Or I Could Collect Stamps

Maybe it was the COVID thing – still lying low as the second wave rolls through, with no end in sight and cabin fever already raging. Maybe it was the election – knowing full well who I would vote for months ago, which allowed me to disengage early on so as to avoid the spiraling insanity and thereby keep my head from exploding. Maybe it was just an ‘old guy’ thing – feeling like I should keep moving, keep doing something because the less you do, the less you can do. Feeling like I needed a project now that I’ve been involuntarily retired. Show myself I can still be productive.

So what’s a person to do? Why, build a shed, of course.

Did we need a shed? The jury is still out on that one. Personally, I believe that the more space you have, the more stuff you will acquire to fill said space. This bore out at our last house back in Michigan – while it was far from palatial, it had more than its share of dark corners, and a garage that could fit two cars and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When it came time to move, we were making midnight runs to Goodwill with all the things that – like the unicorns left behind by Noah – weren’t going to find a place on the truck.

Granted, the garage here at the new house is decidedly smaller than the previous one. And while that has helped keep our ‘stuff quotient’ low, there’s still plenty of crap that can’t live in the house. A quick sidebar; we get hail storms around here – hellacious hail storms. So it behooves one to keep their vehicle under cover as much as possible, unless you don’t mind the hood having that ‘golf ball’ look.

And though it required time to adjust to our ‘efficiency’ garage, I took a fair amount of pride in the fact that I could squeeze everything in and still get two cars to fit. I can’t guarantee that you can get out of the car once you’ve managed to guide it into its designated slot, but by God, you can get the garage door closed behind you. Yet I can appreciate that others require less clutter in their lives – not less stuff, necessarily, just better organized stuff. Which is why my wife has been advocating for additional space since we moved to the new house ten years ago.

Shed or no, more flotsam is finding its way into my life, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. Patio furniture which, until now, has been left on the patio for the winter, the garage misfits, the overflowing basement storeroom. And a kayak, if I have my way. My first one, a unicorn, was abandoned in the moving purge – a new one has been contingent on finding space in which to store it.

So, unlike some, I decided to concede defeat. After a month (which included a couple of snow delays), principal work is complete. A few minor details, a coat of paint, and our gender-neutral shed will be ready.

The secret to a successful DIY construction project in your sixties? Creative cursing, Aleve® (in bulk) and heating pads. There is a quote attributed to Matthew Stover, that “all true stories end in death.” As someone on facebook noted, all true projects end with bandages. Or stitches. I can vouch for that, too.

And any time I started to obsess over a bit of wonky trim or bent nail, I heard the voice of an old friend who used to impart these words of wisdom whenever I got too detail oriented for his liking. “Yer not makin’ a fuckin’ Swiss watch.” Indeed. It’s a shed, not the Taj Mahal.

But if this lockdown goes on much longer, that might be next.

Rejoice, For Winter is Coming!

There’s a quote that’s been making the rounds on facebook…something about how choosing not to find joy in the snow means you will have less joy in your life, but still the same amount of snow. My brother even posted this recently, which I found curious coming from a man who spends his winters in coastal North Carolina.

And while I can appreciate the sentiment, I have yet to embrace it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a Michigan boy – raised in the land of ‘lake-effect’ snow, next-door neighbor to the Great White North. Where winter wasn’t so much a season as it was an epoch. When we moved from Grand Rapids, with an average annual snowfall of 74 inches (exactly the same as my average annual height, it should be noted), to Fort Collins, I was buoyed by the fact that we would be on the receiving end of 28 fewer inches of snow every year.

But as I am reminded, now that I have involuntarily aged-out of the workforce, it’s not like I have anywhere to be. When the snowflakes fly, I’m told I should simply break into a refrain of Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

I try to play nice with winter – I really do. Granted, I’m not much for downhill skiing or snowboarding – a fact which has nothing to do with the slab of angle iron and ten screws holding my wrist together after taking a tumble while attempting to stay upright shred the gnar with my youngest a decade ago. Okay, maybe a little. But I will wander out into the powder with my brother-in-law on cross-country skis now and then, and just last winter we tromped through the woods on snowshoes, a not entirely unpleasant outing.

Truthfully, winter here in the lee of the Rocky Mountains is quite tolerable. Temps routinely climb into the 50s, even in January, so I try not to grumble too much. But I feel my emotional attachment to the season might still fall a bit shy of ‘joyous.’

Lucky me, this past weekend I was given the opportunity to work on improving my attitude. An early-season snowstorm rolled through, dropping a full foot of fluffy white goodness on us. As you might guess, my joy was beyond words. So I simply shoveled the driveway in silence.

Winter’s unexpected arrival put the brakes on my backyard project, a shed my wife has been anticipating for some time now. She’ll have to wait a bit longer. I knew I was tempting the gods when I broke ground in early October, and it appears they have decided to punish me for such recklessness. Barring a November warmup, the ribbon cutting could get pushed back to Memorial Day.

