Monday, July 11, 2016

Once in a Lifetime

I'm in the throes of middle age and carefully constructing and rearranging my Bucket List of those things I'd like to do before I die.  I've had an epiphany of sorts which has made this process fairly simple.  If I get to any of the things on my Bucket List...AWESOME!  If not, no big deal.  The pressure has been lifted from this idea that I might not have gotten everything out of this life if I don't do these things I've always wanted to do.  I can thank Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Smith for helping me out here.

My bucket list consists of things I've never done.  I may not even like some of them.  Take this one for example...visiting the Swiss Alps.  Sure, every single human that has ever been there has loved it.  Yes, all of the pictures are stunning and I know how pictures never do the landscape justice.  But what if I get there and find it a waste of time and money?  It's possible.  What if I don't like the people or the shnitzel (or whatever it is they eat there)?  What if I never get to see the Alps with my two eyes or ever get to ski with the Matterhorn looming over me?  I'm okay with that.

Let me tell you how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Smith helped me out here.  Arnold is said to have made this humorous quote which I love:
"Money doesn't make you happy.  I now have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million."
Now after enjoying that statement at face value, I thought about it logically and concluded that for someone who has $48,000,000, another $2,000,000 isn't that significant.  If I take my wife out to dinner at a decent restaurant, it's not going to be a big deal to me if the bill ends up being $50 if I had originally thought it might be $48.  In it's simplest form, we are talking about the difference between 24 and 25...a difference of one.  Hardly anything to get all that excited about, right?

Enter Matt Smith.  If you are wondering who he is, he's a guy I met in Aspen while I was on a ski trip there in February.  Matt was encouraging me to hike and ski the legendary Highland Bowl, though I wasn't sure I was up for the challenge.  The Highland Bowl was on my bucket list of places I wanted to ski, but there is no lift to the top of this peak which means you have to hike from elevation 11,700 (feet above sea level) all the way to 12,400.  I had earlier in the week hiked to the top of a mountain and was amazed how much it took out of me, and that was only climbing from 11,200 to 11,350.  So I was worried about carrying skis up a narrow ridge and how I might waste half of my day struggling to get to the top and then be so tired that I wouldn't enjoy the trip down.

Hiking the Highland Bowl

Matt's final pitch to me was "you know, this could be a once in a lifetime experience for you."  When he said that, my initial reaction was "He's right...I've got to seize this opportunity to do something I've always wanted to do."  But then something struck me about doing something that would be once in a lifetime....just once...only is not that much different from zero.  It's the same difference as 24 from 25.  Sure, the jump from 0 to 1 is pretty dramatic (unless we are talking about having kids and then it's the jump from 1 to 2).  But still, it's only one more than where I've been my whole entire happy life.  I decided not to hike the bowl, being content with where I was and not giving in to the pressure of checking off something that was on my bucket list, even if that really was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I let pass by.  Maybe next time...maybe not.

I'll be okay.  My wife will still love me.  My kids will still love me.  My parents will still love me and say they are proud of me.  Thankfully, those things aren't once in a lifetime events.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Confessions of an Older Sibling: Old Maid

I don't live with much guilt in my life.  In the rare occasion when I feel a twinge, it harkens back to my days growing up as an older sibling.  I was a firstborn.  Of four.  (King of the castle?  Me.  Darth Vader, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker all wrapped up in one?  Me.)  1st of 4.  Only son/male.  Me.  Need I say more?  (Okay.  I will.)  I was like Esau with the birthright and Jacob usurping everyone around me.  It would have been perfect except that I was blamed for everything that went wrong because I supposedly knew better.  (I was freakin' 5 years old!  How was I supposed to know that I couldn't belt my 3-year old sister across the face when she chomped down on my arm like a ravenous T-Rex whenever I wasn't willing to play "House.")  (Do kids even play "House" anymore or was that some weird 70s thing that only happened when there was more than one female child?)  Seriously, it was a decent gig.  The Blame Game got old but I learned to roll with it.

Being the oldest meant I was usually in control.  Being the only boy with three younger sisters meant lots.  (I haven't completely figured it all out, but most of it was good as far as I can tell.)  And in case I didn't mention it, I was in control (but I should confess, I really had no idea at the time...but who does?!?).

Unfortunately, I will never understand and know how my younger sisters looked up to me and thought I was something better than I knew that I was.  I can only shrug, smile and...well, write about it now.  They thought I was cool.  (I wasn't, but they will never believe me.  But I love them for thinking such silly things.)  I admire them for having such altruistic thoughts towards one of their siblings.


Old Maid was a very important part of my upbringing.  I learned about psychology, reverse-psychology and everything in between by playing Old Maid with my dad and three younger sisters.

Allow me to fill in some details now that I mentioned my dad and sisters.  My dad was (and is) brilliant.  He was also a great dad.  (GREAT DAD is defined as "male parent who enjoys his kids so much that he will play anything and everything with them and pretend like he is loving every minute of it.")  The reason I know my dad was the GREATEST is because 30 years later, I still don't know if he was pretending or not.

