Monthly Archives: May 2017

Across Kansas on Interstate 70

IMG_9831People generally don’t seek out the opportunity to take a road trip across the state of Kansas.  It is certainly not on the list of scenic drives in the United Sates, and will never compare to the majesty of places like the Pacific Coast Highway, Yellowstone, the Adirondacks, or the Grand Canyon.  Getting across Kansas on Interstate 70 takes, at a minimum, five and a half hours, with each mile often looking quite similar to the mile before it.

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However, this is still a heavily traveled road.  In fact, each year more people end up passing through Kansas along this route than end up visiting some more scenically spectacular, but far more remote, places like Crater Lake or Big Bend.

Each year, millions of Americans end up traveling across Kansas on I-70, or along similar routes across the Great Plains, mostly passing through on the way to some other destination.  After all, Kansas is the site of the mid-point of the continental United States.  It is naturally going to be on the way to and from a lot of places.  Any cross-country road trip does require trekking across the Great Plains.

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Frequently in life, people will look at what is directly in front of them, whether it be their homes, their jobs, a social situation, or even a specific event, see it as less than ideal, and insist on remaining focused on what makes the situation, well, less than ideal.  This is the easy way of handling such situations.  It is a trap I often find myself falling into.  However, while it is comforting to endlessly lament a circumstance, it is not productive.  It does nothing to improve the situation at hand.

Kansas itself, in a way, knows what it is.  It is not the peaks and valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park, the majestic maple trees of New Hampshire in autumn, or the amusement parks of Florida.  Most people here are driving through, and most of the accommodations along the interstate are clearly geared at travelers.

And, occasionally to people who need to get out of the car and explore some things along the way.

Kansas also seems to be a place that embraces what it is.

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As well as what it once was.

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Even if in many cases its significance then is no different than its significance now; a place people generally pass through on the way to somewhere else.

In my own experience, what typically happens on drives like this is strikingly similar to what occurs in the process of meditation.  As is the case when I attempt to rid myself of unnecessary distractions, turn off all forms of entertainment, and reconnect with my own mind <link to disconnect to connect blog>, I get anxious at first.  I long for something, anything to emerge to entertain me.  I need to adjust.  To let go.  And after that process, I get to a place where I can finally see the beauty of the surroundings.  After driving across this landscape for a couple of hours, I saw this place for what it truly is, actually quite beautiful.  As was the case on previous trips, I spent some time just soaking it in.

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I am reminded that, when we embrace our situations for what they are, even if they are not what we had hoped for, we can often still find some beauty in it.

It may not be what we had hoped for, but, as long as we continue to move, our destination will eventually be reached.

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And, sometimes even the journey to the destination gets a bit more interesting.

One thing many do not realize is that the section of Kansas that follows the Kansas River, from Manhattan, through Topeka and Lawrence, and into Kansas City is far more lush and hilly than other parts of the Great Plains.  The area ends up feeling way more like the Midwest.

Greyrock Mountain- An Ideal Hike for May

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For the majority of people who like to hike on weekends, or in their spare time, hiking anywhere in the American West in the month of May requires two additional considerations.

  1.  There is typically still a residual snowpack at higher elevations.  While this can vary quite a bit from year to year and even day to day, even on a warm, sunny day, those that don’t want to encounter slippery conditions or deep snow covering the trails should generally stick to lower elevations.  In Colorado, that generally means below 9500 feet in elevation.
  2. Although everyone’s body behaves differently, most people still respect the seasonality of the activities they take part in, hiking less frequently in winter than in summer.  Therefore, most people still need to, in some way, work up to the most challenging hikes they will take on later in the summer.

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Tucked away in the Poudre Canyon 15 miles West of Fort Collins, Colorado (which is an hour north of Denver), the Greyrock Trailhead starts at an elevation of roughly 5600 feet.

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The hike to the top of Greyrock Mountain, on the most direct path is 3.1 miles, with an elevation gain right around 2000 feet.  For those who spent their winters either sedentary or on unrelated activities, and maybe have done two or three hikes thus far in the spring, it is strenuous enough to help get the body back into summer mode.  And, topping out at 7600 feet, it remains well below the elevations where residual snowpack and large amounts of mud would still be present on a sunny day in May.

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Of course, many people are aware of these seasonal considerations.  Therefore, the area does get busier than usual, particularly if it is a nice day and/or on the weekend.

Still, there is plenty of quiet to be found on this appropriately named mountain, just not the level of solitude one would expect on, say, a remote backpacking trip.

