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Saturday
Feb052011

Colorado Dreamin'

Colorado has four proper seasons, this coupled with its incredible natural bounty makes for some great times outdoors. Of course, it's winter that Colorado is renowned for with its plentiful world-class snow resorts. Most of the resorts have a base altitude of around 2800ms with summits cresting almost 4000ms. At these elevations there is no risk of the snow disappearing and while conditions will vary each year, mountain weather typically yields plenty of 'precip'. It is not just the amount of snow in Colorado but the nature of it which has worldwide appeal, the fine dry snow is hailed as champagne powder.

While Denver does get snow over the winter it has a different climate to the mountains as it lies in a rain shadow. This means that one can leave a city drenched with sunshine and then carve one's way through the mountains to a winter wonderland. The contrast is incredible and is at its most stark when one tunnels through to the western side of the Continental Divide. Road conditions on the east side of the Eisenhower Tunnel can be perfect but on the other side there could be a snow storm. Interstate 70 is the highway that runs east-west through the Rockies and all of the Front Range's snow resorts lie off this highway. The ski villages don't interconnect the way some European resorts might but this is because the ski-terrain is already huge and takes up the whole front and back-side of a mountain.

When I decided to stick around in Denver I was certain that I wanted to get back into snowboarding. I had done it before a few times in Europe but had always come off the mountain crying for my bike with both my body and ego bruised. Being so close to the mountains meant that I would be in a position to crack it this time around. I managed to pick up a sweet board and practically new boots on Craigslist for $175. A quick shop around the thrift stores and TJ Maxx meant that I was fully decked out for another 125 bucks. My season pass was only $480 and this incredibly got me access to Breckenridge, Keystone, A-Basin, Vail and Beaver Creek – all top class mountains. All I needed now was wheels to get up there. Thankfully my house-mate Corey loves his snowboarding and could drive me up in his A-Team Van. The van is like a Lear jet inside, I was half expecting a pretty hostess to tap me on the shoulder to serve me a glass of champagne the first time I boarded.

While, I have not gone as often as I'd like (about once a week) I'm pretty happy with how things have been going. The mountains are so forgiving and unless you are playing in the trees it's impossible to hurt yourself. I recall my days boarding in Europe, where I needed lots of pads as falling on the snow was akin to crashing on concrete. Here the mountains are like bouncy castles so there is nothing to hold you back and thus, it's difficult to have your confidence shaken. With such changeable conditions and a choice of mountains, every day on the board is different. However, I can now ride any groomed slope and only come unstuck on moguls or super steep ungroomed runs where the snow is bumpy and throws me around a lot. I am getting to grips with riding switch (the reverse side), which will allow me to play properly in the trees. Without being able to ride switch I get snookered on tree runs and that's not fun. At the moment I'm an all-mountain boarder as opposed to doing any freestyle stuff. I've a bit to go before I figure out all the technical skills and get bored with speed alone. I have more fun on the front-side as I like going fast and the groomed runs are better for working on stuff but I often end up in the back-bowls for the challenge. Ben and Corey, with whom I head up the mountains, prefer to mix things up. However, as speed is my thing (much like descending on a bike) I always try to incorporate one run when we race flat out. Their top-line speed is faster than mine but it is only under race conditions that I really squeeze everything I can out of myself. I love it. it's so exhilarating just letting go on a board. While it takes huge concentration it's not the same level of risk as on a bike. My aim before I leave is to be able to just hold a straight-line down the mountain at top speed and to be confident riding switch. I might need a few more days to achieve this but considering I only go up about once a week I'm pretty happy with where I'm at. Now that I like the sport so much it is definitely tempting to spend a winter totally focused on it. My desire/need to cycle is distracting so it is unlikely that I'll ever become a ski-bum ... but I could be persuaded. Regardless, the snowboarding is so good here that I feel spoilt.  Any future European snowboard trip is going to feel like a stop-gap measure until I return to Colorado for some more excellent winter adventures.  I can imagine wiping-out on some European ski-run and in the midst of dazed thoughts I will start dreaming of experiencing Colorado's champagne powder once more. 

Hopefully the photos will give you some idea.

More soon

Marco

splash of colourBen shredding the back-bowl in Vail

no poles Jamie in A-Basin

lovin' Breck'the dude takes a break on the ungroomed back bowls in VailBen and Corey chilling out on 'the beach' in A-Basin. This is where the grills and kegs come outhiding out in the trees for some pale ales and Cohiba cigars in the sun-shineSaturday night in Vail - OAR concert

apres-snowboard in Vail with Corey & Alisha

Monday
Jan312011

Field of Dreams

It may surprise but my connection to Denver runs deeper than simply a place that I stumbled upon while on some mad big bike-tour. When other kids dreamed of visiting Anfield or Old Trafford I longed to see Mile High Stadium. Soccer skipped my consciousness as a kid and instead I enjoyed watching last Sunday's NFL game high-lights this Sunday with Mick Luckhurst and Gary Imlach on Channel 4. An aunt's trip to the US had yielded some Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets stationary for my two brothers. I can't recall my present but I think a cool Donald Duck pencil top and a huge draw-string bag full of sweets may have been it. I had lost out in the draft for a team but Santa soon solved that particular dilemma. As part of my Christmas 1986 treats I received a Denver Broncos sweat-shirt. A passion was born.

It was a timely gift as the Broncos had made the play-offs and would make the Super Bowl a month later. We lost to the New York Giants but to be AFC champions was still a good thing. I wasn't emotionally invested yet but the NFL was supported by a small underground few in my year in school. I would discuss American Football with Birdy (Giants), McGuirk (Dolphins) and Andy (Redskins). If I wasn't talking NFL on Monday morning I was likely talking wrestling but that's another story. The popularity of the sport was growing in Britain and Ireland and the circle of people in my year who supported the NFL was growing too. It wasn't mainstream in a rugby school but it was cool. The next year the Broncos unbelievably went to the Super Bowl again. This time I stayed up in the middle of the night to watch the first half. It was obvious the Broncos would lose once more. It was bitterly disappointing to have to face the growing number of Redskins fans who were jumping on the bandwagon the next day. Still, two straight Super Bowl defeats was hardly an embarrassment. The real humiliation would come however, when two years later the Broncos faced up against the San Francisco 49ers. Despite Broncos quarter-back John Elway coming off an average regular season he had delivered possibly his best ever game in the AFC championship. This was to be a duel of two of the leagues biggest quarter-backs. Unfortunately, Elway completed just 10 of 26 passes for a pathetic 108 yards, had two interceptions and fumbled twice. He did manage to recover one of his fumbles and he ran in the Broncos only touchdown. In contrast Joe Montana won his fourth Super Bowl and his second in a row. He completed 22 of 29 passes for 297 yards and threw for five touchdowns. That San Francisco team were probably one of the best teams to have passed through the NFL. They already had a number of stars but that season a few more emerged on the team. They had the best offence in the NFL and the third meanest defence. Elway was now 0-3 in the Super Bowl and the Broncos had ignominiously joined the Minnesota Vikings as being the only other team to lose four Super Bowls. I remember taking my duvet down to watch the game in the middle of the night full of excitement and optimism only to become increasingly upset and frustrated as I watched my team getting destroyed. That game was the most lop-sided game in Super Bowl history with the 49ers managing to be the only team ever to score two touchdowns in all four quarters. The Broncos were thumped 55-10 in what remains the biggest Super Bowl defeat in history. Needless to say I was distraught. I was so ashamed that I went into my parents bedroom to ask if I could skip school. I didn't want to face the public humiliation the next day but my parents were having none of it. I faced the firing squad in school but thankfully they pulled blanks and spared me.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those days, including Elway finally coming good with back-to-back Super Bowl wins for the Broncos against the Green Bay Packers in 1998 and the Atlanta Falcons in 1999. While I tuned out to the fortunes of the team over time the city of Denver has always been deeply rooted in my consciousness as a result of the emotion I had for the Broncos. I was so excited to have the opportunity to visit Mile High Stadium after all these years. My dream to visit what is now referred to as Invesco Field may have lost importance and meaning with age but I still wanted to complete on this long-range pass. It was in part a tribute to that little kid who cried all those years at the losses he had to bear and in part a celebration of what I had just completed, not just in terms of the trip but in terms of everything I have accomplished since then. Life has been full of amazing experiences since those days and it was nice to be somewhere meaningful as a place to call a halt on the trip.

