Riding Around Colorado

I have always loved cottonwoods–their giant woody arms, their cottony snows, their heart-shaped leaves turning yellow in the autumn.

Ron and I have been walking everywhere lately. We’re trying to stay healthy and fit for our upcoming excursions in other places, and to get in better cardiovascular condition for ski season. We walk to the grocery, the dentist, the library. We walked our ballots over to the voting box this week for the election. It takes time to walk, and planning. But it resets the soul somehow, puffing out stress and breathing in the simple rhythm of walking upright.

But when I found a bike on Facebook marketplace for 40 bucks, I was ready to add to our exercise options. It was clear out in the suburb of Aurora, but for $40, we figured we could afford a road trip. We took the toll road that rings Denver all the way around to a place so far east it may have been Kansas. That added a few dollars to the bargain. The tolls in Denver are astoundingly pricey. (The toll from our house to where the bike was equaled $9.85!) 

Ron and I often walk up to Waneka Lake in Lafayette.

Ron still had his bike from 30-plus years ago. He dusted it off, greased it up and put the chain back on about 20 times during the first ride we took. No matter, our old bikes are seaworthy enough, not unlike the rather rustier ones we rode up and down the Gulf Coast in Florida this summer. (Grateful for those as I recall pedaling our way up Casey Key and wondering which mansion along the pristine beachfront was Stephen King’s writing alcove.)

It was in Florida where we re-ignited our interest in bicycling. It was primarily out of necessity since we didn’t have a car. But we enjoyed it so much. And now that we’re stoked on spokes again, this fall we have found Colorado to be, well, slightly hillier than Florida. In Colorado, even paths and roadways that appear flat from a distance have found us huffing and puffing in easy gears. 

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you heave to sweat up the hills and can coast down them.”

Ernest Hemingway

Though they are daunting, all the hillocks also promise fantastic vistas. Pedaling up the Rock Creek and Coal Creek trails around Lafayette has shown us giant cottonwoods turning yellow, deep blue Flatirons slanting upward, and Long’s Peak rising snowcapped in the distance.

I’m also excited to be perched high on my bicycle seat when we ride through some parts of the trails around here that lead through settlements of prairie dogs—little beasts I find unnerving at best. I have rodent phobia (musophobia), so the few moments when we are coasting through prairie dog towns are tense. And Ron knows that sometimes something as innocuous as a breeze, much less a rodent, can topple me from a bicycle. So, when we cruise through rodentville, he looks back at me frequently, knowing how much I hate it. 

Along the Coal Creek Trail near Lafayette, Colorado.

But the dogs just sit and rudely stare, silently threatening to pop up or down like weasels, or tarts. Their shadowy holes lie waiting to startle me like a jack-in-the-box or a whack-a-mole. But phobia or no phobia, we’ve had no incidents so far with these rodents. However, we have had a few minor maintenance problems as we get back in the groove of cycling.

Ron’s front tire deflated about a mile into one section of trail one afternoon. He had run over a couple of goat’s head weeds, also aptly named puncturevine, and well, his inner tube was tapped. I rode back the way we had come, and he walked his bike up to a trailhead where I eventually met him with the pickup truck. We drove off to Wal-mart for bike repair supplies, and Ron talked about how he had been impressed with the number of friendly offers of help he got while walking his flat- tired bike. He took it as a hopeful sign of humanity still left in our race. I hope he’s right.

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Rugged Like the Colorado Rockies

My in-laws live at 10,000 feet. By comparison, the highest peaks in Colorado are 14,000 feet. People feel sleepy in their cozy mountain house, because of the high altitude. Water boils 18 degrees cooler on their stove, and it is the best water I’ve ever tasted. Also, It’s also usually 20 degrees cooler up there in Como, Colorado than down here on the front range. 

September snowfall atop the range west of Como, Colorado, near Boreas Pass.

