Tuesday, February 1, 2022

A night in Australia


Hours into her scintillating third round Australian Open match with defending champion Naomi Osaka, Amanda Anisimova stepped to the baseline to serve to try to stay in the match. It had been a battle, a sword fight on a cliff’s edge, that mesmerizing mix of dancing and boxing that great tennis matches call to mind.

As the players trotted out onto the court, the crowd at Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne stood and clapped and cheered, voicing their appreciation for the effort and quality from Anisimova and Osaka.

Anisimova, looking down as players do before serving, smiled, savored the moment, then went to work. 

* * *

Facing Osaka on a hardcourt at a major is a tall order. The Japanese star has won four major titles, all on hardcourts. But after winning last year’s Australian Open to begin the 2021 season, Osaka had a challenging year, with conflicts over post-match press conferences, public struggles with mental health, and a pressure-packed appearance in the Olympic tennis tournament.

But back in Australia, she was playing well, and talked about being in a better place in her media availability Down Under. 

This was a mountain for Anisimova to climb. She had joined a long line of teenage tennis prodigies, making a run to the French Open semifinals in 2019, when she was 17. But tragedy struck later that year, when days before her 18th birthday her father, who was also her coach, died suddenly. She took a break from tennis, and the last few years have had mixed results on the tennis court while she processed the grief.

In Australia this year she has been working with Darren Cahill, a coach and ESPN analyst who has had great success with some Grand Slam champions. Anisimova won a tuneup tournament ahead of the Australian Open, and then won two matches to set up that clash with Osaka. 

Out of the gate, Osaka was playing that level of tennis that makes one wonder how she ever loses, pounding serves with power and precision, seeming able to crush shots from the baseline endlessly, hunting lines with forehands and backhands, covering the court like a waterbug skimming on the surface.

Osaka broke Anisimova’s serve, then held the break the rest of the way to take the first set.

In the second, Anisimova dug in. She held serve to open the set. Then, with Osaka serving, Anisimova used some crisp winners and a double fault to create two break point chances. But with the calmness and certainty of James Bond saving the world while barely breaking a sweat, Osaka got out of the jam with some brilliant serving and held to 1-1.

Anisimova held to 2-1 and again attacked the Osaka serve. She again created a break chance; Osaka again slammed the door. The crowd was locked in to the duel. Anisimova created another break chance. This time, she worked her way in to the next and hit a brilliant backhand drop shot to win the point and get the break of serve to go up 3-1. The crowd roared, Anisimova pumped her fist, turned back toward the baseline, and smiled softly toward her corner, where her team was cheering. The announcer suggested that shot was something she and Cahill had been working on. 

The rest of the set was like holding on in a gale-force wind, but Anisimova held on and served it out to win the second set, 6-3. The crowd roared, and the match was headed the distance, to a deciding third set. 

That third set was remarkable tennis, shotmaking and daring risk-taking, a hot crowd under the lights at full throat, louder and louder as the stakes got higher and higher. Anisimova and Osaka battled into the Australian night, a dynamic tug of war, both steeling nerves to pound winners and doggedly hold serve. 

As the set wore on, Anisimova served better and better. She held to 3-3 and then 4-4 without dropping a point in either service game. 

Then came that game serving down 4-5 in the final set, where the crowd gave that standing ovation and Anisimova allowed herself a smile. It was a heartwarming moment in the midst of the heat of battle, a reminder that tennis is fun and the players are human. The beauty and brutality of singles tennis is the players are out there all alone, they have to problem solve and encourage themselves on the fly. But the crowd can be there for them. French player Gael Monfils says when he plays at Roland-Garros, the French Open, his home Grand Slam, he has wings. Buttoned-down Wimbledon can turn into a frenzy supporting their home country Brits or longtime favorite Roger Federer.

The crowd roared for both, and Osaka played beautiful tennis as well, and sounded afterward like she was far happier playing tennis than she had been. Anisimova seemed to ride the roars of the crowd and find the zone as they chanted her name. 

A break in that serve game would’ve won the match for Osaka. She crafted two break point opportunities. Anisimova calmly saved both with some pinpoint shotmaking. She finally got the hold and the serve game with an ace, to make it 5-5. 

Both held serve one more time, to 6-6, and it was a tiebreak to decide the match. 

Each Grand Slam has slightly different rules for the end of final sets, and the Australian Open does a 10-point tiebreaker if the final set is tied 6-6. The typical set tiebreaker is 7 points, and before the final tiebreaker the chair umpire announced the 10-point tiebreaker would decide the match. Anisimova walked a few steps toward the chair. “It’s 10?” she asked for confirmation.

Watching spellbinding Australian Open tennis in dark, cold Missouri winter nights is quite a sensation, the world around me frigid and quiet and still, while before me is a bright portal to a world loud and intense and beautiful. For big matches on those dark nights, it’s almost like the house and I are hurtling through some great dimension, and the unfolding classic is the rapidly changing terrain, like when you go to IMAX movies and the screen is so big it feels like you’re in a box that’s flying through the air, gazing at wonders.


By the time the tiebreak hit, Anisimova was in full flight. Everyone watching was nervous as can be, but she was flawless, securing the early lead by winning a point off Osaka’s turn to serve, then winning her serve points as reliably as the pendulum swinging in time on a grandfather clock. 

Her father had come to America for better opportunity, and had trained her to be a brilliant tennis player, and this felt like her destiny, battling one of the world’s great players on one of the sport’s great stages. Anisimova won that tiebreak, and clasped her hands over her face, and shared a nice moment at the net with Osaka. The crowd thundered in joy and appreciation. 

Osaka talked last year about how much losing bothered her, how it made her feel worse than winning made her feel good. But after this match she sounded at peace.

“I fought for every point; I can’t be sad about that,” she said.

The match, even while putting fans at the edge of their seat and sending hands a wringing, had been one to savor. 

Tennis is an ephemeral sport. Players can rise and fall so quickly. The four Grand Slam tournaments stand as ancient pillars anchoring the sport, but the cast shuffles endlessly. Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have done a remarkable job elongating their careers, making it seem like time has stood still for them. But even they have more yesterdays than tomorrows in their careers, and tennis fans have felt a strong call to appreciate them as much as possible while they’re around. Only one of those four is playing in the Australian Open, and Nadal had more lines on his face and thinner hair than the swashbuckling kid who swept onto the scene more than 15 years ago. Tennis fans have to savor the moment.

Anisimova said she had done just that, how she loved high-pressure matches, and the passion and energy of the crowd. 

“So I was just trying to enjoy every moment really,” she sold Christopher Clarey of the New York Times after. “I kept reminding myself, ‘I’m at a Grand Slam playing against Naomi Osaka, just try to enjoy it because it’ll be over soon.’” 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Mt. Sherman


When I woke in the darkness early on the morning of July 21, I calculated the odds I’d have to fight a moose. 

They were indeed remote, and my analytical mind used that to bolster my courage as I showered and got dressed for my hike up Mt. Sherman, a 14,043-foot mountain in Colorado. As I’d been reading reviews of the trail, a relatively simple 14er hike but still a physical challenge, one person had said he saw a moose near the trailhead the day before. Seeing wildlife is great, but I was reading about moose and how they are territorial and not afraid of humans, and I not-so-secretly hoped the walking portion of my day would not involve any moose sightings. I’d rapidly be above treeline, where a good sensible moose would have no cause to go, so any one I’d see would be near the trailhead and my vehicle.

I also figured any moose out there would be just minding their business, like me, and I read most instances of moose attacking people involved an unleashed dog. Those miscreants.

I turned off the highway south of Fairplay and, paradoxically, set out to drive 10 miles on Four Mile Creek Road. 

The road gradually gets rougher, but my Chevy Equinox patiently climbed up and over the ruts and rocks, like a cartoon car walking rather than rolling on its wheels. As I drove and faint light gradually gathered, I listened to an AM radio station out of Denver. You seldom walk alone on Colorado hikes, and some other cars were making there way up the road to the trailhead as well. 

Finally, past some historic old mining structures and after passing through a beautiful, pristine, high valley, I pulled off at a wide flat parking area to begin the hike. 

The early stages of the hike involve winding up an old mining road. Much of the hike involves walking along mined area, shattered rock and ruined old mine buildings. In some ways it is not classically beautiful, not colorful, almost like walking on Mars. But there is still something special about jagged and foreboding areas, land that is unrepentant in its wildness. 

The sky provided plenty of color flaring up in hues of orange, pink and yellow as another day began. The old mine buildings seemed to gaze from their rocky surroundings back down at the lovely valley below and the sunrise, as if they were sighing and thinking back to their glory days, when ambitious people buzzed about in search of fortunes, when those buildings played their part in producing staggering wealth.


Eventually the trail turned right and worked up the mountain, seeming to follow a dozen different paths like a braided river as it meandered through and up a hillside that was less a traditional hillside and more an enormous pile of rocks, ranging from the size of a shoe to the size of a TV, and it felt like I was in another world where some giant had dumped them out for some future landscaping project.

That portion of the hike, performed with less-than-stellar efficiency as I made a few quasi-wrong turns but eventually got through, led me to the saddle to the left of the great rounded summit of Sherman, looming above as tough and imposing as its namesake, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. From here it was just up the should ridge, a long gradual climb to the top. 



The sky was a deep, brilliant blue, Colorado blue, like the blue on the state’s flag. Mountain goats, rendered tiny to my eye by their distance, slowly worked up the slope to the left of the trail. On the way back down I'd get a closer look at a mountain goat family, relaxing on the slopes.


The climb up the ridge grew steep, and I began counting each time my right foot took a step, telling myself when I got to a thousand I’d have to be close to the top. The numbers accumulated slowly, like compound interest in the early stages. At some point, the trail seemed to be a like a road, slightly banked as it wound up the mountain. It seemed ludicrous there would be a road that high on the rocky terrain, that far from the last section of old road below. But this mountain had been extensively mined, so it was possible. Or perhaps the trail had just widened out over time. 

Eventually the shoulder ridge of the mountain narrowed, and I passed through a rocky notch at the high point of the ridge, going from the right side of it to resume climbing up the left side of the ridge. The view opened up to the west, combining with my exertion in the thin air to be literally breathtaking. 

As I got closer to the top, the rocky high point of the ridge immediately to my right ranged from waist high to head high, like a great shattered hand rail on the journey upward. That rock formation to the right was impossibly multifaceted, a thousand faces and surfaces, shaped by time and nature and physics, silently watching so many hikers and mountain goats go by through the ages, perhaps on this day wondering why this tall hiker in a Mizzou hoodie was eating so many fruit snacks. 


The last few minutes are the most beautiful. Tired but digging deep, like a tennis player deep in the final set, knowing the payoff is so close, I wove the final few zig zags up to the top. I wondered if each mini crest where I could see new terrain above would finally yield views of the summit. I knew I was minutes or even seconds away. At that point I knew I’d get to the top, we’d come so far, and I was dancing in the sky with the mountain. 

It felt like entering some distant holy temple, those special rocks up above 14,000 feet, where every time someone had walked on them it had been a special moment for them, a last gateway to the summit of one of those storied Colorado mountains, the 14ers. It is difficult to find the words to describe this terrain leading the final few steps to the summit, which I know sounds absurd as I roar past 1,500 words on this, but all I can say is I felt so fortunate to be up there, and I took those steps lovingly, joyfully. 

When I crested the great rocky flank of Mt. Sherman, gasping like someone who had just completed a stirring effort in a breath-holding contest, and walked onto the summit, I was taken aback, and not just by the staggering views of a good chunk of Colorado. It’s a good thing to retain your ability to be astonished.

It was my sixth 14er summit, and often they are jagged little gathering spots, perhaps the size of a decent living room, full of people and ripped by wind. But when I reached the top of Mt. Sherman on a gorgeous July morning, I found a wide, mostly flat ridge that seemed like a half-width football field, and only occasional murmurs of wind. There were a handful of people on the top, enough to ask someone to take my picture and have a backup if the first group said no, but not much more than that. 


But the novelty of the summit situation and the pleasantness of not being ripped with wind like a climber approaching the summit of Everest quickly subsided in favor of the common feeling on top of a 14er… awe. 

Being on top of a 14er, at least the modest amount I’ve been fortunate enough to climb, is like seeing old friends. Way off to the east where the sun was rising stood the faint but familiar outline of Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain, a monarch without nearby peers to obstruct it, visible from an equally staggering distance to travelers east of it. In the near foreground was the vast expanse of South Park and Fairplay, the quirky old mining town that was dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of space around it. 


To the west lay the Arkansas River valley, where the infant river springs to life and begins its long journey to Little Rock and eventually the Mississippi River. Also visible in the valley was historic old Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the U.S., a town full of stories of rowdy days, of silver mines making people rich, of love stories with twists and turns.


That valley separated the Mosquito range, where I stood panting, with the lofty Sawatch range to the West, the backbone of the Rockies, the highest mountains in the state. Distinctly visible were Mt. Elbert, the highest in the state and the first 14er I climbed, and Mt. Massive, the second highest in the state and climbed by my mom and her family 50 years ago. Peeking through a low spot in the Sawatch ridge stood impossibly distant and jagged mountains, perhaps the San Juans of southwest Colorado, where my family had spent so many happy weeks.



To the north stood the twin sentinels of Grays and Torreys peak, Grays more rounded and forgiving, Torreys jagged and harsh, reflecting the dual nature of people. They are the tallest mountains on the Continental Divide, where water has to make a binding decision on Atlantic or Pacific, and my friends and I climbed them in 2018. 

I’d climbed Mt. Sherman alone, but I was surrounded by old friends. The mountains held their poker face as always, but on that beautiful sunny morning, I’m certain they smiled at me.




Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Lions

On Dec. 29, 1957, the Detroit Lions barreled to an NFL Championship, defeating the Cleveland Browns 59-14 in the title game on a cold day in Detroit. 

That day it was easy, but it had been an uphill battle for those Lions, losing star quarterback Bobby Layne late in the season with a broken ankle. In the playoff game to get to the championship game, the Lions trailed 27-7 in the third quarter, with journeyman Tobin Rote at quarterback, on the road against San Francisco. The Lions roared (pun heavily intended) back with a 24-0 run to win 31-27. 

It was the Lions’ third title that decade, a magical decade in Detroit, and there seemed no sign the good times would end.

Sixty four years later, the Lions have won one playoff game since that title game romp.

*         *          *

Detroit was a remarkable city in the 1950s, the car capital of the world, one of the richest cities in the world, fresh off its role as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” turning those automobile factories into war production, building plans faster than the enemies could shoot them down. There were certainly labor issues and racial issues that would later explode in the city, but many poor people used jobs at those factories to climb to the middle class, to send kids to college. Detroit was a city of great possibility in the 1950s, a top five city in the US by population. 

Today, possibility is maybe not the word most used to describe Detroit. It’s not the caricature of decay often portrayed, but there’s no denying the city fell hard as much of the money left the city and the Big Three carmakers hit tough times. Only one state lost population from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census: Michigan. Detroit has been mocked and maligned and largely forgotten in American consciousness, barely a blip behind Chicago when people think about cities between the coasts and north of Texas. The use of Detroit as the paragon of urban decay and decline is not without some merit. 

*          *          *

The Lions have been the drumbeat of decline, of futility, of a bleak future; the wrong kind of embodiment of a city. In 2008 as the Great Recession hit and nailed Detroit in particular, the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16, failing to deliver even a single win to the city as its woes mounted. By 2014, Detroit declared bankruptcy. 

The Lions, meanwhile, have been reliably irrelevant. They did have one of the best players in NFL history, Barry Sanders, who with his brilliance gave the Lions a run of success in the 1990s and some playoff appearances, but they only managed one playoff win, in the 1991 season. Sanders retired relatively young. 

So it has gone for the Lions. Their two best players of my lifetime, Sanders and Calvin Johnson, retired young rather than soldier on in futility in Detroit. 
The problem for the Lions is that they flail away unseen, unconcerned about, so anonymous and irrelevant. There is not a litany of Lions heartbreak, like many fan bases have; they almost always haven’t been good enough the last quarter century to even have their heart broken. Ask anyone to name a memorable moment watching a Detroit Lions game, and the results would be predictable.
 
*          *          *

But they do have Thanksgiving. One day a year, as Americans gather to eat and give thanks, the Lions take the national stage. The Detroit Lions have been playing football in Thanksgiving Day since 1934. For my family, football is a fun part of life, and my childhood memories of great Thanksgiving celebrations gone by are saying hello to family members and seeing the Lions on the big TV in that familiar room in my great-aunt’s house. Last year, when Covid disrupted everything about normal family gatherings, the Lions played on and I called my grandma to tell here there was a game on, and she watched it all. 

Sadly often, the Lions game is just a chance to ask if they should lose their traditional Thanksgiving slot. Or to mock them. The second Thanksgiving game, played by the regal Dallas Cowboys, towers over the proceedings. Year after year, it seems like the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving halftime show is the cool kids, the A-listers. The Lions’ halftime show is fine. 

*          *          *

All this is a buildup not to mock Detroit or their football team, the only team around for the entire Super Bowl era to not play in a Super Bowl, but rather to say I desperately want the Detroit Lions to be successful. I have otherwise never been a Lions fan. I have never been to Detroit. 

But I see a team that’s down on its luck, a community mocked or forgotten despite towering contributions to American life, a town with a proud history trying to chart new courses, and I’m drawn to that. The Detroit Lions are what I want to root for. They fight on for people who think their day might come, who think against the odds the better days still lie ahead. They fight for underdogs and dreamers. Their coach is a dreamer, Dan Campbell. He is full of emotion and passion. He cried after his players suffered a brutal loss. He resolutely believes he is going to coach the Lions in the Super Bowl, just like I resolutely believe in my wildest dreams. His Lions have not yet won a game, in part due to an opponent making a 66-yard field goal at the end of regulation, smashing the NFL record, that bounced off the crossbar and in. 

I have a thank you card ready to write and send to Campbell after the first Lions win. Perhaps an insignificant gesture, but I’m drawn to the chase, drawn to a coach and a team trying to reverse long declines, to find hope again in a town whose winters seem designed to suppress hope. Still, summer has turned to fall and the leaves have fallen, and I haven’t been able to send that card. 

But to heck with negativity. Maybe this Thanksgiving is the day. Come on, Lions, win one for us.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Height of Land


Highway 17 rises in western Maine, winding up from the town of Rumford. The two-land road meanders and darts along the Swift River, which is a swift river, pouring and smashing and rolling over and around rocks on its way south. Traveling north on an autumn afternoon, Highway 17 provides a tour of leaves of all colors, green and then yellow and orange and red, all leading up to the Maine main event that day.

The Height of Land.

* * *

If you find yourself driving a rented Nissan pickup in rural western Maine, perhaps it’ll be thanks to college football as well. When Mizzou football scheduled a game at Boston College, at the time impossibly distant years in the future, I resolved to be a leaf peeper. New England is famous for its fall foliage, so I made plans to go to the game in Boston, then spend a week driving around western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. 

Now, I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to really convince anyone of anything, but I gave the trip my best sales pitch to my friends. But with jobs and spouses and kids, spending a week romping around New England isn’t the easiest thing to do, even with a few years notice, but I knew I was going either way. And as much fun as I have traveling with friends, this would give me a chance to have a great adventure, to do something that helps me grow.

Solo travel.

It can be daunting to strike out on your own, to be responsible for all the plans, to face the mild little calamities and indignities of travel alone, to bear alone the pressure of deciding where to eat. 

But it is also living. It’s a thrill to learn about yourself and where you are going, to happen upon some beautiful moment by yourself, ethereal and dreamlike, and then either have that moment to yourself forever or excitedly tell loved ones about it.

If you can travel with friends and family, go for it. But if not, if circumstance and stage of life mean you go alone or not at all, then go and relish the opportunity. Yes, it would have been delightful to meander around New England with a wife or girlfriend and stay at fun bed and breakfast places. But even though you might have neither, New England is still up there, glowing with gold and red tress, the towering peaks of Colorado are still out there, the waves still smash on the jagged coast of Oregon, the sun still sets bright and perfect West of California. 

Go for it by yourself. Or text me and I’ll go with you. 

* * *

Boston was a thrill, old and historic. The roads all seem to weave and wander like old foot paths, ancient old Fenway Park was buzzing with energy for a game with the hated Yankees, and late in the game even with the Red Sox losing the crowd lustily sang the good times never seemed so good.

Mizzou did what I’ve seen them do in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, and in Wyoming, and way out in the magical area of El Paso… losing in heartbreaking and horrifying fashion. Boston College scored a go-ahead touchdown, and their raucous student section erupted, cups of beer flew above and across the screaming horde, little palm trees of liquid popping up and descending amidst a wall of sound. The Tigers fought back and kicked a moon-shot field goal to force overtime, and I hugged strangers in black and gold. But Boston College won in overtime, and the crowd surged onto the field in delirious joy. It was time to get dinner in the Old North End, sleep, and then head for the country.

I drove through central and Western Massachusetts, snacking on Dunkin Donuts and listening to a Patriots game on the radio, as if attempting to see if the locals would accept me as one of their own. 

Over the next few days I saw incredible views and progressively more eye-catching and bright foliage, driving up the national treasure that is Highway 100 through Vermont and the Green Mountains, driving and hiking up Mount Mansfield and seeing by turns haunting fog and spectacular views to the valley below, and winding through the lofty and colorful White Mountains of New Hampshire. Each little town and stream and pond seemed to tell its own stories, leisurely lingering in the mind as some pleasant little nook of a building tapestry of autumnal New England.

* * *

Wednesday was Maine day. I sort of had a hybrid plan on my trip, planning destinations and things I wanted to see, but also leaving a little time to be spontaneous and allow for sleeping in should I feel the need. I was staying that night over by Acadia National Park to the east, so I had plenty of ground to cover, but I still wanted to drive up by the Height of Land, along the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Highway. 

One of the delights of this trip was many areas were fairly uncrowded and unhurried, and the journey to the Height of Land was every bit of that. I had Highway 17 up from Rumford largely to myself, stopping for photos here and there. I could have stopped right in the road numerous time and had minutes before anyone came along.

The trees grew brighter and brighter, closer and closer to peak foliage as I climbed. I turned off my podcast, wanting to focus fully on the moment at hand, the sights and sounds and feel. At one point the road bent left alongside a pond, yellow and orange and red trees standing like torches alongside the highway. This was a moment. The road climbed more quickly after that pond, like when a search for something elusive becomes more frenzied as the thing you’re searching for gets closer. Views opened up here and there to the left, with pulloffs, showing nice views of mountains and fall. But the big view was coming up.

Finally, I rounded a curve next to some bright red trees and there it was, a wide pulloff. I parked the pickup, slowly walked over to the edge, and I marveled. 

I looked in wonder at the Height of Land view, colorful trees mixed with evergreens, big cold lakes with seemingly haphazard boundaries, the looming White Mountains far off in the distance, storm clouds dropping rain far off on some of those mountains, a lifetime away but also right there with me. It was all right there with me, after a long and winding journey, and it was truly beautiful and peaceful, and I was moved to great emotion.

It was chilly and gray, as happens when October draws near in Maine, but I stayed and savored the view and the moment. It is a joy to know there are such places in the world, with so many big and little things to consider. A single tree can be special, and here were endless trees to enjoy.

In the course of my reflecting, I thought about how it would have been nice to share this view with someone I loved. My mind briefly thought about how cool it would be to come back here with the love of my life, should I ever find her, and that’s a fine thought to have. But also my mind quickly steered back from that, and I felt a strong call to just enjoy it now. I was there on that day, and that was enough. Savor, live in the moment, live in gratitude. I felt so fortunate to be there. 

Yes, I was there by myself, sharing the view intermittently with a few other spread out travelers. But I was there with God, and nature, and the vast swath of Maine stretching out before me. I was happy and content. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The West


The road to the Yaquina Head Lighthouse was closed to vehicles. Like so many things in 2020, I don’t know if it was a Covid thing or if the park closed the road for some other reason. But my friend dropped me off to investigate. I walked around a bend and saw the sign, it was 0.65 miles down the road to the lighthouse.

Dense fog had rolled in, as it seems to do on a whim along the Pacific coast in Oregon, but my friend had said the online info about the lighthouse was promising, and after making very sure he didn’t mind the wait, I decided if I was that close I’d go take a look.

Fog settled in everywhere except to the south, where one golden beach reflected sunlight and beckoned. But the path I had to travel led the other way, into gray and gloom and wind.

I ran, or rather I unleashed a lumbering jog, because I wanted to keep my friend’s wait time minimal, both because I am an accommodating middle child and because I’d delayed us enough with my failed foray into Instagram modeling at Haystack Rock, up the coast.

(My friend actually took pretty great photos of a section of beach nearby with sand dunes and light dancing over it as the sun darted in and out of fog, and basically the Oregon coast is one place you don’t really need to worry about asking people to kill time.)

As I jogged, taking note it was downhill and what that meant for the trip back, the fog seemed to cling tighter and denser. Yaquina Head is a peninsula near Newport, a rocky little headland that juts out into the churning Pacific. As I trotted out toward the end of it, the wind howled stronger and stiffer, violently swirling all vegetation on the hillside to my right like clothes in a washing machine.

It was the view to the left, though, that was daunting and amazing at the same time. There were little purple flowers dancing in the wind, then in short order a cliff, and then a few rocks and white waves in the water, then gray. So much gray open space. Nothingness and everythingness across incomprehensible miles all the way to Asia. The ocean is so, so beautiful, but from those high overlooks when I try to gaze out it can almost be a light version of the fear-of-heights feeling. It is brutally big and vast.

The wind briefly dislodged the Royals World Series had perched on my head, and so from then on I ran with the tightest grip of my life on it. If that beloved hat was going in the Pacific Ocean, the wind would have to take me with it.

It felt like I was getting near the end of the headland, and still no lighthouse. The roar of the wind was joined more and more by the shrieking of more seagulls then I knew were in the world. The road was ending and only a little path went on, through tall, thick brown and green grass bouncing madly in the relentless wind. Where was I supposed to go? For how much longer? 

Then, right where it was supposed to be, the tallest lighthouse in Oregon pierced through the fog. It was gorgeous and stately, standing perfectly still even as all the world around it seemed to be rippling and hanging on for dear life.


It all seemed right then, this beautiful place was all tied together. It was wild but exactly as it was supposed to be. The ocean, barely visible much off the coast, churned and smashed into rocky cliffs and islands below. The wind raced on, but so did the dance of the grass and flowers on the tip of the headland. A couple of other tourists with kids appeared out of the fog, as did another tourist with two dogs. Seals, or perhaps sea lions, relaxed on a rock whiled others played in the water below and slapped the surface.

I lingered before heading back, soaking in the magic of the place. It was one of many magical spots along a two-week road trip with my friend Nathan Armer, driving out West, down the Pacific Coast Highway, and then back through Arizona and Colorado, states whose very names stir the imagination. The varied, magnificent scenery, the bigger trees, bigger mountains, bigger bodies of water than anything back home gave the trip the feeling of a real adventure.

Here is my love letter to the West.

* * *

When you’re a Missourian, to get to the West via automobile means a voyage across the Great Plains. The Plains lack flash, but they provide a haven for people who love subtlety, love wide open spaces, love agriculture. Interstate 29 sets sail from Kansas City and heads north, lingering in the Missouri River bottom for hours before rising up out of it into South Dakota.

South Dakota

On this route, South Dakota is where the real journey westward begins. Its begins on Interstate 90 leaving Sioux Falls, and is flat and seemingly boring. But all the while, the scenery is building. Cars and the sun gradually cut across South Dakota to the west, finally crossing the Missouri River, past more undulating terrain and gorgeous farmsteads. After hours of nothing changing but also constant change, the Black Hills appear on the distant horizon, dark but beckoning. Now it’s a party. 

Mount Rushmore was carved into those Black Hills, and now when people think about South Dakota, they think about Mt. Rushmore. It resides in a beautiful area, and it is easy to feel the sort of spirit-nourishing appeal of the Hills. At sunset, they light up the Mt. Rushmore faces that gaze off to the southeast and have a ceremony where they talk about the Presidents. Teddy Roosevelt can feel like the 4th of 4 when it comes to the luminaries of American history up there, but his connection to the West and the outdoors is immense, from his emphasis on national parks and conservation, to the fact he spent time in the western North Dakota badlands healing after personal tragedy. This was a man who was climbing down from the highest summit in New York when he learned he would soon be President (because what the heck else should a Vice President be doing besides climbing mountains?).

The next morning featured a quick tour of the President statues in Rapid City (Harry Truman is triumphantly holding aloft the paper that erroneously claimed he had lost the election), more Black Hills driving, and then on to the first unquestionably Western state of the trip.

Wyoming

Wyoming is almost comedically unpopulated and wide open, gradually working from one scenic vista to the next, Devils Tower popping up on the horizon, then the snow-capped Bighorn Mountains dominate the horizon for a while, then rare decent-sized towns show up and solicit hungry motorists to stop with their Q’doba signs.

Wyoming deserves thousands of words, but on this trip it was a relatively short stretch, but it is maybe the Western state that is the least interested in showing off, so it plays a good supporting actor. It is wide open, with as much room as you need, capable of charming for three hours or three years.

Montana


“Turn me loose, set me free,

somewhere in the middle of Montana…”

- Merle Haggard, “Big City”

The first thing one might notice when entering Montana on I-90 is the mile markers, which count down to the Idaho border, indicate the road runs for 554 miles across the state. That’s a lot of Montana.

But Montana is a mood, and a good one. There’s a reason Merle Haggard sang about being set free there. The road barrels on past the vaguely haunted vibes of the Little Bighorn battlefield, then bends back West, descending into Billings. Beyond the city mountain peaks rise up on the western horizon, and it’s hard to imagine wanting to drive any other direction. At one point the Interstate crests a hill and a vivid view of Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana, appears in the distance. Now comes the part of Montana that feels like one giant park. The interstate zooms along next to the bright blue of the zigzagging Yellowstone River, past barns and fences and cattle. Summer in Montana is short, but makes great use of the time it has.

Shortly after the college town of Bozeman, perhaps you’d like to take a very short side trip to the Missouri Headwaters State Park. The West is a reminder all land is basically an enormous game of chutes and ladders. Ridges and mountains rise higher, and the terrain and vegetation changing with altitude, and creeks and rivers rush or meander lower, eventually and inevitably finding their way to the ocean. 

The Missouri River begins in a serene valley in Montana, near the Continental Divide, where three smaller rivers come together. Well, two rivers come together and a third joins them in short order. People floated by on rafts, cruising along the infant river and its chilly water. Others gathering on sand banks and fished. It’s a weighty thing, looking at that water rippling by, thinking about how far it had to go to get to the Gulf of Mexico, but the surety that it would get there.

Soon after came the cresting over the Great Divide, the descent through Butte, and on to the college town of Missoula. Now here you have a choice. You can continue westward toward the still distant Pacific coast, or you can head north, into the mountains, toward that faraway marvel that is Glacier National Park, for a day trip side excursion.


Of course Glacier is the choice. In western Montana, in mid-July, the sun sets late, and the sun sets after 9:00 p.m., lending a golden, then rosy glow to the tall mountains standing sentinel on the eastern side of the valley leading up to Flathead Lake and the Park. After a night at Charro, Montana, the road rolls on.

Flathead Lake is in and of itself a worthy destination, a deep blue lake in the trees and mountains that calls to mind Lake Tahoe. Today it is the beautiful undercard, the opening act ahead of Glacier National Park. 

Thankfully, the famous Going-to-the-Sun road has just opened for the summer and is clear of snow. After a winding drive around Lake McDonald, the valley narrows, and tourists may begin to wonder where the road is going to go, with only jagged mountains and walls of rock ahead.

The road simply goes up. To the sun. (Or mostly the clouds on this day.) It twists and turns and cuts back and forth, higher and higher, each pull-off area providing better and better views to the valley that gets farther and farther below. At one point, a weeping rock showers the road with water. Cascading waterfalls race down from high up on slopes. 


The sharp edges of mountain peaks cut a stirring relief against the sky, so jagged they almost seem like a drawing or a work of fiction, some of the rockiest of Rockies you’ll ever see. It was blues and greens and whites and grays of a hundred shades stretching out in peaks and valleys and trees and, yes, glaciers. 

At the top is Logan Pass. There’s a trail that runs up higher to an appropriately named Hidden Lake. Even in mid-July, much of the early part of the trail is covered in snow, so it’s more following guide markers sticking up through the snow than treading an actual trail. It winds up through trees until, at a rocky outcropping, the big blue lake appears, hidden no more, at the base of a striking pyramid-shaped mountain.


The road to the East of Logan pass provides more views, more glaciers, and then Saint Mary Lake, blue as Hawaiian Punch, framed by those mountains, and gazing upon the views it’s hard to believe there can be a real place that beautiful, and it’s hard to feel anything other than immense gratitude that you’re in that place on that day.


Idaho

The next day brought a little more Montana, a scenic cut-through past ranches and along a rushing river back to Interstate 90. Soon the interstate crests a pass and a sign welcomes motorists to Idaho. 

This route is the highlight version of Idaho, just a brief sampling, but it does feature the scenic Coeur d’Alene lake and town, a cool summer getaway tucked in the mountains.

Soon enough, another state line arrives, the state where the actual coast drive will begin. 

Washington


Spokane serves as the de facto welcoming committee to Washington, and after some driving through trees the road opens up into the interior of Washington. Agricultural and largely treeless, it’s somewhat a reminder of the Great Plains, filling the expanse between the Rockies and the coastal ranges. 

It’s in this fairly humdrum stretch, around Moses Lake, a white blip appears on the horizon. It can’t be… can it? It is. Snow-covered Mount Rainier, preposterously still 150 miles or more away, is visible on the horizon. 

It crept closer, until it slipped from view as the Columbia River Gorge approached. The overlook there is spectacular, the giant blue river, the 7th longest in the U.S. and 4th largest by volume, cuts through a gorge below. It’s a pull climbing up from the bridge across the river, past white wind turbines, and then at the crest of the hill there it is again, Mt. Rainier, more massive now, dominating the horizon.

It serves as the marker for the general Seattle metro area, and the starting point for driving down the coast. After navigating some traffic through Tacoma, the sign by the side of the busy highway in Olympia calls: 

Pacific Coast Scenic Byway

Ocean Beaches

Olympic Peninsula

Follow 101 North

This was it, the escape hatch from the business of the city. The road began here.

* * *

Olympic Peninsula is its own world, a gorgeous and relaxing nature spot. You wouldn’t guess a giant city was relatively close. Across the Sound, it was a separate, distanced world, one of lofty mountains and clear water and trees and ferns and lazy, winding drives. 

The 101 starts out on the eastern, Puget Sound side of the peninsula, so there is water stretching out, but not the ocean proper. The coast drive had started, but that first view of the ocean itself was still to come, anticipation building like when you’re a kid and Christmas morning is drawing near. 

The road looping counterclockwise around the peninsula rings around the Olympic National Park, and at the north end of the peninsula is Port Angeles, which provides views across the choppy Salish Sea to Canada. 

Hit up a food truck on the outskirts of town, and then its off to the far, western side of the peninsula, far from hustle and bustle of any sort, into the evening.

“I’m leaving this place behind, and I’m heading out on the road tonight

I’m off for the hinterlands, way up north where the tall trees stand…”

- Lord Huron, “Fool for Love”

The trees towered above the winding little road. Golden light from the setting sun angled through the tree tops and occasionally splashed on the road. The 101 skirted along the brilliant blue of Lake Crescent, then made the turn south, which would be the dominant direction of travel for the next several days. After weaving through canyons of tall trees, seemingly deep in the hinterlands Lord Huron was singing about, the road wound through the town of Forks, quiet, tucked away, almost like a movie set town built way back in the woods.

The anticipation built as the sun settled and the landscape glowed more and more. Finally, the road went around a curve, the trees on the right opened up, and there it was. 

The Pacific Ocean.


The great blue ocean stretched out to an incredibly distant horizon, while the golden sun hung up above the horizon, bathing the water below with light. The low, soothing roar of waves kept rolling in and crashing on the beach, each one spectacular and beautiful and as though there hadn’t been countless waves do the same thing before it. The road pulloff is up above the water, on a bit of a cliff, and the view can sweep from south to north and back, the ocean looking soft and gentle and lovely, but also foreboding and untamed and unknowable. It is beauty and terror. But this evening, with the perfect golden hour lighting and the days of anticipation getting there, it was one of most beautiful sights on Earth.

* * *

The sun set well after 9:00 that far north and west and in mid-July. The last light faded peacefully amidst the tall trees as Nathaniel Rateliff sang “I Need Never Grow Old.” After a night in Aberdeen, Washington, the coast drive was back on. The 101 rejoined the Washington coast, bouncing in and out among bays and coves until there was no more Washington. The road crossed the gaping mouth of the Columbia River right near where it met the ocean. 

The Astoria-Megler bridge, over four miles long, was the last stretch of 101 to be completed between Olympia, Washington, and Los Angeles. 

Oregon


The Oregon coast is a national treasure.

The 101 hugs the coast pretty tightly, and it is lined with state parks and overlooks and scenic beaches. 

Fairly early on comes Cannon Beach, with its looming Haystock Rock where the water meets the beach, a feature that lends itself to being a majestic backdrop for taking photos.

Like so many things in the West, its bigger than you’d think, and from a distance seeing the tiny specks of humans walking in front of the massive rock drives home its enormity. 

Further down the coast, as periodic signs helpfully showed the tsunami evacuation route, one particularly high overlook showed a sweeping view of a particularly blue looking Pacific Ocean, with flowers and classic Oregon evergreen trees in the foreground, all bathed in brilliant sunshine, with only a hint of fog and cloud far off on the coast to the south. 

When you basically become a resident of the coastal highway, a savvy move is to look up restaurants in the upcoming town, put in a to-go order, and next thing you know you’re eating takeout Thai food while parked at the beach, watching the waves and periodic fog.

The coast continued with rocky bays and more overlooks, the aforementioned Yaquina Head lighthouse, and an unending array of rock formations off in the water, buffeted by waves and spray. There were formations with frothing water known as the Devil’s Churn and Thor’s Well, which occasionally spouted water in the air. 

In that area was one especially high overlook called Cape Perpetua. Taking a photo here, with gloomy fog surrounding and winds ripping across the high, rocky point, and with a name like Cape Perpetua that calls to mind the oblivion and eternity, it felt like a daunting, intimidating place. 

But then, just a few miles down the road, at another overlook, the evening sun broke through. Everything took on a shade of gold, the fog was pushed back and out to sea, and the waves crested white and friendly as they gently rolled onto the beach below. It was welcoming, inviting, and provided the distinct sensation that the view was getting more beautiful by the second. It was, simply, breathtaking.


After a night in Coos Bay, Steve Prefontaine’s hometown, and a foggy morning, the trip was on again. Oregon’s Southern coast is especially rocky and scenic, including some natural arches along the coast, a fitting way to bid adieu to one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America.

California

Ever since James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, people have been flocking to California in search of something new, in search of opportunity, to chase dreams. Heck, “Eureka” is the state motto, meaning “I have found it.” It’s a place to find what you’re looking for, or at least a place to look for it.

Driving through northern California, as suddenly as Marshall coming upon that gold, you round a corner and a regular forest becomes something different and special. Giant trees stand tall beside the 101, going from nonexistent to countless specimens. Even if you know what to expect from a coastal redwood, it still takes you back to see trees stretching up and up and out of view. Seeing the top of a redwood tree takes some effort, as they all seem to extend to some canopy that puts a distant lid on your view. They are not a subtle tree, and their thick trunks stand as black silhouettes when gazing across the forest. People, even cars, seem smaller next to them. The bark surfaces of the trees seem weathered, ancient, almost wise in a way.



Eventually the 101 works inland from the coast a little, and temperatures warm up noticeably, but then the highway eventually becomes winding again and weaves between more giant redwood trees. 

At the little town of Leggett, home to an old-timey gas station, the journey takes a turn. The old reliable 101 continues its inland course, and California State Route 1 cuts off through the woods to the coast and take the mantle of the coastal highway. 

Now, that’s probably too efficient of a description of what the 1 does. The route from Leggett to the coast is one of the most winding roads imaginable. Picture building a highway through a forest without cutting down a single tree. Picture an Olympic skier bouncing back and forth through a course. Or, in this case, a Ford SUV moving 15 miles an hour.

But eventually that winding little road found its way out of the woods and back along the coast. This stretch provided plenty of beauty, with rocky coasts, occasional cows grazing along the ocean and charming little towns. The towns seemed to have little in the way of on the go food options, and it was still a ways to that night’s destination, San Francisco. But robust gas station snacking can get the job done in such situations. The road weaved on, not good for making time but good for taking time to soak in the views and little details, the little sections of beach amidst the rocks, the flowers and trees, the distant views of the now-familiar Pacific Ocean.

The sunset was late in the evening, although fog rolled in as San Francisco got closer. Suddenly, after hours of driving through mostly lightly populated areas, the beaches began to be full of surfers, and more houses started popping up. 

Darkness fell, a gray fox darted across the road in a small town north of San Francisco, and lights from homes glowed on the waters. 

That night, the “international orange,” iconic towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rose out of the foggy night, welcoming vehicles to the historic old city of San Francisco. Driving around the city to a hotel, it was fairly quiet on the streets, the tightly packed buildings and streets soft and still in the foggy summer night.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, all hills and interesting buildings and endless views of the ocean or the bay. Walking around the city in the morning, in the age of the coronavirus, there seemed to be just a touch of palpable angst, a sort of odd mood. But a nice sunny day can help with some of that.

A restaurant recommended by a friend, Palm House, provided a great lunch in a patio area. Here there was no angst, just nice fun outdoor dining with a great menu and a nice pleasant day. After lunch, San Francisco’s sites were on display, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, the undulating Lombard Street with its tight quarters and thorough landscaping, the ridiculously steep streets. 




San Francisco is a city where you normally would want to linger, to savor, and the energy of people coming and going and exercising along the marina. But the coastal highway rolled on to the south along the peninsula. 

On the way out of town, Bob Dylan came on a San Francisco Spotify playlist (imagine that), singing “Like a Rolling Stone.” If you’re living on the road for two weeks, at a particular stage of life, in a particular place… sometimes you hear exactly the right song at exactly the right time. Bob Dylan sang the mood as the vehicle rolled along the journey southward.


The Salinas Valley provides another fun little side trip, in particular if you’re a fan of John Steinbeck and East of Eden, his masterpiece set in that valley. It’s kind of remarkable how, over 100 years later, Steinbeck’s description of the valley feels to spot on. The mountains off to the side, the little communities in the middle, the fields stretching out across the fertile low-lying area of the valley. Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas provides a fun photo op if you’re a nerd who brings Steinbeck novels on road trips.

The day ended in the Monterrey, with a drive through the scenic Pebble Beach area. Then came a stirring Californian impersonation, getting In-N-Out and eating it on the beach as the sun set into the Pacific Ocean.

The next day brought the drive through the mesmerizing Big Sur area, with soaring cliffs and views, the historic Bixby Bridge and then a beach packed with elephant seals, just chilling on the beach in the sun.

Santa Barbara was the gateway to the Los Angeles region, and the highway zipped along the wide open ocean down at beach level, with mountains flanking on the left. It’s easy to lose track of days on long road trips, but this was a Saturday, and the beaches were full of people enjoying the pleasant day.

Malibu was a scene. It had more spectacularly expensive cars than you might see in a year in Missouri. The traffic was brutal, but there were plenty of gorgeous homes and people having a good time to provide entertainment for the slow crawl toward LA. A Jeep had the top down and girls in bikinis popped out the top and sides, dancing to music. 

Eventually the coastal highway reached West Hollywood, that night’s destination. This was the land of show business, of dreams, a place that had almost always existed in the imagination and now had become real, and it was both familiar and utterly foreign. 

It was different, but it was everything it was supposed to be. Tall, wispy palm trees lined roads near the Sunset Strip and provided good Instagram material. The lights of the city went on as the sun set below the horizon, leaving only a pink and orange glow, and eventually only the night sky. 

The Pink Taco provided that night’s “outdoor” dining, and it was a lively scene. One can easily imagine the waitresses were aspiring actresses. West Hollywood on a Saturday night has great energy and excitement, even in 2020. It is a town for cruising at night, windows down, sights and lit up streets to see, movie studio lots sitting solemn and quiet in the cool of the night. The Hollywood Hills rose above town, a jumble of homes and stories and history.

The next day brought a cruise through the Hills on the famous Mulholland Drive, presumably past several movie stars’ homes. It took a good chunk of the day to work though the entire LA metro area while staying on the 1, along or near the coast, especially with a stop at the lovely Manhattan Beach to get in the water. 


Orange County showed it has a distinct vibe from Los Angeles County, and the big beaches there were full of people, like a big football tailgate except on sand. Eventually, the massive metro area faded into the rearview mirror, and the last miles down to San Diego began ticking off more rapidly. 

San Diego is gorgeous, it is military, it is perfect weather. It is chill and self-assured in its status as an awesome city. San Diego doesn’t beat its chest about this fact, it simply knows anyone who spends time there won’t argue. The coast highway cut past the iconic Torrey Pines Golf Course, closer and closer to the end. That night, in downtown San Diego, brought a meal with an old friend, catching up, an appreciation for how far San Diego is from Seattle. 

The following morning brought the formal end to the Pacific Coast Highway drive, rolling out to Point Loma and the Cabrillo monument overlooking San Diego in one direction and the vast, relentless Pacific out to the west. The road and land ended here. The coast was driven. The ocean kept going.


It was an odd feeling, after nearly a week of driving the U.S. portion of the Pacific Coast, to close that chapter and now drive in another direction, back East, away from the sea, but toward more adventures and open spaces and friends.

Arizona


Arizona has long conveyed opportunity and freshness to me, ever since first seeing Scottsdale in 2015. It’s a sunny, fun, high-energy place with beautiful people, golf courses and opportunity. It’s Camelback Mountain views and Old Town and spring training. 

This was a dry, hot summer in Arizona, but even Arizona in July is fun if you’re going to visit friends, particularly if they have a pool. We stayed with our friends in Scottsdale that day. That afternoon and evening featured a dip in the pool, takeout from a great restaurant, and the kind of fun conversation you have with old friends deep into the evening. Per Arizona tradition, a brilliant sunset lit up the evening sky and landscape, seemingly countless shades of purples and pinks and blues and golds.

