Monday, June 29, 2009

Working girls

Until two years ago, I thought I had it all figured out. I would keep working until retirement, then leave the office in a flurry of decorated cakes, speeches and goodbyes, to live comfortably, if not affluently, for the rest of my life.
That was then. This is now. Laid off from that job that allowed me to save for retirement, I’m now a freelance writer. It’s a fulfilling life, but one with fewer financial benefits, less stability and a less-certain timeline for the upcoming decades.
I no longer have a plan that includes a life of leisure in my old age. But it’s going to be OK. I know it is, because I watched my grandmother work happily until she was in her mid-80s.
Widowed in the 1950s, she got a job as a retail sales clerk in a clothing store in the small town where she had lived most of her life. She had never gone to college, never gotten her driver’s license, but she was proud of her job and she was good at it.
Each morning she walked to work. She lived frugally on my grandfather’s small railroad pension and her regular salary. She never made grand retirement plans, and never complained about working.
In 1976, when she was 74, she was named Employee of the Month by the town’s Chamber of Commerce. She was immensely proud of the small wood and brass plaque they gave her, and kept it as one of her most prized possessions.
She worked another decade after her award, and lived past her 100th birthday, spending her final years in a nursing home, slowed by arthritis and other ailments.
When my parents gathered up her few remaining belongings after she died, they came across the small wooden plaque.
Today, it’s displayed on my wall, a reminder to live a modest life with pride.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Beetle mania

Ladybugs. Here. Now. Armies of them. This ruby red lady was sunning herself on a yucca plant at Pulpit Rock Open Space.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What a day for a day hike

Backpacker magazine recently listed “America’s Best Day Hikes,” including the “best of the Rockies.” Many of their entries were worthy suggestions (Mount Sherman for best alpine view, Wyoming’s Lamar Valley for best wildlife), but I started thinking about my own favorite day hikes that are closer to home. These trails are perfect for families, and none of them require a day-long commitment.
Best wildflowers:
Aiken Canyon Preserve (4 miles, loop trail, easy). The plains meet the mountains in this quiet little preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy. This is the best time of year to hike the trail that’s bordered with a crazy quilt of wildflowers (my favorite is the scarlet paintbrush). Watch for rattlesnakes, black bears and foxes here as well, and don’t step on a lizard. The preserve is open year-round, dawn to dusk, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
(On Colorado Highway 115 south of Colorado Springs; for more information,
Best view: Devil’s Head (2.8 miles round trip, moderate). Steep but short, this trail winds uphill through stands of aspen and pine and deposits hikers at the last remaining lookout station in the Pike National Forest. More than 100 metal steps lead to the station, where you’re rewarded with a 360-degree view of the forest and mountains that spread out at your feet. On a clear day, you can see 100 miles in all directions. The station is only staffed from mid-May through Oct. 1. (Off Rampart Range Road; for more information,
Best wildlife:
The trails at Mueller State Park near Divide (vary in length, up to 10 miles, easy to moderate). I know what you’re thinking: State park = campgrounds = crowds and noise = no wildlife. But we’ve had some of our best wildlife viewing at this park that’s home to a healthy elk herd. We’ve also see badgers, golden eagles, porcupines, skunks, and even salamanders here.
(Off Colorado Highway 67 south of Divide; for more information, www.
Best mountain summit:
Mount Rosa (5 miles round trip, moderate). How often do you get to the top of a mountain that is, well, shaped like a mountain? Rosa has a decent point and offers a great view from its top. And the hike to the summit offers the best Colorado has to offer – a green meadow, the deep shade of a spruce forest, and tiny wildflowers only found at this elevation. Rosa, which peaks at 11,499 feet, is thought to be the mountain summited by Zebulon Pike when he was trying to reach a nearby peak that was later named in his honor. (Off Old Stage/Gold Camp Road; 12.5 miles to Forest Road 379. Park there or drive up the 4WD road to Frosty Park (the meadow); walk through clearing and watch for trail cairns on your right.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tails on trails

