Monthly Archives: November 2013

Hiking Boulder’s Flatirons in late November

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One of the things a lot of people don’t realize about Colorado is that it is actually possible to hike here year round.  For sure, winters in Colorado are characterized by a lot of snow, but at lower elevations, warm-ups are also quite frequent.  Earlier this year I made some calculations with some data from the National Climatic Data Center, and concluded that even in the coldest part of winter high temperatures can be expected to exceed 50F in Denver more than one in three days.

At higher elevations it is more consistently cold and snowpacked.  This is why Colorado has great skiing, but also why hiking at higher elevations beyond the month of October generally unrealistic.  However, it is great knowing that there is a place where both skiing and hiking could be available on the same calender day.  Sunday I went skiing, Monday I rode my bicycle, and yesterday I hiked.  What an interesting place!

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With that in mind, this is a great time of year to check out many of the hikes available at lower elevations.  This includes the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado.  Many of the trails up this mountain feature can be accessed from Chautauqua Park on Boulder’s Southwest side.  With the park being in town, and downtown Boulder being only about a mile and a half away, and this park can easily be reached by bike or bus, making this one of the few places in the country where one can frequently hike and even rock climb without access to a car.  So, I can kind of see why it is an expensive place to live, but I really did not mind driving, so I’ll spare myself the extra $400 a month in rent.

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Hiking in the Boulder Flatirons is quite different than climbing a trail up a mountain.  Rather than one trail up and one trail down, there is a network of trails that need to be navigated for one to reach their destination.  From the parking lot, the Chautauqua Trail can be followed up to the Flatiron Loop Trail.  The Chautauqua Trail is a fairly consistent moderate uphill grade.  The Flatiron Loop Trail, however, gets both steeper and rockier.  Climbing this trail reminded me how high in elevation the Flatiron features really are.  With the features known as the Flatirons being so close to town, it is easy for one to think of these features as extending down almost to the elevation of town, roughly 5400 ft.  But, the reality is that these features are largely between 7000 and 8000 ft. in elevation.

Some of the rockier areas of the trail scared my dog a little bit.  Despite this, I did see a significant amount of dogs on the trail.  However, in Boulder, I would consider the Mount Sanitas Trail more dog-friendly, as it does not contain segments like this one.

What I did not realize until yesterday’s hike was that the Flatirons are numbered.  The Flatiron Loop Trail traverses Flatirons #1 though #3.  For each of these peaks, a spur off the trail provides climbing access.  The first Flatiron, pictured above, looks somewhat different up close.  Small scale features, particularly indentations in the rock, do not show up when viewing these features at a distance.  Like some famous paintings, they look nicer from afar than they do from close up.  The trail reaches it’s peak elevation between Flatiron #2 and Flatiron #3, and beyond Flatiron #3 is the trail I intended to do, the Royal Arch trail.

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Unfortunately, this trail was closed, most likely due to the flooding.  As an alternate, I decided to hike the Flatiron #3 climbing access trail, as I still wanted to get to the top of these features.  This trail was even steeper than the Flatiron Loop Trail, and also a lot narrower and rockier.  It is one of those trails where one follows the rocks as an indicator of the trail’s path.

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Flatirons #2 and 3 appeared somewhat more as I imagined them; rock formations poking out of the trees, with a near steady slant of around 45 degrees.  As I viewed each of these features up close, I could not help but be reminded of the rock features near Red Rocks.  Of course, these features are not nearly as red in color, but their shapes looked quite similar, making me believe that some of the same geological processes must have been at work in the creation of both of these features.

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On the return trip, back to the parking lot, I actually came to the conclusion that Flatiron #1 just looks somewhat different than the other two.  A later Google image search would confirm this for me.  I guess this one is not quite a “flat” as the other ones.

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It was actually nearly 3/4 of the way back down to Chautauqua Park that I encountered what I consider the best view of the day.  The time was around 3:30 P.M., which in late November means that the sun was already starting to descend in the western sky behind the mountains.  However, the sun was still an hour or so from setting.  As a result, the shadow created by the mountains can be seen quite clearly in contrast with the bright sunshine, making for a breathtaking image that is unique to that particular time of day.  Half an hour earlier, it would have looked like your standard daytime image of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and half an hour later this entire area would be shadowed and the entire region would be significantly darker.

I did not specifically plan to be here at this exact time, in this exact place.  In fact, if I were to try to calculate what time of day I would need to be here to see this exact view, I likely would have calculated it incorrectly.  Sometimes in life the best results come not from careful planning, but from simply going to new places, trying new things, and being ready to absorb and enjoy what comes your way.  This is what comes to mind when I look at this particular photograph.

