Category Archives: geography

Pittsburgh- a City That Feels Everywhere at Once

For people who love putting things into categories, Pittsburgh has to represent an absolute nightmare! Known as the “Steel City”, no regional map would not place it firmly in the rust belt. Like other rust belt cities, it fell on some hard times when many key industries collapsed in the final 30 years of the 20th century.

However, Pittsburgh is also known for having made a comeback. It’s considered a blueprint for other cities looking for a revival after suffering from the decline of their primary industries.

Pittsburgh’s revival is commonly attributed to versatility in embracing new industries like health care and technology. The education infrastructure and leadership with a more long-term focus is credited with creating the conditions needed for the city to once again thrive.

The story is reminiscent of countless personal stories of people who suffer major setbacks in life and later make a comeback. These stories often involve people who become complacent and stagnant. Typically their livelihoods get disrupted by external events they are unprepared for. Their personal revival stories typically revolve around a combination of adapting a new way of looking at things and tapping into core strengths they possessed all along.

For a long time, Pittsburgh was a place that valued science and education. It is home to several major universities.

Benefiting from it’s hilly terrain, it is also home to the Allegheny Observatory, an observatory over 150 years old where countless star distance calculations have been made.

The hilly terrain makes Pittsburgh unique in other ways.

One of the city’s top attractions in the Duqeuesne Incline, a reasonably priced and dog friendly tram one can ride to overlook the city.

It’s also a historic commuter train as walking up the side of a bluff is often treacherous.

In fact, the entire layout of the city is forced by these geographical features. The city’s downtown is situated where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge into the Ohio River.

Both the football and baseball stadiums are right downtown.

Along with your typical big office buildings and a square which surprisingly seems to attract a lot of loud cars and motorcycles.

To the east of downtown, sandwiched between the Allegheny River and a densely forested bluff is the strip district, which seems like a standard tourist destination.

Pittsburgh’s most unique quality has to be legitimate hiking within the city limits. Riverview Park, on the north end, is one of several places with a system of trails that have significant terrain and fairly dense forests.

It is also a place with plenty of other parks.

When many think of Pittsburgh, they may still think of it as a rust belt city with a rough exterior.

That, of course is only part of the truth, one aspect of the city’s culture. Many of the things Pittsburgh was about before the decline and subsequent revival are still there. There is still all the ketchup.

Pittsburgh’s history also involves a lot of food and traditions based on Eastern European culture.

However, the city has managed to incorporate the amenities demanded by talented urban professionals in the 2020s.

We all are, in a way, every chapter of our lives. A tour through Pittsburgh shows the city before the steel industry declined, during its dark days and in the current era. It’s a reminder of all of our personal stories and how even during the more prosperous times in our lives, the bumps we experienced along the road, as well as who we were before experiencing these setbacks are still a significant part of who we are. Battle scars don’t go away, they are just put into context.

Despite my sincere desire to avoid categorization or labelling, I could not help but want some kind of quick description of what Pittsburgh is. Do people think of it as on the up-and-up or in decline? Do people know how Pittsburgh is viewed by others? What region do they consider themselves to be in?

Pennsylvania has recently emerged as quite possibly the most important state in presidential politics. Walking around town, I could not help but wonder if people here were already starting to dread the inevitable onslaught of political ads that will be absolutely impossible to avoid in the run up to an election that is still over three years away.

When people try to make sense of this state, they will often say the state has a genuine east coast city in Philadelphia, aspects of rust belt and Appalachia and a midwestern city in Pittsburgh. But, some aspects of Pittsburgh felt downright eastern to me. There are the tunnels.

The bridges.

Some neighborhood have really tight roads, reminiscent of the Northeast.

As it is on the East Coast, the roads are often not in straight lines and the intersections are often not 90 degree angles.

In just over 24 hours, my long dormant east coast instincts regarding driving, walking pace, how to act and how to time things kicked back in.

What does the future hold for Pittsburgh? Based on what I have read and seen, it seems like the ability to adjust, long-term focus and unique spirit has not gone anywhere. So, most likely it will be a good one.

As long as people don’t get sick of cloudy days.

My Thoughts on Turnpikes

The Indiana Toll Road and Ohio Turnpike are not the most exciting of journeys. Much of the area looks exactly the same. The terrain is quite flat. There is corn and soy everywhere. The road connects a series of medium sized cities, coming close enough to efficiently connect them without actually passing through them. It is a form of transportation that maximizes one thing and one thing only: temporal efficiency.

