Arid (and) Extra Dry

Most of us reacted to eighteen months in the unwelcome company of COVID-19 the same. We reflected on our time with Mr. Virus and wondered, “What would we have done more of?” More get-togethers? More travel? More dinners out?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But instead, we hunkered down and waited for things to get better. Our routines became more… routine.  Everything faded to black and white.  Clocks came to a standstill. It’s the same feeling I had, coincidentally, enduring a drive from Colorado to California earlier this month.

My advice: choose “East” while you still can

Maybe you’ve made the trek: Denver to San Diego via Interstate 70 and then Interstate 15.  Sounds so clean and easy, doesn’t it?  Two highways.  Plenty of lanes.  Rocky Mountains on one end and Pacific Ocean on the other.  Yeah, well, it’s all the mind-numbing in-between stuff that makes you want to burst through your sunroof and flag down a helicopter heading west.  There’s a whole lot of nothing in the desert.

The problem with this drive (which was not a flight because my wife & I wanted to bring our bikes) is the beautiful part comes first.  From Denver, it’s four hours of majestic snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, red rock canyons, and breathless (literally) summits as you cruise on over to Grand Junction.  There’s good reason America the Beautiful was penned in the Rockies.

Cruise control suggested here

But don’t get comfortable.  Once you reach Grand Junction (which isn’t so grand), beauty takes a big break.  Pretend you’re a marble inside a rolled-up blanket.  Then someone flips that blanket out and off you go, rolling across the flattest, most desolate desert floor you’ve ever seen.  The mountains reduce to buttes reduce to sand dunes reduce to nothing.  The highway morphs from all sorts of curvy to ruler-straight. Your cell phone signal goes MIA.  You suddenly feel parched.  And you wonder, why-oh-why does the dusty sign say “Welcome to Utah” when there’s nothing welcoming about it at all?

So it goes in middle-eastern Utah.  Every exit is anonymously labeled “Ranch Road” (and why would you want to exit anyway?)  The highway signs counting down the mileage to Interstate 15 march endlessly.  When you finally do arrive at I-15 (your single steering wheel turn the entire journey), you bring out the balloons and the confetti and do a happy dance.  YOU MADE IT ACROSS THE MOON!  Well, sort of.  Now you’re just in central Utah.

I-15 wanders south a couple hours to St. George.  It’s probably a perfectly nice place to live, but St. George reminds me of the Middle East.  Squarish stucco/stone buildings, mostly white.  Not many people on the streets.  The temperatures quietly ascended to triple digits when you weren’t looking.  You realize you’re starting to sunburn through the car windows.

Proceed with caution (and water)

But then you make it to Arizona (briefly).  The landscape changes, suddenly and dramatically, as if Arizona declares, “Take that, Utah!  We’re a much prettier state!”  You descend through curve after highway curve of a twisting, narrow canyon, rich with layers of red rock. It’s the entrance to the promised land!  Alas, Arizona then gives way to Nevada, and here my friends, are the proverbial gates of Hell.  Welcome to the arid, endless, scrub-oak-laden vastness of the Mojave Desert, where everything is decidedly dead except for a brief glittery oasis known as Las Vegas.  The Mojave looks like it wants to swallow you whole and spit you out (except spit requires water so you’d probably just be gone forever).

Hang on to those dashboard gauges for dear life, friends, because it’s a full four hours in the Mojave broiler before your car gasps past the “Welcome to California” sign.  In those hours you’ll call your kids (one last time?), declare your final wishes, and wonder why you didn’t visit your parents more often.  Anything you see in motion off the highway is probably a mirage.  If you do make it to California, you’ll pull over and kiss the ground sand before wondering, “Hey, how come California looks exactly like Nevada?  Then Google Maps smirks the bad news.  You’re nowhere near the end of the Mojave Desert.

Baker. Barstow. Victorville. Hesperia.  You’ll pass through each of these towns and wonder, a) Why does anybody live here? and b) Is this the land that time forgot?  But finally, mercifully, you’ll descend the mighty Cajon Pass (the outside temperature descending alongside you), burst forth onto the freeway spaghetti of the LA Basin, and declare, “Los Angeles.  Thank the Good Lord.  I must be close now”.

