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.


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.

Train Hard and Be Inspired — to Write!

Readers email me from time to time, occasionally about my books and columns, but more often about writing in general. Most people are looking for advice on becoming a writer, specifically: “How can I be a writer?” and “How can I be a paid writer?”

To answer the first question, I defer to this bit of advice, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” This comes from writer Mary Heaton Vorse and was repeated by her student, Sinclair Lewis. Vorse reportedly hid Lewis’ shoes and pants on at least one occasion to assist him in this task. Writing is a solitary affair between you and your notebook, computer or whatever writing device you prefer. It’s not a team effort, and you have to spend a lot of time sitting in a chair, thinking hard and writing.

The answer to the second question is, just like any paid job, you have to look for writing work and apply for it. You need to create a resume, a LinkedIn profile, and hopefully have proof — education, experience or both — that you can provide to potential employers, showcasing your skills.

The question I never get is: “How can I be a good writer?” Most people believe they’re already good writers, just like they believe they’re good drivers. If you’ve driven around town, you know this claim isn’t always true.

How does anyone get good at anything? If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, you probably have a pretty good idea: you train, learn, and practice. You do it again and again and you study how other people do it, too. You read books about how to write and books written by great authors. You take classes and participate in workshops.

Here in Colorado Springs, resources abound for writer training and most of them are free. The Pikes Peak Library District hosts writing groups and activities like the Life Circle Writing Group, Journal Club, and 21st Century Writer’s Group. For Meetup groups, there’s the Colorado Springs Nonfiction Writer’s Group, the Colorado Springs Writers’ Workshop Group, and the Pen Drop Coffee Break Group. Finally, there’s the 2,000-member Pikes Peak Writers, a group that’s free to join and hosts a three-day conference every year.

I attended a couple of writers’ events this year. The first one was a free Non-fiction Writer’s Group critique at the East Library. Most of the people were writing memoirs, and they were all passionate about their work. My memoir projects are all ghostwriting gigs and I have confidentiality agreements with the subjects, so I had nothing to share. Still, it was good to hear what these Springs writers are working on and listen to their thoughtful critiques.

The next event was a free authors’ panel at the Rockrimmon Library. Local novelists Anne Eliot, Jennie Marts, and Mimi Foster shared stories about their work, answered questions and offered great advice. It was refreshing to hear such current and accurate guidance about the writing process and publishing. Afterward, they stayed to chat with anyone who had specific questions about their own writing projects. Listening to these women inspired me to dust off my notes for a fictional series I started seven years ago.

I have more events lined up, including a free March preview of the annual Pikes Peak Writers Conference and the Pikes Peak Library District’s annual Mountain of Authors Program in May, and I’ll probably check out more writing meetups.

I started this column with the goal of impressing the importance of training on would-be writers but uncovered something else: an expansive, city-wide writing community. And I discovered there’s more to becoming an exceptional writer than reading books and taking classes.

Those Olympic athletes train hard, but between performances, they retreat to their coaches and teams for inspiration and support. And just like the Olympic skating, skiing, and snowboarding I’ve been watching all month, great writing not only requires practice, it also requires feedback and guidance from other writers. Colorado Springs is known for its Olympic athletes, but maybe our city should be known for its Olympic writers, too — the people who generously share their experience and knowledge to help others write more and write better. They may not have medals, but their willingness to support aspiring writers is world class.

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

Forever Friends

“Susan,” my sister said to me on the phone, “I don’t have any girlfriends.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my older sister, Carolyn, in Connecticut. I have four sisters in three different states, and I’d heard it before, from every one of them. None of us has a lot of friends – any kind of friends, and definitely not best friends. I imagine this is partly due to our upbringing: we moved often, so we didn’t forge many friendships, knowing they were temporary.

There was no email or Facebook when we were growing up, so once we moved to another town, the only way to keep in touch with people was by phone, and long distance phone calls were expensive. You could write a letter or a postcard, but then you had to buy a stamp. You needed money for that, and a ride to the post office. People usually didn’t write back, either. After you moved, they moved on, and soon you had nothing in common to write about. So we just didn’t start many meaningful, lasting friendships, or work to maintain the few we had.

Here in the 21st century, with its texting, Skype, unlimited phone minutes, and social media, there’s no excuse for letting friendships die, but my sisters and I seem to hang onto our childhood habits: don’t keep up old friendships or bother making any new ones. I was guilty of the habit, and so was my sister.

