Monday, October 4, 2010


It's Fall in Yellowknife. A time of transition.

Autumn has been my favourite season just about everywhere I’ve lived, and the North seems to be no exception. The leaves in the birch-dominated forests have changed a million glowing shades of yellow. Brilliant sunsets are a warm-up show for the early-season green aurora, and after-dinner walks are crisp affairs.

That having been said, the narrative that takes us from summer to winter is not strictly linear. A few days ago I put shorts on for an afternoon hike – more of a scramble along the Canadian shield than an even-keeled stroll through the forest – and the morning’s frosts are often forgotten in the warm afternoons. People are still making weekend trips to their cabins on summer terms, the canoeing is prime right about now, and even the geeky kids aren't wearing their snowsuits to school just yet.

The seasonal transition is most apparent for me in the mornings. Ice coats the car as I walk out the driveway at the start of the day, and we have already had a few morning dustings of snow (though our proximity to the lake means that we are just a few degrees warmer than the rest of town, and have yet to see any accumulation). There is often a layer of dew on the beard as I leave any seasonal awareness behind and check the day’s first e-mails under artificial light.

I am grateful for the walk to work. At fifteen minutes it is hardly a workout, but the cool air in my lungs gets the heart pumping and gives me a caffeine-like jolt. I head up the hill on Franklin Avenue, leaving behind the shacks of my Old Town neighbourhood as I approach the tall office buildings of the city center in a daily transition ritual of my own. I start the day in brief concert with the elements, even if I spend most of it in isolation from them.

A layer of fog hung over town one morning last week, mingling with the sunshine to make for a dream-like blur of muted colours as hazy figures shuffled along the avenue. It was like walking towards a dream sequence, or into a faded sepia photograph. Funny, I thought, that I am walking away from Old Town and towards the decidedly more modernized city centre, yet the morning mist is making for a back-in-time trajectory. Perhaps there's a metaphor in there about the development and future of Yellowknife, but I haven't been around long enough say.

Winter will be here soon. We are getting noticeably fewer hours of sunlight with each passing day as the darkness gradually uncoils. Stiff breezes are knocking the leaves loose. As one such wind caught me the other day, a friend who grew up locally looked at me and took on an uncharacteristically cautionary tone. "Do you feel that?" he asked. "It's coming."

The impending season will be long, dark and cold. Inspiring on its own terms, but harsh nonetheless. As a calm before the storm, though, it would be hard to do much better than Fall in Yellowknife.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Friday Night Lights

The burning torch on Dog Island would let us know the show was

Having to look for a beacon in the twilight may have given the
event a speak-easy vibe, but it was as necessary as it was romantic.
Paddling out into the middle of Great Slave Lake is a bit of an
undertaking, so it was imperative that we know the event was a go
before pushing off. By the time we had carried our borrowed
canoe down our dirt road, through the squatter's shacks at the
lake's edge and dipped it into the cold September water, a crowd
had already formed around the island and the torch was indeed
burning. The Dog Island Floating Film Festival was a go.

The lake was glassy and quiet as we set out towards the island, a
modest 10-minute paddle from where we put in. The sun had
gone down but visibility was not a problem in the nine o'clock
dusk. The films had already started as we approached, and when
we were within a few meters I whispered to Sarah that she could
stop paddling. My parallel parking expertise might be hit and
miss, but my dormant canoeing skills from summers on the
Miramichi River came back quickly as I wove our way amidst
the other boats and towards a desirable vantage point.

Dog Island is a one-night festival with an inimitable Northern
aesthetic that makes the films themselves rather secondary. The
movies are projected on a screen set up on the tiny Island (and by
"tiny" I mean the size of a suburban lawn), while locals converge
in canoes, kayaks and silenced motor boats, dropping anchor or
rafting together to take in regional fare from the comfort of their

After a few minutes of manoeuvring and the realization that we
needed to raft up with others lest I spend the whole night working
to keep us in place, we made our way over to a row of other
canoes and tied on to them. The neighbour we met at a party the
week before tipped her beer to us as we slid past her boat. It was
the fourth time - in three different places - that I had seen her that

The films may be secondary to the experience, but that is not to
say they are second-rate films. The content was mostly local,
and entirely from North of 60 (the line of latitude, that is). They
all came in under the ten minute mark, and ranged from
contemporary music videos to animated Aboriginal legends to an
art house piece that I don't think I understood. Or maybe that was
the point. Anyway, there was a mix of the silly, the serious and the
sublime, but while some of the films took place in the bush, there
wasn't one that could be described as bush league.

I pulled on my toque as dusk gave way to dark. Other canoes
joined our flotilla, and at one point we were in the midst of a
group nine-wide. Some people were holding on to other boats,
some were tied to each other, while others were simply wedged
into the middle. We were mostly silent, save for chuckles,
applause and the occasional shout-out to a friend on the screen
when appropriate.

The torch on the island continued to burn.

