I had a rather wonderful off-season from hiking but I still can’t wait to get back on trail. My winter was spent traveling a lot–Hawaii a couple of times, Florida for my first 2 visits ever, the Winter Olympics to watch my Alaska snowboarders Ryan Stassel and Rosie Mancari, Fort Smith, NWT, Canada for Arctic Winter Games, Copper Mountain, CO for USASA Nationals and California to see my step-mom and to run the Big Sur 11-miler with friends from Yosemite, Noreen and Vicky.
Somehow, during the times I was at home, I managed to break my little orange Manx cat. I had the brilliant idea for googling “running mice” while he was sitting next to my laptop. Now he is fixated on the computer and if I don’t remember to close the cover, I’ll find him walking on the keyboard trying to find the running mice video in history. I can return home after a week away and Shreddie will greet me and then lead me to the laptop and start purring and rubbing his chin on it, gazing expectantly at the screen. I think we need to get him his own desktop system and no keyboard and run the video on a loop. The damage has been done and his tiny cat brain is never going to recover. Maybe when I’m on the trail, he’ll get into a recovery program. He’s on the wait list.
My plan to complete the CDT this season includes “re-hiking” an interesting section of New Mexico to toughen up my feet and get in trail shape for the San Juans in southern Colorado, Ghost Ranch to Monarch Pass, the approximately 300 mile section I skipped last year to fly home to AK to host visitors. Then Burning Calves is flying in from Germany to hike the Colorado Trail and I’m going to meet her for the first 100 or so non-CDT miles out of Denver that will connect to the CDT near Frisco and Breckenridge. From there I’ll transit north of Dubois, WY where I left the trail and continue towards Canada. Montana got well above average snow this winter so it might make sense to head north out of Wyoming the second week of July or maybe I’ll head south from Canada back to Dubois. Sometime in July, my PCT 2015 friend Poppy will join me from Spokane! Plus, I am going to hike the PCT south out of Tuolumne Meadows in September after another volunteer work week in Yosemite. All plans are subject to change of course. It’s a lot more complicated planning a non-thru hike and figuring out transportation logistics rather than just walking north.
I’ve never done this before so bear with me. I am fundraising for Achilles International, an amazing organization I saw in action last November when I ran the NYC Marathon. It’s all about helping adaptive athletes, a group of people who have inspired me for many years, beginning with a snowboarder named Jesse ripping up the Boardercross course at USASA Nationals without legs.
Can it only be a week since I got a ride out of Steamboat Springs back to the trail? Feel like I’ve lived a lifetime and walked across a continent.
7/20 I caught the free bus to the post office to mail a box, then paid a taxi to take me back to the trail. I hate hitching. The trail was kind of boring, green tunnel, but mostly level and easy. I met 3 members of the Mighty, Mighty Trail Crew. The work was going well since they get to use chainsaws on the blowdown, not handsaws. Thanks Mighty, Mighty Trail Crew! I camped a bit past my target stream just as the latest thunderstorm hit with rain and hail.
7/21 As I write this in my tent, I am miserable, worried, cold and wet. Again I had to choose, camp at 2:30 or go up into the alpine and over and down back into treeline. Although the sky had been rumbling in the distance, it looked OK. Then on the last pitch, painful hail, huge, furious pellets and nowhere for me to shelter. I pulled on my rain pants over already cold, wet legs. The jacket I already had on against the wind. I remembered Puff Puff and I getting frozen from the hail storm out of Chester, CA last year. We vowed to put our layers on the next time, just as soon as it started, no waiting. I continued up the flattish, exposed ridge, it wasn’t far, then ran as carefully as I could across the ridge and down the other side, I could see it was a long way to trees. The intense lightning and hail scared me, I ran, crouched as if it would help, breathing fast, not panicked, but chilled and afraid I’d slip on the accumulating hail, be crippled by injury and die of hypothermia. The storm has been on top of me for 3 hours now with ceaseless rain and no pause between the lightning flash and the boom of thunder. I shouldn’t still be cold in my down bag but all is damp. I’ve eaten a stale Snickers and had a hot whey drink. That helps. The Ravens said they are leaving Steamboat at noon today so they are maybe 30 miles behind, low and safe I hope. This storm hit at 3:00, too early.
At 6:30 I was warm enough to sit up in my sleeping bag although the storm continued till 8:30. I was so alone that I was reminded of the goodbye notes stranded mountaineers write to their loved ones. I think I get it. You just want to make sure the people you love know that you love them. It’s irrational I guess but that’s another unique gift we get for being human beings.
7/22. What a different day. I woke to sunrise glowing on my tent walls and the air perfectly clear. I unclipped the storm flaps and tossed my jacket, rain pants, socks, and ditty bags outside to dry while I made my usual coffee and granola. I headed down the trail with a smile on my face even though my shoes were still soaking wet and reeking from the day before and I wore a jacket. As I entered a big meadow, 2 mama elk and their babies looked up and trotted off. Then a huge bull elk and another 15-20 animals followed them. Glorious! I laughed out loud. After hours of walking downhill, I met 2 guys in camo and daypacks. I teased them, “It’s not hunting season yet, is it?” They were, in fact, training for hunting season, by walking up this incredibly steep trail. Nice! Of course I had to mention where I was from and the hunters in my family. They asked if I’d seen any elk. “Yup, 2 1/2 hours ago.” “Yup, with a huge bull.”
