulging bellies and thick camouflage coats, stood around a soggy fire, drinking beer. A bag of garbage was slumped against a nearby tree. They’d probably been there a few days, tossing scraps of food in the fire. I wasn’t surprised they’d had bear problems. I waved at them as I passed, certain they were still convinced I didn’t know what I was doing. I made sure I put in a few more miles before I stopped – I didn’t want their bears in my camp.
The night was extremely cold. I was glad I’d picked-up some fleece pants and extra gloves in Steamboat Springs. I woke up to a thin layer of frost on my tarp. As I started up the road, a group of cows ran out in front of me. They were panicked, but they didn’t know what to do except run in front of me and poop some runny sludge.
The road slowly wound higher and steeper. It was rutted and barely passable to vehicles… so I thought. As I took a break on a log, two pickups with horse-trailers rolled down the hill, moving slower than my walking pace. The occupants pointed at me and laughed among themselves… perhaps because they thought I was wearing tights under my shorts, like some big-city faggot lost in the mountains. I didn’t understand why they were driving the road, when they could’ve just as easily ridden their horses… or walked. Inside my head I was pointing and laughing at them – all that motorized crap they brought with them… what a bunch of ignorant hicks. My tight black capilene pants were about the warmest thing one could wear.
The dark fir trees along the road wore a thin highlight of frost and snow. The bed of the road was frozen, crystals of ice crunched under my feet as I walked along. I passed by a man who was putting up an army tent on top of the divide. An elk-hunting season was opening the next morning. The man setting up the tent had gotten an elk in 10 of the last 15 years, all in the same area. “My son was calling to one this morning, over on that hill there”, he boasted. He pointed to a forested hillside two miles away. I asked for a demonstration. The young boy put his hands over his mouth, and let out a series of piercing barks. I’d heard a lot of elk before, the kid was pretty good. I asked them, “How do you know you weren’t just calling to another hunter over there?” The man laughed, “Well, one thing is that hunters can’t really imitate the short barks at the end of the call, you gotta listen for that.”. That was all fine, except that real elk didn’t always bark at the end of their call. They were from Wisconsin. It was his son’s first year joining his father for an elk hunt, his first time in Colorado. It showed. The look in his eyes was one of total trust in his father, one of concentration and of love. It was an event he’d remember the rest of his life, one on which he’d reflect in the years ahead, when he would bring his son to the ridge, when his son would call the elk. I wished them luck and continued down the road.
I looked ahead and saw gigantic rounded mountains covered with golden grass. The higher elevations were draped in a thin sheet of white snow. I knew they were the divide. The divide almost always went over the highest peaks around. It appeared the storm was breaking up though. The sun was out. Small cottonball clouds raced across the sky, close overhead. By the time I reached the open highlands, most of the snow had melted. The trail cut across the side of one peak. I went up partway to get a view, then a little more, then, I was on top. My breath sliced into the cold wind that whipped across my face. I trotted over the mountain, my heels dug firmly into the crust, my poles were like alien feelers probing the ground, lifting me as glided down the hill. I knew I was doing the right thing. For a rare moment, my life made sense, I was immortal there.click to enlarge
The trail slowly wound into some trees, along old logging roads that probably had not been used in 50 years. I followed a series of small cairns across forgotten intersections, unsure if I was still on the correct path. The improvised route finally intersected a newer road, and I was able to deduce where I was. I was tired and thirsty, a stream was nearby. I found a somewhat level space between two trees and set up my tarp. As I cooked my dinner, the sky darkened and it began to snow. I ducked inside my tent, figuring the snow wouldn’t last too long.
The snow continued as I slipped into my sleeping bag. There wasn’t anything I could do about the snow, in a way, it was peaceful, cleansing. In the middle of the night, I woke up. My tarp was sagging on top of me, everything was quiet. Finally, I figured, it had stopped snowing. I hit the walls of my tarp, and a few inches of fresh snow slid down. I then heard a disheartening sound – little crystals of ice hammering the outside of my flimsy nylon shelter. It hadn’t stopped snowing, in fact it was snowing harder, faster, heavier. I peeked outside, about 5 inches had already built up. I was concerned. It was only September 7th, and I still had a whole state to hike through, a state where the trail frequently crested over 13,000 ft in elevation. I was only at 10,000.
