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 #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.


Adventure #15–Boulder Farmers’ Market

Originally written 8/2/15.

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


Photo credit:

I was supposed to go on a cave tour with my friend Abbey last Saturday (which would have been quite an adventure, since I’m claustrophobic), but we had to cancel: heavy rains in the spring and early summer had flooded the deeper parts of the cave, and the tours had been suspended until further notice.

Abbey suggested that we go to the Boulder Farmers’ Market instead. Since I’d never been to a farmers’ market, I said OK, although I wasn’t sure that I could write it up as an adventure. I mean, it was just going to be people selling vegetables, right? How adventuresome could that be?

So it was eye-opening to actually see the Boulder Farmers’ Market when we got there. The Boulder Farmers’ Market is one of the biggest farmers’ markets in Colorado, taking place every Saturday along the picturesque Boulder Creek from April through November, and adding Wednesday evenings from May through October for good measure. It’s one of the top markets, too, having been named as one of America’s 50 Best Farmers Markets this year by Cooking Light Magazine.

It was huge. I didn’t count the number of tents, but it was dozens and dozens, arranged in the shape of a giant letter F along 13th Street. And yes, the majority of the booths were selling vegetables, but it was much, much more than the expensive hipster fruit stand I had imagined.


For starters, there was a lot more for sale than just produce. We saw, among many other things:

Grassfed meats for sale, including beef, pork, lamb, and goat meat. You could even pre-order whole pigs or sheep, which made me wonder how on earth you would get that to your house (and where would you store it?).


Every kind of bread imaginable, including lots of gluten-free options.


Hot sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa, tapenade, kimchi, jelly, jam, marmalade, and any other kind of sauce or spread you can think of.

Lots of local honey (some of which came home with me).

Cut flowers.

Organic potted plants, including flowers and herbs.

Amazing local goat cheese (some of which also came home with me).

A tea-tasting area in a pagoda.

A booth offering frozen gluten-free vegan meals.

A booth sponsored by the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, which had a stuffed mountain lion on the table.


A booth advertising a swimming school.

A booth selling granola, which made me giggle, because a “granola” is also a Denver word for a Boulder hippie.


A booth where they would sharpen knives for you. I especially loved this booth, because it reminded me strongly of the tinkers of old England and Ireland, who used to travel around repairing pots and sharpening knives for people in rural areas.


There was also a whole section of food trucks, where you could get almost any kind of food you wanted, from mac ‘n cheese with bacon to locally-grown vegetarian fare, from Korean bibimbap to Argentinian empanadas. Once you picked up your food, you sat down with it at a long series of picnic tables under a central tent where every seat was taken and you had to watch your elbows carefully to avoid jostling your neighbor.


A series of bands on a stage at the far end of the food area entertained you while you ate. While we were enjoying lunch, it was a folky duo playing covers of Neil Young and cracking jokes between songs.



That wasn’t the only musical entertainment. There was a man in the middle of the market playing a lap steel guitar, which I’d actually never seen before. Like the sharpening booth, it reminded me very much of old times, since it almost seemed more like a descendant of the dulcimer or hurdy-gurdy than a relative of the modern guitar.


People-watching was excellent at the market, too. Most people were dressed like I was: t-shirts, shorts, tennies or sandals, and hats to keep the hot summer sunshine from burning the backs of their necks. But there were a few people who were dressed up like they were going to a special event. One woman was wearing platform heels and a long-sleeved, gauzy romper that was so short I had to stop myself from going over and tugging it down for her.

At the other end of the spectrum, there was an older gent dressed like a mountain man, complete with a long trenchcoat and beaver hat. Apparently there’s often a guy there known as Earth Man as well who wears a cape decorated like a globe, but we didn’t see him. That’s probably just as well, since I guess he’s given to cornering the unwary and offering to exchange “Earth bucks” with you for actual money.


But the real star of the market was the produce. If it grows in Colorado, it was there, in bags, baskets, and glorious piles of color: arugula, chard, carrots, turnips, potatoes, mushrooms, spinach, green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, corn, basil, beets, plums, apricots, and more. And of course, the famous peaches from Palisade, just finally coming into season and smelling like the ambrosia of the gods.


Some of the booths were from small farms specializing in just one or two kinds of produce. Other booths were huge and diverse, using three or four tents to house all the different goods they offered. Many booths, from the produce vendors to the cheese makers to the hot sauce sellers, offered samples, which was the best marketing technique ever. I think either Abbey or I bought something at every tent where they gave us a sample.


At all the booths, once the beautiful piles were gone, signs would spring up in their place saying “Sold Out.” So if you wanted arugula, for instance, you had to scoop it up before the stock ran out.


I had brought $80 in cash with me, since most of the booths dealt in cash exclusively and I didn’t know exactly how much I was going to buy. I spent every penny of my $80, and I probably could have spent another $80 if I’d been foolish enough to bring more. Luckily, I love vegetables, and I made some delicious recipes with the things I bought. I’ll include the recipes and pictures at the bottom.


The Boulder Farmers’ Market was incredible—the closest thing to a medieval market or middle eastern bazaar that I’ve ever seen in modern America. The food that I got there was a little more expensive than what I get at my local grocery store, but it was amazingly fresh, and the flavors were bright and vibrant in a way that I could hardly believe. And, on top of getting delicious food, I was supporting local small businesses. I am definitely a farmers’ market convert, and I can’t wait to go again.





1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup rice

2 cups water, vegetable broth, or chicken broth

1 bunch chard

2 cups Greek yogurt

1 cup fresh mint leaves

Salt to taste

Rinse the chard leaves and separate the leaves from the stem. Put the leaves aside. Chop the stems into bite-size pieces.

In a saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the pieces of chard stem and sauté about 1 minute. Then add the rice and stir until all the grains are coated with olive oil.

Add the water or broth and salt to taste and turn the heat up to high. Bring the water to boiling, then cover, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 20 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, cut or tear the chard leaves into small pieces.

When the rice is done, uncover the pan and add the yogurt. Turn the heat back up to high and bring the yogurt to a boil, stirring continuously. Once the yogurt is boiling, add the chard leaves and stir continuously until the chard is wilted, 1-2 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the mint leaves. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: I usually add chicken to my sarnapur, and this time I added mushrooms from the farmers’ market as well. I cook the chicken separately and add it at the end; I washed and chopped the mushrooms and added them at the same time as the chard stems.


Beet, Goat Cheese, and Arugula Salad


Get a mix of regular beets and golden beets for a beautiful, colorful dish!

6 medium beets

4 ounces goat cheese

½ cup walnuts

4 cups arugula (you can use more or less than this depending on how big a salad you want)

1/4 cup red wine vinegar or basalmic vinegar

1/3 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Chop off the tops of the beets and put them in a saucepan with some salt and enough water to cover them. Bring the water to a boil and boil the beets for 20 minutes until tender.

Rinse the beets off in cold water and let them cool for a few minutes. When they’re cool enough to handle, peel the skins off with a peeler or paring knife. Then cut the beets into bite-size pieces.

Whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the beets and let marinate for 15 minutes to 2 hours.

When the beets are ready, toss the arugula with the beets and then divide among 4 plates. Top with crumbled goat cheese and walnuts.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: you’re actually supposed to toast the walnuts in a 350-degree oven for 8-10 minutes, but that’s such a pain in the butt that I usually skip it. I like the walnuts just fine untoasted.

This time, I also added new blue potatoes from the farmers’ market. If you want to add potatoes, you need 1 medium or 2 small potatoes per serving. Put them in a saucepan along with a generous pinch of salt, cover them with water, and bring the water to a boil. Then reduce the heat to low and boil for 15 minutes, until tender. Drain the potatoes, and when they are cool enough to handle, cut into bite-size pieces and marinate along with the beets. I usually leave the skins on potatoes, but, in this case, the skins came off by themselves when I boiled them.

Finally, you can add cooked chicken to the salad if you want some protein. Enjoy!

Adventure #14–Insane Inflatable 5K

Originally written 731/15.

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


Photo credit: Stephan Mosel,

When I was in 8th grade, I joined the school track team for a season. I’m sure I had some reason for doing this, but now the reason is completely lost in the mists of time.

For the entire fall, I ran the 800 meters, the 4×200-meter relay, and the 100-meter hurdles (until I tripped over a hurdle one day and completely lost my nerve). I also threw the discus without much success, which wasn’t surprising given that my coach gave me one three-minute lesson in how to throw it and then said, “Go practice.” That was my whole training. Seriously.


Photo credit: Magnus Akselvoll,

This stone guy threw the discus better than me.

Even though I didn’t get much in the way of coaching, I did come away from my lone season of organized school sports having learned a very valuable lesson: I hate running.

I’m not sure why this is. In general, I like physical activity, and I’ve had a lot of fun at various times over the years with gymnastics, swimming, biking, cross-country skiing, hiking, fencing, Crossfit, and, of course, dancing. But running just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve heard people who like running say that they get a high from it, a feeling of intense well-being and joy, but the only joy I’ve ever gotten from running is when I stop.

