Monthly Archives: June 2013

Denver: The Good, the Bad, and the Surprising

IMG_0784

Tomorrow, July 1st, marks the one year anniversary of my move from Chicago to Denver.  And, well, since I have not really been traveling ever since returning home from my back-to-back-to-back trips on the 16th, I figured I would write up a little something about Denver itself.  Or, at least my impression of it after a year of living here.

Keep in mind the background that I come from.  I was born in New York, on Long Island, but fairly close to Queens Borough, and New York City.   Most recently, I lived in Chicago, more accurately Logan Square.  So, I come into Denver from a pretty urban point of view.  A lot of my impressions of the city of Denver, and living here, may be quite different than someone who may have moved here from a more rural environment.  Still, I came into this without unrealistic expectations.  I knew Denver would not be another Chicago or another New York.  So, I am not about to chide downtown Denver for not having the energy level of Midtown Manhattan or Chicago’s north side.

I titled this blog “The Good, the Bad, and the Surprising”.  It is traditional to title something of the nature “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, but that title would imply that the writing would be 2/3 negative, as ugly is pretty universally a negative word.  I want to make this blog entry a roughly even mix of positive and negative.  So, I decided to label it as such, as there are things I find good, bad, and surprising about Denver and living here.  The surprising stuff in this blog could be good, bad, or neutral, but on the balance this entry should be an even balance of what I have liked and not liked about living in Denver so far.

Activities:

The Good:

All of the outdoor activities nearby

IMG_0216 IMG_0034

In both summer and winter there is plenty to do in the vicinity of Denver.  This is one area where Chicago is pretty lacking.  The mountains to the West in particular provide anyone living in Denver, or anywhere in Colorado (except maybe some of the areas in the far east discussed in some of the storm chase entries in this blog), with a plethora of fun outdoor activities to enjoy, from skiing/boarding, snowshoeing, and sledding in winter to hiking, biking, rafting, climbing, and other river activities in summer.  In fact, I am overwhelmed by the amount of possibilities in the great outdoors here in Colorado.

The Bad:

The traffic on I-70

IMG_0067

It is surprisingly bad.  Worse than anything I could imagine happening in Colorado.  Denver is 1/5 the size of Chicago.  So, where are all of these cars coming from?  Every Sunday afternoon, regardless of season, traffic coming back into town from the mountains on I-70 will delay you roughly an hour, possibly more.  During ski season, Saturday and Sunday mornings will delay you unless you leave prior to 6:30 A.M.

The Surprising:

The frequency I have needed to wake up before 7 A.M. on weekends.

Okay, maybe I should not have been too surprised by this one.  But, in Chicago, it was quite rare to ever really need to be up early on weekends.  This is probably why 4 A.M. nights were so common.  Here in Colorado, I have woken up earlier than 7 A.M. for a variety of reasons, including beating the aforementioned I-70 traffic to the ski resorts, but also to get in bike rides and hike in the morning before the wind, and thunderstorm chances pick up.  Getting on the mountain as early as possible is like an unwritten law of hiking 14ers (peaks >14,000 ft.)

Going Out:

The Good:

Happy Hours!

Holy shit!  I mean, the amount of bars that have happy hours, and the amount of happy hours they have has made drinking a heck of a lot cheaper in Denver than in so many other places.  I have seen places have happy hour from 3-6 and then again from 10-1.  And, on a Friday.  Having become used to nights out that involve consistently paying $6-8 (or more) per drink and being out nearly $100 by the night’s end, this has been a pleasant surprise.

The Bad:

1:30 Last call!

Sorry Coloradans, but that is not baller.  That is all I will say about that.

The Surprising:

The energy!

IMG_0282 IMG_0392

And, I mean this in a good way.  Denver is 1/5 the size of Chicago, but it has three areas where the energy on a Friday or Saturday night will consistently be there; Downtown, East Colfax, and South Broadway (my neighborhood).  This includes some great bars and clubs, rooftop patios, and unique events like the Denver Cruisers (right picture).

Cityscape:

The Good:

Bicycle Trails

IMG_0337IMG_0331

Denver and the surrounding areas have a lot of great bike trails, including the Platte River Trail, the Cherry Creek Trail, Clear Creek Trail, and Bear Creek Trail that provide a fairly easy bike route between places around the area.  These trails generally bypass all traffic lights, which has been phenomenal!

The Bad:

Uninteresting suburbs and highway traffic

The traffic is not as bad as it is in Chicago, but I expected it to be much better.  I-25 in particular gets pretty jammed up from downtown to the tech center at every single rush hour.  Likewise, highway 36 to Boulder has it’s share of problems that are not bad when compared to New York and Chicago, but seem bad when compared to similar sized cities I know better; namely Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis.

Also, some of the suburbs are just plain uninteresting.  Englewood is fine, and I like saying I am in Englewood to people who are not familiar with Colorado, as, given the nature of every other Englewood in the country, I can get free street cred that way.  And, Littleton is alright.  But they do pale in comparison with places like Arlington Heights, IL which has it’s own comedy club and racetrack and a hopping downtown.

The Surprising:

The airport

It’s too far away.  Remember that line from the classic film “Dumb and Dumber”?  After five hours of driving in the wrong direction, Harry wakes up thinking he is in Central Colorado as opposed to Central Nebraska, and states “I expected the Rockies to be a bit rockier than this”.  And Lloyd, still unaware of his own mistake despite being awake and driving the whole time says, “Yeah, I was thinking, that John Denver is full of shit!”  Well, every time I go to that airport, I think of that line, as it is quite a ways East of downtown.  The one time I had to take a taxi home from the airport it ran me about $90.

