Sneads Ferry, NC, June 2, 2014-On March 1st, I came into Denver on the Amtrak for the first time. I was staying with a friend in Arvada and after a 44 hour train trip that had drunks, cops, wifi hijackers and some crazy conversation, I needed to sleep for a day or two. It wound up being two. I did some laundry and caught up with my buddy, Taylor, while starting to look for work. Last winter, Taylor took an Elk in Wyoming and that first night, we split a backstrap and I started to fall in love with the state of Colorado. It was the first Elk I’d ever tasted.
I have to admit that I was pretty broke by the time that I pulled in. Finding a job was my highest priority. I find that I have two ways to visit an area. One is to hit it guerrilla tourist style, where you literally drive to an area that is picture worthy, jump out of the car, have the driver do a lap around the block and jump back in after taking some pictures. In this way, you can see just about everything in a city, in about a week. The other option is to settle in and try to make some money for a little while. Colorado was a work stay.
It was overcast coming into town that first day and continued to be pretty cloudy for the next couple of days. There was snow on everything. Taylor lives on the third floor of his building. This was my first experience with the altitude. After one flight of stairs, I was huffing and puffing like I’d run a mile. I’d never seen the Rockies before and was itching to put my eyes on them for the first time. The weather would not cooperate. That’s one of the things about the mountains, they have beach weather. When I say that, I don’t mean that it was sunny and gorgeous, I mean that it changes in, literally, minutes but can stay stormy for days at a time.
Another old friend (coincidentally, another friend from Lorelei’s in Sneads Ferry) got in touch with me pretty quickly. He told me that he had a job and a place to stay for me but that it wasn’t in Denver, it was about an hour into the Rockies. I quickly agreed, got my stuff together and eagerly left the city for the mountains. As we left Denver and entered the foothills I remarked about how incredible the mountains were. Taylor just laughed at me. He knew I was about to see something I couldn’t possibly conceive of, having only been to the Adirondacks and Blue Ridge Mountains.
One thing that I can say for sure is that there is nothing on the east coast, save the Atlantic itself, which can compare to the size and scope of the Rocky Mountains. As you enter the foothills and start to climb in altitude, you see the mountains become real. They shift from a smoky outline in the distance to roadside cliffs that stretch thousands of feet in the air. Bighorn sheep climb down and graze by the shoulder of the road. Clouds are so close that they become fog.
After an hour or so of speechlessness, we met my friend Ian at his house in Dillon, CO. The sun had gone down and Ian was telling us about an open mic night up the road from his house. We left for the bar and got to the Cala Inn just in time to help unload and set up for open mic. It was hosted by a super talented gentleman (Arnie runs a music store/instrument shop as a day job) who has played with some rather impressive musicians and is one himself. I pumped out a set of cover tunes that seemed to please and consumed my fair share of PBRs. We made it back to the house and crashed.
I had a few days before starting work so Ian and I took the time to run around town and check things out. Dillon is a small town in Summit County and is home to both Lake Dillon and the country’s highest elevation regatta. When I got there, it wasn’t a lake, it was an ice cube. Snow was everywhere. Deep snow. The kind of snow that tricks you into thinking you can walk somewhere and then the next thing you know, you’re up to your hips in the stuff. Once I had a look around, I had a revelation of sorts in that I was in a place exactly like my home town. It’s a community that revolves around the ski slopes in the area. People come from all over the country for a week at a time. It’s like Topsail Island but instead of the beach, they have the snow. Once this was apparent, it was a lot easier to see things in a familiar light.
I spent about 6 weeks in Dillon working at Wolf Rock Steakhouse in Keystone. There’s a free bus in Summit County that made my time there incredibly easy as far as transportation goes. I could catch a bus to work and home every day and not worry about a ride at all. I wound up riding with folks most nights, most often my friend Matt. Wolf Rock is a pretty sweet place that employs some incredibly strange and wonderful people. I definitely had a hard time getting started, as I hadn’t been in a kitchen in quite some time but it seemed like I caught on pretty quick.
If you don’t snowboard or ski, there really isn’t much to do in the mountains in the winter other than sample Colorado’s seemingly endless microbrews and dispensaries but the weather was turning just as I got there. Don’t get me wrong, it was cold and snowy but it wasn’t upstate NY in January cold. It stayed on the positive side of the thermometer and never really got too difficult to handle. Ian was generous enough to give me a weather proof jacket that he had and it made a huge difference. I’ve mentioned that the weather can have quick swings and while it wasn’t in the subzero range while I was there, driving snow in the teens can be a rather interesting thing to deal with if you’re soaked to the bone.
I remember a day, specifically, that Ian and I decided to take the bus to work. We left the house and it was a decent day outside. The sun wasn’t out but it wasn’t that cold. It’s about a ten to fifteen minute walk to the bus stop from where we were. About three minutes into the stroll, everything changed. Dark clouds started to roll in and the breeze started to pick up strength. The wind started howling through the mountains, blowing a whiteout snowstorm in front of it. I forgot to wear an extra layer under my coat and I was regretting it. My beard and mustache were frozen so solid that if I moved my face it pulls and breaks the hairs. I left my sunglasses at the house because it was cloudy when I left for the walk to the bus stop so the snow was stinging my face and it was everything I could do to focus on walking in the right direction and staying on the road.
