The Hiker Who Never Left
When CDT thru-hiker Cionnaith "Lucky" O'Dubhaigh stopped to resupply in Lake City, Colorado, he was just looking for a short rest. Instead, he stayed and turned his new home into one of the best trail towns in the country.
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Thru-hikers, like armies, march on their stomachs. And it’s clear from a conversation I overhear in Lake City, Colorado, that the hikers gathered in the yard of the Raven’s Rest Hostel will have no problem continuing their journey.
“That place is soooo bomb,” says Red, a barrel-chested, ginger-haired hiker with a Viking beard. He and a few other thru-hikers are relaxing on a warm August day, and the talk, predictably, revolves around food. Specifically, the goods produced at the Lake City Bakery.
“I might just pack out with like, five of those sandwich things,” Wrong Way says about the calzones. “They’re like a sandwich baked into a piece of bread so they can smush and still be good.”
“Have you guys tried the deviled egg flight over at the brewery?” says another hiker.
“They have a deviled egg flight?” Red asks.
“No, no, it’s all about the ice cream at that place across the park,” Savage says, referring to the San Juan Soda Company.
“Already went,” Red responds. “It’s the best. I always go when I’m in Lake City. And this my fourth or fifth time in town.”
Red is not alone in his enthusiasm for Lake City as a trail town. Many thru-hikers say that it’s their favorite spot on the 486-mile Colorado Trail, or even the entire 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Situated in the southwestern corner of Colorado, the historic mining town offers important hiker services, including pack-friendly food like those smushable calzones and a grocery store that tags items that contain more than 100 calories per ounce. But that’s not all. Unlike some resupply towns, which can make hikers feel unwelcome, Lake City is special in the way its residents, businesses, and even politicians have gone out of their way to cater to backpackers.
Still, Lake City’s reputation as a hiker haven is relatively new. It’s only within the past decade that it earned its most-favored stopover status. As rural communities up and down America’s long trails look to capitalize on the economic benefit of their location—thru-hiker numbers have more than tripled in the last decade—they would do well to learn from the transformation of Lake City.
And it might not have happened at all if an Irishman hadn’t hiked into town in the summer of 2007—and decided to stay.
Cionnaith O’Dubhaigh grew up hill walking with his dad near their home outside of Dublin. But he didn’t fall in love with hiking until a 1999 trek on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, when he was 22. “It was a life-changing event,” O’Dubhaigh tells me when I meet him in Lake City last summer. He relished the experience of traveling far enough, on foot, to actually notice changes in terrain and climate, a sense of being on a real journey. And like many thru-hikers, he appreciated the characters he met and friends he made along the way. He was smitten and took up carpentry (which he still practices today), so he could find seasonal work and hike the rest of the year.
In 2005, O’Dubhaigh hiked the Appalachian Trail and encountered American-style trail magic. Coolers full of cold drinks in the forest. Free rides and free meals and free beds. “It blew me away that people would do those things for hikers just for the good of it,” he says.
He also ran into the time-honored tradition of trail names. “I was meeting people on the trail, and had to fight off all these corny, Irish-related names like ‘Leprechaun’ and ‘Lucky Charm,’” he recalls with a chuckle. “I eventually settled for ‘Lucky’ as a compromise.”
But even O’Dubhaigh had to admit the name fit when, only through serendipity, he avoided getting bit by a rattlesnake in Pennsylvania. “I was walking through this grass and just felt something squishy,” he remembers. “Without even realizing it, I’d stepped on the rattlesnake’s head.”
Lucky was enthralled with the AT, but he didn’t know there were even longer hikes in the United States until another backpacker mentioned the Pacific Crest Trail. “I felt relieved,” Lucky remembers. “There were more trails to do!” He completed the PCT in 2006 and returned to the U.S. the following summer to hike the CDT.