Weather:

The Good:

Milder Winters:

IMG_0188

There I am, last December mimicking the standard Bigfoot pose.  A practice I like to call “Bigfooting”, which I started doing two years ago when everyone and their dog was making up a new internet photo pose in response to planking.  I think I came up with a good one, but that is all said and done.  Anyways, this was Christmastime, and I was out in a light jacket- at night!  And, the great thing about it was that this happened quite frequently.  Days where the temperatures would reach the 50s and even 60s occurred way more frequently in Denver than it would in Chicago or even New York.  I very much enjoyed this.  What I found depressing about Chicago’s winters was the consistent cold, the  times where it would be mid-January and you would look at the long-range forecast and see nothing above 30 in sight.  Oh, and I despise sub-0.  In Denver, we do have winter, and it does get cold, but there is a steady stream of periodic breaks, which helped me tremendously get through the winter.

The Bad:

Snow in April

IMG_0251

Seriously.. by about March 15th I am over this.  But, in Denver, it happened like five times this year.  I think the last one was actually technically on May 1st.  All I can say is that I should try to spend next April traveling elsewhere.  It ended up being the dullest month to be in Colorado.

The Surprising:

Slow storm movement

IMG_0794

This storm never even got into town.  The day I took this photo, no rain occurred in Denver!  In the Midwest, seeing a storm pop up in the sky, if it is to the West or Southwest, means get inside.  This storm will come to your location, probably within an hour or two (or even less in some circumstance).  In Denver, this has been significantly different.  On many days, a storm will form that never makes it into town, but can be seen from the horizon for the entire day.  It has taken some adjustment to see a storm in the horizon and not be instantly alarmed by it the way I would need to be in the Midwest in general.

Social:

The Good:

Friendly with a lot of other “transplants”

Unlike in New York or Chicago, people here will say hi to you walking down the street or passing by.  Usually, if you smile at a stranger they will return the gesture.  Particularly women and particularly while I am walking my amazing Siberian Husky, but I have had a lot of great friendly interchanges with people just walking around town.  This also applies to people who help you at restaurants, people who cut your hair, and other random things you typically do around town.

There are also a lot of transplants here.  Colorado has become a common place for people to move to in search of many of the aforementioned outdoor activities and a new life.  I have met a ton of people from elsewhere, particularly the Midwest.  In fact, I rarely go an entire week (that I am in town) without meeting someone that is also from the Midwest.  I can watch all Cubs and Bears games at a bar called Hayters downtown with other Chicago fans.  And, being a Badger, I can chose from Swankys downtown, and Badgers in my neighborhood for their games.

The Bad:

Slower pace of living and less reliable plans

The flip-side of this, at least from my point of view is that the pace of life here is definitely slower than what I am used to.  People here tend to have what New Yorkers like me stereotype as a California type influence, where everything is more relaxed and chill.  Like many New Yorkers (and Chciagoans), I like to always be in a rush.  In fact, at the wedding I recently attended in Northern Wisconsin, I had a conversation with one of the other attendees, who happened to also be from New York, about the desire to basically run on all cylinders and not slow down unless it is time to sleep.  Spending a significant amount of time around people who don’t enjoy packing plans together tightly, and make a lot more plans loosely or tentatively has definitely been a test of my desire to always be moving at something akin to my top speed from one interesting activity to another.

The Surprising:

Slow speed relationships

This has perhaps been my biggest challenge since moving to Denver.  And, this is possibly because I was not necessarily expecting it.  But, it feels that although people here are quite friendly in general, and will gladly be inclusive with people they barely know, they seem generally on guard about establishing good friendships, and establishing tight circles the way we all did in the Midwest.  I will go out and meet people and such, but haven’t gotten to the point I was at in Chicago where I was constantly getting invited to take part in social engagements.  This may be partially cultural, as many of the outdoor activities people like to do in Colorado are best done in groups of roughly four people.  It may also be partially due to my circumstance, and what people expect from someone like me vs. what they get.

City Living:

The Good:

The Mountain Scenery

IMG_0356

This picture was taken along the Peak-to-Peak highway, but from the city of Denver you can see a lot of great mountain scenery.  It looks particularly good in the morning, as the sun rises, before any clouds and dust have developed.  In Colorado, you can see frequently see much farther than you can in the Midwest.

IMG_0364

The views of the foothills are really nice from the higher points around town, such as the Chattfield Reseviour, Cherry Creek Reseviour, and near McCaslin Blvd. on the way to Boulder.

The Bad: 

Apartment availability

The rental market is crazy right now, but particularly so in Colorado.  You see, a lot of younger people desire a more urban lifestyle and setting than their parents did.  And, a lot of people are moving to Colorado.  But, Colorado does not offer too much urban residential property.  Other than the central parts of Denver, and maybe central Boulder and Fort Collins, most other places in Colorado are quite suburban in nature.  They range from places like Littleton and Lakewood, that look more like traditional suburbs, to the hyper-sprawled Highlands Ranch/Lone Tree, to places like Lafayette and Brighton that look like suburbs that are interrupted by large segments of cow fields.  So, those that want urban living in Colorado have little to choose from, creating a run on places like Capital Hill, Cheeseman Park, and Highland.

The Surprising:

The amount of park space

IMG_0796

I am simply blown away by how many city parks Denver has!  City Park, of course, is the largest, but without trying to name them all, there are a lot, and a lot of large ones.  As an added bonus, many of them have events like the one pictured above, and people do commonly have picnics and play games like drop-in volleyball in these parks.  Washington Park in particular is one of my favorites.

