The Grandeur of Grand Mesa

Anyone who grew up in Colorado (and paid attention in geography class) knows how unique our state is. Colorado has the highest low point (3,315′) of any state in the country. We also have the highest mean elevation (6,800′), the most landmass above 10,000 feet (about 75 percent of it countrywide), and more 14,000-foot peaks than other states (53 ranked and many unranked). Colorado is home to the highest paved mountain pass (12,095′ Independence Pass), the highest point on the US interstate system (11,158′ Eisenhower Tunnel), and the highest mountain with a road to the top in the country too (14,264′ Mount Evans – and okay, purists will say it doesn’t go all the way – but heck, the summit’s right there!). Our sand dunes are the highest in elevation (Great Sand Dunes) and tallest from base to tip (Star Dune) and we have the highest paved road, not only in the US but in all of North America (Mount Evans Scenic Byway). We also boast the highest continuous paved road – Trail Ridge Road – but now I’m just bragging. As places go, we’re pretty high!

I didn’t visit any of those places this week. Call me lazy. Call me a flatlander. Call me whatever you like. Instead, I sought out the biggest, flattest place I could find – one that still lived up to Colorado’s high standards. Yup, this week I pitched my tent on the largest flat-topped mountain on the planet – Grand Mesa! And yes, of course it’s in Colorado.

East of Grand Junction, Grand Mesa rises 11,000′ above sea level – 6,000′ above the surrounding valleys – and sprawls for 500 square miles. You would expect a big flat mountain in western Colorado to be hot, parched, and desolate, right? Whelp, not Grand Mesa – it’s home to more than 300 lakes. That’s what brought me to the place (and now you know what my next book is about), and I wasn’t disappointed. In just a few days, I logged 17 miles to 8 lakes with views of many more.

All those lakes didn’t come as a surprise. I’d been to the Mesa before, had driven by all those lakes and admired them from on high. Hiking to the highpoint of Grand Mesa, Delta County’s 11,327′ Crater Peak, and to the Mesa County highpoint, 11,236′ Leon Peak, I’d noticed all those glistening bodies of water but hadn’t given them much thought. When you have a destination in mind – like a peak – everything else kind of blurs. But this time, I had the lakes in my sights, and I didn’t expect to be distracted. But I was. Because the best thing about Grand Mesa wasn’t the mountains or the lakes. As gorgeous as they all were, that big mesa turned out to be a stunner for reasons I hadn’t imagined!

First off, the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway traverses the mesa from the Gunnison River near Delta, 75 miles north and west to the Colorado River east of Grand Junction. Roughly midway, Land’s End Road juts west off the byway for 12 miles across a narrowing strip of land to a spectacular overlook with views of, well, everything! And if you don’t know what everything is, there are interpretive signs that identify the mountains, lakes, and towns thousands of feet below. Even on a hazy day, you can pick out, to the southwest and west, the San Juan Mountains, Uncompahgre Plateau, Grand Junction, Grand Valley, the Colorado River, and canyons of the Colorado National Monument. I even picked out half a dozen 14ers from up there.

I had my second Grand Mesa surprise on the drive to the overlook. The year’s generous snowfall and late melt-off resulted in a rare and explosive superbloom of wildflowers. Everywhere I looked, blanket flowers, larkspur, and columbine packed the roadside, along with other flowers that I don’t know the names of. If you can’t name all the flowers either that’s okay. Take plenty of pictures, then continue to the overlook and take pictures of the interpretive signs that dot the path, identifying them.

The final thrill of Grand Mesa came with the black moon on July 31, the second new moon of the month. I had forgotten all about the black moon until I stumbled out of my tent in the middle of the night without my headlamp. It was like being in a planetarium with all the stars turned on. Grand Mesa’s high altitude and lack of ambient light, coupled with crystal-clear skies after days of rain, offered the most amazing view of the night sky I have ever seen. The Milky Way was clearly visible. Large swaths of light painted the sky, too, and I haven’t figured out what those were. They may have been clusters of distant stars that I typically can’t see.

The next new moon is at the end of August. Head out on a clear day and get a campsite in one of the 11 forest campgrounds on the Mesa. Go check out the scenic views, the wild displays of wildflowers, and the night sky from Grand Mesa. Take in a few lake hikes, too. It may not be the highest place in Colorado, but you’ll be floating on air after the experience.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 14, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

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Find Your Trail Buddies

Several times a year, I give local presentations and June was especially busy this year, with three presos for the Pikes Peak Library District. The people who attended were interested in Colorado’s hot springs, waterfalls, and mountains and I was happy to tell them everything I knew on these topics. I also discovered a gap in my knowledge!

I’m good at telling people where to go, how to get there, and what to do when they arrive at Colorado’s mountains, hot springs, and waterfalls, but one question stumps me: How do I find other people in Colorado Springs to hike with?

