CDT 14: The Other Parts of Hiking: Smells, Sounds, and Towns…

The Silverthorne Route to Grand Lake

After three hitches and one failed hitching location we made it to Denver! Neon’s sister picked us up at the Natural Grocers where we were already half way through a pint of ice cream and ready for a triple zero, three whole days of zero hiking. I think I saw her eyes water as she squinted and said, “woah, you guys smell strong.”

We drove with the windows open on the way to her apartment. Walking up the stairs from the front door two cats scurried about climbing over and under furniture with their hair standing straight up. Evidently, these cats also thought we smelled strong and were scurrying with fear from the two giant stinky beasts that had just entered their home.

The black, male, cat hid under the desk while the orange, female, cat made its way to the bedroom. The black cat slinked about wearily, but soon came around for a closer sniff. The orange cat, on the other hand, hid under the blankets in the bedroom and refused to come out until the evening of the next day.

Their reaction was intriguing, as if they had just encountered a terrible, fierce, wild animal. Once they got used to our presence, and were sure that we weren’t a threat, they became fascinated with our backpacks, sniffing them all over, rubbing their faces against them, and playing with the cords and webbing that hung from them. The orange cat took a particular interest in my sleeping mat and became upset when I rolled it up when we were packing up to leave.

It’s interesting, the smells we become accustomed to in society: soaps, perfumes, air fresheners, car exhaust… But as a thru-hiker I get used to the smell of dirt, trees, and other natural smells, the smell of sweat, old sweat the penetrates so deeply into the fibers of my clothing that it doesn’t completely go away even after washing them. I tend to forget that everything doesn’t smell that way. When day-hikers pass by on the trail or I come into a town, the smells are so intense, especially the smells of soaps, shampoos, and deodorants. I can almost feel the chemicals lodge at the back of my throat, sometimes holding back a cough or a sneeze, but I forget to wonder what I must smell like to everyone else.

We had three great days in Denver. I think we ate our weight in ice cream, we walked through the botanical gardens, and we bought food for our next section on the trail from the largest Asian supermarket I had ever been in. But after three days we were ready to get back to the sublime experience of thru-hiking and away from all the noise, smells, and stores of the city.

Climbing up Ptarmigan Ridge was beautiful–looking back south I could see the towns of Silverthorne, Breckenridge, Frisco, and Dillon nestled in the valley below that we had just climbed up from. The cool rain came and went and came again as we made our way to twelve thousand feet. The noise of I-70 faded into the distance and the air was fresh again. All the beeping of appliances and low hums of motors, large and small, were gone. We were back to the sounds of trickling water, wind, and birds.

The white winter covering the ground, however, was not gone. As we got closer to Ptarmigan Pass we made our way across large sections of snow. Our day slowed and once again our concentration focused on careful footing. A little post holing, a few slipped steps, and one unintended glissade later we started thinking about alternative route options.

The next day we hiked out the Williams Creek Trail to a forest service road. Near the end of the day a guy stopped and offered us a ride, we asked “are you going to the highway?” he said yes and we hopped in. After a few minutes of driving it turned out that he was headed south to a highway that went back to Silverthorne, not north where we were headed. We had a moment of hesitation as if a town vortex was sucking us in, but that quickly faded and we started thinking instead about what kind of food we wanted for dinner. “Silverthorne, it is then,” we said.

I love the whole hitchhiking experience. The trail goes right through some towns, but for most of the trail we hitch into town every week or so to get a shower, do laundry, and get more food. I love the people we meet. Beautiful, amazing people! They just stop and give us a ride, they share their stories, we share ours… It is a beautiful experience and one of my most treasured take-aways from hiking a long trail.

It took three hitches the next day to get back to the the trail. We climbed up out of the valley to Devil’s Thumb Park, hoping we were passed all the snow. We camped at the edge of a rock outcropping and watched the sunset while sipping happily on jäger.

The next morning we heard an elk bugling, and then another, and then another. As we approached a meadow we saw several elk way off to our right, then we heard more bugling off to the left. Turning to look, we saw what must have been fifty elk, maybe more. They were all scurrying and running into the forest away from us. All that bugling we heard seemed to be about warning the others that we were coming. “They must have smelled us coming,” I thought. As we continued walking I could still hear their bugling, but as we walked further into the woods it started to sound less like elk bugling and more like a pack of crazy monkeys or children laughing and screaming and carrying on at a playground. My thoughts drifted to what excited groups of animals sound like.

We camped on the shore of the Colorado River just outside the border of Rocky Mountain National Park. The sun was just setting and we watched the mosquitoes gather over the river and in a tall column over our white tyvek groundsheet. I wondered if it looked like snow to them. There must have been two thousand mosquitoes dancing over us, not including the mass at the edge of the river. “Why are they just hanging out above us? What would happen if they all bit me at the same time?” I wondered. I fussed with my stuff while humming parts of songs. Then I heard Neon go “ahhhhh,” in a medium tone, and in that same instant two thousand mosquitoes swarmed our heads and then dashed back into a column over the corner of our groundsheet. “Yikes, what was that?” I asked? “When you started singing they moved toward us,” Neon said. Then he made different sounds until they swarmed us again. My reflexes got the better of me and I slapped him on the chest, “STOP THAT,” I exclaimed.” That’s just creepy. And there are enough mosquitoes there that I think they could kill us!” Ok, maybe not, but there were A LOT of mosquitoes. We spent the last of the daylight watching the sun set and the mosquitoes dancing above us. We made different sounds, watching carefully the mosquitoes’ reactions, until finally they left with the coolness of the night.

The next morning we woke early, excited to finish the last few miles before town. After a couple of miles I see Neon ahead of me waving his arms and saying, “hey bear, humans here, go away bear.” I catch up and ask, “where is it?” He points. “I don’t see it,” I say. “Over there,” he points again. “WHOAH! That is the biggest bear I have ever seen,” I say with a shriek. If it were to stand next to me on all fours I think its shoulders would be as tall as mine. The bear sauntered into the woods and we continued walking. I kept looking back to make sure the bear was still walking away and not following us when I noticed the bear was also looking back, presumably to make sure we were not following him.

We started running into day hikers a couple of miles before reaching town. Everyone nods and says hello. “Here we go,” I thought. “Polite, courteous, and bathed in soap, dogs on leashes, and young kids that look at us strangely.” We pass a whole family, and one by one I watch their reactions as we pass by. The last one, a young boy, maybe six, was being pulled by a dog on a leash. The dog tilted its head and eyes downward, as if to show its submission, and then curved around away from me to the other side of the trail. “Wow,” I thought. “Even the dog is weary of me. Smells, color, hair, attire. What funny uniforms we judge by… And yet every animal does it.”

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