Food:

The Good:

Local Chains

Food is less important to Denverites than it is to Chicagoans and New Yorkers, and with good reason, as there are a plethora of great non food related activities.  However, there are several local area chains that I have really enjoyed.  This includes Tokyo Joe’s, Garbanzo, Swing Thai, and Wahoo’s Tacos.  Okay, Wahoo’s is actually from Southern California, but outside SoCal and Denver they are very rare to non-existant.  I have never heard of them until moving here.  Also, with the number of ex-Chicagoans here in Denver, I have really enjoyed going to the Mile High Vienna Beef Stand, which makes a lot of the traditional Chicago food here in Denver pretty much exactly how I remember it.

The Bad:

Some food is harder to find

This was kind of expected.  But, I do love New York style pizza, and some of the places here that advertize New York style pizza are really no good (sorry).  I did find a place in Broomfield I like.  Some other specialty food types are also harder to find.  In particular, as expected, it is tough to find good seafood.  We are not near the ocean.  Denver is a middle American city that seems kind of pre-occupied with burgers and beer.   I do like that stuff, but sometimes I want scallops and rum-and-coke too.

The Surprising:

Numerous 711s

IMG_0428

Woo Hoo!  Is all I can say!  I love slurpees.  There is nothing like the slurpee to pick me up.  For a few years I lived in Wisconsin, where 711s don’t exist.  I do not know if I could ever do that again.  That weekend (Memorial Day weekend when slurpees were 49 cents), I had six.

Back in Town

IMG_0784

It is one of the strangest days any of us will experience.  It is also the day that makes a vacation a vacation.  It is the first day back.  It is the inevitable end of some temporary state of being known as vacation, or holiday, and the return to what is often referred to as “real life”, or “normalcy”.

But it is not a true return to normalcy, whatever that may be.  If a vacation is successful, as mine has been, the first day back usually involves being, to some degree, more physically exhausted but more mentally/ emotionally energized or stimulated than is typical.  Around the office, someone on their first day back from an enjoyable vacation is usually seen walking around the office with a slightly “springier” step, with interesting anecdotes, sharing photos to coworkers.  People fresh from vacation do not seem to develop those mid-afternoon doldrums that come from an entire day of staring at a computer screen.

There is also the transition to normalcy, which often takes several days.  This usually involves laundry, responding to mail, buying groceries, and all of the other tasks that one normally performs on a regular basis, but are almost never done while on vacation.  Under normal circumstance, having to do all of these tasks in one particular day would be something to be dreaded, but today, that is not so much the case.  Maybe it is the fact that I had gotten a break from these routine and mundane activities.  This is kind of the same reason that many have come to recognize Tuesday, and not Monday, as the worst day of the week.

I have been traveling and out of the house since Friday, May 31st, two and a half weeks ago.  It was not just one trip, but three trips, whose schedules happened to coincide in a manner that has made the first part of June somewhat of a wild goose chase around the country for me.  I have always been one to plan things tightly packed together, but that usually meant meeting someone for dinner at 7:30, than meeting a group of friends at the bowling alley at 9:30 on the other end of town, and then going to a party afterwards.  This trip, first to Chicago to road trip to South Dakota, than to Missoula. Montana, and back to Denver very briefly to fly to Minneapolis to attend a wedding on Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shore, took that concept to a whole new level.

I knew I would be exhausted from this trip, but I am not nearly as exhausted as I thought I would be.  It is quite easy to under-estimate the power of adrenaline.  But, it was my friend Jacob who basically said that most people would be surprised at how much they are able to do if they just keep going.  It is usually a manner of motivation, which seems like where the adrenaline kicks in.

I notice this all the time in Colorado, when waking up at 5:30 to go skiing is ten times easier than waking up at 6:45 to go to work.  It may be easy to say “I don’t get tired, I get bored”, but that is not truly the case either.  There are limits.  A marathoner does not just find mile marker 25 boring.  Well, maybe they do, I wouldn’t know because I have never run one.  Either way, whenever we push ourselves hard, it is exhausting.   The exhaustion we experience usually becomes evident as soon as the adrenaline from the activity wares off.  The question is, how far can adrenaline take you?  I guess that is partially dependent on the person.  But, I am sitting here, now, still unsure whether or not I truly pushed my limit with this month’s series of adventures.

Regardless, it made for a period of time significantly more interesting than most.  It hopefully made for some good entries on this very blog, and experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life.  Now, for a little time off from constantly being on the move.

Kayaking in the Sea Caves

IMG_1409

The process of erosion is quite an interesting process. Well, it is not interesting to watch, not even on time lapse. But the end process can be quite interesting to see. Different types of dirt, sand and rock, are weathered down in different climates to create some unique natural features. In the case if the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, sandstone, eroded by constant waves from Lake Superior have created a series of “sea caves”. The arrangement of these sea caves is actually constantly changing. New “sea caves” are created and old ones are destroyed periodically throughout the region. The ice that forms on the lake can speed up this process as water expands when it freezes.

I actually own 16 DeLorme state atlases. I pretty much own all of the Midwest states and many of the mountain states. These atlases are a great resource for both outdoor recreation, as well as storm chasing. When I was at the headquarters of the Adventure Cycling Association, I actually saw that they have a whole pile of these atlases as well. They are quite great for everything except urban areas. In each atlas is a listing of places such as campgrounds, lakes and rivers for fishing, ski resorts, etc. Each atlas also has a listing of “unique natural features”. I wonder, not only what constitutes a “unique natural feature”, but also what makes us so drawn to them. Are we bored of the features we encounter on a regular basis? And, how unique are they? Couldn’t sea caves like this form pretty much anywhere along a lake where the soil has primarily been crushed into sandstone by geological processes? Well, maybe that is a rare condition. But, I still wonder what draws us to travel to see them, and any other “unique natural feature”.

