Day 25 – 21.4mi
My last full day on trail. And it is about to throw everything it has at me.
I start way before sunrise, to get over the last stretch above 12,000 feet before the weather turns. At times I can’t see, everything my headlamp is white. I’m in a fog.
I go to get water at a trickle, and I see that someone has already set up a ‘leaf trick’ to make filling my filter easier.
Then it’s hurry, hurry, to get up on top of Indian Trail Ridge for the sunrise. As the black turns to grey, I turn back to see the whole mountainside I came from lathered in a thick coating of froth. On the other side of the ridge, a low cloud ceiling extends as far as I can see – a white ocean. The white water hangs heavy, and here I am, walking above the clouds. It’s so beautiful.
I walk the undulating ridge, as everything turns pink, then yellow, then the muted blue of cloud-filtered sun. At times the trail comes quite close to the dizzying drop, and I must focus on my footing to keep from freaking out.
Ahead – a peak.
I stay alert on the talus and don’t look over either shoulder.
Soon enough, I’m taking in the views of Taylor lake, on the other side.
By now, I know how it goes, I’m expecting it. As soon as I start the descent, my limbs stiffen, I feel the pain. I feel the blisters, the fatigue. I move slower, ambling, the adrenaline no longer fueling the fire. The pull of the peak, the anxiety of getting over the top, has dissipated, and my mind quiets, relaxes into the achievement. Awareness expands, and I can appreciate the details, the surroundings, no longer hyper-focused on the goal.
I cross the parking lot, and by doing so, pass into the last segment of the trail – 28. All others behind me, I walk straight into the low clouds that I admired from above moments before.
The mists insulate sound, they quiet down the land. The chill seeps into my bones; I shiver. But I taste the moisture on my sun-cracked lips, and it is welcome.
I can’t see anything beyond a small radius, and it’s like I’m hiking with my headlamp again. I cross a slope of slide rock. Then I’m in the moody misty forest. Everything is calm. All there is left is to descend.
Soon, I emerge beneath the bank of fog, and views of the dark green valley open up. I stop for an early lunch at a road crossing, and when I get going again, it starts to rain. The water brings the rich fragrance of the forest alive, and it smells delicious.
I’m dead by the time I reach the crossing of Junction Creek, at the bottom of the valley. My plan is to do two shorter days to the end, so even though it’s not yet noon, I’m looking for a campsite. The ones by the creek are pretty open and too close to the trail, so after a long break, I get going up the other side of the valley, hoping to find a sheltered spot not too far away.
The first one I pass feels too exposed to the sky, on a kind of ridge. (I’m so picky). So I keep going, gaining elevation, to another, which feels a little cosier.
But then the rumbling begins. Thunder.
It sounds distant at first. I sit under a big tree near the campsite, trying to decide whether to set up my tent, hoping the storm will pass quickly, like the small ones did yesterday.
But all too suddenly, the flashes and the thunder are way too close, too loud. I can hear the crackling of it, I can feel the intensity. Sound occurs too soon after light. I feel too vulnerable, too high. Why didn’t I stay at down at the creek (if that would have helped me feel safer at all)? I’m still nowhere near any high points in the area. But the storm is right on top of me before I know it, and I can’t see its edges, I can’t see where it ends or where it’s coming from. a black-grey extends cross the entire valley.
Thoroughly freaked out, I leave my pack and poles and scramble down the vertical slope, losing around the slick vegetation, climbing under fallen trees. Crack! Shudder! All thought knocked free of my brain. Eventually I find a tree to hide under. But is this the tree that’s going to get struck by lightning? What should I do?
I crouch under that tree, teeth chattering. For two hours.
The storm intensifies, never ceasing in its flashing and crashing, directly over my head. The rain pounds, then turns to hail. I soak through my rain jacket and pants, and I can no longer feel my hands. They’re clasped together. Every time I see a flash or hear a crack, I say out loud to myself, that I know I am safe. It’s the only thing I have left to do. I am at the utter mercy of the sky.
Two hours is a long, long time to witness such a raging thing. I try to breathe deeply, and remember that it will pass. Meanwhile, my body temperature is dropping, and my nervous system is electrified.
Finally, a gust of freezing wind. It’s jarring, but brings with it a little hope. Are these dark clouds going to move along soon?
The winds pick up. I become aware of how cold I am, and finally stand up, creaking out of the crouch I held for hours. I need to get warm, maybe I should set up my tent and get inside. Then maybe it’ll be over.
I scramble back up to the campsite and start trying to set up my tent, but it’s still pouring, and I succeed in thoroughly soaking it, inside and out. A flash-bang of lightning that’s too close, that shakes my very bones, shocks me out of it – that’s it, I’m heading back down to the valley bottom, I’ll set up there. I’m done with this.
Yet, in the middle of my fearful retreat back down the trail, the sky brightens. The rain lets up a little. I look up. The black clouds are moving on. There’s no more thunder. Three hours later, the terror is over.
I realize then how much of a headless chicken I’m being. Under that intensity, I may have done some dumb stuff – abandoning my things, including my SOS button, in the middle of the storm, for example. Then having half a plan and soon abandoning it for another. I change my mind again – I need to just get out of here. I’ll go all the way to the trailhead tonight, I don’t care, I just have to leave here.
