Taking the Back Road Home

Always play it safe in life, and your outcomes are likely going to be fairly predictable.   And though it took me a while to finally believe it, my wife is the true risk taker in our family.   So I was not really surprised when she turned to me earlier today and asked if we could take the more “interesting” (read, untested) way home.

“If the snow is too deep or it looks too crazy, we can always turn back”, she said calmly, her devilish grin betraying her concern.

Still unable to drive for another week due to foot surgery, I was her hostage and had no real voice in the matter.   Well, in-fact, I too was itching to explore this high mountain pass, but quietly had visions of hobbling 20+ miles back to civilization had we experienced a problem.   But I kept my unmanly worries private.

Since our move to rural Colorado in May of 2015, we’ve fanned out all across our area to find interesting and challenging routes into the mountains.

And off we went, deploying our two cell phones as navigational aides (Google Maps and Viewranger apps).  We had become familiar with the terrain, the landmark peaks, and so the risk was somewhat minimized. A quick scan of the north-facing mountain sides revealed that snow had largely melted above 10,000′ and the last two days of sunshine would have dried-up much of the dirt roads.

And up we went.   Up above the hippy-artsy town of Salida, up on exposed roads with undiminished views over to the Collegiate Peaks, and then up and into the deep woods, still hibernating from Winter.   Only one pickup truck passed us going the other way in the two hours of driving the 43 miles of road.   But there was plenty of wildlife to see; wild turkeys, mule deer, a magnificent hawk, and even a couple of curious horses and a mommy and baby cow.

As with anything that involves absorbing a bit of discomfort, the end result is almost always satisfying.   We’d pulled off a couple of times to listen to the perfect stillness and much of my joy was in watching my wife enjoy this crazy drive.

The deep mud ruts promised to suck us in a couple of times and the steeper, muddy switchbacks got a bit insane near the top, but it was all worth the extra hour-plus that it had taken on the way home.

Absolutely… slow down and take that interesting road you’ve always passed on by.   Who knows what joy and freedom await you?

The Joy of New Discovery – An Introduction to Flying

The ancient philosopher, Epictetus, once said, “The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it.  Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”   Well, the old boy was likely not referring to flying a tiny Cessna, but the message is clear.

And with my now grown son safely half-way around the world as I blog (there must be a more elegant word for this activity), I’ll risk his ire for my reporting on this crisp morning in October years ago.

I’d see the tiny airplanes buzzing over busy Route 50 as I commuted home to Annapolis from my job in Washington, DC and wondered what it would be like to someday have the chance to get into one of these again.   I’d taken one class of flying when I was stationed at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas in the early 80s, but lacked the confidence or drive to continue.   Years later, my sister-in-law invited the kids and I to fly with her in Florida.   They were tiny at the time and Val had only just graduated, with only 16 hours under her belt!   Insane, yes?   My wife and I later that day, large glasses of wine in hand, discussed how quickly her little family could have vanished had something gone terribly wrong.

Aside from the pre-flight that morning that had revealed a faulty carburetor, there was a kinda close call with a commercial airplane that was nearing the airspace getting ready to land as we were taxiing to take off…  really.  But, somehow, I trusted Val.  She was so quiet and measured and, years later, she would be the one fending off a large black bear on the trail up from Exit Glacier in Alaska, but that story is for another day.

Yes, indeed.   Now it was my son’s time to get behind the controls and off we would go for a sweet ride across the Chesapeake Bay, over Annapolis, and back.  We could not have asked for a nicer morning, the two of us having come up to the parking lot in momma’s fun BMW Z4, top down.   Felt like we were on the set of Top Gun, well ok an exaggeration, but that was my mood for sure; my mind’s easily transported into makebelieveland.

We met our instructor in a tiny, one-story concrete, bunker-like office building, went through the pre-flight and were up in the air before we knew it.   Plugging-in, the interconnected headphones were quite fun; could hear all the back and forth between the air traffic controllers, Anthony and his flight instructor.   Sitting in the back of that tiny airplane was a delight for this, old thrill-seeker.

