Colorado Trail: Internal Terrain of Thru-Hiking
This series is a retrospective on my 2020 Colorado Trail thru-hike.
On the edge of the Green River, I slept more deeply than I had in ages, curled into dreams that bled into other dreams. Megan and I stowed our respective gear away with ease and fluidity, without feeling like we were rushing or stalling. Time passed slowly, graciously, and the day promised to move at a forgiving pace. That morning, the walking was ideal. Dark spruces interspersed with slender Aspens adorned with silver, grey, and sage green leaves fluttering in the wind. Columbines appeared in dense patches, swooning softly as though their silken white and violet star-shaped bodies were dancing to a secret song carried on the velvety breeze. A thin sheet of clouds blocked the sun’s heat and life-leeching light. As a result, the air felt gentle even as the trail meandered through woods and across trickling streams; climbing, climbing, climbing upward to 10,600 feet.
After back to back twenty mile days, my muscles felt powerful; satisfyingly tired and spring loaded in the way that paradoxically produces more energy. I was adjusting to the altitude, and fortunately, my appetite was returning.
At the first solid water source of the day, I found a conglomeration of other hikers which varied in their group sizes and character. In the midst of Covid, the Colorado Trail association was one of few organizations which had not adamantly requested that hikers get off the trail or cancel their thru-hikes. This is, if I had to speculate, a result of the small weather window that allows for a CT thru: Late July through early September.
In the late summer of 2020, reported cases of Covid were relatively stabilized and public infrastructure had had time to adapt to operating with social distancing measures in place. There was a brief window of time where stay-at-home-orders were eased or rescinded altogether, thereby resulting in surges of outdoor recreation. So many PCT, CDT, or AT hopefuls had canceled their long anticipated trips in the spring of 2020. The CT, along with a handful of other trails, remained as one of the few viable options for a 2020 thru. Consequently, many hikers gathered the shrapnel of their wrecked plans, bided their time in lockdown in whatever living arrangements the transients could manage, and then set out for Colorado when the moment of opportunity opened to them.
After spending the morning hours walking alone and in silence—my preferred sort of morning—I wasn’t feeling quite up to chitchatting. Instead, I dropped my pack, quietly gathered water, and then sat down to make a couple of spinach tortillas with avocado, bean dip, and a smattering of nutritional yeast with olive oil.
There are as many different resupply strategies as there are hikers. For instance, one of my dear friends on the PCT, aptly named Pavlov, once packed out an impressive twenty five individually wrapped McDoubles as his entire resupply. Everyone’s food wants and needs differ. My own strategy includes desperately trying to eat as many fruits and vegetables in the backcountry as possible.
After lunch, the steepness of the terrain turned grueling but I was grateful as my legs throbbed up the climb. My head swam in the most delicious way; breathless, calves and quads burning without the assistance of trekking poles. This sensation was what I had longed for and anticipated. This gratifying, masochistic release of feeling my limit and willing my lungs, my capacity for discomfort, to continue expanding. Soon enough, the earth evened out considerably, and unfurled to reveal a meadow with a stream flowing through its center.
The meadow, flanked by dark woods on both sides, was covered in wildflowers—indigo shot through with gold, soft lilac purples, white lupines and bushes of small yellow blossoms. The clouds overhead grumbled like they might start wailing at any moment but mostly they just offered their shade. Walking alongside the shimmering ribbon of flowing water, adorned in a spectrum of alpine blooms, felt soothing. Felt serene. I was flooded with gratitude, as I had been in so many moments throughout the day, and I relished the silence.
However, by the time I had made it to the tree line, I longed to see Megan materialize up the trail or for someone else to appear and delight in the meadow with me. I situated myself to wait, which meant warding off legions of mosquitos by trying to tuck my whole body into the cover of my rain jacket.
Matt appeared before Megan, collected a modest amount of water, and wordlessly lingered for a moment. If he was making a silent assessment of whether or not I wanted to walk and talk with him for a while, I made it perfectly clear that I was wanting for conversation by starting in on him with questions about what he was reading (Stephen Hawking’s “The Universe in a Nutshell”), what he had studied (physics and math), and why (I won’t summarize that one).
