Thursday, March 2, 2023

One Week in Belize

Upon booking a trip to Belize, we didn't know much about it or what to expect, other than that it would be warm in February, relatively affordable and Southwest Airlines has a direct flight to Belize City to/from Denver. 

We decided to split our time between San Pedro on Ambergris Caye and the jungle near San Ignacio. Overall, it was an outstanding trip, full of adventure (á la Finding Nemo and Indiana Jones), friendly people and fantastic weather. 

Day 1 

Arrival in Belize City and flight to San Pedro

Following a seamless flight from Denver, we transferred to a Tropic Air puddle jumper at the Belize City airport. It was immediately apparent in the small, simple waiting area that we were on vacation. We dove right into sampling the local brew - Belikin, and were immediately impressed with the stout. Although a tad late (no worries, we're on vacation), the tiny plane rounded us up along with about 10 other passengers. We sat directly behind the pilot and I took care to not smash his lunch with my backpack. There were minimal instructions as far as how to use the seatbelt or "in case of a water landing." Nonetheless, up we went. Spectacular views of Caye Caulker and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and crystalline waters en route. The flight lasted about 18 minutes from take off to landing. Things got loud and wiggly on the way in, but Belizeans run a tight, albeit still somehow relaxed, ship. We skipped the dingy mini van taxis and gas-fueled golf cart parade and decided to walk to our hotel, The Palapa House, a small, three-story lodging on the north side of town. We followed some locals up the sidewalk as golf carts and vans swerved around us. A lady walking a dog asked if we needed help finding our way. We told her we were headed to the Palapa House. She advised that we walk on the beach to get there most directly. Once schlepping our suitcases on the beach, a young girl pedaling her bike with no hands rode up and asked where we were going. We found it. The Palapa House has a small pool facing the beach and a couple of units on each of its three floors, all of which look out onto the water and come equipped with chairs on the shared patios and balconies. The air-conditioned units come with bedroom, bathroom with shower (but no hot water), living room and kitchenette with microwave, mini-fridge and stove. A beach scene is mostly nonexistent in Ambergris Caye. There's a lot of seaweed, coconut shells, dried palm leaves and other debris piled onto shorelines just about everywhere. Nonetheless, the view of the water - and outdoor chairs from which to enjoy it - was great in the evening. We opted for dinner and the nearby Sandbar, a sports bar/hostel that was pretty popping. We sat outside in the wind, which picks up significantly in the evening. We had fish and chips and the local specialty - ceviche. It wasn't outstanding, but palatable. The most delightful discovery was the locally brewed (at a brewery in Belize City) Guinness in a bottle. Tastier even than the OG in Dublin, Belizean Guinness is delicious and flavorful and clocks in at a robust 7.5-percent ABV. On the way home, we stopped at a market to purchase bottled water (the consensus is that the water in Belize is not potable) and coffee grounds. 

Beach cruisers over golf carts!

Day 2 

Beach cruisers, missed yoga 

We rushed to get ready for a yoga class up north at Ak'Bol, but in our mission to avoid driving a golf cart - and instead search for a bike rental - we ended up missing it. We walked through town looking and asking everywhere for a bike rental shop. We finally found Breez -a new place that mostly rents E-Bikes, but added a couple of beach cruisers to their fleet. Matthew, a local who was running the place, was incredibly friendly and helpful. He supplied us with helmets, locks and a cooler bag. The bikes were singlespeed, backpedal-braking and ran $25 US/day. We rode amid the chaotic, one-way motor car/cart parade heading north, went over the bridge, then realized we were too late to make yoga. We still checked out Ak'Bol, where yoga classes happen every morning out on the pier under the shade of a palapa (which, we came to learn is the straw-like roof/shelter you see on structures all over the country). We turned around, brought the bikes back to hotel and went to Cool Beans for a pleasant brunch on the pier. They serve excellent coffee as well as fresh watermelon, pineapple and orange juice. The veggie omelette and Belizean breakfast with scrambled eggs and Fry Jacks (a sopapilla served with refried beans) were yummy. We rode up island again on the bikes, looking for a place to swim. We went into the water a little on the "beach" near the rio/bridge, but it was full of seaweed and not too inviting. We wandered around some structures off the road as we got farther north, coming across huge iguanas ambling through the grass like mini dinosaurs. We ended up at The Truck Stop – a cluster of restaurants and bars situated in shipping containers and food trucks, complete with games (ping pong, cornhole, etc) a lovely dock on the bay side of the Caye and a public saltwater pool. The only unpleasant component of the place was the televised hockey inexplicably blaring at 3 trillion decibels from the main bar. We got cocktails (rum is their signature booze ingredient) and got in the salt water pool. We had worked up quite a sweat and the sun was strong, so the water felt glorious. We grabbed pizza from a shipping container that was decent. A local guy who had seen us powerwalking through town earlier (during our bike rental search) was there, recognized us and asked why we were in such a hurry. He pointed out that "it's such a small island." A friendly one, too, no question. We returned the bikes - accidentally pedaling against one-way traffic for a block or so to the lazy (thankfully not hostile) annoyance of vehicles passing by. We went to The Palapa Bar for happy hour and dinner – a seemingly cheesy place on the pier adorned with fake palm trees. Turned out to be a great spot with roped off swimming access to the ocean and large sun deck in the back, where you could sip a beverage and hang in a tube. We had tasty ceviche and jalapeno poppers (and Guinness!) and listened to live music from a trio of ex-pats covering Bob Marley.


