Category Archives: Camping

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 2 The Storm

We woke up to a light rain tapping on the tent. The tiny amount of blue sky present in the morning quickly disappeared. While some days start off rainy only to quickly give way to sunshine, it was obvious this would not be one of those days. It would not be an optimal day for adventure.

Still, we tried to do our previously planned day hike to a couple of other alpine lakes. The rocks and lack of trees in the areas, combined with the cloudy skies, breeze and chilly rain made me think of the Scottish Highlands. I’ve never been there, but have seen photos which always make them appear something like this.I kind of always imagine cloudy weather as well.

The rain started to pick up as fog made previously visible mountains disappear in the background. We retreated to the tent.

As the rain picked up, the cold rain, along with a moderate, started to remind me of how it often felt walking down 5th Avenue (in New York City) during Christmastime. At higher elevations it snowed.

We would spend several hours inside the tent, trying to warm up and dry off. I kind of enjoyed having a chance to relax a bit and read (once I was able to dry off). There is something about having no other options, being stuck, that liberates us from this drive (or expectation) to make the most of every day we have. It feels like a modern day American obsession. I’m not sure if it is our work culture, competitive nature or something completely different that makes it hard for us to just relax. I’m probably even worse than most Americans. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to waste and entire day, not doing anything interesting or productive, and be okay with it. However, every time I try to do that, I get jittery sometime around 10 A.M.

The sun would eventually come out, sometime around 2:30 P.M.

I showed even more versatility by taking part in an activity I seldom do… fishing.

It even felt warm out for an hour or two.

We brought the fish back to our cooking area (which needs to be away from our campsite because of bears), filleted the fish and cooked our rice … just in time for another storm.

And I mean JUST IN TIME. As soon as everything was cooked, we rapidly and haphazardly put everything away in order to scurry back to the tent with our food to avoid lightning. While the cold wintry rain in the morning was just incredibly uncomfortable, the lightning in the evening was actually potentially dangerous. As summer was coming to an end in the mountains, we experienced nearly all seasons in one day.

It was the most intense thunderstorm I have ever experienced from inside a tent. It was the kind of thunderstorm where the sound of thunder follows the lightning nearly instantaneously making a startlingly loud noise! We could feel the vibration that only comes when the lightning strikes are incredibly close. It even hailed!

2020 is the gift that keeps on giving. It feels like a passive aggressive genie in a bottle, repeatedly giving me what I want but finding the most obnoxious possible way to grant the wish.

Me throughout the 2010s: Our jobs need to be more flexible. The rigid 9-to-5 schedule is outdated.

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I shall create a global pandemic that will force everyone to work remotely out of fear of killing their loved ones with a really intense flu. That will lead to workplace flexibility.

Me in August 2020: There is drought, fires and smoke from California to Colorado. We need rain!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I’ll make it rain! But, I’ll make it rain on the middle day of your backpacking trip, while you are not in your home or even able to get back to your car. Oh, and I’ll give you both cold wintry rain and scary thunderstorm rain.

Maybe it’s not just me.

Countless people in the 2010s: The rent is too damn high!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): An economic depression, violence and mass exodus from your city will lower your rent. You’re welcome.

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 1 Versatility

It started with an amazingly picturesque waterfall, only half an hour into the hike, before even reaching the border of the Wilderness itself.

There is no shortage of amazing natural features along the Missouri Lakes Trail in the Southern Part of the Holy Cross Wilderness about 20 miles South of Vail. In this part of the world it is hard to imagine anything different!

Many of the natural features along the first two miles of the trail were waterfalls!

This otherwise amazing experience along the Missouri Lakes trail was only interrupted by a section of trail that was quite challenging to pass and navigate due to a recent avalanche.

I was told this avalanche happened about a year and a half ago. I had never seen so many trees down in one place and could not help but imagine it being like one of those crazy scary avalanches in those nature videos. I wonder if anyone got trapped, if anyone died. Most people who travel places like this, especially in winter are smart, but there are the occasional stupid ones that end up in the news.

We spent most of the rest of the morning walking by the Missouri Lakes, the feature the trail is named after.

As is typical on the first day of a trip like this, I was trying to clear out my thoughts. Despite my decision to give up news for the month of August, I had some trouble clearing my mind. We can chose not to consciously look at the news, but unless we hide at home alone, there will be things we find out about. I heard about Hurricane Laura’s landfall in Louisiana. I also heard about something that hit closer to home for me, as I spent the first eleven years of my life living on Long Island and regularly going into New York City. Apparently, with the COVID-triggered adaptation of remote work, there is now an ongoing debate about whether New York is “dead” [1] [2].

