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Offseason adventures

Aspen, CO Colorado

After the chairlifts shut down, Aspenites bug out. Some go to the canyon country to ride bikes or paddle. Others head for beaches in California, Mexico or Florida. Others head for the far reaches of the globe for culture, adventure or relaxation.At The Aspen Times, few of us make enough money to take a very exotic vacation, especially since we’re pinching pennies in the recession. But we’re having fun this offseason anyway, pursuing budget vacations in, for the most part, nearby places. Fortunately we live in an area that happens to be a world-class destination.So, here are a few stories about offseason excursions, a long-standing Aspen pastime. In most cases, people actually traveled somewhere, but one enjoyed a “staycation” in the midvalley, and another simply visited a cherished, faraway place in his mind.In all cases, it was better than another day at the office. Thanks for indulging us.

By Stewart OksenhornI tried to get to Alaska a few weeks ago. My uncle, Irwin Ravin, had suffered a colossal heart attack, and my mom was headed from Florida to Alaska, hopefully to help her brother through his ordeal or, as we began to fear, to help with the funeral. Traveling 5,000 miles, then landing in Alaska to potentially awful news, didn’t seem like something my mom should have to endure by herself.But getting to Alaska in early spring – the beginning of fishing season – on short notice is difficult and expensive. After being told it would cost nearly $3,000 (that’s with a discount for the soon-to-be bereaved) to fly from Denver to Houston to Spokane to Seattle to Anchorage, I moved into phone and e-mail mode, giving my relatives up north my hopes and prayers for the best. As it turned out, Irwin died before I could have arrived. Rest in peace.It doesn’t take catastrophe and death to get me thinking about Alaska. Most every April, I flash back to one of the great adventures of my life – a mid-spring trip through the Northwest topped by a three-week stay in the state known as the Last Frontier. I flew from Seattle to Anchorage and, upon discovering what an irredeemable pit Anchorage was – Phoenix, but with permanent economic depression and alcoholic indigenous people instead of sunshine – fled as quickly as possible south, down the Cook Inlet, to Homer, the town my uncle chose to call home, and one of the most gorgeous and hospitable places I’ve visited.My major concerns – climate and mosquitoes – were for naught. We spent our days in long-sleeved t-shirts, and I got more bites from halibut than I did from skeeters. Even if it had been freezing and bug-infested, I think the physical beauty of Homer would have been worth the discomfort.Homer is at the southern tip of Kachemak Bay, one of the wildest bodies of water on the planet as measured by the extremity of the tides. And one of the wilder places, as far as human settlement goes, is the Spit, a four and a half-mile finger of land that juts into the bay. Despite having virtually no width at all, the Spit is a hub of activity: a harbor filled with boats; marinas; the famous Salty Dawg Saloon. In fishing season, a portion of the Spit is taken over by “Spit rats” – transient workers who live in a tent city and work long hours in the canneries.Raise your eyes from the Spit, gaze across Kachemak Bay, and you see a magnificent sight – a quasi-wilderness of mountains covered in snow even in May. On my visit, I took a boat ride, past a rock swarming with nesting birds, to the other side. I was dropped on a tiny beach, with instructions to meet the boat on that same spot two days hence. For two days, I hiked small mountains, crossed streams running fast with icy, blue-gray water, and camped at the base of a glacier. Another day was spent fishing in the bay, and I alone among the crew caught a fish – a 12-pounder that couldn’t compare to the 400-pounders displayed in photos all over the Spit, but big enough to feed everyone aboard. Best fish I ever tasted.With the fishing-season rush over, it’s far easier now to get to Alaska. Airline tickets for mid-May, from Aspen to Anchorage, can be had for under $500.The bad news is that one of Homer’s unique attractions is no longer with us. My uncle Irwin settled in Homer in 1971, after stops in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Ketchikan. For most of the last four decades, Irwin lived in Fritz Creek, eight miles outside of town. But to say there was nothing in Fritz Creek is inaccurate: Irwin’s neighbor, for whom he used to babysit, was Jewel Kilcher, the singer who goes by the name Jewel.In Homer, Irwin was something of a town elder – a well-read figure and frequent stage actor with a long beard and uncommon views on most everything. His renown stretched across Alaska, and even “outside,” as Alaskans call the Lower 48. In 1975, following Irwin’s arrest for pot possession, the Alaska Supreme Court issued an opinion, in State vs. Ravin, affirming the right to possess, grow and use marijuana. When I asked him what effects the court’s decision had, Irwin said, “Every serious pot grower in the country moved to Alaska. And everywhere I go in the state, people want to get me high.”When Irwin died, two weeks ago, every marijuana-advocate website, from potpundit to celebstoner, posted tributes to him – more reminders of my time in Homer. stewart@aspentimes.com

