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!

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.



Adventure #17–Septoplasty, Part 5

The last major step in my septoplasty was having the splints removed from my nose. My doctor usually does this four or five days post-surgery in cases like mine, but since four days out was on New Year’s Day, when his office would be closed, he very nicely arranged for me to come in on December 31 so I wouldn’t have to have the splints in any longer than necessary.

Boy, was I ready for them to come out by the 31st. They were not comfortable.

When I was shown back for my appointment, the nurse sprayed local anesthetic up my nose just like last time. I don’t know whether I was more prepared for it or whether the splints were making it impossible for me to smell anything, but the taste of the anesthetic didn’t seem as bad. She also put a paper bib around my neck just like they do at the dentist, only she called it “my Superman cape.” I suspected it was there to keep blood from spattering all over my shirt, which wasn’t reassuring.


This is what I would WANT my Superman cape to look like.

A couple minutes later, after the anesthetic had time to work, the doctor came in. I smiled and said hello, and he said that if his surgery patients were smiling, it meant that they had used the nasal rinse like they were supposed to. If they hadn’t used the rinse, they really weren’t in the mood for smiling.

Gold star! That was the first time I’d been glad I’d used the rinse.


“Well, let’s get those out of there,” he said, after looking in my nose (speaking of which, I’m sure the money is nice, but I wouldn’t want his job).

First he reached up into each nostril and pulled out some stitches that I didn’t even realize were there. Then he grabbed a tool that looked like a pair of pliers, stuck it up my nose, and yanked. The yanking didn’t feel very nice despite the anesthetic, and I was very, very grateful that they’d given me the spray first.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the ends of the splints came down very close to my nostrils, so I’d been able to see a tiny bit of them in the mirror if I’d tilted my head back to look (which of course I had, being the curious person that I am). The piece that I’d been able to see looked like the end of a straw, so I’d assumed that the splints were basically short breathing tubes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the doctor finished yanking the first splint out of my nose and it looked nothing like a straw. It looked much more like one of those heel grips you can put in the backs of your shoes to prevent blisters. The splint was made of a clear, gel-like material and was shaped like a soft crescent moon, with a tube running along the bottom surface. What surprised me the most was its size: it was about the same length as my index finger and even wider.


How had that whole gigantic piece of gel fit up inside my nostril?

“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed as the doctor held it up for me to see. “That thing is huge!”

He laughed and then tipped my head back to pull the second one out. Now that I’d seen it, I tried hard not to think about the enormous gel whale that he was trying to fish out of my petite nose. No wonder the splints had felt uncomfortable!


“All done,” he said a moment later, tossing the second splint into a dish. “Now take a breath and see how it feels.”

I inhaled through my nose, and my eyes opened wide. The air flowed all the way up my nasal passages unimpeded, and although the membranes inside still felt very tender from the surgery, I could breathe better than I ever had.

“Wow!” I said.

“Your nasal passages are straight as an arrow,” said the doctor with satisfaction. He turned to Ray. “You’d better watch out–now that she’s getting more oxygen to her brain, she’s going to be a whole lot smarter.”

Look out, world!

When we got home, I was so excited that I threw my arms around Ray’s neck and tried to give him a kiss. That was a mistake. I hadn’t realized before how much your nose gets squished when you kiss somebody, and my happy romantic moment ended with me screaming and jumping around while clutching both hands to my nose.

And of course I’m not magically all better just because the splints are out. My nose is still really sore, and I still have a little bit of a headache and sensitive upper teeth. I’m very tired, and my brand-new, arrow-straight nasal passages have mostly been employed in pouring out mucus, which is annoying because I’m not allowed to blow my nose for another week and a half.

But sometimes, when the nasal drip clears up for a minute, I take a deep breath in through my nose and it feels AMAZING. I had no idea just how blocked up my nasal passages were. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like in another month.

Adventure #17–Septoplasty, Part 4

When Ray had ACL surgery in June, he had to start a physical therapy regimen right away. With nose surgery, there isn’t much PT you can do (“I want to see another 10 nose push-ups!”), but of course there were things that I had to do at home post-surgery.


Change the Gauze


In Part 3, I mentioned that I had to wear a gauze sponge under my nose, held in place by a sling. When Ray got home the day of my surgery and saw the sling, I could tell he was trying really hard not to laugh.


It did look funny, but it was very useful in dealing with the continuous nosebleed I had the first day. Whenever the gauze got saturated (yuck), I had to change it out for fresh gauze. My kitchen trash can ended up looking like I was running a battlefield hospital.


I did not take a picture of that.


Sleep Sitting Up


I did take a picture of the chair I tried to sleep in Monday night. The post-surgery team told me that I would do better if I slept sitting up for the first couple days, and since I am always a good direction-follower, I gave it a try (even though I’ve never had good luck sleeping in airplanes or cars). I have a kind of lounge chair that tips back, and since Ray slept in it after his ACL surgery, I thought it might work for me, too. The pain medication would knock me out, right?


Well, the pain medication didn’t exactly knock me out. It left me in this quasi-sleep state where I dozed fitfully, occasionally dreaming. It was not very restful.


Then, at 3 a.m., I was suddenly wide awake, freezing cold and shaking all over. The quilt I’d pulled on top of me was obviously not quite thick enough.


