The hissing whoosh of the escaping air was unmistakable. We got our first flat. In the middle of empty and, yes, flat as a pancake part of Colorado. At the beginning of what was supposed to be the dullest day of our trip. We somehow managed to make almost 70 thousand miles up to this point. Mostly backroads. Not a trivial amount on the surface that only a wildest optimist would call a road. Only a day ago our car took us up the Mt. Princeton Road. Couple of weeks ago we drove to the Nellie Creek trailhead on the way to Mount Uncomphagre that involved not one, not two, but three stream crossings. Our car survived sandy dunes, sharp rocks, impossible steeps, and holes big enough to swallow a grown man - all that with no malfunctions greater than a side mirror broken by a raccoon and a battery that expired in the cold of the winter.
Sometimes I just don’t get people. Take kids for example. In theory I know why people have them, care about them, even love them. Or, at least, I think I know. It has something to do with an iron grip our genes have on us. Ancestors of a more kid-relaxed persuasion have unfortunate tendency of disappearing from the gene pool. Regardless of the real reason, kids are valued in our society - like cars, or houses, or iPads - and one is supposed to look after them. Well, in any case, that has been my working hypothesis.
Aren’t your tires too skinny? asks a woman who is anything but. I am furiously pedaling uphill and sweat dripping down my forehead seriously impairs my ability to fire a smart retort. Everything that comes to mind is flagged as rude by my internal filters. She looks like she has never been on a bike that hasn’t collapsed under her but we are in Steamboat Springs and everyone is an expert. Our first encounter with mountain biking took place in Killington, Vermont. As hikers forced to jump out of the way of cyclists careening down a steep slope, we didn’t care for it at all. It took us ten years and a visit to Mammoth Lakes, California where we chanced upon an easy trail around Horseshoe Lake that we started to consider the challenges of dirt roads and single tracks. A trip to Sedona, Arizona cemented our new found enthusiasm: Red Rock Pathway is a veritable paradise for a budding mountain biker.
Take one part post-industrial city, one part diverted river, and one part inspiration, work at it for 15 years and voilà: the Riverwalk of Pueblo. In 1995 citizens of Pueblo voted to dig up the original riverbed and surround it with buildings and walkways creating somewhat smaller version of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Not as many fancy eateries as in Texan original, but at least they serve good coffee. And while the result is impressive, there is one ingredient missing: people.
Lowering the pressure in our tires might have helped a bit but it did not help enough. We still found ourself stuck in soft grayish sand on the way to the Medano Lake trailhead. And this time we actually did not try anything stupid. It was not our idea to drive here. I could not even get angry at Natalia who is usually responsible for pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone. This time it was a super nice and extra friendly park ranger. He suggested we try driving unimproved road since wind was too strong to hike the open dunes. I distinctly remember him telling us you can turn back at any point.
If the land you are crossing is desolated yet captivating, then there is an excellent chance you are in what AAA calls the Indian Country. Misappropriation of the name aside the Indian country is where one comes to see incredible geological formations and to witness the progress of a 200 years experiment in civilizing natives. You may think that the concept of bringing the benefits of Western civilization to autochthons is a thing of the past, offensive to modern sensibilities. But consider the restrictions on alcohol on Navajo reservation. The federal government forbids sale of alcohol on Indian lands unless the tribe allows and the Secretary of Interior certifies it. For the rest of us the default option permits alcohol unless local community curbs it. Which is more common than you think: a waitress in Blanding, UT apologetically remarked it’s a dry town (and not because we were in the middle of the desert) when we tried to order beer with our dinner. The result, an utter lack of your favorite libation, is roughly the same but this is not a subtle distinction. Federal laws treat Indians like children. Just look at the extent of tribal jurisdiction over Indian country: the tribal court can only rule in case when both the victim and the perpetrator are Indians and only when the crime is a misdemeanor. Felonies and crimes affecting non-Indians are deemed to difficult to be left to native judges.
I am superhuman. No, I wasn’t bitten by a spider. My bones were not injected with metal. My DNA was not manipulated and I cannot start fires with a blink of my third eye. I do not even have the third eye. But I do feel like I can do things that mere mortals were not intended to do. It does not last long. Couple of turns, couple of meters, yards or feet. Sooner than I would have liked it I am back to my normal, boring self. If you blink, you miss it. But from time to time on a day like today I am filled with happiness that comes from knowledge that I can do no wrong. My only worry is which of the seemingly endless possible lines I should pick. The only sound I hear is the wind. The only goal of existence is to engage in a crazy impossible dance that moves me downhill.
Someone please remind me never to marry a snowboarder. Oh, wait. Did that already. So someone please remind me never to marry a snowboarder AGAIN. To be perfectly honest I actually married a crypto snowboarder. Transition from skis and poles to the board technically happened way after the actual ceremony. I am not sure how one detects a crypto snowboarder before the fact, but I am sure I am against marriage equality when it comes to such mixed liaisons.
