Ski Bum Revelation, II

Those of you starting out in life or making your way over the GREAT BRIDGE of life’s productivity, saving the world (I, for one, am grateful) well, maybe this post is not for you, but I think it is. I retired three years ago and moved back to the Rocky Mountains which I had missed more than I can ever describe for the 30 years I lived in someone else’s paradise. Don’t get me wrong. I was very happy in Southern California and found a Coloradoesque life for myself in the wonderful mountains that rim San Diego. I learned to see and love the coastal sage and chaparral, my great teacher in so many ways, but I always, always, always missed the mountains.

Once I retired and came back, I launched myself right into what I thought I’d want to do as retired person. I have arthritis in my knees, so I figured I needed surgery and/or I was a cripple. I never had enough time to paint, so I figured I was an artist. I had an unfinished novel, so I figured I was a writer.

Over the course of this three years, my understanding of myself has changed, shifted. Images of myself that I held up there peeled away. You might think it’s all about self-discovery when you’re young, but I’d say for me there’s been more of that in the last three years than any other time since, well, ever. I don’t have that stuff in front of me, all that “Que sera, sera,” stuff. A lot of my stories have ended and I know how they turned out. For example I know I’m not going to be anyone’s mom and I’m not going to make a million bucks or save all the people in an impoverished country. No one expects anything of me any more, except to creep inexorably downhill physically, to be more out of touch with technology than I am or ever will be, to be not all that bright. It’s funny, but after you do a pretty good job through your working years, there will be people (usually younger) that don’t realize that you once were where they are and YOU MADE IT THROUGH.

There was a point in life in which dreams turned into imperatives such as “Holy shit, do I earn enough to make my house payment?” I remember, sometime in my 40s, telling my brother that all I did in my life was “patch things up and hold them together.” He, for his part, was impressed that I could do that! ūüôā

So now…the other day, riding the stationary bike and watching a movie,¬†The Last of the Ski Bums, I realized that I was happier skiing than doing any other thing in my life, ever. And I wasn’t very good at it. That’s important. Skiing, in and of itself, was just great, sublime, exciting, beautiful. Snow, high mountains, speed. Wow. I decided then and there that in my next life no one’s going to hijack my aimless existence with their idea of purpose. No sirree.

Then… Well, I work out a lot. Simply being able to walk requires that the muscles of my legs are strong so my knees work like knees should. I don’t know what I was doing, but I found myself in a skiing maneuver. And I thought, “Damn. I can do this. Godnose that next life idea is unpredictable. I might come back ¬†wombat or armadillo or something. Or a child in the tropics where there is no snow and no hope of any. I can’t hang my ski bum dreams on some next life. I missed out this time, but putting my money on my next life is really too big a gamble.”

So I did research. Lots of people ski with arthritis. Since I was never any good, I can probably have a pretty good time on the baby slopes, maybe even blue circles! There are braces people wear on their knees. Then I remembered reading something on the website of the local ski area, just 50 miles away and no mountain pass involved, Wolf Creek, (which, BTW, usually gets the most snow of any ski area in Colorado). Their ski school has classes for “Baby Boomers.” A lift ticket for “seniors” is $25. I might not be the only one living out their Late-life Ski Bum Dreams


Ride the Rockies

The San Luis Valley is a great place to ride a bicycle — I know this from my own experience and it’s being reaffirmed by the thousands! of guys in bright jerseys riding road bikes past my house part of the Ride the Rockies. ¬†I wonder what they think riding through these small towns and through the farming countryside? I wonder where they came from?


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They’re riding to Pagosa Springs today — that means they’re going over Wolf Creek Pass. Ahead of them is a slow climb then a rather sharp hill climb over a high mountain pass then down to a pretty mountain town.