I came to a trailhead joining a dirt road walk. A car stopped (it rarely happens) and the young couple asked if I wanted a ride. Its kind of a delicate situation, you don’t want to discourage kindness to the next hiker, who may want a ride. “Where to?” I grinned. Maybe they’re going to Jackson Hole or someplace else way more interesting than this dirt road. “Oh, a mile or two down the road.” “Sweet, thanks for the offer, I’m doing OK though.”
The route turned me into a short stretch of blowdown bedecked trail, 200 trees in about a mile. The things you count to have something to think about. To a road. To a campground with a dumpster (the joy of offloading garbage is insane) and an outhouse (even more joy ridding myself of “pack-it-out” TP). To a trail. To a road. To an ATV road.
7/23 Stinking coyotes woke me way too early, before 5 am. They always sound so cheerful, I fell back asleep and woke late but I still managed over 22 miles. That’s good, for me. I listened most of the day to Timothy Egan’s fascinating book about Irish history and Irish immigrants from before the Civil War, TheImmortalIrishman. The trail sucks. ATV PUDs and water was an issue. But there was a nicely graded short cut dirt road for awhile. Then back to crappy trail. I made it to a beautiful water source, Dale Creek, and a lovely little established tent site was a surprise bonus. It was just far enough away from the burbling creek sounds that I wouldn’t hear voices in the harmonics.
7/24 Stupid, annoying, soggy trail, where there is a trail. It was only about 11 miles to the highway and my next resupply down the hill in Encampment/Riverside. 2 women, looked older than me, gave me a ride. They had “run away from home” they giggled, and were camping for a few days. My kind of women! I got to Lazy Acres where there is a choice of camping, RVing, or a motel. No matter what you choose, you can do laundry and take a shower. My wet shoes, socks and feet are horrendous. I really, really hate being stinky, what am I doing hiking for days in the same clothes then? Woohoo, Dassie, AJ and Burning Calves! They were heading out, but we got lunch and beer together. It was BC’s birthday! After, they hitched out and I got a perfectly comfy, clean, quiet, cheap motel room. I studied the maps and info and Yogi’s pages and realized I could shave at least a day and 20 miles by taking a road walk alternate. Totally cheered me up, I only needed 3 days of food max. Riverside has a couple of tiny stores, so my food purchases consisted of cheddar cheese, tortillas, candy bars, and individually wrapped danish. But it’s now just about 60 miles to Rawlins and more than half will be on beautiful, blessed, quick walking roads! Happy hiker! Even though the weather forecast was for 2 days of rain, I was OK because there would be no big exposed climbs in the next stretch.
7/25 I was extremely lucky to get an early ride to the trail from a nice local who decided that he could put off pouring concrete in the rain to give a hiker a ride back up to Battle Pass. I barely stuck out my thumb, he was the first truck. He had been in the Seabees at Adak, AK in 1979. Wow, I told him about my friend Cody Carpenter who has recently gone way out there to hunt caribou and stay in the old officers quarters.
It rained and drizzled all day, not cold, not windy. Actually it was quite pleasant hiking temperatures. Mostly roads today including another alternate, slightly longer than the official route, but I know now that better tread makes for faster progress. Lessons learned in New Mexico. And when I rejoined the trail, it was in terrible shape as usual. Makes me wonder if I could have found more alternatives. I had to go over, under, around and through more messy, boggy, nearly impenetrable blowdown. I carried extra water weight since the maps and notes warned about undrinkable, alkaline water on the road alternate to Rawlins. I found a dry, open campsite with crazy squirrels and some new bird calls. Cranes maybe? It rained some more but I was at such low elevation that cold was not an issue. It was a happy place.
7/26 Picked up plenty more water but my pack is light because I don’t need to carry much food. Not a bad walk in the cool cloud cover. Saw several cyclists. The road rolls a bit, goes from dirt to paved and has very little traffic. I saw tons of pronghorn antelope in the sagebrush. New animal to me, beautiful, smart and skittish. They bound away in dun colored herds with what looks like gigantic, fluffy white bunnies clinging to their bums. Since Battle Pass, Wyoming has been what I hoped for, namely not Colorado. Finally the skunk bush stink is gone, replaced with the divine (truly, ask the First People of this area) scent of sagebrush. The trail and alternate join up and cross I-80 and railroad tracks, then go through Rawlins. I got my resupply box with new shoes and then holed up in a motel. Tomorrow I will tour the old Wyoming prison and buy groceries.
7/13 It’s a lovely place, the Shadowcliff, and not expensive, but the hostel was full so I took a room in the main lodge and the noise was challenging, so I moved to the very quiet Bighorn for a second night. Did all the chores: laundry, fuel, groceries. And ate an early dinner for the second night at the Stagecoach happy hour. Cheap, delicious and a welcoming place. I got a text from Dassie. The next morning we met for breakfast (“We thought the Fat Cat Cafe would be appropriate,” joked Dassie) and the big surprise wasn’t AJ (Mudslide) but Burning Calves back on the CDT from the AT! It was great to see friends, the CDT has been lonesome. I told them to give me a head start and I’d see them on the trail. They slackpacked the RMNP loop today.
7/14 I took the RMNP shortcut to save miles and because you need a permit and a bear canister to camp in “Rocky” as the cheerful trail crew called it. It was an uneventful but beautiful day filled with day hikers. Best question of the day was “Have you seen anything?” I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain… “Anything?” “Animals!” I camped below Bowen Pass near water. Today I finally finished listening to the 10th anniversary edition of AmericanGods. There was an Epilogue, then a Post Script, then an Appendix.
