Walking With Willy

I’m in my full fleece that makes me look like a walking fuzzball, backcountry mittens with the strings for my wrists so I don’t loose them and a sheepskin hat that gives me that raffish Elmer Fudd look. Willy is in his black winter coat with the white chest and his harness and leash.

He’s a six-month-old Portuguese Snow Dog and clearly the best thing that has happened to us all year. Like his Dad, he is totally disciplined, not at all hardheaded, plays well with others and doesn’t bite very much.

On the way uphill, he bounded through the snow kicking up crystals that sparkled in my headlamp. To the right are four evergreens covered in white lights. We go over and just look at them. Willy wants to keep going, but the trees remind me of Christmas seasons past, some spent with you, and I smile at the memories.

We head downhill in the open space between houses and toward the frozen lake. I’m glad that, as cold as it is, there is no wind tonight. If we are lucky, we might hear Coyote before we finish our walk. She and her clan live up a gully in the foothills.

We are now walking between the foothills and the lake and heading north. There is no moon yet as I look out over the ice and catch the reflections of Christmas lights. I want to stop and take it all in but Willy isn’t contemplative; he wants us to keep moving. Ahead of us is The Pitch that my ex-running partner claims gets steeper every year. It’s a dog-leg trail up to the mesa and the trail north that leaves just about everyone breathing harder at the top. He could be right about the steepness — but maybe not — none of us are willing to admit that we are slowing down a bit.

The Pitch doesn’t bother Willy, but I’m puffing a bit when we reach the top. There are a few houses to our right, but for the next mile, it is just open space and a snow-packed trail. Willy settles in beside me as my breathing returns to normal.

For a while, the only sound is the crunch of my boots on the snowpack. But then I hear a chopper and see the pilot has left on her landing lights. I’m guessing that someone is getting a holiday sightseeing tour of a lifetime. As the chopper gets within a half mile, it occurs to me to flash my headlamp. I’m a tiny speck of light in a field of darkness below them. Several seconds after I stop flashing my light, the pilot flips off her landing lights and then turns them on again. I laugh out loud at being recognized on the ground. Willy is now looking up at me as if he thinks I’ve lost it. This will not be the last time in this lifetime that I’ll get a quizzical look from Willy.

We keep walking north. I shut off my headlamp again and there are maybe a million stars overhead. Willy indulges me as I stop and just stare into the night sky. Off to the east, the sky begins to glow. When we turn around in a few minutes, we’ll get to see moonrise.

Our walk tonight is on my house route. I couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve run this trail along the foothills in all seasons and sorts of weather. In the summer, the highpoint is seeing a field of blue larkspurs that last for several weeks and in the winter the highpoint is hearing Coyote talk to her clan.

We turn at about a mile and half from The Creak House and see the tip of the moon ease over the horizon. Willy and I watch as a soft white light appears on the foothills and slowly slides downhill to light our way home. I can see perfectly now and switch off my headlamp to walk home in moonlight.

Several hundred yards from the top, of the pitch I hear a “yip” and know that a coyote chorus is about to begin. We stop and listen. And then the coyote clan is all yipping and there is dog laughter and joy and Coyote wants us to know that for this moment in time all is right along the foothills.

We reach the top of The Pitch and look out over the lake and north Boulder. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe I’ve been this lucky, that I have love in my life, and live in a place like this. I’m not religious in the traditional sense but I can’t help but occasionally whisper, “Thank you,” to whoever might hear.

A Christmas Letter for You

It’s snowing here in the foothills, there is a fire going and the pup is either asleep or eating my running shoes. I’ve thought about going out and shoveling, but the storm has another eight hours to go and the Boulder Snow Police never really get to my neighborhood.

I’m staring at two things: the calendar that says Christmas is two weeks away and a blank page on my laptop that is the beginning of the annual Christmas letter.

This Christmas letter thing of mine started some years ago with my Dad, who upon seeing a mimeographed Christmas letter, pronounced it, “an insincere chain letter from a gasbag.” That the letter was from my grandmother, his mother-in-law, had no bearing on his opinion. That he hated Christmas letters was vast encouragement to me.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a number of Christmas letters on some sort of colored paper with badly reproduced snapshots of some fairly dreadful-looking people. Something like:

Dear Alan (often misspelled or shortened to Al, a name I haven’t answered to since puberty): Well it’s been another happy (add smiley face icon) and productive year for the Smith family here in Colorado Springs. Dad, who as you know, has held a very (hush-hush) position in the Defense Department has had to work such long hours that he rented a studio apartment near the Federal Center and sometimes comes home for weekends. He started a workout program and found a tailor. Did I mention that he bought a Porsche that he pronounces POORCHA? In Colorado Springs, we still call them pourshas. But he’s great when we get to see him.

