Monthly Archives: April 2009

Life: Dream Weaver, Deferred

mt-meekerSki season is officially over in Vail, with the lifts closing last weekend. So. That means no more snowy ski photos for now, and even though I like the idea of rock climbing with the sun on my back, that was definitely not the situation this weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park. Last summer, I wanted to climb Dream Weaver, a snow/ice/rock mixed route in the couloir on the left side of Mt. Meeker’s Flying Buttress (at right). As it turns out, we were too late to climb Dream Weaver then (the snow/ice had melted out), and this weekend, we were probably too early to climb it…even if the weather would have cooperated. Despite recent snowfall and a weather report that called for high winds, we (Rob, Lee, and I) packed up our gear, with the intention of having a look at the conditions. But above tree line, we could barely see each other, with howling winds and blowing snow.

The walk in, however, was pleasant for about the first hour. The approach follows the normal route to Long’s Peak and Chasm Lake. I managed to spot a white hare bounding across our path, a first sighting for me. It had big fleet feet and floppy ears flattened out on its back.

hiking in

Once we were nearly out of the trees, the wind had picked up, and we were able to see snow blowing violently off of a peak on the opposite side of the valley. Still, we continued. But once we got out into the open, we found ourselves floundering in knee-deep snow and whiteout conditions. I had icicles forming on my face, and Rob struggled to get out his goggles. We huddled together—getting battered around while trying to add layers of clothing—and knew that the attempt to continue would have been futile. An hour later, we were back down at the car, negotiating an icy parking lot, stripping off frozen clothing to warm up on the ride home. Dream Weaver: deferred, for now.

Literature: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged

Everything Ravaged Everything BurnedTitle: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned // Author: Wells Tower // Publisher: // Farrar, Straus, and Giroux // Date: March 2009 // 256 p.

I mentioned last week that I’ve recently read a disappointing novel and a superstar new story collection. This superstar new short story collection, I’m pleased to announce, is Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I’ve read Tower’s travel writing in Outside magazine, and some of the stories in this collection were previously published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s, among others. Not too shabby for a debut collection, I’d say. This book includes wildly imaginative stories of Viking marauders, teenaged girls, and fractured families. They’re violent and tender stories. They’re told with the kind of honesty that makes us see our worst selves in the best possible light.

Tower’s writing style is fast-paced and funny, but a dark undercurrent runs beneath even the lighter, laugh-out-loud moments. No one walks away unscathed from his or her predicament, as the collection’s title story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” suggests (my favorite story in the collection, by the way).

In it, Viking characters named Gnut and Djarf and Haakon are slugging it out on the tiny island of Lindisfarne with the same urgency of those living in present-day Manhattan or Charlotte or Mendocino. In “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” we see how people have struggled from the beginning of time to balance their desire for the so-called “mainstream domestic groove” with their want of the reckless freedom that accompanies the sight of “land scooting away with every jerk of the oars.”

Adventures and literature lovers will find solace in this story collection. It’s entertaining and—even though it’s fiction—above all, it’s true.

Further reading:
You have to read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, but if you want to read one of Tower’s above-mentioned Outside magazine articles, click here for “Meltdown,” the hilarious account of a trip Tower took with his father to Iceland and Greenland. Published in the mag’s April 2008 issue. Tower is an Outside correspondent and model travel-writer.

To read my more formal-type review of Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned on the Contemporary Literature site, click here.

Landscape: West Vail Trees

ski vailSkiing as transportation: isn’t that what skis were originally made for? I’ve recently discovered the back-to-the basics fun in skiing to get somewhere. One of my neighbors showed me a way to ski off of Vail Mountain, cruise through some trees, and eventually drop down the mountain and ski out just behind my apartment. From there, it’s only a five-minute walk home. In this way, I avoid the crowds in town, don’t have to worry about parking, and can otherwise walk right up to my front door. Plus, the trees along the way look pretty cool.

