Days 282-288 – Spring Skiing

After a couple of days at Walt’s sister’s house in Denver – where we did laundry, sorted out our cold-weather gear and had dinner with his youngest niece and her husband – we’re now in a condo in Breckenridge, ready for a little spring skiing.

We’ve been told that the snow’s not great but we’re not worried. At 10,000 feet, this place gets so much snow that “not great” is still far better than the time we went skiing on manmade slush in Virginia a few years ago.

We start out on a green slope that we skied last year so that I can get re-acclimated to skiing. I’ve only been skiing for a couple of years while Walt’s been skiing for more than a decade. He also has the advantage of being athletic while I’m a nerd. Don’t let the hiking fool you: I am known on the trail for being fairly klutzy and I don’t play “sports” while Walt played competitive basketball for most of his life.

At the top of the first run, my body has no idea what to do. I am swerving, my skis are going in opposite directions. I manage to stay on my feet, mostly because the slope is gentle. Walt stops a ways down the slope to wait for me. I finally lurch my way down to him, fairly convinced that I’ve forgotten how to ski.

Walt calms me down, tells me to take it slowly and by the end of the run, I have regained a bit of control and confidence.

We stay on the green slopes for a few runs before heading off to the blues, which are not only steeper but so much longer. It’s a nice, sunny day and we’re very much enjoying ourselves.

After about four hours, we call it quits for the day, grateful for the proximity of our “ski-in” condo to the start of the lifts.

Despite all of our hiking, we find ourselves not as prepared for a full week of skiing as we would like and wind up taking off every other day to let our muscles (quads!) relax. I spend Tuesday shopping Main Street’s fun little shops and we spend Thursday watching the Masters golf tournament.

It’s a great week of skiing, punctuated by golf-watching and some good meals.

Days 277-278 – Back to Santa Fe

There isn’t much to see between White Sands and Denver – our next destination – that we haven’t seen before. We decide to spend a couple of days in Santa Fe again. We were here last September and enjoyed the city: great food, nice walking town, lots of neat shops and one of my favorite bookstores.

Gunstock Hill Books is a little pricey because all of the books are first editions but when I stopped in last year, I had to restrain myself from buying more books than would fit in the car. I mostly read non-fiction science history with some historic exploration like mountaineering, polar expeditions, etc. I walked out this time with a book on avalanches, another on Antarctic explorers, one on the creation of the metric system… you get the picture.

We were shocked after the warmth of southern New Mexico to find that Santa Fe was experiencing more springlike temps in the high 40s and low 50s with breezes and clouds. So we settle into our room at the Inn and Spa at Loretto, where we stayed last fall, clean up and head downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. We are so glad we did because when we look out the windows, it is snowing! Not heavily but I’ve been living in shorts and light dresses for the past 10 days and this comes as a bit of a system shock.

No matter. We take our time getting up the next morning and by the time we head out to explore the town, the snow is gone from all but a few shady grassy spots. We wander town, stopping at Sequoia Santa Fe, a wonderful furniture store. We had visited last time and we are just as interested now, even though we still have no house for these pieces. I’m torn between the raw-edged wood dining table, the tree root consoles, the onyx fountains and lamps, and the elaborate monkey-wood coffee tables. We learn that they will store any purchases (we’ve found many art and antiques stores will) and ship to us whenever we do have a house. We take a few pictures and head out.

Since we’re not really into the southwestern art and jewelry that fills the shops around the plaza, we head to nearby Canyon Road, which we didn’t visit last time. I’ve read that it has dozens of art galleries. Walt’s a little skeptical. We both like art galleries but most of what we’ve seen in other places – Sedona, Charleston, etc. – is either unappealing to us or so expensive that we’d have to love a piece in order to buy it.

But it’s nice out and it’s a nice walk.

We don’t get too far up the road before Walt sees a sign that says “contemporary art” and heads in. We are delighted by what we find: just a half a dozen artists in a bright gallery. There are a couple of paintings I like and a sculpture I love. Walt stops by one painting and doesn’t move. I circle back to him and realize it’s by the same artist whose other works I’ve admired. We discuss the artist with the gallery’s owner, get some information on his work and head out, pretty sure we’ll be hanging one of his pieces in our new home, some day.

While we skip many of the galleries – we know what we like – we do find a few more with sculptures, fountains and paintings that we like. We have cards, pictures and dreams…

Walt stays back in the room to make dinner reservations while I zip across the plaza to my bookstore. The owner is pleased when I tell him how much I love his store and how I plotted to visit again when I knew we would be back in New Mexico this spring.

