Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Coming back

My plan here was to tell you next about meatballs, or a pasta sauce of tomatoes baked with bread crumbs. Or maybe, my favorite: a beet and feta tart, where ribbons of red swirl into a pool of pale yellow custard. I've got a few new favorites up my sleeve to tell you about soon; you just wait.

But for now, I'm coming back to this space first to tell about a recent expedition. A few weeks ago, in the dead of August, Adam and I packed up the Chevy Cobalt with our tent, sleeping bags and a cooler full of frozen chili and Surly Cynic, and headed out on our first grand adventure by car - west to Colorado.

I've been trying to write this post for weeks now; truth is, there's just too much to tell. We spent nine days winding through the Rocky Mountains, in the car on steep mountain roads, and on our feet climbing up and down dirt paths, from in Estes Park and Aspen to Boulder and Breckenridge. We covered so much ground and did so much; every day found us in a new city or on a new mountain, peering into the distance and taking turns asking each other, Can you believe we're really here?


We packed up the Cobalt on a Friday and turned out of our parking toward lot, first heading straight south into Iowa, then turning sharp right in Des Moines to head west - our route from Minneapolis to mountains the shape of a backwards L. Armed with podcasts and homemade beef jerky, we floated through the drive over two days, passing mostly open, dusty farmland with the occasional cluster of windmills turning in the breeze.

The trek out there went nearly without a hitch. Then, an hour or so after crossing the border into Colorado (hour 12 or so of the drive), heavy winds started blowing over the flatlands and into our little gray car.

And then, tornadoes started touching down around us.

That cloud, I'm pretty sure, turned into a tornado.

Later we found out that one tornado actually touched down on the highway we were driving on, about 15 minutes behind us. We I had been so fixated on the storms during the last part of the drive, I didn't realize how close to our destination we were getting. At the moment the rain finally began to let up and we gained some visibility beyond the two cars ahead of us, we suddenly realized were winding around a cliff into the Rocky Mountains.

OH. Mountains, we both said.

And so our mountain excursion began.

We landed first near Estes Park at a campground called Moraine Park Campground, surrounded by hills of pines and valleys of elk. We were warned of bears upon entering (apparently, food is not safe in cars! They had four car break-ins by hungry bears in the week before we were there), but pulled ahead anyway to our little site, where we set up camp and nestled in with a campfire as dusk settled in.

We spent the next several days finding our perfect routine:

Wake up early and drink coffee under a crisp sky
Pack a bag with trail mix and peanut butter sandwiches, head out for the day's hike
Scramble through the hike because we didn't start as early as we should have and storm clouds beginning to roll in, as they always do in the early afternoon
Reach the top of the mountain, or the peak of the day's hike; turn around and get back below the tree line just as thunder starts
Return to the campsite, crawl into the tent and onto a thin air mattress; body sore and legs empty of energy, to nap long and heavy while rain sprinkles on the tent
Wake up, poke out of the tent while the sun is pushing through the clouds. It's time for happy hour!
Pull out the camping chairs; stacks a few logs together in the pit and starts the campfire; pull out two cans of Surly Cynic and set a snack on the picnic table
Heat up heat up dinner: a pot of chili, or chicken enchilada bowls
Toast s'mores and sip out of a bottle of honey whiskey as the sky fills with stars

It's those days we dream of when we're back at work.

We packed up our campsite on the fourth day and said goodbye to Estes Park with a drive up a dirt pot-holed road to the Continental Divide, where we saw elk crossing the road and standing in herds by the dozen, and bighorn sheep grazing in the distance.

Now, we were headed toward Boulder - where we found a last-minute hotel deal (hot tub, holla!). It's funny, after a few days of camping, staying at a hotel feels like a real vacation. We cleaned ourselves up and, feeling shiny and new, took to Pearl Street for the evening on a two-person mission to sample as many Colorado beers as we could. We made our way through pints and sampler boards of hoppy beers in every shade of brown from Avery, West Flanders, Walnut Brewery and a few more. The verdict: we like it! In the morning, we pedaled rusty hotel rental bikes up the Boulder Creek Canyon Trail and over to Mountain Sun Brewery, where we ended the stopover with a meal fit for two hungry mountain people: another pint each, a famous burger smeared with goat cheese and dates (Adam's new favorite of all time), and, for me, a massive, massive burrito.

