48 hours, 75 miles, 34th Bday and a CT Finish Surprise
Molas Pass to Durango
Day 19.5, 23 miles, elev: 11,500 ft
I woke up early to head to the airport for a 6:15 am flight to Durango. I wish I could’ve been flying in and out of Denver to see my sisters but Denver is a 7 hour drive to Durango, so I won’t be seeing any familiar faces on this trip to Colorado.
I brought two sleeping pads at the last minute because I started to get nervous about the overnight temperatures. With the lows in the 30s down in the towns, the low temperatures in the mountains were likely going to be even more frigid!
I stopped by Juiceland in the airport (which is open at 5:30 am btw!) and got a smoothie and some provisions to get me to the trailhead. My pack was weighing just at about 20 lbs without water (so around 22 lbs with a pound of water). It will only get lighter as I eat my way through my food!
I made a few gear changes for this trip which I was excited about. I switched out two of the “big three” gear items. The big three gear items are: pack, sleeping bag, and shelter. I got a new pack (although it’s the exact same size, brand, style as my old one: Osprey Eja 45L, size small). My old pack had worn out on the mesh support on the back which made the pack pretty uncomfortable. The padding on the hip belt had also worn through and my hips were super bruised last time. Due to the lifetime warranty Osprey promises on their packs they sent me out a brand new replacement pack to finish my hike with! Thanks Osprey!
I also decided to FINALLY buy my first ever sleeping bag of my very own! I bought the Nemo Azura 20 Women’s bag. It is synthetic but compresses to almost as small as the GoLite down bag I had been perpetually borrowing from my dad. I’m curious how warm it keeps me. The down bag had lost feathers over time so it was no longer a reliable 20 degree bag causing me to always use a sleeping bag liner with it to add some warmth. The new Nemo bag is about 7 oz heavier than my old bag, so we’ll see if it’s the perfect mountain bag!
I brought a third pair of socks with me this time (usually I only bring 2 pairs of socks: 1 for sleeping and 1 for hiking/getting wet). I brought a pair of Injini 5 toe socks to try out in case my toes or blisters became an issue. I think I’ll be ok with regards to blisters if it doesn’t rain. Having three pairs of socks gives me a little security with my feet because I’m not starting this hike completely injury free.
I have some tender skin on the arches of my feet from my massive blisters from my 60 km race two weeks ago. My toes were in rough shape also. I had lost 5 toenails over the last week and I’m hoping the toenail beds aren’t too tender and that the dead skin around them doesn’t blister. The issue I’m actually most concerned about is the eczema outbreak on the tops and bottoms of my feet from where the leukotape had once been. It occasionally gets REALLY itchy! I brought a colloidal oatmeal pack to mix with water and put on my skin if it gets to that point as that has been the only relief thus far. I am also carrying a bit of steroid cream, but that seems to make the eczema itch more, so I don’t know. I can also soak my feet in freezing mountain streams to relieve the itch if I need to. Luckily the climate in Colorado is so dry that my feet don’t get swampy from sweat out there.
I got a little nervous last night about hiking completely alone, but I know I can do it. I feel emotionally stronger than I have in a verrrrry long time. I am really getting to know myself in a new way and I feel more alive as I choose to enrich my life every day in how I wake up, spend my time, and go to sleep. In a way I’m glad I had a month long break before finishing up this hike so I can bring a a whole new Sprout to the trail.
The forecast looked clear until Sunday night when there was an expected SNOW storm in the mountains. I certainly hoped to be down and off the mountains by then! I studied Guthook (guide app) on the plane to make a rough outline of where flat camping spots were at lower elevation and where reliable water sources were expected to be. Hitting exactly 34 miles on Saturday will likely be impossible due to topographical constraints, but I can do 31 or 35 I think. Of course I will shoot for 35, but it always depends on how each preceding mile and hour goes.
