Highway Hazards and Animal Abodes

Wyoming’s landscape rolls like waves: treeless hills of sagebrush undulate under a large sky.  Mesas and buttes poke their heads above the restless, arid plains, ravines carved by long-ago water snake between the hills, and massive tan rock formations thrust into the sky like curious animals.  Traveling east on I-80 on our way to Omaha, I became aware of a gradual descent, a flattening of the geography, as if someone was pulling the sheets tight on a bed.  Uneven grazing lands filled with cows gave way to miles and miles of corn, wheat, and soybeans, ponds and reservoirs, and the lush green of America’s heartland.

Interstate 80 is a major thoroughfare, filled with 18-wheelers satisfying the country’s insatiable demand for products.  But if semis are the red blood cells of the American economy, motor homes are the cholesterol-carrying fat cells.  These bloated road hogs reach 40 feet in length have romantic, hyperbolic names like ‘Bighorn,’ ‘Reflection,’ or ‘Quantum.’  The monolithic ‘Dutch Star’ we passed allows its passengers to enjoy nature with Bermuda glazed maple hardwood cabinets, a king-sized bed, induction cooktop, Samsung TV and Blu-ray player.  At over $400,000, this example of conspicuous consumption keeps the oil industry healthy, getting a miniscule six miles per gallon on flat roads.  If I stayed in a $300/night hotel for 30 nights each summer for ten years, I’d have spent only $90K. But to each their own.  You go on with your bad self, draggin’ your ‘Stryker’ down the road at 63 m.p.h.  Enjoy your mortgage.

Speaking of road hazards, Burger King has now made my list of things to avoid while driving, like deer, or hitchhikers in prison garb.  I was possessed to go there in the first place at the prospect of actually being able to order a burger before 11 a.m., which for some reason is anathema to most fast food joints.  But, to my annoyance, I was informed that the flame-broiling-Whopper-maker was incapacitated, so I settled for a bacon, egg, and cheese Croissan’wich.  The picture on the left, below, looks delicious, yes?  But oh, my, what I got (see picture on the right) was the most disturbing bite of ‘food’ I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, bite (singular), because I threw the rest away.  I would have licked a Silverback’s butt to get the taste out of my mouth, but in the absence of the primate, orange juice, coffee, a cigarette, a day old, overripe banana, and water did the trick after about twenty minutes. Cindy’s sausage version of the same thing tasted like it’d been dipped in kerosene before serving, and the hash brown nuggets like they’d been hammered in eight-day old spoiled fryer-oil.  Shame on you, Burger King on 205 N. Greeley Hwy, just off I-80 in Cheyenne!  Shame on you, plastic-faced spokesperson Ronald McDonald wannabe King! I am sick when I do look on thee!

 

Speaking of Silverbacks, the Omaha Zoo offers a reasonably priced opportunity to view a wealth of the world’s animal species.  Depending on what survey you look at or who you talk to, it’s up there with the San Diego Zoo in the number one or two spots on the “Best Zoos” list, but at half the price.  We got there early, allowing us some peaceful exploring before the inevitably strident invasion of children under ten.  Highlights for us included the gorillas, the desert dome and swamp beneath it (I had forgotten beavers were that big), and the aquarium with its stunning collection of jellyfish.

Our trip concluded with a visit to my cousin Jennifer Schurman’s farm near Pickrell, between Lincoln and Beatrice.  In addition to her day job, she runs the Shepherd’s Rest Goat and Sheep Rescue, a not-for-profit providing rehab and sanctuary to these animals.  I’ll admit, it’s kind of trippy taking a walk through the woods with thirty-six hooved and horned mammals of all shapes and sizes.  She’s fundraising for hay right now: you can find the organization’s page on Facebook (Facebook@ShepherdsRestRescue).  And if you’re in the area, Goat Yoga takes place on weekends.

Closing the Door

Leaving the city I had called home for 17 years was difficult.  Diurnal habits, the roads I haunted to get to the familiar places of business and pleasure, neighbors and other friends whose voices swam through the song of that place, the dwelling in which I raised my children and its quirky brokenness, and even the sense of sky from my front and back yard: all these are gone except as threads of melancholy set free to weave themselves into the growing quilt of memories.