With 5,350 trail miles under his feet, Lucky felt confident about tackling the Continental Divide Trail and completing the Triple Crown. But soon after heading north from the Mexican border, he recognized that the wild and poorly marked CDT was the most ambitious hike he’d attempted. And it wasn’t just the terrain that made the journey feel different. In New Mexico, he took an unexpected detour on native lands. “Two companions and I ran into some Apache guys who invited us out to their reservation,” he says. “We spent four days out there.” Then came the pristine San Juan Mountains. “I felt like I was on this epic adventure,” Lucky recalls. “It was like anything could happen.”
That might help explain what happened when Lucky and his companions rolled into Lake City, in southwestern Colorado, 979 miles into their hike, planning a quick resupply before continuing north. He wasn’t sure what to expect there, but his legs needed a break and he was willing to wait as long as needed to hitch a ride from Spring Creek Pass. What he found was a little mountain town with 400 residents—it can be traversed in just eight city blocks—but it had what Lucky and his companions needed, including a well-stocked saloon. The trio settled in for drinks and soon met a curious local.
“Amy Jo saw our packs outside the bar, and she came in to ask us about the trail,” Lucky recalls. “She was planning on hiking south from Rocky Mountain National Park to Lake City and wanted to know more about thru-hiking.”
One beer with Amy Jo Geurink turned into, well, many, and by the end of the night she invited the hikers to sleep on the porch of a house she was caretaking. The next morning, Lucky and his buddies were planning to return to the trail, but it was the Fourth of July and Amy Jo convinced them to stay for the celebrations.
Lucky was excited to experience Independence Day in rural America. He also looked forward to spending another day with Amy Jo, whose blond dreadlocks and half moon smile matched her cheerful personality.
“I mean, yeah, there was chemistry,” Lucky begins. But he’s still at a loss to make sense of what came next, on the Fourth. “It really came from this conversation that started off as a joke,” he says. “Another girl who’s still a good friend of mine was like, ‘You two need to get married so [Lucky] can stay in the U.S. And so I turned around and asked Amy Jo to marry me.”
To Lucky’s surprise, Amy Jo said yes.
“Everybody laughed,” Lucky recalls. “But then I said, ‘I’m serious.’”
Amy Jo, then 28, responded that she was also serious. “This was a phase of my life when I was really trusting the universe to put before me whatever I needed,” she recalls. “I remember being surprised to hear myself say [yes], but it just felt right.”
“And then I was like ‘holy shit,’” Lucky says.
He had found something he loved even more than thru-hiking. Lucky abandoned his CDT attempt, went on a short backpacking trip with Amy Jo, got married, settled down in Lake City, and started a family.
And that’s the first step in explaining how an Irish transplant with a passion for long trails redirected his enthusiasm for hiking to creating a town for hikers.
In order to understand what Lake City has become, it’s important to understand what it was. Incorporated in 1873, Lake City is tucked into a deep river valley with steep mountains on three sides (its namesake, Lake San Cristobal, is actually a few miles away from town). Lake City began as a boomtown, after prospectors discovered silver and gold deposits in the area. As many as 5,000 squatters, miners, and homesteaders arrived in the late 19th century to seek their fortune. But the silver caches were all but gone by 1905, and Lake City’s economy has struggled ever since.
To add insult to injury, the town didn’t benefit much from its proximity to the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails as those paths became more popular. While a few thru-hikers trickled in before 2010, the lion’s share opted for Creede, on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, because it was easier to reach via a side hike instead of the unreliable hitch needed to reach Lake City.
But Lucky saw the potential, and as a thru-hiker he knew what was missing. “Hikers need places to spend their money,” Lucky, now 42, says when I meet him at the Raven’s Rest Hostel. He’s trim from trail running, with a beard and deep-grooved crow’s feet, and a trucker hat planted over his matted, brown hair. “And it’s a lot easier when a town is welcoming and has options geared toward them.” Priority number one: a place to stay.
“I was already trying to give back in my own way, letting hikers stay at various houses we rented when we could,” Lucky recalls. “But Amy Jo and I also talked for a couple years about starting a hostel in different parts of the world.”
But by this point they were also raising young children (three, eventually), and an opportunity closer to home captured their imaginations. When a rundown house next to the park in Lake City came up for rent in 2011, Lucky and Amy Jo convinced the landlord into owner-financing them to buy it.