I turned the heat up, but I still felt like a block of ice. So I went and put more clothes on. When that didn’t work, I put more clothes on. I ended up wearing:


My pajamas

A long-sleeved t-shirt

A hoodie with the hood up

One of Ray’s sweatshirts

Three pairs of socks

A hat


When I was still cold after that, I decided that the universe was trying to tell me that I was not supposed to be sleeping in a chair, and I gave up and went to bed.


Nasal Spray

nasal spray

Every hour, I have to use a saline nasal spray (called Ocean, I guess trying to make you imagine invigorating walks on the beach in the sea air rather than sticking a plastic nozzle up your nose).


There are only two things I don’t like about the spray.


The first is the nasal splints they inserted in my nose during the surgery. The splints help keep my nose stable while it heals, and they also help me breathe, since they are basically tiny straws. Obviously, the splints are good things. But they come down very close to my nostrils, and when I put the nozzle of the spray bottle in there, the nozzle bumps against the splints. This is not only painful, but really weird.


The second is that adding moisture to your bloody nose is messy. And gross.


Nasal Rinse


If the nasal spray was all I had to do, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, I also have to do this nasal rinse five times a day.


The bottle for the nasal rinse looks like a pretty standard 8-ounce bottle made of clear plastic, complete with a nozzle-like cap with a hole in it. A thick white tube runs from the cap down into the bottle.


You are supposed to wash your hands before you touch the bottle.


To do the rinse, you fill the bottle with distilled water (it has to be distilled, or you risk getting a brain infection, which freaks me out every time I think about it). Then you add a little packet of saline solution and shake the bottle to mix it up.


Bending your head over the sink, you stick the cap’s nozzle in one nostril and squeeze the bottle, being sure to keep your mouth open. You’re not supposed to hold your breath, so I make this kind of singing “aaaahhhhh” sound to make sure I’m exhaling. I’m super glad that only my husband and sister have heard me do this.


The water squirts up into your nasal passage like a geyser and then runs out through the other nostril. If you’ve ever accidentally snorted water while swimming, you have a good idea of how this geyser feels. It’s uncomfortable and strange, especially if any water touches your eardrums.


In addition, the water exiting through your other nostril (and sometimes also through your mouth) is disgusting, and it’s a good idea to keep a box of Kleenex handy for afterward.


The worst part? When this is all over, you have to do it on the other side, even though the last thing you want to do at this point is ever squirt water up your nose again.


And I have to do this five times a day.


Then you have to wash the bottle out using soap and distilled water, to make sure that you’re not squirting germs into your sinuses. The directions that came with the rinse kit said that you’re supposed to wash out the bottle after every use, but my doctor said it was safe to wash it just once a day. Thank goodness. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could use tap water to wash it out, but having to use distilled water for washing is the pits.





Finally, I have a whole bunch of pills that I have to take. Some of it I was taking already, and some of it is new post-surgery.


Here’s what I’m taking every day:


Antibiotic three times a day (in case the surgery stirred up bacteria that might lead to an infection; has to be taken with food)

Probiotic (to try to counteract the negative effects of the antibiotic; can’t be taken within two hours of the antibiotic)

Pain medication every four hours (because it hurts to have cartilage scraped out of your nose; has to be taken with food)

Peri-colase (to try to counteract the constipating properties of the pain meds; oh, joy!)

Acid blocker (for my acid reflux; has to be taken on an empty stomach 30-60 minutes before eating. I used to take it in the morning, which was easier, but now the doctor wants me taking it at night, which requires some more planning)

Calcium (to try to counteract the calcium-leeching properties of the acid blocker)

Magnesium (ditto)

Glucosamine (for my middle-aged dancer joints)

Fish oil (ditto)

And my anti-anxiety medication, which keeps me writing funny blog posts about everything instead of freaking out


I feel like I need one of those giant morning-and-evening pill organizers to deal with the 20 pills a day I’m currently taking. It’s also like a logic puzzle trying to figure out when I have to take each one during the day in order to make sure that 1) I have food in my stomach (or not, as the case may be) and 2) it doesn’t interfere with any of the others.


On the plus side, this regimen has helped me feel pretty good post-surgery: my nose has stopped bleeding, the pain is manageable with the medication, and I can actually breathe a little through the tubes in my nose! I can’t wait to see how I feel when I get the splints taken out tomorrow.

Adventure #17–Septoplasty, Part 3

My doctor’s office gave me a list of pre-surgery instructions before my septoplasty: I needed to take a shower the morning of my procedure to help reduce the risk of infection; I needed to make sure I had someone to drive me home afterward and stay with me for the rest of the day; and I needed to fast. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything after midnight the night before, which was tough because my appointment was at noon–I wouldn’t have anything to eat for more than twelve hours.

I was pretty worried about the fasting part. My metabolism is weird, and I usually have to eat a small snack every 1-2 hours or I don’t feel right. Luckily, the surge of adrenaline I got that morning from freaking out about the surgery kept me from feeling hungry. Thanks, adrenaline!

I also kept myself distracted (from both hunger and freaking out) by cleaning my kitchen and bathroom. Normally I hate cleaning, but that morning I was convinced that I had to finish tidying up the whole house or something was going to go wrong. I also blow dried my hair, which I don’t often do, because I was worried about getting bed head while I was under anesthesia. Panic does strange things to people’s brains.

I started feeling better as soon as my sister drove me to the surgical center. Everybody at the center was super friendly and took very good care of me, especially Sharon and Steve, the pre-op/post-op nurses.

