The CDT south of Rawlins followed another
waterless paved road for about 12 miles. We didn't really want to hike the road
but were afraid to hitch-hike... the prison was nearby. Beside the fact that it
was often illegal to hitch near a prison (as you might be mistaken for an
escaped convict), there was the added risk of getting a ride from some guy
named Bubba who was flat broke and just returning from a visit to his partner
in the pen. So, we walked. Cars rolled by, fewer and fewer as we distanced
ourselves from Rawlins.
We'd hiked about 6 miles on the road, never did
see the prison. Apparently, it was hidden behind some hill somewhere, out of
sight and out of mind. We halfheartedly decided to hitch the next 6 miles, so
we wouldn't have to camp near the road. Additionally, Mario had hurt his back
in town while carrying heavy boxes to the post office. The stiff surface of the
road was making it worse. I made a sign, "6 miles", and stuck my thumb out at
some passing cars. We'd just about given up when one of the cars turned around
and pulled up along side. A young woman poked her head out the window, "Hey,
you want a ride?".
The car was small and old, but we managed to
stuff our packs in the trunk and stuff our bodies in the back seat. 3 girls sat
in the front. They were high-school stoner chicks, probably 18, 17 and 16 years
old. The oldest one bounced a small child on her lap as we sped off. The girls
had left Thelma and Louise in the dust and were headed straight for Jerry
Springer. Freaky rap/hip-hop music blasted from the speakers behind our heads.
Too late, we realized the ride was probably a bad idea. The girls were destined
to get in trouble somewhere, we just hoped it wouldn't be in the next 6 miles.
We sat in the back seat, making as little conversation as possible, hoping the
girls would just consider us dull. They let us off where the CDT turned from
the paved road. In a flash, they were gone, we were alone, in the desert again.
The sun slowly set as we hiked down a hill, out of sight of the road. We made
camp in a random spot of flat gravel among the sage, always near the coyotes.
I didn't figure that water would much of an
issue south of Rawlins. A series of small ponds lined the side of the trail
ahead. Early the next morning we reached the first one, the largest. Something
didn't feel right... didn't smell right as we approached. After one taste of
the water, I placed the odd smell - the ocean - the water was completely
saline, undrinkable. A quick study of the map hinted that all the ponds for the
next 15 miles were the same, if not worse. The water was good enough for cows
though, a giant bull, so muscle-bound it was barely able to walk, stared at us
from across the water, grunting. We got back on the trail, holding out hope for
some kind of miracle. In the worst case, we figured we wouldn't actually die in
the next 15 miles, just be very thirsty.
That road, that desert, for some reason held
little appeal. The mountains were starting to return, the divide was nearby,
the Basin was behind us. There were no trees for miles, everything just looked
dead, tired and dirty. I fiddled with my new radio. At the top of each hill, I
was able to get a myriad of stations, at the bottom of each dip, nothing. Time
after time, I got to hear bits of great rock 'n' roll hiking songs, only to
lose them to static halfway though. I kept forgetting that I had headphones in
my ears. Every time I took off my pack for a break, the headphones caught on my
shoulder strap and ripped from my head. Dammit! I found I could extend the
range of the radio by holding it near my hiking pole, and holding the pole
above my head. The moments of clear reception were hardly worth all the time
spent fidgeting though. The radio represented all the things I was walking away
from, all the distractions of modern life, distractions from real life. I
didn't want those things following me, I didn't want to carry them. In the next
town, I mailed the radio ahead. Perhaps I would find a use for it some other
time, but there I couldn't use it, I couldn't bear its burden.
Halfway through the day, we were all out of
water. It was hot. Mario was in pain, but tried hard not to show it. A jeep
pulled up. A man leaned out the window, he was excited, and asked, "Are you
hiking the CDT?". It was Ray Hanson, the BLM manager we'd missed in Lander, the
one who'd mapped all the water sources and marked the trail through the Basin.
He was driving 3 or 4 people along the road, along the CDT. The other people
were doing some sort of mapping project for the CDTA. Ray was excited to meet
us. In all the years he'd been working on the trail, he'd only met a couple
actual hikers. It was great to be able to thank him in person, on the trail.
