“I didn’t want you to get a bad impression about the people of Lake City”, he said. He’d driven past me earlier in the morning on his way to work. He’d been one of those who had given me a ‘good luck salute’. The pass was 20 miles out of his way – a 40 mile round trip – but helping me mattered more to him than his personal convenience. Like so many people that had picked me up, he’d once hitch-hiked himself, and knew what it was like to stand on the side of a road, rejected by car after car. I could only think… I owe him… something, but then figured I’d just have to take his place some day, pass on the kindness when I had the chance. That’s how it worked, it was an economy of trust and goodwill, where true riches were earned.
He dropped me off at the pass, back on the trail again. I quickly caught up to CT John. He had spent the night in Lake City too, but I hadn’t seen him there. I took a break with him for a few minutes, I knew that once I got ahead of him, I stay ahead. I’d be alone again, and then… there would nobody to catch. We started walking together, but within 5 minutes he was gone, somewhere behind me, hiking his own hike.
The trail rose to a series of mesas that comprised the divide. They were giant fields of brown grass. I tried to imagine them in the spring – a vibrant green speckled with a rainbow of floral color. It didn’t matter to me that I had missed the spring there though. Every season in the mountains was special in its own right, the glory and hope of spring and summer were being replaced by the solemn farewell of autumn, an even briefer season, a rarer view of things. Anyone could appreciate a flower. click to enlarge
I realized that I had a gap between two of my maps. Was it 1 mile? 10? I just plodded forward until something matched the topographic lines on the next page. The clouds had thickened, the sky grew dark and the wind picked up. It was a never-ending cycle. I wondered if the weather ever took a break. It started to snow, lightning struck a nearby peak. I sat on a steep slope of bare rocks and ate a snickers bar, I thought about as little as possible… which was still too much.
The trail seemed to be getting longer with each step I took. I thought, if I just stop, I’ll be done for the day. So, I did stop. Sometimes it was nice to surprise myself with a quick end to a long day. That time, I took myself just below the trail, just far enough downhill to encounter a spring. I ducked into the tall golden grass, huddled in a warm cocoon of nylon and feathers. I was so much an animal.
I didn’t wake up the next morning until I’d already walked 5 miles. Nothing looked right. Nothing matched my maps. I wasn’t here or there, but there wasn’t anywhere else I could be. It made no sense. I finally did wake up though – I had missed a turn a couple miles back… probably. I hated back-tracking, especially when it was uphill. The whole way back up the mountain, all I could think was what a stupid waste it was, I’d already done that bit. I had no one to be mad at but myself though, and no one even to hear me curse. What was the point of being mad alone? Wasn’t the point of being mad to be mad at someone? to gain their sympathy or ruin their joy? The mountains didn’t care if I was angry.
Somewhere, I passed an old mining town – Carson. It was a couple of nearly extinguished buildings, a couple of collapsed holes in the mountain. Somebody had staked their life, their entire dream on that place, only to see the mountain ultimately win. Mining seemed to me more hopeless than a lottery. In a lottery, one just had to buy a ticket. In a mine, someone else bought the ticket, the miner broke his back, and if he was lucky got a pittance for it, all for only slightly better odds. No wonder the history of the west was so replete with scoundrels and outlaws, better to live fast and die fast than to never live and die slow. click to enlarge
There was something about the character of the area that suggested human habitation. But there were no people, just a couple forgotten roads and a lot of blank space. The only people I saw all day were a couple leather-clad dirt-bikers. I just didn’t feel like talking to them, I wasn’t in the right state of mind for it. I was afraid of what might spill out of my mouth… some rambling disconnected speech about the horrors of refined metal or worse. My pursuit of happiness didn’t intersect theirs, I just passed by and waved a limp hand.
My breaks were getting addictive. I was becoming to good at them. I had refined the most efficient way to take-off my pack: drop my shoulder, lean to one side, spin 90 degrees and catch the strap with my hand. Then, let the pack continue to rotate until it’s in the correct position – time for a smooth landing – all in one sweeping move. Then, bend the legs, sit in the dirt and lean back on the pack, knees slightly bent, mouth open and a eyes in a blank stare – too comfortable to even eat. All my breaks started like that, the stare usually lasted for 5 minutes that passed like 1. Then, with as little effort as possible it was time to twist my back so I could unzip the pack and eat whatever my hands grabbed. Ooh! peanut M&M’s… that’d work! The food wasn’t to fill my stomach, just to dust the walls and prime the engine. Getting up wasn’t difficult though. The novelty of the breaks wore off after 20 minutes… it was time to walk again.
