Category Archives: New Activities

Moab- An Active Destination

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Some trips are restful, while others are more active.  There are some destinations that lend themselves to more restful trips; cottages in the woods near quaint towns, tropical beaches, and resorts.  Moab, is a place where it is nearly impossible to imagine anything other than an active itinerary, with a variety of activities, and a lot of places to see.  Situated in East Central Utah, several hours from the nearest major city, this popular tourist destination is surrounded by too much natural beauty to picture anyone coming here and spending large amounts of time sitting in one place.

First of all, Moab is surrounded by two National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands.

Both National Parks are, as National Parks tend to be, filled with tons of natural beauty and unique places.  At both National Parks, while it is possible to see a lot of interesting natural features without straying too far from the road, the best features at both parks require hiking.

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Getting to the signature feature of Arches National Park, Delicate Arch, requires a 1.5 mile hike from the Delicate Arch Trailhead.  Interestingly enough, this trail starts near the historic Wolfe Ranch, and traverses by some other unique features including some Ute Indian Rock art.

It is also quite difficult to imagine making a trip to Arches National Park and not viewing some of the other arches (Yes, it’s Arches National Park, not Arch National Park).  There is a section of the park known as Devil’s Garden, with somewhat of a network of trails taking visitors to all kinds of other arches.

The most famous of these arches is Landscape Arch, a long and wide arch whose name provides a clear recommendation as to how to orient any photograph of this particular feature (for those familiar with landscape vs. portrait  ).

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To get to most of the remaining arches requires a bit of a steep climb, which starts pretty much right after Landscape Arch.

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The hiking in the entire Moab area, not just at Arches National Park, is considerably different from the typical hiking experience.  Much of the hiking I’ve experienced, is on trails covered in dirt, gravel, and sometimes small to medium sized rocks at places such as the top of Quandry Peak.  All around Moab, I found myself on surfaces such as this one, on top of solid rock, sometimes for nearly the entire duration of the trail.  Traversing these trails required me to use my upper body more, and even do a little bit of jumping, from one rock to another.

At the top of this Mesa, there are arches with multiple partitions, arches people can hike under, and even one arch with an opening that lends itself to laying inside it to soak up the sun, the surroundings, and the experience!

The entire loop, including all the side trips in the trail network, is a total of 7.2 miles.  So, if a visitor desires to see all of these features, as well as Delicate Arch, a total of 10.2 miles of hiking is required.

And some people decide to add even more activities to their day.  In a shaded off-shoot of the Devil’s Garden Trail, I witnessed a sizable group of people playing a game of Frisbee, using the walls of this tiny canyon to make trick shots.

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Since immersing oneself in the here and now, and contributing to the local culture of a place creates a more enriching travel experience, I decided to play my part.

First, I decided to bring my own arches into the park..

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Disclaimer: I did properly dispose of that cup

Then, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided it was time that we started making our own arches, contributing to the park’s plethora of natural beauty.

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Canyonlands National Park is even bigger than Arches, broken up into three sections by the Colorado and Green rivers, whose confluence is right in the center of the park.  Without any bridges connecting over either river, and with the entrances to each section over an hour apart, it is all but impossible to visit more than one section in a day.

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The most common image of Canyonlands National Park is an almost Grand Canyon-like overlook into a deep river valley, sometimes with one of the two isolated mountain ranges in the background.  However, at the scenic overlooks in the parks’ Island In The Sky region, it is actually quite difficult to see the rivers themselves.  The canyons that make up Canyonlands National Park are quite expansive, with multiple tiers.  To see these canyons from the best vantage points requires a bit of hiking.  The hike to the Confluence Overlook (an overlook of the confluence between the Green and Colorado Rivers) is 10 miles round trip, something that could require the better part of a day!

Canyons are not the only interesting feature to Canyonlands National Park.  Being only roughly 20 miles away from Arches (as the crow flies), Canyonlands has some arches of its’ own.  The most interesting one is an arch called Mesa Arch, where one can see both the peaks of the nearby La Sal Mountain range, and actually another arch by looking through the arch at the right angle!

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And some features are random, like Upheaval Dome.

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Scientists still do not know whether or not this particular salt deposit is a remanat of a meteorite that would have theoretically collided with the earth roughly 20 million years ago.

The two National Parks are not even close to all that Moab has to offer, all of which is “active” in one way or another.  Dead Horse Point State Park, located between the two National Parks, is a place where one can hike to one of Moab’s most picturesque locations: Goose Neck.

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The entire region, regardless of what any spot is named, or whether it contains a state or federal distinction, is rich with abundant natural beauty, and places to hike, bike, jeep, climb, or even just explore.

Anyone driving into Moab from the East (from Colorado), would be well advised to take the additional time it takes to follow the windy State Highway 128 through Professor Valley, essentially following the Colorado River into town.

