Sonic and I get up early after having camped just a few minutes from where our ride out of town dropped us off, and we set off in the dawn light to knock out the 11 miles of highway walking. Other than a few semis barreling down, there isn’t much traffic. And there’s a shoulder to walk on. Highway walks are far from ideal, but this could be worse.
Partway through the morning I call out to what I think is a hiker, sitting down absentmindedly in a field by the highway. Oh wait, just a hobo, I think when he doesn’t respond. Then he looks up.
“Hey, you hiking the CDT?” he calls out. Okay, maybe a hiker. Just semi oblivious to the world around him.
Pounds started a few days before me from Canada, and took the insanely snowy highline trail that I’d heard was really dangerous. After a few minutes of questioning about it, I realize he was the hiker I’d heard about so much coming out of Glacier.
“Yeah, after I reported seeing another hiker fail to self arrest on the Ahern Drift the national park service detained me until he was found. But they put me up in a hotel, so I guess it could’ve been worse,” he shrugged. I’d only heard about two hikers making it across the Ahern, a steep bank of snow over a steep pile of rocks, back near the Canadian border.
Pounds ends up being annoyingly clingy, but it’s pretty easy to get ahead of him.
“I don’t think getting up at 5:30am is good, might have to start hiking at 8am instead,” he mentions.
“You’re more than welcome to do that, but I’m not,” I reply.
Sonic is a lot of fun to hike with, and we end up camping together almost every night. Even if there’s a large campsite, if I’m camping with other CDT hikers we almost always end up erecting our tents with overlapping guylines. We spend so much time alone, pretty common with only 35 others on the trail going southbound spread out over hundreds of miles, that when we find each other it’s like we’re making up for the days of not seeing another human.
Camping with her is a lot of fun, and we stay up late (like 9pm) laughing each night. Our senses of humor seem pretty similar: dark, twisted, and bizarre.
“I’m a level five fire wizard,” we decide to tell people when they give us doom and gloom about the trail. “Snow isn’t really relevant to me with my extensive repertoire of fire spells.” That usually ends conversations pretty quickly.
“Where’d you hear about this trail?” is another common question.
“Prison,” as a response also terminates the discussion when I’m trying to make miles.
I know the day walkers don’t necessarily have bad intentions, but they’re really irritating after having been out here for a while. They often try to lecture us about hiking and wilderness survival. They’re usually well meaning, but we’re doing three times as many miles a day (28 to 35 a day) and have a much higher tolerance for discomfort compared to them. Usually I try to speed up past day hikers and weekenders, which gets a lot of comments like: “Why are you running uphill?!”
To which I reply, “Winter is coming!”
Sonic and I get separated in the Never Summer Wilderness, an apt name for Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountains National Park. Earlier we’d been talking about how the difficulty of the CDT has been vastly over hyped. This section makes me regret that comment. The trail gods probably heard it and have justly punished me for my insolence.
Rocky Mountains National Park is beautiful, and has an 18 mile loop that can be done as a day hike, but at this point we’re all just rushing to get through Colorado before it’s too late. The signs of winter are everywhere: bright yellow leaves on the aspens, cold nights, and shortening days. Winter is coming, the clock is ticking, and I need to get to New Mexico before it’s too late.
Grand Lake is a cool little town just outside the national park. It’s also right on trail, so no need to hitch. The lodge, on a hill overlooking the town, has dorms for hikers. It’s incredible, probably one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in, and has a large selection of teas in the common area. It’s also accessible by a short nature trail from the Rocky Mountains National Park visitor center, and I get a lot of strange looks for zooming down the easy path with all my camping gear.
There’s a retreat of some sort in the lodge at the same time as our filthy hiker selves swarm it, and they shoot us puzzled looks as we pore over our topographic maps.
It’s been over a week since I last showered, and even longer for Sonic (“I got soaked in that rainstorm, that’s basically a shower,” she told me). The lodge provides us big, fluffy towels and we snack on a couple dozen fried eggs we cook in the kitchen. Life is good.