In summertime this feels like a lovely reprieve from the 95-degree heat of the plains to the 75 degrees in the shade of the aspens and conifers that dot the hills up there. And looking out across the expanse of South Park is breathtaking. But then, the wind kicks up, which it does most days, and blows until most people head indoors and the cattle plant their hooves firmly at a slant, the way the grass grows. In the winter the wind and cold are enough to drive most people to warmer climes. I think my in-laws are among only a handful of folks who call Como home year-round.

They’ve had snow on the 4th of July up there. We’ve been nearly frostbitten and hypothermic sledding with my mother-in-law in the winter. The highway through the valley is closed many days when the road becomes indistinguishable from the ditch and the fields that lay beyond barbed wire fence lines that are buried in snowdrifts. We once drove home in a ground blizzard that obscured our passage except for the three feet just in front of the headlights that lit up the raging snowstorm like a swarm of moths at a porchlight. 

Sometimes I can’t believe we live in this beautiful state.

But in high summer and a few days in the early fall Como is idyllic. This fall we went up to help cut wood with the in-laws. We headed across a cow pasture to a stand of aspen that had died. Most had already fallen, and my father-in-law worked the chainsaw deftly on them until the bed of the old pickup truck was full.

We drove back and my father-in-law stepped to work at the gas-powered log splitter, and we made the mountain of firewood on the other side of his driveway a ½ ton higher. Tossing logs was good cardiovascular work in the altitude. I drank through my water bottle a couple of times. I kept taking off my jacket and putting it back on depending on whether the sun was behind a cloud or not. 

And although for much of the year Como is a less-than-attractive place to hang your hat, since it will actually blow away, my in-laws have been there long enough now that I know they’re just the type to stick places, no matter what. And while that has made them a bit more anxious than most about weather, it’s also instructive about who they are and about who my husband is. 

Ron Sr. and Ron Jr. working on firewood for the long, cold Como winter.

For one thing: he’s steadfast and constant—like the Como wind and his parents. He’s also a hard worker, since most things—firewood for example, but also vegetable gardens, satellite antennas, water, etc., require harder work to exist up there than in other easier places. And, perhaps due to all the hard work in a difficult place, his idea of adversity is a few clicks more intense than most people. 

He’s a mountain man, quiet like the long afternoons on a deserted hill with only the breeze in the pines and the chittering of birds to hear. He’s calm like the sun coming up over the peaks. And he has a depth like the clouds gathering in the west over the Rockies.

I used to spend my summers in Como when I was a kid, going to the camp there. I remember sitting on the wooden veranda of the mess hall, resting my legs on the log railing, and soaking in the sun. I remember the cool of the shade through the trees to the cabins, and hikes high up little Mt. Baldy. I was in the slow group, pretending to stop for pictures quite often. In contrast with my husband, my experience of Como says a lot about me. I get bored with the same place all the time. I spent my summers goofing off, so I got pretty good at that. And most adversity to me is a fun adventure, like lighting candles if the power goes out for 15 minutes, not something to overcome for fear of literally freezing to death. So, although we have some shared memories of Como, most of our times there were as different as we are from one another. 

The aspens glowing gold and orange this fall in the Colorado Rockies near Como.

My husband went back up to Como several days in September while I was in Minnesota, and in October to wander the beautiful mountainsides in search of deer and elk. His photos show a picturesque but rugged bit of country where already the temperatures are turning to freezing. The first snow has long since landed, with plenty more to come if you adhere to the common saying about mountain weather:

“Nine months of winter, three months of fall, a breath of spring and no summer at all.” 

Still, my husband will likely want to be there. As John Muir said, he’s not so much in the mountains as the mountains are in him. 

Smart Dogs and Western Colorado

The 2021 Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials art is now emblazoned on the back of Ron’s new T-shirt from this amazing event!

Sometimes I didn’t even hear the command, or the whistle that sent another Border Collie at a full sprint across the green pasture of The Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials. But the dogs were easy to spot, their shiny black-and-white fur rippling with their speed.

A small flock of sheep waited at the far end of the field, nibbling grass on a warm mid-September day. The dog’s body got smaller as he trotted his way between boulders and tall dry grasses at the edge of the irrigated hay. A flat-top hill in the background was dotted with obstinate pinion and cedar trees that are so characteristic of the landscape in this part of rural western Colorado.

