Both Louise and I knew that leaving Chicago for two weeks would mean doing some work on the road. We are both at stages in our careers where, unfortunately, work can not go un-monitored for such a long time. I supervise a team at Argonne and always have on-going projects with deadlines. Louise, in her work, has a regular rhythm of deliverables for her employers main client, the US Postal service.
So, we were almost glad when the North American Monsoon (NAM) kicked into full gear yesterday. Gave us a chance to do washing, some cleaning and packing at the cabin and, today, a good hour plus at City on a Hill Cafe drinking coffee, eating cake and getting some work done.
And…. maybe a little real estate speculation on the side. Staying at a friends cabin has us wondering what the cost and logistics of owning our own little piece of Colorado would look like. We have fallen in love with the Twin Lakes and Leadville area. Of course we are completely spoiled as the place we are staying has an amazing slice of land. All dreaming at the moment but enough to leave our details with a realestate agent. Washing done, cleaning done and work done its time to head out for lunch! More soon.
It’s monsoon season in the mountains. Warm August sun heats the high peaks where the atmosphere is cold. This leads to unstable air and clouds and, if the upper atmosphere is not too dry, storms and rain. And the atmosphere is not to dry at the moment. This is good on so many levels, primarily it allows the high country to flourish and blossom. And it puts a damper on the fire danger. For visitors and locals alike, it means one needs to plan around the weather. I am no expert in Leadville local scale meteorology but through a 5-day in-situ study it seems that clouds build shortly after 8am, get taller and spread on ranges west and east of the Arkansas headwaters valley at around 10am, precipitation can start at around 11am with storms moving in after noon. The NWS had upped its wording for today (Saturday the 31st, last day of July) with stronger terms. Good forecast as it validated nicely, albeit later that forecast which seems to be a recurring theme, or, more on point, accurate with the probabilities assigned (a topic for a later post perhaps). Well, enough weather geekery! Seeing the forecast and discussing priorities with Louise and River we decided today was Kayak Day and we needed to go as early as possible. A call to Mt Elbert Kayak (can’t recommend highly enough) and we were booked in at open at 8. We made it to Twin Lakes at 7:30am, enough time for a Coffee and breakfast out of a WV camper. Delicious and a great view. Paul at Mt Elbert Kayaks was amazing. He made safety fun! He showed us the ropes (almost literally) and got our rental watercraft strapped to the Subaru. We were doing the full-on mountain life! The benefit of being up and out so early is the water was glass. The plan was to launch at the “Red Rooster” (no idea) boat ramp and paddle across the Interlaken “ghost town” resort for a snack. The same place I took some MTB photos earlier in the week! I suffered from some geographic embarrassment, not realizing we were in the west basin not the east of twin lakes.
It ended up as a happy mistake (vale Bob Ross) landing on an isolate beach for a rest break. Not a soul in sight but a screech from the trees alerted us to a predator. We were treated to what I think was a kestrel or some other hawk or eagle. Magnificent against the backdrop of the high Rockies (and uncapturable on an iPhone or all but the most expensive camera gear so this one is captured in our memories). Realizing our (my) mistake we headed out to the channel between the two lakes (Twin Lakes.. it is what it says on the tin) and headed towards the old town of Interlaken, made up of cabins of the well-to-do who wanted to enjoy mountain life (history, it seems, repeats). Now home to bats and a welcome rest stop for hikers, bikers, and paddlers alike. There is something special to a place that cannot be reached by vehicle. Pardon my arrogance, but the filter to the lazy means only those that put in the effort can reach the special places and this keeps them quite and nice. We enjoyed a very pleasant lunch of salmon bagels, cliff bars and water and boarded our craft for the paddle back. It was close to 11am and, as predicted there were some impressive clouds developing on Mt Elbert. Only a matter of time until they have overcome mid-level dry layers and “gone deep” producing rain and, much to my worry, graupel inside the clouds and lightning. Also, as those clouds were rising, they were sucking in air along the Saguach range (of to which Mt Elbert belongs) creating winds across the lake. So we headed back with a cross tail wind and some fun waves (but no mirror surface).
