September 4, 2010
Today’s Miles: 22.1
Total Miles: 501.8
Breakfast Elevation: 11,500 ft
Dinner Elevation: 12,260 ft
High Point: 12,260 ft
A cold morning in my cluster of trees at 12,000 feet over the sea, below Blackhawk Pass. Straight Creek flows nearby, effortless. All is as I’d left it the night before, and serenely quiet.
I pull stakes from the dirt and stuff my tent in chill-fingered routine.
I do not pause to take in the view of the surrounding ridges – not the contours of the trees and grasses, not the tumbled boulders placed by the tale of the ages.
I don’t take it all in… no more than one examines their own bedroom.
This calm empty peace is simply the way it is.
But I do take in the sky, rubbing my eyes, stretching back and yawning into it. The sky is blue.
The initial miles descend near the creek, winding down out of shadow.
The freshness of the day gradually wears away.
Straight Creek is the only water source for the next twenty miles. I duly top off my four-quart capacity without a hint of anxiety.
I’m forty miles and likely only two full days from Durango, yet the morning holds little excitement or anticipation. I momentarily look ahead at the far landscape, musing on in which direction the trail lies. The walking is empty and automatic.
The trail descends to a network of forest service roads. I pass one or two vehicles and a man breaking down a large tent. The area is remote, yet I sense the hardy Colorado folk coming to the mountains for the Labor Day weekend, riding miles and miles of isolated dirt roads to lose themselves in these places.
Leaving the roads, the trail picks up the east side of a ridge and makes a deliberate contour to the south.
It’s especially clear and beautiful this morning. The walk conjures no new memories, and forges little in the way of significant new ones. A typical morning on the trail in perfect uneventful-ness, fodder for the subconscious.
A long walk works on the subconscious more than anything. The non-hiker often imagines that we’re out here contemplating the cosmos as Socrates, thinking deep thoughts on the existence of all life on earth, life’s ultimate goals, and weighty decisions of the future.
This of course isn’t true. Sometimes dormant memories surface from the depths of my mind that hadn’t necessarily been forgotten – only buried in the hustle of typical day-to-day existence, but that’s all. Mostly I think about pizza and miles and the immediate bend of the path ahead.
To begin in a certain way, to go on a journey in solitude, and emerge a changed person… of course this may be an outcome, but it’s not through conscientious, goal oriented direction. The magic is that the only goal needs to be to walk from point A to point B, perhaps with an open mind to absorb as much experience as possible, and the rest takes care of itself. Subconsciously.
A shift in values and outlook on life doesn’t take place as a deliberate decision, but as result of experience… maybe experience on a trail. I like the results of experience on a trail.
The rhythms of the outdoor world have their way, and our bodies tune into it just as naturally as we tune into hunger or thirst. To be on a trail with a backpack but still feeling the comfort of home is an empowering thing, a soothing belonging. Before I hiked I felt fear of the dark woods at night, as any person would. Later I found myself walking alone at night on the Appalachian Trail with no more insecurity than within the halls of my own home in the middle of the night.
Take the sailor and the sea, the obsession and sense of belonging. The thought of all that water scares the daylights out of me, but I relate to the philosophy. A sailor rarely fights or forces things, but inherently and ingeniously flows with the cards that he’s dealt – the winds, the weather, the currents…
A long hike changes some people in dramatic ways, and seemingly not at all for others. An individual changes over the course of time no matter what, whether he walks a trail or does anything else or nothing at all.
I feel as though Colorado will change me very little – that all of my personal changes as a result of long walks have been realized some time ago… though the course of such things when taking oneself so seriously isn’t understood fully without years of hindsight. In this case I’m speaking of the fundamental changes that come of a long hike. I don’t see much more possible development in that course, so much as a personal refreshment, a taking stock and inventory.
Life is short and that’s why I go hiking, not to miss anything, not to collect dust or let it pass me by, as Jim Croce so eloquently goes whistling down the sky.
Exploring the outdoors is a curse because the more you do, the more you realize there is to do. It’s a big beautiful world and there’s too much for a lifetime. A life can be spent singularly dedicated to the San Juans alone, or Grand Canyon or the Sierra Nevada – a lonely focused obsessed existence, without even satisfying one of these relatively small corners of our world.
But that’s part of the beauty isn’t it, the infinite possibility that one cannot know it all.
I turn a corner in the woods and there lies a most unexpected sight.
There in the shade of the roots of a tree, there’s a cooler.
I quell my excitement to guard against potential and likely disappointment, and open the lid.
There’s cold beer.
Magical little cans of PBR.
A spiral notebook, and the telltale scribbles of countless forlorn, dirty, thirsty, bright-eyed hikers that say this beer is for me. A Durango resident manages this cooler of kindness.
a twenty mile, water-less stretch… of course.