I typically don’t think about enjoying outdoor recreation with other people because I do it for research, which means going solo. For some odd reason, people don’t want to be perfectly quiet when they hike with me so I can take notes, log waypoints, and take photographs. They don’t want to hurry home from our outings to watch me upload the data off my GPS, create maps, and write chapters. For most people, outdoor recreation isn’t just an opportunity to explore new places and get some fresh air and exercise – or in my case, document just about everything I see – it’s a social event. They want to talk and enjoy each other’s company. Maybe stop for a bite on the way home. This is perfectly understandable and if I ever quit working on guidebooks, I hope to one day partake in some outdoor activities with others, and maybe even socialize. But for now, it’s work, so when people ask me where to find hiking buddies, I have to think about it. And do what I do best – research the subject.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far to answer this question. In our area, there are lots of people eager to take on new hiking buddies. The  Pikes Peak Group of the Colorado Mountain Club offers hikes and other adventures for all levels, plus beginners’ and advanced classes year-round. I took CMC courses years ago: land navigation, rock climbing, ice climbing, high-altitude mountaineering, and more. I did a lot of hikes with them too. An annual membership, according to their website, is $75 and if you’re under 30, it’s just $30 for the year. A family membership is $115. They have out-of-state adventures, too, and international travel to places like Italy, Africa, Nepal, and Japan. This is a good place to start for people who need guidance on the trails, because every trip has an experienced leader and the outings are rated by difficulty so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

The Sierra Club Pikes Peak Group offers hikes, social events, environmental walks to pick up trash, and overnight adventures combining hikes, food, and education. More than a hiking group, the Sierra Club is active in climate change solutions and the protection of our lands, water, air, and wildlife, so if these are things you care about too, this may be the club for you. The club also offers statewide, out-of-state, and international adventures, and some of their outings are service trips where you work to help better the natural environment. Membership is $39, but when I logged in to check the price, they were running a $15 special. I couldn’t help myself so I guess now I’m a member of the Sierra Club (again, after letting my membership lapse the past couple of years).

If you’re not ready to join a club, check out all the Colorado Springs Outdoor Adventure Meetup Groups in the area. I’ve tried several of these groups and have never had a bad experience. The cool thing about Meetups are that most of them are free. However, you’re not guaranteed any particular level of expertise when it comes to hike leaders. Some people post their credentials and you should check them out if you’re looking for real guidance. If you just want some folks to hike with, then the leader’s experience is much less important. These groups vary by age groups, interests, and lifestyles, so whether you’re looking for a group specifically for people with kids, or for women who are between the ages of 21 and 35, or for people who want to go on a hike and ask a local doctor questions (I’m not kidding: “Hike with a Doc” – look it up!) there’s a group for you.

If you still can’t find your “people,” check out Facebook. Typing “Hike Colorado Springs” into the search box turned up several pages including Colorado Springs Hiking Group, Hiking with Dogs Colorado Springs, and more. I can’t vouch for these groups because I’ve never tried them, but they sure have a lot of members.

Finally, if you want to set up your own hikes and are looking for people to join you, set up something on Nextdoor. Make it an easy hike that you’re familiar with and cast a wide net, inviting your neighborhood and the surrounding ones. It’s tough to get a new group going, so you may have to try a few times before you get any takers. This is a good way to discover people in your area who like to hike regularly but don’t want to go through the bother of scheduling hikes with an organized group on a regular basis. They may be more open to ad hoc hikes, too, when any of you are available and wanting to get out for a bit.

With so many choices, there is someone out there somewhere who wants to hike with you. Maybe there’s someone out there who wants to hike with me, too. But for now, I’m going to set up my own group: “People Who Hike Alone.” Caution: Members prone to stop for waypoints, notes, and photos at every trailhead, trail junction, hot spring, waterfall, lake, and stream. Membership limited to one hiker. No talking, no socializing, and no annual fee!

This blog first appeared as a column in the July 24, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Bidet Your Way to a Happy Bottom

Yes, I will write about anything! My July 10th newspaper column generated a lot of buzz from readers. Hope you enjoy it as much as they did:

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with personal hygiene. Like this past weekend, when I enjoyed an off-again couple of days in Rocky Mountain National Park hiking twenty-five miles, breathing in the cool clean air while tramping the hot dusty trail and getting absolutely filthy. Each night, I crawled into the tent sweaty, stinky, delightfully gritty and happily not caring. After a long day in the mountains, sleep beats hygiene every time.

But on less strenuous days I’m kind of a clean fanatic, showering daily, brushing my teeth before and after every meal, and washing my hands after doing anything. Like after I wash the dishes, I wash my hands. So when my friend, James, posted on social media that he was buying a bidet, he got my attention. Do people really buy these things for their homes?

If you’re not familiar with bidets, they’re fancy contraptions popular in European and Asian… bathrooms. Like a shower for your toilet. I’d seen them on my overseas travels but had no idea how to operate one. They seemed so complicated. A lot could go wrong, I thought.

I asked James if he was serious, and he said that he and his wife had recently moved out of town and into a place with a septic tank. Yeah, but what did that have to do with installing a water fountain in your toilet bowl?

Apparently, septic tanks work better when they’re not clogged up with paper. And while a bidet doesn’t take the place of TP, using one dramatically reduces the amount of paper one must use to take care of one’s business. That got me thinking about all the paper I put into the local sewer system and how bad all that single-use paper is for the environment. I thought about how much money I spend on paper. I even started thinking about my personal hygiene. Maybe James was on to something. Maybe I needed to take a closer look at bidets – and the toilet paper they work so hard to replace!

A bit of research turned up all kinds of interesting TP trivia! For example, the average American uses about 10 sheets of paper per use, 60 sheets per day, and 100 rolls of paper every year. It takes approximately 400 trees to make all the TP a person uses in their lifetime. At roughly 50 cents per roll over 70 years, that’s $3,500 on paper that literally gets flushed down the toilet.

