Tag Archives: Camping

The Longest Day Hike of My Life

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Conundrum Hot Springs

The hike from the Conundrum Trailhead to Conundrum Hot Springs is roughly 8.5 miles.  Round trip is at least 17 miles of hiking.  I say AT LEAST as I have been on plenty of hikes where side excursions, both planned and unplanned, lead to covering a total distance that exceeded the official distance of the hike.

Due to the distance, and the destination, nearly all the people we encountered on this hike were backpacking.  This is an attractive option, as the trail is pretty long but not terribly challenging, and the hot springs are the kind of destination one would want to spend a significant amount of time at.  However, Conundrum Hot Springs is a popular destination, and there are limited camping sites in the immediate vicinity of the springs.

Conundrum Hot Spring is close to Aspen, which is three and a half hours from Denver.  Some of the people in our group, myself included, were not able to leave early enough on Friday for us to be confident that we could secure a camping spot.  We ended up deciding to find a campground somewhat close to the trailhead, and hike to and from the springs as a day hike.  As an added bonus, we would not have to bring, or carry nearly as much equipment, as we would be “car camping”.  The hike would be both easier and harder.  We would not be carrying nearly as much weight, but we would be cramming 17 miles of hiking into one day.

Up in the mountains of Central Colorado, trees change color earlier in the Fall than they do in many other parts of the Country.  In general, the second half of September, and maybe the first few days of October, is the best time to see the Aspen trees here change colors.  I was partially surprised by how vibrant the colors were, by September 16th.  For the first two hours or so of the drive, before sunset, we saw a preview of the kind of colors we’d be seeing during the hike, certainly early season, but vibrantly colorful, with sections of bright yellows and oranges periodically appearing in front of us.

To be sure we would have enough time, we had to wake up, eat breakfast and leave the campground at Lincoln Creek (dispersed camping roughly 40 minutes from the trailhead) all before sunrise.  We arrived at the trailhead and started hiking at roughly 15 minutes after 7 A.M.

The morning chill was both an obstacle and a boost.  Overnight temperatures dropped to roughly 30F (-1C) at the campground.  For the first 90 minutes of the hike, the ground was covered in frost.  In fact, the frost even made our first river crossing a bit slippery.

This morning cold made me cary several layers, adding a little bit to the weight of my backpack (although it was still way, way, lighter than it would have been had we been backpacking).  However, the cold weather motivated us to begin our hike at a rapid pace.

We would cover over four miles before we even reached the sun!

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I would describe at least the first five miles of the hike as “easy” from the standpoint of evolution gain.

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Many sections of the trail are actually close to perfectly flat, giving me plenty of time to take in the natural beauty that is around me, and also connect with my friends who I was hiking with.  When hiking, it is challenging to have a conversation when hiking up steep terrain, but fairly easy to do so in largely flat sections.

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The appearance of small lakes precludes the transition to the more challenging part of the trail.

This occurs somewhere around six and a half miles into the hike.  First of all, there are sections that are more technically challenging, including a couple of tricky creek crossings, and a section where one must scramble over rocks.

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There last two miles of the trail also includes some fairly steep sections.  I wouldn’t say they are overly challenging, but in the context of a 17 mile day that included hiking at a rapid pace towards the beginning, they ended up being fairly exhausting.

We ended up spending roughly two hours at the hot springs (including changing and eating lunch).  There were a lot of people in the hot springs, but it was not as crowded as some of us had feared.

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For a variety of reasons, the fall colors appeared even more magnificent on the way back down!  The most significant reason had to be the manner in which the trees appeared in the mid-afternoon sun.

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I was also pleasantly surprised to see a significant amount of deep orange shades.  In prior experience with fall in the Rockies, I had almost exclusively seen the yellow shade that seems to be the most common fall color for Aspen trees.  While “autumn gold” is pretty, I had, in some ways, missed wide variety of shades that leaves on maple trees take on during fall.

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I would definitely describe the color we enountered as “early season”.  There were still many Aspen trees primarily shaded green, particularly at lower elevations.  This indicates that the next two weekends could be just, or perhaps even more, colorful!  The colorful trees, the yellows and the oranges, tended to be those higher up.  The several patches of deep shaded orange I saw were nearly exclusively up closer to the tree line.