Friday’s activity was kayaking in the sea caves, a trip organized by Living Adventure Inc. out of Red Cliff, WI. This trip is quite neat, as they take participants out on kayaks. Tour guides direct the participants to some of the neatest sea caves along the Lake Superior tour. We were even able to kayak through some of them, and into this area known as “the crack”. This agency also offers multi-day tours that travel to the islands. The tour guides were quite knowledgeable too, and described to me the geological process that created these features, which islands had the most interesting sea caves, as well as how many bears each island has! I really did not know anyone tracked bear populations to this level of detail. The only thing I really know about bears is the saying “If it’s black fight back, if it’s brown, lie down”. I guess that is the important part, as to help you not get killed by a bear, but it still surprised me that there were a lot of bears here. I thought they were mainly out west, and remember seeing all of the bear related warnings in and around Yellowstone National Park.

IMG_1386IMG_1414

 IMG_1397 IMG_1393

I went on this kayak trip with a group of 8, all of us attendees of Saturday’s wedding in Bayfield, WI. Up until about a year ago, several of us all lived in Chicago and worked for AonBenfield. We had frequent social events throughout the city, and got to know each other quite well. It was really a fun time of my life, and I miss all of the people I encountered this weekend greatly. But life brings about changes from time to time. No matter how much people would like to think otherwise, we are not in total control of our lives. Some people believe in God, or a system of gods, or some kind of external force that guides our life paths. Others believe in a concept known as “fate”, something best addressed in that Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors”. But even those that don’t believe can still acknowledge that many of the events that have the largest impact on your life are completely out of our control. Sometimes it is a decision made by people that are more important than you in a company you work for, other times it is a natural event, like a gigantic storm. Either way, you can’t control what happens to you in life, you can only control how you respond.

And, if it is your response that builds character, than I am personally doing a terrible job of it. As I sit here in my hotel room, preparing to depart for home, my thoughts keep dwelling on all of the people I was hanging out with over the past few days. I was actually quite sad at the end of last night when I had to say goodbye to everyone. In fact, I do periodically think about my old life back in Chicago. I know some people have moved on, and others are looking to move on. The past cannot be recreated, and change is inevitable. I really need to look more towards the future. But, the way I had my life in a rhythm back in Chicago, especially the summer of 2011, when there was always something going on, and I still managed to train for and complete a century ride. Well, it is something that will definitely be missed. Having lots of people that honestly care about me, and appreciate me for who I am (which can be quite ridiculous sometimes), is something that is definitely appreciated. I don’t know what to say except that one fact of life is that there is a first and last to everything, and I truly hope that there were no “lasts” this weekend.

Sometimes it is the little things that you remember most about an event. Over the course of this past month, I have had plenty of opportunities to sharpen my rock skipping skills. On the kayak trip, we stopped at an island to eat lunch. On the island, we had some extra time, and I started skipping rocks. Others joined in from time to time. At one point in time, I actually skipped a rock that was about the size of my hand. I was even shocked that this rock actually skipped. My friend Liz described it as “the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen in my life”, which was definitely an exaggeration.

I was also proud of myself for helping a couple of others with their rock skipping. This goes back to leadership skills I have been pondering over the past year. If you think about the role of any leader, from someone that organizes trips to upper management/ CEO figures, one important aspect of their job is developing the skills of others. This involves knowing when to step aside and trust someone else to get a job done. A leader of this nature cannot possibly have involvement in all of the details of every project in all that they oversee. They must know when to let go a little and trust others, but also know when to step in and assist. I gave my wife Abby a couple of basic pointers that helped her with rock skipping, and was glad to see her succeed. Also, when handed a rock for skipping by Kristin, my good friend Quaid’s girlfriend and date for the wedding, I handed it back to her and let her skip it herself, and she was also successful. I know it is something stupid like skipping rocks, but I was proud of myself for revisiting the urge to try and do everything. This is a trait that can really limit one’s leadership ability, as well as annoy those that report to them. People who end up working for managers that do not know how to step aside and trust people with tasks also typically end up struggling to develop. Overall, it is a lose-lose, but I know it is hard for some to resist the urge to step into everything. This weekend it is skipping a rock, but maybe later it will be something more substantial. At least I did one thing right!

-Photos Credited to Sneha Soni-

Wisconsin’s Northernmost Region

Yesterday I returned to a place I had been to only once before. The town of Bayfield, WI is along Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shoreline, and despite being a very small town (population less than 500), it is popular in the summer, as it is linked to the Apostle Islands, which is an island chain in Lake Superior with some unique scenery. Due to the geography of Wisconsin, this is the northernmost part of the state. It is the only part of the Lake Superior shoreline in Wisconsin, as farther east, the shoreline hits the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This part of the state is actually over 300 miles from both Milwaukee and Madison, making it quite different than the part of the state I am most familiar with. In fact, someone once told me that sometime in the 1970s there was talk of this part of Wisconsin joining with the U.P. of Michigan to form a new state, breaking away from their respective states due to serious cultural differences.

The first time I came here, in 2007, I was kind of obsessed with waterfalls. So, I found a place called Copper Falls State Park, which has some pretty nice falls. This particular trip warranted a return trip to Copper Falls, as some of the others on this trip live in Chicago, where there is little opportunity to find good waterfalls.

