by Emma Savage
“I am a great believer in the solo experience,” my friend Phil emails me, “and the mental challenge it offers.”
The last time I remember feeling this alone and this frightened was when I went into labor. “Are you going on a vision quest?” another friend asks. No, I think, just wondering if I have enough cord to hang my bear bag, just wondering if I’ll be able to make the 6-mile stretch on the Continental Divide Trail before the big afternoon thunder storms roll in. “1:30,” my friend John says. “That’s when the storms are rolling in now.” Just wondering how I’m going to treat water that every horse, human, short and long tailed weasel, badger, bear, moose, coyote, elk, marmot, pika, grey jay, Clark’s nutcracker and duck has pooped in for a 6-mile radius around Blue Lake. Just wondering if my seventy-three-year-old body will hold up under a heavy pack for three days without losing six inches to compression fractures. Just wondering if I should take my micro spikes to walk across snow fields (I decide not to). Just wondering if the car will start after three days parked in the sun at the Three Forks Trailhead. Just wondering if I have this compass/ map thing down or if I should have spent the extra three hundred dollars for the GPS device from which, if you’re still conscious, you can call for help if you break your ankle crossing a creek.
But there isn’t any way to second guess giving birth. It is something you do and the inevitability of it sweeps you along. While my mind is strangely unforthcoming with answers as to why I’m doing this three-day backpack into the South San Juan Wilderness, this journey too, has had for me a kind of inevitability. And the inevitability and the fear are part of the attraction.
“The creeks will be raging,” my friend John says. “Have you thought about how you’re going to cross?” The introduction of this new anxiety persuades me to wear my Gore Tex boots instead of my better fitting custom ones. I’ll just walk across in my boots, plant my feet between the rocks, balance solidly with my poles and boots. Better to be wet than broken. And my boots are wet for the rest of the day and half of the next but even water shoes don’t give you the same stability as boots and besides, I don’t need the extra weight.
I think I have wanted to hike in the South San Juans ever since I discovered Cumbres Pass on my way to paint along the Chama River in New Mexico. I think I’ve wanted to hike there ever since I heard the name Weminuche. Then hiking on a day-hike towards Weminuche Pass last summer, I met a woman who had just completed several days on the CDT walking from Wolf Creek Pass. Awed by her strength and focus, her glow of self-assurance, I wanted to be her, I wanted to be that woman who walked alone in wilderness.
But a 76-mile section from Wolf Creek to Cumbres Pass? “No,” says my friend Katey, a seasoned mountain climber and wilderness guide. “At your age, that isn’t realistic. Take a small section,” she says. Another friend suggests which section. I will drive the 27 miles on Forest Road 250 off the road to Cumbres Pass, park beyond the Platoro Reservoir at the Three Forks Trailhead, head out with my pack up a long valley to the three forks, cross the converged North, Middle Forks of the Conejos River and the creek that runs alongside the Rito Azul Trail, follow the Rito Azul a mile or so where I’ll camp below tree line the first night, then hike to Blue Lake for the second night and on the third day head out for the six miles of the sublime and potentially terrifying CDT. The last section drops me down again into the Middle Fork cirque and another six miles out to the car. In all, about seventeen-and-a-half miles.
Compared to the steep and rocky trails of the Sangre de Cristos with their “strenuous” designations, the trails into the San Juans slope gently up long valleys, their beds cushioned with soft soil. This is a welcome discovery given my heavy pack.
I leave Crestone at 7am. I calculate it will take me four hours to reach the trailhead and another two up the Rito Azul will bring me to my thunderstorm deadline. Black cumulonimbus mass to the west and I make camp on a shelf just off the trail, my tent placed on a forest floor lush with flowers, red columbine, blue chiming bells, and a thick tall gentle growth of white flowering plants I can’t name. It is like I have stepped into a rain forest except all of the trees are dead from beetle kill. I manage to hang my bear bag from a leaning dead tree and go down to the creek to eat a lunch I’ve packed. I don’t bother with cooking dinner. Instead, I crawl into my tent and wait for the
storm and begin reading Stickeen, a little book by John Muir a friend sent me for my birthday just a few days ago. The storm never comes, but after all the stress of getting here, the days and weeks of planning, the rutted washboard road, the creek crossing, it feels good to just do nothing. Eventually, I drift off to sleep with the sound of the creek and a hermit thrush singing just a few feet away. Tomorrow I will be going to Blue Lake.
Next day the Rito Azul Trail climbs high above the valley floor and breaks into a wide green meadow almost as wide as the sky. The creek sparkles and dips through the meadow’s center and white cumulus clouds build at the edge of the blue, blue sky. I see a man breaking down his tent across the meadow and I want to wave but don’t. People come here to be alone, not to wave to strangers. Then, just as the map has foretold, the trail begins to switch back up into a forest to the north and eventually arrives at the lake and the intersection with the CDT. I encounter a large family with packs, a mother and father, two grandparents and two children from Albuquerque. They tell me about places to camp, a day hike to Glacier Lake, and the two bull moose they’ve seen in the meadow next to the camping spot they’ve just left. When they leave, I take their site, hoping to see the moose, but I never do.
