I was happy to have some company on the trail for a change. Deirdre noticed things that I had started taking for granted…. simple things, like the wind and sky, the rocks, the animals, the mountains themselves… the newness of it all had worn off for me, it was nice to see it through her fresh eyes. I had always enjoyed hiking the trail, but my reasons had become different. I enjoyed hiking because the trail was home, because the trail was away from everything else – not an escape, just a better place to be. I no longer viewed the trail with an adolescent awe, I viewed it with a more stolid maturity. I viewed the trail as my only reality. Though, somewhere, I hid more prescient thoughts… I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that winter would come, I knew that Mexico would come, time would pass, the trail would pass, but I didn’t think about that much, there was only the now.
I wasn’t sure where the official CDT was supposed to go in the area, I only knew that I had a route mapped-out along trails somewhere near the divide. Much of Colorado was connected with networks of trails, and those areas that weren’t “trailed” were usually traversable cross-country without too much difficulty (assuming conditions were good!). “Just keep heading south”, I told myself.
We hiked down a crummy connector trail along with a dozen day-hikers. The trail was in awful shape for a couple miles, but compared to what I’d walked on to get there, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Most of the people on the trail walked slowly, they thought about each step and were careful to keep their footing. I bounced past them, not trying to show-off, just being myself… I felt it would have been inappropriate to do otherwise. After a few miles, we intersected a better trail and headed back up above the trees. As we rose higher, Deirdre pointed out some goats, a family of them were hiking their own trail. I wondered if they really knew where they were going all the time, or, did they just wander? Did they enjoy the views? There were too many mountains in Colorado for me to ever see. I wished to be a goat for a season or two, what a perfect excuse to roam.
We took a long break on a windy ridge, the puffy clouds streamed by our heads. We were only a few miles from the bustle of Silver-frisco-dillion-thorne, and it was a Sunday. But, there were few people out there. Why did all those people down below live near the mountains, I wondered, if not because of the mountains? How long could a person look at a mountain and not think of climbing it? How long could a person think of climbing a mountain before actually doing it? To me, the process seemed inevitable… so where was everybody? I didn’t expect or hope to see hoards of people, but a few more would have reassured me – reassured me that people gave a damn about their humanity, that people actually did things – things that required more than sitting on foam and absorbing whatever blather was beamed their direction.
As we descended, a golden eagle soared overhead. Screw being a goat, I wanted to be an eagle. They must have known real freedom – to live in 3 dimensions. But why stop there? 4 dimensions? 5? I had it all figured out, I would be a time-traveling, space-warping multidimensional omnipresent being… that’s what I would be. I lost myself in dreams many times on the trail, pure dreams, unobstructed by the bounds of everyday reality.
We made camp in a few more miles. It was only 3pm, so we wandered an alpine mountainside for a couple hours – looking at pikas, plants and elk dung, reflecting on the earth and sky. It was a great thing to do on a Sunday afternoon. To me, it was a far truer endeavor than reciting stale scriptures. The earth needed some new religions I figured, the ones we had were far too old and worn. Could God really send me to hell for thinking too much?
The day slowly rested. Breezes swayed through the trees, making a lovely music. It’s only the wind, I thought… and there was so much more.
We parted ways early the next morning. I was alone again, calmer, too calm, too settled. My goal for the day was only to walk. I sung songs, I sung to everything I saw, making up the words and tunes as they were suggested to me, forgetting them just as quickly. Two camouflaged and face-painted bow-hunters came tip-toeing up the trail. Their heads and shoulders were slightly lowered, and their eyes peered between the trees, looking for that elusive elk. I opened my mouth for just a second, and then realized they wanted to keep things quiet. I supposed I should have told them that I’d been singing all morning, and had probably scared every elk off the mountain. Oh well, what fun would hunting be if it were easy? Then it would just be killing, then there would be get-away vacations to go work at slaughterhouses in Kansas.