7/15 I walked up the valley to Bowen Pass and saw a bull moose curled under a tree like a cow, then just past him, 3 more moose, the mythical herd. Our moose don’t herd up like this. Then a minute later, a hare came bounding up to me. That’s a new one. Somebody been feeding this guy? I thought I’d have to settle for the usual fleeing butt.
The pass wasn’t so bad, and the down went quite a ways, full of blowdown to a “road,” a skinny, slippery canyon full of 4-wheelers, Mr and Mrs plus the kids. The road transitioned to trail, ominously marked with tire treads. A few minutes later the dirt bikes were barreling downhill at me on the single track as I continued a 3-hour uphill trudge. They were polite and legal, and there was no blowdown in this section, just noise, fumes and dust. I turned off onto a no-motorized trail that crossed a paved highway and continued up. I found a sheltered tent site and called it a day before the cloud burst. I had been packing 3 liters of water since there were 9 more dry miles in the morning.
7/16 This morning was hard but gorgeous. A goat! Mama grouse and her two chicks, all equally stupid. I could be dining on fresh grouse daily if I would just take advantage and whack one with my hiking stick. There were a couple long waterless stretches. People in cars on the dirt roads are a little weird. I walked onto an isolated dirt road junction and a lone old guy in a car drove slowly into and out of view with just a little wave, didn’t even roll down his window to check if I was OK.
7/17 Up and over this morning to a series of good dirt roads. Fat Albert overtook me, super friendly and helpful.
As I walked down the road, I chatted with a 4-wheeler couple who later in the day on their return trip told me my friends behind were trying to catch up. Yay! Then a retired couple invited me into their RV and a cold drink. Nice! I made over 25 miles today, although I am now stealth camped behind some bushes on Highway 14. I feel like a freaking hobo.
7/18 I hiked the blacktop 8.5 miles to Hwy 40 to hitch to Steamboat. I hate hitching, it also makes me feel like a bum. I waited an hour until a really nice woman, 24, picked me up on her way to see a friend about a job with a SUP company in Steamboat. Thank you! I had happy hour beer and tapas with Dassie, AJ and Burning Calves who rolled into town an hour or two after me.
I had to come up with a plan to save my mind. I want to hike through passes, not 3000′ up to the tippy top of a peak and down, steep down, to the bottom of the crotch between peaks. Passes not peaks! Kinda out of luck on that issue. My slow pace both up and down meant for low mileage days, self doubt and it-is-what-it-is anger.
So I took a hard look at the elevation profile for the next stretch and made a plan. Less planned miles on some days, more on others. It worked!
7/9 I hiked up whatever peak it is north of Berthoud Pass parking lot and down the equally steep other side loaded with snow patches, talus and bugs, then up a traverse that wound around a hillside, then down a nicely engineered and constructed set of steep switchbacks (47 of them?) to a dirt road teaming with ATVs, trucks driven by unsmiling men, and boys cautiously riding dirt bikes. There was a campground of sorts, which a hiker somewhere ahead of me had noted in the comments for Guthook’s app for this area. The first site, near the road, was a little creepy.
Nobody was camped anywhere but I walked back through the trees until I was out of sight from the road. A perfect quiet spot in the rain. Tomorrow James Peak first thing.
7/10 I was hiking early in longies and jacket. Took about 4 hours to make it to the top. I was passed by 2 thrus, 3 day hikers,then another pair of day hikers. At the top there is of course a giant switchback going down. I slipped and fell twice on the loose gravel and rock, taking a little chunk out of my hand and dripping blood on my hiking stick. The trail continued with a traverse through scree on the side of a ridge then came to a trail junction, with a perfectly good trail leading away to a road. I knew I should have taken it. Next time I will check my other maps and not go blindly where the Guthook/Bear Creek tells me. The “untrail” official CDT went along a ridge, cairn to cairn, on tussocks and talus. Who decides on the “official” route? A committee? An agency? The CDTC? Why would you send hikers on unspoiled tundra when an existing trammeled trail is nearby? After awhile I did check my other maps and bushwhacked down to a road below, CR 80. I yelled to my wildlife buddies as I went, telling the sheep, moose, elk, bear and all the other animals I could think of how much I appreciated them not popping out of the brush and surprising me. The road walk uphill was great and apparently normal because the jeeps didn’t stop to ask if I was lost or OK. I rejoined the CDT at 3:30 with 3 short climbs and traverses in the alpine wind and cold and bits of rain until finally a steep down to trees and water. I was less worried today being exposed at 12,000′ 3:30-6:00 pm–the grumbling of thunder and the cloud mass was mostly behind me.
Some days your mind just goes into a loop trying to resolve unresolvable issues. When you create an official route on ground that doesn’t have any kind of previous impact–not a game trail, not a social trail–not only are you encouraging environmental impacts, you are putting hikers at greater risk for injury which would potentially require Search and Rescue (SAR) response. Who makes these decisions? Another issue that bugs me: Wilderness economics. There is so little money for wilderness restoration, trail construction and trail maintenance. But when trail conditions are crummy, the odds of hiker injury and rescue goes up. SAR is a different pot of money, also underfunded, than wilderness management. Yes, we are in the wilderness at our own risk, but where there is trail, there is responsibility, both for trail maintenance, environmental protection and human safety. And it all goes together but it’s all separated by jurisdictions and funding. I do my best to leave no trace and to diminish personal risk, but still, bad stuff happens to good people all the time. And we need more people doing stuff outside and in the wilderness partly because healthy and happy people are cheaper. Oh shut up Catwater, just hike.