Dinner is at La Plazuela, a very nice restaurant that we had tried and couldn’t get reservations for the last time. We both choose from the “Northern New Mexico Specialities” portion of the menu and enjoy a very tasty meal in Santa Fe.

 

Day 276 – White Sands, NM

We have left Scottsdale and are headed up to Denver via a scenic route. Neither one of us has ever driven through southern Arizona and New Mexico. Tucson is a bit of a disappointment but our real goal is White Sands, New Mexico.

Walt was reading some article online last month where the author said of all the national parks, her favorite was White Sands. We’d never heard of it. The missile range, sure; but not the park.

After reading a little more about it, we decided it would be worth the trek. Last fall we spent a night in the campground at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and were disappointed that we hadn’t planned better so we could spend a night backcountry camping on the sand dunes. It would have been a very hard hike with heavy packs but totally worth it, we think.

At first we are dismayed by the sight of the white sands. We were expecting the same huge dunes that we saw in Colorado, where the dunes are 700 and 800 feet tall. The white sands look tiny in comparison, nothing like the towering dunes of Colorado.

Still, we are here so we get in line at 9 a.m. to be sure we snag one of the backcountry camping permits for that night. There are only 10 camping sites and you can only reserve them for one night.

Permit in hand, we head into the park. We can’t set up until after 1 p.m., so we explore the park. By national park standards, it’s not very big and there’s not much to do. We had hoped to go sledding but when Walt asks about sled rentals at the visitors’ center, he is told: “we are officially sold out.” We’re not sure what that means. Does the park service not want anyone sledding? The website and the big sign by the door all say sled rentals are available at the visitors’ center. It’s 9 a.m., surely they haven’t rented them all yet? We don’t press the issue.

Ok, cross that activity off the list.

We follow a couple of short (1/2 mile and 1-mile) nature trails, reading the signs and learning about the geology of the gypsum sand (as opposed to regular beach silica sand) and the animals that inhabit the dunes, mostly birds and bugs but also foxes, mice, bobcats. No bears.

 

5.5-mile Loop

Then it’s on to the 5.5-mile loop trail. It’s overcast and a little windy, which is good because the sand is so white that it’s got to be incredibly reflective on a sunny day. We have sunscreen but mixing wind, sand and sunscreen would make for an uncomfortably sticky, sandy hike.

It’s weird to be hiking up and down the dunes, just keeping our eye out for the next big orange “trail marker” in the sand.

I find the uphills fill my shoes with sand to the point where my toes are in pain. I stop to take them off and dump out the sand, finding that it is so much more difficult (at least at my age) to sit on the sand and try to get my shoes on and off without anything to sit or lean on other than the sand. We’re used to woods where there’s always a log and/or a rock to sit on and balance against. Here, there’s nothing. Walt laughs and takes pictures of me trying to put on my shoes.

We finish up the hike in good time and head to the picnic grounds for lunch. We haven’t thought this through very well, despite having gone to a grocery store the night before. We eat trail mix, peanut butter and crackers and Gatorade for lunch.

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Backcountry in the Dunes

It’s late enough that we can head out now to our campsite, so we re-pack our overnight gear into our packs (we only brought the essentials on the loop hike) and head across the dunes to the backcountry camping area.

It’s only three-quarters of a mile to the campsite and even with heavy packs we make it in 15 minutes.

The dunes surround little low pockets where grasses grow and campers sleep. There’s a big orange stick with our campsite’s number 10 on it. We are told to camp within 5 feet of the stick to minimize the disturbance to the dunes. It’s still windy and we have to work carefully to get our tent set up. I blow up our air mattresses inside the tent and set the rest of our gear inside. We haven’t seen much in the way of critters but I don’t want to take any chances of getting a scorpion or a stink bug in my pack.

It’s warm and cozy in the tent, so I settle in to read and snooze a bit. Walt wanders around to the other campsites before joining me for a siesta.

Before sunset we get up and head about 40 feet up to the highest spot of our nearby dunes to watch the sun set. We can’t see the other campsites, hidden in little pockets to our north and east but we notice that other campers have also come up to the top of the dunes to watch the sun set. We look like a bunch of prairie dogs popping out of our holes.

The clouds and sky are beautiful and we linger until it’s pretty dark. The sand is so white that we easily get back to our tent. Cooking dinner outside in the wind is a bit of a chore, it takes forever to get the water to boiling. We don’t really have anything but our bodies to shield the flame from the wind. A large piece of aluminum foil would have been a huge help. Eventually the water boils for our freeze-dried meal.

