July 16 – Green Creek Shelter to Baldy Lake – 26.5 miles, 3,950 feet up, 4,193 feet down
The Green Creek Shelter sits on something called the Monarch Crest Trail, which is a very popular route with mountain bikers and moto-riders. While most of the Colorado Trail is closed to motorized use, we were now entering a long section of the route that was not. As most folks who know me can attest, I've never been the biggest fan of motos. I think they are loud, smelly, and don't really balance well with a wilderness experience.
That said, last night Elaine and I had a really nice conversation with a couple moto riders. We were cooking dinner outside the shelter and they were finishing up a day of riding before heading back to Salida and home to Denver. They were great. We talked about ultra-light backpacking, and one of the guys seemed really interested in hiking the trail. We showed him our cook system and our dehydrated food, and we talked about what they experience when they ride all day. All the riders we met out here were cool – they killed the engine on the bike if they weren't actually riding and they were incredibly polite.
I'm not about to go buy a moto myself, but it was an eye-opener for Elaine and I. They were good people, and I get the feeling they genuinely liked being out here and appreciated the place. All I can do is respect that. It's good to get other perspectives, as it helps you grow as a human.
We were up at 5 am this morning. It was a very cold, damp morning after the rain last night. I wish I'd worn my gloves hiking – my hands got cold! As we headed across the tundra from the hut, we saw a herd of five or six elk running. It was a couple bucks and a handful of babies. They are so alert here – they see us from a half mile away and don't linger. Their motions, powerful and quick, in the dim morning light is simple awesome and majestic. They look fit – I hope they survive the autumn hunt.
We filled up our water at a spring before Marshall Pass that, according the Colorado Trail databook, was our last water for 12.3 miles. I think we fear running out of water, and that makes sense as the entire state was in massive fire danger and in a drought when we left. Water was, in many ways, my single biggest pre-trip concern. Alas, weather patterns have shifted and it's downright wet out, but our fears linger. They say you carry your fears in your pack. I guess we are quite afraid of running out of water, because without fail we arrive at camp with at least a liter left over. A liter of water weighs two pounds, and Elaine and I now had four liters each. The extra weight was a burden.
It was a tremendous morning. I love the dampness and mist oozing off the ground and plants as we move across the land. It adds a dramatic effect to the hike. Through the mist we saw a couple legitimate cowboys saddling up their horses for a day on the trail. We headed over to Marshall Pass, a historical railroad crossing from the 1800's, before heading up a rolling trail that headed southwest. We had tremendous views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east (Blood of Christ). This country feels more wild, and that makes me happy.
Early in the day we realized we were having a good day and moving quite well, so we decided to target Baldy Lake on Sargents Mesa – the island of water in the middle of this veritible desert – as the day's finishing spot. I think we crossed a threshold today. The hike went exceptionally well. It feels like our muscles are now toned, our minds stronger and we know what we're doing. The temperatures were cool which made the water thing a non-factor. We ended up dumping much of what we carried. Elaine saw a coyote on a large beautiful open section near the top of the mesa.
We passed a couple of Continental Divide hikers heading north. They were glad to get out of New Mexico, which from what I've heard isn't a favorite among most CDT hikers. They seems shocked that we were able to hike 20-plus miles a day with Stella. It seems like a lot of folks out here consider a dog a hinderence, but honestly she adapts the best of all of us. When we stop she sleeps. When we see water, she drinks. She doesn't do laps, she doesn't get phased by anything. She is bred for endurance and multi-day trips. Dogs of her breed do the Iditarod. She's very skilled out here. I suppose a lab or a poodle might not do so well though.
Late in the afternoon we passed a mom with two teenage boys. They were from Denver heading, like us, to Durango. What a cool combination…a middle aged mother with her two older sons. You see all types out here on the trail, and that's good.