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Both the hike up to the hot springs and the return trip took roughly four hours.

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We got back to the trailhead sometime just after 5 P.M., and, after the 40 minute drive back to Lincoln Creek, I finally got to see what the campground looked like.  And I got to do something I had not previously done.  I got to park my car with the rear left tire on top of a rock, showing off just how rugged my vehicle is.  Well, at least in an auto show pamphlet sort of way.

Capping off an exhausting day was a side excursion, to a waterfall, well, multiple waterfalls, that those of us in our group lucky enough to be able to leave early Friday had located roughly a quarter of a mile from the campground.  In fact, they hyped this place up over the course of the hike.  So, we had to go.  Additionally, this side excursion was enough for me to achieve something meaningless, but also something I am likely never again to achieve.  I recorded 50,000 steps on that step counter thing that comes with every iPhone6.  Yay me!

We would explore this likely unnamed waterfall area again Sunday morning before departing for Denver.

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If you count all the places where water squirts out of random places in the rock, there are probably close to a dozen “waterfalls” in this area.  What a great unexpected treat!

The return trip on Sunday was eventful as well, with some great stops at Independence Pass and Twin Lakes, both places I had driven by on Friday, but after the sun had already set.

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I titled this blog “The Longest Day Hike of My Life”, as, well, I can not picture a day where I hike more than 17 miles on a day trip.  However, I probably would have never imagined hiking 17 miles in one day a few years back, so there is no way to definitively say never.  I am prepared, though, for this to be my longest hike, and understand the significance of it. Like many of the adventures I had over the course of this summer, and in previous years, it was both exhausting and amazing.  But, most worthwhile experiences, from relationships to starting successful businesses and such, are.  Being exhausted after this experience should be a reminder to all of us that what is easiest is often the least rewarding, and that which is most challenging often comes with the greatest reward.

 

 

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 2: Chico Hot Springs to Yellowstone’s Grant Villiage

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I was 43 miles into a 100 mile bike ride.  I had already climbed over 1,000 feet from my starting location.  I knew I had over 2,000 more vertical feet to climb before I would reach the high point of my day.  The road mercilessly took a turn downhill.  This was vertical height I had already worked hard to climb.  I knew that somewhere down the road, I would once again have to climb this several hundred vertical feet that I was now descending.  I sped up and continued down the road, already exhausted, knowing that I still had more than half my day left to go, both in terms of milage as well as vertical climb.

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That was when I found myself going over a bridge, over the Gardner River.  The views in all four directions, including downward were spectacular.  Not only was I viewing all of the scenery in all directions, I was smelling it.  I was feeling the air around me.  It was at this moment that I realized that, despite how exhausted I already was, and despite how agonizing the steep hills I had in front of me were going to be, that all of this was worth it.  The effort of pedaling harder than I had ever pedaled before, and enduring hours of pure pain was worth it to experience what I was experiencing on that day.

Miles 44 and 45 would take forever, as I climbed up and out of the river valley and onto the Blacktail Deer Plateau in the Northern part of Yellowstone National Park.  Knowing that I still had so much painful climbing left to go, once again “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt” by Maroon 5, a song that I had heard many times this year, and, like most Maroon 5 songs, catches in one’s head quite easily, popped into my head as I pondered the pain that I was enduring, as well as the pain that would come.

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That morning, I woke up in Paradise Valley with a strange feeling.  I was half worn out from my first day of cycling, but also felt ready to go.  It is a feeling that people who cycle long distances probably experience quite frequently, but it was a feeling that I had not truly experienced before.  Sure, I had undertaken multi-day tasks before, but never one like this, where in my head I knew I was about to tap into pretty much everything I have, physically, but I also knew that it would make for one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had.

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On the way out of Paradise Valley, we encountered the only other cyclist we would encounter that day, an Austrian gentleman headed for the Grand Canyon.  He was traveling fully self-contained, with all of his camping gear attached to his bike, and therefore taking it slower.

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After turning back onto US-89 South towards Gardiner, we entered an area known as Yankee Jim Canyon. It is here where we started to see some rafters.  Over the next few miles, we would wonder who was this “Yankee Jim” that this canyon was named after.