Back towards the channel with the full fetch of the wind across the east basin we had some small waves that were sometimes a hindrance and sometimes a fun benefit providing a bit of a surf. Through the channel the waves ceased to be part of the picture. Just as we approached the boat ramp the rain was starting on the southern shore of the Twin Lakes. We quickly hauled out and dropped out kayaks back in Twin Lakes. A highlight of the trip and as you, dear reader, can see from the photos, a spectacular, indelible memory for life. Arms sore, souls, again, very full we turned to fulfilling of the belly. And, boy, was the weather turning! Our luck was amazing (funny how clever folks are lucky). Back into Leadville and on the race across the Arkansas headwaters valley the atmosphere let off some fireworks with storms exploding all around us. With a couple of stops with Louise and River enduring the fact that, when the sky delivers, I am always on the clock we headed into Leadville for some chores and some great beer, food and company at 2-Mile-High Brewing. Don’t go looking for bowing and scraping service at this establishment. Beer was good. Not a fan of the larger, that need some work. All the ales were excellent, and food was great grub. Atmosphere was kind of the “Anti-Aspen”. I hope Leadville continues to value the down to earth nature of places like these. It attract folks like me who seek an authentic mountain experience.
Today was a sampler of some of the best of the high parts of Colorado. Pure mountain biking, pure Colorado “highways” and Aspen, a pure (albeit touristy) mountain ski town. First, the mountain biking. Herein follows a review of the Turquoise (LINK) lake single track just out of Leadville. MTB project touts that the reviews and rating are submitted by local riders. I do not doubt this is the case for the blue rated out-and-back 6 mile (so 12 mile if you do it out-and-back) trail along the north shore of Turquoise lake but it shows a rider who considers themselves to be “blue” (intermediate) based out of Leadville are far more skilled than us flatlanders from the midwest.
The trail starts very easy, some rocks to navigate but plenty of space to prepare and recovery from the feature. I say this is mountain biking (specifically XC MTB) at its purest as, even though the trail is maintained (no erosion etc) zero attempt has been made to make the trail “flow”. Totally un-artificial and I rode it to see the amazing landscape unfold as it can only do on a loop. Some parts were a joy to ride, and some parts were technical, some other parts got gnarly where you did not have a clean run at a feature and you had rock gardens followed by rock gardens so you could never really get back on balance and some part were hike-a-bike for all but living legends. If you take at the MTB project link above you will see the peak in the middle, that is where most of the hike a bike is. The rest is ridable by any solid intermediate rider who is used to the trail and elevation. This intermediate rider is NOT used to the elevation and was riding it blind so more than a few flubs of a run up to a rock garden forcing a walk to get started. Louise will be happy to learn that there were no spills today. So, to answer the question: Was it worth it? Do you like technical rocky sections? This is for you.
Do you prefer flow but are willing to suck it up for world class views? It’s worth it but judge your risk tolerance carefully. Good news, the whole trail has cell service for your significant other to send the authorities your way, as always set a “no contact panic time”. Are you familiar with the world class views Leadville has to offer and love the flow and think pushing your bike is for chumps? I would say avoid. Let me put it this way: I chose not to do the out and back again, opting to take part of the Leadville 100 route and then turn off for a mad descent to the dam wall and where I parked. Strava file here: Link .