7/11 It was a lovely campsite. It rained hard 6:30-9:30, then off and on all night. When I crawled out of my tent in the morning, I was greeted by a moose grazing in the lush grass across a meadow. Today was gray but I was happy to be going downhill or level most of the day, caught in the green tunnel and listening to the interminable American Gods. I saw a second moose and about 4 miles in, thanks to a heads up by a day hiker, a herd of 10-20 elk.
Then I startled a beautiful deer, palomino colored tail showing off her darker self and huge mule ears. She sproinged off through the trees and meadow. No intense climbs today and as I’ve learned to appreciate road walks, so too do I appreciate plodding through the murky trees, not the windy alpine. I made my 20 miles, the first in a long time, although finding a tent site was a miracle. The trail along the lakes has very few flat spots, what few there are have wads of deadfall and rocks. But I made do. I’m camped on a rock I’ve padded with my jacket and the rain is pouring down. Just a few hours to Grand Lake. What crazy slow stuff will the trail throw at me tomorrow?
7/12 Rain. Rained all night. Rained lightly all morning. But I’m at such low elevation that I wasn’t cold. The trail is overgrown so I wore my rain pants till I hit civilization hours into the day. The trail wasn’t so bad today, wet but NO wind, NO cold, NO elevation, AND I was going to be indoors for the night. I stopped by the post office and picked up my box. New shoes! New insoles! Laundromat, groceries, fuel tomorrow. I really should just drive town to town and forget about this hiking thing.
I hit the trail, the paved road actually, at 8 am, July 4th, out of Copper. I remember strategically avoiding the holiday in 2015 on the PCT and how pleased I was to miss the loud, drunken festivities in Sierra City. The trail was fine to the top of a pass, then blowdown, muck, and dim scrubby forest. The next pass had a nearby trailhead and better trail. Going over, there were a few snowfields left and I ran into a couple of guys with daypacks and fishing rods, who looked at me with incomprehension as I walked down towards them, it was weird. Weed is legal in Colorado, weird is legal everywhere. Plus there weren’t any fish in the half frozen lake, or in any of the lakes or streams I’d walked by. Although I had thought about slack packing the 22 or so miles to Silverthorne, the unknown conditions of the passes made me worry about being caught on a dayhike without shelter, so I camped just a few miles from Silverthorne.
7/5 A short walk into Silverthorne, the trail went from blowdown to clear trail with a few runners to a trailhead and paved subdivision roads down to very busy streets, a highway and a freeway. I met and talked with a USFS volunteer who just moved to Summit County in the Fall after retiring in Chicago. I learned all kinds of interesting stuff about the area, thanks Bob! I marched my way past the outlet stores and booked a room. Then since it was the morning, and they needed to clean the rooms, I got second breakfast, bought some replacement tent stakes and freeze dried dinners at the brand new REI, and finished the rest of my food shopping at the next door City Market. Turns out fireworks started a fire near Breckinridge which means almost everybody will have to take the shorter but less scenic Alternate.
7/6 A slow, miserable day to a campsite where the trail teed into another crappy trail. The trail was fine to the pass, there were gobs of day trippers, where the maps showed a junction. If there was a junction, I couldn’t tell. So I navigated cross country on a tussocked side hill, and through bogs and wind, finding a cairn here and there, and towards late afternoon a switchbacked downhill with rocks and side slope, dwindling to nothing here and there. Slow, treacherous.
7/7 An even slower day. There is not much trail or tread to follow, so I pick my route through eroded side slopes and snow patches. Eventually I dropped into a super lush valley, where an occasional hint of a trail followed the stream. I saw moose tracks, then 2 people, Laura and Winter drying their gear in a clearing. “How do you like the CDT?” Laura, section hiking, asked. “I hate it, it’s so slow, I can’t make any miles. But, it’s so great to see people out here,” I added lamely. Just after I passed them I saw a handsome young bull moose, his little antlers all fuzzy. Next to him a cow, sister? These moose are not Alaska-Yukon moose Alces alces gigas (“gigantic moose”) but reintroduced moose from Utah and Wyoming Alces alces shirasi (“mini moose”), I talked to them, they stared back and finally trotted away, good moose. I continued down the valley, and saw a third moose across the creek. These guys take their reintroduction to Colorado seriously and as I saw, they are thriving. I finally crossed the stream and continued up steeply on a beautiful, smooth, blessed dirt road. After all the roads in New Mexico, I have developed a true appreciation for the ease of walking and the faster pace I can summon up on decent tread. Thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and I was going to soon be above treeline for many miles. It started raining, then pouring. I debated with myself what to do. So few miles, so early in the day, such a wimp. I pitched my tent on a lovely flat spot at the notch of the last switchback that was still in the tree line. I crawled in as the rain pounded and the wind howled. Winter and Laura called out as they trudged uphill past me during a lull in the rain. The rain let up for a few minutes and I thought I would continue but the skies clouded and more rain started. Another hiker went by, Acorn. I decided to stay put. Inbar, the Israeli I last saw at Pie Town, stopped and talked. He’s doing great although his new backpack blew out after 3 days so he’s got to get to Grand Lake to remedy that. It got dark, the rain let up, the wind died, and it was the flattest, warmest, most comfortable night I’d had on the trail in a long time.
