While attempting to thru-hike the CDT in 2016, Dad began to suffer from some respiratory issues. He had reached a remote spring, about 15 miles south of Cuba, New Mexico, where he found two guys doing some maintenance work. They offered him a ride to town, and that was all he needed to throw in the towel. This is how Cuba (really the spring south of Cuba) had become the finish line for the “long-ass section hike” he was attempting this year. Now, an early snowstorm had derailed those plans, 150 miles north of the spring. But since we could stop by Cuba on the way back to Austin, Dad started thinking that he could at least knock off those lingering 15 miles into Cuba if there wasn’t much snow, leaving a funny little 135-mile section of the CDT as a project for another time. On the drive down, we discovered that there was no snow south of Chama. Dad said, as much to himself as to me, that he’d consider continuing northbound beyond Cuba (what thru-hikers call a “flipflop”), provided that he didn’t hit heavy snow on the trail and that he could slackpack every day—a tall order that would require finding Jeepable roads across the trail every 15 miles.
When Dad arrived at Elwood Pass for our 28th meetup, I quipped that his CDT hike was at risk of being overshadowed by my four-wheelin’ adventure. I’d arrived not 10 minutes before he appeared, having spent a good 2 hours “crawling” up to the pass, the whole time in low range, four-wheel drive. Two times on the way I had to pull over, park, and walk the “road” ahead to figure out how to negotiate the steep and rocky obstacles, one of which I couldn’t surmount until my 3rd attempt. Given what I’ve driven through, it’s astounding that I had yet to puncture or otherwise destroy a tire on this journey. We planned to camp there, but it was only 2pm—Dad had slackpacked 17.3 miles from Wolf Creek Pass—and he wanted to keep going. His next segment was a long 50.4 miles, and if he could chip away at it, the following 3 days would be that much easier. So he resupplied in a flash, switched to backpacking mode, and I got back in the Jeep, winding my way on dirt roads to our last meetup in Colorado.
The 82.2 miles of trail between Stony Pass and Wolf Creek Pass far exceeded Dad’s desired max of 45 miles (or 3 days) between meetups. It would require hiking for 5 or 6 days in the notoriously difficult San Juan Mountains, while weighed down with 5 or 6 days of food. To put it mildly, the prospect of this terrified him. You’d think by now it would be “old hat” for a man who has thru-hiked both the PCT and the AT, but as he frequently confesses, “I have a deep-rooted fear of the unknown.” He also admits that our schedule of meetups has “spoiled” him—not necessarily that it’s made him “soft”, but that seeing a familiar face so frequently has helped him stay motivated. Since I couldn’t accompany him the whole way (I’ve got a Jeep, a wolf, and a cabbage…), I came up with a 5-day plan to meet in the “middle”.
Day 1: Departing Stony Pass, Dad hiked southbound, while I drove ahead to Wolf Creek Pass (and spent the night there).
Even though I had a whole day to myself at Spring Creek Pass (before our 23rd meetup), I felt an obligation to stick around for any Colorado Trail thru-hikers. What I hadn’t accounted for, was that many were resupplying in nearby Lake City and returning to trail after having binged in town. I’d still offer soda when they jumped out of their hitches, but the look they made was always a pained, “Oh, please, no…” with hand on belly. The next morning I took leave of my post and headed up to meet Dad on his way in. I reached him after about 3 miles, augmented his morning snack with a can of Squirt, and then we continued down the trail together. Colorado’s summer monsoons had spontaneously returned the prior two nights, so I opted to cook up burgers for lunch while the midday skies were clear. The decision was prescient, as that night a thunderstorm swept in and unleashed a barrage of pea-sized hail—which we observed from within the Jeep, pelting Dad’s tent for about an hour. It passed, dusky skies followed, and I managed a quick dinner of hotdogs and haloumi.
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 farther 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.