The bidet was beginning to sound less crazy by the minute. But I still couldn’t justify the cost of replacing a toilet in my house, especially when they all worked just fine. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I didn’t have to buy the whole toilet – bidets are sold as add-on fixtures that can be installed on an existing toilet and they aren’t expensive at all. And there are a lot of options: electric or mechanical; cold water only or cold and warm water; and single or dual setting to accommodate feminine cleansing.

The electric option was overkill – too many bells and whistles, and pricey, too. The warm water option sounded nice but probably wasn’t necessary, and installation was tricky because I’d have to run a line from the hot-water pipe under the bathroom sink to the toilet. The mechanical cold-water-only style attached directly to the flexible pipe between the floor and the toilet tank. The feminine setting allowed for variable directional flow, which sounded appealing and may be optimal for both men and women.

While I was at it, I decided to get a new toilet seat, too. The removable kind makes it a lot easier to clean the top of the bowl because the whole seat lifts off with the release of a couple of clamps screwed onto the bolts. That would make it easier to clean under the seat and the bidet. In the end, I opted for a mechanical cold-water feminine option bidet and a soft padded removable seat (yes, padded – not so much for the comfort than the fact that padded seats aren’t as cold in the winter), all for less than 70 bucks (or about what I paid for a tank of gas, two nights in the Moraine Park Campground, and entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park).

Putting it all together took a flat head screwdriver, an adjustable wrench, and about half an hour. The directions were super easy: turn off the water supply to the toilet, flush the toilet holding the handle down to drain all the water from the tank, remove the old toilet seat, put in the new bolts, and attach the bidet with the new seat clamps. Then hook the three-way pipe into the existing pipe and attach it to the bidet. Clamp on the new seat. And try to wait patiently, because the whole thing just looks so pretty, you will want to use it right away.

I couldn’t wait. I just had to know if it worked. So I stood over the toilet, adjusted the spray, pressed the lever, and soaked the front of my pants. That’s not how you use it, by the way, and it’s probably why I never tried to use a bidet during any of my overseas travels. So much could go wrong.

In the end (yuch yuch), I was very pleased with my purchase. It was worth every penny and is going to save me a ton in toilet paper, not to mention all the trees. And as much as I look forward to my next off-again days on the trail, my on-again personal hygiene days at home have gotten a whole lot more… hygienic!

This blog first appeared as a column in the July 10, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

 

Writing with All the Senses

The rising temperatures and long, sunny days can make it hard to buckle down at the computer and get all my writing done. On days like these, who wouldn’t rather be running a trail, hiking a mountain, tucking toes into a lake, or lazing by a waterfall? Springtime temptations pull me from the keyboard. My compulsion for writing pulls me back. And on days like these – especially like these – I make the work more interesting by writing with all my senses.

You may have heard about writing with all your senses, but this is different. I’m not talking about closing my eyes and imagining what a place looks and smells like, and then incorporating all those details into my work. Though that is good practice, I’m talking about using my senses in a different way.

Let’s start with the eyes. What do you see when you look at a newspaper article, an online blog, or the pages of a book? Long, unbroken blocks of text? That’s hard on your eyes. Too much reading with no breaks isn’t inviting and doesn’t hold your attention. You need a moment now and then to rest and think. So when I write, I break it up – even more than I learned to do in grammar school, with a single paragraph for each new idea. Instead of semicolons (which I love by the way, but save for journaling rather than torturing readers with them), I employ em dashes (those long, double dashes so named because they are the width of a letter “M” in typography) to give my readers a little more air between all the letters. Readers seem to like more breaks these days, or maybe they need more time to ponder what they’ve read. Of course, the copyeditors and proofreaders often switch things up on me to save space and that’s alright too. If they do, know that I ended this paragraph here.

The ears are next. After writing a piece, I read it aloud. How do my words sound? Are they clunky and hard to listen to, with an uneven pattern and abrupt stops? Did I repeat a word over and over again, and if I did, is there a good substitute? I listen for alliteration, which I may use to purposely portray the personality of the piece – more often, it’s an accident and I have to ax it. If I employ onomatopoeia, I listen to hear if my choices sizzle and pop or fall flat. I also read aloud to see if I ended each sentence – especially those sentences that open a piece or a paragraph – with the right word so the reader knows what comes next. Sometimes I mess up and bury that important word in the middle, like in the first sentence of this paragraph where I ended the sentence with “next” instead of “ears.” I’ll leave it there for you to see with your eyes, then come back here so we can talk about the mouth.

While I’m listening with my ears, I’m also sensing the words coming out of my mouth. How do they feel in there when I say them aloud? Are they knocking against my teeth, rolling along my tongue, or sloshing around from cheek to cheek? Are they sharp like tiny knives nipping my gums, or smooth and soothing like lilac petals against my soft palate? Whatever they’re doing and how they make my mouth feel have to match their meaning. Lollipop loops feel relaxing and fun. So do mud puddles, blubber, and bumblebees, while cracks, crags, and crevasses make me catch my breath. Angst and agony feel bad in my mouth and I typically would not use these words in a blog or newspaper column except here, to make a point about tasting my words before I type them.