By Scott CondonAfter visiting Santa Fe for the first time in about 20 years this spring, I had to ask myself, “Why?” As in, why did I wait so long to return.The town exudes character and it’s done a fabulous job of holding onto its history without becoming dated, excessively worn or irrelevant.My daughter, Hannah, and I visited for a few days during her spring break from high school, seeking something different than our usual active, outdoor desert trips.We visited Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos first, satisfying our urge to camp and hike after a long winter. Bandelier has great interpretive trails that wind among unusual Anasazi cliff dwellings, as well as longer backcountry trails that whisk you away from the crowds in a hurry. We trudged through a 13-mile round-trip route that plunged into multiple boulder-strewn canyons where snow still hid in nooks and crannies, then climbed to mesa tops covered with soaring and fragrant ponderosa pines.Hannah had never visited Santa Fe in her 16 years on the planet so she was in awe when we finally hit town. “Look at all that adobe,” she exclaimed as we found our hotel, just one-half block off the town’s historic central plaza. Hannah is fascinated with Native American culture and she cannot get enough jewelry, so she experienced sensory overload the first time we rounded the northeast corner of the Palace of the Governors and she saw a long line of Native Americans displaying their handmade jewelry under the porch roof of a structure that dates to the 1600s. The dazzling colors of turquoise, various shells and loads of silver captured her attention like an old-fashioned candy store when she was five. We split, since my shopping tolerance is low, and before long she selected $80 worth of rings for fingers, toes and ears. I struck up a conversation with an artisan who said his Santa Domingo pueblo is flourishing as more members move back. Maybe it’s the economy, he said, maybe it’s a desire to reconnect.As Hannah shopped, I people-watched. I sat on a bench not far from where a street vendor hawked “Santa Fe’s best burritos.” The smell of grilled chicken, beef, pork and, of course, chilis, filled the air.The plaza is a showcase for a broad diversity of people. Homeless men with dogs took welcome reprieves from their wanderings; well-dressed aging couples from Texas sported cowboy boots, turquoise-adorned bolo ties and scarves; lobbyists and lawmakers from the nearby state capitol were immaculately dressed in suits; tourists came in all varieties, from attractive women dressed in Santa Fe chic for a day of shopping to those like me, baring their white winter skin even though it was a few degrees too cool for shorts.We crammed a lot of activities into two days, touring old mission-style churches and other adobe landmarks the first day, paying particular attention to subtle architectural elements like handcrafted iron fences and small shrines. We hit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the New Mexico History Museum at the Palace of the Governors the following day, when the weather turned frigid.All the while we pursued an enjoyable but unachievable goal – to find the very best huevos rancheros.scondon@aspentimes.com

