san juan range


The Milky Way over the Grenadiers by Matt Payne
Via Flickr:
The mighty Grenadier Range of Colorado rises above the Animas River and Molas Lake beneath a blanket of thousands of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. This is a composite image - one taken at early night for the foreground at ISO 100 and f/11 at 2 seconds for maximum sharpness, and one for the stars at f/2.8 for 15 seconds at ISO 6400.

2015: The Year I Camped for a Month Without Quitting My Job

In the past year I spent 33 nights sleeping in a tent. That’s 33 times that I woke up tangled in my sleeping bag with hair in my face. And 33 times I gladly swapped my cozy queen size bed for a cold, starry and quiet night outdoors.  

I didn’t camp for a month straight. Instead, I snuck away for nights here and there, hustling at work during the week, so I could cut out early on a Friday night to get to my tent set up before dark.

Twice I convinced coworkers to join me on a weeknight camp out. We left work at 5, grabbed beers, food to cook over the fire and drove out to the foothills to heave our backpacks on and hike the mile to our campsite. We woke up before dawn the next morning to ensure we’d have enough time to watch the sunrise before we packed up and walked back to our cars. We made it to the office before 8AM, smelling like campfire and grinning like fools during our morning meetings.

In May I headed west for a weekend scrambling up canyon walls and exploring alcoves in western Colorado. Later in the month, I went to Moab for the first time with a friend. We battled the crowds at Arches, camped along the Colorado River and reveled in the vastness at Canyonlands. We got back to Denver only to talk about where we wanted to go next.

In June I took on a new project at work, which left me both exhausted and excited. When my best friend from middle school visited, I took her to Santa Fe, convincing her to spend two nights in a tent on the drive down and back. We nabbed the last open spot at Great Sand Dunes National Park, pitched our tent next to the pinyon trees and chased our shadows up a 700ft sand dune to catch the sunset from the top.

Only once did a camping trip include a visit to the emergency room, in August, when my friend cut her face open on an unfriendly tree branch. We were camping in a small town for a music festival, opting to bypass the rows and rows of tents on the festival grounds for quiet off of a forest service road just outside of town. As blood dripped down her forehead, she said she thought we could make it to the festival for our favorite set. “I’ll just go to the medical tent,” she said. I vetoed her plan and 8 stitches later, we watched clouds over the main stage turn yellow, then orange, then pink and red as the sun set behind Jenny Lewis and the Sawatch range.

By the end of the summer I started to sense a pattern in my behavior. Every Sunday night I always ended up back at home. As much as I loved being dirty, sleeping on the ground and spending long nights beside the campfire, I also loved coming home. To see my cat, do a load of laundry, to head to work the next morning to tell my coworkers about my adventures. And then a few days or a week would pass, and I’d begin thinking of my next adventure, where I wanted to head next. 

One of the places at the top of my list was the San Juan range. And so in September, I watched the aspens turn the Million Dollar Highway gold and climbed my last 14er before the snows hit. 

I hit a month, 31 nights, in mid October, right when the last aspen leaves fell and when I started running out of layers to stay warm around the campfire.

I ran into my CEO one weekend in late October at a new restaurant in town. “This is the girl who went camping for a month!” he said, before introducing me to his daughters.

For so much of my life before I moved to Colorado, I used to read this quote over and over: “Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue.” - Cheryl Strayed

But in Colorado I found balance between career and life. It’s kind of like finding the perfect campsite: it requires a little bit of luck, to be willing to do the work, the right perspective and most important of all, to always be up for a new adventure.


Riding at High Elevation

For the last couple of days we have been riding our final miles through the San Juan Mountain Range of the Rocky Mountains. Since we last updated, we rode through the many steep short mountains of the Ozarks. There, with minimal services available, we made our way through the rugged terrain and dealt with the psychological effects of the ever present and biting horse flies with which we shared the road and campsites. We have ridden across Northern Oklahoma, including the Panhandle, in an essentially straight line at a gradual 1-3 % grade. We learned how valuable access to water is, how tough it is to survive in such a desolate land, and how generous and kind the remaining residents are. We give Oklahoma our respect and are grateful for all of the friendly people who welcomed us into their homes for water. We learned how difficult it is for us to ride in deep sand, something on our minds as we head into the San Rafael Swell in Utah, just as Oklohoma mud was a concern when we were in Mississippi. We “vacationed” in New Mexico for less than 100 miles, where the change of scenery, geography, and prevalence of operational windmill driven water pumps, made for easy and entertaining riding. Into Colorado with a lot of momentum, where new types of food, abundant opportunities for espresso, awe inspiring scenery, ideal road conditions, interesting culture, mountains, water and trees sucked us in and slowed us down. The mountain climbs and weather have so far been generous to us, with few exceptions.

