CDT 2017 Days 7-12: Leadore, ID to Miner Lakes Trailhead

July 23 – 28, 174 miles hiked

We woke Sunday morning to overcast skies, a nice change from the heat of the days before. The trail was relatively flat, ambling through a sparse forest. It smelled like pine and dirt – some of my favorite smells in the universe. Our friend Jay was coming up from California in a few days to meet us and go fly fishing, and we were meeting him 70ish miles north at Miner Lakes trailhead. We would take a few days off to hang out with him, and I was really excited to have a little break! 

This section of trail was still on the divide much of the time, but there was less elevation and exposure and we were in forest a lot of the time. Sunday was one of those days where we just ambled along and the miles seemed to happen easily. That evening, we made it to Lemhi Pass and camped at Sacajawea Memorial Camp, which had PICNIC TABLES (a wonderful luxury), a pit toilet, and a spring, which Lewis and Clark had believed to be the headwaters of the Missouri River. It was later discovered that these were not the real headwaters (we passed the real headwaters last year north of Yellowstone), but the camp still had historic significance and we had fun reading the info displayed. Three southbounders showed up that night and camped with us. 


The next day, the trail continued through pine forests. That evening, we finally started climbing above treeline and came to a shale-covered ridge as a storm rolled in. It rained a bit, and everything smelled like rain and dirt and rocks. I loved it. It reminded me of Colorado last year and the way the rain made everything smell and feel fresh, but this rain felt kinder and less menacing than the Colorado rain. We camped high on a ridge that evening, overlooking the mountains we had just come from and the mountains we were about to hike into, and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen. The mosquitoes that night were also the most horrendous of the trip so far, so we didn’t enjoy the sunset for very long. 


The trail stayed high on the ridge much of the next day, then dropped into some forest after that. Phil kept wanting to take cross country “cut-offs” to shave off some miles. He would study the map to see where we could take shortcuts (like if the trail curved in a horseshoe shape, we’d take the shortest route across) and then race to see who could find the most direct route and get back to the trail first. It was exhilarating  and fun, and broke up the monotony of the forest. However, sometimes the trail curved for good reason, and we’d end up picking our way down a cliff or swinging from tree trunk to tree trunk to get down a steep forested descent. We spent a lot of time that day hiking cross country through the forest, climbing over downed trees and through spider webs. The nature of the CDT was such that hikers could make up their own routes much of the time. Often there would be several route options available, or no trail at all. It wasn’t at all like the PCT, where there is one beautiful ribbon of trail to follow for 2,650 miles. The CDT was fun and freeing in this way, but it could also be incredibly frustrating. 

We made it to Miner Lakes trailhead that evening, where we were meeting Jay. We had to walk an extra 3 miles down a dirt road to the campground where Jay was, and along the road, we saw a bear! Our first bear sighting of the trip! It was HUGE, light brown, and looked like a grizzly, but everyone told us there weren’t grizzlies in this area. It stopped and looked at us, then went back to digging for grubs in a downed tree trunk. Eventually it walked away and we were able to pass on the road. 

The next day, we hiked north on the CDT a few miles to Rock Island Lakes, where Jay wanted to fish. The trail started out in forest and then opened up into beautiful meadows and finally a lake surrounded by mountains. The fish weren’t biting and it eventually started to rain, so we hiked back and drove into the town of Wisdom for food.

Saloon in Wisdom – the first pic of our “Saloons of Montana” series ūüôā


The next day, Jay and Phil were going on a guided fishing trip on the Big Hole River. I spent the day in the tiny town of Melrose, where the fly fishing shop was. I worked on the blog, talked to my parents, slept, and sat on the porch with the shop’s resident dog, Drifter. Every few hours I went next door to the restaurant/bar and ate more greasy food. The number of greasy hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve been eating in trail towns is quite impressive. Everyone was exhausted at the end of the day, so we decided to get a hotel room in Butte. 

I loved Drifter



Saloon in Melrose


A big street festival called Evel Knievel Days was happening in Butte that weekend, so we checked it out the next morning. Apparently Evel Knievel was from Butte and still has quite a following there. We got ice cream, perused the booths, and watched people with their Harley Davidsons. That evening, we went back to the Miner Lakes area for some final fishing before Jay went back to California. On the way back, we stopped by a cool estate sale at a ranch near Wisdom, and the gun show, which was also happening that weekend. 

