Poems for Uncertain Times

If my Facebook news feed has taught me anything this past week, it’s that a lot of my friends are scared. And I don’t mean the kind of “scared” that you get going to a haunted house, the kind of scared you can wake up from or turn off or walk away from. Many of you are scared your rights will be taken away, that America will become a less safe place for you to live your lives with the people you love, and that people have been emboldened to demonstrate their hatred of you and people like you by Donald Trump’s statements. I already know of the following things that have happened:

  1. Shortly after the tape of Donald Trump saying “when you’re a star they let you do it… Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything” was released, a female friend of mine was riding the subway in New York when a man told her he’d like to “grab you by the pussy.”
  2. This past weekend, two members of the Colorado State University community, a lesbian couple, stopped at a gas station in eastern Colorado when they were verbally harassed and forced back into their vehicle by a group of angry adult individuals.
  3. A Klu Klux Klan group in North Carolina has said they are planning to host “a parade to celebrate President-elect Donald Trump’s win” on December 3rd.

These stories are ones I came by casually, unintentionally, by talking to friends in-person and reading posts on social media. I’m sure I could find dozens more by googling “gay bullying Trump election” or “Muslim won’t wear hijab after Trump.” But I won’t. This past week has been saturated with enough sadness, fear, and hatred to last all of the next president’s term. It was all I could do the Wednesday after the election to revise some poems and cry when I thought of my immigrant friends, my Muslim friends, my disabled friends, my LGBTQ friends, and the CSU student I met at the writing center this semester who was working on a paper about undocumented students in the U.S. because they themselves were undocumented, brought to the U.S. as a baby.

It is all I can do now, friends, to offer to you art as hope, as recognition that things will get worse before they get better, as a way to understand that none of us are alone. The poet community at CSU (both MFA students and professors) have put together a list of poems we recommend you read during uncertain, difficult times like these. You can find it here.

Be well. All my love to you.

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It’s Pumpkin (Beer) Season!

In case you haven’t been to a grocery store/Starbucks/shopping mall or on the internet recently, it’s officially pumpkin season! With Halloween right around the corner, so many foods are now available in pumpkin flavors: coffee, chocolate, crackers, ice cream, tea, pastries, pasta sauce, breakfast cereal, etc. I’m here to tell you about just one: beer. Yes, I tried all the pumpkin beers so that you can try the best. You should’ve seen my roommates’ faces when I came home from the Beer Cellar, my arms full of deliciousness.

First, a little background on my preferences: I prefer complex, flavorful beers, especially if those flavors include hoppy, sour, or malty. I’d pick ambers and IPAs over scotch ales and lagers. Additionally, I don’t feel high levels of sweetness really belong in beers- if you want something sweet, just eat a chocolate bar! Anyway, if you do like sweet beers, take my opinions with a grain of salt (see what I did there?). Here are the beers, in alphabetical order:

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Photo courtesy of Blue Moon Brewing Co.

The Beer: Harvest Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Blue Moon Brewing Company – Golden, CO
Alcohol Content: 5.7%
My Rating: ∗∗
Description: An enjoyable beer with the crisp sweetness you’ve come to expect from Blue Moon. Solid pumpkin spice flavor, but a little too syrupy for my tastes. It’d be hard to drink more than 1 of these in 1 evening. Pairs well with leggings-as-pants, a North Face jacket, and Uggs.

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The Beer
: Hey! Pumpkin
Brewery: Denver Beer Company – Denver, CO
Alcohol Content: 5.4%
My Rating: ∗∗
Description: The employees at the Beer Cellar recommended I mix Hey! Pumpkin with Denver Beer Co’s Graham Cracker Porter (also pictured above) for a fuller fall effect. I tried Hey! Pumpkin alone first. The pumpkin flavor was a subtle one; it tasted more like a typical brown ale. The Graham Cracker Porter was also understated in its graham-crackeriness. Adding it to the mix introduced some deeper, smokier flavors. Overall the beers felt somewhat watered down to me. I could see how they might be better when paired with certain foods (pumpkin pie, perhaps?) or while sitting at a campfire, draped in a flannel blanket, after a day spent frolicking through fall leaves. If you value drinkability in your beers, these might be for you.

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The Beer
: Pumking
Brewery: Southern Tier Brewing Company – Lakewood, NY
Alcohol Content: 8.6%
My Rating: ∗∗∗∗
Description: If you want your pumpkin beer to remind you of a slice of pumpkin pie and a spoonful of whipped cream, this one fits the bill. Not too sweet, not too strong, and plenty drinkable. The sweetness comes with a hint of maple syrup but is balanced by a deep, almost musky flavor that evokes fall. Pairs well with a Trader Joe’s Crispy Crunchy Ginger Chunk cookie, I must admit.

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The Beer
: Pumpkick
Brewery: New Belgium Brewing Company – Fort Collins, CO
Alcohol Content: 6.0%
My Rating: ∗
Description: This beer’s defining characteristic is also why I dislike it- the zing of cranberry juice. I like cranberry under normal (read: sauce & pie) circumstances, but the cranberry in Pumpkick makes it too fruity for me when, I think, pumpkin is more of a squash flavor. I could see cranberry working really well in a sour beer or a kolsch, but I prefer my pumpkin beer on the pumpkin-y side.

