Kicking (and Gliding) at The Home Ranch

Or how I  learned to channel my inner aerobic animal. By Nicholas O’Connell

It looks so easy. When experienced skate skiers glide along with grace and fluidity, it appears almost effortless. And yet when I’ve tried it on cross country skis, I found it exhausting. If I have the right gear and coaching can I ever make it look easy?

This is the question I ponder during a three-day visit to the Home Ranch, an upmarket ranch located in the Elk River Valley, 40 miles from Yampa Valley Regional Airport in northern Colorado. The all-inclusive ranch includes free gear and instruction and 30 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails.

Matson Tew, a tall, lanky, enthusiastic guide, serves as my instructor. He fits me with skate skis which are lighter, shorter and skinnier than traditional cross country skis.

“Try these poles,” he says, handing me poles that come up to my chin, much longer than cross country poles, but well-suited to the long strides and glides of a skate skier. He fits me for boots and then gives me a pep talk.

“It’s one of the most challenging aerobic sports out there,” he says. “And you’re coming from sea level, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it tires you out.”

Encouraged, I try the technique. The 3-kilometer loop outside the Home Ranch is relatively flat and groomed with a wide corduroy swath, making it an ideal place to practice.

“It’s 70 percent lower body, 30 percent upper body,” he says, demonstrating the technique. “Then it’s probably 50/50 on hills.”

I try to imitate his technique. “Look over the glide ski,” he says. “Spend as much time on the glide ski as possible. Keep your feet low. Assume a dynamic stance with a low center of gravity.”

I ski back and forth, trying to keep all of these things in mind. It’s a lot of effort, but I can feel improvement.

“Do the Wizard of Oz drill,” he says. “Click your heels to get more of a glide.”

I do this and it helps. Then he suggests completing the loop. I skate well around the first portion of the track until I hit a hill and struggle to maintain the technique.

“It’s okay to use Granny Gear on the hills,” he says. “You can put the poles behind you and step up if you need to.”

I follow his lead and pole uphill. By the time I finish the course, my heart is pounding, my lungs straining.

“Nice job,” he says. “You’re a natural.”

I can’t help grinning. This is such a great workout that I want to do it again. By the time I complete a second lap, I may not be making it look easy, but I’m hitting my stride and channeling my inner aerobic animal. Afterwards, I head back to the ranch, having earned the right to gorge on the restaurant’s delicious lunch of soup, salad, and skirt steak fajitas. For more: http://www.homeranch.com/

Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and teaches for www.thewritersworkshop.net.

Postcard: Solo ski day

Backcountry skiing alone is not always dangerous and, with the right terrain choice (read: not too steep), more often enlightening. When you have nobody to talk to, you tend to think a lot. Going out alone helps me sort through my work and life in a way that can’t happen sitting in my living room, even if I’m solo. Soft turns, as on the recent day pictured here, only lead to more productive contemplation.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Mountain Passages: Only Fools Push the Season

The transition from winter to spring brings up arguments about clothing, birdsongs, and contemplative time in the mountains. By Alan Stark

Blue Eyes thinks it’s a bad idea for me to drop my clothes on the floor next to the bed. After all these years, she doesn’t quite understand the utility of having my clothing laid-out for me on the floor, ready for the next morning. I think of the floor as being my valet—the fact that my jeans, shirt, shorts, and socks are in a jumble isn’t consequential.

“Raised by wolves? Were you?”

“No, it’s just that I’m going to wear the same clothes tomorrow.”

“And those clothes were the ones you wore yesterday.”

“Could be.”

“Woof. Woof.”

IMG_2405So instead of a chest of drawers, we have a rack of wicker baskets on shelves in the closet. On my side, there is one basket each for shorts (on the bottom), sports socks and regular socks each get a basket, because socks tend to multiply exponentially in the dark, another basket for running tights/long john bottoms, and on top, a basket for running shorts/bicycle pants. The last two baskets switch places in winter and summer.

