Book Reviews

Published in the October 9, 2014 Durango Herald and the Oxtober 16, 2014 Cortez Journal


Bill Cooke is one of only about 150 people each year who hike the entire Colorado Trail. Hisbook, Shades of Gray, Splashes of Color, is a clear and honest look at what he experienced during 38 days and 482 miles of walking across the state.

The Colorado Trail is marking its 40th anniversary this year. Established in 1974, the trailruns from Denver to Durango. It was built by volunteers, completed in 1987, and maintainedby the Colorado Trail Foundation.

​While Shades of Gray, Splashes of Color includes plenty about the natural surroundings,the book’s strength is in its descriptions of the thoughts and hopes and satisfactions anddisappointments that come with staying outside for that long, and really, doing nothingexcept walking each day, talking to other hikers, and making camp.

The trail runs along the mountains, and as Colorado residents well realize, the terrainchanges along the way from almost alpine to southwestern. But as the terrain changed andwent up and down – mostly up – Cooke’s determination to complete the journey, at age 63, remained steadfast. His description of the psychology of all those ups – the elevation variesfrom 5,520 feet near Denver to more than 13,000 feet near Coney Summit – is fascinating.

​A retired accountant and manager with the federal government back East near Washington,D.C., Cooke provides a factual portrayal of what such a journey requires mentally andphysically. Although he’s a lifelong hiker, this was by far the longest he’d stayed out on atrail at one time. As he made his preparations soon after retiring from his job, he wondered ifhe could do it.

​The day he left in spring 2011, only a few minutes into his walk, he began to feel queasyand nauseated. Probably nerves, nothing most other hikers haven’t experienced. Andalthough Cooke notes repeatedly that he is not an athlete, he does acknowledge thatanyone engaged in such strenuous physical activity has good days and bad days. He perseveres, sometimes hiking more slowly, and other times, more quickly than hiscompanion, a lifelong friend nicknamed “Northern Harrier.” Cooke’s trail name is“Cookerhiker.”

Food, along with water and weather, is a constant concern when you’re hiking through theRocky Mountains. Cooke’s other hobby, appropriately, is cooking, although you couldn’t tellthat from his trail cuisine, which like many serious hikers is mostly some type of grain likebulgar wheat or couscous, boiled and eaten with a packet of tomato sauce or otherflavoring.

​At one point, Cooke forgets his food bag and has to survive on snacks for a couple of days– he doesn’t seem that disappointed.

Water, while available, is not always plentiful along the Colorado Trail. Some of Cooke’s best writing describes how we take water, which he often refers to as “agua,” for granted.“
As modern backpackers on a journey of recreation, we may differ in most respects fromUte Indians or early fur traders like Jim Bridger, but I’d like to think that our simple pleasures at savoring the refreshing libation from a mountain stream are identical,” Cooke writes.

​He dutifully records the wildlife he sees – nothing too exotic, elk, moose, a few ptarmigan –but was more impressed by the colorful native plants of the high country. Modest to a fault, he notes he is no botanist, so other than mentioning them, he doesn’t go into detail on the flora or the fauna. He’s also not a historian, and doesn’t touch much on the past of the area along the trail.

He’s obviously comfortable writing about his inner journey, which is the most interesting part of the book and one that other hikers will identify with: “... what explains inconsistency? ...the real question is why don’t we accept and tolerate ‘inconsistency’ more? Is it because over 150 years of industrialization followed by the computer age inculcate us with the desirability of ‘normalcy’ of sameness, uniformity, homogeneity?” His descriptions of geography, weather and other hikers will give readers a real feel forhiking the Colorado Trail, or completing any long-distance hike for that matter. However, a drawback is that the photos inside are black and white.

Although the trail is remote, Cooke meets plenty of interesting people along the way, often while hitchhiking into the nearest small town for supplies or passing through somewhere like Buffalo Creek or Kenosha Pass or Leadville or Salida or Silverton. His retired status puts him into one of the two major demographic groups of long-distance hikers – athletic hippies and people who have quit working. (Many hikers fall into both groups.)

​Completing the hike brought Cooke a great deal of satisfaction. In fact, he compared it tothe birth of his daughters and passing the CPA exam on the first try. Really, the CPA exam?OK, as an English major and retired journalist, I found that surprising. But that’s what you’ll discover in this book, Cooke’s honest account of what he felt and experienced.

​And if the CPA exam is a good metaphor for such an achievement, so be it.