Day 3 Hol Chan snorkeling at Caye Caulker 


We rushed to get to the Belize Express ferry in the morning. We had bought tickets online and got a QR code, but still had to stand in line to get paper tickets and sign in. We came close to missing the boat, but the attending gentlemen were not concerned ("don't worry, mon"). Caye Caulker was the ferry's first stop on the way to the mainland. We had debated on staying there rather than Ambergris for the island leg of our trip, but opted for San Pedro to have more options. We still booked our snorkeling trip on Caulker (at Ragga Sailing) so we could check it out before and after the trip. Definitely a comparably sleepier, more peaceful place full of lush, swinging palm trees, small beach shops and restaurants and delighfully fewer golf carts. Definitely more walking and cycling here. We checked in to Ragga for our full day snorkeling/sailing trip. The card machine was broken so we had to pay cash. Cash turned out to be crucial throughout the trip. We found a breakfast spot with yogurt bowls and bagels - Ice and Beans. Our snorkeling tour started with a walk to other side of the island and guide - a lovely local dude named Mush - showing us the Tarpon, a huge fish that swarmed up to the docks, apparently accustomed to being fed. Our boat - a sailboat with a motor - was full. There were six young British blokes, a family from Hungary, a French woman and Dutch woman, a couple from Mexico and the four local guides who loved life and cranked the Reggae on the boat. It took about an hour out to get out to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is the second largest barrier reef in the world (next to the Great Barrier) and responsible for the calm, shallow and waveless turquoise water that surrounds the Cayes. After snorkel gear was distributed, we split into groups. We went with the other two girls and Mush, who clearly loved being under water and could do a hypnotizing bubble blowing trick like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland

Ragga Sailing guides

Our first stop jumping into the water was rewarded with the sight of a majestic sea turtle. It was slowly eating grass off of the ocean floor (only about 12 feet deep in this area). Then we saw multiple sting rays, eagle rays and barracudas, plus large snapper and other colorful fish. The next stop on boat was Shark Ray Alley. We only saw a few sharks - all nurse sharks, a couple of which were half-buried in the seaweed and sand under the boat. A huge sting ray touched its face on Mush and followed him around for a bit. The last stop was a coral garden. Here, we all swam on our own without a guide. We saw some amazing coral formations and cool small fish, bright blue and day-glow green. When we boarded the boat for the trip (with sails up) back to Caye Caulker, the guides were waiting with rum punch and ceviche. We had a few cups to the soundtrack of Reggae. At a restaurant back on the Caye, I chatted with the bartender who grew up there about why you don't meet Belizeans in the U.S. or anywhere else. He said not many people move away because it’s possible to have a nice life and support oneself with a single job. Mush, whose parents both have a home in the jungle, said the only reason he'd want to visit the mountains or anywhere with snow would be to make a snowball and throw it at someone.


We walked to the Split at the end of the island (where the Brits on our boat had played soccer the day before and enthusiastically recounted the play-by-play of beating the local team). We watched the sunset from the other side of the island (across the Split) with our Belikin stouts. We came back to Ambergris on the last ferry of the day, which was late. As I watched for it, a soft spoken local man struck up conversation. He was kind and easy to talk to– a security guard at a bank. He grew up in the jungle down south. Talked about how he feels protective when women walk alone. I asked if he had sisters. He said he has three. Generally, compared to Mexico, we felt quite safe throughout this trip. He said one can never be too safe. He shepherded us onto the ferry when it came. 

Ceviche at The Palapa Bar. 


We ended up going to Palapa Bar again. This time a Reggae-twinged band played Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." We ordered blackened red snapper and shrimp ceviche. It was delicious. The server remembered we like Guinness. We swam in the swimming hole at 9 p.m. 



E-bikes to Secret Beach


We started the day at Cool Beans again with the Belizean Fry Jack breakfast and fresh juice. We returned to the bike rental place and sprang for E-bikes (at $50 US per day each, it was twice the cost of a golf cart, but way more fun). Matthew accompanied us over the bridge after giving a lesson and making sure we weren’t going to accidentally hit turbo and face plant into the side of a building. We rode about 7 miles on progressively more rural roads (janky and dirt at the end), around swamps and lagoons where we hoped to see crocodiles but didn't. We arrived at Secret Beach, an area on the bay side of the Caye spotted with restaurants that have tables situated in the shallow blue water. Here we went to Sunset Palace (affiliated with the bike shop), where we got a welcome drink (rum, mon) and settled onto our table in the water. We tried the free paddleboards and swimming around with goggles in the 2 foot deep clear water. We got ceviche and fish tacos. The service and cleanliness of the place fell short of elsewhere, but we had a great time. 

Drinks at Sunset Palace, Secret Beach.