In the early morning, it was still snowing. The snow was 8-10 inches deep. My tarp was sagging heavily, there was no more space on the side to where I could push the heavy snow. I didn’t want to move, I just wanted to sit there and wait for the snow to stop. But I knew it was already too late for that. What if it didn’t stop, what if it was just the beginning? I grunted begrudgingly and formulated a plan. I had to think it through. I hadn’t slept much, but it didn’t matter. I was in total concentration. I did not have time to be inefficient or slow. I packed as many things as possible while still under my tarp, then held my breath as I ran outside and took down the tarp. The snow was impossible. I had hoped to find some large trees that harbored dry spaces underneath. But, there weren’t any. click to enlarge
I stopped as little as possible. As long as I kept moving, my feet stayed warm despite the fact that they were continuously plowing through snow. But, my hands were painfully numb. They gripped my poles, out in front, away from the heat of my body. The thin gloves I wore were of little help. Ahead, the CDT rose over the top of a 12,000 mountain, Parkview Mountain, described as “steep” on the other side. I looked up, I couldn’t see the tops of the trees, much less the mountain. I decided to follow the road around the mountain instead.click to enlarge
The snow finally stopped around 10am. Everything was soft and clean, absolutely quiet. It was as if the forest was on pause, and attempting to digest what had just happened. Every flat surface was highlighted, no, overloaded with phlumf – snow that had been temporarily intercepted on its flight from sky to earth. I had been transported to yet another world. The road continuously twisted and bent, traversing around every ridge and dip that emanated from the mountain. There were no signs on the road… at least no signs that indicated which road it was. I just trusted my instincts and tried to look for nuances of terrain that matched something on the map. Finally, I turned right at an intersection… left at another… I was back on the CDT.click to enlarge
I bounded joyously down the trail, plunging through the snow. The mist began to clear, and the sun lit up the surrounding valleys. It looked like the snow had reached down to 8000ft. I wondered how the hunters were faring. Some of them probably packed it in, others were probably in heaven – the snow made for perfect hunting conditions – it was easier to move quietly through the forest, and easier to track the elk.
I reached a paved road where I set my things out to dry in the intermittent sunlight. Cars whizzed by now and then, I played a game with them. As each one passed, I waved hello and smiled like I was long lost friend. About half of the people in the cars waved and pointed at me, none stopped.
Soon after I hit the trail again, the snow came back. All I could think was… not again! I was happy that the trail stayed mostly in the trees. The trees protected me from the wind and some of the snow. I walked through a large forest clearing where the angle of the sun got under the clouds, it lit up the falling snow like a million silent shooting stars, streaming endlessly from some imperceptible source. I decided to take another alternate route in order to avoid an exposed rocky ridge-line that paralleled Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a tough choice because I knew if the weather did clear up, the CDT route would be spectacular. I couldn’t risk it though, if it was still snowing the next day, I’d be screwed. So, I dipped down to another road, finally making camp at a well-used spot between the road and a roaring stream.
That night was the coldest of the trip to that point. The sky cleared, and with no cloud cover, what little heat had built up during the day escaped into the frigid vacuum of the stars. Additionally, the coldest of the air settled the bottom of the valley – just where I was. I wore every bit of clothing I owned, but still shivered to keep warm. My shoes, soaked from melted snow, had turned into blocks of ice by morning. I didn’t want to get out of my bag. The rising sun was blocked by a nearby mountain, it wasn’t going to get any warmer any time soon.
I finally pounded my feet into my shoes and started walking. Walking made heat. I passed a man who had stopped by the side of the road. He and his two boys were checking out the chilly stream nearby. They were looking for a place to fish. “I used to hunt when I was young”, he told me, “but I don’t need to shoot things to prove my manhood anymore.” He said that he loved to hunt, he just didn’t like the ‘killing’ part. Hunting had just been his excuse to roam the mountains. “The CDT is my excuse”, I told him. The CDT was a great excuse for a lot of things.
