Saturday, January 9, 2021

Loveland Ski Area

 This morning we left our Airbnb at 6:00 AM to spend the day at the Loveland Ski Area. I intentionally scheduled this as the last thing on our itinerary so that if someone broke a leg I wouldn’t have to cart them around the rest of our multi-state trip on crutches. Spoilers, thankfully everyone remained uninjured today.

Loveland consists of two mountains - the Valley and the Basin. Our first stop was the Valley, to get an idea of what people in Colorado consider the easy slopes. Cole and I quickly decided that we would be staying in this area and holding down the green runs for the day while Gabby, Joe, Sam, and Justin headed over to the Basin for some blues, and, in Joe’s case, one double black. We had several friends who warned us that that a green on the east coast is not the same as a green in Colorado, and we certainly found this to be true. At one point, Cole and I followed a sign that pointed to the “Easy Way” and then looked at each other in disbelief a few seconds later. That would be a blue minimum at Winterplace in West Virginia.

At one point, I made a new unexpected friend named Bob. I was waiting to get on the lift when the skier in front of me started giving me directions. “Step up here with me. Now ski to the red line. As the lift comes around, take a seat and put your poles to the side.” I was a little perplexed as to why this guy was giving me instructions, but figuring I just looked like a guy who had never ridden a lift before (although at this point I had literally dozens of rides under my belt) and this was just a friendly local, I obliged and took the seat next to him. There was minute or two of silence and then I asked, “What’s your name?” He asked me to repeat the question, I did, and he responded, “Well, I’m Bob.” I said, “Nice to meet you, Bob. I’m Ezra.” He did a double take. “Ezra?” I said, “Yes, Ezra.” He then profusely apologized. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were my daughter’s boyfriend! You’re about the same height and both wearing a black mask!” We had a nice chat on the way up, and I chuckled to myself thinking about how confused he probably was that his daughter’s boyfriend was asking what his name was.

After a full day of skiing, we returned to our house for dinner, prepared in part by grill master Joe. Joe, is an expert at choosing occasions to cook when he knows everyone will be starving. At that point, he could probably serve plain peanut butter sandwiches and everyone would be happy. All joking aside, dinner was delicious. Tomorrow morning we’ll be leaving early to fly home!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Exploring Colorado Springs

This morning we set out to explore Colorado Springs. We had a few detours along the way, but ended up having a great day. However, as the day started, I realized something significant about the group dynamics had changed. Three of the more extroverted members of our group flew home this morning, so we had a pretty quiet drive to start the day.

Our first stop was the post office. Yes, the post office. We had purchased our lift tickets for skiing on Friday from some friends who were unable to use them. The only difficulty was getting the tickets from Kansas and into our hands within a couple of days of us leaving Blacksburg. After striking out with both the Airbnbs, we decided to make use of US Post Office service called “general delivery.” You can have an item sent to a particular zip code with the street address of “General Delivery” and the person who it’s addressed to can pick it up at the local post office. However, when we stopped at the post office, they didn’t have it. Thankfully, it was only because the general delivery post office for this zip code was across town. We drove over there and picked up the envelope with no trouble. I love it when a plan comes together.

Next was Pike’s Peak, where we were told the top seven miles were currently closed due to ice, but were likely to be open later in the day. Deciding to wait it out, we made our way to Garden of the Gods. This park with beautiful large red rocks is owned by the city of Colorado Springs and is open free to the public, which was a stipulation of the family who donated the land the park consists of. We did a lot of walking and a little bit of climbing as we explored the park.

After that, we made two false starts with the US Olympic Training Center and US Air Force Academy (both closed to visitors due to COVID-19), before settling on the newly built US Olympic and Paralympic Museum. This was not our first choice due to the cost of admission and the likelihood we wouldn’t have time to do it justice, but it ended up being my favorite part of the day! This is not your grandparents’ museum. A large part of the experience is an RFID badge that you carry around that allows the exhibits to recognize you and tailor the information to your interests. The whole museum is very high-tech and engaging.

The final stop of the day was the 20 mile drive up Pikes Peak Parkway, gaining ~7,000 feet of elevation in the process. The roads had been cleared by the time we made it back to the mountain, and it was an amazing drive to the top. We stopped at several points along the way to explore and take pictures, and we noticed the elevation difference had a significant effect on our breathing. Most of the peak itself was under construction, but we managed to at least get a group photo.

A second divide (besides introvert/extrovert) has been evident in our group this week. A striking difference between “young” and “old.” Four of our group members on this trip are age 23 or younger, while the rest of us are… older than that (by a margin of several years). This has led to quite a few jokes about the “boomers” as the younger members of our fellowship don’t seem to have some of the same aches and pains the rest of us are experiencing. Kids these days.

