Day 47: Starfish and Elephants


It was a hard-starting kind of morning- for reasons unknown I’d lain awake most of the night, despite being utterly exhausted. Just the way it is sometimes. The day still arrives, the miles still need hiked.

Dropping off the mesa through pretty sandstone blocks and delicious vanilla-scented pines brought us to a highway crossing where the trail was obscured, then our water. We filtered over breakfast and a yoga stretch fest, as I tried to release my legs from their wrappings of pain.

13 miles to our next water, and an ambitious 26 miles for the day. I hefted my pack- oh, relativity! In the desert I’d just accepted the need to carry a gallon and a half or more- now that my mind had celebrated being “done” with that, it groused about the weight of 3 liters.

The south facing bench we traversed grew hot early, and we were passed by another couple, Smoosh and Wisecrack, who had started from the highway after returning from Santa Fe, and who appeared fresh, well-caffeinated, well-rested, well-hydrated, and town-fed. I was a touch envious.

Most of the walking was through pine forest, first on trail, then on old two track road. Nothing too fancy. A good day for podcasts. First a story about a kid who was left on a chairlift at the end of the resort day and finally had to jump off and crawl for help with three broken limbs; next, a story about the first quadriplegic to attempt an Ironman, and all the fascinating physical, mental, and medical conundrums he had to solve. Then a string of Ted Talks: one on the Gratitude Chain, and the hows and whys of gratefulness; one on the Opportunities of Boredom; one on things that can’t be rushed, that just Take Time. All 3 very, very appropriate to today. I didn’t even have the energy to critically think about each one in between- I just kept them playing one after the next.

The trail snaked through a strange corral-maze, novelly fun. It had gradually climbed all day, and when the aspen appeared, I felt psychologically cooler. Soon we were surrounded by aspen, and then the highlight of the day: almost a mile of iris filled meadow. I couldn’t believe it- I’d never seen anything like it. Delight overcame me, and a beauty tear slipped out.

We reached our second water at 17 miles and 3:30. Dozens of cows filled the meadow, grinding the ground to muck, stinking of sweat and poop. Why can’t there ever be other animals than cows? We had to filter 6 liters again, so we set about stretching and eating lunch while the filter dripped at its slothy pace. Though the sky was filled with storm clouds, the sun beat down through the one hole, and there was no shade near the water. My god, I could not wait for our new filter in Chama, when a liter would run through in 2 minutes again, instead of 20.

Lightning flashed north as we donned our packs; thunder echoed close behind. The sun was mercifully extinguished, and we marched into open meadows filled with larkspur as the sky roiled and wind gusted. The actual rain appeared patchwork, though- maybe it would miss us?

But no- a few raindrops, then a steady patter, then hail pelleted down, stinging like birdshot. I speed-shuffled for an anemic stand of gambel oak, where I wrestled into my rain gear with half-functional hands. The hail softened to rain, and I slowly warmed as I hiked, especially once the bare ground of the trail tread soaked enough to morph into the grasping, weighted clay.

The wide, rolling divide was mostly open meadow and low-growing oak, and the sky stretched on and on, newly textured each direction. The clay mud was dragging down my shoes and my ambition, and my pack weighed heavier and heavier on my shoulders as it soaked up pounds of rain. I tried to focus on the larkspur, to invoke gratitude for each little indigo starfish face, but I found myself slowing and slowing, like a wind up toy at the end of its go. A few mule deer bounded away from a thicket of oak. “Are you interested in camping yet?” I asked Prana. “I think we should make it to that forest,” he said, pointing across the valley. If I were alone, I would camp right here, or even a mile ago, last night’s lack of sleep weighing even more than the clay encasing my shoes; but I did agree to today’s arbitrary itinerary, and so I would try a little more.

The valley was shallow, not even a hundred feet down and up again over a mile or so, and yet: there were so many switchbacks. Useless as well- when Prana and I passed on the long, adjacent swoops, we could practically high five. What the hell? Was the trail designer drunk and the trail builder didn’t question? Was the trail builder drunk? I was about to lose my mind.

In the forest a strange trumpeting rang- I knew it must be a weird cow, but it sounded just like an elephant. Oh my god, what if there were elephants in this tiny forest?! That would make all those unfathomable switchbacks worth it.

With a little searching, we found a thick copse of firs that completely blocked the wind. Tent pitched, dinner cooked, pads inflated, alarm turned off.

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