Map My World

I love maps, the real fold out ones, and have for as long as I remember. When my parents would take us on holiday it was always on a road trip out here in the west, usually pulling a camper. For the weeks leading up to the actual departure date, I would study the old Rand McNally fold out maps or a bound atlas of all places we were going. 

There was no Google or Siri back then to give me every detail of the route so I had to find the starting and ending point on the map then fill in the blanks myself. I’d carefully follow the lines from point to point, noting every town, every named forest or park and commit every highway number and every turn to memory. Once we’d leave, I would l follow along the map as we drove letting my mind sync what I was physically seeing with the corresponding place on the map. 

Of course every new town we’d come to was an adventure. Without Google, Yelp or Siri, we’d roll into some random small town and have no idea what the most recommended place to have lunch was, where the best coffee was or where to find the cheapest gas. Basically, we’d just drive around until we’d find a service station, then drive around some more until we found a café that looked “open”. If there was some sort of establishment promising a three headed snake farm or the world’s largest foil ball, well, then all the better. As a bonus, those mom-and-pop cafes always had free “local” maps in those cluttered information stands near the entrance so I would happily leave with a library of new materials to pour over as we continued our travels. 

I was never really all that big on buying a bunch of crappy souvenirs but instead chose to anchor my memories to points on the map. Okay, maybe there would be the ocassional leather chaps from Mexico or “must have” bag of polished rocks from a truck stop in Arizona, but those were one-of-a-kind treasures not to be passed up. When we’d get back home, I’d retrace our entire route on a map, and along with the associated brochures I’d picked up, could vividly reconstruct the details of every town, café, National Park, historical marker and point of interest (like the three headed snake farm!). I could spend days dissecting each section of the trip and put it all back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I would take all those experiences, lay them across a map and have a visual story I could commit to memory, ones that in most cases have lasted a lifetime. 

I’m not saying that I don’t use a GPS from time to time when I’m in skiing the backcountry or out mountain biking, because I do. I have a pretty fancy Garmin watch that tracks my route, measures calories burned, keeps me abreast of the barometric pressure changes, tracks my elevation gained, etc., and yes, I love studying the output and data when I get home. But even for the places I’ve been hundreds of times, I still love looking at a physical map before I go. If I’m going somewhere new, I’ll always take a physical map and compass with me just in case the electronics fail, and they will if you use them enough. I figure it’s like sailing across the ocean, you may have all the state-of-the-art electronic navigation systems available, but if they fail hundreds or thousands of miles from land, you damn sure better know how to use a sextant and a map or the results may be quite unsavoury. 

Today, decades since those family road trips with my parents, nothing has changed — I still love maps. Wherever we go, domestic or abroad, I still love buying a genuine hold-in-your-hand, fold out map and will spend hours and hours studying it before we leave. And yes, I still pick up those free maps and brochures in the information stands at service stations and cafes.

I love the tactile feel of a map, even the sound of the paper when I’m unfolding it (and trying to re-fold it). But more importantly, there is something that makes me feel connected to a place if I can actually see a paper map of it, use my finger to trace the places I might want to go, become familiar with the town names or see the graphic contours of the landscape and how trails intersect with them. Once I finally get there, all the experiences will begin to fill in the blanks on the map…the languages, the people, actually seeing the landscape, seeing the landmarks, eating the local food and all the other experiences hiding in the fabric of a physical map. To me, a map is nothing more than a story waiting to be told or another adventure to be had. 

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.

Invisibility cloak

At this very moment, I’m camped somewhere in Utah. It’s well below freezing outside but I’m comfortably burrowed in my little off-road teardrop camper, tapping away at this keyboard. 

We ordered this camper back in the spring of 2020 in anticipation of being able to hit the ground running once I jumped into an early retirement in the spring of this year (2021). Well, that was the plan, but the pandemic hit and all the global supply issues meant our little camper would be stuck in the build queue for almost 17 months. As frustrating as it was, I can say with all honesty it’s been well worth the wait.

