Take a Trek

Day 17: A Lesson Unlearned

Cottonwood Pass Ridge to South of St. Elmo
Day: ? Miles
Trip: ? Miles

“Red sky in the morning is a sailors warning.” I have no idea what Mr. Oddity is talking about, but I’m in a hurry to get the hell out of this place. The sky looks gray and dark to me. If we don’t start bush whacking back to the trail soon, I’m afraid we’ll be spending another day hiding under funny shaped bushes and dodging lightning bolts. “I’m thinking of fixin’ us a cup of tea, before we head out,” Mr. Oddity tells me. “I don’t know, sir. I think we should clear that ridge as quickly as possible. The weather isn’t looking so great.” He releases a sigh of agreement and finishes packing up his gear. I feel like I just crashed someone’s dinner party. Waiting for Mr. Oddity, I ponder the fourteen pounds of gear that I carry through these mountains. “It’s amazing, isn’t it Mr. Oddity? These little bags of ours keep us alive out here, day after day.” Buckling his hip belt, he raises an eyebrow. “I suppose your right.”

One ridge leads to another, then a third. I cross paths with several other backpackers, and each one has their own horror story, pertaining to yesterday’s sequence of shit storms. One man tells me he spent a couple hours hanging on to a tree, another says he ran down an embankment and hid under a rock. During my descent towards an old jeep road that intersects the trail, I catch up with The Wounded Knee Duo. “I’m going into St. Elmo, when I get to the road,” I tell them. “I’m out of dental floss and I deserve a drink, after the bullshit we dealt with yesterday.” Wounded knee laughs, while resting her leg. “I guess we’ll see you down there then.” I look down at a sequence of switchbacks that seems to go on forever. “Yeah, I’ll be the guy flossing his teeth, with a beer in his hand.”

There’s no need to wave my thumb in the air, when I get to the road crossing. A caravan of mud-bogging, redneck Texans are packing their trucks and heading towards St. Elmo. “Any chance you folks have room to give a weary hiker a ride into town?” I ask. ” A small Asian woman acknowledges me. “We do, you probly gonna have to ride in the back though, ’cause we got no room in any of the cabs.” I tell her that I’m happy to ride in the back of a truck. “What you doin’ out here anyhow?” She asks. I explain that I’m on a long-distance hiking trail, from Denver to Durango, and I need to go into town for some supplies. “Oh my Gaaaawd! You doin’ what!?” The small Asian woman seems to be going into shock. “Hey, Harold! This here guys says he walked here from Denver, through all these mountains! Oh my Gaaaawd!” Harold and his beer belly appear, from behind a truck that’s overflowing with coolers, collapsible chairs, and other camping accessories. “You gone an’ done what? Damn, son, you more of a man than me, that’ fer sure!” I laugh and invite him to join me during the last 250 miles of my journey. “I don’t think so, boy.” The small Asian woman has regained her breath. “You need anything? You want some water?” I politely decline her offer, and mention that I’m looking forward to a cold beer. “Well shit, son. We got that,” Harold chimes in, while opening one of many coolers in the back of his truck. “Hey Austin,” he yells towards a young man standing beside a Jeep. “You got room for this fella? He need a ride to St.Elmo. He walked here from Denver.” Austin nods in agreement. “Throw your pack in the back of my truck, and you can ride with Austin.” I do as the man says. This cold beer and I are mud-bogging into St. Elmo.

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Muddin’

I’m stepping away from Austin’s Jeep, when a young girl from the caravan steps in front of me. “You really walkin’ all that way with just that little pack?” she asks. I tell her that I have everything that I need. “What about food? What about water? What do you do about animals?” This chick is about to lose her mind; she must be related to the small Asian woman. “When did you start? When will you be done? Ain’t you tired? You got a girlfriend?” My empty stomach and I don’t have time for this. “Thank you so much for the ride! I must be going now!” The young girl frowns briefly, then perks back up. “Okay! Good luck!”

The general store in St. Elmo isn’t quite what I was expecting. I inform the old man behind that register that I’m on the Colorado Trail and I need a small resupply. “We got candy bars, potato chips, and ice cream.” I turn my head towards the back of the store, then back towards the register. “Beer?” The old man frowns, disinterestedly. “Nope.” I return the frown, and walk away, towards the rack of potato chips. When I return to the register, I inquire about the population of St. Elmo. “Welp,” the old man begins, “the population has tripled in the last twenty years” He’s frowning again. “I don’t know where the hell these people keep coming from,” he carries on. Startled by the statistics, I ask how many people presently live in St. Elmo. “Three,” he states, with a twinge of sadness in his eyes. This guy is bumming me out.

St. Elmo General Store

St. Elmo General Store

I return the the street and discover that Mr. Oddity, and the Wounded Knee duo have arrived. Wounded Knee and her friend have decided to stop hiking, probably because they’re sick of getting hit in the face with hail. Consequently, they offer Mr. Oddity and I whatever we need from the resupply package that they sent to St. Elmo.

The Wounded Knee Sisters

The Wounded Knee Duo

I return to the old man in the general store, to inquire about the whereabouts of a public bathroom. “Head down the street and take a right. Got to the end of that street and walk behind the old school house on the left. There’s an outhouse back there.” I’m waiting for the punchline, but there isn’t one. I’m glad that I got to see Americas premier ghost town, but I think my two-mile walk to the outhouse will be the last thing I do in St. Elmo.

St. Elmo, Americas premier ghost town

St. Elmo, Americas premier ghost town

I’m also glad that I got picked up by a four wheeler, while hitchhiking back to the trail.

Four Wheelin' back to the trail

Four Wheelin’ back to the trail

The storms that Mr. Oddity and I endured yesterday are a distant memory, a bad dream that I can barely comprehend. I climb effortlessly above treeline and begin crossing a three-mile-long meadow. The sky is gray and a storm is brewing in the distance, but I pay no mind. I should know better, I should have stopped below treeline, set up camp, and waited until tomorrow to cross this meadow. The events of yesterday should have taught me a lesson, but they didn’t. When I was a boy, I was the kid in class that usually needed to be given instructions twice, because I wasn’t paying attention.

Some things never change.

The thunder and lightning are on top of me, before I realize what’s happening. Rain turns to sleet, reducing the effectiveness of my rain jacket to the equivalent of Saran Wrap. Unlike yesterday afternoon, there’s no embankment to scurry down and I have no friend to consult. I’m alone, completely exposed, and vulnerable to whatever The Grouch decides to spit in my direction. I’m already shivering with excitement, when the hail starts to fall. I can’t believe this is happening again. I retrieve my guidebook, review the map of my location, and confirm what I already know: I’m completely screwed. I trudge on for another hour, before the trail passes a small grove. I wedge my shelter between two trees, crawl inside, and curse the Rocky Mountains. The wind is howling, blowing sleet sideways through a sky that’s booming with thunder. It’s going to be a long night.