Halfway up the 3,300-foot climb through the muggy forest on the north side of Hope Pass, I was panting, sweat-soaked and pining for a thirst-quencher.
At nearly 800km long, the Colorado Trail provides several opportunities to hitchhike to a fantastic IPA and a pizza. But my husband, Honeybuns (or “Clif,” to nonhikers), and I had just finished our resupply in tiny Twin Lakes and now would have to without a drink for several days.
As he and I paused to catch our breath in a high meadow at tree line before the final ascent, a strange noise behind us set my most primitive survival instincts on edge.
Mountain lion? Bear?
“Youths!” I hissed.
We had passed a score of brightly ponchoed summer campers a few miles back, and it sounded like the horde was in hot pursuit. The last thing I wanted, in my rumpled exhaustion, was to small-talk teenagers who seemed buoyant enough to float up the mountain.
Honeybuns laughed gently, further stoking my wrath, and started the final climb. As the chipper chatter came closer, a new fire was lit under me. I struggled after him, hobbling along on my trekking poles like a bandylegged goblin.
I cursed the trail. I cursed myself. But at the top, I stopped hard in my tracks.
The world bloomed before me.
Endless dark peaks jutted out of the earth, roadless and wild and spellbinding.
I reeled, trying to see everything all at once. The outcroppings of vegetation dotting the mountains. The breathtaking geometry that governed the rock, leading my eyes between sharp edges of shade and light, swooping down long hollows carved by avalanches.
I imagined the tiny pikas who would live on these mountains, the soft seashell curve of their ears. I imagined the wildflowers, plumes of Indian paintbrush, tight clusters of sky pilot, that would be born and wither and die without ever being seen by a human eye.
This was worth the climb. This was worth anything.
This was even better than beer.
Having gotten the long-distance-backpacking bug after our six-month “thruhike” (end-to-end, single-year hike) of the Appalachian Trail two years ago, Honeybuns and I were looking for a hike to tide us over until we started a Pacific Crest Trail hike the following spring.
Of the domestic mid-distance trails, the CT attracted us with its fantastic scenery and a promise of a gentle introduction to “Western backpacking.”
We had hiked more than 3,200km on the East Coast, but the relatively developed surroundings of the Appalachian Trail had provided few opportunities to feel truly remote. The Colorado Trail promised much that would be new to us – chances to summit fourteeners (mountains taller than 14,000 feet), days in the backcountry without easy escapes to civilization, and tougher planning requirements involving food and water.
Most of the thruhikers we met were experiencing their first long-distance trail. Many were teachers or students on summer break. The four-to-six-week time frame, well-maintained trail and wealth of data and guides makes the CT a great choice for those dipping their toes in.
That July evening on Hope Pass, we decided to camp midway down the descent at a dry campsite tucked onto a ledge. The altitude and the wind made for an astonishingly cold night, perhaps in the mid-40s, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the view behind just yet.
As I sat boiling sun-dried tomatoes and couscous for dinner, I kept turning my head to watch the sunlight dying on Emerald Peak. I felt like I was being watched back.
The bone-deep astonishment at the mountains did not fade, no matter how many passes we crested as the days wore on. The last moments before peering over the top of a climb – the giddy anticipation – became my favourites on the trail.
There’s a bit of an art to hiking at high elevation in Colorado. One wants to camp at a low enough elevation to be warmly ensconced below tree line, but high enough to cross the passes before midafternoon, when the daily thunderstorm rolls in like clockwork.
But for all their thunder and bombast, the mountains felt heartbreakingly fragile. Pine beetles had ravaged several segments of the trail, leaving vast swaths of dead forest. The trunks and lifeless limbs remained, lacy lichens making the trees look like gossamer-draped wraiths from a distance, up close like bones.
As we crossed Snow Mesa chewing on granola bars, ominous clouds began to coalesce behind us. We picked up the pace to no avail. In a matter of minutes, our blue-skied, desktop-wallpaper dream had vanished.
The unrelieved gray seemed boundless, unknowable. My mind became unfocused as the dark storm enclosed us in all directions. There was nothing but this storm, this flat plain, this gray, the lightning clacking like falling cleavers on a cutting board.
One safety measure in a lightning storm is to get to lower ground and assume the lightning position: sitting on your pack, feet off the ground, crouched down.
We paused to assess the situation. My poncho was plastered against my skin, as useful as a soggy leaf. My legs trembled. Hypothermia seemed even more imminent than a lightning strike. We decided to keep going and try to find a way to lower elevation.
“We should spread out!” Honeybuns shouted over the storm. He was right – hiking next to one another only increased our lightning risk. But as I watched him hurry ahead, I felt anything but relieved.
I hoarsely sang Britney Spears songs to myself as we hurried on, my voice keening feebly against the roar of rain and wind, knees shaking, hands aching with cold. “As long as you’re singing,” I told myself, “you’re not dead.”
When I ran out of Britney songs, I started on show tunes. When I ran out of show tunes, I started on hymns. When I ran out of hymns, I started back on Britney.
Finally, I watched Honeybuns disappear over the edge of the horizon as the trail finally descended. I struggled after him, awash with relief as the torrent slackened to a cold drizzle. I was frantic to get to the nearby road crossing where we could hitch to town and warm up.
But Honeybuns stopped suddenly and pointed off with one trekking pole.
Flashes of white caught my eye. A herd of dozens of female and juvenile elk were winding their way through the trees before us, moving up toward a ridge.
The trail had provided many animal encounters. I had cooed over the bell-bottomed ptarmigans and chirruped at the pikas and whistled at the marmots. But seeing this huge group of huge animals was stunning and humbling.
The elk leader struggled to find a path to the top, trying this route and that before sliding down the slippery scree. She kept looking over her shoulder at her fellow elk. I don’t know if elk are capable of embarrassment, but she did seem a bit sheepish after each failed attempt.
We stood, transfixed, rain pooling in our shoes. Finally, the leader managed to scramble up and over the ridge. The rest of the herd followed, some of the juveniles slipping before gamely plowing on.
Off to their side, the two shivering humans held no absolutely interest to the elk. They had their own dramas and concerns.
Honeybuns and I stumbled down to the road crossing soaked, exhausted and in awe.
Mornings were my favourite time of day. We rose just before dawn to a gray-and-black world, and would watch the color pour into the trees as we ate cinnamon oatmeal and took down our tarp. My favourite places to camp were among the aspen groves. In the early morning, silhouetted against the sky, the shimmering leaves looked like glitter.
But nights were worth remembering, too.
On one of our last nights on trail, we were camped on a high ridge with a section-hiker friend.
We were all due to recommence our lives off-trail. Honeybuns and I had jobs and friends and family and a cat waiting for us. But our month on the trail just didn’t seem like enough. Not yet.
As the setting sun shifted from electric oranges to honey pinks, we stopped doing our chores and walked out to the closest exposed switchback to watch. Honeybuns and I stood side by side, admiring the spires of the distant mountains, watching the light as it drifted and shifted and changed colour.
I wanted to build a house around myself right there. I wanted my feet to turn to roots, to hold me there forever, where every sunset would be just a little bit different.
It seemed like a decent way to spend a life.