By Bob WardI’ve been gobbling sweet, juicy Palisade peaches for years, and I’ve stopped at the Palisade Brewery in the past for quick bite and an ale, but it wasn’t until this spring that I actually spent a weekend there.Knowing what I know today, I’ll go back soon. Here’s why.I spend a portion of every spring and fall in the Fruita/Grand Junction area, when the temperatures and trail conditions are optimal for camping, mountain biking and other outdoor pursuits. I’ll find a campsite, pitch my tent, sleep all night, play all day and do the campfire/beer/grilled meat thing in the evening. The routine varies depending on who else is along, but you get the picture – kinda sweaty and primitive.Palisade offers a refreshing alternative to my typical Grand Valley routine. First, it’s closer by 20 or 30 minutes, just off westbound Interstate 70 as the freeway emerges from Debeque Canyon and the Book Cliffs rise steeply on the right-hand side. Second, it has a pleasant, historic downtown with art galleries, restaurants, a bike shop, a brewery and even a distillery in a compact, walkable area. Third, if you like to ride bikes, you can pedal just outside the downtown and visit a number of up and coming wineries.The Palisade Chamber of Commerce hosted me and my wife, Elizabeth, for a “media familiarization tour” earlier this month. We walked downtown, we visited galleries and talked with artists, we rode bikes (provided by Rapid Creek Cycles) to several wineries and tasted wines, we ate in an Italian-Vietnamese restaurant (no joke – Red Rose Caf), and we stayed in a great bed-and-breakfast (The Orchard House) up on a mesa near town, surrounded by fruit orchards and sweeping views of the valley.Truly, it was a great weekend, punctuated by friendly business owners who seemed authentically excited about their town and its unique attributes.Palisade proper has roughly 3,400 inhabitants; the scale feels similar to Basalt, but it’s worlds away from the mountains. Nowadays the temperatures are 10-15 degrees warmer than Aspen, the ditches are full of water and many of the fruit trees have already blossomed.Bottom line: Palisade offers a civilized alternative to my typical, no-frills Grand Valley weekend. I can ride my mountain bike or hike the 2,000-foot grind up Mt. Garfield, while Elizabeth browses galleries, soaks up the sun or tastes wine. Or we can do all of these things together, then sleep in a plush bed and enjoy a delicious B&B breakfast. (One morning I rode the 25-mile “fruit loop” through wineries and orchards, and still had time to shower before breakfast.)So we’ll be back. Possible weekends include the May 15 Palisade Classic Bike Festival, the June 11-13 Palisade Bluegrass and Roots Music Festival and the Sept. 16-19 Colorado Mountain Winefest.A word about Palisade agriculture: The peaches and other fruits are deservedly renowned, as most Coloradans know. I still find Palisade wines to be a little spotty, but having met some of the winemakers, I think they’ll work it out over time. They’ll discover which varietals work best in their soil and climate, and gradually the region will find its strengths. Palisade isn’t Napa yet, but who cares? They’re making wine in Colorado and I, for one, am interested.bward@aspentimes.com

By Jeanne McGovernSo you can’t afford to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef this off-season? You’re not alone. In fact, I have never been able to afford luxuries like this. Thus, my children have never swam with the fishies in such an exotic locale. But we’ve all had a chance to see the fish, coral and other underwater wonders of the world. “Where?” you ask. At the aquarium, of course. Not just one aquarium; we’ve been to many – Denver, Long Beach, Boston and Maui, among others.So in lieu of an off-season escape to the crystal blue waters of some spectacular snorkel site, I offer you these budget “beach” vacations:• Downtown Aquarium, Denver: Formerly called Ocean Journey, this aquarium is a treat for land-locked Coloradans. Seriously, where else in our mountainous environs can you pet a horseshoe crab, watch a wave crash into a reef or find a fish hiding in an undersea cave?Budget-minded bonus: Friday Family Nights, when kids pay only $1.99 from 5 p.m. to close!• Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, Calif.: Yes, the Aquarium of the Pacific is, in fact, on the beach. But trust me when I say you do not want to snorkel the waters that lie outside its doors. Instead, lose yourself in the colorful reefs of the tropical Pacific, hand-feed the squawking lorikeet (very colorful and very loud birds), or pet the sharks. Still not enough to get you feeling one with the ocean? Check out one of two 3-D films at the aquarium: “Turtle Vision” and “A Fish Story,” both animated and both a lot of fun for the family.Cheap seats: Believe it or not, Southern California is an option for the cash-strapped vacationer. It’s a full day’s drive or, if you’re lucky, you can find low-cost flights – we booked ours for $9.99 each way (plus fees and taxes, but still), on Allegiant Air from Grand Junction to Los Angeles. jmcgovern@aspentimes.com