Of course, there is always a silver lining. In the hills just west of here, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires have been raging nearly unchecked. It has been an eerie summer in Fort Collins, living in an orange twilight under the omnipresent smoke plumes. So 18 to 20 inches of snow (what is being reported in the high country) can only be seen as a blessing for those battling the infernos, and those in the path of the flames.

Thus, when my windshield wipers clog up with snow while I’m driving and leave that icy streak directly in my line of vision, when the snowplow swings by moments after I’ve finished shoveling the driveway and blocks me in anew with a two-foot wall of slush, when my pants all bear that ghostly high-water mark, I will smile and let my joy flow freely into the world.

Once more, from the top: Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

On Coffee, COVID and the Open Road

I’m just back from visiting my brother in upstate New York. It’s a lot of driving from Fort Collins, but who wants to fly these days. And normally I enjoy a good road trip, but that was in the before times. Now, just securing a cup of coffee is an ordeal. I need my caffeine, though, so it meant masking up and taking on the big, bad world. A foray into an Iowa truck stop sums things up.

It takes me a moment to locate the “Coffee Corner,” tucked away as it is behind racks of Cheetos and magazines adorned with pouty-lipped vixens in leather bathing suits who appear to be intimately involved with any number of large, shiny motorcycles. Distracted as I am by all that chrome and cleavage, I erroneously grab a cup designated only for use with the slurpee machine.

An honest mistake, considering the multitude of drink containers to choose from, all jutting bottom-first from columns of cubbyholes, none of which are labeled. I can’t return it to the dispenser, either. There must be some sort of safeguard mechanism that won’t let me push it back from where it came because, you know, I might breathe on it and then leave it for the next guy. Guess I’ll just hide it behind this case of sweet rolls that’s been here since the Reagan administration.

Ah, there are the coffee cups. Let’s see…small, medium and Lake Powell. Jesus, my kidneys would stage a work stoppage if I drank all that. A medium will be fine. Wait…how can it cost only 15 cents more for what amounts to a bathtub’s worth of joe? This is why America is the greatest country in the world. Large it is – my kidneys will just have to man-up.

Now, which of these giant dispensers actually doles out coffee? The first one looks encouraging, with several large buttons, one that advertises Dark Roast. But as I lean in a little closer I see, in ridiculously tiny letters, the word “cappuccino” just as I give it a push. Dammit! The machine starts to growl and spew foam, even as I’m jerking my hand back like I’ve touched a live wire. Thankfully, it stops after only a few spurts. I toss my soiled cup in the trash and grab another one while mumbling a string of expletives. An unmasked woman within earshot (apparently disregarding reports that the president himself contracted the hoax virus just days earlier) looks at me like I’m the crazy one.

The next machine is another dead end, offering only flavorings – French Vanilla, Hazelnut and some sort of Caramel concoction, all dripping from hoses as big around as my thumb. More like seeping, really, as either chemistry or a long-past expiration date has rendered them thicker than pancake syrup. Then again, I think I read somewhere that these ‘creams,’ while never having come within 50 yards of an actual cow, are only one molecule removed from the composition of plastic, so perhaps expiration dates don’t apply.

Finally, I come across the coffee pots, hiding down past the cream dispenser. A sea of them. One hundred percent Columbian, Breakfast Blend, Kona Supreme, Hazelnut, Donut Shop, Decaf. Two pots of each steaming away. But there’s no telling how long any of these have been simmering. I pull down my mask, pick up the Columbian and give it a dubious sniff as the clerk behind the plexiglass-shielded counter eyes me with roughly the same regard.

Either the coffee is scorched or someone used this pot for a urinal. I set it back on the burner and reach for the Hazelnut, as if it makes a difference what I pick at this point. It’s a safe bet that everything tastes like the Columbian smells. All I can do is doctor it up with my choice of bio-engineered ‘dairy’ product from the prior dispenser.

I decide to play it safe and stick with the hazelnut theme. The first dose oozes into the blackness without any discernible effect.

“Well, as Hans Gruber said in Die Hard, hit it again,” I announce with a chortle, so pleased am I with my trivial movie reference. I look around to see if anyone else is equally amused, but I am alone. The virus-tempting woman has scurried off to the register where she is speaking with the clerk in animated fashion, no doubt advising him to check the safety on the firearm stashed under the counter.

Meanwhile, back here at the cream station, the hue of the liquid in the five-gallon bucket that is my large coffee starts to change, if ever so slightly. A stir stick would come in handy right about now, but they are nowhere to be found – perhaps under lock and key to protect me from the possibility of a tragic self-impaling. Rather than use my finger, I appropriate a plastic knife from the nearby food line, stir ferociously and then take a sip – molten motor oil with a hint of…tree bark, maybe? So once more with the cream. But, of course, I put too much coffee in to begin with, and now I have to take a couple of gulps in order to make room. The clerk, meanwhile, hasn’t taken his eyes off me.

