Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week Four

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

At the close of week three we’d crossed the halfway mark, both in terms of the distance we had to cover and the time we had budgeted to do it in. But some tragic news from home, and a nasty bout of heat exhaustion on Rich’s part, had dimmed our sense of celebration. Week four was a late honeymoon in comparison, as we upped our mileage (covering up to 23 miles per day) and found peace and contentment in our long summer evenings in the wild.

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Day 22: Squaw Creek to circular meadow near Cree Creek – 6.8 miles

An amusing stand-off this morning at dawn between the horses and a confused herd of cows who materialised out of the woods and seemed very surprised to find the horses, protected in their electric corral, occupying what was clearly their routine morning grazing spot. One brave heifer stepped forward and got an electric shock (it’s still working, then), retreated, and then they all stood around staring rather stupidly at each other, the cows with their big wet eyes, baffled, and the horses with their ears pricked and necks arched as if they’d never seen a cow before. Very sweet.

Rather damp and chilly morning, but we took our time as we’d decided to make a half day, aiming to camp near where the trail briefly emerges from the woods to cross US Highway 50: partly to ensure R was fully recovered from his heat exhaustion, and partly so I could take this lucky opportunity to hitchhike into Salida to pick up the crucial things we had stupidly forgotten on our rest day. No other opportunities to resupply for the next 100 miles.

Stopped at this beautiful meadow, which must be one of the most idyllic places we’ve stopped: a perfect circle of thigh-high grass in the middle of the woods, a great spot for grazing the horses – the only draw back being its a steep half-mile to Cree Creek, the nearest source of water, which we did twice earlier with buckets. Well, actually three times, the first on horseback, each clutching a collapsible 20l water container, but when I jumped down from Numero I dropped mine and it burst. So: buckets.

After putting up the corral, I hiked about 1.5 miles down to the road. Got a lift very easily from a mountain biker, who dropped me on the outskirts of town. I toured ‘drive thru’ ATMs on foot, feeling foolish, searching for one that would let me take money out with my British card: enough to pay for three sets of new horseshoes should we ever find a farrier. American cities are not built for people without cars. A hot, dusty and dispiriting hour, but I found one.

Hitchhiking back also easy, despite first taking a 10-mile detour in the wrong direction, and I arrived back at our lovely spot with relief, finding three horses reclining in the evening sun and Rich well and happy once more after a relaxing afternoon’s wait. Very pleased to be out of the city and back on the trail.

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Day 23: Cree Creek to Marshall Pass – 15.5 miles

Back to covering proper distances after 2 very short days in a row. Up in the dark to retrace what I walked yesterday, across Highway 50 (deserted so early in the morning) and into segment 15. Excellently quick pace, despite Pinto being packhorse, I think Pepper is getting used to being the leader, and walked and trotted out all morning. Followed a dirt road winding into the hills past a small hydroelectric dam and scattered campsites along South Fooses Creek, including the cutest little family playing hide and seek, the little ones still in their pyjamas and delighted to see us (it is fun to feel like a tourist attraction wherever we go, people waving and trying to take photos of the horses).

Gradual rise, with plenty of trotting opportunities to get our pace up, yet somehow went from 8,830ft to 11,450ft without really noticing, climbing through an open conifer forest then alpine-like meadows until finally a half-mile scramble up an incredibly steep stony path to the Monarch Crest (11,909ft), a gorgeous high ridge with immense vistas in all directions (including, I think, the San Juan Mountains, where we reach in a week or so). Dwarf tundra plants and flowers, everything in technicolour and in miniature. Followed the curve of the crest, very dry white rocky soil and big white quartz boulders. Dipped into trees and paused for lunch near a winter shelter/hut, in another floral meadow, before a long slow descent along what looked like a ranch track, passing cattle grids (which can be circumvented via very homemade ‘gates’ made of barbed wire). Stopped to camp in a marshy area not far from the Marshall Pass trailhead, which we’ve been warned is the last water for 10 or 12 miles.

