Clearly one of us has artistic skill and one of us doesn't. Elaine made the sweet skier with the moon and cloud, while I created a ridiculous looking Cheshire Cat smiling Jack-o-lantern. Happy Halloween!
The pick-up truck bounces awkwardly as we maneuver down the rocky, snow-covered jeep road. It's a Wednesday afternoon and after two straight days of clinics learning about skis and boots, where reps spoke of thermo-lined-this, carbon-reinforced-that and how their product is unquestionably better than the competitors…well, I need an escape into something a bit more organic. I ask Elaine if she is up for an adventure, and of course she is. We've got a couple hours to burn until darkness, and there is a dashed line I've been eying on the map since I first saw it back in July, something I had to check out before it got socked in for winter.
The mangled road of dirt continues on past deep mud ponds, through Aspens whose leaves have all now dropped to the ground and large patches of glorious white snow. We follow a set of tire tracks, most likely left by hunters. It's a little risky hiking in this area this time of year, as it's neither Wilderness, nor protected, meaning it's fair game for the men with guns. Fortunately Elaine has worn an orange shirt, so unless the hunter is drunk, blind or both, we should be OK.
We get to the trailhead and immediately find that there isn't one. More like a large wooden fence to hop and a stream to ford before an ancient track, barely indented into the sage and frosted-over grass appears. A crude, hand-painted sign gives it away: "Motor Vehicles Prohibited Beyond This Point – U.S. Forest Service." This is our path.
The trails slices through a valley surrounded by low hills, rock pinnacles and endless forest. I give a yelp and my sound reverberates through the land, piercing, haunting. This land has that haunted feeling of tragedy. It's inexplicable unless you have spent a lot of time in the woods – certain places have that feel. Perhaps an unsuccessful mining operation happened here, maybe somebody got lost and died, or maybe it's deeper than that…a history of episodes that happened throughout time…animal hardships, dating back to the ice ages, to early man, to a wilder time.
The trail begins to slant upward and we emerge into the forest. Our breathing increases with the hills steepness…this trail has no switchbacks. And the forest…the smells, the strongest, most pleasant pine odor I have experienced in years. Mixed with the cold air, our steaming breathe, the moist dirt and the patches of snow…the pine accentuates and delights, filling the nostrils and energizing the soul. Up, up, up we go through the forest, past little creeks, naked aspen groves and thick needled trees.
We're following two tracks, massive tracks, that of two humans with feet in the teens-realm size. We joke that we're following bigfoot, and of course the conversation turns to the question of if bigfoot is real. You can't help but be in the woods and wonder about such things, and it brings a quivver and a leap to the stomach to think that maybe, just maybe, there are creatures living in the hills who have escaped the microscope of the scientist, the cataloging of the professional biologist, the sighting of the common man or woman. It seems impossible in this day and age, but I want to believe, so I do.
We emerge into a large, slanted valley and I can't help but analyze it for backcountry skiing worthiness. When you are a skier and an explorer that's what you do in the fall…poke around for new lines, new delights in the forest. The trail has all but disappeared now, taken back by the land. We pick our way through thinned tree groves and more meadows, always up, towards timberline and the hulking, rounded and snow-covered mountain in front of us.
A few more steps and we are up there, on the tundra, the timberline mark into a world of wind, exposure and thin air. We've been climbing for an hour plus and the light grows dimmer, more orange. There is a lot more to do…we've only come a bit above timberline and there is a whole mountain to ascend, but not on this day. An adventure left for another day, perhaps this winter but more likely next spring or summer when the snows melt and the land turns back into sea of wildflowers – columbines, paintbrush, forget-me-nots – but that is a long way away, a winter away, and for this I am glad.
It's time to turn around, back home to the truck. This is not an epic excursion into the wilds, a soul-searching hike of the entire Appalachian Trail or a journey into the depths of the Himalayas. Nope, this is more like Walden…a walk into the woods followed by a foray back into our small town to grab some milk and cookie dough. A balance between the wild and the civilized. Elaine and I talk often about adventures to cross that realm into the more wild, and I have no doubts that someday we will, but not now.
We pick our way down the mountain, our trusty dog Stella at our side. She explores smells here and there, dropping to the creek for a sip of icy water and looping back around again. The dog is that link between the civilized and the wild, the wolf lured to the fire, but not totally transformed yet. It smells, it hears, and you realize that there is a whole world of wild that humans have lost, sucked out of us by generations of an easier, more cerebral life.
As is always the case on a hike, the descent allows for thinking, for conversation. For a couple, these are wonderful moments. We talk about various things and just enjoy each others company in this quiet place. The moon rises to the east, nearly full, though I know not whether it is waxing or waning…too many hours spent indoors in the tech room. The sky turns orange on the horizon, the woods grow thicker. It's time to head home.
