I had to drive my son to a volunteer shift this morning. On my way home, I had a full view of the entire front range of the Rocky Mountains in Denver. We have many sunny days in Colorado, but the clearest ones often occur in fall. The mountains have a light coating of snow, so they appear larger than they have all summer. The foothills seem closer because of the scrub oak bushes that have turned orange and red. And with the bright blue sky overhead, it’s simply gorgeous. This morning was so beautiful, I shed tears in my car as I headed west towards our home. I am so fortunate to live here. I moved here when I was 8. I’ve lived 75% of my life here, not long enough to be considered a native, but it’s home. Every day I get to wake up and remember I live here.
“Happiness hit her like a train on a track.” ~ Florence Welch
I spent today on the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. If you haven’t been, add it to your bucket list. The trip takes you a little over 45 miles one way through the heart of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado from Durango to Silverton. This was my second trip on the train, the first time with our sons. The only way to see this stretch of Colorado is via this train. I spent my entire day feeling grateful that this is where I have spent most of my life. Colorado is stunning. It’s a privilege to live here.
I am writing this from a campground in the San Juan National Forest north of Durango, Colorado. We have been here since Thursday afternoon with our sons and our friends. Steve and I have been camping together since 1994. We bought our first pop-up camper in 2004 when our sons were 3 and 1. Our inaugural camper trip was to Maroon Bells near Aspen. I’ll never forget it because Luke, then about 14 months, got cranky around midnight and started wailing in our tiny, silent-but-completely-filled campground. We spent the next hour driving up and down the moonlit road to Maroon Lake until he fell asleep and we could return to our camper. Now the boys sleep in their own tent. Steve and I have upgraded to a small, hard-sided camper. Along with our adventure gear, we have grown and changed, but camping is the same.
I have a love/hate relationship with camping. On the one hand, there is the adventure of traveling somewhere new and exploring our stunning state. On the other hand, I prefer not to be cold and/or wet, ever. On the one hand, there is nature, the scent of pine trees, the joy of seeing a clear, starry sky not lost to light pollution. On the other hand, hotel beds are so much nicer than a three-inch camper mattress. On the one hand, it’s kind of fun sitting around a fire with a drink while the kids burn marshmallows and wolf down S’mores. On the other hand, I hate it when my hair smells like campfire smoke and I have to live for days without a proper shower while my leg hair grows and I begin to resemble Sasquatch. On the one hand, camping is the best way to unplug. On the other hand, some of my favorite things have plugs. It’s a conundrum.
Still, I have so many stories because of camping. I slept in a car at the foot of Long’s Peak in February once, freezing all night, just to get away with a then boyfriend. Before we were married, Steve and I drove sixteen miles up a 4-wheel-drive-only dirt road near Crown King, Arizona, only to arrive at our campsite, put up our tent, and discover we had one flat tire and one almost flat tire and needed to pack back up and leave. Once my family and I had to abandon our camper and drive to a hotel after a bear showed up in our campground and spooked some fellow campers. They began hollering and banging pots and honking horns trying to scare the poor, furry thing off. We decided we had enough as soon as someone began shooting a gun into the air to spook it. I have a lifetime of memories tied to this crazy notion that you should leave your comfortable home, pack up your clothes, put your food on ice, and change your perspective for a few days by being slightly uncomfortable, dirty, and inconvenienced.
So, in a follow up to yesterday’s post, I must finish telling the whole bear story. After I wrote my blog yesterday, I asked hubby if he would fill the camp shower so I could wash my hair. Being the extremely dutiful and kind gentleman he is, he walked himself down to the tree where we’d left the shower hanging overnight.
“Oh no,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“What? Why?” I questioned, knowing we’d only used the dang thing once before and that it had been fine last evening when I’d relocated it to a tree nearer to our camper.
“It’s got teeth marks in it,” he told me.
Then it hit me. With all the bear commotion, perhaps the teeth marks belonged to a bear. I went to investigate. Sure enough. The bag, hanging at least five feet off the ground, had puncture holes in the shape of a large animal mouth, the deepest wound had been caused by large incisors. Crap.
We were down one camp shower. Oh well. I would make it without a shampoo. We went out for the afternoon for a nice hike to Spud Lake (technically it’s Potato Lake, but locals have nicknamed it). When we returned, there was more bear commotion while Joe fished. The bear was sighted again in a campsite and subsequently shooed away with banging pots. We thought it might be best not to cook dinner at our site and opted instead to cruise down to Durango for some barbeque. Again when we returned, we ran into the campground host who told us that a bear and a cub had been lurking around all day. We talked it over and figured that if the bear had visited our campsite the previous night and not disturbed a thing but our camp shower, despite the fact that we had cooked and eaten inside our pop-up due to the rain, we were probably safe. After all, we had eaten out, we were tired, and we had bear spray. No worries. We fell asleep in our camper, exhausted and dirty, before 9 p.m.
