Like Jon and Albert

I lost some people recently. Not family, and not even friends in the traditional sense of the word. Just random people who I came in contact with over, of all things, a vehicle.

In July 2020, I reserved a new Ford Bronco. Not the little Bronco Sport that you’ve seen cruising around town, but one of the big boys—a body-on-frame, 4×4, off-roading, 6th generation Bronco. Coming from a Suzuki SX4 hatchback, this was a big step up for me, but considering all the trail-driving I do to get to the hiking trails, it made sense. So on July 13th last year, I logged onto Ford’s website and waited patiently. At 6 p.m., the reservation page opened – and immediately crashed. After about fifteen minutes – and a lot of refreshing – I got my name on the list for a 2021 Bronco.

The next step was finding a dealership. With demand for the Bronco so high, I was leery of ADMs – additional dealer markups. The way Ford set this up, once you had an order (not a reservation, but an order) in with a dealership, you could only buy it from that one place (note that Ford has since changed this policy). I worried about sales departments jacking me around. I’m not putting down salespeople here – I was in sales myself for years – but I’m not naïve either. I know the deal. If a salesperson locks you in with an order without first giving you a price in writing, you lose all your leverage. They can charge as much as they want, and if you don’t want to pay it, they can turn around and sell the vehicle to someone else. I saw this playing out in a lot of ugly ways: car dealerships “stealing” people’s reservations and selling them to their top clientele; or adding 5, 10, 20, even $50,000 on top of MSRP to the cost and then, if the person who reserved the Bronco didn’t want to pay it, selling it to the highest bidder (think this doesn’t happen? A quick google proves otherwise – that’s exactly what happened).

Anyway, last summer I didn’t want to end up in that situation, so I called dealerships all over the state. I just wanted to know one thing: If I place my order with you, are you going to charge me MSRP – which is the price quoted on Ford’s website when I made my reservation – or are you going to add a markup to the price? After dozens of conversations, and no clear answer, I finally landed on one salesperson who said he wasn’t adding a markup. Not only that, but his dealership was also currently running a special: $1,000 below invoice, or roughly $4,000 below MSRP. Could I get that in writing? Yes. And so the deal was done.

Albert, the salesguy, wasn’t a regular salesperson. If I emailed him at 5 a.m. to tell him I was thinking of changing my trim from Base to Big Bend, or from Big Bend to Outer Banks, he’d call me. He would actually call me on the telephone to discuss the differences: what I would lose, what I would gain, and what it would cost. “Did it make sense to get the 4A, on top of the 2H, 4H, and 4L?” I’d ask. “Yes,” he said, “in Colorado you’d be crazy not to.” “With the high demand, how can I get my Bronco sooner?” “Switch to a 4-door Big Bend,” he said, “the 2-doors, which have a hard top, are going to be delayed.” (He was right on both accounts – adding the 4A was the right choice, and my 2-door Outer Banks has been delayed until 2022.)

Albert loved Broncos, and he loved Colorado. He would talk at length about his favorite mountain towns and trails. And he knew the Bronco inside and out: the details of every trim, transmission, tire, and engine. Honestly, I have never been so happy to get a phone call from a salesperson as I was on those mornings when my phone rang, and the caller ID said “Albert.” Over time, I met some of Albert’s other customers online. They all shared their experiences, which were similar to mine: long talks with our favorite car salesman about Colorado towns and trails, and about the Bronco.

One thing Albert didn’t talk about was his health. But we all kind of sensed it: he was not well, and probably wasn’t going to get better. The calls were shorter because he had to rest his voice. Then he was working from home, and eventually, we were communicating online and through email. Still, it came as a shock last month when the owner of the dealership contacted Albert’s customers to let us know that he had passed.

None of us were family, or even friends of the family, yet we had to do something to honor this man. He had brought together hundreds of Bronco enthusiasts from across the country, who shared one other thing in common: an appreciation for this man and his upbeat attitude, indomitable spirit, and his drive to do right by his customers. One person raised funds for flowers, and another guy picked them out and made sure they got to the memorial. There was so much money left over – about $4,500 – that another customer found out Albert’s favorite charity was a fire and rescue operation in a tiny town in Iowa, and the funds were donated. Still another one of Albert’s customers, Jon, designed patches, stickers, T-shirts, and tote bags and sold them, with the proceeds going to the same charity. I couldn’t believe all that people were doing to honor this man who had made such an impression on all of our lives. I ordered some stickers, a magnet, and a patch. Jon shipped them to me with a nice note, and I reached out to thank him for his lovely work. I mean, who does this for their car salesman?

A few days ago, I was notified by Jon’s wife that he, too, had passed away. It happened suddenly – a heart attack at work. I couldn’t believe it. I had just spoken to him online a couple of days ago. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t have any outstanding orders that Jon hadn’t shipped. She wanted to take care of the orders and get the proceeds to the charity honoring Albert.

Last night, I sewed the patch on my jean jacket. And I thought about friendships, and people, and how one person’s attitude and actions can have such a profound impact on the lives of so many other people. And how you don’t have to be a celebrity, or a politician, or a CEO, or a church leader, to bring people together and show them what it means to be treated well. To make so many other people want to be better people too. You can be a guy who designs stickers and patches to raise money for charity. You can be a car salesman. You can be like Jon and Albert.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 7, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Campground FULL

If you tried to book a campsite this summer, you were probably caught by surprise: the campgrounds were full. Maybe not every campground, and maybe not every day, but trying to reserve a weekend spot to set up a tent got a lot harder this year.