7/8 I congratulated myself on an excellent decision. I would have been grabby and anxious if I’d hiked up Jones Pass, and along a cirque yesterday and would have missed the beauty and views and joy of the mountains today. At the top of the dirt road, the Alternate rejoined the much better kept official CDT. When you start seeing day hikers, you know you’re near a trailhead and because there’s easy access, I envision all the volunteers who come out and work hard to give hikers of all stripes, good trails. Thank you! On an impulse, when I reached Berthoud Pass, facing another climb into thunderclouds, I hitched to Winter Park, rather than camp a mile from the highway. Within 12 seconds, Bambi and John picked me up. I felt way less chicken when they told me they were coming from a talk about thunderstorms, over 300 people per year get struck by lightning in Colorado. 10% are fatal, but the remaining 90% experience permanent affects, mostly invisible mental processing problems, just what I don’t need more of. Also you can apparently be struck from a storm more than 6 miles away.
So this is how it’s going to be, eh? A motel at every opportunity, slow, slow hiking in between. This trail ain’t your mama’s PCT.
6/28 I was reluctant to go, but finally hiked out at 9:45, with an ankle wrap on the right foot and duct tape on the left heel blister earned by wearing micro spikes on light-weight trail runners. The spikes smooshed the shoe structure too, so until I get new shoes, there’s a crumpled ridge of shoe rubbing my heel.
I was really pleased to find great trail, no snow, no blowdown, chock full of day hikers, Colorado Trail (CT) hikers SOBO from Denver to Durango, mountain bikers and a cheery guy, Dr Bob, finishing the CDT and the Triple Crown. Even though I won’t see any of these hikers again since they’re going the opposite direction, I am gladdened by the human contact.
6/29. What a day! 21 people, 4 tail wagers with dog food panniers, and 3 large youth-ish groups. At the end of the day I was overtaken by JPEG, the guy I met briefly on the PCT 2015–he took my photo at the 1/2 way monument outside Chester, and I found out months later–he’s somehow related to USASA former-President John Schaal from Michigan. JPEG and Gutpunch were on about their 30th mile for the day, trying to reach the highway a few miles further for a hitch to Leadville. I didn’t hold them up long, and found a perfect campsite near a creek. It’s a bit buggy out here and during the night I got a few splatters of rain.
I do not usually talk about gear, but I got a replacement tent in Salida after much thought. I’ve been using the Zpacks Solplex that I used for a 1000 miles through Oregon and Washington in 2015. A great tent, single wall with bug netting, very light. I had to manage condensation in the snow and rain of Washington and eventually the zipper needed fixing which Zpacks did for free. But gear wears out, and gradually there were more screen patches than I liked, the zipper was going again, and honestly I was sick of not being able to sit up without touching the walls, the condensation issue. So I upgraded to the Zpacks Altaplex, a taller version of the Solplex for not much more weight, 2 ozs. I got the camo color, it’s a little less see-through, and I think camo signals to other people that I’m packing a gun or hunting gear, just adding to the all-around badassery image I project. Uh huh, I’m joking! I’m not carrying a gun! I love this tent, it sets up with a single hiking stick and I have to fiddle around to get all the lines right but it stands up to wind and weird pitches surprisingly well.
There was a lot of uphill today, the first stretch was steep and I dreaded the second, but it wasn’t so bad. I think a lot of trail here is like in my mountains, the Chugach, trail is created, not engineered, when people or vehicles take the shortest way up or down, as straight a line as possible. Not great, but designing and constructing graded trail is expensive and labor intensive so meanwhile we walk on what’s already there, whether ancient wagon roads, social footpaths, jeep ruts or old mining routes.
I hit snow at about 3 and was out of it by 4:30. Melting snow means bugs so I broke out the Deet, just 30% strength, this isn’t Interior Alaska. The flowers today have been incredible, I tried to get photos of all the colors–yellow, pink, butter, white, purple, lavender–but nothing can capture the fragrance, and I am a truly bad iPhone photographer.
6/30 CDT miles 1214.4-1234.4. Way more miles than I wanted to do. I couldn’t find a flat spot for my tent, so I’m in the worst pitch ever, or to put a positive spin on it, I’ll call it a creative pitch. I saw jillions of people today on the CT and the trail tripped through varied terrain as it went, paralleling and crossing the highway to Leadville, then through more abandoned 10th Mountain Division territory and up into the alpine and finally down through Searle Pass. An absolutely clear day but I was still nervous about the high elevation exposure past 3pm in the Rockies. Silly rabbit, no thunderclouds were developing but still I galloped as fast as I could for miles of alpine traverse until finally I saw the route heading down to tree line and I set up my crappy pitch.
7/1 The terrible tent site turned out not to be too bad. I piled my pack, clothes bag, etc at the foot of the tent with my slippery sleeping bag on my slippery sleeping pad on the slippery tent floor and slipped throughout the night, waking up periodically to scootch back up to the head of the tent. I woke at 4:45, then again at 6:45, whoo! It felt great to start a short downhill day to Copper Mountain at a late 7:30! Lots of hikers coming at me, lots. Then I saw chair lifts and soon I was descending on the road I used to board down from the USASA Boardercross course in April. Another warp in the space-time continuum. I continued across where the bottom of the half pipe is supposed to be. Just below was a huge pile of snow for Woodward Camp with rails and boarders and skiers and in the grass all kinds of summer toys and kids and families. This place is fun! Paddle boats, zip line, big bouncy balls, mountain bikes, crazy positive energy. Rooms are cheaper here than Frisco or Dillon so I’m going to rest my ankle, eat and enjoy the hustle and bustle.