Sister No. 1 was Elise.  She was smart and serious.  She loved bossing the rest of us around.  I ignored her drill sergeant demeanor but my other two sisters humored her.  She was hard, unflinching and always up for a challenge.

Sister No. 2 was Amaris.  She was beguiling and beautiful.  She scared me to death because she was the one sister I knew was thinking things that were well beyond the little box that I called my comfort zone.

Sister No. 3 was Jaira.  She was compliant and clumsy.  She was the baby-that-never-got-babied-but-still-was-the-baby because Sister No. 2 was scaring not just me to death, but everyone else in the family as well.

Where was I?  Oh yes...Old Maid.  We all played Old Maid.  (Except for mom...she was doing all the stuff that kids don't notice since I don't remember what she was doing while the rest of us were playing Old Maid.)  I remember us having a dedicated Old Maid deck with a host of funny characters (Fanny Flint and Betty Bumpers immediately come to mind).  As the oldest son (who was absolutely positively sure that he was smarter than his younger sisters), Old Maid was a riot.  I'm sure there was a day when I thought having the Old Maid in your hand was a bad thing, but I honestly don't remember it.  The undeniable truth of Old Maid is that the game is not the least bit interesting until you get the hated card in your hand so you can feel the absolute-otherworldly pleasure of unloading the card on someone else.

Few things in life are as satisfying as that exact moment when the dastardly card is plucked from your hand, especially as the horror of what just happened is fully registered on the plucker's face.  If there is one thing that younger sisters can do, it is cry.  Tears, tears, and more tears.  I had a love-hate relationship with my sisters' tears.  Typically, grabbing the Old Maid was instant tears (which I loved).  Sometimes there were threats to just stop playing the game (which I hated).  If I was laughing, smirking or showing any hint of amusement, I was accused of cheating or being mean (hated).  But since my dad was usually involved and acting similarly, I was absolved of any wrongdoing (loved).

ASIDE: I am just now realizing how much my sisters were short-changed of the true Old Maid experience.  Whenever I would snag the hated card from them, I would never give them any satisfaction as I would act as if nothing whatsoever was wrong when I chose the card of that old frowning hag.  I was delighted!  What a wonderful opportunity to see them shed even more tears when they grabbed the darn thing from me again!

The game within the game within the game...Old Maid got serious once the person holding the Bitch (My lands! Did he just say what I thought he said?!?) was down to just a few cards.  That's when we would start to play mind games.  (Hmmm, Elise keeps picking the second card from the left so I think I'll put the Old Maid in that spot.)  (Surely if I raise the Old Maid higher than the other cards Jaira will think I am trying to trick her into picking that card, so she will pick a different card and BOOYAH!  She will fall right into my trap.)  (Hmmm, Amaris saw right through my ploy last time.  Should I stick with the plan this go-around or mix things up?)  Needless to say, if you play this twisted game long enough, you are bound to feel the indescribable elation of eventually seeing your sick plan work to perfection.

And when it does, don't hold back.  All is fair in love, war and Old Maid.  If there is ever a time to dance, it's that moment when your younger sister was about to grab Succotash Sam for the win but at the last moment switches and grabs the Old Maid.  My usual response was to act upset for a split second until they see the card and then when their shoulders would slump in obvious dismay, I would break into song-and-dance and celebrate as if I had single-handedly won the World Series, Super Bowl and NBA championship all in one, nevermind the fact that I still had to draw a good card from them else I would have to endure precisely the same humiliation.

But that's just the oldest male...I only remember the good stuff.  I'm sure I lost a few Old Maid games, but I don't remember them.  What I DO remember is grabbing winning cards and my sisters crying, screaming (even kicking) just because they were left holding the OLD MAID!?!  (I admit, there is a sick satisfaction even typing this 30 years later.)  I remember my sisters crying themselves to bed because they were the Old Maid.  I remembered them thinking they couldn't go on living because they were the Old Maid.  I remember my mom getting mad at both my dad and me for not letting my sisters win (especially so close to their bedtime).  It was glorious.  I had no idea at the time that it would prove to be an enduring highlight of my life.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring Break 2014 - Day 2: Miami

It was Monday morning and we had hoped to get away early to spend some time at the beach.  We were all moving slowly and were trying to figure out which beach to go to since our "beach" trip the day before didn't turn out like we had hoped.  Unfortunately, anywhere we went was going to involve a bit of a drive.  We were considering Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood Beach and a few others.  We finally decided on Hollywood Beach (just north of Miami and south of Ft. Lauderdale).  We had originally wanted to leave at 9:00 AM, but didn't get out the door until 11:30 AM.  We got stuck in Miami traffic and didn't get to Hollywood Beach until 12:45.  We parked in a five-story garage that had a digital display telling us that there were 8 open spots available and were able to find a couple of open spots on the 3rd level.  (This garage had sensors installed at every parking spot similar to what you might see on automatic-flushing toilets.  A po-dunk Missourian like myself had never seen one like this before.)

