September in Colorado.
I did a lot over the 2 nights and 3 days I was in Denver. I had a wedding to go to and the last 1000+ miles of a thru-hike to prepare for. I had holes in my shorts, socks, shirt, wind pants, and tent. And the zippers on my tent weren’t zipping anymore.
I looked like I had just hiked 1775 miles in 2 months. Well, I had.
I assessed my needs and did what I could. I was about to hike above 10,000 feet for miles at a time, in late September. I needed to set myself up for colder temperatures. But this is Colorado, my home state. I know what to expect, and that could be anything.
I got this.
I ditch my ultralight Polartec Alpha fleece for a thicker, 100-weight fleece. I get warmer gloves, and rain pants. I also switch out my tattered wool t-shirt for a long sleeve wool shirt with a hood. And, I get my stove! Oh, the hot coffee in the morning is going to be wonderful! Cold soaking was simple and convenient for summer, but it’s not summer anymore. Goodbye, Talenti jar!
I go to REI and buy two brand new pairs of socks to replace the all the ones with holes in the bottoms, which is all my socks. Wearing socks for multiple days in a row while walking 30 miles a day is hard on socks, I guess.
And, I get a new pair of Hoka Speedgoat trail running shoes. I’ve never worn these shoes, but they were the best option available to me at the time. They come in wide, which is great for long days. And they feel good in the store, so I go with them (side note: I’m still wearing these shoes for backpacking to this day–they’re great!). I also get a bunch of stick-on patch material to repair the many holes in my shorts.
I hit Trader Joe’s on my way home for the best trail mix ever. This is gonna be good.
I get home and sit down to repair my shorts. There are so many holes in the butt that there’s almost no material left. And, the material that is still there feels so thin I just know patching isn’t going to work. I’d need a patch the size of these shorts to patch them. I liked these shorts a lot, but it’s time for a new pair. Good thing I have a stockpile here or I’d be going back to REI right.
Finally, I give myself a haircut and trim my beard. I don’t want to look too wild at my friends’ wedding.
4 p.m.? It’s party time…
The next morning I’m tired and hungover, and it’s closer to noon than I’ve woke up all summer. But, it’s time to get back to the CDT. Okay, not yet, but later this afternoon. I cook breakfast at noon–eggs, potatoes, greens, and an avocado. Real food that didn’t come from a rural diner or overpriced mountain town restaurant tastes amazing.
My roommates give me a ride back to the mountains. We stop for dinner in Frisco. By the time we’re pulling up to the trailhead in Copper Mountain, it’s completely dark.
It’s September 12th. The days will only get shorter from here. At least I’m going south.
But, shorter and shorter days is something to consider when debating between going southbound and northbound on a long thru-hike. I’m mostly very happy with my decision to go southbound because of the lack of snow in Colorado, but the progressively earlier darkness is definitely a challenge.
Fortunately, I know exactly where I’m going tonight. I put my headlamp on and say goodbye to my roommates. I walk down the wooded trail that skirts the edge of Copper Mountain to the exact same spot I’d camped 3 nights ago. This time there’s a bikepacker there, already tucked away in their tent. I quietly set up my tent, crawl in, and fall asleep.
I wake up in the morning and immediately think about the hot coffee I’m about to consume. I deflate my sleeping pad, fold it into a rectangle, and stuff it into my pack. I stuff my quilt inside and toss my pack and the rest of my gear out of my tent. I’m not allowed to make coffee until I’m packed up. Just because I have this wonderful luxury of hot coffee doesn’t mean I can be lazy about it. I still have to get across Colorado before it gets too cold. And shit, it’s pretty cold out right now.
The bikepacker is already awake and making breakfast. He probably didn’t stay out until 5 am the night before last.
“Morning. I hope I wasn’t too loud when I got here last night,” I say as I pull my tent stakes out of the ground.
“Oh no, you were super quiet. You must have gotten in late. I didn’t even hear you,” he says.
“Okay, I’m glad I didn’t wake you. Yeah, I guess it was pretty late when I got in,” I say.
I roll up my tent and fit it into its stuff sack. Into the pack, it goes. Now, it’s coffee time!
I set up my small stove made of two pop cans on the ground near where he’s cooking his breakfast.
“Are you bikepacking the Colorado Trail?” I ask.
“Yeah, well just a section of it,” he responds, “you come over the 10-mile range last night?” He asks, incredulously.
“No, I came from Denver yesterday. I went into town for my friends’ wedding,” I say. “That section is super rough on a bike, though. Probably one of the most difficult on the whole trail.”
“Yeah it was!” he says. “Have you biked the CT?”
“Yeah, I biked it in 2015,” I say, “and I hiked it last summer, and in 2017.”
