Mountain Passages—Why Are the Limes in My Margarita Brown?

In this life there are some risks worth taking and there are some risks to be avoided. It is only by careful analysis and investigation that these risks can be properly evaluated.

It is a fine spring day and to celebrate the season I sit down at a well-worn stool in my favorite mountain bar and order a Margarita, without salt.

Gunner, my regular barkeep, slides a frosty glass at me with a couple of wedges of lime that have brown spots all over them. I pick-out the lime wedges and on closer examination, the brown is probably some sort of rot. I carefully squeeze the juice out of them and put the limes aside.

The ‘rita is fine, it will head me in the direction I want to go.

The next time Gunner comes by I ask, “So how did you manage to get brown spots on the limes?”

“Whut?” he asks. Gunner has a GI Bill degree from CU in something esoteric like that odd place between physics and biology, so he’s not as dumb as he pretends to be, but I think he reads lips because he doesn’t hear worth a damn. He also says “Whut?” when he doesn’t have a smart-assed response to a question. He claims that it gives him time to think.

The bar isn’t crowded. Gunner is thinking.

“The brown spots on the limes Gunner? Where did they come from?”

Gunner looks at me like he probably looks at anyone who tracks mud into his bar or leaves the door open to the just marginal John. He avoids the question by reaching for a bottle of whiskey with a long silver cap on it and a really odd label.

He plunks two shot glasses down on the bar and pours Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.

We make eye contact and he says, “Gunships.”

We click the glasses and I say, “Welcome Home.”

We smile—a grunt and a draft-dodger can be friends.

“About those gnarly-looking limes?”

Gunner was a crew chief and door-gunner for two tours. His methods of handling adversity have significantly improved since then. He moves over real close and sort of whispers to me, “They coulda come from the bottom of the garnish tray.”

“The what?” I ask.

“The garnish tray, that thing on the bar where we keep the fruit and olives for drinks. The thing with the plastic top on it.”

“So let me see if I’ve got this right. My limes had brown spots on them because they spent too much time in the garnish tray?”

“Yeah, that’s possible, look, after last call I put it in the fridge,” he says sort of apologetically.

“Great, so the garnish tray comes out for first shift at about 11 AM, sits on the bar unrefrigerated for maybe 14 or 15 hours until you serve last call?”

“Right,” says Gunner, “some refrigeration is better than no refrigeration.”

I walk over to the garnish tray and carefully lift the scuffed plastic lid. In front of me are recently cut pieces of lime on top, some lemon and orange rounds, candied cherries and green olives. As I look in the box Gunner hacks up another couple limes and tosses them in on top of the pile.

“So you were mad at me for something and got down to the bottom and found a brownish lime for me, right?”

“No, there just weren’t many limes left when you ordered,” he said.”

Gunner wanders down to the other end of the bar and I stick my finger in the limes. The bottom of the lime section is as I expected—soft, mushy and slimy. You would not be wanting anything in your drink from the bottom of the garnish tray.

Gunner comes back down the bar.

“I saw you stick your finger in the limes. That’s unsanitary,” he suggests.

It’s my turn to look at him as if he came from someplace where Moms and Dads are often brothers and sisters.

“So when was the last time your garnish tray got cleaned?” I ask.

“Dunno,” says Gunner, “The help is supposed to clean everything.”

“Same help that cleans the Johns?”

“Ah, yeah, them.”

Alan Stark is a Boulder-based freelance writer and a recovering book publisher.

Dreaming of Summer

Bear and Willy

Mountain people are odd creatures. In the heat of summer, we dream of knee-deep powder, followed by an evening near a warm cookstove, with a book and a beverage in a cabin tucked-in below treeline.

But now in deepest, darkest winter, the dreaming reverses.

I just hobbled outside the house here in Boulder to toss the ball for Willy the dog. Without bending my braced left leg, I lean on a walking stick, push the left leg way outboard (but still straight) and squat on my right leg to grab the tennis ball off the ground. Then I toss it again and a black blur of dog hair streaks down the cul-de-sac to leap in the air, mouthing the ball on the second bounce.

It’s starting to snow, that dry, light stuff that streams over your chest and face freezing a huge smile in place as you streak downhill making wide sweeping turns.

Not this season.

I ruptured my left quad trail running at dusk on New Year’s Eve when I should have been inside spooling up for the most-widespread drunk-driving evening of the year. Not to make a point of it, but my leg didn’t work all that well with the quad detached from my knee. Still doesn’t. The surgeon said I should be out of the brace after six weeks and maybe trail running again in six months.

Maybe.

The track, backcountry and downhill skis are racked for the season. I’m dreaming of summer and road biking, trail running and sailing.

Willy is back with his ball, and now flying off again in pursuit.

It’s ten in the morning and we are headed up to Carter Lake. Three old friends trade off the lead while we talk of work, mates, cycling and where we’d like to ride our bikes if we had a week or two. The pace is moderate, the air temperature in the 70s and there is little wind. As we pedal north, we can see Longs Peak off to the left and then the smell of first-cut hay washes over us. It’s a grassy, sweet clover smell that reminds us of places we haven’t been for a long while and other friends we shared this smell with who are now long gone.

Willy returns, drops the ball ten feet away and pushes it with his nose in my direction. He thinks that’s cute.

It’s one in the afternoon just above Lake Isabelle on the way up to Pawnee Pass. In the last hour, a thunderboomer blew through. I huddle under a space blanket making deals with God about never doing this again. Eventually the wind drops and the rain and hail slow up. I’m cold, shivering in fact, but will live to make another deal on another trail. I roll up the space blanket and begin to trot uphill again with thunder booming from the valley below. The air smells of electricity and something metallic. It was stupid to be caught out. I know better, but in that moment, there is no place I’d rather be.

Willy has dropped the ball right at my feet and is looking at me, his head turned a little sideways with that quizzical look. “Are you still with me here?”