The weather did not exactly cooperate for our day at the beach.  It was 73°F.  When we arrived, the beach was a sea of humanity (which was good prep for what was to come).  We struggled to even find a spot to spread out some...oops!  We forgot to bring towels.  We had everything else though.  As soon as we found a small patch to set up shop, it started raining.  In about 120 seconds flat, everyone scattered and we found ourselves nearly alone on the beach.  The instantaneous evacuation was amazing.  While I was glad to have more space to maneuver, the poor weather was not to my liking.

The wind picked up.  The skies were gray.  It was raining.  And we were at the beach.  Bad things happen when the Bartons decide to go to the Beach.  (In our two family beach vacations, both vacations were cut short due to hurricanes.)  It should come as no surprise to you that we are just not big fans of the beach.

Vanessa (Clay's wife..Clay being Elly's brother) put up umbrellas and beach chairs while Elly went looking for a beach store to help us with our towel shortage.  The kids and I hit the waves....or, what passes for waves here in south Florida.

I have memories of going to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina as a kid and getting pummeled by waves that rolled and literally crashed on top of me.  We saw no such waves here at Hollywood Beach today.  What you see above is what the surf looked like.  We played in the water for a while and then were done.

Even though the air temperature was cool, the water was quite comfortable.  We hung out for a little while longer before returning to our car, which was one of the few cars remaining in the parking garage which was packed when we arrived back when the sun was shining.

We returned to Clay's house and had a nice dinner of grilled hamburgers and were looking forward to heading to Disney World early the next morning.

TO ALL OF YOU BEACH-LOVERS: What is it about the beach that we are missing?  Both Elly and I have zero desire to ever have another beach vacation as all the hassle that it involves seem to be much greater than any enjoyment we get out of being at the beach.  Please enlighten us.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Spring Break 2014 - Day 1: Miami

I slept like a rock last night and ended up getting almost 12 hours of sleep.  Just what I needed to get this vacation back on track.  It was Sunday and we were headed to the beach.  But since we were in Miami on Spring Break week (this week was also the state of Florida's Spring Break), we were worried that all of the popular beaches would be especially packed.  Clay had heard some good things about a spot south of where he lived which we figured wouldn't have the normal tourist traffic.  The location was Biscayne National Park and off we went...

We soon found out that it was not easy to find Biscayne National Park.  We knew something was wrong when we got to a bridge that went to the Florida Keys.  So we had to backtrack and ultimately arrived at our intended destination late in the morning.  We thought we were going to a beach and what was actually there at Biscayne National Park was a lagoon.  And not just any lagoon, but a lagoon frequented by crocodiles.  (Yes, you heard me correctly...crocodiles.)

Even though the lagoon was not exactly what we had in mind, we all had a good time there.  It was fairly low-key (which I appreciated), though we were one of the only families there that spoke English.  We did not stay there all that long before deciding to pack up to grab a late lunch at a decent restaurant.  We ended up at a really nice waterfront place (Black Point Ocean Grill) which was exactly the type of restaurant I like to go to when "at the beach."

We were mildly disappointed though to learn that the wait to seat our party of 10 would be about an hour, but were quickly put into good spirits by a flurry of texts from people back home informing us that Kansas had just gone down in flames in the NCAA Tournament to the mighty basketball power that is the Stanford Cardinal.  Things were really looking up when the hostess then informed us that our table was ready after only a 10-minute wait.  This was a really nice lunch.

After enjoying our time at the Black Point Ocean Grill, we went back to where Clay lives.  Only instead of going to his home, we went to the neighborhood swimming pool/country club.  We spent more time here than we did at the lagoon earlier.  This was a very nice facility and we enjoyed all that it had to offer (which included hot tub, sauna, steam room, etc.).  Clay was great with the boys as you can see from the photos below.

After a fun-filled day, we finally returned home at 7:30 PM.  The kids ate some pizza while the rest of us nibbled at left-overs from lunch and previous day's meals.  Serai and I casually watched some of the basketball games before we all retired for the evening.  It was a good day.

Spring Break 2014 - A Drive to Forget

Three years go, our family spent Spring Break at Disney World.  It was a wonderful trip which is described HERE in excruciating detail.  Last year, the kids stayed home for Spring Break while Elly and I had an amazing time in Aspen, Colorado.  This year, we decided to return to Orlando to rekindle the magic of Disney.

Elly's brother Clay recently moved from Washington D.C. to Miami and he encouraged us to "swing by" Miami on our way to Orlando since we would be driving down this time (as opposed to flying as we did in 2011).  The kids were not excited about riding in a car for the 20 hour trip to Orlando and were especially not liking the idea of extending the drive down an additional four hours to hang out for a couple of days where there was no Disney World.