In all of our years of hiking in the Rocky Mountains, we’ve had our share of animal encounters: An elk calf lying on the trail, its mother standing threateningly nearby; a moose crashing through the willows; a rattlesnake sunning itself on a rock we had just brushed past.
But those all pale next to the worst kind of animal mix-up – with another hiker’s dog.
It plays out the same way almost every time: We walk one direction on a trail with our leashed dog. Coming toward us: Another hiker with one or more loose dogs. They smile and yell, “Don’t worry! He’s (they’re) friendly!”
The “friendly” dogs approach our dog and a fight ensues. Sometimes words follow, as an animal encounter escalates into a people conflict.
Animal behaviorists tell me the trouble arises when one dog perceives itself as having to be on the defense (the leashed dog) and the other dog is on the offense. The leashed dog feels threatened or frightened. The unleashed dog senses that fear and attacks.
For more than a decade, we walked our favorite trails with Waldo, a yellow Labrador retriever who was perceived by other hikers as a gentle giant. But he didn’t like other dogs, and he really didn’t like loose dogs approaching us. Many times, Waldo taught the “friendly” dog a lesson.
Now, we hike with our beagle, Hunter. He weighs 30 pounds, and although he’s all muscle, he’s also obsessively pack-oriented and not very brave. On a hike last weekend on a trail in the Pike National Forest, a man approached us with two dogs – a pit bull and a small shaggy black dog. Both were loose, and when the hiker saw us approaching, he quickly leashed one dog - the pit bull. The black dog, head and tail down, headed for us, his eyes on Hunter. “Don’t worry,” the man shouted. “He’s beagle friendly.”
That was a new twist – this dog especially appreciated beagles. Turns out he wasn’t really a beagle lover after all, and after a skirmish between the two dogs and verbal sparring between the hiker and my husband, we continued our hike.
As the day wore on, we encountered a dozen more loose dogs, and we developed a new strategy. When we were surrounded by a pack of dogs – five of them, all loose, and their owners said, “Don’t worry. They’re friendly,” my husband responded, “How do you know my dog is?” he asked. “You’d better watch out for him.”
(Note: This method only works with people who don’t know much about beagles.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You like tomato, I like tomahto

When I was a little girl, my family would visit Great Uncle Sam’s farm in southern Minnesota.
Sam had a small farm with several hogs that seemed as big as horses to us; a collection of chickens and ducks, and fields planted with a tangle of strawberries.
We were frightened by the gigantic hogs and a little intimidated by the cranky ducks that would chase us across the yard.
We were really there for the strawberries. Sam’s land was perfect for growing sweet, dark, palm-sized berries. Our group of cousins would spread out like field workers and scour the fields for the berries, returning with sunburns and berry-stained fingers and faces.
Ever since that time, I’ve searched for strawberries as richly sweet as Sam’s, but over time, I’ve gotten used to the idea that I traded the fruit and vegetable bounty of the Midwest for the scenic bounty of Colorado.
The only strawberries I grow now at 8,600 feet are the tiny wild version with raisin-sized fruit that blanket the ground under our aspen trees. Still, l crave those Minnesota berries, along with the tender yellow sweet corn with kernels as large as Chiclets and bulbous tomatoes that grew in the black soil of our barely tended gardens in Iowa.
So this year, instead of depending on farmers’ markets, I’m growing my own. Tomato, that is.
I have one tomato plant in a pot on my deck. Every day I chase the sun, moving the pot around the deck so it can soak up every minute. At night, I tuck the plant in under the eaves, protecting it from wind and hail. I water it and fertilize it and worry about it. I’m become obsessed with its well-being.
My attention has paid off - in a few short weeks, it has grown three times its size, and today has a dozen yellow blossoms, promises of fruit to come. I wait impatiently for the first tiny green tomatoes to appear. When that happens, I’ll have to compete with other tomato-lovers – the black bears that patrol our neighborhood looking for a quick snack.
They’ll have to fight me for my tomatoes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