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We set up camp at a place called Hunter Canyon.

Twenty minutes from town, Hunter Canyon is a place where each part of the day, from sunrise to sunset, lights up a different rock formation.  It felt almost as if nature was putting on a show, with lighting, stage props, and characters coming on and off the stage for different scenes.

I also saw bike trails nearly everywhere I went.  Moab is known as a mecca for mountain biking, an activity we did not get around to (is is… really… impossible to do EVERYTHING in Moab without something like two weeks).  But, with trails like these, Moab is also a phenomenal place for road biking.

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And, everywhere I went red rock formations, each one distinct from the next, would pop up, in and out of view.

It was next to impossible not to imagine these rock formations as something else.  While driving around, I would often point out to the rest of the group what each individual rock formation looked like, or what I perceived it to look like.  Some, I said looked like specific animals, some looked like people, others, still, looked like various specific objects, such as hammers, cooking utensils, or even a turkey wishbone (by the way, the following image is an arch, residing in neither National Park, they really are everywhere)!

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And, what amazed me was how often others in my group would actually see the exact same thing when they look at a rock formation and say, yes, I also saw an octopus.  This means that either my imagination is quite accurate, or, I have managed to surround myself only with similar minded people.  Both are very much a possibility!

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But, the analogy I came to in my head most frequently, throughout the trip, is between the rock formations and the ruins of an ancient city.  Every time I saw a structure such as this one, I would imagine what is would be like if, for some unknown reason, there actually was a civilization here, many thousands of years ago.  And each one of these rock formation was actually the remnant of an ancient skyscraper, or even a larger building like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, weathered down by thousands of years of natural erosion.  I imagined what this ancient city would have been like, in an Atlantis-like scene that would play through my mind.

Since Samantha Brown’s presentation at last month’s Travel and Adventure Show, I had been trying to live in the here and now, and experience the current culture of a place, as she had advised.

For me, this included another new activity (for me)- Jeeping!

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And, I got to experience some crazy roads and some crazy places.

But, as I find in many of my travels, there is no way to truly avoid thinking about the past, and imagining another setting.  A video at the Canyonlands Visitors Center explained the actual process in which these rocks came to be formed, which took place over the course of 200 million years, back to a time when much of Utah and Colorado were near sea level, with some sections underwater and others above.  In fact, that is part of the reason why there is so much small scale variance in the color of the rocks throughout this region.

Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, there were echoes of the past, both real and imaginary, and both ancient and more recent.

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The experience of visiting Moab for a long weekend is as jam-packed as I have made this aritcle.  Around every corner, something new, something exciting, and something unique.  While there are some travel destinations, like Miami, one can make as active or as restful as they would desire, Moab is one destination that requires one to be active, at least in some way, to truly experience.  To come to Moab, and not wander, not explore, not do a little bit of hiking, biking, or jeeping, one would miss out on so much of what is around every corner in this region.

 

 

 

An All-Inclusive Week At Cancun’s El Dorado Royal

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Day 1: Every time I land in another country, something feels different.  I had this feeling when I first landed at the airport in Cancun, despite the fact that much of my surroundings were remarkably similar to what I experience at home.  As is the case at many U.S. airports, the airport signs are written in both English and Spanish, with the English words on top.  Even the mix of people didn’t feel too terribly different from many places around Colorado where I live. It was the little differences I observed; some different looking buildings, speed limits in kilometers per hour, and the driver of the van that took us to the resort from the airport trying to sell us Coronas (or Mexican water, as he said) that made me feel as if I had actually traveled to a place that is different than the place where I live and the places where I spend most of my time.

We arrived at the resort in the middle of the afternoon.  A resort this size takes a little bit of time to become acquainted with, as it has multiple sections, with different types of travelers having different types of experiences, a whole bunch of pools, and a ton of restaurants.  One of the great things about being at an all inclusive resort is the fact that, once guests arrive at the resort, everything, particularly food and drink, is taken care of.  This is good because I arrived hungry.  It would be the last time I would really experience hunger for the duration of the week.

Day 2: Like most Americans, a majority of my travel involves an itinerary of some sorts.  This makes the transition from what is referred to as the “real world” to the world of that particular voyage seamless.  The normal day-to-day concerns, work, schedules, responsibilities, etc. are replaced by the schedule- the itinerary of the trip.  Today I have meetings at 9,10, and 11, and a document that needs to be finalized by the end of the day transitions smoothly to tonight we are staying at this hotel, they have a continental breakfast, than we’re gonna get to this attraction by 10:30-ish.