A few more shots and the contents have turned a muddy brown, and smell like the Nutella factory. That should suffice. After spending several minutes trying in vain to force a slurpee lid onto the cup, I realize my error, snap the proper lid in place and head for the register. I interrupt the clerk, who appears to be posting pictures of me on his facebook page under “Douchebag Customer of the Day,” and a buck seventy later, I’m out the door.

By the time I reach the car, though, the cream has made that molecular leap – the coffee tastes like boiled window cleaner, albeit with a slightly nutty aftertaste. Or maybe it’s the smell of my hand sanitizer every time I bring the cup to my lips. Either way, I’m not risking another trip inside, so I hit the road, sipping sparingly at my pail of toxic swill for the next hundred miles before pouring it out in a rest area parking lot. I didn’t stick around to see if it ate through the pavement.

My Contribution to ‘The Shining’

Yes, Stephen King’s signature horror tale. No, I’m not kidding (much).

When one visits Estes Park, as we did recently, it’s hard not to notice the famed Stanley Hotel. Built by the inventor of the Stanley Steamer car, the stately, sprawling edifice sits on a rise above town, overlooking the little mountain community. And when I caught sight of its distinctive red roof, I was reminded of my connection to Mr. King. It’s common knowledge that the hotel served as inspiration for his book. Here, then, the rest of the story.

Fresh out of high school in the summer of 1974, I spent a few weeks on the Appalachian Trail, then left to look for America (I refer you to the title of my blog). My thumb took me to the west coast, but on the way back the money ran out in Estes Park. I landed a job at one of the finer dining establishments in town – all the tables you could clear along with one free meal a day and a bunk in the employee’s quarters above the restaurant, for a kingly two dollars an hour and a slim percentage of tips. Any extracurricular activities with the waitresses were merely occupational perks.

The former Olde Plantation Restaurant, Estes Park

When the restaurant closed for the season (shortly after Labor Day), I made a quick trip back to Michigan to visit some friends, one of whom warmed to my unvetted tales of life as a ‘Mountain Man’ and decided to return with me – he and his red ‘65 Ford Mustang with a black landau top – for the winter.

So it was that the autumn of ‘74 found us renting a small cabin for the ‘off-season,’ both having secured employment at the ski resort (which has since been shuttered and dismantled) in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park – a fact that spoke more to the limited nature of the local labor pool than anything else. Henry (whose name has been changed to protect my assets) had always been a hit with the opposite sex, sporting a swarthy complexion and a mustache he grew at the age of twelve – think Omar Sharif in his heyday – which may explain why he was assigned to the ski rental shop. Whereas I earned a place at the kitchen grill, flipping burgers for the ravenous, perpetual mob.

Around the cabin, Henry was prone to manic outbursts and the occasional wrestling match. Still on the thin side, I offered little opposition. Lamps and end tables were the usual victims of these contests, though one ended with my antagonist putting a shoulder into my stomach and driving me ass-first into a wall. The resulting butt-shaped crater in the drywall was left as testament to the futility of human conflict.

Henry also possessed some unique cooking techniques, such as adding ketchup to spaghetti sauce by way of stretching a few more meals out of it. And he was a ‘last bite martyr,’ never eating the final helping of anything. Whether guided by some warped sense of altruism or as a way to amass a backlog of ‘owed favors’ to be called in later, he always feigned fullness when it came time to divvy up the scraps. Once I realized what he was doing, it began to irritate the hell out of me.

It finally culminated on a drive home from Tony’s, the local pizza joint, where a lone slice of pepperoni pizza sat in the box between us. I was certain he would refuse it, but decided to stand my ground this time.

After some verbal jousting (“You eat it.” “No, YOU eat it…”), it became clear I wasn’t going to acquiesce.

“If you don’t eat it, I’m gonna throw it out the window,” he threatened ever so casually, eyes locked on the road ahead.

An interesting bluff. But I had come this far, so…

“Henry, dude, I can’t – I’m stuffed,” I lied. As an eighteen year old with a tapeworm, I could have eaten another whole pizza. “There’s no shame in taking the last piece. Or we’ll just toss it in the fridge for later.”

Without a word he rolled down his window, reached across into the box, latched onto the doomed wedge of pizza and nonchalantly flipped it out into the snowy darkness.

We finished the ride back to the cabin in silence while I pondered how long it might take for officials to locate my shallow grave.

Later that winter we hosted a couple friends who came out to do some skiing over Christmas break. One night the four of us ventured out into a blizzard in search of fuel for the fireplace. This involved driving slowly along the local roads due to the hazardous conditions while keeping an eye out for any downed branches or other types of wood we could appropriate.

As we made our way up a winding side street, the headlights swept across a brush pile on the shoulder. Henry slowed even more to allow me to hop out, then continued up the road with our comrades to find a suitable place to turn around.

I busied myself for what seemed ten minutes or more, snapping branches into fireplace-sized pieces while the snow fell relentlessly. Then, from the direction whence my friends had departed, there came the sound of a vehicle approaching. At what seemed a high rate of speed, given the current conditions. I muttered something to the effect of, “You might want to back it down a little, assho–” when a red ‘65 Ford Mustang with a black landau top raced past me, its taillights quickly disappearing as it fishtailed around the next turn.

