So I Joined a Cow Herd: Colorado Trail Days 5-6

Day 5 – August 17

After my fearful and restless night, I wake exhausted and demoralized. As I slowly sit up to try to pull myself together, a wave of nausea hits me. I manage to continue getting ready, but the nausea doesn’t fully pass until partway through the morning. I can’t tell if it is altitude, dehydration, or food-related, but suspect perhaps a combination.

The first few miles are slow and difficult on my churning stomach and lack of sleep. I just cannot get my head right after the scary night, and for the first time, I think about leaving trail. Deep down, I know that last night was an anomaly. I won’t quit on a bad day (or a bad night), but the thought haunts me for most of the morning.

Within .2 miles of leaving camp, I join Segment 16. It has much less climbing than the Collegiate West segments, but I still find myself struggling uphill. Emotionally drained and exhausted, my frustration peaks and I stop to cry more than once while climbing. I struggle to remember why I wanted to do this in the first place.

Animal bones (cow?) purposefully displayed on a hill in Segment 16.

I have just started a descent when I encounter a bikepacker headed northbound and pushing his bike uphill. The Colorado Trail bike race started a few days earlier in Durango, and I have started to cross paths with the racers. This bikepacker stops and looks at me and I am stopped cold by absolute misery in his eyes. He asks, earnestly, “Am I close to the top?” There’s a tone of desperation that I recognize behind his words.

“Yes!” I point. “Maybe 50 yards. You can see the top right there.”

His head drops, I think with relief, but perhaps also pain that there are still 50 yards. “This is the first time in 5 days that I feel broken. But I feel absolutely broken.”

I try to give him words of encouragement and we each continue on. On this long, rocky descent down a Jeep road I encounter 3 more bikepackers, each nearly as miserable as the first. I count my blessings I am descending and not pushing a bike miles uphill through rocks.

One example of how rocky this segment is. Here, it is so bad a secondary trail has been stomped out next to it. Everyone I met was very good at following LNT principles but here it was very hard to do.


Springing Hope

Around noon, I reach a water source. A fresh new trail leads just 100 ft off the CT to a beautiful and clear piped spring. There is just something about a spring that is joyful. Clean water bursting forth from the ground, seemingly from nothing – what is more hopeful that that? I sit on a stump to filter and eat lunch. Soon, Shawn (the helpful hiker from yesterday) and another hiker join me. Their energy is so positive, so unflappable, despite hiking for many days more than me. I can’t help but to be influenced by it. Their love for the journey reminds me why I wanted to hike: for the journey, the challenge, the vulnerability, the sense of accomplishment.

A beautiful piped spring in Segment 16.

We pass each other on the trail on and off for the next several miles, and I learn that they are also planning to camp at the same spot as I am. They seem to be flying down this trail, but there is loose rock everywhere. I detest a rocky descent, where every step seems to try to twist my ankle. This segment is full of loose rock, and it is slowing and frustrating. To distract myself, I focus on the task of getting to camp. I memorize the ups and downs of the remaining hike to camp: up, down, steeper up, down, small up, last down. I repeat this to myself over and over and check each item off until I finally roll into camp to friendly faces.

Tank Seven Creek

Tonight’s camp is at potentially the last good water source for 11 miles. FarOut indicates there are likely a couple OK sources still running after this wet year, but this is clearly the best. Even better, there are lots of places to camp. I am the 5th hiker to arrive, but quickly 3-4 more arrive to make a full camp. This is the opposite of my previous night camping alone, and I could not be more grateful. I eat a full meal for the first time in a few nights and head to sleep full of calories and the satiety of good company.

A viewpoint in Segment 16

Day 6 – August 18

I wake feeling more hopeful, but my stomach doesn’t catch up to my mood. The nausea is worse this morning, and I find myself dry heaving before I even leave my tent. I try to gather myself. I’ve been depending on shaken liquid ‘smoothies’ for breakfast, and they are heavy on the milk powder. I wonder if the dairy + exertion + altitude is just too much. I dig into my Ursack and reach for a chocolate bar for breakfast. It doesn’t exactly settle my stomach, but it also doesn’t upset it. I’ll count that as a win.

