CDT Day 117: Bonito Pass to Conejo River via Great Divide alt. – Bed as Soft as Snow Camp to Gosh Darn Dirt is Nice Camp
Miles hiked: 30.8
Total miles: 2026
Winter is a harsh season. Today it forced us to make a tough choice that ultimately brought us off the CDT, but kept us alive, happy, and walking south. We dropped east of the South San Juans on dirt roads to a route paralleling the Divide along the Conejo River. It was still plenty cold down there, so I didn’t question our choice one bit. Cruising to the border now. Cold, but without frostbite. And that’s okay with me.
We had decided to hold off making a route decision until this morning after getting a look at the weather. For me, that choice was made as soon as I got out of the tent. The sky was filled with clouds of dark gray, moving fast on an invisible wind. It wasn’t actively snowing on us, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it started to. Wind still howled in the tree tops. I do not want to be on an exposed ridge today. No way.
SpiceRack and I got hiking around 7:30am. It was 15°F, if you believe my tiny thermometer. Despite the cold, and then the wind as we moved up to more exposed places, the views were what stole my attention for the first hour. The mountains across the valley were stunning in their new coating of snow. I felt lucky to be out here, seeing this in person, because I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there at all. Not in these conditions at least.
The wind blasted us for five miles to the trail junction. Drifting snow cut our pace in half as we followed the footprints of our friends between meadows and trees along a wide ridge. Even when the sun came out it was too cold to stop for long. I gazed at the mountain ahead, seeing huge swirls of snow whipped off the ridges by regular gusts of wind. Mesmerizing. Terrifyingly.
We made it off the ridge and to the junction with a dirt road, covered in snow and icy vehicle tracks. Only a few words were needed to confirm the route choice. After a short tea break to thaw out, we got walking south, following many sets of footprints down to warmer elevations.
But this route was not without peril. The melt/freeze cycle left patches of slick ice for us to contend with. It was funny at first, little stumbles here and there, but then Spice went down. Hard. I didn’t know what was wrong, but it looked bad even though she has mostly caught herself. She stayed down and clutched her shoulder. Dislocated. Slowly it popped back into place. Spice grimaced and described the discomfort, but didn’t look for pity or wait around. She immobilized her arm by tucking her hand into a jacket pocket and kept moving. Incredible.
The snow, ice, and danger gradually melted away as we dropped in elevation. Gronk played podcasts and music the whole way down to some river and we had an almost warm lunch along it. Then it was up and over to the next valley. I hiked in my fleece and gloves, unheard of for consistent uphill, which usually gets me sweating without fail, but this day was exceptionally cold. However, it was good walking all the way to the small town of Platoro, all but abandoned for the season. If Spice’s shoulder bothered her, she didn’t show it.
All I wanted in town was a toilet and hot drink. Most of the buildings had boarded up windows, so we checked out the ones that still flew American flags. The second one gave us exactly what we wanted. Debbie was a gracious host at the Platoro Lodge and provided us with warm drinks and company along with comfy chairs. We had just beat her closing for the season by one week. She confirmed that pretty much the whole town was already gone to warmer parts of the country. We thawed out for an hour, then left around 5pm to hike about ten more miles, the sun already long gone behind the ridge.
The wind fortunately dimmed with the daylight so that by dark, it was completely calm for the first time since dinosaurs roamed the earth. We made great time on a wide dirt road, no more snow, along the Conejo River in a deep valley. And at 9pm, about ten miles south of our tea break, we pounded stakes into frozen gravel next to the road. Home for the night. My hips and legs felt tired from the repetitive nature of walking on a uniform road, and my appetite was non-existent in the cold. At least for cold food. But we were alive and warmish. I missed the mountains today, but have no doubt that we are in the right place.