Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Like "Mediocre" Basin

Hi all, just got into Rawlins, WY, and damn I am tired.  This town is reminiscent of those in New Mexico, where a long road walk leads right into civilization.  It seems like a mirage, an incongruous collection of buildings huddled around a span of railroad tracks hard up against a set of hills in the middle of a desert.  The people seem friendly enough, and a man even drove some ways off road just to offer me some water on the way in to town.  Even funnier, I was mistaken for a homeless traveler, this time by a woman who has "been there" before.  Despite my insistence that I was not "where" she thought I was, and my patiently explaining what the trail was, she shoved $5 in my hand and gave me a hug before jetting.  It never ceases to amaze.  Maybe I'm just not explicit enough, or should carry some CDT Association literature on me for such occasions. 

The area also shares the unfortunate distinction of being cattle country, which means several things.  First of all, poop.  Poop everywhere.  Wherever you want to set up camp, there it is, dried up or fresh, constantly taunting with its seeming invulnerability.  It makes one question the wisdom of eating red meat, seeing home much of the stuff these animals can produce.  Second, the random dust storms that occur with their frantic flight from any hiker, particularly when they run in the direction you are already walking on the road.  And third, the trampled ground around any water source that turns it into a muddy mess, and renders ground unwalkable once hard.  Why anyone would choose to raise such animals in an environment like this is beyond me.  

The Great Basin is a giant bowl formed where the Divide splits in two, resulting in an area where all precipitation flows inward, with no outlet to the ocean.  Because it is in a perpetual rainshadow, the whole region is exceptionally dry, and all the groundwater eventually evaporates.  This leaves behind excess salt in most of the drainages, meaning potable water is dangerously scarce.  Its a bit cruel to be walking beside a flowing stream in the middle of an arid wasteland and yet not be able to drink a drop of it.  I was forced to filter water from a cold but sulfurous spring just to make it to town, which, if you've never drank sulfur before, is ewwww plain and simple. 

But not everything out here is bad.  The famous big sky is present with every sunrise and set, the temperature isn't as bad as it could be (particularly with brisk winds during the day), the trail is an easy dirt road for the most part, and the fauna is different than I've been seeing; pronghorn antelope are literally hopping around everywhere, as are badger, muskrats, and, paridoxically, gulls at the saline lakes.  These water sources can look suspiciously like a white sand beach, what with their salt-crusted shores, adding more insult to injury.  Beautiful, but ultimately useless.  Ultimately, the trail continues in the basin for... longer than I would like to contemplate right now, but its continued distance will make the entry into the Wind River Range and Yellowstone all the better.  The fact that Kate is coming out to take my mind off things for a few days doesn't hurt either, but it will certainly make this next section seem like an eternity.  Regardless, the trail goes on, and I'll talk to you all from South Pass City in a few days.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Beetle Kill Mania or New Mexico Redux

Hi all, writing today from Steamboat Springs, the last town stop in CO (woohoo!).  After this, things are downhill for a bit, literally, as the trail heads into Wyoming and the Great Divide Basin, a huge desert where the divide splits apart, leaving a rain-shadowed depression where water is at a premium.  I'm already reminiscing about the days of abundant streams and eating snow, though it will be nice to escape the touristy-ness (and expense) of the towns down here. 

Once again I missed an update in Grand Lakes, so I'll try to make up for things here.  The path from Silverthorne started out easy enough, but quickly became a challenging series of steep climbs with little real trail to speak of.  It seemed to stick to the physical divide as much as possible, which makes for some crazy views, but also increases the difficulty as there was little tread to follow; often one is walking one talus and loose scree for long stretches, making for slow and tiring going.  Furthermore, the water sources are often far below the track, making for uncertain rehydration, which is always important at altitude anyway.  Lastly, it also increases the danger from thunderstorms, particularly in the summer.  I have lucked out for the most part and was only held up by weather on the ridge once so far, but it always pays to be cautious in those circumstances.  The last leg into Grand Lakes was particularly interesting, as I went from a campsite above treeline at 13,000 feet overlooking the lights of Denver one night, along a cloud-shrouded ridge the next morning, and down to a series of large lakes at (relatively) low elevation that afternoon.  I was even treated to some free food and good conversation at the Little Moose Trading Post, a small campground store that hooks up the thru hikers as they pass on towards more civilization.

The final jump into Grand Lakes was a bit of a downer, unfortunately, as a particular stretch is inundated with downed trees, the continuing result of a massive infestation of invasive bark beetles that has affected the whole state.  The trail was completely wiped out, and fighting through the tangle of debris and shrubery was an arduous task that sapped yet more time.  I'd say it would be nice to see it cleared sooner, but given that the state is busy fighting several massive forest fires, that probably isn't high on their to-do list.  Fortunately, Grand Lakes more than made up fo the difficulty as I stayed at the awesome Shadowcliff Lodge and Hostel, situated in a massive wooden building above the town and overlooking the several lakes in the area.  At only $23 a night for a bunk, it was a pretty sweet deal.  I even got to tag along with the staff when they went to a nearby hotspring in a ravine, complete with a great cliff jumping spot.  Good times.

