Colorado Trail, Day 25: Mental Games

According to the Colorado Trail Foundation’s Data Book, this next leg of the CT between Salida and Creede is going to be a bit more challenging for us to find good water and campsites than what we experienced in the Collegiate West. Case in point: today, we either have a rather short day of just over 7 miles or a really long day of almost 18 to reach our next guaranteed water source. Seven miles isn’t going to cut it, so we are going to have to push it and make some big miles today. Here’s hoping the weather and our legs hold out for us.

We set the alarm for 4:30, and, because we are camping just a few feet from Jane and Andy, we only hit the snooze button one time. We don’t say a word to each other as we pack up our things and the tent. It is still dark, so we wear our headlamps and try not to shine them on our neighbors’ tent as we head up the hill to retrieve the bear bags and make a quick cup of coffee. It feels like an old fashioned voyageur silent departure. We make pretty good time considering, and, by 6 am, we are headed back up the .3 mile/300 foot elevation gain that we have to make to reconnect with the CT.

The light this early in the morning is gorgeous, and everything that the sun touches is kissed with an irresistible golden light. We stop often on the way back up to the trailhead to take photos of the magical light. We try our luck at pointing the camera right into the sun to try to get some star bursts, too.

By the time we pass the campsite at the top of the hill where Bailey and Theresa camped last night, it is cleared out, and there is no evidence at all of the two women. We continue on, picking up the CT at the trail junction.

Almost immediately, I notice moose tracks from both a mama and a baby moose. The tracks look pretty fresh, especially considering all the rain that we had last night. The tracks continue down the trail and into the forest. We proceed cautiously looking out for them as we walk. A mother moose is known to be quite protective of her young, and we don’t want to startle her.

The trail in the forest is much murder than what we are used to so far. We follow the moose tracks for over a mile. There are half-eaten plants scattered along the trail and piles of fresh scat here and there. We couldn’t be too far behind them, but unfortunately we never do see them. We probably missed them by no more than an hour, we guess.

We do come to a livestock fence (located on the Continental Divide) that we have to proceed through. There is a small herd of cows grazing in the mountainside meadow, but they don’t seem to pay us any attention. CT thru-hikers are probably a dime a dozen to them.

We continue ascending for at least another mile. Because we are hoping to cover so much distance today, our strategy is to break every hour and a half to two hours for food. We are hoping to keep our energy up and get into the double digits mileage-wise before lunch. That way we are hopeful that the afternoon’s hike will feel more manageable.

Shortly after our first break, we encounter a dog running down the path towards us. He is off-leash, but, mere moments later a young man riding a horse and leading another appears behind him. Hikers are supposed to yield to horses, so we step off the trail as he strides up to us.

Many of the horses we have encountered while hiking in Illinois get a little freaked out by hikers with their walking sticks, but these two take us in stride. The young man seems like a real cowboy, and he waxes poetic about the aspen grove he just rode through up the way. He tells us that the aspen aren’t as common down in the southern half of the state, and he just loves the way the light plays through the leaves. He wishes us a good hike and rides off into the proverbial sunset.

We wonder what he is doing out here. Is he just out for a ride? Or is he going to tend the cows we passed? We wish we had bothered to ask, but, instead, we have to press on.

Further up the trail, we finally come to the cowboy’s aspen grove, and it is indeed a nice change from all the pine and dead spruce trees we have seen. We have walked through at least a dozen of these groves since starting the CT, and we can never resist taking photos of them. Something about a stand of aspen trees just seems so special and serene.

Mere moments later, we suddenly hear the dreadful, obnoxious sound of motorbikes, and these seem really close by. The trail is very narrow here, and the only thing we can do is jump up on the steep incline to try to get out of the way. The first driver sees us holding on to the trees for dear life and slows down, holding his hand up for the two bikes behind him to stop. He tells me there are two more coming, and they slowly make their way past, leaving the smell of diesel fuel in their wake. These motorbike drivers were considerate, but it still is so jarring and disruptive whenever they zoom by us. We hope we don’t find ourselves on a trail with motorized bikes on a weekend in the future. The less we see of these guys, the better!

We continue along, descending pretty steeply through the forest. There don’t seem to be any grand views today, and that is just as well because we spend most of the day looking down at our feet. The trail is full of loose rocks that are slippery and hard to negotiate. It feels like we are walking in a dry riverbed, and we have to pick our steps very carefully.

On an 18-mile day, this is not exactly the terrain we were hoping for. It is hard for us to find a good rhythm, and the extra energy we spend just trying to avoid slipping is making it seem tougher and tougher to make our mileage goal today. We both skid down the trail several times, and I almost lose control on one occasion. Thank goodness for hiking poles. They are definitely keeping us on our feet today.