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Unfortunately, even the signage along the highway, the signage that eluded to both history and Yankee Jim, did not tell me anything about who Yankee Jim was.  After the trip, I did a full web search.  Nothing.  I still have no idea who was this man they call Yankee Jim. Maybe if I ever go to a Montana History Museum of some kind I’ll find out, but to this day, it remains a mystery.

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Luckily, several miles up the road, as we approached Gardiner, there was a distraction.  We encountered a place called Devil’s Slide, a uniquely shaped exposed area of red sedimentary rock that appears to lend itself to stupid, and potentially dangerous adolescent ideas.  I am quite thankful that nobody turned it into a cheesy touristy site.  There are enough overpriced alpine slides elsewhere in the West.

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We stopped for Ice Cream just before noon in Gardiner, Montana, and stepped out into much hotter air as we entered Yellowstone National Park.

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Back when I lived in Chicago, I never understood why advertisements for Montana tourism would feature images of Yellowstone National Park, which is primarily in Wyoming, with the phrase “Gateway to Yellowstone”.  But, apparently, this was the original entrance to the National Park, and, when the park first opened up, the only way to get in.  This structure right here, that I found myself riding under, was the first entrance ever created to the first National Park established.

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And I knew the climb was coming, the first climb of the day, which would eventually take me past the 45th Parallel, into the State of Wyoming, and up to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I was now roughly 1000 feet higher than Gardiner.

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But, it wasn’t just the climbs that made the ride exhausting.  It was all of the other rolling hills I was not 100% expecting.

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There are very few flat parts of Yellowstone National Park, and even the area between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Falls, which starts and ends at a similar elevation had many hills of different sizes.  It was around there that I decided that I was in no hurry to get to the campsite.  After all, I was in Yellowstone National Park, and in a part of the park I did not get to see the last time I visited.  I was gonna see some stuff.

After having to climb back up out of the Gardiner River Valley, I took a look at the Undine Falls.

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Unfortunately, I did not feel I had the energy to add a mile of hiking (round trip) to my day, and see the Wraith Falls.

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But, I stopped several other times to enjoy the scenery along the Blacktail Deer Plateau, and even got a chance to see a blue-billed duck through some bincoulars.

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In the middle of the afternoon, I reached one of Yellowstone’s more breathtaking, but underrated features, Tower Fall.

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It was here I took a more lengthy break, as I knew ahead of me I had a climb tougher than any climb I had ever undertaken in my life.  After that exhausting 30 mile stretch from Gardiner, up into the park and then over the plateau and all of the rolling hills, I would climb over 2000 feet, to the highest point of any road in Yellowstone; Dunraven Pass.  But, it was here that I also realized that not only was I more than halfway through my trip overall (63 miles into today with 61 miles behind me yesterday), but I was now at a higher elevation than where I would end the trip (Jackson, Wyoming is at 6200 feet).  In every sense of the phrase, I was more than halfway there.

The climb, 12 miles and almost 2600 feet in elevation gain, took me nearly two hours.  It was exhausting, and intense.  I pretty much had to stop every mile.  Somewhere roughly halfway up the pass, I started to see some beautiful alpine flowers; yellow and purple.

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But, signage told me that the presence of these wonderful flowers also signified that I was in Grizzly Bear territory.

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So, it should not have been too much of a surprise to me that when I finally got to the top of the pass,  after two long hours of huffing and puffing, I saw my first Grizzly Bear!

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Just as I had realized 31 miles (and almost 3000 feet of net climbing) ago, when I was going over that breathtaking bridge over the Gardner River, all of the riding, all of the sweat, and all of the pain did have its reward.  To be honest, it would have been more than worth all of the physical exertion without even seeing the bear.  But, seriously, there was nothing like encountering this animal, so beautiful, so majestic, yet so dangerous and overwhelming, in the manner in which I did; from my bike, out in the open, yet at the top of a pass, knowing that if I needed to outrun it, I could by pedaling as hard as I could on the next downhill stretch.

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By then, after hanging out with the bear for a little while, it was nearly 7 P.M.  I had neither the energy, nor the remaining daylight to take the walk down to Yellowstone’s iconic Lower Falls.  Luckily I saw those last time I was here, so I was glad to have taken the time to see the other waterfalls in the park.

The last real feature I visited that evening was Yellowstone’s Mud Volcano area.

