Sunday, May 13, 2018

Seeking Refuge in an Unlikely Place: Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

After departing the Rocky Mountains and heading back toward the Midwest, I had a few months of uncertainty ahead. The plan was to spend some time house-sitting, visiting friends, and putting together the logistics required for a more stable lifestyle as opposed to the semi-nomadic one I had been living for a year and a half.

I stopped to camp outside a bar in Idalia, Colorado. The bartender at the restaurant graciously allowed me to set up my tent in a clearing in a field just off the parking lot. I had taken the small Highway 36 just north of I-70, and began weaving my way on back roads through northern Kansas and Southern Nebraska. As most in the country may assume, this part of our country is a bit flatter than other areas, but nothing will make me forget the seemingly endless miles of Sunflower fields in full bloom I passed as I rushed back to Cedar Rapids. 

Riding almost non-stop on the 1982 Yamaha Maxim 650 for a day and a half, my goal was to make it in time for a fantasy football draft. Although my auto-draft secured me Le'Veon Bell for my first pick, by the time I arrived at my buddy Kip's house it was already the fourth round and the rest of my team didn't shape up so well. After I secured Kirk Cousins for a steal in the tenth round, I continued on Highway 151 north out of Cedar Rapids towards Dubuque just along the Mississippi River. 

I had arranged to meet up with my college friend Andy who had been taking care of his grandma for the past few years in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Not to beat a dead horse, but many people outside the Midwest likely have no idea how beautiful the landscape in Wisconsin is as you drive past the mighty Mississippi. The rolling hills and rocky outcrops you pass make this area one of my favorite rides in the country (that I've been on at least). I arrived just in time to spend a few days with Andy and his family, and make it to Packers Stadium for opening day with the Seahawks.

Oshkosh sits on a lake that is known for it's world class ice fishing during the winter, and the nearby Wittman Regional Airport is home to the Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) AirVenture air show. The latter is the largest show of it's kind and draws aviation companies and enthusiasts from around the world to this small town every summer. The nearby EAA Aviation museum houses World War II aircraft, unique glider prototypes, and replicas of "The Spirit of St. Louis" and the Wright brothers original flyer. My favorite exhibit was a rare Air Force collection of World War II nose art. These paintings of risque women and other slogans adorning the noses of vintage aircraft told an amazing story of the young men who risked their lives during the war.

Before some of Andy's family had to get on a plane back to California, we made the drive just south of Oshkosh to visit Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1941 to provide a sanctuary for migratory birds and waterfowl, the refuge is one of the largest in the country at just over 33,000 acres. Jointly managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Horicon Marsh (as it is called) is a shallow lake bed in a limestone bedrock that was shaped when the Wisconsin Glacier receded around 12,000 years ago. Although the underlying bedrock formation extends all the way to Niagara Falls, the marsh has dimensions that record approximately fourteen miles long and three to five miles wide.

Waterfowls, butterflies, and other critters find refuge in the marsh. Although not an unlikely place for the critters, but apparently it is for a lot of other people. Most people are genuinely shocked when I tell them about Horicon Marsh—one of the largest protected wildlife refuges in the country—and its location in the middle of Wisconsin. I don't know why it is such a surprise for listeners to hear that Wisconsin could be home to such a pristine and ecologically important place. Just as much as I feel people in the Midwest should venture outside of their comfort zone, so too should people living anywhere else in the country. And, hopefully, Americans can begin to form opinions for themselves regarding the places, and the people, living in different parts around the United States.


Prior to my final weeks before leaving Iowa, I bought a truck and a trailer and hoped that my "new" 1999 Ford F150 would survive the haul out to Colorado with two vintage motorcycles in the bed, and hauling a custom built trailer with everything that I owned. As I drove through some heavy crosswinds traversing Nebraska, I was thankful the loaded trailer didn't tip, and the smaller bias-ply tires withstood the increased miles (these tires are designed for shorter trips, like transporting a boat a few miles from storage to the lake).

After arriving back in Denver, I began the search for jobs and a place to live, all while living in a flower shop with Stephanie, the florist with whom I had started a relationship three months prior. Due to past long-distance relationships that didn't work out, I felt this move was what was needed to overcome most of the hurtles to make this one work. I thought wrong, and the day I moved into a small studio in the Capitol Hill Neighborhood was the day we broke up. Well shit. 

So that's why I live in Denver now. I have been working as an instructor for indoor gym facility for toddlers called Great Play, providing developmental, motor skills, and sport activities for children—and a whole lot of fun in the process. One of my job descriptions is "Comfortable being inundated with hugs and high fives." So yeah, it's not a bad gig. I manage the weekends with three days off during the week, and for someone who hasn't had an alcoholic beverage for almost a year and a half, I'm okay with this scenario.

It's Mother's Day 2018, which means it's exactly two years since I moved away from Iowa and began traveling for a year and a half before making the decisions described in this post to settle down in one place again. From the Appalachian Trail, to Mongolia, to the Smoky Mountains, to Honduras, to Nicaragua, to El Salvador, and then three months of living off a motorcycle back in the States, I could have never anticipated the path of the previous two years, and taking advantage of the opportunity to do so was one of the greatest decisions of my life.

