The Final Stretch

As I lay in the tent I could hear the heavy footsteps of the bear as it entered the camp. It began sniffing at my tent and somehow I knew it was a matter of time before it was coming in. Silently I opened the lock blade on my pocketknife and waited. If it was a Grizzly, I didn’t have a reasonable chance to survive an attack, but if I could just inflict enough damage, maybe it would leave without harming anyone one else. “If I can save the rest of ‘The Family’” I grimly thought, “that wouldn’t be a bad way to check out.”  Just then the massive head came through the nylon tent wall and the big Grizzly’s first bite was to my shoulder….

That’s when I woke up back home in Cincinnati as my stupid, stupid cat was clawing my shoulder in an attempt to wake me up. Once the cat (and bear) were locked out of the room, I could reminisce in peace about what actually happened on the home stretch of the hike.

On Day 29 we still had  75 miles to go. Five of us, The Family and Gimpy, got a ride up to Molas Pass on a sunny Saturday morning. This section of trail was popular with the mountain bikers and we were passed by over 100 of them. We hit the high pass (12,500 ft) at the same time as a nasty looking thunderstorm, waited about an hour as it slid by, but ended up staying dry for another day. This made for long day as wehad trouble finding a good camp site. With 20 miles in, we camped with Gimpy and caught back up to Bob.

Day 30 was a tough water day. Six of us started out, loading up on water at Straight Creek, 7.5 miles into the day. The next sure water source was 22 miles distant, though we heard from a north bound hiker that there was a small supply in 15 miles. Since his trail name was Pants on Fire, I had my doubts. Each of us carried 3 liters of water, but we would need it all, and more, if we couldn’t make it to water today. The sun was out in force from sunup to sundown. Much of the trail was old Forest Service roads which let in most of the sun’s power, drying us out.

a vista copy

The views were still tremendous, so that part stayed great. Our merry band picked up another member when a southbounder that was going to take another week to finish suddenly decided to speed up and stay with “the cool kids table.” Casey was a science student and stated he wanted to work at a job that hadn’t been invented yet. Hmmm, maybe he’ll be a flying car mechanic.

At 7 pm, after hiking 22.5 miles in the blazing sun, we happened across the water supply and a spot to set up 7 tents. You wouldn’t think people would be so excited to get a drink of water out of a small, mossy creek, but when it’s the only option, it tastes wonderful.

By day 31 things are starting to wind down. Gimpy and Bob take off early, but The Family is going to hike about 16 miles today, leaving 14 or so to get to the finish in Durango. We record the last of Golden’s Monday Videos for her blog. This one involves five hikers dancing (poorly) down the trail to the relaxing strains of We Found Love by Rihanna. In addition, we still climb to over 12,000 feet one last time.

I find it hard to believe, but the views continue to get even better. a Smokies copy

a flower mtn

As we walk a high ridge, a look to the left provides a view that reminds me of the Smoky Mountains, but more rugged. A glance to the right gives me a view of snow touched majesty that is classic San Juan Mountains. Eventually we drop down far enough to get back into Aspen trees and camp near a “gurgling” stream.


The last day is spent on a slow drop in altitude down to around 7,000 feet. Although by most standards the scenery remains tremendous, it can’t compete with the above the tree line views of the previous day. By midafternoon, we reach a sign telling us we are done; all five members of The Family have thru-hiked the Colorado Trail. After congratulatory hugs and photos, we start walking towards Durango and its hotels, showers and brewpubs. Luckily we all quickly get a ride.

The Family at the Fiish
The Family at the Finish

After cleaning up, The Family meets up at Carver’s Brewpub in downtown Durango. As promised, they provide a free glass of Colorado Trail, Nut Brown Ale to all through hikers.  The evening is spent reliving recent memories with great new friends, plates of good food and more than enough beer. The trip has been, in a word, epic; simply epic.

Back in Cincinnati and fully awake, I pull on my running shoes and limp out to the road for a training run. I’ll be back in Colorado for the race up Pike’s Peak in a few short weeks. Refusing (denying) to get old is a never ending task.

A few quotes to leave you with:

If you have not touched the rocky wall of a canyon. If you have not heard a rushing river pound over cobblestones. If you have not seen a native trout rise in a crystalline pool beneath a shattering riffle, or a golden eagle spread its wings and cover you in shadow. If you have not seen the tree line recede to the top of a bare crested mountain. If you have not looked into a pair of wild eyes and seen your own reflection. Please, for the good of your soul, travel west.”

