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Salida to Lake City

Two hunters were inside the pickup, and I was invited to ride along with "front seat status". They were headed back to the mountains for one more day of bow season. The man driving the truck had gotten an elk on opening day, but was out helping some friends with their hunts. As he talked about his hunting strategy, I could tell he knew what he was doing, he almost made bow-hunting sound easy. He was excited for me. Like most hunters, he loved the hunt - the chase through the mountains, the fresh air, the connection with his human roots - we were all once hunters. He understood why I was walking the divide, what it was like, and what it meant to me. He dropped me off at the pass, a few miles out of his way, and wished me luck.

The day was nearly over by the time I hit the trail. I was happy that my little stop in town had gone so smoothly. There was another trail register near the pass. Drew was 4 days ahead of me, Kevin and Sharon, 7. I figured I wouldn't see any of them again on the trail. Odds were, I'd be hiking alone the rest of the way. The trail was cut across an open mountainside, high above everything. The setting sun lit up everything in a martian hue. The clouds from earlier in the day had mostly scattered, spent their ammunition and drifted out of existence. A few remnants were left though, and the sun bid them adieu with a final flicker of red. I camped on top of the divide, another day, always another place. click to enlarge click to enlarge

The night on the divide was cold and windy. Morning brought clear cold skies, a horizon of powdery blue. The trail continued its traverse. The CDT south of Monarch Pass was a popular mountain-biking route. The bikes smoothed the tread into a dirt trough with rounded edges, it was similar to what the motorbikes had done, but gentler. I stopped for water at a spring where the Colorado Trail re-joined from below. A dozen mountainbikers zoomed past, dressed loudly in spandex and plastic. They had a different agenda - push yourself, conquer the mountain, ride far and fast and hard. I had no desire to join them, only a desire to smile as they passed, to smile a grin that said, "I have a secret, have a nice day".

A man came through the trees toward me on the trail. He had thick calves, a dirty tan, beat-up backpack and worn shoes... He'd obviously been hiking some distance. We started our conversation before the first words were spoken. He had been hiking the CDT north since Pagosa Springs. He had been out for a month or so. He was nearly done with his hike, going home after Monarch Pass. He was Dutch... what was it about the Dutch? He'd already heard about Mario... he knew they would probably never meet. He told me there was a Colorado Trail hiker about a couple days ahead of me. At least there was someone up there, I thought. The trail had been getting lonely. Maybe somehow, I hoped, I'd meet that phantom. After we parted ways, I followed his footprints back... sometimes they were erased by mountain bikes, sometimes clear. I noticed a few faint footprints headed my direction - my CT companion? click to enlarge

The divide became placid, lost in an ocean of rolling forested hills - the Cochetopa Hills. It almost looked like the divide had disappeared, but I knew it never did. It always had to be somewhere, sometimes it just wore a disguise. The trail followed the divide, through the canopy of trees. Grey Jays played with me all day. Most birds scattered and sounded an alarm at the approach of people, at the very least, they ignored people and went about their business. Grey Jays were different though. They saw people as a curiosity, an opportunity. Whenever I took a break in the trees, one or two hopped through the branches, slowly working their way toward me. They'd pause every few feet to turn their heads, as if asking, "What is that creature?". In some places, in some other mountains, grey jays were so habituated to people that they would land on an empty extended hand, just to see if any food was to be had. In the Cochetopa Hills, their true nature was more evident - they weren't friendly because they'd been tamed by humans, they just had an innate curiosity, one that had helped them thrive long before people ever entered the equation.

A truck came by, a retired couple from Kansas - what was it about Kansas? We had a brief conversation that ended with him wishing me luck with the hunting. I didn't bother to correct him, although I really wanted to. I felt like I was on a futile crusade to change every deaf ear - if only they could see what I saw... that "there was such good news!". What was the point? Let people be people, it was probably better that way. The trail rose to a high meadow, a plateau of grass with views back north. I could see the last two days of my travels, neither far nor near, just there. The sun slowly set as I re-entered the trees. There were good campsites everywhere. I walked until it was nearly dark and picked one, good as any other.

The morning light mimicked that of the evening, the day picked up where it had left off, the sun bouncing back across the sky through a mesh of treetops. There was nobody there. I could see only the next 15 seconds of trail, always different, but exactly the same. The ground underfoot consumed all my attention - a quarter mile of horrible loose rocks, a half mile of dirt, the Dutch footprints fading, the CT hiker's taking over...click to enlarge

I looked out to the sea of dark green trees that covered everything below me. Clouds, was it? No, smoke! A forest fire was burning... a couple miles away. I knew nothing more about it. Did anyone even know it was there? How did it start? It didn't matter much to me - it was like the TV news, a curiosity that rarely hit home. "Tonight on the CDT evening news, Fire!". A slight breeze was blowing the smoke slowly away from me. click to enlarge

The day whipped past, I split it up into little sections, stopping after each one... the endless forest was more palatable that way. I looked at my map and studied the land ahead, even though I didn't need to. It was just something to think about. "Hmmm, I have to climb 400 feet, then a mile of flat, then down 200 feet..."