Clay and his family then decided they would also be going to Disney World so we considered just meeting them there rather than driving all the way to the southeastern tip of the U.S.  We ultimately decided to tack on two days in Miami so that the kids could have a little beach time (Ariya has never been to the beach).

The original plan was to leave as early as possible on Friday afternoon to have fewer hours driving while tired.  I didn't know if Elly and I could handle this type of drive as it was about six hours beyond my road trip comfort zone.  We were going to play it by ear and stop to rest if we needed to.

I ended up getting away from work a lot later than I had hoped which pushed our departure time back to about 4:30 PM.  We loaded up the trusty Expedition and headed east.  Our first pit stop was in Illinois and it was a quick one.  We made decent time through Kentucky and Tennessee.  I had been driving the whole way and started getting tired after we crossed into Georgia.  I really wanted to get us past Atlanta and hoped that I would revive as dawn approached.

I was not prepared for the amount of traffic that I would encounter on this trip.  Just about every license plate I saw in Tennessee and Georgia was an Indiana plate, with a few Illinois ones sprinkled in.  But even in the middle of the night, the highway was full.  Best as I can tell, the whole Midwest was on Spring Break and everyone was driving to Florida.  Let me tell you, it's hard enough driving through the night on an empty highway, but when you have to be dealing with heavy traffic every second of that all-nighter, it makes it that much more difficult and exhausting.  By 4:30 AM in the heart of Georgia, I was done.

When I pulled off the highway the car started making a funny noise.  It did not sound good at all.  I pulled into a gas station, filled up and told Elly it was her turn to do some driving.  We did pop the hood to see what was making the noise. was pretty obvious as there was a belt that seemed to be doing something it shouldn't which was what was causing all the racket.  Elly and I both figured it was the timing belt since we're both clueless about cars and that was the only belt we knew by name.  Since we didn't have any good options where we were, we thought we would keep heading south and pull off in a couple of hours to have the car looked at since we wanted to keep moving toward our destination.

Poor Elly starts heading down the road and within 20 minutes, the belt completely blows and she is forced to bail out on an exit ramp which miraculously appears in the early morning Georgia darkness.  We quickly get on the phone to call for a tow truck.  An hour later, the tow truck picks us up and drops us off in Warner Robins, Georgia.  It was pretty funny seeing Elly and the four kids packed into the "backseat" of the truck cab.

The tow truck dumped us into the parking lot of a Ford dealership and there we were 90 minutes before the service department was scheduled to open.  An hour passed.  Thankfully, a few employees got there early and immediately gave the car a looking over.  Initial reports were that they may not have the parts and would not be able to have the car worked on until Monday.  We were thinking we would need to rent a car to continue our trip and just pick up our car on the way back home the following weekend.  It was looking like it would have been a much better idea to fly.

We were soon told that the car could be fixed that morning, but that it would take close to three hours to make all the repairs.  We were thrilled to hear that the car could be fixed, but were slightly saddened to hear how much time would be lost here in Warner Robins at the local Ford dealership.  As you can see, the kids were not thrilled with the predicament.

It was 9:00 AM and the kids were hungry.  I figured it would be good to get them out of the service department waiting room.  We went on a walking tour of the "business loop" of Warner Robins, Georgia in hopes of finding a McDonald's or some other place to grab some breakfast.  We walked around for a bit and only found a place called Krystal.  The kids and I all agreed that it was disgusting.  We later found out that Krystal is a fairly popular place in those parts.  The locals acted surprised that we had never heard of it, but when they found out that we were from Missouri they would all say, "Oh...well, you have White Castle."

Before I move on, there are two things I want to say about Warner Robins, Georgia.  First and most importantly, everyone we came in contact with there was extremely nice and went out of their way to do whatever they could to help us.  Secondly, we struggled to understand most of what they said because their accent was so strong.  On a couple of occasions, I had no idea what was being said and just nodded my head and laughed because I had no idea what they were telling me.  Elly and I were trying to figure out if they had as hard a time understanding us.

They were able to get the car repaired fairly quickly and we were back on the move at 10:00 AM.  Total down time was approximately 5 hours.  I was back behind the wheel and we were headed south but sobered by the fact that we were only halfway to our destination.

There was nothing fairly interesting about the rest of the trip except for the kids getting antsy at various points.  It was a long drive and one that I hope that I never have to make again.  The Spring Break influx made it especially difficult as we were fighting heavy traffic every mile all the way into Miami.