In winter and summer, the stuff being used most is always on top of the basket. For example, in the winter, the running shorts drift down to the bottom of the basket because I’m still using the bike shorts over tights for the occasional winter ride. Some veteran pieces of clothing can also be found in the baskets. Like the ratty old long-johns, with the busted seam in the crotch, that have been in the bottom of the basket for at least five years. This system gets a little confusing during transitional seasons, because the baskets become a jumble of clothing that have be to semi-sorted every day. Stuff inexplicably disappears.

“I gotta go backcountry and I’m out of long-johns.”

“Life is hard.”

“Not a helpful comment.”

“You could try doing the wash.”

“I just washed stuff yesterday.”

“Did you empty the dryer?”

“Of course.”

Snickering…”Did you dig down in the basket?”

“Oh.”

Headed up into the backcountry, I notice the willows are beginning to get serious about being yellow, and in some places, red. Boulder Creek is almost free of ice. Some days when we stop at Ned Fire to check in and pickup radios and SPOT units, we can hardly get the door open because a frighteningly cold wind is blowing hard right off of the Continental Divide that the flag is straight out. The seasonal transition comes more slowly in the High Country but just as relentlessly. Today the wind was dead calm when we checked in, the flag as limp a kitchen towel. Sure, there is more winter weather coming, both up there and down here in the foothills. It is here in the foothills, where the transition is most obvious.

IMG_2407Three days ago I was out for a jog on the South Boulder Creek Trail, when a faint puff of warm wind brushed past my face. I stopped and smiled. That little burst of warm wind from someplace south of here said the season is about to change.  Who knows where that warmth came from? Could I smell piñon smoke on the wind from down south? Nope. But if I let my imagination run wild, maybe I could.

As I was standing there thinking about the warm wind, a gang of mountain bluebirds just blasted by me on their way to the next bush. It’s wasn’t my imagination, but I rubbed my eyes to make sure. The males are mostly blue and the females are dun-colored with a mixture of blue feathers. They land in a bush, take a look around, and then head out to the next bush, glad to be headed back into the foothills and maybe the mountains.

I’m glad they are back too. Within weeks the hummers will be back too. On a warm April evening (when it isn’t snowing), we’ll be sitting on the deck with a glass of wine and hear them zoom around. Blue Eyes will hang feeders the next day.

Today I’m wearing the usual winter running rig of a light jacket, polypro, and tights. I’m overdressed. A couple of minutes ago someone bounced by in the other direction in shorts with white legs and a hoodie on top. She looked chilly but determined. It’s been a while since I was that bulletproof.

The clothing problem this time of year is simply trying to figure-out what to wear. Too much, and I end up hanging something on a fence to pickup on the way back, and too little, and I mumble to myself for the entire route about, “only fools push the season.”

And the sport drives the clothing. This is the season where the road bike crowd is still mostly dressed for winter and the running crowd is dressed for summer. For backcountry patrols, we have switched over from waterproof pants to long johns and shorts with wind pants in our packs—just in case. The Hawaiian shirts will come out on a bluebird day toward the end of March, maybe early April. Yes, Ski Patrol biggies at the national office in Lakewood would be unhappy to see us in our red vests and Hawaiian shirts, but what the hell, we’re backcountry patrollers and virtually unmanageable. Which is probably why we are backcountry patrollers.

And all this talk about transitions from winter to spring and trying to figure out what to wear is essentially like finally washing all the mag chloride from the Highlander—a guarantee that we’ll get two feet of upslop snow, twice in one week, and our first introduction to mud season on both ends of both storms.

Alan Stark is member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and volunteers in the Roosevelt National Forest. He lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge and can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Land in the Sky: Betwixt and Between

Each day at lunchtime, the collies and I are out walking through the woods on the warm and sunny side of our hill. Each day we hear the fire siren going off in East Jewett, signaling the arrival of noon. Precisely a minute later, we hear the siren in Hensonville going off, signaling noon’s arrival there. It would seem that noon takes a full minute to travel from the one fire house to the other, a distance of seven miles. The collies and I are situated right in the middle of it all. Thus in the silence between the sirens, our noon arrives.

