Backpacking the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 3 Nature and Spirit

I became fascinated with weather as a fairly young child. While looking into weather, I would often find old books, written long before people could look up a weather forecast on the computer or even turn on The Weather Channel. These books would describe how sky and wind conditions indicate likely changes in weather. This knowledge seems generally obsolete. However, the combination of knowing how weather patterns typically shape up in late August in the Rocky Mountains and observing the morning sky lead us to expect to be able hike the final 6.2 miles back to the trailhead before encountering rain.

One thing that did get somewhat frustrating on this and other recent camping trips, is the equipment. It is common for people to buy equipment for activities such as camping or hiking and feel as if they are done making purchases. However, on this trip, it became apparent that this tent was going to soon need repair or replacement.

The same can be said for my hiking pants and spork.

It’s taken me a while to realize how warped most people’s view of money and finance is. It seems common to focus only on expenses we can psychically see and on the short-term. When it comes to outdoor and sporting equipment, the line between renting and owning feels quite blurry. The more one uses an item, the sooner it needs to be replaced. So, with certain variance for the quality of the item and how well we take care of our things, even when we buy our own equipment, we are still sort of paying per use. The first dozen or so times anyone uses something like a tent, they rarely think about the cost of eventually replacing it and how those trips are taking them closer to that inevitable expense.

Throughout the trip, we continued to encounter deer up close. We must have chosen to set up camp in their territory or something. Once, when I left the tent to go to the bathroom before going to sleep, I encountered a deer and got startled. By Sunday morning, with clear weather, it almost felt as if we were hanging out with them!

Looking at us, I was wondering if the deer were having their own “Low Key F2020” type of experience. I can imagine them thinking….

Ugh! First there is all this smoke, then this hailstorm comes through, and now these humans are in our way! Can we do like the bears, hibernate and skip to 2021?

Heading back across the valley, the sky continued to point to a more typical late August scenario and the expectation that rain and storms would come, as is more typical, in mid-afternoon.

Heading across the rocky area, we encountered some more furry creatures.

Then headed up fancy pass, a slightly higher pass than the one we had trekked in on Friday.

Heading up the pass, it got kind of windy. I wonder how the people who set up camp closer to the pass, in an exposed area, had fared that morning.

This was the challenging and exhausting part. First there was the nearly 1000 foot climb up Fancy Pass, where we could clearly see that Missouri Pass was lower.

Then, the other side was a steep, rocky downhill, which can be just as tiring as the uphill.

The Fancy Pass Trail experience was a bit more pleasant than the Missouri Lakes Trail experience two days prior. There was no crazy avalanche area where the trail was covered with downed trees and difficult to pass. Also, all of the trail’s features were quite exquisite in the morning sun.

First, Fancy Lake (okay, maybe the names of these things need more variety)

Then, just below the lake, the water funnels into an amazing tall, skinny waterfall.

The final three miles trail is pretty homogenous: a gentle downward slope through a pine forest.

It was in this section that I had a spiritual experience!

As I walked through the woods for what was the final hour and a half of this journey, I suddenly felt as if I was getting some deeply profound messages about my life. They were the kinds of messages that gave me clarity about what I am meant to be doing, confidence in who I am supposed to be and context around some of my more unpleasant past experiences. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

It felt like the result of a confluence of several circumstances.

  • I was tired enough to slow down my mind typically very active thought process. Yet, I was not so exhausted that it was all I could focus on.
  • There were not too many distractions in that section of the trail (i.e. fantastic panoramic views, wildlife, waterfalls, etc.)
  • My mind was somewhat de-cluttered from having done no-news August and having spent three days without access to Wi-Fi

While people believe different things, I genuinely believe that I received messages from either God or some kind of guiding spirit and came away from it with an unexpected boost.

It also gave me that answer to a question that had been looming on my mind for years. There is no question that our modern technology and conveniences have made our lives better. People live longer, are healthier and have more free time and other fun experiences than they did before we had all of our modern technologies. Yet, some chose to forgo conveniences like running water, electricity and computers for periods of time to take part in activities like this one. Regardless of whether or not one believes God speaks to us through nature, taking a break from the modern world gives us the opportunity to connect with something we don’t typically connect to.

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 2 The Storm

We woke up to a light rain tapping on the tent. The tiny amount of blue sky present in the morning quickly disappeared. While some days start off rainy only to quickly give way to sunshine, it was obvious this would not be one of those days. It would not be an optimal day for adventure.

Still, we tried to do our previously planned day hike to a couple of other alpine lakes. The rocks and lack of trees in the areas, combined with the cloudy skies, breeze and chilly rain made me think of the Scottish Highlands. I’ve never been there, but have seen photos which always make them appear something like this.I kind of always imagine cloudy weather as well.

