Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Our Trip to Denver: Part III

The most significant thing that happened on our fourth and final day in Denver was the bestowing of a new nickname upon Baby Lucy.

Lucy's new nickname originated during a hike we planned to take during the early morning hours of our final day. We rose bright and early before the sunrise so that we could head out to the mountains and hike to the summit before the it became too hot for our pale, delicate skin. I wish I was referring simply to Lucy's sensitive epidermis, but alas Paul and I are more pale than both our girls. Our skin practically spontaneously combusts in the presence of direct sunlight.

Paul had selected a rustic hike that he found on some hiking blog. The trailhead, which we found by using GPS coordinates, was not clearly marked and little more than a tiny opening through a very dense, wooded forest. Once we entered the forests and began our climb upwards along the narrow trail, I was surprised by how incredibly dark it was. The tall pine trees shielded most of the sun, giving our surroundings an eerie twilight feel. On top of this, the forest was so quiet. There was not a sound other than the crunch of the pebbles and pine brush beneath our feet. The further we ventured up our trail, the more creeped out I started to feel. It was not just the darkness, nor the quiet, nor the fact that Paul and I had been pretty silent the entire time. I sincerely felt like we were being watched, stalked, something. I kept looking over my shoulder, back over the trail we had just covered, half expecting to see an animal following close behind. I mentioned my fear to Paul and he laughed at me, saying that we should just keep chatting so as to not surprise a bear should there be one up ahead of us. We continued onward, nervously clapping, chatting, and singing. But, eventually, we both grew quiet and began listening for sounds. At several points, Paul, who was leading the way, stopped dead in his tracks to listen carefully for some "weird noises" that disturbed him.

I continued to feel watchful, piercing eyes upon me, my husband, and baby. It wasn't a bear that I was afraid of. I had the feeling that a cougar was stalking us. I shared my feelings with Paul and he gulped. He was nervous too. Somehow, seeing Paul nervous made things monumentally worse. Paul was always so confident and unafraid, making my fears seem silly and ridiculous. But now that he was sharing a bit of my terror, I suddenly began to panic. I didn't want to head back, we were about halfway to the summit and the forest was finally starting to see light once more as the trees became smaller as we approached the higher altitude. So, we continued onward while silently praying the rosary under our breath.

At this point, Lucy, who had been peacefully sleeping in her front-pack, began to stir. Paul, who was carrying her, began to bounce her while whispering, "Oh no...please stay asleep Lucy! We don't need your cries to attract the animals!"

"What do you mean...attract the animals?!?" I asked with fear.
"Oh sometimes if wild animals hear sounds they are unfamiliar with, like baby cries, it piques their curiosity and could potentially cause them to venture out to see what it is. Baby cries are terrific bear bait."

And from there...we began calling Lucy "little bear bait." Whenever she began to stir, we'd say "quiet down there little bear bait!"

When we broke out of the tree canopy and were out in the full sunlight once more for the final ascent to the summit, our moods improved drastically and we were no longer afraid. We actually relaxed completely and I spent quite a bit of time collecting beautiful pieces of granite, pyrite, and quartz for Matthew's rock collection. We eventually made it to the rock pile at the very top of the mountain and took in the stunning views. Simply beautiful. I took many, many pictures while nervously making sure to hold on extra tight to my camera for fear that it would slip from my fingers and smash on the boulders below.

We spent quite a bit of time enjoying the summit, but then agreed that it was time to head back down. The way down was not nearly as frightening as the way up. We encountered another group of hikers on our way down and it was also not quite as dark as it was when we began our hike. When we returned to the car and drove back into an area with cell reception, I looked up the area we had just hiked to see if it was an area commonly occupied by mountain lions. I was still convinced that something had been watching us. Sometimes you just know! My search revealed that the particular area of our hike was an area known for cougar sightings. In fact, over the past ten years there had been a few cougar attacks right in that same area. Not too many encounters at all, but it was still enough to make the skin on the back of my neck crawl. Obviously, we lived to tell the tale, even while carrying 14-pounds of bear bait.

After our hike, we picked up a few souvenirs for the kids, enjoyed a picnic in a park in downtown Boulder, and enjoyed a sushi dinner. We were pretty burnt out at this point and just wanted to relax. We ended up going to bed super early because we had an early morning flight to catch. Although we were sad for our vacation together to end, we were eager to get back and see our other two kids. It's amazing how you look forward to spending time alone without the children but then experience an intense longing to see them within less than 24 hours of being apart.