“With the kids, we thought, ‘if we can’t be out on the trail, we can bring the trail to us,’” Amy Jo says. “We also wanted to provide for the hiking community. And people coming in from the trail come from all over. We thought the experiences and stories they would bring would be such an enriching thing to expose the kids to.”
And so the Raven’s Rest Hostel was born.
Lucky went to work retrofitting the house’s ramshackle garage. He used scrap lumber and donated appliances to assemble a kitchen, common area, bathrooms, and bedrooms with bunk beds. After a mad scramble, Raven’s Rest opened just in time for the 2012 thru-hiking season. By the end of that August, word was already spreading up and down the trail about a new spot for backpackers by backpackers. It provided the same sense of community found on the trail.
Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing at first.
Some Lake City residents were confused by the new venture. The next-door neighbors—two older women—later admitted to Lucky that their visiting friends used to ask with grave concern, “What’s it like to live next to a hostel? Are there wild parties there every night?”
But by the second summer, in 2013, most of those concerns were put to rest. Neighbors learned that most thru-hikers, who are used to living on the trail, go to bed by nine o’clock. The two women next to the hostel have become volunteer trail angels. And even though Raven’s Rest is the cheapest place in town at $25 a night, that doesn’t mean its guests are stingy or disagreeable. Most business owners in town noticed an influx of hikers, drawn to the hostel, who were also ready to spend money on other things, especially food.
With that growing customer base and Lucky serving as unofficial trail town cheerleader, local businesses started paying attention. Lucky has helped both of the small grocery stores in town stock items that hikers need. “The owner of the Country Store Grocery—Nancy—has even created a survey that I’ve hung up in the hostel so that our guests can mark down what goods they want her to stock on a shelf she’s creating for thru-hikers next season,” he says.
The Raven’s Rest Hostel laid the foundation for Lake City’s transformation, but there was still the problem of getting to and from town. Paul Magnanti, a longtime thru-hiker who runs a website with trail guides for Colorado and elsewhere, explains that Lake City had a reputation as a difficult hitch from Spring Creek Pass, a trailhead serving both the Colorado Trail and the CDT. “A lot of people, myself included, don’t like not knowing if it’s going to take half an hour or a lot longer to get a [ride],” says Magnanti. Many backpackers chose the surer bet of hiking a 10-mile side route to Creede rather than gambling on a 17-mile lift or paying an outfitter for a ride.
Lucky was no stranger to this criticism. After hearing countless stories about hikers waiting hours in the rain on Spring Creek Pass, in 2014 he teamed up with two friends to form the Lake City Trail Angels. Their main goal was to provide a free shuttle service, and the three founding trail angels were soon joined by other residents, including Henry and Julie Rothschild.
When four hikers take advantage of the ride during my stay in Lake City, they cram into the back of the Rothschilds’ Nissan SUV. After a night at Raven’s Rest, and laden with baked goods, they’re headed back to the Colorado Trail. But first, there’s an important announcement from their 75-year-old driver.
“I have to make my speech,” Henry Rothschild declares. He clears his throat while keeping his eyes trained on the tight mountain turns.
“What I have to say to you guys is this: You are the salvation of our nation,” Rothschild begins. “Right now, we’re in some pretty trying times—I’m sure you know that. But when you think about it . . .”
Midsentence, the SUV jolts and there’s a loud thud underneath a rear wheel. A squirrel flips up into the air behind the car and lands back down on the pavement, pancaked.
The car falls into a moment of embarrassed silence before someone ventures, “Well . . . it seems that we were not the salvation of that squirrel.”
“It’s true. I was not the salvation of that squirrel,” Rothschild stammers, visibly flustered.
But he’s able to recover. After a deep breath, he soldiers on, “But as for your character. The hiker character is a quality which is definitely necessary to resurrect this country. So no pressure, you guys. No pressure. It’s just that the world and our nation depend on your good will and your interests and good vibes. Your courage and curiosity to get out there to walk, and look, and observe beauty—that’s what’s going to save us.”
Rothschild gives the same exact speech every week—always on Mondays. That’s when he and Julie, also 75, are scheduled to give rides.