It was a wonderful, restful time away from the trail. I loved seeing all the tiny Montana towns, learning about fishing, and spending time with Jay. The next morning, we would continue hiking north to Darby. 

CDT 2017! Days 1-6: Lima, MT to Leadore, ID

July 17 – 22, 108 miles hiked 

We are back on the trail!

Phil and I made it to Lima, MT last year before returning to work and normal life in Eugene. I still vividly remember our last moments on the trail, walking down that long dirt road into the sunset, the bare hills of southern Montana stretched out before us and Interstate 15 winding below. Two specks moved towards us on the road- they were my parents, who had driven out to meet us! We spent the night at the Lima Motel, ate at Peat’s Bar (amazing cook-your-own steak), and the next day my parents dropped us off in Whitefish and we were on an Amtrak train headed home. 

I was determined to come back and finish the trail this year. I felt that if we didn’t do it this year, the CDT would become a distant memory, as trail experiences tend to do, and we would lose our momentum and desire to finish what we started. So, here we are. My parents once again drove us out to Lima (thank you, dear parents!) and we did all the same things as before, but in reverse and with the anticipation of starting a new adventure – motel, Peat’s, drive to the trailhead. We said our goodbyes, and we were off. 

The first day was hard. It was hot, exposed, very hilly, and our bodies were not used to hiking. The trail climbed up to the divide and then followed the ridgeline of bare mountains for the rest of the day. There was no trail – the instructions were to simply “follow the fence.” We thought there would be a spring at mile 16 but it was dry, so we ended up hiking 21 miles to Shineberger Creek, the first water. It was a rather rude reintroduction to hiking actually. All those things about the CDT that I’d forgotten, or maybe blocked from my memory, came rushing back. The cross country hiking, losing the trail all the time, exposed ridges, constantly tripping on mounds in the ground and sagebrush branches, steep ups and downs, the remoteness and isolation. It was strange to have such a sudden change in our lifestyle and daily activity. 

Yet, it was so beautiful. The mountains were rugged, pale yellow giants covered in sagebrush and wildflowers. The rocks had orange specks on them and purple lupine were everywhere. Little bright green plants grew. From afar a hillside just looked beige and uniform, but up close the colors were so vibrant, together forming the perfect combination. 

Following the fence

Peat Bar in Lima

We continued on the next day, our bodies stiff and sore, adjusting to our new reality. The trail wound through valley meadows, then over a rise, then down into the next valley. This continued until a big climb up into some stark, reddish mountains, then a long descent through rolling hills and meadows. We camped by Buffalo Spring, where there was glorious water running out of a pipe. 

Buffalo Spring


The next few days, the terrain switched off between sagebrush hills with tons of cows and high, jagged mountains. It was a strange juxtaposition. In between were hidden, magical valleys with perfect creeks winding through. There was such a variance in terrain and views. We passed the time by listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Phil listened to a book about the civil rights era and I listened to a book about dogs and countless episodes of Planet Money. We ran into a few southbound hikers, who all seemed weathered and lonely. “I’ve hiked by myself for the last month,” one said. “I’ve started talking to the chipmunks, but they don’t respond.” Most had started at the Canadian border in mid-June and hiked through hundreds of miles of snow to get to this point. 

Our thoughts and feelings about hiking changed constantly, at least mine did. Some days I felt really low, and questioned our decision to come back to this trail. It sometimes felt pointless and selfish. I missed our dog and two cats, and had a relentless ache in my heart when I thought about the fact that we had left them, again. Yet sometimes we were walking along the divide at sunset and the light was perfect, the wind gentle, and I felt free of worries and constraints. Sometimes I literally thought, there is nothing better than this. 

We woke the morning of our fifth day, determined to get to the next town of Leadore by that evening. The trail followed a dirt road along the divide, and for once it was easy hiking and the miles passed quickly. About nine miles in, we climbed to the top of Elk Mountain. Some southbound hikers had told us we could call Sam, the owner of the Leadore Inn, from the top of the mountain, and he would give us a ride from Bannock Pass down a dirt road to Leadore. We called, and he agreed to pick us up. After a 12-mile descent through sagebrush-covered mountains stretching as far as the eye can see, we were at Bannock Pass, and Sam was waiting. 

One of the magical valleys


The view as we descended Elk Mountain


Leadore is a perfect tiny town of about 100 people that looks like it’s from an earlier century and basically consists of one restaurant, a store, and the inn. We had burgers at the restaurant/bar and when we opened the front door, four dogs came streaming out to greet us. When we got back to the inn that evening, Sam was sitting on the front porch, surrounded by a contingent of locals. 