They’ve been riding a while. As I was out there setting the water I heard “You want lobster? Dude! I want pancakes!” I think the pancake guy is more likely to triumph…

(Photos in slideshow taken by my neighbor, Karen Howard)

Adventure to Natural Arch

The weather forecast was sketchy. “90% chance of rain, but that’s at 5 o’clock. We have time.” my friend, E, clearly, wanted to go. So did I. So did K. I’d even cleaned out my car and removed the dog proofing so people could sit in it.

My car is not an SUV. It’s a simple Ford Focus with a sport package. For a Ford Focus, it’s hot looking. It’s metal-flake gray and inside the seats are leather, black and maroon. ¬°Que suave!¬†And, anyway, the roads up there are well-cared for gravel and dirt. What could happen?

The afternoon seemed hospitable enough. Blue sky, white fluffy clouds, but once we were out of town E looked out the window of the car and said, “There’s a storm building.”

“It’s building a big city down there, not a village,” I said. I’m so funny.

K had several pages of directions she’d printed off the Internet, one of which said, “It’s extremely difficult to find the Natural Arch.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” said K.

I had written directions on a piece of paper. I handed them to K, who sat in the passenger seat, and said, “Just read these to me as we go. It’ll be fine.”

I wondered how the guy who wrote the article got lost going out there, first because there are not many roads, second because the BLM had done a good job with signage. Still, it’s a pretty remote spot, wait, everything here is remote. My bad.

I drove, we talked, exclaiming over the landscape, the beauty of the rocks (my friends truly love rocks), talking about the geology and how we were driving across a giant ancient caldera.

“It hasn’t exploded for millions of years, but it could,” said E.

I didn’t actually think so, but what do I know? Am I in charge of cataclysmic geological events? No. I told them about the big earthquake I’d enjoyed (truly)¬†when I lived in Southern California. A huge wave had passed¬†under the feet of a friend and I while we were hiking. It was amazing and truly wonder-full. “Of course, there was an earthquake almost every day out there, I said.

“Did you feel them?” asked K.

“A lot of times I just heard them, a loud bang of thunder inside the ground, kind of a loud ‘boom’ in the wrong place.”

We reached the end of the road. I looked around for a trail that would lead to the Natural Arch and saw no trails anywhere.

Sunny day

Looking across the valley from the Natural Arch at the start of the adventure

“Where is it?” asked K.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Then K looked out the window, “It’s right there!” Sure enough, the arch loomed above us, a hole punched somehow in the giant caldera that is the La Garita Mountains.¬†

The day was still beautiful and sunny where we were, but the clouds to the south were dark and they were moving. There was a trail up to the arch, so we all headed up. I don’t mind uphills, but downhills are difficult with my severely arthritic knee. I think the big problem is I’m afraid of falling, not the knee. K and E each went up — E forged her own trail and K went up the existing trail. I followed as far as I was sure I could get back down and I turned around.

Meanwhile, the storm kept building, now faster, to the south. It was on the move, too. About the time my friends reached the arch thunder began to roll. I thought of my lower clearance vehicle and some of the ruts I’d navigated around on the way up. “Damn,” I thought, “we had better get out of here.” Lessons learned, no doubt, from¬†Into Thin Air. (ha ha)

My friends had the same thought, so we all “hurried” down. We got back into the car as the storm struck.

The drive out was fantastic. The storm was wild, pelting the car with graupel and rain. The light changed constantly and the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains moved closer, magnified by the humidity. The road was a mix of small ice balls and gravel and I was glad. If the rain had come down like that, it would have been soup.


For me, that drive was the best part of the adventure. People might have found the storm inhospitable, but I thought it was a welcoming committee. And I got to see what my car can do. We passed some amazing rock formations, reconnoitered the location for a future adventure, and saw a stone and adobe ruin built against a small outcropping.

Tortoise rocks


The San Luis Valley has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, and while that small building was probably built in the 20th century, it was essentially the same as you would find at Ca√Īon de Chelly.

We weren’t ready for the afternoon¬†to end, so we stopped in Del Norte for coffee and to plan future adventures.