The rain started to pick up as fog made previously visible mountains disappear in the background. We retreated to the tent.

As the rain picked up, the cold rain, along with a moderate, started to remind me of how it often felt walking down 5th Avenue (in New York City) during Christmastime. At higher elevations it snowed.

We would spend several hours inside the tent, trying to warm up and dry off. I kind of enjoyed having a chance to relax a bit and read (once I was able to dry off). There is something about having no other options, being stuck, that liberates us from this drive (or expectation) to make the most of every day we have. It feels like a modern day American obsession. I’m not sure if it is our work culture, competitive nature or something completely different that makes it hard for us to just relax. I’m probably even worse than most Americans. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to waste and entire day, not doing anything interesting or productive, and be okay with it. However, every time I try to do that, I get jittery sometime around 10 A.M.

The sun would eventually come out, sometime around 2:30 P.M.

I showed even more versatility by taking part in an activity I seldom do… fishing.

It even felt warm out for an hour or two.

We brought the fish back to our cooking area (which needs to be away from our campsite because of bears), filleted the fish and cooked our rice … just in time for another storm.

And I mean JUST IN TIME. As soon as everything was cooked, we rapidly and haphazardly put everything away in order to scurry back to the tent with our food to avoid lightning. While the cold wintry rain in the morning was just incredibly uncomfortable, the lightning in the evening was actually potentially dangerous. As summer was coming to an end in the mountains, we experienced nearly all seasons in one day.

It was the most intense thunderstorm I have ever experienced from inside a tent. It was the kind of thunderstorm where the sound of thunder follows the lightning nearly instantaneously making a startlingly loud noise! We could feel the vibration that only comes when the lightning strikes are incredibly close. It even hailed!

2020 is the gift that keeps on giving. It feels like a passive aggressive genie in a bottle, repeatedly giving me what I want but finding the most obnoxious possible way to grant the wish.

Me throughout the 2010s: Our jobs need to be more flexible. The rigid 9-to-5 schedule is outdated.

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I shall create a global pandemic that will force everyone to work remotely out of fear of killing their loved ones with a really intense flu. That will lead to workplace flexibility.

Me in August 2020: There is drought, fires and smoke from California to Colorado. We need rain!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I’ll make it rain! But, I’ll make it rain on the middle day of your backpacking trip, while you are not in your home or even able to get back to your car. Oh, and I’ll give you both cold wintry rain and scary thunderstorm rain.

Maybe it’s not just me.

Countless people in the 2010s: The rent is too damn high!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): An economic depression, violence and mass exodus from your city will lower your rent. You’re welcome.

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 1 Versatility

It started with an amazingly picturesque waterfall, only half an hour into the hike, before even reaching the border of the Wilderness itself.

There is no shortage of amazing natural features along the Missouri Lakes Trail in the Southern Part of the Holy Cross Wilderness about 20 miles South of Vail. In this part of the world it is hard to imagine anything different!

Many of the natural features along the first two miles of the trail were waterfalls!

This otherwise amazing experience along the Missouri Lakes trail was only interrupted by a section of trail that was quite challenging to pass and navigate due to a recent avalanche.

I was told this avalanche happened about a year and a half ago. I had never seen so many trees down in one place and could not help but imagine it being like one of those crazy scary avalanches in those nature videos. I wonder if anyone got trapped, if anyone died. Most people who travel places like this, especially in winter are smart, but there are the occasional stupid ones that end up in the news.

We spent most of the rest of the morning walking by the Missouri Lakes, the feature the trail is named after.

As is typical on the first day of a trip like this, I was trying to clear out my thoughts. Despite my decision to give up news for the month of August, I had some trouble clearing my mind. We can chose not to consciously look at the news, but unless we hide at home alone, there will be things we find out about. I heard about Hurricane Laura’s landfall in Louisiana. I also heard about something that hit closer to home for me, as I spent the first eleven years of my life living on Long Island and regularly going into New York City. Apparently, with the COVID-triggered adaptation of remote work, there is now an ongoing debate about whether New York is “dead” [1] [2].

I was in a place that could not be any more different from New York City.

Yet, my thoughts kept wandering to this debate. I wondered if the reports of people leaving New York City were overblown? Could the city really be facing an imminent decline? If so, will it be like it was in the 1970s? Could it be worse? What would the United States of America even be without places like New York City, where one can be in the middle of everything, the energy, constant movement, and economic activity?

The article claiming New York to be “Dead Forever” made a claim that sounded quite familiar… “This time is different”. I’ve heard this statement many times, in many different forms. Sure, “this time is different” events do happen, but not as often as they are proclaimed. A deep dive into history will actually reveal that in many cases, even ones of major change, a lot of things stay the same. A recent example is Google and Facebook. They changed the world in some ways, but their business model of giving away content for free and marketing to advertisers is not new at all. It started with radio and was the predominant business model of the television era. The main thing they changed was providing a platform for people to produce content for each other rather than paying actors to produce content.

