Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Our Trip Out West, Part 4: Rocky Mountain High

There is a lot to do at the YMCA of the Rockies, but you can’t really spend your entire time there without going to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It’s right next door, after all.

And they make it easy to get to, in theory. 

From the YMCA there is a shuttle bus that will take you directly to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.  From there you can get the RMNP shuttle up to the Park and Ride, and from there you can get yet another RMNP shuttle – aptly named the Hiker’s Shuttle – up to Bear Lake, which is a lovely little spot just perfect for people who have just arrived at those altitudes, since it is a) a short hike of less than a mile if you go all the way around the lake, and b) flat and well groomed.

That’s the theory.  The reality is somewhat more complicated.

Tabitha wasn’t feeling very well on our second day due to the altitude, so Kim, Lauren and I decided to go to Bear Lake for a look around.  We walked down the hill to the shuttle bus stop at the YMCA and boarded the bus that arrived moments later.  “Hey, this is great!” we thought.  It took us directly to Beaver Meadows, where a RMNP bus arrived mere seconds after we got out.

Unfortunately, the driver of that bus was either a troll or not very well informed, since he told us that we needed to buy a park pass at the visitor center before we could board the bus, and then he took off.  It turned out that you could not in fact buy a pass at the visitor center, and that we should have just gotten on the bus, and another one would be along in half an hour.  So we hung out at the visitor center for a while, and eventually another bus showed up.

It turns out that if you take the shuttle buses there really isn’t a clear place for you to buy a visitor pass at all.  Nobody checks, and even if they did I’m not sure what they’d check for.  So there is incentive to use public transportation, is what I’m saying here.

Eventually we found our way to Bear Lake, which is at the very end of the Hiking Shuttle, and we set off.

It’s a lovely place.

We walked the entire circumference of the lake and had a grand time looking at all of the various Nature that was there.  And then it was time to go back to the YMCA.

Getting the bus from Bear Lake was no problem.  Getting the bus from the Park and Ride to Beaver Meadows was slightly more of a problem but not all that much.  And then we sat there at Beaver Meadows waiting for the YMCA shuttle, which it turned out we had missed by less than three minutes.  This meant we would have to wait another hour for the next one, which would then take us through the entire one-way loop before arriving back at the YMCA – another hour.

Or, as we eventually decided, we could walk the mile or so downhill to the main road and catch the bus we missed on its way back to the YMCA.  We made it by less than a minute – the driver was, in fact, nice enough to wait for us – and after that we decided that we’d just drive in to the park from that point on.

Regardless, we enjoyed our time at Bear Lake enough that on Friday we went back with our friends.  They were new to the altitude, and Tabitha was feeling better.  It seemed logical.  And we had yet another good time, which is all one can really ask of a vacation.

We had planned just to drive to the Bear Lake site, but since that lot was full we stopped at the Park and Ride and took the bus up. 

Much of our time at Bear Lake this go-round was defined by the kids rampaging ahead of us, finding new and ever more exciting things to jump on, climb up, or explore in other potentially hazardous ways, while the adults dragged on behind and watched.

It was a very peaceful sort of place nonetheless, just the right place for introductory hiking for people who don’t hike much.  As someone whose idea of exercise consists of building arguments, jumping to conclusions, and making tea, it was ideal for me.

And then we decided to get more adventurous.  Not “pack up dried fruits and head off into the wilderness” adventurous, fortunately, but “hey, there’s a cool something just a mile or two down the path that we could walk to” adventurous.

That cool something was Alberta Falls, which was in fact a cool something.  It’s a relatively easy hike from Bear Lake – most of it downhill, and given the cutoff to get to the Alberta Falls shuttle bus stop you don’t actually have to go all the way uphill to get back – and there’s a lot to see along the way. 

The thing is that you end up following this roaring stream for long enough that you’re not really sure when you get to the actual Falls until it’s obvious.  “Is this it?”  “No, this must be it.”  “No, perhaps this.”  “Oh, yes, clearly this is it.”

And it is clear, once you get to it

We spent some time just hanging out on the rocks for a while, watching the water go by.  It was peaceful in a loud kind of way. 

Eventually we started to get hungry, and so we left.  In separate groups.  Which is always a recipe for interesting times.

