Monday, July 18, 2011

Rocky Mountain Vacation

Hello all,

This year's epic adventure took us through the heart of the U.S. Rocky Mountains where one's initial wonder is simply how they grew so big.  Impressive in their mammoth enormity, rising out of the vast flatlands of Midwest prairie states, it still remains uncertain as to why here in Colorado, of all places, there are some 52 peaks of 14,000 feet or higher, where the legendary Pikes Peak is 30th on the list.  Unlike the giant Pacific coast peaks, the Pacific Ring of Fire that individually dot the landscape from British Columbia, Washington to California, which constitute the sole volcanic activity in the mainland United States, the most recent outbursts being Oregon's Mt. St. Helens in 1980 and California's Mt. Lassen in 1914 before that, none of these Rockies are known for their volcanic activity.  Apparently their creation is due to the convergence of continental plates stretching all the way to California some 70 to 80 million years ago when the mountain summits were much closer to sea level.  Since so much of eastern Colorado and Utah, not to mention Wyoming, retains that flat or low lying, undulating hills appearance that resembles a desert, it could easily be seen as what was once the ocean floor. When the seas retreated, heavy erosion left lakes and swamplands on the basin floors during the glacier era through a continual drainage system from melting snow that persists today.  It remains an open question as to why Colorado has such a multitude of giant peaks notable for their spire like, jagged edges that exist nowhere else in the U.S. mainland.  This unique mystery sends hordes of people packing into the mountains every year to discover for themselves their own sense of mystery.   

Our initial base for 10 days was a rented cabin just outside Estes Park in Colorado that was situated high atop a nearby mountain summit that was just under 8400 feet in elevation which kept the nights cool, with a magnificent night sky resplendent with stars and allowed us a panoramic view on 3 sides, with Boulder off in the distance some 35 miles away, where the lights could be seen at night through the valley, with a bird's eye view of Long's Peak at 14,255 on the near side, and off in the distance the jutting peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park on the other.  Situation-wise, this was the greatest set up imaginable, though the steep incline to get up there was mercilessly legendary, in particular the driveway which was a narrow dirt road that went straight up the mountainside and included a series of switchbacks that could easily topple the uninitiated over the cliff, where the driver had to navigate the needed acceleration with coming to a near complete halt to avoid running directly into the mountain, then quickly shifting up the brutally steep incline of the final switchback where the wheels of our rented 4 wheel drive vehicle slipped and skidded each and every instance over that final turn, where all the driver can do is wait and hope that the wheels will kick in so you don't get stuck.  If not, you're doomed.  It was a heart palpitating experience that was ridiculously dangerous, causing dread and anxiety with each and every approach, easily the most dangerous stretch of road I've ever driven in my life.  I can't imagine someone hasn't gotten seriously injured out there as it's simply an accident waiting to happen.  Fortunately we survived intact, though Eva did sprain her ankle, tearing the rarely injured deltoid ligament (3-month recovery to allow the slightly torn ligament to naturally reattach, wearing a strap-on, soft supportive boot over her sock) slipping awkwardly on the steep incline simply walking up and back to the car from the cabin.  One route was climbing a series of rocks which led to a steep, rocky staircase, while a continuation of the driveway also led to the same staircase leading up to the deck of the cabin.  If not for that driveway, this might qualify as one of the best vacation homes we've ever chosen, as the vantage point for the area was unmatched. 

