South of St. Elmo to South of Chalk Creek Pass
Trip: 251.7 Miles
Sleep comes in twenty minute intervals. It’s hard to stay unconscious, when you’re shivering and shaking. Consequently, I begin my morning with the motivation of a sloth, but I know that hiking is the best way to generate body heat. Twenty miles of trail separate me from my next resupply point, Monarch Crest. From there, I can hitch a ride into Salida and reevaluate my motivation for hiking through some of the shittiest weather that I’ve ever experienced. I’m too tired and weak to hike the full twenty miles today, but I can probably cut the distance in half.
Ten miles aint shit.
I unzip the vestibule of my tent and discover that I’ve been swallowed by a cloud. To the east, beyond a sea of fog, the sun is rising through a sky of orange, red and yellow. It’s an unusual sight that I’ve never witnessed before. I’d retrieve my camera, but it doesn’t function in temperatures that are low enough for snow to fall. That’s right, little white flakes are sailing towards the earth.
Every step I take sends a shiver down my spine. My entire body hurts. Unbearably cold, I wear every dry layer that I have. This seems normal, until I pass a trail head littered with day-hikers dressed in long-sleeved t-shirts and shorts. “Were you out there all night?” one of them asks me. I nod and sputter something about being a thru-hiker. I leave it up to him to come to the conclusion that I’m a bad-ass. Or, maybe, just an idiot from the east coast who took the Rocky Mountains for granted.
My only significant climb of the day is Chalk Creek Pass. To my delight, the six-hundred foot climb warms me up, stops the shivering.
Into the clouds I go.
I stop several times, during my ascent, to catch my breath and remind myself that ten miles ain’t shit. During one of my pity-party breaks, I notice a herd of elk crossing the canyon to my right. They stop to look at me, evaluate my intentions. I stand still and watch, leaning on my trekking poles, while cold sweat drips down my brow. They float across the craggy landscape, like hovercrafts, towards the top of Chalk Creek Canyon.
I’ve never crossed a mountain pass, without stopping to look back at the land that I’ve traveled through. Sometimes, I reflect for only few minutes. Other times, I sit and meditate for an hour or more. Regardless, I always take time to be grateful for where I am. I’ve never thought much of the tradition until today, when I reach the saddle of Chalk Creek Pass and keep walking. There’s nothing here that I care to reflect on.
Early in the afternoon, I stumble upon a series of old, dilapidated cabins. I’m surprised to discover that one of them is fairly respectable. The roof, floorboards, and walls, are completely intact. I review my guide, to see how far I’ve hiked, and confirm that I’ve traveled about ten miles. This cabin is a real shit-hole, most likely infested with rodents, but the appeal is still undeniable. Having a sturdy roof over my head, for the rest of the day, means I get to stay dry, regardless of the weather. TIng…ting…ting… The sound is coming from above. Confused, I look through the door of the cabin and see a familiar sight. It’s raining. My decision has been made.
“RJ? Is that you?” I passed out. I lift my head and see the silhouette of Mr. Oddity standing in the doorway. “Yes, mr. Oddity. It seems I needed a nap.” He enters the cabin, wet from the rain. I sit up go greet him and explain everything that’s happened, since I left St. Elmo. “Why in hell would you go above tree line, when you know the weather is shit?” I haven’t a valid answer. “I thought I could get back down, before the storm hit,” I mumble. I feel like a little kid who’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Young man, you need to start taking better care of yourself,” he says with confidence. “I think it’s time I fix some tea, don’t you?” If ever there was a time to drink tea with a wise, Englishman, it’s right now.