Part of it is that I get bored after a while. I have a hard time getting my brain to turn off, and when I’m plodding along and my muscles start to get tired, my brain gets fixated on how much everything hurts. Dancing involves thinking about choreography and form, which seems to keep my brain happily occupied, but when I’m running there just isn’t much to distract it from the physical misery.


Photo credit:

Is it time to stop yet?

So I’m not one of those people who has “Run a marathon” written at the top of their bucket list. Yuck. I’m not even interested in running a 5K—not even one of those where they drench you in colored dye or make you run at night or have different rock bands along the way.

No, the only 5Ks that interest me are obstacle courses. Those are races where they have stuff to do every now and then, like crawling through mud pits or scaling walls. THOSE I love. I’ve done the Warrior Dash three times now, and next year I’d like to do the Spartan Sprint or the Tough Mudder. Even with Warrior Dash, though, I tend to walk instead of run between the obstacles. Gotta save my strength for the fun parts, right?

Earlier this year, I was looking at a list of obstacle courses in Colorado when these words caught my eye: INSANE INFLATABLE 5K. It was a 5K obstacle course where are all the obstacles were inflated, like giant bouncy castles.


Photo credit:

This Russian bouncy castle looks both awesome and copyright-infringing.

I could hardly sign up fast enough.

That’s how I found myself in Loveland, Colorado one Saturday afternoon in May. This was before my birthday (I’m posting this adventure out of order), so Ray was with me. He hadn’t hurt his knee yet (

The Insane Inflatable 5K was held at the Larimer County Fairgrounds, where I’d been before for dance competitions. It’s a huge complex that includes an arena for horse shows and events, another barnlike building for dog and animal shows, a big multipurpose building, a venue that can be used for concerts and sports, and many acres of parking lots and grassland.


Photo credit: William Andrus,

This is one of the sporting events you can enjoy at the Budweiser Events Center at Larimer County Fairgrounds. Actually, going to a monster truck event is an adventure I haven’t done yet….

The day that we were there, it seemed like every single part of the fairgrounds was in use. One of the parking attendants told us that they had a horse show, a dog show, the 5K, and two graduation ceremonies all running at the same time, which meant that the parking lots were full to bursting with vehicles of all kinds. It also meant that the people we saw were wearing a wide variety of clothing, from running clothes to cowboy boots to suits and ties.

The obstacle course was being held in the grass on the east side of the complex. As we walked from the parking lot to the entrance, we could see the tops of some of the inflated obstacles peeking over the fence, colored neon green and blue.

Oh, yay!

We walked through the front gate and made our way over to the event. Just like at Warrior Dash, there was a group of tents in front of the starting line where you could check in, pick up your runner’s number, and have your bags stored. Also like Warrior Dash, there were booths where you could get food, beverages (including the adult variety), and merchandise.


You could also enjoy a display of different Kia automobiles, and some advertisements, like this adorably mohawked Volkswagon Beetle, courtesy of Shock Top Ale. Now I want a car with a mohawk!

Unlike Warrior Dash, however, there was a distinctly amateurish feel to this whole area. Part of it was that the Insane Inflatable 5K was a much smaller event. Warrior Dash hosts thousands and thousands of participants, filling up the entire village at the Copper Mountain ski resort with people and booths. There, the check-in tent alone is the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

The booths at the Insane Inflatable obstacle course, on the other hand, were sitting in an area the size of two basketball courts, sort of huddled together in the middle of the field like a flock of white nylon sheep. There were only a couple food booths, one offering hot dogs and hamburgers and one offering funnel cake, and the lone merchandise booth had a small, dispirited display of cheap t-shirts laid out on a bare table. The teenage girl running the merchandise booth looked like a picture illustrating a Wikipedia article on boredom.

Over this scene boomed the amplified voice of the event’s MC, a man dressed in a strange-looking kilt that might have started out life as a woman’s plaid skirt. He had two sidekicks: a larger guy in jeans and a Green Lantern t-shirt, and a short, thin man wearing a Superman t-shirt, a cape, little running shorts over a pair of running tights, and big white sneakers. He had a really broad forehead and a hairline receding into exaggerated widow’s peaks, and something about him made him seem like a character from The Tick.


Photo credit:

Look it up on Wikipedia, kids: Spoon!

The MC and his sidekicks talked the whole time we walked around waiting for our race wave to line up–and we’d gotten there almost two hours early because traffic was lighter than expected. Sometimes they would announce that it was time for the next wave to line up, which was at least useful; sometimes they would gushingly thank the sponsors of the event, which was not. Sometimes they would interview “elite competitors,” who turned out to be people they’d pulled randomly out of the crowd (since there aren’t really elite competitors in inflatable 5K racing).

At first it wasn’t so bad, but, after a while, the thundering volume of the loudspeaker, the jokey used-car-salesman quality of the MC’s voice, and the complete inanity of what he was saying combined to make a background noise only slightly less awful than nails on chalkboard.

They talked for so long, without a pause, that I started to wonder if they were going for some kind of announcing world record (eight hours of talking without taking a single breath!). Ray started to wonder how long a prison sentence he’d get if he beat the MC to death with his own wireless microphone.

I definitely prefer Warrior Dash, where they’ve got live bands playing music instead of people talking.


Speaking of music, would I be dating myself if I said I really wanted to check out this Evening of Totally Awesome 80’s concert featuring Howard Jones, Flock of Seagulls, Information Society, and Katrina and the Waves?

At last, though, it was time for us to line up. We were herded into this little fenced-in area like a sheep pen, where we got to make VERY close friends with all of our neighbors. I was grateful that I’d remembered to put on deodorant. The MCs counted down from ten, and then we were off.


The starting line, with the sheep pen right in front of it

The first obstacle was immediately beyond the sheep pen. It was a big inflated triangle with sets of steep stairs up one side and slides down the other. You scrambled up the squishy stairs using both hands and feet, and then you slid down to the ground on the far side. There were about six sets of stairs and slides so that the whole herd of us could go up at once. As the mass of humanity surged up the bright blue and green nylon of the obstacle, I wondered what the strength rating of a set of bouncy stairs was, exactly, and what the newspaper headline might look like if it collapsed underneath our combined weight so that we all fell to our horrible, squishy deaths.


The mass of humanity from a previous wave in the race.

When we reached the ground, most of the people in the wave took off running, leaving us behind. Neither Ray nor I had done any training for the race (see “hatred of running,” above), so we had decided to walk the course. The obstacles were the fun part for us anyway.

However, since we’d also signed up for the last wave of the day in order to make sure that we could make it in time after my morning dance class, our decision to walk meant that we were basically the very last people on the whole course.

It was a little disheartening.

“That’s OK,” Ray said when I mentioned this to him. “I know I won’t come in last.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“When we get to the finish line, I’ll just push you out of the way, and then you’ll be last.”

Gee, thanks.

After a short walk on the damp, scrubby grass, we came to:

Obstacle #2—Mattress Run


Photo credit:

Official description from the Insane Inflatable website:

“Trust us, you’re not going to want to take this obstacle lightly. Take one wrong step and you’ll be laying down laughing on this mattress! The Mattress Run challenges your balance and agility as you make your way across a huge mattress filled with ankle-loving holes.”

The Mattress Run was a big, inflated square about a foot tall with holes all over its surface like a giant piece of neon green Swiss cheese. The idea was to jump from hole to hole, one foot in each hole, like football players doing a tire drill.

Woo-hoo! Our first real obstacle! I threw myself into it with gusto, springing from one hole to the next with my arms pumping. Yeah! This is what I had signed up for. I glanced over at Ray to see if he was enjoying himself. He was striding from hole to hole nonchalantly, his height and leg length being exactly right to be able to walk comfortably through the obstacle without having to jump.

“Hey!” I shouted, offended. I couldn’t have gotten through the holes without jumping, not with my short little legs. “You’re cheating!”

He shrugged. “I’m not cheating. I’m saving my energy for later.”

Obstacle #3—Big Balls (yes, that really is its name)


Photo credit:

“These big balls are always bouncing, and we guarantee you’ll be smacked, whacked, and knocked down by them. It’s quite possibly the world’s largest ball-pit. Once you crawl under the entrance point, you’re immediately faced with giant flying balls coming directly at you, and that’s just the beginning. Duck, dive, and dodge your way to the other side.”

(“These big balls are always bouncing?” I feel like the creators of the Insane Inflatable need to apologize to ACDC).


The description makes the obstacle sound pretty exciting, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the reality did not live up to the hype. The outside of the obstacle was like a big batting cage made of inflated struts and black netting. Inside on the ground were maybe a dozen oversized beach balls. When we crawled under the strut that formed the entrance, two teenagers inside the cage started throwing and kicking the balls around. They didn’t really throw or kick them at us, though; they just kind of moved them half-heartedly from one side of the enclosure to the other. Maybe earlier in the day they’d been more excited about beaning people with the balls, but the novelty must have worn off. They looked like the only thing they were excited about was hustling us through the exit so they could go home.


A view of the inside of the obstacle and one of the enthusiastic volunteers.