Colorado is hard. The air is thin and the people are rugged and hardy. I made it to the bus stop and got inside the little bench area off of the sidewalk. There is significantly less oxygen in the air and it makes anything that requires physical effort that much more difficult. After acclimating to it though, you can get into some of the best hiking in the world. My buddy Matt and I had a couple of good hikes but the one that sticks out the best was the Gore Canyon.
It’s about a two and a half mile hike in and then back out but in order to get there from Summit County, it’s about an hour and a half drive, further into the mountains in Eagle County. The trail head sits on the banks of the Colorado River and when we did it, in March, there’s still plenty of snow on the ground but it was starting to thin out a bit. It runs parallel to the river for most of its length and gets you the opportunity to see some pretty incredible stuff. On the way in, we literally got buzzed by a Bald Eagle that decided to swoop down for a better look. It was late in the day when we started so as we were getting back toward the trailhead it started to cool off and snow a bit.
At first, I thought that this was pretty cool and I’ll admit that I got several decent pictures out of it but once we were on the way home, the situation got a little out of hand. Vail Pass is the route that we took to head back and we were one of the last cars that they let use it that night. At that altitude and with the crazy snowstorms that pop up, they close the roads pretty frequently. That night was one of them.
Matt’s from Wyoming, he’s been driving in the snow since he could reach the gas pedal but it didn’t make it much easier for me to handle. Walking to the bus stop when you can’t see is one thing, driving through the mountains when it’s snowing hard enough that you can’t make out the road is another. I had several close calls to changing my underwear on that ride home.
Sadly, as ski season drew to a close, so did my time in Summit County. I made some friends and had an incredible time but I packed my bags and headed back down into Arvada outside of Denver. My friend Taylor had hooked me up with a job as a floor tech at the company he worked for and I was looking forward to being back in the city and doing something new. The company he works for builds helicopter door gunner simulators. It’s definitely one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had. They recreate the interior of different helicopters and their weapons that sit inside of video bowls that have images projected onto them. I’ve never had a job where I needed to use tools and definitely enjoyed my time getting to learn about how to use all the different stuff.
Most of my days were spent working early mornings and by the time I got back home, I was more often than not too wiped out to get out and do anything but my days off were definitely taken advantage of. Denver is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. One of the first things I did was go to the Denver Aquarium with my buddy Matt from Summit County. They have a great aquarium that houses some really cool displays of fish and animals. We spent the day running around taking pictures and checking out the different exhibits.
One of the most memorable things to me about Denver is how incredibly easy it is to get around without a car. The public transportation out there is so user friendly that I can’t imagine why anyone would shoulder the extra expense of a vehicle. The bus system is all over the place and the light rail webs out in all the different directions. If you can figure out which bus line or train to take, you can get all over the city and back for less than five dollars. One day off of mine was literally spent riding all over and just walking around the city.
Downtown Denver is truly a unique spot. Walking around on 16th Street Mall, you see that every couple of blocks or so they have a piano set up that is playable to anyone who chooses to sit down and plunk away, regardless of skill level, something I’ve never seen before but can appreciate as a musician. The city is clean and the people are nice. It’s difficult to explain how accommodating people can be there but outside of Boston, I’ve never been around so many folks who are just genuinely good people. I wound up out by City Park and decided to take in the zoo.
Denver’s zoo is one of the few that I’ve had the chance to go to in the last year or so. Most of my time has been spent in places that were frozen solid so it was really great to have the opportunity to take advantage of good weather and it seems like the animals felt the same way. There were a few empty exhibits as the temperature wasn’t quite conducive to life in the tropics but most of the critters could be found in their indoor exhibits if they weren’t outside. I spent about 4 hours walking around and taking it in. I was very happy to see some of the wildlife that I hadn’t had the chance to spot in the wild like bears or mountain lions.
I had the chance to take in some of the uniquely Coloradan culture too, while I was there, in the form of the Denver 420 Rally at Civic Center Park. Most folks know that Colorado has legalized cannabis but many don’t realize how incredibly lucrative it has been for them. In January alone they raised 2 million dollars and the first 40 million will be going to the education system. The taxes that they are collecting on something that is being bought and sold completely legally for the first time will wind up funding school lunches, scholarships and books for students that would have been going without, otherwise.
The 420 Rally itself was a huge success. Tens of thousands of people came together in the park for a weekend of music, food and fun. The lineup of musicians was unbelievable and included acts like Wyclef Jean and B.o.B. and the vendors and activities were incredible. There weren’t any complications outside of 22 public smoking tickets being given out. The way it’s being treated is a lot like how alcohol is treated in most other places. You can’t consume it in public or drive while under the influence and other such stuff.
For the first time since I left NC on December 8th for Tampa, I started to get homesick. Not so much for the area but for the people. I hadn’t seen my niece in months and she’d started talking since I had left. I hadn’t seen any of my friends and family for that matter. After talking with Taylor about it, I bought a round trip ticket to NC from Denver to take a two week vacation at home in southeastern NC. I’ve been here now for the allotted two weeks and then some. I wound up cancelling my flight back but not because I can’t leave home. Another opportunity has come up and before I get back to Denver, I will have been to VA and TN for a long weekend of music and fun at Bonnaroo, a 4 day music festival in Tennessee. The beach has been nice but it’s just about time for me to be moving along again.