From Spearfish Canyon to Colorado Springs

This morning we left our Airbnb in Spearfish, SD and began our drive back to central Colorado. Before we left Spearfish, however, we had to explore Spearfish Canyon and see the three waterfalls the location is known for. The first was easily accessible from the road, the second was down a spur trail of less than half a mile, and the biggest of the three, Roughlock Falls, was about a mile out on a hike alongside a beautiful stream in the snow.

After spending most of the rest of the day driving, we made it to our Airbnb near Colorado Springs in time for a dinner of soup and grilled cheese. After dinner, Lissa and Justin gave PowerPoint presentations detailing why we should choose their preferred sunglasses retailer (Knockaround or Blenders, respectively). Both had very entertaining presentations, and, after some deliberation, the vote came down to a dead tie, with Sam abstaining.

For the rest of the evening we enjoyed playing Catchphrase and Clue before having to say goodbye to Tanner, Lissa, and Malarie, who will be heading back to Virginia tomorrow (sad day!).

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Black Hills, Crazy Horse, and Mount Rushmore

 After a good night’s sleep and two substantial meals, the moral of the troops was much better this morning. Nobody even shot me any particularly dirty looks when I told them there would be another four or five hours of driving today. We made and packed sandwiches for lunch, and then headed out.

Our first stop was the Jewel Cave National Monument, where we planning to hike the Hell Canyon trail. At first, I was a bit worried because the visitor’s center was unexpectedly closed (Monday-Wednesday, apparently). However, we eventually discovered the trailhead we wanted was actually outside of the park. This was a good news/bad news situation, because, at almost exactly the same moment, I received word over the radio that Justin had forgotten the bag of sandwiches we packed. Tanner was the only one who had his sandwich because, apparently, he doesn’t trust any of us.

The hike itself was beautiful, although we didn’t spot any of the bighorn sheep that roam the area. We did a five and a half mile loop that ended up being a little more challenging than expected, what with snow and difference in elevation. However, the views made it worthwhile.

Hell Canyon Loop

Next on the schedule was the Crazy Horse monument, currently being created in the Black Hills. The scale of this project is insane. The presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore are smaller than just the face of this monument, which depicts a Native American Indian chief sitting on a horse.

The Final Product

The final stop of the day was Mount Rushmore, an expected highlight of the trip for several of our group. No one told me they were scheduling construction, though, so we encountered a bunch of chainlink fences when we first arrived. The good news was we were able to follow the detour path around to the viewing platform. Along the walk we passed through Avenue of Flags with all of the state flags, and roundly rejected Joe’s claim that Maryland has the best state flag.

We encountered some snow on the way home but made it back safely and had a spaghetti dinner followed by a pingpong tournament, instigated by Joe and Justin. Unsurprisingly, Justin came out on top, but a few others (Sam, Cole, and Gabby) gave him a run for his money. There must be something in the water in Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

From Virginia to South Dakota

Today we traveled from Blacksburg, VA to Spearfish, SD by way of three other states - North Carolina, Colorado, and Wyoming. Cheap roundtrip flights out of Charlotte to Denver heavily influenced our destination selection this year, and a group of nine of us decided to give it a go!

True to form, our group split into three separate flights - all three going out of CLT at roughly the same time, but with one group coming back a couple of days early. We all made it onto our flights, despite having to leave Blacksburg at ungodly hours, although some were closer than others. Lissa met a professional disc golfer on the plane (and forgot his name), while Sam initiated a speed-reading competition with his seat mate (unbeknownst to the other guy).

When we got to Colorado, we went to pick up our rental car and discovered quite the line. We left Joe to wait while we went outside and played hackey-sack with a guy we met from Washington. He asked, “Are you guys taking shifts waiting in line?” We looked at each other and laughed, “No, that’s Joe’s job!” Once we got the rental squared away, we began the long drive to our first AirBnB in South Dakota. Lots of interesting sights in Wyoming, including a guy towing a pickup truck down the road with what looked like just a ratchet strap.

After spending a total of 13+ hours sitting in various forms of transportation in the past day, I think we’re all ready to get out tomorrow and do some exploring! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Monkey Beach and an Unexpected Road Trip

Knowing Friday was our last full day in country, we decided to get up early to visit Manual Antonio National Park before heading back to San Jose to get Haley on her early afternoon flight. Joe, however, took “early” to a whole new level and was out the door around 5:00 AM to go walk on the beach. The rest of us left around 7:00 AM to catch up with him in the park - almost getting scammed into parking half a mile from the park’s entrance by a couple of official looking guys in khaki shirts sporting park patches. We also tried to enter the wrong end of the park by accident, fording a small stream next to a sign warning us to beware of the alligators (unfortunately, that wasn’t the only unsettling thing we saw) before hitting the barbed wire fence..