Takeaways from My Fall Road Trip

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This image provides a basic outline of where I went on my fall road trip.  I did end up deviating from this path a bit, but it still provides a good reference regarding the places I visited, and the length of time I was out of town- roughly two weeks when the time I spent in Chicago is factored in.

This was the kind of trip where all of the pieces of the puzzle came together quite nicely.  I knew I wanted to take a road trip this fall.  First of all, for those of us that live in Colorado and take advantage of the outdoor activities the state has to offer, it is the ideal time of year to take a road trip.  The season for summer activities has come to an end, but the main ski season has not yet begun.  So, basically leaving Colorado in the autumn (or the spring) has the lowest opportunity cost.

More importantly though, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the spare time I have right now while I have it.  Life gets hectic sometimes, and when people get bogged down in day-to-day lives it becomes much more difficult to pull off a journey.  I hear a lot of people discuss trips they would like to take “someday”, or “when the situation is right”.  Unfortunately, sometimes years go by, with one situation after another coming up, and people lament the trip they never got to take.  This is why I was actually quite thrilled to hear that a couple of my friends back in Chicago were planning a trip to Ireland this coming spring, even if it means they are less likely to visit me here in Colorado later in the year.

I never seem to run out of travel ideas.  In fact, I could probably make a list of 100 places I want to visit in only a few minutes.  So, for me, the picture is quite different than it is for many others, who just have that one place they want to go to.  Instead of just making a plan and executing it, to visit that one place, I just need to take advantage of opportunities as they come my way, and keep coming up with new ideas for places to go within the realm of the resources given to me.  This means accepting that unless that weird long-haired guy whose picture I saw at the Museum of Science and Industry successfully develops immortality, I will most likely go to my grave with at least a few places I wanted to visit, and a few things I wanted to do, that I did not get around to.  Knowing that I am taking advantage of opportunities, trying new things, and getting creative about a bunch of things makes this fact substantially easier to accept.  I know taking this kind of trip and visiting people on a whim like this is more than most people do with their spare time.  In fact, some may consider me odd for this, but most people I described this trip to, and saw on the trip gave me overwhelmingly positive responses.

This trip also gave me what I needed during what has turned out to be a frustrating year for me.  It actually reminds me of the theme song to the show Cheers, which explains the reason the show’s characters go to the same bar over and over again.  “Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”  This is why I was quite fortunate to have had the timing on visiting all of the people I visited along the way work out (given everyone’s schedules, especially on weekdays) so that I could go to every single stop I planned to go to in this two week period.

Being new in a city whose culture and social scene ended up being more significantly different than anticipated can be a rough experience.  While I advocate fully embracing new experiences, sometimes we take comfort in being around people where we know where we stand, and being in familiar places.  I moved on, but I wanted to see many of the people that still mean something to me.  I do see friendships wither away as people move to new cities and get too carried away with their day-to-day lives to keep in touch.  So, it was quite fitting that the ONE time I had Chinese food, on this entire two week excursion, I got this fortune cookie.

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This trip confirmed this fact for me.  Reflecting on the experiences I had visiting everyone, I can safely say that all of the people I saw on this trip are still my friends, despite how long (in some cases over 10 years), it has been since we have lived in the same town.  I know this because the experiences I had were not limited to simply reminiscing and catching up, as sometimes does occur with “old friends”.  While I did reminisce, and catch up with all of the people I saw, new experiences were created as well.  This includes getting a 5-year-old addicted to The Fox music video, a plethora of jokes at the expense of Kanye West and Justin Bieber (is there an ocean bigger than Kanye West’s ego?), more crazy party antics, but also some heart-to-heart talks about real stuff, the kind of stuff that people only talk about with people they trust.

I designed this trip to have a mixture of the new and the familiar.  Chicago is very familiar to me, and so is Maryland, but I had never been to the Smoky Mountains, or Gettysburg, before, and have limited experience in places like Virginia and Kentucky.  Now that I am back in town, I will inevitably have some conversations with people about my trip.  When I give people the “highlights”, experiences like the Smoky Mountains and Gettysburg will most definitely come up, as well as the craziness that was last weekend in Chicago.  However, the more I reflect on the trip, the more I realize that what meant the most to me were some of the more simple things, like the ridiculous jokes and games.  One of the people I reconnected with in Maryland actually remembered last seeing me over three years ago, at a party in Chicago.  She recalled me describing abstract art as looking like a “raccoon having a period” while intoxicated.  Some of the best memories we have are of thing that weren’t planned.  I planned out my road trip, the timing, routes, and everything, but many of the things I will remember from this trip were not planned, but just as memorable.