We finally picked it up in late August and as of tonight, it’s night 17 on my way to a goal of 20 nights for 2021. With the snow falling in the high country back home in Colorado, I decided to come west where it’s at least a little drier. However, as I’m figuring out it’s only marginally warmer. 

In the roughly seven months since I’ve retired, I’ve come to some realizations about how I want to spend my time and who I want to spend it with going forward. That’s a nice way of saying I’m starting to realize just how much I love having time to myself AND how much I like doing whatever I want, whenever I want. I guess I never realized how accustomed to “noise” I’d become working in an office for all those years. Maybe it’s similar to living in a large city and not noticing the honking and sirens after a while. Some people find comfort in the noise of life and constant interactions with people. I do not. Sometimes I just need space to think and chase creative ideas around. 

I think one of the harshest realities of this whole COVID thing has been its actually forced people to be by themselves. For a world so connected to everyone else, I’m sure that’s probably put a large part of our society in a very uncomfortable place. I’m also pretty sure there are people who aren’t liking what they see when they are forced to look inward instead of only outward. 

I for one was built for this isolation. As a matter of fact, I tell people all the time that I’ve been training for this very thing since 1961. I’ve always loved having time to myself, even as a kid. I could occupy my time for hours by simply throwing a stick in a creek and following its journey downriver. I could sit in the desert and stare into the distance for hours, trying to pick up as many details in the vastness as possible. Part of becoming an Eagle Scout required I spend a couple of nights all alone in a tent out in the desert. For some kids in my troop, that was a traumatic experience! For me, it was utopia and I never wanted it to end. I knew the Troop leaders knew exactly where I was, but it was fun to pretend I was completely off the map and not a sole on earth could find me. 

Since getting the camper, I’ve humourously started thinking of it as an invisibility cloak. I can hitch this thing up and simply disappear for a few days. No internet, no social media, no news, no stupid politics, no calls, no texts, you know, just like being invisible. Other than my wife, I didn’t tell a single person I was leaving town, much less where I was going and how long I’d be gone. I quietly hitched the invisibility cloak to my Tacoma under the cover of darkness and drove away. I’m sure once I get back home I’ll have lots of emails and texts to delete, but until then, I’ll bask in the joy of being invisible.

So, now that I’ve sufficiently disappeared, my only plans for the next few days are to shoot some desert photography, explore some new trails and roads, sip a little whisky by a campfire and catch up on some reading. My only regret being off the grid at the moment is I can’t connect to my Spotify account without cell service, but at least I have my old iPod Nano for just such an emergency! I guess that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being under “the cloak”.  

And now I hear the pitter patter of light rain hitting the roof…just as my laptop battery is dying.

Invisibility cloak…yeah, thanks Harry Potter and Hiker Trailers, I’m totally diggin’ it. 

Time for some sleep. 

Achtung! Langsames Fahrzeug (Slow Moving Vehicle)

A month or so ago I finally reached the end of my tether with the constant outside tugging at my time and decided I had to get away. I needed time to think and dream freely without the constant filters of daily life, see friends who I haven’t spent enough time with lately and hopefully flex some creative muscles which I’d neglected for far too long. To do that, I decided I’d go find and explore the thinnest red lines in my Rand McNally Road Atlas…and some places that it didn’t identify at all.

When I started thinking about the trip, I read through a few overlanding blogs and found some “roads” that had long been forgotten by the mainstream. I thought by finding and following these little known tracks, it might be just what I needed to have some mini adventures and hopefully get me back to my customary slow and low key pace. Once I had my ideas in mind, I contacted a couple of friends to let them know I’d be in the area then proceeded to operate under radio silence until it was time to roll out.

I’ve done a fair amount of roaming the Southwest in a VW van (1987 Westfalia campervan) and needless to say, road tripping in that thing was the pinnacle of slow travel. It’s a way of life that I loved then and appreciate even more now. Even though I drive a Toyota Tacoma and can easily maintain modern interstate speeds, I decided for this trip I’d channel that VW way of life and wouldn’t drive over 60 mph for the entire trip. I figured at that speed I could still move on down the road and cover some ground, but like traveling in the Westy, I’d also see more and be more prone to pulling over and getting my camera out. I also resolved to forgo tech assistance and only use printed maps or get beta from locals to find my way around.