Kim, Richard, Tabitha, Magnus, and Ginny left first, since Lauren had graciously volunteered to take a picture of a fellow tourist who had not returned yet.  They set off toward the Alberta Falls bus stop and made good time.  So good in fact, that the three kids ranging far ahead of the two adults completely missed the turn to the Alberta Falls bus stop and continued on toward the Bear Lake bus stop.  This is why, after the tourist came back and Lauren and I set off after the rest of our party, she and I found Richard sitting by himself at the Alberta Falls bus stop.  Kim had gone on to Bear Lake to collect the rest of the party, except that they had realized their error and doubled back to the Alberta Falls bus stop.  So several rides and missed connections later – and for the record, natural wildernesses have lousy cell phone reception, which may well be the point but can be desperately annoying at times – we found ourselves together at the Park and Ride, ready to go back to our cabin and none the worse for the wear.

Next time we will bring snacks with us.

Our other foray into RMNP was on Wednesday, before our friends arrived, when we decided to drive out to the Alpine Visitor Center – the highest destination point in the park.  We piled into the van and headed in, paying our entry fee in the process since a minivan is clearly not public transportation.  The fee is good for a week, though, and national parks are something I don’t mind chipping in for.

The thing about driving to Alpine is that you work your way up gradually.  This is good for two reasons.  First, Alpine is at roughly 12,000 feet elevation – half a mile higher than the YMCA of the Rockies and a long, long way from Wisconsin – and it’s good to do that in small bits.  Even so, we could feel it by the time we got there – Lauren felt it most, but even I could tell that another few hills would not go well with me.  And second, every time you turn a corner or emerge from beneath some trees you see impossibly scenic things, each one grander than the one that came before, and if you started at the top and worked down it would all seem anticlimactic.  This way it was an unfolding adventure.

Our first stop, just past the Bear Lake turnoff, was the climbing rock.  I have no idea what it’s officially called, if it is officially called anything, but that’s what we used it for.  Everywhere along the road through the park are pulloffs and turnabouts, so you can get out of your car and explore.  We pulled over for this one and spent some time just walking about and enjoying.

And then we worked our way ever higher, one stop at a time. This one was just one of those scenic places that make you sit and look.

This one was a place where you could walk about a bit.  It had a big rock to climb and a long walkway along the precipice for you to look out over the valleys and mountains, or refresh yourself with snacks.

There were also chipmunks.  You’re not supposed to feed the wildlife in the park and for the most part we adhered to that, but not with the chipmunks.  Chipmunks are chipmunks, and they like Cheeze-its.  The former Eagle Scout who stood next to us was rather annoyed by it, but so be it.  We’ll let the elk fend for themselves, but the chipmunks were friendly.

Higher up the trees fade away and you get to Alpine tundra territory.  The wind gets brisker and the temperature falls down, down, down until you are mighty glad that you brought your jackets even though it is August and down in the valleys it is 79F and those valleys aren’t all that low either.

Eventually you find your way to the top.  It looks a lot like the rest of it, which is to say lovely and impressive in its way.

We had lunch at Alpine and spent some time pillaging the gift shop for things to take home, some for ourselves and some for the various friends who had agreed to take care of our various animals.

And then we drove back down. 

Oh, Hidden Valley?

Found it.

If you ever get a chance to go to Rocky Mountain National Park, you should.  It’s quite a place.  Bring your friends and family.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Our Trip Out West, Part 3: It's Fun to Stay at the YMCA

There is a lot to do at the YMCA of the Rockies, and we tried to do as much of it as we could.

One evening we discovered the pool, for example, though only Lauren actually went swimming.  The pool was warm and had a corkscrew waterslide into the deep end, so she enjoyed it thoroughly.  I read my book while she did that, so I enjoyed that thoroughly.  Win all around, I say.

Kim and Tabitha located the library while we were there.  There were puzzles.  Puzzles are cool.  They brought one home and Kim put it together back in the cabin. 

The first thing we did, however, was find the zipline.  Lauren, Tabitha, and I went.  Kim did the sane thing and took pictures from below.

Ziplining, for those of you who are not up on your gratuitously risky forms of entertainment, involves climbing up a very tall pole to a platform overlooking a valley, attaching yourself to a cable that runs a very long way out over a very long fall, and then launching yourself into space on the assumption that all of this will function as designed.  You then zip down the line (thus “ziplining” – clever, huh?) for about thirty seconds of pure fun, after which you have to walk back across the valley, which is less fun but a required cost of the whole thing.  And then you do it again. 

Also, guys?  Make sure you get your harness adjusted just right, otherwise you will be in for a world of hurt about a third of the way across.  Just saying.

