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Moab: Weird and Wonderful 27 February 2010

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I apologize for the delay. Life intervened. Now, on to Moab.

The sun has finally dipped below the horizon on the high desert, washing violet over the white sheet and I lament that I won’t see much of the drive into Moab. Nighttime highways tend to look the same more or less anywhere. An Escalade passes me. The road bends. And there below, I see the lights of Moab stretching down the valley, bringing one of the strangest sensations common to the west: that feeling of looking down from a plane while still on the ground. In the distance, tiny street lamps glow and and brake lights wink in and out of existence. To see them from above is always a bit disconcerting.

Pulling into the nondescript strip of motels and breakfast spots, I realize that I’ve expected too much and that no city so well known as a travel destination can escape the onslaught of Econo Lodges and authentic gift shops. I bet they sell coffee mugs with that southwestern dude playing the whateveritis. The, um, kokopelli.

My hostel sits behind a long term storage building and I think backs up to a trailer park whose children get free use of the common room’s TV on Saturday mornings. This is the tao of the American hostel, I gather, and is probably unremarkable in a poor southwestern town, even if the town does see hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But it is still so poor, like so many of the placed Michael and I passed in New Mexico. Behind the glitz of the main street Moab lies another a world of rusting Fords and improbably-erect houses. Americans still live with dirt lawns and corrugated roofs, and they do so out back of the Ramada and the Burger King.

I’m once again tripping over the heartbreak of rural America, though, and it strikes me that given the number of times that same theme has popped up, I might well need to retroactively create a “heartbreak of rural America” tag for these entries.

Anyway.

The Lazy Lizard International Hostel appears to cater to two types: visitors like me looking to stay the night in Moab for less than the cost of an entree at Applebee’s, and locals living and working on wages that make $270 a month for a bunk bed an attractive option. Better than vagrancy, I suppose.

My common room companions, the lisping Ken Thorton and a Danish couple spend the evening discussing spirituality, the inevitability of suffering, and Mr. Thorton’s experiences as a budding New Age cinematographer. (You can view “Heyoka Shaman” Thornton’s work here. To see him shake a maraca for a while, skip to 1:15. To see him in a bath tub, skip ahead to 2:30.) After 23 vision quests, a ceremonial dance with the Hopi people and a brief interlude as the companion of a Buddhist aficionado, Mr. Thornton has become a spiritual conduit of sorts, speaking of clairvoyants and his ability to suck the negative energy from strangers.

But his philosophy drives me bonkers. How can he mesh Buddhism with tribal spiritualism? How does his system determine right and wrong? How does it account for the existence of other competing (and contradictory) beliefs? I don’t know, and I suspect Heyoka Shaman Thornton doesn’t either.

The next morning, I leave for Canyonlands. And after another night in the hostel, I head to Arches. Together these comprise all that is weird and wonderful about Moab. The rest… it is there, supported by the rocks which have aged in curious ways, and which, when the light hits them just right, radiate.

Back at the hostel, I slip past the neighbor kids on the way out to my car.

“Dude, come here!” one of the yells at his friend on the couch. “This cat is bleeding out its head!”

“No way!”

“Yeah, come here and check it out. This is pretty bad.”

“Duude! It’s bleeding out its ear. We should tell the guy.”

They go to find the unenthused 19 year-old who occasionally staffs the front desk.

“That cat outside is bleeding out its head. ”

Nothing.

“Hey, the bus is coming! We can go into town!”

“Yeah, let’s go! Bye, dude.”