Next is my nose. “Does this pass the smell test?” I ask. When the writing is insincere, uninformed, or mean-spirited, it stinks. When there’s an ulterior motive I can smell it a mile away, and the foul odor wrinkles my nose. Even the most well-intentioned writers sometimes allow stink bombs to seep into their work. I sniff them out in my own writing and dutifully flush them out.

Finally, there’s the sense of touch. No, I don’t stroke the words with my fingertips. I read the piece and think about how it makes me feel inside. Do the words make me smile, or cringe? Am I happy, sad, intrigued, or confused? Do I feel enlightened, amused, or betrayed? Did the writer waste my time? Do I even like this person who wrote these words, transferred their thoughts to my head, and affected how I view the world? Or have they irritated me and ruined my day? That sense – the touch, the feeling – is the most important of all, because it’s what sticks. When a writer makes me feel a certain way, I remember it forever.

I guard my own feelings because they affect my life in so many ways: how I behave, communicate with others, and respond to the world. How a writer makes me feel affects who and how I am in the world, and so I want them to respect that – the influence they have on me and on everything and everyone with whom I interact. This is what I think about most when I write. Not in a narcissistic way, because I know my readers are smart and discerning, and if I’m making them feel a way they don’t enjoy, they will stop reading. But in a hopeful, loving way that sees them as a person, just like me, enjoying those moments when we feel better about ourselves and the people with whom we share this planet. Because although we may not see, hear, taste, smell, or feel the same way about everything we read, deep down, we are so much the same.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 19, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

There’s No Place Like Home … When You Have to Be There

It’s that time of the year again, when spring snow turns to brown slush and melts away, exposing everything that’s wrong with your house. That’s right – it’s home and garden season! For those of us who’ve spent the last 100 days mostly indoors, it hardly seems fair that as the days lengthen, the weather clears, and the temperatures warm, we have to turn our attention homeward. I for one would much rather spend the coming days romping in the mountains. Regardless, home and garden, like taxes, require annual tending and the call is most urgent in the springtime.

For me, it won’t be a pretty sight. It’s been a brutal winter for my house and yard. Here on the northwest side, the winter winds whip along the foothills, blasting the neighborhoods and carrying off shingles, fence slats, and small pets. Tucked against the Rampart Range, our little hillside valley seems to attract an extra serving of the white stuff at each snowfall. It slides off my driveway and puddles in the road, refreezing into a small ice pond bordered by a ragged glacier. As it melts, bits of neighborhood flotsam and jetsam appear, the wind’s castoffs from trash days gone by.

I generally like the wind, especially in the fall when it blows all my leaves across the street and into the neighbor’s yard. Trash days present a special treat on windy days: a sustained gust can push the big plastic bins-on-wheels down the middle of the road for blocks before they collide with a car or a herd of unsuspecting deer. The blue recycle bins are lighter and can get a lot of speed going, but they tend to topple over before the heavier brown ones. If they can stay upright, the blue bins usually make it to the end of the block first. After an especially drafty day, people wander the streets in the evening, searching for their wayward garbage and recycle bins. Since they aren’t named or numbered, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. You just have to find a brown one and a blue one and roll them into your garage before somebody else claims the pair.

Trash can races and leaf-blowing aside, the wind mostly just tears things up around my house, and around this time of year, I have to deal with it. Like get out there and actually fix things. I don’t mind, though. Home improvement is fun. I do a little bit each year, enough to satisfy anyone worried about home values, curb appeal, and – for the Airbnb homeowners – what the neighborhood looks like on Google Earth. This year the list is long: seal the driveway joints, repair and paint the fence, replace some of the sprinkler heads, reseed the lawn, finish the front porch, and put in a backyard deck. I also have to move the seven tons of rock I put down years ago, replace the weed proof barrier, and put all those rocks back. And do something about the shingles, slats, and small pets trapped in that melting glacier.

After those chores, I need to plant a vegetable garden. My indoor herb garden went crazy over the winter and I need to grow potatoes to go with the chives, tomatoes for the sage, soybeans for the dill, and tacos for the cilantro. Mmm … I wish there really were such a thing as taco plants. I would be out there digging in the yard right now!

So that’s my “outside of the house” list. I haven’t even thought about an inside list. We’ll save that one for the fall. Now all I need is a little inspiration, so I may head out to one of the home and garden events going on this month. Pikes Peak Urban Gardens has some cool things planned, like a Wildscaping class. I have no idea what that is, but it sounds like something I need to do immediately. Even more exciting than composting with worms. The Bear Creek Nature Center and Pikes Peak Library District are hosting gardening and composting events, and some of them actually do involve worms. I’ve been thinking of getting a pet and worms might be just the ticket – they feast on table scraps and unlike the typical pet’s yard droppings or litter box, they actually give something useful back.

I’ll need to get started on all this soon so I can enjoy a few weeks of growth before hail season begins. One good storm could wipe out the whole garden, and one wide-eyed doe and her wobbly fawns will likely ravage whatever potato, tomato, and taco plants survive. For now, I think I’ll sit out on the front step for a while. It’s trash day, the wind’s starting to pick up, and I’ve got five bucks on blue for the win!

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 13, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Finding Your Peace – and Your People – in Music

October was a tough month and I was happy to see it end. Scary packages sent to journalists, politicians, and other public figures. Another horrible, senseless shooting – and then, another one. Midterm elections, with a country and a county so divided, the anger at times seemed to escalate to a deafening roar.

