The day I Became a Thru-Hiker

Note: this is a very late update from my thru hike of the CT, June 18 to July 18, 2023. This is not intended to reflect current conditions for the 2024 season.

“I’m in the most insane landscape on the planet”, I thought to myself as I crested the third horseman.

The San Juans were unlike any mountains on the trail so far. Sheer and with many red and black streaks of minerals staining the slopes, these mountains were austere and yet so green. Every few miles the character of the mountains would change. In the San Luis area, the mountains were gently sloping with many red outcroppings. But later, massive mesas appeared above treeline. Then, the mountains evolved again to be steeper, cliffy monoliths of black stone. On and on, the San Juans were endlessly interesting as I hiked through its many subranges.

My shadow on top of the second horseman


As an introduction to the San Juans, directly out of the cow fields the Colorado Trail begins with four high climbs near or above 13,000 feet. These are affectionately known by thru-hikers as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”. The first horseman is the saddle just below San Luis Peak, where I started my day. From there, the second horseman is a saddle above San Luis Pass, where you can bail out to Creede. From the top of this saddle, I was lucky enough to see a mountain lion far below running over the pass! After San Luis Pass, there is a substantial climb up and over a high ridgetop, where I was certain I’d die from the dark clouds forming. And then finally, there is one more major climb around a mountain that was absolutely covered with wildflowers. After such insane views but absolutely knee-crunching climbs, the wide open expanse of Snow Mesa was a welcome relief. 

The San Juans are soooooo green!


The third horseman. San Luis Pass is far below.


Wildflowers! Approaching Snow Mesa on the 4th Horseman

Snow Mesa: the most aesthetic field ever.

Approaching Snow Mesa

The mesa had just melted off of the 12,250’ expanse, so the wildflowers were at their peak. However, I was again struggling with motivation (no shocker there). Hitch & Switch had decided to hitch down into Lake City for a day or two, but me and Phoenix, having packed 9 days worth of food out of Salida, were dead set on hiking all the way to Silverton before stopping. I had also spent just a little bit too much time on the ridgetops looking at buses from Lake City back home, and I knew deep down that if I got off the trail at Lake City, I wouldn’t make it the whole way. In retrospect, it seems silly… the scenery immediately before Spring Creek Pass was insane, and I knew there was so much more incredible trail ahead of me. But, there is no stronger motivator than loneliness. I missed everyone back home so much that I was willing to throw in the towel a mile from the finish line. Once we arrived at Spring Creek Pass, me and Phoenix ate dinner with Hitch & Switch while they waited for a hitch, and then once they left, we walked just a quarter mile from the road before setting up camp in a large stand of dead trees (luckily, none decided to fall that night).

Snow Mesa! The snowcaps in the distance are so beautiful!

The day that everything changed– day 24 (and counting)

It seems silly that it would take 371.6 miles of day-in, day-out walking before I realized I am a real adventurer. I woke up that morning, with the usual feelings of “why am I here?”, and “why do I have to get up?” and “why can’t I just leave this trail?”. And as usual, I slowly packed up camp and got to hiking anyway. The trail from Spring Creek Pass leaves treeline, and it doesn’t return to treeline until the Animas River, about 50 miles away. I climbed up to the top of Jarosa Mesa, where I saw a herd of mule deer running away.

Mule Deer near the top of Jarosa Mesa

As I climbed, higher and higher, my mind began to drift from the landscape around me to my own heart. With every step, I was grinding in my sadness and my frustrations further into my psyche. In a moment of self-awareness, I realized that ever since I started this trail, I had wanted it to be over. Why couldn’t I just be present? This moment, this trail, these mountains… they were my dream for years. Why did I just want it to be over? As I climbed ever higher, I thought back to the article I wrote at the beginning of it all. I said I wanted to “​​learn more about myself and about the world” through hiking. I realized that throughout the last nearly 400 miles, I had locked myself out of that learning, that I didn’t want to learn about myself. It was disguised under hiking until I could no longer think, under the longing for the people I love back home, under the extravagance of town. But in the end, I… 


Suddenly, lightning flashed ahead of me.

I looked up, and took in the black clouds building over the ridge I was on. This was the first real storm I’d seen the entire trail so far, and I didn’t know what to do. The trail left the ridge to my right, and across a pass, which acted as a massive wind tunnel for the storm. As I walked across as quickly as I could, the rain was horizontal and brought with it massive, nearly golf-ball sized hail, bruising the entire right side of my body. I hunkered down against the ridge on the far side of the pass, and as quickly as it appeared, the storm was gone. The rain stopped, and I slowly stood up and looked around, struck by the raw power of what I’d just experienced. As I labored up the last 600 vertical feet up to the official high point of the CT, I saw everything with new eyes. Maybe everything didn’t have to be fun to be meaningful. Maybe growing into this identity of being a thru-hiker would take longer than my body’s adapting and strengthening.

On a more lighthearted note, Coney Summit Celebration cookies!

Me at the very beginning (and yes, I had bear spray)

On Coney summit, I sat and looked at pictures of myself from Waterton Canyon. I saw a boy, with anxiety and uneasiness in his eyes, but also excitement. And now?, I thought. My body was leaner, stronger, my skin was sun-tanned and my hair sun bleached. I’m still just a boy, with anxiety and I still don’t know if I can do it all. But this trail has taught me endurance, perseverance, determination.

Squinty, sunburned me on Coney Summit, just 100 miles to go.

And then, just like that, a switch flipped– a switch of gratitude. Gratitude for the landscape I had in front of me, of the challenges I’d gone through and had ahead of me. Of the experience I’d had. At the same time I, for the first time, began to feel sad I was so close to the end, and felt determined to make the most of it. On that mountain, I began to feel a quiet determination and self-confidence building. On that mountain, I knew that I was strong enough to walk through trials. On Coney summit, I became a thru-hiker.

Weminuche, here we go!

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