Come to Colorado…Next Year

It’s been a “stay local or stay home” kind of summer. Since March, my travels have been restricted to the grocery store and a few local parks. But last week I drove up to Fort Collins to visit one of my kids. He just moved there and since I’ve hiked a lot in that area, I thought I’d show him around.

Fort Collins is a beautiful town. I don’t know what they’re doing up there, but the roads are treelined and perfectly paved. In three days, I didn’t see a single pothole. You’ve probably heard about the downtown area being the inspiration for Disney’s Main Street, and it’s no surprise: even the alleys are clean, neat, and bedecked with flowers. I’d never noticed how pretty the place is because I usually drive straight to a trailhead.

I was there to show my son the great outdoors though, so first thing in the morning, we headed to the marina at Horsetooth Reservoir. And got in line behind a bunch of cars that weren’t moving. That’s when we noticed the billowing black smoke – a boat was on fire and they weren’t letting anyone on the water. I figured we’d be there a while, so I got out of the car to chat with one of the workers about boat rentals. “Rentals? All the boats are rented.” “Today, or for the whole weekend?” I asked. ‘The whole summer,” he said, “you’re not going to find a boat anywhere this year.”

Okay, so no boat. Well, Fort Collins is a big cycling town too. Maybe I’d surprise my son with a new bike. We headed back into town and stopped at an outdoor retailer, then another, then another. No bikes. So we found a bike shop near his home – a place that sold bicycles and nothing else. Here’s what the guy said, “We have no bikes. All the bikes are gone. We may have some in a few weeks if you’d like to check back.” I asked him how a bike shop could have no bikes – that seemed unusual to me. He responded, “This summer has been crazy. Everybody bought a bike.”

By this time, the day was half gone. We stopped for lunch. Sitting outside at a picnic table munching on pizza and salad, I thought about the rest of the day. Me (in all my trip-planning brilliance) had booked a timeslot at Rocky Mountain National Park, an hour’s drive from Fort Collins. This year, you can’t just drive into the park. They have a limited number of rolling reservations offered two days in advance, and they get snapped up in minutes. Our slot was for 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. – not ideal, but it was the best I could do. At least the trails didn’t require a boat or a bike. All we had to do was get to the park, then let our feet take us on our merry way.

I headed for the Bear Lake parking lot and one of my favorite hikes. Not once did it occur to me that this was the most popular trailhead, to the most popular hike, in the state’s most popular national park, on a Saturday, in August. During a pandemic. I didn’t think about all the people who had made summer plans to visit the park months in advance. I didn’t consider all the people from out of state who were visiting Colorado to avoid lock-down in their own states. And I sure as heck didn’t think about how many people had been there all day, and by say, 5 o’clock, would be wrapping up their visit and trying to get out. None of this clicked with me, even when I saw the sign that said the Bear Lake parking lot was full and I’d have to take the shuttle.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Rocky Mountain National Park. Last August, I spend two long weekends camped there, hiked over 50 miles, and had lots of solitude on the trails. This day, the trails resembled a conga line. It was not the park I wanted to show my son, but I blame myself for being clueless about what this pandemic has done to the backcountry.

So after just one hike, we decided to find a less busy trail. We got in line for the shuttle and waited. And waited. And waited. Because there were more than 100 people in front of us, waiting for the shuttle too. After an hour and a half or so, and after six buses had taken away everyone ahead of us, we were finally at the front of the line. A bus pulled in. I stepped up to get on, but the driver stopped me. “Only drivers,” he said, “I’m only taking drivers who are willing to drive to their cars and drive back up here to get the rest of their party.” Well, as you can imagine, everyone at the end of the line was suddenly a driver. Everyone at the front of the line – including some very old people and the family of five behind us who had a baby with them – stood there, eyes wide, horrified. After waiting all that time, sitting on hot concrete in the sun for most of it, we couldn’t even get on the shuttle. I thought about getting on as a driver, but by then I was a little irritated. I figured the next bus would get there a lot sooner than I’d be able to drive all the way down the hill and back up again. This seemed like the smart choice until fifteen minutes later when the next bus pulled up, the door swung open, and the driver hollered, “Drivers only.” This time, I got on the bus.