Dan and I flew from Albuquerque home to Anchorage. The next 10 days we got to play tour guide for Ashlee’s first trip to Alaska. She and Chris packed a lot of vacation into a short period of time. Because it never gets dark this time of year, they played frisbee golf until 2 am more than once, and Ashlee saw her first Alaska moose, a little guy on bended front knees nibbling grass on the course. We hiked Flat Top, went to Girdwood’s Fiddlehead Festival, visited numerous Alaska microbreweries, and hung out in Seward for a few days. A friend took them to Talkeetna. They biked the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Ashlee was amazed by the mountain ranges surrounding our city on Cook Inlet, fortunately there were a few clear days in Anchorage so she could see them. We all had fun, including their dog Grimm who made friends with our older son Glen’s dog Tindy. The three cats were less stoked, Shred taunted Grimm from his perch on the moose rack.
The day they left, I ran the Alaska Run For Women, a 5-miler celebrating its 25th year. I don’t know how many times I’ve run it, but it’s a great event raising funds for breast cancer totally by donation. I pinned a card to my back, “I’m running in honor of Noreen” and joined the parade of pink. I don’t own anything pink but they let me run anyway. I got a pretty good time too! And I did Zumba, in public, with the post-race class. Later that evening, friend Tarcey and I went to an outdoor solstice show with The Shins at Moose’s Tooth Brewery.
Having seen both my boys, I wanted to see my daughter Sarah in Seattle on my way back to the CDT and somehow found myself running in a half marathon with her from UW to the Seahawks stadium downtown.
Meanwhile I’ve been watching CDT NOBO progress on social media and trying to figure out the logistics of getting back to the trail. I am going to fly to Denver and take a Greyhound south. I will skip (temporarily) a chunk of trail rather than try to get all the expensive way back to New Mexico. There’s still a bunch of snow, but reportedly most of the south faces have melted so hopefully my microspikes, Whippet (combo hiking stick and light duty ice axe) and neoprene socks will be good enough. We’ll see. I’ve got a bounce box to mail up the trail with other clothing and gear I may want to switch out with.
Well my feet stopped hurting, almost anyway. All of my toenails have grown back except for the one I lost somewhere on the JMT in October. The plantar fasciitis that has plagued me for 18 months, including every single day on the SOBO is kaput. So I’m back to running, in the freaking snow and cold of Anchorage. But hey I got third in my age group in the Frostbite Footrace 5K during Fur Rondy which I never do, and snowboarding has been awesome since Alaska finally has snow after three winters of drought.
Since finishing the PCT SOBO November 25, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between hiking north and hiking south from border to border in the Lower 48 (continental US). And I’ve come to some useful conclusions for the next long hike.
Living in the North, my entire adult life in Alaska, you mark special times of the year–Summer Solstice, Fall Equinox, Winter Solstice, Breakup, and Freezeup. The longest day of the year June 21 or 22, Summer Solstice, is accompanied by manic celebrations all over–people hike all night or throw parties, have soccer tournaments or drink Midnight Sun Brewing Company beer. A celebration certainly but also a wake–a celebration of a life passed, because Summer Solstice is the beginning of the dying of the light and the all too quick slide to winter, cold, aurora borealis and dark. Up here, Summer Solstice weather wise isn’t even the warmest weather, there’s still snowfields, gardens are barely greening up and the first hatch of mosquitoes are rapidly being replaced by gazillions of their quicker, itchier progeny. And it’s starting to get dark again.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) offers a shuttle service from Lordsburg, NM to the Crazy Cook start on the border with Mexico. I want to start the CDT in the last half of April or early May in order to beat some of the desert heat, but looking at weather maps, New Mexico is having an early spring, while snow in southern Colorado is at record highs. Hopefully, the early spring will sweep massive heat north and melt some of the snowpack before I get there. I’m glad I’m not hiking the PCT north this year as the Sierra snowpack is super high (some ski resorts are planning on continuing operations to July 4) which means there will be a lot more snow slogging in the High Sierra this year than 2016 which was way more than I had on the PCT NOBO 2015. The thing about the Sierra though is that you mostly go up over passes and then down to lower elevations. I never had to pitch my tent on snow even if I spent all day hiking through it. In 2015 the only pass socked in on both sides was Muir, but since I’d hiked that route three previous times, my memory combined with my maps and I navigated through snow without major incidents–I broke through a minor ice bridge and got my feet wet but only postholed up to my knees and I was able to camp on dry ground at the end of the day. The most treacherous pass was Glen because of its pitch, but I knew where the trail was supposed to go and there were plenty of tracks ahead of me.
The CDT apparently climbs high and stays on the Divide so once you’re in the snow, you stay in the snow–other than when you hitch down a highway to pick up more food and stay in a motel. That’s the impression I get anyway and that’s what I need to be prepared for. Reading hiker stories from past years (and there’s not a lot of them), this is normal if you’re going NOBO: walk through the desert for hundreds of miles, hot during the day, freezing at night, then climb into snowfields and continue hiking for hundreds of miles more. Snowshoes, an ice ax and proper avalanche training and practice are nearly universal recommendations. The other option for the CDT is, of course, to hike south from Canada. I have experience with this on the PCT as well since I hiked SOBO in 2016. Hikers going south on either the PCT or the CDT generally pick a later start date to give the snow a chance to melt up north, then run like hell to get through the High Sierra (PCT) or Colorado (CDT) before it starts snowing the Fall. A later date means June or July.
My CDT hiking strategy is based on my experiences hiking the PCT NOBO in 2015 and SOBO in 2016. I liked both hikes, but I tell people that if they’ve never done the PCT before, I think hiking north is the better choice.