In the Midwest, all roads start and end in Chicago. It took me a while to realize that, while Chicago is right in the middle of the region known as the Midwest, and is its unofficial capital, Chicago is really nothing like the rest of the Midwest. It is a big international city. It moves at a pace that is closer to that of other large cities than the rest of the Midwest.

Once someone leaves the greater Chicago area, they are likely to encounter a completely different mentality and a completely different way of life.

Chicago also kind of divides the Midwest. There are some subtle differences between what lies to the West of Chicago and what lies to the East. These subtle difference are probably only commonly thought of by those of us who have lived in the Midwest and those of us who have driven across the entire region and had time to observe it.

While there are farms everywhere in the region, the Western part of the region, West of Chicago seems to be built more around farmland. They have leveled enough trees to increase surface wind speeds (dense forests tend to reduce surface wind speeds) enough to make it a good place to build wind farms. The economies of many of the medium sized cities in this region are centered around farming equipment,

East of Chicago, trees are more plentiful. Medium sized cities here are a bit more frequent and they have more of a “rust belt” feel.

Cities here tend to have nicknames around what product are manufactured here…

  • Gary the Steel City
  • South Bend the Wagon City
  • Elkhart the RV Capitol of the World
  • Toledo the Glass City
  • Akron the Rubber City

As is the case with the subtle but noticeable difference between the region to the West and the region to the East of Chicago, there is also a subtle but noticeable difference between driving on turnpikes and driving on other highways.

Turnpikes tend to have elaborate exit ramps to facilitate toll collection. As a result, exits are often quite far apart.

Two things happen. First, rather than pulling off at an exit to stop for gas, restrooms and food, it ends up being more common to stop at rest areas.

As homogenized as standard highway driving is compared with traveling on roads that go through the center of town, turnpike driving is even more homogenous. All of the rest areas on the Ohio Turnpike look exactly the same and many of them have the exact same food options.

Also, with the exits fewer and father between, it becomes far less likely that drivers will follow the most direct path from their origin to their destination. Getting to a location is more about finding the nearest exit than the series of roads that provide the most direct path.

Turnpike driving maximizes temporal efficiency, but it is not my favorite method of transportation.

When traveling from place to place, sometimes there are things more important than getting to a destination as quick as possible. There are places to experience along the way. The experience of traveling along the Indiana Toll Road and Ohio Turnpike is a reminder of what we lose out on when we focus on one metric and one metric only, in this case temporal efficiency. While South Bend, Elkhart, Toledo and Sandusky will not top anyone’s list of top vacation destinations, whizzing by them from 10-20 miles away on a homogenous turnpike still feels like missing out on something that has the potential to be a worthwhile experience.

Reflection on Iowa

After yet another drive across the State

In my younger years, my experiences with the State of Iowa were not always positive. One time, I was at a conference in downtown Des Moines and found it surprisingly challenging to find a suitable place to eat. When I was 21, I visited Ames. I recall taking a series of shots, one green, followed by a yellow one and then a red one. I believe the tradition is called the “stoplight.” Energized by these shots along with my then usual rum and coke I was ready to let loose. I asked “what are we doing”. The response was “sitt’n and drinking.” The 21 year old version of me, always looking for more activities, found this absolutely ludicrous.

Iowa is primarily known for corn. It’s the top producer of corn and the only state that lies completely within what is known as the “corn belt”. The fact that those who drive across the state see nothing but corn was even the subject of a funny song that barely lasts half a minute.

The drive across the state can be pretty monotonous, especially considering that Interstate 80, the highway most people use to cross the state, does not even go through the center of the towns it connects.

It is all pretty much the same thing, gentle rolling hills, farms, small towns, and, yes, tons and tons of corn fields. After a while I start to imagine what life is like here. What do people do on a day-to-day basis? What are the interesting and exciting activities? What worries them?

Was I only demanding these perfect restaurants in downtown Des Moines because I have become so accustomed to having so many options where I am from? Why is “sitting and drinking” not good enough for me? What am I chasing and is it making me happy?

It is easy to imagine life in Iowa being a kind of beautiful simplicity.

There are certainly uglier things to look at than corn fields kissed by the sun in the early evening hours on a late summer’s day.