And then, bellies full, we were Aspen-bound.

With no reservations and not many campgrounds in that area, the best option we could find for the night was a nonreservable site at Difficult Campground in the White River National Forest. When I found this campground on my iPhone during the drive there, I also found an article from the local paper titled "Bear aggression on the rise at Pitkin County campgrounds," informing readers that "a bear described as very large to huge" had been menacing this campground in June.

We decided to go for it anyway. Although the campground was just down the road from the highway, it felt quite remote. No ranger station, a drop box for money and an older woman designated as the Campground Host by a sign poked into the ground in front of her RV. We set up camp and had a small fire that night, but no s'mores so as to attract no bears. And thankfully, the night passed uneventfully.

The next day, we woke early to throw our campsite back into our car, and set out for two of the best days ever - a hike on the West Maroon Bells trail from Aspen to Crested Butte, past mountains like I'd never seen.

The route from Aspen to Crested Butte is over 100 miles by car as you wind around the mountains, but just eleven miles by foot. Eleven miles of steep climbs and unreal mountain views, meadows of wildflowers stretching onto green mountain hills; two pristine lakes and a horrendous difficult hike to summit a red-rocked mountain just over halfway that casts your view to infinity in every direction. Those 11 miles took us a tough six hours, with us keeping the a fast pace so we could get over the mountain pass before the afternoon storms came in.

On the other side of the trail, waiting for us was a shuttle to the little mountain town of Crested Butte and our hotel (!!) for the night. Our bodies sore and heads fuzzy from the elevation change, we wandered into the hotel and were greeted by, I'm not kidding, fresh chocolate chip cookies coming out of the oven. (Not to mention, a hot tub with mountain views in the back.) There's no greater blessing for two weary hikers, I swear, than stumbling into a cozy mountain hotel with cookies baking and a hot tub out back. We walked down the street that evening and dined at a restaurant in an old house called Ginger, where we shared bottle of wine as a toast to our best day ever - and crab rangoon, a lamb curry stew and the most gingery shrimp fried rice I've ever eaten to round it out. We were in bed by 9 p.m.

The only shuttle back to the trailhead the next morning was leaving at 6 a.m. So, from the deadest sleep, we woke at 5:30 a.m. to pull on our long underwear and hiking boots in the dark, and set out to do the hike all over again - this time in reverse - back to our car in Aspen. We cursed our luck at this early morning shuttle, but our when our hike took us into a still mountain valley still wet with dew, the sun just lighting the sky behind the mountains and bringing life back to the red and yellow flowers along the path, we considered it a blessing. This morning became my favorite part of the trip.

It didn't hurt that, when we reached the top of the mountain pass this time, we had a take-out carton of ginger fried rice to feast on.

Toward the end of the trip, we coasted down the mountains on rickety breaks, first for a night in Breckenridge, and then to set up our last campsite just outside of Denver near Red Rocks. We were lucky to have tickets to see Yonder Mountain String Band perform that night - so we said goodbye to our Colorado adventure by dancing to bluegrass and drinking Fat Tire under the moonlight.


The 14 hour trek back to Minnesota we did in one swoop that Sunday, after waking up at 6:30 a.m. in a hot tent and shoving - I mean, just shoving - our gear back into the trunk of the Cobalt. The drive was uneventful, except for a bad breakfast at a diner somewhere in Nebraska and a llama standing near the road. Adam mostly dozed off, I mostly drove, wired by This American Life and Professor Blastoff podcasts, and bad gas station coffee.

It could have been a somber drive as we watched the mountains disappear behind us and the flat nothingness of Nebraska stretch ahead, but it wasn't. We were tired, we were dirty, and were happy - ready to get home and plot the next big adventure; the two of us.

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