The First Annual Silverton Double Dirty 30

I sat in my car, watching it snow, as I chatted with my friend Dale, world renowned weather nerd. I was trying to get a feel for just how bad it was going to be. “Not great but improving” was about as good a forecast as we could come up with–Dale always emphasizing the difference between a “good” forecast and an “accurate” one. If I had only known when I signed up in February–who am I kidding, I still would have signed up.

I had heard rumors of this race for a couple years. A 100k in the breathtaking–literally and figuratively–San Juan mountains.  Like many, I am in love with this corner of Colorado. The mountains are fiercely beautiful, steep, rugged, unforgiving.  Her sister race, the Dirty 30, had her own reputation for being challenging, but this race–this race would far exceed that.

I had crossed paths with race director, Megan, over the years, first at Leadville, then as support at the Dirty 30. I loved her approach to races: that she wanted, strove for, planned on everyone finishing. I’m a confirmed back-of-the-packer, so this is of special significance to me. I have a DNF on every race I’ve attempted in that area, missing cutoffs on the San Juan Solstice and the Ouray 100. Ultras are hard to coordinate, to balance not abusing your volunteers, the souls of ultra races, with the desires of all runners to be able to finish. Megan’s passion, knowledge and experience makes this balance seem almost effortless.

I signed up as soon as I heard registration was open. It wasn’t really even a conscious thought. I knew this race was something I was going to do. I trained. I read every email. I studied the course.

I trained.

When Megan added fund raising for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, it just made a great race even better. Ultra running is considered to be one of the most selfish pursuits a person can undertake, and for good reason.  But the members of this community are among the most giving people I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.  

“Go big or go home.” It was the perfect motto for the fundraiser, taken straight from the ultra-runner’s how-to-manual.   It was truly inspiring how many of the runners jumped in and helped out.  I wish that I could count myself among those who raised thousands for this cause.  

And now I was at the start.  I was way overdressed, as usual, at least for the start, my pack full of items I hoped I wouldn’t need–extra food and clothes, a satellite messenger for contacting people in case I was lost or injured, first aid kit. The headlamp, though, I was pretty sure I was going to need.  A 22 hour cutoff almost guaranteed that. And I knew much of this race was remote and would climb twice to 12,000 feet, above treeline, exposed.  

There was the potential for a lot to go wrong.  

An easy six miles, belying the rest of the course, was a welcome beginning–at least I would run some of this race. The climb began in the aspens, the yellow leaves accented against the newly white mountains in the distance.  My phone refused to take photos, so I had to content myself with simply absorbing the view.  I would like to say the course climbed quickly to the vistas for which Silverton is famous–and, really, the course did, but I didn’t.

With thirty runners, I quickly found myself DFL (dead f—– last).  It’s not my ego that’s bothered–I do count those sitting on the couch as my competitors and I was definitely beating them.  But with so few runners and so many volunteers, I hated that I was keeping them out potentially hours after they could have been back.  Their cheering and words of encouragement had me believing that they really did want me to finish as much as I did, and I did my best to keep my pace, eat lots, and keep moving.

The course is in a figure 8, the center point also the high point at 12,000.  It was still cloudy but thankfully not windy when I finally reached it for the first go-round.  The upside to being last: I got to drink all the remaining Coke and take all the chocolate, being no one else to feed and the aid station volunteers all too happy to not carry it down.  

I welcomed the downhill–at least for the first couple miles. I settled into a steady pace, finishing out the southern loop of the figure 8.  The sun, finally coming out, was now beginning to set as I entered the fourth aid station, the last before the final climb.  I took the time to change into warmer clothes, mine damp,  with sweat and maybe a bit smelly.

As I left the aid station and began the second and final climb to 12,000 feet, I started to feel nauseous. I had eaten a lot at the aid station (being last again and getting all of the quesadillas), but in retrospect, I didn’t drink enough. I swallowed a couple of Tums which seemed to help a little.  I sipped at my water, finding it hard to drink and breath at the same time as I climbed out of the trees and into the wind.

I glanced at my watch and realized four hours had passed since I left the aid station.  I stopped immediately and fished some gels out of my pack, forcing myself to eat them. I waited a few more minutes, then gathered myself up and continued the slog to the top of the pass.  It was well into nighttime now and I was heartened to see a headlamp not too far in front of me, respite from the loneliness. I continued up, watching the light, my small beacon in the dark.  

The winds picked up and I burrowed as best I could into my clothes, watching for the glowing trail markers and the footsteps that preceded me in the snow.  Soon the wind had obliterated the prints, and I alternated between following the headlamp ahead and the glowsticks. It was close to midnight.

Not soon enough, I was over the pass, and headed gratefully down and out of the wind.  I heard later it was about 10 degrees on the pass, and I would not argue with that number.  Not much later, I overtook the headlamp, attached to a very fatigued runner.  After making sure he had food and water and was, if not warm enough, at least not hypothermic, I continued to pick my way down, fatigue and the dark making progress slow.  

I knew it was only a couple miles from there to the next aid station and I was sincerely looking forward to the people and more food, my nausea finally subsiding.  The two miles passed, and no aid station.  I went another mile.  Still nothing.  Concern began to creep into the back of my addled mind.  I should have known the area, having done the July trail maintenance weekend in the same area. But the snow and darkness and fatigue rendered everything unrecognizable.

I pulled out my GPS, the route provided by Megan, proving her experience as a race directorin providing the download to all the runners.  I saw that I was about a mile from the third aid station.  Momentary confusion morphed into slight panic as I realized what I had done.  The course was a figure 8–I had missed the turn on the pass.  It was at least three miles back up, then another couple down to the fifth aid station.  I wasn’t looking forward to the wind and the climb, but I didn’t have a choice. I’ve run hundred mile races. I knew I could do this if I stayed smart.

As I was putting my pack back on, two headlamps appeared on the trail in front of me and a voice called out hopefully “Are you looking for us?”  It was Dan, a runner I had chatted with at the beginning of the race and his pacer, whose name I have regrettably forgotten. They had been lost for four house, attempting twice to go back to the pass and find the correct route down. Their GPS had long since died and they were cold and tired from the effort.

Half expecting their response (the one I was leaning towards), I told them I had a GPS and could get us back on track, but they were finished and looking for a quick way out.  Unfortunately, at that location, there wasn’t a quick way. The closest aid station was a long drive from Silverton and finding a closer trailhead would require miles of hiking.

Once at a trailhead, getting a ride would fortunately be to do.  Ever prepared, Megan had sent out in one of her numerous pre-race emails (it had been tempting to say ‘enough of emails!’ but they were so informative and upbeat) an email address to load into our satellite messengers.  Someone in a warm room somewhere was monitoring the inbox, and I quickly had a response to my slow-typed text.

Stay put. Megan was on her way.

We paced back and forth in an almost futile attempt to keep warm in the dropping temperatures, dipping before the dawn that was due in a couple hours. Food and water just seemed impossible at that point, s \o there was much relief when the headlights appeared.

But the saga was to continue.

The runner I had passed had never caught up to us and was officially declared missing, along with two aid station volunteers who had been dispatched to search for him.  The San Juan Search and  Rescue team had been alerted and now needed help with communications, and of course, Megan is a HAMM radio operator.  The three of us didn’t care that we had to stay until they were found–we were in a warm car and minutes from sleeping sitting up in the back.

Soon enough, though, everyone was found and we headed down, into the sunrise.  We reached Silverton at 7am, a full twenty-four hours after we had begun our journey.  Coffee from an ever-selfless volunteer, then a shower in the room the wife of the last runner to return, and I was almost normal.

I was bitterly disappointed in not finishing the race. I felt I had let down Megan and her amazing crew.  I can’t say I regretted missing the turn, because I know it led to helping a couple of fellow runners, and that is ultimately what this trail running community is all about.  There is always another year for the race and another adventure. I’ve already started the training for September 2017.

Switzerland and Italy – Part Due

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It was fitting that the one day it rained, my friend Linda left to head back to reality.  It wasn’t fun to bid her farewell, but she had a family to be with and I had mountains to climb.

It was equally good timing with my trip. A forced rest day between adventures.  I’m never quite as invincible as I fancy when I plan these trips. I had planned one rest day between my three day trail run and my five days of mountaineering. I can run one hundred miles in a day; certainly eighty in three wouldn’t be so bad.

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So I could blame the rain for the extra day.  Instead of taking the gondola–teleferique–up into the sweeping mountain vistas, we dove down into the gorge.  Gorner Gorge has been in the making for thousands of years, carved patiently by the Gornera River.  There is a guide-required route which utilizes some sketchy looking planks and logs and include one Spiderman-type swing and a few rappels.  The turquoise layered rock was exquisite.  Steve had gone the day before to check out the route and said I really missed some amazing blue water.  That day, it was muddied from the rain.

It’s a three hour excursion, leaving time for a coffee on the way back down and time to pack and re-pack and pack once again for four days in the mountains.  A different experience from backpacking in the US, the only food I had to take was snacks for the day.  One outfit for the four days, plus an extra, semi-clean shirt for the huts made up my clothing allotment.  I brought a silk sleeping bag liner, which was not really necessary, but a nice alternative to contact with the scratchy blankets provided at the huts.