We spent the next day eating, making trips to the mercantile, and sitting on the front porch with Sam and some southbound hikers. It seemed everyone in town just hung out on that porch, often with dogs in tow, smoking and drinking something out of thermoses throughout the day. “Closest cops are 50 miles away. We do what we want,” Sam said. 

Sam took us back to the trail around six that evening, we said our goodbyes and thank yous, and made our way up the trail. We hiked a few miles to the next water source and camped for the night in a clearing. It was 123 miles to Chief Joseph Pass, where we would hitch to the next resupply town of Darby, MT. 

Leadore

Front porch contingent

Hattie Mae

The bar…

Days 44-47: The High San Juans, Part Two

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.

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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.

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Beautiful meadow, our next pass in the distance

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Phil showing off his muscles

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.

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Climbing up the pass. You can see the meadow and previous mountains in the distance.

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The Window!

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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.

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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.

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silky green beauty

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tent/hat/seven days without a shower hair

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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.

lake city

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Sass and Raven’s Rest Hostel

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Morning phone calls

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Paperweight & Nightwatch!

 

 

Days 40-43: The High San Juans, Part One

June 29 – July 2, 765 miles hiked

After experiencing a bout of extreme unmotivation to hike, during which we sat on the trail a mile from the road for over two hours, we finally decided it was time to get moving. The next section was 120 miles through the high San Juan mountains: some of the highest, most remote, and most unforgiving terrain and weather yet, but also some of the most beautiful country we’d seen so far. We’d packed enough food for six days, so we needed to average at least 20 miles a day until Lake City, our next town. In a few days, the CDT would merge with the Colorado Trail, and they would be one and the same for the next few hundred miles.

The trail wound through the Weminuche Wilderness, and the scenery was beautiful. Alpine lakes were everywhere, always surrounded by mountains, and everything was green and fresh. We ran into Sass, Chipmunk, and Paperweight several times throughout the day, and it was so nice to have fellow thru-hikers to chat with. It started raining in the late afternoon as we climbed a pass, then cleared up as we crested the top. The trail then followed a ridge, as the CDT often does, and climbed and descended steeply. Around 8pm we started looking for a camping spot, and, realizing that the trail wouldn’t be dropping below 12,000 feet anytime soon, we settled on a flatish area along the ridge in the shelter of some shrubs.

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Exposed, green mountains and rocky trail. Many of the passes in this section looked like this.

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The trail stayed between 12,000 and 13,000 feet the next day, almost always following rocky, exposed ridges. It was usually flooded with snowmelt, sometimes becoming a small creek on the downhill sections, and the grassy plateaus had turned into lakes. Our feet were always wet. It was constant up and down, from one ridge to the next.

A note on pictures: my phone stopped working due to water damage between Pagosa Springs and Lake City, and was never able to be revived. ūüė¶ So, I lost all the photos I took up to that point. We didn’t take very many pictures on Phil’s camera during this section, so I am using some of Sass’s photos (with her permission). Thanks Sass!!

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Photo credit: Sass

A storm brewed late in the afternoon, turning to rain and hail by evening. I had started to watch the sky and clouds constantly, trying to learn its patterns and guess when the rain would arrive. We continued on through the rain and got to a section called the Knife’s Edge by early evening, which was a quarter mile-long shelf built into a shale rock cliff. We’d heard about this section from other hikers, but it seemed more tame than I’d thought it would be. I could imagine how harrowing it would have been in heavy snow a few weeks before though. Snow covered much of the trail, but so many had gone before us that there was a clear route and footprints. We grasped the rock wall above us, using all four appendages equally. I longed for trekking poles. One misstep would mean tumbling half a mile straight down the slope below us, although I was learning that this was par for the course on the CDT in Colorado.

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Photo credit: Sass

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Paperweight and Knife’s Edge. Photo credit: Sass

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Photo credit: Sass

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Here’s a picture of the Knife’s Edge I found on the internet, with way more snow.