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Pictured: steam rising from the horses’ backs after a sudden hailstorm

A very heavy lightning and hailstorm came from nowhere as we halted and hammered us as we rushed to up-tents – though it passed after around 20 minutes leaving a pile of slush at the either end of the tents. At least with all these storms there is a lot of surface water, we’ve rarely had issues about that aspect of the trip, though the next two sections are supposed to be very dry. The horses were steaming when, after the hail, the sun came out – all soon dry.

A many coursed dinner of sliced nectarine and sliced cucumber, then mashed potato with bacon bits and butter, and chicken fettuccini (though in practice, chicken noodle soup, as I added too much water). Then half a bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate which I’d managed to procure in Salida. All three horses on good form: the grain has cheered them up no end.

Tomorrow we hope to catch up the half-day we lost to Salida mark II, and do our longest day yet. Today went easy enough, though the last miles tend to drag however far we ride. Saw a black and white woodpecker today, a squirrel chasing a chipmunk, five noisy birds I believe were ptarmigan which rushed up as we passed through a boulder field scaring the horses. Heard but didn’t see the squeaking of marmots in the same place.

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Day 24: Marshall Pass to Baldy Lake – 22.8 miles

Gorgeous, gruelling day in equal measure. No, gorgeous probably tips it. Up smart in pitch dark, 4am (the days are getting shorter), after v cold disturbed sleep. Thought we’d lost the geldings, who’d I’d let loose to free graze while I took down the fence. They’d wandered off into the gloaming, and I woke up a pair of hikers blundering about with headcollars. (Frost sparkling in the glass // light of the headtorches refracted // starbright and sky brightening in the east // baby blue and a coral rim along the horizon // sun inching redly up.)

Sounds of song birds and hammering of woodpeckers and views of hills in a wonderfully variegated pine forest: bright healthy greens mixed in with sparser, bottle green specimens and many others bare, shrouded in thick lacy lichen in black and mint green. A detailed sort of woodland, built up in layers. Path passed behind a hill so effectively had two sunrises: the second with the trees above us and all around tipped with golden light, the hills rolling off beyond hazed with pastel powder as if lit from below.

Made excellent time to our halfway point, Tank Seven Creek, around 11 miles in, at which point the sunshine was warm but the air still sharp and cold. Stopped for a late snack as the horses gorged on a small patch of lush grass. Then followed the creek up to Sargent’s Mesa, a huge golden grassland high in the mountaintops – “like cow heaven,” said Rich.

There were cows there, a small number of tanskinned heifers joined us for a short canter. Remarkable views behind, purplish-blue, range upon range – landskein, as Robert Macfarlane would have it – still with patches of snow in the lee of the peaks. Got a flicker of phone signal suddenly on a phone that had been dead for days, which brought cheering words from my parents which was a happy surprise. Had a rather frugal lunch of Triscuits and tuna and very thin slices of rubbery cheese perching on a rock in the sun.

Still six miles left, and I knew they would all be gruelling and they were. Very rocky and full of steep but short climbs and falls, in an endless repeating cycle, and I already don’t remember much of them until hitting the turn off for Baldy Lake (a half-mile and 400yard drop off the main trail) and the celebratory feeling. The lake is the only water in this segment, and I am very glad we had cause to visit it – perhaps my favourite campsite yet: a large, very deep and perfectly turquoise lake in an steep-sided cauldron of crag and scree. It is betrayed by its unlyrical name. Marmots squeaking in stereo all around, but enough grass in patches between the trees to amuse the horses overnight. A few fire pits, space for tents and raspberries growing wild in tangles, which I picked a bowl of for dessert.