You’re never alone on the Cajon

Except you’re not.  The Basin is dozens of cities, hundreds of miles, and millions of cars collectively called “Los Angeles”.  Hunker down, good buddy.  The Pacific is still hours away.

Here’s the short of it.  My wife & I made it to San Diego.  The car didn’t die in the middle of the Mojave.  Neither did we (though I left a piece of my soul behind).  We even rode the bikes a few times.  But I can’t account for those nineteen hours behind the wheel.  It’s like Monday morning became Tuesday night in a single blink.  Just like 2019 became 2021 without much in between.

What goes down must come back up.  The time has come to do the death drive in reverse.  Ugh.  Maybe we’ll leave the bikes in San Diego and catch a flight instead.

It’s Raining DONUTS!

Pikes Peak, the majestic 14,000′ mountain nestled in the Colorado Rockies west of Colorado Springs, is getting a major makeover.  Okay, maybe not the mountain itself.  Her nine-mile Cog Railway reopens in 2021 with new train cars and tracks to carry visitors to the summit.  Her Manitou Incline, the one-mile ladder-like hiking trail up her eastern flank, has been improved for safer climbing.  Finally, her Summit House visitor center is being replaced – sixty years after the original – with a state-of-the-art glass jewel.

“America’s Mountain” in the Colorado Rockies

Local folks like me only have one concern with all this Pikes Peak activity: the donuts.  What’re they gonna do about the donuts?

You can drive, hike, or take the Cog Railway to the top of Pikes Peak, but you’ll always stop in at the visitor center once you get there.  It’s the only thing you’ll find on the tiny summit beside the stunning views of the world below.  Maybe you’ll purchase a supremely tacky, overpriced souvenir while you’re there.  Maybe you’ll need a bathroom break.  Whatever you do, you will buy a donut.  Pikes Peak’s “World Famous” treats are sort of a reward for making it to 14,000 feet.  Okay, so they’re not Krispy Kreme but they’re not terrible either.  Just eat them at altitude.  Once you begin your trek down the mountain they collapse into a mushy mess and they’re awful.

When I first realized the Summit House was getting demolished instead of remodeled my thoughts went straight to the donut machine.  What are they gonna do with the donut machine?  The “Belshaw Mark VI Donut Robot” delivered its final batch last week before someone pulled its plug.  The Mark VI is a mechanical marvel.  It can produce 700 donuts an hour (the summertime demand for Pikes Peak).  The Mark VI endlessly dispenses the raw dough, four rings in a row, and creates donuts through a conveyer system of automated frying, rotating, and dispensing.  Leave it on for twenty-four hours and it’ll pile up 17,000 of the little buggers.

Meanwhile, the new visitor center is getting a new donut machine.  Maybe it’s the latest model of Belshaw’s Donut Robot and makes 1,000 donuts an hour.  Maybe the donuts taste more like Krispy Kreme.  Whatever it can do, this machine is a beast.  It’s so big they had to use a crane to lift it into the building before they even closed up the walls.

If I’m the old Mark VI Donut Robot I’m not happy about being replaced, not at all.  I mean, c’mon! I faithfully produced thousands of donuts day in and day out for decades!  I’m not yesterday’s news just yet!  Why not let me keep my job instead of giving all the love to a newer model? No siree Bob, I’m not gonna take it.  I need to make some sort of statementY’know, demonstrate the extent of my discontent.

OH MAN, can’t you just picture it?  Standing down on the streets of Colorado Springs one morning you suddenly hear this massive BAH-BOOM from the direction of Pikes Peak.  Sidewalks start shaking and people start pointing.  You look up to the mountain and there’s a freaking volcano blowing its top.  A huge column of fire rises to the heavens.  The sky is instantly air-brushed with white smoke.  There’s ash raining down in every direction.  Except, wait, it’s not ash it’s…. it’s…. it’s donuts.