The trail crossed a road, a few cars rolled past. They weren't even people.

I noticed something odd just below the trail, it was... something... that was all that really mattered. It was a styrofoam cooler. Some rocks were on top to keep the lid from blowing off. Of course, I had to see what was inside, I didn't care if it was somebody's private stash of something-or-other. I needed to know. A notebook resting on the lid and sealed in ziploc bags, explained things. The cooler was left by "burned foot", a man who'd hiked the Colorado Trail a few years prior. He explained that the Cochetopa Hills were his least favorite part of the CT. He'd stocked the cooler with sodas and other goodies to lift the spirits of fellow hikers. I flipped through the pages, reading a season's worth of "thank you's!" from hikers I'd never know. A lot of people hiked the CT. Most of the entries were happy prose and inside jokes shared with those who passed through behind them. The most recent entry was from my mystery CT hiker. He had a name, John. A few other entries stuck out, they were scribbles - insanity created by a million footsteps, brought to life in ink - CDT hikers. They'd all come through there, my whole scattered village. I opened the cooler, eager to partake in the party. It was empty. What a cruelty to be played on a weary soul such as I. I sat in the grass and laughed absurdly, in a way it was fitting, I was forgotten even by those who cared. Burned Foot explained that he didn't re-stock the cooler after mid-September because few people hiked the CT that late in the season - yup, you'd have to be crazy to do that. I cooked dinner there anyway, in the company of an empty styrofoam container and a notebook of names. We had good conversation.

I hiked a few more miles in the evening, just enough to rise to the top of a hill - another comfortable quiet night in the duff. It was a warm night, a rare thing.

The next morning, I headed through more woods, into the edge of a giant plain. The flowing yellow grass spread for miles to the northwest, finally ending at the flanks of mountains dulled by the morning haze. I was on a road. In that kind of area, it was easy to have roads. So, there were many of them, leading people to places they'd rather not walk. The land was owned by people, owned... so it was money, an economic investment. There were cows on the private land, I begged that people would get more original. click to enlarge

I passed by an RV, parked in the grass on public land. An older man named George came outside to greet me. He and his wife had been parked there for a week, had another week to go before they moved on. The grass was tall around the RV's sun-bleached grey tires. It looked like they'd been living there for decades. George was happy to have a visitor, happy that I'd stopped. I chuckled inside... of course I had stopped, I couldn't not stop. He told me about hikers he'd met, last week, right there, last year in Mexico... The world was crawling with them it seemed. He looked curiously at my maps, and took a fleeting vacation in my mind. "There's no water up ahead for a while", he advised, "Some hikers came through the other way a few days ago, they were real thirsty... do you have water?" I had enough to get me far enough. "Oh, there are a lot of bees around too, look out for them." A couple bees swayed back and forth near my ankles, hypnotizing my socks. George's wife remained a hidden abstraction, inside somewhere, absorbed in an important story no doubt.

A mile later, I crossed a clear stream. It was 4 feet wide, flowing right through the trail. What was wrong with people? There was plenty of water on the trail. How could information have been gotten so wrong so quickly? Maybe there had been no people, only ghosts that George had dreamed into tangible memories.

The trail turned back to the mountains, new mountains. The names of places were drifting into Spanish, I had crossed a boundary somewhere, an historical boundary that defied complete erasure. La Garita, San Juan, I repeated the words with a phlegmy Mexican slur, just to hear another person's voice. Slowly, I was rising into those places, but nothing ever happened immediately. Even new borders were usually vague, old ones even more so.

A storm came down the valley, I hadn't been watching the sky... I'd barely been watching the trail. As the blanket descended, I took cover in the edge of the forest. I sat under a tree and hugged my pack like a lover might - rocking slowly back and forth, enjoying the hail as it pattered into the branches above me. "I love you", I said silently to whoever might hear it, then strained to feel a reply echo back.

The trail crossed a beaver dam - 30 yards of willows and chest-high water. Could it be right? I spied a CT post on the other side, snickering at me while I searched for a good place to cross. I finally decided to walk on the dam itself. Beaver dams were hardly exact architectural creations. The beavers didn't do much planning, they simply piled wood and mud wherever there was the sound of flowing water. They'd even cover an electronic speaker that played a recording of flowing water. The beaver dam I had to cross was old, decaying and crumbling. I inched across, more than once nearly giving up and jumping into the water. I plowed through the willows, brushing them aside like really really thick grass. I finally reached the other bank, solid ground again. My feet were still dry. "Ha!", I said to the CT sign, "How'd you like that?" "Curses! I'll get you next time!", it replied in defeat.

