When people speak of the East-West divide, I’m convinced they mean the division between the eastern and western United States. Plenty of my East Coast friends had never been west of the Mississippi River (except to go to California, which, in my totally unbiased opinion, does not count), and vice versa for many of my Denver-based friends. I don’t hear a lot of weird questions about the East Coast out in Denver, probably because so many TV shows are set somewhere out east. Really, the only question I get on that score is: “Is Baltimore really like The Wire?”
The answer being: “Pretty much.”
So most of the odd questions I get from one half of the country about the other are East Coasters asking about Colorado, which has featured in such pop-culture icons as South Park and Red Dawn. For all those who were still curious about these points, here are the verbatim answers to a few of the more common questions I’ve received over the years.
Q: Did you ski to school?
A: (Sigh) First of all, we have these things called snowplows, which perform the amazing feat of scooping the snow off the road and piling it on the side. Revolutionary, I know. If we had a raging blizzard, we might have had a snow day, or if the roads were dangerously slick, there was a delay while we waited for the ice to melt somewhat. Secondly, it doesn’t snow all the time (see later questions for a more detailed explanation of that shocking phenomenon). Thirdly, most of Denver is flat. The area around Capitol Hill is, well, a hill, but everything east of the mountains is flat enough to have reliable roads that we can, you know, drive or walk on. Like just about every other city.
Q: So…you don’t ski to school, then?
A: (Deeper sigh) NO.
Q: How’s the skiing in Denver?
A: A side note: I was never sure if this question belied a basic misunderstanding of geography, or if people just used Denver as a stand-in for the whole state of Colorado. Either way, I usually had to give a fair bit of explanation to address both issues.
Every picture taken in Colorado features majestic mountains in the background somewhere–I get that. Even pictures of downtown Denver are taken facing west. Since these pictures are usually taken on a clear day that puts the mountains in sharp relief, they do tend to make it look like the Central Business District simply arose from the same material the mountains came from.
However, only about half the state is mountainous. Towards Utah, you have the Colorado Plateau, which is gorgeous country–but it is mostly flat. Denver and other cities in the Front Range actually sit on the edge of the High Plains, which, as the name indicates, are flatter than a pancake. For about an hour after you cross the Kansas-Colorado border, you could be confused as to whether you actually left Dorothy’s home state, since the mountains aren’t even visible until about a hundred miles in.
And finally, yes, I did say “other cities on the Front Range.” Sure, Denver is the largest city in the state of Colorado. The city itself combined with the suburbs and towns surrounding it contain half of Colorado’s population, or about 2.5 million people in that area alone. If you throw Boulder and its surrounding towns in as part of the Greater Denver Metropolitan Area, you have three-fifths of the state population (three million people, for my fellow humanities majors). But the other two million live elsewhere–some in towns up in the mountains, but a lot in cities like Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Trinidad, all of which sit next to mountains as well.
So to wrap up all this exposition at long last: The skiing in Denver? Non-existent. The skiing in the Colorado Rockies? Extreme. To the max.
Q: So do you-all have indoor plumbing?
A: Okay, to be fair, I never got this as a question. I did, however, once manage to keep a straight face as I told a few of my college classmates that my family had updated to one of them newfangled flush toilets just in the past year. They believed me, and I spent about the next half hour convincing them that it was a joke.
Again, Denver is a city. It might have a different character than Baltimore, DC, or New York, and we have a different sense of fashion entirely (more on that in another entry, but suffice to say that freshly washed jeans and non-muddy hiking boots constitute formalwear in most cases), but we do have modern conveniences. We even have Nordstroms stores, something that continually amazes my Albuquerque-born-and-raised boyfriend. So yes, the toilets flush, and yes, you can even put toilet paper in them.
Q: Isn’t there snow year-round?
A: This question isn’t as dumb as it seems to some of my Denver friends. I have gotten snowed off hiking trails in June, July, and August, although this only happens in the really high peaks. And there are places in the mountains where hardcore skiers can find patches of snow on which to practice their skills even in the dog days of August. Again, though, this is just in the 11,000+ foot range.
The part where I smack my forehead is when I get the rephrasing of this question: “You mean it gets hot in Denver/Colorado?!”
Yes. Yes, it does. At a mile above sea level, we’re usually at least ten degrees cooler than the coastal regions, but you do the math on what that means when you’re sweating through 105-degree weather. Our 95-degree weather is still preferable, especially since the climate is so dry that sweating actually works, but it still makes going out in the daytime a dismal proposition. The mountains are better still, but at best, there will be a fifteen-degree difference between the city and the valleys. Either way, those who pack their long underwear for a July visit are in for an unpleasant (but hilarious for the locals) surprise.
Q: And finally, what the hell happened to the Broncos?
A: (Sigh). Lemme get back to you after I kill the Jack Daniel’s.
