Monthly Archives: November 2014

Early Season Skiing

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Winter is on its way!  And, unlike in many other parts of the country, here in Colorado, the arrival of winter is highly anticipated by those who love snow and snow related sports.  At the highest elevations in the mountains of Central Colorado, snow is possible at any time of year.  However, it is not until November when consistent snowpack can be expected at elevations between 8,000 and 12,000 feet, where most of the major ski resorts reside.

For those who truly love skiing or snowboarding, November often becomes somewhat of a waiting game.  This year, the snow was late to arrive in the mountains of Colorado.  The image below shows the snow pack in the Central Rocky Mountains on November 1st, 10th and 22nd (left, center, and right).  As indicated by this image, the month started with virtually no snow in the mountains, as October was quite warm.  However, a major shift in the weather pattern around Veterans day (Nov. 11) brought with it much colder weather for most of the Nation, and significant snowfalls to the Central Rockies.  The mountain snowpack in Colorado is now closer to the average for this time of year, and the ski resorts have finally been able to open up some of their trails.

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It wasn’t 100% my decision to begin my ski season this past Saturday.  When is comes to activities like this, decisions on when and where to go very rarely truly rest in the hands of one individual.  Functionally, the decision to ski, or take part in any kind of activity in the mountains, is always partially dependent on the schedules of all of the people involved, and partially dependent on the weather.

Saturday’s conditions at Keystone were not too terribly uncommon for early season skiing.  As previously mentioned, snowpacks are now close to the typical amounts for mid to late November.  However, more recently, the weather warmed up.  And, as is not too terribly uncommon for those who try to ski prior to Thanksgiving, temperatures were above freezing by mid-morning on all parts of the mountain, and reached well into the 40s at the base.

One of the biggest issues with skiing this early in the year is that typically not all of the trails have opened yet.  On Saturday, most of the trails on the main part of the mountain, Dercum Mountain, were open.  However, most of the rest of the mountain remained closed.  The result was that a higher volume of skiers and boarders were concentrated on the part of the resort that is open.

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The lines for the ski lifts were quite long all day long.  At the start of the day, snow conditions were quite good.  However, they would deteriorate quite quickly.  Despite the fact that the mountain’s overall patronage was just over half what one would expect on a typical weekend day in January or February, by early afternoon much of the opened parts of the resort had become both crowded and “skied off”.

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“Skied off” refers to the conditions that occur after thousands of skiers and boarders have already gone down the trail, and moved the snow around as they make their turns.  On more powdery days, the snow will often clump up at various portions of the mountain.  On a warmer day like Saturday, after this large of a volume of skiers have traversed the mountain, it is pretty common for parts of the mountain to become icy- especially in the steeper areas where more turns are being made and more snow is being pushed down the mountain.

In either circumstance, the conditions become less favorable.  In fact, there is somewhat of a divide amongst skiers in the area, with some electing to wait for more enjoyable conditions, and others still believing the trip up to the mountains to be worthwhile.

It has frequently been pointed out to me that although these conditions are far from optimal compared to what can typically be found in Colorado, many other parts of the country cannot be so choosy.  Those that have skied a significant amount in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic will often describe a day like Saturday as a “typical day in New England”.  Some have even said that despite the iciness and crowds, these conditions are better than what they typically see in that part of the country.

In the evening, I returned to Denver to see Warren Miller’s film No Turning Back screened at the Paramount Theater.  The film featured extreme skiing and snowboarding adventures in various parts of the world.  They included incredibly steep terrain, major jumps, and tricks that are undoubtedly life threatening.  The people featured in this film were definitely amongst the craziest and most daring in the sport.  These are the skiers that would generally not be able to enjoy skiing at a resort on a day like Saturday.  Their experience and appetite mandates more; better conditions, more challenging terrain, and, much more significantly, more effort to reach their ideal venues.

I can see some parallels in some of the skiers and boarders I have encountered in Colorado.  I have heard people say that they can only truly enjoy skiing if it is a powder day.  And, others that stick to back country skiing and hike-to-terrain, both of which require a much greater effort than simply riding on the ski lift or gondola.  Maybe this just comes with experience, and improving at something.  But, although the moves seem quite bad-ass (for lack of a better way to put it), and I know that the skiing I do will never be something that warrants viewership by an audience, I can’t help but feel like the people in this film are more limited in some ways.  These extremely experienced skiers and boarders have overcome limits regarding challenge, but in turn, have new limits, as they are now limited by finding ideal conditions, and ideal locations.  These are limitations I still live without, and being able to enjoy skiing Keystone on Saturday November 22nd is a clear demonstration.

