Farewell Snow Mountain Ranch

A world of white greeted me on my final morning at Snow Mountain Ranch. Deep powder blanked my car and was still being plowed from the campus roadways. Arriving at breakfast earlier than usual, the low sunlight caught the sparkling white branches of the pine trees atop the hill at the Commons with mountain peaks glowing in the background. It begged for a photo, but for once I had no camera with me.

By the time I finished packing the car a thick low fog had descended into the valley. All was indeed white. And so were the roads. The snowpack and ice were an unwelcome addition to the roads that were clear pavement just the afternoon before, and it was a slow and treacherous drive through the local countryside.

The Berthoud Pass, which was my most direct route to Denver, had been closed the day before and through the night due to a snowslide, but fortunately reopened early that morning. I was glad for the clear sunny skies which worked their magic on the road, uncovering patches of pavement that gave my tires greater purchase as I wound my way around the switchbacks in the mountain pass. Unaccustomed to driving on my own in dicey conditions, I prided myself that my knuckles never turned white and I safely navigated the pass. My reward was stopping at the first exit on the freeway (which was mercifully clear) to rid my wipers of ice and stand in a long line in order to savor a latte.

wpid-Photo-20140310113131.jpgFinally I could relax a little and reflect on my time at SMR. That last week there finally cemented my affection for the place, and I could understand why so many senior volunteers return year after year. Good weather (no strong winds!), lots of fresh snow, excellent skiing, plentiful social events and good company all came together, and at last I knew how it felt to be part of it all. It takes a while to get acclimated to the way of life at SMR and really get to know people. I was indeed part of the SMR family. And wouldn’t you know, I reached that point just about the time I had to leave. I only wish that Rich had been able to stay and enjoy the same benefits and rewards. It was a great experience, and left me wanting to return for more.

At the Denver airport, Rich and I were reunited after a long 10 days apart while he stayed with his Dad in the hospital in Florida. We ended up cutting our time at SMR short by about 5 days, but under the circumstances, we were both ready to head for home. It was a bittersweet experience, but the bitter is fading fast leaving mostly sweet memories for me. Farewell, Snow Mountain Ranch – at least for now.


Of Summits and Snowflakes

With my stay at Snow Mountain Ranch drawing to a close, I wanted to make the most of the time I had left. My final day of work I was scheduled for an afternoon shift, which left me plenty of time to get in a decent ski earlier in the day. There was only one major trail that I had not yet skied, so imagine my delight to find that it had been groomed that very morning. Others had broken trail with back country skis, but that didn’t appeal to me, and this was the first time it had been groomed in two months. I set my heart on completing the trail.

My first hurdle was the advice I received from more experienced skiers in the Nordic Center. They warned me of the steep terrain and difficulty of the climb. I hadn’t fully grasped the fact that this trail rose 2,000 feet in elevation! Learning that I didn’t plan to bring any food and drink, they pressed a granola bar on me and I left with some doubts.

When I reached the turnoff for the Blue Ridge Trail, it did indeed climb. But I decided that I’d pursue each leg of the switchbacks and go as far as I could. As it turns out, the trail did climb relentlessly, but the climbs were not steep. And as long as I stopped periodically (okay, frequently) to catch my breath, I was able to continue. To further spur me along, the higher I got, the better the views. Feasting my eyes on at least 180 degrees of mountain ranges was inspiring, and further excuse to pause along the way. The grooming was impeccable with a firm surface despite the warming sun, and I relished the fact that my ski tracks were the first ones there. Reaching the summit was almost an anticlimax, as there was no sign to commemorate my accomplishment, nor a clear peak to the mountain at 10,670 ft. Even the selfie photo I took to show me at the summit really doesn’t prove much of anything – but I knew I’d made it.

The return trip was a glorious ride down. I was tired but thrilled I’d completed the whole trail and happy that I reached the summit. And that granola bar did taste good at the top.

On my final day, I set off with two friends for a women’s snowshoe hike. Fran has been coming to Snow Mountain Ranch as a volunteer for years, and offered to lead the hike. Patti was new to snowshoeing, so we were a motley crew of experience but eager for a day out. Undeterred by the steady snowfall, we donned our layers of clothes, snowshoes and packs with food, water, extra clothing and emergency supplies.

From Grand Lake we took the East Inlet Trail, which immediately led us into Rocky Mountain National Park. Lacking trail markers, we were glad that we could see vague indentations from previous snowshoers. New snow was piling up quickly, and our view was curtailed to our immediate surroundings. But the beauty of the heavy woods draped in snow made up for the mountains we were missing in the distance. The trail was fairly flat, following a branch of the Colorado River for a while, and meandering through the woods. Progress was slow but satisfying, allowing us to drink in the quiet of the woods.

