I DID IT! Last Day on the Colorado Trail
Day 22 – September 3
My eyes spring open right at 5 am. I did not get a great night’s sleep. A mouse kept trying to get into my tent over and over throughout the night, but it doesn’t matter. I can barely contain my excitement. Nearby, I hear Jacob and Bobbi already getting ready to head out before the sunrise. My packing happens in record time, and I am on the trail just after 6:30 am.
Only 13.5 miles remain. The first 3 or so are a gradual climb to the final high point, after which I will essentially descend to the end. Just over a mile into the morning, I stop at a creek to filter water. I fill a full 2 liters of the cold mountain stream, which should be enough to last to the trailhead. I message Alex through the Garmin: “Hopefully just filtered water for the last time!” Yesterday and today are a series of lasts.
The climb is gradual and only the last few hundred feet are steep. My legs carry me with ease at this altitude. And even though I am below treeline, I am still treated to a lovely view at the top.
Descending Into Civilization
As I am taking photos at this final high point, I hear a voice and turn to see a hiker making his way up the climb. Top’o (as in, Top ‘o’ the morning)! We were on the same shuttle from Lake City the day I had my lightning scare, but I didn’t see him after the ride. How amazing to run into him again!
We hike together for a little while, catching up on each other’s journeys and enjoying the company. I start to realize, though, that I need to hike alone today. On this, my last day of this inexplicable journey, I need to start to process this on my own. That is easy enough, as Top’o is a faster hiker, so I let him forge ahead after offering him a ride to town once we finish.
And for a while, I am alone with my thoughts and the trail. Some of the tread is easy, but much of the descent is, of course, a mess of loose rock. Thanks for the send-off, rocks, I think to myself. I appreciate you in spite of it all.
Soon, though, being within 10 miles of town on a holiday weekend catches up to me. Trail runners, mountain bikers, day hikers – they all start to appear more and more often. On one emptier stretch, I find what looks to be a great peeing tree. It’s far enough from water and the trail and is wider than most other trees I have seen for miles. I look around, and hearing no one, quickly get down to business.
Immediately a mountain bike comes flying around the bend. There’s no hiding what is happening.
”I’m sorry!” I cry out. There is no way to fully hide my exposed rear end.
The mountain biker laughs. “It happens!” She pointedly keeps her gaze on trail as she flies past.
I laugh. It happens, indeed! Turns out there are also some firsts on this last day.
I have hiked a record pace for 9 miles, and my feet are starting to feel it. Knowing that I am getting to town today, I have not focused on calories like I ordinarily would, and the lack of fuel is catching up to me. At 9.5 miles into the day, I will hit the famous Gudy’s Rest. Gudy Gaskill is often called the mother of the Colorado Trail. She worked tirelessly to make the trail happen, and this bench overlook is named for her. It is my final marker.
But I feel like it is impossibly far for the half mile leading up to it. Around every bend is just another bend, with no sign of the bench. I am hangry, my body is tired, and am pushing myself a little too hard.
Finally, just ahead, I see Bobbi and Jacob taking a break in the shade. This must be it! I say hello, and they point the way to the bench. There are several people resting here, but none on the bench. It is a warm day and the bench is in full sun. I take the lead from the others and find a shady seat.
There is service here, so I call my husband to let him know I should be done in 1.5 hours. The plan is for him to greet me at the trailhead, Dr. Pepper in hand. I keep picturing rounding the last bend in the trail to his smiling face.
Just as I am packing up to head down the final stretch, a day hiker stops me and ask if I hiked the whole trail. This has always been a tricky question for me this year, because while I have hiked the whole thing, I did half of it last year. But I just say yes.
She explains that she has hiked the CT, and her son is on trail right now in Segment 22. She is nervous because she had a scary encounter with lightning there. That is exactly where I had my lightning incident. It comforts me to know I am not alone in my experience.
Four more miles. It is hard to process. I let my feet lead me, and lead me they do. I am picking up pace, flying faster and faster down the trail. At the final bridge over Junction Creek, I see Top’o, also taking a break. He says he’d like to take me up on my offer for a ride, and I happily consent. I explain that I currently have some momentum I don’t want to lose, so I’ll meet him at the trailhead. He agrees.
In these final miles, I start running into more and more people like the woman at Gudy’s Rest. People interested in the trail, who have done part or all themselves, or who are just impressed. Over and over again, I am stopped: “Did you hike the whole thing? WOW! You are almost there!” Most of them grin at me after noticing my pack and offer a simple “Congratulations!”
One pair in particular really impact me. A father is hiking with his daughter, and he stops me: “How far have you come?”
“From Buena Vista,” I respond.