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Pictured: a cold water bath at Baldy Lake

Couldn’t let the opportunity for a perfect swim slip by – threw off my clothes and ran in. Rich came down to join me, followed by the horses who crowded around the lake entrance to drink, all five of us together. Water cold but not too cold, the chill taken off by the sun, very refreshing and cleansing (especially as I have been wearing my ‘pyjama’ leggings under my breeches for quite a few days now). Air dried, then ate rice and pepperoni, sliced cucumber and apple and half a bar of chocolate with the raspberries while the horses grazed peacefully. What a perfect spot. (Got clothes back on just in time, as the nice hiker couple we woke at Marshall Pass arrived a few minutes later. We are herd animals, wandering waterhole to waterhole. Though we were pleased they decided to camp out of eyeshot, somewhere further round the lake’s edge)

I saw the rain on the lake’s surface before I felt it, and we got the horses in their corral and fed (including a shake of salt in each nosebag, to replenish) just in time before the heavens opened. Too dark to write, must sleep.

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Day 25: Baldy Lake to slopes above Lujan Creek – 14.3 miles

The lake was just enchanting in the early morning, with the golden light hitting the rim of the precipice and the tallest of the trees on the slopes above. Had unusually warm and comfortable sleep. (Met an English couple the other day, hiking northbound on our way to the Monarch Crest – amusingly British, the way Americans imagine us all to be, very cheerful and practical and rather proper. The husband said he’d been getting so cold at nights that he’d broken and ordered a $500 sleeping bag to pick up in Salida. “You’ve got to sleep,” he told us, very firmly.)

Still, being comfortable has the draw back of making it very difficult to get up. Rich posted me in a porridge and then a coffee (a coffee! we got little sachets in Salida) and I finally made it up between 05:00 and 05:30. Our new psychological tactics of delaying our morning break to around the halfway mark means that the early hours on the trail swoosh by happily with no expectation of having an end in sight. Pinto was in the lead today with Rich, me on Pepper behind and Numero as pack in the rear, dawdling to graze then rushing to catch up all morning. His box hitch got very loose with all the banging around, but he settled down and did a good job in the end.

Dense woods and small ups and downs gave only glimpses of the outlying landscape, including the huge unpopulated valley I was admiring yesterday morning at dawn. (The land looked layered on thick as with a palette knife, rich and green and uneven // indigo mountains along the horizon.) At break, all three horses took a fright, Pinto particularly, and started jogging around rolling their eyes. Hard to know how serious they were being, but maybe there was something in the trees we couldn’t see, so I whooped and called to scare it off, whatever it was, and they soon calmed down. Pinto v endearing when spooked, with his big white-rimmed eyes rolling and expressive manner of moving. Such a people horse: loves to investigate and make friends and have a cuddle, then when alarmed, reacts like an oversized Lassie-dog – “what is it boy? a bear in the bushes?”.

Anyway, just beyond our picnic stop was a dell just full of raspberry bushes, thickets of them, hanging ripe and heavy with fruit, some – the biggest – a deep winey purple, others still small and salmony. We were leading as the path was descending sharply and rockily, and we kept pausing to grab handfuls, gorging ourselves, sticky fingered, giving the horses a taste of their own medicine as we stopped to graze. Pepper was disgusted with me, and kept trying impatiently to overtake.

With Numero as packhorse at the rear, Rich and I are usually riding within earshot of each other which is nice. We played relentless games all morning and the hours zipped by. (Films with animals in the title; films with a place name in the title; many rounds of our favourite, idiom tennis, the complex rules to which I will explain in detail one day.)

No time for lunch, made segment 18 by around 13:30 or maybe 14:00, and pleased to find the seasonal streams still running well despite it being so late in the summer [29 August]. The aspens are beginning to turn: patches of gold appearing in their great shimmering leafclouds. Followed headwaters of Lujan Creek (a little muddy trickle) to where it passes under Highway 114, which we had to follow for 0.4 of a mile. Saw forestry trucks thundering down laden with logs from a distance, but lucky in our timing and were passed by only one car.)