Walking on the street I spy a familiar Australian Shephard leashed up outside the public restrooms. Luna, my favorite southbounder! She barks and wags her tail when she sees me, and her owner finds me lavishing attention on her dog when she steps out of the bathroom. Her boyfriend is soon to follow. I haven’t seen them for a while, and I missed hanging out with them. But they’re off to camp on the trail before it gets too dark, though I’m sure I’ll run into them again soon.
That night it rains a lot, but I’m warm and dry in my bunk. Bliss.
“There’s a breakfast buffet, they’re super hiker friendly and it’s awesome,” Sonic texts me in the morning. The cafe is the only place open in the morning with a seat available, which Sonic kindly saved for me. The buffet is phenomenal, with a plethora of pastries and hot food, and we both stuff ourselves.
After resupplying at the local grocery store, not the best I’ve encountered on trail, I set off around noon. I’d originally planned on staying until the evening, but I feel good and figure I might as well make some miles.
Grand Lake is a popular area for day hikers, who all ask me where I’m heading.
“Mexico!” I call out while I keep going. They just laugh. Nobody believes me when I say what I’m doing. And they roll their eyes when they ask how long I’m out for, replying that I started two and a half months prior in Canada and expect to have another couple of months to reach my destination. On the PCT everyone had heard of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is almost universally despised by long distance hikers for various reasons, but the CDT has no comparable work. It’s pretty obscure, and few people attempt it.
I night hike for an hour, having done 22.7 miles by 8:30pm. Setting up my tent in a dark parking lot in the middle of nowhere next to a sign that prohibits camping without a permit, I also spy a sign warning about bears in the area. There’s an optimal nearby tree for a bear hang, so I toss rope over a branch and suspend my food 10 feet in the air. By the time I get back to my tent, which was wet from rain prior to Grand Lake, it’s frozen solid. The ice crystals are beautiful, but if it’s this cold at 9pm then I know I’m in for a frigid night.
I’m not wrong, and my 10 degree bag is barely enough to keep me comfortable with four layers of clothing. At 4:30am I wake up and pack up, trying to get over the 13,300 foot James Peak before the predicted storm that afternoon.
I later find out it got into the middle teens Fahrenheit that night, but I’m fine with my layers as long as I keep moving. There’s a confusing stream crossing with a broken bridge that takes me 15 minutes to figure out in the dark, but after that I’m cruising down the trail.
“You miss so much night hiking!” I hear constantly from non-thru hikers. But if they could see the way the dawn light illuminates the ice crystals on the grassy meadows, and hear the coyotes surprisingly close howling as a pack, I’m not sure they’d say that. Dawn is my favorite time on trail.
By 8am I’ve caught up with Baby, Dingo, and my favorite trail dog. Baby had sent me a panicked series of messages previously about single digit highs at James Peak, not having realized it was in Celsius.
It’s not super cold on the way up to James Peak, but non-flowing water is all frozen and doesn’t seem to be melting.
The wind is blowing hard at 12,500 feet, and we’ve still got almost 1000 feet to climb. Baby is concerned about Luna, who seems to be feeling unwell, but I literally run across the rocky terrain to charge up James Peak. It’s beautiful but cold, and I immediately scamper down into the valley to find a sheltered campsite.
It’s already pretty cold when I get to the bottom of the valley. Although it’s early, I just camp at the bottom in one of many campsites hidden in a grove of trees. After dark I see a red flashlight shining through the forest.
“Sonic!” I call out. She comes over and camps nearby.
“What are we doing out here?” she asks. “This is so insane.” We’d just got confirmation when we had cell service on the ridge that a low pressure system was bringing cold and snow soon.
“Beans and her group did 86 miles in 36 hours, and they bailed off Gray’s Peak,” she mentions. There’s a pause while we think that over.
“I’ve been thinking of dropping low and taking the Silverthorne cutoff instead of that route,” I add slowly. I feel like I should enjoy the high routes in Colorado while I have the chance, but I also don’t want to be cold and miserable.
“Yeah, I was thinking the same,” she replies. And with that it’s settled. We’re not going to tempt the fates in Colorado. It’s hard enough in late September as is.