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There I stood, with the water bottle I had filled up something like 6 times that day, and I came to the realization of just how geothermal Yellowstone Park is.  Like many of the geysers in the park, this “mud volcano” smelled like sulfur.  In fact, it smelled kind of yucky.  And, while I had spent most of the day looking at waterfalls, scenic river valleys, and finally those yellow and purple flowers, it is these types of features that make Yellowstone National Park unique.  We do have waterfalls, canyons, river valleys and the like all over the west, including within an hour or so of home.  All of these geothermal features … I cannot think of where else to see them!  It almost felt like this park was built on sulfur.

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After seeing an elk on the side of the road, near Yellowstone Lake, I reached the campground at Grant Village.

It had been, without a doubt, the toughest day of riding I had ever undertaken.  Going into this trip, I knew it would be, so I was prepared.  But, I was still pretty much without any residual energy at the end of the day.  In fact, I was kind of acting like I was drunk.  I guess my body had gone through an experience that some would consider “traumatic”, given how far I pushed myself.  But, for me, it is how you grow as an individual, and it is how you gain confidence.  I know that soon I will have to return to “regular life”.  In “regular life”, there is competition, there is conflict, and there are things that are just plain hard.  But, they become easier for those of us that are confident in ourselves.  Accomplishments like these simply serve as a reminder to ourselves that we are awesome.  In fact, I would love to market a bumper sticker that simply says “Smile, you are you, and you are awesome.”  Or, something like that.  There is probably a better, and catchier way to phrase that.  But the point remains that experiences like these do remind us that we are often capable of more than we believe, and are told, that we are.

Full Service Camping

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Camping is not just camping.  In fact, there is an entire spectrum of different types of camping one can take part in.  On one end of the spectrum is the type of bare bones camping that can be found in National Forests and other wilderness areas.  I took part in this type of camping for the first time last year at Gunnella Pass.  These are places where you just put down your tent, and pretty much are on your own.  Maybe there’s a fire pit leftover from the last set of people who plopped their tents there.

On the other end of the spectrum are places like Starlite Classic Campground.  These campgrounds have their own office, where one can usually buy the ice, firewood, and other standard camping supplies, specific camping sites reserved in advance for various group sizes, and often have plenty of other amenities.

On this campground, we had a pool, which we ended up spending a significant amount of time in, as temperatures soared well in to the 90s Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

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Next to the pool is a children’s play area, which I probably spent way more time than any adult should at, but, hey, I am also a grown-up throwing myself a half birthday party, so, it kinda fits.

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And, not to mention, a whole bunch of other games, including horseshoes, volleyball, and even a mini-golf course.

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All this made for a completely different kind of experience than your standard camping trip.  When most people think of camping, they ponder up images of a campfire, roasting marshmallows, and a fairly quiet experience, which can often involve some reflection, star gazing, and deep conversations in the wilderness.  With the hot temperatures, mid-June daylight lasting until nearly 9 P.M., all the amenities at Starlite, and a total of 17 people participating in the weekend (including both camping and rafting), very little of your standard camping experience happened.  In fact, the weekend kind of felt like some kind of hybrid experience between being at a campsite and a party!

Starlite Classic Campground is located just across the street from Performance Tours, the outfitter we used for our rafting trip.  We had a mere two minute walk to get where we needed to go in the morning.  In fact, the evening before the trip, we could see the very bus we would be getting on the following morning to start our raft trip.

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With the purchase of the group site at Starlite, we received a significant discount on the rafting trip, as they have some sort of deal.

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In addition to all of the fun, the scenery was amazing.  Just four miles south of the campground is the Royal Gorge Bridge, which can be seen by gazing across the open plane of the Arkansas River Valley.  A quick turn to the right, and one can see the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, which contains numerous peaks over 14,000 feet, and extends all the way into Northern New Mexico.

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As I walked across the open field that evening, staring across a the Sangres, and the bridge, and some of the other terrain features that look so breathtaking when the setting sun hits them at just the right angle, I came to the realization that I had entered the sweet spot that I am always looking for in life.  By this I mean being the best version of me, the version of me I wish I could be all the time, but somehow can’t.

