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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.

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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:

  • My wife was in Chicago for work this week, met with a realtor, and with some degree of certainty I can say that for the first time ever we won’t be moving into a house that was visited on the first day of a house search.
  • I fully plan to set foot in whatever house we purchase before an offer is made and well before the day of closing.
  • I’ve learned that the Super Bowl marks the unofficial (it might even be official for all I know) beginning of the real estate listing year.
  • I have no intention of this move getting in the way of my planned ski season (heading to Summit County on Friday with the family, to Park City for a dudes’ trip in March).

Let the next adventure begin. Let the corporate mercenary life end. At least for now.

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Today was half marathon day. While it was already going to be early, my little human alarm clock decided she was thirsty at 4:00am. I’d consider creating some sort of gerbil water bottle contraption to strap to the side of the crib but feel my wife and child services might not feel it’s such a swell idea. Thankfully my wife recognized my need for rest and tried her best to keep the little one quiet. It just wasn’t in the cards this morning. After nearly an hour of listening to the failed negotiating to get her back to sleep (or even to just sit still), I decided I may as well wake up. For a 7:05am race, I needed to get some food in me that would be digested in time for the gun.

My plan was to walk the mile to Coachmen Park which I told myself would get the blood flowing. My secret plan was to run into total strangers also heading that direction, have them feel sorry for me, and offer me a ride with them. At 6:15am, as I exited the elevator I scanned the lobby and found myself disappointed to be only greeted by the front desk clerk. I left the hotel, got about two-thirds of the way through the parking lot, and was passed by a car. Mercifully, brake lights flashed. A voice emerged from the car, “Can we give you a ride?” After a shaky start, my secret plan executed to near perfection. It turned out these nice two Good Samaritans from Oklahoma weren’t positive where the park was, so what I lacked in transportation I more than made up for with my superior sense of direction and the fact I, for some reason, remembered the names of the streets we had turned on to get from packet pickup to the hotel the day before.

Honestly, it’s a little surprising that two women would pick up a random dude in a hotel parking lot in the dark before dawn, but that’s one of the great thing about races. There’s a general sense of “good” emanating from start to finish. You’ve got a bunch of people in above average shape, attaining a goal, not really caring who wins or loses, that really just want to be supportive of all the other participants. In fact, the general tone of these events gives me the exact opposite  feeling about humanity than reading the comments sections on pretty much any internet article.

The gun fired and I was off. My race strategy was fairly simple: take it easy and warm up the first mile, run at or just below a consistent ten minute mile pace, walk through the water stops, drink water at the first two stops, and then alternate water and Gatorade from there on out. With my playlist loaded, I settled in for the next 130 or so minutes of activity.

What makes the half marathon at the Clearwater Distance Classic difficult is that you start in downtown Clearwater and end up crossing a high bridge to get to Clearwater Beach and a second high bridge to get to Sand Key before turning around repeating both bridges on the way back. Part of my first mile strategy was that it was just sound running strategy, the other part was that the first mile is basically climbing a couple of small inclines on the city streets (which I didn’t even know existed in Florida) before turning for the first bridge. The first mile is uphill. I glanced at my watch for the first time as I passed the mile marker. Nearly 11 minutes. I felt strong, and that felt more important than the time (and yes, that’s just what slow people say). By the time I got to the top of the bridge the sun had started to paint the morning sky pink. Surely there are worse places to be at 7:15am on a Sunday morning in the dead of winter.The one positive thing about bridges connecting barrier islands is that they begin and end at the same elevation so you get to go down too. Other than my planned bio break at the end of the bridge, I knew the second mile would be faster.

The course follows the causeway out to the beach and then turns south near the Hyatt, following the road to the second bridge. After the second bridge you take a loop around a park before exiting the park around mile 5. I felt really good during this stretch and got back to my anticipated time, perhaps even a little ahead of schedule.

Just before the six mile marker, the road reached up and grabbed me. I don’t really have an excuse. There were no holes or surface changes. I’m pretty sure I’m just an idiot and scuffed my sole on the asphalt. I nearly caught myself. Nearly. I went down. On the bright side, 19,999 or so of my 20,000 strides during the race were absolutely flawless. As you’d expect, I braced the fall with my palms. Not as you’d expect, I didn’t have so much as a scrape. I got lucky. A woman behind me who had witnessed it asked if I was ok and after learning that I was remarked, “That was actually kind of graceful.” I guess if you’re going to fall, you may as well fall with grace.