While some were transfixed on the films, others lay down in their
boats and cast their gazes skyward, as with this being a clear
Yellowknife night in the Fall, there was another show going on.
While the aurora were not at their brightest or most active, the
muted-yet-glowing streak they cut across a black screen of their
own made for an appealing side-show. Star power, indeed.

There must have been at least sixty boats assembled before all
was said and done, but my counting abilities were hampered by
the darkness. The lake was just beginning to move in the
midnight breeze and water lapped at the gunwales as we turned
and headed back to shore, glowing and gliding with the peaceful
headlamp navy headed in all directions. Houseboat dwellers had
the shortest commute.

Rugged exterior notwithstanding, this town is long on culture; we
had to decide which of two gallery openings to attend before the
festival. That said, things happen here on the town's own terms,
with climate and isolation often factoring in. And so Dog Island
was not Toronto or Cannes, but then again nobody wanted it to be.
This town does red canoes better than it does red carpets, and those
who embrace Yellowknife for what it is seem to reap its finest

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Triumph of the Spirit, A Failure of the Kidneys (or: The self-indulgent boastings of an Ironman)

(Note: This one is written just as much for my own record as it is to share with the masses. I hope you read it/enjoy it/pass it on, but I know that most people have better things to do than read through this whole thing. Here's the short version: I did an Ironman. It was pretty tough, but I crossed the finish line.)

3.8km swim
180km bike
42.2 km run

It may have been smug of me to feel prepared for numbers like those, but at that point if I couldn't tell myself I was ready then I might as well have gone back to bed. It was 5:30 on race day morning, and as I walked into transition to get suited up, Sarah asked me if it felt surreal. "Not really," I said with a shrug. "I've put my time in and this has been a gradual process. Feels pretty appropriate, to be honest with you."

I don't think either of us totally believed that, but we were happy to live the lie.

I walked solo into transition to scurry among the field full of racked and ready bikes with my peers for the day: 2,499 emaciated-looking athletes sporting the bare minimum of body hair, and then yours truly. I fit right in. With Phish in my ear phones I was able to zone out and pretend to check on my bike ("Yup, that looks tight..let me just wiggle this around...better spin the wheel again, just to make sure") until I wandered over to meet Max.

Max is a close friend from my days in Victoria. He and I started doing tris at around the same time, exchange e-mails about training in the off-season and race together whenever we can. And by "race together" what I mean is that we start the race standing side-by-side and then Max waits for me at the finish line, showered, wearing street clothes, having eaten dinner and gotten in a light post-race workout.

We finished checking our bikes and dropping off our transition bags (bike and run gear that we would change into when needed) and, along with our co-competitors, made our way through the funnel of assembling spectators and towards the start line
like pigs to the slaughter in a sacred act of pilgrimage.

An ironman mass start is really quite something. I would call what happens once the gun goes off "organized chaos", but in Max's words "rats escaping from a sinking ship" might be a little more apt. Here's a video of our race I borrowed from YouTube:

The gun goes off at thirty seven seconds. This was shot from right around where I started my swim, so feel free to play "Where's Waldo" and try to find me, even though I don't know if I'm in the video.

I started my swim wide, wanting to avoid the massive congestion, shoving and clawing which occur as people try to swim on the inside of the loop (it's a two-lap, rectangular course). After a few minutes I knew that going wide would not make for a good swim, as I was in a mass of spray and limbs and having a tough time spotting the buoys to orient myself. I moved over to get a little bit closer, and soon found myself staring at the buoy cable right underneath me, which meant that I was as far to the inside as possible and right in the war zone. I readied my elbows and prepared for a physical two laps.

Despite my willingness to drop the gloves, however, I found my swim counter-intuitively peaceful. Oh, I got kicked, scratched, yelled at and shoved, but for the most part it was easy to maintain a steady rhythm, with only occasional disruptions and contact. It was a soothing thing, being able to take ownership of my swim and steadily glide along amidst the bedlam surrounding me. Progress was marked by the fading of the announcer's voice as I swam out the long side of each loop's rectangle and its increasing volume as I made my way back in. One hour and twenty two minutes was almost exactly what I had been hoping for, so I was feeling good as I had my wetsuit stripped off by a volunteer and made my way to transition, grabbing my run gear and ducking into the changing tent.

Feeling good getting out of the water. Rod MacIvor photo. (If you want cool pictures of your Ironman, I highly recommend having a step father with media credentials and extensive photojournalism experience.)

I hope to God that the inside of that changing tent is the closest I ever come to a combat hospital. It was dark, it was muggy and there were body parts all over the place. I was still a little dizzy from the swim, and to add to the confusion people were shouting their numbers out so that volunteers could run and get their bikes. At one point I just sat down and laughed for a few seconds, taking in the absurdity into which I had wedged myself.

I had been looking forward to the bike. My training rides in the Rocky Mountains (Boulder was the ideal place to live while training) had been exercises in the epic and sublime, and had put me in a good place to hammer through North America's hilliest Ironman course. The rain came down hard during the first forty-five minutes or so, but it let up by the time I had made the ten kilometer descent into Keene on lap one, leaving us with cloudy skies and little wind. Ideal racing weather.