Alrighty. First Elway retired. Then Pat Bowlen got his undies in a bunch after a spectacularly awful playoff game in 2008 and canned Mike Shanahan who, it was noted two years later, at least managed to *get* the damn team to the damn playoffs. Then last year, Bowlen finally noticed that Josh McDaniels sucked more balls than a golf course vacuum cleaner and canned him before the season ended. Then the temporary head coach actually put in a lineup that could intercept passes while scoring touchdowns of their own, thus using the last few games to utterly fuck up Denver’s chances at getting first round draft picks. So yeah, it could be a while before we see another playoff season. Now I have to go out and get another bottle of J.D.
With all the hulabaloo on the East Coast this week and temperatures continuing cheerfully into the nineties here in Denver, focusing my Thursday post on skiing seems…unseemly, somehow. And while I racked my brain for an appropriate response to the earthquake using one of my own experiences from the six years I lived out in Baltimore, I couldn’t come up with anything that fit the situation.
Instead, please enjoy this chart I made about a trend I noticed as I read Facebook posts on Tuesday:
I would also like it on the record that we had a 5.3 earthquake here in Colorado just before midnight of that same day, and you didn’t see anyone breaking a sweat about it. This is mainly because it was near Trinidad, which is pretty much the edge of civilization. The closest thing we had to a panic was this supposed exchange between a state trooper and a little old lady:
Little Old Lady: “Is this the end of the world?!”
Sheriff: “Ma’am, we’ve all got to die sometime.”
Also, the owner of a liquor store lost over $1000 worth of merchandise. This was probably more upsetting to the residents than the actual earthquake was.
At any rate, stay safe. And for those of you on the East Coast who own liquor stores, you can probably find lawyers who are willing to sue the North American plate for damages.
Tuesday nights are family dinner nights. We all convene at my grandmother’s house in Centennial, a good deal south of the city, for some conviviality and food that is, on occasion, edible. Because her house is so far outside the city center, there are no buses that run in that direction from our apartment, leaving us no choice but to drive. As my uncle constantly stocks a healthy supply of good Scotch, this leaves one of us playing DD while the other slides closer to the land of Warm Fuzzy Happiness.
It should be noted that my boyfriend loathes driving. Our relationship seems, at times, defined by gender roles–their reversal, that is. As I have frequently explained to hapless guests at Grandma’s dinners when asked why I don’t cook or bake, “We have a rule. Ethan’s not allowed to drive, and I’m not allowed to cook.” Neither of us derives any pleasure from the respective forbidden pastime, Ethan actually likes to cook, and I sometimes enjoy driving. At the very least, I curl into a whimpering fetal position if I have to watch Ethan behind the wheel.
But there are exceptions. I can make a mean jambalaya, and I’ll consent to let Ethan drive so I can imbibe Scotch. Every week, I drive to Grandma’s. Every other week, when I am pleasantly buzzed enough not to pay any mind to my boyfriend’s unintentional attempts to reduce my car to a pile of wreckage, he drives back.
This particular week came at an unusual time in Denver’s meteorology. Usually June and July are dirt dry. The monsoons hit in August. Clouds gather in the sky throughout the day, unleash their fury for about fifteen minutes at around 4 p.m., then disappear into the sunset. This July, however, meteorologists in Denver, usually driven to alcoholism in any event by the weather’s capriciousness, could only throw up their hands and predict that the monsoons had come early. Clouds gathered in the morning, subsided the city under sheets of water in the afternoon, then returned in the early evening to wreak further vengeance. By the second week in July, the Denver area had gotten triple the average rainfall for that month.
So when the sky started flashing with lightning and a steady downpour overtook us when we got on the highway after leaving Grandma’s that evening, this was nothing unexpected. Ethan hunched a little tighter over the wheel and drove with more caution than the situation warranted, but that was also not unexpected. I teased, “I know you New Mexicans have never heard of this whole water-falling-from-the-sky thing before.”
“Nope,” he replied through clenched teeth. “Water comes from the ground. This is just unnatural!”
The rain got a little harder by Yale Avenue, three miles from our exit. It was enough to turn the lights along the highway into an orange smear and give halos to brake lights, but it wasn’t unnavigable. Ethan stayed a respectable distance from the car in front of us, making sure to turn where he did. Only at one point did I gently have to say, “You’re in two lanes.”
It was only when we got to our exit that the road turned into a four-lane waterway. The rain came down so heavily that we couldn’t read the sign as we passed under it. The view outside the windshield was nothing more than a streak of orange from the lights. Ethan sped up to catch the guy in front of us–our only hope for figuring out how to get off the exit.
University Boulevard wasn’t any better. In fact, without the washed-out orange streetlights, there were no defining features to guide us home. Occasionally, the entire sky would rip apart with lightning, enabling us to somewhat distinguish the sky from the trees on either side of the road. But we had no way of making out lane lines, intersections, or even the curb–except when we passed too close and the right side of the car sank in a puddle halfway up its tires.