Arriving back at the cabin we discussed priorities. The weather was forecast to close in so we opted that this afternoon would be Aspen. We climbed the Independence Pass again (discovering it was named for the, now ghost, town of Independence. This time, instead of stopping and turning around we descended the other side. The road down on the Aspen side is very different. It starts a lot mellower than the Twin Lakes side but quickly narrows, a lot! The story on the Twin Lakes side was avalanche scars. On the Aspen side it is rock falls. This means the road narrows in several spots to a one lane road with some unwritten rule making it work. Crazy there are not more issues (perhaps there are but we witnessed none today). Aspen sits at around 7,900 feet, the air felt so thick! First impressions: Wow, parking is a challenge. Asking a local he directed us to a road on the edge of town which connects to Aspen’s wonderful walking trail system. The forecasted weather was arriving so we hot-footed it to our destination: Aspen brewing and tap. Great beer, amazing pizza, phenomenal WIFI and pretty steep prices. Yes, Aspen is not Leadville.
It caters to the well-to-do. However very nice for a treat. And it was great watching the storm rage outside over the mountains enjoying the best pizza I have had in ages. All that was left to do was wait out the storm, head back to the car and enjoy a spectacular drive over Independence pass watching the clouds roll off the pine-covered slopes back to the cabin. We asked and the mountains derived pure majesty today.
For our third full day in the high country the main goal was outdoor cooking. We love cooking on open fires. In the Rockies this comes with special responsibilities as the area is very prone to wildfires. Dry air, a preponderance of downed timbers, landscape and winds all mean it is everyone’s responsibility to prevent fires.
This meant always having water on hand, dousing the area around the fire pit with water and always keeping an eye on the fire danger (high) and attending the fire. The preponderance of timber also was a fun opportunity: making our favorite butter chicken on a fire made entirely of scavenged downed timber (added benefit of, even if insignificantly, reducing the fuel load. I use the New York Times recipe with some twists, and I also greatly increase the cooking times in the Dutch oven. This means the chicken thighs start to fall apart.
Soon highway 82 was replete with aromas of turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin etc… To top it off Louise prepared dough for naan which we threw in a cast iron pan on the coals. They were perfect. And while lunch (plus dinner, plus what will be snacks the next day_ was cooking I wandered around and snapped macros of the amazing wildflowers on Lois and Bob’s property.
Tummies full and the fire well and truly out (and hands washed after touching the coals to make sure it was truly out) we jumped in the car and headed for today’s outing: Independence Pass! When we were in Breckenridge a few years ago we discovered Louise is particularly prone to altitude sickness and her “line” is around 12,000 feet. So heading up to the pass at 12,112 feet, 3692 meters for the metrically inclined, we took it easy. This meant stopping at many of the turnouts to enjoy the view. It was worth it!
The view from the pass is spectacular. On the way back down, we stopped at a trail head and did a very short (~2km) hike enjoying alpine flowers and bubbling streams. I find it amusing that a quick trip to 12,000 feet somehow makes the air at 10,000 feet seem that much more breathable!
First let’s talk about last night… As we played Trivial Pursuit the day turned into night and just before bed, we went outside to see what the sky had to show. We were not disappointed! I grabbed my camera and headed outside. After learning more of the Nikon Z7-II’s settings I finally had it set to bulb and grabbed a very nice long exposure. The blurring is from the earth (or sky, depending on your perspective) rotating. Hoping to get a longer shot with star trails before the end of the trip.
Wednesday dawned bright and clear and it was time to test the red blood cell count and go mountain biking. Bob told me where to park. He also warned the single track on the southern side of the lake got challenging with rocks.. It did! But it was fun. All but a hike a bike section I could have and really should have taken the short cut around. Really testing the skills, heels down weight back letting the Yeti SB100 soak up the impacts.. Loving it. Oh and the views! Doing a loop meant you had views that were constantly training. Now those red blood cells, still need more of them until I am fully acclimatized. Started out of breath, got into a good rhythm then got tired and sloppy so took a few breaks to collect myself. Ride finished with some short sections on highway 82 (uphill slogs) and some nice flowy sandy single track to the car. Click HERE for Strava.
