Letting Go in the Desert

I skipped town for a few days last week. A local outdoor recreation group invited me to audit their canyoneering course and join them on their Utah field session, and of course I went, because it was a terrific excuse to sleep outside. Why I need an excuse, I don’t know. There’s a perfectly good patch of lawn outside my back door, but sleeping in the backyard just isn’t as inviting as putting up a tent on the outer reaches of nowhere, with no phone, no internet, and no facilities. Sleeping outside like that gives you permission to stop worrying about everything, because really, there’s nothing you can do about any of it when you’re miles from anywhere.

img_0310

I camped in the Utah desert on BLM land at the San Rafael Swell and it was wonderful. The air was fresher, the sleep was deeper, and the food was more savory. When the rain came at night, pounding the tent, I could hear the creek rumbling, tossing boulders about and scouring debris from nearby canyons. The roads flooded and the canyons filled with water and there was nothing I could do about any of it.

By morning the land was dry again, every raindrop soaked up by sand and porous rock, and the rest cached away, hidden from sight below the earth in plunge pools, punchbowls and slot canyons. It’s like that in the desert. The sun rose and I couldn’t stop it. Rays painted the sharp peaks and rounded domes of the swell with brilliant reds and deep creams and oranges and all I could do was watch it happen. That and drink tea, which I did, because it was all I could do.

Eventually I walked. I ventured for miles over slickrock to high vistas with views all around, and dabbled in a pool at the base of a grotto in a patch of sunlight that shone through a natural skylight eroded in the rock above.

I scrambled through shallow arroyos littered with puddles, remnants of the night’s deluge. Deep in a dry canyon I gazed down at dinosaur tracks and up at walls of sandstone glazed in desert varnish. I marveled at thousand-year-old pictographs, ancient art that symbolized something, but what? Who knows? There was nothing I could do about any of it but sit on a rock with the sun on my face, and smile. I ate watermelon out there in the desert, and the fresh cold fruit was sweet, so sweet.

Getting away like that makes everything better and I thought about that for a while. Is everything better outside? Was it the fresh air and the sunshine and the views, or was it something else?

I’m back here at work now and there’s a rainbow over Blodgett Peak. The rain’s hitting my window and the wind’s tossing the leaves about. I’m daydreaming about the desert and how peaceful that was. Here at work, and in my life, there is so very much to do and I’m working hard to organize it, manage it, and get it all done.

I can’t bring the desert back with me but maybe I can bring something else, something better. I can bring the peace of knowing there is so much going on in the world that I can’t do anything about. The wind and the rain outside my window, the rainbow over the peak, the leaves in the air, and even the birds staring back at me from the rooftops are all beyond my control. They don’t fit into my schedule or on my calendar and there’s nothing I can do about them.

Maybe that’s the secret to that feeling I get when I sleep outside, that blissful sense of rest and relief, and openness to experiencing everything more completely and without worry or distraction. Maybe everything was better out there in the desert because there was nothing I could do about any of it.

img_0567

This column first appeared in the October 12, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Advertisements

The Downside of Highpointing

Goals are fun to reach, but as they say, it’s the journey that makes them worthwhile. I was reminded of that fact last week when I met with a group of fellow hikers to sign the Colorado County Highpointers Ice Axe.

img_4442

Signing the Colorado County Highpoint Ice Axe [Photo] Stewart M. Green

Yes, there are people out there who try to get to the top of every county in Colorado. Actually, there are people who do this in every state. Hikers who reach the summits of all 64 Colorado counties are invited to sign a ceremonial ice axe. The tradition was started by Dave Covill and John Mitchler who aren’t just avid highpointers, they literally wrote the book on Colorado county highpoints, “Hiking Colorado’s Summits” (FalconGuides, 1999). The two men share a hobby of getting to the highest points of things: states, counties, countries, mountain ranges, national parks and monuments, major cities – and even, I learned last week – golf courses. Highpointing is a fun challenge that takes you to places you might typically never visit.