We take our food into the tent so we can sit on our air mattresses out of the wind to eat. We did remember to buy cookies for dessert.

The wind stays strong for a long time, blowing against the tent. It’s also pretty light in the tent: it’s a mostly full moon and the light just bounces off the sand. Despite this, we go to sleep. At some point we wake up and realize the moon is setting. We get up and walk to the top of the dunes again to see the incredibly clear sky, bright moon, tons of stars and marvel at the wonder of it all.

This landscape is so unique, this is like nothing we’ve ever experienced.

In the morning, we make a quick breakfast. Walt hollows out a “seat” in the dunes as we try to determine which creatures made which sets of tracks in the dunes. Stink bugs, mostly. But also a mouse, maybe a small fox. We didn’t see anything but stink bugs, even when we got up at night, but clearly the desert is much more alive than we can see.

We leave the white sands very happy that we decided to visit. It’s like no place we’ve ever been and probably like no place we’ll ever be again.

Day 271– Piestewa Peak

After a day off to play golf on a really tough Par 3 course (the greens were killers), I’ve decided to hit another nearby mountain.

Piestewa used to be known as Squaw’s Peak and still is known locally by that name. There’s lots of nearby trails of varying lengths and difficulty in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve but I’m headed up the Summit Trail. It’s almost identical in length and elevation gain to Camelback so I’m armed with just my bottle of water again. I had meant to grab a trail bar but left it in the car. I guess it will be a reward for completing my hike instead of my reward for making it to the summit.

I’ve arrived even earlier than I did for Camelback and I’m glad I did. Not only am I hiking directly into the sun quite a bit on this trail but the parking lot is smaller.

The beginning of the trail looks like someone once covered the rocks in concrete but most of the concrete has disintegrated. Like Camelback, it starts out steep and except for a few spots, just keeps getting steeper. Once I get a quarter mile up the trail, the concrete ends entirely, leaving me on rocks. But, unlike Camelback, these rocks are pretty well ordered so it’s more like hiking stone stairs than the rough boulders of Camelback.

I’m good either way.

There’s occasional trail markers pointing toward a turn but the trail overall is easy to follow, if not easy to master.

At the halfway mark, there’s a trail marker noting that hikers are only at the halfway point and it includes a little trail profile that shows hikers have a good bit of uphill left.

I see several people stopped at this point and pass them. I’m sure people below have seen the peak just above me and think this is the summit, which is why there’s a making it clear that it’s not the summit.

I make one wrong turn, quickly realizing that while people have walked right to see a view, the trail heads left, up, then down and around the backside of the “not the summit” mountain before heading up the backside very steeply to the top of Piestewa.

Just like on Camelback, I’ve sucked up most of my bottle of water and take a nice long break on top. I am very much missing my power bar, particularly as I watch a young couple enjoying their snack.

As is so often the case on summits, I have a cell signal, so I text Walt a selfie, telling him where I am. Then I text my brother Matt a photo, telling him I wish he were with me. I’ve hiked many trails with Matt but not in several years. He’s a great hiking partner, always cheerful and calm.

I head back down the mountain. This feels so much easier than Camelback because I’m not constantly trying to pick a route down; this trail is very clear.

Or so I think.

Suddenly I realize I am on a steep pitch that is not part of the trail. I know I can maneuver down it and I can see how to regain the trail but I’m a little annoyed at myself for getting off the trail. I just wasn’t paying attention. Since I’m not on the trail, I take the precaution of sitting down to gently slide down the steep section; it’s only about 8 feet. And I feel a rip in the back of my shorts.

Uh-oh.

I put my hand on my behind and realize the tear is about 4 inches long and very low on my shorts. I thank God that I wore one of my good hiking shirts that is really long and promptly try to pull it over the rip. I am not sure how much of the hole I have covered or how long it will stay covered as I keep hiking. I wonder what color panties I’m wearing. Black, I think. My shorts are gray-and-black plaid, so, just maybe with the additional coverage of my gray shirt, I might not embarrass myself too much.

After regaining the trail, I find a convenient spot to stop out of the way of upcoming hikers and text my brother about my blown-out shorts. This is not the first time I’ve done this. One time I ripped out a pair on an overnight with him and got teased the whole way. Later when I changed out of the shorts, I left the ripped pair in the trunk of his car. For years he and I would either mail or leave behind the shorts after a visit. They were never washed and still had a granola bar wrapper in the pocket. One year I wrapped his Christmas present in them. I’m not sure where they are now but I fear they might resurface one day.

