CDT Days 86-89: The San Juan Spirit Quest

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!

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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.

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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.

“Hello?

[silence]

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.

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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.

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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!

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Sponsored by Dana

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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* = “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.'” ― Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

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CDT Days 81-85: The Cochetopa Hills — OR — Not Letting My Hike Get In The Way Of My Hike

The company and comforts of the Buena Vista RV park pull a heavy blanket over my will to hike. This may be my first true course of what thru hikers call the ~town vortex~. Shadow flips paleo pancakes for breakfast. Country Mouse leads me through yoga and foam rolling. Then I sit and write in the shade of their RV’s awning with my feet in a blue plastic bucket of hot water and epsom salt. Bliss. Eventually, however, I must face the one down side of seeing these friends three times on the CDT: saying good bye to them for a third time. They drop me off back at Monarch Pass around 4pm. Thank you AGAIN Country Mouse and Shadow!!

From the parking lot the trail climbs up to a ridge walk, which is awash in golden hour light and inexplicably wind-less. Bliss. Bliss here too! There are more clouds milling about today. Conditions that up my sunset expectations and rightfully so.

At the high point of that ridge, I run into two dudes on mountain bikes. Our brief conversation comes to the topic of trail names.
“I don’t have a trail name, but my bike is named Night Hawk,” one of them says.
“I like it! Maybe my backpack needs a name,” I think out loud.
“Yeah, Name it dolly.”
“..Hm.” I pause. “Yeah, I dunno. I was thinking something like… Night Hawk Slayer.”
I tack on a smile to neutralize my response. Not intending to threaten the man! So excuse me while my claws retract to their resting position… but COME ONNN!! You bros get to ride around on Night Hawks, and I’m carrying a Dolly? Could they think of a more gender normative name if they tried?

As I hike on, I rethink my reflex. Maybe the guy had a spidey-sense for my taste in music and meant it as a tribute to Dolly Parton. In which case, I dig it.

That night, I spread my piece of tyvek and sleeping pad and bag at Marshall Pass among the car campers. I hear trucks trundling along the forest service road all night long. When it wakes me up at 4:45am, I give in, pack up and start walking. There’s a charity bike race course marked along part of the CDT ahead, and I hope to get out in front of it.

For the next 70 miles, the trail is about as low key as Colorado gets. Relatively level (what I’d call “Colorado Flat”) and long stretches of road. The road walking reminds me of Wyoming. Or is it a preview of New Mexico? Or is it just the common denominator of the CDT? Either way, it begs big miles. Back to back 35 mile days.

My paper maps warn that this section of trail is covered in loose rocks and “can be frustrating.” Lo and behold, I find myself frustrated. Each and every foot placement takes active thought. If I take my eyes off my feet, even for a moment, I trip. Arghhh! What frustrates me even more is that I probably wouldn’t even think to be frustrated if I hadn’t read the map note that told me I would be.

And then there’s my pack. It feels heavy. There’s a new prickly pain shifting around my shoulders. I think in part because I’m carrying more water through this section, but also because my hip belt can’t cinch any tighter. Gotta eat more cookies. Or maybe just butter. When butter is the solution to my problems, I know I’m truly living.

And another thing: remember back in northern Montana when I said I liked the musk of my hat’s sweatband? Yeah. Not any more. The musk has taken a rancid turn. I’m convinced the sweatband is transforming into a cheese product of some variety. And def not the variety you’d want to sprinkle on anything.

In summary, there are less than glamorous things happening. It’s not the most enchanting few days of hiking. But on the second morning after Monarch Pass, I cross over a highway and get some perspective. There are strings of headlights creeping along the highway. I imagine they’re all headed to work this pre-dawn Tuesday morning. Work. Offices. Desks and desktop computers. I wonder what that’s like. A few months ago my friend Jen sent me a text: “Keep on trucking, you’re living the dream out there!”

Huh. I thought when I read it. Kasey, you ARE living your dream out here.

I can lose sight of that after eighty some odd days of routine. I think of Jen’s text as the headlights flow past and have a premonition of how searingly I will miss this when it’s over. Don’t miss the feast before it’s gone.

When I enter the La Garita Wilderness, the singular Colorado beauty I’ve come to expect resurfaces. Back into seas of rasta colored aspens (and beetle kill). I camp in the Cochetopa Creek canyon and set myself up for a 20 mile day to my next town exit at Spring Creek Pass. The morning that follows is one to remember. But rather than just say “I’m Double Happiness and I love hiking in the mornings,” I thought I’d get nitty-gritty, grape-nut granular with it. So here we go…

First things first: I sit up in my tent and *immediately* tear out of it because my insides demand *immediate* release. Sometimes, you can’t dig the cat hole fast enough. (I’ll learn to temper this daily panic by digging my cat hole the night before — a pro move I pick up from a CT hiker.) Hollow, I return to my tent and boil water for coffee and oatmeal. Meanwhile, the earliest, faintest hints of grey spread from the east and kick off their competition with the stars.

My headlamp is on for the first mile or so. Everywhere the light hits glitters with frost, because when you wake up early enough, the forest is a sparkle palace. The narrow tunnel of visibility from my headlamp gives me the impression of being in a small contained space, only wide enough for me to slip through. With a smidge more light, the tunnel illusion is shattered. I look to my left and BAM! Cold mountain faces lean over me from all sides. I have company.

My muscles feel fresh out of an ice bath this early. I windwill my arms to force blood into my fingertips. The climb helps me generate heat though and soon I pull off my gloves, clip them together and stuff them under my chest strap. I pull down my buff too. I’ve been breathing so hard into it the past 20 mins that I could wring it and drink from it. Not that I’d want to.

I turn my headlamp off. Just enough light to not need it and not fall on my face. Muscles warm now. Back on the horizon, a molton spectrum is pushing against the grey, and at some point, a point I always miss, the rest of the sky’s western majority flips from black to blue. I huff my way up the pass, racing to the seam of the sunrise. I stop once I hit it and look down at my body, now bathed in alpenglow. My hands, my jacket, the ground, everything flooded with copper. Swimming in alpenglow. This is my dream and I’m living it!! I crest the top of San Luis Pass and my breathing gets xtra choppy. Am I choking up from all the pretty or all the altitude? Who could say.

And that, is what I call a morning climb 🙌

The rest of the miles to Spring Creek Pass feel like a San Juan warm up. Oo baby it is rugged. After a few more passes, I cross the Snow Mesa — three flat miles across a 12,200+ plateau. All the empty, barren space looks v extraterrestrial.

The hitch to Lake City from Spring Creek Pass is quick n’ easy. For not the first time, my ride confessess that they picked me up because I was smiling. I call my hitching approach the Barn Dance Welcome! The most valuable charm I possess.