Hardcore mountaineers like to poke fun at highpointers because some of our achievements aren’t really all that impressive. For example, reaching the highpoints of certain Colorado counties on the eastern plains demands nothing more than a long drive on dirt roads followed by wandering around cow pastures with a hand level and a GPS – with the landowners’ permission, of course. The metro Denver county highpoints are roadside, and one is paved. But other highpoints are much more challenging. Weld County’s highpoint is located on a bison farm. It’s not a tough hike, but avoiding that large herd of 1,000-pound, curious bison was an experience I’ll never forget.

I started highpointing while I was working on another list, all the Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, or 14ers. There were times when the avalanche danger was too high to safely pursue the big peaks, and so having another list to fall back on gave me an opportunity to get out of the house, hike or climb something, and check off a peak on a list! I ticked off the eastern plains and metro Denver highpoints, which when added to the 14,000-foot highpoint peaks accounted for a majority of summits on the county highpoints list. My quest got a lot more interesting after that, taking me all over the state to places like Clark Peak in the Rawah Wilderness east of Walden, Mount Zirkel in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs, Flat Top Mountain in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, and Hagues Peak in the Mummy Range of Rocky Mountain National Park. To the south, Pueblo County’s Greenhorn Mountain and Las Animas County’s West Spanish Peak, both visible from I-25, gave me an excuse to visit the towns of Rye and La Veta, and the views – well, you’ll just have to go up there yourself. They are stunning.

I finished my county highpoint journey on Vermilion Peak in the San Juan Mountains above Ice Lake Basin near Silverton. It was one of the toughest peaks of the lot and I don’t know why I left it until last, but it was a joy to be up there enjoying the views, knowing I had finally completed a goal started years ago on El Paso County highpoint Pikes Peak. It was a sad experience, too, because it was the last peak on the list. I know that sounds silly, but I didn’t want it to be the last. I wanted more highpoints.

I was the 36th person to sign the axe last week, joined by #37 Doug Hatfield, #38 David Johnson, and #39 Mike Offerman. I’m sure many more people will pursue the Colorado County Highpoints list and finish it, too. If you’re one of those people, take a moment up there on those summits. Don’t be in a hurry to come back down. It’s nice up there, and sometimes you don’t realize just how nice until after you’ve done them all.

vemilionpeak_summit_0204_2-2

Summit of Vermilion Peak, September 19, 2015. [Photo] Stewart M. Green

This column first appeared in the September 28, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Spring Cleaning

 

“Mom, is that my Harry Potter Halloween costume? From 3rd grade?

My little boy, “G,” was home from school for a few days and storing his suitcase in the guest room closet. I didn’t answer, knowing what was coming.

“I’m teaching a college course next semester: Investments. Not vestmentsinvestments. There’s a dress code, Mom. No purple and silver robes – they’re pretty strict about that at UT,” he grinned.

img_4549

I didn’t even look at him. I knew exactly what was hanging in that closet. Vampire capes and Spiderman pajamas…pirate swords and magic wands. Please, please, don’t open that box…

“Cool, I forgot about my Harry Potter chess set, action figures – and all those puzzles. Why are you hanging onto this stuff?”

It was a fair question. Why do I hang onto all that stuff?

I’m not a hoarder, just an “empty nester,” one of those people whose lives revolved around kids for 25 years and then suddenly I woke up one day and the bathroom was clean – still clean, after a whole week. My boys had grown up, moved out and moved on in their lives, but apparently I had not. Their books, toys, and games are stashed away in every closet, cupboard and corner of the house, connections to sweet memories of those magical times when they were little and nothing mattered to me but making them smile.

“Yes, memories,” said G, “not portkeys. They won’t bring us back.” Maybe that’s what I didn’t want to think about, that they were never coming back. Of course my boys would come back, my big boys who had somehow grown taller than me and were driving cars, buying furniture, and saving for retirement. Those boys showed up from time to time, but the little guys, the ones I took trick-or-treating in purple robes, and stood in line with at the theater every time a new Harry Potter movie came out, they were never coming back.