When I got to Phoenix I looked at my boarding pass and the time on my phone and started to run. It was 8:24 am and my flight left at 8:40am. When I got to the gate, I was so confused because it said the outbound flight was heading to Tahoe & Reno. I checked the monitors again, checked my boarding pass again, finally spoke with a flight attendant and she told me that the flight would be leaving that gate at 8:40. I was like “yeah! Isn’t that in 10 minutes?” She told me it was 6:30 am. Phx is only one time zone from Austin so I was extra confused about how my phone clock was two hours off, but relieved I had a minute to relax and gather myself (and most importantly that I hadn’t missed my flight!)
I got to Durango and got an Uber to take me the 1.5 hrs to the trailhead. I started really dozing off in the car, feeling tired and experiencing some unwelcome uterus cramping.
The skies were COMPLETELY clear, with no wind or any signs of storms. I almost didn’t even feel like I was in Colorado. The sky was so quiet and still I could tell it would be clear again the next day too. I was beyond grateful for the totally clear weather.
I started from Molas Pass with another hiker, Voodoo. We yo-yo-ed for a little bit but then l dropped him and never saw him again. It was sunny and hot and it took me a solid 10ish miles before I was able to adapt to what I was doing. I had to desensitize from the stimulus of society, which I had become so easily accustomed to in just a month of being off trail. Time moved slowly at first. Time on trail is different and I needed to adjust to it again. My shoulders hurt from my pack weight at first, and I realized this was going to be harder than I had imagined since I had lost some of my trail fitness and mental strength. I noticed I was breathing harder than normal because of the altitude (above 12k feet for most of this section). I also felt a foggy fatigue that I could tell was in part due to the altitude an in part due to my lack of sleep in the week leading up to the hike.
The hiking was fairly tame and easy all things considered. The day involved a lot of climbing, but nothing too technical or steep or sustained. During one of the climbs I actually passed a mountain biker and dropped him and never saw him again - that was a first. It was sunny and warm for most of the day as I was above tree line for most of it. The VIEWS absolutely blew my mind. I actually didn’t stop to take too many pictures because I was still trying to find my hiking groove, but the landscape was breathtaking (literally!)
As the sun began to set I passed by a beautiful camping area with a waterfall and gorgeous view. There were quite a lot of other hikers camping there. It would have been 100% reasonable for me to call it a day there and set up camp while there was still daylight. But I felt good and wasn’t ready to be done yet. I also knew I wanted to camp at lower elevation the next day because Red Stripe had told me she froze up at Taylor Lake. This meant I needed to make progress today in order to get to lower elevation the next day.
I forged ahead and didn’t see anyone else on the trail anymore. I felt like I had the whole San Juan National Forest completely to myself! The sunset hours were absolutely stunning. The whole sky went pink, and then purple and then orange and the crisp silhouettes of the mountains created the most picturesque backdrop. As the sun went down I took in every last bit of light before getting out my headlamp. Being above tree line for the sunset was one of the biggest treats. I finally felt like I found my hiking groove during the spectacular sunset and as the stars began to sprinkle the sky I felt like I was on top of the world. How did I get so lucky to be able to dance on the earth and breathe in the stars all at the same time?
As I was hiking along in the night I instinctually reached up to cover my eyes from a really bright light. Was it the sun? Car headlights? A really bright flashlight? NOPE! It was the FULL HARVEST MOON rising over the mountain tops! It was SO bright, so beautiful, so full and it lit my path and I was able to turn off my headlamp and hike by the moonlight for most of my night hike. Once that full moon came out I truly felt a radiant ecstasy pulse through my blood and I kept stopping dead in my tracks to take it in. I felt like I had the entire mountain range and sky all to myself because all the other hikers where bundled up in their tents by now. What a truly special night! I listened to some music and sang out loud in the still but magical nighttime landscape and didn’t really want this night to end.
I finally stopped at 9:00 pm. It was a totally perfect day without a single cloud in the sky, so no threat of storms. I hiked 23 mi in half a day (started hiking at 12:45 pm)! When I got to my tent spot it was 27 deg!!! I bundled up and made ramen from my tent in my sleeping bag. My feet were in great shape with no injuries or blisters but they were definitely tired. My shoulders were tired from the pack weight, but all in all I had an absolutely perfect day.