To me, it comes down to this: daylight hours. If you’re going to be hiking for 4 or 5 months, and you’re relatively slow, or would rather hike without a headlamp, starting in the spring means you’ve got 2 months of gradually increasing daylight hours till Summer Solstice, then 2 months of gradually dwindling daylight hours through the rest of the summer months. It doesn’t mean you won’t be cold or get snowed on or won’t have to walk through snow, it just means that you’ll have more daylight hours to get it done.
Hiking in snow or snowfields, no matter the daylight hours is just slower. SOBO hikers on the PCT and CDT generally begin at the border with Canada in the later part of June or early July. NOBO hikers generally begin at the border with Mexico in April or early May. Another option on the CDT where there is less peer pressure to do a “true thru” is to flip around–hike as far as you want in one direction then catch a ride to a different location, hike that stretch and so forth, eventually completing the entire trail, linking footsteps, rather than walking continuous footsteps. I might do this. I get to do whatever I feel like doing, so there.
I really loved hiking with other people on the NOBO, I met and got to know so many interesting, wonderful, kind folks. On the other hand, I loved the relative solitude of going SOBO. My hiking partner for 1600 miles, Puff Puff, and I would go days without seeing other people all the way through California and were (mostly) stoked that we had each other’s company for a part of each day and could camp together and hang out in towns together. The Sierra in October was nothing like the Sierra in June–we could truly be in the wilderness without the hordes (human and mosquito) of summer. We had to discipline ourselves to get up and go at first light and often camped just as the light was going. In the last month of the SOBO we had about 11 hours of daylight. The final 700 miles of So Cal desert were cool, rarely cold, but increasingly dark, by the very end, we were in our tents by 5 pm, full on dark.
I don’t know how the CDT hike will go, but I’m going. I’ll begin hiking at Crazy Cook on April 21. I will probably take a week or two off the trail the beginning of June to let the snow melt in Colorado and to go home to Alaska to get bit by mosquitoes and because my youngest is bring his beloved for her first visit to Alaska and they want to do some hiking in my home mountains. One way or another I want to be in Wyoming August 21 wearing special solar eclipse glasses.
I’ll blog the CDT hike and will try to do a better job of it than I did in 2016. I seem to do more writing when I have fewer people to talk to, and when a trail is all new to me.
Washington has been really, really tough. Here’s why:
Cumulative fatigue and weight loss
The weather sucks
Lots of elevation gain in a day, and lots of downs
There’s a bush that smells like stinky feet and it’s everywhere
Friends have been getting off trail for various reasons
When it’s not raining or snowing, the yellow jackets are out and stinging the back of my legs
However, the Cascades are stunning!
Hikers just a week or so ahead of me had to make a tough decision since there was a trail closure at the Suiattle River due to fire. This closure had been in place for weeks and those of us hundreds of miles south had been stressing too. The most popular choice was to get a ride from Stevens Pass to Chelan, take the ferry to Stehekin, and resume the PCT, but skipping 107 miles of PCT. I figured that was what I would do and had lined up Sarah to drive me. And then the closure was lifted! All the crappy weather helped the firefighters. I am impressed that in the midst of dealing with the devastating loss of life and property and the complexity of fire logistics deploying resources and personnel, that the PCT was reopened to the tiny population of hikers. Who do I thank? The US gets so many things right: we invented National Parks, the Forest Service and long distance National Scenic Trails. Walking along I was thinking about this and humming “….land of the free, and home of the brave” guaranteed to choke me up like nothing else. If I’m ever cast in a movie and have to cry on cue, I won’t be thinking about losing my favorite cat, I’ll be visualizing an Olympic award ceremony with the US flag in the gold medal position and some poor athlete stumbling over the words of the anthem, hand on heart.
I got a slightly late start out of Stevens Pass, making just 16 miles till dark and a camp in the clouds. Over the next few days I could not make up the miles, only getting 20-22 a day. The trail was dreadfully unmaintained, brush overgrowing the trail pulling at my pack and drenching me with water. I couldn’t see my feet and was walking blind. Trees were down, years and years of trees, that I had to scramble over, under, or around. The trail was a rocky rut for miles and I picked my way slowly along, it would not be good to get injured so close to the end, plus how the f would Search and Rescue reach me? So I was 5 nights out, instead if the 4 I’d hoped for.
A quick 7 mile walk to the Ranger Station where a bunch of us got the shuttle bus to Stehekin with a stop at the most incredible bakery of the entire trail. All you who know my real life eating habits would laugh to see me eat a sandwich, a Dr Pepper, a slice of Quiche Lorraine and 2 blackberry cheese Danish. And I was still hungry.
I got a room, and started all the usual chores: pick up the resupply box, inventory and make a list of what else to dig out of the hiker box (fuel, TP, more food) or buy at the little store, hang up and dry the tent and bag, shower, laundry, eat. And then I heard a voice I knew scream, “Catwater!” Just like a movie, Puff Puff and I ran to each other, arms wide. And there was Julien too! What a reunion! I last saw Puff Puff in Mammoth but follow her blog alexandramason.wordpress.com and had lots of trail news drifting back to me. Trail registers, where they exist, told me how far ahead she was, she just got faster and faster, and I didn’t. Puff Puff, from England, is one of my heroes. What strength and resilience this woman developed on the trail. And although the trail closure was in effect when she reached the Northern Terminus, when it was reopened, she made her way back to Stevens Pass and hiked the 107 miles she’d been forced to skip. Not many hikers have done that.
Julien I’ve been leapfrogging with since the desert. This man, from Quebec, has unfailingly smiled through the entire trail, all the fatigue, pain, hunger, there he is, cheerful, gracious, amiable.
