Friday, October 28, 2016

The Wild West

Gorgeous Colorado
Having not started work yet, and considering that the weather was positively beautiful, we headed off for a little trip down to Southern Colorado. Aiming first for Mesa Verde National Park, and then for Great Sand Dunes National Park, we had chosen to grab a rental car on a off season special rate. The little Sonic Turbo was a bit of a beast, still getting ridiculous fuel efficiency, but with a little zap of the turbo at 3000rpm she kicked up the dust for sure. So we headed west from Breckenridge on I-70, where we quickly realised this was going to be as much about the journey as it will be our two destinations. We were in awe as we winded through the Glenwood Canyon, where somehow they have squeezed two travel lanes each directing within the steep walls almost right on top of the river. Probably one of the most spectacular interstate routes for sure.

The drive south
Just from looking at the map and planning a route based on the little dotted lines indicating scenic roads, we turned off the interstate heading south. Again, having no real expectations other than that we were to be journeying through the mountains, we were absolutely taken to another level of beauty and driving bliss. We were quickly winding up through a narrow mudstone canyon then popping out high up into the Grand Mesa National Forest. High alpine lakes hanging to the side of the pine covered tops, it really doesn't get much more spectacular. We made a few stops to sit and look, but there was just too many beautiful lookout spots, so we were happy to watch it all pass us as we wound up over and back down. We made our way through what is called the 'Western Slope', a dry high plains area, with pockets of small towns and groves of fruit trees and the sort. Ducking off onto a smaller road heading past the famous Telluride Ski Resort, we were passing across the Western edge of the Rio Grande National Forest, where the peaks grew towering high and ominously jagged.

The sunset at Mesa Verde
Making it to our destination very near the South Western corner of Colorado, we set up camp with a setting sun at the Mesa Verde National Park, with just enough light to quickly dash up the towering massif sitting at the the gate of the park to see the sun drop below the horizon over the high plans expanse with those rugged towering peaks north where we had just journeyed. To make the most of the day, we woke up before sunrise and we were happy to be headed deeper into the park and catch the sunrise over the sloping scrubby gorged plains, where we were about to explore and find the cliff homes of the Ancestral Puebloans.

The Cliff Palace

What American National Parks do best is make these special places accessible to all. So we spent the morning driving about convenient roads with a car park right by each area of interest. We started to feel dizzy getting in and out for the car so often, but we did see a lot. A beautiful dry environment, and a plateau carved with endless gorges, canyons and gullies. A place seemingly uninhabitable, however for a many hundred years around 800AD the Pueblo people called this place home, moving from above ground dwelling to wedging very intricate settlements of living and worship spaces into narrow shelves under on hanging cliffs. Settlements of 400 plus rooms, living quarters and kivas, linked with ladders and steps. Seen as an adaption for protection from attack and the elements, however at a certain point they just up and left. During the peak season you can take guided walks through a few dwellings, but we were happy to peer from across the way, appreciating the scale and space these people once lived amongst. 

Amy feeling small amongst the dunes
After the morning visiting the park, we headed east to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Again, the journey was as great as the destination. We headed through Durango to Pagosa Springs for lunch. We were welcomed by the biggest plume of smoke coming from town. Seemed the local steakhouse had caught ablaze overnight and was smoldering in a wrecked pile with multiple fire appliances still dowsing the remains. Heading on, we headed over Wolf Creek Pass, another badass switch back road that just seemed to climb and climb. The little Chevy turbo ate up the road passed the Wolf Creek Ski Field, which receives the highest annual snowfall in Colorado. Again, ducking out of the Rio Grande National Forest we found ourselves traveling across a large high plain area within the San Luis Valley, headed for what didn't seem like such a spectacular gray blob in the far distance. Well it turned out the grey blob grew and grew and grew until we were upon this great golden dune field wedged up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. Making camp again just in time to head for a walk up the side hills to see the sun set once again, but this time over a very different landscape. Later we enjoyed a campfire and a stunning show of stars.