Without the help of any substance, drugs, alcohol, or even caffeine for that matter, all the anxiety had just vanished.  I was just content.  It’s hard to explain.  But, it was like I had just simply left the competitive world that we live in behind for a few days.  I did not feel I was competing with people, needing to prove anything, or potentially being judged for anything.  Maybe what I felt was acceptance, something we all long for in life, and something I sincerely appreciate those who joined me on this trip for.

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Out here, organizational structures, hierarchies, deadlines, and all of the things that make life stressful simply don’t exist.  It is just you, whoever you chose to make the trip with, and the scenery.  And, once you get to that place where you can let go of everything in your head, you find that best version of you, the one you know you are capable of.  It is the you that is confident, eager to take on a new activity, and in no way hiding any aspect of who you are out of fear of judgement.  It is the you that the people who you value are drawn to, and it is the you that should be celebrated, even if that means throwing yourself parties like this one.

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For me, when I am being true to myself, it means being goofy, and, well this area offers plenty of opportunities for that.  This section of U.S. highway 50, near Royal Gorge, has more than just one campsite and one whitewater outfitter.  There are more campsites, more whitewater outfitters, other activities (such as helicopter rides), and shops and restaurants that serve the needs of the tourists in the area.  Not to say that this area is a full-fledged tourist trap similar to Estes Park.  But, there are some places to wander around to at night if one is so inclined.

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The return trip home involved one mildly disappointing stop; the World’s Largest Rocking Chair.  The chair was large, but we could not get in, as the shop that houses it has been closed for a year.

As I faced the return trip to the city, the return to work, and normal life, I could not help but think about the feeling I had this weekend, and how to be the best version of myself, the me that I was all weekend, every day.  What I struggle with is that “normal life” offers pretty much two typical paths.  First, one could work hard and “move up” in their organization, get promoted, become the boss, and maybe even reach leadership positions.  However, I have frequently observed that in many organizations, reaching higher levels requires some level of conformity, and one often must make some compromises on who they are and what they value to get in the good graces of those higher up- particularly in larger organizations.

Then, of course, there is always the option to be content to simply stay at the bottom of the totem pole.  This is a better path for those that prefer to keep their work load at reasonable levels, and seriously value work-life balance.  But, unfortunately, those that chose this route will always be answering to somebody, a boss, and sometimes for somewhat arbitrary reasons.  Being at the mercy of one person (and that person can suddenly change), who may be having a bad day, a bad month, or just simply be a bad person, has lead to countless terrible outcomes, all of which result in people not being the best version of themselves.

This is not to say that all is lost.  There are plenty of people that find a path outside the typical two options laid out above.  Many even write about their experiences here on WordPress.  There are also plenty of people that find a good environment using one of the two standard paths outlined above.  But, we all have a struggle.  And, this weekend, I realized that in order to make this struggle easier for both myself and the people around me, I need to celebrate the attributes in others that draw me to them, and also celebrate my own attributes that draw others to me.  Regardless of our paths, this authenticity needs to be encouraged.

A Bizarre Memorial Day Weekend in Wyoming

IMG_3445It is hard for me to really describe a place like Glendo Reservoir in East Central Wyoming.  It feels like this place is a complete contradiction of itself.    It is in Wyoming, a mountainous State with the second highest mean elevation in the country, at 6700 feet.  Yet, this reservoir sits at a paltry 4635 feet, lower than many of the larger cities of the Rocky Mountain region.  Unlike many of the other popular destinations in Wyoming, no mountains can be seen from here.

In fact, like many lakes here in the West, this particular lake is a Reservoir, meaning it is manmade and does not naturally exist.  Glendo’s average annual precipitation is roughly 14 inches per year, which is about what one can expect anywhere on the high plains just East of the Rocky Mountains.  Lakes like this one, and the even higher profile Lake McConaughy in Western Nebraska, exist only because of hydrological dams created in the 20th Century.  To anyone not thinking about the creation of these dams and the reason for them, lakes like these appear completely out of place for a section of the country that is quite dry.  The pioneers who followed the famed Oregon Trail during the westward expansion period of the 19th Century followed this very river westward through what is now Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming.  They would have seen none of these manmade lakes that now serve as popular weekend destinations for boating and fishing enthusiasts with few other places in the region to go.

