Camping at 12,360 feet on the crest of the Continental Divide in Colorado meant that we caught the last rays of the sun as it set and the icy night began. By the next morning we would be bathed in the first light of day. It was a terribly exposed place to pitch our tents, but we were bushed as always after a day of mountains and snow, and there wasn't a flat piece of ground anywhere but directly on top. Hail to the sun!
Elk grazed in the tundra not far away and the evening light became a soft glow. Tufted grassy bogs nearby cast long shadows across the rounded summit and our tents looked like a small expedition encampment at the edge of the world. Four days into the Weminuche Wilderness is remote and we felt it.
Everyone with wet shoes put them in plastic bags so they could be hauled into our sleeping bags an hour or two before dawn to thaw out.
By morning the water filled trail had frozen. Some places were exquisitely beautiful, all in swirl, while others became scaly or crystallin. With a boys joy at smashing glass, I shattered some with my hiking pole, but couldn’t bring myself to destroy the most beautiful.
The high country is a magical place to me. Breathing is hard in the spare air and the fragility of life and its tenuousness in such a harsh environment is everywhere to be seen. Its a place of great beauty as range after range of mountains fold, one upon another into the distance and the small peeps of pica follow our steps.
Our trail rolled along the meadow topped Divide, diving into canyons and forest only to climb back up above tree line all too soon, where we hiked for hours. We came to an old log cabin near Stoney Pass and found trail magic, a plastic bucket full of candy! Eric and Blister made it to the pass first, so they fished out most of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Wyoming and Nancy got a few, but because of my no flour, no sugar lifestyle, I just smiled at the joy the candy gave them all. Blister was incredulous, “Man you’re serious!” On the Pacific Crest Trail two years ago I would have dived head first into that bucket but this time I wasn’t even tempted.
The magic was well placed as we were saying goodbye to Wyoming who had been hiking with us for weeks now. She was going down to Silverton where her husband would meet her and take her to NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. She was training to be an instructor. It’s a month long training and we may see her when she’s finished as she wants to complete this trail. It was sad to say goodbye as we’ve had some good times together and some tough ones.
That evening we pitched camp at 12,912 feet, the highest any of us has ever pitched a tent! We had water melting off the snow banks nearby and we were just below the ridge top on a small shelf of flat ground. All of us pitched to catch the sun in our faces the next morning and a few elk grazed far below as the fire hazy sky turned red.
The next day our trail took us down off the spectacular peaks we’d been living on for days now and dropped us at Spring Creek Pass. The hitch down to the little town of Lake City took awhile as there were four of us and not much traffic. Eric and Blister took the first car, but Nancy and I were picked up by one of the local school teachers and she gave us the royal tour of the mountains on the way down.
She took us to the scenic overlooks of Lake San Cristobal and the Slumgullion Earth Flow, where eight-hundred years ago a mountain had turned to mush during a very wet period and slid much like a very slow river of mud. It filled the canyon below creating Lake San Cristobal when it dammed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The slide is still moving in places at a rate of eighteen feet per year and the whole mountain looked unstable.
Our trail angel had been out mountain biking with her eleven year old son, who proudly told us the name of the five 14’ers (mountains over 14,000 feet) he’d already climbed. He was a sharp young fellow and engaged all the adults in the car in such a direct and interested way you couldn’t help but feel the youthful intelligence. He’ll go far and on the way bag the rest of Colorado’s 14’ers. He informed us that the school’s mascot was the 14‘er.
This was just the beginning of our stay in what would become one of our favorite towns so far on trail. Imagine Telluride or Breckenridge fifty years ago before all that winter money changed them into booming ski towns. False fronts and boardwalks line the old streets which have a bit of tourist fare and good food, but mostly just homey little vacation log cabins for rent and real people living in a gorgeous setting. One thing that stood out was the owners names on a shingle outside every establishment. Their’s pride and care in this town.
But it’s not just a quaint little Western town, it’s got a cannibal in it’s history. Alferd Packer was convicted of murdering several of his companions when they all became snowbound and ran out of food in November 1873. He claimed self defense, but the popular story includes him having eaten some of his buddies. It’s still a good story all over Colorado, and in 1968, the students of the University of Colorado at Boulder named their student grill, “The Alferd Packer Memorial Grill.”
Just a few weeks before we got in, however, the town’s first hiker hostel, The Raven’s Rest, was opened by Cionnaith -- whose trail name is Lucky -- and Amy Jo O’Dubhaigh. It’s only twenty-five bucks a night in a dorm style room, or twenty if you’re a CDT thru hiker. For that you get a bed, a shower, a shared kitchen and the use of their yard and dogs who will play soccer with you for hours, jumping and catching the chewed up old ball that is the ultimate joy for them.
