Colorado Trail: Hitching, Hope Pass, and Heartache
Hitching, Hope Pass, and Heartache
Brian, Matt, and I each arranged our backpacks as we had dozens of times before. Weighed down with a fresh resupply of food, we left the Colorado Trail House on foot and walked to the edge of the small city of Leadville, then stuck out our thumbs for a ride back to Twin Lakes. I used to feel awkward in this position; thumb out, hip cocked, chin up with a wide smile for passing drivers. Embarrassed and personally wounded by each rejection as cars sped past me.
Initially, it was uncomfortable to make myself so vulnerable in my willingness to ask complete strangers for assistance. A certain shamelessness is required to depend upon the presumed generosity and good will of another person, especially a person whom you have yet to meet and know nothing about. Hitch-hiking is not nearly as acceptable or practiced in the United States as compared with elsewhere in the world. A consequence of my consumerist society in which fossil fuel and automotive industries have strangled public transportation infrastructure, thereby necessitating that individuals possess their own personal vehicles, and subsequently demonize itinerant individuals who do not, or cannot, conform. Which is to say the majority of Americans have never, and will never, hitch-hike in their lifetimes let alone divert their own itineraries in order to pick up a hitchhiker.
Hitch-hiking is humbling, plain and simple. Standing on a broken concrete slab of sidewalk outside a gas station at the edge of town, I detected a pattern that I have observed countless times before. Luxury vehicles would purr past, the drivers’ gazes fixed resolutely ahead, and without sparing a moment of consideration, they would disappear down the road. Meanwhile folks driving beaters, old minivans, and rickety pickup trucks would smile at me or wave apologetically as if to say, “I’m sorry, but not today!” Usually a piece of shit car would slow to a roll, crack a window, and ask, “Where are you headed?” In my experience, it is the people who are most intimately acquainted with hardship and destitution that readily offer themselves and their assistance.
In this instance, the woman who stopped to give us a ride politely requested that we wear masks inside her SUV, then disappeared into the backseat to rearrange her belongings and make space for us. I could tell from her clothing, her vehicle, and the pieces of gear littering her trunk that this person had an inclination toward natural, remote locations. However, I was astonished to learn that she had spent a large portion of the past decade in Antarctica where both she and her partner worked as researchers. Antarctica, of all places! I was instantly intrigued and started in with a barrage of questions that we had only begun to discuss by the time she dropped us on the side of the road where we’d rejoin the trail.
The three of us set off, Brian charging ahead while Matt and I hung back. It was already midday and we would need to cover at least 15 miles to hike up and over the infamously miserable 12,500ft Hope Pass. The trail skirted tauntingly around the perimeter of the Twin Lakes whose crystalline waters lapped peacefully against the pebbly shore, soliciting me to abandon walking and swim.
Without any discussion, Matt and I veered off the trail and weaved through boulders and shrubs until we found a spot secluded enough to shed our clothes. I tiptoed gingerly into the glacial waters, shrieking and shuddering with the effort, while Matt sprinted into the lake, swallowed by the surface in a graceful dive. I willed myself not to think, not to panic or even breathe, and finally allowed myself to be enveloped by the cold as I ducked under. The silence below, the lack of gravity, was ethereal. The anxiety which had overwhelmed me the day before felt far, far away. It was soothing to propel myself through that soundless, amphibious world with long strokes and forceful kicks. I surfaced, rolled onto my back, and was flooded with gratitude for yesterday’s rains which had left a cloudless scroll of blue behind. Happy.
Eventually I swam back to the shore where Matt, still naked, sat rolling a joint. He grinned at me as I left the water and stretched my arms overhead, delighting in the way the sun felt against my bare breasts and stomach. I heard a hoot from a short distance away, in the direction of the trail, and saw a couple of hikers mosey by, lifting their hands in greeting before continuing on. Whatever genteel impulse might ordinarily compel me to cover my nakedness was dulled by the presence of the serenely lapping lake, the dense forest, and the Collegiate Mountains towering above. My naked body was better suited to this place, this moment, than my sense of propriety. I waved back and laid down on the pebbly earth to dry off.
The Colorado Trail splits into two different route options just after Twin Lakes, Collegiate West and Collegiate East. This split forms the Collegiate Loop Trail which encircles a dozen fourteeners and, in our case, allows backpackers to choose between the original Colorado Trail route (Collegiate East) and the Continental Divide Route (Collegiate West). Matt and I, along with the majority of the hikers I spoke to, chose to follow Collegiate West which held higher altitudes, more exposure, and fewer resupply options. Immediately after the fork in the CT, just a few miles southbound along Collegiate West, hikers encounter the delightful experience of hiking up Hope Pass.
