“It was too wonderful for words…
‘Do you think I’m a fool, Uncle Mike?’ asked Ernest suddenly.
‘If you think it the right thing to do, you are right to do it.’ replied Uncle Mike quietly. ‘I believe the experience will be valuable.’ (both of the book quotes were from the Mrs. Buncle series)
I picked up the CDT to Hope Pass and realized I could feel hot spots in my feet. I’ve had trench foot before, so I know the warning signs, and once you get hot spots you need to dry out your feet. I took off my shoes and socks, and rubbed my feet until the wrinkles dried out a bit. I gave Pippa some of the dinner I’d thankfully packed for her. I took out my headlamp, and realized I had no idea how much the batteries had in them, and had no spare batteries. I was really playing roulette here when I planned this loop. Or craps. I guess they call it Russian Roulette because of the alliteration? Because pretty much all the casino games are purely luck-based, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? I realize now, yes, that is the point. Because there’s no fun in doing something when you know how it’ll turn out. It’s the risk. You don’t have to risk your life to know that we want to be surprised. I suppose not literally everyone wants to be surprised, or they’d be out gambling or climbing mountains or squirrel suiting instead of going to work every day and having a glass of wine on the couch at night with their safe, loyal friends or spouses or whoever they hang out with.
When I was in California, I had been dying to go back to Leadville because California sucked for all the reasons I’ve already discussed and I just thought of all the possibilities of running in the Colorado mountains again. But since I’d been back, I had only done things that I knew I could do. There’s no doubt or fear or excitement anymore about running Mt. Elbert or Mt. Massive, even if you make a really interesting loop of it. Obviously, even when exhausted, I can complete those runs and there’s no mystery at all. The mystery of this loop is what was exciting, I guess subconsciously I planned it poorly on purpose. Who knows how many miles! Who cares! Will I even be able to complete the loop with the snow conditions? If not, what the fuck will I do? I DON’T KNOW! It might be miserable or amazing and certainly no one, including myself, will be able to predict how I will handle whatever obstacles might come my way.
I put my wet socks and wetter shoes back on and continue up. Once the CDT meets the CT, they both rise immediately, incredibly steeply, to climb to Hope Pass. I don’t remember the last time I ran, I’m so tired, I’ve been hiking ever since I got out of the Basin of Eternal Sadness. Zombie, zombie, zombie-e-e-e. I pass a campsite and keep climbing, but then I realize, the higher I climb, the colder it will get because that’s how both altitude and night work. My feet are soaked, and I’m well on my way to trench foot. I return to the campsite and put Pippa’s puffy coat on her. I take my shoes off and stuff my socks into my arm pits, leaving my feet bare to dry. I spoon Pip and wrap the emergency blanket around us. I’ve just been telling it like it is, and how it is sounds pretty grim. I stopped because I thought I’d feel better after a nap, and I knew stopping wouldn’t be possible if I went higher or later in the night, and I knew my feet had to dry out anyway. But it was fine. In your head, in your head, they are fighting.
Pip slept and I didn’t. I would say I “tossed and turned” all night, but that wouldn’t be accurate because emergency blankets don’t allow for any tossing or turning or they’ll rip and leave you uncovered. So, I had laid still but fitful for … not all night but however long we were there. I looked at my watch, and it was dead. I turned my phone on, it sprang to life, I think it was 2 or 2:30am. My socks were nearly dry, dry adjacent. Good enough. My shoes were cold and crispy, like if I tap danced in them, they might shatter. I didn’t try to tap dance in them. I just climbed slowly, slowly towards the pass. I had actually never done this side of the pass before, so in addition to the mysteries of mileage and snow conditions, there was the extra fun of being on a new trail. New to me. I reached a talus field covered in so much avalanche debris it takes a long time to cross, I can’t figure out where the trail has gone, my halo of light is too small, and my mind is too tired to find a way. I get above treeline and feel like I’ve been wrapped in the stars, like those gray wool blankets firefighters wrap around survivors. It’s in your head, in your head, zombie.
