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I’m a new father, a not so new husband, and I reside in a place I never had much motivation to visit, much less live. This blog is my space. Topics will vary. At some point. Right now I’m chronicling my “epic” career as a Himalayan trekker. Later on, anything is fair game: life with a spirited toddler, new travels and adventures, fondly reminiscing my previous expat life, my life as a transplant in Florida, and my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes. Cheers!
Mountain weather is unpredictable. As someone that considers himself not to be an idiot, I know this. However, given fairly constant temperatures the breadth of conditions experienced in my first three days hiking in the Canadian Rockies was nothing short of amazing. Either that, or maybe I am an idiot.
Joining my Dad and I on this year’s installment of the annual father/son trip that hasn’t quite been annual lately based on things like having a daughter and living abroad, was Lindsay and our friends Judith and Glenn. Judith and Glenn were there because we chose the locale of this year’s trip in a place where they had just purchased a beautiful new condo. When you mooch free lodging, it’s only appropriate to invite them along for the fun. Especially when they’re excellent hosts, local experts, and pretty much my favorite hiking and travel companions. Lindsay was there because, well, when you’re traveling with your favorite travel companions that you met while trekking with your wife, it would be a pretty shitty thing to not invite your wife.
The Snow – Sunshine Meadows
After a late arrival in Calgary and a short drive to Canmore, our trusty guide for the week, Judith, knew it probably be best to keep the first day short and sweet. She had selected Sunshine Meadows, which is a short school bus trip up the ski-out of Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff National Park. Yes, rather than hike up the 1.5 – 2 hours to the top of the gondola, we elected to hop a ride on the bus. Would you expect anything less from a hiking crew that specializes in fully portered Himalayan trekking (aka princess camping, or as the kids are calling it these days, “glamping”).
When we arrived the night before, she had mentioned it had snowed and I figured it would be just a dusting; however, as we exited the bus, there was actual accumulation. It was only a few inches but the ski runs looked rather skiable. The hiking trails melted first, looking almost plowed.
As promised, it was a short loop with minimal altitude gain. This was perfect for the first day as I realized I hadn’t laced up my hiking boots since walking into the village of Lukla at the end of Everest Base Camp in May 2014. After the short time, we had time for a lunch that was unintentionally timed perfectly to catch the bus back down. The picnic tables were covered still covered with enough snow that we made the call to make it easy and eat inside, but by the time we headed back, snow was starting to disappear from the paths.
Thankfully, this was a one-day thing. The forecast called for a week full of sun.
The Sun – Helen Lake
Since we left all the hiking planning to Judith with the basic criteria of: (1) pick your favorites and (2) try not to repeat stuff we’ve done before, the second day found us driving deeper into Banff National Park to the trailhead for Helen Lake. The hike itself was one I like. A moderate incline through the forest that tops out and gently ascends a meadow to a lake. This isn’t one of those aquamarine lakes you hear so much about in the Canadian Rockies, but it didn’t matter. The lake was just a destination. A nice quiet place to have lunch. The highlight of this trek was the views both up and down along the meadow ridge. The weather only helped. Crystal blue skies with spotty clouds. Absolutely perfect. It was exactly what the forecast had called for. Looking ahead to the rest of the week, which included one final hike with the others before the actual father/son portion of the trip began with a 3-night trip to Shadow Lake Lodge, we felt we were in for a treat.
What we didn’t pay enough attention to on the way back down was the light haze we saw forming in the distance. We figured it was just a slight disturbance caused by the angle of the sun or something equally mundane. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Smoke – Burstell Pass
As you may be aware, forest fires cause smoke. That smoke needs to go somewhere. That somewhere is where the wind blows. When the fires are in Washington state and the wind blows from the southwest, apparently the smoke blows straight to the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately, the fires were in Washington state and the wind was blowing from the southwest.
What did this mean? Well, it meant that it pretty much smelled like a big forest fire and you couldn’t see mountains, unless you were pretty much right next to them. Burstell Pass never stood a chance. In fact, Lindsay rated it a “solid C.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for one of Judith’s favorite hikes, not that there was anything that could be done about it.