We rode back, stopping at The Truck Stop again for the delicious local Wit bier we had discovered (by Two-5 Brewing). We returned the bikes and went back to The Palapa Bar in hopes of catching the sunset and also looking for marine life with goggles in the swimming hole. We saw a spotted eagle ray circling the area. We returned to the hotel, showered and went to The Hut for dinner, a restaurant our Canadian neighbors recommended, located on a barge in mangroves on the other side of island. It was outstanding. Our server showed us pictures of crocodiles lazing on the deck outside during the day and how they feed a large orange iguana on a shelf outside. The three locals at bar were speaking Spanish, English and Creole ... one covered in paint from a Carnival celebration in town. 

Day 4

Flight in Cessna back to Belize City, car rental to jungle


The wonderful housekeeper at The Palapa House told us we could take our time packing up. We once again schlepped our suitcases across the sand as long as possible before we had to cut through town to get back to the airport. Flew back to Belize City on a Cessna. One other young woman joined us and rode shotgun. The violently windy day concerned me and I asked one of the guys on the tarmac if it would be an issue with the tiny plane, but he said it was nothing but “a nice island breeze.”  Ya, mon. It was fine and the pilot was a pro. Smoothest take off and landing yet. We got our rental car from Hertz – a KIA SUV, with amazing efficiency, zero issues. We drove 2 hours to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge, our home for the next half of our trip. The odometer was in KM, but speed limit signs in MPH, so it was confusing. Drivers pass liberally and disregard speed limits. However, there are massive speed bumps in villages and located randomly along the roadway, so you gotta watch out. We saw kids at school in uniforms playing outside, also Amish driving carts pulled by horses. San Ignacio is a small, hilly city that shows the country's status as "developing." We stopped at a market to pick up water, beer and snacks. Turning off the main drag outside of town, we drove for a while on a steep, winding dirt road up to our lodge. We got welcome drinks - rum, of course. The pleasant woman who checked us in was from down south. Her family is descendants of the Mayans. We walked down to the Macal River on a dirt path through the jungle that instilled the sensation of being on an episode of "Naked and Afraid." Except with clothes. And beer. And a comfortable dwelling (with AC) at the end of the day. The No. 1 allure of this particular lodging is the river access and natural beach. Here there were white cliffs across the river strewn with thick foliage. We went to the onsite restaurant, where, if you did not get the all-inclusive package (we did not), you could choose from a meat, seafood or vegetarian option and pay considerably more (for notably less flavorful food) than you would at a restaurant anywhere nearby.

However, we were not going to drive for 20 minutes on the dirt road to go elsewhere. Also, there was the entertainment of a couple of lemurs that jumped onto the rail ledge from trees above and ate bananas out of people's hands. We sat in our screen-enclosed porch afterward, listening to jungle noises – bugs, birds and the occasional howler monkey.



Day 5

ATM Cave Tour


If you want to feel like you ARE Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (minus the giant boulder and violent indigenous tribes coming after you), the ATM Cave tour is not to miss. For real, this is a true, rugged adventure. 

We didn’t sleep too well the first night in our jungle diggs. There was a prehistoric-sized ant on the bed right before I settled in. The jungle noises were cool though - howler monkeys audible a couple times during the night. In the morning, there was definitely a cat of some sort snarling (Belize is supposedly home to Central America's largest concentration of jaguars), but this sounded like a house cat. We had our pre-arranged breakfast – there was dehydrated soy rather than veggie sausage, but the fry jacks were good. There were colorful toucans with saw beaks and several other bird species eating fruit from a shelf. A couple colorful birds perched near us and wanted some breakfast. The van taking us to the ATM Cave made the rounds picking up all guests (eight total in our group) at their respective lodgings. Jahime (the driver) picked us up first. I apologized for being late and he said, "that’s how you know you’re in Belize. Usually everyone is 30 minutes late. Ten minutes late is early." Also on the tour were a younger couple and two older couples. We picked up our tour guide, Patrick ("the ladies can call me Lord Chocolate") from his home in San Ignacio. A super fit Caribbean dude, he had a large machete hanging off of his back and was carrying some industrial sized bags containing our helmets and other gear. "Hello, brave people," he said as he got in the van. As we picked up the last couple, the woman was smoking a cigarette and put it out on the ground right before getting in the van. Patrick's first words to her were, "you pick up that cigarette. Respect my country, mon. Don’t ever do that again."

Patrick is a fascinating dude, incredibly well educated. Turned out he studied agriculture, spent time in the military in England and studied at CU Boulder for 4.5 years. He lives in the states during the summer and flies hot air balloons (pointing out how he's "the only chocolate guy" who does so). He is a certified bushman that routinely leads searches and rescues (aka body recoveries) in the jungle and is one of only 22 guides in the whole country certified to lead groups into the ATM Cave. 

It took us over an hour to reach the trailhead. We set off from parking area with helmets (including a head lamp) in tow. We opted to carry nothing other than the water bottle they provided us, wearing quick dry shorts over swimsuits and old trail running shoes. This was the correct choice over Chacos or any other type of waterproof sandal. 

Cameras and phones were not allowed in the ATM Cave. This is the first river crossing on the hike in.