The rain of donuts, of course, is the Mark VI Donut Robot run amok.  In its desperate attempt not to be overlooked it starts making donuts like crazy.  Four at a time, plop-plop-plop-plop, fry, rotate, dispense.  Faster and faster and faster, until its conveyor builds up a big head of steam and starts to break apart.  Then the whole thing just blows up.  Boom

Down and further down come the donuts.  Rolling by the hundreds along the hiking trails.  Bobbing down the rivers and creeks like mini inner tubes.  Ricocheting off the pine trees as they come back to earth until they just go poof! in a cloud of powdered-sugar smithereens.  Decorating the rocks and trees with a cream-filling look of snow.  Piling up in the low spots like generous helpings of oversized Cheerios.  Clogging up the cog railway so the only way the train gets to the summit is for the riders to get off the train and start eating.

The Mark VI may have imploded but man what a way to get noticed, right?

Truth be told, there’s an aftermarket for Belshaw’s Mark VI Donut Robot.  Do the Google search if you don’t believe me.  A used one runs $15,899 plus $600 for shipping, and don’t look now; they take credit cards and toss in a limited warranty!  Just think what you could do with 700 donuts an hour. All you have to do is click the “Buy It Now” button on the website.  But one more thing before you do.  Ask the seller if their Mark VI has given them attitude lately.  Like it used to be on a majestic mountaintop or something wacky like that.

Note: This post would not even be a whisper of a thought were it not for Robert McCloskey and his wonderful children’s book, Homer Price.  In Homer’s short story “The Doughnuts”, a restaurant donut machine goes bonkers and starts dispensing hundreds upon hundreds.  How the town resolves this donut deluge makes for a great story.  Thanks, Robert.

Some content sourced from the KKTV 11 News story, “Final Batch of Pikes Peak Donuts…”, and the Thrillist.com article, “You Can Only Get These Incredible Donuts at the Top of a Mountain in Colorado”.

Hex Marks the Spot

In the opening scenes of the 1981 classic, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, intrepid explorer Indiana Jones navigates a deep jungle, a river, the betrayal of his fellow adventurers, and the lethal booby-traps inside a mountainside cave to capture a priceless statue of gold.  Indy’s return to civilization includes more death-defying maneuvers, yet he still completes the entire escapade in the first ten minutes of the film.  That’s far less time than it took another thrill-seeker to find the real-life hidden treasure of Forrest Fenn.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with Forrest Fenn.  Hardly anybody would be, were it not for Fenn’s decision back in 1988 to set aside $2 million of his amassed fortune as a reward for an ambitious treasure hunt through the vast Rocky Mountains.  Gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry, and gemstones; all piled up together inside a twelfth-century bronze box and cached in a region of over 500,000 square miles.  Treasure hunt indeed… but no treasure map!  Instead, Fenn documented clues in the stories and poems contained in his self-published book, The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir.

Remarkably, Fenn’s treasure appears to have been claimed.  The whole story found its way back into national headlines just ten days ago, when Fenn himself declared, “I do not know the person who found it but… the search is over.  Look for more information and photos in the coming days.”  Conveniently, the one snap of the treasure chest in its hidden location does not indicate when it was taken.  Just as convenient, the finder has yet to be identified; only labeled “anonymous searcher from the East Coast”.

Forrest Fenn

Forgive my skepticism, but I’d say Forrest just raised the first red flag on this whole adventure.  It sounds good on paper but the more I read the more I sense fairy tale instead of actual tale.  To repeat, Mr. or Mrs. East Coast has yet to come forward.  The single photo of the treasure could’ve been taken by Fenn himself.  Do the homework and you’ll soon start to wonder, does the treasure really exist?  For that matter, does Forrest Fenn himself exist?  Even his name sounds make-believe.

