Saturday, September 24, 2011

Musings from an Inn...

As I sit in a cozy chair by the window of my Inn (the only one near the outlet) patiently waiting for the mess the airlines made of my flights to be sorted out, I've stumbled upon a bit of mystery.

I just looked out through the film of the gauze curtain and realized I'm about 50 feet from a building across the street, and just a few lights are on in there.  I can see a person move around the room, and as I draw the gauze back, I feel like a spy or a voyeur, looking across a misty alley into someone else's life.  As I watch, the light flicks off, and I drop the curtain.  Then the light comes on in the next room; someone's going to bed after being in the living room or kitchen; were they doing the dishes, filling out a crossword, calling a lover?  Both of these window have curtains.  Two floors up, a florescent light blares without curtains to soften it, and no one moves.

This just begs for some Gershwin, not the tinny Mozart playing from my IPhone.  The person in the curtained room could be a lonely widower, or a sleep-deprived writer who is just pages from the next great novel.   The florescent room could house a workaholic, a chain-smoking trader or ad man who is avoiding his wife by claiming important work.  Or a social worker, poring over case files each night, trying to find a way to help another lost child.

Or, even more curiously, someone could be watching me type with his/her own imaginary soundtrack playing, and he/she should be imagining that I'm writing the next great novel.

The florescent lights have gone off, and I'm still on hold.  I guess I have the airlines to thank for this little moment of mystery.   Sleep well, world, and take a moment to think about what your neighbors across the street might be creating or dreaming tonight.  It's fun little journey.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Grand Colorado Adventure, Parts II and III

Here's a hint for all of you out there - don't wait two weeks to blog about your vacation.  It takes longer to conjure up what happened, and it's not nearly as much fun.  However, it's also kind of nice to go back and try to reconstruct the days. 

(Full disclosure: long blog entry ahead, proceed at your own risk)

"Views from Lunch #2, 9/4/11, Estes Park, CO"
So, when we last left off, I was sitting in a cafe writing and working crosswords and generally communing with Colorado.  I left the cafe and headed out for a solo walk along the riverfront, just enjoying the weather and the air.  Then my friend and I met up for some shopping.  There was a terrific art fair going on in Estes Park, and I dutifully supported local Colorado and Wyoming artists by purchasing more than I should have, but I love all of my newfound treasures, especially my glass necklace, which we'll talk more about later. Next came lunch (with wine!) at a slightly overpriced Italian restaurant with a lovely view (see above left), thus beginning my photo series "Views from Lunch", which was completely unintentional but fun, nonetheless.  (Note - I still haven't developed the rafting photos, so "Views from Lunch #1" will have to come later)

Next, we tracked the signs to the Alpaca market and spent a few moments learning about this crazy-looking species who's wool is soft and lovely.  Turns out a pair of Alpaca (Alpaci? Alpacus?) sell for a cool $25K, and they are kept mostly as pets.  We got to see a baby one, too, which was officially cute.

Then we took a drive up, up, up the Trail Ridge Road to a series of scenic overlooks where we took dozens of photos and I learned how to drive on a two lane road, 9000 feet up, with no guardrails. This would come in handy the next day, but I get ahead of myself.  The views were just amazing, and we passed through at least 4 different zones of vegetation.  I have too many photos to share them all but one of my favorites is at right - it's the Alpine Tundra, but it looks like another world. 

Back down the mountains we went, stopping to visit with some elk along the way, eventually finding our way to a fabulously yummy Indian restaurant called Nepal's Cafe, which, despite being a tad shabby and dirty, served amazing food and countered the mediocrity of the cuisine on our trip so far. 

One thing that was evident about Estes Park on Labor Day weekend was that there are a LOT of families with kids there, and that can definitely cramp one's style.  So, the next day, we set out for an early morning foray, on foot this time, into Rocky Mountain National Park.  We were on the trail by 8:30 or so, and I personally did a lot of self-back-patting, because we reaped the rewards when we visited Bear Lake in the cool (and generally quiet) morning air.  Only a mere 9400 feet in elevation, it's a very popular trail, and you can see why at left.  Then we struck out for Alberta Falls and Mills Lake, about 2 - 2.5 miles one way, on our way to 10,000 feet (give or take a few).  There were just too many gorgeous views, vistas, waterfalls and cliffs to mention.

