A Sense of Home

After three months out of the country, it’s taken awhile to settle back into some semblance of normal, and I’m not sure we’re really there yet. The question of what constitutes “normal” lingered throughout the summer as John and I went our separate ways to a large extent. That wasn’t a bad thing; after spending 24 hours a day together for 13 weeks, we needed some space! John spent much of the summer engaged with his seasonal jobs: transporting hikers and dogs back and forth along the rocky Eldora road to the Hessie Trail, and umpiring community co-ed softball, hustling behind home plate, defraying the protests of drunk players and taking way too many balls in the shins. I delved into my new job as an adventure travel guide with Adventures in Good Company and spent the early part of the summer working on acclimatization and fitness so that I’d be able to keep up with my clients. We reconnected with friends, enjoyed as many days as possible hiking in the high country and riding our bikes up the steep grades of Gilpin County, which didn’t feel quite so steep after the mountains of Portugal.

In July I guided my first AGC trip, a week of glorious hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. Immersed in the rugged, windswept, wildflower-festooned, still snowy landscape, my heart and spirit came alive in this landscape that I know so well. It was both disturbing and reassuring to witness the results of the vast East Troublesome Fire of 2020: blackened carcasses of lodgepole and ponderosa pine, spruce and fir, ringed by a sea of lush green ground cover slowly reclaiming its place, nourished by early season runoff. Herds of elk, scurrying marmot and pica, opportunistic gray jays, bald eagles, Rocky Mountain goats, countless deer and one loan foraging moose added to our daily logs. We even came upon and learned some rather intimate details concerning a just-completed evacuation of two badly injured climbers who had fallen while ascending one of the “glaciers” (permanent snowfields, I was quick to clarify) above the Bear Lake trailhead. That was an important lesson for our participants, and I was pleased to see them, for the most part, closely following our protocols. I was excited to share my knowledge of this unique environment while also honing my guiding skills alongside my understated and exceptional co-guide, Alicia Weaver, and I returned home at the end of the week exhausted, fulfilled and gratified.

RMNP: Mid-summer night's moon slowly sets behind darkened massifs.  Sleep evades.  

My next trip was in the Snowy Range of Wyoming, working alongside my dear friend Brenda Porter, with whom I guided in Cuba in 2019. Brenda has worked for AGC since its inception 25 years ago and is one of the most open-hearted, warm and positive people I have ever known. She is also a consummate naturalist and talented sketch artist, and spending time with Brenda in the outdoors is like being in a private experiential field school.

The Snowy Range is a Rocky Mountain chain in southern Wyoming. Although similar to the mountains of the Colorado Front Range, the Snowies feel more rugged to me. The area was heavily glaciated, and the landscape is dotted with countless small, high altitude lakes alongside vast boulder and scree fields. There is also a preponderance of mineral deposition, resulting in colorful rock striations covering the full spectrum of the rainbow. Our group based itself in a simple, historic inn in Centennial, WY, an Old West town on the eastern edge of the Snowy Range, from which we made our daily forays into the mountains.

This particular adventure was essentially a teaching trip, helping participants learn the skills necessary to safely enjoy high mountain hiking. Under Brenda’s guidance, we covered a wealth of information in one short week, including map and compass use, weather preparedness and response, what and how to pack, Leave No Trace, the 10 Essentials, dehydration, altitude sickness, flora and fauna, self care and more. For me, it was an opportunity to put into clear language what I have internalized and consider rather innate through years of back country adventuring but have never actually taught before, and I so appreciated Brenda’s skillful teaching and mentoring.

Stepping over fields of granite, glacial moraine, 
glassy turquoise calls me to shed my clothes.
Plunging into breath-stealing water, 
I retreat to prickly grasses warmed by late afternoon sun.

In late summer I spent 10 days in Missouri (which I do not recommend at any time of year!), helping my mother begin the monumental process of downsizing in anticipation of her imminent move to Colorado. We meticulously went through every room in her apartment, organizing books, papers, clothes, camping gear, music, art and collections into four piles: dump, recycle, donate, keep. One day we filled Mom’s almost vintage Subaru Forester completely full of family heirlooms and drove hours onto the Missouri plains to two different county historic museums to donate antique hand crafted furniture, toys and boxes of exquisite homemade clothing, quilts, embroidery and linens. Another day we took a collection of my grandfather’s WWII and Korean War memorabilia to the Missouri Military Museum, where I listened to a lengthy conversation between my mother and the curator about my grandfather’s service in what was, without doubt, a vastly different political era. Most days, though, we just processed unbelievable amounts of STUFF to go to thrift stores and into my mother’s and all of her neighbors’ garbage and recycling bins. By the end of the visit we were both emotionally drained and completely overwhelmed by the new shared direction our respective lives were taking.

By that point John and I had been home three months and we were ready to hit the road together again. I hadn’t seen my aunt in several years and so, as we both love the Pacific Northwest, we headed for Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. We took several days to get up there, stopping along the way to ride and take a little look around.

2000: The Grand Teton.   
Schuyler and I hiked 
In the wee hours
Under heavy cloud coverage,
Threat of rain ever present.
Thick raspberry bushes, 
Large animal startled.  
Late summer.  
Bear? 
Steep, scree-covered hillside, 
Final approach, 
Decision. 
Thunder, clouds descending. 
Climbing gear 
Back in packs. 
Retreat.