Del Norte


Yesterday I had a phone conversation with a guy from National Public Radio. It was in response to a long phone message I had left at their request — on Facebook they’d posted a bulletin saying they wanted to hear from people in rural areas to find out what we need. I called.

He had to look me up in order to contact me, and he found my email. He emailed to see if the email reached the woman in Monte Vista who had left the message and asked for my phone number. I sent it,¬†then tried to reconstruct what I’d said in a rather impassioned phone message. I wrote down all I remembered (I don’t have strong aural learning skills even with my own words) and then found the sources that had informed my understanding of the problems in the San Luis Valley. I was ready.

I was surprised when he called and wanted to know how and why someone would move to the Back of Beyond from a place like San Diego.

It’s true that San Diego is high on the list of “most desirable cities.” When I lived in San Diego, it was NOT in the “most desirable” part. It was a barrio known to have the highest crime rate in the city. It was San Diego’s version of East LA, in fact, it was East San Diego. After 17 (happy) years there, I moved to a mountain community 35 miles east, 45 miles from the airport. I had a great house and I lived in the mountains. If I’d had the money to stay there after retirement I probably would have. It was a life that worked. I’d been in Southern California for thirty years and it was, kind of, home. But it was expensive to live there. The cost of living had shot up during the recession and just heating my house for one winter cost nearly $2000. I couldn’t stay.

Meanwhile, I had been out here. I had¬†given a couple papers at conferences in¬†Colorado Springs, reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I had not wanted to leave Colorado in the first place. That happened because of marriage… The moment I knew what I had to do, I was in Colorado Springs. I filed my papers and knew that I would make big changes soon and it would be¬†terra incognita.

So I explained to the man that my choice of Monte Vista was actually random. I knew how much money I had to live on and there was a house here that I wanted to live in. I told him I’d never been here before, but when I came through the San Luis Valley on my way to see my house I knew I wanted to live in this beautiful place ringed by mountains. Monte Vista — as I saw on that first journey — seemed to¬†be a livable small town not too far from hospitals and stuff like that.

I knew back then that I had to go somewhere. This place was beautiful. I’d meet people in the course of time, meanwhile I’d write, walk my dogs, shake off 35 years in the classroom and find my feet. I had friends 3 hours away. It was up to me if the thing turned out good or bad.

“How did you pick Colorado?”

“I was born here.”

“In that area?”

“No, no, I’m from Denver.”

“Did you find it hard to make friends?”

“No, not at all. Here I have a social life. Back in California that was difficult because I worked so much. People here are friendly and we need each other.”

“Have you and your neighbors helped each other out?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s how things work.”

I wasn’t very lucid on the phone because I was so stunned and I don’t do phone if I can avoid it, anyway. I don’t think of my decision as extraordinary at all and was a little taken back that he did, that he thought there was a story in my story. I found it very difficult to describe the beauty and wonder of this place, not just (just?) the landscape but the human scenes I witness — and am part of — often. The tiny congregation of the Episcopal church, faithful and lovely, my friend playing the organ in the golden morning light streaming through the stained glass window — a church built by English pioneers so their children could go to a “proper English village church.” My friend’s husband putting the blade on his AWD and pushing the snow out of the alley so I can get out of my driveway after a big snow. Getting a ride to the Ford garage 20 miles away in my neighbor’s 1955 T-bird that he’s had for fifty years!!! Three older ladies (my friends and I) standing in the cold, clear water of Medano Creek beside the sand dunes, laughing like children at how funny our feet look in the water, the cowboys on horseback in the distance with their dog who — I think — should’ve been named Shorty. Sunsets that defy both photography and description. 20,000 sandhill cranes hanging out against a backdrop of snowy peaks. Bald eagles flying over me, their shadows grazing my shoulder beside the Rio Grande where I walk my dogs almost every day. The guy at the post office who hands me a package and says, “What is it?” and I tell him it’s a cable to hook my computer to my TV and he answers, “Que suave!” The small herd of bison out by the hospital, munching grass at the end of a summer rain storm. Horses in a pasture, kicking up their heels in the snow. Snow.