The people had some fresh carrots and extra water, it was just enough to get us
to the next water source, Muddy Creek, which Ray endorsed as reliable. It was a
wonderful unexpected little meeting. There were actually people out there who
cared about the trail and cared about what we were doing, people who
understood. My spirits were lifted, just at a time when they'd needed a
We got to Muddy Creek and followed it upstream.
The water got less and less muddy, less salty as the miles wore on. We stopped
for the night at the third crossing, where the water tasted fairly good.
Thunderstorms electrified the surrounding hills as we cooked our dinner. Like
every night, I sat there cross-legged, staring at my bubbling noodles,
mesmerized by them. I savored each spoonful, and when my pot was emptied and my
stomach full, I let out an, "Oh yeah!... Whew! That was damn good.". Mario and
John did the same. We all ate well.
The road continued up to the headwaters of Muddy
Creek, back to the divide. The divide was almost like a friend, slowly
meandering near our course. "Hi, how've you been?", I'd ask the divide. It just
smiled back. On the way up, the water got better. I had broken my filter
earlier in the day - it had become so clogged that I over-pressurized it and
the plastic housing cracked. We passed near a spring that was absolutely raging
- clear water poured out the side of a hill with the force of an uncorked fire
hydrant. I crawled under some bushes near the spring and filled my water
bottles. I figured if I had been susceptible to giardia, I would have already
been sick. The biggest advantage of the filter had been that it strained the
little "floatie bits" out of the water. Oh well, those wouldn't kill
The terrain was notable only for the fact that
it was plain. We were slowly climbing mountains, higher and higher, but the
land changed little. Rolling hills covered in sage and occasional drab trees
spread out below us. The hills were gentle enough that people had built roads
along the divide, so that's where we walked, on roads that nobody drove.
Occasionally, we dipped down to cross some other empty roads that connected
valleys on opposite sides of the divide. At the end of the day, we dropped down
to a nicely flowing stream of clear water. John had a filter, and since we had
time, we decided to all use it. His filter was so clogged that it took 10
minutes to fill one liter.
Sunshine and Seehawk showed up late in the day.
They had almost been struck by lightning the day before - they had been hiking
just behind us, on top of the barren hills we'd seen being blasted. As we
cooked our dinner that evening, another storm opened up. It didn't go away
though. The rain came down hard, and the wind rattled my thin nylon tarp. It
poured for 4 hours, through the end of the day. It was still drizzling as I
drifted off to sleep, more comfortable and safe in my little portable home than
I would have been in any mansion built from brick and mortar.
We were still on a road. It didn't feel like we
were making much progress even though we'd hiked two solid days out of
Rawlins... what was that? 55 miles or so? In a way, that distance almost seemed
further in a car, where the land whizzed by in a blur. Travel was obvious in a
car. On foot, it crept up... each step was such a small one, that it was
difficult to put them all together. What did they all add up to? I spent my
time thinking about the next 2 or 3 miles, not the next 100. 100 was too much
to consider, too much for which to plan at a walking pace.
By noon the next day, we crossed into a national
forest. The change in the land was quick. Within a couple miles, we were back
in forest, back above 10,000 feet, back on a real trail, all for the first time
since the Winds. I had forgotten how much I loved hiking through the woods. In
the woods, the view rarely extended more than a couple dozen yards. So, those
couple dozen yards got all my attention, they filled my eyes and ears. I
stopped at a small stream and found myself singing again, in love with the
trail again. I put down my pack and ran into the woods, losing myself in them,
making love. I laid down on the soft forest floor, thinking. I had almost
forgotten where I was, what I was doing, or why. The woods had reminded me, the
dirt footpath had reminded me. I thought about all those miles behind... I had
just as many ahead. I was standing in the heart of the CDT, but it wasn't the
CDT that people dreamed about, it didn't make the cover of glossy magazines, it
was just another patch of forest - from the outside not much different than any
other. But, from the inside, it was glorious, it was mine.