The trail rolled over ridges that connected to other ridges and peaks. I had no idea where the divide was. It didn’t matter, mountains were everywhere, I headed south. I descended to the copper mountain ski area, passing a few day-hikers along the way. I always seemed to pass day-hikers in the most mundane sections of trail – close to the roads, where trees obscured any distant views. Of course, there were always the views of the trees themselves… click to enlarge
My map identified the copper mountain ski area as “Wheeler Flats”, which was what it was once called, I figured. Copper Mountain was just to the south though and sounded a lot more attractive – who would pay to go to Wheeler Flats? Lots of people paid to go to Copper Mountain. I walked over the highway and into wonderland. The area around the base of Copper Mountain was an upscale outdoor suburban mall designed to look like a quaint mountain village, or at least somebody’s perception of what one should be. It was fair though, I wasn’t above it or anything. I didn’t think many people would want to visit my design of a ski resort – a secluded mountainside with maybe a few yurts, a few outdoor hot-tubs, a good supply of good beer and no motorized lifts. I had a philly cheese-steak at a gigantic empty sports bar filled with mirrors and glasses and televisions. I imagined what it must have looked like in the winter – jammed with weekend ski-warriors wearing brightly colored un-zipped jackets and red faces, clomping around in their ski-boots like 2-legged robotic horses. I starred in my own freak show. It was one that featured a smelly bearded man with dirty ripped shorts and a salt-stained black backpack. We were all freaks to other freaks.
After stopping for some over-priced fancy euro-chocolate, I asked directions from a 20-something guy who appeared to be living off the money that bled from the resort. I was back on the trail. But, it was no longer my trail. The CDT got intercepted, no… overtaken, by the Colorado Trail. The Colorado Trail (CT) went from Denver to Durango. Everybody in Colorado seemed to know about the Colorado Trail… few had ever heard of the CDT. I didn’t get it, the CDT seemed like such a neater thing – routed way up in the mountaintops. The Colorado Trail stayed mostly in a forested tunnel, only crossing alpine zones to get up, over and then back down. Everywhere I went, I had to correct people, “No, I’m hiking the CDT, it follows the continental divide…”. After a while though, I just agreed with whatever people wanted to think. “When do you think you’ll make it to Durango?”, they’d ask. “Oh, I don’t know, whenever…”, I’d smile and shrug my shoulders. Near Copper Mountain, the Colorado Trail was an asphalt bike path.
It soon got nice though. Thousands of people had hiked the Colorado Trail. It was loved and cared for – buffed-out like a state treasure. I imagined there was probably even a Colorado Trail festival, a Colorado Trail day… I didn’t know for certain. The CT was well-marked. Little wooden posts engraved with a double-peaked mountain were planted at every intersection or possibly confusing turn. A mile up the now-dirt path, I passed a couple mountain-bikers who were headed down. It looked like they’d never been on a trail before, much less a mountain bike… but they were having fun, and that’s what was important after all. A minute later, it started to rain… I wondered if they were still having fun. I put on my poncho and kept going. The trail slowly wound higher, parallel to a small stream that flowed below. The long valley was colored yellow by autumn willow bushes. The creek that ran through the willows was now a continuous terrace of beaver dams.
Beavers were once common all over the Rockies, all over the world in fact. 150 years ago they were nearly trapped to extinction, only saved by the whims of European fashion designers who decided that beaver hats had become passe. Today, many people looked back at the mountain-men trappers of the early 19th century with awe and admiration, like they had been free spirits pursuing their dreams in a time when the world was young. They had only been pursuing money though – a few dozen indian-killing rednecks who nearly managed to wipe out a species in the span of a couple decades.click to enlarge
The rain cleared. A couple more mountain-bikers passed by. They were experienced, they flew down the mountain, barely touching the trail it seemed. As they blurred past, they yelled something at me. I couldn’t tell if it was “get out of the way!” or “hey!” or “look at my tight pants!”. I wondered if they were having more fun than the amateur couple I’d seen earlier. Did one need to be good at what they did in order to have fun doing it? Maybe after a while the fun of the challenge wore off, so one kept making things more difficult – continuing the challenge. Walking wasn’t challenging for me anymore, but I loved it all the same. I’d replaced the thrill of the novelty with something else, some distant relative of pride.
