The anticipation is killing me!!!
I stare at my phone screen, watching each of twenty-three minutes pass until my alarm. Then I bolt up and pinball against the walls, tables and chairs of the hostel kitchen while I make coffee, pound orange juice and pack and re-pack my gear just-so. At 6am sharp, headlights pour in through the window. Our ride to the pass! The driver is a nice lady from the local hardware store. We stop at the store on the way out of town to sign waivers. Waivers? Sure, why not. Back in the car, I assume the front seat and decimate all quiet with nervous prattle. I know, I know, I’m being a lot for so early in the morning, but I can’t help it. The anticipation is killing me!!!
Thread by thread, darkness thins outside the car window. Turn by turn, the car hairpins toward Spring Creek Pass. There’s a precise moment, a critical confluence, when the night-threads are just thin enough and the turns stacked just high enough to fling open big views. There’s a unified gasp across the car: SNOW! The high peaks are luminous with it! Freshly capped from last night’s storm. One last time, we congratulate each other for sleeping indoors last night.
Ivana, Monsoon and I hop out of the car. I shudder at the cold and dig more layers from my pack. The sky looks iffy. But my hopefulness is too outsized to heed warning. We assure each other it’ll burn off before we know it.
And then (::sigh::) we splinter. Monsoon headed north on the Colorado Trail, Ivana south, and me back along the CDT. Farewell, friends! I squeeze them goodbye and cross the parking lot and now, at long last, my anticipation meets its object: The San Juan Mountains!
Okay, so why all dis anticipation? Anticipation because the San Juans are big time. The crux of the CDT, I’d say. Among the handful of people I personally know who have hiked this trail, all of them have been thwarted in one way or another by conditions in this section. Hence the ghostly questions that have followed me since Glacier: would I beat winter to the Weminuche Wilderness? Or would it beckon me in, only to smite me mid-way through? My maps lay out a wealth bail outs and alternates, so an early winter front wouldn’t *end* my hike, but it would reroute it away from some dope mountains.
By some awful grace, I needn’t worry about bail outs. The weather window for the next five days is clear. Our car wide gasp would have been of a different flavor if we didn’t have an obnoxiously blue forecast in our back pockets. The mountains have rolled out their version of the red carpet, i.e. admittance.
Stoke is high.
My hike (& life) feels as charmed as ever.
The trail climbs up and over 13,000 ft. Blue skies overtake the overcast. The air pumping in and out of my lungs is so damn rarified it stings. Hope wins. I’m sensing that this is one of those capital-M moments for me, wherein I’m aware of all the luck and guts and privilege that converged to bring me here. My insides fizz. It all makes me want to submit some sort of honor or decree or something. So here it is: I, Double Happiness, hereby consecrate this section as a ~Spirit Quest~.
Yes, a Spirit Quest.
What is a Spirit Quest? Great question. I have no idea so I make it up as I go along.
Spirit Quest Rule #1: No Other Humans Invited
From Spring Creek Pass to Wolf Creek Pass, I don’t see another soul. 96 hours of complete solitude are a record for me. The closest I get to seeing anyone is at the end of my second day, when I stumble upon what appears to be a hunter’s camp.
No one’s home. Whew, thank god for that!
I have no desire to greet the hunter when she returns, but I also have no miles left in me. I creep along the edge of the nearby meadow and tuck myself under low hanging branches out of ear and eye shot of the campsite.
If you had told me two months ago that I’d be relieved to prolong my solitude… I woulda LOL-ed.
So yeah, I don’t see people but I do see other forest friends like deer, elk, coyotes, pikas and marmots. My favorites are the chipmunks though. They’re scrappy as all get out. What my friend Erin might call ‘Racin’ Chipmunks.’ You know those fat, cheeto eating chipmunks you see waddling around national parks? They would beg this Racin’ breed for mercy.
Spirit Quest Rule #2: Media Free, baby
No music or podcasts or audio books this section. Just to see how it feels. Because maybe my spirit will quest better without audio distraction. In practice, this means that my mind loops one song (the last song I listened to on the way into Lake City) for days on end. Thankfully, it’s a great song. I usually use phone noise to mediate my low moments, so I’m curious if eliminating the crutch will be a challenge. (Spoiler: it’s a non-issue.)
The absence of humans and phone noise, plus boundless wind-swept tundra, makes for very deep expressions of Stillness and Quiet. I’m in a water filtering flow state one afternoon, when a loud crashing startles me. I whip my head around, looking for what in sam’s hell tripped my fight or flight. There’s nothing in sight. Nothing but wind dimpled stillness in all directions. Then I look up and realize… that it’s bird wings. BIRD WINGS. Have I ever even heard a bird flap its wings before?? Daaayum. It throws me. I think of home and all the granularity I’m not receptive to. All the nuances I’ll never hear through the omni-ocean of ambient noise.