Every afternoon from 3:30 to 6:30 a family of 5 or 6 eagles would swoop by as they scoured the mountainside.  Circling high above, oftentimes scanning the entire horizon as far as the eye can see in just seconds, only to return later where they'd occasionally buzz the deck of the cabin, often 2 or 3 of them seemingly within arm's reach would rise up from the rocks below and elevate without ever flapping their wings, just hovering overhead circling for hours.  We weren't always home to see them, as even the easiest recommended hikes were strenuous and time consuming at this time of year, some still with snow on the pathways, making some trails impassible, also bridges were out due to the high water level of the intensely ferocious rivers which were at record levels, oftentimes flooding the normal trails, leaving much of the normal pathways under water.  One of the supposedly easier trails had so much snow around the twisting turns of the cliffs that the narrow trail resembled Chaplin's The Gold Rush.  What was most peculiar was seeing people in shorts and T-shirts surrounded by snow and still feeling hot from the treacherous inclines.  Most of these hikes are over 9,000 feet, where you're closer to the sun, which feels much more intense on the skin, where it's easy to burn and where Lynn & I certainly suffered a shortness of breath, though Eva easily scampered up and down the trails with ease, showing not the least sign of fatigue, even with an injured ankle.  Of the 3 parks we visited, Rocky Mountain, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone, the hiking trails of Rocky Mountain National Park were far more interesting, though almost all the hikes on the legendary 48-mile Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the world that goes straight through the mountains and takes about 3 hours driving one-way, were closed due to snow.  Despite the seeming difficulty with the steep mountainside inclines, there were plenty of cyclists on the road, literally dozens making the trek each day, where the cars have no problem whatsoever yielding the right of way to cyclists at those levels, where both are upwards of 12,000 feet.  As recalled from early childhood when last I visited, the roads of the upper elevations still have no guard rails, where it's you against the elements, usually snow-packed all around you, as the roads twist and turn, hugging the sides of the mountains.  No one wants to be on the outer lane where it's too narrow for any shoulder, so the cars proceed slowly and cautiously, eeking forward, where it's damn near impossible not to sneak a peak at the splendor of the view where up there you're part of the sky.   

At Estes Park, where we had previously visited the southern and central regions, we decided to take a horseback ride that explored the northern boundaries of the Rocky Mountain Park.  Despite signing our life away with accidental waivers, it was a blast led by a female trail guide Sofia from Minnesota, who purchased her own horse as a young teen, becoming a jumper, still caring for it while she attends college in Iowa, which is where she hooked up with the Estes Park riding company that stables their horses in Iowa during the winter.  We were assigned three horses, Popeye for Eva, Sunny for Lynn, and O’Henry for yours truly, joining another husband and wife couple with a smallish young boy whose father took something like 12,000 pictures on the 2-hour journey with a camera that continuously took multiple pictures per snap.  We rode with a 2nd group that had their own guide that we could never hear as they rode out ahead of our group, reconnecting from time to time.  Knowing our lack of horse prowess, holding the reins in one hand and a camera in the other seemed much too complicated for our skill level, so we felt pretty lucky simply to stay on the horses.  Passing through rapid streams, heading into the highlands, we passed through a heavily forested area which kept us cool on what was otherwise a scorcher, actually seeing a bonsai tree growing out of a large boulder.  Our horses were guilty of nothing more than a tendency to occasionally nibble on grass, especially at times when we were just standing around reassembling some semblance of a straight line.  Surprisingly we went about 5 or 6 miles in total, much of it straight up or straight down, which the horses managed easily, keeping a slow but steady step, where my horse tended to lag behind at his own pace. Nonetheless, they couldn’t have been better behaved.  But when we arrived back to the stable, one of the horses from the lead group decided to get down on his knees, like a camel, and after losing the rider who discreetly jumped off the back, decided to roll over in the dirt, whereupon our guide whacked the living shit out of that horse, telling us not to look.  I don’t know where I got the clever idea to just hop off the horse, as if it were a bicycle.  But unlike a bike, where you can feel the ground on the other side, I never felt the ground until I gracelessly tipped over backwards onto my back, still holding the reins, seeing the horse on top of me, imagining all the movie scenes where a rider was stomped by a horse in scenes just such as this, until I heard a voice tell me to let go of the reins, which freed the horse and also my foot which was still stuck in the stirrup.  I popped right up as if nothing had happened, wiping all the dirt away, telling everyone I was OK, that no, it was not the horse’s fault, it was just my bright idea to get down on my own.  So it was a bit of mad chaos there at the end, where I applauded the unusual antics of our “big finish.”  Memorable, to say the least. 