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On this vacation, there was no itinerary; at least not at first.  There was just enjoying the weather, enjoying the beach, the pool, the activities, and a week off of not just work but many other sources of stress, such as chores, social situations, etc.  This often leads to a gradual process of letting go.  Over the course of roughly 36 hours these concerns gradually slip out of the mind, to be replaced, miraculously, with nothing!  I bet there are some people that do not even know what that feels like anymore.

Day 3: I decided I wanted to go the full day without taking any pictures.  Now that the process of disconnecting from the “real world” was complete, it was a good time to live in the moment, and, not think about anything else, not even what I would write in this blog!  It was on this day that two of the things that typically happen during longer resort trips happened.

First, I actually started to settle into a quazi-routine. El Dorado Royale offers a lot of activities, activities I more or less took advantage of.  At 8 A.M., there was yoga on the pier.  9 A.M. Spanish lessons.  11:00 volleyball.  12:00 Aqua-aerobics.

Since guests do not need to cary around money, ID, and such at an all-inclusive resort, these resorts can offer amenities such as swim up bars.  We found ourselves, after the noon Aqua-aerobics, swimming up to the bar to have some drinks in the pool.  And since I was typically eating breakfast a bit later (10 A.M.), an hour or so of drinks would then be followed by lunch, and then the day’s afternoon activities, which varied a bit more day-to-day.

Day 3 was also when I began to make vacation friends; other tourists who had also managed to disconnect from their “real world” concerns, and had been drinking and enjoying themselves in the pool.

The resort has a lot of great restaurants, but their signature restaurant is one called Fuentes. This restaurant is a dinner show, with a famous chef that demonstrates how each course is cooked while serving the food.  The dinner and cooking demonstration lasted two and a half hours.  Each course featured food from a different region of Mexico.  It was not just a meal, but also lessons about both geography and cooking technique.

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Every evening at El Dorado Royale, there is a show.  It typically starts at around 9:45 and lasts about an hour.  This is followed by dancing.  I found the meal/cooking demonstration exhausting!  I ended up electing to skip the dancing, calling it a night earlier than I typically do.

Day 4: A strange thing started happening on the fourth day.  Each day, I got drunker than the last.  On this day, after noon Aqua-aerobics, I took multiple shots at the swim up bar, and then took part in tequila tasting.  Yet, my hangovers were not getting any worse.  In fact, they were getting easier.  It was like I was hitting some sort of groove, which also involved the consumption of alcohol.

Also, having taken advantage of the 9:00 Spanish lessons, and through some conversation with the resort’s staff, whose company I truly enjoyed this week, I was suddenly getting back into the groove speaking Spanish.  Those that do not know Spanish could easily get by at this resort, as nearly all of the staff speaks English.  But, the lessons ended up being a great opportunity to speak Spanish with some native speakers and recover some lost knowledge.  By the end of the 4th day, I was instinctively starting to blurt out phrases such as “querimos jugar al volleyball por la playa ayer, per due demaciado ventido”.

Day 5: This day began to feel like the apex of the trip.  By the middle of the day I had made a good number of vacation friends, I was given two different nicknames by the other guests at the resort; “Denver” after where I am from (as it is hard to remember a lot of names), and “Maya Riviera”, after a rainbow colored drink that the resort offers.  It is a very sweet beverage, but I still managed to drink a ton of them.  In fact, one of my favorite things to do was to bring this drink under this fountain in the center of the pool, and drink it feeling as if I could not be doing anything more tropical at that particular moment.

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I also got accustomed to some of the other specifics about taking this kind of worry free vacation.  One which tragically took too long for me to adjust to is the proper application of sun screen.  Unfortunately, I got quite burnt over the course of this trip.

The other is something I wish I could do more of in normal daily life.  In most situations, when eating at restaurants, it is most cost effective to order one item.  Without such concern, most meals involved multiple items of food.  Additionally, the portion sizes at El Dorado Royale are such that it is typically possible to eat 4 or 5 course meals.  The resort has two Italian restaurants.  Traditional Italian meals involve an antipasto (appetizer), a soup, a primo (first, which usually involves pasta or risotto), and a secondi (second, usually a pice of meat of some kind).  Here, there was absolutely no reason not to order one of each.

At the end of the evening, though, I got slowed down again, this time by heart burn.  Apparently, there is a limit, as well, it had been quite some time since I had drank five days in a row, and I do not plan on becoming a “functioning alcoholic”.

Day 6: The previous early night made it easy to wake up in time to watch the sun rise over the ocean.  As someone who lives in a land locked city, this is something I try to do, if possible (last time it wasn’t), any time I am on the East Coast.