As graceful as it was, the fall slowed me down. I gathered myself quickly but had lost a bit of confidence. At least I still had seven miles to get it back. Though my pace had slowed, the next five miles passed uneventfully and got me back me back close to the Hyatt to cross the causeway. The last two miles of this race have seemed slow both times. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that you’re basically staring at a bridge you have to climb a mile in the distance with the final mile generally consisting of climbing and descending that bridge.

As I climbed the last bridge I realized how slowly I was running uphill and felt the amount of energy I was expending when I wasn’t exactly gaining a ton of ground on those walking. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure my time would have been fast had I elected to walk up a bridge or two – simply would have had more time to recover. Two things make climbing that bridge worthwhile: the sense of accomplishment when you get to the top, and knowing that it’s literally all downhill from there. Even better this year was spotting a smiling and waving daughter to the left side of the course a few seconds before finishing.

Ultimately, I finished at just over 2:11. A couple minutes slower than last year but pretty much in line with how I had trained. Given the fact I survived a fall completely unscathed, I’m going to go ahead and just count this race as a success.

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I haven’t had a pet peeve with a municipal body in some time. In fact, it’s been years since I addressed my last one by calling the village of Lake Zurich where I once lived and complained about a lowered speed limit that effectively added 43 seconds to my commute each way that I claimed was done simply as a revenue grab. The only thing I hate more than making unnecessary phone calls is people leaving unnecessary voicemails. That’s how irrationally upset I was about being forced to drive 25 mph around a rather pleasant lake. I hadn’t even gotten a ticket, I just wanted my 43 seconds back.

Saturday? I found a new beef in Clearwater Beach.

Parking meters.

I have no issue with them in concept, no issue with renting a parking space on a pubic street. This use-based approach to municipal revenue generation seems far more fare than whatever it was that Lake Zurich was trying to accomplish with their lower speed limit. (Full disclosure, they claimed it was done for “safety” and not revenue. Whatever.) At any rate, who am I to stand in the way of municipalities generating revenue through parking meters?

The pay lots near the beach in Clearwater have pay boxes where credit cards are accepted. Unfortunately, the lot we knew was packed with cars slowly circling in hopes of being the lucky winner in musical parking spots. Not a game I really wanted to play. After dropping off the wife and daughter to get a table at a beachside restaurant for lunch, I ventured out to find parking. Only a block a way, I found spots on the street. Spots with parking meters. Meters that only accept change. Maybe I’m weird in that I don’t typically have change in the car. The advent of automatic tolling has really made change irrelevant in cars. Or so I thought. I’d be just fine with parking meters that only accept change – if there was a way to get easily get change.

I should have realized something was up when the first bar I walked into would only change a dollar. The woman seemed far too serious for a beach town. She had obviously been asked before. After changing the buck, she snidely asked me to come back and try a sandwich sometime. Thanks, lady, your dark and dingy bar with a view of a cheap motel across the street is the exact kind of place I’m going to bring my wife and kid on a 70 degree sunny day at the beach. I shouldn’t say such things, especially since she had actually given me change, which I didn’t yet realize was going to be such an ordeal.

I tried a lunch spot next door with an order up window. They were fresh out of money that jingles. Something tells me they weren’t, considering there was a tip bucket at the window, but I was beginning to see there was going to be a problem. She did, however, helpfully point me toward a laundromat and gas station. I think what she was really doing was getting my non-revenue-generating-self out of her restaurant as quickly as possible. The laundromat – laundromat, mind you, claimed to be a “drop-off only place that only took credit cards.” The gas station? At least that guy shot me straight, his bosses simply didn’t allow it. Through my remarkable powers of Gladwell-ian thinslicing, I immediately deduced he was overqualified to be working in a gas station.

My only remaining option was to go back to the car and see if Lindsay had any spare change in the ashtray (or whatever it is car manufacturers place where the ashtray is these days). Thankfully, she had 50 cents in dimes. With my buck fifty, I was able to plug the meter for an hour and eighteen minutes. Plenty of time to have lunch in a restaurant with a two year old.

Here’s the really frustrating part. I took a different route back to the restaurant on foot and approached from the north. While the lot to the south had been a revolving game of musical parking spots, bathing in the afternoon sun in all its glory was a nearly empty lot just on the north side of the restaurant. I guess sometimes it pays off to be patient and not just grab the first spot you see.

