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.
Week five had been a breeze – we’d made it to Little Molas Lake so far ahead of schedule that we could take an extra rest day, and plan for a slow and relaxing final week absorbing the view and enjoying the company of the horses. But when Numero went lame in the wilderness, reaching the finish line was thrown suddenly into question.
Day 36: Little Molas Lake
We’re ahead of schedule, so we decided to make the most of this perfect lakeside campspot and hang on for another day. Woke 7ish and made coffee and porridge for the hikers before they headed off, and then moved the paddock to give the horses fresh grazing. Feel they can’t have too much grass, given the amount of energy they’ve been expending, and Numero is still a little ribby. Rich walked back to the road and hitched into Silverton while I washed some clothes in a bucket and strung it up in the branches.
The sun came in and out, drifting behind thick downy clouds so it was alternately baking hot and chilly; the horses were thirsty so I did several runs with the buckets, wading barefoot through the reeds until standing thigh-deep in the lake so as to get them fresh, clear water. Joel, a hiker we’d met at Spring Creek Pass, came by on the trail as I was lolling in the sun – he said he just wanted to get the trail over and done with at this point, and planned to ‘crush out’ the final 75 miles in three days. We’re in the opposite position, with a whole week until the horses are picked up in Durango, and no wish to speed the process along.
Before we departed, I’d spent time browsing the thru-hikers’ message boards online and seen, several times, a theory being advanced. There are two types of people on long-distance trails, this theory goes: ‘hikers’ and ‘campers’. ‘Hikers,’ it is claimed, are the more serious and heroic, being focussed upon the physical challenge of getting as many miles under your belt each day. (The most admired subset being the ‘ultralight’ hiker, who carries a bare minimum of belongings – no stove, no proper tent – and aims to spend almost every waking moment on the move.) ‘Campers,’ on the other hand, are portrayed as a softer set, there for the wilderness, the campfires, the starlit evenings.
I came expecting to be the former, but I’ve come to accept that the times I enjoy most are often the quiet, stationary moments, when I have a chance to watch the clouds skiffing across the sky, the horses flicking their tails, and listen to the birds or a breeze riffling the rusting leaves. Perhaps this makes me soft. But – after weeks on the trail, manhandling heavy packs, my skin tanned, my hands calloused and my boots near-enough worn through – I don’t feel soft. I just feel happy to be here.
Day 37: Little Molas Lake to White Creek Trail turn-off (12.9 miles)
Back on the trail. Back high into the hills, through an area of enormous conglomerate boulders and then into the vast sandstone beds where the cliffs had worn away to reveal the layers underneath, striped rose-pink and chocolate, like Neapolitan ice cream. Then, across the valley, grey-blue shale spilled as liquid from the edges hillside like melted icing. Beyond the treeline there were daisies and buttercups twinkling through the grass, and we paused for lunch at a pond near the top of the ridge and considered camping – but its closeness to the peaks and the feeling of exposure pushed us over the ridge into a wooded, north-facing vale where we’ve set up next to a pretty expanse of water – perhaps the size of two tennis courts, but only shin deep.
Another moody, dark clouded day. After setting up camp I noted large flattened areas in the grass close to the corral, where large animals have been lying, recently. (Impossible to know whose territory we are infringing as we move from place to place.) And coyotes across the valley have been shouting hollering up a racket for hours now – dog like, but then breaking off into a strangled, yelping howl.
The night is already drawing in (it’s 19:30). Autumnal now. Might turn in. A different pace of life out here.
Day 38: White Trail turn-off to Celebration Lake (8 miles)
We’ve made it to Celebration Lake, but I don’t feel like celebrating. Numero has thrown a shoe with 53 miles to go – and in one of the worst spots he could have chosen. There are no obvious spots to hitchhike from, no major road crossings, until we the final trailhead – and not much chance of getting a farrier to him before then, either. For one thing, there’s no phone service, and what few 4×4 tracks we cross are very rugged and rural. What to do?
Having carried a plastic hoof boot with us for 400 miles, I produced it with a flush of pride in my foresight from the pack only for it to become immediately clear that it was of no use whatsoever – twisting 180º after a few hundred metres, biting into the soft flesh of his heel bulb. We repositioned it many times, and tried to tighten it as much as we could, but in the end had to abandon the attempt, and simply dismount and lead him barefoot the last few miles, first in the hail and then in a torrential downpour.
It’s a real disaster. He’s sensitive on that foot already, and the hoof wall is wearing down on one side – the trail being extremely rocky and uneven, and desperately hard-going on a bare hoof. We can’t ride him, certainly, and have taken all weight except his saddle off his back.