At the top of the pass, two extraordinary things happened (and I’m using extraordinary here in the literal sense as opposed to the cultural definition, extra ordinary as opposed to extremely good). I got cell service, for one. A couple texts came through and I hurriedly sent off messages to my parents, advising them of the adventure I was currently on, because I realized somewhere along the line that I hadn’t let anyone know where I was going (yet another symptom of biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew in an adventure that’s much bigger than you expected). I wanted some comfort, some familiarity. Though I had been doing all these miles this year, they were almost entirely on trail except for a couple small bushwacks. I hadn’t realized that my mental fortitude had waned so much, but of course it had. I hadn’t been training it and bodies and minds are very efficient. They get rid of whatever they don’t use regularly, like when your phone is all, “Critically low storage! Archive items that haven’t been used recently???!?” And you’re like, yeah, sure, if I haven’t used it recently I probably don’t need it. Your brain makes those decisions without giving you an “Okay” message to click on. And now, your Nolan’s-level resilience has been archived, and nobody told you. And that is exactly how computers are different from human bodies. Man, I should go back to school just so I can write a thesis about AI.
I stood at the edge of the snow, it reflected vividly in the little moonlight there was, as snow does, because snow reflects 80% of any light shined upon it. Whereas the ground reflects, I don’t know, none? My headlamp was off, and I just stood there, taking it in, too tired to really formulate, wtf am I going to do? Oh right, the other extra ordinary thing. The ridge is lined with a brutally steep snowfield that is actually, at 3:30am or whatever time it might be, pure ice. And I have socks and La Sportiva Akashas with which to cross it. [look up more Zombie lyrics, because when you sing them, they’re undoubtedly wrong]. I traverse as far as I can towards whatever mountain is east of Hope Pass, and find a place to descend the steepest part of the ice. A couple hundred feet down, the ice softens to shitty snow and I’m back on it, descending and post holing into icy water yet again. The snow ends just before treeline and I realize, I have no idea where the trail is. I traverse left and right, hoping to cross it. The ground is a swamp, though, a snowmelt-cold swamp, which is just as bad as an ice-cold swamp, and looking back I realize that I probably was crossing it but wouldn’t have been able to see any trail under the water and mud and plants and slush. I descend a labyrinth of felled trees, to find a dead end and waterfalls and cliffs. I ascend and traverse and descend again only to find the same cliffy dead ends over and over again. I find a high point in the swamp and sit down, wrap the space blanket around Pip and I, hoping to wait it out until sunrise. In five minutes, I feel numb.
I get up and ascend and descend over and over again, but getting a little further down each time like a chameleon, unsure of its next step and trying to be calculated but ultimately all the moving backwards and forward will finally inch it to its destination. I stumble upon the trail and cry out with relief and gratitude. I am too tired, or dehydrated, or tired, or zombie, to cry. Now that I’m on the trail, the dense, jungley forest of Willis Gulch feels infested with something terrifying. I’m not really that scared of lions and bears, but when you’re tired your eyes or your brain play tricks on you. I felt paranoid. I began to sing, devotional songs in Sanskrit and Play it Right by Sylvan Esso, the songs I can think of at this moment. “Oh I feel like an animal in the night [because we are] play it right.” The dirt trail is plagued by tree roots but it is refreshingly soft on my knees. I feel the hot spots, but know it’s too cold to stop. The animals I’m hallucinating aren’t mountain lions or bears, they’re prehistoric. They’re saber-tooth tigers, their enormous presence so heavy and taking up so much space, I can feel them there. I’m sure they are there. “And I will be more than a small human with her head pressed against your mouth in motion.” The miles add up. My watch isn’t adding them anymore, but I know how many more miles it is to get home now. With their tanks and their bombs, and their bombs, and their guns, in your head, in your head, they are crying.
At the base of the Willis Gulch trail, there is a hint of light over the Mosquito Range. I turn right, towards “Interlaken”, not yet realizing my mistake. Two and a half miles later, I arrive at Interlaken, and it is no place at all. The CT continues directly to the east, and I realize I have to go all the way back to Willis Gulch and west to the Willis Gulch trailhead, where the bridge is to cross Lake Creek. My feet burn and sting and rage, I know it’s too late now and I have trench foot. You know when your feet get all wrinkly in the bath? The skin is swollen and stretched and sensitive from the water it’s soaked up. If you let your feet be swollen and sensitive for long enough, and in fact bear your weight on them step after step while they’re in that condition, those wrinkles will begin to blister. That is trench foot, hundreds of blisters, and raw, swollen skin.