“…and now you’re hiking the CDT?” he asks.
“Yep,” I say. I check the water in my little stove. This alcohol stove takes patience. No bubbles yet.
“Right on! You’re doing the whole thing?”
“Yeah, that’s the plan,” I say. “I’m almost done with Colorado now, sort of. At least I’m almost done with the parts of the CDT I haven’t hiked in Colorado. How far are you going?”
“Just a few more days. I gotta go back to work on Wednesday,” he says.
“Awesome. Well, it’s easier today. The climb up to Searle Pass is pretty hard, but nothing like that pass,” I say while pointing back the way we came from.
“That’s good to hear!” He says.
I check under the lid again. Bubbles! Perfect, because my stove just burned its last drop of fuel. I dump some instant coffee into my 500 mL Nalgene bottle and pour the hot water in.
“Alright. Time to start hiking!” I say to my new friend. “See you when you pass me down the trail!”
I take a sip of hot coffee. Wow, this is good! My cook kit fits nicely in the side pocket of my pack. I slide it in and shoulder my pack. Three days and two nights until I resupply in Twin Lakes. My pack isn’t too heavy with food. I love the Colorado Trail.
I wave goodbye to my new friend as I leave him packing away all his gear into small bags attached all over his bike. I used to love bikepacking. I still do, really, but there’s something about the simplicity of backpacking that I love even more now. I just packed up all the gear I need to survive hiking through high-alpine trails at 10,000+ feet into one bag, in a matter of 30 minutes. And, that 30 minutes includes boiling water for coffee.
I take a sip of the hot coffee. It’s warm but will cool down quickly in this uninsulated bottle. These are the struggles of an ultralight hiker. I walk down the trail in the chilly early morning, drinking a warm, caffeinated drink. I smile. This is living.
From here, I go over Searle Pass, then walk a high-elevation meadow to another pass, Kokamo Pass.
On the way down from Kokomo Pass, there are plenty of big, awesome views.
There’s a waterfall on the way down, too. I’ve always stopped here for a break. I take a quick one today. Apparently the break was so quick that I didn’t even take a picture. Well, here’s one from last year.
I’m feeling good and cruising through this section. The trail is smooth and well-marked. I can’t believe I made a wrong turn coming out of Copper Mountain when I bikepacked this. I still do a good amount of missing turns, but I think I’m much better at following the main trail than I used to be.
This is fun. My fourth time on this section feels like I have a tour guide with me. But, that tour guide is me.
At the bottom of the descent from Searl Pass is Camp Hale, an old army barracks for the 10th Mountain Division. The US army had it in their heads that they needed an infantry division that was used to mountainous winter conditions in case they ever needed to send troops deep into Siberia. Well, here’s where those troops slept.
From there, the trail goes back up, and up some more. At the top of the climb, I find a hiker I haven’t seen since Helena, Montana, Bad Apple. This means I’m solidly back around all the hikers I started with, even though I took 10 days off in Wyoming and another 3 for this wedding.
Cool. I’m still “on schedule.” Whatever that means.
But really, what does “on schedule” mean when you’re thru-hiking? Not much, but a lot at the same time. I’m pretty sure that any southbound CDT hikers still hiking Colorado in October are going to deal with fresh snow, and maybe a lot. I don’t want that to be me. I could handle it, but do I want to? With trail runners, short shorts, and a 100-weight fleece? No way.
So yes, I’m out here with no schedule. But, I still have to keep moving. Thru-hiking is all about negotiating the tension between no schedule and the need to keep moving. If you get too fixated on either extreme, you’ll either have too good of a time or you won’t have a good time at all because you were too busy crushin’ miles to even have a good time.
Plus, I think I can catch up to William, or Nav, or both of them! I haven’t seen Nav since we parted ways in Yellowstone so I could take those 10 days off. Other than that wedding, I haven’t taken a day off since that 10-day break. And since then, William and I have been cruuuising! We’ve been having a great time, too. We haven’t been going too fast.
I haven’t seen William since the highway going into Encampment, Wyoming. I suspect he’s somewhere around here. He probably took a day or two off somwhere, while I didn’t take any days off since I saw him last, other than the 3 days I just took for the wedding. He probably “passed” me while I was in Denver. I’ll catch him.
I’ll catch Nav too, maybe. Maybe…someday. Maybe not though. I know he’s in Colorado, but that’s really all I know. I just have a feeling he’s close-ish.
Eventually, the trail crosses Highway 24. Then it goes up some more, to Tennessee Pass. Bad Apple and I are having a wonderful afternoon catching up on everything we’ve experienced since Montana. He picked up a sweet cowboy hat somewhere along the way. It fits his look–scraggly beard, aviator sunglasses, slim-cut pants, and a blood-red button-down. All he needs is his banjo now.
