July 26 – Taylor Lake to Durango – 26.1 miles, 1,785 feet climbing, 6,417 feet descending
The last day on the trail. It's not a little bittersweet that I write these words. For certain, there are niceties in civilization that are appealing – a good burger, a soft bed, a shower. But I have found in past experiences where I go out for a month or longer into the wild, it is hard to come back. The "real" world seems silly, confusing, busy. The luxuries of society are nice for a week or so, but the wonderfulness of the trail and the wilderness exceeds all.
Our last night was beautiful, if not somewhat restless. In addition to massive condensation causing cold, wet sleeping bags, there was a herd of elk not more than a few dozen feet from our camping spot, stomping and moving alarmingly. I trust they knew we were there, but that didn't offset the concern of getting trampled in the middle of the night. The only one who seemed unconcerned was Stella, who slept like a baby through all the ruckus.
The very first orange light of the day creeped over the horizon as we packed up our soggy, dew covered gear. It was crisp this morning, a reminder that fall is just around the corner. We hiked in silence, I think savoring that magical time of day. Who knows when we will be back here again, or if, in this lifetime, we shall be so fortunate.
As the light increased, we made our way up Kennebec Pass, which is the last time we'll be above 12,000 feet on the trip. It's a long way down to Durango, and there is a sadness to leaving the high, magical alpine tundra behind. And yet, the magic followed us, as a deer proved once again how inept we humans really are. It shot straight down a 30 degree talus field at close to 20 mph, never once faltering. Meanwhile, we gingerly and slowly picked our way down.
After the talus field, we entered into a lush wonderland. The trees were suddenly gigantic, waterfalls dropped from grottos and the creeks swelled. On the ground, a lush blanket of ferns – it reminded me of the fern gardens surrounding my home back in Vermont. Most of Colorado is too dry for ferns, but not here. Cobwebs garnished the tree branches, crossing the trail, proof that we were the first ones through on this morning. Even better, we happened across bushes of wild rasberries, a sure sign fall is coming. They were a smidge tart, but fantastic nevertheless. We also passed the place where butterflies sleep. Their evening lodging of choice seems to be the petals of very large yellow sunflowers. We passed thousands of them resting on these plants, waiting for the temperatures to warm before beginning their fluttering day. All in all, it was a very meandering descent that felt like nothing we had encountered before on the Colorado Trail.
We passed the Kansas kids who we saw on the backside of San Luis Pass about a week ago. They were packing up camp as we went by. Turns out they were the group who headed over Black Rider Pass in the midst of the storm a few days earlier. It was good to see them well. They must have done something right in a previous life, as by our account they were smack dab in the middle of a number of lightning storms the past week in perhaps the worst locations possible.
A few mountain bikers passed us. Durango is a mecca for the sport – the first World Championships of the sport took place here in 1990 – and a host of very fast professionals call the town home. This segment of the Colorado is a dream for mountain bikers, and indeed is one of the world class mountain bike rides on the planet. Unlike Boulder, Durango has a "shared-use" trail system where all non-motorized users get to recreate on trails. It works well so far as I can see, although I must say the gradual flowing trails that mountain bikers so crave are a bit boring to hike. Honestly, my favorite trails to hike are ones where I wouldn't dream of taking a bike.
I was feeling a bit dehydrated so we stopped at Junction Creek, at the base of the final major climb on the Colorado Trail. The Kansas kids passed us as we snacked on cheese, M&M's and peanuts. We were nearing the end of our food ration, which is exactly what we wanted to do. The goal when going backpacking in an ultra-light manner is to run out of food exactly when the trip ends. Elaine did a fantastic job organizing our food. I wouldn't change a single thing, except perhaps pack 1.7 pounds per person per day in the San Juans, instead of the standard 1.4 pounds. That said, a little hunger isn't a bad thing, and indeed it's kind of fun to see what you can do with the minimum possible. Discomfort isn't encouraged in regular society, but I think it's one of the major appeals of a thru-hike. I think it's important to get stripped a little raw and feel a little uncomfortable. It focuses the mind and it certainly makes you appreciate the standard luxuries when you get home.
We began our way up the final climb. Years ago I diced it out on this climb with another rider on our trip named Timmy. I think there was a bit of mano-y-mano going on that day, but it was still fun. We topped out the climb tied, neither one bobbling or giving an inch. That was ten years ago and I think I was still in the mindset of proving myself, perhaps to compensate for a lack of confidence. Today, it doesn't really matter, as I'm perfectly content to follow Elaine up the mountains and across the state. Nevertheless, I felt a certain level of pride when Elaine passed the chagrined looking Kansas kids on the uphill. I think getting passed by a girl was a little tough for them to take, but after hiking 470 miles with her, it didn't surprise me a bit. What can I say, the girl goes uphill with the best of them!
After a steep intital section, the climb ascended painfully gradually. And then, finally, the top. To the south, Durango, New Mexico and the great western American desert. We were leaving the mountains now and began heading down. And down, and down, and down. The land became less and less lush, and the heat increased rapidly. We all struggled with that, but Stella suffered the most. We stopped a number of times in aspen groves, allowing her to cool off. There were many mountain bikers in this area, and the trail became dusty. As we passed Guddy's Rest, a bench near the end of the trail commemorating the woman who founded the C.T., gun shots riddled off the surrounding hills, the result of a nearby shooting range. Human beings are very loud, far and away the loudest creature in the woods.
We descended down steep switchbacks to Junction Creek and filled our waterbottles for the last time. Despite our hesitation to leave the trail, there was also an excitement. We passed many hikers heading north from Durango – day hikers out for a leisurely stroll. It felt quite alien, and I'm sure we looked the part, although nobody said anything.
We meandered along the last mile and almost took a wrong turn, but corrected ourselves after a bit of confusion. 484 miles and we make a wrong turn in the last mile! We finished the trail strong, hiking briskly and happily, finally ending unceremoniously in a parking lot. We got our photo taken by a bystander and gave each other a long hug. There are no accolades for hiking the Colorado Trail. There are no medals, there are no TV reporters…you do it for yourself. That's the way it should be, and the sense of accomplishment is tanglible and large. It matters little what others think.
We forgoed an offered ride into town and slogged our way down a three mile paved road section into Durango. I think, honestly, we were a little afraid to stop walking. Despite blisters, storms, fatigue, crashing trees, hunger and other obstacles, it was, for both of us – and I suspect Stella too – the best 25 days of our life thus far. We didn't want that to end.
We made our way into town, checked into a hotel, unpacked, showered, ordered a pizza and chilled for a couple days in Durango. The bookstore was nice, the burger at the Durango Diner amazing, and the Palisade Peaches for sale at the county fair were scrumptious. We enjoyed the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics on the TV, a real treat as we do not have television at home. A day later, we drove home, picking up our undisturbed caches along the way. The 485-mile trip was done so we headed back to the caboose, back to the real world.
A month and a half later, and we have fully immersed back into society. We go to work, we cook meals at home, and while we hike or bike every day, it's not the same. The trail makes your mind sharp, and when you leave the trail, you miss that sharpness. I think the trail changes a person permanently. The call of the wild rings strongly in us, the craving for something more real is tangible. As such, we have decided to continue the journey. Starting in May 2013, we're going to give a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail a stab. Beyond that, who knows. But for Elaine and me, the Colorado Trail was a wonderful experience and I believe a stepping stone for many more adventures. I think that knowledge and reality make leaving the Colorado Trail more bearable.