Obstacle #4—Bumpin’ Bumpin’


“There are always going to be speed bumps in the road of life—why not have a little fun with them? Scale a 2.5 story wall and then fly down the slide and make your way over our well-placed fun bumps.”

(“Well-placed fun bumps?”)

This obstacle was awesome. We climbed up a twenty-foot ladder (made of inflated rungs!) on one side of the obstacle and then slid down the other, bouncing over the “fun bumps” at the end before landing on the crash pad. Whee!


By the time we finished this obstacle, we were no longer the very last people. Several groups ahead of us who had started out running had slowed to a walk, and we had passed them. However, our feeling of accomplishment was short-lived. We’d rounded a corner coming up to Obstacle #4, and as we hopped off the crash pad we could see back towards the start of the race. We saw that the event crew had unplugged the second obstacle, the Mattress Run, from the fan that kept it inflated, and they were busy stomping it flat and folding it into a crate.


Photo credit: Jim Reynolds,

It just looks so sad when bouncy castles get deflated…

Wow. We were so slow that the crew was dismantling the whole race behind us.

Good thing we hadn’t decided to do the Zombie Run.

Obstacle #5—Tangled Up


Photo credit:

“Sometimes, getting a little tangled up is more fun than not! Here’s your chance to get lost in one of our most unique obstacles on course. Simply pick a lane, take the leap, and navigate your way through. Don’t let the size intimidate you—trust us, you’ll get out, eventually!”

This was my favorite obstacle of the whole event. You climbed up two inflated rungs to get onto a big crash pad, and then you either jumped over or ducked under squishy, horizontal bars that were placed across the path. What made it super fun was that everything was inflated, including the floor, so you weren’t going to get hurt if you fell; you could hurl yourself over the bars like a stuntman or a ninja.

I definitely would have gone back and done this one again if they’d let me.

Obstacle #6—Levels


Photo credit:

“Life is full of ups and downs, and so is this obstacle. Pick your route, bounce up and down to each level, and try to make it through without missing a beat or getting leveled yourself!”

I really enjoyed this obstacle, too. The floor was made of inflated blocks of different heights and firmness, and you had to walk, run, or bounce from one end to the other. I bounced mostly, and it was fun careening from block to block. Having a good sense of balance from years of dance probably helped.


Ray, who has not had years of dance, did not enjoy this obstacle as much. A couple times he misjudged how high or how firmly inflated a block was and got thrown sideways into the wall. Since I got to the end faster than he did, I got to stand on the ground at the exit and watch him do this. I have to say, there’s not much in life funnier than watching your large, manly husband trying to run through a bouncy castle and falling on his derriere. Hee hee!

Obstacle #7—Wrecking Balls


Photo credit:

“Don’t let these big balls wreck your run. This behemoth at 110 feet long will push you to your limits, but don’t be afraid to push back. Break your way through to the other side, and try not to get demolished along the way.”

For this obstacle, you got to push your way through lines of inflated posts, kind of like punching bags, that were attached to the floor. Then you pushed your way through lines of big blue beach-ball type things hanging from overhead support poles. The floor sloped up and down like two hills over the course of the obstacle, so you had to deal with a change in footing, too.

If we’d been running the race for time, the posts and beach balls would probably have slowed us down, but since we just jogged through for fun, it was pretty easy. I kind of wished it was harder.

After the Wrecking Balls, we had a long section of walking without any obstacles. This part worried me a little, actually, because the sky had been overcast all day, and it began to look particularly dark and ominous as we trudged through the prairie grass between obstacles 7 and 8. I really didn’t want to try to navigate the nylon surfaces of the obstacles in the rain; they looked like they would get really slippery.


Photo credit: Joshua Mayer,

This part of the course was mostly hidden from the starting line by the horse arena and a little hill, so we couldn’t see anything but prairie and a little slice of the highway. What with the gray, threatening clouds overhead, it felt kind of lonely. That might have been why a number of people around us cut across the field to get to the next obstacle instead of following the orange cones of the course.

Hey! Isn’t that cheating? Plus, you paid for this nice 5K walk, so you might as well enjoy it, right?

Obstacle #8—SOS


Photo credit:

“Good thing cell phones now have GPS, as you may need to send out an SOS once you hit this massive obstacle. At 2 ½ stories high, with 3 different slides, it’s very easy to get lost. Choose your escape route wisely.”

This was by far the strangest obstacle: it was shaped like a giant airplane that had crashed and split down the middle. Who the heck designs a bouncy castle to look like a crashed airplane? It looked especially odd sitting in the middle of the grassy field, like a bizarre experimental balloon-airplane hybrid that had suffered a fatal accident on its maiden flight.

When we got to the obstacle, we climbed up stairs through the tail section, and then we emerged onto an open platform at the top. From there, we could either slide through the nose section or down one of the two wings. The slide part was fun (I mean, as an adult, how often do you get to go down slides?), but it still felt a little weird to be sliding through a fake crashed airplane.

Obstacle #9—Pure Misery


Photo credit:

“We took a page from our military’s training handbook and created this goliath that will leave you begging for mercy. The 100-foot long beast will test your strength, agility, flexibility, and endurance as you complete multiple obstacles within the confines of this challenge. As they say, misery loves company.”

This description of the obstacle sounds fantastic. I love pushing myself physically, and something that requires strength and agility really appeals to me. However, like some of the previous obstacles, this one didn’t feel like it required much in the way of athleticism at all.


We climbed up a ladder-like set of steps on one side of an incline, and then climbed down another ladder on the other side. Then we pushed our way through a series of inflated pillars on a flat section before doing another climb-up-climb-down.

Again, if we’d been running for time, seeing how fast we could do it might have been a good challenge, but as it was, it was easy. Does it sound strange if I say I was disappointed not to have the Misery part?


As we dismounted the obstacle, we were finally back where we could see the starting line. The obstacle at the starting line was still standing, but obstacle 2 was completely packed up, obstacle 3 was getting folded into a crate, and obstacle 4 was flat on the ground and having the air bubbles pushed out. Sheesh. Couldn’t you at least wait until we finished?


Photo credit: Randy Robertson, “Too Much Eggnog?”,

It was almost as sad as this deflated Santa.

Obstacle #10—Jump Around


Photo credit:

“This is where the rubber meets insanity. Hands down one of the most insane obstacles you’ll ever experience, Jump Around is the largest inflatable of its kind—over 70 feet of crazy, bouncy, fun! Once you get on it, all you’ll want to do is jump up, jump around, and get down!”

Apologies to House of Pain.

This obstacle wasn’t hard, but it was really fun. It was a bunch of big bumps, like sand dunes or ski moguls, and you got to bounce your way through them. Yay!


Obstacle #11—Finish Line


Photo credit:

“Like all of our obstacles so far? Then you’ll love our finish line! We’ve taken our bouncer’s favorite elements from all of the other obstacles on our course and combined them into one crazy, inflatable. Dodge the Wrecking Balls, make your way past the tipsy towers, climb the rope ladder and slide you way to victory.”

As the description says, the last obstacle was kind of like a rehash of several previous obstacles. We went through a line of oversized, hanging beach balls and then through a section of squishy pillars before climbing up a series of hand-and-footholds (the “rope ladder” of the description) to the top of an incline. Then we got to slide down the far side of the incline to the finish line.


It was fun enough, but if we were going to re-do elements from previous obstacles, I wish we’d gotten to do the one where we bounced over the horizontal bars like ninjas. That was my favorite.

Just past the finish line, volunteers were waiting to give us t-shirts and participation medals. I was very glad they were there, because otherwise it would have been a really, really sad finish. The finishing area (the same place as the starting area) was deserted—and quiet, because the MCs had left (which I guess wasn’t all bad). When we went to the bag check area to reclaim our backpacks, we didn’t have to give the volunteers our claim tags, because our bags were the last two there. Even the food vendors were closed and packing up.

Geez! What if we’d really wanted a hot dog after our grueling race?

On our way home, the gray and threatening skies finally opened up and it poured, dumping so much rain on the highway that everybody had to crawl along at 10 miles an hour. I can’t tell you how glad I was that the rain at least held off until we were done. Nothing would have made that deserted finishing area even sadder than being soaked to the bone and having to run for the car.

About a week later, I got an email saying that photographs of us running the race were available on the event website—FOR FREE! So I went to the site and entered our bib numbers.

There weren’t any pictures of us. The photographer had gone home before we even started.

So, while I had fun at the Inflatable 5K (how could you not have fun as an adult getting to enjoy giant bouncy castles?), I don’t think I’ll do it again. If you’ve got kids who want to do the event, or if you like mild, easy fun where you don’t break a sweat, give it a try! This race would be a GREAT event to enjoy as a family. Just make sure you bring your camera and take your own photos as you go.

For myself, I think I’ll spend my money on doing another mud run next year instead. Maybe I should question my sanity, but there just wasn’t quite enough “Insane” in this 5K for me.


Photo credit:

Now, a giant bouncy Stonehenge? THAT’S insane.

Adventure #13–My 40th Birthday, Part 2

Originally written 6/16/15.

