Adventure #16–Celestial Seasonings Factory

Originally written 8/10/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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Photo credit: Kevin Dooley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/9583593862/

http://www.celestialseasonings.com/

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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!!!

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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.

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Bonus Adventure—Blooming Beets Kitchen

http://www.bloomingbeets.com/

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Adventure #12–Archery

Originally written 6/1/15.

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

12Photo credit: Markus Grossalber, “12 O’Clock,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/tschiae/7710731020/

Full Rut Archery–http://www.fullrutarchery.com/

Broadhead Cafe–http://www.fullrutarchery.com/broad_head_cafe.php

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/4855414171/

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: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fryske/3336648292/

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/4856073324/

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/derekskey/7637035758/

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.

Arg!

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)”, https://www.flickr.com/photos/eduardoeduardo/8596752181/

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.

 arrowinfield

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.

 archeryfullrut1

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.

 archerywhining

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.

 archerylonerange

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.

 archeryrack

“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.

 archerybow

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.

 archeryoddvane

“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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/3436700660/

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.”

 archerybear

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 (http://nerdseye.com/2015/10/05/adventure-8-shooting-range/), 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.

 archeryarmguard

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.

archeryboargoat

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.

 archerysister

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.

 archerymuddygirl

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cobaltfish/7745091164/

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.

 archerycompound

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.

 archerytarget

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!

 archeryfan

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.

 archerycafe

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.

 archeryfullrut2

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.

archerybuckbuster

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.

archeryturkeynightmare

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.

 archerygravedigger

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!”

archerybone

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 (http://nerdseye.com/2015/09/01/adventure-6-fishing/).

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:

archeryrestroom

They had funny toilet seat covers:

archeryseat

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:

archerymags

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).

 archerycamo

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.

 archerybra

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

 archerythong

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.

 archeryfrog

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.

 archeryrabbit

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.

 archerygator

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.

 archerykangaroo

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.

Adventure #2–Rockies Baseball Game

Originally written 7/21/14

Tulo

Photo copyright Dirk Hansen, https://www.flickr.com/people/dirkhansen

Used by permission through Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

colorado.rockies.mlb.com

On July 5, my husband took me to a baseball game at Coors Field. I don’t usually follow baseball, but he’d gotten the tickets for free, and they were good ones: 25 rows up behind home plate. Coors Field has been listed as one of the Top 10 Ballparks in America by Fox Sports and ESPN, among others. FoxSports.com says:

“Coors Field, home of the Rockies, has its own microbrewery, so not much more needs to be said. More, however, will be said … Coors boasts a vibrant downtown setting, retro-chic architecture and creature comforts and fountains. As well, from some seats you can catch a breathtaking view of the Rockies (the mountain range, not the team — although you can see the team, too). Great pizza, great beer and a great surrounding neighborhood.” (http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/lists/Major-League-Baseball-10-best-ballparks#photo-title=Coors+Field%252C+home+to+the+Colorado+Rockies&photo=11206811)

The Rockies aren’t doing so well this season—they were 37-51 on July 5 and had all but written themselves out of the playoffs—but, as a local radio DJ said, the ballpark experience is so good that it doesn’t really matter how the team is doing. So, on one of my rare Saturdays off work, we spent the afternoon gong to the ball game.

Coors Field is in LoDo, the lower downtown area of Denver. When I was in high school, lower downtown was a scary place, run down and dingy, but the 1995 building of Coors Field and a revitalizing campaign by the city has transformed the area into a busy, hip area full of bars, restaurants, and loft-style apartments.

We arrived early in LoDo, cruising around to find decent parking. Some close parking lots were going for $20 a space or even more (including some spots wedged in tiny back alleys being advertised by guys holding handmade cardboard signs), but for us a few-block walk was worth not paying through the nose. We found a lot not too far away for $10 and hiked our way to the ballpark. In the four blocks we walked, we experienced a representative cross-section of LoDo life, passing Trillium (described on Google Maps as a “sleek, modern, Nordic-inspired eatery”), Ignite! (“happening gastropub with a rooftop deck”), and the Denver Rescue Mission, where homeless men and women were sleeping outside on the sidewalk.