Maybe what I dismiss as boring is a life that is actually satisfying to millions of people. Maybe the farmers across the state feel a sense of pride in growing the corn that feeds the nation’s cows that feed the nation’s people. Maybe people here love their communities. Maybe they love seeing people they know, deeply and personally, every time they go to their local grocery store or their local restaurants. Maybe they go over to each other’s houses and just play games. They could even enjoy just feeling the fresh air and watching the corn stalks sway in the wind.

Maybe that experience provides a deeper sense of satisfaction than having all the fancy items in the grocery store and five star restaurants with exotic food. Could it be that we are chasing the wrong things? I think to my own life and how happy all the expensive things we are all working so hard to be able to afford are really making us. Is it worth the stress?

While I still don’t imagine myself being happy living in Iowa, the realization that there are people happy here does make me re-evaluate my own life. There is a part of me that is always striving for more. The world, of course, needs people like this, to consistently move humanity forward. However, there is also a part of me that gets excited over some of life’s more simple pleasures.

The world’s largest truckstop, in Iowa

Crossing Iowa, looking upon all the small towns and farms and imagining people who are perfectly content here inspires me to be present, pay attention and notice these small goofy things that make me happy. Sometimes in life that is all we have.

Ride the Rockies Day 5: The Optional Day Around Ridgeway

Day 5 was optional, and when I first signed up for this ride, I was convinced I was going to take the day off. The ride in its entirety is very challenging. The final day is possibly the most challenging and the most iconic of the ride, along Million Dollar Highway from Ridgeway to Durango. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a day off and feel well rested. Plenty of people did chose to rest that day, as evidenced by conversations I had with other participants and the number of people I saw out at the brewery the previous evening.

When it came time to decide my instinct told me not to take the full day off. I decided to ride on day 5, but to skip the part of the ride I had already ridden on day 4, up Dallas Divide.

I also determined that, since I was staying in Ouray, I could make day 6 a little easier by riding the first 12 miles of that challenging 85 mile day after looping back to Ridgeway. I’d still get to see all the places included in the ride.

By the fifth day I began to notice…

  1. Regardless of the circumstance I always woke up around 5:45. On a “normal” weekday I sometimes struggle to get myself out of bed before 7! This was likely because I was getting exercise and sunlight, but could have also been related to the anticipation of each day’s ride.
  2. I also got in the habit of watching the morning news in the various hotel rooms I stayed in.

Since I was busy most days cycling, with my hands on my handlebars, I was not checking the news on my phone (or a computer) throughout the day. Instead, I watched the news for half an hour or so every morning as I prepared for the day’s ride.

I realized that, with respect to how we consume the news, I had essentially reverted to the way things were three decades ago, when it was common to watch the news in the morning or the evening, but our exposure to the news was confined only to that half hour or hour each day. I determined that I liked it better. 99% of all news stories are not emergencies. They can wait until the end of the day or the following morning.

The ride started on a trail that connected Ridgeway with Ridgeway State Park, a place where a lot of people take part in water sports.

The 17-mile descent went quite fast and before I knew it I was in the tiny town of Colona.

The second half of the loop pretty much embodied what Ride the Rockies is really all about. It was a challenging 2,000 foot (600 m) climb on a dirt road, but, the challenge ended up being worth it!

I spent some time in Ridgeway before tackling the final 12 miles of my day.

It was good to have a nice meal and then relax by the pool for a while.

I was concerned about the heat, which was starting to build in Ridgeway, but luckily was able to take advantage of some clouds that had built in the middle of the afternoon to take on the ride from Ridgeway to Ouray.

From the standpoint of off-roading, this was quite possibly the most challenging part of the ride. Here, highway 550 is fairly heavily trafficked and has no shoulder. The official ride follows parallel gravel roads that were a bit tough for me on the cyclocross bike I ride.

I did not love all these rocks

In Ouray, I got more time to relax, as the total ride for the day was still less than 50 miles.

I soaked my legs in the cold water of the Uncompaghre River.

And had a nice meal at the Outlaw Saloon, where I got to meet the man who plays all those old west sounding tunes on the piano.

This piano player makes a living playing old west style tunes at bars in both Ouray and Silverton (both towns with an old west vibe). I loved hearing his story!