The skipper mentions that it must be five o’clock somewhere as he cracks open a beer. We are sailing downwind in the BVIs on an old 52-foot sloop. The sails are set wing and wing, with the jib all the way out on one side of the boat and the main, which is attached to the huge boom, all the way out on the other side. With no warning, we hear a CRACK! The boom buckles and folds, dropping into the water, hauling some of the mainsail with it. The boat goes totally out of control, lurching in the direction of the broken boom. Instinct takes command. I haul in the jib, drop it on the deck and move forward to secure it. The skipper regains control of the boat. With the jib down and the main in the water, the boat slows. We begin work hauling in the broken boom and the main. The skipper starts the engine and turns us upwind to make the task easier. It seems like an hour has passed, but it has just been minutes.

I catch the skipper’s eyes. They are wide open and huge, almost as big as mine. I point at my eyes and we begin to laugh as hard and as loud as people do after dodging a bullet. The work continues but so does the laughter. We will sail again together another day.

It’s snowing hard now, the beginning of a decent flatland storm. Willy brings me this really slimy ball that I tuck in my pocket. I need to get in before the street gets slick. I can’t afford another fall. He runs ahead to the house as I hobble along and think of better days to come.

Alan Stark is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette, a member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and publisher emeritus of Colorado Mountain Club Press.

Five Unresolutions

Unreliable Scale

Let’s be really honest about your New Year’s resolutions. You haven’t got one chance in a million of making it through next week on an all-vegetable diet, not to mention doing it alcohol-free between high-intensity yoga workouts in an overheated room and running laps at the local high school track. I give you a week at the outside before you are back on the couch with a beer, burger and fries.

So instead of resolutions may I suggest UNRESOLUTIONS — the things you are not going to do in the next year. I’ll start but I expect you to come up with a number of your own.

Losing Weight. For way too many years, I have deluded myself into thinking I can disappear the extra thirty pounds I carry around. To fight the weight problem, I have come up with a number of ideas: (1) When I ride my road bike, I visualize a 30-pound bag of dog food draped over my handlebars. (2) I have a rule about not eating anything bigger than my head. (3) It has become clear to me that pizza and beer are not a recognized food group. These and a number of other clever weight-loss strategies have not worked in last twenty years; there is no chance I will lose weight this year. I resolve not to gain more than 5 pounds over the next year.

Moron McConnell

Shouting at the News. This person I live with, Blue Eyes says that when I shout at some congressional, judicial or executive moron quoted in the paper or appearing on the nightly news, no one besides she and the dog hear me. Neither of whom cares about my views on the stunning decline in our national leadership, and, in fact, would rather I stopped stating the obvious. I resolve to only shout at press or media reporters who quote or interview these morons.

Buying Outdoor Gear. Every year I swear that the gear I have is fine and that I really don’t need anything new. But somehow this last year, as if by magic, there was a down parka (February), a new road bike (April) and a new set of track skis (December) hanging in my garage. Blue Eyes has suggested that acquiring outdoor gear is a kind of disease like alcoholism. This year I resolve to limit my purchase of new outdoor gear (1) to stuff I really need to replace worn-out gear, (2) to replace gear I don’t like anymore, (3) to buy stuff I just have to have.

Gear

Yelling at the Dog. Willy is only 19-months-old; he’s barely into adolescence. I swore last year that I was going to be more patient, less grumpy and a veritable dog whisperer. That was before the watchband, thumb drive, wallet, notebook and one Sorrel were chewed to oblivion. I resolve to continue to shout at Willy for all ungracious acts against my gear until I don’t have any more unchewed gear. See: Buying Outdoor Gear.

Willy the chew dog

Exercise. I am not a junkie. I can go an entire week without a trail run or ski and be reasonably easy to get along with unless something you say annoys me. Unfortunately, just about whatever you say will annoy me. Particularly if what you say is some right- or left-wing nonsense. (See: Yelling at the News.) So, truth be known, I need to be out there three or four times a week. This time of year, I usually set some outrageous distance goal for myself that I almost never reach a year later. My unresolution is to set no goals this year,  further, I will actually talk to someone knowledgeable about my left knee and Achilles, possibly even a doctor.

Now it’s your turn. You can sidebar my unresolutions or add entirely new topics such as: Drinking, Relationships (the previous two may be done separately or combined), Road Trips, Renewing Old Friendships, Home Repair, Smoking and other Extreme Sports.

Until recently, Gazette senior correspondent Alan Stark was a principal of Boulder Bookworks. Now he focuses on things like skiing, sailing and mountain running from his home in Boulder. 

Volcanoes, Mountain Towns, and People

Feugo-1

Antigua, Guatemala — There are three things you don’t want to do in the mountains: you don’t want to be above tree line after noon in the summer, you don’t want to cut in the liftline and you don’t want to try to define a mountain town.

Let me take a stab at the latter.

Antigua is a tourist town like Santa Fe. “Not the real Guatemala,” as an NGO person told me. But, like Santa Fe, Antigua is also a mountain town, and the people who work here, they’re mountain people.

Antigua

This morning I was sitting on a patio reading when the woman sharing my table said, “Have you heard that our volcano erupted?

“You’re kidding?” was my first original thought. My very next original thought was that Blue Eyes had invited me to this textile trade show as her Sherpa and now I was going to be up to my butt in ash and lava. Welcome to the third world.

I looked off in the distance and, sure as shit, billows of smoke and ash were pouring out the top of this volcano about six miles away.

Antiqua has a checkered past going back four hundred years or so periodically some natural disaster or another has leveled the town. The volcano to the south is called Agua (water to those of you who haven’t been in a Mexican restaurant recently) because a natural dam broke and the water in the volcano crater poured downhill and leveled the town. The volcano that just erupted is called Fuego (fire) because it periodically erupts and the third volcano is called Acatenango (an Indian name that no one here seems to be able to define).

Agua

I stood there looking at Fire and thinking, “Now this is a real mountain town. Name one town in Colorado where the local mountain blows up.”

Then I got to thinking about mountain towns and how we define them.