Like the swim before it and the run after it, the bike was a two-loop affair. This is great psychologically, as it allows the athletes (and me) to think of each distance in smaller increments. It also means the bike course goes through town twice, at which points we pass amidst the thousands of fans, locals and revelers who have assembled.

Right. The fans. Sarah and my sister had rallied the troops in a big way, and I was equal parts humbled, motivated and confused by the pack of 40-strong who sported the red t-shirts and held cutouts of my head on sticks all day.

The Shouldice/Hart/MacIvor families (both immediate and extended) and family friends. The Fitzpatricks represented in equal numbers, and also had the best tailgate party of Ironman day, according to the local paper.

A close-up of the t-shirt design, courtesy of my sister's immensely talented friend Emily Chen.

The bike ride is a long and solitary endeavour, so knowing that I would have warm faces and familiar voices waiting for me in town was a much-needed boost as the winds picked up and I grimaced my way through the winding, rolling Wilmington notch and started the final 15km climb back into town on each lap. Approaching the village I was fully in my glory on the "Papa Bear" hill at the end of both laps, yelling "That's right, baby!" as I kept a high cadence and blasted my way up and through a narrow valley created by the thick line of spectators on both sides of the road. I passed a good chunk of other riders on the first time up especially, but knew full well they would probably catch up to me once the course leveled out (lap 1) or we started the run (lap 2).

Everything you read about Ironman racing - especially on a course as hilly as Lake Placid - says to not go too hard on the bike. There's no sense being a hot shot on the bike, as the conventional wisdom goes, and having nothing left in the tank for the run. While that advice holds true, I know now that, Papa Bear notwithstanding, I was too conservative on the bike. My rides in and around Boulder had gotten me used to climbing, and I knew I wasn't going to be strong on the run anyway, so there would have been no harm in leaving a little more on the course. My time of seven hours, forty-five minutes was slower than I had been hoping for, but I was feeling alright physically and mentally as I pulled into the transition at the end of my ride. I was a little over nine hours into my race.

I had stopped to pee two or three times on the bike, in addition to slow-downs for food at any of the five aid stations along each loop, and one much-needed stop at an ambulance for safety pins after a wardrobe malfunction had left me a little more exposed than I would have preferred. Fortunately, I had thus far avoided the dreaded "sloshing" of excess fluid in the stomach, so I was striking a good balance. The nutrition part of the day can be a challenge, as taking in enough fluids and calories is hugely important, but it is almost equally important to not take in too many and risk cramping or vomiting (both of which are common sites along the course). After another port-a-potty stop in transition, I exited the oval and started the marathon.

Here again, crowd support was huge. My legs were feeling strong but certainly not fresh, so to have my crew on both sides of the street giving me huge love while I emerged from the tent and started off was, well, necessary. I can not overstate what a tangible difference they made at every encounter.

My plan of running for the first 5k before taking a walking break went great for the first kilometer or so. My then-modified plan of walking at the aid stations (which were found at every one mile, or one-point-eight km) and running between them was also highly successful for the first thousand meters or so before falling apart.

So it didn't take long to realize that the tank was running low, and what had started as a comfortable jog out of transition had turned into a run/walk relying heavily on inertia. I had envisioned a daylight finish, trotting into the stadium with a respectable marathon time and a bona fide sense of accomplishment. Instead, I had to accept the reality that I would be among the stragglers; a late-in-the-day finisher whose time on race day was perhaps not a fair representation of the training hours spent getting to the finish line. I took solace, though, as the kilometers slowly faded by, in knowing that even if I walked pretty much the whole marathon, I would still be in by the midnight cutoff. My goal for the run then changed again, this time to a simple binary rule: never, ever stop moving forward. No matter how slow I was going, how much of a joke my run had become, there was no way I was going to stop putting one foot in front of the other. I was tired, demoralized and more than a little pissed off, but the decision to not stop at all gave me the sense that one small part of the day was still entirely within my control. Let the death march begin.

Back into town as I finished the first marathon loop, and the red army was still out in force, propping me up in a big way. By that time they had been supporting me for thirteen solid hours. Jesus. These people were out there all day to cheer me on, yet the total time they saw me was less than five minutes. Heroes.

Partly to convince them (and myself) that I was feeling strong, and partly to take advantage of the boost they provided, I ran my way into and out of town. I probably should have stopped to say hello, but I wanted to make hay while the sun was shining, so to speak, so I used their energy to dial up the speed a little bit as I headed out of town.

The second half of the run was almost entirely a walk. The sun had set, and with only the slower folks left on the course things got cold and lonely, although the camaraderie between the athletes was at its peak in these darkest hours, and the later it got the more I appreciated every single spectator and volunteer who was sticking with us. Literally every single one was making a difference at that point. My lightweight running gear was damp with the evening dew and the remnants of the afternoon's sweat against my skin as a bright Adirondack moon rose above the River Road.

The day remained a privilege, even at its most punishing.