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The early start changed my routine up a little, but this turned out to be another fabulous day of activities, both in the pool and by the beach (beach volleyball).  I even amazed myself with my confidence levels.  Mexico has a warm place in my heart for this reason.  When I was younger, I had a very poor self image, and low confidence levels.  Then I got a part time job working at a restaurant, where most of the staff was (still is) Mexican.  I achieved my first real boost in confidence at the age of 16 when I was welcomed and appreciated by that community.  I thought about that experience, as once again in Mexico, I was feeling welcomed and appreciated, by the other guests as well as the resort’s staff.

But, I knew the “real world” would find a way to make a comeback.  At the start of this trip, I made a conscious decision to take a true holiday and stay away from reading about, taking about, or thinking about two things; work and current events.  Those were the two things that had been most likely to cause me angst over the past few months, and my mind needed a holiday from that way more than my body needed any kind of rest.  However, I did start to become curious when I saw a newspaper that reported that the president-elect had selected a treasury secretary.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it meant, even though I was wanting to not think at all about that stuff.

It’s also all but inevitable that something will happen over the course of a trip like this that will trigger a concern from “normal life”.  After all, these concerns do not go away, they are just temporarily out of one’s thoughts, and if something triggers it, the mind will come to the realization that there’s concerns will have to be addressed upon return.  This is more likely to happen to closer one gets to the end of their vacation.  Luckily for me, this was just a brief moment in a week that otherwise felt amazing!

Day 7: Sometimes it can be a real challenge to enjoy the last day of a trip.  Everything I am doing, I have been enjoying all week, and know it is the last time.  We all know it’s best not to think about this, but, it is inevitable. It ended up being the perfect day for a side excursion.

El Dorado Royale offers a lot of side excursions, for an extra charge. These include activities as simple as jet skiing to the more involved (and more expensive) voyage to the Mayan Ruins.  This is what is not part of the all-inclusive aspect of the resort.  It doesn’t cost any extra money to play volleyball, go to the batting cages, or take part in one of the many other activities, but it does cost for excursions like deep sea fishing, or swimming with the dolphins.

It’s possible to have a great week without doing any of these extra cash, but we finally decided to go parasailing, on the last day, which is one of the quickest excursions available.  With this excursion, we kind of got a two-for-one, as it both started and ended with a short ride on a jet ski to get to the boat.

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The activity ended up being one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.  It is surprisingly easy.  Some would see how high in the air para sailors gets done be intimidated by the activity.  I honestly expected to have to use a bit more energy holding on to the rope that attaches me to the sail.  But, it is actually quite safe, and is possible to let go of the ropes and just enjoy the ride.  It was a particularly spectacular view of the coast from several hundred feet in the air.

Due to the sunburn and travel, my body is exhausted.  My mind is neither exhausted nor refreshed.  But, my spirit is refreshed in a way it has not felt in quite some time.  The question now is, how to bring that spirit with me back home and keep it as long as I can.

The Quest for Freedom

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In a way, we all long for freedom.  Freedom from some form of restriction, some sort of pressure, mandate or expectation that we believe is holding us back.  The desire to break ourselves free from these restrictions, allowing ourselves to reach our true potential, or obtain a new level of self-awareness is ingrained in our culture.  Tales of striving for greater freedom can be found peppered throughout our literature, movies and music.  It is the underlying theme of the story of this nation, from overthrowing monarchy to westward expansion, ending slavery, and later the open road.  One could even view the baby boomer obsession with large suburban homes and the millennial obsession with authenticity and acceptance of individual preferences as simply the most recent chapters of a freedom themed cultural progression.

Cars have always been symbolic of freedom.  The mass production of automobiles in the early 20th Century made it possible for the average person to travel over large distances at the time of their own choosing.  Those who purchased an automobile were no longer subject to train schedules when making trips both short and long.

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“The Open Road” meant people now have the freedom to go when they want to go, where they want to go, and change their mind whenever they’d like.

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At the High Plains Raceway, this freedom is celebrated, and, well cranked up a notch.  Here, in a world where access to automobiles is now nearly universal, drivers free themselves of the few restrictions that remain.  For most, this primarily refers to the speed limit.  Here, for all practical purposes, there are no rules (in reality, there are a few for safety purposes, but they mainly revolve around how to conduct oneself in the event of an incident like a crash or a gasoline spill).  There is just how fast one can take the turns that make up the race course.

The feeling of having one of these inhibiting restrictions lifted, whether permanent or temporary, is hard to describe.  It’s joyous, almost in a jubilant manner.  It’s reassuring, anxious, and exhilarating at the same time.  I often equate it to a cyclist suddenly no longer having their brakes unnecessarily engaged while trying to pedal, or a runner no longer having 10 pound weights tied around their ankles.  Everything just suddenly feels like it is moving faster, and flowing more smoothly.