I’m not complaining. If anyone has a right to complain, it’s the people working at the marina, and the bike shop, and the park. I don’t know how they are dealing with this summer’s insanity. But I learned my lesson: Stay home. Stay local. If you do go out, go somewhere that no one else wants to visit. Rocky Mountain National Park will be there next year.

Pulling back into Fort Collins, I was reminded of what a pretty little town it is. I said to my son, “I know today didn’t turn out like we planned, but you know what I’m going to remember most?” I was thinking about the walk downtown, the vegan pizza lunch, and the time spent with my son. He had other ideas: “I don’t know, Mom…come to Colorado: no boats, no bikes, no buses?”

Not what I was thinking, but it was accurate.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 26, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Chilling Out with Polar Adventures

The summer heat has been dragging me down. Usually this time of year I get up high in the mountains where the temperatures are cooler and the breezes are breezier. But this year, the trails and campgrounds are packed. With so many people shut out of their traditional indoor activities, they discovered the outdoors and apparently, they liked it. Plus, with schools out and businesses closed, families are looking for ways to keep the kids happy, healthy, and away from screens. Add the influx of tourists flocking to our state from hotspots like Texas and California and you have a whole lot of people out there. So I’ve been staying local this summer. Relief from the heat is hard to come by at 6,035′ so I chill out from the inside.

In the fridge, there’s a jug of fruity beverage for the heat of the day and some cold brews for the evening hours. And as the sun goes down, I close my eyes and dream of polar adventures. I’ve never hiked near the polar regions – never been north of Canada. My closest brush with the Antarctic is a distant relative – my fifth cousin five times removed was Nathanial Brown Palmer, an explorer for whom Antarctica’s Palmer Land is named. I never met him (he died in 1877) but I like to think we share a little polar blood and a preference for the colder way of life. In a few months, when the crowds thin out and the campgrounds empty, I’ll hit the high trails and pitch my tent in the snow. Until then, I’ll settle for the next best thing: a book on polar exploration.

My favorite one is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. This is the story of Ernest Shackleton, who sailed south in 1914 with the intent of crossing Antarctica by land. Instead, his ship was locked solid in pack ice. Shackleton and his crew abandoned the ship and watched it bend, crack, and collapse under the immense pressure of the shifting ice. The destruction of the Endurance is just the beginning of the tale. What followed was a trek on foot, a sea voyage, another trek, and…I won’t spoil it for you, but the ending is not what you expect. I’ve read this book half a dozen times, and it never gets old.

Recently, I read The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Cherry was the youngest member on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910­-­1913 South Pole expedition. Though Scott reached the pole, it wasn’t without significant sacrifices – including his own life. Surprisingly, Scott’s trek isn’t the worst journey referenced in the title. That honor belongs to Cherry’s winter trek, where he and two other men from Scott’s party, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, headed east to Cape Crozier from the party’s base at Cape Evans. The trio was in search of penguin eggs for scientific research. The book is really three stories in one, and just when you think it can’t get any worse for the men – frostbite, snow blindness, starvation – killer whales surround their teetering ice floe, thirsty for polar explorer blood. Cherry’s writing, along with selections from Scott’s and other’s diaries, make this an engrossing tale. You’ll feel silly for complaining about the heat.

Finally, Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts introduced me to Douglas Mawson, whose 1911-1913 Australasian Antarctic Expedition is every bit as fascinating as Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar trips. Like Cherry, Mawson was more interested in the scientific aspects of exploration than simply reaching a geographic or magnetic pole. Also like Cherry, he survived unbelievable hardships.

