AMBER WAVES OF GRAIN
Sometimes a better perspective involves increasing one’s elevation.
We landed in Denver in mid-afternoon, embarking upon only our third trip sans offspring, picking up a rental car and heading into the mountains. We’d picked Colorado because neither of us had ever been and because two of our favorite bands were playing a concert together at Red Rocks. We’d left without making any solid plans beyond hotel accommodations. It was my first time on an airplane in a year and a half.*
Whomever settled the city of Denver surely must have done so because it’s the last stretch of reasonable flat land before everything gives way to brown, stony mountains. Let’s stop here, I imagine they said. Seems good enough.
I have long loved the mountains, and though our hometown Appalachians are weathered into rounder, gentler ribs of elevation, I’ve always lusted after taller peaks. A few years ago I took a train through the Swiss Alps and could barely pull my face from the windows.
Likewise, as our Subaru strained up the hillsides, Kelly and I were enraptured by the vistas. The mountaintops peeked above others with every turn and hill ascended. Soon, we were staring at snowcaps. And that was part of the appeal, no doubt–the idea of leaving behind sultry North Carolina’s July humidity in search of a place where we could plunk our feet in the last of a winter’s snow.
We pulled into Breckenridge in the late afternoon and checked into our hotel. There was just enough time to catch a ride into the town and hop onto the gondolas that carry you up and up and up to the ski center. The evening air was crisp and cool, and soon we were bobbing through groves of lodgepole pine and quaking aspen trees, the sun setting as Peak 8 loomed above us.
We had just enough time to hop off and wander about; everything was shutting down more or less for the day. We stumbled across Sarah Jane, a twenty-something from Iowa spending her summer working the mountains, and she gave us a good lay of the land. We took time to hydrate–already, the dry air was wicking everything out of us–and sit for a while.
By then, we’d reached nearly 10,000 feet in elevation. (The Charlotte airport sits just over 760 feet.) Our bodies were telling us to drink water, to walk slower, to breathe more deeply.
Soon we were back in the cocoon of a gondola, floating above the whispering fields of snow melt filtering down, then back in the funky town that is Breck. It’s very much a little Asheville at a higher peak–everyone seemed relaxed, happy to be there. There were abundant college students. Kelly and I found our way to a restaurant patio, still quietly enamored with the idea that we would need long sleeves to eat outside here, and ordered supper at a pub. Then, we walked through town, stopping in a few shops. The Blue River, which cuts through the middle of the town, was chock full of fresh snow melt, roaring as it squeezed under bridges and through culverts. They’d had a phenomenal ski season here. Sarah Jane told us it had snowed just two weeks before we arrived.
Sleep that night came fitfully. As our bodies slumbered, our breathing naturally slowed, and we would wake up suddenly short of breath in the thin air. Our brains were stuck in eastern time; we woke up before dawn but tried to sleep until a reasonable time before going down for breakfast. Kel hit up the hotel’s oxygen bar to recharge.
Later, we walked into Breck and caught the lift back to the ski center, splurging a bit on a day pass. We rode a small chairlift halfway up the slope, then zoomed down an alpine slide (think fiberglass luge course). Then, we took a larger lift up to the Vista Haus, getting our noses over the 11k elevation mark. We were still a couple thousand feet from the top of Peak 8, but we could look out on an entire range of “14-ers,” including Mt. Evans. We found Sarah Jane again, who was working a high element ropes course. She snapped a photo of us.
Later, we decided to try the zip-line course. We picked up gear and took the lift to the top tower. It was exhilarating and fun to strap in and dangle from braided wire, rushing down from one tower to another. We laughed and whooped through the cool air. At the final stop, we could see a storm front coming over Mt. Guyot; a vortex whirled upward along the top of a ridge, but in the wake of adrenaline from ziplining, it hardly registered as a threat.
We turned in our gear and jumped on a single-car mountain coaster of sorts, but not long afterward there was lightning, and most of the mountain shut down. We took lunch at the lodge, then found our way back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and car.
We continued through the rocky crags to Vail, where we’d booked a night in a luxury hotel that sat just yards away from Gore Creek. It felt like we could be in Bavaria. The resort was hosting a wedding, and it was somewhat amusing to arrive in our travel wear while folks in tuxedos and evening gowns wandered about the lobby. The effect only added to the stretch of high-end sensory expressions. There were Adirondack chairs carefully arranged around firepits, an infinity pool decked in slate, and a champagne vending machine near the lobby restaurant. Occasionally a bridesmaid in a plush robe would meander from the spa on her way back to dress.
We drove into town for supper. Vail felt contrived, more annoyingly curated than Breck. (The hotel should have been an indicator, but how was I to know?) More than anything, the place felt arbitrarily expensive. It was nearly $50 to park in the public garage down the street from the Four Seasons. Maybe in Manhattan. But here?
Nonetheless, we took our meal once more outside, dining on bison and mountain trout. We shopped for gifts for our kiddos, then returned to the hotel–the wedding party thumping along on the veranda–where we took our books out by the creek. When the sun set and it became too cold, we settled in a pair of great leather chairs by the fireplace, picking at a dessert cheese plate while a guitarist strummed across the way. We retired to our room, cracking the door to our balcony to let in the night air while we slept.
We left Vail first thing Sunday morning and headed for Colorado Springs. Several friends encouraged us to hike the Garden of the Gods. The tall peaks filled our review mirrors as we came down.
