Friday, July 18, 2014

Day 37: Mismarked Road Crossing to Muddy Creek

Icy fingers of fog reached in to the forest and wrapped themselves around the trees. Eyes straining through the fog, we could barely see from one rock cairn to the next. 

A single stag bounded away as we climbed to the top of a hill. Looking back as we descended, I saw the same stag, peering around corner of ridge, watching us go.  Later we watched as antelope grazed on the hills. 

We hiked through thick, knee high grass as we followed rock cairns over one hill after another. We eventually found ourselves on a dirt road, and spent the rest of the day following dirt roads through the rolling hills. Some of this land is used for ranching, with cattle grazing peacefully next to the trail. Other land has been left wild, home to deer and antelope. 

We stopped for lunch at the North Fork of Slavery Creek.  Swallows swooped around the bridge, and large fish gulped up insects hovering over the water. 

Climbing up the soft, loose dirt road was like climbing up a steep sand dune. Dirt seeped in through the many holes in my ragged shoes until I felt I was hiking barefoot, dirt and sand squishing under my feet and between my toes. A small horned road scuttled across the sandy road. 

Correlation does not imply causation. Logically I know that my Suntactics S5 solar charger cannot summon thunderheads the moment I strap it to my pack to begin charging. Nevertheless, the strong correlation between those two events has earned my otherwise effective an efficient solar charger the trail name "Sun Killer."  Today was no exception. Large thunderheads hovered within an hour of my plugging my phone into the solar charger, and we dodged the rain all afternoon. 

Passing through cattle country, we negotiated several gates over the course of the day. One gate simply refused to budge. Gingerly we climbed barbed wire fence, managing to scramble over without damaging our skin, clothes, or packs on the rusty wire. 

After six hours of walking along a deserted BLM road, we had yet to see a car. With no other camping in sight, we set up our tent in the ditch along the shoulder. Muddy Creek runs in the ravine on the other side of the road, and the rolling hills stretch endlessly in every direction. 

Day 38: Muddy Creek to Rim Lake

The sun warmed the rich greens and golds of the rolling hills. A small cloud of dust off in the distance warned us that we we're about to receive company. Sure enough, minutes later two ranching trucks roared past, the first traffic on the road in sixteen hours. We had not traveled much farther before we met two men working on the road. They offered us water and waved us on our way. 

We've seen no other hikers. Yesterday we crossed County Road 401, which travels to Rawlins in just over 20 miles. The official route meanders for a almost 60 miles from that point. We stayed on the official route, but most hikers will take the alternate, making it highly unlikely that we will see other hikers in this stretch. 

The official CDT route meanders from the Mexican border in New Mexico to Canada for over 3,000 miles. Many hikers take some combination of alternates, shortening the official route by several hundred miles. Jonathan Ley identifies many of these alternates on his popular collection of CDT maps. Alternative routes are identified for a variety of reasons: shortcuts, water availability, ease of resupply, lower elevation routes to avoid snow, and scenic routes. Although we may come back to explore some of the scenic routes in the future, we've chosen to stay on the official CDT for now. 

The CDT route crosses Muddy Creek  several times. Tall grasses and reeds line the banks of the creek, and dark pink wild roses grow nearby. A cloud of swallows swoop out from under the bridge as we approach. 

Jeff brightened our day by finding us along the route. Cold drinks were very welcome on such a hot, dry section. 

An antelope bounded across the road, racing up the hillside with tremendous speed. Flocks of butterflies swarmed over the purple thistles and wildflowers lining the road. Wild mustangs tentatively approached as we passed by, curious from a distance but skittish when we got too close. 

A gentle breeze wafted the aroma of  a salty marsh; the nearly dry Little Sage Reservoir. Birds swooped at us as we approached. Again and again they passed over, crying loudly, trying to drive us away.

"Left on trail," the data book instructs. A single CDT marker indicates the spot where we should turn. The only problem is that there was no trail. I consulted my GPS and quickly confirmed that we were in the right spot. In true CDT style, the "trail" is an unmarked cross country route over a field filled with brush, cactus, and other hostile plants. A lone antelope eyed us incredulously as we slowly made our way across, following wild mustang and antelope tracks in the dried mud. 

Even after we reached a two track road, mustang tracks greatly outnumbered human ones. We soon saw why. A large band of wild mustangs grazed in a meadow, several foals among them. 

We met Jeff after a 30 mile day and camped at the very saline Rim Lake, one of several lakes that appear to be slowly drying out along this section. 

Day 36: Green Mountain Junction to Mismarked Road Crossing

Inch by inch, we slowly worked our way through the big, moving from one tuft of swamp grass to another. All too often our efforts proves pointless, as the tuft of swamp grass quickly collapsed into the muck, leaving our feet submerged. 

