The clop and scrambling of Elk hooves jarred me awake repeatedly throughout the night. The trail above me was a well-used pathway for the large Elk as they made their way in and out of these mountains. They had probably used the trail for generations, if not longer.
Forging my way down the side of an unmarked mountain would not be easy. I frowned, hoping the Elk trail would continue to the valley.
My body was stiff as I stretched out in my sleeping bag. The previous day had left me battered. I grinned as I sat up slowly, still zipped up tightly in my warm Down cocoon. Today was a town day, with town food!
Sliding my hands down over my hips, I felt my pelvic bones jutting beneath my skin. I had only been out for 4 days, but it felt like I had lost 10 hard-earned pounds. Besides a couple of bars, the bagel and peanut butter were the last of my food. I started to have food flashes!
Bundled up in my beanie and Down Jacket, I turned on my headlamp, pulled out my maps, and began examining my trek for the day. There was still a big gap between where I thought I was now and the valley floor. As I studied my maps, I softly whispered, “Please let the Elk trail go all the way down.”
If the Elk trail did not give out, I would get to the valley floor and cross the Navajo River before arriving at a Forest Service Road. The Forest Service Road would lead me to County Road 382, and then I was home free to Highway 84. Once at the highway, I would hitch into Pagosa Springs, CO. The total mileage looked to be around 25 miles to Highway 84.
While I waited for the first rays of dawn, I ate a bagel with Peanut Butter, drank a liter of cherry-flavored water, and began packing my stuff sacks. At the first sign of light, I would begin climbing through the trees, back up to the trail above me.
My stiff, achy body began to loosen up as I used small trees to pull myself up the side of the mountain. I dug my feet into the leaves and duff, slowly hauling me and my heavy pack back up the mountain. The pack was lighter, with much less food and only a liter of water, but the snow shoes and ice ax still weighed me down.
Reaching the trail, I turned and headed down the mountain, following this god-sent trail to the valley floor. I paused as I stepped from the trees, listening to the roar of water. Across a small meadow in front of me was the Navajo River. It was no longer the small creek it had been up in the mountains but a swollen, icy snowmelt river.
Heading across the boggy meadow, I looked up and down the shore. There looked nowhere better to cross than where I was now. Hopefully, my last obstacle for the day.
The icy water was swift and deep, rushing past me in frothy torrents. Standing on the grassy bank above the edge of the water, I looked for a shallow entry point. The brownish-black water was impenetrable, and I could not see the bottom. Sighing loudly, I turned and headed back toward the trees to find a good stick.
My hiking poles were usually good for crossing rivers or large creeks, but if the current was especially strong, the bottom of the poles would be difficult to keep stable. I would need to find a longer, heavy stick that would not get stuck in the rocks or sweep away in the current.
It took about 15 minutes, but finally, I found a good long walking staff and headed back to the river’s edge. I knew the cold would be painful, so I didn’t pause. I sat down quickly on the bank and sucked in a breath as I lowered myself into the COLDEST WATER I HAD EVER FELT!
The icy current rose slightly above my knees, and the river’s pull was powerful. I paused and glanced back behind me. If the water was this deep now, how deep would it be at mid-stream? Was I making another one of my impulsive decisions without enough thought?
Thru-hikers, long-distance hikers, whatever you want to call us. There is a deep aversion to backtracking or hiking any miles unrelated to the forward direction of the trail itself. It was ingrained in me not to go back – ever! Because of this, just maybe, possibly, there were occasions where I made decisions to keep going when I should not have.
I stood there frowning for about 2 seconds before making up my mind. There was no choice but to keep going, right? I had to cross at some point and was certainly not hiking back into the mountains. Call it stupidity, stubbornness, or drive, but in moments like these, the thought of going back and giving up gains I had worked so hard for was incomprehensible.
I unbuckled my waist and sternum straps and turned into the current, placing my staff up river. I began angling towards a section of the river that looked a little slower. It was upriver from a line of boulders that jutted just above the water. My legs were quickly beginning to go numb, and the bottom of the river was slick with rounded rocks. It was also tough to find footing and maintain my balance in the current.
There was not a moment crossing that river where I was not frightened. I’m very comfortable with water, but the current and snow melt made this crossing dangerous. I had fallen in fast water before. I was a strong swimmer and could get out of a pack fast, but never in water this cold. If I fell and did not get up quickly, I would have difficulty recovering.
As I moved further, the water began to rise up my thighs. If it climbed too high, I would be unable to maintain my footing. I moved slowly, leaning into the current as I cautiously crossed. Every few seconds, either a foot would slip on a slick rock, or the rushing water would lift me up onto my toes, and I would lean hard until I settled again. I needed back those ten pounds.
Reaching the other side, I dragged myself up through the grass and paused on all fours trying to catch my breath. I shook violently from the frigid water and the adrenaline coursing through me. “Son of a bitch,” I muttered to myself as I slowly stood. This section was kicking my ass.
