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Switzerland (Or: Why you shouldn’t build your mansion in the mountains) 12 March 2012

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing, Travel.
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So here’s the thing about about Switzerland: sometimes, after too long spent traveling around only your own country, you’ll look at your bank account and say, “Huh, that seems like more than I usually have.” To which your frugal side will respond, “Yes, yes it is, and it’s the product of your hard work and diligence and it’ll pay for your child’s education and a downpayment and a nest egg and, and…” But then Switzerland will slink by with a  vest full of cheeses and Patek Philippes saying, “Betcha I can help you unload all that extra cash in a week.”

And of course, you’ll take Switzerland up on the offer because, well, the Alps.

For the geographically challenged, it’s a country about twice the size of New Jersey sitting pretty in the middle of Europe, between France, Italy, Germany and Austria. For the politically challenged, it’s also, you should note, not part of the EU. Why should that matter to you? Because Switzerland’s not on the Euro, and with the rest of the continent esploding and whatnot, this has made the historically safe Swiss Franc (CHF), a very, very expensive currency.

Expect to pay about $1.10 for every 1.00 CHF. That doesn’t sound bad, except everything in Switzerland costs about twice as much as it does in America to begin with. So plan on 200 CHF/night for a small hotel room, 25CHF/plate at dinner and 5 CHF/beer.

Once you get past the price, though, Switzerland is quite possibly one of the best, and certainly most beautiful, places on Earth. Folks from the Midwest tend to regard mountains as mountains. They’re big. They loom. Goats and people climb them. But spend any amount of time around rocky, pointy places and you’ll realize that not every range was created equal. The Sawatch in Colorado roll up to 14,000′ covered in talus–a fairly boring affair as mountains go. The San Juans offer a bit more relief: solid walls of rock a few thousand feet high, rugged terrain filled with lakes. And then there are the Alps, still dissected by glaciers and soaring 10,000′ above the valley floor where a cluster of chalets huddle together against  rockslides and avalanches.

The tallest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc (which is actually in France/Italy), breaks the 15,000′ barrier, higher than anything in the lower 48. And as its name implies, the glaciers smothering its summit leave it white year-round. No one will ever confuse Colorado for this place, no matter how much Telluride may protest to the contrary.

Anyway, faced with all that, we did what any sensible Coloradan would do: we skied it.

There’s more to that than you might image. Skiing in Europe is an affair unlike anything you’ll encounter in the US. There are no “resorts” in the American sense of the word, only “areas,” which generally seem to be run by their surrounding communities. The difference is this: so long as you’re in between the ropes at an American resort, you probably won’t die in an avalanche. In Switzerland, only the groomers benefit from avy control. And that partly explains why, in the 2009-2010 season, avalanches in Switzerland claimed 29 lives, seven of them in one slide alone. During that same period, 36 people died in all of America, where the population is roughly 40 times that of Switzerland.

I suspect to Europeans, this all contributes to the danger, and allure, of skiing. You might die. You might not. In practice, though, this seems to scare the bejeepers out of most skiers, who appear too timid to tackle evenest the tamest off-piste terrain. Of course, enough of them do that you can kinda sorta tell what’s safe an what isn’t based on their tracks, but for the most part, the day after a storm offers unlimited powder runs, which are exactly what we discovered in Grindelwald. Eight new inches, bluebird skies and the Eiger (which is German for ogre, evidently) keeping a close eye on everyone below.

This was skiing as it was meant to be. The Swiss should know; alpine skiing draws its name from these mountains. Yet the country predates the sport by several hundred years, meaning the ski villages typically appeared well before their lifts. You won’t find condo towers here, or mansions, just chalets perched on the hillside as if they’d grown right out of it, clustered together so a half dozen villages might inhabit a single valley. In some sense, these villages seem as much a part of the mountains as the boulders and the trees.