We make it to Tank Seven Creek before noon where we fill up our water bottles at this last water source of the day. Just before the creek, we find a juvenile marmot sunning himself on some rocks very close to the trail. He raises up onto his haunches as we walk past and doesn’t seem alarmed by us at all. It’s nice to get a good close look at this little guy. We do love marmots!

We break for lunch in Cameron Park, a big flat meadow skirted by trees. We find a downed log where we can eat in the shade and finally lay out the tent to dry in the sun. Matt is happy because the extra water he is carrying has probably tripled the weight of the tent on this long day.

Jane and Andy come hiking up while we are taking our lunch break and say that we did a nice job of breaking camp quietly this morning. They didn’t wake up until 7 and have already caught up to us. Ahh, the advantage of youth…

The rest of the day after lunch seems to drag on and on. The scenery isn’t really speaking to us, and, when we don’t find any photographic subjects, the miles pass slowly. The rough trail conditions make it even worse, and we both suddenly hate our backpacks.

For some reason, neither of us can seem to get comfortable, no matter how we adjust them. My hip bones are killing me, and I tell myself I am going to put up with it until our next break in about half an hour. I last exactly two more steps until I can’t take it anymore. I undo my hip belt and hike my shorts up so the elastic waistband is above my pack, and that seems to help, at least for a while.

All afternoon, we play mental games to try to keep ourselves moving. I tell myself that I will hike to the next bend in the trail before I will look at my watch. Matt doesn’t let himself check how far we have come on the Guthook app until another fifteen minutes have passed.

All the while, the skies are getting darker and darker, and the afternoon Smoke Monster is starting to let his presence be known with the distant rumbling of thunder.

At one point, I beg for a break, and Matt hands me a Jolly Rancher candy. “Let’s take a break as soon as we are done eating this candy,” he proposes.

I agree to the game but suck on the hard candy as hard as humanly possible to make it dissolve quickly. As soon as it’s gone, I yell down the trail after him, “I AM DONE WITH MY JOLLY RANCHER!!!” He pulls over at the next log.

They say that the trail has a way of providing what hikers need, and, as we are sitting there eating our eighth snack of the day, a beautiful hummingbird appears feeding in the patches of fireweed nearby. We aren’t sure exactly which species this one is, but we are pretty certain it’s not a Ruby-throated. And that makes us both happy.

We still have 5 miles to go to reach Baldy Lake, our intended campsite. As we set off on this last stretch, the trail is suddenly lined on both sides with patch after patch of bright pink Fireweed.

It feels like we are walking through fields of cotton candy, and, finally, we have something to take our minds off of our tired feet, our sore backs and our annoying backpacks. We stop often to take photos of the pretty scenes of pink flowers and dead tree stumps, that is until the weather turns on us!

At about mile 16, the skies finally open on us, and we have to stop to put on all of the rain gear. The thunder rumbles all around us, and we see a few flashes of lightning. At times, the rain is heavy, and, to add insult to injury, we get pelted with grovel, too. This day just seems like it will never end!

In a brief break in the storm, we meet a northbound CT hiker, and we ask about our water sources for tomorrow. He says the water is flowing at Razor Creek, which will only be a few miles up the trail in the morning. This is great news as it gives us options.

During the midst of the next downpour, Matt suggests that we find a campsite off the trail instead of hiking .5 miles out of our way and 500 feet down to Baldy Lake. Now that we know we can get water early on tomorrow, this sounds perfect.

When the trail flattens out, we find a spot with a little cover but have to wait for twenty or so minutes for the rain to let up so we can set up the tent without it getting soaked. The longer we sit on the little log under the pine trees, the colder and wetter we become, so we jump into high gear as soon as there is a brief respite in the rain.

We manage to get the tent up without getting too wet. I take care of blowing up the air mattresses, while Matt makes his coffee and boils some water for dinner. The rain comes again, and, by the time Matt is done cooking, he is totally soaked. We put on all of our warm SmartWool long johns to fight off the damp chill that has settled in, and we eat our dinner in the tent. When the rain breaks, we jump out of the tent to find some trees to tie off the bear bags. By 8:30, we are both exhausted and turning it in for the night, hoping that tomorrow will be an easier day.

Day 25 Stats

Starting Point: Silver Creek, mile 271.3
End Point: Trailside campsite, mile 288.7
Mileage: 17.4 (+.3 back to trail junction)
Segments: 16 & 17
Date on Trail: July 25, 2018

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