I have a feeling that, although some adjustments will need to be made, there will still be people who crave the energy of living in places like New York.

Going over a mountain pass is quite a different experience than summiting a mountain. Looking ahead at the ridge, it is comforting, especially while carrying a heavy backpack, to know that it is only necessary to reach the “saddle” of this ridge, as opposed to the top of a mountain. There is no chance of a “false summit”. The challenge up ahead looks real, but it is also all laid out in front of us, with no surprises.

The top of the summit would reveal another challenge ahead. The clouds were already gathering.

As we descended the other side of the pass, toward Treasure Vault Lake at about half past noon, it was almost impossible to imagine an afternoon that would not feature rain.

It would take about an hour and a half for us to reach our destination, Blodgett Lake.

Due to a very rocky section of the trail, we had to descend into the valley and climb back to the lake.

For our final ascent to the lake, we went off trail. It’s probably a place few humans venture.

We ended up getting camp set up just in time for the storms to roll in.

The hours of 2:30 to 5:30 P.M. were mostly spent inside the tent, waiting out the storm. It was not ideal, as people often chose activities like this to spend time outdoors. However, we had been outdoors most of the day, and I welcomed the chance to take a nap and do a little bit of reading.

Between the place we set up camp and the lake there was a small lone tree. The image of this tiny tree with mountains and storm clouds in the backdrop made me think of the types of photographs often featured at art galleries, or at trendy cocktail parties.

That lone tree also came to symbolize something else… versatility.

It is common for people to wait for the ideal conditions for their activities. The chilly damp conditions, and promise of more time stuck inside the tent were far from ideal. However, that evening I witnessed a truly stunning natural phenomenon that I had only previously seen in videos. Watching the fog clouds pour over two mountain passes and into the valley below I knew for sure …. It pays to be versatile!

The Monsoon the Never Arrived

The North American Monsoon typically arrives in the Southwestern United States in mid to late July. Unlike some monsoons in other parts of the world, this one does not bring a consistent or steady rain. After all, it is a very dry region. Normally, for four to six weeks, most days will feature scattered thunderstorms across the region.

As has been the case for many expected events this year, the 2020 monsoon never happened.

Many places, particularly in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah received little to no rain along with hotter than normal temperatures. While there is variance in how strong these monsoons are from year to year, this year it seriously NEVER ARRIVED. 2020 is tracking to be the driest summer ever in Phoenix, while Las Vegas is on the verge of breaking a record for its longest streak without rain.

This has lead to widespread drought, raging wildfires, particularly across central California and Colorado, road closures, and smoke everywhere!

It feels as if Denver and the other front range cities have been under a constant barrage of smoke, with air quality alerts every day for the entire month. Day in and day out its been the same story. It is usually pleasant at sunrise.

But, this pleasant period is reserved only for early risers. It only takes a couple of hours of sun for it to begin to feel quite hot. Some days a few clouds show up as a teaser.

But the storm never arrives, just a hot wind. The last time there was any measurable rain was the first of the month, and that wasn’t much at all.

Each day, I’ll check the forecast only to see more of the same.

Forecast for August 20-23, 2020

If there is one theme to 2020 thus far, it’s monotony. We all endured some amount of quarantine, where each day, day in and day out, we have been doing pretty much the same thing. What fascinates me about this whole time period has been different people’s responses to two aspects of what is going on.

First, the monotony. Some people thrive on routine. I don’t! My response to a world where there are no concerts, many special events are cancelled and any travel or socializing comes with an additional risk is to try to create as much variety as possible.

Both the pandemic and the extremely hot summer required many to adjust their routines. COVID-19 forced many people to embrace things like preparing their meals at home as opposed to eating out, working remotely, and finding new ways to connect with their friends.

When hot summer days arrive, it becomes advantageous to wake up earlier to take advantage of the most pleasant part of the day.

Okay, I’m just using this blog as an excuse to show off sunrise photos

So, for many, this is not just a routine, but a new routine. The responses I have observed to this seem to be dependent on three factors…

  1. Does someone like routine or variety?
  2. Is the person enjoying the different routine that these events have created?
  3. How flexible and emotionally mature someone is.

It is hard for me not to dwell on the feeling that this entire year has been far more manageable for the introverted homebody types who love routine. I’ve had to almost entirely rely on item #3 to get me through this. Specifically, I’ve embraced this as the year to fully examine my mindset. How do I embrace gratitude rather than blame? Is there anything in my life that is still holding me back? What am I wasting energy on? Am I still getting trapped in too many negative thoughts? How do I really believe in myself? And, the list goes on and on.

