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Hobo Memoirs

Peak Experience

Magnificent! The Colorado Trail stretches along the continental divide for 400 miles, and at either end descends into Denver and Durango. Most is at 10 - 13,000'. The trail is well made, surprisingly gentle and nicely signed though there are opportunities to get lost in the wilderness. I just walked out of the Rockies on the trail a few days ago, and below are a few highlights of this "peak experience".

Denver is the start point, the mile-high city. I have spent a week in the area acclimating to the altitude, up a bit from my desert digs, and feel fit enough to begin slowly. Pack weighs 50-30 lb., sliding in weight with the food carried and eaten. Gear is simple, a zero-degree sleeping bag, biv sack in lieu of tent, Hi-Tech Mag boots, shorts with suspenders and some rain gear. No fancy needs.

The outing has a firm purpose other than the usual viewing terrain and keeping fit. I hope to come to peace with high altitude, a factor that defeated me in the Ruwenzoi Mountains of Uganda and Andes of Bolivia. The hike takes a month at 15 miles/day. The term continental divide doesn't mean perpetual vertical change. For up to two days at a time I walk high (excess 12000') and flat, haunting mesas. It is as though the world began up here, then at a point in tim started to break at one corner, at which I on this walk descend a canyon into "lower" Mt. ranges.

Animal life stimulates each turn on the trail, yet rarely is threatening. Scolding squirrels pelt pine cones when I pause under their trees, birds including an eagle, coyote big as German shepherds - which is a change from the rangy desert critters, deer springing about, plenty of bugs and garter snakes, rock chipmunks, and at dusk elk. There are bear but I see only tracks, six-inches wide.

Under starlight one evening I descend a canyon from a previously described flattop of the world. It's remote, above timberline but green with grasses spotted by white wildflowers, and calming. As the trail dips lower after a few hours and the canyon narrows and becomes rocky, there is a scream a quarter-mile ahead and I pause in mid-stride because it is unidentifiably shrill. Resembles a mule hitting and holding a high note, but then comes again echoing closer. Still can't put a finger on it, but rings like a tortured pig. Now, still walking, it sounds a third time, just ahead and there may be two of them. It pops to mind that "the Mt. lion sounds like a woman screaming".

I have had sufficient experience with big cats - from lions and tigers to bobcat and ocelot - to want to view a Mt. lion. However, the scenario I have in mind occurs in open daylight. Tonight the wind is at my back, the canyon has narrowed tightly and I suspect the lion(s) smelled my approach. So I back out. A few minutes back trail are two boulders on the sloping wall between which I wedge the sleeping bag. The first line of defense against unlikely attack is my boots and socks, smelling high on the rocks above, the second is a pile of throwing stones outside the bag, and the third my lighter. With a three-inch breathing hole in the biv sleep comes easily enough.

The next morning arrives with all frosted white. Then the sun reaches over the canyon and in five minutes not only is the frost melted, the grass is bone dry. With scarce air twixt sun and earth at this altitude one can think of it as lack of insulation. After dressing, I spot a large elk or bear lumbering up the canyon in the distance. Then I fall into the stream trying to get a drink of water. Once on the trail, last night's cougar has retired, for which I'm sorry that there is no encounter on day's firmer footing. A few nights later, below tree line, there is a flutter ten feet above my head and a light-brown owl with four-ft. wingspan chooses the pine nearest me to plant atop like an ornament. We gaze at each other for a few seconds, then I walk on. It flies through the dark to the next tree and again perches above me. And seconds later to the next. I happen to pass gas at the third tree at which it makes a coo sound, which I wouldn't expect from such a bird, and it takes off into the night.

The weather overall is pleasing. mild and clear days, perhaps a shower in the afternoon. Twice it hails. Nights chilly but no snow. The daily routine is to rise about 0800, break camp in ten minutes, walk a couple hours, nibble on something, walk - with five minute breaks per hour - till just before sunset, eat heartily, and walk a few more hours into the night. The days are long and enjoyable. Note that at hike's onset I sit and pant after every ten minutes on a hefty incline, but toward the trail's end acclimation kicks in and rest stopsare far less frequent.

Food is dried items - potatoes, rice, macaroni, milk and the sequestered powdered Gatorade for emergencies. The latter is eaten dry on occasions when water is scarce. The trip turns into a nutritional experiment by necessity. That is, 1000 cal/day for six days walking, then on the seventh day up to as many consumed calories as the accumulative previous six. This end of the week gluttony comes as a country dirt road is crossed at which I hitch into a little town for resupply. Actually, water never need be carried on the whole trip provided one iswilling to wait a few hours for the next drink, and this reduces pack weight. I don't filter water from streams that are high and far-flung.

By my reckoning, about 100 people will hike the Colorado Trail this year. These are termed "through hikers" as opposed to the weekend warriors and day hikers who linger near trailheads throughout the state. Most through hikers are paired and often with dogs. Others do the trail by horseback or Mt. bike.

