We left the trail at Steamboat Springs, CO. Not more than five minutes after we stick out our thumbs at Rabbit Ears Pass, a gentleman in a re-purposed orange highway truck waves and gestures for us to toss our packs in the back. On our way to Steamboat, we chat. He's in the lumber business and tells me when I ask that the beetle plagued wood that we've seen throughout Colorado and that continues into Wyoming and Montana can indeed be salvaged. He tells me that the wood is structurally sound for construction, but that because of the tell-tale blue fungus ring that invades after the beetle attacks, the wood is suitable only for framing and not for panelling.
We begin to ask about transportation out of Steamboat, having just received a message that Reason's grandmother has died. When our overalled driver hears this, he offers us his card. "You might not think it to look at me, but I own a bank. Call this man and he'll help you with money if you need it." This kind of generosity is typical in our experience. I'm sure the worst could happen, but we've always had very positive experiences with hitchhiking.
We arrive in Steamboat Springs on a Friday afternoon in a traffic jam. I've never before been to Colorado, but this town matches my idea of a glitzy ski resort. Ten million dollar ski lodges litter the foothills of the ski runs. Our driver tells us that the Japanese have invested heavily in Steamboat real estate. The cheap hotel we hoped to stay in seems to have fallen prey to these market forces: even its shabby rooms appear to have been converted into condos. The little downtown buzzes with tourists.
Some research tells us that the Greyhound no longer stops in Steamboat, perhaps this kind of town being too tony for that milieu. Many phone calls and a library visit later, we've booked the Alpine Limo shuttle to Denver where we'll catch a Grey Dog to Portland, OR for the memorial service. This country is so darn big. The shuttle takes four hours. It will be another 24 hours to Portland.
Two other folks join us in the shuttle van to Denver. One lady is a professional limo driver. She, the shuttle driver, and the other lady tell stories about how Steamboat has changed over the years and about the difficult driving conditions on the mountain roads between Denver and the remote ski resorts. Being in customer service, they commiserate over experiences in which impassable roads were not a good enough excuse for their patrons. I nod, having been subject to angry calls from customers whose shipments have been delayed by blizzards.
As we approach Denver, the professional limo driver offers to take us to the bus station since we are getting off at the same shuttle stop. We gladly accept, having planned to take a city bus to downtown Denver.
We drop by her house for a drink and so she can get organized. "I don't usually take strangers home with me, but I promise I'm not crazy," she assures us. I think to myself that it has become a habit with us to accept rides from strangers and to go to their houses. It no longer feels unusual. Again, I'm sure the worst can happen, but we've always had such positive experiences. Thru-hiking has taken the edge off my misanthropy. It reminds me that people are basically good. Four years of high-end retail had the opposite effect.
We have a great time talking. The limo driver is French and has lived in many places in the world. She loves Denver and drives us all over the town, giving us a tour of the bustling city. She points out a newly installed sculpture at the museum. She tells us that she drove the artist, who was treated like a queen, to the museum's opulent reception. "I love art, but I'm not sure I get that sculpture." We twist our heads and crane our necks. We agree, and we all laugh.
It's the weekend and Denver is hopping. Our gracious tour guide drops us off downtown after orienting us to the city. We walk along the downtown mall for a while. I'm feeling particularly dingy in my freshly laundered yet trail hardened clothes as gaggles of pretty young ladies prance along in dresses and high heels. I attempt to neaten my hair. It's just hard not to look homeless in torn and stained clothes while sitting on a park bench with a backpack in the middle of a big city. This is exactly the feeling that makes me want to hitchhike with a sign that says, "I completed college and I pay my bills in full and on time. I just need a ride!"
We've got time to kill before the bus leaves, so we check out the Mongolian grill themed restaurant that our wonderful guide mentioned. We fill bowls of raw meat, veggies and sauces and hand them over to cooks who are sweating over a huge round open grill. These guys are red in the face and downing pitchers of water. We stand back from the heat to watch as the cooks line up each patron's meal in spokes around the grill. Whew, that looks like hard work.
After eating our fill of fresh veggies and meat, we head to the station and get on the bus. Twenty four hours later we're in Portland, OR and our legs have swollen into sausages. Four days later, my legs begin to look normal again.
