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It’s Denver… with Rain! 1 November 2011

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Seattle, that is. C– and I journeyed northwest a week ago to explore the only other American city in which we’d consider living (Leadville notwithstanding). Despite what Seattleites will tell you, it’s just as rainy and gray as you’d expect, but somehow no one seems to mind. We sure didn’t. But maybe that’s because we’re from Denver where the slightest hint of moisture in the air sends folks into a frenzy of sorts. We press against the windows watching rain fall as if it were Manna. Suffice it to say, Denver types have a preoccupation with water, and seeing so much of it in one place is a little surreal. Seattleites, on the other hand, attach fenders to their road bikes and set out on rides oblivious to the drizzle. That’s crazy.

The water issue aside, the two places seemed in our limited experience, fairly similar. Yelp and, improbably, Yahoo! Answers seem to agree on that point. Both cities offer a liveable, walkable downtown that extend beyond just the city core into the surrounding neighborhoods, leading me to believe that my upbringing in the suburbs of St. Louis cultivated an irrational fear of urban places. Apparently, in other major cities, taking a stroll downtown won’t get you shot. This is happy news. I’d continue at length about the great migration of twenty-somethings to urban neighborhoods, but that’d be a dreadful bore, so how about the coast?

Seattle sits on the edge of Puget Sound, a body of water which probably holds more liquid than every Colorado puddle combined, but you’ll have to drive a couple hours to reach the true shore. It’s a worthwhile trip if you’re visiting, particularly since involves a ferry journey across the sound. But once you’re out of Seattle, the Washington countryside begins, green as anything you’ve ever seen. There’s an actual rainforest up there, the Hoh, I think. Fog rolls off the mountains; wood smoke fills the air. Is that a bald eagle across the lake?

And then you arrive in Forks. The town has achieved a kind of notoriety (or fame, depending upon your perspective) as the setting for the Twilight series. This has evidently made an otherwise bleak and miserable little city on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula a hot spot for a certain sort of tourist, and if you can imagine imagine Bella and Edward doing anything, you’ll find that there’s tour for that in Forks. We even ran across Twilight firewood. You guess is as good as mine. Too bad the whole thing was filmed in British Columbia, but at least you’ll find a good latte at the grocery’s coffee shop.

Forks leads to the shore,and if you’ve never wandered across a deserted coastline in the Pacific Northwest, then you’ve yet to experience one of life’s great joys. This is America as it was before anyone knew it by that name. The cedars and the Douglas firs run right up to the beach and extend impenetrably back to Mount Olympus. The fog hangs everywhere, a gauze holding back the rest of the world. Only the evolving dunes of the Outer Banks can approach the vast desolation of that landscape. There is nothing to the ocean except wave upon wave upon wave.

Coming to Colorado, I’d wondered whether the mountains ever grew old, whether they became background noise. I can report that they haven’t, but standing there along the shore, I wondered if the ocean, too, could lose its appeal. It can’t. You come to Seattle for the water.

Five Ways to Become a Better Skier 13 January 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing.
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When I first started thinking about this topic, I figured everyone on earth had already done it. But no. Google, sole arbiter of  popularity for all things, indicates that not many folks are writing about how you can become a better skier. For shame, rest of the internet, for shame. I’m not a ski instructor, but I do have a blog, and I ski a lot, so I’ll try to help. Read-on, middling skier, and discover how you can break from mediocrity–and have more fun on the mountain.

1. Ski with Better Skiers

You’ll never improve if you avoid pushing yourself. And without other, better folks around to prod you a little bit, I doubt you’ll find much motivation to get better. After all, when you’re beating all your friends down the hill on the blues, why tackle the blacks when no one will follow you? If you’re already a blue skier, find a few other friends—the guys you know who spend the weekend hitting the moguls or searching for face shots—and catch a ride up with them.

