M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo

The Colorado Trail, Pt 1
September 30, 2009, 4:31 am
Filed under: Hiking/Backpacking | Tags: , , , , , ,

As I sit here in relative comfort and ease at my parent’s house in Palo Alto, cleaning out the fridge and ordering far too much pizza, it’s easy to forget that 3 weeks ago I was wrapping up a 500 mile, 34 day trek through the Colorado Rockies.  3 weeks ago I was having vivid dreams about all-you-can-eat buffets and greasy burgers piled high with bleu-cheese and jalapenos, while having to settle nightly for a 4 day rotation of either lentils, potato flakes, mac & cheese, or brown rice.  Ironically, these same rich foods have now become an aversion, as I’ve had to gorge myself on them to regain the weight I lost from the trail.  I’m only half-way there.

But there was more to the trail than these food dreams.pizza

The Colorado Trail stretches 486 miles from the suburbs of Denver to the college town of Durango, in Southwest Colorado.  It follows canyons, valleys, ridges, and mesas, intersecting and joining with the Continental Divide numerous times.  The average elevation for the 34 days was around 10,000 feet, with sections frequently jumping up to 13,000 feet or thereabouts.  The trail passes by several of Colorado’s famous 14’ers, peaks above 14,000 feet elevation, a couple of which I had the opportunity to climb.

Preparation for the CT was almost non-existant.  I didn’t train for it, work out or anything more than my occasional jaunt through the woods with my dog.  A month previous to the trip I backpacked through the Olympic National Park with my partner Jennifer and found out that a 20 mile hike in a single day was actually possible in some circumstances.  However this trip did little more than instill a bit of confidence in me; I was in no better shape by the time I caught a train to Colorado a month later.

The decision to take a train to Colorado (from my family’s house in the Bay Area) was last minute.  As it turns out, last minute train tickets are in-fact cheaper than last-minute flights.  The train took 2 days to get to Denver, but was absolutely worth it.  Never before have I met such a talkative, upbeat, happy group of commuters in my life.  Everyone was so EXCITED to be on that train, I made more single-serving friends than every flight I’ve been on combined.  Sadly, train food is about on par with plain food, and you have to PAY for it.  But the scenery and rocking-cradle motion of the train made everything drift by in a euphoric blur.

Jennifer, the lovely and soon to be bad-ass-woman-of-the-trail, whisked me away to her family’s place in Palmer Lake, south of Denver.  Here we mapped out the trek, gathered all our gear, planned for our supplies, shopped for all our food, and ate lots of good home-cooked meals before the departure.  The original plan was I would leave solo and Jennifer would meet me on the trail a week or so later, where we would continue together to Durango.

My gear was gathered and ready, so a tearful goodbye was said after being dropped off at the trailhead outside of Denver.  I started the march up the dirt road through Waterton Canyon, the Platte River flowing through it and filling the reservoirs downstream for the thirsty citizens of Denver.  7 miles later the dirt road ends next to a massive dam holding back another reservoir for Denver, and a winding trail begins the ascent towards the Continental Divide 50 miles beyond.

The next couple days are interesting to say the least.  Colorado was in the midst of an unseasonably wet summer, weather more familiar to me while I was living in Seattle.  For two days straight the rains were constant and heavy, with intermittent storms blustering through and causing general havoc to my camp setup.  As I put the miles behind me, the scenery changes quite abruptly from wooded valleys to barren hills as far as you can see.  I had entered the aftermath of the infamous Hayman Fire of 2002, Colorado’s largest forest-fire.  The scenery was stunning, with a mix burnt out trunks and wildflowers covering the hills.  Besides the homes and millions of acres of forest destroyed, the other downside of the fire was that it essentially destroyed the watershed.  The once shade-covered ravines and valleys that carried streams through the area are now eroded and exposed, evaporating most of the water before it ever reaches the trail.  This means that I had 13 more miles to hike with no access to drinking water, and I realized this having only a liter of water left in my pack.  A volunteer fire-station with a fresh-water tap was rumored to exist off the trail those 13 miles later, and I found it without much trouble, albeit parched.