So I turn around and start heading up again. Through the slushy piles of hail, the muddy puddles of freezing water. My hands are useless. All I can do is walk. I can hardly grapple with what just happened, other than to feel relief that the ordeal might be over.
Even when you’re in the trees, doing the ‘safe’ thing you’re supposed to do in a thunderstorm, it’s utterly terrifying.
Soon after the high point of the climb, I find a more sheltered, low camp spot and realize it’s unrealistic to push to the end tonight. I need sleep, and warmth.
Setting up a tent is hard when your hands don’t work. Somehow it gets done, and I’m in a wet sleeping bag, in a wet tent, cracking hand warmers, shivering. I had a feeling the trail wasn’t going to let me get off so easily. It had to give me a grand finale, a raw taste of its real power, just in case I was getting too confident. Well, I’m humbled and scared. All I want is to fast forward to being warm and dry in a motel tomorrow. I’m not sure what I could have done better, but I feel lucky to have escaped unharmed.
Day 26 – 9.8mi
I wake up how I fell asleep – cold and wet. I dread having to touch all my soaking, muddy things to stuff them all in my pack again. I am very glad, though, that somehow I manage to have a set of dry clothes and a dry sweater. Even if they soak through later, it’s better than nothing.
It’s day 6 of no shower and everything’s gross. I’m gross. I smell bad, everything smells bad, my hair and skin are greasy. I can hardly stand it and can’t wait to scrub it all off. I wonder why I have such dirty, sweaty hobbies when I hate feeling dirty.
Sometimes, getting really dirty feels cleansing. Like plunging your hands into soft fragrant soil. Like coming back from a day of treeplanting absolutely covered in soot, so much that your dry stiff hair stands on end and you’re almost unrecognizable. Something about totally immersing yourself in the earth feels good sometimes. At a certain point though, when the smell of your feet starts to overpower everything, it’s time to take a shower.
The sky slowly brightens as I walk, revealing pink and orange, and the soft baby blues of the morning. All innocent, as if it didn’t just terrorize me all of yesterday. But I remember what it did. I shudder. Even when you’re in the trees, down low, following the conventional advice, technically ‘safe’ – it’s still a soul-searing experience. I never want to be caught underneath something like that again.
It’s a soft, easy downhill, down to the trailhead. The finish line. As I go, stiff and sore through the dappled light, reflections from the last 25 days swim through my mind. There’s a little disbelief, like it feels strange to be here. It’s September 13th. Is there not more to go? Is it really done?
At the same time, I can’t wait to check off the box, and shut the lid on the uncertainty of it all. That’s it, done, finished, goal achieved, nothing to worry about anymore.
But of course, the objects of worry will just be replaced, I know. Worry will remain. I have done a hard thing, but that won’t make other hard things any easier.
Sometimes it’s a relief to have something consume you completely – you don’t have to choose; your attention is directed for you. Walking 490 miles is a goal that can devour you. Even in the moments of fear, it demands your presence, your reaction in that moment, and nothing else matters. That’s welcome, in a way.
But it’s true, as I predicted before this journey began: the world became no simpler, and no less overwhelmingly complex, at the end of this journey. I still don’t know why I do what I do, or what I will do next. Was it worth it though? I think so. There are things I’d rather not repeat, but there are things I would. It all came and went so quickly and intensely, it’s hard to parse it all out.
I stop to eat breakfast at Gudy’s Rest. Gudy Gaskill was the visionary behind the idea of the trail, and worked as the first executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation, to birth it into being. I look at the green hillsides; I hear the sound of cars and the horn of the narrow gauge railway train below. It’s warm in the sun, but I shiver.
On the switchbacks leading down to the creek, I pass a lady and her dog. When she finds out I’m finishing the whole thing today, she reaches out to hug me and asks if I need anything – food, money? I smile. Maybe I did just achieve something worth being proud of.
Then the couple who takes my picture at the sign gives me a congratulations. It’s warm and sunny, and I feel triumphant.
I decide to just walk the four miles to town, as it’s early and I know I won’t be able to check in to any accommodation til the afternoon. Even so, ten minutes down the road a car stops to offer me a ride. I take it, why not.
Waiting to check in, I’m eating a big salad in a nearby restaurant when I recognize another hiker. She got off a day or so ago for an injury and also weather concerns, but her hiking partner pushed on and is finishing today.
Everyone makes different decisions. Everyone has a different risk tolerance. Am I glad I pushed on through the storms? Now that I’m out of it, yes. When I was in it, I definitely did not enjoy the experience. Hard to say what I would do if I had to choose again.
I find out that the rest of my trail fam stayed in Silverton a while for the weather, and may be finishing two days from now. I hope they’re alright and get through the final chapter of their journey in a way that’s right for them. I want to stay to see them one last time before they all fly in their different directions. I guess I’ll be R&R’ing in Durango for a few days. Not like I have anywhere else to rush off to.
So that’s that, the end of the trail. Maybe. I have to find a cheap way to occupy myself for two weeks until my flight out of Denver. It could involve backpacking. But, my limbs are so stiff, my feet are swollen. For now, I chill. And try to comprehend the whirlwind that has just happened.