Almost a minute later the dog emerged at the far end of the field. He lay down behind the small herd of sheep and listened for the whistling commands from his handler. Then he was up and working again, fetching the sheep in a steady and controlled pace back through two fence panels and around the far side of the handler. He herded them in a cross-drive, through two more sets of panels and into a shedding ring where the grass had been cut shorter and bounded by piles of sawdust. The dog’s pink tongue hung long at this point in the contest. The sheep were stubborn. But the shrill whistles continued long, short, and combinations that told the dog what to do. Multiple audible commands also issued from the handler telling the dog to “come by,” “lie down,” or “away.” The dogs must work with the handlers to separate some of the sheep away from the rest, and then pen them. Finally, after 15 or 30 minutes that seemed like hours of intensity, the contest ended with failure, no more time, or success. The dogs raced to jump into a tub of cool water.

A sheepdog hard at work in Meeker. Photo by © PiperAnne Worcester (Not permitted for any other use.) Check out her photography site: https://www.piperspix.com

We lived in Meeker, Colorado about 30 years ago from late spring to late summer while Ron was fighting forest fires for the Bureau of Land Management there. We met a sheep rancher’s son back then, whose family was well-known in the area for all things sheep. We remember his kindness, lending us some furniture for our sparse apartment in town and his warm welcome inviting us to the sheepdog trials, but we never made it. Fire season was always winding down by September, and I had taken a teaching job in New Mexico that year, so we were well on our way out of the state by the time the sheep were being loaded in the trailers to be herded around by the best-trained dogs from all over the world.

So, this year, we decided to make the trials. 

Our home for the sheepdog trials.

We stayed in Buford in a little one-room cabin with no running water. We grilled our dinners over charcoal and listened to the gurgle of the White River behind us. Then each morning at dawn we rousted out of our sleeping bags and headed 20 miles to the outskirts of town where the 2021 Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials began at 7 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. We didn’t arrive on the scene until halfway through the second day of runs. We were given running orders with names of handlers and dogs, and we bought a program that explained the course. On one of the first few pages was a current picture of the sheep rancher’s son we had met decades ago. Our memories were faded, but it was him. We remembered his name. He’s a big sheepdog at the trials now.

I began writing down scores and we caught on to the rules and easily became fascinated to see what these incredibly intelligent and well-trained dogs could do.

Meeker, Colorado is a beautiful place on the Western side of the state with plenty of room for sheep to roam and graze.

By the weekend, more people also showed up to watch. Some people said they had seen something about sheepdog trials on television. It happens in places in the British Isles too. 

We ate lamb kabobs, lamb ribs, and sheep cheese. Everyone was so friendly, and we enjoyed the wide-open vistas and the weather. On the last day the air even cleared of all the California wildfire smoke that had plagued us in Colorado for the previous month.

This handler makes penning a group of sheep look easy.

The first few days a lot of no-scores came in. That showed us how difficult the course was—how stubborn were the merino sheep pastured in the high mountains all summer. But as the preliminaries turned into semi-finals, and the semi-finals turned into final rounds, the level of training and handling ratcheted up to an unbelievably impressive level. One whistle could stop a dog in its tracks. One word could turn his head to the left or right.

The human sheepherders below illustrate just how well sheepdogs work to move sheep. Sheepdogs run around and look sheep in the eye to get them moving. These humans are using noise, flags, and shoves to get the sheep into the trailer.

Near the very end of the trials a sudden rainstorm sent a downpour onto the field and emptied the bleachers during the second to last handler’s run. She and her dog finished their contest, the rain quit, and the final contestant ran. Then, a Canadian handler called Scott Glen, who had won the event in 2019 (2020 was cancelled.) was named champion again for 2021, this time with a different dog called Alice. The man and his dog went home with another championship accolade and a few thousand dollars in cash. 