We pulled into the driveway of Elly's brother's house in south Miami at 7:30 PM Eastern time.  Our total trip time was 25 hours, 33 minutes.  (1,326 miles in our car...about 30 miles in a tow truck).  I slept well that night.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Aspen, Colorado: A Dream Come True

When I was 14 years old, I fell in love with skiing.  For the next ten years, I began taking road trips out to Colorado at least once a year to engage in this activity which brought me exhilarating joy.  While people take ski trips for a host of different reasons, my trips were about two things: the skiing and the camaraderie.  I also enjoyed visiting new places and skiing the unique terrain offered by the various resorts.  While I'm not exactly sure how it started, I had a growing desire to visit Aspen, Colorado to ski the legendary Aspen Mountain.  (I've had a similar fascination with Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Sun Valley, Idaho.)  But I grew up, got married, got a job, had kids and my quest to become a ski bum never materialized.  So my annual trips out to Colorado came to an end.

When Elly and I got married, one of the ways she has shown me love was her willingness to learn to ski, since she readily recognized how much it meant to me.  We even went to Steamboat Springs, Colorado on our honeymoon with the naive notion that I would teach her how to ski (she had never been before).  As you might guess, that was a disaster beyond explanation which gave our newlywed status an early test.

Five years later (2002), she was willing to give it another try.  Elly had earned a free stay at Taos, New Mexico through Pampered Chef and we went there on our second ski trip together.  This time we did it right, as she took three days of lessons while I skied solo.  Over those three days, Elly learned to ski and actually enjoyed herself on the mountain.  And when we weren't skiing, we were having a blast dining out and being tourists in a fascinating place we had never been before.  But I was reminded that while I love to ski, it's not nearly as enjoyable as skiing with someone...anyone.

In 2007, we had three children ages 8, 6 and 2.  We went to Keystone, Colorado with another family for Spring Break and had a wonderful time.  Not only was I able to ski with someone, those someones were precious to me (Elly and the kids).  However, I was reminded of how expensive it is to take the whole family skiing (transportation, lift tickets, ski rental, lessons, lodging, etc.).  My two oldest children seemed to enjoy it at the time, but haven't been as interested in making a return trip.  Each year when we would start thinking about Spring Break I would test the waters to see if the family would be interested in another ski trip and I would always get turned down.  This year was no exception.

In January, I joined my son Marek on a school field trip to the ski hill just outside of St. Louis (Hidden Valley).  We had a great time and it reminded me of how much I loved to ski and especially to ski with someone I love.  Little did I know at the time that I would make two trips to Colorado in the next two months to Steamboat and...ASPEN!

Which brings me to today.

I just finished my third day of skiing this week.  It was my third day of skiing with someone.  It was my third day of skiing with someone I love and that third day just happened to be my first day at Aspen.  It was the culmination of a romantic vacation and the realization of a dream that began over 20 years ago.

Now here's where some of you may want to stop reading.  I will now provide a fairly detailed account of the trip which you may find a bit tedious.  Those of you who have read my marathon race reports know what to expect.

Trip Day #1: Friday
Elly and I left Columbia at 7:20 PM and drove to Hays, Kansas.  (Hays holds a special place in our hearts as being the same place we spent our first night as a married couple on our way to Steamboat back in December of '96.)  We arrived at Hays a little before 1:00 AM and opted to spend the night at the Hampton Inn there (as opposed to the Comfort Inn which was our choice 16 years ago).  There were rumors of a snowstorm coming from the West and I was hoping to beat it.

Trip Day #2: Saturday
We woke up at 5:30 AM, ate breakfast and were on our way heading west down I-70.  But within minutes, my heart sunk as the snow had begun to fall and the temperature was dropping.  I was no longer optimistic that we would get to the mountains before the snowstorm hit.  My fears were confirmed shortly thereafter as warning signs stated that I-70 was closed at Colby, Kansas.  The interstate was now completely covered with snow, but we followed the tracks to the Colby exit where we were forced to exit.  It was a bit after 7:00 AM and we were in a town where there was absolutely nothing for us to do.  I put gas in the car and asked one of the employees there what to do.  He said, "Better get a hotel room.  The road will be closed for a long time and the hotels will get full."  Not what I wanted to hear.

We drove around and found a travel plaza that had a Starbuck's.  I hooked into their wireless network to get online, look at the weather map and observe the road closings between there and Denver.  The situation was pretty grim and wasn't looking good for us getting to our destination that day as the entire eastern half of Colorado was getting hammered by snow.  We weren't getting anywhere closer to Aspen sitting there in Starbuck's in Colby, Kansas so I decided it was time to make a move.  Another couple (from the St. Louis area) noticed us leaving and asked if they could join us.  We exchanged cell phone numbers and turned our makeshift caravan south into the barren wasteland of snow-swept Kansas.

We went directly south from Colby down a state road which had lots of snow on it.  We had to drive about 20 miles before catching the next east-west road which was U.S. 40 -- a road I had been on plenty of times on previous trips to Colorado.  Our spirits were lifted when we turned onto 40.  The road was clear.  Snow was coming down hard but we were able to turn west and head into Colorado and found that a few other cars had joined us.  Forty miles into Colorado we came upon the tiny town of Kit Carson.  We stopped at the only thing there that looked like it might have a bathroom -- the Kit Carson Trading Post.  Our new friends stopped along with another guy who was trying to get to Salt Lake City, Utah ("Utah Dude").  We relieved our stressed-out bladders and bought a few things at the Trading Post for the trouble and left hoping to head west into Colorado Springs.  Unfortunately, the road out of Kit Carson was closed.