The kids are terrific. Jimmy, who was always fun, is up for probation next summer after that dreadful trial where they blamed him for burning down an entire strip mall when all he did was sort of drive his pickup through the stores like he saw folks do in some movie or video game.

Jenny, who was always the tease, has just completed her GED and is going to Pikes Peak Community College in the spring. Her daughter, our first grandchild Meghan, was born a year ago halfway through Jennny’s junior year. Jenny plans on majoring in counseling.

Jamie, the brain, is halfway through his community service for setting off an explosion in the back yard. It’s clear to his Dad and me that the fifty-pound bag of fertilizer was for making rocket fuel for his experimental rockets, however the ATF made a case for possible bomb manufacture.

And me, well I’ve been great with my church work where I counsel unwed mothers to keep the child like my Jenny did. I still love to crochet toilet paper covers for all the crafts fairs and if I do say so myself, I bake a mean rum cake. And I remain ever thankful for a variety of Mother’s Little Helpers, some with batteries.

All of us want to wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the happiest  (obligatory second smiley face icon) family in Colorado Springs.

Whew. Those are hard letters to read without tumbling out of your chair laughing.

And over the years, I’ve written a number of Christmas letters, some happy, some sad, and some that are both. So here is my Christmas letter of wishes for you. And if you are of other religions than today’s Christianity, as practiced by some social and political pond scum who make me ashamed to call myself a Christian, believe me when I say that these wishes are for you too.

I wish for you:

• A place of your own, with food and beer in the fridge and books lining the walls with an old chair for reading with a table beside it for your beer and notebook and with a couch and wool blanket for naps.

• Waking up in the morning and feeling like a young animal during your first stretch. And if you creak a tad bit as you walk to the john for a pee, it’s okay, we all do.

• A job where you can make a difference if only to smile at that person on the gurney and squeeze their hand to let them know you think they’ll be okay.

• A living parent or mentor or great boss who is still watching you for signs of improvement.

• A mountain bar where everyone knows your name.

• A warm hand (not your own) moving across your body on a winter’s night.

• Powder to your knees in the out of bounds, where only the stout hearted go (with beacons please).

• Good reads from writers whose words come from the heart and not the head. May I recommend almost anything from Jim Harrison or Stanley Crawford.

• A truck that starts every morning year round.

• A dog who loves you in spite of yourself.

Merry Christmas unknown friend, and if you are really lucky, I wish you this blue-eyed (brown-eyed is just as good) person to spend the rest of your life with. And if you haven’t found this person yet, my Christmas gift to you is the wish that you find this person soon.

Five Ages

There is a significant birthday in my near future, and I’m a tad bummed by the number. But the minute I write the number is the minute you categorize me. That’s the problem; I don’t want to be categorized by my age.

So now your bullshit detector is flashing red like a bike commuter at 6 p.m. in December going north on Folsom.

“No way I judge people by their chronological age. It’s all about what they can put-up, not some number.”

Sure.

So let’s say that my next birthday will make me seventy years old. This same dude, who doesn’t know me, is going to think, “Good God, he is 70 years old … almost dead. Hell, I know folks who died climbing before they were thirty-five … half his age.”

Yeah, but let’s say at 70 a person can still jog five miles in the mountains, ski the backcountry all day and handle a raft in class 3 water. Maybe this person lives with a great companion, and supports his various bad habits with odd jobs. But you’ve got 70 in your brain and your brain is telling you that 70 is really old.

Fine. Now let’s say the big number I’m looking at is 30 years old. That I’m suffering all this angst because I can no longer claim that I am in my extreme late 20s, that I’m 30 and than implies adulthood.

Given that the median demographic of Mountain Gazette has Boomer written all over it, the age 30 causes a good deal of condescension. So if the huge number I’m facing is 30, here is what I’d expect to hear: “As slightly aged adolescent, you have no idea of what life is like. You really haven’t dealt with that much death, divorce, defeat, dependency or duplicity. While you may think living out of the back of your truck, climbing all week, and working only when you absolutely have to is a viable way of life, you ain’t Fred Becky.”