2 txt or not 2 txt

A confession: When my daughter was living with us a few months ago, she and I would text each other….while we were both in the house. I would be upstairs, and she would be downstairs, and we would text about important topics such as whether the clothes dryer had stopped, or what was on the menu for dinner.
So I understand the convenience of texting, and even appreciate its economy of words. But I’ve had to put aside my attention to the rules of English – “wat r u doing?” “going 2 a movie.” And I’m worried that it could mark the end of conversation as we know it.
My daughter, who’s 21, sends and receives about 4,000 texts every month. She says she would rather text than talk, even with her best friends. “We just don’t like to talk on the phone,” she says, her fingers flying over the tiny keyboard on her phone.
She recently graduated from college, and as she labored over two dozen hand-written thank-you notes for graduation gifts she received, she said she wished her QWERTY keyboard could have done the job for her.
But letter-writing was an art, I told her. Texting isn’t. It gets the job done, but I would guess there’s not a lot of poetry or even memorable prose in the millions or billions of texts sent every day.
Still, there's even some good news about texting. A recent study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that texting can have a positive effect on a child's reading development.
Last week, an Iowa teen-ager won $50,000 in a national texting contest sponsored by LG. Her proud mom said she texts about 500 times a day, which is about once every three minutes in 24 hours, not taking any time out for sleeping, eating, and maybe even studying.
After completing a series of texting obstacle courses, the two finalists had to text this 140-character message error-free: “Zippity Dooo Dahh Zippity Ayy...MY oh MY, what a wonderful day! Plenty of sunshine Comin' my way....Zippitty Do Dah Zippity Aay! WondeRful Feeling Wonderful day!”
OK, maybe it wasn’t Walt Whitman (way too many characters in that guy’s work) but at least it rhymed.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Seeing double

Not much to say here, except "aaaaaawwwwww." A watchful doe guards her month-old twin fawns in the backyard of my friends just down the street. One of the fawns is brave and frequently bounces away from her family. The other one is more timid, and stays in the tall grass or near her mother.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Beagle brains

Here are some of the reasons I have fallen in love with beagles:
- They live an unrepentant life.
- They know what they like and they go after it…every time.
- They’re emotional and have a great sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic.
We live with a two-year-old beagle named Hunter S. Thompson. We originally named him Hunter for his insatiable nose, but soon added his middle initial and last name in honor of the late Colorado gonzo journalist who never did anything halfway… ever.
Hunter came into our lives a few months before I was laid off from my job as a journalist and before my husband had life-changing open-chest surgery. It was a year of transition in our lives, and in retrospect, probably not the best time to welcome a beagle puppy into our family.
We bought a book about beagles and how to train them. It said they are single-minded and can be hard to train. Hunter ate the book. Before he grew out of toddlerhood, he also destroyed 28 pillows (yes, we kept buying new ones), two TV remotes, a slipper, three books (in addition to the training book), two fleece blankets. a corner of the couch, and countless bath towels and socks.
I know the tale of Hunter’s destruction isn’t that different from many other puppy stories, but there’s something about a beagle’s attitude that’s as impressive as it is maddening.
Hunter is a little mellower now (we’ve only lost two pillows in the last six months), but he still lives his life with no regrets, and is thrilled to see what he can find around the next bend in the trail. I'm trying to be more like Hunter.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wild kingdom

A packrat was living in our woodpile until we flushed him out, and he moved into our garage. Which is attached to our house. Which made me nervous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing and interacting with wild animals on the trail, or at the park, or even in my yard. But when they could possibly be setting up residence in a downstairs closet, everything changes.
During the 20 years we’ve lived in the mountains, we’ve had many animal encounters. Fox, deer and elk are regular visitors to our backyard. Flickers show up at the bird feeder, and flammulated owls call to each other from the dense ponderosa pines that surround our neighborhood. Black bears check out untended garbage cans in our neighborhood, and mountain lions make rare appearances and leave not-so-rare footprints on park trails. We’ve encountered rattlesnakes, badgers, porcupines, moose and coyotes on our hikes throughout the Rocky Mountains.
And each time we see a new creature, we consider ourselves lucky. Until the packrat.
Here’s the problem: packrats are, well, rats; creatures we associate with filth. But here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t tell you - packrats are fuzzy, cute, cuddly looking, almost chinchilla-like. Think giant hamsters with long hairless tails. Our outrage over a rat in our garage was diminished by this guy’s soft black eyes and twitching whiskers. Even though he had crafted a nest of dryer lint, pinecone needles and M&Ms with peanuts in the air filter compartment of one of our cars, he had still won our hearts.
We made a half-hearted attempt at flushing him out of the garage with brooms, but this packrat was fast and crafty.
We started to lose patience and we armed ourselves with shovels. We would have to eliminate this pest. But we couldn’t… not with shovels, certainly. And also not with rat poison or any other of the methods proven to work. I searched the Internet for remedies, and found tips on scented dryer sheets (rats aren't supposed to like the smell) and dry wool (to plug holes they might have made).
So we blanketed the perimeter with dozens of sheets of Downy. We haven’t seen the rat since, and our garage smells April fresh.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

