Adventure #19–Rock Climbing, Part 3

Part 1

Part 2


Well, here went nothing.


Dakota threaded the rope through two loops on the front of my harness and then showed me how to tie the knot (he said that I would be tying it myself next time—oh, yay. Because I wanted to be trusting my life to a knot that I had tied myself). Then I was off.


Let me just say for the record that rock climbing looks MUCH EASIER from the ground than it actually is. From the ground, you can see all sorts of nooks, crannies, bumps, and holes in the rock that look plenty big enough to hold on to. When you’re actually ON the rock, it looks like a smooth, slippery lump of clay that not even Spider-man could cling to. Or, sometimes, there will be a handhold, but it looks like only someone with arms like a gorilla could reach it. I swear, I started shouting, “Um, what do I do next?” when I was five feet off the ground.


“There’s a place for your left foot next to where your waist is now,” Dakota would say calmly, and I would look at the inch-deep spur of rock with deep distrust. THAT was going to hold me? Also, how was I supposed to get my foot all the way up there without dislocating my hip?


And then I would take a deep breath and somehow get my foot up there, and it would somehow stay without slipping off and plunging me to my early death.


“You got it. Keep dropping your heel,” Dakota would say.


Or I would put my hand in a giant hole on the side of the boot, only to find that the rock inside was as smooth as velvet, with nothing to grab onto.


“Twist your hand to jam it against the sides of the hole, and then you can put your weight on it.”


Oh, yeah. Sure.


But I would twist my hand until the fingers were kinda sorta maybe braced against the rock inside the hole, and I would lift my foot up, and miraculously everything would stay where it was supposed to be, and I would get my foot to another miniscule resting place, and then the whole process would start again.


After what seemed like an hour of me crawling painstakingly from one tiny foothold to the next, I reached the top of the Cowboy Boot. Okay. I was good. Could I come down now?


But Dean Jr. and my friend had both reached the carabiner, and I didn’t want to be a weenie.


The top of the Cowboy Boot was flat and probably four feet across. Next to the tiny ledges I’d been using, it seemed like a broad plain. I felt safe and secure for the first time in ages (well, minutes, but it seemed like ages). The rock face I was supposed to climb now was pretty close to vertical (or that’s how it looked to me, anyway), and the first sticky-out bit of any kind that I could see was maybe eight feet above my head.


Eep! No wonder Dean and my friend had both asked for help here.


I remembered exactly what Dakota had told them, and I tried to do what he’d said without asking again, but panic did a little tap dance in my stomach and I blurted out, “I don’t know what to do!”


I’m pretty sure my voice, unlike Dean’s, came out all squeaky and terrified. Geez.


“Reach up above your head with your right hand,” Dakota said, “and find the biggest ledge you can with your fingers.”


I reached up with my right hand and felt around. There were no ledges. There was a kind of bump. That was all.


I put my hand on the bump. Maybe when I found a foothold, the handhold would feel better…?


“Now put your right foot up on the rock near where your knee is right now.”


Again, there wasn’t really anything sticking out there, just a part where the rock was a little bumpier. I put my foot up on it. It did not feel secure at all.


“Uh…where do I put my left hand?” I shouted down.


“It’s just going to hang out for a second until you get a little higher.”


NOT what I wanted to hear. I did not want my left hand “hanging out.” I wanted it firmly holding on to a giant handhold. What about my three points of contact?


My left foot was still standing on the top of the Cowboy Boot. The next step, it seemed, was to push myself off the boot, trusting my weight to my right hand and foot, and then find someplace up the rock for my left foot to go. My body was very, very reluctant to do this.


Nuh-uh, it seemed to say. We like it here, where it’s safe.


“Where am I going to put my left foot?” I asked, stalling (although I really could not see anyplace to put my left foot).


“Anywhere that looks good,” Dakota said (gee, thanks). “There’s a place up there near that brown spot.”


“Here?” I asked, dubiously, pointing. The place he referred to was, again, more a bump than anything, and it was so far up and to the left it looked like I’d have to do the splits to get there.




I stood there a moment, considering. My whole body was shaking a little in fear, and I REALLY did not want to trust my weight to some sketchy bumps in the rock. The way I saw it, I had a couple options:


  1. I could admit that I was a coward and ask to come down.
  2. I could give it a try. I mean, what was the worst that could happen?


My overactive imagination immediately supplied some helpful images of me losing my grip, falling back onto the boot, and breaking my leg. Thanks, imagination.


Well, since my imagination seemed to want a little exercise, I let myself imagine how I would feel if I quit and came back down without touching the carabiner. I was sure it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened on this course.


But I didn’t want it to happen to me.


Taking a deep breath, I dropped my right heel as far as it would go, spread out the fingers of my right hand, and pushed upward. Amazingly, I did not slide back down the rock. My left foot found a place to stand, and I was able to lift myself up to a place where my left hand could find a grip, too. I moved my right foot up to another foothold, and then my right hand, and in a few minutes I was touching the carabiner at the end of the course.


I did it!


With great relief, I grabbed onto the rope with both hands and sat my weight back into my harness, sticking my legs straight out in front of me with my feet on the rock. It was the most comfortable I’d been since leaving our starting point. I walked my feet backward down the cliff, moving to the right side of the boot and heading back toward where everyone was waiting. At one point, I started going a little too fast and twisted on the rope until my hip smacked the rock, but that was okay. Going down was so much easier than going up that I didn’t mind a few bruises.


Once my feet were on the ground, I untied the rope from my harness and then moved away while Dean Sr. took his turn. I sat down, took my helmet off, drank some water, and thought about life and the universe and how much I loved flat, horizontal surfaces.


My rock climbing experience had been interesting, and I was going to enjoy blogging about it, but I was just as glad that it was over now, and…


My thoughts were interrupted by Dean Sr. returning to the ground in record time (and without needing any guidance from Dakota). Definitely the head of our class.


“Great job, everybody,” Dakota said. “Now that you’ve tried the easy climb, we’re going to do one that’s a little more challenging.”




“We’ll be going up the left side of the Cowboy Boot now, where the climb is a little more technical. There are good ledges for the first half, and then you’ll get to the crack up there. You’ll be able to put both your hands and feet in the crack and twist them to keep them in place while you lift yourself up. The climb’s about ten feet farther than the one you just did, about forty feet total.”


I looked at the left the side of the boot. It seemed, to my horrified eyes, like the rock formation there was completely vertical and smooth, a red sandstone wall marred only by a crack that stretched from the top to about halfway down.


No way. No way was I going to climb that.


“Who wants to go first?”


“Me!” Dean Jr. volunteered enthusiastically. Better him than me. He picked up the rope and tied it to his harness all by himself, doing the Boy Scouts proud.


“And does anyone want to learn to belay?”


My friend did, so Dakota clipped a special belay device to her harness. The belay end of the rope (the end that was not attached to Dean Jr.) ran through this device, which basically acts as a brake in case of a fall. It’s beautifully simple: the rope passes through a metal ring at one end, loops through a carabiner, and then passes out through another metal loop that’s side-by-side with the first one. Depending on the position of the rope, the rope can either slide easily through the rings, or it can’t move at all. Physics in action!


The person belaying puts one hand (the “lead hand”) on the part of the rope that comes up out of the device towards the rock, and the other hand (the “brake hand”) on the part of the rope that comes down out of the device towards the ground (ending in the free end of the rope).


When the climber is ready, the climber is supposed to say, “On belay,” or, “Ready to climb.”


The belayer then says, “Belay on,” meaning that they’re ready.


The climber says, “Climbing,” and the belayer replies, “Climb on.”


These signals are really important, especially if you’re climbing a course that’s more difficult than the one we were doing, but every time somebody said, “Climb on,” I kept imagining Wayne from Wayne’s World saying, “Party on, Garth!”


As the climber ascends, the belayer takes up the slack in the rope using a series of movements: pull, brake, pinch, and slide.


First, the belayer moves her hands so that the two pieces of the rope she’s holding are roughly parallel. In this position, the rope can slide smoothly through the device. She pulls the rope so that it slides down, taking up the slack.


Second, the belayer pulls the pieces of rope apart, so they are as close to making one horizontal line as possible. In this position, the friction caused by the rope passing through the brake means that it’s impossible for the rope to move. If the climber slips, the rope will safely catch him.


The number one rule of belaying is never take your brake hand off the rope, so next the belayer has to move her lead hand and put it on the brake end of the rope, next to her brake hand. She pinches the rope in her lead hand tightly.


Then she slides her brake hand so that it’s back up next to the device.


Repeat as necessary while the climber goes up the wall.


When the climber reaches the top and is ready to go back down, the belayer shuffles the rope through the device the other way, giving them slack so that they can descend.

belayhandwebAll of this shuffling of the rope left my friend’s hands completely black

I watched my friend do this, taking notes and pictures. I watched Dean Jr. a little, too, but I didn’t really want to think too much about climbing up the cliff face. Clouds were gathering darkly overhead, with occasional drops of rain, and I was sort of hoping that it would start pouring and I wouldn’t have to go.


Dean, with a little guidance from Dakota, finished his climb and made it back down. He was grinning and happy. I felt sick to my stomach.


“Would you mind going next?” my friend asked me. “My arms are tired from belaying and I think I need to rest for a few minutes.”


What could I say? I couldn’t go, “Well, actually, I’ve decided that wild horses couldn’t drag me up that cliff face, so you’ll need to go next no matter how tired your arms are.”


“Sure!” I said, as cheerfully as I could manage. I picked up the rope and started threading it through my harness.


Dakota, true to his word, had me tie my own knot this time, and then when I was done, he showed me how to test it to make sure it was secure. I tested it three times. You know, just to be safe.


I was steeling myself to start the climb when Dakota said, “Hey, Dean—how’d you like to belay?”


“Yeah!” said Dean Jr.


That almost snapped the fragile threads of my self-control. Dean seemed like a great kid. He was a Boy Scout. He had climbing experience. He had just successfully climbed up two rock faces with a lot more courage than I’d shown.


But he had never belayed before, and he was on the small side for thirteen. Even though I was only 5’3” and about 115 pounds, I towered over him like Goliath over David. If I was going to climb up a rock wall that looked like the Cliffs of Insanity to me, I really wanted tall, strong, and expert Dakota on the other end of my rope.


I stood there, almost panicking, while Dakota showed Dean how to belay. While Dakota was talking, I glanced around (looking for an escape route), and I noticed that there was a crowd of tourists gathered on the walkway outside of the wooden fence, watching and taking pictures.


I opened my mouth to scream that I’d changed my mind.


At this point, Rational Side, who is like a no-nonsense librarian, stepped in.