They gave me a gown and surgical socks to change into, which made me wish (as I always wish when putting on a hospital gown) that they’d make hospital sweatpants for people who were only having procedures on their top halves. I just feel like I’d be more confident if I had pants on–especially since I was between gown sizes and looked like I was playing dress-up in someone else’s gown. At least Sharon had a blanket waiting for me when I got into the hospital bed. It had been warmed up and felt lovely.

Sharon and Steve checked my height, weight, pulse, and blood pressure, and then Steve hooked me up to an IV while Sharon checked my list of medications with me. After that was done, Sharon had me spray some Afrin up my nose. They asked me about my work and were very interested to hear that I taught Irish dancing. Steve told me about visiting Ireland with his rugby-playing brother. Both of them were so calm and friendly that it really put me at ease.

Once I was prepped, they brought my sister back to sit with me while I waited to go back to surgery. We played Scrabble on my phone (she won), and occasionally one of the doctors or nurses would come back to check on me and see if I had any questions. They all made sure they had my name and date of birth right, and also that they knew if I had any allergies. That turned out to be a really good precaution, because the lady going in ahead of me was allergic to latex and they had to reset the operating room with non-latex gloves before her procedure.

One of the doctors who came to talk to me was the anesthesiologist. She introduced herself and told me about the different medications she would be giving me before and during the operation. She also made sure that I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink that day. I really appreciated her telling me about her part of the procedure; it always makes me feel better to know what’s going on. Like all the staff at the center, she had a warm and professional manner which made me feel like I was in good hands.

When it was my turn, the surgical nurse came by, did one last check of my info, and then wheeled me into the operating room. Steve told her that I was an Irish dancer, and the nurse told me that she’d learned an Irish dance at school once and loved it. While she talked to me, she put some patches on my chest that I took to be monitors, and then she had me scoot myself over onto the operating table.

The anesthesiologist came in and told me that she’d be putting the general anesthetic into my IV. I’d be asleep during the procedure (THANK GOODNESS!) and would wake up in the recovery room.

“Before I inject the anesthesia, I just want to give you some oxygen,” she said, putting a plastic mask over my nose and mouth. “Breathe normally, with nice even breaths. Now I’m going to add the anesthesia. You might feel a kind of buzzing as it starts to work; that’s normal.”

I didn’t know what she meant by “buzzing,” but a moment later I felt a strange sensation, like my IV needle was filled with fireflies. “Oh, yeah!” I said. “I feel the buzzing! It feels like beeeeshzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..”

And then I was unconscious.

While I was out, they put a breathing tube down my throat, since I wasn’t going to be able to breathe through my nose. Then the surgeon came in for the procedure itself. He made an incision in the lining of my septum and then removed enough of the cartilage to straighten out my airways. He also reduced the size of the turbinates, which are spongy bones inside the nasal passages. In deviated septum cases, the turbinate in the larger side can enlarge, which is why I couldn’t breathe well through either side. He fixed that and then inserted splints into both nostrils for support during the healing process. The whole surgery took less than an hour and apparently went off without a hitch.

I was blissfully unaware of anything during this process. The first thing I remember was a voice saying, “You’re in the recovery room.” I don’t know if I’d asked where I was, or if the nurse was just talking to me to help me wake up. She must then have asked how I was feeling, because I said, “I’m cold.” I was freezing. She brought over one of the warm blankets and put it on top of me, and it was one of the most wonderful feelings ever.

I really need to get one of those special blanket toasters they have.

It was hard to keep my eyes open, and the urge to just shut them and go back to sleep was very strong. I’m not sure why I didn’t, actually, since being awake wasn’t especially fun right then. My nose felt like it had been scoured out by two wire brushes, and my throat was so raw from the breathing tube that I couldn’t decide which part of me felt worse. But the nurse asked if I was hungry, and when I said yes she brought me a graham cracker and a can of apple juice. They were like the ambrosia and nectar of the gods, and having them made me feel much better about being awake.

After a bit, Steve came by and asked how I was doing. He checked on my pain level (about a 3 out of 10—thanks, drugs!) and said that was exactly what they wanted. I told him about the pain in my nose and throat, and he said that was all normal. I also told him that my upper teeth hurt, which he said he hadn’t heard of happening before, but I later read online that some people do experience tooth pain (since the nerves of the upper teeth are very close to the sinus cavities).

They brought my sister back to sit with me again, and she had my bag of clothes. Since I seemed to be coming out of the anesthesia well, they took out my IV and let me get dressed with my sister’s help. I couldn’t see myself, but my sister said that I had giant red hickeys on my chest where the monitors had been stuck. Luckily for me, she did not take a picture of them.

I also had this nose sling on (which my sister did take a picture of). It was very similar to one of those blue hospital masks that doctors wear during surgery, only it was less than two inches wide and sat right under my nose, held in place by elastic loops over my ears. Its job was to hold a gauze sponge under my nostrils, since I was having the most epic nosebleed ever. Steve had to change the gauze once while I was sitting there, and then I had to change it again myself right after I got home (and about every two hours after that). They gave me a box of spare gauze and an extra nose sling, just in case. The sling looked so funny that I drew a Groucho Marx mustache on it with a marker.

I was not allowed to sign any papers (or drive, or buy real estate, or make any important decisions, since people coming out of anesthesia are not known for mental sharpness), so my sister had to sign the papers to discharge me. Then Steve took me out to the car in a wheelchair.

I thanked him for a great experience, and he laughed, but I was serious. Having surgery on my face could have been very traumatic, but the team at the surgical center was fabulous, and I felt cared for from beginning to end. I just hope that if I ever have to have surgery again, I have an experience exactly like this one.