But, there is some level of risk one takes by coming to a facility like this.  Upon entry, every person, even guests who do not intend to drive a vehicle at all, must sign waivers, accepting the risks they take.  This includes understanding that there are dangers, both to life and property.  Crashes at high speeds can do damage to one’s life and limb in situations like these.  And, some of the vehicles at this raceway are valued at upwards of half a million dollars, assets that could be permanently lost when accidents render the vehicles irreparable (I am told that standard automobile insurance does not apply while on race tracks like this).

For these reasons, many will probably choose never to take part in this activity.  This is the case with many activities of this nature, from something as major as starting a new business to something as minor as stealing two sips of vodka from one’s parent’s liquor cabinet at the age of 15.  Some of us dive into the activity without thinking.  Some of us will shy away, and avoid the risk.

We all want freedom.  But, we all also want security.  Most of us also desire equality, justice, or some sense of “fairness”.  Most of our sociological conflicts come about when these desires are pitted against one another.  In this year’s presidential election, Americans have largely been denied a true discussion about what our priorities are, in this realm, and how they should be met.  But, that does not mean that determining how to free ourselves from our limitations, and how to prioritize this desire with other desires is not part of our lives every day, manifesting in the decisions we make and interactions we have.

Cool For the Summer

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People define the season of “summer” in various ways.  Astronomers first defined summer as the period of time from the Summer Solstice (roughly June 21st) through the Autumnal Equinox (roughly September 21st).  Later on, meteorologists developed the term “meteorological summer”, defined as the months of June, July, and August, to refer to the period of time when weather conditions (in the Northern Hemisphere) are typically most consistently warm.  Of course, if you are a kid, or a student of any kind, summer clearly runs from the last day of the Spring semester through the first day of the Fall semester.  In the United States, many individuals, particularly those in the working world, have arrived on a definition of “summer” as the period between Memorial Day Weekend (the last weekend in May) and Labor Day Weekend (the first weekend in September).  In fact, at one of my previous places of employment, “business casual” attire was permitted only during the time period between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  No matter where you are in life, if you are in the Northern Hemisphere outside the tropics, summer is coming to an end.  Tonight’s (Labor Day) sunset, for many of us, feels like the last sunset of the summer.

I still remember an episode of Saved By the Bell where Zach Morris, the main character, calls in sick on one of the first school days of the year.  The entire cast of the show had spent a crazy summer in Hawaii.  It was so exhausting, so emotional, and so full of experiences and memories, that he just needed a day to decompress from everything that had gone on over the summer.  That is very much what this weekend felt like to me.  Although I did not set aside an entire day to do nothing but process events, nor did I physically take a day off from work, school, etc., I definitely dialed it down, and put off some things in order to recuperate and process everything.

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For me, 2015 is what I would consider an “Epic Summer”.

As life progresses, I have come to realize that different periods of our lives mean different things.  Some years, and some seasons in particular, are just more memorable than others.  This does not mean that the other years and seasons are pointless.  It is just easier to remember and ponder the significance of certain periods.  History books specifically point to the year 1776, when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, as a memorable year.  During the previous centuries, an emerging class known as the Burghers were gradually moving society away from Feudalism and towards Free Markets, creating many of the ideals that lead to the revolution.  There are many specific years between 1250 and 1776 that were not memorable, but still important in creating the world of 1776, as well as the world of today.

My life has a series of summers (five total including this one) I would consider “Epic”.  I consider a summer to be “Epic” if it meets several basic criterea.  First, it has to be memorable.  This obviously means experiences that are out of the ordinary.

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Second, in order for a time period, or an event to be considered “Epic”, it has to be one that I consider positive, and enjoyable.  After all, dealing with cancer, a major injury, or depression is memorable.  But, I would not think of it as “Epic”.

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Finally, I believe an “Epic” time period must also be productive rather than destructive.  After all, someone may go on a binge, or a rampage of some kind, and find it memorable, as well as enjoyable.  But, the experience may have been detrimental to their future.  So, I try to think of “Epic Summers”, as only the ones I feel like I am better off for having experienced.

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The first four times I had what I would consider an “Epic Summer”, I did not realize it was happening until it was over.  I later realized that those four summers were time periods I’d think about much more frequently than other times in my life.  Sometime this Spring, I looked back at those summers, and realized that many of the conditions that created the other four Epic Summers in my life were also present this year, and, that the summer that was to come could very well end up being one that I remember for the same reasons.  Now that summer 2015 has come and gone, I can say that the following conditions are what leads to an Epic Summer.

  1.  They are exhausting

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You are doing a lot!  Otherwise, it would not really be Epic.

2.  They involve new experiences

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The summer between my Junior and Senior year in College was “Epic” because I brought travel to a new level (for me) that summer.  Previously, my travel had primarily been weekend road trips in the area to places like Champaign, Bloomington, or Indianapolis.  That summer, an internship brought me to Oklahoma for several weeks and included many more experiences throughout that part of the country. This summer was my first major multi-day bicycle trip, and my first time backpacking.