I don't think they even noticed we were gone. They were too busy having fun with "Indiana Grandma" and their many, many little aunts and uncles. They even camped out in the backyard one night. My two kids stayed in the tent all night long while one by one all their aunts and uncles went inside to seek the comfort of a mattress. By the end of the night, only Matthew, Emma, and Grandpa remained outside the whole night. Poor Dad was pretty darn tired and sore the next day, but his resilience and determination to chaperone the backyard camp did not go unnoticed by Matthew and Emma who have spoken of the event often!

"Indiana Grandma" and Aunt Susanna with Matthew, Emma, and Lucy.

Uncle Bruce in an earnest moment with his nephew Matthew.

If you are thinking of visiting Denver, I highly recommend it because it is a city that truly has something for everyone: arts, culture, hiking, biking, shopping, and pretty much every restaurant you can think of! However, if you are not used to bigger cities and hail from the modest Midwest like moi, be prepared to spend a lot of time in the car while getting from point A to point B. That was the one thing that really disappointed me because I felt like we spent quite a few hours in the car just driving. As someone who experiences car sickness readily, that was not too pleasant. However, the sights and those beautiful, gorgeous mountains make the trip well worth it!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Our Trip to Denver: Part III

The next day, we planned to spend half our time with James before breaking off to explore Cherry Creek and downtown Denver. James was staying at the same hotel as us, so we told him to meet us for breakfast bright and early at 6:30 am. Lucy and I were ready to go, but Paul was very exhausted from the day before and just kept sleeping. I finally shook him awake and told him that we were going to be late for breakfast if he did not get moving. That got him into the shower, but then he spent close to 30 minutes just percolating in the warm water. We were very late. Poor James had been ready to go on time. Paul had decently texted him that we were running late about 5 minutes after we should have been there (how magnanimous of him!), and blamed our tardiness on me. Wasn't that nice of him?

After finishing breakfast, we headed out to see Red Rocks Amphitheater - an impressive rock structure that serves as a natural outdoor venue for many concerts and shows. We took a little hike around the formations and up the side of the hill. I enjoyed this a lot - it was so neat! Along our hike, we were spooked by a giant spider that very much resembled a Hobo Spider. Paul did not want to continue on the path any further after seeing that, but after much coaxing and promises of red meat for dinner, he overcame his fears and soldiered on.

I took lots of pictures. Lucy took a very long nap.

People come to workout up and down the many, many steps of the amphitheater.
You can't tell from the pictures, but there were a lot of fitness enthusiasts there this particular morning!!

Oh and look! We found John Denver.

After Red Rocks, we drove over to the Coors factory for a tour. I'm not a huge fan of Coors, but their tours are free and family-friendly so we figured that we'd give it a shot. I'm so glad we did, because it turned out to be really fun and informative. I discovered that Coors actually owns the only beer I like - Blue Moon - as well as Redd's Hard Cider. The tour was self guided with these hand-held radio devices, so you could move at your own pace throughout the factory. Lucy preferred that I move at a lightening fast rate through the factory and I spent a good 15 minutes feeding her in the powder room - my fancy description of a really dirty hall bathroom with a 1950s era couch set inside for nursing mothers. The best part of the tour was at the conclusion where they lead you into a pub where you could have up to three drinks of your choice on tap in cold glasses. These were not sample servings - they were full 12 ounce glasses of beer! We basically got a glass of everything and concluded, no surprise, that blue moon is the tastiest. They also had soft drinks on tap for the kids or the occasional 20-something-year-old female who is not all that fond of beer.

After the Coors tour, we said good-bye to James and then headed for a walking tour of the shops, landmarks, and architecture of downtown Denver. Unfortunately, the clouds began to open just as we arrived and a downpour ensued. We persevered, since we had already paid for the parking, and walked through the rain, trying to keep as close to the buildings as possible to benefit from the protection of the overhangs. We enjoyed walking hand-in-hand, a rare treat nowadays with all three kiddos, through the many, many different specialty shops. We stopped in our tracks from excitement when we stumbled upon a Peet's Coffee shop - our favorite coffee is their Major Dickason blend, we shared a latte and a yogurt parfait inside while watching the rain and chatting. Sometimes, quiet moments together are the best.

On our way back to retrieve our parked car, we were accosted by many, many individuals soliciting funds for various charitable organizations, requesting our signatures for certain government petitions, or proclaiming the ways to our salvation. For the most part, we averted our eyes and just kept walking quickly when approached. However, we did stop to chat to one younger guy who was collecting money for a campaign to feed America's hungry children. He was a pleasant hippy who was not too pushy with his initiative. He kept asking us questions about ourselves and we ended up turning some of his own inquiries around on him. Then, we somehow started sharing our viewpoints on marriage, family, and Catholicism and we definitely got his attention - blew him away with our large family background and our openness to life. We actually talked to him for nearly an hour before we had to keep moving to make our dinner reservation. Little encounters like that, where you get to meet and hear someone's life journey and share a portion of your own story in return, can be so rewarding and uplifting. Wherever our friend may be, we wish him well - he had such a good heart!