“We’re big fans of Lucky,” Julie Rothschild says. “And [volunteering] has been wonderful. We’re meeting all kinds of people from all over. We still exchange Christmas cards with one person we gave a ride to.”
Word about the shuttle service spread. Free rides leave at noon from the town park, and at 12:30 p.m. from Spring Creek Pass, seven days a week through July and August. In 2015, Magnanti updated his popular Colorado Trail guide with information on the Lake City Trail Angels, adding that more and more backpackers were coming to the consensus that Lake City was the “Go To” spot on the trail.
It would be easy to see the constant flow of happy hikers coming in and out of Lake City and think the transformation from obscure mountain town to favorite trail town is complete. But Lucky wants to see one more change. He wants Lake City to be designated an official “Gateway Community” by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “Becoming a Gateway Community tells hikers that Lake City recognizes and values them as visitors and as customers,” he says. He also sees it as the natural culmination of all the good will and hard work of the last eight years, and a way to ensure the town’s mission includes hiker outreach for years to come.
The Gateway Community program highlights communities along the CDT that go out of their way to welcome hikers, as well as advocate for and protect the trail. Prominent examples include Silver City in New Mexico and Salida in Colorado. In addition to providing hiker-friendly amenities, Gateway Communities (there are 14 total) host some kind of annual event to promote the trail, like a festival, provide literature to hikers about town services, and regularly reach out to residents about ways to get involved with the CDT.
Lucky didn’t have the bandwidth to spearhead an application while taking care of the hostel and his family (which got a little more stressful when Lucky and Amy Jo divorced in late 2014, though Lucky says they are still very close friends). Lucky now runs the hostel by himself, but he found an ally in county commissioner Kristie Borchers. She agreed to take up the effort to secure the designation, and is heading the committee that sent a preliminary application to the CDTC in December 2018.
“We started looking at the map and at other designated Gateway Communities and we were like, yeah, we absolutely want to do this,” she says.
But Borchers has motivations that go beyond economic development. She’s trying to use hiking as a rallying cause, a way to unite residents in light of ongoing tensions over a different recreational activity. In July, Lake City experienced its fair share of small-town drama ahead of a vote on whether to continue allowing off-highway vehicles to operate in town. Known as OHVs, these vehicles look like souped-up dune buggies, and are popular on the 63-mile Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, an unpaved road that offers views of iconic landmarks like the Fourteener Uncompahagre Peak.
It turns out loud OHVs are more divisive than dirty hikers. Signs for and against the vehicles appeared in front yards, pitting neighbor against neighbor. The OHV supporters won the vote (186 to 119). The decision doesn’t affect hikers (none I interviewed cited OHVs as a deterrent to staying in Lake City). But it makes the Gateway Community designation even more meaningful. “This is a non-political, non-OHV effort,” Borchers says. “Now I think what we try to do is knit our community back together on things that we do agree on.” Like helping hikers.
Nicole Karem, the CDTC’s Gateway Community Program Coordinator, has been working closely with Borchers to strengthen Lake City’s proposal. She says that acceptance is likely, and hopes it will come before next summer’s thru-hiking season. Designation will include a town ceremony. Such an event would be a validation of everything that’s changed, an acknowledgement of Lake City’s rapid rise as a model trail town, and an affirmation of Lucky’s role in the town’s evolution. As Karem says, “In Lake City, there wasn’t that much of a thru-hiker community or culture before Lucky came along.”
Lucky is far more modest. Ask him and he’ll insist that it took a village, which is also true. It took a leader, a place to stay, hiker-friendly food, easy transportation to and from town, and business and political buy-in to make Lake City the type of place that backpackers want to return to again and again.
“In this town, there’s so much more awareness now,” Lucky says. “All the businesses understand what the hikers are doing. So no matter where they go, they’re welcomed and people ask, ‘How’s the hike going?’”
And who knows, maybe the town will become so inviting that Lucky won’t be the last hiker to decide to stay.
Chris Walker says he encountered his favorite trail angels in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. When he got caught in a blizzard, they invited him to take shelter in the family yurt.