Q: What!? Are you crazy? You were hiking The Colorado Trail again in 2015?
Q: Why did you go northbound this year?
A: I was thinking I might write a book about the trail, and I wanted to run into and interview as many of the southbound hikers as I could in an attempt to gain insight into who travels the trail and why they do it. While I was at it, I wanted to take pictures of people on the trail and tell a little bit of their story on my web page. Here is a short video that gives you a flavor of the interviews and shows of picture of the 100 or so people I talked to on the trail.
A: There are some advantages to going southbound. You start at a lower elevation and have a longer time to walk yourself into shape before you get up to 12,000 feet of elevation. The first 20 miles out of Durango is a relentless uphill walk that some people call the Big Step. There is no question that it is a physical test. The muscles above my knees would start to cramp in the late afternoon. You get up to 12,000 feet very quickly.
Q: Another thing people say is that southbounders “hike into beauty.” What do you think about that?
A: There is no question that the southern segments of the trail are spectacularly beautiful. I had my camera out a lot in those segments. But, walking has a way of putting you into the present moment for most of the day. I certainly never felt like I was “hiking away from beauty,” and I enjoyed pretty much every segment of the trail equally. Each was different and unique and I enjoyed hiking each and every one. I never felt particularly disadvantaged hiking northbound. I’m not sure I would be able to say one way is better than the other.
A: I did run into the owner and I made him an offer. He laughed at me. He said the Forest Service has been trying to buy that ranch for years, but he would never sell it. It sure is just about the prettiest place I’ve ever seen. But, frankly, I don’t think I have the “look” to be the owner. It’s pretty clear to me, he does.
Q: Any other differences you noticed about the trail and walking it backwards?
A: One of the themes that came up repeatedly in my hiker interviews was how lonely the trail seemed to people, especially to people who had some experience on the Appalachian Trail. “There is nobody out here,” is a comment I heard a lot. This was odd to me, because I was seeing probably 15-20 hikers a day the first two weeks of August, and even at the end of August I was seeing 5-10 hikers a day. People were generally separated from one another by less than an hour. But they rarely saw each other except at hiker hostels when they got to towns. As a result, the comradery at the hiker hostels was on almost everyone’s list as one of the best things about the trail.
A: Last year I did the Collegiate East trail and had that fantastic breakfast at the Princeton Hot Springs. This year I decided to hike the Collegiate West trail with the new 26 miles of trail that opened up in 2013. I have to say, this may be the best 26 miles of trail I have ever seen in Colorado. It is, without question, magnificent. Huge kudos to the agencies, organizations, volunteers (including prisoners at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility), donors, and everyone else who had a role in building this incredible trail. Someone said the trail is as hard as it is beautiful, and I think they are right about that. It goes very high, but it is full of surprises and delights. Make sure you have good weather before you attempt it, but don’t miss it, either. It will remind you very much of the trails in the San Juans when you get there. Spectacular! Be sure to get the 2016 Data Book if you decide to go on the Collegiate West trail, as the current Data Book is woefully out of date with the current trail.
A: I expected to see more people, of course, since that was the point of hiking northbound. But, I really wasn’t prepared for the more than exponential increase in the number of mountain bikes I saw on the trail. Last year I probably saw less than a dozen bikes. This year I saw literally hundreds! Partly, this was a matter of logistics. I happened to be on the Monarch Crest Trail on a perfect weekend day in August. I counted well over 100 bikes passing me on the trail before 10:00 in the morning! I would literally see bikes ever single day I wasn’t walking in a wilderness. I can’t think of a day, except maybe the last one, in which I didn’t see a bike. The vast majority of these bikers were out for a day ride, but a great many of them were riding the entire The Colorado Trail, too. The same applies to dirt bikes and motorcycles. I saw three or four times as many of these as I saw last year. I still don’t care for dirt bikes on hiking trails, but I can say categorically that every rider I saw was courteous to me. The same can be said for every mountain bike rider. Everyone out there seems to be going the extra mile to get along.
A: I had so much fun last year I really didn’t think it would be possible to surpass that experience. But, I have to say, I certainly didn’t have any less fun this year, and I definitely enjoyed the hiking even more. This is almost surely because I was a lot more relaxed about mileage. Not one time did I say to myself, “I have to hike X miles today.” Nor did I ever calculate at the end of the day how far I had walked. I simply got up early in the morning and walked, taking time to interview people and take lots of pictures. At the end of the day, anywhere between 4:30 and 6:30, I would start looking for a place to camp and I would just stop when I found a good spot. It took me a few days longer to walk the trail than last year, but I was so much more relaxed about it. I hope to hike this way the rest of my life! I did come to the end of several segments completely out of food, but I was never in danger of starving and I always have room to lose a few more pounds.