Then, we’re at Tennessee Pass. There’s a hiker eating pizza in the back of a pickup truck. It’s another hiker I just met in Grand Lake, Waterboy.
“Hey Sia! Want some pizza?!” He yells.
“What?! Waterboy? Hell yeah I do!”
“Great, cuz I can’t eat anymore of this.”
We walk over to the pickup and he passes the box to us, “There’s two slices left, you can each have one.”
Bad Apple responds, “I’m about to go into Leadville with my girlfriend. Sia, you should eat them both.”
“…Uh, are you sure?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, I’m about to eat all the food. You’re not even going into Leadville.”
“Okay!” I grab a slice.
“Oh yeah, guys! There’s a cooler over there that says “trail magic” on it,” Water boy says.
This is the first “trail magic” I’ve received on the entire CDT. Well, that’s not really true. This whole trail is magic. And, there’ve been plenty of people who have given me rides, and helped me out in ways like that. But, I have yet to get any cold drinks or food along the trail from a stranger who just wanted to help out thru-hikers. I definitely don’t need help, but a cold, sugary drink after a hot, dry stretch?! Hell yeah!
They’re not sugary drinks, but they’re cold, delicious bubbly waters! Just like the pop I was brought up drinking. There were no sugary drinks in the fridge at my childhood home, only La Croix! I crack one open and go back to eating pizza. This is a good day.
“I was just in town for a day. I ate so much food. I can’t even think about eating any more pizza,” Waterboy says while cramming twinkies into his pack, “Oh, hey, Sia! William’s back there somewhere. He was asking about you, too.”
“Whoa! William’s behind me?!”
“Yeah, we got pretty wild in Breckenridge. He was taking it slow. I hustled up here to meet my mom.”
“Wow, so he’ll catch up if I stop early-ish?” I ask.
I finish the second slice of pizza. Waterboy finishes cramming twinkies into every corner of his pack. We say goodbye to Bad Apple and Waterboy’s mom and hike away from the trailhead.
Last summer, the last time I was here, I was so exhausted from not taking a lunch break early enough and then stuffing my face with too much summer sausage and chips that I had to take a dirt nap right over there. It must have been hotter last year. Or, maybe I’m just learning how to hike this trail better every time. It’s probably a little of both; the weather’s perfect today.
Waterboy and I hike along the smooth, perfect trail. We pass the cabin that I know might be unlocked. But, we don’t need to even check. The weather is too good. It’s warm, but not too hot. And, this evening is clear and calm.
We cross a bridge that crosses the first water source for 10 miles. If it weren’t for those bubbly waters in the cooler I would have been pretty thirsty right now.
It’s 7 o’clock and will be dark soon. There are great flat spots to set up for the night on the other side of the creek. William will definitely make it here, we theorize.
We cook dinner and relax as the sun sets. It gets dark. It’s only 7:30.
Yeah, this is when it gets dark now. Get used to it.
I see a headlamp bobbing along in the distance. This is probably William.
“What’s up dude!” I say as the light gets close. This would be only slightly awkward if it isn’t William. But, it is.
“How did you get ahead of me?!”
I caught up to William.
The next day, we hike through the rolling terrain leading up to Twin Lakes and Mt. Elbert, the highest point in Colorado. William and I attempt an evening summit of Elbert. We knew it was ill-advised, but tried anyway.
We were about 500 feet from the top when the dark clouds that had been collecting around the peak started to look really dark.
“Okay, that’s definitely lightning,” I say, “and from here to the top it’s completely exposed. This is the last spot we can take cross-country to that other trail leading down into Twin Lakes.”
“I mean, we probably wouldn’t die if we summit this now. But it sure would be stupid if we did.”
“Yeah…You’re right. We shouldn’t go up there,” William says with all the disappointment I’m feeling.
“…yeah, we shouldn’t.”
So, we leave the trail going to the summit of the highest peak in Colorado. We walk across an exposed meadow, with lightning striking around the top of Elbert. We make it down to the bottom of the meadow and of course, the lightning has cleared. But you can’t argue with Murphy’s Law, if we would have gone up there it would still be storming. We made the right choice.
It’s like I’ve done this before.
We make it to the road leading into Twin Lakes as it’s getting dark. We walk the quarter-mile into “town” with our headlamps on. Twin Lakes is little more than a general store, a small motel, and a handful of houses, so the traffic on the road is almost nonexistent.
Once again, I know where to camp: right across the street from the general store behind the trees. William is surprised that it’s so close to everything. But there’s not much here, and they love thru-hikers in Twin Lakes.
We leave our battery packs charging on the power strip outside the general store overnight. I know they’ll be there in the morning.
I’ve done this before.