I go with friends to a restaurant. There’s live music. The retarded guy who lives nearby is at the restaurant. He goes up to the singer and makes a request. The singer smiles. The retarded guy takes a seat on a stool beside the singer who strikes a chord on his guitar.¬†It’s a song I thought was corny and stupid back in the day. I learn it’s been made the Colorado state song. The retarded guy sings with all his heart, smiling a broad smile. The friends beside me sing, too. As I watch that duet, aware of the gentleness and familiarity behind it, I can’t believe my good luck at landing here.

That feeling has not changed.

Denver and Rio Grande Railroad

In the middle nowhere on CO 149 is an old-school railroad crossing sign. You have to pay attention to see the narrow gauge tracks crossing the high meadow pasture.

What’s the story?

No one knows how human geography is going to pan out long term. The man who built the tracks had big dreams of a narrow gauge train over the mountains to Denver. I, personally, wish his dreams had come true, but instead we got the Cold War, and the Interstate Highway system. That man could not have known how it would eventually go with the automobile (or passenger planes), or that horses and trains were not going to be the foundation of human transportation forever. He could not have known that — in the future — a small mining town butted up against a cliff would not become a thriving metropolis, that its rich vein of ore would be exhausted or that the bottom would fall out of silver.¬†The train ran well into the 1980s.¬†

And I could not have known the geography of my own life that would bring me to Monte Vista, Colorado, or that I would live across the street from — and be friends with — a man who loves trains so much that he and his brother collect old train cars. I could not have known that his wife and I would stand in the rain one lovely early summer day waiting to see a small engine cross that mountain pasture¬†with my neighbor as engineer, blowing its¬†horn, sounding for all the world like a big engine, echoing a time gone by.


P.S. Obviously, I took the video with my phone. In the video my friend asks me about my iPhone case which looks like a watercolor box that’s been used. I do lose it sometimes when I’m painting and have all kinds of colors out all over the place. :p

Classic Architecture of the Old West

“That’s a false front, honey.”


“Here, let’s walk around the side of the building, see? It’s not a big two story building at all. It’s a false front. They put that front up there to look fancy and have a place to put their sign.”

The picture above is of Dillon, Co in the 1880s. 

There were a lot of things like that when I¬†was a kid that I don’t see much any more — pressed tin ceilings, pneumatic tubes in department stores, elaborate brass cash registers, player pianos — but if you think about it, the “old” west (1880s) was only 70 years before I was born. My mom and dad, born in the 20s, in Montana, were born into the rag-tag end days of the Wild West and the deadly glamor of Prohibition. My dad’s dad and mom made bathtub gin.

In my town — not too surprisingly — there are still “false front” buildings and they’ll probably remain as the whole town was declared a national historic site back in the 1990s. Not that every building is historically important or every building falls under the purview of the rules regarding national historic buildings, but many of the buildings downtown were hand built by stone masons of local stone and they are beautiful.



You can see a few false-fronts though they’re not so obvious from this view — our movie theater has one.


160 Reprise — 2 Year Anniversary

Silence is pretty rare on my street which just happens to be US 160, a highway that goes from the Navajo¬†town of Tuba City, AZ or “Holy Cow, this is the last Denny’s for thousands of miles!” through¬†“We ARE in Kansas, Toto. Where’s Auntie Em?” all the way to Missouri. Look on the map. It’ll show you.

It’s 4000+¬†(damned sexdaily) 1400+ miles…


I have been on or near the 160 nearly every day since September 20, 2014, when I arrived in Colorado to stay.

The noise is seasonal. It picks up around Memorial Day when the summer people from Texas drag their giant 5th wheels or pilot their humungous motorhomes up into the mountains above Creede. They leave behind dollars and the tendency of people who live up there to say, “Y’all.” The noise begins to die down a week or two before Labor Day. On snowy winter mornings it gets very close to silent. Even the sound of the most dauntless semi-truck is muffled by those flakes of holy white cold.