In a way, this place does not even feel like it is in Wyoming at all.  When most of us think of Wyoming, or any other Rocky Mountain State, we think of destinations that are either in the mountains, or within view of the mountains.  Most Americans understand that there is much flatter terrain in the Eastern portions of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming.  However, these places are dry grasslands with abundant cattle ranches and oil fields, not the kind of place one would think to bring a boat, jet skis, kayaks, and fishing poles.

IMG_3425 IMG_3427Camping at Glendo Reservoir is already a bizarre experience.  Making the experience even more bizarre was the bizarre weather.  May had already been quite wet, with rainfall totals prior to Memorial Day Weekend more than double the monthly average for nearly all of Colorado, as well as the Southern half of Wyoming.  As a result, Glendo Reservoir was roughly 94% full prior to the weekend.  All over the lake, images like these were common, with trees that typically stand on dry land temporarily underwater.  The air was far more humid, and the skies were far more cloudy than is typically the case in Eastern Wyoming.

IMG_3428 IMG_3438The cool, damp overcast weather reminded me of the Midwest as a whole, as the entire region is prone to be damp and cloudy at times.  The size of the lake, however, reminded me specifically of Wisconsin, where I would frequently spend weekends on lakes roughly this size.  Bringing boats up to the lake on summer weekends is a major part of the culture there.  And, the sand dunes and trails that surrounded the lake reminded me of some of the dunes I would typically encounter on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Indiana and Michigan.  At times, it felt impossible to even remember that I was actually in Wyoming, and not in the Midwest.

After a fairly cold night of camping, we were able to have some fun on Saturday.  After a damp, foggy start, the skies gradually cleared throughout the morning hours, and temperatures reached comfortable levels.  During this time period, we were able to do some hiking on the sandy trails around the lake, hang out at the beach (another concept that seems foreign to the state of Wyoming), and even do some kayaking.  The water was quite cold, as the Lake is fed from the North Platte River whose origins are pretty high in elevation.

The rain did not start up again until 4 P.M., which was later than some forecasts had indicated.  Unfortunately, however, once the rain started, it came down quite heavy.  In fact, it actually ended up cutting the trip short, as, well, camping in the rain can be a less than enjoyable experience at times.  However, it was not the rainfall that pounded us in the afternoon and early evening hours that made me decide to leave Glendo behind on Saturday.  It was the expectation that the rain would continue throughout most of the day on Sunday that pushed me to leave, as enduring the evening of cold, wet weather huddled inside a tent would not produce a reward.  Those who decided to press on with the trip and stay at the campground confirmed that the rain was still falling Sunday morning.

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I could be disappointed in only getting one day at the lake this weekend.  But, unfortunately, that is part of the reality of taking part in outdoor activities as a whole.  People can make all the plans they want, but, in the end, Mother Nature really does not give a shit about whatever plans have been made.  The Earth, the sun, the air, and wildlife move about in a manner that we cannot truly control.  The best thing we can do is be prepared for it, both in the sense of remaining safe in adverse conditions, and in a way that allows us to use our most precious resource of all, our time, in a more optimal manner.

Thus, I decided to head back to Denver (home), where prospects for Monday, the final day of Memorial Day weekend, appeared better.  The decision proved to be the right one, as Monday morning was pleasant, and it did not rain until after 4 P.M.  I was able to get a solid bike ride in well before the onset of rain.

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Life is full of unexpected experiences.  Nobody expects it to rain nearly every day in this part of the country, creating lakes where they typically don’t exist.  I did not expect to encounter a lake in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Wyoming or Western Nebraska.  And, people are often surprised that some of the people they meet like certain food, or genres of music that do not match their upbringing.  But, these anomalous experiences do happen, and happen quite frequently.  When we make expectations in life, we need to account for, and prepare for, uncertainty.

Mud Season

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“Mud Season” is a term used to describe a time of year when a combination of melting snow and frequent rain can cause the ground to become muddy for an extended period of time.  The term originated in Northern New England to describe the first part of Spring in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, when rural dirt roads are significantly tougher to pass through.  It is now used quite extensively in the Rocky Mountains as well.  Here, “mud season” refers to the time period between ski season and the onset of summer activities; basically most of April and May.  With a drier climate, Rocky Mountain “mud season” is not nearly as muddy as its New England counterpart.  But, the lull in activity produces similar results.