Day 20, 35.5 miles, elev: 9,000 ft at Flagler Fork
I woke up super early at 4:25 am, 5 minutes before my 4:30 alarm went off. I boiled water to have a warm hot chocolate Soylent which was a really nice treat to give myself! It took me about 45 minutes to pack up. It was still 27 degrees when I was packing up my tent in the morning. I got on trail at 5:15 am. I took Power Down and CBD oil last night which allowed for a good night’s sleep and I got 6 hours of pretty great sleep.
The full moon was still lighting up the path in the morning light before the sunrise. The sunrise was also spectacular and just absolutely blew my mind. My feet were in good shape to start the day off and it looked like it would be another perfectly clear day on trail so I felt optimistic I would be able to throw down some big miles.
The morning miles flowed and the views were spectacular. I listened to music and felt the mountain air infiltrate every cell of my being as I celebrated my 34th birthday by myself. I’ve actually never had a totally solo birthday experience and I really liked it.
I was able to get cell service periodically throughout the day and had the chance to wake up each of my family members and talk with them on the phone.
Colorado felt different this time. The mountain spring last month had come and gone and many of the spring and summer flora were beginning to die and it felt like I was on the brink of autumn. The skies, the weather, the flora all felt like a new season.
There was a 15 mile stretch with no water that Red Stripe had warned me about, so I filled up at the last possible water stop and began to climb. It was the middle of the day and it was so hot and I was really starting to fade. I had about 2 more miles until the water stop and I just felt so fatigued I wasn’t sure I would make it. I kept thinking about ways to get more energy with food or caffeine (I wasn’t sure I had anything with caffeine in it with me), and then I made the decision to push until the water and take a little midday nap and just surrender to the fatigue instead of trying to fight it.
I walked over a muddy part of the trail and then a few tenths of a mile later pulled up Guthook and realized I had passed the water stop. This was one of the extremely rare instances where the water source wasn’t exactly on the trail. I back tracked and found a trickling water source where I filled up from water trickling over a leaf. The water was completely clear, but it was definitely one of the more questionable water source. The other option was to wait another 7 miles until I reached Taylor Lake and that wasn’t an option because I was out of water.
I put out my sleeping pad and set my phone alarm for 20 minutes to take a nap. I had dreams and then woke up and looked at my phone timer and I still had 10 minutes left. I couldn’t believe I had taken a 10 minute nap that actually involved falling asleep and dreaming. The fatigue was legitimate.
I decided to pack it up as I had hung out at this water stop for probably 45 minutes or longer and needed to keep moving so I could descend from Taylor Lake. Red Stripe slept at Taylor Lake (above 12k ft) and recommended descending to warmer temperatures. This was also part of my plan to hike 34 miles on my 34th birthday.
I finally reached the ridge above tree line and the trail got more technical and was so epic! The views were outstanding - I truly couldn’t believe I was so lucky to be able to be there. The rockier terrain caused some foot sliding which also meant that I started to get a hot spot on my big toe. I also started having some pretty intense tendon/ligament pain in my left foot that was hurting with each off-camber step.
I moved slowly over the ridge, taking in the sights and tending to my feet. I did a sock change and started to add layers as the midday heat began to fade. I finally passed Taylor Lake which felt like a big milestone. It would have been perfectly reasonable to call it a day there like everyone else on trail, but I pressed on and eventually started to descend. It began to cool off and the sunset through the trees was absolutely perfect.
I had picked out a camping spot by a creek at the bottom of the descent but there was only room for 1-2 tents and since I would be getting there late and it was a Saturday night in Colorado’s peak hiking season, I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about there still being a spot for me to pitch my tent. I put on my headlamp and finished the last few miles with my headlamp and finally got to the water source and I had the camping spot totally to myself! I arrived earlier than I had the night before - it was only 8:15 pm!
