Monday, March 28, 2016

Hasta Luego, Colorado

When we arrived in Denver on Dec. 10, we didn't really know how long we'd stay. We knew we were getting our Wilderness First Responder cert and J would be getting his AIARE Level 1 (Avalanche) cert. We knew we'd be spending the holidays. We knew we had to tend to some affairs, including switching our "permanent" residency from Virginia to Colorado. We knew we wanted to put some winter adventures in the books. And we knew there'd be a lot of family time, since J's mom and 2 sisters (and partners and nephews) now all live in Denver.

Well, we ended up staying for 3.5 months. (For the record, 3.5 months is a LONG time according to the Wandering La Vignes.)

In between all the winter adventures, pet-sitting, yoga, concerts (only 4 much to J's dismay) and Scrabble games, much of our time was dedicated to our 2 nephews (E & O). Just so you know, we are awesome babysitters.
E loves "This Old House" and it's a good "I don't want to nap" activity while his little brother is for real napping. 

Their energy is palpable, wouldn't you say? That about sums up our 3.5 months. 

But, just so the rest of J's family does not feel left out (they enjoy their blog cameos), here are a few pics from our non-kid gatherings!
 Cabin time is cherished by all. 

 These cats (separate owners) do NOT like each other. 
Our "roommate" was really, really awesome. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Currently: March

Currently living/working in: One foot in Colorado and one foot in New Mexico. There has been a lot of adulting these last few weeks in Colorado, between tax preparation, car care and doctor’s appointments. That’s what our stable, stay-put periods are for. We will be diving into an actual regular work schedule in New Mexico starting March 28!

Current mood: Super stoked to add New Mexico on as our 14th state temporary residence and to shape young minds to love the outdoors as much as we do!

Currently excited about: Getting a tax return for the first time in 3 years! Because we are self-employed and don’t pay quarterly taxes as we probably should be, we usually get hit pretty hard with owing the government. But, last year, we paid $3K for 6 months of health care coverage (we were out of the country the other 6 months) through the marketplace when they said we didn’t qualify for the subsidy. Well, paying out of pocket evened out our self-employment taxes. Yeah! 

Currently not excited about: We had to give up our “THRHKR” plate tag when we registered our car in Colorado. Sure, we could have personalized our CO plates, but that cost too much $$ and our personalized THRHKR license was complemented by special Appalachian Trail Conservancy Virginia plates, which made the “thru hiker” connotation a little more understandable. (Just as many people who high fived us for the plates asked us what the heck it meant.) 

Currently worried about:  A friend’s losing battle with esophageal cancer. I said this last month, far too many people we know are suffering and it makes us very sad. 

Currently thankful for: Writing projects. This has been a fairly busy (lucrative!) month for my writing projects. Now, this also means my pending book is collecting dust … 

Currently proud of: Backpacker Magazine’s Gear Guide. The legwork that goes into putting together the gear guide is almost unbelievable. Our piece of the equation is tiny, comparatively speaking, but it is still crucial for helping the editors gather beta on all products out there to get you guys the best gear recommendations. Not every piece made the pages, but we tested 30 pieces of gear for this issue. And, we did get a shout out on page 36!

Currently amazed by: Colorado weather. My sister always asks why I love Colorado so much. It’s because of weeks like this. 70 degrees one day, a foot of snow the next day. 

Current confession: We are finally realized we are not young bucks anymore. Medical issues and weight gain are becoming a regular occurrence! 

Current guilty pleasure:  It's that time of year for Easter candy!!! (Hmmm … could this explain the weight gain? And the cavities? Oh well, YOLO.)

Currently reading: “The Geography of Alaska” by Mary Emerick. I met Mary through the blogosphere a few months ago and she just published her first fiction book. She is a seriously good writer who lives in one of our favorite temporary homes, Wallowa County. J got a Kindle for his Denali climb (there could be DAYS where he is sitting in the tent waiting out weather), so we added this one to his Kindle list. I have been against the Kindle from the get-go, but as they say, don’t knock it until you try it. As I am only 25% into the book (a Kindle perk), I think I like it. I certainly like the space the lack of books saves in our nomadic life. But I still love opening a book … 

Currently watching on Netflix: Well, we couldn’t resist watching Season 4 of the House of Cards. Unfortunately, there will be a Season 5 (rumored release date March 2017!!). We kind of would rather the madness to be over. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Land of Enchantment

On March 28, J & I will add our 14th state to our growing list of places we've lived: New Mexico!!
Though our permanent residency remains in Colorado (made really official by changing our driver's license and plates this week), we are heading to New Mexico for a 6-week contract job.