Amy Jo and Lucky are partial to thru hikers as they had met on the CDT just a few years before and now have two gorgeous kids under the age of four and a hostel in an area that is a big slice of Heaven.
Lucky is from Ireland, as his Celtic true name might suggest. He came to the U.S. years ago to hike the Appalachian Trail but then became hooked on thru hiking and walked the Pacific Crest Trail not long after. He finished most of the Continental Divide Trail, but fell in love on that one, and traded a completed thru hike for a family and a new country. Not a bad trade for a great guy. Amy Jo is a writer and the literature in their home and in the hostel made clear that a sophisticated reader lived there. No TVs were in evidence.
The open, friendly welcome of these two and their several big floppy dogs, made the stay for any who came through, a real joy. They have found their calling. Hospitality comes easy for them both and it's a wonderful place to crash for a few days.
Our hiking buddy Brooks was already at the Raven's Rest but while we were settling in, another “thru” showed up, Lint, an old friend of Nancy’s from her hike of the PCT in 2009 and of Lucky’s from several prior thru hikes. He’s an incredibly strong hiker who has the maps of all the trails he’s hiked tattooed on every large piece of skin he’s got. When he finishes the CDT this year he will be one of only a few “double, triple crowners” in the world. That’s twice up all three of America’s great trails, the AT, PCT and CDT.
Lint's been around the block. He’s loud, opinionated, even a bit bellicose, but has a heart of gold and a sincerity and genuineness that make getting to know him worth all the rough, painted exterior he can throw. He cares deeply about people, who nonetheless drive him crazy, and the world and the condition we’ve put it in.
Lint had been in the tattoo business for a long time but he went from needles and ink to a more destructive lifestyle. He found himself in a steep downward slide. To pull himself back from the brink he started hiking. First the Ice Age Trail across the top of the Midwest, with a sixty pound pack that nearly killed him, and then on to most of our great national scenic trails. From one trail to the next, the wild places saved his soul. Literally. And his pack got much lighter. He's one of the ultra light hiking masters today.
Hiking fast and long and finding the friendships of trail life, which are filled with the altruism that is the best trait we as a species possess, he not only regained his own core, but began to believe in the hearts of others. It’s been a pleasure getting to know him.
Well all this is to say that for Lint and Lucky this was a major reunion, and the party went on into the night. It started at the hostel and then moved next door to Mean Jean’s Internet Coffee Shop, which had live music out back both nights we were there, bluegrass/rock the first night and smooth jazz the next.
Nancy and I felt like barbecue and went down the road to the BBQ Station. This is a rather run down looking gas station that has a big stainless steel smoker sticking out of the side wall of their small diner. They weren’t really open for the season but the owner had smoked some brisket and was offering it at $8 per half pound. The waitress gave us a chunk to try and that was it, no sauce needed. After twenty-four hours in the smoker, it was the most tender, luscious brisket I’ve ever eaten. Now I know how it should be done and I’ll be firing up my own smoker to recreate it when I finish this hike.
We wrapped up our plates and took them back to Mean Jean’s and listened to music and licked our fingers in time to the great bluegrass.
We zeroed in town the next day. By evening, Greg, another thru hiker, and his friend Rachel, had driven over from the town of Salida, just to be part of the fun with Lucky and Lint. Greg had hiked with both of them and Rachel just came along to see what the hiker fun was all about. By the next morning she seemed to have had a taste and wanted more. She’d do well on the PCT.
In all too short a time the zero was over and we got a lift back up to Spring Creek Pass from Lucky. He’s a great family man, but you could tell the thru hiker in him wanted to step out on trail with us. His two children were in the car on the ride up and they are beautiful. I hope that he relishes every day he has with them at this age as it all goes by so quickly. In a flash they will be adults and gone, but in the few years he has the possibilities for wilderness experiences with those beautiful little souls is nearly endless. Thru hiking will return, but kid hiking is in the offing.
The best of "the luck of the Irish" to this lovely family and their new endeavour in a town worth getting to know better.
"Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." -- John Muir
If you would like to follow our daily journals, Google: Postholer.com/Shroomer, Postholer.com/Nancy or Postholer.com/Dirt Monger. An interactive map of the CDT on the bottom right of our journal pages will show you our current GPS Spot location. View it through Google earth and you can see where we’re camped for that night. You can follow Brooks Wilson’s trail journal at www.brooksmapped.blogspot.com