I graduated from 3 programs at The Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School (https://guideschool.com/) and worked for a short time for the school’s owner. It was October and the snow had begun to fall on the Grand Mesa and Battlement Mesa where my adventures were located. That particular adventure may have been ending, but as Robert Earl Keen says, “The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends”. Before my introduction to the world of Rocky Mountain outfitters and guiding, I was living on a ranch with a family on a mesa in south west Colorado. The woman who I was dating at the time said that she was putting the teepee up that we were living in and moving back into the house with her son, but that I could keep camping if I wanted to.
On my way home to the ranch, I stopped at the Cabela’s store in Grand Junction, CO. I was very excited to be purchasing the (Cabela’s Big Horn III Tent – Swan Hikes) tent that I had dreamed about for a few years. The old man who grabbed a cart for me shared in my glee at my new home. It was nice to be standing there with a fellow outdoorsman who was happy for me. Although a store employee, he was not making a commission, he works at Cabela’s because the outdoors is his passion. We talked for a bit as I also picked out my new Colorado Mesa Stove. The store employee told me about a Cabela’s tent that he had recently purchased. It was a great day for an outdoorsman with a paycheck in hand.
When I got back to the ranch, everyone was excited. The ranch hand and the foreman’s brother-in-law and nephew came down to help me set it up. Once it was set, I added a mattress, portable wire armoire, some black and yellow totes from Home Depot, rugs, and then off to work. It was October and I had no firewood. There was a couple down the road who had a lot of wood that was starting to rot. There was also a lot of pine that they would not burn in their house. I spent days going back and forth in my light, short-bed truck picking up 3 or 4 cords of wood to get me through the winter. Soon, the snow would have everything covered up.
I stacked the wood on the north west side of the tent to protect it from the cold winds that blow across the Mesa. On the other side was a stand of scrub oak that made a nice wind block. The family that I lived with, regularly had people come to camp and had made tent pads. It was the perfect spot. The rugs on the floor and my Cabela’s 0-degree flannel and canvas sleeping bag helped to take the edge off of the freezing cold.
It was lonely when I was camping by myself. I still took pride in the fact that I was trying to live outside through a Colorado winter at 9,000 feet elevation. I had been working at 10,000 feet. There is a big difference that 1000 feet can make. The foreman of the ranch had become my EX-girlfriend, but I continued living there because I got along with the family. I was part of the circle. That was nice, because I greatly respected her father who I learned a lot from. I am very grateful to her and her family. Never-the-less, an ex-girlfriend is an ex-girlfriend and I felt the need to get away.
In January, I moved across the state to a small mountain town on the front range. I was couch surfing at high elevation, but spent some nights sleeping in a mine shaft, because my new room-mate, a stranger, was doing some things that did not groove with my conscience. Around the same time that I met him, I began dating another woman who wanted to move, but needed a room-mate. We got an apartment in the city together and broke up a month later, which was right on time, because I did not like living in the city.
I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I wanted to be outside and that I did not want to settle down anywhere. Before I bought the fancy tent, I was going to do a winter hike of the Appalachian Trail, but my ex-girlfriends father convinced me to stay with them and wait until Spring for such a journey. Most of my stuff was still on the ranch. I took the tent down, but was unable to pull it up due to the frozen ground. My friends at the ranch used the tractor to pull the stakes out of the ground and I met with them down in Montrose to get it. It would have been difficult for me to get a 2-wheel drive box truck up that Mesa. It was a scary drive taking a box truck across the frozen continental divide twice. I drove straight through a winter storm front that had my booty puckered like all-get-out! Hah!
I made the 2000-mile journey home to a storage unit in Georgia, packed my backpack and got dropped off at Amicalola Falls State Park on April 1st 2019 and began hiking north. I didn’t know how far I would go. All I knew was that I could not sit still. Before heading out, I sent my resume’ out to several Rocky Mountain outfitters hoping for employment as a camp cook. I thought that I would hike to Pennsylvania and then turn around and walk back to Georgia, unless I got hired, in which case I would go west again. I got dropped off at the top of the falls and set out on the busy approach trail. To read about my hike, please start here: The Walk-A-Bout Continues – Swan Hikes. Thanks for reading!
It rained for over a week straight. The rain reconfirmed that the south eastern area of the United States is a temperate rain forest. The band wasn’t always hiking together. Crash and I pitched our tents by a wide and lazy stream. There was a deluge and we had cell service, so we called for a shuttle to pick us up and take us to get some restaurant food. It was nice to have that comfort amidst our seemingly new life at a constant 100% humidity.