Body-double aside, Fenn appears to be very much alive, but the case can be made for calling the man eccentric.  Consider, Fenn’s initial intent for the treasure was kind of an “X marks the spot” for his final resting place.  In 1988, diagnosed with cancer (likely terminal) Fenn was motivated to set up the treasure hunt before his demise.  But somewhere in the next 22 years, Fenn recovered from his illness and then penned the memoir, complete with treasure-hunt clues.  This sequence of events alone is suspect.  What was Fenn’s original intent: secret burial in the Rockies and whoever stumbled upon his grave (and thought to dig it up) wins the prize?

courtesy of oldsantafetradingcompany.com

Undeterred, thousands pursued Fenn’s treasure after the memoir was published.  Five died in the search.  Of those five, only one cause of death was confirmed – a fall down a steep slope in Yellowstone National Park.  The bodies of the other four, at first identified as “missing persons”, were found later (at different times and places) along the supposed route to Fenn’s treasure. No cause of death determined with any of them.  Add to that a dozen or more arrests, detainments, citations, and lawsuits with other hunters and you start to get a real mess on your hands.  Sounds more like a “hex marks the spot” doesn’t it? Fenn considered the request of authorities to suspend the hunt, but public opinion swayed him to keep things going.

Ten days ago, Fenn acknowledged the (apparent) hunt winner and he/she possesses the (supposed) treasure.  No doubt this isn’t the last of the eccentric tale of Forrest Fenn.  I hope we tune into the news one of these nights and see our latest Indiana Jones, posing in front of the heaping bronze chest like a lottery winner with a giant check (please also, with fedora and bullwhip).  I hope Forrest Fenn is posing right there alongside him/her, and prepared to detail this crazy adventure from start to finish.  Then we’ll know whether the inevitable production from Hollywood will be fact or fiction.

Some content sourced from the Fenn’s Treasure website, Westword, and  Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Purple Mountain Majesties

Aspen – the upper-crust alpine village high up in the Colorado Rockies – is a beautiful place to visit. Make that a stunning place to visit, if you wipe away everything you find on the surface. Aspen is for the obviously-wealthy, whether a night at a hotel ($350 and up, just about anywhere), dinner for two ($250 and up – the finer restaurants), a slope-side condo rental ($2,000/night), or any purchase in any of the village shops; the kind of retail you only find in London-Paris-Rome-New York.  You won’t see any of Aspen’s residents (probably because they don’t care to see you).  Drive past the nearby airport and you’ll see an impressive line of commercial planes… er, make that private planes.  Aspen is made of money – no different than its silver-mining days of old.

Aspen, Colorado (photo courtesy of blog.whatahotel.com)

Now, as instructed, take the chalkboard eraser and wipe, wipe, wipe away all of that excess.  Dust off your hands and stand back.  What remains of Aspen is its incomparable natural beauty, whether the towering Rocky Mountains on all sides, the rushing Roaring Fork river through town, or the stately aspen and bristlecone pine trees forming an umbrella over most of the residential area.  Speaking of Mother Nature, let’s talk about her most majestic contribution, just on the outskirts of town.  No visit to Aspen is complete without a trek to Maroon Bells.

Maroon Bells

The Maroon Bells – common knowledge to us Coloradans – are twin peaks in the Elk Mountain range, fifteen miles to the west of Aspen.  They get their name from their mudstone composition (a bright purple when the light is right) and from their broad profiles.  The Bells are “fourteeners” – two of the fifty-three mountains in Colorado with elevations +14,000 feet.  The approach to the Bells, through the Maroon Creek Valley with Maroon Lake in the foreground, lays claim to one of the most photographed locations in North America; no matter which direction you look.

Maroon Creek Valley

Remarkably (or maybe not – we all do this), we’ve lived in Colorado twenty-five years and never been to nearby Maroon Bells – until this past weekend.  Despite the must-see endorsement of many friends, I was immediately suspicious when I learned we had to buy “tickets” for the place.  Why tickets?  Because the U.S. Forest Service (bless them) won’t allow cars – and their harmful exhaust – into Maroon Creek Valley.  Instead, $8 gets you a twenty-minute propane-fueled bus ride from Aspen to the valley.  The bus ride adds to the experience for two reasons.  One, your driver gives an overview of the place, with just the right amount of history and sightseeing to keep your interest.  Two, you don’t see the Bells – not even a passing glimpse of them – until just before you’re dropped off at Maroon Lake.