Also, Ron and I made the news:

210912-MEEKER-SHEEPDOG-TRIALS
That’s us sitting in the red chairs! Photo by © Hart Van Denburg/CPR News See the whole story here: https://www.cpr.org/2021/09/20/go-dog-go-sights-and-sounds-from-the-meeker-classic-sheepdog-championship-trials/
These are the high mountains of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest near Meeker where sheep graze in meadows and dogs round them up regularly.

We went home through the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. We passed sheep wagons and shepherds watching wooly sheep grazing between sagebrush. We passed hunting camps set up high on mountain passes where scars from old forest fires competed with magnificent views of the Flat Tops and where the setting sun was herding the edges of the sky toward the pen behind the hills for the night.

Work and Apple Pie

Views from Como, Colorado make the world seem even bigger.

When we got home from Nashville, we jumped nearly straight out of vacation gear and into manual labor mode. This had been the plan, but the work we ended up having in front of us was a bit more than we had bargained for. Before we left for Florida, we had been living in the apartment in the basement of our house for a year, but we decided that when we came back, we would move upstairs again into the main house. We can make more money renting the big house, but we wanted room for our own house guests, friends, and family, and we enjoy having the big kitchen up there so we can have people for meals. Also, Ron really missed being able to sit outside on the back patio and look at the garden. (Me, too.)

The apartment downstairs was the job in front of us. We planned to turn it into our next AirBnB project. The extra work came because over the summer, a torrential rain had flooded the entryway of the basement apartment, the laundry room, and the front of the living room where floor to ceiling bookshelves line the wall. My middle daughter was living down there at the time, and she did her best with towels, fans, and a carpet shampooer, but the water got soaked up into the bottom shelves of the bookshelf and warped all the wood and sopped the drywall. So, Ron had to cut the bottom stuff out and replace it. And, we didn’t really have a chance to get started on this until a few days after we were back in the state. The guests renting the house asked to stay longer, and then, Ron’s older sister got married again and wanted him to perform the ceremony. We headed up to the mountains for a beautiful backyard wedding in Como with family we don’t see very often. So, that was a sweet time.

Ron and I painted the downstairs apartment.

The next day, we finally got to work moving things upstairs, cleaning the apartment, and demolishing shelves and drywall. Then, Ron installed new shelves, drywalled and replaced trim, taped, mudded and textured. I was busy rearranging all the things we moved upstairs and all the rest that we kept downstairs, then organizing, shampooing carpets, painting, laundering, more cleaning, and then stocking this new AirBnB with blankets, dishes, towels, and everything else guests might think they need. I felt so grateful that I was able to shop at my own house (having been an AirBnB for a year) for most everything we needed in terms of furnishings. 

All this work meant we had to take a few loads of construction scrap to the dump. But we also had to take several loads of yard waste. This was part of the extra work as well. The summer lawnmowing company was supposed to weed the yard, but they did not. So, waiting for drywall mud and paint to dry, Ron set in to uncover the front landscaping from bindweed. He hacked down giant stalks of sunflowers that had faded. And he filled the truck several times with volunteer saplings from all over the yard. Our house is on a double lot, so the landscaping is twice as much work as the housekeeping. When we’re home and can keep up with things it doesn’t feel so overwhelming, but we had returned to something of a jungle.

Now the apartment feels clean, warm, and welcoming for AirBnB guests.

Finally, we finished everything, and welcomed new guests to the refreshed space downstairs.

I’m always nervous about the first few guests and what ratings and comments they will leave. But I need not have worried. Everyone who stayed those first few weeks loved the place. So that was a relief. And now we are off and running with two small AirBnB spaces and living back up in the house. We haven’t yet been lingering on the patio in the evenings like we used to because the mosquitoes have been bad—we think because of all the overgrown weeds in the gardens. 

But it is good to sit out there in the mornings and to be able to have space for guests. I like having my writing space back as well, in the office upstairs. Though the last few weeks I’ve found myself sitting in cabins in forests, typing out these blogs and working on some fiction projects. (Stay tuned for adventure stories from these places!)

We will likely finish reclaiming the rest of the back gardens later this month and into October. And the good news about all the early summer rains was that we will have a bumper crop of apples to pick in the next couple weeks. I don’t know what variety they are, but they have a nice blend of tartness and sweet and make great pies. 