With an out-and-back trail, the inevitable question is when to turn around? It always feels good to reach a specific destination, and Fran had one in mind. As soon as we saw the large rock formation, we knew we’d reached it. The trail narrowed along a ledge and seemed to whither away with the rock looming overhead. We all agreed it was the perfect stopping point, not wanting to test our skills scampering around the end of the rock. Taking a short time out for a snack and drink of water, we began to retraced our steps. With temperatures hovering right about freezing, the falling snow was saturating our clothing and gloves. Keeping moving was the only way to fend off the resulting chill.

Although Fran had frequently seen moose and other wildlife on that trail, we saw not a single critter. Even animal tracks were in short supply. We were the sole inhabitants of the woods, or so it felt. But that was okay. It was the camaraderie that was best about the hike, spending time with new friends and sharing an adventure.

Yes, I think I did well. Both outings were satisfying in different ways, and brought closure to my stay. And I have left plenty more to explore, hoping we’ll be back next year.

A Grand Day Out

Weather reports are fickle. I held off on my planned outing to Grand Lake until today based on the forecast for “mostly sunny” skies. So when I woke up to a world socked in with clouds, I was dismayed. Still hoping for the promised clearing, I dawdled in a cosy coffee cafe in Grandby with my latte and muffin – a decidedly leisurely way to start the day.

By the time I continued on my way the sun was starting to peak out, although the surrounding mountaintops were all still shrouded in clouds. Ever hopeful, I drove on to the Grand Lake Nordic Center. With 5″ of fresh new snow on the ground, the world was a clean soft undulating surface blanketed in white. The fact that Grand Lake touts their “pristine grooming” was comforting, and I was further cheered upon my arrival to learn that all trails had just been groomed that morning.

Heading out through the woods

The Nordic Center is a comfortable building that converts nicely from its summer personality as the golf clubhouse. Expecting wide open trails on the golf course, I was mystified but thrilled to ski straight into a vast wooded area dominated by tall pole pines. With a firm new skate deck yet a soft snowy surface, the skiing was delightful – especially since there were only a handful of other skiers out on the whole system. I was the first skate skier down nearly every trail I skied – kilometers of fresh corduroy!

Tall pole pines grace the trails

True to the forecast, the day remained mostly sunny. The sun was out all day, although the clouds remained firmly entrenched around the edges. I decided that the woods were scenery enough for me, and that I would relish the sunshine. Mountaintops could wait for another day.

As usual with a new trail system I found myself confounded by too many trail intersections, and was constantly checking my map. Sometimes I decided to just go where the spirit moved me – what difference did it make if I backtracked and covered the same loop twice? I was just out there for the fun, the outdoors and the sunshine. One portion of the trail crossed the Colorado River and paralleled it for a while. I deliberately skied that one twice. By the time I was done I think I covered nearly major piece of trail at least once.

Crossing over the Colorado River

In the end, I did find the golf course. That's where the dog trails are – designated trails where dogs are allowed, and joyfully romp alongside their skiing masters. Since no dogs had gone ahead of me, those trails were as fresh as the rest. The wind did take its toll, however, blowing snow over the tracks even on a nice day like today. All the more reason to stick to the beautiful wooded trails.

Mountaintops finally clear in the distance

By the time I finished skiing, I managed to glimpse the snowy tops of one mountain range. Settling down to eat my lunch beside the wood fire in the Nordic Center, I had the same view out the window. Glorious.

A few days off work, good weather and a trip to new territory has done wonders for my psyche. As nice as it is at Snow Mountain Ranch, it's good to break the routine and do something new. Yes, it was a grand day out. (with apologies to Wallace and Gromit!)


Campus Life

It's been a long time since I lived on a college campus, sharing a small room, eating in the dining hall and meandering all over the sprawling grounds to the various buildings I frequented. But it all came flooding back as I settled into life at Snow Mountain Ranch as a volunteer.

SMR, as we call it, covers over 5,000 acres in a valley in the Colorado Rockies. As a family and conference center, it has a wide variety of facilities, as well as the usual lodging and dining halls. Being run by the YMCA of the Rockies, there is a big focus on outdoor, athletic and family activities, spawning a pool building, gym, yoga center, riding stables and craft shop as well as the Nordic Center for cross-country skiing, tubing, sledding and ice skating venues. And I'm sure I haven't discovered many of the offerings.

