CT Stage 1 – Denver to Breckenridge

July 20

Miles hiked: 20.3
Total trip mileage: 20.3

We’re at the trailhead by 7:00 for the obligatory starting photo.


The first six miles are on a smooth dirt road, a good warmup. We’re lucky, the weather is cool; but even so, where the singletrack trail begins I hear a buzzing sound from underneath a bush. A rattlesnake!

Now the trail climbs. We cross Bear Creek. Eight, nine miles, no problem. Then we’re descending a scorching hot hillside, the South Platte River rushing below us. It’s only about 3:30. We’ve hiked 16.8 miles! I can’t believe it. Is it just adrenaline? My feet are not hurting, which surprises me a little. They always hurt in hiking boots after about 15 miles.

We decide to eat an early dinner and keep going, find a campsite on the other side of the river, since camping is verboten right on the banks. We rehydrate the rice and bean dinner for 10 minutes, cook it for five more over the stove, and set it in my homemade pot cozy system. Twenty more minutes. We open it up and taste the results. It’s edible! Marc pronounces it fantastic. Phew. (Should probably have tested that at home, but, well…)

We filter a ton of water and then climb up out of the canyon. Hike hike hike… off to the right I see a flat spot. We stop and start setting up the tent. Wait a minute, I can’t find the tent footprint I ordered specially for the trip. WTF? My day is ruined! What are we going to do on this trip without a tent footprint? I’m furious with myself. Why didn’t we test the tent at our friends’ in Seattle?

Worry worry worry.

Our food barely fits in the bear bag, and it’s heavy. We use a long stick to push the bag up out of bear reach. As we settle into the tent it starts to sprinkle. Exhausted, I still manage to ruminate about whether we should make a trip into Jefferson to buy a plastic drop cloth and thicker rope, and how I am a complete organizational failure.

July 21

Miles hiked: 15.7
Total trip mileage: 36.0

I’m still frustrated about the tent footprint. On a whim, I reach down underneath the trash compactor bag that’s lining my pack. OMG! It’s here! I’m not a complete organizational failure! My day is made. All is right with my world once again. This is surely a good omen.

The guidebook’s description of today’s section was ominous —hot, waterless, barren. WIth our early start it’s still cool, and we both find it starkly beautiful. A father/son pair pass us in the other direction, the older guy wearing Tarahumara-like sandals. My shoes seem like army tanks in comparison. But my feet are happy.

We find the spigot at the fire station near where the trail meets the highway. The guidebook says it’s emergency water. A car pulls up in the parking lot. We’re not having an emergency. Should we hide? Instead the lady is cheerful and offers the bathroom.

I’m tired, and after another mile I insist we take a break. We can’t do this like we do our road trips—not stopping unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s not a competition, I insist. Marc looks at me like I’m crazy. Of course it’s a competition! Everything’s a competition!

Soon we’re away from civilization (i.e. cars) again, and a thunderstorm unleashes its fury on us. For five harrowing minutes lightning and thunder occur simultaneously and hail drills us. Good thing we’re off the ridge. The trail becomes a torrent of muddy water. Then it’s over. Carry on. Burn the grease, Marc says cheerfully.

My neck and shoulders are beginning to kill me. About 13 miles in, I can no longer turn my head to either side. I shift the shoulder straps on my pack, but no matter what I do it feels like the two vertebrae at the top of my spine are getting pulled out of their sockets. Are there sockets on my spine?

I think my back is broken, I tell Marc. And I had been worried about my feet! Marc takes some stuff out of my pack and puts it into his. What about you? I ask him. Burn the grease! he chirps. What a guy.

I summon up some mantras, hoping Tibetan wisdom will work its mind magic on me. Om mani padme hum, I repeat inside my head, over and over again. It helps.

As we cross a dirt road, we see an empty group campground just to the left of the trail, and Marc makes an executive decision. We’re stopping here. There’s a pit toilet, a spigot, picnic tables and bear vaults. I check the sign and it doesn’t say anything about reservations. The guidebook doesn’t say not to camp here. We can always leave if a group of boy scouts shows up. We enjoy the sunshine as a squirrel entertains itself by dropping pine cone bits on our tent.

July 22

Miles hiked: 17.5
Total trip mileage: 53.5

So far we haven’t seen many hikers on this trail. Today we encounter quite a few. Two women going southbound, another solo one heading north, a group out for a day hike. After a long section on a rocky road, the trail heads up a long, brutal climb that seems to go on forever. On and on and up and up. I am grateful for the app on my phone, which shows the contours so I can estimate exactly how much more up there is. I can do this. My upper back is screaming.

