Sometimes we become so focused on the finish line, that we fail to find joy in the journey.Dieter F.Uchtdorf
I met Alison Heebsh when the Minnesota Rovers Outdoor Club invited me and my friend Brenda to make a presentation for members about our hike of the Border Route Trail in Northern Minnesota. Her sunny nature and can-do spirit is infectious and I have to say, her hiking story rings true for all of us “blissful hikers!”
“Day two always sucks.”
Those were the words of my colleague, Joel, the day I returned to the office. He’d asked about my week on the Colorado Trail and I replied, “Amazing! Beautiful!” Then I added, “Oh, except day two. Day two really sucked.”
Joel was right. Looking back on my previous long backpacking trips, day two does, in fact, always suck, and pretty much for the same reasons.
But if you can make it to day four…
Day 1: Flying high (and pushing too hard)
Denver to Breckenridge: 104 miles. It was just the sort of adventure I was looking for. Still fairly new to backpacking, I had done a 100 mile solo hike before, but mountains would be a new challenge. Hiking up into the Front Range would let me ease into it, going from 5500 ft to 11,900 ft over 5 days.
This is going to be easy, right?
Early one September morning, I boarded a cheap flight and found myself in Denver at 8 a.m. By noon I was hiking along the Platte River in the desert-like canyon that makes up the eastern-most seven miles of the Colorado Trail. I was stoked about this trip, and loving the unexpected terrain.
Trying to stay on track to make my return flight in a week, I decided to hike 10 miles that afternoon. My body had other ideas. At 9.8 miles I couldn’t take another step. That day, before hitting the trail, I had gotten up before 4 a.m., taken a flight, two Lyft rides, and two train rides, and had walked a couple miles around Denver doing trip chores.
My navigation app told me there was a flat place to camp in one mile, but I couldn’t make it. I found a “flat enough” spot to perch on with a tree that would catch me if I started rolling downhill, tent and all. My evening tea reminded me of what I was there for. It was a lesson I would not take to heart until day three.
Day 2: Glad I’m not going that way (oh, wait)
Somewhat rested, I set out the next morning soaking in the delicious views of the ever-climbing hills. Five miles up the trail, I looked out across the valley at a miles-wide barren patch. A passing glance at the guide book told me it was the site of the massive Buffalo Creek Fire and resulting mudslides in 1996. “Glad I’m not going that way,” I thought.
I dropped down to the fast and frigid waters of the Platte River, a refreshing spot for lunch with another hiker, as temps climbed into the 90’s.
Let’s pause here and talk about my pack. My first pack weighed in at 4.5 pounds. Experience taught me that I needed to drop weight for this trip. A new 2.5 pound, 44 liter pack seemed like the perfect solution, and that’s what I bought a couple weeks before the trip.
It feels like a feather, unless it’s loaded over 30 pounds. After a couple hours with more than 30 pounds, your shoulders and hips beg for mercy, mostly due to the relatively thin straps.
My plan was to do the full trip with no resupply, so when I pulled my well-chilled feet out of the Platte River after lunch, I still had 9 pounds of food. I also read that there was no water source for 11.5 miles. Given the heat, I loaded up with 4.5 liters of water, another 10 pounds.
I started up the hill carrying 40+ pounds in a 30 pounds sack.
Reaching the top of the switchbacks that brought me out of the valley revealed the path ahead, directly across the barren burn site that had never fully healed after 22 years.
The hot, dry wind sent my hat flying off the ridge into the prickly brush. Miles later, when I finally reached a small tree, I lay down under it in misery to ponder my options. Not wanting to camp without a water source, I trudged on under the blazing sun, eventually reaching a fire station near dusk with a water spigot.
A quarter mile later I dropped my pack in the dark in a field of sparsely placed ponderosa pines. I had hiked 17.5 miles, with 3,500 feet of elevation gain and 2,300 feet of loss.
My stomach churned. There would be no dinner. I drifted off to sleep smelling something sweet.
Was that manure?
Day 3: Permission
I woke up truly refreshed, and a bit relieved. The sweet smell was indeed manure, and somehow my tent was not in it. I packed up and made my way to a nearby trailhead to make breakfast and plan the day.
This section of trail was relatively flat and mostly shaded. The cool, easy morning stroll allowed me some time to reflect. I recalled the lesson from the tea bag and gave myself permission to relax. I decided to listen to my body and enjoy the journey, even if that meant I might not finish the full 104 miles.
I tend to be rather driven, so it was surprising that my mind was at peace with that. Over lunch I scanned the maps near Breckenridge and found a road a couple of miles off trail that looked promising if I needed to hitchhike into town on the last day.
I hiked 12.9 miles that third day, but with a mind at peace, it felt like five.
Day 4: Elation
The next day started with a 3,000 foot climb as I entered the Lost Creek Wilderness. I was ready for it, slow and steady.
My heart still sings at the thought of the sights that I witnessed that day. Descending slightly from the pass, I entered Long Gulch, a seven-mile long mountain meadow. A stream meanders through the gulch, and the marsh and meadow grasses were in varying shades of gold.
Earlier that day, I learned that the autumn leaves change color by elevation in the mountains. The vibrant yellow aspen leaves started at about 9,500 feet. Above the aspens, stood the pines and the firs, the deep greens providing a stunning contrast.
Late in the afternoon, clouds built up and showers soaked the opposite end of the gulch from which I had come. I stopped and wept tears of joy at the top of the meadow, and considered camping there. It was nearly dusk.
But reaching the saddle revealed a blazing sunset, and I’m a sucker for sunsets. I took off down the next two miles of trail, dropping 750 feet in that distance, all the while stealing views of the sinking sun between the trees and glancing back at the opposing mountainsides ablaze in the orange glow.
Heart pounding, not pausing to pull out a light, I reached the stream I was hoping to camp near when it was a bit too dark to see the trail. I made camp by headlamp again. It had been another long day, 17 miles, but I was exhilarated.
This was why I came.
Day 5 and Beyond: In the Groove
The next few days would take me through more beautiful aspen groves and over the Continental Divide at 11,900 feet. I saw five moose, majestic and wonderful to be sure, but some were also close enough to be a bit frightening. I even put in a 20-mile day that didn’t feel at all grueling.
The final night, I camped with Pterodactyl, a trail name he acquired on an Appalachian Trail thru hike. We had met briefly on day three, and then again a few times on the final 13-mile day into Breckenridge. No hitchhiking required.
Fully in the mountains at this point, the golden meadows, the deep green forests, and rocky peaks above made for a glorious finale to an amazing and beautiful trip.
Except day two. Day two sucked.