“You still have all the books, too,” said G, pulling a copy of The Sorcerer’s Stone from the bookshelf. I had read him a chapter every night, and by The Chamber of Secrets he was reading them to me. We read the final novels on our own, speculated about how Rowling was going to tie up all the loose ends after The Half-Blood Prince, and probably spent an hour on the phone discussing the revelations uncovered in The Deathly Hallows. “I always liked Snape,” I had said, “He was always my favorite.”

I’m boxing everything up this week. There’s a place down the street with kids who would love this stuff – Zach’s Place, it’s called. It used to be La Petite Academy and I used to drop G off there every morning on my way to work. At the bottom of the hill is another place called Goodwill and they have a drive-through. I’m going to find new homes for all this stuff, because it’s too precious to keep to myself anymore. Maybe someday a mom can sit on the floor and do these puzzles with her little guy, or a kid can dress up in purple robes and be a wizard for a while.

I’m keeping the books. They’re not portkeys, and holding onto them won’t transport me to another place or time. But sometimes when I lie in bed at night with a cup of tea and read a chapter to myself, and remember those little boys’ voices in my ear and the wonder in their eyes…sometimes, it’s magic.

This column first appeared in the April 27, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

The Highest Compliment

I like to know why people do things, so when I spoke to several volunteers last week as part of some stories I was working on, I asked each one of them, “Why do you do it?”

They gave me a lot of great answers. There are exceptional people in this town who dedicate their lives to local organizations like the American Red Cross, Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence, and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. It was a very humbling week for me.

That got me thinking about my own experiences with volunteering over the years. Why did I do it? There had to be a reason. Like Cori Tanner, a volunteer for the Red Cross, told me, “None of us is Mother Teresa. We have to get something out of this.” Was she right? Why did I volunteer and what did I get out of it?

I thought about my own Red Cross volunteer experiences. Years ago, living in California’s Mojave Desert, I wanted to be a paramedic. I found out that I should be an EMT, an emergency medical technician, first, and then decide if training to become a paramedic made sense for me. I went back to school and got my EMT certification and then I tried to get a job. I quickly found that EMTs don’t make much money, and the starting salary was a small fraction of what I was making as a bartender on Edwards Air Force Base. What to do?

I took a volunteer position working on the base as an EMT for the American Red Cross. That way, I kept my bartender pay and still got to work as an EMT several times a week, on my schedule. I wasn’t on call and I didn’t do any overnight shifts, which would have impacted my job, but I got to discover what it was like to work alongside medical staff at the base hospital. I started out in the pediatric clinic, then moved to the emergency room. It was exciting – an amazing experience, really. Back then, Red Cross volunteers on military bases could do a lot. I weighed and measured the babies that came into the clinic, and took their temperatures. After a while I was giving shots. In the ER, I helped with all kinds of things: bandaging, casting, stitching, and anything else I felt confident enough to do and the doctors and other EMTs trusted me to do. My most memorable patient was a guy who had been in a motorcycle accident. I had to scrub all the pavement out of his skin with what looked like a Brillo pad – and with no anesthetic. I felt awful doing it. Surely it must have been incredibly painful for him! He could sense how I felt and actually talked me through it, reassuring me that it would be okay and we could get through the experience together. After all, he reminded me, nothing I could do to him was going to be any worse than what his commanding officer was going to do to him for “damaging government property,” he joked.

I learned an important lesson as an EMT: I could never be a paramedic. Working with the adults was just fine, but whenever they brought in an injured kid I would literally get sick to my stomach. I’d feel faint and have to sit down. I can’t handle seeing hurt kids, I discovered, and when you’re a paid EMT or paramedic you don’t get to choose your patients. I gave up on my paramedic dream, but the American Red Cross had allowed me to try on a medical career long enough to figure out that it wasn’t a good fit for me.

Years later I became a CASA volunteer here in Colorado Springs. They have a wonderful training program and ongoing support for their volunteers. As a court-appointed special advocate for neglected and abused children in the Pikes Peak area, I got to help out kids, which I loved, but again, after a while it got to me, seeing kids who had been physically injured or who just were not being properly cared for by their parents and other caregivers. It was too much for me to handle, and after a few years I had to stop doing it.