Eventually, just when I was starting to wonder "are we there yet?", the lake popped into view.  After some oohs and aahs, we trekked to a quiet lakeside rock to eat of our Comfort-Inn-created lunch of PB&J on pilfered bagels.  I had my most meditative moment of the trip, sitting cross-legged at the water's edge, listening to nothing and everything and wishing I could just stay there forever. Here's what I saw:

Views from Lunch #3, 9/5/11, Mills Lake,
Rocky Mountain National Park

But alas, we had to head back, and so we did, stopping briefly when my ankle decided, as it often does, to roll on me, and I face-planted onto the trail.  My friend, to her credit, didn't laugh (or at least not too loudly), and I did my best "nothing to see here, everything's fine" bit while attempting not to limp on.  Down we trekked, and did some more self-back-patting as the trail filled up with families and kids, and by the time we got back to the trailhead, we were sufficiently sweaty, tired, and happy.

Food seemed like a good idea, and remembering that there was a restaurant at the top of the Trail Ridge Road, we decided to take the back route to the top, the Old Fall River Road, the first road ever to cross into the Rocky Mountains.  It's a one-lane, one-way dirt road that is supposedly "safe" to drive, but I'm not ashamed to admit it freaked me out a bit.  Ok, more than a bit. Huge ruts meant that you bounced and skidded and risked terminal damage to the undercarriage of your car, and the switchbacks were insane.  And of course, there were no guardrails of any kind (the natives didn't need 'em, so why should we?).  The views were spectacular, but I was gripping the wheel so hard that my muscles were sore the next day.  It was worth it; I just won't do it again.   

Views from Lunch #4, 9/5/11,
Alpine Visitors Center, RMNP
Anyway, we made it to the top and the Alpine Visitors Center, and made like Hobbits with a Second Lunch.  A little shopping at 12,000 feet, and then back down we went on the luxurious paved road (for the wimps - real drivers drive dirt roads!).  By the time we got back to town, showered and changed, the entire place had rolled up the sidewalks and we had to beg the hotel clerk to tell us of a bar that was still open.  We wound up at The Rock Inn, a local hangout where the kitchen closed at 10pm on the dot.   I got to enjoy watching my friend attract the men in the bar (a familiar theme by this point), and over local beer (mine was blueberry and very yummy - don't judge!) made plans for our final day.

Views from Lunch #5, 9/6/11
Dushanbe Tea House, Boulder, CO
The following day dawned rainy and gray, and we said goodbye to the Park and headed to the flatlands.  Our destination: Boulder, where we were greeted with medicinal marijuana signs and the Celestial Seasonings Factory, which, curiously, made me not want to drink Celestial Seasonings tea (not exactly the outcome they were hoping for, I imagine).  Perhaps it was that we were bound for the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House, which served incredible food and sold amazing loose-leaf tea, and where I took the final in the "Views from Lunch" series (at left).   We visited an impressive 3-story bookstore on Pearl Street, dodged the rain a bit more, and then headed off to the airport.  After a brief tussle with the rental car agency (tell me why I would agree to pay $8 per gallon for gas, hmmm?) had our final meal in the airport before departing for reality and our respective homelands.