The area around the ballpark was swarming with people: men, women, and children dressed in jerseys and purple Rockies t-shirts; unofficial food and souvenir vendors offering peanuts, water, and those spraypainted foam stick animals that I’ve never seen anywhere but festivals and sporting events; and scalpers waving tickets over their heads. I felt kind of bad for the scalpers, since the game wasn’t sold out and the Rockies were below .500. Probably a slow day for illegal ticket sales.

We shuffled along in the great stream of humanity until we got to the gate closest to our seats. The friendly older man taking tickets stopped me and searched my purse, looking not so much for anything dangerous as for revenue-threatening unauthorized booze. Cleared, we went up a big flight of concrete stairs to the next level, where we followed signs to our seating area. A friendly older woman looked at our tickets and directed us to our seats, which were (as advertised) twenty-five rows up behind home plate. We looked at them, looked at our watches, discovered that we were, as usual, obscenely early (because my husband has a phobia about being late to things), and decided to walk around instead of sitting down just yet.

The inner hallways of Coors Field are practical rather than showy, being made to accommodate huge masses of spectators. They’re like giant concrete tunnels. As you amble along with the crowd, you are deafened by the babble of thousands and thousands of voices bouncing off the hard gray walls and ceilings, and you are constantly in danger of being trampled to death as people find their seats, head to the restrooms, or grab refreshments.

Speaking of refreshments, there are a staggering number of places to get food and drinks along the corridors. Every few feet, there is a new fast food/snack counter to either side of you as you circle the ballpark’s hallways: nachos, burgers, French fries, ice cream, snow cones, cotton candy, popcorn, burritos, pizza, chicken wings, cheese steak sandwiches, and Dippin’ Dots (as my husband kept asking, by the way, when do Dippin’ Dots stop being ‘the ice cream of the future’ and start being the weird ice cream-ish-type thing of now, given that they were invented in 1987?). If you fancy a pretzel, stop by “Tornadough.” If you fancy an eggroll, stop by “A Wok in the Park.”

For traditionalists, there are Cracker Jacks, peanuts, and hot dogs; for modernists, there is one gluten-free food stand and another kind of lonely cart selling salad (they have two entrees: salad with protein and salad without protein). Every kind of soda, lemonade, and ice tea is available, and you can even get coffee (although that probably sells better at a chilly spring night game than at a day game in the beginning of a hot July).

And of course, there is beer. Lots and LOTS of beer. There are bars, and “Beers of the World” stands, and cocktail bars, and beer kiosks, and margarita bars, and a brewing company, and members-only bars, and a microbrewery—and if those aren’t enough, every single food stand (including the salad place) sells at least the basic beer staples of Bud, Coors, and Coors Light. Whatever your tipple, the entrepreneurs of Coors Field are happy to provide it, for a price. So what if the price is on the high side? You’re a captive audience (any contraband booze having been removed from your person at the gate), so you pay what they’re asking.

My husband and I don’t drink, so we didn’t get to enjoy the beer-at-the-ballpark experience. Instead, after circling the whole level and looking at the offerings, we grabbed a soda (for him), a bottle of water (for me), and two swirl ice cream cones before heading back to our seats.

The Rockies were playing the Dodgers that day. As we sat down, the announcer was just beginning to introduce the starting lineup for both teams, and I watched their names appear on the jumbotron. To my dismay, the only two Rockies players I know (Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzales) were not listed, and I found out later that they were both out with injuries. I didn’t know a single player on the home team. My husband knew three. When the announcer introduced the Dodgers, however, I knew two of them: Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. My husband knew half the roster.

I felt kind of guilty.

Watching the live baseball game was very different than watching one on TV. On TV, the announcers, the cameramen, and the editors work together to keep you focused on the action. As long as you’re actually watching the television and not (as my husband sometimes does) playing on your iPhone while the game is on in the background, you know when the play starts, and you get to follow everything that happens in closeup. In the ballpark, I found myself sometimes missing a batter’s first pitch because, during the break between batters, I’d looked away from the field and hadn’t looked back in time. Sometimes someone would stand up in front of me and I would miss something. If a batter made a hit, I couldn’t always tell right away where the ball went—although I’m sure if I watched baseball more I would get better at that.