Sometimes you have to escape the steady thrum of tension and anxiety, and for Coloradans, there are plenty of ways to do that. Lots of parks, national forests, and wilderness areas to lose yourself in, and if you’re not the outdoorsy type, plenty of shows and movies streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and all the other entertainment sites. Lots of libraries to visit, too, and books to read. This year, I found a lot of peace in live music.

The Pikes Peak Center hosted some great talent this year. I was lucky enough to see Kris Kristofferson, and Lyle Lovett with Robert Earl Keen. I’m not a country music fan, but I’ve always been curious about the popularity of Lovett, so I figured I’d go and see what all the fuss was about. As for Kristofferson – well, I guess I just heard his songs on the radio so often as a teen, and who knows if or when he’ll tour again. Both shows were well worth the time and the money, and I even got to hear one of my all-time favorites, “Me and Bobby McGee,” sung by the guy who wrote it.

Up in Denver, I saw and heard more old favorites: Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, Cyndi Lauper, and Rod Stewart. I guess I never realized how many hits each of these performers had, or how deeply embedded the words to their songs were in my memory. I wasn’t alone, either. It seemed everyone in the crowd that packed the Pepsi Center knew every word, every nuance, and every beat to music I hadn’t heard in decades, especially Stewart’s “Forever Young,” “Maggy May,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Downtown Train,” and more than a dozen other songs. That’s the part, I think, that helps drown out the discord. When everyone’s singing the same words to the same songs that are in your head, you realize that – no matter how foreign the rest of the world may seem at times – you have something in common with a lot of people. Those words. Those songs. Even if it’s 10,000 people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s bellowing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, it sure feels good to share something that makes you smile with a whole lot of other people.

The last show I saw this year was Joan Baez. In her late 70s, she can still sing like a bird and is as feisty as I remembered her from many years ago. She did her own renditions of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Forever Young,” and a lot of other songs that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid. Like the Pikes Peak Center and the Pepsi Center, the room at the Paramount Theatre was packed with people about my age, maybe a little older, and again, everyone seemed to know all the songs. It was a peaceful night, but a lot of fun, too, and filled with a feeling of camaraderie that’s often missing in other places. At the end of the show, Baez and the band locked arms and took a bow, and then they all took a knee. The crowd was on their feet, and the stage went dark, but we kept on clapping until she came back out to play three more songs, an encore for people who weren’t ready for the night, or the music, to end.

That was the last live show I went to, but then there was Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie. I’ve seen Queen twice – in 1977, with Freddie Mercury on vocals, and again in 2017, with Adam Lambert. I had all their albums when I was a teen, so of course – despite the critics’ reviews – I had to see the film. Anyone who’s been will tell you the best parts were the concert scenes, and they were phenomenal. And just like with “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Maggy May,” and “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” the crowds in the movie – and the people in the theater – knew all the words, or at least the choruses. We all joined in on “Radio Ga-Ga,” “Hammer to Fall,” and of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We may have no idea what the words mean, but for some reason, we have them memorized.

It was a good way to say goodbye to October and welcome November. I needed it. We all need to be reminded every now and then that we have something in common with a whole lot of people, even if it’s just the words to a silly song that bring us peace and for a couple of hours, drown out everything else.

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 14, 2018 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Summertime Waterfall Roundup

June is my favorite month for hiking to Colorado waterfalls. That’s when springtime snow, warmed in the sunshine, releases its bounty of crystal clear, liquid goodness. Shimmering cascades, horsetails, and cataracts tumble down mountainsides, pour over rocky ledges, and fling themselves off high cliffs. Even though snowpack is in short supply this year, you can still catch some lovely falls in the Pikes Peak region.

Your first stop should be North Cheyenne Cañon, where you can drive up North Cheyenne Canyon Road for about 2.5 miles to Helen Hunt Falls, formed by North Cheyenne Creek. From the base of the falls, take a short, steep hike up to Silver Cascade (Spoon) Falls, formed by Buffalo Creek. This is a busy area that can become quite congested, so slow down as you drive through and be on the lookout for pedestrians. Likewise, if you cross the road to the falls, be aware of vehicles from both directions.

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Helen Hunt Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

Next, drive to the top of North Cheyenne Canyon Road and park in the big lot at the junction of High Drive and Gold Camp Road. From there, Undine Falls is a 3.4-mile out-and-back hike on the Seven Bridges Trail. Start at the northwest end of the parking lot and hike the old railroad bed (the section of Gold Camp Road that’s closed to vehicles) and cut off the trail at the sign for Trail #622 on the right. The falls are just past the seventh bridge.

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Undine Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

For a longer hike, bypass the cutoff to Trail #622 and continue on Gold Camp Road past the closed tunnel on the right, and look for the very old sign for Saint Mary’s Falls on Buffalo Creek. It’s a 6-mile out-and-back hike that gains quite a bit of elevation, so allow yourself plenty of time and watch for bikers zooming down the trail. They are supposed to afford hikers the right of way, but not all of them are aware of that fact, or they choose to ignore it. Keep your eyes open and if you see one coming, make your presence known. If there’s room, try to step off the trail to avoid a collision.