We did an immediate river crossing, one of about four. There was a rope to help get across. The water was deep in places, but current not too strong. It felt a little cold at first, then adrenaline took over. We walked through the jungle on a wide dirt path. Patrick, who had stopped the van en route to show us the leaf from an All Spice tree, stopped on the trail to point out key lime, then some sort of pine leaf. He pointed out the ruins of an ancient Mayan citadel in the middle of the path. We had at least two more river crossings, then climbed down some rocks and got into the water – Roaring Creek, a tributary to the Macal River that runs past our hotel and through San Ignacio. It was cold and deep. Patrick instructed us to keep three points of contact with the cave – two feet and a hand on the wall – at all times. I was happy to be in a long sleeve swim shirt, as the air temp definitely got cooler in the cave. One side of the cave was sparkling. It was all limestone rock, which served as a natural purifier for the water, which as far as I could tell in the growing darkness, looked blue and very clean. There were incredible rock formations – stalactites, stalagmites and flat, glossy mounds that looked like glazed donuts - throughout the journey. The water flowed under us for the first 45 minutes of the journey, ranging from ankle deep to over our heads in places, requiring a single file line swimming through the narrow tunnels. We scrambled up and down rocky ledges. We were in the cave for about four hours total. We started to see some pottery artifacts and then full ceramic pots dating from the time of the ancient Mayans (900 AD and earlier). Patrick explained that Mayans believed everything made with one’s hands had a soul and therefore, had to be broken to release the soul. Thus, some pots had a perfect hole drilled out. Others were fully broken into pieces. Then we came upon the skeletons of human sacrifices. The first was a pile of a skeleton of an older "man of status." Patrick explained that he had been deliberately cross-eyed and with his forehead purposefully deformed. He pointed out that throughout civilizations, from foot-binding to corsets, people have done weird shit in the name of beauty. Botox included. Then there was a child left to die alive and a 16-year-old “crystal maiden” who might actually be a boy, fully intact. The sight of them was creepy and exhilarating. Although archaeologists have studied the area many times over the years, nearly all artifacts have remained inside the cave. 

To reach this section we had to remove our footwear and climb up the last part only with socks on our feet. We stepped up and down a metal ladder, up and down a rock tower, a fall from which would have resulted in major injury. Any adventure like this anywhere in the U.S. would require a 50-page waiver. We swam back through the cave, including down a Goonies-like waterslide and around a slot with a pointed wall that brushed up against the center of our throats. We returned through the river, to the parking area where Lilly the cook had made us coconut rice and beans, grilled meat and veggies. Upon returning to our lodge, we went down to the river to relax on the beach. I fed the lemurs at dinner. One gently grasped my hand with its little claw (they are both cat-like and monkey-like) for easier access to the banana and looked at me with its bulging eyes before climbing back up its tree.  


Xunantunich Mayan Ruins and river paddle


We drove to Xunantunich, located about 15 minutes from the hotel and close to the Guatemalan border. We had to take a small, hand-cranked barge ferry across the river. The ferryman told me that I, as the passenger, had to get out of the car to walk on and that if the car's brakes failed or the ferry sank, M, as the driver, would have to swim. We got across in less than two minutes and it was fine. We drove up a steep dirt road to the Xunantunich ruins. We nearly ran over a large snake slithering across the road – black with green stripe. At least five feet long. We parked, paid to get in ($5 US), then walked up to the ruins, a series of dwellings and temples used for rituals and ceremonies. There were not many people at all and we could explore at our leisure. We eavesdropped on a couple of tour guides and found out about how one area was used for “bloodletting” those who were entombed. It turns out the individuals buried in tombs were all from royal families. The largest structure – a Castillo - had steep, eroded steps that still allowed people to climb to the top. The green grassy expanse between the structures was probably not how the place would have looked in ancient Mayan times. Earth and trees had grown over all the structures, probably many times over. The Castillo had carvings on the side, symbols and figures holding things on their shoulders: "skybearers." At the top, we took photos of the surrounding landscape below. You could see Guatemala nearby. The Castillo was only used as a tomb and not a dwelling, we read. We also read about how there was a ball sport sort of like basketball – Pok-ta-Pok - in which a stone hoop was put at the end of the court and players moved the small rubber ball on their arms and legs and had to get it through the hoop. Often the conquering team played against a team of "captives" that were predestined to lose. After the game, their decapitated heads were hung for all to see. Brutal.


An iguana was chilling at the top of the Castillo near the stairs. There were also several bats hanging inside. We saw a lot of iguanas as we wandered around the area. The security guards with giant machine guns were – like most people – very friendly. They joked that they’d be our tour guides for the day. We read about the history in the visitors center and also saw masks, artifacts and a skeleton from one of the tombs.

Benny's Kitchen lunch.


After the ruins, we drove to Succotz – a little village just across the river where our ATM tour cook Lily was from. The place was much cleaner and more inviting than San Ignacio or anywhere else we saw along the drive from the airport. We went to Benny’s Kitchen for lunch. M had Pibil, pork that said it was cooked underground for eight hours and came with guacamole and pico di gallo. I got "fried shrimp and vegetables" that was really coconut shrimp with coleslaw and fries. 