Daniel J. Rice

a mtn w ppl

I’ll fly on a plane and people will look out the window at thirty thousand feet and say, ‘Isn’t this view good enough for you?’ And I say no, it’s not good enough. I didn’t earn it. In the mountains, I earn it.”

Mark Obmascik

There is wisdom in climbing mountains… For they teach us how truly small we are.” 

Jeff Wheeler

a lake copy

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high

John Denver

Into Silverton

“Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” 
Anatoli Boukreev

After a short walk through the cloudless high tundra in the morning, the trail follows a narrow ridge between two canyons, and begins the long descent through the Weminuche Wilderness down towards the town of Silverton.

a flower

The canyon I drop into literally looks like it is out of a movie. I am not an extraordinarily religious person, but this valley feels like it was carved by God himself. I start the descent on over two dozen switchbacks . The ground is slightly less steep than a cliff, yet it’s packed with wildflowers thicker than I’d ever seen in my life.

a mountain

Once through the switchbacks, the drop continues steeply through a field of boulders and alongside a rushing stream of clear cold snowmelt, which is joined by more streams and waterfalls all alonga waterfall

the way. Across the stream, sheer cliffs tower a thousand feet overhead. The beauty and majesty are enough to put a lump in my throat every time I look around. I can’t spend too much time wandering in awe, however, as much of the trail is scratched into the side of a cliff where a bad step could end my trip for good. And this goes on literally for miles. If you are capable of a hard hike at altitude, put Elk Creek Canyon on your bucket list.a pond

Oh, there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run,
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun.
Long before the white man and long before the wheel,
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.

Gordon Lightfoot

a train

There is an expression among long distance hikers; “Hike your own hike.” One of the things that I thought would make my hike special would be the rare opportunity that presents itself near where Elk Creek empties into the Animas River. At this spot, you can walk out of the woods onto a train track, wave down a steam locomotive, slip the conductor $35, and ride the train into town. That was an opportunity I was not going to miss! While the others walked the last few miles into Silverton, I “rode the rails” straight out of history and into town. There I proceeded to eat over a pound of ground beef and buffalo along with fries and a salad while waiting for their arrival so we could eat. It was a blast.

(For those of you that have a problem with me skipping a few miles of trail to ride the train; I will walk 99% of the possible mileage of the trail. In addition, I may have the opportunity to pick up those miles at a later date. Also, “hike your own damn hike.” Oh,  and I stopped a train!)

Silverton will be a quick, overnight stop to resupply, then the final stretch into Durango and completion of the Colorado Trail!

Walking the Great Divide

Stood alone on a mountaintop,
Staring out at the great divide
I could go east, I could go west,
It was all up to me to decide.

Just then a saw a young hawk flying
And my soul began to rise.
And pretty soon….
My heart was singing!

Roll Me Away by Bob Seger

Continental Divide in San Juan Mountains
Continental Divide in San Juan Mountains

I never did see a hawk fly that high, but if you replaced hawk flying with marmot scampering it fits the situation perfectly. However, lyrics about a “whistle pig” might not have helped the

Whistle Pig
Whistle Pig

popularity of the song. Cold and clear in the morning, probably about freezing.

Trail blocked by 2 moose. Stand off lasted about 5 minutes before they decided to drop off the trail. It’s a good thing as I had no where to go if they decided to head my way.

Bullwinkle blocking the trail
Bullwinkle blocking the trail

Spend the entire day bouncing between 12-13,000 feet, mostly along the Continental Divide. Caught a real break with the weather. Stayed nice and clear as we spent the whole day up high. Got drinking water from the Rio Grande when it was nothing more than a bit of snowmelt. Still significant snow in the spectacular San Juan Mountains. Camping at 12,500 feet. Gonna be cold tonight.

Day 28 – Woke up to a hard freeze, iced tent. I was cold, but not miserable and actually slept pretty good. This might be a good place to explain White Pine’s minimalist approach to camping equipment. His sleeping bag is rated for 40 degrees (mine is 20). Instead of a tent, he sleeps under a tarp. Not just any tarp, but one made out of the clear, thin plastic that is used to cover windows.  The stuff that’s a little thinner than plastic food wrap (Saran Wrap). If he gets too cold, he’ll build a fire to stay warm.  Unfortunately, when camping in tundra well above tree line, there’s no wood to burn. Since no Snowshoe Hare had come in to sleep by his feet, which had happened earlier in the trip, by 3 am, White Pine was out of his cozy tarp, doing calisthenics in an attempt to deal with the sub freezing temperature. Survival Boot Camp lasted until first light. Thankfully he didn’t need music to work out to so I slept blissfully unaware of his predicament. I’m 395 miles deep into the mountains.