Land in the Sky: Dream Within a Dream

In the Land of Rip Van Winkle, you spot the sign. Your journey ends here, alone. Check in at the Sleepy Dutchman Motel. Enter your room. Drop your bag beside the bed. A century of cigarette smoke slumbers in the drapes. Breathe deep the years. There is no TV, no telephone, no cell service. Take a look in the mirror. Oh how tired! Lie down. Close your eyes. One dream draws to a close, another resumes. Which one is this?

Sleepy-Dutchman

Land in the Sky: Seeking Direction

Late last fall, David Rothenberg and I spent a day on Mount Greylock. It’s the highest peak in Massachusetts and has many literary associations. For instance, Henry Thoreau climbed it in 1844 and wrote up an account. He ascended the nearly 3,500 foot mountain—in those days called “Saddle-back”—via a long valley called “the Bellows”. He described his route as “a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven.” David and I—neither of us a pilgrim—drove our cars up the auto road. We arranged to rendezvous at 8:00 a.m. in the big parking lot just below the summit.

I arrived first and had the place to myself. No other cars were in the lot. A dusting of snow had fallen overnight and prettied things up. The clouds, though, were still thick and swirling, the wind bitter, so I made straight for the historic summit lodge. As it turned out, this was the last day of operation for the season. They were preparing to shut the place down for winter. The only item still being served in the restaurant was coffee—very expensive, very bad coffee. I bought a cup and took it with me back out to the parking lot to wait for David. The coffee turned out to be tepid, so without thinking I poured it out on the parking lot macadam. I immediately felt like a litterbug. Before I got too deep into gratuitous environmental guilt, David arrived.

Neither of us brought along a map or knew where we were going, but we figured we could ask somebody along the way for directions. Neither of us had any food, but that too, we reckoned, could be bummed along the way. We cast one last look back toward the big empty parking lot, still mostly obscured by swirling clouds, and plunged down a path that turned out to be the Appalachian Trail. We were heading north. At this elevation the trees—maples, birches, and spruce—were all stunted. Soon enough the clouds parted and we had an expansive vista toward the valley below. It was like standing in the middle of a Hudson River School painting. In the distance we could see the converted factory buildings that now house the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The clouds closed back upon us and we continued our descent.

At some point we took a wrong turn and lost the Appalachian Trail and wound up on some other trail that had no name. Not that we had any idea where the Appalachian Trail would have led us, other than toward Mount Katahdin way off in Maine, but at least that path had a name.

As we continued on our journey, we lost a lot of elevation. We were in tall forest now. The bare, wet trees took on a sinister quality. At any moment the ghost of Virgil might appear, but instead we came upon a substantial man sitting eating his lunch on a boulder next to the path. I can’t remember now what all he was wearing, except for the penny loafers. I had never before seen anybody wearing penny loafers on a trail. A conversation ensued between the man on the boulder and us. It went like this.

Us: Does this path go anywhere?

Him: I think so.

Us: Have you been there?

Him: Yes

Us: Is it far?

Him: Not that far.

Us: What’s to see when you get there?

Him: Difficult to say.

Us: Well, thanks for the info!

He offered us no food and we were too embarrassed to ask for any. So we continued down the path and arrived at the place described by the man—either that or someplace just like it. We enjoyed our visit and retraced our route back up the mountain without further incident.

By the time we arrived at the parking lot, the clouds had departed and the snow had melted. The parking lot was full of shining cars and crowded with happy people out for a Sunday afternoon jaunt. As we emerged from the trail onto the parking lot, a black Jaguar pulled up close by. Three freshly-dressed holiday-makers—a man and two women—climbed out. They looked like they were looking for something pleasant to do, perhaps take a walk somewhere. They turned to us for direction.