3.  They involve some amount of planning

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For many types of adventures, logistics do need to be considered.  Where will we stay?  How will we coordinate activities?  I am not saying anyone can plan their way into an Epic Summer, nor am I saying that everything needs to be planned out.  In fact, some spontaneity is also needed.  But, many activities do need to be arranged ahead of time, particularly when they involve a significant number of people.

4.  They build on advancements we make as a person on both short and long time frames

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I would never have gotten to the point where I could complete a bike ride like the one I did in July had I not made steady progress as a cyclist over the years.  This includes the training and completion of my first century ride in Illinois back in 2011, another summer I consider Epic.  Prior to this summer, I worked on myself, trying to improve some of my habits and personality traits that I consider ineffective.  I made continuing to have new and interesting experiences one of my 2015 New Years goals at the start of the year.  The same goes for my first Epic Summer, the summer after my High School graduation.  That year, I took advantage of the maturity, and improvements in my self confidence that actually began to take place halfway through my Junior year.

5.  There is a mix of the familiar and the absurd

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In every Epic Summer I have had, there have ben some repeats.  Like in previous years here in Denver, I attended the USA Pro Challenge and saw the exciting finish of Colorado’s version of the Tour de France.  After attending that race, I witnessed a topless protest on my way to a Weird Al Yankovich concert- quite absurd.

6. There are old friend as well as new friends

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One thing about every time period I have ever considered an “Epic Summer”, is that it is partially about a feeling.  By that, I mean a feeling that my life is just flowing properly.  As a social person, that entails spending time with people that I have known for some time, and become comfortable with, but also continuing to expand my network and make new friends.  In each of my Epic Summers, I have had some sort of influx of new people, through work, organizations, or friends of friends in the months preceding the actual summer.

7.  They are not without conflict

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My first Epic Summer I was always in conflict with my parents.  This summer, I have had a lot of conflict at work.  It is hard to say why, but when you are out there in the world, and following your true moral compass, you are naturally going to have some people that do not appreciate that.

8.  They are often preceded by ruts

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I really do not know why this is, at least not in a logical manner, but every single epic summer I have ever had was preceded by some kind of rut.  This year, a rainy May in Denver combined with career stagnation actually bored me quite a bit.  It feels almost as if the rhythm of life is starting to hint at the need for a much more active period to come.

I come out of the summer of 2015 knowing much more about life, and much more about myself and my own desires than I did beforehand.  I have reached this state because of each and every one of the conditions listed above.  I am bummed that summer is over, but, when mentally healthy, a person can transition from one amazing experience to the next.  When I left college, I was sad, knowing that I had just had an amazing four year experience.  But, I avoided dwelling on it, which would have ruined the last few months of that experience.  Whatever comes next, in fall, may not be quite as amazing summer was.  But, all I can do is take these experiences, and the improvements I have made to myself as a result of them, and use them to help me going forward.

Backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

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Lately it feels like nearly every article I read about personal growth mentions something about getting out of your comfort zone.  It makes sense, as getting out of our comfort zones forces us to learn new skills, see things in a different light, and keeps us in the habit of expanding our horizons.  One thing I had realized, though, is that many of us often equate leaving our comfort zone with trying something new.  While they often go hand and hand, they are not completely equivalent.  I would argue that, for someone who parties every weekend, trying out a different bar, while a new experience, is not really stepping outside their comfort zone.  Likewise, it takes significant courage, and takes one a significant distance outside their comfort zone, to stand up to a boss or an office bully, despite the fact that they are sitting in the same desk they have sat in every day for multiple years.

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My first backpacking trip would be my first time in the wilderness, completely away from any buildings or vehicles, with no amenities, and no access to supplies other than what has been packed.  Anything forgotten cannot be retrieved.  There is no going back to the car to escape inclement weather, and no town to purchase replacements for any camping gear that may malfunction.  We are completely on our own!

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Because this is my first time backpacking, we kept it simple, doing a loop of only 13-14 total miles up the Comanche Trail, over the ridge, and then back down the Venable trail.  I wish to try new things, expand my horizons, and step outside my comfort zone, but I want to do it in a manner that is smart.  I am accustomed to carrying little more than an extra layer or two, water, and some snacks when I hike.  Carrying a backpack, which probably weighed at least 30 pounds, is significantly more intense.  Not leaving some wiggle room in case something goes wrong, could be potentially dangerous.

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And, well, something did go wrong.  After an exhausting 2600 foot climb from the trailhead to Comanche Lake, where we set up camp for the night, the stove malfunctioned halfway through cooking dinner.