The pre-game fun started in Governor’s Park bar downtown with the Denver Cruisers who were holding their annual Orange Crush bike ride. The Denver Cruisers are a group of bike advocates who meet on Wednesday nights over the summer. They meet in bars downtown for pints and then ride around Denver on their beach cruisers in fancy dress to lots of fanfare and madness. They were meeting up in various locations to ride to the game and of course, anybody with a bike was encouraged to join them. After some beers we took over the streets and rolled towards the river-side bike-paths which took us to the stadium. With free passes to the Broncos Barn we were able to drink some more before the game and then those with tickets could make their way inside and find their seats to watch the visit of the New York Jets. It was a close match and the Broncos led by three points with a handful of minutes to go. Denver were far from convincing though and didn't have much of a running game owing to injuries. The defence was also shaky and the match was very much in the balance. The team were only 2-3 and couldn't really risk losing another game so early in the season. The match was lost on a pass interference call, which allowed the Jets to move 40 yards up-field onto the goal-line. It was such a stupid foul for the corner-back to make. There was no guarantee of the receiver completing the pass so to commit the foul and give them the ball right on the goal-line was absurd. The lack of discipline and the loss suggested the Broncos were in for a difficult season. They were. Unbelievably the other teams in their division were equally woeful and so interest was still maintained even though the team had no chance of doing anything. They finished the season a lowly 4-12 and coach Josh McDaniels was sacked. They brought John Elway back into the fold to get the club out of its current bind, much like Liverpool nostalgically brought in King Kenny to right the fortunes of LFC in the Premiership. The Broncos are one of the biggest franchises in the NFL and have the most sold-out games in the league. A 4-12 season is totally unacceptable considering the scale of the club and the resources at the players' disposal. After all these years it was so disappointing to arrive in town for what represents the Broncos worst season ever. It brought back all the upset from all those Super Bowl defeats but at least I had realised a dream.

Chat soon

Marco   

the Denver Cruisers ride to the gamearrival at Invesco Field (Mile High Stadium)the dude with the boom-box - I couldn't figure out how the music was following us along at firstinside the broncos barn for some beers before the gamemy fan-clubhellooo ladies!pink attire for breast cancer awareness daygetting us in the mood - as if the excitement of the game wasn't enoughfield of visionnot a bad seat in the house

Sunday
Jan302011

We Have a Winner

It was so nice to be back in a proper city again. There has been a lot of road between Denver and the last big city I visited, Vancouver. Normally my arrival into a city is a little chaotic as I have to navigate an unfamiliar metro-area to arrive downtown. Cities are generally frenetic places so this adds to the stress. However, Denver had an air of calm to it as I cycled the final twenty miles along a river-side bike-path, which dropped me right downtown. It is highly unusual to be shielded so well from traffic in a city of this size. With the Colorado sun setting behind the close-by mountains and reflecting into the glass towers of the downtown skyscrapers it was all quite picturesque. I was immediately taken by the place and I had only just arrived.

If Denver proved to be a disappointment I would be out of ideas. I was suffering from a certain degree of travel fatigue having been on the road for over a year. The shorter days were zapping the enthusiasm for heading any further south, I needed somewhere to stop. I had been warned off Colorado Springs by numerous people who told me it wouldn't suit me. This city has strong religious zeal and is the anti-thesis of the liberal vibe promoted by the other Coloradon towns I have visited. The only other places further south that held appeal were Durango and Silver City. Durango lies in the south west of the state and would mean crossing back to the western side of the Continental Divide. Silver City in New Mexico lies close to the Mexican border. I didn't have the legs for either and as nowhere else truly inspired me on my round-the-world trip it was coming down to a choice of either Denver or Boulder as my bolt-hole for the winter.

The homogeneity of Boulder was a put-off for me. The great thing about larger cities is that they harbour diverse outlooks and some sub-cultures too. It's nice to know that there is another point of view out there to keep things on an even keel. Without this balance the risk is that everybody lives inside a bubble and we all know by now that bubbles have a tendency to delude. While Denver has a lot of tall office buildings it also has hipsters on bikes cruising between them. Naturally, it has some posh restaurants but it has what must be one of the biggest dive-bar scenes there is. Even though it is a metropolis it has an incredible amount of public parks and open spaces. While Denver is very much a city it is hard to ignore what is probably the world's greatest mountain playground on its door-step. It is obvious to me at this stage that the personality of every community of people in the world is determined by the geography of their location. Coastal cities tend to be populated by people who feel a need to be close to water. Cities that exist in the middle of vast plains of nothingness tend to be populated by those who look inwards to other people and the city for inspiration (since there is none in nature). Denver, being a city, is not populated by mountain-folk but by city-folk who love playing in the mountains. Real mountain-men live a rugged life in the woods and are overwhelmed by the degree of stimulation that cities thrust upon them. By looking at the underlying geography of a place it becomes easier to understand the kind of people who live there. Of course, this understanding can only be realised if you have a good knowledge of the different natural energies that pulse and repeat themselves around the planet.

Part of the motivation for my trip is to discover a place where I feel I belong. The journey is as much a tour of myself as it is of the nature and places I have passed through. While I love the power of the ocean beaches don't really do much for me. I adore trees but I hate being in rainforest, only the alpine stuff appeals. I have a deep affection for the peaks and troughs of mountains but I'm not a token woods-man. While I enjoy physical labour, I ultimately toil with my mind as opposed to my hands. This means that I find the ruggedness of mountains and forests infinitely peaceful but I also crave the stimulation of cities and people too. When I add all this up it is clear that I would feel more at ease in Denver as opposed to a Miami or a New York. For people who live in Denver it is hard to ignore the calming influence of the huge mountains that loom over it. While Manhattan sits on water, it is influenced more by towering structures as this is what dominates the view. New Yorkers who seek a calming natural influence must head to the beaches of the Hamptons or the foliage and rolling hills of New England.

