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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The Vision of Venice

Some days in Venice the slow pace of silver-haired retirees and the quiet beauty of historic architecture felt like a time capsule. We will miss the quaintness of this little city on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The center of town with its 1920s and ‘30s hotels, houses, and apartment buildings were all built by developers rightly convinced that someday Florida would be a prime vacation spot. Today, small shops built in Italianate style are juxtaposed against newer buildings, including a the Daquiri Deck with its icy air conditioning, and wall of swirling machines full of icy red and yellow grown-up Slurpees. 

The Venice Pier and the beach as seen from Fins restaurant.

But the original plan is clear. And what impressive forethought Venice represents. It was just an idea—now nearly 100 years old, that has come to pass like a prophecy fulfilled in shady lanes and cobbled avenues. Palms, banyans, and oaks that drip with Spanish moss now dwarf passing cars, half-naked tourists, retirees, and families with children who walk along the old boulevards that once were just drawings on a page. And none of us would be as awed by the carefully curated beauty of this place had not someone thought to plant trees by which they would never be shaded. 

Anoles of shifting colors flit across the sidewalks in this place. Birds flock to the beach; gulls, sandpipers, and the Brown Pelicans aloft on sea breezes like floating gangsters flying low with scruffy feathers ruffling out of place in the wind. 

White and black ibis are ubiquitous in Venice, busy stabbing their foot-long orange beaks into the grass most mornings. Egrets and herons abounded as well, but none as friendly as the one I mentioned earlier, the Great Egret who arrived in three feet of white feathered regalia to the screened porch of our condo in Ft. Myers. We named him “Charlie” and he wasn’t shy. He would stand staring at us, a patch of green beside his yellow bill, and his remarkably long neck moving into an ‘S’ shape and then stretching out to its full length before he would tuck it up and fly away with no more apparent effort than a paper airplane.

A Blue Heron on the Caspersen Beach near Venice, Florida.

That was also the spot where we sighted a Roseate Spoonbill flying over a tennis court. It’s a big, pink bird, like a flamingo’s slightly weirder looking cousin. And since we never saw flamingos, except for the plastic ones staked in yards, this rosy species remains one of my favorites in the area. 

We never saw an alligator, but gopher turtles were plentiful along the bike paths. And I will miss seeing them, as well as all the bicycling, golf carting, and walking we did together. I know I will miss the flats of the sandy soil in Florida. Hills there are usually boat bridges—and we will miss the views from atop those of sailboats, speedboats, trawlers, yachts, kayaks, paddleboards, and jet skis. 

Sadly, I will also recall the fish that swished ashore breathless, as an algae bloom called red tide sucked the oxygen from the water and left them strewn rotting on the beaches of Siesta Key, Venice, and elsewhere. 

Rebecca floating in the Gulf. With the water temperature in the mid-80s we often dove in for a cool-off on our long beach walks.

Venice already pays attention to straws that disintegrate rather than becoming a problem in the ocean. They have dozens of sea turtle nests marked all along a shore lit only in red lights at night to help guide these creatures toward the sea. Figuring out the red tide is a priority.

Maybe the selfless vision of the beautiful plan for Venice, created so long ago, can continue to invigorate the people in Venice today, to sustain its attractiveness—both natural and created. I hope so.

I can still smell the water all around in intracoastal waterways, harbors, estuaries, beaches, and the thick scent of salt and seaweed. I will always remember the sensations of floating in the waves of the Gulf and at the same time seeing the dorsal fins of dolphins leaping just a few yards away from me. Amazing.

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The People In the Neighborhood

We went for brunch at the Cote France French restaurant in Venice, Florida, a few weeks ago and the waiter seemed to recognize us when we showed up again for a special wine pairing dinner this week.

“Good to see you again,” he said in his thick, French accent. 

We haven’t met a lot of people here in Venice, but everyone is so friendly—even French people, passersby, and shopkeepers. They make this little town feel welcoming. 

Murphy is a Havanese. I had a stuffed toy Havanese when I was a kid. It had a little FM radio in its belly and it came with a comb.

A week or more ago, a waitress at another local eatery was cheerfully telling us about a drink special and didn’t realize that the rum she was describing was my favorite. We toured the distillery in Key West when we were there in 2019. It’s a rum named for Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat, which was in turn named for his second wife—Pilar. Turns out the waitress had also toured the rum distillery. I’m not sure if she’s ever read any Hemingway, but I felt connected, nonetheless.

“In order to write about life, first you must live it.”