In Tuba City, where I arrived exhausted on September 20, 2014, at about 8 am, I stopped at Denny’s to use the restroom and I ordered a milk shake. It was my first inkling of the sweetness of the life that lay ahead. I emerged from the lady’s room and a young Navajo woman in a Denny’s uniform was waiting with my shake. “Here you go. You look so tired. Are you sure you want it to go?”

“My dogs are in the car, and I have a long ways to go.”

“Take care of yourself. Drive carefully.”

I went through Kayenta and looked off into the distance and wondered why SOME of the formations were “Monument Valley” and others weren’t. Who decided? I saw Shiprock in the distance, but that was not the direction I would take. That day I drove through a tiny bit of New Mexico before entering Colorado. I saw wild horses running along beside the highway¬†through the gorgeous wild landscape of the high desert.

I was very excited when I reached the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign — though at that particular entry point, in late September, Colorado isn’t very colorful


Welcome Sign in the Four Corners Area

The first Colorado “city” is Cortez and from there I passed Mesa Verde, Mancos, Durango, Pagosa Springs, climbed and dropped over Wolf Creek Pass and down into South Fork which was where I stopped and stayed for a month.


South Fork, CO Rio Grande and Fall Trees

Old cars are popular where I live and if there is an old car show in any place in the San Luis Valley, I get to see them all in action as they are driven past my house. This is also low-rider land and I get to see them, too. This time of year trucks loaded with potatoes pass in both directions, which is strange. Why don’t they stay where they are instead of doing this potato exchange?

The loudest of all are snowplows, but it’s a sound I find comforting, especially in the night. My first winter here, when I heard my first snowplow scrape the highway, I thought, “I’m home.”

That’s not a Southern California sound.


Snowplow on a Pass — I don’t know which one.

I Heart Deserts

“This isn’t desert. I take you to Saudi. There is desert. No plants.”

Arab students on a school field trip to the Anza Borrego Desert. How to explain to a desert dweller that the word “desert” has a scientific determination that doesn’t include “no plants?”

I like deserts. I like the light in the deserts, the mystery, the discomfort, the harsh little plants that are often incredibly fragrant, the opportunistic blossoms, the creatures who live there. It’s all great to me. The first couple of¬†years I lived in San Diego we had a VW pop-top camper van and that was great for camping in the desert. Good clearance, good traction, self-contained sleeping quarters — sure it smelled a little like gasoline back there, but hey… ¬†I wish I had that camper now.

When it rained, the ocotillo would blossom — red and beautiful and attracting hummingbirds. In spring the desert would be carpeted with wildflowers. Rainstorms could bring down enormous palm trees in flash floods. Deserts are just one extreme after another and sometimes that extreme is extreme heat under which everything waits as if under the hand an oppressor. One of my favorite spots in the Anza Borrego Desert is Mountain Palm Springs. I have hundreds of photos of it on my dead laptop (rip). The¬†one below isn’t mine.


Where I live now it’s called a “desert” too. I am sure none of my Saudi students would buy that driving by fields of blooming potatoes and waving barley, electric yellow canola blossoms and clover fields, such as those we passed yesterday to reach Great Sand Dunes National Park. The stream running in front of the dunes is sometimes high and fast enough for people to ride a boogie board or inner tube. All around it are mountain plants and animals — antelope, deer, elk, mountain lions, etc. and, uh, mountains. The dunes are eons of sand blown across the San Luis Vally¬†from the San Juan Mountains on the western edge and trapped by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

And, of course, this is my all-time favorite movie. ūüôā

Short Mountains

I’m 5’1″ and I used to be cute, I mean cute as in young woman cute not cute as in old lady cute. I’m also very smart. I know this because it’s been measured numerous times and I really had no significant problems surmounting the hurdles of academic life even though I didn’t try very hard or like it very much. I’m also (here’s a nasty word) “creative.” I’m also very serious about what matters to me BUT I might laugh about it and enjoy it. In spite of being small,¬†I was always, also, physically strong with good endurance and speed. I am also very independent, generally optimistic, like to laugh and have a comparatively “out there” (meaning irreverent) sense of humor. In short, I’m a formidable entity in a short body.