But we are tired. So tired. So tired, in fact, that after a trip to Powell's book store, we are content to recline and plow through our big stacks of books for nearly two weeks without moving. It feels so good to be still. Not normally one to sit around, I've never been so happy just sitting in my entire life. And eating doughnuts. Reason's mom knows the best pastries in Portland, and I think we sampled them all. And then some!
We lounged and ate so much that by the time we got on the train to East Glacier, MT, the pants that had been falling off of me were a bit snug. Oops!
It wasn't the eating that was the problem, though. It was the not moving. Way back in New Mexico, fellow hiker Tikka warned us to never stop moving. He assured us that nothing good could come of it, and now I'm convinced he's right. As cyclist and trainer Chris Carmicheal says, you can't bank fitness. Any complaints I've ever had have come when I've stopped moving and tightened up. Does my iliotibial band bother me? Yes - when I haven't exercised for three days. Take it out for a twelve mile run and it feels just fine again.
Now that we had taken two weeks off and flipped up to Canada with plans to hike back to Steamboat Springs, CO, it looked like we might be done. We rested, and we rusted.
We hiked the 125 miles through beautiful Glacier National Park to East Glacier. Boy was it nice being back below 8,000 feet! Due to the necessary but bureaucratic backcountry reservation system, we had some twelve and fifteen mile days through the park. Piece of cake! We'd lounge on lake shores and read -- read! -- for hours at lunch. Concerned rangers would look at their watches and gasp after checking our itineraries, emphasizing that we still had six or seven miles to go before dark. We'd nod nonchalantly and return to our books. It was hard to explain that we'd been hiking 25 miles a day at 11,000 feet for weeks on end. I'm sure the rangers deal with out of shape and ill-equipped hikers every day of the week, so I understand their position. We were just so happy to have a long, languid lunch. We'd fantasized about such a lunch in Colorado after what felt like meager half-hour rest breaks.
Anyway, we reach East Glacier and Brownie's Hostel where for ten dollars we can tent outside and use the shower! Reason's foot and rear end are bothering him, so, with some heaviness, we decide to take a day off. Time is getting short. We may be below 5,000 feet now, but the Wind River Range and Yellowstone are still ahead of us, not to mention many other ridges and peaks reaching well over 9,000 feet. Winter is coming, has been all along. "What's the hurry?" asked another hiker in Pie Town, just a few hundred miles from the Mexican border. "Winter's coming," I replied. A thru-hiker is always racing winter.
After a few more precious days of rest, we head back to the trail. We hike on and camp out. Some time that day, maybe when attempting a bear hang, my trusty spoon breaks. Things don't look good. Reason is hurting. We wake up the next morning and head back to East Glacier. More rest, more precious time passing.
After a few days, we head out again, hike about an hour, then sadly turn around. We're not ready to go home. I did my fifth grade state report on Wyoming and gosh darn I want to hike that state. And Montana - when are we going to have this chance again??
We rest a few more days, but Reason says his foot and "brokey butt" are not getting any better. When he unzips the tent to tell me that he thinks he's done, I already know it.
We hang around East Glacier, reading just about everything on the hostel's shelves and hope against hope. Hope is such a silly thing. Gee, I hope things get better. Yeah, like sitting around and hoping gets anything done. Hope won't stop winter and certainly won't heal Reason's "brokey butt."
Hope won't get you to Canada. Hiking does!
And that's that. We book tickets on the Empire Builder train back to Portland. I've never felt so derailed in my entire life. I've hiked through the rain for months on end. I limped on a tender knee for over three hundred miles until it got better. I've been thirsty, I've run out of food, I've hiked through the kind of heat that toasts bread before you can get the peanut butter on it. I've nearly been smited by lightening. I've drunk cow water, for goodness sake, and none of these obstacles has stopped me.
Most of those obstacles propelled me. There's nothing like keeping on while Buddha tests you with weeks of rain. But I've been stopped in my tracks.
No - I stopped myself. Tikka warned us never to stop moving. Now we are stopped, the Triple Crown no longer in our grasp.