September 2, 2010
Today’s Miles: 13
Total Miles: 462.5
Breakfast Elevation: 10,360 ft
Dinner Elevation: 12,250 ft
High Point: 12,490 ft
I’m up and on the trail early.
I skipped breakfast because I’m out of food, but it’s only two miles to the road to Silverton.
It’s a nice walk with a creek and meadows, but my thoughts dwell on town. My foot is hurting again this morning, and the path is a constant tease. I’m not used to hiking uphill to a town stop. It’s hereby an offense of the natural code of thru-hiking.
The trail only gains about 500 feet to Highway 550, but it’s enough to be an annoyance. The path nears the highway but parallels it for a time before I finally top out at the trailhead.
Thumbing a ride feels like it takes an eternity, but in reality it’s probably only a little over half an hour before somebody stops. It’s a middle-aged couple en-route to a day in the mountains themselves.
They’re hikers and familiar with the Colorado Trail, and ask the usual questions of when I started and how the weather has been and such. They’re nice and normal and polite and the ride is more than pleasant, but there’s still something strained to me about the conversations while hitchhiking – it’s like the need to go on the clock and be a professional in customer service – answering questions, asking the right questions, polite and cordial, smiling… when deep down all I really want is a ride, and I know it and they know it.
They call it small talk for a reason. Scotty beam me to Silverton. Scotty beam me to the best place to get breakfast in Silverton.
There are the exceptions, usually when I’m with a friend or small group. Maybe my friends just tend to be more talkative, outgoing, and sociable than me.
In 2002 I was hitchhiking off the Appalachian Trail to resupply in a town in New Hampshire, with my friends Hollywood and Sofar. We were picked up by this cool, hip, live-free-or-die chick that was talkative and clearly excited to help some AT hikers. The town we wanted to go to was downhill from the trail, along a scenic road in the White Mountains. She was headed down toward town, and naturally the ride started on that course.
Upon discovering that we’d never seen The Old Man in The Mountain, she insisted on taking us back up the “hill,” way out of her way to see it. And we did. It was cool. Then she drove us to town.
About a year or two later, the old man’s face crumbled from the mountain, never to be seen again.
In Silverton I immediately dive into the first breakfast place in sight, the Brown Bear Cafe. Blueberry pancakes, eggs, ham, homefries, toast… ten gallons of coffee. Complete satiation and the happiest man in the world.
The restaurant is housed in an old building, an old saloon from the heyday mining times.
I like Silverton. It’s off the main highway, touristy and historic… quaint touristy and not nauseating touristy. All these towns in the San Juans are perfectly as they should be – Ouray, Pagaso Springs, and even the swelling Durango… this is a downright nice corner of the country.
The post office is small and friendly, and I significantly lighten the load by sending some unneeded things ahead for the final push to Durango – camera batteries, maps, and assorted junk.
The grocery market for my resupply is exceedingly expensive. But oh well, whatever.
The store has a wooden deck, and it’s a great place to sit for the routine repackaging of my purchases into ziploc bags, and into the backpack. I think I’ve mentioned the joy I find in this process – the mark of a distance hike, and anticipation of trail to come… spreading out my belongings in an unconventional place outdoors, while enjoying separate snacks purchased only moments ago.
Again the snacks are Cokes and Reese’s Big Cups. I’m a creature of habit. Another treat is a pack of eight hot dogs and buns that I intend to have for dinner somewhere up the trail tonight. I spread out on the deck in the sun as the locals come and go, and this is really distance hiking at its best.
Of course the best moments more often come in the wild over a spectacular sunset, or with a refreshing bath in a pure cascading stream… but the town resupply has the factor of contentment and satiation.
Much of backpacking is about the deprivation of simple luxuries, and the gained appreciation of simple things like potable water from a spigot, refrigeration, heat and air conditioning, etc., and almost immediately in the short time that the hiker is off the trail, the appreciation vanishes. But not in an afternoon’s town stop.
I empty cartons of macaroni and cheese into plastic baggies under the sun and appreciate the full belly, the sugar/caffeine rush, the wide variety of fresh food and products available in the door behind me… yet I’m still the free man with miles to go and the trail ahead, content in the moment yet not exhausted of joys to come, at a destination within the journey, blah blah blah.
Now loaded with food to get me to Durango, and fresh spigot water and hot dogs – did I mention hot dogs – I bounce along the road out of Silverton to get to the main drag and back to the trail. There’s a state cop idling in his vehicle, seemingly writing up a report, so I do some idling of my own before whoring out my thumb to the whims of traffic.
It’s a tricky intersection with road construction.
I find a ride with a guy in his thirties, a local of Silverton making a regular run to Durango for some errands and shopping. He relocated here eight years ago “for a girl.” She’s since gone and he’s still here. Commenting on what it’s like to live in the area, he says “I mean just look around man.”
