Welcome to the From The High Country blog. Here, you can read about life in the mountains of Colorado and see some of my latest work.
At the time of writing we are in the middle of a pandemic, so I'd like to think that people are staying at home for now. Still, I'm sure you're all dreaming of trips to come, so I wanted to talk about what I think are the three best places to visit in Colorado. I'm not going to talk about the obvious choices like Rocky Mountain National Park and Denver or Aspen. Those are all great choices, but my favorites are less widely known and your tourist dollars will make a huge difference.
Accessible from Montrose or Durango, the small mountain town of Silverton is as close to the Old West as you will find without visiting a theme park or a tourist trap. Wide open main streets, historic buildings, and a regular chance to ride a steam train through the mountains (back to Durango) all add to a relaxing atmosphere. If that doesn't transport you back in time, then take a short drive to Animas Forks, a well preserved ghost town that serves as a reminder of the mining days a century or more ago. The Animas Forks road leads to the Alpine Loop, a dirt road that winds through the nearby mountains. I will warn you that the Loop becomes busier, dustier and more like a Mad Max movie each year. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Animas Forks and of course the town of Silverton are all well worth a visit.
2. Crested Butte
A small but well established ski town in winter, Crested Butte is a charming and friendly town full of businesses serving locals and tourists alike (read: not a tourist trap) in summer. Enjoy less crowded dirt roads (even cycle friendly), amazing food and entertainment, and a generally friendly atmosphere. My tip: drive north for a beautiful and peaceful afternoon. Crested Butte is best accessed from Gunnison.
I make no secret of the fact that my favorite town in the whole of the US is Ouray. It is busier than the other two on this list, but it has everything you would want from a vacation town. Hotels with hot springs, a beautiful downtown district, probably the most beautiful road in the US (the Million Dollar Highway, which leads back to Silverton), and an endless number of hiking trails for all abilities - and a 200ft waterfall on the edge of town! Imagine the best of Colorado Springs crossed with a mountain town in world-class surroundings and you have Ouray.
Honorable Mention: Salida
A little further east lies the small town of Salida, which is just 100 miles from Colorado Springs. Salida may not be surrounded by breathtaking landscapes as the top three are, but it is a thriving town with outstanding food and breweries in unassuming but charming streets. The Arkansas River runs through Salida, and you can enjoy a day spent on or near the river before discovering your new favorite eatery. Salida is another cycle-friendly town, like CB.
These towns are tucked away in SW and central Colorado. Often overlooked in favor of larger and more famous places, these are all easily accessible yet relatively peaceful towns with a lot to offer the curious visitor. I have no business links with or in any of them. I highly recommend all of them!
I first became aware of the Lake City Brewing Company when I was asked to supply prints for their new building a couple of years ago. I got to know Doug and Diane a little in the process and now consider the brewery my unofficial gallery, with five (yes, five!) of my large prints hanging on the walls (Doug or I will be glad to point them out). I've been showing up as part of the band playing on Saturday nights this winter, and it has been good for me to get out and see other humans...
A couple of months ago, I had asked if it would be possible to watch the brewing process in action, and I got that opportunity in late January of 2020. I arrived at 09:00 to find Brian, Doug's brewing protégé, preparing the equipment that would be needed for the day.
The stainless steel vessels are thoroughly cleaned between batches and must remain so until the moment they are to be used. A surprisingly large volume of ingredients are required, and those were packaged for the two batches to be made over the course of a few hours.
Doug, owner and brewer, showed up minutes later with hop pellets and the two began to work. Water volume and temperature are computer-controlled, so Doug's first job was to adjust the settings.
A bar without customers, in only natural light, is a strange sight. However, on the other side of this wall a new addition to the board would be created by the end of the day (and two long weeks of fermentation). Although the purpose of the vessels seemed clear enough, there was a variety of hoses and fittings that would all be used during the process.
The first two vessels are called mash tuns. The mash is a mix of malt (malted barley) and hot water. It is during this time that starch is converted to sugar, which will later be fermented.
A heat exchanger can be seen at the bottom left, which will regulate the temperature prior to reaching the fermentation vessel.