After getting five blocks in twenty minutes, I squinted through the dark until I was able to find a parking lot. “Turn here,” I instructed Ethan. He did, and only when it filled my window was I able to see the “One Way” sign pointed the opposite direction. I laughed and pointed it out to Ethan.
“Not like it matters,” he said. “Doesn’t seem to be anyone else here.”
“Not to mention, I can’t even see where the other way is from the lot,” I concurred.
Ethan pulled into what might have been a parking space and shut off the engine. The rain hammered down with such ferocity that I wondered if I would have a roof when all was said and done. I checked my phone. 9:20.
“Let’s give it ten minutes,” I said. “It should lose its intensity by then.” I chuckled. “Denver weather,” I began.
“If you don’t like it, wait five minutes…” Ethan continued.
“Or move five feet.”
We sat back and watched the spectacular light display outside. The rain rocked the car back and forth. As soon as light burst across the sky, thunder roared down, vibrating the car. I looked at Ethan out of the corner of my eye.
“Wanna make out?”
He smiled and leaned over the cup holder. As the lightning struck so near that I was vaguely worried about the car getting hit, our lips met. We closed our eyes and gently exchanged kisses.
Ethan pulled back. “I kind of have to pee.”
I checked my phone. 9:24 and the storm didn’t seem to be letting up in the slightest. “You could just go outside.”
“I might as well just go in my pants.”
“Don’t you piss in my car!”
We sat and gawked at the storm. I soon realized that the vibrations weren’t so much from the lightning as Ethan doing a modified pee-pee dance for the car.
Lightning struck a nearby telephone pole, so close I could see sparks. I nervously checked my phone.
“It’s 9:28. Maybe we should wait another few minutes? I mean, this doesn’t seem like it’s easing up any, and I’m still too drunk to take over.”
Ethan put the keys in the ignition. “Screw it. Let’s just go.”
We pulled out of the parking lot and back onto University. The visibility was just as bad as before, but to complicate matters, Denver’s roads were not designed with inch-an-hour rainstorms in mind. A few inches of standing water had accumulated on the road. Ethan tried to stick close to someone ahead of us. Our two cars inched along, flashers on as a warning to any crazy types who might try and push past.
Sure enough, someone who was likely from Texas jetted by. They pushed aside a huge wave in their wake, a virtual tsunami that crashed over the left half of the car and rocked us slightly to the side. Ethan had pulled as far to the right as he could when the other car passed. Our own passenger side wheels kicked up a wall of water that reached halfway up my window.
We finally reached a major intersection at University and Exposition. The light, we could just barely tell, was green. The car ahead of us, already crawling along at under five miles an hour, flashed surprised brake lights as it went into the middle of the intersection. Indeed, the car appeared to be plunging into a small lake almost up to its wheel wells.
Ethan slowed down as well, but with a look of determination on his face, he pushed the car through the intersection. The water that splashed up on both sides of the car rivaled it in height, and I could have sworn some of the puddle reached my door.
Newly bathed, we soldiered on. We went through Cherry Creek, strangely haunted without boob- and dye-jobbed sorority sisters stumbling home after a night of trying to pick up sugar daddies in the steak houses and martini bars.
After 6th, we began to climb a hill. I foggily noted the river that appeared to stream down on either side of the car. The water would come to a drainage and get violently rejected–too much already in there.
The intersections were far worse. With each one, what used to be Josephine Street and was now the Josephine River would meet another washed-out stretch of asphalt, and the car would plunge into a puddle that threatened to engulf its tires. Each time, Ethan would audibly grind his teeth but lightly tap the accelerator, nudging the car forward as its tires overcompensated for being mired in a lake.
“Don’t swamp my engine,” I groaned.
“Car’s still running,” Ethan grimaced.
Finally, miraculously, we reached our abode at 14th. I remembered that this intersection had a nasty habit of collecting water even during mild rainstorms.
“You thought you were fording rivers before,” I told Ethan.
“Yeah, playing ferry boat captain isn’t exactly in my job description!”
The light changed before I had a chance to finish my warning. Ethan took the turn slowly, however, and while the crests of water on all sides of the car called to mind Moses parting the Red Sea, and even if I swore I could feel a little water trickling in beneath the door and kissing my shoes, and even if the car’s movements did give a whole new literalism to the term “fishtailing,” somehow, we made it through and pulled into the parking lot behind our apartment building.
I got out so Ethan could nestle the car up against the wall enough to get out of the other drivers’ way. I left the outer door open for him and ran upstairs to unlock the door to our apartment. When he came up, I rubbed his shoulder.
“You just won the Three Testicle Award tonight,” I told him.
“Thanks. Mind if I go pee?”
And he rushed inside, occupying the bathroom for what seemed like an eternity. I sat down to read a book.
Fifteen minutes later, the storm was nothing more than a drizzle.
My cousin’s boyfriend knew a decent restaurant in West Vail. I pulled off the exit and circled around the Holiday Inn lot, trying to find parking.