When some fool tries to define a mountain town in Colorado, it comes with a great deal of posturing and posing. It starts with the unfounded belief the only real mountain town is where he or she lives. The rest of the Colorado mountain towns are poser ski/mountain/resorts that are populated by rich aholes from other places that are mostly flat.

And God in her heaven knows that when those of us from Boulder refer to the People’ Republic of Bicycling as a mountain town, the locals in Leadville get hurt falling off their bar stools laughing. For the record, the barroom floors in Leadville are seriously scuffed from these sorts of falls.

These selfsame judges of mountain towns think only gnarly dudes who work half the night so they can ski all day and hardwomen who can climb, row, trail run and work ski patrol can live in mountain towns. However, these folks suffer under a good number of illusions, including the belief that their knees will be as good when they are 50 as their knees are now.

Not.

So let’s ignore these folks for a moment and define a mountain town as place where you can see a decent mountain from town. Now some Nazi will want a definition of “decent” so let’s just do some comparisons. Is Seattle a mountain town? Sure — you can see Rainier two or three days out of the year. Dallas, KC, DC, Chicago, NYC? Not so much. You get it. That’s the objective measure of a mountain town.

The subjective measures of what is a mountain town are people, place and mindset.

Here is what I see in the mountain people in Antigua. I think we see the same things in Frisco, Stowe and Ashville.

Mountain people are just tougher, happier and more together than people from other places.

The locals are here in Antigua because of birth or choice. Just like in Colorado, if you don’t like it here, you will move away. Mountains towns are tough to live in either because of Nature or the lack of well-paying jobs and the often-high cost of housing.

Nature in the mountains is amazing. I got to see my first volcanic eruption this morning. But have I talked about a really cold day in the High Country of Colorado, where you can wear everything you own and still shiver in your tracks up the hill? Entire essays have been written about mud season, and when God takes a fall vacation, she doesn’t come go to Vermont or Salzberg, she comes to 10,000 feet in Colorado for the aspen.

Fuego-2

The people who live in Antigua look like they could survive anything and probably have. This country was ripped by an awful civil war some years ago; entire villages were wiped out — men, women and children just taken out an shot.

Colorado mountain people I know can chain-up in a blizzard, dance until they drop, grow vegetables at 8,000 feet, parent kids who can ski bumps at three and, on a cool fall evening, you’ll find them around a fire outside telling tales and laughing at one another. And while the civil war never really reached Colorado, there have been some really tough times in the High Country, and the mountain people mostly came away from those times stronger.

I’ve only been in Antigua three days, but every time I catch some local’s eyes and smile, I get a smile back. Yeah, I know, I’m large for down here and have a face that looks like its been pummeled by an ugly stick. So maybe they are just entertained by me, but more I think it is one mountain person acknowledging another. Yesterday I tripped on a curb and caught myself, as a cop made a move to catch me. After catching myself, I looked up and flashed him a thumbs up. He had a huge smile on his face and just moved on like any mountain person.

drunk

There is something about living in the mountains that fosters a sense of community. Sure there is community in the generic sense everywhere. But because it is difficult to live in the mountains, we must depend on one another and build strong communities.

Blue Eyes is here looking for sources for naturally dyed textiles that she will sell through her website www.ClothRoads.com. The Guatemalans (mostly women) have formed cooperatives in their villages to build their textile business. It is a community of necessity, but there seems something in the mountain air that helps form all sorts of community.

But what about mindset? You may not live in an objectively defined mountain town but your mindset about mountains can make all the difference.

So if you are reading this in some challenged environment, does that mean you aren’t a mountain person?

Nope.

Being a mountain person is a state of mind. Remember John McCain talking about a building a cabin in his mind while incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton? Being a mountain person is as simple as just thinking mountains. If you can stop whatever you are doing, close your eyes and see a mountain … smile, you’re one of us.

Jargoned to Death

sailing

I’m driving a 37- foot Jeanneau sloop headed west across Haro Straits to Victoria, British Columbia. The wind out of the south is peaking at 30 knots, the current is running against me at 4 knots and the six-foot waves bashing the port quarter have a interval of five or six seconds.

It would take two seconds of inattention to broach the boat. I am not having a good time.

Still with me? I ask because I’m know that those of us who write about the outdoors often bury our readers in jargon and factoids so that we appear to be authentic, knowledgeable and cooler than a streaker at the Breck ice sculpture contest. To be honest, we are usually none of the above and often making things up as we go along.

So let me explain the first paragraph. The use of the word “driving” is an attempt to be slick when in fact I’m steering the boat. I’m guessing that was understandable on the first read. So how about “30 knots?” What the hell does that mean? A nautical mile (knot) equals 1.15 real miles. The derivation of nautical miles is the reason you use Wikipedia. So 30 knots converts to 34.5 mph. That’s a good deal of wind on a small boat.

One really good idea is to have both the wind and the current in your favor when sailing. While I have more wind than I need, I’m bashing the boat against a strong current. The so-called port quarter is not a red-colored coin, but the first half of the boat on left side. Six-foot waves in a 37-foot boat are manageable but pounding into a six-foot wave every five or six seconds (wave interval) beats-up the helmsman or person as the case may be. Finally, a broach is when you get your boat sideways to the waves. It is not a clever maneuver. More on broaching in a moment.

We have put two reefs in the main and cranked-in the roller furler on the jib half way. The skipper is standing just behind the dodger and catches a face full of spray that was headed my way. This pleases me to see him sputter and say bad words. I’m pissed that he wants to try to keep sailing in this mess even though I can see from the instruments that our speed over ground (SOG) is less than half a knot.

At this rate we’ll make Victoria sometime tomorrow.

Wow, pretty amazing that I can write that stuff with a straight face, thinking you understand. You are probably thinking, “What a dick to write that gibberish.”

sunset on the water

“Two reefs in the main” means that we have shortened the biggest sail on the boat from the cockpit (oh geesus, the cockpit is the area from which we control the boat and where we also spill drinks after sailing). We have done the same thing with the jib or front sail. Theoretically, less sail area implies more control over the boat in difficult conditions. It is often just theory.