I refused the emergency blanket offered to me by race officials as I plodded along. Sure I was cold, but taking the blanket seemed like a tacit acceptance that I had stopped putting in any speed-related effort. While that may have been the case, I didn't want to admit it by donning a tin foil cape.

Max and my cousin (in-law) Marc appeared on their bikes and found me on a particularly desolate stretch of the run. Max had done the bike in a little over five hours and run a ridiculous three fifteen marathon to finish in 10:07. That's not a typo: he ran 3:15 - just five minutes off the Boston qualifying time for our age group - after averaging 34 km/h on the bike over 180km. Think about that for a second. It's absurd.

They had come to make sure I was feeling alright and offer a bit of solidarity. I was grateful for the company, and Max humoured me as we compared notes and pretended we had been a part of the same event. After some idle chatting, and once I had milked the distraction for all I felt it was useful for, I sent them on their way.

"Thanks boys. I'll take it from here."

I dialed it up a bit after they pedaled away, and I started looking more like a power-walker circling the mall than a trauma patient regaining the use of my legs. It was all about the small victories at this point.

As I approached within 5km of the finish, I knew a hell of a party was waiting for me. The Ironman organization is a well-oiled machine, and one of the things they do best is make sure there is a pumped and rocking crowd waiting for those athletes who need the support the most at the end of the day. I could hear the music as I approached, and Dance Mix '95 never sounded so good. I made my way along the village roads, striding over top of a day's worth of gel wrappers and paper cups discarded by the swifter afoot. The streets ran sticky with sports drinks and orange peels.

No way I was going to walk into that stadium, so with about 2km left I discovered some untapped reserves and cruised along Mirror Lake Drive towards the finish line at the outdoor speed skating oval, where they set up temporary bleachers every year. It was overwhelming, after the darkness and isolation of the marathon, to be amidst bright lights, cranking music and literally thousands of people. But damn if it wasn't a glorious confusion, and damn it felt good to be a rock star. I was crossing the finish line of an Ironman. And while the time wasn't what I had hoped for, my race had long ago become a yes-or-no undertaking.

Yes, indeed

After I grabbed my medal, finisher's hat, t-shirt and two slices of pizza that were clearly baked in the oven of God and delivered by angels, Sarah - who had found me right away - led me to the rest of the crew. There were handshakes and hugs all-around, and I don't know that I have ever felt a deeper moment-specific sense of gratitude than I did just then. Training for and "competing" in an Ironman are such self-indulgent endeavours that the extent to which they can be glorified is a little much. That having been said, knowing that I had those people in my corner every second of the day lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of accountability. As I said, the difference it made to my day was tangible and I milked for everything I could, both mentally and physically.

With the dust settling I collected my bike and transition bags and started walking, entourage in tow, up the hill to my old friend Jon's apartment above
The Bookstore Plus where we were staying. I was feeling relaxed and lucid, though starting to shiver a little, and pretty much everyone - myself included - was relieved that I wasn't among those whose day ended in the medical tent or the back of an ambulance. That being said, my sister knew I wasn't quite out of the woods.

"Hart, when was the last time you peed?"

"Uuhhh...the second transition, I guess. So about six hours ago But don't worry, I've had lots to drink."

As an emergency room doctor with a background in sports medicine, Elizabeth knew that the combination of sixteen hours of physical activity, high fluid intake and lack of urine output meant that I could be in trouble. She kept her cool, but immediately sent her partner Jordan to buy as much Gatorade as Bazzi's Pizza could sell him by law.

And so I sat at the kitchen table while a select few watched me pound five sports drinks and a little water with the intent of flushing out my system. Before long I was in the bathroom, and despite my sister's warnings I was a little taken aback at how much my urine looked like blood. The reason it looked like blood, of course, is because it was blood (well, blood and Gatorade, I suppose). Apparently when there is so much muscle tissue breakdown in one day the tissue can clog the kidneys and the kidneys can start to fail, which is what had happened to me. I was fine after flushing them out (though I felt fine before then, too, which is a little concerning), and am grateful that my sister was on the ball.

With my kidneys back in action I hit the pillow.

Ironman number one: check.

I've had mixed feelings reflecting back on the day, and the months of training that led up to it. In some ways I let myself down, in others I pushed myself immeasurably beyond where my thresholds of endurance and self-doubt were years, or even months or weeks before the race. I feel an immense sense of pride in finishing, and yet feel a little sheepish at even taking it on.

We're a funny people, North Americans. When we're short on suffering, we orchestrate it ourselves. Then the especially ludicrous among us invite people to watch us grunt our way through it, following which we blog about it as if it is some noble thing to swim, bike and run until your kidneys fail (alright, so that part does make me feel hard core). When you think about it, the whole thing is a little ridiculous.