Lake City is a strange little town. The historical placards along the sidewalk inform me that it has a Donner Party-esque history. Wouldn’t be a thru hike without a brush with cannibalism! I check into my hostel (i.e. I pin my twenty dollar bill to a cork board) and go to the Cannibal Grill for a French dip sandwich and a bowl of red wine. As I eat, I scan the weather ahead. Tomorrow looks bad, significant rain event + thunder. I didn’t plan for a zero here, but I might have to? Back at the hostel I meet two solo CT hikers, Ivana and Monsoon, and a biker named Ray. We discuss the weather report and all feel the same tension — wanting to make progress (weather be damned), but also wanting to avoid frozen rain if possible (weather be respected).

Ultimately, we each decide to zero it up and wait it out. Hooray surprise rest day!

It’s well timed because I have visitors the next morning. My friends Dana and Will drive from Ridgway to see me in Lake City! Dana brings me blue nail polish and a face mask, only the essentials. Will gives a thoughtful compliment on my writing that I’ll always remember. They support my decision to stay indoors tonight and give me a pep talk for savoring the section ahead. By the time they leave, I am in the San Juan spirit like never before.

When the forecasted storm follows through that night, Monsoon, Ivana, Ray and I cannot and will not stop congratulating each other on our decision to stay. Oh to feel justified. We band together to cook a righteous feast with ALL THE VEGETABLES that evening. It turns into one of my warmest trail memz.

Back in Silverthorne, Long John’s friend Snap told me to “not let my hike get in the way of my hike.” I honestly had no idea what he meant by that. Went right over my head. But as my spontaneous hostel family and I laugh and tetris around each other in the kitchen and then settle down for our eclectic meal… I know exactly Snap meant.

CDT Days 78-80: The Collegiates — OR — Land of 1,000 Passes

The morning out of Twin Lakes gets straight to the point. 3,300 ft of climbing before I even finish my coffee. You’re cheeky Colorado, but I like you. I’m mincing my steady way up when LongJohn and FunkTrain barrel past me (FunkTrain is a friend of LongJohn from the AT, currently hiking the CT, and overlaps with us for a few days!). They’re racing to the top of the pass, winner gets a beer. Lol, have fun boys! No part of me wants to race up over 12,500 ft… but I can’t help but feel a little slow as they grow their lead up the switchbacks. With all the walking the past few months, I’ve had time to realltly tune into my homeostasis when it comes to pacing. And let me tell you. It’s a very narrow band. I’ve got one good gear, and when I’m in it, I could honestly hike forever. Especially on this trail. I remember on the PCT, me feet were always the limiting factor. I’d yell ahead to Weekend: “The dogs! They’re barking!” Or the more desperate variant: “Aaarf.” Both meant time to find camp. But out here, the dogs just aren’t barking as much. 2,000 miles on the divide has turned the bottoms of my feet into plastic. Or what I affectionately refer to as my milk gallon feet. The skin is thick and tough but will dent under pressure. Like a jug of milk.

I know. I’m cute 💁

So beer prize be damned! My homeostatic mince won’t win, but these here milk gallon feet will get me to there.

There’s a tangled knot of prayer flags at the top of Hope Pass — and views of mountains layered on mountains, sprinked with lakes and densely freckled with the full fall spectrum of color. I sit next to LongJohn and FunkTrain and smash snacks. It is WINDY. They wait for FunkTrain’s hiking partner who’s working through an ankle injury, but I feel antsy and forge ahead.

The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness I hike into next pushes me head over heels. When I’m not on high passes with perfect visibility over peaks in all directions, I’m walking through miles on miles on miles of aspen tunnels. I cannot stop photographing the foliage. Each golden leaf glows like it’s generating a wee light source all on it’s own.

Colorodans are out and about in the area. I get why. I meet day hikers, backpackers and even Lost Larry! A northbound CDT hiker I split a bottle of wine and a ride back to the trail with way back in Leadore, MT. He’s flipping around Colorado, finishing up a few sections he had to skip.

I don’t see LongJohn again until the next morning. It’s 6:30am and he’s cowboy camped a mile past where I slept. Quilt is synched over his head, body curled against the deep chill of the frosted valley floor. I step to avoid twig breaks. I’ll see him later today, I’m sure.

Now I’m in the meaty core of the Collegiates. I spend 20 miles hiking above tree line. The universe conspires in my favor and meets this prolonged exposure with crystal skies. Not a single slip of a cloud. There’s been so much haze, smoke and general weather since Canada that I forget my eyes can even see this well. It’s also a very quiet day. I didn’t charge my battery pack in Twin Lakes, a mistake that keeps my phone in ultimate airplane lock down mode. The silence only amplifies the experience of the day. Maybe I’ll forget to charge my battery more often.

From passing LongJohn to my eventual evening collapse on the Alpine Tunnel road, I climb over five passes. Five times I push my legs and lungs to max effort. Five times I’m breathless, giddy and altitude addled as I take my last few steps up the last few vertical feet. Five times (BAM!) I’m hit with a new mountain packed horizon on the other side. Five times I throw my trekking poles overhead. And five times, I smash a fun size summit Snick. One helluva day of hiking!!

The next morning I have one more pass, Chalk Creek Pass, and then wind my way toward Monarch Mountain. The ski resort is in summer hibernation mode. Frozen chair lifts and ski run signs pointed down rocky hillsides. Ski areas in summer always creep me out for some reason.

From Monarch Pass, I get an instant hitch to the Salida Walmart. My backpack rides in the front of my shopping cart while I pick up the essentials: kombucha, chips, guac, ice cream and whipped cream. I roll the cart outside to bench and wait for my next ride. Who’s driving? You guessed it! Country Mouse and Shadow of course! Third time seeing them on the CDT. Hey Weekend, Playa and DB: ya jealous much? 😏

They pick me up and take me to their RV, aka Large Marge, where I have the pleasure of spending the next twenty four hours. Country Mouse has slow cooked pork for tacos and made a spicy peach pie for dessert. Shadow tells me there’s one rule: “you gotta make yourself at home.”

Make myself at home in someone else’s home? Ha! I’ve been training for this all season.

CDT Day 74-77: Magic On Tap to Twin Lakes

When it rains, it pours! And so it is with trail magic in the great state of Colorado. The days that unfold from my decision to ‘turn right’ are full of light-heartedness and ease, elements the CDT usually only doles out sparingly. To do it all justice, I’m going to count off the magic, bout by bout. And it all starts with LongJohn, Colleen and Rocky, their boxer.

1. Colleen and LongJohn Take In a Stray
What a delightful novelty to wake up near other hikers and hike out together. Everywhere (except the aspen grove I slept under 🙏) is encased in frost. I lag behind the group on our short and merry march toward Silverthorne and relish taking photos with people for scale.

They invite me to tag along with them to their favorite diner, Mountain Lyon Cafe. I get the Ultimate Skillet and six cups for coffee and now it’s my favorite diner in Colorado too. Then LongJohn and I slack pack the twenty miles from the diner, into the hills and over to Copper Mountain. After yesterday’s bushwack thrash, the well worn tred and PCT-esque grade of the Gore Range Trail we follow is a real treat.