The trek home starts out on a ridge west of Vail’s westernmost ski lift. Technically, this involves skiing out of ski-area bounds, but I guess at one time, there were no ski-area bounds, so I think it must be okay to duck a rope every now and then. The route follows an obvious path through some nicely spaced aspens:

west vail trees 1

The aspen grove eventually bumps up into a tight pine forest, and then the fun really begins:

west vail trees 2

The trees get so tight that you’ll want to hold your breath to get through them. Definitely, this is the place to keep your ski tips together, unless you want to go straddling a trunk:

west vail trees 3

I absolutely love skiing through places like this, places where you have to pick your way through, and when you look up, it doesn’t seem like there would be enough space to pass through at all. Last week, I was out in these trees alone, and the wind was blowing through them, making an eerie, creaking sound. The whole forest felt alive.

west vail trees 4

The reward for making it through: fresh, untracked powder. That is when all goes well, at least.

west vail trees 5

I’ll admit to making a route-finding error last week, and I ended up with a friend on a snowboard slogging through the flat parts of a gully. We eventually hiked up on a ridge and made our way out, but we popped out about 20 minutes further down the road that I had hoped…

Life: Taste of Vail

Traci Macnamara snow shovelingMeanwhile, back at the ranch (my tiny one-bedroom apartment in Vail, Colorado), it’s been spring snow, spring snow, spring snow. The storms have been rolling in one after another with staggering quantities of the fresh white stuff. We recently had a reported 44 inches of snow in a seven-day stretch.

When my mom came out to visit from Louisville, Kentucky—where spring flowers are in full bloom—the climate change came as a bit of a shock. We had to buy her a hat and a scarf before heading out in town to participate in a spring food festival called Taste of Vail. We were able to take advantage of breaks in the weather to participate in the Colorado Lamb Cook-Off in Vail Village and the Taste of Vail picnic at Eagle’s Nest. This festival created quite a good reason for gluttony, as wine merchants set up tents, and the best restaurants in the area were whipping up delights such as wild boar sausage (mom here, exclaiming “WILD BOAR!!!”)…

Wild Boar, YUM!

…lamb empanadas and lamb sliders (featured at the lamb cook-off), among other goodies. My mom happened to meet one of the wine merchants on her shuttle from the Denver airports, so our cups tended to be overflowing at the on-mountain picnic.

Taste of Vail Wine Tent

From the Eagle’s Nest picnic site, we were able to look out over the Vail Valley…


…and watch the snow clouds come rolling back in.

The details:
Taste of Vail

Literature: Picoult’s Handle With Care

“There were lies we told to save ourselves, and then there were lies we told to rescue others. What counted more, the mistruth, or the greater good?” –from Jodi Picoult’s Handle With Care

handlewithcarejodipicoult Title: Handle With Care // Author: Jodi Picoult // Publisher: Simon and Schuster // Date: March 2009 // 496 p.

I’ve been reading a more fiction than usual: one excellent collection of short stories…and before that, Jodi Picoult’s so-so new novel. You’ll have to wait for the next literature post to hear about the fantastic, amazing, super-great collection of short stories…and in the meantime here’s a bit about Picoult’s new novel, Handle With Care. This book shot straight to the top of the bestseller lists, and it remains this week #2 on the NYT Best Sellers list.

Plot in a nutshell:
In her morally charged new novel, Handle with Care, Jodi Picoult again explores questions relevant to our times. When Charlotte O’Keefe finds out that her unborn daughter Willow has a collagen defect called osteogenesis imperfecta—OI—she knows that her child will suffer physically from brittle bones and hundreds of breaks during her lifetime. But Charlotte cannot foresee the ways that debate over Willow’s care will fracture her family.

With mounting medical bills and ongoing concerns over Willow’s future, Charlotte buys into a lawyer’s suggestion to file a wrongful birth lawsuit as a way to offset the financial burden. Even though the case rests on the grounds that Charlotte’s obstetrician missed some of the defect’s early clues while Willow was still in the womb, filing it requires Charlotte and her husband Sean to admit under oath that it would have been better for their smart and beautiful daughter to have never been born. And the obstetrician that the couple must sue happens to be Charlotte’s best friend. Such a situation begs questions about the value of life and the care of loved ones born with debilitating conditions.