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The Beer
: Pumpkin Patch Ale
Brewery: Eddyline Brewing – Buena Vista, CO
Alcohol Content: 5.78%
My Rating: ∗∗∗
Description: Here is some full-on, unabashed pumpkin flavor for ya! This seasonal beer comes in a pint-sized (literally) can. It tastes fairly light compared to other pie-inspired pumpkin beers, and I didn’t find it to be syrupy at all. Pairs well with various low-key activities including but not limited to cooking dinner, watching YouTube videos, and petting a dog. (Important note: Matt professed to dislike this one, but drank the whole can anyway. Waste not, want not.)

 

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Photo courtesy of @almanacbeer on Instagram


The Beer
: Pumpkin Pie de Brettaville (Farm to Barrel series)
Brewery: Almanac Beer Company – San Francisco, CA
Alcohol Content: 7%
My Rating: ∗∗∗∗∗
Description: If you’re a fan of sour beers, this is the pumpkin beer for you. Unfiltered fermentation at its finest, I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of flavors in this one. The beer’s bitterness is definitely at the forefront, but behind that lies a mysterious layer (veil?) of pumpkin and spices like cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, and ginger. As this only comes in 375ml bottles, either find a fellow pumpkin/sour beer-lover, or get cozy because this will take care of the rest of your night. #stayingin

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Photo courtesy of Avery Brewing Co.

The Beer: Pump[KY]n
Brewery: Avery Brewing Co. – Boulder, CO
Alcohol Content: 15%
My Rating: ∗∗
Description: Yep, you read that right- 15%. Matt and I split this 12oz bottle and it was still intense. Why so strong? Well, the “KY” in the name is actually a reference to the land of bourbon, Kentucky. Pump[KY]n started out as a mere pumpkin beer, but then was elevated to the 15% level by virtue of being aged in bourbon barrels. The porter flavor is definitely still there underneath a light layer of maple/battery acid. If that’s not what bourbon reminds you of too, this beer may suit you better than it did me. Avery has a similar pumpkin beer available this season as well, called Rumpkin. Guess where that batch was aged!

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The Beer: Punkin Ale
Brewery: Dogfish Head – Milton, DE
Alcohol Content: 7.0%
My Rating: ∗∗∗∗∗
Description: I admit I’m a little biased because I love everything Dogfish Head brews, but this is just a fun beer to drink, folks. A little maple, a little molasses, a little spice, a lot pumpkin. I’m also partial to amber ales, and this one strikes me as a pumpkified amber. Pairs well with contemplating life- also cheese and potatoes.

I’m still mourning Alaskan Brewing Company’s decision to replace last year’s amazing pumpkin porter with this fall’s coffee brown ale. That one got five stars in my book, too. Any good pumpkin beers I missed? Let me know! Happy fall, y’all- cheers!

 

Visiting the Poudre River

Visiting the Poudre River

As many of you know, I began my graduate studies this fall at Colorado State University in creative writing. An assignment in one of my classes required that I choose an outdoor “site,” which I am to visit on a regular basis, take notes, and then journal about it later. I’ve been visiting the Cache la Poudre River, which runs through Fort Collins, via the city-owned Poudre Trail, for a little over a month now. On my last visit, Friday September 30th, I took my camera along with me. Here are some excerpts from journal so far, along with a few photos.

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A sign for the Poudre Trail via Lee Martinez Park in Fort Collins, CO

August 20

I arrived at my site at 3:20PM. It was 86° Fahrenheit and mostly sunny, with puffy white cumulonimbus clouds in the north. I was sitting on the south bank of the river, the water flowing east. The river appeared almost a copper color because of the stones in its bed. The current was rather swift –as I could tell by the passing inner tube floaters—like a slow jog. According to the markings on the underside of the Poudre Trail pedestrian bridge over the river, the water was just under three feet deep.

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Willows and cottonwoods on the Poudre’s north bank

All around me were dogs, children swimming, and more people walking, running, or biking on the paved trail. Through the trees and over the sound of rushing water I could hear people cheering, laughing, and chatting. There was a constant sound of crickets chirping, and an occasional whisper of breeze through foliage.

In the water, a fresh four-foot Russian Olive branch with all its leaves floated by. I noticed stray, straight spider-silk threads in the grass and in the elm branches above me. Slowly a dragonfly flew by me toward the east. Some individual sparrows crossed the river as well. Dogs barked in the distance, and thunder could be heard coming from the north; the clouds grew darker across the river.

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September 12

I always thought the Poudre River was named after snow powder, especially since it drops 7,000 feet in elevation from the Rockies through a narrow, chiseled canyon, to conjoin with the South Platte River east of Greeley, Colorado. It actually refers to French Canadian trappers, in the early 1800’s, hiding their cache of gunpowder there during a particularly bad blizzard. The Poudre River is Colorado’s only nationally recognized “Wild & Scenic River.”

Behind me, a woman running west clears her throat. Two bikes tick east. The sun clouds over.

September 17

Today the Cache la Poudre River is just over one foot tall, the pedestrian bridge informs me.

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This means about 775 gallons of river water, of Rocky Mountain snowmelt, are flowing beneath that bridge every second. What seems like a humble stream to the eye—especially with monumental rivers in my mind, the Colorado and Snake nearby, the New and Mississippi and Chattanooga out east—is really a powerhouse, always on the move. Small yellow leaves are floating downstream, to the east, away from the Rocky Mountains and toward the South Platte River, toward the heartland. I read that brown trout spawn here in the fall, but I see no fish in the clear water down to the copper-y bottom, littered with round granite stones. Sometimes I hear the fish—a sudden catch of water, white flash slap above the surface.

