Monthly Archives: November 2008

Landscape: Cool Desert Nights

Indian Creek campfireIt’s snowing here now in Vail: evening, lavender skies, big flakes. There’s no landscape that could rival this one at this moment—except maybe the desert at night. Last week’s road trip catapulted me into a world so different from this one. Colorado’s tight canyons open up in Utah, and the landscape there starts to feel open, wild, and free. The spaciousness of it all gets magnified as the sun lowers in the sky. Photographs and words do little to express the feeling of it all. The desert is a sensual place. The cold nights offset by a blazing campfire that smells like juniper. Waking up to the sounds of howling coyotes. Red sand grit in fire-cooked meals, in your socks, and in your car when you return home.

Captured a few photos along with the memories—this one a view of the canyons surrounding Moab, taken from Slickrock Trail:

Evening on Slickrock

Also from Slickrock, some of the best evening clouds I’ve seen in a while:

Desert Clouds

And finally, Moab’s orange lights twinkling below the Moab Rim Trail, big moon above:

Moab Rim at Night

I’ll be honest. I probably won’t want to leave Vail until the end of the ski season. But come spring, I’m sure I’ll be ready to thaw out in Moab.

Life: Rarely Goes as Planned

desert howdyI’d been dreaming about a van trip to Utah for several months. In early autumn, I decided that I would take the Old Lady, my 1970 Volkswagen van, out to Moab for one last hoorah before I put her to sleep for the winter. I admit, I had been ignoring the signs: the loss of power on short inclines; the increasingly strong smell of exhaust; the chugging and the lurching; the sputtering starts. Even though I got the Old Lady tuned up in September, she wasn’t running well, and I was in denial about it until my friend Dermot and I started off for Moab—and then had to turn back after only 10 miles.

Had it been me alone, I probably would have kept driving until the Old Lady broke down on the side of the road, or until we limped into some no-name small town with a toothless mechanic. Dermot, however, persuaded me to stop so that he could check inside the engine compartment. He about passed out from the fumes, and he held up a soot-colored index finger to convince me that the van was really in no condition for the trip we had planned.

VW van exhaust issues

Reluctantly, I helped shuttle gear from the Old Lady into my newer, speedier steed, a Subaru Outback. Sure, the Subaru’s fast and reliable, but I’m the kind of person who thinks that trips are more about the journey than the destination, and without the van, I knew it wouldn’t be the same kind of trip.

Packing the car

By the time we hit the canyons, I had stopped sulking…

Subaru in Canyon Country

…and reveled in the bliss, the buzz of a wide-open road.

Dermot and the Road

Literature: Plath’s The Bell Jar

If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat–on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok–I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. –Sylvia Plath, in The Bell Jar

Glacier Gorge alpine lakeTitle: The Bell Jar // Author: Sylvia Plath // Publisher: Harper Collins // 1963 // 273 p.

I don’t know what exactly prompted me to go to my local library and check out a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). Maybe I thought of this book after seeing something about this week’s new release of the collected letters of Plath’s late husband, Ted Hughes (to read the NYT review of the new Farrar, Straus, & Giroux Letters of Ted Hughes, click here). I’ve read a sprinkling of Plath’s poetry, but like most people, I probably know more about the author’s tragic biography than her actual work. So. To the library I went.

In this novel, at least, I’ve found that it’s difficult to separate Plath from her biography. The Bell Jar chronicles the decline of a young writer, Esther Greenwood who, like Plath, was apprenticed to a magazine in New York and then had a mental breakdown. Anyone who has felt disjointed or depressed, or anyone who has had thoughts of death and dying will find something in this story that resonates with their experience. That this book has the ability to connect with readers on these levels is its strength. The difficulty in reading a book like this, however, is that it takes a person into a dark space without necessarily offering a way out. The sadness in going into this space Plath creates in The Bell Jar is intensified by knowing that the author doesn’t make it out in her own life. Biography aside, The Bell Jar is an intense character study, and its grisly details–which range from the ins and outs of shock therapy to the inner workings of a troubled mind–will not easily be forgotten.

Photo: Alpine lake in Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Life: Dog Days

blue-eyesSnow falls here in Vail, Colorado while autumn lingers elsewhere. I just returned from a five-day road trip to Moab, Utah, and on the way back to Vail, the highway signs warned that semis were required to chain up on Vail Pass. That meant it was snowing up there, a thought hardly imaginable after mountain biking in 70-degree weather. This phrase—dog days—refers to the long days at the end of the summer when the afternoons seem to go on forever. Ancient Romans thought that the presence of Sirius, or the Dog Star, caused the long, hot days of late summer, and they also thought that the presence of the Dog Star, which rose before sunrise, made dogs go crazy, wine spoil, and seas boil. It’s past late-summer now, but a few recent afternoons outdoors have had that lazy, long summer day feel.

