CT Days 19-20

Day 19 – 18.4mi

I wake up to a frosty tent that painfully freezes my hands when I go to pack it up. Even so, when I get going around 7:00 a.m., I can already feel the warm gusts of air carrying the sun’s heat into the shady valley.

I resist breaking to change out of my heavier clothes until the water source, where I also do some doctoring on my heel blisters which developed over the course of yesterday. Luckily for me, they don’t hurt on the climbs, of which there will be many today.

I top out the first climb and find myself standing on top of San Luis Pass. To my right, San Luis Peak, a fourteener, looms, noticeably taller than any other mountain in the vicinity.

I see two hikers starting to zigzag up its steep flanks. I turn to go down the other side of the pass. I don’t have much interest in climbing to the top; I’m content with the views from where I already am.

Marmots, views, clear skies. It’s wonderland.

After the second saddle I head down, down to a four-way junction, and then up to the high point of the day. And it’s a wicked climb. At some point, I’m stopping every ten steps to catch my breath and from the searing pain in my legs. It’s so tedious, stopping and starting and not having a rhythm, that I experiment with pushing through the pain. I start breathing deeper than I thought I could. On this climb, I learn to slow my pace so I can keep the rhythm – slow and steady, not racing and crashing.

At the top I can even see the flat expanse of snow mesa behind the peaks.

I descend, straight down. It’s so steep, and slippery with all the gravelly soil. Suddenly I start getting anxious. Walls of steep rock everywhere and I don’t know where the safe way through is. But I look at the map and remind myself that there is one. Sometimes this landscape is so overwhelming.

I meet Pacer and we have lunch together. We talk a little about his CDT hike, and how our lives are structured so that we are both able to make time to be here. (Self-employed versus unemployed – I’m unemployed).

I learn that the trio plans to camp on the high, flat Snow Mesa tonight. There is not a cloud in the sky, and it only calls for sun for the next few days, but still, I’m nervous about joining them. Something about the negative connotation of afternoons, relating to thunderstorms. But I decide to follow, because my fears are probably irrational, and it’s a good opportunity to face them. A clear weather blessing to sleep above treeline – in that large expanse of tundra in the sky.

We climb a little, but stop in the last bit of shade from beetle-killed trees to wait out the heat of the afternoon. There’s no shade up there on that table, why rush just to get scorched?

Once SealMom catches up with us from her fourteener adventure detour to San Luis Peak, the four of us conga line up the last climb to Snow Mesa. Pacer lives up to his name, taking the lead, and following, I never once have to stop and catch my breath. Slow and steady; that seems to be my lesson for the day.

Of course, it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful. We weave in and out of the wind as we round one bowl, hope over a ridge, and circle another. The flat sky table come into view; so does the smoke from a nearby wildfire – directly in the direction of Durango. Hopefully, far enough away from the path we are trying to take.

The evening is golden, and I really enjoy sharing the experience with the people around me. I never would have thought that would be a part of my experience on this trail. I’m happy and grateful.

We land upon the mesa, wind whipping the yellow grass all around. There was word from a NOBOer about a nice campsite near a small lake, but it’s so, so windy. And who knows when it will die down?

So we wander a bit farther and end up settling in at the bottom of a sandy drainage ditch that provides a little bit of a windbreak. (It better not rain). Accepting that there is no appropriate vegetation from which to hang my Ursack, I do the naughty thing and sleep with my food.

Day 20 – 4.6mi

We awake in the ditch upon the mesa, and luckily it has not rained.

While eating my oatmeal, I admire the thin strip of peaks just visible beyond the edge of the flatness, glowing pink in the sunrise. A rainbow of colors expands across the horizon just for a moment, but now the sun is fully risen, everything is blue, and it disappears. It happens so quickly, it’s strange to think that the sun (or the earth) moves that fast.

It’s not far to the other edge of the mesa, just a few rolling miles to the big drop-off that will take us down to the highway.

It’s beautiful. Looking closer at the ground, it’s not flat, but rather ripped up with thousands of soft dirt mounds accompanied by little holes in the ground. What creatures burrow here? I mistake the low willows on the tops of hills for creatures, gazing down upon us.

I take a break before the descent to take off all the clothes I’m wearing. It’s freezing, but within half an hour of sunlight it’s scorching. The two extremes with no in between.

Pacer and Tambo are a bit ahead, and as I wander down through the forest, I see the asphalt getting closer. I hear cars. I fantasize that they’ve already found us a hitch, and it’ll just be waiting there for SealMom and I when we reach the trailhead.

And no sooner have I thought it that it comes into being: I emerge from the trees to a huge RV pulled over, and they’re hopping into it. Actually magic! Janet drives five hikers up the narrow winding road to town, and we arrive in time for breakfast.

Lake City is a funny place, with big trees hiding the businesses on the main street and almost more OHVs than cars on the roads. We go to get breakfast, but the most highly recommended place is closed on Thursdays, so we settle for the bakery. I get a quiche, a burrito, and a maple bacon twist, eat them all too fast, and get a stomachache.

I end up at the campground – $20 for a site, laundry, and shower isn’t a bad deal. Some other hikers recommended the hostel, but I’m so glad I’m here – right across a dirt road is the Lake Fork Gunnison River, and there’s a perfect swimming hole right there. I soak my feet, and I listen to the falling water, and it feels good.

I like my tent, it’s home. I like that I have the privacy here that I wouldn’t have in a dorm room, and I like the fresh air. I take a long nap.

In looking at the next section coming up, of course, I worry about the weather. It’s going to be so exposed. But do I want thunder or sun? The shuttle only leaves here at noon for the trailhead tomorrow, and I’ll be starting at the worst time of day for the heat. I feel dried out, even my eyes feel sunburned. Better that than rain, I guess?

Funny how ‘exposure’ is the word to fear. I used to know it as exposure to falling, as in you’re above a steep drop and you want to watch your footing. Here people use the word more to mean being open to the sky. Having nothing to hide behind, being vulnerable to the heavens, being significant, being seen. The literal, the metaphorical. That is what is to fear.

We go to dinner at the Packer’s Saloon, named after a local historical figure, famous for his cannibalism. What strange things humans choose to memorialize.

I’m late to the table, but to my surprise there’s a seat and a menu waiting for me. I feel happy to be thought of and included.

I never thought I’d fall into step with anyone on this hike, but here I am, counting myself as part of a group. I think I’m still wondering at that – of how not being alone has been an enjoyable thing. It is nice, to accept and be accepted. I’m so grateful to be able to share this experience with such laid back, positive, kind people. When I’m with them, the fears take a back seat and I feel myself more able to enjoy the moment.

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