Since there was really nothing there in Kit Carson (no gas station, no hotel), we again headed the only direction we could...south.  We drove 20 miles to Eads, Colorado where we were able to catch a road which went west and was actually open for travel - Colorado State Highway 96.  While heading west on 96, the wind out of the north picked up which made conditions extremely challenging.  At times, we could barely see anything in front of us.  Our caravan partners were able to plow ahead, but I pulled off the road as I simply could not see anything but WHITE.  The wind howled and rocked the car as we sat there waiting for the wind to die down or the blanketing snow to lessen.  Finally, a group of four cars passed going at about 10 miles per hour and I seized the opportunity and pulled right out behind them and was glad to see another car behind me who was driving at a similar speed and I felt some safety as I was able to see the car in front of me and this ragged string of cars plunged westward into the swirling snow.

We came upon a town which had a gas station and we had to leave our place in the caravan to gas up, grab supplies, kick ice off the bottom of the car and steady our nerves.  The temperature was 10 degrees and my guess is that the wind chill was about -20°F at this point.  It had taken us almost 3½ hours to travel the last 60 miles from Kit Carson and as we were getting ready to depart from this gas station, Utah Dude pulled up.  We saw each other and laughed as we knew what each had been through to get to this point.

From here, the conditions improved considerably.  Our friends from St. Louis called and gave a good report about what lay ahead.  They were able to make it to Highway 50 and said that Pueblo, Colorado was within reach.  We were still a long way from there though, but were encouraged that we might able to punch through this horrible storm and finally start making progress toward our goal.  Conditions improved considerably the closer we got to Highway 50 and Pueblo.  When we turned onto 50, we were back on a four-lane highway and things were looking good.  We were 8 miles from Pueblo when we saw flashing lights and a patrol car completely blocking the highway.  A semi had jack-knifed and the road was blocked.  I couldn't believe it.  We were 8 miles from Pueblo and had been through so much to get to this point in our journey and were derailed once again.  A truck driver who was also stopped there on the highway said that we could turn around and go back to the next town and take side roads into Pueblo.  We turned around in the median and headed back in the direction from which we had just came.  Aspen was west and north of where we were and we were heading east.

There was a town five miles east (Avondale) which we were able to go into and take back roads into Pueblo.  But those back roads were a bit scary as we saw numerous cars which had run off the road along this stretch.  Another funny thing occurred here as we passed a gas station and saw Utah Dude getting out of his car.  We honked and waved while he appeared to laugh at the humor of crossing paths once again.  Upon reaching Pueblo, we were relieved and exhausted.  The good news was that it was not snowing there and the sky looked clear to the west.  The not-so-good news was that I was unsure of where to go from there.  We stopped at a gas station to gas up and decide our next move.

Upon walking into the gas station, I was shocked to see someone I knew from Columbia buying something at the counter.  I said, "What in the world are you doing here?"  He was in the exact same situation that we were in as he was trying to get to the mountains and had obviously taken the same circuitous route that we had in hopes of getting around the snowstorm.  For some reason, this was encouraging to me that others had gone to similar great lengths as we had.

While we still had a ways to go, mountains to climb, heavy snow to navigate, I was energized by the knowledge that our goal was attainable.  On our way to Aspen, we passed the ski resorts of Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail and Beaver Creek.  We eventually arrived at our hotel in Snowmass Village at 10:00 PM and gratefully crashed into bed, weary from the long journey we had just completed.

Trip Day #3, Ski Day #1 (Snowmass): Sunday
The Aspen ski resort is actually made up of four different ski mountains: Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.  Our hotel was located in Snowmass Village, right at the base of the gargantuan complex that is Snowmass.  (Snowmass is larger than Aspen, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk combined.)  Since Elly is still a pretty tentative skier, I figured that Snowmass would provide the best training ground to get her warmed up for the three days of skiing that we had planned.

We started the morning by riding the Elk Camp Gondola up mid-mountain and then took a green beginner run (Funnel Bypass) back down to the bottom.  This was a pretty long run and we were the only ones on it.  The snow was perfect and we both enjoyed the warm-up, though there was nothing warm about it as the temperature at the time was in the single digits with the windchill well below zero.  We spent the rest of the morning trying to figure a way to keep Elly's hands warm.  (We eventually bought some new mittens for her which seemed to help.)  Elly seemed to gain sufficient confidence on that initial green run as she was ready to tackle the intermediate blue runs from then on.  It being a Sunday, the mountain did get crowded in spots during the day despite the dreadfully cold conditions.  All things considered, we enjoyed Snowmass and felt that it was a great intermediate mountain.  We felt a little short-changed since we found ourselves going inside a number of times during the day to warm-up which limited the time we actually skied.