Also, even though our seats were relatively close, we were still too far away to really make out the players’ faces. We had a good view of the whole field, but the players were figures rather than personalities, all body language and no facial expression. In a strange way, it made watching the game on TV feel like a more intimate experience.

The pace in the ballpark felt slower, too. Baseball is a game that takes its time anyway, and there in Coors Field it seemed almost like we were all at a giant picnic, lazing on the seats, drinking lemonade, and watching some kids throw a ball around. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and since our section was only three-quarters full, some people had their feet up on the seats in front of them. Shirts were taken off. People made leisurely trips up the stairs to get beer and peanuts. No one seemed to be in a hurry.

In the first inning, both teams scored two runs, and the PA system and the jumbotron led us in cheers and chants. Each player had his own introductory song, and the jumbotron told us the name of each player and his date of birth as he came up to bat. Most of the players were born in the mid-to-late 1980’s, and even the oldest was five years younger than me, putting into perspective the short lifespan of a professional athlete.

Neither team scored in the second inning, and during the slow breaks between batters I found myself looking around at the people in our section. Lots of great people-watching at a ballgame. There were two thirtysomething guys in our row who mostly talked about work and friends rather than about the game; one of them, the more talkative of the two, got up so many times during the game (and made us get up to let him out, since we were at the end of the row) that at one point he offered to give us a tip. A man about ten rows closer to the field was there with his young son, and when he took his shirt off and turned around I saw that he had his son’s baby footprints tattooed on his chest over his heart. A dad and his teenage daughter a few rows down were filling out paper scorecards together, bonding over baseball. I saw a lot of families, parents passing on their love of the game to their kids. That was one of my favorite things about the day.

The man sitting on the end of the row to our right was eating sunflower seeds, shelling them with his teeth and then spitting the shells out like he was trying to win a spitting contest. By the end of the game, the concrete around his chair was black with spent sunflower hulls, like the ejected bullet casings around a World War II machine gunner. The casual way he and others littered the ballpark with sunflower seeds, peanut shells, and cups of beer horrified me; I had a vision of the colossal task it must be to clean the stands at the end of each game. Next time I have a hard day at work, I’ll thank my lucky stars that at least it isn’t my job to clean stands.

Meanwhile, food and drink vendors toiled up and down the stairs, coolers and boxes full of wares balanced on their heads or strapped to their chests, shouting “Popcorn, popcorn!” and “Get your cold beer! Cold beer here!” I loved watching them—they seemed, like the Cracker Jacks and peanuts, to be a tie between July 5, 2014 and baseball’s past. People in my grandparents’ day, and my great-grandparents’ day, could have sat in stands similar enough to these and listened to the cry of “ice cold lemonade!” as they watched a baseball game unfold on the field. When my water ran out, I got a lemonade from a passing vendor, not only because I was hot and thirsty, but because it seemed to me to be the perfect ballpark experience. The vendor even thanked me.

I had been worried, going into the game, that the Rockies were going to get crushed, which I know is part of sports but isn’t especially fun to watch. They’d lost to the Dodgers 0-9 the day before, and there wasn’t anything in their record to suggest that they’d do better in their next outing. My husband had told me that if the Dodgers went up by seven runs, we’d leave. But after the 2-2 start, the Rockies scored three runs in the third inning, one run in the fifth, and two in the sixth and were magically up 8-2.

My husband started saying that if the Rockies went up by seven runs, we’d leave. He’d been watching the temperature icon on the jumbotron climb from 81 to 92 while we were sitting there, and the sun was beating down on us unmercifully. Most of the other spectators in our section had abandoned their seats by then and were crowded under the shaded overhang of the next level. I’d slathered myself in sunscreen in the car on our way downtown, but even so my upper legs, bared by my shorts, felt like they were sizzling. I kept bending forward to shade them.

But I didn’t want to leave until after the seventh-inning stretch no matter what the score was, and I told my husband so. If this was my adventure, I wanted to experience it to the fullest, even if I was starting to roast. So we grabbed another bottle of water from a passing vendor and settled down for the seventh inning.

Up through the sixth inning, the pitcher for the Rockies had been Jorge De La Rosa. De La Rosa and the defense had done a good job, keeping the Dodgers scoreless through five innings. But at the beginning of the seventh inning, the Rockies brought out a different pitcher, Nick Masset. Things started going wrong for Nick Masset right away. The first batter he faced hit a double, and the next three batters all reached first base. Then there was a pause while a whole bunch of Rockies joined Masset on the mound.

The Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Dan Haren, hadn’t been having a good day, and a couple times the catcher and one of the coaches went out to talk to him. The first time, the PA system played “Help!” by the Beatles, and the second time it played “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by the Clash. It was funny.

When it was our pitcher being visited by the coaches, it wasn’t funny.

Eventually, a trainer came out to the mound, and Masset was helped off the field with a knee injury. Another pitcher, Boone Logan, came out. I found out later that Logan was pitching for the first time in a month, since he was recovering from an elbow injury. This was not the comeback he was hoping for. He threw fourteen pitches before he finally threw his first strike, and meanwhile, he’d unintentionally walked a player (throwing four ugly balls in four pitches) and thrown a crazy wild pitch that had missed home plate altogether and bounced off the fence.

It seemed like every Rocky on the team walked out to the mound this time. The situation was bad: the Dodgers had scored five runs in the inning, bringing the score to 8-7. A single by Matt Kemp had loaded the bases, and so far they had ZERO OUTS. What was to stop them from scoring another five runs? Another ten?

My heart was pounding and, despite the heat, there was a cold sweat on my forehead. We were going down in flames. All of a sudden, my leisurely picnic of an afternoon had turned into a life-or-humiliating-death struggle, and for the first time I CARED. I WANTED the Rockies to win. They HAD to win. They COULDN’T lose, not after doing so well through the sixth.

And that’s when the magic of live sports happened: the crowd got into the game.

Sure, when you watch the game in your living room, you can see the action better. You can follow the ball. You can see the expressions on players’ faces. You’ve got air conditioning and a comfortable couch and your own bathroom, and the beer that you bought at the liquor store cost less than half than what you’d pay at the ballpark.

But nothing in the world can match the sheer energy of 30,000 fans all rooting together for a team. It’s like surfing a tidal wave. “LET’S GO, ROCKIES!” we all shouted, and then clapped our hands together: clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. “LET’S GO, ROCKIES!” clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. The floor of the stadium vibrated with our chant, and the air itself seemed to vibrate with our desire to win.

The coaches escorted Logan off the mound and brought on another pitcher, Adam Ottavino. We all stared desperately at Ottavino as though we could psychically control his pitches. Throw a strike, Otto, we commanded. Throw the jerk out.

The game on the field seemed sharper to me now, more focused. The bright green of the grass, crisscrossed with the precise geometric lines of the mower; the groomed reddish dirt around the infield; the bright white of the bases. The umpire behind home plate in his black polo shirt and gray slacks, his huge shoulder pads turning him into a triangular caricature of a human being. The Rockies coach waiting at first base, dressed with indignity in the same white-and-purple uniform as the players.

The crack of the bat on the ball was sharp and bittersweet, a rousing sound that we didn’t want to hear. But the hit, it seemed, was part of the team’s plan, as the ball was caught and thrown again with lightning speed for a double play. Two outs, and we cheered. One more out to go, Otto. One more out to go.

The PA system blared a recording of a trumpet: da-da-da-DA-da-DA! “Charge!” we shrieked. And Ottavino answered, striking out batter A.J. Ellis. The crowd went nuts.

It was time for the seventh-inning stretch, and the mood was good. We all got to our feet to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The jumbotron showed the words, like a giant karaoke machine, but we were helped, too, but an enthusiastic elderly fan in our section who jumped down the stairs and turned to face us, singing at the top of his lungs and waving his hands through the air like an orchestra conductor:

“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
buy me some peanuts and Cracker jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”

Then it was the Rockies’ turn at bat, and we all settled back into our seats with glee. We had the momentum back. We’d show ‘em for sure.

But that’s not what happened. The Dodgers appeared to have found their stride, and every time the Rockies came up with a good play, the Dodgers had an answer. One batter made a beautiful, clean hit right between first and second base, and the Dodger shortstop jumped off the ground, arms outstretched, and caught the ball midair like something out of Cirque du Soleil. It was amazing to watch. Too bad it was an out for the other team.