Chances are, they won’t mind your tagging along and taking a little more time to get down the hill, unless it’s a powder day, in which case, you’ll be told to meet them later on at the bar. But on an average weekend, heading out with folks who look just a little better on the slopes will show you what’s possible, and you’ll likely get a few pointers, too. If you’ve always been first down the mountain, now you’ll play catch up, and you’ll find that the new challenges helps re-focus your effort. When you go back to skiing with your other buddies after a few weeks, you’ll notice just how much simpler the old slopes have become.

One note, though: when choosing a new ski group, look for folks skiing a level above you. So if you’re comfortable on greens, find guys (and gals) who like blues, but not blacks. Or if you like the blues already, shoot for a group that does diamonds on occasion but doesn’t venture into double-diamond EX terrain or other foolishness. Know your limits. When the divide grows too large, both sides end up frustrated and neither gets much out of the relationship. So don’t be afraid to ask where your friends like to ski; they don’t want to be slowed down anymore than you want to get in over your head.

2. Take a lesson

Okay. Maybe that seems obvious to you. But I hope it doesn’t. I hope you the $100-plus price tag (plus tip, of course) has always made you think twice about listening to some other dude tell you how poorly you ski. I promise you it’s worth it, however. Ten times over I promise you, because whenever you ask your friends, they’ll lie. Your friends simply cannot objectively assess your skiing in the way an instructor can, so take the time to spend a day with a group of six or eight, and figure out what it is that’s keeping you from tackling more challenging terrain. Maybe it’s fear. The fundamentals are there, but you don’t realize it. Maybe you’re like that guy who points his entire body in the direction he intends to do. Whatever the cause, an instructor can help you identify it, and you’ll become a better skier for it. I know I did, and I was skiing nearly every day last year. And yes, you’ll certainly wait around a little, wasting time you could be skiing, but good instruction will compensate you for that downtime.

Another note: if your significant other can offer ski-school quality instruction, don’t take it. Don’t ever take it. Using a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse as instructor inevitably ends in a ruined day. “He’ll teach me,” you think, imagining  a white knight saving you from each fall and acting as your shield against the careening masses. In reality, he’ll be yelling, “Turn! No! I mean now! Like this! No! ” And you will hate him forever. No amount of beer bought at the end of the day will quench your thirst for retribution.

3. Try a few more difficult runs each time you ski

Falling doesn’t suck. In fact, it demonstrates that you’re challenging yourself, and it gives the folks on the lift a good laugh. But don’t think about that. Remember the first time you skied the bunny slope, the terror you felt at how steep it was? And then you realized that falling didn’t hurt nearly as much as you thought it would. The same holds true now that you’re skiing blues and easy blacks. The same principals apply no matter the terrain; you just need to move up incrementally, so make sure that you’re skiing slightly outside your ability on a few runs each day. Not out of control, mind you, just a little outside your perceived ability. Eventually, you’ll feel your comfort growing on that terrain, and don’t let your falls deter you. Everything seemed steep at one point, and as your comfort level grows, you’ll return to the same blues you used to ski and wonder, “How did I ever consider this scary?” It’s a good feeling.

4. Get fit

This one ought to seem obvious, too, but skiing takes a lot of effort. If you’re carrying around too little muscle and too much fat, you’re going to find skiing a difficult endeavor. Sure, plenty of husky guys shred day in and day out, but are you one of them? If not, you’ll need to assess your overall fitness level. Jumping on a bike now and then or taking on a weightlifting regimen will pay off on the mountain. When you wear out, you get sloppy, and if you love skiing and can only make it up on the weekends, getting sloppy after five runs can’t be a good use of your time. Yes, better technique will give you greater efficiency—less effort on any given run—but when you’re not longer exerting yourself because of poor form, you can use energy to go faster, tackle moguls more ambitiously, or to try more ambitious powder runs. You can use all the energy you have, so figure out the right cardiovascular activity that helps build your stamina for the slopes—whether that’s more skiing, biking, jogging or Zoomba-ing doesn’t matter. When you get up on the hill, you want to be ready, not afraid that you’ll head for the lodge at noon.