20130614-164212.jpg

The trail system at this state park is actually part of a larger trail system called the North Country National Scenic Trail. This trail system is only partially complete, but they eventually hope to connect central North Dakota all the way to upstate New York via a trail that follows some of the northernmost parts of the country. I am guessing they are hoping for it to be like the Appalachian Trail, but it seems like they are still a long way from completing this trail, and even when it’s completed it will be nowhere near as scenic as the Appalachian Trail, or the Great Divide or Colorado Trail for that matter.

20130614-164702.jpg

20130614-164710.jpg

20130614-164718.jpg

20130614-164723.jpg

20130614-165947.jpg

The hiking here was pretty easy, especially when compared with some of the hikes I have been doing more recently, with the move to Colorado and the trip to South Dakota. However, they did have some decent waterfalls in several different places. They are called the “Copper Falls”, due to their coloring, which actually comes from the type of red clay present in the region. As far as I know, the region has nothing to do with the mineral copper, and nor does the name of this particular waterfall.

20130614-165142.jpg

20130614-165147.jpg

Having lived in Colorado for some time now, a few things about this hike seemed quite different than what I am now used to. First of all, the hike felt to me like a luxury hike compared with what I have been doing more recently. There were some areas where staircases had been built, and there was even a sheltered bench built for resting. This is not something I have come to expect on a hiking trail. I had become accustomed to simply using a good rock or log to rest on if I were to get tired.

It was also way more wooded here than what I had become accustomed to. I guess they call it the “north woods” for a reason. It was so wooded here that I did not suffer any consequence for forgetting to wear sunscreen. At the end of the hike, I was actually way more anxious to put on bug spray. Parts of this hike had an excessively large concentration of mosquitoes. I think I killed like 50 of them and still got a bunch of bites. I cannot even seem to recall the last time I was in such a mosquito infested area.

20130614-170515.jpg

20130614-170130.jpg

After hiking Copper Falls, we drove up to Bayfield, the town most closely associated with the Apostle Islands. This is because the ferries that run to the islands all run out of this town. On the way up there, we hit the Lake Superior shore, and subsequently the Lake Superior circle tour, which is a series of roads that a motorist could follow around the lake. When I lived in Chicago, I recall being along and seeing signs for the Lake Michigan circle tour from time to time. In fact, that tour follows Lake Shore Drive in the city. The signs are neat, but taking the two or so days to drive around the lake seems like a strange idea to me.

20130614-170754.jpg

20130614-170800.jpg

20130614-170805.jpg

We took a ferry to Madeline Island, which is the largest island in the chain. In fact, it is the only island with roads. The others are largely uninhabited, but people still take boats, kayaks, etc., and camp and hike there. We did not end up spending too much time on Madeline Island. There wasn’t too much to do there, at least not for us. They do have a golf course, some beaches and trails, but it seemed to me that most things available on the island are also available in Bayfield, and in other areas on the mainland. Maybe it is still not quite peak tourist season yet.

I did enjoy the ferry ride. It actually brought back some distant memories for me. When I was a kid, growing up on Long Island, my family would periodically take trips that would involve bringing our car on the Orient Point ferry to Connecticut. This ferry ride was not nearly as long, and on fresh water instead of salt water, but driving onto the ferry and walking up the stairs did bring back those memories a couple of decades later. It is strange how, after all those years, the feelings can still be the same. The people with me probably thought my behavior at this point in time was a bit odd, as I was doing and saying certain things out of some kind of long dormant reflex that likely made little sense in the context of where we were. I even stated to crave seafood. It was somewhat of an odd feeling, but a good one.

A Continental Crossroads

20130613-170749.jpg

Many places refer to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind. In fact, every sign welcoming motorists to the state of Indiana refers to the state as the “Crossroads of America”. Indiana’s claim to being the “Crossroads of America” has to do with some of the earliest long distance highways, including the Lincolnway, which pre-dates Route 66, passing through Indiana. Even now it is a place many have to drive through to get to destinations like Chicago, Detroit, and Louisville.

Duluth’s claim to be a “continental crossroads” seems even more substantial than Indiana’s. The North American continent includes Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States. Duluth makes this claim based on railroads and waterways. Duluth was an important rail hub in the heyday of the Minnesota lumber industry around 100 years ago, with lumber from points north being hauled to Duluth to make connections to other areas, both by rail and by ship via Lake Superior.

With this history, one of Duluth’s major attractions is their historic depot. This depot, located in the center of town, contains several museums, including an impressive rail museum. Many old trains are on display here, and visitors can view the inside of many of these trains, including the passenger and dining cars, as well as the conductor’s cars.

20130613-172745.jpg

One of the most impressive trains on display here was an old snowplow train. This particular model, was used to plow large amounts of snow, as much as 12 feet high. Seeing this is not too surprising given Duluth’s cold and snowy climate. Residents of Duluth undoubtedly put up with more cold and snowy weather than I would ever imagine wanting to experience.

20130613-172935.jpg

Duluth is a place I had never been to before. In 2007, I did visit Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, which are only 90 miles away. But, I never did visit Duluth. I did not specifically avoid coming here, but I did not seek it out either. I guess that would make it kind of a “neutral” place for me. We all have a lot of places like that. Places we would not make a specific point to visit, but would not avoid. Duluth is quite far North, and out of the way of most American road trips. In fact, on the trip here from Minneapolis along I-35, there were plenty of billboards advertising resorts in Canada, specifically Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Duluth turned out to be kind of an interesting place. It is still very much of an industrial town. Many industrial towns in the Midwest have experienced a certain amount of decline, leading to the term “rust belt”. From what I saw here, the decline seems to have not been as bad here, and there still appears to be a significant amount of industrial activity. I almost wonder if this town looks a lot like the other industrial towns in the country looked like back in the 1950s or so before much of this happened.