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St Marys Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

Josephine Falls, in nearby Bear Canyon, is no longer accessible due to the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project that closed the trail. A newer trail high above the canyon is the closest you’ll get, but not worth the hike if you’re just going to visit the falls, as they’re hidden far below the trail and a quarter of a mile away. Instead, drive back down North Cheyenne Canyon Road and park in the small lot at the Mount Cutler Trailhead. Hike about a mile up the trail and look to the south for unobstructed views of Seven Falls. Hang onto your kids and your pets on this trail, as there’s dramatic exposure and a tumble off the edge could be fatal.

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Josephine Falls is no longer accessible due to the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project

Dorothy Falls and Williams Canyon Falls aren’t legally accessible right now, as the trails were closed for safety reasons after the September 2013 floods.

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Dorothy Falls at Glen Eyrie has been closed to the public since the 2013 floods

Rainbow Falls is also closed, but the area is undergoing renovations and should be opening next month. This is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the area so put that one on your calendar and check the El Paso County Parks website for updates.

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Rainbow Falls, Manitou Springs is scheduled to reopen in July after restoration is complete

If you don’t mind a little driving, head west on Highway 24 to Green Mountain Falls, where you can hike the Thomas Trail to Crystal Falls and Catamount Falls. Then, check out Horsethief Falls in Teller County, and Guffey Falls and Tarryall Falls in Park County.

Want more falls? Keep driving – and hiking! According to the Worldwide Waterfall Database, there are 467 known waterfalls in Colorado. Once you get into the mountainous areas in Rocky Mountain National Park to the north; around Pagosa Springs, Telluride, and Ouray in the southwest part of the state; and in the canyons around Grand Junction to the west; they’re bigger, bolder, and even more dramatic.

As with all your outdoor adventures, leave nothing behind on your waterfalls hikes, and take nothing with you but some glorious photos and a smile. Your children and your children’s children will thank you for taking such great care of these lovely gems, Colorado’s waterfalls, so they can enjoy them for years to come.

For information on more than 100 waterfalls in the Pikes Peak region and across the state, check out my Falcon Guide Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 13, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Mountain of Authors

How many authors are there in the Pikes Peak region? If you attended the 12th Annual Mountain of Authors this month, you’d know: a lot! Every year, the Pikes Peak Library District hosts the event as an opportunity for local authors to get together to talk, listen, and learn about writing and publishing trends — and to show off their latest literary efforts.

This year, the annual gathering was held on Saturday, May 5 at Library 21c. In past years, I’ve attended as an onlooker, but this time I was a guest participant. With twenty-one manuscripts under my belt, I figured I’d finally earned my writer stripes.

The event ran six hours and I planned accordingly, packing in snacks and drinks for the long day ahead, and books to occupy my time. As it turned out, my plan-for-the-worst mentality was all for naught because the library staff had planned the event to perfection and the day flew by.

Once I had my table set up with books (for visitors to peruse and buy), bookmarks (to market my ghostwriting services), and Twizzlers (bait), I moseyed over to the lunch table and picked up a couple of vegetarian sandwiches, chips, fruit and a drink.

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Nibbling away at the goodies, I waved to the author sitting across from me: fellow Woodmen Edition writer Stewart M. Green, whose own table was packed with a sampling of his more than 30 nonfiction guidebooks. Kitty-corner to my table were a couple of authors with several tables and stacks of books — dozens and dozens of them. Who were these people? Soon after, the doors opened, and people filtered in, wandering from one author’s table to the next and eventually settling in on chairs before the stage to hear the first speakers.

The itinerary kicked off with a panel of authors who offered their best advice for writing and publishing children’s books. I’ve never written a book for kids and don’t plan to, but the insight offered by the six panelists crossed over into other genres, and I agreed with most of it and even picked up a few pointers. In particular, one author noted that the more time she spends with children, the more inspired she is to write for them. I think this is true for any type of book: if you want to know what your reader likes to read, you have to spend time with your reader.

After the panel, we had a one-hour break and I used the time to check out the other author’s tables and see what they were writing. While this was time well-spent, in hindsight, I wish I had done my homework and researched the itinerary more closely because vegan cookbook author, chef instructor, and restaurant reviewer J.L. Fields was providing a freelance writing workshop in a nearby conference room.

I was halfway around the room on my author tour when another person took the stage, so I made my way back to my table. After a short All Pikes Peak Writes awards ceremony, librarian Heather Johnson gave a brief overview of self-publishing. By the way, she does a one-hour workshop on the subject every month at Library 21c. I attended her workshop earlier this month and was surprised to learn that the library has a copy of the pricey book design software InDesign available for library patrons to reserve and use. If you don’t know how to use the program — or any other publishing software — you can book a librarian and ask them all about it.

During the next break, I got to know the authors sitting beside me. Diane Sawatzki writes historical fiction based in the Pikes Peak region, and Peg Gould, a former journalist for the Gazette, writes non-fiction. I was in good company. I glanced over again at the many stacks of books on the table diagonal to mine. A large banner advertised a Dune series. I had read Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction series in the 1970s and to this day the first book is one of my favorite reads of all time. How was this guy writing Dune books? Someone stopped by my table to snag a Twizzler and a bookmark and chat about my books and the question was gone.

