Breckenridge – friends in high places

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Hiking outside Dillon, Colorado

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to travel as much as I have in my adult life, and hopefully I’m just getting started. This summer my golden retriever puppy, Lexi, and I spent a blissful three weeks traversing a good chunk of the US of A, from Northern Virginia to Colorado and back.  While I’ve been home for a while now, the memories linger like the snow that covers the tops of the Colorado peaks far into summer.  I just can’t seem to shake it off.   It stays with me.

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Ski slopes in summer in Breckenridge

While I think I’ve written almost a dozen posts about our adventure, I still have much to chronicle about our time in the west, as well as the return trip, but regular life has pushed its unwelcome way into what had become a fairly decent writing habit.  As a teacher/staff member at a small private school, there is always much to accomplish before the kiddos file through the door and begin a new year.  It’s easy (and necessary!) to get caught up in it all.  But I have found that the desire, and really the need to write, nags at me, despite the length of my real-life to-do list.  And so I sit here, happily dwelling on my stay in Colorado.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.  For all the amazing places I have been blessed to visit,  I can only remember one other trip like that in my whole life – where you just really, really can’t let it go.IMG_5138

But what made the week so especially memorable was not the simple magnificence of the place but the indelible imprint made by experiencing it as a cherished visitor of one who lives in Breckenridge and loves it well.  That one of my best friends on the planet lives in such an exquisite place – an inexplicable blessing.  My friend, let’s call her Jane – ok, possibly her name really is Jane, has been a resident since shortly after college, which makes her a seriously long-time inhabitant compared to many who have made their way to this town since its big-time boom began in more recent years.

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Lexi the Golden and I blew into town on a Saturday afternoon to an empty house – no note, just an open front door.  (This was not surprising!) We checked out our digs for the week and took a short walk before Jane and her sidekick, Jake the English Shepherd, returned.  Neither one of us can remember with any certainty when we were last together.  It didn’t matter.  To have friends who you can engage with fully within a moment’s time – where there’s a sense of uninterrupted existence – priceless.  No airs to put on, nothing to fake – just be.  And a dog friend!  Jake and Lexi were joined at the hip in no time, and Jake showed her the Colorado ropes.  The only glitch – it took Lexi a solid three days to brave Jake’s doggie door, but he patiently modeled it for her until she got finally it!  As recompense she endeavored to coax Jake into deep water to teach him to swim, but he would have none of it.

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Wild columbines everywhere!

A little friendship history.  Jane and I met in college a million years ago.  And of all the ridiculous reasons to become friends, it was because of a silly boy.  The story –  a little unlikely and not really worth explaining.  The boy – who was clearly not really worth all the angst at the time, turned out pretty well from all accounts (thanks in large part to the stellar girl he married!) but no thanks to either one of us!  And though Jane and I would likely have become friends eventually, the boy unwittingly helped seal the deal early on and a friendship of 30+ years was born, though the entire span, with the exception of our years in college, has been lived thousands of miles from one another.

We are both, however, Pennsylvania girls.  Not long after graduation, Jane and her dad invested in property both in Breckenridge and Hilton Head, and Jane headed west and south for the different seasons, and managed both as vacation rentals.  Over the years she decided to focus on Colorado, her business became exclusively Jane’s Lodges,  and she has since added several more homes to her lot, each more lovely and amazing than the next. It’s easy to think this is quite a glamorous life, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.  Yes, living there = spectacular in many ways.  But the workload is never-ending.

img_5243.jpgJane’s personality fits her job so perfectly.  She is a giver, and a pleaser, brimming with thoughtfulness and hospitality and wanting people to feel great.  She’s also hilarious, and kind, and works endlessly.  People come from all over the world to experience Breckenridge, and they want and need a hostess who sees to their every detail.  And Jane does it all with a smile, making each family or pile of friends feel great about their choice of vacation home, whether it’s the heart of ski season or the middle of summer.  I’m pretty sure she was born for this, and she says she’ll continue as long as she is able.  There’s no other career she’d rather have.  That we should all be so blessed.