Honestly, for being a complete smokeout that killed what was supposed to be a killer view from the pass, I kind of liked the hike. We crossed a stony wetland with multiple stream channels. On the way in, Judith and Glenn suggested we change into sandals as stepping in water would probably be necessary so we didn’t need to find the driest route. In reality, we probably didn’t need to change as the water didn’t get above where our shoes would have been. We planned to stick to our shoes and stay dry on our way out. However, the melting glacier had other plans and the water was noticeably higher when we approached on the way back.
Even the stream crossing wasn’t enough to budge Lindsay from her “average” grade. However, even she would have to admit, the conditions she experienced in her second visit to the Canadian Rockies were, well, unique. A day of snow, a day of sun, and a day of smoke.
Other than the fact they’ve snookered me into believing $15 is more than a fair price for a six pack of Coors Light, I think I’ve finally figured out why I’ll never be a Disney guy: I have no desire to learn how to play their game.
In order to truly enjoy your time on property, you have to fully immerse yourself into carefully plotting your way around the park with fast passes and an app that may or may not work that tells you the line to a ride or a character has dipped and is now worth the wait. It just seems like a lot of work, especially since you’re already in a crowded, sweaty mess of people.
People think I’m a planner (at least when it comes to travel), so it might come as some surprise that I don’t want to play the Disney game. I’m all for planning a trip months in advance where I craft a plan for moving from city A to village B, but that’s kind of where my planning ends. I don’t overthink it and I don’t over-rotate. I’m at a stage in life where I like to know I have a place to stay but I don’t necessarily want to be tied down with a dinner reservation six months in advance.
At Disney? You need to tie yourself down with a dinner reservation six months in advance to get to the “right” character meal, else you risk being a negligent parent or, worse yet, end up eating with a B-lister like Winne the Pooh.
The whole experience creates a weird competition with yourself, where you’re scoring internal points based on what rides or experiences you can rack up. Very little seems spontaneous. It all just seems too…well, planned.
This weekend marks our second family Disney experience in a few short weeks. The first weekend was to make sure we took our daughter before we moved from Orlando (and I thus saved the $10k+ it would have cost later in life and can apply that to a more John-centric trip). We came back again because our daughter seemed to enjoy it well enough and what else were we going to do while our household goods make the trip up to Illinois? The answer to that question was actually a weekend at the Waldorf, but I was out-voted 2-1 for the Disney return.
For all the stress and planning it takes to make Disney enjoyable, my all-time favorite Disney memory was a morning a few weeks ago at the Contemporary. We had no idea the pool hadn’t opened but found it strange that no one was there. Just before 9am, a lifeguard approached our daughter, asking if she had any magic that might be able to open the pool. My daughter looked confused but the lifeguard soon brought out Mickey gloves and a Fantasia hat, asking her to put both on. Following instructions to spin in a circle three times and slap her hands on the pool deck, somehow my little L3 had started the water fountains and opened the pool.
Easily the coolest thing I’ve seen in my (limited) days at Disney. It just took being in the right place at the right time. No fast pass required.
When you relocate and have a limited amount of time in the place you’re leaving, you invariably start to cram every open minute with some sort of “last” activity as you start to say your goodbyes. When moving from India, we traveled something like 5 out of the final 6 weekends. With the move from Orlando, we’ve filled weekends with family things: a trip to Disney, favorite restaurants, and time with neighbors. Easter Sunday marked the “final” trip to the beach.
Though we’ve only been to the beach a handful of times in the three years we’ve lived in Florida, it’s become a bit more regular and fun based on our two year old’s love of the water.
The closest beaches to our house are Cocoa and New Smyrna; however, those are either crowded or vehicle filled. Seriously. Vehicle filled. New Smyrna allows cars on the beach which makes it super handy to overpack and easily set up your gear. But what it possesses in convenience, it lacks in safety and general ambiance.
Fifteen minutes south of New Smyrna is a peaceful, protected place. A palace where you may need to carry your chairs a little further but can escape the crowds (small parking lots will do that) This place is Canaveral National Seashore.
