This post was written in my sleeping bag at the end of a long day. Please excuse any errors.
I zero in a cute little hostel in Del Norte. No one else shows up, so I have the entire house to myself for two nights. I eat and sleep and try and take care of myself.
The weather forecast has changed overnight. I eat breakfast and then head out. The sky is black and angry and I run from one storm and then another. Somehow I dodge the rain, although I can’t see the other side of the San Luis valley and the Sangre de Christos as it’s raining so hard. I hike hard and hit a canyon before dark, which I hope will shelter me a little. I don’t sleep well. I’ve been sleeping poorly both in towns and on trail for a while and I lie awake and look at the stars from under my tarp. In the morning, the humidity presses me down like a fist. Clouds build as I approach aptly named Storm King mountain. I’m running for Carnero pass at 10,000ft, trying to beat the weather. Clouds swell like a bruise. I’m walking across an open meadow, a half mile from the pass, when the thunder rolls low and loud. It’s not even noon yet. Do I go forward or back? I race for treeline and the downhill to the north as the thunder booms. Somehow, I miss the rain. I drop down and down, putting off lunch as long as I can, racing the clouds. Finally my exhausted body tells me enough is enough. I cook pasta as the darkest clouds yet build. I’ve just finished eating when they break. Torrential rain, then hail, then both. I feel like someone is dumping ice water over my head as lightening flashes all around. I should be terrified. Instead, I just feel numb. It takes me a long time to get warm, as it spits rain continuously. I stop, exhausted at 5pm to set up my tarp in a break in the weather. It’s so, so early for me to stop, but I have a mile of private property before a highway, and then nowhere to camp for seven miles. And if I push too hard today, I’ll find myself on an 11,000ft ridge should the weather be the same tomorrow. In the morning, I walk towards a field of cows. Before I’m even on them, they moo, terrified, and stampede. I’m not that scary! Then I see the calf, bleating, on the wrong side of the fence and directly in my path. I walk towards it and drive it towards the cattle guard, where there’s a hole in the fence. The cows eye me warily as I tiptoe past, reciting my little cow poem. Hi cow. (A haiku from the Cowtinental Divide Trail) I’m just walking past I don’t even like burgers Please don’t trample me. Clouds build again, but this time I’m climbing. I should be scared, but I’m still just numb. I cross a meadow and a moose watches me dolefully. I reach a pass, and notice the big cat prints in the mud. Then, as it starts to rain, I reach the junction for the CDT and the end of the GDMBR alternate. It’s signed for the Colorado trail, but I know my home when I see it. I follow kitty prints down the trail to a little stream. I set up camp, hitching my tarp to a trail marker in the absence of trees. The wind gusts all night. I cross the highway and start to climb in the morning. I reach an open meadow, and out of the corner of my eye, I see brown butts. More moose? One of the animals turns its head towards me and I make out the sleek feline profile. Mountain lions! HEY! I yell, as always my first instinct when I see a predator. Two of the lions bolt immediately, but the third stands and watches me, lean and hungry. HEY! I yell again, and she turns and leaves with a look of disdian. “Well, I guess I won’t eat you since my friends are such cowards,” she seems to say. On autopilot, I pick up rocks to throw if they come back. I turn off the podcast I didn’t even realize I was still listening to. Numb, I hike on up the trail, checking behind me every two seconds to see if I’m being stalked. Halfway up the ridge, the thundercloud of fear and stress and loneliness, kept at bay by numbness, bursts. Everything- the thunderstorms, the snow, the lions, my solitude- it all comes rushing at me at once. I howl, tears running in rivers down my face. I pull myself together quickly- it’s probably not smart to make noises of distress when there might be mountain lions deciding if they want to eat me. I carry my rock weapons for a long time, spooked in a way I’ve never been in the woods before. Logically, I know I’m over reacting. If I was with a friend, I know I’d already be excited about the encounter- how many people are lucky enough to see three mountain lions chilling in a meadow? On the entire PCT I only saw