I found this out the hard way. The first week of April, I logged into Recreation.gov prepared to book campsites throughout the summer. I had a detailed plan of all the places I wanted to visit around the state. So you can imagine the look on my face when, clicking from one campground to the next, I saw row after row of Rs – as in “reserved.” I’m not new to this process – I book campsites every year, and even in a pinch, I’ve been able to locate a first come, first served site. (OK, I’ve spent a few nights in my car parked in a gas station or Walmart parking lot, but those times were few and far between.)

I wanted to avoid the parking lot nights this year, so I started booking early. Yet, the campgrounds were already full. What happened, and how did I miss the clues?

Last year’s adventures should have tipped me off. COVID kept people out of movie theaters, malls, and restaurants. They had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was outside. I witnessed this phenomenon first-hand at Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, one of many areas that initiated a permit system to manage the overwhelming demand on resources. The parking lots were full, the trails were packed, and the park rangers were struggling with impatient visitors. The second major clue to the new popularity of Colorado’s campgrounds appeared on the highways: campers, motorhomes, RVs, and travel trailers were everywhere. And whether you drive them, tow them, or stick them on top of a truck bed, you have to park those things somewhere – usually, a campground.

While campground camping may not provide the wilderness experience some people are looking for, it’s the best option for anyone who’s on a tight schedule and doesn’t have the time to find a suitable backcountry site. I’m usually doing research for a book (or two, or this year, three) so I fall into that category. I need to know that when I arrive at 6 p.m., there’s a parking spot for my car, a flat spot for my tent, and a picnic table for my laptop.

I’ve spent a lot of nights at campgrounds this year. Most had camp hosts, and I chatted with them to get their take on what’s going on out there in campground world. They all said pretty much the same thing: Colorado camping got really popular since COVID. One man, a camp host in Dillon, told me that his site opens for bookings at midnight in late November, and that people set their alarm clocks and wake up to log in and book the sites they want for the next summer. A woman who runs a site on the west side of Cottonwood Pass said that her bookings open at 8 a.m. and start filling up immediately. I asked her about first come, first served spots, which aren’t reservable, and she said, “We have six. People know when they open, and they show up first thing in the morning and stay for the full fourteen days – that’s the maximum time we allow.”

OK, so it wasn’t just my imagination. In the past, getting a site has never been an issue. This year, it was a major headache, but with a lot of searching, flexibility, and determination, I was able to book all the sites I needed – at least those that were open for booking. I have to wait on a few that were closed due to wildfires or restoration due to overpopularity. In the meantime, I put together a list of lessons learned so I don’t go through this again next year. With more books on the horizon, the summer of 2022 looks to be just as busy as the summer of 2021, and I’m going to do my best to avoid waking up in a Walmart parking lot.

  • Start planning early. Get all your dates together, plus back-up dates, and put them on your calendar. Add information from the next few bullets to your calendar as well.
  • Create an account on Recreation.gov. Locate all the campgrounds in the areas you’re visiting. Make these your primary targets, but also look for ones outside the preferred perimeter. I’ve stayed at a couple campgrounds that were 20 miles from the trailhead, but they were right off major highways, so I could still get to the trails very early.
  • Find out the date and time the reservation system opens for these campgrounds and put notifications in your calendar to remind you to book them.
  • Look at the maps of each campground. They’ll show you which sites are closest to the camp host, the road, bathrooms, and other features that you may want to be close to, or far away from.
  • Be flexible with your dates. The weekends fill quickly, and it may be easier, for a three-day trip, to book a Monday through Wednesday or a Wednesday through Friday. Then use the Sunday before your trip to pack, or the Saturday after your trip to unpack.
  • Be flexible with your location too. Campgrounds around national parks fill quickly but Colorado has amazing trails everywhere. Get away from the Front Range and enjoy some peace and quiet on the Western Slope, Grand Mesa, and Southwest Colorado.
  • If you’re driving an RV or towing a camper, consider tent camping. Tents have gotten a lot bigger and easier to manage. Sleeping pads have gotten more comfortable and robust. You may find a tent site at a campground where all the RV sites are filled.
  • Be open to walk-up (first come, first served) sites, but know how many there are and when they become available. I camped in Westcliffe this summer thinking I could easily grab a walk-up site. I got the last one, and I believe the only reason it was available was because the parking spot was too steep and narrow for a camper to negotiate.
  • If you’re tent camping, be open to walk-in sites, where you have to walk a short distance from car to campsite. Most campgrounds with walk-in sites have carts you can use to haul your tent and other gear.
  • Some areas are booked through sites other than Recreation.gov, so find that out ahead of time. Ridgway State Park reservations are made through the Colorado Parks and Wildlife site, for example.
  • While you’re booking campsites, also be sure to find out if your destination is open, closed, on a reservation system, and whether a shuttle is required. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Rocky Mountain National Park, Maroon Bells Recreation Area, Hanging Lake, Ice Lake Basin, and a number of other popular spots require some research to ensure you get where you want to go, when you want to be there. Do your homework and avoid disappointment.
  • If your favorite campground is fully booked, don’t give up. People cancel. I was able to snag a Friday night in Rocky Mountain National Park this year in addition to two other weekends I had booked early. Someone cancelled and I, on a whim, just happened to log into the booking site that day.
  • Finally, be careful out there. Getting from home to campsite to trailhead isn’t a race, and nothing ruins a vacation faster than a car accident. Obey the speed limits, don’t pass on two-lane roads unless you can absolutely see far enough up the road to make the pass safely, and be considerate of all the other drivers who want to get out there just as much as you do.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 24, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Bring on the Aliens

Earlier this summer I waited in anticipation for the government’s report on UFOs. I had high expectations: finally, after decades of rumors, fuzzy photos, and artists’ renditions, we were going to find out what was really out there. Up there. Somewhere.