I was in a place that could not be any more different from New York City.

Yet, my thoughts kept wandering to this debate. I wondered if the reports of people leaving New York City were overblown? Could the city really be facing an imminent decline? If so, will it be like it was in the 1970s? Could it be worse? What would the United States of America even be without places like New York City, where one can be in the middle of everything, the energy, constant movement, and economic activity?

The article claiming New York to be “Dead Forever” made a claim that sounded quite familiar… “This time is different”. I’ve heard this statement many times, in many different forms. Sure, “this time is different” events do happen, but not as often as they are proclaimed. A deep dive into history will actually reveal that in many cases, even ones of major change, a lot of things stay the same. A recent example is Google and Facebook. They changed the world in some ways, but their business model of giving away content for free and marketing to advertisers is not new at all. It started with radio and was the predominant business model of the television era. The main thing they changed was providing a platform for people to produce content for each other rather than paying actors to produce content.

I have a feeling that, although some adjustments will need to be made, there will still be people who crave the energy of living in places like New York.

Going over a mountain pass is quite a different experience than summiting a mountain. Looking ahead at the ridge, it is comforting, especially while carrying a heavy backpack, to know that it is only necessary to reach the “saddle” of this ridge, as opposed to the top of a mountain. There is no chance of a “false summit”. The challenge up ahead looks real, but it is also all laid out in front of us, with no surprises.

The top of the summit would reveal another challenge ahead. The clouds were already gathering.

As we descended the other side of the pass, toward Treasure Vault Lake at about half past noon, it was almost impossible to imagine an afternoon that would not feature rain.

It would take about an hour and a half for us to reach our destination, Blodgett Lake.

Due to a very rocky section of the trail, we had to descend into the valley and climb back to the lake.

For our final ascent to the lake, we went off trail. It’s probably a place few humans venture.

We ended up getting camp set up just in time for the storms to roll in.

The hours of 2:30 to 5:30 P.M. were mostly spent inside the tent, waiting out the storm. It was not ideal, as people often chose activities like this to spend time outdoors. However, we had been outdoors most of the day, and I welcomed the chance to take a nap and do a little bit of reading.

Between the place we set up camp and the lake there was a small lone tree. The image of this tiny tree with mountains and storm clouds in the backdrop made me think of the types of photographs often featured at art galleries, or at trendy cocktail parties.

That lone tree also came to symbolize something else… versatility.

It is common for people to wait for the ideal conditions for their activities. The chilly damp conditions, and promise of more time stuck inside the tent were far from ideal. However, that evening I witnessed a truly stunning natural phenomenon that I had only previously seen in videos. Watching the fog clouds pour over two mountain passes and into the valley below I knew for sure …. It pays to be versatile!

Escaping the Heat

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This year in Denver, it got hot and it got hot quickly. The first 90 degree temperature occurred on May 19th. This would be followed by the third hottest June on record, featuring 17 days where temperatures exceeded 90ºF.

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The heat continued into July with no end in sight.

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Forecast for July 10-12 issued July 9

Having spent over a dozen winters in the Midwest, I generally welcome the heat. However, having to always get outdoor activities in first thing in the morning or just before sundown can get tiring after a while.

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A heat wave is also an opportunity! In Colorado, we can always escape the heat by going up to the mountains. Many ski resorts in the Central Rockies display their comfotable average summertime temperatures when promoting their summertime activities. However, it is always cold at night! It has actually been five years since I’ve been camping somewhere with pleasant nighttime temperatures. A mid summer heat wave provides the opportunity to camp at high elevations without feeling too cold.

With the recent hot and dry weather, the one thing that would not be available is fire. We arrived at a campsite in the Gunnison National Forest at 9 P.M., three hours before a fire ban would take effect.

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I sometimes enjoy arriving at a Campsite right around dusk.

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Sure, it is not as fun to set up camp with limited light. But, there is something interesting about not knowing what your surroundings really look like until waking up the next morning. The sun rises from behind the mountains gradually revealing to you where you are.

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In some ways, it felt like I failed to escape the heat. Despite being in at higher elevation, daytime temperatures reached the 90s at the campsite. In some of the places we drove to, they were even a bit hotter.

However, perhaps because of how dry it was, overnight the temperatures would drop down into the 40s. Not uncomfortably cold, but cool enough to actually desire some hot tea in the morning, something I hadn’t done in Denver in a month.

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Our campsite, on a mostly empty dirt road in the Gunnison National Forest was surrounded by natural beauty. The angle of the river valley provided for beautiful sunsets.

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However, my favorite part of the experience was definitely the river.