I had more volunteer experiences over the years, and each time I came away with more knowledge about the world and the people in it. Sometimes what I discovered made me more compassionate, and sometimes it made me very angry. I also learned about myself – what I truly cared about, what I loved doing with my time and my life, and what I could never do – no matter how much I cared. We can’t all be paramedics.

One thing stuck: sponsorships. I’ve sponsored children with monthly donations for many years, which has allowed me to help kids without passing out or having nightmares about it. My longest sponsorship was for a little girl named Mercy who lived in a village in Kenya. Mercy was just six years old in 2001, when we met through photos and letters. She would draw pictures for me and Christian Children’s Fund (now Child Fund) would send them to me, along with her letters and photographs of Mercy with her family. In addition to the small monthly sponsorship that helped pay for her food, clothing, and medical care, I would send her extra money for special occasions, like her birthday, or Christmas. The family never kept this money to themselves. They shared it with the whole village. Fifty bucks would pay for a whole holiday meal for everyone, and they would still have enough left over to buy Mercy a new dress, and buy some staples to put away when food was low. I learned a lot in my communications with Mercy and her family. When I lamented to her about the drought here in Colorado, she responded, “We are suffering a drought as well and there is not enough food. How is the drought affecting you and your family?” I didn’t tell her about my brown lawn.

I corresponded with Mercy for thirteen years. A couple of years ago I got a letter from Christian Children’s Fund. They wanted to speak with me on the phone. I had never spoken to anyone there on the phone. What was going on?

It was the worst possible news. Mercy had pneumonia and passed away suddenly. How does a 19-year-old child die from pneumonia? They don’t have the medical resources, they told me. I won’t pretend to know what a parent who has lost a child of their own goes through, but I felt pain, and sadness, and tremendous guilt. My stupid brown lawn and whatever else I was dealing with…and this little girl couldn’t get basic medical help. The lady at Christian Children’s Fund expressed her sympathy and told me, “Susan, there was nothing you could do. Please know that you did make Mercy’s life better.”

I’m sponsoring two little girls now, a cousin of Mercy’s in that same Kenyan village, and another little girl in Vietnam. I send them letters and postcards and I never tell them about my trivial problems here in Colorado Springs.

Cori Tanner was right: None of us is Mother Teresa. What I gained from working as an EMT, and for CASA, and through helping out Mercy — and now Martha and Diu — is infinitely more valuable than the time and money I gave up to get it. And those words of the lady who called to give me the bad news about Mercy ring in my head. “You made her life better.” I can’t imagine a higher compliment.

This column first appeared in an edited version in the September 14, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Life’s a Bike!

I’m not an athletic person. People who read my guidebooks on outdoor recreation and follow my progress on peak-bagging sites are usually surprised to hear that, but it’s true.

I’m not athletic, but I am adventurous, so when I got asked to do a 17-mile bike ride for a story I said “Sure, why not?” I hadn’t been on a bike in more than 40 years, but I remembered that old saying, “It’s just like riding a bike,” and figured I’d be fine.

1024px-Islabike_Beinn_24

[Photo]By Dave Haygarth (Lily’s Islabike Beinn 24) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday morning, driving out to meet the guide from Pikes Peak Bike Tours at Cheyenne Mountain Resort (the resort is offering a fall foliage bike tour package through the bicycle outfitter) I had a thought: “What if ‘it’s just like riding a bike’ is just a saying and it’s not really true? What if riding a bike isn’t ‘just like riding a bike’ at all?”

I pulled over and Googled it on my phone. Opinions on the matter were mixed. My muscle memory should kick in and keep me upright…but maybe not. I thought about my situation and the best and worst case scenarios. Best case was I would be able to maintain my balance, keep the bike up without humiliating myself too much, and complete the ride. Worst case was I would be walking my bike for 17 miles, from the Saint Peters Dome Overlook at 9,000 feet down to Old Colorado City, 3,000 feet below…past other bikers, hikers, dogs, strollers…toddlers on tricycles. I had a big pair of sunglasses and a ball cap to hide under, and a backpack with 3 liters of water – I could survive that. Okay, I’m going to do this.