You can imagine my disappointment when the intelligence community noted the existence of unidentified flying objects, as expected, but it didn’t acknowledge any signs of intelligent life. In other words, yup, there’s stuff flying around, but nope, we don’t think it’s alien beings from Mars…or Venus…or Pluto. Bummer. I don’t know about you, but I was really looking forward to aliens. After all, I’ve been preparing for them for decades.

My introduction to aliens was either the first film version of The War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 book of the same name, or it was The Twilight Zone’s 64th episode, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Back then it was all about Martians. Even as a kid I knew those aliens on the TV set were fake, but what about the ones on the covers of the tabloid newspapers and magazines? Could those be real? I wondered.

As I got older, I realized pretty much nothing in those publications was real, but I still wondered about non-human, interplanetary travelers. I kept looking for evidence (in more reliable publications) but there was little to satisfy my curiosity. Over the years, I’ve learned to settle for sci-fi novels and movies and there’s been plenty to keep me occupied. This summer, after getting the disappointing news from the intelligence community, I started binge-watching all my old favorites. Some have stood the test of time (The Thing) while others weren’t nearly as good as I remembered (Mars Attacks!). I also realized there are a lot that I haven’t seen (Super 8). With Friday the 13th approaching [note, this column first appeared in August 2021], I put together a list of my Top 13 Alien Films. So get out the tin foil hats and pour the bubbly drinks. Pop some popcorn, or if you want to get fancy, google “alien themed snacks” and whip something up. Then settle in for thirteen nights of extra-weird, extra-creepy, extraterrestrial movies that’ll satisfy your cosmogonal creature cravings.

  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, the 1978 film is the best of the three versions. Starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy. Rated PG and streaming on Prime Video, free on Pluto TV.
  • Independence Day: Will Smith stars in this patriotic family favorite, along with Bill Pullman and again, Jeff Goldblum. It gets a PG-13 rating and you can watch it on HBO and HBO Max or rent/buy on Prime Video.
  • War of the Worlds: No doubt you’ve seen the 2005 film starring Tom Cruise. This version’s entertaining enough for a second viewing. Rated PG-13, and you can rent or buy it on Prime Video and YouTube.
  • Signs: Ever since The Sixth Sense, movie-goers have looked forward to director M. Night Shyamalan’s twisted endings, and 2002’s Signs delivers. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix star in this PG-13 film that you can rent or buy on Prime Video.
  • Pitch Black: It’s hard to believe this film came out 21 years ago, a year before Vin Diesel got famous for some car franchise. It ranks among my top alien films, and you can watch it on Showtime or rent/buy on Prime Video. Rated R.
  • District 9: This R-rated film is also one of my favorites, not only among alien-themed movies but all my favorite films. Wait until the kids are in bed then enjoy on STARZ or rent/buy on Prime Video.
  • Alien, Aliens, and the rest of the franchise. Rated R, but I’m pretty sure I let my kids watch all of them anyway. This is my favorite Sigourney Weaver role, and it makes me wonder why there aren’t more alien films with female leads. Watch the first two for free on Tubi TV, rent or buy Alien 3 on Prime Video.
  • E.T. The Extraterrestrial: The first adorable alien movie and still the best. Rated PG and you can stream it on Prime.
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Another PG film – yay! Maybe not as endearing as E.T., but still a family-pleaser. Rent or buy on Prime Video.
  • Total Recall: Arnold Schwarzenegger made a lot of action films, and I probably took my kids to every one of them. This one’s directed by Paul Verhoeven of RoboCop fame. Rated R. See it on Netflix or free on Pluto TV.
  • Starship Troopers: Another Verhoeven classic. I don’t even know why I love this movie so much, but I’ve probably watched it a dozen times. It’s just…fun. The book by Robert A. Heinlein is much more serious, but also terrific and worth a read. For now, watch the R-rated film on Starz, or rent/buy on Prime Video.
  • Ghosts of Mars: OK, it’s a horror film, but it has Martians in it, so it fits here too. Rated R and with Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, and Pam Grier. Starz or Prime Video.
  • Cloverfield: Another horror film but again, there’s aliens. I remember hearing a lot about this film when it came out in 2008 – it only took me twelve years to watch it. Make the popcorn ahead of time because you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen. PG-13 and OK for kids who don’t scare easily. Rent or buy on Prime Video.

What did I miss? Let me know and I’ll add it to my watch list.

Some alien movies have aged better than others, but they’re all still fun to watch, and rewatch. Mars Attacks! t-shirt by Cavity Colors.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 10, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Help with the Scary Stuff

Around the middle of May, I found out that I had basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. I learned a lot about the condition since then, and most surprising to me was how many people I know who have had it too. Once I started talking about it, it seemed everyone had a story to tell about their basal and squamous cell carcinomas and their melanomas. These are all people who spend a lot of time outdoors in the sunshine and often at altitude, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. They also all had good outcomes, which was a relief.