“Mud season”, no matter where you are physically located, is the outdoor recreation equivalent of a matinee movie showing, a red-eye flight, or well liquor.  Those who chose to travel during this time of year are rewarded with significantly cheaper hotel rates, much less traffic to contend with, and campgrounds that are significantly emptier.  However, as is the case with any other off-peak event, there is reduced demand for a reason.  And, there are tradeoffs.  Matinee moviegoers are giving up greater opportunities than those who pay more to see a movie at night, a red-eye flight can mess up sleep schedules, and well liquor can produce significantly worse hangovers.

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The main reason camp sites are easier to come by here in the Central Rocky Mountains in late April/ early May is that, at 10,000 feet in elevation, conditions are still not optimal.  This past weekend, both Friday and Saturday nights saw temperatures drop below the freezing mark.  Camping in these conditions is far less comfortable.  It necessitates chopping more firewood, packing more layers, and sometimes even breaking camp with frost on top of your tent!

In my case, there were plenty of people around to handle campfire preparation.  This particular camping excursion was actually a multi-day birthday party.  And, at some point Saturday evening, there was around 20 people at the campfire.  It was a strange mix, being in a remote, secluded area away from civilization, but also being at a major social gathering.  We were out of cell phone range, miles from any town, and a significant distance from the nearest other campers, but also using battery powered speakers to play music at a significant volume.  It was a truly amazing experience!  I got to both be around a large group of people, but also wander into the woods and collect my thoughts in perfect silence, all in the same day!

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Social gatherings of these kinds are always somewhat of a balancing act.  At any social gathering like this, you will find people that will fit into the following three categories:

First, there are the people you are solidly friends with.  You have seen them sometime recently.  You have your shared experiences, your silly jokes and the like.  Most likely you have some kind of plan to see them again.  Maybe you coordinated rides with them, or even lost a silly bet on a basketball game several weeks ago.  That is what happened to me, and why I had to wear this silly sombrero for most of the weekend!

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In the second category are people who you know, but not terribly well yet.  These are the people you would typically describe as “friends of friends”.  You’ve definitely had some experience with them.  They showed up at the bar last weekend, or the last house party you attended.  You’ve hung out with them, conversed, danced, played games at various intoxication levels.  And, maybe someday in the future someone in this category will eventually be a good friend.  But, with people in this category, the next time you will see them will be at another event coordinated by your mutual friends.

And, finally, there are the people you are meeting for the first time ever.

A balance needs to be had.  I find it important to engage with people that would fit into all three of these categories over the course of the evening.  You need to enjoy your time with your friends, but also be open to letting more people into your life.  It’s about sharing in the activities you know, reliving the experiences you have had, and continuing the ongoing jokes you already share, but also trying new activities, exploring new ideas, and creating new jokes in your circle.

I dabbled in the old, as well as the new.  I even tried, once again, and failed, once again, at mastering the art of wood chopping.  That silly sombrero I had to wear did not help.

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Let’s be honest, my form here, it looks terrible, and look at all of those silly little chunks of wood that ended up splattered all over the place.  At least the activity kept me warm.

As is the case with any off-peak activity, there are some cases to take either side of tradeoff.  Someone who works a non traditional schedule may financially benefit from seeing a cheaper matinee movie.  A red-eye flight may be a more efficient use of time for someone capable of dozing off on an airplane.  And, well liquor could be a good cheaper alternative for someone whose plan for the following day does not necessitate being alert.  During “mud season” in the Rockies, hotels are cheaper and camp sites are far easier to come by.  It is also way easier to find both privacy and seclusion.  To get to a place that is truly peaceful, one must travel less distance, and often spend less time in traffic to get there.  Therefore, for those not looking to mountain bike, climb a tall mountain, or use muddy trails, it may be worth the trade-off to come up to the Rocky Mountains during “mud season”.  And, like the person who is capable of falling asleep on an airplane, or those who work non-traditional schedules, some are more adept at handling the cold nights of “mud season”.

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Like this Siberian Husky, who, if anything, feels at home in chillier conditions, there are off-peak opportunities out there for nearly any activity one engages in.  And, those who figure out the ones that are right for them, can save money, time and hassle.