It’s a strange journey because it requires two seemingly contradictory forms of internal dialogue. One one hand, for anyone to reach their true potential as a human being, they must be brutally honest with themselves. This means no more excuses, no more denial about shortcomings and taking responsibility for where one is in life. At the same time, it also requires radical self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. After all, it is important to not deny our problems, but one must love themselves for who they are and be confident in their value as a person to live a full life.

The monsoon is also far from the only expectation that the year 2020 has failed to meet.

Nearly everyone has had an event or a trip cancelled, had a career prospect not manifest, or even had to delay a major life event like a wedding or having a child. It has kind of become chaos, a kind of boring manifestation of chaos, but chaos nonetheless. 2020 has managed to cancel even the most basic things, like happy hours, the summer monsoon and travel on I-70! Handling this feels like an exercise in patience, flexibility and resiliency.

The question that 2020 is forcing all of us to answer is…

Can we put up with the flow of life taking us toward something different than what we had imagined it to be? Can we be ready to adjust to an unexpected change in circumstances? Can we stop fighting and blaming each other? Can we embrace something new? Can we let go of unnecessary assumptions: about the world, about life, about ourselves and about each other? Can we even find a way to come out better for it?

Mount of the Holy Cross

I did not understand why I heard so many cars going by at 3 A.M. We were camping in a really good spot, along Notch Mountain Road only five miles from the trailhead. Wasn’t the purpose of camping near the trailhead of a 14er (Mountain with a peak 14,000 ft. or higher in elevation, a popular activity in Colorado, particularly in late summer) to be able to sleep a little later? In our spot, we were able to wake up shortly after 5 A.M. and still arrive at the trailhead by sunrise.

The strange thing was, the trailhead was already so packed we had to park half a mile away!

Over the course of the day, we would find out the reason why. The most obvious reason is that The Mt. of the Holy Cross is not just a “14er”. It is a 14er with a warmup hike, a climb of roughly 1200 feet in elevation, followed by a descent into a river valley before the primary 3500 foot steep ascent.

Hiking several days after a full moon has two advantages. First, the moon does not rise in the night sky until an hour or two before midnight, making it possible to see the stars before going to sleep. Then, in the morning, the moon is still out past sunrise.

The opening ascent, which summits right around the tree line is a significant hike of its own. There are probably plenty of people who live more sedentary lives who would not even be able to make it to this summit, which was spectacular at this early hour.

Right after getting to the summit, the trail turned in another direction and suddenly, the mountain the we were going to climb appeared before us while the moon was still prevalent in the morning sky.

It was an image of power, challenge and intimidation in front of us. We had just completed what many would consider a satisfactory hike of its own, a climb of a little over 1000 feet to a scenic panoramic view. Here, it was just a warm up. The moon, still mostly full and bright highlighted the challenge that laid ahead. It may as well have been screaming LEVEL UP.

After seeing the mountain, there can be nothing more disconcerting than descending, giving back the elevation gain we had worked for at the beginning of the day. We descended from near tree line (11,600′) back down into a river valley with Aspen trees nearly 1000 feet lower.

Long distance cycling taught me how to manage situations like these, psychologically speaking. Terrain, on trips like these, are kind of like a metaphor for life. Parts of it are naturally going to be harder. Parts of it are going to be easier. Sometimes you can anticipate it. Sometimes, it is unexpected. When climbing, during the more challenging parts of life, all you can do is toughen up – grind it out. When on a descent, or during times when life takes it a bit easier on you, it is seriously best to just enjoy it, and not worry about paying the price later. We can’t change the terrain, the wind speed or the trail conditions. All we can do is get the full enjoyment out of the experiences that work in our favor.

Around the river valley, there were a serious of campsites, another reason that the trailhead parking lot was so full. Apparently, many people who hike this mountain pack into one of these campsites and then tackle the main ascent in the morning.

After the campgrounds, the climb got intense quite rapidly. It wouldn’t be long before we reached treeline and encountered typical conditions associated with 14ers; A rocky, steep trail with full exposure.

Instantly the full beauty of the heart of the Rocky Moutains was visible in all directions.

I knew I would soon reach the point where I felt exhausted and delirious.

The step scramble up the rocks seemed to go on and on forever. Every time I reached what appeared to be some kind of crest, the trail would just turn in a slightly different direction and the rocky climb would continue.

This very intense section of the mountain, at high elevation, also felt like a metaphor for life. Sometimes, we work really hard at something, complete a task and feel like we have “made it”, only to determine that another, equally challenging task lies ahead of us. It is like working hard to get an advanced degree, then working hard to land a job, then working hard to prove ourselves and get a promotion, or having to work our way into a different, more appropriate position. If anything, the downhill part of this hike was part of that metaphor. Many of us take part in endeavors that we later realize were counterproductive.