As we reach the bottom, near the little creek, we spot something black 100 yards away. Elaine, in wonder, asks if that is a black bear, and then quickly corrects herself…"no, it's a moose." She is correct. A buck, big antlers and all, grazing on the fall grass. Stella comes closer to us and is peering the opposite direction, which is a dead give-away. Just fifty yards away, a mother moose and two babies. It's a privilege and a treasure to see this, but moose are not chipmunks. Stories of moose charging people abound, so we quickly head away from the scene so as not to disturb them. Stella is one smart dog – she sticks right by our side. She is no Buck, and this is not "Call of the Wild."
We amble on, filled with wonder of the world, invigorated by the smells and feelings of the woods, the mountains. Elaine breathes out, steam in the cold air, and smiles. A final foray into a land lying in wait before the snows blanket it for seven months. We hop back into the pick-up truck, dive into a loaf of fresh baked bread in the front seat and bounce down the road, headlights piercing the cold, late-fall night.
Elaine and I live in a caboose at 8,690 feet above sea level. We're not really the typical married couple – (obviously this is not the only reason) – in this regard. It's a unique place to live and always gets a few raised eyebrows and a series of questions when people find out. For example….
1. Does it have a bathroom?
Why yes it does. Exactly wide enough to sit on a toilet. You can't actually close the door to the bathroom, as your legs would be squashed into your chin, but who really needs privacy.
2. How big is it really (or isn't that small)?
Yes it is. But not as small as one might think. Plenty of room to live just fine.
3. Can you move the caboose?
Alas, no. There are no railtracks that run through the property. That and they took the wheels off of it. Bummer. Then again, I don't ever have to worry about somebody playing a prank on us and moving the caboose at night while we're asleep!
4. How did you find a caboose?
It's amazing what you can find on Criagslist. The caboose was brought here by Jimmy Keith, a local realtor who has a passion for trains. There are train cars all over the place – the coffee shop in Ned, off Green Gate, etc. This particular one was filmed in a John Wayne movie, though I know not which one.
5. Does it have running water?
Yes! Ice cold or boiling hot. Nothing in between. Actually, one of the nicest things about the caboose is our instant hot water spigget. Let's put it this way…we drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of instant raman.
6. How do you shower in the caboose?
Well, you don't. I will often wash my hair in the sink using tuperware to mix the boiling hot and ice cold and then rinse ice cold (wake-up call!). We also have a solar shower. And our neighbors allow us to use their shower when needed. Which is a whole other story.
7. How do you heat the caboose?
Wood burning stove baby! It's small, so it's easy (relatively) to warm the thing from 40° to 90° in the matter of an hour or so. On a winter day you can expect to lose 30 of those degrees by morning. No thermostat = no problem
8. What does one do at the caboose?
None of your damned business fool! But I will say that not having a T.V. and a ton of space to hide out in one giant corner of the house while the other person hangs out in the other corner makes you plan good, social nights – games, reading to each other, etc. And we cheat a little – we have an LCD projector which makes watching movies absolutely delectable. A cup of cocoa, a good movie and a fire after a hard days skiing or hiking…not much is better in my book.
9. Don't you drive each other crazy in such a small space?
10. Does it have electricity?
As Elaine says, "we don't live in the dark ages."
The best part of living in the caboose is, of course, where it is. We can walk out our door and go on five mile hike through aspens, past a large lake and totally escape. We're right next to a major Wilderness area, and lots of other non-designated wild places. There is great biking all around. Backcountry skiing – some of the best in the local area – is five minutes away. If you want to go to the resort and make some turns or bust out some km's, that's only ten minutes away. And in two minutes, I can choose between amazing alfredo pasta at Neo's, steamed chicken momo at Kathmandu, or a hearty pizza at backcountry. It works, better than well.
We won't always live in a caboose. Heck, on our list we've got a teepee, a yurt and someday, when we're really going nuts, a handbuilt log cabin. Yet the caboose will be where it all started, and I suspect in 20 years when we look back at the right here and now, a smile remembering the great times will always be there! Choo choo!
I love living in a caboose!
It's nothing major, but for me it's progress. I had my quickest ride up to Caribou of the fall this morning, and that's a good harbinger with ski season right around the corner. I'm not completely sure how well just riding a singlespeed uphill prepares you for ski season, but I'm about to find out. The good news is that when I do go into the weight room – about once every two weeks – I feel stronger each time.
Went to see the Teton Gravity film "Light the Wick" last night at the Boulder Theater with Elaine. Lots of rock 'em, sock 'em fast skiing down insane lines, but some cool stuff too – a segment from Croatia, super deep snow at Jackson Hole and a part filmed entirely in 3D. I've never seen a 3D film in my life and came away impressed. One major complaint that Elaine and I shared: the film had basically no women skiers. I understand the market for these films is limited, but come on, there are plenty of girl skiers who shred and are worthy of being in this and any ski film.