We made our way back to our hotel, cleaned up and hopped on a bus into Aspen to find a nice place to eat.  (Aspen has a great bus system which we took advantage of every day we were there.)  We asked around and were told we would find good seafood at Pacifica.  We found it and had a wonderful experience there (so much so that we came back again the following night).  When we got back to our hotel, it was just before 7:00 PM.  Elly went to bed and was asleep within seconds.  It took me about 30 minutes before I too succumbed to sleep.  I guess we were tired.

Trip Day #4, Ski Day #2 (Aspen Highlands): Monday
The forecast for today was looking good.  We took a bus to Aspen Highlands and were one of the first ones on the mountain.  And what a glorious mountain it is!  While Highlands is much smaller than Snowmass, it's also a lot less crowded.  It has some really nice green and blue runs which come down the lower part of the mountain which we enjoyed.  Our only gripe with Aspen Highlands is that it is a very narrow mountain with all of the runs feeding down into one run at the bottom which does get fairly congested no matter how small the crowds are.

The weather in the afternoon was ideal: clear skies and temperature right around 30°F.  We took advantage of it and got lots of great skiing in as we tackled most of the blue terrain that Highlands had to offer.  I especially liked ending the day with some steep intermediate terrain (Thunderbowl) which Elly skied extremely well.  We had hoped to experience the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro but it was booked for the day.  If we make it back to Aspen Highlands (and I hope we do), we'll definitely be making a reservation at the Cloud Nine Bistro.

We took a bus back to Snowmass to change out of our ski gear and then caught another bus to Aspen to return to Pacifica for dinner.  Just like the night before, we had a wonderful dining experience that included a hamburger, french fries, prawns, oysters on-the-half-shell, wine (for Elly) and beer (for me).  That's not the only way this night was like the previous one, we again returned to our hotel and immediately went to bed.

Trip Day #5, Ski Day #3 (Aspen Mountain): Tuesday
We woke up early and had breakfast at the Big Hoss Grill in Snowmass Village.  We both had the Eggs Benedict (which has become a ski trip tradition for me).  After breakfast, we caught the bus into Aspen and boarded the Gondola at 9:00 AM and again were one of the first people on the mountain.  The weather was warm and the sun was shining.  Elly was worried since everyone had been telling us how difficult Aspen Mountain is (there are no green runs at Aspen).  We found there to be plenty of easy blues at the top half of the mountain.  We got lots of skiing in on this our last day here, even though it got uncomfortably warm (45°F) in the afternoon.

We stopped for lunch at Bonnie's restaurant on the mountain and shared a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich and sweet potato fries.  We skied the legendary runs of Ruthie's Run, Copper Bowl, Gretl's and Little Nell.  We finished strong feeling like we had pretty much covered all that Aspen Mountain had to offer.  We really enjoyed skiing together.

We turned in our rental equipment and took the bus back to Snowmass.  We had a great dinner at The Stew Pot which consisted of cream of mushroom soup, a turkey sandwich and beef stroganoff which Elly washed down with a glass of wine (house cabernet) and I with a beer (Chimay Blue).  After dinner, we returned to our hotel room and got sucked into watching about six episodes of Storage Wars before calling it a night.

Trip Day #6: Wednesday
We woke up early and departed from Snowmass Village at 4:50 AM.  We had to navigate through quite a bit of snow from Vail all the way to Denver, with Summit County getting dumped on while we passed Copper Mountain.  Once we got through Denver, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the drive home.  We did stop in Hays, Kansas for a quick bite to eat at the nicest Wendy's restaurant I've ever been in.  We made it from Aspen to Columbia in exactly 14 hours and set a new personal record from Denver to Columbia in 9 hours, 50 minutes.

Post-Trip Thoughts
Elly and I had so much fun and but for the drive out had an ideal vacation.  We laughed, we cried, we skied, we ate, we slept and we just enjoyed one another's company for the duration of the trip.  We both loved Aspen and I came away thinking it's the type of place where I would like to return to on a future ski vacation.  Aspen's lift ticket system is the best I've experienced.  Not only do the lift tickets work on four different mountains, but the lift tickets themselves are just a credit card which you stick in any pocket and is automatically detected whenever you enter a lift queue.  No sticky tickets to attach and no waiting to be scanned by a lift attendant.  I also liked how some of the lifts had trail maps on the safety bar so that you could be planning your next run while riding up the lift.  Lastly, every Gondola car at Aspen Mountain had a decorative plaque in it which provided some Aspen history.  I thought that was a really nice touch.  If I ever make it back, I definitely want to ski more of Snowmass and also give Buttermilk a try.  That is all for now.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Odds and Ends

I noticed a Facebook status this week that got me thinking.  It was a Dr. Seuss quote which I will try to quote from memory:
"There is something that is truer than true, that there is no one that is youer than you."
I am very grateful to Dr. Seuss.  How else will I remember the sound that the letter "F" makes, except by knowing that there are four fluffy feathers on a Fiffer-Feffer-Feff?  Anyway, being the ever-so-egocentric person that I am, the above quote (which I undoubtedly butchered, but you get the idea) got me thinking about those things that make me unlike any other person who has ever lived before in all of history.  Here are a few of the oddities that make up who I am.