At one point, the pitcher threw what looked like a wide ball, but the umpire called a strike. The crowd booed, the first time they had really done so all game. There hadn’t been much reason to boo when we were ahead 8-2. Now, with the game, and our pride, on the line, there was plenty of reason. The umpire ignored the crowd and went back to crouching behind the catcher. I imagined what it would be like to have a job where you had to shrug off 30,000 people booing you multiple times a day.

Once again, I felt lucky to have my own job.

The Rockies struck out without scoring a run, and there we were at the top of the eighth inning. My stomach was tight. Please win, Rockies, please win, I chanted to myself while clapping along with the piped-in organ over the PA. It was funny to care so much when a few hours before I hadn’t even known anybody’s name, but that’s the power of sports, especially live sports.

Ottavino was once again the MVP of the inning, striking out Yasiel Puig with a 97-mile-per-hour fastball and getting to three outs without allowing a run. If the Rockies could only score, we could maybe pull out a win!

But we didn’t score, and once again the Dodgers were up to bat. A different pitcher came out, LaTroy Hawkins. I was disappointed and concerned. Where was Adam Ottavino? Why had they pulled him? But then my husband explained that Hawkins was a closer, and I settled back in my seat, still grumbling a little. I didn’t want to trust the end of this tight game to just anyone. What if we LOST? I wanted to WIN.

We, the crowd and I, clapped and chanted and shouted, sometimes when the jumbotron told us to, and sometimes spontaneously (and out of sync) on our own. It was a modern version of a primitive ritual, filling the ballpark with the power of our belief. If we wanted it badly enough, our team would deliver.

And Hawkins and the rest of the team DID deliver, striking out three batters in quick succession. I jumped to my feet and screamed when the umpire called the last strike, throwing my arms into the air and jumping up and down. WE WON! WE WON! I couldn’t believe it. We had pulled it out by the skin of our teeth, 8-7. The Rockies had won my adventure game for me.

I don’t know if I’ll make baseball games a habit; they’re expensive, crowded, loud, messy, and (in this case) very hot. But right at that moment, at the end of the game, I was a true convert.

Bonus Gastronomic Adventure: Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs

http://bikerjimsdogs.com/

bikerjim1

It was 6:00 p.m. by the time we left the ballpark, and we decided to stop for dinner at Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, a restaurant where we’d had lunch once before. It was between Coors Field and our car, so that was handy, and as an added bonus, we got to experience more of the vibrant life of LoDo as we walked past a bunch of people lighting off fireworks in front of the Denver Mission.

bikerjim2

Biker Jim’s serves hot dogs and brats, the perfect post-baseball food. Their sausages are mostly made locally, and all of them are made without hormones or antibiotics. You can eat traditional 100% beef hot dogs, if that’s your pleasure, but you can also try sausages and brats made of duck, rattlesnake, pheasant, buffalo, veal, boar, elk, and more. There are also two kinds of vegan hot dogs and two kind of burgers.

 bikerjimdog

I picked an Alaskan reindeer sausage. I had mine plain, but you can put all sorts of toppings on them, from onions caramelized in Coca-Cola to cactus, wasabi, or apples. You can have fries on the side, or baked beans, or fried mac-and-cheese, or fried pickles, or tahini cauliflower, and to wash it all down there are natural sodas, craft beers, and all kinds of cocktails. Your meal is served in an old-fashioned red plastic basket that’s handed to you by a woman with tattooed sleeves, and you eat at sticky wooden tables while watching sports on the TV in the corner.

It’s fabulous. A delicious end to a satisfying adventure.

Adventure #1–Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret

 

Originally written 7/8/2014

One

 

 

For my first adventure, my friend Abbey took me out for my birthday. She’d been out of the country on my actual birthday, visiting Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania with her mom (which sounds super, super fun). When she got back, she asked what I wanted to do to celebrate belatedly, and I told her I wanted to do something that I could use for my blog. So we decided to go downtown to Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret. But first, dinner!

Pinche Tacos
http://tacostequilawhiskey.com/

We started the evening with dinner at Pinche Tacos, a little eatery on Colfax and York in Denver. It’s in a historic brick building on a corner, sandwiched between a sushi place and the building’s postage-stamp-sized parking lot (one of the most impressive moments of the night was watching Abbey navigate the parking lot in her SUV. It was like watching an Olympic kayaker shoot class 5 rapids).