I resumed my wood-gathering efforts until, a few minutes later, a pair of shadows loomed up out of the snowy darkness. Still shaken, my friends related how, after driving several miles before getting turned around, Henry suddenly developed a wild hair and decided to test his winter driving skills. There remains some question as to whether a bit of goading from one of his passengers played a part, but regardless, the results were the same. They careened down the road at ever-increasing speed until the laws of physics took the wheel.

After completing a ‘donut’ when the tires finally broke loose, the car wound up teetering on its belly, caught on the lip of the road – a fortuitous happenstance that kept it from heading down a steep embankment toward what would have certainly been a bad ending. We flagged down a stray vehicle heading for town whose occupants promised to call a tow truck for us, and were back on our way maybe an hour later.

“Well, that was pretty stupid,” Henry acknowledged afterward, a comment with which no one felt compelled to argue.

There were other incidents that only cemented the fact my roommate was not of sound mind, but somehow I lived to tell. When the spring thaw came, we patched the butt hole with newspaper and auto body filler before making for the Grand Canyon, then returned to Michigan and went our separate ways.

I didn’t think much of it until The Shining hit bookshelves a few years later. Something about the story sounded strangely familiar – a man descends into madness and menaces his cohabitants over the course of a long winter in the mountains. I knew the Stanley Hotel had provided King his setting for the story. But it wasn’t until I learned he visited Estes Park in the fall of 1974 that it became clear – King obviously crossed paths with Henry somewhere in town. Though I can only surmise as to what transpired, it appears the author was capable of recognizing a lunatic when confronted with one, and the encounter most certainly provided inspiration for the ax-wielding main character, Jack.

Efforts to contact Mr. King or his lawyers regarding a percentage of royalties I feel are owed for coordinating that fortuitous meeting have thus far been unsuccessful.

Passing the Torch, Grudgingly

We were digging through my son’s closet, weeding out tattered socks and tee-shirts that had fallen from favor, all those things that get pushed into the dark corners and left for dead. What might typically pass as ‘spring cleaning’ if only we did it each spring instead of whenever a pandemic traps us in the house for months and there is absolutely nothing else to do.

And in that pile of misfit clothes, a gem – a pair of Sorel tennis shoes, bought who knows when, but deemed unwearable for whatever reason(s). Most likely a matter of fashion, probably having been purchased as a gift by a well-meaning but clueless older relative, with a style he just couldn’t bring himself to be seen in around his friends. Virtually new.

Here it becomes necessary to understand the temperament of my last-born – he will never tell you if he truly dislikes something (such as a particular food or, in this case, outerwear), for fear of disappointing you, it seems. What he will do is make some noncommittal grunt along with that noncommittal ‘maybe so’ face, and then deftly avoid said food or article of clothing.

To sidetrack for a moment – as evidence, an episode from his elementary school days. Being a dutiful dad, I packed his lunches, the main course most often being a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which, it was believed, was a favorite of his. It should also be noted, this daily chore tested the limits of both my culinary capabilities and my boundless good nature. Then came ‘Parents Day,’ when my wife and I visited his school to meet his teacher, see his classroom and get a feel for his world.

Everything was fine until we asked for a peek inside his locker. Avoidance turned to panic when we pressed the issue, until he finally, reluctantly, opened the door. Stashed inside were at least a dozen lunches, all neatly preserved in their brown paper bags. Turned out he didn’t like PB&J all that much, but was under the impression that I enjoyed packing him a lunch and would have my feelings hurt if the truth came out and my sole reason for getting up each morning was taken from me. We all had a good laugh.

But old habits die hard. And I have strayed way off-topic.

As any self-respecting tightwad dad would, I tried on the Sorels – a perfect fit. After giving him one last chance to reclaim them (which he politely waved off), they now belong to me. Serendipitous timing, as I was in dire need of some casual footwear. My go-to summer shoes, the classic white Adidas with those three black stripes that have cushioned my dogs through thick and thin, were on their last tour of duty.

For many of us encumbered with the Y-chromosome, sneakers are all-purpose attire – just ask Jerry Seinfeld. Once broken in, they will be worn everywhere, all the time, in any conditions, with every outfit, without fail. And because Nike and Reebok will soon need to start offering financing plans for new purchases, we tightwads hang onto our old ones like grim death.

In fact, the Adidas have not been sent to thrift store purgatory, the fate of lesser shoes. Yes, they are as cracked and weathered as old parchment, but still plenty serviceable. So, in keeping with protocol, they have been relegated to the final destination in the footwear life-cycle, that of lawn-mowing shoe. Here they will hang on perhaps another three or four years, zombie sneakers slowly taking on that unmistakable green patina, every bit as damning as the scarlet letter.

