The Trail Head

Hiking the Continental Divide, Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trail

After a long day on the trail, it can be apropos to curl up in your tent or around the fire and enjoy other people's adventures in the areas you're hiking captured in books.

"Recollections of a Rocky Mountain Hiker" is a collection of writings and photographs by Jack C. Moomaw, a legendary ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park.

"The Continental Divide was just ahead; some of the smaller parts of it were leaving for the plains. We hurried over, leaning with our carried skis into the wind. The land sloped gently down to the westward for a mile or more, covered with great snow fields that were almost as hard as rock and fluted and carved into fantastic designs by the ceaseless winds. In the distance, as far as the eye could reach, lay scattered, forested, snow-clad ranges like the billows of some mighty ocean tossed and left frozen."

This comes from "Winter Patrol," a chapter in the book at one time published by the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, CO. Apparently the book was on display there. I got a copy through inter-library loan from the Koelbel Public Library in the Arapahoe Library District, almost certainly in Colorado, one of five states the CDT passes through.

Perhaps the only thing better than carrying this book through the park section would be to have met Moomaw, who passed away on Jan. 10, 1974.

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Everett Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty is a fascinating portrayal of a 20-year-old Californian who disappeared in the Utah canyon country in the 1930s after two years of living in the wilderness. Ruess, a painter and evocative nature writer, traveled the High Sierra, Grand Canyon and other wilderness long before there were established trails or park systems. His death remains a mystery.
The book opens with writing from writer John Nichols, then uses a combination of letters and research by another writer to depict Ruess' travels before his death in the Escalante Canyon area. It closes with a sonnet to Ruess written by the late Edward Abbey.
This would be a great trailside companion, particularly for those out long enough to be struck somewhat like Ruess by the natural beauty of being out on a long trail for a long time.
Gary Snyder is another source of excellent trailside reading, particularly on the Pacific Crest Trail.Novelist Jack Kerouac turned Snyder into a character in one novel, "The Dharma Bums," which triggered a "rucksack revolution."
Snyder 's wilderness ethic also prompted Kerouac to live in a fire lookout cabin in the Northern Cascades from which he produced another novel, I think called " Desolation Angels."
Snyder himself is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and environmentalist who often writes about natural themes. There are apropos references. His works make for good reading on breaks and provides grist for thought to keep your mind working once you hoist the pack and hike on.
Now they've found Ruess' remains, buried in Navajo lands, about 90 miles from where he was last seen.