I passed above a cabin, a nice cabin, like a movie-star mountain getaway – two stories of brown wood and windows and decks. But the cabin had no road leading to it. It was that other ski-resort, the one that I would have designed… somebody had beaten me to it. I later learned there were back-country ski-huts all over Colorado. Some day, I figured, I’d have to go back there and meet the people who favored that place over Copper Mountain.
I got to the top of another ridge and marveled at the colors around me. The rusty banded rock, the distant grey peaks, the brown, yellow and green of the fading alpine plants… Then there was the sky, a deep shade of blue that we still hadn’t properly named and perhaps never would. click to enlarge
The trail wound across a high mountainside of willows. I spotted the divide again, it was the horizon to the east – a series of jagged rocky peaks. Below the divide, a giant complex of human design filled the valley. I later learned it was a closed molybdenum mine, one of the largest in the world. Molybdenum was used as an additive to harden steel. The mine had consumed part of the divide, devoured the rock like a flesh-eating jungle virus. Like the beaver, the mountains there existed only by the whims of the human economy. I wondered about other mountains – probably in Russia somewhere – the ones that hadn’t been so lucky.click to enlarge
I finally made camp just above the tree-line. I savored the colors of the evening sky as I ate my warm meal, quiet and alone.
At 5:30 am, I awoke to the sound of snow, pelting the outside of my tarp. By the time the sun lit things up, all was white. I didn’t want to go anywhere, even though I doubted the snow would stop for me. But going nowhere wasn’t the point of the CDT. I packed my things and ignored the snow, silently protesting it to nobody. A couple miles down the hill, the snow turned to rain… which was worse than snow. Snow could at least be brushed off… rain seeped into everything. Rain was always cold rain, and there was no escape from it. But, I couldn’t just skip the day, I couldn’t just go inside, sit by a fire and sip hot chocolate. In retrospect, the crummy weather was a blessing. Sometimes I needed to remember why people had homes and air conditioning and electricity… It was too easy to become a full-time cynic without a little mountain misery.
At least the trail was nice. I was still on the Colorado Trail, still walking on soft wet mountain soil. The soil was sandy and rocky, rarely muddy. The small pebbles crunched underfoot as I walked under cool dripping trees. The mountains were partially shrouded with low clouds, stuck in the treetops. The contrast of colors was muffled – everything was dulled into shades of grey. I rose back up through the woods, eventually crossing a road. The sun came out briefly, but as soon as I spread my soggy nylon things, the rain returned. I couldn’t predict the weather five minutes into the future… but I didn’t stop trying. I was a sucker for every little patch of sunlight, “I think it’s clearing up”, I’d quietly say to myself. I had no idea if it was the beginning or middle or end of a small or large storm. Knowing wouldn’t have helped much though, if anything it would have made the weather boring. What good is it to know the weather when there is nothing to be done about it? At least speculation was something to keep my mind occupied.
An hour later, I was blessed with a slightly longer patch of sunlight. It was just long enough for a proper drying, it was the only opportunity I had all day – I was lucky I had decided to stop. I sat in a patch of short grass, eating nuts and waiting for the little molecules of water to get excited and dance back into the air – off my tarp, off my poncho, off my wrinkled feet. I had another problem though, my camera was screwed up.
My camera hadn’t been working properly since I’d dropped it in Silverthorne. It seemed to be taking pictures, but after 5-10 frames, the film re-wound. I couldn’t keep using it at that pace. It was depressing. I knew that I’d already taken hundreds of photos, a few more wouldn’t be missed… but, I was hiking the trail for more than my own memories, I was hiking it to share it. I was looking at things that were often difficult to describe with words. How would people understand if I didn’t have photos? They needed to understand. I needed a camera. How in the world could people keep their sanity without one I wondered? How could a person appreciate the beauty of a scene when they knew it will never be seen again, never by their own eyes, never by another’s? Life was fleeting enough, I needed to hold on to whatever I could grab.
I crossed the divide… still in the CT forested tunnel. I considered hiking cross-country along the divide until it intersected the trail again, 10 miles ahead. The terrain would have been easy, but with the weather there was no point. Why walk into the clouds? Why risk being frozen and electrocuted in the windy fog above?
