Technical notes on a CDT thru-hike

This blog post is for people looking to do a thru-hike of a long distance trail, a CDT section hike, etc.  It will is rambling, incomplete, and uneven – I am not trying to make a comprehensive guide, just pass on some thoughts.  If you found this blog post as part of your thru-hike preparation and have any more questions, feel free to contact me.  The topics are written in no particular order, and range from completely technical to philosophical.

DISCLAIMER PLEASE READ:
Some of the following advice I am about to give is very inappropriate and potentially dangerous for people who are interested in more traditional backpacking.  It is also quickly invalidated by winter or serious shoulder season weather. I DO NOT recommend you read this as a guide to transition from hiking to backpacking.  Many of the things I am about to write will strongly contradict traditional (and well-founded) advice. Compared to other thru-hikers, I am relatively cautious and conservative; compared to a weekend backpacker, I am insane and foolhardy.  Thru hiking in deep remote wilderness is a very different mindset than vacation backpacking, and requires risks that I would not normally recommend.

Philosophical: Should I do a thru-hike?

I just want to get this one out of the way: I do not recommend thru-hiking to a general audience.  Most people would not enjoy it. I especially do not recommend thru hiking the CDT to a general audience.  Think about what, exactly, you want to get out of this hike.

I want to connect with nature
That is a wonderful goal.  Go do a month long section hike where you are walking 10-20 miles a day.  When you walk 20-30 miles a day, mileage which is often necessary to close gaps in water availability or beat the oncoming winter, you will be endlessly on the move from sunup to sundown.  Some days you just have to really pound out the miles, and will spend a lot of time staring down at your feet.  You will blaze past valleys and mountain peaks and hardly remember their names.  You will be so tired on a daily basis, that you will resent and refuse small sidetrips to interesting features.

I want to travel and see new places
That is also a wonderful goal.  Go on a roadtrip where you spend a few days hiking/camping at different areas around the country.  Buy a one-way ticket to Bangkok and see where you go from there.  You will see incredibly beautiful things and places on a thru-hike, but there are much more time-efficient ways to meet your goal of seeing new places.

I want to become a more balanced person by finding myself in the woods
That is a great goal as well. Go on a week long mountain retreat and work on meditation exercises.  Talk to people wiser than you.  Do not expect to find this from thru-hiking. The way to be satisfied with life is to have a careful balance between pleasure and discipline, between work and relationships, between drudgery and joy.  There is NOTHING balanced about thru hiking.  On the trail, you binge exercise; in town, you gorge yourself on food; once you have the opportunity to sleep, nothing will get you out of a soft bed.  Your relationships and professional goals are set on the back burner for months.  Living between extremes like that does not efficiently teach you how to find moderation.  The truth is, the habits you learn and pick up during a thru hike might not help you navigate our current society; in fact, once you have had that experience, it might be very hard to go “back”.  I met a lot of people on trail who have essentially become career thru hikers and have yet to integrate back to a more traditional lifestyle.  This truly is the path for certain spirits, but for most, it can’t be sustained beyond a few years. On my end, the protagonist in a hero’s journey goes into the wilderness to gain wisdom, he does have to come back to society to complete the journey.  The wise sage wandering endlessly in the desert is a very important supporting character who can pass on knowledge to others, but he is not the hero of the story.

I have an itch.  I feel a desire to walk the length of the country in the middle of the wilderness.  I can’t shake it, and all I think about is how to make it happen. I fantasize about the sun setting over the mountains.  I fantasize about walking for hours in the rain.  I want the beauty.  I want the brutality.
Now we’re talking.  Thru hiking is a niche activity and is absolutely perfect for those who have this specific drive.


Generic thru hiking advice:

 

Lightweight backpacking philosophy:

There are plenty of good articles out there about lightweight backpacking, so I won’t hammer the point in.  A major philosophical difference between traditional vs. lightweight backpacking is how you plan for conditionals.  In a traditional mindset, you add items in your pack to handle the “what ifs”: What if I am stuck somewhere for a day, and run out of food? I better bring more.  What if temperatures are much colder than predicted?  I better bring an extra jacket.  What if there isn’t a lot of water?  I better bring an extra liter.  What if a strong storm comes through, even though weather is normally good this time of year?  I better bring a heavier, stronger tent.

In the lightweight mindset, you consider these “what if’s” and think really hard if you actually want to fill your pack with all those “what if” items.  Every item in your pack WILL slow you down, and in the lightweight mindset, your ability to just hike out of a bad situation is sometimes your strongest defense.  If you can confidently hike 30-35 miles a day in a pinch, you have a greatly expanded ability to get to safer conditions or even to a road if necessary.  As long as the consequence for not having that item is not severe, often you will decide to not bring it, and tolerate the consequences.  What if I run out of food?  Well, I will be hungry, but I’m not going to die because I am in good shape and otherwise healthy.  What if temperatures are much colder than predicted? Well, I might have to pack my things up and start walking to stay warm.  It will be unpleasant, but I am used to doing that.  What if I miss a water source?  Well, I will be thirsty and I might have to wait till dusk to walk.  It will be uncomfortable, but not dangerous.  I will bring an extra half liter instead of an extra full liter.  What if a strong storm comes and rips open my lightweight tent?  Well, you should have chosen a more sheltered location for your tent.  But in the unlikely event that happens, you might have to just get up and hike through the night.

 

Hitchhiking

Unless you have a personal chase team (I met a couple who did, it was an AWESOME way to hike, and their chase driver was having a great time too), or you are crazy like Anish and walk into town from the trail, hitchhiking is mandatory.  There is just no other way around it.  Smile and wave like crazy.  Wave at people as they are driving away from you (they sometimes change their mind).  Know it might take 2 hours to get a ride.  Don’t lose faith; this is not a very efficient mode of transportation, but someone will eventually pick you up.  I suggest you start paying it forward now, and consider picking up hitch hikers you see on the road.  I started doing it once I knew I wanted to thru hike, and knew I would rely on it.

How do I handle long resupply stretches?
There are a lot of 100+ sections between resupply points.  My longest was about 170 miles, through the Wind Rivers.  That was a challenging section.  I ate every piece of food I had, and several people I know ran out.  Here is how you make it through longer sections:

1) Hike faster and longer.  The faster you hike, the fewer days of food you need.  If you can turn a 110 mile resupply section into 4 days, then carrying food for that length of time is not a big deal.  The faster you hike, the more frequently you hit towns to make up for lost calories. Avoid the temptation to carry much extra – maybe enough food for one extra, hungry day.  As long as you don’t have any underlying health problems, you will be fine for a day without food, and perhaps learn a valuable lesson about planning better.
2) Plan on being a little calorie-deficient.  Make up for it in town.  I ate about 3000 calories a day,  probably burned close to 4500, and ate close to 5000 calories a day in town.  I maintained my weight at a healthy level after a sharp initial loss.
3) Low pack weight.  Even if you are strong and fit, there is an enormous difference between starting your supply leg with a 40 lb pack vs a 30 lb pack.  Every pound on your back matters.  The less you carry, the faster you go, and the faster you go, the less you need to carry.
4) Don’t carry food that has under 100 calories/oz.
5) Weekend campers have a lot of food with them, often way way more than they need.  Same with RV campers and hunters. Strike up a casual conversation with who you are and what you are doing.  At some point, you will get a response like “wow, what do you eat?”  When they ask you this, say something along the lines of “oh haha, mostly crackers and candy bars and instant potatoes. I can’t really carry enough with me to stay comfortable, you know, I just have to wait it out. Did I mention that all I’ve had to eat today are poptarts?” Sometimes, they will offer you food.  Act shy and surprised by the offer, give a polite token refusal, and then graciously accept whatever they give you with many thanks.  It is your responsibility to either carry enough food or tough it out yourself, but I think this is valid because these folks often carry way more food than they can eat.

Do not ask for food from your fellow thru hikers, unless you have a very very generous trade in mind.  It is better to go hungry for a day than ask for this type of help.  Your self reliance and independence on the trail are sacred.

 

Being a solo woman

As a solo woman, you will get a lot of people asking “oh.. are you alone?  If you were my daughter…”.  Single young men do not get comments like this on a regular basis; if they did, I might not resent it so much, but these types of comments are very directed at women.   I got this comment from people on the trail, and well-meaning people at home.  I really try to be patient and understand that these type of comments are meant in a good way, but it does help that they normally come from men, and normally in a patronizing tone.

I do take words of wisdom and advice, but only from people who know what the hell they are talking about.  If people at home are trying to tell you that you cannot do this hike because you are a solo woman, don’t listen to them – listen to people who actually have experience. Imagine an ultra marathon runner getting training advice from someone who is doing a couch-to-5k, and you will see what I mean.  It might sound arrogant, but that is a legitimate comparison between me (someone who successfully crossed 2600 miles of deep wilderness solo on foot) compared to someone who has never camped out of sight from their car.  I will tell you who is not bothered by the “safety” of solo female hikers – other thru hikers, national park rangers, elk hunters, national forest employees, hunting guides and horse packers.  In short, people who actually know what they are talking about.

But seriously, as a woman you are more likely to get a ride into town rather than be left stranded on the side of the highway, are (probably) slightly more likely to get into “trouble” in town, and will hold your weight at a more healthy level when compared to a man.  You also will likely need less food for your bodyweight, and will need a more warmly rated sleeping bag than a man would.  Maintaining basic hygiene is also more difficult, both because you might have to deal with menstruation at some point (most women stop menstruating while doing high mileage hikes, some don’t), and you are much more susceptible to UTIs.  I kept meaning to ask a doctor to prescribe me a full course of antibiotics that I could carry with me just in case (getting to a medical clinic can be very hard on trail), but I was too exhausted and disorganized to ever make the appointment before leaving.  You might want to do that.  I suggest carrying 3 pairs of underwear for sections without daily access to good wash water.  Let the inside of your underwear get exposed to as many hours of intense sunlight as possible, such as tied to the outside of your pack or laid out during breaks, because strong UV radiation has antimicrobial properties.  Carry a bandana for cleaning up after urinating.  Men, if you see a bandana tied to the outside of a woman’s backpack, do not absently play with it (yes, I have seen this, did not have the heart to tell him)!  This is about the extent of differences between solo male and female hikers, other than comments and skepticism about your suitability to be out there.

 

CDT-specific:

What is the water situation like?

Guthook is the most reliable way to keep track of water sources, and I cannot recommend it enough.  A lot of the time, you are walking above your water, so it can be an issue.  There are a lot of 15-20 mile carries in Montana/Idaho, which can be rough in the heat of July on steep mountainous terrain.  While it can be spread out, the water is mostly good.  The stretch just north of Yellowstone is surprisingly dry compared to the immediate surrounding areas, so watch out.  The red desert is about 15-25 miles between water sources, but when you hit water it is normally good spring water fenced off and tapped by BLM.  There are a couple of notable and flavorful exceptions (dead cow in water).