Here's a link to an NPR report:
Up Wolf Creek

More than a quarter-century after I followed it 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico, the Continental Divide Trail, in many ways and most places, remained no more than a misunderstood concept. The roadside sign at Wolf Creek Pass in southern Colorado was an exception.
A pleasant crowd was milling on a June morning about the sign and ridge-top pull-off on Colorado. The crowd and information exhibit even seemed to energize my wife and three young daughters, whose eyes typically glaze over in disbelief or incomprehension whenever I reminisce about the three years I spent hiking America’s three longest trails.
Together we crossed the 500 feet of trail heading north from the pass into pine woods littered with leftover snow piles. Like most in the tourist crowd stopped that day, we quickly turned back after tossing a few snowballs.
Most of the trail remained no more than a memory of the fall day in 1986 when I returned to the trail at Wolf Creek Pass, unaware the bubbling in my belly was more than adverse reaction to greasy Mexican food.
Awaiting a ride up from Pagosa Springs, I twice had to kneel in a ditch for hurried bathroom breaks. “Finally get ride from music teacher up to pass, camp near road feeling totally dragged out,” I conclude my journal entry for October 22, 1986.
The next morning began with hopes my digestive system had bid adios to Montezuma’s revenge. “Feel alright initially, but end up sick as we head away from Wolf Creek Pass,” I wrote.
Easy trail and beautiful views from beneath hanging seats of a ski-area chairlift. “But sickness dulls my enjoyment. Excruciating writhing in sunlight as I find others on break.”
At Silver Pass, the Across the Roof of America expedition separated for what turned out to be the final time. My partners hiked on, leaving me alone with my stomach woes.
The next morning, Silver Creek bubbled by relentlessly, as I pondered the unfortunate, almost tragic end to an adventure begun about three years, six thousand miles and twenty states ago.
More than once, I’d carried a fifty-pound pack forty miles between water holes, over and through snow up to my waist along the John Muir Trail. I’d found my way despite winds that practically blinded me in the whiteness of a snowstorm in the San Juans in southern Colorado. I’d survived encounters with rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, even a bull moose that blocked the path, his eyes burning with menace, near Heart Lake in Yellowstone. During the past three years, I’d safely crossed the arid, desolate Mojave Desert and Great Divide Basin and climbed through the some of the most rugged passes of mountain ranges from California’s John Muir Trail to Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Now in Southern Colorado, something undetectable in a cool, clear drink of a water had stopped my stretch drive to the Mexican border, sapping my endurance and threatening, if not my life, at least any expectation of reaching Mexico.
Normally, this creek would have received only the attention required for a successful crossing, like a dozen other identically named ones I’d already encountered. The Colorado Rockies offered superior beauty at every turn. Sharp purple and gray peaks often rose over both shoulders, highlighted by alpine greenery and round snowfields which melted to feed tiny creeks or high mountain lakes of the truest sky blue. Gray boulders strewn across long fields or down steep slopes spoke volumes about the marks time leaves on even the most rugged geography. At lower elevations, there were forests thick with aspens, their leaves actually chiming in the wind, until they yellowed in the fall and fell to the ground, laying an ankle-deep blanket over the trail.