We continued along the rocky slope, the rain and hail pelting us. We came across a small cave in the side of the mountain and crawled in, hoping the rain would soon let up. Phil made a hot chocolate/coffee mixture to warm us. We continued on, and came to a small lake on the edge of a basin. Realizing that we were starting to get too cold, we decided to camp, rushing to set up our tent in the pouring rain. Because we weren’t carrying trekking poles, we had to find a stick each night to hold up the rear end of our tent. We had a light aluminum pole for the front end. Phil searched for a suitable stick while I dug our tent stakes into the ground, fumbling as my fingers lost feeling and mobility in the cold. Finally, we peeled off our wet clothes and crawled in, relieved to be in a dry place. I had had a pair of Patagonia thermal bottoms shipped to Pagosa Springs, and was so glad to have them now.

It rained all night and morning, and we didn’t emerge from our tent until 11am. We spent most of the morning eating, drinking our coffee/hot chocolate concoction, and reading Blood Meridian to each other out loud. The clouds parted for a brief moment, and we donned our wet hiking clothes and soaked shoes. Squaw Pass was just ahead and we hoped the weather would cooperate long enough for us to get over the pass. We were learning that we needed to be cautious – the combination of rain, cold temperatures, and an exposed trail that never dropped below 12,000 feet could easily lead to us being at risk for hypothermia.

Almost as soon as we started hiking, it started to rain again. We ascended the pass in a cloud, unable to see anything in front or on either side of us. The trail climbed, switchbacking up rocky cliffs, until it reached what seemed like the top and started to wind around the side of the mountain. The wind howled and the rain pelted us. Finally, we started to descend, the rocky trail leading us steeply down the bare, green mountains we had become used to. Little by little, I could feel my body becoming too cold. My teeth chattered, I had no feeling in my hands, and my arms and legs seemed stiff and machine-like. We had to keep our down jackets and sleeping clothes dry, so we were in our usual shorts, light button-up hiking shirts, and rain jackets. To save weight, I had, of course, chosen the lightest possible rain jacket I could find, thinking I wouldn’t be wearing it much. As we hiked, I wished for a rain jacket that actually kept me dry, and resolved to find rain pants in the next town.

We raced down the trail, trying to get to lower elevation as fast as we could. The trail had become a steep muddy creek, tumbling down the mountain in brown gushes. We knew the Squaw Creek valley was just a few miles away and it was at 11,000 feet, which sounded like sea level after the past few days. As I got colder, it was getting harder and harder for me to hike. I could not feel my legs or feet and worried about falling each step. Every fiber of my being wanted to be in the valley, to be safe, warm, and dry. As we dropped below tree line, I knew we were getting close.

Finally, the trees opened into a wide, green valley. It was 2pm and we had only hiked 6 miles that day, but we knew it was time to stop. My body was numb and my words were coming out as a mumbled mess. We found a flat spot, set up the tent, and relief flooded over me as I fumbled to put dry clothes on and crawled into my sleeping bag.

We ended up spending that night and the entire next day and night in that valley. The rain continued almost the entire time, the valley was stuck in a cloud, and we were too worried about getting over the next pass to pack up and leave. I didn’t know it was possible to sleep so much. When we weren’t sleeping, we ate constantly (I ate an entire jar of Nutella by myself during that time) and read Blood Meridian. During a brief break in the weather, we attempted to dry out our belongings, but nothing really got dry. The San Juans had taught us a lesson, and we knew we needed to be more careful as we moved north.

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Day ???? June 29th

makeshift shade, avoiding hiking

Guest blog post, by Phil.  Julia is quite particular about her beloved blog. My post may not make it out of the cutting room.

But anyway, here we sit a mile from the Wolf Creek Pass trailhead after spending a night off trail in Pagosa Springs.  Yesterday while wandering around Pagosa Springs we went into a local outdoor store and were immediately pegged as thru hikers by the store employees.  They were sweet and interested in our time on trail, so we were happy to share.

The store owner Addie, whom we had been chatting with, promptly asked how we were getting back to the Wolf Creek Pass trailhead, some 23 miles from Pagosa Springs.  We shared that we intended to hitch hike the following morning.  Addie was not pleased.  She almost insisted on giving us a ride to the trailhead the following morning and not only that but offered to feed us breakfast prior to departure.  How could we say no?  7:30 the next morning (today) came too quickly, Addie arrived, picked us up, took us to her lovely home, fed us waffles and then drove us to the trailhead.  Thanks Addie, your kindness and generosity mean more than you know.
However, Julia and I are not ready to hike.  So here we sit a mile from the trailhead avoiding hiking, writing blog posts, eating to lighten pack weight and awaiting inspiration to begin the next leg of our CDT journey, 6 days and 120 miles of hiking through the high San Juan mountains in Colorado.