Houston did not want me to leave, or so I imagined. My impending separation seemed to provoke the tentacles of that oil-fattened octopus. As if to keep me in place, everything seemed more difficult.  Dysfunctional.  A trip to Caliber Collision to pick up the car became a chapter from a Kafka novel:  they didn’t accept our cash (who doesn’t take cash?), and when we returned with a money order, Caliber wouldn’t take that either because their check-reading machine didn’t like it.  Fifteen minutes became three hours.  Or Xfinity and Centerpoint Energy, both of which wanted to steal from us in the form of ‘early termination’ fees.  Then there’s 24 Hour Fitness, whose system was unable to cancel my membership (although it worked fine when I signed up), and our short term rental property, the Terra Apartments, which tried to insist that, even though we signed a 90 day lease, we were required to give it 60 days’ notice and therefore we owed it an extra month of rent (we called the would-be thief on its own fine print through its parent company, Knightvest).

Maybe worst of all was the Texas Education Agency.  I had resigned early from my job with H.I.S.D (through their website and procedure, with ample notice) which promptly tattled on me to T.E.A for breaking contract.  T.E.A, being the fawning, obeisant I.C.E wanna-be that it is, sent me an eight-page legal document (complete with those stupid § symbols) outlining the ‘egregious nature of the acts committed” by me, as if I was a child predator or embezzler.  Go ahead and suspend my teaching license for a year, I told them, closing with:

Rather than exerting the amount of legal energy you’ve exerted on my case, you might consider spending that energy on cases that are truly egregious, and remind HISD that although it would enjoy some retribution for my early resignation (that is what this is all about, after all), it should bring its house in order if it would like to keep qualified, experienced teachers in its employ.  For your agency to act as nothing more than a hit man or bully on behalf of HISD is just simply sad.

Not to labor the point, but given the above, I had reservations about returning to Houston last week.  We’d left Cindy’s car in Houston rather than tow it behind the moving van, and I needed to take care of a few other items of business before fully, and firmly, closing the door on Houston, so the trip was necessary.  Maybe Houston didn’t want me back: my flight from Laramie was cancelled because the cargo door on the plane wouldn’t close; my connecting flight in Denver was reschedule to 5:45, and after a four-hour shuttle ride and an additional delay, I arrived in Houston sometime after 9:00 p.m.  To travel 1,100 miles in 14 hours works out to about 79 miles per hour.  Go, airplanes!!

IMG_8136

Another day in Houston traffic

Once on the ground, the second wave of assault began.  Roads, even residential roads, were clogged with traffic and angry drivers with high beams on weaving too fast between lanes.  All errands required a minimum of thirty minutes.  And the heat.  Turning the air conditioning to arctic while cleaning the apartment didn’t help contain the nine gallons of sweat I mopped the floor with.

The two-day drive back to Laramie was tiring, but as I crested the pass from Fort Collins and set eyes again on the Snowy Range and the valley, I relaxed, and reflected.  By moving here, I replaced rats, lizards, and roaches with rabbits; here I don’t sweat when I get out of the shower; my places are five minutes away; getting a driver’s license or plates takes five minutes instead of five hours.  And as much as the song might applaud the ‘stars at night,’ they really are bigger and brighter in Laramie.

The flowers are, too.  On the trail near Happy Jack Road, the wildflowers were at full peak and sharing their nectar with flocks of butterflies.  Now this is living.

Onme Trium Perfectum

One Hike, Three Lakes: Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake

Choosing among all the possible hiking trails in RMNP proved to be a thoughtful undertaking. After our first hike in RMNP to Lake Mills, and having completed two hikes already, we searched for a hike that would offer the same beauty we had seen while being doable for our tired legs. The website, www.rockymountainhikingtrails.com, provides the should-be-considered information for such a decision. After perusing the site, pouring over the facts on length, features, difficulty levels, etc., we decided on the hike to Emerald Lake which would take us to two other lakes along the way. Score!

This hike begins at the Bear Lake Trail Head, and, like the Mills Lake hike, it is very popular. To avoid having to ride the shuttle to the trail head or hike the trail surrounded by others, get there early!

01_Elkonroad[1] 01_Elkontheway[1]

Our drive to the trail head was briefly and pleasantly interrupted by an entire family of elk lounging on the road and grazing on the surrounding foliage. The mamas, grandmamas, and babies checked us out as intently, though probably not as admiringly, as we did them.

01_NymphLakeChipGreeting[1] 01_NymphLake[1]

The trail begins with a half-mile, non-stop climb to Nymph Lake. There, we were greeted by a curious and energetic chipmunk who did not want to give up his seat to let us rest. Who could blame him, though?