I got to another trailhead. An older couple was there, lightly picking their way through the melting snow. The trail ahead led back to the divide, to the CDT. “We’re from southeast Kansas!”, the man said with pride I hadn’t expected. They were in Colorado to “see the mountains”. I tried to encourage them to hike up the trail a little bit. I did my best to sell it, “Oh it’s so much more beautiful even a short way down the trail, you can get away from the road and just imagine you’re all alone”. They didn’t buy it though. They silently read through the signs posted at the trailhead, and stayed safely near their pickup, on the edge of their world.
The trail wound through the trees, up toward the divide. The sun was bright, and it loosened the phlumf from the trees. All around me was a muffled chorus of “phlumf… phlumf…”, luckily, I didn’t get hit very severely. I regained the CDT, and decided to take a side hike – to go see some of the trail that I’d bypassed. I climbed out of the trees, and a world of white opened up below. The air was absolutely clear, the sky above was a rich deep blue, but to the horizon it faded into a light powdery shade. The jagged peaks inside Rocky Mountain National Park were just to the east. But, my attention was directed south. Snow-capped peaks were visible as far as I could bring my focus. That’s where I’m going, I thought. THAT was Colorado. It was a daunting view at first, overwhelming. I felt I could see the curve of the earth, feel it spinning, feel my tiny place on it. The trail was changing me though, somewhere in the back of my mind, a different feeling took over – it didn’t all look that far, didn’t look like too much. I felt I was seeing everything, shouldn’t “everything” be bigger? I thought… I knew I’d be on that horizon in a few days, what then? click to enlarge
I wanted to stay on the ridge forever, watch the snow melt, watch the skies flow, watch the grass catch one last breath before it was smothered by winter. But the trail always pulled me like a magnet, like a conveyor belt, ever forward. I headed back into the woods. The snow faded as the day wore on and I lost altitude. I had almost forgotten that it was still summer. The trail became a road, at first rough, then smooth, then paved… private land took over – summer homes, private lakes? Somewhere, I crossed the headwaters of the Colorado River, just another stream in an elaborate maze of flowing water, all of it in a hurry to get home. The elements of mankind peaked, and I found myself in Grand Lake.
Grand Lake was a tourist town. It was a small town, but one that couldn’t care less about a guy like me – smelly, bearded and cheap. I wandered the town, more lost there in a swirl of people and overpriced everything than I had ever been in the mountains. I finally settled on a bar – a nondescript door, no glitz. I ate some greasy something-or-other and just sat there. The post office didn’t open until the next morning, I wanted to leave as soon as possible. I looked at a couple hotels, but couldn’t justify giving them any money. The owners looked at me like they wanted me to leave their premises quickly, so I did. I wasted the day in non-sense fiddling.
In the evening, I went back to the bar to write some postcards and have a beer. The man next to me turned and demanded, “Tell me a story!”. He was a “little person”, and he was drunk. I couldn’t dismiss him. “Tell me a story!!”, he demanded again, he was adamant… he bought me a drink. I wanted to tell him a story about a drunken midget I had once met, but I didn’t know the ending. He decided to get off his stool, but his feet didn’t reach the ground and he fell flat on his face. A few of his friends carried him out the door. It looked like they were used to the routine.
I went across the street then down to the park near the lake. I had scoped it out earlier… I figured I could find a quiet place in the park where I could pass the night… I only needed a few hours. I had a whole new attitude about the homeless, what was a home anyway? A place where one spent most of their time? By that definition, I was home wherever I went. A spotlight illuminated the entire park, I hadn’t counted on that. I crouched behind some bushes, in the shadows. I looked up at a million dollar bay window that overlooked the lake near the park. I was having way more fun than those people. I focused on the stars above the black lake and drifted off.
At 3AM, a loud crashing noise woke me up. I looked over to the center of the park. A large black bear had just knocked over a garbage can. Its head was swinging back and forth, deciding what to do next. The bear ambled down the center of Main Street, toward the middle of town. Seconds later, some kind of official vehicle zoomed past the park. I ducked back behind a bush as a searchlight swept the area… They were looking for the bear I assumed, I just hoped they didn’t find me instead. Everything was crazy. On the trail, I could sleep anywhere freely, and be assured a comfortable night. In town, everything was expensive and there were bears. I was never surer that I’d been traveling the right way.
I woke up covered in frost. In time, the town woke up too. I dried my things in the laundromat, got some breakfast, bought some food, did my post office thing and walked out of Grand Lake.