Days 36-39: Into the San Juans

Hello friends of the PJ adventure! I know, it’s been awhile. My sincere apologies for the long delay. Despite months having passed since we finished hiking last fall, it’s my goal to update this blog and write about each section, even if it’s just for my own enjoyment. We are now fully immersed in Normal Life in Eugene, OR, and the CDT feels like a dream or alternate reality. Did it really happen? I look forward to reliving it through these posts. Thank you for reading!

We pick up where we left off in Chama, NM….

June 25-28, 721 miles hiked

We were so tired in Chama that once we got groceries and had lunch, we didn’t leave our hotel room until the following morning. The next morning, we quickly found a ride in the back of a pickup with a couple of men who seemed to speak only Spanish. They dropped us off at Cumbres Pass, and there we were, ready to tackle the San Juans. We’d been hearing rumors about the conditions in these mountains for the past few weeks… the snow was so deep that the hikers before us had had to hitch up to Wyoming to hike other sections… some hikers flip flopped up to Montana and started hiking south… those that did attempt it carried ice axes and crampons… did you at least have your warm clothes shipped to Chama, they asked. No, we had not. For some reason, this hadn’t occurred to us. So, we started hiking, feeling a little foolish and wary of the snow and cold ahead.

Within the first five miles, the terrain changed dramatically. The trail climbed, and the landscape opened up and revealed huge, wide valleys with rows of snow covered mountains. I was amazed at how quickly the land had changed. We climbed to 12,000 feet and the trail followed a high, green ridge. Snow dotted the landscape, and everything was melting and wet. It started to rain, and the temperature dropped. All of a sudden, soaked and cold in my shorts and light windbreaker, I realized how exposed we were. The warnings had been real…. Colorado was a different beast than New Mexico, and I had not been emotionally prepared for it.

Finally, it stopped raining. By evening we had reached the mosquito-infested Dipping Lakes, then the trail climbed to a rocky ridge again. We traversed along the ridge as the sun set, awestruck by the beauty and the high mountains we were suddenly in. We made mac ‘n cheese for dinner and drank wine we’d brought to celebrate our first night in CO. It was COLD. I was happy to be there and happy to be hiking.

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The trail stayed high the next day, traversing along the sides of mountains, then around bends to the next mountains, then more traversing along the sides. There were always beautiful basins below us but the trail rarely dropped into them. There was lots of snow on the trail and it was slow going. Everything was wet and we got used to our feet always being soaked and cold. The views were so beautiful – rows and rows of mountains, with deep, mysterious valleys below. It was nearly dark when we found a saddle to camp on. We had hiked all day but only covered 23 miles, averaging 2 miles an hour. Here are some views from that day:

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It was always threatening, but did not rain on us that day…

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Clouds and mysterious valleys

DSC02717We continued the side mountain traverses the next day. Late in the morning, the trail dropped into a valley and we found another hiker sitting next to the river. As we had not seen another person on the trail since Tatu-Joe, we were surprised and SO happy to see another human. It was a man named Matt, a section hiker heading for Salida, which was a few hundred miles north. We stopped and chatted with him, then the three of us continued on together. Matt had a condition called expressive aphasia that made it hard for him to communicate. As we hiked, he told us about his life, how he’d had to take blood thinners his whole life for a heart condition. One day, fed up with it, he stopped taking his medication. He had a stroke, and now had this condition. I was so happy to see and talk to another person. It made the time pass quickly, and the climbs and snow traverses seemed easier. As we hiked that afternoon, the terrain changed gradually and the peaks changed into smaller, gentler mountains. The colors became greens and blues instead of grays. At one point, we stopped for a break and Matt kept going. The trail entered a forest and the hiking became much easier. We passed Matt that evening – he had stopped to camp and was sitting in a clearing near a mosquitoey marsh. We said our goodbyes, then continued on. I can’t explain why, but thinking of him there alone made my heart hurt.

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We hiked until 8:30 or 9, our usual stopping time, and were excited to come upon three other hikers camping in a clearing. They were Sass, Paperweight, and Chocolate Chipmunk – other thru hikers!! They had gotten stopped by the snow two weeks earlier, so hitched up to Wyoming to hike the Great Basin, which is desert and hikeable in June, and were now reattempting this section. We camped with them, trading stories and hearing about the crazy snow that had made this section impassable just a few weeks ago.

