June 21st, the longest day of the year: Solstice.
I wake up at 5:30 am with the sun sparkling through the thick lodge poles in the Cochatopa Hills of Colorado. Another beautiful day on the Continental Divide Trail, and today I have a special challenge that I’ve set out for myself. My mission: hike 31 miles to Monarch pass by 7 pm, hitch to town, eat a good meal, & find a comfy spot to sleep once the sun sets on this longest day of the year.
Step 2: brush teeth & spray my spit on the pine duff.
Step 3: assemble everything I possibly can before leaving my warm sleeping bag.
Step 4: the most dreaded step of all- leaving the sleeping bag.
Step 5: stuff everything in to my pack, which goes fast because I am shivering in the early morning chill.
Step 6: shoes on & hit the trail!
Hit the trail. What does this mean? I would like it to mean hit the trail running, hit the trail and vanish in a poof of dust, but the reality is more like starting up a diesel truck on a -40 degree morning with no block heater. I sputter. I stumble. I cough.
But despite the difficulties, every step along that early morning trail gets me closer to Monarch Pass, making the obstacles worth it. As the day unfolds, the sun gets higher, and I change from a sputtering engine to something more like my old 87 Subaru. Lagging a bit as I push up hills, cruising on the downgrades, and having to stop every now and then to fuel up, take a pee break, or just check out the vista.
My stomach starts to grumble at around 10:30am; time to eat before making the big climb to Windy Peak. I pull off the trail and flop down, open the pack and pull out my green food bag to see what is inside.
Half a brownie from the last bakery, a crumbly tortilla, a hard boiled egg, some ridiculously spicy elk sausage, and three melted fun sized almond joy bars- mmmmm! After filling a liter of water from a little creek I start the long climb, back to sputtering and sucking wind until the rhythm of my trekking poles and breath kick in. Sweat drips down my forehead, but the upward mobility feels good. I turn on my iPod and soon my footsteps are falling to the beats of the Pixies’ Debaser and I am lost in my own world of pines, dust, and hiking bliss.
Hours and a few breaks later I find myself hiking with a guy named Hungry Joe. He is a big tall guy who is on his way to Canada as well, and he is hungry. He tells me he ran out of food yesterday and is hoping the store at the pass will still be open when we get there. We hike together and swap stories of the trail. It never ceases to amaze me that it is physically possible to hike this trail, that people can overcome challenges like running out of food, getting lost, having to slap mosquitoes and read fine print on maps. Then I remind myself that somehow I am here doing this impossibly seeming task too. Somehow, though, other people’s stories always seem more amazing.
Eventually we wind down a final mountainside and can see that the store is closed. Our visions of chili dogs and ice cream evaporate and the reality of an evening hitch from a buggy roadside while standing on sore feet sets in. Hungry Joe gets a ride with a guy in about 5 minutes, but I wait for my pal Ahab who is about 20 minutes behind me. Ahab and I get a ride from a great couple in a chinook camper and before we know it we are saying goodbye to our new friends in front of a hostel in Salida. The hostel is full so I call a day hiker I met earlier and he says he is alright with us camping in his yard.
An hour later we are sitting down to a delicious dinner by the river. So much can happen on the longest day of the year out here on the CDT, and missions can in fact be completed; mint chip ice cream, good conversation, and a well earned night of sleep after 31 miles of trail.