So I text him – not 10 minutes after the first text saying how much I wish he were with me – to say that I’ve just ripped out my shorts and now I’m glad he’s not here. He laughs.

I continue downward. Most of the people on the trail are coming up so I’m hoping there’s not too many people noticing my predicament.

Half an hour later, I’m back at my car, eating my snack and wondering how fast I can sneak back through the hotel to my room so I don’t embarrass myself too much.

IMG_5342

The ripped shorts – shown with a shirt underneath after I took them off.

Day 269 – Camelback Mountain

Walt’s got to attend meetings all day so I’ve decided to tackle Camelback Mountain via the Echo Trail.

The mountain is just a few miles from our hotel and I arrive about 8:30 a.m. with just a bottle of water to carry. I’m not carrying my backpack on a 2.4-mile (roundtrip) hike. It’s early enough and cool enough that I should be OK with just my water bottle.

The parking lot is pretty full but I still find a parking spot and head up the trail. There’s quite a few people, both going up and coming down the trail. It’s immediately rocky and steep but, as I am to learn, nothing like it will get in the top half. It’s 1,200 feet of elevation in 1.2 miles of up, so that’s a pretty good grade.

Barely a quarter mile in, I hit a rocky spot that has a metal handrail up the middle. It looks like the easier way up would be on the left side of the rail but there are people coming down, so I opt for the harder right side. It’s just boulders and a handrail, something I’ve never seen before. As a few more people come down, they are on my side of the railing so I veer off further to the right, giving up the handrail all together for a few yards before they pass and I swing back to the rail. It really does help.

After the railing ends, there’s some more up and then a fairly level spot, then more up on rocks and now we’re really hitting the rocks. There’s nothing like a defined “trail” just lots of rocks and some occasional signs with an arrow pointing to the “trail.”

It’s a little difficult to try to pick my way up the rocks while avoiding all the people coming down but I take advantage of the crowds to make some short rest stops in the guise of letting people come down the trail. At one point, I stop and motion to a man coming down, letting him know I won’t get in his way. “You sure?” he asks. “You have the right of way.” I’m shocked that anyone on this trail knows the basic rule of hiking. I smile and say “Yes, but I’m happy to have the break.” He smiles back, passes, and I start up again.

The path just gets steeper. It’s just boulders, some requiring a full-body scramble but really it’s not technically difficult, just steep.

I think I’m getting to the top but I know there’s going to be a crowd at the summit and since I don’t see a crowd, I realize it’s a false summit.

Ah well.

Up we go. Huffing and puffing. Almost through the bottle of water.

Finally there’s one more steep section and I pop up to the huge crowd and views that I’ve been expecting.

It’s very nice, with a panoramic view of Phoenix, Scottsdale and the mountains around them.

I sit for a few minutes, sorry that I didn’t stuff a power bar in my pocket, before heading back down. I wait for a pocket where there’s no one going down immediately ahead of me. I’m positive that I will be a whole lot quicker on the downhill than most people. Because Camelback is so well known and so easily accessed from the many nearby resorts, most of the people out here are not hikers. They are families and couples in varying levels of fitness. I’m nowhere near the youngest nor the fittest but I’m sure I’m one of the most accustomed to rocky slopes.

I hop my way down, listening to the Rolling Stones, barely pausing as I encounter boulders, other people and choices in my downhill path.

By the time I’m done and back at my car, the parking lot is full with a line of people waiting to park. For the umpteenth time in my life, I’m glad I started hiking fairly early and am done before the heat of the day and the bulk of the crowds.

 

Day 269 – Camelback Mountain

Walt’s got to attend meetings all day so I’ve decided to tackle Camelback Mountain via the Echo Trail.

The mountain is just a few miles from our hotel and I arrive about 8:30 a.m. with just a bottle of water to carry. I’m not carrying my backpack on a 2.4-mile (roundtrip) hike. It’s early enough and cool enough that I should be OK with just my water bottle.

The parking lot is pretty full but I still find a parking spot and head up the trail. There’s quite a few people, both going up and coming down the trail. It’s immediately rocky and steep but, as I am to learn, nothing like it will get in the top half. It’s 1,200 feet of elevation in 1.2 miles of up, so that’s a pretty good grade.