To sleep: perchance to dream

I love camping. It’s sleeping outside that I hate.
This might sound impossible, you say. How can you go camping without sleeping outside, you ask. Simple. I just don’t sleep when we camp. My tent mates – my husband and our daughter – burrow down into their sleeping bags and they’re gone in minutes. But over the years, I’ve become the self-designated, ever-vigilant campsite sentry.
As the moon moves across the sky, I lie in the tent, listening for sounds of animals that could eat us or at the least eat our Poptarts. As the night shadows create spooky shapes in the trees, I watch for intruders, tossing and turning uncomfortably. The minutes and the hours pass slowly and I rejoice at the first light of dawn, then the first bird song, then the first rays of the sun.
My camping insomnia started years ago. Our daughter was small and when it was time to sleep, she would wedge between us in the tent. By the time I was settled, she would have wiggled onto my side of the tent. The dogs would follow, curling themselves around my legs and at the small of my back.
We camped for a year in a Black Diamond Megamid, a spacious single-wall pyramid-shaped tent that sleeps four. Our final Megamid adventure was in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness about three miles off the trail. We were camping at about 10,500 feet and we could see our breath. It started raining just as we began to set up camp, and it continued to rain and snow throughout the night. It didn’t take long for both dogs and my daughter to wedge themselves against me on one side of the tent’s unforgiving center pole. My husband sprawled comfortably on the other half.
In the morning, as we scraped ice off our sleeping bags (condensation from the night’s moisture); he said he was sold on the Megamid. “That thing is great!” he proclaimed. In the interest of camping unity, I didn’t say anything. But the next time we prepared for a camping trip and he pulled out the Megamid, I diplomatically said, “I’m not camping in that thing again….ever.”
He was stunned. The Megamid is a gearhead’s dream tent. It only takes about five minutes to set it up and it fits into a pack about the size of a loaf of bread. It is incredibly lightweight (about three pounds) and it’s a sturdy shelter against wind, rain and even snow.
I haven’t camped in the Megamid tent since then. Sometimes, when we go with a group, my husband sets it up for himself and one of our dogs. I stick to our trusty dome tent (a decade-old Taos), where I can wait the night out a little more comfortably.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fashion forward

After my first year of working at home, my wardrobe needed an upgrade. I gave away all my sweatpants and replaced them with…yoga pants. That’s right. For most of my second year in my home office, I’ve spent nearly every day swathed in slightly fitted black cotton knit boot cut pants with a hint of Spandex (that's the precise way they're described in the catalog.) I pair the pants with one of my seven Columbia fleece jackets (inexplicably, my collection includes two identical pine green zip-ups) and Ugg boots and I’m ready for the day.
This has become my signature look. I like to think of it as “mountain woman meets spiritual fitness guru meets practical free spirit.” I don’t think that’s how my husband would describe it, but he did tell me he was grateful that yoga pants don’t get as baggy and shapeless as the old drawstring cotton sweats (thanks to that hint of Spandex). And when I change into a pair of blue jeans (I call it “dressing up”), he knows I’m actually leaving the house for the day.
I’ve written about outdoor recreation for years, so my wardrobe already leaned toward practical/casual for all those days on the trail or in the forest. I own several pairs of hiking boots and a drawer full of SmartWool socks. I have enough fleece to fill its own closet (don’t you be judging me about the fleece!), and I’ve always favored pants over dresses. (Boots and Birkenstocks just don’t have that dressy look.)
Even when I worked in an office, I figured out a way to dress almost trail-ready most of the time. But now that I spend most days at home writing, I’ve shed my wardrobe of every skirt and dress I owned.
My choice of clothing is often a response to my complete frustration with how to dress. Women my age are often stuck - between fashion better suited for their daughters and fashion (I use the term lightly) that’s heavy on puckered elastic waistbands and embroidered theme sweaters. My 21-year-old daughter often thanks me for not wearing the same kinds of clothes she does, and at the same time is grateful I refrain from sweats emblazoned with pumpkins or Christmas trees or hearts and flowers. And she even occasionally borrows my look, picking out a fleece jacket from my vast collection or threatening to steal my Uggs.
Maybe my look will catch on after all.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life after layoff

