Monthly Archives: April 2011

Landscape: Evening in The San Isabel

The cool thing about settling down is that you get to know a place—I mean, really know a place. Since I returned to Colorado at the beginning of March, this place for me has been a heavily forested 12-acre section of Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest. I ski in and out of my living quarters in the area, a backcountry cabin at 10,500 feet—surrounded by lodgepole pines and a pond (currently frozen). Since the snow is so deep, it’s not even possible to snowshoe in. I tried it one night and failed, post-holing into hip-deep snow. A ski-only approach is fine with me, since skiing is better transportation and more fun.

I’m often skinning up to this place in the evenings, and one night last week, I found myself surrounded by some good night color:

The clouds lit up in a beautiful salmon light—

And not too long after that, a crescent moon appeared in the sky.

I don’t like to turn my headlamp on until I’m tripping over my ski tips, so it feels pretty spectacular to be out in the wide-open like this in the inky night light. Without a headlamp on, I watch the trees turn black against their blue backdrop.

And by the time I’m on my deck, I’m watching the stars spread out across the sky, one point of diamond light at a time.

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Literature: Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes // Author: Sarah Vowell // Publisher: Riverhead Books // Pub. Date: March 2011 // 256 p.

It’s snowing here this morning in the Vail Valley—characteristically turbulent spring weather in Colorado’s mountains. Rain, snow, sun…repeat. I’m sure the big-fat snowflakes have some of the locals dreaming of warmer climates, so I’ve got a good book to recommend–not just for locals–for anyone out there thinking of lying facedown in the sand with the sun on your back: Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes.

Published just a few weeks ago, Vowell’s new book reads like an adventure through a little-known moment in history that begins in 1819, when the first New England missionaries arrived on Maui, to 2009, when a song written by Hawaii’s last queen serenaded America’s first Hawaiian-born president, Barack Obama, during his inauguration.

Besides offering a historically accurate account on this time period, Vowell also digresses from a straight telling of history into other entertaining topics such as hula, whaling, sailors, and her love for the plate lunch—a meal she makes a strong case for being the quintessential Hawaiian meal with its eclectic mixing of culinary traditions.

This book fits into at least these three categories: history, nonfiction, funny. And if you don’t normally think of “funny” as being in the same context as “history,” you should read Sarah Vowell. One of my favorite writers, humorist David Sedaris says that Vowell has created her own category of writer: “funny historian.” It’s true—Vowell is like history’s version of David Sedaris. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell demonstrates her ability to rewrite history—or even write it for the first time—with a trademark style full of personality, intelligence, and wit.

Photo credit: Riverhead Books

Click here to read my full-length review of this book on the About.com Contemporary Literature site.

Life: Homey-Home Adventures


I returned from McMurdo Station, Antarctica just in time to get in some good spring skiing here in the Vail Valley. I’ve lived in Vail for the past three winters and missed most of a superstar ski season by being away. While I was gone, friends here emailed me the updates which sounded something like this: twelve inches of new snow today…two feet this week…we’re getting slammed with snow…skiing powder again. It was enough to make any skier jealous. So I’ve been making up for lost time skiing at Vail and in the surrounding backcountry. I devoted all of March to last-minute training for a backcountry ski race, the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, a 40-mile suffer-fest from Crested Butte to Aspen.

Training for this beast-of-a-race involved many ascents of Minturn’s Meadow Mountain on Nordic skis (yours truly on the summit, above).

My EMGT race partner Rich and I whittled down our time from the parking lot to the Meadow Mountain summit cabin to just under one hour and twenty minutes.

The view from the top of Meadow Mountain (above) made the lung-bleeding speed sessions worth it.

Other training involved skinning up Arrowhead in the evenings, as above with Rich and Tammy. On Nordic gear, the icy descent was often a screamer, but it did help me get better control on this set-up that we used in the race.

Rich’s birthday involved a social training day on Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest fourteener at 14,433 feet. We started early and got a glimpse of the peak in pink morning light.

The Elbert Crew made this a fantastic day out. Lisa and Tess were the sassy ladies kicking butt up this peak with a great group of guys–Billy, Eph, Carl, Kenny, Rich, and Marble—Carl’s superfit dog.

EMGT race day arrived, and Rich and I were thankful to complete our final gear check. For weeks, we obsessed over our gear, which included a list of required items such as a stove, tools, spare bindings, emergency/first-aid kit, avalanche gear, and pretty much all of the ten essentials.

The race started at midnight in Crested Butte. For the next several hours, we skied by headlamp, and we reached the Friend’s Hut in freezing temperatures just as the sun was making its way over the horizon. I slipped on ice and slid off of Star Pass…and was sort of broken mentally and physically by the experience of having to climb out, using my ski poles to keep me from falling further down the ravine.

After the Star Pass incident, I felt like the race ended up being more about finishing than racing, which was a bit disappointing. But…Rich and I did indeed finish the 2011 Elk Mountain Grand Traverse with smiles on our faces. At just under 16 hours, the EMGT was one of the most sustained physically painful things I’ve ever done in my life. Would I do it again? Yes—but only to race it next time…and I think I’d have to train all winter in the mountains (instead of the on Antarctica’s flats) to make that happen. Hey, EMGT: I’ll be back?

Landscape: Antarctica Fly-Away

Even though I’m now safely back in the U.S., my mind still wanders back to the frozen continent I left just little over a month ago: Antarctica. The wackiness of life at McMurdo Station, gliding over the ice shelf on skate skis, working with scientists at an exciting job with supercool people…I could go on about the things I love. But Antarctica is no human’s permanent home. Leaving this place is bittersweet, and I wanted to share some of the sweetness here in these images of my flight back to New Zealand. I always get choked up on the plane when I leave a place I love, so imagine me taking these photos from the plane window with watery eyes. When I flew from Christchurch, NZ to McMurdo Station in late-September, the ocean was completely frozen, so it was pretty cool to see the deep blue open water here spotted with icebergs.