I met up with a few folks to climb at the Avalon area of Boulder Canyon, and their dogs tagged along. This beautiful Australian Shepherd mix with blue eyes (above, right) was my favorite, and I loved they way the dogs just dove belly-first into the creek to cross while we gingerly stepped along the stones:


We sport climbed in the sun at Avalon’s Three Walls area (pictured below), a few chilled-out pitches on nice bolted rock. As it normally goes, I hopped on something that was easy to start, then led one route closer to my limit, then tried another that spit me off.


All in all, the climbing was good fun, and the company equally pleasurable. I think there were six of us total and at least three dogs scratching around in the shade.


I wish that all afternoons could be like these: warm, relaxed, and fun. But then I look up at the mountains here, silently getting blanketed with snow, and I think maybe I could drop the “warm” and just go with relaxed and fun.

Landscape: The First Snow


In the mountains, time runs on a natural clock. The summer can’t officially start until the snow melts, and autumn ends when the last aspen leaves fall. Winter begins with the first snowfall that sticks, but it isn’t much fun until the first big powder day. In the past few weeks here in Vail, Colorado, we’ve been getting some teaser snow—the kind that looks good when it comes down but melts as soon as it hits the hills. But with a few consecutive below-freezing nights and a good heavy snowfall on Tuesday evening, it appears that winter is here to stay.

The trees are drooping beneath the weight of the snow, and now only a few rocky bits are showing up on the trails. It’s not snowshoe season just yet, but the snow cover is just thick enough to make trail running shoes insufficient.


Gore Creek is much lower than it was in June, when the snowmelt made it crash like thunder just outside my bedroom window. I prefer the sound it makes now—more of a murmur—as it rolls under this bridge near my apartment.


And the water is starting to ice over, a thin bubbly crust beginning to form.


And for those of you wondering whether or not you should come up to Summit County for the ski season opening this weekend? I’d say hold off for a few weeks. Here’s the view of Copper Mountain last week, just barely covered with snow:


Sure, people have been out skiing at A-Basin already, but I can’t imagine it’s much good. And I’ve seen the snow blowers going full blast elsewhere in Summit County. Call me a snow snob, but I’d rather wait until it’s real-live snow and not just the machined stuff.

Literature: Lamott’s Plan B

“Maybe this is what grace is, the unseen sounds that make you look up. I think it’s why we are here, to see as many chips of blue sky as we can bear.” –Anne Lamott

Title: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith // Author: Anne Lamott // Publisher: Riverhead Books // 2005 // 320 p.

Author Anne Lamott describes herself as a “hard-core left-wing” type. She is a former addict. She is a single mom. She goes to church. And she doesn’t just sit in the back row. Instead, she jump-starts a Sunday school program for kids and gathers incredible insight into the meaning of concepts such as holiness, grace, forgiveness, and love. In Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Lamott alternates between being an irreverent, aging woman to being a pious seeker of the Truth. She is laugh-out-loud funny in one sentence, and in the next, she’ll dive into something heart-piercingly sad. In this essay collection, Lamott runs her readers through an emotional gamut by telling stories from real life: child rearing, burying the dead, randomly winning a ham, and dealing with annoying family members, among others. Readers will identify with Lamott’s triumphs and struggles. Like most (okay—all) of us, she’s someone who strives to do better but often finds herself just missing the mark. Her honesty about failure is refreshing, and her get-up-and-go-go-go spirit will inspire even the most apathetic among us.

After reading a few bum novels, I’ve been reading nonfiction essay collections these past few weeks. I love the snappiness of essays, how they’ll take you in one direction and then whip you around in another. Granted, this book isn’t the most recent (I snatched it from a friend’s collection), but I found its themes to be timeless and its writing an essay-lover’s bliss.

A few gems:

“Learning to love back is the hardest part of being alive.”

“I don’t think that if I live to be eighty, I’m going to wish I’d spent more hours in the gym or kept my house a lot cleaner. I’m going to wish I had swum more unashamedly, made more mistakes, spaced out more, rested.”

“One secret of life is that the reason life works at all is that not everyone in your tribe is nuts on the same day.”

“I don’t think much surprises [Jesus]: this is how we make important changes—barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.”

“Laughter is carbonated holiness.”