It was around this point that what was a minor pain in my Achilles tendon at the start of the trip was quickly turning into an excruciating pain with lightning bolts emphasizing it.  As it turns out, the shoes I was planning on hiking 500 miles in were no good.  I literally couldn’t walk anymore, so I took off the shoes and threw them into the bushes cursing.  Realizing this was a rash move, I snatched them back out and clipped them onto my pack, walking barefoot now.  After 30 minutes of this, I realized the stupidity of the situation: I had a pair of leather flip-flops I had taken along as camp shoes!  I threw these on and finished the day.  However I knew flip-flops were just a temporary solution.  I thought about the matter for a while and finally came to the conclusion that shoes wouldn’t work.  The damage had been done, my Achilles were so tender I could barely touch them, let alone slip them into a new unbroken pair of boots.  The only thing I imagined would work was a pair of Chaco’s, essentially rugged Teva’s.  So my trip had changed, and I needed to get myself back to civilization to resupply.  In addition, I was tired of hiking solo.  While JD was a great trail buddy, I missed my baby…and she had no idea I was coming to get her.  The next access to a highway was 15 miles of trail and 8 miles of dirt road away, so I started hiking.

This, the day of the flip-flops, I met my first fellow thru-hiker.  JD was is name, and the thickest Southern Drawl I’ve ever heard from a Coloradoan.  Despite the background he shared with me, I swear he was on the lam, what better place to go than the Colorado Trail!  This lead me down an interesting train of thought: If I ever got in too deep, had to make a getaway, disappear for a while, why I’ll thru-hike a long-trail!  Anyways, JD turned out to be a great hiking companion despite his handicapped speech.  After leaving the Hayman burn, the landscape turned into rolling hills and valleys with one aspen grove after another.  Streams flowed once again, and drinking water was plentiful.  Mushrooms and wildflowers were popping up everywhere, with lush greenery carpeting the forest floor.  I eventually hit the dirt road that led out to the small town of Bailey.

Despite having very little experience hitchhiking, I was not enthusiastic about hiking another 8 miles and so flagged every passing car for a ride.  I caught the 10th car on its way down into town, an Iraq vet who lived on and ran a wood-cutting business along the pass.  He chatted me up all the way to Pine Junction, much farther than I had expected to get a ride from that forest-service road.  The next ride was from a bunch of 20-something rock-climbers on their way to a granite mecca of some sort.  They clouded up the car with strong smoke and relayed their life stories before dropping me along the highway as far as they could.  After 30-40 minutes I caught another ride with a father-son duo, who both looked like the yokels from Deliverance.  They actually turned out to be very friendly, chatting and blasting classic rock all the way down the winding mountain roads to a town called Woodland Park, not quite my destination but getting closer.  My last ride was from a middle-aged guy with a penchant for laughing maniacally at everything I said, an infectious habit as I ended up doing the same thing all the way to Colorado Springs.  Surprisingly, the rides were very easy to come by and I never felt uncomfortable, except when I worried about my stench as I climbed into the passenger seat.  I tried to roll the window down whenever I had the opportunity.

When I arrived in the Springs, I called a surprised Jennifer who came and picked me up.  Good timing too, as the local police had circled around at least 3 times since I got there, obviously suspicious of the new bum in town.  After some good meals and a few days rest to let my feet recover, I got myself a pair of Chacos and started reorganizing for OUR return to the trail.  While I was gone, Jennifer researched the wonders of tarp tenting, and sold me on the idea when I arrived.  So we ditched the 5lb 2-person tent for a 1lb home-made tarp system.  Check out this youtube video we modeled our system after.  Rested and somewhat recovered, I dawned my Chacos and my now lighter pack (20lbs before food and water), and we got a ride back to Bailey (all in one go!) from Jennifer’s ever-so-considerate Dad.

I’ll leave it at that for now.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Keep the tales coming bro. I’m excited to hear more about this epic trip you ‘disappeared’ on for 6 weeks or so.

By the way, those Chaco Sandals I bought for our NZ trip…I still have them…still wear them…and still swear by them.

Comment by Drew


Comment by Brean

Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do 🙂

Comment by Tsquare

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