The first being our first major high elevation climb on the route to St. Charles Peak, located in the Wet Mountain range in the Southern Rocky Mountain System. In our observation, the climbs we have done that go over 10,500 ft. typically offer difficulty of a sort related to varying combinations of the road conditions, temperature, and physical effects on the body. The bulk of our riding in Colorado has been at an elevation of 7,000 to 10,000 feet, so when we climb from circa 8,000 to over 10,500, that’s typically a big deal for us. The length and distance of a climb are also crucial. On paper, St. Charles Peak looked like a moderate climb of 4,100 ft gain in 25 miles, ultimately reaching a peak elevation of 11,200 feet. We started our ride that day with a hilly 35 mile warm up from La Veta. By the time we stuffed our bellies with good eats from the Wild Flower cafe in Gardner, it was 3 p.m. Our goal was to climb and set camp at lower elevations on the other side by dark. As the story always seems to go, the climb was much harder than expected, took much longer, and required us to improvise. We had been spoiled by the smooth fast roads through Colorado to this point so when our route turned onto a sandy ATV trail and our giddy initial enthusiasm for a change of terrain wore off, we started noticing the effect of the many short steep descents. We had assumed there would be a more constant grade while climbing. What we encountered was sharp descents, steep climbs, and very infrequent periods of low intensity cycling. We had expected to be moving much faster than we were, and after many hours of pedaling (sometimes walking, in my case) we reached the top of the mountain, just as the sun was setting. We had no idea what the descent would be like, other than it was 10 miles, but we have a preference for setting camp in the light, so we decided to set camp where we were, at the top. This was only our third day in Colorado, and our first day riding anywhere above 9,000 ft, so choosing to sleep at 11,200 ft was pushing our luck. We were both physically well and had carried enough water to the top with us to camp without access to a water source (we call this dry camping). We set camp, built a fire, and quickly put it out (to be continued…), ate dinner, put on all of our clothes and enjoyed a relatively good nights rest, lit up by billions of stars in a clear black sky. This climb set the bar of difficulty, and from then on we started taking a different approach to riding through Colorado, one that is defined by shorter distances, more rest, and a more micro-based analysis of the statistical information of each mountain climb.

So, we carried on, spending time in more towns than we had planned, spending more money than we would have liked, but overall enjoying the trip. When the trail challenges us most, we often, shortly thereafter, find reward.

We took a day off in Salida where we realized how much we missed other cyclists and spent most of our time getting to know and talking bikes with Chris and Harry, who traveled from the UK to ride the Colorado Trail.

From Salida we rode our first major pass, Marshall Pass, and crossed over the Continental Divide. The weather, the colors, and the terrain seemed to simultaneously change upon our descent into Sargents. We were also entering Gunnison National Forest, notorious for being “big country,” as a local put it, refering to the vast, desolate land, cooler moist temperatures, and ever present winds. We spent three days, and two nights riding the 133 mile route from Salida to Lake City. Living up to its reputation, the weather we experienced was grey, wet, and windy, offering long slow days in the saddle, cold restless evenings, and later starting mornings. We pushed ahead, knowing that Lake City and all of its majestic beauty lie ahead. Sure enough, on our final day, the sun came out, warming us up, and illuminating the brilliant change in the fall foliage. We enjoyed a rugged and colorful ride up Slumgullion Pass (11,200 ft. elevation), and a speedy twisting descent into Lake City where we would fill our bellies and rest up to tackle our most challenging high elevation climbs over Engineer Pass and Imogene Pass.

One thing is sure, the deeper into this route we get, the more difficult the terrain becomes, and everything we have done along the way prepares us mentally and physically for the next big challenge. Since the first day of researching this route, we learned that these high elevation mountain passes would be some of the most difficult terrain features we would experience on the entire route. The technical, steep riding we did through the Ozarks, the mental challenge of riding across Oklahoma, and the gradual introduction to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains have all played an integral role in training us for these mountain passes. We tackled the passes one day at a time, back-to-back. Our experience went a little like this…

Engineer Pass

Total distance from Lake City to Ouray: 35 miles

Elevation gain in 18 miles: 4,300 feet

Peak elevation: 13,000 feet

The road conditions of the 18-mile climb were smooth and easy, allowing us to soak up the views of crystal clear, trout filled streams, the remnants of old mining operations, and incredibly colorful mountainscapes. We took our time, stopping to snap a photo and to explore. As we rode closer to the top, the grade grew steeper, but was manageable. Now that I think back on all the times I have been at high elevation, I have not been so high as 13,000 ft., especially not on a bicycle. To have ridden our bicycles there, not only just from Lake City, but from the coast of North Carolina, inspired an emotion inside of me that is hard to describe. We are travelling over a continent experiencing drastic cultural and geological change at a slow enough pace to experience a level of immersion, but quickly enough to experience the shock of differences. The descent from Engineer Pass was drastically different. Technical, steep, rocky terrain swept us downhill. Many sections were so complex that we paused to evaluate potential lines of travel that we would take. Once again, I put my feet to work, by hiking down some sections I wasn’t willing to risk, while Tom conquered what appeared to be impossible. We had fun all the way and enjoyed the hell out of the terrain, putting all of our equipment to the test and coming out relatively unscathed (with the exception of a small, impact related {Tom} sidewall cut, and our first flat in 3,000 miles).