Which is why perhaps my proudest Ironman-related accomplishment is not the race itself, but the fact that I largely kept it in perspective. I made a very conscious decision early on - right from the moment I signed up, bankrolled in my registration as a graduation present from my Mom - that I would not mortgage my life to this thing. Of course I made sacrifices - it would be physically impossible for anyone with family obligations and a full time job to not sacrifice things and still finish the race - but I also skipped workouts when required to maintain my identity and sanity. I also continually sought to remember where the race fit into the overall scheme of things. I tried to be careful not to make it sound like a chore to go out and train or have to plan my summer around the race, because at the end of the day it was one of the greatest priviliges I have known, and an experience I would not have traded for anything.

I just hope that next time my kidneys are up to the challenge.



Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The White Hat

My father said that the reason he married my mother was that when they met she could name all the Montreal Canadiens. I'm pretty sure that it was, in fact, at least a contributing factor. His love of sports not only helped him choose a life partner but also raise his children, and before I could drive I had been lucky enough to attend sporting events of all varieties across North America. As a young buck I saw the Habs play at the Forum (spiritual), attended more college and pro football games than I could count (educational), and watched minor league baseball in Albequerque (random).

But among the plethora of live events I attended, nothing was ever quite like the Ironman triathlons I've witnessed in my second hometown of Lake Placid over the past decade or so. Indeed, a full Ironman event is something that has to be seen to be understood - from the cannon going off at 7:00 a.m. and seeing two thousand people clawing and thrashing in a turbulent 3.8km white-water ballet, to the geeks in their aerodynamic helmets hammering their way through the 180km bike, all the way to the final stragglers gritting their teeth and trying to finish the full 42.2km marathon before the midnight cutoff.

And it is that midnight hour that I find always the most inspiring. Watching a pro cruise across the finish line in nine hours is impressive and all, but there is something special about watching a grown adult on the brink of losing control of his bodily functions or forgetting her name, being cheered on by a couple of thousand pumped up spectators in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in the middle of the night. Those final competitors are trying desperately to make it over the line in time to avoid the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) that is given to anyone who does not complete the entire 226km (140.6 mile) race before the clock strikes twelve.

The crowd becomes an integral part of the Ironman experience as midnight approaches. Competitors who finished earlier in the day, families, friends and locals number into the thousands as they convene at the outdoor speedskating oval that doubles as the finishing stadium in the center of town. They stand on the bleachers or recline on the hill that leads up to the old stone high school that overlooks the festivities. Music pumps from the P.A. system (the same top-40 and oldies soundtrack that you are likely to hear at Uncle Sal's third wedding or watch awkward politicians dance to at a convention) while Mike Reilly - "the voice of Ironman" - rallies the crowd to cheer on those remaining few athletes who are trying to finish the run-come-death-march. And there are prizes. Not for the athletes this time, but given to the audience as the organizers rely on that universal truth of spectator sports: nothing makes white people yell and scream like the promise of a free t-shirt thrown at them by a marketing intern.

The prizes aren't altogether lame, though. Four years ago I had a hat land at my feet. As far as baseball caps go, it seemed exotic to me at the time: made primarily of white mesh with a terry-cloth type of sweat band sewn into it and adorned with the name of one of the race's sponsors, it was probably the first ball cap I had ever seen that wasn't made entirely out of cotton or wool. It was more a piece of gear than a casual adornment, and it was of the ilk that the day's rock stars - being the 2,000 athletes competing - wore as they completed the run. Since I was twenty five years old at the time and not, say, seven, I won't recall that I was altogether enamored with the hat. But I was suitably taken that I picked it up and tucked it under my arm, deciding that while I didn't have use for such a hi-tech piece of head wear at that point in my life (I was still rocking my foam/mesh "Earl" trucker hat on a full-time basis), I might have occasion to use it at some point down the road. I took it home and tossed it onto my desk before bed that night.

I have changed residences several times since then, and have always taken the hat with me, finding room in a bag as I've been in transit or on a hook in someone else's apartment as I've squatted for a few months. All the while I've resisted actually putting it to use, instead deciding that wearing the hat was something that I would have to earn, and day dreaming in the back of my mind of the day when I would cut the tags off and bring the hat's place in my life full circle. It may seem like a reach, but as I've found it in the bottom of my designer suitcase (read: hockey bag) or glanced at it buried on a closet shelf, the hat has been a constant reminder of a goal that has at times seemed larger-than-life, but has loomed closer as I've honed my swimming, biking and running chops over the past few years.

And so it will be this Sunday, in that mountain town that I love, where I will be part of the early morning white-water ballet, where I will power through that half-day grind on the bike, and where sometime before supper I will slip on the crisp, white hat as I seek to be among those who finish before midnight. While there is much that will be out of my hands come race day, I can rest well until then knowing that I have the perfect piece of head gear.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Across the Great Divide

The reason we decided to move to Colorado can be summed up in four words: Rocky Mountain National Park. It was on a sunset drive over the spine of the Continental Divide - which bisects the Park - with elk grazing indifferently beside the road in the shadow of 14,000 foot mountains last June that we realized this was the place for us. A few months later we moved to Boulder, and a couple of recent trips back into that giant playground have reinforced to us that moving to within one CD's drive of Rocky Mountain National Park was probably a good idea. One such trip took place yesterday afternoon, when we threw the cross-country skis in the back of the car (alright, they were still in there from the last trip) and headed for the mountains.