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Postponement 22 February 2010

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By Keystone standards, it has been dumping for the last several days, dropping almost two feet of snow in the last week or so. Maybe I exaggerate but after the parching winter so far, snow these few days straight comes as a welcome relief. We’d begun to think — Summit County locals, that is — that Ullr had given up on us. He’d packed his Scandinavian bags for points south, and Tahoe, although in reality everyone understood that an El Nino winter would swing storm systems down to the San Juans instead of across the I-70 resorts. We’d all been charge 90 + dollars for the same experience any Midwestern resort goer purchases, with the addition of the mountain scenery of course; the next closest soybean field looks nothing like the Gore Range.S

That said, it’s too easy to knock skiing elsewhere when talking about the Mountain West, but the sport ultimately rests on making the way to the bottom of the hill enjoyably, an act possible at even the lamest ski bump out East. Hidden valley thrills Carhart-wearers in the same way that I’d imagine Jackson Hole sets stomachs a-roil in even the more advanced, Orage-sporting crowd.

And no matter what you’re wearing, fresh snow makes it better. Here’s hoping that storm dumps more and more, so that both I-70 and Vail Pass close. Time for the real stuff.

No posts of interest 20 February 2010

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I’ve been downright irresponsible lately, what with not posting anything interesting and all. In part, that’s because I’ve been skiing — the most worthwhile excuse for a blog like this, I think — but also because I’ve been lazy, slacking from the chore of developing compelling reading. So I hope you’ll forgive me for the lapse while I work on getting back the gumption to write; I promise an entry of interest on Moab by Sunday. For the time being, I give you the following, exciting news:

WINTER STORM WATCH/WARNING FOR SUMMIT/EAGLE COUNTIES. UP TO A FOOT AND A HALF OF SNOW IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS.

Finally, winter.

The Road to Moab 16 February 2010

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Beware, narrative follows.

Friday morning: my room is a disaster, clothes strewn across the floor, wallet still in my pants, my shoes are peering at me from outside the doorway. And Goudey is gone. It had been his last night in town, and we had celebrated… well, let’s be honest, too much. But. Friday. I’ve planned on heading Utah to make the most of my three-day weekend, so naturally, I eat breakfast, consider my headache for a while and then head back to bed for two hours to strengthen my resolve.

At two o’clock, then, I hit the road and pass all the I-70 ski resorts on my way toward the Beehive State for a trip that as it strikes me now put me on roads farther west than I’d ever before been. And just to be clear, flying to California doesn’t count as “going west,” first because California isn’t really the West with a big W and second because flying eliminates one of travel’s best aspects: the landscape that evolves out the window. Destination-minded coastal people (of both Eastern and Western persuasions) toss that idea with the dismissive “flyover states.” Excepting Chicago, which occasionally does something noteworthy enough to reach New York.

So at any rate, I pass Vail and Avon, set my cruise control for 76 and begin passing signs for towns with geologically indicative names: Glenwood Springs, Basalt, El Jebel, Silt… Rifle? It is an interstate drive that defies comparison; nothing I’ve seen in the whole of Eisenhower’s grand highway system matches the raw beauty of I-70 west of Denver. Leaving the High Rockies, its path follows the meandering Colorado River staying true even into the narrow gash of Glenwood Canyon, the roadways winding nearly atop one another as they dart in and out of tunnels and around 1000 ft sandstone walls.  But maybe I shouldn’t be awed. This is the West after all.

The land sprawls into the sunset past Grand Junction, a boom town buoyed by the Western Slope’s mineral and gas riches. Around here, new wells and houses appear at roughly the same rate, spurring concerns that when the trucks and trains cart away all the wealth, Grand Junction’s reason for existence will have disappeared as well . The future may promise oil shale extraction — flammable ooze from rocks, essentially — that would dump millions more into the economy if anyone ever discovers a profitable process, or if gas prices return to their 2008 highs. But for now, what money flowing in seems at least sufficient to support the outward creep of Tyvek home wrap, vinyl siding and casual dining establishments.

Thankfully, the highway continues west, unfurling across a white sheet, that featureless expanse of the high desert. Moab lies out there.

***

Everything I’d written following my return from work just disappeared in the save process meaning this entry will end here at Grand Junction because I feel the need to publish anything at this point, but Moab will follow. For the time being, I hope you can content yourselves with some photos. Arches National Park will follow when I get up the gumption to retype my thoughts.