5. Invest in good equipment

No matter what you might think, it’s not all about you. Yes, in any given situation on the mountain, it’s probably about you, but if you’re still hanging out in the rear-entry boots (see the photo at the top of this post) you found at a garage sale, then you need to consider investing in something a little better. Boots that fit poorly and skis your grandmother gave you won’t allow to take proper advantage of the mountain. Maybe that’s stretching it a bit, though. Anyone who touts any skis other than the Volkl Mantra as “all-mountain” is probably lying, and you’d do well to explore the other options available. With skis too narrow, you’ll find it more difficult than necessary to float through powder. With skis too short, you’ll chatter at high speeds. And with skis too stiff, you’ll see that moguls will exact a mighty penance.

Think about that, and then consider that boots, too, will play an outsized role in your performance on the mountain. Performance always comes as a trade against comfort, and if your feet and calves are sloshing around in your boots, chance are, your skis don’t feel very responsive either. If you ski more than 10 or 15 days in a year, then you owe it to yourself to visit a proper ski shop to get a set-up that fits your needs and wants.

 

Hiking a 14er 7 September 2010

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Moving to a new state is typically an easy affair, a matter of finding a place to live, signing the appropriate tax documents and figuring out where to buy full-strength beer. Not so for would-be Coloradans. Not only must they uncover the sinister deception that is 3.2% grocery-store beer, but a forming a covenant with the state also entails certain obligations beyond the immediately evident.   The list runs long, so I’ll provide some essential samples: you must make plans to buy a Subaru, you must make conversation the moment you notice a meteorological event involving water (e.g. “Say, it’s awfully humid!” or “Is that… rain?”), and you must climb a fourteener.

The first two don’t take much effort, but the third, well, that already assumes an understanding of the task. Not a sure thing. I mean, what’s a fourteener? Some kind of gun? One of 14 peaks discovered by a roving band of vigilantes? I wish. In reality, though, a fourteener is any of the 53 peaks in Colorado rising higher than 14,000 feet. Some of them only nose into the designation by a couple feet; some slip through as a technicality, another bump connected to a taller lump; but the tallest of them scrape the sky, reaching heights above all but a handful of mountains in the lower 48. No other state but Alaska–and it never counts in these sorts of contests–can lay claim to so much acreage north of the 14,000-foot mark.

So, as you might imagine, 14ers hold a special place in Coloradans’ hearts. Too special a place. Any Monday at a Colorado workplace, I gather, involves a discussion of the climbs attempted and completed. Commiseration follows the failures. We have all been turned back at one point or another. But rarely does the conversation turn to hike without at summit at its beginning, middle or end. What’s the point? No sense of achievement, evidently. Climbing above the vaunted 14,000-foot barrier takes sterner stuff than a pair of legs and a backpack. It takes… willpower?

I don’t know.

My own experience with Missouri Mountain the other day was a pleasant one: several miles of hiking, most of them above treeline, and a view from the summit that peered across a vast portion of the state. And even our failed attempt climb Huron Peak earlier that morning came to a halt in a basin fit for postcard photography. Call it a failure if you will, but that assumes reaching the summit would count as a success.  With all the information out there on how to climb such mountains, success by that definition seems mostly a matter of time and desire. To summit a 14er is to keep walking, scrambling and climbing where some other folks might have stopped. To be sure, a few hikers die each year attempting one mountain or the other, and some peaks involve significant dangers, but you can read your way around most if not all of them.

It can’t be about the challenge, then. So many other climbs exist to test Coloradans’ skills that the man vs. nature dynamic fails to explains the allure of these mountains. Instead, it must come down to a man vs. man test of dedication, a competition of commitment to stand on top of Very Tall Things. The 14er craze has bred a community, a culture even, that insists on calculating and comparing. It has insisted on and garnered a relevance unrelated to hiking in general. Call it “achievement hiking.” I’ll climb my mountains, you climb yours, and we’ll compare notes; our shared interest in 14ers gives us something to talk about.