“Dammit,” I grumbled. “Looks like everyone else had the same bright idea we did.”
Fortunately, due to all the fresh snow being dumped on the ground, a parking space that probably wasn’t supposed to be appeared soon enough. I’m pretty sure I actually parked on a lawn, but with all the snow, nobody was able to tell.
The restaurant had a forty-five minute wait–everyone else had, indeed, gotten the same bright idea as we had.
“Put us in,” my cousin’s boyfriend (whom I shall now address as Milo, for confusion’s sake) sighed.
We got some coffees and a chai from the coffee bar attached to the restaurant. Milo paid for my chai to thank me for driving.
“Thank me if we get home in one piece,” I remarked, though I certainly didn’t turn him down.
My boyfriend hadn’t come with us to the Beav because he’d felt a little stuffy and lethargic. “If we were just going to Copper, where we have a pass,” he explained, “I’d do it. But those tickets are too much to waste if I’m not feeling well.”
Since I’d likely be putting the ticket on my card, I had to agree. Besides, my boyfriend eats the way perfectionists do everything: at length and laboriously. With him in the group, we wouldn’t have hit the slopes until noon.
I called to tell him he hadn’t missed much. When I relayed the story of the lightning, he made appropriate oohs and ahs.
“Shit, I’m glad I didn’t come!”
“No kidding. Especially since we can’t even get back to the condo. Are the boys back yet?”
“Nah, I think they’re still skiing.”
“Fuck, really? I thought there’d be lightning all over this side of the Divide!”
“Guess not. Haven’t seen any here. Oh, the Eisenhower Tunnel’s closed.”
I swore vigorously. That tunnel was our only conduit home–if Vail Pass opened back up, that is. First things first.
“Well, I’d rather be stuck in the condo. At least I have clean underwear there.”
We shot the shit for another few minutes. I checked the time on my phone. Another thirty minutes until we could conceivably get a table. I wandered over to the counter where my cousin and Milo sat.
“Anything interesting in the news?”
“Crossword puzzle,” my cousin said. I hovered over her shoulder to take a look. It was the New York Times Sunday edition, and I could only figure out a few of the clues off the top of my head.
I needed a break after fifteen minutes, so I wandered off to use the bathroom, taking my own sweet time getting there and back. I still only killed another five minutes.
My cousin and I worked on the crossword puzzle. Milo and I started a new hobby that would occupy us for the better part of the afternoon: calling CDOT’s hotline to find out if they’d opened up the damn pass yet.
“Anything?” I hopefully asked as he got off the phone.
“Nope. But they just shut down I-70 all the way to Georgetown.”
“Fuckin’ A! They’re supposed to open the highway, not close more of it off!”
He shrugged. “Well, if we manage to get out of here, we can at least get back to Silverthorne.”
“If we can get out of here,” I sighed.
Another eternity passed. Finally, we got called back to a table. In spite of our interest in taking our own sweet time here, too, we wound up wolfing down everything put in front of us. After lingering over our iced teas, coffees, and, in Milo’s case, beers, we figured we were running down our server’s patience.
We paid up and wandered into the hotel lobby. All the seats were taken, so we stood awkwardly by the window, anxiously checking the sky. The storm seemed to be lessening somewhat, although compared to “total whiteout,” this wasn’t saying much.
Milo dialed the hotline again.
“Vail Pass closed, Eisenhower Tunnel closed, I-70 closed to Idaho Springs.”
“Well, shit, if it’s moving east, we should be able to get out of here sometime soon,” I mused.
We all turned back to the window. Maybe the ease-up was just a figment of my imagination, because we couldn’t see across the highway.
“You think they’re gonna open it back up tonight?” my cousin asked.
“Christ, I hope so.” I stared out the window some more, looking for any sign of a clearing. “But maybe not.”
“Maybe we should get a room before they all fill up,” she said thoughtfully.
I glanced around the lobby. It had thinned out a bit, probably from people having that exact same thought.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “And the Holiday Inn is probably going to be our cheapest option in this town.”
We stared at each other, lips pursed. My cousin shrugged. “Up to you guys.”
Milo and I looked at each other, then at the window.
“It’s, what, 1:30 now?” I asked. They nodded. “I say we wait until 4:00. If it hasn’t opened by then, we’ll see if we can scramble for whatever they’ve got left. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get back to the condo if that becomes an option.”
Nods of agreement. “I don’t have anything to change into,” my cousin said.
“Yeah, neither do I. Without clean clothes, I can guarantee I am not up to Vail standards. Not even West Vail.”
“The prices are bullshit,” Milo agreed.
“Besides,” I added, a new thought giving me a sudden ray of sunshine that the view out the window would not, “it’s Sunday night. They have to open that pass back up–this is an interstate highway! Can’t have all those trucks getting bogged down and losing big business money!”
And so we settled back into our crossword puzzle, content in the knowledge that we would be somewhere, anywhere besides West Vail by this evening.