We could learn from that. It’s hard to overestimate the difference this makes in the overall experience. On the slopes, skiing is skiing and it’s easy to lose track of time and place. But wander the narrow alleys of Zinal as the last hints of alpenglow fade from the peaks and it takes you back a century or more. You pass a barn, an ornate carving on a chalet twice as old as anyone you’ve ever met. This place seems right, in a way that Vail with its Disneyland decorations and too-clean shutters can never match. This is the Swiss ski experience, not reliant upon the snow, which falls now and again in Tahoe-like dumps, but on a unique mixture of mountains, towns and the occasional ski lifts that all seem to draw meaning from one another.

Give America 800 years, and maybe we’ll get there, too. But right now, in our lifetimes, there’s only one place for it: Switzerland.

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There’s Something About Wyoming 29 July 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Travel, Wyoming.
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There’s something about Wyoming, the high peaks, the plains, the desolation. The entire state, which is about the size of Colorado, counts fewer residents than Denver. And that’s the appeal. We arrived there two summers ago for an 11 day trip in which we went five straight days without seeing another human being. 17 trail miles from the nearest road, we plopped down in the Shoshone Valley at an old camp and watched as rain fell, then hail, then snow. We swaddled ourselves in sleeping bags on a frosty August morning, and with hands I could barely feel, I took the photo above.

I suppose in theory, I could find all that in Colorado—maybe in the San Juans—but in practice, I haven’t. Wyoming offers an altogether different experience, at once immediate and ancient. Primeval you might say if you were prone to such language. Along with the Alaskan wilds, and Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains one of the last great untouched stretches of earth in America. There be grizzlies there, and wolves, and entire valleys which function untrammeled by humans.

If that doesn’t lift your spirits; if the existence of a landscape in which humans are irrelevant doesn’t excite you the littlest bit, then, well, stop reading because this is a place to feel small, and insignificant. As I said in a college essay, longer ago now than I care to consider, we find solace in the mountains precisely because the mountains do not care whether we find solace in them at all. Wyoming is a place that does not care about you, or your concerns. Whatever you bring there, whatever you may find there, is your own. Nothing given, nothing taken.

But enough of that. Let’s speak realistically about wolves and bears and high meadows awash in a sea of indian paintbrush and alpine sunflower. The snow lingers well into August. Glaciers inch down valleys, grinding the landscape into submission. We ran into a pack train about a week into our last trip. “Not often we see people out here on foot,”  their leader said. “Stay safe.” They trotted off. And it was in those wilds that we crossed paths with two young grizzlies, racing from one drainage to another over a 12,000′ saddle. The second stopped and gave us a glance at a few hundred yards, then continued on his way, unconcerned about our two-legged intrusion.

We preserve wilderness to preserve these encounters, to keep Wyoming in existence. This Saturday, we’ll drive 450 miles over 7 hours to walk 50 miles over 5 days. In pursuing speed, our culture has lost a sense of scale and an ability to appreciate just how grand and expansive this American landscape really is. How far can you walk in a day? How far can you bike? Drive? Fly?

But those are the sorts of questions you ask in Colorado, where you can climb a 14er and return home that afternoon. Come to Wyoming and forget you were concerned about that sort of thing. Put one foot in front of the other. Walk, and in so doing, experience everything.

Pictures of Mountains 4 July 2011

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What was next on the schedule? Bike to Work Day?

This is why I don’t make schedules. Mountains intervened. Mountains often intervene.

So here’s Mount Silverthorne, or really, the “Thorne,” right about Salmon Lake in Colorado’s Gore Range. You should visit it if you can find it, but I’m not inclined to let you in on all the secrets of Colorado’s gems. You can find them on your own without too much legwork, so if you want to avoid the crowds that descend on the Front Range or the Sawatch. You’ll have to look a little harder.

But you’ll find places like this one:

 

Review: Great Sand Dunes National Park 26 June 2011

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And you thought they only existed in the Sahara, or off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But no, the highest dunes in North America rise in the middle of Colorado, hundreds of miles from the nearest desert and thousands from the nearest seashore. Luckily, though, they’re close enough to Denver to visit in a weekend. But when you find yourself at a loss for things to see and do there after the first few hours—a distinct possibility—the Sangre de Cristos rise to more than 14,000 feet behind the dunes, offering another and altogether different diversion.