“Yeah, but at 30 I can see things very clearly as good, bad, right and wrong. I don’t spend much time with ambiguities and I don’t get caught up in any details that could slow me down. I can drink all night and climb all day and then do it all again the next day. Life is good.”

Okay so, I’m not thirty … I couldn’t even spell ambiguity in my 30s, much less give much of a crap what it meant.

But let’s talk about 60. If you are on the leading edge of the boomers, 60 has passed you by. What used to be a six-pack above your belt is now unnumbered six packs hanging over you belt and as you ladies in large shirts snicker at this description of your mates, please note that a good rack is now also somewhat closer to your belt.

You’d think that 60 might just be on the other side of the hill — and we aren’t talking the backside of the hill with the bowls and chutes, we’re talking the frontside with groomers and two-hour lunches at the bar followed by a nap in the Suburban.

But you would be wrong about 60. It looks to me like a time when there is real freedom to explore. The job is over or nobody listens to you anymore, the kids are gone, the living parents are in assisted care and if you are careful, there is some extra money to do some of the stuff you have always dreamed of. So the 60s can be very cool.

Suppose I said that I faced the dreaded BIG FOUR OH. Yeah, now there is true angst for you. Forty has got to be the toughest birthday. There is simply no getting around the fact that you’re Forty Fricking Years Old! That when you were a kid and your Dad turned 40, you thought he was really an old fart and that your Mom at 40 looked grandmotherly and you were only seven or eight at the time and didn’t need another grandmother.

This is when the recurring knee twitch turns into ongoing pain; the idea of writing a book or cruising downwind to Maui on a 36-footer are just as far away as when you first thought of them and you wake up in the middle of the night not looking for a roll in the hay but for the ibuprofen and a pee.

But you would miss the point about being forty. This is when people actually listen to you when you speak; this is when you can actually make some decent money because people believe you. But most important is that it’s in the 40s when you begin to figure out what love means — that maybe this person you picked is wrong and you have got to move on; or maybe, just maybe this blue-eyed person is the one you will travel through time with, and you just learned that after 15 years of being together.

Okay, so what about 50? You’re thinking stuff like the, “The boss is 50 and he’s a jerk.” 50 means you can’t do anything anymore just tell people how to do things. 50 is the Highway Patrol guy who never made corporal and busted you for a DUI when you were mostly sober. 50 is the barkeep who 86ed you for rude language. 50 is the banker who looked at your loan application and broke out laughing.

Yeah, but 50 is the best. You actually know what you are doing and do it well. Your parts may be a tad twitchy, but you can still crew Leadville from Winfield back over Hope Pass and on to Twin Lakes. At the top of a chute, you may pause, but drop in, keep your wits about you and scoot out at the bottom yelling at the top of your lungs. And this person who was looking real good 15 or 20 years ago, well it is amazing how good they look to you now. There is a wrinkle and softness to their smile and a look that says laughter and passion and warmth on a long winter night.

So, are you going to stop making judgments about people based on age?

Probably not, but there is a good chance that you might also think about what they can put up before you make a judgment.

And how old am I? I’m somewhere between 30 and 70. It depends on what I have put up in the last day.

A Sailboat, Puppy and Hip

Most of us get to choose our lives. Some of us have been lucky enough to have had some wonderful choices. Some of us have had Sophie’s choices. But good or bad, sometimes what we choose all comes together at the same time.

It was late February with enough snow on the ground to last until next February. This fool calls me up and says, “I’m signing up for a week-long sailing course in July in the San Juan Islands; wanna take it with me?”

In the High Country, in February, anything about sailboats sounds good. So I signed up for the course and plunked down some money.

About that same time, Blue Eyes had an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon about her right hip. She used to be able to rip down anything on the mountain, but not any more. It was clear to both of us that she needed a new hip. The hip guy had on really nice custom shoes that probably cost more than my skis. He told her she wasn’t ready for a hip replacement and to come back in May for another exam. I figured that he was putting her off until he needed a new pair of custom shoes.

The following week, the breeder we had contacted in January said she would probably have puppies available in July.

You can see the perfect storm of choices coming, can’t you?

We talked about a weeklong sailing course, the arrival of a new pup and a hip operation all happening in a two-week period. Could we do it? Sure. Did I mention that I actually have a job and real work that needs to get done? Not that the work is of major importance to anyone but me, but the folks who pay me tend toward the grumpy side when the work doesn’t get done.