Sometimes it feels like everywhere I go I see people that feel trapped in jobs they don’t like and are not passionate about. Some combination of fear and the need for security keeps them there. For the unfortunate ones who end up working long hours and enduring a lot of stress, it does not feel like much of a life, regardless of how much money they are making. Whenever I hear about people who decided to do what they love to do and actually find a way to make it work, I feel happy and encouraged.

The day ended with a gaze to the north and a reminder of the challenge that lied ahead on the following day.

Just looking around town in all directions, it feels like the hardest place in the world to bike. There is no easy way in or out!

Ride the Rockies Day 3: Cortez to Telluride

When I signed up for this ride, it was the third and the sixth (and last) days that intimidated me. The first two days were both about 70 miles (115 km) with about 3,600 feet (1100 m) of climbing. These would not be considered “easy” or even “moderate” cycling days by any stretch of the imagination. However, they still pale in comparison to these more challenging days. The official ride for day 3 was 102 miles (164 km) with 6,500 feet (2 km) of climbing. The first 62 miles (100 km) were a fairly steady climb from Cortez to the top of Lizard Head Pass!

The first 20 miles, from Cortez to a small town called Dolores were pretty similiar to the first two days.

It was after passing through Dolores that, for the first time in this ride I truly felt like I was in the mountains. The ride followed up the Dolores River into a canyon that felt far more reminiscent of my many other Rocky Mountain experiences.

The further I went, the more amazing the scene in front of me got!

I was genuinely in a canyon, once again encountering random buildings and imagining what life would be like living in a house like this.

Only this time, I was not focused on the fact that these people lived so far from the nearest town. I was focused on the scenery. Does a person who was born in a place like this understand how spectacular the place the live is? Or is it just all they know? Or, do they think the grass is greener on the other side and stare at images of skyscrapers and other big buildings in their spare time?

A little over halfway through the climb, along with many of the other ride participants, I stopped to get Ice Cream.

This Priest Gulch Campground quite possibly gave me the best deal on ice cream I could imagine. For $2.50 I got a vanilla swirl that went pretty much as high as any vanilla swirl could go. I was almost worried I had consumed too much!

With the level of challenge on a day like this, it is hard not to pay attention to the little things that may make the ride easier or harder, even if they occur on a very small scale. Would this ride have been more or less challenging had I done it alone? On one hand, when riding with a group of people, there is often the opportunity to “draft”. This is when you ride behind someone going the same speed as you, letting them push against the wind. It makes the ride easier for those in the back of the pack. This is how cycling teams work.

However, on this day, there were a few incidences where one of the teams would be passing by me on the left while I quickly caught up to a slower or stopping rider in front of me. On several occasions I had to hit the breaks, which is always heartbreaking on days that feel like they will require nearly all the energy you have.

However, I would still say, overall, the big group is an advantage.

It was also after this ice cream stop that the tall peaks began to appear on the horizon.

After two days of hot lower elevation riding, I felt like I had entered a different ecosystem.

Two things I was not impressed with on this ride were…

  1. Serendipity Catering: The morning of the third and first extremely challenging day of the ride, I arrived at headquarters for breakfast at 5:45 A.M. only to find out that the catering service the ride had hired had essentially flaked on providing breakfast that morning. At the time, the organizers were unsure if they would return. As far as I knew, they didn’t return and I still do not know what happened.
  2. The town of Rico: I arrived at the aid station in Rico a little bit before noon, 50 miles into the ride. I had hoped to grab a quick bite to eat at one of the local shops only to be told the power was out in the entire town. I guess this is one town I will never explore.

The final ten miles of climbing were kind of a mix between flatter sections and sections that were really intense.

But the top of Lizard Head Pass was amazing!!!

I had worked hard all morning, pedaling from 6,100 feet (1.85 km) to 10,200 feet (3.1 km) in elevation. That hard work made this unbelievably beautiful setting in front of me so much more sweet!

As an added bonus, I finally got to eat lunch, although I did have to wait in a pretty lengthy line to get it.

I did not follow the official route all the way into Norwood. Instead, I rode right into Telluride to my hotel. This ride started with a descent from the top of Lizard Head Pass.

Required another climb.

And then a descent into town.

Despite having lived in Colorado for nearly nine years, this was my first time in Telluride, a town with a unique flavor.