I kept myself motivated by looking at the maps. “Just get to that ridge”, I’d tell myself. Then, when I got to the ridge, I’d break my personal covenant, “Well, I can make it down to the stream over there.”. Again, it was just a lie. “It’s only 200 feet up to the plateau, probably a nice view up there”… It would continue until I got fed up with myself and broke. It was as if I was two people, urging each other on. We weren’t meant to be alone, not built for it.
The route continued over brown hills that slowly became more dramatic. I’d almost forgotten that I was in the San Juans… wasn’t I? Everybody in Colorado talked about the San Juans like they were the pinnacle of mountain craziness. “Just wait till you get to the San Juans”, they’d say, “it’ll be killer!”. I was looking forward to San Juans, but for different reasons. Sure, it was nice to look at rugged peaks, to be reminded of one’s smallness and incapability, but I’d been doing that all summer. The San Juans to me were an obstacle to be overcome. A place to get through before the weather made it impossible. The San Juans were my final concern. I wasn’t thinking about getting to the San Juans, I was thinking about getting past them.click to enlarge
The route rose to a high ridge. Storm clouds were raining on a horizon of vertical cliffs to the distant south – the San Juans that everyone talked about. The divide didn’t go through the heart of the most spectacular rock formations, it stayed just to the north, just far enough and high enough to sneak some really nice views. I was standing near the source of the Rio Grande River. It was a place where the divide took a hairpin turn – from a southwest heading to a southeasterly one. It was a place I’d long thought about. I’d looked at the maps, pictured it all in my head. It didn’t look like I’d imagined. Sure, the mountains and rivers were where they were supposed to be, but I hadn’t really imagined the setting, the color, the horizon and the details of the ground underfoot. Nothing ever passed for the real thing.click to enlarge
I descended along the divide to a small stream. The water was barely enough to wet the rocks, but it was flowing. The Rio Grande. Did other people know it was that same river, that famous river? It was the only time I’d ever seen the Rio Grande. I felt my picture of it would forever be that one. Any time anyone mentioned the river, the trickle would be what I would picture. About 20 yards away from the seeping source, the river picked up some strength and flowed through an abandoned mine, probably catching all sorts of chemical baggage. The Rio Grande was cursed from birth.
I didn’t make it much further that night. I made camp near some willows, in anticipation of the next day.
Elk bugled their trumpets all night near my tent, a soothing sound in the setting of open high hills. The morning brought a clear direct sun, I could hear it softly sizzle the frosted grass. Perfect. The low angle sun lit up the hills in their true colors, their true contours. Perhaps the miners hadn’t cared if they’d only earned broken backs. Perhaps digging empty holes was just their excuse to be there, not unlike my own excuse, just a bigger lie. click to enlarge
The jagged peaks to the south got closer with every step. As much as I’d seen irregular lofty peaks, I’d never seen those, and I felt that even if if I had seen them, even if it had been every morning of every day, the vision would not have lost its appeal. I was continuously surprised to find myself alone. Where was everybody? Why did people build cities in such boring places? But, I was glad there were none there… Just one tiny mining-come-tourist town – Silverton – was at the end and bottom of one of the streams, hardly even in the mountains. click to enlarge
I sat on a rock, studying every brown and grey ripple along the horizon, not even wondering what was out there, not wondering anything really – just admiring the painting for the paint, not the message behind it. A few tiny puffball clouds had formed, I knew it would be only a short time to thunderstorms. The mountains gave me only a couple hours a day to be blissful and carefree. I looked at the map and asked myself, “how could I keep the fix? where did I have to go?” Hunchback mountain – another chance to go up and over rather than down and back up. (does that make sense?). If for some reason I couldn’t make it up Hunchback, I figured, I could always bail… But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. click to enlarge
Hunchback was a fan of freshly broken cubic rocks. My feet scraped the rocks against the mountain, making a sound that was the polar opposite of fingernails on a chalkboard… more like the dull smooth sound of chalk on a chalkboard. Ahhh, what sweetness to the ears. The path to the top required me to jump a couple short spans, where a misstep would have meant a free-fall and then a slide down a thousand feet. It made me smile, it made the mountain more mine. At the top, 13,136, the view was ever more grand – a view of more peaks that had been hidden from below. The world looked larger than ever. Possible routes of travel for 2 days in any direction were clear. Somebody had left an old baseball cap on top of Hunchback. Somebody had been to every peak, even those which had no name. I imagined all those mountains in my view with a small group of giddy somebodies on top. I waved to them, then headed back down. click to enlarge
The trail crossed over Nebo Pass. Everyone who’d been there, I thought, had a photo of Nebo pass. And, all those photos were prized, framed on walls all over the world. A small lake laid tranquil just below the pass. And for the backdrop, there were two vertical peaks in perfect artistic balance. A dozen elk worked their way across a hill just past the lake, bugling as they went. It was all another dream. I waited for the sun to break through the ever thickening and swirling clouds and blast the scene into vivid life. And I waited. The sun didn’t come, it wasn’t meant to be. As I descended the other side of Nebo pass, I looked back to see it finally get lit up, I’d just missed the party. It figured. click to enlarge
A minute later, it was snowing. At least the weather was never boring.