Along the bank two blue jays stutter squawks at one another. One flies into view and lands on a yellowing cottonwood branch. His body is a jewel blue and he wears a white collar just above his breast, beneath a blue cockscomb. Later I learn this is the edge of the blue jay’s livable range, as far as they come; the foothills of the Rocky Mountains halt them the way they halted railroads, the way they still halt clouds and precipitation.

I think about the river, about the trout. What would it feel like to live in water constantly flowing in one direction? Not like an ocean where the tide is a rhythm of give and take, but always east, the way our ancestors felt pulled westward continually. I ask a fisher friend about the trout—the brown, the rainbow, the cutthroat. He says you can often go back to the same spot on the Poudre or Snake or wherever, the same hole or stone, and catch the very same fish—they don’t stray too far. My concept of fish life has been shaped mostly by the story of spawning salmon and—let’s face it—Finding Nemo, so this was news to me, that fish don’t drift or migrate or explore in spite of the debris that floats right by, that the river doesn’t become their timeline on which to travel. I thought a good metaphor might be that little conveyor belt in sushi restaurants that slowly slides enticing sashimi and rolls right before your eyes, for the taking. I guess a river might feel more like that to a fish—food constantly coming and going all day, all night, abundance set spinning by the engine of gravity, by the churning of season, of freeze and thaw.

September 22

I count thirty-five bleats of train horn in the span of several minutes. A helicopter hovers somewhere to the south and car engines rumble to the east. Behind me, bikes pass and dog leashes jingle. Occasional bits of conversation slip through the weeds—two students stressed about the new semester, a mother making safety-related requests of her young child on a miniature bicycle, two middle-aged women building each other up. A propeller plane’s engine rattles from above, behind cover of low, gray clouds.

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Cottonwoods framing the Poudre River Trail

I have just heard how little land in this country remains untouched by human-generated noise. If not an interstate, then a highway. If not a highway, then a railroad. If not a railroad, then trails for ATVs or snowmobiles. If not a trail, then a reservoir with a marina. And if no marina, then planes etching their contrails above, or helicopters leading rescues of people lost in the wilderness. Silence deserts. The scarceness of silence. This must have devastating effects on animals, especially those who rely on their hearing to find prey, to hunt, to stay safe, to not become prey, to survive.

When I hear a sound—a splash of water, birdsong, crackle of twigs or dry grass—I hope for a sighting of an animal—a trout, a blue jay, a crow, a grasshopper. When animals hear our omnipresent noise—engines whirring, tires squealing, horns honking—what do they hope for?

September 30

All the vegetation and leaves are more yellowing today, rustier—oxidized colors. There was a light drizzle all morning. My field notes are speckled with the occasional raindrop ink-stain. The Poudre River was measured at two feet high, higher than my last visit because it’s been raining up in the mountains, to the west.

Little white wildflowers upstream catch my eye. I walk over unsteady pebbles and a large cottonwood root to get to them. The root is far enough away from any trees that it’s impossible for me to tell to which it belongs. Each flower is in various stages of unfurling—some are fully open, dripping their petals into their watery reflections.

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As best as I can tell, the flower is Carolina Bugbane, or Trautvetteria Caroliniensis, which is native to this area

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Carolina Bugbane is in the Rananculaceae family, or the buttercup family, and seems to prefer wetter habitats

I find myself thinking how it would feel to live in a river that can get as low as one foot deep—to have distance infinitely available to you (seemingly), but know your explorations, your knowledge, were all limited to one foot by the width of the river by its length. I suppose human life, until the inventions of the airplane and rocket-ship, is fairly limited in that way as well—we’re basically stuck to the earth’s surface, most of us. This, I think, is the origin of the desire to fly, our envy of birds. We can’t see the earth’s rotund nature from our limited depth, the slice of air in which we live. We’ve had to escape this space to see the world for what it really is—a sphere remarkably like and unlike any other.

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Rest & Relaxation + Nature

I love it when people visit us in Laramie, Wyoming. I love to show them our little house (on the prairie? almost), our fun frontier town, the mountains that surround us, the stark and undeniable beauty of the West.

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My parents waving from the pedestrian bridge to the oncoming trains that run right by downtown Laramie, just in the distance

Most of my family came to visit me this summer after a long roadtrip or flight/s. We explored Laramie as well as Fort Collins, Colorado (since that’s where I’ll spend much time next year). Thankfully the weather stayed sunny and warm for most of their visit, unlike the last time.

We went back to Vedauwoo (pronounced VEE-dah-VOO) for a little hike on the Turtle Rock Trail. My mom was impressed by how lush everything was. Most of Wyoming in the summer is like dried herbs on a cracker crisp- sagebrush, dust, sun, wind. But because the granite in Vedauwoo leads the rainfall into certain pooled areas, through June and July many wildflowers bloom in the shade of lovely aspen groves.

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Libby took this photo of my dad on the Turtle Rock Trail through quivering aspen leaves

The granite at Vedauwoo is unique for its roughness (local climbers don’t call it “Bleed-auwoo” for nothing) in addition to its unusual shapes. The Sherman Granite is thought to be 1.4 billion years old.

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Sam and Boone enjoying the hike through sagebrush and wildflowers

I kindly allowed Sam to struggle with walk Boone the whole hike. They both seemed to enjoy it.

Matt and I also took everyone on a more intense trail in Medicine Bow National Forest which we’ve dubbed “the ridge hike.” We originally scouted out the trailhead via online maps of the area, but it was very difficult to spot from the dirt road you take to get there. The trail eventually emerges the further you walk up the very steep hill and into the woods, and is occasionally marked by helpful cairns.