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We watched the sun gradually descend below the mountains, shinning only upon the higher terrain toward the end of the evening wondering what we were to do next.  Could we subsist the next couple of days, along our planned route, without any more cooked food, using only the cold food we had packed?  Would we have to cut any aspect of our trip short?  Was my first backpacking trip turning into a disaster?

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After reasoning out in our heads that we technically could make it on the remaining cold food we had brought, we luckily found this rusty old pot just sitting there by the lake.  This pot saved the day, as we had no qualms putting it directly into a campfire.

Trips like this definitely help us see our lives from a different point of view, and force us to re-evlauate what a “necessity” really is.  Case in point, Saturday morning (second day of the trip), we had Zatarains’ Red Beans and Rice, and very much appreciated it.   This is a dish I will periodically make at home when cooking something “simple”.  When I cook red beans and rice at home, I, by default, add some kind of meat to it, usually sausage.  I behave very much as if it were a necessity to “complete the dish”.  But, in many parts of the world, where people are poorer and life is simpler, rice and beans is a common dish.  Going on trips like this serves to me, as a periodic reminder that many of the things we consider “necessary” for life are not really necessary for life, they are only necessary for the lifestyle we have chosen.

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After a late start, we climbed, once again, from our campsite, at an elevation of roughly 11,600′, to the top of Comanche Pass, at roughly 12,800′.  Near the top, I suddenly realized that I was in an altered state of mind.  It felt almost surreal, and almost as if I had indeed taken some sort of mind-altering drug.  But, I hadn’t.  Some kind of combination of exhaustion, high altitude, and being outside my comfort zone had put my mind in a place where everything was both clear and blurry at the same time.  It’s hard to describe, but I am guessing that is why many yoga classes involve both an exhausting workout, and altered air conditions (heat, humidity), alongside its’ spiritual aspects.

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All this made the view at the top, of nearby Comanche Peak, looking Eastward toward the Wet Mountain Valley we hiked in from, and over the mountains toward the Upper San Louis Valley, even more spectacular!

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And, after a mile or so with little elevation change, we climbed back up onto the ridge at a place called Venable Pass, where we would complete our loop.  Here, we stopped to eat lunch before beginning our descent through an area known as Phantom Terrace.

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This descent was tricky enough that my exhaustion, and the altered state of mind associated with it, continued.  All sorts of crazy shit was on my mind as we descended towards the Venable Lakes.

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Of course, it was on this descent where I saw the highest concentration of my least favorite plant ever.  I really do not know what they are called, but they look vicious.  They remind me both of the flesh eating plant in the movie Little Shop of Horrors, as well as the plans that try to bite in Mario Brothers.  In fact, in my altered state of mind, I actually felt as if these plants were trying to bite me as I walked by.  It was freaky.  Maybe, despite the Red Beans and Rice, I still did not eat enough, or drink enough, I don’t know.

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We camped the second night just below Venable Lakes, as we had to get back down to the tree line for access to firewood.  We had become pretty well versed in the process of starting a fire and using it to cook our food using that rusty old pot we found (and kept after the trip).

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The next morning, we woke up early to view the sun rise.  We also saw some cool wildlife, deer, grouse, and marmots, which we had been viewing on and off for the duration of the trip.  However, particularly with deer, first thing in the morning is often the best time for wildlife viewing.  We also gazed upon the muddy puddle I had stupidly jumped into the prior afternoon, having wanted to cool off as it got quite warm for elevations in excess of 11,500′.

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Before leaving the last campsite of my first ever backpacking excursion, I paid homage to one of my favorite songs out right now Cool for the Summer, as, well, this summer has been awesome, and, is now coming to an end.  On the car ride back to Denver, we had a conversation about whether or not songs like this, geared towards high school and college students, apply to people who have graduated, joined the adult world, and no longer have summer break.  However, despite the fact that nothing about my job, or my role in life, automatically shifts for summer (to an internship or summer job), I do feel something magical about this season.  There are so many things one can do in summer that they cannot in other seasons.

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The final descent, back to the trailhead along the Venable Pass Trail, is highlighted by a series of waterfalls, as well as a large number of Aspen trees.  At the biggest water fall, Venable Falls, I actually dunked my head into the water to cool off.  The lower part of this trail would be an amazing day hike sometime around a month from now, when the leaves on the Aspen trees are changing colors.

In the end, my first backpacking experience was quite the trip, and a memory that will last a lifetime!  I came away from this trip confused.  Backpacking is a strange activity.  It is both simple and complex.  It is both exhausting and relaxing.  Never had I been farther away from civilization, having interacted with a total of three people prior to the final day of the trip.  Having experienced additional complications, I am glad to have chosen something modest, in both size and scope, for my first trip.  And, I am glad to have gone with a group large enough to make the experience both efficient and enjoyable, but not too large, as to add additional unnecessary complications.