The next morning, we hiked the last eight miles to Wolf Creek Pass to hitch into Pagosa Springs. The trail passed through a ski resort and there were tons of day hikers out. We got a ride quickly and asked to be taken to the bakery, which was wonderful and surpassed all of my expectations. I had a cinnamon roll and a huge sandwich, and we spent most of our time chatting with two delightful men who were hiking the John Muir Trail that summer and had lots of questions. After the usual errands (post office, grocery store, outfitter, thrift store), we got a room at an average but very expensive motel. Pagosa Springs was cute but extremely touristy and expensive. We would soon find that every Colorado town was like that.

We met two other hikers staying in the next room over – Nightwatch and Not A Chance! We had dinner and drinks at the cantina and an anonymous couple paid for the whole thing. A random guy at the bar insisted on giving Phil $8. Addie, the owner of the local outdoor store, offered us waffles and a ride back to the trail the next morning. After days of feeling starved for human connection, it seemed I was being offered love and connections everywhere I looked.

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Food sorting in Pagosa Springs

Days 32-35: Last days in New Mexico

June 21-24, 651 miles hiked 

We woke early in the morning at the top of the canyon a few miles outside Ghost Ranch. It was about 100 miles to Chama, our last stop in New Mexico. The trail actually crossed into Colorado before Chama, and then we would hitch back into New Mexico to get our resupply box. We hiked with Tatu-Joe most of the day, gradually ascending higher and higher to steep grass-covered plains and small green mountains. The trail followed a confusing network of dirt roads, and we kept missing turns and having to cross large cow pastures back to the trail. It was a nice distraction and change to hike with another person, especially after being virtually alone for much of New Mexico. 

Late in the afternoon, Joe continued on while Phil and I relaxed by a creek. The trail followed more dirt roads and then became a trail through a damp, mosquito-infested forest. This would be the first of MANY days of mosquitoes. It started to rain, both our phones died, and before we knew it, we were lost. We continued following a trail and rock cairns that seemed right, but by the time it got dark, we really had no idea where we were. The mosquitoes swarmed around us as we frantically set up our tent on a dark hillside. In the morning, we waited until the sun was bright enough to charge our phones with the solar charger, and found that we were at the top of Mt. Canjilon, far west of the trail. This was pretty typical for the CDT. We got lost all the time, and were always dependent on our phones/GPS. It was frustrating, but just a fact of life on this trail.

We followed a dirt road that would lead us back to the trail, winding through green meadows and forest. It rained for about two hours, but then finally cleared up. We walked uphill on a dirt road and passed two mountain bike racers speeding down the road in the opposite direction. There is a self-supported race on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route called Tour Divide that had started about a week before, and we’d heard the riders pretty much didn’t sleep and rode 200 miles a day. The winner typically did the 2,745-mile route in 12-14 days. The two bikers we saw were wearing bib numbers and looked miserable enough to be competing in this race. We camped at Hopewell Lake that evening, a luxurious experience that included running water, TRASH CANS, and a picnic table!

I wish I could say we did something more interesting than hike along dirt roads the next day, but that’s exactly what we did, for 30 miles. We saw several herds of elk in the morning. The trail climbed into the forest, then along a creek, then along a ridge at 10,000 feet, where it stayed for the rest of the evening. It rained and stormed, and it was fascinating to watch the lightning flash across the sky and the clouds morph into various dark shapes. We met a sheep herder who spoke only Spanish and his three dogs, and had a conversation in our broken Spanish that both parties probably only half understood. The sky cleared as the evening wore on, becoming a beautiful sunset. Ahead, we could see the beginnings of big mountains.  Colorado! 

As usual, we were almost out of food the next morning as we hiked the last 15 miles to Cumbres Pass, where we would hitch to Chama. We passed through meadows with more elk, then climbed into a hilly forest. With two miles to go before the road, we passed a fallen-down sign that read “Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado.” Finally, we were officially in Colorado!

We hitched a ride to town with the usual type of person who picked us up – a middle-aged guy in a pickup truck filled with guns. We satiated our hunger with burgers, then spent the afternoon doing town errands and finally renting a room in a very strange but cheap hotel above the saloon.