The secret to crossing a swamp quickly?  Wet feet. The question is not whether your feet will get wet but when. The sooner a hiker accepts the inevitability of wet feet, the more quickly a hiker will move through the swamp, taking the most direct route. Yes, water and mud will ooze through the mesh, holes, and cracks in your shoes. But this will happen anyway, no matter how much time and care is taken. 

Eventually we escaped the swamps and reached the Highway 70 crossing.  From there we followed the CDT route on well marked trail and dirt roads.  Thunderclouds gathered and it rained off and on all afternoon, even hailing briefly.

The trail left the aspen and pine forest, opening out into rolling, high desert hills. Yellow star shaped flowers, red paintbrush, purple lupine, lavender daisies, and small round cacti were scattered along the hills. 

We met Jeff at a trailhead and agreed to meet again on a dirt road crossing in four more miles so we could all camp together. Sierra and I ran from cairn to cairn over the rocky hills, exhilarated by the joy and freedom of running.  We dashed in and out of aspen and pine forests, leaped over downed logs, then ran back into the open hills.  

We quickly reached the dirt road crossing. No one was there. A few minutes later I heard Jeff's voice, calling from the other side of a cattle fence. The data book listed the wrong forest service road number for the crossing, but Jeff had somehow managed to find us anyway. Relieved, we continued down the road together and made camp. 

Day 35: Trail Creek Camp, CO to Green Mountain Junction, WY

We fell asleep to a herd of elk calling to each other as they grazed in the meadow below, and woke to a chorus of birds singing, chirping, and clucking near our tent. 

A small, scruffy, brown bear cub, about the size of a golden retriever, loped across the trail and disappeared into the woods. Although the cub was too young to be out on his own, the mother stayed hidden from sight. 

Plip, plop, plip, plop. The rain drizzled from the sky. We pulled out our rain jackets and soon were steaming inside. Colorado's parting shot. Balancing the rain, fields of bright red paintbrush and purple lupine lined our trail, reminding us of Colorado's incredible beauty. 

We decided to eat lunch at the Colorado Wyoming state border. Both of us got quite hungry as the morning progressed, and became increasingly anxious to reach the border. When the Wyoming State Line sign finally came into sight, Sierra sprinted for the border chanting "food, food, food, food!"  We walked over the line together, and cooked lunch in Wyoming. 

We waded through a muddy bog with waist high swamp grass, the first of several bogs and swamps we would squish through over the course of the day. 

"Left on trail at intersection." The data book proclaimed.  Uncharacteristically, a CDT sign marked the intersection. But in true CDT style, no trail existed. Instead we played hide and go seek with a series of rock cairns, posts, occasional CDT signs, and blazes carved into trees. 

When we finally reached a section of trail, it was choked with blowdowns. We repeatedly climbed over and around the downed trees. Pine bark beetles scrabbled down the corpse of a downed tree as I climbed over it. 

We reached rough, reddish, cliff-like rock formations. Sierra immediately dropped her pack and began to climb. 

Continuing to follow cairns, poles, and other trail markers, we climbed to a high, flower-filled meadow on ridge. Two creeks poured down from neighboring ridges, joined, then continues cascading down the mountain.  Climbing onto a higher ridge, we began seeing glacier lilies in the meadows. 

The wind picked up, and we quickly added layers. Just in time!  The rain started, blowing sideways against us as we attempted to navigate our way from cairn to cairn along the ridge. We crunched across snowfields and navigated around rocks and trees as we hunted for the next cairn or post. 

Thunder rumbled in the distance as we finally found camp in a grove of trees below the ridge.  Flashes of lightning illuminated our tent as the storm raged on the ridge above. Large drops splattered on the outside of the tent, but the storm quickly passed through. 

Day 34: Ridge Above Luna Lake to Trail Creek Camp

A party of six stags, grazed in the meadow. They eyed us suspiciously as we approached on the trail, then bounded away over the ridge. 

The trail crunched over several frozen snowfields and passed through marshy meadows filled with wildflowers on its way to the shoulder of Lost Ranger Peak, our high point for the day. Beautiful golden aster filled the meadows.  As we descended we met Gutsy and Odometer from South Carolina, section hiking southbound on the CDT. 

Several inches of water pooled in the trail, and large quantities of standing water covered the surrounding meadow. Dry feet no longer 
an option, we waded on in. 

A loud warning cry sounded across the meadow. A large herd of elk looked up as they sensed a human presence. Almost as one, the large herd thundered across the meadow out of sight. 

Hearing a faint mewling cry, I looked up to see a lone straggler, a young elk left far behind the herd. The young elk trotted across the meadow crying for its mother and the security of the herd. The young elk disappeared into the trees. Then three female elk loped into view. We hurried away to avoid spooking the elk before they found the young one. 

Less than a mile later, the herd thundered across the trail in front of us. 