Inside, the restaurant has a lot of exposed brick walls and wooden floorboards, with every nook and cranny of the small space crammed with tables, chairs, and patrons. At 6:15 on a Saturday night, every seat was taken and there was a twenty-minute wait, although we got lucky and slipped onto the last two empty stools at the “high top,” a tall wooden table where you sat side-by-side with other patrons. Music blared from overhead speakers, Foster the People and Bastille and Bad Sons, with the volume so loud that we had to lean forward over the high top and shout to talk.

The menu is a strip of laminated plastic featuring a la carte tacos, and you order by putting a check mark next to the ones you want with a Sharpie. There are plenty of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike, with eclectic blends of flavors like shiitake mushrooms over creamed cilantro corn, and barbacoa with slices of raw radish. We each ordered three tacos, tiny, open-faced affairs maybe four inches across and piled high with ingredients. I ate mine with a fork, although other people at the high top were folding theirs over and eating them traditional-style with juice running down their faces. The tacos were delicious, and three was the perfect number, leaving me satisfied but not stuffed. At about $3.50 per taco, the price was right, too. The staff was friendly, our order came out in good time, and I enjoyed some great people-watching while we waited (a woman down the high top from me was sporting a necklace that seemed to be made out of a gold-plated hood ornament, for instance).

I wish the music hadn’t been so loud (is that a sign of middle age?), but otherwise it’s definitely a keeper.

Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret
http://lannies.com/

icecream

For my adventures, I’m planning on trying as many brand new things as possible, but I decided that it was OK to use something I’d done before if A) I hadn’t done it in the last five years and B) I hadn’t written about before. Lannie’s fits the criteria for me, and Abbey hadn’t been there previously, so it seemed like a good place to start.

The Clocktower is on downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian mall filled with shops, restaurants, street performers, and panhandlers. One of Denver’s first big department stores, Daniels and Fisher, was on the site from 1911 until it closed in 1950, and the clock tower was part of the D & F building. After the department store closed, the building fell into ruin and was demolished in the 60’s, but historic preservationists had the clock tower saved and designated as a historic landmark.

The tower is twenty stories tall and skinny. It is very elegant inside, with marble floors and polished brass fixtures, and you can rent the upper part of the tower for wedding receptions if you don’t mind your guests being spread out on different floors. One of the wedding reception venues is inside the clock itself.

When you enter the clock tower, you find yourself in a white, elegant lobby, with an expensive-looking elevator right across from the entrance. A uniformed attendant sits next to the elevator, presumably to prevent pandhandlers from wandering in. If you are in the tower for a wedding reception, you take the elevator up. If you are looking for Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, however, you turn left and walk down a set of carpeted stairs to the basement, where you enter a very different environment.

Lannie Garrett, the owner, is a well-known singer in Denver, probably most famous for her country spoof act, the Patsy DeCline Show. She doesn’t limit herself to one genre, however, and has performed jazz, big band, George Gershwin, movie songs, and disco. Her current show is a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She performs once a week or so, and on other nights the Cabaret puts on different acts. We saw ads for an a capella concert, a one-man Nat King Cole show, and a Motown cover group–but the Cabaret’s big specialty is burlesque shows.

Burlesque, in case you haven’t heard of it before, is basically vaudeville-style striptease. It’s much more artistic, and much more fun, than the kind of strip show featured in Hollywood movies, where women spin around poles in high heels and get money stuffed down their undies and everything seems kind of sleazy. Burlesque embraces and celebrates the female form, and even at the end of the number you’re not seeing anything you wouldn’t see at the beach; all the important bits are still covered.

However, the root of burlesque is still women taking their clothes off. If that’s not your thing, you’ll probably be more comfortable if you stop reading now. My next adventure will be a baseball game, and you can come back for that. I promise that most of my adventures will be completely G-rated.

The Cabaret is dimly lit, with low ceilings and the feeling of a speakeasy. Like Pinche Tacos, they make the most of their small space, cramming tables and chairs onto every available inch of floor. There are some booths at the back, high-backed arrangements with padded seats that bring to mind the days of the Brat Pack. At the front of the room, there’s a wooden stage the size of a one-car garage, raised only slightly above the floor because otherwise the performers would bang their heads on the ceiling. Swathes of glitzy, mismatched fabric form the backdrop for the performers.