In the afternoon, Colleen, Rocky and Snap (LongJohn’s friend from the AT who’s visiting) swoop us from Copper in the sprinter van. Then we all hit Outer Range, the brewery LongJohn works at in Frisco. Free beer, pretzels and friendship! Then back at their condo, Snap prepares a Filipino feast for us and fifteen of their friends. It’s a party! It feels good to be folded into a social situation, and even better for the fact that it’s not my party. I can eat fresh green chili salsa and mingle and banter, but also make guilt-free disappearances into the into the spare room upstairs when I feel micro-flares of overwhelm.

I fall asleep to the muffled sound of voices and music. There’s comfort in the white noise of human socializing. There’s less comfort in the raucous metal banging that wakes me up at 3am. Some bear out smarted the condo complex’s dumpster.

In the morning, Colleen gives me a briefing on the Summit County free bus system. I’m ready to make a break for Breck! A care package from my sister Heather is waiting for me there…

2. Sis Heath Sends a Parcel of Love
Three bus transfers later, I make it to Breckenridge Village. I’ll admit, I have fun while I’m at it. Navigating public transport systems in unfamiliar cities is deeply, deeply satisfying for me. See, Kasey. You can find adventures in cities too. I walk through the town, past the Oktoberfest staging equipment to the hostel where my package waits. The FedEx box I rip open is… beyond. There are homemade 7-layer bars, Mountain House meals and desserts, VIA on VIA on VIA, chili flakes, extra zip locs, rum scented shampoo and cilantro scented conditioner, and even a face mask for chrissakes! There are little notes taped to each item that say things like: “Go Doub Happs!” and “Crushing milestones!” and “Spice up your life!” I glow the whole bus ride back to Silverthorne. To be loved and thought of so damn thoughtfully. Thank you, Sis Heath ❤️

When I get back to the condo, we make burgers for lunch and then drive back to Copper. I hug Colleen and Snap goodbye. What beautiful people. LongJohn and I nab beers from the van to make the first few miles back on trail a lil festive. LongJohn says we must camp tonight at Janet Cabin, which is an easy 8 miles strike from here. Cabin? Super down!

The CDT has now converged with the Colorado Trail (CT). This convergence comes with a lot of cush. The trail is marked at every turn — even between turns. And there are flat campsites and fire rings every other mile! Oo baby I could get used to this. I hike along gentle switchbacks through valleys of golden leaves. I am smitten with this seasonal moment in Colorado.

Just below Searle Pass, I spot the side trail to Janet Cabin. Wheeeeee! I skip down and find LongJohn sitting on the porch, head down. Oh no. “…Is it locked?” I ask. He nods. I make a dramatic display of despair, but when I open my eyes he laughs and swings open the door. NOT LOCKED! PRAISES BE!

3. A Night In A Luxury Chalet
The cabin is so much more than a cabin. All the frills you can imagine come included, from 20+ bunk beds to piles of pillows to board games to systems of stoves. Yes, you’re supposed to have a reservation… but wouldn’t they lock the door if they *really* didn’t want hikers to take refuge here? I tread lighter than a church mouse and leave it cleaner than I found it. Hopefully that’s enough to break even karma wise.

I’m up and out earlier than usual the next morning. Dawn wraps its fingers around the neighboring peaks just as I crest over Searle and Kokomo Pass. The blast of cold morning air soothes my very wind chapped face. I de-pack and salute the sun with a few quick flows. Vitality! I feel such vitality this morning.

The trail drives back down into the trees toward Tennessee pass and the miles peel back with ease. I leapfrog with LongJohn a few times, which is fun. I have a friend!! I tend to start earlier and he hikes faster, so we end up in the same place by the end of the day and will sometimes walk and talk for an hour, but the bulk of my miles are still to myself. The routine only lasts a few days, but man is it a delight while it does.

I push 30 miles to reach Timberline Lake Trailhead by dusk. Why? Because it wouldn’t be a day without magic! My friend Kenny is coming to meet us here with PIZZA.

4. Kenny Brings The ‘Za
I graduated with Kenny four months ago in Berkeley’s Greek Theater. What a trip to see him now on the CDT, but also surprisingly normal. He’s spending the summer in Colorado before heading back to the Bay for work. LongJohn makes a camp fire and we pass around some slammin’ pizza that has shrimpies and avocados on it. It feels momentus and important, this meet up. Kenny occupies the singular overlap between b-school and thru-hiking, my life four months ago and my life now. Our friendship is the same in either context, which helps me feel less divided and more whole. I am both hiker trash and a master of business. I CONTAIN MULTITUDES.

Needless to say, spirits are soaring while I swim through all this generosity. I find a pocket of service the next morning and send out a fleet of texts to loved ones about how #doublehappiness I am. How strong I feel! How connected I feel! One friend even comments on my voice over the phone: “Kasey, you sound different than a month ago. You sound good!”

I leave the pocket of service and bound toward Twin Lakes, when an unexpected weight settles on my chest. Oof. Vulnerability hang over in full effect. I’m suddenly very self conscious. Sharing my CDT highs feels even more vulnerable than sharing my lows. It’s like once I’ve articulated my joy, I’ve slapped a target on it’s back. Surely this is a fluke. How can my body and morale possibly keep this up? How am I allowed this?

The worm hole of invented worry deepens. So I stop, sit down and try to shake it off with a good ole change of socks. Siiigh. The aspens. They help pull me back. I remind myself (again) to not white knuckle my ups or downs.

Get back up and get to Twin Lakes, because when you get there…

5. Country Mouse and Shadow Strike Again!
They’re back! And not for the last time. My most admired hiking couple picks me up from Twin Lakes and takes me to dinner in Leadville. They are day hiking in the area today and come to see me just cuz they can. I tell them of my Colorado high and consciously don’t apologize for it. They give me love and encouragement and I consciously don’t turn away from it. A small experiment in accepting what is.

So, erm, yes. There was much receiving this section. It bought me incredible joy and I pinky promise to pay it all forward.

CDT Days 71-73: Christmas Comes Early

All I want for Christmas are some southbound CDT hikers to hang with. At times, this has been my most earnest wish. Especially in early days, when the clothes of solitude were still itchy and uncomfortable in their newness.

Well, gang. Christmas came in September! Sort of.

I leave Grand Lake early, a floppy croissant sando in hand. The trail is flat and cruisy. It skirts along the lake, which is slate grey this morning, reflecting precip-pregnant clouds above. I’m two miles in when I hear twigs break. Hikers behind me. I step aside to let them pass and see their tiny packs, their ripped calves, their thousand yard stare… I choke.

“Sobos?! …Are you SOBOS?!”

The couple turns around and nods. I ask them a question (who knows what it was, I black out in the moment). They answer politely, but never break their stride. Then they turn and speed off. Moments later, two more sobos walk by at a pace I would have to jog to match. They too disappear around the corner in a flash.

But, but… Wait!!

