Day 9 – August 21
I wake in the pop-up of Jason’s campervan with a pit of dread in my stomach. Or maybe it is more nausea, I can’t quite tell. I immediately feel much more ill than I have felt on previous mornings. For a minute or two, I think I might actually vomit. With a surprising strength, I hold it back. It would take too long to get down the ladder and outside the van, and I can’t ruin this pop-up after all Jason and his family have done for me. I eventually start to feel better, but only marginally.
The last time Jason met me on trail was a year ago, and he ended up helping me leave trail when I decided to end my hike. I feel much healthier this year, but I clearly have altitude issues and whatever this weird nausea is – altitude? dehydration? calorie deficit? extreme nerves? Half of me is seriously questioning whether the right thing for my health is, again, to leave trail. But I do not want to. When I made the decision last year, it was clear. I didn’t question it. I still don’t regret it. Now, I don’t have that clarity, which makes me believe it isn’t right call.
I start the day slower than expected due to the nausea. I think this must be from the stress of knowing Jason is my last easy way to leave trail. Once I hike away from this spot, it becomes much harder to leave if my health does force that decision. But I can’t let this physical manifestation of anxiety hold me back. We hike the short spur trail to the CT at 8 am, well over an hour after I typically start hiking. We say our goodbyes, but I don’t quite know what to say. I will never be able to properly express the gratitude and debt I feel to Jason and his family for their support.
I am overwhelmed with emotion for the first mile that I hike away. I am willingly leaving a lifeline behind to pursue the great unknown, and my anxiety feels overwhelming. Soon enough, I come across Pine Creek, the last reliable water for quite a few miles. I close my eyes and breathe. I need to focus now. Segment 18 is a notoriously dry and cow-filled segment. The few existing water sources are often contaminated with lots of cow pies. I am mentally preparing for heat, wide open vistas, road-walks, and heavy water carries.
However, it doesn’t start that way. After the initial exposed road walk, the trail turns into the trees. It is still a road walk for a while, but there is frequent shade. I soon catch up to a hiker and her dog taking a shade break and meet Tortoise and the Hare-Catcher (my favorite trail names of the whole hike!). Tortoise explains that they have to take frequent breaks for Hare-Catcher in the shade, so while they hike long hours, they don’t make it that far. I continue on past them and she jokes that I likely won’t see them ahead, but I have a feeling that I will.
The trail soon turns into single-track and fully re-enters the forest. I see something ahead on trail on the ground that seems out of place. It’s a small bird laying in the middle of the trail, unmoving. It looks perfectly normal except for blood coming out of its eyes. I look around, and the woods suddenly seem quiet, eerie, and ominous. I cannot account for what would cause this, but I don’t stick around to think too hard about it and rush onwards.
Just ahead is the hardest climb of the day. This segment has by far the least elevation gain of any CT segment at just over 1400 ft gained in 13.9 miles. This allows many CT hikers to make significant miles in this and the next segment, and helps with the longer water carries. At the top of the climb, I reach a gate. Gates become quite a theme for cow country! This one is a sound green gate, easy to open and close. I don’t know it yet, but other gates will not be so kind.
Road Walks and Cow Naps
Through the gate, I am back on dirt roads again. In theory, hiking on a dirt road is really no different than hiking on single-track trail. I am still technically in the wilderness, and right now I am even still in the forest. But it does not feel at all the same. Dirt roads are straighter than single-track. They are often steeper and more eroded or full of loose rock. I see the road for half a mile ahead, and near half a mile behind. It kills the excitement of it all.
This dirt road section has whole chunks of the forest next to the road clear-cut, with giant piles of the dead tree debris left in the middle. I am used to seeing this, being from the Pacific Northwest, where logging is prevalent. I don’t know if this is a traditional logging operation. So many of the trees I have hiked past in the last several days have been victims of the beetle kill, though today has been pleasantly full of living trees. I know clear-cutting is one way the forest service tries to mitigate the spread of the beetle. Like the bird from earlier, I am left with a sense of the presence of death here.
Unfortunately, my time in the trees has essentially ended for the day, and I am spit out onto an even more established dirt road, exposed to the cloudless sky. From here on out, I see lots of cars, trucks, and dirt bikes. I complained in previous segments about sharing the trail with dirt bikes, but it is far more nerve-wracking to share with trucks and cars on the road. It is also beginning to heat up. I hike past cows sleeping in some shaded campsites. I am simultaneously envious of the cows and glad I wasn’t planning to camp in those spots.
Miles and Water Woes
Despite my misgivings, my feet find speed due to the tread and flat trail. By a little after noon, I have hiked over 9 miles. I arrive at the next reliable water source, Los Creek. Where the creek crosses the trail is muddy and stagnant, but downstream in the brush is running water.
