I had an extra night off on the BML campsite just outside of Salida before hitching to the pass the next day and continuing my hike. The sky was misty as I walked high and alone on an alpine ridgeline. There was the odd low grumble from deep in the mist but the kind that didn’t feel threatening. It was nice having complete silence. I arrived at a small shelter to eat my next bag of ranch dressed salad, a favourite for a first day on trail, and was joined by a few more hikers. After lunch with them I headed off and laid down a few miles. I camped the night on a perfect meadow with views all around listening to the sound of Johnny Cash playing from my phone. The next day I crossed a second road and met a couple hiking the Colorado trail aiming at sixteen miles per day. It was an effort for them and It seemed like they were having a fun time trying. I knew by the time they had covered the next seven miles I would be over the horizon. The rest of the day I didn’t pass anybody else. I don’t think much of a map would be needed through this area as the whole route was well marked with both CDT and Colorado Trail markers. I originally was going to take the Creede cutoff, a shortcut used by a lot of hikers which veers straight down a valley to avoid some of the mountains, but on reaching another hiker who seemed a little unsure of how much further to hike, opted to carry on with him for a bit and take in some more of the San Juans. I still had a bag full of food and decided it was worth the extra effort here. The scenery each day improved and just became better and better. The air crisper and the mountains more defined. I had checked my account balance before leaving Salida and was aware the costs had been stacking up. I was well into debt at this point but felt so free I could barely care about it at the time. I figured I would be working the second I arrived home. Coming out of this area before the end of this section was a hill called Snow Mesa, a large flat plateau. It wasn’t living up to it’s name in the summer months I was there, but I would love to come back and see it in the winter.
I hitched down into Lake City, which to my surprise was not a city but a small town with not much more than a grocery store and hostel. The hostel owner was an Irish man who had started the CDT and like many before him in many other places along the way, just never left a town he arrived at. He charged full price to those on the Colorado trail but gave a discount to those hiking the CDT. I was appreciative of that. The next day me and the other hiker I had met took the free ride the town offered back up the pass, a shared service by the locals who had realized the income attached to thru hikers. I wasn’t feeling great again. The energy that had come back a week before was now gone. The half course of a prescription had not been enough, I was certain now that was my problem. I decided on the Creede cut off and headed down the road. I would be lucky to finish this hike but knew I could. In fact, there was a chance I could make the Mexican border in under 100days from my start date. A solid achievement.
Welcome to the long slow demise of the Benjamin. I hiked down from the town and followed the Rio Grande for a short while before crossing at a bridge to follow a gravel road back up the other side. It annoyed me I had to walk a big loop to get to a point I had been relatively close to initially, but I didn’t fancy a swim. This was an alternate quite a few hikers would use to ensure completing the trail both at the start and end of the season, and I know Tribhu and Beads had probably gone this way. I was glad I had hiked at least a small part of the San Juan Peaks. I felt beat but kept hiking. I can’t for the life of me remember why, but as the road turned to trail, I stopped. The trail was a gentle rise up through forest, nothing noteworthy jumping off the map. I turned back, and decided to have a side track. On the way down from Creede I could see a large gorge. It looked fantastic compared to the forest trail in front of me. I didn’t know exactly where it went, as my map stopped right on the edge of it I decided to have my own alternate. I rejoined the main road, slightly annoyed I had just wasted several miles walking up and started my new adventure. The Wagonwheel gap/canyon was a beautiful tall sandstone canyon, far different from the surrounding mountains. It took a little road walking before I came across a usable trail in the canyon and I resented the striking of my feet on the hard surface to get there. I recognised a name on the sign as being a town to the side of Wolf Creek Pass, (a short way further on) and decided it would be my own version of the trail before I rejoined the official route. It felt exhilarating for the first time in months to not be following an exact line down hundreds of sheets of map. To go where the map could not take me. I found out this is where the closing scenes to ‘The Lone Ranger’ was filmed a few years ago. It was a fantastic canyon and I wondered how many spaghetti westerns had been shot here, and indeed if any outlaws had been brought to an end here in real life. I became despondent further down when I found what I believed would be a BLM forestry style area to camp was actually a small housing development now. To add to it there was an official camp area but it was too pricey for me. Miles and miles on, it started raining lightly and was getting dark. Maybe my alternate had not been such a good idea. I knew there had to be some form of hiker friendly accommodation in this town, but had no idea where it would be.
A car drove over and window wound down. ‘I saw you hiking all the way back up in Creede, you’ve been covering some distance. Do you know where to stay?’ She said. ‘Not yet, I’m working on it’. I responded. ‘Hop in before you get soaked’ the old lady shouted. ‘I can drop you at the motel, or you can stay at my house, there is a guest bedroom. I guess your one of those long distance hikers, you were really shifting’. I thanked her for the invitation. Every time I received help on this trail it was a real morale boost. This time even more so. It wouldn’t have taken long to find the accommodation, but I was glad of the offer of a free night that wasn’t on a fourty year old mattress in a run down motel. On route to the house a short way away all I could think was you shouldn’t be doing this little old lady, the world is a dangerous place. Over dinner I told her of the journey so far and early morning thanked her for the hospitality. It seemed to make her month hearing of a bold adventure. I picked up a donut from the store then hiked on for several hours turning down rides, until eventually accepting a ride to the top of the pass from a car. I arrived at Wolf Creek Pass around lunch. I knew at this point ethically I had just cut a few miles of trail, but, the temptation be being on trail with daylight left was great. I stood for a short while talking to a motorcyclist and touring cyclist. The leathered up biker was telling us of the 5 day long distance ride he was doing and how hard it was on the body, a real feat of endurance. I appreciated it was probably hard, but honestly, I don’t think he had any idea of how hard it was for the cyclist to self propel over the same distance, or for a hiker to walk it. The cyclist and I kept quiet.
I hiked into the area and followed an impressive ridge that circled the ski resort. I was feeling reasonable and content to hike. If you ever get a chance, the Southern San Juans are beautiful peaks. Towards the evening nearing a forestry road pass, I came across Beads sat on the trail drinking a beer. She said Tribhu left the cans to the side of the trail and a note saying ‘well done’. He had shot off ahead a day or two before to finish his hike at this point, where he left the trail due to snow earlier in the year. Beads still had a few miles of her hike left but would be finished soon enough. Just down from us was a small hunting camp. It was a group of dads that every year would come out on an elk hunting trip with the tent, quad bikes and for a few days forget their responsibilities. We camped with them for the night. As well as eating some brilliant chilli con carne combined with fun camp banter into the late night, they gave us some jerky style elk sticks to carry on with. Not coming across many hunting camps in the UK (we tend to lack anything other than rabbits and sheep) was a new experience and I figured just about as American as it can get. They had a large military tent, a propane heater to warm it and tables and chairs set up. They all slept in hard sided vehicles and shuddered at the thought of spending a night inside a piece of nylon fabric, separating them from the bears.