The driest stretch might be the alakli flats in Rawlins->35 miles south, where the water is saline and undrinkable.  The section going through el Malpais is probably similar, but I did not walk through it.  I was nervous enough about this section to bypass some of it in a car, although my later experience in New Mexico makes this type of carry not seem so bad. Colorado, with a couple exceptions, has plenty of nice tasty spring water.  In New Mexico, I probably hit one or two water sources a day (20-25 miles between sources).  I took a wetter New Mexico route, though – the path through El Malpais is very long and dry.   In middle and southern New Mexico, you will be drinking out of cattle troughs, or out of ponds with cattle peeing in them.  yum.   Most of the time you can get the pump turned on and have access to fresh ground water, but not always, so make sure to carry Crystal Light so you can have plausible deniability in what exactly you are drinking. Any water source labeled as a farm pond or tank is normally just nasty sludge, and I normally discounted them as serious water sources for planning purposes. There were only a handful of times on the entire trail I was really forced to drink rank-ass water (although plenty of times I drank murky swampy water).  Sometimes if I really thought the water was unappetizing, I would drink all my remaining good water, and fill up on the yucky water, and hope I could reach my next water source without needing to drink the yucky water.  Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t.

middle and southern montana can be dry.  The carries are not incredibly long, but the terrain is rough and you will be exerting yourself pretty hard.  Hence, a 17 mile carry can be substantial in this area.

Northbounders: be careful about water as you are leaving Yellowstone.  You go from having to cross a stream 1,205 times a day through the winds and southern yellowstone, to suddenly a very dry and possibly hot stretch in northern yellowstone.  I ran into water trouble in this segment and crossed some NoBos who were starting to get nervous about water.  Just be prepared for a dry stretch suddenly in northern Wyoming.

Southbounders: Be careful as you leave Benchmark Ranch. The water situation rapidly goes from water-fat to quite dry, and you will be traveling over rough terrain in the heat of July.  The Bob is very wet, and you may not realize you need to expand your water carrying capacity immediately once you leave Benchmark.  I know someone who vomited from heat exhaustion in this section (heat wave), and someone else who ran out of water and had to lay down and sleep until evening.  He was so water-crazed that when I told him the spring he was about to get water from had a dead rat in it, he flatly said “I don’t care” and drank 2 liters unfiltered.  Both were experienced thru-hikers, but were caught off guard by the transition.

In general, do not look too closely at the collecting culverts for Springs, as they tend to have dead rats, squirrels, and birds in them.  This is also why I recommend filtering most of your water.  Out of sight, out of mind.  If you are the type of person who never filters your water, I probably can’t convince you otherwise, but at least bring an eye dropper of bleach for when you have to drink out of a pond with a dead cow laying in it, pretty please??

How do I handle long stretches without water?

I would say that before you are trail-hardened, worry about a carry longer than 10 miles, unless it is on very easy terrain.  Once you have adapted and are in-tune with your water needs, don’t worry until the carry is over 20 miles.  I very rarely carried more than 3 L of water with me at a time, and then I only did so for fairly short periods of time before stopping for the night.  I really think you are going to start crippling yourself if you carry more than 3L, and it is normally not necessary to carry more, even if it is 25 miles to your next source.

WARNING: this advice is for people who have adapted to hiking and can routinely walk 20+ miles in a day WITHOUT over exerting themselves.  This is potentially terrible or dangerous advice to someone who does not have that level of fitness or experience.  Here is what you can do to stretch your supply:

1) Every time you come to a water source, camel up.  Eat some salty snacks, and drink at least 1 L; if this is your only water source for the day, drink 2.  Flavor packets will help the water go down more easily if you are having a hard time getting through it.  Your body is pretty good at getting rid of excess, and if you are not overexerting yourself hyponatremia is not likely to be a problem.  If you stay well ahead of  dehydration, then if you screw up and get in trouble, you at least have reserves.  I was better hydrated in the desert than anywhere else along the hike as a preemptive measure.

2) Do not drink from a hydration hose.  I know this sounds crazy, and maybe it is, but sometimes you want water just because your mouth is dry.  If you become accustomed continually having water in your mouth, you will feel like you need more. In contrast, if you train yourself to drink once an hour, you will be able to better differentiate between a dry mouth and actual thirst. If you carry too much water, you will be tired much more easily because water is heavy.

3) Eat your water-greedy food at water sources.  If you want to make it 30 miles today and you come across water at mile 20, and it will be another 20 miles to the next source, go ahead and cook at mile 20.  Drink while your are cooking, drink after you have finished eating, and then pack up. Let’s say this is 4pm. You probably only need 2 L to make it comfortably to your next source, say at 11 in the morning,.  I personally go through about a gallon on a moderate-temperature, high-effort day (this includes cooking water) so if I drink 2 L when I stop, and carry 2 L with me, I can easily get my gallon a day without ever carrying very much.

4)  If you realize you might be getting in trouble, just stop and go to sleep in a protected area until it is cooler.  Your water needs will be much, much lower at night.  Similarly, you might decide to hike the beginning of a long dry stretch in the dark to lower your water needs.

5) Always be on the lookout for an opportunistic water source during a long carry.  If a random person in their truck offers you water, take it.  Pay attention to the area, and you will recognize that certain types of plants are only found near water.  Continually scan your surroundings for those plant species.  Tall grass in the middle of sage brush?  Little purple flowers and lush green grass in the high peaks of Montana?  If you see them, go investigate.  Metal culverts, large industrial tires, windmills, solar panels, and oddly-placed power lines are all potential water sources.  If you see a small area fenced off in a circle in the middle of nowhere, that is a very good sign that there is a spring inside the fenced area.  If you are on a well-marked trail and see cairns leading off into the woods, it could be a sign there is water that way.  In the desert, you will largely be drinking out of springs or wells tapped to supply cattle with water.

6) Do not rely on caches for your safety.  I have saved weight by using known water caches, but I only relied on that cache if I had a solid backup plan in case it was dry (example: if I got to that cache and it was empty, I had identified a reliable off-trail water source a full mile away.  It would suck to have to walk that far, but it was an acceptable risk to save water weight).

7) Have a reliable water report.  The Guthook apps are incredible for this because you can get more reliable updates on which wells are broken or working.

8) When you plan out a long water carry, have a few what-ifs planned out.  What if this water source is not there, and it’s 30 miles to the next one?  Sometimes in a really bad situation like that, a solution might be to cut over to the nearest road, and wave your empty water bottle to passing cars.  If there is any traffic, someone will probably help you.  I don’t ever advocate relying on other people to rescue you.  You need to be fully self-sufficient, and have backups planned.  But, sometimes you make a mistake, and this is a potential option depending on where you are.

A note on dehydration and hyponatremia

Let’s compare the symptoms of dehydration and hyponatremia:

Dehydration: Increased thirst, dry mouth, tired, decreased urine output or dark urine, headache, irritability, muscle cramps, dry skin, dizziness, few or no tears.

Hyponatremia: Nausea and vomiting, headache, confusion, loss of energy, irritability, muscle cramps and weakness, seizures.

These conditions have significant symptom overlap.  One of these conditions is solved by drinking more water, while the other is made worse by drinking more water. Hyponatremia can kill faster than dehydration, and once it has seriously started you can’t really fix it in the field.  Don’t endlessly encourage someone who is feeling crampy, fatigued, and dizzy to keep drinking water without considering hyponatremia. It is possible to over drink.

Make sure you have salty snacks, and consider adding a little bit of salt to your water.  Some people take electrolyte tablets.  I sometimes took electrolyte tablets, but mostly ate a lot of plantain and banana chips.

How hard is the trail, actually?

The physical difficulty of the trail varies a lot.  There are long stretches where you are walking over gently rolling terrain on dirt roads, and there are other stretches where you are walking up and down very steep mountains with no tread.  The general consensus is that the CDT is much harder physically than the PCT, and easier mile-for-mile than the AT (in terms of pure physical effort).  By the time you have your trail legs, you will be doing miles on terrain that would be unfeasible and potentially dangerous, for a person in good shape who has not had that degree of trail-conditioning.  That being said, the average human who is relatively young (under 40) and has few underlying injuries can adapt to this level after a month of hiking; someone who is in good shape and in their 60’s can adapt to this as well **  I have been reminded, since initially writing this, that I have falsely imposed an upper age limit on the CDT; I revoke this statement.  I do not have any upper age limit for the CDT to comment on, for someone who is strong and in good shape!!!  My “under 40” comment was meant to be inclusive,and say that you can go from couch potato-to-trail in fairly short order!**

In my opinion, a major difficulty of the trail is not the sheer elevation gain/loss, but rather the unpredictable nature of the trail quality.  Unlike the AT and PCT, the CDT is very poorly maintained and poorly marked in some areas, and is not friendly for human hikers.  You might look at your map that you have 10 miles to hike and 3000 feet of elevation gain, and figure that will take you ~4 hours and you will do it by lunch.  This plan can be quickly thwarted when you realize there are 50 downed trees along the way, and about a mile of this trail has been overtake by 6ft high willow trees.  Now it takes you 6 hours instead of 4, and you are worn out.  These types of small setbacks happen continually, are not apparent when you read your map, and can be very frustrating.  The trail can also be very terribly marked in places, and this can lead to a lot of time loss.  For example, your are walking along a well-defined path, and the CDT suddenly turns left into an overgrown-trail on flat ground with no forewarning and the trail you are on keeps going.

How cold is it?  What type of sleeping bag do I need? How much snow is there? What snow gear do I need?

2017 was a rough year for snow.  The NOBOS hit enormous snowpacks in Colorado in late May and early June.  The Winds remained unpassable for a long period of time.  Many NOBOS ended up roadwalking large parts of Colorado, and those who did walk through the southern San Juans all have death-defying stories.  The SOBOs faced high snow levels in Glacier National park, even at the low elevation Chief mountain start, well into June.  I started June 15 and would have had a hard time starting much earlier – there were 10 miles of 3 ft deep snow over Piegan pass, with some exposure.  There was still a good amount of snow in the Cirque of the Towers route in the Winds when I arrived in mid August.  For me, microspikes made a dramatic difference between fearful misery and calm confidence on snow.  I am more skittish about traversing steep snow slopes than other people are, and most people will say you don’t really need snow gear.  Well, I found that I needed it, so that is my experience I am sharing with you.  I hit the San Juans in mid-September, and got forced off the trail into Silverton due to a nasty snowstorm.  While I tried to continue my hike in the San Juans after the storm was over, I found that the combination of snow + low temperatures from a cold front, + threat of a second storm coming exceeded my gear and comfort level, so I decided to abandon the remaining San Juan route and hitch to Pagosa Springs instead.  I opted to take the Platoro reservoir alternate to avoid the second snowstorm, which was a good thing because quite a bit of snow fell at higher elevations on Sept 22.  The threat of snow remains because the same mountain chain extends down into northern New Mexico.  Once you descend to Ghost Ranch, you are mostly safe from snow on a SOBO hike as long as it is not late November!

