Colorado


Shoes crunch wet spring snow

juniper shapes are smudged, laden branches bent

IMG_0142ghost vapor swirls

’round the gnarled trunks,

drowns out the world’s sounds,

even May Day bird songs.

One of the most invigorating aspects of spring, particularly spring in the Rockies, is the total unpredictability of the whole affair. Two days ago I ran down a dry dirt road in shorts and a sports bra, my shoulders taking on a deep, red sun kiss. This morning I hiked into the chilled quiet of a snow coated juniper forest, my body warmed by wool layers, fingers adorned in thick gloves. Spring produces bipolar Rocky Mountain weather at its best.

Not all in the Roaring Fork Valley are thrilled about the drastic swings. During a phone conversation with an Aspen friend this morning, the friend declared, “I’m over the snow.” But it’s so pretty! I protested, to which he replied, “I’m over the beauty, too.” On entering the Carbondale library this morning I overheard the librarian apologizing to an out-of-towner for the weather. And on the street one man exclaimed to another, “This is crazy! But it’s a choice, I guess, to live in the Rockies.”

Sure, freak snow storms snarl traffic, slop up sidewalks and make spring flowers bloom a little slower, but they also provide the perfect reason to slow down, take in the scenery and admire weather doing what weather does: anything it wants. It also reminds people of something essential: they can’t control everything. In an age when we can control our work schedules, food choices, the temperature in our cars and the music on our Pandora radios, it’s comforting to know that ultimately, nature still rules.

In due time, Colorado summer will deliver long, 90 degree days of endless sunshine that stretch on for weeks at a time. Until then, I’ll enjoy this final burst of winter beauty, and hope that a few more unexpected bursts are on the way.

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When we crested the ridge, shirts stuck to sweaty backs, blood pushing through veins, lungs swollen then empty, I caught my first glimpse

and I gasped and laughed. hours of uphill effort disintegrated

my hungry eyes grabbed the mountain scape, ate the view, fed my soul.

There were pyramid shapes

in any direction

snow basins, pregnant snow bowls

crusty ridgelines, seams

dividing one peak

from the next,

velvet snow fields

speckled by evergreen tips

All small in our eyes

but we were the smallest

tiny, our presence an instant, a fraction

And the mountains’ presence

monumental

the reason, in fact, we lived that day.

IMG_0118

A friend recently proposed a project: take a photo of something random each day, then spend 20 minutes free writing about that photo. You can write whatever you want, just let the image shape the words, scenes and thoughts you present. Below, my first go at it. More to follow…

Driving a two lane in northern Colorado

Driving a two lane in northern Colorado

How, I wondered, fingers gripped to an icy steering wheel, do I capture this place? Glittering snowfields rolled out from the roadside, meeting peaks, ridgelines, aspen groves, bare branches extending into seemingly endless colbolt cloudlessness. A lone peak jutted skyward. Could I ski it? Approach from the north, ski down the way I came? I consider as I perch my point-and-shoot shakily on the dash. If only I could  sweep this landscape up, gather it in my arms, frame it on an empty wall. This is my life, this entire world of mountains, snowflakes, wind gusts that blow my Subaru to the yellow line, the snow banked roadside. If only the whole world could experience the freedom of this landscape, the liberation. Would the world be better? Who’s to say? On the radio, Robert and Jad of Radiolab speak of snowflakes, perfect figures, no two are alike. I gaze, my mind working across the snowfields, one by one by one by one the flakes that make the snowpack. I’m blown to the side of the road, again.

Last week I sat alone on a 13,000 foot mountain pass. Elk Mountain peaks shot skyward around me. A westerly wind pulsed erratically, numbing my fingers slightly and bringing with it the chill of fall. I gazed out to the dual points of Snowmass Peak, followed her ridge to the chunky shape of Hagerman Peak, and then down to where Snowmass Lake sat glittering in the sunlight. In the comfort of familiar mountains, I was searching.

Curiously, four years ago nearly to the day, I sat at that same spot. The westerly wind blew, my fingers were numb, Snowmass Lake glittered. I searched. My inagural Colorado summer was ending and I faced uncertainty: what now?

That search spurred a monthlong solo roadtrip around Colorado where I paused in any town I thought I could call home: Marble, Crested Butte, Silverton, Durango, Durango again, Crestone, Colorado Springs, Golden, Frisco, Leadville and Buena Vista. Along the way I climbed peaks, met strangers, met friends, slept under stars, slept in my car, skied down sand dunes, meditated in temples, drank beer and marveled at the enchanting golden hues of fall in the Rockies.

As the weeks wore on, however, I was feeling worn myself. Opportunities existed in Durango, but I wasn’t sold. I felt like there was more to see, yet as my meager funds began to dwindle, the shadow of desperation crept in.

