Words by Katie Houston
It was just before dawn when I said goodbye to my partner Legs, my two pups, and the camper we had been living in for the last 3 months and took my first steps on the Colorado Trail. My pack was about 15 lbs lighter than it was when I started the AT in February of 2019; this was mostly due to the fact that I started with gear I received as Christmas presents when I was 10 years old that was heavy enough to make any ultralight hiker gasp.
I started my AT thru-hike as a solo female hiker and stayed that way until I met Legs in New York (and when you meet a man who will split the weekly motel bill with you AND carry the tent how can you refuse?)
On theme with my previous thru-hike, I found myself consistently, but politely, denying the offers I got to camp with other hikers. There was something empowering about being by myself and tackling the daily challenges of a thru-hike on my own terms.
It took about two days for me to fully realize just how much I had goofed by filling my pack with exclusively what was inside when I finished the AT and nothing more. But this wasn’t the AT: this was Colorado. There was much less coverage on the CT and the first few dozen miles left me without shade and with limited water sources. I was missing sunscreen, a way to carry an extra liter of water, and a hiking shirt that covered my shoulders. Needless to say, when Legs saw me next I was a bright (and unhappy) shade of red. A few days later I developed a gnarly case of heat rash all over my legs and elected to hike in my thermals just to keep my sun-exhausted skin covered.
Besides one slack-packing experience I had going over the Wildcat Range in NH, I never really had to worry about exposure on the AT. Most people ditched sunscreen within their first few weeks and storms were never terribly intense. I had heard about a tree taking out the corner of a shelter in VA and once had a tramily (trail family) member enthusiastically play harmonica to distract me from one particularly booming storm, but otherwise I never felt uncomfortable hiking in storms due to the generally good coverage on most of the trail.
Something that I learned about myself in Colorado is that I was definitely scared of thunderstorms. Not unreasonably so; the dangers of CO storms combined with the exposure of being above 11,000 feet was very real. But there were a few times I was woken up by storms and after meticulously counting the time between the cracks of thunder and the flashes of lightning that lit up my tent, I elected to crouch on top of my folded-over sleeping pad for up to half an hour as it passed overhead.
As much as I learned and grew as a hiker on the CT, making it to Durango all the way from Denver really didn’t feel like the finish I was expecting. I felt like I had just gotten my trail legs in the last week… now it’s over? The 3 ½ weeks I spent on trail felt more like a sprint than an endurance challenge. The sheer length of the AT and the 5 months that it took me to complete it was undoubtedly taking some of the glory away from my CT finish.
But that didn’t satisfy me. My AT thru-hike goals were focused around enjoying the experience and making it to the end with a smile on my face. But somewhere along the CT, I decided that pushing myself and hiking longer days was what was fulfilling for me. So, I ventured off again on the CT, this time 75 miles north of Durango. I headed SOBO down the trail with a goal of completing the trek back to the finish line in 2 days… and I did it.
The girl that had completed her thru-hike of the AT was not the same person that hiked 75 miles in 2 days. I hadn’t completed a single marathon day in my time on the AT and my policy was never to hike past 6 pm while on trail. I now have goals that include averaging 30 miles per day and attempting FKT records; this was something that I never would have had confidence in myself to accomplish had I not had such a fulfilling experience at the end of my CT thru-hike.
And I can’t wait to see what I learn from my next adventure and where the trails take me next.
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