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Pictured: Pinto and Rich (and Pepper’s neck) passing the 300-mile mark

Let ourselves through a gate and let the horses quench their thirsts as we crossed the creek before setting up camp high on a hill in a large goldgrassed field. Horses seem relaxed and happy, Pinto’s dapples now very extensive. Took them for another drink just as the weather closed in, then trotted back up the hill in the rain, riding bareback with the horses in just headcollars. Played a game of cards, the first time we’ve had the energy to do it. It seems upping our mileage is toughening us up. We were discussing this earlier – how the basic tasks of riding and living are no longer so daunting and exhausting. I feel I can relax and enjoy my time on the trail more now. It’s also great to see R’s confidence with the horses growing and growing, and his appreciation of them too. Golden evening.

Passed the 300 mile mark today. There in the road, someone had written “CT” in sticks and “300” in cones – a lovely surprise and prompt for a small celebration. 300 miles is now small achievement. But people do still more, then give up before the end, so we can’t assume it will be easy from here. We have been warned it’s very “rugged country” from here on in.

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Day 26: Lujan Creek to Quarter-Circle Circle Ranch — 17.6 miles

Slept warmly again, though latterly my sleep was disturbed by a long, detailed dream in which Rich revealed that he didn’t believe in monogamy (‘my God does not allow it’) and that he was already married to ‘a phenomenal woman,’ which I would have learnt with a little research. Woke up in a rage shortly before the 4am alarm and remonstrated with him. (He was very sweet about it, even going so far as to apologise for his in-dream behaviour.)

So both of us were wide awake, lying in the dark, when a fearful howling and yowling started up from the bottom of the field near the creek, which sent chills through me. R laughed out loud, amazed, though i was quivering, and when we looked out the horses were huddled together in one corner. Coyotes? Must be.

So an eerie beginning to the day. By the time we braved leaving the tent, light was beginning to creep in. I rode Pinto today, who is fun and bouncy, not too sharp, a very good ‘gentleman’s hack,’ or a ‘husband horse’ as they call it in America. I wish we could bring him home for rich. Rode through pine woods along old logging roads grown over for about 5/6 miles before emerging into wide ranch-type grazing land, undulating with scattered trees. Stopped for a picnic after 11 miles by a tumbledown old log cabin missing a roof on the edge of the forest. (Riding through the dry grass // crickets flying up in clouds before us // bluebirds eddying.)

Reached Seguache Park Road, a gravel county road, and the turn off I’d identified on the map as leading to Quarter-Circle Circle Ranch, where we’d organised to stop overnight. However it turned out to lead to a small wooden hut with COW CAMP on a handpainted sign on the gate, and PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING. It might have been the edge of our destination ranch, but how could we tell? And I am nervous of Americans’ obsession with private property. So, it seemed we must go round, the longer route being another four miles along boring gravel roads under midday sun.

I was inexplicably spitting mad about the detour, and it seemed it would never end. (Although, as I have learned, it always does get done in the end, and grousing about it doesn’t make it go any quicker.) But yes, we did get there, after finding our second turn-off, a very faint 4×4 track leading to a gate and a NO THROUGH ROAD sign, but now I was sure we were close. Lo and behold, behind the hill was two large pools of water, wooden ranch buildings and a cluster of cabins, plus of course a whole load of old cars and machinery in varying states of disrepair. Totally off grid. A green oasis.

Phillip roared up on a quad bike as we milled around with the horses, with a revolver strapped to his belt, and organised the horses into the arena with some very fresh green hay and a big water trough. They’ve also sorted us a farrier tomorrow at 8am – phew, as Numero’s shoes look ready to snap. Then we were let into a lovely log cabin, with bunk beds wearing matching patchwork quilts, a big American range, paraffin lamps and water pulled from the natural spring by the house. Very cutesy in a made-by-hand-by-rough-country-men sort of way, Mad Max meets Little House on the Prairie.