A few miles later, I crossed into another wilderness area – the Holy Cross wilderness. As always, the character of the land quickly changed. The trees were older, they were individuals with names and faces. Fields of alpine rocks and grass took over as the trail rose higher – all of it wet and grayed by the indirect sunlight. Just as the trail topped an exposed alpine crest, a bolt of lightning smashed the divide, up above, somewhere in the fog. I was glad I wasn’t up there. A minute later, the clouds released a seemingly endless supply of snowflakes. The wind tossed them sideways. The storm got more fierce with every minute. I lowered my head, gripped my poles, and plodded forward, determined. “This sucks”, was all the mental commentary I could come up with. I had figured out a way to hold the front of my poncho in the grips of my hiking poles – like a southern lady lifting her skirt over a muddy puddle. It kept the front of my poncho from blowing in the wind. It also kept the poncho from getting wrapped-up in my legs. It had one unfortunate side effect though – my hands were so cold they hurt. My circulatory system apparently considered my hands expendable and had completely shut them off. With every step, I wished they would warm up, I wished the snow would stop, I wished the wind would stop, I wished for a big tree under which I could sit out the snow. None of my wishes came true. Instead, the trail got more and more obscure. It wove between 5-foot rounded boulders, then vanished into a maze of snow and rock and grass. What the hell? I was cold, lost, and getting hungry. I walked back and forth and retraced my steps, looking for some hidden turn… what had happened to the nice Colorado Trail? I held my map with numb fingers that didn’t even seem my own. The terrain was flat, I couldn’t see the mountains, I only knew I was near a lake, was it Blair Lake? Must be. Then it became clear. I was following a fisherman’s path, one that went to that damn lake. I went back up the way I’d come, there was the trail, making a sneaky sharp right turn back into the forest. The snow stopped, my fingers warmed up, I ate some food. All was good again.
I finally ended the day at a flat spot in the forest near a trailhead. It was at the end of another road, the middle of mine.
It was a cold night. In the morning, the fog hung as ice crystals in the air. The only sound was that of a stream, filtering quietly though the trees below. The trail was perfect, it wound through the forest like a roller coaster – a nice wide and smooth path with just enough ripple and rise to keep it interesting. I passed by a trail register, the scribbles of other hikers were my only companions. Brian was 3 or 4 days ahead.
The sky was still clouded, light snow flurries floated down. I didn’t know what would be next, I’d given up guessing, I didn’t prepare for anything, I just took it as it came. I was in the Mt. Massive wilderness, passing by some of the highest peaks in Colorado – all covered in clouds and blocked by trees. I passed another register at the Mt. Massive trailhead. It looked like 3 or 4 people headed up Mt. Massive, one of the more popular 14’ers, each day. I added my name just to mix things up – “CDT Canada–>Mexico!!!”. Mt. Elbert had a similar register. Elbert was the highest point in Colorado – 14,433 feet I think… only 60 feet lower than Mt. Whitney in California. I was happy about that – it was something that kept Coloradoans from being even more cocky about their mountains than they already were – the Sierra had them beat. I had originally planned to climb Mt. Elbert, but the combination of clouds and no camera had extinguished the desire inside me. I just wanted to get to town.
The trail passed through a forest of golden aspens along the slope of Mt. Elbert. The sky began to clear, and the sun lit up the trees, the bright yellow contrasted against the blue and white sky like nothing I’d ever seen. The trail was covered in fallen leaves – all of them perfect replicas of each other – little yellow spades. The sun filtered through the branches above, lighting up the trail with a mix of light and dark any artist would have been proud to approach. I missed my camera more than ever.
My poles picked up the leaves like they were so much forest litter. After a while, I poked at them as I went along, testing my accuracy, trying to see how many I could spear – another quickly improvised trail game to occupy my mind. Some of the leaves wore highlights of red and green, seemingly random variations thrown in the sake of whimsy.
The trail became a forest road. I passed a couple more bow-hunters walking toward me, arrows ready. I liked the bow-hunters, I liked the thought of it. It took effort, it took skill and patience. It gave the elk a chance. A successful bow-hunt was something to be proud of – beating the elk with human brain and muscle. I wasn’t surprised to learn that bow-hunting was the fastest-growing type of hunting – an antidote to an increasingly antiseptic human techno-culture.