I think it was the next day that we hiked to Boots Off Hostel (www.bootsoff.camp), about 20 miles south of Damascus, VA. What a great place! They have cabins, a tenting area, and an old converted bus for lodging. There is a small resupply and a large covered porch with a kitchenette. The owner took us fellas from Los Hobos on an “Aqua-blaze”. There were twice as many other people there who we had been bumping into from time to time. This group became a much larger Tramily with some great people! We all aqua-blazed together. Aqua-blazing is when you travel along the Appalachian Trail by water instead of walking.
This was my last day with the Tramily as a whole. Squatch had previously hiked on to new trails. Moses eventually took a break from the trail at Dismal Falls in Virginia after I left. When I got to Boots Off, I received a call from a fishing guide service that needed some help. They flew me out and you can read about that story here: https://swanhikes.com/2020/05/23/the-wind-river-range/
After my detour through Wyoming, I rode down to Colorado for a couple of nights and flew back to the trail. I arrived at Dulles International Airport where a shuttle driver was waiting to take me to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I was dropped off at the HI Hostel. I didn’t exactly look like a hiker – dressed in jeans, plaid shirt, cowboy hat, and a leather belt with a skinning knife sheathed on it. I had a few books with me about mountain men and the wind river range that I donated to the hostel. Eventually, I rid myself of my cowboy attire and donned the hiker trash uniform. Crash and The Wandering Kiltsman would soon be there, or so I thought. Waiting by the river in Harper’s Ferry for over a week was the most boring part of my entire hike. River water is not the tastiest, so every day I would walk to the outfitter in Harper’s Ferry where they told me I could refill on water whenever I needed to. They were afraid that I was hanging around so long, because I was hungry. They kept trying to feed me and even picked up Crash and I one night as we were walking down the road a couple miles from camp. Before I resumed my hike, I gave my knife to the main outfitter employee who helped me so much. He appreciated the knife so much that he warmed my heart a second time.
Crash finally made it, but The Wandering Kiltsman would not be there for a while, due to technical difficulties on a crazy long aqua-blaze that you can read about on www.thewanderingkiltsman.com. The next day, Crash and I began heading north. Although I missed the 500 miles through Virginia, I wanted to hike with Los Hobos. Unfortunately, Los Hobos was too scattered to be a band. Viva Los Hobos! That wasn’t the end. Real hiking bards and troubadours don’t quit. We might take a long hiatus, but we never quit! Don’t worry folks. If you keep reading my future stories, you will get to see a social distancing concert we have lined up at an all new location.
Crash and I hiked up to Dahlgren Backpacker Campground in Maryland and stayed there one night. They had free hot showers, which I was grateful for the next day when I met a goddess. Truly, I met a goddess in person. Have you ever heard of the Latin goddess Ariana? Remember the Labyrinth and the Minotaur? Dionysus? Well, our story is much different. I am certainly no deity or hero, but a goddess helped me find my way through the “New World Labyrinth”. We saw her on the trail a couple times that day. We thought we knew everyone that was on the trail behind us, so we ignored her at first, thinking she was a “Weekend Warrior”. Come to find out, she thought the same about us!
As Crash and I walked up to a pavilion at a state park, we see this goddess again. She was sitting there eating lunch and we both sat at different tables to spread out while we ate. There was a bit of small talk before we all finished lunch at the same time and resumed hiking. Crash and I forgot where the trail was, but this goddess showed us the way. I told her that I was a wilderness guide and just got back to the trail from work. Where I was working is a place that Lewis and Clark explored and when I set foot back on trail in Harper’s Ferry, I saw the museum dedicated to the beginning of their journey. With this fresh on my mind I said,
“Daaaaang…You are like Sacajawea! Guide to the guide!”
We all laughed, because it was corny and Crash and I were just being bone-headed and didn’t pay attention to where we left the trail for the state park, but it was within 50 yards of mowed lawn in front of us. Honestly, I think we were both captivated with this divine creature that made me forget everything and every woman except for her. I didn’t know that I loved her at that moment, but I was stunned.
She even made me forget about the kidney stones inside of me. OK…If you have had kidney stones, then you know that part is a lie. I hung on like a champ, every day for three weeks, never knowing if I would see her the next day or not. We would bump into each other every few days and talk and get to know each other. I got on trail to be alone, but a tramily was formed. Thirty-two-Hundred air miles, 500 backpacking miles, 200 horse riding miles, and 12 canoe miles later, there was something new inside of me and I didn’t want to be alone.
I was waiting at the ATC in Pennsylvania. The pain in my kidneys was getting severe and a shuttle was coming to pick me up. I had bought a plane ticket to go home to Georgia, but it wasn’t for a couple weeks. Fortunately, while I was waiting outside of the ATC in Pennsylvania, Crash hiked in. He told me that “Rusty” was not far behind him. My heart skipped a beat. “Rusty” is one of the goddesses many names, her trail name, along with: “Mama Wolf” and just plain “Bad Ass”. We walked along the path through town to meet her and the three of us walked back to the ATC together. Rusty and I started talking and I found out that along with being a full-time hiking goddess, she also is a creator of fine paintings! It just so happens that, not only can I be an unkempt and somewhat uncouth mountain man, but also an amateur aficionado of fine art, wine, cheese, and sushi. We had important things to discuss.