2:00 rolled around and the lack of individual crosswords for each of us grated on our nerves. Milo, sensing that our pleasant camaraderie was soon going to be reduced to, “STOP BREATHING NEAR ME!” wandered out to get his own New York Times. We divided the sections amongst ourselves on his return.
At 3:00, we’d exhausted all the interesting articles in the sections we’d traded back and forth and were now going back to read about exciting new frontiers in the world of wallpaper design.
Periodically, we’d called for updates from CDOT. Not only were Vail Pass and the Tunnel still mockingly closed, the closure gates had been dropping farther and farther east on the highway, first at the junction with US-6, now at Floyd Hill. I stuck to my guns.
“If they’re shutting it down that far east, that means the worst of it has to have passed us,” I reasoned. “Hell, they might have crews working on the pass right now. They’ll open this up, we can eat in Silverthorne, and then maybe we can even get back to Denver tonight.”
Milo grunted. My cousin squinted at the crossword puzzle and asked, “Anyone know the name of a major European tributary?”
At 3:30, I called Ethan again. “Fuck my life!” I wailed.
“With a sixty-pound chainsaw?” he asked. I snarled at him. “So, the boys are back,” he said when I was done. “They had an awesome day. Epic pow at Copper, apparently.”
I applied my forehead repeatedly to the table and hung up.
At 3:45, we examined the road with a critical eye. Fifteen minutes to our self-imposed deadline, and still no word on when the pass might open back up.
My cousin and I had the crossword puzzle a quarter of the way done. Anytime my cousin stated a clue out loud, Milo would sit back, cross his arms, stroke his beard, and reply, “Oh, I don’t know. Is it…Poundtown?”
At 4:00, I had started drawing nonsensical patterns in the margins of the newspaper. My eyes had acquired a wild sheen, I had noticed on my every-ten-minutes trip to the bathroom.
Milo dialed 511.
“Nada,” he said.
We looked at each other, glassy-eyed.
“They have to open the pass back up,” I croaked. “I don’t think I wanna drive it if it’s dark, but it’s not dark yet.”
Milo and my cousin nodded solemnly.
At 4:15, 4:30, and 4:45, there was no new information. My cousin would ask for clues to the crossword–“It’s the capital of Uzbekistan,” “It’s an ingredient commonly found in West Indian cooking,”–and Milo would reply, “Poundtown.” Only instead of getting more aggravating with each repetition, my cousin and I would holler and guffaw more loudly, holding our sides and lowering ourselves to the floor to gasp for air.
“It’s gonna be like the sequel to The Shining if we don’t get out of here soon!” I screamed at Ethan.
“At least we have a TV,” he gloated.
“Fuck you!” I shrieked.
At 4:55, something was happening. Milo dialed 511, but this time, they were updating their available information. We held our breath as he hung up and dialed again at 4:56. Still updating. We agreed to wait until 5:00. In the intervening three and a half minutes, we stared intently at the phone, hoping by the force of our gazes to make this pot boil.
5:00 barely registered on the screen when Milo snatched it up and dialed. Confusion, then joy, spread across his face. We held our breath.
“It’s open! Eisenhower’s open, the pass is open! We can go home!”
We screamed for joy and ran out of the Holiday Inn, barely attracting the notice of the receptionists.
As soon as we got to the on-ramp, however, there was a problem. It was closed. “Must not have gotten the notice,” I said as I inched forward with the other five billion cars to Vail’s main highway entrance.
Ethan called. “Hey, so they opened the tunnel.”
“I know! They opened the pass, too!”
“Cool. So…mind if I go home with the boys?”
I was terrifically, horrendously jealous of him for being able to get home before us, but then again, it would be one stop I wouldn’t have to make on the way back. “Sure, go ahead.”
Meanwhile, Milo had dialed 511 to see what all the fuss was about. “Well, shit.”
“Shit?!” my cousin and I exploded.
“Turns out Vail Pass isn’t open. Everything but Vail Pass is open.”
I swore. By now, I was in the clusterfuck of a traffic circle that constituted Vail’s main entrance and exit, and I got in the innermost lane to turn back around to our West Vail haven. Just as I passed the on-ramp, however, I spotted most of the cars that were in front of us getting on.
“If the pass is closed, why are they letting people on here?”
Shrugs all around. I cursed even more vigorously. I’d missed the boat on getting on here.
I drove the mile back to West Vail and went through that circle again. The on-ramp was still closed. Once again, I joined a creeping length of cars making for the Main Village. This time, I followed the rest of them onto the highway. At 6:00, one hour after we left the Holiday Inn and nine hours after we’d left Silverthorne that morning, we were finally on the road home.
Traffic moved slowly over Vail Pass, but that was okay. Even with the plow crews still working the road, the road was slick. Traffic moved slowly past Silverthorne and screeched to a near-halt in the Eisenhower Tunnel.
