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Day 5: Hike Through Salida, Colorado

11 miles - Walk Along Highway 291; Downtown Salida; Hike To Fremont/Chaffee County Line - April 5, 2010


Bill Oliver Joins In The Chaffee County Walk Bill Oliver
Photo Above: Bill stands on the tracks early in our hike with Colorado State Highway 291 and mountains behind.

As Day Five approached, I faced a dilemna. I could not find anyone to shuttle me to the starting point. One close friend previously agreed to this task, but was tied up with personal matters in Kansas.

Things worked out. Bill Oliver of Salida, an acquaintence on Twitter (@Mountainh2o), communicated last week about his interest in hiking with me, and his wife Janet generously offered to shuttle us north of town. Although I did not know him personally, Bill was friendly enough online and as they say, when a door closes, often another door opens.

Bill is energetic, affable and a little goofy. He is talkative with a twangy southern Missouri accent. He was always willing to be photographed as seen in the picture above. His presence assured me I would not be bored much on today's journey.

Bill Oliver

The Hike To Salida Begins

The tracks lose some of its glamour as it leaves Browns Canyon. They run parallel to Highway 291, and the sound of cars and trucks overtake us from 50 feet away.

Because a guest is with me, I feel obligated to warn about every possible negative aspect of this hike. It is one thing if I endure hardship, but I would feel especially bad if my partner experienced something he is not prepared for.

I warn Bill about walking on railroad tracks. Ten to eleven miles is long enough as it is, but the railroad tracks are especially rough on one's lower body. These tracks will slow our pace as well.

Bill is upbeat though. He isn't worried.

I also mention the cold weather and how winds might cause windburn, but Bill isn't phased. "Oh I've had 40 to 50 mile an hour winds blowing against me at Monarch. I'm usually running the top of the lift at 12,000 feet. Believe me, that cold and wind, even when it's sunny, can be tough on you all day. This is a piece of cake after the negative five degrees on Saturday," he said.

Bill works as a ski lift operator at Monarch Mountain, the county's only ski and snowboarding area. Only one more week remains before ski season ends. Today is his day off.

We share our stories about how we moved to Chaffee County. He and his wife are from Missouri and vacationed regularly here. In September 2009, they made the bold step of moving west. They sold most of their possessions, including a successful lake resort. Today live simply and contently full-time in their RV in Salida.

I moved to Buena Vista out of a deep love of the mountains. From 1997-2005, I lived in Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, and over time I spent increasing amounts of time exploring western Colorado. In late 2005, living in Buena Vista had become a full-blown dream that I could not ignore. When the opportunity opened, I seized it. I struggled financially for quite awhile (and still occasionally do) in Buena Vista, but I have no regrets. This valley with towering mountains is where I am meant to be.

This is what I love about Chaffee County: So many residents have made sacrifices to live here because of their passion for the mountains and the land. Jobs are rare and those who find jobs generally take pay cuts below the national average. This is a place for down-to-earth people who have accepted this reality. You won't find snobby millionaires, celebrities making their once-per-year pilgrimage to their trophy home, or glitzy shops that cater to the wealthy and elite. However, you will find an unusual amount of people who have a profound devotion to their hobby, whether its hiking, fly fishing, skiing, snowmobiling, rock climbing, etc.

Also, are you raising a family? Nothing beats the family friendliness of our area.

Happy Jack Lane We walk at a decent pace. The conversation is enlivening.

We pass a dirt road with cattle ranches and horse pastures. Bill suggests I photograph Happy Jack Lane.

"Naaaah. I don't think so," I said.

Bill's fills his voice with empathy, "How can you not take a picture of that? Happy Jack Lane. I mean, c'mon Steve. Happy Jack Lane!"

I laugh. Bill is keeping me loose and on my toes. It is easy to become too serious after walking so many miles in solitude on these tracks. I take a picture of it.