Many other riders had done more miles and gone faster than me. If I had to guess, I would say 70-75% of the participants had done “better” than me that day. But, for many, rides like these are not about competing against each other, they are about the experience. At the end of the day, I was still quite happy having completed the first of two extremely intimidating days. This ride is special. Being barely in the third quartile of ride participants here still likely puts me in the top 2-3% of the population as a whole when it comes to cycling. But, for me, it is not about feeling better than anyone else. It is about getting to the top of that mountain pass under my own power and experiencing the world from the seat of a bicycle rather than behind the glass of an automobile or airplane.

Cycling up Mountains in a Storm

Loveland Pass on Sunday May 23, 2021

Colorado can be a pretty confusing and frustrating place in the Springtime. In most mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere places, Spring is a time of revival. It is the time of year where people who had mostly been indoors and inactive during the winter return to life. Here in Colorado, Springtime is a period of major weather fluctuations. In Denver, March and April are often the snowiest months. It can even snow in May. Sometimes it feels like we go from tracking the weather for snow to 90 degree heat with barely a week or two in-between.

Credit Channel 7 Denver

At higher elevations it snows quite a bit during springtime (Leadville is 10,200 feet (3.1km) above sea level), even as the snow melts into mud on most trails. It is probably the most inactive time of year in the mountains.

Image from Weather Atlas

Springtime in Colorado requires a combination of planning, adjustment and resiliency. The weekend of May 22nd and 23rd would test my resiliency because I kind of dropped the ball on planning.

On Saturday, I climbed Lookout Mountain, a ride in Golden, Colorado that climbs from 5500 feet (1675m) to 7300 feet (2200 m).

The day was somewhat stormy but also quite active. Paragliders took off from Lookout Mountain, flying over the town.

And the road was packed with cyclists. Only about 20 miles (32 km) from Denver, this is a very popular ride!

After noon, with even more paragliders taking off from the mountain, I encountered the storm.

Some cyclists chose to wait out the rain by finding a building to stand next to. I raced back home, into a fairly significant wind down the hill.

The next day, I went up to Loveland Pass to climb another mountain, this one at a much higher elevation. My ride began at the parking lot of Loveland Ski Area, which sits at around 10,600 feet (3230 m). I could already see that the storms had returned.

As is the case with going upwards in elevation, the weather was much colder, probably only around 45°F (7°C) at the start of the ride. From the very beginning, the ride felt like it was taking place in a different season.

Much of the ground was still covered with snow. Unlike on Lookout Mountain, I was the only one on a bicycle on the road up to Loveland Pass that day. The only other people I encountered were backcountry skiing. One joking asked me for a ride to the top of the pass on my handlebars.

Higher up the mountain, I suddenly found myself doing something I typically try to avoid, riding in the snow. It became scary as it was obvious that slippery conditions existed.

Near the top visibility continued to decline.

Finally, just to be true to the cycling community I belong to, I took a photo holding up my bike in front of the sign that indicated I had reached the top of the pass at just shy of 12,000 feet (3650 m).

There I stood, the only cyclist, almost out of place, like I was suddenly in the wrong season. It reminded me of how often we forget that different people in different places are often having quite different experiences. Two months ago, towards the end of March, while most places in North America were seeing people emerge from their winter dormancy and return to life, life in the Central Rockies was slowing down as the ski season was coming to an end. Now, there could not be more contrast all around me.

As the United States has mostly put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, countries with slower vaccine rollouts are dealing with some pretty bad case numbers associated with newer, more rapidly spreading, variants of the disease. This sits in sharp contrast to last summer, when other more prepared countries had much greater success in containing the virus through behavioral measures than we had. Heck, even the period of time westerners refer to as the “dark ages“, were not a dark time for everybody. The Tang Dynasty was remembered as a golden age for China. It was also a time of great advancement in the Islamic world. Finding myself on my bike in the snow in the second half of May reminded of the benefit of understanding that not everyone and not every place is having the same experience.

The Best of Southeast Utah

Monument Valley from 2 miles south

Monument Valley is the quintessential image associated with The American West. Perhaps because of how frequently it has appeared in films, particularly westerns, it is quite difficult to look at this grouping of red rock formations without imagining cowboys riding horses across the landscape.

Despite the fact that the natural processes associated with its formation are culturally agnostic, and the fact that the monument sits on the Navajo Indian Reservation, these rocks have become forever associated with the culture of the American West. The fact that the first music video that pops into my head when I think of Monument Valley is by a German Band, the Scorpions, does not even seem to temper that association. Every American hard rock song feels like it fits in perfectly with this landscape.