Both of them light up. “I knew it! You’re a thru hiker! You are incredible. I really want to do this with my daughter someday. You are an inspiration.”
As I walk away, the tears finally start.
The Final Stretch
For the last two miles, I am fighting tears on and off. I can’t quite fully cry. I’m not officially done, and I can’t let myself feel it all until I am. But it is also too much. How is it possible to celebrate something you’ve planned for two years, while mourning the journey? I am simultaneously ecstatic and in disbelief that it is over.
My body is tired and aching. On this journey, I have been more scared that I ever thought I could be, and hated myself some days more than I thought I could. But I also am so, so much stronger than I ever thought possible. I saw true, real life-and-death challenges and faced them down. I kept going, despite being deeply scared of doing so. Fear tried to win every single day, but it never did. Sure, it would win for a moment, or an hour, or even a day. But it never won my heart. It never took away the journey. It simply joined it for a while.
This was harder in every way than I could have ever imagined. Nothing can prepare you for that. The only thing that makes you realize how hard it is to complete a long-distance hike is to do a long-distance hike. Every day I learned how silly and naïve the pre-hike me was, and every day I got stronger mentally, emotionally, and physically. I was stripped completely raw, to the point where I could not mask anything, even from myself. And slowly, I built myself back up. Every miserable step up a steep climb, down a rocky descent, or through the thunder and rain renewed me.
Racing to the Finish
I seem to be trying to set a speed record on the final mile. People keep smiling at me, wishing me luck, and telling me how close I am to the end. “You’ve got this! Congratulations!” My eyes keep blurring with the speed and the tears. My feet and body feel nothing, just anticipation and emotion as I near the end.
My final mile takes 17 minutes, a personal record. It feels like a movie, rounding the final bend and seeing the big Colorado Trail sign. I race down to the end, crossing the final threshold of the trail, and find myself completely alone. For such a crowded trail today, it is odd that there is no one here at the end, not even Alex. I went so fast my last two miles that I beat him. I am reminded that this is my journey, and mine alone.
Stunned, I stand, staring at the trail map while I try to process. I did it. I did that. Somehow, I set the hardest goal I have ever attempted, and here I stand at the end. Long distance adventures are a grimy, unflattering mirror. They force you to stare deep into the dirtiest, rawest parts of yourself and accept them. And through that, those parts soften, and you grow. I am not who I was when I started on July 4, 2022. I am not who I was when I started again on August 13, 2023. So much has changed in the last 22 days. I feel born anew, forged in blood and tears.
“Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and eat and sleep with the earth.” – Walt Whitman
So many times over my hike, I asked myself why did I put myself through this? The truth is that this journey hurt more often than it didn’t. I faced down altitude sickness, perpetually aching feet, steep climbs where I gasped for breath, descents of treacherous loose rocks, long hot stretches without water, and terrifying storms. There was not a single easy day. I cried every day, whether for a few seconds or a few hours. I truly didn’t know if I could make it to the end, and nearly quit more than once.
But here I stand, in spite of all the doubts. I did this to reset myself, to do something so extreme I would be forced to find myself in the process. I did this to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And through it, I learned how to show myself – and my body – kindness and grace. I learned how to dig deep and find strength when I also felt at my worst. As someone who has never thought of herself as an athlete, I also learned to see my body in a whole new way. I am physically capable of more than I ever would have believed.
This journey was a fight every day, through blood, tears, and the elements. Standing here, at the end, I have a sense of pride that is unfamiliar. I feel it down to my toes, coursing through my entire being as though every inch of me is silently cheering in celebration and relief.
I hear a car pull into the lot, and I am yanked out of my reverie. Alex. He parks and runs across the lot. Not even stopping to drop my pack, I race to hug him, immediately bursting into tears.
“You did it!” he says to me, tears also streaming down his cheeks. “I am so, so proud of you. You are a BEAST.”
I laugh. And then I sob harder. This was my journey, true, but I could not have done it without Alex. Being able to connect with him, even if just through a short Garmin message, gave me strength every day. I would not be here without his support from afar. It feels unreal to be at the end here with him.
Top’o arrives at end to the site of us hugging and sobbing. “You two are going to make me cry!”
We congratulate each other and take our trailhead photos, but there’s no need to linger. There is nothing left here at this trailhead for me. I left it all, or found it all, back on the trail itself. This is just a symbol. I wave goodbye and we pile in the car to head to Durango. There is a well-earned shower, hotel bed, and meal awaiting me. I don’t turn back as we drive away.
Day 22 (Last Day)
Trail miles hiked: 13.5
986 gain/3038 descent
257.5 trail miles hiked since Day 1 (2023)
486.4 trail miles from Denver/0 from Durango
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