For part 1, click here:

All Pixabay photos used in accordance with this Creative Commons license:

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


The trail continued around the side of Nymph Lake, and we followed it as it ducked back among the trees. At this point, the path was level, and the snow had melted from the half of the path closest to the water. That meant that you had a choice: you could walk on top of the slippery packed snow, or you could slog along through the gooey brown mud created by the mixture of snowmelt and dirt path.

I don’t like getting muddy, so I chose the snow. Ray sort of alternated between mud and snow like a man trying to choose the lesser of two evils, only to find that they’re both equally horrible.

The path curved around the far side of the lake and then rose sharply. We climbed up the first incline, paused for a drink where the trail leveled off for a bit, and then splashed through a little stream that cut through the snowpack. Ahead of us, we could see that the trail turned to the left, but whatever lay beyond the bend was hidden by trees.

Well, what lay beyond the bend was the next incline (cue scary foreshadowing music!). This hill had several charming features:

  1. It was the steepest part of the trail so far.
  2. It was also the narrowest part of the trail, being only about two feet wide.
  3. To your left, as you climbed the hill, there was a drop-off. It wasn’t sheer, but if you slipped going up the trail it was going to be a long and painful time before you came to a stop.
  4. The trail was several feet deep in snow.
  5. To make matters worse, there were no trees on this hill, so the path was completely exposed to the sun. That might sound like a good thing (you know, the sun melts the snow so that it isn’t snowpacked anymore), but right then the melting process was at a dangerous stage: the snow was soft, unstable, and slippery.

It didn’t occur to me that going up this hill might be a bad idea. I viewed it more as a fun challenge. That probably doesn’t say good things about my sanity.

40snow2Photo credit: Ushi-Sama, “Snow Times Adventure,”

This is what the hill looked like to me.

Ray, however, thought that the hill was unsafe, and climbing it didn’t change his opinion. He decided on the way up to tell me, once we stopped, that we should turn around and go back. He sort of wished he’d told me that BEFORE we climbed the hill.


This is what the hill looked like to Ray.

Now, you’re probably imagining that one of us slipped and fell down the mountainside while hiking up this incline. But we didn’t. We both made it safely to the top, where the path leveled off again.

I was in front and made it to the top first, and I saw that there was a big rock outcropping off to the left with a gorgeous view of Nymph Lake a couple hundred feet below. I made a beeline for this rock, and I stood on top of it taking pictures while Ray finished toiling up the hill.

It was spectacular up there. The dark green oval of Nymph Lake, looking small and jewel-like, lay nestled among the pine trees, framed by the snow-capped gray peaks of the Rockies. Above me was a dramatic mix of blue sky and white clouds, with the sun shining warm on my face. For a moment, I was alone on the rock, and I breathed in a deep breath and felt incredibly happy.


The fateful view

But the trail was busy that day, and I wasn’t alone for long. Two young women joined me on the rock, talking as they looked out at the amazing view.

“And I was like, ‘It’s not OK to just cancel on me at the last minute.’”

“Oh my God! I know!”

I had a brief fantasy of being a Donald Trump-style millionaire so that I could buy my own mountain that I could have all to myself. One where I wouldn’t have to share my transcendent moments with other people.

Suddenly, my fantasy was interrupted by a loud noise behind me, like an enormous thud. One of the other women on the rock said, “Oh my God! Are you all right?”

I turned around. Ray was sprawled on his back on the rock, his arms and legs flung out and the backpack stuck awkwardly underneath him.

Later, he told me that he’d just taken a step onto the rock to join me. The rock was relatively flat compared to the slope we’d just hiked up, and nothing turned under him or slid or anything like that. But as he stepped he heard a pop, and then his knee gave out and he fell down.


This wasn’t completely out of the blue. Ray’s had some issues with his knee for the last five years or so, dating back to a martial arts class where one of the other students hit him full force in the knee and it swelled up like a balloon. The orthopedic specialist he saw at the time said that he’d probably partially torn the meniscus, and he went through some intense physical therapy for several months to see if they could strengthen it without having to do surgery. Things seemed to go well with the PT, so they thought that the meniscus was healing on its own, but every now and then he’d have trouble with the knee giving out during exercise.

40karatePhoto credit: Mikhail Esteves, “Karate Kids,”

You see, doctor, I was in the middle of a martial arts demonstration when this guy drove over my legs on a motorcycle…

Now it seems likely (say the doctors) that the hit actually tore Ray’s ACL as well as damaging the meniscus, but Ray’s leg muscles were keeping the knee stable enough that they couldn’t tell. Apparently, this isn’t as bizarre as it sounds; three of Ray’s friends have also torn their ACLs but not found out about it until much later. Over time, Ray’s meniscus started buckling, and every time his knee gave out it got a little worse.

That day in the Park, the weakened meniscus tore again. The doctor said that the meniscus was so damaged by then that it could have torn anytime; it was just a fluke—and our bad luck—that it happened when it did.

Of course, we didn’t find out the specifics until several days later. Right then, all Ray knew was that his knee had given out, and he was in a lot—A LOT—of pain.

The other women and I stood looking down at Ray where he lay sprawled on the rock.

40sprawlPhoto credit: Quinn Dombrowski, “Meanwhile, on the couch…”,

Like this, only not as furry and cute.

“Are you all right?” one of the women asked.

“No,” he said.

“Do you want us to help you up?”

“No,” he said again. “I think I’m going to sit here for a few minutes and then I’ll see if I can stand.”

The woman looked doubtful. “We could help you back down the trail.”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ll be OK.”

“All right,” she said, still doubtfully, and the two women continued on the path.

I squatted down next to him. “What happened?”

“My knee gave out.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m going to lie here for a while until the pain gets a little better, and then I’ll stand up.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“You might as well finish your hike. I’m done for the day, obviously, but since I have to sit here for a few minutes anyway, you should go on. When I feel better I’ll start back for the car on my own.”

It felt wrong to just leave him like that. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he said, brusquely. “I really want to be alone right now.”

So I went. He had food, water, and his cell phone in the backpack, so he wasn’t helpless, and it was clear that he wanted to suffer in solitude for a while without me hovering. But it still felt wrong.

I went another ten minutes or so up the trail, but all the fun had gone out of the day for me. I was miserably worried about Ray, guilty for leaving him, and concerned, in a more practical way, about splitting up our little group, since he not only had all our food but also the keys to the car.

When I reached a pretty little waterfall at a bend in the path, I took a picture automatically, but my heart wasn’t in it. I turned around and went back.


I found Ray sitting on a rock about fifteen feet from where he’d fallen. He had decided, as soon as I’d left, to go ahead and hike back to the car, but, in the twenty minutes I’d been gone, he’d only made it as far as the rock.

“It’s bad,” he said, when I asked how his knee felt. He didn’t just mean the pain, which he told me was excruciating (and, being a tough guy, if was admitting to hurting at all it must really be bad). He meant that he knew the injury was serious.

We were in trouble. Ray is not a small man: 5’10” and 250 pounds. I’m 5’3” and 115 pounds and, while I’m at least averagely strong, there was no way I could carry or support a person twice my size—even on a smooth, level trail.

Spc. Leah R. Burton Capt. Charles Moore, commander, Company C, 202nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, performs the fireman's carry of a "casualty" during the nuclear, biological and chemical portion of the Expert Field Medical Badge training and testing here Sept. 14.
Spc. Leah R. Burton
Capt. Charles Moore, commander, Company C, 202nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, performs the fireman’s carry of a “casualty” during the nuclear, biological and chemical portion of the Expert Field Medical Badge training and testing here Sept. 14.

Photo credit: Army Medicine,

If only!

And the trail we were faced with was anything but level. The snow-covered hill below us was as steep as a slide and about the same width, with a serious drop-off on the right. Added to that was the fact that a steady stream of people was climbing up the hill, clogging up the already narrow passage.

Both of us are good problem solvers, but it was hard to imagine how anyone was going to get Ray down from here.

However, we couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. “I’m going to go get the rangers,” I said.

Taking some food from the backpack for sustenance, I hiked down the incline. In the half hour since we’d first come up the hill, the snow had gotten softer and softer, and now the surface of the path was pitted with craters like the moon. Great. I navigated the slope safely enough, but it was one more challenge for anyone trying to move Ray.

I reached the bottom of the hill and splashed through the stream that cut through the snowbank there. It was then that my worry-clouded brain finally cleared a little. I realized belatedly that this wasn’t a novel from the 1800’s, where the concerned but stalwart heroine would have to hike all the way back down to civilization to summon the cavalry.

40heroinePhoto credit: Davidd, “Dad-Blamed Flappin’ Varmints,”

Although, if I got to ride a horse and be chased by pterodactyls…

This was 2015, and I had a cell phone. Duh.

I sat down on a handy rock and pulled out my phone. There was a signal. Thank God! I looked up the Rocky Mountain National Park website, found a contact phone number, and called it. A friendly operator listened to my story and forwarded me on to the emergency dispatcher, who took my name and phone number and the details, such as they were, about my location.

“Will your husband need to be carried out on a litter?” the dispatcher asked. “Or do you think he can make it out with a pair of crutches?”