  1. I have never been in a Dollar General.
  2. I have never eaten at White Castle.
  3. I have been investigated by the Secret Service for threats made on the life of the President.
  4. I consider myself an expert on James Bond movies, Hardy Boys books and the making of the perfect turkey sandwich.
  5. I don't drink coffee, milk or wine.
  6. I have one wife and one dog.
  7. I have two sons, two daughters, two cats and two cars.
  8. I have three dollars in my wallet.
  9. I am a lawyer, but you would never know it from the car that I drive.
  10. When I was in law school, I proposed to a girl who had just graduated from high school.  We were married five months later (and no, she wasn't pregnant).
  11. I once stood in line for over an hour just to get into a McDonald's.  Once I got inside, I was so hungry I ordered two Quarter Pounders, two large fries and a strawberry shake.  I wolfed it all down and thought it was one of the best meals I'd ever had.
  12. I am especially obsessive-compulsive when it comes to sports.  When I was in high school, I would shoot 200 free throws every day.  When I was in college, I would spend 2 hours a week working on my snow skiing my living room.  Next was table tennis (you really don't want to know about this one, trust me).  And then I started running.  I have run six marathons (26.2 mile races) and on May 23, 2008, my good friend Mike Acock and I ran 36 miles together to celebrate our 36th birthdays.
  13. I hate McDonald's.
  14. I was born in Michigan but have not stepped foot in that state in 38 years.
  15. I love music but am a lousy musician.  I've taken piano lessons, guitar lessons and saxophone lessons and am not especially good at any of them.

I am a huge fan of the Seinfeld show.  Just this past week, I had a new experience which was right out of a Seinfeld episode (the Pez Dispenser episode for you Seinfeld freaks).  I was in Joplin for my daughter's high school state soccer tournament.  While driving down I-44, I noticed a few things.  First of all, are there any armadillos left in the world or were they all hit by cars in between Lebanon and Springfield last week?  (Seriously, I had no idea there were so many armadillos in Missouri.  And my oh my do they make a mess when they get hit on the highway.)  Secondly, there were a number of classy looking billboards for casinos that caught my eye.  I live right off of I-70 in Columbia and drive by a casino billboard every single day and I can honestly say it has never once got me wanting to go visit the Isle of Capri in Boonville.  (Never been there, but hear that the regulars who go there refer to it as the "Pile of Debris."  How nice.)  But while driving to Joplin, I was captivated by one of the billboards and thought "I've got to go check this place out."

But in order to get the full sense of the story, I have to provide a little background.  One of my best friends growing up has told me stories about going to casinos and dog tracks in his home state of Wisconsin.  Before the days of legal gambling on the "boats," I tried to explain to my friend that I didn't think he had really been to a casino in Wisconsin since Nevada was the only place in the country at that time where casinos were legal.  I will never forget his response: "Oh but this was on an Indian reservation.  They can do whatever they want there."  When I first heard this explanation as a 12-year old, all sorts of images filled my mind of my friend at a casino on an Indian reservation where they can do whatever they want there.

Lo and behold, the casino being advertised on a billboard along I-44 was a casino just across the border in Oklahoma...on an Indian Reservation.  It was seven minutes away from my hotel in Joplin.  I have been to Las Vegas and walked through the ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding casinos of the Bellagio, Treasure Island, Mirage, Paris, Caesar's Palace, Flamingo Hilton, Venetian, but I had never been to a casino anywhere else.  Imagine my surprise when I walked into the casino in Oklahoma and Tonto was not there to greet me at the door.  Pocohontas was not serving drinks and I didn't see a single freakin' headress or anything that looked Indian anywhere in that casino.  What kind of Rez is this?  Where are the teepees?  Where are the buffalo being hunted and the red men?  I was shocked.  I had these images so seared into my brain of what a casino on an Indian reservation looked like that I was having trouble believing my eyes.

So how was this like a Seinfeld episode?  Well, the Pez Dispenser episode has some great dialogue where George admits that he has never understood why anyone would go to a flea market....because he just assumed that there were fleas there.  (I think this is hilarious because I've never wanted to go to a flea market for that exact reason!)  Anyway, I had similar misconceptions about what a present-day Indian reservation was like.  I'm not sure why I thought I would just cross the border into Oklahoma and all of a sudden be swept into the Wild West with Indians on horseback directing me to the blackjack teepees where Chief Silver Scowl would be dealing out of an eight-deck shoe. I know.