Friday. 6:00 p.m. I’m in Pierre, parked just off the Million Dollar Highway near Molas Pass- perched at almost 11,000 feet between Durango and Silverton. Pierre is in the transition from cargo to sweet camper van if only his owner would decide to work on him instead of hiking in the mountains. Another season perhaps…
I’ve driven up from Durango, where I live and work from home. It’s been a week. It’s always been a week. My work as a children’s rights attorney is immensely rewarding and also heartbreakingly difficult. My emotions stay bottled up, neatly compartmentalized so I can face the day-to-day tasks. Effective, yet dangerous. That bottle is highly pressured and subject to blow open at any moment. Like today. And so, through tears and frustration and sadness, I packed my backpack, grabbed some leftovers, a beer, and my journal and drove north.
It’s monsoon season and I’m thankful for the protection of Pierre as the rain pours down and thunder cracks overhead. I silently hope this will be it for the weekend, but that is foolish. Mother nature will let loose as she pleases. Her bottle must also be highly pressurized and precariously capped.
I journal out my thoughts. There is a stream flowing lightly nearby. It’s raining. The stream is your guide. It will always be there. Flowing. Washing away the pain, the fear, the regret. I am strong. Despite, or in spite of, the deep scars. Let it out. Over and over. Let it out. I cry easily, weeping alongside father sky.
Saturday. 6:00 a.m. The alarm wakes me from a dream filled and fitful sleep. What is it about high altitude that makes your brain create these fantastical journeys in your dreams? I turn on the stove from the warm bed and give myself a few more minutes of comfort before pulling on my usual hiking clothes. Running shorts, cotton shirt, high socks, baseball hat, deodorant, though I don’t know the point of that one. I choke down cold oatmeal and warm coffee, check my gear list one last time and cover my body in sunscreen. The sun is rising and last night’s rain has left footprints of fog between the mountain peaks. The air is cool with a promise of a clear morning. At last, there is no reason for me to remain, so I step out of Pierre, shoulder my pack, and walk.
I’m a lucky human. I managed to create a life in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, a place that happens to be conveniently close to the Colorado Trail. I have fallen in love with this trail- its high altitude meandering path leading through jaw dropping beauty. This section is familiar and feels almost as much like home as the one with walls and doors. It’s where I come to train for trail running, watch the bursting of July wildflowers, witness the skunk cabbage turning yellow and then black as fall approaches, and escape from the emotional pain I carry inside. I know all the climbs, the streams, the rocks, the columbine patches.
As I start to walk, I feel the familiar weight of my pack. It’s a comfort to know that the 20 pounds I carry contains everything I need to survive for 36 hours in the wilderness. Longer if I don’t mind being a bit hungry. As my legs brush the bushes creeping in on the trail, I feel the water soaking into my shorts and shoes. While I shiver at first, I know that soon the sun will burst into the sky and I’ll be grateful for any opportunity to cool off. I see no one for the first few hours. Alone with my thoughts, my legs fall into a familiar rhythm as the earth undulates beneath my feet. I wonder if I did the right thing with that kiddo. I should have objected during that hearing. I wasn’t available enough for my coworker. Oh fuck, I forgot to file that notice. Stop it Heather. No, don’t stop it. Let the thoughts flow through you. Let them out. A tear leaks out my eye. Then another. I breathe deep and focus on the flowers. I look up at the sky. I’m hungry. Am I hungry? Yes. I need a snack. I unzip my hip pouch and locate some trail truffles, chewing while I walk. Do I have to pee? Oh yeah. I have to pee. I step behind a tree and once again marvel at the invention of the female urinary device or, as Alexis calls it, the shenis. I giggle. Peeing standing up always makes me giggle, but boy is it nice to not have to unbuckle your pack or deal with squatting- especially when those trail miles have made your quads shaky with fatigue.