After making it into the park, we hiked through the rain forest (spotting a sloth or two along the way) to the infamous Manuel Antonio “monkey beach” where we reunited with Joe. This beach is known not just for its beauty, but also for a horde of mischievous capuchin monkeys bent on stealing whatever they can. Seeing no monkeys, Joe and I stashed our bags near a tree and snorkeled out into the surf. Later, as we returned, I saw two monkeys picking their way down the beach. Unable to remember exactly where our bags were, I picked up the pace and exited the water right as the lead monkey discovered Joe’s backpack and started working out how to open the drawstring closure. I ran towards our bags, yelling and waving and they both moved on to an easier target - stealing a bag of cough drops from the lady next to us. When I told Joe I rescued his bag he said, “You should have gotten a picture before scaring him off!”

Peaceful monkey beach
After heading back and packing up, we left our AirBnB around 11:00 AM on Friday morning (an important detail) and headed back to San Jose to drop Haley off at the airport. Along the way, we added to our list of several surprise wildlife encounters with several kamikaze iguanas crossing the road (think squirrel, but faster), which Tanner swerved to miss (with the “turtle” incident probably fresh in his mind). Along the way, we stopped to see a bask of crocodiles that gathers under the T├írcoles bridge near Jaco. We also had one wildlife sighting earlier this week which was quite surprising. On our way to La Fortuna, we saw a commotion on the road in front of us and slowed to a stop. We saw a guy lean over and pick up what at first looked like a large snake, but turned out to be the tail of a large wild cat! It must have gotten hit crossing the road, just like deer in Virginia. For the rest of the week, we talked about this poor “cheetah,” which drove Steven up the wall. "Cheetahs live in Africa!"

After dropping Haley off at the airport (and getting her to sing her song, “Where are my phone, my keys, and my wallet…” to the tune of “My Favorite Things”) we ate lunch at a Central American chicken chain called Rostipollos (get the cheese bites). As we were leaving, we had our fourth and final run in with an automated parking system. As we discovered, some places (even if they issue you a ticket on entrance) are free to park, while others require you pay for parking inside before leaving (which seems like a dumb design). This usually results in us pulling up to the gate, then reversing out of the chute while someone runs inside to pay. This time, though, we encountered a couple of nice parking lot security guards, one of which said, “I will help you,” and opened the gate for us manually. Tanner said, “Those are the greatest words to hear. ‘I will help you.’”

Central Park, San Jose, Costa Rica
Next, we headed downtown to see if we could find cheap souvenirs. Word of caution, maybe don’t Google “cheap souvenirs” and go to the first place that pops up. As we drove around looking for a place to park, we passed several indoor markets, which, as Tanner told us were, “a little dangerous, but you can get almost anything in there.” We parked and walked the streets for a while alongside thousands of Costa Ricans. While we likely stuck out pretty sorely, it was cool to hang out in place where many of the locals were.

The streets of San Jose
After the sun went down, we did several other things to pass the time until our flight left San Jose around 2:00 AM the next morning (another important detail), including going to the mall, watching “Underwater” at the attached theater with Spanish subtitles, and making a stop at McDonalds for late night ice cream - where Steven got to experience the wonder (or lack thereof) of getting fried from a McDonalds in Central America. We then dropped off the rental car and got to the airport around midnight. We took a picture with the airport sloth, then made our way through security. It was a slow night, but Costa Rica TSA still took a long look at Tanner’s bag, murmuring “Coca Cola?” as the four glass bottles in his backpack showed up on the x-ray. We napped a little bit at our gate before boarding the plane back home, and, within a few hours, were back on United States soil.

Then, the real adventure began…

Our first inkling of trouble was when we joined the customs line immediately after getting off the plane and then didn’t move. For over an hour. Eventually, it was explained to us that five international flights had arrived simultaneously (four of which were Spirit’s and two of those being delayed). Long story short, we were in customs for over two and half hours. What was originally a layover with plenty of time to spare turned into a mad dash for the gate. Joe managed to make it through customs before the rest of us and made it on. I was right behind him, but the plane was pushing back from the jetway as I arrived.

Because they technically got us to the airport with more than ninety minutes to make our connection, Spirit wasn’t very helpful with rebooking. The best they could do was get us on the same flight out the next day (not even guaranteeing that there would be four available seats). After some discussion and working out quite a few different scenarios, we decided to bite the bullet. We took the partial refund for the remaining leg and rented a car to begin the 17 hour drive (not including stops) from Fort Lauderdale, Florida back to Blacksburg, Virginia via Richmond. You know, there’s nothing quite like an impromptu cross-country road trip.

