Deep Hiking: India “Diagonal” Wood May Be the First To Complete the “Colorado X”
It was 2020 and life was staring India Wood in the face. She’d exhausted herself trying to find an agent for her memoir and just closed her business-research firm after 15 years. Her children were grown.
“I feel so stuck. I have no income. I’m a failure as a writer. I’ve shut down my business. I’ve got an empty nest. My career is at a standstill and I’m reworking my relationship with my spouse. I thought, ‘I have to get moving,’” she says.
Wood had always loved maps. She’d used them in her perpetual search for fossils on a remote northwest Colorado ranch as a child, took a work-study job in the map room as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, and later worked on the first interactive star charts for Sky & Telescope magazine.
She also was madly in love with her native state. Her parents had extensively photographed Colorado — there are 125,000 negatives of her father’s work in the Pikes Peak Library — and her mother wrote 28 books inspired by her life in the Rocky Mountains.
Feeling lost, Wood looked for direction. She picked up a magnifier and started looking at a 3D relief map of Colorado.
“I strung a string across the state and thought, ‘I wonder what that really looks like. I’d love to see this state, literally foot-by-foot, for what it actually is,” she says.
She’d done plenty of camping with her family, but never spent more than six nights backpacking. But suddenly, she knew what she had to do: hike across her beloved home state, corner to corner.
“Damn,” she recalls thinking, “I’m going diagonal!” She told her husband Paul, “It’s been great, but I’m going to be gone for three months.” And when her older brother told her she was crazy and couldn’t do it, the deal was sealed.
“If your older brother says that,” she says with a laugh, “you pretty much have to do it.”
On May 12, 2020, she set out from the sparsely populated, seldom-traveled southeast corner of Colorado and headed northwest for 732 miles over the next 65 days. Two years later, the Boulder-based naturalist, writer, and photographer completed an epic “criss-cross” of the state by walking 739 miles over 70 days, from northeast to southwest, apparently becoming the only person ever to hike a double-diagonal “transect” of Colorado.
For Wood, aka Diagonal, striking her own path made it possible to engage with the land and its people more deeply, and she wouldn’t do it any other way.
“I want to figure it out myself. I don’t want to be told where to go. … I like to go places different from anywhere I’ve been, see the places where nobody hikes,” she says. “Hiking some official trail, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Though born and raised in Colorado Springs, Wood “grew up on ranches.” Her mother, the late poet and writer Nancy C. Wood, married a man who had a ranch near Limon when she was 12.
“I spent five teenage summers riding horses and working cattle. I spent a lot of time on beautiful, unplowed native prairie and fell in love with it,” she says. “A lot of the joy I’ve found on my diagonal hikes involve hiking across 1 percent of native prairie that is left.”
Wood’s mother used to take the kids to a ranch in northwest Colorado for cheap vacations, which included hard labor filling potholes and stacking hay and sacks of rock salt. The female half of the couple that ran the ranch didn’t like children and got her young charge out from underfoot by sending her on fossil-hunting expeditions.
One day, Wood, age 12, spied a thumb-sized fossil bone poking up from a hillside and soon uncovered a bone “the size of a turkey platter.” She continued her periodic excavations, and by the time she was 16, she’d collected 18 complete dinosaur bones, which she had identified from library books as belonging to an Allosaurus.
When her mother told Wood she needed to clear the fossils from her bedroom so she could rent the house, she took the bones to what is now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Astounded experts told her she’d discovered an allosaurus and hired her to help complete the excavation over the next two summers. In 1995 the Allosaurus went on display at the museum.
“Nothing,” Wood writes on her website, “gives me more joy than a dinosaur bone.”
“That’s where I really learned to read maps, looking for fossils and documenting locations,” she says.
As a junior at Dartmouth, she did an internship in Botswana, where she interviewed Peace Corps volunteers. After graduation, she worked in the international division of Boston-based publisher Houghton-Mifflin for several years before entering business school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She worked in the Boston area for the next 15 years, including a stint with Sky & Telescope overseeing development of the magazine’s interactive star chart and amateur astronomy site.
But after a visit to her old fossil-hunting grounds near Dinosaur in 2002, she remembered where she came from.
“What am I doing in Boston? I feel like a plant in the wrong soil,” she recalls thinking.
She and her family soon moved back to Colorado, where she started Hart Business Research and enjoyed adventures around the state with her husband and children.
“We went to weird places nobody goes, the southeast, the northwest, the plains, western Colorado,” she says. “It was car camping. We did some backpacking, but it didn’t really catch with me.”
When it finally did, she really took the plunge.
Southeast to Northwest
To prepare for her 2020 journey, Wood hired an endurance coach, read books on wilderness survival (she recommends 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin and Russ Miller) and took courses with the Colorado Mountain Club.
“I told myself I would just start the first day, take one day at a time, and see how far I get,” she says. “I learned a lot from the 2020 journey. I screwed up a few times … more than a few times. But how else do you learn than making mistakes? My parents never said ‘no.’ It was always, find, catch and cook a rattlesnake for dinner, see how it goes.”
From the outset, Wood was amazed at the kindness of the people she met, many of whom were from decidedly different worlds than hers, such as 80-year-old Kletis Kelly from the remote southeast corner of the state and private-land-rights advocate and ecologist T. Wright Dickinson from the northwest quadrant.