Up next: Recovery!

Adventure #17–Septoplasty, Part 1

I’ve had mono since July (, which has been the pits. Mono can take months to get over sometimes, with lovely side effects like exhaustion, body aches, and a bad sore throat.

My doctor told me that it might be December before I really started feeling better, so I wasn’t particularly worried that my sore throat wasn’t going away. I just thought it was part of the enormous suckage that is mono, and I tried to resign myself to it, like I was resigned to sudden urges to curl up on the floor and go to sleep.

However, when I went in for a checkup in early November, my doctor told me that my sore throat should have cleared up by then. She was concerned that the pain was being caused by something else, so she asked me to go see an ear, nose, and throat specialist (usually called an ENT, because no one knows how to pronounce “otolaryngologist”).

“It’s probably nothing,” she said, writing down the name of the ENT she wanted me to see, “but better to scope your throat and make sure.”

Well, the “it’s probably nothing” made me feel like it wasn’t urgent, and I was getting ready for the big Regional Championships, and I didn’t really feel like seeing ANOTHER doctor (, and between one thing and another I didn’t call the ENT office until the week of Thanksgiving. By then, my sore throat was getting worse, not better, and I was starting to feel like maybe it was a bit more urgent than I’d thought.

I finally made it in to see the ENT during the second week of December. The doctor, a friendly man in his forties, listened to my story and made me say “ah” while he looked in my mouth with a little flashlight.

“I think your sore throat is probably caused by acid reflux,” he said. “You say that you have problems with heartburn anyway, and the mono seems to have made it worse. Heartburn is caused by stomach acid moving up into the esophagus, and if the acid moves high enough, it can cause a sore throat as well.”

UGH! It was like a horror movie. My stomach was eating my esophagus.

“I’ll go ahead and check out your throat with the scope just to make sure,” he continued, apparently oblivious to the look of dismay on my face. “My assistant will be in momentarily to give you an anesthetic, and then I’ll be back.”

His assistant, a woman in her twenties or thirties with the harassed look of someone with more work than time, came in and thrust a clipboard with a consent form at me and told me to sign the bottom. I did so, catching some disturbing words higher up on the page, like “swelling,” “vomiting,” and “spinal fluid leak.”

Spinal fluid leak? Uh…wait a second…maybe I didn’t want to do this…

But by then she had pulled the clipboard away and was instructing me to look at the ceiling. She sprayed something up each of my nostrils with two efficient squirts, and then she told me to sniff.

“Keep sniffing,” she said, handing me a Kleenex, and then she whirled out of the room on the way to her next patient.

At first, I couldn’t feel anything when I sniffed. Had the spray even worked? But then the spray reached the back of my throat and I wished—oh, how I wished!—that I could go back to that beautiful time when I hadn’t been able to tell that the spray was there. That liquid anesthetic was one of the worst-tasting things I had ever experienced. I could feel it rolling down the back of my throat like some kind of terrible chemical weapon, numbing my nerve endings but leaving my taste buds tragically intact.

When the doctor came back several minutes later, the awful taste had receded somewhat and I’d stopped making horrible faces. Thank goodness.

The scope the doctor had with him (called a laryngoscope) looked something like a black high-tech turkey baster with a flexible rubber straw at the bottom. He had me sit in the exam chair, a stiff, high-backed chair that would have been perfectly at home in a torture scene from a spy movie, and then he started threading the black rubber straw through my right nostril. After a moment, he stopped and switched the straw to my left nostril instead. The tube went up my nose and then down the back of my throat, but, fortunately, I did not feel a thing. For the first time, I felt thankful for the disgusting anesthetic.

“Do you have trouble breathing through your nose?” the doctor asked casually, peering through the eyepiece on the top of the scope.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Do you have more trouble with one side than the other?”


He pulled the tube back out. “You have a deviated septum.”

The septum (I found out later) is the bone and cartilage that divide your nose into two nostrils. A deviated septum is when this bone and cartilage are crooked, making one nasal passage smaller than the other.

“Oh,” I said.

“That has nothing to do with your sore throat, though. Your sore throat is caused by acid reflux. I’m going to give you directions for some medication and dietary changes that will help, and I want you to make the changes and then come see me again in six weeks.”

He sat down and started making notes in my chart. “You might also think about having surgery to correct the deviated septum. I do two or three of the surgeries a week in an outpatient facility, and the surgery is 99% effective. A few days for recovery, and then you’d be able to breathe better. If you’re having a lot of trouble, it might be worth it for you.”

I laughed. “Well, I’ve gone forty years without even knowing that I had a deviated septum, so I think I’m probably okay.”

But on my way home, I gradually started realizing that I WASN’T okay, not really. My nose had never worked right. I’d always had a hard time breathing through my nose, and it always felt both stuffed up and runny. Once or twice, I’d mentioned my nose issues to my various doctors, and we’d tried allergy medicine and nasal sprays and even snorting water up my nose (THAT was fun), but nothing had made a difference. I’d just figured that my nose was kind of quirky and left it at that.

Now, I wondered whether this “quirkiness” was caused by the deviated septum.

I looked up “deviated septum” online and found some lists of symptoms caused by the condition:

* Nasal congestion (check; I had that, pretty much all the time)

* Frequent nosebleeds (check; I didn’t have them much anymore, but as a kid I got nosebleeds several times a month)

*Postnasal drip (check! It didn’t seem right to have both nasal congestion AND postnasal drip at the same time, but I did!)