“Come on,” said Rational Side. “The climbing company has insurance just like everybody else. They wouldn’t let Dean belay for you if there was any chance you were going to get hurt. He doesn’t have to be big and strong. The device does most of the work of braking. He just has to pull the rope if you slip.”


“But what if he doesn’t pull it in time?” wailed Emotional Side, which is a lot like Fear from Inside Out. “What if I fall and die?”


“Pull yourself together!” snapped Rational Side. “You’re not going to die. You’re not going to hurt Dean’s feelings by asking for Dakota to belay, either. Just get up there and climb that wall!”


So I climbed.


It wasn’t until I climbed this second course that I realized how relatively easy the first course had been. Hindsight, and all that. On the left side of the Cowboy Boot, there were almost no well-defined handholds like there had been on the right side. Everything was like the last part of the first climb, where the most you were going to get was a little bump coming out of the rock.


“I’m not sure what to do now,” I said, probably two minutes into my climb.


“There’s a ledge to your right, near your elbow, where your foot can go,” Dakota said.


I glanced down. He must have known a definition of “ledge” that I didn’t. To me, a ledge was a big, stable flat space, like a windowsill. All I saw next to my elbow was a place where the rock bowed out slightly.


I gritted my teeth and swung my foot up to it. “This doesn’t feel secure,” I said.


“Drop your heel.”


If I had a dollar for every time Dakota said either, “Drop your heel,” or, “There’s a ledge right there,” I could live on the interest for the rest of my life.


A couple times, I wanted to shout, “I’m already dropping my @#$%^ heel as far as it will go, you *&^%$#@!”, but I knew that was just the fear talking.


Because I was afraid. Totally, quiveringly afraid. Rational Side kept telling me that I had a harness on, that was attached to a rope, that was being controlled by a belaying device and the laws of physics, but I was still scared nearly out of my mind. There was something primally terrifying about clinging to a vertical rock wall with only my hands and feet. Millions of years of evolution screamed at me to stop if I wanted my genes to get passed on to another generation.


But somehow I kept going.


After what seemed like hours, I reached the vertical crack that ran up the top half of the course. The crack, I saw when I was up close to it, was only a couple inches wide, although it ran back into the rock for more than a foot.


“Good,” said Dakota. “Now pull your fingers together, put them into the crack, and twist until you have a good grip.”


I did. This was an interesting new experience. I definitely didn’t feel like my hand was going to slip, but having it jammed into a crack with all my weight on it didn’t exactly feel great, either.


That was doubly true for my feet when it was their turn. I pointed my toe and put my foot into the crack sideways, and then I twisted my foot so that the sole was more or less oriented downward again. Then I put my weight on the foot and heaved myself upward. All sorts of joints (my ankle, my knee, my big toe) were pointed in directions that God never intended. It was like playing a giant, vertical game of Twister.


I slipped my second foot into the crack a little higher up and then tried to free my first foot so I could move it.


It was stuck.




“Calm down,” snapped Rational Side, while the rest of me was trying to decide whether throwing up or screaming was the better option. “Twist your foot a little more and pull a little harder and your foot will come out.”


It took two tries, but my foot did finally pop out of the crack. Thank goodness!


I stood there and leaned my forehead against the rock for a minute, my free foot dangling. My other foot and my two hands were reasonably secure right then, so I wasn’t in any danger of plummeting to my death. Which was a good thing, because I was having an existential crisis.


Here’s what it sounded like:


Emotional Side: “I’m terrified. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m going to tell Dakota that I want to come back down.”


Rational Side: “But you’re almost there!”


ES: “The crack gets smaller right above my head, though, and then I have to do the grab-onto-ledges-that-aren’t-really-there thing with my other hand. I don’t want to do that. I want to go back down to the ground where it’s safe.”


RS: “For crying out loud. I can’t believe you’re scared. You wrestled alligators!”


ES (wailing): “That was EASY compared to this!”


RS: “Oh, yeah, right. Come on. Dean Jr. climbed up here. Are you telling me that a thirteen-year-old boy is braver than you?


ES: “Um….”


RS: “Besides, if you go back down now, you’re going to have to tell everybody in your blog that you QUIT halfway up.”


And that thought, right there—the thought that I would have to tell you in this blog that I’d quit on an adventure—was what made me finish the course. Pride goeth before a climb, I guess.


You know what’s funny? It was after that, on the last ten feet or so of the second climb, after I’d almost given up, that I finally started to understand what Dakota had been telling us.


I put my free foot up on the rock, on a gentle curve of red sandstone, and instead of clinging to the rock and trying to avoid putting my weight on my foot, I shifted my weight squarely over that leg. My heel dropped by itself, and the rubber sole of the shoe gripped the rock with a firmness that I could feel. The rope was almost taut, ready to catch me if I slipped, but I knew right then that I wasn’t going to slip. I stood up on that leg, moved the other foot out of the crack, found another foothold, and then moved my hands.


Oh! That’s how I was supposed to be doing it the whole time!


I felt kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she finds out that she has had the power to go home since the beginning.


Not that it wasn’t scary. It still was. But I suddenly felt like I actually understood how the technique worked, and I finally trusted my equipment—and myself—to get the job done.


In that triumphant spirit, I climbed the last few feet and touched the carabiner.


I’ll fast forward through coming back down to sweet, sweet terra firma, and through my friend and Dean Sr. making their climbs, and through Dean Sr. telling me that if my arms were sore (they were) it was because I wasn’t using my legs properly (gee, thanks). I didn’t take my turn belaying because my arms were shaking so much that I didn’t think it was safe. I sat on the rock and took pictures instead. When my friend finished her climb, her hands were so dirty from the rope that she didn’t want to touch anything, so I fed her almonds from a bag like I was giving a dog some treats. That made us laugh really hard, and I don’t even want to know what the rest of the group thought.


My friend’s rock climbing experience was very similar to mine (as in terrifying), and we talked about it as we drove home to Denver. We decided several things:


  1. We were very glad we had given rock climbing a try.
  2. We were very, very proud of ourselves for not quitting even though we were terrified. We were awesome.
  3. We were never, ever going rock climbing again.


If you are thinking about trying rock climbing, I think I would suggest trying out an introductory class at an indoor rock climbing gym first. I just Googled indoor rock climbing classes in Denver, and there are a lot of different options; it looks like it might be a more controlled environment, with the routes clearly laid out so that you don’t have to make your own decisions about where to put your hands and feet while you’re still learning….


I know I just said that I was never, ever going again, but maybe I’ll give indoor climbing a try. You know. Just to see what it’s like.


Never say never, right?



Adventure #19–Rock Climbing, Part 2

Missed the first installment? Click here for Adventure 19–Rock Climbing, Part 1


At the top of the boulders we’d just scrambled up, there was a large flat space butted up against the rock formation itself. Dakota told us to go ahead and put on our climbing shoes while he set up the belaying rope. Then he took off up the cliff face, using no equipment (which showed that for an expert like him, anyway, this cliff face was no big deal), threading the rope we were going to use through some carabiners that were anchored to the rock.


While he was doing that, my friend and I introduced ourselves to the dad, telling him our names. “Glad to meet you,” he said. “We’re both Deans.”


It took me a minute to figure out what he meant. Were they both administrators at a college? Was their last name Dean? Oh, no, I realized; he meant that they were Dean Senior and Dean Junior. Aha!


Dean Sr. told us that he’d done some climbing in his youth, and that Dean Jr. took bouldering classes in Colorado Springs. Bouldering, which I hadn’t heard of before, is a specific kind of rock climbing. You don’t use ropes (although you do put mats down at the bottom in case you fall), and the climbs are usually less than 20 feet off the ground. This might make bouldering sound easier than rock climbing, but it’s not. Bouldering problems (the name given to different kinds of climbs) are graded, with V0 being a simple climb that beginners can do, and V16 being an insanely hard climb that only an expert of many years’ standing would even attempt. So it can be very technical and very difficult.


What I got out of this was that my friend and I, as raw beginners, were definitely the weak links in our climbing group.


Dakota finished threading the rope through the carabiners and then rappelled back down the cliff, making it look easy (which, for him, it probably was).


“All right,” he said, pointing up at a place above our heads where some boulders jutted out from the rest of the cliff face. “So this rock formation here is called the Cowboy Boot, because some people think it looks like a boot.”


“I can’t see it,” said my friend, squinting.


The Cowboy Boot is the rock sticking out here in the middle of the bottom of the picture. Does it look like a boot to you? I sure couldn’t see it.

“Yeah…well, the boot would have a really short toe. Anyway, that’s its name. We’re going to start with an easy climb up the right side of the boot. You’re going to work your way up all those holes you see in the rock, and then you’re going to climb up on the flat space on top of the boot. Next, you’ll have a little leap of faith onto the rock face itself, and you’ll climb another ten feet or so and touch the carabiner.”


The Deans were nodding. I was staring up at the right side of the Cowboy Boot, thinking, “That’s an EASY climb?” It looked really high and uncomfortably straight up and down. My stomach was starting to feel a little queasy.


At least the boot was, as Dakota said, pockmarked with erosion holes; they ought to make good handholds and footholds. Right? I gulped a little and tried to focus on what Dakota was saying.


“Once you’ve touched the carabiner, you’ll grab hold of the rope with both hands and sit back, like you’re sitting on a chair, with your legs straight out in front. Then you’ll just walk backward down the rock.”


Oh, sure. Piece of cake. I’m not scared of heights, but all of a sudden, I really wished my friend and I were taking a knitting class instead.


Dakota then gave us some tips on how to climb:


  1. We were supposed to point the tip of our big toe at the place we wanted to put our foot on the rock. Once our toes were on the rock, we were supposed to drop our heel down as far as possible. That would help give us a stable foothold.
  2. Our instinct would be to try to hug the rock, putting our weight over our toes, but, actually, our weight should be back over our heels. That would give us a more stable grip on the rock with our feet.
  3. Three points of contact should be on the rock face at all times. For instance, if you were moving one foot to try to find a new foothold, your other foot and your two hands should be firmly gripping their holds.


And that, I was a little surprised to learn, was the end of the lesson. “Okay,” Dakota said. “Who wants to go first?”


Dean Jr. volunteered, and Dakota showed him how to thread the rope through a loop on the front of his harness and tie a secure knot. I gathered, from things that the Deans and Dakota said, that Dean Jr. was a Boy Scout working on his Climbing merit badge. He already knew a lot about knots, so Dakota just told him how this knot worked and then let him tie it.