There’s a rarely used trailhead here, and a 4×4 road – where we luckily came across a helpful young guy who was setting up a camp for a mountain biking expedition in the pouring rain. He was sympathetic, but said he couldn’t help, and warned us that there was little chance of hitching a lift from either this or the next trailhead.
I honestly don’t know what to do. We are 53 miles of strenuous hiking away from the end point, where we know a horse box will be able to meet us in five days’ time. Is it fair to ask a horse to hobble for more than ten miles a day until then? Is it even possible?
Alternatively, we could give up on the trail entirely and turn around: we’re two days’ hike from a highway crossing – so we’d have to go back and set up camp there for three further days, having somehow arranged with a stranger over the phone to meet us with his rig on the roadside in the mountains near Silverton. Or, we get him to the next trailhead, and one of us hitch a ride (somehow) into Durango to… fix everything. I feel frozen with indecision.
I’ve thought a lot about the responsibility that comes with travelling with animals over this journey; of ensuring they are treated with care and sympathy. We met a hiker, for example, who had been travelling with a dog – whose legs, by Spring Creek Pass, seemed to have completely frozen up. The hiker had carried the dog in his backpack for the last 50 miles, he said. (If only I could do that with Numero.) It never occurred to me that humans would be more hardy over long distances than animals, but apparently it’s common for dogs to be the cause of their owners’ abandoning the trail: their pads bleed, their legs seize up, they lie down and refuse to go any further.
In the wild, horses are capable of long distance travel. I’ve read studies of Australian brumbies and American mustangs found them to walk up to 22 miles a day between grazing and watering grounds. But that’s unusual, and we’re also coping with extremes of altitude and gradient during our journey. I very strongly feel that I mustn’t harm Numero in the name of ‘completing’ the trail – an abstract achievement if ever there was one. But part of me also believes that pushing on to Durango may be the surest and simplest method of getting him home.
So: not a good day. But, we’re okay. The horses are currently grazing in a soft marshy area by the lake, and the rain stopped just long enough for us to eat. When Numero’s shoe came off, at least it came off cleanly. So he’s not lame yet. And when we first took out the sleeping bags, it seemed they were soaked through – but we were spared that second disaster, it was only a patch. So we are in okay spirits, but unsure of what best to do. (I feel this has been a theme of this trip: learning to live with uncertainty.)
Day 39: Celebration Lake to FS Rd 564 crossing (14.9 miles)
Having hemmed and hawed all evening, we decided to push on this morning, after first wrapping Numero’s hoof with a vest, then a vet-wrap bandage, then duct tape – which did a nice job of protecting his sole, but wore through within a few miles. Got up in the pitch dark, the tent and marshy ground crusted over with ice, ready for a long slow plod with a limping horse.
I rode Pinto the first five miles, with Rich leading Numero and Pepper loose as pack. A nice soft trail blanketed with pine-needles to begin, but as we rose to Blackhawk Pass and we switched roles the trail grew rocky and sharp, and N showed signs of soreness. Passed the next ‘trailhead’ at Hotel Draw Road, which in truth is little more than a small patch of packed earth where a hunter had left an empty tent, and decided to push on in the hope of catching up with Matt, the helpful bike company leader from last night.
It’s difficult to remember that it was a lovely route, with some amazing views from the top of the pass, as both of us so fraught over dragging Numero over rocky ground with no shoe, getting ever sorer. The whole day felt interminably long and anxiety-inducing.
But then! Joy of joys – as we came upon Matt’s new camp, where the trail skirts a dirt road, he appeared from the long grass and announced with some fanfare that he’d solved our problem: he’d gotten some phone signal, and reached a friend who – entirely coincidentally – had worked for Easy Boot (a leading shoe-boot firm), and she’d agreed to drive out to meet us tomorrow morning with ‘a selection of sizes’.
It seems like unbelievably good luck – so much so, I can’t bring myself to believe it. In panic mode, we erected the corral in a patch of long grass nearby without speaking. It’s the first time we’ve dry-camped (that is, camped somewhere with no water supply), and I’m nervous too that the horses will have gone 24 hours without a drink by the time we’ve had Numero seen to tomorrow. But the next reliable water source is three miles further on – a long way to drag a limping horse, only to drag him back again in the morning. But they are thirsty! I can’t relax. Our own platypuses too are almost drained dry (though Matt and his Alabama bikers offered us a can of beer which helped a lot!).