For those of you unfamiliar with Florida geography, Fort Lauderdale is about as far south as you can go. Bottom of the state. Any further and you’re bumping into the Keys. Steven made the astute observation that, “We drove six hours just to get out of Florida!” Thankfully, the trip to Richmond was fairly uneventful (I might even call the last couple of hours after midnight enjoyable) and we arrived at the RIC airport around 3:00 AM. I picked up my Jeep and proceeded to the rental car office to pick up the rest of the group. However, while scanning the road for any reverse tire spikes, I entirely missed the small curb in the center median. My front wheel hit, and I was afraid we were going to have a problem. Sure enough, I parked, came around the side, and stood with Tanner, watching the last bit of air leak out of my tire. He said, “Well” and that’s about all there was to say. Without a word, I opened the lift gate, handed him the lug wrench, Steven the jack, and began dropping the spare.

At that point, there was just a level of insanity to the previous two days that made the whole thing seem surreal. Also, because we were so delusional by that point, there was a bit of hilarity in it as well. After quickly changing the tire (in probably under ten minutes, as Kasey observed) we drove the remaining several hours back to Blacksburg - arriving just in time for Northstar (our church’s) load in and sound check. Doing the math, at that point we had been up for a contiguous 48 hours, sleeping only fitfully on the plane or in the car. Later, I apologized to Joe that he missed out on the great American road trip, but, for some reason, he seemed unfazed by it.

Exhausted, but victorious

Friday, February 14, 2020

Jaco and Manuel Antonio

This morning we packed up early at our AirBnB in San Jose and headed for the beach in Manuel Antonio, about three hours away. We’re definitely getting better at spending long periods in the car together at this point.

Our first stop for the day was zip lining through the rain forest in Jaco with Chiclets Ziplines. We were a little late, due to traffic and a police checkpoint where we saw a guy take off from the cops, but the tour guide was able to call me on my Costa Rican cell number (insert plug for Kolbi here) and we assured him we were almost there.

When we arrived, we geared up and then jumped on the back of an open air truck for the ride up the mountain. We hiked for a while through the jungle to the first platform and (after a short “cable school”) took off!

Here we go!
It was a blast, the guides had a good sense of humor, and I earned the nickname “camera boy” for carrying a GoPro the whole time. I was particularly interested in how they set up the runs and dealt with the speed/braking aspect of the ride. My dad and I built a zipline in our backyard one year, about the same length of the first couple of these runs, but, for ours, I had to be the crash test dummy and figure out how to stop. This system used a padded leather glove and depended on the rider to slow themselves down before hitting the tree.

Next, we had lunch at Bowie’s Point, sitting at a long shaded table, facing the ocean. We also got a show with our lunch, as the owner’s potbelly pig wandered out to join us, along with several chickens, a rooster, and a dog.

Our lunch view - wishing we had brought a volleyball
Our next stop was Biesanz Beach, a hidden gem of a beach supposedly good for snorkeling. Tanner and I swam about a quarter mile out past the surf to where we saw several tour boats dropping people into the water. Sure enough, we found the reef! It wasn’t quite Finding Nemo level of color, but there were quite a few interesting fish swarming around us. Joe even got to to sip from a coconut on the beach, as he had been hoping to do!

The friendly fish
After we left the beach, we checked into our AirBnB in Manuel Antonio and decided to head out for some dinner. Joe picked a place called Barba Roja, which had a great view of the ocean and the setting sun. We enjoyed our dinner and Tanner amassed a collection of glass Coca Cola bottles to bring home with him.

Dinner view
After dinner, we backtracked to the town of Quepos to walk around and see what we could see. We got some ice cream and watched a guy watering a soccer field for a while before stumbling upon what looked to be a high school drum line playing on the paved boardwalk near the ocean. They were excellent, and we discovered “marching xylophones” are a thing.

On the way back, as the van was climbing a steep hill, Tanner said, “Ezra, the needle just dropped and the gas light came on.” This caused quite a bit of consternation in the car, as we hadn’t seen a gas station for a while. Tanner stopped to get directions to the nearest station, but, when he returned, he said. “Good news and bad news. Good news, there’s one nearby. Bad news, I have no idea what that guy said.” There was also a less than helpful hand drawn map. Undeterred, we turned around, dropped Joe and Steven off to watch a local roadside soccer game, and were able to make it back to a gas station before the fuel ran out.

Tomorrow is our last day in Costa Rica before returning home. Haley will be flying out mid afternoon, while everyone else leaves around 2:00 AM Saturday morning. We’re planning to make the most of it, that’s for sure!