All day, I kept waiting to meet somebody. They must be just around the corner, I’d think. Maybe there was somebody camped at the next lake… nope. It was a weekend and a nice one, one of the last nice weekends of the year. I wondered what global catastrophe was keeping people glued to their homes down below. The trail wound through hills covered in the thickest tangle of willows I’d seen yet. Without the trail, I thought, I’d have gone insane – scraping through the stiff branches. The trail rose again to meet the divide, more majestic stoic peaks, forever in any and every direction. Suddenly, there was a dog, leading his pet man down the trail. The dog stayed quiet and let his man speak. They were out for a week with no particular destination in mind. They hadn’t seen anyone in 4 or 5 days. We couldn’t talk long though, the day was getting late and we each had more than a few miles left to hike. click to enlarge click to enlarge
I finally made camp just below Rio Grande Pyramid, next to a tiny isolated pond. I walked over to the pond and marvelled at the assortment of bizarre tiny creatures living in the chilly water. They looked like aliens from some 1985 computer game – just circles and lines, elegantly drifting through 3 dimensions, unaware there was any world but that in the pond, unaware that there was even any pond at all. They saw only the shadows on the wall. Under the stars, I looked up and cried, for I was stuck in my own pond. How I would have died to know a moment of pure truth even if it led to eternity of nothing. click to enlarge
The night brought another clear frozen sky, the morning was only different from the night in that the land was visible to human eyes. It was still frozen, the barely-warm sunlight blocked by mountiantops. I was in the heart of the Weimenuche wilderness, it was one of the largest areas of natural land in the 48 US states. I dropped to Weimenuche Pass 10,600 feet, the lowest I’d been in days. The pass was wide, a wet grassy field that was the divide. I was surprised that it had avoided the highway frenzy that cut through so many similar passes. I was sure that somebody somewhere had gritted their teeth when the area was made a wilderness area, “b.. b.. b.. but we could put a road through there!”, they’d probably said, baffled by any other agenda. click to enlarge
I walked high above herd after herd of elk. They were down around 11,000 feet at the edge of the forests. I was 2000 feet above them, watching them like an alien might, hidden by the distance. The women picked out men as if they were decorative lamp shades, “ooh, I like that one!”. The men hadn’t figured out their women, but they had figured out other men – bash them in the head, drive them away, sound your horn as a warning to others, and give the women no other choice but you. So was the society of the elk.
It was day in which little happened, nothing and everything the same. My hair grew, my clothes wore, my food dwindled, 25 miles flew past my eyes like snowflakes – each unique and beautiful, yet the same. I finally made camp near Cherokee Lake. The elk bulls were on a 24-hour hormonal high, and as the full moon rose, two of them clashed antlers somewhere just below me, deciding the future of their species one milli-step at a time. click to enlarge
The next day was much like the previous – a clear frozen morning, the first clouds by 10:30am, no sun by noon, snow flurries by 2pm. I hadn’t seen anybody in a couple days, and that meeting had been so brief, I wondered if it had even happened. The effort of walking was no effort at all anymore. I floated down the trail, up the trail, only eyes riding a motor fueled by chemical food. I was on a 3.5mph roller coaster tour. My mind wandered into uncharted territories.
