You know what’s awesome? Hanging out in some of Colorado’s most spectacular mountains in a beautiful off-grid cabin. You know what’s NOT awesome? Having thick smoke roll through then driving home in a vicious whiteout snowstorm.
And we’d do it again! This storm was very early and record-setting in more than one way, but Colorado is full of major temperature swings and treacherous drives. So we were well prepared and the trusty Tahoe handled it like a champ. Slow and steady.
In this update from our nomadic life, we’ll fill you in on the fun we just had in the mountains, talk about more preparations for winter, and throw in a few more thoughts about this wild year, which somehow seems to be one-upping itself time and time again.
Off-Grid Cabin Life
As most of you know, Kristina and I are severely limiting our travel right now due to COVID-19. When we were invited to hang out in an off-grid cabin for a long weekend with people we knew are taking extreme precautions as well, we jumped on it.
The cabin is located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. It is one of my favorite parts of this incredible state.
The mountains here are unique even for Colorado, with steep, treeless peaks topping out over 13,000 and 14,000 feet in elevation all over the place. They’re painted with vibrant stripes of orange, red, and yellow – a constant reminder of the Gold Rush history in the area.
Below timberline, the forests are dense with thick lodgepole pines, tall blue spruces, and many Douglas firs. Compared to other parts of the state, the trees are quite large and often come with a thick undergrowth. The wildlife is abundant, including massive moose, elk, and black bears. And you can’t forget about the plentiful marmots. It’s a seriously spectacular area to visit.
The drive from the Denver area is pretty long and took us a little more than 7 hours, with the final hour being on a narrow forest service road that cuts into a mountain side as it climbed from about 9,000 feet to over 11,000 feet in elevation. After picking our way through the dust clouds, rough road, and Labor Day weekend traffic jams, we arrived at the beautiful cabin.
It doesn’t have electricity of any kind, no cell service, and no satellite internet. And it is perfect.
Constructed from timber sourced from their land, the cabin has a deep connection to the nature around it. The views are spectacular all the way around, especially from the backside. The entire cabin sits on top of a rock outcropping which towers a hundred feet or so from the ground below on the downhill side.
While the cabin was off-grid, it had plenty of creature comforts and we weren’t really roughing it. A nearby stream served as a water source, plumped through to a running faucet and sink. A large propane tank powered the stove, oven, and refrigerator. But my favorite part inside the cabin is the wood-fired furnace. Getting that roaring each night was a nice little ritual.
We spent one day hiking up the mountain just outside the cabin’s doors. This wasn’t your usual hike. It’s a scramble up the side of a mountain with no maintained trails or trailheads, and it was an area that even the cabin’s owners had barely explored. This was a true Off Path Travels excursion.
Using wildlife trails, we hustled up the steep slope. You had to constantly look ahead and scout out your route, climbing over downed trees and stepping through soft soil. Eventually the land flattened out and opened up to a beautiful bowl, once the home of a glacier.
Some of the party kept cruising to pretty high altitudes and extremely steep drop-offs, while others hung out in the cirque with the dogs. Can you guess what Kristina and I did? Leave a comment with your guess and I’ll let you know.
Another day was spent exploring the old mine on their property. Venturing about a half mile underground, we followed the old rail lines all the way through. At one point, the mineshaft turns about 90 degrees and follows a quartz vein; the one that the miners hoped contained their ticket to riches.
It was thrilling. And a bit terrifying.
We also had one night full of rocking out on the guitar with a musician who could sing like the wind. With nothing but the red glow of a solar lantern illuminating our small party, we enjoyed the music and watched the stars deep into the night.
It wasn’t all fun and games though. We dealt with fairly poor air quality for over half of the trip; the mountains we could easily see on day one disappeared from view by day three. Then we realized the incoming winter storm was going to be serious. While this wouldn’t be a terrible place to ride out a snowstorm, we really didn’t want to get stuck up there.
And we almost left in time. Almost.
Another Reminder: Winter is Coming
But we didn’t leave the cabin in time. On our way back toward Denver, the skies began to darken and we could sense that it might be a long road ahead. The first part of the drive was easy. It wouldn’t last.
After the first hour or so, the rain started. It was a gentle mist at first, developing into small droplets, and eventually combining with serious gusts of wind. Time for two hands on the steering wheel.
As we approached the first major pass, snow started falling. Thankful we were in the trusty Tahoe (which I have spent countless hours driving through snowy conditions in Colorado mountains), I flipped on the headlights, hit the button to engage 4WD, and kept cruising along.
Sometimes things have to be difficult though. And this was one of those days.
We first knew there was something amiss when about 6 different response vehicles flew past us at breakneck speed. The snow was falling hard and the wind continued to pick up as we approached the first mountain pass we needed to get over.
In near whiteout conditions, we hit a traffic jam. Although we couldn’t see much, there was a semi truck stranded in the middle of the road. On the right side of the truck was a line of cars trying to get around it. They were all at a standstill with their hazards on.
No longer was this a near whiteout. With visibility down to about 15 feet at times, we were stuck on a treacherous road in a terrible storm. Our windshields began to get coated in a sheet of snowy ice. Thoughts of tucking tail and turning around floated in our heads. But there was no reasonable alternative route.