Soul fed it was time for the tummy. Gathered up Louise and River and headed to Leadville. First priority: Coffee. Destination: City on a hill. Good coffee, awesome vibe (lightning fast internet!). Second priority: Calories, protein and taste. Destination: Casa Sanchez. Arm sized burrito comes out (the Chipotle one for those who know) I think “no way I am going to finish that”. 20 minutes late my plate is mysteriously empty of said burrito. After a provisioning for tomorrow’s slow cooked butter chicken it was time to head home via Twin Lakes. We stopped in at the general store, a classic example of never judge a book by its cover. It looks a little rough from the outside but is a paradise for nature seekers inside. Home now, winding down and getting a bit more organized (ie finally organizing all the stuff we just dumped when we arrived). What will we do tomorrow? We will decide then!
I could not tell you the last time I genuinely felt delight. Not “oh that is nice” but genuine delight. There were a bunch of things today, our first full day in the cabin, that were nice, fun, phenomenal, awesome etc… But the delight came from… Hummingbirds. More on that later. We are staying, courtesy of a kind friend, at 10,000 feet above Twin Lakes Colorado.
Let me put that in perspective: The highest point in the lower 48 is Mount Whitney in Ca at 14,494 feet. The highest point in Colorado and the second highest point in CONUS is Mount Elbert which casts a shadow over the cabin, at 14,439 feet. The highest pass in the USA is Independence Pass at 12,095 feet, a mere 3 ish miles up the road from where we are. The air is rare. This is a special place. Dawn came clear and cool. After 1,300 miles of travel, we still had unpacking and organizing to do.
Once the cabin was ship-shape Louise and River went for a walk up an old ore mining rail line to explore and get some views of the valley and surrounding peaks while I fiddled with the solar powered 4G connection (again, more on that later, it is a sad/good fact with all that is going on I can only take a 90% vacation. With great opportunity comes great responsibility). The cabin we are staying with is replete with history. Appropriate given its owner who is the master of.
One thing Bob did not tell us about until we rolled into his property was the Hummingbirds. He pointed out the feeder and said they were fun to watch, and keep an eye on the orange ones, they are bullies. We had seen a Hummingbird or two on our property in Chicago and were mesmerized by them. We do not get Hummingbirds in Australia. They are endemic to the “new world” of the Americas. Louise refilled the feeder with “Aussie Strength” food and the party got started. From being amazed by one lone feeder coming in we were soon delighted (yes, there is that word) by a spectacle of what we coined “Jewelry birds” (we also had Taser Bugs… I will leave that to the reader’s imagination). What a perfect day to rest and build red blood cells in our acclimatization to the roof of America in what truly is a paradise.
Today was the day. Time to stop being a mile high and become two miles high, the drive from Boulder to Twin Lakes just outside of Leadville. But first I decided I wanted to ride the Yeti up Boulder Canyon. It was meant to be an easy ride to acclimatize to a reduction in oxygen.
For the Aussies Boulder sits at around 1,600m, so bottom of Thredbo. Rode easy up the canyon enjoying the river and unfolding vistas until I got to the end to the path and was checking the map when a local Boulderite came past (fit and as beautiful as they all are) and told me about some of the local trails. He failed to notice my considerable girth and directed me to a local dirt road (mainly closed, not the realm of hikers and bikers).
Well, present me is sending some huge gratitude to past me for starting my training months ago. The road was lovely, starting in dense pine forests and tight switchbacks which allowed me to look up the hill and see the climbing to come. Initially I said “lets ride until 7:15am and make a judgement call then” then it was 7:30, then 7:45.. Views just keep getting better and better so the ride ended up much more epic than intended. Ended up climbing 460 meters to spectacular views at the peak of flagstaff mountain. And then there was the descent.
The features on the road to divert water flow, when hit at 20+mph ended up being super fun little kickers allowing some great jumps. Rolling back into the hotel it was time to pack and say “see ya later Boulder” and we hit the road for Leadville. Raced along the front range and hit E470, ripping through tunnels and seeing vistas at every turn. Our Subaru Outback, Ollie, took it all like a champ even when packed to the gills with stuff.