The drive from Boulder to the town of Estes Park and the eastern entrance to RMNP is a pretty one, as a traveler gains elevation (around 2,000 feet) and loses population. Our late start yesterday meant that we had the pleasure of enjoying the drive in the bright afternoon sunshine., and spirits were high as we stopped in Estes Park for some water and granola bars.

After passing through town and approaching the park itself, we we noticed several cars pulled over to the side of the road about a quarter-mile shy of the entry station. When dealing with Americans in national parks, this means one of two things: snack bars or wildlife. To our delight, the attraction in this case was not 700-calorie ice cream sandwiches served up by a disenchanted local sophomore with acne and a hair net, but a herd of elk numbering in the triple digits grazing by the roadside.

We encountered a similar site when we pulled into the park last week as well. In that instance we stood dumbfounded beside the car, speaking in hushed, revered tones and listening only to the percussion of hooves crunching the dried vegetation. Wanting to be closer to the animals but knowing that physically approaching would be an affront both to their right to enjoy their meal and my right not to be trampled, I opted to experience the animals using my soles. Off came the hiking boots and socks as I inched my way from the paved shoulder onto the same meadow grasses where the herd was grazing a few meters away. It is a most spiritual thing to stand barefoot on the same grass as creatures so simultaneously gentle and imposing, and my senses of connectedness and humility ran deep from the ground up.

Photo by Fitzpatrick

New snow had fallen since that previous encounter, however, so a similar scene would not be recreated yesterday. After sitting silently on the hood and watching a few calves approach within two car lengths, I jumped back in the car and we headed up Trail Ridge Road, towards our skiing. Trail Ridge Road is the section of highway 34 that climbs to some of the Park's highest elevations, and is the same one that we drove last summer when we realized we needed to move here. In winter, however, the road is closed at its highest elevations for the obvious safety reasons. Fortunately, it turns out that a closed winter road in the Rockies can make for an ideal skiing and snowshoeing trail, and we snaked our way up the road until the barricades, at which point we traded wheels for skis and kept heading up.

The road-turned-trail starts off wide and heavily traveled, with skis being largely unnecessary for the first kilometer or so as one crunches over snow that has been well trampled not just by backcountry adventurers, but also curious tourists who may not advance more than a couple of hundred meters from their cars (but good on them for exploring what lies beyond the end of the road). Eventually, the trail starts to narrow. Sure, it is still almost as wide as a two-lane road, but the two-to-three feet of fresh powder that covers it make it nearly impossible to ski upward, unless you stay in the tracks that have been carved down the center by previous skiers. I have to admit to feeling a little bit hard core as the trail continually narrowed, funneling me into the middle as I skied past road signs that were buried up to their necks, and took in top-of-the world views that I had to earn by pumping the legs, rather than sitting on a lift.

Photo by Shouldice

We skied steadily upward for a couple of hours, gradually gaining elevation until we were probably somewhere around 11,000 feet. Our turning point was above a clearing that allowed us to look back down the mountain which we had just skirted, to the meandering river on the valley floor and the naked, jagged peaks in the distance. The sunset was just finishing its (weather permitting) daily spectacle, with its final pinks and oranges playing out in narrow strips slicing the very tops of the mountains at the far end of the valley. A chill was setting in as we started our descent.

To take a trip into the Colorado backcountry in February is to journey into a muted magnificence as the land holds its frozen breath and waits for spring. There is a powerful silence brought on by the cloaking of snow, and the rumblings and echoes that permeate the hillsides and valleys during the rest of the year are dampened, with only the occasional nearby rustle managing to reach the visitor's ear.

And yet, with this silence can come a stark amplification of other senses. Skiing back down the road in the post-sunset alpenglow of the early evening, there was a rare and sacred intensity in the colours of the Park. An intensity that seemed to swell as the daylight faded. The golds of the dead and stunted grasses were as bright as under the Prairie sun. The brown bark of the deciduous trees was as rich as the finest mahogany. And the purple wedge of sky that we were descending towards was woven of a fabric fit for the artist currently known as Prince.

And then during our last kilometer or so the glow subsided. Where the afternoon snow had sparkled hours earlier, and the yellow rocks had glistened like buttered pancakes just moments before, we were now gliding through a tunnel of dusky and unsettling shadows, arriving back at the car just as headlamps (which we did not have) became a necessity. We drove down the rest of the road largely in silence as the faint outlines of elk, barely visible under the evening's first stars, dotted the meadowed landscape.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Covers of Songs and Books

The bookstore sits by the edge of the highway that slows down as it arcs through through the tiny town. The building is sunken by a few feet, so the windows look out at ground level. As for the store, it consists of a main room that is the size of an average suburban living room, with a couple of smaller secondary rooms and a long hallway where they serve the ice cream, hot drinks and baked goods. The walls are lined with the the cracked spines of thousands of used books, and the familiar smell of yellowing pages mingles on the stale air with the heavy scent of dark roast.