But her greatest fault, which most (if not all) friends would agree with, is the hermit-like lifestyle she has developed. She goes for ungodly stretches of time without communicating with her friends from home.  Jane takes introvert to a new level.  But she loves completely and is as ultimately as faithful a friend as I can ever have.  If you really need her, she is 100% there.  However, if you just hope she might show up, well, she probably won’t. 🙂

IMG_5285Now I find myself, deep into writing and still struggling to find the theme in my own post.  Is this a tale of friendship or one of mountain life in Breckenridge?  I think the answer is just “yes”.  While apt words seem to be failing me, I’ll take the easy way out and regale you with photos instead.  So much beauty, although you will not find many pics to chronicle the countless moments where we dissolved into giggles over memories from the 80s, and clearly there’s nothing to indicate our wine intake on the week, or any of the superb meals we shared.  It’s all in the in-between, so look hard.  I left feeling as though I could’ve stay a year and still would depart with a hole in my traveling heart.

I’ll share a short list of favorites, which may also leave you wanting more, or at least planning your own trip!

First up, sailing on Lake Dillon in the hours before sunset.  Best done with an expert sailor, who we had in spades in Jane’s friend Patrick.

An evening at Red Rocks – the most glorious outdoor God-made amphitheater.  The evening  was made more memorable when the whole goal was to see the Colorado-based Eagles tribute band, The Long Runbut we arrived only to find out that the concert started early and we missed them.  Thank goodness for FACE, an incredible all-vocal (as in acapella) rock group, and a venue which was reason enough for the drive.  Awesome!

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Hiking and hiking and hiking – never enough.  Awe-inspiring views and the boundless beauty of mountain streams and lakes,  moose, wildflowers and endless meadows.  Infinitely more fun with faithful four-legged friends, both of whom had limitless energy for miles of chasing, swimming and running – until they didn’t.  (See mud-caked sleepy dog car photos:).

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Eating – so many restaurants, so little time!  But the best meals were honestly (well, maybe except one extra-delish lunch with yummy drinks at the Blue River Bistro!) the simple ones we made and shared at home, dogs at our feet, wine on the table, and no shortage of topics to catch up on.

Most importantly, friendship – adventuring to invest time with friends is always worth the trip, and in this case, the venue was more than a bonus!  I am beyond blessed to have a truckload of close friends whom I’ve collected, like so much treasure, over the course of my life, and Jane is one of the gems.  Thank you, Jane, for moving to Breckenridge all those years ago.  Lexi and I will be back!

As I consider the whole lot of my treasure, I realize how many of these people are a significant portion of the timeline that defines me, and so many pathways in my life have been irrevocably changed by knowing them.  You likely have a similar story to tell.  If you don’t, go out and find yourselves some of these . . .IMG_5198

Small town/hometown high school pals – growing up together creates crazy bonds and experiences never to be repeated in your adult life.  I grew up with quite a crew in the middle of the mountains of central Pennsylvania, and still love those crazies.   And then forever friends from college – does anyone else really know me as well as they do?  Still my most likely go-to girls when life gets tough.  The years that followed brought that sweet group of women you hold on to for dear life when you have your own little ones because you must have adult contact occasionally, and you’re all just trying to get through it together.  Even better when you come out on the other side to find that you can sit together and utter complete sentences and really dig deep after all these years.  Not to mention church friends with whom I’ve studied and prayed, colleagues turned true friends I’ve taught alongside over the years, and of course all those wonderful women I get to claim simply because my kids had great friends and their moms turned out to be some of my favorite people.  I am incredibly blessed by these fine humans, and you all know who you are.

Traveling with many of these people over the course of my adult life, and just setting aside weekends and pockets of time to GO somewhere, and fully engage with each other, are some of my life’s sweetest memories.

Maybe I’ve finally found the place I was heading with this post – the knowledge that great, deep friendships travel well – both through time and space.  You just have to nurture them.  And it doesn’t hurt when those special people live in spectacular places!

Lexi and I are moving on – time to point the trusty SUV east and make our way back.  First stop on the return – camping on a ranch in Wyoming.  So fun!

Interested in knowing more about my friend Jane’s spectacular digs in Breckenridge?  Check out her website at Jane’s Lodges, and tell her Bing sent you!

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls, and has no one to help him up. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

 

Home for a Week – Breckenridge, Colorado

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Home with a view

I’m having a stare-down with the blank page in front of me.  Its lack of personality and imagination does not inspire.  In my mind, however, swirl vibrant and rich memories of a week spent upwards of 10,000 feet above sea level, breathing in clear crisp Colorado air.  The struggle:  propelling the memories out of my head and onto the page in a manner that will do it all justice.

