Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, December 20, 2012


So, I moved at the end of the summer. My commute was too unpleasant (35 minutes to work, 45 to get home), and anyway, I wanted to live in a city. I had never lived in a big city before. While technically in Denver, I was in a very suburban area. And while technically able to ride my bike and walk to a few places from my old apartment, it's not very pleasant walking where a steady stream of heavy traffic is whizzing down the four-lane road at 45 mph.

One of the best things about the move was that it allowed me to escape having to use I-25 to get to work. This is the congested highway that runs north-south along the populous Front Range area. Here's a shot of I-25 during rush hour that I took from an overpass near my old place. The traffic is flowing here, but closer to downtown, for a large portion of every evening, it's simply stopped. I don't think Denver traffic is that bad in general, but the horror of I-25 (and Colorado Boulevard, to name another road that should never be part of your commute) make up for the lack of gridlock in the rest of the city.

My new place is in the Cheesman Park neighborhood of Denver, in a converted duplex from 1903, and it has large windows and hardwood floors:

And a rickety sunroom off the back:

There is a small backyard, here dusted with an early October snow:

I very much wanted to have an apartment in a house rather than an apartment building, for several reasons. I hadn't anticipated, though, that it would make my apartment actually feel like a home - I have a front and back door, a back yard, and well, the apartment feels like a house because it pretty much was (the bottom floor of) a house up to a certain point.

A view from the back yard, showing the giant apartment building next door.

I had had a particular... and long, now that I look at it... list of characteristics I was looking for in an apartment:

1. On a quiet street (I'd spent the last 2 years living right next to the highway in the first picture)
2. No more than 20 minutes from work
3. Within biking distance of my 2 closest Denver friends, grocery store, library and post office, plus the bar where I go dancing... together these make up 95% of the places I go outside of work
4. Somewhere I would feel safe walking at night
5. A 1-bedroom rather than a studio, the better to have parties, which I do often
6. On the first floor, so I can get my bike in and out easily
7. In a neighborhood with enough parking that I never have to park more than a block away
8. In a house, not an apartment building
9. With hardwood floors, so I can practice/teach dance moves
10. With some character - not built in the last 40 years and looking just like 500 other apartments in the city
11. With my own entrance or with the ability to buzz guests in (not wanting to go all the way down the hall to let in each of my 12 party guests on a given night), and
12. Under a particular budget (cost of utilities included)

I managed to get all of these except for #2 - it takes me 22 minutes to get to work if there's no traffic. Now that I've lived there for a few months, some things turn out not to be as important - I probably could entertain in a studio if I set it up right, and I really haven't made use of the hardwood floors for any dance lessons. My very favorite thing about the place is actually that the grocery store is 2 blocks away. Though I never have any food in the house now, because I can pop over for just a bagel and a yogurt anytime I want... sometimes I go there 3 times a day. They are open 24 hours. It's a King Soopers, but some of my friends call it the Queen Soopers, because the neighborhood is seen as being pretty gay. I do not know if more gay people actually live here than in other places.

What I do know is that the actual park (above, looking toward the skyscrapers of downtown) has a history as a gay cruising site -- where men go looking for other men to have sex with. It was a bigger deal in the past, but there's still some activity. It doesn't trouble me -- well, it doesn't affect me at all. If I lived next to a park known for drug deals or robbery, that would trouble me. So if you go for an evening walk in the park, you will see men sitting by themselves waiting to see if other men make eye contact with them. You will also see lots of people walking babies and dogs, students studying or playing frisbee, and the occasional person smoking a joint on a bench. I did see a guy walking a pig a few weeks ago, but that is not usual.

This is near my house. The fence is all gone except for the gate, placed so as to block the one place you might want to walk. Footprints in the dirt show where people walk around the gate.

Also nearby... an exercise bike at a bike rack.

A couple of the more charming characters that live in the neighborhood are not people, but mailboxes. These mailboxes, at 12th and Lafayette, lean toward each other as if they are friendly. And in recent times someone has taken to giving them personalities through graffiti. Below, some photos from around the web:

Each time, the post office comes and spraypaints over it, and eventually they get graffiti'd again.

And again.

The above seems to be in a different style than the others, making me think someone else got in on the action.

This time the writing and the shape of the hearts is different. Does it mean anything?

The eyes on the green mailbox are different this time.

How many artists?

Above is the most recent incarnation, on election day, the drawing and writing back to the original style. I bike past this intersection regularly, but nothing new has appeared so far. Of course everyone thinks it's ridiculous that the postal service keeps painting over them, but I imagine they might think it's ridiculous too. 