When we reached the entrance to the Cabaret, a woman in an old-fashioned cigar-girl pillbox hat greeted us and took our names. Behind her were shelves of plastic tiaras and brightly-colored feather boas for sale. She passed us on to the hostess, who was wearing a Goth-style black dress and had her jet-black hair in pigtails. The waiter who took us to our table was wearing a top hat and tuxedo, sort of; the sleeves and pant legs of the tuxedo had been cut off, leaving him in a sleeveless coat and shorts. Under the shorts he was wearing leggings with a black-and-white diamond pattern, a la Harlequin, and around one eye he had a bold pattern of thick black lines drawn on with makeup–or maybe it was a tattoo. Two other members of the waitstaff were wearing a belly dance outfit and a French maid dress, respectively. The cabaret seemed to embrace an anything-goes kind of dress code.

Lannie’s offers a generous menu of cocktails, wine, non-alcoholic drinks, appetizers, and desserts. They want you to enjoy yourself while you’re there. We ordered an ice cream sampler: a scoop of ice cream each in a wine glass, with about a dozen different kinds of toppings served on a glass painter’s palette. I love samplers more than just about anything. There’s nothing better than trying out a whole bunch of different kinds of food, especially when it’s presented in a fun way. We ate ice cream while we looked around at the crowd.

Interestingly, about 75% of the audience seemed to be female. There were at least four separate bachelorette parties, all decked out in tiaras and boas from the shop at the entrance, and while there were several other all-female tables like ours, we didn’t see any male-only groups. The MC later said that 75-90% of their audiences are female.

The MC herself was female, a singer named Sonia Soubrette who was wearing a little low-cut babydoll dress and the most fabulous glittery red lipstick. She was flirty and funny, introducing acts, making jokes, and even singing a couple of numbers. I loved her. She really held the show together and kept it moving.

The first act she introduced was the live band who would be playing for the evening, a duo called My Wooden Leg. Apparently, the name is a dirty joke, which seems appropriate for the entertainment at a burlesque show–but that was the only way in which the band was what you might expect. You’d think that something along the lines of a jazz band or swing group would be the right music for burlesque, but My Wooden Leg played a kind of indie rock/Romanian folk music, with one man on the accordion and the other on acoustic guitar and vocals.

The guitarist/vocalist at least looked right for the atmosphere. I would guess that he was in his thirties, slender and good-looking. He was dressed in a button-up shirt, vest, and tie, and his hair was shaved on the sides and long in the middle, like it might moonlight as a Mohawk on nights when it wasn’t slicked back. There was something artistic and broody about him, and between songs he sipped from a glass of red wine at his elbow. If Lord Byron had been born a hipster, he might have looked something like that.

The accordion player, on the other hand, was a square, balding man wearing plain jeans and a t-shirt. His stoic expression never changed, even when one of the performers wrapped a fishnet thigh-high stocking around his neck during her number. I wondered if the performer was trying on purpose to get a reaction out of him, but he just kept on plugging away on his accordion like nothing in the world could shake him.

From what the MC said, I gather that the guitarist/vocalist wrote all of their songs. The tunes were heavily influenced by traditional Eastern European music, and the lyrics were straight out of a Goth teenager’s fever dream. I know because the MC told us what each of the songs was about, including:

The days when the singer lived in an apartment over the Fort Worth, Texas stockyards
A man who played with a doll every day and kept her in a shoebox
A man getting shot by the police
Vlad the Impaler

If the subject matter sounds disturbing, don’t worry; half the time he was singing in Romanian, and I couldn’t understand him even when he was singing in English.

The tunes were melancholy and haunting and sounded slow even when they weren’t, and they seemed totally at odds with the lighthearted fun of most of the performances. They would have made me feel kind of down if I’d been a performer, but the dancers all seemed to be having a blast.

