September 1, 2010
Today’s Miles: 21.7
Total Miles: 449.5
Breakfast Elevation: 12,540
Dinner Elevation: 10,360
High Point: 12,820 ft
I get up to do the one thing that most often brings hikers out of their warm sleeping bags in the middle of the night.
The starry sky is deep and wide and brilliant, with a panoramic horizon of rolling Colorado mountains in the cold darkness.
I’m up and on the move before dawn, eager to stomp out another day on the trail.
I’m motivated this morning. Maybe it’s the clear skies, maybe the beautiful terrain, maybe the prospect of the town of Silverton within 25 miles, maybe a low food supply… the combination of all this has me walking before sunrise.
My pack is light, and I’m the hungry hiker closing in on town.
The early morning is cold, quiet, and pristine as I walk the grassy hills.
I set up the above picture because I was having so much fun – walking the high landscape as sunrise creeps down the ridges.
I’m wearing all the clothes in my pack, perfectly comfortable and fine. What I notice later is the way I’m favoring my left leg, keeping the weight off my ailing right foot. I assume this stance an awful lot during my time on the Colorado Trail.
The path winds about the tundra headwaters of the many gullies that drain to the world below. They descend to far-off, mild-weathered, comely places unbeknown to this high-country hiker.
I’m mildly surprised to encounter a solo hiker so early in the morning. He’s carrying a backpacking guitar and going the opposite direction.
His gait, smile, and general demeanor tell me that he’s enjoying the morning as much as I am. The perception must be mutual, because our conversation is light-hearted and brief, allowing our individual rhythms to go on unbroken.
I join a jeep road for a short time near Stony Pass.
I round a bend and soon all the world is in the light.
It’s the perfect time to stretch out and take a break in the sun. I shed a few layers and take the time for a proper breakfast to reinforce the quick Clif bar that I had before daybreak. A proper breakfast is Genoa salami (Sliced like pepperoni) with flatbread.
Sitting near the floor of another narrow basin, I watch as a solo hiker crests the ridge in the distance – the one that I’ve just come over. He makes his way down the switchbacks in my direction.
For some unconscious reason that I can’t explain, I decide that I don’t want him to catch up with me.
While climbing out of the far side of this basin, I meet some more backpackers. This time it’s a group of three men taking a break. They’re out for a few days – friendly, experienced, talkative – but my jaded thru-hiker persona dominates the morning – I take my leave as soon as possible without being impolite.
I’m afraid that the person behind me will catch up while I’m still talking with these guys. Then suddenly we would have three separate parties all converging in the same place, in all this wilderness. I don’t know why I see this situation as being so undesirable, but that’s just my mood today.
Nobody catches me, and the mood fades as the day grows.
The trail follows a wide, level sort of unnamed mesa that straddles the Continental Divide itself.
Small lakes and ponds glisten in the sun.
Soon the divide mesa approaches a deep, abrupt swath cut out of the solid rock.
Flanked by the towering Grenadier Range, this sheer, mighty canyon holds no name other than the simple Elk Creek (To the best of my knowledge).
My path ahead lies down its depths, to the lowland realm of Silverton and civilization.
I reach a trail junction before the descent, high along the crest of the Divide. The Continental Divide Trail does not go down Elk Creek, but continues south, leaving The Colorado Trail for the final time.
I stand and read the sign, and for a brief instant gaze off in that direction. There’s a fleeting image of Gil striding alone out there somewhere, and a thought of the wonders that must lie down that road… to the land of Pagosa Springs, and the mountains and deserts of New Mexico for the CDT hiker.
Continuing on The Colorado Trail, the path turns over the spine of a high grassy hill before descending into Elk Creek canyon. The next eight miles will descend almost 4,000 feet.
A shelf of the canyon is home to a pair of unassuming lakes.
I spy two backpackers way down below, following the winding switchbacks like the tunnels of an ant farm.
The tight switchbacks clearly mark the way ahead.
