September 5, 2010
Today’s Miles: 20.8
Total Miles: 522.6
Breakfast Elevation: 12,260 ft
Dinner Elevation: 7,390 ft
High Point: 12,260 ft
It’s cold and dark when I step out of my tent in the middle of the night.
The wide open space of a treeless mountain ridge lies beyond the tarp and zipper. It’s a high inhospitable world at night, frightening to the senses when awakened from a deep slumber. There’s no forgetting where I am… underneath a veiled cloudy sky, as the mountain’s crest leaves me feeling very small and inconsequential.
Back into shelter and a still-warm sleeping bag with a relieved bladder, and the secure comfort of a backpacker that’s lived in this tent of ever-changing horizons for five weeks.
I hoped to wake up for the sunrise. The poignancy of beginning my final full day on the trail with a sunrise after last night’s sunset surely didn’t escape me, but this morning I simply wanted that extra bit of sleep. There’s been many sunrises, and there will be others.
There was a time when I would work a night shift until 11pm, go to the bar until 2am, hold a small after-party, and then try to convince friends to immediately night-hike a fifteen-mile round trip with me to an overlook in Pennsylvania called The Pinnacle for sunrise.
And a couple times I actually did it. One humid, cricket-filled night in June, the full moon fell on the eve of the summer solstice. We arrived at The Pinnacle in time to see the round moon set in the west as the sun simultaneously came over the eastern horizon. It’s odd what drives us to do such silly impractical things, and I wonder sometimes if I’m losing a little of that drive.
Six years down the road, today I wake to find that I’ve chosen the comfort of a few minutes’ sleep.
Colorado used to be a far-off land of high intimidating mountains – the heart of the Rockies. Every American grows up with the impression that these are the kings of mountains, the biggest peaks in our land against which all others shall be measured.
Now some of the mystery is gone as I’ve walked the width of them. That was the intent after all, but with the satisfaction of knowing a new place comes the mild disappointment of the unwrapped Christmas present… looking ahead to the next one, always forward with the constant consumption that’s in our instinct.
A dramatic sunrise in the outdoor summer mountain world, at the end of a weary, taxing journey… this is the stuff that defines why we hike. It’s why I began hiking in the first place, the most tangible straightforward way to attack Thoreau’s marrow-sucking… and attack it through this last decade I believe I have.
Whether it’s taking off and driving across the country, or “backpacking Europe” or starving in a bus in Alaska, people pick up and do these seemingly crazy things for a reason. The romantics of the bunch muse that they’re “looking for something,” or “finding themselves,” but I suppose I’ve just wanted to see that I wasn’t missing anything. How can you settle down in one place and collect money and things without first examining what else is out there?
I’ve come to know that what’s out here is just the simple life and steady rhythms of rocks and water and trees and wildlife and clouds and wind and rain and sunshine and moonlight and stars – over and over again, with only a change in character and place – nothing more and nothing less. Most everyone knows this in a practical sense.
It comes and it goes, but to dive into this life and experience the world of a long hiking trail can have an attraction and allure like no other.
Long after “finding myself” and building my smug soul’s foundation of knowing the heart of the wide, wild world, the simple pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other in new, natural places still dominates my life.
The morning’s walk stays high on the ridge for longer than I’d expected. There’s a sense of approaching gray wetness from the west, but it’s calm, soft, scenic, and wonderful.
I look down on Taylor Lake and follow the descent.
The floor of the basin is painted in San Juan’s highest alpine foliage.
I replenish my drinking water from this outlet of the lake.
A light rain blows through, and there’s a chill wind.
A family that was apparently camped at the lake for the weekend hurriedly packs up and hits the trail. They pass above me without noticing my presence, as I’m in the bottom of a steep gully for water.
I gradually overtake them, spread out one by one as we approach the Kennebec Trailhead. The wind in my ears drowns out all other sound as the dimly colored ferns of Cumberland Basin sway in the breeze.
The irony of the name Kennebec Pass won’t escape a former AT hiker at this juncture of a thru-hike on the Colorado Trail.
I had heard of the Kennebec River in Maine before I ever set foot on the Appalachian Trail. From Georgia to Maine the local trail clubs have built an obscene number of elaborate foot bridges for hikers to cross countless rivers and streams, but these are few and far between in Maine. In Maine they like to make you get your feet wet.
The Kennebec is swift, with a relatively deep current that fluctuates widely with unpredictable releases from an upstream dam. A few hikers have drowned through the decades trying to ford it. Rather than build a bridge, the trail club decided to employ a man with a canoe specifically to ferry hikers across the river.
Even before my very first backpacking trip, the idea that there’s a man with a canoe waiting in the wilderness of the Maine woods for dirty, trail weary walkers from Georgia struck me as the very definition of adventure.
Today I think briefly of that time in Maine, maybe the best few weeks of my life.
For the CT thru-hiker, this pass is a gateway to the real world beyond the mountains.
No more mountaintops.
…into the trees, and twenty miles from the end of the Colorado Trail.
…more day hikers and a steady stream of mountain bikers… in this way the last day of the hike is the same as the first.
A woman asks if I’ve hiked from Denver. “Congratulations!” she says.
That’s when it hits home – I’ve done The Colorado Trail. For at least three summers it was a serious consideration in my mind, and now it’s passed. I’ve known and experienced the Colorado mountains.
The atmosphere grows warm and green, as expected of a long descent. There’s flowing streams and green life.
At the bridge over Upper Junction Creek I take an unexpectedly long break – the empty-minded, boring, dawdling blank stare of the solo long distance hiker. The day almost seems to drag on, and the miles still to-go place a small weight on my shoulders.
Mostly I just wish that I had more food. I savor my last Clif bar – if it can be called savoring. The Clif bar is the only edible item remaining in my pack, with the exception of a single dinner.
The path is enclosed in the narrow hills of a sort of gorge, and then it climbs up along the side of it.
The excitement of an ending transforms into another afternoon of winding out the miles. The uninterrupted, easy grade encourages a serene, steady rhythm that goes smooth and unbroken.
From outsider’s eyes I’d likely appear to be moving with a focused, dirty, aromatic haste. Despite the delightfully calm state of mind, I’m outwardly lean and hungry and set on a destination.
The bright afternoon matures to the cool of the evening.
Aspen trees line the stage for an encore, and escort me home.
The Ponderosa Pines have their turn. Mountain bikers pass with the ensuing dusk, fleeing the woods.
And here it is – the view and the bench at Gudy’s Overlook, four miles from the end of the Colorado Trail. This is at sunset, but the view is to the East.
It’s a fitting time and place for the epiphanies of the thru-hiker – emotion and satisfaction and contemplation.
Durango is right there.
But I know the time for all that fluff is behind me. It’s hidden somewhere among the rocks and dirt of the winding path that stretches five hundred miles and thirty-six days back to Denver.
Instead I take a rather blasphemous action while sitting here at this moment… I turn on my cell phone. There’s a friend in Pagosa Springs, watching over my internal combustion wheels of opportunity (My car). I hope to meet up with him tomorrow.
He answers the phone from within a loud bar. There’s music and the blur of many, many drunken, excited voices. It clearly sounds like a good time.
After the arrangements are made I turn off the phone, and look again into the view before me.
I laugh out loud to myself, as only a man alone in the mountains will.
I then hoist my pack and descend in darkness to Junction Creek.
Rather than go on for the few remaining miles to civilization, I set up camp for one more night on the trail.