Dreams vs. Reality for a Colorado Trail Thru-Hike

Hi there, Trek reader! My name is Rachel. Today I’m going to take you on a journey through several parallel worlds to introduce you to who I am, what my hiking goals were, and what my hiking goals now are.

The Dream World

First stop: unreality, after some background. I grew up in Minnesota, but moved to Colorado for college. You’re correct in assuming that I didn’t hike, camp, or backpack prior to that move. During my first year of college, I was accepted into an environmental sustainability program that included hiking, trail restoration, camping, rafting, and other outdoor experiences on top of sustainability focused classes. In subsequent years, my friends and I spent increasing amounts of free time hiking local trails, road tripping around the Western states and national parks, and exploring the backcountry on short, overnight backpacking routes.

Last fall, I got The Idea. The Idea was inspired primarily by my less-than-inspirational office job, where I sit, as many of us do, staring longingly out the window like we’re waiting for our long-lost love’s train to arrive. But The Idea is about more than escaping the 9 to 5. I don’t expect to live in Colorado forever, and I want to explore as much of the mountains and state while I can. From my extensive (zero) experience, a thru-hike seems to be, at its structural core, basically a big logistical nightmare. And I’m exactly the type of spreadsheet-making, schedule-organizing, Type A personality who thrives almost as much during the planning phase as during the execution. To a certain extent, I consider this an asset, but I also hope that the multiday hiking will allow me to embrace flexibility in a way I haven’t previously.

So, the dream world. Last fall, I got The Idea; the idea to gleefully turn in my two-weeks notice in early July, travel to California for a camping trip, road-trip to Minnesota for a wedding and exploration of the North Woods, and return to the Rockies for a 3-4 week stretch on the Colorado Trail. After hiking the first 100 or so miles as section hikes on spring and early summer weekends, I hoped to complete the roughly 300 remaining miles as an introductory thru-hike. That was The Idea. That was the dream world.

The Real World

Attention passengers. We are now crash landing into reality. As you can imagine, the start of March pretty much tore up the dream world. Before we talk about altered plans, let’s acknowledge some things:

  • I was massively privileged to be able to work remotely in my apartment during Colorado’s stay-at-home order, maintaining my regular income in a way millions of Americans were and still are unable to do. That means that the government stimulus check that arrived in April was a bonus for me, rather than probably-still-insufficient funds going toward my basic living expenses. That’s why a portion of my check went to four charities that mean a lot to me—not a brag, just a reminder that it’s not too late for you to use your check similarly, if it functioned more as a bonus than a lifeline.
  • My white privilege actively benefits me in every realm of life, including outdoor recreation. Sometimes I’m tempted to think of hiking as a low-cost sport. It doesn’t have the daily admission ticket of ski hills or amusement parks, for instance. But when you thoughtfully consider every factor (inventory the capital) that allows you to hike, whether for half a day or for months at a time, you must consider the cost of your gear, your access to a reliable form of transportation, work that provides a reliable income, and often, the time available to take vacation days or the time allowed by economic resources to take months off from an income. The economic privilege tied to white privilege often goes back generations, meaning that historical contexts that may not technically exist today (think: slavery, Jim Crow, lawful segregation, redlining, and so much more) do still impact today’s context. And that’s just the surface of the economic side of life. White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t had difficulties, it means your skin color hasn’t been one of the things that makes it harder.
  • It would be violent of me not to use this platform (however few my readers are, hi Mom and Dad!) to remind anyone reading that you cannot simply “leave politics out of the trails,” cannot simply ignore the privilege and capital that has accumulated over centuries that allows you to hike, backpack, thru-hike without your skin color impacting those activities negatively. So if outdoor recreation is a particularly important aspect of your life, join me in working through the resources compiled by the Trek here. Watch, read, listen, yes, but take action too. Donate to an organization pursuing racial justice. So far, I’ve donated to Big City Mountaineers, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Minneapolis Foundation.