I had gotten ahead of Mario and John. Earlier, I
had raced across an open hillside to beat a thunderstorm, I figured they'd both
waited. The trail climbed higher and higher, climbing out the other side of the
forest, the top side. I looked south and saw pointed mountains all the way to
the horizon. Colorado. I hadn't even thought much about Colorado before, I
hadn't even been to the state since I'd been 12 years old. There it was, that
land so many considered synonymous with mountains. The views gave me energy,
and I powered up the hills.
I stopped earlier than usual, and set up my
tarp. John and Mario showed up just as I was getting ready to cook. John smiled
at me, "I was wondering if you were going to stop.". We didn't have to talk
about why. "Why" was laid out below us. We sat on some nearby rocks, staring at
Colorado, eating our thick noodles as the clouds cleared and the sun set to the
We quickly reached the top of Bridger Peak the
next morning. It was cold and windy on top, 11,000ft. We took shelter behind a
small metal shed - some kind of army communications relay. Bridger Peak was the
highest point for dozens of miles in every direction. I pulled out my radio,
the dial was jam-packed with stations - all on top of each other, the reception
was too good - it was difficult to isolate anything. But, we all managed to
tune-in to a well-timed broadcast of "Teenage Wasteland". I played air-guitar
on Bridger Peak, the CDT was rockin'.
On the way down we passed a pickup that was
headed the other way, up the bumpy road. It was Sunday, and it appeared the
older couple inside was out for a drive in the mountains. We all waved "hello",
but the woman just pulled her arms up tight, the man stared blankly forward at
the road. There was something about them that said they didn't even talk to
each other anymore. But they were so old, it had ceased to matter, it was too
late to change anything. I imagined them reaching the end of the navigable road
where they'd briefly step out of the still-running car. He would say, "yup".
She would say, "It's cold". Then they would get back inside, drive down the
hill, down to their little house, and spend hours watching re-runs of re-runs
We got to Battle Pass, a relatively
well-traveled road. There was a car-campground nearby. Pre-teen kids were
taking turns riding ATVs in circles through the dusty gravel. They were
creating forgettable childhood memories, memories they would unconsciously
consult as they wandered in circles through the rest of their lives. We walked
a quarter-mile down the road and took turns holding a sign, "Encampment". I
hadn't originally intended to stop in Encampment, but I was starting to enjoy
the chase, enjoy the slices of life we got in the towns below. 45 minutes
later, we were in the back of another pickup, crammed-in with some fishing
We decided to take the rest of the day off.
Mario's back wasn't getting any better, and he needed the rest. He would never
admit it, but he was in serious pain - it showed on his face and it showed in
his pace... he had been walking at half his normal speed. Encampment was
another of those boom/bust mining towns. It was a little different though. They
seemed to have known the boom wouldn't last, so they prepared for the bust.
Rather than trying to build a giant town that would one day be empty, the old
population had lived in a tent city on the outskirts of Encampment. Today, the
change in times was apparent. Encampment, built on mining, was fading away.
Riverside, a mile away and built on tourism, was slowly growing.
We headed down to Riverside and split a cheap
hotel room. I then went back up to Encampment to buy some groceries. Encampment
was small enough that people knew about the CDT. I met a woman in the store who
offered me a ride back to Riverside. The store clerk chimed in, "You know, what
he'd really like is a ride back to the trail tomorrow. There was a guy here
last week who stood over on the corner there for hours, couldn't get a ride
from anybody..." I asked him what the guy had looked like. I started to laugh
as he continued, "Strange feller, wore a blue suit, seemed a bit odd." The man
in the blue suit hadn't considered one major drawback of the suit - it made him
look like an escaped convict or mental patient... I wasn't surprised nobody had
been eager to pick him up.
That evening there was free music and free food
in the park. It wasn't advertised much, it was something intended for the local
population, not the tourists. Still, we were welcomed as guests. The three of
us sat there, mesmerized by the sounds of Siucra, a trio of Irish musicians
from Boulder. I hadn't heard any live music since well before the start of the
hike. I had almost forgotten that humans could be so beautiful, could create
something so apart from nature yet make it sound so natural. Music was one
thing that always reminded me there was more to being human than just being,
that there was more to life than the tangible. I ate 6
In the morning, the woman I'd met in the market
picked us up. She and her husband ran a bed and breakfast in town. It was so
hard to say a proper "thank you" on the trail, I had few ways to repay favors.
