“When you are thru hiking you don’t think about life off the trail much. You don’t think about your email. You don’t think about your car or house. You don’t think about your bank account much. You eventually forget about social media. And you definitely don’t think about your job. This is your life now.” – Michelle Snowden
When I set my sights on getting healthy and fit for the Colorado Trail, I never realized how that trail could change my life before I even got there. I’ve been dreaming and planning for years now, preparing for a successful solo hike in many ways. I’ve been following groups and individuals who are hiking or have hiked the trail. It’s very inspirational to hear the stories of others, and how their lives have been changed by setting out to walk five hundred miles through the incredible beauty of Colorado.
I reached out to a handful of folks who were interested in sharing their stories, and I’m very excited to bring to you all the first of several personal tales of adventure, told from unique points of view. Today I’m happy to introduce to you Michelle Snowden, a first time through-hiker from Alaska who traveled to Colorado to complete the trail with very little experience and a whole lot of determination. The following is a recount in her own words of her journey of triumph. All photos and script are credited to Michelle, I hope you enjoy!
The first day on the trail
You consider a lot how much your pack weighs; surely the scale is reading ten pounds heavier. It certainly reads that much heavier when you get your pre-hike body weight, and your pack feels that much heavier when you heft it onto your back. You spend time wondering if you packed the right things. Is my first aid kit equipped well enough? Are my shoes the right ones? Will these pants chafe in between my thunder thighs? Are two pairs of underwear really enough? You spend time staring at other hiker’s belongings. What backpack is that? I wonder how much their pack weighs. How many pairs of underwear do they have? The first day you might spend just as much time on your phone as usual. You take a picture every fifth step. You tap on the Facebook app out of habit, and embarrassingly remember airplane mode is turned on. You check the hiker’s app to make sure you are on the trail even though you just passed a confidence marker.
The first night
You spend ten long minutes setting up your tent just so, staking and re-staking the corners and guy wires. You lay out and organize, then reorganize your belongings. You spend time looking at the data book, analyzing. How far did you go? How far should you go tomorrow? Where will you camp the next five nights? You get relatively comfortable on your thin sleeping pad, then realize you forgot to put your toothpaste and a granola bar in the food bag which is safely hung on a tree away from you and the possibility of bears.
In the morning, your alarm clock goes off unheard and you wake an hour and a half after your planned “start hiking” time. You spend more time looking at the data book again to readjust your ill-fated plans from the evening before. You realize your phone battery is already at 60% and you’re only 16.6 miles in.
On the second night
At mile 33.4 it dawns on you that you have never traveled this far under your own power. You realize you have in fact, not really, ever backpacked before. Now that you think about it, all this gear you’re carrying was never tested out. You’re breaking all the rules to a successful thru hike.
As the first week goes by your thought processes begin to change without you noticing. Yes, you still plan each night how far your legs will take you the next day, and you still take out your phone for every view. But you’ve quickly adjusted to your new life. You haven’t accidently checked Facebook in a record breaking three days and it only took four throws to get the rock over the correct branch to hang your food. You are still convinced your scale read ten pounds heavier.
On your first resupply
At mile 71.7 you are thrilled to have made it this far. You hiked 71.7 miles in five days! You must let Facebook know! But first, you must learn how to hitch hike. Just put out your arm with a thumb up and a ride will magically appear? Eventually you find yourself in the back of a pickup, hair whipping around your face as you fly down the highway. I’ll just tell my mom, “I found a ride into town,” you think, as you consider the gruesome scene if this pickup crashed. Running errands in town takes significantly longer than you thought it would. And the logistics! Want to do laundry? First you need cash, to make into quarters. Hope the laundromat sells laundry soap. It cost this much?! Can I dry my long underwear? Where to eat dinner? The choices seem endless! But really, all you want to do is get back on the trail.
Back on the trail your thought process resumes to the first day. How heavy is my pack? It feels heavy. Shit, I forgot to fill my water bottle. How far until the next stream? Any weight I lost, I gained back at the Thai restaurant. Eventually though, you get back into the groove of things. You find water. You drink when you are thirsty. You eat when you are hungry. You rest when you are tired, or the view consumes you. You stop and sleep when you are finished hiking for the day. You still plan ahead from the data book; guess that habit isn’t going away. You count your mosquito bites and stop when you reach 1oo. And you sleep well. Really, really well.
