It is impossible to get lost on The Colorado Trail, until you, uh, do.
I’ve traveled The Colorado Trail twice now, once southbound and once northbound. Compared to many wilderness trails in Colorado and elsewhere, it is an incredibly easy trail to follow. It’s well signed and has an adequate number of confidence markers (a white triangle with the Colorado Trail logo, usually attached to a tree or post). Trail intersections almost always have confidence markers to show the way. There are the occasional places where you have to stop for a moment and have a look around, maybe take out the Colorado Trail Data Book for a quick refresher on what it is in particular you are looking for. But, it is not the kind of trail you need a good map for. The Data Book is more than adequate, especially if you are the kind of person who can tolerate a bit of ambiguity and the occasional imprecise description of trail features.
The problem I have with the Data Book is that I can’t read it without my glasses, and it’s a pain in the keister to have to always find my glasses and put them on. As a result, I consult the Data Book infrequently and rely on a keen sense of direction and situational awareness to keep me on track. (You can probably already sense the disaster about to unfold.)
The day I am describing, the day I got “lost” and bent the map, I had come out of the La Garita Wilderness and was entering the high cattle country south of Gunnison, on Segment 18 of the trail. This is wide open grassland, filled with cattle and a crisscrossing network of forest roads, many of which you walk on in place of single track trail. I remember it from years ago as a place of blinding sun and biting flies, but that does it an injustice. If there is a bit of cloud cover, it can be a land of expansive views and easy walking, as you don’t have to be nearly as careful with where you put your feet. It’s a place that lends itself to daydreaming.
That is probably what I was doing on this particular day, but whatever it was, I missed a turn on the forest road that was the trail and continued walking in a straight line up a slight hill. When I got to the top of the hill, I had to take shelter from a fast moving rain shower in a small stand of trees. While I waited for the shower to pass, I took out my phone and checked my Colorado Trail app, which uses the GPS tracking device on my phone, for my current location on the trail. It showed my location as a little bit off the trail, which didn’t worry me, since I had gotten off the trail to seek shelter in the trees. I noted the mileage and turned the app off.
When the storm passed, I got back on the forest road and continued walking. In due course, I came to a Colorado Trail confidence marker and continued on in its direction. I walked for well over two hours. I was heading in the direction of the Saguache Park Road. This was a dirt road, but a major one to Gunnison, and one that is easily recognizable. I began to wonder why I hadn’t reached it yet. But, miles becoming longer to me is not an unknown phenomenon. Morning miles always seem to be shorter than afternoon miles. I didn’t worry too much about it and pressed on, certain I would come to the road soon.
Eventually, however, I thought I had walked more than enough distance. Plus, I really didn’t recognize the trail. This, too, was not unusual. There were other parts of the trail I didn’t remember from my previous hike, but I did pull out my tape recorder and note that I was confused about where I was and that nothing was looking familiar. I decided to stop and have a bite to eat and see if I could figure this out.
After I ate, I pulled out my Colorado Trail app to check my location again. It showed I had come a distance of 10 miles in the nine hours I had been walking since I left my camp earlier in the morning. Say what!? This was simply not possible. This was at least four miles shorter than the application had shown me just a couple of hours previously. There was something terribly wrong with my Colorado Trail app.
I packed up and left the GPS on. I walked a quarter mile further down the trail. The app showed I was losing mileage, rather than gaining it. I stopped again. Confused. I walked back to where I had taken the break. I spent 10 minutes playing with the settings on the Colorado Trail app. Is it possible I was walking the wrong direction on the trail? No. Not possible. I replayed every one of my stops along the trail in my mind. There was no way after a rest break I picked up and started walking the wrong direction on the trail. I wasn’t sure what had happened to the Colorado Trail app or the GPS on my phone, but clearly something was broken there.
I started up the trail again. Wait a minute! If I am walking in the direction I think I am, the sun should be behind me. Why is it is front of me!? My God, the friggin’ sun is in the wrong place! How did that happen? I understand that God can make the sun stand still to help you smite your enemies, but I seriously doubted He would move the sun in the sky just to screw around with my head.
Sun and GPS 2, Dead Reckoning 0. Maybe I was walking in the wrong direction.
But, how was such a thing possible? I could come up with no plausible explanation, no scenario, except….Alzheimer’s! There is a history of this illness in my family. It’s what I’ve feared forever. I’ve seen the early stages of the disease: search and search for a purse, only to find it in the refrigerator. This is exactly how it starts. Hours gone from your memory. Confusion. A mistake you have never made before. Oh, my God! This is Alzheimer’s.
A couple of hikers were walking toward me. “Excuse me, but are you walking north or south on The Colorado Trail?” They looked at me with confused expressions on their faces. South, of course. “Yes, thank you. I’m just momentarily confused. Thank you.” Definitely Alzheimer’s.
Two minutes later, I noticed the ranch I had admired earlier in the day, before the rain shower, off in the distance. I was walking the same trail I had been walking 3-4 hours earlier. And now, thankfully, in the right direction again. But, I could not piece together how I had gotten in this situation. I had walked forward all day long!
I followed this trail in the right direction for the second time that day, paying close attention now. In about a half hour I realized I could not find the place I had stopped to wait out the rain. This was not the way I had come earlier. It wasn’t until about an hour later that I did recognize a section of trail that went through a gate. This low spot in the trail was muddy with the previous rain. I had walked through this gate in the opposite direction not long before and had noticed a foot print heading north. I was excited because I hadn’t seen any northbound hikers for about a week. Soon, the single footprint had turned to two footprints, which surprised me. And then, even further on, the northbound footprints had changed into a small pack of hikers. Alright. This is confirmation I was hiking the wrong way on this trail earlier. These “northbound” prints were really southbound prints. But I still didn’t know how I had managed to get completely turned around.
I wasn’t able to figure it out–Alzheimer’s was still the most plausible explanation throughout the afternoon–until about a mile later I got to a trail intersection I recognized. I had previously reached this intersection on the trail that came into the intersection now on my left. I looked carefully at all the routes out of the intersection. The only clue to the direction of The Colorado Trail at this intersection were confidence markers on a tree behind me.
In other words, what I had done when I initially missed my turn is follow a forest road that eventually led back to The Colorado Trail and which was the current trail to my left. At the intersection, I had looked for confidence markers and found them on the trail going to the right, or south. I should have turned left and walked north. The highway I was looking for was within a half mile of the intersection. Earlier, I had walked five miles south on this trail until I had gotten to the turn I missed, which is approximately where I stopped for lunch, checked my GPS, and became very, very confused. Although I had missed the turn the first time, I found it with no difficulty the second time, which was why I could not find the place I waited out the rain storm.
Whooo! No Alzheimer’s. You can’t imagine how relieved I was to have an explanation that made sense. It made walking 25 miles to make 15 miles of forward progress seem like a very good deal, indeed.