We dropped into Baldy Lake after 11.5 hours of hiking. It was misty, blustery and foggy down there, and the ground was white with hail. There were a lot of campers at the lake – well, a lot being three! This is the only water source within ten miles in any direction, so it's understandable. There were also U.S. Forest Service employees trolling the lake to see if any fish survived the stocking from last year. They suspect they did not. The lake is extremely scenic as it is nestled in an alpine looking basin. Looks are deceiving however, as this is not a healthy lake. It has no inlet or outlet, and is full of leaches.
We lost another stake this evening, the first since day one. I've never seen this before but we actually drove it through a trees root system and couldn't get it back out again without snapping it. As the rain fell, we enjoyed a dinner of pasta and red sauce and a desert of fantastic Nederland toffee. I may have to buy myself a box or two of this stuff when we get home…no more of this rationing stuff!
All in all it was a great day. We're 14 miles from our cache at North Pass Cochetopa…I hope it's still there. We also got within 200 miles of Durango today. There is a long way to go yet, but were steadily getting closer. I'm excited – in a few days we reach the much anticipated San Juan Mountains.
As we were hiking today, we discussed the importance of hiking in the bigger scheme of things. I think I've always felt a certain guilt for the life choices I've made. I mean, I work in a gear shop and am far from wealthy. Like many of my peers, my family comes from some esteem…generally east coast in origin with successful careers. My uncle was a lawyer, my sister is a successful fundraiser, my father went to West Point and had an extremely esteemed career as a diplomat. It's a lot to live up to, and truthfully, I haven't.
And yet, I think there is importance to this path. I won't lie…even as a kid, when we would go visit relatives in Connecticut and other eastern enclaves, I stuggled. It felt, well, stuffy. I felt trapped. Thank goodness for my parents and our travelling ways. They were and still are real adventurers, and I thrived in that environment. I don't know how I would have turned out if I'd grown up in the traditional world of Connecticut. Given my penchant for hyperactivity and even depressive thoughts when I feel trapped, I don't think it would have turned out too well.
I think back to when I was a kid, and what things from my relatives stuck with me the most. Well, I have lots of ancestors who were really successful in a traditional sense, but you know what sticks with me the most? I have a grandfather on my mom's side who used to swim across Hudson River everyday and lived till 90-something despite being a chain smoker. I don't think he was particularly successful from a career standpoint, but he's the most inspiring to me of the lot. I've seen photos of him – he has blond, all-over-the-place hair like me and he's thin and wiry like me. I think about him sometimes. I wonder if he was a roamer at heart too? I wonder if we would have gotten along? I wonder how he would have like the Colorado Trail?
As far as my parents go – well, they did many amazing things. And yet, when I look at photos of them, there is one that sticks out. It's my mom and dad running in an Orienteering race in Norway. They look happy as can be, and they look incredibly strong. They did well too – apparently they were crushing the competition in the race, heading for certain victory, when they made a wrong turn. I know the feeling, I've done it before.
The point is, I think these are the things that can inspire kids. The acts of daring, the acts of heroism. Maybe Elaine and I hiking across Colorado is stupid, but maybe it's not. There is, in a sense, a heroic element to it. Honestly, this adventure is just the start. Mark my words and see if I'm a liar in five years time. Believe me, we want to be great. But we can't do it the way it's been done before. It has to be our own forged path. Follow the passion, and success will follow. Right now, that passion is the trail.
I suspect the relatives in the east must shake their heads and wonder what it is we're doing, but I'm starting to accept that this is who I am, and maybe it's not such a bad thing. Actually I think it's good. Maybe our kids and grandkids and great grandkids will look back at us and be like – wow – they crossed mountains, they hiked trails, they traversed the freakin' Rocky Mountain, the Sierras, the Appalachians, they roamed the wilds of Alaska – maybe it will inspire them, like the distant swimming relative and my parents did for me. Maybe Elaine and I are doing something permanently to the Vardamis and Filer clans – we're taking them back from the civilized to the wild. Maybe that will be our legacy. And maybe, in the long run, that will be seen as a big step forward.