Postcard: Rainforest dreaming

Long winter stretches of high pressure and sun in the mountains must do wonders for tropical tourism. All I find myself thinking about when the snow is subpar are scenes like this from last fall, hiking through a lush forest high above the beach and ocean, in tank tops and flip flops. Please, snow, return soon, so I can stop thinking about faraway lands and return to the season at hand.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Why I am not a Landscape Painter

Recently I stopped by Olana, home of the renowned Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. Olana is a modest castle overlooking the Hudson River. From the verandah you can see the Catskill Mountains rising in the blue faraway preferred by romantics. Back in the day, Mark Twain enjoyed visiting Olana. He called it “the exalted hill of art.” Today it’s a State Historic Site.

I made the journey to Olana to attend a presentation at which I hoped to learn a little something about the nature of art. I took a seat and waited for the presentation to begin. I considered the place in history of this place Olana and the place of history in history and how complicated everything becomes as soon as you start trying to define art or anything or even try thinking about anything, much less try to attach words to the whole unbeautiful mess. Then I looked at my boot and thought: “Now there’s a picture!”

Exercising Demons

What happens when a hockey player with an injured groin heads into the depths of hot yoga? By Mark D. Miller

 

The instructor actually convinced me that leaving was an option.

“It’s your first time? Just get a spot in the back and sit out some of the poses if you need to. Make your goal just staying in the room.”

I already knew that Bikram’s Yoga was like a Merry Prankster’s bus mentality, ‘you’re either on the bus or you’re off’, but instead of an acid trip, it was a sweat-induced mind-and-body altering transcendence. From what I had learned from friends that no longer go, once class starts, no one leaves, ever. It seemed that walking out of the 90 minute 105 degree session was akin to jumping off the bus barreling down the interstate. But psychologically, I needed an escape plan for my first hot yoga class and it was simple; I would just march right out of there, ignoring everyone and everything. No worries. I even brought my old truck in anticipation of a slippery, sweaty and disgusting retreat. The problem now though was that I knew the instructor. She was an old neighbor of mine. My plan was strictly under the pretense of anonymity.

My fear and flight mode was now off the radar. With my escape plan shot and nervous about whether I could stay in a sauna for an hour and a half, I decided I needed an edge. Instead of paying fifteen dollars for one class, I signed up for a thirty dollar, one month unlimited trial period offered to first timers.  The advantage to this, more than any mental resolve, is that I am a cheapskate; they would have to drag my dehydrated, mummified body out of there before I quit without getting my money’s worth.

I refocused my mind, deciding that three dollars a class would make me feel better about the suffering and vowed to come 10 times over the next month. With renewed purpose, I found the last spot in the back corner of the studio, a perfect hiding place for me. When I saw the other men were not wearing shirts, I pulled mine off and lay down on my mat and towel, the moist heat filling my lungs. Maybe I jinxed myself, but I remember thinking, it’s not that hot.

The instructor entered the room, turned on the lights and we all stood. The room was completely full with 30 students staring forward into a mirror spanning the entirety of the front wall. Skimpy would be modest to describe the lack of clothing being worn in the room. Between us all, we could have made one good outfit. For the most part, it was like a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot was taking a yoga break and the mirror only doubled my sensory overload of sexy, toned skin.

Even the guys, a few in snug fitting short shorts, looked like chiseled underwear models. A quick scan of the room would unconsciously result in a game of who does not belong here: the chubby guy near me, the chubby at the other side of the room, the 70 year old lady and me, a novice yogi at best, perpetual beginner at worst.

After straining my groin in a beer league hockey game at the beginning of the winter I vowed to come back stronger and more flexible. Hockey was my last competitive outlet and approaching middle aged I just wanted a few more years at a shot of glory while playing the highest level of mediocre beer-league hockey that I could, one last chance of being able to keep up, one more opportunity at winning an adult rec league championship with my buddies and one more chance of roping some sweet goals.  Hot yoga, I hoped, was going to be my fountain of youth.

With my hockey mentality, I decided to break the yoga class down into three manageable periods, thirty minutes each. Through the mirror, I could see a clock on the wall near the opposite corner of the room and could barely make out the minute hand. We started with a breathing routine. “Hands interlocked and all eight knuckles touching your chin and thumbs on your throat. Breathe in and let your elbows rise up, head looking back, fill your lungs, deeper, deeper, inhale and then exhale….”