The toughest part was the initial shock. After getting over that, everything went smoothly. My doctor referred me to Optum, a dermatology clinic, where PA Hubbard and Melissa took care of me. They applied a local anesthetic and performed an elliptical excision, which is an outpatient surgery where a football-shaped section of skin is cut away, or excised. A four-millimeter margin around the carcinoma ensures all the cancer cells are removed. The excised skin is checked again in a lab, after the surgery, to make sure they get all of it.

I must have been numbed up pretty good because I didn’t feel the cut at all. The eleven stitches – three on the inside and eight on the outside – felt like a gentle tugging. I was reminded of hemming my jeans when I was a teen and decided that’s what they must have felt like. In under an hour I was done. All I had to do now was keep it clean, keep it from drying out by applying petroleum jelly, and change the bandage twice a day. Easy enough.

What I didn’t count on was how hard it would be to change the bandage. When I broke my arm last fall, I came up with all kinds of ways to get things done with just one hand. And as much of a pain as putting a plastic bag over it was every time I took a shower, I could reach it just fine. This bandage-changing thing was a whole new challenge. The stitches were low on my right shoulder blade, just out of reach of my fingertips. After struggling through twists, turns, and contortions, I looked around for tools to help me out. Tweezers were just long enough to grasp the edges and pull a bandage off. A cotton swab dipped in petroleum jelly could reach the stitches, and my toothbrush was enlisted to smooth the adhesive onto my skin. Yes, changing my bandage was as fun as it sounds.

My biggest concern was sweating it off. The day after the surgery, I went up 11,499′ Mount Rosa, a roughly 14-mile, 4,000 feet of elevation gain hike round-trip. The new paved parking at the Powell Trailhead was a welcome sight, but the day was sweltering. Surprisingly, the bandage held up against the heat, the sweat, and my daypack. A few days later I hiked to Sandbeach Lake, then Flattop Mountain, in Rocky Mountain National Park. No problems, at least with the bandage. The following week, I spent a few days in the Flat Tops Wilderness. This was at the height of the heat wave, and the humidity was through the roof. I had four hikes planned, and everything was going well until hike #2. As I slung my pack over my back at the Outlet Trailhead, I happened to catch a glimpse of my shoulder in my car’s side mirror. The bandage was hanging by one edge, exposing the stitches. My toothbrush was back at camp, in a bear locker, along with my food and all the other smelly stuff I had brought with me. This was not good. I looked around helplessly – and locked eyes with a guy on the other side of the parking lot.

“Can you do me a huge favor?” I hollered.

I felt silly asking, but when I explained the situation, the guy, Mike, didn’t hesitate. He grabbed some nitrile gloves from his car (COVID leftovers, he said), removed the old bandage, dropped it in my baggy, and described the appearance of the stitched area.

“It’s healing nicely,” he said, “No infection. You should be able to stop covering this in a couple of weeks.” He finished up, applying a fresh bandage, then he told me about all the best hiking trails in the area.

I’m going back to the dermatologist this fall. He recommended full-body skin scans every six months for a few years, and if there are no recurrences, annually. I’ve traded up from SPF 30 to SPF 50, and I’m more diligent about applying it regularly on my hikes. But I’m less worried now. I know that a lot of people in Colorado get skin cancer and have good outcomes. I know there are people out there who can do pain-free surgeries. And I know there are people who will change your bandage, too, if you ask.

There’s a lot of scary stuff in the world. The shock of finding out I had skin cancer was tough, and changing the bandage was tough too. But learning there are kind people in the world willing to help me through it makes it a lot less scary.

This blog first appeared as a column in the July 13, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Colorado Author Talks Training, Tragedy, Resilience, and Mount Everest

“I lunged toward the tent door and reached for the zipper, but I missed when our tent jumped violently. We, the tent, and the thousand-foot-thick glacier underneath us all lifted half a foot in the air…Then I got it. Earthquake!”

Anyone who’s been through an earthquake understands that feeling of uncertainty, then the knowing, then the fear. Imagine those feelings when you’re in a tent at 6,065 meters (19,900 feet) on the world’s highest mountain. That’s the story detailed in “The Next Everest” by Colorado author and speaker Jim Davidson, who was at Camp 1 on Mount Everest during the April 25, 2015, earthquake that took the lives of nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, including 22 climbers who perished in an avalanche on the mountain’s deadliest day.

I first met Jim in 2018 at the Pikes Peak Library District’s Mountain of Authors, an annual event where local authors and readers mingle to discuss new publications. I was showcasing my books alongside those of the few other nonfiction authors in attendance, including Jim and his first book, “The Ledge,” a New York Times bestseller. In that book, co-authored with Kevin Vaughan, Jim tells the story of another tragedy: how he barely survived a climbing accident on Mount Rainier that took the life of his climbing partner and best friend, Mike Price.

At Mountain of Authors, Jim and I hit it off immediately over our love for all things mountaineering. Since then, I’ve followed his adventures in the news and on social media and have had the pleasure to meet with him again at events such as the annual trade show Outdoor Retailer. I won’t spoil the book for you, but I will recommend it. Jim wrote this book in a style that makes it accessible to everyone, no matter how much or how little you know about high-altitude mountaineering. It’s intense, it’s human, and it’s much more than an adventure tale.