I slept surprising well that night. It didn’t hurt that everything happens at a civilized hour in Switzerland.  Coffee and croissant for breakfast and a brief walk to the gondola.  It was still overcast, but the snow had stopped above, so it was a good time to begin.

The gondola carried us away from grey dreariness into blinding sunlight reflecting tenfold off the new snow.  The Matterhorn’s so-familiar silhouette commanded the view. It was the 150th anniversary of the first ascent and we had met the winners of Backcountry’s online contest to summit the eternal peak.  It didn’t look like they would be successful in that regard, but they weren’t ones to complain, after first class tickets from Colorado to Switzerland.

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The day could not have been more spectacular.  It was late in the season and the new snow replaced the hard ice we would have otherwise been climbing.  Sardines had more room than we did that morning, people catching up from the bad weather, and I strained to peer around, taking in as much as I could, forgetting  I would have four glorious days to absorb it all.  I didn’t want to blink and miss a second of it.

Steve and I took our time with final preparations once the gondola deposited us at 12,000 ft.  We were happy to let other teams break trail.  We put on crampons and helmets, pulling out our ice axes.  He showed me how to use the Mammut RescYou, a system for getting yourself or someone else out of a cravasse.  It is an odd feeling to hope, if it had to happen, that you would be the one that fell.  I had complete faith in Steve’s ability to get me out safely–not so much faith in myself to do the same for him.  We were both counting on people being around to help.

Most teams on the mountain were five or more, so we move more quickly than most, able to time our breaks and keep pretty good pace.  Pollux was the first–and only–peak of the day.  My first 4000 meter European peak.  A steep and slightly icy climb, a bergschrund (the crevasse that forms when the moving ice pulls away from the stagnant ice at the top of a ridge or mountain, often very difficult to cross), and a knife edge  preceded the summit, making it all the more rewarding to achieve the summit.

As I discovered on the run, downhill isn’t any easier on European peaks, and it was a long descent to the first hut.  Not that I can really complain.  If you ever want to mountaineer in comfort and relative ease, huts are the way to do it.  Our mountain climbing was done by about 2pm.  There is soup and light snacks available for purchase when you get there, then it’s nap time.  I was too excited to sleep that first day–a problem I did not have after that–and pulled out my journal to write down all the poems and adventures that were playing in my head.

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I wanted to share my amazing day with fellow travelers, but language proved to be a formidable barrier.  Not to mention attitude.  I’m just not cool enough to be European. I was almost bouncing with my enthusiasm but it wasn’t shared.  So I found a quiet place in the sun and kept writing.  A couple of Germans joined me after a bit and we held a short conversation, not sharing many words in either language. I would share a room with one of them again on the last evening of my trip, his laughter over my paper journal (he wrote everything in his phone for his blog) cut short by a very serious bout of altitude illness-all over the floor of the room we shared.

Breakfast was toast and coffee–there is no shortage of carbs in the Alps. Best, they filled our thermoses with hot tea to take with us into the cool morning.  I was still full from dinner (soup, pasta, meat, veggies and dessert), so I didn’t mind.  I was appreciative of Steve’s suggestion that I bring dried fruit and nuts to counterbalance the bread laden diet.  It was another one peak day–the Naso de Lyskamm: Lyskamm’s Nose.  Below the gloriously intimidating summit of Lyskamm, it was another knife edge traverse, more straightforward than Pollux and every bit as breath-taking.

Done again with time for a snack and nap. After a short nap, I went back outside and soacked in the sun and the view.  I half wished I had brought my nice camera, but was equally relieved to be able to sit there and simply enjoy the view.  As the sun set, I pulled out my little camera to take some shots.  Steve walked up behind me and scoffed “What are you taking pictures of?”  My mouth worked, unable to find words for exactly what I was photographing. I turned in time to see his smirk.

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“Another shitty sunset.”

The next two days were the big days, in opposite ways. The first day was all up–five peaks up to the Margherita Hut at 14,941.  Now three days past the storm, the tracks from the many groups crisscrossed over the snow–shorter trips and shorter routes crossing the more leisurely expeditions.  The first peak had a larger-than-life statue of Jesus.  In Italy, all peaks have some sort of religious statues.  It seemed somehow fitting, but a ritual I was glad had not been adopted everywhere, although I have often thought of leaving a small Buddha statue behind on a peak or two.

The short descent of one of the peaks had my attention, the snow soft and the pitch steep.  Not having secure steps is one of my nemeses in the mountains.  I pulled the first happy song out of my head. “Raindrops on roses; whiskers on kittens.”  I didn’t realize I was singing aloud. Steve’s mouth twisted as he said “This is the only down of the day–I can’t believe you’re not enjoying it.”

Margherita Hut was our last hut stop–and the best.Sitting atop the summit of Signalkuppe, completely renovated in the 1970s, it is one of the largest huts in Europe.  It was dedicated to Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy, in 1893.

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They had just gotten a supply of food, and the fresh vegetables had the exquisite taste that only completely fresh food after a hard day of physical exertion can have.  Fresh fruit and chocolate completed the meal. The meals are served “family style” with everyone sharing the courses.  No one was eating much and I found myself finishing everything, half embarrassed and half envious that these people were so used to this kind of flavor that they didn’t partake more.

It wasn’t until I was awaken by my roommate’s vomiting that I realized what was probably the real reason no one was eating.  Coming from Colorado and used to climbing 14,000 ft mountains, I was one of the few not suffering from the altitude.  It made me love my home state all the more.

An interesting aside: the nearest settlement to the Margherita Hut is Macugnaga–the third stop on my three day trail run.

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The last day contained the highest peak of the trip, Zumsteinspitze, which is on the way to Dufourspitze, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in Europe.  A small statue of St Mary greeted us at the summit.  From this point, it was a long hike back down to the gondola back to Zermatt, nearly ten thousand feet below where we stood.  I reluctantly began the journey.

It didn’t take long for us to be in the crevasse ridden glacier.  Steve’s tone had gotten more abrupt, warning me that this was real.  Each step was carefully placed, my arm quickly growing tired from the death grip I had on my ice ax  My left brain reviewed how the Resc-You worked as my right brain cycled through more “Sound of Music” tunes.

At one point, we were following a group speaking a unique dialect of Italian-German, very sexy to hear in kind of a scary way.  The trio stopped as the first climber came to what seemed to be a bit of a precarious step.  I couldn’t understand a word that was spoken, but I understood every intonation and body movement made.  He was convinced death would be immediate if he continued.  The guide, patience worn thin, recited I’m sure the same words Steve had said to me many times.  The climber refused to move.  The guide, pushed now past his patience, grabbed the rope, raised it above his head, shaking it and shouting. The climber finally took the step–and lived.  As did the next climber and the guide.

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My turn now and I could see what had given the climber significant pause.  Eventually, that one step across the crevasse would fail, an obvious crack between the step and semi-firm ground. “Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” and I made the step–and lived.  As did Steve, happily. I hadn’t gotten any more confident that I could save him, but I know I would have given everything if it had come to that.

We weren’t down yet, but the crevasses became shallower, and soon we were able to discard the rope.  Where we stopped, Steve pointed out that we were at the absolute beginning of the Gorner Gorge.  Full circle again.

We came to the Monte Rosa hut, our last stop.  Coffee, removal of all external layers and the application of sunscreen.  We were off the glacier and on solid ground.

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Switzerland and Italy – Part Uno

I can’t say I’m a big fan of math, but I’ve found it helps pass the time when running a long distance.  Trying to figure out my average pace (without looking at the GPS), how long it will take me to reach the finish line or the next aid station, by how much I will beat the cutoff (or not).  I’m getting pretty good, too, at converting kilometers into miles.

But as I stood at Colle Del Turlo, the final high point of day two, I was really hoping my math was completely off.

The Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR) was the first race I signed up for in 2015.  It was also my first stage race–a race across multiple days.  My first true international race (yes, Canada is not the United States, but as far as travel goes, it’s as close as you can get to staying home without actually staying home).  The days between paying the entry fee and boarding the plane to Geneva put molasses in January to shame.

This was the zero edition of the race, something else that was new to me.  I just assumed the first running was the first edition.  For me, a new race is appealing, with more potential for unforeseen challenges.  This one, it turned out, had an incredible crew behind the scenes, and it went off pretty much without a hitch.  The race was three days, beginning in Cervinia, Italy, and ending in Grachen, Switzerland. It promised spectacular views of the Monte Rosa mountain range, home of the Matterhorn and Dufourspitz, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in the Alps.  I would see both during Part Due of this trip.

My friend, Linda, who had crewed for me in Zion, had also decided at the last minute to join me for the race, for the trip if not the actual running.    We met up in DC and boarded the plane.  An understaffed flight meant free alcohol for the entire trip, and it wasn’t long before we were singing along to the golden oldies supplied by the seat radios.

We spent a couple days touring Geneva (I was thrilled the French I had learned for another trip was holding up) before boarding the bus to Cervinia.  Transportation was our first learning curve.  In Geneva–all of Switzerland for that matter–public transportation was a science that bordered on a work of art.  Not so much in Italy.  We did find bus routes between the cities of the race, but we were hoping for something more reliable.