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Parents enjoying a break from hiking while the kids take selfies and contemplate life

We refer to this trail as a ridge hike because, at several points, you get an almost 360º view- from the Rockies down in Colorado to the Snowy Range west of Laramie, and out toward Nebraska to the east.

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In the distance, Sam, Libby, and Boone enjoy the eastern view

It’s also a fairly exposed hike, with few trees to cover you, despite being in a national forest. You wouldn’t want to be up there if a storm rolled in.

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Introspective Ben on the right

After living in Wyoming for 3 years, I still can’t get enough of its beauty. I am continually surprised by the openness, the almost silence, the skies, and- let’s be honest- the wind. I am afraid I’m now used to the practically empty trails (I’m told this is not the case in Colorado). I believe we saw one other person the entire couple hours we were hiking.

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Even Boone, a Kansas native, prefers Wyoming hikes

Each year Laramie celebrates Wyoming’s anniversary of statehood, July 10th, 1890, with a week-long series of events it calls “Jubilee Days.” There are concerts, a parade, a carnival, a local beer festival, and- you guessed it- multiple rodeos.

I hadn’t been to a rodeo since I moved here but, what with everyone visiting, it seemed like as good a time as any to experience the cowboy side of this state. I took my folks to the ranch rodeo which, unlike your typical rodeo, isn’t full of professional bull riders and events like barrel racing, but is instead made up of local ranch cowhands (both men and women).

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Almost got ’em!

They were all trying to do the same thing within a six-minute period: rope steers, get one into a fenced-in pen, and another into a trailer behind a shiny new truck which was provided somewhat riskily by a local car dealership. The announcer jokingly asked if there was anybody left in the town of Walden- a small ranching town in nearby northern Colorado- that day, and dozens of people in the audience whooped and cheered.

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Got ’em this time

At the beginning of each round, one participant had to stand without her or his horse on the side of the ring opposite the rest of their teammates and horses. When the timer began, another teammate on their horse had to gallop across the ring, pick up the horse-less cowhand, and they both had to ride back across the ring so the first person could get their horse. Most of the horses were okay with having two adults on their backs for that short of a period of time, but one horse wasn’t so sure. The audience began to giggle as the horse refused to go forward. Then, very slowly, the horse stepped forward in lurches, eventually bucking its way across the ring, making for a very bumpy ride for the cowboy sitting on his haunches, and uproarious laughter from the crowd.

Though the roping was of course entertaining and impressive to watch, my family was slightly traumatized by the treatment of the cattle. Sometimes the poor animals ran face-first into the metal fencing at high speeds, which resulted in nosebleeds. Despite their black fur, you could still easily see the red blood dripping from their nostrils as they fled from the horses.

After Margaret, my older sister, flew up to join us, we drove down to Fort Collins for the fourth of July.

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Old Town of Fort Collins on the 4th of July. Photo by Libby.

We walked around downtown and Colorado State’s campus, ate burgers and sandwiches at Choice City Butcher & Deli, and tried local beers at Funkwerks Brewery, which specializes in refreshing sours, saisons, and Belgian ales.

The next day everyone but Margaret departed, so we began packing the car for a trip to Ten Sleep Canyon, a rock climbing destination in the western part of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. It’s about a 5.5-hour drive, though a pleasant one, from Laramie. We were able to reserve a nice campsite (nice meaning with a picnic table and near a well-maintained pit toilet) at Leigh Creek Campground, which is at the bottom of the canyon on the banks of Tensleep Creek, for the first two nights of our trip. Though we’d never seen any poison ivy in the canyon before, the plants seemed to really enjoy living right by the creek. I’m actually surprised none of us ended up with any rashes. Anyway, after setting up camp, we went CLIMBING!

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Margaret on her FIRST EVER outdoor top-rope rock climb!

Ten Sleep is known for long, sustained, and really fun limestone sport climbing routes. This is kind of the opposite of what Margaret was used to climbing- short, powerful boulder problems. At first it was hard for her to get to the top of several climbs, even though she was strong enough to do every move of the route separately, but by the end of the trip she easily got to the top of a 100-foot climb. I hope we successfully convinced her that roped climbing is SO FUN!

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Me belaying Matt in the Lake Point area of Ten Sleep Canyon, WY. Photo by Margaret.

The approach trail to the Lake Point area, which crossed over a small CCC-built dam above Meadowlark Lake, was stunning.

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Boone on the trail toward Meadowlark Lake, through sagebrush and wildflowers, with the Big Horn Mountains in the distance

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Matt and Boone at Meadowlark Lake in the Bighorn National Forest

On our second full day in the Big Horns (our third day climbing), we decided to take a break and go for a hike instead. I’d only ever been climbing in this part of Wyoming, so I was excited to see more of the area.

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Margaret in front of a small waterfall just off the Lost Twin Lakes Trail

Matt decided on the Lost Twin Lakes Trail, just the portion that would take us to Mirror Lake, which was about 7 miles round-trip. We started at the West Tensleep trailhead, which is adjacent to a campground and picnic area at West Ten Sleep Lake.

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At two points, the trail crosses creeks in lush meadows surrounded by lodgepole pine

We didn’t start hiking until midday because we had to change our campsite to an area higher in the canyon that didn’t require reservations, but the skies were clear and the trail was practically empty. We passed a few people in the first mile, and then ran into two more on our way back, but that was it.

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Margaret and Matt on the Lost Twin Lakes Trail

Our hike was very quiet and peaceful, except for our run-in with a marmot. He stood on his hind legs atop a rock pile and chirped loudly to alert his fellow critters that we were entering their territory.

