Friday, September 26, 2008

A Midwestern Girl Visits the Mountains

I've been back from Colorado for three weeks now and have yet to write anything about my trip—probably because I feel I can do no justice to how great my time there was in a little blog entry. I'll try, however, because it would be stupid not to elaborate just a bit on how much I love mountains and hate lightning.

It just so happens that John and I scheduled this trip to Denver during the Democratic National Convention without realizing it. We're clearly such good, devoted Democrats. Truth is that I worried—dare I say, I even fretted—about what the Convention would be like in town. Too crazy, too busy, altogether just too much. I was wrong. In short, having the DNC in town was awesome.

Not only did I relish in the crowd fervor outside the outdoor MSNBCrazy studios (where I proudly booed Pat Buchanan and was greeted by Keith Olbermann as he turned and raised his arms, channeling a bit of Mark Antony acknowledging his friends, Romans, countrymen), I also saw Hillary's motorcade going to and from her speech, and more importantly, I saw Spock Donaldson. But true kudos should go to John's mom, "a remarkably put-together Denver native," who was immortalized as such in The New York Times Caucus blog by David Carr. I feel quite strongly that she should put that tagline on some business cards.

Aside from the DNC, I also got a more normal tour of the city and J's place in it growing up, which was sweet and nice. I will forever envy his high school.

We also checked out some great Denver spots, including the Tattered Cover book store, where I bought The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, and The Old Map Gallery. I had ordered a children's illustrated map of Colorado from TOMP for John's Christmas gift this year, so it was really fun to actually go in and talk with the owners and check out their stuff. One of the owners showed us an original Chicago Gangland map that still came with its book of research by U of Chicago student Frederic Thrasher.

John and I also took a "mountain daytrip" to Winter Park for a picnic lunch, Grand Lake to go canoeing and through Rocky Mountain National Park along Trail Ridge Road—probably one of the most gorgeous things I've ever seen with lots of wildlife along the way. On our way back down to Denver, we stopped in Boulder, grabbing a drink at the Lazy Dog CafĂ© to watch Obama's acceptance speech and then a bite to eat at Illegal Pete's (the anti-Chipotle).

After a couple days in Denver, we packed up and headed southwest to Westcliffe, where J's family has a cabin tucked into the shady bottom of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The first afternoon was pretty tame—we toured the town and ate a take-out pizza at home.

The next day was designated Hike Day, which meant getting up early, loading up on blueberry pancakes, packing up the backpacks/fannypacks and getting on our way. We headed to the trailhead for Lake of the Clouds, a trail on which John and his friends infamously got lost four years ago. The hike was gorgeous, not too difficult, and well worth the pay-off at the top where three different mountain lakes nestle against a simultaneously rocky and lush backdrop.

On our way down, we made a bit of a wrong turn, putting ourselves a mile out of our way before we got turned around. Needless to say, we lost a good hour on that diversion and were in a hurry to get off the mountain before afternoon storms settled in. (Note writer's use of foreshadowing.)

The sky was still clear with only one dark cloud above us as we worked our way down past the river and toward the final descent. We chit-chatted and picked our way down the rocky path when suddenly the largest crash of light and sound I've ever experienced crashed above us. Literally. Just above us. Ducking, my spine tingled as the air was charged around us, and for a moment, my mind raced: I had been struck by lightning but was alive—now what?

More specifically, I suddenly remembered an episode of Oprah I saw as a child where lightning survivors were interviewed. Their stories were horrific with people crawling home on all fours of rolling up shirt sleeves to reveal burn marks. Was I going to be on Oprah?

The moment passed, fortunately, and I realized I was okay, as was John.

What do we do? he said.


And that's what we did. For nearly 15 minutes, we ran down the mountainside, rolling our ankles with every other step, charged with an adrenaline rush only attributable to fear of loss of life. It was heavy on the "flight" part of fight or flight.

As we tore out of the forest and into the parking lot, we were greeted by a bunch of haggard-looking men, a couple young moms and a nun decked out in full habit.

"Run all the way from the lakes?" drawled one older worn-looking cowboy who leaned casually against the back of his pick-up truck like some kind of country icon.

I defended ourselves breathlessly while the group around us laughed, which I suppose I can understand now but at the time was terribly offensive.

The good news was that a beautiful double rainbow emerged as the storm began to roll into the valley. Rain poured between the mountain ranges while the sun fought through the clouds. It was gorgeous.