Actually, burlesque dancers just seem to enjoy themselves more than the average person. They all have funny, suggestive, and/or sexy stage names, like DeeDee Derrière, Alexis Scissorlegs, and Midnite Martini, and they go at their performances with a happy gusto that makes it all right for the audience to have fun, too. Burlesque dancers come in all shapes and sizes, from short and flat-chested to tall and curvy and everything in between, and every shape is beautiful. A lot of the numbers are humorous, and all of them have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge naughtiness to them that invite the viewer in on the fun.

To help with that, the MC and the performers encourage the audience to whoop, whistle, and clap during the numbers, and the Cabaret even provides toy noisemakers at each table that you can spin to show your appreciation. The room is noisy and the energy is high, and everybody is having a good time.

The show I saw was called the Hurly-Burly Circus, and the idea was that it was a mix of circus elements and burlesque. Two of the performers definitely fit the bill: Alexis Scissorlegs, a burlesque dancer who performed on stilts (!), and Midnite Martini, who performed on an aerial hoop and aerial fabric a la Cirque du Soleil. Both were amazing artists, and they ended up being my favorite dancers. It was mindboggling to me that Alexis Scissorlegs could not only dance on stilts and do splits and handstands and all sorts of crazy acrobatics, but that she could look sexy doing it, too. Midnite Martini did a number with the aerial fabric that she ended by winding herself up in the fabric and then dropping toward the floor; it was incredible. If I tried that, I would crash into the ground and break my leg.

Alexis Scissorlegs and Midnite Martini both performed twice, as did two other burlesque dancers. There was also a belly dancer who did a solo number and then joined the other two burlesque dancers for a hilarious cabaret version of The Triplets of Belleville (a French animated movie). That was one of my favourite numbers. The MC sang a Cole Porter song and another song, both of which were lovely, and right after the intermission she chugged a PBR, which I guess could be a kind of a sideshow act (in keeping with the circus theme). I was curious to see if she’d smash the can on her forehead after chugging it, but she didn’t.

The only part of the entertainment that I didn’t like was a stage magician who performed twice. I guess they were thinking that magicians were a part of the classic traveling circus so they should include one, and if he’d been a sexy guy dressed in Victorian evening clothes who sawed women in half, I could have gone for it. But the magician they picked was a stocky, forty-something street magician from Las Vegas wearing a loud purple suit and nerd glasses, and his act was made up of card tricks and disappearing hard-boiled eggs, which he dragged out into tedium by humiliating a couple audience members and cracking a lot of cheap jokes. I wanted to give him the hook.

At least he kept all his clothes on. THANK GOODNESS.

The last act of the night was both the weirdest and the most spectacular. Alexis Scissorlegs (she of the stilts) came out in a silver sequined halter top and matching bellbottoms, wearing a huge blond afro wig and 70’s-style sunglasses. The stagehand (a woman whom the MC kept referring to as either the “stage kitten” or “the stripper picker-upper”) had come out during the introduction and hung a strap from the rigging in the middle of the stage, and during the number the dancer held on to the strap and used it to spin around in midair, usually while in the splits or some other impossible pose. With her big globe of hair and all the stage lights glittering from her silver sequined outfit, she looked exactly like a human disco ball. It would have been perfect accompanied by “I Will Survive” or “Stayin’ Alive.”

Instead, My Wooden Leg performed a soulful, melancholy song which the MC introduced by saying, “If you sing along, this song has the power to revisit any evil done to you back on your enemies.” Um, what? No one could sing along, since the words weren’t written down anywhere (and they might have been in Romanian anyway), and you couldn’t even really clap along with the beat. It wasn’t that kind of song.

So there was a spinning human disco ball up on stage, dancing to this bizarre accordion folk rock tune that maybe was supposed to be some kind of magic spell.

It was surreal.

When we left the Cabaret, it was after 10 p.m., and we walked back along the 16th Street Mall to where my friend’s car was parked a couple blocks away. Downtown was busy, and it seemed like all kinds of celebrations were going on. A bridal party went by in two bicycle-driven pedicabs; another pair of newlyweds was having their picture taken in the middle of the sidewalk; and in the middle of the Mall, a man in a t-shirt and khakis was dancing ecstatically to music that only he could hear.

I felt like we had just attended a celebration, too, because burlesque, at its core, is a celebration of the human form, no matter what shape it happens to be in. A wonderful evening’s entertainment, and a wonderful (and fitting) way to kick off my 40 adventures.