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Each day, we’d hike in the heat, arrive back at the campground in the afternoon, and cool off in the river. The movement of the shallow flow of water over rocks was something I found fascinating.

I would stare at it, both while in the water and while at the campsite overlooking the river.

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The evenings seems to go on forever. Due to the north-south orientation of this particular river, the sun would cease to hit the river just after 6 P.M. However, daylight would go on until about 9. Endless evenings brought back memories of childhood. I thought of playing in the park, the neighborhood or the backyard until the very last bit of light faded from the horizon. I thought back to teenage years, doing things like playing mini-golf, hanging out at a park, or cruising around in our cars. Everything felt so playful and peaceful despite the fact that all these memories were not without frustration, conflict and setbacks. There is something about children and young adults playing outside in the evening that just feels more basically human than much of what we do in adulthood.

After a day or so away from work and screens, I started to feel my creativity surge back into my brain, as if the constant bombardment of information had been suppressing it for weeks. I looked across the river at the trees on the other side and thought…

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This would make the most frustrating puzzle of all time!

The flood of ideas and realizations about life flying into my mind made me want to de-clutter my life.

However, in the city I hardly ever allow myself to be bored or unproductive. I wondered if I’d ever be okay with just doing nothing. After half an hour, I determined that the world would have to be a much different place for me to be okay with taking a day, or even half of a day, without doing anything “productive”. There would need to be much less pressure, much less work, and much less other things to track and take care of.

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But that’s okay because my definition of “productive” is broad. Sharing experiences with people, cultivating relationships and reading and writing about interesting topics is productive. It’s not just work and achievement.

I came out of this experience feeling better about my life. Most of what I am doing is fine, I just need to relax a little bit more. I feel like had I spent the entire evening focused on staying warm while also staying out of the smoke that comes off a campfire, it would have been a much different experience. The continuing threat of COVID limiting travel and the fire bans were both disruptive events. This experience and the realizations I came to from it was the result of working with what life handed to me, rather than just wishing the disruptive events had not happened.

Camping Memorial Day Weekend at 9600 feet (2600 m)

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The week leading up to Memorial Day Weekend life in Denver had already entered “summer mode”. Tuesday and Wednesday were the first official 90 degree days. People had begun to enter summer mode, moving their outdoor activities to either first thing in the morning or around sunset.

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Many went up to the mountains. On an unpaved road, three hours from Denver, a little outside the town of Redcliff in Eagle County Colorado, it felt like there was more traffic than there had been on some of Denver’s residential streets lately.

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To find a quality place to camp, that was not already occupied by someone who had arrived earlier, we ended up having to cary all of our supplies up a fairly steep cliff.

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Climbing that far up in elevation, we began to encounter some snow.

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It was the first time I ever set up camp anywhere near a pile of snow this big. Having been in summer mode, it felt odd to suddenly be around piles of snow that were multiple feet deep in some places. However, it was not without its advantages.

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The effort to lug all of our stuff uphill from the car also ended up proving advantageous. Despite being quite far from any town, campsites near the road/creek were not too quiet or secluded.

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We got the experience most people want out of dispersed camping by carrying all our stuff to the top of the hill. The tops of the nearby mountains could be seen much more easily up here. It was also slightly warmer, as colder air funneled into the valley.

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Overall, putting in a little extra effort lead to a better experience!

May can be a somewhat awkward time in the mountains. Above a certain elevation, there is still snow kind of everywhere. We took a day trip up to the Homestake Reservoir.

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However, with the ground kind of half snow covered and half bare, getting anywhere was kind of awkward.

It was here I had another first, a trek that blurred the lines between hiking and snowshoeing.

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With sections of trail bare and others still covered by feet of snow, we were constantly taking our snowshoes off and putting them back on again. The inconvenience and slippery sections of wet snow deterred others from completing this hike.

Once again, putting in the extra effort and overcoming a little inconvenience proved to be worthwhile. We ended up being able to eat a quiet lunch all by ourselves in front of a small but extremely picturesque alpine lake.

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The image in front of me, of a lone weather sensor, with the mid-May still mostly snow covered mountains of the Western Sawatch Range behind it ended up being one of the best ascetic natural experiences I have ever had!

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A lot of people will hike up here in July, August and September, after all the residual snow has gone, and stand in this very spot. However, they will not get this experience.

The following night, not having to set up camp, being able to goof off a little before a storm came in, was quite relaxing.

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When we first drove up the road, looking for dispersed camping, only to find that every site we saw for the first 8.5 miles was already claimed, it was tempting to give up and go home.