“Why the hell are we going three miles an hour? It’s dry in here!” After fifteen minutes of what should have been a two-minute drive, we had our answer. Some asshole had neglected to fill his tank before entering the tunnel. He was pushing his Jeep Grand Cherokee out of the tunnel solo, his shoulder to the passenger side door. At least he was almost out of the tunnel when we passed him.
The rest of the road was snow-free.
“Why’d they shut this down?” Milo queried as we shot past Georgetown, Idaho Springs, the US-6 junction, and Floyd Hill, able to go the full 65 miles an hour on desert-dry pavement.
“Who the hell knows why they do anything around here?”
At 8:30, I dropped off my cousin and Milo. At 9:00, I staggered up my own stairs. Ethan was waiting in the kitchen for me. He looked me up and down, walked across the room, and gave me a heartfelt hug and kiss.
* * *
Going over Vail Pass is always a risky proposition. Not because there are a particularly large number of fatalities, but because the favorite hobby of CDOT operations managers is closing down that stretch of road for hours at a time.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I will refrain from further pilgrimages to stick my face into the Beav. Far from it–this year, I’m getting an Epic Local Pass almost entirely for the promise of ten days at the Beav and her big sister, Vail.
Coloradans. You can either admire our tenacity or admit the truth: We are just about the dumbest people on earth.
Beaver Creek is a truly epic place to ski, and not just for the jokes. Hell, some of the local business owners must either have a raunchy sense of humor or, in the case of one liquor store, had knocked back too much of the retail. Even though the selection was merely adequate, I still highly recommend that visitors to the town of Avon do their shopping at Beaver Liquors.
The day my cousin, her boyfriend, and I decided to plunge into the Beav last season, we started our day with bagels and distinctly NSFW jokes with our other cousins.
“Hope the Beav isn’t too hairy,” came the first quip.
“Are you kidding? At least the hair keeps that nice, wet, white stuff in. Otherwise, she’s a frigid bitch.”
“If you’re lucky, they’ve groomed the Beav.”
“But hopefully not too well. I like a few bumps on her.”
Having scared off the other customers, my male cousins headed to Copper Mountain. Our car headed out to explore the Beav’s secrets made its way out of Silverthorne and on to Vail Pass, one of nastiest stretches of interstate a car can go over in the wintertime.
It was snowing and the road was slick on the ten-mile stretch of 6% grades and sneering curves, but that was to be expected. “It always snows over the nasty mountain pass,” states a subset of Murphy’s Law, or at least, it should. But I’d expected this.
“Goddamn cocksucking motherfucking son of a shitfucking bitch!” I growled once every thirty seconds or so, gingerly sliding the car around a truck that was more concerned about staying on the road than my eagerness to get to the slopes, goddammit.
“Wow, you’re in a chipper mood today,” my cousin said, perfectly earnest.
We slid into the shuttle lot without hitting anything or throwing anything at the trucks. We had a deceptively easy time gearing up and getting on the shuttle. At the ticket counter, I got my discounted ticket thanks to my cousin’s Epic pass–discounted from a Benjamin and change to $80, but a discount nonetheless.
The snowstorm had followed us over Vail Pass and merrily billowed about while we were on the chairlift, but this was also to be expected. In fact, this was excellent–new snow, especially if the storm stuck around all day, meant a constantly refreshed supply of fresh snow to carve new tracks into throughout the day. We were a little giddy with excitement when we got off the lift that led to the Talons, Beaver Creek’s most challenging set of runs.
At the top of the run that would take us there, two employees frowned nervously at the sky. One pointed at a lead-gray beast of a cloud that advanced at a rapid clip, and in the opposite direction from where the storm had been coming earlier. Our group frowned at it, too, but this was Colorado. Weird clouds and unpleasant conditions came with the territory.
While we could accept ugly weather, ugly snow conditions were another matter. The gentle snow this morning and a season of glorious powder days gave us hopes of soft, silky champagne powder for our first run. We expected–demanded, even–a vigorous warm-up run on a gentle intermediate slope. Instead, the projected swish of skis and boards through soft snow turned out to be a grating skkkkKKKskkkKKKKssskkkKKKK as we dashed our edges against frozen concrete.
Turning was impossible. Sideslipping was slightly better, but not by much. There was nothing to dig our equipment into, no way to keep from flailing across the run and hoping downhill skiers got out of the way. The few flakes that continued to settle on the ground merely added insult to the injury we were already inflicting on our precious skis and snowboard.
After ten agonizing minutes on a run that should have taken three, we reached the longest chairlift in the Talons section. We were out of breath and afraid to look at our waxed fiberglass boards of choice. My cousin’s boyfriend spoke up.
“Man, this sucks.”
My cousin and I agreed.
“Seems like a waste of a ticket,” he said to me.
“Yeah, but their liability notices are pretty clear. They don’t refund tickets for any reason.”
“This snow’s awful! We can’t do shit on this.”
“We could ski somewhere else,” my cousin suggested.