Oh and look! There is a land for sale sign! Folks, if you are interested in buying real estate in Chaffee County, perhaps you should check this out! :)

Horses Beautiful horses graze in a field.
Mt. Shavano, CO

Bill stops to snap a photo of something, and it's a good shot of him with Mt. Shavano and Mt. Antero in the background. The sky is gloomy and silvery. I do my best to take pictures of the mountains, but who knows if any of them will come out nicely.

Salida, CO We approach a dirt lot with vehicles, a common area for locals to park their cars and trucks that are for sale. The Scanga Meat Company sign is on the left. Chaffee County residents know this is the beginning of Salida. The long straight away beside the highway has come to an end!
The temperature is reasonable today; it's in the upper 40's. But thick gray clouds hover above.

I gaze at the various shades of gray and silver in the sky. Some even have a pale purple shade to the naked eye.

On this fifth day of hiking, I have become in solid cardiovascular shape. However, my ankles never adjust to the tracks. I traded the mountain boots after Day Two because of painful blisters on my toes, but my light tennis shoes have made it tough on my ankles. My ankles have endured decently in these past five miles, but now they are feeling some agitation.

A soft sandy line runs along weedy tracks. I descend to the sand and my feet and ankles feel immediate relief.

By now, I have developed a keen sensitivity toward different types of ground, and my subconscious mind is often searching for anything softer and easier on my feet. If I were to create a ranking system, the tracks would be hardest on my legs, for they are painful and slow me down. A paved street with asphalt or concrete would be second, as the smoothness of the road is somewhat better. The most hiking friendly ground would be either a soft sandy area like this or a grassy lawn.

Salida, CO Railroad Tracks The tracks travel east of the Arkansas River and essentially behind Salida.

On the left is Tenderfoot Mountain, often referred as "S Mountain" because of the large white "S" on it.

S Mountain Salida, CO We walk closer to Tenderfoot Mountain. Ahead, a woman is walking on the railroad tracks with her dog.

"Look Bill! A person is on the tracks!" I say with excitement. Never have I encountered another party walking on the tracks during my journey.

"What should I say to her?" I lower my voice as if this is a secret, "I mean ... maybe she needs help. Should I ask her if she's going to Granite?"

Bill tells me to calm down. It looks like she's merely a local on her daily routine to walk her dog.

"Okay, shhhhhhh. Don't say anything." I insist, "I'll talk."

Anxiety fills me like a guy who is about to bravely introduce himself to an attractive woman who's gained his interest.

We walk closer. Then she veers off the tracks with her dog and strolls toward the river. It looks like she is avoiding the two odd men walking on the train tracks toward her.

I resign to the missed opportunity to speak with her, but my mind rolls with thoughts.

"Imagine the coincidence if she is walking to Granite, and I am walking to Salida, and we pass each other on the tracks! Wouldn't that be amazing?"

Bill shakes his head. "Oh boy."

We continue hiking behind Salida. To the west we see the landmark buildings that dot the west side of the Arkansas River.

I make an erroneous comment that I don't want to walk into downtown Salida, because I'm too tired to walk anymore than I need to. But Bill shakes sense into me. How could we not stop in Salida? Downtown Salida is the most happening place in the entire county!

Salida, CO Playhole

Salida, CO

The base of the Arkansas River. A large array of rocks are configured to create a "playhole" for kayakers during the summer months. Two popular playholes exist in Salida for kayakers to play and do their stunts on the rapids.

Second Photo: The F Street Bridge. The second playhole is a short distance south of the bridge.

Salida, Colorado
Downtown Salida, Colorado

My senses are stimulated in downtown Salida. It has been five days of relatively barren scenery with gray skies, but not here. Brick buildings, store fronts and moving vehicles on F Street are all fair game to photograph!

It feels good to be here. My hike has not gone through a town with restaurants, stores and people actively going about their day since Buena Vista.

Salida, CO

Salida Kayak Wall

Bill enters the Boathouse Cantina (a restaurant) to talk to someone he knows.

I walk two blocks, marveling at the sounds and activity. I twirl my body in circles and take in everything as if I am seeing it for the first time.