If the existence of such a place, right here in Middle America no less, strikes you as a little strange, it ought to. In fact, most everything about Colorado should strike you as a little strange and a little wonderful. And of course, it’s no wonder that with attractions like the dunes and the 14ers and the road biking and skiing and hiking and, well, all of that, that people from out of state imagine we barely get any work done at all. I’ve had the good fortune to find myself here, writing about some of it, but it’s only been a sliver, really. There is so much more to Colorado, and to being a Coloradan.

Sorry for the detour.

At any rate, the dunes raise one question: how did they form?

The answer requires less science than you might think: it’s all about water. Despite their appearance as a dry, barren and otherworldly place, the dunes rely on an expansive aquifer, and two streams. Simple as that. Well, maybe not quite that simple. Not just any place with water can form dunes after all. Colorado’s massive piles of sand lie atop an unusual aquifer where the water table rises so high that it peaks above the surface forming marshes in an otherwise hostile climate.

Various geologic barriers prevent that aquifer from leaking into the surrounding area, so when streams carrying water from the mountains empty into the area, they remain on the surface well into the dry landscape before drying out. The streams essentially float on top of the high water table. Elsewhere along the range, streams that form in the mountains disappear into the ground just a few hundred feet into the parched San Luis Valley. But around the sand dunes, Sand and Medano Creeks flow freely, running right through the sand until they dry out well in the valley.

And that’s the key thing. When the wind picks up grains of sand anywhere else around Colorado, they fall at random. When the winds blow the sand into either of these creeks, though, the flow carries the grains back down to where they dry out. Then the wind blows again, across all those grains sending them back toward the creeks. Eventually, enough sand comes from elsewhere that it begins to pile up. Voila: dunes.

If the water table were even a few feet lower, the two creeks at the heart of this system would dry up sooner, and the sand cycle they promote would diminish or even disappear. Concern for that very scenario led Congress to designate the dunes and the surrounding lands over the aquifer a national park in 2004. Thus protected from other interests, the dunes to persist for as long as the water flows from the mountains.

I suppose that explanation went a little long, but really, it’s at the heart of the spectacle. Certainly the dunes rise high and look pretty, but to leave them still wondering “How?” or “Why here?” leaves it feeling hollow.

And of course, the dunes aren’t all science. The area has hosted humans for the the last 11,000 years, which is longer than you might think in North America, given that no one’s entirely convinced of a date when people showed up on this continent. Reading a book about that debate in college, it occurred to me that, actually, no one cares about Clovis man. The only name that you’ll remember out of the long history of peoples and tribes who followed is probably Zebulon Pike’s, of Pike’s Peak fame. In 1807 after seriously screwing up a mission to find the Arkansas River, he ran into the sand dunes instead, and, in an act that demonstrates that everyone’s a tourist, climbed to the top of the things.

You can, too. The entry fee’s $3/person, unless you’re too young or too old to enjoy it that much—in which case you’ll pay less. You can camp for $25/night, too, in semi-shaded campgrounds that overlook the dunes. They’re all right, but between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you’ll likely share the campground with everyone on earth, and their screaming kids/generators/whathaveyou. Camping’s free if you hike a ways into the mountains. As for more luxurious accommodations, I don’t think they exist.

A few other notes:

  • Be prepared to find sand in everything you own for the rest of your life, even in things that didn’t go to the dunes
  • Don’t wear shoes on the dunes. The first several hundred feet getting to them kinda sucks, but on the other hand, it’s better than hating life because your shoes have filled with sand.
  • Bring long pants/sleeves. If you don’t, you’ll find out sandblasting works, first hand.
  • Don’t plan on spending more than a day at the dunes. Once you’ve played in the creek and climbed to the top of High Dune, you’ve exhausted the opportunities. You could always hike Blanca or Little Bear, though.