All three books are filled with jaw-dropping terror, immeasurable suffering, and divine moments of relief. And they all take place in the bone-chilling cold. Head to your nearest bookstore or give them a call and ask them to reserve a copy of any one of these polar tales. On those long summer evenings when the temperatures barely dip below 90, the Antarctic adventures of Shackleton, Scott, Cherry, and Mawson will give you goosebumps.

Ch25_Ecuador 104-Chimborazo-Susan

In my happy place – high and cold on Chimborazo’s Veintemilla summit!

Photo by Doug Hatfield.

The Story behind the Story

Sometimes we choose our careers, and sometimes they choose us. And sometimes we run out of choices. That’s what happened to me when I was laid off during the Great Recession. I had applied for work at every place in town, but no one wanted to hire me. Jobs were scarce, and the few companies looking to fill positions weren’t interested in hiring women over 50. I knew this was true because at every interview I walked into, I was met with the same tight smile and blank stare. The interviewers would exchange glances that said, “Let’s make this as quick as possible and move on to the next candidate.” They didn’t see “MBA.” They didn’t see “decades of experience.” They didn’t see “senior management, team management, project management.” They didn’t see “Mensa member,” either. They just saw “old.” Old woman. Old unemployed — and unemployable — woman.

Those were the earliest days of my unemployment, when I could still hide my age on the job application and get invited to that first interview. But then companies got clever and started including the question, “What year did you graduate from high school?” An answer was required, so you couldn’t skip it. Giving them that date gave away my age and precluded me from getting even a first interview, so when it began popping up on online applications, I stopped applying for jobs online. Ageism may not be legal, but it’s widely practiced. Unless I’m applying for a bartending position, why does an employer need to know when I finished high school?

This painful experience, which lasted for more than two years, was the topic of a talk I gave at the Shrine Club. It wasn’t what I had intended to talk about, but it turned out to be the best topic for me and for my audience. A few weeks earlier, the Colorado Springs branch of the American Association of University Women had invited me to speak at their Author’s Day and Silent Auction. The annual event, which includes a breakfast, raises money for college scholarships for local women. Of course, I said yes. I speak regularly at local libraries and visitor centers, like Garden of the Gods. I have several slideshows, each about a different guidebook I’ve written. One of my presentations covers the 47 hot springs I’ve soaked in across the state, while another introduces the audience to more than 100 waterfalls. A third presentation is all about Colorado mountaineering. All three programs are packed with glorious photos of where I’ve been and information on how to get there — with a little help from my guidebooks. I was ready to speak to the fine women of AAUW and had all the waterfall, hot spring, and mountain maps, photos and graphics to back me up.

A few days before the event, I learned in an email that I wouldn’t be doing a visual presentation after all — I just had to talk for half an hour. What? Talk? Oh, no. No photos? How many ways can I describe a waterfall, a hot spring, a mountain? As long-winded as I am, filling 30 minutes was going to be a stretch. So I tried to write a speech. I tried hard, but nothing came. With nothing to say, I drove to the Shrine Club that Saturday morning, hoping something would occur to me over coffee and quinoa.

The first two authors were so good. Eleanor Brown, the author of The Weird Sisters and The Light of Paris, was funny and polished. The keynote speaker at the event, she was a pro who knew how to engage the audience. Elizabeth Fox, author of We Are Going to Be Lucky: A World War II Love Story in Letters, was next, and her poignant story included letters from the battlefield written by her father and read aloud by her husband, Sid. Sitting there listening to their eloquent speeches, I discarded my plan to talk about my books and decided to tell a different story: how I ended up writing stories in the first place. It would be a tough story to tell, but I looked to the only two people I knew in the audience and focused on them instead of all those strangers. My friend, Lisa, had also been displaced during the recession and had reinvented herself in the higher education field, doing what she loves and is very, very good at. Another friend, fellow Woodmen Edition columnist Bill Dagendesh, was in the writing business, an industry that suffered greatly during the last recession. I figured that at least a couple of people would understand where I was coming from.