I head out before most of the other hikers for the slow, gradual climb to Sargent’s Mesa. I still stop to cough and gag periodically on the climb. Despite this, I can tell my cough and symptoms are overall improving, so the ‘climb high, sleep low’ adage seems to be doing me some good.

Becoming One With the Cows

Once southbound hikers on the CT enter Segment 16, they are firmly in cow territory for the next 3-4 segments. Within a mile or so of leaving camp, I begin to cross cow fields on Jeep roads. The cows watch me cross their land with a distinct side-eye.

As I near the end of one field and am about to re-enter the trees, a cow strays from its grazing place and enters the trees on the trail before me. Several others quickly join. I pause. Cows are not particularly threatening, but they are quite large, and in this case there are several mothers with their calves. I give them a wide berth and then continue on the trail. However, several follow behind me on the trail. I have inadvertently joined a herd of cows. We walk together for several minutes, eying each other carefully. Two by two, the cows leave the trail with their calves and stand aside as I pass. As quickly as they joined, I am alone again.

This calf really did not know what to do as I hiked past.

On the hike up to Sargent’s Mesa, I take a quick side journey to a water source: a stock tank. This one has a faucet at the top so I can get running water without needing to dip my CNOC bladder into the algae-filled tank. Several cows are also drinking from the tank, so once again, I find myself joining the large creatures as we eye each other from across the algae. As I head back to the trail, they watch me walk away until I am nearly out of sight before returning to drinking. Cows may not technically be wild animals, but there is still something bewildering and magical about joining them as we each go about our daily journeys.

Segment 17

I cross into Segment 17 shortly after the stock tank side trip and find a nice log to sit on with cell signal. I call my husband to catch up, and it’s nice to hear his voice – and to connect with a human after a morning of cows. We check the weather report, which says no rain today. But almost immediately, a downpour begins and I am hailed on for the first time. It is quick – maybe 10 seconds of hail – but it sets the tone for much of the afternoon. I study the clouds, put on my rain jacket, take it off, repeat. The trail becomes a river at times.

Here, the trail becomes more of a pond than a river.

Meanwhile, I am puffing up climbs and cursing down rocky Jeep road descents while simultaneously jumping out of the way of dirt bikes. The rain actually makes the dusty, rocky descents a little easier as the mud becomes sticky and thus has better traction. When I am able to look up from my feet, I am amazed at the growing number of dead trees around me. The beetle kill is everywhere here. I’ll have to choose my campsite carefully.

Tiny Improvements, Major Boost

Towards the end of the day, I catch up with Scott, who had been at the Butterfly House with me a couple nights earlier. He also camped at Tank Seven Creek last night but passed me on Sargent’s Mesa. We hike the last climb and descent together before camp. For the first time since I started at CW3, I am able to hike uphill without stopping. Something I took for granted during my training in the Pacific Northwest has finally returned. I smile. I feel hope. After days of frustration with the altitude, I feel the first signs of acclimation. My body is adjusting. I am doing something right.

We arrive to our campsite at Razor Creek and I feel elated. There’s a open meadow with beautiful views and no widow-maker trees. There is still water is the notoriously unreliable Razor Creek. I eat my entire dinner and then some, while enjoying good conversation and company. For the second night, I feel hope and comfort. I was right; one bad night was an anomaly. Every day of a long hike has challenges, but it also has joys. It is what I choose to focus on that makes the difference.

Sunset and meadow camping at Razor Creek.

Daily Stats

Day 5

Trail miles hiked: 11.3
1,820 gain/2,300 descent
Campsite elevation: 10,382 (Tank Seven Creek)
11.1 miles into Segment 16
54.7 miles since Day 1
278.7 trail miles from Denver

Day 6

Trail miles hiked: 14.3
2,820 gain/2,200 descent
Campsite elevation: 10,946
10.7 miles into Segment 17
69 miles since Day 1
293 trail miles from Denver

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