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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Rocky Mountain High: Encounters with the Continental Divide Trail and its Denizens

Setting off for another day on the CDT

Kids certainly complicate—and enliven—your life. Last week Tammy and I found ourselves on the overnight California Zephyr train from Sacramento to Denver. Considered America’s most beautiful train ride, our journey crossed the Sierra Nevada the first day, and the Rockies the second, following the Colorado River 238 miles through gorgeous canyons in Utah and Colorado (Ruby, Gore, Glenwood). After a night in Denver near Union Station, we set out early over the continental divide in our rental car to Steamboat Springs, where we were to meet our daughter Ashlyn near the midpoint of her 3,100-mile backpacking trek along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) from Mexico to Canada.

She had begun two months earlier at the border in southern New Mexico, hiking with a buddy she’d made two years earlier on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). In the CDT’s first week they found themselves fording the Gila River 200 times one day and nearly as many the next, bulldozing through willow-dominated streamside vegetation that left whipmark gashes on their legs. Several weeks later they hiked through Georgia O’Keeffee’s Ghost Ranch, leaving the trail to check out the phenomenal fossil digs of Coelophysis, the Triassic dinosaur discovered by paleontologist Ned Colbert while O’Keeffee was living there in the 1930s. Then into Colorado and the snow of the San Juan Mountains, where “post-holing” in the snow brought blood to the barely-healed willow gashes.

The normal trail travails, as Ashlyn explained when we met her at Steamboat Springs. Challenges to surmount or ignore (including the loss of nails from both her big toes). She looked robustly healthy (aside from the fading scars on her legs) but seemed ready for a “zero (mile) day”—or more. It was great to see her smiling face and experience the strength and enthusiasm so characteristic of her. With her was her recent hiking companion Gasket (known by his “trail name”), whom we treated to dinner (what an appetite!) and gave a ride back to the CDT trail 25 miles outside of town, where Ash deposited a Walmart-purchased cooler full of ice and Dr. Peppers as “trail magic” for her buddies who would pass through the next several days. Back in town at our Steamboat Grand rooms, Ash concentrated on a shower, laundry, and spreading her tent and sleeping bag to air. And a massage at the spa!

The net day we ran into another trail friend, Gusher, while resupplying Ash at Walmart. Like Gasket, he was tall, lean, heavily bearded, and thoroughly pleasant. Gusher was a bit more reticent than Gasket, but full of thoughtful insights about trail and life. He informed us that Ashlyn’s trail name had evolved on the CDT, from the original “Hyrobics” (conferred when she hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) 3 years ago) to “Robie” to, finally, its current “Robie-won-kenobi.” He was glad to accept our invitation to spend that night on the couch of our room; the next morning, we were again amazed at trail appetites (Gusher managed to maintain a vegan food regime even on trail; breakfast was oatmeal and an enormous double helping of potatoes). Again we transported this latest hiking buddy to the trail outside of town.

Steamboat Springs is a charming mountain town, whose many restaurants and boutiques reminded us a bit of Ashland, Oregon—except with an outdoors theme instead of Shakespeare. Every other car had kayaks or rafts strapped to it. I spent one pleasant afternoon (while Tam and Ash transported Gasket back to the trail) reading my latest Amelia Peabody Egyptian-archeology thriller on the shady banks of the Yampa River in town, as boys fly-fished and several dozen people floated by on rafts, inner tubes, kayaks, and canoes. Ahhhhh.

The CDT is typically the last of the Big Three trails of North America to be hiked by those who complete the coveted Triple Crown of Hiking. Unlike the thousands who attempt the AT and PCT, only a couple of hundred attempt the CDT every year. It’s not as established as the venerable Appalachian Trail, and not as glamorous as the Pacific Crest Trail along the Sierra Nevada. Being from California, Ash of course hiked the PCT first, and other than a stress fracture of her tibia that she dealt with, she thoroughly enjoyed it and caught “the bug” of long-distance backpacking hikes.

She did the Appalachian Trail two years ago, and was not as thrilled by it. The trail is crowded by day-hikers, and you must contend in addition with very hot, humid conditions in rarely-changing low-elevation (by California standards) forests inhabited by swarms of mostly blood-sucking invertebrates (mosquitoes, spiders, mosquitoes, centipedes, mosquitoes, silverfish—did I mention mosquitoes?). When we met her at the AT’s roughly halfway point, in the Hudson River Valley north of New York City, she was covered with festering insect bites and in the midst of what would be nearly two months of off-and-on fevers. She persevered and finished the AT, but found Mt. Katahdin in Maine a very stiff challenge at the end.

A couple of months later, the source of those fevers on the AT turned out to be MERSA, which landed her in a hospital in San Diego connected to an intravenous setup, and gave us all a bit of a scare. That, and other considerations (including her parents’ advice, which wasn’t a big factor!), led to a summer off before tackling the most formidable of the Triple Crown hikes, the CDT.

Not only is the CDT the longest of the North American big hikes at over 3,000 miles, but it’s the newest and most poorly marked. Ash reports you’re rarely out of sight of the AT’s white slash marks on trees; the PCT crest is more-or-less regularly encountered; the CDT lacks a uniform marker yet. One important bend in the trail in New Mexico is signaled by an old can painted blue, sitting atop a largish rock. In addition, too much (for the hikers’ taste) of the CDT is spent skirting private landholdings and trudging along the side of roads.