As soon as the instructor said the word ‘exhale’, the class collectively turned into the world’s largest tire letting its air out. I was slightly startled and could not help smiling a little bit as the hissing reverberated through the room, just as the first bead of sweat ran down my flushed forehead.

As we went through the first series of poses, I concentrated on looking in the mirror at myself, focusing on my body positioning and trying to ignore the beautiful and increasingly glistening skin illuminating from my peripheral vision. The mirror did not lie and I forlornly realized that my poses sucked. This was nothing like I imagined myself looking when I did yoga on a rug in my basement. Instead of straight, elegant, smooth lines, I was discombobulated, clumsy and rough-edged. Every joint in my body was angled awkwardly at dozens of different angles. My hips had the grace of an anvil, my shoulders were never parallel to the ground and my jaw jammed uncomfortably into my chest creating a fold of chins. For all of my struggling though, the bald dude in the front was nailing it. He looked to be a least fifty but was built like a Greek god, sculpted from head to toe and holding the poses with power and grace while wearing some sort of European bathing suit. I could not help but hate him like I hated the popular kids in high school.

Just four poses of the twenty six that make up the class and I was dripping freely now. Half of my shorts were completely soaked and my cheeks were rosy red. It was here that I first noticed a pungent smell steaming up. It was fleeting and I could not be sure what it was or where, exactly, it had come from. Although it was disconcerting, my focus was on my racing heart and laboring breath. A few poses later, I looked at the clock just briefly enough to see that the minute hand was straight down. It had been thirty minutes, one period over.

As the second period began, every pore in my body was engage in the extraction of sweat. Beads that had dripped singularly now came off in bunches, then in long steady steams, landing on my towel or splattering on the rubber floor beside me. I could see everyone was steadily dripping and pools of sweat formed on each side and the in front of towels, picture exercising in a steam room using a bucket full of sweat to pour over the hot rocks. But I could not worry about that, my heart was racing out of control from trying to hold difficult postures for a minute at a time. I had to stay focused, conserve energy as much as possible. I knew I should sit some poses out, but I’ll be damned if a couple of chubby guys were going to outstretch me in a hot room.

About half way through class, we were then instructed to lie on our backs in shavasana, which is the rest phase or alternatively and appropriately to my case, the corpse pose. It is the first time we actually lie down on our mats and towels. I realized immediately the nasty smell wafting around was coming directly from my towel, which was spread on top of my mat. I concluded that it had not been washed and there was also a high probability that it had spent some time in my hockey bag, which is more disgusting than a room full of adults freely dripping sweat into puddles on the floor. When we stood up again, there was no doubt that each drop, stream and barrage rolling off my body  and onto the towel, are causing rank stink particles to exploded and radiated in the air from my corner position. I glanced at my neighbor and gave her my best sorry-about-the-smell look, but she ignored me.

When I looked back to the mirror, my face was candy apple red, while the pale skin of my chest and shoulders were now tinted a bright pink. My heart felt like it was beating on the outside of my chest and spiraling out of control. We went into more standing poses and when I dipped my head low below my waist, my eye sockets would fill with sweat. When I tucked my head to my knee, streams would rush down the small of my back, over my shoulders, falling to the floor and bombing stink from my towel, which held in the stale air like a pungent inversion.

When we stood up again, I glanced at the clock and the hand was pointing up. I was into the third period. My face was now plum red and I was wet like I was taking a shower and had just turned the water off. I could count my heart beats through the throbbing in my brain. I should have taken a break, but I am too competitive. I had gone into survival mode, using my breath to keep my brain from imploding. I could not tell you what happened most of the last 30 minutes, but I was very near to heaven or hell. When I finally left the room, I felt like a spiny puffer fish had been shoved inside my throbbing brain and  I also noticed while walking out that the clock I had used to keep time only had a second hand on it.