The road grew wide – passable to SUVs and high-clearance trucks. Regular cars had to park a mile further down the road. That’s what the SUVs gave people – one less mile to walk. One less mile of aspen leaves blowing in the wind like a million tiny chimes. I could see Twin Lakes below, not the town (there barely was one), but the lakes themselves. What would I find there? beyond there?…
I passed near a couple women who were out for the day, looking at the aspens. They had just come back from the same place I’d walked through. I asked them if they knew a shortcut through the woods, down to Twin Lakes. They were just heading down the road – to Leadville, “would you like a ride?”, they asked. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up – a ride to Leadville… the possibility of buying a new camera.
We drove down the bumpy road barely faster than I’d been walking. We stopped every few minutes “Oh, there are some more good ones!”, one of the women was collecting leaves for some project – she’d figure what to do with them later… right then, she just had to have the leaves, had to touch them, feel them, study them and own them. They were too beautiful to allow to rot – too bountiful to save – quite a dilemma. I felt crusty and dirty in the spotless car, I tried not to touch anything, lest I spread my disease of filth.
The women let me off in the middle of Leadville – once the largest city west of St. Louis, it was mostly forgotten to time. Mounds of old mining waste were piled along the roadsides. What had mining done for the town? It had created a depressed bunch of jobless people, polluted streams, and some refined metal somewhere far from there, probably oxidizing in dumps in New Jersey, or peeling off the walls of old homes in Milwaukee. The only ones happy about it were the now-dead rule-makers. Their pockets were lined with green, but they were dead all the same. I wondered if it was human nature to be so impatient and greedy that thought could not precede action.
Leadville had no cameras for sale, at least none that I wanted to buy. I checked the Walgreens, I checked the pawn shops… Frustrated, I settled on a couple disposables… better than nothing I thought. I hitched a ride out of town, back to twin lakes. A guy named Larry picked me up, “MOM”, he turned to the old woman sitting next to him, “I’M GIVING THIS MAN A RIDE!”, she convulsed as a response, which could have meant “OK”, or “what?” or “Are you crazy?”… I got in the back seat. “I live in Granite”, he boasted, “bet you never heard of it… only 10 people in Granite”. It didn’t sound like a town, more like a mid-sized Catholic household. He gave me a beer. I told him what I was doing. His response was familiar – an attempt to imagine what it must be like… not a wish that he was out there too, just a wish to know about it. He dropped me off at a small motel 8 miles from Twin Lakes. I decided to get a room, I could always get a ride to Twin Lakes in the morning.
The motel had a laundry machine. It was in the back of the barn, in a small room painted 1950’s green. I sat in there alone… feeling the rumble of the washer and dryer and reading every page of a People magazine – all about the terrorist attacks. The world was being choked by insanity from all fronts.
In the morning, I walked 3 miles on the road toward Twin Lakes, then got a ride from a salesman. He sold the hydraulic machines that lifted cars in repair shops… somebody had to do it. He was happy, too happy, his smile seemed artificial, like a mask for a crying child. The sky was clear and the sun lit up Mt. Elbert directly ahead. Its flanks were awash in yellowing aspens, its naked rocky top was crowned in white. As we neared Twin Lakes, the man turned to me and asked, “Do you read the scriptures?”. I knew I had no answer that would matter to him. He leaned closer and whispered like he was sharing a secret, “That mountain didn’t just get there, ya know… there is such good news…” He smiled and slowly shook his head, keeping his eyes forward on the road. When I got out of the car, he gave me a firm handshake and stared. It was a stare that said “I’m crazy, but I don’t care.” I wanted to tell him how I saw the mountains, how I felt about them. I wanted to tell him that I loved the mountains not for their mystery, but for their truth, and they told so much truth – truth about our history and our future. They told the truth about the real nature of things. The mountains told more truths than were written in any ancient texts. The mountains were my scriptures – I read them every moment.
After a brief stop at the general store… which doubled as a post office, I was again on my way. Always eager to learn whatever the trail cared to teach me.