But if it’s okay with you, I’ll concede this contest. Climb your mountains and stand within arm’s reach of the heavens, and I’ll explore the backcountry, the barely touched wilds the summiting crowds have ignored. I will take the chance moose or beaver over another beaten ridge-line trail, the chance to see no one at all over the certainty of a summit logbook. When every meter of these wilderness trails has been photographed, and when every possible misstep has been cataloged, then maybe I’ll turn my back on what was once wild. For now, though, you’ll find me there in the lonesome, somewhere below 14,000 feet.

Live Near Mountains 29 June 2010

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Wheeee!

One of the things to like about Denver is its proximity to the mountains. In fact, absent the mountains, this city would have wasted away long ago like another Leadville (which, of course had the mountains and still failed, but whatever). Poor Leadville. It deserved so much more. Denver continues to grow, drawing more and more of the “active lifestyle” crowd that bikes to work and drives Subarus filled with Labrador Retrievers and climbing gear and PBR on weekends.

This, I gather, is how the state’s population maintains its 19.1% obesity rate (cool interactive map if you follow the link), not only the lowest figure in the nation, but the only one to edge in under the 20% mark. Relatively speaking, Coloradans are a thin lot, although this being America and not Malawi, it’s I-eat-bunches-and-work-out-bunches thin, not I-can’t-find-food thin. This is best considered when buying a calorie-free cola for $1.53, about the cost of killing ring worm in an African child. But then again, African children are very far away.

At any rate, I came to Colorado so that I too could burn excess calories for pleasure, flouting all evolutionary expectations in favor of sledding down a snow-packed slope on a Therm-A-Rest on June 27th. Although it’s possible that women desire an expert Therm-A-Rest sledder, in which case I’m still shackled by all that genetic propagation stuff. You are, too, you know. Think about that next time you stand up straighter when an attractive woman wanders into the room. Except, of course, you aren’t quite as cool as the bird of paradise in Planet Earth and Richard Attenborough doesn’t narrate your life.

At any rate, I’d been meaning to talk about the Indian Peaks Wilderness, possibly the closest federally-designated wildness to the Denver area. Struck by a desire to wander around in the woods and stand on top of very tall things, we went there this weekend. So did a homeless man who tied up two hikers at gunpoint and set the Nederland police on red alert. But we missed him. Maybe next time. From the news reports, the offender tied the couple to two trees and wandered away. And evidently he did a bad job it of since the man managed to free himself and run back to town as the assailant did who-knows-what. Total injuries for the event amounted to a couple rope burns and a minor laceration–the fleeing man tripped over a log.

This is why people come to Colorado. Even our criminals would rather wander around in the woods than inflict any real pain. By contrast, folks in Chicago kill each other at a rate that would reel us in from Iraq and Afghanistan right quick. But now that handguns are legal… less death?

So it’s become clear that I don’t really have anything new to say about the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and if you were looking for information about it, I’d try SummitPost.org instead, a much better resource than I’ll ever be. If you noticed, though, I’ve changed the name of this blog to Colorado:Wandered to better reflect the new content. I’ve decided to focus on the things that make Colorado an interesting place to live, with particular relevance to twenty-somethings who enjoy the possibility of moving here. The mountains hold an obvious appeal but there remains more to discuss. My 9-5 job only permits so much leisure, but it’s possible to take in enough to write twice a week.

I’ll try to avoid the humdrum. Check back for novelty.

Photos!

Loveland Pass 22 March 2010

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Nothing much to write as of late and no new snow either, so I’ve instead taken to wandering around in the mountains. Living in the high country affords opportunities to walk outside a bit after work, just another reason I doubt I’ll return to the Midwest. As I’ve pointed out ad nauseum, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy living near St. Louis, but rather that St. Louis lies much too far from most every recreational activity I enjoy.