Days 28-31: Ghost Ranch

June 17-20, 552 miles hiked

We woke up fully intending to leave Cuba, but we told ourselves we’d have a leisurely morning and wait out the heat. I worked on the blog and talked to my sister on the phone. Around mid-afternoon, we gave in to the siren song of town comforts, and decided to stay another night. It’s so hard to leave town sometimes. We had tacos at a strange gas station convenience store/restaurant and fell asleep early. The next morning, the trail climbed on a dirt road for several miles, then became a pleasant forested trail climbing into the woods. Suddenly, we looked around and noticed the desert was gone. We were surrounded by trees, there was a creek (a creek!) running next to the trail, and we were at 10,000 feet. The climb culminated in a wide, beautiful, flat meadow. Then, a long descent, early evening hiking through some nondescript woods, and finally camping near a highway. 

We woke early the next day because we wanted to get to Ghost Ranch, our next stop, by dinnertime at 5, and we had 25 miles to hike. The trail climbed steeply to the top of a mesa, then descended to a small creek. I could see the beginnings of colorful rock layers in the distance. We followed the creek until it opened into a wide valley surrounded by the most amazing, colorful cliffs I’d ever seen. The layers were pink, yellow, and orange, like a prehistoric rainbow sherbet. We walked through sagebrush to the Chama River and the dirt road that would eventually take us to the highway and Ghost Ranch. The desert had returned, at least for a day, and it was blisteringly hot. One of the hottest days on the trail so far. 

We walked along the river, the red and orange cliffs rising up along it. My mom had given me a set of Georgia O’Keeffe cards and one of them was a painting of the Chama River, so I’d had an idea of what the river looked like, but it was far more beautiful in real life. The water was a deep blue, mixing perfectly with the green and yellow of the hills and red of the cliffs. Pickup trucks and vans towing rafts passed us, and boats passed in the river. I longed to be one of those rafters, to sit there and be carried by the river instead of walking on that dirt road in the 100 degree heat.

We navigated our way through a cross country section over the bare hills, then onto a confusing trail. The biting flies were back and by then we were desperate, hungry and sweaty, practically running from the flies and towards the promise of food. The landscape was changing again, and we were surrounded by amazing orange mesas and rock structures, like something out of a movie. 

We finally got to Ghost Ranch at 5:30. Ghost Ranch is now a beautiful Presbyterian retreat center with a green lawn and adobe buildings, but the land and ranch have a soap opera-esque history, complete with murders, poker games and ghosts in the Wild West. Georgia O’Keeffe also had a home there, which is now owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  

In our haste to arrive in time for dinner, we had forgotten to eat during the day. We walked into the cafeteria wildly hungry, seeing nothing but the path to food and water. The room was full of families at the ranch for various retreats, all sitting at long tables, summer camp style. People stared at us, but we had become animals, and didn’t care. I made a beeline for a juice machine that, miraculously, dispensed ready-made juices of all kinds, and gulped down several glasses of fruit punch. We sat in silence eating chicken and wild rice and probably 20 pieces of toast and jam, going back again and again to the juice machine. Phil ate so much that he threw up in a nearby trash can. The fruit punch sugar went straight to my head, and I began to feel a little crazy. Thankfully, the Presbyterians were extremely kind, and helped us find the showers and camping area after our feeding frenzy. 

We spent most of the next day at Ghost Ranch doing laundry, writing postcards, sorting food, and relaxing. Lunch was pizza with ice cream for dessert, and a similar feeding occurred, though not as crazy as dinner. During lunch we met Tatu-Joe, another CDT hiker. Joe is a legend in the hiking community. He is working on his quadruple triple crown, which means that when he’s done, he will have hiked all three long trails in the U.S. (PCT, AT, CDT) four times each. He had already hiked the AT this year, finishing in less than three months and then hopping immediately to the CDT. We had lunch and dinner with him, and then hiked out that evening through an amazing canyon, officially leaving the desert behind. A family staying at Ghost Ranch hiked with us for a few miles, and I was overwhelmed by the community and love that surrounded us. I wanted to stay there forever. 

Note: my phone did not like the Colorado rain a few days ago and now it’s not working at all. Sadly, for the time being, this means I can’t access any of the pictures I took during this section. Here are some of Phil’s pictures! 

very hot road along the chama river

Ghost Ranch by night

hike out of the magical Ghost Ranch canyon

Days 23-27: cows, mesas, and bears, oh my!

June 12-16, 497 miles hiked
We lacked motivation to leave Grants the next morning, finally leaving the comfort of the motel around 11. The first seven miles of the trail followed a road that ascended into the hills outside of town, past a prison and into bare, dry mountains. Phil was in a particularly bad mood this morning, and not feeling very excited about hiking. At one point he took out his phone and looked up plane tickets to Thailand. We got into the groove as the day wore on, climbing on actual trail up a steep mountain towards Mt. Taylor, which the CDT passes. I had downloaded some new music – new Rihanna and Beyonc√©, and some sugary country pop from Kelsea Ballerini that’s a little ridiculous but so catchy I can’t resist it- and it made hiking seem easy and fun. 