Taos: Reviewed, Sort Of 8 June 2011

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If you enjoy tourist tchotkes, turquoise jewelry, and jokes about whites’ conquest of the West, visit Taos. For a better experience, skip the city altogether and visit Taos Ski Valley, just up the road, or the surrounding countryside, a moonscape of sage and volcanic hills straight out of 3:10 to Yuma.

To east rises the southern extension of the Sangre de Christos, verdant against against the dusty plain. North of the Colorado border, they scrape above 14,000′, here topping out at 13,161′ on Wheeler Peak. And to the west, well, that’s the west you see in movies. It’s brush and scrub, so dry your eyes will water and your skin will crack. It’s a place that makes Denver feel humid.

The Bureau of Land Management, who runs these parts, will remind you that it was not always so. That landscape of sage once included grassy plains as well, but as humans and their cattle moved in, the grass disappeared into hungry mouths and the sage spread. We’re altering the landscape still with grazing, road-building and extractive industries; the result is what you’d imagine: wild dust storms which strip tons (literally) of newly-freed topsoil and deposit it on Colorado snow pack.

The city itself remains a more permanent fixture; by some accounts, it has persisted for more than a millennium, making it the oldest continuously-inhabited place in America. If you’re into superlatives anyway. The pueblo began as a settlement for the roving Anasazi peoples, who may have moved from the Four Corners region to the Rio Grande Valley in search a of more consistent source of water. Today, the Taos Pueblo roots the town itself and still holds out as a dwelling for a permanent population of 150.

White folks discovered the area in 1615, dispatching with most of the native population and naming the town Fernandez de Taos. Armed resistance from the Pueblo peoples continue until 1696, when the Spanish Reconquest (not to be confused with the Reconquista) put the kibosh on all that. The John Wayne-style stuff stuck around longer with folks running all over the place fighting Comanches, and the citizens even staged a revolt after learning they’d been taken over by America in 1847. The newly-appointed governor, Charles Bent, met his untimely demise on the streets of Taos during that revolt—well before he’d received the chance to do much actual governing.

Taos’s reputation as a haven for artists emerging at the beginning of the 20th century. You can read about that part here, then ignore all of it, except maybe RC Gorman, who might appear in bar trivia at some point, and visit the hot springs instead.

From the city, head north to the light at Highway 64, then hang a left. A couple miles away on your right is Tune Rd. Follow that to its dirt parking lot terminus and pull out your swimsuit, backpack and beverages. The hike down is short, only about 400′ of vertical. At the bottom of the gorge lie two pools, one bathtub temperature, the other offering something closer to real “hot” spring heat. You’ll also find the remains of structures designed to corral the water, which has since chosen its own path. Across the way, an old stage road descends precipitously from the canyon rim. If you see “Harvey” whose name appears in chalk everywhere around the springs, sucker punch him for me, please. Thanks.

If you’re of a less adventurous mindset and public nudity gives you the willies, you might prefer the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, which features more folks from the elderly and Indian set, all of whom will be carrying cameras. It’s not the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands or anything approaching that category of beauty, but why not? You’ve already spent too much time in Taos, so it’s worth the trip just for a change of scenery.

I’m told that if you return to Taos, you’ll find an old pueblo there, dating back some thousand years or so. The Best Western on the drive in advertises authentic Indian dances every night, too, and if you drive up some road a ways to somewhere, you’ll also find real Indians dancing. I suppose Taos’ allure dwells in these sorts of things, but I can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit too reminiscent of Wall Drug, South Dakota’s largest tourist trap after Crazy Horse. There, and in Taos, authenticity implies curation. Taos has been done already, cultivated into a destination, and while I’ll stop short of calling it “lost,” it’s certainly a place that makes it difficult to find much of anything. Taos lacks the joy of discovery.

So discover the countryside, take in the art if you’d like but don’t come to Taos to wander. There’s so much else to explore.