The book’s major characters take turns telling their sides of the story, one chapter at a time. This collage of voices adds variety to the narrative, and a pastry chef’s recipes sprinkled throughout serve to sweeten the deal.

Mid-book, the tension lags as Willow’s parents—divided over the implications of a wrongful birth lawsuit— seem to repeat the same argument over and over again, without resolution.

Final Word:
Handle with Care provides multiple entry points for book club conversation, and its final pages offer readers an unexpected twist. Such a surprise conclusion makes up for some of the midsection slowness.

Landscape: Skiing the Grand Montets

Grand Montets TramI knew that skiing in the French Alps was going to be BIG, but I didn’t know what big felt like until I skied from the Grand Montets top lift (12,678 ft) all the way to the Chamonix Valley floor (3,415 ft). This was one of the things I wanted to do on my recent vacation, but poor weather kept us from going all the way to the top of the Grand Montets until my last day there. And it was the best way to end what had already been a fantastic two weeks. We waited in line for around 30 minutes to board a tram that carries between 50-60 people from the Lognan mid-station to the top of the Grand Montets.

I had been up this lift before to go climbing in the summer, but when I stepped out on the deck and looked out over the entire valley covered with snow, my stomach dropped at the sight of it:

View Top of Grand Montets

Getting down the lift’s steep stairs in ski boots and a howling wind was a bit of a precarious start, but it only foreshadowed the terrain and type of skiing that would follow:

Grand Montets stairs

Straight off the lift, we saw open crevasses as we skied down towards the Glacier d’Argentiere, crossing through no-fall areas such as this one where big boulders dotted the route above a cliff band:

Skiing above cliffs

The reward for skiing successfully through a place like this is seeing the beauty all around. Once we got down through the first steep section, we skied out on the Glacier d’Argentiere and had this view up the basin. One of my favorite peaks, Mont Dolent is the shark’s tooth at the valley’s head, and if this photo were able to capture all of the other peaks around, you’d also be able to see the Chardonnet, the Aiguille d’Argentiere, and Le Vert, among many others equally as impressive.

Glacier d'Argentiere

One of the things that really wowed me about this ski was a section where we skied through ice cliffs (seracs). There are no glaciers in Colorado, so I had never experienced skiing over slight snow bridges with deep blue crevasses on both sides:

Skiing Glacier d'Argentiere's Seracs

Instead of rocketing straight from the top of the Grand Montets down to Argentiere (the town at base of the Grand Montets lift), we did some traversing and skied through the Le Levancher bowl and then down into Le Levancher through the trees. This type of skiing isn’t for everybody. First of all, I’d say that you have to be okay with heights and enjoy skiing steep and technical terrain. For the first time, it’s probably a good idea to have a guide or ski with someone who knows the terrain. Luckily, my Chamonix-born, superstar-skier friend Cindy L. went with us to lead the way, and the day turned into one of the most gorgeous fun-filled days out I’ve had this season.

Life: Beer Thirty, Alpine Style

Skiing all day can be hard work. The French seem to know this quite well, and there’s this large, rather curious outdoor cafe thing going on at Chamonix’s Grand Montets midstation that must have been constructed to help ease the pain:


People lounge about in reclining chairs at noontime (a.k.a. beer thirty), stripping off layers of clothing and propping up boot-weary feet on the tables. While wine is definitely this country’s national beverage, beer is better for hydrating—as a local brasserie owner told me—it’s 97% water. So we helped ourselves to a restorative round:


Out on the slopes, the refreshments are good to the last drop. A fellow American here demonstrating his proficiency in the “waste not, want not” maxim:


With a little amber liquid in the stomach, the mountains look oh-so-enticing again…


…and then it’s back to the lifts:


All smiles for the rest of the afternoon at the Grand Montets!