Easing into things

One reason not mentioned before for choosing to hike the Colorado Trail is that my brother Dan lives less than ten minutes from its eastern end, south of Denver. He was happy to provide support and was eager to even hike a bit of it with me. Easing into the hike became the plan. The Colorado Trail is divided into 28 sections. We would “day hike” the first two sections before I had to strap on the big pack and be self sufficient.

When the day to start hiking the Colorado Trail rolled around, I was expecting a bit of apprehension, but not absolute dread. However, that started building about two weeks out when my my left foot started hurting, esp my toes. A visit to a Podiatrist resulted in a diagnosis on a neuroma, or inflamed/ enlarged nerves in the foot. There were several possible treatments, but none included hiking 500 miles on the bad foot. The Doc was sure he could fix me up with some shoe inserts he would create on the spot. In fact, he described himself as the Picasso of Podiatrists. He was an artist; but rather than working in oils or watercolor, he worked in feet. I left with my inserts.

The day before I was to start driving west, I was back at Picasso’s, my foot only minimally better. A cortisone shot to the worst spot seemed promising. With 2 days to rest my foot during the drive, I was hoping for some relief.

The morning the trip was to start, I swung my feet to the floor, stood up and nearly dropped to the floor in pain. This wasn’t looking good. The foot felt a little better with shoes/insert on so I pulled those on and took took twice the recommended dosage of Alleve and the wonder drug, Anacin.

Dan was to drop me at Waterton Canyon, the start of the trail at 6 am, drive to parking 17 miles down the trail then start hiking my way till we met. Watching me limp from the car, he became concerned (an emotion he rarely shows) and decided to hike a ways with me.

The trail itself begins with 6 easy miles along the South Platte River, but the canyon scenery is gorgeous. As we walked the first couple miles, the foot improved to tolerable. Confident I was good for the day, Dan returned to his car and I began the relax and enjoy the beauty.

Sheep

Sheep

It wasn’t long before the first wildlife sighting as a herd of bighorn sheep make the canyon their home. With the sun shining and temps in the 60s, my day was improving dramatically.

Once at the end of the canyon, about 6 1/2 miles in, the trail starts climbing gradually through a pine forest. For several miles, switchbacks keep increasing the elevation to a peak of 7,500 ft at about mile 13. Through the higher areas there are views of the mountains looming in my future.

imageThe foot was holding up, but about this time I began to wonder, where the hell is my brother? (Cell service there is spotty at best.) A mountain biker was stopped along the trail and I asked if he’d noticed anyone walking my way. “What does he look like?”

I replied, “like me but uglier.” The biker stated, “Yea, I talked to him, he described you the exact same way.” Sure enough we met up shortly thereafter and hiked together down the long decline to the parking lot. We got glimpses of what the next day’s hike would be holding for me, a long climb into the area decimated by 1996’s Buffalo Creek Fire. After nearly eight hours of hiking though, it was time to ice my foot and get a good meal.

Let’s get physical.

I like to think that, physically, I’m in good enough shape to hike the Colorado Trail. I ran (slowly) two marathons last year, one of them in Colorado’s Front Range. I also finished a few triathlons this spring. However, as I’m planning on backpacking across 8 mountain ranges while on the wrong side of 50, I thought it best to get a checkup first.

After initial pleasantries, the first thing the Dr said was, “Your neck looks big.”

“Thanks Doc,” I replied, “I have been working out. I’m thinking my shoulders and chest might be a little bigger too.”

Apparently what he meant was that my thyroid was enlarged. He said I should get an ultrasound right away as enlarged thyroids will turn cancerous on you. He asked if there was any family history of thyroid issues. I replied, “Not really. Other than my mom had her’s removed, and my dad’s mom actually died from her thyroid. Oh, and my brother is on thyroid medication. Other than that though, no history at all.”

“Get that ultrasound ASAP.”

“I’m all over it Doc.” (As soon as I get back from the hike.)

Later in the physical the Dr asked about my drinking habits. I responded truthfully; that I rarely drink a lot, but do have a beer or two nearly every day. Satisfied with that answer, he switched subjects to my prostate health as he pulled a glove on. “How often do you get up during the night to go to the bathroom?”