one and that was while night hiking, so I only really saw eyes. Still, my solitude clouds everything and I find it hard to pull myself out of my funk. I’m on a ridge all day. Up and down, in and out of snow, over blow downs and constantly checking behind me for my feline friends, it’s hard to make miles. I set up camp on the edge of Sargent’s Mesa. Somehow, exhaustion wins out over my fear and I sleep a little. The morning brings more ridges and I climb, up and up, the snow starting in patches, then drifts, then sheets. I round a corner, cross a saddle and then, halfway up Headwater Peak… “Hell no!” A steep, sidehill snow drift lies across the trail. Its a long, steep fall to the valley floor below and no clear way around. There aren’t any footprints across it. Not even the faintest steps. I think about back tracking, but it’s a long way back to the last trail that will lead me out. I can’t cross this thing and a quick look at my maps reveals that the terrain is identical for a half mile. I can’t do this. Then it comes to me. I remember scrambling half way up Old Snowy mountain on the PCT to avoid snow fields. I remember Thunder and Snow talking about ridgelines being better. And I make up my mind. I’m going to climb this freaking mountain. I scramble up snow drifts along the Ridgeline. The angle here is better- less steep and I’m less likely to fall. I see thundeclouds building on the peaks around me, but I can’t worry about that now. Then I top out, slip and slide down the gentle other side and contour around to rejoin the trail, postholing the entire way. This starts my afternoon of postholing hell off nicely. Almost every step is fine, but for one in ten, I’ll sink anyway from knee to thigh deep, throwing me wildly off balence. I hit a buried log a few times, making me worry that I’m going to break something and wrenching my ankle painfully a few times. Still, I make decent time and make it to the highway. I ask a lady in a bad mood using the outhouse if she’s seen a weather forecast and she snaps that she hasn’t. It’s probably just as well. I’d be tempted to ask for a ride to Salida if she was nicer. I climb up away from the road and its little snow machine cabin as it starts to rain. There’s another cabin four miles away and that’s my goal. I’ve gone maybe a mile when I hear thunder. I keep going, but less than five seconds later, there’s another roar. I’m heading up to 12,000 ft and I quickly realize how stupid this is. I turn around and run, sliding across the snow patches as thunder chases me back down the mountain. I make it to the little cabin in torrential rain. It clears, but the second wave hits as I’m eating dinner and I’m glad I stayed. “It’s not paranoia if the CDT really is trying to kill you!” I write in the guest book. I don’t think I’m joking anymore. It’s easy to get out of my sleeping bag in the morning, and I’m on trail by six. I retrace my steps from the day before, postholing already. The blowdowns start as I pass my turn around from the day before. I can see little baby thunderclouds building even at 6am. They look as innocent as candy floss, but I know the pattern after storms five out of the last six days. The reality hits me. I’m not fast enough to beat this storm. Not with the postholing and dragging myself over downed trees. I’ll be on an exposed ridge at 12,000 ft, with the only escape routes being down steep, north facing slopes. I’m not fearless enough for this. I joke about thruhiking being about being too dumb to quit, but this time, I’m not dumb enough. So, once again, I turn around. Back down to Marshall Pass, watching the clouds grow all the while. Thunder growls as early as 11am. There’s no way I would have beaten this. I hike ten miles before I get a ride to Salida, seconds before the heavens open. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I’m not going back to the CDT until the snow is a little more melted. A week might even be enough- it’s melting fast, and what is a postholing mess right now will soon be easily passable. But the CDT is showing me my limits. I’ve been on trail for a little over a month and a half and I’ve been alone for half of that and it wears on me. I’ve hiked almost 1,100 official miles, though with detours etc., I am probably still short of 1,000 actual miles. Am I happy with a section hike of a third of the trail, coming back to complete it later? Or will my stubbornness keep me going? A week or two should let some of the people doing the San Juans catch up. And the snow will melt