I had reached out on Facebook a couple weeks prior and had received a couple of responses from people with a spare seat, but had not finalized any arrangements.  Fortunately, what they make lack in public transportation, the Italians make up for in hospitality and genuine friendliness.  By dinner the evening before the first day, Linda had secured a ride at least to Macugnaga.  Which, while a huge relief, Macugnaga was the one place where we could not figure out how to get her back out again.  I like to be prepared, especially when it comes to my friends (who wants to be friends with someone willing to desert you an a small Italian village?), but for now, it was the best we could do.

Fabio and Daniella were the stereotypical perfect Italian couple.  Fabio was dark complected with a perfect runner’s body. Daniella was as beautiful as her name, dark hair and lovely eyes. She spoke five languages, which came in handy in this area–on the last day of the race, whenever a hiker would step to the side to allow me passage, I would murmer “Grazie, Merci, Danka and Thank You,” not certain which language would be understood.

So the next morning at 6am, Fabio and I toed the line, while Linda and Daniella cheered.  This was the shortest day, at 16 miles.  In addition to a map and GPS, I had an Italian language app on my phone, just in case. But the trail was perfectly marked and the weather even more perfect.  Each day contained two high points, with an aid station between them. With the lower elevation, I easily kept up on the uphill, but quickly fell behind these mountain goats on the downhills.  I was still done a couple hours before I expected. Fabio was well ahead of me, and Daniella and Linda, driving the steep winding roads showed up a few minutes later.

We were spoiled by having almost the entire afternoon to relax.  The bus ride the day before had gotten us to Cervinia late in the afternoon.  The packet pickup and obligatory gear check took another couple of hours. We had just a few minutes to relax before dinner at 7pm.  I was doing my best to not be completely stressed out, but quickly lost that battle.  It took the race actually beginning before my nerves finally calmed down enough for me to say without lying that I was having fun.

An amazing lunch of ravioli and fondue was followed by a gondola ride up to a glacier lake.  We had the unbelievable luck of staying with our new Italian friends in a beautiful bed and breakfast.  I sat while the other three walked to the lake and back.  We took a few minutes to enjoy a drink before taking the last gondola back down.

Our three other suite mates had settled in by the time we returned. Another perfect coincidence: it was the Cecilia, the other person who had responded to our plea for transportation.  She was there running with her good friend, Sylvia, and crewed by Riccardo, another good friend.  All Italians, they were currently living in London.  It was Sylvia’s and Cecilia’s first stage race as well.  Sylvia had extended her day by getting lost a couple of times–I knew her pain.

Dinner was another wonderful affair, the five of them slipping easily between Italian and English, Linda and I doing our best to hang on to the English parts, exchanging bemused looks.  I was envious of the lingual skills, and the ease in which they all became fast friends.   I was fading quickly quickly with the wine, rich food and lack of sleep, but managed to make it through dessert.  Even an Italian espresso did not keep me from sleep that night.

Another 4:30am wake-up and 6am start.  Linda got up to see me off, then unapologetically went back to bed for a more reasonable wake-up and breakfast.  Another straight up climb out of the village.  Another spectacular sunrise over the Italian Alps.  Another day devoted to nothing but running.  I could not imagine it growing old ever.

 

The aid station that day is one that will never be met in terms of quality. Meats and cheeses, squares of sugar, petit fours, muesli–even wine!–everything but the normal packaged tasteless bars normally associated with a food station.  I didn’t want to leave. It didn’t help the biggest climb was yet to come.

I fortunately knew that and was prepared. At the race briefing, they had assured us the highest point was the first one.  What they didn’t mention was the aid station in between was three thousand feet lower than the start, so the thousand foot difference, still left and extra two thousand feet of climbing for the last half.

And an extra six miles of running.

Which is why I was standing at the pass, hoping my math was wrong. If it was correct, I had four thousand feet of elevation to lose in two miles.  It also meant I had missed the last aid station, which was a few kilometers before the end of the stage.  Which pretty much meant I was lost.

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But the now familiar pink dots and black dotted pink flagging were obvious, so I knew lost was not an option.  The day would be long, at least at that point I was hoping.  I would take a couple extra miles over that much drop in that little distance.  With my lack of downhill skill, it would take a lot less time.

My only glimmer of hope was overhearing someone mention that the pass was ten kilometers (six miles) from the end of the stage.  It made the day four miles longer than it was supposed to be, but made the downhill much more bearable.

So I began the relentless downhill, switchback after switchback.  A couple I had passed long ago on the uphill quickly overtook me on this terrain.  I was battling my internal impatience.  All I knew for certain was I had four thousand feet to lose.  I had no idea how many miles–and therefore how many hours–it would take.  I just ran and stumbled best I could.  I turned up my music and stepped into the moment. I ran and ran and kept running.

The six miles was beginning to look like a reality.

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Finally, miraculously, after five miles, the aid station came into view. Another mile to go.  It was already past three o’clock–no leisurely lunch and tour today.  “Just another five kilometers to go!” chirped the aid station attendant.  Wait, what?  That’s three miles, not one.  I still had another three miles to go?

I did. And of course the last kilometer was uphill.  For some  unknown reason, it became critical to run that last kilometer, end the day running.  I passed the couple at the beginning of the final kilometer. I saw them begin running again, which only pushed me to go faster.  At that moment, I didn’t care I had one more day of this. I just wanted to be finished and in front of my pasta dinner and wine.

Fabio had finished just ahead of me, looking as ragged as I felt.  Riccardo asked me how the day was.  The endorphins had kicked in–or maybe hypoglycemia–and I told him it was an amazing but tough tough tough day.  Amazing maybe that I had finished.  Daniella and Linda told me that people were walking across the finish line and dropping their chip into a bucket–taking themselves out of the race.

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Photo by Linda Charron

I wanted to wait for Sylvia and Cecilia, and I didn’t want to move, but  Daniella was our ride to our room a mile (uphill) away, and I didn’t want to delay them.  Our luck had not held and all of us were in different hotels that night.  I had seen the two ladies early in the day, but not again. The extended cutoff time for the extra miles meant the Cecilia made the cutoff but Sylvia missed it by a hair. Sylvia immediately dropped, but Cecilia took the evening to think about it before deciding to try again the next year.  London is a hard place to train for a race with this kind of elevation.  It speaks volumes to their tenacity that they made it through the two days.

The last day came the earliest. Daniella had decided to make the drive to Grachen and Linda and I were grateful, both for the ride and for more time with these dear people.  I had no design on the day, happy and sad it was the last day.  I had easily made the cutoffs so far, so my plan was simply to enjoy whatever the day brought.

 

The first pass came and went quickly if not easily, and welcomed us back into Switzerland.  Comparatively, I was moving more quickly than many of the others and found myself passing different people than I had the two days prior.   We had to bring our passports with us (I had had it with me the whole time anyway, afraid to leave it anywhere), in case of a border patrol at the pass, but all we saw were clouds.  And gondolas–it didn’t seem fair that people could simply ride to where we had just run.

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The aid station was in Saas Fee, a Swiss town know for perennial skiing on the glacier.  The people in warm winter clothing and ski boots were a sharp contrast to  the runners in shorts and t-shirts. I had pretty much worn the same outfit every day, switching out my t-shirt and sports bra only, but keeping the same long shirt, jacket and leggings.  The up-to six thousand feet of elevation difference made it hard to predict the weather, and I’d much rather be over- than under-prepared. I had managed a shower every day, but I still did not smell good.  Another contrast to these skiers.

As I left the station, I was warned of an imminent “terribly technical, very exposed” section. I swallowed my panic, exposure being my nemesis.  My legs were shaky at best.  I wasn’t going to turn around at this point, so I had no choice but to face it.   And worrying wasn’t going to do me a bit of good.

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The final leg of the journey was of course the longest.  Fabio had been at the aid station while I was there, then I didn’t see him again, and assumed he was long gone. The course weaved in and out of gulleys.  As each far edge was reached, more of the trail revealed itself, each time a little higher than before. Again and again and again.

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I turned yet another corner and saw the sign, warning of the exposure.  I looked at the section.  Really? That’s it? I was equally relieved and annoyed–I had dealt with way worse without a thought.  But I still held on to the proffered handline, not willing to risk karma.

Finally, finally. We reached the second high peak of the day. The second aid station was a short ways down and was managed by the race director, Lizzy Hawker’s mother.  I had been reading Lizzy’s book “A Short Story About A Long Run” and told Lizzy’s Mother that she had an amazing daughter.  She gave a short laugh, and said in a clipped British accent that she was a bit odd as well.  I laughed as well and said my dad said the same about me.

Another two kilometers and the finish line.  The race was supposed to have been four days, but in that moment, I did not mind at all.  I crossed the last of the prayer flags and I was done. Linda, Daniella, Cecilia, Sylvia and Riccardo were there to receive sweaty, happy hugs.  My crossing before Fabio added to what I found out was Daniella’s great concern.  She flitted around nervously until Fabio finally appeared.  Linda brought me a glass of wine and the most delicious melted cheese snack.  Pure heaven.

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Dinner and awards that evening.  We all met the next morning for a goodbye espresso.  We had already found each other on Facebook and were mentioning upcoming races sure to be of interest to such a strong, passion group.  It made the goodbye less difficult turning it into “until the next time”.