Once the mash ingredients were added to what would soon become an Oktoberfest beer, it was time to start the new style for LCBC - a dark IPA.
With all the stainless steel and computerized controls, it was nice to see that so much of the process was still done by hand. Depending on the main grain used, inert rice hulls were added to allow for a better mix with the hot water. Some beer mixes require a great deal of effort on the stirrer's part, and cause some difficulties when draining the sugar-rich liquid, which is called the wort.
Stirring, as you can see Brian doing with much concentration, is a very important part of the job.
With both mash tuns filled, and enough time for the Oktoberfest (the first batch of the day), it was time for the next phase, which is called lautering. Lautering is the straining of the wort through the bottom of the mash tun. In this situation, the tun is raised and allowed to drain (leaving the malt and rice hulls behind). The vessel left behind is called a kettle, and this is where the wort is boiled with hops and other ingredients. The mash is removed from the tun and fed to local cattle who I'm told consider it a treat! When brewing two batches, timing is key, so the two were staggered. The boiling process takes different lengths of time, depending on the style of beer. Doug checking on the dark IPA. Brian hosed down and cleaned the first mash tun as the second drained. If properly planned, a day's brewing can be extremely productive. Doug added hop pellets to the Oktoberfest as the wort boiled. As a reminder, this all happens in the room next to the bar. A brewing operation of this size allows an onlooker like me to visualize the full process, and it's a great learning environment for Brian, who is working on his master brewer qualification. When the boiling is complete, hops and other particles are allowed to settle in a whirlpool effect before the wort is drawn into a heat exchanger where the temperature is reduced to a point where yeast can survive in the next stage.
Brian cleaned a mash tun while Doug labeled the fermentation vessels. They have been discussing the name of the dark IPA all day... Doug adding yeast to the Oktoberfest. The addition of yeast is called pitching. The fermentation vessels are left alone for a number of weeks (depending on the style). Doug took a sample from each batch in order to measure the original gravity, which is a predictor of the final alcohol content, and is compared with a final gravity reading after fermentation to calculate the ABV. Despite a relatively tight space, Doug and Brian worked in harmony and neither one tripped over the hoses!
At the beginning of the day, Brian had suggested Midnight IPA as the name (after the wheat variety). At the end of the day, Doug slapped a label on the fermenter.
I'd like to thank Doug and Brian for allowing me to observe and photograph their process. They both took time to explain each stage and made me quite welcome. I am more used to drinking their beers, and I found this very insightful, as I hope you did too!
I'll be the first to admit that I've had a challenging time recently. The accident (see last blog update) came on top of concerns about my business and its future - even my place out here. As a creative type, I also can't just continue to do the same old thing. I thought about selling my cameras at one point - that's how hard it is to make a living out here.
I now have plans and options for 2020. If you (yes you!) have suggestions, needs for my products or services, or have a contact who may want to work with me, please do get in touch. I will reveal most of my plans as and when they become more concrete, but today I am pleased to introduce my new project, the Mountain Town Diaries podcast!
The Mountain Town Diaries project has been in transition for a couple of years. It started as a photography project that I abandoned after seeing a very small potential market. I revisited the idea this summer, while listening to a podcast as I worked out in my garage, and it began to take shape early this winter.
The series will consist of a mix of my own ramblings and interviews with people who live in my tiny Colorado mountain town. At the time of writing, I have already completed six interviews with a wide range of local friends. Three introductory episodes have already been published, and a new one will be released each Friday until I run out of spare time, funds, guests or listeners. The first interview should arrive on Dec 20th.
My intention is that the podcast will offer an insight into life in the mountains (the Rocky Mountains in my case). I'll talk about the wild places I visit, while my guests will share their reasons for coming and staying out here in the middle of nowhere. I don't censor any guest, and we talk honestly about pros and cons, but I don't intend to talk directly about local unpleasantries (which are widely discussed ad nauseum already) - I'm not going to play other people's games.
The first set of interviews have been fascinating for me. I already knew each guest, but I was surprised to learn something new about everyone. There were also prevalent themes that became clearer with each interview. I am not going to spoil the show, but I do think it will be thought provoking as much as it will be interesting.