Next, we headed over to Cherry Creek to enjoy our "fancy" dinner of the trip at Elway's. One of the most famous and revered restaurants in Denver, Elway's is the flagstaff restaurant of former Bronco's quarterback John Elway. From everything I had read, the restaurant is revered not just because of it's association with Denver's second favorite athlete (next to Peyton Manning - but I'm biased) but also because the food is supposed to be delicious, high-end, masterfully prepared cuisine. I actually watched the Executive Chef of Elway's compete on Top Chef Master's and he knew what he was doing. He didn't make it all that far, but I liked the flavor combinations he came up with. In other words, I was really looking forward to eating there. Paul was looking forward to eating the steak, their main specialty.

Well, after having eaten there, I can conclude that we were really disappointed. We were kind of ignored by our waitress after we declined to order alcohol. We chose to split an entree and just order several sides since I'm not a huge red meat person and their various vegetable preparations intrigued me the most. And also because the meals were about 80 bucks a pop. Who can afford that? So, Paul chose the NY strip and we added on a beet salad, some creamed spinach, a brussels sprouts hash, and potato hash browns with mustard aioli. When our meal arrived, we were blown away by the deliciousness of the sides. With the exception of the creamed spinach, which could have used a bit more seasoning, everything was artfully prepared and beautifully presented.

However, the steak, the crown jewel of the restaurant's menu, was an abysmal failure. Ordered medium rare, the steak appeared to be overdone, dry, and texturally reminiscent of a steak that had spent some time in the freezer. In addition to that, the cut had the appearance of a filet mignon, and judging by the lack of fat content, we were fairly confident that that is exactly what we were served. Plus, the waiter had actually said, "And here is your filet..." when he placed the plate on the table. When the manager stopped by to ask how our meals were tasting, we told him our honest thoughts. He claimed that our complaints stemmed from a lack of knowledge of food preparation. That really made both of us mad because food is...well...sort of a hobby for us.  We told him flat-out that we were not looking for a freebie by any means, but legitimately wanted to bring the issue up so the restaurant could simply be aware of it in order to improve for future guests. Maybe it was because we were a lot younger than their average clientele, or because we were splitting an entree and therefore paying a lot less for our meal than every other couple that night, or maybe it was because I was waving a toy above Lucy's head in an attempt to keep her happy while we discussed the situation, who knows...but both Paul and I felt disrespected by the staff as a whole. In the end, the manager brought us a boxed up dessert on the way out, which was very kind of him but truly unnecessary. In case you were wondering, the dessert was a Key lime Pie with a raspberry coulis and it was delicious.

After dinner, we went in search of a park where we could eat our compensatory dessert and enjoy the beautiful evening. This turned into us driving all over the southern portion of Denver - through Aurora, Englewood, Littleton, and Lakewood. We did stop at a little park in Centennial where we ate our dessert in the grass while the baby slept. We were pretty exhausted at this point and I'm pretty sure Paul almost fell asleep while sitting in the grass. So, we packed everything up, finished our loop driving through the aforementioned areas of Denver, and went back to the hotel to rest-up for our very last day of vacation.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Our Trip To Denver: Part II

Lucy's opinion of my written account of our trip.

Prepare for picture overload. I warned you!

We woke up bright and early to enjoy our first full day in Denver. We chose to spend the bulk of the day exploring the Boulder, CO area. Boulder is very much an up-and-coming, college town with a hefty price tag for most of its real estate. However, we really enjoyed strolling around downtown boulder. The little city is located at the base of a mountain and if you look straight upwards, you will see these enormous flat iron boulders towering above you. It's a beautiful, impressive sight. In Boulder, there was quite an eclectic mix of people: college students, outdoor enthusiasts, upper class families, businessmen, hipsters, and, unfortunately, many homeless individuals with camp set up around the riverbank. We spent our time strolling through the downtown shops, exploring the parks, and picking our way through the elaborate farmers market. I especially loved seeing all the beautiful produce, baked goods, and specialty food items that were for sale in the farmer's market. It was incredibly impressive!

Later, we met up with a friend from home who recently defected to Colorado. It was great catching up with him a bit as we enjoyed lunch in the park. Lucy took the opportunity to enjoy the al fresco experience by sunbathing a bit.

