Monthly Archives: October 2017

The History of the Rocky Mountains

IMG_1691 (1)Many travelers are motivated to visit a variety of destinations by intellectual curiosity; Curiosity about culture, people and history. Curiosity about nature, science, and how our planet works. Unique natural features, such as Arches National Park and the Badlands, always make me wonder. How did this these distinct features come to be? Why can this be seen on this little section of our planet and seemingly not everywhere else? Is there anything similar, anywhere else?

This leads us back to history; history that pre-dates human beings. The geological processes that produced the colors, shapes and terrain we admire often occur over multiple millions of years. Some even pre-date any of our mammalian ancestors. Over the course of any one person’s lifespan, it is highly unlikely that any changes in our natural world resulting from geological processes will be noticeable. Nonetheless, geological processes can manifest themselves in some rather explosive ways, including earthquakes, volcanoes and sinkholes.

All this is true of unique natural features like Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, as well as the ring of volcanoes in places like Iceland and Hawaii. This is also true of the larger natural feature that in many ways defines life in Western North America; The Rocky Mountains.

As it turns out, the Rocky Mountains, as far as mountain ranges go, are quite unique.

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This past weekend, Drs. Robert Anderson and Lon Abbott of the University of Colorado-Boulder, lead a group of people up Sugarloaf Mountain to examine the geological history of the Rocky Mountains. This event was put on by the TEDxMileHigh organization as one of their adventures.

Sugarloaf Mountain is a relatively easy hike 15 minutes West of Boulder, along the Boulder Canyon. The distance from the trailhead to the top of the mountain is only about 1.4 miles, and the vertical gain is less than 600 feet. However, it is said to have one of the best views of Boulder Canyon in the area.

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This particular hike was chosen to as a backdrop for presenting Colorado’s geological history based on the specific terrain features that appear along the trail. For example, 1.7 Billion Years ago, Colorado was a shallow Ocean with tall mountains sticking up out of the ground, much the way present-day New Zealand is. Some of the mountains in the distance resemble the mountains that one would see had they been floating (or canoeing) across this area at the time.

300 Million years ago, it was a tropical seashore. The Rocky Mountains themselves formed from a period of time roughly 70 Million years ago to about 40 Million years ago. More recently (over the past 8 million years), the Great Plains, which the trail periodically overlooks, began to subside, creating the sharp contrast between the flat terrain east of the mountains and the high peaks of the Central Rockies that we see in our present day world.

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At this exact elevation threshold, roughly 8500 feet, the type of rock observed changes, also a result of some of the long-term processes that created the Rocky Mountains.

The same combination of processes and events created some of the most celebrated unique rock formations of the region, including Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods. Thanks to the University of Colorado Department of Geology, this short hike became a trip through time.

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The view at the top didn’t disappoint. It was interesting to see the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains on an October day with some sun, but also plentiful cloudiness. It felt quite different from many of my hiking days Colorado, where there is often near total sunshine. I had previously forgotten about how much I enjoy seeing mountainous terrain like this, with sections of it lit by the sun, and other sections shadowed by the clouds, creating unique color contrasts that gradually shift over time.

The geological history of the Rocky Mountains is somewhat unique, and has yet to be fully explained. Geographically speaking, looking at a present day map of the world, the Rocky Mountains are fairly unique due to how far away from any major fault line they are.

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Many mountain ranges like the Andes and the Himalayans are right on a fault line and associated with geological activity; earthquakes and volcanoes. Colorado is not a hotbed for either, making for a somewhat unique mountain experience.

Geologists are still trying to explain why the mountains formed here the way they did. The Rockies continue to puzzle the scientific community. Why the mountains are as tall as they are when other properties of the Earth’s crust would indicate otherwise? Why did the Great Plains subside and become “disconnected” from the Front Range? Nevertheless, since geological processes are so slow, the mountains, as we see them today, are unlikely to change too much within any of our lifetimes.

Regardless of whether we are intellectually curious about why they are the way they are, or simply want to ski, hike, raft and climb, there are there and will continue to be there for us. They are confusing but consistent, much like life itself.

Six Weeks After the Storm

On Friday August 25th, Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Coast, leaving 82 dead, thousands injured and thousands without power. For a large swath of the Texas coast, homes, and lives, were ruined.

Six weeks later, in the coastal area from Port Lavaca to Corpus Cristi, this was the scene in nearly every residential neighborhood. Houses covered in blue tarp where roofs were punctured and windows were shattered. Debris was piled up by the side of the road waiting to be hauled away. Texas still in mourning.