Yup, in May, the surgeon scheduled Blue Eyes for a new hip in late July and there it was. We couldn’t bail on the hip operation. But I could have bailed on the sailing course, and we could have postponed getting a pup until the next litter.

Nope.

The sailing course was terrific. Seven days of sailing a 45-foot Jeanneau with an instructor who quickly figured out our skill levels and taught everything from basic engine maintenance, to navigation, to the man-overboard-drill, to landing a 45-foot boat without damaging anything.

Willy the pup arrived when I was gone. He’s a curly black Portuguese Water Dog with a patch of white on his front. I got back, hugged Blue Eyes, played with my new pup, and, two days later, took my best friend to get a new pair of shoes for the surgeon.

It’s mid-August and the storm has subsided. I am scheming to buy a sailboat or at least rent a bare boat out of St. Somewhere next winter. There is this pup, which wants to crawl up in my lap and maybe help me type this piece on the laptop. Lacking that, he’s happy to gnaw on my running shoes. And Blue Eyes is walking without a limp for the first time in a year.

Have I learned anything for all this? Yup — the work was still there when I finally got back to the office. The grumpiness went away in a couple days. Oh, and when I finally have to get a new left knee, there will be no new pup in the same month.

Wussing to Ward

“Extreme” is an overused word in mountain sports; usually it means doing something really stupid for sponsorship money if you survive — or it is yet again another dummy in a body bag — if you don’t. The word has been abused. “Extreme” has a different meaning in Boulder; it means someone will always be around to take you to the end of your endurance, or abilities, or both, and then push you for more.

“So, if we are going to park near the Greenbriar Inn, why don’t we just go get a beer?”

“Get your bike out of the truck,” she says.

“Hey, one or two beers couldn’t hurt.”

Betsy looks at me exasperated, as only an old friend can look exasperated because she may have had this conversation with me twenty times before.

“First,” she says, “it’s eight o’clock in the morning. Second, we are climbing to Ward today. Third, beer and climbing will make you toss your breakfast.”

“Oh,” I say, “and you forgot to add, ‘You wuss.’”

“You wuss,” she says and goes about getting ready for the ride.

The ride to Ward is one of those Boulder benchmarks like doing a sub-50 Bolder Boulder, or putting-up all 54 14ers, or driving a car that cost more than your education.

It’s 17 miles of moderate uphill from the Greenbriar to the Utica Street Store in Ward with an altitude gain of about 4,000 feet and this memorable mile-and-quarter climb at the end that will make you spit up pieces of lung.

The road to Jamestown is classically foothills beautiful with the Left Hand Creek cascading along the side the road. The bike lane gets a little thin in spots, but most of the folks, including the militias who shoot-up one of the side canyons and off-road-vehicle (ORV) folks who tear-up the backcountry, usually give us a wide berth.

In front of me, a wanker with a trailered ORV comes as close as he can to the bike lane and honks. I see the riders jump. But he’ll park his rig somewhere up the road, unload his ORV, and tear up a side canyon. Someone will take the time to stop and pee on his door handles.

After six-and-a-half miles, we turn left toward Ward. I’m hot, pulse is 130, cadence is 70, and I’m cranking the higher end of my climbing gears. I’m saving that big humping gear in the cassette for the climb into Ward.

Betsy is watching. I’ve never done Ward before. It is the thought of climbing to Ward that is actually harder than the climb. But then we are only half into this thing and I’m feeling good, as if breathing from almost every orifice of my body is an okay thing to do.

After a settlement called Rowena, the climbing moderates somewhat and I make adjustments with my cadence and gears. But I can feel the altitude gain in the limited amount of oxygen I’m able to suck in and with the dryness in my mouth, throat and chest.

We stop for water and energy bars. While the ride has been moderate, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to get off the bike for a moment and just stand still munching something gooey and drinking water. For a moment, there is no neutering saddle, no burning thighs, and my breathing is almost normal. We have five miles yet to climb to Ward.

The route is still moderate as we pass Lick Skillet Road and then after a while I can see the fateful right turn uphill for the approach to Ward.

Betsy drops back alongside me,

“You can do this,” she says.

“We could also turn around right now and be drinking beer at the Greenbriar in an hour.”

“Just remember —

… pace yourself,

… keep your cadence up,

… try to stay out of debt,

… go slow,

… don’t watch anyone else,

… do your own ride.