You can find Mountain Town Diaries on Spotify, Google Podcasts (hopefully Apple Podcasts in a few days) and a host of other platforms. Click here for the Spotify (my chosen platform) link.
If you would like to support this ad-free endeavor, you can make a donation here.
Over the last few years, I've done hundreds of hikes - most of them solo and off-trail. They've taken me into hazardous terrain, but I have always been cautious enough to have turned back from a challenge a few times. I always carry enough to keep me alive for a few days, and I don't plan on allowing someone else to risk their life to extract me.
However, life is full of risks, and to cut a long story very short, I was thrown from a bolting horse exactly eight weeks ago. I remember holding on, and I remember landing evenly on my back in a meadow. Somewhere in between the horse and where I came to rest, I had saved myself with an outstretched left hand. As I stood up, slightly dazed, I checked myself over - skull, spine, ribs all okay. My left arm was starting to hurt and as I looked at it I immediately saw that it was broken, as evidenced by the new kink in my wrist.
I was lucky enough to meet someone in a neighboring property who helped me reach the local medical center, where a physician's assistant and a nurse took very good care of me. After several shots of the strongest painkillers, they reduced my pain level from an 8.5/10 to a manageable 6/10 and arranged an immediate appointment with an expert in orthopedics.
To cut another part of a long story short, I had a triple distal radius fracture which was treated very quickly and expertly. I had a doctor who had once suffered a similar injury and who understood my needs as someone with an athletic lifestyle, and I believe he treated my injury with that in mind.
I had a cast for two weeks, followed by a removable splint for four more weeks. Immediately after my initial treatment, I decided to research the topic (sticking to medical studies rather than anecdotes or advice without evidence), and began to do the following:
Supplementation with calcium, vitamin D, 500mg vitamin C and curcumin (a natural anti-inflammatory).
Rest - as difficult as it is for an active person, the body needs complete rest for at least a day or two.
Finger mobility exercises - after a traumatic injury, it's important to get the tendons moving as soon as possible.
Exercise - after a few days, I started taking walks and doing easy leg and core exercises.
Diet - I usually eat quite healthily, but I cut out junk and doubled down on good sources of protein and fresh fruit and vegetables.
My plan was to give my body everything it needs in order to heal effectively and rapidly. Calcium and protein are the main building materials for new bone. Good blood flow to the injury site is critical for healing, and exercise may not be an obvious choice, but I believe it has been an essential part of my recovery. Put simply, the body needs both efficient infrastructure and fuel. I was determined to give myself every chance for a complete recovery (how many people do you know who would tell you that 'x' injury site has never been the same since?).
With one fully functional arm and one very delicate injury, I wasn't able to hike, cycle or even lift a pair of dumbbells, so it was time to get creative. I borrowed a friend's bike trainer (turns a regular bicycle into a stationary bike). I walked the roads that I would usually run. I bought a set of resistance bands and used the ankle straps just above my elbows. I added weights to my winter hiking pack and wore it for leg exercises.
It's generally accepted that the body begins to lose muscle mass after a couple of weeks without training. I think that cardiovascular fitness (VO2 max) begins to deteriorate even sooner. There are some basic facts that just have to be accepted, but the most important goal is bone healing. No activity should endanger this, no matter how tempting it is. It is easier to regain strength and fitness than it was to build it in the first place, so it makes no sense to take unnecessary risks.
Some studies suggest that muscle loss in an injured arm can be minimized by exercising the other arm. The reasons aren't clear, but I had nothing to loose by testing it for myself. In addition to resistance band workouts, I used dumbbells in my right hand and made the same motions (without weight) with my injured arm. Did it work? I can't be sure, but I haven't noticed a substantial loss of muscle in the affected arm.
Exactly six weeks after the injury, my doctor took new x-rays. The bone was healing well and I was in the "90th percentile" for progress at that point. Which of the above measures contributed to my rapid healing? It's impossible for me to know, but I strongly believe that every one of them helped. At that point, I was given wrist exercises by my physical therapist, which I did exactly as prescribed.