Part of my hesitation is knowing that many people who read this will have walked/driven many of the same roads, sailed the same lake, and gazed up at the very same snow-capped peaks with awe and wonder.  Is it worth writing about at all?  Can I possibly have anything valuable to say?  Well, I’m plunging in –as at least I believe there’s merit in the exercise, if only as a way to chronicle my travels for nostalgic reminiscing when my wandering days are over (may they never be).  Here goes:

For seven days in July, Lexi the Golden and I leisurely traversed from Virginia to Colorado, all the while looking forward with excitement to arriving at our final destination – Breckenridge, Colorado.  I’m not a skier or snowboarder – heck I don’t even like winter very much, but this skier’s paradise holds much appeal mid-summer.

We wound our way north on Route 9, finally arriving into town after a few hours drive from Cañon City via the roads less traveled, and grateful to at last park in front of the home of my friend Jane.  Despite six amazing days on the road, I would not be moving my vehicle for the next seven.  Extracting myself and then Lexi from the car, she stretched and then scrambled up the stairs to the front porch.  Deep breaths of clear sweet air – not a hint of humidity.  This immediately felt like a place to settle in.  Following more slowly behind her, I arrived on the porch, taking in the well-loved chiminea situated in the corner with two comfy chairs beside and a small pile of wood.

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The welcoming walk up to the house – Lexi and her new best pal, Jake.

I imagined cozying up to a fire in the cool of the evening, waiting for the stars to slowly show up in the pitch dark of this western sky.  Looking up at the house, I tried to take full measure of it.  Clearly designed more vertical than horizontal, I imagined the views from inside were pretty sweet. Turning around, I noticed we were perched high enough to enjoy a serene view of the town spread out beneath.  The star of the show, however, loomed just beyond: a stop-you-in-your-tracks spectacle of a mountain, reaching almost 14,000 feet into the cerulean sky.  Below the tree line, the telltale lines of the ski slopes streaked and traversed down its face.  This is, at least in part, what I drove 2500+ miles for.   We may or may not be leaving at the end of the week!

 

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An inspiring view of the mountains above Breckenridge

It seemed that Jane, however, was not at home.  While we waited, Lexi and I explored the very obvious foot and bike path worn into the hill just beside her house, linking one street with the next for those who prefer a trail to a street.  Wildflowers lined the path – most notably the lavender lupines and columbines, which waved in the afternoon breeze along with smaller yellow and white blooms.  Lexi bounced her way across, eager to sniff out a friend while I marveled at the views from every direction.

I can barely recall the rest of the day, so complete was my exhaustion. (I had no idea I was that bone tired until I had a chance to truly press pause and not be responsible for any decision-making!)  Jane returned, and our happy reunion was quickly trumped by the meeting of our furry friends.  Lexi immediately fell for Jake, Jane’s 2 year-old English shepherd.  He was pretty taken with her as well.  The non-stop chatter and laughter that would mark our days together began its natural  flow.  Thirty-five years of friendship gives you a lot of ground to cover, and we had not been together for a long time.  By the time I fell into bed, my voice was half gone.  Certainly I had expended more words in the last six hours than in my entire week-long drive to get here!

The next morning I was left to explore a little on my own as Jane had work to do.  (More on her interesting life in the next segment!  For now, see Jane’s Lodges for a quick spoiler.)  I quickly discovered that downtown is a busy place.  A little less than 5,000 permanent residents live in Breckenridge, though the population swells in the midsummer for those who come to bike, hike, mountain climb, fish and play on the water.  It’s the winter, however that Breckenridge is built for.  Sitting at the base of the Tenmile Range, an extension of the Rockies, these mountains have been home to some of the best skiing in the country for the past hundred years.  Lodge-style homes, both of the ridiculously glamorous variety and those just considered more generically amazing, dot the lower part of the mountain for those who want the convenience of ski-in/ski-out.

With the attractions of the mountain and all those homes and money comes a handsome parade of shops and good restaurants lining Main Street as well as the many surrounding blocks.  Those on the west side of the street have the double bonus of rear curb appeal thanks to a winding path that divides shops and restaurants from the rushing Blue River.  It’s all meticulously cared for and no-doubt chronicled in many a blog and book, magazine article and even travel show.  It was almost “too pretty”, but no.  I was smitten.

