July 17 – Baldy Lake to Cochetopa Park – 23 miles, 3,173 feet up, 4,682 feet down
Up once again at 5 am, this time prepping and tearing down camp in silence as we had neighbors by the lake. It was cold – it felt like autumn – this morning. As we hiked in the dark out of the Baldy Lake crater a fog rolled in and cocooned our morning walk. This is supposedly one of the less appealing parts of the Colorado Trail, but because of the fog it was simply wonderful. Alas, we didn't make great time this morning as I was shooting many photos. Incredible beauty this morning, like a scene from a dream western movie. As I told Elaine, "this is the kind of place that only exists in stories."
There were lots of elk tracks everywhere, and Elaine spotted the perfect spider web, the image of which would be perfect a future project I'm working on. Alas, I snapped it trying to shoot the photo. Drats. Maybe another will emerge somewhere on the trail. Regardless, the woods were full of magic today.
After the fog blew away, we got down to business. I finally could see why many dislike this section – it's a series of endless ups-and-downs, and steep ones at that. It feels like somebody took a motorcycle and rode straight up and down every ridge in the area. How sweet a benched trail would be here (we later talked to a C.T. trail crew further west. Turns out a benched trail is in the near future here…they have permission to build it next summer!).
We passed a bit of trail artwork that I must send to the old crew…a bike constructed from elk bone. Very cool, if not a little creepy! I do think sometimes that I might like to return to this trail and ride it unsupported on my single speed. Not in a race and not trying to break any records. Just an adventure by bike.
We ran into a guy wandering near the top of a mini-summit who went by the name "Apple." He told us the "trail angels" were an hour down the hill with soda and cookies. Wow! He was a really nice guy who reiterated the "Stella is small" sentiment so prevelent out here. Apparently he sets up this aid station to help Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail hikers. He's out here all summer long, doing this to help hikers, compensation free.
Down the hill we went. We found an unoccupied tent in a field with coke and cookies. I had no problem drinking a coke at 10 am, and must have eaten two dozen cookies. There was even fresh, cold water for Stella. We hung out for half-an-hour, eating and drinking and reading the sign-in book. Lots of fellow adventurers have crossed this place. We are kindred spirits.
We finally dragged ourselves away from the tent and down to Highway 114. I remember the boys back in '03 coming down this section in a blazing thunderstorm – wet, cold and haggard. This year it was sunny and warm. At the highway we passed a large, loud crew of thru-hikers who were being supported by vehicle. At every road crossing they had friends and family pick them up and drive them to each town, where they ate, showered and slept in a hotel room. Quite a difference from our journey. Despite their luxury, I wasn't jealous. I actually felt rather proud about our self-supported style.
We crossed Pole Creek on the other side of Highway 114, and it was flowing nicely with water, a stark contrast from two-and-half weeks ago when we dropped off the cache and found it bone dry. We found our cache – a military ammo box – with little trouble. Took a bit of time switching out garbage for food and headed down the trail.
The initial part of this section climbed a very gradual railroad bed that would make for excellent mountain biking. This was another section our crew from back in 2003 skipped, and I have to wonder why. It's some of the better riding in the entire area, certainly better than the hellaciously rocky and straight up and down trail on the east side of 114.
We passed the big group (they had passed us while we were at our cache) camped in a strange place – two miles in and in a totally dry location. I'm a bit perplexed why you would hike only two miles after a town day…you are usually quite strong on these days. We moved across the lonely land to Cochetopa Pass Road.
Cochetopa Pass is a historical location. This is where Bill Williams meant to lead the Fremont Party back in 1848 on their search for a viable crossing for a transcontinental railroad. It's too bad he took a wrong turn and the party ended up stuck in neck deep snow in the La Garita mountains, finally resorting to cannabilism to survive, because Cochetopa Pass doesn't look too bad. I read a book about the expedition when I was 12 years old or so, and it's cool to finally be here. Tomorrow we should get a good look at the area where he did lead them and where the expedition turned into a gruesome fight for survival.
We got some very suspect water from Arucala Creek. The creek was completely surrounded by cow patties and was, in some places, bubbling with a strange ooze. Even Stella refrained from drinking from one particular pool. There were lots of gophers around, and Stella broke her "don't pay attention to anything but the trail" rule by occassionally giving them a half-hearted chase.
Clouds moved in and we rolled deep into the Cochetopa Hills. We walked through a valley with a minor creek flowing through it, surrounded by low, haunting hills. It feels like we are very deep in the west now and far from home. It's hard to believe we've come this far by foot in just 16 days. Humans have the ability to do great things – I think we've just forgotten how. Denver seems very far away.
Stella looked particularly wild after trudging through deep mud. Her paws are black, and her fur ruffled. I'm making a point to keep her close, as in this part of the country they shoot coyotes first, and ask questions later. She has enough resemblance to a coyote that it's a concern.
We headed up a steep hill and into the woods where, after a little recon, we settled on a campground with lots of soft pine beds. The tarp went up well, the mac & cheese tasted wonderful, and the big rains held off for once.
It was another good day. I will miss this life when this journey is over.