Whew.  Now that the play-by-play is over, I found myself reluctant to bore you with too much of my philosophical musing, so I guess I'll just say I haven't enjoyed a vacation/adventure like that in a long while.  I turned off and/or ignored my email, and since we spent a great deal of time simply putting one foot in front of the other (or in my case, attempting not to drive off a cliff or fall flat on my face), there wasn't a lot of time for fake stress.  I came back feeling really, honestly refreshed, and the feeling lasted for a while.  It's fading now, which brings me to my glass necklace, which I've chosen to wear as a sort of talisman, reminding me to try to get back to that place of peace in my head, where the worries about life, love and livelihood are not big enough to erase the joy of being in the moment, celebrating fresh air, nature and blue skies, which just so happen to exist here in Arkansas, too. Cheers to that.  Special thanks to Trip Advisor, unofficial sponsor of our adventures, and thanks to my friend, Jennifer, for being an excellent chipmunk stalker and great travel companion.  Hope we do it again sometime.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

If This is It?

Astute readers will note that Part II of the Grand Colorado Adventure has not been blogged upon yet; never fear, it's coming.

However, I feel the need for a little rant.

Last night, I attended a free performance by Huey Lewis and the News, one of my favorite bands from childhood.  In the mid-80's when their albums Sports, Fore and others were popular, my parents were listening to them, and so was I.  They were my first live rock concert.  At my brother's wedding recently, "The Heart of Rock & Roll" was on the wedding mix, and the DJ was befuddled, as were most of the wedding guests, who I guess didn't groove to Huey's raspy voice and rockin' tracks in their youth.  However, the 7,000+ people crowding the parking lot last night to see these aging musicians got it.  I'm just sad that they didn't appreciate it more.

Let me say again that this concert was free.  No cost to get in.  For those of you out there who might not understand the math, that means that someone paid the artists fees, travel costs, production fees for that big 'ol stage that sprung up on the asphalt, and then opened the gates. There's a lot of free music out there these days; concerts in the park, at bars, festivals, etc.  I could go on for hours about how I hate that we've come to expect music for free, and get mad when we have to shell out some cash for it.  But that's a rant for another day.

Two things jumped out to me last night.

1.  About 5 minutes before the show ended, as Huey was winding up his encore and teasing the crowd about what song he was going to sing, he made one last final plea (and it was a plea, more than a little desperate) for people to buy his new album.  Clear as day, the woman behind me said (I'm paraphrasing):  "He'd BETTER not play one of his new songs right now.  I want an OLD song."

2,  As we walked out of the parking lot, the ground was covered in crushed beer cans.

Number 2 is easy to lament; we're slobs.  If a trash can isn't in sight, we figure, "hey, that's their problem," and chuck our trash onto the ground.  Oh, there are just so many parallels for this small action in how we treat our world these days, but lest I be accused of being a liberal communist who wants to destroy industry by cleaning up our air, I'll move on.

It's Number 1 that truly gets me a'ponderin'.  Last night, the crowd tolerated the band's new music.  I'll admit I wasn't as excited to hear that music as I was the old hits that I remembered from past, but I enjoyed them, and thought they lent a nice feel to the evening.  But toward the end, I heard rumblings from more than just the lady behind us.  There was a feeling of "I didn't come here to hear new music.  I came to hear the songs that are familiar to me."  Huey himself zinged this sentimentality by lamenting, before they sang Power of Love; "Who knew, 25 years ago when we wrote this song, that we'd have to sing it every night of our lives?"  Can you imagine that?  You're an artist, you're on the road, and you have sung the same song every show for a quarter of a century.  That tenacity, and the ability to make it sound good each night, amazes me, much as the ability of a Broadway actor to perform a role 8 times a week, week after week after week.

At the risk of being too intellectual, I think this phenomenon, which has existed ever since live performance became a thing, says something about us as a people.  We crave what's familiar.  We crave what's safe.  The new stuff is interesting, but it doesn't touch a chord inside us.  In fact, when it comes right down to it, we merely tolerate the new stuff. Oh sure, there's that self-identified "new music" crowd, but I'll bet even they beg their favorite bands to play the hits. Sadly, I think this mentality translates into politics, movies and social change, too.

Still, though, I have to give props to musicians like Huey Lewis and his band for trying, even in the face of our laziness, to create something "new."  Maybe someday a Huey cover band will play one of the songs on his 2010 album.  It's a long shot, though, when the Heart of Rock & Roll is still beating.  :)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Grand Colorado Adventure, Part I

"You need an adventure, not a vacation." 