After picking, I peel them with my mechanical crank peeler. I slice them with a slicer, then sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar and freeze them in plastic baggies that hold just the right amount for a pie. We’ll have enough for pies all fall and winter. Yum!

Heat and Hurricanes

The view from our lunch table on Little Sarasota Bay beside Casey Key.

Like a rusting bicycle chain or a damp dollar bill, the Florida weather has begun to alter parts of me that I thought were well fixed. We made it through Hurricane Elsa, which downgraded to a tropical storm for our area. Seeing that through made us feel like actual Floridians who know what to do with weather forecasts—wait and see.

And now that we’ve been here a month, and we are wearing suntanned skin and a permanent glisten from sweat, I’ve noticed that my previously Colorado-winterized body (and mindset) has totally adapted to tropical heat. 

First of all, coffee. I like strong, hot coffee with milk. I’ve been drinking coffee that way every morning since I was in college. So, the fact that I am now drinking iced coffee with both milk and sugar is a testament to the radical, albeit subtle shift, Florida has made on my constitution. 

I no longer have any fear that I will ever be cold under any circumstance any day or night. It takes exactly 30 seconds of being outdoors before I begin to seep. Socks and shoes seem as torturous as church clothes for Huck Finn, and have become obsolete, at least for me. I can’t even recall the concept of pants. Even shorts made of heavier material than linen or cotton are questionable. Most often I slip on a loose, sleeveless dress, a broad-brimmed sun hat, and hope for shade, water, and breezes.

Yesterday, we went for a 15-mile bike ride north to a place called Casey Key. We had hats for shade, and a fairly consistent cool sea wind left over from the storm. We stopped for lunch on the water of Little Sarasota Bay. I ordered iced tea—another beverage I seldom drink. I sucked the first one down like a Bedouin at a desert oasis, but let the second glass sit too long as I ate and by the time I went for a second sip all the ice had melted. Timing was important, as the little plastic cups the restaurant had were not insulators. Around the house we’ve discovered the wonders and obvious necessity of double-walled plastic tumblers that keep our iced drinks cold for hours. Drinks contained in anything else are soon tepid and a drippy mess of condensation. And I own none of these miraculous containers in Colorado.

When we got back from our long ride, I took a nice cool shower. Who is this creature I’ve become? Normally, I take hot showers—scalding if I can get them. Living here now, I have never even bothered to figure out how to make the water hot. 

Hurricane prep at the grocery store.

Refreshed and relaxed then I filled a blender with ice and made a frozen concoction that helped me hang on. We are literally living out a Jimmy Buffet lyric. I braved a brain freeze and reveled in amazement at air conditioning and fans. We have never even had air conditioning in our current house in Colorado. There are a few days in late July and August where we regret that. But for the most part the cool nights, open windows, and attic and swamp fans keep us from sweating through our clothes. Here we expect to sweat through our clothes regularly, if we venture outside, which we must. We want to take note of everything here that we don’t have in Colorado: anoles skittering along the bike path, sea birds, jacaranda trees, and the ever-elusive alligator. Still hunting for that. 

Looking Forward to the Other Sunshine State

The record-breaking storm that ripped through Colorado this March was impressive, even to us natives. (We’re the people walking around in it btw.)

Ron and I have both lived in Colorado long enough to have seen approximately 2,614 inches of snow. This winter alone we’ve had thousands of pounds of snowfall just on our yard. We know about snow. Ron grew up in Antarctica, (Como, Colorado) and together, even in more habitable places we’ve shoveled, trudged, skied, piled, snow-shoed, and snow-manned in more snow than you could ever imagine if you’re from someplace like southern California, or Hyderabad. One year when we lived in Telluride, we even bowled in the stuff with a bowling ball specially studded and pins made of firewood. More snow there than anywhere I’ve ever seen. 

