Category Archives: wildlife

A July 4th Hike Up Mount Evans

IMG_3942.jpgThis Independence Day was a strange one. It was a day with all sorts of mixed feelings. The first is related to the holiday. I love the United States of America, and feel extremely blessed to have been born and live here. However, something just feels a bit off right now. Without getting too into it, as travel and adventure is supposed to be an escape from all of this nonsense, I do not feel that our current political climate is in line with what this country was originally intended to be about. Based on the values of the Enlightenment, we escaped from tyranny and intended to set up a nation where the impact of politics and government on our lives is limited. People feeling that government is important enough that they will de-friend and even act violently towards those that support a different political party just doesn’t feel like America to me.

I was also somewhat mixed about the event. Mount Evans is one of two 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation) with a paved road to the top, meaning that people can get to the top of this mountain in their cars (or on a bike). In fact, I know someone who drove to the very same peak on the same day.

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I also wasn’t too crazy about leaving Denver at 4 in the morning to arrive at the Summit Lake parking lot just before sunrise.

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14ers close to Denver are quite popular, and there was concern about parking availability. In many of my social circles, I find myself among the least cautious. It’s not that I want to go around being reckless, taking risks for the sake of risks. I would just rather deal with things occasionally going wrong than all the missed opportunities and additional stress that comes from being averse to risk.

However, the big picture is that I am hiking to the top of a tall mountain. Waking up two hours earlier than I wanted to guarantee a parking spot at the trailhead is a small compromise, and not one that takes me anywhere near a place where risk avoidance is costing me opportunities. There were also some benefits from starting that early, as each hour of the day is unique in the mountains, and the time around sunrise can be quite magnificent.

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Less than twenty minutes into the hike, the sun emerged from behind both the clouds and mountain peaks on the horizon.

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They do not call these mountains the Rocky Mountains for nothing. Many of these high elevation hikes are both steep and rocky.

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I would definitely recommend some form of hiking boots or trail shoes to traverse terrain like this.

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The trail climbs pretty quickly right from the start. Less than an hour into the hike, which is a slow hike, averaging little more than a mile per hour, I began to see Grays and Torreys Peaks, the first 14ers I ever climbed, five years ago.

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It wouldn’t be long before that top of the world feeling emerged. This is because, the trek up Mount Evans from Summit Lake is actually two peaks. The first one, Mount Spalding, is only 158 feet shy of being a 14er itself, and has its own scramble to the top.

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Like Grays and Torreys, there are many places where hikers conquer two peaks at once. This hike felt very much like this, despite the fact that Mount Spalding does not count as a “14er”.

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Saddling between the two peaks was rocky, shaded, and breathtaking. It may have been my favorite part of the hike.

It was kind of strange to reach the summit only to see all the people who had just driven all the way up. We were also able to look down upon the lot where we had parked a couple of hours earlier.

From the top of the road, there is actually an additional 134 feet of climbing to the peak, at 14,264 feet.

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We also got a chance to get up close and personal with the mountain goats, who seemed strangely inclined to hang out relatively close to the road.

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With the steep rocky sections, and the climb back up Mount Spalding, the return hike was only slightly easier than the climb.

We also encountered a crew of trail maintenance volunteers. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate their work. I had not previously seen them working, but I know they work hard on behalf of the Colorado outdoors, and are an important part of the mission to encourage others to get outside, get active, and enjoy nature.

Then, at the bottom of the trail, we encountered more wildlife- sheep.

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I am somewhat in awe of these animals, both the goats at the top and the sheep near Summit Lake. They live their lives on the steepest of all hills. I wonder if they ever fall over, but it feels like they don’t. I spent half the downward trek grabbing onto rocks with my hands for balance, despite having a good pair of hiking boots. The goats and the sheep, they just walk up and down these steep, slippery, and rocky hills like it’s nothing.