My first stop was to see a couple of friends over in Summit County, just 45 minutes from home. I hadn’t seen my good friend Kellyn in far too long and we had a laundry list of things to catch up on so I arranged to have an early breakfast with her. After that, I’d meet up with Lu, my regular backcountry skiing partner, to do some climbing and skiing near Mt Baldy down near Breckenridge.

Skiing in the backcountry with Lu is always good for my soul because we both honestly appreciate the lost art of using our time in the backcountry to actually talk to each other, not be out there to prove anything (but she skis really, really well!). With 14” of surprise new snow overnight, let’s just say it was well worth the exhausting second lap and surely one of the best days of climbing and skiing of the season.

From Summit County I drove north to Steamboat Springs where I wanted to catch up with some other friends (Cindi, Greer and Nate), all great friends who I regrettably haven’t been able to catch up face-to-face with in quite a while. Seriously, I have some absolutely amazing friends and having a day like this where I could see lots of them immediately reminded me how lucky I really am.

The drive to Steamboat isn’t all that long, a couple of hours with good roads, but I managed to stretch it out to almost three and a half by holding to my “must drive under 60 mph rule” and stopping to look around when something caught my eye. It’s almost startling when you’re not consumed with the omnipresent “buzz” of city life how you can actually slow to a natural pace and enjoy your surroundings.

Leaving Steamboat the next morning is where I knew the drive would start to get more interesting. I’d follow Highway 40 as far as Dinosaur, CO then leave the pavement and start following some of those obscure  roads and tracks I’d found in the overlanding blogs.

One thing I love about living in the west is the wide open spaces. I love seeing for miles and driving without seeing but one or two cars per hour. Leaving lightly traveled Highway 40 meant seeing even less people and isolating myself even more. Having grown up in the Desert Southwest I’ve always loved those big open places and crave getting back in them every once in a while.

So I ducked the paved roads and started tracking my way across dirt roads and eventually onto vague two track trails that seemed to terminate at the very end of the earth. I crossed over the 40 a couple of times, but I think I got about 70 miles of remote dirt before getting to the Green River near Jenson, UT.

The drive on these remote, rough and sometimes tiny tracks was everything I hoped for…no cell service and I saw nothing and everything at the same time. Dare I say I even saw myself? I even came across a sheep camp where the herder, Don, lived far from anyone in a covered wagon. Super interesting to think that way of life can survive in the world we now live in.

Eventually I made my way over to Park City to visit my good friend Jason, who I’ve shared plenty of backcountry and travel adventures with over the years. He guides in the St Elias Mountains up in Alaska during the summers so I wanted to catch up with him before he headed out.

We spent a couple of days skiing, one day at Deer Valley where he works in the winter and one incredibly nasty day in the Wasatch backcountry. Mostly though, we just spent some quality time catching up, laughing until our sides hurt and we might have squeezed a couple of local beers into the mix here and there.

From Park City I headed down through Provo Canyon and made my way onto the 191 though Price Canyon towards Moab.

I had hoped the 191 would be a casual drive all the way into Moab, but what I found was that it’s a preferred shortcut from Interstate 70 into Salt Lake City and was equivalent to driving a NASCAR circuit. My resolve to drive 60 mph or under was put to the test and found myself pulling to the hard shoulder pretty often to let cars and semis blast by me at 80+ mph, but I stuck to it.

Some of our oldest friends, Scott and Janet have a place in Moab and as they were fortunately in town, it seemed a natural place to post up for a night. Not only are they incredibly fun to be around and any time spent with them winds up being a laugh-a-thon, but Janet is known for throwing down some seriously tasty food and Scott has the science of the margarita mastered, of which I may have partaken in one too many, just sayin’.