Jim Davidson at Camp Three (23,700 feet) on Mount Everest during his summit push in May 2017.

When I spoke with Jim recently, I asked him how he got started mountaineering. He told me, “In 1981 I went on a ten-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and that opened my eyes to wilderness travel. I soon took a rock-climbing class and did my first winter mountaineering trip on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Those early experiences filled me with awe, so I soon dropped all my other hobbies, and have focused on high, snowy mountains ever since.”

For training, Jim believes that multiple formats – including formal education, reading, practice, and mentors – are “all necessary to develop the broad skill set needed to be a safe and successful mountaineer.” He added, “I’ve taken many technical training classes during my 39 years of mountaineering: rock climbing, ice climbing, first aid, avalanche awareness, vertical rescue, and a dozen others. I believe that every climbing and survival book contains key lessons that could someday save your life, or help you get out of a jam.”

 Jim said, “I have been fortunate to be mentored by some excellent veteran climbers, and they really helped me develop my ‘mountain sense,’ which has been invaluable to me and my team many times. As an older climber now, I try to pay it back by sharing what I know with younger climbers.” In fact, he noted that sharing hard-won survival lessons that might help somebody else were one of his motivations for becoming an adventure writer.

I prodded Jim for his big mountain training plan. “Long before I went to Everest,” he said, “I worked out a plan to eventually get myself ready for the world’s tallest mountain. I did a decade of alpine climbing to build my technical skills and base fitness. Then I climbed higher peaks (14,000 to 22,000 feet tall) for another decade to understand how I function at ever higher altitudes, and to develop the judgment that becomes so critical when the air is thin and it’s hard to think straight. Then, I climbed the sixth-highest peak in the world (Cho Oyu, 26,906 feet) to get some extreme altitude experience under my harness. With that foundation, I spent an intense year doing a mapped-out fitness plan that focused on extreme endurance, functional strength, and good nutrition. For the last two months, I built up to stacking long mountain days one after the other, without any rest days in between.”

Jim is grateful for the opportunity to train close to his Fort Collins home. “Colorado is a fantastic place to train for 8,000-meter peaks (those higher than 26,000 feet),” he said. “Multi-peak days, high traverses, and winter fourteeners are excellent expedition training for people who must balance their mountaineering with a job, school, and daily life.” At the same time, he cautions would-be big mountain climbers to take their time. “Don’t be in a rush to try Mount Everest,” he said. “There are so many difficulties and dangers up that high, that you need very broad and deep mountaineering experience before climbing into the Death Zone. Spend years crafting yourself into the fittest, smartest climber and teammate that you can become, and then ask yourself if you’re ready for Everest.”

In addition to Asia’s Mount Everest, Jim’s summited other continental highpoints – known as the Seven Summits – Aconcagua (South America) and Kilimanjaro (Africa), and attempted US highpoint Denali. He shared, “My teammates and I were two hours from the top of Denali in good weather but gave up our summit to help rescue a very ill solo climber. I think that difficult rescue taught me far more about being a resilient team member than standing on top of Denali would have.” That story is included in “The Next Everest.”

Jim talked about his future peak plans. “I intend to keep climbing until injury or old age force me to stop,” he said. “My friends and I try to do an expedition about every other year. We climbed in Peru in 2019, and once international travel is safe for everyone, including the host country, I hope to climb some high peaks in South America.” He’s going to keep writing too. “I’m busy doing presentations and interviews about my current book and it will soon publish in five international editions,” he said, “but I’ve already started outlining some ideas for a third mountaineering book. We shall see.”

You can pick up “The Next Everest” at any bookstore and online. To catch Jim on the road, at a book signing or presentation, check out his site “Speaking of Adventure.” And be sure to attend next spring’s Mountain of Authors. You just never know who you might meet, where they have been, or what they’ve survived.

Davidson’s “The Next Everest” details his 2015 Everest attempt, when a 7.8 earthquake derailed his summit bid but strengthened his resilience to return to the world’s highest mountain in 2017.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 22, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

A Better Camping Kitchen

Last week I spent a few days hiking in Telluride. I was lucky to snag the last tent site at Ridgway State Park, so instead of backpacking or dispersed camping, I’d have a nice tent pad and a picnic table waiting for me in the park. No searching for a dispersed site on some backroad and no hauling everything to a backcountry site in my pack. I was car camping, the easiest and most convenient way to camp, especially in these post-pandemic times when everyone’s on the road or at a campsite.

On the drive and on my hikes, I saw the usual Colorado spectacles: a herd of buffalo, six different herds of elk, three herons, two water ouzels, nine waterfalls, and one perfect rainbow. I got rained on, snowed on, graupeled on, and windblown, and even though I used sunscreen, I got a touch of sun on my face as well. In other words, it was nothing special. Just a typical Colorado road and trail trip.