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We got back to the car before noon. By the end of the hike, I really did not know what to feel. Hiking to the top of a tall mountain is no longer a new experience for me. It’s beautiful but familiar. 2018 so far has been quite emotional for me already, dealing with issues related to our mean spirited and way to identity-driven political climate, as well as drama related to my career, social standing, and even identity. Maybe, at this point in time, I do not need some kind of grand emotional response to my activities. I just need to enjoy them, laugh with friends, and see nature for the majesty that it is. That was good enough for me before I started writing this blog, and some things are indeed true regardless of time, place and culture.

Moose at Rocky Mountain National Park

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We humans seem to have some kind of fascination with moose. There must be something about that animal. Several years ago I was on a weekend ski trip in Breckenridge. The condo our group stayed in had a moose theme. Every decoration .. moose. The pictures hung on the wall. The design on the pillows. Even the back of the couches. It was impossible to rotate my head more than 15 degrees without seeing six new images of moose, in one form or another.

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It is nearly impossible to drive around Colorado, or anywhere in the West, without eventually seeing cars with decals like this one.

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Two years ago, when I rode my bike through the White Mountains of Central New Hampshire, I saw advertisements for numerous “Moose Tours”, in the town of Lincoln, NH. These tours involve a bunch of people crowding in a van of some sorts and heading out into the wilderness to look for moose. A subsequent Google search revealed page after page of companies offering moose tours. There are a lot in New Hampshire, some in Maine, a bunch in Canada. There are even “Moose Safaris” in Norway and Sweden!

Added altogether, there has to be at least hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who earn a livelihood helping tourists see moose!

I woke up on a mid-summer Saturday morning without a real plan. I wanted to go by instinct, as I’ve been trying to avoid overtaking things lately. That instinct told me to head to Grand Lake, a place I had actually not been to before.

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Grand Lake is perhaps best known for having Colorado’s largest naturally occurring lake, however, the town itself is pretty interesting too.

Just West of Rocky Mountain National Park, it attracts a lot of visitors and tourists, not unlike Estes Park, the more well known town east of the park. Compared with Estes, it is a little bit quieter, and the buildings also have somewhat of a more western feel.

It is also apparently near the part of Rocky Mountain National Park where visitors are most likely to find moose. I had no idea when I decided to hit up the Green Mountain Trail, the first major trailhead one encounters after entering the National Park from the West.

I just knew I wanted to be out in nature, and have a break from my pursuits back in Denver. I knew there was some sort of healing power in being immersed in a place like this.

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I wasn’t even tracking my progress along the trail. I wasn’t thinking about where I was, where I was headed, or what I was hoping to see. I was just there, in the moment, in the deep evergreen forests of the Upper Colorado River valley, apparently headed for a meadow, when a woman walked up to me and told me that there was a family of moose 200 feet past the next trail junction, in the meadow, where moose are typically expected to be spotted.

I must admit, that although I do not count myself as one of those moose obsessed people, when I heard this, I got extremely excited- almost giddy. It was a feeling that is hard to explain. It felt almost like the excitement that comes over someone’s entire body when they suddenly hear their favorite song, or that their secret crush asked about them, or that their best friend got them tickets to see their favorite performer. It’s that suddenly bubbly feeling that often comes more frequently from anticipation than an actual event.

They first appeared in the distance, walking up toward big meadow. Two other families were watching them, in awe.

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It is never a good idea to get too close to moose. They are dangerous and powerful. This was about as close as I wanted to get.

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Even from somewhat of a protected distance, it was still an amazing experience. We watched them gradually walk downstream along the Tonahutu Creek in this wide open meadow. I am really not sure if they saw us at all. I imagine they did, but serious did not care. It is as if the moose are the ones that have perfected the art of not caring about the judgements of those around them.

I am actually nearly 100% certain that had there not been a bunch of humans taking pictures of them and watching them slowly walk by, they would not be acting any differently. Maybe I deeply respect that about them. If only more of us humans can learn to stop relying on the approval and attention of others.

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What is it about these creatures that capture so many of our imaginations? There are, after all, plenty of large mammals to be spotted on this planet. What makes the moose worthy of hundreds of tour companies in Eastern North America, decals on countless SUVs, and an entire section of nearly every Western themed home decoration store.