Barely a quarter mile in, I hit a rocky spot that has a metal handrail up the middle. It looks like the easier way up would be on the left side of the rail but there are people coming down, so I opt for the harder right side. It’s just boulders and a handrail, something I’ve never seen before. As a few more people come down, they are on my side of the railing so I veer off further to the right, giving up the handrail all together for a few yards before they pass and I swing back to the rail. It really does help.

After the railing ends, there’s some more up and then a fairly level spot, then more up on rocks and now we’re really hitting the rocks. There’s nothing like a defined “trail” just lots of rocks and some occasional signs with an arrow pointing to the “trail.”

It’s a little difficult to try to pick my way up the rocks while avoiding all the people coming down but I take advantage of the crowds to make some short rest stops in the guise of letting people come down the trail. At one point, I stop and motion to a man coming down, letting him know I won’t get in his way. “You sure?” he asks. “You have the right of way.” I’m shocked that anyone on this trail knows the basic rule of hiking. I smile and say “Yes, but I’m happy to have the break.” He smiles back, passes, and I start up again.

The path just gets steeper. It’s just boulders, some requiring a full-body scramble but really it’s not technically difficult, just steep.

I think I’m getting to the top but I know there’s going to be a crowd at the summit and since I don’t see a crowd, I realize it’s a false summit.

Ah well.

Up we go. Huffing and puffing. Almost through the bottle of water.

Finally there’s one more steep section and I pop up to the huge crowd and views that I’ve been expecting.

It’s very nice, with a panoramic view of Phoenix, Scottsdale and the mountains around them.

I sit for a few minutes, sorry that I didn’t stuff a power bar in my pocket, before heading back down. I wait for a moment when there’s no one going down immediately ahead of me. I’m positive that I will be a whole lot quicker on the downhill than most people. Because Camelback is so well known and so easily accessed from the many nearby resorts, most of the people out here are not hikers. They are families and couples in varying levels of fitness. I’m nowhere near the youngest nor the fittest but I’m sure I’m one of the most accustomed to rocky slopes.

I hop my way down, listening to the Rolling Stones, barely pausing as I encounter boulders, other people and choices in my downhill path.

By the time I’m done and back at my car, the parking lot is full with a line of people waiting to park. For the umpteenth time in my life, I’m glad I started hiking fairly early and am done before the heat of the day and the bulk of the crowds.

Days 265-267 – Goodbye to Sedona

We spend our last few days in Sedona eating through our food, going to the gym and cleaning the the townhouse.

We also have a last meal out at Creekside Bistro both as a reward for cleaning the house and as a way to keep from creating any dirt.

Our landlord, Doug, comes to say goodbye as we’re packing up. We’ve really enjoyed this townhouse with a garage for our car and gear, views of the red rocks and the quiet neighborhood.

Car packed – and I do mean packed – we are off to Scottsdale for a week of meetings, golf and dinners for Walt while I play and join him for the dinners.

Although we’ve decided we couldn’t live here permanently, we’ve really enjoyed our two months. The red rocks and the easy accessibility to hikes, as well as the cheap but hard par 3 golf course nearby have all been fun.

We’ll start our Scottsdale week at a Cactus League Spring training baseball game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Diego Padres.

Despite not knowing any of the players, we’re enjoying being back outside at the ballpark. It turns out to be a good game, ending in a tie (no extra innings in the Spring).

It’s a fun afternoon.

Day 264 – Last Hike in Sedona

For our last hike, we’ve chosen to combine two hikes from our guidebook: the Doe Mountain hike and the Aerie/Cockscomb Loop.

We start from a trailhead just west of where we parked for Bear Mountain and head counterclockwise on the 5.5-mile Aerie/Cockscomb Loop that circles Doe Mountain. It’s a pretty easy hike, only about 1,000 feet of elevation on the whole loop. The views are beautiful. We can see Chimney Rock and Bear Mountain – at different points – along with lots of other red rock formations. I fantasize about having a dog and doing this hike as a daily constitutional. It’s just so pretty, I don’t think I’d get tired of this hike any time soon.

We’re more than three-quarters of the way through the loop when we come to the junction that will take us up to the top of Doe Mountain. It’s another 500 feet in elevation but it seems pretty tame; lots of switchbacks with a very short final steep section up to the top of the mesa. We walk over the top to see the great views from the edges.

We head back down the mountain and finish our loop. It was certainly not our hardest hike – that’s a toss-up between Bear Mountain, Wilson Mountain and Sterling Pass – but it was very enjoyable. Lots of great views, a nice loop. It was a great way to end our Sedona hikes.

We top it off with ice cream cones, of course.

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