I took a 20 degree quilt with me, and a mountaineering grade sleeping pad, and was happy temperature wise.  I was too warm during the heatwaves in Montana.  The coldest it ever got was in the high teens (I carried a tiny thermometer with me), with the coldest temperatures coming in Northern New Mexico.  The first freeze came in August in the Winds.  I was happy even at 18 F in my 20 degree bag, but women especially might need a lower rated bag to feel comfortable at these temperatures.  I camped next to another woman that night who had a 0 degree bag, and she was uncomfortably chilled whereas I was toasty and snug in my 20 degree quilt.  It really depends on your metabolism.  I think 20 degrees was probably the most common bag used.

Animals?  Should I take bear spray?

I carried bear spray from Glacier to South Pass City, as there are now grizzly bears in the Winds.  I saw two grizzly bears, one waaay too close up; they both behaved well, and casually moved away from me.  There are black bears pretty much the entire trail, except for the red desert and long stretches in New Mexico.  Most thru hikers do not hang their food in black bear country.  This goes against pretty much all advice on the subject matter, but there is a tradeoff between the theoretical danger of a black bear coming for you food, and the fact that you are exhausted at the end of each day and hate the task of hanging your food.  I gave up hanging my food around south pass city.  I don’t recommend it, and I do know of at least one person who had a black bear eat their food, but it would be hypocritical for me to admonish him since I was doing it too.

I was very happy to have my bear spray when I was chased by three enormous livestock guardian dogs for 30 minutes.  I was also happy to have bear spray when a moose boldy sauntered into my campsite and walked right up to me, despite my protests (I managed to shoo her away, but she had broken my personal space bubble). Be very careful when you enter flocks of sheep – the dogs do not like it if you bother the sheep.I called the district ranger about my experience, and he said the type of aggression I encountered was unheard of and unacceptable, so I might have just been unlucky. Never, ever enter a flock of sheep if you have your own dog with you.  The livestock guardians should know that humans are to be tolerated, and in principle should let you pass, but they might try to kill your dog because that is their job. In general, feral dogs are the animals that have always scared me the most in the backcountry.  I have backed down from doing hikes in Virginia because I could hear them baying and snarling in the distance.

There are moose from Glacier to South pass city, and from the colorado border almost all the way into New Mexico.   They are quite thick in Colorado.   They have no fear.  None at all.  You and a group of moose may peacefully share the same space for a while. As the season gets later, they get bolder. If they get ornery, they will chase you.  Watch them carefully and give them lots of space.

Yes, there are rattlesnakes in New Mexico.  Yes, I still recommend you wear low-top trail runners. Don’t reach your hands over rocks where you can’t see what you are grabbing, and be careful around wood piles.

 

Thunderstorms

 

A lot of the time, the CDT will put you up on an exposed ridgeline in the high mountains for prolonged periods of time.  This is exactly the type of terrain where you do NOT want to be for thunderstorms.  Your odds of getting hit by lightning are massively increased when you make a habit of spending long hours at the top of bare ridgelines.  Part of your daily planning should include how likely you are to run into a severe thunderstorm on exposed terrain, and what your safest course of action is if that happens.  In short, you are much more likely to hit thunderstorms in the afternoon in July/August than in the morning, so sometimes you are able to plan your days so your ridgewalk is in the morning.  Other times, it is really not possible to do this.  In the event you will be spending a prolong period of time ridgewalking in the late afternoon, try to have an escape plan or low-elevation route outlined.  If the weather starts looking bad, and there is a way for you to walk at a lower elevation, do it.  Sometimes this will mean dropping down 300 feet in elevation and walking parallel to the trail.  Other times, this might mean waiting in a sheltered location for a storm to pass.  Normally they will move on in 20-40 minutes. Try to camp in areas where you are decidedly NOT the tallest thing around.  My common tactic was to camp about 500-1000 vertical feet below a pass in a bowl-shaped valley. Unfortunately, you may find yourself in a situation where an escape route is very treacherous.   Then you are really in a pickle.  I would take my chances with the lightning, personally, rather than rolling off a cliff. If you are caught in a storm in a flat open plane with very few tress, like in the red desert or New Mexico, just screw it and avoid the trees altogether.  It is better to avoid trees altogether, rather than be near any isolated ones.

After a certain point, you just have to hope it’s not your day to get struck by lightning.

 

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Final chapter

Oct 25: 18 miles and 54 crossings of the Gila river

The lower Gila canyon is spectacularly beautiful.  I got to spend a lot of time in it because the trail was washed out and I had to repeatedly cross the river to avoid thick brush and cliff faces.  According to my map, there are about 54 crossings in a fourteen mile stretch. I’m not sure if I crossed more or fewer times than that, since there was not really a trail to follow.  It was pretty cold in the morning, but the day warmed up soon enough.

On perhaps crossing #40 I waded into the water a little ways to try and pick the best spot to scramble up the opposite shore. As I scouted, a slowly sank in the mud.
This water is kinda warm.
The entire opposite bank was about four feet high and very steep with lots of pricker bushes.  Ugh. Annoying.  I shifted my weight and sank another millimeter.
Foot? HOT FOOT! HOT FOOT!
I yelped and jumped back onto the sand.  my foot was not hurt. I now saw the steam rising above the river, and the tiny rivulets of water seeping in from the bank.  I had inadverently stood directly on a hot spring feeding into the Gila. Cool! I dropped my pack and explored the area for a bit, but could not find a satisfying mix of hot spring/cool river water to soak for a while.

Beware the green slime of scalding hot water!

I’ll go ahead and sign off this entry with pictures from the Gila. You can’t make fast miles, but if you want to spend all day leisurely exploring a stunning river valley and don’t mind a little bit of thorn bushes then come down here for a trip.  I would consider doing the demolished middle fork as a backpacking trip unto itself. i do think it was the right decision for me to skip the middle fork; I found this section lovely but the crisscrossing to find a good way through tedious. I dont think i would have enjoyed forty miles of it. October is a great time to visit.  20171025_155743.jpg

Oct 26: Gila river to Silver City

I walked over some really interesting rock/lava formations all morning.  It was somewhat slow going in the beginning, because the ground was really loose and I kept slipping and sliding on the gravel.  I stabbed myself with a really sharp plant twice.  Here, I found a picture of it on Google.  I didn’t stab myself on the little spines on the edge of the leaf, but instead with the tip.  The leaf does not bend when you run into it, and the tip can drive into your leg!  Owie.
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This image is brought to you by The Google.

There was plenty of water to be found in springs along the way.  I saw a tent up in the woods, along with a gas generator, and figured that it belonged to Doug.  Doug is a hermit who lives in the woods that I have heard about.  I wasn’t feeling very talkative for some reason, so I decided not to find Doug.  I skipped along the lava formations, taking my good sweet time with no rush to get to Silver City.

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Oct 27: Zero day in Silver City.

It is getting harder and harder to keep going.  I greatly enjoyed my last push through the Gila wilderness, but in a lot of ways I have become fatigued and burned out from the trail.  I decided in Silver City to blaze the straightest, fastest path to the border: a brutal 95 mile roadwalk to Columbus, New Mexico.  I debated on this decision for a long time, but came upon it by revisiting the goals I set when I first started this trek.  I decided that I would take the route variants I needed to take in order to have the experience I wanted to have.  I did not walk into this hike with a strong hope of doing a “clean” walk along the route, and I was OK with beelining straight to the border at this point so I had at least completed Something.

Oct 28: Surprisingly pleasant 15 mile roadwalk, followed by much less pleasant 13 mile road walk.

I was not looking forward to this leg at all.  In fact,I had written off the possibility of seeing nice scenery the rest of the trail.  This was not at all fair.  I found a nice and quiet road to start my long walk from Silver City to Deming New Mexico.  it was peaceful without too many cars, and endless rolling hills of beautiful high desert.  It is incredible to count the tough plants that thrive in this stark landscape.  I enjoyed the experience of walking for hours along such an alien landscape.  I even got a bottle of cold Powerade from a bemused fireman who had passed me multiple times in his truck while he was out running errands.  i then left the nice dust road and got onto pavement and a very long and very straight road heading to Deming.

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As it approached dusk, there was this complicated issue of where to camp for the night.  I was no longer in the wilderness, but along the highway.  The most obvious choice was a hot spring resort two miles off the highway.  The advantage was that I could legally camp (rather than “stealth camp” on questionable property), would have easy access to water, and might be able to use the hot springs.  The disadvantage was that it was $20 to camp and two miles out of my way in EACH direction.  That’s an annoying detour on foot.  I only had one set of clothes, anyways, and could not even use the soaking pools because I would not want to get anything wet.

I looked up the website for the resort while I was debating, and browsed through their hot spring information. There was a “clothing optional” hot pool, and they had towels to rent. OK, well it’s settled. I’m going to the resort!   I arrived at the resort to find the hot pool area I had selected was indeed the more popular one, and had a very social evening chatting with other folks in the pools.

Oct 29: 30 miles of pavement

I saw a Western rattlesnake today!  He curled up and made his rattling noise at me.  I walked around him.  He got mad and rattled more, but I was far enough away to not be worried.

I also found a nice oasis in the desert.

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My dad was on the move from Arlington Texas to pick me up.  I realized that if I didn’t want to walk 36 miles the next day, I would have to walk several miles past Deming.  The only downside to this is the land is all fenced off private property in that direction, and I have no legal place to camp.  My dad and I decided that I would walk as far south as I could, he would pick me up and drive me back to Deming to spend the night somewhere secure, and then drive me back to the same spot in the morning.  I would have preferred to spend my last night on the trail outside, but I did not have any good camping prospects in the area south of Deming and would not have felt comfortable hiding out between property lines close to the highway.  It was good to see him again.

Oct 30: 33 miles to the border

It was hard to walk the last 33 miles to the end.  Three people stopped and asked if I wanted a ride, and it took a lot of self control to turn them down.  I have become far too comfortable having cars whizz by at 70 mph just inches from my body (most people give me plenty of room, but a few do not!)  One woman warned me about rattlesnakes.  Thanks, I got a nice warning yesterday!  I did not really need my backpack, but I took it anyways because I felt that leaving it with my dad for the day would be like dropping my torch close to the finish line.  I started picking up dried red peppers that I found along the highway, and crumbled them as I walked saying “he loves me, he loves me not; he loves me, he loves me not.”  I have no idea who “he” is, but this game is very entertaining and gives me something to do while walking.  I really wish I had thought of it earlier when I started seeing the dried peppers.

The last few miles to the border was a hot mess of construction, and pretty anti climactic.   At dusk I ducked through the detour signs and took an awkward selfie at the border monument.

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Just like that, it was over.  No more walking for ten hours a day.  No more drinking water from puddles.  No more elk singing in the morning.  No more stars.  I got in the car and dad drove us to El Paso.