Another early morning adventure out into the dune field, we had free range of the terrain, no paths or trails to follow. Just follow others footprints or make your own. We headed for the less direct route to the top of Star Dune, the highest point in the park. From the top, the view was inspiring, and the idea of leaping down the steep slope was too good to turn down. With each leap and bound my feet would heave deep into the sand slope producing a somewhat unsettling sound like I was creating a large sand avalanche, none happened however. Shoes filled with sand did though. We traversed out along the dunes, sat and enjoyed the warmth, tranquility and the loneliness of being out ahead of the light autumn crowds. We made our way back and across the river that simply just runs and disappears into the sand.   

Feeling small amongst the Rockies

Continuing on our way back home to Breckenridge, we headed directly north towards Buena Vista through some less spectacular scenery, however still gorgeous wide open valleys with high, daunting mountains to the side. Very reminiscent of the Cass Range in New Zealand, making me feel very content. We made our way into Park County, the home of the cartoon Series South Park, and over Hosier pass and back to our home of Summit County. Just a quick trip away, that turned out to be a real welcome to the Wild West.
Great Sand Dunes

Sunday, October 16, 2016

High Life

Our mountain house

We made it, and now it was time to explore and make the most of our new home. Last year we had jobs out here but no house, so now that we had a place to live we figured finding work shouldn't be difficult, and it wasn't. Amy was quickly snapped up by a preschool and we made a bit of a brewery tour of the county to search for work for me. I was skeptical that I would just be able to walk up and get a brewing job and thats about how it panned out. Most local breweries are small in size and staffing, so they were hospitable to chat with and talk about beer, but unable to offer me anything. None the less, we had a great first week in the area, strategically visiting at happy hour having chats with the brewers and more often than not even getting shouted our beers. But for now no job.

The walk into town
With unseasonably mild weather across the first month of being out in the rockies we were provided the chance to really explore the area before we got snowed in. Perfect for exploring the trails that leave from right behind our house. These are an extensive network of town maintained trails for walking, running and biking, and like most things we do here, we usually have the dogs in tow too. On a nice ride I took one day with Tinkerbell chasing behind, I made it up the hill to the end of the trails, where I intersected a bunch of old mining sites, cottages, flumes, shaft towers and the sorts.

Walking behind our house
Wanting to be as social and meet as many new people as possible, we did everything that was suggested. We joined our flatmate's girlfriend's potluck dinner, a night of 7 different types of meatballs. We had a festive pumpkin carving at our house and a dodgeball tournament at the recreation center. That definitely put us in our place with our thin blood not quite giving us the oxygen that the demands of dodgeball at altitude requires. Actually, this was my fist proper participation into the American classic game, and it was fierce, competitive and lung pounding. With some defeats early on we strengthened to finish out in the semifinals. 

Breckenridge Main Street
The coincidental social outing with a last minute invitation to a bottling party at the Breckenridge Distillery, which is when the public is invited to help out bottling in return for some food and drinks for the evening and a bottle to take home, also ended with me taking home a job. Very coincidental, but things worked out perfectly for me.

My new job, like Amy's, was working four 10 hour days during the week. My shifts are from noon to 10pm working on the packaging line. Putting booze in bottles and putting bottles in boxes. Nothing glamorous, but learning the packaging machines and occasionally helping out with the distillers is invaluable. Amy works in the two year old room at her preschool, and enjoys being responsible for organizing lessons and helping run a classroom.

With the warm weather and plenty of spare time I also was keen to play around on may car. It was having a bit of a rough time overheating, leaking coolant and oil, so I thought I ought to try to remedy this, at least maybe learning something. So I jumped head first and started with pulling the engine apart and by utilising a piece of four by two and a couple of volunteers, we lifted the small but still very heavy engine out. We laid it down on the porch and then I just worried for days about what I had done and how I would fix it. I ordered a bunch of new parts, thermostat and oil seals, cleaned the engine and bay up a bit, switched some stuff over, then hoisted the power-plant back into the engine bay. With a bit of wiggling and jiggling and a few unnerving crack and creaks from the wood hoist, the engine was back in place and I just needed to put it all back together. That I did, over a few hours and with a few false starts, I got the engine turning over and running. Bummer was it still dripped coolant, so that means getting a new water pump, which has still yet to happen. So we just keep the fluids topped up for now, but other than that, the car runs good, I didn't break anything and I did learnt a lot.

The RX7 exploring Summit County

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Road Trip out West Day 5: Colorado

Rocky Mountains, here we come! 
After a good experience driving the back roads in Kansas, we continued as soon as the opportunity came along to diverge off the interstate and head across the small plain towns leading across Colorado. Finding a small cafe in Limon with some tasty sugary baked treats and on we headed for Denver. Slowing and continually climbing up across the now more rolling plains, the Rocky Mountains were upon up, quickly growing from the horizon, towering from left to right as far as one could see.
Letting her cool and re-coop
As we were coming into Denver city, we aimed for a carburetor shop as I needed to change out the jets which control the flow of petrol to the engine. Seeing as we were now at 1,500 meters (mile high city) elevation and going to be climbing up and over 3,400m (11,200ft) and to our permanent height of 3,000m (9600ft), the oxygen to fuel ratio need to be adjusted. Having preformed flawlessly across the entire drive, I was nervous coming into Denver and all my worst fears eventuated. Crawling stop-start traffic. I knew it wasn't going to be good, so we eventually exited but it was too late and the car stopped. So we sat on the side of the road for a while, feeling defeated, but knowing 30mins will allow it to cool and she will be back to life. That she was, so on we went to the carburetor shop. After getting the pieces I needed, thanks to the advice of the mechanic there, I pulled apart the carburetor in the car park and put in the new smaller jets. After the carb was adjusted the car felt strong and we were off up the open roads climbing up into the High Rockies.

The drive on I-70 through the mountains is rather spectacular. Climbing up slopes that just seem to keep going, with old mining town and operations scattering the sides of the hills, lowering cliffs and summits high above. We were going slowly and getting passed by tractor trailers, but we made it to the highest point at the Eisenhower Tunnel, popped through and headed downhill into Summit County, our new home. After driving 3592km (2232miles) over five days, we rounded Lake Dillon up to Breckenridge, to our big log cabin house surrounded by the mountains of our dreams.

She made it!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Road Trip out West Day 4: Kansas

Tallgrass Pairire National Preserve 
We woke up early to raindrops on the tent, quite heavy at times. We timed our campsite breakdown perfectly during a break in the storm and we were off on what is supposed to be the most uninteresting day of driving for the trip. Turns out if you make the effort, get off the interstate and get out in search, there will be something to see, even while making great ground across the big flat state of tiny towns, hay bales and oil wells. 

Heading south for 30 miles or so to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, an area reserving the small remaining natural strawling grasses of the plains which once spanned for thousands of miles across middle America. Comprising of a preserved homestead and a large expanse of the rolling tall grasses and a information centre, when it was raining we hung out inside, and when there was another break, we opted to take a walk out into the hills, dodging raindrops at times. It was so peaceful, free and wild. The weather added some extra flare over the morning with some very dramatic formations. 

From there, we drove along a local road heading west. Passing occasionally through a small town or past farm houses, it offered a far more relaxed driving experience, but still ticking off the distance, only with occasional slowdowns to pass through a town or make a stop at a stop sign. Little real existence of life was seen. But passing a Mexican food truck in a sleepy town, we were blown away with the freshest and tastiest lunch ever. Whether he had few customers or was just incredibly friendly, he seemed to fuss over us so much. We were just extremely happy to be eating some fresh, healthy food and support a small business. 

You know there was a "Do Not Climb" sign
Making another detour to the Monument Rocks Chalk Pyramids, it was a bit difficult to find. Seems a bit bizarre, across a seemingly completely flat landscape. However this terrain was more on undulating with dry river gullies. Eventually coming upon the Monument Rocks, a few large outcroppings of sandy clay. Just poking right up in a completely barren state among brush and scrub. A geological treasure, we wandered around in the now steamy plains warmth, poked at fossils and once again just enjoyed the serene beauty. 

Pretending to paint
With a bit more driving and eventually rejoining with the stampede along I-70, we stopped in Goodland, Kansas. Though not quite to Colorado, its just on the boarded and surprisingly into Mountian Standard Time, unlike the rest of Kansas. We put up our tent, and decided to explore the town a bit. We had a unique small town dive bar dinner, including Buds to drink and chicken, biscuits and gravy to eat, with Americana decorations wall to wall. We couldn't stop looking around. Also, somewhat seemingly out of place, there was a huge canvas and easel with the famous sunflowers painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Strange place. 

The RX7 finding beauty in Kansas

Monday, October 10, 2016

Road Trip out West Day 3: Missouri

Saint Louis
Just a short drive across the Mississippi and we were in St Louis, Missouri and straight over to my favorite landmark ever. The St Louis Arch, called the Gateway Arch, seemingly floating about, towers in its unbelievable simplistic grander. Very meaningful for us on our journey west, we passed through on foot signifying we were onto territory uncharted, symbolically of course, making a new life for ourselves, like the original pioneers. We stepped down the stairs from the arch to the waters of the Mississippi, a position we have stood before. From here we could see that river headed in either direction, and heading to the south all the way to the gulf, about the same distance to the East Coast, the course that we had just tracked over several days, and now we were headed on Westward to our momentary destiny in the Rocky Mountains, a true crossroads on our journey.

To spy on the enemy, from inside the belly of the beast, we headed to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery just north in town. The slower and friendlier pace of the central plains and midwesterners were apparently here, so much so we were able to have a conversation about the RX7 to a friendly passerby while driving round on the city ring road. He was very impressed that  the car had the original engine and had brought us out this far from Connecticut. With a toot and a thumbs up, we parted ways. At the brewery, we were blown away, a completely mind altering experience, coming out with a refreshed and renewed appreciation for the InBev brewing goliath. One just pictures the mass production of generic beverages, but the way the site has retained its heritage and they way they present the whole facility and brewhouse is unparalleled to any brewery I have visited. 

The brewhouse
An ornate brewhouse, with all the shiny stainless steel one could dream of, but with hundred year old decorative embellishments such as chandeliers with hop plants on them. They cellar Budweiser in enormous tanks, however still on wood chips and across the compound, beautifully presented of course, some happy looking clydesdales live to cart around all that beer. To finish it off, they gave us a pint in their beer garden. We could choose any beer from the selection of their domestic brands as well as import beers they brew onsite. A german bock for myself and a Dutch Weisse for Amy. Happy days and off we headed to cross the state of Missouri and into Topeka, Kansas for the night, once again setting up camp in the dark. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Road Trip out West Day 2: Kentucky

Crazy drive in Kentucky before all the horse farms
Day two of our road trip was a scheduled day, of visiting distilleries, exploring the State of Kentucky and covering great ground. This meant for an early start as we had booked a 10am tour of Willett Distillery, which is the distillery that Two Roads Brewing Company sources their bourbon barrels for aging beers from. With that connection, my old brewmaster had organized with Willett to get us on a tour to explore the craft of distillation. On route, we drove down the Blue Grass Parkway across horse breeding country and into the historic town of Bardstown, with a historic downtown including a pub Abe Lincoln would frequent. 

With the endless barrels
On to the distillery and we were really blown away with the facility, history, process and friendly nature of the tour and tastings. I brought an offering of the Two Roads Conntucky Lightnin, a sour mash ale barrel aged in used Willet barrels. The facility was far more expansive than I imagined, spread across a large property. Consisting of a obscure looking building containing a fermentation cellar, towering still and silos, the proofing building, traditional in nature with barrel ramp to roll out the proofed down barrels and a series of barrel buildings containing to their entirety wall to wall floor to celling full bourbon barrels. An unbelievable amassing of product stored cellular in each barrel, so efficiently stacked, the room was just all bourbon. It was delightful to see the process, at what is considered a small and craft facility, where there was a obvious pride and passion among the staff and the heritage presented across the facility. I was amazed that I was encouraged to taste from all the fermentation vessels, noting the reduction of sweetness as fermentation progressed.  It was interesting seeing the similarities and then the differences compared to brewing beer. One significant difference was the tasters, we are no bourbon connoisseurs, so we were happy to note the tastes that we had didn't burn like rocket fuel. 
Jim Beam
We were in Bourbon Country after all, so we hopped along the road to the Jim Beam Distillery. Which was a place on a far greater scale, nearly the Disneyland of Bourbon. But I believe that does a disservice to the tried and tested and still traditional system of bourbon brewing. Other than making spirits on a huge scale, they still use real ingredients, following the stringent rules set long ago in the past of utilizing a 51% or more corn mash content and aging for a set minimum time on new American White Oak barrels. A cooper, or barrel maker, display was set up where the quite extraordinary barrel making process was explained, with a real life veteran cooper there happy to answer my many questions. Again, the facility was honoring a true family heritage that now had just grown to an unfathomable scale, but without losing that value, or at least the appearance of that value.
Finally a picture of Amy
Heading across the sunny green rolling hills, we ducked into Churchill Downs racetrack, famous for the Kentucky Derby. Discovering the museum was $15, we opted to skip that, but we began walking with a tour group instead, listening to a bit of history, until we got busted for having not paid for the tour, whoops, so we headed off and on our way into Louisville city. There were a lot of athletic looking people around carting about their space age looking bikes and steel strong bods, and eventually it all made sense when we discovered it was the day before an Ironman event. We walked around the redbrick, industrial styled city centre, found a brewery and had a beer and some grub for lunch. A walk down to the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory was a tribute to Amy's dad whom loves his Sluggers. Looking through the glass windows of the building we could see bats being spun and engraved and it made you feel less uneasy walking the streets knowing why everyone was wielding bats. After our quick look around, we drove on through Indiana and right across Illinois making camp on the east side of the Mississippi River across from St Louis, Missouri. 

The RX7 in Kentucky bourbon country 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Road Trip out West Day 1: West Virginia

Catching the sunrise
Day one of our westward journey started at 4am on the premise that I just wanted to get far, far away from the busy East Coast. Some nervousness was felt due to our transportation method, the reliable old RX7. It has never really let me down, but had been having some disagreements with traffic congestion, hence the early start to remove any chance of morning traffic in the tristate area, especially through NYC. The car was fueled up, packed up and smooth sailing it was from the get go. The long morning drive in overcast weather led us right out of Connecticut, across the Hudson into New York, over the top of New Jersey, through Pennsylvania, even nipping over Maryland and into Virginia all without making a stop, turn or barely changing gear. A quite exhausting morning of driving, but we were achieving what we set out to. 

Now, by the afternoon, I was about sick of driving in a straight line and not seeing anything of value. Although a time through the rolling hills of Pennsylvania was more scenic than the rest, with lush green hills and mountainous clouds wisping over the tops and thick fog as we dropped down into valleys. With this inspiration that maybe we should aim to see something along the route, Amy navigated us on a more scenic route via the Seneca Rocks State Park in West Virginia. A beautiful series of local roads sent us climbing up and over the Appalachian Mountains, that we had been sidelining, and barreled us into the back woods of Blue Grass Country. Right at this time, the heavens opened up, and the rain came down. It felt as if it matched the mood of where we had just entered, as the area was green, lush with a tropical feel. We passed very little on the back roads, just beautiful winding roads following valley rivers. The only glimpse of life was ramshackle houses and cabins that darted by in the woods. 

Walking to view the Seneca Rocks
At the State Park, a beautiful view waited for us hidden behind low clouds. The visitors centre was great with displays of the rugged area and with a break in weather, we made a short walk in the forest. Im not sure if it was that I felt like I had just escaped the crippling wretches of the cluster of Connecticut or if it truly was but that forest felt as wild of a place I had ever been, with the freshest air I had ever breathed. At that very moment I felt so relaxed, so fresh, so free and relieved. Breaking from the clouds for a moment, the Seneca Rocks appeared. Large, buttressing rocks poking from the forest, a haven for climbers and bird watchers. A quick photo shoot in the car park and we continued on some more local roads then back to the conveyor belt of the US Interstate System. 

Seneca Rocks
Picking out a KOA or 'Kampground of America' on the map, we made it most the way across West Virginia and just before sunset made it to our destination. Unfortunately, a local pumpkin festival ensured that the campsite was completely full, but the ladies there pointed us 45 mins further into our eighth state of the day, Kentucky and the next available KOA. Setting up the tent in the dark, after being on the go for 15+ hours, I was happy to lie in the tent with my head poking out, looking out at the vast night sky, something I had missed for so long. 

The RX7 in West Virginia (Seneca Rocks are behind some clouds)