At a coffee shop in Frisco, the barista, Clair, boosted my morale. “You’re on the road?” she asked enthusiastically. “I just packed up everything I own and moved here from New York! If you need anything, or if you decide to live in Frisco and need a place to crash here is my number.” She scribbled her digits and I felt a surge of new energy and support. On the road again, I drove through Alma (elevation 10,578, population 179), Breckenridge and into Leadville. I had an idea.

Somewhere along the trip, a gypsy friend of mine had mentioned that Rock and Ice magazine was in Carbondale and that somebody he knew had interned there. A quick email sent to the editors from a Leadville coffee shop confirmed that the internship was open. I set to work on a cover letter, molding my future with each sentence. That night I slept at a trailhead on Independence Pass, my tired body caccooned in a down sleeping bag in the backseat of my VW Golf. The next morning, on arrival into Aspen, I got the acceptance email that secured my fate to live in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Four years rocketed by, years filled with blissful powder days, hair-raising climbing leads (and inevitable falls), miles of backcountry hiking, guiding climbing, writing, exploring. Eventually there was Nepal, and a brief break in mountain life spent in San Francisco. But then it was back to the Roaring Fork.

And now here I am, or there I was, resting on that saddle of Buckskin Pass, facing a new but similar uncertainty: what now? Though life in these mountains charms and invigorates me, I feel deep within myself that the time to search has arrived again. This valley, though it is beautiful, is not the only beautiful place to live, learn and find inspiration. Perhaps I’ve outgrown it; my time here satisfied some deep physical need for the outdoors, but now the need has shifted, to an environment more intellectual.

So I’ll do what I always do to find what I’m looking for: Travel.

First to San Francisco, then Seattle, then perhaps Vancouver (after my recent trip to Jasper, I’m hooked on Canada). And eventually? Boulder, I think. Or Fort Collins. Both offer close proximity to peaks in addition to universities and learning environments. I’m letting things evolve, staying open.

This strategy is as unnerving as it is freeing. But if I’ve learned anything over my short life of travel and movement, it’s this:

When you open yourself up to what life can bring, oftentimes what you get leaves you pleasantly, delightfully surprised. And most often, it’s just what you’re seeking.

Morning light on North Maroon, en route to Buckskin Pass, August 2008.

Last night it rained for the first time in what felt like months. Fat, steady drops fell from the soft night sky, poured off of building eves, gathered into reflective beads on my jacket as I walked slowly home from work. The air, so often lately hot and brittle, swelled with cold wet and the smell of live soil and roots. I tilted my face to the sky, arms raised at last! at last! rejoicing in the rain.

Since our mild winter ended, long stretches of sunny, cloudless 70 degree days have taken over. We’ve had flirtations with precipitation–long days during which the heat and clouds gather and thunder growls along Sopris’s ridges. A smell fills the air, subtle and fresh, a hint of moisture typically absent in our high, dry climate. The smell teases the nose the day through until–just when you’ve grown tired of gazing at the stacked clouds and checking your watch wondering ‘when?’–the sky cracks open. Raindrops pelt the dusty ground like bullets, wind gathers and swirls, trees sway gracefully, their short trunks shiny from the watery sheen. You gasp, exhale and inhale again so deeply your lungs feel likely to burst at the pressure. Breathe deeply now, you know, let your lungs and skin absorb as much moisture as they can.

Because, in five minutes or less, the rain squal is over.

The clouds part, sun blasts through the open spaces, Sopris gleams white snow and black rock. The sidewalks are slick. The leaves drip. And dry.

So to have a rain that lasts all night is almost too wonderful to imagine. It reminds me of my early days back east when rain would last for days, not merely a single night. Back east where one can grow tired of the rain when it falls too much, too fast, too long. I crave those stretches of stormy days, long to hear drops smacking window panes, and to see layers and folds of dark clouds.

The day after the night-long rain, I woke just after dawn as usual. I peeled back the curtain and peered up at the morning sky, hoping to see white and grey, not blue. Hoping I’d have another day to breathe deep and dance in the falling drops. Alas, this is Colorado where the sun shines at least 300 days each year. Outside the sky was endless blue and the sun was bursting boldy over the foothills of Sopris.

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

As soon as I felt the pain in my heel, I knew things would turn out badly. I was two miles into a six mile winter trail run. Fresh snow padded the single track trail and I charged up each dip, rise and incline in the red rock slope. Rhythm, focus, running, loving, breathing, seeing sage dusted white, junipers crowned with snow. And then the pain–dull at first creeping up my right ankle. I slowed, surprised, then walked a few steps. The pain subsided. Emancipator throbbed in my earbuds, pressed me on so I ran again, only to stop again. Shoot, I thought, what is that?

A week passed. Two skiing endeavors, one painful, one not. Another run. A mile in. Hot pain in the heal and that was that, no running for a week I said, not realizing that it would be much longer.