The “dodger” is one of those aptly named pieces of equipment on a boat. It is essentially half a tent with plastic windows that keeps a good deal of water out of the cockpit (see the previous paragraph) and sort of protects the crew. The crew now on deck is the Skipper, who commands the boat, and me driving. He is behind the dodger and I am at the wheel, catching some of the water coming over the top of the dodger.

By instruments I mean an array of screens providing all sorts of information from the boat, the environment and satellites. These instruments are right in front of the wheel on a stand called a binnacle (Wikipedia again) that also houses the magnetic compass. One piece of information we are getting from satellites via GPS (A GPS on a boat is exactly what you throw in your backpack and don’t know how to use) is our speed over ground (SOG). While our knotmeter may tell us that we are sailing at two or three knots, the SOG tells us precisely how fast we are traveling compared to ground in the real world. It’s not pleasant to stand there in the cockpit getting beat-up and seeing that you are making no progress at all. It can remind you of working for a ski corporation.

“Skipper, we need to drop sails and motor out of this.”

“I think we are okay.”

“No, I’m getting the snot knocked out me. SOG says less than half a knot and we are 10 miles from Victoria. Figure doing this all night.”

He scowls at me. I give him a dripping, frowny-face from the helm.

He’s one of my life friends. His kid taught me how to handle rapids in a raft. He’s a good sailor, races on Flathead Lake, but he likes more risk than I do. My fear is a broach where I lose control of the boat and it gets caught between waves taking on water. There are tons of lead in the keel that will prevent the boat from turning turtle, but water into the cockpit, down the companionway and into the cabin could cause any number of problems involving both our engine and electronics.

Finally a couple of paragraphs that sort of make sense. By way explanation, folks who race sailboats tend to be a little type-A. Yes, watching a sailboat race is just about as exciting as the bunny slope at Keystone. Seems to me that sailboat racing is about timing, precision, tactics, crew cohesion and equipment, not necessarily in that order. That’s sounds too much like work to me. Sailing should be about sailing downwind in your shorts with a beer in your hand.

The diesel catches as I come up on the wind to take pressure off the sails so we can drop them. Given that the wind is pretty much on our beam, I’m on a tight line between broaching and easing pressure on the sails. The skipper reels in the jib and then drops the main into the lazy jacks. I’ve got my nose 45 degrees off the wind. Some fool needs to go forward to lash down the main. The Skipper claws his way out of the cockpit on the windward side and crabs his way forward to the mast.

If I screw up on the helm, he’s going swimming in 50-degree water and 30 to 50 more minutes of life. A man overboard drill in these seas would be a one-in-ten proposition.

Geesus, I thought we were finished with the jargon. Here goes: “coming up on the wind” means that I moved the bow of the boat closer to where the wind is coming from — in this case, the south. Under ideal circumstances, we put the bow of the boat right into the wind to raise and lower our sails. Since the wind is on our beam, (the widest part of our boat) and the waves and current are coming at us from our bow, I can’t turn 90 degrees without broaching, but I can split the difference long enough for the skipper to get out and get the main lashed.

My PFD (personal flotation device) has rings in the front of the harness for attaching a safety line. The Skipper’s PFD is the “coastal model.” He doesn’t have rings and is going out on deck without a safety line. The boat has what is essentially a two-strand fence around its perimeter and there are a number of things to hold on to going forward. But we are talking about a 52-year-old man with arms and legs somewhat the worse for wear going out on deck, hanging on with one hand and trying to get a mainsail lashed with loose hayards (ropes we use to raise and lower the sail).

It is absolutely critical that I do everything possible keep the boat steady while he is working. A rogue puff of additional wind or a wave and our problems have gone from manageable to critical. We’ve practiced man-overboard drills, but always under calm or moderate conditions with plenty of people on deck. These are tough conditions and there are only two of us on deck. If he goes swimming, I’ve got to get the life ring out, keep my eye on his location and maneuver the boat all at the same time. A tall order. Small chance I could get to him while he is still strong enough get hold of the trailing life ring.

He slips twice going to the mast and catches himself. I am watching the bow, the waves in front of us and glancing toward the wind. He gets one wrap around the main tied off and then a second. Now all he has to do is three or four moves to get back to the cockpit. I may not be breathing as gets to his knees and finds a rail, slithers down the windward side, grabs the safety line and tumbles into the cockpit.

“Nicely done,” I say after breathing again.

“Sporty out there.”

“Shoulda had a safety line on you,” I say as I turn the boat to fall off the wind.

“Nah, I was pretty comfortable.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Not much jargon here. “Sporty” may be a climbing term for an out-of-control situation. We really should have rigged some sort of safety line, but we were in too much of a rush to get the sail down. “Falling off the wind,” means that I have turned away from the wind. The Skipper’s claim that he was comfortable risking his life is pretty accurate. He probably was. Calling him an idiot was not jargon.

Motorcycle Code

Having no chance of being a rocket scientist or even a motorcycle mechanic, it took me a while to understand people have different priorities, values, and responses to life-threatening events.

One day, Blue Eyes showed up at my apartment and asked to borrow $1,000.

She was my best friend (still is) “Sure,” I said, “Mind if I ask what for?”

“I need help to buy a Honda 500 that I plan on riding to California.”

I wrote her a check and, several hours later, she pulled up on a Honda 500, the custom model with the teardrop tank.

We both worked fall through spring for different enterprises and had the summer off. I’d never been on a motorcycle in my life. This sounded like a real adventure, so I took a look at a Goldwing 1000. It was too much money and too much bike for me. I tried a 750 and thought it was too big and bulky. So I got a Honda 500 cruiser model myself.

I know. I know. By today’s standards, unless you are a wuss, no one buys a motorcycle with less than 1,000cc displacement. But this was a while ago and a shaft-drive, water-cooled Honda 500 was a fairly cool bike at the time. Or at least I thought so.