The next day, we took an alternate trail that goes to the top of Mt. Taylor, which stands at 11,300 feet and has beautiful 360 degree views. It was so nice to see our surroundings after being in the desert for so long, and see where we’d be hiking next. The trail the rest of the day was pretty unremarkable – a long descent on dirt roads, other dirt roads through a sparse forest, finding a spring surrounded by cows, and finally a big campsite in a clearing next to a dirt road. 

we kept seeing these signs, then saw the prison and realized why

road out of Grants


phil convinced me to play violin on top


The next morning we had 16 miles on a flat dirt road until Ojos De Los Indios spring, which sat at the bottom of a small ravine. We saw a brown bear pretty close up that morning, and he saw us but just kept bumbling along, in search of bugs or water or whatever bears search for. We finally turned onto a real trail, which wound across the top of a mesa for what felt like an eternity until descending steeply into a huge basin filled with small orange mesas. The sun was setting during our descent, and it was one of the most beautiful moments on the trail so far. We camped in the middle of a deserted red dirt road. 

cow tank bath

descent into a magical land of mesas


The next day was one of the hottest on the trail so far, hiking across this big basin with very few water sources. At one point we got lost (not unusual) and had to navigate through a sandy, dry riverbed for an extra hour. The scenery was amazing – colorful mesas, cool rock structures everywhere – but we were grumpy and hot and probably didn’t fully appreciate it. Late afternoon we got to a paved road crossing (very exciting) and there was a water cache with poptarts and granola bars!! We made a beeline for it and sat there for two hours. We hiked until 9pm, with 22 miles left until the next town of Cuba. 


The next morning, we continued our march through the mesas and the rock formations. The trail was awesome and looked like something out of Star Wars, but I was extremely grumpy. I had developed a new blister the day before and its existence made hiking very unpleasant, and I was just generally mad at the world this morning- mad at the heat, mad at the fact that the trail was all sand, mad at the remaining miles until town. My mood improved after a shady break and a Snickers bar, and we walked the remaining 10ish miles on paved highways into Cuba. These EVIL flies kept chasing and biting us along the road. We went straight to a Mexican restaurant and, as usual, went completely overboard on food consumption. The rest of the day was filled with the usual town activities: grocery store, post office, blog, phone calls with parents, motel, then finally ridiculous reality tv (this time it was Botched and My 600-lb Life) until we fell asleep. We had only 52 miles until Ghost Ranch, and there were rumors that the desert was nearly over…

phil, dancing through the streets of cuba

Days 20-22: dirt roads to Grants

June 9-11, 396 miles hiked

Radar brought us back to the trail and back to reality the next morning, and we started hiking where we’d left off the previous day. Soon, the dirt road turned into a trail, which wound through a grassy canyon before rising onto another dirt road. It was so hot. We hiked on towards the next water source while the sky darkened. By the time we got there, the wind was blowing furiously and it had begun to rain. The windmill was apparently not working, so we continued on down the dirt road, which had now turned to slippery red clay. 

The trail then followed Highway 117 towards El Malpais National Monument, which featured a rim trail overlooking a huge area covered in lava, which we would hike across. We camped on the rim that evening. The next morning, we headed out onto the Acoma-Zuni trail, which traverses eight miles across the lava. 


After the lava, we wound through Bonito Canyon, hiking into the evening while listening to podcasts. The next morning, we woke early to hike the remaining 12 miles into Grants, knowing we had to get there before the post office closed at 12. We speed walked down Zuni Canyon road, its canyon walls rising on either side. We got to a McDonalds on the outskirts of town and scarfed down three pancakes, three cookies, three egg mcmuffins, and hash browns. Somehow, I still felt hungry after all of that. 

Grants was a spread out, rather depressing town full of boarded up businesses and lots of those check cashing places. We walked another three miles down the main road to the other end of town towards the chain hotels and got a room at the Super 8. When we get to town, often all I want to do is lay in bed and watch tv. We did this for awhile, then bought some resupply food at Wal-Mart and ordered pizza, watching episode after episode of Naked and Afraid until we could no longer keep our eyes open.