Canyonlands National Park

So you wanna be a ski bum? 11 February 2010

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Browsing the forums at epicski.com the other day, I ran across a young soul from Midwest looking to spend a year ski-bumming between high school and college. That year in the mountains he assured the the forum crowds would not temper his ambitions for college and would not lead him down the path of alcohol and drugs (loose women of course do not exist as a temptation out here because women barely exist at all). My response follows, and although it’s focused on the opportunity to ski-bum right out of high school, the principles involved remain the same. Our peer groups help determine our trajectories in life.

Euripides,

As someone who’s currently ski-bumming or ski-semi-professionaling or whatever it is I’m doing, I’d tell you to perhaps wait it out. Grad school can wait in ways that a college degree cannot — mostly because a satisfying life doesn’t require post-graduate education. Should you find yourself enamored of the ski lifestyle after four years of college, you can sleep more easily knowing that you have x major and y GPA to place on your resume when you look to hop out of it. But if like so many folks you find that your several months prior to college have extended into more than a year, you’ll find it more difficult to get back into the game. Best to fall behind later rather than sooner. 

If it’s all helpful, then, I’m 23 now, recently degreed from an East Coast liberal arts school after growing up in the Midwest, and have no earthly idea what exactly idea what I want to do with the next ten years of my life. I do know, however, that selling ski vacations isn’t it. And at the same time, I know that I love the more immediate pleasures of chasing the hundred-day year and of ogling awesome gear on Tramdock. Perhaps this strikes you as ideal — and perhaps it is.

But I caution you that ski bumming will change your worldview. The friends who surround you make your decisions regarding college, alcohol and drugs easier and more acceptable, I’d imagine. They support you and your values and shape your expectations. Leaving college, I also left my own support group of friends secure in their positions as management consultants and political analysts. These people had pushed me to excel, leaving me with the certainty that only a high score on the LSAT and an acceptance letter to a top-14 law school could lead to a fulfilling life. And just days into arriving in Summit County, I realized that, no, studying for the LSAT would not play a part in my winter plans. I had left my (obviously pretentious but still wonderful) group of friends for another set of folks with just as much passion an energy… for everything but career ambition and advancement. 

I’m not saying, Euripides, that you will lose sight of your intended future — in fact, I’d guess that a year in the mountains will bring it into better focus — but rather that the people who come into your life will force you to reevaluate your priorities. We are social creatures after all and we play to the expectations of our peers. Right now the college path might seem like the most natural in the world, but when you find yourself surrounded by other intelligent people whom you respect and yet who have, oddly enough, made life decisions antithetical to those you would have made yourself just months ago, you begin to wonder if those plans you’d felt so certain about still make just as much sense as they once did. Get the degree first. Then, when yo can turn down career-track offers, do the ski bum thing. Best to keep your options open.

Ski Resort Living 8 February 2010

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More than once after it became clear I’d be heading Colorado my friends wondered if I’d come home for Christmas or MLK weekend. Or ever. “No,” I told them. “The nature of the job means that I don’t really get to take time off. But I am living in a vacation destination after all–maybe you should come visit me.” And thus far, they’ve fulfilled that end of the bargain. College buddies Weeks, Bell and Cottrell came out this weekend for a quick romp in the snows of Keystone, Breckenridge and Vail, and for the most part they spent their time alternately gaping at the scenery and greeting it head-first: too many faceplants in the powder, I guess. Former roommate Brett will arrive in March for more of the same.