Sometime later, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere on U.S. 50 in Nevada cruising along at 70 on our Honda 500s. The air temperature was maybe 300 degrees and we needed a break. Up ahead, we saw a roadhouse sitting back a couple of hundred yards from the asphalt. With the exception of a concrete hardstand for the gas pumps, the entire approach to the roadhouse was loose gravel.

Gravel and motorcycles are not a good mixture. We geared down and stuck our legs outboard for balance. We made the roadhouse with no problem and backed our motorcycles into a parking place. As was our custom, we sat at the bar and ordered beers and burgers.

Blues Eyes wanted to review my encounter with a state trooper earlier in the day. Not being a fan of irony, I did not wish to review the incident.

Seems I may have been going a tad more rapidly than allowed and got pulled over. Blue Eyes was a mile or so behind me. The trooper was maybe 40 and looking at the bike more than me.

“Going a little fast there, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep a lid on it, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Cool bike. You like the shaft drive?

“Yeah, wonderful power transfer, comfortable ride.”

We kept talking about the bike. Blue Eyes pulled up behind us. The trooper was still talking about the bike. He hadn’t looked at my license yet. He takes a look at her and then looks carefully at my “learner’s permit.” And then he goes over and asks for her license. He looks up at me starts laughing. Blues Eyes catches on immediately and starts laughing too.

They are still snickering, “Great bikes,” he says and hands me back my learner’s permit, “You make sure he slows down, Ma’am, you’re responsible for him.”

Okay, so the truth is that I couldn’t get the bike through the pylons to pass the motorcycle test, and was traveling the West on a learner’s permit. Sitting at the bar, we both started laughing again about an adult who couldn’t legally operate his bike without his friend’s supervision. Two more beers later ,we walked out of the roadhouse pulling on our leathers and helmets in a blast of bright heat.

I looked over at the hardstand and two scruffy looking dirtbags on Harleys were gassing up. They locked in on Blue Eyes immediately. I tried to look big and mean, something that doesn’t exactly work when you are on a Honda 500.

“Hey you,” I said to her before switching the ignition, “watch the gravel.”

She looked at me and nodded.

I slowly applied gas and ever so carefully eased out into the gravel. As I passed the hardstand, I stared steely-eyed at the two dirtbags. They stared back. The gravel was tricky, made all the more tricky by three beers. As Blue Eyes passed the hardstand, her front wheel started to wobble. When she was about a 100 feet beyond the hardstand, I looked back in my mirror and saw her flying off her bike and crashing to the ground on her back.

I stopped my bike, threw down the kickstand and started running back to where she was lying motionless on the ground. The two criminals were running toward her from the hardstand. Her bike was piled up on its side forty feet in front of her. As I’m running toward my friend, the criminals run right past her.

I watched in amazement as these two scruffy bastards pickup up her bike and put it on its center stand.

On the ground I can see her begin to move, a good sign.

As I ran by them, to get to my friend, one looked over at me and said, “The bike is okay, man.”

Garden Scheme

Garlic Plants

“To dream a garden and then to plant it is an act of independence and even defiance to the greater world.”

— Stanley Crawford

Peek into my garage and you’ll get the impression you’re in used sports equipment store. The gear, including a 12-year-old 4Runner, is pretty much the same sort of stuff you have in your garage — bikes, skis, packs, helmets and a sea kayak hanging from the ceiling. The truth of the matter is that I’m never going to use some of this stuff again. That makes me a little sad but it also makes me smile — I might still be capable of change and finding new stuff to care about. Among the toys you’ll also see a rack of gardening tools.

After living at 8,000 feet for twenty years, Blue Eyes and I bought this wreck of a house in north Boulder. We called it The Creak House. We’ve had some work done on it by folks who love what they do for a living. As I met with them once a week, I was a little envious that they could see their work materialize daily into something fairly extraordinary. I needed to do the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale, and maybe for some different reasons.

There was a stretch of dirt and gravel along the driveway where some fool parked his beater truck or a leaking RV for 100 years. The soil was saturated with oil and then the construction crew used it as a wash out. Just about nothing was going to grow there.

When we lived in the mountains, the growing season was about 10 days. And those were precisely the 10 days that all the deer in the world would show up to eat whatever we had managed to grow. One day, we’d have delphiniums in bloom, and, the next day, we’d have scorched earth.

I dug out and hauled off the tainted soil from along the driveway and then put in 4X4 cedar fence posts. Between the fence posts, I built 10 raised beds of various sizes and then hung what is called pig wire between the fence posts and finished off the fence and gate.

Raised Bed Garden

My garden is about 12 feet wide and 30 feet long. The fence is a hair over six feet tall. Of course, any self-respecting deer can jump a six-foot fence, but, because of the closeness of the raised beds, the landing zone for this selfsame deer has the appearance of being a tad bit sketchy. So far no deer has attempted the jump.

Building the garden was my way of owning The Creak House through my work. Sure, I get it that you own anything you pay for, but there is something about working on an object that you own that really makes that object yours. It’s like waxing your skis or patching your down jacket.

I actually thought I was building the garden for Blue Eyes. But the truth is that I’ve become a gardener and can spend timeless periods puttering in my garden. Before I leave for work in the morning, I go check to see what has happened since the last time I checked the garden. That was probably last night with a cocktail in my hand. I always see something that needs to be done the next time I garden.

It’s almost summer as I write this sitting in my camp chair in front of the garage and next to the garden.  I have garlic a foot high that I bought from Stanley Crawford in Dixon, NM. Read his “Garlic Testament” if you get a chance. I planted the garlic in November and will harvest it in July. Lettuce and beets are starting to come up. We’ll eat one volunteer head of lettuce tonight that survived the late-spring snowstorms.

Asian Pear tree

The Asian Pear is the star of the garden. I’ve trained it to weave its branches into the pig wire. Last year, we got 40 pears from it. The Bartlett Pear struggled last year, but survived the winter and bloomed, as did the Honeycrisp apple. It seems that if I can get the trees through their first year, they do just fine in the raised beds. Beneath the Asian Pear is a lush patch of volunteer cilantro.