The sun is high in the sky now and I am aware of the heat on my neck and arms.The sweat sits only where my pack touches my body, the dry air pulling it out almost as quickly as it forms. I climb up Rolling Pass. The trail down the other side is awash in castilleja, columbines, bluebells, monkshood and so many others I don’t know the names of. I pause at the view, but notice the building clouds and know the afternoon will bring the familiar summer thunderstorms. I catch my breath and begin the descent. Ow, fuck! Stupid blister. Again? Ow. Ow. Ow. Fuck. I get these blisters on the outsides of my heels that I have never been able to avoid and they usually kill on the downhills. Breathe, Heather. It’ll numb out. It always does. Ugh. Look at the flowers. Oh those are nice. Wait, remember when jogging downhill helped? I start a slow jog down the steep grade, marveling at how well my pack carries. I’ll have to tell Six Moon Designs that I can run with this pack. Ow! Down I go until the trail is once again below treeline and I’m following a pine covered path so smooth and flowy that I forget everything except how good it feels at this moment. Just this one. That’s a sweet campsite. Too bad it’s only noon. I put my hydration hose in my teeth and pull. It’s gotten hot and I drink a lot out here. I’m out. I’ll stop at that stream up there with the waterfall. Down down down. I like the ups. My body knows what to do with those. Not these jarring descents that threaten to jam your vertebrae and hips into themselves.
I hear the gurgle of water and approach the stream. I'm sure it has a name, but to me it’s just the one with the waterfall and the rocks whitened from whatever mining chemicals have leached into the earth and where I always stop for lunch. I take off my pack for the first time in 6 hours and feel my muscles yearn to stretch and relax. My filter sits in the side pouch and I marvel at its existence. What if we had to boil all the water out here instead of filter it? My knees ache as I squat by the stream and fill the bladder, remembering my journal entry from last night. It will always be there. Flowing. I screw on the filter and drink deeply- quenching the dryness and slowly easing the mild headache that has come on. Ouch! I slap at my leg as a black fly takes a drink of its own. Oh Heather, you know the bugs are bad at this stream. They always are. Ok. No problem. Fill water and grab a tortilla and keep moving. I begin the awkward dance of trying to filter water into my pack while shaking my legs and slapping randomly. The mosquitos and black flies have spotted me and are swarming. I grab my tortilla and a pouch of peanut butter and sling my pack back on so I can escape the bloodthirsty mob. Would have been nice to sit on that log and eat my snack. Oh well. Just keep walking. I’m pretty alone out here. Am I glad I’m alone? Yeah. I actually am. Are you or are you just telling yourself that? Oh wow, look at that crazy columbine! Yeah, I actually am. I take a bite of tortilla and the peanut butter sticks to my mouth. I stick my finger in to scrap it off. I feel myself slowly transitioning into a more wild and feral version of myself.
The trail climbs and I feel the mid-afternoon rays bake the skin on the back of my neck and my arms. This is why your hands are getting so wrinkled, Heather. I slather more sunscreen on, wondering if it is possible to halt the aging process in its tracks. Wrinkles are just the topography of your body. I think I heard that somewhere. Reflections of the peaks and valleys I’ve been through. So many valleys. I have started to cross paths with more people. Some on mountain bikes clearly out for a day ride. Others with the easy movement of thru hikers. An elderly couple with identical giant backpacks dressed so similar it is hard to distinguish them from a distance. I hope I’m doing this when I’m 80. I hope I never lose my ability to walk through the mountains with a pack on my back. I wonder if I’ll ever find a partner to do this with. Who loves this as much as I do. Who aches to feel dirty and exhausted and wrung out at the end of the day, happy to eat couscous over a tiny stove and sleep on the ground. I feel sad and a little lonely. I shake my head and focus on the flowers, the views, the clouds. Of fuck, the clouds. The innocent fluffy white puffs have joined forces to form black thunderheads.Every 10 steps I assess the sky around me. I know I just have to get over this next pass and then I’ll drop below the treeline again. I feel the familiar anxiety as the awareness of my exposure sinks in. Low rumbles of thunder. I quicken my steps.