It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to spot Mirror Lake from the trail; it was somewhat hidden behind a low-lying area of pine trees. At first we weren’t sure that was the right way since there wasn’t a distinct trail down to the shore, so we kept walking for another half mile or so. We never once saw the lake again, so we turned around and walked toward the lake through the trees, away from the trail.

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Margaret at Mirror Lake

Here we drank water, ate a few Clif bars, swatted away a few mosquitoes, and basked in the cool air coming off the lake’s surface. Then we headed back for the car and to our new campsite for dinner.

There was another day of climbing and camping, and an evening of visiting the town of Ten Sleep as well as the Ten Sleep Brewing Company to escape a brief thunderstorm in the canyon. This microbrewery opened almost three years ago, and their beer is really terrific. In the summer, dirtbag climbers drive up in their dusty rigs to pay for a shower and a beer, which they drink under strings of lights and stars at outdoor picnic tables. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough. Should you find yourself in this part of western heaven, get thee to the brewery.

After driving back to Laramie, Margaret and I showered and went out for dinner in downtown Laramie during the height of the Jubilee Days festivities. Streets were blocked off for live music, dancing, drinking, and the carnival. We walked around for people-watching purposes, but were too tired to join in.

The next morning we met up with several friends to show Margaret the bouldering in Vedauwoo. Before this, she’d asked us why we don’t just go to Vedauwoo every day to climb, why we bother driving to places like Ten Sleep. After trying it herself, I think she understood why.

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Our friend Bart Cubrich on “Bombay Hooker,” a crazy-looking and very hard V6 boulder problem in Vedauwoo

Not to say that Vedauwoo’s climbing and bouldering are bad- they certainly aren’t. They’re just- well, different. They take some getting used to, both mentally and physically. Callouses help. Physical callouses. Although if you’ve built up some mental callouses, those could quite possibly help here too.

We especially enjoyed the start to “The Hatchet,” another V6, which was seemingly made for campusing, meaning only your hands are on the rock while your feet dangle beneath you. Yes, we do these things for fun.

After a quick shopping experience in downtown Laramie, I took Margaret to the Denver airport for her flight back to North Carolina. This past week has mostly consisted of me sitting inside at work and putting off cleaning and organizing our kitchen. It’s hard to be productive inside when the weather where you live is only this good for four months a year. Live on, Wyoming summer! Live on!

Love to all.

Banff National Park, Canada

We got to Banff by driving up the west side of Glacier National Park, through the Canadian border, and up through Kootenay National Park in Canada. The highway that runs through Banff National Park is called the Trans-Canada Highway, or AB-1 (the “AB” is short for Alberta, the province).

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Driving through Banff National Park on AB-1

We stopped for dinner at the Juniper Bistro just outside of the town of Banff, which is located in the east-central part of the national park. The cafe is inside the Juniper Hotel, and has excellent views of the park thanks to a whole wall of windows. I’d say the food deserves the hype; my crispy duck was delicious. Plus our waiter was really helpful in telling us how to locate the climb Matt and I planned on doing while we were visiting the park, a multi-pitch sport 5.7 called Aftonroe.

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Another drive-by photo from AB-1

We stayed at the Grande Rockies Resort in Canmore, a town just outside Banff National Park on its eastern side. This place had a mean waterslide, and a very nice hot tub to boot.

The next morning, Matt and I awoke early to eat breakfast before our climb. In doing some additional research the night before, Matt had learned that the portion of the road you drive to get to the approach trail to the climb, Bow Valley Parkway or AB-1A southeast of Johnston Canyon Campground, is closed from 8PM to 8AM every day to protect wildlife. This meant we didn’t have to wake up super early since we couldn’t get to the approach trail until 8AM anyway.

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The view from the hike up to our climb, with Bow River in the foreground

We drove toward Banff, then got on AB-1A just north of town, and parked at a small pulloff to the left after driving about 8-10 minutes on AB-1A. A little overlook of Bow River was to the left of the pulloff. The approach trail started on the right side of the road, eventually crossing underneath some powerlines. It was a short hike (maybe 20-25 minutes), but very steep. We joked that Canadians must not approve of switchbacks. Already the view from the hike was pretty incredible.

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Matt on the hike up to Aftonroe

The last five minutes or so of the approach were filled with scrambling up scree. Finding the route was fairly easy since it’s the rightmost one on the wall. The rock in this part of the park is a very featured limestone, though in other areas it transitions to granite.

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One of the middle pitches of Aftonroe- slabby, heavily-featured limestone

The skies were mostly cloudy that morning, which didn’t bother us at all since that meant we didn’t have to constantly reapply sunscreen. We were the first climbers on the route, but three other parties began climbing after us. Aftonroe is popular for its scenery, accessibility, and easy climbing.

The rappels down were a little annoying; they took us almost as long as climbing up. Once when I pulled the rope, it coiled itself around a tree. Matt had to climb out to fetch it. Constantly pulling the rope also knocked off some loose pebbles, which tumbled past us and the other climbers to the ground, sometimes bouncing off our helmets on the way down.

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Spectacular views the whole way up!

At one point Matt had begun to rappel down another pitch while I was still at the anchor, and I saw what I thought was a large hawk coasting towards us. As it approached, I could just make out its white head and bold yellow beak. I shouted to Matt, “Look! Turn around! It’s a- a bald eagle!” We watched in awe as it soared past on some invisible current. Even from 40-ish feet away we could tell this eagle’s wingspan was enormous. It rested in a faraway pine for a minute or so, and then flew back past us, this time overhead, and then out of sight.