When the rope was secure, Dean Jr. started to climb up the right side of the Cowboy Boot, with Dakota holding on to the free end of the rope to catch him if he fell (which is called belaying). I was impressed right away by how fast and confident Dean looked; he didn’t look like he was having panicky second thoughts and having to wipe his sweaty palms on his shorts like I was. He made it to the top of the Cowboy Boot with no problem, and only when he was trying to go from the ledge there to the rock face above did he ask for help.


Wait, unstable rock formations? Maybe I don’t want to climb up those…

“I don’t know what to do next,” he said, but in a matter-of-fact tone of voice (not like he was terrified like me). “I don’t see anywhere to put my hands or feet.”


“Yeah,” said Dakota, in his unexcitable way. “That’s the part where I told you it’s a leap of faith. Reach up above your head with your right hand and find the biggest ledge you can with your fingers, and then put your right foot up on the rock near where your knee is right now.”


Dean Jr. did that.


“Now drop your right heel and put all your weight on it, then lift yourself up.”


“Where does my left hand go?”


“It’s just going to hang out on the rock for a second.”




But if Dean was scared of letting his left hand just “hang out” in space with nothing to hold on to, he didn’t really show it. He spent a minute or so looking around for the best grip for his right hand, and then he heaved himself up on his right foot. Miraculously, he did not slide down the cliff face.




The rest of the climb up to the carabiner looked easy, and then it was time for him to sit back in his harness and walk his way back down. Interestingly, he had a lot more trouble with this part than he had with the climbing, mostly because he was having trouble putting his weight back far enough and trusting the rope. He got it eventually, with coaching from Dakota and Dean Sr., and then it was a quick trip back to our rocky base camp—a much quicker trip on the way back down.


My friend then volunteered to go next.


Here’s my friend getting last-minute instructions from Dakota

She was slower than Dean Jr. had been, and more cautious, but she made steady progress up the boot. Watching her from the ground, I was still nervous, but I thought that if she could make it up, I probably could, too. She asked for advice more often than Dean had, and Dakota would point out places that she could put her hands and feet, but she didn’t sound scared at all.


Okay, I thought. I could do this.


The trickiest part, again, seemed to be getting from the top of the boot to the climb up the rock face itself. Just like Dean, my friend stopped there and said, “I don’t see where to put my hands.”


And then she and Dakota had pretty much the same conversation that he’d had with Dean.


Check. That was the scary bit. I tried not to think about it too much.


My friend spent several minutes checking out handholds and tentatively trying them out, but eventually she got herself up on the rock face, climbed up to the carabiner, and touched it. Woo-hoo! We all clapped and cheered, as we had for Dean.


She sat back into her harness and walked herself down the cliff (she had a much easier time with this than Dean had), and then it was my turn.

Uh-oh! Stay tuned for Part 3…

Adventure #19–Rock Climbing, Part 1



One fabulous thing about doing my 40 for 40 project is that now people suggest adventures to me. The suggestions range from the easily doable (like a painting night, which I’ll be doing soon) to the more exotic (like a class in how to swim like a mermaid in the Philippines, which sounds AMAZING, but which unfortunately is not going to happen unless I suddenly inherit a lot of money from an unknown benefactor).


My friends and family also get me adventures as gifts, something that I absolutely love, especially when I get to share the adventures with them. So I was very excited when a friend of mine gave me an introductory rock climbing course for my birthday.


I had never been rock climbing before, although it was on my list of possible things to try. I’d seen rock climbing walls in some sporting goods stores and gyms, and it looked like my kind of fun: physical and challenging but also safe, since you would be attached to a harness the whole time. The walls had colored plastic “ledges” for your hands and feet, and the idea seemed to be that you started from the bottom and used these plastic grips to climb up to the top of the wall.


This is what I was imagining.

The class my friend found was not an indoor rock climbing class, however, but an outdoor one, where you would be scaling actual rocks instead of plastic ones. That wasn’t the way I’d imagined trying rock climbing for the first time, but I didn’t mind. We’d still have harnesses and safety equipment, there would still be an instructor, and the class was for beginners, so it couldn’t be too scary, right? Added to that, we’d be out in nature, so we’d have the added bonus of beautiful scenery while we climbed.


I’ve been hiking almost as long as I’ve been walking, and in my time I’ve done a lot of scrambling around boulders. When my friend Matt and I used to go hiking every weekend in college, we’d sometimes go off trail and climb up some pretty interesting rock formations. We didn’t have any harnesses or other equipment, and neither of us had any experience in technical climbing, so we only climbed up rocks that we could handle easily with our hands and feet while wearing backpacks. But I had a lot of fun doing that. I imagined that the introductory rock climbing course would be similar to that, except a level or two more difficult.


The class was taking place at Garden of the Gods, a public park and National Natural Landmark located west of Colorado Springs. I had never been there before (Ray and I tried to go in early May but were stopped by a torrential downpour), so that was an added bonus.


According to the park’s website (, the area got its name when two surveyors were exploring the area. One of them said that the beautiful red sandstone formations of the park would make “a capital place for a beer garden.” His “young and poetic” companion was outraged, and retorted, “Beer garden! Why, it is a fit place for the gods to assemble! We will call it the Garden of the Gods.” And the name stuck.


The area was purchased by railroad magnate Charles Elliott Perkins in 1879, and, in 1909, after Perkins’ death, his children gave the property to the city of Colorado Springs. In accordance with their father’s wishes, the terms of the gift were these: the Garden of the Gods would be made into a park, “where it shall remain free to the public, where no intoxicating liquors shall be manufactured, sold, or dispensed, where no building or structure shall be erected except those necessary to properly care for, protect, and maintain the area as a public park.”


I especially love the part about “no intoxicating liquors.”


Every visitor to the park should thank the spirit of Mr. Perkins for preserving the Garden for posterity. It’s awesome—and I use that word in its original sense, “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence [and] admiration” ( For all that (as a child of the 80’s) I misuse “awesome” all the time, it’s the only word that really describes the Garden.


From Interstate 25, heading south from Denver, you can see the foothills off to the west, covered in scrub and evergreen trees, with the majesty of Pike’s Peak rising above them. It’s a beautiful view in itself. You can’t see the Garden from the highway, though, not even when you exit from 25 onto Garden of the Gods Road.


It’s not until you enter the park itself that you suddenly see, rearing up over the trees, an enormous cliff of bright red rock. It appeared so unexpectedly, so amazingly, that I gasped out loud. How could that possibly have been hidden from the road?


Then we came around a curve on the one-way loop that encircles the park, and a whole valley opened up to our left, like a curtain being drawn back from the main act on a stage. The valley was filled with row upon row of towering rock formations, red titanic slabs stabbing up through the sandy earth. It was incredible. My face was glued to the window as we pulled into the main parking lot and stopped the car.


We were early, so we spent twenty minutes just wandering around the paths closest to the parking lot, our heads tilted all the way back and our mouths hanging open. The day was hot and sunny, but clouds were starting to roll in for an afternoon shower, and the light that fell on the towers of rock was very dramatic.


The park was full of visitors from all over the country, as we could see from the license plates of the different cars. There were couples, small families, extended families, and groups of friends. There were hikers, bikers, and rock climbers. We saw a family who looked like they were from India, and we saw a Mennonite family, with the women all in white caps and dresses. There was even a tour bus parked along one edge of the lot, and we could see the tour group bunched up on one of the paved walks, taking pictures of the nearest rock formation (called The Tower of Babel, we found out).


I think Mr. Perkins would be happy.


He would not, however, be happy about the graffiti carved into this rock.

When it was time for us to meet our guide for our class, we went back to the parking lot and followed the directions he’d given us over the phone the night before: “Look for a green Subaru with the hatch open.” That seemed uncomfortably vague to me, especially since the parking lot was very full, but it turned out to be easy. We got back to the parking lot and there was the green Subaru, with hatch open as advertised.


Two people were standing near the car, a man and a woman who could have posed for a matching set of rock-climber-themed salt and pepper shakers. They were both slim, athletic, and brown-skinned from the sun, with dark hair that was crewcut-short underneath and long on top. The man was shirtless, and the woman wore a brightly-colored racer-back tank top. Both of them were pulling off a complicated series of straps that I guessed to be their harnesses.


“Hello,” I said, as we got closer. “Is this where we check in for our rock climbing class?”


It was indeed. The woman finished stowing her gear in the back of the car and left while the man, whose name was Dakota, introduced himself.


This is Dakota, wearing his UPS-style rock climbing guide uniform and his usual stoic expression.

“I’ll be your guide,” he said. “Don’t worry—I’ll put a shirt on before we leave.”


I wondered, from the way he said that, if his company had a policy that said guides should all wear shirts while on the job. Given the heat of the day, going shirtless actually seemed to be the better way to go, and I certainly didn’t care.


“We went on a climb over on the south end of the park,” he continued, “and we’re getting back just a little later than I meant to. Here’s some paperwork for you to fill out while I finish getting out of my gear.”


He handed us some forms and a couple of pens, and, since there weren’t any clipboards or anything, we moved around to write on the hood of the car. One of the forms was a waiver, where we agreed that we understood that bad things could happen while rock climbing, including death and dismemberment, and we promised not to sue the pants off the climbing company if we fell and broke our arms. It was phrased in legalese, of course, and without any sense of humor, but that was the gist. The other form was a rock climbing license for the county, good for a year. Apparently you needed a license in order to climb in the park.


By the time we had finished filling out these forms, Dakota had finished changing. He was now wearing a short-sleeved, button-up brown shirt with a company logo on the pocket, and the long top part of his hair had been pulled back into a neat ponytail. It made him look a little bit like a UPS driver.


Now it was time for gear. He asked us what shoe size we wore, and then handed us climbing shoes from a row inside the back of his car, like the mobile version of the shoe counter at a bowling alley. The climbing shoes looked a little bit like bowling shoes, too. They had uppers of red suede, crisscrossed with white stitching, and they laced up the front with striped nylon shoelaces that had about a foot of extra lace left over when you finished tying them.


Since these were rental shoes, they had a kind of unisex, one-size-fits-most shape to them, which meant that my heels didn’t actually fill out the whole back of the shoe; there was a pouchy bit of empty red leather hanging off the back. My toes fit snugly, however, which seemed to be the important thing.


You can’t really tell from this picture of the outside, but there is no actual heel inside the heel of this shoe.

The whole sole of the climbing shoe was one solid piece of smooth black rubber, like the surface of the tires in car racing. I read on some climbing websites afterward that the sole of the shoe is designed to give the climber really good grip on the rock faces so that you get a secure foothold.


While we were trying the shoes on to make sure that they fit, the other two students in our class arrived. They were a thirteen-year-old boy and his fortysomething dad. The dad was wearing a homemade t-shirt that said “World’s Best Dad, Hands Down,” with two small red handprints right in the middle, which I assumed had been made by his son at some earlier period in life. Aww. It was both cute and dorky, which turned out to be a good description for the two of them, too.


Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of the boy and his dad, so you get a picture of this greeting card instead.

Dakota gave the newcomers the paperwork and then told us to go ahead and change back into our regular shoes for now. We would put the climbing shoes on once we got to our destination. In the meantime, we should put on our harnesses.


The harness he handed me looked like a random jumble of straps and buckles, as though a beginner crafter had been trying to macramé a giant hat out of nylon webbing.


This picture makes it more like a giant macrame cupholder.

“Put this red loop in the front,” Dakota said, demonstrating on his own harness, “and then step into the leg straps. Pull the waist strap up over your hips and tighten all the buckles. Then you’re all set.”


Easy, right? It was for my friend, who had worn Capri-length leggings, and who simply stepped into the harness and pulled it into place. Ta-da!


I, on the other hand, had worn a pair of loose-fitting gym shorts, since the email we’d received ahead of time just said to wear comfortable exercise-type clothes. Also, I appeared to be awkwardly shaped as far as these loaner harnesses were concerned, since I have a slender waist but proportionately gigantic thighs (they’re Irish dancer legs, augmented by Crossfit, and I love them—they just sometimes make it challenging to find jeans that fit. Or harnesses, apparently).


Holding onto the larger waist loop, I stepped into the smaller leg loops and tried to pull the whole contraption up. 1st problem: the loops got stuck halfway up my legs, right above my knee. I tried to shimmy the straps up my thighs, thinking that maybe the gallon of sunscreen I’d applied would help them glide along, but no dice.


Meanwhile, to my embarrassment, Dakota was standing there watching my struggles. He was what you’d call phlegmatic, if you like fancy words, or chill, if you don’t. There was no telling from the look on his face, for instance, whether he was inwardly laughing at my harness dance or cursing me for my stupidity. “I’d suggest loosening the buckle on the front of the leg loops all the way,” he said.


This was the look.

Huh? I looked down and noticed, for the first time, the buckles that controlled the size of the straps. Oh. My friend very nicely loosened them up for me, and I continued to pull on the harness. It still didn’t lift easily into place, as it had for my friend, but at least my harness shimmy was now causing the straps to inch up my legs.


2nd problem: even with the leg loops loosened up as far as they would go, they were still a tight fit, and the loops wanted to creep up under my baggy gym shorts instead of going on top of them.


3rd problem: I didn’t notice the 2nd problem until the loops had dragged my shorts all the way up to my hips, exposing my polka-dot underwear for the whole world to see.


FORTUNATELY, Dakota was helping the boy and his dad get their shoes and harnesses on right at that moment, so I don’t think any of them saw my embarrassing predicament (or my polka-dot underwear).




Here I am celebrating finally getting my harness on.

My friend, giggling the whole time, helped me disentangle my shorts from the leg loops and slide everything into the right place, and then I was finally decent—although my shorts still had a distressing tendency to ride up, and the whole rig looked like I was wearing a giant g-string outside of my clothes.


And the back view–after I’d tugged my shorts back down.

When everybody was ready, we all set out towards the place where we would be climbing. The massive rock formation closest to the parking lot was so big that it had three different names for different sections of it: The Tower of Babel, North Gateway Rock, and Signature Rock. Dakota told us about the formations as we passed them. On top of Gateway Rock was the Kissing Camels, a strange set of eroded rocks that looked like, well, two camels kissing. Dakota told us that the rocks in the Kissing Camels weren’t very stable, so workers had used cement and epoxy to hold them in place.


You can just see the Kissing Camels rock formation at the top.

While we walked, Dakota also asked us questions about ourselves. He asked us what we did for a living, and my friend told him that she was about to leave for grad school, where she would be going for her master’s degree in baroque violin performance. They talked about that for a while, and then Dakota asked the dad, “And what do you do for a living?”


“I do math,” he said. We all waited for him to elaborate on that, but he didn’t.


Later on, Dakota tried again, asking if he was a teacher, but he said that no, he was a private contractor. I got the feeling that he thought it wasn’t worth explaining further because we wouldn’t understand what he actually did.


There were little wooden fences around the perimeter of the rocks, with signs saying that only licensed rock climbers were allowed on the rocks themselves. I felt kind of privileged when we got to a gate in the fence with one of these signs and Dakota opened it for us to go through. Wow! I was a licensed rock climber!


Once we got through the fence, we could see the back side of North Gateway Rock (or possibly Signature Rock) looming above us, looking ominously sheer. At the foot of the cliff was a pile of boulders and smaller rocks that at least looked approachable.

rockwall1webIf you squint, you can see the back side of the Kissing Camels up at the top.

“Go ahead and climb up these boulders to that flat rock above,” Dakota said. “I’ll meet you up there and we’ll get started.”


So we scrambled up the boulders, which was exactly like what I used to do while hiking in college. The climb wasn’t super hard, but the boulders were steep, and you definitely had to use both hands and feet to get to the top. I started to have a slightly uneasy feeling. Dakota had climbed up ahead of us, and he hadn’t even looked back to make sure we were all right. Clearly, he thought that this first scramble wasn’t anything to be concerned about; a casual walk in the park. And my friend and I made it just fine…but it made me wonder exactly how much harder the rock climbing itself was going to be.


Uh-oh! Stay tuned for Part 2!

2011 St. Patrick’s Day Season, Days 4 & 5

Originally published 3/13/2011.

Yesterday was the Denver St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It’s one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day Parades in the US, and the organizers achieve that by opening it up to pretty much any group that applies and pays the entry fee. In the past, we’ve seen floats or marchers from a Hari Krishna temple, Shotgun Willie’s (a Denver strip club), and a group of people dressed as Star Wars stormtroopers, just to name a few examples.

Because the Parade is so big, and has gotten so much bigger since I first participated in 1987, staging it is an amazing spectacle in itself. Groups assemble in the giant parking lots at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, and they are divided up into four different divisions. The Honorary division, the first groups to go when the Parade starts at 10 a.m., start lining up in the parking lots at 8 a.m., and the other divisions get staggered assembly times to that not everyone is arriving all at the same time. Even so, traffic into the parking lots is sluggish, and as you walk to your assembly place, hundreds of people from various groups are walking with you.

This year, we decided to use the Parade to help advertise our annual March stage show. We’re doing an Irish dance version of the Nutcracker this year called the Jigcracker, and it features an Irish girl named Claire, an enchanted Prince (the Jigcracker), a villainous witch, and a friendly dragon. I thought we could have those characters march in the Parade, and along the way we could hand out flyers and business cards.

I’m playing the witch, so on Saturday morning I got up at 6 a.m. to start getting ready. I needed to eat and pack my lunch and things for the day, and also I needed to stretch, because I’m finding that if I don’t stretch twice a day while I’m dancing, I seize up like the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz when he doesn’t get his oil. Once all that was done, I needed to put on my witch makeup, and (to tell the truth) THAT was the part that really scared me.

Even picking out foundation was a daunting task. I don’t usually wear any makeup, and I never really have, so my knowledge of cosmetics is about as sophisticated as a six-year-old’s. I knew enough to realize, however, that I should probably get some kind of foundation with sunscreen in it for the Parade. Without sunscreen, I was going to burn (yay, Irish skin!), but I didn’t figure that eyeshadow and blush were going to stick to my regular super-sweatproof 50+ sunscreen so well. I had heard legends of magical products that contained both sunscreen and foundation , and so I went to King Soopers to attempt to purchase some. In my mind, it was a heroic quest akin to that of Gilgamesh or Ulysses.

There were DOZENS of different kinds of foundation with sunscreen at King Soopers. Not only different brands, but different lines within the different brands, and some of them had dozens of different shades: “Ivory Blush,” “Fairest Porcelain,” “Cream Rose.” I looked for “Fish Belly White,” but I couldn’t find any. Lacking guidance, I blindly picked up the lightest shade of each kind I found and read the back, hoping that I’d find some clue there about whether this was a good brand that would A) prevent the sun from frying me like a hamburger and B) not make my sensitive skin break out in giant red pimples right before St. Patrick’s Day.

None of the bottles mentioned hamburgers or pimples. They did, however, mention that their scientifically-formulated skin-balancing formulas would nourish my pores while restoring that youthful glow. They would moisturize dry skin while evening out oily patches, producing a toned, beautiful look. Wow. I wondered how that worked, exactly. Maybe the formula really was magic, redistributing the oil from the oily patches to the dry parts like irrigation. In that case, I was probably in trouble, because my skin is as dry as a salt flat all over.

Reading the ingredient lists didn’t help, either. Most of the ingredients were chemicals I’d never heard of, which alarmed me somewhat. Did I really want to smear my face with a bunch of unknown chemicals? Knowing that millions of other women happily smeared every day didn’t really help, because I knew about some of the beauty treatments that other cultures have tried over the course of human history (camel dung lip gloss, cones of wax scented with myrrh melting on your head, etc).

In the end, I picked up a tube of Almay Smart Shade, Smart Balance, because it had some writing on the tube that I understood:
1. SPF 15 (OK—that means that I PROBABLY won’t fry)
2. 2.0% Zinc Oxide (Zinc Oxide. Yeah. They use that in sport sunblock. OK).
3. Hypoallergenic. Won’t clog pores. Dermatologist tested. (so I PROBABLY won’t break out in giant red pimples)

It also came in a tube that looked reassuringly like a bottle of sunscreen. Maybe that’s a stupid reason to pick one kind of makeup over another, but at that point I was so lost, anything familiar seemed good.

All that was on Wednesday. Now it was Saturday, and I was ready to get dolled up in my witch’s costume. I couldn’t remember what order I was supposed to do things in. Costume first, then makeup, or the other way around? I finally decided on costume first.

The witch’s costume is kind of a goth fairy thing, since instead of having the Rat King and the mice for our Jigcracker villains, we were going with evil fairies. First, I had a pair of black leggings with holes in them. Over that, I had a black leotard with a high lace neck and lace sleeves. Over that, I had a black velvet dress with a tutu-like skirt made of layers of purple chiffon, and some strips of matching purple at the shoulders.

Once I had all that on, I started on my makeup. The Almay foundation stuff turned out to be really easy to use, just like I’d hoped. I put it on like sunscreen and rubbed it in, and it looked pretty good. The Almay came in three different shades, and I’d picked “Light,” which apparently is “Pale” in French, according to the label. As I put it on, I discovered two things: first, I am paler than “Pale,” which I guess I knew already, and second, regular pale people must have skin that is much more orangey than mine, because where my real skin color and the Almay color showed next to each other on my neck, it looked like I’d been powdering with paprika.

