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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.