Amusingly, while I was searching for mailbox images, I found this: you can now get your very own t-shirt with an image of the Denver mailboxes on it.

Some other observations about my neighborhood: it's pretty clean, and people are weirdly obsessive about picking up lost mittens, scarves, hoodies and baby shoes and draping them over shrubs/walls/branches near the sidewalk, as if the original owner might be coming back looking for them any moment.

Also, there are a lot of hipsters. I am bringing this up not because I want to be another blog documenting (or lambasting) the hipster phenomenon, but because I think it's funny that when I lived in the suburbs and only saw a hipster once in a blue moon, I thought their outfits were extremely stylish and unique. Wearing a fedora with a flannel shirt! But within hours of moving to the city and seeing approximately 3,000 other young people dressed just like that, I realized that it wasn't about trying to have your own look. It was about trying to look like everyone else. If I see one more person with giant glasses, a mustache, a scarf, skinny jeans and converse all-stars riding a fixed-gear bicycle with a PBR in the basket, I'm calling the cops. Which should be this afternoon.

From around the web:

Weirdly, mustaches are a big thing for women now. If you google something like "hipster mustache," a large proportion of the pictures will be women with mustaches. Not real ones, though. That's a little disappointing. Authenticity is, apparently, dead.

That ends my photos of the summer. But I have a lot more from the fall to get to. In my next post, we'll enjoy inauthentic participation in a culture that has nothing to do with hipsters.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Chop wood, carry water

Two (more) adventures with Kris.

Still catching up on photos from the end of the summer... Kris and I rode in the Tour de Fat, which is a bike parade put on by the New Belgium Brewery, makers of Fat Tire beer. It takes place in many cities over the summer. Last year I had done the one in Fort Collins, but this year I did the one in Denver, which was huge. People are encouraged to dress up, and then we all bike extremely slowly through the city.

It was fun getting to ride on streets normally taken up by lots of car traffic, like York (above, with flock of geese overhead) and 13th. Several of the people riding had big stereo systems attached to their bikes, and 80s gangsta rap was a popular choice of music... I think this is a Thing, but I'm not sure what to call it. Anyway, in the below video you can get a sense of what it was like to be in the parade.

Here we are coming up Lincoln, maybe? It was so crowded we had to take our feet off the pedals and shuffle along with dangling feet for much of the "ride." Also below, see some fellows dressed as Mormon missionaries with grade school backpacks, and King Soopers.

Above, Kris stabilizes herself during a stop on the back of one of the stereo setups, which was being pedaled by another king and his jester. The king had a scepter which he swung about meaningfully during the ride, until the head flew off. (If you are wondering whether I was also in costume, well, not really. I was wearing a cowboy hat and a flannel shirt, but I'm not sure that counts as a costume in Colorado.)

We were passed by a cute couple riding with their arms on each other's shoulders. Then a seemingly random  young man with kilt and older woman with sequinned dress decided to do the same, which was even cuter.

Here is some of the bike parking after the parade. There was a festival set up in City Park with beer, shows, and stuff, but after watching the yo-yo show Kris and I had to leave, because we were going backpacking.

We went to Goose Creek, which is somewhere southwest of Denver. We weren't going to be hiking very far, and somehow we decided that this meant we could bring a six-pack of beer. Which is still pretty heavy even if you're only going a few miles... in fact, I'm pretty sure beer weighs the same no matter how far you carry it. So we decided that we should start drinking it as we were hiking.

This photo is ridiculous. We were trying to build a fire and there was a big log up the hill that looked like we could roll it down toward the fire. Kris went to roll it and it fell to pieces. It was completely rotten, feather-light. We took turns shooting pictures that made us look like Mountain Women.

Some of you may remember my trip with Jess to Dominguez Canyons, in which we accidentally left the stove on all night and used all the fuel and had to cook over a fire for the rest of the trip. You may also remember the trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, in which we set Kris's stove on fire, twice. Well, before this particular trip I thought, "Maybe I should ask her if she's tested her stove since then." And then I thought, "Of course she has." So I didn't ask. But I should have asked.

The stove did not work. On looking into the bottom of it (for the first time ever, possibly), we found that one of the o-rings had been melted a little. It couldn't connect properly to the fuel canister. So we had to cook over the fire. Hey. We had wood-fired pizza, it was great. And beer.