This has become their only gig – they are no longer fit for public appearances or even lounging around watching TV of a lazy Sunday. Unwelcome in the house because of the off-chance that one or both might squish a rogue tootsie roll missed by the turd herder (whose job it is to sweep the backyard and clear it of canine land mines before each mow), they are now banished to the garage. Harsh treatment for so faithful a friend, in my opinion, but such are the rules as laid down in the fine print of the marriage bylaws.

Also in the bylaws – the previous pair of lawn-mowing shoes, beyond all hope of salvage, must be consigned to the landfill. Otherwise, I might very well stash my old companions in some dark hiding place, like all those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Just My Luck

I never really considered myself a lucky person. It was always someone else who won the door prize or was the one-hundredth caller for the concert tickets or got the parking spot right in front of the restaurant. To ‘nutshell’ the whole thing, there was this friend a long time ago. We were cheaping out one year and spent a dollar to buy him a lottery scratch ticket for his birthday and it won him a hundred bucks.

For additional context, I was recently canned (again), just another perk of the ongoing pandemic. This time from the latest in a string of low-skill jobs that have been my lot in life since reaching a certain age. Concurrently, a trip in the RV revealed yet another mechanical issue requiring expensive intervention, and last week, in a matter of minutes, I ran over a sprinkler head with the lawn mower and then took a branch in the eye while trying to cut the grass under the low hanging limbs of the pine tree in the front yard. This is what I’m saying.

So we rented a place in Estes Park a few days ago as a way of staying quarantined but still getting away – the family could hang out, maybe go to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park (which is restricting the number of people who get in every day), have a socially distanced change of scenery. And a stroll down the gravel driveway at this place turned up the craziest thing. As I was coming back up the hill, looking down at my feet (an old habit from my hiking days), not thinking of much at all, I spotted something strange. There appeared to be a coin on the ground. An old one.

It’s one of those things your brain doesn’t really register for a moment because it seems so improbable. What the hell? That can’t be real. Still thinking it was just a fake something or other, I reached down and plucked it out of the dirt. It had heft – definitely not plastic. And my brother had collected coins back in the day. This looked authentic. It was adorned with the profile of Lady Liberty and the words “In God We Trust” arching across the top. No, seriously…what the hell? I rubbed the sand from the backside and flipped it over – an eagle, wings spread, clutching arrows and a branch in its talons, and the denomination spelled out at the bottom. Half Dollar.

I turned it over again and noticed the date this time – 1908. A one hundred twelve year old ‘Barber’ silver half dollar. What. The. Hell?!? How long this fifty cent piece had been lying in the gravel, getting scrunched under the wheels of passing cars, was anybody’s guess. Or how it came to be here, for that matter. I took a quick look around to make sure whoever dropped it wasn’t coming back to claim it before slipping it in my pocket.

Upon returning to the house, I showed my treasure around, to everyone’s amazement. “That’s your lucky half dollar now,” someone commented.

And I got to thinking. Like George Bailey coming to realize that he had a wonderful life, I had to admit to myself that I’ve actually been pretty lucky. I have never grappled with any ailment worse than the flu, or had to fear for my existence because of the color of my skin. I’ve always had a roof over my head (when I chose to) and food in the fridge. My body still allows me to do the things I want, and neither of my children ever felt compelled to take a chainsaw to me in my sleep. I’ve managed to avoid incarceration (unless you count that time a cop in Nebraska let me cool my heels in his jail overnight for the high crime of hitch-hiking when I was seventeen), and pot is legal here.

As talismans go, this centenarian coin has already granted me the wisdom to see that I have all the luck I could possibly need. But there’s a better chance my find is nothing more than fifty cents, albeit in extremely cool retro packaging. Either way, I’m still going to pick up a few lottery tickets, just in case…

Beneath an Orange Sky

orangesky1

There’s a song by Alexi Murdoch – a soft guitar ballad, the kind of song that might get played in the background on Grey’s Anatomy or A Million Little Things. And the opening line is, “Well, I had a dream I stood beneath an orange sky…”

Here in Colorado, it’s no dream. The skies have been orange for weeks now. Sunsets are impressive, but breathing is not recommended. That’s because fires are burning in the hills again – wide-spread, intractable fires. California tends to get all the press when it comes to these conflagrations, perhaps rightly so, but this summer we’re giving the Golden State a run for its money.

cameron fire

Cameron Peak fire – image credit: CBS Denver

One is raging just 40 miles west of here. The Cameron Peak fire is a vision of Hell as it ignites forests of kindling, acre after acre of mostly dead conifers left in the wake of a pine beetle infestation that ran through the stands of once-healthy trees ‘like shit through a goose,’ to quote General Patton. Maybe that’s why, after two weeks, there is still no containment – zero. Pictures of the walls of flames are spectacular and terrifying. And when I step out of my house it smells like I’m downwind of the world’s biggest campfire.