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A Crusty Butt Weekend

“Don’t worry, I’ll make solid steps.” It wasn’t exactly the solidity of the steps that worried me. It was the fact that the width of the snow onto which we were stepping was more narrow than my feet.

The fact that I have pretty big feet didn’t help my feelings.

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The Life Bus deposited me in Crested Butte for a sunny late May this past summer. Crusty Butt for some. It’s just too beautiful for such a nickname. This was my first times spending any time in CB. I had ridden my bike there several times from Gunnison, with a brief stop for coffee. This weekend was to be spent participating in one of my two passions: mountaineering.

From the Crested Butte website (http://www.crestedbutte-co.gov/): The Town of Crested Butte, fondly referred to as the Gateway to the Elk Mountains, sits at an elevation of 8,885 feet and is located 28 miles north of the City of Gunnison in the County of Gunnison. Crested Butte and the surrounding area was originally home to the Ute Indians. Placer miners were present in the area as early as the 1860’s. The Town of Crested Butte was named because in 1873 a geologist named Ferdinand Hayden was on expedition surveying the Elk Mountains and from the top of what is today known as Teocalli Peak referred to present day Crested Butte Mountain and Gothic Mountain as “the crested buttes.” Howard F. Smith, the founding father of Crested Butte, laid out the Town by 1878. While Smith was originally attracted to the area because of the extensive coal deposits, he first built a smelter and sawmill to service the hard rock mining camps located in the surrounding areas. This established Crested Butte as a major supply center prior to becoming a long-term coal producer.

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Crested Butte is on my way to Switzerland. It’s not as circuitous as it sounds. I am doing a trail run there near the end of August. As I’ve never been to Europe, I decided to add in some mountain climbing, so started the hunt for a guide. Most guiding agencies design tours that anyone could complete. I wanted something more.

Irwin Guides of Crested Butte ended up being the only guiding service that gave me a personal response to my query–and eventually a personal itinerary. But more on that later.

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Thanks to a very odd May–the wettest on record–there was still snow at the end of May to climb. The bad news was that there was too much snow in many places. Crested Butte ended up being the best place to go. Steve of Irwin Guides, my guide for Switzerland, found two really “fun” peaks to play on: Purple Peak and Ruby Peak.
I arrived in CB Friday afternoon and met briefly with Steve to sign all the requisite paperwork: the waivers promising that, if I die, I won’t sue anyone. Always my favorite part of any activity. It’s “just a formality”, but it always gives me pause, especially if the lawyers get creative listing the ways one could die doing said sport.

Since it was early enough in the season, I stayed in the CB Hostel–clean, inexpensive and quiet due to my being the only person there. The open sitting and kitchen area gave me a nice place to read and relax between adventures.
Dinner at the Ginger, a small and delicious Thai restaurant, then back to organize my backpack. Crampons, ice ax, warm jacket, even warmer jacket, food, water, helmet, and several pairs of gloves made up the bulk of it. Couloir climbs can get wet, so lots of dry clothing can save one from a miserable day. Then an early bedtime and seemingly earlier wakeup.
The best part of hiring a guide is having someone’s footsteps to follow in the snow. Snowshoes work on the flatter parts, but the couloir is very steep and crampons are usually necessary. The first person has to “build” the steps that the rest follow. Sometimes, you luck out and someone was there the day before, but often your team is doing it on their own, taking turns as people tire out.
While I am happy to pull my weight, it’s also a matter of balancing strengths. Steve, as a professional guide, is obviously stronger and faster, so for expediency, which can equate to safety in the mountains, he went first and set the steps. Also, as the more experienced (and stronger) one, he could catch my fall. On Purple Peak, Saturday’s goal, I was comfortable enough for the first part to be without the rope.

Which is a huge accomplishment for me. I have learned that, while attached to a rope, I can do almost anything. No rope, and every move feels much more critical. It’s a matter of risk. And it’s hard to explain and I’m not entirely certain the explanation is logical.

Too much risk and the fun factor starts heading to zero. It happened a couple times that day. The first was when the couloir slope became close to vertical. I felt like I was standing on snow instead of solid ground, and all I could picture was the snow falling out from under me. I asked and received the end of a rope and pulled myself up to where Steve was sitting.
The view as I pulled myself over the edge almost literally took my breath away. It looked like a glass slope, the snow untouched across the entire steep surface. It hardly seemed possible that I could step on the snow and not slide down into oblivion. But of course it was possible and I encouraged my shaking limbs to trust the snow and found that the climbing was actually easier for a few moments. I stole glances around to take in the views but my eyes always returned quickly to what was immediately in front of me. Up there, where each step seemed life-or-death, I couldn’t walk and chew bubble gum.

“That far”, however, included a sliver of a knife edge, and short scramble over some rocks (always fun with sharp pointy things on your boots), a slightly wider (albeit longer) knife edge. Steve has a wry sense of humor and it’s often hard to tell when he’s joking. So I wasn’t sure what to think when he told me to throw myself on the opposite of the ridge if he happened to fall. It became a theme for me to worry more about something happening to him than to myself. I was pretty sure he was fine without me. I, however,….
Then the summit.
Halfway there.
Many years ago, I hired a guide to teach my navigation. We had a lot of time to chat, and I asked him what it was like to guide. I always remember his response when I’m with a guide. “Most people think you hire a guide to get you to the summit,” he said. “That’s not why you hire a guide. You hire a guide to get you back to your car.”
Steve and I joked about the figurative ups and downs of mountaineering. How it went so quickly from “Mountaineering is AWESOME!” to “Mountaineering SUCKS!”. Standing on the summit was most definitly an awesome moment, in the true sense of the word: pure awe. It is not just the view, but the effort made to appreciate the view. To overcome fear, to develop new skills, to reach a goal–is there anything more rewarding?

Colorado is where I learned that downhill isn’t necessarily the easy part. It’s sometimes faster, but not always. This time was no exception. It was more my lack of confidence thinly disguised as caution that slowed progress. Now, I was in front, so Steve could still catch my fall, and I jad no footsteps to follow. Snow is not a well understood medium, at least by me. It can hang out in one spot indefinitely or seemingly change its mind and suddenly decide to be elsewhere, in the form of an avalanche. Softer snow can catch your fall–ice-like and you’ll just keep going. I don’t know the difference, so each step is placed with great purpose–the closest I ever come to a life of  purposeful intention.

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(all photos of me by Steve Banks)

I don’t know how each step can be an eternity yet get you back to the beginning with no time passing. Already we were back at our stashed snowshoes, then back to the snow machine, the car, and back to town. I bid Steve a short adieu until the morrow and went back to the hostel for a shower and to dry my gear.
It was early in the afternoon, so I was able to get in a little site seeing. Lots of cute shops and friendly people. The majority of my money was spent in the local bookstore and coffee shop, Rumors, my biggest retail weakness. Three books and a large latte later, I went in search of dinner. I found a good American bar and restaurant, The Last Steep, and enjoyed soup and salad for dinner. It was’t a long day, but it had been strenuous, and my appetite hadn’t quite caught up.

 

Sunday was as breathtaking as the day before. Ruby Peak. Compared to Purple, it was less technical and my comfort level was much higher on the steep terrain. The up was much more “mountaineering is awesome!”, but the down definitely sucked. The snow was soft and thigh-to-waist deep. The sun was warm and I could feel my cheeks burning even as I wiggled my toes in a futile attempt to warm them.

Even with the suckiness, the climb–and now the weekend–were over much too quickly. We drove in silence back to town, me happy at having found the perfect guide for my Switzerland/Italy trip, and excited for our next climb in July. A quick stop at Camp4Coffee for the best cup of coffee in Crested Butte and I was on my way back to reality.

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Zion Not Zion

“I’m just here to see what it takes,” he says, the look of disbelief spilling into the tone of his voice.

I’ve completed four one hundred mile races and I’m still not sure how to answer that statement.  What does it take?

The race start

The race start

It takes friends. That I have learned.  I have completed four one hundred mile races.  I’ve not completed two.  The difference?  For the latter two, I had no support.  No one cheering for me.  No concerned looks. No one to distract me.  No one to tell me how great I looked, no matter how painful the lie.

The person making the statement is Dave, a brothers-in-law of my co-worker slash friend, Linda-with-an-I.  She and my friend slash massage therapist, Jackie, have joined me in Zion.  I’m there to see if I can reach 4 of 6 instead of only half the one hundreds I’ve started.  Dave joined because he had never heard of such insanity and had to see how it’s done.  He was going to find out.

The location of this event is in Virgin, UT, just outside of Zion National Park.  I’m sure there are a lot of cheap jokes that can be made at these names, but I’ll avoid them.   I feel like I am stepping back in time.  Millions of years ago, maybe even thousands, the landscape was much different, but not much over the last few hundred.  It’s spectacular.  The full one hundred miles is spread out at my feet, reds, browns, greens, blues, and whites.

Not just running

Not just running

 

It take a whole lot of stubbornness.  Part of it is just inherent in my personality, but part of it was learned.  My dad was equal parts kiss-the-boo-boo and cry-and-I’ll-give-you-something-to-cry-about. I remember getting stuck in a tree one day. I didn’t realize how far up I had climbed when I finally turned around, and learned quite quickly that I had a fear of heights.  Failing to find our mother, my kid brother brought my dad instead to help.