Okay, step one hadn’t gone too badly. Step two: eye liner. I took out a bottle of liquid eyeliner from the all-purpose makeup bag we use for the stage shows every year, and, bracing my right hand with my left to try to stop the nervous tremors, I drew a line under my right eye. Hmm. Not too bad. The line was pretty straight and the right thickness. Okay. I tried the top eyelid. My eye kept twitching as the muscles in my eyelid tried valiantly to fight off my hand, but somehow the line went on decently straight and met up with the bottom line at the corner of my eye.

Encouraged, I moved on to my left eye. This makeup thing wasn’t too hard after all. But then, in my cockiness, I went too fast and made a giant black blob right under my eye. Oops. I wiped it off with a piece of toilet paper, but that took off the Almay as well. Crap. So I reapplied the Almay and tried again. The second time went better. So then I did my top lid. My top eyelid was jumping so much that my hand slipped and somehow the eyeliner ended up, not along the lash line, but below that, on the skin right next to the eyeball. I didn’t think that was going to be good for my eye. Very carefully, I wiped it off with a corner of the toilet paper, and managed to fix it without taking off any of my other makeup. Then, with a deep breath, I redid the eyeliner on the top. It was way thicker than the right eye, but by that point I didn’t care. I had about ten minutes before I had to leave, and I figured that anybody who got close enough to see my shoddy makeup job was also close enough that I could punch them if they said anything about it.

I added blue eyeshadow all the way up to my eyebrows, and then added another layer to make sure it showed. Then I added blush. I’d read somewhere that you’re supposed to highlight your cheekbones with blush, so I tried that, and it worked okay on one side but came out really crooked on the other. Apparently, the witch’s left cheekbone was deformed. Too bad. Then I added some really bright magenta lipstick and headed out the door, right at 7:30 when I had to leave. There was a guy sitting in the car beside mine in the parking lot, and he stared at me as I jumped in and drove off. I think I forgot to mention that I’d gotten my hair ready for the long purple and black wig I was going to wear, so my hair was in three ponytails sticking out at weird angles from my head. I’d be interested in finding out what my neighbor thought I was up to.

I got about two blocks away and realized that I’d forgotten my sound system, which we were going to pull in front of the dancers so they had some music. I couldn’t use any other sound system, since that one was the only battery-powered one we had, so I turned around and went home again.

When I got to the studio where some of us were meeting to carpool, father-daughter dancers Doug and Morgan were already there. They got out of the car, and when Doug saw me, he stopped and said, “Wow.” And it wasn’t “Wow, you look so beautiful,” but more, “Wow, you look so weird that I don’t know what to say that won’t make you hit me.”

Great. Well, I was supposed to be an evil, creepy witch, so maybe that was coming across.

My sister and some of our other dancers arrived shortly, and we started packing up the cars with the things we were going to need for the parade. One of the things we were taking was the friendly dragon from our show, which is a 7-person Chinese parade dragon on bamboo poles that the dancers nicknamed Charlie. Getting Charlie into the back of my sister’s car while leaving room for three people to ride was kind of like a 3-D puzzle, but we figured it out, and by 8:20 or so we were squished into two cars and headed downtown.

We reached the performers’ parking area at Coors’ field right at 9 and walked to our assembly area. The dancers in the carpool carried Charlie, and a lot of heads turned to watch us as we walked by. People were probably wondering what kind of entry we were: adult dancers Doug, Phil, Natalie, and Krystal were all dressed in black to be the dragon-handlers; I was wearing my witch outfit, complete with the long black-and-purple wig that I’d put on in the car, plus a crystal tiara, and kid dancers Morgan and Emma were dressed as the Jigcracker and Claire, respectively. Neither of them is actually playing that part in the show, but since the real actors couldn’t be there Saturday morning, Morgan and Emma were nice enough to dress up as the parts.

Morgan was wearing all black with the Jigcracker mask, which my cousin Brendon (who will actually be playing the part) made out of an old fencing mask, some googly eyes, and a yellow feather boa which he cut into the eyebrows and mustache. It also has some great teeth, and it looks kind of like a Muppet version of the Nutcracker. Emma was wearing a frilly pink party dress and carrying the small Nutcracker doll. She looked great, but she hates pink and kept saying so until we told her that she could pretend to be an evil fairy who was just dressing up as Claire to fool people. That made her feel better about it.

We got to the space reserved for our entry and met up with some more of our dancers, most of whom were dressed in our school’s dance costumes. Then came the best part of the Parade: waiting! The Parade itself didn’t start until 10 a.m., and since were in the second division and 73 entries back even in that division, we didn’t actually get to start marching in the Parade until after 11. So there was a lot of time to kill. Luckily, there were a lot of interesting entries all around us (including the Good Times Hamburgers and Frozen Custard truck, which delighted the dancers by handing out free frozen custard), and between that and practicing what we would do when we finally got to start the parade, the waiting wasn’t too bad.

When my sister and I thought we might be starting in the next twenty minutes, we told the kids they should use the portapotty before we went, because it would be their last chance. It seemed to be good advice, so I went, too. Then I discovered an unfortunate thing about the witch outfit. I was wearing leggings and a leotard under the dress, and there was no way to go to the bathroom without taking all of it off. In the tiny confines of the portapotty, where I didn’t really want any of my costume touching anything anyway, that was kind of a challenge. Fortunately (?), I’ve had many years of experience changing in portapotties at various Irish festivals, so my costume and I emerged unscathed.

Eventually, the groups in front of us started to move, and we were on our way. Three parents holding our banner went in front, followed by a parent pulling our wheeled, battery-operated sound system, followed by the three of us dressed as characters, followed by 27 dancers dressed in their school uniforms. We were divided up into groups of three, with the taller and older dancers in the middle, holding hands with a smaller, younger dancer on each side. At the back, 7 people carried Charlie the dragon, while another 5 or 6 people waited to step in as subs in case the dragon handlers got tired and needed a break. Alongside, other parents handed out show flyers and business cards.

It went great. The dancers would do some simple 3’s and 7’s for half a block or so, and then Charlie would run alongside and entertain everyone while the dancers slowed to a walk for a rest. Doug and Phil, who alternately took Charlie’s head, were very funny, and both of them would pick out kids in the crowd and swoop down on them, pretending to eat them. Kids LOVED Charlie. A bunch of times, I looked back and saw Charlie delayed behind us so people could take pictures with him.

Do you know the other person who got some requests for pictures? Me. I’ve been doing the Parade on and off since 1987, and I’ve never had anyone but my dancers want to take my picture before.

The first time, I was walking alongside the line of my dancers, yelling over the crowd noise what we were going to do next. A very large, very drunk man touched my arm and said, “Excuse me—can I get a picture with you?”

“Uh, sure,” I said.

“Thanks!” Then he turned to his friends on the side. “Hey! Quick—get a picture of me and Lady Gaga!”

Lady Gaga?

But, as we walked and danced the mile-and-a-half Parade route, I heard a bunch of people shout that they loved Lady Gaga, and I posed for two more pictures with people. Good grief. I hope that people at the stage show realize that I’m a goth witch and not Lady Gaga, or that could get kind of confusing. (“Mommy? Why are Lady Gaga and her backup dancers trying to kill the Nutcracker?”)

The only two other things that were a problem were the Jigcracker mask, which was too big and rubbed a raw spot on Morgan’s chin until we padded it with a pair of gloves, and the sound system. The sound system has an iPod dock on top, and it works very well usually, but it didn’t like trying to play while it was bumping up and down on the road. Every couple minutes, the iPod would jar lose and stop playing over the amp, but luckily we’ve got some very creative parents who managed to wedge it in place with a phone cover.

The kids were real troopers. They walked and danced the whole way without complaint, smiling and waving every time they marched, and some of the kids were only 7. That’s a long way for little legs. But they were great, and I hope everybody had a good time. I sure did.

Well, until I got back to the studio for our afternoon Jigcracker rehearsal and my shop assistant looked at me and said, “Wow. You look…wow.”

Yeah. Thanks.

We had a great afternoon rehearsal (the show is going to be really good), and then several of us ran different shows in the evening. Everything apparently went OK, except for when my sister showed up at her show and found out it was a gated community, with a locked gate and no attendant to let them in. They finally found a back way in, fortunately.

Today was pretty quiet, with only one show, and Phil very nicely ran it so that my sister and I could take the day off (thanks, Phil!). I really appreciated the day off, because after the whirlwind week we’d had, I was exhausted. It’s nice to have a little breather before diving into next week.

More tomorrow!

2011 St. Patrick’s Day Season, Day 3

Originally written 3/11/2011.

Wow. I really thought, as I was writing my Day 1 post (, that nothing this St. Pat’s season could top my screw-up on Wednesday. Honestly, I thought that nothing in the next five to ten St. Pat’s seasons could top my screw-up on Wednesday. I figured people would be talking about “the great screw-up of ‘11” with their grandchildren around the campfire, right along with the time when the old lady hit our dancer Phil with her walker (remind me to tell you about that one sometime).

But no. I had to go and top it two days later.

My sister and I performaned a show this morning at a retirement community in Denver, and it was a great show. The community had an auditorium with an actual stage and dressing rooms, which was a treat. Most of the time, we’re dancing on our plywood boards in a rec room or a dining room. This time, we were on a huge wooden stage four feet off the ground. The kids did a good job, including four of them who were doing their first or second show in public, and the audience just loved them. Afterwards, the kids went out and talked to people, and the organizer gave them cookies. The kids were so happy. How can you top free cookies?

The show was very close to our store and office, so my sister and I went back there to have lunch and catch up on office work. We both had shows in the evening, my sister in Boulder and me in Denver, so we figured we’d get a bunch of stuff done, including some planning for next week’s shows, and then we could leave around 5 to get to our next performances. It felt good to actually be ahead for once.

At 2:00, the phone rang.

Me: Hello?
Voice on the other end: Hi, I’m calling because we’re supposed to be having dancers this afternoon, and the letter we got said people would arrive at 1:45 to set up. It’s 2, and no one’s here yet.
Me: Thanks for letting me know. Give me one moment and I’ll check on that for you.

A strange, deep calm came over me. I think it was shock setting in. I opened up the Excel spreadsheet which has all our show information in it, and I looked at the shows for 3/11/11. Yep, sure enough, we were booked for a show in Commerce City from 2:30-3:00 p.m. I even remembered sending out the contract, since the activities director for the facility had an unusual name. Too bad I hadn’t remembered before then.

My brain seized up. I had no idea what to do next. Luckily (I guess), my mouth just kept right on talking.