During the initial quarantine in Colorado, I was able to complete the first few sections of the Colorado Trail on the weekends. Those hikes functioned as pretty much my only physical activity during the quarantine, but I was lucky to be able to complete them responsibly: without entering any stores or neighborhoods outside my community, hiking only with my boyfriend whom I live with, and wearing a mask plus stepping off trail to let others pass to maintain a six-foot distance.

The most recent Colorado Trail Foundation guidelines do not advise thru-hikers to abandon their plans, but rather be prepared to make many and possibly extensive alterations to their plans to hike safely. Perhaps the more obvious adjustments include adding a mask and sanitizer to your pack and stepping aside when passing other hikers, who may have traveled from all over the country to be there and will return to those places after their hike. There are some other straightforward changes to consider, like waiting longer for hitches or shuttles and restrictions in hotels, restaurants, and resupply stores in trail towns.

Other factors may not be as obvious/ At least, they weren’t to me. I didn’t really realize until I was actually hiking through Segment 5 that the tree blowdowns would normally be cleared by hard-working volunteer trail crews. It’s humbling to recognize that there are people hiking and carrying heavy equipment to maintain the trail for us, the hikers carrying often only the lightest-weight gear to service only ourselves. In a different vein, the CTF expects higher hiker numbers on the trail this year. Partly from people getting outside after feeling cooped up at home, and partly from people who had planned to hike one of the longer trails and are “transplanting” to the CT to take advantage of the shorter distance within their original season of planned travel.

At this time (I’ve been using that qualifier a lot these days), continuing to hike CT sections seems to be a reasonable goal while taking health and safety precautions. I would love to say I’m still planning to abruptly exit the rat race to high-tail to the trail for a multiple week adventure, but At This Time, I don’t think I (or many of us) can make firm travel plans more than a week or two in advance. While my ultimate goal is a few weeks of introductory, classic thru-hike experience sometime in August or September, that’s a different, misty, shrouded future world and we haven’t quite arrived there yet.

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Comments 7

  • Avatar
    Karina Smiley : Jul 27th

    YES RATCH WOOOO

    Reply
  • Avatar
    OH : Jul 28th

    Thank you for sharing! A+ On the self-reflective content and keeping a broad perspective!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Todd : Jul 28th

    Thanks for the fun read. However, we can leave politics at home and I did it on the CT for 17 days this summer. Remember, just because one person believes something and the pattern works for you, your family and or friends, that doesn’t make it ‘true’ for society or everyone of the same race. Privilege or the abundance of time ( or income) can come from making good decisions, education, risk taking, personally doing without or family.

    Again, fun read, but politics don’t have to be front and center in EVERYTHING. Unscrupulous media outlets driving agendas don’t deserve our time and energy. Trust me, they do not care about us.

    – Todd, 54 and working hard to save money for next summer!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Kyla : Jul 29th

      Todd — It is your privilege that allows you to choose to leave politics out of every situation. And I will leave it at that.

      Rachel — This was a fantastic read! I look forward to reading more of your posts.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Lana : Jul 30th

      I agree Todd.
      I work too hard every single day for everything I have and I will leave politics behind on every hiking trip that I go on.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Bate : Aug 9th

      I agree that Rachel posted a great read, but i’m confused by your discomfort over her inclusion of “politics”? How is her bringing up the privilege of being able to participate in the activity of hiking political? Are you denying that race remains an unfortunate obstacle in the equal participation of activities such as hiking in the US? Or do you think that people just need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to be able to afford the same leisure activities as you? She literally said in the article that your skin color didn’t deny any struggle you had, it just did not contribute to it. I yearn for a world where people can recognize their own privilege, while advocating for all identities to enjoy hiking to the same extent that you are able to. It’s not politics, it’s ethics.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Lana : Jul 30th

    Me too! Bummer. I was looking forward to another’s hiking perspective! Oh well…

    Reply

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