As Matt answered my questions, and our feet marched in synchronicity over gritty dirt, he spoke again and again of the search for beauty. As though physics was this language; this alphabet of numbers and figures arranged in a syntax of equations by which one could discern patterns and dimensions that are invisible and indiscernible to most. Certainly indiscernible to me. His descriptions of his discipline were outright poetic.
When we reached the place we had intended to camp, the only water source for the next ten miles, we found an assortment of unfortunate looking campsites sloped haphazardly across the side of a steeply inclined hill. Megan arrived, surveyed the area, and in her face I saw the same glumness over our prospective options. She warded off my annoyance at the situation with an iconic cackle, a biting laugh that is unique to Megan herself, and has a way of infecting all its hearers with mirth. Mosquitos crept up in maddening swarms, sensing the carbon dioxide of our exhalations, and we decided to set up near the base of the slope with our feet inclined above our heads.
Inside my narrow Nemo hornet, Megan and I peeled off our increasingly crusty hiking clothes and pulled on layers to protect against the mosquitos. A handful of wooden planks formed an unadorned footbridge over the gushing stream, providing the perfect spot to soak our feet as we filtered water. The water was frigid. Excruciating, at least for the first thirty seconds. But after that it became blissful as the numbness penetrated and soothed the sore muscles in my feet.
An incredibly slender girl with a thicket of wild, curly hair appeared on the footbridge looking dirty and hip and outrageously lovely.
“Hey,” she started, “So uh, these campsites all seem pretty shit, huh?”
“Yeah. You might look on the other side,” Megan offered, referencing the other side of the stream, “but to be honest, it doesn’t look any better over there.”
The young woman nodded, curls bouncing up and down with the gesture, and introduced herself as K.
A tall redhead lumbered over the bridge–where K, Megan, and I sat–in order to dip his shirt into the stream. He draped the wet garment delicately over the outstretched arms of a fir tree and sauntered off without saying much to either of us in a way that seemed to me more the result of exhaustion rather than unfriendliness. I watched as he made his way to a tent site on the far side of the stream and began coaxing a small campfire into existence.
It seemed that our options were to either hike out from the mosquitos in the shelter of my tent, cramped and resigned to the uneven terrain as we ate our dinners, or instead, make friends with the person building a fire whose smoke would ward off the insects. Megan, who rarely needs much convincing to thrust herself into new social settings, agreed that the fire was the more appealing option.
The big redhead’s name was Brian. A home-grown Californian whose life had been upended by Covid, Brian was walking off an intense breakup and planning on relocating to Denver. He had started the CT thinking he would do a section—200 or 300 miles, maybe—but with every passing day on trail, he considered going all the way to Durango.
Brian explained this as a handful of hikers—Matt, Megan, K and I among others—gathered around the fire like moths appearing from blackness in search of light and warmth. I turned over Brian’s words and reflected on the ways Covid had upended my own life. I had lost my job, was forced to move across the country, and my budding relationship with Luke had been halted, suddenly becoming one uncertainty in an ever changing landscape of other more terrifying uncertainties.
It also occurred to me that for me, for Brian, and for so many others, a long hike was the best medicine imaginable in the healing process of figuring it all out. Mile 54.
July 9th – Georgia Pass
Megan, Brian, and I hiked in tandem up a slow, steady climb that revealed gorgeous views of the Front Range and red dusty peaks still covered in snow. There were wildflowers exploding in a kaleidoscopic frenzy of yellow, pink, and purple. In a bizarre stroke of trail magic, a bottle of silver tequila materialized on the arm of a tree, hanging in a plastic bag. Though probably not advisable, we took the bottle and swigged some down, then proceeded up the grueling climb feeling predictably nauseated.
Eventually, I peeled away from Megan and Brian, put in my headphones, and fell into a meditation of panting, stepping, and focusing only on the trail beneath my feet. It was in that trance-like state that I reached the wide open high point at Georgia pass where the Colorado Trail (CT) joins the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). As I coasted over the pass, I pressed my hand against the rusty waist-high CDT trail marker reverently and then subsequently slammed my foot into a rock.
