"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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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