Speaking of the landscape, Monument Valley is one of those places with a command of the landscape for miles away. Particularly approaching from the north (or northeast as that is where the highways are), it can be seen from some 50 miles away.

The interesting thing about Monument Valley is how different it can appear on either side of the monument. In the afternoon, the north (northeast) side has a much different appearance than the view from the south, which represents the standard iconic view of the feature, with the sun shining on it.

How this specific iconic set of rocks became associate with 19th century American pioneers on horseback, and the enduring culture and ethos of the Interior American West is probably a challenging question to answer. Yet, it is most certainly the repetition of this association throughout culture and media that makes people living some half a century or more after all of these films were produced continue to feel a certain feeling when they gaze upon this monument. It is hard to imagine a better example of how repetition creates and perpetuates and association than this one. I am truly curious about what the Navajo Nation thinks of it.

The strange thing is that this association has lead me to think of gold prospectors, cowboys on horseback, shootouts and such at other places with a similar feel. Like most naturally occurring features, Monument Valley is not the only place where the natural processes that created these features occured.

The rock formations about 160 miles to the Northeast, outside of Moab, Utah, take on a very similar feel. It almost feels as if any movie or music video filmed at Monument Valley could have just as easily been filmed here to the same effect.

It would be a huge missed opportunity to visit Monument Valley without also visiting Goosenecks State Park, only about 30 miles away.

This is another spot that is photographed quite frequently. Unlike Monument Valley, it seems to have a stronger association with that which is current about the American West; tourism, outdoor adventures, and, of course, the search for the perfect instagram photo.

Visitors to the park can also see Monument Valley from a distance.

I had previously visited Arches National Park, traveling to the most iconic of the arches.

On that trip, I had failed to realize that just a half an hour south on highway 191, it is possible to see one of these arches without ever leaving the highway.

Like any other place in the West, Southeast Utah has places that are underrated, not trying to be noticed.

And places trying to get people to stop that don’t make much sense.

It’s unique natural features connect the past to the present, activate the imagination and provide experiences that are indicative of Western North America as a whole, yet unique to the specific location.

From Either-Or to Both-And

It feels good to be traveling again!

Here’s to more to come!

However, I must acknowledge that the middle of April is kind of a strange season to return to the world of traveling. It is not a very popular time to travel. Part of it is the school schedule nearly all families are subject to. Spring break is over and nobody finishes their school year before May. Mid-April is also a weird in-between season. In many active northern and high-altitude places, it is referred to as “mud season.” When people think of this time of year, they think of it as some abyss where conditions for activities on snow and ice deteriorate but the air has not warmed quite enough and the ground has not dried up enough for summertime adventures. I often specifically tell people not to come to Colorado in April because other months offer so much more.

And, thus, it is a great time to travel elsewhere.

It was the very first part of the first adventure in a new post-pandemic world. It was an opening act, a preview of what world we will all be re-emerging into. And, this drive from Denver to Moab (Utah) ended up providing some interesting hints as to how our thinking is being transformed.

Loveland, Copper Mountain, Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts are so close to I-70 motorists can see people skiing from the highway. That is, if the ski resort is still open. Not only were all four ski resorts still open, but the all had plenty of people still skiing.

Two hours later, across the border and down the slope near Moab, it felt like a completely different season.

Kayaks, canoes, rafts- people are already in the water. Could it be that a time of year many people had come to associate with boredom and few opportunities actually presents a plethora of opportunities for those willing to expand their view?

For some specific points on the map, especially some of the highest rated ski resorts, this is a time of year with little opportunity. The snow is melting and the ski season is coming to an end.

However, people looking to ski this late in the year can often still find some good skiing at lesser known higher elevation resorts. At lower elevations, like Moab, the weather is already ideal for some activities associated with summer. In fact, this is one of the best times of year to head there, as the middle of summer often gets quite hot.

What is interesting to imagine is someone either choosing between hitting the slopes or getting their canoe out. Or, even doing both!

One of the most profound ways that our world is shifting is a move away from an either-or to a both-and method of thinking. It has the potential to help us clarify our goals, live more balanced lives and more effectively settle arguments. For example, either-or thinking has always lead me to believe that my desire for community and to preserve my individuality are at odds with each other. Both-and thinking would encourage those of us with the same two needs, which is nearly everybody in reality, to develop a solution that considers the two truths about human nature.