I launched right into it: how I had gone from a high salary in high-tech to being unemployed. After two years, I wasn’t just running out of options; I was dangerously low on funds and self-esteem. Writing saved me. I wrote a book proposal, got a contract, and with that published book on my resume, I not only got job interviews — I got hired. More book contracts and other writing gigs, like this column, followed. After four years I quit working for other people to stay home and write full-time.

That’s the short version of what I told those ladies and a few men at the AAUW. It was the first time I’d spoken publicly about what I had been through and putting it all out there felt good. I could tell right away that other women had been there too, and I suspected they had never talked about it either.

There is a lot of shame in being unemployed. I started working at 16 and supported myself my entire life. I stayed in my jobs through two pregnancies, even having my second son on a Friday, being discharged from the hospital on Saturday, and going back to work on Monday. I still remember walking into the 8 a.m. sales meeting and people looking at me like I was nuts. But that’s what you do when you have two kids and you work on commission.

Being self-sufficient has always been a priority in my life, but when no one will give you a job, paying your own way isn’t possible. It’s a miserable experience that you can’t talk about. It’s too hard to be around your employed friends; they just want to talk about their jobs and how they’re spending all their money. Your unemployed friends are just as miserable as you are, and neither of you can afford to commiserate over a beer. You can’t connect with people on social media either: everyone’s either posting photos from their vacations or complaining about how their lazy unemployed friends are leeching off unemployment benefits — you know, “their” tax dollars. Never mind that many of us had been paying into unemployment for decades.

I got a lot off my chest at that talk. It felt good to say it out loud. It felt even better when women approached me afterward to confirm my suspicions: it wasn’t just me. Lots of women — and men — had been gutted during the last recession simply because they were too old to ever be taken seriously again in the job market. Some told me they got lucky and eventually landed a position that wasn’t as good as the one they had come from, but it was decent and paid the bills. Other women told me they eventually gave up and retired. A few, like Lisa, reinvented themselves, discovering new ways to leverage talents they’d developed in the workplace and exploring passions they’d set aside to build a new career that was profitable and even more fulfilling than the one they’d left behind.

It was a good talk, even without the slides.

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 12, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Spock on My Shoulder and Bones in My Ear

I fractured my toe a few weeks ago. It hurt like heck, but I didn’t run to the doctor to have it looked at. Like most people, when I have a problem — any problem — I turn to the internet first. Where else can you find expert medical advice without making an appointment, figuring out where you put your insurance card, or having a doctor actually look at your injury?

That’s when Bones and Spock showed up. I guess I should explain. You know how when you have a moral quandary to sort out and an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil shows up on the other one? That’s what happens when I get sick or injured. Except instead of an angel and a devil, I get Dr. “Bones” McCoy and Mr. Spock from “Star Trek.” I wish I had somebody else on my shoulders whispering in my ears — trust me, I’d take Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe any day over these two sci-fi characters — but my imagination has a will of its own, and it came up with Bones and Spock.

So when I knew my toe was messed up, these two showed up with their typical, conflicting advice on what to do about it. Spock, ever the rational one, tells me it’s just one toe – not the whole foot. And that whatever the doctor does is sure to cause me a lot of pain. Then he reminds me that the last time I went to the doctor was when I had that strange lump in my throat. I had Googled my symptoms, diagnosed the problem — a condition known as sialolithiasis, caused by a blockage of a submandibular gland — and even determined the treatment: drink more water and apply a warm compress to the area several times a day. “Spock’s right,” I think, “I should look to the collective intelligence of the internet for the answer.”

Bones challenges Spock’s advice, loudly proclaiming that neither Spock nor I am a doctor (and that he, on the other hand, is a doctor — and not, dang it, a mechanic, coal miner, bricklayer, botanist, bartender, dragon-slayer, or any number of other specialists). He whispers that I need all my toes in tip-top shape for my foot to be healthy, and in turn, my leg, torso, and the rest of me. “It’s not just the toe you should be worried about,” he says, “Your entire foot is counting on you.” Then he calls Spock a pointy-eared hobgoblin and says that I’m just a writer with virtually no medical training. I tell him about my EMT certification from the 1980s and my Wilderness First Aid certification from three years ago and he glares at me like I’m some kind of imbecile.

