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Mountain Minstrel

When Pete Kartsounes decided to hike the Colorado Trail, he couldn’t leave his music behind. So he decided to play shows along the way—and founded a hiking charity to fight cancer.

Trailside Crooner Pete Kartsounes
Trailside Crooner Pete Kartsounes

Like most local singer-songwriters, Pete Kartsounes dedicates his summers to touring.  So when his good friend asked him to hike the Colorado Trail last year, the Boulder-based musician hesitated before saying yes to the 483-mile journey. But rather than skip his usual lot of shows, Kartsounes brought the tunes to the trail, playing concerts in most of the towns they passed through while on their trek.

Kartsounes, a longtime fixture in Colorado’s ever-expanding roots music scene, enjoys shifting his sound from soulful blues and funk to heartfelt, story-driven newgrass. The versatility of this multi-instrumentalist has earned him spots in popular regional bands Possum Logic, Willis and, most recently, the Wayward Sons. Kartsounes’ latest solo album, 2007’s “Out of Nowhere,” features help from Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon and Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band.

For more than a decade Kartsounes let his passion for hiking take a backseat to the rigors of life as a traveling musician. Tired of seeing the warm months pass by from the window of a van, he joined his friend—backpacking legend Namie Bacile—on what evolved into a life-changing  thru-hike. (Bacile is the only person on record to complete the Continental Divide, Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail three times each.) Kartsounes decided to give the trek a higher purpose and used it to raise funds and awareness for cancer. Kartsounes has lost multiple friends to the disease that will claim the lives of over a half-million Americans this year. Cancer also took his dog, who was his best friend for 12 years.

“I had been looking for something to give my life more meaning, so I wanted to do something inspiring,” Kartsounes says. “Cancer is something that affects everyone personally in some way.”

Before hitting the trail last summer, Kartsounes formed the nonprofit Hike4Cancer. During the 5-week hike, which traversed the Rockies from Denver to Durango through six wilderness areas at an average elevation of 10,000 feet, he stopped in towns near the trail and played shows to raise money for the organization. All of the proceeds from gigs in Leadville, Salida, Creede, Durango, Pagosa Springs and Del Norte were funneled from Hike4Cancer to Camp Wapiyapi, a summer respite in Estes Park for kids with life-threatening illness.

“Being out there on the trail every morning, hearing the coyotes and watching the sun rise, made me thankful for what I have,” Kartsounes says. “Now I have more meaning than just driving around the country playing music. It feels good to use what I do to make a difference. ”

Time on the trail was also creatively productive. During the hike Kartsounes toted a small Martin Backpacker guitar so he could write songs along the way. Tunes penned from the adventure will be released on an upcoming album “Songs from the Trail.” The disc, set to come out in 2010, will be co-produced by Bill Nershi of the String Cheese Incident.

The long-term goal is for Hike4Cancer to become a universally recognized hiking charity that can expand to trails around the U.S. Kartsounes will hike the Colorado Trail again this year, starting on July 28. This year he has an open call out to hikers to join him for a section of or the entire trail. He asks those who attend to raise some money per mile to help the charity.

“I’d like to see people all over the world hiking for beneficiaries in their own communities,” Kartsounes says. “I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”

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