In a week or so, we’ll plant tomatoes, basil and one squash plant and maybe something exotic just for the fun of it. One year it was black beans and corn from Peru. We got no corn and enough black beans for maybe two burritos, but the native plants were exotic looking enough to start conversations with the neighbors who wanted a closer look at what I was growing.

If I swing around in my chair I’ll see that the gear is all still there. None of it has moved. But if I look at my garden, I can almost see things changing, even myself.

Beer Training

I’ve had my one allotted beer and I have this map of southwestern Colorado spread out before me. I am thinking about my second beer, but have, so far, restrained myself because the map is frightening me.

Maybe I should explain the one allotted beer first. I would be the first to admit that I enjoy a drink or five and therein lies the problem. I have this reasoning take place in my little brain that goes like this, “If one beer tastes this good, why not have another? And as long as I am at it, a third couldn’t possibly hurt anything, etc.”

If I do reach for the second beer, Blue Eyes will say, “careful, don’t hurt yourself.” She thinks that when I complain about very slow trail running or getting dropped by my road biking buddies, it is because I’m hung over. This is never the case. I can run and ride with the best of them hung over. I am slow because I am somewhat in excess of my fighting weight by a modest 30 pounds.

That term “fighting weight” just popped up on my screen, I apologize for it. The last time I was in a real fight was hundreds of years ago. It was over a chair in the journalism library at my school and I got my clock cleaned by the librarian … but that is story for another time. The point is that I weighed 180 pounds then, so that must have been my fighting weight.

Blue Eyes claims that I slur my words and get sleepy after three beers. I of course deny that. I don’t think I really start slurring my words until after I’ve finished four beers. And I don’t really slur my words, they sound just fine to me even if I tend to speak in run-on sentences that have no real point.

It is possible that I have woken up in my chair near the fireplace surrounded by empty beers. But not that often … this year.

So I’m really thinking about that second beer as I look at the map. I have yet again talked myself into a four-day road ride with these crazy people who call themselves the Gut Grinders. Last year, we did a couple hundred miles in Utah. I thought that was going to be a simple tour through some rolling high desert. Nope. I was dead last every day. At one point, we were climbing a 14% grade (truth) that was twenty miles long (not so true). I was toasted by the ride.

On this May trip, we will start in Ridgway and go up to Silverton and down to Durango. You know that it can snow in the mountains in May … yes I know. That’s why that second beer is sounding like a good idea.

Ridgway is at about 7,000. We go through Ouray and then up to Red Mountain Pass at 11,000 and down to Silverton at 9,300. That’s the first 32 miles. We stop in Silverton for lunch and then head south to Durango by way of Molas and Coal Bank passes and, 47 miles later, we’re in Durango. That sounds like 7,000 feet of gain in one day over 79 miles.

You gotta be kidding me.

“Whish.” That was the sound of my second beer opening.

From Durango, we go west to Mesa Verde National Park and take the 20-mile road into the Visitor’s Center and back out and then up to Dolores. That’s about a 101-mile day, and I’m already thinking maybe I don’t need to see all of Mesa Verde National Park.

The really nice thing about the second beer is that it makes most people like me more reasonable. The really strong riders can do a century ride. I’ve nothing to prove and this trip is for fun.

Screw Mesa Verde.

It’s a night in Dolores and then back into the fricking mountains. We head up to Rico and if the weather is good … the weather better be good or I’m driving the SAG Wagon … we get to see three of the tougher Fourteeners, El Diente, Mount Wilson, and Wilson Peak. Then over Lizard Head Pass and down into Telluride. That’s a 66-mile day.

On the Utah trip, the third day was when I hit the wall. We did this fabulous route out of Boulder, Utah, called the Barr Trail that was about 25 miles of rolling through red rocks and cottonwood groves. On the two previous days, I’d done the complete routes. When I got to the turn-around at 25 miles, I simply decided I was finished for the day. Actually I didn’t decide; my body had had enough. I could have kept riding, but I would have been miserable.

“Whish.” This third beer is to celebrate my great decision-making in Utah. One of the very cool things about growing older is that, when faced with something over your head, you get to say, “I don’t have to do shit like that any more.” And not feel like a weenie for more than a couple minutes.

You also know when you are riding with a good crowd. They’ll push you to your limits. And if they know you have gone to your limits, they don’t give you a hard time when you’ve had enough.

The fourth day looks almost easy by comparison to the previous three days. We head northwest to Placerville, hang a right and on up to Ridgway. It’s only a 52- mile day. But easy is a relative term. I’m writing this in mid-March on a Sunday afternoon.

Yesterday, I put up my first training ride for the season — 56 miles in the flats with only one climb up Rabbit Mountain. I came home and took a nap. Today there are parts of my body that hurt that I didn’t even know I have.

“Whish.” This fourth beer is to start my diet.

Trail Junkie

Hardcore winter trail runners are junkies, they simply have to get out and do the miles, even when there is 400 feet of snow on the ground. The temperature, conditions and time of day make no difference. You’ll find them getting a fix early in the morning before the shift, at lunch, in the mid-afternoon and even as bobbing headlamps late at night. Trail runners are usually adults or wear adult clothing, moderately to extremely fit and friendly. Should they miss a day of running, they get cranky; two days and they are unfit to live with. You’ll note they are in fairly expensive shoes with aggressive tread patterns and maybe strap-on tracks for the ice. Their tights are typically black and often ratty-looking. Their ensemble is completed with a running or bike jacket over a couple layers of polypro, a watch cap and gloves. The water bottle(s) is/are optional.