*Dry mouth (check!)

*Difficulty breathing through the nose (check!)

*Loud breathing and/or snoring (have to ask Ray about that one…)


I stared at the computer screen. Oh, man. I DID have a deviated septum!

When Ray got home that night, I told him about my visit to the ENT. “The doctor said that I should think about having corrective surgery,” I said, “but I don’t know. It’s scary. And I’d have to miss a week of work. And it would be expensive. Plus, I’ve gotten along fine for forty years.”

“Kind of,” said Ray. “Remember that time in Ireland when we got separated in the big book store and I found you by your sniffling? Your nose doesn’t really work. The surgery might help! And if you could schedule it before the end of the year, you not only have time off coming up anyway, but we’ve reached our insurance deductible—it would probably be close to free.”

Oh, geez. I’m a cautious soul at heart, and I like time to think about decisions and all the possible consequences that go with them—A LOT of time. Deciding to have an elective surgery and trying to schedule it sometime in the next three weeks?


Well, it wouldn’t hurt to at least call the doctor’s office and see if it was even possible to fit me in before December 31. By 9:00 the next morning, when I picked up the phone, I’d decided that doctor’s offices and insurance companies were always slow about everything, and they’d never be able to get the approval and schedule a surgery in time. Then I wouldn’t be able to get a week off again until July, so I’d have lots and lots of time to think it over and get used to the idea.

The receptionist I talked to agreed with me. “It usually takes the insurance company longer than three weeks to approve the surgery, so we probably can’t get you in. But I’ll talk to the doctor and call your insurance, and we’ll see what they say.”

Part of me was relieved. If the insurance company took a month to approve the surgery, than the scary decision was out of my hands. Gee, too bad, I couldn’t have the surgery right now after all.

However, through some alignment of the stars, the insurance company got back to the doctor’s office in THREE DAYS and approved everything, confirming that there would be no out-of-pocket expense for me. And the doctor happened to have one surgery slot still available during the last week of December.

It seemed like fate.

And that’s how I find myself getting ready to have surgery tomorrow morning to correct my deviated septum. Ray keeps telling people that he’s giving me a nose job for Christmas. Ha ha ha. I have reached the panicky “I am out of my mind oh why oh why am I doing this” stage, and the only thing that’s keeping me even slightly calm is the thought that at least I can get a funny blog post out of it.

So stay tuned!








Adventure #16–Celestial Seasonings Factory

Originally written 8/10/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license:


Photo credit: Kevin Dooley,


My dad was in the Air Force, and because of his particular job we moved between Denver and San Antonio a couple times. I went to elementary school in San Antonio, but my sister mostly went to elementary school in Denver, and since you do a lot of field trips when you’re in elementary school, my sister’s been to a bunch of places in Colorado that I haven’t been: the capitol building, for instance, and the Celestial Seasonings factory.

Celestial Seasonings (in case you haven’t heard of them) is a tea company, founded in 1969, and even though they sell millions of boxes of tea every year in multiple countries, they still make all of their tea in one factory in Boulder, Colorado, which I think is amazing. They offer a free tour to anyone who wants to visit. I went for the first time a couple weeks ago when some friends suggested that we go. We were going to be in Boulder anyway (they were taking me out to a belated birthday lunch), so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to cross something else off my adventure list.


The #1 top selling tea from Celestial Seasonings is Sleepytime, and their factory is located on Sleepytime Drive. It’s my goal to be so successful that I can have my house on a street named for me (Adventure Avenue? Blog Boulevard?). The buildings are very homey and charming (not at all like the smoke-producing, industrial horrors conjured up in my imagination by the word “factory”), and there are pretty signs and attractive landscaping everywhere.


Signs direct you to where the tour starts, in a kind of tea shop (where else?). When we got there, a friendly woman took our names and gave us our “tickets”—sample-sized packages of Black Cherry Berry tea that we got to keep as a souvenir. Best tickets ever!


We were early, so the woman handed us each a small porcelain tea cup and said that we were welcome to sample teas until it was time for the tour to start. There was a counter to her right with about eight different tea dispensers: tall silver tubes with spigots on the front like you see as part of breakfast buffets for serving tea and coffee. Each dispenser had a sign next to it telling you what kind of tea it was, what ingredients were in it, and whether it was caffeinated or not (which was useful, because I don’t drink caffeine, and accidentally drinking a cup of black tea would have made me high as a kite for the whole tour).

Past the sample counter was a larger counter where you could order snacks and full cups of any of the teas Celestial Seasonings makes. There was a menu written out on a chalkboard on the wall, and it was huge—dozens and dozens of different kinds of teas, some of which I’d heard of and some of which I hadn’t. To my delight, some of the kinds I hadn’t heard of were available as samples. I love samples, and I love trying new things. Pure heaven!

While we were sipping our Watermelon Lime Zinger tea, we got to walk around the rest of the area, which was outfitted as a miniature museum. There were signs detailing the history of the company, painting-sized versions of the artwork they’d printed on their boxes over the years, and displays of artistic teapots. I don’t know how functional the teapots were, but they sure were beautiful (and, since we weren’t allowed to take photos in the factory itself, you get to see lots of pictures of them!).


