Town had been too good. I’d eaten too much and didn’t feel good. My body just wasn’t used to dealing with so much grease… The trail started off nice though, it was evident that somebody in the forest service, or in Colorado, or… somewhere, cared about it. It was gently graded, clear, smooth… It stuck close to the divide, weaving in and out of trees, across open mountainsides. At one point I took a break in some soft tall brown grass, heated by the sun and cooled by an occasional cool breeze that swished the trees above me. I was alone in the bliss, but I was starting to lose my edge… how long could a man be happy before it wasn’t enough? and what could he do next? I was at an end of sorts, and I still had hundreds of miles to go. The ultimate goal became that “next fix”. Yes, walk to Mexico, that’s what I’d do. I’d worry about afterwards later.
The roller coaster ride continued all day. The wind picked up. By late afternoon, the sky looked like it was up to something. The clouds weren’t that regular afternoon puffy grey, they were sheets that stretched across the sky, fueled not by the sun overhead, but by a giant weather system far away. I was sneaking through the last bit of Colorado before the final clampdown, just before it.
I spotted some weathered gnarled trees on a sloping mountainside of grass, right on the tree-line, 12,000 feet. I reached the trees and scouted around. I’d found it – the perfect place to pitch my tarp. It was a flat space covered in soft grass, surrounded by 6-foot-high bushy fir trees. The trees were probably 100 years old or more. The wind blew fiercely all around, but not in my little shelter. It had to be the luckiest campsite I’d ever stumbled across. It would be mine only for a night, but a night to remember for a lifetime. I cooked dinner in there, and smiled at the noise of the wind around me, thanking the trees for planning their circle so well. I thought, if I ever had the resources to buy a house, I’d knock it down and plant trees, leaving just enough space to pitch a tent. Or, maybe I’d just keep walking all my life, sleeping where ever the evening found me, always somewhere else.
The sky above me was clear in the morning, but it was just chance that kept the clouds away. I could see for dozens of miles to the north, to where I’d been a few days ago. Those mountains were under a thick blanket of dark clouds. More clouds were rolling in to cover other mountains both east and west. I hurried to the trail – only a couple more days of barren 13,000 foot mountaintops, and then New Mexico. Then, there would be a nice blanket of trees. In the meantime, each day would find me further south. click to enlarge click to enlarge
I wished that I’d borrowed my dad’s video camera for the section, what a documentary I could have made. I needed something to think about, something to fantasize about, so I thought about that. I imagined myself giving a guided video tour to the CDT, zooming in, panning, editing scenes to scenes. I narrated the trail as I walked. “You see over there?, that’s where the trail is routed… right around the base of those mountains. I’m sorry if you have trouble hearing me over the wind”. The trail was open to the wind all morning – one slowly changing view from just below the divide. The wind had no obstacles save the ground itself. click to enlarge
I spotted a herd of elk below me, standing on the trail, “See the elk below? they’ve been bugling almost every night, every place I’ve been for the last week or two… these are all cows though.” I made no effort to get close to the elk, but they saw me and ran straight up the mountain, over the divide. I felt pathetically weak in comparison.
I came across a perfect spring – about 1 inch deep and 6 inches wide – clear water gushing out a hole in the mountainside. “In case you’ve never seen a river being born… here it is, these are everywhere, often right on the trail. I don’t bother filtering something like this.” Around 4pm, the clouds tested their strength. It began to snow. Within a couple minutes, the falling snow was thick enough to obscure any distant view. The snow lulled for just a moment, and I pulled out the video camera again, “I was just on that ridge 15 minutes ago, and as you can see, it’s now snowing pretty heavily over there.” click to enlarge
I hustled again to the cover of trees in the evening. I made camp at Blue Lake. I’d passed a dozen “blue lakes” along the way, but that one was really the first one that looked objectively blue – even under an overcast evening sky. The place I’d chosen to camp had been regularly used. Prior occupants had left batteries and cardboard food containers strewn about. I added them to some plastic bags and an old birthday balloon that I’d picked up along the way. I couldn’t leave the stuff there, it would have consumed my thoughts and ruined my memories of the place. And when all is said and done, all we had were memories. I wondered how the memories of the trash-pigs were doing. Were they proud of their mess, or did they even care? click to enlarge
All night long, the wind blew through the trees. Light bits of icy snow occasionally pattered against my tarp. Those were all the sounds of my world, the sounds I had become accustomed to, the sounds I loved, the sounds that equalled peace.