Me: Well, it looks like there was some kind of administrative mix-up about the time of your show on our end. We’ll be there as quickly as we can, and I apologize if we’re a few minutes late.

The activities director didn’t sound too thrilled as she said OK and hung up, and I couldn’t blame her. If our situations were reversed, I would be absolutely furious.

My brain still wasn’t working, but my mouth shouted to my sister that we had a show I’d forgotten about, and we probably needed to leave right then. My sister, bless her, said (after first making sure she’d heard be right), “Okay, let me pack our dresses back up.” Less than two minutes later, we were in the car and headed north towards Commerce City as quickly as traffic would let us.

One of the great things about my relationship with my sister is that we rarely freak out at the same time. Usually, one of us freaks out while the other one is rational and compassionate. My sister was a rock all the way up to the show, and I don’t know what I would have done without her. She assured me that:
A) I wasn’t going prematurely senile
B) I hadn’t “lost my mojo,” as I insisted on putting it, and
C) Everything was going to work out okay

After I calmed down, we spent the rest of the drive alternately planning the show and trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Here (in case you’re interested) is what happened:

When we get a booking, we enter the show on the Excel spreadsheet, make a performance contract and letter, and then print out a sign-up sheet. The contract and letter go to the show organizer, and the sign-up sheet goes in our show notebook so that dancers can sign up to be in that particular show. There are three of us who work in the office, and any of us can make contracts.

We can’t remember which of us made this particular contract, but whoever it was must have been interrupted before they printed out the sign-up sheet. The show was on the spreadsheet, and we made the contract, but no sign-up sheet ever got made.

This was a big problem for two reasons. The first was that my sister and I both often use the sign-up sheets to remind ourselves about upcoming shows, and both of us had looked at the sign-up sheets instead of the spreadsheet while we were sending making our calendars. Since the spreadsheet and the show notebook are supposed to be the same, it hadn’t seemed like a big deal. That was why I had forgotten about the show.

The second reason it was a BIG problem was that, without a sign-up sheet, no one had signed up for the show, because they didn’t know it was happening. This time, it wasn’t just a case of me getting my times mixed up and being late while everyone else was already there. This time, there wasn’t anyone else. Not only were we late, but my sister and I were going to have to do the whole 30-minute performance by ourselves.

It was about 2:40 when we finally reached the nursing home. My sister started unloading the boards and sound system while I ran inside. We’d performed at this facility before, so I knew where to go. Inside the dining room, which had been converted into an open space for the show, there were about twenty-five residents, all sitting and facing the very empty spot in the middle. There was a woman standing near the empty spot, looking expectantly and disappointedly at me as I came in, and since she looked like she was in charge, I went up to her and groveled shamelessly. There had been an administrative error…I was very, very sorry this had happened…we pride ourselves on timeliness…we would perform for free as an apology….

The woman, who had a thin, disapproving face, looked at me stonily, and after a moment she said, “That’s nice, but you’ll have to repeat all that to the activities director.”

So, she got the activities director, a much younger, friendly-looking woman, and I groveled shamelessly all over again. Administrative error…very sorry…timeliness…free show….

She was great. She said, “Hey, these things happen, and don’t worry about it. Go ahead and set up your stage, and when you’re ready, I’ll show you where to change.”

So my sister and I set up the stage while the disapproving woman (who was, thank God, an employee and not a random resident) asked the residents some trivia questions about ad slogans. We got dressed, and at 3:00 we were ready to do our show.

The show went surprisingly well. My sister and I took turns dancing, doing 1 or 2 steps at a time with the various pieces of music we’d prepared for our regular shows. Between each dance, one of us would take the mic and talk about the dancing and the culture. After we’d done all four soft shoe dances, I talked about the costumes and walked around the room showing everybody the embroidery on my team costume while my sister changed her shoes. Then I changed my shoes while she did the next dance. We’ve danced together for so long that we didn’t need to communicate much about what we were going to do, and I think all the dances looked fine. We did have a couple comedy moments in the last number because we hadn’t decided beforehand who was going first, but we hammed it up and the audience laughed and it was all good.

Anyway, I was dripping with sweat by the time we finished and my face looked exactly like a ripe tomato, but I felt like we’d given the audience a good performance. I also felt better about my fitness. If I could get through a 2-person show and still be able to talk between the numbers, maybe I was in better shape than I thought. Guess we’ll find out for sure tomorrow morning.

Fortunately for us, both our shows in the evening were fantastic. Both of us were performing for special needs groups, and those are some of the best shows we do all year. The audiences are enthusiastic, appreciative, and excited to do the audience participation numbers we throw in for them, and afterwards they want to take pictures of us and get our autographs. They make us feel like rock stars. One year, they chanted for us to do an encore until we came back after the show was over, and this year they gave us a standing ovation at the end.

That’s why we do this—to make audiences happy. All the preparation and practice and long days are 100% worth it when we can brighten someone’s day. At the end of our 2-person show in the middle of the day, one of the residents stayed in the dining room to watch us as we took up the floor and packed up, because she didn’t want it to be over just yet.

And somehow, that moment made everything that had happened feel all right.

Lazy Chef Recipe: Pizza Rice


1 cup white rice (dry)

1 lb ground chicken, turkey, or beef

1 medium yellow onion, diced

1 green pepper, diced

1 clove garlic, diced

1 small can mushroom pieces, drained

1 cup pizza sauce (plain tomato sauce also works)

2 cups chicken broth or water

1 cup mozzarella cheese

1 T olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. In a pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, green pepper, and garlic, and cook until softened, 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  2. Add the ground chicken (or turkey or beef) and cook until browned all the way through, stirring frequently.
  3. Add the chicken broth (or water), pizza sauce, rice, and mushrooms. Stir all the ingredients together and turn the heat up to high.
  4. When the liquid comes to a boil, cover the pot and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 20 minutes.
  5. Turn the heat off and stir in the cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. This is a really flexible recipe. Don’t like green peppers/mushrooms/onions? Leave them out! Looking for a vegetarian recipe? Make it without the ground chicken! Like olives or other ingredients on your pizza? Add them! It’s really easy to customize (and you only have to wash one pot!).

Servings: 4

Nutritional info (using ground chicken):

Calories: 487

Protein: 34 g

Carbs: 46 g

Fat: 19 g


Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Overall appropriateness for lazy chefs: Very Good! Upgrade to “Fantastic!” if you can find someone to chop the vegetables for you.


The Saddest Goodbye

My dear, I have loved you for so many days,

But the time has now come for a parting of ways.

I still find you beautiful; it’s not that at all.

You’re slender and graceful, shapely and tall.

You still light up my life—oh, very much so.

Watching you fills me with a warm, happy glow.

I still love your limbs, your trunk, and your smell,

And the way you wear your adornments so well.

But people are starting to look all askance

At what could become a May-December romance.

I’m afraid I’ve already held on for too long

To a love I increasingly know to be wrong.

So this is goodbye. We can no longer be.

I must take you down now, my dear Christmas tree.


2011 St. Patrick’s Day Season, Day 2

Originally written 3/10/11.

Today went better.

I wasn’t sure it was going to when I got out of bed. Everything felt stiff and sore, despite the fact that I’d stretched for twenty minutes before going to bed the night before. So I stretched for another twenty minutes after breakfast. I tried not to think about what getting out of bed during St. Patrick’s season was going to feel like in another five years, if I was this sore at thirty-five. Ugh. Then again, in another five years I might be in better shape than I am now.

I carefully double-checked the times of all my shows before leaving the house. Too bad I didn’t do that yesterday.

As I walked down the stairs of my third-floor condo to where my car was parked, I was carrying everything that I needed to do my two shows:
1. My purse
2. My lunch bag, which today was really my lunch/dinner/snack bag
3. My shoe bag, with my hard shoes and soft shoes
4. My dress bag, with my dress, flashpants, cape, and headband
5. Another bag with a change of clothes and all the paperwork I needed for the day, like directions
6. The accessory bag for the sound system, which holds a power strip, extension cord, microphone, microphone cord, amp power cord, iPod, business cards, pens, and the all-important duct tape
7. And last, but not least, the sound system itself.

We need boards to dance on, too, but I’d left those in the car overnight. Anybody desperate enough to break into my car to steal some beat-up 2’ x 2’ squares of plywood was obviously beyond my help.

I carried the sound system in my hands (luckily, it’s got handles), and everything else hung in bags from my shoulders. By the time I’d reached my car, most of the shoulder straps were hanging around my elbows and cutting off my circulation, and I was doing a kind of limbo dance trying to keep them from sliding down to my wrists. It actually gave me a great idea for money on the side—I could make an “Irish Dance Teacher St. Patrick’s Season Exercise Video.” Workout one: fill six sandbags, attach shoulder straps, pick up the 20-pound dumbbells, and walk down the stairs…

We did two shows today. The first was at a hotel, where we danced for a group of seniors attending a sales pitch for a retirement home. We’re actually dancing at that particular retirement home next week, and I can’t wait to see it. The show organizers were really wining and dining the potential residents. I’m interested to find out if the facility lives up to the hype.

The second show was at a very, very nice retirement home. We’ve danced there every St. Pat’s season for the last several years, and I always look forward to it. It’s got pleasant carpet and décor, the staff is professional and friendly, and it smells nice—which, let me tell you, is a factor I hope you take into account when you’re choosing a nursing home. We’ve danced at plenty of places that did NOT smell nice. The best thing about this particular facility, though, is that the residents seem happy there. That, sadly, is not always the case.

Both shows went beautifully. The dancers, who ranged in age from seven to twenty-seven, did their steps well, showed up on stage in the right place and at the right time, and really looked like they were having a ball. When shows go well like that, it creates a wonderful cycle: the dancer’s energy infects the audience, who clap and smile, and then the audience’s energy gets reflected back to the dancers, making them dance even better. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. I was so proud of my dancers.

Of course, no show in the history of performance has ever gone foible-free, so there were a couple funny moments, but only a couple:

At the first show, we had another instance of Impeded Access to the Stage. We were dancing in a hotel conference room, and the organizers had cleared a space in the middle of the room for us to dance. The rest of the space was taken up with round tables that had chairs all around them. There wasn’t any space in the room itself for the dancers to stand when they weren’t actually dancing, so we decided to put our backstage area outside in the hall.

I mentioned to the organizers that we would do this, and I told them that one of the tables was standing pretty much right between the door and the stage. I said that we needed a pathway to the stage, and they said they’d move the table a little.