My parents are worried about me being unemployed. “Do you have a job yet?” they ask when we talk on the phone. It doesn’t matter how many times I describe my work as a freelance writer and tell them how my profession works. In their minds, if I don’t drive my car away from my house to the same location and sit down to work at the same desk every day, I’m not employed.
I don’t blame them for being worried. For 20 years, I did drive my car to the same parking lot, walk into the same office building and sit at the same desk. I had gotten my job at a mid-sized newspaper shortly after moving to Colorado. It was my dream job. The paper was growing and its owners were investing in its growth. I worked with writers and photographers and artists who were major talents. Our newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize. We covered the Olympics and the state’s pro sports teams just like our much larger competitors. We traveled the country and the world. We were innovators and dreamers and we got to see many of our dreams become realities.
We were good at our jobs and proud of them. We felt powerful and secure. It was still a time when employees, especially employees of newspapers, were rewarded for their good work, for their longevity, for their loyalty.
But things changed. I lost that dream job, unceremoniously dumped in a brief meeting in an icy conference room on a Friday morning. It’s been a little more than two years, and I still can recall how I felt that day. For months, I was defensive and angry. I was laid off, not fired; one of the first groups of casualties in what has become almost daily business at newspapers around the country. But what’s the difference, really? I lost that job, my dream job.
So now I’m a freelance writer. What does that mean, my parents ask. It means I spent every day job hunting. It means reinventing myself, selling myself, working to make myself look more appealing than the competition. It means taking on other jobs that don’t involve writing – a stint as a caretaker at a nature center; a bizarre month working for the U.S. government on the 2010 Census project.
On my best days, I revel in the freedom. My office looks out at the mountains, and I’m often interrupted from my writing by the chirping of a hummingbird gorging himself on the feeder I’ve placed outside my window.
But the irregularity of my profession can be unnerving. Jobs are disappearing as newspaper and magazine companies cut their page counts or cut out major projects. Other companies have eliminated their freelance budgets. Still others have closed.
There’s something kind of thrilling to see what comes to me at the beginning of each month. But it’s kind of like fishing, where on some days, even the most experienced angler doesn’t get any bites. (No, Mom and Dad, that doesn’t mean I spend all my time fishing – it’s just a figure of speech.)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fish stories

After living in the Pikes Peak region for more than 20 years, I’ve gotten accustomed to seeing soldiers. There are nearly 20,000 of them stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, with nearly 20,000 more at other military installations in the area. Still, my life rarely intersects with any of them. I don’t have any friends in the military, and I’ve only visited the area military bases a handful of times, working on stories for the local newspaper. So when I get a chance to meet soldiers off-base and talk to them about their lives, I welcome it. I had such a chance last weekend, and we found a common ground in fishing. My husband and I had hiked the Rainbow Gulch Trail to Rampart Reservoir to reach our favorite fishing spot – a rocky perch on one of the lake’s inlets. Soon, we were joined by two guys with military haircuts; one teaching the other about trout fishing. At first, we politely observed each other’s space. But when the rainbow trout started jumping out of the water right in front of us, we started talking about fish. The soldiers had been transferred here from Georgia; both had seen action in Iraq. They didn’t say much about that, other than how bad the food was. They delved into politics (it became obvious we wouldn’t agree -they were Huckabee fans; we voted for Obama.) We talked about how soldiers are respected more now than they were during the Vietnam War, but how that treatment varies around the country (it's better in Colorado than in Georgia). But mostly, we talked about fishing, and the good fortune of having this fishing spot so close to home, and the good luck we were having on that day as the fish practically jumped into our laps. We shared fish stories, and by the end of our morning together, even the quieter soldier had relaxed and started talking. He was a bass man, he said, but now he understood the appeal of the sport of trout fishing. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” On this day, we were all there for the trout and the sun and the wind that pleated the water. And, it turns out, the company.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Little Night Music