Until dinnertime, when I had an eye-opening epiphany. I usually hike and camp alone, but this time a friend joined me. We split the gear and the chores and had decided that I would bring the food and he would bring all the cooking gear – the camp kitchen. Now I’m not cheap, but I tend to not replace anything until I have to. Like Mom always said: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ve lived this way my whole life, waiting for things to literally fall apart before I get a new thing. This is evident in my clothes, my gear, and in my camp kitchen. I still use the same MSR Pocket Rocket stove and stainless steel pot that I bought nearly twenty years ago. That setup has hung out at campsites on every 14er that I didn’t day hike. I cooked hot dogs on it near the summit of Mount Princeton. It’s cooked mountainside meals on Mount Whitney and Mount Russell in California, and on every ultra-prominence peaks (mountains with 5,000 feet or more of prominence) from here to the Mexican border. That little stove and pot have never failed me, and since they ain’t broke, I never thought to fix or replace them. I use them for backpacking, dispersed camping, and for car camping, like I was doing at Ridgway State Park.

But this time I left my camp kitchen at home and deferred to my friend’s setup. Imagine my surprise when he hauled out a two-burner camp stove with pots, pans, and silicone cooking utensils. He had real plates and silverware and, get this: actual coffee mugs. There was a camp stove toaster, cloth napkins, and a cloth for the picnic table.

Dinner was awesome. We could actually cook the Beyond Burgers and Steakhouse Recipe Grillin’ Beans at the same time, on two burners, instead of one at a time, like I always did. Breakfast the next morning was even better: while the Jack and Annie’s Jackfruit Sausage Links browned in one pan, the Just Egg got scrambled in another.

So this week I did a little shopping. I usually buy super lightweight gear for backpacking, which can be pricey, but for car camping, I found that bamboo works just fine. I got bamboo plates, bowls, cups, utensils, and even a coffee mug. Bamboo, by the way, is biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable if it doesn’t have coatings or glues, and I bought the kind that doesn’t. It just needs an annual seasoning with a rub of food grade mineral oil or fractionated coconut oil, and if it starts to smell, you can brighten it up with a swipe of lemon juice. I bought some other stuff too: a pretty tablecloth and napkins, and even a two-burner stove.

Mom taught me to be frugal, but she didn’t raise any fools. So while I’ll still use my tiny little stove and pot for backpacking, I’m going to live it up on this summer’s car camping trips. I have tent sites booked all summer in the Flat Tops Wilderness, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dillon, Durango, and Crested Butte, and I’m looking forward to seeing how many dinners I can whip up with my new bamboo gear. And next time, whether camping alone or with a friend, I’m bringing the camp kitchen.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 8, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Tempting Fate

In my last column, I mentioned how I never get sick. Typing those words made me uncomfortable – like I was tempting fate. It’s like washing your car in the beautiful Colorado sunshine. You just know it’s going to rain the next day.

That’s how I felt, and it nagged at me. Was I really as healthy as I thought? I turned in my column, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t feel sick, but surely, at my age, there must be something wrong with me. Was there something I had overlooked? That’s when I remembered that thing on my back.

“That thing” is a tiny pinprick of a sore on my left shoulder blade. It’s been there for weeks…no, months. I’d noticed it one day in the shower. The hot water hit my back at a certain angle, and it stung. I figured that, while out hiking, I must have gotten stuck with a tree branch that punctured my skin. Or it could be a bee sting or a bug bite. Whatever it was, I dismissed it and went on with my life.

Weeks later, in the shower, I felt it again. Ouch. It still hadn’t healed. For a fleeting moment, I thought, “I need to get that checked out.” But then I was out of the shower and dressed and had forgotten all about it. Out of sight, out of mind. That scenario played out a dozen times over the months. Every time, I’d ignore it and get on with the day. But now, on this day when I’d had the nerve to write a column gloating about my good health, I felt like I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I googled the symptoms, then I called the doctor and made an appointment.

A couple of days later, I was lying face-down in an examination room having cells cut from the surface of that thing on my back. The doctor sent the cells to a lab, and a few days later called me with the results of the biopsy. It was basal cell carcinoma, she said. I know what carcinoma means – it’s cancer. I just didn’t think I could really have something like that. I’m never sick, remember?

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. I didn’t plan to find out I have skin cancer this month, it just worked out that way. So, perfect timing for this column. The other good news is that the basal cell type is the most common skin cancer, and typically easy to treat. There will be another biopsy, this time at a dermatology clinic. They’ll cut more cells, look at them under a microscope, and keep cutting until they get them all. At least I think that’s how it’s done. If I’m lucky, that will be the end of it. The other good news is that I don’t have squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma, other skin cancers that can be more serious. The bad news is that even basal cell carcinoma can be fatal if it’s left untreated and spreads to other parts of the body.

Again, May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. What better time to get a full-body skin scan at your favorite dermatologist’s office? While you’re at it, pick up a fresh bottle of broad spectrum, 30 SPF or higher, water-resistant sunscreen. Apply, rub it in, then apply a second coat to get the full effects. Don’t skip your ears, neck, and shoulders. Get some lip balm with sunscreen too, and make sure you have sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. For my eyes, I prefer wraparound “glacier glasses” with flexible temples to provide a good seal against the sun’s rays. You can get these at any outdoor retailer like Mountain Chalet or REI, or from your regular optician.