Three weeks later: the final recap

I have been off the trail for about three weeks, now.  My path so far was Columbus, New Mexico -> Arlington, Texas -> Gaithersburg, Maryland ->Ann Arbor, Michigan->Gaithersburg, Maryland. My paperwork for my next job is almost complete and I have the keys to my new apartment in Ann Arbor. I have also spent a lot of time sitting around, not sure how to keep my momentum. Readjustment to society was a challenge.  Some things I expected: I find it difficult to drive a car; I have a hard time cooling down when I want to sleep at night; I eat far too much; and I didn’t fulfill my grand plans of productivity.  Some things I did not expect: I am sore all day if I don’t exercise, and I am horribly sore all day if I do two hours of light exercise, and I am horribly sore all day if I do an hour of moderate exercise.  No matter what I do, my entire body aches. Dogs are fascinated by my hiking shoes. I am more afraid of dogs. Whenever I am outside and see a trickle of water, my brain sounds a big alarm and I automatically walk over to see if it is good drinking water.  Same thing happens when I see a patch of lush green grass against a drab background.  


When you trek through the wilderness, you strip out many of the layers which insulate you from the full experience of living.  You can strip out the roof, the tent canvas, and the light pollution that shield you from the haze of the milky way in the night sky.  There are no roads to scar the rolling hills of the piedmont nor buildings to block your view.  The coyotes yowl.  The air is sweet and cold.  The security of shelter, warmth, water, and food are not given to you at the beginning of each day, but things you have to actively work for using your own wit and physical strength.  If you want more water, you have to walk 20 more miles; if you want food, you have to walk 80.  Meeting those needs is sufficient to achieve a deep and elated happiness.  My motto over and over again on the trail was “it ain’t much, but it’s plenty.”  When it is just you, and the mountains, and the long road your sense of well-being is not contaminated by intrusive worries about your future security, social standing, or professional status (which is just a subset of social standing).  All you have is the present, and the present is good enough.  The happiness is pure, and so is the fatigue and the discomfort and the fear.  There is no escape from the tedium of walking ten hours a day, day after day; there is no escape from the sweltering heat wave under the open sun; your worries and fears are firmly grounded in things that can absolutely and seriously harm you.  I have walked high up on the spine of the continent, close to the sun in lonely lands, surrounded by snow capped peaks on a mild day.  I have been chased down like an animal by a pack of enormous, snarling dogs.

On the trail, my goal was crystal-clear: walk from Canada to Mexico on foot following as much of the Continental Divide Trail as I felt was within my ability.  There was no ambiguity in what I needed to do: I had to walk all day, most days.  At the beginning of the trail, I molded myself and my habits so I would become the the person who could accomplish this task.  This transformation came at the cost of substantial physical discomfort and mental fatigue.  The growing pains of adapting your body to trail life really, really suck and are the reason why most people who start long distance trails do not finish them.  The vision of what you want and the habit of doing what you must to reach it over and over and over is a near-indomitable combination.  I crossed snowfields and deserts.  I was blasted by gale force winds and baked underneath the sun.  I waded through swamps and balanced on the knife edge of ridgelines.  I routinely walked in one day what most people would struggle to walk in two.  I have walked 80 consecutive miles on a boring paved highway with a high speed limit and no shade in the desert.  I was one of the weakest and slowest hikers to successfully get through Colorado.  I walk slowly compared to many hikers and do not have the stamina to routinely do 14 or 16 hour days like some of my compadres. I am telling you this not to berate myself, but to emphasize to you how strong some of these other people out here are, and what a determined human is capable of.

Unfortunately, the vision and goals and habits we need to be successful in our personal and professional lives are much more difficult to define.  It is not so easy to give a task absolutely everything you have when there are large degrees of complexity and ambiguity.  There are many distractions, and it can be hard to differentiate the things you want from the things other people say you should want. You can run in circles as a busy body, but not make much progress on the things that will actually make a difference in your life.    It is foolish and pointless to scurry around in the rain and sleet without a destination.  It is valiant and satisfying to brave rain and sleet to make it a few extra miles to camp.

I will miss the clarity of the long road.

 

Mt Taylor to Doc Campbells

Oct 12 

Zero day in Grants. Warning, this paragraph contains critical spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy II and Persepolis.

 I checked out the mining musuem, which was pretty cool. They have a replica underground mine you can look around in. My favorite tv show Alaskan Bush People did not come on all day, because there was a marathon of the vastly inferior Gold Rush playing, so I watched Guardians of the Galaxy II and Persepolis on my Amazon Prime video app because thats what Amazon said I should watch.  These movies are very interesting to compare and contrast to each other. Starlord and Marjane actually have a lot in common. They both prominently use popular US music from a similar era to stay grounded, are unreliable narrators, they both errantly place their hopes and dreams in a male figure who betrays them, they both meet and ultimately reject “god” directly to his face over the death of a beloved family member. The nature of god in each movie is nearly opposite. In Guardians of the Galaxy, god is a near-omnipotent and incredibly cruel manipulator who is the direct cause of the movie’s central crisis, whereas in Persepolis god is gentle and patient to individuals but totally impotent/uninvolved with what happens on earth. Both movies were adapted from comic books (Persepolis is autobiographical), feature a bizarre dance scene in the middle of a crisis that is intentionally hammy, and both show a similar severe body morphing and distortion sequence for comic effect. Fascinating.

Hey, what else am I supposed to think about on a thirty mile road walk?

I am Groot?

Oct 13 road walk through El Malpais

These road walks in the open sun are hard on me.  Hours of pavement with cars whizzing just a foot away.  My motivation seems to have tanked just after summiting mt. Taylor.  I take breaks too frequently and for too long and listlessly look at the miles and miles and miles of road ahead.  I shuffle through podcasts and music but nothing eases the drudgery of the walk for long.

I disregarded the “no camping” sign in the parking lot for La Ventana, a famous arch in the Malpais.  I camped on dirt back in the bushes. I could look at La Ventana all evening from my tent.  For some folks, camping means lawn chairs and a portable grill and a car and a big tent and a fire all afternoon. For me, camping means set-up at dusk and breakdown at dawn taking up a 5″x7″ rectangle of space in silence.

Oct 14

After enjoying some cliffs in the morning, I had a long and dreary road walk with an endless stream of cars whizzing by.  A couple people slowed down to check on me as usual.  One fellow drive up slowly and held a beer out the window.
“It’s cold,” he said.

“Um.. sure!” 
I pushed on, somewhat dependent on reaching the Thomas Ranch. John and Anzi Thomas are retired pastors.  Reportedly I can get good well water from their house, which is much tastier and reliable than cow troughs, and camp on their property, which is great because the rest of the road is covered with No Trespassing signs for twenty miles to Pie Town.  I left public lands a few miles back.  
I found their house and a series of instructions on where to find water.  I was soon invited inside by the fire.  They let me stay in their trailer!  It had a working light and a bed! It was a very cold night but my water didn’t even freeze inside.

Oct 15

When I got to Pie town my first order of business was to find my hostel. The Toaster house is a free hostel (please donate money when you spend the night!!! That’s how it stays open!!) and the only place to stay in Pie Town. I am embarassed to say that I stood next to this house for nearly a minute, trying to guess which one was the right place…

Ohh. Toaster House. 

Shweps, The Graduate, and another hiker named Milk Jug were there.  I grabbed lunch with Shweps and the Graduate, and hung out at the cafe after they left to download podcasts on the very good WiFi. 

When I got back to the Toaster house, the owner had arrived with her car. Shweps and the Graduate were in it. 

“There’s room for one more,” she said. “Come on!”

I did not know where we were going, so I grabbed my water bottle and squeezed in the back.  We drove a short distance east, stopped at a dirt road, and walked down it. Turns out we were visiting the Pie Town VLBA (very long baseline array) telescope. It’s location is not publicly advertised, but is easy enough to look up.  Basically there are ten stations around the country which combine together to make a single GIANT telescope. You can walk right up to the security fence within 200 feet or so of the Telescope, and the gate even has informational brochures for curious visitors.

Later that evening we hung around the hostel and philosophized.

Oct 16: Pie town to Gila national forest boundary

Gila is pronounced HEE-la.

Water review #3
Like good wine, water will gain flavor and complexity with time for the sophisticated palatte. According to the water report, the pump for this small trough broke at least three weeks ago meaning this water has been aged for at over twenty three days in a metal culvert in the full desert sun. Evaporation has concentrated and enhanced the standard flavors you can find in trough water, including the spices of Insect Wings, Rotting Log, and of course, Dead Squirrel.  Feathers on the surface suggest this tank may also contain Dead Bird. 
A wise individual once wrote on the water report: 

Do not think of this as “bad”; think of this as an opportunity to see how desperate you are for water. 

This is the only certain water in a forty mile stretch of trail. 10/10. 

Oct 17

I had dinner next to Milk Jug at the one water source for the day. Milk Jug has a quart milk jug tied to the outside of his pack.  I loaded up on water, and pressed on a few more miles.  22 miles to the next certain water at Dutchman Spring.

Water review #4

THIS TROUGH HAS GOLDFISH IN IT!!!

15,000/10

I was incredibly relieved to see that the trail snaked back into the wilderness and trees and away from roads. My heart lifted at the thought of finding shade again, and not seeing cars all the time.For the first time in several days, I was excited to hike on.  I walked until it was too dark to walk any more.  I didn’t even bother to set up my tent on this crystal clear night.

Oct 18

I woke up around 1 AM to find that my pad had deflated.  Rocks were digging into my back, and more importantly the ground was leaching heat from my body.

Uh oh. 

This happened earlier on my hike, and it turned out that the valve has slipped during the night.  I reinflated my pad, made sure the valve was tight, and waited. Twenty minutes later I was on the ground. Ohh boy. 

See, this is actually more important than comfort.  If this were just a matter of rough sleeping, I could probably tough it out for the next few days. The sleeping pad is critically important for keeping warm.  You can have a superb sleeping bag, but it will all be for naught if your body is losing heat by contacting the cold ground.  It is possible to field repair a leak, but it can be very hard to find a leak.  The solutions all involve generous amounts of water, which is not really possible when I am dry camping in the desert.

Fortunately, it was a relatively warm night at forty degrees.  I doubled my dead sleeping pad over to protect my torso, emptied my backpack and put it under my pad.  The small of my back was now directly against the ground, so I folded up my paper maps and stuffed them under my bum. It was NOT comfortable or toasty, but I did get a few hours of sleep and kept the cold at bay. 

In the morning I packed up and retreated down the hill.  A bum sleeping pad is actually a safety issue, especially since i regularly encounter sub freezing temperatures, even this far south.  I found myself crying as I walked down the hill, not because id had a rough night but because I was frustrated with what it would take to keep going: walk four miles BACKWARD to the highway. Get a ride 40 miles west to Reserve NM. Struggle to get a new sleeping pad delivered to a tiny town, and spend multiple unplanned nights in a hotel. Get a ride 40 miles back. All for a 1mm hole, and for want of a $8 tube of adhesive which I forgot to bring (I had repair tape, but it will not adhere on its own as I mistakenly believed).  