On Wisconsin

After spending a weekend in the Caribbean, I returned to a completely different world than the one I had left.  Prior to my trip, it had been autumn, with the mix of some relatively warm, but also some chillier days that typically marks the middle part of the fall season.  In fact, much of the Western U.S. experienced a warmer than usual October; a pattern which had extended into early November.  As I returned to the mainland United States, a gigantic push of unseasonably frigid air was rapidly descending upon most of the country from Canada.  Between the warmer than normal fall weather I had been experiencing prior to my trip, and the warmth of the Caribbean, I was certainly unprepared for this sudden weather transition, and far from thrilled to be experiencing weather more typical of mid-winter than mid-November.

This frigid weather pattern had firmly established itself by the day of the big game which I had planned to attend; Wisconsin’s home game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  And, while I had known that frigid weather was a distinct possibility for a November 15th football game in Wisconsin, I also knew that this would be a critical game, and probably the most ideal weekend for a trip back to Wisconsin to see the Badgers play.

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While a part of the Midwest, the State of Wisconsin has a culture that is quite unique from all of the states that surround it.

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While much of the Midwest likes to drink, seemingly more than the rest of the country, Wisconsin takes it to a whole different level, often being reported as the #1 state for “binge drinking”.  During my time living in the Midwest, I observed drinking in the state of Wisconsin at a larger subset of all occasions, and in larger quantities than anywhere else.  In fact, recently Wisconsin Public Radio did an entire series addressing the alcohol culture in Wisconsin.

Another tradition in which Wisconsin takes quite seriously is the Friday Fish Fry.  The extent in which this tradition is observed here highlights Wisconsin’s Catholic and Lutheran heritage, as well as the obsession with fishing here.  Like the consumptions of beer, cheese, and encased meats, the Friday Fish Fry is fairly common in other Midwestern states, but taken to a new obsessive level in Wisconsin.

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One other thing Wisconsin knows how to do is tailgate.  In downtown Madison, in the vicinity of Camp Randall Stadium, nearly every parking lot with available space is filled with people drinking, grilling, and playing games in preparation for the game.  The tailgating experience here is somewhat different than in most places.  Tailgating at most stadiums generally involves parking in the stadium’s parking lot a few hours prior to the game; with people bringing their coolers, grills, food, and games out of their vehicles.

This past weekend, although we arrived downtown nearly four hours prior to game time, we were forced to park roughly a mile away from the stadium (as well as the tailgate).  At the tailgates here, there is a much higher ratio of people to cars than is typical.  It seemed like only the organizers of the tailgate, who likely arrived quite early in the morning, had vehicles in the lot, with the rest of the lot’s space available for people, tents, games, and a significant number of port-a-pottys to accommodate the excessive drinking that takes place at these events.

I attended a tailgate that I can only be described as “professional tailgating”.  It included a several table long buffet of food, tables for games, a television showing other games in the Big 10 conference, a sound system with multiple speakers, and even a heated lamp!  The organizers even brought in their own port-a-potty and handed out pieces of orange tape to attendees to ensure that those coming from outside their tent did not use it.  I was quite amazed!

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Despite the chill, it felt good to be back at Camp Randall Stadium, a place where I had watched dozens of Wisconsin football games while attending the University.  Despite many of the changes that have occurred over the years, the stadium itself, and the experience of attending the games, was practically the same as it was back then.  Although, we did not do the crazy set of “waves” (standard, slow, fast, reverse, and then split) that I had recalled.  Well, maybe I just don’t remember it.

The game actually turned out to be a bit of a blowout, with Wisconsin winning 59-24.  Our running back Melvin Gordon set the all-time single game rushing record at 408 yards, and it began to snow halfway through the 3rd Quarter.

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Despite this, we did not leave the game early.  And not too many people did.  Maybe some Nebraska fans did.  But, it is something that Wisconsin fans do not really do.  Surprisingly, my buzz (from the tailgating) did not ware off despite not drinking at all during the game.

Like so many evenings I remember in Madison, the evening involved multiple bars and lasted until bar time … or some time around that.  Just as I remembered, the drinks here are made quite strong!  In fact, even at the places that I had previously thought of as making “weak” drinks, the drinks felt quite strong compared to what I had now become used to.

It was my third consecutive weekend of partying hard.  First, over Halloween, I threw a party at my place.  I was in a setting that consisted of a fairly large number of people, nearly all of whom I was already quite familiar with.  The following weekend, at Saint John Island, I was around almost all people I had not previously met.  This past weekend, I attended the game with a group of six people (including myself), only one of whom I had not met before.  However, out at the bars on State Street, I interacted with a significant number of complete strangers.

The past three weekends I had been in three different settings, both geographically and socially.  I managed to have a great time and be what I consider the best version of me.  It is the version of me that I become when I do not let the anxiety that comes from various life events and situations to get the best of me.  It is the me that is energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and welcoming to all around me.  It is the version of me that seems to make others around me happy, and the way I am when I am having the best times of my life.  It is this version of me that I wish I could be at all times.