The final scramble to the top was so steep it proved ideal conditions for mountain goats.

There was one adverse condition, common to 14ers, that I did not experience that day. That was bad weather of any kind. In the mountains, it is common to encounter chilly winds, even in the middle of summer and afternoon thunderstorms. Consistent with the hot, dry summer of 2020, I relaxed on top of the mountain in a t-shirt, without having to crawl behind rocks to shield from the wind.

I was still almost too exhausted to enjoy being at the top of the mountain. It always feels amazing to be at the top, but I felt quite delirious. I was almost feeling too delirious to make sense of everything. I ceased thinking about every aspect of the experience being some kind of metaphor for life and just gazed around, with no energy for any thought beyond feeling on top of the world and gazing out at the rugged terrain in all directions.

The descent turned out to be almost as exhausting because I keep my dog on leash, she pulls, making a steep descent even scarier, and she spent most of the descent trying to capture small chipmunks.

Luckily, she finally succeeded, and once that adrenaline rush wore off, even an energetic 2-year-old Siberian Husky had to acknowledge that this hike was indeed exhausting.

With a round trip total of around 5500 feet of climbing, this was the most challenging hike I had ever undertaken. It was challenging enough to make me stop thinking of metaphors for life and start seeing just what is. When I reached the crest of the final climb on the return trip, I simply enjoyed one of my favorite foods and gazed back upon the mountain I had just finished climbing.

Suddenly my exhaustion made sense. I mean, come on, look at that thing!

Cycling Leadville Colorado

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Welcome to the future! The world is suddenly in a true state of transformation. Millions of people have transitioned to remote work. Prior to this year, remote work had never been too widespread. Despite its robust growth throughout the 2010s, estimates from the later part of the decade put the percentage of workers who were fully remote near or below 5% [Source 1] [Source 2] [Source 3].

It’s important to remember that “remote work” does not mean “work from home”. While some use the terms interchangeably, there is an important difference. “Work from home” simply replaces the need to be at one’s desk at the office with the need to be at one’s desk at home. It is one of the ways people are attempting to recreate the office online in these strange times.

Conversely, “remote work” means working from anywhere, as long as the job gets done and the responsibilities are handled. Alongside several other societal developments (asynchronous communication, updated views of stakeholders and others), truly embracing remote work has the potential to create a freer and healthier world!

My mid-July experiment came from my desire to escape the heat. In Colorado, we escape the mid summer heat by going up in elevation. When it comes to towns in North America, it is hard to find one higher than Leadville, which is above 10,000 feet in elevation.

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I traded near 100 degree heat for cool mornings and pleasnt days (highs usually in the low to mid 70s) at a relatively affordable price by renting a studio unit with excellent mountain and sunset views.

Perhaps because I visited during the only somewhat warm part of the year here, there were a lot of people walking around, talking to each other and such.

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I could feel the spirit and the history everywhere I walked and never needed do more than a slight turn of the head to see some of the amazing natural beauty of the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

Perhaps the best way to get the vibe of a small town like this one is to visit a coffee shop on the town’s Main Street (in this case Harrison Street) at 7:30 A.M. on a weekday morning.

Since there is no major ski resort, or other major tourist attraction, Leadville felt like it had a more genuine small town vibe to it.

A great introduction to cycling in Leadville is Leadville’s Mineral Belt Trail.

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The Mineral Belt Trail is a 12 mile loop that passes through town, as well as some of the historic mines in the hills nearby.

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For visitors, I definitely recommend riding this trail in the counter-clockwise direction. In this direction, the ride will start with a climb in the woods, with a chance to look back at Colorado’s highest point and some chance encounters.

Although the climb is not big, the summit is a must stop!

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Much of the next section of the trail is a homage to Leadville’s mining history.

Then, it opens up to a wonderfully scenic descent.

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This ride is one that could easily be thrown into a lunch hour or break in a work from anywhere situation.

There are plenty of ways to find rides that are somewhat longer and more challenging. On this trip, I took on a the ride around Turquoise Lake.

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The ride totals between 20 and 25 miles depending on where in town the ride originates and whether or not any side trips are taken to look at some of the scenic overlooks.

The main considerations for this ride are…

1. It is not particularly popular among cyclists

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I did not see any other cyclists, nor did I see too many cars.

2. On the south side, the road is closer to the lake.

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However, there are still some hills.

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3. The north side of the lake has a bigger climb

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And a descent where a cyclist could easily break the speed limit!

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Oh, and a great overlook of the town!

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4. The road itself is not in the greatest of shape in all places

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There is definitely a need to be somewhat cautious on some of these descents.