 

I won’t lie and say I didn’t wake up the next morning in a bit of tequila haze. I had planned to get out fairly early because I wanted to explore some backroads on the way back to Colorado, but that didn’t exactly go to plan. Instead, I stuck around to gorge myself with the breakfast Janet had prepared. With  “a few” cups of coffee downed to clear the cobwebs, I finally headed out to Road 128 just north of Moab. I’ve driven this road dozens and dozens of times and I never, ever get tired of it. Such an amazing valley.

However, what I hadn’t done in a while is take the La Sal Loop or driven some of the four wheel drive accessible sections of the Kokopelli Trail, or any of the Cisco Wash trails.

The La Sal Loop is a stunningly beautiful drive that leaves the desert floor and climbs up into the Manti La Sal Mountain Range. Spectacular ALL THE WAY but as I climbed through the aspen groves still bare from the winter, I vowed to come back in the autumn to see the colour changes!

The Kokopelli Trail and Cisco Wash system were full on desert driving with lots of rocks and sandy arroyos to cross. I chose carefully where I drove because I don’t have a winch (yet) and I didn’t want to risk getting myself into too big of a jam and have to make the walk of shame out to get help. All in all it was a remote, rough and an amazingly beautiful crawl through the high desert.

When I made my way back out to I-70 around Westwater, I knew it’d be pretty much interstate driving all the way back to Evergreen. Still, once I got out there, I set the cruise control on 60 mph and cowered in the right lane as the posted 80 mph speed limit seemed to be only a suggestion instead of a law.

When I approached to town of Fruita, just across the border into Colorado, I spotted what may be the the highlight of my trip. It may have also been THE ONLY vehicle I passed in five days. This van was definitely an oldie and the dude driving it seemed about as legit as it gets, but it was the sticker across the back that made me smile and reminded me why I originally set out to be a right lane and dirt road dweller for 1,136 miles.

Old friends, new friends, wide open spaces, slow travel, big skiing, new beers, strong margaritas…couldn’t ask for more.

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, drive slow, be a good friend and live simply.

Lost in Lobato

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A few years ago (2004) I read an essay by Alison Gannett in a holiday Patagonia catalogue. In the essay, she talks about wandering through Africa, looking for somewhere specific, but getting lost in the mountains of a place called Lesotho. By abandoning her “goal” for a short time, she learned things about the people of some random little village and more importantly, some things about herself. As is most often the case, the original goal is sometimes not the end game, but instead the journey becomes the purpose. This article has stuck with me for a long time (obviously) and to this day remains an important reference in my own journey through life. You can read it here if you’re interested:

http://www.patagonia.com/ca/patagonia.go?assetid=48936

This past week we did a little road trip down to Santa Fe. Instead of blasting down I-25 at the speed of lunacy like everyone else, we opted to cut over into central Colorado, do a little biking, explore a couple of places we rarely get to and take those lesser used roads as we made our way to the Land of Enchantment.

I don’t think anyone who knows me would be shocked by the fact I would take a circuitous route to get there, or anywhere I go for that fact. For a few days before leaving, I’d been looking at maps and reading about the areas we’d be driving through trying to get a little info on local history, interesting characters and some local’s faves for food and drink.

When I look at maps thinking about a road trip, I always seem to find myself tracing those dull, almost translucent lines across vast expanses between the thicker, more heavily fonted direct lines indicating major roads. The way it worked out in this trip was that I had a Point A (Boulder) and a Point B (Santa Fe), but connecting those points involved doing so via Point D, then Point E en route to Point C while passing Point G, but only after stopping at Point F. There is life in all these places and I want to see it and experience it.

Leaving Buena Vista after our first night and heading south toward New Mexico, I found myself lost in thought while imagining the area a hundred years ago and what life in those vast open spaces much have been like. As we continued on, I remembered reading about an old bridge crossing the Rio Grande and how at the time it was considered a structure “modernizing” travel by efficiently connecting some of these remote communities in all seasons. The Lobato Bridge eliminated the need to travel dozens, if not hundreds of miles to find a bridge to cross the river. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try and find it.