Imogene Pass

Total distance from Ouray to Telluride: 18 miles

Elevation gain in 9 miles: 5,000 feet

Peak elevation: 13,200 feet

Imogene Pass was a different story. I remember when we were in Salida, I was showing Harry the statistics of our upcoming climbs. I got to Imogene’s statistics and we looked at eachother perplexed. Those numbers can’t be right, I thought, I must have done the math wrong. I also recall saying something along the lines of, “If we had to go up Engineer Pass, the way we went down, I don’t think we would have been able.” We knew what was ahead, we knew it had taken motorbikes two hours to go 20 miles, but we weren’t talking about it. What’s the use? Well… After we had gone 1.5 miles in almost one hour, reality set in and we knew that this climb and descent would likely take us more time than the day prior, at half the distance. Why? It was steep, rocky, and loose (a lot like the descent of Engineer Pass. The higher up we got, the more we walked. Some sections were so steep our feet could not retain traction so we used our bikes and brakes as leverage. We put our Teva sandals on and hiked in those for a while. On one occasion, while pushing up a steep slope, Tom lost his footing, and dropped his bike. This was tough, but there were plenty of people around us in 4WD off-road vehicles to laugh at us, cheer us on, and comiserate with the seeming insanity of what we were doing. We made it through and being over 13,000 ft. in elevation with your bicycle does not get old. The descent was much like Engineer, only steeper, which meant some walking, but considerably less than the way up. Despite it’s difficulty, we have grown fond of high mountain riding and the views don’t suck either!

That’s it for now! We took a day of in Telluride and stayed with hosts who have generously allowed us to stay in their home while they are away. It happens that Telluride’s Blues and Brews festival is occurring now, which we have been able to enjoy from their balcony. Thank you Max and Hillary!
We hit the road again tomorrow as we make our way to Moab, Utah!

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Rocky Mountain High: Telluride Film Festival

“Thank you both so much for that fantastic experience,” wrote historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow to Bill and Stella Pence after the 8th Telluride Film Festival in 1981. When festival attendees enthuse over the event, it is frequently in reverent, semi-religious tones, and the word “experience” is invoked more often than not, facts immediately apparent in the clippings, correspondence and other documents contained in the Telluride Film Festival records, which were recently cataloged for Special Collections at the Margaret Herrick Library.

Mischa Richter, The New Yorker, April 2, 1984

Laura Dern, Roger Ebert and Kyle MacLachlan, 13th Telluride Film Festival, 1986

Always held during the Labor Day weekend, the Telluride Film Festival marks its 42nd year in 2015 and will be held from September 4th through the 7th. The festival was founded in 1974 by Bill and Stella Pence, Tom Luddy and James Card, along with the Telluride Council for the Arts and Humanities, in a small mining-turned-skiing town located 8,745 feet up in the Rockies’ San Juan mountain range in southwest Colorado. If there was an unlikelier location for an upscale film festival anywhere on Earth, no one seemed to be able to think of it. But the Telluride Festival took people’s breath away – at that elevation, sometimes literally.

While James Card dropped out early and Tom Luddy remained a jet-set adviser, it fell to the Pences to manage the intricate details of what soon became one of the world’s premiere film festivals, albeit with help from guest directors and contributors such as Kenneth Anger, Errol Morris, Bertrand Tavernier, Buck Henry, Salman Rushdie, Laurie Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman and Stephen Sondheim. The Pences retired just after the 2006 festival, and Julie Huntsinger and Gary Meyer now run the proceedings, along with the stalwart Tom Luddy. In addition to showing contemporary films, the festival is well known for its tributes to such venerables as Hal Roach, King Vidor, Joel McCrea, Janet Leigh, Don Siegel, Jimmy Stewart, Elmer Bernstein, Mickey Rooney, Michael Powell, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson.

Over the decades, many of the honorees have fallen in love with the festival during their tributes and become regular attendees, turning up year after year to enjoy the events just like any other moviegoer. This enchantment of celebrities as well as of regular folks has become part of the Telluride “experience,” and any given year, you might pass on the street, see in line or just bump into, such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Isabella Rossellini, Ang Lee, Jack Nicholson, Agnès Varda, Michael Moore, Philip Glass, Emily Watson, Julie Christie, Carrie Fisher, Jean-Luc Godard, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Marion Cotillard, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep, Gérard Depardieu or David Lynch. In years past, you might have run into Robin Williams, Robert Altman, Jacques Demy, Sven Nykvist, Peter O’Toole, or Russ Meyer.

Theresa Russell and Nicolas Roeg at the 15th festival, 1985

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, 38th Telluride Film Festival, 2011

Bill Murray, 39th Telluride Film Festival, 2012

Sean Penn and Werner Herzog,  34th Telluride Film Festival, 2007

One passionate devotee of the festival was animation director Chuck Jones. One of the many honorees who went on to become a frequent attendee, Jones even designed several of the festival posters. In his own tribute to the annual event and its challenging location, Jones called the Telluride Film Festival “the most fun you can have without breathing.”

Read more about the Telluride Film Festival at the Academy website.