To add substance to theory it turns out that the vast majority of people who live in Denver moved here as opposed to grew up here. This reinforces the idea that the geography that is embedded in a physical location is also ingrained in the personality of those that live there. The 300 days of Colorado sunshine a year, more than either California or Florida, means that the climate is superb for people who love to be active outdoors. The mountains offer an unbelievable escape for people who want to readily hike, bike, camp, hunt, fish or snowboard. But Denver is a true city too. For sports fans it has some pretty big franchises; the Denver Broncos (football), The Colorado Rockies (baseball), the Denver Nuggets (Basketball) and the Colorado Avalanche (ice-hockey) not to mention roller-derby! In terms of arts and culture Denver is right up there. It may not be as strong as New York or San Francisco in this department but it does a great job. On the first Friday of every month there are art-walks where all the galleries open in the evening time and exhibit their collections for free. Certain districts have large concentrations of galleries so it makes for quite a fun Friday night out. There is a strong literary community judging by the amount of non-students whiling away the daylight hours on laptops in coffee shops. There are also five independent movie theatres, which is quite a lot considering there are multiplexes here too. On top of all this, Denver has an amazing pub scene and plenty of music venues. It attracts a lot of big acts because they pass through Denver on their tours of both coasts. All of the above is important to me.

After 13,905k of bike-touring and much else besides, it looks like we have a winner. At last!

More soon

Marco

ps – Denver is quite photogenic, which added to the appeal but I have not finished shooting it yet. I will post a gallery soon.

Saturday
Jan222011

The People's Republic of Boulder

When I arrived in Boulder it was raining bikes. I couldn't believe it. They even had bikes in the window displays of shops. One of the local real estate agents had a whole rack of bikes outside its premises in its own livery so that house-hunters could cycle to their viewings. Of course, I think bikes are cool but I have never been surrounded by so many other people who agree. For a nation with such a big car culture it was impressive. However, I'm not used to being in the mainstream; how can something so common be so cool?

Boulder has been voted the third most bike-friendly city in the US. The most friendly is Minneapolis, second is Portland (OR), third comes Boulder and fourth is Seattle. However, Boulder is a much smaller city than the other three so it feels like there is a higher concentration of bikes downtown. A city like Boulder is always going to be bike-friendly as so many pro bike-racers and triathletes live here due to the mild climate and access the city has to the mountains for climbing. However, there is more to being bike-friendly than simply bike-path infrastructure. For me a bike-friendly city is one whose people embraces bike culture and advocates cycling simply because it is healthier, more environmentally friendly, cheaper and more convenient as there is no hassle parking a bike unlike a car. Most importantly the city has to feel totally safe as opposed to safe in parts. When you arrive in a city and a lot of regular people are using their bikes simply to get around then you know it is bike-friendly. Bike-path infrastructure is important to help people feel safe in making the transition from car to bike but if most people were pedal-pushing, then cyclists could legitimately be safe on the roads again as there would be far less motorists. Cyclists who drive are familiar with the issues that aggravate motorists and drivers who cycle are familiar of the dangers of cycling. When cyclists and drivers are forced to cohabit the same space this kind of awareness is crucial and reduces the antagonism that one camp has for the other. Boulder is a bike-friendly city and it has strong bike-advocacy but the problem with all American cities is that cars ultimately rule. This means parts of the city still feel frustratingly unsafe and are uncomfortable to cycle through.

Boulder has always been on my radar as it has such a great reputation for biking with long Rocky Mountain ascents to the west and the Great Plains to the east. While the metro-area accounts for about 300k people, the downtown area has only about 100k. Thus, it's a relatively small place, which makes it great for biking from your door. When I asked people about Boulder prior to conceiving any plans to travel, I was told that if you are an Olympian, a vegetarian and a democrat then Boulder is the town for you. Indeed, there are a huge number of athletes in town be they runners, climbers or bikers. Being home to both the University of Colorado and Naropa University (for thinkers) helps anchor the liberal feel of the place. University towns tend to be more open-minded as students come from all over and have very diverse backgrounds. As for the vegetarianism, well there is not a single vegetarian restaurant in town. The last one closed down due to poor trade. Of course, regular restaurants have vegetarian options but I still found the whole thing perplexing. The reason for my confusion is that Boulder has the highest concentration of Buddhists in the US. This fact is possibly borne out of the arrival of hippies to Boulder in the sixties, which likely sparked the laid-back liberal vibe that attracted other people to the town. I couldn't understand how a town with so many Buddhists failed to have a vegetarian restaurant but then I found out that American Buddhists eat meat. I couldn't stop laughing when I heard this, it sums up the country beautifully; America – the land of no sacrifice.

Downtown itself is quite nice and split between the pedestrianised Pearl Street Mall and the Hill. The Hill is located right beside campus and is dominated by students but it does have some cool bars and eateries. Pearl Street is more or less for everybody else, including the lots of tourists who caught me a little off guard. It should not have been a surprise that tourists come here as Boulder really fancies itself as some sort of utopia and naturally people will visit to see what all the fuss is about. Was it paradise for me? Well, It ticked all my boxes. It has a very talented and competitive bike community with great roads for cycling. It is very educated, this fact is not borne out just by the universities but by the industry and enterprise of the people who live here. The influence of the Beats remains strong. Indeed, Allen Ginsberg taught in CU and the creative writing masters there is quite prestigious. There is very much a literary crowd in town. There is also a strong artist community and while it mightn't be on the scale of a big city people in Boulder take their arts and culture very seriously. Another plus is that it is on the Denver bus-network, which means that I can still access all the things I like about a big city very readily. Naturally, I enjoyed the liberal vibe.

However, I sensed something quite paradoxical about Boulder and it was ultimately this which made me head towards the exit. I couldn't put my finger on it at first but I realised that without the universities Boulder would collapse. It would feel very homogenous, which led me to conclude that the town is nowhere near as liberal as it likes to think it is. If you are truly open-minded then all sorts would feel included here but without the universities this would not be the case. It is 90% white and it feels like 90% of the population are either well-to-do or are trying to be. While the town is beautifully nestled right at the foot of the Rockies it is not populated by the kind of unaffected mountain-folk I had grown fond of. It felt very east-coast and this fact bears out when you walk around town and notice the amount of Wall Street banks in situ. There is a lot I like about the east-coast but I find the A-type personality trait that predominates very one-dimensional, narrow-minded, money-oriented and predictable. Yes, they are educated but this is limited to an academic view-point. They are so competitive and so focused that they don't notice all the other good things that give colour and texture to life. This makes their arguments and outlook both predictable and uninspiring. I'm not suggesting that Boulder is east-coast in its thinking but it feels very close. The Buddhist community likely dilutes the intensity and provides some balanced thinking, without them it would be a very different place. Overall it seems like a safe-harbour for east-coast people who want to get out of the rat-race but can't totally surrender themselves to another way of being. Thus, there is an air of arrogance in Boulder that suggests that these people got one-up on New York bankers and lawyers. Of course, to view life as a race simply highlights how stuck in their ways such people really are. The amount of world-class athletes in town reinforces this mentality. Top class athletes are slaves to their own rat-race too and are so focused that they risk becoming uninteresting people.