Finally, Leadville is a great place for longer, more challenging rides. Heading north out of Leadville, one can either follow highway 91 over Freemont Pass.

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Or follow highway 24 over Tennessee Pass.

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Or take on the 80 mile loop that makes up the popular Copper Triangle, which would include riding up Vail Pass as well. A very scenic but challenging ride.

Copper Triangle Map

Regardless of what riding one does up in Leadville, there are some important considerations. First, at these high elevations, there is always the risk of wind and rain, which would make the trip take longer than anticipated.

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In fact, along the Mineral Belt Trail, there are several shelters built for cyclists to wait out an unexpected storm.

These storms are more common as the afternoon progresses. With some chilly temperatures in the morning, even in mid-July, the ideal time for cycling in the Central Rocky Mountains would be in the late morning through early afternoon. In this, my first true experiment with the new work from anywhere era, I did not do the best job of arranging my work and activities to align with this reality. Luckily I did not encounter rain, but did encounter plenty of wind. As we navigate this new world, the key will be to synthesize life and work in a new way, aligning work, time and place considering the expected conditions associated with the seasons and the atmosphere. Once we effectively manage these conditions for ourselves, our lives will be richer and more fulfilling than ever before!

 

 

Lessons Relearned on The West Elk Loop

It is quite easy to drive around the State of Colorado without even noticing the numerous scenic byways throughout the State. The signs are kind of easy to ignore. How certain roads get labelled scenic byways is somewhat of a mystery. There are plenty of extremely scenic places that are not designated a “scenic byway”, while there are some ares on the Plains, like highway 50 from Lamar to La Junta which are frankly not that scenic.

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I’ve never made a point to follow one of these routes. However, the weekend I camped in the Gunnison National Forest, I just happened to mostly follow the West Elk Loop.

The West Elk Loop is kind of a loop around the Gunnison National Forest, but there is also spur north along the Crystal River. This happens to be where my journey began.

We were not too far from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I had never gone too deep into the park, nor have I visited the North Rim. I wanted to go and hike the North Vista Trail to overlook the canyon. Unfortunately, like most National Parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not very dog friendly.

But that wasn’t enough to deter me. I thought it would be possible to hike up to an overlook of the canyon from outside the park. The drive was two hours, through an area that would eventually become a hot desert.

I figured there would be someone in the tiny town of Paonia that could help me figure out a way to overlook the canyon with a dog.

 

All I heard was a story about a dog that was left at the bottom of the canyon four years ago, who, luckily was able to eventually find a home.

The road I had identified to hopefully find an overlook of the canyon was hot and way too bumpy for my car.

We eventually got to a place where we could overlook part of the canyon.

But it hardly felt worth it. The round about drive took up nearly the entire day, and defeated one of the key purposes of this trip- to escape the heat.

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The next day, we’d visit a much less well known part of the West Elk Loop, along a county road that connects Paonia State Park to Crested Butte, that happens to be closed in the winter.

The drive was beautiful from the very beginning. It was quiet and the road was nowhere near as bumpy I had feared based on the previous day’s drive and that little dashed line on the map.

Instead, it lead us to one of the most beautiful hikes we had ever been on, in the Lost Lake area.

The first place we encountered along the hike was Lost Lake, a picture perfect lake with mountains in the backdrop.

When I see this place, it feels like where I would want to have a little cabin in the woods. Having just driven down into 100 degree heat on a wild goose chase the day before, I was suddenly thinking a lot about weather and climate. Although I was escaping the heat this particular mid-July weekend, I still wondered how often people get to really enjoy the lakes that are this high in elevation (closer to 10000 ft.). How often is it really warm enough? Maybe, if I were to get a lake house, I’d actually want to be a little bit lower, at an elevation more like 7000 ft., where there are more warm days to enjoy it.

We continued on to Beckwith Pass, which was actually not too much of a climb. However, even at this elevation, it felt hot! The scene got more amazing as we followed the trail.

We could see the West Elk Mountains.

The Maroon Bells.

And, Mount Crested Butte.

The least well known part of the West Elk Loop turned out to be the most magnificent!

I could not believe I had wasted an entire day looking for this elusive trail to overlook the Black Canyon. I could not believe that I had fallen for the trap that so many fall for, being relentless about going to the most high profile destination despite all the other obstacle, including the National Park’s dog policy, and the relatively low elevations in the middle of a heat wave!

The strange thing is that this is a lesson I had already learned. Despite living in Denver, I rarely go to Rocky Mountain National Park, instead opting for the less busy areas around it that are often just as scenic. This Beckwith Pass hike was probably even better than the North Vista Trail would have been.