Spock steps in to remind McCoy that, against his own better judgment, I did go to the doctor about that throat lump, and after an initial check-up, a drive across town for an X-ray, another drive across town for an ultrasound, and a follow-up appointment, the doctor concluded that I had a calcified stone in one of my salivary glands — basically, sialolithiasis. She recommended (after I had spent four hours and hundreds of dollars to confirm my initial internet diagnosis) that I drink water and put warm compresses on the thing. “So there,” says Spock. Or something like that.

Bones isn’t having any of it. I could have had a thyroid problem, or a tumor, he says. Heck, a Ceti eel, like the one in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” could have crept in my ear and was roaming around inside my jaw, preparing to invade my cerebral cortex. You know, like it did to Chekhov. That’s what turned him into a pod person. I look at Spock, who’s sitting on the opposite shoulder with his arms crossed, and get that steely, emotionless stare. Yes, of course he’s right. Bones isn’t a bartender or bricklayer, but sometimes he’s kind of an idiot. I could figure this out on my own.

So I turned to the internet. By now the injury was a week old. Based on that, and the somewhat mangled appearance of the toe, the worldwide wisdom of the web offered two options: (1) surgery; or (2) “buddy-tape” it to another toe, keep it elevated, and let it heal. Since so much time had passed, it would probably heal crooked, but it would still work just fine.

Spock gets in one last jab, “You might live long, but you’ll never prosper if you keep shelling out all that cash every time you stub your toe.” He has a point, and not just on his ears.

I don’t know what made me change my mind. Maybe the fear that it was something worse than a fracture. Maybe that desperate, pleading look on Dr. McCoy’s face. Or maybe because deep down, I worried that a Ceti eel had burrowed into my foot and was eating it from the inside out. I turned off my computer and drove to the nearest emergency care center for a check-up, an X-ray, and an ultrasound. The doc buddy-taped my fractured toe and an hour later, I was home with my feet up.

Spock and Bones didn’t hang around. They never do. But they’ll be back the next time I get a sore throat, a rash, a lump, bump or bruise. And while I could have taken care of the toe myself, I’m glad I boldly went to see the doc. Something tells me that the one time I don’t listen to McCoy, I really will be sicker or more injured than I think and have to suffer the consequences of my own pointy-eared stubbornness.

I need all of me — from head to toe — to be in tip-top shape, no bones about that. In this case, I thought, putting my feet up and wiggling all 10 toes, the needs of the many outweighed the needs of that one toe.

This blog first appeared as a column in the October 8, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

What Copyediting Classes Taught Me

Editors have a tough time of it. They have to correct a writer’s work to adhere to whatever style manual the publisher mandates, whether it’s the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Style Manual, or some industry-specific guide such as the American Medical Association Manual of Style. They also have to make exceptions from these manuals per the publisher’s inhouse style guide and more exceptions per the author’s style sheet. Somehow, they have to do all this without insulting the author or altering their voice or tone, or the meaning of their words. And they have to produce something the publisher will print.

If this sounds like a tall order, it is. Everything I write goes through an editor and while the queries and red lines have decreased over the years, I suspect they’ll never disappear completely. There is just too much to know and most days, my brain can’t handle it.

Always the eager learner, last year I looked into some editing courses. In addition to simple proofreading, I could choose between light, medium, and heavy copyediting, or developmental editing. Always the glutton for punishment as well, I signed up for the University of California, San Diego’s twelve-credit program comprising four classes and culminating in a copyediting certificate.

Ten years ago I would have poo-pooed the need for such structured lessons. After all, I’ve been an avid reader and writer for decades. What more could there possibly be to learn? Nonetheless, I put my ego aside and jumped into the class discussion. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only student with an ego that needed checking. Apparently, inexperienced editors tend to think they know everything (and don’t mind letting everyone know) while experienced ones know they don’t (and probably never will). So those first few weeks of class were, shall I say… entertaining?