The little Saab winds up the Colorado mountain road, and I sit with my backpack in my lap. In it are my self-contained belongings and freedom to sleep anywhere in this country, freedom to walk anywhere from here to Durango.
The scenery rolls by as I customarily apologize for my hiker scent to a random laid-back person I’ve just met. Hell of a place to be on a sunny September afternoon. Life is good.
The reality sets in that this is the homestretch. Only a few more days, and the Colorado Trail comes to an end.
A picturesque lake and I’m hiking again.
A perfect day, sunny but cool. Thursday before Labor Day.
I dawdle and take photos.
As I relish the scene on this perfect day, a pair of hikers easily overtake me. It’s Ole and Meadow Bruiser, right on queue.
Again the joyous reunion, and swapping of recent events. They spent the night in town, and rode up on a prearranged shuttle. The day after we last saw each other was the day of sideways wind and hail at 12,000+ feet. They stayed huddled in their tent that day.
But this time our meeting is different. It’s impossible not to be happy with this bright blue sky, like the emotion of hearing George sing “Here comes the sun.”
This time there’s nothing but trail between us and Durango.
Only minutes after setting foot on the trail after the last town stop, we’ve turned up again like bad pennies. It’s an instant bond as we close in on the goal, suddenly longest-lasting friends of this unique period of mountain life, sharing the same forlorn paths on the same days. They’ve overcome injury and hardship to reach this sunny place, more hardship than they found on the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail.
As have I.
Maybe unconsciously we know that when I think of the Colorado Trail, I’ll think of Ole and Meadow Bruiser, and that they’ll likewise think of Duct Tape.
But most importantly… most importantly… they’ve brought s’mores!
And I have the hot dogs. How do you like that, no prearrangement whatsoever.
Years ago, before people starting placing coolers of soda pop on the side of the road, this is what they called trail magic.
If I were more of a creative hippie hiker with a short pointed beard and a little guitar, I’d pen a song called “If you bring the hot dogs I’ll bring the s’mores,” or something to that effect, all like John Prine and what not. It would surely be a horrible song, yet brilliant when around a campfire imbibing brain cell vanquishing substances.
And the landscape is beautiful.
Ole comments that these colorful ferns are the changing of the season – Autumn in the high country. I’d been so busy gawking that I hadn’t put the two-and-two of such a reality together. Meadow Bruiser is feeling great and forges ahead, and Ole and I walk and talk. My constant pausing for pictures lends the conversation toward photography. Ole laments the he had no camera for a long stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.
We move through the terrain as a group that belongs here.
After hundreds of miles of rain and gray cold, the cool crisp brightness appears as a window of opportunity, a reward that has us perfectly poised for its reception. We’re feeling great, and the miles tick by with ease as we joyously devour all the daylight that remains.
It’s a pleasant, fitting surprise, the way this red rock suddenly appears on the far side of the highway at Silverton. It’s an immediate reminder that we’ve reached The Southwest, after all. Because of my previous escapades in this corner of the country, I proudly share that the red rock is called Navajo Sandstone. Of course I fail to mention that it’s just a guess.
The battered and worn Data Books appear from our pockets at this water source, once again gauging our potential distance to go before sunset. A familiar, effortless calculation of miles, water, and time.
“This stream looks like a half cup. It would make sense then that the full cup would be the one we crossed 1.7 miles ago. That feels about right.”
(Reliability of water sources is designated by full-cup and half-cup icons in the book).
Ole actually falls behind for a time. They’re ultralight and such fast hikers that I’ve never known this to happen.
“Oh, he’s back there taking pictures,” Meadow Bruiser says, “I think he’s getting nostalgic.”
Late afternoon wears into evening. We fall into our natural silent rhythms of thought.
We prearrange a landmark up the trail at which to rendezvous, should I fall behind.
For these days on the trail, this is what we do.
I gain elevation and approach a pass at sunset.
The realm of the marmot… and the Colorado Trail hiker.
I stride alone over the pass under the twilight.
Eventually I join the pair of humans encamped on the far side in darkness. They’ve already lit a modest fire, the first and last campfire of the journey for us all. I gather some supplemental wood, which is easy to find among these few dead trees.
We sit out on the wild grass in the night and have our feast. It’s a familiar scene in my memory to roast these items over a fire.
The three of us, all within a year or two of the age of thirty, are an unlikely but veteran trio for such a great, simple pleasure. Under ordinary circumstances it would probably require the presence of children for the three of us adults to skewer hot dogs with dirty sticks, and to savor sugary marshmallow.
We exchange contact information, and talk over much in the way of places… coming from and going to.
But right now we’re huddled in a tight, cross-legged circle around a lone flame in the midst of a vast wilderness, twelve thousand and five hundred feet over the sea, on a September night in Colorado.
Despite places and mountains and trails, there’s the immediate crispy blackened shell of a hot dog, and the messiest s’more ever.
Headlamps are switched off when the food is gone.
Eventually it’s the pulling of zippers, and the rustle of warm sleeping bags… as always in this life.