Ozark 100 was hard. Bighorn 100 was hard. Ouray 100 was hard. The Bear 100 was hard. And now that I'm listing things, I've done a lot of hard stuff in the short span of a couple years... But a solo thru-hike of the Colorado Trail was by far the most difficult. Shortly after I ran my first trail marathon, a mere three months after I started running, I began packing resupplies and dog packs for the CT. The farthest I had traveled on foot in a day up until that point in my life was, well, a marathon. And that was actually only 25 miles. I only had 21 days off work to complete the 487 miles of the trail, which would mean that most days would surpass 25 miles, with about forty pounds of weight on my back. If that's not daunting, I don't know what is...
Growing up in a Boulder family, that was more extreme than most, our typical family vacation involved backpacking. More often than not, my dad would pick a couple segments of the CT in the Sawatch, as we owned land in Buena Vista. We'd rent a llama from a ranch in Salida, and spend a week or so in the backcountry. I usually whined the entire time, and my brother typically followed my lead. Looking back, the constant whinging must have driven my parents mad. But we were outside, sleeping in a tent, eating food that we'd carried for days, all as a family. And that was all that mattered to my parents.
On June 14th I worked a night shift from 3-11, and proceeded to wake up at four in the morning on the 15th to begin a long trudge that linked up almost all of Colorado's mountain ranges.
My mom readily agreed to join me on the first few days. We slogged 75ish miles in three days through heat, backpack mis-fittings, and scorched trees from a fire years before. We carried excessive amounts of water to keep Satchel, the family dog, appeased. Those days wrecked me for the coming miles. A stream of cuss words from my mom accompanied my equally disheartened mood for a solid chunk of the segments we shared.
After the first seventy-five, at Kenosha Pass, my dad whisked my mom away in a car and it was just me. With a heavy pack that bruised my hips and spine, and a physically exhausted body, and an even more fried mental state. Okay, I guess Lila was there... and I’m positive that most people I encountered on the trail heard our one-sided conversations, and probably thought I was insane. I would drag my way up the mountainsides, powered by profanity and a slightly discouraged persistence, only to get to the top of the pass, stumble my way down and continue straight back up another climb.
But if there was one thing I took away from the countless family backpacking trips we’d taken when I was younger, it was that you always got to the top. And it didn’t matter how fast you did it. The most important thing about backpacking was to let the miles come to you. If you kept putting one foot in front of the other, you'd gonna get there.
The next week involved tears. Tears of pain, and tears of joy. I would wake up at four every morning, make a quick breakfast, and dread the day. My pack left my hips rubbed raw and bruised, and my shoulders ached with the compensation. Every step felt harder than the step before. But amidst all of that, I felt like I had a break-through. Long distance hikers call them your trail legs, and I felt like I finally got mine. Walking all day no longer phased me. My legs weren't fatigued after thirty miles. They weren't sore when I woke up the next day. And with that one positive "step in the right direction," everything felt more manageable. I cut up my sleeping pad and duct taped pieces of it to my waist strap to make the hip belt fit [almost] comfortably. I began to love the mornings, knowing that I had a thirty plus mile day with ten thousand feet of vertical gain ahead of me. My surroundings seemed to get more breathtaking as I traveled south to Durango.
There were certainly climbs that kicked my butt and left me plopped on the ground in a puddle of sweat and grime, munching on dried mangoes and nuts. There were portions of the trail that I despised. Long stretches through cow pastures and flat, boring terrain that connected the mountain ranges. And of course, there were the natural occurrences that scared and emotionally exhausted me to no end. Lightning on the high passes, relentless rain that infiltrated my pack and soaked everything, and the heat that greeted me every time I'd descend to a lower altitude.
Yet on all the backpacking trips we used to take, the resonating word that my pops engrained into our minds was perseverance. Actually, we used to have a word of the day on the trails. If it wasn’t a repeat of perseverance, it was persistence, or endurance. Apparently my parents knew what they were doing, because those words have been with me ever since. Looking back on it, it became easier to appreciate the hardships of the trail, and every climb was welcomed, the thunderstorms became a nap break.