We hiked our way down to the building where you make arrangements for this sort of thing – one of those brownish cabin-like structures that looks like all the others only somewhat smaller than the big ones and somewhat bigger than the small ones – and signed up early Wednesday morning.  You have to fill out an awesome variety of forms, all of which indicate that you understand that even thinking about this activity could result in serious injury or death, that on no account will you hold anyone other than yourself responsible for anything that happens even if a YMCA employee were to follow you down the line and shoot you with a crossbow, and that any attempt to contact a lawyer regarding anything that happens good or bad will result in the automatic forfeiture of your home, the loss of your job and reputation in both your online and meatspace communities, and a lifetime ban on eating anything tastier than sauteed cardboard.  You know, the standard release forms that one finds in America these days.  Nothing special.

Signed, paid, and ready, we hiked back up the way we came – Colorado is lovely, but in my experience rather steep – and got ready to zipline.

Everyone in our group of 18 zipliners was from Wisconsin.  This was a recurring pattern out in the West, actually.  We’d attach ourselves to a group of people doing something, stand around waiting for the actual doing part, strike up a conversation, and discover that at least half of the people nearby were refugees from the Badger State.  Given the rapid decline of Wisconsin into tinhorn petty tyranny this is perfectly understandable, but still it was a surprise to see it confirmed.

This sort of activity is one of the reasons that you see a different kind of tourist in Colorado.  There was an abundance of trim people in active-wear clothing, the men with hipster facial hair and the women often carting small children in strollers that probably could outperform our car on the highways, wandering about the place at all times – quite a shift from the usual vaguely overweight t-shirt-and-ball-cap American tourists that I’m used to and am now one of.  But they’re friendly, for all that.  Every time you pass someone at the YMCA of the Rockies they wave and say hello, and you get used to returning that favor.  It’s kind of nice.

The first thing they have you do when you go ziplining is line up and get your equipment on. 

There is a harness, which – as noted – needs to be adjusted carefully.  In the front is a little purple loop that you will eventually D-clip a stout rope to, and sling that rope over your shoulder.  When you get to the top, you D-clip the other end to the line.  That’s your tether to safety.  If it doesn’t work out, they also give you a helmet.

The YMCA guy then goes over the safety regs (“Don’t do anything stupid”) and turns you loose.  You get in line – there are lines in front of both poles leading up to the platform – and when you climb up they clip you in so if you don’t make it all the way up at least you’ll have a safe ride back down and can start over.  Eventually you clamber up like a telephone worker and get to the platform.  It’s the last step around the edge of the platform that is the tricky one.  You stand up there on the platform for a while until the complicated flag dance between the person on the platform and the person on the other end of the line across the valley indicates that it is safe to go, and then you defy all sense and reason and jump off the platform.

It’s a fast ride, just humming along in the air across a mountain valley.  It’s kind of peaceful, in a way, and seems to take much longer than it actually does.  And then – WHAM! – you run into the braking mechanism at the other end, which slows you down enough to land without rolling.  You unhook, and head down into the valley to go back – the last 20 yards up the hill on the other side are the killer part – and then you do it again because this was much more fun than you thought it would be and the adrenaline makes you forget the initial climb up until you’re already halfway there and it’s too late to back out.

We did this for an hour or so.

And then on Saturday we did it again, this time with friends.

When we were working out the details of this trip we discovered that our friends in England were also planning to come to the US at about the same time and were willing to meet us there for a couple of days.  Richard, Magnus, and Ginny got in late Thursday night.  They stayed at one of the lodges that the YMCA of the Rockies has for those who don’t stay in the cabins, and met us early Friday for breakfast.  It was the first time we’d gotten together since we were in England in 2012, and the first time since Julia passed away in January.  It is a lovely thing to get together with good friends.  Ginny, Magnus, Tabitha and Lauren picked up pretty much exactly where they left off, and so did Kim, Richard, and I. 

I live too far away from too many good people.

For our second round, Kim and Richard begged off to go to a yoga class that was being offered at the same time.  The four kids went down to the zipline building on their own and I met them as they walked back up the hill to the zipline platform.  It turned out that when you sign up for ziplining at 8:30am on a Saturday, you get the place to yourself.  This time I stayed on the ground and took pictures while they rode the line across the valley.

Eventually Kim and Richard, thoroughly stretched and relaxed by the yoga class, came by in the van and collected us, and we went to the Admin Building for snacks.  They were very good snacks, even if they were very slow snacks.  More time for hanging out together, I guess.  This is a good thing, on balance.

There is a lot more to do at the YMCA of the Rockies than just ziplining.  For example, there is also a mini-golf course.  Actually, there are two.  We didn’t know this at first. 

After we finished our snacks, Tabitha, Lauren, Ginny, Magnus and I wandered down from the Admin Building to the mini-golf course, stopping along the way to pay tribute to the statue that pretty much by definition had to be there.