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On our partially snow packed hike to a lake barely even big enough to make it onto one of those detailed National Geographic pullout maps, we were advised to turn around less than a mile in. In both cases, persevering through unforeseen obstacles produced amazing experiences. Like the campground we stayed at and the pure beauty of eating lunch in front a quiet alpine lake, life will reward those who are not deterred by unforeseen obstacles in all forms. The key is to not give up!

The following morning, we’d wake up to even crazier weather; rain then even a few periods of significant snow!

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While Denver was entering Summer, the top of the Sawatch Mountains were barely leaving winter. It reminds me of when I encounter people who happened to be around the same age, with similar backgrounds, but are in different seasons of life.

It can be a challenge to wrap the mind around 90 degree Denver and nearby mountains where it is still snowing. In the same vein, it can be challenging to wrap the mind around a person with tons of responsibilities, a mature and realistic attitude and acceptance of life’s limitations being the same age as another who seems to have endless youthful energy and enthusiasm. Yet, like summer in Denver and Winter in Eagle County, they can both exist, both be beautiful, and give the world some much needed variety. The key is to not make assumptions about where anyone “should be” in their lives, and avoid the assumption that one path is inherently wrong.

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Summer’s Apex

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It could be argued that the apex of summer 2019 in Colorado occurred on July 19. It was the only day that the official high temperature at Denver International Airport exceeded 100ºF. It was the day residents of Boulder would finally tube to work and lead into a weekend with all kinds of festivals in the mountains.

We often reflect on things at beginnings and endings of different experiences. But what about that time in the middle? Sometimes during the middle period of a season, project, or experience, we need a break, a second wind or a new approach. I think of that 2:30 PM feeling many of us get during the day, the slump the main character gets about 2/3 of the way though every sports movie, or the way the dance floor at a club or wedding seems to have a lull between 10:30 and 11.

While there are many layers to life, seasons, relationships, projects, etc., my life feels like it’s at a midpoint with respect to all of them.

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At first glance it would seem that over the course of the last year I had gotten everything I’d wanted in life.

I was able to return to my original field- meteorology.

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The office I work at is full of fun people and fun events.

Also, as I had desperately wanted, my life had become more socially active and faster paced.

Somehow, I managed to get too much of what I wanted.

The severe storm season was very active. There was a lot of work to do!

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Also, a lot of hours.

The other areas in my life also picked up in pace. It felt like there was never any time to spare. My life, once again, was out of balance, just in a different way.

That is where it helps to get away, even if it is for just one night. Denver’s proximity to the mountains makes amazing one night getaways possible, and the long hot days of July makes getting up into the mountains quite refreshing.

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Despite departing late in the afternoon, we arrived at an amazingly tranquil place with outstanding views of the mountains before the sun went down.

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The weather patterns were so warm that despite the fact that our campsite was above 10,000 feet in elevation, I spent the entire night in shorts (although I did add layers after sundown).

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It was the perfect place for some quiet reflection. Sometimes it is hard for us to actually know what is happening when things get hectic and there is no time to process anything. I did not realize that a busy period, and pressure from others, had caused me to lose sight of my priorities in life. It also lead to me neglecting things that are important to me and people who I care about.

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The next morning was beautiful. The sun warmed the sky quicker than I had ever experienced in the mountains.

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When I find myself in places like this, I often like to spend time just watching trees sway in the wind. I’ve never thought about why. Maybe it is just interesting enough to keep my mind focused on the present, the here and now, as opposed to some grander concept.

July 2019, despite not being the beginning or ending of anything, ended up being a time where I got a lot of context and revelations about some of my life experiences. The prior weekend, I attended two weddings, where unexpected conversations provided me with clarity and closure related to situations that had ended years ago. Through quiet reflection, I figured out the meaning behind my current situation.

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Summer 2019 will continue to rage on. There are many more hot days to come. a few more weeks will pass before stores start advertising back to school sales and we begin to notice the sun setting earlier. However, I return home ready to adjust in a way I would have never anticipated as recently as four months ago. I’m adjusting to a life where I slow down more often, take the time to appreciate what is around me, and make time available for those that need me.

The Great Ocean Road Day 1: Great Otway National Park

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The Great Ocean Road is an iconic drive along the south coast of Australia. Accessing the road is relatively easy. It starts about an hour west of Melbourne. For travelers, especially international ones, I’d recommend a stop at the travel information center along highway 1 just outside of Geelong. The people there were quite friendly. They provided plenty of maps and other information about attractions, which ended up being quite useful. They told me that many visitors try to do the entire drive all in one day, particularly in summer. However, with so much to do here, I am glad we chose a three day excursion in a camper van.

