One month on trail, and I’m in Pagosa Springs, CO. This includes skipping the 250 or so miles north of Grant which was closed due to fires. It’s not like I hiked 821 miles in a month.
Escaping to and from Chama
Once they closed the forest, there was a mad stampede for everyone to jump ahead. So much so, that the bus from Grant’s was full. It happens to be the cross-country Los Angeles to New York City bus, so there are already plenty of people on it. But the hikers pushed it over the edge. I ended up staying an extra night in Grants. Grant’s sucks.
Most people hitchhiked to Albuquerque, but because that was the first of four connections I didn’t want to risk the timing. So it was the 6 a.m. Greyhound to Albuquerque, a commuter rail to Santa Fe, then a bus to a little place called Espanola, and finally a 2-hour Park and Ride bus up into the hills and Chama. Thanks, free taxpayer funded transport!
As I was loitering waiting for my train in Albuquerque, I walked around to find breakfast. While returning to the train station, a person pulled over, asked if I needed a meal, and offered me food. I thought I looked considerably more put together then the 7 a.m. denizens of the station, but apparently the miles have taken their toll. The bus/train station is not a mice place.
The Santa Fe train station had a fair number of hikers milling around. It also happened to be across from the REI. People were running in and out buying cold weather gear, fuel, and snacks. I ran into a bunch of people I know and Pigpen, Just Right and I journeyed on together.
The only reasonably priced place to stay in Chama was the RV Park. They were super nice, but overloaded with hikers so they just sort of stashed us in a corner of the property. Finevwith me. I was waiting for a package, so I was going to stay until Monday while everyone else that I knew was hiking out the next morning. It’s a decent little town, there’s a good coffee place. I ran into some other hikers, Pete and Kate from the Czech Republic. We decided to hike out and enter the mountains together.
Because I had time to kill, I wandered around the town. I stopped in at the Humane Society to see if they needed any help but they were closing up for the day after doing a big food and hay drive. Northern New Mexico seems pretty poor and some other local people I talked to said it’s basically generational. I figured if I was stuck there for a couple of days I could at least be useful.
I think the universe is generally balanced. Normally priority mail will take two days but to come all the way from Rhode Island was scheduled to take three. As I was sitting in the coffee place, I saw a notice on my phone that my packages were available for pickup. I walked over to the post office but since it was after noon they were already closed. Bad timing. But, I saw that all the post office people were unloading the truck behind the building. I stuck my head around and asked if I could possibly get my package even though they were closed, this being Saturday, and they said yes! This let me leave town two days early. I think this ended up being unlucky for other reasons, more on that later.
Day 1 – to Dipping Lakes
Peter, Kate, and I pitched out first thing Sunday morning. We were picked up by a couple of young kids heading up into Colorado to go fishing. Otherwise, being Sunday, I think we were going to wait for a long time. We made our way under lowering clouds from Cumbres Pass up into the High stuff. At one point we topped 12000 feet.
10000 feet is fine, 11000 feet is OK, 12000 feet starts to get a little breathy.
After hiking all day and doing about 15 miles we stopped at a place called Dipping Lakes. There we found about a half-dozen other tents already set up. The weather begin to turn, with ice pellets and snow starting to fall. I quickly found a place that was not terrible and threw up my tent. Even though part of it was on a rock I was able to finagle things such that it was not underneath me when I slept. I woke up to freezing temperatures and a couple inches of snow on the ground.
Day 2 – the bailout at 12000 feet
Almost immediately, everything sucked. It was freezing, I was scrambling up snow-covered ice, and the air was super thin. Also there are not a lot of signs so I was kind of following the snow-covered footbed left by all the previous hikers. Not a very confidence inspiring path. I’m also completely reliant on my phone for navigation when there’s no path. It’s always true, but when you’re confronted with the lack of signs or Trail the thought becomes a little more sobering. I got out of the trees and things improved, but the clouds were menacing most of the morning. This is the kind of weather with a little voice in the back of your head keeps whispering “turn around, turn around”. But because I live here now, I pushed on. Peter and Kate were right behind me (I thought) and so I figured we would all meet up for lunch somewhere. The problem was that every time I stopped I would either lose feeling in my toes or it would start to snow. I ended up hiking all day by myself.
By late afternoon I was climbing another pass. I met up with a group of guys named Jinks, Your Honor, and Fast Food. Together we dead reckoned and navigated our way up over another 12000 footer, this time in the snow. As we were making our way down the pass into the tree line, Your Honor pointed out that in just over a mile there was a side trail that would take us down into the valley. We decided to take that since it was safer and we would be out of the snow.
We got down into the tree line and picked up a trail that we had seen on our maps. It went along a river down into a valley, and every step we took improved slightly. The trail was covered in snow drifts and fallen trees, but since it was a foot path along a river in a valley, you really couldn’t get lost – just keep heading down. We camped at about 7pm. At that point I had done close to twenty miles, so I shouted to the guys good night and then crawled into my tent.