Visiting Moab 1 March 2011

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You can go to Moab from April through October. Or you can go in February, when snow still falls in the high desert and the crowds have booked flights for the beach. Not bad deal if you ask me.

It was about this time last year that I headed out for my first visit to Utah, and I returned with a new tag for my travel posts: “the heartbreak of rural America.” A year later, Moab is still heartbreaking in all the same ways, but it’s best for the traveler to avoid dwelling on that sort of thing. The surrounding landscape of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks simply doesn’t allow for it—and that’s the part I missed in last February’s reflections. So this time around I’m giving a proper review, and a thumbs up, if only because it could send more visitors and more dollars to this sunburnt city.

In the Bible, Moab stretched east from the Jordan river, a nearly treeless plateau bounded by Beth-jeshimoth to the north, Baal-meon to the east and Kiriathaim to the south. The resident Moabites and the neighboring tribes of Israel enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship in which both sides got their Old Testament jollies by comparing family trees or killing one another. When postmaster William Pierce first showed up in this part of southeastern Utah, it’s possible he saw that grand narrative laid before him on the landscape. Or else he just saw a lot of desert, which is pretty much what the Jordanian Moab is, too. Whatever the case, settlers arrived in 1878, and by 1890 were already petitioning to change the town’s name because of the association it created with the biblical Moabites’ affinity for idolatry and incest.

But the name stuck, and the people did, too, at first eking out an agrarian existence near of the Colorado River’s few crossings. As happened in so many Western towns, though, it was mineral wealth that put the city on the map. Potash and manganese contributed to the bloom, then came oil and gas, but it was the harsh landscape’s radioactive ores that made Moab the “Uranium Capital of the World” in the 1950s as prospectors laid claim to vast tracts of desert waste in the hopes their finds would supply the next world-obliterating bomb. Edward Abbey gives a good account of the mad, and largely unsuccessful, uranium dash in his book Desert Solitaire. And, come to think of it, he gives a good account of most everything else in the region, too. Today, the prospectors have returned, and pending all the right approvals, America will see its first new uranium mill since the Cold War Era rise on the Colorado side of the border.

Chances are, though, you won’t be thinking about any of that when you make the turn off I-70 and head south into slick rock country. If you’re native to the southwest, maybe you won’t think much of the highway scenery, a denuded landscape of rock and dust that stretches to horizon. But if you hail from more verdant climes, your jaw will drop. This is an America everyone east of the Rockies has only seen in movies, and even then, the slightly fantastical quality those films all share makes the reality of the landscape seem a little suspect too. When was the last time you saw a movie set against the upper midwest that wasn’t Fargo? We associate the West with a fiction, though, making the reality all the more surreal.

I won’t talk much about what you’ll see when you arrive because that’s essentially impossible. Try to imagine a wall of flaming red rock, miles long, taller than the tallest building in your city by half. Imagine a chasm dropping almost a vertical mile into a river you’ll never see. This is what moving water does to a landscape which sees so little rain. The Green and Colorado rivers scour the earth and the rock and, seemingly, the sky, while the flash floods turn creekbeds into canyons. To look at all of it is to travel through time. Much of the visible rock dates to the Jurassic and the Triassic, when dinosaurs lumbered where you now stand with a camera to your eye. And behind all this lie the La Sals, dozens of miles of distant but encroaching as if they run right up to the canyon walls. Visit in February and you’ll be treated to snowcapped peaks set against red rocks.

You can hike into it, too. In Canyonlands, the Upheaval Dome trail makes an 8.3-mile loop around a formation that only makes sense when view from the air. In Arches, the Devil’s Garden trail offers a five-mile ramble through the area’s signature fins and arches, topping out of a ridge which offers views over the whole park. If you have the time, try both of these in favor of hitting all the recommended photo locations. You’ll appreciate the slower pace and the interaction with the landscape you won’t get when you’re stopping and starting like a pizza delivery boy. And I’ve always hated recommended photo locations anyway. Experience the parks for yourself. Find something.