We drove back to the hotel and went to the river. Got the metal canoe. It was difficult to paddle upriver, but fun. We saw a large bird in the brush and took our time floating back. We hung out on the beach a while, swam in the Macal River. 

Day 7 

Smooth and uneventful return home

Belize takeaways 

- People are friendly and helpful.
- You can use US Dollars everywhere (cash is key in many places). The Belizean dollar exchange is 2-to-1 US.
- Although tourism is the main economic driver, there are far fewer tourists here than anywhere in Mexico.
- Prices vary a lot for hotels and activities. A dinner costs around $15 to $20 US.  Beer at the market is $2 US.
- The vibe is more Caribbean than Latin, but a pleasant mix of the two.
- Everyone speaks English (or Creole). You hear some Spanish, but more English.
- It's delightfully uncommercial. Not many locally made. souvenirs other than the delicious Marie Sharp's hot sauce ... which is everywhere. 
- It's a fantastic destination for adventure lovers, full of natural beauty and endless exploration opportunity.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Make strides toward racial justice from where you are

Clock your walking, running or cycling miles to make a difference
 The diversity of backgrounds, colors and lifestyles is what defines the human race and when individuals are targeted, injured and killed because of the color of their skin, it really does feel like an apocalypse. It feels like something is deeply, horribly amiss. How can this be happening in 2020 in America? How can existence in what is supposed to be one of the world’s most progressive countries be so vastly different for some people than it is for others?
The appalling killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery dismantle not only the nation but the very essence of humanity. Racial injustices of some level strike every day in every community. In idyllic Colorado mountain towns, populated and visited mostly by white people, it’s easy to turn a blind eye. It’s easy to feel there is not much one can do to make a difference. If only running or pedaling up a mountain could help. Thanks to the Civil Rights Race Series, it can. 
The Civil Rights Race Series conducts running and cycling competitions in historic locations in Alabama and Tennessee with the goal of educating the public on events that took place there and how they were instrumental in driving change during the civil rights movement. In response to the recent turmoil and these senseless deaths, the Civil Rights Race Series is hosting 1 Million Miles for Justice, a virtual event in which anyone, anywhere can make strides toward racial equality. Wherever you are, your weekly jog, your daily walk around the block, your hike, your bike ride can play a positive part in providing equal opportunities and paving the road toward a better life for someone whose every day experience doesn’t consist of the qualities many of us take for granted, for someone whose every day experience feels far from equal and never feels safe. 
Registration for the event is $25 and you can choose to walk, run or ride however many miles you want. Nearly all proceeds benefit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Here’s a chance to make that positive experience – those positive strides – go even farther.

Friday, October 11, 2019

5 Reasons Why More Women Should Mountain Bike

I recently attended a women’s Diamondback mountain bike press clinic in Breckenridge and realized that more women really do need to learn to ride. While there are way more females of all ages out on the trails now than there were 20 years ago when I initially fell head over heels with the sport (and consequently went heels over head a few times during the intensive learning process), mountain biking is unquestionably still a male-dominated sport.
However, with vastly improved bike technology, clothing and protective accessories, not to mention a dire need for a testosterone balance on the trails, there is no better time for women to experience the incomparable thrill that comes with saddling up on a set of fat tires.
Here’s why …
1. Mountain biking is not as scary as you think. For starters, it’s much safer than road biking. You’re moving at considerably slower speeds, there are no cars around you and there is at least some hope for a soft(er) landing if you crash.
2. New bike technology makes it much easier to learn and excel. Unlike 20 years ago when fat tires weren’t that fat, frames were heavy and loaded up with unnecessary chain rings and full suspension amounted to just a few millimeters of spring back, trail bikes these days feel like easy-to-maneuver armchairs. Take for example, the high-end ride we demoed at the clinic: Diamondback’s Release 5C carbon. With super burly tires, wide handlebars, an efficient 1x12-speed drive train, a surprisingly light frame (considering its burliness), precise and responsive brakes, well over 5 inches of adjustable travel and most importantly, a drop seat, even the most intimidating aspects of mountain biking (sharp switchbacks, steeps descents, rock drops, etc.) can be conquered seamlessly. 
Photo courtesy of Backbone Media.
3. Women’s clothing and accessories are more comfortable and functional than they used to be. Guess what? There is no need for tight Lycra out here (but if you prefer it, have at it. Mountain bikers are not a judgmental crowd … just don’t ride in jean shorts). While there is often a concern that baggy shorts might get caught on the saddle or somehow in the way, go-to cycling brands like Pearl Izumi offer extensive lines of cute but functional and comfortable “baggy” shorts made of stretch material, plus endless offerings of tops and jackets with gear-holding back pockets (order a size larger than you normally would as Pearl Izumi runs small) that allow for backpack-free riding. Long-standing Norwegian brand Norrøna specializes in longer, lightweight shorts with adjustable waist straps and cuts designed for optimal saddle compatibility and also sells an 18-liter pack that is so lightweight and comfortable even those of us who hate riding with backpacks can almost forget it’s there. Also, to literally pad the learning curve, POC makes stretchy neoprene knee and elbow protectors (VPD) that are comfortable and flexible but still stay in place even when you’re hammering.
4. The trails need you. We all need you. As mentioned above, mountain bikers are generally cool folks. But there are sometimes, occasionally, those token D-Bags that blow down the trail totally disregarding the prescribed etiquette (yield to uphill traffic, stay in control, say hello, etc.) or feel the need to increase their speed all of a sudden to ride on your ass or not let you by when you’re faster. And, let’s be honest … they’re almost always dudes. More women on the trails mean a more comfortable space for all of us. Get out there. Please.
5. It’s not only the most thrilling and rewarding outdoor pastime on the planet, but also truly meditative. Its techniques serve as all-encompassing adages for leading your best life. Techniques like …
Pace yourself.
Don’t fixate on the obstacles.
Keep your eyes up and focused on the path ahead.
Take one obstacle at a time.
Once you commit, you can hammer over almost anything.
Stay centered.
Don’t slam on the brakes.
Enjoy the view at the top.
The allegories go on and on …