So city of Clearwater Beach, it isn’t 1987 any more. People don’t have change in their cars. Institute a consistent public parking policy through your fine town (you know, pay boxes) or maybe find logical way to encourage local businesses to break your tourists’ bills into something a little heavier. You never know, we might end up spending more that folds.

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Not to brag or anything, but I’m probably in the top quartile of dads. If not the top, definitely the next. Even with my self-proclaimed superior parenting skills, I have to admit, two-and-a-half to three hours of one on one time with your kid can be a long two-and-a-half to three hours.

Most evenings, the wife and I make a point to spend as much time from the time we finish work until bedtime. This arrangement is greatly aided by our nanny who does some (ok, just about all) of the house chores outside of cooking for us. For some reason those post-work to bedtime hours seem infinitely longer (which can be a good or bad thing) when the wife is traveling for work and I’m left to fend for both myself and the daughter. Even longer still if it’s raining outside and you’re confined to the house. Tonight was one of those nights.

Rather than try and invent things to do like last night (when she decided to have me partially fill paper cups in one bathroom so she could carry it to another bathroom and pour water between paper cups until all the water had been spilled only to repeat the process, while entirely ignoring the fact there was a water source in both locations – the kid has a lot to learn), I took it upon myself to take her out to dinner. When my wife hast raveled in the past, I’ve taken it as an opportunity to do daddy/daughter date night with other dads in the neighborhood, which is chock-full of daddies and daughters. Tonight was different; tonight I went it alone. Well, with my daughter. You get the gist.

When I asked her where she wanted to go, she said “chips,” made a dipping motion, and then said “spicy sauce.” Mexican it was! One of the reasons I’m such a great dad is that I recognize that Mexican is a perfect choice for litter kids. Why? Chips are immediately brought to the table so there’s minimal opportunity for a waiting-based hunger meltdown. Waiting-based hunger meltdowns should be avoided at all costs. Like I said, I’m only about two years into this, but I’ve pretty much got my act together.

Mexican restaurants are also full of kids. My kid loves to look at other kids. If the other kid is a baby, even better. While I’m sure this might be construed as creepy in some circles, anything that keeps my kid occupied is a good thing. Tonight, there was a fireplace. She’s into our fire pit at home these days so a fireplace is nearly as good. It also gave me the ability to use this sentence, which I never thought I’d use, “Fires are like Christmas trees, looking but no touching,” to which she joyfully responded, “Nooo TOUCHing.”

The other thing I’ve learned very recently that while dining out with the daughter is that booths are my friend. She’s big enough to not necessarily need a highchair so my newest move is to throw her on the inside of a book and give her free reign. Free reign works much better if you’re on an end booth where she can’t try to foster fellow diner relations with people sitting back-to-back with her. She’s typically respectful and quiet in this setup and doesn’t draw undo attention to herself; that is, unless someone carries a baby in and I shrieks, “BABY, BAY-BE, BABY!” until I can convince her we can stop and meet the baby on the way out. I’m sure at some point a restaurant will tell me to have her sit down. This is one of those times I’m going to beg for forgiveness rather than ask permission.

I will say this, the few times I’ve dined out alone with my daughter, it really makes me appreciate all the work my wife typically gets tagged with while at a restaurant: the ordering, the cutting, the cooling, the general cleanup and maintenance. It’s not an easy job. I’m proud to say that the worst that happened at tonight’s fiesta was an unguarded bottle of salsa ended up turned over on her mostly finished dinner. If that’s the worst that happens, I’m going to count it as a win.

I was also smart enough to recognize that the salsa ending up on her plate was a cue that dinner was drawing to a close. On the way out of the restaurant, which was playing music just outside the front door, she took that as her cue that it was dance time. Her dancing really is a sight to behold, and the few patrons that walked out while she was performing were quite surprised to find her quickly stop, say “Hi,” and then go about her dancing, merry way. Again, anything that keeps my kid occupied is a good thing.

So while I don’t think I’m in the top (or second) quartile of dads simply because I know it’s a good idea to take your kid to a Mexican restaurant and sit at the end booth, I kind of think I am simply because I put some effort into it. It doesn’t make me superhuman, but, good or not, probably makes me at least above average. I’ll take it.

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