Yeah, I'm sad the relationship with Stephanie didn't work out, but it didn't break my spirit. If that brief relationship was the catalyst for me deciding to settle down again, if it was the reason I 'sought refuge' again, then it has helped me focus on other positive things in my life. I've been able to more effectively finish an eight month editing process on my book, External: Backpacking through Life on (and off) the Appalachian Trail, and get a polished copy of the manuscript submitted to an agency just this last week. And if there is anything that writing this book has taught me, you can never predict the outcome of many life scenarios, but we can learn from most of them, and manage our expectations more effectively as we continue to put one foot in front of the other—whether we're on a trail in the middle of the woods or living in a city.
Photo Credit: Krystian "Snap" Repolona
I may decide to post three mini-blogs I wrote about living in the flower shop, under a new URL titled "Boyfriend Bouquets." (Sort of an ode to a break-up, but we'll see.) More importantly, I plan to keep writing about new adventures as I move forward with the publishing process of the book, and I'll be sure to keep you posted with outcome. But for now, I need fix a broken throttle cable on my 1980 Yamaha XS850 Special, and call my mom. 

Happy Mother's Day,

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

American Roadtrip: Revolutions

(Continued from The Making of an American Roadtrip and American Roadtrip: Reloaded)


The engine and exhaust pipes were still hot after the brief stop at the overlook near the Tetons outside Jackson Hole, so I made sure the small child didn't burn his legs as he straddled the leather seat of my motorcycle. He and his brother both loved bikes (according to their parents who were present), so I graciously allowed each of them to have a seat on my 1982 Yamaha Maxim XJ650. Their tiny legs were just the right length to touch the top end manifold, so I hand-positioned each leg so they wouldn't burn themselves and a photo could be taken and sent to their parents.

I said goodbye to Anthony, my riding partner for the last week. Our journey from Iowa to this point had included over twelve hundred miles of riding through extreme heat, rain, and camping in thunderstorms at the beginning of July 2017. He headed back to Iowa and I continued south. After a night at Hoback Campground next to a river that shares the same name (a waterway that connects the Snake River and Granite Creek), I stayed on U.S. Highway 191 through Pinedale and continued along this flat stretch of road until I reached Rock Springs, Wyoming only a few miles north of the Utah border.

I stopped at a small coffee/bicycle repair shop called The Bike and Trike. I stayed in this cafe and chatted with the owner. I took advantage of some time off the bike to continue the beta reader edits of the manuscript I had completed for a book while traveling in Honduras a few months prior. It turns out that I wrote a lot of stuff that did not need to be included in my book, External, a tale about the obstacles I faced both on (and off) the Appalachian Trail, and what it took for me to complete the 2,189 mile thru-hike. So I filled myself with caffeine and began reading, writing, deleting, and writing all over again. It's actually a very therapeutic process and if you ever have the time and resources to evaluate many life events over and over again, I highly recommend it.

After a few hours off the bike I decided it was time to saddle up and get back on the road. My intention was to camp somewhere near Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, and a few storm clouds were slowly creeping into view in the distance. I stayed the course along 191 and managed to skirt past the storm for the most part, but the cool drops of rain that I did pass through were a nice contrast to the warmer temperatures earlier in the day. Also, as storms usually do, the colors produced both before and after this weather system were absolutely stunning. I had to pull over, do a small hike, and snap some photos of the surrounding landscape. This area near Ashley National Forest has lots of pullouts denoting rock formations and petroglyph locations. Very nerdy but amazing things for a geologist (me) to see as he rides his motorcycle through the area.

Click here for a video of this area!
After crossing the Flaming Gorge Dam, I pulled into the Firefighters Memorial Campground as the sun was setting. I quickly set up my tent, unpacked the bike, and headed the short distance down the road to the restaurant at the Flaming Gorge Resort where I ordered some fish and chips and watched the beginning of the sunset slowly sink behind the horizon. According to the notes in my financials spreadsheet, I was not impressed with my dinner but my memory of that evening is only filled with the couple I met from France who were traveling through the area. It was a pleasant conversation with a few people from across the pond.

The next day, after my morning coffee at the campground, I once again loaded my life onto the bike and headed for the Highway 40 interchange in Vernal, the road that would take me into Colorado and the western entrance of Dinosaur National Monument, and give me the opportunity to finally see the exhibit hall housing the famous Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry. This "wall of bones" as it is called is home to over fifteen hundred Jurassic aged dinosaur fossils, and although many of it's original specimens are on display at museums all over the world, here you can still see many different species and actually touch some of the 150 million year old fossils!

After a late breakfast at the B&B Restaurant, a small ma' and pop location in the small town of, wait for it, Dinosaur, Colorado, I headed south on highways 64 and 13 through the towns of Rangley and White River City before making my way into Rifle located just along Interstate 70. Although I normally try to avoid major highways while on the bike, I made the necessary ride along I-70 so I could reach my friend Elise's house in Glenwood Springs where I would be staying for the next few evenings.