Our first spotting of the ocean shore in the distance, occurred less than 2km after we passed a sign welcoming us to the Great Ocean Road. A lot of travel involves a destination that is one specific location; a museum, campground, event or city. In these cases, it is easy to know when you have “arrived” at your destination. On trips like this one, the lines can be blurred. Seeing the ocean after passing this sign gave us a clearer indication that we were now at our intended destination- The Great Ocean Road.

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A bit further West, after having already hugged the coastline for about 20 km, an even fancier welcome awaits motorists just before entering one of the larger towns along the road, Lorne.

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Passing under this arch felt reminiscent of cycling under the original gateway into Yellowstone National Park, several summers ago.

The eastern half of this scenic drive passes in and out of coastal towns like Lorne and Torquay, which are primarily known for their surfing.

It also jets in and out of Great Otway National Park, a pretty dense feeling forest with plethora of utterly amazing waterfalls. Visiting all the waterfalls in this park would likely take several days, so it’s probably good to just pick a few specific ones to visit.

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As is the case with most of the other waterfalls in the park, getting to Erskine Falls required venturing a bit off the Great Ocean Road. The trailhead is about 10 km off the road in Lorne, and the walk was about 1.5 km round trip.

Despite the raw power of a this waterfall, the place felt quite tranquil. The trees calm the air while also creating a feeling of seclusion. Below the falls, the water seemed oddly calm despite having just descended 38 m (125 ft.). There is nothing like a gentile flowing creek when it comes to feeling balanced, happy, and connected to nature. The water cycle ties our planet together, and the manner in which it retains its tranquil feeling after going over the falls is uniquely reassuring.

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Each of the waterfalls in Great Otway National Park has a pattern that is unique from one another. Yet, they are uniform in their ability to create a feeling of seclusion from the outside world which made me feel refreshingly carefree and mindful.

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We saw the sun gradually begin to descend upon the Great Ocean Road, as we approached our campsite for the first evening, in a smaller town called Wye River where it appeared as if most people live on a hill.

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We set up a table and chairs along another tranquil creek, and opened up the top, or “penthouse” of our Jucy camper van.

It was my first time traveling in a camper van, but the experience felt quite similar to the kinds of camping trips I take part in back home in Colorado (with the exception of the sunset at 5:15 creating a long night).

Trips like this, away from much of our most recent technology always make me wonder whether or not it is worth it. Sure, when we ditch some of this technology, at places like this, there are more chores to be done, and some entertainment options are not available. However, making a comparison between an evening camping and an evening in the city, it feels like much of what our newest technologies have created are only minor conveniences, like a computer algorithm to help us select music to listen to, or a way to not have to physically buy a ticket to an event in person.

In exchange, we have created hundreds of new procedures to remember, hundreds of additional hours annually in front of screens, hundreds more things to keep track of and maintain and hundreds of log-ins and passwords to various sites and apps. Maybe it all is worth it, as I am comparing a holiday to normal days where we often have to work, do some form of home maintenance or run errands. Regardless, I am glad to have had some time away from these countless complications we have recently added to our lives.

Fall Camping at Cottonwood Lake

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This fall has been one of the most exhausting periods of my life in a long time. There is a reason I am writing this blog, in early November, over a month after this experience. Life is rarely constant. Sometime we are up, sometimes we are down. Sometimes we are comfortable and sometimes we feel everything is spiraling out of control. There are also periods that are slower and periods that are busier.

Exhaustion often has a variety of sources. Sometimes it does happen simply because someone is doing too much. However, I have seen tons of people who are extremely busy manage to have what appeared like really good energy levels. I have also seen people with little on their schedule appear extremely exhausted.

At this current moment in time, both personally, and throughout my country, there are other sources of exhaustion that are quite prevalent. Our news is often sensationalized and our political climate is downright toxic. We also have yet to incorporate new technologies into our lives in a healthy manner, leading to large-scale mental health issues which are beginning to manifest in horrible ways.

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The amount of time we spend in front of screens continues to increase. It is now over 11 hours per day. This has caused people to interact less and less with one another, leading to loneliness. The number of people who said they have nobody in which to confide in, about deeply troubling personal matters, has tripled in the last three decades.

I may have personally created additional exhaustion, in my life specifically, by taking on more work and over-doing some other endeavors. Seriously, I had no idea those tomatoes would grow so well!

When exhausted, we often have the instinct to stay home, rest, do nothing for a while. However, this is not always the best course of action. In my case, it would not have removed me from some of the sources of stress and exhaustion. How often, in today’s culture, does “resting”, really mean watching something on television, while also scrolling through news and social media on our phones. This form of “resting” still involves some amount of mental energy being dedicated to the very things that are causing many of us stress, which appear in the news, on social media and frequently on the television as well.