This time around, we will not be running a bed & breakfast, or providing security for a private island. We will be teaching environmental education programs to children aged 5-9 years at Fenton Ranch in a canyon in the Jemez Mountains!!

This opportunity is perfect for so many reasons.
1) Six weeks is the ideal timeframe for a job before Justin climbs Denali (we finish up May 5, he flies out May 9!).
2) Outdoor education has always been J's bread and butter and though I don't have the strong background J has, my passion for being a steward of the outdoors is almost as deep as my passion for writing.
3) Living and exploring a new place is always a top consideration for us when taking contract jobs. We will have weekends off and you better believe we will be out and about every chance we can.

Now, Fenton Ranch is on the grid, so we do have electricity, running water and Satellite Internet (which probably means no Netflix), but there is no cell service. As my sister says, "how do you find these remote places???"

"How do we find these places" is a very good question. I wrote a blog post in November about how we find the majority of our contract jobs in Caretaker Gazette. However, so much of our crooked road has been about the chances we take and the people we meet. I always like to make the claim that even though it looks like we are meandering aimlessly, we are always taking purposeful steps.

Being all over the country--not only living in 14 different states, but driving across the country at least twice a year--means we meet A LOT of people. Oddly enough, the conversation sometimes goes like this, "I know you from somewhere ..." One time at a Denver CO presentation of ours, we met a guest we hosted at Bears Den. One time on the Pacific Crest Trail in northern Washington, we met a volunteer from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy we worked with. I attended a tiny college in northeastern Pennsylvania (Go King's College!) and I can't tell you how many times I've met crossed paths with fellow alumni in the most random spots.

As I said, the people we've met and the connections we've made have all been a part of our life less ordinary. This job in New Mexico is yet another piece of that puzzle.

We met and bonded with a woman named Jamie at our Leave No Trace Master Educator course in 2014. She runs the environmental education program for the school using Fenton Ranch. She told us at some point she would love to work with us in her program and we just promised to keep in touch. In November, she reached out to us to gauge our interest in the spring environmental educator position. J & I live on a week-to-week schedule, so spring seemed very far away, but we continued conversations with her. Well, as time went on, the stars aligned and we told her we'd love to come to New Mexico!!

So state #14 ... here we come!!!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Colorado Winter Adventures: James Peak Wilderness

This week has been very status quo because we've been playing the role of adults in charge of a home--taking care of doctor's and dentist's appointments (I type as my mouth is numb), car registration/oil change, prepping taxes, freelance writing project deadlines, cat-sitting ... This is what I call the opposite of fun and it seems the trend will continue into next week. While I'd much rather be out playing, these adult things have to be done once in awhile.

Last Sunday, though, we escaped for a day in the mountains with our friend Grant. The weather in Denver has been very spring-like, but there's still snow in them hills!
Crater Lake
Activity: Snowshoeing, Backcountry Skiing, Hiking (trail is still too snowy for that)

Mileage: 5.7 miles (out and back)

Elevation Gain: 1460 feet

The first thing I should say is there are a few Crater Lakes in Colorado, but this particular trek was to the Crater Lakes in the James Peak Wilderness of Roosevelt National Forest. The trailhead starts at Moffatt Tunnel, which is the longest (6.2 miles) railroad tunnel in the United States!

This trailhead is popular because it is the jumping off point for a number of other lakes, peaks and trails. We arrived early Sunday morning, so we beat the crowds a bit. By the time we came out of the woods in the afternoon, the parking lot was almost full.

The first part of the path follows South Boulder Creek in aspen and pine forest cloaked with lichen and mosses, passing old cabins and crossing wooden bridges along the way. It was that snow cone type of surface, icy and crusty. We wore our snowshoes, but with all the traffic beating it down, you can easily get away with no snowshoes.

At the second signed turnoff (about 2 miles in), we made our way up the switchbacks following the blue blazes on the trees. The snow deepened here, but the path was still pretty clear. With new snowfall, I could see how the footprints would disappear and the confusion would begin. Thankfully for us, the snowfall didn't start until our way down.