Hiking, in this case, is a little bit misleading. Climbing is a more accurate description of the motion required to ascend, on tiptoes and bent at the waist, up and up thousands of feet in just a short handful of miles. The dark green silhouettes of trees, of sinewy pine and bristling firs, blurred past in my peripheral vision as my awareness dissolved into a trance-like state. In-breath. Step. Step. Step. Out-breath. Step. Step. Step. Step. I passed by Brian, who lumbered at his own steady speed, sweat dripping from his chin as his head bobbed to the house music in his headphones. Whatever gets you there, I thought as I marched to my own silent rhythm.
In-breath. Step. Step. Step. Out-breath. Step. Step. Step. Step. Every now and then, I’d pull out my phone and intently study the elevation profile on the screen in an attempt to delude myself that the hardest part was behind me. That despite the elevation gain per mile I was continuously calculating in my head, the grade of the trail would mellow out at any moment. Whether this was true or not, I didn’t care. I needed to believe it. In-breath. Step. Step. Step. Out-breath. Step.
Step. Step. Step. Discomforts of various varieties would arise and demand my attention. I imagined these grievances taking on little voices of their own, petitioning my internal control center for relief. I’m bored, entertain me. I’m hungry, feed me. I’m hot. Now I’m cold. Conserve energy! Stop walking! I willed myself to breathe through the discomforts, to acknowledge them, then ignore them, and continue placing one sneaker-clad foot in front of the other.
The layers of the forest fell away to reveal the final switchbacks which criss-crossed up the naked mountainside toward a notch in a series of prominent peaks. I spotted Matt ambling steadily toward the pass and thought, Gotcha. Drawing deep lungfuls of chilly mountain air, I allowed my unfocused gaze to rest on my automatic footsteps, and felt my spirit straining to access untapped reserves of energy. Glimpsing upon Matt ignited a competitive drive which allowed me to move more quickly than I had in hours.
With the final switchbacks in sight, I hiked with renewed vigor, slowly closing the gap between Matt and myself until I caught him at a hairpin bend linking one switchback to another. As Matt turned to face me, sweaty and surprised by my appearance, I coasted gracefully along in an unbroken stride. I was possessed, unwilling to halt the momentum I had gathered until I reached a string of multi-colored prayer flags whipping in the wind at the height of the climb. Dense clouds streamed through the saddle, spilling frothy white fog across an invisible stratum which shrouded the earth below.
Clarity consumed my senses as I rested in a moment of perfect emptiness, of absolute peace, in which I felt no need to comprehend anything beyond my pounding heart and laboring lungs.
Violent shivers brought my attention back to my bodily needs. My hands, clumsy with numbness, wrestled with the drawstrings and buckles on my pack until they managed to produce my rain jacket. I hadn’t packed gloves but I did carry a lone sock which I used to store my sunglasses. I retrieved the sock and attempted to shove both my hands inside of my makeshift mitten, eagerly awaiting my circulatory system to resume providing blood and body heat to my extremities, as two figures waded toward me through the fog.
Brian looked physically wasted but invigorated with the same elation I’d just experienced. Impulsively, I embraced him, threw my head back, and let out an excited howl. Matt, in contrast, swayed with every step looking ghastly pale and queasy. I put my hands on his shoulders to steady him and placed a small celebratory kiss on his cheek, tasting his cool sweat on my lips. He laid his head on my shoulder and released a sickening moan.
“Dude, are you alright? You look terrible”, Brian informed him.
Matt unfocused eyes moved from my concerned gaze, over my face, to my lips. He gave a wavering smile, then bent over, and puked.
From the early hours of morning emerged a new pattern marked by entwined limbs and poems read aloud in Matt’s southern drawl. My habitual impulse to break camp as quickly as possible was supplanted by the intoxicating allure of slow, sweet mornings curled into Matt’s side where I’d notice the passage of time like sand falling through an hourglass. I recognized, on some level, that our intimate routine was a vivid fantasy. A pretense of solidity in a mercurial moment. A wondrous pretending which, perhaps, characterizes all trysts, flings, and flames. In truth, we had only just begun to know one another. Outside of the uncomplicated Colorado Rockies, we were strangers.
The weight of this realization grew heavier as I hiked, alone, through brisk river canyons and then climbed over their exposed, ashen walls. Bouts of sadness and anxiety would undulate through my whole being, turning my nimble gait to a somber trudge ahead. In the torrent of my thoughts, Luke surfaced again and again.
We had hardly spoken since he’d left for Alaska almost two months ago. At the start of our separation, my memories of him had evoked such poignant longing that gradually, I’d stopped allowing myself to dwell there, in the past. I stopped seeking solace in those memories or in promises concerning the future. Instead, in spectacular dissociative fashion, I chose to feel nothing at all. Numbness enveloped me like a protective varnish, relieving the familiar sting of abandonment. Throughout the hike, I’d repressed whatever lingering feelings remained for Luke, figuring that if he managed to meet me at the end of the trail, as he hoped, we’d sort it out then. Now, I imagined what I would say to him and felt ashamed. How would I communicate the unexpected connection I’d found with Matt, if I should mention it at all?