The short periods of snow continued the next morning, but I wasn’t concerned. I was just happy I’d made it that far. Somewhere over the last couple days, I had crossed below 13,000 feet for the last time, my 12,000 foot milestone was just ahead, I only had a couple more stretches of high open mountaintops to cross. The clouds broke apart and the sun came out – it almost started to get warm. As soon as I removed a layer of clothing though, the clouds returned, angry that they’d ever let the sun though. The wind picked up and it started snowing ice. I just continued along, heated by hiking.
I saw a person coming my way. I was excited. I never realized just how lonely I was until I saw people. It was one thing not to see people all day, quite another to see no people for many days, when one’s view was vast and one’s travel was long. I had begun to accept the fact that I was one of maybe a handful left of people on the planet. The person actually had a backpack. He was the first person I’d seen hiking in over a hundred miles. He was a geologist from Los Alamos. He was out there admiring the glaciated landscape and enjoying the peace. I was jealous. I wanted to see the rocks through his eyes. Why couldn’t I have had the foresight to learn more about such things when I was younger? I wondered. He immediately understood my trip. I had the feeling that under another circumstance in another time, we might have become the best of friends. But it was cold, grey and windy. We only had minutes to discuss what should have taken a lifetime. I learned the short version of his entire life story, and he learned mine. We exchanged notions on life, what we’d figured out so far, what was important, what was not. We were both happy. We were happier there, in a setting that would have made most ill at ease, than we would have been in any other. He was my best friend for those two minutes, but I’ll likely never see him again.
I had another climb to do. Back over 12,000 feet, back on the divide. The clouds came down to cover the mountaintop. There was no trail, only occasional cairns that looked much like all the other rocks – naturally piled on top of one another. I couldn’t see more than 50 feet through the clouds, so I navigated by compass. I had picked up a new compass in Pagosa Springs, and was excited to use it. It was a nice compass – adjustable declination, a mirror, an inclinometer… It was like driving a new car, and it drove well. click to enlarge
The divide headed due south, but the CDT headed southeast. I wouldn’t see the divide again for a couple hundred miles. I was nearing northern New Mexico, where the divide became a mix of private land and indian reservations – neither party eager to allow the passage of persons such as myself. They were even less eager to allow anything “officially designated” as a “national” anything. To them, it just meant the government had its tentacles in their freedom. It was no use trying to argue that the trail was freedom defined. What good is freedom alone, isolated, locked away from whatever lay outside one’s boundaries? By that definition, a prisoner was free. Freedom had a new meaning to me, it wasn’t freedom for an individual, it was freedom of the land, freedom for all individuals, a freedom that required us to get along and work as a nation. It was a freedom that said, “we all can get along”. It was a freedom that required responsibility, and one that life was all about. The other freedom? that was one that separated people, divided them along imaginary lines, and left them apart and alone. It required no responsibility, only defensive posturing and the heavy hand of the law.
The trail dipped to a lake, the headwaters of the Rio Chama, then slowly back up toward Flattop Mountain. Flattop was a huge tilted triangle of rocky brown grass, the apex of which was over 12,000 feet high. I slowly worked my way up the triangle, following crumbling cairns which I rebuilt as I went along. The top of the mountain appeared to me as the end of the earth itself. Wind ripped over the top with a force that made standing difficult. I’d felt wind like that before, but not that cold before. I leaned into the wind and looked south, over the edge of the mountain. The land looked tame compared to what was behind me. I slowly nodded my head and smiled.
The trail followed a ridge downhill, below 12,000 feet for the last time, below 11,000 feet for a long time. I came to the boundary of the Tierra Amarillo land grant. Bright orange “No Trespassing” signs were nailed to every other tree behind a barbed-wire fence… somebody’s prison. The land grant dated back to when the area was all part of Mexico, a payoff for some spanish duke or lord for job well done – a job that likely consisted of sucking up to the king and queen. Yes, it was earned by those people. All of that was forgotten. The land had become a mish-mosh of deeds and trusts, little bickering fiefdoms run by landowners whose only wish was that others stayed away. I knew that some CDT hikers had just gone through anyway, the whole concept of private property seeming absurd to them by that point. But, I couldn’t do that. I had a respectful fear of the heavy hand of the law… even more fear of private landholders who might have seen my footsteps as a capital offense – grounds for a bullet to my skull. It was no fun to walk in fear, so I stayed on public lands as much as was possible.
