I treated my blistered feet in the dark, pyramid-shaped tent propped in the middle by trekking poles. Then I packed up, laced my boots, threw a handful of granola in my mouth, and stepped onto the Colorado Trail.
A couple of other hikers slept nearby in tents, sheltered in the thick forest near Jefferson Creek. My buddies, Nathan and Rich, were there, packs on and ready to go at 4 a.m. as planned. We nodded to each other, then started walking, mostly in silence.
It was dark and crispy cold on noses and ears; the moisture from our breath bloomed in the beams of our headlamps. “Let’s get to Georgia Pass for the sunrise!” Nathan had proclaimed the previous evening during dinner (rehydrated lasagna out of pouches), after studying the map and doing the calculations. Georgia Pass — on the Continental Divide and at 11,500 feet in elevation — was 3 1/2 miles and several thousand vertical feet away.
Rich, a first-time backpacker who’d flown in from New York City for the hike, and I answered Nathan at the same time: “All right.” We were up for anything. It was our sixth day on the Colorado Trail; we’d started southbound from Waterton Canyon. Nathan Dolenc, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is hiking the entire trail — 485 miles of mountains from Denver to Durango. Rich and I were just tagging along for the first 104 miles, 23 of which we would be covering on this, our final day, over the pass and down (and up and down) into Breckenridge.
Last winter, I interviewed Nathan about his thru-hiking plans. “Can I do this?” he’d asked. And then answered himself: “There’s only one way to find out.” So there we were, finding out and ready to send Nathan on his way even higher into the Rockies.
It was sweet and bitter, this knowledge that I soon would leave the trail. Sure, a hot shower, pizza and beer awaited us in Breck, but I was also about to lose something.
I breathed cold air and savored every step, no matter how painful. I kept walking, aware of the weight on my back and hips, the sharp ache in my legs, the crunch of the trail underfoot. As we hiked, I watched the sky change from black to indigo to gray.
Nessmuk, the 19th-century outdoors writer, said, “We’re not out here to rough it. We’re here to smooth it. Things are rough enough in town.” For six days on the trail, everything in the world fell away. There was rarely cell reception to distract and remind us of the world’s problems. There was only each step, each mile, each water source, and each campsite. There were aspen groves, carpets of flowers, and views of peak after peak after peak. There was also a community of hikers, mostly strangers, who looked out for each other, sometimes taking water breaks or camping together, but everyone, ultimately, hiking their own hike.
Now, in the pre-dawn stillness, sky still gray, we broke out of the trees. There ahead was Georgia Pass. Endorphins and adrenaline rushed in, even as my breath grew shorter with quickened steps. And then we were there, a sleeping world below us and the first rays of sunlight about to blink the day alive. Again, everything else fell away.
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