The record-breaking storm that ripped through Colorado this March was impressive, even to us natives. Also, snow in March and April is a cruelty for those weary of winter and longing for spring. Still, I’m telling myself to fix the images of mounds of snow at every door and window in my mind since I may be surrounded by sultry heat instead at some point in our traveling future. Something about not knowing what you got ‘til it’s gone. 

Thanks to all the friends and family who so hospitably and kindly offered up visits at their own places after my post last time. I truly appreciate it. We feel loved. And we will likely take some of you up on those offers over the coming months and years. So, thank you. For now, we’re counting down the days until Ron retires and figuring out creative ways to head out on the cheap. 

Two Cheap Travel Ideas:

  1. Home Exchange – We have undertaken to exchange our house through the Home Exchange website/app and are earning points that we trade for days elsewhere. Finding exchanges that work for both parties is a little tricky, particularly after all the shutdowns. Even thinking about months in the future is difficult for planning. Still, I persist, and hope, and think maybe these swaps will work out in a few months. I’m yearning for sultry days by a pool, or hot sand, since for the last several weeks I’ve just been watching icicles drip from the top of the planter box. Somewhere under all that snow small daffodils had sprouted and may yet brave the cruel Colorado spring to bud and blossom. We’ll see. 
  2. Housesitting has become a real option for cheap travel accommodations as well. We will venture into that as soon as we can in Florida. And that state holds nothing but good memories for us, even though the last time we were there was during Florida’s own version of a blizzard—a hurricane.

It was the fall of 2019 and we were scheduled to be in Ft. Lauderdale at the same time as Hurricane Dorian, so we shifted our own path, continued monitoring all the models, alternated between terror and joy, and headed instead to Key West. 

It was a dream spot for me to see where Ernest Hemingway had lived and written, fished, and drank. We saw “Papa’s” house there (well-worth the tour if you like Hemingway, old houses, or six-toed cats), a lighthouse, the Southern Most Point of the Continental U.S., Mallory Square sunsets and more. We ate fried conch at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville chain. And even though that’s not our usual sort of place, and the service was apathetic in the off-season, we enjoyed it because we were with good friends who also like Jimmy Buffet. We reminisced and adventured together in equal parts. We set sail from the harbor one day and floated out into the bay to snorkel and see lobsters and starfish. We kayaked through mangroves. We rode bicycles through town, sweating profusely in the close heat of the place. We toured the Papa’s Pilar rum factory and toasted Hemingway. The air was hot with the kind of heat that is nearly inescapable, yet also magical.

The mangroves spring from the ocean in an impressive and seemingly defiant attempt to reclaim some of the vast salty waters. As we kayaked below them we also noticed that these mangroves also had golf-ball-size spiders crawling all over them.

And heat doesn’t sound too bad just now, in the early spring that promises even more snow for us. Our only traveling now is up into the mountains to ski. And I have turned to books as another escape from the four walls of nothing much happening. 
 
A few weeks ago, I picked up a travel book at Lafayette’s best, and only, new bookstore because it was written by an acquaintance of Hemingway’s, Martha Gellhorn. And Gellhorn, to my unexpected delight had a fantastic voice—in the vein of Eeyore, or my glass-half-empty friend Kelly H. She describes her travels without glowing reviews of sights and adventures. She doesn’t recommend places. She loathes most of the people she meets. And she writes of hardships; the fevers and chills of her trip through war torn China in 1941, the biting flies of East Africa, the hurricane winds and the worse torture of a still ocean in a sailboat where her only comfort was a small kitten vomiting in her lap. She refers to all her travels as “horror journeys”. She describes sparingly the moments of peaceful swims in the Caribbean Sea, or breathtaking vistas of the Rift Valley in Kenya. Yet she insists that she could never be content in one place for long and that the leaving is the happiest moment of all. I couldn’t agree more.

“ … beaten, exhausted, sick of the whole thing. Then the flight is called, we make the interminable trek to the departure gate, we clamber and crush into a bus or if lucky walk straight on to the aircraft. Inside the plane, our faces change, we toss jokes about, laugh, chat to strangers. Our hearts are light and gay because now it’s happening, we’re starting, we’re travelling again.”