I filter 2 liters and then make myself an additional .5 liter electrolyte drink to accompany my lunch. I sit in the brush and take a real break. Unfortunately, except for the electrolytes, I don’t think to camel up. The next water source is about 6 miles away, and the FarOut comments from yesterday indicate it has water, and there is a possible source a couple of miles past that. I don’t feel concerned.
Because I was deliberately slow last week to make my resupply date with Jason, I never hiked more than 15 miles in a day. Today, I am aiming for more to take advantage of the flatter terrain. After lunch, I immediately get into a groove and start making good miles. My legs feel like they are beginning to come into their own on this journey.
The day is clear, which means wide open vistas and unforgiving sun. The heat doesn’t slow me down, but it absolutely drains me. I see trees everywhere, but nowhere near the trail. They taunt me with their unreachable shade. On another road walk, a car stops next to me and the driver explains that they hiked the trail in a previous year. They ask if I need any water. I am still pretty full from Los Creek, so I say no. I come to regret this later. Pro tip: always say yes to trail magic.
Ant Creek’s Bones
By the time I get to Ant Creek, the next possible water source, I am drained. There is a CDT NOBO hiker just finishing lunch. He tells me I should get water here, as the next source is completely contaminated with cow poop. He directs me upstream to the spring. It is low, but it is scoopable. I don’t have a scoop, but with my 2L CNOC bladder, I don’t think I need it. As I lower it into the clear water, I can’t help but to disturb the sediment at the bottom. I get it now – this is why a scoop makes sense.
The water is low and hard to fill. I manage to get a little over a liter, and it is black with sediment. Uh oh. I rethink my options. I’ll have a dry dinner, and this will be my back-up water for tomorrow, if I absolutely need it. I pop a water treatment tab in it, too, just for good measure.
I head out from Ant Creek, but not before crossing a pile of bones in the dirt where the creek crosses the trail. Last year, most hikers did not use this water source due to a recently deceased cow directly in the water on the trail. A year later, all that is left of it is bones. Once again, death’s presence enters the day, but this one isn’t as eerie to me. I am amazed at the power of nature in the span of just a year.
Alone but for the Cows
As I hit the 17-mile mark on the day, I come across a marker in FarOut entitled “Maze of Roads.” I hear mooing in the distance as I sort out the correct road to stay on trail and start climbing a hill. My body aches from the heat, the exhaustion, and from climbing at the end of day. I see trees just 50 yards from the trail and stop to examine them. They are large, motherly trees with wide dirt patches underneath them.
I was aiming for about one more mile, to a spot marked in FarOut, but these trees are here. The spots are flat. And even better, the trail right here has a couple of bars of AT&T cell signal. These tree campsites are not in FarOut, but hikers can camp almost anywhere they want on the CT. Even so, I suspect I’d be camping alone, and having cell signal makes me feel a little safer.
I leave trail and cut through the brush to examine these potential sites. They are covered in solidified cow pies, so they clearly have not been used for camping at least this year. I clear them off and get set up. I am exhausted, I am hangry, and I am dehydrated. When my attempted call to my husband fails to go through due to low signal, I burst into tears. I realize this is a disproportionate reaction. I try to calm down and set up my camp.
I realize that my reaction is partially due to anxiety from the last solo camping experience I had on trail, with the sketchy car that slowed down to look at me. I take deep breaths, and finally get enough cell signal to connect with my husband. Logic tells me this night will be different. The trail here is on a road, but clearly one that hasn’t recently been driven. I have cell signal. Lots of hikers pass through the evening, so I know I’m not truly alone.
In truth, it is a lovely campsite. There is a stunning view of the wide vistas of these segments. And I can take pride in what I accomplished today. I started the day late and not feeling well, but managed to hike my longest hiking day ever at 17 miles. I hiked clear through Segment 18 and am now in Segment 19. And even though I am dehydrated and a little worried about water, I still have my emergency water from Ant Creek and only 4 miles tomorrow until Cochetopa Creek.
Just as I get ready to close up tent for the evening, I hear nearby mooing. I look out to see a solitary cow hiking up the CT, 50 yards from my tent. She shuffles through the effort of the hill. I hear mooing from down the trail, and she responds. She is hiking to meet her family at the next water source, through the sunset, on her own. Something about it is moving and soothes me. I fall asleep with the comfort of knowing you are never truly alone in cow country.
Trail miles hiked: 17
2120 gain/ 1870 descent
Campsite elevation: 9705
2.7 miles into Segment 19
95 miles since Day 1
319.5 trail miles from Denver