Ernest Hemingway
Along with our feet and two bicycles, we are lucky enough to have this golf cart to get around the island of Venice.

Shopkeepers also seem genuinely glad to see us as customers. We met a woman who studied art in Paris and now runs a gallery gift shop here. Behind red-rimmed glasses and brown hair pulled back, she gladly told us her story. A checkout girl at the grocery store told us about her recent retake of the ACT and how nervous she was about getting a high score. I asked her if she had taken a prep course and from behind her face mask, she said she had, so I assured her that she would get a better score this time. For a moment, I felt like a teacher again. And for a moment, we were strangers caring about each other, sharing a town small enough, full of enough older people, or maybe Southern enough, to slow down a minute and listen.

Following a pandemic year, all these things can no longer be taken for granted. Following a year that seemed to have torn the country in half politically, friendliness seems to have been placed on the endangered species list in some places. So now, eating at restaurants, shopping, teaching moments, connections with strangers, feel novel again. And for me, these are moments that are filled with gratitude. I missed people. And the kindness of strangers.

We can always find a piece of the beach that we have all to ourselves. And with a summer temperature in the mid-80s the water in the Gulf is perfect for a dip.

One final person in Venice to mention, as we are on the topic of people. Today we went over to visit our new friend C. again. She is 90 years old, maybe 91, and enjoys a good conversation and her little dog, Murphy, who is currently in our care. He spins in circles and jumps around whenever we say we’re going to visit. He likes visits, walks, rides in the golfcart with his furry ears flapping in the breeze. He also likes squirming to try to jump out, and randomly issuing a bark so high pitched it makes me want to jump out. Instead, I tighten my grip on his little red harness and Ron zooms along.

Our friend’s face lit up when she saw Murphy. Then, we chatted about everything from National Geographic television programs, to how people don’t have phone books anymore, to her wicker rocking chair, as Murphy sat in her lap and then licked her shoes. Then he pranced around again excited to end our visit and get back in the golf cart.

“He seems to really like you,” C. said. “So that’s good.”

“We like him, too,” I said.

He likes Ron the best; insists on sitting in the purple chair in the living room with him. He sleeps in our bed. He wags excitedly when we come home from outings. 

“We’re just at the forefront of our housesitting career,” Ron says. So, there may be more dogs, cats, or miniature horses. (I hope.) We may make more acquaintances, or friends. We may visit more places that may become as familiar to us as Venice has. (I hope.) Beautiful beaches, cool sea breezes on hot summer days, long walks on avenues shaded with historic trees hanging with Spanish moss, historic homes roofed in red clay tiles and infused with Mediterranean style, and friendly, smiling faces all around.

One of the historic, tree-lined avenues in Venice, Florida, planned nearly a century ago in a beautifully designed city envisioned by a man named John Nolen.

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. 

Bicycling with Manatees

Thank goodness Florida is flat, but so is a frying pan. Bicycling around these island places means most days we have sandy tires, hot seats, and sweat dripping down like we’re melting crayons. Feeling saddle sore and pedaling like crazy to get over an occasional bridge hump, makes me recall the bike ride I did in college that left me riding in the sag wagon and never finishing the miles I had pledged to cycle for multiple sclerosis. That time it was heat stroke. The high temperatures radiating off the blacktop in the late summer in Kansas left me too spent to pedal on. And I was only in my early 20s. Now I think I’m too old to be that hot. Also, we have ocean breezes that ruffle through our sweaty shirts and cool us down a little as we adventure on two wheels here. And we have the adrenaline of exploration. In Kansas I may have glimpsed a few cows chewing their cud in a field beside the road. Here, there are manatees!

The cruisers we rented in Ft. Myers Beach took us along the main road, past friendly construction flaggers, onto bike lanes that came and went like the sun behind a cloud and then out again, onto pedestrian walkways, and then back into traffic, pickup trucks speeding around us, cars blasting music. A few times we rode along the beach. When we could find the right consistency of sand for our tires, beach rides were perfect. The cool sea air blasted us the whole way and we avoided traffic altogether, only having to lookout for bucket-toting tots digging holes, beached humans wearing earbuds, or the odd fishing pole line.

One sunny day we rode south from our condo to a park on Lover’s Key where we could ride all over trails that held a multitude of birds and plants that were new to us. Then we rented a kayak and paddled our way through the estuaries of mangrove forests searching for manatees. We had been assured by the woman at the rental place that we would see these fantastical creatures. So when we paddled the two miles up to the end of the snaking watery trail and still hadn’t spotted the hulking mermaids I began to lose hope. My knees were turning bright red from sitting in the hot sun and if it hadn’t been for the dripping water off the oar that cooled my legs with each stroke and the broad-rimmed sun hat that kept more freckles from popping up on my face, it would have been too hot to go on. But once we turned back to retrace our way we didn’t have to go too far before the manatees appeared!