Finally we top out and then head down to a creek meandering through a long meadow. If it weren’t for my poles I’d be faceplanting, as I try to hike and scan the creek bed for moose at the same time. We meet another thru-hiker, Louise, who’s filling up her bottle.

Speaking of poles, we’re frustrated with the Black Diamond ultralight carbon Zs we ordered. You’re supposed to just fit the three sections together and voilà—a pole. But every time the pole sticks into mud, the sections come apart and I have to put them back together again. Marc has given up and is just carrying them in one hand, using them only to cross creeks. I keep using them and fixing them. Seems like a serious design flaw. I’ve manipulated them every way I can think of to no avail. Finally today I’ve had it. I get out the Advil bottle, which has my duct tape wrapped around it, and duct tape the pole sections together.

Louise catches up with us again as we take a break, and we find out she’s from Saskatchewan! We talk about Canada for a while. A little later we find a camp site near a side stream, and invite her to join us. She gratefully accepts. She’s finding the trail is not quite what she expected. She’s done the Camino multiple times and has estimated her mileage and the camaraderie factor based on those experiences. This is a lot tougher and lonelier. Last night was her first night camping alone, she tells us. She blew her whistle whenever she heard a noise outside her tent, so she didn’t get much sleep.

She has some really nasty blisters and I give her a couple of my Compeeds and some moleskin. I’m amazed how cheerful she is, given the state of her feet. She explains that my neck and back pain are coming from the trapezius muscle and shows Marc the spot below my shoulder blade that will release the spasm. I writhe in agony as he massages it with his thumbs.

We enjoy conversation as we cook our respective meals and compare our gear. Even though Louise agrees her pack is probably too heavy (she’s even carrying books!) she has some great gear, including an Ursack. It’s a lot easier to deal with than a bear bag. She’s thinking to get a lift down to Breckenridge tomorrow, lose some stuff, rest up, and then carry on.

July 23

Miles hiked: 21.2
Total trip miles: 74.7

Beautiful aspen groves and stunning views up towards the continental divide today as we hike up to Kenosha Pass. I’m loving this trail! Especially early in the morning before I get tired and my back starts to hurt! We backtrack a mile, jogging, to retrieve my sunglasses, which I dropped when I took my thermal top off on the first climb of the day. Burn the grease! Marc says cheerily.


On the way up to Kenosha pass

We’re thinking if we can keep up this kind of mileage we should hit Breckenridge a day earlier than we thought. I’m psyched that we we don’t have any blisters, that we can hike more than 15 miles a day, that Marc is with me. I may be old but I’m not pathetic!

I want to change our reservation at the hostel, but there’s no signal on my phone. I keep pulling it out to check. Finally there are some bubbles! I call the Inn and Marc calls his office to tell them he’s still alive. I’m sure they were wondering.


Marc calling the office

We reach Kenosha Pass exhausted. My back is killing me. I’ve been mentally intoning mantras for miles. The Guidebook indicates there’s water here but at the parking lot Marc can’t find any. If you go to the campground you have to pay a fee. A friendly mountain biker takes pity on us and gives us some from a jug in his car.

Crossing the highway is terrifying. There’s a lot of traffic and a dotted yellow line, so there are cars passing each other right where we’re trying to cross. On the other side, we rest for a while and gather our forces to go another 3 miles to Guernsey Creek, where there is supposed to be good camping.

There are indeed campsites at the creek, in an aspen grove. There’s also a large group in a field nearby with trucks, ATVs and chainsaws. They appear to be constructing a huge firepit, dragging around huge logs with their ATVs. So much for wilderness. But we’re too tired to go any further. We pitch the tent and start a fire to smoke out the mosquitoes. Three other backpackers go by, opting not to stop. They’ll be up until the wee hours, they warn us. Too bad. I think I could sleep through anything at this point. I try to do a little yoga to stretch out my back. Thank god for Advil. We hope Louise is okay. We haven’t seen her since we retrieved my sunglasses earlier in the morning. We wish her well on this hike.

A man and a little boy come over from the ATV group to drag off a couple of aspen logs. We chat for a minute. The man has an accent, and I ask him where he’s originally from. Belarus, he says. It’s a big Eastern European family ATV conclave. What a strange world.

July 24

Miles hiked: 16.3
Total trip mileage: 91

The Belarussians (is that how you say it?) went to bed around 8:00. They might have sounded like crazy rednecks with the ATVs and chainsaws, but they weren’t.