I am so familiar with this mentality that I react to it now, this makes me a little unforgiving. However, this way of thinking does not bring me any new insight so I try to avoid it within the context of my trip. I prefer to encounter something that is different (although different is not necessarily better). I am certainly not Californian flakey either but for the time-being I need to be part of a different outlook and I am searching for something that is some sort of synthesis of the two. It is hard for me to arrive at strong convictions in just four days, I could totally have misunderstood Boulder. There is definitely something going on in Boulder but to engage it you have to contribute to it. My role as a vagabond means that I don't bring anything to the Boulder table. I think if I came here in a productive capacity that I would probably see it in a different light as I would engage the genuine enterprise and thought that people have here. For the time being I felt that I had no choice but to move on. For sure, I could spend the winter here but I was holding out for something better.

Much obliged to Ed for the wonderful hospitality in his beautiful home. His thoughtfulness, generosity and interest in people's well-being was very inspiring. 

Denver next up

Marco

Monday
Jan172011

Fort Collins

Although I was turning off the Great Divide Mountain-Bike Route I still had to bike my way out of the mountains. Steamboat Springs lies to the western side of the Continental Divide, which meant that I had to climb over to the eastern side and then over the Front Range to arrive in civilisation. I was making my way east to the town/city of Fort Collins but I would need two long days to get there. Having consulted with the friendly folk in Orange Peel Bikes I decided to exit Steamboat via Buffalo Pass. This was a nasty climb with long steep sections of rough gravel, which made traction very difficult at times. It was a beautiful piece of nature but it took me a lot longer to crest the climb than I anticipated so I turned into the town of Walden near the bottom of the climb to see if I could stop for the night as opposed to 30k up the road like I had planned. I was beat in any case so it was a big relief to discover that the town-folk were totally cool with me camping in the local park. Such ease is good for morale and stopping in a town meant that I could enjoy pub food for dinner and a diner breakfast. The only concern I had was that I was leaving myself with a mountain of work the next day. I still had Cameron Pass to climb, this is marginally higher than Buffalo Pass but at least it is asphalt. The only thing going for the 172k ride to Fort Collins would be that I would get to enjoy a monster descent from 10,276ft to 5,600ft that was over 70k long. After all my hard work in the mountains I deserved it but it wasn't quite the drop I wanted as it still required a great deal of pedalling into the breeze.

I lucked out big-time in Fort Collins with an offer from the Wilder family to stay with them while I was in town. I found the Wilders on warmshowers.org, a website similar to couch-surfing but specific to bike-touring. While I had met one such host in La Paz I never really got on board with this resource as it requires time to browse hosts and correspond. In addition it is difficult to schedule something when I have no idea what the road will be like to get there. It is stressful telling someone you'll be there at 6 only to scrape in before 10pm. Or worse, to tell someone you'll be there on Wednesday only to discover that the route is brutal and you won't make it until Friday, by which time they could be gone for the weekend. In general it is a lot less hassle and a lot more fluid for me to camp as much fun as making these human connections is. Of course, the problem with camping in a city is that the camp-site is generally on the out-skirts and so I end up with an extra-burban commuting experience when all I really want is for downtown to be on my door-step. Hostels usually solve this problem but there are precious few of them in America outside of the major cities. This is why I turned to warmshowers.org and it worked a treat. Of course, the best bit is that you get to stay with local people which allows you to get under the skin of a place very quickly.

I was keen to spend a few days in Fort Collins as I was effectively shopping for towns to spend the winter and I wanted 'to try before I buy'. Colorado is likely the biggest haven for cyclists in America so I wanted to see if 'Foco' stacked up as a place to train for the winter. The metro-area, consisting of Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs, tends to be where cyclists in Colorado live as they have access to the mountains for spins but they don't have to put up with mountain weather. Only die-hard cyclists living in towns dotted through the Rockies will ever cycle during the winter as road and off-road conditions really don't allow it. Fort Collins has a pretty active bike community and it is a small enough city that it doesn't take long to get beyond city-limits. There was no doubt that Fort Collins ticked the bike box. It has a strong cycling culture, however, there is more to me than just the bike. I wanted to find out if the town had enough going on culturally that I'd be keen to stay.

As I wandered around downtown I couldn't but be taken by the place. The downtown area is easy to walk around and is full of restaurants and cafes where one can while away the hours over a book. The town has quite a few breweries making for a great pub-scene. It must be annoying for under-age students of CSU to miss out on this. Of course, being a university town Fort Collins has an educated and open-minded feel. I am not sure how strong the political divide is in Colorado but it is officially a red state even if Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver are among the most liberal cities in the country. Bikes are cool in this town as epitomised by New Belgium Brewing who have a bike as part of their logo. I decided to visit the brewery to see if I could take a tour. It turned out that there was one leaving that minute. I had to cross a packed bar at 2pm on a Tuesday to join the tour and I couldn't believe the buzz to the place; it felt like Dublin at 11pm on a Friday night. The brewery is a pretty laid-back employer and that typifies the mentality of the town. I guess when you work in a brewery it is clear that there is more to life than work. New Belgium Brewing is just one of several breweries in town, the biggest of which is Anheuser Busch. Such beer companies are big employers in Colorado as they all base themselves here to avail of the pure Rocky Mountain water, a vital ingredient.

I really enjoyed Fort Collins but I was a little concerned that it would be a difficult place to break-in. In bigger cities there is more going on and greater diversity that you can participate in things more readily. I was of the impression that it might take me six months to crack Fort Colllins and that was time I didn't have. Still, it was a beautifully leafy town with a charming unaffected air. It is no surprise that a lot of people love to call Fort Collins home. It is not on a lot of people's radar but for someone who enjoys the outdoors, a good quality of life and an understated vibe it is a very cool spot. The happy Wilder family typified everything that is good about this town; life for Lin and Tim is busy but in a family as opposed to a work kind of way. It is great to see parents have a choice. This was my introduction to the 'lifestyle state' of Colorado, a state which really emphasises fun, the outdoors and a good quality of life.

I'm much obliged to the Wilders for putting me up and for putting up with me for four nights. For someone who likes to move their legs, it was a treat to be spread out on a double-bed as opposed to being cocooned in my mummy sleeping-bag. However, it was time to go. I wanted to leave before they knocked the house down. I was privileged to observe five Wilders armed with hammers knocking lumps out of an internal wall. This ceremonial event was to kick-start a kitchen rebuilding project which had been on the long finger for a number of years. The logic being If you knock a wall down then you can't ignore the project any longer.

So, a big thumbs up for Fort Collins and the Wilders but next stop Boulder.  I have posted some pics of 'FoCo' in the gallery for you.