Achilles tendon injuries are no stranger to runners. Before that fateful run I had heard from a running friend about the horrible discomfort of achilles tears, ruptures or tendinitus. What I didn’t realize at the time was the enormous effort, and lack of effort, required to heal an achilles. In two weeks I digressed from running and skiing strong to sitting for hours on end. My days took on a new rhythm––icepack, followed by hot epsom salt soak, arnica massage, repeat. This change was a shock for a girl who spends every waking hour in motion, foot induced flight skipping to and from horse pens at feed time, long runs and walks with a feisty husky, mornings off skinning up ski slopes, after-work evenings running around a restaurant.

In order to get over this set back, I would need to relearn the art of moving mindfully.

When I was 22, I spent three months at a yoga ashram. Each day was designed to cultivate mindfulness–5:45 morning meditation; 6:00 hatha yoga practice; morning hours spent chopping vegetables for my fellow yogis; afternoon hours dedicated to the magazine, Yoga International, I had come to work for; evening yoga at 5; soup dinner at 6:30 followed by evening meditation and quiet walks around 300 acres of northeastern Pennsylvania hills. Mondays were declared “silent Mondays.” That is, complete silence throughout the ashram during meals, meditation, vegetable chopping, and magazine work (unless communication between editors was entirely necessary). In leu of speaking, people communicated to each other via nods and  gestures. Beyond silent Mondays, ashram residents were encouraged to be quiet and mindful of those whose walls we shared. Walk slowly, experience each step, breath and muscle movement.

Away from the controlled environment and harmonious community of an ashram, however, mindfulness can easily be lost in the modern day to day. Concerns about procuring an income, maintaining a home, raising children, juggling work, school, social activities and (for some of us) staying fit easily overshadow awareness of our overall well being. Which is how I fell into the pattern of rushing into long trail runs without stretching during my limited time away from work. A dangerous pattern that has led me to prolonged episodes of couch-confinement and to very slow walks around the neighborhood.

But since slowing down and becoming more aware of the passing time, I’m finding that I’m reading more and thinking deeper. I’m allowing my mind to expand beyond the day’s events, dramas and dissatisfactions. I’m day dreaming more, consciously thinking about what I want in life. And on those long, slow walks I’m noticing houses in town I hadn’t seen before, admiring how the clouds shift across Sopris’s twin peaks and generally finding myself more aware of my surroundings that I normally would be while scurrying from one thing to the next.

Sure it stinks when your forced slow down, but sometimes slowing down isn’t so bad. Sometimes it can be, dare I say, enlightening.

This evening, the first in several evenings, the air temperature hovered somewhere between teens and twenties, not single digits and below as it has been recently. I took a walk under a glowing moon two days from full and basking the land, in cold white light. I walked to up the hill by my house, to the church on its knoll. And I gazed out over the town of Carbondale below.

I walked up the hill alone, like every night a walk alone.

I watched the glowing taillights of cars below, winding through the neighborhoods, returning to their parking spots for the evening. I watched the rush hour traffic head down valley from Aspen, where daily commuters work but can not afford to live. I gazed at the twin peaks of Sopris bathed in moon.

I sighed. I missed the city.

I missed the energy and random interactions with humanity of all sorts. The diversity of faces you can’t find in this wealthy hippy town in the central Rockies. My favorite Burmese restaurant in the Mission–a literal hole in the wall where four Burmese ladies hustled behind a smokey, steamy diner bar, yelling out orders in Burmese and whipping up ample portions of amazing veggie curry for $5.95. But most of all I missed my friends, a crew I knew for a short time but felt instantly connected to and felt that I’d known before and that I would continue to know through life despite distance.

The kind of connection I’ve rarely felt while living in the Rockies. What is it about the mountains that draws those not seeming to seek deep human connections? Is that why it’s so challenging to make true connections here? Or perhaps the natural transience of mountain transplants makes long time residents more guarded toward the friendships they make. And the transients know they’re just passing through, so longterm friendship isn’t on their wish list. The mountains are so grounding, yet human interactions in this town are less so, and I can’t pinpoint why.

In the city I longed for the mountains. In the mountains I long for the people of the city.

How, where, can you find both? I wonder, as I often wonder. Is there a spot somewhere in this great world where you can have outstandingly beautiful surroundings, massive snowy mountains, easy access to nature, and also, a healthy dose of social activity, where you can on any given night walk down a street and meet a lifelong friend, or be entertained at any time by an amazing, diverse mass of humanity?

I once had a dream I moved back to San Fran, but San Fran was nestled among jagged, snow drenched mountains. I found a quiet, quaint home on a winding hidden ally, with a garden and greenery and easy access to those beckoning peaks. My best friend from the city, lived nearby. My sister, too. And I was close enough to the action of civilization, but far enough from it to stay grounded, connected to nature. And it was perfect.

What a shame it was only a dream.

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