I ended up walking 35.5 miles that day because there was absolutely no flat ground around mile 34. This was by far my longest hiking day (my previous longest hiking day had been 27 miles). I felt proud of myself and set up my tent, got in my sleeping bag right away and cooked my ramen in the vestibule area (with the rainfly pulled back). This allowed me to be warm while cooking.
The warm ramen and the warmth from the pot helped warm up my core temperature before crashing for the night. I hadn’t had time or energy to journal this trek because I was hiking so many miles and needed to go to sleep right after settling in my tent. I took Power Down and CBD again to help me pass out swiftly.
Day 21, 16.8 miles, elev: 7,000 ft @ Durango
I woke up around 6:10 am and didn’t feel great. I was impressed I got a solid 8 hours of sleep and wasn’t cold at all despite the morning temperature of 30 degrees. I began slowly packing up and started to boil water for my hot chocolate Soylent. I had to turn off the stove because I got really sick in the middle of boiling the water. Luckily I had camped right next to a stream so I had plenty of freezing cold water to clean up. I’m leaving this “sick episode” purposefully vague because the details are not quite internet appropriate.
I had unexpectedly started my period on day one of this section and I did not have supplies with me and was really low on toilet paper. I had to get quite creative and I will leave the details out for those who can’t quite handle it, but let’s just say I was really ready to reach civilization and take a shower.
I finally packed up and hit the trail at about 7:10 am. My left foot hurt tremendously with each step, specifically any of the more technical steps where my foot was off-camber. The pain was on the outside and it felt like some type of overuse trail-specific injury.
I started out my day with a steep climb. Climbing actually felt really good on my foot. The many descending miles took their toll and it was hard for me to go as fast as I wanted to on those sections because of the foot pain.
At the top of the climb I got sick again. I got goosebumps all over and felt colder than I should have and put on some layers. I drank some water. I was carrying enough for the whole day because there weren’t many water sources and I didn’t feel like stopping for water.
About 7 miles from the finish I started feeling so tired. I stopped for a pee break and could barely get my pack back on. I remembered that I found a Picky Bar with caffeine in my food bag and had put it in my side pouch for the day’s allotment of food. With about 5 miles left I started eating the caffeinated bar. I ate about half of it. Eating was a little bit of a challenge because I was still a little sick feeling, but I also knew it was a necessity.
As I dropped in elevation I started feeling warmer so I ditched my layers. I ran when I could as I started feeling better after the caffeinated bar. I couldn’t do long stretches of running because the blister on my big toe and the tendon pain on the outside of my left foot flared up and would sometimes feel worse. Sometimes I justified running as fewer steps and less time on trail, thus better for my foot pain?
With about 4 miles to go I decided I just couldn’t stop for any reason. It was go time. The overcast skies had turned increasingly dark and wet looking. My dad sent me a text messages showing the hourly forecast and it looked like there would be thunder storms starting at around 2pm. I just wanted to beat the weather and get off my feet and hit up a bathroom as soon as possible.
With about 2.5 miles left an older couple out for a day hike asked me to take a picture of them and they took one of me on a bridge. They were asking me all sorts of questions about other trails in the area and I tried explaining that I only knew one trail, the Colorado Trail, and that I had been walking on it since Denver. They didn’t quite seem to understand. I remember having a similar feeling when I was approaching Springer mountain about 10 months ago. There were so many day hikers that were completely clueless about the enormous hike I was completing. I felt like I was carrying this giant secret inside and had lived this whole life on trail full of experiences completely foreign to most people. It made me smirk, but also made me feel a little distant from a majority of people. How could they ever understand what I’ve gone through? Most people can’t and never would, and that’s ok. That is partly why I wrote this blog - to help share my experiences with my community in an attempt to stay connected and help others understand me a little more.