Sometimes, it is far better to power through the exhaustion for a little bit in order to get away from all this.

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Going camping takes work. It requires preparing meals, gathering supplies, picking out a location, traveling there, then setting up camp and building a fire. This is far more effort than it takes to turn the television on, or grab a smart phone while laying in bed. However, there is far more reward: actual relaxation.

Cottonwood Lake is about ten miles west of Buena Vista, Colorado, right in the center of the state, in the San Isabel National Forest.

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The campsite we found, a couple of miles further up the road, turned out to be one of the greatest places ever for viewing fall colors in the Rocky Mountains in Late September.

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It was amazing not only to see the colors at this one particular spot a couple miles west of Cottonwood Lake, but to see them at all different times of the day. In particular, at times around sunrise and sunset, the orange color in many of the leaves appeared deeper, and even more vibrant and colorful!

Most importantly, after finding the ideal camping site, getting the tent set up, starting the fire, and cooking dinner, the experience was far more relaxing than anything I would have done at home.

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Despite the full moon, I was able to get to sleep not too long after 9 P.M. With no lights, televisions, or random noises interrupting, it felt like I slept off all the exhaustion of the previous weeks. With the feeling of being rested, and my mind completely disconnected from all the stresses of back home, the return trip felt even more beautiful.

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It was like some kind of opening of the mind was needed to fully take in what was in front of me.

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The life I returned to was not too different. I still have the same ambitions. Smart phones did not become any less addicting, and world news and politics did not become any less depressing. We can escape from our lives, but we cannot escape forever.

Plus, it is not always bad. People that are busy, and even sometimes exhausted, can also be happy, if their mind is on the right things and they find themselves in the right environment. Sometimes it is the ones that are idle, not having all the experiences life has to offer, trapped in fear and “analysis paralysis”, that are the most prone to depression.

More importantly, all activities have busier and calmer periods. Jobs have busier and calmer periods, and there is not too much for me to do in the garden in November. It is easy to interpret a month or so with little to no rest as evidence that one has taken on too much in their lives. This may or may not be the case, and when the activities someone is involved in are generally making them happy, it is far better to endure a busy and stressful season than to give up on activities that are producing a sense of fulfillment.

A Weekend in Nature 90 Minutes from Denver

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One mistake I witness quite often is people constantly turning their getaways into some form of challenge of their own. There is probably nobody more guilty of this than me; always seeking the far away destination, wanting to climb the tallest mountain, cycle over 100 miles a day.

Challenging ourselves is important. We all build character by challenging ourselves, especially outside of work. However, we also all sometimes need a break that is a genuine break, not stressing ourselves to get to a faraway destination with no spare time, exhausting ourselves physically, creating an alternate form of stress- “vacation stress”.

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Summer in Colorado began with an extreme drought, large wildfires all over the state, and restrictions on fires in nearly every county.

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Fire restrictions across Colorado July 28, 2018

With some rainfall in the mountains, in the past week, some counties in Central Colorado began to lift these fire bans, permitting fires at campsites.

One of the problems we have here in the United States is limitations related to time. According to Project Time Off, an organization whose mission is to remove the stigma around taking time off from work, the average American takes less than 20 days of vacation per year, and Americans collectively forfeit over 200 million days off due to concern for how they will be perceived at the office. Therefore, it is not all that common for Americans to feel the need to maximize their vacation time, utilizing every precious hour.

This stigma will not go away overnight. Most likely change will be gradual, and considerations related to time limitation will still be a factor in the coming decades. However, given our recent mental health challenges, and recent research pointing to the psychological benefits of being in nature, trips like these are probably more important than ever.

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Georgia Pas is one of several areas about a 90 minute drive from Denver, right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, with dispersed camping, meaning camping without the amenities of a campground.

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These camping areas are nearly always within a short drive of the kinds of places where the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains can be seen in all of their majesty. Georgia Pass, less traveled than mountain passes along paved roads, like Hoosier Pass and Guanella Pass, offers the same panoramic views but with less people.

It also, based on this one trip, feels like a place with more wildlife.

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However, sometimes the camping experience is not about the feeling of being on top of the world on a mountain pass, or overlooking a photogenic lake, as is commonly shown on the cover of travel magazines. Sometimes, camping is about being in a strangely calming place like this, with trees, bushes, other random vegetation, and a creek moving fresh mountain water along to a gentle rythm.