There also are kind of neat bluffs just outside of town. They kind of remind me of the river bluffs I would encounter along the Mississippi River along I-90, in a completely different part of Minnesota. The town appears to have mostly been built in the lower terrain right along Lake Superior, giving it a neat lakefront. I still wonder if people hike up these bluffs on a regular basis, the way Boulderites regularly hike the Flatirons.

20130613-174102.jpg

20130613-174112.jpg

But what about Duluth’s claims to be a “continental crossroads”? Well, the fact that it is an important shipping port definitely backs up this claim. It was out of Duluth that the tragic voyage of the Edmond Fitzgerald left in 1975. This voyage, intended for Cleveland, was one of a number of journeys taken along the Great Lakes from Duluth over the years. From points north and west, it is the nearest access point to the Great Lakes, which provides shipping access to the Atlantic via the Erie Canal. Also, with a good number of ports along Lake Superior being in Canada, Duluth’s importance undoubtedly stretches beyond the United Sates.

But, does this make Duluth any more important than I had previously thought? Maybe not? I mean, there are tons of airports near an international border that can call themselves “international airports” by virtue of their location more than their flight availability. And, almost every town that refers to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind have some kind of story to back up their claims. The truth is that, the world is full of crossroads. Routes and trails have criss-crossed the continent for a long time, and along these routes and trails, many important connections have developed in quite a few locations, each with significance in the history and development of our nation. This is actually one of the things that made our country great. It is not once place that made us who we are, nor is who we are just one thing. Everybody had input. And, more importantly, everyone had the right to decline input as well. Minnesota is quite different from Texas, which is also quite different from New York. Each place developed differently, and each “crossroads” across this great continent has their own unique way of life based on what kind of “crossroads” they are.

Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons

IMG_0678

Yellowstone National Park was the first National Park in the United States, created in 1872, which seems to be before anyone really cared about preservation or anything like that.  It also appears to be the best known National Park, the first thing people think of when they think of National Parks.  Oddly enough, though, it is one of the toughest to get to.  It is two hours away from the nearest interstate highways, both I-90 and I-15.  And, those highways are not frequently traveled.  Denver is something like ten hours away by car, and with the possible exception of Boise, I do not even want to imagine what it would cost to fly into a closer airport.  So, I would not want to pass up the opportunity to visit this park, even if it is for just one day on my way back from Missoula.

IMG_0682 IMG_0683

Approaching from the West, via West Yellowstone, it is natural to enter the geyser part of the park first.  Old Faithful is the famous geyser that you see in all of the postcards about Yellowstone.  It is the biggest geyser, but not the only one.  In fact there are hundreds of them, maybe thousands, I don’t really know because I did not go everywhere.  All of these geysers, including Old Faithful, steadily emit steam whenever they are not “erupting”.  I am not sure if erupting is the right term for it, but as you know these geysers spew out water.  Apparently, it used to occur on a regular pattern, once every 50 minutes, but then something changed, likely the earthquake in 1959, and now the eruptions of this geyser are irregular.

IMG_0685 IMG_0686

Having time before Old Faithful “erupts”, we checked out the Old Faithful Inn, which is a famous hotel built right next to the geyser about 100 years ago.  I think pretty much every article I have ever read about Yellowstone, as well as every special on the Travel channel or whatever, has mentioned this place.  It would be quite neat to stay at a hotel right next to one of Yellowstone’s defining features.  In fact, there is even a balcony on the second floor on this hotel where you can actually see the geyser from.  If I ever did stay at this hotel (which probably won’t happen as I am assuming it is hella-pricey), I would definitely make a point of watching at least one “eruption” of Old Faithful from the second floor balcony.  With a really good breakfast, and pleasant conditions as they were yesterday, the only thing that could possibly make the experience better would be a 711 slurpee!  For my first ever viewing of the eruption of Old Faithful, which was predicted to be at 9:04 A.M., and occurred roughly three minutes later, I viewed it from the ground along with everybody else who was there.

IMG_0690

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, than seeing this in person would be worth at least a million.  Really, sorry to disappoint you, but it would be futile to even attempt to describe this.  I think all of the billboards in Chicago describe it as “three Buckinghams tall”.  That is a good start for anyone that knows about that place.  I’d say visit the park.

The geyser erupted for a few minutes, and after watching the eruption, we decided to walk towards some of the other features in that area of the park.  Still amazed by the experience of Old Faithful, headed toward this boardwalk with some other geysers, pools, and hot springs, we encountered a woman with her legs straddled across the ground, and a fancy camera shaking her head.  She made several comments to us about how disappointed she was in this Old Faithful eruption.  She eluded to previous viewings of this geyser being much better.  From what she was saying, it sounded like she was referring to something 15-20 years ago, in the 1990s, but I am not 100% sure because as soon as she started talking my mind began to wander out of sheer shock that someone could find something negative to say about this event.