With about 2 miles left the drops of rain flirted with me. I had actual conversations with the clouds asking them to just please hold off for just 1 more hour. “I understand you’re wanting to rain, but just wait a touch longer because I am not stopping to put on a rain jacket or pack cover. I will get soaking wet if I have to, but my feet can’t really afford to get wet with my precarious blister situation. And I’d really just like to finish this beast on a good note. So I see these drops, I feel the light drizzle, but you can stop now.” The droplets let up some. I was slightly wet, but it would be a stretch to call it “rain.”
I started seeing a lot more hikers out for the day. I knew I was close to the trailhead/southern terminus of the trail! I started getting so jazzed and excited! I had actually made it! I did it! I saw some cars through the trees and knew I had arrived at the parking lot! Hallelujah!
I dropped my pack by the iconic sign at the finish and fished for some layers. I got out my hat right away as I knew my hair was a little wet and I would be getting cold quickly if I didn’t get warmer. I saw an older woman getting ready to start her hike and I figured I would ask her to take my picture.
Then, all of a sudden as I was messing around with my pack I heard someone say “excuse me ma’am?” And I looked up and it was RED STRIPE!!!!! Whaaaaaat?!!!!!! OMG!! I could NOT BELIEVE IT! Where did she come from? Was I dreaming? How could this be REAL?! I leapt up and hugged her for such a long time! I could not have asked for a more PERFECT person to be at my finish! I had hiked the whole dang trail with this woman and she understood more than ANYONE everything I had gone through on this hike, both physically, emotionally, and mentally. She got it. Her celebrating my finish (our finish really), was the most profound because she knew what this meant. I got choked up hugging her and was beyond elated to have not only a familiar face at to greet me at my finish line, but a best friend, hiking buddy extraordinaire, and someone who had been with me through the throws of a life changing summer. Seeing Red Stripe’s smile made the trail and its journey feel complete. She had finished two weeks prior but said that she didn’t feel like her hike was finished until I finished also. We got to celebrate both of our finishes together and I couldn’t have been more overwhelmed with gratitude and love!
We walked to her car after taking some pictures and WHAAAAT?! The surprise didn’t end with just her being there! She had set up an entire hiker trash birthday bash right outside her car! She had a banner wishing me happy birthday and a blanket with champagne, chips and guacamole, grapes, and baby wipes! She had cute decorations to commemorate my birthday and I was in complete shock I could barely even express my utter gratitude. As I write about it I can‘t get through this memory of us sitting on her blanket sharing, laughing, and commemorating how we inspire each other without crying. I am so beyond moved by her generous & thoughtful spirit. She truly is a gem and I’m so honored to call her a friend, sister, & hiking partner. I know she would be there at the drop of a hat if I needed her and I to her.
We decided we would someday do a “cute hike.” We always say that thru hiking is not cute, but some day we will plan a little hike where we walk like 10-15 miles a day, maybe play cards, read books, and even take the time to build a fire. It would be so cute to experience the outdoors that way - we’re not even sure what we would do with all the extra time to chill. We talked about how hardcore we both are and how many grown men were truly shocked at our pace, endurance and mental fortitude to just keep pushing out there. We both come across as pretty sweet women, unassuming and humble. But we surprised a lot of other hikers who could not quite grasp our badass-ness or keep up. We toasted to the fact that we could do ANYTHING we wanted to. We made that hike happen and there was absolutely no room for error. Every mile counted and we manifested so much positivity for our hike and we ended up getting so lucky on so many accounts - allowing us to both finish. SO many things have to go insanely RIGHT on a thru hike and our margin for anything going wrong was basically nonexistent.
The rain continued to hold off the whole time we had our perfect hiker trash picnic outside the bathrooms and then we decided to head into town and get a proper lunch before Red Stripe drove the 5 hours back home. I wanted to get in a shower at my hotel before lunch but the hotel wouldn’t let me check in early. I changed into my sleep clothes as they were the most clean and used some of Red Stripe’s baby wipes to do a cursory “shower.” I threw everything else in the laundry to get that started at while we headed to lunch.