Skin cancer can take years to appear. Mine may have started a long time ago. Growing up, I spent a lot of hours on the beaches of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and California with a skimpy bathing suit, a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil, and no skin protection. Later, I spent many more hours hiking and climbing in the mountains. I had smartened up by then, applying and reapplying sunscreen liberally, but the damage had probably been done. However and whenever I got basal cell carcinoma doesn’t matter. What’s important is that I stopped ignoring the symptoms. And you can bet that if the dermatologist can get rid of this thing on my back, I’ll be wearing even more sunscreen every day and scheduling a full-body skin scan every year for the rest of my life. I may never get sick, but I can get skin cancer. Now I just need to get rid of it.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 25, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

New Tricks for an Aging Gal

Staying healthy as I get older hasn’t gotten easier. It’s not that I’m prone to illness; I cannot remember the last time I was sick. I had no reaction from my two Pfizer shots, and the flu passed me by again, for the umpteenth year in a row. More than likely, I’m just the lucky beneficiary of virus- and disease-resistant genes and a pretty good immune system.

This isn’t about being sick. It’s about general health and feeling good and energetic all day. I guess I’m getting older, because my usual minimum effort approach to staying in shape isn’t paying off with the same dividends. I eat less and gain weight. I exercise more and get weaker and slower. Like my mother always said, “Getting old is a dirty trick.” I used to wonder what she meant by that, and now I know: just when you figure out what’s important in life and how you should be spending your time, the universe says, “Not so fast!” And suddenly, you have to work a lot harder to do all those things you want to do.

Another dirty trick that life plays on us aging women is menopause. Just when you really need more sleep, it does something crazy to your hormones that makes you wake up at four o’clock in the morning. Every single morning, like clockwork. Wide awake, like you just downed a whole Double Shot Espresso Grande. Thank goodness I’m past that point in life, but at least I made the most of it while it lasted: I wrote an entire book in the hours between 4 and 6 a.m. one year not so long ago. Then I was wiped out the rest of the day, every day, from a lack of sleep. If you’re in a similar situation, I don’t recommend this method for dealing with menopause. You should probably see a doctor instead.

So now I’m even older, and though I’m still struggling with the whole health-as-I-age thing, I do have the sleeping part down. I stopped setting an alarm clock years ago, which has done wonders for my mental health. Now I sleep until I’m ready to get up, which is seldom 4 in the morning. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I still sleep on a waterbed. I’ve slept on one since the 1980s, and though I’ve been tempted by the fancy new mattresses out there these days that do all sorts of cool things (I’m not kidding – they shake, rattle, roll, and charge your cell phone while you sleep), I’ll probably continue to sleep on a water mattress till the day I die. They’re always warm, and if you get bored, you can bounce on them and pretend you’re sleeping in a boat on the ocean. I don’t know why waterbeds went out of style. If I do wake up in the night, I turn on an audiobook and am out in minutes. I probably listened to the 30-hour-long audible “Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga” five times because I slept through so many chapters and had to keep rewinding them. But it does the trick, and I wake up rested.

Recently, I solved my other health issues too. Instead of worrying about my weight, I bought bigger pants and stopped getting on the scale. And instead of trying to keep up with the younger folks on the trail, I hike alone or with old people who are slower than I am. Because Mom was right; getting old is a dirty trick. But you can beat it at its own game. You just need a few tricks of your own.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 10, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Gaga for Van Gogh

Quick, who’s your favorite artist?

I’m going to go out on a paintbrush – I mean a limb – and guess you said, “Vincent van Gogh.” I don’t have anything to back up this assumption except the fact that half the people I know seem to be gaga for Van Gogh, and I proudly count myself among them.

I don’t know what it is about the Dutch post-impressionist that draws people in. It may be the simple fact that his work is so easily recognizable. He was the first artist whose paintings I could identify as a child (at least that’s what my older sister tells me: “You’d look through Mom’s art books and point out every one of his works, yelling ‘Van Gogh! Van Gogh!’”). Or maybe it’s the colors – the rich blues and vibrant oranges, complementary colors that seem to quiver and shake off the canvas in works like “Starry Night,” “Café Terrace at Night,” and “Wheatfield with Crows.” Yet, even the calmer hued works like “Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries” and “Bedroom in Arles” evoke emotion. They take me back to my younger days, living on the New England coast and living in a tiny Boston apartment. “The Potato Eaters” speaks to me about the sad hopelessness of poverty. Every masterpiece – the thick paint, swirling brush strokes, and the subject matter – come together to transport the viewer to a time, a place, and a feeling that’s unmistakably Van Gogh.

I loved Van Gogh – and other artists too – so much that I majored in fine art in high school and at my first college, with a concentration in animation my last two years. When I bought my home here on the Springs’s northwest side, I had the inside painted white throughout, like the Van Gogh Museum, and hung the master’s prints on every wall. Over the years, I caught glimpses of his work at various museums: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Met and Guggenheim museums, Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, and closer to home at the Denver Art Museum. In 2003, I finally visited Amsterdam and enjoyed tours of that city’s museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum, the Anne Frank House, and of course, the Van Gogh Museum.

Last week I attended a virtual demonstration by local artist and Bemis instructor Dena Peterson. Dena was an artist for the live action and animation film “Loving Vincent.” I saw the movie downtown when it was released in 2017, and fell in love with the film, and with Van Gogh – again. The images were breathtaking, the work involved – a combination of oil painting and animation technology – mindboggling. It took first place in the Best Animated Feature Film category at the 30th European Film Awards and was nominated for an Oscar here in the States. What I liked most about that film wasn’t the art or the technology, though; it was the story, and the writers’ treatment of Van Gogh. They gave him a dignity that, to me, had been sorely lacking among the masses. The court of public opinion can be cruel, and many people’s focus was not on the genius of his work, but on his mental struggles with love and with life. In “Loving Vincent,” the writers, the artists, and maybe the technologists too, seemed to love this man and his work, just like I did. Their shared admiration and compassion shone through in every frame. Sometimes it’s just nice to spend time with people who love something as much as you do.

