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
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.
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.
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."
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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