Colorado Trail

by Columbine Quillen

Once, a great long while ago, a donkey named Virgil and I hiked from Denver to Buena Vista on the pristine Colorado Trail. The Colorado Trail is a 486-mile footpath that traverses the state from Denver to Durango through the rugged foothills and the Rocky Mountains. Finding myself in Colorado this summer with a couple of spare weeks and the need for solitude, I thought I would start up where I left off and walk until it was no longer an option to ignore my pending responsibilities. I went deep into the backcountry seeking solace and isolation but, surprisingly, I found a gregarious band of appealing souls that made me reconsider having only myself as company for two weeks. During a short time each year, high up in the Colorado Rockies, is a wandering band of wayfarers that keep an eye on one another and form a short-term community.

Columbine Quillen on the Colorado Trail. Photo by Bob Seago.

Two of the first people I met were Mix-N-Match, a duo of 24-year-old Western State grads with toothy grins and a few days stubble on their chins, hiking on the Continental Divide Trail from Wyoming to New Mexico. They shared with me their secret light-weight Thai noodle recipe and facts about that CDT Trail, as it is 3,100 miles long running from Canada to Mexico and less than two dozen people try to hike it each year. They were jovial and inspiring as they had no other plans but to hike the entire summer until they reached the bottom of New Mexico, which was over 500 miles away.

I also met Moonwalker, a 21-year old ski bum who was deep in serious thought considering whether he should join his friend on a trek where the two of them would ride bikes crammed full of climbing gear to the bottom of South America, whereby they would find a boat captain to take them to a steep mixed ice and granite wall which has never been ascended so that they could be the first, and then return on their bicycles after their epic climb. Moonwalker was most deeply concerned with where they would put the GoPro flag they so kindly received from the adventure camera company. He didn’t at all seem to care about the difficulties of carrying hundreds of pounds of climbing gear across two continents, raising the money needed to pay for such an expedition, or that he had never climbed a big wall in his life. But his youthfulness and excitement was intoxicating and I enjoyed a late evening of chit-chatting hearing about his tales of living off berry bushes in the Utah wilderness while he made a meager living as a part-time bike mechanic.

I also had the good fortune to bump into Backpacker Don. Don was a university professor of sound design and had spent the last 18 months planning his life’s dream of hiking the entire Colorado Trail. Backpacker Don had conducted hundreds of experiments and could tell you how much water one could boil with one 100g fuel canister at varying altitudes. Backpacker Don had carefully measured out all of his meals and snacks and carefully placed each dose in a small Ziplock bag which was painstakingly labeled. He also had an incredible knowledge for all things backpacking and could give you the weight of any backpacking tent, stove, or backpack on the market.

But there is no doubt that the absolute highlight of my fellow hikers was a gem of a girl who went by the trail name Fidget. A floppy straw hat protected her thick strawberry blond Pippi Longstocking braids; while kelly-green running shorts and a lime-green Lycra long-sleeve top kept the sun off her ivory skin. She skipped through the forest like a fairy nymph and on rare occasion stopped at a stunning view, taking a deep breath staring deep into the landscape, until every last ounce of carbon dioxide was exhaled and then she’d hop back onto the trail with an enthusiasm that was contagious.

And her snacks were to die for. All I had in tow were seven more days of freeze-dried vegan soup mix, raw nuts and dried fruit. I spent many hours each day fantasizing about cheese, fruit juice, and fresh vegetables. But Fidget’s snacks made my daydreaming seem bland and boring when she showed up with Fritos, fine chocolates, and bacon.

But it was her hospitality that took the cake. After a long day of hiking, where she spent most of it waiting for me to heave my heavy pack up one hill after another – the last hour of the hike spent in a torrential downpour – she invited me to camp at the same spot as she and her friend who came to resupply her. I had spent almost one week out camping alone and the thought of adult conversation was intoxicating. I became giddy with the thought that perhaps we’d even share a campfire as the fire ban had been lifted. However, the downpour did not let up for even one second and soon each of us found ourselves huddled in our sleeping bags in our individual tents, every once in awhile shouting out something about how much rain there was.

I was hyper-aware of how much rain there was, as my tent was doing a terrible job of keeping me protected from it. The bottom third of the tent had a deep cold puddle created from a quick stream of water running from the top of the tent straight into the bottom of the tent. The upper portion of the tent had another puddle forming and I had only been in the tent for ten minutes. I went through my short inventory of what I had to protect myself from impending hypothermia, with my only real tool being a three-foot by two-foot plastic rain cover for my backpack, which no matter how it positioned did absolutely nothing to protect me from the elements. I cannot tell you how many times I wished right then I had an extra large trash bag – but I did not and it was at least two days of hard hiking to get to a town to buy one. Fidget heard my fumbling about, asked me the matter, and I told her of my plight trying to maintain a sense of calmness in what I considered inevitable upcoming doom. Next thing I knew, I was enjoying the dry escape of her Mountain Hardware tent that had not spent the last decade in a friends’ metal tool shed slowly degrading in the scorching heat and freezing cold. We laughed and giggled and shared backcountry stories as we ate our reconstituted freeze-dried food. I from a jet boil cup, she from an insulated envelope she had once received a small package in. We remarked at the noxious stink that radiated from us and talked about our dreams and fears. The night went from being a nightmare to being a delight that I was always be thankful for.

Now I find myself back in the world of “Bobs” and “Marys” and their meandering through through bland conversations of politics, careers, and finances, all the while thinking about how I can go for another long walk in the woods.

Columbine Quillen is a second-year law student at Willamette College of Law, who just started school again and most likely won’t be back in the woods until Christmas break.