Continental Divide to Whitehead Trail
Day: 25.1 Miles
Trip: 401.2 Miles
I’m woken by a squealing siren that resembles laughter and the sound of pattering feet outside of my tent. It’s barely twilight and the icy, pre-dawn air snips at the exposed tip of my nose. I pull my sleeping bag over my face and curl up into a ball. The animal that’s trotting in circles around my shelter would disagree, but it’s far too early to start my day.
Another siren of laughter rises above a sea of chirping crickets, like the leading melody in a band full of mountain sounds, and the image of a hyena prances into my mind. My eyelids spring open, my breath pauses, and I feel the pulse of my heart thump against my chest. Babump. The siren squeals laughter once again, through the frigid twilit sky, this time from a different side of my tent. Babump. Do hyenas habituate in the Colorado Rockies, I wonder. If not, the yapping inspector of my campsite is doing a great impression of one. Are they threatening towards humans?
I lie awake for several minutes, paralyzed by adrenaline, and devise a masterful defense strategy: I have plenty of fuel; I’ll light the ends of my trekking poles on fire and flail them through the black sky, like torch-spears. I’ll do this in my underwear, while yelling like Tarzan, and scare the heard away. Do hyenas travel in herds? I wait, breath softly, and listen. Babump. The sound of pattering feet soon fades, and the siren spews one last shriek of laughter into the night, this time from afar. I’m alone again, safe, and uncontrollably tired. I succumb to total exhaustion and fade into a warm sea of blackness.
The morning sky is flawless, a never-ending gradient of blues for as far as my eye can see. The weather forecast in Lake City predicted zero precipitation for the next few days, which pairs nicely with the craggy, exposed ridges that I’ll be traversing today and tomorrow.
The trail becomes a suggestion for where I tread my feet. Steep ledges and cliffs are plentiful in this place, and they all tug at my curiosity, beg me to see the world from their perspective. I’m willingly lured towards them, scrambling through loose rocks and dew-soaked meadows to see what all the fuss is about. The views are breathtaking, amongst the best I’ve seen in Colorado.
I round a bend in the trail and discover a buck and his doe. They’re on a date of sorts, frolicking through this place that they only know as home, dancing beneath the sun. We all pause to gawk at one another, to breath in the stillness. I’m suddenly reminded of my role in these mountains, as if the young couple has telepathically planted this thought into my mind: I’m a visitor here; the beings standing before me are not. I smile and they proceed to bounce down a smooth, green slope of grass, as if our lesson has concluded. Natures classroom prevails once again; I just got schooled by a pair of deer.
The trail rises and falls, over one ridge after another. I’m on a roller coaster, in a theme park called The Continental Divide. I’m led through a cluster of enigmatic sculptures, referred to as hoodoos or earth pyramids. These tall and precarious-looking formations are the result of volcanic activity that occurred over twenty-seven-million years ago. The slow and meticulous hands of time carved them out of the enormous piles of ash that fell to the earth. I wonder what the Native Americans who used to dwell here thought of them. I wonder if they felt as I do, like a bunch of sketchy-looking rocks could crumble, roll down the earth, and crush me at any given moment.
I stop for lunch near a patch of water that my guidebook identifies as Cataract Lake. From above, the pristine body of water looks like a sheet of ice. I drop my pack to the ground, unfold my foam sleeping pad, and stretch out in the grass. The view is typical, breathtaking. These mountains are abundant with places that I could dwell in for hours, days, or weeks.
While rummaging through my food bag for pita bread and something salty to stuff it with, a new friend chirps to announce his arrival. Behind me, standing on two hind-legs, a large marmot is twitching his nose and staring at me curiously. “Hello, friend.” I reach for my camera and he disappears into a bush, as if my gesture overwhelmed him. Oh well. I return to the gray stuff-sack that holds all of my edibles and pull out a packet of tuna, my lunchtime go-to, my arch nemesis. I’m so sick of tuna packets. Why the hell do I keep buying these things??? Chirp, chirp. My fuzzy friend has returned to wiggle his nose at me again. “Do you want some tuna,” I ask, while shaking the plastic pouch of fish in the air. “Because I’m about throw this thing over a cliff and eat some tree bark,” He blinks at me disinterestedly, and I snap a picture. Chirp, Chirp, he replies, and scurries away.
The trail continues to rise and fall, leading me through numerous valleys of wildflowers. The assortment of botany is overwhelmingly gorgeous. Splashes of color paint the space between ridges, like confetti that’s been frivolously tossed to the earth. I could build the most fascinating bouquet, I muse to myself, but who would I give it to?
I’ve lost track of myself, along with the number of ridges that I’ve cleared. I couldn’t have done this four-hundred miles ago, travelled so fluidly through this terrain. My body is a machine, powered by four weeks of quad and calve conditioning. I climb and descend effortlessly, over and over again, up and down the San Juan roller-coaster. I reach the crest of a pass, perch myself on a rock that’s shaped like Arizona, and take note of a familiar sight in the distance. The grouch is releasing a sheet of rain, to the east. A short rumble of thunder shakes the earth, and I begin my descent with a watchful eye. I hustle, as I always do in these scenarios, but something is different now. I want to be safe, I don’t want to be exposed during a lightning storm, but I’m also content with the precariousness of my surroundings. The Grouch senses my apathy and hits me with a gust of wind that halts my momentum. I stumble sideways, using my trekking poles to remain upright, and tilt my head towards the earth. I push forward, wobbling up the next ridge, like a drunk man leaving the bar after too many bourbons. When I reach the crest, I laugh a sinister laugh, look back at the passing shit storm, and raise my middle finger. I hoist it proudly and shout: “F&CK YOU, GROUCH, YOU MISERABLE F&CK!” There’s a fine line between insanity and having a really, really good time. This is fun.
It’s especially fun to scorn The Grouch when the weather ahead of me is pristine. These mountains are so moody and unpredictable, beautiful and precarious. I’m reminded of the majestic violence that Mr. Oddity and I endured on Cottonwood Pass and feel a smile spread across my face.
I’m lazily climbing what I believe to be my last ridge of the day when I hear the sound of screaming children in the distance. I guess I didn’t drink enough water today, because my ears are making shit up. To my amusement, the sound of tortured infants is an enormous flock of sheep. Bewildered and exhausted, I look down upon the silliest ensemble of wildlife that I’ve ever witnessed.
A mountainside of fluffy, white screaming things isn’t funny and cute for very long, when you’re exhausted and swaying with hunger. I hike away from the adorable bastards for another hour or two. I want to stop, set up camp, and call it a day, but it’s not an option; I’ll never be able to sleep with all of this racket. I push on, cautiously aware of the diminishing sunlight and plummeting temperature. I need to be inside of my shelter, wrapped in my down sleeping bag and jacket as soon as possible. I pass what resembles a lone unicorn in a small field to the right of me. How did this magical horse-looking thing get out here in the middle of nowhere, I wonder. Who cares, I reply. Keep hiking.
I keep moving, racing the sinking sun. Dusk is upon me, as the first snowflakes begin to fall. At twelve-thousand feet, I climb into a plateau and realize that the sound of screaming children has resided. I stop in the middle of the trail and hold my breath. Silence. This place is beautiful, I think to myself, while habitually setting my pack down and erecting my shelter. Within minutes, I’m stirring noodles in the vestibule of my tent, witnessing the grand finale of a long and diverse day in the Rocky Mountains: A full moon rising amongst a flurry of snowflakes.