On our last night, we had an overlook of the 4th of July fireworks, where we could see both Denver (?) and Boulder’s celebration off in the distance, while also having a view of the nearby Estes Park fireworks, each lasting about a half hour.  We could simply sit on the deck and observe, taking it all in, never having to exert a muscle, the kind of feeling that vacations are all about.   

Our next visit was a single night in another cabin near the Flaming Gorge in Utah, which was one day’s drive straight west of Estes Park, where I initially planned to just drive headlong into the mountains and hope that I came out safely on the other side, but as Eva’s ankle was sore and my collarbone felt like it might be a tad out of whack after the fall, we took a longer, safer route, unable to visit the gorge until the next morning due to some evening rain.  While it was raining again in the morning, it cleared up nicely for a meandering exploration of the mostly dry and arid region, which included a back Sheep Creek canyon road that was cut off midway through an 11-mile road that we had all to ourselves, where we saw bighorn sheep grazing at the top of the cliffs staring down at us as we attempted to take their pictures.  Actually, they appeared to be laughing at us, but that’s another matter.  This little road that hugged the river below was extremely picturesque, revealing giant canyon walls that towered overhead, some splendored with a bright red rock that blazed in the sun, but also revealing other intricate patterns, amazing shapes and colors, where from our narrow canyon viewpoint we had an intimate view.  Eventually we came to the Flaming Gorge Dam, a giant man made monstrosity of hydroelectric power, where surrounding this entire region is an empty desert landscape that may as well have been the bottom of the ocean eons ago. 

We actually drove past the Grand Teton Park and through Yellowstone to get past the northern entrance into a small cabin on the Yellowstone River just outside Gardiner, Montana.  We divided our time between the two parks, also staying just north of Jackson Hole in a condo unit called the Aspens outside Teton Village, which has the feel of Whistler, as it attempts to be an Olympic-style international ski community featuring international languages and cultures, but mostly it’s just crowded.  Our initial plan to explore both parks from the Teton region was misguided, as Yellowstone is simply too big and the driving, especially when cars are lined up around wildlife sightings, is time consumingly slow, made even more frustrated when you get behind drivers routinely going 20 miles under the posted speed limit, which was quite common, such as going 20 in a 45, where there were lines of 8 to 12 cars following behind for upwards to an hour, making it impossible to pass in the all too few passing zones.  The other problem is the unreliability of the weather, where it might be sunny in Jackson but raining in Yellowstone, where you drive the few hours to get out there only to discover you’ll eventually get soaked.  So practically speaking, this was extremely frustrating and made for some very long travel days in the car, not to mention a few side grumblings about how this was just a bad idea, made worse by the ultimate discovery that this ingenious idea was none other than your own.  But despite the hard and lengthy driving, where driving around some of the elevated peaks on the Eastern front was again met with no guard rails, making this extremely difficult for a lengthy period of time, where the focus is entirely on the road and not on the park.  Much of Yellowstone remains imprinted by the disastrous fire of 1988 which has left much of the forest in a skeletal state, even after the passage of more than twenty years, where a good portion of the park remains in a state of ghostly decay.