The tour seemed very popular, so by the time 11:00 a.m. rolled around, the tea shop was full of people. I was glad we’d gotten there early, because it would have been sad if the tour had sold out (although, since it was free, I guess “sold out” isn’t exactly the right phrase). There was a mix of kids and adults, including a couple in their 70s who walked around the whole factory holding hands. Aww! I want to be like that when I’m 70.


This is one of the fancy teapots. The little bear is the handle, and the tea comes out of the upper left-hand corner of the armchair.

When it was time for the tour to start, all of us were invited into a little film-viewing area lined with benches, where we got to hear an introduction from our wonderful tour guide and see a 15-minute movie about the company. From the introduction and the film, we learned that Celestial Seasonings was founded in 1969 by two friends and their girlfriends. The film started off by saying, “It was the Summer of Love…,” but I’d like to point out, in the interest of historical accuracy, that the Summer of Love was actually 1967 (easy mistake to make, right? Wink wink, nudge nudge). That might or might not cast doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the film’s information, but, since the story they presented was awesome, I’m just going to repeat it as told and you can fact-check on your own.


I don’t know if you’re familiar with Boulder, Colorado at all, but the Celestial Seasonings story is about as Boulder as you can get. The four founders picked the herbs they used in the original blends out in the fields and woods, and they sewed the muslin tea bags together themselves. They were so poor that they couldn’t afford the materials to label the bags at first (the bags were just blank), and they tied the bags shut using wire that had been thrown out by the phone company.

They took these bags to a local health-food store and asked if the store was interested in carrying their “herbal infusions.” The store said no (which, honestly, wasn’t all that surprising). But, undaunted, they went back later and asked if the store wanted to carry their “herbal teas.” I guess “herbal tea” sounded better than “herbal infusion,” because the store agreed.

According to our guide, by the way, the founders actually originated the term “herbal tea,” since technically herbal tea isn’t really tea at all (more on that later).


Apparently, John Lennon drank Celestial Seasonings tea; there’s some on the shelf in the background of this picture.

Even the company’s name is super Bouldery: one of the two founding women had been given the hippie name “Celestial Seasonings” because someone told her that she was as beautiful as a sprinkling of ambrosia from the heavens. !!!

The company definitely isn’t as hippie nowadays as it was in the beginning. In 2000, Celestial Seasonings merged with the Hain Food Group (which produces natural food and health products like JASON, Rudi’s Organic, and MaraNatha) to make the Hain Celestial Group, which netted two million dollars in 2014. The intro movie was pretty clearly a product of this modern corporate identity; it was slickly made and more of an extended commercial than a documentary (with the name of the Hain Celestial Group CEO prominently displayed but no mention of any of the founders’ actual names, for instance).


However, even as a corporation, Celestial Seasonings maintains many of its original values. They support ethical trade, sustainable agriculture, family farms, and recycling, and many of the international farms that supply the company with its botanical ingredients have been doing so for more than 30 years. So that’s good.


This dress was in a display case in a corner of the film room. It’s made entirely of Celestial Seasonings tea bags. It totally reminded me of my mom, who makes duffel bags out of old bags of dry cat food.

After the movie finished, we were all issued with hairnets for our tour: blue mesh caps with elastic all the way around the bottom edge, just like the lunch ladies at my elementary school used to wear. Men with beards or mustaches had to wear a beard net, too. The guide reminded us that no photography was allowed in the factory itself (dang it), but he promised that we would have an opportunity to get what he called “hairnet selfies” at the end, once we’d left the factory. Yay!

Once inside the factory, we were herded into a little area of concrete floor surrounded by a wide yellow line. This was to make sure that we tourists didn’t get in the way of the actual employees, since it is a working factory. I expected the building to be very loud, what with all the machinery, but it turned out that summertime is the slow season for bagging tea, and only a small portion of the machinery was running that day. Fall and winter, the guide told us, are the really busy times (which I guess makes sense, since hot drinks sound a lot more appealing when it’s cold outside).


Once we were safely penned behind the yellow line, the guide, now aided by a microphone, asked us, “What was the first thing you noticed when you walked in here?”

“The smell!” we all said.

And, indeed, the smell of the factory was strong, unforgettable, and glorious, a combination of all the herbs and spices they use to make their wonderful teas. You might think that the scents of all those ingredients would clash, so to speak (like being in a shop that sells scented candles; I can last maybe a minute in one of those shops before I have a headache), but somehow all these herbal scents combined into one harmonious whole. It was like standing by the stove while you brewed the world’s largest cup of tea.


Doesn’t this look like Abu from Aladdin enjoying a cup of tea with Baby Abu?

The guide explained that the softer herbal ingredients—like peppermint and chamomile—had to be chopped up to go into the tea bags, but that the harder spices—like cloves—were milled using a gigantic mechanical grinder. The machines were milling cloves that day, so he passed around two bowls. The first held whole cloves, and the second held ground cloves, so that we could see (and smell) the before-and-after of the process. Oh, I sure do love the smell of cloves.

Through a window, we could see the grinder, but it was too far away to see anything in detail. Too bad. I love watching machines work.

To get a smooth tea, the guide told us, all the ingredients in the bag have to be a similar size, so once everything was chopped or milled, it was passed through a series of seven sieves of progressively finer mesh. At the end of the sifting process, the ingredient was now teabag ready and could be packed into special white plastic bins.


We got to see the bins—and all sorts of other containers—as we walked from the grinder viewing area to our next stop. This area was a big warehouse, with floor-to-ceiling shelves separated into neat, forklift-sized aisles. To make sure that we weren’t in the way of said forklifts, there was also a forklift-sized path on the concrete walkway surrounded by yellow lines that we weren’t supposed to walk on. Smart!