The trail followed the fence-line closely, almost taunting it, testing it. The fence was an un-natural thing, the trail bounced off the fence like a fly on a window. The route became a silly series of short zigzags – somebody’s idea of a joke or message perhaps. I ended the day at Wolf Creek, a pleasant stream flowing through a tall forest, a perfect place to be. I could tell that I was not the first to discover it – the luxury was too obvious.
I awoke to the sound of a bull elk – bugling in the fog and frost not 10 feet from my tent. Perhaps he didn’t realize I was there, perhaps he was so high on hormones that he didn’t care. It was an eerie sound to my ears, it sounded of death, or at least of desperate pain. I was glad that human males weren’t burdened quite to that extreme.
Frost coated the ground under my feet and tall blades of grass along my side. The trees were still and quiet, the clouds were smooth and moist, low and thin, lit a dull greyish blue by the low morning sun. I walked with an easy gait, aware of everything. The road was only a few miles further. I hoped to do another Salida – to town and back before the trail ever knew I was gone. I reached the road, it was as quiet as the trail. One car, I thought, I only needed one car. click to enlarge
A few cars did come. They came on every road, as if they were required to do so. They never seemed headed in any particular direction or moving for any particular purpose, they were just an extension of the road itself, like leaves on a tree. None of the cars stopped for me though, it wasn’t in their orders. They just screamed past, much faster than seemed necessary – tires barely holding on to the pavement.
I walked up to the top of Cumbres Pass. A tourist train made a daily run from Chama – over the pass and back down. It was similar to the Durango-Silverton run… not quite as scenic, but probably more personable and fun. There was a train station at the top of the pass, I figured maybe somebody was there for some reason – buildings attracted people much like roads attracted cars. I got to the station. Yup, there were indeed people there.
They were looking for some small object that had been dropped in the gravel between the train tracks. I had no expertise to offer them, in fact nothing to offer them but a question, “Do you know if anybody is headed down to Chama soon? I’m looking for a ride.” They barely glanced my direction. Perhaps they didn’t speak English, perhaps I wasn’t speaking English anymore, just dreaming up words and people and places. A pickup arrived and one of the men got inside. “Are you coming?”, he asked. He seemed surprised that I’d missed some telepathic invitation. I got in the truck and we were on our way.
The two men continued their silent conversation, occasionally peppering it with isolated words in spanglish. “ya.. si.”, then, “que? like this?” I don’t even remember if I said anything, or if they simply read my mind. In a way, they seemed more ghost than human. They let me off at the Chama Grocery. I wasted as little time as possible – running up and down the isles, planning in my head… “Hmm, should I get 2 more Twix bars, or a couple Grandma’s cookies?” … “ooh! mixed nuts on sale! those’ll last a couple days.”
For my next stop in town, I found myself hypocritically justifying the consumption and perpetuation of the cow – a greasy 10am burger, gone in 30 seconds. Then, I paid a courtesy stop at the visitor information building. I often felt it necessary to let the ‘powers that be’ know what I was doing. I wanted to let them know their town wasn’t being visited by bums… well, not ordinary bums anyway, but bums that wore nylon and walked all day, every day.
I worked my way back through the center of town, past the little tourist shops, past small groups of quiet visitors who seemed too timid to ask where I was going skiing with my poles. I passed the scenic railroad station. The train had left for the Cumbres Pass an hour ago. I reached the edge of town and passed a house, its yard filled with camper shells and camouflaged, beer drinking 40-something men. A couple of them waved back at me. All the while, I held my sign in one hand, “Cumbres Pass” and my thumb in the other. The town gradually ended and I continued walking. There was occasional traffic though, a ride had to be forthcoming. Car after car passed. I grew more desperate, probably jinxing myself – a desperate man could be a dangerous one. I saw another person on the road ahead, no, it was just a broken sign. My poles… click clack click clack. I was nearly crying at the cars, “Stop, please!!!!”. A blue mini-van heard me. “Ok, I can’t come across too eager”, I said to myself as I raced ahead to the stopped vehicle.