Saturday starts Friday. As you print out maps of directions to the Long Gulch Trailhead and google nearby restaurants, your mind is on the trail early. During drinks and brats later that evening, your neighbor friends ask you about the next morning’s hike and you detail the area around Hwy 285 and Kenosha Pass. You return home after 9pm and assemble your gear. You expect snow so you load up. Saturday, you wake a bit earlier than for other hikes since you need to drive further than previous segments. You’re out the door by 5:30 am – driving through falling snow. Vics doesn’t open for another half hour so you figure you’ll grab a coffee in Aspen Park.
After turning off 470 onto Hwy 285, you call your mom at 6am. You call her most Saturdays although not this early, but there won’t be any other opportunity today. Besides, it’s 7am her time and old people get up early. She’s crying. She’s too weak to talk, but says enough. She tells you her doctor setup a visit for her with a Pulmonary doctor for Wednesday. The steroids aren’t working anymore and she has to stop them due to the side effects. The doctor told her she needs to make plans. You want to cry too but you don’t. A few minutes after you hang up, with your mind wandering, you feel all four tires lose traction.
Your Honda Accord is no longer gripping the road, there’s no point in steering. You remove your foot from the accelerator, and although you don’t move the steering wheel, you keep your hand on it with a light touch. You’re drifting toward the median, which is a small ditch between your two lanes and the two oncoming lanes. You feel the car spinning and figure it’s ok as long as it keeps sliding along on your side of the ditch. You spin 180 degrees and are now sliding backwards, but still on the road. Your speed has slowed marginally but you feel you are continuing to spin. You turn the wheel a bit to reverse the spin but that doesn’t work. You feel yourself drifting toward the ditch in the median, and the car is continuing to spin. You nudge the car a bit in the direction of its spin thinking you might be able to handle the ditch if you’re facing forward down the hill. The ditch is covered in snow and probably grass so you might gain traction. You don’t really know but you just want to get turned around because driving backwards – whether in control or not – is never good. The nudge works to accelerate the spin without over-correcting and you’ve now spun 360 degrees and are still in your lane. But now you’re drifting towards the right side of the road which has a similarly sized ditch after the shoulder, and is bordered by a tall rocky cliff. That’ll leave a mark.
Your car is slowing but still sliding and you need to decide whether to turn and accelerate out of the ditch, or let the car ride into the ditch. Important decision but less critical now that you’re not facing a slide into on-coming traffic. Turning against the slide didn’t work earlier, and accelerating out of a spin only works in the movies. You don’t make an immediate decision; instead you watch as you slowly slide into the cliff wall. You’re saved by the fact that the car is still spinning, and you give the wheel another nudge to accelerate the spin. It works and you’re again facing backwards – a full 540 degrees of spin – with maybe 10 feet still remaining between your driver’s side door and the cliff. This last spin slows the car and it comes to a near rest without you ever having touched the brakes – which you now apply for a full stop. The car’s nose is pointed against traffic and slightly lower than its rear. You first try backing out but the tires spin, so you leverage the weight of the car and drive forward out of the ditch. As soon as you’re back on the road, you see the semi bearing down on you in your rear view mirror. You punch the accelerator and risk losing traction again. A mile later you pull into the King Soopers in Aspen Park for some coffee. The car is fine, you’re a wreck.
The remaining drive to Kenosha Pass is slow and dangerous. The plows are out and you hope the roads are safer when you drive home. You see Tumbleweed in his car at the junction of Hwy 285 and Lost Park Road (forest road 56). He asks if you’re still up for this given the weather. Yes, you are. You’re not you anymore. Your trail spirit began a segment or two ago to take the shape of a trail dog and now you’re Sled Dog. You can’t quite remember all the reasons this is your trail name, but you just know it’s the right trail spirit for you. Your trail persona will fully emerge in today’s 16.6 mile slog through ice and snow.
You dressed well for the snowfall – or as you refer to such spring snow showers - a Colorado slow rain. You strap on Yaktrax over your La Sportiva trail shoes. Above that you’ve already attached your REI Gators. For leggings you have on Nike Dri-fit running shorts and a pair of Under Armour tights. You layer two shirts – first a thin nylon type of Under Armour Heat Gear and second a thicker Under Armour All Weather Gear. Gloves, fleece skull cap and a light jacket complete your ensemble. You have extra dry clothes in your pack. You start off running. It’s a gradual uphill. The video below captures the start of segment 4.
You rest after about a mile and a half and evaluate your clothing. Tumbleweed removes a cotton sweatshirt and vents his snow pants. After starting off a bit chilly, both of you have warmed up a great deal. You tuck your jacket into your pack and keep everything else on. For the rest of the run, all you’ll ever change are your hat and gloves – pulling them off and on again numerous times. Once again, you demonstrate experience with a good call on gear.