As soon as Lila and I reached San Luis Pass, I got word from a couple of thru-hikers that my parents were about fifteen miles ahead of me. My parents had hiked the first half of the CT the year previous, and we're finishing up the second half while I was on it. As of that point, I'd spent about two weeks alone, having to maintain conversations with my dog. The potential of having company for the remaining hundred miles was enough incentive for me to hustle and catch them at their resupply in Lake City. The next morning, I was up at 3:30, ready to put in my biggest day yet. I had an ambitious thirty-two mile day planned, with nearly 9k of climbing thrown in the mix. I was also all above 12,000 feet. Nothing was gonna stop me from my dream of a hot shower and endless french fries that awaited me in Lake City.
Unfortunately, the weather had ambitious plans, too. I woke up to the birds chirping, and the promise of a beautiful day, but with my last sip of coffee, the first ominous grumble of thunder echoed above the pass. I gulped, and pondered my options... and there was pretty much just one. I hoisted my belongings onto my back and we cautiously wandered up the pass. Lila and I rolled over the summit just as the thunder snow began. Casting worried glances at each other, we picked up the pace to descend to tree-line, one thousand feet below.
After what felt like an eternity of hurriedly slipping down wet talus, fingers and toes numb to the freezing temps, we reached the trees, and the skies seemed to clear. I took a deep breath, looked at my guidebook, and then Lila, and mentioned to her that we had three more high passes, as well as a seven mile long mesa that sat above 12,000 feet. I desperately wanted her input. Go for it? Or hang in the trees? But, with the hot shower still hanging just out of reach, and a promising, clear-trending sky, the answer was obvious. Even though I'd be spending at least fifteen more miles above tree-line, I couldn't find a good enough reason to wait. The next pass would make me question that line of thinking.
As we neared the top of the next two thousand foot climb, the skies turned dark again. This time, electricity was in the air. We descended about two hundred feet, and a bolt of lightning struck right where Lila had been standing a couple seconds before. Fear drove both of us into a sprint and we made it back to the trees as the hail pelted us and thunder shook the slick mountains. I sobbed into Lila's fur the moment we were "safe" in the trees. Temptation of civilization almost got the two of us killed.
After that storm passed, I trembled my way up to the high mesa, and proceeded to run eight minute miles for those seven miles above tree-line, with a thirty pound pack on. That still stands as one of my hardest efforts to date. When we finally made it to the road where the segment ended, I collapsed in a pile of mental and physical exhaustion. It took everything in me to stand up, stick my thumb out, and wait for some generous being that was headed down the road to Lake City.
That night, I slept in a bed, with the heater blasting and my family surrounding me. I don't think I'd ever been happier. The next few days were filled with giggling, tales of trail mishaps on both of our sides, and harmonica jam sessions. The weather was poor, but we were together, and that was all I wanted.
When the trail intersected Silverton, my mom and my brother opted to take the train to Durango, and my dad and I finished off the last seventy-five miles. Two and a half days later, we tagged the south terminus of the Colorado Trail. The remainder of the day consisted of pints of dairy free ice cream, chips, and cookies, a long hot shower, and a nap.
I dream of hitting the trail again, with a pack that holds everything I need, and no hurry to get wherever the hell I’m going. I definitely will one day. Maybe not in the near future, because the near future is booked... but hopefully not in the far future. I can't wait for Lila to remember the puppy-like, exuberant, stoked persona that she took on in the backcountry. I can't wait for her to show Roo how exhilarating life can be when it's just you and your people in the woods. But I REALLY can't wait to show Tyler what it's like to slow down, enjoy the entirety of the trail, and take in all the little sounds, smells, and sights that you just can't find on even the longest and most epic of trail runs.