WE ARE THE SAME TRIBE?! LET’S SIT DOWN TOGETHER AND BREAK BREAD AND SHARE OUR ORIGIN STORIES!

Besides Sonic, they’re the first sobos I’ve seen in over 1000 miles.

I stand on the side of the trail for a few moments. Worst Christmas ever. I expect to feel stung by their coolness. My eagerness so woefully unreciprocated. And I do feel a little stung. But as I walk down the trail, I notice that there’s actually nothing uncomfortable about my aloneness at the moment. Hm. So, you know what. Eff it. Let’s just pull that emotional hook free and spare myself the self pity.

Insight: perhaps my solitude does not need saving after all. (edited 9/18 to remove unnecessary hedging)

Later that day, I hear the following quote in a podcast. It lands and puts an affirming seal over my insight. Disclaimer: the language is a lil woo-woo, but bear with me.

Willing to experience aloneness, I experience connection everywhere. Turning to face my fear, I meet the warrior who lives within. Opening to my loss, I gain the embrace of the universe. Surrendering into emptiness, I find fullness without end. Each condition I flee from pursues me. Each condition I welcome transforms me, and becomes itself transformed into its radiant jewel like essence.

I later find out that this group of hikers is attempting the Calendar Year Triple Crown. Yup, that means the PCT, CDT and AT in one calendar year. Hott damn, that is A LOT of walking. So yeah, their reticence from conversation was not personal. They’re busy.

Onward!

The walking is easy and well below treeline, which is convenient because a storms a-brewin. The rain and wind start lashing down mid afternoon. The sudden intensity of it makes me anxious. Walking head first into deteriorating conditions has that effect. But the day-use crowd in the area makes me feel better about my preparedness. I pass people hiking through the rain and mud in flip flops, and a few wrapped in cotton blankets.

I have a mileage goal in mind for today, but stop sort of it when I find a flat spot protected by trees. God bless shelter. Under my butterfly wing tent, I’m dry and warm and safe. As I drift off, sounds of a train reach under my tent and through my three layers of hoods. Home, I think to myself. Sounds just like the Bay Area Rapid Transit trains I hear from my bedroom in Oakland.

Train noise does the trick, because I sleep an uninterrupted nine hours. Transformative.

When I poke my head out in the morning, the storm has passed! Blue sky, baby! The only evidence of yesterday’s commotion is the dusting of snow on the peaks ahead. Nothing adds majesty (or puts the fear of impending winter in you) like a fresh layer of snow.

Most of the miles today are above treeline. It’s ridge walking all day long. The type of hiking that demands my full attention, definitely not a “podcast and chill” stretch. I summit two 13ers: James Peak and Mount Flora. By the time I get up there, the thin layer of snow is mostly melted. I take my sweet time on the climbs and luck out with weather windows on each summit. Between the peaks there is rain and sunshine and rainbows. I see a black bear! I knew they were around, but didn’t expect to see one. All in all, it is a damn good day. I tuck myself into my down bag feeling wholeheartedly spent.

The next morning, Christmas makes a comeback at Berthold pass. I run into LongJohn! We met in Glacier but haven’t seen each other since. Unlike the others, LongJohn is wondrously down to chat 🤗. There’s a popular alternate junction coming up today: one route takes you over Greys Peak (the high point of the CDT) and the other takes you through the Gore Range. LongJohn says he’s taking the Gore Range route — it goes right past his home in Silverthorne, and it sounds like his wife and friends will be making some hometown festivities over the coming days. He invites me to stay at their house if I head that way. Interesting. “It’s only 30 miles to Silverthorne,” he says nonchalantly.

My plan is Greys. A plan I’ve hitherto felt exceptionally committed to. But when I hit the junction, I turn right and choose Silverthorne. “It’s only 30 miles,” I shrug.

At first, the alternate feels like the best decision I’ve made. Nothing but blue sky and empty alpine passes to myself. But as the days wear on, the “just 30 miles” begins to feel like a gross understatement. It’s steep. Much tougher terrain than expected. The tread is thin and keeps disappearing on me. More than once, I add bonus miles in the wrong direction and bushwack back. Meanwhile, day light is burnin’ fast. It is a struggle and the word MISTAKE starts to take form in my mind in big, bold red letters. I could be setting up camp at the base of Greys Peak, but instead I’m heaving my body up against its limits toward a town I won’t make before nightfall. Why in Sam’s hell did I turn right?!! I rewind and try to unpack the decision. What value was I upholding by picking Silverthorne? Spontaneity? Community? Thrifty-ness? Did I just contradict my freshly sealed insight by following another hiker?

I’m feeling confused and dead beat tired as the sunsets. Just down the trail I see hikers ahead of me. Curiosity pushes me to catch them and it turns out to LongJohn, his wife Colleen and a group of friends(!). They’ve hiked in a party and are camping a mile before town — and holy trail magic, I’m invited to join!

Enter chips and dips, a campfire, music and good company. My whole body flushes with relief. Invisible itches are scratched upon contact.

What value did I uphold in turning right? Apparently fellowship and queso dip ♥️ Bless it all.

CDT Days 64-70: The First 160 Miles of Colorado — OR — Autumnal Tundra Vibes

Pockets of alpine splendor strung together on a thread of road walk — this is how I would describe the first week of Colorado (or maybe even the entire CDT?). You’re guaranteed pay offs, but you’re gonna have to eat ATV dust to get there.

After a long and eroded dirt road from the Wyoming border, I enter the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Fact: Zirkel is a very fun word to repeat to yourself out loud when alone. I hike up to Three Island Lake and swim for the first time in too long. The water’s soft and warm, for alpine standards. I sit on the grassy shore and spoon crushed chips into mouth until the cloud filtered sunlight dries my skin. In the afternoon I climb up Lost Ranger Peak. Lord it feels good to be hiking on good old single track trail again! I saw photos of hikers on this same climb a few days ago, getting rocked by thunder and lightning. But today, I have nothing but blue sky. I decide to camp as high as I can tonight — for acclimatization, but also for the sake of irreverence while storms are busy elsewhere in the state. I find a knot of stunted trees at 11,500 ft that block the wind real nice like. There’s a lake nearby, already reflecting ripe colors of sunset. Excellent. I unroll my tyvek, sleeping pad and sleeping bag and take stock. I dare say this spot knocks on the door for my Campsite Hall of Fame. And it comes with a moment of awareness: camping alone is no longer a threat. When did that happen?

When I leave my protected nest in the morning, the wind is ripping. I hike down, down, down and then it’s back to the thread of road walk. Every few minutes I have to pause and step aside for ATVs and mountain bikes and dirt bikes to pass. While I do, I realize that my SanDisk mp3 player has a radio function. New entertainment?! I scan until I pick up a radio station in Craig. It self identifies as “easy listening” and plays a staggering mix of Shaggy, Shania Twain, Macklamore, Train and Lil John. With every throwback track comes a different memory, e.g. an awkward middle school dance, a college erg workout. The worm hole of memz makes the miles fly, at least until the battery dies.