A treasure chest in the wilderness, as though collecting an item in a video game. “You’ve discovered PBR! 500 experience points, Duct Tape has gained a level!”
I want to hold it over my head like Link, with a two-second electronic melody of discovery.
A sunny day and a beer in the woods on the homestretch of the Colorado Trail, and suddenly life is perfect… Morgan Freeman tarring a roof in the open air away from Shawshank.
I raise the aluminum to my lips and savor this, savor the uncanny timing as I close in on Durango.
The notebook tells me that Ole and Meadow Bruiser were here nearly 24 hours ago. So they’re gone, and the way ahead begins wrapping itself up with a sense of closure as loose ends are tied.
A hiker unexpectedly emerges from the trail, a hiker going in my direction. It’s the man that I passed early this morning, with the large tent that I assumed to be car camping. He’s a Colorado resident on his first backpacking trip, hiking the length of the Colorado Trail. He’s in his thirties and lean and hungry, emaciated as a heavily loaded backpacker that has not yet learned to keep himself relatively fat and happy.
I shake hands with Adolph, a rather unfortunate birth-name to the extent that he says many people ask if it’s a trail name. We drink beer in the outdoors before noon as men that have earned it.
We talk of the trail behind, and share what has unfolded on our trips. He’s a pleasant guy, and if we’d met three hundred miles ago perhaps I’d linger and have a new walking companion… but soon my can is empty and I announce that I must go, pushing for the next water source at Taylor Lake.
I deliberately move ahead at a brisk pace. Now is not a time for new friends, and I’m selfish with my buzz. I want to enjoy each passing minute of the mountains and colors without the steady interruption of conversation, without the presence of anyone.
The trail follows a distinct ridge that leads directly north and south, and I get the impression that the mountains are winding down to an end.
It holds steady at over 10,500 feet, but the area feels less impressive in a high-and-mighty way… though this ridge is the highest thing for quite a distance. The views now reach far and wide, as lower forest-lands stretch away for miles.
Today is Saturday, and I meet three or four sporadic backpackers going north. The conversations are short and sweet, and one guy even asks to take my picture.
Welcome to colorful Colorado. I’ve enjoyed my stay, thank you.
The ridge extends for many more miles throughout the afternoon, in its linear way. I encounter no more hikers and there’s again an overwhelming quiet.
This is called the Indian Trail Ridge, and I’m walking the spine of the land. For a time the CT coincides with a significant, likely pre-existing trail called the Highline Trail that sometimes takes priority in signage.
There’s a place called The Cape of Good Hope, but despite the cool name it just happens to be another spur of the geography.
The singular, direct track through the land has a different atmosphere than the winding cirques, basins, and high mesas of the days behind me, as though the course of the trail itself reflects the attitude of the thru-hiker for a straight shot at Durango.
My thoughts focus not so much on the anticipated satisfaction of completion as they dwell on the future days and weeks of September. I’ll be retrieving my car and taking three weeks to drive from here to Pennsylvania, seeing the sites and visiting friends along the way.
When I finally arrive in Pennsylvania at the end of the month, it will be my first visit home in nearly two years – the longest I’ve ever been away. Mom and Dad and best friends and home.
This ridge is on top of its world with expansive open beauty, yet the sense of closure only deepens as the sight of a far horizon symbolically opens a gate to the wide world beyond Colorado.
Late afternoon matures to early evening as the trail begins to climb. A chilly, high dramatic wind is ushered in – the unbroken breeze of the sky. I turn a corner within view of the La Plata range.
I effortlessly stomp up the numerous hilltops of false summits, each view better than the last… each a little higher, the wind a little stronger. There’s an urgency to fly over these summits and descend to Taylor Lake before sundown, and I’m gradually becoming filled with the poignancy of the moment’s scenery.
Twenty-five miles from Durango, and the guide shows that it’s all more or less downhill from here.
The last high point and the last expansive, sweeping evening of a journey.
Suddenly I know that I should spend the night here… high, windy, cold, and wild. I have enough water for the night, and the lake is a mere jump off the ridge.
Rather than descend to the waterside, I want to stay high and commanding. Views to the east and west, separated by a light skip across the earth’s backbone – a clear sky and rewarding mountaintop glory. This is the place to be.
I find a relatively sheltered place. It’s somewhat guarded from the wind by the bushes, the highest things that grow here.
So many times I’ve spent the night at clearly well-established campsites. I wonder how long ago the last hiker slept here.
I excitedly hurry to set up and cook dinner before sunset, facing west.
Well it’s Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, summer’s end 2010.
Twenty-nine years old, and tonight I’ve ended up here.