Another speaker, Michael Covington, delivered an outstanding talk on marketing. Between speaking to people who stopped by my table to talk or purchase books I managed to get a few pointers from his speech, but I would love to see the whole thing again as I’m sure I missed quite a bit. I’ll be checking the PPLD channel to see if there’s a replay.

Throughout the day, the library staff — Bryan Matthews, Joelle Wren, and others — walked the floor making sure everything was running on schedule, while Friends of PPLD handled all the sales transactions.

More readers stopped by including a woman who had attended a presentation I’d done at Mountain Chalet a few years ago, a man who’d bought one of my books at another event and wanted me to sign it for him, and a guy who reads my column here in the Woodmen Edition. Writers and speakers sometimes forget that people read what we write and hear what we present, so it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear that someone did — and appreciated what we created! Another guy stopped by to talk about hiking in Colorado. He told me he has a bunch of Stewart Green’s books and he bought one of mine, a waterfall guidebook. We talked about hiking, writing, and mountaineering. Like me, he had climbed all of Colorado’s fourteeners.

I used the next break to visit several organizations that were set up just outside the room, including Fiction Foundry, Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group, and another group that provides editing and proofreading services. Unfortunately, I cannot locate their card, or I would share the name here but rest assured, if you’re looking for inspiration or support with your writing endeavors, there’s no shortage in the Pikes Peak region.

Finally, the keynote speaker took the stage. Oh gosh. It was the guy who talked to me about hiking and bought one of my books. It took a few minutes for me to realize he was also one of the authors behind those stacks of books alongside the Dune poster.

Confession time: Like many people, I don’t do my homework before these events. I’m much more concerned with making sure I have enough drinks for myself and Twizzlers for everyone else. If I had read up on this year’s Mountain of Authors, I would have realized the keynote speaker, Kevin J. Anderson, is the author of more than 50 best-selling books including a Dune prequel series and a sequel series co-written with Herbert’s son, Brian; a slew of Star Wars novels; and even a few books inspired by the band Rush and co-written with drummer Neil Peart. Being a Dune/Rush/Star Wars fan, my attention would surely have been piqued if I had been aware of all this. I probably would have gotten out of my chair, walked 20 feet, and asked him and his wife, author Rebecca Moesta, about their books.

That was one of many after-the-fact revelations I had at the Mountain of Authors. I also realized that the library’s website lists bios of all the panelists, speakers, and authors, and I could have read those ahead of time and selected a few that I wanted to speak with, kind of like picking out the works of art you want to see before you go to the Louvre.

If you missed Mountain of Authors this year, put a note on your calendar for next year because this is the kind of event that deserves to continue. If you can’t wait that long, look for Indie Author Day coming to Library 21c in October. The event celebrates independent authors in music, film-making, and self-publishing. I plan on attending and this time, I will do my homework.

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This blog first appeared as a column in the May 23, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Farewell to the Pikes Peak Cog, for Now

I read the news of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway shutdown with mixed feelings. This is the train that transports people from Manitou Springs, Colorado, to the summit of America’s Mountain, 14,115-foot Pikes Peak. The annual temporary winter closure for routine maintenance has become an extended decommissioning of two to three years while the railway’s owner, the Broadmoor, evaluates options for rebuilding or replacing the train, tracks, and depot. The result may be that it never runs again.

My initial reaction was: this is probably a good thing. Like many Coloradans, I enjoy the outdoors, support the Leave No Trace principles, and believe the best 14ers are those that get the least traffic. That part of me would like to see the railway, the summit house – and the Pikes Peak Highway, for that matter – close for good.

But another part of me was struck with sadness and a bit of sentimentality. Why did the news bother me? Why did I care about the closing of a silly red train that hauls tens of thousands of “outsiders” (you know – sniff! – tourists) to the top of our mountain every year? I had to clear a lot of cobwebs – and “jog the cogs” – from my memory to sort out this strange emotional attachment I felt for the train.

Twenty years ago, I took my two boys for a ride on the cog railway. The nearly nine-mile ride from Manitou Springs through subalpine forest and finally, above tree line, seemed to take forever but the conductor kept us amused with the history of the train and Pikes Peak. He even threw in an occasional quip that caused my kids to roll their eyes. As a mom, it’s always a pleasure to see your kids roll their eyes at something other than you.

Wandering the summit was a thrill. It was our first time over 14,000 feet and my kids (who at that age seemed to relish offsetting my enthusiasm for everything by never being impressed by anything) actually seemed to get a kick out of the views. We drank hot chocolate, gobbled up doughnuts, and purchased a couple of gleaming pressed pennies as souvenirs. It was a good day out.

I never rode that fancy red and white train again, but I did revisit the tracks. In November 2006, during the Zebulon Pike Bicentennial Reenactment hike, my group of eight emerged from the forest to pick up the tracks south of Sachett Mountain at 12,000 feet and follow them to the summit. It was 9 degrees and a light snow was beginning to fall. As eager as I was to finish the three-day trek, I slowed down toward the end to savor those last feet of train tracks, knowing I would probably never walk them again.