Click any image for a larger version. It’s worth it–usually.

Not much snow in March. Boo to Ullr.

Two guys who passed me, unfazed by the receding daylight.

Two Fourteeners: Torreys in front. Grays in the back. Real tall.

A-Basin: it's all open... finally.

You've seen a similar shot before.

Skiing Utah: Brighton and Solitude 8 March 2010

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It's everything you'd ever wanted in a mountain.

For the last month or so, we’d intended to swing into Taos for a bit of southwestern skiing and gawking. I’d recalled visiting there, what, more half my life ago, now, and had looked forward to catching whatever it is that makes Taos a known place on the map. Back in 1997 I recall that my dad bought a hat there, and I think a belt. We ate at a restaurant with a poster of the Scoville Scale and the corresponding peppers, then wandered around some kitschy art galleries before retiring to a Comfort Inn and Suites. This is what I remember.

But evidently the skiing at Taos also attracts the winter sports types who enjoy steeps and bumps and hiking and all of that. Until Friday morning, we were in. Taos had gone for days without snow, though, and a peek at the highest points on Breck, which had received similarly little snow, indicated that the conditions in NM would prove downright upsetting. Even the best art galleries and the quaintest cafes wouldn’t offset atrocious snow.

We’d realized this earlier in the week, of course, and had wrung our hands. We thought of Aspen and Telluride, Crested Butte and even Silverton, and then on Friday morning, we saw that the Salt Lake City mountains had received nearly two feet of snow. Done. I cancelled my reservation at the Best Western Kachina Lodge and Meeting Center (Thanks, front-desk Kelly. Sorry, Taos.) and booked a highway hotel in Midvale, UT. We would ski “The Greatest Snow on Earth” if only because the state of Utah has trademarked that phrase.

The name leaves nothing to the imagination.

As it stands, I have skied a vanishingly small portion of the Earth’s snow, and so cannot say whether Utah’s deserves the superlative. I can, however, tell you that it rates as very, very good, based on quantity alone. Coloradans who worship Wolf Creek’s 400+ inches forget that even the lesser-known resorts in Utah receive a scant 500 inches annually. This is A Lot of Snow. Check out Big Cottonwood Canyon’s two gems, Solitude and Brighton: 2550 acres of fresh, light, and untracked powder.

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

The Mountains (Part 1 of…) 15 November 2009

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You’ve read the introduction, so now it becomes a thing of where to begin in earnest. How about the mountains? This is Colorado after all, and Summit County at that, so I’ll start there, where the Rockies’ Front Range rises in front of Denver like a… like a wave about to crash over a sandcastle. Even Denver’s tallest buildings look inconsequential, absurd even, against those mountains.

Arriving from the east coast or the midwest, nothing prepares you for the sight. The idea that “mountains are big” remains filed somewhere with the recesses of the mind, in that same academic way that you might recall that more than a billion people live in China. The immensity of the thing prevents comprehension until it’s Right There. You hit the reset button on your sense of scale. Man is not the measure of all things here in Colorado. The mountains are. They define this place.

But if they’re the definition, it’s almost a sad irony that I’ve so quickly run out of words to describe them. At 13,000 feet on Loveland Pass last weekend, I realized I’d plumbed the depths of my vocabulary. Awesome seemed to fit. But so did “totally rad” and “this is ridiculous” and “I can’t believe we live here” and, well, all of that. Pulchritudinous came to mind, too, but that sounded pedantic. As always, expressing the thought in French gave the same idea just a little more through sheer simplicity. So… “Les montagnes et la neige. Ici, c’est jolie.”

At any rate, I can’t help but linger in bed every morning watching the alpenglow recede from the peaks down the valley from my apartment complex. Between the angle of the sun and quality of the morning air, that golden glow hangs there, honey drizzled on the snowcaps. Maybe that counts for something more than words.