To be honest, I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe the eruptions of Old Faithful in the 1990s were larger- who knows.  But, I can’t help but think of the possibility that she represents a certain type of people that we all have encountered at some point in time in our lives.  These are the people some refer to as “critics”.  No matter what happens, what goes on, they are always focused on the negative aspects of it.  They could be on vacation on a world class boat cruise in perfect weather around their favorite people ever, have a great time dancing by the pool, and get a call from their boss informing them of a raise and a promotion, and they would still focus on the fact that their hot dog came with yellow mustard instead of spicy brown, and embellish on that point.  More significantly, people like this can be a drain to be around sometimes.  Not only because of experiences like this, but anytime making plans with people like this, they are focused on what could go wrong instead of what could go right.  When you tell them about your ideas for what you want to do with your day, you week, your life, what they say to you undoubtedly plants the seeds of doubt and failure in your mind, rather than the seeds of confidence and success.  Maybe all of this is why this woman was alone.  But, once again, I do not want to make a judgement on someone who I met for only two minutes.  There are plenty of good reasons for people to take trips all by themselves, and I have known people to do this and come away with amazing experiences.  So, I am in no way going to make assumptions about this particular person.  I will only use this as a reminder of what kind of people tend to bring others down.  There is a book out this year that seems pretty popular called “Friendfluence” that actually addresses the issue of how the people you chose to associate with effects your personality and success in life.  I am lucky to have a lot of great positive friends that clearly do not fit into the category described above; some of whom I saw last weekend, some of whom I will get to see later in the week, some of whom I will see upon returning to Denver, and some of whom I hope to see again soon.

IMG_0692 IMG_0695

The other interesting features in the vicinity of Old Faithful are hot springs and smaller geysers.  I put my fingers in one of the hot spring’s resultant rivers, and verified- they are hot!  Many of these smaller geysers are constantly erupting in a way.  I hate to gloss over these features, as they are really neat.  But, this is a blog about Yellowstone, and I do not want to make it 10 pages long.  I guess people do write whole books about this place.

Yellowstone is big!  I guess I should have realized that when I saw that it did not fit onto one page of my Wyoming DeLorme Atlas, but I guess I was still not thinking of it as being as big as it is.  I think the park is almost 100 miles long and 100 miles wide.  Either way, it is quite possible, especially with the number of people that stop to take pictures of bison, elk, moose, and such, for it to take over an hour to get from one feature to the other.  So, we had to have a clear plan to get to the most important features in one day, which involved seeing Old Faithful early, and then headed toward Yellowstone Falls via Yellowstone Lake.

IMG_0698 IMG_0699

Yellowstone Lake is quite large, and surrounded by mountain ranges in all directions.  Overall, very picturesque.  It is also a good reference point when looking up weather information for the park.  At roughly 7700 feet in elevation, is is close to the mid-point.  There are plenty of hills that reach higher elevations, especially along the continental divide.  There are also some features, like the gorge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and even Old Faithful, that are at lower elevations.

IMG_0704  IMG_0706IMG_0703IMG_0705

Okay, I know a lot of pictures, but Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone also blew me away!  I later read (also in my DeLorme Atlas, they are really great) that these falls are actually much higher than Niagara!  Over 300 feet.  When the falls hit, they actually consistently cause rainbows to form, as water particles are projected upward significantly from the impact of the waterfall.  I do not think I even saw the bottom of the waterfall, as there was too much splash for me to actually see the bottom.  I bet Niagara is also like that.

In the same day, we also visit Grand Teton National Park, which is directly south of Yellowstone, with a gap of only a few miles.  I bet most people that visit one park visit the other one.  However, I bet the people that visit both parks do so over the course of several days to a week, not in one day.  This was definitely a hurried trip, but this leaves plenty more to be seen on a subsequent trip, which, now that I live in Denver, is not out of the range of possibilities.

IMG_0709

IMG_0712 IMG_0713

The main feature of the Tetons that stand out are the mountains themselves.  Grand Teton, the highest peak in this mountain range, has a height of 13,770′, making it only 34 feet shorter than the highest peak in Wyoming.  These mountains are actually visible from parts of Yellowstone park, and began to really appear as we approached the Tetons.  There is also a lake here, called Jackson Lake.  Jackson Lake is slightly smaller than Yellowstone Lake, and at a lower elevation.  In fact, it began to feel hot when we arrived here, well into the 80s.  It may have hit 90 somewhere nearby.

This whirlwind of a trip also took us to Jackson, which is quite a happening town.  It is probably best known for Jackson Hole ski resort, one of the premier ski resorts in the country, but is also less than 20 miles from the Tetons.  This provides the town with somewhat year round activity, and was quite lively in activity despite the ski resorts clearly being closed.

IMG_0715 IMG_0716

It was kind of odd visiting an area known to be cold on a hot day.  On a day when Denver hit 99, it is nice to be up in the mountains where highs were in the mid 80s.  However, I did get an experience that is probably significantly different than a typical experience of someone that lives in this area.  The average high at Yellowstone Lake at this time of year is about 65.  It’s a few degrees warmer in Jackson.  Oh well, this warmer weather makes up for the 34 degree morning in Custer on Wednesday.

IMG_0719 IMG_0720 IMG_0723 IMG_0725

The return trip also involves some more interesting features, all near a mountain range called the Wind River Mountains.  This mountain range contains Wyoming’s tallest mountain, Gannett Peak, and is home to the National Outdoor Leadership School.  And, with the town of Dubois (pronounced in a non- French manner, as I was repeatedly told) has a place called the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center.  It would be interesting to see what really goes on there, but as of right now, I imagine a dog whisperer type character trying to figure out what Bighorn Sheep are saying.

Okay, well that was a lot to explore in one day, and I am 100% sure I missed some things, so hopefully I get to come back here.

