Land in the Sky: Behave

For the last six weeks I’ve been “weeding the woods.” That’s what my neighbor George calls my crusade against garlic mustard. Also known as Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard is labeled by environmental authorities as an “invasive species.” Not that there’s anything wrong with invasive species—I’m one myself, maybe you are too—but garlic mustard is an exceptionally ill-behaved newcomer. It respects no bounds.

The Cooperative Extension website reports that “garlic mustard has spread throughout much of the United States over the past 150 years, becoming one of the worst invaders of forests in the American Northeast and Midwest.” It’s spread primarily by the traffic of human beings and their livestock. Left unchecked, garlic mustard will infest a forest faster than cheap housing tracts do prime ag land.

So every spring I’m out there in the woods—pulling, yanking, raking over garlic mustard wherever I spot it on our thirty acres. A fruitless task, I know, but if nothing else it allows me to say, without exaggeration, that I know every square inch of this land of ours. It’s relaxing to be outside in the fresh air on Paradise Hill, wandering up and down the steep wooded slopes, with a rake over my shoulder and a couple of collies bounding along by my side.

“You’re not going to eradicate it,” a weed expert recently admonished me. “The best you can hope for is to teach it to behave.” That’s funny. Sister Mary Dorothy used to say the same thing about me.

Postcard: Forgotten poles

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

You would think that after forgetting my poles twice before, I would’ve designed some kind of system to remember them no matter what. Not the case. Last week, I repeated my idiotic move once more and was left foraging at the trailhead for wooden replacements. They actually worked well, which was only partial consolation for how stupid I felt.

Postcard: Cave Creek, Arizona

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

I have never ridden a bull, but I’ve watched a few rodeos and always yearned to be among them. Last week I visited Cave Creek, Arizona, just outside Phoenix, and attended an intimate weekly Friday night rodeo at a barbecue joint. Big-time rodeos might get the ink, but, like many adventurous pursuits, the small-time culture is where the sport shines. This cowboy got up and was fine after failing to last eight seconds, a bevy of high-fives serving as his consolation.

Postcard: Eastern Sierra

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

There aren’t many places in America where you can drive to a parking lot on public land, walk down a gorgeous boardwalk in the middle of nowhere, and soak in a 105-degree natural hot spring while staring up at one of the most famous mountain ranges in the country. I got introduced to this oasis last week in California’s Eastern Sierra after a nice day of spring skiing. I can only hope to one day return.

Postcard: The Oasis

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Some tables just have a better view than others. This one, a two-top at the Oasis restaurant in southern Colorado, stares out at Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Sangre de Cristo range. Come summer, it would be nearly impossible to score a seat at this table. But in early May, it sits empty most hours of the day and night, waiting for someone who appreciates world-class landscapes and homemade fruit pies.

Postcard: April showers

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

On the last day of April 2016, we succumbed to nature’s will and entered the storm. One lap would have been enough in lesser conditions. But we could not help ourselves. Wives, children, and warmth could wait. We slapped skins back on skis and climbed again, up to the run in this photo. Powder is fleeting this time of year. Gotta get it while it’s to be gotten.

Postcard: Group walk

A few weeks ago I lauded the serenity to be had on a solo ski tour. Well, going with a few friends is worthwhile as well. Here, we trudge through one of the countless alpine valleys to be explored in Colorado’s mountains, en route to a peak that falls just shy of the fabled 14,000-foot elevation and thus remains empty most days of the year. We took only photos and left only tracks in the snow.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Postcard: Northeastern Utah

We’re approaching getaway season in the Colorado high country. Winter is on its way out and spring on its way in. Not that this cow cares. I spotted her in a field while passing through northeastern Utah recently. She doesn’t know about getaway season, nor does she need to. She needs to keep eating grass to stay alive, plain and simple. Poor cow.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Kicking (and Gliding) at The Home Ranch

Or how I  learned to channel my inner aerobic animal. By Nicholas O’Connell

It looks so easy. When experienced skate skiers glide along with grace and fluidity, it appears almost effortless. And yet when I’ve tried it on cross country skis, I found it exhausting. If I have the right gear and coaching can I ever make it look easy?

This is the question I ponder during a three-day visit to the Home Ranch, an upmarket ranch located in the Elk River Valley, 40 miles from Yampa Valley Regional Airport in northern Colorado. The all-inclusive ranch includes free gear and instruction and 30 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails.

Matson Tew, a tall, lanky, enthusiastic guide, serves as my instructor. He fits me with skate skis which are lighter, shorter and skinnier than traditional cross country skis.

“Try these poles,” he says, handing me poles that come up to my chin, much longer than cross country poles, but well-suited to the long strides and glides of a skate skier. He fits me for boots and then gives me a pep talk.

“It’s one of the most challenging aerobic sports out there,” he says. “And you’re coming from sea level, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it tires you out.”

Encouraged, I try the technique. The 3-kilometer loop outside the Home Ranch is relatively flat and groomed with a wide corduroy swath, making it an ideal place to practice.

“It’s 70 percent lower body, 30 percent upper body,” he says, demonstrating the technique. “Then it’s probably 50/50 on hills.”

I try to imitate his technique. “Look over the glide ski,” he says. “Spend as much time on the glide ski as possible. Keep your feet low. Assume a dynamic stance with a low center of gravity.”

I ski back and forth, trying to keep all of these things in mind. It’s a lot of effort, but I can feel improvement.

“Do the Wizard of Oz drill,” he says. “Click your heels to get more of a glide.”

I do this and it helps. Then he suggests completing the loop. I skate well around the first portion of the track until I hit a hill and struggle to maintain the technique.

“It’s okay to use Granny Gear on the hills,” he says. “You can put the poles behind you and step up if you need to.”

I follow his lead and pole uphill. By the time I finish the course, my heart is pounding, my lungs straining.

“Nice job,” he says. “You’re a natural.”

I can’t help grinning. This is such a great workout that I want to do it again. By the time I complete a second lap, I may not be making it look easy, but I’m hitting my stride and channeling my inner aerobic animal. Afterwards, I head back to the ranch, having earned the right to gorge on the restaurant’s delicious lunch of soup, salad, and skirt steak fajitas. For more:

Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and teaches for