I figured the least we could do would be to visit their bed and breakfast, to
just see it. I figured it would be something they were proud of, something
they'd want to share. I had no idea.
Lynn and R.G. had lived in Riverside for years.
Their house had slowly evolved into a elaborate expression of their selves. It
was open, natural, friendly and elegant. R.G. was a professional artist. The
house was filled with his art, and that of other's with whom he'd made trades.
They hadn't originally planned to run a B&B, they joked, "We had so many
people visiting, we figured we might as well start charging...". Among other
things, they had researched and then built perfect replicas of native and
pioneer clothing. These were hung in the closets of the rooms, an unexpected
bonus for guests in a playful mood. In back of the B&B was a large deck,
overlooking a gentle river. Most people spend their lives looking for
something, but Lynn and R.G. had already found it. They sent us off in grand
style - a ride to the trailhead and slices of some delicious "breakfast pie"...
why not have pie for breakfast? What a great idea.
We were back on the trail. The rest seemed to
have helped Mario, his sore back had turned a corner. He later told us that
he'd nearly decided to quit and fly back to Holland, it had hurt that bad. The
trail quickly entered a small designated wilderness area, where the land
immediately took on another character. I often had that feeling when crossing
the boundaries of wilderness areas. I didn't know if it was because of the
legal protection of the land, or if it was just that lands of a certain type
were more likely to be protected. Perhaps it was a subconscious mental switch.
In any case, the land inside the wilderness felt right, it felt settled,
ordered, like everything was how it was supposed to be.
The trail passed through a series of lofty
meadows, the soft brown grasses moved in waves with the wind, the gentle swoosh
of a million knee-high blades rose to a soft crescendo. I sat down at the edge
of one of these meadows while a group of horse-packers prepared to leave. One
of them looked at my pack and commented, "Looks like a lot of work." She then
proceeded to pick up some heavy leather and steel riding apparatus. I wanted to
tell her my secret, tell her that it wasn't any work at all, that in fact I'd
never felt better in my entire life and that I owed it all to hiking. Instead,
I smiled and nodded my head.
We took a break on top of some large smooth
rocks on top of a mountain. I jumped around from rock to rock, exploring every
nook and notch. The warm sun beat down, causing the rocks to glow a deep red
that contrasted perfectly with the deep blue sky. A few moments later, black
clouds moved over our heads and it began to hail. We stood there, on the edge
of the hailstorm, waiting for it to pass. The sun still beat brightly on the
trees below us. The hail wasn't going anywhere though, and soon enough we gave
up and moved on.
We camped that night near a small stream. John
nervously set up his tent under a large overhanging cliff-face that looked
ready to collapse. "If that thing goes", I tried to reassure him, "then it's
just your time."
I passed a short-tailed weasel the next morning.
It was slightly smaller than the size of my forearm. It stood in the grass
upright, balancing on its two rear legs. Its light underbelly contrasted
sharply with its sleek dark brown back. It sniffed the air for few moments,
then bounded away like a living slinky. I'd seen so many animals in so many
moments like that one, but the encounters never grew mundane. They just
reminded me there was more happening in the land than I could ever
Somewhere in the middle of a nondescript patch
of forest, I crossed into Colorado. I had heard that the Colorado section of
the CDT was the best-marked, most-travelled, and least "roaded" part of the
entire route. That didn't apply to the first few miles just south of the
Wyoming border. The trail continued up a road, and there were no signs. I did
pass a mountain-biker on the road though, he was the first person I'd seen
actively mountain biking during the entire trip.
Soon afterward, a train of 12 ATVs passed by.