Wheels up!  Buzzing over the green landscape, it wasn’t very long before we were over the water, looking down upon the Bay Bridge, heading over to the Eastern Shore.   The drone of the motor had my mind drifting back to our many sailing adventures we’d had over the years in our 27′ boat, Foolish Pleasure.   We’d ventured out in all weather conditions and somehow managed to survive.  Epictetus would certainly approve.

Coming back, we banked a hard left, seemingly grazing the traffic over the highway before touching down.   It had been a really neat experience.

We thanked our young instructor that morning and as I write this now, I have to wonder how that experience may have influenced Anthony to join the US Navy as an Aircrewman.  Maybe I’ll have to pour the young man (he who possesses far greater courage and confidence than I) a fine cognac and ask.   It will have been three weeks since I post this and hope that I shall be forgiven my sin…

Endless Horizons – Another False Start on Our Quest to Break Free

Racing like a crazed mule in my old, heavily-loaded Jeep Wrangler, I just barely made it to the Devil’s Tower entry gate for a sweet few minutes as the sun set and lit up it’s dramatic face.   An otherworldly apparition rising out of the surrounding plains and forests, I had first learned of this cool, geological feature from Spielberg’s movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, having watched it with good friends in 1977 at a US Air Force theater just outside of Madrid, Spain.   Now, halfway around the world, I’d finally get to see the actual site 32 years later.

As I drove up the winding forest road to the base of this unusual tower, I caught a female ranger locking up at the gift shop, smiling and waving at me as she got into her USFS-issued pickup truck and drove away.   Her friendly gesture was an warm invitation to stay a spell even though it was after six.  She’d likely radio over to the entry gate and have them look for me on the way out; I was the only one there that November day.

I had been hired to run the cash office in a subterranean, windowless room at a ski resort on Mt. Hood and the low-paying, seasonal job promised us a foothold in our quest to relocate out West… at all costs, we were so desperate to leave the pressure-filled, DC area.  It paid an absolutely tiny fraction of what my wife made at her international organization, but we knew we could make it work by selling stuff and simplifying.

With the Jeep loaded to capacity, I plotted out my route across the US from Maryland to Oregon and scoped out some interesting stops along the way; the US map filled with pointy sticky notes.   Looking back now, eight years later, I have to laugh a bit at my insanity and impulsivity; but, I’ve also learned in life that the prize (in whatever form it takes) goes to He-Who-Sees-GrandVision and dares to take a risk and chance failure… and fail miserably I did.   I was not prepared to move so quickly with cash and receipts in that abysmal room, locked behind the plexiglass window with holes for 10 hours a day, while the world above was skiing freely on one of my favorite resorts; Mt. Hood!

The cruelty was unbearable.  Were the adventure Gods having a good laugh at my expense, I wondered?  Nasty Gods.

But not all was lost.   Some of the sights along the way were amazing.   The stop to the place where Custer made his last stand was profoundly haunting.   Just a quick pull off from Interstate 90, the approach to the rolling hills now dotted with headstones from Natives and US Army forced one to pause and to reflect.

Later that day, on my endless drive across Wyoming, later sitting on the bench watching the sun fade on Devil’s Tower proved to be another almost religious moment.  The last of the day’s Fall rays rose up until only an afterglow of dusk remained.   Not another person around.  Wish I had had a fancy iPhone to run a time lapse video.

The following day, as I wound my way up into the western Montana roads approaching the Idaho border, the stop at the National Bison Range had me laughing when the polite ranger with the pained expression quietly informed me that they had all migrated over the mountain pass for the year the week before.