I was visited with a sudden image of Ray—or anyone, honestly—trying to go down that slope on a pair of crutches. Then I imagined two people trying to carry Ray on a stretcher down the slope. I might have laughed hysterically. I can’t really remember.

40stretcherPhoto credit: Dan Zen, “Will the Happy Stretcher Bearers Save the Queasy Darth Vader!?”,

“The trail is snowpacked and very narrow,” I said. “I really don’t know how they’re going to get my husband out.”

“I have to tell the rangers what equipment to bring with them,” the dispatcher said, somewhat stiffly.

I think I might have offended her. I hastily explained that I wasn’t trying to be unhelpful; I just didn’t know what was going to work given the conditions. I thanked her very much for all her help, and she said in a friendlier voice that the search and rescue team would be heading up to us, and she would give them my phone number so they could call me if they needed to.

While I was on the phone, a largish group of teenagers came by and stopped on the rocks where I was sitting. They started chasing each other and screaming. “Josh! Tell Charlie to stop poking me!” “I just stepped in the stream and got water all inside my boot!”

I had to stuff a finger in my ear so that I could hear the dispatcher on the other end. It was a reminder to me that the rest of the world doesn’t stop for my personal emergencies.

40murderPhoto credit: Joseph Vasquez, “No Escape,”

It also might possibly have led to some homicidal fantasies…

When the dispatcher hung up, I headed back up the hill, wishing that I’d remembered about my cell phone before I’d come down the dang thing. We couldn’t afford to have anything to happen to me. But I reached the top just fine and told Ray that search and rescue was on its way.

And then we waited.

I hadn’t ever really thought of the logistics of search and rescue in a national park before. It had taken Ray and me about half an hour to hike from the trailhead to the top of the hill. Even if the rangers were at the Bear Creek station near the parking lot, it was going to take them half an hour to reach us. If they were somewhere else in the Park, they’d have to reach the trailhead and then hike in. There weren’t any shortcuts. They couldn’t drive up to us. I didn’t even think, if Ray had been more seriously injured, that a helicopter could have made it up to where we were. There just wasn’t anyplace to land. So rescue was going to be a slow process.

That gave us lots of time for contemplation.

For a while, I sat on the rock overlooking Nymph Lake, trying not to cry. A chipmunk, used to handouts from tourists charmed by its cuteness, came over to see if I would give it some of my almonds. I didn’t, but I took some pictures. A girl from the loud group of teenagers (now at the top of the slope) tried to catch the chipmunk so she could pick it up and pet it, probably not realizing that chipmunks can be carriers of both rabies and bubonic plague.


“Katie, what are you doing? You’re going to bump into that woman and knock her off the rock!”

“Sshh! You’re scaring off the chipmunk!”

I hoped that the chipmunk would bite Katie’s finger and give her plague, but no such luck. It ran off into the bushes and Katie never caught up to it.

plaguePhoto credit: Tim Evanson,

Aww! This model of the bubonic plague bacterium is so cute!

After a bit, I went and sat with Ray on a rock overlooking the slope. The pain in his knee, though still bad, was more manageable now that he’d been sitting still, and we talked about what we were going to do once the rangers got there. Both of us realized the difficulties involved in getting Ray down the hill. We also both realized that the injury was probably serious, and there might very well be surgery in Ray’s future.

“I’m worried that the rangers will force me to go to the emergency room in Estes Park today,” Ray said. “I really don’t want to do that. There’s not much they can do tonight if it’s an ACL tear, and then we’d have to pay for an ambulance ride and an ER visit. What I’d rather do is see if my own doctor can get me in tomorrow.”

I said that we could talk it over with the rangers once they got there. I also preferred having Ray see his own doctor in Denver, but it would depend on what the search and rescue team’s guidelines were.

“Once we get back to the car,” Ray went on, “all I want to do is go straight home.”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking sadly of my birthday pie. It didn’t sound like we were going to be stopping for lunch after all.

nopiePhoto credit: Roger Ahlbrand,

Someone from the search and rescue office called me once while we were waiting, just to make sure Ray was still OK. He asked if I was OK, too, which almost made me start crying again. He reassured me that the rangers were on their way; they’d had to drive to the trailhead, but they were on the trail now and heading up to us. I was extremely grateful to him, and said so.

I also got a couple texts from friends, wishing me a happy birthday. I wanted to write back, but my phone’s battery had been acting up (Ray had actually given me a new one that morning), and I didn’t want to waste it, just in case. And also, it felt a little surreal to be reading “Hope you have a great day!” texts while sitting on a mountain waiting for search and rescue.

So we sat there, watching people struggling up the slope. Some people fell. Some people stepped in unstable soft spots and sank up to their knees in snow. Ray said that he thought the rangers should close the trail. I thought privately that if people wanted to hike in these conditions, why not? We hadn’t seen anyone get hurt. Even Ray (in the crowning irony of the morning) had made it to the top of the hill, only to have his knee give out on a flat rock.

Some of the hikers coming up the slope now had the strangest backpacks I’d ever seen. They were hooked over their shoulders with straps like a regular backpack, but the back part was like a giant crash pad folded in half. The pad stuck out over the hikers’ heads, looking extremely awkward.

We overheard one of these hikers telling someone else that they were, in fact, giant crash pads, called bouldering pads. Rock climbers put them at the bottom of rock faces as a safety precaution in case they fall. I personally thought that the safety provided was probably mostly psychological, since I didn’t think a pad that you could carry on your back was going to keep you from breaking something if you fell onto it from three stories up. Besides, it was only maybe five feet across. How could you be sure you were going to land right in those five feet?

boulderpadPhoto credit: Clay Junell, “Fancy Foot Work!”,

Yeah, that just doesn’t look very helpful to me.

It’s funny, the things you think when you’re in the middle of an emergency. Two young men passed us, talking to each other in German, and when they were gone, Ray turned to me and said, “I wonder what wooing sounds like in German?”

On my side, I spent a lot of time thinking about how much better the situation would have been if I’d been the one to get hurt, since Ray could have carried me down the hillside if he’d had to.

40carry2Photo credit:

Like this!

I also realized, a few minutes into our vigil, that I really, really needed to pee. Oh, well.

After about an hour, we saw three people round the corner at the bottom of the slope: two women in khaki uniforms that reminded me of Boy Scouts, and a man in a bright yellow jacket. These had to be the Rangers, I thought. Who else would be up here in uniform?

All three wore sunglasses, stout hiking boots, and enormous backpacks with various bits of gear hanging off them. They were obviously prepared for whatever might happen, even on an easy, well-traveled trail. Climbing up the snow-covered incline didn’t seem to faze them. They’d probably been through much worse.

“Hello!” the lead woman said as she reached the top of the hill. “Did you call for the Rangers?”

I had to restrain myself from flinging my arms around her neck and weeping with relief. The cavalry had arrived.

40cavalryPhoto credit: The U.S. Army,

To be continued…

Adventure #13–My 40th Birthday, Part 1

Originally written 6/15/15

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

13Photo credit: Ryan Vaarsi, “Lucky 13, Los Feliz,”

Rocky Mountain National Park–

To celebrate my 40th birthday, I’ve done a bunch of fun things with my friends and family over the last couple weeks, some of which I’ll be writing about as adventures. Also, some people gave me adventures as birthday presents, which I am really excited about—it’s like two presents in one, since anything that gives me an excuse to blog is a gift in itself.


For the actual day of my birthday, however, I decided to go hiking in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park with just my husband. I’ve been going hiking in RMNP since I could walk, so, while I was greatly looking forward to the trip (I don’t get up there nearly as much as I’d like to), I wasn’t going to be able to use it as an adventure for my blog. Instead, I was planning on writing a kind of reflective, introspective post about turning forty, finding my first gray hairs, trying to ignore the wrinkles, etc.

Fate had other ideas.

I got my first hint that Fate was planning a blogworthy day for me on our way up to the Park. We were driving on Interstate 36 south of Boulder, where they’re doing some construction to install express lanes. It was Sunday, so there wasn’t any construction actually going on, and it looked like the project was very close to being completed. Almost no orange cones or lanes blocked off or anything like that. There were signs saying that it was a construction zone, but that was really it.


The outside of my birthday card from my husband. I love pickles.

My husband moved into the left lane and sped up to pass some slower vehicles, and just at that moment, a police car that neither of us had noticed turned on its lights and pulled in front of us from the shoulder. Uh-oh. It moved around behind us and motioned us to stop.

“Good morning,” the officer said, when he had gotten out of his car and come over to talk to us through the window. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

Ray, who has the greatest respect for law-enforcement officers and wanted to go to the police academy at one point in his life, didn’t fib or try to make excuses. “When I looked down, it said seventy-five, sir.”

“That’s right. And do you know what the speed limit is through here?”

“Sixty-five, sir.”

“No. It’s fifty-five.”

The officer paused to let that knowledge sink in, and my heart sank with it. We’d been going twenty miles per hour over the limit in a construction zone. This ticket was really going to hurt.


The inside of the card! Hee hee!

Ray gave the officer his license, registration, and proof of insurance, and the officer took it with him back to his car.

