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Acoustic Trail to Colorado Trail
Local women hike to aid critically ill children

Many residents and visitors enjoy exploring the spectacular mountain terrain that surrounds us and their treks can be about exercise, photography or adventure. But for two Pagosa Springs’ women who spent four days hiking the Colorado trail, the journey was about helping children who may never get a chance to experience the great outdoors.

The trail begins with Connie Cook and Ellie Heitkamp, friends and co-workers who see each other on a regular basis at their jobs with Autumn Teneyl Design, a custom clothing manufacturing business based in downtown Pagosa Springs. Both women are fans of live music and on May 29, the women attended an intimate show at Wild Spirit Gallery where acoustic guitarist Pete Kartsounes and saxophonist Bob Hemenger entertained the audience at a concert that was organized by Acoustic Trail, Inc.

Acoustic Trail is a nonprofit founded by Pagosa Springs’ resident Caroline Colie with a mission to bring local, regional and national music acts to our town. The events allow the musicians to expose the audience to new kinds of music, as well as promote the overall experience of each artist at their show. A portion of the proceeds from the event Connie and Ellie attended went to Hike 4 Cancer, a nonprofit founded by Kartsounes. During the Acoustic Trail show, Pete mentioned Hike 4 Cancer and his work to help support organizations that offer aid to families of children with critical illness. The 2009 beneficiary for Hike 4 Cancer funds is There With Care, a Colorado-based nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers to help with the day-to-day realities of life that families have to endure while coping with the critical illness of a loved one. There With Care volunteers contribute their time to tasks such as shopping for groceries, cooking, babysitting siblings, cleaning the house or mowing the lawn.

Pete says he has always been motivated by the spirit of giving back to the community and formed his nonprofit in 2008, when he was asked to hike the Colorado Trail. He wanted his journey to mean something more than just the hike. To raise both awareness and funds for his foundation, Pete has spent his last two summers walking the 480-mile Colorado trail that leads from Denver to Durango and has split his journey into eight sections. During breaks between each segment, he plays fundraising concerts at venues throughout Colorado, including the stop in Pagosa Springs.

When Connie and Ellie heard Pete speak about Hike 4 Cancer at the May show, they were inspired by his goal to make a difference in the lives of others. Their offer to lend assistance led to an invitation for the two women to hike a portion of the Colorado Trail with Pete and two others. They made the decision to join him in August on the last portion of his hike, a 54-mile trek from Spring Creek Pass, located at nearly 11,000 feet between Creede and Lake City, to the end of the Colorado Trail at the Junction Creek trailhead outside of Durango.

Connie and Ellie immediately began planning for the trip by gathering gear and asking friends and businesses for pledges. Connie, a trained Emergency Medical Technician, also works part time for the Pagosa Springs Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and had no problem getting support from her co-workers.

“I was amazed at how quickly they went for their checkbooks,” Connie recalled. “When I told them why I was doing the hike, they didn’t hesitate to donate something to the cause.” Other friends donated what they could afford and local businesses chipped in as well. Kip’s Grille, Cherry Cement Salon, Autumn Teneyl Designs, and the Springs Resort contributed to the pledges and the women ended up with more than $500 to donate to Hike 4 Cancer.

In addition to raising funds, Connie and Ellie had to acquire the gear for their three nights and four days adventure. The two women were not experienced hikers, although Ellie had gone on five-day hikes with her family as a kid, and Connie had done several overnight trips. But the women knew enough to realize they needed more than a simple backpack and hiking boots. The multi-day hike through remote terrain involved finding items such as a camp stove, rain gear, mess kits, sleeping pads and bags, tent, and cords to hang their gear away from bears. The women had friends who were willing to lend their specialized gear for the trek and by sharing what they could, they ended up with 34 pound packs stuffed with four days worth of gear and food.

“Connie was in charge of the food,” Ellie said, “and she did a great job with packing the right amount of meals and snacks.” Rather than just bring enough food to make meals with, Connie had rationed each meal into Ziploc bags so they knew exactly how much to eat during the long days of hiking. “We would have breakfast, pack up, and leave camp by about ten each day,”

Connie explained. “We would take snack breaks at summits, stop for the day around seven, make dinner, then go to bed.”

The 54-mile hike was split up into 9, 17, 15 and 13 mile days, and it helped that Pete had done the entire Colorado trail last year and was familiar with the hike. While the trip was exhausting and both women earned a few blisters, they had only good things to say about their adventure. Connie described the sight of high-altitude ponds and the herd of hundreds of what appeared to be mountain sheep. The group even saw a moose with two babies on the last day of the hike. And although summer weather in Colorado can be quite volatile, the group was lucky enough to have only a few episodes of rain and hail. “It was raining the morning we left,” Ellie said, “but it was a pleasant rain, not scary.”

Connie recalled a part of the hike when the group was approaching the highest point on the trail when it started to hail and they could hear thunder booming in the distance. “We pulled up our hoods, put our heads down, and hoofed it as fast as we could through that part,” she added.

The women recounted both the strength and serenity of the trip away from the bustle of work, telephones and electronics. “Being out for that many days and getting that much exercise —it shakes things loose in you,” Ellie said. During the hike, the women had no electronics, kept their cell phones turned off, and had a lot of time to think while their bodies were covering miles of trail.

“It’s crazy to think about how much of our lives we spend plugged in,” Connie said, “Cell phones, computers, TV.” They both enjoyed the time away from electricity and said they were not quick to turn their computers on when they returned home.

One morning during the hike, Connie and Ellie were awakened by the sounds of guitar coming from a tent. Pete has composed six songs on the trail this summer and was practicing one of his most recent songs, “Life Ain’t Always Easy,” strumming the new tune on backpacking guitar that was donated to him by a friend. On the last night of the adventure, the group of five celebrated a birthday with guitar songs around the campfire, as well as with s’mores that they had saved for the last day. The birthday boy also got a special treat for breakfast that day: an entire mug of coffee rather than the half cup that had been rationed. It was those simple things in the trip that stood out the most for Connie and Ellie, and they are both inspired to continue their cause even after they turn in their pledges to Hike 4 Cancer.

Less than a week after the hike, Connie is already thinking about doing it again. “I want to start planning farther in advance for next year’s hike,” she said. “We can ask earlier for pledges to raise more money and awareness.”

Both Connie and Ellie are also brainstorming on how to bring a branch of There With Care to Pagosa Springs. Currently, the nonprofit aids families in the Denver area through referrals from hospitals and hospice organizations. Referrals are made by social workers at the institutions who understand the medical condition, financial situation and support systems of each family. The two women are confident that there are enough volunteers in our area willing to sustain the program by lending assistance to families with critically ill children.

With a journey that began with attending an Acoustic Trail concert and led to hiking the Colorado Trail, Connie and Ellie are continuing on a path of volunteer spirit and community involvement that is alive and well in Pagosa Springs.