From Fall 2014 newsletter of the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association  http://www.aldha.org/newsletter/2014C_fall.pdf  

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THIS IS A WONDERFUL MEMOIR that will appeal to both hikers and non-hikers.Bill is an accomplished long-distance hiker. So he describes the facets of the trail that all hikers would be attuned to, such as elevation changes, treadway conditions, trailheads and, most importantly, water sources. But he captures the ascetics of the journey, which appeal to anyone who loves the mountains, hiker or not. 

He “paints” a picture that the mind can grasp of the beauty and majesty of the Rocky Mountains. His description of the colors of the flowers, trees and grasses — even the absence of them — makes you feel you can see and smell them. He aptly describes the shades of gray in the clouds and the ever-changing sky. Bill’s vast use of descriptive vocabulary so enhances the senses, the story just flows along, making it an easy read.

​I love his inclusion of the colorful characters he and his hiking partner, “Northern Harrier” met, both on the trail and in towns. They had many“trail angels” who helped them along the way … folks who picked them upfrom the trail and delivered them back to the trail. The towns for re-supply aresometimes many miles from the trail.  

Bill includes many of the lessons learned from long-distance hiking.  He intertwines excerpts from his other hikes that are relevant to hiking the Colorado Trail. As all long-distance hikers do, he developed philosophies that include honoring the earth by using Leave No Trace methods. He realized that the trail is what it is, and no amount of complaining will change it.  His attitude is to take it as it comes and enjoy all facets of the trek. 

​Finally, the cover he chose is beautiful, eye-pleasing, and brings the reader right into the journey, before ever opening the book. Because it is so enticing, many non-hikers will want to read it.  I’ve read the book twice. I hope to hike the CT next year … so I will read it several more times. The appendices include information about trail mileage, a glossary of hiker terms, and references for planning.  And his praise for the Colorado Trail Foundation and Guide will give me a head start in the preparations.  I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves the outdoors.


From the September 2014 newsletter of the Sierra Club's Cumberland Chapter http://kentucky.sierraclub.org/theCumberland/archives/2014/news0914.pdf 


Shades of Gray, Splashes of Color is an account of Bill Cooke’s(Cookerhiker) 482 mile, 36-day hike of the Colorado Trail in the summer of 2011.  While I was reading this book, f riends would ask, “Where is the Colorado Trail?”  Well, Colorado!  It runs 486 miles through the Rocky Mountains between the southwestern suburbs of Denver and a trailhead in the San Juan National Forest just a few miles north of Durango.  It overlaps, on occasion, with the Continental Divide Trail.  Bill has been a member of the Sierra Club since 1978 and moved to Lexington five years ago.  He will present the Bluegrass Group’s general meeting on October and give a beautiful slide show of his hike (with music).  He is also on the program for our Annual Meeting in November at Lake Barkley State Resort Park.

​This book reads like a journal, giving you the sense that you are traveling/journeying/walking/hiking alongside of him day-by-day and mile-by mile.  If you are looking for entertainment like A Walk in the Woods or Wild, you are not going to find it here.  There is little hiker interaction like the kind you hear about on the Appalachian, the Pacific  rest, or the John Muir Trails.  That may be because fewer people hike this trail.  It is relatively new and hasn’t established a dedicated hiking community.  That said, there were several memorable characters and some nice trail magic to keep you engaged.

​If you ever decide to hike the Colorado Trail, I would highly recommend Bill’s book.  His attention to detail is fantastic.  A lot of focus was given to water sources and how to find them along the way with how to “squeeze water from a turnip”, so to speak.  He even notes several mistakes that are made in the official CT Trail Guide.

Bill was generous in his credits to all that deserved them, especially the many people who worked and work on the trail as volunteers, the Colorado Trail Foundation, the trail angels he met along the way, the towns and hostels, the restaurants, the bikers, the hikers, the horseback riders, and especially his hiking partner and friend of 44 years, Keith, (Northern Harrier).

The Appendices are informative.  There is a daily chart with the mileage and destination, the Colorado Trail ’s 28 segments and mileage, and a Glossary and Acronyms.  The Glossary was a great reference while reading the book, and the mileage would be a wonderful tool for anyone planning to hike this trail.

​There are many photos throughout and it’s a shame they couldn’t have been in color.  But, the book’s colorful cover gives you an idea of the beauty of the trail and what is meant by “shades of gray, splashes of color”.  One of the things I took away was Bill’s comment to “Respect the Trail: don’t underestimate conditions don’t overestimate your self, enjoy the hike, don’t get overconfident, and don’t take any part of the trail for granted”.  I believe that would apply to any trail we would hike!  Bill Cooke is a seasoned hiker and has compiled and organized a useful guide for the Colorado Trail.