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Even driving through commercial zones, evidence of this recent destruction was all around.

After years of studying the weather, admiring storms from afar, and analyzing storm data, I decided it was time for me to actually chip in and help those whose lives are affected by these wonders of nature.

I flew to Houston.

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I rented a car.

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And I drove down to Victoria, TX, roughly two hours southwest of Houston, a place where people were still cleaning out from the storm.

But first, stayed at a seedy hotel on the Southwest side of Houston.

Seeing security officers, police lights, and being solicited made my accommodations for the remainder of the trip, in the gymnasium of Faith Family Church in Victoria, TX, feel quite comforting (as I knew I would not get robbed here).

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I actually found the accommodations made for us volunteers quite fitting. I had seen so many scenes in the news, where storm refuges were sleeping in quarters similar to this as they ride out or recover from a storm. While not exactly living the entire experience as those affected by these storms, it still, just, felt right.

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I also have to give a huge thank you to the organization I volunteered with, Samaritan’s Purse. They arranged the sleeping quarters for volunteers, and even provided us with three meals a day. This makes volunteering for disaster relief efforts quite inexpensive. I only had to pay for my flight, the rental car and gas, and that cheap hotel. Oh, and I decided on my way down to stop at What-a-Burger, because, when in Texas, right.

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The odd thing about volunteering for hurricane relief efforts is that each day had a flow that almost resembled many of the outdoor adventures I regularly take part in, like adventure cycling, backpacking and skiing.

Each day would start off breakfast. We would eat together, pack our lunches, and head out. We would spend most of the day outside, being physically active. We’d return in the late afternoon, shower, change, and then all eat dinner together. That flow felt natural to me.

What wasn’t natural to me, as both a “city-boy”, and a “millennial” was the work. We just don’t learn how to work with tools.

Thanks to volunteering, and the patience of the other volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, I ended up learning a thing or two.

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Last year, when I read The Happiness Project, I was introduced to the concept of “fog happiness”. According to author Gretchen Rubin, fog happiness occurs when an activity does not necessarily bring you joy at the moment in which you are partaking in it. Rather, the happiness is spread out over a much longer time span, often both before and after an event. In a way, it is the antithesis of instant gratification.

The combination of seeing the result of my work, and knowing that I was part of a bigger mission with a clear positive outcome produced a clear example, for me, of fog happiness. Sweating in 90 degree heat, in October, with humidity only achieved on Long Island in the dead of summer, does not necessarily feel as good as sitting by the beach, or partying. I was, however, fulfilled.

As it turns out, I did get to go to the beach! Samaritan’s Purse, being a Christian Organization, takes Sundays off, giving me a chance to visit the Texas Gulf Coast.

The drive gave me a chance to see the true extent to the destruction all around me.

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I had hoped, maybe even believed, that six weeks after the storm the recovery effort would be further along than it was. Everywhere I drove, I kept seeing the same thing. It made me appreciate the true extent of the recovery effort, and how small of a part I really played in it, as I was in Texas for only four days. There were may volunteers who signed up for the entire effort, and will be there through the middle part of November.

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The four days I spent in Victoria felt like a trip back to the past, both with respect to my life, and society as a whole. The showers felt like dorm room showers. The presence of a lot of people doing the same thing all day felt like high school or college.

Also, the behavior and expectations felt like a trip back in time. Men and women slept in separate rooms. The organization did not permit one man and one woman to ride in a car together unless they are married. Phrases such as “I’m looking to nail something”, which have taken on newer, more sexually expressive meanings in the past few decades, reverted to their older, more innocent definitions.

IMG_1557 (1)I visited over half a dozen homes. Most of the people who needed assistance were people who have some other kind of poor circumstance; disability, previous home damage, etc. I even encountered someone who had recently had two strokes!

Oddly enough, although I felt appreciated for the work I did, it felt like some of the victims who I encountered were most appreciative of having some companionship when I would sit down and talk to them. In several instances I could sense a sadness in the eyes of those I was helping that had to do with factors beyond the storm. Worry about friends and family taking the wrong direction in life. Sadness about certain life events. Being lost. Perhaps most powerfully, being lonely.

It reminded me of the loneliness epidemic, as well as all of the other less obvious forms of human suffering currently going on. People are good at paying attention to suffering when its obvious. Other more subtle forms of suffering, such as loneliness, lack of fulfillment, lack of direction, and the feeling of being exploited by others, often go unaddressed.