“It’s funny you say that you don’t have any girlfriends,” I said to her, “because I have the same problem, but I guess it doesn’t bother me because I really enjoy being alone.” Of course, there’s a fine line between introversion and reclusiveness, and I cross that line regularly. I could go for days without speaking to another person. That’s probably not healthy, so I make a point of walking into the bank to deposit checks, talking to the mail lady at the mailboxes in the afternoon, or going to the grocery store when I don’t need anything, so I can make eye contact with a person and say hello at least once a week. I’m good with that – it satisfies my social needs. But I wanted to help my sister.

“Have you tried a Meetup group?” I asked. She didn’t know what that was, so I stepped her through the Meetup.com site. In case you’re not familiar with Meetup, it’s a site where people who have common interests set up groups and then have in-person meetups and social events. There are Meetup groups for just about everything. I think I belong to at least a dozen of them here in the Springs, and one of these days I’m going to attend an event.

My sister got on the site, plugged in her zip code, and got a list of meetup groups in her area.

“The closest meetup group is called Girls Without Friends,” she laughed.

“Great,” I said, “It’s probably a bunch of miserable, middle-aged women who moved a lot when they were kids. Sounds like a blast!” We both laughed at that.

I had to try again.

“Don’t you have any friends from high school? College? Past jobs? Isn’t there anyone you haven’t seen in a long time, but when you think about that person, you remember really enjoying their company?”

There was someone, but she hadn’t talked to her in years.

“She used to call and stop by all the time,” she said.

“So what happened,” I asked, “Did she move? Why did she stop coming by?”

“I don’t know…well, actually I remember now that she had a gallery opening, so she was really busy. She invited me but I couldn’t make it. Then she had this other thing, and I couldn’t go to that either. I think she left me a voicemail last year…”

“Call her!” I said, “Hang up and call her right now!”

“But we haven’t talked in years. I told you, she stopped calling.”

“No, Carolyn, she didn’t stop calling. You stopped calling her back.”

“Oh,” she said.

A couple of weeks later, my sister called me again. She had called and called that friend, and gotten no response, so she went by her house. They spent two hours catching up. As it turned out, they had both gotten busy. Their friendship hadn’t ended; it had just lapsed, and all it took was for one of them to take that first step to revive it. My sister was happy. She had her friend back.

I hung up the phone and thought about that for a while. Then I contacted a few women I hadn’t seen in years. We reconnected, and one of them went on a hike with me in Lost Creek Wilderness. Two others, who live minutes away in Mountain Shadows and Manitou Springs, invited me out for drinks. We had great conversations. They reminded me that – despite my proclivity for solitude – friendships, in small doses, felt good.

I called my sister to tell her about my refound friendships. She laughed at me for following my own advice after all these years, and I hung up, smiling.

That’s when I realized, I do have a best friend. And so does my sister, Carolyn.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 26, 2017, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.


The Work-From-Home Survival Guide

When I got promoted to a work-from-home job a few years ago, I felt like I’d won the lottery. What? I don’t have to come into the office anymore? No commute? No cubicle? Not even a schedule? For me, an extreme introvert, it was a dream come true! Little did I know at the time that working from home came with its own challenges, but over the past three and a half years, I think I’ve finally got this thing figured out.

The first thing I discovered was that “work from home” is not the same thing as “home from work.” You are still at work. The only difference is that you’re physically located in your own home for the duration of the workday, instead of an office, cubicle, or shop.

The second thing I learned is that “working remotely” isn’t the same thing as “remotely working.” You have to have your butt in a chair for eight hours a day or longer, and you have to be doing actual work — providing a service or creating a product — that someone values enough to pay you money for.

Seriously, if you’re considering a work-from-home job and you can just get those two things straight in your head, you’ll be on your way to a successful career (and you won’t even have to put on pants).

I learned a lot of other things, and they’ve helped me keep my career going. I should let you know upfront that I got laid off from that first work-from-home job after a year and half, but I had another one within two weeks. These days, there are a lot of jobs out there that you can do in your own home office. If you don’t believe me, go to a job site like Indeed or Monster and search for “work-from-home” or “remote” jobs.

I should also let you know that I quit that second job after four months to be a full-time freelancer. There’s that much freelance work out there, too, for anyone who’s motivated enough to find it.