We washed bodies + clothes in the outdoor shower (a little wooden cubicle open to the sky, superlative) then Phillip delivered us a giant steak, and we are both beached like whales now, which is a relief as we were both ravenous last night. Our metabolisms, Rich’s especially, seem to have gone into overdrive.

They have satellite internet here, which I can log into if I stand by the main house, so I checked my emails and had one from my brother with a link to a fitting obituary to Zoë. It made me rather teary, so I took myself off to feed the horses and watched the ranch herd wandering down the grassy valley through a lovely blue haze. If I must be sad, I thought, this is a beautiful place to be it. The wispy clouds all whipped up like candy floss and the rich greens, the horses’ backs glimmering as they wander through the gold-yellow of the rabbitbrush.

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Day 27: zero day, Quarter-Circle Circle Ranch

Late yesterday evening, fat with steak, we made a reckless decision to take an unplanned rest day today, what with the horses being shod and the ranch owner, John, very generously allowing us use of his satellite phone to sort out a pressing logistical issue. So slept to 7am, and watched the farrier – a friend of John’s, Bo, perhaps a nickname after Beau Brummell, as he wore a very smart red silk scarf over his dusty double denim. He cold-shod the horses for $125 a set, something I’d not seen done before (in the UK we invariably ‘hot-shoe’, using a portable forge). It involved a metal clamp-like contraption to bend the shoes to fit, and a metal grinder to shave bits off.

Both geldings were being a bit irritating, leaning on the farrier and trying to put their feet down repeatedly – so much so, Bo asked to sedate Numero, which I’d also not seen before, except in extreme cases. N looked rather sweet, staggering good-naturedly away  as if pissed. One of Pinto’s front shoes was worn so thin it snapped as Bo went to lever it off. So we are very lucky indeed to have found a farrier out here, 45 miles from the nearest town.

Fetched horses some more green hay and settled up. Just had enough, and had to run back to my room for my last banknote – John was very sweet, and let us off with $5, saying he’d enjoyed having us around. (His house was amazing – full of taxidermied turkeys and antelope heads, and posters for the National Rifle Association.) He then gave us 12 eggs. We made half into an omelette immediately and saved the rest for breakfast.

A storm flashed around outside and rain hammered down. John told us of how sometimes when he takes people fishing in a high basin, storms can roll in suddenly from behind the cliffs. He’ll tell his guests to get out of the lake, lie flat and enjoy the lights. On horses, well-shod and therefore grounded, he’ll sometimes feel the hair rising on the back of his neck.

It’s beautiful here. I’m glad we stayed. Will remember these cute log cabins, the handbuilt barns, the piles of antlers and deer skulls bleaching in rows on the roof. The swallows nesting in the spring house. Picturesque yet practical.

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Day 28: Quarter-Circle Circle Ranch to Cochetopa Creek – 20.3 miles

Up with the larks at 4am, though with the cabin still warm from the stove, it wasn’t such a hardship. R got it burning again and cooked up the last of the eggs and two mugs of black coffee. Cleaned, stripped beds, left grateful note and headed up to the horses.

Off back up the 4×4 track to rejoin the trail after 1.5 miles. Forded Cochetopa Creek and followed it upstream for miles, gaining elevation – nothing too strenuous – until coming to an open grassy area between Cochetopa and one of its tributaries with a fire pit and flat area large enough for our tents. Given we’d just covered more than 20 miles we were all in remarkably good humour. Beautiful view of the saddle which we will traverse tomorrow on our way to San Luis Pass, and of red columnular or crumbling rocky outcrops back the way we came, the green basin of the valley well grassed and full of these roundleafed dense bushes which stipple it in layers of green and yellow like daubs of thick paint.

Two notable wildlife encounters today, a garter snake (small and unthreatening) and a lone moose (finally!) just now on the hill above the campsite at treeline, big and black and imposing, staring right at us. Rosy sunset. End of another week. At this point, I think I never want it to be over.

 

to be continued

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Pictured: Camp at Cochetopa Creek

 

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