All of the riders had that same "ATV grin" that I'd started to recognize...
maybe it was caused by the vibrations of the machines? I didn't know. They
slowly, loudly wound around the forest road, audible for a mile. I just didn't
understand. To me, the point of going to the mountains was that they were
quiet. The point was that they were an area not conquered by man. The point was
that it took an effort to get out there. I didn't really care if these people
rode their ATVs down the road, I just wished they knew the mountains like I
I hadn't seen Mario or John since the morning.
I'd slowly drifted ahead and I figured I was out of their "break range", that
is, they were taking breaks back there somewhere, reducing their chances of
catching up. I stopped near a meadow under some trees and laid with my back
flat on the ground, my feet on my pack. I'd found it was a good way to get the
most out of a break. I was just getting ready to leave when a lean backpacker
with a big black beard came up. "Hi, I'm Brian Robinson", he
I had heard about Brian before I started the
trip. Brian put my little walk on the CDT in a new perspective. He was trying
to be the first person to hike the "triple crown" in a single calendar year.
That is, the 2100 mile Appalachian trail (AT), the 2650 mile Pacific Crest
Trail (PCT), and the 2500-3000 mile CDT... back to back to back. He'd started
on the AT January 1, gotten to somewhere in Vermont by April, then jumped over
to hike the New Mexico portion of the CDT. After that, he'd hiked the entire
PCT - Mexico to Canada. Then, he came back over to the CDT. He'd been hiking
south from the Canadian border for the past couple months, quickly catching up
to us slow-pokes. Once he finished Colorado, he planned to go back to the AT,
and finish the little bit that he'd missed. His schedule made me
Brian hadn't hiked with anyone since one day in
the Winds, and he had hiked with people on only 4 separate occasions the entire
year. I was happy to give him a little company. "Well, aren't you hiking with
Mario and John?", he asked. I rolled my eyes, "All we talk about anymore is our
bowel movements... it's the only reliable news.". Brian had done a lot of
hiking and understood.
We arrived at a small spring in about a mile. I
borrowed Brian's plastic scoop to get some water out of a shallow depression.
He didn't have a filter, just a scoop... and some chemicals. I was about to sit
down for a few moments, but Brian looked impatient. I found out then that he
simply did not stop, that was his secret to hiking 7000+ miles in a year. We
walked that night until it was already dark, then ducked under some big trees
along the side a road. I'd decided to stick with Brian until Steamboat Springs.
I thought it'd be fun to get the "Brian Robinson Experience" even if it was
only for a couple days.
According to me, the morning hadn't even started
when Brian sat up, "Ok, I'm getting ready to go...". For him, all that meant
was packing his things, putting some snicker bars in his pocket, and heading
out... maybe 5 minutes total. It was still dark. We continued along the road to
another trailhead/car-campground. We had already put in 5 miles by the time I
usually woke up.
Near the trailhead there were signs posted about
a giant windstorm that had swept through the area a few years back. It had
knocked-over a lot of the trees. Some trails still weren't cleared. The route
we planned to hike looked OK though.
At the parking area, there was an information
kiosk covered with full-color illustrations of pastel-clad happy families,
hiking through the woods, smiling and pointing. It looked like something from a
1950's cold-war propaganda film. The theme of the information was about the
benefits of logging. According to the kiosk, responsible logging freed-up the
land and allowed new trees to grow, thereby diversifying the forest and keeping
it healthy. I had always thought the forest had done just fine all by itself
for millions of years. Apparently, I was wrong... Big trees, the ones worth
lots of money, were bad for the forest. They needed to be culled. As for the
forest life that counted on old and dying trees? The kiosk didn't address that,
but I'm sure they'd considered it. I thought about how the science of forestry
had originally been developed by logging companies - they'd written all the
first books. For decades, all that was taught to forestry students were the
profit/loss potential of trees. That was just starting to come into a little
more balance. I understood that we did need wood, we did need to cut trees, and
they did grow back, I just hoped that others understood it wasn't only money
that grew on trees. Trees had other values.
Another sign told how a huge area of the
national forest would be closed starting the next day due to helicopter logging
- it was dangerous. I didn't know how they planned to get all the animals out.