A: Yes, I carried the tent along with the tarp I carried last year. I thought it might be harder to select good camping spots for just a tarp early in the hike when I was seeing a lot of people, but this really wasn’t the case. I camped alone most nights and had my pick of camping locations. I also carried an Ursack instead of trying to hang my food like I did last year. This worked out extremely well for me. I would just hang the sack well away from my tent and off the ground. No problems with critters getting into my food at all. I also carried the normal size Sawyer Squeeze filter, rather than the mini-filter. The through-put of water through this filter is about 2-3 times the through-put of water through the mini-filters, which meant that I was rarely frustrated with filtering water. I filtered virtually all my water this year, rather than the half I filtered last year. I also carried a battery with the capacity to charge my cell phone five times. Since I was using my cell phone frequently to post interviews to my web page, this was an essential piece of gear.
A: Oh, my goodness, Salida! My wife came to visit me on the Saturday and we had a lovely time together. Then I took a zero day there, a Sunday, and it was a perfect summer evening down by the river. Beer, bikinis, as many dogs as children frollicking in the river, and a swinging jazz band playing outside. Trail towns don’t get any better than that!
Q: Did you hike with anyone this year?
A: No, I hiked by myself almost exclusively. I met only two hikers going northbound, and they were both experienced hikers going much faster than I wanted to go. I watched them both leave me in the dust. I did run across a couple of old friends, Bob and Joni, on the trail near Searle Pass. They were staying in Janet’s Cabin, a 10th Mountain Division cabin near the pass, for a couple of nights. Since it was raining, they invited me to spend the night with them, sipping whiskey and sweating the trail grime out with a wood-fired sauna. I hiked out to Copper Mountain with them the next day. Then, I took the free bus to Breckenridge and while I was walking to the Fireside Inn (my favorite hiking hostel), some guy on the street asked me if I was the Rawah Ranger! It turned out Kerry had the bunk below mine at the Inn and we ended up slack-packing the 10 Mile Range between Copper and Breckenridge together the next day. Kerry turned out to be a fantastic hiking companion. Fun, funny, full of great stories. One of the highlights of the trip for me. Other than that, my only constant companions were pikas and marmots.
A: I saw lots of deer this year, more than last year. I probably saw more moose than elk, for some reason. I had three bull moose visit me for dinner in the La Garita Wilderness. Strange creatures! They just stare at you, silently chewing their meal, when you try to make a joke. No mountain lions. No bears. I did take extra bear precautions as I got closer to Denver and cooked my food away from my tent. Waterton Canyon was closed due to bear activity, and I had heard bears were unusually active in searching for scarce food sources this year. I did have a scary moment when cooking dinner one night near Kenosha Pass. Something really big was crashing around my camp. I was hoping it was elk and not a bear! Nothing came of it, and I heard a few elk bugling the next morning, so I presume that’s what it was.
Q: What were you reading this year?
A: As you know, I have a Kindle App on my phone and I like to read. Last year I read four Joe Pickett novels by C.J. Box. I’m going to have to get one of those gloves that you can use with your phone, because the limiting factor in how long I can read is usually how long I can keep my hand from freezing. This year I read six books and finished another that I had going before I started the trail. Three of these we Michael Connelly mysteries. Mysteries are always a good choice for the trail, because the chapters are short and the books are easy to pick up and put down. I would often read on breaks in the afternoon in an attempt to take more time for breaks. I also read a novel about Frank Lloyd Wright and another by Anne Hillerman, Tony Hillerman’s daughter. She’s not as accomplished yet as her father, but she shows great promise. Love those Navajo mysteries. I also read The Boys in the Boat, about the 1936 Olympic crew team. This was recommended to me by a fellow hiker.
Q: How did you do your resupply this year?
A: Last year I did almost no planning and just went hiking. I did virtually all of my resupplying by shopping in mountain towns when I got there (Breckenridge, Twin Lakes or Leadville, Salida, Lake City, Silverton). My stove is a JetBoil, which makes it hard to really cook, although it’s great for heating water quickly. As a result, last year I ate a lot of raman noodles. This year, I decided to mail dinners and some powdered Gatoraid (which is hard to find in quantities I want to carry) to myself, and shop for the rest. I love Mary Jane’s Farm dehydrated dinners because they are exactly the right portion size for me. They are relatively expensive, so I ask for these dinners as Christmas and birthday presents from my family, who always ask for gift ideas from me. I supplemented my supply of those with some one-pot meals I created out of Harmony House dehydrated vegetables. I bought lunch and breakfast supplies on the trail and was able to experiment with different things. I had a lot of variety and couldn’t complain at all about meals. The Mary Jane’s Farm Shepard’s Pie is to die for!
Q: How about personal epiphanies, did you have any of those?
A: Yes, when I got to the South Platte River, I was so hot I threw myself into it. I haven’t jumped in a river like that since I was a school boy. I realized I have pretty much wasted my whole life by not doing this more often! The other epiphany I had is that I really, really need to find a job. Sigh…