As a last ditch effort, I walked back to the cattle trough. I inflated my pad and stuffed it in the water. After quite a bit of exploration, I finally found the telltale path of bubbles revealing the teeny tiny puncture located on the top side of my pad. Odd, how did a tear develop there…?  I tested a few repair methods, but none of them took.  I figured if I hurried, I might meet the cut off for rush shipping to Reserve…

Be sure to bathe your sleeping pad daily in goldfish water.

Oct 19 and 20

I ordered a new pad and field repair kit as soon as I got to Reserve.  I wondered around the small town for two days, finding numerous wonderful people to talk to and pass the time.  

As a back up, I begged for help over the CDT southbound 2017 class and got a suggestion to repair my pad with super glue.  I had not thought of this and it is not one of the repair techniques recommended by the manufacturer, but I bought some superglue in town and attempted a repair. It is a good thing I did, because my replacement non-inflatable pad got misplaced during shipment and is drifting somewhere in the ether.  I went back into the field and hoped my superglue repair would hold.
Oct 21

I made my way deeper into the lovely Gila national forest. There are an incredible number of elk out here. I can hear them singing all morning and evening. I got to see one up real close today. He looked a little under the weather.

Aren’t those beautiful antlers? I’m amazed every time i see the bulls.

For the second time this week, and perhaps the third time in five months, I took a selfie.  I took one in Reserve a couple days ago, after getting a dress from the thrift store to wear around town. Which one should i use for an online dating profile?

Hi =)

HeLoOo bOySz.  I LIKE TAKING LONG WALKS IN THE WoOdS. AND PLAYING WITH DeAd ANiMaLs.

 (I’m afraid this was a bona fide selfie attempt).

I climbed up and over a small burn zone today and got a window of the Gila national forest.  I saw coyotes, turkeys, elk, mule deer, a bobcat, and a badger over the course of several days.

Oct 22

After a 20 mile dry stretch, my water worries were suspended as I bushwhacked down this pretty and wet canyon down to the larger T bar canyon, close to Snow Lake.  I cooked “dinner” around 2pm next to this water to rest during the hottest part of the day and reduce the amount of water I would need to haul to my dry campsite.

I camped next to a wrangler who was guiding hunters.  He invited me to sit at his fire, and we talked quietly in the darkness.  This guy is the real deal as a mountain man.  He has spent years wandering the southwest on his horse. He had some incredible stories about surviving in the mountains alone during winter.

Oct 23

I got going at first light headed towards aeroplane mesa and my only crossing of the Gila middle fork.  A major draw to doing the Gila alternate is a 40 mile walk in the middle fork.  Literally.  The route crosses the river well over 100 times.  Unfortunately a few years ago there was a serious flood, and the word on the street is that the trail was totally destroyed and you are in for a forty mile bushwhack.  No thanks.  I would readily do a four mile bushwhack, forty miles less so.  Instead I would be walking up above the gorge. I did get a brief glimpse at what I was missing: the main route is at the bottom of this dramatic canyon.  

Around 1pm I came up to an elk hunter camp, looking for a little trickle of dirty water.   I left over an hour later with packets of oatmeal cookies, bottled ice water, and a bundle of homemade burritos.  I had to turn down the candy, chocolate, honey buns, and Chile stew in interest of time and extra weight from these generous-hearted men.

Two men, a father and adult son, were out hunting.  The water and feed were too poor to support a good elk population so they were just hanging out in camp.  They had shot enough elk over the years that it didnt bother them. They had six or so horses/mules hobbled and slurping water out of the little seep of water near camp (hobbling means you tie the horse’s front legs together with a strap.  This lets the horse travel a short distance to forage, but keeps him from running away).  Horse packers rely on camping near water much more than i do. I can carry enough water for myself for a day, but you cant really do that with stock. These horses seemed experts with their hobbles.  They could easily graze, lay down, roll, stand back up, and even run for a few strides.  Well, except for one…

“She just crossed the stream!” Montana, the younger man said excitedly, pointing to a lovely paint mare who was tentatively hopping around.  Apparently she had been very afraid to move with her hobbles on, and would eat all the grass immediately under her nose and then stand there hungry until they put feed directly under her face. 
When Montana was fourteen, a pack mule ran off from camp around this same area.  His father tried to grab the lead rope, and ended up losing his thumb.  He showed me his right hand, where his thumb has been fused back on.  It was shorter and stiffer than a normal thumb, but it could still do thumb-things.  They had carried the thumb out in a jug of ice and had to ride for a day before they could call in for help.  Incredibly tough folks out here.

Water review #5: 

Water is best made in artisinal batches.  This water has been lovingly crafted from tiny-hole-in-the-ground.  A tiny ditch serves as a natural trough to capture this precious resource. Share your puddle with deer, a team of pack horses, and lots of little insects to truly appreciate the democracy of the desert.  A cloudy film adds a layer of mystery to what else is hidden in the water’s depth. 6/10. 

Water review #5.5: ice cold bottled water from Great Value with lemonade powder. 11/10

Oct 24

I forget where exactly this picture was taken. Probably the West Fork of the Gila.

The Gila cliff dwellings are wicked cool.  I got to the monument just after the interpretive volunteers arrived. There was only one other tourist, another young woman.  They visitor staff were not technically offering tours of the dwellings at this time, but since there were only two of us we got the full VIP treatment from a very knowledgeable volunteer. 
About 75% of the construction is original, and about 25% is a reconstruction or improved walkways.  Many peoples have used these cliffs as temporary homes, perhaps up to 40 years at a time.  A lot of the walls you see would have some type of ceiling on them that people would use to walk across.  Entry to rooms was probably from a ladder going over the top of the wall. This arrangement might have served as obstacles to vermin. It is not clear why people would live up here, but one reason might be that in times of drought this river valley was the safest place to be with the most water and game, and if you are going to live in this steep valley it makes sense to live on the cliffs. There is no convincing evidence of warring or violence. 

I walked down the road to Doc Campbells. They serve small cups of homemade icecream. I did not know which flavor to get, so I got three different flavors. Butterscotch was my favorite. i met Don’t Panic and his partner, who were hiking the Grand Enchantment trail which makes the CDT look like a walk in the park.  We hung out in the shade and downloaded entertainment over WiFi for a while.

Montana and his dad stopped by Doc Campbell’s on their way back home. It was great seeing them again! They gave us more burritos, which is a wonderful treat to have.  Trail angels and trail magic is the term when you are the beneficiary of generosity like that.  

I pulled myself away and got a few miles in along the lower Gila.

Late night report: Some creature is tromping around my campsite.  My attitude about noises I hear at night is “I don’t care what it is or what it’s doing, as long as it does it over there”.  This creature is very near my tent and keeps startling me.  I think it is probably a big, fat frog.  Some other, larger animal is splashing around the river nearby, but that is 100 ft away so it doesn’t rally my senses.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but one night in Colorado a large animal entered my campsite and was smashing around.  I was trying to guess what it was, when it started to bark at me.  What weighs 600 lbs and barks? An elk! 

Chama to mt taylor

Northern New Mexico is a wonderful section of trail.  Very unique scenery with lots of animals.

Sept 29
I walked a dreary 10 miles along a paved highway in icy rain.  It took all my willpower to not flag down any cars until I got to Cumbres pass.  I got picked up in under ten minutes by two men, Ted and Eddy, in a pickup truck.

“Hey man we saw you earlier! We couldn’t get you because we were hauling logs,” Eddy said.  It seemed he was distressed that they had passed me by.  I laughed and assured them I would have politely refused any rides until I got to the pass, and it was better to not tempt me beforehand.  Ted is a seven time world champion foosball player.  

Oct 1 and 2

I got a ride from a Chama local and his wife who are career trail angels and run people up to Cumbres pass on a regular basis.  

A wonderful part of hiking south is I am caught in an extended Autumn.  I flee winter by walking both south and downhill, chasing the wave of gold and orange.  The trees have only just turned here in Chama New Mexico.

In the mornings I startle herds of elk migrating through the meadow.  In each drainage I can hear a new bull bugling in the canyon.

Oct 3

in honor of the scarce New Mexico water sources, I will be rating and reviewing water I have to drink In the desert. 
Review 1: Harris Bear Spring
Delicious and cold, spouting forth from a pipe into a clean cistern in a muddy field of cow turds.  Collecting tanks have no dead animals.  Harris Bear spring offers rejuvination to those suffering from iron deficiency.  Rust floaties bring a touch of flavor and texture to enhance your water drinking experience. 8/10. 

At dusk I heard a crashing noise from the trees and was pleasantly surprised to see Chickory pop out of the woods.  Like me, she had spent all day getting sidetracked by the many cattle paths in the area.  We had both spent a significant part of the day wandering around on false trails.  Hoho, her boyfriend, was somewhere back there.  Hoho found us just after last light once we stopped at the only good water source nearby. 

Oct 4

In the morning my tent was soaked in dew.  There was a thick mist hanging over the mountains that was reminisent of the blue ridge.  Then aspen trees gave way to pinyons, and the ground dropped out from beneath me into a steep canyon.  In fourteen miles I walked from a deciduous forest enveloped in clouds to… this landscape.

If this terrain looks familiar, you have probably seen it in one of the many movies that were filmed in the Ghost Ranch area.

As I was trying to go to sleep, I had little pinpricks of itchy skin.  I get this sometime in warm weather, or if I have been walking through brush. The feeling is similar to having little ants crawling around my skin and pinching me, and can sometimes be relieved by covering my skin with light clothing. I finally sat up to do this, and discovered that in fact… There were about 15 ants crawling over me and pinching me. Naughty beasties.

Oct 5 

Somehow while leaving Ghost Ranch I managed to get on the wrong trail.  I think my problem was… I trusted my map to show me the correct way to turn at a trail junction, and assumed that the trails drawn on my map corresponded to trails that existed in real life.  Silly me.  Anyways I ended up by some cliffs south of Ghost Ranch.  No biggie, I thought, I can cut across country to find my trail again!
This proved ineffective for two reasons.  One, this plan required me to actually find a trail at the location where it’s drawn on my map, which sorta requires that… my map be accurate.  Other sources have since verified that the trail is not drawn accurately in this section. Problem two, there were a series of steep pits about 10 feet deep between me and my cross country destination.  I might had been willing to scramble up these banks if that was the only issue, but the bottom of these cuts looked like they could have quicksand in them.  Quicksand looks like a patch of shallow mud, but will liquify when you step on it.  for an extra measure of amusement, once it has eaten one of your legs up to the hip, it can resolidify. Now quicksand is not necessarily dangerous on its own (it is much denser than you are, so you float), but it WILL eat your shoe if you are unlucky.  The possibility that you will get so badly stuck you can’t escape on your own is small, but… not zero. I’ve been caught twice and as fun as it is to extract myself, i had stuff to do and places to be.