This trip, as before, we particularly enjoyed meeting Ash’s backpacking colleagues with their colorful trail names. Taking Ash back to the trail our last day in Steamboat Springs, we picked up Lapsang and his young German companion, Footprint. After retrieving the trail magic cooler and ice on our way back to Denver, we conferred the last drinks on another couple of hikers as we departed: Rabbit and Snakefarm. Ash’s best friends on the AT included Tick Tock, Chimney, and Salmon (the last two, when they joined us afterwards for Thanksgiving, were collectively known as Smoked Salmon). When my oldest daughter Heather hiked the PCT a decade ago, her habit of washing clothes at nearly every water source she encountered earned her the perfect trail moniker: Maytag. Conferred by her trail buddy Wise Owl.

Their names aside, these long-distance backpackers are fascinating people. Tam and I have met dozens upon dozens, from several countries of Europe as well as America, and have yet to encounter a dull hiker (reminding us of Oscar Wilde’s assertion, that it is absurd to divide people into good and bad; people are either charming or tedious). Stories abound, of course, of lost toenails; encounters with various critters (from rattlesnakes to deer to bears); endless slogs through scorching hot, bone dry desert regions; being chased off high passes by lightning; incredibly generous "trail angels" along the way providing food, water, and laundry facilities; fording icy streams (the source of several fatalities this year); post-holing and occasionally glissading across snow fields; torrential rains and pelting snow (the last encountered by Ash and Gasket just the day before we met them in Steamboat Springs). And then there was the delightful hiker from Texas who insisted on carrying a battery-operated hair dryer in her pack.

Three characteristics stand out among this crowd. First is their sheer strength and determination. Less than 20% of those who begin the PCT at the Mexico border persist to finish it at the Canada border. These hikes are not for the faint-hearted. Frequently, hitch hiking is necessary to reach a food resupply point, along minor roads with little traffic. Ash reports that single females, particularly, soon learn which proffered rides to accept and which to decline.) Lightening the pounds carried thousands of miles on your back is a constant challenge. Ash refused to abandon her little backpacking stove and the hot ramen soup and tea it made possible; but many of her colleagues did without a stove (and the associated fuel canister) and relied only on dry or cold-water-soaked food (!!). (Speaking of water, the old Katadyn pump apparatus for filtering stream (or horse-trough) water is so yesterday. Ash and her friends use a simple, lightweight Sawyer filter you just screw onto the lid of your water bottle; it filters the water as you drink it or otherwise squeeze it out.) The constant reliance on your own strength and determination, for those up to it, confers a quiet self-confidence in these folks that is a rare and richly-deserved trait.

And second, there is the challenge of mastering the logistics involved to accomplish the hike. Everything for survival has to be carried on your back for four or more months. You have to obtain new food supplies every week or so, usually at utterly woebegone locations miles from a grocery store. Tam and I have been mailing food caches for Ash all summer to locations consisting of a gas station and a post office—sometimes not even the latter, necessitating UPS to an isolated motel or restaurant. The sheer amount of organization to arrange for food supply alone is staggering, when you’re traveling over 3,000 miles on foot. Not to mention toilet paper, bug spray, sunscreen, maps, moleskin for blisters…

And thirdly: these are happy folks. In spite of all the physical discomfort, they are generally having the time of their lives. Existence is focused very narrowly: wake up early, hike between 25 and 40 miles that day, eat enough to keep you going, and collapse inside your tent at dark, to prepare for doing the same thing tomorrow. And the day after. And... Of course, we encountered only those that met this challenge and were exhilarated to be doing it. The majority of those who attempt these trails do not finish; at some point they are incapacitated by the physical pain and ubiquitous discomfort, or otherwise decide they’re not having fun. But for those few who succeed: it’s a blast, and sort of addicting.

Gasket, for example, was on his third long-distance hike of the year. He started in his home state of Florida, doing the 1,000 mile Florida Trail. Then he traveled to Arizona, and successfully hiked the 800 mile Arizona Trail. Warmups. Then in May he began the 3,100 mile CDT. Halfway through when we met him, he seemed to be going strong. When we inquired, he seemed not to have any clear notion of what he would do once he hit Canada—nor care.

("Happy folks" for the most part; though Ash, and the others who do finish, have their dark times, some serious. You have a lot of low times; but so far she and her colleagues have persisted through them and picked up the pieces and kept going—so far, at least.)

If not for our daughter Ash, we wouldn’t have met so many of these wonderful folks (beyond the early sampling during Heather’s PCT). But now we’re pretty well acquainted with quite a few of them, and have seen much incredibly diverse scenery along the PCT, the AT, and the CDT. As my Mom used to say of our family of four kids: “Never a dull moment.”

After two days in Steamboat Springs we bestowed warm hugs on our daughter and somewhat reluctantly released her onto the narrow trail and scrub-filled landscape of northern Colorado, pack reaching high over her shoulders, hiking poles raising swirls of dust as she strode confidently away from us. The wilds of Montana and Wyoming loomed ahead, including treks through Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks before the Canadian border. More snow, more swiftly flowing streams, and more grizzlies than earlier on the trail. Soon she was over a crest and out of our sight. We sighed, wiped a few tears from our cheeks, and gave our beloved daughter to the North American wilderness and the universe. She was on her journey again, and like all parents everywhere, we wished her a heartfelt “bon voyage.”

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