Scott at the bike place gave me a tall, skinny-looking bike to ride. “Too high,” I said. “It’s the right size for your height,” he told me. “I don’t care,” I said. It was the right size for my height, but it had nothing in common with my stumpy legs and oversized derriere. He went back into the shop and came out with a burly blue thing, short and fat-tired – like me. I walked the bike off the pavement to a gravel lot, figuring that when I hit the dirt, the rocks would cushion the blow.

I hopped on, put a foot on one of the pedals, and pushed off. And did not tip over. It was amazing! The bike stayed up, I stayed up, and kept going! After circling the parking lot a few times, I backpedaled to slow down but there was no resistance. Then I remembered that bikes were different now and brakes were on the handlebars. I pushed some buttons, pulled some levers, and finally came to a stop.

Before “the big ride,” Scott explained the gears and brakes to me, and even followed alongside me for the first mile to make sure I could shift gears, slow down and stop.

The ride was a blast. I did not fall off a cliff, hit a tree, or run over any dogs or children on the trail. I managed to get my sunglasses off before plunging into the dark tunnels along the route and get them back on again as I emerged into the sunshine on the other side (yes, you heard that right – I rode that bike with one hand!). I navigated the bike lane on 26th Street and crossed Highway 24 without incident.

“Big deal,” you’re probably thinking, “she rode a bike.” Well, to me, it actually was a big deal. I’m not athletic – or young. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was 14 years old, and it was borrowed. I had my own bike when I was about 7, a rusty old thing my dad had picked up at a yard sale. We moved the next year and the bike didn’t fit in the car, so it was left behind.

I guess that always stuck in my mind: Bikes were a luxury. They were for rich, athletic people – people who stayed put and didn’t move every couple of years. Bikes were for people who had nice things, not people like me. It was good to get on that bike and not fall down.

Life’s a bike. And bikes, I learned, are for everybody.

This column first appeared in the August 31, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Ignorance is Mine

“You know about coke ovens, right?” he asked.

Of course I did. I had lived here for decades, studied Colorado history and geology, and had even hiked around the “Coke Ovens” — big beehive-shaped rock formations — at Colorado National Monument. I drank Coke many years ago, and there was an oven in my kitchen. I knew all about … I knew nothing about coke ovens.

Coke_ovens_being_restored,_Redstone,_CO

[Photo] By Jesse Varner from Boulder, Colorado, USA. Cropped and color-corrected prior to upload by Daniel Case (Coke ovens being restored at Redstone) / Wikimedia Commons

“And there’s the coke oven,” said Eric, “I wonder what will happen to it now that the property’s been sold.”

“Mmm hmm …,” I responded, checking my email, Twitter feed and Facebook page and not hearing anything, really. He was driving west on Garden of the Gods Road and I was not paying attention.

“Wait, what? Coke oven?” I looked up from my phone and caught a quick glimpse of a beehive-shaped structure.

“You know about coke ovens, right?” he asked. Of course I did. I had lived here for decades, studied Colorado history and geology, and had even hiked around the “Coke Ovens” — big beehive-shaped rock formations — at Colorado National Monument. I drank Coke many years ago, and there was an oven in my kitchen. I knew all about … I knew nothing about coke ovens.

My friend turned the corner onto Rusina Road. “There’s the coal seam,” he said, “you can see the layer of sediment up there in the cliff.” A black line ran the length of the cliff face on the side of the road, as if someone had taken a chunk of coal and painted it there. OK, I knew about coal seams. When I visited South Canyon Hot Springs I learned about the underground coal fire that had been smoldering since 1910 and ignited the Coal Seam Fire of 2002 that burned thousands of acres in Glenwood Springs.

Eric turned onto South Rockrimmon Boulevard and went up Vindicator Drive. We were getting close to my house. He pointed at a development on the other side of a block wall.