I could write pages and pages describing the drive. From the awesomeness of the avalanche scars to the monumental if somewhat of a crime against nature sight of the Climax molybdenum mine. We rolled into Leadville at just after 1:30pm, grabbing phenomenal sandwiches at Buchi Cafe Cubano. After that all that was left to do was provision at safeway and drive across the alluvial plain of the Arkansas river headwaters, through Twin Lakes to Bob’s (Bob the living legend Graham) cabin. Bob met us and gave us the tour.
I could myself as blessed beyond belief to have made to many friends since moving to the United States 11 years ago. Quality friends. Genuine friends. And I am grateful to Bob for sharing his slice of heaven with us. I will talk more about the cabin in coming days but, suffice to say, this is rarefied land. And, yes, the altitude is hitting us all very hard. More to come soon, including our mimo antenna set up to get internet, the slowest internet on the planet but enough to keep things ticking over. Greetings from two miles high.
Geology… It happens. Part of the entertainment on this 17 hour drive has been watching the changing landscape. The change happens slow and subtle. From flat Illinois, to rolling Iowa to uber flat Nebraska. And then it changes, quick. Due to the smoke haze from fires we did not notice it until we passed Denver. More on that soon. Today was a quick jump from North Platte to Boulder. Roads in Nebraska were just amazing at 7:30am in the morning.
Most truck drivers were still asleep on off ramps etc in their rigs. We could see them! This meant a super easy roll with the cruise control and the amazing eye-sight system on the Subie keeping us flying along at speeds Australians can only dream of (speed limits in the USA are odd. I plead the 5th and refuse to explain it to you).
We crossed into colorful Colorado at 8:30 Central (now 7:30 Mountain) and the landscape changed into rolling hills replete with yellow wildflowers. You could tell we were in the rain shadow of the Rockies. Corn fields from Nebraska onwards were irrigated so we were entertained by talking about the different technologies we saw for bringing the water to the corn.
While it does not rain much in the near-Rockies plains (cut off from moist flow from the Gulf of Mexico) it does rain and snow over the mountains giving rise to dependable (in most years) rivers allowing irrigation. As we got closer to the mountains cropland gave way to pasture and beef and, as aforementioned, just after Denver the ethereal outline of the front range could be made out.
Also, for me, the roads suddenly became more familiar from many work trips to Boulder. The view of the Flatirons did not disappoint, and I was thrilled to introduce River to their first view of Colorado mountains. We made insanely good time, so our hotel room was far from being ready. This was a good thing as we had good coffee at Boxcar and had a short fun walk in the Boulder canyon.
A just amazing lunch and a few tasty beers at Avery and we checked in to a pretty thinly staffed Marriott. We left River to be a teenager for a few hours and walked to Twisted Pine for what ended up being a fun time playing with puppies and dogs. Now I am writing this from Backcountry Pizza in the middle of a pop up hailstorm! Yep, colorful Colorado!
Greetings from North Platte Nebraska! Today was the big day for us (keep in mind we don’t do big road trips). 7.5 hours across Iowa and Nebraska. We broke it down into four blocks with three rests. Iowa city to Des Moines. Des Moines to a rest stop. Rest stop to Kearney. And Kearney to North Platte. Kind of felt like we took a good luck potion as, well, we kept having good luck. First, the breakfast place we found in Des Moines; St Kilda café was awesome. Yes, it was Aussie themed, but it was not kitschy, it was good. Fantastic coffee and great food. I had salmon, poached eggs (amazing) and lentils. Rest stop was clean and has some lovely grounds for a quick walk to refresh the mind and legs. The arch at Kearney was 100% random, and very nice. Designed as a museum to Nebraska, Buffalo etc it had great amenities and River loved the gemstones they picked up there (highlight for them which was amazing given how random it was. For me, I had two highlights.