So we waited. And waited. What seemed like an eternity on that road ended up being about 45 minutes of sitting still. The wind howling around the car, feeling like it was going to push us right off of the mountain.
Eventually, the trooper waived us on with the words, “If you feel comfortable, go ahead and make your way through.” Good enough.
In earlier discussions with the trooper (who had icicles all over his frozen face), he informed us that the drivers of two cars didn’t know how to put their cars in 4WD and there were two other semi-trucks stuck on the road, both without chains.
We crept past the cars trying to figure out 4WD, eventually made it off of that pass and continued on. It was slow going, sometimes dropping down to 10 mph or so, but we made it over that pass and into slightly moderate weather. After a few other hiccups along the way (including someone stopped in the middle of a steep downhill highway to urinate), we made it back to the Denver area.
That early snowstorm was a solid reminder that winter is around the corner. Which is a bit terrifying for Kristina and me. Living a nomadic lifestyle, especially one where camping is a bit part of the experience, is much more challenging in cold climates. You need more gear, heavier clothing, and a more comfortable living situation.
While we’ve avoided this over the last couple years by sticking to areas with warmer winter temperatures, COVID makes that a much bigger challenge this year. Balancing our needs with the current reality, it’s looking like we’ll need to face a winter with snow. I love snow and am excited on one hand, but also have some serious concerns about where we’ll go.
For now, we’re playing it one day at a time. We’re thankful to have people who have opened up their homes to us, but we are pretty interested in having something of our own to get through the cold temps. Stay tuned to see what we figure out.
Empathy in 2020
How do we avoid falling into feelings of despair this year? Between concerns about the pandemic, blazing wildfires, early snowstorms, and a combative political sphere, there are plenty of things to worry about.
But you know what? We’re still here. You, just like me, woke up this morning and are able to read this article. Which means you have a working electronic device and internet connection. I’m going to guess that you also have a roof over your head, some food in the pantry/fridge, and potable hot/cold water flowing from a nearby tap.
Some people don’t. Not only do millions of people live without ready access to potable water, there are some who haven’t made it through this time at all. Doctors and nurses who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Grandmas and grandpas taken from this world too early. Plus the other hundreds of thousands of other people who have lost their lives.
So try to be grateful. Try to stay positive. Find the good in this world and hold onto it. Do what you can to make things a bit better every single day.
Is the political environment stressing you out? Then remember this: Most people want the same things out of life. Everyone wants a country which provides a good life for its inhabitants. Everyone wants a justice system which provides justice for all. Everyone wants to be happy, to be loved, and to find happiness.
Some businesses and institutions thrive off of discord. Humanity doesn’t.
Empathy is in short supply sometimes. It’s not always easy to see things from another perspective, but we have to try. Be curious. Challenge your own beliefs and look for prejudice. Listen to what others are saying, try to understand where they are coming from.
And if you don’t have a personal connection to the issue, remember that. If strong feelings develop about a subject you haven’t dealt with personally and don’t have a lot of background in, stop for a moment to realize that. Try to put yourself in the shoes of those who are personally impacted. Think about what their reasonable positions might be and try to empathize with that, no matter how hard it may be.
Try to forget the trash you see on TV and social media, the stuff that teaches you to hate other people, the stuff that only highlights the extreme actions of few rather than the common ground we all have.
By working together, finding common ground, and searching for reasonable compromise, we can come together and see great things come out of it. Most people are somewhat reasonable. Most people have good in their hearts and wouldn’t knowingly inflict harm on others.
That’s one reason that Kristina and I decided to start this business. Off Path Travels is about helping people understand the beauty in parts of the world they might not know much about. And while we uncover amazingly diverse things all over the world, we also want to show how people are people.
No matter their government, no matter their skin color, no matter their level of wealth, people all have the same basic needs. We all eat. We all drink. We all like to enjoy ourselves. And the way I like to remember that we’re all the same: We all shit.
If you haven’t read Trevor Noah’s book, Born A Crime, let me leave you with this incredible passage from it:
“It’s a powerful experience, shitting. There’s something magical about it, profound even. I think God made humans shit in the way we do because it brings us back down to earth and gives us humility. I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forget how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.”
– Trevor Noah, Born a Crime
Take it one day at a time. Be thankful for the things you have and be present in the moment. Rather than focusing on the dreadful future, the horrific past, or anything you can’t control, focus on where you are and what you’re doing. Even if it’s just hanging out on the couch with a good book or movie, be thankful for what you have and enjoy it.
If you aren’t familiar with staying present in the moment, I highly suggest giving mindfulness and/or mediation a try. Headspace is an excellent app with a free starter course that can be a good first step. YouTube, of course, has tons of excellent guided meditation videos.
Our Journey Wrap-Up
That wraps it up for this Our Journey update. The weekend at the cabin was amazing, the drive home reminded us that winter is coming, and it’s a great time to focus on positivity and staying present in the moment. Love your neighbor, even the ones that are far away.
Until next time,
Kristina and Michael