Category Archives: The Nature

Back to Nature on Boreas Pass

I keep thinking about the first paragraph of Moby Dick, the whole of which is on my fall reading list.

A portrait of Herman Melville from 1860.  He has longish hair for the era, and full beard, on the long side, but tidy.  He wears a black suit coat, and his arms are crossed.
Melville in 1860, 9 years after Moby Dick was
published, and 6 years before then Breckenridge
Pass became a stage road.
Unknown author / Public domain

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale

It is undoubtedly a damp and drizzly November of the soul now for many of us. I find myself restless and cranky, with much to do but little motivation. My ongoing search for work and the self-directed retraining I have undertaken feel grim and relentless.

Fortunately, Mr. Melville’s ideas about the ocean (just in this paragraph, I’m not speaking to the book) are incomplete. It isn’t only the ocean that one can turn to in such conditions. The majesty and grandeur of nature in all its manifestations can be an antidote to the desire to knock everyone’s hat off.

Bearing this in mind, Mom and I took advantage of a break, earlier in the week, in the pall of wildfire smoke hanging over Colorado this late summer and early Fall. Mom is recovering from a bout of non-COVID-related pneumonia. On Monday, I bundled her, her oxygen tanks, and her battery-operated yellow pulse oximeter into the front seat, packed the dog into the back seat, and headed for the high country.

My Mom, an 82 year old woman wearing an oxygen cannulae, looks out the passengar window of my gray SUV.

We were a little early for proper leaf-peeping, but brilliant gold branches gave us a preview of what is to come. We drove up Fall River Road, stopping to investigate the glacial rock deposits, and then headed on up I70 to Silverthorne. Years ago, driving back to the front range from Buena Vista, I had spotted the sign for Boreas Pass. At the time, I didn’t dare take my little red Scion on the rough dirt road. But now I have the vehicle for it, and we aimed for the pass from its northern end, accessed via Breckenridge.

Boreas Pass follows an old railway grade of the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road. It crosses the Continental Divide at 11,482 feet above sea level. There isn’t a lot of air up there, and we had to crank Mom’s oxygen up to its max.

It was worth it, though. The spectacular views of the Tenmile Range, Boreas Mountain, and Bald Mountain were a balm to the soul in these troubled times. There is something both terrible and reassuring in the reality that whatever happens in the coming months, those peaks will stand, pushing into the sky, impervious to our short time frames.

My pointy-eared black dog, with white around her muzzle, looks off to the side, sitting in front of a dramatic view of the Tenmile mountain range from Boreas Pass.  She wears a blue dog backpack.
Dog was not impressed by the scenery, but did think there were lots of interesting smells to check out.

And there is something to consider, too, in the history of the place. I suspect it is likely that it was known to the Ute for centuries, but for white people, it started as a route for prospectors looking for gold to get to the valley of the Blue river around Breckenridge, called Breckenridge Pass. In 1866, they widened it into a wagon road that could accommodate stagecoaches. In 1882, the railroad began laying narrow gauge tracks and renamed the pass Boreas in honor of the North Wind. When they built it, it was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railroad. They made a little town at the top, of about 150 people, to keep the line clear, and put in lots of snow sheds. The town boasted the highest Post Office in the country, and the only one to straddle the Continental Divide.

The Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR, apparently known to locals as Damned Slow Pulling, and Pretty Rough Riding) gave up its narrow gauge right-of-way in 1937, and during World War Two, the government pulled up the track for the steel. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers created the current road on the railroad grade.

A large wooden water tank, painted orange, is on the right side of the image.  The road (Boreas Pass) comes in from the middle and goes off to the left.  You can see my car on the left, also, and lots of trees.
Baker’s Tank served the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road.

Just think of all the individual, fascinating lives in that tale. Every prospector had a story. Every stagecoach driver, every railroad engineer, every man whose job was to live in that tiny town at 11,482 feet and shovel snow off the tracks had a story — a full, rich life, with at least as many, and probably more, uncertainties and complications as our own. There is something reassuring about that. If they could survive History, surely we can, too.

These are people who lived in an environment that is simply built to a different scale than that of humans. It is a scale we have tried to match throughout civilization’s history, from pyramids to skyscrapers. It is a scale that we cannot match, and likely should not. It is a scale that puts us in context.