Somewhere along the way, I picked up some company. I hadn’t asked for it, they just came to visit. Suddenly, Ravi was talking to me, an unlikely character to meet on the trail, he was hiking as some type of spiritual journey “Oh, this is a very long trail, I do not think there is an end to it.”, he said with an east-Indian accent, head rocking back and forth. Cletus answered. Cletus was from Tennessee somewhere, he’d hitched a ride while scouting some hunting territory near his house. Somehow, the ride had dropped him off on the CDT, “yer sayin’ this here’s tha Cee Dee Tee? We sure don’t got moun’ins like this back home. Where’a heck uz ‘is trail go anyways?” He wouldn’t shut up. Everything was a complaint. Ravi tried futilely to explain things to him, but was interrupted by Mick. Mick was from Australia. He’d just gotten his own TV show, it was all about crazy outdoor adventures – this week? the CDT. “Just look at ‘ose moun’ns ‘ereh, they’re tremendous!”, sometimes I could barely understand him, but he was excited about everything. As the miles rolled past, the three of them slowly picked up more companions. There was Kochi from Japan – completely lost – he only spoke a few words of English. Then there was Clint from England, astutely un-phased by any problem, small or large. They all kept me company for a while, but slowly, they got on each other’s nerves and argued – each grew sick of listening to the other’s speech, and refused to understand any thought process but their own. The people of the world just couldn’t get along, even when they were all locked inside my head. click to enlarge
At the end of the day, I finally met some fleshy people. At least I hoped they were real, because if they weren’t, then I was in some serious trouble. They were two men working for the forest service. I took off my pack, and made them talk to me. They were working on part of the same mapping project the man near Lake City had been working on. “We’ve only got a couple more miles to do”, they said. I didn’t want to leave, but didn’t feel comfortable staying… like somehow I’d be invading their office space or something. I hiked a couple more miles and camped in a flat spot under some trees. I’d done it. The roughest of the San Juans were behind me, I’d avoided the snow, I might actually make it. I felt like I’d already hiked the CDT, all that remained was a month of waiting while my body caught up. The San Juans had been a goal for so long, I’d almost forgotten about New Mexico. click to enlarge
I only had 8 miles left to the road. They went by like 1. I raced down to Wolf Creek Pass where the trail spit me out onto the pavement. The CDT roller coaster had paused, it was time for a re-supply. I made a sign, “Pagosa Springs”, and waited for traffic. Nothing. There was some construction happening a mile down the road. I went over and asked somebody what was going on. “I don’t know.”. Where was all the traffic? “I don’t know” Do you know if anyone is headed down to town? “I don’t know”. I was pretty sure the man spoke English, but I didn’t understand why he bothered speaking at all. I walked back to the pass and waited. Finally, all the cars came at once. I waved. I jumped up and down. I kneeled and prayed at the cars. Nothing. Every one of them passed, I couldn’t believe it. I had figured out what was going on though… someone was stopping the cars somewhere. It would be another 45 minutes before any more passed. I walked back over the construction, a little frustrated that the “I don’t know” man had been so unhelpful. Surely, he must have known something, why the hell couldn’t he have just told me? What was wrong with people? The construction foreman was there, luckily, he was a real person. I helped him win a bet with one of the other workers – I was proof that there really was a trail up at the pass which went all the way to Canada. He was headed down to Pagosa Springs and happy to offer me a lift.
The construction was removing a dangerous bend from the road. The workers blasted the rock all night, and cleared the rubble all day. It was an amazing amount of work, and it was being done just because people didn’t like to slow down while driving over Wolf Creek Pass. It was more desirable for them to risk a plunge over the side of the mountain than be delayed 20 seconds. So, the highway department was straightening the road. I seemed to be the only person who saw that as absurd.
The unemployment rate in Pagosa Springs was around 15%, but the foreman couldn’t find any decent help. “Nobody wants to work”, he said, “I just don’t get it. I hire flag-people, and they don’t show up after a couple days.” The job paid pretty well, and was incredibly easy… if not a little boring. I didn’t get it either… but then, I wasn’t working. The foreman was a nice guy, a regular guy with a solid foundation and a good heart. He lived in northern Colorado. The job took him away from his family for a month at a time. It was tough, but it was a sacrifice he seemed proud to make. He showed me some photos of his little boys. I imagined he could have talked about them all day just so that he could hear his own voice talk about how they were doing.
My parents met me in Pagosa Springs. They put me up in a hotel room, I planned to take a solid day off. I needed it. The last section of walking had been difficult – it had been a lot of miles on rough tread with lot of up and down at high elevations in cold windy weather. I had hiked it a bit faster than I would have ideally preferred. But, it had all worked out – I’d done it.
Pagosa Springs existed because of the hot springs. They were a series of natural pools surrounded by a hotel. Each of the pools was labeled with a name, a temperature, and a list of whatever minerals were present in the water. 150 years ago, the native people had a battle over the ownership of the pools. It was settled when each tribe sent one man to duke it out mano-a-mano. The indians knew how to fight a civilized battle. The winning tribe had borrowed a white man to do their fighting. Their victory was short lived though, a few years later, other white men simply pushed them aside and took the springs. Those white men were still there, running the hotel.
The next day, we took a drive to Durango. Not for any special reason, just to go somewhere. To me, Durango was extraordinary only in its proximity to really cool mountains. It had all the regular streets and stores and people that filled every other town. It had some history, a few crazy things had happened there in the past, but they just might as well have happened anywhere else. We asked a waitress at a diner what she did on her days off. She couldn’t think of anything – an answer than could have come from a thousand people in a thousand places. She hadn’t even taken the train ride to Silverton – probably the most common reason people went out of their way to visit Durango. I was sure that Durango had special charms which weren’t evident in a cursory sweep, at least I hoped so.
Early the next morning, my parents drove me up to the trail and we said our good-bye’s. I turned into the woods and started climbing. The vacation had been nice, but it was even nicer to be back home.