By Janet UrquhartSpring brings a change not only of seasons, but of skill sets. Long-dormant muscles don’t so much blossom as they do creak back to life like the lawn mower – in fits and starts.An April “staycation” in the midvalley proved an opportune time to ease into the pursuits of summer, starting with yard work. By day two of raking dead grass, though, my arms were sufficiently tired of lawn beautification. The dirty windows beckoned, but the bicycles won out.The looks-better-in-bike-shorts-than-I-do honey and I pedaled from El Jebel to the outskirts of Glenwood Springs and back, joining throngs of like-minded locals hitting the Rio Grande Trail on one of those joyously warm days that draws everyone outside to flaunt their pasty flesh.The 26-or-so-mile ride, however, proved a bit much for the first outing of the season. I was walking funny for a day or so, and my butt wanted nothing more to do with the bike seat. I didn’t want to spend the rest of the week rebuilding our decrepit back deck (my power tool-toting companion’s idea of rest and relaxation), so we drank beer on the rotting wood planks instead and grilled the first brats of the year.Then it was time to hit the river, fly rods in hand.A nice rainbow in the net within the first few minutes of the season’s first outing lured me into several hours of ungainly flailing. Sloppy casts, tangled line and vexing knots tied with fumbling fingers left me feeling rustier than the nails holding the porch together, but I managed to snare one more trout that afternoon, a small, but feisty brown.Escaping the destination resort that is El Jebel for a day, the person who would later park in the best hole on the river and I headed to Aspen for dinner on the town (Jimmy’s bar menu) and the Indigo Girls at Belly Up, where I had previously plunked down the household piggy bank and then some on reserved seats. Posing as VIPs, we started a tab with our server, stayed up well past our 9 p.m. bedtime, drained a nightcap at Bentley’s with friends and headed back to our $88 room at the Innsbruck Inn to crash.After a bleary-eyed breakfast at the Main Street Bakery the next morning, we headed back downvalley, where we generally loafed around and plotted ways to outmaneuver each other for the best spot on the Fryingpan during the noon midge hatch. Happy hour came early.A satisfying week ended with a short road trip to Grand Junction for a hiking season tune-up in the Colorado National Monument. The Monument Canyon Trail sufficed for a taste of the desert and served up my first-ever sighting of a yellow-headed collared lizard.Home, as it turns out, wasn’t a bad choice as a vacation base camp.janet@aspentimes.com

By Jon MaletzI scrimped for months and traveled nearly 2,000 miles to watch friend and former Aspen Times cohort Nate Peterson take the plunge. No one told me he was taking me with him.My idea of risk-taking is going swimming 20 minutes after eating, instead of the recommended hour. Needless to say, venturing through a remote forest outside Puerto Morelos, Mexico, then leaping into a cenot (a Mayan word that, I gather, loosely translates to “dark hole in rock”) gave me pause. Heck, it made me break out in a cold sweat. I blamed it on the humidity.There was no turning back. I had already risked brain injury on the seemingly endless ride down a chicken wire-lined dirt road I can best describe as one massive pothole. And I’m certain my $60 was non-refundable.I grabbed a bright-orange life jacket, chugged a Dos Equis, piled a chip high with bean dip, then followed a sun-drenched, dread-locked local wielding a machete into dense woods.Great life choice.I pondered phoning my health-insurance provider to see if any doctors here were in network. It was no use. There was no cell service. It took me 10 minutes just to find a bathroom.I slipped off my shoes and shirt and stepped gingerly toward the opening, pausing to clutch a thin tree as I peered over the edge.My fear of heights started to kick in. And while the nearly 20-foot fall seemed daunting, I was equally concerned with scraping my limbs against the limestone walls, which loomed precariously close to the launch point – two flimsy wooden boards that looked like they’d been pulled from a shipwreck.Heart pounding, I summoned an ounce of courage. I stepped off the plank.Fast-moving rock gave way to emptiness. Warm air gave way to a brisk underground lake, which some said was almost 60 feet deep. My stomach leapt into my chest as, with arms flailing, I drilled the surface and went under. Seconds later, I popped up and surveyed the awe-inspiring surroundings, a dimly lit cave flooded with pristine blue water and sheer rock walls. Smiles formed on the faces of the young and old as they giddily scurried up the ladder to take another jump. I was not far behind.Later, emboldened by plastic cups filled with Jose Cuervo, we tested our mettle on a much larger jump. One partygoer even pondered climbing a nearby tree before dropping into the pool 30-plus feet below. (Did I mention he’s a teacher in the valley? And he had nothing to drink?)I was just happy to emerge unscathed – and in far better shape than Nate’s friend Dan, who over-rotated on an attempted front flip. We joked about it later – after apologizing to Emily, who wondered why her husband-to-be was slurring his speech and walking into hotel furniture mere hours before the rehearsal dinner.She was beaming one day later, however. With her parents at her side, Emily sauntered down the sand at the Ocean Coral & Turquesa resort to join Nate under a flower-adorned arch erected at the water’s edge. The two exchanged vows and rings, then, amid the glow of the setting sun and the gentle din of the crashing surf, joined 60 friends and family for champagne.Great life choice. To my friends, I offer my sincerest congratulations. Thanks for letting us take the leap with you.jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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