Another has snarled interstate traffic. If you’ve ever traveled I-70 across the state, you may remember the beauty of Glenwood Canyon, where the westbound lanes of the freeway had to be built on top of the eastbound lanes in order to squeeze them into what little room there is beside the Colorado River. A true engineering marvel, the tiered bridges snake through the steep-walled ravine for miles. Well, they had to close that stretch of the highway for two weeks while flames swept the canyon, right up to the guardrails. 12 hours after reopening, a second flare up caused officials to briefly close it again.

And a monster blaze is incinerating square miles of brush and scrub oak on the west side of the state. The Pine Gulch fire has been going for a month and just became the largest (based on scorched acreage) in state history. Fortunately, it is burning in a fairly remote area for now but, again, containment has been elusive.

Throw in the Williams Fork fire west of Denver, and you have more than 320 square miles of Colorado in flames.

Out here, wildfires happen. But, as in California, they’re becoming more frequent and less controllable. A massive fire broke out in the foothills just west of Fort Collins in 2012, shortly after we moved here. The towering smoke plumes that blotted out the sun were a little unsettling for a newly transplanted midwesterner. Those on the fringes were lucky the fire pushed up into the hills and away from the neighborhoods. There was minimal property damage, but any time you take a drive up Poudre Canyon, the charred skeletons of the ghost forest serve as a reminder that homes were lost – just not ours.

It was a different story in Colorado Springs a few weeks later, when winds drove the flames of the Waldo Canyon fire into a residential area, destroying nearly 350 houses. It held the title for most damaging fire in the state for only a year, though, as the Black Forest fire consumed more than 500 structures not far from there in 2013.

Most of this can be traced to that inconvenient boogeyman, climate change. Scientists surmise that warmer summers and milder winters have allowed the mountain pine beetle to not only thrive, but spread virtually unchecked, decimating the forests. The warmer temps are also making for dryer conditions in general – Colorado is suffering through a growing drought, prompting officials to throw the word ‘tinderbox’ around with some regularity.

I don’t have a garden hose long enough to reach the front lines of that fire in the hills west of town, but I’d still like to do something to help. So I’m going ‘big picture’ – driving less, riding my bike or walking more, using less energy in my home, paying a few extra nickels for solar or wind-generated power. Doing more to wean myself off fossil fuels. And I’m voting for those who also see the big picture, who believe in science and will get us back in the Paris Climate Accord. Maybe even appoint Greta Thunberg as Secretary of Energy.

Because I’d like to go back to only dreaming about orange skies.

In Search of Roads Less Traveled

packed 14er

A typical day on Quandary Peak – image credit: alexmderr.com

This should have been my summer of the 14ers. Between my involuntary work stoppage and the pandemic, it was the perfect chance to socially distance by climbing, or ‘bagging’ as the cool kids call it, as many of the high peaks as possible. Except I don’t do that anymore.

It’s kind of a Colorado thing. Probably the most ‘Colorado’ thing there is, come to think of it. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the state has 58 places that measure at or above fourteen-thousand feet in elevation. But someone decided that, in those few cases where two peaks are within close proximity to one another, there has to be at least a 300 foot drop between the two high points for each to qualify as a 14er. Sounds incredibly arbitrary to me, but because of that ‘rule,’ four peaks have been demoted…sort of like Pluto getting booted out of the solar system.

Either way you slice it, my adopted state has more of them than any other. And we bipeds being what we are, many among us make a quest of climbing them all. Some do it at their leisure, others race to see how many they can bag in a single day, or who can climb them all in the shortest span, or who can be the youngest (or the oldest, or the first in flip-flops, or walking backwards) to complete the circuit. So yeah, it’s a thing. Although it wouldn’t be if we, like the rest of the world, adhered to the metric system. Climbing the 4267ers probably wouldn’t have the same allure.

My partner in crime has been my brother-in-law, whom I have known since high school. He lives in Colorado Springs, where 14,115 foot Pikes Peak casts its shadow over the entire city. Having bested that iconic mountain some time back, Tom has been prodding me to join him since I moved to Colorado a decade ago. When I agreed, he got me started with a couple of popular (and by that I mean easily accessible from Denver and thereby crawling with newbies) peaks standing side-by-side, Grays and Torreys.

Then we did another pair a year or two later…Mounts Bierstadt and Evans. These are also within spitting distance of Denver and considered pretty tame when tackled individually – hell, you can drive all the way to the top of Evans. But as a package deal they offer more of a challenge, which appealed to us as old guys trying to prove we’re not ready for the rocking chair just yet (that’s a thing, too). Our asses were thoroughly kicked by the end of the day, but mission accomplished.

And last year we geared up for a quick strike on a group of three (or four if you disregard the silly 300 foot rule) all conveniently bunched together near the town of Fairplay, but Tom developed a mysterious pulmonary issue and we cut things short after only one. Truth be told, I was ready to bail even if Tom hadn’t.

conga line

That day on Mt. Democrat, the hike up was more of a procession. In a facebook post I think I referred to it as a ‘conga line,’ and I stand by that description. About halfway there I decided this wasn’t enjoyable. At the top, I never did get a clean picture of just myself on the mountain, as a group of folks decided it was the perfect spot to lounge while they smoked a bowl. And when we got back down, I decided I would leave the 14ers to the madding crowd.