A word of caution, though: traveling in the desert isn’t like wandering around in the Appalachians. 1) Carry sufficient water. Carry more than enough water, even in your car. The average person traveling in a place this dry needs a gallon of water per day, and in this case at least, it’s best to consider yourself just average. In February you can probably find running streams in a canyon or two, but don’t rely on it. 2) Don’t bust the crust. Even in a place that only sees a few inches of precipitation a year, life thrives, and the crust, visible as hard black formations on the soil, holds it all together. Walking off trail destroys this complex web of cyanobacteria, lichens and other life that keeps the soil from disappearing with the wind. And when you bust the crust, it can take decades to return to its original state.

The Cost of Flying 30 December 2010

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As you hate on the airlines for bag fees this holiday season, this is a sentence worth considering:

Domestic prices are about 35 percent cheaper per mile when adjusted for inflation than in 1995, in spite of significantly greater operating costs.

That’s Hamsa Balakrishnan, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at M.I.T.

More here.

Another Return to St. Charles 28 December 2010

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I’ve wandered beyond Colorado for a little bit, so you’re getting a short post, and one unrelated to skiing or a Colorado ski town.

I’ve returned to St. Charles for the holidays,but the ski updates will soon enough, I’m sure.  For now, this marks a time to once again reflect on coming home. Since the end of college, these periods spent away have continued to expand, and the moments at home have become just that, moments. It’s a natural progression, I suppose, for anyone who leaves “homes” and starts a life elsewhere, but it’s one I’m just now exploring, with so many twenty somethings around to explore it with me. Nearly three in four college graduates moves at some point in his life according to the the Pew Research Center. I imagine that move most often comes right after college itself.

In the Midwest, though, nearly half of Americans never leave their hometowns.   And I’m from the Midwest. I return to see family and friends. Those who have moved return for the same reason. Thanksgiving and Christmas have become as much about reunion as about eating and gift-giving. I’m okay with that.

I’m giving you some photos with this post–not great ones–but I’d rather you reflect on why it is you go home. What’s there? Why do you return? And perhaps most importantly: why did you move?

Here’s wishing you a happy and safe holiday season, wherever you’re spending it.

Thanksgiving in Vail 29 November 2010

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No explanation yet from the CAIC on the avalanche that killed the head of Wolf Creek’s ski patrol last week. I’ll let you know when I know more.

In the meantime, let’s explore a happier subject: Thanksgiving in Vail. This year, the resort once again placed a respectable number two (behind Utah’s Deer Valley) in SKI‘s annual reader rankings of North American resorts. Only SKI readers would rank Deer Valley number one, and in fact, the first few lines describing the place highlight its perfect groomers and chanterelle mushrooms. So it’s not all about the terrain. But most everyone, from hardcore big mountain skiers to wine-tasting ski moms, will agree that Vail’s a great place. Not jaw-dropping, but great.

And this Thanksgiving must have ranked among the best in the resort’s nearly fifty-year history. Early season snow has a way of putting a smile on everyone’s face. Christmas had come and gone last year by the time Vail opened as much terrain as was open for Thanksgiving this time around.

Funny thing was, no one seemed much interested in skiing it. Three days after the last storm, fresh lines sprawled through the bowls. Powder stashes existed in every clump of trees. That’s not to say, “Too bad. You missed it,” but rather, “it’s still out there. Go get it.” So much terrain open so early seems to have everyone mystified.

I wonder, then, if perhaps Denver hasn’t completely understood exactly how much snow has fallen on the I-70 resorts. Colorado Pass holders, who only receive 10 days to spend at Vail and Beaver Creek over the course of the season, rightly travel to Vail and the Beav only on the best of days. But quite honestly, some of those days are happening right now.

Despite the belief that it can’t possibly be that good, it is. Or was. The skiers who arrived for Thanksgiving seemed more or less uninterested in finding powder lines–like the guy last year who asked me in all seriousness, “All this snow is nice, but why don’t they groom it a little sooner? A couple days after a storm. That’s when I like it.” It’s evidently that sort of person who skied Vail over Thanksgiving.