I meet a Denver biochemist and Sheltie dog with pack. I have a special interest in trail dogs and fussed over this animal, asking about its reaction to the outdoors and wild animals, how it holds up structurally, can I take its picture, and examine the paw footpads for wear. The biochemist gets a bit jealous I suspect and holds out the back of his hands for examination of mosquito bites. I tell him to soak them in cold stream water. He however, is more enthused at the prospect of replacing his cooking gear. In lieu of a weighty, smelly, bulky, expensive traditional stove with liquid fuel, I use Coleman solid fuel tablets. Each resembles a fat aspirin, not swallowed but burned at nine minutes per tab. One is enough to heat a meal, chocolate or pot of soup and it costs a dime. My entire stove, cookery and fuel for two weeks weighs a pound and fits into half a cigar box. The single disadvantage is that pellets wont quite boil water, but the biochemist says he can alter the crystalline nature to do so. This would revolutionize trail cooking the world over. There is an elderly couple from a ranch in this state who for the past three years have been traveling the trail on weekends by horseback. "We have 300 miles under our belts, and nothing is going to stop us".

One morning I awake atop a 13,500' pass to view an elfin character in black tights cresting it. He pauses to chat and bubbles over. "I'm happy and sad at the same time. Today is my last on the trail." he had taken an odd route out of necessity, beginning in June in Denver but getting "post-holed" in a week on one of the higher passes. Post-holed means sinking in the snow to the knees or farther. He backtracked, did the rest of the trail, then returned to hike this final segment. "The experts told me not to attempt this path. I was beginning to feel handicapped by what they say. But look at this." He shows me a large baggy of unopened medicine. "I'm asthmatic, but haven't opened the bag. What's more, I've done something few people can." He encourages me to continue. "The scenes on the trail ahead are just like the pictures in the guidebook - nothing doctored."

On one of those haunting mesas where trees won't grow but grasses and small lakes are evident, I have been walking for days alone when off to one side is movement. It looks like a white buffalo and parallels my course, then slants in. It's a horse and rider with loose reins connecting them. The rider and I exchange waves and try to talk but his horse knows as much English. Perhaps he's a recluse native American, I think, but soon learn we have Spanish in common. He has come for the summer from the camp in Mexico and spends dayson horseback on the mesa. Indeed the horse and he are as one animal. "My name is Conception," he says suddenly and rides to the northwest. That happens to be the direction at which lay, I have thought for the past 20 minutes, a huge white barn in the distance. So I guess that's where he is staying. Walking on, curiously, the structure never gets closer despite my path more or less toward it but looms on the horizon like the moon with something earthly nearby for perspective. Later down the trail I figure out the building is actually a mountainpeak reflecting sunlight. This was conception's projected residence.

The daily routine is contentedly repetitive. Up about 0800, break camp in ten minutes, hike a couple hours, and pause for something to nibble on, then walk till just before sunset. At this point comes the big meal of the day, then more trail for a couple hours. Camp is made quickly and am in the sack and asleep almost as fast. Making camp deserves explanation, for I'm not a campfire cowboy. When ready to settle, I tug the sleeping bag out a special zippered opening on the pack bottom. The biv sack (a waterproof envelope, which takes the place of a tent) is already around the sleep bag so I just throw the lot under a conifer for rain protection. Boots often stay on, for why waste time removing and replacing them. There is a special stuff sack in which to slip them and my feet, protecting the sleep bag. Therefore, from time of deciding when to bed down to closing my eyes takes as little as two minutes.

Food on this trip is nothing special, always welcome. I carry about a week's worth from each supply point, and occasionally run out. That's where the powdered Gatorade comes in. Those supply points are 4 caches laid previously along the route, along with a couple hitchhikes into little towns. Water has not been a problem, for typically there is a stream each hour or so. The trail itself is well made and marked sufficiently. Though there is reference above to mesas, most trail time is spent at a slight grade up or down. Mountains are not conquered but switchbacked up to passes, and then descended the same way. The official guidebook can cause one to tear the hair out, for it is amateurish and not written in "bullet" fashion as better ones may be. That is, a good guide targets landmarks with mileages to the tenth..."pass the creek at mile 2.6", whereas the one in my hands relies on past landmarks to indicate the next..."take the second side trail past the corral". Thus the latter can be deciphered in one direction only. I started hiking south to north to have the sun at my back, but there was much orienteering with compass and maps since the guide was useless. Later I join conventionality, go north to south - Denver to Durango - and the guide is useful.

Weather? Fortune favors me in the skies throughout. During the initial couple weeks there are showers each afternoon. Twice been hailed on. However, most days are pleasant and only rarely do springs ice lightly over at night.