J & I stopped for a break at the first Crater Lake. The first lake sits in a rock bowl directly below the Continental Divide. There was zero wind and it was actually a comfortable enough temperature to sit and enjoy the view.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Colorado Winter Adventures: Rocky Mountain National Park

J & I went for round 2 of winter camping 101 by hitting up Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado this week.

I should clarify that J is very much into this winter camping thing, while I am still easing in and convincing myself that I like it. To be safe, we car camped at Moraine Park Campground. All things considered, we had pretty good weather ... for winter. We did not have to dig out a campsite in the snow this time, although some fell enough to crown our tent with powdered sugar. And, the wind was whipping our tent walls all night long. However, the temps only dipped to the 20s. Between our 4-season tent plus my -20 degree sleeping bag, I was prepared for the worst!

J's recent avalanche course took place at Rocky Mountain National Park, but this was my first visit to the park. With 4 million visitors annually, RMNP is in the top 5 for most visited national parks. With overloaded parks like these, we opt to try to visit them during their off-season. It was still surprisingly busy for a midweek in the winter, but I am fully aware that "crowded" is not the appropriate term.

While I know RMNP is known for hosting the peak of the elk rut (mating season) in the fall, I was not at all disappointed in our elk viewing opportunities. There was a gang of elk that hung out near our campground in Moraine Park every evening. No moose or bighorn sheep, but who can complain? Elk are pretty cool in my opinion.
Colorado's weather has been pretty vanilla lately (60s-70s in Denver!), so at the lowest point in the RMNP at our campground (8,150 feet), there was very little snow. But as we climbed up to the subalpine forest surrounding Bear Lake at 9,475, everything was covered in that powdered sugar.

We did 3 hikes on winter-friendly trails and we actually only needed snowshoes on one of them!

Bear Lake to Dream Lake
Activity: Snowshoe, Backcountry Skiing, Hiking (we used snowshoes)

Mileage: 2.7 miles (out and back)

Elevation Gain: 500 feet (snowshoes are not necessary, but I think very helpful for the climb)

The trail up to the subalpine lakes (Bear Lake, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake) was mostly wide and well-packed because of all the traffic. Once above treeline, the brows of 12,713-foot Hallett Peak, 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain and 14,259-foot Longs Peak stand sentinel on the horizon, giving you views the whole time.

We stopped at Dream Lake. Our intention was to make it to Emerald Lake, but the stinging pellets of snow on the little skin we had exposed and gale-force winds blowing gusts of 50mph literally prevented us from moving forward.

The pictures won't do it justice, but Dream Lake was just beautiful. It almost seemed like the choppy lake had frozen mid-whitecap, creating a ripple effect captured in ice. If the weather wasn't so harsh, we would have liked to stick around longer up there.

Bierstadt Lake
Activity: Hiking (we started with snowshoes, but ditched them minutes later because of the lack of snow)

Mileage: 3.4 miles (out and back)

Elevation Gain: 675 feet

A series of switchbacks take you up to a loop around Bierstadt Lake. The view of the Continental Divide was socked in by clouds on our way up, but the skies cleared for our way down.

The trail through the stands of pines and aspens around the lake was pretty distinct, although a lot of people come out of the trees and just walk directly on the bank of the frozen lake. As you can see in the pic, there was only one spot with deep snow where I wish I hadn't abandoned my snowshoes!

The Pool
Activity: Hiking (maybe one patch of snow on this trail)

Mileage: 5 miles (out and back)

Elevation Gain: 200 feet

This trailhead is closer to the Moraine Park Campground. Because of the lower elevation and relatively flat path that follows Big Thompson River, the trail was not really snowy at all. You can make this hike a loop to Cub Lake, but we didn't have enough time. Plus, the rangers warned there may be thick ice on that section, so we didn't take a chance and just did an out-and-back. Our destination was The Pool, a churning water pocket squished between pocket-sized boulders.

Having survived 3 nights out, I think I may be ready to take it to the next level for a winter backpacking trip ... maybe. We'll see.

We also made sure to stop at the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. There is so much conflicting information out there as to how this hotel relates to Stephen King's The Shining. I'm going to go with this backstory (but don't quote me). The Stanley Hotel was King's inspiration for the novel (he allegedly stayed there during a snowstorm and experienced paranormal activity). The movie, "The Shining," used outside shots of Timberline Lodge in Oregon, and some inside shots of Mt. Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. Either way, we've now been to all 3 of these beautiful properties!