The view coming in to South Park from Boreas Pass.
The view coming in to South Park.

On the other side of the pass, going down into South Park, thousands upon thousands of aspen line the road. It will be stunning next week, or the next. It’s stunning now, for that matter.

It’s hard to put your finger on why getting out into that environment that is so much bigger than you, be it the sea or the desert or the mountains or the vast plains, is such a remedy to human mental health woes. It is easy to return to the idea that many humans live in a built environment that doesn’t much resemble our evolutionary habitat. But I live in the woods. There are houses and roads, yes, but still, it isn’t that different from the world where my great-great-grandcestors lived.

Perhaps it is simply that it puts us and our troubles into a larger, much larger, context. Or maybe it is about taking time away from the busyness and complexity of our lives as social animals. During the pandemic, I haven’t had much by way of a social life anyway, but even the twice or more removed interactions of social media and TV demand something of us.

A mountain peak, mostly above tree-line, pushes into a sky with clouds and crepuscular rays on Boreas Pass.  There is a meadow of brown grass in the foreground and pine and fir trees in the midground.
This may be Mt. Silverheels or Little Baldy Mountain, I’m not sure.

The high mountain peaks and the vast single organism that is an aspen grove demand nothing of us, really. They are simply there. If we wish to survive them, and to appreciate them, we must demand things of ourselves. We must demand caution and respect for the power of nature. We must demand reverence and honor for forces so beyond ourselves. And we must demand humility for our place in the vast scheme of things.

If we’re lucky, we come back refreshed when we make this demand of ourselves and we are not so tempted to knock hats off.

Day Forty: Spring

Escobaria vivipara or Spinystar in bloom.

Spring has finally gotten it’s act together and shown up here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It’s about damned time! Like many people, spring is my favorite time of year. The green of new growth is one of my favorite colours, and the bustle of the birds and proliferation of plants suggests an optimism that has been lacking these last few months.

We will get through this. And if we’re really lucky, and all pitch in, we might just come out stronger. The recovery from the Great Recession left so many of us behind. The economy hasn’t met the needs of the working class in decades. This is our chance to reset, reassess our values, and pull a phoenix.

That might just be the weather talking. Sunny optimism isn’t my default setting. Still, it’s nice to think that through a horrible circumstance, we have been given a once in generations chance to change course.

Noccaea fendleri or Fendler’s Pennycress.

The season also reminds us that no matter how awful COVID19 is, it’s not the end. Individual outcomes will vary, but babies will keep being born, the grass will keep turning green, the flowers will keep blooming, the songbirds will keep returning. The planet will certainly survive this hit, and so will humans on the aggregate.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Five: Drive

Mom hadn’t left the house in thirty seven days.

The blue, blue sky is still there.

That’s not healthy.

Today we violated the spirit of the quarantine. We drove. We drove south and west over Kenosha Pass and through South Park. We turned on Colorado 9 and drove up through Breckenridge and then turned on US 6 and drove most of the way over Loveland Pass. We turned back at the top, because Clear Creek roads are closed to non-local traffic. Then we drove home on I70.

I’m pleased to report that the mountains are still there. The forests are still there. In many places, the snow is still there. The rocks are still there. State and US highways are still there. The interstate is still there. The mountain towns are still there. The grassland of South Park is still there.

It felt surreal.

Mom has asthma, and her immune system is busy fighting a sinus infection. Covid19 would take her out. I didn’t let her get out of the car. I sanitized my hands after touching the gas pump.

It still felt risky.

But we can’t stay home forever. At some point in the next several days, I’m going to have to go to Costco. At some point we will all need to see our families again, in person.

I have no idea how to navigate that. At what point does isolation become an enemy in and of itself. At what point is it worth taking a risk. It would help if we had more answers, but ultimately, we’re all flying blind, here.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Four: Luminous

Pulsatilla patens or Pasque Flower.

Spring is finally here, and the days are utterly luminous. I’ve written before about living in the Märchenwald, the fairy tale forest where all the stories are true and urgent. This never seems more so than when spring is on the land. The generative mystery of sprouting seeds and the sudden appearance of flowers where there were none is a form of magic. The clouds billow and spread like runes, or semaphore, or celestial hobo signs.