“Get out of that tree, else I’m going to get you out of that tree.”

That had been the whole point, but now I was pretty sure figuring it out myself was the better of the current options.  To this day, I derive great satisfaction figuring out anything for myself, usually to the great annoyance of everyone who already knows how.  To ask for assistance is paramount to failure, and yet I know I can’t do a hundred without it.  Life is full of fascinating contradictions.

So now I find myself at a gawdawful time of day in one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s six in the morning so none of the beauty is revealed just yet, which is fine with me.  All I care about is getting started.

The pre-race meeting included a “fireside” chat by a local geologist and historian.  He was one of those people you really wished you had had as a high school teacher.  The tedious became fascinating through his eyes.  He explained the history of “Virgin”, which turns out to be a someone and not a something.  Hurricane was named after the fierce winds that have been known to sweep through the area.

Ah, the views

Ah, the views

The sun comes up as I’m make the first ascent.  The views are amazing.  The course meanders through the scenery, up on top of the mesas, then back down again.  During the day, it’s a relief to be in the coolness of the elevation; at night, I’m happy to be back down again in the relative warmth.

He also explained the names of a couple of the aid stations.  Turns out, there really were flying monkeys around the Flying Monkey aid station, courtesy of the military testing of ejection seats during the cold war.   Damn flying monkeys, as a coworker exclaims in frustration. I can only imagine their astonishment at suddenly finding themselves airborne.

The other story I tell of my childhood is of joining the basketball team.  All my life, I’d been told how great I’d be at basketball because of my generous height.  So me and my best friend, also tall,  joined.  She quit after the first practice, and I was ready to follow her. Turns out, there’s a whole lot more to basketball than being tall.  Like coordination.  And physical stamina.  Stuff with which I was not blessed.

When I told my parents, I was duly informed that quitting was not an option.  I had committed to being on the basketball team, and I would see it through for the entire season.  It was one of the most miserable times of my life.  I was convinced the coach hated me. I played all of three seconds for the entire season.  And I wasn’t allowed to miss a single practice. Not one.  I hated every horrid second of it.  No one had to ask if I was going back the following season.

I learned two valuable lessons.  The first of course was, if you commit to something, you give it everything you have.  There was no partial commitment.  There is no reward in half-assed.

The second, equally important lesson: be very careful what you commit to.

That is in all likelihood why I am single.  It is definitely why I am an ultra-runner.  Running doesn’t require much, and I find my life so much the better for it.  Running is uncomplicated.  Running doesn’t ask stupid questions–running understands.

There is the possibility that guacamole really was involved at the naming of the Guacamole aid station, but in all likelihood, it was the landscape that reminded them of the tasty treat. Green, undulating, lumpy, with weird brown spots all over.

Sunset

Sunset

The sun is setting as I head towards the Grafton aid station.  I take a moment to take in the entire view.  There are clouds casting shadows across part of the landscape and the resulting colors are fantastic.  I have nine hours of my world shrunk to the glow of my headlamp and I need this memory, along with my friends, to make it through.

There was no explanation–and probably none needed–for the Cemetery aid station.

Linda accompanies back to the Goosebump aid station (named presumably for the shape of the mesa–goosebumps).  She’s determined to do at least a tenth the distance–no small feat.  Jackie is at Goosebump to rub life back into my legs.  Dave helps out with food and logistics, the bemused look of disbelief never leaving his face.

The Mormons were among the first to “discover” this area.  Some of the settlers believed it to be Zion, but Brigham Young, during his initial visit, announced that “it was not Zion”.  Some of his more literal followers then began to call it Not Zion. For me, it was either and both equally throughout the race.

In the beginning, it was Zion, the landscape, color, contours kept my legs moving forward.  In the dead of night and the heat of the days, it was most decidedly Not Zion. In the cool evening sunset and warming gentle sunrise, it became Zion again. As the blisters on the bottom of my feet grew, it was back to Not Zion.  The pancakes and bacon at the aid stations were very Zion-esque.  After there was no denying that I had sprained my foot,  it was firmly, definitely, and irrevocably NOT. ZION.  On the Bueno scale, it was a “No”.

More views

More views

Then, slowly, as I half walked, half limped the final, eternal stretch to the finish line, it grew once again and finally, purely and simply, Zion.  I turned to Dave and grinned after long last. “So that’s how it’s done.  Any questions?”  He shook his head no. “I’ve seen enough”.

High Lonesome Trail, Day Four (Aug 8)

Our route

Wes and I scratched our heads in puzzlement.  Nothing made sense.  We had to call a mulligan on the GPS and get our exact point, but it still didn’t make the maps mesh with what we saw around us.  We pointed this way and that, wandered over one edge of the ridge and the other, but we just could not put it all together.

It was another ambitious day.  Even sitting in McDonalds, drinking Starbucks, I was a little intimidated by the route. It used to be I could never get a true sense of a route from staring at a piece of paper.  After many years of following those little squiggly lines, I now have a true appreciation of the teeny tiny spaces between them, and the relative differences between the numbers on those lines.

A resting spot

A resting spot

But commit to the day we did.  My car was left just outside of Empire, and we drove Wes’s car up Virginia Canyon Road.  It was a real option to just drive all the way up to the ridge line and go from there.  But where’s the fun and challenge in that, and this hike was nothing if not fun and challenging.

I wonder what the story is here.

I wonder what the story is here.

We found our beginning point relatively easily, with all the barbed wire fences, old roads and mines scattered about. It was always a little bit of a celebration to reach that point and begin the “real” hike.  The route continued along the Clear Creek/Gilpin county line, but the classic stones had been replaced with long plastic markings, like the snow route markings along the highways.  More practical I’m sure, but not near as quaint.

Because of the lack of open space, we stuck close to the county line, thinking it was a good indication of property lines and our best bet for staying off private property.  For the same reason, our hike was quieter than usual, as we paid more attention than usual, while also trying to keep attention off us.  The few people that spied us simply stared in curiosity.

Seeing ourselves through other’s eyes is not often consoling.  What seems like a great idea and adventure to us was a source of the head tilt for others. There are people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, both over 2000 miles long, who should make us seem quite normal.  Four days in over three months, covering not quite fifty miles, off trail, through the mud and bramble.  That isn’t all that crazy.

Ah, the odd signs we find

Ah, the odd signs we find

Ah, the odd signs we find

We crossed Virginia Canyon road.  We could see down into Central City.  One multi-storied building stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Or maybe pink elephant. But not a pretty pink  elephant.  The line between the old and the new was painful.  It made me wonder for the future of small town Colorado.

So many small towns, with rich histories and not much to protect them.  What would it take to turn other towns into casinos and ski resorts?  Or worse, into mining wrecks? Everywhere we hiked that day, the landscape looked like giant prairie dogs had had a field day, hole after massive hole.  Mountains and valleys have already been lost in the name of progress, and there’s not much stopping it.

It was after crossing Fall River Road and traversing a ridge back into another valley that we’d found ourselves scratching our heads.  In retrospect, part of the issue was tunnel vision.  We had looked straight at where we thought we were on the ridge and where we wanted to go.  When we looked less closely, we realized our main feature–a Y where two streams intersected–was repeated in a couple of places, and trying to pick out exactly which one was proving to be impossible.

This is the challenge of navigation.  You never really know where you are.  It’s kind of like life in that regard.  You follow your chosen path the best you can, based on the map given you, but a shortcut here, a detour there, a quick look over another ridge, and suddenly you are not where you had planned.  And tunnel vision.  That’s never a good thing in life.

More scenery!

More scenery!

And like life again, Wes and I plunged forward, hoping that eventually it would all make sense.

And it did. Another ridge showed us a four wheel drive road that was easily identified on the map, and on we went.

But now the day was slipping away and we had to face our over-ambition. We found a peak we could reach relatively quickly on our next day, and plunged down into Dumont, three miles shy of our car in Empire.

To add insult to injury, the heavens decided to shower us.  We were a sad sight, walking along the road, tired and soaking wet.  We made a halfhearted attempt at hitchhiking, but decided it really wasn’t that far.

A dreary end

A dreary end

And of course, with our car in sight, a sweet couple pulled over and offered us a ride.  I hope the rest of their day was amazing for their thoughtfulness.

The Hounds of Hogansville

Happy Puppy

I am an animal lover.  As a kid, I was the one seen around town pushing, pulling, cajoling, and bribing stray cats and dogs, arriving home, disheveled, eyes bright with young innocence.

“It followed me. Can I keep it?”

I had cats, dogs, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, a black widow spider, and even one garden snake (the latter two disappeared under mysterious conditions).  I was child number three, and my parents thought they had everything figured out, but animals proved to be new territory. Once at a park, I saw ducks and decided I wanted a duck. Please oh please, may I have duck? I need a duck! I’ll take care of it and feed it and clean it and take good care of it.  I promise!  My parents, full of experience, simply said, “If you can catch it, you can keep it.”

I have a photo of myself, looking exceedingly pissed off, with one bemused looking duck in my arms.