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Autumn mountain bike trail spotlight: Snowmass loop

Fall colors don’t last forever. At high elevations especially, an overnight snowstorm or a strong wind can wipe them instantly away. Thus, we mountain bikers are often on a frantic jag this time of year to forest bathe in yellows and oranges. There’s nothing quite like crunching over a cushy carpet of said-colored leaves in a tunnel of twinkling aspens.
A favorite fall ride hub where you can find such a thing … Aspen. Or Snowmass, rather. Home to a brand new bike park (which is lift-served on weekends through the end of September), Snowmass offers both uphill and downhill trails (for those of us who like to go against gravity before we earn our DH treat) that pretty much cover the mountain biking gold standard spectrum ... especially true when you’re surrounded by golden leaves.
Where: Snowmass Village
What: Village Bound/Cross Mountain/French Press loop
Length: 8 miles
Elevation: 1,668 climbing
Start at Elk Camp gondola base and ride the dirt service road about a quarter mile before taking a left on Village Bound.
Village Bound uphill: a smooth, wide and flow-y singletrack (also used for downhill) on which you can activate your G-Force superpowers by hammering into some of the switchbacks. Village Bound connects to Cross Mountain after about 3 miles of switch-backing up the slopes through pine forests and clusters of aspens.
Cross Mountain: This is a classic, rolling cross-country singletrack complete with techie sections of rocks, steep punches over thick roots and even a stream crossing. Take this up/across the slopes for about a mile before taking a left on French Press.
French Press descent: This is a swinging, super fast and fun downhill trail complete with huge bank turns, whoopties for small airs and wooden bridge and plank features to make you feel like you’re a DH badass (but nothing we uphill sloggers/careful descenders can’t handle). It’s new to the Snowmass bike park and in primo, buffed out condition.

Oh yes, another thing ... you pretty much have the place to yourself. Go hit it before the snow does!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Ancient Sites of Puglia

Human beings have been making their marks in these places for hundreds if not thousands of years ... 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

How about locking down gun sales rather than schools?

Schools across Colorado, including my own high school – world-famous (all over again) Columbine –were shut down today. The reason? An 18-year-old woman from Florida who was reportedly obsessed with the 1999 Columbine High School shooting had made some threats, flown to Colorado, bought a gun and was on the loose. She’s dead now (shot herself), but I have so many questions …
Why, after 20 years (riddled with copycat incidents and countless school shootings), are people still obsessed with Columbine?
Why must we relive the nightmare we experienced here 20 years ago because America refuses to ramp up gun control?
And the most pressing question … HOW is it possible with all of this gun violence that disturbed teenagers  - or ANYONE for that matter – can STILL roll into a store and buy a shotgun as easily as buying a Slurpee?
I was attending Colorado State University when two student gunmen walked into Columbine High School and shot the place up, killing 12 students, one teacher and themselves.
My siblings and I had already graduated from Columbine. We were not there. Nobody close to me was injured or killed, but I knew many involved. One of the students killed was the younger sister of a quiet kid I’d known since elementary school. The teacher – Dave Sanders – one time ordered me to go outside and simmer down when I was bawling out another teacher for altering my goth poetry. The older brother of one of the gunmen - who I recall as sweet and polite - routinely carpooled to football practice with my brother.  I never met his brother, but of the many thoughts swimming through my head as I watched the CNN newsreel display a string of students walk across the school lawn with their hands on their heads after finally escaping from a choir room where they’d been hiding for hours during the shooting, was that I would have probably been friendly with guys like him and the other gunman when I was in high school.
I was a sad, angry teenager who wore black lipstick and a trench coat. I listened to dark music and was fascinated with violent movies (Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers were two of my favorites at the time). I relished time alone. It wouldn't be a stretch to have classified me as an outcast. 
On April 20, 1999, when I learned about the Columbine shooting, I was overwhelmed with horror. A heavy, sinking sensation that actually felt like a bag of rocks in my gut stayed with me for days. At the same time, a part of me was not incredibly surprised.
A few years earlier, when I was still at Columbine, there was – as I’m sure was the case in many suburban high schools and probably still is – palpable tension among social groups. While I frequently ditched class to go smoke clove cigarettes at Clement Park with a pack of other misfits, I also played lacrosse (although it was considered a renegade sport at the time and was not sanctioned by the school). I experienced misgivings from peers in each of these groups. “Why are you so goth?” my teammates would ask. “Why are you such a jock?” my goth/punk friends wanted to know.
I remember sitting in the park smoking cloves one day and talking to an acquaintance – not a friend, but a dude with whom I’d occasionally chat, who could easily have been one of the shooters had it been a couple of years later. On this particular day, this guy started telling me about how he spent the weekend killing a cat. As a life-long  animal lover who kept a photo of my own cat in a pendant I wore daily, I was disgusted. I told him how twisted and fucked up that was and asked what could possibly compel him to want to do something like that. He couldn’t really explain himself and I remember getting up and storming away, saying something like how I hoped someone would come after him with a baseball bat some day. It occurred to me that if this kid had a gun rather than a baseball bat, he would have really done some damage to innocent beings in his way. All he had to do was save up some money, walk into a store and buy one.
This kid and this conversation rushed through my mind amid the brutal cascade of emotion I experienced on April 20, 1999, and found myself experiencing again today, as so many schools were closed while a statewide manhunt took place. I still love dark music. I embrace my goth side. I’ve had a hard time watching violent movies for the last 20 years. I have trouble sleeping.
Immediately after Columbine, the nation came up with numerous scapegoats. Trench coats were to blame. Goth kids were to blame. Violent movies were to blame. Goth music was to blame. Marilyn Manson (clearly to blame) had an upcoming concert scheduled at Red Rocks. It was canceled.