Elaine and I had a good brainstorming session for Nanowrimo – National November Writing Month – yesterday on a hike around Mud Lake. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, and we're both taking on the challenge. Elaine is a superstar at this – she's completed it three times to my meager one. She's a better novel//fiction writer than me hands down. Nevertheless, I'm psyched for my novel, however much of a hack job it may be. I can't devulge details other than revenge for the Mudfest will be complete, Barker Reservoir will be drained flooding the justice center and there will be some wicked chase scenes in the high mountains on skis. Sort of a "Monkey Wrench Gang" meets crazy ski bum, only worse!
The place I work is providing free weekday ski passes at Loveland to all employees (note the somewhat comical office memo – love the parameters…you "must" ski…uh, ok, I think I can handle that. Hell of a lot better than the ones we used to get when I taught school!), so it was an easy decision to pick up an extra one for Elaine yesterday as well for cheap. It comes with three free days at Monarch and Durango and one at Silverton Mountain, That will be definitely be a nice supplement to Eldora and the backcountry, and should extend the season out another month (or more) on both ends and allow us to explore some new (for us) terrain. They are blowing snow as we speak at Loveland, and I would not be shocked if they opened next week sometime.
There was a moment on my ride today, near the end after a long chilly descent from Caribou, where I entered a patch of dirt road basked in sunlight. To the left, a small pond with a glaze of ice on top, and above, the knock-knock-knocking of a chipmunk. I slowed down and smiled. Next to me, Stella ran with a big grin, doing what she loves to do most: run. In a few minutes I'd be heading home to the smiling face of my wife, where she'd give me a big hug and say to me, in a half-sleep, "How was your ride…I missed you." An hour later, off to a low paying job that is absolutely what I want to be doing, with a great group of people. And it hit me – life is good.
I peruse the web from time-to-time to keep up with old friends. Just…see how they are doing. And it makes me happy to see that life is good for them too. It seems there is a lot of positivity happening right now. Meriwether for example…starting to build frames. This is undeniably a good thing, for it is something he has wanted to do for a long time. May they be the straightest, strongest and most soulful frames ever built. My friend Dave, just off his big vacation, starting a new career where he will change the world. The world could use more people like him…people who want to change it for the better and the vision and talent to actually make it real. And I'll just say this right now – he and his wife are simply the best parents I have ever seen. I see SMRP, at her ranch, with the animals she loves. May they be strong of health, because lord knows they have not all been and she deserves ease and health for them. Even Josh – we were never terribly close but I considered him a friend – is with a cool woman and riding bikes and building bridges. Bad ass. Those cross rides look cool, and it's good to see that stoke alive and well. I follow tabs with Megan, up in Montana, travelling around the world, doing things with a style that only she has. There are some I have completely lost track of, Timmy, and of course a central person in my formal life. But I hope more than anything that they are doing well. Somehow I suspect they are.
This fall has been good. Obviously things are going well here, but it's bigger. Elaine has her health at a level she has not seen in a decade and is getting used to living life in the clear, her medications dropped to almost nill, and shockingly her symptoms non-existent. It's October, the sun is dying and this is usually when things head south for her, but this time around…it's not happening. This too is a great thing – in my world, the greatest.
It's interesting to me how the world shakes things up and brings about total chaos – chaos that seems unsolvable – and then settles everything into a place where it belongs. It's a cool thing. I can look at my own situation and say…this sucks…I got a raw deal with all that happened. But then, I look at the here-and-now, and think…no…everything happened EXACTLY the way it needed too.
Last night Elaine and I took Stella for a walk. To the south, Orion hung on the horizon, a harbinger of a winter to come. Elaine smelled the air and said, "it doesn't smell like fall anymore…it's something different. It smells like winter!" I still think there is a little more fall left. On my ride up to Caribou today, there are still strong signs of it – leaves hanging on through the long cold nights. But there is no denying things are changing. In the seasons, and in life. And this, I would have to say, is the most beautiful thing there is.
One girl sits in the contented solitude on a rock overlooking the landscape, arms wrapped tightly around long john – clad legs.
Her gaze absorbs the stark sight of sheer mountains standing like cutouts against the slowly lightening sky.
The huge majestics cascade haphazardly into a deep mountain lake, still and perfectly smooth as an unmarred surface of a mirror.
A golden globe suddenly bursts over the mountain tops, shards of brilliant sunbeams shattering across the earth below.
Little slivers of brightest gold dance across the surface of the lake; a silent orchestra playing.
A lone sunbeam gradually creeps up to the rock upon which the girl sites, finally surrounding and wrapping her in a warm light.
Gently a smile glows upon her face, joyful at the glorious sight before her.
The lake is deep, its colors of darkest blue and green foretelling of the frigid waters it holds.
Little movement in the icy depths tells a long forgotten tale of monumentus giant boulders, left behind by a glacier long ago, hidden beneath the lake’s icy depths.
The cracked shards of sun reflecting on the surface cannot penetrate across to warm the lake, an invisible shield protecting it from warmth.
– Words by Elaine Alta Vardamis, Photo by Daniel Christopher