I pull out my cell phone. This is a perfect time to say something on Twitter:

"For normal people, it would take 90 minutes to drive from Granite to Salida. Not me. It took 5 days of walking ha ha! :) #jackass #steveswalk"

TOP: The view of F Street (facing southwest) with the traffic light in view. Salida has a charming downtown area with historic architecture and buildings that many adore.

SECOND: The kayak wall in Salida. This line of antique kayaks is a well-photographed spot in town.

Salida, Colorado There is no question where to capture my token photo of myself on this hike. It will be somewhere on F Street with "S" Mountain in the background. And Bill must be with me.

I gained a shuttle and hiking partner today, but moreso, I think I made a new friend.

Steve and Bill

Another photo of us on a bench in front of the Victoria Tavern.
Mama D's

Mama D's Salida CO Gyro

Mama D's Deli

We debate whether we should eat. A light goes on in Bill's head.

"Hey are you a picky eater?"

"Well..."

"I'm buying you a gyro," he said, "You've got to have one. It's so good."

There is no way I can turn down Bill, although I know he doesn't have much money like me.

Bill orders our gyros at the front counter and I walk in minutes later after packing my tripod. I sit at a table, and then Bill tells the girls about me.

"This man is walking across the whole county," he said.

Bill tries to explain how I'm walking from the north end to the south end of the county, and I'm not sure the they get it. They look confused. I feel embarrassed because I feel like a hobo. And what do these girls think of us? Granted, I have ordinary hiking clothes on, but inside, I feel worn, weathered and grizzly from the elements.

The girl (wearing pink) is making our gyros, and then comes to the counter with our food. It was a perfect time to take a picture. Once I raise my camera, the girls smile perfectly. Bill doesn't look bad either.

The speciality gyro is a pita bread with hunks of lamb meat and tomato slices with cream cheese made from goat cheese. I gobble it quickly.

Bill Oliver Just look at that face. :)
Bill and I return to the tracks. It feels anticlimatic after all the excitement in Salida.

We walk past a grain elevator. Weeds have won the battle of domination due to years of neglect. Rundown and abandoned buildings are positioned near the tracks. Some, if not all of these structures, were related to the locomotives. Salida was probably a major stop in central Colorado for unloading and receiving cargo.

Quietness takes over. I think about how this is my last day on these tracks, and sometimes I break the silence with my pondering.

"Well this is my last day. I feel kind of sad."

I look down and focus on the sound of my shoes rhythmically thumping on the tracks.

"I mean, they're only tracks but ..."

This is my fifth consecutive day hiking on these tracks. I have walked 47 miles, and my daily routine has revolved around these tracks. I have grown quite accustomed to them. Dare I say, they have become part of me.

"Oh I understand," said Bill, "You've walked these tracks a loooong way. I've only walked with you one day and my knees are already bothering me. I'm amazed at how far you've come."

Salida, CO RR Tracks We walk past a line of yellow bushes that are common to the lands of the West, but I don't know its name.

Bill believes they are in the "tumbleweed family," and I think he is right. I spend a lot of time photographing this seemingly ordinary photo of tracks running diagonally across the screen with one shapely and bright bush in the center.

Bill Oliver Bill asks again if I want photos of myself and I decline. It is probably because I am so tired and not in the mood to think about posing in front of something.

But I'm all for photographing Bill. He sits down and looks great with the rails behind him.

Chaffee County Hike

Bill Oliver

Within a half mile, we spot a black tank on the right. My car is parked there. Bill and his wife met me this morning at this spot, located on Chaffee County Road 102 near Highway 50 and the cattle auction site.

Originally, Bill and I planned to end our hike here, but I said I might want to walk the final 1.8 miles (each way) to the Chaffee County and Fremont County border. After thinking about it, I want to continue.

Bill is tired and his knees are worn. Fortunately, Bill lives a short distance from this spot, and so he agreed to simply walk home. If he lived anywhere else, I would certainly have driven him home.