Perhaps the greatest display of friendship on my road trip is the fact that on the entire trip I actually only paid for one hotel room!  I am truly grateful to everyone who let me stay over at their places.  Some of these overnights were even on weeknights, which are always a lot tougher, and some even took some time off of work.  That was a lot of money saved, but more importantly, it was also a better experience.  Being alone in a hotel room can be refreshing occasionally, but is also quite boring, and not an experience I cannot have at home from time to time.  Being around my friends was a lot more fun.

My greatest takeaway from this trip is actually something I had already known, but lost sight of over the past several months or so.

— Be Yourself  —

Pure and simple, yet a major lesson we all have to relearn from time to time.  There are many situations in the adult world where we are trying to impress people for one reason or another.  We are often times either told by others to not be who we truly are out of fear of being rejected, or lose confidence in who we truly are due to rejection.  We will often find ourselves considering how to “reinvent” ourselves to make better impression on others.  However, reflecting on some personal experiences, both recent and in the distant past, I realized that my odds are almost always a lot better when I do behave in a manner that comes naturally to me, as opposed to when I hold back, or try to conform to what is expected of me.

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No matter what reason you want to make a good impression on someone, your best bet will always be to be who you really are.  Any relationship, of any kind, based on a false persona is a poor fit that will not last in the long run.  I believe we are all generally better of without them.  Time spent continuing to try to  impress people who want a different version of you will often prevent you from finding the people, the jobs, or the situation that are truly the right fit for you.

Chicago- Still My City

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Based on many of the criteria people tend to look at when determining their ideal location, Chicago would not be an ideal place for me. The winters are too cold, and extended periods of consistent cold are frequent. It’s not too uncommon for 2-3 weeks to go by without temperatures rising above freezing. There are also very few good places for outdoor activities near Chicago. Most of the area within a four hour drive of Chicago is flat farmland. The few interesting places in the area, like Starved Rock and the Wisconsin Dells, end up being quite crowded on nice weekend days. Finally, Chicago seems to not only tolerate, but sometimes celebrate its’ corrupt politics. Alderman go to jail on a regular basis, and so do governors. This culture has lead to an offensively high sales tax. When people asked me why Illinois seems obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, I would often joke about the state having to honor its’ last non-corrupt politician.

Preferences on these kinds of issues are amongst the most common questions asked in your standard online “what city is right for you” quiz. Had I decided on where to live based on these online quizes, I probably would have never even considered living in Chicago. But, I really did enjoy my time here. So, as I visited Chicago and saw my friends and such this past weekend, I thought about what it is about Chicago that I really enjoyed, and what keeps people moving here.

One thing I certainly learned is that one’s impression of a place is dependent not only on how good of a fit that place is for them, but also on circumstances. It is quite possible for someone to move to a place that seems ideal for them, but be in a bad situation (bad job, bad economy, bad relationship), and end up with a negative impression. Likewise, some of the flaws a location may have could be overlooked or tolerated by someone who has really satisfying situation. For most of my four years in Chicago, I enjoyed a good job, a functional relationship, and a really great social situation. All of this made that additional sales tax, the cold week in February, and having to drive three hours for a decent hike feel like less of an annoyance.

I also learned that sometimes there are other factors that have a major impact on one’s satisfaction in their hometown that is not considered when choosing a place to relocate to, and also not considered in your standard “what city is right for you” quiz. For example, Chicago has a great energy to it. I really did fit well in the pace of life here; fast, but maybe not quite as fast as the east coast. There are tons of different neighborhoods, with different vibes, allowing people to have a lot of different kinds of experiences on a day-to-day basis without traveling far. Many different kinds of people can find a place that suits them all within Chicago’s city limits. Chicago also has one of the best food scenes in the country, with regionally distinct food that ranges from the traditionally “blue collar” Chicago-style hot dog and italian beef sandwiches to fancy restaurants like Alinea and Girl and Goat.

If I take a step back, and look at a more high-level overview of the situation, I think the main lesion to be taken away is that some situations that sound less than ideal deserve a chance. Because, well, you never know what you will discover and come to love about them. This applied to me in the city of Chicago, but could also apply to a job, a relationship, or involvement in some other kind of organization. When deciding where to live, who to date, what job to take, etc. we often think about, at most 5-10 factors, while our satisfaction with the situation can be even more dependent on factors we typically fail to consider. I did not expect to find the vibrant social scene that I found at the job I had in Chicago, and I hear many people discuss aspects of their significant others that they had originally overlooked, but have come to really enjoy.

For the last couple of decades, Chicago’s population has been somewhat balanced by an influx of people from elsewhere in the midwest that counteracts a loss of people to the south and southwest. Michigan and Ohio seem to produce the most Chicago transplants, as their economies have been weak the last couple of decades. I actually recall a time when I felt like I was unable to go more than a week without somehow setting foot in a Michigan State bar. This has changed the nature of the city significantly, with many neighborhoods on the north and northwest sides gentrifying, and some traditional middle class neighborhoods elsewhere in the city emptying out.