  

Photographs don’t do the Maroon Creek Valley justice, let alone words.  Breathtaking, jaw-dropping, heart-stirring – take your pick. Everywhere you turn looks like a doctored picture postcard.  Everything looks undisturbed and peaceful – almost a sanctuary where you don’t belong.  I lost count how many times I just stopped and stared.  Add to that the brief late-summer window when aspen tree leaves change from green to a fiery shade of yellow, orange, and red, and the whole scene becomes surreal.  The stuff of dreams.

Kudos to the Forest Service for getting this experience right (score one for the U.S. Government!)  As I was reflecting on the Bells, I couldn’t help but think of the very different approach to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.  As majestic as the carved-in-stone presidents may be, they’re compromised by the several “sights” on the highway up the mountain (“Reptile Gardens”!  “Very Berry Winery”!  “Big Thunder Gold Mine”!).  You won’t find any of those traps on the way to the Maroon Bells.  Only Mother Nature at her most impressive.

Someday you’ll visit Aspen, bypass all of her excesses (or at least most of them) and ride the bus through the White River National Forest and on up to the majestic Maroon Bells.  You’ll hike around the lake, pause on the bridge over the stream, stare up at the mountains in every direction, and take a gillion photos – every one of them worthy of a jigsaw puzzle on your coffee table back home.  Then you’ll climb back on the bus, poised to add a check mark to your bucket list.  But you won’t make that mark.  Instead, you’ll be thinking, “When can I come back?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Jack Be Quick

If the lazy days of summer sap your get-up-n-go, here’s an idea. Find a friendly donkey (not a stubborn one). Halter him and attach a solid lead rope – at least fifteen feet worth. Saddle your jack with thirty pounds of gear, including a pick, a shovel, and a gold pan.  Finally, don your running shoes and head out to Fairplay, CO. $50 gets you into the World Championship of Pack Burro Racing.  Welcome to the state sport of Colorado.

Pack burro racing seemed a little ridiculous to me… until I dived into the details.  For starters, its origin is as legendary as the Greeks and the marathon.  Back in the strike-it-rich days, two Colorado gold-miners hit it big in the same location, and supposedly raced back to town (burros in tow) – first miner to the claims office wins.  Here’s another detail: pack burro racing really is a marathon – 28-30 miles up and back with your donkey, making the halfway turn at an elevation of 13,000 ft.  My favorite rule?  No riding.  However, the runner may push, pull, drag, or carry the burro.  Carry the burro?  A thousand pounds of ass?

Capitals, flags, songs, and birds – of course – but I never knew states had official sports, until recently, when California considered its options.  If your first choice for the Golden State is surfing, California’s state assembly agrees with you.  The Wall Street Journal reports the assembly just passed the “bill”, and now the tiff moves to the state senate.  I say tiff because a host of other Cali residents say not so fast.  Those who don’t live near the beach choose skateboarding.  Why skateboarding?  Because surfing is already the state sport of Hawaii.  They also say skateboarding is essentially surfing on wheels.  Maybe.

I grew up in California, but neither surfed nor skateboarded.  Still, I deserve a vote.  I did my share of body-surfing, so know what it’s like to catch a wave.  I did my share of bicycling, so know what it’s like to cruise on wheels.  You can put yourself in either camp, but arguments abound for both.  As one state assemblyman said, “Hawaii may have invented surfing, but California ‘mainstreamed’ the sport”.  Others say, “Surf ranches” and their wave machines bring the sport to the inland areas of the state.  On the other side of the aisle, skateboarding is a sport enjoyed by the masses just about anywhere.  And skateboarding really was invented in California, evolving from crude combinations of roller skates and wooden produce boxes.  Marty McFly should get a vote too.

By coincidence, surfing and skateboarding will join the Olympics in 2020.  The lighting of the torch in Tokyo will surely reignite the debate in California, no matter which sport is chosen.  Or maybe the state will still be arguing one over the other, instead of dealing with – ahem – more important issues of government.