In a town with as much musical talent and appreciation as Nederland, Colorado, pretty much any public space can be turned into a makeshift performance venue. And so at Blue Owl Books (not to be confused with Boulder Bookstore, where I collect a pay cheque every two weeks), music happens most Saturday nights and one Thursday a month. The Thursday gig is always filled by the same duo, a local married couple named Billy and Jill who we went to see tonight. I had never seen them play together, although I've seen the husband work his flat-picking magic a time or two with his other band. You see, Billy Nershi is the singer and lead guitar player for the String Cheese Incident, and the String Cheese Incident is a band that I have traveled high and low to watch work their magic over the better part of a decade. My most recent "Incident" was this past summer in Rothbury, Michigan along with 20, 000 of my fellow Cheeseheads. Given that I am used to seeing Billy playing with the Cheese in front of thousands, I was thrilled to get the tip-off from a co-worker that he and Jill would be at the bookstore tonight.

We arrived just as they were warming up in the main room - two musicians, two guitars and one completely unnecessary microphone. Benches had been brought in to handle the crowd, though the event turned into standing room only once the eighteenth and nineteenth spectators arrived. We positioned ourselves on the second bench back, with Sarah sitting right next to the bed where the shop's resident cat slept during most of the show. After a quick warm up and friendly greeting (more "Hi there, friends" than "Hello Cleveland!") the Nershis settled into two wonderful sets of bluegrass and country standards, folk songs and a couple of String Cheese favourites. I have been in dorm room jam sessions that have had more people in attendance, and the intimate setting lent itself more to the vibe of friends picking in a basement than a formal performance. Granted, formality has a way of going right out the door as soon as the performers start passing their bottle of tequila around among the audience.

There is magic to be seen in watching someone play music for the sheer joy of it, and there was to be no questioning of Billy's motives tonight. He could have been playing to a hundred times more people down the road in Boulder, but you could tell there was no place he'd rather be than in front of fogged windows in a drafty bookstore with his wife singing harmony and twenty friends chiming in whenever they knew the words. The man's smile was as contagious as it was natural, and when he sang "I've been spinning 'round the wheel of life, and I've made one more night," you could tell that he was grateful for it.

After a loose second set, Billy and Jill thanked everyone and put their guitars down. Billy took a seat on the first bench, sipping his beer while he struck up a conversation with our mutual friend Ryan. Ryan was quick on the introduction, and I soon found myself in a lengthy chat with Billy about some of his favourite people to play music with, and the road that led him to Nederland over the past thirty years since he left the East. I sat back and let him do most of the talking, so as to make sure it was a natural conversation between two bearded dudes in a bookshop, rather than an awkward interaction consisting of a longtime fan pestering a great musician. After a few minutes, Billy picked his guitar back up and strummed quietly while the half dozen or so of us who remained shot the breeze. Deciding this was a good time to leave, we zipped up our down coats and lowered our heads to soften the blow of the mountain wind as we slipped out the door.

Billy played on as the lone employee switched off the outside lights.

Monday, January 4, 2010

This Must Be The Place

I am living in Boulder, and Boulder is in Colorado. At least, I'm pretty sure it is. Some days, I'm not quite sure where Boulder is.

Seminal U of T geographer Edward Relph defines placelessness as "the casual eradication of distinctive places and the making of standardized landscapes that results from an insensitivity to the significance of place" (Relph, 1976). So a placeless landscape is that which can - and does - arise anywhere, oblivious of or indifferent to any inherent human or geological variations which should make the landscape unique. When you picture your friendly neighbourhood commercial strip - complete with a Denny's, Staples and Canadian Tire - you are picturing the epitome of placelessness. It is the phenomenon of getting out of your car in Surrey, taking a look around and knowing that you could just as easily be looking at Truro and not know the difference.

The longer I am immersed in it, the more apparent it becomes to me that Boulder - in all of its residential, post-1970s boom glory, and notwithstanding its overabundance of yoga mats, dreadlocks and self-righteous liberal bumper stickers - is a study in placelessness if there ever was one. While my daily bipedal commute to either of my jobs starts off on Folsom Street and takes me West towards the mostly unique businesses of the Pearl Street pedestrian mall (set in the shadow of the Flatirons), a trip East of Folsom into the bulk of Boulder sends one into a labyrinth of chain stores, strip malls and everything else that is average and common in North America.

And while some thinkers - most notably geographer J.B. Jackson - speak to the authenticity that can be found in these seemingly inauthentic spaces, a placeless landscape is not what I came to Boulder seeking. I thought I was making a break for the mountains, but the suburbs seem to have gotten here first and have acclimatized to the altitude just fine.

So with occasional exception, Boulder hasn't quite provided the Colorado experience that we moved here looking for. We would have rather moved to a tiny mountain town, but the need for immediate employment forced our hands when we arrived, so we settled in and on Boulder: bigger than the mountain hamlets, but much smaller than Denver. The mountains are nearby, but they require at least a little bit of time and money to enjoy. Given that we don't have an abundance of time (because of our jobs) or money (also because of our jobs) right now, we have found ourselves lamenting the fact that we feel so close to, yet so far from everything we came here looking for. And so we made an unofficial New Year's resolution to make sure that we actually take the initiative required to live in Colorado while we are living in Colorado.

