Once a Thru-Hiker, Always a Thru-Hiker

Posted in: Hiking + Outdoor
Once a Thru-Hiker, Always a Thru-Hiker

Reaching the high point of the Colorado Trail at 13,271 feet on the slopes of Coney Summit was a literal and symbolic victory. I woke up alone that morning and attempted to prepare myself for the three intense climbs ahead. Something felt different that day. It may have been my awareness of what was ahead, the race to escape thunderstorms, or the promise of water at the bottom of the segment after the climb.

As I walked, I felt the work move from my calves to my thighs. Suddenly, I was taking lunges up the hill instead of the baby steps I had been taking for the last six weeks. I’m not sure if I ever got my trail legs: I know I'm stronger than day one in Waterton Canyon because I can see it in the muscles in my legs, along with the new, deeper brown the sun has given my body. But as far as throwing down the big miles like my trail buddies? Not so much.

As we ascended, we began to notice smoke from the wildfires burning in Colorado. For days, we had wondered if the effects of the multiple blazes would have an impact on the trail. To the north, it hung thick over mountains we had just crossed, obscuring them from view. It reminded me of 2012, when I lived through the Waldo Canyon Fire as a resident of Manitou Springs. The entire next year, we lived in fear of flash floods even as another conflagration, the Black Canyon Fire, devastated Colorado Springs.

Now, on the trail, we were essentially running from the smoke: Climate change felt as if it was chasing me down. As much as I had been able to ignore the outside world while on the trail, I couldn’t ignore the blood-red sunsets, a daily reminder of the environmental crisis we’re currently living through.

Even as the state has burned, things have changed for me over the course of this hike. I was once afraid to do anything but walk— stops for water or meals or injury were rushed affairs. The stillness and quiet were overwhelming, and I wanted to catch up to whichever unknown hiker was ahead, closing the gap between me and my safety net in the nearest person. But I got used to spending time by myself, and even started to enjoy it. By the end, I’d take my time at water stops, grateful for the chance to hydrate.

On one of my last days on the mountain, I picked an isolated dry camp well above timberline that overlooked a valley in the San Juan mountains. In a way, it was a throwback to the early days of my trip: I was camping solo and feeling isolated, weary, broken. This time, however, I picked my spot with intention. I slept without any trepidation that night, no worries about what was out there in the darkness. By this point I could recognize the once unfamiliar sounds: wind rustling through trees or shrubs or my vestibule, a smaller critter getting closer to investigate, maybe a cow curious as to the obstruction on its path. I knew what was awake and what was asleep, and I peacefully and confidently joined the sleeping cohort while the nocturnals took their turn.

It’s impossible to quantify what I’ve gained from this journey and it’s hard to say goodbye to this little world we have built for ourselves out here. I don’t know how to return to water faucets and indoor lodging, or the feeling of being part of a little inside joke, a community of people who have walked hundreds of miles in a go.

But I can take the trail with me as long as I remember the lessons I learned on it. I am infinitely more capable and more brave than I could have ever imagined. I have it in me to throw myself against any wall until I break through it. I have plenty of space for new relationships where I previously thought I was too old to make new friends. And as the state burns and water sources dries up, this journey across Colorado has exposed me to all that my home offers, and all that we have to lose.

Written by Patricia "Blackpacker" Cameron for Backpacker and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

May 27, 2021
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