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I loved the quaint bridges traversing back and forth over the Blue River, carrying those vacationers whose homes were walking distance from town yet still up the mountain just a bit.  I loved the gardens.

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Early morning views from the public garden on the river walk.

Whether it was a front yard erupting with a sea of orange poppies or the beautifully cared-for public garden along the river walk, Breckenridge in July is a riot of color.

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LOVED the color of this house with the riot of poppies

I even loved the obvious dictates of the Town Council, proclaiming that everything appear understated, including signage.  It all had to look like it belonged there and had been there forever.  In some American towns, this type of enforced beauty creates a Disney-esque impression of the unreal and untouchable.  Breckenridge pulls this off, however, and leaves you with the sense of having one foot in the eclectic present and another in the picturesque past.

One of my favorite examples of this was the Main Street Starbucks, tucked into an adorable little yellow house with a humble sign in front that would be easy to miss if you weren’t desperately needing a chai latté.  (Truth be told, if you know me at all you are 100% certain I “needed” one every day.)  Two twenty-five Main Street is a house with a past.  I learned that Theta Von Thun had been born in the house in 1911, grew up there, married Frank Brown, and raised her own family in the same little house.

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225 Main Street – the former Frank and Theta Brown home

She remained there until her death in 1993. She and her husband were true pioneers of this former mining town turned skier’s dreamland, where he served as the mayor for 18 years.  Some quick research uncovered that she loved to entertain and dress up in her grandmother’s wedding dress.  I love that image!

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A little more about the Brown, Frank and Theta.

Even better, Jane shared a great story about a friend who purchased a sweater from an auction of Theta’s personal belongings.  When asked about her sweater, the friend tells folks, “It’s a Theta Brown”.  Her legacy lives on.  And the house still has that homey feel. The effect is more local coffee hangout than big chain.

Another fun juxtaposition of old and new – just off Main, you can find the cutest little shed that houses a local ATM.  The size of a tiny play house, its burnt orange sides and barn wood green trim are open for modern banking business 24/7, though it looks as though it’s been there for a century.

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A neighborhood ATM on Adams Avenue

One of the things I love most in my travels is the discovery of a great Main Street.  No doubt Breckenridge has this in spades.  However, it was the rest of this little town that really captured my imagination.  Each home is different – you can find the tiniest of cottages, painted in the sweetest and most welcoming colors of red, blue, gray, yellow – the colors are endless.  Most yards are not the meticulously maintained variety of sharp lines and edges that we’re used to seeing in Virginia, with pristine beds and clear organization.  Here the appeal is more free and occasionally riotous, and the colors!  So vibrant in the middle of summer.

Of course the town claims more than its share of the impressive as well.  While the lodges were the domain of the hills outside Breckenridge, the historic district of the town lays claim to so many beautifully loved 19th and early 20th century homes.  Intermingled with the fabulous are well-loved small barns and sheds, tucked into the side of a city lot and fitting right in.

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Quite a few churches add to the harmony of the place, again just part of the landscape of streets like Ridge and French, Washington and Lincoln.  I especially loved the cheery yellow of St. John the Baptist Episcopal, its little cupola supporting the small white cross above it.  Its double red doors and the few surrounding pines elicited much curb appeal. I imagine walking out of the door at the end of a service, my soul refreshed and restored, to see the mountain peaks above me that only the imagination of God could render.  Surely this is a place for renewal!

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St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lincoln Avenue

Each morning during my stay, I had time to wander through town, peeking at shops and reading restaurant menus, poking my head into the visitor center and checking out the architecture of so many of the fine old homes.  By week’s end, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface.  Breckenridge, for all its vacationer appeal, was a place of depth, with history that stretched back into its prospector days of the mid-1800s.  Many a fortune had to have been won and lost and dreamed of along the banks of the rushing Blue River.  By the time the gold and silver panned away, hardly a breathing soul was left who called this town “home”.  In fact, in 1959 it was officially listed as a ghost town, with fewer than 200 residents, down from the thousands who had settled there just decades before.  In the annals of American history, this is a short saga.   It is, however, a rich one.  There was so much to learn, and I loved that it was all right here in front of me.