It is probably that the quest to spot a moose has all of the ingredients that any other worthwhile life quest could have. As is the case with learning a new skill like car repair, finding the right date for a school dance, or finding a rare collectable, it is a challenge, a deep one, but an obtainable one. This is important because if a challenge seems impossible, it would not be taken on by too many people. People who do not believe in the existence of BigFoot are not going to go searching for it.

There is also something amazing about the end result. This is important because there has to be some sort of reward that makes the challenge worth pursuing. I do not see a market for a 1,000 piece puzzle that is pure white, with no color, picture, or design. The end result would be nothing. Moose are something.

They are also unique, at least in the realm of the experiences the average human being has throughout their lives, but unique in a non-threatening way. Finding a moose in an open meadow is the right kind of unique. It is a unique people can relate to based on their own experiences, having likely seen something somewhat similar, like a horse, or some of the animals at the zoo. It is not too far out there for one to relate to.

So, in a way, seeing a moose after trying and failing a bunch of times, is a metaphor for obtaining the things we most cherish in this life. We have to work for it. There is some amount of reliance on luck. The reward is something amazing and unique, but also tangible, obtainable, and relatable. Now I understand why so many people love these creatures.

Greyrock Mountain- An Ideal Hike for May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 3

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The Weminuche Wildreness appeared to be particularly devastated by the recent Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic.  While a portion of the second day was spent above the tree line and in storms for much of the journey, we wound our way in and out of the forest, alternating between hiking through the forest itself, and hiking across an open meadow where we could gaze upon the forest to both our left and our right.

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Throughout the State of Colorado, and throughout the West, I observe areas where the Pine Beetles have decimated the forest, changing the ecosystem forever.  Nowhere, though, have I seen a higher concentration of dead trees.  I would estimate that, over the course of the trip, some 70-75% of all the pine trees I saw, were, in fact, dead.

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But I did notice some signs of life, particularly at the campground Sunday (Day 3) morning.  Tucked away amongst the densely pack forests of decimated trees, little signs of life seemed to appear.  It reminded me of many American cities, circa 1982, decay being the overarching theme but, signs of life and pockets of hope beginning to appear here and there for those willing to observe.  Maybe indeed, the worst has now passed for this particular forest.  As was the case for many of our cities, it is possible that in a decade or so, we will revisit areas like this, and see once again a thriving forest, albeit, as was the case with our cities, with a different character?

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As is typically the case on a three day excursion like this one, the last day was primarily a descent.  As we descended, we quickly reached elevations where Aspens, rather than Pine trees made up a significant proportion of the forest.

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Maybe it is different at this latitude, farther South than the Denver area, where I live and spend most of my time.  But, it feels as if in this wilderness, Aspen trees are able to grow at some pretty high elevations.

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We figured out the tree line here to be somewhere close to 12,000 feet in elevation.  When looking upon sections of forest from afar like this, it is easy to picture some of these Aspen trees living at elevations close to 11,00 feet.  Over the course of my four years in the Denver area, I had grown accustomed to them disappearing between 9,000 and 10,000 feet.

Sunday’s hike was a 7.3 mile trek along the Ute Creek trail (the East Ute Creek trail we had followed the previous day merged with the main Ute Creek trail).  The trail alternated a bit, climbing up and out of the valley formed by the creek for some sections, and descending back toward the creek for others.  Due to the previous night’s onslaught of rain, which likely impacted the entire valley, the trails on this, the final day, were at times even muddier than the were the prior two days.  At the end of three days, our total distance came out around 25 miles.  I speculated as to whether the extra distance we traveled stepping around puddles, and veering left and right to avoid some of the muddiest sections of trail, over the course of three days made this a mile or so longer than it would have been had the trails been completely dry.

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I personally added some distance on top of that.  I love side excursions, whether hiking/backpacking, cycling, or on a road trip.  And, in addition to the side excursion to the feature known as “the window” the previous day, I took one completely on my own the final day.  Roughly halfway through the hike, I saw a place where I could cut down to the creek, and see a mini-waterfall.