As Durango and the final days close in, I feel fitter in many ways. The initial three days of hiking I was obliged to pause every ten minutes during an uphill at high altitude. Now I hike right through the pauses, except at the steepest inclines. Whereas the body acclimates, the boots wear. Mine are shredded with three-inch gashes throughout the uppers. So, by thetime the trail crosses a narrow gauge railroad known as the Durango & Silverton rail....I look left along the rail, then right along the trail and make a decision, or rather the shoes do. A railbed is gentler, no roots, sharp rocks or mud. It slopes gracefully, and is elevated for better view and drainage. There is a 20' right-of-way for sightseeing and the track typically follows a major canyon with sufficient water. Plus, there is memorabilia including platforms, machinery, sided old cars, shanties and water towers.

I walk the track through remote mountains till after dark. Figuring tonight is my last before Durango, I'm looking for a roof over my head - shanty with dirt floor will do to keep out cold air and critters. Way along past dark there is still no such hut, but a couple hours later there's an old mailbox with "gone fishin'" hand-scrawled on it. An indistinct building lies across a meadow a hundred yards off the rail. I step onto a porch from yesteryear. There is an old rocking chair, bottles, and some tools of same vintage, plus a huge call-em-to-dinner triangle. There is also a heavy door with a log cross-brace. Removing the log, the door falls outward and I catch it before getting conked. Behind is another door, this with hinges and a sign, "you are welcome to use the cabin, but please leave it as you find it". I walk in, torch in hand, and am transformed to turn-of-the-century America. The kitchen implements, lamps and stove are from then. Furniture in the living room same, and in two bedrooms upstairs. I choose a big brass bed downstairs.... The mattress is soft but not too long.

A train whistle awakens me the next morning, signaling the last day on the trail. There is a logbook on the cabin kitchen table in which I scratch a poem of thanks, then log-bolt shut the outer door and amble down the track. As the ex-asthmatic said, it's a happy-sad undoctored time.

The Durango & Silverton narrow gauge is a piece of history, known to most hobos as one of the last narrow rails. A narrow gauge is one long step from rail to rail, whereas the standard ones are too wide for a step. In olden times when the town Silverton boomed, freights hauled ore down to Durango. Nowadays, the rail is plied by tourists riding original cars pulled by early steam engines.

I hike Ten rail miles and come to a bend beyond which a cloud of steam and smoke belches downwind, along with the rumble of an engine. I hide 20 yards away behind a mass of rock. There is a drop off to one side of the rail to the river below, and on the other side the cliff, but in this case there are some pines before the cliff. Not wanting to be discovered, sit behind the trees and wait. The smoke nearly overpowers and I breathe through shirt fabric, wondering why the train doesn't move on. Between some rocks I discover a leathersuitcase and paw through it thinking it probably has been lost overboard by a tourist. There are some clothes, a notepad from an unnamed Sheraton hotel, and travel case of music C.d.'s. No shoes and no ID. The train finally files by and there are four little mysteries to solve. First, it will probably never be discovered whom the case belongs to. Second, why did the train waited so long before coming by, steaming, smoking and dripping water? (It has, I discover soon, taken on water from a tower around the turn.) Third, the suitcase was on the inside bend of the track, the opposite of which momentum would have carried it - whichever direction the train headed. (I never figure this out, but put the small case of 50 C.d.'s in my pack to give someone later.) Fourth, besides smelling like smoke and cinders, aftershave must have broken in the suitcase. Now walking out of the clouds of steam, I reek but will smell better going into town. I have walked 20 track miles in the last day-and-half when a putt-putt sound comes from behind and I jump aside. One looks after jumping on a right-of-way. An old, overalled man in a two-man car with tiny rail wheels labors by and stops just ahead. "Whatcha doin' out here." He has a Norwegian accent. I point to my shoes and tell him about the Colorado Trail. "Yah, them boots is blown out. Git in." He is a rail inspector looking for loose spikes and whatnot, and has done so for the D&S for 35 years. I get a guided tour, stopping atwaterfalls and historic spots. We chase a deer along the track through a narrow stretch, and have little chance of catching it since the six-foot long, gasoline-powered, belt-driven trolley has top speed about 20 mph. it has long been a dream to ride one of these vehicles, and now it drops me at the Durango limits. "Dat's de end a de line, son", and that's the end of the Colorado Trail.

This Rockies hike compares favorable to others I've been on: the Appalacion and Pacific Crest, and the lengths of Death Valley and Baja. The reasons are the trail is well-made and marked, there is a guidebook as such, the cache or resupply points are convenient, there is wondrous scenery and wildlife with few hikers, water is plentiful, and the whole thing is manageable in a month's time. No permits required.

The primary purpose of the trip is reached - to be able to hike under pack at altitude all day. Beyond that, quantitatively, I have 20% greater strength and stamina, eyesight improved 15%, circulation better by 10%, footspeed increased by 30%, resting pulse down to 55/minute, blood press. 117/78, immunity increased by 20%, resistance to natural elements up by 30%, and mentally more clear by 15%.

These are some reflections along the continental divide.