We didn’t have a map with us but through my previous reading and tracing lines on maps in my office, I thought I had a pretty good idea how to get to it. My basic information was from the small town of Antonito, Colorado I needed to go east on Road G. Of course in the town of Antonito, Road G was not marked as Road G, but the totally intuitive 5th Street, or maybe it was 6th Street? I eventually deduced 5th Street (or 6th) would turn into Road G because it was the only road heading east which extended past the city limits. I suppose I could’ve pulled out my GPS, but what fun would that be?

About half an hour after leaving the pavement, Donna gave me “the eye” and asked, “Do you really have any idea where you’re going?” Well, I sort of believed I knew where I was going so I threw out some confident words and soldiered on east at 35 mph leaving an impressive contrail of dust — which would eventually settle back to earth without anyone but us and a few crows ever having seen it.

Eventually, that immense and vast landscape seemed to fall off a little and there it was, the Lobato Bridge. Built in 1892 by the Wrought Iron Company of Ohio, this bridge is the southernmost crossing of the Rio Grande River in Colorado and remains one of the few one-lane truss style bridges in the Western United States. This was state of the art engineering back in the day and probably one of the crown jewels for the Wrought Iron Company, yet it was now likely nothing more than a footnote in the county records of Conejos County…unless you’re me looking for these random types of things.

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Lobato Bridge in Conejos County, Colorado

There were no souvenir stands with commemorative pins and cheap 50/50 cotton-polyester blend t-shirts featuring Minions standing on the bridge and no 64 oz. tankards of pop on offer, but this was good stuff. It was obscure, historic, way off the beaten path and certainly contained infinite stories related to the history of the region. I looked around and could imagine a family traveling this way in a horse drawn wagon taking hours if not days to travel what I had in about 45 minutes. I imagined them being blown away at the modern convenience of this bridge as they made their way east or west across this huge expanse of openness and how appreciative they must have been for this simple bridge, something we take for granted every single day.

After another 20 minutes of impressively lengthy dust contrails as we continued east toward the communities of Mesita and Jarosa, we spotted a lone grave a little way off the road. Literally no one or nothing for miles and strangely there was the grave of Torrey Marie Foster. Who was she? How did she die? Did she die here on the spot or was she placed there for some reason I’d never know? I saw no remnants of an old home site anywhere nearby to maybe explain the situation. I honestly intend to at least try and find the answers to these questions about Torrey.

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The grave of Torrey Marie Foster, somewhere in Conejos County, Colorado

After another couple of historic bridge crossings, more singing along with Taylor Swift on our iPod (loudly and without shame), Native American Pueblos, random antelope sightings and more meandering translucent line following, we finally made it to Santa Fe, about six hours after we originally thought we’d arrive.

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Taos Junction Bridge near Pilar, New Mexico

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San Lorenzo de Picuris, Picuris Pueblo, New Mexico

While certainly beautiful and featuring some amazing food, the original idea of winding up in Santa Fe as the terminus of our road trip seemed a bit anti-climactic. Turquoise tourists working themselves into a consuming frenzy clogged every nook and cranny of the city making it near impossible to take a single moment to consider the history of the place or enjoy any of the abundant art galleries. We found ourselves feeling anxious and frantic instead of relaxed and inspired as we had hoped. I didn’t even feel like searching for and buying that commemorative rubber tomahawk I really wanted. We did manage to get a couple of good mountain bike rides early in the mornings, but that was about the extent of it. Honestly, after just a few hours in town, I think we were both ready to hit the road again and do some more exploring off the beaten path.

I know it sounds super cliché, but I’ve again pleasantly reaffirmed that for me, the journey really is the destination. I love staying off those thick red lines on maps and seeing where those translucent gray lines will take me.

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Backroads between Mesita, CO and Jarosa, New Mexico

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The Taos High Road near Nambe, New Mexico

I love getting lost in places like Lobato. And like Alison said, in the end getting to Santa Fe never really mattered at all.

Climb high. Ski hard. Travel far. Live simply.