On the 13th of May 2017, a dry day in which Fort Collins reached a high temperature of 85F (and was preceded by two dry days) nearly all of the trail was dry.  It was only in certain sections, close to streams, where mud would appear.  These sections got interesting, as groups of butterflies, both red and blue, would loop around the sky, periodically congregating in and around areas of standing water.

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The blue butterflies are actually extremely well camouflaged, only showing their color when the wings are flapped open.

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A closer look at the muddy surface reveals dozens of these butterflies nearly completely blended into the muddy surface, something many hikers don’t even notice!

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Roughly 2/3 of the way up, the first real scenic overlook is reached.  This is the point just before the two trails merge back together, at an elevation of roughly 7000 feet.

The final 600 feet of ascent looks, well, far more daunting than a typical 600 foot climb.  And, well, it is.  After a short flat area, following the scenic overlook, the trail begins to climb up a series of rocky areas, often referred to as “scrambles” by hikers.

These parts require some strategizing, both on the way up and on the way down.

The final section of the trail is the one area where it is possible to get lost.

On top of rocks, the trail passes by several lakes, where the sound of frogs can be heard, and is marked only by periodic signs 2-3 feet tall and the occasional standard rock pile (referred to as a Cairn).

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The summit is also just kind of a series of rocks, that need to be climbed over to reach the best lookout point.  Being at the top of Greyrock Mountain is somewhat of an unique experience.  In some ways, it feels just like being on top of the world, as noting in the immediate vicinity is at a higher elevation.

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However, out on the horizon to the West and Southwest reveals mountains whose peaks dwarf this one by over 5,000 feet.

It feels like a metaphor for a certain life situation that nearly every human being will find themselves in at one point.  The mountain has been climbed, a goal has been achieved, and there is reason to celebrate… temporarily.  But, there is still a lot that must be done, and much higher aspirations.  It is finishing a degree and moving on to start a new job.  It is successfully navigating nine months of pregnancy now knowing that it is hard work to raise another human being.  It is knowing that one has achieved as much as is possible in a current endeavor, and that there is something more meaningful, a higher calling, awaiting that requires a pivot, a new strategy, and renewed effort.

 

May 10, 2017: Funnel Cloud in Southeast Colorado

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May 10th was kind of a strange storm chasing day for me.  It was the kind of day that calls into questions a whole bunch of things for me.  What assumptions I make.  How I go about making decisions.  Both with regards to where and when to chase, as well as about life in a broader sense.

There are so many things that end up factoring into when and where people chose to chase severe thunderstorms.  I had chosen to go on this two-day chase (see day one) partially out of frustration I was experiencing back home.  It was one of those situations where I felt like it would just be good for me to do something I had not done in a while, for a change of pace, and I had yet to chase in 2017.

So, I went to chase on a Tuesday and Wednesday with only a slight risk for both days, something many people with jobs tend not to do, particularly when the outlook shifts so far away from home on the second day.

In fact, I was not even sold on chasing again on Wednesday, as leftover storms from Tuesday would prevent the area that I had originally thought would have the best dynamic setup for storms from developing the instability needed to fuel them.

I decided to stay out partially because of the more optimistic outlook from the Storm Prediction Center, and partially because I got an email from a friend, telling me he was excited about the outlook… in Southeast Colorado.

Still, I decided originally to target Southwest Kansas.  Given the outlook, the best place to be would have been well further south, at least into the Texas panhandle.  But, you know, those life considerations.  I did want to make it back to Denver that evening.

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Whenever in Western Kansas, I always kind of think the same thing.  This place is flat, but it is not as flat as Florida, or Northern Illinois.  People often assume the place is flat.  But, according to a study in National Geographic, Kansas is not even in the top 5 flattest states.

One aspect of storm chasing that is often missed by people watching storm videos, or the movie Twister, is the fact that storm chasing involves a lot of driving, and it also often involves a lot of waiting.  On many days, chasers pick a “target” location, where they believe storms are likely to form, and sit there, sometimes for hours, waiting for them to form.  Because it was unrealistic to get down to the Texas Panhandle and still get back to Denver in the evening, we chose to sit in a town called Ulysses, Kansas because my favorite weather website had analyzed another boundary near there.

Ulysses, by the way, was named after Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and 18th President of the United States.  Why a place like this cares so much about this historical figure from Galena, Illinois confuses me a bit.  But, at least the town had highways in all four cardinal directions, and an empty field with a cell tower, so we could look at weather information while we wait.

And, this requires patience, and continued belief that the right location had been chosen.   But, May 10th was not a typical day.  Storms started to form in this region, first just clouds, and then even some small thunderstorms.  I was even proud to have seen a storm  start to produce rain before the RADAR images even began to reflect it!

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Now, that’s what I call “catching initiation”.