When I am out in nature, especially, it seems, in spring, it feels like my glasses have suddenly gained clarity and saturation. Stepping outside is like stepping into a high def world with a stunning 3D feature. The old slogan for audio was ‘it’s not live, it’s Memorex.” It’s not Memorex, it’s spring!

A lot of people in my area are frustrated that folks come up from our nearby city to crowd our parks, and I’m on board with the principle that if the lot is full, you should move on. But I’m always glad to see people from the city, often obvious from their clothes or shoes.

Leucocrinum montanum or Star Lily.

Humans need nature. We crave it like vitamin C when we are deficient. And so often, when we’re living in urban space, we don’t even realize what we are craving, we just know there is something missing. How could I justify being jealous with “my” nature? How can I not celebrate people having a chance to fill the hole in their relationship with the environment?

I live in the woods because I am lucky. I live in the Märchenwald because I understand that the universe(s) is an awefully big place, and everything in it isn’t always apparent. Today I went for a walk around the lake, and went for a run in the park. I wish everyone had an opportunity to do the same so easily.

Day Thirty-Two: The End of Recreational Retail?

Have we finally stopped mistaking this for fun? Image courtesy needpix.com.

When I was a kid, my Mom did home daycare. All week she stayed at the house, tending six small, noisy children, baking chicken nuggets, microwaving frozen vegetables, chairing the Clean Plate Club, changing diapers, and gently teaching emotional regulation. More weekends than not, she just wanted to get out.

We couldn’t afford to do much by way of fun activities, and, besides, all the daycare shopping had to get done on Saturday or Sunday. So our weekend excursions were all about shopping. And shopping. And shopping.

Mom could make a day of it like no one else I’ve met. We’d go to Target to scope out the toy section, especially the clearance aisle. But the whole store had to be scoured for items of interest. Three hours later we’d hit the thrift store, where each disorganized item on the shelves had to be examined. Then we’d swing by Sears “quickly” to see if there were any sales on ride-on toys. And there was still the grocery store to go, an aisle by aisle affair. We got home late, tired, hungry, and utterly drained.

I don’t shop this way.

My Dad says I shop like a guy. The goal is to get in, get needed items as quickly and efficiently as possible, and get out. The gender stereotype is probably dated at this point. I expect I shop like most people in my age group and socioeconomic cohort who aren’t particularly into fashion.

I figured out a long time ago that if it isn’t tied to me, I’ll lose it. Designer bags aren’t for me. Image courtesy pixabay.com.

The idea of going out for a day of shopping as a recreational activity has zero appeal to me. Maybe I just never was “girly” enough, but seriously? Bleh. I’d rather be doing so many other things, including just staying home.

I’ve read a couple of articles recently sounding the death knell for department stores. This piece looks at the sector overall, and this is an in-depth profile of sorts of Nieman Marcus, which never answers its own headline question. Really, of course, the death knell has been sounding for a long time. COVID 19 is just likely to be the final nail in a coffin that was already about ready to go into the ground. And when the department store goes, so too goes the shopping mall.

And I say good riddance. We aren’t losing many jobs that weren’t destined to be taken over by robots, anyway, though I do feel awful for the people who might have eked out a few more years behind the counter. Instead we are losing a culturally pernicious pastime.

Recreational shopping was always a perverse idea. Theoretically, recreation should be about renewing yourself. A shopping binge might be fun while you’re doing it, but, unless you have lots of disposable income to play with, retail therapy comes at a cost. In the longer term, instead of renewing ourselves, we renewed debt, anxiety, and clutter. We renewed our time crunch, and we renewed our stress.

All this is not to mention that we renewed a service sector of unlivable low-income jobs, we renewed our carbon footprint, and we renewed our environmentally catastrophic infatuation with cheap plastic crap.

Now we just renew all these things via Amazon.

Still, it’s hard to think of an activity that better symbolizes an unsustainable civilization filled with people living unsustainable lives than a day at the Great American Shopping Mall. And there has to be a social benefit to ditching consumption as its own form of entertainment. Retailers are already getting our money, for their products and for hidden things we all pay for as taxpayers, like the police who are used as security at Walmart stores and all the employees who are using food stamps. We don’t have to give them our leisure time as well.