The next day, Kris used my fine-pointed tick tweezers to pull the o-ring out, and put it in upside-down, so that the undamaged side would make contact with the canister. This worked, which allowed us to boil water for oatmeal without my clumsily dumping the water in the fire like at Dominguez Canyons. Then we set our remaining beer in a stream to stay cool, leaving Kris's hydration bladder too so we could fill it up on the way back to camp that evening, and we set off on a day hike to the old pump house.

Goose Creek flows through a valley of granite weathered into knobs and boulders. Some time ago, someone decided that they could make a dam by simply pouring cement into the holes between the boulders. They set up a camp in the Lost Creek Wilderness to accomplish this, but the project was abandoned before completion.

The carved letters on the doorway of this old house read, "Lost Creek Hilton." Below, an oddly weathered granite outcrop.

Mysterious machinery was rusting in the sun at the site of the old pump house.

If you hike a ways on a faint trail past the old pump house, you will come to this overlook of a lovely valley with stream and more granite boulders, with no obvious safe way down into it.

So many giant boulders lay together they formed cave-like environments, with clean floors and fire rings where people had camped, and with beautiful shafts of sunlight for taking pictures.

It was lots of fun. The joy of cave exploration without the cold mud, danger of getting lost, and head injuries of actual spelunking. Although come to think of it, I did still bang my head really hard at one point. Hm. So hard it still hurt an hour later. And then somehow forgot about it till just now.

We went back to camp and found that our beer was gone from the stream, along with Kris's hydration bladder. Kris went up the hill to make sure her wallet was still in the tent (it was). But this put both of us in a bad mood.

I tried my best to imagine that whoever had come by hadn't seen our tent, and stood there by the stream agonizing for several minutes over whether the items were forgotten and ought to be cleaned up, the wilderness brought back to its natural state, or whether the beer & bladder should be left there in case someone was returning for them. They called out, I imagined, searched and searched for some sign of a campsite, but finding none, eventually decided the items had become litter. I imagined it was a mom and dad and small daughter, their first time in the wilderness, and that the father was saying to his little girl, "Yes, I'm not sure but it looks like someone forgot their stuff. It's good to pick up litter, so we'll carry these back to the car."

Because it's just too rotten to imagine that some other hikers deliberately stole our stuff.

Unlike the city or the beach or the park, the wilderness is generally filled with folks who went to some trouble to get there, who did that because they really love to hike and want to do that and nothing else, who are already carrying a lot of their own stuff, purchased at great expense from REI with their yuppie white people money, and who have no inclination to take your stuff as well. Crimes of opportunity -- "Hey, they left their backpack on that towel, man, take it" -- rarely occur when you have to hike for two hours to get to the opportunity, and where everyone in the area is perceived as belonging to the same group (for instance, hikers) as you. I've been leaving valuable stuff around campsites my whole life and have never had anything stolen. The very idea that a fellow hiker or camper would steal something is abhorrent.

But now, not only did we have to deal with that disagreeable thought, we had no beer for supper.

Somehow we survived, and put the fire out and went to bed in the wind and the cold. And some indeterminate time later, Kris woke me up.

"Do you hear something?" she said. I did. It sounded like crackling. More startlingly, I also saw something -- light playing on the walls of the tent, as if we were back in the city and trees were tossing about under a street light. Our fire had started itself back up.

Well, there was no use groaning about the cold. There was an unattended fire burning in a bone-dry Colorado forest in September. So I put on some clothes and enough boots to cover all of my feet and we stumbled out to look at the fire. It was still in the pit.

We wanted to put it out with even more water than we'd used the first time, but we didn't have much water. There was that stream down the hill, but we didn't have much means of carrying water up from it -- untreated, the stream water would contaminate any container we used, and so we needed to save at least one of our containers to carry drinking water in tomorrow. (We could technically have filtered the stream water, but no way were we going to sit next to a stream for 15 minutes in the freezing cold pumping water that was just going to be thrown on a fire.) With Kris's hydration bladder gone and mine reserved for drinking from, that left us one Nalgene, which we decided to supplement with the plastic bag our pitas came in and another bag, and our cooking pot, so we'd each carry a container in each hand.

As we labored back up the hill it was clear that the plastic bags were compromised, so we tried to go fast. It is very difficult to run up a forested hill in the dark without spilling water out of your cooking pot. We put the water on the flames and the coals until we could put our hands on the coals, and then we went to bed again. In the morning we hiked out.

This is the view from just outside the wilderness area. There was a fire here. All over Colorado are mountainside swaths of bare and blackened trunks, each dead forest ugly and majestic at the same time. The small plants and wildflowers begin again immediately after a fire, of course, but the devastated trunks seem to last forever.