Snack game is getting sharp! Tortilla + tuna + sweaty cheddar + Frito dust

I reach highway 40 near Rabbit Ears Pass at 4:30pm. Enough time to hitch into Steamboat for the night! I check out the motels and good LORD dem prices. Resort town horror. So I schlep out to the KOA on the outskirts of town. Just as I turn my card over to pay for my site, the lady behind the counter says: “forty nine dollars is your total.” Wait… what?! $49 to pitch my tent?!! Does. Not. Compute. It’s dark now and too late for Plan C. So I pay the $49 and sulk with purpose the rest of the night. To add insult to injury, I heat a personal microwave pizza for dinner and sleep miserably, what with all the car campers laughing and clinking glasses until 2am. This might just be the lowest low of my hike, who woulda seen it coming. At least there are laundry machines and plastic chairs, which allow me clean clothes and back support while I make phone calls. Grasping for the silver lining over here!

I abort the KOA as speedily as possible in the morning, eager to but distance between me and my pay-to-pitch shame. Diner breakfast is just the fix I need. I order eggs benedict and abuse the unlimited coffee and outlet access for hours after my plate is cleared.

And then the tides of my town luck change direction.

In the Safeway, I meet Dean and Kate. Wonderful, kind hearted Dean and Kate! They’re in neon activewear, having just finished a bike ride. They offer to give me a ride back to the trail, even though it’s in the the opposite direction of where they’re headed. Dean hiked the PCT in the 70s and now him and Kate are living the retired adventurer’s dream. We have much to talk about. Over the coming weeks, I’ll get texts from them every few days to check in on me, update me on trail conditions ahead and help me name the plants and trees I pass. I love these random texts from them. I’ve got Colorodans in my corner!

I wave them good bye and head back along the thread of road walk, this time ten miles along highway 14. Something about Coloardo has me on a sustained high, because the road walk doesn’t bother me one bit. A truck pulls over and offers me a ride, but I smile and tell him I’m good thanks. Because when I think about it… man. I’ve got no where to be.

Right around camping time I pass a circle of RVs. A woman pokes her head around and yells: “YOU WANT ANY ELK CHILI??” ….

“OF COURSE I WANT ELK CHILI!!” They pull out a luxe camp chair with an attached side table for me, and pile said side table with warm tortillas, chili, beers and brownies. My willingness to say yes to everything they offer entertains them greatly. They’re a group of family, friends and local ranchers, up here for some ATV fun over Labor Day weekend. Fires are banned in the area, so we huddle around a fancy gas fueled “campfire” as the evening begins to cool. One rancher lady talks about how she sometimes chases cows in her ATV for fun. Then a man named Jake delivers a course for me on Elk Hunting 101. I learn the difference between archery, muzzleloader and rifle seasons, and the 15% success rate of actually killing an elk, and how hunters buy bottles of cow (female elk) urine and pour it over themselves to attract bulls. The things you learn! Somehow the arch of my conversation with Jake bends from hunting to his father’s passing, to the trouble with professional feedback conversations, to the importance of reconnecting with the sacred core of nature. We close the conversation with a shared agreement that we’re all more alike than we realize. How we went from muzzleloaders to the most connective conversation I’ve had all trail is a beautiful and unlikely mystery.

A few days later, I’ll have a similarly hair-pinned conversation in Grand Lake with an Ethiopian woman. It begins with her telling me my MBA is a master’s in bullshit. She managed MBAs at age 23 and says they make beautiful slides but positively no impact. Tell me how ya really feel, stranger! But then the conversation turns toward the topic of blame and then toward how to reframe terrible situations into growth opps. We exchange numbers to stay in touch.

But back to the Labor Day crew: when I head off to bed, one of the kids runs over and wraps his pudgy arms around my waist. Another kiddo follows suit. How do people know I need hugs?! My insides goop-ify upon contact. Apparently human touch is important to me.

I wake up at the first signs of grey light the next morning — no signs of life from my new friends though, so I roll my cuben fiber tent with as little crinkling as possible. Strange to not say goodbye. It’s an eerily quiet morning. The only sounds are hawks screeching and elks bugling. I start passing groups of bow hunters, all in camo, a few with black paint smeared over their faces. I sniff the air but sadly don’t smell any cow urine in their wake.

Later that day (Day 67 to be exact) I get up to a ridge line and hard earned 360 views of Colorado splendor. Up here I can see isolated curtains of rain and dumplings of storm clouds scattered in all directions. Thankfully none pass over me until I’m back under the treeline. It hails while the sun shines and it makes a dope rainbow.

Before I reach my next resupply stop in Grand Lake, there are two more pockets of alpine splendor to pass through. The first is Park View Mountain. I start the climb towards its summit first thing in the morning. It’s steep but my Body By Montanaho is so very up for the challenge. I’m afraid to say this in fear that I’ll jinx it, but man my legs and lungs feel unflappable these days. As long as I take it slow 😏. There’s a compact emergency shelter at the top. I sit next to it, send a few texts and Goober jam on King’s Hawaiian Rolls. I smile the whole wide open ridge walk down. Spirits are soaring.

The grand finale of the section starts at 5am the next morning: the Rocky Mountain National Park Loop! I sleep on the park boundary to make the 29 mile strike around the park and into Grand Lake as feasible as possible. The morning is overcast and the pine forest is thick. It reminds me of the Pacific Northwest, which brings a wash of comfort. I climb until I hit the beginning of the 7 mile stretch above treeline over Flattop Mountain. The transition is marked with a sign reading: “Mountains Don’t Care.” Ya, I’ve noticed. It is stunning up there. I get slapped around a bit with wind and snow, but no thunder or lightning. Tundra vibes abound! The hillsides are hedged with red and yellowing ground cover that gives off an orange velvet effect from far away.

Well before sunset, I finish the loop and hobble to the Shadowcliff Hostel, aka thru hiker heaven on Earth. There’s unlimited coffee and tea, and a table full of “help yourself!” treats left over from a wedding the weekend before. I find a bowl of ripe peaches. There’s also a living room filled with rocking chairs, pillows and blankets that overlooks the lakes and town below. Yup! I’ll be taking tomorrow off. When life gives you Shadowcliff, make a zero and make it lazy.

Day 56-63: The Fun Episode! — OR — The Last Week of Wyoming

After a string of 35+ mile days, OoOo baby am I town ready! I walk along the narrow shoulder of highway 287 into Rawlins, pass the state penitentiary and beeline for the Budget Inn Express. Check-in desk. Lip liner and hair gel. Name. Payment. Key card. Three blinks of green. And at long last, enraptured collapse. The motel mattress is spongy but feels like feather bedded heaven to me.

My phone pings as texts roll in. With effort, I turn my other cheek to the bedspread so I can face my phone and respond to them — including a message from Dirtybowl:

I stare at the winking clown face. No… she couldn’t be. But, maybe… Could she? She might be???