I finally got back on trail and walked along the Chama.

Unsolicited advice on how to find water in the desert: look for plants that don’t belong.  Cattails and tall grass in the middle of sagebrush? Spring!

Oct 6 Cuba

A great thing about hiking deep in the wilderness is that no one yells sexually suggestive comments at me while i am minding my own business.  This is very much unlike my life in Charlottesville, where I would get all types of interesting suggestions from people yelling out of their car windows as I did my training runs around town. Just yesterday i was thinking about how this is the longest period of time I have gone without being catcalled since moving to Charlottesville, which is not the worst cat calling territory I have been in, but is noticeable.  Well, that streak was broken many many times over in Cuba, NM in public in broad daylight.  I try to see the good in all towns, but I will remember Cuba for sleazy men on the streets.

On the plus side, Bruno’s has KILLER tamales.

Oct 7 

The desert sun is powerful and hot.  It is chilly in the slightest shade, or when the wind blows.  The trail stayed up high on a mesa overlooking the scrub.

Oct 8 

What a wonderful country we live in.

Water review #2: the cattle trough

The most reliable water source on this stretch of trail! This water is brought to you by Nearby Spigot, which has been shut off for the winter. Get an authentic “home in the range” experience  and drink from the same bucket as the cows do. Algae and cow saliva give a hint of earthy flavor to this water without compromising a silky smooth texture. There is also great cell phone reception here. 7/10. 
After leaving the cattle trough, I was dawdling and moving a little slowly.  I didn’t really want to walk 15 more miles to the next spring, which is reportedly filled with dead centipedes, but I didn’t have quite enough water to camp.  Fortunately I got to the next water waypoint a few hours later, and looked around. 
Ahaha! You see that? It’s a tire! I’m saved! Unsolicited water finding advice #2: tires are your friends

Look inside the tire:Cold well water and a working valve. 10/10. 

Oct 9: 
Saw a coyote this morning.  I see their tracks everywhere.
I only stopped at one water source today. It was at the bottom of a canyon half a mile off trail. Beautiful oak trees in the middle. I cooked “dinner” here around 2 pm as to not haul cook water. Next water source that looks reliable is 24 miles away. Tank up, me hearties.
Oct 10: 25 miles over mt. Taylor
I’d noticed in the forecast that it could get into the teens at night. I was fully buckled into my quilt and had hoarded my water filter  (It will be ruined if it freezes) and electronics (the battery can drain faster) in with me.  I woke up at 5 in the morning, cozy and toasty as always.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad.  I pulled back my sleeping covers to emerge. 

There was a thick layer of frost on the inside of my tent, and my water bottles were half frozen. Eeek! Cold cold cold! 
I bundled back up in my sleeping bag. I briefly considered the words of the great Marcus Aurelius:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” 

  I considered these words… then un-Stoically made a “cave” out of my quilt and pulled my breakfast inside. I munched on poptarts in the darkness and got crumbs everywhere in my blanket.  You can’t make me come out!  I’m staying in my blanket!
 Eventually I got bored and packed up. I was hiking at first light. 
Bonus content:how to hitchhike

At this point in my trek, I should theoretically be done with hitchhiking.  Hitchhiking is not exactly efficient or predictable, but with a little bit of patience and faith you will get where you need to go.  If you ever need to hitchhike, here are my suggestions…

1) pick a place to hitch where you can be safe from oncoming traffic.  Cars approaching you should have plenty of time to see you, and need a safe place to stop.  Wide shoulders and well-marked turnouts are good places to hitch.  It is worth walking a mile or so to find a good spot, even if you have to walk the wrong direction.

2) Present yourself in such a way that drivers can easily make a narrative as to why you are hitching. Ex: have your hiking poles in hand and backpack visible, and stand near a trailhead.

3) look as harmless as possible.  This is more important for males than females.  Lone men wait about twice as long as lone women to get a ride, by my estimate.  Ladies, go ahead and use this advantage:try to make it obvious from a distance that you are female, if possible. Try not to cover your face with a hat and sunglasses more than necessary.  Two adult men might have a very hard time getting picked up. 

4) exchange a few words with someone when they stop for you to make sure everything “feels” ok.  Your instincts are pretty good.  Always always listen to bad gut feelings. you might assume women are more vulnerable as hitchhikers, but most bad hitching stories I’ve heard are from men who experienced “macho posturing” from their drivers so the danger might not be as uneven between the sexes as you might guess.  The vast majority of people who stop are good folks.  I have never felt in danger. 

5) it is easier to get IN to towns than it is to leave towns.  When you are standing in the middle of nowhere, people feel sympathy for you and also have a pretty good guess that you just want to get to town.  When you are trying to leave, drivers have no idea how long they will be stuck with you and don’t see an immediate reason to help you.  Just something to keep in mind.

Lake city to Platoro reservoir

Sept19

I had to ford a knee deep stream first thing in the morning.  Bridge was out. Might not sound so bad, but it was very cold and all the standing water was frozen! Here I am trying to embrace the conditions after crossing.

COLD. COLD FEET.  OUCH. BLEEPITY BLEEP.

Sept 20

It took me two hours to get a ride to Lake City. Fortunately I was joined by another thru hiker, Scratch.  It was much better to wait with company.  We got word in town that a snowstorm was coming, so this changed our plans.  A decided to do a short dash to Silverton, CO before the storm came.

Sept 21

29 mile dash through the San Juans

10 hours of walking, 10 minutes of resting to beat the storm.

This hole is the start of the Rio Grande

This valley was the only place we were not pounded by high winds.  Sadly there was no place sheltered to camp, and we had to set our tents up in the wide open.

Sept 22

The storm began during the night. My tent shook and rippled in the wind so violently that the rain fly snapped me in the face.  I sat up to the sound of ice pelting my tent.  Scratch had set her tent up slightly upwind of mine.  I would hear her tent rattle first, then my cavas would billow in around me and my vestibule would snap and jerk.  I had spent enough windy night watching my tent deform to know that this alone would not rip it, but the jerking and snapping was something else. 
I felt only a mild interest in whether or not my tent would hold on to this onslaught.  I stuffed some earplugs in to keep the noise from waking me up, and tried to go back to sleep. Either my tent would hold, or it would not. I did manage to sleep an hour at a time, waking up whenever my canvas whacked me in the face despite trying to protect my head with my backpack.  
Around 5 am the ice pellets came, adding to the cucauphony.  The wind was so strong now that ice was accumulating inside my tent from the kickback of my canvas as the wind came through.  I ate a package of peanut crackers and watched with resignment as my tent interior filled up with soft hail.

 
“Hey Peanuts,” Scratch said from nearby. “What do you think?”
“Leave at first light?”
“Well… ok.”
“Leave now?” 
“Yes.”
We packed up.  Sunrise was still nearly two hours away and the sky was pitch black.  We were tired of facing this storm hunkered beneath our fragile tents.  I geared up in my full rain kit and stepped out into the night. 

 Scratch led the way in our final push to Stony pass.  Grauple (a cross between snow and hail) flew sideways and bit into my cheeks and eyes.  I pulled my face mask up and my hat down, and held out my hand to protect my eyes.  It felt much better to walk into the storm rather than listen to it outside. we made it to a remote pass at dawn, wherw aw aould have to walk several miles to a poorly trafficked road, and by extreme luck there were two women there who could drive us down the mountain!  The hostel owner in toem, Jan, let us check in at 8 am. A bunch of Colorado Trail hikers trickled in during the day, increasingly traumatized and hypothermic.  I spoke to two people who had tents split open in the wind. Yeesh.

Sept 23

Another restless day waiting out the snow.  We all went out for pizza for Mouse’s birthday. Every one alternated between playing on their phone, eating, and aimlessly walking around town.

Sept 24
I paid Jan to shuttle me to the road below Stony pass.  She told me if I ran into trouble closer to Wolf Creek Pass, I should call her and she would get her friends who lived on that side of the valley to help me. I climbed the first two thousand feet up to the pass, and ran into a woman named Rhea who had returned to finish her last segment of the Colorado Trail (she had skipped this section because of the storm, and gone on to the final section which was at a lower elevation).  We lucked out and got a ride from two people in a pickup truck the last mile up to the pass.

The world up at 12000 feet was spectacular and alien.  I started to hike through the snow.  The average depth was about four inches, with a few knee high drifts. The cold immediately penetrated my shoes and socks, leaving my feet numb.  After about a mile of walking, i sat down to eat pizza and reconsider my decision.  It was so cold and harsh up here.  70 solo miles of remote high altitude wilderness was not a good place to test the limits of my equipment, and my abilities.  The conditions were beyond what my gear was designed to handle. I knew I could push beyond their design limits some, but I didn’t know by how much. 

I ended up hiking the high altitude section for a few miles, then taking the Colorado trail down into the next valley.  I hiked with Rhea during the day, and decided to just take my time and enjoy the snow before heading back down to more temperate conditions.

Sept 25
It was a three dog night for sure.  I was toasty in my sleeping bag, but saw that it was below twenty degrees INSIDE my tent and my water bottles had turned into slushies.  I can heat my sleeping bag to about 70 degrees with my own metabolism, which is plenty warm.  I think a lot of the calories I gorge on are burned up keeping me warm at night.  I can say that I have a hard time sleeping in town unless my room is unheated on a chilly day, or I am lying directly in front of an air conditioner set to 65 degrees. Otherwise I overheat.  Anways, I am happy to report that I can easily stretch my 20 degree sleeping bag into the teens by wearing an ultralight down jacket.
Poor Rhea does not share my metabolism.  She has a zero degree bag AND more clothes than I do, but never got comfortable last night. A lot of women will NOT be comfortable, or even safe, using a sleeping bag down to its temperature limit. 
In the wind rivers I met a middle-aged NOBO woman who told it to me straight: “honey, try to hike when you are going through menopause. The hot flashes are AMAZING!”
Rhea is much more Spartan and disciplined about leaving camp than I am (she deflates her sleeping pad when she first wakes up, whereas I do that as late as possible and typically curl up in my sleeping bag) and took off before me.  I caught her a few miles later at a lovely pond, where we were soon joined by a magnificent bull moose.  

The walk out to Molas lake was lovely.  Rhea celebrated her completion of the Colorado Trail at the road.  We hitched in to Durango, where I decided to stay for the night.

