Written by Sarah Ann Noel
Images by Jess Deugan

“I had so many people ask me if I’d seen the movie, or read the book Wild. I guess I’m like Reese Witherspoon or something. One gal even said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my mom I saw you!”

This was the hilarious and modest nonchalance with which Jess Deugan, a friend of mine and an artist living here in Denver, explained to me her 486-mile journey from Denver to Durango along the Colorado trail. By herself. In only three weeks.

Now, I know Jess. I’ve known her for quite awhile. I know of her crazy 50-mile trail runs. I know how strong she is. I know how thoughtful her work is, and the way she puts her best into whatever she does. I know what it’s like to sit and to talk to Jess, and to feel like you’ve really, really, been heard. All that to say, even still, I had the same question you are probably asking right now: Why?

“I started feeling like I had lost my sense of adventure,” she told me. It’s a feeling we all understand, but for me, it normally translates into some relaxing vacation. For Jess though, it’s the wilderness. “I wanted to get a sense of myself back—of being wild. I’ve been drawn to the wilderness and solitude since I was young. I’ve always wanted to do a backpack trip too, like a full immersion experience. I thought, this is the time. I need to do this.”

So she talked to her husband. “I basically told him I was doing it and he didn’t have the option to come,” Jess laughed.

She spoke with her employers. “I got the green light there. My boss even sent out email updates to everybody [at my work].”

With the idea in her mind and her support system in place, Jess started training whenever she could. She would do more than 5,000 feet of climbing on her days off, using trails near Boulder like Boulder Peak and Bear Peak.

And then she hired National Geographic’s Explorer of the Year, Andrew Skurka. “He created a gear list for me, and I started buying accordingly. I wanted to go really lightweight.” (“Light,” by the way, was a 15-pound base backpack; 35-pounds once food and water are added.) A few weeks before her projected start date, Jess did a 2-day trial run to check her gear and to begin to mentally prepare.

“Physically, you know you just have to keep moving. And I’ve done other hard stuff. And the solitude alone I could handle. I’m kind of a solitude junkie anyway. But emotionally, you just can’t prepare for it. When it comes, you have to just push through it.”

As Jess described her route to me, the climbing up and down mountains, the gazing down into ski towns which she was thousands of feet above, I pictured the names of all these places on the green interstate signs I’ve seen posted along the way into the mountains. And then I tried to imagine what it would mean to walk, sometimes climb, from each place to the next. Obviously you’d need to be in supreme physical condition to do so; but this is Colorado, and if not participants, most of us are at least observers of physical feats. What I marveled at most was the time required, and how perspective might shift if the only way to pass that time was to move forward (well, and up and down, too).

“I would get up every morning about 5:00, and it would take me an hour and a half to get going. I had to make my oatmeal, my coffee. Had to tear my tent down. But I was on my way by 7:00 every day, and I’d hike until 8:30 p.m.” (For those who would like to know the math, Jess was hiking between 23-28 miles per day.)

And what was she doing with all that time besides hiking? “I was going too fast to really take everything in, I think. I didn’t have time to read or journal. I’d get done at night, put my tent up, and go to bed.” But she made good use of the time in-transit. “When you’re out there that long, and you don’t have much with you and it’s simple, you don’t think about stuff in your life. You think about relationships and community. I actually did a lot of praying and took prayer requests before I left. I was like, ‘I’ll have the time.’ I cried a lot, about some hard things in my life. And sometimes I’d go through all the things I was grateful for. It was actually pretty intense.”

Emotions weren’t the only intense thing, particularly the two majors scares Jess encountered along the way.

“First, there was the hawk. I heard it. It was making a loud cawing noise sort of above and behind me. But I couldn’t hear it flying. All of a sudden, I turned around and it was right on top of my backpack coming at me. The wingspan was enormous.” Jess spreads her arms out as far as they will go, stretching her fingers even, while she tells me this. “I had to fight it off with my trekking poles.”

I certainly would file “near death by bird” under the horror section, which, of course, Hitchcock has already done; but Jess had an even bigger scare when she nearly ran out of food. “I was starving. Just so hungry. What happened was, coming into Lake City, I didn’t do the math properly. I had divided the days by the miles, but it’s 5.8 days. I forgot to calculate the .8.” Jess also explained that while she’d figured for a certain number of calories, there’s a very specific science to fat-to-carb ratios that needs to be considered when doing such strenuous work. “But on my way into Lake City, I met a gal who gave me peanut butter packets, so it covered a snack for the last day.” At this, Jess heaved a sigh of relief like she was tasting the peanut butter and the kindness of a stranger all over again.

This surprised me the most, Jess said the best part of the whole experience was the people. Of course, strangers can be an eighth world wonder; but I was expecting that Jess was alone the whole time. Hiking nearly 500-miles alone seemed like an isolated experience. Jess explained the culture of hikers and trail names, and remembered companions she actually hiked with for a few days at a time. And when it was time to hop off the trail for a half day, it was the people who saved the day too.

“I decided I needed a half day to go into town to eat food, and I had to come off the trail at this obscure road. I knew I was going to have a hard time hitchhiking, but I had to try. I heard a rumble and I stuck my thumb out, and over the crest of the hill comes this red Corvette convertible, with two girls in the back sitting on top.” There clearly wouldn’t have been a lot of room for Jess and her gear, but the sweet family from Michigan couldn’t refuse her pleas. They drove her to her friend’s house in Buena Vista. “They dropped me off and we were hugging and taking pictures. It was so awesome.”

Wondering about the opposite side of humanity, I asked Jess if she had taken any flack for making the trip--particularly as a woman. “There were definitely a lot comments,” she said. “But I felt fine. I know my abilities, and I had the confidence that I could do it.”

She did do it. Even in the face of obstacles, Jess did it. How, I prodded, did she find the strength to go all the way, especially knowing she could catch a ride into any of the towns she passed by? “I’m stubborn!” she laughed. “I’m also a big believer that language creates reality. For me, how I work, I have to say I’m going to do it. That creates a pressure—I said I was going to, so I have to. I didn’t want to be a quitter.”

In the end, it seems the experience only the fueled the fires that exist in someone like Jess. “I want to keep adventuring. I want to build on this knowledge and experience,” she said. But above all else, I watched her smile as she reflected how well she knows, “I can do hard things.”


Colleen Antonio:

Jess you already know that I think you are amazing. Thank you for letting me live vicariously through you!
What’s next?

Sep 30, 2016

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