Unfortunately, a higher than normal tide meant the water was “scary” (my daughter’s word, not mine) so in-water activities were somewhat limited. This was actually somewhat welcome as she typically recklessly runs for the water as soon as she senses she’s free on the beach. Not Sunday. Sunday she asked for my hand to walk her into the water up to her knees, her grip tightening as the water swelled around us. It’s selfish and perhaps a little sadistic that her fear makes me feel more needed, but when you have a confident and independent little two year old, that clutch is a welcome sign of trust. One of the most tangible signs you’re needed.
With the high and angry sea causing us to push our chairs nearly up against the dune, we sat. We enjoyed the view of the scary waves and watched our daughter industriously shovel sand into buckets, ask for water (you have to remember the water was scary so she outsourced her water fetching duties), and move and mix sand between buckets.
When the novelty of her busywork wore off, she left the safety of our setup and ventured south down the beach, not even turning to see if we’d follow. Eventually, as parents hoping that DCFS wasn’t hiding in the dunes, we knew we needed to do catch up. We did just that. After catching her and trying to get her to turn around, she grabbed both our hands and we continued to walk. Stretched in front of us was completely empty beach. Something you just don’t expect to find in Florida.
The only thing missing was a setting sun, but at 10:30am, that would have been asking a bit much. While this feeling probably should have occurred by this point, walking down that beach with the family felt like the beginning of the end of our time in Orlando, and we have a busy two weeks before we officially relocate. We’re trying hard to do as much as possible in that time and have no regrets. To me, that walk down the beach was the first of many farewells in front of me the next two weeks. With just my wife, my daughter, and an empty stretch of sand, it was the perfect first farewell.
I’ve been skiing at Vail for around 30 years. Admittedly, this feat would be more impressive had I skied more than one to three days on average there per year. So while there are people that have forgotten more about Vail Mountain than I’ll ever know, with probably fifty or so days logged in my life, it’s safe to say I know more about the hill than the average American. Said another way, I consider myself knowledgable but in no way an expert. What follows is what a lowly flatlander has found a way to enjoy a day on one of the more diverse ski hills in the world.Parking
If you’re not staying in Vail, you’re going to have to park someplace. Unlike most other resorts, Vail doesn’t have many (if any) free parking options. If you’re parking for free, it typically means the parking garages are full and it’s a long walk. You’d probably rather pay to park. In my experience, there are two pretty good options.
The luxury option is valet parking at Golden Peak. This costs $50 and involves the least walking. If you’re in a hurry and don’t mind the price, this is a great way to go.
My preferred parking option is the main village parking garage. Pretty good secret, huh? When you enter, slowly pass everyone that parks in the spots immediately after the gate and wind your way down to Level 1. Park as close to the village exit as possible. On this level, there are no stairs and you walk directly out to Vail Village, cross the covered bridge, and amble your way up the heated streets lined with shops and restaurants, and find your way to the base of the mountain.Lift Tickets
Vail has a reputation as a playground of the rich and famous. As one might expect, that type of playground comes with a price tag. This year’s price? $145 per day if you walk up to the window to buy a ticket. Discount tickets can be tough to come by. My advice? If you’re going to ski enough days to make it worth its while, buy some sort of Epic Pass at www.snow.com. These types of passes can pay for themselves in as little as 4 days. You can even buy a pass that has unlimited skiing at the other Vail Resorts resorts (Keystone, Breckenridge, and Arapahoe Basin) where you can get 10-days (subject to blackouts over holidays) at Vail and Beaver Creek.
If you’re not going to be skiing enough to cover the cost of the pass, the next best thing is to ski with someone that does. For the past ten years, that’s been my Dad. This year, he was able to get me a ticket for $89. Not a bad deal.
If neither of those are options, just spend the $145. After all, you’re already at the mountain. What else are you going to find to do in Vail for less than $145 that day?The Morning
There are obviously any number of ways to make your way around Vail and every day is different; however, what follows is the typical track of my family. Note, we’re all very good skiers but not extreme or backcountry in any way. We tend to stick to intermediate or expert groomers and throw in a few bumps here or there.