“Yeah, the stuff at the bottom looked like it was slush, at least. Still not great…” I shrugged.
“Shit’s all greens, though,” her boyfriend snorted.
By now, the light snow that had accompanied us got heavier. The wind kicked in, blowing it straight into our faces.
“Crap snow and bad weather? I think you could get a refund out of them,” the sole guy in our group persisted.
“Probably not a full refund, though.” I looked gloomily down at the run beneath us, one of the longest and steepest at the Beav. The moguls popped out of the run in stark, sharp-cornered relief. No indication of fresh snow, or any snow, on those puppies. “You lose a turn down there, and boom,” I added. The other two nodded glumly.
“Up to you,” he shrugged. He turned to my cousin. “What do you think?”
She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. If there’s good snow somewhere else, I’ll ski it.” Doubt hung heavily on the if.
“I think the only good snow’s on the greens. Let’s go down. I’ll see if I can get a partial refund.”
The other two nodded enthusiastically, and not a moment too soon. A gust of wind kicked up, tilting our chair at a 45-degree angle. The lift stopped. The snow that had been smacking harmlessly in our faces before now acquired a bite. Small thwacks rang in our ears and on our cheeks.
“What the hell is this? Hail?” my cousin’s boyfriend shouted.
“Hail is frozen rain,” my cousin yelled back. “This is frozen snow.”
“Snow’s already frozen!” I bellowed.
The wind whipped at us anew, threatening, or so it seemed to me, to blow the cable our chair was on right off the lift towers. I peered at the run below us. We were about twenty feet up, and the pitch and snow offered no mercy.
I took a chunk of ice to the ear. “It’s snail!” I declared proudly, mostly as a distraction from thoughts of my imminent death.
The chair jerked forward a few feet. I started to cheer. Another gust of wind blew us precipitously over to the side, and I squelched the cheer as we ground to a stop.
A flash of light burst to our immediate right. Before we could articulate the first word in, “What the fuck?” however–
All three of us immediately looked down. If we jumped, we were guaranteed to break something at a minimum. The drop was too long and the snow was too hard for us to get away with our bodies and equipment unscathed, and the run below was too steep and bumped out for Ski Patrol to get up with a snowmobile. They’d have to come down bearing litters, which was probably the last thing they wanted to do at this particular time.
On the other hand, we were on a metal-frame chair, supported on a metal cable, right next to a metal lift tower that was about as high as the surrounding trees, and my cousin and I were wearing metal-coated skis. I thought I could smell ozone, and I could tell by the utter lack of downtime between the strike and the thunderclap that it had hit on this peak.
“Oh my God,” my cousin whispered. “Holy shit.”
“It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna be just fine!” I forced out. It seemed like the appropriate thing to say. The wind continued gusting, but the chair lurched forward. It inched along, pausing occasionally but not for long, and sooner than I thought possible, the top of the chair appeared through the raging whiteness.
We hurtled off the chair as soon as our skis met ground. Though the conditions on this run were the same as our first, we still made good time, urged along by a few more helpful flashes of lightning nearby.
We shook as we pulled into the base area and removed our skis. I marched downstairs to the ticket office. There were quite a few people in line before me, and I was confident that I would get a full refund, no questions asked. Still, when I arrived at the counter, I had my convincing argument fully prepared:
“Hi there was lightning on the chairlift and I thought I was gonna have a heart attack and die can I have a refund?”
The sweet old lady behind the counter pulled her face into a genuine expression of horror. “Oh, no! Well, first I have to ask if you want to ski tomorrow. We’ll give you a new ticket for free.”
I gave it serious consideration, but ultimately I had to sigh. “Stupid job,” I said.
“I understand,” she murmured. She set to work on the refund, and thirty seconds later, the $80 was back in my bank account, ready to be squandered on some new piece of frivolity.
I rejoined my cousin and her boyfriend. “I just got two runs on the house!” I crowed.
The shuttle nudged downhill cautiously through the ten feet of visibility. I remarked, “I hope Vail Pass is still open.”
My cousin’s boyfriend dialed CDOT’s hotline. “Still open as of now,” he said.
“We’re gonna have to make serious time if we wanna get on it before they shut it down.”
Back in the car, I made as much haste as I could with the crappy visibility and the thickening layer of ice on the road. Just another day in Colorado, I tried to remind myself.
My cousin called the Copper Mountain group and got voice mail. “Hey,” she began, giving a wicked grin. “Turns out the Beav was hairier than expected.”
The hoots and hollers that erupted in the car were quickly silenced within a mile of Vail. VAIL PASS CLOSED, a sign read. ALL TRAFFIC MUST EXIT.
I sighed and got in the exit lane. Just another day in Colorado, indeed.
TO BE CONTINUED…
It was an ugly day in Denver, made uglier by the fact that I needed to drive out to Aurora for an MRI. I’d injured my right knee hiking two weekends prior, and this necessitated a doctor’s visit to get a referral for the MRI so that I could go back to the doctor to have him interpret said MRI.