The hike up to Lake Ann pass redirected some of my agitated energy. The trail would materialize and then vanish as it wound through a scree field of angular rocks. Lake Ann’s vast sapphire body glinted beneath the summer sun, looking deceptively inviting despite her frigid temperatures. As I neared the top of the climb, I lost my footing on a slushy patch of snow, and stumbled like a clumsy fawn. In an effort to catch myself before slipping off the switchback, my knee buckled at an odd angle and tweaked a muscle in my right calf. Every step that followed was punctuated by a sharp throbbing sensation.
As I descended the southern side of the pass, cumulonimbus clouds assembled in a dark mass overhead. I looked back in the direction I’d come, wondering if Matt would reach the height of the pass as the regular afternoon thunderstorms started up. A jolt of worry tightened my gut, but there was nothing for me to do. Besides, I reminded myself, Matt can take care of himself just fine without me. As the sky darkened above me, I walked faster, noticing the discomfort in my calf but managing it with ease. Just as I reached the treeline, the temperature instantaneously dropped ten degrees. Well that’s not good. Thunder cracked like a whip, issuing a threat from directly overhead. Hail started to fall, slowly at first, and then in a deluge accompanied by a deafening roar. Fuck. I stopped and turned back, searching for Matt on the switchbacks descending from Lake Ann pass. Where are you? My concern for him congealed into a heavy, uncomfortable mass in my stomach. Waiting in place, even for a few minutes, felt dangerous as thunder and lightning surged around me. My hands began to ache with numbness so I started walking and building heat. I have spent a lot of time being cold on this hike.
There was nothing to do but give myself over to the cold, the pain, the discomfort, and continue walking anyways. Once I did that, I started to notice how the moist maroon soil resembled red velvet cake. How the blue pine needles fallen across the forest floor sparkled brilliantly with the raindrops they collected. How much beauty and meaning arose from the most adverse conditions.
The following day was Luke’s birthday. It occurred to me that somewhere at sea, he opened a letter I had penned for him, for that day, months ago. I couldn’t recall exactly what I had written but I had the vague sense I’d made hopeful promises that I’d already failed to keep. As I hiked through the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, I struggled to recall the fine details of his I’d once loved. The world beyond the trail seemed so distant, so muted, and pale in comparison with the majesty of the Rocky mountains, the crystalline waters, and the rejuvenating evergreen forests of pine, spruce, and fir.
The stormy weather started earlier than usual that day. Ominous clouds ushered gails and precipitation through the mountainous topography, funneling cold air through the trail’s corridor. I resigned to walk with my head bent against the chilling rain, staring resolutely at the damp earth where I placed my feet. I passed a few hikers as I climbed, keeping my head down, but offering a two syllable ‘Hiii!’ in passing as I maintained my march upwards. I was steadily gaining on another hiker and sang my greeting to alert them of my presence. Rather than stepping aside, they whipped around in recognition. Familiar blue eyes and wide smile set in a striking jaw beamed in my direction.
“Nope. I’m Chomp now.”
“Chomp! I’m so happy to see you. Let’s walk. I’m freezing.”
We chatted excitedly all the way to the saddle of the first pass despite the thick sheets of hail and rain that threatened to smother the warmth of our reunion. Speaking with another person was such a blessing. It called my mind away from my own misery, allowing me to appreciate the difficult aspects of the hike. Matt caught up to us at the top of the climb where the three of us shared a quick lunch. We said goodbye to Chomp, opting to keep a swift pace beneath waves of frigid precipitation.
The next twelve miles were rolling ridge passes, each more lovely than the last, and all above treeline. The exposure felt both threatening and thrilling as the storm continued. When the sun finally appeared its intensity was leeching and cruel but I welcomed it all the same. I had been cold and wet for days. Both my calves had developed large, misshapen red welts that I took to be an indicator of an allergic reaction. I didn’t know what my body was reacting to but I imagined whatever irritating enzymes and antihistamines coursed through my legs were searing into my muscles like toxins. There were so many uncomfortable sensations ravaging my brain and body that I stopped bothering to distinguish them.
Matt and I crossed snow fields, glissaded down a glacier, and hiked for miles as intermittent company to one another. I had lost count of the number of passes and climbs we covered that day, but there seemed to be no end to the undulating ridgelines. They came in sets, like waves in the ocean building momentum over concealed contours in the sand. One valley would be a wasteland of gray rock with a black sky cracking boisterously above. The next would be sun dappled hills, a canvas of pale green punctuated with mammoth rocks and alpine pools.
At the top of the final ascent, in the last streaks of sunlight, Matt and I laid upon an elaborate tapestry of lichen, spindly grasses, and minuscule white flowers. We basked in the remaining light. Watched the clouds change shape and drift on. Remarked endlessly upon the fact that we were undeservedly lucky as the alpenglow bathed the mountain tops in champagne pinks and dreamsicle oranges.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.