Her job as a special education teacher had been erased, and a long summer with nothing to do awaited. Brianne Pierson decided to go for a walk in the woods ... a long walk.
She chose the Colorado Trail, the 486-mile stretch of singletrack that wiggles up and over Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Her journey began July 1 at the Waterton Canyon trailhead in Littleton. She walked out of the woods Aug. 2, at Junction Creek Trailhead near Durango.
Pierson is 36, blonde, tanned and determined. As a longtime runner, she'd hammered her body into good condition. The month of June had offered time to plan, study the route and mail supplies to various post offices along the way. She kept a copy of Colorado Trail: Official Guidebook with her. "It was my bible," she says.
Her first steps began with the words of Henry David Thoreau. She read them from her diary last week as we discussed wild places.
What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
"I think believing in yourself is the most important thing," Pierson says. "If anyone is thinking about doing the Colorado Trail, I would totally recommend it. It's life-changing. It's difficult, and you realize what you are made of."
She carried a 35-pound pack, including a 3-liter water bladder; more than enough, she says. She also included a water bottle with a filter to eliminate giardia and other microscopic nasties. Her remaining gear was basic: a sleeping bag and pad, a one-person tent, a small cooking stove. She started with hiking boots, but abandoned them after 100 miles, switching to her Saucony trail running shoes. "A lot of the hikers said they're going with trail shoes," she says.
Pierson began each day with a quick breakfast of oatmeal, then snacked to keep the engine fueled as she hiked. Dinner included prepackaged backpacking meals. She took five rest days, or "zero days," as thru-hikers like to say. She spent a few nights indoors. She even purchased a solar panel to keep her cell phone charged.
Colorado's high country delivered all the adventure she wanted. Sometimes, like during a relentless rainstorm near Molas Pass in the San Juans, the grind became difficult. But those times provided the magic.
"It was pouring," she says. "I'm huddled under a tree, and a hummingbird comes under the tree and just hovers there. It was this weird spiritual experience. We both kind of looked at each other, and the bird stayed for a while. It was those experiences that were most profound to me."
A single woman, alone in the middle of the wilderness for a month. How many would make that leap? More than you think, Pierson says.
"I never felt alone on the trail because there were many other hikers," she says. "After the first few nights, I slept like a rock. I sleep better outside now than I do in my bed."
She didn't expect to find camaraderie on the trail, but thru-hikers form their own little community.
"I met the most incredible people," she said. "When you are out there, you're smelly, you're all the same. It doesn't matter who you are, you become instant friends. A huge part of the thru hike is the culture."
She'd often hitch a ride from the trail to various towns to pick up supplies. That was a little scary. But every person she met — Colorado's small-town residents — were friendly and helpful.
"Before this journey I was cynical of mankind, but this has renewed my faith in humanity," she says. "So many people chose to help this stinky backpacker."
There was nobody to greet her at the finish. She was alone as the last light drained from the sky. "I just did a little dance and yelled out that I did it. It was a cool way to finish an epic journey."
She walked to the side of the road, stuck out her thumb, and recalled a chance meeting with a doe days earlier in the Mount Massive Wilderness Area.
"We both stopped and looked at each other. I just stood there and said, 'Thank you for sharing your space.' And I had this overwhelming feeling that this is where the universe wants me now. It's not all about beginnings and endings. It's what happens in the middle."