That night, John and I enjoyed his parents' back deck and watched the stars, the Milky Way a blurry smudge of glitter glued against the sky.

Yet as I lay on the deck and John leaned back in a chair, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was a mountain lion crouching in the woods surrounding us, waiting for me to shut my eyes before bounding onto the deck, pouncing on top of me and stuffing my head in its mouth. My heart beat loudly, but I kept quiet, assuming that John would laugh at my Midwestern notions of wildcats eating brunettes. As it turned out, the next day when I finally confessed my fears to him, he had been imagining the same image of his girlfriend's skull shattering against the teeth of a mountain lion. Clearly, there was an actual cat in the woods telepathically warning us that we better not get too comfortable...

Let me first say I didn't sleep well my last night in Westcliffe. With images of lightning, mountain lions ripping off skulls and bears breaking through windows dancing through my head, it was all in all a tough night. It would be fine, I thought as we packed up the Rodeo for Aspen, I'd sleep on the way there.

What I didn't expect was that it would be near impossible to sleep as the Rodeo climbed upwards of 12,000 feet along a winding mountain pass--Independence Pass--that narrowed to one-lane around blind curves. I white-knuckled it the whole way, glancing occasionally down at sheer drop-offs with no guard rails, praying to God once more that my life be spared a second day in a row.

We arrived in Aspen safely and decided to go straight to lunch, ending up at Little Annie's, where I inhaled half a cheeseburger and immediately threw up. Were the idea of throwing up in a cramped, dirty restaurant bathroom not bad enough, to my total mortification, two girls from John's high school had glided into the restaurant just moments before I became overwhelmed with sickness. As I stood in the bathroom stall, I imagined these two attractive girls wandering in just as I would wretch and they would spy my yellow sneakers so that then, later, when John would introduce me to them, they'd see those yellow shoes and know that I was that disgusting girl throwing up in a public restroom and I would be humiliated forever and ever.

(I should mention that this humiliating imagining might have been inspired by the time that John and I loaded up on rum and face paint, dressed up like pirates for a Sunday evening showing of Pirates of the Caribbean 3 several weeks after it had opened and just happened to run into one of his ex-girlfriend's good gal pals at the Evanston movie theatre where she just happened to be stopping by while on a cross-country road trip. I'm a little scarred.)

I spent the rest of the afternoon sick in the gilded marble bathroom of our hotel, The St. Regis at Aspen, and gingerly sipping sparkling water while curled up on the leather couch in the hotel lounge while waiting for our room. And for the record, I know I joked about elevation sickness. and clearly the mountain gods were not happy with my flippancy. I repent and pray never to fall victim to my hubris again.

Once I felt better, the rest of our time in Aspen was great. The town was ridiculous, chock full of people-watching as the idle rich wandered from boutique to boutique, decked out in more bling than I keep in my jewelry box. Our hotel was the schmanciest hotels I've ever stayed in and we made full use of all the free amenities. The bed, I should mention, was so comfortable that I actually dreamt that night of telling people how great the bed was.

We people-watched more in Aspen the next morning before taking off for Denver once more. The drive was a bit tough as we had to go over that vertigo-y pass again, got stuck in traffic west of Denver and saw absolutely NO big horned sheep. (Disappointment!)

We ate some delicious chicken kiev at John's house with his parents and his brother's family. We read our books from The Tattered Cover and then went to a neighborhood pub to meet John's friend. We made our final stop that night at Viva Burrito, fondly known as "Viva" and a favorite of John's, to truly complete my Denver experience. There's really nothing quite like eating a $2 burrito while sitting on the hood of a Rodeo parked in a Mexican joint parking lot.
's voice announced that we would be leaving a city where the sun shines for 300 days a y
Our last day we toured the art museum with J's mom, who is a docent there, and ate lunch at the museum restaurant with J's parents. When his family dropped us off for our flight, we said our goodbyes and made our way into the airport where Denver's Mayor Hickenlooper.

Oh, thanks, Mayor Hickenlooper, but what about the lightning??

It's never much fun to come back from a vacation and slide uncomfortably back into your routine. But inevitably, the saving grace for taking return flights is always how pride creeps up on you as you fly toward home. With all the families taking vacations to the Windy City and all the business suits flying in for work, you can't help but feel proud--as they gasp at the skyscrapers or point at the beautiful blue expanse of Lake Michigan--that this city is yours, and you are at least a little happy to be home.

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