So here’s what else I learned, my best advice if you’re thinking of making a go of it working from home:

  • Have a nice workspace. It should be clean, quiet, and comfortable, with good lighting and dependable high-speed internet. If it’s too cold, get a space heater. If it’s too warm, get an evaporative cooler. When you work from home, you don’t have to heat or cool the entire house – just the space you’re occupying to get your work done, and you’ll get more work done if you like the space you’re in.
  • Have a schedule that reflects your normal work schedule. It doesn’t have to be 8 to 5, but your day should start sometime in the morning and end sometime in the early evening, with a midday break for lunch, the gym, errands, and whatever else you want to do in the middle of the day. You can even throw in a load of laundry, if you like! I use my midday break to go for a run, hike, or climb, and then I shower, eat lunch, load the dishwasher, balance my checkbook, and pay the bills. You can knock out a lot of stuff in a two-hour break. What, a two-hour break? Yes, when you work from home, you get a two-hour break instead of just an hour. That extra hour is the time you’d usually be sitting in your car during the before- and after-work commute. Nice bonus, eh?
  • Start every day with a plan. You might have left your Outlook calendar back at the office, but you still need a calendar in your home office. Get in the habit of scheduling blocks of time to get things done. I keep a running online calendar of meetings and appointments in Google (which is free) and a paper calendar on my desk for all the details. I update them at the end of every workday. That way, I don’t spend the next morning – my most productive time for getting work done – trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. Also, I sometimes have early morning client calls, as early as 6 a.m., and so I need to remind myself of those the night before, so I don’t miss them!
  • Get rid of all the distractions. No Facebook or Twitter, and you had better not think for a minute that it’s okay to have a television in your home office. When you work from home, you don’t have to answer the door or your cell phone, or respond to every text message or email that pops up – unless it’s a client, then you absolutely do. Seriously, behave the same way you would behave at work, because you are at work!
  • Track your time. The first couple of weeks I worked from home, I couldn’t believe how busy I was. It was exhausting. The funny thing was, I didn’t seem to be getting a lot accomplished. One day I started tracking my time. I kept a running list of the time I started working and the time I stopped because of a distraction. In that eight-hour workday, I had worked – and actually created something that I was going to get paid for – for one hour. Yes, one whole hour. Where did the other seven hours go? Phone calls, email, social media, and snacks. Oh, and there was a really good episode on Dr. Phil. Now I track my time from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and I put in a solid eight hours of work every single day. There are apps for this (and if you work for an employer that wants you to use them, then use them!), or you can use a good old-fashioned notepad. At the end of each day, I roll all my time into an Excel workbook with a different worksheet for each project, so I know how much time I spent on each one.
  • If you’re a freelancer, make time for lead generation, marketing, sales, invoicing, collections, and customer communication. This is part of your eight-hour workday, and nobody pays you for this time, but you have to do these things to stay in business.
  • Keep good food in the house so you don’t have to go out to eat every day, which is time-consuming, expensive, and usually not healthy. My kitchen is stocked with vegan lunch meats and cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains…and Oreos.
  • Go out to lunch sparingly and use that time to catch up with friends. Once a month or once a week is plenty. Hook up with other work-from-home people and have lunch with them every once in a while on your two-hour break. If you don’t have any freelance friends or work-from-homies, find some on a Meetup group, or start your own group.
  • Don’t eat at your desk. I can’t tell you how many times, when I was working in an office, I looked around my desk for a “missing sandwich” only to find a pile of crumbs and realize that I’d already eaten it. Do one thing at a time, and don’t work while you’re eating or eat while you’re working. Food is awesome. Enjoy it (on your two-hour break).
  • Get up every hour. Prolonged sitting is bad for you. When you’re in an office, you do this without thinking about it to go to meetings, the breakroom, or the printer. In your home office, you have to make yourself stand up and move. Get up for five minutes and run up and down the stairs, lift some free weights, or do something else to get the blood flowing. Then grab a big glass of water to take back to your desk with you, and get to work – you’re still on the clock.
  • Get outside. There are lots of other people in your neighborhood who work from home and if you get out in the middle of the day you’ll see them everywhere: stay-at-home moms and dads playing with their kids at the park, freelancers running the trails, and people with online jobs who just need a little fresh air. If you can get in a twenty-minute walk or run, you’ll come back to your desk feeling a lot better. This counts as part of your two-hour break, by the way.
  • If you’ve been doing the math, you’re probably wondering where that other two hours went. When you work twelve hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two-hour midday break, trust me, you will still only work for eight hours. The other two hours will be lost on meals, exercise breaks, snack breaks, and phone calls from family or friends. That’s why you have to track your time. You need to make sure you’re actually working for eight hours.