After taking the gondola to Mid-Vail and being deposited on the summit by the aptly named Mountaintop Express, find your way to one of the resort Sharpshooters and get a few pictures taken. It’s free, there’s no commitment, and if you have your social media sites set incorrectly, it’s the first of many updates that will be automatically blasted to your friends to let them know you’re skiing Vail and you’re not. There’s also a nice view of the Gore Range, which makes the photo opportunity worthwhile.
Finally, you’re ready for your first run of the day. The location? Northwoods. Northwoods is a section of the mountain with intermediate and expert slopes which are typically groomed at least every other day. There are some great steeps to get you warmed up. After two or three runs (or when the initial face you have to ski directly to the left of the top of the lift gets fully scraped up), it’s time to move on. The next stop? The back side.
Vail has spent the past 25 years expanding, first with a set of back bowls on the opposite side of the mountain and second with an area called Blue Sky Basin. If there’s fresh snow, it’s important to get to the backside as quickly as possible (i.e., skip Northwoods). However, if there’s fresh snow, it’s also likely that everyone and their mother is rushing over to the backside and there’s probably decent snow to be skied on the front side of the mountain. It’s pretty much the definition of a first world problem.
We typically will take Poppyfields down through China Bowl and don’t spend much time in the “old” back bowls. If the sky is clear and the snow is good, it can be the ultimate playground; however, my luck usually isn’t that good. Once down Poppyfields, follow the signs to Blue Sky Basin. I’d like to say Blue Sky Basin is new, but the reality is it’s already over 15 years old.
Big Rock Park is one of the better intermediate runs from the initial lift you take to get into Blue Sky, the #37. You can also ski the #38 but we typically make our way to the #39 and Grand Review and The Star.
(While all the ski lifts have both names and numbers, the number one way to out yourself as someone that prefers Aspen is to refer to a lift by its name. Locals use numbers. No exceptions.)
Once you’re done playing in Blue Sky Basin, it’s time to head back to the front side. For lunch. Take the #36 and hope it’s not windy. It’s one of the colder lifts when there’s wind. When at the top, rather than poling your way across the ridge like so many people do even though there are signs outlining what I’m about to tell you, take a quick run down Whiskey Jack and take the short #14 back to the top. From there, head to Two Elk Lodge.Lunch
Somewhere around the time I was in junior high, ski resorts suddenly realized that it was possible to make decent food on the mountain rather than just serving steamed burgers and soggy fries. Two Elk Lodge was the first of its kind, at least the first I experienced. There are probably more cost effective places to grab lunch (the top level of the restaurant at Mid-Vail has great deals), if you’re only at Vail for a day and want a nice lunch without servers, Two Elk is the place to go.
It was originally built, burned down by eco-terrorists a couple years later, and re-erected in all it’s glory by Vail Resorts. There are any number of options to eat but I have only two recommendations: chili and a two elk bar. For chili, you actually have two options. Buffalo chili, which is like a traditional chili but served with buffalo meat instead of beer, or pork green chili. I love both. I love the pork green chili even more. Two Elk bars are pure mountain bliss. Nuts, coconut, chocolate, oats, and other things I’m sure. It’s not to be missed. I repeat: It’s not to be missed.
Somehow my little sister had the self restraint to eat a portion of her bar at lunch, a portion of her bar on the drive home, and somehow took the rest of it on the plane back to Milwaukee and enjoyed the rest when back home. Obviously, she texted as she was enjoying the last morsels, reveling in her good fortune. And good fortune it was. I was honestly jealous and I was still in the mountains skiing and she was back at work. That’s how good a Two Elk bar is.Afternoon
While the Two Elk bar digests, we typically make our way back over to the front side. If the crowd at #11 isn’t bad, we might do a run or two back at Northwoods; if the crowd is building (it typically is), we head toward Game Creek Bowl. After a few runs in Game Creek, it’s typically time for, what my family affectionately calls, “Power Hour.” Like The Masters, Power Hour is a tradition like no other (at least in my house). It can last more than an hour and typically includes high speed and repetitive runs on the #2 chair. Avanti, Pickeroon, Lodgepole, Berries, Columbine. Avanti, Pickeroon, Lodgepole, Berries, Columbine. There are probably more exotic places on the mountain but there’s never a crowd and it’s a great way to shove a lot of skiing into not much time in the day. Prior to high speed quads, you’d be lucky to get 8 runs in a day. It’s not unheard of for us to squeeze 8 runs into an extended Power Hour. High speed quads are beautiful things.