The next day we were on the road again, returning home with a trip through Colorado on the mind, seeing a lot of red Arizona rocks, desert landscapes, various named rock structures jutting into the sky. 

New Mexico

Highway 160 does indeed run through New Mexico for roughly one minute and it’s the Land of Enchantment and it did feel like an enchanting minute and hey there’s the Four Corners monument and oh look it’s the next state line sign…

Colorado


No state line sign brings me as much excitement as those “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” signs. We entered into southwestern Colorado and drove through the spectacular San Juan Mountains, past the Telluride turnoff and along a roaring river and aspen trees shuddering and whispering their welcomes in that mountain breeze. I felt at home. 

We drove over the Dallas Divide, stopping to take photos of the rugged beauty of the Sneffels range, and then down into Ridgeway. Then up to Montrose and Delta, where we stayed the night. We were eyeing Georgetown, Colorado, and I had a 14er in mind to climb near there, Mt. Bierstadt, a 14,065-foot peak.

Armer and I drove up Guanella Pass the afternoon before my climb, checking out the trailhad. Mr. Bierstadt rose tall and imposing in the gloom of an afternoon Colorado rain, as familiar as a sunrise in the mountain summer. To the left of the peak the aptly named “Sawtooth” formation cut a profile against the gray sky. Mt. Bierstadt is not one of the most difficult 14ers, but it looked plenty difficult from the trailhead parking lot on that afternoon.

The next morning, at 5:10 a.m., with light gathering off in the eastern sky, I started on the trail. I used a light for the first little bit, and even at that early hour I could see hikers up ahead along the trail. The Mt. Bierstadt trail lets you see the entire distance you have to go, which can be nice, but also daunting to see all the work left to do. At the start, the trail gradually descends through some bushes to a creek. Giving up elevation when you’ve got thousands of feet to gain is… less than ideal. But a good way to warm up the legs. 

After carefully walking rock to rock across the shallow creek, the climb begins, zigzagging up through a few trees before getting above timberline. Around 6:00 a.m., getting a little higher up and with light growing, the views back down toward the creek and valley began to get impressive. 

After an overlook, the trail swung more directly toward Mt. Bierstadt, and the sky grew shades of gold and blue behind the peak and the Sawtooth. It would be tempting to unleash a cheeky “Colorado is just showing off” at that lovely sight, but Colorado was just being Colorado. Another day had come, and it was another reason to celebrate. 


The trail continued gaining elevation, steadily going higher, but it was a manageable climb. I was taking quicker, deeper breaths, but it wasn’t overwhelming. I just kept my legs churning along, kept trying to work in some snacks, kept seeing the same other climbers as we would pause for our respective breaks and pass one another. 

It turns out, two weeks of riding in a car and having what we’ll charitably call a permissive attitude toward food is not the best preparation for climbing a Colorado 14er. Who knew.

But I was making good progress, and a sizable portion of the greater Denver area seemed to be hiking the mountain as well, and our momentum built as we got higher.

This was my first time climbing a 14er solo, but I had plenty of company.


The trail got a little steeper and rockier as it neared the side ridge of the mountain, sort of the shoulder of Mt. Bierstadt. Once on that ridge, a fairly wide flat area, on the final rocky push to the left, up to the summit remained. The rocky terrain made for slower going, more thought put into each footfall, but the slower steps made it a little easier to breath, a little easier cardio. And as the summit of a 14er draws closer, the anticipation spurs hikers higher, into the very highest country of our highest state, up rocky slopes, past stubborn banks of snow, through cold winds and thin air. Colorado challenges, but rewards. It urges reflection and appreciation.

Finally, about 7:47 a.m., I made it to the summit. The views inspired awe in every direction, rocky ridges and breathtaking panoramas and distinct peaks impossibly far away but still feeling close and connected, legendary old Pikes Peak to the south and the iconic outline of Longs Peak way off to the north. I saw mountains I’d climbed before, and so many more I want to climb. Close by, I saw Mt. Evans and some of the structures on it and the shining ribbon of the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in North America. Above it all was that deep blue Colorado sky. It was a clear day. I felt a lot of things, but maybe most of all I felt gratitude. I had so many great memories from that state, and I got to add another.



After some photos and a high-altitude snack, I started down. I felt more fatigue on the way down, my feet got sore and I felt more of a headache, probably altitude-related. But the sun was growing warmer, and there were more views to savor, and eventually I was back at the trailhead parking lot, where Armer helpfully picked me up.

The rest of the day was a celebration, soaking in the hot tub back in historic old Georgetown, eating a fun meal, watching the evening light fade in another summer evening in Colorado. Nearby, the bright colors of a Colorado flag danced in a gentle breeze, a symbol of that great Western state where I’ve experienced so much with family and friends, and even by myself.

Colorado, you’re my favorite.


* * *

The trip home the next day was fairly quiet and routine compared to the theater of the previous two weeks. The mountains bid their farewell for now, always for now when leaving the Rockies, and the familiar beautiful vastness of the plains opened up. Getting out of the car at a gas station in Salina, Kansas, I felt humidity for the first time in weeks. It was odd to go that long without feeling summer humidity, but it was almost comforting. Humidity is a welcome home after summer travel. Another welcome home was the return of baseball on the radio, the abbreviated season starting that evening, and once again the voice of Denny Matthews calling a Royals game filled the air, provided accompaniment for the drive through the Flint Hills and Kansas City and Missouri. I was home.

Once again, gratitude was the dominant feeling. The world is so big and beautiful. Even the mundane areas can be special, and there are places that are wild and varied and rugged like the West. If you’ve read this far, I’m impressed, and I probably want to take a trip West with you. Here’s to adventures. 



Thursday, February 6, 2020

Australia



The stairs. I could look up the stairway and see the people and the sky and the white structure of the roof of Rod Laver Arena, the main show court of the Australian Open in Melbourne. My sister and I had traversed a long series of flights, navigated the airport, rode in a cab, and then after showers and clothes changes taken the short, spectacular walk along the Yarra River to the Melbourne Park tennis grounds. After all that, the only trip left to take was up those stairs to watch a dream come true.

From my seat, I looked on the scene for the first time, and yet it felt familiar. The bright blue court, the open roof, the full crowd looking down on the storied surface below. I’d mentally spent many nights there, and the place was special to me, but this was my first time there.

Indeed, I’d spent many nights back in Missouri, in the grasp of gray winter, watching the bright, sun-splashed joy of the Australian Open. The quirky “Visit Melbourne” commercials drew me in, one a catchy little song showing scenes from Australia that were all packed into a suitcase at the end, another reading a poem while showing mesmerizing scenes from that area of Australia. It was this beautiful area that I could enjoy on dark nights, often while almost everyone I knew slept. As the years went by, I dreamed more and more of going there, watching the tennis on those blue courts, walking along that Yarra River, feeling the warm sun and exploring that city.

And, of course, it was the sight of maybe the greatest triumph for my favorite tennis player, Roger Federer. I fully admit it is ridiculous how much I want that Swiss to win tennis matches. One of the great things about having a favorite player in an individual sport is close the bond between player and fan grows through the years, although the downside is eventually the players’ time will inevitably end.

In January 2017, after having not played for six months due to injury, following a gasp-inducing fall at Wimbledon the summer before, Federer ended his five-year major championship drought with a dramatic five-set win over his longtime rival Rafael Nadal. Federer had struggled some against Nadal in the big matches, and Nadal took a 3-1 lead in the final set. But, gloriously, Federer raised his level, flew around the court, dug in on long rallies, and came back to win the set and the championship.

He won another grinding five-set final at the 2018 Australian Open to win his 20th major and sixth Australian Open title, and as Federer teared up during the trophy ceremony the crowd gave him a standing ovation that went on and on.

* * *



So this is a special place for Federer, and for fans like me. And so it was a special feeling when I finally saw Rod Laver Arena after all that travel. You may have noticed, Australia is a long ways away. But we were there.