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There is something about this specific scene, deep in the forest, surrounded by nature. It feels in a way, like the exact opposite of stress. There is no hurry here, nobody is causing unnecessary anxiety, and the only abrupt changes in plans occur when a thunderstorm pops up unexpectedly.

There is, however, work. Camping isn’t just sitting around the fire. The fire must be started and maintained. Meals must be cooked. Tents need to be set up, and dishes washed manually. It isn’t a resort vacation. In fact, while camping, far more work goes into filling the basic human needs of food, water, and shelter than it does back in the city, even on the most stressful day.

There are ways to relax that require little to no work. Watching television only requires owning a television and selecting a program. Laying at a beach only requires finding a way to get to the beach. Yet, sitting around a campfire with loved ones, looking at the stars and watching the full moon rise between alpine trees, then waking up to the alpenglow hitting the tops of the trees, somehow actually feels far more relaxing than just laying around at home or nearby.

Or maybe it is about getting away from all of the things that are currently creating anxiety in our lives, which include TV (mostly the news), our phones, work, and, competitiveness in general. This takes work. It takes work to get away from life’s pressures. However, it is good for us, regardless of our situations, to occasionally escape our stress sources, without substituting them with “vacation stress”. Unfortunately, many of us in the United States still find ourselves in situations where we feel our time away is so precious, taking part in activities that create this “vacation stress” is the only way to get meaningful experience out of the limited time we have to vacation.

Death Valley: The Largest National Park

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It is hard to truly describe what makes Death Valley such a wonderful and unique place. It is probably best known as the location of the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, located 282 feet below sea level.

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Land below sea level generally only exists in places with hot, dry climates, as otherwise, the low lying terrain would fill up with water. Death Valley certainly is dry! It receives less than 2 inches of rainfall per year. By contrast, Minneapolis, a city that would be considered neither dry nor wet, averages around 30 inches per year (including winter snowfall).

Badwater Basin, like much of Death Valley National Park, is a large scale version of everything one would imagine dryness to be.

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The entire basin, which stretches out longer than expected, is covered with salt, deposited in a honeycomb-like structure, creating a scene that appears to be out of some kind of documentary about deforestation or climate change.

Of course, not the entire park is below sea level.

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In fact, its highest point, Telescope Peak, is over 11,000 feet above sea level, and despite the dry and hot climate of the valley below it, is covered in snow, and impassible without ice gear towards the end of March. Interestingly enough, while March may be an ideal time of year to visit Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek and some of the low elevations of the park, the higher terrain makes the park actually worth visiting in the summer too (with the right hydration precautions taken of course).

At the park’s lower elevations, near and even a little bit below sea level, the hikes are a bit milder, and significantly different from a typical hike in the mountains. Shorter hikes (1 to 3 miles each way) to places like Sidewinder Canyon…

and Mosaic Canyon…

have trails that cut through the rocks, through little “slots”, and along wide flat trails that appear to have been carved out by runoff from the flash floods that occasionally occur in the park.

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Death Valley is certainly a place with some unique weather patterns, and some unique weather hazards. When most outdoor activities are planning, the weather hazards most likely to be considered are related to temperature and precipitation. Extremely hot weather is Death Valley’s most obvious weather hazard. Visiting in March, or at some other point during the cooler part of the year, definitely helps visitors avoid these extremes.

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With wide open spaces, no trees, and complicated terrain, some crazy winds can occur in Death Valley, whipping up and and dust from the dry ground below it, covering any and all things!

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Storms will pass through the complicated terrain, often first producing some interesting looking clouds.

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Then, often times, while producing decent amounts of precipitation in the higher mountains terrain, in the valley below they will mostly just manifest as strong and gusty winds.

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These winds can even be hazardous to campers, breaking tents, bending poles, and complicating campfires.

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Other than the extremes, in elevation, temperature and dryness, the rest of the park feels kind of a bit like a National Park sampler pack.

There are hikes that take visitors to amazing views of the park, but the park is not all about hiking (like Rocky Mountain National Park).

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The natural bridge is most certainly an “arch”, but Death Valley does not have the concentration of arches found at Arches National Park.

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There are a few fantastic sand dunes here, but not as many as there are at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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The park has some other unique natural features, such as the “Devil’s Golf Course”, but isn’t the constant barrage of unique features that is Yellowstone.

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One can even spot the occasional desert wildlife here.

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Those that are into numbers already know what makes Death Valley unique; elevation, temperature, dryness. Those who are more into experiences find themselves also loving the park, but in a manner that becomes harder to articulate. Often, it is just said that the place is “beautiful”, or “amazing”.