The trailhead parking lot is quiet today, no seniors with day-packs and birding field glasses, no moms with double-wide strollers and marginally intelligent Labs or Retrievers and no city rangers packing 9mm Glocks and extra clips. The seniors are great as they stand around scoping the tops of trees looking for big birds. I’m guessing that birding is in my future but there are more miles to run before I buy field glasses. The moms are something else. Maybe this is just a Boulder phenomenon, but on a flatland trail, two moms and all their gear will stop and talk in the middle of the trail as if no one else wanted to use the trail. They make me wonder what it is like to be living at the center of the world. The rangers are almost always friendly, courteous and dreadfully overarmed.

Driving along South Boulder Road on my way to the trailhead, I watched the runners pick their way along the snow-packed trail. There was a sort of delicate, fluid, bobbing motion to their running, with tentative foot placements followed by a split second to check if the foot placement held and then a powerful push off to the next tentative foot placement.

My turn.

As I start a slow five-miler along South Boulder Creek, I’m feeling a tad bit ragged, but that’s not unusual anymore at the start of a run. Could be the Avery bomber (maybe two) I drank last night or the 7,521 trail runs that I’ve done before this one, or maybe it’s just my attitude.

The surface is uneven. Yesterday’s footprints in slush froze last night into this rippled surface. It has an out-the-airplane-window ocean look to it with all these shiny little peaks and valleys. I’ve got tracks on, but I am also doing that tentative foot placement thing. Everything seems to be working. My breathing is regular, the pace is moderately even for the surface and there aren’t many people out here.

The first point of interest is the water diversion at about a half-mile. There is a cement wall that you can stand or squat behind and take a pee. If somebody is walking on the other side of the creek, not much is left to the imagination. That’s just an inconvenience, but I’ve wondered what would happen if one of those rangers (with at least 57 rounds) caught me peeing in public. A good number of homeless folks, who get caught and convicted of peeing in public, show up on sex-offender lists. That seems a little extreme. But, hey, this is the age of TSA and patting down shoeless children suspected of being terrorists.

The trail continues to follow the creek for another half-mile to South Boulder Road.

As you approach the one-mile point, there is a huge patch of poison ivy on the east side of the trail. The city’s ecoweenies spent tax money taking out some non-native trees and weeds along the creek. I miss the willows that they took out; but they’ll come back just like the non-native weeds will. They could have done us all a favor by using the tax money to do a limited burn on the poison ivy late at night when no one would be affected by the smoke.

The trail goes under the road in a tunnel that is filled with swallow nests in the summer. As you run though in July, the swallows burst out of their bag-like nests and explode toward the nearest exit. It’s kind of a “Star Wars” experience. In winter, there is an ice cap at the north end and swamp at the south end.

A quarter-mile west of the tunnel, the trail turns south again across acres of pasture. One of the coolest things about Boulder is the greenbelt around town. Some of the greenbelt includes operating ranches whose owners sold development rights to the city in the ’70s.

This trail (actually a single-lane road) also follows the creek, but it is open to the west and unprotected by the trees. The rancher uses the road to haul feed to the cows wintering-over in the pastures. On a cold, windy day, it can seem like the next mile or so to the turn-around point at Two Trees is some sort of trek across an Asian high plateau. I am dodging from one truck wheel track to another, whatever seems smoothest. Unfortunately, everything is frozen and lumpy.

From a distance, Two Trees looks like two giant cottonwoods that have been planted parallel to each other. When you get up to the first tree, it’s a couple hundred yards away from the second tree and turn-around point for a five-mile run.

At Two Trees, I turn and run back north. At three miles, I’m beginning to feel the lumpy trail in my knees, hips and back. It’s the physics of the impact. On a flat surface, the impact on your parts is fairly even, but when you are bobbing over lumpy terrain, your parts start to talk to you. The conversation is one-sided and not fun. There is a new calf off to my left. I stop and watch a perfectly beautiful little animal that will eventually be an ugly brute soon to be hamburger. I walk for a few steps and savor the feeling of walking. It feels great to not be pounding my parts on the ice and lumps of snow. But I’m here to run, and I start trotting again.

I pass along South Boulder Road and pick up the pace. Every once in awhile, an old friend of mine will see me out running along the road and say to anyone who will listen to him that I, “looked like I was really crawling.” He can still put up 7s. No way I’m going to look slow along South Boulder Road.

I’m through the tunnel and headed back to the trail protected by trees along South Boulder Creek. A flight of Canadian geese turns into the wind overhead. I watch in wonder. They are beautiful fliers. But does TSA know they are here and using American air space, eating American weeds and living on and around American lakes and golf courses? And why isn’t TSA doing something about these aliens? How about a 500-foot-high bird net stretched from Vancouver to Halifax to keep the Canadian Geese out?

There is a half-mile to go. I’m tired of the pounding I’m taking on the snowpack. I stop and take off the tracks and run on the plowed sidewalk back to the parking lot. Odd that, as I run on the flat surface, I feel a little shorter, less powerful and less fluid in my movements. It could just be that I’m tired or that my body has gotten used to the rough surface. Or maybe it’s just that I run trails — that’s all I really know and all I really want to do.

I’m no junkie.

A Bad Backcountry Day

COMMENTARY: Writing about backcountry experiences flips the Liar Switch in my brain. The Liar Switch allows me to write stuff that might give you the impression I know what I’m doing in the backcountry, or make you chuckle, or at least slow you down enough to actually read what I’ve written.

I have to work hard to write the absolute truth. This piece on a bad day of backcountry skiing was written without the benefit of the Liar Switch.

Somewhat.

By the way, the Liar Switch is in the same general area of the brain as the Fool Button. But there is a real difference between the Liar Switch and the Fool Button. I know when I’ve flipped the Liar Switch — not so much when I push the Fool Button.

I lined up my left boot in the binding, bent over and locked down. Next, I lined up my right boot in the binding, bent over, lost my balance as the ski slid away and fell sideways cursing into crusty snow.

This wasn’t an unusual way for me to start a day of backcountry skiing. I seem to have a proclivity for falling over while putting on skis, or forgetting to unclip my shoes after a long road bike ride and ending up lying on the ground still attached to my bike. But my favorite stunt is watching my coffee mug tumble down the windshield of my truck as I back out of the garage in the morning.