No less impressive, a couple of days prior, was my detour to South Dakota’s Badlands, a place I could clearly recall seeing in some of the old Western movies I had watched growing up; and, of course, Mount Rushmore was quite impressive… though admittedly, not a defacing project I would condone in this day and age.   The Black Hills are a wonder to behold as they seemingly rise up to meet the traveller from an endless sea of  rolling grasslands; a type of oasis.

When I return with my wife, we’ll have to find the Crazy Horse project in the area; a similar monument that looks to be equally if not more impressive.

Well, so life teaches us to get out of our comfort zones, not overthink, and to learn from failure.   The drive back home to Maryland had a very different feeling to it…    for I had some “splainin'” to do.   We’d have a few more, non-life-threatening, false starts after this debacle and as I look back, the anguish and heartbreak at the delays were all worth it.

“If you are not failin’, your not really tryin'”.

Sabering Champagne

Like a beautiful flower that slowly blooms, patiently revealing her secrets, my wife brought me a bottle of good champagne and … a saber and said, “Let’s do this a different way.”  It may have been our anniversary or a birthday, I can’t recall, but I sure do remember the thrill when I sabered my first bottle of champagne!

Life should be lived boldly.   Just my personal philosophy.   And when we do, we enter a far more interesting dimension, one filled with a full spectrum of emotion, and we are often surprised along the way at our growing courage.

So tempting to navigate our world avoiding new and scary things, something sadly I had begun drifting into as I felt a need to conform and robotize into the grand cog of the modern world.  But someone nudged me off of that path in life years ago; my wife.  A little nudge here, a little one there, and before long a grand world opened up.

The person with whom we forge a life makes all the difference, yes?  They can drag you down or pull you up.  Pay it forward each day, and good (even great) things start to happen.  Like an imperceptibly growing crescendo, the color and vitality of our given experience grows large and now we learn the way of the risk taker.

So much of what we are taught early in life and later reinforced in adulthood would caution us to “not be the tall blade of grass, for the lawnmower will whack you down”.   Kind of makes sense until our questioning souls say… “bullshit to that”, you are not my role model, she is.

I admit it, scandalous women intrigue me.  Take Beryl Markham, for example.   Hers is a story filled with off-the-beaten track truly grand adventures.   She wasn’t coddled or dressed-up like a doll.  No, no, her story is nothing of the sort and I can’t wait to read her memoir in West With the Night (1920s; Kenya).   It’s the next adventure material on my growing pile of print screens of books I need to read.

Beryl Markham

Drifting back in time to a land far away, I could see my wife and I enjoying a raucous evening with a group of travelers, perhaps we are around a roaring fire in Kenya, surrounded in total blackness on a moonless night, with like-minded souls and Caroline turns to me and says, “Why don’t you bring the champagne … and saber, dear.  A grand geste is in order for tonight.”

Live daringly, my friends.  We only get one chance at this thing called life.

A Unimog in Denali

Be forewarned!   If ever your travels should take you to the Talkeetna Roadhouse in Alaska, heed the call and only order a half-portion!   It’s just a cool place to stop off as you head up to Denali National Park; something out of the 1940s.   And as we pulled out of that little town, the Cessnas were buzzing all about and above us, ferrying a constant stream of eager mountaineers up to the Ruth Glacier to climb the famous peak; our bellies were full and our spirits soared in anticipation of what lay before us!