Leaving town, the trail gives hikers a decision; either take the expedient route, which heads straight northwest, or take a long, scenic loop through Rocky Mountain Nation Park which is directly adjacent to the hostel.  Not one to pass up exploring a good view, I took the long way.  It heads one creek, passing meadows and waterfalls on the way, tops out on aptly named Flattop Mountain, and heads down another drainage much like the first.  The most striking sight was the huge clouds seen on the horizon from the Fort Collins fire burning to the northeast.  Thankfully, the prevailing winds and several barren ridges seperated us from the conflagration, but a helpful woman in town reminded me of the danger of getting caught in a sudden, lightning induced fire.  Thanks bunches!

Ironically, once out of the park the trail takes a quick turn for the worst as it heads through several clear cut areas.  Its a jarring juxtaposition, one that mercifully only lasts for several miles.  Once back on the divide, the views open up again, giving some last views back towards the lakes and the park beyond.  The next few days were another series of strenuous up and downs oscillating above treeline.  The climb up Parkview Mountain in particular was a butt kicker, but I was treated with several amazing ridgetop campsites that offered perfect sunrise views.  The real highlight however was a rare mountain lion sighting a few mornings ago.  Even though I only saw him for a second before he booked into the trees, it was awesome to finally see such an elusive creature, particularly when one sees signs of their comings and goings so often.  Regardless of what I know about them, and their extreme reluctance to attack adult humans, I still found myself looking over my shoulder for the next few miles. 

The last bit here into Steamboat Springs offered fewer things to be rave about, unfortunately.  As the trail leaves the high mountains, it once again encounters private ranchland, which supersceded the desire of hikers and resulting in some ugly reroutes; the path to town includes many miles of asphalt walking.  It seems that I am in for some more long stretches of road from here into southern WY before the real funs begins again in the Wind River Range and Yellowstone beyond.  For the moment I am enjoying this last luxurious town stay, but much still awaits.  Next stop is Rawlins, 150 miles or so away, talk to you all later!  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Silverthorne or Bust

Hi all, writing today from scenic Silverthorne, CO, where I have been lucky enough to stay with a family friend, Rebekah, older sister to David whom I crashed with in Albequerque while rehabilitating from my injury (which seems like forever ago already).  Basically, karma dictates that I hook the Jordan family up with some hardcore hospitality at some point, so hopefully I'll be able to return the favor next time they come back East.  The help was particularly appreciated given the layout of the town, (or towns really, seeing as Silverthorne, Frisco, Dillon and Breckenridge seem to run together pretty fluidly) which definitely has all the services a hiker could need, but is a little spread out for easy access.  Having a car available takes much of the stress out of getting resupplied and all.  The area is pretty spectacular, with several 14,000 foot peaks ringing a huge reservoir which the towns surround, and the hike in was fairly relaxed knowing I would get to spend some time in a real bed.  In fact, the whole trek from my last town was very enjoyable, and I'll be sad to exit Colorado for the drier climes of Wyoming in a few weeks.

Leaving Salida was somewhat difficult, partly for the fact that the highway is a fair distance from downtown where I stayed, and partly because the place was so damn convenient.  After hitching half way with an opera singer-slash-secretary, and the rest of the way with a former professional hangliding racer turnered writer and gold prospector, I finally got back on trail at Monarch Pass.  The tread was rather easy for a few days as the path now seems to follow a rhythm of tough climbs followed by long stretches following a ridge or traversing a mountain at contour, often through pine and aspen groves.  It passes the remains of an old mining town, now converted to backcountry cabins, as well as several packed trailheads indicating the start of summer and the flood of day hikers soon to be swarming the trails.  Luckily the remoter places are still largely deserted, with largely unobstructed views from the tops of high passes down to snow dotted alpine lakes. 

The highlight of this last stretch was Mt Elbert, which at 14,400 feet is the highest peak in Colorado and second only to Mt Whitney in altitude in the continental US.  The trail leaves from Twin Lakes, a large reservoir with a postage stamp sized village mainly comprised of a general store and gas station, then climbs the south flank of the mountain, quickly ascending above treeline.  I made a very windy camp about a quarter of the way up and continued early the next day, arriving at the top shortly after sunrise, finding two other hikers already at the summit.  They had walked through the night to get there and were warming snow for water with their stoves, and for a short while we had the place to ourselves.  With the sun up and the sky clear, things warmed up quickly and made for some amazing views back down towards the lake and the surrounding ranges. On the descent I encountered an increasing stream of peak baggers in various states of exhaustion and preparedness; I stopped counting at 75, and there were probably double that all told.  It was a fun if tiring 4,000 foot scramble that left my knees and quads shaking, and I was glad for some relatively flat hiking afterwards. 

