July 3, 2017
Colorado Trail Segments 2-3
South Platte Canyon to just past Shinglemill Trail, 14 miles
30.7 total miles
On day 3, I awoke to find my backpack eyeballing menacingly from the corner of my tent. Bonnie’s boyfriend, Jeff, was picking her up this morning and I’d continue on solo. I was sad to see her go. On the other hand, she was taking the gear and food that I’d decided to ditch. Over the last couple of days, I had been mentally cataloguing what I didn’t need and practically salivating at the idea of making my pack lighter. Jeff brought the rest of the food I’d originally planned on carrying. After whittling down my food load and ditching a bunch of gear, I landed at around 25 pounds. Woohoo, now the hike would be super easy!
I started out feeling pretty good, loving my lighter pack weight. I knew from The Colorado Trail book that Segment 2 was dry and exposed. The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire burned almost 12,000 acres of forest, leaving little shade in Segment 2. There wouldn’t be water until the end. Somehow I didn’t fully register how these conditions would impact my hike. I filled up on water at South Platte Canyon so hydration wasn’t an issue. But I wasn’t prepared for the heat.
After around 1 mile of a steady climb out of South Platte Canyon, I entered the burn area. I tried to find charm and beauty in hiking through the burn area, and did at first. I frequently ran into a guy who was entranced by the butterflies on the trail and stopped often to take pictures. I passed an angel someone had outlined in stone alongside the trail.
But it felt hotter than the seven shades of hell. My ankle, only mildly protesting when I started out, crossed into the red zone of pain as I traversed the exposed burn area. And I felt a hot spot forming on one of the toes of my left foot.
I just did not want to stop and take a break. I kept pushing myself to get through the burn area as quickly as I could. When I finally made tree cover around mile 5, I was already completely beat. I began looking for a nice spot to take a long break, and passed a couple of hikers resting at an overlook between boulders. It looked like the perfect place for a break, but I was hurting and wanted to pull off the trail by myself so I could lick my wounds in solitude.
Around mile 6, I picked a tree off the trail and plunked down next to it. I took off my trail runners and saw what I’d feared: my right ankle was swollen and I had a huge blister on the second toe of my left foot. I ate lunch and marveled at how good it felt to have my shoes off, to just sit and rest. How in the hell was I going to put my shoes back on and keep going? I wanted nothing more than to pitch my tent and crawl into it.
But the show must go on and sometimes you’ve just gotta cowgirl up. After 20 minutes or so, I pulled myself together and got back on the trail. For the next 5.5 miles, I focused on nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other. How could it be that as much as I loved hiking, this day’s hike was turning out to be the hardest thing I’d ever done?
I stopped very briefly a couple more times, but mostly I just kept pushing through to the next shaded area. The Colorado Trail Databook listed a general store near Buffalo Creek as a resupply place. I daydreamed about entering this magical, air conditioned store and buying a Snickers and an ice-cold soda. Or an ice-cold beer, either one would have worked. As I reached mile 10, I asked a hiker about the store but he didn’t know about it. (The Colorado Trail Databook clearly says that the store is 3 miles into town, not right on the trail as I’d allowed myself to hope.)
But there was a magical place at the end of Segment 2, an unmanned fire station with a water spigot. I rolled up to the fire station on fumes, so glad to be there. I filled up on water, kicked off my trail runners, and put on my Crocs. There were other hikers there, too, and I marveled that they had the energy to make conversation. One guy looked as rough as I felt. We both leaned up against the building, silent and still.
Eventually everyone left. I sat alone and started thinking about my options. I’d been so busy getting down the trail, I’d forgotten to plug my cell phone into my solar panel. It was almost out of juice. Even if my phone had been charged, I had no cell service. I knew I couldn’t keep going and wanted to bail out. I knew that meant flagging someone down so I could use their phone and call for a ride. But I couldn’t move. A couple of people drove up to the fire station and went in, then left again. I marveled that they didn’t come over to see if I was OK, bedraggled as I must have looked. But then, they were probably accustomed to seeing bedraggled hikers around the fire station.
I looked at my backpack and noticed it was sitting in a puddle of water. Hauling myself up to investigate, I thought, Well, of course my CamelBak decides to spring a leak NOW, after working great for 3 years!
A white truck pulled up to the water spigot right next to me. Too tired to see who it was, I kept rooting around in my pack, trying to assess the damage. Then I heard, “Hey!” Looking up, I saw Michael (Little Red). He’d caught a ride from Dan, a trail angel (someone who helps thru hikers, usually with rides, food, drinks) from the Little Scraggy Trailhead, back to refill on water. Even though I’d met Michael only briefly the day before, I was so glad to see him. When Michael asked me if I wanted a ride to the trailhead, I could have cried. He swung my pack into the truck for me and we got into the nice, cool, air conditioned cab. Air conditioning!
I couldn’t even tell you what I said on the ride to the trailhead except that I probably went overboard thanking Dan and Michael for the ride. Things got even better at the trailhead. Dan had an ice chest full of beer, sodas, all kinds of drinks. I pulled out an ice cold 7-Up with the reverence you’d normally reserve for some celestial event. That was without a doubt the best 7-Up of my life. Michael took a root beer and we sat at the trailhead for a spell. Turns out he was not having the time of his life either. He was from Tennessee, solo hiking the Colorado Trail for two weeks, and he missed his family. Besides carrying a 75-pound pack, his knee kept dislocating.
Well, you wouldn’t believe it but after the sodas and a break and finding a trail buddy, Michael and I hiked 3 more miles into Segment 3. We pitched our tents not far after the Shinglemill Trail junction. I pulled everything out of my pack and was happy to find that things were not too wet from my water bladder. Little Red asked me what my trail name was and I said I didn’t have one. My trail name almost became Hobbit Foot or Blister Toe after I pulled off my shoes and he saw my blister, which was as big as the toe itself.
As I drifted off to sleep that night, I pondered the strangeness of the day. Instead of being on my way back to Denver, I was still on the trail and camped in the middle of nowhere with a guy I barely knew. Then I fell asleep straight through until the morning.
See my Colorado Trail Planning Guide for complete details about planning your own trip!