By Shilletha “Dragonsky” Curtis
April 16, 2022 was the day I found myself surrounded by the great dry vastness. Big Hatchet and Little Hatchet pierced the sky, their shadows lurking in the distance. Mountains emerged from the ocean of sand, their shadows followed the sun. The Crazy Cook monument, once a distant dream, stood before me in the flesh. Four months ago, I completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, now I was looking fear in the eyes on the Continental Divide Trail. With one liter of water in my hand and adrenaline surging through my body, I charged down the trail like a clumsy bear. I wasn’t alone though. I met another hiker named Pecorino and we made it 14 miles to cache one, with a quarter of a liter remaining. Day one opened my eyes--this was NOT the Appalachian Trail. My throat was parched, my skin cracked and ablaze, my feet throbbing from the versatility in the terrain. Not all sand was created equally. I found the desert to be utterly miserable and found myself pondering if I would die…my bones left on display for passing hikers. It was brutal. Day two, I met a hiker named Fish who eventually would hike with me on and off all the way to Wyoming.
“Day one opened my eyes--this was NOT the Appalachian Trail.”
Throughout New Mexico, I found myself in a love-hate relationship with nature. I could see why New Mexico was called the Land of Enchantment. Life was abundant in a place so desolate that my biggest concern was getting abducted by aliens. Lizards basked in the sun, barrel cactuses flaunted their vibrant pink flowers, small shrubs nipped at my ankles, their thorns tearing into my flesh. Blankets of stars danced in the night sky, clouds rarely came. The sun always smiled there.
Facing most of New Mexico alone, most notably the Gila National Forest, was daunting. Fording rivers in Maine was one thing. Crossing a river nearly 216 times, well that was a whole chapter for itself. The first night in the Gila, I set up my tent hoping for a human being to pass me, to make conversation…to just say “hi.” Waiting in vain for hours, I eventually retired to my tent, rocking myself to sleep alone in the deep wilderness. When morning came, I accepted the reality of the situation and the CDT as a whole. I wasn’t always going to have a hiking partner, other hikers weren’t always going to pass by. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, when I was alone, I was truly alone. The alone part wasn’t the scariest, it was the fact that humans weren’t the apex predators on this trail, mountain lions and grizzly bears were. Each state brought on its own beast that I had to either face, compromise, or give up and go home. Road walking was the staple of New Mexico--thankfully I had a hiking partner or group to distract from my throbbing knees and boredom. Five-liter water carries nearly brought me to tears, realizing that no matter how much I guzzled, my thirst would not be quenched. Forest fires, flooding in Yellowstone, and the early arrival into the South San Juans taught me that Nature could not be tamed. No matter how disappointed I was, Nature was Nature and she was no respecter of persons. Planning on trail was not premeditated but on the go, choosing alternates aligning with the weather and availability of water. The things I least wanted to do, Nature forced me to do and for that I am thankful.
“Each state brought on its own beast that I had to either face, compromise, or give up and go home.”
There’s a warning on trail not to get to Colorado before June 6, but the Santa Fe fires threw me for a spin. I ended up waiting it out for five days in Grants before old friends caught up with me. Pocahontas, Bullocks, Fish, Triple Threat, Jim, and I officially became a tramily, something that I had yearned for after experiencing most of the trail solo. Little did I know that my hike would change significantly and my definition of love would change. We tried to wait out the fires in Albuquerque, booking an Airbnb for about a week and passing the time with watching tv, gorging down food, and sleeping. Realizing that our money was being sucked dry, we decided we were going to take on Colorado, together. We studied the snow reports and checked the CDT Facebook groups, reading the reviews of others who had pushed on through the South San Juans. The reports seemed believable, but some concerned me. Hikers spoke of not having ice axes or wearing microspikes. I was going in prepared and I am glad I did.
Most of my tramily ended up taking the lower Creede cutoff while me and another member stayed in the South San Juans. We were supposed to stay together. Things changed. Snow blew in angrily from every direction, its scream as loud as a freight train. I postholed up to my knee at times, my boots breaking through the ice below, submerging in the silent river. Struggling to keep up with my partner, his figment vanished in the kingdom of frozen ice, I was alone. For two days, I traversed avalanche territory, glissaded down 7000-foot chutes and got lost multiple times, causing me to have panic attacks. I almost lost my life falling down an ice gully, clinging to my ice axe and pressing my garmin when two hikers I met on day three asked me to hike with them down a sketchy section only to leave me helpless when I fell. I screamed for hours and they never came back. The helicopter could not land that day and it became a battle for my life.
Trauma has erased the memory of how I got up and over the mountain that day to get rescued the next, but one memory remains. When I loaded into the helicopter, two men stood by, their faces as pale as a ghost. It was Bullocks and Fish, they had come for me, hiking 14 hours throughout the night while being stalked by a mountain lion. Never had I seen or experienced such love and fear in a single minute. I was ashamed of ending up in the situation but flooded with endorphins from seeing the faces of my family. I knew at that moment that no matter how high the mountains were, that we would be able to climb them together and we did. We traversed through Colorado and Wyoming, my tramily at my side checking in on me, making sure that I knew I was supported. It is a love that flutters in my heart like wings of a butterfly, one that I had never known. In my darkest night, I found the stars, they were always there shining alongside me, in good times and bad. It was the love of my tramily that made each mile on the trail that much more worth it. That love still lives inside of me, although my tramily ended up quitting and I put my hike on pause due to injury. It was love that trumped any fear that I faced on trail.
“They had come for me, hiking 14 hours throughout the night while being stalked by a mountain lion. Never had I seen or experienced such love and fear in a single minute.”
I chose to thru-hike the CDT second because it was my worst nightmare, the monster under the bed waiting to snatch me out as soon as my feet hit the floor--the real life boogey-man. I was Dragonsky, the one who set out to be the second Black woman to complete the Triple Crown. I had faced what I thought were my hardest obstacles on the AT. I was a warrior, no trail was too hard for me to conquer. The Appalachian Trail was said to be the hardest of the Triple Crown. I beg to differ.