At first, I thought I was channeling summer in Iowa, where I grew up. Every night this week as the wind died down, the quiet was filled with the sounds of ... chirping frogs? My neighbor heard them, too. "Did you hear... frogs the other night?" he asked hesitantly. But we live in Colorado, at 8,600 feet, in the midst of a ponderosa pine forest with very little grass. There are no ponds or streams or lakes in our neighborhood and when it rains, the water disappears into the gravelly ground. Our nights are quiet, without the calls of locusts or crickets or the constant hum of bat wings I would hear in Iowa. So surely there aren't any amphibians here, right?
Wrong. My friends at the Colorado Division of Wildlife tell me the night music is coming from toads - perhaps Red Spotted Toads. Every night, they serenade us from their hiding places in tall grasses and under rocks.
We've lived here for more than 20 years, and we noticed the chirping for the first time last summer. A DOW biologist said he wasn't sure why the toads have relocated to our mountain town, but there's undoubtedly a reason. According to Frogwatch USA, frogs and toads have more significance than just their musical ability. They are important indicators of changes in the environment.
I hope they stick around, because I've gotten used to their night music and will miss it if it stops. The sounds of nature are renewing as well as environmentally significant. When we first moved to Colorado in the 1980s, we spent a lot of time exploring Rocky Mountain National Park. Cub Lake was a favorite destination. Cold and clear and covered with lily pads, it was also frog central. We could hear the frogs from the trail before we could even see the alpine lake. Their hypnotic sound made us linger. But one summer, they were gone. Cub Lake was just as beautiful as ever, but silent. Biologists believe pesticides or parasites might be to blame for amphibians disappearing at Rocky Mountain National Park and other locations around the world. For now, the toads that serenade me are secure in their mountain retreat. I hope they stay that way.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Over the past two years, I've been handed many challenges. I was laid off from my job at a newspaper where I had worked for 20 years. It was a job I had created; a job I loved, and a job that was snatched away from me on a sunny Friday morning.
My husband, a musician, had emergency open chest surgery; a procedure that introduced both of us to the maddening health care system and reminded us that we weren't immortal after all.
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Our seemingly ageless family dog, a yellow Lab named Waldo, died as he neared the age of 16.
Our lives seemed to switch into a lower gear. Saddened by the loss of Waldo and slowed by my husband's health, we didn't hike for more than a year. The closest we came to camping was throwing open our bedroom window on a chilled night and letting the wind blow through the room.
Our home in the mountains became our sanctuary, our retreat, and sometimes, our prison. As my husband healed, there were weeks when our cars never left the driveway. But throughout it all, we held onto our professions, the work we loved. For me, it was writing. For my husband, it was music. I began taking freelance writing jobs. He taught and played music. The click of my computer keyboard and the rumble of his bass guitar were the background music in our home.
And after two years, amazingly, we are still doing what we love. And we are finding our true selves again. We went hiking last week, and we're planning a camping trip with our new dog, a beagle named Hunter S. Thompson (you'll read more about him later.) Both of our professions have been deeply wounded by the economy, but we believe in what we do.
At my last newspaper job, I helped create a blog about Colorado and the outdoors. This time around, I'll write about the world beyond my window as well as the big and little events that are part of the experience of being a Coloradan, a boomer, a wife, a mother, a woman, and a beagle's best friend.