“I’m sorry I just ruined your birthday,” Ray said unhappily.

Neither of us knew it right then, but that was not going to be the last time Ray said that particular sentence that day.

The officer came back a few minutes later and returned Ray’s license. “Raymond, do you know what the fine is for going twenty miles an hour over the limit? $300 and 6 points off your license. In a construction zone, all fines are doubled. That’s $600 and 12 points.”

Oh, no. I knew (because Ray had been something of a speed demon back when we first started dating) that in Colorado, if you accumulate 12 points in violations in 12 months, you can lose your license. That was even worse than the $600, which was bad enough. What were we going to do if Ray couldn’t drive?


Sorry about the reflection from my flash in the middle of this picture. I’m definitely no Ansel Adams.

“But I see that you haven’t had a ticket since 2008,” the officer went on, “so I am going to cut you a break this one time and let you off with a warning.”

I hadn’t realized that I’d stopped breathing until I suddenly started again. He was letting us off with a warning? It was like a ray of sunshine breaking through some very, very dark clouds.

“Don’t speed through here again, all right?” the officer said, and handed Ray a business card with his name and address on it. Ray handed it to me along with his registration and proof of insurance. I put the paperwork back in the glove box and the officer’s card reverently in my purse. That man was getting a thank-you note!

It’s always interesting to me to see the different ways people react after a stressful situation is over. For the next twenty minutes, Ray kept saying things like, “I wasn’t the only one speeding,” and, “There isn’t even any construction going on!”

I, on the other hand, was so happy that I could have sung and turned cartwheels.


This is the adorable gift bag that Ray gave me my presents in after breakfast on my birthday. It looks like a muppet. Best gift bag ever!

We reached Rocky Mountain National Park about 9:30 a.m., early enough to have beaten most of the summer crowds. The trail we had decided to hike, the Emerald Lake Trail, was at the south end of the main road that led from the Fall River Entrance where we’d come in, so we spent about twenty minutes driving through the Park on the way to our destination.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, and all the trees and grass were vibrantly green after a very wet spring. We saw a heard of elk in a meadow, and one or two deer picking their way through the trees by the side of the road. At one point, traffic in front of us came to a complete stop, and we leaned out the windows to see a wild tom turkey, his tail fanned out like a brown peacock, herding a group of hens across the road.

That was worth the trip to me, right there.


Sadly, I didn’t get a good picture of the turkey with his tail fanned out, but here is a different wild turkey (also cool).

At the end of the lovely drive, we found that we had timed our trip perfectly, and there was still plenty of parking at the busy and popular Bear Lake Trailhead. We parked, loaded our backpack with food and water, and made a pit stop at the glorified outhouses near the ranger station. Then we were off toward Emerald Lake, on a 3-mile-round-trip hike that was labeled “Easy” on the Park’s website.


Right away, we hit a snag. The trail might be easy in mid-July, but at the end of a wet May, it was still mostly hidden by snow. Patches of the paved trail stuck out from underneath the thick, dirty white blanket (melting spring snow is not pretty), only to disappear again where the trees shaded the track from the sun.


I wasn’t too worried. When I was in college, I used to go hiking in the backwoods of rural Tennessee pretty much every weekend, and while I’d never hiked in snow there, I’d hiked in just about every other condition. Walking on top of packed snow didn’t seem too bad. Besides, plenty of other people were on the trail, including kids in crocs and grandparents in shorts, so how hard could it be?

It didn’t occur to me that Ray, not as fond of hiking as I am, might not be excited about trekking across the snow. He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, but since it was my birthday (and we’d driven two hours to get there), he just hitched the backpack a little higher on his shoulder and didn’t say anything.

Almost immediately, the trail began to climb up a hill, winding through rocks and evergreen trees. I was so enchanted by the scenery—the little running streams by the side of the path; the small, dark gray squirrels peering at us from the branches; the spicy scent of the pines—that I hardly noticed how steep the ascent was.


If you look carefully, you can see a squirrel in the middle of this picture

Ray, on the other hand, was painfully aware of the climb, and every ten minutes or so he would step to the side of the path for a quick water break. It was just as well that he did, because otherwise I probably would have forgotten to drink myself. Getting dehydrated when you’re at 8000 feet above sea level is a really bad idea.

Every time we stopped, we talked about this and that, including our plans for the rest of the day. There’s a little café called the Estes Park Pie Shop where we always eat after hiking; we started going there a year or two ago after seeing a truck parked outside their shop that said YOU NEED PIE! in giant red letters across the side. Since the pie (and the rest of their food) turned out to be as good as their advertising, we go back whenever we’re in the area.


I don’t eat pie (or any other kind of dessert) very often anymore, but this was a very special occasion. So, as soon as we were done hiking, we planned on driving back into Estes Park to have lunch, followed by pie, before heading home so I could take a nap (also very important). As far as I was concerned, it was the perfect birthday plan.

Whenever we paused for a drink, this one particular family would pass us. There were six of them: a mom, an older couple who I guessed were her parents, a toddler, and two red-headed older kids who might have been eleven or twelve. The first four of them were going pretty slowly, just like we were; neither the toddler nor the older couple moved very fast. The older kids, however, seemed athletic and adventurous, and they hiked much faster. We only caught up with them when they stopped to climb a rock or wade in a stream.

They got so far ahead of the rest of the family that I actually wasn’t sure at first that they were part of the same group. There wasn’t much that I was sure about with them. I think they were twins (they were the same height and build and had very similar faces), but I never was certain whether they were both boys, both girls, or one of each. Their red hair was cut in matching mops like Raggedy Ann and Andy, and both of them had long, skinny bodies dressed in t-shirts and jeans.

raggedyannPhoto credit: Joe Haupt,

In case you’re too young to know who Raggedy Ann and Andy are…

After watching them clamber up on some rocks and stand looking down at the forest below them, I decided that they were kids after my own heart. When I was little (like four or five), my parents used to put a whistle around my neck when we went hiking because I enjoyed running ahead and exploring so much. The deal was that I could explore, but I had to stay on the trail, and I had to blow my whistle every few minutes so that my parents knew where I was.

During the first part of my birthday hike with Ray, we played a kind of leapfrog with the adults in this other family: they would pass us when we stopped for a drink, and we would pass them when the grandparents stopped to adjust their hiking poles, or when the mom stopped to put the toddler in a baby carrier (which was basically a special backpack. The mom then did the same hike we were doing with a 25-pound 2-year-old on her back—she must have been in incredible shape).


Every time we leapfrogged, we would smile and say hello to each other. There’s a camaraderie in the Park that I love, a sense that you’re sharing this beautiful experience with everyone else on the trail. We said hello to all the people who passed us going the other way, and they all smiled and said hello back. That just doesn’t happen when you’re out walking down the street in Denver. You’re much more likely to drop your eyes and pretend you don’t notice the person you’re passing—you know, in case they’re a pervert or a psycho. But out on the trail, everyone is friendly. It’s part of the magic of the Park.

A little less than a mile from the trailhead, the path flattened out, and all of a sudden we found ourselves on the shore of a lake. We thought at first it was Emerald Lake (it certainly was a gorgeous, deep green color, the water reflecting all the trees on the hillside to our left), but we realized that we hadn’t gone far enough for it to be Emerald. Later, we found out that it was called Nymph Lake, and it was the first of a series of lakes on the trail.


Nymph Lake

Standing on the shore, it felt like we were watching some kind of seasonal changing of the guard. The water was completely clear of ice, and ducks were floating on the surface, but most of the shoreline was still several feet deep in snow. The mountains had apparently not gotten the message that it was supposed to be summer.

After we’d stood looking at the lake for a while, Ray asked if I wanted to keep going or if I wanted to turn around and go back. I said that I wanted to keep going. We’d only been hiking for about twenty minutes at that point, and I wasn’t ready to go home. Besides, we hadn’t reached Emerald Lake yet.

This (unbeknownst to us) was one of those decision-making crossroads that you look back on later with regret. But, of course, you never know at the time what you’re in for, which is probably a good thing.

Dramatic music should be playing here! To be continued…. Continue reading Adventure #13–My 40th Birthday, Part 1

Adventure #12–Archery

Originally written 6/1/15.

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

12Photo credit: Markus Grossalber, “12 O’Clock,”

Full Rut Archery–

Broadhead Cafe–

For her birthday, my sister decided that she’d like to try an archery class. She invited me along, and of course I said yes, since I’d never shot a bow and arrow before.

She found a place online that offered a special birthday package: an hour of range use, equipment rental, and a dedicated instructor for $12 per person. Such a deal! Even better, the range had a café inside that served exotic meats like kangaroo and frog’s legs (as well as more mundane things like burgers), and we could preorder our meals and have them ready for us when we got there.

That sounded perfect. My sister got together a small party of friends and signed us up for a Sunday at 12:30.

On that Sunday, my sister and I decided to carpool to the archery range, which was (according to Google) about half an hour away, on the plains to the east of the Denver Metro area. Armed with the GPS on her phone, we set out from the eastern suburbs and were soon in rolling grasslands. The houses got farther apart, and many were surrounded by big, white-fenced acres of horse pasture. It had been an unusually wet and rainy May in Denver, but the sun was mostly out that day in a dramatic sky of gray and white clouds. A good day for an adventure.