At this old mining cabin I meet the pair of hikers that I’d seen from above, packing up after a lunch break. They’re a spry older couple that should classify as senior citizens, and I’ve heard much of their story secondhand, through Carol and Richard and Ole and Meadow Bruiser.
They met on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail many years ago, and have been together ever since, backpacking here and there and everywhere. One interesting long trail they’ve done is the relatively unknown Pacific Northwest Trail. Now they hike large sections of the CT each and every summer.
It’s a shame to meet them here on this day, because they’re supposed to be full of great stories and make great company over a campfire.
Instead it’s the short conversation that’s typical of meeting backpackers. After a few comments of how there used to be a lot of neat old stuff in this cabin, I’m ushered on.
“You should go on ahead, you’re probably faster than us.”
I’d like to move on closer to Silverton, after all.
The path hugs a wall that shows evidence of mining and dynamite.
Elk Creek goes into the trees, and a high cascading waterfall pours from the worlds above. I can’t help but think of this as a big slice cut from the Sierra Nevada, morphed into Colorado.
I meet Potter and Poy, relaxing on a rock along the rushing stream – Potter that I met in Salida.
We lounge in the sun and go over everything that’s transpired since then – shared weather and places and experiences and comings and goings of other hikers.
Eventually I pack up and continue down the trail, with the notion that that was our last meeting.
A few miles along the creek and through the woods, and the trail touches this photogenic pond with its views of Arrow and Vestal Peak.
The valley grows green and warm.
The air hums with birds and new life.
The transition from high cold to low Spring is beautiful, a favorite nuance of hiking. Always I’ll remember my first experience of this, ten years ago on the Appalachian Trail… descending from the cold brown hills of Georgia and North Carolina to the first signs of green and Spring at the Nahantahala River. On that day I imagined elves and Rivendell.
I see more backpackers as I get lower, including two large groups with young teens. All are fresh on the first day of their trips, trudging up into the mountains. All have the same question for me – how far have you come from this place or that, how long will it take us to get there.
I have a question. I wonder how much walking it takes to realize that it’s not about “getting there” at all. Everywhere I hike, people ask how far is it to the top of the hill, how long.
You get there when you get there, and then there is somewhere else.
How about here? I like here.
Well… sometimes “here” is where it’s raining and cold and I’m hungry and my foot hurts, and “there” is where it’s warm with a roof and food and beer… but even then I don’t ask everyone how far it is to to the top of the silly hill.
The Animas River lies at the bottom of the descent, with the famous Durango to Silverton railroad. The low gorge at 9,000 feet is vacant and peaceful, with a few inviting campsites with fire rings along the water.
I take a well deserved rest after the knee-busting way down, choosing a convenient “sitting rock” at a campsite. I savor a final rationed snack, now with nothing in my food bag but a single dinner to last the five miles to Silverton.
Not too bad, but I’ve starved myself all day long.
It’s only mid-afternoon, but I’ve already put in almost twenty miles and consider staying at this site. Potter and Poy will probably stop here, and maybe the veteran couple with their wonderful stories.
But the gorge is already in the shadow at this hour, empty and chilly. I’d like to avoid spending the night in Silverton – I’ve spent a night in virtually every possible trail town so far, even though my budget shouldn’t allow it. I’d like to pass through Silverton in a day, and that means spending the night as close to town as possible.
I leave the campsite and go on.
The approach to town does a cruel thing here. A general rule in distance backpacking is that it’s always a nice, steady descent to town. Not here.
From the Animas River I must go up almost two thousand feet over the course of five miles to get to the road that goes to Silverton.
The climb from the river isn’t so bad after all, and I feel good. The trail tops out in an open meadow, and I find a great place to camp at the end of it. It overlooks the meadow along the clear-running Molas Creek, and presents itself just in time, before closing in on Highway 550 and the public campground near the pass.
There’s plenty of daylight to set up camp, cook dinner, and relax in the fading sun.
…a serene evening of solo camping, with the deliberate rhythm and sense of home that sets in after a time on the trail.