I am a cautious person. Too cautious according to people who know me well. Not as skilled at inventing failing scenarios as my mom, but perfectly capable of spoiling a good adventure by warning all involved about the possibility of road closures, beer shortage, inclement weather and 997 other minor cataclysms that can (and will) happen. When we were driving to Colorado I was - silently - mortified about the possible problems we may encounter. First of all, snow was persistently missing. It was sort of expected since we took a southern route with an explicit purpose of avoiding winter weather. But 2 days before arriving in Keystone we were still in Texas, hiking in balmy 60 degrees and I started to panic. The perspective of moving all the way to Colorado only to be left at the mercy of man made substitute was beyond ironic.
Try the groomers on North Peak the poster at the top of the Mozart trail cajoles challenging my grasp of the English language. Thankfully a photo of a skier turning on a perfectly crisp corduroy provides the necessary clue as to what a groomer is. A bit disappointing since I’ve already got my hopes up for a ride in one of those vehicles that groom trails. Try the groomers on North Peak if you want to compete for space with beginners who have fallen for this marketing ploy on one hand, and ambitious skiers who jump out of trees and take no prisoners on the other. Contrary to what the poster leads you to believe, North Peak is an advanced terrain chock-full of black trails with a few blues thrown in. There are no greens there, not even one. If groomers are your thing try Frenchman or Bachelor on the front side of the mountain where grooming is performed twice a day and there is ample opportunity to bail out if you find yourself on a run above your skill level.
This is not going to be about venture capitalists or media tycoons. My topic for the day are irritating obstacles created by skiers with explicit purpose of making snowboarders look ridiculous. Not that they have to try very hard. Avoiding bumpy slopes, while possible and in many cases even recommended, is not the way to enjoy snowboarding. Here in Keystone, giving up on bumps and trees means forgoing half of the terrain. The better half.
Strange things can happen if you take my home is my castle saying to its logical conclusion. You may not end up living in a castle, but you can certainly spend a bigger part of your life building one. As far as living space goes, castles create more problems than they solve. Big, drafty, expensive and short on modern amenities, like multiple bathrooms and flat screen TVs, a castle is easily outclassed by a McMansion on the corner. As a statement of your independence though castles are in the league of their own.
Recently I’ve spent six months without TV. I didn’t think I was depriving myself. Watching TV was never high on my to do list. Besides travelling feels a bit like TV. The difference is that instead of watching the moving pictures firmly planted on a couch, one observes mostly stationary world through the windows of a moving car. That of course does not change the fact that I crave mindless entertainment just as much as the next gal. Point in case: I managed to subject myself to 2 seasons of Prison Break. It’s not TV in its classic sense. Our slightly dusty set serves as a dumb add-on to a streaming Roku box connected to a temporarily unfrozen Netflix account. We get HD (which excites Damian and leaves me unfazed) and no commercial breaks. And of course we can watch it on our own schedule. Assuming the schedule calls for watching couple of years after the show has been aired.
I have had it with gold bugs. Historical precedent notwithstanding there is nothing special about gold. Any commodity can serve a role of store of value. I get that people are scared of economy declining but that’s no excuse to blow the gold bubble. Haven’t we just learned how that story ends? Once society progresses past barter there is a need for money as a medium of exchange. The reason to use gold as money, the only reason really is lack of quick and cheap long distance communication. If you can instantaneously confirm that a person will be able to settle the bill at some point then you can hand them the goods in exchange for a promise. But if you cannot do that you need to collect something that has inherent value. And is small enough that you can easily handle it. And doesn’t expire. And isn’t easy to forge. And exists in sufficient quantities: not too much, not too little. Enter gold.
Fall is upon us. No more dripping sweet juice fleshy peaches from Palisade, Colorado. And those were the best peaches I’ve ever had. Something to do with cool nights and hot days. For the last month we were quite lucky with fruits and vegetables. We have discovered a nearby (8 miles away via a biking trail) farm stand in Frisco that carried local produce. Local may be a bit of a stretch: Palisade is 170 miles away. Then again, this is probably the closest place you can grow food in these mountains.
We’ve conquered our first fourteener in Colorado. Or anywhere for that matter. 1 down (or rather up), and only 53 more to go. You have to love the imperial system. 14 thousand feet sounds so much more impressive than mere 4300 meters. SI is of course just a failed French conspiracy to make American mountains appear smaller. The trail description promises imagining oneself at the base camp on Everest. And sure enough we’ve met two older ladies (sixty five and seventy four years old - that’s older, right?) preparing for trekking in Nepal. Looks like we still have a little time to conquer remaining fourteeners. And to go to Nepal.