01_View[1] 01_stream[1] 01_snow[1]01_DreamLake[1]

From there, the trail continues for about a mile to Dream Lake.  After climbing steadily for the first half mile, I was expecting some reprieve, but no. This mile was, I think, even steeper and more exhilarating. Along this part of the trail, the views are simply stunning. Right before arriving at Dream Lake, the trail splits, offering a spur that leads to Lake Haiyaha. We considered elongating our hike by following that path on our way back from Emerald Lake, but, looking at the snow which covered the trail, still, at the base, we decided that trek would be better to take at a later date.

01_EmeraldLake[1] 01_EmeraldLake2[1]

After enjoying the views at Dream Lake, we headed out for Emerald Lake. This part of the trail was yet another climb and partly covered with slick, packed snow. Through the first part of the hike we were showered with sun and amazed with blue skies (You don’t see that kind of blue in Houston), but as we approached Emerald Lake, all that changed. Emerging onto the shore of the lake, at an elevation of 10, 110 feet, we were engulfed in clouds. The lake was covered partly in ice, and the surrounding mountains blanketed in snow.

On the way back down, singing, “I love going downhill. I love going downhill,” we ran into a couple of Park Rangers who were a little surprised that some of us made it all the way up to Emerald Lake, because of all the late-in-the-season snow still left on the trail.  We also pondered the bravery, expressions of misery, and altitude fatigue of tennis-shoe and t-shirt dressed families whose fathers carried wee children and babies in shaded, framed enclosures like donkeys.

01_wildflower[1]

This is a great hike. We do recommend being the early bird in order to avoid the crowds, see some beautiful animals and flowers, and take advantage of the serene quiet and peace this trail offers before it is overrun with less than natural wildlife.

Views and Thrills on the way to Lake Mills

Hiking RMNP, Part 1

Approaching Mills Lake, RMNP

Approaching Mills Lake, RMNP

After three nights of camping at Ohaver Lake near Salida, we followed a Western route through curvaceous and vertiginous roads to Estes Park.   Here we stayed at the Stone Brook lodge in our own private cabin complete with a balcony and outdoor hot tub overlooking a roiling, swollen creek. Paula, the owner, was a gracious host, even providing us with a stick of butter for our grilled potato on our last night of the stay. Stone Brook has a strict ‘no children, no pets, no guests’ rule, which would have ruled us out if we’d been traveling with the kids but was absolutely perfect for two tired school teachers running from the cluster and bustle of Houston. The hot tub was listed as a ‘private’ hot tub on the web site, but we discovered when we arrived that ‘private’ meant ‘not shared with other residents,’ as opposed to ‘hidden from view of everyone else.’ Alas, we kept our swimsuits on when enjoying the soothing jets, which turned out to be just the remedy for tired legs and feets.

The view on the Trail to Mills Lake

The view on the Trail to Mills Lake

An Elk in the Trail

An Elk in the Trail

"Our" Elk, up close

“Our” Elk, up close

Our first hike was a 3.2 mile trek to Mills Lake, accessible from a multi-site trailhead down Bear Creek Road. Here’s some very useful advice for hikers at RMNP: get there EARLY! Parking spots fill up and you’ll have to take a shuttle if you can’t beat the crowd, plus RMNP is a popular place, so your trail will be filled with other hikers of various ages and physical condition with their extendable hiking poles, babies, and hurried expressions. We were rewarded within the first mile: an Elk was stopped on our path and after we watched her for a bit before she stepped aside to let us pass within a few feet of her. These animals are used to people but must have an aversion to crying babies and squealing children, because once the path was cluttered with humanity there were none to be seen.

Mountain Path

Mountain Path

Pines and mountains

Pines and mountains

Crossing Streams

Crossing Streams

02_AlbertaFalls

Alberta Falls

On the way to Mills Lake you’ll pass Alberta Falls, a respectable waterfall which serves as a great photo opportunity. Unfortunately, even at 7:30 a.m. there are other hikers along the path, so communing naked with the water was out of the question.

Flowers on the mountain

Flowers on the mountain

Cindy plays in snow

Cindy plays in snow

Hiking on snow

Hiking on snow

Colorado this year was unusually moist and there was a fair amount of snow on the ground as we got closer to our destination. Most of it was a bit slippery and squishy, and dirty from hikers plying the route, but it was ‘no big thang’ and certainly not persistent enough to warrant skis.

A selfie, thanks to a couple of helpful hikers

A selfie, thanks to a couple of helpful hikers

Cindy at Mills Lake

Cindy at Mills Lake

Mills Lake

Mills Lake

The views along the route were wonderful. We debated, even as we reached the trail juncture, of traveling an additional 2.7 miles to Sky Pond, but took the shorter route to Mills Lake and were rewarded for it. A serene, mountain lake surrounded by trees, it was mirror clear when we arrived. A swarm of large and logy mosquitos descended upon us as we ate a mountain snack, but they quickly dispersed when repellent was applied.

