I wrote a short-ish article about our adventures along the Colorado Trail for The Sunday Times Magazine last week, which alas I missed seeing in hard copy because I was doing a mini-residency at a cabin in Inshriach Forest, on the edge of the Cairngorms, for The Bothy Project. (It was a joy. Look into it, if you are a writer or artist and enjoy solitude / chopping wood / working by lamplight / cold water washing.)
But here’s a PDF – and I’ve gathered together all my posts about our Rocky Mountain summer here. So far I’ve transcribed 4 of 6 weeks’ worth of trail diaries (1/2/3/4) – I’ll get the final two up shortly – and also published some tips for packhorse use.
Full text of the article after the fold
What it feels like… to ride off into the sunset
Growing up as a pony-mad teenager, I dreamed of riding into the sunset with a bedroll tied to my saddle and pistol tucked in one boot. So when, in August this year, I set off to trek through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three quarter horses, I felt I’d been preparing for this journey all my life.
I love the outdoors, living simply, challenging myself physically. But I’m a writer – so I spend a lot of time at home, alone, daydreaming at my desk. I also spend a lot of time in my own head, berating myself for a litany of perceived shortcomings: my failure to meet my own expectations; my missing of self-imposed deadlines; my laziness. So that particular daydream, of long days in the saddle and nights under canvas, of deadlines reduced to meeting the most basic needs, has long been a fantasy that I conjure up: a retreat.
Then in spring this year, disaster. For 18 months I had thrown myself into planning what I hoped would be a new book. In May I learned it had fallen through. So convinced and convincing I had been about this new project, that Rich – who I live with in Edinburgh – had already left his job to join me on a long, not-yet-commissioned research trip.
I was distraught. Rich, very kindly, kept his misgivings to himself and instead pointed out the silver lining: a summer stretching out before us with no particular place to be, and a bit of money saved up for travel. Time to turn those trail life fantasies into reality?
I found a ranch in Colorado willing to lend us horses, and a trail weaving just short of 500 miles through the mountainous backcountry between Denver and Durango, a mountain town near the border with New Mexico. Starting over a mile above sea level, it rose to well over 13,000ft. We would gain (and lose) around 90,000 vertical feet over six weeks as we picked our way over mountain passes and narrow ridgelines, climbed switchbacks and slid down precipitous gorges.
Despite weeks of preparation, when we finally set off I was shaky with nerves. Rich was still a relatively novice rider, so I felt that the responsibility for our and the horses’ safety rested on me. I’d ridden for 25 years, kept my own horses as a teen, and competed (at an amateur level) in dressage and jumping. But travelling long distance – unsupported – was a whole other thing again. We’d had to learn skills more commonly used in the 19th century: how to equip a packhorse and control it while riding; how to tie a box hitch; how to contain three horses overnight in the woods.
We carried two tents – one for us, one for our equipment – and a portable electric fence, which allowed our horses the freedom to eat, relax and roll. We travelled almost entirely through publicly-owned land, so could camp wherever we liked. All we needed was a flat patch of grass and water.
Every week or ten days, we found a ranch where we could leave the horses to rest and hitched into town for resupply. The shopping list was simple: porridge for breakfast, tuna for lunch, and some kind of just-add-water meal for dinner. Potato powder, packet macaroni, instant noodles… I wouldn’t touch them at home, but hunger makes everything delicious. The horses were even easier: we carried grain when we could, but mainly they got by on grass alone. As for bathing, the less said the better. Every so often I would shrug off my clothes to plunge into a frigid lake, or pour a bucket over my head.
At high altitude, weather can be extreme. The atmosphere is thinner, so the sun is fiercer and the nights colder. Though I painted us all with SPF50, our faces, hands, and the horses’ muzzles all burnt. Most frightening were the daily electrical storms, whose thunderous arrival sent us scurrying below treeline, as the heavens opened and lightning forked the sky. If we got soaked through, it could take days to dry out.
It was a thumper of a storm which preceded our worst disaster. Lightning and torrential rain forced us to make camp early in an unsuitable spot on a forested peak. With no room to erect the corral, we held the geldings’ ropes as they grazed, and watched the storm’s departure: a, dense, spherical cloud rolling along the ridgeline, flickering with electricity. The rest of the sky was shockingly clear, aglitter with ametrine stars. Then we tied them to trees and went to sleep, leaving the little mare, Pepper, loose.
In the morning, we woke to two shivering, hungry horses. Feeling desperately guilty, I tied the mare and released Pinto and Numero to eat what they could – only for them to jump the creek and canter back the way we came. Cursing, we raced after them for two miles until they ran out of steam. The first I knew was when I rounded a bend and saw them, silhouetted against the sky, walking towards me, Rich behind them in his cowboy hat calmly herding them home. After that, I felt a great weight lifting from my shoulders – we could do this, and as a team. Navigating predicaments like these brought us closer together: my fears dropped away, and our confidence in our own and one another’s capabilities grew.
When we made our final descent into Durango, it was with mixed feelings. Numero had lost a shoe, and – though we’d strapped him into a protective boot – he was hobbling. He needed a rest. But for Rich and I, the end came too soon. We might have happily spent the rest of our lives in those woods – washing our pants in the river and sleeping tangled in a bed of saddle blankets. Relying on each other, when our own strength faltered.
As we reached the trailhead, my phone lit up with messages from family and friends watching us – or rather, our GPS co-ordinates – approaching the end. I’d arranged a horsebox to meet us, and we travelled with the horses back to their ranch for a painful farewell. We’d spent every waking hour together for weeks, pored over every inch of their bodies with concern. I wish we could have flown them back to Britain.
There’s a Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment, cut wood, carry water.” After six weeks of riding, walking and water carrying, we came back with clear minds.Rich is making a career change: he plans to retrain as a teacher. And I find myself at my desk again, dreaming of sunsets and electrical storms.