Finding solutions using this new both-and mindset requires creativity and widening our view. At one specific spot, it is either ski season or summer, and sometimes neither. If we expand our range to include Loveland Ski Area (base elevation 10,800 feet) and Moab (elevation 4,028 feet) it is currently both! Perhaps, with this new way of thinking, an an expansive and creative worldview, we will design communities that give people a sense of belonging without having to surrender their individuality. Perhaps, with both-and thinking, we will also make headway on all of the other tug-of-war issues that have been driving us apart.

The Rio Grande Trail: Basalt to Aspen

The name of this trail is puzzling. According the the trail’s website, this 42 mile trail, which connects Glenwood Springs to Aspen, was named after the Rio Grande Western Railroad, which ran along these tracks until it was decommissioned in the 1990s.

Most visitors to the area are not aware of this history. We just see that the trail is named the Rio Grande Trail despite the fact that the river it follows is the Roaring Fork. The Rio Grande is not only well known for marking the U.S./ Mexico border in Texas, but it also has its origins in Colorado, not too far away.

That being said, on the first of October, it still made for one of the most breathtaking bike rides one could ever hope for.

I absolutely love the town of Basalt!

Every visit I have ever had to this town has been incredible! It never feels crowded like a major tourist destination, but there is also never a shortage of things to do or basic resources. I have never had a bad meal in this town, and the two rivers that come together, the Frying Pan and the Roaring Fork are your quintessential free spirited mountain rivers!

The ride from Basalt to Aspen is beautiful right from the start, especially on the first of October, with the fall colors at their peak.

It is the kind of trail that has something for everyone. In the middle part of the ride, you’ll encounter a restaurant built in one of the old train cars used when this trail was a railroad.

It overlooks several small villages.

The trail is mostly straight, but it makes a timely curve to give cyclists a direct view of Snowmass Village, one of the highest rated ski resorts in the state.

I also absolutely love the fact that the trail does not follow right beside the highway, usually traversing on the other side of the river from highway 82. There are many bike trails that travel right alongside a major highway. Here, cyclists enjoy the trail without the sounds of the busy highway. Additionally, those that have already driven the road see the area from a different perspective.

The mile markers are consistent, with one every half mile.

And, there are even parts of the trail where riders can chose a hard surface or a soft surface option.

Closer to Aspen there is an unpaved section that lasts about three miles.

Since it is hard packed and this section is flat, any kind of bike should be able to pass through with little problem. Oddly enough, my favorite experience of the ride was in this unpaved section.

This mini waterfall reminded me of a scene in the movie Cars, where the main character is taken to a similar feature. He is told that before the interstates were built all travelers would pass by this waterfall, but travelers now miss out on this beautiful experience in order to save 10 minutes. The scene, and in some ways the entire movie, was making a statement to us about our busy lives, and what we miss out on when we are always in a hurry, focused solely on our destination.

I was having an experience much like the scene in the movie. It would have been much faster to get from Basalt to Aspen on the highway, but not the same experience. I would not have encountered this feature. Leading up to the ride, I was feeling a bit stressed, like I was trying to cram too many activities into too little time. With work, I may have even been focusing on the destination rather than enjoying a key learning experience. Watching the water trickle down the rocks in stunning autumn gold reminded me how rich our lives can be when we don’t always take the most efficient route to a destination, both in physical space and in personal development.

The trail pretty much ends at the John Denver Sanctuary on the North side of Aspen.

That day the city of aspen was colorful. Yellow colored trees could be seen in every direction, from Aspen Mountain, the ski resort adjacent to town, to the pedestrian mall that is often far more crowded (when there is not a global pandemic).

Aspen is known to be active and wealthy. But, I wonder if the people who live here live hectic lives, always focused on their destinations. Or, do many residents of Aspen, and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley, frequently take the extra time to immerse themselves in the experience of the natural beauty that surrounds them?

Cycling The Enchanted Circle

The enchanted circle can be an intimidating bike ride for two reasons. First, it is challenging. It’s an 84 mile ride with a total of over 5,700 feet (1.75 km) of climbing. There are also a lot of sections where the road has no shoulder. A road with significant traffic and no shoulder can feel quite dangerous on a bicycle. Maybe I’m spoiled by typically riding in Colorado, with roads that are typically more bike friendly. According to the League of American Cyclists, Colorado ranks as the 7th most bike friendly state in the country, while New Mexico ranks 44th.