Only a handful of U.S. states claim a sport in their list of symbols.  Some make sense, as in Alaska (dog-mushing), Minnesota (ice hockey), and Wyoming (rodeo).  Others have me saying, “What the heck?”, as in Maryland (jousting), and Delaware (bicycling).  I don’t live in Maryland or Delaware.  Maybe they banned every other sport in those states.  Of course, Marylanders and Delawareans probably feel the same way about Colorado and its pack burro racing.

Admittedly, Colorado could wage a healthy state-sport debate of its own.  The Rocky Mountains alone inspire a half-dozen seemingly better options.  If on water, go with river-rafting or kayaking.  If on snow, go with skiing or snowboarding.  If on land, go with hiking or mountain biking.  Yet none of those acknowledge the state’s rich lore of gold-mining.  None of them combine a human activity with an equestrian one.  Come to think of it, Colorado has enough runners and horses to win the debate, gold-mining legend or not.

According to the Western Pack Burro Association (“Celebrating 70 Years of Hauling Ass”), Colorado’s pack burro racing series still has several to go this year.  The first three are considered the “Triple Crown”, but I can still catch the remaining action in the towns of Leadville, Buena Vista, and Victor.  It’ll be like the running of the bulls in Pamplona!

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Thirst (for) Knowledge

Water.

Two parts hydrogen compounded with one part oxygen.  Transparent, odorless, and tasteless, yet we can’t survive more than a few days without it.  If not for oceans, lakes, ponds; rivers, streams, and creeks; and a whole lot of underground aquifers, we humans would be in a heap of trouble.  With due respect to Harry Potter, water is the elixir of life.

63-elixir

It’s fair to say most of us don’t drink enough water for optimal health. The long-held belief that eight glasses a day is sufficient has been replaced by the following formula: your body weight in pounds, divided by two, expressed in ounces. For most of us that means even more than eight glasses.  Gulp.

Somewhere along the way of several years of working out, I developed the habit of drinking small amounts of water during exercise, instead of chugging just before or just after.  On the treadmill for instance, I take a slug every time I complete a kilometer.  In the cycle class I drink every time the instructor says to pick up the bottle.  In a road race I never pass up the tables of water cups.  No question; the body works better with a regular intake of water.  Or at least a splash to the face.

Whenever I know I’m not drinking enough water I recall two vivid memories where I reached full-on dehydration status.  The first occurred as a child, when I was driving in the desert with my family.  I let the day go by way too long without taking a drink, and before I knew it my throat was so parched I could barely speak.  The heat of the day surely made it worse.  I pleaded to my grandparents to stop at a gas station (or anywhere with a halfway sanitary drinking fountain), which we eventually did, and I’m sure I took in a quart or more to quench my thirst.  Here’s a little irony: my desert dehydration is a fond memory because I can still hear my grandfather’s distinctive voice, saying, “need to wet your whistle, do ya?”  That was over forty years ago.

My second “parchment” occurred just short of the summit of Pikes Peak here in Colorado Springs – the first time I climbed it.  Pikes Peak is the highest mountain in the southern Front Range of the Rockies, at just over 14,000 feet.  Using the popular Barr trail it’ll take you five or six hours to get to the top.  Despite recommendations to carry a lot of water I only brought one 12-oz. bottle in my pack, which I refilled at a campsite halfway up the mountain.  I was getting by okay until the very last mile, when I ran out of water and my body literally began to shut down.  The combination of the effects of dehydration and altitude was devastating.  I could only walk a hundred yards at a pop, taking a seat on the rocks each time to recover for several minutes.  Mercifully I was close enough to the summit that I finished the hike, but not before realizing I’d been woefully unprepared.  In extreme circumstances the body demands a lot of water.  Certainly more than half your body weight in ounces.

If an elixir is defined as “a magical or medicinal potion”, then water qualifies in my book, and especially here in the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains.  It took a few years for me to gain a little thirst knowledge, but now my water bottle is my constant companion.  On that note, I think I need a drink!