We found the mini-golf course and headed for hole number one.  We were a bit curious as to why the greens were fairly flat and devoid of obstacles and why the holes were as big around as dinner plates, but we were having too much fun to care.  Eventually it dawned on us that this was the 9-hole kiddie course, and the 18-hole regular course started on a different spot.

Did we let this stop us?  No.  We finished our kiddie course like the professionals we are, and then moved on to the big kids version.  Eventually Kim and Richard joined us, and if we had kept score it would not have been nearly as much fun.

Later that day the kids went horseback riding, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the West.  In a sense it’s kind of like ziplining, in that there is an intense round of signing release forms absolving the YMCA, the livery stable, Rocky Mountain National Park, and pretty much every person, organization, or entity in Colorado of any legal responsibility for anything that might happen, and then there is a round of equipment and instruction.  The helmets are similar, but there aren’t harnesses.

There are saddles, though.  This came as a rather odd surprise to Ginny.  Not the saddles in general – she has some experience riding horses, and saddles are only to be expected – but rather the style of saddles.  Out in the West, they ride Western Style, as one would imagine.  But in England, where Ginny learned to ride, they ride English Style.  Apparently these are two different styles.  There was a short period of adjustment, and then all was well.  Fortunately neither Magnus, Tabitha, nor Lauren had enough experience to make that difference matter.

And off they went for an hour ride around the border between the YMCA and Rocky Mountain National Park.

Right about that time Anne arrived. 

Anne is one of my friends from the UCF, the circle of bloggers that I stumbled into a few years ago.  We look after each other in some ways, celebrate and mourn together, and try to meet up whenever we can.  This is actually the second time I’ve met Anne.  She lives not all that far from the YMCA in relative terms, so she agreed to drive up and hang out with us for a bit.  As noted, I live too far from too many good people, and it is always a treat when we can fix that, however temporarily.

Anne, Kim and I hung out at the Admin Building for a while until it was time to pick up the riders, and then we headed back to the cabin where there was the Exploding Kittens game.

Lauren really needs to go to Vegas, is all I’m going to say about that.

Afterward we had a lively dinner at the cabin, packed everyone up into the van along with half a cord of firewood, and headed on down to the firepit that we’d reserved.  Because S’MORES!

They don’t do s’mores in England, apparently, mostly because they don’t really have graham crackers there.  You can only have your first s’more once, and being there to watch it happen is an amazing thing.

We sat around the fire setting marshmallows on fire, telling minute mysteries, and generally enjoying each other’s company.  Eventually Anne had to leave – she was only close to the YMCA in relative terms, and it was a long drive home for her – and a little while later we wound down and brought the night to a close.  Hanging out with good people is the best way to spend an evening.

We did a lot of just hanging out, actually.

I’m not a great fan of vacations that you need a vacation to recover from.  Vacations should be relaxing.  There should be down time.  We did our best.  There were a lot of games – Exploding Kittens, Carcassone, various permutations of cards – and more than a bit of reading.  There were conversations.  And late at night, as we wound down from our various exploits of the day, there was internet – the YMCA of the Rockies has pretty much zero cell phone service, but surprisingly strong wifi.  As noted earlier, this is my kind of camping.

When you sit out on the deck with your book, one of the things that you have to get used to is the abundance of locusts that flit about.  It’s not like they’re a swarm or anything, and they mostly stay out of your way.  But they all sound like Five O’Clock Charlie And His Poorly Maintained Biplane coming for his afternoon bombing run, and it does take a while before you can just ignore them.

One night we decided not to eat in the cabin and went into Estes Park for dinner. 

On the way back we stopped in at the local Safeway to pick up a few supplies.  I always like going to grocery stores in new places to see what’s there – they had all kinds of interesting food (bleu cheese slices for burgers, chip bags that came pre-inflated, and so on) as well as interesting people.  One time Kim was convinced she saw Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones, and for all I know she was right.  Another time there was a woman in line holding her iPad up to her ear like an old ‘70s boombox, bopping and jiving through the aisles and into the checkout lane.  Hey – marijuana is legal in Colorado, so who knows what was going on with her.  She was very nice, though.

We checked out on Sunday, though we didn’t leave right away.  The YMCA of the Rockies is pretty strict about checkout, so we were cleaned, packed and done by 10am as required.  We all hung out at the Admin Building for a while.  There were a few hands of Exploding Kittens.  An inside table got repurposed as a coin-soccer field – apparently that game, under various names, transcends both oceans and generations though specific rules and practices vary.  It was a lovely chance to spend just a little more time with our friends.

And then we were off.