The Van Gogh Museum is temporarily closed but you can view the collection online at Van Gogh Museum Collection. View the film “Loving Vincent” on Hulu or for a small fee on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other streaming services. Sign up for a painting class with Dena Peterson on the Bemis Art School website. And don’t miss the large-scale exhibits Van Gogh Alive and Immersive Van Gogh Experience coming to Denver this summer and fall, your chance to wander in, around, and through the works of your favorite artist. I hope to see you there. Because sometimes, it’s just nice to spend time with people who love something as much as I do.

This blog first appeared as a column in the April 26, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Noon: Rest from Work” is in Amsterdam, but you can make your own Van Gogh experience with a virtual visit to the Van Gogh Museum or to one of Denver’s large-scale, immersive Van Gogh installations.

Lessons in the Field

Using a GPS receiver to get around in the backcountry is a skill most avid hikers take time to master. I learned on the fly, out of necessity rather than desire. Ten years ago, when one of my publishers asked that I include waypoints, tracks, and maps in my next book, I had to pony up the money for a pricey global positioning system device. If you’ve never used one, a handheld GPS is a gadget that receives data from 24 satellites that orbit earth. Then it translates that data into information about the receiver’s location. If a person carrying a GPS can pick up data from 3 satellites, they’ll know where they are on Earth’s surface. Four satellites, and they’ll get 3-dimensional information, such as their altitude, or elevation above sea level. You can see why a GPS is so valuable to backcountry travelers. Still, I wasn’t happy about this new demand on my wallet – or my time. A map and compass were cheap and easy to use. A GPS wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t intuitive either.

After giving up on the complicated instructions, I hit the trail to learn on my own, pushing buttons and making a lot of mistakes until I finally figured it out. But like every self-taught skill, my knowledge was limited to “what I need to know to get the job done.” I knew how to use my GPS to get where I wanted to go and find my way back without getting lost. I also knew how to make and take waypoints, routes, and tracks, and turn all that data into topographical maps that a publisher could put in a book. But I didn’t use all the menus, and that bothered me. Every time I clicked through them, I’d think, “I wonder what this thing does?” Then I’d remember I was supposed to be working, not playing with my GPS, and I’d get back to hiking, writing, and map-making. But those mysterious menus beckoned, and I wanted to know what else I could do with my GPS.

Knowing I’d never take the time to learn it all on my own, after a decade of wondering about all those menus, I finally signed up for a field course with local retailer REI. And last week I packed up some water, snacks, sunscreen, and my GPS, and headed over to Cheyenne Mountain State Park for my first formal course, “Introduction to GPS Navigation Class – Level 1.”

Matt Hickethier, a senior instructor with REI, was waiting for me in the Limekiln parking lot. More students showed up: Steve, Stewart, Alexa, and Kelly. There were releases to sign, hand sanitizer to use, and disposable masks and nitrile gloves for anyone who hadn’t brought their own. After a short round of introductions, Matt, a former Marine with land navigation and orienteering experience far beyond Colorado’s mountains and parklands, gave us a crash course in GPS basics: how they work, what all those menus mean, and his recommended settings. He had us create waypoints manually and then follow them on a short cross-country hike. Then he explained the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) system, an alternative to the topographical maps created by the United States Geographical Survey (USGS) back in 1984. Instead of using a compass with the UTM map, we used a clear plastic grid reader. We made UTM route points, built a route, and went on another hike, following the route we’d created.

I could have gotten along for another decade with what I’d known, but all this new knowledge is going to save me a lot of time and could get me out of some unfortunate situations in the backcountry. I learned how to share routes and waypoints with other hikers wirelessly, whereas before, I’d been emailing them to people. I learned how to create a route, which is similar to what I had been doing, but instead of bringing up numbered waypoints one at a time to follow, the GPS route function brings them up automatically. I also learned how to manually enter and edit GPS latitude and longitude or UTM eastings and northings in the field, which will come in handy if I don’t upload them to my device from my computer ahead of time. I also learned how to take a screenshot of the device, instead of taking a picture of it with my camera, which I tend to do at every trailhead and summit. Finally, I learned that the GPS can help me find the most direct route along roads or trails, a feature I wouldn’t typically use, but that could come in handy if I ever got really lost.

REI has other courses on their roster and according to Matt, you can also get individualized classes for more in-depth instruction. I signed up for a couple more classes this year – map and compass navigation, which I’ve been doing for a couple of decades, and Wilderness First Aid, even though I was a certified EMT years ago and have taken this particular course twice before.

Ten years ago, I wasn’t eager to learn how to use a GPS receiver. My trusty map and compass had served me well for years. Last week, I was cynical about how much more there was to know about the technology. A four-hour field course was like a big slice of humble pie that will save me a lot of time on the trail. And a reminder that no matter how much I think I know, there’s always more to learn.

This blog first appeared as a column in the April 13, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Columnist Susan Joy Paul joins students Steve, Kelly, and Alexa, and instructor Matt in a GPS field session at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. [Photo courtesy of Stewart M. Green]