I only stood for a moment, dropping my pack to retrieve my hiking poles and quickly buckling the pack back in place. The sun had not yet reached this part of the valley, and I was growing cold in the shadows. I needed to move before I grew too cold.
Looking toward the trees, across the boggy meadow on this side of the river, there was what appeared to be an opening among the trunks of the trees. I began walking quickly and grinned as I drew closer, and the space opened up. I was standing on some old road that appeared not to have been used for quite some time. I’m not sure I would call it a road, as it was mostly overgrown, but according to my map, it was where a road was supposed to be, and that was enough for me.
Hopping over a downed tree, I was excited as my “kinda road” turned toward County Road 382. Not long before I spotted a dirt road through the trees, I pumped my arm, yelling “Yes!” as I arrived at the edge of the rough single-track road. The road appeared fairly well used, although the single set of tire tracks running down it was faded. I turned right and headed in the direction of food.
It did not take long to reach the first driveway or turn off to the left. There was a large metal gate across the drive, and the property was surrounded by the thickest iron rod fence I had ever seen. Fields stretched far back to what appeared to be a wooden A-Frame structure, but it was on the edge of the trees and hard to see. The fence appeared to circle the entire property. That cost a pretty penny, I thought. The gate was locked tight, and I did not pause long before hiking down the road.
A little later, I passed another property surrounded by an electric fence straight out of Jurassic Park. What the hell were these people trying to keep out. Hearing a noise, I looked up quickly to see a Bull Elk trotting down the road ahead of me. “You better move before a 50 caliber takes you out, buddy,” I muttered. These people weren’t playing.
The walk through the valley was beautiful. The views were fantastic, and wildflowers were blooming up and down the sides of the road. Most importantly, it was warm, and I leaned back my head and soaked in the sun as I strode down the middle of the desolate road.
I jumped as my pleasant stroll was interrupted by a loud diesel engine, and a very large, or rather high off-the-ground truck came flying around the curve! I don’t know how I had not heard it approaching. I jumped to the side as the truck flew past me and abruptly slammed on its breaks before quickly backing up beside me and stopping.
I grinned at the unshaven man glaring down at me. He had barely stopped the truck before angrily saying, “You’re on private property!”
“I’m on County Road 382,” I responded without giving my response much thought. I watched as the driver turned red and immediately knew the situation was about to escalate.
“You need to get the hell off this property and go back where you came from!” he said more loudly.
I felt my blood pressure rise and made myself pause for a moment. Taking a deep breath and attempting to relax, I told myself to calm down. I had zero leverage here, and getting yelled at by an angry guy in a giant truck in the middle of nowhere, was not the ideal situation for me.
Taking a more relaxed stance and lowering my eyes, I asked in a softer tone if I could explain my situation. He just sat there staring at me, so I took that as a yes, and continued talking.
Once I finished my story, I took a breath and waited. He said nothing momentarily and reached over to put his truck into gear.
“Keep walking until you get to the gate. Don’t stop; keep walking until you get to the road.”
I think I was halfway through “thank you” as he sped off in a flurry of dirt and gravel.
Looking back now, I understand the man’s frustration. This was private property, and I was on it without permission. I tried hard to stay off private property if possible since there was usually enough public land I did not need to trespass.
Glancing at another giant prison fence to my left, I picked up my pace. I did not want to be on this road when it grew dark.
It ended up that County Road 382 was several miles further. I was actually on Private Road 382. Banded Peak Ranch was part of 50,000 acres owned by a group out of Virginia. An hour later. I slid around the coded gate and moved on quickly.
A few minutes later, I saw a dump truck pulling onto the dirt road ahead of me and waved my arms wildly. Dusk was close, and I wanted to get into town. Sean slowed down and told me to hop in the dump truck. “I can’t get you to town, but I can get you close.”
“Sounds good,” I said as I climbed into the truck.
Sean had been a hunting guide for years, leading parties into the surrounding mountains, and he was a wealth of information. By the time we reached the outskirts of Pagosa Springs, I was well versed in the layout and history of the area. “Thanks,” I said as I jumped down and reached up to grab my pack. “No problem, and good luck. You are lucky,” he said with a smile.
My thumb was out for about a minute before an old Woody pulled over, and Pat stopped to pick me up. The old car was full of everything, clothes, food, and boxes. We chatted as Pat took me straight to the motel and waited outside. She would not leave until I came back outside and confirmed they had a room. Very different from my first experience earlier in the day.
Going back into the lobby, I heard someone yell my name and looked over to see JK. He and all the guys were staying in the same motel. They had road walked around the San Juans, and they gathered around to find out how my hike had gone. I was the first person they knew who had hiked through (almost) the first part of this last section.
We had a good time catching up at dinner. I was going to take a day off to recuperate; it mostly meant eating for a full day. I also needed to consider the next few days on the trail, as I had been told the snow was even worse in the next section.