“Life is venture or nothing. Live the life you’re imagined.”
~Quote on my Trail Journal, sent by my Sister in Korea
I climbed to the highest places, and there found rolling planes. Venturing over saddles and through apline cirque bowls the afternoon clouds would build and rumble, pressing me forward ever faster. Even and especially through this austere landscape I was traveling about 20 miles a day.
One afternoon a particularly ominous monstrosity was churning and growling behind me. Fleeing over the last rise to San Luis Pass I looked down into the saddle where it appeared the storm had dropped an 80’s muscle car movie actor. The fellow had a mullet, noticeable from 200 feet above and race glasses. He sprinted wildly across the open space.
“Hey, is there any good camping down here,” I asked, trying to scout a spot before the heavens opened up.
“Absolutely not!” he laughed, “I’m camped on that slope over there though,” he pointed, then ran on to get water. It was the steepest angle I’ve slept on yet but the storm bypassed us, and so I met Bolt.
For 3 days I trotted along and behind this speed deamon. Up to this point, having been passing most everyone, I had gotten to feeling fast. Now I had caught up with the actual fast kids. We discussed everything from universal and emotional truths, to Zombie Apocalypse, to what to do if we woke to find our tents had been time-warped into the Jurassic Period.
As we hiked and chatted I learned a great spur for Bolt were the storms. But it’s his trail name to tell, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say, it was his daily objective to have covered adequate miles and made camp before the storms caught up. Be that 1 pm or 5.
I felt fortunate to have met up with him, as such considerations were not nearly so paramount in my mind. If lightening wants to strike a shrub next to me, set it alight and give me life advice, I’m open to that. I didn’t really consider I might simply take a strike to the dome and be finished!
To the tune of sunburns and hailstorms, pica and marmots, wildflowers and stone, passes and cirques and rolling meadows, we made our way along the top of the San Juan’s.
Then the earth ended. For 4000 feet we careened steeply down a narrow valley, deep into the belly of the Wamanuche Wilderness, to where there were again trees, insects, and smells. Humans in variety other than sculpted mountain bike gods blazing past. And soon, a Silverton Resupply.
That night along the Animas River, the birds put on a 2 hour concert, passing tunes hither and thither throughout the forest. Silences and crescendos, each singing their own tune and building together.
The next day we Near-0ed, hiking 6 miles and hitching into Silverton for showers and laundry at the campground, food, more food, and resupply. That night, 2 friends joined Bolt for the final leg of the hike and together we hiked into the dusk and dropped camp at the base of a mountain, striped in hues of red and white, transporting me in dream back the arches in La Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain.
The next morning I set off early, to allow the boys their brosefing.
Here the overwhelming solitude and reality (perhaps called melancholy) sets in. Simultaneously; miles yet to travel and already shrinking from the end to come. As Modest Mouse crooned into my earbuds, “every time you think you’re walking you’re just moving the ground.”
After a month, landscape shaped mental tracks, though terrain had become all but inconsequential, physically. A massive climb meant 2 mph and I calculated as such. Flat or easy down meant 3-4 mph with a rolled ankle making steep scree fields back down to about 2. Mind floats above body, watching seeing, hearing, learning, processing.
The wildflowers were in full bloom. Following along the high benches of the San Juans a cacophony of colors burst below my feet. Indian Paintbrush in their fullest and hardiest hues of pink, white and maroon. Elephant Nose flowers, Kings and Queens Cross, bluebells, Columbines. I loved learning from the wildflower enthusiasts who I would come upon, lying on their bellies across the trail, photographing in the early hours.
Blue Jay skies of waking hours, high wisps grow into Simpson cartoon cumulus journeying generally northward; so classically perfect. Big brothers to follow, some angry, others friendly; the sky hung with adolescent tufts through early afternoon, when there would come the mighty build, or not.
As it turns out, clouds love ridges. To hug and follow and wrap along them. The character of the sky is as influenced by the earth, as the earth is shaped by what falls from the sky.
Watching the clouds I was never very good at determining their direction. I peered too hard and deep and saw only how they seemed to go everyway at once. Wisps curling and wrapping, edges rising, cores stretching and bending. Look too hard to make sense and find chaos. To truly see, pull back and watch over time. Directional Progress, over time, will tell.
On this trail I learned to set my schedule according to the land and sky, rather than my own ideas of miles and plans. I practiced patience, this I know for I now could wait for dinner to be fully rehydrated before mowwing down.
Venturing above 12,000 ft for the last time on this trail, my heart stopped and fluttered in my chest. Overcome by the raw emotion, I came around a ridge and dropped to my knees before the beauty ahead. Transcendental moment jarred when I noticed the angry cell behind me was, in fact, following, and another, as Bolt called them, “Mess of Black Death,” was coming at me from the West.
Dropping into a saddle just as the gusts started I huddled in a shrub, keenly aware of every tingling sensation, ringing in my ear and drop water. I assumed the “kiss your ass goodbye” crouch on top of my pack on top of my crazy creek, on top of my sleeping pad, and there I hunched for half an hour as the skies rumbled and roared around me. Thunder whipped and cracked across space, casting out a roar before rumbling back in jagged and pealing might.
Like all “Messes of Black Death” in life, the storm had it’s way, and moved along, leaving behind a beautifully washed afternoon. Down past Taylor Lake and to a tiny spring, I set up my tent in a meadow of wildflowers, looking out North across the land. It is not melancholy, but a strength and depth of emotion which I have yet to learn to temper or fully process ravaged me that last night.
I did my best to fit it into words in my journal, thereby to create some sense of reality, but this thing is much bigger and runs much stronger than I can hope to grasp. What I could make real was setting up camp and cooking dinner. Then, just as I thought I had it under control, a galloping sound came up behind my tent. Perhaps a horseman here to offer me some string back to reality.
As I turned around to greet the individual, there stood a bear cub. Old enough to trollop about on his own, but young enough that momma was not far, the dusty fellow cocked his little head to the side. I was overcome. But had sense enough to again explain to the little guy that we could not be playmates.
He gave my tent a wide berth, then trundled on down the hill, leaving me to wallow through existential inundation.
At 5 pm on Tuesday, July 17th, I completed the Colorado Trail. The only characters of note present were the forest service restrooms and a dog turd right next to where I sat. I climbed a rock and cried out, victorious.
I came down and felt terrifyingly alone and out of my element. I sat there and ate a Snickers bar. Then some Fritos. I sat there some more, not knowing where to go anymore, for the trail was ended.
As evening trail users pulled into the trailhead I was able to scrap together conversations enough to feel human enough to dare head out to the road and hitch into Durango.
Christina and Doug came down for a mini-vacation and I took a shower and bought a dress for $3 from the Thrift Store. We visited Mesa Verde and I stared at all the people.
The readjustment was sudden and absolute. It is a painful ordeal. I never once thought of quitting the trail, but on the last day, 3 miles from the end, I assessed the food in my bag, considering turning tail and running back into the wilderness, to the CDT, then on to Mexico. Or Canada.
The only reason I did not, resonated through me in the words of a poem my father oft repeats. Rudyard Killing’s ‘If”.
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’