The trail guide’s creed: “Never let being lost take the fun out of not knowing where you are.”
Our Colorado Trail hike did not start well. We got lost twice in the first half day. Well, three times if you count being lost before we even reached the trailhead. The whole first week or so was a calamity of errors mostly having to do with my equines. The trail spirits were speaking but I wasn’t listening.
I wasn’t looking for any kind of spiritual, self-improvement type of journey. Sure, I figured that missing several dozen happy hours at all my favorite hangouts wouldn’t do me any harm, and I was hoping to get in better shape and maybe clear my head a little. But as far as “climbing the mountain” seeking knowledge, enlightenment, self-awareness, or any Paulo Coelho variety of spiritual quest, I’m too much of a cynical, smart-ass cowboy type to buy into that sort of happy horseshit. But as so often in life, I found everything I wasn’t looking for and didn’t think I needed.
First day we took a wrong turn in a bad lightning storm and went backwards a few miles. Second day Paco, our mini Aussie with thousands of miles following equines, got stepped on seriously by Kathy’s mare but was still able to travel. That night we discovered my sleeping bag had fallen out of a pannier and I spent a cold night in a bivy bag at 10,500 feet. before backtracking seven miles and dropping 2,000 feet to retrieve it.
Third evening, I’d left my electric fence line at the previous camp and backtracked 10 miles to retrieve it. This screw up, however, was a blessing in disguise as the backtrack was through a beautiful six-mile long meadow riding Kathy’s gaited Paso Fino, Honey, with mule, Zeb, and donkey, Lucky, running loose alongside bucking and kicking. Honey wanted to run, and I put the reins down and let her go, steering only with legs and weight, dodging and jumping shrubby cinquefoil past elk and moose in the meadow and feeling like part of a wild herd.
It reminded me of the old days with my first mule, Fart Blossom. I preferred riding bareback in those days and could control her perfectly without any headstall at all. I started many mornings on desert camping trips with a several-mile wild ride with nothing on Blossom and wearing only my hat, skivvies and tennis shoes while the rest of my herd ran bucking, kicking and frolicking all around us.
That is how I was dressed during my best ride ever up Courthouse Wash in Arches National Park with a bunch of pissed off park rangers and a posse of mounted volunteers in hot pursuit while my wild herd frolicked around us. They had gotten in trouble. I don’t know what for. We never asked.
Meanwhile, back on the CT, it was a great ride on Honey and a great stroll down memory lane and my glory days with Blossom, but left me with the vague feeling of something missing. It took a couple more weeks of walking to realize the missing thing was me.
Several days later, we walked into Gold Hill between Frisco and Breckenridge, leading our animals due to cinch sores and stone bruises after just under 100 miles on the trail. As a wilderness and hunting guide, I’d traveled much harder country with heavier loads without any such problems and was baffled and frustrated. Having shifted loads mostly to my mule Zeb, soft as silk but tough as nails, and having walked all the animals for several days, the equines were mostly recovered and ready, but we’d heard talk of avalanche remnants near Copper Mountain, so I arranged to trailer the critters home and switch to backpacks at least until we got past the snow debris. We trimmed our loads down to two backpacks weighing almost 50 pounds each and set out on foot late the next day.
We immediately ran into the Breck Epic, a 500-rider mountain bike race that we had to dodge all day and that would have been disastrous with the critters. We then encountered the avalanche field that could have been a death trap for equines. I began to concede this wasn’t a good year for equines on the CT, but it was still another week before I started listening to the trail.
We were trudging along under our heavy packs carrying three weeks of provisions for ourselves and dogs while learning that everyone else was carrying 15-20-pound packs of lightweight, high tech stuff and resupplying every two or three days. We couldn’t really change plans at that point and resolved ourselves to just moving slower than most and proud that we weren't hitting towns every few days.
One day, talking to a young Canadian woman, I learned she was carrying about 30 pounds, almost the same percentage of her own weight I was carrying, and doing almost twice our distance daily. No big deal, she was much younger, and I was content to go easy and stop to catch my breath once in a while. That’s when something snapped in me. Stop and catch my breath? Any athlete knows one doesn’t stop and catch breath, athletes lead with breathing and they don’t catch breath, they expel it. Hard!
It suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t gotten old, I’d just quit trying. I wasn’t just trudging down a trail, I’d been trudging through life. Mid-sixties isn’t that old. I’d just become lazy, resting on my laurels and leaning on excuses. Since when had I settled for being at the back of the pack? When had I forgotten how to breathe? Breathing is living! When had I forgotten how to live? Running runs in my family. Little brother John and I used to run fourteeners in pretty competitive time. My older brother, Bill, was a high school national champion runner.