Two weeks later - today - my range of motion is "above average for a distal radius fracture". Again, I believe the infrastructure and fuel that I mentioned earlier played substantial roles, as did simple determination. I was told that I wouldn't be doing push-ups for three months after my injury and I took that as a challenge. When I finish typing I'll do my first set of push-ups in eight weeks.
Last week, I ran my first 10k in seven weeks. My time suffered, as did my lung capacity, but both were better than expected. I freed my bike from the trainer and rode 20 miles yesterday. It is easy to give up when a serious injury occurs, but in many cases it is possible to work around it and even speed the recovery process. Ask questions and follow medical directions. I literally hit the ground running when I was cleared for 'real' exercise because I followed the rules and didn't just give up.
The riding accident could have killed me if I hadn't landed on my left palm, but it didn't. I missed a lot of work and a few good hikes, but now I am almost healed (the bone is probably still 'remodeling' - the final stage of healing) and ready to embrace the next challenges of life.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert, and certainly not a medical professional. I chose to do what I believed would work for me. Every injury and every body is different, and your doctor should dictate your recovery plan, not some photographer on the internet.
At the end of January, during a relatively dry winter, I went wandering into a particularly dense patch of mixed forest in some very uneven terrain. I had first explored that area the previous September while hunting for fall color photo opportunities, so I was reasonably certain that I would be able to navigate once I descended into the ravine. As I followed a stream at the bottom of the ravine, I noticed two bony protrusions in the snow. A few minutes of digging revealed the largest elk antler I've seen in the forests - with the skull still attached! I tried to move it, but earlier temperature fluctuations had caused snow to thaw and freeze. With daylight beginning to fade, I decided to make my way to easier ground and head home for the day.
I have seen and heard elk in that area several times, so it wasn't entirely surprising to find a skull and antler, but I was curious as to how the big guy ended up there in the three months between my visits, and I resolved to find that same spot when the spring came.
Life happens, but it was always in the back of my mind when I hiked within a few miles of that spot. As a photographer, fall is my busiest time of the year, but as the last leaves fell and the possibility of snow increased I knew I had to make the trip again within the next couple of weeks.
On a cool morning, I headed back into that remote and unforgiving terrain to find the elk's resting place once more. After passing through bare aspens and long grass, the forest slowly became an even yet densely packed mix of tree species that sunlight often struggled to penetrate. I made a slow descent into the ravine, using glimpses of nearby rocky outcrops and hills for navigational markers and relying on my memories of features within the forest to direct me as I got closer.
One last fall photo opportunity necessitated a detour, and then it took longer than I'd like to admit to find my objective from the opposite direction, but sure enough a full elk skeleton had remained untouched by human hand. Only the antler and skull were visible in the snow back in January, but now the scattered bones showed that it was indeed the spot where he fell.
The skull and antler weighed around 15lbs and made climbing out of a forested ravine quite challenging, but I was determined to show it to one of the local experts. I attached the lower jaw to my pack and carried the rest over my shoulder.
As you can see in the photo below, his right antler had not grown properly. It was much smaller and was situated slightly forward of the usual position. The amount of teeth wear suggested that he had probably died of old age, and if that's the case he picked a picturesque stream-side spot.
I was told that he would have been a 350" buck if he still had his other full-sized antler (we think perhaps he had an accident of some kind). I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I do know he was above average in size.
At the time of writing, elk hunting season has just begun. I spotted this guy very recently; I hope he's better at hiding from people with rifles instead of cameras!
Despite living near wildlife, we usually only get short glimpses into their lives. We see them grazing or wandering across the landscape and we see their tracks in mud and snow. Bones are reminders of the transitory nature of life - for all living creatures.
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Recent PostsMy Three Favorite Places to Visit in Colorado The Lake City Brewing Company Mountain Town Diaries Sticks and Stones - Rapid Healing From a Distal Radius Fracture Finding a 350" Elk in the San Juans of Colorado The Abandoned Cabin New in Lake City, Colorado for 2018 Wildfire Safety In Praise of the Buffalo Mountain Shirt Death in the San Juans