In the late afternoon, we headed out to Left Hand Brewery, one of Paul's favorite microbreweries, where we sampled a couple varieties of beer. Unfortunately because we had Lucy with us, we were unable to tour the facility like Paul had wanted. At first, I encouraged him to do the tour without us and told him that I would just feed Lucy in the little pub attached to the brewery. However, after meeting our bartender who, from the color of his bleary eyes and the oddity of his behavior, had obviously just finished smoking a joint out back, Paul declined my generous offer and chose to stick nearby. I was secretly grateful.

Lucy is not impressed with one of the Boulder bike shops.

After the brewery, we continued on a car tour of Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins. We took advantage of the fact that Lucy was finally napping in her car seat and didn't really get out of the car to explore the areas. Paul enjoys driving and sightseeing that way, but it was a little boring for me. We went to Mass in Fort Collins and then scarfed down some delicious Mexican food at On the Border in Longmont. Lucy slept for our entire dinner once again which was a real treat! Little did I know that it would be the last meal for the remainder of the trip where I would not have her in my lap.

Paul being Paul.

Our second full day in Denver was to be our exploration of the surrounding mountains and the Rocky Mountain National Park. We left the hotel around 6:30 AM to begin our long drive into the mountains. When we planned this trip, I was expecting our exploration of the mountains to involve a little more hiking and a lot less driving. In reality, we spent the majority of the day in the car because it was quite the drive getting to Rocky Mountain National Park. The views were breathtaking and we took several stops just to get out, take pictures, and absorb the scenery. The weather was finicky that day - when we left, it was sunny and hot and by the time we actually made it to Rocky Mountain National Park it was very cold, windy, and stormy. With the change in the altitude came big changes in the weather!

We came around a bend, and there was Jesus!

This gorgeous chapel was just off the road. We drove past it quickly and then turned
around to come back and check it out. So neat.

Paul put a creeper filter by accident on the camera while taking these pictures.
I was too lazy to fix it at the moment.

If you look close, that's me standing on the porch.

Gorgeous views!

Notable things we saw during our drive to the park were many beautiful cliffs, a little chapel ensconced in the mountainside, a statue of Jesus (he is everywhere), and some huge elk. We stopped at one point just outside of the park to do a short hike up the side of a ridge. It was really hot and very windy but the biggest annoyance was the sheer amount of bugs that were crawling all over the place thanks to a large nearby pond. That hike was also particularly frustrating because Lucy was fairly fussy and I had to stop at several points to nurse her, There's nothing worse than hiking with a flailing, screaming baby strapped to your front. In fact, it's actually a bit dangerous, especially when the trail gets steep - I almost lost my footing at several points because I couldn't see my feet and she was jerking around so wildly.

We do not own a selfie stick.

Rocky Mountain National Park was absolutely breathtaking. The views! The quiet, windy, chill that ripped across the tundra at the top of the highest peaks is something I'll never forget. Standing out on those mountains felt like sitting on the top of the world. It was so peaceful, so still, and calming...other than the mad shutters from hundreds of cameras and the incessant number of tourists posing with their selfie sticks. Other than that,

Cold, but happy!

Lucy was pretty sleepy the entire time we were in the park and fell asleep once we climbed to above 12,000 feet. I think it was her reaction to the decrease in oxygen. I wasn't feeling too hot myself, but thankfully we had plenty of water and a provision of snacks that kept me from feeling too ill. It was worth it though, because the sights were so incredible. The pictures speak for themselves!

After leaving Rocky Mountain National Park, we spent a bit of time walking around Grand Lake which, in all honesty, was actually not-so-grand. I think "creepy lake" would be a more fitting description. It looked like at one time it was a thriving tourist spot, filled with boardwalk shops and restaurants reminiscent of towns occupied by gun-toting cowboys of the Old West. Unfortunately, the majority of the boardwalk was in need of repair and many of the shop spaces were unoccupied. What little was there seemed old, dusty, and depressed. We quickly continued along our way.

And we basically drove...and drove...and drove. After about three hours in the car (we had no GPS system and our phones were not working), Paul commented: "Wow. This is taking us a long time to get back." Apparently the route we chose looped further back from Denver than we had thought. We were beginning to get nervous because we were supposed to be picking up Paul's younger brother James from the Denver airport that evening. He had been working at an internship in Denver over the summer and was flying back from a wedding in Texas. We had confiscated his parked car at the airport when we arrived and in exchange had agreed to pick him up when his flight arrived. Lucky for us, there were few cars on the road and once we got out of the mountains, we sped along at a pretty good clip and arrived at the Denver airport only 30 minutes late. Poor James was waiting for us in the terminal when we arrived.

After that, we headed over to an Indian restaurant for a very late dinner buffet. It tasted awesome - we had eaten little more than peanuts and fruit during our time in the mountains. Then, it was back to the hotel to crash for the night.

Part III will be up shortly!