At 11 p.m., Steve and I were rudely awakened by the shouts of a fellow camper. This time the voice was female.
“GET OUT! GO! GET AWAY!”
This was followed by the echoing sound of pots and pans being banged together. A few more shouts bounced through the campground and then it got quiet. Steve and I sat waiting, listening for bears, presumably. We wondered where the marauders would hit next. About ten minutes passed while we discussed our plans in case of a bear visit. Then, three quick popping sounds rang through the campground. Gunshots. Apparently someone had decided to try another tactic to scare away the bears. Steve and I sat looking at each other, weighing our options. These bears were not going away. I imagined a night filled with intermittent yells, barking dogs, and banging pots. I contemplated the drama that would ensue within our own campsite with our boys if the bear came knocking on the door of our pop-up. Certainly, any incident in which we actually had to deploy the bear spray would result in hesitancy from our boys the next time we suggested a camping trip. While I sat trying to decide what to do, the occupants of two other campsites made up their minds and drove out of the campground for the night. I started wondering if they had the right idea.
Knowing that we had a 7 hour drive home today and fearing that we would decimate our kids’ love of camping forever if we had to pepper spray a nosy bear while they watched, we woke the boys, grabbed a few essentials, and vacated camp. We drove into Durango where a lovely clerk at a Quality Inn gave us a discounted “bear” rate, two care packages consisting of bottled water and cookies, and keys to a room with two queen beds and a welcome policy for our canine. By midnight we were bear free, and the boys were back asleep. I won’t lie. We slept well in those soft, comfy beds without banging pots and pans and gunshots and panicked shouts at an ursine visitor. Sure. We’d spent some extra money, but the peace of mind and decent night’s sleep were going to be worth their weight in gold.
Sometimes you need to know when to cut your losses. It’s early fall weather in the high country. Some aspens are changing already. Food is scarce, and those bears are looking to fatten up for hibernation. We’re in their territory with our easy meals. You can’t really blame them for wanting to capitalize on our intrusion. When it’s all said and done, when you’re out in nature you’re part of someone else’s home. In this case, the someone else consisted of some hungry bears with pointy incisors and cravings for sweets. I think it was right to respect their space and vacate for a while. Besides, staying at the Quality Inn fueled the local, Durango economy and gave me my first hot shower in four days. Bears were happy. I was happy. It’s all good. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself tonight as I look back on our four-night camp trip that became a three-night camp trip with an optional hotel stay.
Over this long, holiday weekend, we decided to take our boys to see a part of Colorado they’ve not visited before. We picked them up from school, pop-up camper in tow, and headed southwest. Our destination: Durango. We arrived at Haviland Lake at 10:30 p.m. and as quietly as possible set up camp. I’d say it was a testament to the strength of our relationship that no one was maimed or murdered during camp assembly in the dark. But honestly, my husband is a saint, and that is the only reason I am still alive today.
Early this morning when the sun was just beginning its process of lighting the silent campground, Joe jumped up and begged to go “exploring.” In that moment, on six hours of fitful sleep (fitful because the dog was restless last night and her restlessness was bothering Steve and Steve’s incessant chiding of the dog was bothering me), I questioned why the hell we do this. Exactly why do we insist on loading the car with all the things we already have at home so we can sleep in a cold camper in the forest?
In desperate need of a serious attitude adjustment, at 8 a.m. we fired up the FJ and drove the 18 miles back into Durango in search of a local coffee establishment. We found Durango Joe’s small hut. Steve got a Mexican Mocha and I got the heavenly Avalanche…a white chocolate and macadamia nut flavored latte. We drove into old town Durango and were just in time to watch the narrow gauge train start its daily trek to Silverton.
By the time we got back to camp, my attitude was improving. Recently fed and freshly caffeinated, I finished setting up camp. I perched the hammock between two trees and settled in. From my spot, I watched Luke fall into the lake trying to catch minnows in a plastic cup. Joe, a child who isn’t patient enough to untie a double knot in his shoelaces, stood on shore repeatedly casting his fishing rod while in some kind of trance. A few feet away, Steve took macro shots of wildflowers. Ruby, apparently exhausted after her sleepless night, napped beside me. In the serenity of the forest, I watched an osprey circle the lake searching for a meal while my hammock swayed in the breeze and the light scent of the pine trees reminded me to be in the moment.
Then it hit me. THIS is why we do this, why we load up our belongings, drive for hours, and set up house in the woods. Camping is the one activity where we can all be together and yet enjoy different things. Out of our element, distractions gone, there is peace. There is uninterrupted family time. There is relaxation. There is only now. This is where I find my zen.
Of course, we still have latte runs and my iPhone, so that helps too.