I replied, “Last time I didn’t have a drink before bed, I slept straight through till morning, no problem.”

“Well, in that case, no need to check; your prostate is fine,” he stated as he peeled the glove back off with a sigh of relief that nearly matched mine. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the last time I didn’t have a drink before bed, it was 1997.

So the bottom line is; looks like my health is assured. Let’s get ready to hike.

Ready to hike. Does my neck look weird?

Ready to hike. Does my neck look weird?

Appalachian Trail or Colorado Trail?

If you’ve ever backpacked at all, you’ve probably thought about hiking the most famous long distance hiking trail in the world, the Appalachian Trail, or AT. Of course, that thought might have been, “no way in hell,” but you thought about it nonetheless.  I’ve thought about it as well. I’ve even gone so far as to do a little research on what hiking the AT would entail. Beyond a little Internet study I’ve read a couple books about hiking the trail. As of right now, my Kindle contains 24 books written by successful AT thru-hikers.

Luckily for you, there is no need to read that many books. While the writing styles and abilities vary considerably, the information in the book is surprisingly consistent. Nearly every book makes the same main points. Here’s my take on every book ever written about the AT.

  1. The author was woefully unprepared for the rigors encountered.
  2. The hiking was much more difficult than imagined.
  3. The shelters were often crowded, dirty and full of mice.
  4. Privies along the way can be nasty.
  5. It rained…. A lot. Plan on being wet for days at a time.

    View on the AT

    View on the AT

  6. At times, the mosquitoes or other bugs were unrelenting.
  7. There’s a significant chance you’ll get Lyme disease and/or West Nile disease.
  8. There are some amazing views, but much of the time you’re hiking in a “green tunnel.”
  9. Six months of hiking can get surprisingly difficult on a psychological basis; also difficult on any relationships back home.
  10. There will be tough times when it takes tremendous willpower to keep from quitting.
  11. It was a wonderful experience.

And these are people that finished. Not many books have been written by those that quit the trail. You have to wonder if their viewpoint would tilt more towards negativity.

As an alternative to what was starting to appear to me to be a 2,000 mile plus slog, I started looking at the Colorado Trail; 500 miles through mountains from Denver to Durango. For me, at least while I’m sitting in my warm, dry house, the Colorado Trail (CT) offers the challenges and benefits of a long distance hike while avoiding some of the hardships of the AT.

  1. Only about 150 people attempt the CT each year (compared to 3,000 on the AT), so crowds on the trail or at prime camp areas should be non-existent. (Downside – Don’t get hurt; you may be on your own. Fix that snapped femur with duct tape and a stick. You did bring duct tape, didn’t you?)
  2. There are no shelters to be disappointed in. (Downside – There’s no shelters to use for things like…..shelter. When it rains, you’re getting wet.
  3. There are no privies to be disappointed in. (Bonus – your leg muscles will get stronger from squatting.)
  4. Much less rain and bugs. (Hard to find a downside there, other than it may snow instead.)
  5. The highest point on the AT is Clingman’s Dome at 6,625 feet. The average elevation of the CT is over 10,000 feet. You’ll spend significant time above tree line with amazing views nearly every day. (Downside – There’s a lot less oxygen up there. At its high point, 13,271 feet, there’s  40% less air than at sea level. Also, when it does rain/snow that high, there’s typically lightning and you’re the tallest thing around.)

    Common view in Colorado

    Common view in Colorado

  6. The plan is to be done in 5 weeks. A long hike to be sure, but short enough to see light at the end of the tunnel during a bad day. (Assuming the bad day isn’t Day 2.) Of course, that’s still plenty of time to see how I look with a neck beard. Plus, at my age, that may even be enough time to grow a nice crop of ear hair. We’ll have to wait and see on that one, but I’ll let you know if I’m successful.

And, it would be hard to beat singing John Denver songs to myself as I hike in the Rockies; provided I can suck in enough air to do anything beyond panting and wheezing.

 “I guess he’d rather be in Colorado
He’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain…”

John Denver

While it appears the decision has been made, perhaps a test hike on the AT would sway me. Here’s how it went.