The typical self-proclaimed grammar nerd wouldn’t cut it in today’s English class. It’s not enough to know when to use there, their, or they’re; your or you’re; or even that, which, or who. Brag about your mastery of these words in a copyediting class and you will be laughed out of the whom (Ha ha! A little copyediting who-mor – I mean humor). That’s kid stuff you should have learned in grade school, and my first lesson launched straight into appositive phrases, demonstrative pronouns, adverbial clauses, and subjunctive moods. I swear that last one wasn’t even a thing when I was in school. If it were, surely, I would have remembered it.

Then there’s punctuation. Has there always been such a thing as hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes? I always just called those things “dashes.” Now I have three to choose from (yes, look at that – I ended my phrase with a preposition): the dash above the “p” key (for a hyphen), the Ctrl+Minus on my number pad (for the en dash), and the Ctrl+Alt+Minus (em dash). While I welcome these additions to my writing repertoire, the relaxed rules around some punctuation set my teeth on edge. For example, you would not believe what semicolons are getting away with these days. Remember when phrases before and after a semicolon had to be complete sentences and not simply clauses? Well, now there are exceptions. For something called “readability.” Yeah, I know. Blew my mind too.

If you aced English in high school or even majored in the subject in college, don’t think you’re ahead of the curve. A lot has changed and it keeps on changing. Think about it: the Chicago Manual of Style is in its seventeenth edition. So while you’re perusing a manuscript or online article, mentally judging the author’s writing, consider that what you think is right might not be right anymore. I was taught to never begin a sentence with “or,” “and,” or “but,” or to end one with a preposition (or to never split an infinitive, for that matter). Well, guess what? All OK now – as long as you understood when and why to break those old rules. I was also instructed in the careful use of commas to separate certain clauses and phrases. Nowadays, all those commas aren’t only unnecessary, they’re considered old-fashioned. This is referred to as “open” punctuation style, versus the “closed” style that was drilled into me years ago.

Finally, inclusive language is a huge topic in editing these days. When discussing gender, physical and mental abilities, race, religion, and an assortment of other topics, what’s in and what’s out changes daily.

I learned a lot in copyediting classes, and I’m looking forward to receiving my certificate from UCSD. I’ll update my resume, my LinkedIn profile, and my About Me page on my website. I’ll frame it, hang it in my office, and post a photo of it on Instagram and Facebook. I’ll keep all those textbooks handy, too, and all those websites bookmarked because there is no way I’ll remember everything I learned. Even if I did, it’s sure to change.

I will remember one thing: copyediting is hard. Really hard. And so my greatest lesson – after all the reading, writing, editing, quizzes, tests, and discussions – is this: I do not want to be a copyeditor. It may have taken me a year to figure that out, but it’s a lesson I will not forget. Period.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 11, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Rediscovering Public Transportation

Since I wrote this article in August, the Colorado Department of Transportation has released a survey to gauge interest in a passenger rail connecting Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins. If you live in these areas and want to voice your opinion, check out the Front Range Passenger Rail Survey.

As a kid, I had two options to get anywhere: by foot or by public transportation. My family didn’t have a car and I didn’t get one until I was in my twenties. So I walked a lot, and when I went out of town, say to New York City for the day, I’d just take the train to Grand Central Station and then walk or take the subway wherever I wanted to go. After high school, I moved to Boston for college and without a car, I learned the subway system (or “T” as they call it in Beantown) fast.

Eventually, as I began to travel, I used public transportation everywhere: the Underground or “Tube” in London, Métro in Paris, Metropolitana in Rome, and Vaporetto system of water “buses” in Venice. They all operated very similarly and figuring them out was dead simple, but even if it had been difficult, I would have mastered all of them. Nothing makes you figure out public transportation faster than not having a car, wherever you are.