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The final part of the day consisted of a small climb out of the Ute Creek valley, followed by a descent back towards the Rio Grande Reserviour.

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It is inevitable that, on the last day of any trip, we all begin to ponder our return home, and a return to our “normal lives”, whatever they may be.  This return, though, is somewhat unique, as a trip into the woods is not just a journey away from our jobs, or certain responsibilities, it feels more like a complete separation from the modern world, or as some people refer to it, the “real world”.  All of us were separated, not just from work, but from TV, from the news, from Twitter, and even the manner in which society is structured in the 21st Century.

Since my return to Denver was a return to, after being completely separated from, the “real world”, I started to contemplate the “real world” as one big entity, which, even for a big-picture abstract curious minded thinker like me, turned out to be strange.  I feel like we often compartmentalize the “real world” into buckets; the working world, the relationship world, the school world, etc.  We will write blogs, have conversations, confide in others about our hardships, or celebrate our successes, with respect to one specific bucket of the “real world” at a time.  Some people will even chose to accept or rebel against the modern world on a bucket-by-bucket basis.  “I’m a freelancer, happily married with two kids and a picket fences house.”  “I work 9-to-5 for a large corporation, but I only eat organically certified food.”

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the partially-rebellious lifestyles I am describing here.  We often try to oversimplify the actions and lifestyles of others as being either “conformist” or “rebellious”.  When I thought about life in the woods, and the few people that actually do it, live off the grid, and off the land, I think of those people as “rebellious”.  But, then I thought of human beings as part of the animal kingdom, and thought about what all non-domesticated animals do.  They live in the woods.  They hunt their food, many wandering around nomadically.  When thought of in that manner, it is us human beings, and our domesticated cats and dogs, that are rebelling against the way the rest of the animal kingdom works by farming our food and setting up permanent shelters.

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At the conclusion of our journey, we had to actually wade across the Rio Grand River to get to the car, as the trail ended abruptly at the river.  This likely explained why we did not see any other people the entire time we were on the East Ute Creek and Ute Creek trails yesterday and today.

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Shortly after leaving the trailhead, I saw what looked like baby mule deer living along the steepest part of the hill.

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Like the journey to the Wilderness, the journey home took us by some of Colorado’s highest peaks and most stunning mountainous features.  I thought of the “real world” I was gradually re-entering, the life I live and the journey I just took.  It is not important whether we are “conforming” or “rebelling”, because, like life in the woods, it can be thought of as conformist or rebellious depending on perspective.

Those of us that are honest with ourselves, and with those around us, will undoubtedly find ourselves in both situations.  We’ll find ourselves in a place where our choices are the same as those around us, and be suseptable to being labelled “conformists”.  We’ll also, at some point, find ourselves in a place where our choices are not those of the majority, and be met with skepticism, hostility, and possibly even pressure to change.  What matters most, is not fitting into an image we may have of ourselves, whether it be the upstanding citizen, rebel, outcast, or whatever, it is that we have the courage to be all things, depending on our setting, in order to be true to ourselves.

A Moderate Hike at Reynolds Park

IMG_6790I became interested in the weather at a young age, in part, because its impact on all of our lives is quite evident, almost every day.  While the weather has an impact on nearly all aspects of our lives, it has the greatest impact on many of the activities we take part in for enjoyment and fulfillment.  Activities such as hiking, playing on a friendly softball team, or having a family picnic in the park take place outdoors, and require a certain type of weather conditions, otherwise they are either not possible or not enjoyable.  For many, including me, activities like these make up an essential part of life, an essential part of feeling “alive”, and an essential part of the human experience.

The weather also behaves in a sort-of predictable but sort-of not predictable manner.  From sheer observation, we can recognize certain patterns in how the weather behaves.  But, there are always some surprises, some deviations, something to keep us on our toes.  If we always knew what exactly what weather conditions to expect, some aspects of life would be easier to plan, but the weather would be far less interesting.