None of this is bragging. I look at it all as the result of a genetic soup that I had nothing whatever to do with. I only hope I did pretty OK with it because it was a nice gift. One of the most difficult parts of this, though, was (and is!) being taken seriously by other people.¬†The men¬†with whom I worked¬†— those in¬†my generation in particular — ¬†could be very obnoxious. Because I am little and cute, many of them actually patted me on the head, stood too close, and often hit on me. Female co-workers disdained me because I was not as “serious” as I should be (hard to be “serious” when you spend every day of your life doing EXACTLY what you love to do) and they (unconsciously?) assumed that a petite, playful person who likes to laugh is not working, does not care, will not do well, is not paying attention. Somehow, on some level, I believe I came across as a child to my colleagues.

Over the years I’ve realized that small,¬†happy people are often underestimated.

But, in South China, I was a pretty average height. It was great. Standing on a bus, I could easily reach the overhead railings. Riding the bus, my¬†6′ husband – for whom life was simple in the US – had to stand under the ceiling air vent and open it in order to stand up straight.

Still, in China, I got a lesson that showed me that I shared the bias against “short” things.

One afternoon, as I was lecturing in one of my writing classes, smiling and happy as usual, one of my¬†students raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, why you smile all the time? You think we’re funny?”

“No. I don’t think you’re funny. I think you’re all great. I smile because I’m happy.”

“Why you happy?”

“I’m teaching, which I love and want to do, and I’m in China which is a dream come true for me.”

“You’re happy to be in CHINA?”

“Oh yes, very happy.”

“You like China?”

“I love it.” Suddenly LOTS of hands were raised.

“How you love China and love America, too?”

“How you love China? Life is very hard for you here compare to America.”

“Why you happy to be teaching?”

I explained everything to my class and watched their eyes widen and smiles grow.

“You think China beautiful?”

My heart was in my mouth. “Yes.”

“America is not beautiful?”

My heart rose to my eyes, thinking of the Rocky Mountains which I sorely missed.

“America is beautiful, too.” My heart spilled down my cheeks. My students saw it.

“You homesick, teacher?”

“No, but I miss the mountains. Let’s get back to our work, OK?”

They were then talking amongst themselves and the head of the class (every class had a “head” in China at that time) then stood up and said, “We want to invite you to see something, teacher. Will you come with us?”

“After school?”

“No. Now.”


We packed up our belongings and left the classroom. We walked past the village into an area that was being built into a park. At one point in the area a moon gate had been built. A moon gate (if you don’t already know) is a circular gate, an opening in a wall, that might be for going in and out and might just be there to frame a scene. This was to frame a scene. Above the arch were four characters, an actual Chinese poem. They were, “Wind, Sky, Water, Mountain.”

ť£é Ś§© śįī ŚĪĪ

A pretty lame poem in English, but in Chinese characters it looks pretty and placed where it was, it exactly described the order in which people would naturally observe the scene beyond the moon gate. We stood in the wind, under the sky (Heaven), in front of the gate was a pond, above the pond the large hill behind the agricultural college; a mountain.


My students, understanding I missed the mountains, had brought me to see one. What a gift, one that took me half a lifetime to understand. At that point, I had not learned to respect a mountain under 10,000 feet. I underestimated them and called them hills, but in time I learned not to underestimate any mountain, even the short ones, or a poem that is only four words long.


Moon Gate, West Lake, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Asia

Not “my” moon gate, but a famous moon gate in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. You can see there is a “poem” over the arch. ūüôā