We descended past North Lake into a ghostly forest of burned trees, barked scorched off by the flames.  Most of the trees were standing skeletons, while others littered the forest floor.  The discarded carcass of a coyote lay next to the trail. The coyote's body had been ripped open by a larger predator, probably a mountain lion. 

We left the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, spending the afternoon at lower elevations.  No longer did we see glacier lilies, sulphur paintbrush, golden aster and other alpine wildflowers. Now bright red paintbrush, purple lupine, and showy columbine lined the trails.  Temperatures are rising, and we were reluctant to put on rain jackets even in the pouring rain. 

A mother pheasant clucked protectively, pacing back and forth on a log. Noticing the nearby grass moving, I saw two fist-sized fluff balls dart across the trail, baby pheasants. 

We found camp above Trail Creek along the combined CDT and Wyoming Trail. Although still in Colorado, we are only about 12 miles away from the Wyoming border. 

Day 33: Rabbit Ears Pass to Ridge Above Luna Lake

The soft morning sunlight brightened the lush green meadow surrounding Dumont Lake near Rabbit Ears Pass where we rejoined the trail. Torrential rains throughout yesterday afternoon and evening left both the trail and the surrounding vegetation completely soaked.  Brushing against the wet grass and plants soon saturated our shoes and pant legs. Clumps of thick, chunky mud built up like platforms underneath our shoes. 

A chorus of frogs echoed through the damp forest. Electric blue damselflies zipped across the trail. Occasionally we still crunched across snowfields, but much of the trail was muddy swampland.  

Clambering over a pile of wet logs blocking the trail, my foot slipped. I fell heavily onto my back, landing like a helpless tortoise flipped onto its shell.  

A few minutes later, Sierra glanced at my head while we were hiking down the trail. "Where are your sunglasses?" She asked. I ran back down the trail and found my sunglasses lying in the grass where I had fallen off the slippery log. 

Fluffy, white clouds piled high, like mounds of cotton candy at the fair. As the day wore on the clouds became gray and dingy. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain started gently, a welcome mist on a hot day.

A large female elk grazed peacefully in the meadow, but bounded into the forest when we approached. Several deer also crossed our paths. 

We crossed into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and marveled at all the familiar names in the register. Stride, Smiles, Soulshine, Shutterbug 2, Mouse, and Flower all passed through here yesterday. Several other familiar names of CDT hikers we have not yet met were signed in the day before. 

Larger and more frequent snowfields covered the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. The swampy meadows in between snowfields are blanketed with golden Glacier Lilies. Water is everywhere: pouring down the trail and hillsides, pooling beneath snowfields and in the meadows. 

I stepped to the edge of our ridge to admire the rocky crags on the side of the mountain. A bald eagle swooped, then circled, before soaring over to a neighboring ridge, where a second bald eagle briefly joined it in flight. 

We found a sheltered camp in a small grove of trees just below the ridge. Below us lies Luna Lake, a beautiful alpine gem nestled in a rocky basin. The wind is picking up and the clouds are gathering, so we may have an interesting night. 

Day 32: Colorado Highway 14 to Rabbit Ears Pass (Steamboat Springs)

The cattle are lowing. A horse whinnies in the distance. Although it rained much of the night, the rain has finally stopped. 

As we are packing up, we spot two hikers approaching: Mouse and Flower.  Sierra and I were excited to see Mouse, who we met on the PCT in 2012, and happy to meet Flower. Mouse left the Mexican border on May 31, and is traveling super light and fast. Just a few minutes after they hiked on we met another CDT hiker, Abandoner. Three CDT hikers in one day is almost unheard of!  Including these three, we have only met twelve CDT hikers in Colorado thus far. 

After packing up, we trudged up the narrow shoulder of Colorado Highway 14 (the current official CDT route), a busy highway flanked with no trespassing signs. Truckers honked their greetings, motorcyclists waved, and most cars passed by giving us a wide, respectful berth when possible. But road walking any highway requires perusing the pages of the Roadkill Cafe menu, and the sight of so many dead animals distressed Sierra. 

Our route paralleled Grizzly Creek, a marshy creek popular with both beavers and birds. We also spotted a herd of domestic buffalo on a ranch next to the highway. Colorful wildflowers lined the road. 

We quickly reached Rabbit Ears Pass, our destination for the day, and headed into Steamboat Springs for the day. First stop? Johnny Be Good Diner, a highly recommended restaurant in town. After fueling up we tackled our usual town chores and fruitlessly searched for new shoes. 

Yet again my Brooks Cascadia trail runners began developing holes in the mesh uppers in less than 100 miles, allowing dirt and debris to pour inside. In contrast, Sierra's kids Brooks Adrenaline road running shoes did not develop holes until after 400 miles, and past models of Cascadias have lasted 500 miles with no holes at all. For now we will have to patch and go.