But I don’t blame them. As a place to spend the holiday, it doesn’t suck. That Vail also happens to offer skiing appeals to a certain set of travelers. Off the slopes, the Christmas lights twinkle, carolers roam the streets, someone blows a Swiss tune into an alpenhorn. Of course, it’s not the real world, nor anything like what Peter Siebert imagined it might become, I’m guessing, but it doesn’t have to be.

This is Vail the escape, the mountain getaway, where the Swiss-themed village can let us live out the holiday fantasy of a life where only skiing, shopping, dining and drinking exist. If Vail were the “real thing” we’d go home at the end of the day. Instead, we linger, hoping to spend a little more time in the holiday wonderland.

Blue Sky Basin opens this Friday. Will you be out there to ski it?

Visiting Vedauwoo 19 October 2010

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The Wyoming of Commercials

You might recall from a high school history class that Wyoming is a US state. It’s kinda sorta squarish, and is for the most part large, empty and brown. Detroit has twice as many people, which should make you think about the desirability of living in either place. Even Dick Cheney left. Here in Denver, though, we see a  lot of commercials asking us to visit our northern neighbor, the plea usually following something about how wild Wyoming still is, and how buffalo roam everywhere, except those parts where ranchers don’t want them. Then they get shot–which is also pretty standard fare for Wyoming but still never makes the commercials.

Vedauwoo doesn’t either, and it’s worth a look. Just a couple hours from Denver, it offers a landscape so far removed from Coloradans’ expectations that its existence seems impossible. How could such a place have escaped notice when every other nook and cranny within a hundred-mile radius crawls with hikers? My first guess is that sites like this have something to do with it. That’s the first thing that pops up following a Google search and it looks like mid-90s web vomit. “Land of the earthborn spirit.”  That page does a disservice to this place. Nothing  deserves WordArt.

What Vedauwoo deserves, however, is an accurate depiction of its beauty and intrigue. The rock here, Sherman Granite, congealed deep within the earth 1.4 billion years ago, and 1.33 billion years later, during the uplift that created the Laramie mountains, that rock moved toward the surface, outlasting whatever surrounded it to to form the hoodoos and outcroppings marking the landscape today. It first appears about halfway between Cheyenne and Laramie. The rolling plains give way to forested hills, and the boulders loom over these, almost as if they were placed there by enormous hands. In places, they give the impression that they’ve been stacked like so many alphabet blocks, ready to topple with too strong a gust. But of course, erosion is and always has been the culprit. It’s still working today, and with every passing moment, you’re seeing a different landscape, one just a tiny bit closer to dust and sand. We found a boulder split in half on Sunday. It couldn’t have been long since it fell open.

Try to find it.

The road that winds its way from I-80 discourages travel. At times, the washboard threatens to tear apart the car bolt by bolt. Stick it out, though, and the reward is a campsite unencumbered by fees and crowds. The aspens whisper. A mule deer forages on the boundary between forest and sage. And the granite beckons. Explore.

Or don’t explore. Climb. According to that goofball website, the area features more than 900 named climbs, most of them some of the best wide-crack or “offwidth” routes in the world. So saith the site, anyway. But I’m inclined to believe them. The rock there is grippy if sharp, and any climb takes the climber out of the trees and into the views almost immediately. They probably involve some real puzzles as well. That’s good enough for me.

Whatever you plan to do in Vedauwoo, the allure remains the same: this is not Colorado. This feels somehow more remote and more Western. You can run out of gas between Cheyenne and Laramie if you play your cards wrong, and the guy who’ll pick you up isn’t driving a Subaru, but a Dodge. He’s not wearing a Patagonia fleece, but a cowboy hat. Maybe that’s what those commercials were trying to say: come home to Colorado, but visit Wyoming. Visit Vedauwoo.