One more stop before I trudge back up the hill to the house to get on with the fun of the day – I needed some caffeine from the little yellow house on Main Street.  If only Theta Brown was there, clad in her grandmama’s wedding dress,  to serve it up with a smile.  I’d have loved to hear a tale or two.

 

Dog Heaven, West Virginia – A Dog’s Tale part 2

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Lexi and Jeannette at White Oak Golden Retrievers

A long summer road trip . . . from Virginia southwest through West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas and finally to Colorado, made infinitely richer with the company of my 10 month-old golden retriever puppy, Lexi.  While we had unending adventures in our three weeks on the road,  this post pauses to tell a tale.  Specifically, the second half of the dog tale I began in my previous post:  Lexington Hope – a Dog’s Tale (in two parts).

Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them – Thom Jones

The quote rings oh so true – at least in our case.  But it would only be telling part of our story to not acknowledge White Oak Golden Retrievers as being just as discerning as the dogs themselves.  If there’s such a thing as a matchmaker in the world of puppies and owners, they are it.  Lexi and I were headed to pay a visit and thank them in person.

Thinking way back, I can’t really piece together the events that brought us to buy our first golden retriever in 2007.  Most likely it was more providential than I realized at the time. At that point, our beloved 5 year-old Shetland Sheepdog, Heinz, ruled the house.  However, one of my best friends had just gone through the process of finding a beautiful British golden retriever, though I had never heard of such a creature until then.  Phineas, (really just Finn unless he was in deep trouble) came from California, and he was adorable.  Puppy fever struck our house hard.

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Our first two White Oak Goldens – Rooney & Crosby, on our farm in northern PA

Enter:  “research”.  And honestly, puppy research on the internet is one of the most done-deal-before-Google-spits-out-the-first-results kind of endeavors.  If you’re going to start looking, you 100% going to get hooked. 0300500365451719904400165623555All it takes is one website of adorable cuteness.  I’m not saying that you get sucked in by the first thing you see (nor should you), but it’s darn near impossible to stop and say “just kidding” once you begin.

White Oak Golden Retrievers appealed to me from the beginning because it was relatively close by (at least driving distance) and they provided tons of helpful info on their website.  And, best of all, puppies would be available later that fall!  I remember filling out tons of paperwork, explaining the inner workings of our family for the breeder, Jeannette.  Pages of questions about our personalities, our history with dogs, how much space/land we had, work schedules, quality time, etc.  And then long phone conversations with more questions and lots of instructions about healthy eating (for the puppy), veterinary requirements, etc.  I remember shuttling kids back and forth to two separate soccer tournaments over Columbus Day weekend, all the while on the phone with Jeannette asking and answering the questions that would determine how and if one of her beautiful White Oak Goldens would be a good fit for our family.

And he was.  “Rooney of Rock Hill” was everything wonderful we could have hoped for in a dog.  Obedient, loyal, kind, gentle, protective when necessary, loving and devoted, intelligent and playful.  Rooney was all these things.  The kids (at the time 9 and 11) and I drove south on route 81 to meet Jeannette’s husband and our new puppy.  We were all in love before we left the parking lot, and that never faded through Rooney’s 11+ years as a member of this family.

That Rooney fit so seamlessly into our family was no accident.  At about 5 weeks of age, Jeannette does “personality testing” with each puppy to determine what type of family will be the best fit.  FullSizeRenderIs the dog independent and fearless?  Curious?  Maybe more shy yet affectionate?  Needy or not?  Or clearly cut out to be someone’s shadow?  Jeannette puts them through their paces to figure it out.  In every litter, there are more dominant and more passive dogs, and then those who just are clueless and happy-go-lucky.  I love that she invests time and energy to determine what matches your family.  (Thus the million questions!

 

Fast forward 11 years . . . a home now without the love of a dog.  Both Rooney and our younger golden, Crosby, are gone.  Painfully quiet.  But the divine chain of events that brought Lexi to us played out rather quickly,  and Jeannette knew she had a puppy that was just for us.  It wasn’t just a feeling, though clearly divine intervention played a large role.  Jeannette already knew who we were, how we lived and loved, and that this perfect little ball of white fluff fit perfectly into that framework.  It was no accident that Lexington Hope had initially been hand-plucked by Jeannette to keep for herself, as she recognized early on that Lexi was special.  I know that may sound corny, but every puppy is different and unique, even within really well-bred litters like those at White Oak Golden Retrievers.  Lexi was, in every way, chosen for the role she would eventually fill.