Easily our best decision of the entire trip was choosing a whitewater rafting experience, but not in Gardiner where we were staying, where we could see various peaceful excursions floating down the river directly in front of us each day, but instead 2 hours away on the Gallatin River, which is notable for Class IV rapids, a much more intense experience, something rarely offered, but heralded in what is known as the “Mad Mile” that concludes the trip.  This caught my eye, but with the record water levels, I was afraid the Class IV section wouldn’t be offered, as the rivers would simply be too dangerous.  My suspicions were correct, but it didn’t matter, as the excursion was mind-blowingly intense, wet suits required in the still 40 degree water.  Our guide was Jim, a lifelong skier from Michigan who always felt summers were something he had to endure in order to get to the ski season - - until he discovered whitewater rafting where he’s been a guide for 8 years.  The guy had the look and demeanor of George the Cyclist, a really easy going guy who was extremely proficient and precise at what he’s doing, who when he saw my frazzled gray hair and beard lit up and hoped I was in his group as he loved aging hippies or counter culture types, being something of one himself.  The group was actually broken down into about 7 or 8 rafts, where our raft was joined by three stout college buddies, two best friends from San Diego (that I called the Winklevoss twins, seen here:  Full-size image or here:  Full-size image) who grew up living across the street from one another, and another friend going to school nearby in Montana, so they were pumped by the challenge of the experience which contributed greatly, as their outlook was upbeat and positive, especially needed when it started raining and hailing on us, turning into a downpour at the midway point where we stopped for lunch, where everyone was cold and wet huddled into a dark and depressing storage hut that was opened for the occasion.  Three boats dropped out due to the conditions, as the idea of getting back out there into the cold wet rain seemed loco, but the Winklevoss were up for it and Jim made a beeline to the raft before anyone else could change their mind.  After about 5 minutes on the water, the sun poked through, the rain stopped altogether, and it turned into a glorious day, where we were pelted by one rapid after another, where Jim had us continually steer full power directly into the heart of them, to dig and dig deeper, only to be blasted by the sheer force of the water, which was a deliriously happy experience, as we were screaming like little kids at Christmas with the Winklevoss yelling for more, for Jim to bring it on, and the afternoon did not disappoint, as there were about 8 or so of these ball breakers.  Jim even had Eva leave her oar behind and move to the front of the boat, where she was the first the get absolutely obliterated with a face pasting.  The water drenched us all, went up our nostrils, inside our ears, and squeezed inside the wet suits, leaving us utterly exhausted by the experience, but exhilarated - - one of our greatest experiences ever as a family.  Pure joy.      

Nothing else could possibly match that, but since it was such a long drive to get there, we picked a restaurant which was about an hour away, perhaps at the midpoint, at the Chico Hot Springs and Spa.  The place had the best ice-water I’ve ever drank which comes from their own springs.  This is an old style resort with couples and cowgirls, gays and families alike, where they don’t even have locks in the public restrooms down the hall from the restaurant, so expect people to routinely walk in on you.  While waiting, I noticed an entire wing dedicated to photos of Warren Oates, which included a fan letter written by the owner for autographed photos, with walls lined with studio shots, drunken poses with various girlfriends, perhaps wives and children, also Peter Fonda and various other brethren.  Livingston is only about an hour away, so the Peckinpah crew made a few notable visits.  After dinner I sat outside as Lynn & Eva were using the facilities before the ride home and met an older guy playing guitar, who was singing songs by the Zombies (“She’s Not There”), & the Mama’s and the Papa’s (“California Dreamin’), and no, the guy had never heard of Wong Kar-wai or Chungking Express, which I recommended, as he worked in a few Richard Donner films and was recounting his earlier experiences at the Chico which he recalled with a certain fondness.  When we shared some common cinema lore, and he did the entire voice-inflected Jack Nicholson chicken sandwich scene from 5 Easy Pieces, I think he was about to invite me up to his room when Lynn & Eva arrived, sending us home for the night.  It did really look like the kind of place where you could meet just about anybody, Palm Springs, Hollywood or even New York types (as David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, and Ted Turner all live nearby), but also Courtney Love-looking cowgirls who were out for a good time.  It’s an out of the way place in the middle of nowhere, but it’s chic Montana. 

There was never a day in Yellowstone where we didn’t see close up views of animals, from dozens of bison walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic for miles, to a black bear on the side of the road, a grizzly wandering through a shallow stream, an elk shading himself under a tree, a moose taking a drink in a river, a coyote on the prowl, while we could always see plenty of deer and elk off in the distance, also bison, which have a tendency to move towards the roads, much like the bears used to do in the 50’s when they walked right up to the cars.  No one is feeding the bison, but cars are stopping in the middle of the roads, oblivious to what’s behind them, and several people were chased away from the animals by rangers, as they enforce the 100 yard rule away from bears and 25 yards away from everything else.  No injuries were reported while we were there, but a guy was killed by a grizzly just after the 4th of July.  (Man Killed By Yellowstone Grizzly Reportedly Told Wife To Run ...)  Another incident occurred about the same time last year just outside the park boundaries. (Grand Rapids man killed in grizzly bear attack in Yellowstone ...)  Still, people would run directly in front of bears with their cameras thinking this was the chance of a lifetime.  We did do the Old Faithful thermal experience exploring various geysers nearby, some with an eerie, ghostly look to them, and we viewed the Canyon waterfalls, which are spectacular, but this animal haven is what makes Yellowstone such a unique experience, as visitors will likely have some intensely close experiences with wildlife. 