“(Kelly) was my Gandalf. He would call and check on me every few weeks to see how I was doing,” she says. “He is an evangelical, Christian Republican, a farmer, and we don’t embrace those in Boulder as much as we should.”
Like most long hikes — perhaps especially first ones — Wood’s 2020 journey had its share of challenging moments.
She recalls getting caught in a “derecho” — defined by the National Weather Service as “a widespread, long-lived wind storm associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms” that can cause as much damage as a tornado — in early June southeast of Colorado Springs.
She hiked into the oncoming storm, fretting about a planned meeting with a friend.
“I shouldn’t even have left Pueblo that day,” she says. “Three-quarters of the time, not being flexible is the road to hell.”
After the wind “hit my tent like a dumptruck of bowling balls” and a near-freezing rain began to fall, she rose at four a.m. and walked 12 miles into a 45 mph headwind to the headquarters of Chico Basin Ranch.
Then there was the night on Two Elk Creek near Vail. Exhausted from a 3,000-foot, 14-mile day, she ignored her lifelong practice of bear safety and decided to eat in her tent, then sort her food, which included chocolate, nuts, and cheese — a bear’s buffet. Soon she heard the sound of snuffling and big paws crunching the cow parsley outside her tent. She banged her pot, blew her whistle and yelled, “Go away, bear!” She called a friend who knew bears, who advised her to pack up and leave.
“So I hauled ass six miles to Minturn, two hours in the dark,” she says. “It was sheer stupidity, not following the rules I’d followed year after year.”
The highlights outweighed the low points. Wood especially recalls the beauty of the Flat Top Wilderness and Island Lake in the vast forests and mountains east of Grand Junction.
“I carry the Island Lakes Valley inside me. I can calm myself, thinking of it. It’s so peaceful, the water is so clear, the wildflowers, there are islands in the middle…” she says, tailing off.
Northeast to Southwest
But Wood was not content with just one transect of Colorado.
“My mission,” she told Denver’s Channel 7 news in 2022, “is to hike an ‘X’ across Colorado, from corner to corner.” Calling her adventure Colorado X, she decided to raise money for Audubon Rockies as she walked.
This time, she started in the northeast corner, where most land is held privately. Her goal was to hike as close to the “diagonal” she’d drawn as possible without trespassing, using trails where available and roads as necessary. She found hospitality all along the way.
She was joined at times by friends, as well as University of Colorado Boulder journalism graduate student Ryan Ernstes, who received a $15,000 grant from the 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale after pitching a film about Wood, whom she’d been introduced to by a friend at a happy hour in Boulder.
“She’s so incredibly insightful and curious. I think she moves through nature and the outdoors in a way that’s pretty unique,” she says.
Ernstes became a key part of Wood’s hike, dropping her off at the start, meeting up with her five times along the way, and even influencing the route. Unlike in 2020, Wood encountered many backpackers in 2022, thanks to Ernstes’ suggestion that she follow the Colorado Trail for 10 days in the San Juans.
“She thought it would be nice to have some alpine footage after 300 miles of roads on plains,” Wood says, laughing.
But the CT’s legendary traverse of the San Juan Range, much of it at elevations of more than 12,000 feet, also brought one of Wood’s childhood anxieties into stark relief. As a child, she’d had a heart murmur and had been warned against going above 10,000 feet. Even though she’d grown out of the physical condition, she still had a vestigial fear of the high country.
After hiking up Cochetopa Creek, she stood at the saddle beneath 14,022-foot San Luis Peak and gazed southwest.
“There was one big mountain after another all the way to the horizon,” she says. “I felt like Bilbo Baggins facing the Misty Mountains and thought, ‘How can I possibly get through that? It’s 12,000 feet.’”
It didn’t help that cold rain poured on her nearly every day in the San Juans. But Wood took it one day at a time, and it was well worth the effort.
“I’m really pleased how well I did physically. … I took my time, taking photos, looking at mushrooms and animal tracks, talking to other people,” she says. “And my God, that was a spectacular 10 days, from Cochetopa Creek to Rico.”
She loved getting the chance to meet and talk to so many backpackers but was also struck by how her priorities often differed from theirs.
“So many are in a hurry, ‘I’ve got to get my 20 miles done!’ I never approach my day with a mileage goal. … These folks don’t have much time to talk, and I’m not sure how much they really notice. I average 12 miles a day, ranging from nine to 15 miles, always with my camp area and water sources planned ahead,” Wood says.
She was also surprised that many backpackers seemed largely unaware of where they were beyond a red line on a hiking app.
“They really didn’t know what was off in that direction or down that drainage. They never knew what anything is called,” she says. “Some do have a sense of place, but not many.”
Wood finished her ’22 hike on August 30 at Four Corners, apparently the first person to complete such a double-transect of Colorado.
She plans to keep hiking, but only within her native state. She envisions one- to two-week expeditions to places like the Uncompaghre Plateau, hiking diagonally across the high desert of the San Luis Valley, and a transect of the Denver Basin.
“I’ll definitely keep backpacking because I really love it. And I have a love affair with the state, deeply, passionately, madly,” she says.
Meanwhile, Ernstes is hard at work on the film, which will debut at the 2023 5Point festival.
“I’m really compelled by India’s story,” she says. “She is not a stoke chaser. She’s out there for noble reasons, to reconnect with the outdoors, from the outside in.”
Featured image: India Wood, south of Cortez, nearing the end of her northeast-southwest transect of Colorado in 2020. Courtesy Fern Mandel.
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