First, one bobbed his head up out of the water, snout first, a few yards ahead of our boat. We paddled like crazy toward it and then glided silently to where we thought it might pop up again. We saw it closer then, and could make out it’s rotund brown and speckled body beneath the water. We could see the dark shadows of his nostrils and eyes.

We paddled on and then spotted another manatee and sat silently waiting, hoping to see it closer. It did not disappoint. This time the sea cow swam right over to our plastic yellow craft and tipped her body around as though saying hello. She swam right next to us, close enough to see the texture of her scarred hide and the algae growing on her belly. She swam around the bow and along the other side of the boat and beneath it showing us her amazing hulking size. Sea cow is an apt term for landlubbers like me to understand the heft of these beasts. 

Not sure how sailors would ever think this creature was a mermaid.

We exchanged open-mouth gapes with the young couple in the kayak across the way from us who also saw this manatee so close. After what seemed to be enough time in reverent pause we paddled on. We saw a small manatee munching on plants that hung over the water, and another amazing more people in kayaks.

Eventually we pulled our watercraft back up the bank and walked our soggy bottoms and squeaking shoes to the beach, where we welcomed a cool dive into the Gulf water. We ate sandwiches and listened to the surf. We let our shorts flap in the breeze and dry out a little before riding back. We saw the fins of a dolphin several yards out in the waves, and the usual sea birds: egrets, herons, sand pipers, and gulls. But none of them were as close, or impressively large and docile as that manatee. We’ll be thinking about her for a long time.

Piña Coladas and Rain

Ron and I took a long walk on the beach our first day in Florida. The sand is like sugar and the water is a perfect temperature.

A pure white egret greets us whenever we are sitting out on the screened porch. He has an impossibly long and snaking neck, and thin, white tail feathers that flutter in the breeze. Boats float by on their way out to Ostego Bay. They are stocked with fishing poles, or coolers, tourists looking for dolphins. Sunday morning was brunch, a long beach walk, and then a trip to the supermarket. Walking back from there it began to drizzle. We ignored that for a few minutes until the sky burst open like a water balloon and it poured. It rained so hard it washed off all of our sunscreen and drove it into our eyes like blinding hot sauce. In under five minutes we were completely drenched, soaked, and dripping. The grocery bags filled with water. The argument we were having was forced to an end as we could only exclaim about the rain and avoid ponds on sidewalks and waterfall-size splashes from oncoming cars. The parking lots turned to lakes, cars stranded like islands.

Once we got back to the condo we changed and put away our groceries and then Ron went out again for piña colada stuff. Because pineapple, coconut and rum, and if you like getting caught in the rain, maybe you like piña coladas? He got a second soaking on his way back from that errand. Day one and wet clothes hanging everywhere.

We were soaked in seconds.

“Yes, I like piña coladas,

And gettin’ caught in the rain …”

Rupert Holmes, 1979

The sun eventually returned.

We sipped our drinks, then near dusk headed to the beach again to see the sunset over the water. A few other people were awaiting the orange sun’s dip into the ocean as well. But still a quarter of an hour before the final drop, yet another rain storm began. The drops quickly turned serious and sent everyone scurrying across the wide sands to nearby hotels and condos. Our place was across the main road, and down beyond several complexes. So it was a third soaking for us.

Maybe we had been baptized into our new nomadic life; a fitting activity for a Sunday. And I had removed my shoes on the beach as both an act of worship for such as amazing creation and an attempt to keep my feet from being rubbed raw by gritty sand. Just like he shows off in the Rocky Mountains, God has a bit of fun down here at the Gulf of Mexico. The egret, ibis, and heron; the tropical flowers, the wild coffee bush, the fig trees and palms, and the changing blue and green colors of the salty gulf waters lapping the pale sands of the shores.

Sunset at Ft. Myers Beach

These are God’s rather exasperated reminders that he is powerful. Maybe they aren’t exasperated if you are on good terms with him. But I perceive him as being sort of fed up with showing me the obvious–that he is an Almighty Creator and I should trust him … at least as much as the sandy shore trusts that whatever tracks, piles and holes mar its smooth surface during a day of visitors both human and animal, the tides will smooth them all away again.

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.”