Step one was last Thursday night (12/29), when I invested my Grandmother's Christmas money into the local economy in the form of tickets for Sarah and I to see the Yonder Mountain String Band at a theater down the street. Yonder has been in high rotation for me since 2001, and all four band members make their home in the nearby mountain town of Nederland (NED-er-lind). The band plays fast-pickin', hard-drinkin' bluegrass music, and they do it with airtight precision that can blow the roof off a room. The last indoor show I saw them play was in Montreal to less than a couple hundred people, so to be able to dance atop the Boulder Theater balcony and watch them captivate a crowd more than ten times as big in their own backyard was quite a treat. This was a Colorado band singing Colorado songs to a Colorado crowd within a ten minute walk from our house. The show ripped, and was about as subtle as a kick to the teeth in its reminder of where we are living.

With a shared day off today, a few days removed from a Yonder show that we are still humming along to, we decided to just get in the car and drive for the mountains. We were unsure of where we were going to end up, but hopeful that it would be, well, Colorado-y, at least in terms of our romanticized notion of what that means.

We headed due east for 20 miles and reached Nederland, a mountain town we fell in love with shortly after arriving in the state. We wove through the dirt roads and rickety-yet-mountain-tough homes of old town Ned at an elevation of almost 9,000 feet (Boulder is at about 5, 400), turning south on the Peak-to-Peak highway toward Rollinsville, ten miles away.

Picture the smallest settlement you have ever been to. Now divide it in half. Got it? Rollinsville, Colorado could be a suburb of the town you are now envisioning. We're talking a tiny crossroads tucked into the mountains, where you couldn't pretend to not be in Colorado even if you wanted to. There is a post office where people who work at the watering hole can get their mail, and a watering hole where the people who work at the post office can drink, and not much else save for a smattering of single-floor residences. The pavement runs out once you get about fifteen feet into town. This isn't a problem, though, as town itself only extends about another five hundred feet. The detour into Rollinsville was a scouting mission for us, as we will be returning to town to see our current bluegrass favourites - Michigan's Greensky Bluegrass - play a show at the town's bar on January 23rd (no, really).

Back on the highway, now at over 10,000 feet we headed for the town of Black Hawk. "Oh, someone I met in Boulder was telling me about Black Hawk," Sarah said. "She told me how charming it is and how much cooler she thinks it is than Boulder." We arrived in town and parked just past the welcome sign. Sure enough, it seemed unique, charming and pretty small from what we could see although we couldn't understand why this tiny town had its own police force (a cruiser had passed us by when we first rolled in). We got out of the car and started walking.

"Hey look, a casino," I said. We laughed, thinking we were somewhere about the size of Nederland or Rollinsville, and yet there was a casino just up around the bend...and another down the street...and another around the next bend.


Yeah, so Black Hawk is a major gambling center in the absolute middle of nowhere. We're talking a mini-Vegas, where every business we saw (at least 15) was at least mostly a casino, there were multi-level garages or valet parking on every block, and a fifteen-story mega-hotel and casino overlooked town. This was a total and complete non-sequitur and was a little much for us to take on our day in the mountains, so we skipped town pretty quickly (but not before making an offering to the blackjack Gods and snagging a comped Diet Coke like the high-rollers we are).

From Black Hawk (son of a bitch that place was weird) and the equally gamblo-centric and neighbouring Central City, we descended in altitude back to around the 8,000-foot mark and found our way to the Interstate. We followed I-70 West for about 20 miles, stopping briefly in Idaho Springs (Colorado still) and then ending up in Georgetown.

Georgetown. Sitting on a valley floor flanking Clear Creek, wedged so sliver-thin between the peaks that the air was painted a premature dusky gray in the late afternoon, even as the skies above were a bright blue.

Georgetown. Where on this afternoon a keen naked eye could spot a herd of big-horns (Nature!) grazing on the slopes bordering the town to the North, and the mountain lions sometimes visit from the hills to the South. Town's main street makes a feeble and insignificant border between the two sets of mountains.

Georgetown. Where mining has left and the interstate has slowed things down (easier access to the nearby ski resorts means fewer people stopping over in the winter), yet none of the 1,800 residents seems to mind. The tourists still come in the summer and the locals are content to have the run of the place in the winter, so long as the jobs at the resorts keep coming.

Georgetown is the sort of place I want to come home to some day.

After chewing the fat with a few of the locals and staying for a couple of hours and a plate of nachos, it was time to get on the road. We jumped back on the Interstate and headed East to Golden, turning North just before Denver to head back to Boulder. I'm back in my apartment now, feeling a little down to be back in my placeless new home, but grateful for the day I just had and the fresh eyes with which I can see my current situation. For the city may be where I sleep, but my living is done in the mountains.