 COplains1Photo credit: Ken Lund,

As we drove, we talked about various things, and I looked at the GPS from time to time to give my sister directions. We went from a big, two-lanes-each-way, 45 mph Denver street to a one-lane-each way paved county road, to a smaller side county road where houses were few and far between, to a dirt road with no street signs.

It was here, in the middle of nowhere, that the GPS finally told us we had arrived.

We pulled over in a cloud of dust and looked around. There was nothing as far as the eye could see but grass, the occasional house surrounded by pasture, and a wide variety of rusty vehicle carcasses. The address we were looking for didn’t seem to exist.

 rustyPhoto credit:

My sister looked at the nearest house, which had a pickup truck hitched to a horse trailer sitting in its driveway. “Do you think that could be it?” she asked doubtfully.

“No,” I said, imagining going up to this person’s house and asking if they were an archery range. An introvert’s nightmare. “Let’s check the website.”

Luckily, the cell phone signal was low but present, so we looked up the address on the archery range’s website. Hmm. The address listed on their home page was certainly the one we had entered in the GPS, and here we were. Only, no archery range.

 COplains2Photo credit: Ken Lund,

I scrolled a little farther down. At the bottom of the home page, the address was posted again—except, while the street number was the same, the road listed was completely different.

I gave my sister the bad news. She took the phone from me and entered the new address, and we were off, following the GPS back down the dirt road to a different dirt road. While she drove, I texted her friends to let them know that we were going to be late, and I hoped that this wasn’t going to ruin my sister’s birthday party.

 COplains3Photo credit: Derek Key,

A few minutes later, I suddenly got a bad feeling. I’d like to say that I had a premonition, but really I think it was paranoia after getting lost the first time. I looked more closely at the GPS, and I saw that it had somehow changed the address my sister had entered into a totally different address.


I tried correcting the address, but the GPS seemed possessed. Every time I re-entered the correct address, it would change it again. The new address, the one it REALLY wanted us to go to, had absolutely zero resemblance to the one I kept trying to enter.

 devilPhoto credit: Eduardo Gavina, “Demon in the Sky (Vicente)”,

This is what I imagine the GPS-possessing demon looking like

In the end, I went to Google, entered the name of the archery range, and clicked on the map. THAT finally gave us the correct destination, which was good. Unfortunately, it also let us know that it was going to be another 20 minutes before we got there, because of course the possessed GPS had been leading us in exactly the wrong direction.

Well, nothing we could do about it now. We followed the new directions back onto a paved road we had been on half an hour before, and I texted everybody that we were going to be really late. That was OK, it turned out, because one of the others had gotten lost as well, and one had gotten stuck downtown in traffic after running the Colfax Half Marathon and wasn’t going to make it at all.

Eventually, after a series of paved county roads, we ended up on a different dirt road in a different middle of nowhere, and this turned out to be the right place. Hooray! There were signs pointing to the range as we got close, and eventually we saw a twenty-foot-tall model of a giant arrow planted in the middle of a field.


This had to be the place.

The range was inside of a big, newish-looking building like a barn surrounded by a gravel parking lot. Across the parking lot was an outdoor archery area in a field, with a woman in shorts and a t-shirt shooting at paper targets on chunky stands.


Inside, there were several different areas: the café off to the left, the front desk off to the right, and a store straight ahead, with the main part of the range beyond it. The walls were covered with wood paneling, with big log beams here and there, and the décor was largely made up of the mounted heads of various animals, like deer, elk, and boar. The carpet on the floor was camouflage. I wondered where you get camo carpet, and how much of a demand there is for it.


I had been worried that we weren’t going to be able to shoot after all, since we were half an hour late, but the two employees at the front desk didn’t seem concerned about it. In fact, they didn’t even mention that we were late. One of the employees, a girl in her late teens or early twenties, led us off to the right, past the check-in desk, to an area she called “the Lone Range.” Ha ha ha! The name made me very happy, but the girl didn’t laugh at all when she said it. Maybe she was over the joke.

The Lone Range was a long, skinny room that was separated from the main part of the range by a wooden wall with plexiglass windows in it, possibly to prevent the amateurs from accidentally shooting the professionals next door. The room looked kind of like a bowling alley, with a wooden floor divided into lanes by stripes of different-colored wood. At the far end, against the back wall of the building, were four tall, square blocks of a material like super-dense Styrofoam, covered in white tarps and sporting little blue paper targets on them.


At the near end of the room was a rack that looked something like the parallel bars in men’s gymnastics, only it was covered in camouflage carpeting. Half a dozen bows rested on the rack, strings up, looking exactly like the bows in Robin Hood movies. Yay! I couldn’t wait to try them out.


“Go ahead and pick out your bow,” said the girl, gesturing unexcitedly toward the rack.

“What’s the difference between them?” I asked.

She looked at me. “Some of them are longer and some of them are shorter.”

Oh. Silly question.

“Which one should I use?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Whichever one you want.”

Gee, thanks.

My sister’s two friends were already picking out their bows, so I went ahead and grabbed one at random, feeling like there was probably a more scientific way of doing this. Oh, well.


The girl then led us down the range until we were maybe fifteen feet away from the targets. There was a line there on the floor across the lanes, with a stand filled with arrows sitting on the line for each of us. The arrows, I was interested to see, had metal tips almost like bullets on the front ends, rather than the stereotypical arrowheads you think of from movies. At the back, where movie arrows have feathers, they had plastic instead (I found out later that the feathers or plastic pieces on the back are called fletching or vanes). One of the vanes on every arrow was a different color than the other two.


“Here’s what you do,” the girl said, taking my bow and one of my arrows and demonstrating. “See this at the back of the arrow? That’s called the nock.”

The nock was a small plastic piece that was forked so that you could stick it on the bowstring to help hold the arrow in place.

“Put the nock right above this bead in the middle of the string. The odd-colored vane should be toward you—that’s how you know that the nock is turned right. Rest the shaft of the arrow on this guide here on the hand grip. Now pull back the string with your first three fingers. Some people like to put their index finger above the arrow and the other two below, but I like to put all three below. It helps keep the arrow from shaking and getting off the target.”

She showed us how she liked to place her fingers.

 archeryhandsPhoto credit: Valerie Everett,

No, not like this.

“Then pull the string back. Don’t be scared to pull it way back—your hand should touch your jaw.” She demonstrated. “Then let go.”

The arrow whizzed through the air and hit the target with a satisfying “thwack” sound.

“And that’s all there is to it,” she said, handing my bow back to me. “It’s easy. Give it a try.”

The four of us, feeling a little self-conscious, tried it out. I took an arrow out of the stand, put the forked nock above the little gold bead on the string, rested the front of the arrow on the black plastic guide near the place where my hand went, and pulled back the string. When I let go of the string, the arrow thumped into the foam block with the same satisfying “thwack” sound, although I was nowhere close to the blue paper target.

Hey! I’d shot my first arrow!

archeryarrowIt was a little intimidating that my arrow said “Devil’s Wrath” on it, though.

All of us had five arrows, and we shot them one at a time while the girl watched us silently from a safe distance behind the line. She didn’t say anything, even when I completely missed the giant foam block and sent my arrow into the back wall. Oops.

When we’d all shot our arrows, she told us to go get them out of the foam to shoot again. “Have fun,” she said. “I’ll be at the front desk if you need anything.”


Oh. I was kind of disappointed in our “range instructor,” since I’d been envisioning something more like the range instructor I had when I went to the firing range in Phoenix (, where he was at my side the entire time, both teaching and encouraging me. But, as my husband pointed out later, the shooting range had been pretty expensive. What did I want for $12?

The girl did come back a few minutes later, bringing with her a pile of arm guards and finger guards, since she’d forgotten to give us those when we checked in. The arm guards were padded cloth patches that attached to your forearm with straps so that the pad was on the inside of your arm from your wrist to your elbow. They helped to protect your arm from the string, because if you held your left arm too straight, the string snapped against it every time you shot. As a matter of fact, by the time the girl remembered and brought us the guards, my sister’s two friends already had some lovely welts. I somehow escaped snapping myself with the string, probably because I kept holding my left elbow out to the side at a super awkward angle, like I was trying to perform ballet while shooting my bow.


I wasn’t really sure how I felt about my arm being labeled “Full Rut.” Hey, what are you trying to say?

The finger guards were hard leather sheaths that went over the right index, middle, and ring fingers to protect them from getting cut by the string. It was a good idea, but the guards she brought us were sort of one-size-fits-all, and I have tiny hands (they’re so small that the jeweler who made my wedding ring gave me a discount because he’d used so much less gold than he usually did). The sheaths were like humongous leather sausages on my little fingers. After sending three arrows careening out of control all over the range because I couldn’t make my right hand work properly, I took the finger guards off.