I swear, I could hear old Walt’s poem ringing in my ears…

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
The drive itself is an adventure, the little two lane road meandering around mountains and over the hills, disappearing then reappearing.   We knew that we could get lost and the massive breakfast would power us for two weeks more.
The high latitudes mean that the pines gets skinny and scragly.   Funny looking things and you know you ain’t in Kansas anymore.   Rushing past us, the tourist-laden train speeds on by as we all head north eventually.   Not like the old days, I’m sure.   This park is on every dreamer’s bucket list.  But no worries.   We’ve learned that even a hint of bad weather will likely keep ’em all inside and near the trailhead, leaving only us crazies to push out to get a real feel for the place.
What an amazing wilderness, indeed.   But don’t let the sunny pictures draw you in, the mountain’s shy and rarely shows herself (20%) so adjust your expectations and savor your good fortune to have made it this far.   A hike up and back along the Savage River is so well worth the drive up, but keep an eye out for Mr. Griz!
We’d had our day’s fix of the park, when I spied an adventure vehicle that simply put me in a trance.   If you are out there reading this, sorry for staring…   On the side was painted a crude outline of the world in black with a number of red lines indicating the paths taken thus far.   Oh now…  This is something new as I admired all of the places they’d gone; Along the northern coast of Africa, across Australia and up and down New Zealand, now completing a route up from the tip of South America to … Denali and up, likely, to Barrow; I wonder if there’s a road going that far north?   Now, this is the way to adventure.
Ten years ago, this couple looked to be in their mid-50s.   Tried to sneak a discrete peek.   Both were having a late lunch and hoping that the mountain would “come back out”, at least for a moment; their SLR was at the ready on their dash.   I would love to discover their website so that I may follow their grand adventure.  Perhaps, with a little luck, I’ll catch up to them in Eastern Siberia awaiting the ferry to Severo Kurilsk.   I don’t remember seeing a red line there.
Ah, well.   Another fresh experience to notch on the adventure belt.   Mental note:   Google Unimog when I get back into cell range and sow the seeds with la esposa.
“Cheers, mate.   This looks awfully like the ‘Mog’ that I had spied in Denali back in ’08.”
A grin comes over the elegant chap as he reaches in for a crystal snifter and asks, “Care for Cognac while we wait…?”
Illustration was a compilation of open source imagery, traced, colored, and filtered through FotoFlexer.

High Alpine Lakes & Glorious Summits

Alas, the sand that has accumulated in the lower chamber now exceeds that of the upper, but that has only motivated me to squeeze the most of my remaining days.   And maybe, if we “adventure” more, we may in fact find ourselves scooping some of the sand back to the top!   It’s a nice thought, yes?

I returned to mountaineering ten years ago.   My mother had died recently and she reminded me of her technical climbing days in the Austrian Alps back in the late 40s and early 50s.   Carefully, we turned the pages of that treasured photo album of her youthful adventures.   I often think of her when I climb.

These day hikes to high peaks are a bit insane at this age, but so worth it in the end.   For something like this, I awake at four in the morning, grab my prepared gear, a cup of coffee, and go.   The billions of stars overhead, where I live at almost 8,000′ (2,438m) are so brilliant given the lack of light pollution, that I might almost drive without my lights.   Sometimes, I simply gaze at this in silence and wonder how gravity keeps me from drifting up into space.  Have you ever had this sensation?

Grand spaces make us feel small and temporary and restore a childlike awe and respect for our surroundings.  The big, light-filled cities have so many sensory distractions that we forget.

Here, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises about 6,000′ (1,828m) up from our valley floor to 14,000′ (4,267m), in a few areas.   Extreme forest roads allow us to gain access, but they require 4WD, high-clearance vehicles to properly navigate.  In some portions, the grade is 20° and driving up is assuredly not for the faint of heart.

And as the pirates exclaim… “Without fear there is no courage!”, of course, I’ve not quite learned where courage ends and stupidity begins.   Perhaps, the answer is found in the risk-reward formula?  I never pause long enough to think, because when we overthink we often don’t “do”.

So the first phase of this type of adventure is a drive up one of these roads in the dark.  Best to have a cover to the thermos.   And you turn off from the open valley and onto increasingly bumpy and rocky roads and the silhouette of the peaks is now barely visible with the early rays of the sun.  You finally meet the end and park, exit and now you are in the  thick forests and you begin to wonder who is watching your every move.  Mountain Lions are quite crafty.

Over the rushing creek, you are cold, a little tired, but you press on, knowing that soon the warm sun will light up a fabulous high alpine setting, one that will provide a surprising surge in your spirits and energy.   And you follow your headlamp faithfully until that happens.