Chat soon

his dudeness

the climb up to Buffalo Pass - beautiful but probably one of the steepest climbs of the tripview from the road up Cameron Pass - the last climb for the bionic dude?magic - this 15 mile section is only part of the drop from 10,200 to the 5,600 feet

biking through Poudre Canyon - one of Colorado's many canyons rising up from the metro area through the Front Range of the Rockies

Tuesday
Jan112011

The Great Divide Mountain-Bike Route - A Review

Without a doubt my trip through the Rockies from Banff to Steamboat Springs was the best riding of my round-the-world trip. While I had no preconceptions about riding the Divide it was always this leg of the trip that had the most appeal. I do not know why this is as I knew nothing about it when I decided to ride it. All the world sections promised to be pretty amazing and they all delivered in their own ways. America is very familiar to most Irish people but to ride down its spine on backcountry roads felt like biking through uncharted territory to some extent. Certainly, it felt a million miles from the vibe of the east or west coast, which we all know a lot about. I enjoyed the unaffected nature of the mountain-folk immensely and it was the people as much as the nature and challenge that will stick with me.

I covered about 2800kms of the 4400km route. Would I like to complete the rest of the route? Absolutely. The route specific maps from Adventure Cycling take a lot of the guess-work out of the trip even if you need to follow your nose in parts. While the lack of guess-work was lamentable at first it would have proven difficult to cover such remote terrain without the information that the maps provide. The extremes of mountain weather simply make an uncharted trip through the wild risky. The best bit about the Great Divide route is that it is pretty much traffic free. America is not a fun place to ride on the road so using a map that is specific to cyclists while not omitting the main points of interest along the way is fantastic.

I rode the route solo. This is not recommended practice as limited cell-phone coverage would necessitate another person to go for help should anything happen. Three is the perfect number but the guys who race the Divide effectively ride solo as after a day or two of the race they have all split up (although they have to carry satellite trackers in case of emergency). While I did carry a water filter I did not make use of it preferring to cart water from mains as opposed to collecting and treating water from the wild. It is a surprise that I never exhausted supplies such that I had to use my filter. A racer would want to filter as it saves a great deal on weight.

Somebody contemplating racing the Divide would approach it very differently to me. By stripping down the weight very close to the bone and by riding on 29” wheels as opposed to 26” ones, they are dramatically increasing their range. This allows them to pass through towns daily and keep on top of supplies better than somebody who is carting a heavier load to accommodate a greater deal of comfort. Of course, they will still shed a lot of weight from the effort but the choice is plain. If you want to go fast there is one approach and if you want to savour the trip there is a different one. Having gone with a touring set-up (due to the nature of my world tour) it took me 31 days of riding to cover two-thirds of the route not including rest days. The winner of the Tour Divide completes the whole course on his 18th day without any days off.

The hardest part of the Great Divide route is the desolation and the unpredictability of the weather. While the number of climbs involved make for a hard ride, the biking is the least challenging part of it for someone who loves mountains. Any sense of isolation would be reduced for the racers as they are on the route for far fewer days than someone touring although naturally, low blood sugars would cause them to have bad moments. Regardless, they still have to stare at the same barren scenery as I did and that in itself is no easy task. It is interesting that there is a desire to make the race even more remote. The winner of the past three editions (Matthew Lee) is one of the people who is pushing for this. Clearly the course suits him but I can't see why one would make it more desolate unless it added something for the people who tour the route. It is already a marathon so creating a course that is overly challenging lessens the appeal for most tourers who are simply looking to explore the terrain. Touring the route comes with a different set of challenges as heavier loads make for a longer trip, greater isolation and mean that any technical section for the racer becomes doubly challenging for the Tourer. Some parts of the route have alternative sections but tourers like to stay true to the race course if they can.

Ultimately the Great Divide Mountain-bike route should have limited appeal to cyclists. Roadies will hate it for its lack of asphalt sections (only 10%), Mountain-bikers will hate it for its lack of technical sections (10%) and Tourers will hate it as a lot of it is overly difficult for what is already a challenging tour. My guess is that even the Tour Dividers love to hate this course. Thus, the only people who could possibly enjoy this route are total nut-jobs or someone bereft of anything better to do. Regardless, the work Adventure Cycling has done in plotting and keeping tabs of the route is wonderful. While they are promoting a difficult course the bike-friendly maps reduce the overall challenge of it immensely.

Would I be tempted to race it? For sure. Part of the appeal is that I believe the course suits me. Even though the course is off-road, I believe a roadie who enjoys stage-racing would out-perform a mountain-biker. The route does not require the technical skills that a mountain-biker would have over a roadie. It does need tons of endurance and the ability to recover. Roadies tend to have the upper-hand in this respect. However, it is not something I need to do (yet). My guess is that most people who race it have either no clue what they are letting themselves in for or if they do, they likely only do it to get it out of their system so they can get on with a normal life. The fastest finisher took 17.5 days and the last of the finishers (half didn't complete) took 28 days. That means being able to push a mountain-bike with five kilos of kit between 160 and 250kms each day on consecutive days. No easy feat considering the terrain. On top of this they race the route in the middle of June. Some of the snow has yet to clear by then and it is not uncommon to experience stormy weather at that time of year. The rationale is that it provides the most day-light for the racers but if the route started in August it would not compromise the amount of day-light hours and there would be a greater liklihood of settled, albeit hotter weather.

While racing the route has appeal to somebody competitive most people tour it. Even then, most tourers don't finish it. Some find the going too tough but most are like me and simply never planned to finish it in the first place due to other interests or commitments. However, having being charmed by the route I would certainly like to complete it at some point. Likely the best way to do this is with a merry band of crazies where one can share the experience and enjoy the company as much as the nature. The alternative would be to do it with a group but to have a sag-wagon carry any kit and set-up camp and organise supplies such that a lot of the chores and safety aspects are eliminated from the challenge. This would certainly be the least desolate and the most stress-free way to enjoy what is a wonderful route through four incredible US states and a pretty part of Canada too. This route is arguably the best bike-touring experience in the anglophile world if not the free world.

Three cheers for the Great Divide Mountain-bike route, I'll never forget it.

Marco

Thursday
Jan062011

Steamboat Springs - A Crossroads

camping on the bend of the Yampa River outside Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs marked my true arrival to the state of Colorado. While the Rocky Mountains divide the states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, the Centennial State is the real heart and soul of the American Rockies. The range is not only at its highest (4400ms) in this state but it is its international renown for the number and quality of its snow resorts that sets it apart. Every winter-sport enthusiast wants to visit Colorado to experience its 'champagne powder', arguably the finest snow in the world. Steamboat Springs is one such resort town receiving on average 165 inches of snow a year. During the winter of 2007 and 2008 it managed an unbelievable 500 inches. Naturally, Steamboat without snow is a different proposition but it still offers plenty of appeal for rafters, hikers and mountain-bikers around the famous Yampa River Valley. For the less adventurous there is the opportunity to experience the outdoors in the very elevated and natural setting of the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. The number of artists' galleries seeking to sell their wares suggests that Steamboat appeals to the affluent. There certainly appears to have been some trickle through from wealthy visitors as it has the most pleasant public library I have ever seen. It is always nice to experience a library where you want to take a book in to read as opposed to take a book out.