I call her and yes. Yes indeed. DIRTYBOWL IS IN RAWLINS!!!

For those just tuning in, I met and hiked with Dirtybowl on the PCT. She’s the salt of the dirt earth. And she drove all the way from Spokane to surprise me! Not only that, but she came with a backpack and is going to hike with me for a few days. There aren’t enough joy-crying emojis in all the world to properly express my feels in this moment. But let’s try: 😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😂😭😎

We hit the Thai restaurant in town for dinner. Her mom casts trail magic from afar, sponsoring our feast of veggie pad thai. Thank you, Dorothy!! We eat till we hurt, as we do, and then resupply among the florescent aisles of Walmart.

The next morning we eat the motel breakfast — cereal, scrambled eggs and tissue paper toast. And then we’re off! I have to break it to Dirtybowl that she hasn’t joined the most, erm, scenic of sections. South of Rawlins is the longest road walk and longest water carry of the trail so far. Sorry buddy! Selfishly though, I am stoked (heheehehe). This section could be a grind but instead it’s gonna be a paaaarty! Let the sixty miles of road walk and friendship begin! While we’re at it, let the scariest storms of the trail begin too. Every day DB is on trail comes with weather drama. On the first day, we wait out the worst of a storm in a big underground pipe. On the second day, we wait a front out in an aspen grove and then set our respective tarp and tent up just as a four hour rage fest of rain begins. I owe Dirtybowl a beer for sticking this out. Perhaps many beers.

Even with all the storms, I have a blast. Cross word puzzles! Story time! Coffee break time! What a vacation from my vacation. As always, DB keeps me current on what the kids are up to these days (apparently eating Tide detergent pods?!). She also reminds me of hiking catch phrases I’ve forgotten, like “Pee In Your Bag Day” (i.e. the night before you reach town), and “Doug The Digger Does Not Touch Poop!” (i.e. what you chant to your trowel as you dig your cat hole). She also introduces me to new slang for an unglamorous but very real aspect of thru hiking: butt chafe. Which she refers to as clown mouth. A visual that haunts me for weeks to come.

Eventually we run out of road to walk and duck back under tree cover in the Medicine Bow National Forest. On our last morning, we cruise the last eleven miles to highway 40 and hitch into Encampment for celebratory eating. With the powers of Dirtybowl and Doublehappiness combined, you better believe we nab a hitch with the first car to pass. These feel like the glory days of PCT yore! Before we part ways, I take a bffs forever photo of our matching ultralight penguin stuff sacks, the friendship bracelet of hiker trash. How will I ever repay her for this visit? Probably by some other road walk in terrible weather on some other trail. You da best, DB!!

Back on the highway, she hitches north to her car in Rawlins and I hitch south to Vail. Yup! I’m Vail-bound! Headed into four days of rest for a friend’s wedding. The 180 mile hitch to Vail should be daunting, but heaven sends me a family on a road trip that’s headed just that direction. Charmed again!

At this wedding, I’ll see Weekend and many of my closest friends. I crave this break so intensely and also brace myself for overwhelm. But the overwhelm I anticipate never comes. Sure, I feel clumsy when I try to answer the question “how is it?!” I want to do the nuance, heartbreak and beauty of this experience justice, but I’m too waist deep in it to summarize it. I want people to believe in the meaning of this hike for me. I want empathy and approval, like all humans. But who has time to make that case and worry those worries when more than anything, it just feels good to be surrounded by people I love. I dance till I sweat at the wedding. I wander the streets of Denver with Weekend. And then I head back to the trail, feeling full-hearted.

Once again, I brace myself for overwhelm. During my low moments in Montana, I wondered to myself if I would quit when I got to the Vail wedding. How could I go back to solitude after feeling all the warm fuzziness of comfort and connection?! But this overwhelm fails to materialize as well. I get back on trail and back into solitude with ease. Even excitement.

My first day back, I cross the Colorado/Wyoming border. Halfway?! Jeez Louise. I spend my first few hours in Colorado the same as my first few hours of Wyoming: recapping aloud to myself the highs and lows of each day in the state just completed. Already, I pick up on the newness of Colorado. The heel-toe crunch that accompanied most of my way through Wyoming is now muted against pine needles and crushed leaves. The rasp of aspens and rush of firs are the new metronome. The northbound hikers have now long come and gone. The rare footprints I see these days are all directed south, and where the tall grass on trail used to be pushed northward, it’s now pushed south. The air is cooler today and I feel the beginning of Fall. I have to take out my chapstick every thirty minutes. There are traces of the purple lipstick that I wore to the wedding around the small circular rim. Oh lady-like grooming. See you again, but no time soon!

Before I make my first camp in Colorado, I think about the overwhelms I braced myself for the past week. What a waste. What misplaced energy! Early in the trail, my Dad sent me a saying that rings especially true: today is the tomorrow I was worried about yesterday, and it didn’t come to pass.

Now it’s your turn Colorado! Les see whatcha got.

CDT Day 52-55: The Basin Contains Multitudes

The Great Divide Basin! Famous for being flat, hot, water lean and prime for crushing big miles. Hikers seem to either love or loath it. I told a Nobo back in Montana that I was excited for the Basin, and he informed me “no one looks forward to the Basin.” Just to be contrary, I manually dial my anticipation even higher. My friend who hiked the CDT last year gives a more promising review: “I loved it. Bring your own shade. It’s rhythmic and alive – not monotonous or deserted. Just enough water.” Now that’s a hot take I can get behind.

So yes, I am determined to appreciate the Basin. To do that, I expect I’ll have to pay reeeeal close attention to catch it’s magic. You know, keep my ear reeeeal close to the cracked Earth to hear the subtle rhythm. But from the other side of this section, I can firmly say that there is nothing subtle about the Basin. I needn’t massage my ear into the ground to greet it. The Basin contains multitudes. Multitudes that hit me upside the head and jerk me every which way across its expanse.

But before I get involved with the Basin, I pass through South Pass City. South Pass is a historically restored gold rush town that the CDT cuts straight through. I go to the olde timey general store to collect my resupply box from the woman in a prospecting get-up. She passes me a trail register to sign, and right above where I scribble my name and the date are five clustered names, all dated two days ago. Wait. W’w’wait. Two days ago… FIVE sobos were here?!! Together?!! The woman smiles and nods, twisting an invisible knife through my heart. Just as I find comfort in solitude, everyone is hanging out without me. I’m falling behind, I tell myself. I’m running out of time! Neither is true, but my self pity is off to the races.

I drag my box, backpack and saggy energy behind one of the town structures. There’s an outdoor outlet to charge my phone and just enough shade to hide from the sun. I unwrap a care package from my friend Kate and inside are prodigious chocolate peanut butter cookies. They’re light weight, high cal, and effing delicious. You nailed it, Kate!! I eat three and the sugar assures me that everything will be okay. Give a Koopkat a cookie and she’ll walk anywhere.