… and I almost forgot — you wuss.”

We begin the climb. Right from the start, the road slithers right and left and gets steep and stays steep. Now, I really do feel like I’m breathing from every orifice of my body. The road is now crawling straight with a turn ahead to the left.

“Slow down! Slow down!” Betsy yells at me and then drops in front of me and slows.

It’s true, the pitch has spooked me and I’ve started hammering the pedals to make the bike go faster and maybe end the pain sooner. I slow down and my pulse drops to something almost manageable. But there remained a sort of an inexplicable stink in the air in my lungs.

Huge amounts of air with little oxygen are sucked into my lungs and expelled immediately for another huge huffing suck of air. I try to slow my breathing and my speed without wobbling into traffic or the weeds.

I’m in the biggest gear on the cassette and I’m slowly spinning my way up the road. My breath is still coming in huge draughts of thin air. My chest hurts, my back is suggesting collapse and my thighs are burning.

I see the town pump on the right, and I know the store is not all that much farther.

“You’re almost there! Keep going. Keep going,” Betsy yells and pulls me up the road.

And then it is over. I have two wobbly legs holding me up. I’m stretched along the top tube with my arms dangling off the handlebars and my head down. I don’t think I’ll ever breathe normally again.

There are some pats on the back from an old friend. I’m smiling.

“Now there’s something — like the last pitch on Wetterhorn — that I don’t ever have to do again,” I say.

“How about we climb a little more and then go to Raymond?” Betsy suggests. “It’s only 10 or 12 more miles, mostly downhill.”

“How about no?”

“Wuss.”

A Delicate Part

Some fool talked me into a 340-mile road-bike ride in Utah, so I’ve been spending a good deal of time training over the last couple of weeks.

As a result of this training, there is a small part of my body, dare I mention it, that is near and dear to me, and now so sore that I walk funny. This is not something I wish to discuss with a doctor. He or she would laugh at me.

Every woman reading this is rolling her eyes back in her head and saying sarcastic things like, “And what part could that be?” and laughing raucously. “Does its little part hurt from too much riding?” More raucous laughter.

The technical term is “crotched-out,” and I was getting uncomfortable after only 15 miles when everything should have been working about perfectly. At 30 miles, I was standing up on my pedals to get some relief.

We all have self-images, and it is disconcerting to have a serious dose of reality muck with the self-image. It’s a personal thing too, that may just be a Y chromosome thing, but when parts don’t work right, the first thought is that we … in this case I … have turned into a wuss, that I’m finally falling apart and that it is time for the six pack and lounger in the teevee room watching some butt-ugly dropout trying to sing to three morons sitting in judgment.

I did Rabbit Mountain from Boulder yesterday. I stopped at the bike shop on the way back because I was in pain.

When I go into a bike shop, there are all these dudes with no body fat and carbon-fiber bikes that are worth more than my old 4Runner. Admittedly, like a dyslexic in a bookstore, I’m intimidated by the whole scene. That I have twice the BMI of anyone in the store doesn’t help.

“Um, er, I got a problem with my seat, I mean my saddle.” I say to the clerk.

“Yeah,” he says, “tell me about it.”

“I’m crotched-out after 15 miles.”

“Let’s look at it,” he says diagnostically.

“Not a chance.”

“The saddle, Man,” he says.

“Whew,” I say.

We walked outside and the clerk looked at my bike. He is kind enough not to mention that the bike was hi-tech at the turn of the century. After a quick look at the saddle, he says, “Worn out. You’ve put a lot of miles on the this saddle, it’s just worn out.”

“Then I’m not a wuss?”

“Nope, the saddle is worn out.”

We spent 10 minutes reviewing the various saddles that he had for sale. The saddle with all titanium components was out of the running; it cost more than I paid for the bike used. We settled on a saddle that had a tad bit of padding on it.

The clerk spent another couple of minutes mounting the new saddle and I rode off on a new saddle with a credit card receipt that Blue Eyes will certainly bring up for discussion at our monthly financial meeting. I will indignantly deny that I spent more than $100 for a bicycle seat. She will point at the credit card bill and call bullshit.

We need to remember that gear, like our bodies, wears out. That’s because, when we are screwing up, there is the possibility that it may actually be the equipment and not us. And that every once in a while we need some advice from a bike store clerk or a ski tech or maybe even a doc.

So when was your last physical?

Mine is Thursday.