This was just the beginning of a bad day. It started with new skis. (That’s sort of a lie already and I have just started writing this piece — I don’t own many pieces of new gear.) The new skis are used 190 cm Fischers, with a waxable base, steel edges and slight sidecut. My old backcountry skis are waxless 210s that are great for climbing but useless for skiing downhill.

I haven’t waxed for the backcountry for years, so I didn’t know what I was doing with the wax, and worse yet, I forgot my skins that I also haven’t had to use for years.

The route is up the road to Left Hand Reservoir and starts south of the winter gate on the Brainard Lake Road. The route is uphill for about a mile. The wax job was imperfect. So I found myself puffing uphill doing herring bones on the steeps and pitching over right or left into the crusty snow. So I maybe fell over 300 times.

“What did you say?”
“Fracking, frunking flatlander wax job!”
“Skin-up”
“Forgot ’em.”
“Dumb Bear. You got water? Food? Extra clothing…”
“Shut up.”

COMMENTARY: So now it’s time to check and see if the Liar Switch is still in the “off” position. Well, actually no, it isn’t in the “off” position. I probably only fell over ten or eleven times. I need to also note that I had a quick conversation with an unknown person. That’s obviously made-up. None of my friends would ask if I had the ten essentials, or even know what they are. And if anyone falls more than twice in backcountry, he just gets left behind as hopeless … sort of sporting natural selection.

So the gang was waiting up where the trail cuts over to the lake on Little Raven. Water and snacks had been consumed. I went to pull off my pack, shifted my weight a tad too much, and tumbled over into the crusty snow, coming half out of the pack straps and flailing.

Okay, I have to admit that at that point I was a tad bit spooked. I’ve had unnumbered wonderful days on snow where I was skiing as if I had been born to it, the weather was good and the gear suited to the terrain and conditions.

Not on this day.

Once sorted out and hydrated, I followed the gang on the narrow, downhill trail to the lake. Within minutes, they were out of sight. Fine with me, lots of testosterone/estrogen poisoning symptoms evident.

Cruising a narrow tree-lined winter trail is sort of the vision I have of what Heaven may be like, supposing, of course, that (1) there is a Heaven, (2) I believe in a Heaven and, (3) I would want to go to Heaven when none of my friends were there.

There is a magic to the sound of skis whisping across the snow, the muffled punctuation of the pole planting, the low hum of your body fluidly kicking and gliding, the vision of snow dusting the trees and Mount Audubon peaking above the tree tops.

It was during this sort of reverie that I did the first face-plant.

As face-plants go, it was not anything spectacular or even unusual. I was simply cruising along, one with the snow, and then I buried my head in it. While the trail was hard-pack, the sides of the trail held a good two feet of powder.

So here was the drill. First, I sputtered and said bad words. Second, I paused and figured out how I was going to get up on my skis. Third, I began the laborious process of moving my skis around to a place where I could clamber back up on them. Fourth, with the help a tree limb, I pulled myself back up on my skis. Fifth, I gathered up my gear, said some positive things to myself, and skied off.

Little Raven Trail is about a mile-and-a-half long. I fell four more times before I reached the intersection with CMC South Ski Trail.

COMMENTARY: It appears that, since the last commentary, there has been some truthfulness. However, the testosterone/estrogen crack was gratuitous. The rift on Heaven was just an excuse to use on old joke (3). And the thing about saying something positive to myself is an outright lie.

The gang waited for me at the intersection, having finished their lunch. The better-bred of the group expressed some concern about my situation and suggested any number of solutions, from a new wax job to taking the easy way back on the Brainard Lake Road.

I gobbled some food, got some water and we were off down the CMC South Trail. There is no doubt that I was absolutely psyched out. I couldn’t get the skis to do anything and was regularly bashing into the ice or flailing in the powder.

There are a number of informal backcountry rules. (1) You get killed in the backcountry by a string of small mistakes, not one grand faux pas. (2) You can psych yourself positively or negatively; a good deal of your individual success in backcountry activities depends on your mindset. (3) If you are having a really bad day in the backcountry, sit down and wait it out, or walk out and come back another day.

Clearly, I was in no danger of getting killed, but I could look at a string of small mistakes that had made me miserable. I was using new equipment on moderately rough terrain, I’d forgotten my skins and I hadn’t waxed properly.

You can do just about anything in the backcountry if you are in somewhat good condition, if you are well trained, if you have decent equipment and particularly if you have your head screwed on correctly. I clearly did not have my head screwed on carefully that day.

With my ex-hiking partner (an entirely different story) breaking trail, I split off from the CMC South and headed north to the Brainard Lake Trail. Did you ever do Bierstadt through the dreaded willows where every other step sank down six inches in cold water? My ex-hiking partner might weigh 130 pounds wet. I weigh 215 dry. Where he could cruise over the snow, I started breaking through the crust. When I wasn’t breaking through the crust, I was getting tangled in the willows. At one point my skis were so tangled in the willows that I had to take them off. And when I stepped out of the binding and put my boot down. Yup, you guessed it, I post-holed and kept post-holing for about forty feet until I got in some crusty stuff that would support my weight if I crawled.

I had to laugh at what this all looked like. It is ignoble to have to crawl across snow dragging your skis as you look for a stable place where you can get back into your bindings.

We reached the Brainard Lake Road, which was windblown and hardpack. I’d had enough. I took off my skis and walked back to the winter gate.

This bad day was a kind of first for me. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of people having backcountry bad days and I felt sorry for them. I have had some days that were bad enough to lie about, but I’ve never had a day where I came out of the backcountry looking like the retreat from Moscow.

The lesson is simple: If you are having a bad day in the backcountry, bail and come back another day. Don’t make things worse by staying out there. Or you too, may end up crawling across windpack dragging your skis behind you.

COMMENTARY: Nailed it. There’s not one lie in the last set of paragraphs. Well, maybe the part about post-holing, but then, maybe that’s true too, or at least truthy.