Running has tested that devotion to animals, dogs in particular (fortunately, I have yet to encounter a mountain lion).  I get it, it’s a natural instinct.  They see something running, they chase after it, especially if you are threatening their territory.  They get close enough, they bite it.  I don’t like it but I get it.

Most domesticated animals on trails are on a leash or at least with their owners nearby, so the chases are usually rare.  Plus, they’re Colorado dogs–they have that same laid back attitude of their owners.  They’re running. I’m running. It’s all good.

But not so everywhere in this country.  Twice a year, I visit my parents in Georgia.  Georgia dogs are not Colorado dogs.  They’re East Coast dogs.  I’m pretty sure they do not like anyone, and runners least of all. If you’re running, there’s a reason, and it’s not a good one.  They’ve made it their sworn duty to remove you from the planet–every bloody trace of you.

My first encounter was with a massive German Shepherd. I could hear him long before I saw him, snarling, growling, barking, my mere presence an affront to his entire existence.  With relief, I saw the fence behind which he was kept.  It wasn’t a big fence, but it seemed to be doing the trick.

What I didn’t see until too late was the open gate.

It was straight out of bad movie.  The angry shepherd and I saw the open gate at the same time.  He slowly looked at me as I returned his narrowing gaze with my widening gaze. My casual pace immediately became a dead sprint. I didn’t notice he wasn’t behind me until back in my parent’s driveway.  He must have forgotten all about me in the euphoria of his new-found freedom.

Over the years, the dog population increased.  My usual run, an out-and-back down a country road, became the perfect interval workout.  The now two German Shepherds at the house where the cop car always is was right after my warm up.  Their yard was small, so it was quick..  The two terrorizing border collies right after the church had a much bigger yard to protect.  A Mutt and Jeff combo a half mile later. And finally a basset hound–although he really didn’t count.  He was too cute for words and, with those big ol’ floppy ears, about as threatening as, well, a basset hound.

I was becoming much less enthusiastic about canines. I was tired.  There’s only so many sprints I can do in a week’s visit.  I started looking for other routes, but they all had the same problem: nothing between me and angry dogs.  Worse, the more I got into ultra running, the longer the routes became and the more dogs giving chase.

It became a sort of quest. My dad was even suggesting routes.  One of them worked out pretty well, except for the lack of a sidewalk beside a highway.  If there’s one breed that hates runners more than dogs, it’s pickup truck drivers.

Over my Christmas trip home, I decided to try a new route.  Google maps showed to be blessedly void of housing.  It was also a nice distance–and a loop to boot, my favorite kind of route.

It started well. The first couple miles were blessedly dog free.  As I turned away from town onto a small road, I could hear the faint barks of a house bound animal.  I began to relax and forget myself in the run.  I tuned out the world and in the music.

Then mile six happened.

A overweight, overzealous blond lab came tearing out the yard across the street, barking as though he had caught me stealing his kibbles red-handed.  I fought the instinct to freeze.  Don’t show fear. Don’t smell like fear.  Don’t even THINK FEAR. He reached the edge of the road and kept going.  I could see the saliva dripping from his mouth, eyes narrowed in a murderous gaze.  My mind went blank and my body went on autopilot.

I turned immediately towards the angry mass of muscle and teeth and ran straight towards him, barking at him like a madwoman.  I waved my arms and made myself look as big and as pissed off as I could.  Run, wave and bark.  It was supposed to work on mountain lions. Maybe it would work here.

He stopped dead in his tracks. I allowed myself a breath.  Then he tilted his head and looked at me as though he thought I’d completely lost my marbles. His tail was up, and he gave a hesitant wag then waited, head still tilted.  Of course he all wanted was to play.  He’s a lab.

I managed a breathless “good puppy” and turned back to my route. He bounded ahead, completely excited by this new adventure. He stopped to pick up a discarded bag of fast food and brought it back for me, dropping it, though, to pick up a nice big stick, only to drop that for some amazing scent trail.  Then he was off again.

He ran ahead, then to the side, then back behind me, stopping only to pee on random objects and to wait for me.  My pace picked up a bit as I forgot about my running and just watched my new buddy’s excitement over, well, pretty much everything.  Back and forth, running ahead and looking back to tell me to hurry my butt up.  I’d never seen such pure joy on a run.

That road ended a couple miles later and I turned left to cover the final few miles home.  I thought my buddy would grow bored, but not him.  More discarded junk.  More smells. More noises.  On he went.  I began to grow concerned.  It was at least a five mile run back, and I didn’t know how much credence to put into a dog’s sense of direction.

I tried yelling at him but he gave me his hurt puppy look.  I ran back towards his house until he was far enough ahead that I thought he wouldn’t see me turn around again. No luck.  I even tried hiding behind a tree.  He thought that was a pretty fun game.

I gave up and just let him be.  Surely, this wasn’t his first adventure past the end of the road.

My dad was in the garage when I got back, working on some projects.  He just laughed when I said, Look what followed me home.

I didn’t know what to do.  My furry pal wanted me to keep running, but I was done. I half felt it was my responsibility to run back to his place, but there was no telling if he’d even stay there when I turned home again.  I finally told him the run was over and went inside.

He seemed  to understand, but all day I worried.  Did he make it back?  Was he just wandering around lost?  I couldn’t shake the image.  I took a short walk that afternoon, retracing some of my steps, but didn’t find him.  I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or not.

By the next morning, I’d made up my mind to retrace my steps.  I just had to know if he made it back or not.  I was full of trepidation. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on these roads, but there was enough.  I worried.  I checked every shadow.  My pace slowed as I got closer to his home.

But there he was!  With a happy bark, he bounded across the road and jumped up on me.  I gave him a big hug and commended his sense of smell and forethought to pee on everything.  He wasn’t alone–another slightly pudgy lab was right beside him.  I waved at his friend and told him I’d be seeing him around.  Not so fast, their eyes said to me.

I obviously hadn’t thought this part through.  I kind of figured the ten miles he’d done the day before would dissuade him from trying again, but apparently not.  Nor his pudgy friend. So the three of us set off. I returned the same way as the day before, knowing there was no point in trying to stop them but at least hoping the route would now be familiar.  And I knew I could trust his sense of direction.

I again enjoyed watching the revelry, seeing anew the sheer joy of physical movement and the excitement of the adventure.  Again, my pace was a little quicker and the miles disappeared under my feet.  I again said farewell when I got home and was met with two sets of eyes that didn’t understand how I could possibly stop when we were having so much fun together.  I patted their heads and told them I hoped they’d never understand.

Road Trippin’ Colorado a la France

One of my favorite aspects about living in Colorado is the ability to share it with others. Sometimes, the fun of the Life Bus is waiting at the stop for someone else. When I first moved to Colorado, my friends lovingly (I think) referred to trips here as “Lynda’s Boot Camp”, as my enthusiasm often overrode our abilities and we’d wind up the week, exhausted but blissful in our fatigue.

In August, a friend from France came out for a few days to experience the Rocky Mountain high. There is a certain kinship between France and Colorado, with the passion for the mountains, trail running, skiing, cycling, and pretty much any outdoor adventure. I have many friends who had made the trek to France for all of these adventures, so I was excited to share Colorado with someone who would appreciate it as I do.

He had sent me his dream itinerary and I did my best to adhere to it, but I had to throw in a couple of little known Colorado treasures as well. I didn’t know much about Colorado when I first moved here, but what I knew was also what he had heard as well. The 14ers, the big ski resorts, the famous I-70 and its Eisenhower tunnel. It was a chance for me to play tourist without my friends mocking me for doing so.

We started our adventure on Pikes Peak. Two of his heroes–Killian Journet and Sebastien Chaigneau, both ultra runners–had completed the Pikes Peak marathon. Since this was one of his first days in Colorado, I opted for the Cog Rail to the summit and an easy hike down, knowing well the ill effects altitude can have on the uninitiated. And also it is a great way to get some of the history of Colorado. Zebulon Pike actually never summited the mountain named after him–in fact, he was famous for writing that he believed no one would ever summit the massive peak. See what doubt and disbelief will get you? The man who did originally summit it, Edwin James, now has a lower peak named for him.

Rainbow at Pikes Peak

Rainbow at Pikes Peak

My favorite part of the ride is seeing one of the oldest bristlecone pines–some over 2000 years old. There’s a song a friend of mine sings that always ends up on my lips whenever I think about these ancient, gnarled and majestic icons.

Now the way that I’ve lived, there ain’t no way to tell
When I die, if I’m going to heaven or hell
So I’d just as soon serve out eternities’ time
Asleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine.

At the summit, we enjoyed the famous Pike Peak doughnuts–a delectable blend of fat and sugar (is there any better blend?) before beginning the journey back down. I was a little nervous because of the lateness of the time and the clouds already starting to form. I knew, though, that treeline wasn’t far below and the cover afforded a little more safety. We did get a bit of thunder and lightning but escaped unscathed. It was a beautiful 13 mile hike, and I was reminded that downhill is not necessarily easier than uphill. It was with no little relief to sit in the car after the seven hour round trip.

While strong in my mountaineering skills, I found I was sadly lacking in the basics of survival, and my poor French friend was constantly having to remind me to feed him. Before leaving Manitou Springs for the next day’s adventure, dinner was at the Marilyn diner, famous for photos of the iconic star and excellent pizza.