I screamed, then stumbled, and looked up to see Matt folded cross-legged beside the trail sitting serenely beneath the shade of a tree. I was surprised to see him. Surprised he wasn’t farther ahead. Relieved that he wasn’t. I folded myself into the same position beside him and tried to ignore the heat of his knee pressed against mine. We chatted until the others caught up—first K, then Megan, and finally Brian.
By the time I started walking again, I was euphorically energized. Hiking fast, blaring Rainbow Kitten Surprise in my headphones, and feeling completely at ease. Matt caught up to me eventually and we fell into step together, chatting companionably as we walked. I liked talking to him though it didn’t feel easy or natural to do so just yet.
At Swan River, I shirked my pack and went immediately to dip myself in the river. Freezing water saturated my aching feet, my itching skin, and cleansed the days that had accumulated in a brine of sweat and salt. I dipped my crusty shirt and shorts into the generously flowing water, then hung the garments over the limb of a small fir. Despite the lingering sunlight, shivers seized my naked limbs immediately, and my idyllic river dip was abruptly replaced with the primal need to get warm.
Matt, Brian, K, Megan, and I pitched our shelters in a lopsided circle on the inviting pine duff beneath the cover of towering ponderosas. Brian built a small fire at the circle’s center and the five of us ate our dinners around its perimeter, layered up in every garment of clothing we had to ward off the mosquitoes. A flash of emotion surged through me, some mixture of melancholy and sweetness. A recognition of the possibility that each of these people might become dear to me and dear to one another. The dim foreshadowing of the formation of a small community which brought to mind other, similar groups I’ve been a member of in the past. As if the friendships that were being conceived by the fire’s smoke and the onset of the cool Colorado evening inexorably recalled a deep pining for others—other people, other places, other moments in time. Luke came to mind and along with his memory a dull, diffuse ache set in. Mile 91.
July 10th, 2020 – Breckenridge
I slept poorly and made a mental note of how many consecutive nights restful sleep had evaded me. Something felt amiss but I couldn’t place what it was and my attempts to identify the source of my unrest were derailed by fits of laughter as Megan crash landed, still half-asleep, back into the tent with sticks and leaves woven mysteriously into her hair. Our laughter sounded throughout our small makeshift colony and I heard the others begin to stir.
It was Megan and I’s final day together before she’d depart and resume her own itinerary of work and travel. I felt immensely grateful she’d been willing to join me on the first section of the trail. Willing to walk twenty miles a day and open herself up to the strangers we encountered along the way. Thru-hiking isn’t particularly glamorous or even exciting. Like running, cycling, or mountaineering, performing a rigorous, repetitive exercise for hours on end is more like a Calvinistic practice in suffering than an adrenaline inducing extreme sport. Thru-hiking is immersive. Introspective. Half misery and half elation. And more often than not, its magic is understated and impossible to communicate. It was important to me that I could share that with her.
The final miles before reaching town felt like a footrace. We each hiked furiously toward Breckenridge, leapfrogging one another in quick succession the second someone stopped to adjust something in their pack or fish out a snack. Daydreams of giant margaritas with chunky salted rims propelled my legs in their long, fluid strides. I imagined the luxurious feel of a hot shower, of cotton bed sheets sliding over my skin. Sometimes the last few miles before reaching a town seem to occupy an infinite, truly infinite, span of time. That day, however, the miles passed quickly without much notice or strain.
By noon, Megan, Brian, Matt, and I were standing on the shoulder of the main thoroughfare awaiting a shuttle that would take us into the upscale ski town of Breckenridge. The midday sun beat down on the blacktop as cars roared past at dizzying speeds. Back within reach of cell service, each of us sat in the dust with our eyes glued to the illuminated glass of our respective smartphones, digesting news pieces and responding to text messages. It was abrupt, transitioning between days spent in the tranquility of the wilderness to the cacophony of stimuli which marked civilization. Uncomfortable but not unfamiliar. And not without its own irrefutable charms.
