Colorado Trail Magic

The first come, first served campsite I snagged near Twin Lakes, Colorado (just as the previous occupants were packing up) not only happened to be located right off the CDT (perfect for our 17th meetup), it was also right next to the “South Elbert Trailhead”. A Forest Service webpage described the trail leading up to Mount Elbert as “a great route and a relatively easy hike for someone in reasonable physical condition.” It wasn’t until I read through to the bottom of the page that I discovered that “Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest peak and the second highest peak in the lower 48 states” (after Mount Whitney of course, which I summitted with my brother at the end of the JMT). At this point my curiosity meter had swung from “might check out” to “must do”. Given my late start—it was noon—I treated the hike as reconnaissance for the following day, but the further along I got, the more I wanted to keep going. The weather held, and I reached the summit around 3:30pm, after climbing over 4,800 feet. Dad arrived the next afternoon in good spirits, we made carnitas tacos for dinner, and then, ominously, ash from a nearby forest fire started falling from the sky.

Justin at the summit of Mount Elbert
On top of Mount Elbert

In the course of chatting with our campground neighbors about Dad’s hike, we learned that Hope Pass (which he’d be going over the next day) is the midpoint of the famous Leadville 100 ultramarathon. Once again, my curiosity was piqued. Given the intensity of the climb and the descent, and the convenient location of Sheep Gulch trailhead at the bottom, we decided to inject a meetup into the schedule, the 18th, so that Dad could slackpack the entire day. After he left in the morning, I did some errands, and then drove around to the trailhead so that I could climb up the south side of the pass and get a brief taste of the Leadville 100. I can’t recall having ever hiked a steeper trail for a more sustained period of time. As I ascended 2,670 feet over 2.5 miles, I was constantly walking on the balls of my feet, my heels rarely hit the ground. Dad had just started on his way down from the pass when I reached him. I tossed him a soda and “sprinted” to the top so that we could gingerly make our way down together. The barbacoa burritos I made that night were perfect.

Justin on top of Hope Pass
Hope Pass

When two Colorado Trail thru-hikers passed us on the way down from Hope Pass, I told them we had cold sodas at the bottom, just off-trail. We found them waiting for us at the turn-off, where they left their packs and followed us to the Jeep for two tenths of a mile. Dad murmured, “I’d never hike this far off-trail for just a soda.” We always had more than enough to share a few cans, but when I showed up to check out Cottonwood Pass for our 19th meetup, I ended up giving out half a dozen sodas in just the hour or so I was there. Since I was planning on spending the night, it was clear I was going to need more soda. I knew Dad was set to arrive early the next morning, so I also picked up some pancake mix. I was heating up the griddle when he showed up and told me, “I’ve been dreaming about pancakes!” While I whipped them up, he resupplied, and as soon as he was done, both eating and packing, he was back on the trail to make a few more miles.

La Jeep at Cottonwood Pass
My home at Cottonwood Pass

Though I enjoyed dishing out trail magic and the social interactions that ultimately followed, it didn’t leave me with much downtime. For our 20th meetup, I sought out a dispersed campsite just before Monarch Pass where I could chill out by myself. Remarkably, I had full cell signal, so with my laptop plugged into the solar-charged battery and tethered to my phone, I was able to create a cozy, off-grid studio in the rooftop tent to do some writing and catch up a little bit on the outside world. I felt like dinner was in a carnitas/sausages rut, so when Dad arrived, I attempted a meatball dish with mushroom gravy, canned green beans, and a quinoa/rice blend that ended up tasting better in my head than on the plate. By no means inedible, but IKEA Swedish meatballs they were not. I blame the canned green beans.

Dispersed campsite near Monarch Pass
Our dispersed campsite near Monarch Pass

After hiding out in the woods, I found myself missing the energy of the trail. Conveniently I was able to park right next to it, atop Sargents Mesa, for our 21st meetup. Not long after I arrived, hikers began showing up, and the soda flowed. Many were familiar faces from Cottonwood Pass who told me how excited they were to spot La Jeep in the distance. Dad arrived the next day in dire need of a shower. No sooner did he start to strip than an imposing group of 8-10 large, bearded, and tattooed dirtbikers showed up and corralled themselves near the Jeep in order to fix a flat on one of their bikes. The water in the solar shower had not yet received the benefit of much sun (and frankly, it rarely got more than lukewarm), eliciting awkward laughter from the bikers (who, as it turned out, were really sweet guys) as Dad yelped and hollered himself clean. That night we each got our own ribeye steak.

Sunset behind La Jeep at Sargents Mesa
Sunset at Sargents Mesa

I brought two unopened 12 packs (one Coke, one Squirt or 7-Up) to Sargents Mesa (not to mention the cans already in the cooler, nor the beer I’d offer the occasional hiker who showed up late in the day), and by the time I left, they had cleaned me out—which indicated that at least 24 folks were passing through during any 48-hour period. And the process repeated itself during our 22nd meetup along Saguache Park Road (pronounced sa-WATCH). I hung out by the trail and every so often a “drum circle” of hikers would form behind the Jeep, sans drum, intoxicated by the rush of 140 cold, bubbly calories. Since I usually got to our meetup spot a day before Dad, and since he’d usually take off just before 6am, many of the hikers ahead of or behind him had heard tell of “the old man on the trail”, but had not yet run into him. (Keep in mind, almost everyone we met hiking the Colorado Trail was “young”, i.e. 20–40 years old, and they were “only” doing 500 miles.) After our dinner of carnitas tacos (made at Dad’s express request), three CT thru-hikers showed up, two of whom I’d met previously, and they were super-stoked to finally meet the “famous” 71-year-old doing a 1000-mile section of the CDT, on his way to a triple crown, 🤞! After 43 days, Dad had hiked 674.9 miles.

Dad (aka Tartan), in front of La Jeep, feeling good after the day's hike
Tartan feelin’ good after the day’s hike

6 Comments

An amazing post, Justin. I am enjoying your trail chronicles, and wondering what I should do to inspire Oliver (he’s 10 now) to be willing and ready to support me when I am ready to go on walkabout.

I’m loving reading these too!

Thanks guys! Anton, well, the cheeky answer is, just offer to fund it. It doesn’t hurt that I’m attuned to the strange mental states brought on by a thru-hike, having done the AZT last year, so I suppose you could start planting seeds (and coins) for Oliver’s gap year thru-hike in 8 years, with the proviso that he be ready to support your walkabout after college!

Janet Elman

Justin you are an amazing blogger of you and your Dads adventures. I have loved following every minute. Be safe driving back to Texas.

Thanks Janet, it’s been fun living it and writing about it.

Michael Sunderman

Wow! Really enjoying your blog. Very well written; could make a great book. Be careful & enjoy.

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