Depending on snow conditions and energy levels, Lindsey’s (formerly International) into Pepe’s Face can make for a nice close to the day. If energy levels are lagging a little, just take the cat track down. There’s no shame in that at all.
While this “typical” track completely ignores the right half of the mountain (i.e., Lionshead and Eagle’s Nest). I’m sure there are people that swear by that part. They’re not wrong, it’s just different. The track I outlined also has some wiggle room to explore other parts of the mountain: #10 (Highline and Blue Ox), runs that go into Mid-Vail that can be good, short runs if #4 has small lines, and of course, Riva Ridge.
If for some reason I find myself away from #2 at Power Hour, Riva Ridge is a classic closing run on the mountain. It’s also a bit of a boxcar derby. There’s a portion of it called “Tourist Trap” for good reason. It can have a crowd.The Walk Back
One of my favorite parts of the ski experience at Vail is the walk back through the village. There’s just something cool about walking back down the street with your skis on your shoulder that makes a perfect bookend to the Vail ski day.
Again, this isn’t the only way to experience Vail and certainly not the most adventurous or most local. However, it is a way to typically stay away from the crowds and ski as much vertical as possible while seeing as much of the mountain as possible.
If I could only ski one resort for the rest of my life, it would be Vail. It has something for everyone Some people stay away from Vail based on preconceived notions of what it stands for or have some problem with Vail Resorts (the company) for or think it’s simply too snooty. I’m glad they stay away. More mountain for me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when my wife and I decided to move from the Chicago area five years ago we had made a decision to lead the somewhat nomadic life of a corporate mercenary. The first move was exciting, an assignment near Delhi, India where we lead the rather comfortable, some might even say extravagant, life of dual employment visa carrying corporate expats. Shortly before repatriating and not feeling a strong desire to go back to our “old” life in Chicago, my wife accepted a position with the same company in Orlando, Florida. We knew next to nothing about living in Orlando but knew that it was different than Chicago. We needed different. Different was good.
A few days before Christmas this year my wife’s boss approached her with a new, expanded opportunity. An opportunity that would require another move. Back to Chicago.
Looking back, I can’t say that I actively hated Chicago. But I didn’t love it either. After all, how can you dislike a city that’s home to some of your best friends in the world that is also far closer to family? The problem I had with Chicago was that life just seemed more stressful than life needed to be: the number of people, the size of the highways that attempt to move the people, the bitter cold and dreariness of winter, the disfunction of the government, the blandness of the suburbs (I’m looking at you Schaumburg).
I think we both knew that Orlando wasn’t where we intended to be forever and that the next logical time to take stock of where we did intend to be was around the time our daughter started kindergarden. We didn’t know where we wanted to be but knew we wanted to be settled when she started school. She turns two in three weeks. While both my wife and I (as well as all four grandparents) think she’s pretty much a genius, it’s safe to say she’s still years away from school. This new opportunity was sooner than expected.
Following both a formal offer and some sleepless nights spent discussing what’s best for us and our daughter over both the short and long term, we made the much tougher decision than expected to move back to the greater Chicagoland area.
For the first time in my adult life, I’ll be searching for a place I plan to set down roots and find a place my daughter will consider her home. As someone whose parents still live in my childhood home, this is actually a bigger deal than you might expect. Of course, I wasn’t born yet when they purchased that house so I don’t think it was some sort of master plan, it was just the plan that worked.
Over the next few months, this blog will likely become a personal therapeutic outlet as I wrap my head around this latest adventure – both the decisions and planning as well as moving back to a place I didn’t really hate but couldn’t quite love.
Here’s what I can share for now:
Let the next adventure begin. Let the corporate mercenary life end. At least for now.