I sit and sit and sit in my shifting patch of shade until the sun lowers and the heat wilts toward evening. Time to hike out, I suppose. I plod my way through dusk along a dirt road. A few miles in, I cross paths with a dude and his Jeep. He tells me his grandfather was the one responsible for getting South Pass on the National Register of Historic Places. He’s kind and fascinated by my hike and offers to buy me a burger in Atlantic City just down the road. I turn him down and eat cold soaked lentils instead. Soon it’s dark and I lay myself down for the night — in a ditch on the side of the road. I close my eyes and imagine the burger that might have been. The rivulets of cheesy grease that might have crisscrossed my hands and wrists. Next time, take the burger!!

The three days of walking that follow are full of upended expectations. First and foremost, where’s that infamous heat at?! Most of my time in the Basin is spent under overcast skies. I brought my umbrella for shade but only use it for hail and rain. The mornings put a deep chill in my bones, and I start in more layers than I did in Northern Montana.

One night my tent is hammered by wind and rain. The next night I cowboy camp between clumps of sage under clear skies and founts of shooting stars.

One afternoon, I’m walking through a moonscape flat when the sky ahead turns black. The world shudders with thunder. There are no features of any kind to seek refuge behind. What am I doing out here?! I feel small and smooshable. It’s not that this wild space is trying to kill me, it’s that it simply doesn’t think of me at all. It owes me nothing. No comforts, no guarantees. I invited myself here.

But then, an hour later, the eye of the storm has passed and sunshine resurfaces from behind the tumult. Everything turns to golden hour shades of pink, purple, sand, sage and faded blue. My feeble head spins. Now a new Basin that is soft and safe.

Throughout this section, I’m acutely aware of how remote I am. In the forest, you’re never too sure. There might be a trailhead parking lot filled with shiny cars around the corner, or a group of backpackers eating and laughing like the models on Mountain House meals.

But out here? I can see for miles in all directions at all times. I know for certain how far out there I am. I do meet a few people though. There’s Brad, the local game warden. He offers me water and we lean against the back of his truck to talk a while. I also meet a couple on an ATV outing, bundled tight in layers of sweatshirts. “We couldn’t tell if you were a hiker or a bow hunter,” they tell me. When we part ways, they say they’ll pray for me.

While humans run thin, the wildlife goes bonkers. I see antelope every quarter mile. I see herds of wild horses! And of course, I see cows. Oh cows. We’ve come a long way. I’m not letting our rough history get in the way of us being civil. When we show up to the same water source, we acknowledge each other politely but stay to our separate corners of the party. I play Bill Withers for them one afternoon by a scummy trough, and let his lyrics express everything I mean to say to them.

For all its surprises, this section does deliver on a few of my expectations. Like my friend said, there is just enough water. Even a little more than enough thanks to a water cache maintained by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

And as expected, there are big miles. I remind myself to be like water and surprise myself by hiking 41 miles between dawn and dark one day. A personal record! Yes, it’s relatively flat which makes it easy to cruise. But I’m also instinctively motivated to keep on moving through. I like the Basin. I respect the Basin. But there’s an edge to it that urges me not to linger.

CDT Days 48-51: The Winds Part II: Cirque of the Towers and Flowers

I am fully recharged hiker trash when I get back to the Elkhart Trailhead. Time with Country Mouse and Shadow has restored all invisible reserves. After saying goodbye, I smile all ten miles till I rejoin the CDT. I am in the Winds, and I have beautiful friends, and everything is as it is. Only two things wobble my Double Happy high: (1) the thought of how fun and soothing it would be to hike this trail with them, and (2) the realization that I left my wallet in their car. Classic Koopkat move. They magic me one last time and ensure the wallet will be waiting for me in South Pass.

I run into a group of backpackers at Photographers Point and ask them to take a photo of me. Be this my first photo on trail that isn’t a selfie?! My excitement for the occasion shows.

The Winds are no place to feel lonely. There are wonderstruck hikers EVERYWHERE. When I tell people that I’m thru hiking the CDT over the next few days, I get outsized reactions. A man on a horse removes his glove to shake my hand, a man with a handlebar mustache bows and tips his hat, a breathless man in a sweaty Heiniken shirt tells me I’m a bad ass, and a Wyoming native woman tells me I’m brave. I gotta get out of these crowds before my head gets fat. And then there’s the old man who hikes past me as I make dinner one night. I tell him I’m on the CDT and he snorts, eyeing the food bag sub-components that enwreath my seated position. “You overpacked. You need to read some articles about being more ultra light.” ...Golly! Thank you sir! How would I ever make it out here without old men telling me how. When I mention just graduating with my masters, hence the window for hiking, he announces that he has more degrees than I do. Such a peach of a man.

I know I throw around superlatives like party poppers, but this one feels truthy: the most objectively beautiful day of my hike thus far was Day 49. Cirque of the Towers Day.

The approach to the turnoff for the Cirque alternate is wide rolling spaces, curved with swells of grass, lake and rock. Wild and windswept. I meet a couple from California, and tell them it reminds me of the Sierras! They look displeased by my comparison. Right. You didn’t drive for days to see the Sierras. The rolling wonder space eventually hits an abrupt wall of granite. My target. It grows taller and taller the closer and closer I get (naturally). I could spend days, even weeks, at each of the magical lakes I pass. I can’t believe I walked here.

Texas Pass

Texas pass is wickedly steep, but I take ‘er slow n’ steady. I surprise myself with how strong I feel today. Amazing the difference when you’re listening to your body instead of chasing your first female trail friend up a scramble 😂 And then, I am in the Cirque of the Towers. Surrounded by sheer granite walls, nuzzled between plush meadow greenery and wildflowers. Paradise.

I prance down to Lonesome Lake in the heart of the cirque and skirt along its shoreline. Two moose see me and run for brush cover. The late afternoon light makes everything blush. There’s also a thick haze that softens the contours of the towers. Conditions are no bueno for photographs. Sigh, my daily lesson in impermanence.

On the other side of the lake I make my way up another pass. I stop every few minutes to look back at the scene behind me, and once I reach the top, I cry. I cry hard. Can’t breathe kind of cry. Perhaps one of my all time greatest and ugliest trail cries — not that I have mirror access to confirm the ugliness, but it feels ugly. The core of the outburst isn’t sadness. Sharp flashbacks of the past 49 days flick through my mind and I feel gratitude more than anything. Gratitude that somehow feels like grief. Every fear and low and painful moment was necessary to arrive here (‘here’ being the poignantly named, Jackass Pass). I think of a quote that goes something like: “Unless I love something, it will not reveal itself to me.” In this moment, I love the CDT and it reveals something inexplicable.

When my composure returns, I reluctantly turn my back to the view. I listen to this song on loop for the last few miles till I find a space to sleep. The guitar fits snugly over the corners of my mood.