The typical routine is to step to the highest point (if and when that piece of real estate is vacated by everyone else milling about), take the briefest of looks around at the panoramic grandeur, produce a cardboard sign identifying the mountain and its elevation, snap the requisite selfie, take a celebratory hit of whatever beverage or herb was packed in for the occasion, and march off to the next conquest. Because, gotta keep Instagram fed.

In 2018, officials estimated that more than 350,000 people went 14er-ing in Colorado, and in July of that year Mt. Bierstadt recorded an astounding 1,023 hikers IN ONE DAY. And keep in mind, this was pre-pandemic – by all accounts the 14ers are now even more overrun with people escaping quarantine. Like so many other popular destinations, we are killing them with sheer volume. I might argue that the great outdoors is full.

John Muir said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Anymore, it looks as if Muir’s disciples are cavalierly trampling those good tidings underfoot.

That Thing of Your Dad’s

dads thing1

For whatever reason, the man reminded me of Johnny Carson. Not in a physical sense – there was no real resemblance. But maybe it was the way he dressed, always slightly more dapper than the occasion called for. Or those quick, snarky retorts issued from the head of his lovingly-prepared holiday dinner table (as holidays were the only time my brother and I saw him). Or simply his presence, the consummate host – possessing the perfect balance of charm and bawdy wit, and his house ever neat as a pin.

My dad (and here I always have to clarify, my biological father, as I had a step-father to contend with as well) liked antiques, probably more than he liked his children. That’s not to say that he didn’t reserve a good portion of his affection for my brother and me, but it felt as if we were, like his vintage curios or pieces of furniture, more for show than anything else.

Being a full-blown father was decidedly more than he could commit to. In fact, simply living up to ‘weekend dad’ was a stretch. There weren’t fishing trips or afternoons spent bowling or even a few hours in a darkened theater watching a movie together. Just family gatherings (his side of the family), where aunts could be counted on to keep an eye on us and cousins were around to keep us entertained. And one trip to Disney World, the three of us, not necessarily because parenting skills could be a low priority in the Magic Kingdom, but it probably didn’t hurt.

Young adulthood – ours, that is – proved a difficult transition for him. There seemed to be even fewer opportunities for togetherness as his progeny navigated high school, and dad was missing in action more often than not. Those times when he did make an appearance were completely random and unannounced, perhaps at a band concert or graduation. It was a trend that grew even more sporadic as we began our married lives – he might call half in the bag to beg off a family dinner, or simply not show up.

He had always been a casual drinker, part of what contributed to his outgoing personality – he was a happy drunk when in the company of family and friends (unlike my step-father, who was a belligerent drunk). But the happiness waned and the drinking increased as his isolation grew. And when we got word through his big sister that he had died not even a week after his sixty-third birthday, alone but for a homeless alcoholic who appeared to have invited himself into dad’s house on the pretense of procuring booze for the two of them, it felt if not inevitable, then at least not surprising.

What was a surprise was the condition of his once cozy little domicile. When my brother and I arrived to ‘settle his affairs,’ it was as if we had stepped into a parallel universe, like one of those episodes from Star Trek where the crew is transported to a place in which the Enterprise is the same, but everything and everyone on board are somehow different.

The house of which he had been so proud, always so immaculate and orderly, was unrecognizable save for its structure. Newspapers, magazines and unopened mail covered nearly every surface. Dog hair, in astounding quantities, had collected along the baseboards, leaving a trail of gray fuzz snaking from room to room wherever floor and walls met. A window was broken out in the sunroom – his favorite space – and carelessly covered over with a piece of cardboard.

In the kitchen, the refrigerator door yawned wide, revealing open cans of food and rotting vegetables. Pans and plates were stuck to the countertops, their long-dried contents now anyone’s guess. At a certain point, laundry also fell by the wayside. In the middle of an upstairs bedroom stood a pile of clothes, some soiled with feces. It wasn’t so much a hoarding situation as it was simple neglect. This was the house of a person who had given up long ago.

I think most people imagine the typical Hollywood scene during a moment like this – the family lawyer gathering the bereaved survivors around a table, reading the Last Will and Testament that neatly sorts out all the details of who gets what and ties up any remaining loose ends. But, of course, there was no will, no lawyer, and only the two of us to decide what should be done.

We each picked out a few items that had some meaning to us, then called a nearby antique dealer to give us a quote on hauling away whatever else might be of value. Fifty dollars (and a few pieces from dad’s groovy wardrobe) was enough to convince the drinking companion to move on – we mused about how the cops might react to calls of a hipster drunk who was throwing up in the alley behind the 7-11. And after getting in touch with the mortgage lender to let someone know their asset was at risk, we drove away.