She showed me her work on the Deviant Art platform online and I looked intently at each one. Rusty said no one had ever been that interested in her art before, but that it is her passion. We talked about art for a while and then she invited me to walk over to the post office with her to continue our conversation. I was so excited, I almost stepped out in front of a car. When we made it back across the street to all our hiking friends and acquaintances, my ride to the Cardinal Inn was there. I didn’t think I would ever see her again. We traded phone numbers, FaceBook, and hugs. Off I went to hike no more.
The shuttle driver (The owner of the inn) questioned me about why I was quitting. I had not yet seen a doctor, so I didn’t want to lie and say I had kidney stones. I was just telling people that I was tired and had enough. The driver was a Vietnam-era U.S. Army Infantryman and started encouraging me not to quit. He said,
“You don’t seem like a quitter to me! I don’t know what is going on, but I hope you change your mind. You have friends out there and you want to be with them at the finish. You are a soldier! Don’t quit!”
He took me to his and his wife’s inn/home where there was food waiting for me. It was a beautiful setting beside a Mennonite farm. The matriarch of the family was there. She was blind and asked me to come close and she touched my hands and asked me what my name was. I told her my name was Swan, but she asked me what my mom called me. I said, “Brandon”. She told me that she was mom and that she loved me. I went up stairs and spent the rest of my overnight visit locked up in my room in agony.
The proprietor of the inn took me to Port Clinton, PA, where I would wait for my friends Ed and Ren. I stayed at the Pavilion in town that a local church erected for hikers. It was mostly due to one man in the church who was an advocate for hikers. He was a WWII veteran who spent a couple of years in a Japanese POW camp. He said that every year when he would see emaciated hikers coming through, tired and hungry, that it reminded him of the POW camp. They built a beautiful pavilion and began providing an outhouse for hikers because of that sweet man. I know these things, because the weekend before I set up camp there, the church built a patriotic memorial in his honor. As I sat there alone one day, bearded, tattooed, smelly, and wild-eyed, this 90 year old woman walked up and sat beside me for half an hour to talk about her husband, the former POW and friend of hikers. She said that he was quite a man, and I believe her. Thank you, “Friend Of Hikers”!
Crash hiked in and I got to see him again. It was nice. I was getting lonely. I felt stupid, because days prior I had texted Rusty a mushy text message about her smile and her soul. Immediately, I started tripping out on myself and telling myself how stupid I was for sending such a strongly worded message and the reason I had not heard back had nothing to do with being in the mountains and wilderness. I thought about her constantly.
It was Crash’s turn to pay for a hotel, so I moved camp from the pavilion up to a single-bed room where I intended to sleep on the floor. Crash said he had just run into Rusty downstairs and she invited him to have a drink with her. I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, but I was jealous. I was already falling for her, but I told him to have a nice night and that I would see him later. He went downstairs and a few minutes later I was asked to come downstairs and join them. When Rusty saw me, she was giddy with joy. I was giddy that she was giddy. The polite version of the story was that we had a few drinks responsibly and I walked her home and kissed her goodnight on the doorstep. Do you think that is what happened? What doorstep? We were living out of backpacks! We built a spiritual connection that night. I walked a mile up trail with her the next day and kissed her goodbye. My friends would be there soon to pick me up and I would fly back to Georgia. Rusty and I made plans to see each other when she finished her hike, hoping to continue this beginning of bliss. She seemed serious about seeing me again. It was difficult to say goodbye.
Ed and Ren picked me up after a week, as per our plan. They said they were surprised that I was getting off trail and wanted to know why. These people are my friends and helping me out, so I felt obligated to tell them that I thought I had kidney stones. They did not even take me to their house without stopping at the doctor first! I am glad they did. They really looked after me. I didn’t particularly want to go. My gratitude to them could never be overstated.
When one can surmise how bad the kidney stones are based upon the X-Ray techs exclamations, you can be sure it isn’t pretty. The doctor came in and said,
“You have STONES. PLURAL. BOTH SIDES. LOTS OF LITTLE ONES! The good news is that as long as you can stand the pain, you can hike!”
I left the doctor with some Flomax and antibiotics and was better a few days later. The recovery at Ed and Rens really helped. Ren took me to the grocery store so I could resupply and they cooked a delicious meal. It was a good time visiting with people who quickly became beloved friends for what they did for me. They returned me to the trail.
What happens with Rusty and I? Keep an eye out for my next story: