July 3 – 6, 839 miles hiked
After two nights in the Squaw Creek valley, we woke to blue sky the next morning – finally! We were extremely restless and a little worried about our food supply. We still had 75 miles of hard hiking before Lake City, and only a couple days of food left. We hiked up the next pass out of the valley, and I savored the sun and blue skies, in awe of my beautiful surroundings. Everything had been hidden by clouds the day before.
By early afternoon, clouds had started to roll in and rain sprinkled, but I didn’t care. I was so happy to be moving and no longer confined to the tent. We descended for a long time, following a gushing creek that soon entered a damp forest and then opened into a beautiful meadow. I saw people on horses in the distance. People!! I got really excited when we saw other people. We could see the next pass in the distance, and a rock feature called “The Window” that we would be passing by. You can see it in the picture below – it looks like a window has been cut into the mountainside on the left side of the pass.
At first this meadow seemed really straightforward to cross, but soon the trail disappeared completely and we realized that there was a wide, meandering stream criss-crossing the whole thing. We tried to find a way across that didn’t involve fording this stream, but as soon as we thought we had, we’d come across another turn in the steam. We ended up fording it several times, and it all took way longer than it should have.
With soaked shoes, we climbed about 2,000 feet up to the next pass. It rained for awhile, but as the afternoon turned to evening, the sun came out and revealed some of the most beautiful country I had ever seen. The trail wound across green alpine meadows full of wildflowers, right along a mountain spine. The sun cast a warm glow on everything it touched. Below us were lakes that literally glittered among huge peaks. The mountains in Colorado seemed to go on and on. We hiked a few more miles through rolling green meadows and then found a perfect campsite next to a babbling creek.
The next day, the Fourth of July, was epic and hard. The steep ups and downs were constant and the 2,500 foot passes seemed never ending. It wore on our physical and emotional strength. We got lost in the morning and spent an extra hour bushwhacking our way up a mountain through the forest. When we finally found the trail, Phil kind of lost it and got REALLY angry at the trail. I rarely saw him this mad. The CDT was really frustrating at times. The trail often disappeared completely, we got lost almost every day, and we were constantly bushwhacking through tough terrain, using energy we knew should be saved. We were always watching the sky for rain or lightning and trying to calculate what elevation we’d be when the afternoon storm rolled in. And, hiking all day was just hard. I cried a lot. I think it was just my body trying to find a way to release the massive stores of emotional THINGS I built up each day: the thoughts and memories I dwelled on while hiking; the confidence I drew upon; the fear I often felt; feelings towards Phil, good and bad; frustrations and joy; physical exhaustion.
Although I knew it was aimless and unproductive, I, too, sometimes got really mad at the trail, and mad at myself for thinking this hike was a good idea. I often longed to be a day hiker, to be able to escape to the comfort of a car at the end of the day, to simply drive away, back to civilization, safety, and the indoors.
Yet, with those challenges came incredible privileges. We got to walk through the most beautiful places I had ever seen, largely untouched by humans. We got to sleep each night and wake each morning surrounded by unending mountains and alpine meadows. We got to follow our own schedules. We were basically free of the usual stresses and worries of normal life. Instead, we spent each day thinking only about food, water, finding a flat place to sleep, and walking north. The things we took for granted in normal life became incredible luxuries, and the joy and excitement I felt for these things was astounding: a hot meal, a shower, a can of soda, water that doesn’t need to be filtered, trash cans. Each day had a purpose: to walk towards our final destination of Canada. This sense of purpose was sometimes fleeting in my normal life, and it was nice to have that, even if it was temporary and rather arbitrary. Most of all, I felt alive all the time.
Around mid afternoon that day, we were on a long descent and saw a string of people far below us, making their way to distant cars at a trail head. At this point, we were almost completely out of food and still had about 35 miles until civilization.
“Hikers!” Phil exclaimed. “Maybe they’ll give us food!” We had lost all shame and were prepared to do almost anything for food. Phil ran ahead to catch them, and by the time I got there his arms were full of chips, donuts, trail mix, peanut butter, and several packages of ramen. Two different groups were finishing their backpacking trips and had given us some of their extra food. We thanked them profusely, once again saved by the kindness of strangers, and were on our way.
We hiked over strange, bare, green hills throughout the afternoon, surrounded by bigger mountains, and it rained much of the time. We passed the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The CDT merged with the Colorado Trail (which I’ll refer to as the CT from now on), and we met our first CT hiker, headed for Durango. I got really cold and miserable in the rain and tried to convince Phil to walk an extra 8 miles down a dirt road that eventually led to the town of Silverton.
He resisted my pleas, and I’m happy he did, because eventually the clouds cleared and the evening became one of the most beautiful of the entire trip. The trail hovered at 13,000 feet and wound through steep, green, rolling mountains surrounded by jagged peaks. Each viewpoint had its own set of green, mysterious valleys down below, so beautiful and inviting it was overwhelming. The light was golden and warm and there was no wind. I felt such a strong sense of comfort and happiness. The trail wasn’t going down anytime soon, so we spent a very cold night at 13,000 feet, listening to the Silverton fireworks.
We woke early the next day, ready for a 26 mile day to Spring Creek Pass, where we would hitch to Lake City. The green rolling section continued a few miles more. We met three guys mountain biking the entire CT. Mountain biking! I was in awe of them. I could not imagine mountain biking this trail.
In the early afternoon, there was a huge climb to the high point of the CT – 13,271 feet. I listened to Taylor Swift’s 1989 and it pumped me up. Then a long descent into more rolling green hills and a forest, a few miles on a mesa-type thing, lots of ATVs (Coloradans love those), many more CT hikers, hours upon hours of podcasts, and, finally, the highway.
I was so excited for town I could hardly contain myself. Another hiker, Uncle Walter, was also waiting for a ride into town. He was in his 60s and section hiking. We chatted with him while we waited for a ride, and an hour later we were barrelling down the road in the back of a pickup truck. Lake City was a small, cute vacationy type town with a beautiful backdrop of red hills. Having a huge Jeep with Texas plates towing an ATV seemed to be a requirement for anyone inhabiting Lake City. Phil and I went to a pizza place and ate SO MUCH pizza. I discovered that my phone, which I hadn’t been able to turn on since the fateful day by Squaw Creek, was probably dead forever. We got a room in a very overpriced but not-that-nice motel. I tossed and turned much of the night – my body was fatigued in that way that makes it hard to sleep, like after a long run; I was worried about my phone; my stomach hurt from eating too much.
We woke around 6 and walked to the bakery, then washed our clothes and laid them out to dry in the town park. Our resupply boxes had been sent to Raven’s Rest hostel, and when we got there to pick them up, we discovered that Sass, Paperweight, Chipmunk, and Nightwatch were there! Friends!! It was so wonderful to see them. We chatted, sat around doing internet tasks, talked to our parents on the phone. Phil and I decided to stay another night. The six of us went out for pizza and beer, taking advantage of the magical large pizza and pitcher of beer for $15 deal. We sat around the table reminiscing about the rain, snow, passes, views, hardship, and beauty of that last section of hiking. The San Juans were over.