In Colorado, each season presents a different set of considerations.  In winter, we watch the snowpack grow, as well as when and where storms that make travel perilous hit.  In spring, we watch as the snowpack melts and the runoff produces both rapids, and potential floods.   In the summer, an issue for some in places close to Denver, Fort Collins, Pueblo, etc. is the heat.  Mid-summer in particular can get quite hot in these locations, with most days reaching highs in excess of 90 degrees.  Those looking to avoid this heat can do one of two things; wake up early or travel to a higher elevation.

I needed a calmer weekend.  The summer had been active, and I still have to expend some energy in order to make a living.  I am not extremely lucky or extremely wealthy.  But, I am hardly one to sit inside all weekend in the middle of the summer.

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Luckily, there are places one can get to from Denver in roughly an hour, sometimes less, that offer moderate intensity hikes at a high enough elevation to escape some of summer’s heat.  One such place is Reynold’s Park, close to Conifer, where we were able to find a set of trails that offer a six-and-a-half-mile loop, with a vertical climb of just over 1000 feet.  This hike is described as “moderate” in difficulty (as opposed to the hanging lake trail, with a similar vertical climb that is described as “strenuous”), and I would certainly agree with the assessment.

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We took the loop in the counterclockwise direction, using the Raven’s Roost Trail to connect to the Eagle’s Nest Trail.  I am actually glad we decided to take this loop in this direction.

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We spent roughly an hour getting to the summit, and were fortunately enough to be shielded from the sun for part of the time, due to both sections of denser forest, and partial cloud cover that afternoon.

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However, hiking the loop in this direction, we actually saved the best for last.  After “summiting”, there was a section of the hike that was generally flat, and also densely packed with pine trees.

I guess we “descended” a little bit, meaning 150 feet or so into the valley of a small creek.  When we popped out of that valley, we actually encountered the best view of all, as a clearer (from trees) section of the trail gave us clear views of some of the more interesting rock formations in the distance, including “cathedral rock” in the background of this photo.

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As we descended, I thought to myself about how sometimes I do get disappointed when I do not “save the best for last”.  What a letdown it is indeed when the best part of any hike happens within the first 45 minutes!  In fact, every time I eat a meal there is always a battle going on in my head.  I genuinely want to save the best for last, meaning, saving my favorite parts of the meal for the end.  But, I also do not want to get full on the other stuff, and not have enough room for what I enjoy the most.  This is what makes collecting the proper food at Indian Lunch Buffets a particularly daunting task.  Anyone going to one should know their appetite.  In fact, I suggest only going when there is a robust appetite, particularly for those with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

I’ve been trying to, of late, capture some better pictures of wildlife.  While I haven’t necessarily been out in search of it recently, I have been trying to keep my eyes out for it, as opposed to just looking for waterfalls, unique rock formations, summits and the like as I typically do.  The previous week, in Glenwood, I took this photograph of a chipmunk eating a little cracker (also posted in my previous entry).

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At Reynolds Park, I got a chance to take this amazing close up photo of a butterfly in the parking lot after the hike.

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In fact, this particular butterfly chose to land on a yellow colored post and sit there with its wings out, color coding herself in a manner that almost felt like it was purposeful, as if the butterfly somehow thought there was a possibility it would get famous from this photo; possibly ending up as the July photo in a 2017 Butterflies of Colorado calendar that people will see at the mall, or at Barnes and Noble.

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Add to that the craziest sap discharge I have ever seen (okay, trees really aren’t wild but you get the picture), and, well I was pretty successful in trying to expand my photo-taking to new horizons.

In a divine sort of sense, sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons for changes in seasons, changes in weather patterns and such is to ensure that people are forced to go to different places, try different things, and have some kind of a variety in their lives and activities.  It is easy to do the same thing over and over again, but it is also the least satisfying way to live.  But, sometimes we need a push.  Whether that be some sort of tough situation at work, an unwelcome new presence in our community, a terrible breakup or anything else, sometimes the silver lining in all of it is getting involved in something new, something more satisfying than what was before.  While 95 degree temperatures and exhaustion are certainly less extreme than any of these situations, I know it helps push people towards variety and is giving at least some other people a chance to select a more moderate activity while taking time to appreciate nature, have a nice chat with friends, or, in my case, both.