Wow. I actually said that aloud. This view. I take in the views of Lizard Head, Mt. Wilson, and El Diente- rugged peaks in the Lizard Head Wilderness just a few miles from Telluride. Down. I see no one as I descend, the clouds turning an even deeper shade of gray. I’ll rest for a while near Celebration Lake. I hope there aren’t too many people there. It’s hot. Why do I feel unsettled? As I approach the lake, I hear voices and see a group of teenagers gathered. Rough roads come through here and allow access by 4-wheel drive and dirt bike. I need water. Ew. Why didn’t you fill up at a nice clean spring, Heather? Oh cool, a crawfish. Do they call them that around here? Crayfish? I dip my bladder into the lukewarm water and carry a few liters back to a campsite that I’d eyeballed on the way to the lake. Damn. There is a guy sitting on a tree stump with his dirt bike next to him. “Hi,” I say. “Hey,” he replies. I ask him if he is planning on camping there. He’s thinking about it. “Just looking at what the weather is going to do. If you want to camp here, I can move or share,” he says. He has a kind face and seems to understand the inherent wariness that single women feel when they encounter men in the woods. It can be exhausting at times- always checking in with your gut to decipher friend from foe. I thank him and say I’ll find another spot. I see a flat area near some trees and drop my pack.
I am still feeling unsettled. Ugh, the flies and mosquitos are so bad this year. I’m getting eaten alive so I set up my Gatewood cape/tarp and pat myself on the back for adding the bug net this year. I’ll just lie here and eat snacks and read for a little bit. I can’t get comfortable. It’s hot. It’s only 3:00 and the afternoon looms long. I’ve already traveled 20 miles, but I am not ready to be done. I scarf down the last of my pretzels and crawl back out of the tarp. The clouds are still looming, but not as ominous. I haven’t heard thunder in a while. My plan was to camp here and hike back out tomorrow. This doesn’t feel right. I trust my gut and the growing anxiety in my body and repack my backpack. As soon as I tie my shoes and start walking again, I settle. I decide to go back up and over the pass and find one of my spirit streams to call my home for the night. I walk fast - heading back up over 12,000 feet while still watching the sky. I see some lightning in the distance. No stopping for the views this time. As I start the descent again, I approach a bikepacker. I watch him similarly scanning the skies every minute or so. We cross paths. He has the dirty feral look of someone who has been on the trail for weeks. I wish him well. I retrace the path I covered just a few hours before. The light has softened. The sun no longer drains my energy. There’s the spot where Micah and I camped three years ago. I can’t believe three years have gone by. So much has changed. Do I feel different? Am I happier? Why do I always measure my success by happiness? What does that even mean? I laugh easily. I am mostly content. I still have episodes of deep sadness. My body still struggles to keep up with my spirit. I come upon more mountain bikers hiking their bikes up the trail. Unlike the last guy, these men appear to be used to sitting in recliners with cold beers and nachos. “We’re from sea level,” they say. Ah, I smile. “You’re doing great,” I try to be encouraging. “You hiking alone?” Why do people ask me that? Would they ask me that if I were a man? “Yes.” They tell me I’m brave and I just smile and nod and continue to move down the trail and away from them. They mean well. I guess. I step over a babbling stream and look around for flat spots.
6:00 p.m. A reasonable time to set up camp. Enough time to relax, but not so much that I fear the stillness. You should probably learn to just be still, Heather. I know. I’m better. I sit more. I’ve always used movement to deal with my anxiety, but it’s gotten me in trouble in the form of overuse injuries and fatigue. As I set up my tarp once again, I pull my flask out of my pack and take a small sip. A little whiskey and my kindle are worth the extra ounces on these solo journeys. I sit in the quiet for a while and watch the sky turn pink. Despite the threat, not a drop of rain fell on me today. The mosquitos have calmed. Peace sinks in. After eating my dinner, I do my best at camp hygiene, squeeze as much pee out of my bladder as possible, and zip myself into my cocoon. I feel the fatigue deep in my muscles and thank my body for once again allowing me to travel this terrain by foot. I know I’m in for a night of interrupted sleep as I constantly change positions on the thin mat, but the sleep I get will be deep and restful. I’ve spent enough nights on the trail that I am no longer afraid- though I always eye the dead trees around and startle when the wind coaxes spooky creaks out of their still standing corpses.
6:00 am. I awake. As I gingerly step out from my tarp and watch the sky once again lighten with the rising sun, I feel calm. My body feels tired, but capable of many more miles. I know that for just a little longer, all I will have to do is put one foot in front of the other, drink water, eat food, and propel myself through the beauty back to a waiting Pierre. All that exists in my off-trail life will be there waiting, but for now, it’s just me and the dirt path and the emotions that flow and swirl along with my environment. For now, there is healing.