Garden of the Gods sits in the foothills at the southern end of the Front Range of the Rockies. It has the appearance of a prehistoric valley; absurdly steep crags bolt up from the ground. We had enough time to hike a short loop, limbered up and full of blessed oxygen as we were by a return to only 6,000 feet. We climbed an iron-red trail up to a rocky overlook, feeling our way on a minor rock climb, peering across scrubby Gambel oak trees covering the valley toward Pikes Peak, another 14-er. In the two hours or so we hiked, we ran across two separate people wearing Appalachian State t-shirts and another person in ECU gear. Unfortunately we were on a tight timeline–we could have stayed much longer, but we needed to get back to Denver and check into our hotel before the concert that evening.
The concert was the genesis of sorts for the entire trip–somewhere I found out that Lake Street Dive and the Avett Brothers were playing Red Rocks Amphitheater. We built our itinerary around it.
I first learned about Red Rocks as a teenager thanks to a Dave Matthews Band live album recorded there. I knew it was a place where great musicians had played, and it occupied a sort of imaginary landmark status in my brain. I could only wonder what it looked like–until we drove up and parked and stood in line and walked in.
It was breathtaking–just as intimate and yet expansive as I’d imagined. We settled into the 26th row–a perfect perch in so many ways, close to the stage, but far enough back to appreciate the vista just beyond. Lake Street Dive played a shorter set as the opening band. The Avett Brothers took the stage near dusk. Thunderstorms had loomed around Denver that evening, and at one point we were certain we’d have to scurry under a rock somewhere, but the music started and eventually we stopped nervously looking up.
The Avetts’ set was full of sentimental favorites and new stuff. In line before the show, we were humored by a trio of obsessive uber-fans chatting about the songs the band had not only played in its two previous shows but also the tunes they’d played at sound check. There was something wonderful about seeing nine thousand people cheer on a band that had blossomed just miles from where we live in North Carolina. The thunderstorms had moved off toward Denver, far away but still very much in sight, and you could hear the crowd gasp when a brilliant bolt of lightning dropped silently to the ground.
We slept in Monday morning, having finally begun to adjust to Mountain Time, and walked to a nearby McDonald’s for breakfast. It was teeming with people both docile and seemingly malignant: homeless in search of coffee, trannys and pimps at the end of the night shift, addicts selling cell phones from backpacks to fund their next fix. Kelly and I absurdly stood out.
The city center was rougher than others I’d experienced. The 16th Street mall, a block from our hotel, was touristy and full, but a block or two away it was easy to find folks asleep flat on the sidewalk. By a wonderful serendipity, two of Kelly’s meat-eating friends happened to be in town; one was visiting from Prague, and the other had moved to Boulder. They met at a barbecue restaurant a few blocks from the baseball stadium–and in a part of town that felt like it could belong in west Baltimore.
After lunch we walked back to the hotel and decided to spend the afternoon on the pool deck, which sat six floors up and on top of the parking garage. The water was warm, and the absence of humidity made it easy to dry off. Dad had texted to suggest we try out the Cruise Room, a tucked-away bar in the Oxford Hotel that was a precise replica of a bar on board the Queen Mary. It was lit in neon pink lighting and full of Art Deco artifacts. We enjoyed a martini before dinner, relaxing, people watching. There was a complimentary bourbon tasting in the hotel lobby.
Then we walked a block down to Union Station, the soaring train depot downtown, for our last supper of the vacation. We ate under yet another patio awning overlooking fountains outside the station. (It only now occurred to me that, Red Rocks concert included, we ate supper outside every night of the trip.) We had a delightful meal and another drink, since we were walking home anyway. By then we were both aching for our kids in a sweet sort of way. I imagined Julia’s tight embrace, and Thomas’s nuzzle, and Annie’s soft blonde head tucked under my chin.
We took our time strolling back, each of us letting our minds wander, then tidied up the room so that our morning could move slightly slower. When we woke up, we showered and finished packing, found some coffee, and checked out to head to the airport.
In less than two weeks we will take off again with our children to spend another week at the coast; this was the perfect lead-up for our annual family vacation. I didn’t lose myself in the mountains so much as I paused my brain and put away the anxieties of work and grad school. I lived into the moment–measuring each shallow breath on the high slopes, unfurling the minutes spent reading by Gore Creek, swallowing the enormity of these hills, the grandeur of Red Rocks, the seediness of an urban McDonald’s.
We deplaned at Charlotte and into heat and humidity, and within an hour we were hugging our children and busying ourselves with the little tasks of returning home from a time away, making lists and sorting laundry and trying to conjure up a meal. Meanwhile, I walked over to the fridge, where I’ve tacked my list of New Year’s resolutions up with a magnet, and quietly crossed off number nine.
*Returning to the airport felt a bit like a devilish homecoming. Somehow, I managed the entire span of 2018 without stepping foot on an airplane, and I had been reduced to common folk status, my frequent flier card long since expired and my status as somebody in American Airlines’ perspective faded away.
Oddly, the experience flying to and from Denver was far more bearable than I’d prepared for. Somehow, having zero expectations for my travel experience allowed me to appreciate even the smaller measures of the day: not being dead last (and involuntarily surrendering my luggage) in the boarding line; drawing a flight that had a meal service; departing and arriving more or less as planned. I wasn’t a platinum/diamond/superlative VIP in my former life as a traveling fundraiser, but the modicum of status I enjoyed ironically made me all the more in a hurry, all the more stressed about making sure I was at the front of the line, and all the more inconvenienced whenever things turned the wrong way.