I wake up, my face feels rough and my neck is stiff, but I am bathed in sunlight, and warm. Pip is standing a few feet away, looking at me. My arms are wrapped around a large, rather flat rock that I’m cradling like a teddy bear (or if I’m being honest, a Popples, or a Figment) and the rest of my body is splayed out, completely blocking the trail. Apparently, I found this nice cozy rock and laid down to snuggle it, and fell asleep in the sun. It is 8am, and my phone has something like 9% battery left (do you remember when there was mystery to gas tanks and phone batteries? Now you always know how many miles left and how many seconds left and what is the fun in that? I used to never have any idea when my phone would die. Although, since I still drive an ‘89, and the gas gauge has never worked properly as long as I’ve had it, so I guess I still have some mystery there. And what’s the fun in driving, really, if you always know exactly when you’re going to run out of gas?). Is my life a little *too* exciting?
I’m hiking again, and I’m quite miserable and stiff but in slightly better spirits. Once I reach Twin Lakes, I know I only have 8 miles left. Each step is blindingly painful, but hey, 8 miles is better than 13! It’s more than the five I wasted this morning taking a wrong turn to Interlaken (WTF IS INTERLAKEN? And WHERE does the trail ever cross 82!? I still don’t know). I wander around Twin Lakes looking for the Jeep road that links back to the CT. I had done this before, but I stopped before I reached Twin Lakes itself. Now, I realize I don’t know just exactly where it comes out. I meet a group of old folks, who in the typical old folks/small town way, give me these directions “Follow this street, see, to the pitch. Climb the pitch, cross through a gully then a ditch, then take a right. But don’t be too eager with that right or you’ll end up trespassing. Be patient about that right turn, you hear?” And they stride off, clearly in better shape than me.
I climb the pitch, cross through a gully, then a ditch, arrive at a road, and turn right. It dead ends at someone’s garage and I realize I’ve not been patient enough, I backtrack. I patiently wait for another right, and as it materializes I see a through hiker, who confirms I’ve found the right, less eager, right turn. I shuffle up the climb from 82. Zombie, zombie, zombie. After all, there’s nothing to do but walk the eight miles back to my bike stashed at the Elbert TH. Nothing, nothing, nothing else to do. I start to see through hikers who are, relative to me, bright-eyed and chipper on a sunny, blue-skied morning. We great each other warmly. They don’t ask me what I’m up to, struggling like I’m dragging my hapless body through honey and wincing as if a dozen miniature miners are hacking into my feet, looking for valuable ore that they might sell to fancy bike manufacturers. And I don’t volunteer it.
A few miles later, I’m taking a break on the side of the trail with my shoes off, knowing it’s too late but looking at the ruins of my feet and hoping I might prevent it from continuing to get worse with each step. A woman approaches, another through hiker. She asks, “What are you doing?” so sincerely that I tell her exactly what I’m doing, or what I’ve just done. The short version, which is something like: I climbed Mt. Elbert by the standard route, then descended southwest over Bull Hill to Echo Canyon. I crossed 82 and climbed La Plata in the evening, and descended to Winfield. I took the CDT to Hope Pass, crossed through Twin Lakes, and now I’m here, trying to make my way back to camp, to close the loop. I was out all night. I have trench foot (of course, I left in these important details, and I am exhausted.
“Wow! What an accomplishment!” She says. I’m so tired. Zombie, zombie, zombie. For miles and hours, or hours of miles, the trial of miles, miles and miles of trials, I though about what had gone wrong. About how lousy I felt. About how poor of shape I was in and how un-resilient my mind was. About how I had accidentally come to run and walk and stagger for 50 miles. I say, “Thank you.” She goes on her way and I put my shoes on with no wet socks anymore, I get up and shuffle. I know she’s right. I think about how my GPS track laid over a satellite map on Strava will tell so little of this story. I laugh out loud.