Steamboat represented a critical way-point on my trip through the Rockies. It marked my return to civilisation having passed through some very remote landscapes in the very sparsely populated states of Wyoming and Montana. Montana is the fourth biggest state in the US but it harbours less than a million people. Wyoming is the tenth largest state but it is the second least populous with only 565k people. Colorado is a lot more populous for its size with 5 million people. Getting supplies and having chats would no longer be a problem even if the higher climbs would force me to work for them.

Steamboat was not just a way-point but a metaphorical cross-roads for me. I started my trip in the North Americas on the west-coast in Portland, Oregon. 4,873kms later I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. While I took some time off in Seattle, Vancouver, Whistler, Kamloops, Banff and Jackson, I was starting to feel the worse for my long journey. Not much of it had been easy considering I rode through the Cascade Range from Portland to Seattle and then I took the most mountainous route across BC from Vancouver to Banff. Of course, Banff represents the start of the Great Divide trail of which 90% is on gravel. Anyone who has ever checked the route page on this web-site knows that I have always been pointing my bike towards Denver on this round-the-world quest of mine. While I have not been 100% faithful to the initial route I conceived I have never deviated far from the plan. The reason Steamboat represented a cross-roads is that to reach Denver I would have to drop out of the mountains. Not necessarily a bad thing but if you descend from the mountains and you change your mind then you have to climb all the way back up again. The Great Divide trail had charmed me so much that I was always toying with the idea of finishing it at the Mexican border town of Juarez. As I have no job to return to running the trip as long as possible represented an interesting option. I was very much enjoying my time amongst the hospitable and laid-back mountain folk and of course, who wouldn't want to explore more of the Colorado Rockies and indeed the desert of New Mexico? While my body took a rest in Steamboat my mind was far from relaxed. I needed to work out which of my heart's desires I wished to follow.

I should mention that I was on the road a year at this point, bang on target in terms of arriving in Colorado's Front Range (the metro area to the east of the Colorado Rockies) and successful in my mission to avoid the snow. If I stayed true to the Great Divide route then I would have to back-track from the Mexican border to the Front Range as I was still keen to visit Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. The alternative was to drop out of the mountains to experience these towns and then continue south to visit Durango before reconnecting with the Great Divide trail and riding through New Mexico. That would allow me to cover my bases and still complete a north-south ride through America (and half a Trans-Continental). Of course, I had to take into account that I was pretty beaten up from the route and that Union Pass marked a seismic shift in my battle with these mountains and gravel roads. Up to that point I had been dominant but the debacle of Union Pass had allowed nature to regain the upper-hand and everything since then had been pretty harrowing. I surrendered something of myself to the Great Divide route on Union Pass and it was difficult not to acknowledge that my reserves were depleting. When a battle moves from the physical domain to the mental it is very hard to get it back to simply the physical challenge again. The risk is that it deteriorates to the realms of mental torture instead. While I never doubted my ability to soldier on I certainly didn't wish to find myself snowed-in in my tent somewhere.

Ultimately a few things forced my hand. Firstly, I still wanted to race my road-bike. While touring on a bike is good fun there is only so much of going circa 20kph one can take. Being on the road as long as I have I was starting to really miss the 700c wheels of a race bike. I generally like to cane it on a bike meaning that racing appeals more than touring even if racing is infinitely more painful. As the Front Range has the most hardcore cycling community in the US there was a large pull in terms of being back amongst my own. If I wished to have a successful racing season back in Ireland in 2011, then I'd have to take a month off and then start into a winter programme for optimum preparation. Continuing south would only reinforce my ability to ride slowly all day long. Racing requires not just the aerobic base that touring might provide but also the leg-speed (turn-over) and intensity (riding on the limit) that touring doesn't.

Secondly, I was tiring of not having any lasting human connections. I don't know how many hands I'd need to count the amount of people I have met on this trip. One of the hard parts of travelling is that you meet people you'd love to hang out with but not being in the same town long enough inevitably means that you are saying goodbye to good eggs as many times as you say hello. If I were to stop in the Front Range then I would have the possibility of lasting human connections. It would mean making new friends but at least I would be seeing the same people week to week as opposed to never again.

Finally, I still have the desire to be productive. If I continued the trip on the bike then I would struggle to organise my thoughts before coming home. In my head I planned to move for twelve months and then get off the road for six months by staying put in one spot, not Dublin. Ideally, a place along the way which had really gotten under my skin and that I wished to return to. When on the road it is difficult to think more than a couple of days ahead. This is especially true of the Great Divide route as it is very much a full-time job between camping, riding, exploring and securing supplies. It may be an adventure and even a holiday but it still requires as much energy, dedication, discipline and graft as any job. It is exhausting, albeit in a good way. If I stayed on the trail then I'd eat into the remaining time on my visa. While it would be possible to stay on the road outside of the US I do wish to reconnect with my family and friends. Hence why I only ever figured on 18 months. The idea behind appending a year's travel with a six month sojourn is that it allows me time to process the trip. I can come home on the front foot with plans and ideas as opposed to on the back foot overwhelmed by what has just past and fretting over the uncertainty of what is to come.

Thus, a plan was hatched. I would leave the Great Divide Mountain bike route behind and make my way to the Front Range to shop for towns for the winter. As I had yet to find somewhere I really wanted to return to I was going all-in by betting on the Front Range. If it did not appeal as a bolt-hole for the winter then I would continue south to explore the hippy and alternative vibe of New Mexico.

Makes sense?

Marco

this sign outside Steamboat portrays a scene straight from the mountains of the Tour de France - Johann tails Alberto in the team-car with a fan running alongside in a mankini ... what the?

Saturday
Jan012011

It's Never Easy

** This is so 2010 but the story continues etc… **

Aspen Alley in Medicine Bow ForestThere was no possibility of sleep in Rawlins as the campsite was right by the interstate and alongside the rail-tracks. If the screaming traffic didn't wake me then the tootin' trains did. I had no choice but to get out of the noise and back to the calm of nature. I was getting closer to Colorado, a fact that should have alarmed me as this is where the Rockies are at their highest. Being tired however, I wasn't processing much and just assumed that because nobody ever talks about the Sierra Madre range that it wouldn't be too tough. Needless to say it was brutal. Just when you think that things can't get any harder the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route assumes the profile of a heart rhythm on an ECG monitor. The heavy roads and the constant steep grades of between 1 and 5kms long took up all of my depleted reserves. It was also quite barren, something I didn't need considering I had just won a staring contest with one of the most deserted pieces of landscape in the country (the Great Divide Basin).

The rock was turning the kind of red that spawned the name Colorado. One of the nicest things about travelling by bike is that you get to notice these subtle shifts in terrain as you move through different climates and geography. One never gets a sense of this by plane where the travel emphasis is on the destination as opposed to the journey. However, it wasn't all red yet as atop Middlewood Hill I could make out the gold autumnal Aspens in the forests ahead. It was nice to be back among the company of trees again. There was a reasonable amount of hunters around getting ready for the start of the rifle season. The increase in traffic would have alerted the deer and elk who would know to head to higher ground for safety.