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Maybe nothing more needs to be said. After all, sometimes these commonly used descriptor words, although light on specifics, along with photographs, really do tell the story. Nature, like artwork, is open to interpretation, at the behest of the beholder.

However, when covering mile after endless mile across the park, it is hard not to observe how expansive and wide open the park feels, as a result of how dry the air is.

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Maybe that is the reason Death Valley is also the largest U.S. national park in outside of Alaska.

Get Lost in the Rockies

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“Dispersed Camping” is a concept that is often foreign to those living in large metropolitan areas. It is camping without a campground. There are no numbered spots. There are no amenities such as outlets, washrooms, and an office that sells water and wood. It’s just people plopping their tents down wherever they can. It is the purest, and most rugged form of camping.

Colorado has an almost limitless supply of places where people can literally just find a spot and set up camp.

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Spots for dispersed camping are usually found in National Forests, which cover nearly half the state. Specific details about which spots allow dispersed camping can be hard to find online, as each section of the National Forest system maps out their area differently. However, every section of National Forest has a significant amount of area where one can just set up camp. Many of these spots even have fire pits already set up by previous campers!

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During periods of heightened fire danger, it is common to for counties to issue fire bans or fire restrictions to limit the risk of wildfires. With fire being a major component of the camping experience, the status of these fire restrictions should be considered when planning any summertime mountain adventure that involves camping.

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Colorado map of county fire restrictions as of July 14, 2017

There is, perhaps, no better place to start a Rocky Mountain adventure than Leadville, Colorado, which sits at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet in the central part of Lake County, a county where there happened to not be a fire ban in mid-July 2017.

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Spawned from the mid-19th Century Gold rush, and rich with old west history, the town, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, is tucked away between mountains that rise several thousand feet higher in every direction.

This includes the Sawatch Range to the immidiate West and South, where Colorado’s two tallest peaks; Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, sit.

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Only five miles to the west of town is Turquoise Lake.

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Expansive, beautiful, and protected by steep hills and dense forests, the lake stretches west, into the Mount Massive Wilderness, where densely packed trees and rugged terrain create a feeling of seclusion and wonder.

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Wandering through the wilderness, trees partially conceal the tall mountain peaks. Like a well made movie preview, they reveal some, but not all, of what lays ahead for anyone wandering through the woods, whether on trail or off.

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Around every curve, the wilderness reveals what had been hidden between the trees.

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Streams reveal the source of the water that drains into Turqouise Lake below.

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Flowers of all colors pop out, tickling multiple senses, making the experience more vivid, more full.

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After roughly 90 minutes of hiking on the Highline Trail, which starts only a few miles west of Turquoise Lake, the trail climbs above the forest.

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Just below 12,00 feet, the trees disappear. Mountain ranges, are once again seen in every direction. The ground is surprisingly green grass, making the scene reminiscent of The Sound of Music.

At these elevations, with an atmosphere roughly 30% less thick than it is at sea level, the sun commands somewhat of a decieving presence, particularly in the months of June and July.

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Less deterred by the atmosphere, direct sunlight at these elevations can create an almost tropical feeling of warmth at temperatures that barely top out above 60F (16C), temperatures where some at sea level, under cloudy skies, would still be wearing jackets.

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Wandering through the dense pine forests that make up the Mount Massive wilderness, especially as daytime gradually faded into evening, it is easy to imagine being truly lost in the Rocky Mountains.

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Away from day-to-day life, hustle, drama and the like, I could not help but worry about the future. As soon as I got to the west side of Turquoise Lake (away from town) all cell signals disappeared. How long will this be the case? Are they working on connecting the whole world with Wi-Fi? If so, where will people go, to escape? To not be tempted to check their work email? Or see what was posted on social media?

The way I see it, people give up the conveniences of modern life to go on trips like this one for three reasons:

  1. Despite the fact that there is more physical labor (setting up tents, cooking, etc.), it is less stressful. There are a ton of modern life concerns that disappear in the woods (social status, money, etc.).
  2. It feels much less structured. Sure, there are patterns, but there is no calendar with a list of meetings, tasks, things to do. There are no set eating hours and itineraries.
  3. It feels more human. This is quite possibly the most significant one of all. Work and the digital age has a somewhat robotic of feel to it. We are expected to perform. We are often asked to follow sets of procedures. Emotions are not supposed to be shown. There are even places where people are expected to refrain from laughing and too much “socializing”.

If we ever get to the point where there is no place on Earth without data, WiFi, or some kind of connection to our normal stresses and responsibilities, I sure hope we have found another way in which to periodically disconnect. Or, at the very least, that most people’s attitudes about things such as mental health days, and expectations regarding work availability and how we set our priorities in life, will have changed.