My own world revolves around a few select sites. Home is in Pinewood. It's the residence hall for us “seniors” and is the usual long hall lined with doors and small motel-like rooms. Doors slam, footsteps echo down the hall, but late night parties are not an issue. And this time I got to pick my roommate! After almost 31 years together, I knew Rich and I would be compatible.

Moving into Pinewood

Two connected rooms have been converted to a lounge for us, and is frequently filled in the evenings by those interested in watching TV and playing games. My first week here, I made it a nightly habit to wander down to watch the Olympics with those gathered there. It also happens to house the notebook entitled “Senior Trips.” There we can sign up for various planned activities or post suggestions for group outings. It's worth keeping up with the list, as the Y often provides free and convenient transportation for the events.

Pinewood is connected to the main lobby for SMR, with a two-sided gas fireplace, comfy chairs and a good internet connection. It's a very pleasant place to sit and read or visit. In the evenings it is frequently overrun by us seniors.

The Craft Shop, where I work, is on the far end of the campus from Pinewood. Lacking plowed sidewalks, and with roads that are narrow and slippery, walking is not as easy an option as I'd like. Unlike college days when I walked everywhere, I frequently end up having to drive for safety sake. For someone as committed to a healthy life style as I am, it goes against my grain. I'm sure it would be different in the other seasons. But for winter, a car is fairly essential.

At the Nordic Center

When I'm not working, the Nordic Center is my favorite haunt. There I get my free ski passes, rent any equipment I like, gratis, and check the latest grooming reports. It happens to be the most sought after place for volunteers to work, helping skiers, selling ski clothing and equipment and handling rentals. Perhaps one day I can work my way up the ladder to a position there! For the meantime, it's the hub of the 60k of ski trails on SMR property and starting point for any day's ski.

And finally, the Commons where we eat. It is the central cafeteria that feeds all the lodge guests at SMR as well as its staff members and volunteers. It definitely brings back memories of the old cafeteria lines in college. This is no newfangled, upscale food station style cafeteria which some of my kids enjoyed in college. It's the old food line with trays, steam tables and mass produced food. In its defense, some of the dishes are pretty good. And I regularly hunt down the healthy offerings – an abundance of fresh fruit at breakfast, seedy bread for sandwiches and the fruit bowl at lunch, and build your own salad ingredients at dinner. Fortunately, their desserts aren't at all tempting, but I still wish for some ice cream now and again.

The Commons - our dining hall
A table of Senior Volunteers

The main attraction of the Commons, though, is social. The senior volunteers always sit in about the same spot, gathering around the tables in random order as we arrive. It's the best place to meet others and get to know everyone better, or find out what's going on. It's a retreat between work hours, or a leisurely visit on our time off. It's easy to spot our group – we're the gray haired folks with SMR fleece vests and badges hanging on colorful lanyards around our necks.

I wouldn't want to do it year-round, but for a brieft winter stint when we can enjoy the mountain views and endless opportunities to ski the trails, it's a good life. I'm quite enjoying being back on campus.


Crafty Lady

I've always enjoyed doing crafts. Sewing, needlepoint, counted cross-stitch, knitting, crocheting – basically all types of needlecrafts and beyond. So it seemed a natural to sign up to work in the craft shop for my volunteer job at Snow Mountain Ranch.

Stepping in the door for my first shift, I realized in short order that these were crafts of an entirely different nature. I'd call them camp crafts. Things you do at scout camp or in specialty craft shops where you might go for a kids' birthday party activity. The set-up accommodates a large number of people at long tables well stocked with supplies. All around the shop are examples of the various crafts available for kids and adults to do. Ceramics, leather work, wood burning, tie dying, jewelry making, wooden models to assemble and paint and mosaics are just a few of the offerings.

Our largest set of customers are families. Moms and Dads come in with the kids, who eye all the projects like candy and eagerly select something to work on. The best part is watching families working together, parents helping out their kids and often making things together. And since they are on vacation, they are happy and relaxed. As staff members, our job is to help them pick out projects and teach them the techniques involved if necessary.

I felt a bit out of depth at first, but soon discovered that the only way to learn was by doing. On weekdays traffic is light, so I picked out several projects to make as shop samples. My first attempt was leather work. I'd never done it before, and soon found it fascinating to pound in the designs, stain the leather and stitch together the final project. I finally had my first skill I could share!

From there I progressed to ceramics. We have hundreds of pre-made ceramic pieces that range from figurines to dishes and mugs. For that project, I actually purchased a “scoop bowl” and made it for myself. It took surprisingly long to cover it in three complete coats of glaze. The fascinating thing is that the colors are pastel when painted on, but come out of the kiln in brilliant shades. My design was not exactly intricate, but I was pleased with the result and knew what tips to pass along to our customers.

