Postcard: Northeastern Utah

We’re approaching getaway season in the Colorado high country. Winter is on its way out and spring on its way in. Not that this cow cares. I spotted her in a field while passing through northeastern Utah recently. She doesn’t know about getaway season, nor does she need to. She needs to keep eating grass to stay alive, plain and simple. Poor cow.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

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:

Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and teaches for

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?”


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

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?


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!”