The shelves were stacked high with bins containing tea ingredients, and each of the bins was neatly labeled with what was inside: hibiscus, rosebuds, acai berry*. Each section of shelving gave off its own delicious smell. It was heavenly. I swear, half of what I love about tea (and the only thing I love about coffee) is the smell.

*Speaking of acai berry, I’d only ever seen the word in print before I went on the tour; I’d never heard it pronounced. Mentally, I’d been pronouncing it so that it sounded like “a guy,” but apparently it’s actually pronounced more like you’re spelling out the letters “S-I-E.” Oops. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me over the years. When I was a kid, I loved the Nancy Drew mysteries, and Nancy Drew had red hair that was often described as “titian.” Ask me sometime how I thought THAT word was pronounced.


OK. A bike jersey with a giant buffalo on it would be pretty awesome.

The guide told us that once the different ingredients were chopped and sifted, they were ready to get mixed. Employees, following special recipes, made the different kinds of tea by pouring the right ingredients into a mixer, something like a smallish cement mixer, and letting the ingredients blend together for about 10 minutes. Then the tea mix was emptied into a new bin, ready for bagging.

But first, each batch of tea had to be tested. The blendmaster brews a cup of tea from the mix and tastes it, comparing it to a master blend to make sure that the flavor is right. If it’s not, the batch gets dumped back into the mixer, and the blendmaster tells the employees which ingredients to add to correct the blend.


“How does he know how much to add?” asked a little girl near me.

“He’s got very sensitive, very highly-trained tastebuds,” the guide replied.

“Whoa. What happens when the blendmaster dies?” my friend whispered as we followed the guide through the shelves. “How do they find a new one?”

I’m pretty sure that a company like Celestial Seasonings has multiple tasters on staff for various parts of the process, and that there are programs in place for finding and training tasters, but I’m thinking of writing a story where people on a fantasy world lose their Blendmaster and have to find another one through a mystical process akin to finding the new Dalai Lama. Don’t steal this idea; I had it first.

 334Maybe they could find the Blendmaster with the help of a mystical dowsing teapot.

Our next stop was a separate storage area off the main warehouse. Like the main warehouse, this big, square room was full of shelves loaded with bins.

“This is the Tea Room,” the guide said. “This is where we keep all of our different kinds of tea leaves.”


That’s when he explained that tea only technically comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, an evergreen shrub native to parts of Asia. All the different forms of tea—black tea, green tea, white tea—come from Camellia sinensis. “Teas” like Sleepytime and chamomile are herbal infusions, not really teas at all. In fact, in some countries it’s against the law to call something like Sleepytime “tea.” If you want to call it something fancier than “herbal infusion,” you have to call it “tisane.”

Chinese legend has it that Emperor Shennong first discovered tea 4500 years ago when a leaf from Camellia sinensis fell into his pot of boiling water. It’s now the second-most popular drink in the world (right after water), with more than 4.5 million metric tons produced worldwide in 2010.

That’s a lot of tea.


From the Tea Room, our guide led us into a narrowish corridor with two garage-style rolling doors on one side. “This is the Mint Room,” he said, gesturing toward the first door. “This is where we store all of our peppermint, which we use as an ingredient in many of our teas, like Tension Tamer. We store spearmint in the room next door, but sometimes when we have an overflow we put the extra spearmint in with the peppermint.”

As he spoke, he pressed a button, and the garage door rolled up into the ceiling, revealing a storeroom absolutely stuffed full of bins marked “peppermint.” The room was so full that there was only a small strip of empty concrete in front of the shelves.


“The reason that the mint is in its own room behind this closed door,” the guide went on, “is that the scent of mint overpowers everything. If we stored the peppermint with the other ingredients, every kind of tea we made would taste like mint. We can’t even chop the mint here at the factory. Our growers chop it for us straight from the field, on dedicated machines that only chop mint. Once you use a machine to chop mint, you can’t ever use it to chop any other ingredients. The mint is so strong it would taint anything else processed on the machine, even if you washed the machinery first.”

Good grief.


“We’re going to let you into the Mint Room a few people at a time,” he said. “Please feel free to come out as soon as you need to.”

Need to? That sounded ominous. Especially since the guide was grinning at us in this funny, knowing way.


As soon as I stepped into the Mint Room, I knew why. The smell of mint, which I love coming from the mint plant on my balcony, was absolutely overwhelming inside the enclosed storeroom. It was like my plant times a million. Peppermint fumes bombarded my eyeballs, burned the inside of my nostrils, and whooshed down my throat when I gasped in surprise. Imagine being attacked by mint-flavored tear gas, and you have an idea of what it was like. Death By Mint.

Hey! There’s another story idea!

330Or how about a mint-fume breathing dragon?

After about ten seconds, I turned around and left in a hurry. I wondered if employees had to wear a gas mask when they worked in there. The guide said that sometimes visitors cry because their eyes get so irritated by the fumes, and he has to tell them not to rub their eyes, because that only makes it worse.


There were three kids on the tour who stayed in the Mint Room for the whole 5 minutes we were there. They must have been mutants or something*.

*Hey, that reminds me—have you ever noticed that in the X-Men comics and movies, nobody ever has lame mutant powers like resistance to peppermint or immunity to hiccups?

 323Or the ability to turn fruit into giant dirigibles?