By the time I set up camp the clouds have blotted out the sun and are turning black. I take a walk to the north end egress to the lake and discover a snow field about eight feet deep. Climbing above it, I can see mountains and valleys falling away all the way to New Mexico— the Navajo River Basin as it passes through many shades of grey and blue into the distance. Back at camp, I prepare dinner while the sky spits hail and thunder rumbles. But the storm never really materializes. I hang my bear bag again, this time from a dead tree leaning right over the CDT. The dead trees add a melancholy air to the lake which is offset by a group of young men camped across the way who are exuberantly jumping and diving into the lake from the rocks above. I applaud their celebration and retreat to my tent to read Stickeen again, the story of a brave little dog who has followed John Muir out onto an Alaskan glacier and must cross a fifty-footwide crevasse by sliding across on a precarious ice bridge. As I drift off to sleep, frogs in all the snow melt ponds around my camp sing into the evening. The next day I must break camp by 6:30 if I’m to walk the six miles above tree line before the thunderstorms strike. A group I met at the trailhead has told me about getting caught in a big storm while on the CDT just a few days before, something I want to avoid.
The light is a silver grey when I leave the next morning and the weather is ominously warm and humid. For several miles I walk through trees, alive and dead, and past snow melt ponds. To the west, beetle kill trees seem to go on forever across the landscape. I come to a sign that points in the direction of Fish Lake. Otherwise the landscape is empty of human presence or sign; I don’t encounter a living soul for the next twelve miles. The San Juans are a dense and old range, volcanic and leonine, they crouch on their haunches with their flat backs limning the sky up to 12,000 feet, with occasional peaks of 13,000 and snow blanketing their sides. Falling away from these high plateaus, valleys cascade into a blue grey distance and empty wells of silence. The emptiness of this place is sobering, evidence the earth can very well get along without us. This is the place where the last Colorado grizzly bear was killed and my friend John says the ghost of that bear haunts his steps every time he hikes this trail. Soon the trail begins to switch back and climb to a high ridge of around 12,000 feet. I welcome this change from the forest cover not only because it marks the halfway point of this six-mile stretch but because I have finally broken into sunlight and flowers and views of rivers and mountains without end. And when I summit the top of the ridge, I can see before me the circle of unnamed peaks surrounding the Middle Fork basin, and the first of many snow fields I must pass across. The sound of water is everywhere, drips, and rills, falls and cascades; the whole valley is a rush of sound and flowers—marsh marigolds, mountain parsley, blue columbine, paintbrush, alpine buttercups, corn lilies and blue chiming bells.
I start across my first snow field and it is a good thing I don’t know how many there are to come. The trick is not to slip and go tumbling down the mountain with a big pack. I gouge a foot hold with each step and it is slow going but I think of John Muir’s little dog and tell myself to show some pluck here. When I finally reach the center of the cirque, I bump into the CDT sign and the sign to the Middle Fork Trail. There is no trail though and luckily, on the first day of my hike, I talked with a group who told me just to walk across the meadow until the trail appears. And when it does, I keep going: six more miles through a sublime series of meadows as I descend along the creek to the Three Forks Trailhead. I keep looking backward, at the trail behind me, the snow fields, the circle of mountains, the creek and the meadows. And, if there is going to be a storm today, it won’t be here. Far to the east, storm clouds are massing over Antonito, but here in the mountains, I am safe.
In the ten years I’ve been hiking in the Colorado mountains I’ve come to understand that the high country has something to teach us about inevitabilities. Life is short. In these last days of July, the snows of last winter are still melting while in a few weeks, temperatures will be dropping below freezing again. Pikas will need to have cached a winter’s worth of dried grass, marmots will need to have doubled their body weight and black bears stored enough fat to get them through the winter. The sound of water echoing off the peaks will still with freezing temperatures,
temperatures that will soon silence the landscape. When I am back home my mind finally delivers an answer as to why I did this hike. A poem I haven’t read since high school plays insistently through my mind and I can’t stop crying. “Margaret are you grieving?” Gerard Manley Hopkins asks in his poem, “Spring and Fall”, a poem about the inherent sadness of life, about the inevitability of our mortality. I suppose I could say I am crying about the stressed earth, the millions of acres of beetle-killed trees that I witnessed, the wounded landscape, the extinction of the grizzly bears in the South San Juans. But I know that isn’t all. I am crying for myself, for my ageing, for the inevitable changes that are coming. A friend I see at the grocery store says she can’t decide if I’m really brave or really stupid to have done this hike. “Maybe a little of both,” I reply. But what I really want to say is that I am neither. I did the hike because I am in love. Despite the fact I will be moving to Chicago in a few months, I am still in love with these mountains. I just needed to say good-bye.
My thanks and appreciation for their advice and support go to Phil Madonna, Peter Anderson, Katey Buster, Connie de Bordenave, the staff and owners of Kristi Mountain Sports, Father Eric Haarer, Shahna Lax, Ron Garcia, John Rawinski and random strangers I met on the trail.