But today I had stopped at this unremarkable stream. I was lethargic, listless, and unwilling to lift my pack and cinch the waistbelt over tortured stomach muscles. Any exertion seemed to encourage nausea, diarrhea and horrible abdominal pains that had left me writhing in the dirt the day before. They always seemed on the verge of recurrence. As the minutes, perhaps hours, ticked away, I was content to slump beside the creek, watch the sunlight play off the cascades and let my mind drift off, strangely unmoved by the fact that I was alone and terribly sick fifteen miles from the nearest town.
Two years ago in Northern Washington, I had joked about giardiasis, confident my system’s resistance was more than a match for its furtive invasion. Perhaps I thought, I had become immunized or an asymptomatic carrier of the illness known to hikers as “skunk water” or “backpacker’s diarrhea.” My companions had giggled as I sang the satirical song I had written to the melody of the old standard, “Put on a Happy Face.”
“Scoop up a cup of water.
You’ve picked up a smiling face.
Drink up that cup of water.
You’ve swallowed a smiling Face.”
Refrain:”Giardia lamblia’s all over the place, You’ve swallowed
a smiling face.”
The discovery of giardia lamblia, the protozoa carrying my sickness, in faulty municipal water treatment systems has forced entire populations of city residents to boil their drinking water. In rare cases, this organism, carried in particles of feces in water, has caused death. I had heard stories of long hospital stays and ruined backpacking trips and vacations, of a disease that could reappear months and years later and left anyone stricken with it more susceptible to falling victim again.
By the early 1980’s, it was being called “the most common intestinal parasite found in this country.” Experts disagree on the cause of its increased incidence. Some attribute it to the shrinking of nature, crowding surviving wildlife and their wastes in smaller areas and closer to water sources. Some believe livestock are aggravating the problem. Others suspect human wilderness visitors are too casual when using nature as their bathroom. Any “stool” should be buried at least a hundred feet from a water source. The parasite can cling to a cook pan or spoon washed in contaminated water, defy even the swipe of a towel.
The symptoms can fade into remission, only to return days or weeks later. It may not take hold for three to six weeks, obscuring efforts at identification or treatment by victims and doctors.
“The acute state is associated with the onset of explosive, watery, foul-smelling diarrhea with little mucus or blood. Abdominal pain and distress, flatulence, and nervousness are also common,” according to the Digest of Emergency Medical Care.
Of primary concern to hikers is that with the diarrhea comes dehydration, which saps strength and often leads to confusion. Some experts suggest carrying the favored medicine, metronidazole, generically known as Flagyl, into the backcountry.
I learned much of this after the fact. Jones and I had mailed home our water filter early on the first hike, disgusted with the awkwardness of its operation. It is debatable whether some, perhaps all of these filters, are able to eliminate giardia lamblia from the water. Other suggested preventions methods, including tablets and special water treatments, are also suspect. There is little doubt that extended boiling will kill it. Occasionally, I had boiled drinking water, but only when it came from lakes, creeks at lower altitudes or other water sources of dubious origin. It took so much away from the natural experience, not to mention trail time and fuel supplies, to have to boil drinking water for purity.
There had been other scares, temporary bouts with loose bowels, pesky cramps and uneasy stomachs. But until I grew ill in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, my bowels, stomach and abdominal muscles had eventually calmed and my strength had returned without medical treatment.
So, although I had suffered the tell-tale signs for the past two days, I headed from Pagosa Springs back into the San Juans, the most southerly piece of the Continental Divide in Colorado, with Leonard and Laurie Adkins. Our fourth member, Carl Ownby, was riding into New Mexico.