You just saw Bill, by the way, he’s the smiling doctor advertised on the previous page. That revealed, I’m compelled to provide the disclaimer that, other than being best of friends and having been good runners, we are very different people. Let it suffice to say that it’s a good thing that he’s a doctor and I am not. I don’t know if he’s also had his spiritual cage rattled lately. You might ask him next time you break an arm or need stitches. He’s the nicest guy you could hope to meet and known to be very talkative and philosophical. He would be especially good to visit if you think you’re dying. You’d almost certainly live to talk about it and have someone there to talk about it with. The one stop doc.
Meanwhile, back on the CT, I was getting angry with myself and wanted to charge up the next hill and make myself suffer. I wanted to dig deep, feel the pain. I started uphill, breathing hard. I heard echoes of old coaches and senseis, “If you stop, you better be puking!” Soon my feet found the rhythm of my breathing. I heard the roaring of my heartbeat in my ears, the rush of endorphins through my brain, but no pain.
I experienced a rush of thoughts and revelations, some good, some bad, while my brain rapidly sorted through keeping the positive and expelling the negative – like breathing. I pushed harder, wanting to struggle for reserves and willpower. Instead, I kept feeling better. It all felt very familiar and good, like coming home.
As a Gemini, can I claim to have had a self-reunion? Tha’s what it felt like. Suddenly, I was at the top of the hill, my head roaring like a wild coastline. I’d never felt so alive! I knew then why my equines hadn’t been invited on this journey. It had to be me, all of me, and me alone. It was as though all of the best of me had to be called in to expel all of the worst of me. A long time in coming, but simple as breathing.
It took a couple of days for my old body to catch up with my new attitude, but my optimism and energies kept increasing. My heavy pack was no longer an excuse, but necessary ballast to keep me from floating away. I was loving the trail, but anxious to finish in order to pursue other goals. I’d never felt so enthusiastic about everything. We had a resupply planned for Cottonwood Pass in a couple days, but I was so into hiking that I almost dreaded the interruption, even for a cheeseburger.
The resupply was being provided by an old friend, Steve Jackson, a successful writer and the author of the Chris Klug story, “To The Edge and Back,” a book about Aspen’s own home-grown hero who had survived a liver transplant and recovered to become the first U.S. Olympic snowboard medalist. Jackson had invited me along on the U.S. Snowboard Team European tour as their official photographer.
Everyone knew that I wasn’t a real photographer and that Jackson had brought me along as a drinking buddy, but they also thought that with a foolproof digital camera, even someone as dumb as a dipstick would get at least a few good photos. They were wrong. I didn’t know cameras had a delay setting, nor did I know that one could scan through to view previous photos. I guess I figured that the tiny digital film would eventually go to some digital darkroom for digital developing. I wasn't invited back.
Meanwhile, back on the trail … “Wait a minute. What’s going on?” a reader might ask by now. “Isn’t this article supposed to be about the Colorado Trail? Why all the wandering narrative? What’s the point in all this?” Well, far better writers (not to mention better photographers) have failed to capture the magnificent beauty of the Rocky Mountain high country, so why waste time on that effort? And how does one aptly describe the way a forest can wake up buzzing, literally, with the sound of unseen insects busy starting their day while the frost still lay thick on the meadow? Or the bright and cheery song of an unknown bird in the dead of a cold, dark night?
I must stick to the telling of simpler stories that I can better comprehend and relate. And the wandering, distracted discourse? Most guys, and especially we jokers, will talk about anything and everything on earth before they will consider discussing even the most remote possibility that they might be suffering from depression.
We did eventually wander into Durango, but this had long ceased to be any goal of great consequence for me. It’s always the journey, not the destination. Sometimes one must walk a long way to appreciate the insignificance of distance. The CT had put me on a path back to myself. A path with no unit of measure nor schedule.
So here’s the short version: I went for a long hike with a tired old man that I thought was me. But I left him behind on a steep hill deep in the woods and returned feeling young, vigorous and invincible. If ever the old guy sneaks up on me again, I’ll take him for another long hike and leave him in my dust as far away as possible.
When the time comes that my body is too old and tired to outrun the old man, I’ll leave it behind in the dust too, along with the old man, and thus unburdened, I’ll charge up that highest of all mountains that renders us all ageless and invincible.
Believing that humans are instinctively migratory and happiest when light of load and on the road, Jim and Kathy recently bought a 1986 E350 Ford Leisure Craft (hippie van) that they plan to drive across South America over the next year.