The Grand Tetons Park was gorgeous in spots, but I had to admit it featured the exact same mountains all the time, so it did seem a bit silly to keep taking pictures of the same thing over and over again.  We did take a boat ride across Jenny Lake before setting out for Hidden Falls, where the bridge was out, requiring a circuitous half hour detour that winded around jagged rocks to get the 100 feet where the bridge would have taken you.  On this day, 140 school kids from New York and New Jersey were scampering around, basically clogging the path, making forward progress extremely difficult, especially for Eva and her sore ankle, who paid dearly afterwards, as the improvised path was treacherously difficult footing.  Despite the sound of continuous gossip buzzing in the air, the waterfall was particularly gorgeous.  There were people scaling the mountains above with climbing gear, rappelling up and down the cliffs, avoiding the hiking trails.  There was a 2 or 5-mile hike back to the boat dock if you didn’t return in the boat.  Much to their disappointment, the kids took the 2-mile hike, which in addition to the 2 mile hike to the cliff overlooking the waterfall made it a strenuous 4-mile journey. 

There was little time for reading on this trip, but I did read two excellent books - - former Army Special Forces Officer Stan Goff’s Full Spectrum Disorder, a detailed and personally incisive view of various American military engagements from Vietnam to the present excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where inevitably we end up taking the wrong side, almost always used to support the various ruling classes in waging war against a nation’s own peasants.  Goff’s experiences include arming the El Salvadorians, Colombians, Guatemalans, and Peruvians in counter terrorist measures against their rebel forces that are usually fighting against repressive and fascist government forces.  An Army specialist who taught cadets at West Point, his experience, especially when analyzed after the completion of his military service, reveals an extraordinarily personal viewpoint that challenges the views of both Republicans and Democrats, who he claims will always end up supporting the ruling class in our own country against the interests of the poor, who never have a chance.  The book is explosively riveting filled with personal detail until the last 30 or 40 pages which becomes a socialist philosophic mantra that couldn’t be more irrelevantly boring, unfortunately derailing what is otherwise a superb view of the mentality of the Special Forces and how they are used in various war operations.  The book is invaluable until the conclusion. 

The other book, Kubrick, is another personal glimpse of Stanley Kubrick from Michael Herr, a former war correspondent who wrote Dispatches, inspiring both Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now and Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket.  The book recalls Kubrick as a unique personality, but one full of spontaneous revelations and biting sarcastic humor.  It reveals Kubrick’s manic working style where he doesn’t so much hire his employees to do a job on a film as kidnap them mentally and spiritually where he can eventually devour every ounce of thought and brainpower while they are in his services.  Many have felt disappointment afterwards because of this extreme form of personal involvement and curious inquiry, where afterwards, Kubrick flatly abandons them as he is on to his next project devouring his new subjects.  Herr however doesn’t feel that way, sharing anecdotes from his twenty year relationship, offering his own affectionate views of what a peculiarly unique individual he was and how important it was to engage with him, where oftentimes it felt like he would never let you go.  The book offers little new insight into Kubrick’s films, but instead paints an extremely human and realistic portrait of the man when he was alive and intensely involved in his work.  Less than 100 pages, you’d think this was some toss off work, but the exquisite writing and intelligence displayed reveal otherwise, as it’s a concisely powerful portrait that offers a deeply humanistic view of a man who happened to live by his principles and become one of the greatest film directors of our era.                     

Til next year,


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