Unfortunately, there are times when I do not live up to this standard.  As, sometimes I let some kind of anxiety, frustration, or insecurity prevent me from truly enjoying myself.  Having avoided these pitfalls in three different settings gives me hope that I have overcome some of these anxieties, insecurities, and frustrations.  However, I have no way of being certain of what the future holds.  At this time, all I can do is be happy that I have had the opportunity to have been the places I have been over the past few weeks, and hope for the best for those around me.

Saint John; Virgin Islands

Saint John Island is one of the most remote places within the United States.  A part of the United States Virgin Islands territory, it’s year-round population is a meager 4200 people.  It can only be accessed via ferry or boat.  For mainlanders, Saint John can be accessed by a 20 minute ferry ride, after a half hour cab ride from the airport on nearby Saint Thomas.  The flying time to Saint Thomas is listed as roughly three hours from the nearest major airport in the mainland; Miami, Florida.  Therefore, the minimum travel time for any mainlander is four hours.  For most, the journey is much longer.

I spent my time on Saint John primarily in two places; Cruz Bay, which is the main population center on the island, and Caneel Bay, a resort about ten minutes farther up the coast of the island.

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Cruz Bay is where the ferry from Saint Thomas first arrives.  It is the first place any visitor to this island sees.  It is Saint John’s front door, it’s first impression.  And it doesn’t disappoint.  The ocean here is as stunning and picturesque as anywhere I could possibly imagine.  In fact, even at some of the best kept lakes in the United States, I have never seen water this magically blue.

Upon arrival to Cruz Bay on the ferry, one immediately sees a plethora of tourist accommodations.  To the left is the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center.  In front are the beaches, boats and restaurants.

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A tourist that walks up the road straight in front of them (road names are not obvious here) will encounter a road lined with bars and restaurants that obviously cater to those not from the Islands.  Walking along this street in the evening, rather than traditional Caribbean music, one will hear the likes of Jimmy Buffet, modern American pop, and a surprising amount of Country-Western music.  And, a vast majority of the proprietors and patrons of any of these restaurants are obviously tourists or those who moved here from the mainland to work tourism related jobs.

Most of the residents of this island are black (or Afro-Caribbean).  Although this did not really surprise me, I still wonder how this came to be, as I had never really been taught about the history of the Caribbean Islands beyond the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the subsequent voyages to the “New World” that the news of this voyage inspired.

However, when I look around me, and take a couple of trips to less touristy parts of the Island, where one can see a better representation of how those native to Saint John live, I can’t help but have the present rather than the past on my mind.

How do the lives of those that live here year round differ from our own?

How do they feel about being a part of the United States?  And, more specifically, how do they feel about their status as a U.S. territory (and not a state)?  We commonly hear about issues regarding Puerto Rico’s similar status, and the razor thin margin between those who support and those who oppose statehood.  But, we never really hear much about the U.S. Virgin Islands’ status and how it impacts the people here.

Most importantly, how do they feel about us, and our presence here?  Do they debate the economic impact of tourism vs. the cultural disruption that it causes?  Do they ponder the fact that within the mainland part of the U.S., we have places like Catalina, Key West and South Padre, places where many of us could theoretically get a similar experience without invading their island?

Ultimately, are they fighting for their identities, their culture, or are they enjoying the economic benefit of our presence, as well as their association with the United States of America?   When we think of the Caribbean, we often think of pop icons, including Bob Marley, but also more recent pop icons from the region, such as Daddy Yankee and Sean Kingston.  The music produced by these artists take us to the pristine tropical oceans of the Caribbean, if nowhere else but in our minds.

However, it is these pop icons that appear to represent the dichotomy of the possible responses that seem plausible given the current situation of those that live in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Marley, from his lyrics, considered himself part of a struggle for the culture and identity of himself and his people.  But modern pop stars like Kingston appear to be simply enjoying the economic benefit of their stardom, much of which comes from the U.S. and the western world that Marley rallies against.

Although there is a lot more to any one person’s life that what we witness through the media, Kingston and Co. do appear to be thoroughly enjoying their lives.

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After multiple nights of partying, I lay exhausted on Scott Beach, the finest beach on Caneel Bay resort.  I watch the boaters and snorkelers go by.  Some even tell me that it was here, in the clear waters of the Caribbean, that they had one of the best snorkeling experiences of their lives.  They did so by being willing to visit a place a little bit out of the way, a place where the people, the culture, and the way of life are different than their own.

That is when it occurred to me that the world is full of people who are different from me.  The world is full of people who look different, act different, have different customs, beliefs, values, and different ways of understanding the world.  We can either learn to live with different types of people, and try to relate to them as best as we can, or we can accept the limitations that go along with confining ourselves to people with sufficient similarities to ourselves.