Afterwards I joked that this bald eagle probably didn’t understand its prominence in the country just south of its homeland. Do Canadian bald eagles have egos?

Eventually we rappelled all the way back to the ground, hiked to the parking area, and waited for Matt’s folks to pick us up. We got a late lunch in Banff at a little Cajun restaurant called Tooloulou’s, where Matt had the best catfish sandwich of his life, and John tried his first sazerac since the legal drinking age in Canada is only 18.

The next day we checked out of our hotel in Canmore and drove all the way to Lake Louise, which is on the west side of Banff National Park, west of the town of Banff. Lake Louise itself is an icy blue color thanks to the glacial silt in the water.

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Lake Louise & looming snowy clouds

From the lake, you could see the downhill ski runs in the trees above the Fairmont Chateau, a huge and fancy hotel on Lake Louise’s shore.

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John and Matt on the trail with Lake Louise, the chateau, and the ski area in the background

I planned for us to do the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, which begins on the paved trail that wraps around the shoreline of Lake Louise just in front of the Fairmont Chateau. We parked in a public lot and followed the flow of tourists to the lake. There were many signs for cross-country ski trails, which we saw before the signs and maps for hiking trails.

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Matt’s family on the trail before it splits off from Lake Louise

The Plain of Six Glaciers trail takes you up to the aptly-named Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, which was built in the 1920’s by Swiss mountaineers who had been hired by Canada’s Great Western Railway to guide tourists on expeditions through the Canadian Rockies.

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Matt in front of the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

The Teahouse, surrounded by pine forest, doesn’t have any electricity or running water, so their supplies are flown in once or twice a season by helicopter. You can sit in their unlit rooms or out on the porch and order tea and biscuits, like we did, as well as other fare like soups and cakes.

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Inside the teahouse

They accept both Canadian and US dollars (there is a $2 fee for using a credit card since they have to manually write down your information, then run it once they’re back down at Lake Louise at the end of the day), so I paid with US dollars and received Canadian change.

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Our tea!

The well-marked and highly traveled though fairly rocky trail up to the teahouse is 4.3km long, with pretty steady elevation gain after the trail parts from the shoreline of Lake Louise. Horses are also allowed on the trail, though the horse trail splits off from the hikers’ trail a few times as the hikers’ trail narrows up against several steep rock walls, which can get slippery from snow-melt and rain. For the best views, or so we were told, you can continue an additional 1km to talus fields from which you can see Abbott Pass, in addition to those famous six glaciers.

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Socked in & snowy

Unfortunately for us, the weather hadn’t exactly been friendly that morning, and it began raining, then snowing as we finished our tea at the teahouse. The snow and clouds made it impossible to see any one of the six glaciers, but just through the fog we could get a sense for how massive the mountains around us really were.

A couple times on our way up we heard very loud, booming, echoing crashing sounds from the peaks to our left and in front of us. We could tell that the first one was an avalanche, with that telltale sound of cracking compressed snow, but the second one sounded more like thunder. After speaking with the waitress at the teahouse, she assured us there were almost never thunderstorms in that area of the Canadian Rockies, so it was definitely another avalanche. Because of where the trail travels, hikers are protected from avalanches, at least according to posted signs, from May to October each year.

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Matt’s parents and Matt hiking back down

The whole of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, from the trailhead to the overlook and back, adds up to 10.6km with 365m of elevation gain, or just over 6.5 miles with just under 1200 feet of elevation gain. Next to the teahouse is a pit toilet and several benches and informational signs, so it’s a very well-developed area.

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John taking in the foggy view in front of the teahouse

After our hike, we drove to nearby Moraine Lake, which is south of Lake Louise by way of Moraine Lake Road. I had heard excellent things about Moraine Lake, so I wanted to make sure we stopped there quickly before leaving the park.

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Part of the view from Moraine Lake. See that icy chunk thing on the left? That’s a GLACIER!

The parking lot again was near the shoreline of the lake. There was also a restaurant, gift shop, and lodge all at the lake, so it was a pretty busy area. We didn’t have time to do any of the trails here, but we got out to take some spectacular photos, SAW A GLACIER (finally, right?), and bought some chocolate and matching t-shirts at the gift shop.

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Moraine Lake

Matt and I wore our Moraine Lake t-shirts (as well as our matching Deuter backpacks) to the airport the next day- it was adorable. We also think the t-shirts are kind of funny because they prominently say “ELEVATION: 6,183 FT.” which is actually more than 1,000 feet lower than where we live in Laramie.

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Matt at Moraine Lake

We had dinner in Banff on our way out of the park at a little restaurant next door to Tooloulou’s called Coyotes Southwestern Grill, and it too was delicious. I had sweet potato polenta with ratatouille, John had a thin-crust pizza, and Matt ordered the most tender of all beef tenderloins with fresh chimichurri sauce- yum!

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Crazy cloud formations in Banff

That night we drove back to Calgary, had some more doughnuts at Tim Horton’s, a Canadian institution, and went back to the hotel at which we’d previously stayed. Matt and I woke up super early (like before 4AM) the next morning to catch our flights, both of which ended up being delayed by more than two hours, but we eventually made it to Denver, and then back to Laramie.

Final thoughts: it is my destiny to open a teahouse somewhere. I’m open to location suggestions. Banff is one of the most beautiful places to which I have ever been and I can still hardly believe that it exists on this earth. If you even remotely feel an affinity for mountains, GO. NOW, before all the glaciers melt. Bring some warm jackets though, and maybe gloves. The next time we go, Matt and I would like to spend some more time climbing (no surprise there), maybe at Lake Louise.