I was told that it is best to return in the next 48 hours to reduce the amount of soreness. Two days later I came back with a clean towel and mat. It was more of the same, a walk through hell. At one point, with maybe twenty minutes left in class, an overweight guy started to crack. It was his second class too.  I knew he had been suffering greatly but that was part of it, right? I was freaking dying myself.

Suddenly he stood up, looked pleadingly at the instructor and pointed to the door. She told him to lie down on his back and he would feel better. A few minutes later he stood again and looked at the door. “You need to concentrate,” the instructor told him. “Don’t be selfish. Think about the other people in class. You are disturbing the other students that have come to class today and are working towards a goal.” Humiliated, and seemingly to fulfill the ultimate irony, he got back into corpse pose.

A female student stood up, then took the guy by the arm, apologizing to the instructor as she led him out of the studio. He was fine and this was the only time out of 30 classes over the winter that I ever saw anyone leave or a teacher treat a student that way.  After class, another chubby male who seemed totally unbothered by the heat, claimed that not everyone has the mind power and will to make it through. My head throbbed for the rest of the day again, enough so that I believed I had discovered something vitally wrong with my brain, maybe a tumor or something.

I vowed to never return but after a few days, it kept eating at me; thirty dollars for two classes is full price and I was not raised like that. I had to suck it up and literally, that is what I did. I drank liters of water before my third class, convinced that this would solve my headache problem, but it did not. The thing I most learned on this third day of practice is that there is fine line between being well hydrated and peeing yourself.

My fourth session was about one goal, not getting a headache. In class, when I felt my heart racing, I sat out poses and concentrated on my breath pushing oxygen to my brain. I was still soaked head to toe by the end of class, but for the first time, my head did not feel as if it would pop right off my shoulders.

On my fifth trip to the studio, it was starting to seem more underground, more like a fight club. In the reception area and in the locker rooms, there was not much talk, we just acknowledged each other with a glance and a look that said ‘let’s fucking do this’.  On the sixth day, I realized I could judge how much I would suffer by when my toes started sweating. During class seven, I witnessed a student whose super power must have been sweating. By the end of class, he is almost swimming in puddles around him. When he rolls his towel up and walks out, sweat comes out as if it was being poured from a pitcher.

You want your pee to be clear, but mine is a little yellow before class eight. No worries, I remember thinking, I got this hot yoga down. The reality though, I get my ass handed to me. I barely make half way through class before having to lie down on my mat. I try several times to join back in the poses but finally give up, finishing the class on my back. At some point, I either fell asleep or passed out for a few moments. At the next class, my ninth, I pee clear beforehand and enjoy just the normal sufferings, not the mortal ones. After class, I learn, as powder snow bonds skiers and guns bond cops, electrolytes bond hot yogis.

For my final class of the thirty day trail period, I felt strong, body and mind, even slightly pliable. I now enjoyed seeing the newbies suffer and sticking it to some of the seasoned students in one of the balance poses that I was surprisingly really good at, Standing Bow. I had also found some self-control that was demanded in this yoga, exploring and expanding my boundaries carefully

After that month, I finally made it back on the ice. I got a break away in the first game and was grateful my groin held up as I sprinted down the ice surprised by my slightly above-average beer-league speed towards the goalie. I faked a forehand shot, pulled it to my backhand and put a shot that any rec hockey player would have been proud of over the goalie’s shoulder and into the upper corner of the goal. It’s a shot I practice in my two-bay garage where I skate on roller blades while shooting pucks into a mattress with a goal spray painted on it because I am competitive and I love scoring sweet goals. So I could not give all the credit to hot yoga, but for the first game back in a month, I was feeling as good as I ever had on the ice.

As I continued through the season playing hockey and doing hot yoga twice a week, it brought my fitness to a new level. My teammates even commented that I was faster than I ever have been. It was true; I had gained a step, one of two or three that I had lost over the decades. I also noticed that I recovered faster, was fresher in the third periods, had better mental sharpness and was even more conscious about eating a healthier diet. I was taking care of myself and felt great. Ponce de Leon may not have agreed, but I had taken a sip from the fountain youth. And then I promptly sweated it out of every pore of my body.