Our dinner spot, Pals brewing in North Platte and the 7+ crop dusters that entertained us along the plains. Oh and the changing landscape from hilly in Iowa to sandy and flat across Nebraska. Gives me a newfound awe for our chose home we will soon be citizens of. A very timely road trip! Ok, the crop dusters first. These planes were just amazing. I am an aviation geek. I used to forecast for Australia’s aviation center which sparked this interest. These planes were slow, low and agile. I swear they flew lower than the trucks driving along I80 and weaved between them. Like a Star Wars trench run! Pals brewing, good food, beer (REALLY GOOD BEER. And I know good beer) and super friendly service. Geographically speaking, if this was Australia there would be literally nothing. And in the middle of Nebraska there is not much. So it was amazing to find such quality in the corn fields outside of North Platte.
Great day traveling across the plains, really hits home the impact of national infrastructure and national security. It’s no longer about rifles and cannons, it is food security and highways. Seeing the wind farms in Iowa really tickled me! Energy from the wind, amazing engineering and farmers getting $$$$ for a small footprint on their land.
On a final note, I had an epiphany on the road. I did not realize how poor my mental health was. About 2 hours out of Iowa City I had a deep exhale as my eyes fixed on the distance, I realized I felt trapped in Chicago without knowing it. The vacation that seemed like a good idea was, in fact, a necessity. Our family likes distant horizons, it is what inspired us to uproot to a whole new country. Is the USA better than Australia? Not necessarily…
Is Australia better than the USA? Also, not necessarily… Are they different and better and worse in different ways. Absolutely. Right now, seeing the industrious plains of the Midwest it is driven home to me like better before that, for us, the USA is a land of massive opportunity and is the right place to be. Bring on the Mountains tomorrow!!!
Greetings readers. I have been slack. and not like salesforce slack.. Slack at updating this blog. News is we are undertaking our longest roadtrip ever in the USA. Actually, I thought it was the second longest as I drove with a friend from Gladstone QLD to Canberra way back in in the early 2000’s … But some googling tells me I was wrong and this will be my LONGEST roadtrip ever (yes I will tell you what it is soon). Difference is, as a stupid 20 year old I (with my friend… Can’t remember his name to save my life, straight shot it, 18 hours, 3 hour shifts, sleeping, running around the car… Good/bad times 🙂 )…
So, we are heading out on a long earned two week vacation to Colorado. Unlike the 20 year old me I now have responsibility for two other humans, Louise and River. So we are taking three days to trek across the great U.S.A. Staying in Iowa City, Iowa the first night, North Platte, Nebraska the second and, a place I have frequented often, Boulder Colorado (sorry friends there, no time to catch up on the way there, hopefully on the way home) on the third.
This post is being written from the lobby bar (YES Lobby bar! It’s been a long time thanks to COVID-19) from the Courtyard Marriott in Iowa City. Drive from Chicago could not have been smoother. Great stop Leclair, IA on the Mississippi river at a very nice German pub (AC was out and they were suffering bad from the “Big Quit”).
I’ll get to more details of our trip and plans later. In a nutshell: Mountains, stars, mountain biking and the kindness of strangers (Thank you thank you Bob Graham).. 90% vacation, 10% work on the road.
Fun note, call from WTTW Chicago to appear on Chicago Tonight as we went through Dekalb.. First time in over 10 appearances I turned them down.. Sorry folks.
We rolled into Iowa City, a college town, at around 4pm. Checked in and headed out on foot for grub and beer. Wow, so much development in the middle of the corn and soy of Iowa! Lovely town. Headed to a local, Sanctuary, on a very sweaty, Friday for a Pint.. Quaint… They headed by Vue, a rooftop bar at the new Hilton in the middle of town.. Vue had a view! Chatted with the staff and some very nice locals. Iowa city, thanks to the University is in the middle of a development boom, that’s why we are saving like mad for River’s college… We loved this place. Tomorrow is the big day. 7 hours, 24 minutes, to North Platte Nebraska. Lots more corn to come!