Source to Sea

Water in the Mountains: Colorado Trail, episode 2
by Mark Downey -- October 3rd, 2012

San Luis Pass, CO

A train wound through the plains turned mountains, charitable motorists lent some rides, and I landed on the Colorado Trail. This path meanders southwest from the foothills near Denver to the outskirts of Durango. I jumped on about halfway down, near Salida, for the trail’s final 235 miles where it climbs and traverses the Continental Divide, crosses it, dropping down into the Pacific watershed.

It’s easy to get to know rivers when you live on one like I did for the last three months. I left the Mississippi and came to the mountains, though, to the Continental Divide, to dig down into dirt and explore how the river might run under the rocks and trees and everything else. This is a pilgrimage to a site where water is sorted and moved, dramatically so, maybe a good place to start.

It’s a long steep climb from the road, a Forest Service two-track fades to switchbacks in the pines. Two weeks of food on my back, noodles and homemade trail mix, slows the going; but I’ll eat that weight soon enough, probably too fast. Past the tree line, past the shrub line into the tundra, after 12,000 ft it’s just grasses and rocks. Finally up on the crest of the Continental Divide, the sky opens and the country sprawls away in all directions.


When I sat in a flatlands lawn chair and devised this trip, I was imagining the Continental Divide as something more histrionic. I came looking for delineation, a ridge the edge of a mythical headman’s sword, separating East and West, falling water shall go here or it shall go there. Oh great watersheds rending here, flood me with awe!

But now I’m wandering along the crest, peering close, and nothing is clear, no solid line to walk where I might find answers. This Continental Divide ridge is broad, rounded on top and only gently sloping off down the mountainsides, a hundred meter-wide continuum of probability; the water that falls might go anywhere and a boulder or bush up here could send a trickle back the way it came. And looking out towards the Atlantic East and Pacific West, those rills tumbling down mountainsides below are headed towards to seas, I know, but this unconvincing Divide – who can ever say where water is going? It has the same chance as any Mississippi droplet being taken into the clouds and dashed again upon the rocks of another river or ocean, maybe the same river only further up or down.

Rain on my forehead now, a few days in and the sky begins to drip. I make camp below San Luis Peak, hang my food from a shivering fir, and wake up in a cloud the next morning. I’d unexpectedly arrived in water’s heaven. The air delicately patters my tent; I’m dry inside but every breath is damp and heavy. I push myself to move. When you’re outside and it rains, you get wet. It’s best to accept this in the beginning so as not to be perplexed when it happens. So I am resolved, hit the trail, hoping this mist is a microclimate effect, just in this valley, yes, beyond the next pass the sun is shining and warm, the vistas still draping wide.

The trail climbs and climbs, higher into the dim grey light where all that exists is the trail and the rocks right next to it. A family of moose materializes and we stare at each other for a minute before they amble away. Maybe there’s a world out there beyond the mist; but not for me. I walk winding back and forth up and over passes, gaining a thousand feet of elevation, losing it all in the next hour, repeat. As I go, the foggy drizzle turns to rain, and then the rain freezes, finally becoming genuine snow gusting strong, and there’s no end to the cloud I’m in. My clothes are soaking through, maps are wet, and I suspect the gear in my pack is in trouble as well. It’s getting late and I’m still a few miles from camp. Spending the night on these exposed ridges, all this wind and wet clothes, won’t work, need to find some shelter before night comes.

Contingency plans and mileage math stamp through my head, two more hours at 2.5 mph, go faster, and the wonder of this watery day is turning to defiance. I’m resolved to be wet, yes, but not hypothermic. On the River, the current may gently take you where you want to go; some days, though, the wind and rain comes and whips the waves and then you must dig paddles deep and fight your way through the chop. In the mountains, too, the principle stands, it’s about time to fight.

A tempest within to counter the one without. Yet slicing through my thoughts in the harshness here and there the flash of bird wings and the trill of his song, miles to go before I sleep, a flare of red amidst the golden grasses at my feet, the Indian paintbrush. Sometimes I stop to watch – the ecstasy in gloom – but try to keep it short. Brush the snow from my fleece so more doesn’t melt into me, these threatening cold flakes – where do they come from, and after I pack them around on my arms and shoulders, sloshing in my shoes, where will they go, what do they know or care about the Continental Divide. Nothing, probably; they’re just frozen raindrops, and they know no beginning or end.

Finally, just as the chill has fully soaked in, getting serious, there’s a gully and some trees and six feet of level trail, good enough. The tent’s wet, sleeping bag, clothes too – the wind shredded the poncho shielding my gear, must’ve been hours ago. Eat some trail mix, get out of these wet clothes first, now, not moving I’ll get cold real fast, too cold already. Should make hot food, warm some water at least – later later, I’ll be fine, just lay here, warm up this damp bag, torpor. The snow piles on the tent, muffling the sounds of the mountains outside. Tomorrow, maybe, there will be sun. And maybe not. Who can say?



  1. Jen
    Oct 4, 2012

    Mark, thank you for sharing your continued musings and carefully found words. I’m treasuring every one of them.

  2. Bill Manning
    Oct 8, 2012

    Great writing, Mark Downey, thanks for posting this for all.!!

  3. Matt Emery
    Oct 18, 2012

    Mark, great imagery. Every adventurer needs to be able spread their imagery – for others to ride along; you’ve done so admirably1

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