Waiting for the single washer/dryer in Stehekin, a bunch of us beautiful, scrawny, tattered, shaggy, tired hiker trash sat outside at a picnic table drinking beer and talking about making it to the final resupply before The Border. I was happy to learn that a couple who met on the trail, that I met in Sierra City, will be a couple in post trail life! And Sunshine recovered from a badly swollen shin in Crater Lake and will finish the PCT. Oh I love trail life and all the interesting unique individuals who have walked this path. Even though I am so ready to be done!
This final leg, I planned very carefully to climb high and sleep low, so as not to freeze at night. The first night the rain held off till 4pm and quit at 4 am, a long enough dry spell that my tent was dry when I packed it. And then, miracle, the skies stayed entirely cloud free for the next 3 days, 2 nights to Manning Park. The northern Cascades, all the Cascade Mountains really, are soul freeing. In the alpine, the blue sky contrasts with the high white hanging glaciers, glacial moraines, and fall reds, oranges and yellows. Below, the lush rain forest, Devil’s Club leaves as large as garbage can lids, ferns, maple, cedar, the stink of low bush cranberry and decaying plant life. Winter is coming.
I passed the Doobie Brothers and 2 other thru hikers heading back to Harts Pass. Not everybody enters Canada after making the Northern Terminus of the PCT at The Border. Big grins, we all congratulated each other on thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada.
On my last day, less than a mile from Manning Park, Dan comes striding down the trail towards me, a little misty eyed behind the grin. I confess I was too. I did it!
How is it possible I made it to the end? So many did not. I felt content when I got to Kennedy Meadows south, 700 miles of The Desert behind me, the portion of the trail I was most intimidated by. All the miles and country I traveled through after that were bonus. I saw my Dad, devastated by dementia in late June, and kept hiking. I got off the trail in late July to gather with family in the wake of his release from a life he didn’t want, and got back on the trail a few days later. I sprained my ankle in Oregon and kept hiking. I flirted with hypothermia in Washington and was fully miserable, stalled out in White Pass, but headed back out on the trail. Velcro and I talked about what it took to hike the whole trail, he concluded it is 50% physical and 50% mental. I think it gets more and more mental when the going is tough. I know that I had to toughen up mentally and that what gave me strength was love. You, my family and friends, old and new, gave me power through your love and belief in my ability to finish this long, long trail, you all are part of this journey. Life is meant to be lived with people. Life is meant to be lived with love.
Leaving White Pass Village Inn was difficult. At least it wasn’t raining. The first day went fine and I camped after about 21 miles. The next day it rained, then hailed, then snowed, as I climbed and descended, climbed and descended. I got to a campsite after a hard day, but kept going another hour to get below snow line where I pitched my tent in saturated ground under dripping trees. It was a cold, uncomfortable night with condensation dripping off my single wall tent onto my down bag. I packed up and hiked in the rain to the Urich Cabin where I hung all my wet stuff to dry over the wood stove stoked by several south bound hikers. They told me about the abandoned weather station 27 miles north, which I reached the following day after another cold, windy, wet night. Creepy by myself, “U.S. Government No Trespassing,” signs on the unlocked doors. It took 2 hours but my stuff dried, then the rain stopped and I went on a few miles to camp on a long abandoned dirt road, a wonderful campsite. As it was getting dark, I heard a solitary animal yip once about a 1/4 mile away, a yip with a low throaty bark undertone. After a few seconds, the same voice yipping, no reply. A coyote? Fox? Wolf? After half an hour of this, it was completely dark and I yelled into the blackness, “Knock it off! I’m trying to sleep!” It didn’t work right away but eventually it turned into a beautiful completely quiet night.
My hiking buddy from Day 1 at Scout and Frodo’s up to Big Bear at mile 266, met me at the trailhead 5 miles before Snoqualmie with trail magic. Poppy brought donuts, chocolate milk and IPA. I have missed her company for so long, somehow we had found ourselves on the same general hiking program and had hiked in to Big Bear Hostel together where she woke up the next morning with a devastating infection in her foot and had to go home. We chatted while I ate donuts, then she took my pack and I slack packed the final miles to Snoqualmie. It was awesome to sleep in a bed, dry out everything thoroughly and catch up with hiker friends Captain ( who I’ve known since the desert), Rainbow, Splash, Risng Sun, Zackley, Rainbow, Trail Bride and Cope.
I hiked out in clear skies. The first night I got up to pee in the middle of the night and got quite a shock. Stars! The Big Dipper with just below, bands of white Aurora Borealis dancing from right to left. I camped the second night near a little creek and it didn’t rain. The third night was at high elevation and warm and I awoke to a beautiful view of Mt Baker (I think, our maps only show the narrow corridor the PCT travels through). Velcro camped next to me. The next day we caught up to Zackley and made it to Stevens Pass where trail angel, Chris, retired NPS, waited to give hikers rides to Skykomish and Baring.
I checked in to the Cascadia Inn and waited for my daughter Sarah to drive out from Seatle after work. What a lovely, well kept old railroad town with friendly, helpful locals! Sarah brought me the skookum gear I ordered: boots, new socks, waterproof mitts and an additional bag liner. Also she brought IPA and a mini van to shuttle hikers. Over the next day and a half she met or gave rides to Rising Sun, Velcro, Sodwinder, Not A Bear, The Doobie Brothers, Bender, Wall-eeand Snow White. It made me so happy to share a bit of trail life with Sarah! While I have been hiking, she has been busy bragging about me, recruiting trail magic and generally increasing PCT awareness. And toward the end of our visit, she calmly and quietly said, “I’m thinking about hiking the PCT in 2 years.”