Less than two weeks later, the NRA still hosted its annual meeting in Denver with thousands of firearms enthusiasts.
Instead of instilling all of this fear, closing down schools across Colorado, investing time and energy into a manhunt, how about, at the very least, making it harder for a kid to walk into a store and buy a gun?
Colorado’s "red flag" law, which seeks to temporarily take guns away from individuals deemed unfit to have them, is a step in the right direction. But how about not allowing them such easy access in the first place?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lindsey Vonn’s retirement marks the end of a great era for me, too

Lindsey Vonn’s retirement not only means the closing of what was unquestionably one of the most exciting chapters in the entire history of alpine skiing, but also the end of a significant cycle of my own career.
My first interview with Lindsey was 15 years ago when she, at 20 years old, landed her first World Cup victory at the Lake Louise downhill. Her description of the race is priceless (my Vail Daily story is here), particularly when she mentions how incredulous she was at the finish when Austrian champion Renate Goetschl crossed the line so far behind her. When she commented, “Gosh … what did I do?” little did she know at the time that she would go on to do a whole lot more … that she would handily usurp Goetschl’s record and become the world’s most successful female skier of all time or win so many races at Lake Louise that they'd start calling the place "Lake Lindsey."
She also had no idea of the profound test of resilience the universe would throw at her when she pummeled back-first into the ground in a horrific crash during a downhill training run at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. At 21 years old, Lindsey was the only U.S. woman competing in all five alpine events. I was there covering the Games for the Swift News network and was staying in San Sicario, site of the ghastly crash. My knees literally buckled when I saw her go down. As she was airlifted off-course, I was actually crying, struck by a profound sadness that here was this promising young athlete who would probably never race again. Little did I know at the time … that this was one of the most irrepressible human beings to ever walk the earth.
In spite of splintering her plastic back protector and being in the unfathomable pain that comes from hitting a rock solid surface backwards at 60 mph (which she went on to personally fathom countless times), she did not suffer any major injuries and managed, a few days later, to limp to the starting line of the downhill race. She ended up eighth (Story here) and then took seventh in the super G after yet another crash during the combined event. (My recap of her 2006 Olympic performance is here). I recall being utterly mystified at her toughness, thinking, holy shit, how is this girl even still standing?
Years later, as a FIS media correspondent covering the women’s World Cup tour, I was standing next to Lindsey after she’d won one of many races in Val d’Isere, France. We were watching the men’s race on TV while Lindsey was waiting for her press conference. When she bent down to loosen her boots, she suddenly jerked up with pain. She started laughing at how stiff her back was, calling herself an old lady and saying how if she stood in one place for a minute or two, she required several uncomfortable seconds before loosening up enough to so much as take a step. At the time I reflected back on that Olympic crash – and many others that followed (with the worst yet to come) – and again marveled at her bionic strength.
I was at almost every race throughout those colossal years. It was an electrifying time, documenting her unprecedented reign of dominance, one victory and/or comeback after another, made that much more rewarding by the compassionate side of Lindsey of which I was both first-hand witness and recipient. I got to see a side of America’s greatest skier that not everyone got to see. I’ve written stories about her kindness and big heart – how she’d drop everything to sign the bib of an adoring young racer or wait for an hour in the finish area to cheer on her teammates – but on a personal level, she’s always treated me with generosity and genuine warmth that I will never forget.
As cool as my job was traveling through beautiful European venues covering the World Cup tour, it got lonely at times. I spent hours and even days by myself. When I wasn’t eating alone, I’d often have dinner with a bunch of men holding conversations in German that I was not a part of. On more than one occasion, Lindsey was sitting at a nearby table and, upon witnessing my alienation, invited me to dine with her and her sister. Regardless of whatever record she’d just broken or internationally heralded feat she’d just accomplished, she was always down to earth and easy to talk to. At one point, I’d fractured a couple of ribs following an ill-fated January bike ride on my day off and when Lindsey found out I was back on skis a couple of days later, she launched into a motherly scolding about how I needed time to heal (yes, this came out of her mouth).