A Whole Different Kind of Camping

For me, at least, this is a whole different kind of camping than what I am used to.  I am not a very experienced camper.  In the entire course of my life I think I have camped maybe a couple of dozen nights.  All of these nights took place at a campground, typically reserving a site ahead of time.  Last night, I took part in a style of camping that is fairly common in the State of Colorado, but seemed quite strange to me when I first heard of it.

There are no specified campsites or reservations.  There is no park office to check you in, collect a fee, and sell you firewood.  There are no restrooms or showers, and there are certainly no vending machines.  This type of camping simply involves finding a spot in the forest to lay down tents.  It is so basic, and so obvious.  Just go and camp.  Yet, in the context of the modern world that we live in, it sounds so strange.

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In fact, I did not even know how to prepare for this trip.  When we all went to the store to get supplies, I was the only idiot grabbing burgers, buns and cheese, as if I was preparing for a barbecue, until I was instructed otherwise by those who have actually camped in such places before.  There are no grills here.  You can only prepare food supported by the equipment that you bring.

We camped high up in the Rocky Mountains, around 60 miles west of Denver, just south of a place called Guanella Pass.  This wilderness region is particularly significant, as trailheads leading to the top of two major mountains, Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans, can be found throughout the area.  So, although there is no specific campsite, it is still a common place to camp, as many heading up one or both of these mountains set up camp in the area.

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We set up camp in the area along Geneva Creek, where a significant number of campfire setups like this one are left behind by previous campers.  So, while I can count this among the most remote places I have spent an evening, I realized that there are places that are even more rustic, more primitive, and farther “away from it all” than here.

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We did not intend to climb a major mountain, nor did we have the time to do so.  This trip was actually planned last minute by people more knowledgeable than me about such things.  We ended up hiking a more moderate, and shorter trail called the Burning Bear Trail, which follows a creek by the same name.

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The trail starts off pretty flat, and looking more like a dirt trail than a typical hiking trail.

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As the trail picked up, I saw a significant amount of chopped down tree branches, many of which were chopped down in some sort of regular pattern.  In one section, the tree branches appeared to have been arranged to form some sort of tepee.  I took a gander inside, but it did not feel too useful.  Also pictured above is the columbine, which is Colorado’s State Flower.

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While there were no major waterfalls, there were a lot of small waterfalls along the trail, and plenty of places where my dog could cool off in the creek.

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After hiking roughly 2.5 miles, and climbing probably about 900 feet, we reached some kind of old cabin, which made for a good stopping point, where we could turn around and get back to the campground with plenty of time to prepare fire and dinner and such.

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Returning to the trailhead around 6:15 P.M., we encountered what I thought was the most amazing view of the entire wilderness area of the day.  By that hour, the sun had reached a lower angle, accentuating the mountain’s higher peaks.

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In some ways camping that evening was similar to a typical camping experience.  We cooked some food, set up a campfire, told some ridiculous stories, and went to bed around 11.  There was marshmallow roasting, and people throwing all kinds of random items into the fire to see how they would interact with the heat and flames.  Mosquitoes came out in gradually greater and greater numbers as the evening progressed, and went away around sundown.

However, in some other ways it was different.  As previously mentioned, we were not grilling.  Instead, we were cooking food on small stoves.  Although we did use some previously purchased bundles of firewood, we also used a significant amount of firewood that we gathered from random tree branches.  In fact, we even tried to lite branches that were retrieved from the creek.  They turned out to be a bit too wet.

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There were a couple of other firsts for me on this journey.  Aside from being my first time camping at a place other than a designated campsite, it was my first time camping with a dog.  This presented some other challenges, but, my dog definitely seemed to enjoy it.  Also, at an elevation close to 10,000 feet, it was by far the highest elevation I had ever camped at.

In the end, one of my favorite parts of the evening was when I arrived back at the campsite at roughly 6:30, went back to the tent, and threw all of my stuff down, including my wallet, phone, and keys.  I had previously not thought about this, but these three things represent the basic necessities of our connected 21st century world.  Most days when I wake up, I reflexively pack those three things into my pants pockets.  Even when I am going for a bike ride, I have them in my camelback.  In a way, setting these three items aside is symbolic of having truly escaped to somewhere different.  It is truly having left everything behind and actually haven taken a break from whatever your day-to-day life typically entails, including it’s stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Once those three items are put away, the here and now is all that needs to be considered, and there is something inherently amazing about that, which I had previously failed to appreciate.