The problem is, we caught the wrong initiation.  These storms would never amount to anything.  In fact, they were so small that when I zoomed out on a RADAR image, they were barely visible!

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It turned out that, despite the fact that some of the sites I typically look at for weather information indicated some potential, we were in “no man’s land”.  The boundary I thought was situated near the CO/KS border was actually farther West, and storms were forming … in Southeast Colorado.  So, we had to adjust, headed back into “Colorful Colorado” (although today it would be “Colorful” for different reasons).

It was there we saw the main feature of the day, a funnel cloud near the town of Lamar, CO.

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For a while it looked like it was rotating and trying to form a tornado, but from experience I know that in Eastern Colorado only 1 in 8 of these actually turn into tornadoes.

The entire day was kind of a head scratcher.  What did my friend see that I didn’t?  What did he see that SPC kind of didn’t?  Why did so many storms form north and west of where the outlook was?

Why did my the information sources I typically point to lead me kind of to the wrong place?

I also wonder if I was chasing the right way, and for the right reasons.  The weather bends to nobody’s schedule.  The weather doesn’t care about personal preferences, conveniences, one’s life situation, or ego.  We have tools that provide good guidance into what is going to occur.  And, those tools pointed to a clear spot that they were correct about, as the biggest cluster of tornado producing storms of the day formed in Northwest Texas, near Childress, crossed into Southwest Oklahoma, and produced tornadoes.  That just didn’t fit into my plan.

The chase ended up turning into somewhat of a metaphor, for life decisions in general.  When we chose to take part in an activity, of any kind, we get the most out of it when we are willing to go “all in” per say.  This is true of jobs, hobbies, relationships, you name it.  We have to be willing to adjust, and consider a whole bunch of circumstances and other factors.  But, sitting in the middle, waiting for two or more different opportunities to possibly manifest only works well for a little while.  In the end, a choice needs to be made, and even if it is not the ideal choice, the fact that a choice was made produced a better outcome than having allowed the entire day to lapse without making one at all.

Storms With Abnormal Structure

One of the things that makes this world so amazing is the fact that we never cease to encounter surprises.  No matter how well we get to know a subject, any subject, we will encounter, and observe, from time to time, that which does not fit closely into the patterns we have learned.  We will periodically be tested, in our knowledge, and forced to rethink, and once again reason out what we have seen based on our critical thinking skills and understanding of our favorite subjects.  Like the psychologist that talks to someone new and says “I have never seen this before”, these experiences rekindle the passion we have for that which we love, remind us how complicated the world really is and how little we really know, and remind us about how interesting of a place the world truly is.

The 9th of May 2017 was a confusing chase day for me.  It is one that I am still trying to figure out, much in the same way the scientific community is still trying to determine why some storms produce tornadoes and others don’t.

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The day began with a slight risk across Eastern Colorado and New Mexico, and reason to believe, based on model output and expert opinion, that it could be a decent setup for a storm chase in East Central/ Southeastern Colorado.

The day ended up being one where I followed over half a dozen storms, over the course of the afternoon and early evening, northeastward, from near La Junta, Colorado, to just north of Goodland, Kansas.

Regardless of where a storm was positioned, both relative to other storms, and relative to atmospheric boundaries such as dry-lines (the boundary between moist and dry air), which are credited with creating the lift in the atmosphere that often creates storms, all the storms would behave in much the same sort-of standard but sort-of not manner.


They would cluster together and come apart.  They had the standard boundary one would observe between the inflow and outflow portions of the storm.


Some would even show something that look like a “lowering”, which is often an indication of the mesoscale rotation that causes tornadoes.

But, these “lowerings” would show up in some strange sections of the storm, including in the front part of the storm.  This is absolutely nothing like how anyone is taught that a “supercell” thunderstorm operates.

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In the end, storms did occur, but largely outside the region SPC highlighted that morning.

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And, in the areas of Colorado and Kansas I had chased, nothing more than a couple of hail reports.  Although, I am quite certain that there was far more hail than what is shown on this map, as I recall driving through some areas where hail covered the ground, including multiple areas near Burlington, Colorado.


I watched these storms tease us all day.  Everything just seemed, well, weak.  In a typical tornado situation, these random-ish clouds that form around a storm, often referred to by chasers as “scud” (I don’t know why), rise and rotate, indicating that there is indeed, the vertical motion and rotation that produces tornadoes.  But, today, the rising and rotating motion in these storms all seemed, well, just weak.  It reminded me of a relationship, or a friendship, that just fizzles away as soon as any small change occurs.  It was not that there was any kind of real force or circumstance pulling these people apart.  It was just that whatever connection they had was not strong at all.