When we came into the room to start our show, the table was still there, and now it had people sitting around it, completely blocking the pathway to the stage. I asked the organizers what we could do, and they asked if we could walk around the other side of the table, which is what we ended up doing. However, right then a group of waiters came in with a drink cart and parked it right on the other side of the table, so the dancers got to dodge both table and waiters. It was like a live-action, Irish dance Frogger game (and the dancers handled it perfectly—better than the waiters, who kept bumping into each other).

At the second show, we had another instance of Changing in Strange Places. The friendly organizer of the second show had remembered that we needed a place to change, and had arranged for us to have the facility’s chapel to ourselves. She even put paper over the window so no one could see in. It was warm, private, and spacious, but I felt odd, getting changed in front of the picture of Jesus at the front of the room. That was a new one for me.

Now I’m off to stretch and go to bed. My sister and I have a show together tomorrow morning, and then each of us has a separate show tomorrow night. I hope the weather is as nice tomorrow as it was today. It was warm and sunny today, like a preview of spring.

More tomorrow!

2011 St. Patrick’s Day Season, Day 1

Originally written 3/9/11.

St. Patrick’s Day, for anyone reading this who is not involved with Irish dancing, is the busiest season of the year for stepdancers. Our small school usually performs 50 times or more during the month. It’s crazy–and produces a lot of fodder for blog posts.

Today was the real start of our St. Patrick’s Day madness. For the next eleven days, we’ve got at least one performance every day, building up to March 17th itself, when we’ve got five groups that will perform 4-5 shows each. Then, on March 19 & 20, we’ll be doing our big annual stage show.

I spent the morning frantically trying to do everything that had to get done for the day, feeling like I was answering emails with one hand and taking phone messages with the other. One of the phone calls was from someone who wanted to book a show for “anytime next week.” Cue hysterical laughter.

I left at 1 p.m. for the first of the day’s three shows. The first two shows were back-to-back 45-minuters at a nice nursing home. One of the benefits (?) of this job is that we get a great tour of the different retirement options available to us in the future. This particular facility is great, and the residents seem well cared for. Some of the other places we’ll be dancing this season are not as nice.

Note to self: be better about putting money in the retirement fund.

The first two shows went very well. The dancers did a good job, and the audiences seemed to enjoy them.

Only a few minor foibles: despite the letter we send to venues reminding them that we need a place to change before the show, the activities coordinator forgot to set anything up, and the girls ended up changing in a private dining room with an uncovered window opening onto the main dining room. We tried to squeeze into the corners away from the window and then prayed no one walked by. The boys got to change in the restroom, but since nursing home restrooms tend to be single-occupant, they had to change one at a time.

We also remind the venues in advance that we need a place to stand during the show with unimpeded access to the stage. We send out this reminder because of unfortunate occurrences in the past. At this show, I didn’t communicate very well with the coordinator beforehand, and right when we were getting ready to walk out on stage for our first number, I found out that the door between our chosen backstage and the stage itself was now blocked by residents in wheelchairs. Oops! Luckily, most of our dancers are flexible from long experience, so we just moved our “backstage” area to a hallway on the other side of the stage.

Sadly, in moving to our new backstage area, I dropped the brand-spanking-new microphone that had come with our brand-spanking-new amp with iPod dock, and I broke it. I’ve broken mics in the past, but this was the first one that actually broke. In half. It was impressive. Maybe we can duct tape it together…?

Everything else went well. We had our share of frankensteps, which is what we call it when dancers change their choreography on the fly (usually because they’ve completely forgotten what they’re actually supposed to be doing). My favorite frankenstep of the day was when 7-year-old James (doing his third show ever! Yay!) apparently tried to do a step he’d taught himself by watching his twin sister. I guess he must have known it wasn’t going well, since he was looking over his shoulder at me the whole time.

Despite being out of shape and rusty, I made it through my numbers without any major gaffes, although I hope the two moms taking videos of me never let anyone else see them. I swear I used to be better at this.

We finished the show at 4:15, and even after packing up I figured that I had time to run some errands before heading to the west side of town for our show at 7:00 p.m. We needed a bunch of duct tape and some new plywood boards (that’s what we make our portable stage with. It’s low tech, but it’s cheap and it works).

So I headed to Home Depot. On the way there, my coolant light came on. No problem—I knew how to refill the coolant. I even had some in my trunk. So when I got to Home Depot, I pulled it out while I cleared some space in the trunk for the new boards.

Ever notice how much weird stuff accumulates in the trunk? Mine is especially bad. It was ESPECIALLY bad this time, since our 1995 Saturn recently went to the big parking lot in the sky, and all the junk from ITS trunk was still in the 2002 Saturn. So I had two snow shovels, a pair of dirty tube socks, a feather duster, and all these random pieces of plastic.

Okay, after St. Pat’s, I have GOT to clean this out.

Anyway, I made space and picked up the coolant. That was before I noticed it was leaking all down the front of my jacket. Dang it. And the one thing that wasn’t in my trunk was paper towels. I wiped off what I could with a piece of Kleenex and then carried the coolant well away from my body as I walked around to the hood. I opened the hood and looked at the coolant tank. It said, in big letters, DO NOT OPEN WHEN HOT. Hmm. Maybe I should get the floor and then do the coolant when I came back.

So I went to buy my duct tape and boards. The guy in the lumber area, a big man named Joe who seemed kind of disillusioned with life, helped me get the boards down. The boards were each 8’ x 4’ and I needed them 2’ x 2’, so Joe cut them for me. I stood and watched, since I like watching the cool upright saw and frame they use at Home Depot. Joe was standing right under the safety sign that told employees to wear eye protection and not wear gloves, and I couldn’t help but notice that he had gotten those two reversed. I didn’t think Joe would appreciate me pointing it out, though.

As I pushed my cart full of boards back to the front, I noticed that the sawdust from cutting the wood was sticking to the wet spot of coolant on the front of my jacket. Dang it. I got back to the car, put my boards in the trunk, made a lame attempt to clean off the sawdust/coolant mixture, and then opened the hood again.

Just then, my phone rang. It was the mom of one of my dancers.

Mom: Hey, are you okay?
Me: (puzzled) Um, yeah. Why do you ask?
Mom: Because you’re not at the show.
Me: Um, the show’s at 7 and it’s only 5:45.
Mom: The show’s at 6.
Me: Uh…

Somehow, I had gotten my times mixed up. I don’t think that’s ever happened before (although I have made plenty of other stupid mistakes with shows—ask me sometime about the time I sent everybody to the corner of University & Arapahoe in Denver instead of the corner of University & Arapahoe in Boulder, and hour’s drive away). I slammed the hood, jumped in the car, and drove off like a Nascar wannabe up I-25. While I was weaving in and out of traffic at 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, I was still talking on the phone (DON’T DO THIS AT HOME, KIDS). The problem was that I had our sound system and iPod, and no one else had a backup. Also, because of the numbers and levels of the dancers we had, we couldn’t do the show without everybody. Like, for instance, me. So I asked the mom to talk to the show organizer and find out what she wanted to do, and in the meantime get the dancers dressed and ready to dance so I could jump out of the car and into the show the minute I got there.

Which would have been ugly, what with my sawdust/coolant jacket and my hair flying everywhere. Did I mention it had been really windy in the Home Depot parking lot?

Fortunately, the show organizer was lovely and understanding and just rearranged the order of the evening so we were at the end of the dinner program we were dancing for instead of in the middle. I got there at 6:15 (the exact time I’d planned to be there for the show I thought was at 7), and we went on at 6:45. It was not our most polished show, but, considering everything, I thought it went fine.

Thank goodness for all our fabulous moms and dancers. I promise I will double check all the showtimes for the rest of the season. And I will cross my fingers that this is the worst thing that happens to us in the next eleven days.

More tomorrow!

Adventure #18–VRBO

Note: I didn’t think it would be very nice for me to post pictures of the hilariously awful listings I found on VRBO (what if I hurt someone’s feelings?), so instead I am using pictures of the lovely cabin I ended up renting in Winter Park, Colorado, plus some of the beautiful sights in that area.



My husband and I were supposed to take a trip to Yellowstone National Park in July. I’d never been there before, and I was very excited to pack several new adventures into our week of vacation.


But then Ray tore his ACL (, and our plans for Yellowstone kind of went out the window. For one thing, he used up most of his vacation days for his surgery and recovery; also, I wanted to go horseback riding and back-country hiking, and he wasn’t going to be cleared for that by the end of July.


And if rehab wasn’t going well and his knee was still bothering him, I REALLY didn’t want to be stuck in a car with him for 9 hours on the way there and 9 hours on the way back.


So, with sadness, we postponed our Yellowstone trip to 2016 (which actually turned out OK, since I found out later that I had mono during the time we would have been gone–


berthoudwebThe view at Berthoud Pass


I’d already taken the week off work for myself, though, and I decided that I would take a little mini-vacation somewhere in the mountains of Colorado to make up for missing our road trip. I invited a friend of mine to come with me for a couple days, and she suggested finding a place to stay on VRBO instead of looking for a regular hotel.


VRBO stands for Vacation Rental By Owner, and it’s a website where people who own condos, cabins, and second houses can rent them out to people looking for a place to stay while traveling. I had never heard of it before, but my friend’s family uses it for all their getaways.

dairywebThe Dairy King in Empire, Colorado

I told my friend that I would check it out, but privately I thought that I would end up booking a standard hotel room. “Rental By Owner” conjured up pictures in my head of sleeping on a cousin’s couch, only instead of a cousin it was a complete stranger.


I think part of why I imagined this was a recent experience where Ray and I booked a hotel room on Expedia, only to find that the “hotel” was the owners’ house (where they actually lived), and the room was basically a guest bedroom off the owners’ living room. The room was nice and the owners were very friendly, but for two shy introverts, the situation was awkward in the extreme.


I didn’t want to end up in that situation again.


tomatowebI made my friend pull over so that I could take a picture of this sign in Empire. I mean, how could I miss taking a photo of cowboy tomatoes?

However, to humor my friend, I went ahead and checked out the website. The website was attractive and professional-looking, with a search feature at the top where you could enter a location, dates, and number of guests. If you preferred, you could also click on a map at the bottom of the site instead that showed the whole US and locations in more than 100 other countries.


Encouraged, I started a search for “Colorado, USA” for two people, since I didn’t really have a particular destination in mind. All I knew was that I wanted to stay in someplace cute where I could go hiking (my birthday hike having been tragically cut short).

hardrockweb“The Original Hard Rock Cafe” in Empire

I clicked the “Search” button and was taken to a map of Colorado. The state had been divided into different regions, with the major cities in each region highlighted below the heading. This way, you could search in particular areas. You could also apply a number of different filters to your search, like price, number of bedrooms, and type of rental (house, condo, etc).