More New Experiences

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I received a pair of snowshoes for Christmas … 2013.  Yet, until today, I had not gotten around to using them (unless you count the 15 minute trial run in my parents’ backyard on Christmas Day).  With my love for downhill skiing, I typically spend days with favorable conditions for snow sports on the slopes, which kind of doesn’t leave too much opportunity to pursue other snow sports that require those same conditions.

However, in 2015, as part of one of my annual goals, I am hoping to seek out new and interesting experiences.  This motivated me to take out those snowshoes and give them a try.  And, this weekend ended up being the perfect weekend to try snowshoeing out.  Colorado’s front range has received a decent amount of snowfall recently, and there is significant snow packs even at lower elevations.  With heavy traffic and treacherous conditions along I-70 this weekend, it made sense to make the much easier trip to a nearby snowshoeing trail and try something new, as opposed to risking sitting in tons of traffic to get to the ski resorts.

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Being completely new to the activity, I decided to play it safe- really safe!  I found a 1.5 mile loop with only 200 feel of elevation gain roughly 10 miles west of Boulder, at a place called Bald Mountain.  With no idea how challenging snowshoeing is, I did not want to do anything to put myself in danger, particularly in winter.  I figured, if it turns out that this trail is not too challenging, I can always take on a harder one on a subsequent trip.

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The first thing I noticed about snowshoeing as an activity is the way the trails are kind of carved out in the snow.  How do they come to be?  Are the trails made by snowshoers, or cross country skiers?  Do they need to be rebuilt every time it snows, and they once again get covered?  Do they always follow the exact same pattern as the hiking trails beneath them?

At first, following trails cut out in the snow confused me a bit.  Having never done this before, I got a bit apprehensive that I was not following the correct course, and may have been inadvertently following the tracks laid out by some snowmobiler, or worse yet, a stampede of bison, into some random spot into the woods that has nothing to do with where I intended to snowshoe, or where I had parked my car.  Luckily for me, I brought along with my one of the best guides anyone can have on a snowshoeing trip- a Siberian Husky!

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Juno (dog pictured above) lead us around the entire loop, called the Pines to Peak Loop.  In fact, she was so much in her element out here in the snow, that at one point, she lead us on the correct path at a time when we were actually considering following a different set of tracks.  I trusted my dog, and she was correct!

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The conditions were quite pleasant, primarily because there was little wind.  However, there was a lot of fog at the “summit”, as well as along the entire trail.  This means that if I want to find out what kind of scenic view there is at the top of Bald Mountain, I will need to come back another day.  The outlines in the fog do hint at some really nice scenery.  The area is known as Sunshine Canyon, and I have typically enjoyed that type of scenery.

But, today’s voyage was not about scenery.  It was about trying a new activity.  And, in addition to snowshoeing for the first time in my life, I got another, unexpected, unique experience.  For the majority of the time we were on the trail, we were the only ones there.  When we arrived, there was one other car in the parking lot.  That group was on their way out.  We did not encounter any more people until we were almost back at the car.

With no other people around, and very little wind, at the trail’s high point, the only noises I heard was the occasional bird, or, once in a while, the faint noise of a car traveling along the roadway in the distance.  It had been quite some time since I had been somewhere so quiet, and so free of distractions.  Sometimes, even the places we go to away from the city can be crowded and hectic.  Vail was packed on Friday!  Rocky Mountain National Park is usually jammed with people driving around looking for Moose.  And, in summer, one will encounter ultra-runners running up “14ers” with their headphones on.

I was so amazed by how quiet it was here at Bald Peak today, that I had to stop, relax, and collect thoughts.  I even meditated for a while.  Well, I tried to.  I really don’t know how it’s done.  I wondered if others, particularly people local to the area, and more likely to know the place (it is not very high profile), frequently came here to collect their thoughts.  I wondered if, since it is Boulder, people came here to try to receive messages from their “spirit animals”, or tried to go on “vision quests” of some kind.  In fact, as I sat there in silence, the idea did not sound nearly as silly to me as it would have presented to me in the city on an average weekday.  With how rarely we liberate ourselves from every distraction there is in the modern world, it seems quite reasonable that one could finally uncover something hidden deep in their brain by coming to a place like this.

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As it turns out, snowshoeing, although more exhausting than hiking, is not as exhausting as I had feared.  I am guessing that cross-country skiing is more exhausting.  At least it sounds that way.  After today, I am confident that I can handle much more challenging trails with my snowshoes.  I am not sure if any of the ideas I pondered while completely free of distractions at Bald Mountain will lead to anything significant.  However, today did serve as a reminder to me to periodically find quiet, and take myself away from distractions, and all things that cause anxiety in life.

Sort of Leaving the Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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