In Idaho, we rode the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a rails-to-trails project that roughly follows the Coeur d’Alene River across the state’s panhandle. We encountered several individuals that day on recumbent trikes. One woman shared that she had had a stroke some years before and was no longer able to balance sufficiently to ride an upright bike. An older man told us he suffered from chronic back injuries and the trike afforded him the ability to exercise and enhanced his independence. He obviously also thrilled in his trike’s electric assist, as not long after we left him, he quickly caught up to us and sped down the trail with a casual over-the-shoulder wave. As always, when I encounter people utilizing adapted sports equipment, I was inspired by human perseverance and determination.

Stopping for the night in Spokane, WA, we checked into a funky, refurbished downtown hotel. It was cold and wet and neither of us especially felt like camping. The choice of nearby restaurants basically fell into the “fried, fast food, or beef” categories and we weren’t feeling too inspired by any of it. I was thinking PB&J might have to suffice, until we came upon a small, chef-owned Mexican-Caribbean restaurant in the homeless/bus station district. The owner was the total doppelganger of our old friend Matt Zaitzew and we immediately all took a liking to each other. We passed a couple of hours bundled up on his outdoor patio, enjoying boutique tequila drinks, ceviche and nopales tacos.

We spent a few days with my dear Aunt Sharon in Olympia, sharing meals, playing with Maizie the golden retriever, and taking day trips to Gig Harbor and the Pacific coast. John and I enjoyed riding some of Olympia’s extensive paved bike paths, stopping to pilfer wild blackberries and grock the cedars and dense foliage surrounding the trails. It was great to see Sharon and I was glad to share a little bit of “normalcy” with her, such as it is. We also spent a good hour visiting a Wilderness Systems distributor and learning about their state of the art foot-pedaled sea kayaks, which present a real possibility for my future ability to sea kayak. Talk about adapted equipment!

Finally arriving on the Olympic Peninsula, we slowed down, exploring tide pools, hiking in the rain forest, staring up at barely visible tops of impossibly tall trees, stacking rocks on empty beaches, absorbing the power of the Pacific Ocean, watching long sunsets, staring across the bay to Vancouver Island (wishing we could emigrate!) and discovering yet another little rails-to-trails project within Olympic National Park.

Pacific beach:
Crabs, jelly fish, sand dollars, bull kelp. 
Glassy stones, 
Thousands of miles from home.

Rainforest:
Cedar driftwood, Buddha in rocks. 
Deep breaths of wet decomposition, 
Mossy.

Reality:
Ancient people, lost land, logging.

Our final day on the road, headed home, I received an email from AGC, seeking a guide for a last minute substitution on a Utah trip starting the next day. I called the program manager, quickly consulted with John and accepted the gig, doing a 16-hour turnaround before flying the next afternoon to St. George, UT. I was delighted to guide with Linda Kogan, who is a close friend of two mutual guide friends of mine (Brenda Porter and Karen Immerso), and about whom I had already heard so much. Linda welcomed me to the trip and, mere days after leaving the rainforest, I found myself in the splendor of autumn in the high Utah desert. Over the course of the next week, Linda and I worked seamlessly together, guiding 10 delightful women in Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef and Arches National Parks, as well as Kodachrome State Park and Little Wild Horse slot canyon. Every day of that trip was characterized by spectacular hiking, an ongoing study of Utah geology with bits of cultural history thrown in, and unbelievable weather, exactly what you would expect on the Colorado Plateau in late autumn: mostly hot, dry and sunny, with a touch of rain, snow and wind thrown in for good measure. It could not have been more perfect!

The desert is ancient. 
Dry skin long ago cracked, eroded.
Footsteps in sand, gone!
(Could it be Diplodocus?)
By water, wind and time.
Volcanic rocks mixed together 
with sedimentary layers,
like an accidental birthday cake.
Lifted, torn, split, collapsed.
Ancient peoples - again! - 
Painting, pecking
Visions
Of time, travel, return.
Sit. 
Breathe.

And so it is now winter here at 8,600 feet in Rollinsville. It happened so quickly, indecipherably, or maybe I just wasn’t here. One day – it had to have been a Monday – the aspen leaves were gone, the sky grayed, a little snow fell, enough to make our footing on the recently plowed roads tenuous, and it was winter. I dread donning my snowshoes (f*!#ing snowshoes, as I lovingly call them), but the day will be here soon enough when it’s either that or go to Boulder to get some outdoor exercise. For this former backcountry skier, snowshoeing is somewhat of an embarrassment and I am hoping for some warmish days on the flats so I can get my jollies on my trike. We are two weeks away from moving my mother into our basement and daily phone calls, negotiations and logistics define our days. John is hard at work, coaching both the middle school girls’ and high school boys’ basketball teams at the same time. It’s crazy! I am not working much this winter, which is probably a good thing, as someone has to keep the fire burning and the soup simmering.

It is truly a lesson in the circle of life.

On this Thanksgiving day, I am grateful for the new Rollinsville Zen Center!

11 thoughts on “A Sense of Home

  1. Andre, I have so loved reading about your adventures, both with and without John. You are amazing, my friend, and your writing is exquisite and image creating.

    It has made my day warmer on a cold MN day, immersing myself in your descriptions!

    Much love. Jan

  2. Oh I love following along on your travels through your beautiful descriptions! I am indeed grateful that we get to work together! I loved our trip to the Snowys and your kind words mean so much to me. I absolutely learned from you and loved working with warm-hearted you.
    What an adventure with your mom! I hope the move and settling in to life in the mountains goes well for all!

  3. Andre- you truly are gifted with words. I have been transported all over the country with you and never left my seat! Thank you for sharing your beautiful life story and for everything you do! ❤️

  4. It is always a sheer treat to read your words( poems-oh my!) and look at the fabulous places and people you come across on your adventures–
    So appreciate that you share them with all your friends. Hope the transition with mom goes smoothly.

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