We had sternly warned ourselves at Little Molas Lake not to be overconfident about the final stretch – so much time to cover so few miles! – but it does feel like the difficult rating has suddenly been turned right up, just to test our endurance and decision-making to the last. But if this hoof boot lead works out, we’ve had the most unbelievable luck. (Hard to express how unlikely it was to bang into anyone at all today – never mind someone so helpful and kind, and with a friendly contact with a hoofboot supplier). And the end is in site: only 38.1 miles to go.
Day 40: FS Rd 564 crossing to freshwater spring below Cape of Good Hope (7.9 miles)
So! The crisis is solved! Thanks to enormous generosity from strangers, and an amazing coincidence, we find ourselves back on trail with two professionally-fitted Easy Boots and one very relieved horse. I barely slept, worrying that the horses might make a break for it in search of water (and leapt up once, on hearing a large animal twanging the guy ropes – but it was only an elk or moose).
Before Matt and his mountain bikers left this morning, he came across to offer the remaining water in his canisters – perhaps 14 gallons in all – which alleviated the panic (and saved us a fruitless journey to Big Bend Creek, which later transpired to have run dry). We couldn’t be more grateful to have met him – true trail magic, as the hikers call it.
Tina, the former Easy Boot staff member turned up around 10am (having driven for two hours along dirt tracks, bless her, bless her) with a bag of Easyboots and a camp mat, from which she cut a hoof-shaped cushion, to add an extra layer of protection. Numero now seems much steadier on his feet, and I’m most of all relieved to be able to stop any further damage to his sole, although we will continue to lead him instead of ride. He’s slow and a little uneven, but much better – the hoof wall had been chipping away, and wearing asymmetrically. Another day, and I am certain he’d have developed an abscess and be completely hobbled.
Throwing a shoe is the sort of thing that happens every day in a stableyard, and causes little issue – you just leave the horse at rest until the farrier can come. But in the middle of nowhere, small problems can have major repercussions.
Got away past noon, with the sun high and leaning heavy on our backs. Finally found flowing water – no more than a trickle really – 7.9 miles further on, after identifying a wet section of trail and following the moisture into the woods, where it had gathered into a series of small muddy pools, and called it a day.
Day 41: Cape of Good Hope to Kennebec Pass (9 miles)
Up and out of our marshy little campsite, and immediately embarked on a series of steep switchbacks up a talus (scree) slope, then through some sparse spruce woodland with fabulous views of the concertina hills of the Hermosa Creek Wilderness Area, a 50,000-acre expanse of undisturbed forest to the north of Durango, rippling away from us for many miles with no sign of human habitation. Feel finally able to look afresh at the beauty of the landscape – having, in the last few days, seen it only in terms of the distance from civilisation and help.
We took it in turns to ride Pinto as it was a steep climb through occasional floral meadows towards Indian Trail Ridge. I was feeling nervous as we approached, scanning the sky for dangerous clouds but we started out above treeline by 9:30am so were well placed to avoid the lightning. It was far easier than expected, partly due to the calm, clear weather, though some sections were extremely exposed including a narrow land bridge between peaks which was loose with flat rocks the size of dinner plates and trick for Numero to navigate in his bootie.
A small flight of starling-like birds flew in formation overhead, and small grey birds shot out from the bushes, showing flashes of orange beneath their wings. An eagle soared above, corkscrewing upwards on the thermals. Hesperus Mountain (13,252ft) extended to our southwest, and was difficult to tear our eyes from – candy-striped in taupe and chocolate, all crags. (Once considered sacred by the Navajo.)
On our ascendance to the highest point of the ridge, I felt a rush of excitement after days of tension, and our finishing the trail being in doubt. Far below we now could see a huge flat plain that extended far into New Mexico – and a city: Durango! Still 20 miles away by trail, but the end is, quite literally, in sight. It gave us the energy to take the steep rock-stepped path down into the Cumberland Basin, where we found Taylor Lake glittering prettily within.
Paused by the lake’s edge for lunch and let the horses loose to graze and drink. Then rode on, with a growing sense of relief and accomplishment, crossed a gravel 4×4 track, and set up camp in a small meadow 0.3 miles further on, just below the lip of Kennebec Pass, where a tiny seep of water crept across the path – just enough for the horses to dip their lips in.
We re-erected the tent half an hour later, after noticing a broken tree resting heavily on its brethren a few feet away. Glad we did so, as soon a true storm whipped up out of nowhere and lightning flashed all around us, and thunder shook the ground. Our little tent had surely not been built to withstand such an onslaught, but it is facing the howling gale bravely as we lie here awake and listening. Switching my head-torch off now to conserve the last of the battery.
