Chance Encounters

Colorado's Constantly Surprising La Garita Wilderness
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Writer John Fayhee decided in 1980 that, one day, he and the Continental Divide Trail"would be chums." Sixteen years later, in 1996, Fayhee spent nine weeks hiking the 740 mile length of the Colorado portion of the trail. Meanwhile photographer John Fielder spent two summers documenting the spectacular scenery along the trail. The two collaborated on a book, Along Colorado's Continental Divide Trail, that combines Fayhee's lively prose with Fielder's spirited photographs. This excerpt recounts Fayhee's trip from Spring Creek Pass to Monarch Pass in La Garita Wilderness. . .

For me, the problem with taking time off the trail is that, for every day I spend in town, it takes me an equal number of days to get back into the rhythm of the walk.

After two full days in Lake City, this sad fact was much on my mind as we were making our way through the airy aspen forest on the way up Snow Mesa from Spring Creek Pass. Gay had taken us the 17 miles down from the trail into town, but she had to leave almost immediately to return to Breckenridge. Once again, I saw my wife for less than two hours before Real Life beckoned her home. I opted to send Cali back with her for another week of rest, relaxation and recuperation— so, once again, it was just Gary and me.

A college kid Gary had met in the bar of our motel had driven us back to the trail from Lake City. We arrived at the small Forest Service campground at Spring Creek Pass just before dark and immediately hooked up with a foursome of Colorado Trail through-hikers who were as delightfully debauch as they were wonderfully ill-groomed. They reminded us of us, and we had a great time visiting with them. We stayed up"late" (till almost 10!) swapping lies and telling trail stories. Unlike us, these boys were on the downhill stretch of their journey; since they were coming from Denver, they had only 10 more days before they arrived at Durango, the western terminus of the CT.

We, on the other hand, still had 38 days. These trail-weary boys shook their heads sadly and offered condolences. We, in turn, offered condolences to them and speculated that, within about three weeks, they would be missing trail life very badly and expressing anguish over the fact that we were still out in the woods, while they were not. We promised to send them postcards, just to rub it in.

This eight-day, 110-mile stretch— almost all of which follows the Colorado Trail— would see us hiking through the heart of the 104,000-acre La Garita Wilderness, as well as passing through the extremely remote and surprisingly rugged Cochetopa Hills. The La Garita is one of the lesser known wilderness areas in the state. Yet, it is magnificent and wind-swept and wild. Its lack of renown probably stems from its proximity to the much larger Weminuche, as well as the fact that it is home to only one 14,000-plus-foot mountain— San Luis Peak— and, wilderness areas in Colorado are, ridiculously enough, popular in direct proportion to the number of "fourteeners" they harbor. (Witness the sparse use of the South San Juan Wilderness, which is home to no fourteeners.)

It was two miles and less than 1,500 vertical feet from Spring Creek Pass to the top of Snow Mesa. Those are some easy numbers, even when factoring in a full-pack fatigue quotient. Yet, I thought someone had slipped a liter of grain alcohol and three libriums into my morning coffee. I felt dizzy, disoriented and mightily fatigued. I was very happy we only had 11 miles to hike this day, as I didn't feel like I could make it much more than that. Gary was feeling none too chipper himself.

Our days-off gluttony-based sins are catching up with us. Basically, while in Lake City, we mowed down every calorie that had the misfortune of crossing our paths. This we did not do just to keep our jaws limbered up. In 15 trail days, I have dropped 20 pounds, and Gary has dropped almost as much. Our heretofore snug-fitting garments are now hanging loose upon our emaciated carcasses. We could pass for Bataan Death March survivors, except that our clothes are too dirty and tattered. Such rapid weight loss is rough on a metabolism used to carrying some extra weight around; thus, we are now constantly hungry. Food dominates a high percentage of our thoughts. It's like— "Hey, nice view. Doesn't that mountain remind you of a pile of ice cream? And look at those lovely wildflowers; I wonder if they're edible."

It took a long, slow hour to top out on Snow Mesa, which is one of the most splendid parts of the state. This is my third time up here, and, every time, I have regretted the fact that I forgot my polo and croquet gear. Snow Mesa is almost 30 square miles of very lush, grassy tundra. By the standards of this neck of the woods, it is flat as a tabletop, and the views from its expanse are astounding in every direction. To the west, we saw the rugged, often storm-ridden section of the Divide where lies Coney Summit— at 13,334 feet, the highest point along the Colorado Trail— and the bright crimson expanse of Red Mountain, the side of which looks like a mammoth wound on the ridge. To the northwest are two of Colorado's most beautiful and dissimilar fourteeners— flat-topped and green Uncompahgre and pointy, forbidding Wetterhorn (both of which I have climbed). And, to the east, we have the heart of the La Garitas.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 5 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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