Soon, you find ourselves above tree line, the glorious cirque (a circular formation of mountains) now suddenly alight with the early alpenglow and an unbelievable feeling washes over you, reminding you that this is all worth doing.

And up you go, now climbing the magnificent path before you and you look up and simply cannot believe your good fortune; to be alive, feeling alive, and no one else is here to disturb the moment.


Now the mountain lakes are to your left, their waters perfectly still in the early morning, and over there… is a lone sentry on a rock outcropping; a Bighorn sheep looking down at you.   Quietly and gently, you continue your journey upwards, periodically looking down to see that the peaks that had previously towered above you are now below.  This is incredible.  Where are you getting your will to continue?

The early breezes begin, rippling the waters at the lower lake as you approach the upper one, creating moving patterns.   A waterfall connects the two and you look at the snows still remaining from the winter before.   Suddenly, more of the magnificent creatures appear out of the willows and you look up to see eight of them, all stopping to gaze at the human in their alpine valley.

Not a sound to be heard… save for a gentle breeze.

Up higher now, as the sun begins to bring light to the entire cirque, now looking down on the upper lake as you find the trail to the ridge line and you see the final 45° segment to the summit.   Up high now, you have a view over to the valleys below;  the San Luis Valley to the west, the Wet Mountain Valley to the east.

Looking up, the final push to the top comes into view and the worn trail now disappears into the large, steep boulder field, marked occasionally by a rock cairn, but you continue.   Up a few hundred feet with the sheer, north facing slope dropping off thousands of feet to your left, you do not allow yourself bad thoughts.  You know what happens if you do.


You look up to find an older climber heading down.   Incredibly, you find that he is in his mid-70s, yet seems quite natural in this setting.  You exchange brief comments, he turns to point out the way up and you pass wishing him well; he descending and you finding the last few hundred feet to the top.   Something in the old man reassures you that you have a few more years in the high mountains.


Finally, you find the upper rock-strewn plateau and you are so close.   There!   There it is; the high point.   Happy to drop your pack, you find a flat rock on which to sit and you take in the precious and hard-won view.   Now the upper alpine lakes are so far down below.   Not a cloud in the sky.

For a few minutes, you have this entire summit to yourself.  The two women who have tailed you up for the past three hours arrive and more pleasantries are exchanged, and you give each the quiet space; the code of the mountaineer.

The day has been a long one; 4,464′ feet of climbing (1,361m) to 14,070′ (4,289m) and 14 miles roundtrip (22.5km), but no gain without a little pain.

Way in the distance, I’m sure that I can see my wife sitting on our front porch, our old Newfies by her feet…


A Ural in Bolivia

Adventures feed the soul.   When we actively dream, we live.  Plans take form, choices are made, things are sold, and off we go.   Life is so short and if we don’t take time to figure out what fuels us, we’ll continue on a glide path to nowhere.

Drawing, for me, has almost always preceded action.   Visualize it intimately on paper and it will become etched into your mind.

Taking delivery of a Ural motorcycle somewhere in South America and then meandering by the seat of one’s pants seems would be something worth doing.   I had read about two hombres doing this a few years back and it has intrigued me ever since.  Just imagine what the world would look like from a sidecar…

“Oh, but that sounds crazy.   How would you cope when it snowed or rained?”

Exactly.  And perhaps my response would be, “How can you be satisfied seeing the world through the window of a tour bus?”   But, I’m trying to reform.   Read The Four Agreements.   Working not to take the bait these days.  I slip, sometimes.  Please forgive me.

Something quite alluring about a straight road in a remote location, one which disappears in perfect symmetry over to a horizon, one with distant, slightly active volcanos calling you.

The chance discovery of an incredible photo, an impulsive decision to go on pilgrimage, and a profound change in the direction of one’s life thereafter.

“Oh no…”, did I really draw a picture of a Ural with sidecar?