Full parking lots at the parks is actually a wonderful problem to have.

Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that, as our shopping malls dry up and blow away, our national, state, and local parks are seeing simply hoards of people showing up to recreate in the great outdoors. Too many people wanting to get out to hike, bike, and run is actually a fantastic problem to have in a country with an obesity epidemic. Now we just need to claw back some corporate subsidies to spend on more parks.

I can say for sure that I feel a whole lot better, a whole lot more re-created, after a day in nature vs. a day in stores. So goodbye Sears, goodbye Macy’s, and JC Penney’s, and Sak’s, and Nieman-Marcus. Goodbye weekend days of mercilessly hard tile flooring and the reflection of florescent lights in linoleum. Goodbye to parking lots so vast that forgetting where you parked could eat up hours of your life.

Now I just have to figure out how to tell my nieces, who are just at that age when a shopping mall is actually a desirable place to be.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty: Quiet

The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs.

The birds seem louder now. The phenomenon has been much observed, but I was surprised to realize it applies even in my semi-rural area. Spring isn’t just here, it is burgeoning and bustling. Now that we are, at last, hopefully, done with snow, the early flowers are blooming, and the songbirds are congregating.

Living in the woods, it’s easy to miss how crowded my area is. My abortive attempt to deliver the mail here was a revelation. If Evergreen ever incorporates, it will probably qualify as a small city! It doesn’t feel like it, because the various developments are hidden by trees and folded into creases of the foothills.

But the sound of traffic carries a long way. A car passed me on the very short paved section of my run today, and I was struck by how loud tires are against the asphalt.

Hearing the startling increase in tweets, twitters, calls, and songs makes me think of the title of Rachel Carson’s famous book. Our springs have been growing quieter and quieter, barely able to be heard over our clamor. And that’s without even considering all the species and habitat loss.

But if you give nature half a chance, spring comes roaring back. How can we build on this chance?

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.

Day Twenty-Six: What it Could Look Like

How we do that is up to us. Image via Adobe Stock.

A while back, when I was commuting, I ran across an idea on the TED Radio Hour podcast. I think it is in the interview with Naiomi Klein. The subject is what can make a movement hold together? What inspires people to take the big step and actually act, instead of just complaining about things? The interviewee suggests that a crucial ingredient is having an inspiring vision to move towards. It can’t just be about how bad things are, it has to be about how good they can be.

Yesterday I fell down a bit of an internet rabbit hole and landed on this article from The Atlantic on the pitfalls of meritocracy, and how it has mutated into a system that perpetuates hereditary wealth. It’s an interesting article for many reasons, but one thing I picked up on was the phrase ‘time famine.’ I’m not totally comfortable with it — being terribly busy cannot be compared to starvation. On the other hand, it is profoundly evocative of the desperation for downtime that plagues many American families.

I wonder if all these stay-at-home orders will spark some movements. Many households have now had a chance to see what it could look like to have a saner work/life balance and/or work from home. A chance to see how it feels to not be famished for time. Many households have gotten a glimpse, just a glimpse, of what a Universal Basic Income would be like. We’ve all seen what less driving and less shopping look like. And we’ve all marveled at the clear blue skies and quiet streets. Many of us have rediscovered going for walks and bike rides.

Could this be the experience that galvanizes a new environmental movement? Could we wind up fundamentally reassessing our relationship to work? Could we be inspired to live healthier lives and/or simpler lives? Could we take inspiration from many of our Governors, who have emerged as competent leaders, and have a movement towards a saner politics?

In his press conference this morning, Andrew Cuomo said that we need to talk about not just reopening, but re-imagining. This pandemic has caused terrible losses, exposed the disastrous levels of structural racism in this country, laid bare the circus of enraged kindergartners in D.C., tanked our economy, shown us that our economy wasn’t working for a lot of people even before it tanked, and caused suffering and grief. We don’t have control over any of that.

But we can control how we respond. Do we roll over and let things get worse? Do we continue to let tribal political divides prevent us from acting in all of our best interest? Or do we rise and demand that going forward we will have a decent health care system, less income inequality, enough time to do our adulting and then some, genuine equal opportunity, and a sustainable approach to living on this planet? These should all be bipartisan issues. Can this crisis help us see that?