In our unskilled attempt to lead a life of debauchery we’ve ended up in Breck’s Absinthe bar. Two things need to be said right away. First: we are now officially allowed to call Breckenridge: Breck. We’ve spent more than 3 weeks here and earned that privilege. And the second: we had absolutely no idea that Absinthe bar would be actually serving - you know - absinthe. That just shows how naive we are. I’ve always thought that absinthe is something that has been drunk only in 19th century France. And even then by a fraction of a society that would have nothing to do with a good old bourgeoisie, which - for better or worse - we are now a part of.
The town of Breckenridge is high. And not just because it legalized marijuana. It’s almost 10 thousand feet (3 thousand meters) above the sea level. According to a multitude of articles about altitude sickness this is a serious elevation. As usual I chalk the alarming tone of the warnings up to American miscalculation of risk. Anything practiced by thousands people inhabiting towns of Rocky Mountains cannot be that dangerous. And this time I mean living at this altitude, not pot smoking.
I am reading a sci-fi book about Mars. Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is a trilogy about terraforming Mars and transforming a population of colonists into an independent society. The book resonates deeply with our recent excursions. Hiking the red rocks of Utah parks reminds me of the Martian landscape. When driving a dirt road in a deep canyon with little plant life I feel the environment is as strange and hostile to life as on Mars. I almost expect to find a Mars rover around the corner. The abundant biosphere of our planet turns out to have clear and surprisingly close boundaries.
This really should not be about trees. Nor about beetles. I should write about Rockies tundra extending above 11000ft (3500m). Because tundra at this latitude is unique. And trees are everywhere. At least for now. Normally it takes some effort to get to the tundra layer. You have to either hike for a couple of hours or travel way up north. But not in Rocky Mountain park. There is a road that will take you up there. And then you can take a paved trail to have an even closer look. The trail is not steep but you will run out of breath. Only 2/3 of oxygen that your body is used to is now entering your lungs. So to compensate you breathe harder and more often. Even if you are otherwise in a pretty good shape. It’s hard to believe that anything can live here. But it does. And it’s colorful and fragile and very alien. It’s September but the cold wind tries to knock you down and slam your car doors. Chances are you are not dressed properly. After all you just drove up in comfort of a car from a warm autumn town below.
We almost missed it. When at 8pm on Saturday we decided to check it out it was already over for the day. Clearly beer drinking is not a way to spend an evening. We don’t really know what the rules are for an Oktoberfest held in September. They may as well color beer pink and serve with cookies for all we know. The next day we wait till 12pm in accord with the unwritten rule of no drinking before noon, unless to cure a hungover and venture into the crowd milling among the stands. In an attempt to move away from a yodeling band in lederhosen we spot Polish food. I go to secure it while Damian tries to buy beer. Not that simple. In order to exchange money for alcohol one needs to purchase a ticket. The booth is located at the end of the fest ground. We get carded and receive wrist bands and then we can buy tickets. And T-shirts. And pins. And commemorative beer mugs from 2008 at a discount in lieu of this year’s ones. The lady in charge of transactions seems to be slightly affected by the joyous atmosphere. Confused by an uncooperative terminal she takes Damian’s credit card hostage and then has problems procuring a receipt. We run away before she decides to take our hard won tickets away.
Out of all the states we visited so far we liked Colorado best. May be because of the mountains: lots of very dramatic peaks in the western part. May be because the people are not so interested in our story: they seem to ignore our accents even more than folks in Massachusetts. Or may be because the food is OK here and they know how to make beer. Seems like each and every town sports its own microbrewery.
Americans celebrate mourn the end of summer a.k.a. the Labor Day weekend by driving away to vacation destinations. Like Breckenridge, Colorado. With all the energy spent on securing a lodging in an attractive place they neglect to devise an interesting activity to fill 3 days. They wander aimlessly down the street looking for any diversion. Eventually they fall back onto familiar pastime: shopping. Only they don’t buy much as the looming recession put an end to guiltless spending.
It was supposed to be an easy 2 mile loop to conclude a wonderful day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison park. I managed to convince Natalia that we do not really want to descent to the river which apparently involves sliding on a talus and 80 feet of chain. And I was quite proud of my accomplishment when we heard this strange noise. Something was moving through the bushes. Sounded bigger than a chipmunk. I looked around and here it was. A bear. Sitting in the bushes and looking at us curiously. We did not see it at first. But he made sure we knew he was there.
Damian, like 90% of the society, needs his coffee in the morning. Without it he becomes cranky and unfocused. I, on the other hand, am not like the remaining 10% who happily go about their lifes without the daily stimulant. I am in the class of my own: I drink hot milk with a drop or two of coffee for the smell and color. It’s an easy drink to make at home: two minutes in the microwave for the mug full of milk plus whatever coffee Damian has left at the bottom of a French press. Et voilà I am as happy as I can be in the morning - which, truthfully, is not very much. But who needs mornings.