Since there were 17,000 rentals listed under the Colorado search, I applied some filters and tried again. My dad had given me some money for my birthday that I wanted to use for the mini-vacation, so I knew how much I wanted to spend; that was one filter. Some of the rentals you can find on VRBO are HUGE, sleeping 12-24 people, and, while these are very reasonable per person, it can be kind of startling when you see a house listed for $500 per night.

nowlegalweb“Now Legal!” Only in Colorado. And Washington, I guess.

I also used the “type of rental” filter. With that one, you could click the kind of properties you were interested in, which was fun. I clicked “Cabin,” “Cottage,” and “House,” and then, because they sounded intriguing, I also clicked “Villa,” “Barn,” and “Recreational Vehicle.” I would have clicked “Houseboat” and “Castle,” but there weren’t any properties of that type in Colorado. Too bad. A houseboat or castle sounded fun.


After applying these filters, I was left with about 100 listings, and I started looking through them. The rentals were listed vertically down the page, with a picture on the left, a headline in the middle, and the price on the right. More information was printed on a second line: number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, minimum stay required, and visitor rating out of 5 stars.


peakswebIndian Peaks Wilderness in Arapaho National Forest

Well, some of this information made it easy to exclude listings right away. A number of places had minimum stays of a week or more (including some 30-day minimum stays), and I only wanted to stay 2 nights. So I could just scroll past those.


Also, some of the places had 3 or 4 bedrooms and slept 10-12, and those seemed bigger than what we really needed. So I skipped those, too.


But a number of the places looked like they would work. For any of the ones that looked interesting, I clicked on the headline to open the specific property information in a new tab.


This new window showed all sorts of information. Here, you could look at multiple pictures of the property, both inside and out; read a description of the rental and its location; see if the rental was available on the dates you were interested in; and read reviews. You could also get all of your questions answered, like “Is there internet?”, “Can I bring my dog?”, and “Is the cabin wheelchair accessible?” Additionally, there was a box on the side saying how many years the owner had been involved with VRBO, whether they were good at getting back to potential renters, and how long (on average) it took them to get back to you.


Everything was informative, easy to use, and very professionally laid out. I started to feel better about the whole enterprise.


So I opened up all the listings that looked like they might be fun and settled down to scroll through the information and reviews.


I quickly learned several things, which I will pass on to you in case you ever try VRBO:

  1. “Rustic” is a word to be very wary of (which was too bad, because it was a word that kept attracting me). While the properties described as rustic were indeed the log cabins in wilderness areas that I was imagining, they were also often scantily-furnished and uncomfortable-looking inside.

For instance, the attractively-priced “Rustic Cabin in Majestic Mountain Setting” turned out to be one room containing no furniture except for two bunk beds and a double bed (with mattresses that looked suspiciously like the foam pads you get at summer camp). The bathroom and showers were in a separate, communal bathhouse.

The description was a masterpiece of spin doctoring: “This cabin is an awesome alternative to tent camping;” “rather than driving all day to a campsite and fighting to get your tent up, you can arrive at your cabin and set your gear inside, lay out your sleeping bag and enjoy a campfire;” “there is no bathroom but the bathhouse is just a few yards away.”

I’ll pass, thanks.

cabinwebThis cabin, for instance, might be “rustic.”

  1. Do a little more research into the places that show dozens of pictures of the quaint, charming exterior and the gorgeous surrounding scenery, but only 1 or 2 pictures of the inside. Either the inside is not the rental’s best feature, or they are trying to downplay less-than-ideal features. For instance (and all of the examples I list in this post are real):
  • The bedroom can only be reached by climbing a ladder.
  • The cabin is one big room, and all the furniture, including all the bedroom furniture, is stuffed inside it (which might be a problem if you’re traveling with people you need breaks from).
  • The bathroom is the size of a closet.
  • Only one person at a time can fit in the kitchen.


  1. “Kitchenette” means a microwave and mini-fridge. My friend and I wanted to cook, so I scratched all the places with just a kitchenette off my list. Depending on what you’re looking for, a kitchenette might be perfect.


  1. Be sure to read the description of the rental carefully, especially if they don’t have many (or any) pictures of the exterior. You might find that:
  • The room is in the owners’ basement.
  • The rental is an apartment over the owners’ garage.
  • The cabin is in the owners’ backyard.

Depending on your comfort level, these things might work just fine for you. But shy introverts, beware!


  1. Definitely look at all the pictures to see if the house has any features that you might not want, like:
  • Bunk beds in the dining room
  • 3 or 4 beds in the bedroom (which would be great if you’ve got lots of people, but odd and cramped if you only have two)
  • Old CRT televisions (which wouldn’t have mattered to me for this trip, because my friend and I didn’t use the TV at all, but which would have been a dealbreaker for my husband)
  • There are a washer and dryer, but they are inside the rental’s only restroom.
  • The décor in the bedroom is Pepto Bismol pink.
  • The bed is a mattress on the floor.
  • The whole living room is taken up by a giant ping pong table.
  • The “stovetop” is a portable camp stove, the shower is a slab of concrete with a curtain around it, the walls are decorated with dozens of different kinds of topless mermaids—and all of this is crammed into one 200-square-foot room (I actually considered this place—what an adventure it would have been to write about!).

moose1webI didn’t know until a few years ago that moose actually lived in Colorado. We are at the very southern end of their range. I was so excited by this sign and the idea that I might see a moose that every time we passed a meadow while hiking, I would say, “This would be a lovely place to see a moose!” My friend thought this was very funny and took to saying it for me.

  1. Don’t click on the RVs. If you want an RV experience, you can rent one and take a road trip. The RVs I found on VRBO were parked in the owners’ driveways. Awkward!

The 1930’s shepherd’s wagon I found in Steamboat Springs might be fun for a night, though. It would definitely be an adventure, since the bathroom and kitchen are in the main house, and of course the wagon is tiny, but the bed looked a heck of a lot more comfortable than the one in the “rustic cabin” I found.


moose2webAnd then, as we were driving out of the Arapaho National Forest, WE DID SEE A MOOSE! I nearly scared my friend to death screaming for her to stop the car so that I could take a picture.

  1. And, of course, when you find a place that you like in all other respects, be sure to read the reviews. The reviews caused me to scratch several places off my list, especially when multiple reviews mentioned the same problems (rental in disrepair, rental not clean, smell of gas, etc).

Also, if the owner replies to the reviews and is combative, rude, or completely ungrammatical (or all three), I would just give that property a miss.


With any of these points, what will work for you depends on who you’re traveling with, whether you’re going to cook your own meals, and your own personality. You might love some of the things I hated (and Ray, for instance, would have hated some of the things I loved). That’s why it’s really important to read all the information and reviews. The rentals on VRBO are not hotel rooms; each rental is unique, and there is A LOT of variation from one to the other.


After looking at listings for a couple hours (and discovering all the things above), I was left with about a dozen different possibilities, which I then emailed to my friend. We picked our top two, and I decided to contact our favorite one. However, this whole process happened over several days, and in the meantime our #1 pick had been rented out for the dates of our trip. So I contacted our #2 choice instead.


This rental was listed as “Adorable Log Cabin!!” (including the two exclamation points), located near the ski resort of Winter Park. It was only about an hour and a half from Denver and had a full kitchen and a comfortable-looking bedroom. The pictures of the interior made the cabin look cute, if a bit cluttered, and the reviews were all 5-star. There was plenty of hiking nearby, since the cabin was right on the border of the Arapaho National Forest, and the price was only $100 per night.

cabin2webThe outside of the Adorable Log Cabin

So now it was time to contact the owner. This was easy: I just had to click the “email owner” button on the left-hand side. A separate window popped up, and I entered my name, email address, phone number, and desired dates. There was also a “message to owner” section where I could let the owner know that this was my first VRBO rental and I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do next.


The owner emailed me back the next day, letting me know that the cabin was indeed available on the dates I wanted, and she’d be happy to have us stay. Did we have any dogs? How about children? How many people in our group?


I answered her questions, and she emailed me back to let me know that we were confirmed. I asked her how she wanted me to pay her (that was a gray area in the whole process, and it seemed like some owners wanted payment up front via Paypal, which was certainly reasonable). She told me that she only took cash, and I could just leave it on the table when we left. !!


I have a healthy dose of paranoia, and this payment method seemed to require a great deal of trust on the owner’s part. What happened if her renters skipped out without paying? Especially since there wasn’t any kind of check-in or check-out procedure; we just showed up on our first day to find the front door unlocked and the keys hanging in the kitchen. But she’d been renting her cabin out on VRBO since 2007, the listing said, and apparently she hadn’t had any trouble.


Which made me feel better about humanity.


The people who run VRBO must share at least some of my paranoia, since I never emailed the owner directly; the emails always arrived through VRBO, and my replies went the same way. But that was probably to make sure that VRBO got their cut of the rental, whatever it is.


I had read in some reviews of various properties that people had trouble getting hold of owners, or that owners were rude, uncaring, or slow in responding. That definitely was not our experience. The owner of the Adorable Log Cabin was prompt and friendly, and she left us several informative notes on the dining room table for when we arrived.


The cabin was exactly what we wanted. Honestly, the pictures didn’t do it justice. It was in a neighborhood, so there were other houses on either side and across the street, but there were so many trees and wildflowers that it still felt like a mountain getaway. There was a lovely front porch where we ate all of our meals, and the owner had hung birdfeeders around the edges of the porch so that we could watch the hummingbirds while we ate.


Hummingbirds, by the way, are beautiful, but also aggressive and really loud. They kept having fights over the birdfeeders and chasing each other away. A couple times, they flew right over our heads, and it sounded like we were being divebombed.


They are also very difficult to take pictures of.

Our two nights in the cabin were lovely. Every day, we went for a hike, took a nap, wrote (for me) or played violin (for my friend), and cooked some great food (the Safeway in Winter Park had an amazing selection of food, including lots of organic and natural choices—much better than the King Soopers in my neighborhood). One night, we went out for a drive and looked at the stars, although it was a full moon that night so we could only really see Orion and the Big Dipper. It was perfect.

fruitwebThe Safeway even had passionfruit! I had never seen a passionfruit before.

I am definitely going to use VRBO again. The service was easy to use, and the amount of research I put into finding the cabin was only about as much as I usually put into finding the right hotel for a vacation. Most of the rentals had a lot more character and charm than a normal hotel room, and the prices were amazing—about half of what area hotels were charging.


There’s definitely an element of “let the buyer beware” in renting from VRBO, and if you want a particular place on a particular date, you probably need to plan in advance (I bet the Adorable Log Cabin is already booked up for the ski season, for instance). But if you’re willing to do the planning and research, VRBO is a fantastic option for your next vacation.