Here’s hoping.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

Day Twenty-Three: Introverted

It’s hard to dwell on your troubles when this is happening.

Someone once explained to me that the difference between being introverted and extroverted isn’t really about gregariousness. It’s how you recharge your batteries. After a long, intense, and stressful day at work, are you eager to go out with your friends to decompress? Or do you need to hole up for a while with a good book and no company but the cat?

I found this definition entirely useful. It gave me permission to be both outgoing (except for around cool strangers, with whom I am shy) and an introvert.

I’ve been making a real point of counting my blessings during these strange times.

For introverts who haven’t had loved ones come down with COVID19, and who haven’t gotten it themselves, this has been an amazing chance to recharge. I feel like my batteries are full for the first time in many, many years, despite the ever-present anxiety causing a constant drain.

I think even the dedicated extroverts can get something important out of some solitude. Or perhaps it’s that I associate solitude with getting outside and going for a walk, preferably in a natural environment. Everyone can benefit from that, as seen from the popularity of the badly translated (from Japanese) shinrin-yoku, which can mean taking in the forest atmosphere, but is generally rendered in English as Forest Bathing. Who can I talk to about getting that changed to Forest Immersion?

For me, nothing is as conducive to mindfulness as a walk in the woods, or even just the park or a neighborhood with mature trees and limited traffic. Mindfulness isn’t always the be-all-end-all simple fix that we seem to think it is. Yes, it has a lot of benefits, but it’s both a lot harder for some than others, and more beneficial for some than others.

I find that I have to sneak up on mindfulness. My photography hobby keeps me grounded in the present moment, always intentional about looking around and drinking in my surroundings. Dog’s wagging tail and delighted grin are an antidote to negative rumination. And if a dog is unavailable for some reason, just try dwelling on your problems when being vigorously scolded by a squirrel.

Introvert or extrovert, mindful or less so, what a blessing it is to have time and inspiration for long walks. The future is terribly uncertain, and I’m terrified about my job situation. But in many respects the crisis has, itself, given us a mechanism to cope.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

Day Sixteen: It’s an Outrage!

Two of ’em aren’t even facing the right way!

I had to alter my run for the second time in a row today. Jefferson County Open Space tells us that their parks are open, but that if the lot is full, you have to move on. As tempting as it is to rationalize, I have to assume this means me, even though I am not bringing a car to the party. Others are making different decisions.

A lot of folks in my town are upset because people from the city 30-odd miles east of us are coming up to use our parks. A lot of people are upset because so many are ignoring the mask rule, and hoarding groceries. And it is upsetting, too, to see groups on the trails that are very unlikely to be from the same household. They’re taking a risk, not only for themselves, but for the rest of us.

When I was a kid there was a bumper sticker kicking around that said: “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” At the time, whenever I saw this I would think “damn right!” Now I think it should read “if you’re not outraged, you’re either not paying attention, or you’re just too damned tired.”

Humans do love to get outraged. It gives us a lovely feeling of self-righteousness. The quick and dirty way to make yourself part of an in-group (a necessity in our evolutionary environment), is to define someone else as the other. Dogging on the out-group is like the quikcrete of social bonding.

But I ran across this meme online yesterday. I’m not normally one to engage with sappy content, but this is important.

A lot of us are outraged by people who, it seems, are not taking this as seriously as we think they should. The thing is, if someone is trying really hard to pretend things are normal, they’re scared. If someone is violating self-isolation to spend time with friends and family, they’re probably scared, too. If someone is in denial, they’re scared. If someone is poo-poohing the science, it’s probably because they’re scared.

So I have to give myself the advice I gave to the kindergarten kids when I was subbing. Who do I have control over? Just me, and sometimes even that is arguable. I can’t control what anyone else does in this crisis. All I can control is how I react and what I do. And so I smile at the people without masks, and I smile at people going out in groups that have way too many adults for them to plausibly live together. I smile at the people coming from cars parked alongside the road.

All of this means all of nothing, of course, because no one can see me smiling behind my mask. But it does make me feel better.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.