From there, we got to walk around the lines, the areas of machinery where the tea is bagged, boxed, and plastic-wrapped. This area of the factory is two-storied, with most of the machinery on the main floor and a series of hoppers on the mezzanine. Forklifts take the bins of blended tea onto the mezzanine and pour the blend into the hoppers. The tea goes down a chute and is inserted into bags, which the machine separates into pairs of tea bags.

Meanwhile, on a different machine, flat pieces of printed cardboard are rolled into an area where a piece of waxed paper is laid on top of each of them. The machine then folds this cardboard-and-waxed-paper combo until, like origami, it has formed an open box lined with wax paper. Magic!

339For my next trick, I will pull a rabbit out of this teapot.

The open boxes are rolled onward, and the now-filled teabags are deposited into the boxes. Different parts of the machinery fold the waxed paper shut, close the box, and then seal the box inside tamper-proof plastic wrappers so that psychotic jerks can’t poison your tea. The sealed boxes are then rolled over to a robot that loads the tea onto wooden pallets for transportation (so cool! Although the robot doesn’t look like Optimus Prime; it looks more like the arm that holds up the lamp at the dentist).


There are multiple lines in the factory, so that they can produce multiple kinds of tea at once. Sadly, since it was summertime, only one line was running, so we didn’t get to see much of the machinery in action. I was mesmerized by the part we did get to see. It was amazing. And the series of metal rollers that take the boxes around to each machine totally looked like a miniature roller coaster. The tea was going on a fun ride!


My favorite part of the factory floor was a big sign hanging on the wall that said: SAFE-TEA IS OUR PRIORI-TEA.

I love you, Celestial Seasonings!!!


We had come to the end of the tour. Everything had been fun, informative, and well-laid out, with beautiful, whimsically-illustrated signs which I was very sorry that I couldn’t take pictures of. Celestial Seasonings had put a lot of thought and effort into making a good tour.

But the genius part of it? The exit door from the factory LED INTO THE GIFT SHOP.

 316This is the gift shop from the outside. I forgot to take a picture inside.

And what a gift shop! Besides boxes of every kind of tea they make (including a bunch that my grocery store doesn’t carry), they sell tea infusers, mugs, honey, sugar, chocolate, mints, collectible tins, magnets, key chains, t-shirts, stuffed animals, travel pillows, soap, jewelry…..

Seriously, there was nothing they DIDN’T sell, and everything was attractive, reasonably priced, and nicely displayed. Moreover, a lot of the goods were natural and/or made by companies that were locally-owned and/or supporting a worthy cause, and all the clerks were super helpful and friendly.

I could not wait to line up and give them my money.

 318Yes, but have you seen all the great stuff in the gift shop?

Through a Herculean effort, I managed to only spend $20, buying a pair of earrings and two new kinds of tea (including acai mango zinger, since I know how to pronounce it now). But I would definitely love to go back sometime.

Thanks, Celestial Seasonings, for a fun tour! If you’re in Colorado, I recommend trying the tour sometime. Just make sure to bring some money for the gift shop.


Bonus Adventure—Blooming Beets Kitchen


If you’re in Boulder and looking for a Very Boulder Dining Experience, try Blooming Beets Kitchen, where my friends took me for lunch. They don’t use any grains, processed seed oils, or processed sugars in their cooking, and the only dairy product they used is a very limited amount of butter in certain dishes. Their vegetables are mostly organic, and during the summer they work with local farms to supply produce. The meat they use is mostly local and grass-fed.

From 11-2 you can order from a brunch menu, which has both “brunchy” items and “lunchy” items (their description! Ha ha—it’s like I wrote the menu!). The three of us ordered from the lunch menu.

One friend got the Coconut Wrapped Blooming Burrito: “chorizo, sautéed onions and peppers, cauli rice, sweet potato hash.” I was interested to find out what “coconut-wrapped” meant. Basically, the “tortilla” of the burrito was actually more like a crepe, and the crepe was made from coconut meat. You can buy commercially-made, paleo-friendly coconut wraps from some stores, or I found some recipes online for them. Cauli rice, which I’d also never heard of, is cauliflower grated to the size of rice grains and sautéed. It’s another paleo-friendly food.

My other friend and I both got the salad of powergreens and beets, toasted pecans, and pears tossed in orange basalmic dressing with chicken. I love beets, and the beets and greens in the basalmic dressing tasted great. The pears tasted like they’d been coated with some kind of lemon juice mixture, and I didn’t like that as much, but everything else tasted great.


The restaurant was very clean and attractive inside, and the staff was friendly and passionate about what they do. The owner even came out at one point to ask how we liked everything.

The prices ranged from $14 for the burrito to $18 for the salad with chicken, so it’s a little more expensive for lunch than someplace like Chipotle, but you’re paying for fresh, local, and organic ingredients.


I had been tentatively thinking about asking my husband to take me to Blooming Beets for my birthday, but, after eating there, I was glad that I’d gone with my friend instead. My friend is gluten-free and sugar-free, so it’s wonderful for her to be able to eat in a restaurant where she can have everything on the menu. She’s also very open-minded and interested in natural, healthy living.

My husband, on the other hand, is practically the opposite of a vegetarian and is a loud, judgmental skeptic who is only interested in the “green movement” if it involves watching The Hulk smash things in the Avengers movies.

If you and/or your dining companion are like my husband, DO NOT GO to Blooming Beets. It will be best for everyone.

If, on the other hand, you are more like my friend or me, it is definitely worth the trip for a special occasion.