I may not have the capability to travel to every major disaster and physically help the way I did this past weekend. What I can do is try, each and every day, to do something about all these other forms of suffering going on. These are the kinds of suffering I see every day. These people need help too.

The Motor City- Without a Vehicle

“And you may say to yourself, well, how did I get here”- David Byrne.

I found myself in Detroit, Michigan on an unexpectedly pleasant October week asking myself just that question.

On one level, of course I know how I got here: Delta Airlines. I am not that reckless :).

On a whole other level, and the level that David Byrne was clearly referencing in Once in a Lifetime, I was quite confused.

How did the sequence of events in my life come together that lead me here?

To this forum…


In this city…

With this group of people….

Is there a reason for it? Was it “meant to be” for any reason? Or is it a result of decisions I made aggregated over the course of time? Had I made these decisions differently, prioritized things in my life in a different order, or just paid more attention to a few specific things, would it have lead to a result that is significantly different?

This song was on my mind because last time I was in Detroit, way before I even had the idea to start writing about my travels, I recorded a dance to this music video at the Henry Ford Museum.

This was in 2008, a time when Detroit was at some kind of a low point. The story of Detroit is familiar to many, as it has been written about extensively.

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As the headquarters to America’s three biggest car manufacturers, the city was prominent and prosperous in the middle of the 20th Century. However, it fell on hard times in the later part of the 20th Century due to a combination of customers increasingly buying foreign cars and the decline in manufacturing in the U.S.

Nearly every time anyone writes about Detroit, they write about the city’s economic fortunes, often making points about social issues, economic policies, etc. Even when I came to Detroit with no desire to address the city’s economic misfortune and current attempts at recovery, it is hard to escape. Evidence of it is everywhere.

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Visitors from other parts of the country kept telling me how eerie it felt; the lack of crowds, empty streets and mostly empty bars. Even acknowledging that these were all weeknights, it still felt different than what most people experience in urban areas throughout the country.

The history, as well as current state, of any place is always going to be a part of any travel experience. And, for Detroit, this includes the history people focus on (decline from 1960-2008), but also some of its history prior to this.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Detroit is “The Motor City”, and best known for its role in the automobile industry, much of its history, and many of the interesting attractions, can actually be reached without a motorized vehicle.

Within downtown, one can walk to many of the city’s historical, and current attractions.

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For those willing to walk a mile, the only places that really require vehicular transportation are the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum. The Cobo Center, all the attractions along the Riverfront, Detroit’s historic Opera House, the Fox Theater, the venues for all of Detroit’s sports teams, as well as multiple casinos can all be reached on foot within roughly a mile and a half of each other.


Interestingly enough, there is a lot one can do in the “Motor City” without even using a motor!

Much of this was actually built in Detroit after the decline of the auto industry. One of the reasons I visited Detroit in 2008 was to see their newly built baseball stadium, right downtown.

My 2017 visit to Detroit was to attend a conference related to a client I am currently consulting with. The reason is complicated as organizations rarely send consultants to conferences to represent their brand. Consultants are temporary and technically not a member of the organization.

It makes my identity, like Detroit’s identity as a city, feel way more fluid and complex than it was in the past. In the mid 20th Century, a place could have a simplistic identity; The Motor City, The Rubber City, The Iron City, etc. Today’s growing cities, like Denver, have identities that revolve around multiple areas of focus.

Many people are rooting for Detroit to make a comeback. Places like Greektown and Corktown, adjacent and walkable from downtown, are emblematic of a new, different, and more multi-faceted Detroit emerging from the ashes of the decay that plagued the prior half a century. One day, Detroit will find itself anew, unrecognizable to the Detroit of Motown, and people will ask “how did it get here”. They may even ask “My God, what have I done” (from the same song).

The point of David Byrne’s song is that people need to stop and periodically think about their lives, the directions they are headed, their priorities, etc. Otherwise, they will just kind of like drift, with nobody really understanding whey they are where they are, doing what they are doing, with the people they are with.

There are unique things about Detroit. Obviously the large amounts of empty space, some of which is being converted to farmland.

Also, their proximity to the Canadian border, rust belt infrastructure, and continued contributions to the music industry.


Attending this conference was a reminder to me. No matter where I go, no matter what I am doing, I cannot help but be me. While we all need to periodically re-think things, come up with new ideas, and even take on a somewhat different identity, there will always be some things fundamental about ourselves that do not change. Detroit’s current transitions reminds me of this.