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Adventure on the Colorado Trail

by Caroline Almy Hamilton

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, right?  Divide that thousand miles in half and you have the distance of the famous Colorado Trail. It is above ten thousand feet most of the way and winds through eight major mountain ranges and seven national forests as well as six wilderness areas. From Denver to Durango you will witness ecosystem diversity from high alpine tundra and lush valleys along the river, as well as the plains near Denver.

Why would anyone decide to walk these four hundred eighty six miles? I asked a friend of mine why she’s do that. Her simple answer was, “I had a month off and nothing else to do.” I wasn’t the only one asking this question. She said many people along the trail asked her why she was doing this also. They usually said they would love to hike the whole trail, but just didn’t ever have the time. However, I heard you will never have time, you have to make time.

Do you begin such a trek by going through a catalogue for the “proper equipment”? Get a back pack, some hiking boots, a sleeping bag, tent, and a ton of freeze dried food for starters, none of the above! You don’t need a lot of stuff. I like to sacrifice comfort in camp for comfort on my back. My friend wore regular tennis shoes, took a little toasty fleece blanket, a back pack the size a kindergarten child would take to school and most importantly a garbage sack to keep the ground dry under her cold tired body. She rigged her own camp stove out of two pop cans cut in half and used heet, an alcohol, as fuel. Her primary source of heat for her petite body was walking, walking, and walking some more.

Even in the night, if she got cold, she’d just get up and walk. Did I mention she had the luxury of a wool cap and gloves and a fleece jacket? (The fleece jacket was her pillow to rest her weary head each night after hiking twenty t thirty miles a day.) Her first aid kit consisted of gauze and neosporin. She sewed her tent out of very light tarp material and used her two walking sticks as tent pegs. The only cooking utensil she had was a small aluminum pan. Her day began as soon as the sun came up and ended at dusk. There are some people who will drop off food at various spots along the Colorado Trail and set up camp for groups or individuals. One day a lady from REI who was dropping food off to some people asked her to give a presentation on light weight hiking. Since she didn’t use anything that REI made or sold, it was pointless.

Every four to six days she would hitchhike into a town and buy Little Debbie snacks, chocolate covered coffee beans, nuts, granola, Oreos, Pop Tarts, etc. Her trick to getting a ride was to wear a fresh flower in her hat and give the thumb up hitch hike sign. If someone passed her by, she’d then wave a wiggly thank you gesture, and she said the next car coming would pick her up. Several “trail angels” (people who help you along the way) would give her something she needed. There was one couple who took her to a lovely dinner of fresh grilled salmon before taking her back to the trail.

What did she eat to fuel this twenty year old walking machine? Are the Ramen noodles boiled? Or broiled? Maybe barbequed? “No way” she told me, “they have too much MSG.” Instead, she had the gourmet delight of Lipton’s Cheesy Broccoli Rice. Simply add water. Yummie. I wanted to know if she ever day-dreamed about “good food” in her weak moments? “Oh, yeah, I was delirious over the thought of the Durango Diner’s two eggs over easy, hash browns, ham and green chilies. No, make that double on the chilies”, she said with emphasis, Ice cream was also an imaginary longing in her thoughts. And what kind, might I ask? “Black cherry.”

Let’s talk about hygiene, just in case someone might wander about that aspect. “I braided my hair and wore a baseball cap. I washed my clothes in a creek and when I got near a town, I’d do my laundry.” (It occurred to me she could write a book on “how to wear your underwear in eight different ways” since most people only know of two; inside out and right side in.”)

This might be a silly question, but did you ever get afraid of man or beast? The blank stare on her face made me feel like I was the one paranoid over such ridiculous ideas. The only alarming incident was when some dirt bikers, who are not allowed on the trail, came around a hair pin curve and one crashed into her shoulder, knocking her into the dirt. The second boy almost hit her too, but both kept on going, laughing all the way. She stumbled into a campground of trail volunteers and they assisted in helping her get dusted off and taped up. They used their cell phones to report the boys, hoping someone would catch them down the trail. Hopefully they caught the two legged hoodlums. They were more dangerous to her than a bear that had sniffed her hair through her trusty little tent. I am sure that mice and chipmunks did war dances around her as she slept; fighting over the crumbs leftover from her dinner. She even saw a mountain lion staring at her through the brush, but was not intimidated by it. The blood-sucking mosquitoes found her a target for their cocktail hors d’oeuvre covering her with tiny red whelps.

Being a mother, I was most curious to know how her mother must have felt as her homeless daughter honed in on the mountains. Her reply was, “I figured there was more dangerous things a twenty year old could get into if she was here in Durango.” She did call her mom each week or she would ask someone else to let her know she was “doing just fine.”

The web site for the Colorado Trail says it is best to travel with someone else. I would assume that being alone might present some form of londliness. I asked her how she dealt with this situation. In her upbeat way she said she entertained herself by making up songs, thinking about friends, swimming, and fishing. Surprisingly to me, she said that she enjoyed smelling the fresh air, and drinking water. If she was above ten thousand feet she didn’t purify the water but otherwise she’d put two drops of chlorine to a liter of water.

The wild  flowers were also a great source of enjoyment. Between Silverton and Durango there are myriads of Columbines, wild roses, wild geraniums, hare bells, skunk cabbage and Indian Paintbrushes. The amazing wonder of wonders is how these flowers grow in the midst of rocks and boulders and landslides of slate.

What’s her next adventure when “she doesn’t have anything to do?” She’s planning on canoeing the boundaries of Minnesota in September and October. Then she is off to her winter job of being a dog musher near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The Colorado Trail has everything we all long for; unlimited fresh air for our lungs, beautiful mountains for our eyes to behold, the peace and quiet for our soul, and the blankets of flowers to praise.

Thanks to my friend for showing us how very simple and healthy and inexpensive a vacation can be. The only thing missing is the time and you can make that, can’t you? Some folks say “time is money.” Don’t believe it. Some experiences are worth more than all the money in the world.
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