I was still on my bike by nightfall searching for an unmarked camp-site that I now couldn't make out in the dark. I blindly back-tracked over steep climbs on the rocky forest road to a point where I had seen a hunting camp. I approached the camp to see if they would mind me pitching my tent nearby. Of course, there was no issue and they took a keen interest in my trip. They had spent the day setting up their camp and they had found a super spot that was secluded in the trees and very private. I was very impressed by Tom and his son's tent. Typically people 'camp' in an RV, however, Tom had gone for the more traditional canvas tent set-up with its own in-built wood-burner. It was both roomy and cosy at the same time. While they had driven from Oregon in their pick-up truck, their camp was designed so that it could collapse and be packed onto the back of a horse. In an age where most people are trying to drive as much of their house as possible into the wild, Tom's approach was refreshing.

I bid adieu to my new friends the next morning full of good intentions of crossing the state line and arriving in Steamboat Springs 140k away. This was perhaps a little ambitious but I had two big descents and only one long ascent to worry about. Unfortunately my optimism evaporated in the heat. It was a blisteringly hot day and while I had plenty of water with me I was riding on empty legs. A Wyoming sign bid me farewell however, there was no official welcome to Colorado. I was very much entering the state via the back door it seemed. I passed through the nothing town of Slater; its only marking was a trailer for a post-office. I swung a left off the asphalt highway and onto yet more, what I like to call 'grovel'. I hadn't had a straightforward day on the bike since my half-day ride into Pinedale. That felt an age away, indeed every pedal revolution since had been hard work. When it is this hot, no matter how much water you drink it is never enough. This happens when your body is really craving sugars. I started dreaming of a refreshing can of fizzy pop but in the middle of nowhere that was a pipe-dream. Thankfully my dreams came true as I turned a bend passing a lodge that was shut between seasons ... or was it a mirage? From the balcony of the house above the lodge Kirsten shouted at me asking if I needed anything. I asked if she had anything to drink and soon she appeared on the terrace of the lodge with some cans of Dr Pepper. Phew! I sat in the shade and as I chatted to her I slowly became aware of the amount of words I was slurring. I realised that I was suffering from both dehydration and exhaustion and that I should probably sit for a while. Such was my condition that it was difficult for me to have a proper conversation with her but she has seen this all before. Kirsten is a Tour Divide junkie who follows the race-tracker online and looks out for both racers and people like me coming through. Her lodge is situated at a point in the ride where nobody can go any further. For the guys who race the Tour Divide regularly she has become an important way-point on the route. Not only does it make sense to tackle the looming beast of a mountain on fresh legs having stayed the night, but she also provides home-cooked meals and chilled beers. She is a saviour to the racers as these guys are not carting much food and often have to rely on corn-dogs from gas-stations to get by. To be able to eat nutritious fresh produce from the garden is a real treat in such circumstances. She kindly let me spend a luxurious night in the lodge for free and then we made plans to meet up in Steamboat Springs the next night as a DJ she is a big fan of was in town. Kirsten had been home almost two weeks from the Burning Man festival in Nevada but she was still getting over it. Indeed, her spirit seemed more in tune with the desert than mountains so it was no surprise to learn that she was planning to spend the winter in a retro-fitted school bus near Silver City in New Mexico.

I had just one more steep 3k pusher of a climb to get over. What's another pointless stair-sprint in what is a marathon at this stage? While there were other ways over the mountain the Great Divide route sent me over the hardest. It was more the bruising descent that annoyed me. It's hard steering a loaded bike through boulders when you are hard on the brakes. The weight of the packs and the bike tend to want to drop straight to the valley so it takes a fair amount of concentration to guide the bike down safely. This section is undoubtedly dangerous if you are not careful and is where one of the Tour Dividers unfortunately died this year. He came around a bend on the wrong side of the road and while an oncoming truck had spotted him and pulled over the rider still hit the truck. This sorry incident was likely a combination of not being able to adjust his line in time and simply being cross-eyed from the effort of the race. While it was sad to think of him passing, boy was it so good to finally arrive in Steamboat Springs.

Happy 2011

Marco

atop Middlewood Hill in the Sierra Madremy welcome sign to Colorado!some much needed luxury in Brush Mountain Lodge - thanks Kirsten!urrghh! another grunt of a climb on 'grovel' over Brush Mountainthe descent on the other side. It's the blinding contrast of strong reflective light and dark shadows on the road that makes the descent so difficult, not just the bruising terrain on a rigid bike. 

Friday
Dec242010

Happy Christmas

Just a post to wish you all well for the 'holidays'. I'd wish you a white Christmas but I'm sure those in Europe are pretty fed up with the snow by this stage. While it's pretty it's of no use unless you can go snowboarding.

I decided to run my trip beyond Christmas so I resisted returning to Dublin for some Christmas Eve pints in the Duke and the Ivy House with friends. It's regrettable but I'm not ready to face the (Grafton St) music yet. Instead I spent some time with my brother and his family in New York before they returned to Europe earlier today. We divided our time between the city and the country, where we snowboarded on the local ski-hill. Needless to say I now fully appreciate the well-cushioned mountains of Colorado having slipped a couple of times on the virtual concrete that is New England powder in December. I fly back to Colorado on Christmas eve.

I hope all those who are travelling for it manage to get to their destinations safely and without too much hassle. I wish you a great day amongst family, friends and loved ones. Hopefully 2011 will be kind to all of us.

Happy Christmas

Mark

ps - there is a small collection of pics from an afternoon of wandering around mid-town in the gallery.

pss - it is worth mentioning that the blog is running pretty delayed at this point. I don't want to skip ahead as it will be a journal for me to look back on in years to come too. I started comprehensively so I want to maintain it in the same vein. I also can't write more than I am posting and I'm sure people are not too keen to read any more than one or two posts a week. I hope this explains why you have not seen pictures of snow yet (if you were wondering etc). 

Thursday
Dec162010

The Deer Hunter

Hunting is a religion in the states of Montana and Wyoming. It is big in other parts of the country too but these states have a particularly low population density making for greater expanses of wilderness. Since a huge amount of the plains in the US are either farmed or too arid, wild-life has been penned in mountainous states within state-owned National Forests. The result is that Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado (the states I am travelling through) are thick with both wild-life and their predator, the hunter. As a city-boy I have no real concept of animals. Also, being European I have no understanding of wild-life. Europe is both over-populated and over-cultivated resulting in the disappearance of the kind of wilderness that wild animals need to thrive. Europeans are aghast at the notion that a human can take a thrill from hunting down an animal, this despite the fact that we have been doing it for centuries. Their view is so pronounced that it is barely possible to trap and kill a measly fox while on horseback. Such European sentiment killed the fur industry. Farmers may take matters quietly into their own hands for the protection of live-stock but aside from that hunting is considered almost barbarous.