Hiking south the next morning beneath ski-lift apparatus, the symptoms seemed to be gone again. The views, from about twelve-thousand feet, showed the majestic Rockies at their best, dabbed with snow and evergreen vegetation and jutting toward the clouds. But soon I was exhausted and lethargic, making it increasingly difficult to keep to the pace. Stopping once, I found myself doubling over in the dirt, stomach muscles convulsing with frightening force.
Climbing back into my pack, I caught the Adkinses long enough to explain I would have to drop back into the valley in search of help. With my blessing, they left me alone far from the nearest road, violating a cardinal rule of backcountry etiquette. Any tenderfoot knows it is dangerous to leave an ill person alone miles from help. Still I encouraged them. “I’ll be all right. See you in Chama,” I urged.
While angry at their abandonment on one level, I was also glad to be left on my own to battle this latest nemesis.
I had been alone more often than not since entering Colorado about six-hundred miles ago. I no longer felt I needed companions. Although I’d have never gotten this far without them, there had grown a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon dividing our philosophies on long-distance hiking. I wanted to hike every step, or at least try. Prudently, they often seemed more interested in looking for the easiest way to cross less-familiar sections where water and trail routes were uncertain. For me, the true adventure came in getting lost, searching for water, experiencing the unexpected and overcoming adversity—and illness.
For me, there was a terrific rush in going it alone, of surviving, even reveling, in the hazards and challenges. The rookie backpacker, who had fallen down simply walking down the road the first day of the journey, had developed a reckless, almost self-destructive level of confidence. It had blurred my common sense, in this case deluding me into denying the obvious need to return to civilization for help in defeating this aggressor.
I camped by myself that night in a dense pine forest, hoping against my better judgment that the malady would pass and I would be able to stay on the trail. But the cramps and diarrhea persisted throughout the night. In the morning, I packed my frozen gear and, in a dull haze, began down the side trail into the valley, losing the way several times in a dull haze before reaching the creekside.
As I sat beside Silver Creek, watching the river flow, scenes from the past three years on the trail flashed through my mind, crowding from my recognition the seriousness of my problem. This time, it seemed that, without medication, the symptoms would only get continue to worsen. Yet something was keeping me from pushing on for help. Certainly the lethargy itself was partially to blame. But in retrospect it’s obvious I also was clinging hopelessly to the possibility that if I sat there long enough, it might all go away like a bad dream or other bouts with bad water.
Eventually, I broke from this daydream, stumbled to my feet and headed back downhill. It seemed clear the only way out of this predicament led away from the Continental Divide. After a vague passage of time, the trail led to a forest service road, which I walked for several miles before coming upon a camp of trail outfitters headed back to town that night with a hunting party. The trail boss agreed to drive me to town, then south to Chama, N.M., the next resupply point on the trip. There I could visit a medical clinic—unless the sickness passed.
Warm and safe in a hotel room that night, I felt relieved and a bit stronger. There was no telling how dire it could have gotten, had I been forced to walk out to the main road. I watched the sixth game of the World Series between rushes to the bathroom and awaited the drive to Chama, a small town just across the New Mexico border.
Up all night in a Chama hotel room with diarrhea and cramps, I finally fully accepted that I needed a doctor’s help. On the room’s television, I watched the Minnesota Twins accomplish their unlikely goal, winning the World Series. Mine was shrouded in uncertainty by illness. The next morning, a physician’s assistant (there was no doctor in town) diagnosed and prescribed medicine for giardiasis and camplobacter, a more serious bacterial disease passed to travelers in food. The body can overcome giardiasis itself. But camplobacter jejunia, a commonly identified bacteria, can be life-threatening without medical attention.
The assistant based his diagnosis solely on my description of the symptoms. The only way to be sure I was afflicted, he said, was to analyze a stool sample. This option appealed to neither of us. For the next day, my diet was restricted to bananas and Gatorade to replenish my electrolyte level. Eating anything else, the assistant said, would feed only the intestinal intruder, diminishing the effect of the medication. Almost immediately, I seemed to feel better. If all went as planned, I could be back on the trail the next day.
The next morning, the cramps, lethargy, and diarrhea were miraculously gone. Although I would have to continue taking the medicine for a week, the assistant had assured me it was safe to return to the Divide. My excitement dimmed when my companions decided to follow a road ninety miles to our next food drop, rather than join me in trying to navigate a make-shift route snaking almost twice as far through New Mexican backcountry for the Continental Divide Trail Association.
The giardisis had dulled my self confidence, replacing feelings approaching invincibility with a heightened concern for safety and recognition of my limitations. I would have liked some company too. However, I bid my companions a final farewell and start hitchhiking to Cumbres Pass, where I would rejoin the trail alone. As I walked along the road, the physician’s assistant drove up and offered me a ride to the trailhead. I might not be immune to skunk water or invincible, but I was still blessed with good luck. We began talking of common acquaintances in Odessa, Texas, including a talented topless dancer called Sugarbear. What a honey.
Soon, I stepped from the car back into my world and toward the Mexican border. I had lost less than a week, leaving a reasonable glimmer of hope that I would be able to beat the winter to the Mexican border. A predicament that could have ended my adventure was cataloged with a variety of other sidetracks. What had I learned from this one? All water not originating at a spigot would be boiled. More importantly, I now realized I was far from invincible, that even the smallest thing could bring me down.
Father and son John and William Bartram were among the earliest American naturalists. I learned of their travels through the Appalachian Mountains in the movie Cold Mountain. The hero turned to a tattered Bartram book for escape and instruction as he found his long walk home during the Civil War. Trails have been dedicated in their name, some crossing the Appalachian Trail. A.T. hikers cross Bartram trails on Wayah Bald and Burnington Gap., near the Smoky Mountains; south of here on Wauchecha Bald, near Robbinsville, N.C. and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. and Cherohala Scenic Skyway. the 80-mile John Bartram Trail in N.C. ends at a junction with the A.T. on Cheoah Bald.
For details, see or An Outdoor Guide to Bartram’s Travels, by Spornick, Cattier, Greene, published by the University of Georgia Press.
Is Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods the most overrated book about hiking the A.T.?
I just saw a copy in a used book store in Lebanon. It reminded me of all the disparaging comments I've heard about the book. Bryson is an excellent writer, but this was not his best work. Check out "Fat Girls in Des Moines."

Killer Fiction for Trailside Reading.

'Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail'

Hikers searching for meaning find dead bodies instead.

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