There is not shortage of debate online regarding Chicago’s future. One can find particularly intense debates on websites such as city-data and the urbanophile. Here I have read all kinds of opinions, ranging from imminent decline to Chicago becoming the next world class city. On one hand, there does appear to be a danger that Chicago could experience a decline if the influx of people from other midwestern states, particularly Michigan and Ohio were to dry up, as those states are beginning to show signs of life. However, I find it hard to believe that the young professional community would stop particularly seeking out Chicago for what it has to offer with regards to jobs and lifestyle. Not only does Chicago offer nearly all that New York offers at a fraction of the price, but it also offers a nice compromise with regards to pace of life and work intensity. In New York, work-life is quite stressful, and people end up working extra hours. The West Coast is very casual, and slower in pace. Chicago offers a nice compromise between the two. I have heard a lot of people in Chicago tell me that New York would be “too much” for them. Many of these people could be either frustrated, or unable to find their ideal job in a smaller city. If one can think of of place as offering a specific product, there is still a demand out there for the “product” that Chicago is offering. In that sense, Chicago’s main danger in the future would be another city (perhaps Minneapolis, Denver, or even Omaha) offering that same product at a lower cost.

The Cuyahoga Valley

I frequently hear people describe Ohio in a negative manner.  People often describe Ohio as a dull, based on the experience of driving across the state on cross-country road trips.  Much of Ohio is associated with the “rust belt”, a term used to describe heavily Industrial parts of this country that have experienced major decline in the past 40 years.  This area tends to be centered around the Great Lakes.  I’ve heard Cleveland, Ohio’s most historically significant city, referred to as the “mistake by the lake”, and seen an entire episode of TV’s 30 Rock dedicated to mocking the city.

However, there is more to Ohio than most people realize.  Cincinnati is a vibrant, if not glamorous, city and a good place to catch a sporting event.  Cedar Point Amusement Park is the best theme park I have ever been to.  And, prior to my trip to Yellowstone National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Brandywine Falls was the best waterfall I had ever seen!

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The Cuyahoga Valley actually offers a plethora of recreation opportunities.  The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located near the Ohio Turnpike between the cities of Cleveland and Akron.  A towpath trail, which follows the Cuyahoga River through the National Park offers a bicycle connection between the two cities through a very scenic river valley.  Surrounding the national park are parks associated with the Cleveland Metro Parks system, as well as Akron’s Summit County Parks.  At these parks, one can find yet more scenic views, hikes, picnics, and recreation.  Overall, it is an entire region of interesting scenery and fun activities that many seem to overlook when they put down the state of Ohio.

I have previously been to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and seen Brandywine Falls.  So, this week I visited two other parks in the area; one in Cleveland’s Metro Park system, and on in the Summit County System.

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Summit County’s Sand Run Metro Park, located on Akron’s Northwest side seems to be a popular place for people to go running/ jogging.  I was actually blown away by the fall colors in this park!  It was among the best colors I had seen on this trip.  My friend’s house actually backs up to this park.  One could simply walk out the backyard of his house, or anyone’s house in the neighborhood, right into this park!  As someone who has lived in urban areas/ apartment buildings for over a decade (including campus related apartments), the idea of walking out of a place of residence straight into somewhere like this comes across as truly amazing to me.

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My main hiking excursion in Ohio was at a place called Bedford Reservation, which is part of Cleveland’s Metro Park system.  This park is located just to the east of the Cuyahoga River, along a creek called Tinker’s Creek.  This Creek flows directly into the Cuyahoga, and therefore, this area would still be considered part of the Cuyahoga Valley.

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The hike along the Bridle Trail here at Bedford Reservation is a scenic hike with rolling terrain.  After about 3/4 of a mile, it leaves the river valley and climbs up onto the ridge.  This climb is fairly steep, but also fairly short lived.  It was steep enough to cause someone to lose their breath a little bit, but not exactly tiring.  The rest of the hike also contains kind of a mixture of ups and downs.  This, of course, differs greatly from the typical hiking experience in Colorado, as well as the hike I did at the Smoky Mountains, where the hike is only uphill on the way out and only downhill on the way back.  In this sense, it reminds me of a typical hike in the midwest, where this is more common.

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Driving across Ohio on the Turnpike still sounds like a dull experience to me.  But that does not mean we need to judge the value of the entire state from this experience.  The entire Cuyahoga Valley is quite scenic, and contains some interesting recreation opportunities.  I think on my next visit here I would like to try to ride a bicycle from Akron to Cleveland along the towpath.