That’s a lot, right? Working from home might not be for you. In fact, when I taught human resources for an online college (a fantastic work-from-home job, if you get in with the right school), I read about a survey of employees who had been allowed to work from home for six months. Half of them asked to come back to the office. Sound crazy? It’s not. There are people who prefer the social environment, or they like getting dressed up, or they like having a more rigid schedule and someone like a manager telling them what to do. If that’s you, that’s cool, too. But if you want to work from home, learn from my mistakes and do it right the first time.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 28, 2017, Woodmen Edition.

What a Mom Really Wants

Jewelry, flowers, photos and chocolates. Kitchen gadgets and gardening tools. Soaps, lotions, candles and bubble baths. All terrific Mother’s Day presents!

I’m not big on gifts – getting them or giving them. Maybe it was my upbringing. There was never any extra money for buying things other than food and, occasionally, clothes. My kids must have picked up on my lack of interest in gifts because they seldom send me cards or presents and when they do I’m kind of shocked, and suspect someone else – a dad or a girlfriend – had a hand in it.

I still look forward to Mother’s Day every year, though. The holiday is a nice reminder that your kids appreciate you, even if they forget to mention it the other 364 days a year.

But this year, Mother’s Day has me thinking about gifts and the best gifts I’ve received in my lifetime. There have been a few real standouts.

One year my sister, Alison, showed up at my house with her kids and we all picked up Subway sandwiches, had a picnic, and went on a nice long hike in Ute Valley Park. Her husband, Michael, didn’t want to come along because he had work to do. When we got back, Michael had installed window sills on every window in my house – even in the bathrooms! Somehow, he and my sister had measured all the windows without me knowing about it, and he’d built and painted the sills in his workshop. Installing them meant pounding a few nails – and getting me out of the house for a couple of hours. It was magnificent.

Another one of my favorite gifts came from my friend, David. He gave me an autographed hard copy of the book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s my favorite book. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from it: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” There are better quotes in that book, but that’s the one that fits best here.

The best gifts I got this year were a couple of phone calls from my kids. My oldest son called to tell me he’d landed a job doing something he’s really good at. It’s a great company and the money’s good. He loves this new job. We moms take care of our kids for so many years, but eventually, we have to turn them out into the world. We worry that they won’t be able to take care of themselves. Or they won’t be happy. A good-paying job that they love is like a small miracle because then we can stop worrying pretty much. We still worry about other things, but at least we don’t go to bed at night wondering if our kids had enough to eat that day or have a warm place to sleep. Or if they’re spending eight hours a day doing something they don’t enjoy. It’s a huge relief when they get a good job. I called everyone I knew when he got that job, not to brag, but to let them know I was relieved.

The other great gift I got was a phone call from my younger son, who called me last week to tell me he was OK. There was a stabbing on his college campus and one student was dead. A few others were injured. I was traveling for work when I read the news and I called my son immediately and left him a voicemail. He never answers the phone and usually doesn’t even call me back for days, but this time he called me right back. He must have known I’d be going out of my mind until I heard from him.

A lot of moms are going to get the other kinds of calls this year. Their kid didn’t get the job or qualify for that home loan, or their girlfriend broke up with them or husband left them. Or maybe something awful happened and those moms won’t get a call at all from their kid. The moms of those kids at the University of Texas got calls like that this week. I can’t think about it too hard or I’ll cry and won’t be able to finish writing this column.

If you’re a mom, I hope you get a call from your kid this weekend. I hope they call to tell you they got that great job that they wanted, or qualified for the house, or fell in love. Or maybe they’ll just call to tell you they’re OK.

If you’re a kid, remember that we moms feel your pain, and we need to know when something’s wrong so we can try to take some of that pain away. We feel your joy, too, and we need to know about that. Your joy is a better gift than a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. So if we’re kind of annoying and we nag you a bit or ask you too many questions or call and leave too many voicemails, just remember that we never forget you’re our kids. And we just need to know that you’re OK.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 10, 2017, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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.