But you credit a trail spirit with your best call of the day. Your Yaktrax have been gathering clods of snow and intermittently scraping the snow balls from the soles of your feet is annoying. You hear Gadget Girl tell you a story from another run where she developed an acute injury from running with clumps of snow under the arches of her shoes. You listen and you remove the YakTrax. You knock off the snow and ice against a metal sign on a tree. To their credit, the treads are extremely light and fit easily into your pack.
Like last week, this trail seems to forever be climbing uphill. Combined with the snow, which is fresh powder and seemingly deeper, running becomes difficult and you walk large portions. When you’re finally running downhill, it surprises and hurts your quads. You don’t know the terrain under the snow. Rocks are dangerous and holes elicit grunts of unanticipated pain. This is fairly slow downhill running by your normal standards.
Slogging through deep snow wears on you and the day has become long. It took several hours to pass through a 7 mile valley – or Long-assed Gulch as you’ll call it from now on. You refer to the trek as the Nebraska Expedition because the blowing snow and your fatigue made scenery appear black and white and you were reminded of a Bruce Springsteen album. As the trail begins to slope upward again, you put your YakTrax back on. The timing of that gear change-up is perfect as the snow and ice are continuous and the trail mostly cuts across a steep slope with significant exposure to a downhill tumble.
The sky might be clearing but there’s still not enough sun to know what time of day it is without looking at your iPhone clock. You’ve been running for four hours and are on pace to finish in about six hours. Man, two more hours of intermittent, soul-crushing post-holing. You’re starving. You stop and eat an uncelebrated power bar. You want real food. The final miles are entirely lead by Tumbleweed as you can’t see the trail; partly because your sunglasses are too dark and partly because you don’t have the experience to even see it covered in snow.
Because you’re walking much more of this trail than previous segments, you talk more with Tumbleweed. You converse about Easter, your mom, your harrowing drive, and about how these are really just the foothills to the CT. Tumbleweed considers the foothills to end on the western side of highway 285 – on segment 6 where you’ll cross the Continental Divide. Segment 6 is over 30 miles. You make that and you’re getting a tattoo. Or something.
You’re fairly amazed with yourself for nearly completing 4 segments of the CT in April. You say nearly because today’s hike isn’t yet finished. Tumbleweed says most hikers don’t start until much later, some as late as June. But those are hikers who take it straight through. Five weeks of non-stop hiking. His plan though is to run the segments on weekends. And you hope to participate in as much of it as you can. Your plans initially were to just do the first segment or two, but now you’re hooked. You’re seriously considering running the entire CT now. In fact, you can’t imagine not doing the segments along the Collegiate Peaks. Of course there’s no visibility today from the snow, but you’re not even close to where the good views begin.
You’re on the final stretch to the Long Gulch Trailhead. The trail is steep here and you serpentine downward. The switchbacks are hard to see in the powder but Tumbleweed has the eyes of a hawk and has guided you through 16 miles of snow covered trail. You shuffle into the trail head exhausted. Once again, you agree to stop at the first place you see that appears open for lunch.
This turns out to be the Coney Island Hot Dog Stand in Bailey. You’re hungry and nothing sounds better than a dog or burger. You enter into a place out of time. You’re suddenly in a ’50s or ’60s boardwalk style diner.
You order onion rings, an Elk Jalapeno Dog, a chili cheese burger and Diet Coke. You eat the onion rings while the rest of your order is prepared. The place is actually packed and the only free seating is outside – which is nice. You attack the Elk Jalapeno Dog first. When you are this starved for calories, the flavor of food is elevated to the extreme and you ravish your plate. While eating you discuss plans for the remainder of the CT. A lot remains – over 400 miles in 24 segments.
Tumbleweed would like to complete the trail in September. This means you’ll need to double up the shorter segments and start camping the nights as Tumbleweed does now. You determine to work out a schedule to make this happen. You didn’t have summer plans a month ago, but now you’re committed to run as much of this trail as possible with Tumbleweed. Each segment is such an intense experience. Today will be remembered for trudging through the snow. Many times you were knee deep in stale, crunchy powder. It’s safe to expect more days like today as you’ll be chasing the snow melt. You learned the value of wearing gators. They not only keep snow out of your shoes, they keep your shins warm. You’ve already learned a great deal about proper gear. A small tent might be your next purchase.
Tumbleweed drives you to your car and you part ways. Your next get together will be segment 5, and your last trek along the CT foothills of Hwy 285. You call your sister driving home to talk about your mom. Sandy just spoke with her and she’s feeling much better.