There would be atonement for being left to clean up the ruin of his life. Without a will, and also no instructions as to what he wanted done with his mortal coil, one last decision fell on us. The lone bank account we could locate had a balance of only a few hundred dollars, and when faced with the cost of a funeral and all, we decided to have him cremated, to the disdain of some who knew him less intimately. Even that option left us in a quandary over what to do with the man’s ashes, which somehow wound up in my possession. Tucked in an unmarked box, they languished in a dark corner of my garage for several years, his penance – and my passive-aggressive response – for having the bad form to leave his postmortem affairs in the hands of the sons he had so little to do with during his premortem stay on the planet.

dads thingI don’t really know what it was, for sure, the piece of furniture I chose to keep. Some have called it a dry sink, others a side board. It was some sort of free-standing cabinet, maybe fifteen inches deep at most, with a set of doors on the bottom (held shut by a latch that took its job quite seriously), and then an open ‘shelf’ where you could throw a set of keys or the mail or a pair of gloves. A drawer, impractically small, sat at one end of the shelf (the top of the cabinet part, actually) and then there was a back and top piece. It was stained very dark, almost black, about four feet long and standing roughly five feet high. I’m sure there is a proper name for it, but from the moment I brought it home, my wife referred to it as “that thing of your dad’s.” And so it has been ever since.

Its narrow depth meant it could fit in a hallway or be slipped into even a small room – and there were many small rooms in our early abodes. And things could be easily hidden behind those slightly akimbo doors with the recalcitrant latch. I became more enamored of it the longer it hung around, surviving several furniture purges when the time came to move or update our style. I won’t say that it called up sepia-tinged memories of my father every time my gaze fell on it, but it was just unique enough to always be appreciated. I could see why he liked it.

It, however, would not survive our latest décor transition to mid-century modernism, as it was more ‘farm house’ or ‘country chic’ or whatever that style is that Joanna Gaines decorates every house in. But after a couple coats of gray paint and some brassy hardware updates, it has been adopted by my oldest son and his wife to live on as a sort of combination baby dresser/book case/toy chest for our grandson, just the right size for a room stuffed with other baby gear. And so a little bit of my father will always be around.

What do you know, dad…I think you’re finally getting the hang of this.

Don’t let the Door Hit Ya – Chapter Six

out the door

Unprecedented, uncertain, challenging…we’ve all heard those words being thrown around a lot lately. I can relate.

My phone rang the other day. It was a Texas number I didn’t recognize, and I really don’t want that extended warranty, so I let it go to voicemail. Turns out it was my ‘new’ boss, the guy who had been moved in to keep the lights on in the building after my previous supervisor was furloughed a couple months ago. You know, the pandemic and all.

At the moment I’m a medical courier. I’ve been at it for almost three years now, because it’s all I could find ‘at my age.’ Yes, ageism is a thing, but that’s a subject for another day. So I drive around, pick up medical specimens at one location and deliver them to another, all while trying not to A) run someone over or B) contract a lethal pathogen. It pays about what you would expect but if nothing else, it seemed like a pretty stable gig, considering the sudden global health crisis. Undoubtedly, there was the heightened possibility of running afoul of scenario B, especially since medical couriers are pretty low on the health care worker food chain when it comes to access to PPE, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The good news is, I don’t have to worry about scenario B anymore. The bad news…I’m a poor judge of stability, as it turns out.

When I called ‘new boss’ back, I got an all too familiar shpeel. “…client has terminated the contract…re-evaluating the business model…final pay check…” Blah, blah, blah.

And just like that, things became decidedly uncertain, even more so than what has become the norm for the last couple months. But unprecedented? Not so much, at least not for me. You see, this isn’t my first rodeo – I’ve been shown the door on least five occasions before this.

Sometimes, like now, they’re decent enough to provide me a few days notice. Other times, I’ve just been given ‘The Box.’ You know, when you’re handed a cardboard box and told to clear out your shit as the maintenance guy is summoned to change the entry codes. Nothing screams ‘success’ quite like being escorted out of the building by security guards while your former fellow employees try to avoid making eye contact with you. But I digress…

Of course, I’m not the only one with a sad song to sing. Far from it. The line I’m about to find myself in at the unemployment office is some 36-million deep. Okay, that probably qualifies as unprecedented. I only hope everyone in that line is wearing a facemask.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I have to assume it will be next to impossible challenging for someone like me to land another gig any time soon, considering my advanced years, the ridiculous number of competitors scrapping over the remnants of a cratering job market, and the fact that I currently look like that kid from Mad Max: The Road Warrior compliments of the quarantine (which reminds me, has anyone seen my AR-15?).

feral

Image credit: Warner Bros.

Maybe they can get a couple guys in paragliders to do a flyover for me.

But enough negativity. I have to keep asking myself, What Would Tony Robbins Do? Well, he’d make lemonade, of course. So be it. I’ve decided to look at this as an opportunity to transform myself into the five Michelin-star chef I’ve always longed to be, or see about ridding myself of that brown thumb I’ve possessed all these years by turning my yard into a botanical paradise. Or maybe just try to keep from becoming Norman Bates – the uncertainty is killing me.