The trail intersected another trailhead, the gateway to another designated wilderness area. There was another trail register there. Brian was 6 days ahead, Colorado Trail John, only 1 day... I was gaining on him. Some random person wrote a ridiculous short political essay intended for whatever forest service employee was unlucky enough to read it. "...remember, we're your boss...", it rambled on about how the land was supposed to be free, and how the government only administered it by the good grace of people like him. I had to respond. "There is no freedom without responsibility", I wrote, "and we have laws and governments because of irresponsible idiots like you." Then, I thought, maybe that was a mistake. Nobody ever changed their mind by force. All I had done, if anything, was irritate an open wound.

The CDT was routed up a long valley that reached the divide in about 8 miles. I looked at the map. It seemed to make more sense to me to go over the top of San Luis Peak. It would be more scenic and shorter... wouldn't it? I asked myself. I answered yes, and headed up the trail that led to San Luis Peak.

While I ate my dinner that night, a few drops of blood dripped from my nose. I'd almost forgotten. I'd hiked there from Montana, from Canada. I couldn't think about it all, it was too much information for one mind to process. I figured I would have to write it all down when I was done, I thought, then I won't mind forgetting. But, when would that be? Would I ever be done? Who would write the ending? I camped a few miles from the trailhead, in the trees, in the wilderness, in a place I'd never forget but rarely remember.click to enlarge

The sky was pale blue, clear. It was a perfect day to climb a mountain. San Luis Peak was 14,014 feet, a 14'er just barely. I had been wanting to climb a 14'er somewhere in Colorado. The trip wouldn't have felt complete otherwise. There were some things one could only know by doing... most things actually. I had to see the mountiantop for myself. The trees faded away, and circular clumps of willow took over, each colored a slightly different shade of yellow and brown. The mountain towered above - a giant grey dome. I couldn't tell how high it was, the empty blue sky offered no perspective. I looked back and saw a few people, headed up behind me. Of course, it was a 14'er, the 14'ers were visited regularly. The trio slowly caught up to me. click to enlarge

They were 20-something guys, the x-games variety, the kind that would mountainbike down a ski-slope and snowboard down a sand dune. That day, they were just using their feet. I was delirious and out of practice. I didn't know how loud to talk or what to say. So, I didn't say much, I just nodded. I figured there'd be time to talk later, and if there wasn't, then there wasn't any need to talk. The willows faded into 2-inch grasses and odd succulent creations. The world opened up below.

We took a break on flank of the peak. A light steady breeze blew through us, we were entering the machinery of the skies. I regained some composure and met my temporary companions. They'd never been up San Luis Peak, but they'd climbed many other 14'ers, "We were saving it...", one of them said, "...for today, I guess." They had a big dog with them. It had been racing around in the willows below, but up there it was calm, moving in slow-motion, gaining wisdom with every foot climbed. The thin cover of life in the rocks grew thinner, eventually disappearing altogether. It was no longer a place where anything could live, not anything complicated anyway - flakes of lichen clung to the rocks, growing at the same gradual rate the mountain decayed. The desolate summits of 14,000 foot peaks were mostly barren of life, but they were the ideal habitat for the soul to wander and flourish. A path had been stomped upward by a slow steady stream of dizzy travellers. How many people had been blessed with that gift? I wondered.

We attained the rounded summit at 10:40am. The wind blew hard, always steady and always loud. I looked to the distance and saw creation, not the creation of some arrogant deity who demanded our praise. But perhaps that of a kinder spirit, one that didn't expect or hope for anything except that we explore and learn - a god that gave us gifts, and was happy when we played. Yes, a god more like Santa Clause. I could hear his jolly laugh bellowing through the wind, "Ho, Ho, Ho... check THIS out!" click to enlarge

Somebody had brought a large American flag to the top of the mountain. The x-men planted it in the rocks and it whipped in the wind. I understood the intent of whoever had placed the flag, but it looked so insignificant up there. What country? I thought, there was only land. What madness people could reach for flags and ideas. All of those things seemed so divisive, so backward and trivial. I shook my head and was happy to be away from it all, even though my view was but a temporary illusion held by a population of one.click to enlarge