But it didn't affect me, I was hiking with Brian, and we were
I had a faster walking pace than Brian. All day,
I would slowly drift ahead and take 5-minute power breaks. Brian would then
show up, and instead of taking off his pack and sitting down next to me, he
just said, "hello" and keep walking. I started walking even faster, hoping to
get more breaks. That had the unfortunate side-effect of speeding up Brian's
pace. Before long we were almost in a race. We crested the top of a 12,000 foot
peak just as lightning struck another peak a couple miles ahead. There was
nothing between the two peaks but an 11,000-foot-high open plateau of rock and
grass. We didn't really have any options, we just hoped for the best and
started across... quickly. Halfway through, lightning struck behind us. The
trail gradually angled downhill, and we reached the cover of trees. Somehow,
we'd managed to avoid the storm clouds.
By 3:30pm, I finally managed to get Brian to sit
down for a second. He looked through his maps, "Wow, we've already done 32
miles...". Brian thought a lot about miles, he had to. In the past I had met
other hikers who'd considered 'putting in big miles' the ultimate goal of
hiking - the only goal. These people constantly critiqued other's hiking
styles, saying profound things like, "you should be carrying less weight."
People like me made fun of them behind their backs, labeling them 'Jardinites'.
Before I met Brian, I had half-expected him to be one of those people. He
wasn't though, he understood there were a thousand ways to have an enjoyable
hike. He was doing his own thing, and respected everyone else as they did
We took it easy the rest of the day and hiked
closer together. I got to hear all about Brian's hike, and he heard all about
mine. We even stopped to talk to a couple of tourists who were out for a drive
in the mountains - they were from near my home-town. We finally stopped at dusk
in some light forest, 37 miles. Brian looked up, "Oooh, only three short of a
40-day.", he probably wanted to keep hiking.
Early the next morning, we passed Seehawk and
Sunshine. They hadn't stopped in Encampment. It felt like Brian and I had put
in an extra day's worth of hiking somewhere, like we'd been hiking at warp
speed. My brain was already starting to fragment - just trying to process
37-miles without really stopping was enough to drive me crazy. I didn't know
how Brian managed mentally. What happened to a person, when all they saw every
waking moment of every day was the world moving by at 3 miles per hour? I
figured whatever kept Brian going was beyond my perception, perhaps he'd
evolved some new endocrine glands or something, the
We hit the road by noon. It didn't take long to
get a ride to Steamboat Springs. Brian quickly got his resupply box from the
post office and headed right back out to the trail. He had calculated that if
he spent just a few extra hours in each of his ~70 resupply stops, it would add
a week to his hike. When I had first heard of Brian's plan, I hadn't given him
much of a chance, but there he was... he had less miles left to hike than I
did. Just before he left, I told him, "There aren't many things left in the
world that you can be the first to do... looks like you found one." I found out
later that Brian did indeed finish his hike, he would forever be the
While we were sitting outside the post office, a
woman stopped and asked, "Are you hiking the CDT?". Before I even had a chance
to exchange names, she had invited me back to her house for dinner that
evening. But, she had an appointment and couldn't stick around. I met her at
her office later in the day. She was a massage therapist. As we drove to her
house, just outside of town, I finally got to introduce myself.
Christine and Pete lived in a cozy home at the
end of a road in a small patch of aspens. They'd been there for a number of
years. They were two people living simple and wonderful lives. They seemed to
understand what it took to be happy, and that it didn't take much. For them all
it took was a greenhouse, a two bedroom home, a wall full of books, and a
spirit of generosity. And if something didn't work out, they were smart enough
to make changes... to go on vacation... to move... to grow... I was extremely
tired from two days of hiking with Brian, but I tried my best to make
intelligible conversation. Possibly the best feature of Christine and Pete's
house was a soft warm futon. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the
Early the next morning, Pete dropped me off on
his way to work. Mario and John had arrived in Steamboat, but wanted to spend
another night there. I was ready to move on. I loved hiking with them, but I
knew there was another trail out there, one that I hadn't yet found. It was one
that I had to hike alone. John and I shook hands and made vague plans to meet
in the next town. But, we both knew it wasn't likely to happen. It was goodbye.