We begin on a windy road walk through Waterton Canyon, the slow hum of the Platte River broken by the insectoid whirr of passing bikes. The other hikers have gear so new that it still gleams with a factory-white sheen, but our setups are just holding on, full of holes and encrusted with clay dirt from our Appalachian Trail thru hikes. Bug and Sundae — two friends that I made on the trail — are both joining me.
Bug has a Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack with a broken chest strap and only carries a singular trekking pole. She has a slower pace that she says she has long since come to terms with, a knack for making delicious backcountry meals using whatever she finds in the discount section of the grocery store, and a deep tenacity that allowed her to start her Northbound Appalachian Trail thru hike in February. Whenever I am having a bad day, I think about how tough Bug is; moments such as how she camped in a blizzard on Roan Mountain and hiked for miles in 9 degree Fahrenheit (-13 °C) weather.
Sundae is a Floridian with a deep fear of dehydration and lightning, often peppers her dialogue with Southernisms, and also has a ferocious devotion to Dolly Parton and the Killers. She has bought a new BearVault for this trip, and is so attached to her fraying Osprey Eja backpack that she has not claimed the warranty on it, despite the fact that the pack desperately needs to be retired. Sundae and I have a deep and tender friendship that was forged by hiking 700 of the Appalachian Trail’s toughest miles together.
It does not take us long for us to remember how to hike. But this hiking is different, with well groomed switchbacks and climbs that make the altitude tug at our lungs. Colorado feels, in some ways, wilder than Appalachia; the mountains are more severe and the towns are quieter. It’s August, but we wake to frost on the wildflowers. The sun drenches the craggy peaks in alpenglow. We get into a rhythm and the sheer joy of walking sends delighted prickles up the back of my animal brain.