Spirit Quest Rule #3: Primal scream at least 3 times a day
I’m not sure if I’ve written about this yet, but I started screaming on a regular basis in Southern Montana. It started as an outlet for wound up grizzly fear. Now I keep it around for funsies. It usually goes down in sets of three: the first is your garden variety scream. The second is “Keeeee-Oooooooooooo!“, a call Taz and I used to echolocate each other in blow down sections. And last but not least, the third full breath is for screaming: “I AM THE WILDERNESS!!!!” *
It’s a 10/10 sequence. Would recommend.
Spirit Quest Rule #4: Manage Your Epiphany Expectations
Spirit questing might sound like your tryna have an epiphany, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have epiphanies if you plan for them. So I settle for simply hiking the section as it arises. Like I’ve told myself before: be in it now, study it later.
Spirit questing might also sound like you’re tryna journey with psychedelics. But you’d be wrong there too. No psychedelics. There is an alpine mini-bar, though!
Midst the solitude, silence, screaming and tiny bottles of booze, I have an unbelievable string of days. They are long days. I color just outside the lines of sunrise and sunset each day, not to bag big miles but to ensure sure I’m up and out for the prime time episodes of slanted color play. I imagine how different the trail would be if it was covered in snow, like it was for nobos in spring. Even without ice, the knife edge-y bits take my full attention. Feelin’ #blessed.
Each night is clear and cold. As I make dinner one night, my headlamp catches the glitter of frost already forming in the corners of my tent. By the time I wake up, the frozen appliqué has encased my tent walls inside and out. But burrowed in my sleeping bag (and under every layer of clothing I carry), I am warm n’ smug as hell. At least until I leave my tent. Then I am not smug. I am mad. Frantically wadding my tent into a stiff mess of cuben fiber and breaking into a pace just below jogging. I pull my fingers out of their individual glove sleeves and squeeze them into frozen fists. Waiting, waiting for my body to generate heat again. It never fails.
After 200+ miles of well-maintained overlap, the CDT breaks away from the Colorado Trail. As soon as the CDT is left to her own devices, she devolves back into the sketch mode I’ve grown so accustomed to. I’m happy to be back. Sure, it’s overgrown and stabby at times, but I dig how many gears the CDT shifts between: ridge walks, long sloping traverses, straight ups, straight downs. The mountains themselves are many-geared as well: volcanic, black, pink, and ever-dramatic. The terrain is tough, but my body is dialed.
Lord, I love hiking.
On the fourth day, I descend to Wolf Creek Pass and close out the section with an hour of daylight to spare. My thumb is out for thirty minutes until a woman pulls over to pick me up. We talk about her life and how she ended up in Pagosa Springs. Then about my hike and how I ended up on the highway. “I wish my daughters could meet you!” she says. I interpret this statement liberally and imagine it to be a wholesale endorsement of my life choices. Thanks, lady! She drops me off at a family style Mexican restaurant. I smash a platter of fajitas while calling motel after motel around South Fork. “Any chance you have a hiker rate?” One says they don’t have a hiker rate, but they do have a room that they’ll give me at a discount. “The room is… different. It tends to be hard to fill,” says the Spruce Lodge receptionist. Color me intrigued. I’ll take it.
I walk the two miles from the restaurant to Spruce Lodge. The world is all folds of night, except for buzzing convenience stores and headlights. The tide of ambient noise rises again. Nighthawk Slayer, we’re not in Kansas anymore. I feel sad on this two mile road walk. Sad because my most anticipated section exceeded expectations and now it coils behind me. I call my parents and then my friend Natalie and then Weekend. No one answers. Fine then. No distractions. Just me and my comedown.
I get to Spruce Lodge and climb the stairs to my discounted room. By “hard to fill,” they meant that the room has five beds and a foosball table. So many sleeping surfaces to choose from. I flop over the chosen one and look at my phone. September 24. Somewhere in the San Juans, Fall equinox slipped right on past me.
Note from the post-trail POV:
Someone recently asked me when I realized I had befriended myself on the CDT. In the San Juans, I reckon. Even more recently, someone else asked me what the most impactful moment of my CDT hike was. Again, the San Juans.
I post this entry today, three months post-trail, while sitting in an impossibly hip coffeeshop. Wood tables. Exposed brick. Huge bulbous fixtures of warm lighting. Rain. Tom Waits. A bouquet of dried red chilis hung á la mistletoe in the doorway. A flour dusted woman with buzzcut hair shoveling dark crimson loaves from a wood-fired oven. It’s nice. It’s cozy. My coffee is many magnitudes better than VIA & Nido. My sandwich tastier than chia seed mush. Yet every cell in my body aches (aches!) to be back on this threshold of the trail. The Spirit Quest comedown continues.
* = “There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.'” ―