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Majestic Banff

Love to all! Until the next adventure…

A Brief Stay in Glacier National Park

Last week Matt, his family, and I flew into Calgary, Alberta (Canada), drove down to Glacier National Park in Montana, and then drove back to Calgary via Banff National Park (also Canada) on one big tour of some of the west’s most picturesque snowy peaks. We only had a week to see these two beautiful places, so I tried to select some of the best hikes, climbs, and overlooks.

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Driving into the park

First major thing to note- this is still early season for Glacier National Park. The only road that runs through the whole park, Going to the Sun Road (an amazing name as well as one of the world’s most amazing drives, apparently), was not even completely open yet. We drove as far as we could on the park’s east side, to the Jackson Glacier overlook, which was still quite snowy.

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Jackson Glacier, hiding under some snowpack

Thankfully the hike I had chosen beforehand, the Sun Point Nature Trail, was still accessible. We parked along the narrow Going to the Sun Road, grabbed the bear spray, and began the relatively flat, easy hike, which approached three waterfalls and hugs the edge of St. Mary Lake.

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Matt next to St. Mary Lake

The trail gets a little rocky at times, though it’s also very well-maintained. Each fork is marked with easy-to-read signs. Many of the charred pine trunks surrounding the first part of the trail are what remains of last year’s huge forest fire.

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Wildflowers + dead pines

Though much of Glacier had yet to be opened, June is prime time for waterfall-chasing because of the increased levels of snow- and ice-melt. Montana’s rivers and lakes are all about as high as they get year-round, which made the waterfalls audible from even significant distances.

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St. Mary Falls

Most of the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom- beargrass, Indian paintbrush, columbine. Everything beneath the trees was superbly green.

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Matt’s mom walking through wildflowers

Our trip on the Sun Point Nature Trail culminated in that trail’s highest waterfall, Virginia Falls. Standing near the nadir supplied us with a continuous spray and breeze.

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Virginia Falls

Though our hike had thus far been interrupted by occasional rainfall, after turning back towards the rental car, the weather escalated to thunder and lightning. Since the Sun Point Nature Trail is located between St. Mary Lake and Going to the Sun Road, there are multiple places where hikers can start on the trail. Matt’s family took one of these sooner exits back to the road while Matt and I jogged back through the more exposed parts of the hike to get to the car.

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Matt on the Sun Point Nature Trail just below Virginia Falls

That afternoon we drove around the park (since we couldn’t drive through it) to get to West Glacier and Apgar Village, where we were staying that night, at the edge of Lake McDonald. It rained during most of the drive. We ate at a typical little national park restaurant in West Glacier, then checked into the hotel and sat slackjawed at the edge of the lake.

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Lake McDonald

The Apgar Village area of Lake McDonald is enveloped in tall cedars. The lake is perfectly clear, then turns to a deep blue the further out one goes on its surface.

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Cedars over Lake McDonald

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the nearby diner, Eddie’s (whose confidence-instilling motto was, “Almost Everyone Eats at Eddie’s”), Matt’s parents rented a 2-person kayak, Matt’s younger brother John a single kayak, and Matt and I a canoe. The morning began sunny and promising. We circled the west side of the lake, hoping to see some bald eagles. The boat company told us a small part of the lake was closed off by three white buoys on that side due to the eagles’ nests.

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Matt’s parents in their kayak

Most of the trees along the lake were aspen or pine.

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Matt paddling with excellent form & technique

We didn’t see any eagles, but we could make out their nests in the treetops. Matt’s parents decided to turn back, and we remaining three made our way out toward the center of Lake McDonald. The further toward the center we went (why is this reminding me of Heart of Darkness?) the less forgiving the previously glassy surface of the water became. The wind picked up, and gray clouds rolled over the southern mountaintops. We tried to pick up our paddling pace, but the canoe wasn’t having it. John’s kayak, on the other hand, crested smoothly over each wave. I shouted over the sound of the wind from the back of the canoe in a threatening tone, “Matt! Morale is low!”

Once we reached the east side of the lake and found a relatively sandy spot, I requested some shore leave. As Matt stood up out of the canoe to tug it to shore, the rocking of the canoe combined with some unlucky wave soaked his already damp pants. I, in search of a cheap morale boost, laughed. We took some photos. John stayed in his wave-worthy kayak and paddled in front of us, back and forth, easily.

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John making it look so easy

We eventually made it back to the dock, reuniting with Matt’s parents. Shortly after we stood back on dry land, it began to rain those moody, fat raindrops the mountains sometimes like to sputter.

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The boat rental shop on Lake McDonald

I spent the cloudy but dry afternoon sitting in front of the hotel room at the edge of Lake McDonald, still flabbergasted by the view, drinking a beer and reading. Yay vacation!

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Are you tired of photos of this lake yet?

For dinner we drove 45 minutes to the small but charming town of Whitefish, Montana, which is located outside the park. Two of our Laramie friends, Ruthanne and Ryan, who are also originally from North Carolina, recently moved to Whitefish, so we met up for beers at The Great Northern Brewing Company, their local brewery, and Cuban fare at Mama Blanca’s. The carne asada fries were a highlight.

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Inside The Great Northern Brewing Company, L to R: Matt, Ryan, Ruthanne, and me

That night, Matt and I adventurously had drinks at the West Glacier Bar, where we tried mostly unsuccessfully to chat up all the seasonal employees- raft guides, park rangers- folks our age but slightly grubbier and more tan. The atmosphere was tinged with awkwardness; it’s so early in the season there that all the workers are still getting to know one another too. We got some hiking recommendations, commiserated about the pouring rain, and eventually turned in for the night.