That is the way it was with these storms.  Something about the entire setup made them behave differently, but I throughout the evening, as I watched the final storms roll away into the sunset.  I could not formulate the full reason as to why these storms behaved so differently from a standard severe thunderstorm situation.


I am still wondering.  Often times severe thunderstorms don’t materialize because one key “ingredient” was missing.  Shear, instability, a good boundary, etc.  And those often lead to what is refereed to as a “bust day”.  It’s just sunny.  Or drizzly.

May 9th was not a complete “bust”, as there were storms to look at all day.  They likely never became severe because everything about the storm setup was just kind of weak:  Weak to moderate instability.  Border line helicity.  A sort of weak boundary.

And, just like the storms themselves, with multiple areas of quazi-rotating clouds, the atmosphere as a whole had no real focus.  Often times, severe thunderstorms draw upon air from hundreds of miles away for energy.  This produces scattered, but strong storms.  With hundreds of active storm cells, there was less energy for each individual storm.


Of course there are other theories.  After all, it could have all been the lack of low-level shear.  But, in the end, it felt as if the entire day was telling me something.  It was like a crash course in how to create, well, mediocrity.  Have only part of what you need before you proceed.  Focus on nothing- just spread yourself real thin.  And, choose to follow some of the rules, but completely disregard others.

The Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market

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What does it mean to have a “healthy community”?  I am encouraged to see more and more people actively consider their life choices, their environment, associations and just put more thought in general to how they spend their time, energy, and money.  This feels like a dramatic shift from, say, ten years ago.  However, embedded in some of the most high profile public improvement related pursuits in the modern era is an unfortunate residual strand of laziness.  After all, we do want something for nothing.

This often manifests itself in buzz phrases that people use to not-so subtly indicate some form of association with a popular present-day initiative.  Perhaps the one that bugs me the most is the term “sustainability”.  In many of its common present-day uses, the definition of this term “sustainability” has been narrowed to only mean sustainability in the environmental sense, short-changing the term of its full definition, and shortchanging discussions of “sustainability” of their full impact.

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Whenever I ride a bicycle to a Farmer’s Market, I feel as if I suddenly become the personification of the term “healthy community”.  It’s the standard image, embedded in every montage that any health or parks department has put together to promote some kind of health/ community initiative in the past six years.  People riding their bikes to buy pesticide-free produce and meat products from local farmers and ranchers.

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And there are a few booths that sell those products, including one with that cow diagram that just always confuses me.  Why are there like 50 types of beef?.  However, most of the booths at this Farmer’s Market are not vendors selling food.  In fact, I saw a somewhat random assortment of products that made me curious as to how one goes about determining what is appropriate for a Farmer’s Market.

And, as is the case with any other Farmer’s Market I have been to, there were plenty of booths where one can get food that is, well, not healthy.

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In Wisconsin, any Farmer’s Market I would attend would have a good number of booths selling cheese curds.  If the country ever breaks up into its 50 states, and Wisconsin becomes its own country, it would probably stock pile cheese as a strategic reserve, much the same way Canada stock piles maple syrup.

I would say a majority of the food vendors at this Farmer’s Market offer food that is not typically considered healthy; including many different varieties of baked goods, food trucks, and a bunch of stands that sell items like tamales and burritos.

Interestingly, several booths at this Farmer’s Market are operated by Local civic organizations advising residents on how to effectively garden and compost.  This gives this Farmer’s Market somewhat of a unique touch, that contributes to the health and sustainability of the community in a different way.

But, the same way being a successful person is about more than simply becoming “goal oriented”, eating well is about more than just buying things that are “organic”, and having a productive work team is about more than just “synergy”, having a healthy community is not just about initiatives like this.  There are a lot of other factors, culturally, near and far, that make this place what it is.

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Regardless of what we are trying to achieve, it takes time, effort and active participation.  We all want something for nothing.  We want to be able to claim some sort of accomplishment, moral validation, status or belonging by claiming association with some positively viewed buzzword, and maybe taking part in a token activity like going to a Farmer’s Market.  But, to really live healthy takes a much bigger commitment.  And there is more to having a “healthy community” than a video montage showing people like me bicycling to Farmer’s Markets.

What we do every day can be healthy, or it can be not.  For most of us, it is both, depending on the situation.  The intellectual rigor we need to truly evaluate our lives, the journey we are on and the communities we live in, involves respecting the complexity that is ourselves, our surroundings, and even places with divergent outcomes like the Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market.  It is at that point, with the understanding of places, activities and concepts beyond buzzwords and vague terms, we complete this transition, elevating our level of intellectual discourse and giving ourselves the tools we need to make the best of our lives and communities.