The four of us settled into the Fireside Inn, a groovy hostel which geared itself toward a clientele of skiers and snowboarders. The place was almost entirely vacant and the young woman who checked us in offered to help us with our laundry. While our clothes were being washed, the host outfitted each of us in oversized basketball shorts and t-shirts so that we looked like a rag-tag rec-league team. Despite my goofy appearance, I felt absolutely gorgeous after my first shower in nearly a week. I walked around the hostel, masked but barefoot, pouring over the books and the cozy alpine décor. Again, that profound sense of peace settled over me. I called Pavlov, one of my dearest friends from the PCT, and he celebrated with me from 8,000 miles away.
“I can’t believe it, Snap!” he exclaimed in his lilting Aussie accent, calling me by my PCT moniker, “You’re on trail!”
There was such a surreal quality to the evening that I too could scarcely comprehend that despite the pandemic, and because of it, I had found myself thru-hiking across Colorado. In the balmy summer air, I drank margaritas with Megan in the middle of Main Street until the tequila melted every ounce of tension from my tired muscles. My phone vibrated against my thigh and when I checked the screen, I saw the foreign looking number of Luke’s satellite phone. Immediately I stepped away to take the call.
“Bell!” His distinct and unwavering enthusiasm filled my ears, splitting wide the smile that was already growing on my lips. I was grateful to hear his voice. Grateful to receive his updates about his own adventure salmon fishing in Alaska. I closed my eyes, trying to summon a sense of togetherness, but the jubilant street noise would break the spell and drag me back to Breckenridge. I was delighted to hear his voice, hopeful about his promise that he would be back in the lower 48 to meet me at the end of the trail, but I was also distracted and enthralled by the immediacy of my present surroundings.
When the sky turned a dark shade of purple signaling nightfall, we went back to the hostel to soak in the hot tub. A retro arrangement of shiny metal and long wooden planks, the hot tub and the small alcove where it resided recalled another era. Megan, Matt, and I attempted to submerge ourselves in the scalding water but the unforgiving heat, in combination with too many cocktails, left me feeling queasy and faint. I went outside to drink in fresh air and calm my stomach but was immediately grafted into a gathering of hikers, so instead I ended up with a cigarette in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other.
Despite the revelry, I kept finding myself bored. Not bored, but feeling disconnected from the people around me. Luke’s call lingered on my mind and I longed to have a conversation of substance. The kind of conversation that changes your mind about something or someone. The sort that sticks with you. Cements itself in your mind like a signpost guiding the way.
I went back to the quiet little alcove that housed the hot tub. Slipping into the water, the only sound was that of my own breathing, my pounding heart, and the water lapping against my skin. The silence was fractured by someone else’s approach and I looked over my shoulder to see Matt coming to join me.
The already stuffy air seemed to grow thicker as he slid wordlessly into the water, watching my face as he did so. Pupils dilated. Breathing deeply. Each of my senses felt electrified, attentive to him in a way that I hadn’t been able to be before. In that moment, there were no miles or tasks to distract from the experience of sitting, half-naked and tipsy, across from one another. There was nowhere to look but at his bare chess, his long arms, his sculpted abdomen. Tiny beads of sweat formed over his jaw, then ran in rivulets when his mouth would reshape itself into a coy, closed-lipped smirk.
I was attracted to him but before that thought registered, my mental defenses were already swatting it away. I suppose I had thought that, felt that, a number of times before that particular moment but I wouldn’t entertain the possibility with any seriousness. Even if his leg brushing incidentally against mine below the water was extremely distracting. Brian abruptly entered the scene. His arrival extinguished the atmosphere of intimacy building between Matt and me, reverting the mood to lightheartedness and laughter.
In the final moments of the night, I sat outside on the front lawn of the hostel and titled my head back in search of stars. A handful of disparate blazes winked back at me but the light pollution from Breckenridge was enough to obscure most of the celestial bodies from view. When I lowered my gaze back to the earth, a coyote the color of sand bounded majestically across my field of vision. An omen, though good or bad, I couldn’t be sure. Mile 104.
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