Sept 26
It took me three hitches to get from Durango to the trailhead.  Leaving Durango was hard.  The highway headed to Pagosa Springs was extremely busy and crowded.  I was already two miles out of downtown, and had to walk an additional 3 to find a place to hitch where I could catch true outbound traffic.  I picked a horrible spot, but lucked out and was picked up by a woman from the Ute tribe pretty quickly. 
“I’ve hitched all through Colorado. I figured I would snatch you up!” She said cheerfully. Her ambition is to get rich enough to build a private shelter for the homeless. 
She dropped me off at a gas station that would let me catch outbound traffic. I got picked up after ten minutes or so by a somewhat cynical man who warmed up once we started swapping hiking stories.  He picked me up because he had already skipped one hitch hiker that morning and felt slightly guilty about it. The animal he fears most is a cow moose, regardless of whether she has a calf.  He told an amusing story about standing on a boulder and hurling (small) rocks to defend camp against an inquisitive cow. 
I did some chores in Pagosa Springs, and managed to find some waterproof socks. I caught a ride with a car full of people going to a local animal welfare convention. The driver was a former Outward Bound instructor. 
I met someone named Josh. He gave me a bag of carrots.  Thanks!
Sept 27

25 miles: and case study for the biggest danger of camping
From the very start of the day, I had trouble controlling my body temperature.  I had slept warm at night, but could not shake a deep chill from my bones, even after several hours of walking.  I went up to Elwood pass and briefly waved at the continental divide trail before descending to the low elevation alternate in the Conejos valley.  Snow was coming, and I wanted to minimize how much I would need to deal with.  
It was not a particularly cold day, but I eventually stopped to put more layers on.  I could barely work the zippers.  Normally I would have quickly overheated in what I was already wearing. I made it all the way to the hill above Platoro reservoir when the icy rain came.  I walked through it for about an hour before branching off the road to a nearby mountain lodge.  I got several cups of black coffee and a side of French fries and relaxed in front of the fire in the lobby. 

I am going to relay this next part in detail because it is a classic case study for how you can get in trouble in the woods.  I often tell people that the REAL dangers of hiking are not bears and axe murderers and serial killers and rattlesnakes, but are much more mundane and insidious. 

I waited for a brief break in the rain before going back out again.  
The rain returned in full force shortly thereafter.  According to my thermometer, it was a couple degrees above freezing.  The rain eventually gave way to snow.  I walked past the CLOSED sign and barrier of a national forest campground and found a spot beneath a stand of pine trees that was protected from snow.  

The difficulty I had setting up my camp indicated that I had mild hypothermia.  I had to use two hands to unclip my backpack cinch because I did not have the finger strength to do it with one hand. I couldn’t thread my tent stakes through the guy loopholes. Several times in a row I stepped away from my tent to go get water, realized I didn’t know where the nearest water was, returned to my tent to check my map for the nearest water source, and forgot what I was doing (the river was 200 feet down a paved road). I ended up scooping water from road runoff. I took my damp shirt off but could not put my dry turtleneck on for several minutes.  It is interesting to note that in this sequence, I did not feel overwhelmingly cold, just clumsy and slow witted. 
Normally it takes me fifteen minutes to set up my camp, change into my night clothes, inflate my sleeping pad, and get into my sleeping bag. Today it took me an hour.  A herd of ten cows or so congregated by my tent and stared at me.  Most of them were drooling. It would have been very easy for this situation to deteriorate further, because once you get this way you can start making poor decisions. it took only 2 hours in 34 F degree weather to get this way, and someone who was not well prepared could have been in serious trouble if she could not correct this problem by nightfall.  I was fine once I had my warm clothes on, and was under my tent.

The things I did wrong are:

1) I failed to put on an insulating later when I left the lodge, and repeatedly failed to stop and put one on as the conditions worsened. I got caught in the mindset of “I will get to camp and deal with it then.

2) I prioritized collecting water over getting warm. I could have made by with the little bit I was carrying. Trying to find water was a misplaced priority given how cold I was.  The priority list is Warmth > water > food. 

3) I fell behind in drinking during the day, in part because I had a 20 mile carry due to arsenic contamination in the streams. I had opportunities to catch up, but did not, hence why I ended up looking for water later. 

The things I did that let me salvage the situation were:

1) i know how to keep my sleeping bag dry during a downpour. It is very simple, but it is a skill not everyone knows.

2)In cold weather, I always always always keep a base layer dedicated for sleeping.  I keep this layer dry at all costs, even if it means changing into soggy cold clothes when I leave my tent.  Ive seen people compromise their warm clothes, and now they have nothing dry to sleep in. 

3) I know how to set up my tent to keep water off of me in really wet conditions.  Seems obvious, but there are a lot of ways/places to set a tent up poorly and I see it all the time. 

These things I’ve listed might seem like trivial common sense, but they really are skills.

Sept 28 23 miles
There were about five inches of snow on the picnic tables when I woke up, but only an inch or so on the ground. Due to the soaking wet and cold conditions, I decided to give the sun an opportunity to come out and started a little bit late.  Most of the snow melted during the day.

Two brothers, Keith and Gary, drive by and invited me to their cabin for chilli.  Um, yes!!! I found their cabin and had lunch with them on their porch.  Such a nice break!

Breckenridge to lake city

Sept 5 ???? Miles 

I emerged from the shelter of my campsite down in the valley and began the climb back up to the half tops. At the final push to the top, the trail simply disappeared into a talus field. I checked my map and GPS over and over again, which seemed convinced that I was currently on a road. 

This is the road. 
It took me a long time to climb up to the top because the soil would not really support my weight and would just break away.  I found an actual road at the top though and started the ridgewalk.  I drank water from the first snowpatch I saw, knowing this might be the only water up here. I frightened a few small herds of mountain goats.  They are incredible animals.  They can climb straight up rock faces that i probably could never climb even in belay.  The babies are adorable fluff balls. 

Smoke from distant fires filled the valleys and cut visibility down to five miles or so, when normally I would be able to see twenty miles or more.  I’m not sure if the smoke is from Oregon or Montana. 

The wind was relentless.  It walloped me for hours and hours.  The headwinds slowed my pace down to a weary trudge. The crosswords threw me off balance. “It will die down once I reach the leeward side,” I told myself over and over.  Every leeward side was the windward side to a different tunnel.  I could not even find a sheltered place to take a break.  I kept hitting rough rock scrambles. My average walking speed for the day was well under 2 mph.  

Around 2pm I crossed into a drainage that led down to Breckenridge and decided id had enough.  I got off the trail and took an atv road that dropped down into the valley. I had a pleasant walk along the middle fork swan river and made camp at the very border of a meadow in an overgrown road bed.
As it grew dark outside, I heard a large animal emerge from the brush right next to my tent.  I instinctively yelled “AH! NO! GET!” and jumped outside, hoping to startle the moose or bear or whatever animal this was into retreating.
“Sorry! Sorry!”

Turned out the animal was an elk hunter named Bud. Hunters used the overgrown road as a route in and out of the woods.  In fact, i should expect at least two more people to trip over my tent this evening. Bud and I had a pleasant conversation where he told me a little bit more about the local land use and its history. 

Sept 6 and 7 in Breckenridge 

 caught the bus into Breckenridge and stayed at a great hostel, the fireside inn.  I did my town chores, went to two different breweries, and slept a lot.  I managed to meet up with Check Off and Ranger for dinner since they were also in town. I met them around two ocean pass when they were hiking wyoming northbound, and found their trail journal perhaps a mile later.  I started telling every northbounder i saw to spread the word i had the journal. My message got to Check Off and Ranger, and they sent me their contact information through Even Keel and High Country. Anyways they flipped and were hiking Colorado southbound now.

When I woke up the next morning I felt a sense of dread and reluctance to get back on the trail. The last few days had been very physically difficult and required continual mental effort to just keep moving.  So I decided to stay for another day. I got a massage. I got mediocre overpriced sushi. I watched documentaries on YouTube on my phone. I slept. By about 5pm, I was bored and restless and ready to get back on trail.  Now that’s better!

Sept 8 and 9, 15 and 20 miles

I saw Check off and Ranger on the trail as we were leaving town, and started hiking with them.  It was really nice to have company again, and to slow down. I had been feeling pretty sour from waking up every morning before first light and hiking until dusk. 

Summer is over.  The frost covering my tent every morning has crept further to freeze my water bottles at night.  The aspens have turned and paint the landscape in splashes of  bright orange and yellow. the mornings are crisp and icy, and the days are sunny and mild.

Sept 10 22 miles

I reluctantly broke away from Check off and Ranger because I did not have enough food to hike with them all the way to Twin Lakes. Overall I have handled the solitude of this hike pretty well; i am always alone, but rarely lonely.  Whenever I do hike with people though, I find it is a much more enriching experience and miss it. 

Sept 11 10 miles to Twin Lakes

I got my stove back in Twin Lakes. Yay hot food! I also threw up for no obvious reason at night in my nice hotel room.  Perhaps too much irritating food.  The last time I was violently ill was also in a nice hotel room, and also for no obvious reason, the morning before I gave a talk at the American thoracic society meeting.  This is why you can’t let me into nice establishments.  I think most people get sick at some point on their hike. Most importantly I got new shoes.  Pieces of my old shoes had been falling off every day for a week. 

Sept 12 18 miles

Ranger taught me what red currants look like, so I take a lot of berry breaks because they grow everywhere.

it is a real treat to be in the Rockies in the fall. 

Sept 13

Even deep in the mountains it can be hard to get a night with good stars.  Normally something gets in the way, like the trees you camp under, or the clouds, or the blinding light of the moon.  Tonight I camped in a shallow basin by lake ann with a full view of the sky and nearby cliffs.  The stars twinkled in the darkness and the haze of the milky way streaked through the sky.  Lightning from distant storms flashed around me and illimutated the nearby mountains and scant clouds. These storms were to the east and north, and posed no risk to me. 

Sept 14 

It hailed. I need better rain pants.

Sept 15 layover day in Salida 

I woke up in the morning to wind pummeling my campsite.  My campsite in the trees at the bottom of the valley. I looked up to the bare, exposed ridgeline 2000′ above where I was going to walk today. 

Nope.  

A young man walked by my campsite as I was getting ready.  He  had originally planned to keep hiking, but also wanted nothing to do with the ridgeline today.  

It took me two painless hitches to get into Salida, one from a local hiker named Zack and the second from a visiting woman named Tammy.

I went to the Simple Lodge hostel and raided the hiker box.

This is what 5 days of food looks like.  Mashed potato soup is nectar of the gods. 

Sept 16, 18 miles

 It took me forever to get out of my hostel, and a while longer to get to a good hitch hiking spot.  It took me two hitches to get to Monarch pass, but I got rides pretty quickly. My first hitch was an elk hunter, and my second was a man on vacation who had nostalgic memories of hitchiking through Colorado decades ago. 

I found some huckleberries for my berry break.

Sept 17

23 miles

Today was very interesting.  Clouds hung thick over the mountains all morning, so I had a pretty good idea we were in for some weather.  It started with low rumbles of thunder around 11 am, accompanied by a few tiny snow flakes.  Around noon, it began hailing.  Little hail stones covered the ground like gravel on a road.  I decided this was a great time for lunch, so I found a tiny hollow underneath some pine trees and curled up in the fetal position to eat my Clif bars and banana chips.  I waved at two other hikers as they passed.  It hailed for twenty minutes or so, and the sun emerged in its full radiant and warm glory.  