To lessen the pain of having to drive out to the ‘burbs, my boyfriend and I decided to get Chinese food at an excellent little restaurant there first. As we hopped in the car, I took a look at the sky. It was dark, there was an odd greenish tint, and the air was perfectly still.
“Huh,” I said to my boyfriend. “Kinda looks like all those pamphlets warning you about tornadoes.”
And with that, we got in the car and drove off.
The drive was mostly uneventful for the first two-thirds, save for the occasional hammering rain that completely obscured my view. Once it cleared and I could split my attention between driving and talking, my boyfriend and I discussed our visit to the Tattered Cover the day before.
“So I was looking through this one section, and I found this one book–”
I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and looked up.
“You found this one book,” my boyfriend prompted.
“…” I said.
“…” my boyfriend replied. I stared at the sky some more.
“Are those clouds SPIRALING?”
My boyfriend looked up as well. “Those clouds are totally spiraling,” he affirmed.
I pursed my lips and stared at the red light. The proper thing to do in the event of a potential tornado is to park the car, get the fuck out, and run into the nearest building, where you assume a fetal position and shit yourself.
I looked up at the clouds happily spinning themselves right above my car. “Well, shit,” I declared, and turned when the light changed.
The spiral clouds hovered directly above us for the next seven blocks. At a major intersection, the guy in front of me decided not to brave the yellow light and stopped, forcing me to do the same. My boyfriend gave a brief eye to the bizarre clouds, then did a classic double take, staring straight up with his mouth agape.
“WOOWWWWW,” he shouted.
I looked up. The clouds were spiraling still, all right, and they were coalescing with a vengeance. I recalled a tornado warning during my teen years. Some idiot had stood outside in a parking lot right under a developing funnel cloud, taken a picture, and submitted it to 9News. This was a direct copy of that image, right down to the angle.
I looked at the obstinately red light, which I couldn’t run because of the car in front of me and the cheerfully oblivious traffic zipping along the cross street. I looked back up at the funnel cloud.
“That is definitely moving down,” my boyfriend announced enthusiastically.
“I don’t want to die!” I shrieked. I inched the car forward. Maybe the tornado would descend somewhere else along the road? Maybe it would touch down anywhere else besides right on top of my frickin’ car?
Apparently some traffic engineer somewhere had been working for Yahweh, who clearly hated me, since the light stubbornly refused to change. The funnel cloud spun faster and continued steadily downward.
I envisioned a tornado touching down right on top of my car, pressing the roof in with its force. Then it would suck the car, us still in it, into the sky. We would hover for an instant before the capricious force of nature hurled us end over end into one of the houses here, destroying both building and car. We would feel the impact only briefly before the car settled in front of the Pearly Gates. My mother, who had died three and a half years previously and left me this car, would be standing there. She would stare at us as we extricated our dizzy selves from the car, wanting to find out how the hell we were there a good sixty years ahead of our time. Then she would regard the wreckage of her precious car. A more important question would burst out of her with enough violence to send the winds tumbling and foist more tornadoes on the hapless bystanders still standing: “WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO TO MY CAR?!?”
I was simply not prepared to deal with this today. I inched the car forward, almost kissing the bumper in front of me, hoping the guy in front of me would realize the danger and bolt.
“It’s so 3-D,” my boyfriend whispered in awe. I decided that I would him aloft, telling the tornado it could have him if it left me alone.
I stared at the light. It fixed its unchanging red eye on me. Sweat trickled down my forehead. I resolved not to blink until the light changed. A drop of sweat reached my eye, and I flinched, then blinked.
When I reopened my eyes, the light had changed. I blasted through the 25 mile-an-hour zone at 55.
“Is it still on top of us?” I shouted at my boyfriend.
“No, I think we managed to outrun it.”
“It could still touch down and come our direction and KILL US ALL!”
My boyfriend didn’t have anything to say to that. A few drops of rain began to fall, joined by a few more and finally a whole Greek chorus as I burned rubber past a school zone. I fished around in the cupholder and grabbed my phone, which I handed to my boyfriend.
“Here, take a picture,” I said.
Alas, we had gotten too far away to get a good image of the funnel cloud, and my hopes of getting a shot at local news glory were dashed. The rain poured on us the remainder of the way to the Chinese restaurant, where we filled ourselves up appropriately for having nearly died.
The MRI didn’t uncover what was wrong with my knee.
Later that night, I discovered what you are supposed to do in the event of a funnel cloud (besides the whole “getting out of the car” routine that I so flagrantly ignored): apparently, you’re not supposed to post a message about it on Facebook in the attention-whoring hopes that your friends will say, “OMG!!!” and ask for details. You’re supposed to call the National Weather Service and calmly alert them that there could possibly be a tornado brewing in the area, tranquilize the tornado, bring it in for tests, tag it, and release it back into the wild. Or perhaps I’m confusing my nature documentaries.