Another time, races were canceled in Sestriere, Italy, after snow began falling in blinding, fluffy sheets (I took this foggy video while everyone was waiting out the storm). All the teams and tour officials were staying at the same lodging facility, where the front desk held onto your passport when you checked in, and everyone left in a mass exodus when the event was canceled. I didn’t have anywhere to go, however, and was out in the blizzard making glorious powder turns, when my phone started ringing. I didn’t recognize the number and tried to let it go to voicemail, but it kept ringing, so finally I answered. It was Lindsey. As part of the mass exodus, she’d believed she was the last to leave the resort and upon learning that my passport was still at the front desk, she thought I’d left without it and earnestly began tracking down my number (calling a former coach to get it). When I told her I was still there, sticking around to ski powder, she said she’d see me at the next stop and to be careful where I skied because Sestriere (like so many European ski areas), was speckled with unmarked obstacles (or, in some cases, unmarked cliffs with 2,000-foot drops) that were especially hard to see during whiteouts. I appreciated her advice but stupidly did not heed it, proceeding to plummet unwittingly over an 8-foot retaining wall (but luckily landing softly in the powder) in the middle of the slope. I was afraid to fill her in on that incident.
On another occasion, I was sitting alone having a late breakfast – somewhere in Austria, I think – and Lindsey walked into the otherwise empty dining hall. She was taking the day off from training in order to nurse a concussion. A staff member asked if she wanted a private table and she told him no, she’d sit with me. We both drank lots of coffee and chatted for a long while. Somehow we got on the topic of fathers. I knew that her relationship with her dad was quite tenuous at the time. While I told her about my own estranged relationship with my dad and how grateful I was that he and I had begun reconnecting before his unexpected death, she listened intently (and she, too, ended up reconnecting with her father). At the end of this conversation, she asked me what I planned to do that day. I told her I wanted to ski but didn’t have a lift ticket yet, so was planning on skinning up the mountain. She pulled a lift ticket out of her pocket and handed it to me, telling me to have at it.
As her global fame grew exponentially over the years, Lindsey has, like any public figure, also dealt with a certain degree of meanness and hatred. I don’t need to dredge up any examples of this, but along with her immutable fearlessness on the race track, Lindsey’s never been afraid to say exactly what she feels or to stand up for what she believes in regardless of the emotional blows she’s been dealt. I’ve always admired her for this. Her mental fortitude has always been at least as stalwart as her physical resilience.
The night after her hard-earned Olympic gold medal in 2010, after numerous glasses of gold flake-infused champagne, I sat with Lindsey and the late, great Hank McKee of Ski Racing in a far corner of her victory party in Vancouver. Although my memory is hazy, I recall countless strangers accosting Lindsey for selfies and mindless banter and sensed that the Olympic champion, while overjoyed, might have been a bit overwhelmed. I couldn’t help but feeling privileged that she was hiding out in the back with me and Hank.
Sadly, my online written coverage of her 2010 Olympic success has disappeared from the FIS and Ski Racing Websites, but there is some janky footage out there in cyberspace – this silly video I made during a car ride in Cortina d’Ampezzo just before the Games and this video with her mom the night before she landed gold.
It was thrilling to be in the thick of it when Lindsey overtook Goetchl’s record in 2011, landing her 47th victory (that would become 82 before it was all said and done), also for the first World Cup giant slalom victory of her career that same year, after which I got to interview her on live TV (captured here at Universal Sports).
My FIS World Cup job ended after 2012, but I continued to document Lindsey’s struggles and triumphs. Every time we’ve crossed paths, even when months or years had passed and I’d wondered if she’d remember me, Lindsey’s started off the conversation with a big hug. I was there for her bittersweet comeback on home snow at the 2015 World Championships in Beaver Creek after missing the previous Olympic season, her return at the 2017 World Championships and the charitable foundation she launched to help young girls fulfill their own personal dreams. We met up last November as she outlined her (yet to be foiled) plans for her final season and I provided an instructional guide to the last race of her career, in which she, impossibly, on the heels of yet another devastating crash, managed once again to triumph, winning one final medal.
While it felt truly amiss to not be on site to witness this final performance, it was heartwarming to see her end things on such a joyful note. She seems genuinely happy … and I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.
It’s been a true honor covering the career of this great champion. Lindsey’s talent, work ethic and heart are truly unparalleled. I hope I get to stand next to her again sometime, somewhere. There is no doubt in my mind that her next step, painful as it may be, will be extraordinary. Because that’s how she rolls.