In practice, we all implore somewhat of a combination of the two strategies; accepting some differences but trying to stay away from others.  However, there are some that believe that in an increasingly connected world, the future belongs to those that can bridge the gap between different cultures.  I am not sure if I inherently believe that the ability to bridge cultural gaps is a prerequisite for success in the 21st Century, as many people have built fortunes designing products that largely cater to one segment of society.  However, when I watch people enjoy Saint John Island, and watch videos by Kingston and other similar artists, I see firsthand the benefits of being able to relate to those with different backgrounds and ways than my own.

Sort of Leaving the Country

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I never had any specific plans to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands.  I had always been aware of their existence, and their Puerto Rico like murky status as part of the United States.  And, every time I saw images like this one, showing the magnificently clear water of the Caribbean, the plethora of activities that are available, and the obviously phenomenal weather, it had always seemed like a magnificent place to go.  However, for some reason, I just never made any specific plans to make a trip here.  Maybe it was the knowledge that it would be a fairly expensive trip that kept me away.  But, more likely, it was the plethora of other pursuits, other destinations, and other activities that are constantly circulating around my head.

This is why, when it comes to travel as well as general life activities, it is sometimes best to follow the lead of others.  If I were to only take part in the activities that I had personally selected to be a part of, and only gone to the places I had decided on my own I wished to go, I would have missed out on hundreds of great experiences over the past couple of decades.  I would never have learned activities like water skiing, or camping.  I would have never discovered some of my favorite foods, like chicken wings, or Thai food.  And, I would have never attended some interesting events, like rodeos, plays, and some interesting comedy shows.  I would essentially be a completely different person than who I am today.

Following the lead of others, I was brought to the Virgin Islands to attend a destination wedding.  After nearly an entire day of travel, I arrived at a destination that is not quite American, yet not quite foreign.

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The U.S. Virgin Islands is considered a part of the United States.  All of the signs read in English.  There is no talk of any foreign currency.  And, more than half of St. John Island is a part of a U.S. National Park.  Yet, there are some major differences between how things work and operate in the U.S. Virgin Islands vs. the mainland.  The first, most glaring difference that greets any tourist when they arrive on either of the Islands is the fact that cars drive on the left side of the road.  For some reason, I figured this would be the case in the British Virgin Islands, but not the U.S. islands, as we drive on the right in our country.

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Other major differences that become obvious right away include the taxis, which are sized and shaped quite differently than anywhere in the U.S., even tropical places like California or Florida.  As opposed to basically being cars for hire, taxis here are high profile vans with several rows of seating, built to accommodate roughly a dozen people if need be.  Their fare structure is also different.  Most rides are a flat, destination dependent, per person fee, regardless of the size of the party.  In the mainland, fees are mostly destination dependent, with the cost difference between transporting a single passenger, and several passengers differing by only a couple of dollars.

Also, a large majority of the streets here lack sidewalks, or any other type of pedestrian accommodation.  Walking around Saint John Island, I mainly had to figure out a way to maneuver around structures, both natural and man-made, and live with the traffic being so close to me.

Walking in close proximity to vehicles driving on the opposite side of the road that one is accustomed to, along with significantly different mannerisms, and the extremely thick accents of the natives, would be enough to make an extremely sheltered person freaked out.  For me, I felt only partially outside of my comfort zone.  It was really unclassifiable.  It was as if I was walking some kind of fine line, or living on the “edge”, as people used to say.  I was neither completely out of my element, nor reverting to the familiar.  I was neither “outside the box”, nor “inside the box”.  Maybe I was on the top of the box?

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Fittingly, my new activity for the weekend was snorkeling in the Caribbean.  Like my experience in the U.S. Virgin Islands as a whole, this activity took me part of the way out of my comfort zone, but not completely.  I have swam, water skied, and jet skied before.  I have plenty of experience with water activities.  The main challenge snorkeling presented to me, as a first timer, was mastering the breathing.  I’d say it was also mastering the use of the flippers, but I most certainly did not master those.  I still moved around quite inefficiently.  However, once I was able to overcome my high elevation instincts to try to breath through my nose, and open my mouth wider to take in more oxygen while engaging in physical activity, I was able to breathe properly, and truly enjoy the activity.

It is said that the Caribbean is one of the best places to snorkel due to it’s clarity.  I was able to see some coral reefs, and moving fish.  Those the dove deeper down, either by scuba diving, or holding their breath, were able to see some turtles, a lobster, and view the coral much more closely.  Although I chose not to go too far down, I still saw underneath the Ocean for the first time ever, and was glad that I went part of the way outside my comfort zone, in both visiting the Virgin Islands, and snorkeling in the Caribbean.