The next day was a selfish one, but it fit in perfect with the itinerary and route, so I went with it. My favorite hiking area in Colorado is the very little known Lost Creek Wilderness. Every hike is more than a few miles and no summit has a trail to it. Add to that the fact that no peak is over 13,000ft, and it’s not terribly popular with the peak bagging crowd. Unlike many wilderness names, there actually is a lost creek. It is a perennial creek that disappears and reappears before finally uniting with Goose Creek. The rock formations is what makes it truly magical though, granite arches and domes filling the landscape like nowhere else in Colorado. I spent my entire birthday weekend here and was happy to return.

Rock formations at Lost Creek Wilderness

Rock formations at Lost Creek Wilderness

I made it a short day so that we could resume his itinerary. The next stop was Ouray, home to the infamous Hardrock 100, arguably the most challenging one hundred mile foot race in the world. Heck, just getting in is more than most people can do. With three Colorado 100s under my silver belt buckle (the finisher award for 100s), I don’t even qualify to sign up for the lottery. Not just one hundred miles of running (in the loosest sense of the word), it boasts over 30,000 ft of elevation gain and a high point of 14,048. Yes, you get to climb a 14er in addition to everything else.

Before we could get there though, we ran into a snag–welcome to the world of road tripping. For the past couple years, Colorado has hosted a pro-cycling tour, and on this particular day, its route coincided with the current destination. Not ones to let a little detour ruin the day, we watched in impressed fascination as the cyclists rode by. The year before, they had ridden Flagstaff Hill in Boulder–their speed up far surpassed mine going down the same hill.

The detour added a couple of beautiful hours of travel to the day. I had never been down this particular road, and I found myself blissfully distracted by the canyons and rolling hills, accentuated by the storm clouds and sunshine casting an amazing lighting across the landscape. With a very wet summer, Colorful Colorado was living up to its name, with the greens and reds of brush and rock dotted with the purples and yellows of wildflowers.

It seemed like no time before we were in Ouray, and the hot springs felt even more delicious than usual to my cramped body. I had even planned a dinner for that night at the Beaumont Grill, a distinctly Colorado restaurant with such delights as Colorado lamb and Rocky Mountain beef tips, hold the Rocky Mountain oysters. A good glass of wine, and the dust of the road was washed away.

The last time I’d been on the trail we ran, witnessing a small avalanche roll across the trail was enough to convince me to turn around. This time, the narrow, rocky trail was clear, but still a little unnerving. It was built right into the side of the mountain during the mining days, and there was not much between you and the thousand foot drop. Given my inability to walk a straight line after about 40 miles, I could see Hardrock ending very badly for me. That section fortunately did not last long, and we were in the wildflower strewn meadow, enjoying a now very relaxed run.

The Hardrock 100

The Hardrock 100

That afternoon was the biggest risk of the trip in terms of disappointment: a French winery in Colorado, Maison la Belle Vie, house of the beautiful life. Actually Australian and French, I’d discovered it on an earlier adventure to Palisade when I had had some time on my hands to explore the little town. There are many wineries there and all of them are welcoming, ready to tell you about the fun and challenges of wine making in Colorado and about how their life journey had brought them from all over the world to here. I was a club member at this particular winery, having purchased way too many bottles already, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to select from the exclusive wines each time I came.

Maison la Belle Vie

Maison la Belle Vie (photo from their website)

Fortunately, the wine was well received and we left with a couple of bottles to share over the next few days.

A short night in Fruita (dinner at the Hot Tomato–I wouldn’t let starvation win just yet), and we were off to the next stop: Aspen. Not a place I much frequent, given my limited salary, but it is home to another French hero: Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the Tour de France, depending on which side of the drug argument you fall. I had rented two bikes for a ride up the infamous Independence Pass.

The weather had been slowly deteriorating all week and today was overcast and drizzling. It would not be a long bike ride but at least the weather was allowing us a chance. I wasn’t keen on coming down the steep, occasionally rutted road in slick conditions on an unfamiliar bike.

Most of the ride is in the aspen forest, beautiful and lush and different from the vast views of the previous days. The slow pace up, like that of trail running, allowed time to appreciate the surroundings. I pointed out the previous residence of Harrison Ford, a fellow search and rescuer: I have often dreamed of requiring a rescue in the wilds of Wyoming, Mr. Ford’s current home.

During the descent, I worriedly studied the clouds. The next day was the grand finale, a hike up Mt Evans, the highest peak in Colorado. I wanted perfect weather for it, but that was quickly becoming not likely. I didn’t have a backup plan. Leadville, the nearest town, did not have many indoor activities for tourists, even counting the Mining Hall of Fame. There were the Cottonwood hot springs, but my French companion had not seem particularly enthralled by the ones at Ouray.

I called on the words a climbing partner once said to me: You gotta at least try. So I drove to my favorite camping spot and prepared for the worst. My French penpal had often sent me photos over the months of castles where he had spent resplendent evenings. I felt not a little twinge of inadequacy in setting up the rented tent that would be our abode for the night.  In the rain. We had at least stocked up on some finer snacks in Aspen, so dinner was a festive affair, with wine, cheese, crackers, olives, and other such goodies.

Another difference between France and Colorado is the timing of hikes. The French do indeed schedule their lives around meals, mainly leaving the afternoons open for their hikes. With four thousand feet of elevation gain in under six miles, Mt Evans was no small hike, and with the unstable weather, I wanted off the mountain before any heating could give rise to thunderstorms. So it was with a bit of grumbling that we set off at 4am for the summit. Under the light of the headlamps, I warned him again that the summit was optional.

Sunrise at Mt Elbert

Sunrise at Mt Elbert

Progress was slow and steady. We entered the clouds around 13,500 and enjoyed the novelty of snow in August even if the view was diminished. But the weather held steady, with not even a hint of thunder, so we continued our progress up, stopping when the sun made a particularly grand entrance into the Twin Lakes valley. The summit was completely clouded in, so we didn’t stick around long to enjoy our success.  Summit photos were quickly taken and we headed back down.

Alpenglow at Mt Elbert`x`

Alpenglow at Mt Elbert

Once back in the sunshine, we took a break to eat leftovers. My search and rescue brain took over as I pointed out some of the dangerous habits of people heading up the mountain: cotton t-shirts, no packs, light jackets, small water bottles. One gentleman was even hiking in cowboy boots–I had to give him grudging respect as they just did not look comfortable for hiking.

Back at the airport all too soon, I received a bisou (kiss) from my French adventurer, with a promise of equally and greater adventures when the Life Bus makes its way to France.

The High Lonesome Trail – Day Three (June 22 2014)

HEY!!

I froze on my precarious perch. I was afraid to turn around, as much from a fear of falling as from what I might see. What I didn’t see–a gun–gave me great hope.

Wes and I had gotten into a groove. Meet at the start point, drive separately to the end point, using the map to determine where we needed to park, find a nice quiet spot and park, drive back and begin the adventure.

Morning in the mountains

Morning in the mountains–and a promise of rain

Day three found us back at Floyd Hill. The hike up seemed almost easy as we once again skirted the mining operation. We were heartened to feel like we were gaining new ground almost immediately. It was looking like a fun day.

We’d have to cut it short because Wes had to be back for family commitments. The forecast was also looking a little wet, and on the high peaks is not where you want to be if that happened.

To gain the ridge that was our goal for the day, we had to cross through the mining operation–or rather, that was the shortest route. To our surprise, there was someone there on a Sunday, but he just gave us a wave and we continued on our way. I guess in the grand scheme of things, a sixty-something and forty-something hiker were not high on the scale of threatening objects. This was a definite advantage as the next miles crossed a lot of private property.

The mining operation at Floyd Hill

The mining operation at Floyd Hill

The miles also followed the Clear Creek/Gilpin County boundary. This was our fun find of the day: old stones that marked the boundary, carved with numbers. The numbers corresponded to the numbers on the map, giving us a good reference to our location.

The early days of mile markers. Can you imagine carving all of these?

The early days of mile markers. Can you imagine carving all of these?

With the sale of his company now behind him, Wes was working on another big project: a book on the history of Colorado relating to geography and the gold rush. I wish I had a recording device as we hiked. Geographically speaking, Denver is not the most ideal of locations, and it was relatively late when people finally built roots here. The native Americans weren’t terribly in love with it, and the early settlers had all kinds of weather and geographic challenges, with snow, flooding, and other natural disasters.

But humankind is a stubborn lot, and, of course, there was gold involved. We were pretty sure our current route, probably not much touched since those stones were erected, was a main thoroughfare for the gold rush lot.

It wasn’t long before cartographers were trying to map the incredible mountain range. Not many of the early maps matched each other. In a tale of history repeating itself, the map company with the best political connections won. It would be many years before it was all sorted out. Much like today, maps were used by everyone, inexpensive and rather useful, but I would guess survival more than pleasure drove the sales.

Our route took us across Central City Parkway. Our next day on the High Lonesome Trail put took us across Virginia Canyon Road. It was quite the contrast between the two routes. Although I know intuitively that we are not far from civilization on this particular trek, it is still odd to see the reminders. Especially in this area, where civilization at various stages had been almost everywhere, as evidenced by rusting tools and dilapidated buildings from old mining.