“That’s where the coal pit was,” he said. What coal pit? That’s my grocery store. “This is where they got all the coal to power the gold mining down in Bear Creek, you know, the Gold Hill Mesa area,” he said. Sure, I knew. I’ve lived here for years. This is my neighborhood. Of course I knew all about the coke oven, the coal seam, and coal pits. The gold mining. What the heck was he talking about?

Eric dropped me off at my house. I was confused. How had I lived on Colorado Springs’ northwest side all these years, driven these roads thousands of times and never noticed any of the things he had just pointed out? I did what any educated, scientific, research-driven individual would do: I Googled. Here’s what I found out: Coke ovens were used during the coal mining days to burn all the impurities out of coal until it was pure carbon, called “coke.” That coke oven on the side of Garden of the Gods Road was part of the Pikeview Mine, which was dug in the late 1800s. Coal from the mine fueled the Gold Cycle Mill, at the current location of Gold Hill Mesa. Pikeview Mine closed on July 1, 1957.

According to an article that appeared in The Gazette around that time: “As much of the equipment as possible will be salvaged and sent to the Cripple Creek District for mining of gold.” How did I not know that? I had heard rumblings of this story over the years but it never seemed to be important to me, so I never paid attention. Most likely whenever the topic came up I was checking my email or my Twitter feed. Suddenly, I was interested. It’s amazing how much more interesting things are when they’re going on in your neighborhood!

The Pikeview Mine, as it turned out, stretched from the bottom of what is now Vindicator Drive east across I-25. There were other mines here, too: Columbine Mine, Corley Mine, Knights of Industry Mine and Klondike Mine. A maze of abandoned tunnels lies beneath the ground here, occasionally prone to a bit of settling and sink holes. As late as 2008, some coal dust from the Pikeview Mine spontaneously combusted, heating the ground above, in a park, to 800 degrees. The heat melted the shoes of a young boy playing in the area. How did I miss that? There are maps on the Colorado Geological Survey site that show where the mines were.

I would like to see the CGS mine map overlaid on the FEMA flood map overlaid on the OEM landslide map. I’m trying to do it myself and it’s like a Venn diagram. There’s my house in the middle — the Woodmen area’s own Bermuda Triangle! I’d like to go back to Twitter now.

This column first appeared in the July 27, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Pack a Little Kindness for the Classroom

“Heading back to school after summer break is a lot of fun for most kids because they get to reconnect with friends. That’s not the case for kids going to a new school for the first time…I looked different. My clothes weren’t like theirs, and I talked different…I was strange to them, but they were all strange to me, too.”

Read more: New year can mean new places, faces in classroom

Hebron_School_child_(7555040926)

[Photo] Trocaire from Ireland / Wikimedia Commons

The Sweetest Tweet

“Evening exhales through the rooms, driving out the heat. Outside my windows the purple lilac and Japanese snowball bush sigh in the dark, releasing the day’s last scented breath…The real magic starts at dawn. Everything is rested. A thin light slips into the house and with it the morning’s reverie.”

Read more: Music in the morning

House_Crow_(Corvus_splendens)_in_Shantinagar,_Dhaka,_Bangladesh,_17_March_2015

[Photo] Tawsif Salam / Wikimedia Commons

Gifts to Ease the Pain

“Some days stick with you. When your kids are born and you see their tiny faces and hear their first cries, your heart fills up with so much joy that you burst into tears and the moment is forever imprinted in your memory. There are other days when there is no joy…Those days stick, too. Your heart is so heavy it hurts your chest, and you never forget what that feels like.”

Read more: Gifts to ease the pain

Fawns-2

Twin fawns born June 12, 2016. [Photo] Susan Joy Paul

My Waterfall Addiction

June snowmelt marks the start of waterfall hiking season in Colorado. Here are a few to get you started – pick up my book Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado to find many more!

My waterfall addiction

128-BIG-DOMINGUEZ-1_SMG

Big Dominguez Creek drops abruptly over south-facing slabs in a fantastical horsetail spray at Big Dominguez Falls near Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo by Stewart M. Green.