It feels awkward that Bill is leaving and I will press on with my hike, but Bill's intuition gauged the situation perfectly. He knew I needed to walk the final stretch.

"I know it's not personal," said Bill, "I sense you need to be alone and sort things out about what you experienced for five days."

I'm glad Bill understands. "Bill, you've got to believe me if ..."

"Oh I get it," he doesn't need to hear an explanation, "You've had quite an experience. I'm just glad I got to be part of your walk."

My plan all along was to walk the north to south distance of Chaffee County, and these tracks were a great de facto trail for the first 48 miles. With Poncha Pass as the southernmost point in the county, if I walked in the most direct manner, I would have deserted the tracks north of Salida and proceeded to Poncha Springs. In fact, tomorrow I will begin at the traffic light on F Street in Salida. It is a shame the tracks don't end at the southern end of the county. Instead, they turn east at Salida and run through Bighorn Sheep Canyon to Canon City and Pueblo.

I realize I don't need to do this, but I feel compelled to hike this final stretch 1.8 mile stretch to the border. It is my attempt to bring closure. To honor the railroad tracks.

Bill and I say good-bye. We hug like old friends and agree to hang out in Buena Vista sometime. As Bill exits, I capture a photo of him walking away.

Then I am alone again. Or maybe not. The tracks and I need to have one last dance.

The Final 1.8 Miles Of Train Tracks

My walking standards have become so high that 1.8 miles (each way) doesn't seem like a big deal.

Something inside is sorrowful. It feels like I am about to say good-bye to an old friend.

For five days, these tracks have been my guide and companion. My refuge. I will never forget this experience. Maybe I should consider what I've learned or how I am changed, but I don't have any neat and tidy answers.


Photo Above: A long stretch in southeast Chaffee County near the end of today's walk.

Milemarker 212. How far I've come!

Milemarker 212
My left ankle squirms in sharp pain. Lifting my leg or putting weight on it hurt significantly. My right ankle hurts similarly, but to a lesser extent.

I place my foot on the rail to inspect it, and it doesn't look any different. My intuition tells me the muscle is fed up with these tracks, and they are protesting with shooting pain. I consider sitting on the ground to rest for awhile, but I am too lazy and stubborn to exert extra energy to sit down. I am very concerned about my ankle, but I am equally determined to reach the end.

My hike is reduced to the hobble of an "old man." I take it slow and remind myself I am not in a rush this afternoon. I develop a consistent stride. I lift my left leg up each time with intentionality and push it forward. The right leg rises and steps much easier, but then I'm faced with the toilsome task of lifting my left leg all over again.

Steve's Ankle
The Arkansas River continues to accompany me, and like the tracks, the river will travel downward through Bighorn Sheep Canyon.

I am not as attached to the river though, although I've occasionally daydreamed about what it would be like to travel the entire river by boat through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, before joining the Mississippi River.

Arkansas River, CO
My ankles continue to writhe in pain. This is the longest 1.8 miles I've walked.

Self-pity comes over me. I feel stupid that I am walking to a random spot that probably no one hikes to. Yet there is no way I can live with myself if I do not reach the end. I must continue. Just take it one plank at a time. One step at a time.

The tracks bend to the left. Chaffee County Railroad Tracks
Then I see it. Across the river, a green sign for Fremont County stands across the highway. My left ankle still hurts, but adrenaline rushes through me and my pace quickens.

I am only one tenth of a mile to the end. I estimate the border is near a spot with various gray rocks. As if the hands of Providence have given me favor, a yellow grassy flat is beside the tracks. I hop off and burst with a light jog to the border.

I happily plop myself down on a rock for 15 minutes and eat an energy bar and drink fluids. My left ankle feels better. My mind reverts to a better frame of mind, and I consider strategies that will make it easier on my feet and ankles when I return to my car. Maybe I'll even walk along the river bed.

I stand in Fremont County and face east. The rails are rusty brown. The scene looks rugged and rocky -- like something straight out of a western movie.

To walk for more days on these tracks would be delightful, but I must turn back.

It is time to say good-bye. So long.

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