I arrived in Denver a week before my college buddy Evan was tying the knot with his beautiful bride Becca just outside Grand Lake, Colorado amid a scenic backdrop near Rocky Mountain National Park. The wedding was held at The Winding River Ranch and attendees from all over the country set up tents around the grassy areas of the venue. The morning of the ceremony, a group of college friends and myself set out on a relatively easy day-hike inside the national park. The trail was quite crowded with families which is probably why we didn't anticipate any excitement besides what one might expect for a stroll in the woods.

We ventured a little further into East Inlet Trail; the crowds became more sparse and only three of us remained in the group after others turned back to get ready for the wedding. As Jake, Peter, and myself began our return to the trailhead we became engaged in a philosophical conversation about religion, politics, life, and any other topic that seems to emerge while embracing the open-minded serenity that hiking in the mountains provides. The conversation was so riveting that we didn't notice the momma moose grazing just a few feet off the trail to our right. (Literally a few feet off to our right!)

Her initial movement startled us in a way that can only result from the sudden appearance of a seven hundred pound animal. She made a loud, audible snarl and moved quickly from her position off the path and darted back in the direction of her two calves who were on the other side of the trail. We had found ourselves directly in between them (not good), so momma decided to play roulette with Peter and I around a small tree (Jake had found safety a few feet away with a different tree).

We circled the tree while the moose did the same, and I felt the press of Peter's hand up against my back. Although we have known each other since we were college roommates, there's no doubt in my mind that Peter would have used me as a human shield if needed in that moment. Thankfully, momma moose felt she had enough of this trivial game and darted back towards her calves, however, her positioned remained on the trail only twenty feet away (or whatever my memory thought twenty feet away looked like in that moment). We tried scaring her further into the woods by making loud noises and throwing rocks and sticks at the ground near her feet. This likely would have done the trick with a lone moose, but momma was protecting something more precious than our well-being, so she once again charged in our direction. Apparently she loves playing roulette-around-the-conifer.

Peter and I once again got to practice our happy feet while shuffling around the tree in response to whatever direction the moose was moving. Let's be clear: she was huge. This was a big animal in the woods using whatever energy she had to ensure the survival of her offspring, and we had inadvertently become her primary targets. I was scared. I don't even remember how long this second round of roulette took place as my only instincts were to keep this tree between me and her. Looking at my watch to know how long it lasted was not of a high priority.

When she was satisfied with her efforts to secure the safety of her calves and finally returned to them, I was still breathing as if I had just finished a 5K race, even though I had barely moved. Peter's hands had gone from pressed against my back to tightly gripping my arms on both sides. As he released his grip, we all looked at each other in pure astonishment and also pure terror. I can't speak for Jake or Peter, but I have come across bears in the woods, even a momma bear and her cubs who was also displeased with my presence, but I have never been more scared in a wilderness experience than when this momma moose charged at us that day.

The wedding went off without a hitch, except for the only one that mattered. We danced into the evening while enjoying an oxygen bar and a wall of donuts shaped like the Colorado state flag. As the campfire began to dwindle, the hard-core attendees held their ground and watched the final embers burn out. I'm only assuming because I wasn't one of them. It had been a long day for me, what with the moose and all. It had also been a long few weeks preparing and embarking on the motorcycle roadtrip that had brought me here to enjoy these days with old and new friends alike, and I was tired.

Although I had been deciding where to live for a few months at this point in 2017, I still hadn't made the final decision. When I returned to Denver after the wedding, I began house sitting for another traveling friend, Sherry Ott, who I met five years prior on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai while she was writing a review for a five star hotel. She had moved to Denver and was leaving for the three weeks after I returned from the wedding (traveling is literally her job). While watching her place, it allowed me time to finish the beta reader edits on the manuscript and sign with my editor, Brooke Maddaford, owner of Word Hawk Editing, so the next phase of the book could move forward.

The time spent in Denver also allowed for a new relationship to blossom. It turns out the wedding florist was also an old college acquaintance and we spent lot of time together in the weeks following the ceremony. Although there were many reasons why or why not to move to a particular city, I decided that pursuing a relationship was as justifiable a reason as any.

So, shortly after I finished my house sitting for Sherry, I loaded the bike up once again and returned to the Midwest; I packed up my things from storage and would soon return to Denver. This decision would signify the first permanent place of residence for me in a year and a half, and the end of my longest stint of foreign and domestic travel to date.


Thanks again for reading. This latest story ended in late summer of 2017. I will likely write one more about my trip back to the Midwest and the time spent at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. After that I will jump ahead in time with stories about more recent events, but we'll see what ends up on the screen when I sit down to write again! 

I have since returned to Denver and got settled in a little studio in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, not far from downtown (let me know if you need a place to crash while in town). I have been hard at work implementing the final rounds of edits on the manuscript for my book, External, and will be searching out for agents to represent the project moving forward. If you know of some great agencies please let me know. It's been a process, but fulfilling to say the least. Cheers!