The friend who casually said this to me probably doesn't know that I have taken it as a kind of mantra.  It perfectly described why I kept wanting to do a national park trip.  And it's led to me being here, in a bustling coffee shop in the Rockies.

Granted, my idea of "adventure" is pretty tame compared to most. For our river guide yesterday, it means rock-climbing up a cliff that has never been climbed before. For me, it means a new place, with some amazing natural beauty, and maybe a bit of outdoor activity; it's a trip that doesn't involved visiting friends or family in their natural habitats.  But it also means finding a coffee shop and taking some time to reflect on why I need this adventure and what has happened so far.

The adventure began on Friday with a trip on Southwest from Tulsa to Denver.  This is unusual in that I normally fly out of our overpriced yet convenient local airport, and I don't get to enjoy the quirks of flying Southwest.  Like the brightly colored planes, the friendly (sort of) jostle for the best seats, the singing flight attendants, the peanuts on board (!) and the whole "Bags Fly Free" thing, which definitely made packing easier.

The flight was largely uneventful, if you don't count the fact that we circled for a while to avoid a large thunderstorm (that I could see from the window).  We were treated to a little rainbow as we taxied in to our (occupied) gate.

Then my friend and I were off to acquire our rental car.  After a cordial battle with the rental car agent (why is it always SO difficult to get what you actually reserved at a rental car company?  No, I don't need the extra horsepower, Mr. Agent Man.  Why do you assume that since I'm a girl I won't understand that you're trying to fleece me?) 

Our drive up to the town of Estes Park was dark.  We couldn't see the mountains that we knew we were driving into.  Then to the hotel to crash, which wasn't that easy for me; when you're used to sleeping alone, it's a little weird to be in the same room with another person. 

Which brings me to the awesomeness of the particular friend I am traveling with.  This is a friend that I know from business school, but we weren't in the same class.  In fact, we have gotten to know each other via conferences, serving on a board together, and some involved facebook chats.  So when I tossed this out to the facebook universe a few months back:

I'm thinking of visiting a National Park this summer.  Anyone wanna join me?

I didn't really think I'd get a response.  But this friend said she was in and thus began a planning process that took too long but eventually led us here.  And so far, we seem to be good traveling companions.  Neither of us seem to be terribly agenda driven, and I think we both need this break for different reasons.  All that is to say, I slept better last night.

But I get ahead of myself.  Yesterday was an amazing day.  We were up at the crack of dawn (and nearly missed our van) and driving over the mountains to get to the Colorado River.  We got up to 12,000 feet (two miles above sea level) and then wound our way back down.  We wound up on a boat with a strangely delightful group that included our guide Nate, a bit of a stereotypical adventure seeker who still had us laughing and enjoying ourselves, a father-son duo from Denver, and three sisters who were spending a few days together before one of them shipped off to Afghanistan for a year-long deployment as a field medic.  I bought one of those old-school disposable cameras, so the wait time to see the photos will be longer than normal.  But, here's the thing.  I have always had this vision in my head of "rafting the Colorado".  If one can have a bucket list at 35, this was on it.  The natural beauty was all I'd hoped for.  About the only negative was I could have done with less floating and more rapids, but hey, we were beginners. (I fully intend to go back, and demand more chances to risk my life on whitewater.) And then we all wound up at the cantina for dinner, where unfortunately the much-hyped avocado margarita was not all I wanted it to be.

So as I sit here enjoying the buzz of conversation, the clean light and the blue, blue Colorado sky from my coffee shop corner, I don't really know why adventure is what I need right now.  It might be that a lot of things in my life feel stalled at the moment, and out here, at least, everything is new and beautiful.  It might be that nagging feeling that time is moving too fast, and there are too many things I haven't seen and done yet.  Or maybe it's just that I miss the mountains. 

Whatever it is, I can't wait to see what happens next.