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.

July 2015 Bicycle Journey Day 3: Yellowstone’s Grant Village to Jackson, Wyoming

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What a difference a day makes!  After the most exhausting bicycling day of my life, day 3 seemed like a breeze.  Everything seemed different, even in subtle ways.  Whereas on day 2 I felt like I had to struggle, even on the flatter portions of the ride, certain segments of this day seemed to breeze by.  It was almost as if there was some kind of invisible force that had been holding me back on the previous day, but now was helping me along.

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We left the Grant Village campground having done none of the activities that are typically associated with camping (other than putting up and tearing down a tent).  We did not set up a fire.  We did not cook anything.  We did not even spend a significant amount of time at the campsite other than sleeping. The next morning, we got some breakfast, and headed South, towards Grand Teton National Park.

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The day started with a climb, albeit a very small one, and one that event felt easier than a similar sized climb would have felt the previous day.  Only four miles into the ride, we crossed the Continental Divide, and immediately started headed downhill.  The next eight miles flew by as we reached our last major stop in Yellowstone National Park; Lewis Falls.

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I feel like I got a fairly exhaustive tour of Yellowstone’s waterfalls.  And, while I had seen several waterfalls while in Yellowstone, each one was different in characteristics.  Undine Falls, which I saw yesterday, was skinny and tall.  Lewis Falls is much wider, with a smaller drop.  It is shaped much more like Niagara.  At this point in my journey, 12 miles in, I was energized!  I felt almost as if I could have handled anything on that day.  In fact, I am 100% sure that I had more energy at that point in the day than I would have had I been resting over the last several days.  There is just something about getting through a really rough day of riding, and then riding downhill.

Until this trip, most of my riding had consisted of day trips.  Before moving to Colorado, those trips were pretty much about how many miles I traveled, as Illinois is flat.  Since then, I have begun to tackle some climbs.  In each of these rides, there is a similar theme, I go up, and then I go down.  There is a climb, and it is followed by a “reward”, a chance to go fast.  This almost felt like a way more stretched out version of this.  I spent an entire day pretty much climbing.  The previous day was my climb, and this day of primarily descending was my reward.  Therefore, the feeling of guilt that usually passes over me when I descend without having climbed first did not manifest.  The whole time I knew that I had earned this day of rapid riding through the exhaustion I had endured on the prior day.

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By the time we left Yellowstone National Park, we had already descended a significant amount.  That descent was interrupted by the days only climb, in the 6 mile space that separates Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  This is a strange place.  Although you are technically in neither National Park, signs posted along the road remind motorists that National Park speed limits and enforcement are still in effect.  Also, there is no official entrance into Grand Teton National Park from the north, at least not along US-89.  It is pretty much assumed that all motorists (and I guess cyclists too) had already paid to get into Yellowstone and do not need to pay again.

After climbing for a little bit, there is a rapid descent towards Lake Jackson, and the heart of the Grand Tetons.

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This lake is gigantic, and one of the defining features of the National Park.  And, as one travels farther, into the heart of the Park, one can sometimes get some of the most stunning views of the Tetons from the other side of the lake.

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The Grand Tetons are the most photographed location in Wyoming.  The primary reason they are so photogenic is that this particular mountain range not only has a prominence (how much higher in elevation the peaks are from the area around them) of over 7,000 feet, but there are no foothills to obstruct one’s view of the mountains.

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There really is nothing like experiencing the Tetons, at a nice comfortable pace of 15-20 miles per hour, from the seat of a bicycle, up and down some gentile rolling hills, as the afternoon progresses. As was the case in Yellowstone, I decided not to push myself and hurry through the park.  Only this time, on a day that had been mostly downhill, it felt way more comfortable.  I wasn’t climbing up a major pass, putting my legs through all of that exhaustion.  I was just gliding kinda.