The next morning we slept in while Matt’s parents rented bikes and rode some of the nearby gravel bike trails. We again had breakfast at Eddie’s, I purchased some pinecone earrings, and we hopped back in the rental car for the long drive up through the Canadian border to Banff National Park.

On our next trip to Glacier (because there will be another), I’d like to go sometime later in the season, maybe August, and backpack through the park. One friendly park employee at the bar told us the best camping was in the center of the park, away from roads and RV’s and noise. One thing is for sure- wherever I go in Glacier National Park, I’ll be sure to bring bear spray!

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Stay tuned for my next post to learn what we did in Banff.

Love to all!

Horsepersonship

Matt and I recently completed a Horsemanship Level 1 course through the University of Wyoming’s Outdoor Program. When I first suggested signing up back in January, Matt replied that the correct, gender-neutral terminology for the course title really should be “horse-person-ship,” which I do not dispute. The course included six Sunday afternoons, March-May, for three hours each session at the local Sodergreen Ranch, which is about a 35-minute drive from Laramie, toward Cheyenne (east-bound, for you non-Wyomingites).

I am lucky in that, before taking this course, I already had a few experiences riding horses, but I didn’t know anything about how to catch, bridle, saddle, or groom one. Armed with curiosity and my grandfather’s cowboy boots, which seemed too nice to muddy up (but oh well), I drove up the dirt road driveway of Sodergreen Ranch with Matt in the passenger seat. There were about 20 students in our class, all college-aged, and some international students too.

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Matt opening the gate at snowy Sodergreen Ranch, and the horses in the distance

For the first two class meetings we only rode the horses bareback, without any saddle. I think this was supposed to get us used to the movement of the horse and to strengthen our legs, but Matt and I later realized it had primarily resulted in some uncomfortable sores on our behinds. Obviously we were excited to graduate to the saddle.

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Riding bareback in the outdoor ring

We both chose to learn on an English saddle over the Western one. The English saddle is pretty bare-bones, consisting of a blanket, a little flap of felt and leather which forms the saddle itself, and the stirrups for your feet. A Western saddle is designed for long treks and work like roping cattle, so it’s made almost entirely of leather and is formed to be more comfortable for the rider. It also has a horn in front of the rider for hanging equipment like ropes and bags, and for holding onto when your horse bucks (just kidding, Mom!). The stirrups on a Western saddle are bigger and include more leather, which lines the body of the horse and protects it and the rider from thorns and cacti and such. The reins are also different; for Western, the reins are held with one hand (traditionally so the other hand could be free to do things like rope cattle), but in the English style, each side of the reins is held with the corresponding hand. You’ll encounter Western saddles at rodeos, on ranches, in Clint Eastwood movies, and on horseback trail rides since they are easy and comfortable for the rider. You’ll see English saddles in Europe, obviously, and at certain competitive horse shows and events like dressage.

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Matt riding English saddle in the indoor arena

Each class began with discussion and sometimes demonstration in the indoor arena. Thank goodness for that shelter- we often heard wind and snow pelting against the sides of the building. We were then paired up and assigned a horse, whom we had to fetch from a nearby fenced-in field where they (and the occasional donkey or mule) were snacking on hay. To get a halter on a naked horse, which is necessary in order to walk the horse back to where you can put on their saddle, you approach from the horse’s left side and hug their neck with the unbuckled halter in your hand. From there you can slip the halter around the horse’s neck and over their nose. Attached to the halter is a short rope, which we used to walk the horse back to the indoor arena.

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This is Hal being haltered by my partner

Once there, we tied the ropes using a quick-release knot through metal rings which were mounted on the arena walls. We then brushed the horses and cleaned any mud and rocks out from their hooves. Believe me- picking up an uncooperative horse’s dinner plate-sized hoof can be challenging. After grooming, we put on the horse’s bridle, which is like the halter but made of leather and has reins attached. We then slid on the saddle blanket, the saddle, and stirrups, walked the horse around a little, and then tightened the cinch on the saddle (basically the belt that runs underneath the horse which keeps the saddle attached).

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Tiffany was not pleased with my cleaning her hooves. She was ready to roll.

If I remember correctly, there was only one Sunday with nice enough weather that we got to ride in the outdoor ring; every other time we rode around the indoor arena in a big circle, one after another, trying not to cut corners.

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This is representative of the weather at the ranch most of the time

Each horse was distinctive in both appearance and personality. There was Janey, a chestnut, who was known to kick at anything within three feet of her backside. And Alder, whose coat was silvery, was half draft horse (think of the Clydesdales in the Budweiser commercials), so he was a head taller than all the other horses, at least. Fred was an old show horse whose bridle sparkled from rhinestones and had one blue eye encircled by white hair and one brown eye encircled by brown hair. Tiffany, the horse I rode on the last day of class, was eager to go at every portion of the class. When we practiced trotting, she got so excited watching the horses in front of her trot that, before it was our turn, I had to walk her around in little circles so she didn’t run into the horse in front of me (especially if that horse happened to be Janey).

Matt and I are planning on signing up for a Level 2 class for the summer- maybe we’ll learn to gallop! In the meantime I am working on mentally preparing Matt for buying me a horse in the future. Until then I’ll just have to keep riding other people’s horses.

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My friend Makaiya took this photo during our trail ride in Estes Park, Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park

Keep adventuring and trying new things! Love to all.

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The end.