Whiskey Flight at the Historic Stanley Hotel

Whiskey Flight at the Historic Stanley Hotel

Having conquered our first RMNP trail we hit the hot tub, rested, then went for dinner at the historic Stanley Hotel. Supposedly Stephen King got some inspiration for The Shining from this place, possibly at the restaurant, which offered a whiskey tasting flight. Choosing three from the hundreds of selections proved difficult, but the Sazerac won the day with its smooth yet complex flavor that settled well into the throat.

Reaching Climax

Johnson Tunnel, Camp Dick, and other things along the road

01_collegiates

01_Jans

From Salida we traveled north on 285, gaining a spectacular view of the Collegiate Peaks to our west (Mt. Princeton, Mt. Yale, Mt. Harvard).  Once on highway 24 we stopped for breakfast at Jan’s Family Restaurant in Buena Vista, a lovely dining place with amazing food (the omelet must have been made with a dozen eggs, and the Huevos Rancheros was a giant plate size spectacle slathered with refried beans and green chili sauce).

02_climax

01_JohnsonTunnel

Once in Leadville, highway 91 took us to Frisco and I70 via Climax, Colorado, also known as Freemont Pass, at 11,318 feet. On the way down we passed through the Johnson Tunnel and then found our way to Frisco and I70 was its usual catastrophe of high speed vehicles and bad drivers, but once we got off at Highway 6 the route turned frantically scenic.

The route into Estes Park involves highway 119 to Nederland, then highway 72 for 23 miles and finally highway 7 into the city. There seems to be four ways to travel this path. First and least popular, hitchhiking. We saw a father and two young children trying to catch a ride going south. Folks, you know, in movies this activity never turns out well, either for the hiker or the. . .picker-upper.

07_bike 06_bikers

Bicycling seems to be quite popular, though I can’t imagine it is very relaxing. There are more hills and twists and turns than candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential ticket, and the cyclists we saw seemed to be in genuine (not imagined) pain, spinning their tires in the lowest possible gear and moving up a 7% grade at about 5 feet per minute.

bikers bikers_mirror

Motorcycles (or choppers, baby) were also prevalent. Here’s a tip: don’t flip off the roving packs of cyclists you see on the road—they’ll follow you for miles.

02_mountain 05_stream 04_mountain

Cars were by far the vehicle of choice, and from your car you can see plenty of scenery on the way and occasional turn outs, but don’t expect to see a gas station or any semblance of civilization once you’re past Nederland. There is Camp Dick, just south of Estes Park; recreation.gov will give you more information about this seminal camping institution.

Wanna see my beaver?

Camping at Ohaver Lake

Warning: this post contains raw, uncensored, wet, naked beaver shots.

09_Ohaver

Ohaver lake sits at 9,000 feet above sea level, about 3.5 miles off highway 285 just eight miles south of Salida, Colorado.  The word “Idyllic” barely begins to describe this camping spot. You can reserve a site on this newly remodeled campground by going to www.recreation.gov for about $20 a night. Nicely shaded, each site has a fine tent pad, a fire ring, and a picnic table. All sites are close to vault toilets and water.

03_tent

Most of the campers arrived in RVs, but we did it the old fashioned way, in a tent. Be prepared for extremes in weather. When the sun is out it feels hot, but at night (we were there June 10-13) it gets downright cold, and we didn’t feel a damn bit guilty about sitting in the car when we woke up and it was 38 degrees outside. Be prepared for afternoon rains. During one of these rainstorms the wind was gusting so fiercely it nearly collapsed our tent.

05_fish 06_fishermen

There are fish in Ohaver lake. In the mere hour or so that we tried to catch some the fishes were not eating what we offered, but the fly fishermen floating around with flippers in little inflatable boats seemed to be having better luck.

01_Beaver 02_Beaver

There is a path that circles the entire lake and makes and excellent evening walk. During one of these we saw this beaver, whom we named Melvin, frolicking in the water.

04_lake

Pictures do not do this place justice. It might be one of the most beautiful places on earth. A perfect place to get engaged.

Who Knew You Could Find THIS in the Mountains?

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve 

Along the drive through Colorado, travelers see a plethora of breathtaking sights – mountains, cliffs, streams, rivers, wildlife. What I never expected to see, however, was sand dunes. Huge ones. Did I mention HUGE? These, I’m telling you, these are NOT your grandma’s sand dunes!