We got to see the defending women’s champion, Naomi Osaka, and the legend Serena Williams. Serena was annihilating the ball, looking like she was determined to get off the court with a win as soon as possible, the same intense force of nature she was on the tennis landscape 20 years ago.

Then it was time for the Federer match. The Australian Open does a good job getting the next players out fairly quickly after one match ends. But for the few moments before Federer and his opponent, American Steve Johnson, came out on the court the crowd was buzzing, that murmuring anticipation you get before a big sporting event when the public address system isn’t blaring nonstop.

Under a light gray sky, out came Federer, and the cheers went up.

Tennis is a delightful sporting experience for the senses, the aesthetics of the blue court and its white lines, the colorful stands full of people, the players in their bright outfits darting around the court. Then there are the sounds, sounds you’ll close you eyes and think about and hear months and years later, shoes squeaking on the court, the pop of the tennis balls being struck, the chair umpire rhythmically calling out the scores. Fun, peppy music played during changeover breaks. During the action I munched on fish and chips, which, like a montage in a movie where everything is going perfectly for a character, were simply the best stadium concession item I’ve ever had.

I savored the fish and the moment. It was one of those times when life is especially thrilling, and you know you’re experiencing something special, and you just soak it in. Johnson played well enough for Federer to show off his skills, and Roger popped serves, skimmed across the court, and darted to the net to put points away. He played the dazzling, attacking, varied tennis that has made so many people fans through the decades.

Midway through the match, drops of rain began falling down on the court. The players briefly left the court, and the arena’s roof silently slid shut. The speakers player “YMCA” and the crowd danced along. The energy in the crowd was great.



Federer and Johnson came back out and put on a good show under the roof. Federer cruised to a straight sets win, and then drew some cheers and laughter in his post-match interview on court. He walked off the court to more cheers, and the day session was over.

We stepped out to get some food. The Australian Open grounds are packed with fun places to grab food or drinks. It was raining so play was stopped on the outer courts, so we ate under the crowd covering at one of the courts that was not being used during the delay. We had a great view of the Melbourne skyline as the rain pelted the court and low clouds and mist occasionally obscured the towering buildings. Behind us, rain fell on a court that uses trees in the stands for shade.



That evening we went back into Rod Laver Arena for the night session. There was a light show to kick off the proceedings, and then a nice video presentation about the area’s indigenous people, welcoming everyone, followed by a song. Ash Barty, the No. 1 seed and an Australian with indigenous heritage herself, kicked off the night session. She lost the first set to a good Ukrainian player, but then rallied to win the second and third sets to take the match. During the silent moments just before serves, you could hear the steady rain hitting the closed roof, surely a joyous sound for Australians who have faced a summer of fires.

Novak Djokovic played next, against a tall, big-hitting German. The match had some tight moments, but Djokovic got it done. Djokovic is a bending, flexible, athletic marvel, a player with no apparent weaknesses flying around the court, soaring to more success at the Australian Open.

In Australia, one special thing gave way to another, and after a day of tennis the relatively short walk back to the hotel was a delight in and of itself. The rain was only very light now, the lights of the city reflected off the calm Yarra River and there was no place on earth I’d rather be. We walked through Federation Square and by the iconic, domed Flinders Street station, lit with a flattering light, and stopped in a small grocery store for snacks before heading back to the hotel.



The city was alive, glowing, happy. I felt fortunate.



* * *

Our next day of tennis was a frame-worthy ode to how great a day of Australian Open tennis can be. We had coffee and donuts in the quaint little Degraves Road alley of shops and restaurants, and a burger at a nearby restaurant. Then we took the short walk along the Yarra back to tennis.

Walking into the Australian Open is an experience itself, with the summer sun shining and everyone so happy. The UV index and fun index are both high. But people were handing out free sunscreen, one of the many little touches the event does for fans, along with great wifi.



It was a full day of tennis, but the event is about many things, not just tennis. The grounds have games and rides and areas to play in fountains. It’s a popular spot to bring kids. A stage rotates music acts and other performers. The grounds invite you to explore, to find places to grab food or drinks and sit in the shade or the sun and watch matches, either on the many courts or on big TV screens set up in different viewing areas. You can party, you can chill, you can socialize, you can quietly watch tennis and not be bothered at all. The sun was strong, but temperatures were in the low 70s. It’s hard to imagine better tennis weather.



We had some great day session seats at Rod Laver, with a showdown between the rising Donna Vekic and the former champion Maria Sharapova headlining the action. Vekic, with her frequent smile and pleasant demeanor, is like a lot of tennis players; very nice people who can be savage competitors on the court. She cranked up the pressure and movement on the biggest points, and won in straight sets.





Rafa Nadal followed that match. He is my sporting nemesis, but he is familiar and I’ve grown to admire his sheer tenacity on the court. He was playing a South American named Hugo, and Hugo fought hard just to get on the board, drawing big cheers when he finally did so. Hugo even broke Nadal’s serve after that, but the overwhelming Spaniard kept churning along to the win.



We got more food, explored the grounds more, saw some outer court action where you can get very close to the players, see the crazy speed of the ball and the athleticism of the players up close, human beings doing simply remarkable things.

After getting ice cream for roughly the 17th time (it’s summer down there; consuming ice cream is practically compulsory), we headed in for one more night session. The roof was oddly closed despite the perfect weather, but I soon learned that was for the light show before the match, and it was a darn impressive light show. But when it ended, the massive roof glided noiselessly open, revealing a beautiful evening scene in Australia.

It was a fun match, the No. 4 seed Russian Daniil Medvedev facing American Francis Tiafoe. It was a tough first round draw for Tiafoe, and he battled admirably, with the two players trading the first two sets. It was still competitive from there, but as the light faded and night fell, Medvedev used his all-around game, big hitting and court coverage to win in four sets.



Eventually the long and beautiful day of tennis ended and we had another gorgeous walk back along the river to the hotel. We still felt part of a group and an event, as many other people were making the same walk back into the heart of the city from adjacent Melbourne Park where the tennis continued deep into the night.



* * *

The tennis is what drew us to Australia, but like students picking a college based on the football team and then finding out they love the school itself, Melbourne won my heart. It’s just so fun, so historic, so beautiful. Parks here, skyscrapers there; alleys painted with vivid artwork, alleys lined with coffee shops and stores. The people were so friendly, seemed to be enjoying themselves and living where they did. It was hard to pick restaurants, but we ate at some great ones. We walked up and down the river, walked through the greenery of the Carlton Gardens and the Kings Domain, and saw so many cool old buildings and structures, including the massive, solemn Shrine of Remembrance, with its view back down toward the heart of the city.





At one point, my sister and I went up to the observation area at the top of the Eureka Tower, nearly a thousand feet high. (Or, it is some number of meters I don’t know high. Trying to get my mind to think in meters and kilometers was a challenge. And don’t even get me started on Celsius and trying to decide what was a good temperature to set the thermostat. Maybe 21? 22?)

The view from the Eureka Skydeck was breathtaking, literally so when I stood too close to the windows or looked at the perilous view down while standing too close to the window. I couldn’t have fallen since it was all window, floor to ceiling, by my hands still felt clammy. They even do now just thinking and typing about it. The sweeping views out over the Ocean, at the downtown buildings, over to the tennis venue and enormous Melbourne Cricket Ground, were awesome. It was also thrilling to look deep into the sparsely populated interior of Australia, toward far-off mountains rising above the otherwise flat landscape.




* * *

I thought about those views on the long flight home. I thought about the food, the sounds of shoes squeaking on the courts and tennis balls popping off rackets, the warm wind and sitting in a shady spot next to Rod Laver Arena and eating ice cream. I thought of Serena’s intensity and Federer skimming around the court and flicking gorgeous one-handed backhands on that first day. I thought about my dream coming true, how I’d finally met a place I felt like I’d known for a long time. And I thought of the wonderful Australians with whom we interacted, the kindness of those people and their happy, energetic, marvelous city on the Yarra. Here’s to you, Australia.