Along the route

Along the route

An unnamed 9000ft high point is where we encountered the rather perturbed land owner. We were on his land and he wasn’t happy. I couldn’t blame him. I wouldn’t much like people traipsing through my back yard either. And given the beer bottles–and yes, even a bra–I’d rather not imagine what they did on his property.  His several minute rant confirmed the worst of what humanity does in the woods.  Like the mining operator, though, he realized our presence was innocent and we really were just hiking. He wished us well, we apologized profusely, and parted ways. It was a reminder of how not in the wild we were.

The hike from there to the next high peak was longer than we had time for. We picked a sort of high point and decided we’d have to make our apologies to the rules committee. The descent was a precarious hike through some serious mining territory. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it again.

A few of the mines had cement blocks covering the entry, the wires used to place them cut to ensure they were not moved. Most, however, were just holes that had eventually collapsed into themselves. I couldn’t imagine how ravaged the view must have been at the time. History repeating itself. On a more practical note, it seemed precarious terrain in which to be hiking. I wasn’t sure my Spot would work if I fell into one of the old entrances.

One of dozens of remains of the old mining operations

One of dozens of remains of the old mining operations

The rain started as we were still a couple of miles out from the car. There were several gullies to cross and we were hopeful to find the correct one, to avoid any uphill after a long day. To add to the challenge, we were on the edge of the Clear Creek and Idaho Springs map quads, which made it hard to match the terrain to the map.

We eventually found ourselves on a small trail we decided to follow since we were running out of time and the rain wasn’t letting up–we’d take it up with the Rules Committee later–that ended in a road that was the road on which we were parked. We congratulated ourselves on another success endeavor.

The Long Lonesome Trail – Day 2

LLT Day 2 Map

Map of route. A data glitch cut off the last two miles

It took us over a month to let the memory dull of the steep descent that would become our first ascent.  But a cool morning in June found us back on Highway 6 at the random trail sign that marked the end of Day One, heading back up.  As seems to be usual, the anticipation was worse than the reality.

We looked up at Centennial Cone from our smaller peak, congratulating ourselves on our foresight.  We pulled out the maps to check our options.  As usual, we had two: straight down and back up, or across and circuitous. We could see from our vantage point that down and up would be hiking across an open grassy field, where across would be rocky brushy terrain.  Down and up also featured a trail, which of course was against the rules.  I made a snide remark about the intelligence of our rules committee.

We made our way across.

“Side hilling” as it’s known is not necessarily easier than regaining lost altitude. I would argue it absolutely is not.  Imagine trying to walk across a wide stairway, never touching the horizontal part of the stair. Now imagine half the stairway is loose and wobbles threateningly when you step on it.  Now add in some brambles, and you get the point.

End of the side hilling

End of the side hilling

Wes was in heaven with the scrambling that bordered precariously on Class 3 (hands and feet required).   I carefully tested each hand, foot and trekking pole hold as Wes practically danced from boulder to boulder.

Trekking poles was another difference in our hiking: Wes has absolutely no need for them, whereas I am pretty sure I would die a horrible death without mine.  In May, I ran a race that expressly forbid them.   Not just a note in the list of many a rules that I could pretend to have not read, but a one liner that had to be electronically initialed.

Part of that line was another, much much worse, exclusion: music.  I hike with music. I run with music.  I work to music.  I fall asleep to music.  I”m listening to music as I write this.  I love music.  I have a theory that I refer to as The Hollywood Theory.  This theory states that nothing bad ever happens when happy music is playing.

So far, it has proven to be absolutely true.

My hand trembled on the keyboard as I agreed to no trekking poles and no music.  No good could come from this.

I survived the race, but have refused to be without my poles since.  Music too. Except with Wes.   By far the most interesting person with which I’ve had the pleasure to hike, I’m willing to take the risk of no happy soundtrack playing.  It’s hard to find a good hiking partner.  First you actually have to find someone who wants to hike.  Then you have to agree on all aspects of said hike: start time, finish time, distance, elevation gained, on trail or off, pace, and, my number one Rule of Hiking: running like a bat out of hell whenever there’s even a hint of lightning in the area.

Wes owns his own business. He’s been in the business of buying and selling banks for over thirty years.  It sounds boring and if I tried to relate it, it would most definitely be, but Wes makes it more fascinating than trekking the Himalaya. He’s in the process of selling his business, and even that has a bit of the drama of a good Hollywood thriller.

I saw Wes sitting on a rock outcropping in front of me.  “Well, we lost that gamble”, he said. Straight ahead was impassable, pretty much a straight drop down, which meant we got the worst of both worlds. Side hilling and we’d still have to lose and regain the elevation.  So down and back up we went to our first official peak of the day, and the true starting point of the day.  Two hours into it and we were just getting started.

Wes hanging out

Wes hanging out

The crux of this day was crossing Clear Creek. The snowmelt had the creek running high and we had one place to cross–a small bridge that we carefully inspected before beginning the hike, for fear it wouldn’t actually be passable.  We would have to cross Highway 119 as well, which of course made our current little down-and-up laughable.  We would end up at our beginning elevation only to go back up to higher than our previous peaks.

The road from the west parking lot of Centennial Cone park would take us right down where we wanted to go, but of course that was against the rules.  The down was almost worst than the first day. The growing spring plants made it challenging to see where to step.  Somehow, Wes managed to find a small animal trail.  Then we hit a steep gully that took some gymnastics to get out of.  All this was made even more challenging by the private property.  Another trait I’ve learned to admire in Wes is his sense of respect. Many peaks in Colorado are private property, or require passing through private property. I have alway naturally assumed that either you asked permission or just did not climb them.

This is not the case.  Many peakbaggers have a surprising sense of self entitlement when it comes to peaks.  I suspect they would not have the same attitude if the tables were turned, but maybe that’s my cynicism speaking.  Wes, when planning his peaks, sends letters asking permission before climbing.  Most times, he gets the okay–I imagine the landowners are too surprised to say no.  We had agreed that if any of the peaks we passed were on private property, we’d get as close to the summit as we could and call it good.

We unfortunately were not able to completely avoid private property but did our best to reach the road as quickly as we could. When it came to conflicting rules, we opted for the most respectful approach.

The Bridge

The Bridge

With the traffic to and from the casinos, crossing 119 was quite possibly the most dangerous part of the day, although the decaying bridge across Clear Creek didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Much like snow in the winter and scorching temperatures in the summer, we knew the steep uphill was coming and we complained anyway.  We bent the trail rule and followed what we decided was an animal trail up to our next peak at 7600ft: people are animals too.

The things you find

The things you find

We stopped for a break.  The temperature was much warmer than either of us had anticipated and the water we brought was turning out not to be enough.  Even though it was June, this was my first hike of the season with short sleeves. I had forgotten how much the heat can take out of you.  It’s not just the heat, but the heaviness of the backpack.  All the clothes you’re usually wearing are now weighing down on your hips.  Okay, technically, the weight is same, but somehow the distribution seems to double it when it’s in the backpack.  At least the diminishing water supply was helping the weight issue, a small consolation.

I refuse to complain about the heat just yet.  It was a long winter.  The first snows were in September and the storms were still going strong in May.  I’ve gotten used to the cold and I’ve grown quite adept at dressing for it, the perfect combination of layers, all the periphery items–windproof hat, gloves that are warm but don’t have to be removed to eat or drink, my favorite balaclava, even the ideal pair of socks–but there is still nothing like the freedom of donning nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts when heading out the door.

Scenery

Scenery

We couldn’t quite see the rest of our day from this point–we had another ambitious day planned.  We had parked my car at Kermits, this classic American roadside bar and restaurant at the corner of I-70 and Hwy 6.  It has recently re-opened (under a different name, but Kermits just fits) and was hopefully popular enough to stay that way.  Bikers seemed to make up the majority of clientele.   It definitely had character.  Wes and I had already agreed that a beer and hamburger would be the perfect ending to Day Two.

What we hadn’t anticipated was the pull of that idea as the temperatures climbed and the miles mounted.

As we made our way to Floyd Hill, the peak after which that area of I-70 was named, we decided to forego the last mile or two of our planned route.  We reasoned that Floyd was an easy enough peak to reascend. It was also a logical exit point, as continuing would commit us to at least another mile before another exit point would introduce itself.  With Clear Creek still on the same side of I-70 as we were, we also could not guarantee an easy egress further up.

But really, it was the beer.

Floyd Hill is a bit of an endangered peak.  There is a significant mining operation encroaching on it.  It made our last downhill a bit of a challenge.  Wes was sure if we were found on the property, we’d be given honorary hard hats and a personal tour, due to our amazing and impressive journey.  I more envisioned special bracelets and a tour of another facility, one that was in all likelihood equally as dreary.

We balanced our descent between the steep cliffs on the east side and the now nonexistent west side.  It was the most depressing vista I’ve experienced on a hike. It was the only depressing vista I’ve experienced on a hike. It was sad to think of a peak no more.

Cutting it short

Cutting it short

The beer, hamburger, and, oh yeah, french fries too, ranked as the best I’d ever had.  Wes and I toasted the day and spun tales about the magnificence of the next day on the Long Lonesome Trail.

Oh yeah

Oh yeah