The lessons I (re)learned, on this hot July weekend in the mountains are

  • Don’t get too hung up on the most obvious, high profile things in life
  • Be curious, open minded and keep exploring
  • Work with what is in front of me

Escaping the Heat

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This year in Denver, it got hot and it got hot quickly. The first 90 degree temperature occurred on May 19th. This would be followed by the third hottest June on record, featuring 17 days where temperatures exceeded 90ºF.

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The heat continued into July with no end in sight.

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Forecast for July 10-12 issued July 9

Having spent over a dozen winters in the Midwest, I generally welcome the heat. However, having to always get outdoor activities in first thing in the morning or just before sundown can get tiring after a while.

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A heat wave is also an opportunity! In Colorado, we can always escape the heat by going up to the mountains. Many ski resorts in the Central Rockies display their comfotable average summertime temperatures when promoting their summertime activities. However, it is always cold at night! It has actually been five years since I’ve been camping somewhere with pleasant nighttime temperatures. A mid summer heat wave provides the opportunity to camp at high elevations without feeling too cold.

With the recent hot and dry weather, the one thing that would not be available is fire. We arrived at a campsite in the Gunnison National Forest at 9 P.M., three hours before a fire ban would take effect.

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I sometimes enjoy arriving at a Campsite right around dusk.

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Sure, it is not as fun to set up camp with limited light. But, there is something interesting about not knowing what your surroundings really look like until waking up the next morning. The sun rises from behind the mountains gradually revealing to you where you are.

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In some ways, it felt like I failed to escape the heat. Despite being in at higher elevation, daytime temperatures reached the 90s at the campsite. In some of the places we drove to, they were even a bit hotter.

However, perhaps because of how dry it was, overnight the temperatures would drop down into the 40s. Not uncomfortably cold, but cool enough to actually desire some hot tea in the morning, something I hadn’t done in Denver in a month.

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Our campsite, on a mostly empty dirt road in the Gunnison National Forest was surrounded by natural beauty. The angle of the river valley provided for beautiful sunsets.

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However, my favorite part of the experience was definitely the river.

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Each day, we’d hike in the heat, arrive back at the campground in the afternoon, and cool off in the river. The movement of the shallow flow of water over rocks was something I found fascinating.

I would stare at it, both while in the water and while at the campsite overlooking the river.

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The evenings seems to go on forever. Due to the north-south orientation of this particular river, the sun would cease to hit the river just after 6 P.M. However, daylight would go on until about 9. Endless evenings brought back memories of childhood. I thought of playing in the park, the neighborhood or the backyard until the very last bit of light faded from the horizon. I thought back to teenage years, doing things like playing mini-golf, hanging out at a park, or cruising around in our cars. Everything felt so playful and peaceful despite the fact that all these memories were not without frustration, conflict and setbacks. There is something about children and young adults playing outside in the evening that just feels more basically human than much of what we do in adulthood.

After a day or so away from work and screens, I started to feel my creativity surge back into my brain, as if the constant bombardment of information had been suppressing it for weeks. I looked across the river at the trees on the other side and thought…

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This would make the most frustrating puzzle of all time!

The flood of ideas and realizations about life flying into my mind made me want to de-clutter my life.

However, in the city I hardly ever allow myself to be bored or unproductive. I wondered if I’d ever be okay with just doing nothing. After half an hour, I determined that the world would have to be a much different place for me to be okay with taking a day, or even half of a day, without doing anything “productive”. There would need to be much less pressure, much less work, and much less other things to track and take care of.

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But that’s okay because my definition of “productive” is broad. Sharing experiences with people, cultivating relationships and reading and writing about interesting topics is productive. It’s not just work and achievement.

I came out of this experience feeling better about my life. Most of what I am doing is fine, I just need to relax a little bit more. I feel like had I spent the entire evening focused on staying warm while also staying out of the smoke that comes off a campfire, it would have been a much different experience. The continuing threat of COVID limiting travel and the fire bans were both disruptive events. This experience and the realizations I came to from it was the result of working with what life handed to me, rather than just wishing the disruptive events had not happened.

A Letter to a Nation in Crisis

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Dear USA,

There is no denying that this in not our finest hour. We have struggled more than most with our response to the Coronavirus. Where other nations have been able to largely put the virus behind them, often with far less draconian measures, we have been unable to contain the virus. At a time when we had expected to be through the worst of it, caseloads are spiking.

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We are still suffering the economic damage from having essentially shut down our entire economy for about a month and a half.

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I mean, was this lack of traffic ever even theoretically possible

The damage will be even worse, as many of our biggest states, including California, Florida and Texas, are backing off reopening the economy. As parts of the world reopen themselves to visitors from some countries, we will find ourselves left off the list due to our high infection rate.