And now, almost 8 months later, Lexington Hope and I headed south from Renick, West Virginia to White Oak Drive, outside the tiniest town of Lindside, to see all the relations.  Tucked in one of the little ridges in the most southern part of the state lies this enchanted land of Goldens.

I had been both pleased and surprised that owners Jeannette and Steve were open to having us as guests.  Several years ago, an entire litter of puppies had been lost due to something deadly that had been inadvertently brought in on the shoes of a visitor.  It had taken them quite a while to nail it down, and it left them with little option but to quarantine the farm when they had very young puppies.  I can’t imagine the sadness of losing so many all at once.

Our timing, however, couldn’t have been better.  There were no tiny puppies, susceptible to unwanted bacteria or viruses, but there was a litter of 10 round mounds of marshmallow fluff, who’d had their first rounds of shots, and were ready to go to their forever homes in just a few days.  There are few things in God’s creation as wonderful, perfect, and as sweet as a golden retriever puppy, let alone 10!!!

IMG_3405 3White Oak Golden Retrievers – the farm where Jeannette and Steve live, and breed and raise these dogs –  can only be described as a kind of fairy tale setting.  Don’t roll your eyes!!  It’s not the Cinderella or Rumpelstiltskin kind, full of princesses in magical kingdoms with beautiful clothes and talking animals.  More like if you could peel back a layer of a fairy tale and see the people and animals as real, and then discover that they are even more wonderful for their slight “imperfections” of age, dirt under their nails, and battered overalls.

IMG_3929Turning onto Top Dog Lane (honestly!),  we passed the pond and headed up the hill to the house, situated perfectly to oversee the barns, sheds and pond.  As I turned off the engine and opened the door, we were met by the most surprising sight – two yippie little Papillions.  I laughed out loud.   This was not starting out as expected!  Within a moment of parking, however, several older golden boys – a few white and one russet-colored, poked their heads out of the relative coolness of the shrubbery, happy to say hello and be fussed over for a moment.  Looking at their wisened old faces, you know they have stories to tell.   We were then met by Steve, who gave Lexi a familiar once-over and ushered us into the kitchen where we were greeted with the smell of cookies baking.  Jeannette, hanging up the phone with a new puppy client, wrapped me in a big hug and stooped to get a good look at this girl of ours.

I imagine to Lexi that it did indeed feel like coming home.  She clearly knew what was going on.  Jeannette said how good it was for them to come back, and that Lexi would always know this place.  I remembered that years ago, she had told me that if Rooney ever came back to the farm in his lifetime, he and his mother, Nell, would remember one another.  So sweet.  For my part, I felt like I had unwrapped one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, and upon entering the factory,  I happily discovered the reality just as wonderful as the expectation.  No disappointment here.

Jelly, a beautiful 5 year-old female, hung at Jeannette’s side.  She was an absolute twin of Lexi – well, she would have been if it hadn’t been so obvious that she was a nursing mother!  Jeannette explained that Jelly’s puppies were seven weeks old and almost ready to head to their homes.  Jelly was t-i-r-e-d, and hung out in the house to get a break from the neediness of her babies, who were mostly weaned but still wanted to romp and nurse at the same time.  Imagine have 10 very active toddlers at your feet, and in the heat of summer as well.

“Would we like to see them?  Jeannette asks.   Ridiculous question.  (For the record, if you have anyone in your life that would answer “no”,  unfriend them asap.)   We all trotted down the hill to the fenced-in yard adjacent to the small barn where the puppies live.  As soon as Jelly got within their purview and smell, all ten came running.  There’s really not much more joy in this world than watching a pile of puppies all tumbling straight for you.  Jeannette let Jelly in with her romping kiddos and we watched from the other side of the fence.  Lexi was excited and seemed right at home, and happily sniffed and played as best she could from her side of the fence.