Even without the finger guards, I was definitely no Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games. About half my arrows managed to hit the blue paper target, but none of them were even close to the white bullseye, and the other half ended up all over the foam block. Twice, I missed the foam block completely and had my arrows bounce off the back wall and come flying back to me, like some kind of arrow-boomerang crossover. Luckily for my self-esteem, those two both happened in the first ten minutes, and I got better—but still.


Yeah, these animals would have been totally safe from me. I think the boar might actually be laughing at my archery skills.

My sister, on the other hand, was channeling her inner Merida from Brave, even though she hadn’t ever shot a bow either. About 90% of her arrows hit the blue target even at the beginning, and she was hitting the white bullseye regularly while the other three of us were still trying to hit the paper at all. I was in awe.


Here is my sister being awesome.

One thing I hadn’t been prepared for was how physical archery was. Even standing so close to the target and shooting what I suspected was a kid-strength bow, I could really feel the muscles in my arms, shoulders, and back. Between rounds, I would stretch and massage my muscles, taking pictures to give me an excuse for dawdling on my way back to the line. I’m an Irish dancer—upper body strength is NOT my forte.

While I rested my aching arms, I looked through the plexiglass windows at the people shooting next door on the main range. Most of the lanes were in use, and there was an interesting mix of adults and kids, and of men and women. It was different than the shooting range in Phoenix, which had been more than three-quarters male and 100% adult. Here, families were enjoying a Sunday together, with parents teaching kids how to shoot and both boys and girls getting practice in with their bows.


And, as with rifle shooting, they even had products marketed to girls–pink, of course

A few people were using the same kind of plain bows we were using (recurve bows, they’re called), but others were using the kind of bows that Olympic archers use. Those are recurve bows, too, but they have fancy sights on them (like sniper rifles), as well as a thing like a cane sticking out of the front called a stabilizer.

 archerystabilizerPhoto credit: Andy Rogers,

A bunch of people were using compound bows, which I’d heard about but never seen. Compound bows have pulleys (called cams) at the top and bottom that make it easier to pull the string back, allowing the archer to use a stronger bow than they otherwise could. Multiple cables run between the pulleys, almost parallel to the bowstring, making it look like the bow has three or four different strings. The front of the bow, instead of curving outward, curves inward. All these features make the compound bow look like something from a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie.


Seriously, can’t you see Mad Max using something like this?

For safety, everyone on the main range was standing on the same line, about forty feet away from the targets on the back wall. However, some people were shooting at targets on wheels that they had placed much closer to the line—in fact, one or two were shooting at a target only five feet away. I wondered if that was practice for something specific, like hunting (more on that later).

Gradually, I got better at aiming and firing my bow. I stopped hitting the wall instead of the foam blocks, and usually four out of my five arrows would hit the target. My confidence improved, and I could watch as my arrow left the string and flew toward the block. It was interesting to see that arrows don’t really fly straight; they kind of wobble in the air like a fish tail swimming back and forth.

By the end, I even got a few arrows in the white inner ring. It was a lot of fun.


Woo-hoo! I hit the bullseye!

After an hour, I had a round where two of my arrows hit the inner ring and the other three all hit the blue. That seemed like a sign to stop while I was ahead. My shoulders were protesting and my guard-less fingers felt a little raw. Besides, weren’t we supposed to stop after an hour? I looked around, but the girl didn’t appear to tell us our time was up or anything.

Suddenly, I was starving. Archery is hard work!


We put our bows back on the rack and went out to the front desk. The girl asked if we’d had a good time, and were we sure we didn’t want to keep going? No one seemed too concerned about what time it was or how long we’d been there.

And that wasn’t just at the front desk, either. When we’d finished paying for our range time, we walked over to the café, where a serious-looking woman in her forties or fifties was doing something behind a counter. My sister introduced herself and said that she’d emailed in our food order.


It was quite an order, too. As I mentioned earlier, the café offered several different exotic meats on their online menu, and my sister and I were excited about trying meats that we’d never had before. The café had a sampler platter where you could get fries plus three kinds of meat, but we figured out that it was actually less expensive for us just to order the five meats we were interested in as individual dinners and split them between us (I have no idea why the sampler platter was so much more expensive than the individual dinners). That was going to be way more food than the two of us could eat—especially since each dinner came with two sides—but we decided that we would just box up the extras and eat leftovers for lunch the rest of the week.

Well, it turned out that the online menu was out of date (which I guess shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering that even the address on the website was wrong). Some of the items we had ordered were no longer available, and the cook hadn’t known what we wanted to do about that. So she just hadn’t made anything.


This, I don’t mind confessing, was quite a blow to me. It was after 2:00 p.m. by then, and an hour of driving in the wilderness followed by an hour of archery had left me so hungry that I would have been happy to eat whatever they had ready, no questions asked (Hippo? Sure!). But there didn’t seem to be anything to do except to place our order again and wait to eat until it was ready.

Luckily, we hadn’t looked around the store part of the business yet, so while we waited for our food we walked around and glanced at all the things they had for sale.


This is special feed that you sprinkle in an area where you’re going to be hunting. The deer eat it, and the minerals help them grow bigger antlers–so that you look cooler when you kill the deer the later. I had trouble wrapping my head around this.

It was eye-opening. The store was definitely geared toward bowhunters rather than tournament archers, and they weren’t shy about the fact that hunting involves killing.


Turkey Nightmare!

Many product names and logos directly alluded to death, either humorously or with a kind of machismo, and overall there was a sense that hunting was not only a natural thing for humans to do, but a way of proving (and celebrating) your virility.


OK–can you explain to me why the GraveDigger Broadhead Chisel Tip arrowheads need a picture of a sexy, mysterious woman with huge cleavage on them?

And not just manly virility, either! A bulletin board near the front door was covered with pictures of members hunting, including about a dozen of a 105-pound woman (who, they said, only drew a 44-pound bow, which I guess is not very powerful) posing with a bunch of different animals she had killed. These ranged from local fauna like deer and antelope to African animals that she must have hunted on some kind of special safari: a wildebeest, for example, and a musk ox. A sign above her collection of pictures mentioned her weight and her draw weight and said, “Think you can’t put an arrow through an animal? Think again!”


Bone Collector!

The pictures made me feel a little sick. I don’t think I’m going to be adding hunting to my list of adventures. Fishing was hard enough for my soft-hearted self (

My favorite part of the store was at the back, near the restrooms. Actually, I liked the restrooms, too. They had cute signs on the door:


They had funny toilet seat covers:


And they were all prepared with reading material next to the toilet, just in case you were going to be in there a long time:


But the restrooms weren’t my favorite part. My favorite thing was a display of pink camouflage pajamas, with a sign on top that said “Find Out What Happens When You Get Your Girl Some Camo,” next to a picture of a smiling woman in camo lingerie (wink wink, nudge nudge).


That tickled me by itself, but the back of the display was even better: a selection of padded camo bras and thong underwear, all emblazoned with the range’s logo in pink lettering.


Now I know what my husband can get me for my birthday….


Having “Full Rut” printed on your undies is, um, awkward.

After about forty-five minutes, our lunch was finally ready (although it was rapidly becoming dinner instead). Half the table was covered with the dishes that my sister and I had ordered: frog’s legs, rabbit, alligator, and kangaroo. It looked like we were feeding a party of eight.

Figuring that the breaded and deep-fried frog’s legs wouldn’t taste so good reheated the next day, we ate those first. I’d never had frog’s legs before, so I was interested to find out what they tasted like. I was so hungry, however, that I wolfed down the first two without really tasting them at all.


After that, I was able to slow down a little and notice what I was eating. The frog’s legs had a similar texture to hot wings, but the flavor was much more like whitefish or tilapia. Like hot wings, I liked them best after I’d dipped them in ranch dressing.

When we’d finished the frog’s legs, we divided up the other meat and had a little sample of each, boxing up the rest to take home later.

Rabbit, which is a white meat, has the same kind of texture as chicken but a lighter flavor. It was good. I had my leftovers the next day with some Indian saag.


The alligator ribs were very dry, with not much flavor beyond that of the heavy citrus glaze they’d basted on. I’d had alligator before, but then it was small chunks breaded and deep fried like popcorn shrimp. That had tasted amazing, but pretty much everything tastes good breaded, deep fried, and dunked in sauce.


Kangaroo, interestingly, is red meat, and the serving we had was very much like a steak. The piece we had was medium rare, and the middle part (where it was rarest) was the tastiest. It was delicious. The edges, where it was more well done, were a little tough. Apparently, kangaroo doesn’t have a lot of fat on it, which always means you have to be very careful not to overcook it or it will dry out. Just a little tip in case you ever need to cook a kangaroo.


When lunch was over, we gathered up our takeout boxes and drove home, making it back without incident now that we knew where the place was. It was fun pretending to be Hawkeye from the Avengers for an afternoon, and I enjoyed trying the exotic meats (even though I think I’ll give frog’s legs and alligator ribs a pass next time). My sister really enjoyed it, and she’s thinking of trying it again soon.

If you live in Denver and are thinking about doing something really different for a party, give Full Rut a try. The price is very reasonable, the archery is fun, and the food is good. Just make sure to double check the address before you go.