Reflections on Missoula and the Adventure Cycling Association

For the past four days, from Thursday June 6th, through Sunday, June 9th, I attended a Leadership Training Course for the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) in Missoula, Montana. This course is designed to teach people how to be leaders of long-distance bicycle tours. These tours can be as short as a week-long tour of about 300 miles, which is short by ACA standards, but long by the standards of the average person. They can also be cross-country, which could last three months! The course is designed to help the ACA develop leaders for their own tours, as well as teach leadership skills to people who wish to conduct bicycle tours in some other kind of capacity.

The course was quite rigorous. One of the leaders said that it was a week-long course condensed into four days. However, I think the main reason it was rigorous was that the course was designed to stick to a schedule akin to the schedules kept on these long distance bicycle tours, where each day stats before 7 A.M. with breakfast and campsite cleanup, and ends at another campsite with dinner at 6 P.M., and sometimes other activities. The in between time would be biking and exploring on an actual bicycling tour, but in this course, it was leadership exercises and some bicycling.

Despite this rigorous program at the Adventure Cycling Headquarters, I was still able to get out and experience Missoula a bit. There were definitely some surprises. Missoula had a nice downtown with a neat looking river valley and mountains in the backdrop, which did not really surprise me at all. Missoula’s population is about 66,000, more than any town in Wyoming, and I thought Sheridan had all of these features with roughly half the population. What did surprise me was the surfing! Yeah, surfing! When people think of surfing, the typically think of California, or Hawaii. Maybe Florida, or Massachusetts surfing would not be a major surprise, but Montana, I would never have guessed. But apparently there is this one rapid, created in the Cark Fork River, where people commonly surf.

20130611-065524.jpg

20130611-065617.jpg

The other surprise was how lively the town was, especially when it comes to night life. Missoula is a college town, home to the University of Montana, but those students have left for the summer. However, the town was quite lively on Friday night. There were several areas where there were bands playing and people dancing, and in one place there were people drinking beer out in a parking lot and taking turns jump roping. In addition to that, Saturday morning featured more farmer’s markets than I thought it would be humanly possible for a town of 66,000 to support. One of the other participants in the Leadership Training Course referred to Missoula as a “mini Portland”.

At the Leadership Training Course, I couldn’t help but feel a bit conflicted. The main thing as learned here was that there was a lot more to putting together a long distance bike tour than I had really thought about. Most long distance bike tours involve primarily camping each night, and cooking food on a campfire. Both of which require a lot of gear, which needs to be carried by the bicycle riders. So, just like in backpacking trips, gear parking must be planned carefully and unnecessary items need not be taken along on the trip. Also, the route and campground accommodations must be carefully planned in advance. In these areas, the Adventure Cycling AssocIation does a really good job. Their maps are second to none, as well as their notes on services in each town on the route. If anyone plans to go on a bike trip across the country, I’d seriously recommend using their maps, or signing up for a guided tour.

Learning about all of their tour preparations and such, as well as meeting people who have the system of packed pannier bags and such down, made me realize just how inexperienced I really am at this stuff. The bicycle trips I organized with my friends were not nearly as far, and not nearly as well planned. I also have not had too much experience with cooking and camping. In essence, I learned that bing good at biking and having some good leadership personality traits is not all I need to be a good leader of bike tours. If I ever were to actually bike across the country, let alone lead a ride across the country, or bike the Lewis and Clark trail, as I love talking to people about, I would have to either learn more about this stuff, or be prepared to spend nearly $5,000 on hotels and restaurants. Or I can become good at convincing people to let me stay at my house, but being neither a drug dealer or a prostitute, well, that is not going to happen.

I also began to think about how much I may miss some of the other activities I love doing. Mostly, I am referring to social activities, and, well, partying. I may love to party too much to ever be able to give that up for 60 days. Well, it isn’t just partying. I don’t want to come across as someone out of that movie “Old School” that wants to join a frat well after college is over. But, I do like food variety, large social setting, etc. I guess in a nutshell, I am thinking of my urban nature. I mean, I am from New York and Chicago, and there is some kind of an adjustment to make to suddenly live a culture that represents the opposite, out in the woods in places like Montana.

I love bicycling though, and I do love being outside. I was tired of my desk job for a reason. It almost feels like there are two different version of me in conflict with each other. There is the me that just absolutely loves being on my bicycle, and cannot stand to watch a wonderful day with tons of opportunities to experience the outdoors go to waste inside the walls of an office sitting in front of a computer. This me stares at maps relentlessly and has been conjuring up ridiculous ideas for quite some time now.

20130611-065704.jpg

There is also the me that prides himself in being out until 5 A.M., being the craziest guy at the party, and squeezing as much activity into a weekend as possible. This is the me that lives and dies by schedules, social arrangements, and wants to find out whose Friday night activities will be the craziest. In essence, it is an urban me vs. a wilderness me, a nightlife me vs. a daytime me, an indoor me vs. an outdoor me.

After the Leadership Training course ended at 2:30, we headed South and East, towards Yellowstone, and I reentered the camping world, finding a campground roughly 15 miles northwest of Yellowstone along highway 287. As I set up camp and everything, and continued to ponder the possibilities regarding long bicycle tours in the wilderness, I begin to think of my friend Allison, who I had just seen in South Dakota (and wrote about on this blog). She lives in Chicago still, but has recently taken some outdoors classes, and gone on some trips. She seems to really enjoy it, but still lives on the north side of Chicago, well, maybe northwest, but you get the point. Maybe she has the same conflicts as I have, between enjoying urban areas and all the amenities, and loving all of these outdoor activities. Maybe this is something that a lot of American wrestle with. Do we need to pick one direction or the other? Or do we find a balance? Hopefully I find these answers soon.

20130611-065828.jpg