When the shop manager challenged me to paint a T-Rex dinasaur, I was stumped. I felt I needed to come up with something creative and eye-catching. One of the young seasonal workers who happens to be an artist helped drum up some examples for me on the internet, and that spawned an idea. It took me forever to paint the base design with its detailed shapes – in three coats no less – but then I was able to let my imagination run wild. Adding dots and doodles was the final touch. I couldn't wait to see it come out of the kiln the next morning. I think the reault was quite stunning!

I then turned to mosaics. The more complex process involves grouting the tiles, so I undertook that challenge. I had no idea how to go about it, but enjoyed each step as it was explained to me. By the time it was finished, I felt quite accomplished.

In between I learned the techniques for tie dying and where to find things in our immense inventory. When a busy weekend shift rolled around, I was armed with enough knowledge to jump in and play the expert. Kids' eyes gleamed when I showed them how to do things, and parents watched proudly.

I can see now why my original skills were not applicable. I can't imagine families coming in and knitting together. But my underlying aptitude for hand work was still a benefit. My family has always called me the Crafty Lady. Now I have a whole new set of techniques to add to my resume.


Snowshoeing Take 2

With a late shift for work there was plenty of time for a snowshoe expedition, so Dee and I set out once again to tackle the snow. In contrast to our last outing, this time the temperatures were mild, the wind low and the sun was shining. Much nicer!

We chose the Waterfall Trail, which started out along the ski trails then ventured off through a valley and eventually rose up the hillsides. Some intrepid backcountry skiers had decided to ski the route, so it was easy to find our way alongside their tracks. With the sun beating down, we quickly shed layers, hats and gloves as we grew warm while trudging uphill. The blue sky made for a dramatic backdrop to the scenery, enhancing the experience.

As we neared the waterfall, we could hear it trickling down. It wasn't a big opening in the snow, but the water was definitely flowing. It left icy formations around the edges of the snowy hole and a pleasant sound in the otherwise silent forest.

Although the clouds began to gather and eventually the sky became completely overcast, we decided to extend our walk to do the Coyote Tooth trail. That one had not been used since the last snowfall, so we were relieved to find that it was very clearly marked. We did a lot of climbing, but whenever we reached openings in the trees we were rewarded by expansive views. It was fun to see the ski trails on the opposite hillside, as if on a map in front of us. Eventually we were able to see out over the whole valley. Had it not been snowing in the distance, the mountain views would have been stunning.

Our final descent was a series of switchbacks to make our way back down the steep hillside. The actual distance we had covered was disappointingly small, but it didn't come close to measuring the amount of effort we'd expended tromping around in the snow all morning. It felt good to see the car in the distance and complete our trek. Another successful snowshoeing adventure under our belts.


Sudden Change in Plans

It's not what we had planned at all. But life has a way of throwing us challenges and curve balls when we least suspect it. And our job is to do the right thing and make the best of it.

For me, our stay at Snow Mountain Ranch got off to a rocky start (pun intended!) when I brought along the flu and shingles bugs I'd been harboring for two weeks already. Energy zapped and battling the symptoms, I've had to scale back my normal instincts to hit the trails and spend as much time skiing as possible. It's not easy when surrounded by mountains and opportunities to ski and snowshoe. But my body tells me otherwise.

Then came the phone call. Rich's dad was in the hospital, and needed a family member to come be with him and see him through surgery and recuperation. Less than 24 hours later, Rich boarded a plane for Florida without booking a return flight. He's where he needs to be, and the YMCA was more than understanding about his sudden resignation and departure.

It feels strange to be here without Rich. Life goes on, and perhaps fortunately my work schedule has me busy for the next 4 straight days. I am surrounded by caring fellow volunteers who have quickly become our friends, and they are all looking out for me.

Just at the time we long to be connected and be able to talk, Rich and I are technology challenged. My phone has no service here, and Rich doesn't have internet at his Dad's house. Text messages are the best we can do, and arrange to talk via Skype when we can work it out. Between work schedule, hospital hours and the time difference, that's not always easy. In an age of instant communication, we feel the gap acutely.

The plan is to be reunited some time late next week – just in time for our return to Minnesota. It's doubtful we will linger on our trip home as originally planned. I expect instead we will be anxious to return to some semblance of normalcy.

Our memories of Snow Mountain Ranch may be a bit tarnished. But in no way is it the fault of the program. It lived up to all we expected and more, and there are many highlights we will remember fondly. And it's likely we will return. Hopefully next time things will go more according to plan.