As the days pass
You become comfortable with your gear. The pack really isn’t too heavy to carry and you don’t have unnecessary items but are glad you don’t have more things to carry. Your clothing is comfortable and holding up to the constant daily wear and tear. You embrace the hiker’s stench and proudly dub it “Wilderness Perfume.” Though you didn’t think it was possible, the views get better and better. Many times, as you are hiking, you remember to look up and are stopped flat in your tracks, looking at a scene so beautiful all you can do is stare. Your body is now carrying you over 17 miles a day without issue and your camo printed Crocs are the most rewarding end to the day. The next morning, you wake, get dressed, break down your tent, eat some granola, pack up your backpack and hike. You don’t think twice about it, you just enjoy it.
The days turn into weeks, and 71.7 miles turns into 299.8. Almost 300 miles! And you realize you are more than half way complete. Looking back, you think about the miles you’ve hiked, the pack you’ve carried, the mountain passes you’ve climbed, the views you’ve seen, the storms you’ve hiked through, the people you’ve met, the few tears you’ve shed, the countless smiles you’ve worn, and the truly happy feeling you’ve had the entire time. The half way point has come and gone which makes you a bit sad, but also excited for the days to come.
Stepping past 300 miles
You are confident in your hike. You know how far your body can go each day. You know you are capable of making it up those grueling hills at high elevation. You can easily set your tent up in under two minutes. You haven’t thought about what you weigh, it’s not important. You feel strong. You feel beautiful. Your Wilderness Perfume smells fantastic!
On your 23rd night of camping you sleep at mile 400.1. Less than 100 miles to go. At this thought, you stop and take an extra breath. How could that be? It’s ending so quickly. You tell yourself to treasure these last miles, though that thought is ridiculous because you’ve treasured every mile since mile 1.
Every single day
You are ecstatic to be out here, hiking in the wilderness. There are absolutely moments of struggle. There are times when your fingers are so cold you keep dropping your trekking poles and will have to warm up somehow so you will be able to set up your tent. There are times when you are tired of sitting in the bushes to try and protect yourself from the daily hail storms. There are times when you are shaking from fright because that lightning strike was way too close for comfort. There is a daily moment every single morning where you groan because you hate putting wet, nasty socks on your feet which go into wet, nasty shoes. There are moments when you are loudly cussing out the never-ending amount of blood sucking bugs.
But, you’ve never been tired of hiking.
Your spirits are high every single day. Taking an extra look around, you make that next step towards the finish. At this point, your camera comes out a little bit less. You are not jaded to the beauty, but instead, you decide that some places are not meant to be photographed. Some scenes are simply too beautiful, a picture would degrade it in your memory. Some places are meant for your memory only.
In the last mile, you can’t quite make sense of your emotions. You are thrilled to be accomplishing this. You are sad that your last night of camping has come and gone. You feel a pang of jealousy seeing north bound hikers starting their journey. Coming around the corner to the finish, you have a huge grin on your face and liquid filling in your eyes.
You have now finished a thru hike.
You have hiked 484.6 miles. You have come from sea level and hiked in the high elevation Rocky Mountains. You have carried yourself and the things you need from Denver to Durango. You have hiked the Colorado Trail.
Michelle is a first-time thru hiker who planned very little and broke all the “rules to a successful thru hike.” Her pack was far from ultralight. She hiked every day with a smile on her face, even while creating a long string of cuss words for the mosquitoes. Somehow, she hiked all 484.6 miles of the CT and finished without acquiring a trail name. The only injury she received was bruises from scratching the mosquito bites in her sleep. As she heads back to her home in South East Alaska, she learns what it means to miss the trail ferociously. “Where to next,” she asks herself. You can follow Michelle on Instagram under m4snowden.
Now, for the disclaimer – I am not a vet, adventure guide, personal trainer, doctor, nutritionist, or medical authority, this is meant to be only a source of information and inspiration, implementing these techniques into your daily life is something you do of your own free will and at your own risk.
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