01_Dunesdrivein

After driving through an extensive, wide, flat prairie encircled by gorgeous snow-capped mountains, we suddenly could see the sand dunes in the distance. Seeing them from a distance, though, seriously, is not good enough.

01_dunessurgingstream

These dunes are massive. Mountain tall. And there are a lot of them! In order to get to them, visitors get to wade through what, when we were there, was a broad, surging stream, sometimes knee deep, of ice cold water rushing down from the mountains. Fun!

01_Dunesclimb

Standing at the base of these dunes, heralded as the tallest in North America, one could feel small, insignificant. Unless, of course, you bring some white sheets and play Lawrence of Arabia. (No, we didn’t do that. We DID wish we had thought of it!) People climbing up them looked like ants leaving the mound. Looking up at them, I had to wonder how in the HELL something like this could be. According to the brochure we got in the visitor’s center, the dunes are, “Eroded from mountains, then shattered by freezing and thawing, and tumbled by streams and winds…”

Walking along the sand dunes, at the base of them, can be a bit painful for those of us that are tender-footed as the sand here is not as fine as one would expect. However, as we climbed, the sand became reminiscent of that we would find at the beach – hot, fine, and difficult to walk through.

If you get a chance, go. They’re awesome!

DESOLATE DRIVES

The Top Ten Things About the Drive to Amarillo

It is easy to look forward to the destination when traveling, but what about the road itself? These vast stretches of mindless highway can seem as daunting as traveling between two planets unless you know what to look for. The ten things below defined this stretch of highway for us.

10_farmimplements

  1. IMPRESSIVE FARM IMPLEMENTS

I287 cuts through agricultural space. Lots of it. Along the way you’ll see a panoply of multi-colored, insect-like farm implements, some for sale, and some in action violating soil and seed with their spiny limbs.

9_roadconstruction

  1. ROAD CONSTRUCTION

What trip is complete without a lane closure to complain about? Road construction is a fact of life for highway denizens, even when it isn’t actually being worked on.

8_abandonedboat

  1. ABANDONED VEHICLES

In a six hour drive we counted nine boats, cars, or trucks simply parked at the side of the road with no humans present and no visible structure within miles. How did they get there? Where did the drivers go? Is it a Children of the Corn thing? Space alien abduction? Maybe they’re geocaching?  Attacked by Indians?  Perhaps, as in Dean Bakopouloos’ novel, they just went to the moon. . .

7_pecans7_beefjerky

  1. BEEF JERKY AND PECANS

Given the ubiquitous signs for pecans and jerky, I’d expect this to be a staple of the upper-northwest-Texan’s diet. Do these good folk really eat that many nuts and that much meat?

6_windfarm6_wires

  1. ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

Impressively ginormous windmills dot the flat landscape like thorns, generating energy and sending them through wires that drape across the fields like gigantic badminton nets.

5_cows

  1. COWS

Of course, our bovine friends dot the grassy landscape too, ruminating while they fatten up to become our 2% homogenized milk or our 72 ounce Big Texan steak while leaving a trail of ozone depleting methane.

4_picnic

  1. PICNIC AREAS

These are like rest areas without the amenities. There are four of them between Wichita Falls and Amarillo, and who wouldn’t want to take the kids out on a Sunday afternoon to one of these? Complete with one, two, or three picnic tables, a rusted grill, wasps nests, and a tree in case nature calls.

3_porn

  1. CORN PORN

Rising up from the fields, it is not uncommon to see an XXX sign beckoning the lonely (or the horny) traveler or farmer to Sodom’s door (this one was a few miles East of Vernon). Zoning laws, perhaps, push them away from towns and into the corn, but all the better for us. After all, who hasn’t run out of porn on a long trip?

2_Quanah2_Chillicothe2_Childress

  1. SPEED TRAP TOWNS

The speed limit on I287 is 75 miles per hour, but who doesn’t enjoy slowing down to 55, 40, or 35 when they’re making really good time? The highway patrol is always there to make sure you relax your speed and enjoy the beautiful sights of small town America. Chillicothe, Quanah, and Childress are three signs of the Apocalypse, undoubtedly. And would someone please explain to me what the sign in the picture above means?

1_abandoned

  1. COMING TO TERMS WITH FEELINGS OF ABANDONMENT

With mile after mile of empty buildings, chipping paint, caved roofs, shuttered windows, and vacated businesses, you can’t help but remember your own failed dreams, feelings of abandonment, the coming of old age, and ultimately our slow but inevitable death.