The next morning, I blink and the Winds are behind me. As quickly as the alpine landscape escalated from the Green River Valley, it now transforms again into something strange and new. The trail turns from soft bark to sand. The trees taper into clumps of sage brush. The mountains crumble into islands of boulders.

I LOL at the rock formations, like the solo and self entertained hiker I am. A memory surfaces of my sister and me pointing out of car windows yelling “PETRIFIED DINOSAUR POOOOOOOP!” Big rocks still look like poop. Poop is still funny. Twenty nine or five years old, it’s good to know I show some constancy.

CDT Days 41-47: The Winds Part I, Knapsack Bad Assery (+nausea)

I heat up a maple sticky bun in the church’s microwave. Forty seconds later, you’d never even know it was a day-old. Don’t think the church’s microwave can work the same redemptive magic on Folgers, so I cross the street to a coffee shop. Inside, a group of older, local Dubois men are gathered in what looks like a daily convention. They comment on people and cars that pass and demand explanation of origins and intent from out-of-towners that enter the shop. I feel like they should be sitting at the bar in a greasy spoon diner, but instead they’re making do with a few huddled high tops in a trendy coffee shop. Ch-ch-ch-ch-chaaaanges.

Hitching back to the trail is delightfully easy. I only make it a block with my thumb out before a man pulls over and rearranges his car to make a Double Happy sized space for me. Like most conversations I have these days, it turns to the topic of solitude. This happens because, well, I bring it up. But also because I believe the people of solitude seek me when they see me in town, on trail or on the side of the road alone. They know I’m one of them. My ride talks about how he personally spends time outside alone because it’s the most direct way he knows to get back to The Real, i.e. “when I can smell dirt and sunflowers.” (Do sunflowers smell?)

Back on trail, I am officially in my most anticipated section: THE WIND RIVER RANGE! I am so damn excited about what’s to come. But first, many miles of dirt road and then forty miles of grass and dried up trees. If the Winds are as spectacular as everyone says, then this grand crescendo starts at pianissimo.

On the morning of Day 45 I take a short alternate that follows an ATV track along a barbed wire fence (I miss you too, Montana!) and offers distant views of the Tetons on one side and the Winds on the other. Small herds of deer like creatures (Antelope? Prong horns?) flee in all directions from my approach.

When I pass over Gunsight Pass into the Green River Valley, the crescendo gains momentum. Square Top Mountain is looking stark and beautiful in the distance. The scenery reminds me of a Ted Talk I listened to a few years ago about concepts of beauty. Turns out that regardless of culture, we tend to agree that pastoral landscapes (green lush hills, water, flora and fauna) are beautiful because our ancestral brains think: Yes. Excellent. I could create progeny here. Oh the progeny of mine this valley could support.

Right at the junction for the Green River Lakes Campground, I run into a nobo named Dixie. She’s debating hiking on, but I charm her into camping with me. “Does the campground charge for camping?” I ask a fisherman passing by. “Yeah, twelve bucks or something like that… But if you want you can use my tent spaces, I’m sleeping on top of my car.” Yes please! Dixie and I are sold. When Eric, the fisherman, gives us a ride up to his site, he realizes that he recognizes Dixie. Apparently I am in the glow of celebrity! Dixie is a YouTube thru-hiker sensation. At his site, Eric unleashes spontaneous trail magic on us: chicken apple sausage, mashed cauliflower, good bourbon and s’mores. Thank you, Eric!

The next morning I head south, Dixie heads north and Eric heads toward his Utah home. The only sound I hear for the first mile is the sound of aspens shaking in the wind — until: “Double Happiness?!” I turn around, and there stands Sonic! The other solo female southbounder I’ve heard about. A friend! We talk for ten miles straight and my response to everything she shares is “So much same, girl. So. Much. Same.” We both grew up in the Seattle area, we’re both roughly the same age, we’re both wearing Mount Rainier hats, and we’ve both felt deeply consonant highs and lows since Glacier. We’d be hiking partners of a lifetime!! If only we walked the same pace… She’s averaging 37-40 miles a day. LOLOLOL. Ah well, at least we get to share the entrance to the Winds and Knapsack Col today. I’ll take it.

Sonic disappears ahead as we head towards Cube Rock Pass, but fear thee not, we’ve planned for a lakeside lunch in a few miles. I have lunch plans, tehehe. The scramble over the pass is tough but immediately transports us into alpine wonderland. At lunch, I gape at the scenery as I wrap cheese and tortilla around a core of crushed Fritos. Meanwhile, Sonic wraps tortilla and Nutella around a core of crushed Fritos. Touche.

We get beta for the scramble up Knapsack from hikers headed in the opposite direction. Follow the drainage up, then climb straight up the col! My body is working hard. On the way down, it’s a mix of scramble, boulder hop and (reluctant) glissade. Man, my body’s working really hard. Oof. I feel nauseous. Sonic says she’s “gotta boogie” to keep her pace up for the amount of food she’s packed. She’s aiming for another 8 miles, but me? I gotta camp asap. I wave farewell and watch her slip ahead between the boulders and lakes.

I set up camp as soon as I meet a section hiker just a few minutes later. His name is Mark and he’s so, so friendly. He wants to show me the wild flowers by the creek and asks me questions I can’t bring myself to answer because my world is nothing but nausea. I try to eat dinner. And then, for the first time in years. I vomit. All the pre-cut Knorr Noddles I could swallow but couldn’t bring myself to chew are now nestled in the grass, looking just as they did in the zip lock bag ten minutes ago. Only softened. I chock it up to altitude. Even though I’ve been twice as high as this in the Himalayas without a hitch, it must be altitude.

Thank goodness I vomit, because once I do I immediately feel like a new woman. A new woman who has pitched her tent in the Titcomb Basin! On the night of a new moon and the peak of the Perseid meteor shower! Minute by minute, I arrive back, and the beauty of the basin floods over me. Mark offers me post-vom mints and some fizzy electrolyte mix called Aclim-Mate. Praises be for Mark! Is he an angel? Now let’s look at those wildflowers!

The next morning I feel 100% better. I take my time through Titcomb and beyond to revel and swim and generally luxuriate. I get a mile off trail somehow and have to backtrack the mile back — but even this feels like a gift given the area.

As I approach the outlet to Pinedale, my mid-Winds resupply, I text my PCT friends Country Mouse and Shadow who are planning to be in the area. Next thing I know, they’re parked at the trailhead to pick me up! Seeing them is like seeing family. I cannot express how restorative it is to rest in their good company. Country Mouse, who taught me to mash pop-tarts up in my chocolate pudding, and Shadow who the first night we camped together on the PCT said: “this is your first thru-hike? Well… You’ve gone and f-ed up your life now!” They buy me beer and dinner and we laugh and swap stories all night. I feel so humbled that they’d make the effort to see me out here. It’s a relief to speak plainly about the ups and downs with them and not pretend it isn’t hard. Are they angels too? Is everyone out here an angel?? Must be the answers to my Beppa’s prayers for me.