When everything else fails Obama can take a leaf from another war and depression era president’s book and institute modern equivalent of Civilian Conservation Corps. Not only will it address the disproportionally high unemployment among youngest workers but it will give us more stone cabins and overlooks on public lands. At least this is what happened when the CCC was formed in the 1933. After 9 years and countless improvements in national and state parks former members of the CCC were drafted to contribute their skills and lives to the war effort. Obama might prefer a different exit strategy. On the other hand we already have a war or two going on so may be he just needs to backtrack on his promise to pull back troops. Instituting draft would help as well.
Kindness of strangers. Beware of that. It will get you to do things you never intended to do. They just cannot help themselves. They are everywhere pointing, advising, probing. Like when I try to keep up with Natalia hiking to the Ice Lake. I am clearly having a bad hiking day. Huffing and puffing I am dragging my body up. And up. These are real mountains. Not like Green Mountains in Vermont. Or Catskills. Or Adirondacks.
Telluride, Colorado is a playground for the rich. Not as famous or expensive as Aspen but multi-million dollars condos beg to differ. You don’t notice it at first in the summer when gondola runs for free but $1950 for a season ski pass speaks for itself. It’s a pretty little town nested in a valley surrounded by dramatic mountains. Full of fancy hotels, boutique shops and decent restaurants. Completely devoid of chain stores or motels. It seems once the rich move into town they keep walmarts and mcdonalds out. Too bad they also keep house prices high.
San Juan Mountains are treaded lightly once more. Where the Utes used to hunt game, tourists are chasing ghosts. And while in Europe ghosts inhabit castles and are result of unhappy aristocratic marriages, American ghosts are signs of a once new era reminding us of failed capitalist ventures. Remnants of towns and mines mark brief interlude of commercial exploitation of these beautiful but harsh mountains.
We’ve learned a new verb: jeeping. Well, in our case it’s probably nissaning and we are obviously not doing it right. As far as I can tell it involves taking your unsuspecting car on a deadly, narrow, mountain road in search of breathtaking views and an adrenaline rush. Our truck is more than happy to oblige, but the driver and the pilot (otherwise known as I and Natalia) not so much. One problem is you never know what awaits around the corner. We wonder if the road marked in a guide as moderate jeeping is easy enough for us? (It isn’t). Once you commit to a road there is usually no turning back. And I don’t mean it in a metaphorical sense. The road is literally too narrow to turn. I suppose one could just back off all the way down.
Bored? Looking for a new mode of transportation? Join thousands of Americans in this brand new discovery of railroad travel. No, I am not talking about switching from car to train for a daily commute. This is about train as entertainment. Everyday use of trains is in the same sorry state it has been since the demise of steam locomotive. We’ve encountered this type of diversion twice so far: in Chama, New Mexico and in Durango, Colorado. Commercial application was abandoned in the 60s due to the usual reasons of cheap gasoline and better roads. In 90s is became tourist attraction. Clearly there are enough people willing to don dark clothes (to avoid staining by airborne soot) and spend a few hours in a densely packed open-air gondola cars chatting with strangers, which is advertised as particularly enjoyable. Upgrade to an adult-only parlor class available - obviously the organizers thought about anti-social types like us who are not overly fond of children. The railroads are engineering wonders. And they traverse one of the most picturesque parts of US. But if you buy a ticket be prepared to spend couple of hours traveling to nowhere: Osier, Colorado or Silverton, Colorado. Both are ghost towns.
Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblans as modern Pueblo Indians prefer to call them lived in the Mesa Verde for hundreds of years until late 1200s. And then they disappeared. More exactly they stopped building. Quite abruptly as testified by an unfinished Sun Temple. And similarly they abandoned the Chaco Canyon about hundred years earlier. What happened to them? Why did they leave? Where did they go? Professional and amateur archeologists have been attempting to answer those questions for 120 years now. No theory is entirely satisfying. For various reasons including political. Overpopulation and depletion of resources, advocated by Jared Diamond, doesn’t gel with the myth of Indians as good stewards following Mother Earth principles. When it is presented to Mesa Verde visitors it’s qualified by the occurrence of an ice age at that time. Drop in temperature is strangely at odds with artists’ renderings of mostly naked Indians peppering the park sites. But naked means savage and we, the descendants of the European settlers, are used to this excuse of the atrocities committed in the name of civilizing the indigenous population. Scholars disagree if it was great drought or ice age that explains the worsening of climate and forced the natives out. But you’d never know there is a controversy by reading literature provided by National Park Service.