The next goal was Copper Mt, a full sized ski resort with hotels, tons of shops, and some restaurants... almost all of which were closed due to my arriving before their summer season began.  After hitting up the ice cream store, I headed up and over some passes towards the Silverthorne area, passing around the headwaters of some pristine streams and near an impressive waterfall crowded with hikers from town.  I did stop to talk to 2 PCTers whom hiked in '10, the same year I had, so we reminisced for awhile before parting ways.  I also gleaned some unfortunate information from some southbound Colorado Trail hikers concerning Greg, my hiking companion from Pagosa Springs to Lake City; apparently he got off trail in Salida and went home to Seattle for some reason for an indeterminate amount of time... which generally means for the rest of the season.  Apparently I'm not the only one who found leaving that town difficult.  As always, getting momentum leaving civilization is one of the hardest parts of thru hiking, and here is no different.  On that note, I should get going; the trail won't hike itself!  Talk to you later.          

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Slowly in Salida

Hi everybody, writing today from lovely Salida, CO.  I was lazy and managed to miss posting in Lake City, so I'll try and make up for it here.

The trip from Pagosa Springs to Lake City was a fairly challenging one.  Knowing this in advance, Greg, the other thru hiker in town, and I decided to make the 115 hike together, so we hitched out and hit the trail.  Very soon after departing we started running into long stretches of snow that had the annoying tendency to soften up early in the day, resulting in yet more postholing.  As the days went by however, the snow started to suncup, forming into shallow bowls that herald the start of the real thaw.  While this provided its own challenge in terms of hiking for us, it means that anyone traveling through just a few days after will probably have it free and clear.  Dang.  Still, as the suncups progress they acquire a beauty of their own, resembling waves and spines of snow that give the odd impression walking over a flash-frozen ocean.

The terrain was another challenge through this first section, with many ups and downs that lacked switchbacks to make the going easier.  At times it felt more like the Appalachian trail, with its brutal straight up climbs, only this time at 13,000 feet.  Luckily the views more than made up for the hardship, as the sparse vegetation means near constant views for dozens of miles.  The sight distance was somewhat limited by a haze produced by forest fires in New Mexico, and at one point we could see smoke billowing just over a neighboring ridge, but all in all the sights were spectacular.  One highlight was "The Window", a perfectly square notch knocked out of an escarpment above the trail, as well as the headwaters of the Rio Grande.  The terrain gradually became more gentle as we headed down to Spring Creek Pass and the way into town, where a 2 and a half hour hitch put a slight damper on our spirits.

Lake City was a nice respite from the trials of the previous days, particularly since a new hostel had just opened up there.  Greg and I were the first hikers to stay there, and in fact he knew the owner, Lucky, from his PCT thru hike in 2006.  Lucky, an Irishman of course, had since gotten married, had 2 kids, 4 dogs, and a mortgage, but retained his hiking spirit and was happy to give us info about the trail in the area.  The town was awesome for hikers being quaint, compact, and generally nice smelling (there were lots of lilacs, what can I say.)  It is nestles in a narrow river valley, giving it a very sheltered feeling, and seeing as we were there slightly before tourist season, wasn't very crowded either.  Greg decided to stay another day to heal his feet, which were rubbed raw due to the wet conditions, but I got a ride out with Lucky and continued north.

The trail to Salida has been suspiciously easy compared to the last stretch.  This might just be due to increasing snow melt, but the trail itself has been pretty tame, thanks to the fact that it runs congruent to the well-maintained Colorado Trail.  It generally climbs up to the divide, then follows the ridges on contour, meaning less strenuous up and down.  There has been more vegetation, including a smattering of aspens which add some nice contrast to the pine forests up here.  As always, the views are beautiful when the path clears out, revealing more snow capped mountains in the distance that hint at future trials to come.  It has been nice hiking alone again, as Greg and I had a very different pace to our days, but the loneliness does add a further challenge to combat.  Luckily, with the start of the summer season and the entrance into more populated parts of the state, there have been many more day hikers to interact with and pump for info regarding conditions north of here.

 Salida itself is great, easily living up to its reputation as one of the best trail towns.  While the whole city itself is relatively spread out, all the hiker needs are centered in the small historic district which is crammed full of restaurants, bars, an outfitter, a Safeway, the library and the PO.  All of life's needs as far as we are concerned.  There is even a river complete with whitewater rafting runs going straight through town; it reminds me a little of Bend, OR, in its outdoorsiness.  Sadly, I'll have to be hiking out soon, but given that the next stretch looks pretty idyllic, and that the town stops come very frequently for a little bit, I'm not too worried.  Anyway, time to hit the trail, talk to you later.