I said good-bye to my companions and headed forward, down the other side of the mountain, back down to the living land below. I looked back at San Luis Peak, it was immense and naked. The terrain just below the mountaintops was raw and volcanic. Towers of pumice crumbled into loose piles, slowly being melted into earth by the forces of biology and geology. The trail continued over fields of grass and under sandpaper cliffs, the views both near and far got ever more interesting and complex. I came to a small stream where a man was resting near a large backpack. He looked up at me, and I knew it instantly - John, my mystery CT hiker.click to enlarge click to enlarge

I wanted to jump up and down and point and sneer, "HA! I got you!", but if I had done that, he might have thought me mad, and perhaps run off... I couldn't risk that. I looked the bottom of his shoes and saw a familiar face. "I didn't expect to catch you yet...", I inquired. He said he had only hiked 3 miles the day before. He'd gone up San Luis Peak and decided to call it a day. I didn't care if he wanted to hike with me, I was going to hike with him regardless. I needed to talk to somebody while I walked, only if just to remind myself that I was indeed sane. Without conversation, there was no way to be certain. We were all insane inside our heads, it was only our voices that make our thoughts rational.

We talked about the trivialities of hiking - the how's, the why's. There were a lot of questions, and few solid answers. There was little about hiking that was absolutely correct, there was no right way to do it. He was hiking a much slower pace than I, taking his time, taking long breaks, loving it. I was in no rush myself, I just had further to go. We camped in some lumpy grass, protected from the wind by a thicket of 3-foot high willows. The sun lit up the clouds a deep red... they filled the sky. I wished I was on top of a mountain, but then, I already was. click to enlarge

I woke up to a thin layer of frost. The only time I didn't feel like hiking was on cold mornings... just 5 more minutes, I'd tell myself. I needed a snooze button. More often than not, what finally stirred me was an overwhelming urge to pee. There were few things lovlier than that first morning piss in the grass. John left before I did, he was a distant animal on the hillside by the time I started walking.

The trail rose to the top of Snow Mesa, a giant plain of grass 12,000 feet above sea level. Some elk saw me from a half mile away and somehow disappeared into the flatness. The mesa had a beauty and majesty that could not be captured with a camera, so I didn't try. John was planning to meet his father up there, then walk to the highway with him. He slowed down, thereby making sure his dad had a chance to hike up to the mesa. I was excited to get to the road... to get to Lake City, another milestone. I had absolutely no idea what Lake City would be like, but it didn't matter.

I descended from the mesa and quickly passed John's dad, who was slowly climbing up. I reassured him that John was back there somewhere... All was good, all was happy. Slightly further down I passed a man who was working for the forest service. He was mapping the trail with a GPS system, noting every drainage ditch and switchback. The forest service was trying to get an idea of just how much work it took to maintain the trails, and just how many structures were on them and where. Most of the trails in the area had already been mapped. I wasn't sure if it was a silly idea or a really good one.

I reached the road and started making a sign, scribbling the letters: "Lake Ci"... A truck slammed on its brakes. It was the quickest ride I'd ever gotten, and the biggest truck I'd ever ridden in. The driver was delivering tires to garages and mechanic shops all over rural Colorado. It was his regular route. "I've driven this road in a blizzard", he said, "in this truck." It didn't sound safe to me, it wasn't. "It's better than digging wells", he continued, "that's what I used to do. Ever heard the expression 'colder than a well digger's ass'?" I hadn't. He explained, "You dig all year, doesn't matter how cold, the ground is never too frozen."

We arrived in Lake City. It was exactly what I'd hoped all the other towns in Colorado would have been - not yet swamped by ski hills and luxury condo complexes... not yet anyway. It was just big enough to have everything I needed. I got a room at a small motel and ate dinner at an empty Mexican restaurant. The waitress was a young woman from Lithuania. "How do like it here?", I asked. She paused, then sighed, "I miss home". That was our entire conversation. She flipped through a fashion magazine at the table next to me, then put it away and worked on some calculus instead - not what I had expected. How did she get there? I wondered. How did any of us get where we were?

I ate a quick breakfast and gathered my belongings. I flipped on the TV just long enough to hear a tidbit of wisdom, "A new study says Viagra makes your body work more efficiently at high altitudes...". Hmmm... Maybe I should go get some, I thought. I just wasn't sure exactly how I would cope with the side effects.

I hit the road with a great cardboard sign. On one side it read, "Spring Creek Pass" on the other, "CDT Hiker". I flipped it back and forth at the passing traffic. Nothing. They all seemed to be from Texas. Texas didn't seem like a place that produced many friendly people. Most of them didn't even bother to swerve away from me, it was their road - if I got killed? in their mind, it'd just be one less hippy. I had walked 3 miles up the road when a pickup headed the other way stopped. The man inside leaned out, "Hasn't anyone given you a ride yet?", he looked perplexed. I saw him struggle with it. In his mind he no choice... "Oh, c'mon, get in."


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