The world is also watching as we deal with issues of continued racial injustice. In response to several high profile news stories about the killing of unarmed blacks by law enforcement, protests have erupted all over the nation.

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Will this response to these events lead to justice and healing? Or will our problems continue or simply take on another form? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure though. The U.S.A., the nation that I love and feel blessed to have been born a part of, is going through a tough season. We are struggling with self doubt. We are struggling with our identity. This is not the typical Fourth of July. The are far fewer crowds and celebrations. For many, the holiday is far quieter; more reflective.

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Perhaps more upsetting than the lack of travel opportunities and my general inability to live my life the way I typically do is our season of self-doubt. In the places I most commonly find myself, the pride I typically observe in people for this Nation feels to have waned. It feels unfashionable to show pride in the United States of America at this point in time.

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We all encounter periods in life where we struggle more than others with specific challenges due to our personality types.

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Different periods of time require different skill sets. A period of imminent danger requires a bold leader. It will be a period where a more sensitive type will naturally struggle. But, that does not mean that the ability to support others and empathize with them is no longer an important skill.

The same can be said for this period of time in the United States. We as a Nation tend to be bold, individualistic and skeptical of top-down authority. It is for this reason, we struggle with things like mask compliance, that naturally comes so easy to many other nations. Our skepticism of authority has made our struggles with COVID-19 worse.

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However, during these turbulent times, we should not lose sight of how much we have benefitted overall from the principles on which our Nation was founded. We are one of the wealthiest and most innovative countries in the world. Most of the top tech firms are based in the United States. We recently took a major step towards returning mankind to the moon and potentially to other planets.

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We have been at the forefront of most recent global cultural trends. It is here that jazz, blues, rock and roll and hip-hop originated.

Our revolution inspired others around the world to adapt a similar societal structures. Despite our current challenges and period of self-doubt, there are still far more people looking to enter than leave.

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Right now, it might be tempting to lose sight of who we are and try to emulate places that seem to be having a better time.

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No doubt, we need to grow from this. We need to do a better job with taking care of our health, possibly reshuffling our priorities. There is also without a doubt a need to improve the way certain racial groups are treated in this country. However, we need to do so in a manner that is consistent with who we are, at our core. Trying to be what we are not is not a path to long term happiness. Those who I see who are forced to live a life untrue to themselves suffer a kind of spiritual death that at times can feel even more painful than actual death.

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I want to offer this great Nation some encouragement at a time when it is most needed. Despite the extra pain it is causing in 2020, I love our skepticism of authority. Despite some challenges with too much emphasis on work, I love our free market economic system. Even though the calls for justice are legitimate, assuming those accused are innocent until proven guilty is one of our nation’s greatest attributes. Our problems don’t come from the philosophy on which we were founded and still are mostly oriented. They come from the incomplete and sometimes uneven implementation of them. Let’s grow from this tough season. Rather than become something different, something unrecognizable, let’s become an improved and more confident version of ourselves!

Love,

A concerned and still proud Citizen

Imagine

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Imagine a place where empty beautiful highways wind through the mountains populated by more bicycles than cars. A place where the world moves at a pace that allows for the soaking in of the full experience of all of nature’s sights, sounds and smells. The highway curves over rolling hills and through canyons revealing something new around each bend.

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Never pressured, never stressed, filled with nothing but awe, inspiration and true intrinsic motivation, content individuals power their way up manageable slopes. They travel in a manner that is both true to themselves, each as unique individuals, as well as in coordination with the communities, both human and animal, surrounding them.

There is a destination, but the destination does not overshadow the journey.

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It is not a place so big, overshadowing and boastful that it leads to unrelenting anticipation among those who are in the process of getting there. It does not produce anxiety and shame among those whose progress does not meet some arbitrarily set standard. Rather, it is humble, blending in with the journey, one among many surprises that pop out around each and every curve along the highway.

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It is a place where everyone is exactly where they are supposed to be at that moment in time. Nobody has been made to feel insecure or fearful. It is a place that exists in real life but it is so much more than that.

For as much as this is a real place, it is also a place that exists within each of our minds.

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Most of what restricts us exists only within our own minds based on what we have seen, heard or been told. Within each and every one of us is a place where life is very much like this journey. We are all free to move at our own pace, without judgement. Life’s twists and turns reveal nothing but beautiful surprises. Authenticity and community can be found in everyone we encounter. The sky shines bright and we all shine bright as well. The source of life, embodied by flowing water, but actually originating from all the positive thoughts in our heads is never too far away.

The world has been twisted and rearranged in some crazy ways both by recent events and longer-term trends.

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Out of the wreckage something beautiful can be built, if nowhere else but in our imaginations. The time has come for all of us to create our own narratives. Mine is on a bicycle in the fullness of the wide open outdoors.