In recent years, I’ve pretty much abandoned public transport. Why take a bus when I can jump in my private little car and go anywhere I please? Well, that changed this summer. No, I didn’t have my car repossessed. I just ended up in a lot of places where sharing a ride on the public system made a lot more sense.

It all started in July at Rocky Mountain National Park. Camping in the park on a weekend in the middle of summer is asking for trouble when it comes to parking, and as Colorado’s parks have become more popular with vacationers, the situation has gotten much worse. So rather than getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to all the trailheads I needed to visit (and praying for a spot to squeeze in my little car), I decided to use the free shuttle. Pickup started at 7 am, and there was a stop at the edge of my campground. So I got up at 6, and after a camp stove breakfast, I packed up, filled my coffee cup, and made my way to the Moraine Park Campground shuttle stop. This was the smartest thing I did in the park that weekend. Besides not having to worry about parking, I didn’t have to retrace my steps after every hike to get back to the car, which saved me a lot of extra steps. For example, after hiking from Bear Lake to Lake Haiyaha; Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes; and finally Lake Bierstadt; I continued down to the Park & Ride (instead of back to Bear Lake) where I picked up a bus back to camp. I didn’t even have to think about my car. If you’re thinking of using the RMNP shuttle, the map and schedule are online so you can plan your route ahead of time. And if you’re not into camping and want to stay in Estes Park, there’s even a stop in town at the Estes Park Visitor Center.

Emboldened by my shuttle experience, I decided to check out Denver’s light rail system a few weeks later. I had the perfect excuse, too: a Rolling Stones concert. The thought of getting in and out of the lot at Broncos Stadium along with tens of thousands of other fans – in various stages of, um… exuberance – gave me the heebie-jeebies. So instead, I enjoyed free parking at a downtown RTD station and bought an all-day local pass that took me right to Mile High. The next time I go, I’m exiting off I-25 south of Denver at RidgeGate near Lone Pine, where I can park and get an all-day regional pass (required to cross three “zones”), then ride into the city for dinner and a show at the Pepsi Center. The cool thing about many of these RTD lots is that they’re located right off a major road, so you’re not zig-zagging your way through traffic before and after parking. Before you go, check out the Denver light rail map and fares online.

My third recent public transportation experience was last week, visiting the Maroon Bells Scenic Area in Aspen. I hadn’t been to Maroon Lake and Crater Lake since I climbed “the Bells” in 2005, and things sure had changed. Like the rest of our state, Aspen has become a super popular destination for travelers and getting to the scenic area during the summer and early fall between 7:30 am and 5 pm requires taking a shuttle bus from the Aspen Highlands Village parking lot. This isn’t a free shuttle like the one at Rocky Mountain National Park – in fact, it cost me $16 to park for the day and $8 for the bus fare. Still, it was a glorious day to be at the lakes, looking up at those big old peaks. Leave the limited parking to people who are disabled, or the early-morning and late-evening hearty hikers hauling their big packs into camp at the lake and climb Maroon Peak or North Maroon Peak, or to the weary souls returning from the Four Pass Loop. The shuttle is fine with me. If you go, check out the RFTA site for the schedule and current fees.

An unexpected bonus of my travels was meeting some really cool people. In Rocky Mountain National Park, I sat next to a couple from Rockrimmon (literally two miles from my home). En route to the Stones concert, packed onto the E Line and hanging on for dear life from the Colorado Station to Mile High, I had a conversation with two women from Fort Collins and Florence, also on their way to the show. The Aspen shuttle to Maroon Lake was jammed with tourists and every one of them I spoke with was from New York.

I love to drive, and I do a lot of it. It’s nice to have that independence of being able to go where you want, when you want, and not have to deal with other people and their schedules. But as Colorado gets more crowded, it makes sense to check out all your options. Burn less gas and put less pollution into the air. Get your car off the road faster, save some money, and lower your stress too. Pad your time a bit, because it might take a little longer to get around. And sit back – or stand up – and enjoy it. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more public transportation, and a lot more of each other along the way.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 28, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

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.

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.