The final part of the trip into Jackson took me on a bike trail, where I encountered the last wildlife of my journey, a coyote.

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In the end, I once again rode over 80 mies on the final day of my journey.  However, the last part of the ride felt quite a bit different for me on day 3 as it had on day 2.  At some point, I came to the realization that on my final day’s ride, it wasn’t the energy I had left in my legs that was limiting the number of miles I felt like I could do, it was other intangibles.  It was how my butt felt about getting back on the seat.  It was how many times my right fingers had been used to shift gears, as well as the amount of weight I had placed on my forearms in general over the course of many hours on the seat.  In this case, I wonder if the strategy of biking a bit faster, but taking more frequent stops to get up and off the seat may be a better strategy for handling these long distance rides.

The last five miles of my ride, on the trail, headed into Jackson were counted off by little markers in the trail; white lines labelled 5.0, 4.5, 4.0 and so on, counting off the distance from Jackson at the end of the trail.  These markers countered down, pretty much, the end of my trip.  So while I was excited to make it all the way into Jackson, and really anxious to take a shower and have a coca-cola, it still felt bittersweet to me, knowing that this bicycle trip that I had been anticipating for so long was quickly coming to an end.

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Two days earlier, at Chico Hot Springs, I had refrained from eating chicken wings, as I was unsure if the choice would negatively impact my bike ride the next day.  Now, with no more bike riding ahead of me, it was time to finally fulfill that craving.  So, after showering and changing, we went to a place called Local, right in downtown Jackson, and, yes, I had my wings.  Oh, and they were amazing.  One thing I learned the first time I attempted bike travel, ten years ago, was that wings always taste better on a bike journey.

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That evening, we stayed at the Anvil Motel downtown, and watched the 4th of July firework show.  As I watched the fireworks light up the night sky, I thought to myself about how I had celebrated our Nation’s independence by traveling through some of the most beautiful places in the country.  I cannot think of a better way to honor The United States of America than that.

The only regret I really had was that the haziness of the day had seriously impacted the images I had taken of the Grand Tetons.  This regret was remedied, as we spent another day in Jackson before headed home, and got to see some more sights, including different images of the Tetons, under different weather conditions, both Sunday and Monday, as well as the iconic images that one encounters in the famous Mormon Row settlement to the east of the National Park.

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By completing this journey, I feel like I have entered a whole new league when it comes to bike riding, and bike travel.  Before this trip, I could only speculate as to what rides I would one day love to take on.  I could only respond to people’s own bicycle travel stories with statements such as “wow, that seems incredible”, or “good job”.  I was not truly belonging to the group.  Now, with this trip behind me, I have finally earned the right to consider myself a bike traveler.  I have earned the right to actually chime in with my own anecdotes, about biking long distances, road conditions, places to go, pannier setup, and all sorts of other topics bicycle tourists typically discuss.  I have reached the pros- sort of.

And, because of this experience, Montana and Wyoming now have a special place in my heart, something that someone born on Long Island, New York would never have expected.  I almost feel like Teddy Roosevelt this weekend, New Yorker in attitude and mannerisms through and through, but lover of the West, lover of America’s beauty and lover of the National Parks.

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As I rode home Monday, July 6th, it suddenly occurred to me how little I missed my regular life.  I think I missed some of the people and some of the socializing.  But I really didn’t miss the kind of stuff that many would assume.  I had yet to watch a single minute of television, and had yet to use the internet for anything other than looking up the weather and writing a blog entry on this site.  I certainly had not looked at the news or anything.  I definitely did not miss either TV or the internet at all.  As of the time of writing this blog, July 9th, my TV total for the month of July still does not exceed one single hour.  And, the odd thing is, I also knew that if I needed to get back on that bike again and ride more distance, I was more than capable of it.  Maybe that is the way I truly know I have reached a whole new level with regards to bicycling.