Like this bike ride, life has tons of opportunities that are both risky and potentially rewarding. A lot of people lose out on so much that life has to offer because they avoid endeavors that cary significant risk. For me, the Enchanted Circle bike ride became a microcosm for how we are meant to approach these important opportunities. I would not let the apparent challenge and the apparent danger stop me from doing the ride. However, it is good to be mindful and smart about the risks we take. With any potentially risky endeavor, there are actions one can take to minimize the downside. For me on the Enchanted Circle, it meant trying to face as little traffic as possible on the most potentially dangerous part, U.S. highway 64. So, I started the ride early, around 9 A.M., and rode the circle in the counter-clockwise direction, starting east out of Taos on 64.

As I’d hoped, there was very little traffic. There were even times where I completely forgot I was on a U.S. highway. The highway kind of took on the feeling of an empty country road, which was fantastic.

The 18 mile moderate climb from Taos to Palo Flechado Pass wound through the Carson National Forest. I truly felt enchanted, right from the start of the ride. Around each curve was a new sight to behold: Trees just starting to change colors for the upcoming fall. Birds flying through the air. Horses grazing on open land. New mountain peaks appearing on the horizon.

I could not help but smile for most of this segment. The climb is not even steep enough to cause too much exhaustion.

After this climb came a quick 700 foot (210m) descent into Angel Fire, home to one of several major New Mexico ski resorts along the Enchanted Circle.

Due to smoke from wildfires in California and Oregon, I was unable to see Angel Fire ski resort from the road. However, I would later get the gist, as one of the locals I would speak with in Eagles Nest would describe this resort as “a ski resort without apres”. It sounded like an interesting family oriented experience.

The next stretch of road, from Angel Fire to Eagles Nest, was perhaps the most comforting, being flat and having the widest shoulders of the entire loop.

I grabbed some food in Eagles Nest, interacted with some of the locals and then turned onto highway 38 for the next segment.

Highway 38 is a mixed bag. There is no shoulder, but traffic is pretty light. Of the cars I did encounter, this is where I felt the most scared. On a few occasions, I was frightened by being passed at high speeds by vehicles that did not move too far over.

The climb starts gradually, passing by a ghost town called Elizabethtown. A woman I had talked to in Eagles Nest told me this town was so easy to miss I would “miss it if I blinked… while riding uphill”.

Then comes the most challenging ascent of the ride, to the top of Bobcat Pass, the ride’s highest point.

This part turned out to be quite steep. I had received some encouragement regarding this bike ride at the Eagles Nest Cafe. One patron even let me have one of her onion rings. However, when I told people I was doing this ride, I also did hear “I’m exhausted just thinking about you riding up Bobcat Pass”, as well as “If my son were to tell me he wants to do this ride, I’d urge him not to.”

I took the downhill at 35 miles per hour (56 km/hr).

And quickly arrived in the town of Red River.

Red River, home to yet another ski resort, felt like your quintessential touristy mountain town. It felt reminiscent of Lincoln, New Hampshire, a town I rode through several years ago, also while on my bicycle tackling challenging mountain passes.

Continuing west on highway 38 was a beautiful descent from Red River into Questa.

Like the initial climb out of Taos, this descent was not quite as steep, winding through the forest, and by some other unique natural features over the course of 12 miles.

The final 20 miles of the ride follows highway 522 back towards Taos. While this section has some rolling hills, it stays in the valley to the west of the Southern Sangre de Cristo mountain range. On this part of the ride, I saw the mountains from a whole different, and more broad, vantage point.

The rolling hills on this last part of the ride are not nearly as big as the major passes I’d rode up earlier. However, having already rode 70 miles and pedaled up Bobcat Pass, they were enough to exhaust me.

Like many of my previous exhausting bike rides, I ended the day physically exhausted but spiritually rested. It also came with another form of spiritual satisfaction, having properly persevered despite some less than ideal conditions. The manner in which I approached this ride allowed me to enjoy the upside of the experience (the satisfaction of the ride, the scenery, the interactions with the locals, etc.), while being smart enough to minimize the downside (the risk of riding in high traffic with no shoulder).