I don't understand this point of view. Is there any difference between killing a cow in an abattoir and killing an elk in the wild? Hunters take their kill to a game-cutter to harvest the meet. An elk or a deer that has been processed could last them a whole winter from the freezer in their kitchen. If they have too much they typically pass the meat on to family and friends. The reality is that Europe has no wilderness to speak of making it too disconnected from the wild to be able to offer a legitimate point of view. As far as most European children can tell, meat and fresh produce come from the supermarket, not the countryside. When one considers the terrible conditions that some live-stock experience during their short time on the planet European attitudes don't have a leg to stand on.

I am not a hunter. I realised this when a squirrel decided to jump under my front-wheel. I heard a crack and then realised what had happened. He lay in a pool of his own blood panting heavily. If you think he was traumatised you should have seen me. I love these tail-flicking friends of mine and so I waited to be with him for his last moments. He wouldn't pass and suddenly he was up trying to move around in a very distressed state. I had snapped his spine, he couldn't move his front paws and he couldn't lift his head from the ground. Having waited for ten minutes I had to make the decision to remove him from life-support. However, I couldn't take him out of his misery. Squirrels are too pretty and I just couldn't fathom finding a rock to make a blow to his head. I decided to bike on and leave nature to deal with him. I was pretty sad about it to be honest. Clearly I am a gatherer.

I met plenty of hunters on my journey. I was as curious about them as they were about me. The truth is that we are both just mountain-men who enjoy being out in the wild. Hunters are only allowed to hunt for very limited periods in the year. This makes them seem like little kids who have been cooped up indoors all day and are finally being allowed to run around a playground. They are so excited to be pitting their wits against the animals that you can't help but get a great buzz from them. Wild-life is called 'game' for a reason. It is no easy thing to kill one. Often the opportunity presents itself but there are strict restrictions in terms of what animal and which sex can be shot. There are also strict quotas and park rangers monitoring the action. The season depends on the state but it typically kicks off in late September and runs sporadically through October. The early season is for bow-hunting. This takes a huge amount of skill as the tension of a bow requires a hunter to get closer to prey to release the arrow. There is huge respect amongst the hunting community for good archers as to elude the heightened senses of a wild animal is extremely difficult.

The animals get a break between bow-season and rifle-season. It is a little comic to see hunters who were once wearing camouflage now having to sport bright orange caps and vests so they are not inconspicuous to other hunters who may be preying on the same terrain. Of course, the skill in releasing the trigger from 300 yards is nowhere near the same as firing an arrow from forty. The result is that less-skilled people can hunt and therein lies the potential danger. Hunters consider hunting herd management. If they weren't in the woods the deer and elk population would grow to the extent that they become rodents. Skilled hunters are extremely active in terms of gun-safety. They teach their children the same and often teenage sons and young boys join their father on the hunt. They are not necessarily armed but guns become much more familiar to them.

Being Irish, guns are not familiar to me at all. Our police force do not even carry them on the beat. Guns are for gangsters and our paramilitary forces. I have done some clay-pigeon shooting but it wasn't challenging enough to be of any interest to me. Practice is all it requires. Coming from a culture without guns it is kind of shocking to be in one where people keep them under the bed for self-defence. If you kill someone breaking into your property you must make sure to drag him onto the porch. If the police find him in the garden it's manslaughter but if they find him on the porch the law assumes self-defence. Within a culture of guns it is possible that they get into the wrong hands. The European view is that the less prevalent guns are the less likely someone is to be wrongfully shot. In Europe one can rarely be rightfully shot. The result is of course, that school shooting incidents take place in America as opposed to Europe. Naturally this is down to the prevalence of guns in America but is a responsible gun-owner to blame for the actions of an irresponsible gun-owner? Is an irresponsible gun-owner to blame for the fact that a kid got access to the gun and went on a killing spree? Kids don't take such action lightly. They do it because they are in pain and have exhausted their patience in being able to deal with it. The gun becomes a means for them to express it. I'm not suggesting that their actions are excusable, simply that society likes to blame others for its own problems. There are kids and people suffering emotional trauma all over the world. Not all of them have access to guns but not all of them have access to more humane structures to deal with their trauma either. Europeans have taken the view that it is best not to have a gun culture just in case. However, Europe does not have the kind of wilderness that America has such that people might actually like to go hunting. It is difficult to fathom that the amount of people in the US that love to go hunting is not replicated in Europe to some degree.

I have already established that I am no hunter. However, I was more than happy to have hunters for company in the woods and mountains with me. My journey would have felt particularly solitary without them. I met one guy who asked me what piece I carried in my packs. He was flabbergasted that I didn't have one. “What if a mountain-lion comes for you?” he asked. “Why would he?” I retorted. From what I can make out wild-life wants to have nothing to do with me. Of course, I hang my food. This prevents them from sniffing me out and getting so excited about the treats I carry that they can't help themselves. The only other precaution I take is to tie the guy-lines of my tent to my prone bike lying at the head of my tent. This creates an area that is inaccessible to animals around my head. If a bear did decide he wanted to kill me he would do so by first trying to break my neck. Having the bike and guy-lines behind me as trip-wires gives me that extra moment to get out of the way of the noise. I might be naïve but I just can't get my head around an animal trying to kill me without having first been antagonised. I sleep peacefully in my tent every night not giving the animals a second thought because it seems that they don't give me one. Like when I am awake, they tend to hide in the shadows when I'm asleep. Of course, one of the reasons they keep a wide berth is that there are plenty of humans wandering around the woods trying to kill them during certain weeks of the year. Animals are not fools and are very much a part of their environment. They have a totally different skill-set that allows them to elude predators. If man didn't carry a gun there would be very few animals lost during the 'game' season. Man is so disconnected from nature that all bar a few would be able to have the patience and skill required to actually claim one. Often the only way to snag a deer is if you have been in the same spot so long they just happen to switch off to you. Most mature animals would be able to smell you a mile away. Unless the wind was in your favour you have very little reason to be optimistic. Of course, the rifle changes all that but as long as the game is processed it is very difficult for carnivores to complain about hunters.

I do feel sorry for the animals. I understand that there is a need for them to be harvested but I do think our infatuation with meat is a little over-the-top considering how much damage to the environment is caused by increasing our supply of grazing land. As capitalism encourages more and more less-developed countries to become more middle-class the world's demand for meat is rising with catastrophic consequences. This is a whole other post in itself but I do think there has been a disconnect over time between man and the animals. This is man's doing. Naturally, some animals are part of a particular food-chain but a lot of omnivores only eat meat when they can't get something easier from a tree or the ground. It is possible that man once had the same view but since he can no longer live without meat the animals have rightfully distanced themselves from us.

My simple solution to the whole gun-debate is for hunters to trade their rifles and bows for a camera. To execute a good wild-life photograph requires all the same skill as a good archer. It requires a great deal of patience, a sense of timing and the ability to get close to wild-life without them feeling threatened. You even have to keep the camera steady to get a clean shot. The skill of the 'game' is being able to take great wild-life shots without resorting to a telephoto lens. The shorter the focal-length the greater the skill-factor. This would allow animals to feel safer in their own habitat and for hunters to use their skills.

I hope you are all sleeping safe at night, I am.

Marco