Every day on this hike we emerge from the tent and try to read the sky. Will it rain? Marc makes coffee, tea and oatmeal. We’re usually on the trail by 7:00, 7:30 at the latest. Today the sky starts out looking fine. The trail heads up and up and up to Georgia Pass. We pass the three guys who eschewed our campsite last night. Every time we pass someone we stop and chat a bit. They’re all friendly. As we reach treeline (the first time on this hike!) the trail reminds me of the Jura mountains in Switzerland. It’s so beautiful! But now the sky’s not looking so fine any more. A huge cloudbank is oozing across it, sheets of rain obscuring the peaks to the south.

Near the pass, we hear the whine of engines and a couple of ATVs bump across the landscape above us on a road gashed across the mountainside. I hate that they can come up here and break the magic silence of the mountains. It’s the same problem I have with downhill ski areas blasting music in the wintertime. Thes kinds of things just don’t belong in my cathedral, thank you very much.

We reach the pass at the same time as a mountain biker, and it starts to rain gently on us. We’re passed by more gnarly bikers on the way down, but they’re quite polite. Thankfully we don’t have to share the trail with the ATV crowd. Pretty soon we’re back in forest again.


Georgia Pass

After a few miles the rain picks up, and after we cross the Swan River we decide to stop even though there are car campers in the area and we’ve only gone 16 miles. It’s getting cold, the rain is pouring down, and Marc’s fingers have gone completely white (he has Reynaud’s syndrome). We pitch the tent in the rain as fast as we can and curl up in our sleeping bags, reading on the kindle. The rain lets up briefly around 6:00 so I go out and cook dinner. We eat quickly, hang the bear bag and get back into the tent just as the rain settles in again. It’s cozy and warm in here. Tomorrow night we’ll sleep in a bed!


July 25

Miles hiked: 13.4
Total trip miles: 104.4

I peek out of the tent, praying for blue sky. YES! We load up our wet gear and head out. I keep thinking about what I want to eat when we get to Breckenridge. Beer! Ice cream! A hamburger? The miles fly by.

We encounter a lot of mountain bikers here on these gorgeously maintained trails. A trail runner tells us a mountain bike race is starting today, going from Durango to Denver. How exciting! We can cheer them on when we cross paths in the next sections.

We’re at the highway by about 2:00. Even though we’re stinky and look only marginally sane, the driver of the free shuttle bus is super friendly. Another passenger asks where we’re headed and I tell her the Fireside Inn. She gives me a pitying look. They were her neighbors once, she says. Very interesting people. She said “interesting” in the same way my Oxford tutor did after he read my essay on the futility of philosophical research. Hmmm.

The hostel, only a few blocks’ walk from the bus station, is open, but no one’s there. We hang our tent up to dry on the line out back. We gather up the stuff we thought we needed but don’t —the solar charger, the mosquito nets, Marc’s annoying bear bells. While we’re sorting, an older guy strolls in, carrying a heavy-looking old-fashioned external frame pack. He’s looking for a package that he mailed to the hostel. He weighed himself at the rec center where he showered, he tells us, and he’s lost 145 pounds hiking so far. I go really slow and my pack is really heavy. He looks pretty gnarly. A mountain man in the making. We gather up our pile, say goodbye and head back out to run our errands.

I show the guy at the outfitter shop our problematic trekking poles. Is this a design flaw? He pulls the duct tape off one pole and tugs the handle up really hard. Click! There’s a pin up there at the top! I just hadn’t pulled hard enough, not wanting to break the pole. I feel like a complete idiot.

I find Marc a pair of warmer wool x-c skiing gloves in a half price bin and feel slightly less of an idiot. A couple backpacking meals and fuel canisters and we’re set. At the UPS store our useless stuff (5 lbs!) starts its trip back to Seattle. We resupply at City Market and gobble nectarines as we walk back to the hostel.

We get the keys to our (private!) room, and a friendly lecture. No pot smoking, quiet after 10 pm, remember you’re at high altitude and one beer is the equivalent of two at sea level. The “interesting” innkeeper offers to do our laundry for us. I like this kind of interesting! We borrow a couple of t-shirts and give her our smelly clothes. We take long, hot showers and wash our hair. Being clean feels amazing!

We order beer and way too much food for dinner. Burgers, salad, beer, ribs.

I try to buy a book on Kindle but the credit card doesn’t go through. I call the number to fuss about it and find out someone has hacked our card and tried to charge $1500 in concert tickets and a flight on Air Canada. Do we want to block the card? Yes! Block it!

I’m sure there’s something to worry about in this but I can’t summon up the energy.

We set the alarm for 6:00. We’ve caught up on our e-mail, sorted out our gear, bought supplies, cleaned up, salvaged our financial future. The tent is dry. Our phones are charged. Our clothes are clean. The weather forecast looks good. Onwards!

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