I emerged from my den, and ran into the two other hikers shortly down the trail.  They were from Crozet, Virginia!  I noticed that the woman, Moonwalker, was wearing the Richmond marathon 2016 finisher hat. Pretty cool! The man, Marcus, had previously hiked the CDT back when it was extremely extremely poorly marked and GPS units were not accessible to laymen. I commented on how warm the sun was in my rain gear. 

“It’s not over,” Marcus said sagely. 

Thirty minutes after we parted, it began snowing.  The flakes were large and wet and disappeared as soon as they hit the ground. 

 Perhaps 20 minutes later, the snow stopped as a thunderstorm rolled in, bringing cold rain with it. The rain lasted for hours, soaking my gloves entirely through and sapping all the warmth from my hands.  I set up camp around 6 pm, my hands so cold I could barely work the tieouts on my tent.  Once my tent was up though I could get into my sleeping clothes and sleeping bag where it was nice and toasty.  It was sleeting by now and thin layers of ice were crusting over my tent.  

Sept 18

26 miles in paradise

If this had been an east coast storm, it would have kept sleeting all the next day. Fortunately, the Rockies dont have enough moisture or heat to drive these storms so relentlessly.  I spent 26 miles walking along gentle dirt roads on a sunny, crisp autumn day

Encampment to Colorado

August 21

The eclipse was not very exciting I’m afraid. It got darker and chillier for a few minutes. Even Keel and I sat around for 1.5 hours to watch it, though.

August 22

I took the short walk from my campsite to the highway where I would hitch into Encampment. Even Keel was already thumbing at the scenic overlook. I joined him, and we chatted as we desperately watched every car coming up the pass.  There were only 6 cars going our way during the thirty minutes I stood there, which is not great considering that hitchhiking is a numbers game. After a few minutes, a truck that had passed us earlier came back and pulled into the parking area.  

“I know what you guys are doing. I won’t leave you here,” the driver said. 

“Bark! Woof! Yipyip” said his tiny dog. 

Our driver (I’m embarassed to say I can’t remember his name…) was headed back from his cabin in the mountains. He drove us to the grocery store in Riverside, where I was going to pick up my next set of maps and my food drop. 

 As it turned out, I was there before my box was.  I had a couple options at this point: 1) spend a day in town waiting for my box or 2) “bump” my box to Steamboat and go without paper maps for a couple of days. I decided to wait, and to carry straight to Grand Lake rather than hitching to Steamboat which would save me some time.  This would mean a 180 mile food carry, but I could finally send some extra items home. Now, I had sent a food drop to this resupply point because I had heard the food selection in town was limited. I would now need to buy several days worth of food, and the options were pretty slim.  Imagine trying to fuel seven days of athletic performance using only items in the snack aisle of Sunoco.  I ended up asembling a delicious, highly processed menu of wheat thins, shortbread cookies, peanut crackers, cheez its, cliff bars, and m&m’s. Nutritious!  My experiment with no-cook camping continues.  Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all identical portions of junk food.

August 23

Dee, the taxi driver who took me out of Rawlins, found me in the morning just as I was repackaging my food box and gave me a ride back to Battle pass as a courtesy. It’s great that I didn’t have to expend energy and patience thumbing on the side of the road. 

The beginning of my longest food carry yet also coincided with a long water carry. I filled up with three liters and waddled down the trail.  My ambition for the day was modest and yet monumental: I wanted to get to Colorado.  Near the border I hit a large deadfall zone that slowed my progress to a crawl (literally. I was crawling over stacks of trees.). 

Regardless, I crossed the Colorado border.  Colorado is the tipping point. Can I make it through the mountains before the season turns? My three-season hiking kit will be outmatched by serious snowfall.  I am racing winter.  The warm and mild weather that has settled over the Rockies will not last much longer. 

August 24

 At 11:30 in the morning the thunderheads filling up the sky finally came for me.  I had kept my eye on them all morning, but  I was hiking through terrain that offered pretty good lightning cover and was not too concerned.  

“Yes, yes, fine!” I grumbled as the rain and wind rolled in.  The rain transitioned to tiny hailstones that bit and stung my exposed skin.  The good thing about hail is you do not get as wet.  

I camped next to some elk hunters. They told me to raid their drink cooler. I did!

August 25

Mt. Zirknel wilderness

Colorado is awesome. No wonder everyone is moving out here. 

August 26 28 miles along the highway of dead porcupines

I saw a lot of roadkill on my 14 mile paved roadwalk. I normally dont get to see so many critters so close up.

August 27 22.5 miles Arapaho national forest.

I made my way slowly up the mountainside. The roads were filled with hunters scouting the hills in their trucks and atvs. Several offered me water, one man simply driving up behind me slowly with a water bottle sticking out the window.  I thanked them, but said I had found several nice mountain springs along the way. This is fairly common, especially on more remote roads. When I am up and walking the vast majority of cars just pass me with a casual wave, but if I sit down to rest then I get a lot of people checking on me.
A pair of hunters on the top of the mountain asked me if they could get back to their camp on the road they were currently on. We consulted my map, which showed the road ending in a few miles. They thanked me, and gave me an apple AND an orange! Pure bliss. 

I stopped before 6pm because I found a nice spot and didn’t feel like going further.

August 28 24.5 miles 

I started the morning off with a 2000 foot climb up Parkview mountain.  Well, rather, I climbed up 1400 hundred feet, immediately descended 500 feet, then climbed another 1100 feet but that’s beyond the point…
Parkview mountain does not have a real trail going up it, so I took my sweet time huffing and panting to crawl up the very steep hillside. I managed to top out a little before 11 am. 

I had another 1800 foot climb later in the day (in addition to smaller ups and downs). I was feeling rather grumpy and sorry for myself about the whole thing. It wasn’t that bad. I found a nice spring to camp by. I drank that water straight, right where it oozed out of the ground. 

Spring water tastes the best, presumably from the right combo of dissolved minerals. Distilled wated, while more “pure” does not taste particularly good. Glacial water, while it sounds exotic, tastes like ice left in your freezer for a long time. Same with snow melt. 

August 29
I got up and over my one pass for the day. I waved at a bull moose on my way up.  Once on the other side, I was officially in Never Summer wilderness.

  A group of four bull moose standing right next to the trail served as my greeting committee. They are such beatiful animals. I approached them as close as I felt was safe. When they stopped foraging to turn and look at me, I figured that was close enough. They were totally calm and unafraid. I got off the trail and walked around them. I will protect my immediate personal space,  and when I set up camp for the night I will enforce my perimeter against animals, but in any other circumstance the wildlife has the right of way.
After about 10 miles I crossed into Rocky mountain national park. You need a permit to camp, which I dod not have, and it was too far for me to push through the park in one day. Fortunately the trail makes a large loop near Grand Lake, so I walked into town to rest for the night. 
I stayed at the Shadowcliff lodge, a very unique organization. I hung out in the dining room to chat with other guests.  I stayed in the dining room, playing solitaire at my own table as the staff team filtered in to have a birthday celebration for one member.  The owner came by, and invited me to crash the party, so I ended up having ice cream, brownies, and wine at the birthday gathering of someone I didnt know. I felt awkward at first, but there was plenty of food and drink to go around and I got to talk to some cool people. I try to be a “yes, man” while traveling and do things I wouldn’t normally do when invited.
August 30 27 miles in Rocky Mountain national park… WITHOUT MY PACK!!
I stashed my pack at the hostel and left early in the morning to hike the loop in the park. My motivation for starting early was so I could finish early, and get a nice big steak dinner with my mom when she arrived. 

I saw another 3 bull moose in a tight group and another cow almost immediately.  They are such beautiful animals. They are my favorite animal in the Rockies, maybe because they will acknowledge you without running away! 

Hiking without my pack was spectacular. I didn’t break a sweat climbing the 3800″ up to the ridge. 

Aug 31
I finally got a haircut. As best as I can tell, there are no operating hair salons in the entire state of Wyoming.
I also finally got a spoon, so I can eat my mashed potatoes with a spoon instead of my spare tent stake. I also got an extra guyline so I can use my spare tent stake to stabilize my tent, rather than eat mashed potatoes. 
Sept 1
I somehow left town without 3 important items. Mom, you will probably not be surprised. The first item I forgot is a half block of cheese.  Yes, I have the other half. Seriously, where did it go? The only reason I am carrying these crackers is to put cheese on them. Second, I am missing all of my paper maps between Grand Lake and Twin Lakes. What the heck? Fortunately I have 2 independent digital copies so I should be ok. Third, I do not have my brand new toothbrush. Dang it. 
Sept 2

Sept 3 26 miles 
This was my hardest day yet.  My choices were, 1) accept a campsite at 13,000 feet on a totally bare ridgeline, 2) push hard and fast to reach a more sheltered campsite in a shallow hollow before nightfall, or 3) hike at my normal pace, and do some headlamp hiking down a very steep slope.

It’s really windy up here.

I opted for number 2. Jeez it was tough. According to my gps I ascended 8000′ in elevation, and descended 6500′ over the course of the day. I hiked for 13 hours and never stopped for more than 15 minutes at a time. Fortunately, I was rewarded with a nice, sheltered campsite.

Sept 4 22 miles over Grays peak

I found my cheese. It was in the bag with the crackers.  Yay cheese. 

Today i hiked up and over Grays peak, the highest point in the Continental Divide!  Before i could even get to the trailhead I had to walk ten miles.  I might have gotten there a little sooner in the day, but I found a raspberry bush and took a long break to sit in the drainage ditch of a road and eat raspberries. 

Grays peak was a very popular trailhead with a lot of people. I saw several people coming back with helmets on their packs. Because they are more sensible than me, they were all coming down as I was starting up. I topped out at Grays before 3pm, and found a momma and baby mountain goat waiting for me at the top. How cool!  

Now, I knew that getting to the top of Grays peak would probably not be the “tipping point” of the day where hiking became easier.  I really was not expecting what came next, though.  At the top i scouted around for the trail that would take me along the true continental divide. The ridgeline ahead looked very steep and rocky, and was strewn with unstable chunks of rocks known as talus. 

I should have never assumed there would be a trail up here.  I really need to learn better. There weren’t even any markers or cairns.  Well… here we go. 

I guess I don’t need any markers. I just follow the ridgeline.

The ridgewalk definitely pushed my fear of heights pretty hard.  I was able to always pick a route where I would not fall more than six feet or so if I slipped off the edge (still bad if the fall is uncontrolled and your landing pad is covered with sharp rolly boulders), but the terrain plummeted a thousand feet on either side at a steep angle.  I repeatedly snarled “are you BLEEPING KIDDING ME??” at multiple points on then climb.   All in all, this section was comparable in length and difficulty to the rock scramble on Old Rag, only there were no markings to help you pick the best path and the terrain got pretty gnarly pretty fast if you picked the wrong line. 

I found a herd of twenty mountain goats once I reached the end of the ridgewalk! So cool.