Day 3 – Platoro
In the morning I was up first. I was cold and hungry so I got up and rolled out ahead of the other guys. I knew they would catch me anyway because everyone catches me. The trail, now very well-trodden, continued down a wide river valley. The views were great and we could look back and see the mountains we had just come over. The valley was the sort of place where you would expect to see deer or elk in the bottom, but I didn’t see anything. After a few miles we’ve came to a trailhead at the end of a forest service road. From that point on we made excellent time on the road as it was obviously created and maintained for vehicles. The guys pushed ahead and left me to creep along the road towards the little resort town of Platoro.
Of course it started to snow again. These squalls in the mountain passes are usually visible a ways off, so you have time to switch out your coat and rain gear if you need to. By about 1:30 I got into town. I say town, but what it really is is about 150 boarded-up summer cabins. It’s like the whole town closes. However there was one RV Park/rental cabins/general store that was open. When I got there I went inside to the blissful 75 degree temperature of a wood stove heated room. It was glorious. There are another half-dozen or so hikers there, coming up the road from cumbres pass. This town is located on these so-called Green Line, a popular alternate to the CDT that everyone has on their map. The owner of the place said he saw it another eight hikers coming up the road from a different direction.
After a disappointing grilled cheese sandwich lunch, I filled my water bottles and left. I didn’t want to pay the money and lose the time by staying in one of the Cottages. In retrospect staying was probably a better idea. I left mid-afternoon to continue on the green line, which is all forest roads leading to the main highway near the CDT. The road is built on some old mining roads that were put in in the 1800’s. There’s a lot of minerals and heavy metals in the surrounding mountains, so they told me not to drink the water for the next 12 or so miles. My pack was particularly heavy with well water from town. By about 7 I arrived at a US forest service campground. And of course, it was starting to snow again. Vowing not to pack up a cold icy tent once more, I set up dinner and then slept in the campground bathroom. Yes it’s gross, but really not as bad as you think.
Day 4 – the roadwalk
The fourth day out was all road walk, about 28 miles. It was definitely the easiest day in a while. It was also more scenic, in the sense that you could walk and enjoy the scenery instead of walking in the scenery. A nice change. I looked up at all the big stuff and imagine the hikers still up there. I came to the realization that I do not want to navigate only with my phone while standing on numb feet in the snow at 12000 feet. To some people, younger people, that’s a cool adventure. At an intersection of roads and trails in Elwood Pass, a former hiker named Smokey had set up a hiker feed. Tons of cookies and soda and beer and bacon if you were into that sort of thing. I was more into the cabin off the trail in the next quarter mile which had a bathroom.
The rest of the day was basically a very long downhill grind. I lost a couple of thousand feet of altitude and everything got warmer. I started seeing more birds including a Western Tanager, and the Aspens reappeared and started to open their leaves. These meadows are full of dandelions and it was low and warm enough that you could actually smell them on the breeze. A far cry from the high and dry and sterile snowfields. By about 6:30 I reached the highway. The guys I had hiked with were long gone. There is a closed US Forest Service campground right where the road comes out where I made myself at home. There was a nice river running through it so I was able to soak my tired feet and have a bit of a wash. It was great to have the whole campground to myself.
My plan was to hitch the seven miles east to a town called South Fork and stay the night. From there I would hitch further east to a town called Del Norte, and pick up the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. This would avoid the high stuff end the navigation challenges, but be largely road walks. It seems like a good trade.
In the morning I was on the road hitching by about 6:30. The only trucks going east we’re logging trucks and there were plenty of Passenger cars heading west. So I changed my plans and tried to Hitch West to Pagosa Springs. Not much traffic on the road but after an hour a nice guy picked me up and drove me all the way into town.
From that point on it was normal town chore stuff. Breakfast, second breakfast, charge phone, find hotel. It’s a big resort town due to the natural hot springs, so there’s a lot of traffic and money. Whats cool is that some of the hot springs just bubble out of the ground on the riverbank so there are plenty of opportunities for everyday citizens to enjoy them. The town has also kind of exploded stretching for about five miles along the one main road. It makes logistics very tricky. There is some sort of bus that runs hourly from stops that are randomly distributed around the town, or you can walk, or people have had luck hitchhiking.
From here I don’t have a great plan. Instead of walking the cycle route I’m going to stay on the trail. It’s a seven-day Trek from here to Lake City on the official route. There are a couple of alternates you can take and there are plenty of Forest Service roads that cut part of that distance off. I think I’m looking at a six day version of that which sticks to some lower-elevation stuff and valleys instead of being up on the ridge. I am not looking forward to snowfield navigation and snowfield traversing again. I’m going to pick up a bunch of food and hit the trail and see where it takes me. The fundamental problem is that I’m here three weeks early, so everything is harder.