The ice tongues also stuck out, white against the dark water:

This one below, the Drygalski Glacier Tongue, has been studied by scientists at McMurdo. It’s huge—stretching over 40 miles out into the sea—and it’s thought to be around 4,000 years old.

Of course, I’m always wowed by mountains whenever I see them, especially ones like these—frozen, socked in by snow and ice:

And from a plane, it’s easier to see how impressive Antarctica’s massive streaming glaciers are, cutting their way through mountain ranges and then cascading into the sea:

Once we landed back in Christchurch, it was dusk. I hadn’t see a night sky in nearly five months. I smelled the humidity and the trees in the air. After two days of nice coffees, good food, and good fun, I again boarded a plane—this time from Christchurch, New Zealand to Los Angeles, where melon morning skies (and a bit of smog) greeted me.

At a stopover in Auckland, I heard news of the Christchurch earthquake…but didn’t know how devastating it was until I landed in LA. I saw pictures of flattened buildings on the same block where I had stayed the night before. I escaped the earthquake by a mere two hours. The experience affected me greatly—as CHC has become a special place to me over the years. Isn’t this mingling of beauty and terror what the Romantics call sublime? Maybe so, but when nature destroys places and lives, it still makes me sad.

Literature: Jenny Shank’s The Ringer at Tattered Cover

Title: The Ringer // Author: Jenny Shank // Genre: Fiction // 352 p. // Publisher: The Permanent Press // March 2011

TONIGHT, yes, tonight–Friday night–at Tattered Cover in Denver’s LoDo: Jenny Shank will read from her debut novel, The Ringer. I interviewed Jenny last week for NewWest, where she is the books editor. Here’s the scoop on the book from my interview (click here for a link to the full interview):

The Ringer begins with a tragic mistake when a police officer shoots and kills a man on a no-knock warrant that’s been written for the wrong address. The shooting intimately affects the two families involved—the police officer’s and the slain man’s—but it also sparks an outcry from an entire community concerned with larger issues of justice, race, and class. The fictional setting for this novel is Denver, and the drama plays out against the backdrop of championship Little League baseball. Baseball fans should note that The Ringer’s publication coincides with the beginning of Major League spring training, but this book will appeal equally to baseball fans and to those who just want to read a great story that combines police drama with personal loss and a community’s quest for redemption.

Jenny Shank is an award-winning writer who grew up in Denver and currently lives in Boulder with her husband, daughter, and son. The Ringer, her first novel, was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and the Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award. I recently caught up with Jenny Shank to find out more about The Ringer’s real-life influences and to understand what makes this accomplished young writer tick. Shank will discuss The Ringer at the Tattered Cover (LoDo) on April 8 (7:30 p.m.) and at the Boulder Book Store on April 27 (7:30 p.m.).

If you’d like to attend the reading, check out this link to Denver’s Tattered Cover for more info:
http://www.tatteredcover.com/event/jenny-shank-ringer

Tattered Cover says:
Historic LoDo: Local journalist and writer Jenny Shank will read from and sign her debut novel The Ringer ($28.00 Permanent Press). “Jenny Shank has written a gritty, beautiful novel about growing up in urban America. Two decent, hard-working families share a love of baseball and the same city streets, which should be enough to unite them. Instead a police raid goes wrong, shots ring out, and the families find themselves marooned on opposite sides of a racial divide. Shank insists the reader consider both points of view, with startling results. Her characters are beautifully drawn and you feel as though you’re watching life itself unfold in these pages.” —Helen Thorpe, author of Just Like Us

Photo: @The Permanent Press

Life: Leaving the Place You Love

It’s jarring, leaving a place you love. During the last week in February, I left McMurdo Station, Antarctica—the place where I lived and worked for the austral summer, October through February. McMurdo is no one’s permanent home. It was my fourth time in Antarctica, and after a three-year break from being at McMurdo, I quickly re-fell in love with the place. Leaving is bittersweet. After five months of galley food, I wanted to go to a grocery store. I wanted to ski in the mountains, drive a car, go to a movie theatre, and see my family and friends. For the past month, I’ve been doing all of those things. But I’m also thinking fondly of McMurdo, so before I move on to more recent happenings, I’ll back up to that final day I spend on The Ice.

The skies were overcast as the big orange Terra Bus dropped us off on the Pegasus Ice Runway, where we waited in full Extreme Cold Weather gear for our flight to arrive.

When the plane appeared as a speck on the horizon, the reality of leaving set in. After two days of flight delays due to weather, I didn’t want to get my hopes up for a departure until I actually got on the plane.

I looked back at my co-workers and friends as the plane landed—I saw a mixture of excitement and sadness reflected in their faces. Awe.

The Australian airbus—the “Snowbird”—taxied to a stopping place on the ice in front of us, and we started walking en masse towards it.

It’s a treat to fly to and from McMurdo on this type of plane—normally military cargo planes cart us back and forth, strapped into jumpseats for a long, cold flight back to New Zealand. An airbus is a luxury, and we drew seats to see who got to sit in first class (not me).

Once I was settled in to my comfy airbus seat, I looked out the window, backwards, until I couldn’t see any more of this frozen place I love. And then, for the first time in five months, I let myself think about the other places I love—maybe not equally—but the places that might one day offer me more permanence. Home.