But at the other end of the bargain is a life perpetually confined to this resort world of rental properties and Christmas lights that have yet to come down. I’m beginning to think nothing will dislodge them save a sudden onset of of Mardi Gras cheer, and even then this will remain a place of transients, faces seen once at a bar or on the lift. It’s about this time of year, too, that the niggling differences between this and real life begin to pop up. Just one of the twenty-somethings that staff the reservations call center lacks a college degree; a couple more have completed post-graduate education. And everywhere else the sons and daughters of what are predominately well-to-do families are spending these first 12 or 18 months of their degreed lives removing snow and picking up trash, generally for fewer than $10 an hour.  The economist in me sees an enormous, probably outsized, value placed on the snow which hasn’t exactly arrived in abundance this season. Why else turn down a secure office job to scrape ice off the stairs at 7:45 this morning? What’s the marginal value of those powder days? Tens of thousands of dollars, evidently.

But when you’re here on vacation you miss that; the trip hinges on the snow and the bars and just how quickly and painlessly you can check into your room. Who attends to those matters doesn’t, well, matter. That’s not a plea for recognition but rather an attempt to highlight the key difference between the ski resort and any other player in the service industry. At the moment I can think of no other sport that sustains an entire population on the promise of another day of play. No one sacrifices for golf. Surfing maybe. Has anyone chanced a job offer to spend another day on the racquetball court?

No.

Perhaps the ski industry takes advantage of us. We don’t receive holiday pay. We don’t get vacation. Sometimes we work six day weeks. But in the end, we ski. And every year, that promise draws thousands of folks like us to resorts around the country. So, Ullr, please send snow. We’re paying for it.

No Thursday Post 5 February 2010

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My college friends have arrived, so no Thursday post. Instead we spent our time reminiscing and wondering about the status of our fraternity. Take from that what you will, but most importantly it means that today’s post will take a few days longer to materialize. No promises for tomorrow and Saturday might not include anything either, so at best I can say that at some point I will write something worth reading.

In the meantime, I leave you with these questions: What ought government do? Should we oppose government in principle or should we weigh each goal against the market’s ability to better achieve it? I’ve read several items recently (here and here) that point to the absurdity of inchoate fears about any government action. Perhaps it’s better, then, to approach intervention in the markets from a utilitarian perspective. Perhaps government can better coordinate some efforts. Perhaps bureaucrats can effectively manage new programs. Maybe, but Medicare will still run out of money before our generation receives any of the benefits. Every small government type need recognize that no amount of federal waste reduction will make up for the simple scaling back of entitlement programs. But who wants to tell Grandma that Medicare, um… doesn’t care?

Vacation, Wolf Creek 2 February 2010

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Erm… so I’ve been bad about the whole Sunday/Thursday posting thing, this time because after trivia I left my laptop in the car ten minutes from the apartment and wasn’t about to jump on the bus just for a blog post. But everything’s back together now, so I can can finally sit down to work on the entry about Wolf Creek. If you’d been expecting an ecstatic outpouring of love for that ski area, I apologise — it rates as merely very good, probably better with a the fair bit of snow it usually receives.

Mostly, though, it’s the San Juans that impress because the differ so markedly from the mountains up here in Summit County. That’s not just geology babbly (although that counts for something). The beetle kill hasn’t reached the area and red rock cliff bands under the snow look like something out of 3:10 to Yuma. And you’ve seen that move, right? The surrounding towns look more or less stuck in that era. Plus there’s a Dairy Queen! At any rate, they generate an atmosphere a thousand times removed from Summit County’s glitz and corporate varnish. Breck cherishes its status as a “real” mountain town, but it’s places like Alamosa, Saguache and Monte Vista that capture what rural America has become. They are a story of dilapidation, stultification. A slow, inevitable slide toward obsolescence.

And in the middle of all that cheer, or, really, 2000 feet above it, lies Wolf Creek, so before I get too involved in any more depression about small town Colorado, I’ll stop for some pictures. Wolf Creek is worth the visit, especially on one of several days each year when it receives multiple feet of powder. Right then, on days like that, I imagine few resorts in Colorado offer better skiing. The mostly unmaintained terrain allows skiers to make their own runs through the trees creating that feeling of discovery impossible at a place like Breck. Check out the fun.