A couple of years later, after a January hike to the top of Pikes Peak via the “Crags Route” from Divide, I saw the train again. The summit house was closed that day and the entryway was packed with snow, offering little protection from the biting wind. I pressed my back against a drift and sipped hot cocoa from a thermos, trying to warm my chilled bones, but it was no use. It was just too darned cold up there to enjoy the summit, so I told my hiking partner I needed to head down. Suddenly, a whistle shrieked. My buddy and I looked at each other. Maintenance workers? Today? We continued packing up our backpacks for the long hike down, but then the train appeared – pulled up right in front of us! Hundreds of tourists peered out the windows at the two of us. We must have looked like frozen guards, covered in frost and sitting in the snow at the entry to the summit house. Some workers jumped from the train, cleared a path to the doors, and opened the place up. We filled up on coffee and doughnuts and thanked the tourists who offered to help us “find a way down.” They thought we were lost and had ended up on the top of Pikes Peak by accident! Then we headed down – on foot.

Later that year, in December, I found myself crossing the tracks during a descent of another peak in the nearby Manitou Springs quad. It was December, there was a lot of snow, and my hiking buddy and I assumed the train wasn’t running (how soon we forget!) so we weren’t worried about being run over – or being “caught” as we suspected that walking the tracks probably wasn’t legal.

I guess I never realized how quiet the cog train is. It came around the corner like a wall of red. The train engineer looked as shocked to see us and we were to see him! We leapt from the tracks and into the snow. That was the last time I hiked across the cog tracks.

My last encounter with the cog railway wasn’t on the red and white train, but on Carriage 104, one of the original train cars. In 2016, the cog celebrated its 125th anniversary and visitors were treated to a quarter-mile “push” up the tracks by Steam Engine Number 4, an older version of the train that had been retired in 1958. While I appreciated the history lesson, being pushed – rather than pulled – by an engine is a very different experience. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed a 1950s 9-mile trip that way, being jostled up those tracks!

I’m sure many Coloradans have their own Pikes Peak Cog Railway stories. Trains, peaks, and outdoor adventures are all part of our state history and what made this place what it is today.

Reconciling my railway nostalgia with a desire to protect the peaks is difficult. The balance between sustainability and accessibility is delicate and not always convenient. A few years’ rest from all those visitors would surely do old Pikes Peak some good, but I hope someday the owners of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway find a way to get the train moving again.

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 28, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Who Wants Pi?

Today is Pi Day, and not the fruity, creamy or custardy kind with the sweet filling and tender crust. Nope, it’s the math kind of pi, the 3.14159… I don’t know the rest because I never memorized past the 9!

The Greek symbol π, or Pi, represents that elusive number that goes on forever, the quotient found by dividing the circumference of a circle (the distance around it) by its diameter (the distance across its middle). Pi Day, March 14 (3/14), was founded in 1988 by Larry Shaw, a curator at San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception. Mr. Shaw passed away last fall, but his special day will likely live on as long as the numbers after the decimal point in pi.

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By Matman from Lublin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14598097

Pi is primarily known for its usefulness for determining a circle’s circumference and the area of a circle, cylinder, cone, or sphere, but pi has much, much more to offer than your average decimal. In my early statistics classes, I vaguely remember using pi to figure out distributions, which in turn were used to figure out probabilities, or the likelihood of an occurrence. Knowing the likelihood of a future event is useful information to have. For example, I would like to know the odds of one of my sons calling me this month, or the chances that I’ll get around to mowing the lawn this year or finishing this column by the deadline. Pi can help with that.

Pi is also featured in the Fourier transform, a formula for converting signals to frequency spectrums. It’s used in cell phone and medical imaging technology, for analyzing DNA sequences, and lots of other places. You should Google or YouTube it for a thorough explanation, or if you have a teenager, ask them. I learned about it in an electronic music class back in the 1970s when I was trying to build a Theremin, a predecessor to modern digital instruments. I never got it to work right, and that was the end of my math (and musical) career.

Pi is also part of the Schrödinger equation, a staple of quantum mechanics. This is the same cat-in-the-box Schrödinger from physics class. Remember that guy? His formula, a differential wave equation, recently enjoyed a galactic comeback across science journals and social media. Apparently, the Schrödinger equation, typically relegated to the lowly study of waves, particles, and “wavicles” at the atomic and subatomic level, explains the warps in all those astronomical spinning space disks we’ve been wondering about for so many years. OK, not all of us have been wondering about the warps. I wasn’t even aware of them until last week. But hey, way to go, pi! We couldn’t have done it without you. By the way, if you want an idea of what a warped disk looks like, get out your “original copy” of Led Zeppelin II, throw it on the turntable, and give it a spin.

Knowing what pi means makes people feel smart, even if it’s the only thing they remember from math class. Most of us finish up geometry and trigonometry, dabble a bit in calculus, and then — unless we start a math-centric major like science, engineering or finance — we move on and forget all about math. But we shouldn’t forget math or take it for granted. And we should never, ever think a mathematical discovery has nothing to do with us.

Math explains a lot whether we care about it or not. When new uses are discovered for numbers — like explaining the lumps and bumps in space disks — we should pay attention and thank our lucky stars there are people who remember and use math all the time. Those kinds of discoveries have a way of trickling down to innovative technologies that affect our daily lives, typically for the better.

I’m not one of those math people, but I salute them, and I never take math for granted. So, on this day, March 14, raise a glass of whatever you’re drinking — to pi! And while you’re staring down at the bottom of your glass, remember: thanks to the power of pi, determining the value of its circumference and the volume of whatever you’re drinking — if you’re inclined to do the math — is possible!

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 14, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.