Day 41: Kennebec Pass to cattle pond (16.3 miles)
The storm blew on, last night – on and on, for hours – past midnight and well into the next morning. We barely slept for the noise. The wind was wild, relentless, and very frightening. Hailstones hammered down on the canvas, forming great piles of ice at either foot of the tent. We lay awake, in a semi-hallucinatory state, occasionally talking, and periodically braving the weather to check that the corral hadn’t blown away or wrapped itself around the horses’ legs.
When, finally, it abated, it was time for us to rise for our last long day of the trail. First thing we carefully picked our way over a wide scree-slope known (accurately) as Sliderock, before wiggling down through a spruce forest and crossing a number of small, flowing, streams, which the horses enjoyed after several days of long dry plods. Pepper is pack horse, and quite heavily laden – although we’re almost entirely out of food, so that helps. Pinto is in the lead, and always delighted to be on the move, the darling, and Numero wears only his saddle and is entrusted with picking his own pace – we’ve realised that if one of us leads him, he will slow right down to a dawdle and make a great deal of fuss about his sensitive hoof. But if we leave him to his own devices at the back he perks up and focuses simply on not getting left behind, even jogging occasionally. So there’s an element of tough love to this approach, but a necessary one, I think, as we just need to get him home in one piece to recover. We’re so close now.
Suddenly, after about five miles, the trail began to feel different. We’ve passed from thru-hiker only traffic into a region where weekend hikers and daytrippers on mountain bikes might feasibly reach, and this changed the nature of the trail completely. I felt the edges of the safety net that the majority of us count upon on a daily basis, sensed it swinging loose again beneath us. It felt strange to leave the wilderness; both relief and regret swept over me at once.
We rose 1000 feet over four miles, then dropped again steeply into the Junction Creek gorge, all the time feeling like the last few weeks were slipping out of our grip. We paused to paddle and eat our lunch by a small stream as the horses loose grazed, then finally began to search for a camp after around 16 miles had passed, finally opting for a small semi-clearing in the scrub oak, the grazing being somewhat marginal but it being a short walk to water (a small cow pond fed by a pipe). The water there was dark, murky, and laced with an algal bloom, but the horses deigned to drink there after a few minutes’ consideration, and afterwards they settled down quietly for the night in our dappled clearing. We’ve been warned of mountain lion and bear activity in this region, but have had no issue. The horses – whose superior senses we have come to trust – were totally relaxed, and stood with lower lips hanging open and one hoof propped up.
I fussed over them for an hour in the sunset, soaking up my last evening in their company: beautiful, headstrong Pinto, full of curiosity and humour, a goofy, expressive character with who loves people and our life on the trail; enigmatic Pepper – headstrong and aloof – who keeps her thoughts to herself but always pulls her weight (and, of all of them, has kept condition best – still maintaining a little grass belly after weeks of hard travel on meagre rations); and darling, cowardly Numero, who began our trip out so oppositional and truculent, but now picks his way loyally over rock and ridgeline barefoot, and whickers his greeting in the morning. A labrador dog of a horse if ever there was one. He’s relentlessly picked on by the other two horses, bless him, and looks to me for comfort and protection. And though he’ll never find it easy – he tries. He keeps on going, day after day, which is all we can ask of them. I’ll miss every one of them.
Day 41: Cattle pond to Durango (Junction Creek trailhead) –
Up in the dark, for the last time, and found everything suffused with a glittering, jangling significance: the last time we take in the posts of the corral; the last time we weigh the packs; the last time we pack away the stove; and so on and so on.
The ride down to the trailhead was easy, fairly flat and scenic. It’s too early for the daytrippers to be out, although a high school cross country team suddenly appears from nowhere on a narrow ledge, and need coached past the horses (by which I mean, I shout at them until they come by quietly in pairs). We wound along the banks of Junction Creek, and find ourselves over-early for our rendezvous with the ranchers we’ve hired to meet us with a horsebox, so came to a halt in a wide, high-grassed clearing and let the horses gorge themselves as we watched them fondly, drinking them up.
Last break, we told each other. Last time putting their bridles back on. Last time mounting. Last trot.
And then! Suddenly! Around the corner! The end!
THE COLORADO TRAIL
- 490 miles
- Gained (and lost) about 89,000 vertical feet
- Six weeks
- Three horses
- Two riders
- One incredible summer