My girl went wandering after a bit, though, and found herself what was likely the only swampy mud puddle in the whole dang place.  Apparently she was hot.  How embarrassing.  And here we are, surrounded by all these beautiful dogs, and mine looks like she’s been a stunt double on the set of Homeward Bound for the last month.  Or she’s just really smart, as Jeannette happily took her up to the shed, turned on the faucet over the dog tub, and gave her a lovely bath.  What a turkey.

I learned a lot during our time there.  Most significantly, my visit confirmed that all three of my goldens came from the most wonderful place.  Dog breeding is no hobby, and not for the feint of heart or lazy, corner-cutting people.  Raising and breeding these guys is an immense amount of hard work and way more than a full-time job.  But clearly a labor of great love.  Everywhere I turned, a sweet old golden lay beneath a tree, or basked in a patch of sunlight.  Jeannette and Steve have loved on so many of them for the whole of their long lives.

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Immense amounts of study regarding nutrition and health has led them to work every day to learn more about how to raise and breed the healthiest goldens possible.  They only breed the now rare original American Goldens (think more like Irish setter color) and the British/English Cream or White Goldens because the lines are pure.  The British males have all been shipped here at great expense from Europe, with flawless pedigrees, in an effort to produce the healthiest, purest (and least likely to be susceptible to disease) puppies.

The results I saw on the farm?  In addition to precious white puppies, several really old but healthy dogs.  Golden boys who are 15 and 16 years old, thoroughly enjoying their twilight years :).   Jeannette and Steve keep about 15-20 adult dogs at any one time, though only about 5-6 hang around the house.  The rest stay up on the hill in the “condos”, where there’s air conditioning and plenty of room to roam in a more enclosed area.  Every few weeks they rotate so they all get ample time with the family and in the condos.  Mamas stay down in the temperature-controlled barn to have and raise their babies.  A pretty sweet life.

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Completely at home. Lexi was not interested in leaving here “people”!

We hated leaving, but as we got in a few more hugs and sloppy dog kisses, I considered how blessed I am to know these people, and that Jeannette felt so moved to in turn bless me with this Lexi-girl of mine.  I am forever indebted.

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So many of you who will read this have your own White Oak story to tell, and it will be in some way similar to mine, because these sweet dogs have enhanced all of our lives.   But each one is unique as well, as we have each have the perfect match.  Please comment and share your stories and photos!  Maybe that’s the fairy tale ending – a happily ever after for all of us!

If you’d like to consider a While Oak Golden for your very own, check out their website.  Link here:  White Oak Golden Retrievers.  Be sure to read the testimonials and like their Facebook and Instagram pages as well – an added bonus as this is where all the puppy pics end up!

 

 

Lexington Hope – a Dog’s Tale (in two parts)

I’m diverting a bit from chronicling my summer travels to share a dog story.  In fact, this Virginia to Colorado road trip doesn’t happen quite the same way without these events, so perhaps having the back story will enhance the reading experience!  This is a two-part tale.  The 1st – a story of hope.  Part 2 – a visit to a pretty joyful and wonderful place.  If you’re not a dog person, I’m sorry, but hope and joy is for everyone!

The year 2018 was a tough one in our family, and not for the faint of heart.  Much loss on many levels, and just great change in almost every direction.  Not the least of which was the loss of all three of our much-loved dogs in the space of 9 months.  It was almost too much.

Our beloved Sheltie, Heinz, lived a very full and wonderful life, but the quality of that life faded dramatically near the end.  In his mid-teens, his time had come.  What a faithful, intelligent friend he was to all of us.  He had been with the kids, now both in their 20s, from their preschool days  He was a bit of a legend and his death marked the end of an era for sure.

Crosby, our young golden, passed away fairly suddenly in May.  He was only three.  I have no doubt that his death was related to surgery he had had a year earlier after eating a golf glove (he was non-discriminating).  The velcro had ripped apart a good chunk of his intestine, which had been removed. We thought he was fine, but looking back it seems pretty clear he never completely recovered internally.  While that may explain it, the horror of it was not diminished with understanding.   We took this one hard.

The last loss was perhaps the most difficult somehow.  Rooney was 11, our original White Oak Golden Retriever, and had been dubbed “the greatest dog ever” often in his life.  After losing the other two, I remember frequently telling him that he needed to be healthy and that we needed him.  Intelligent, kind, faithful and true, not to mention beautiful, but it wasn’t enough.  We think it was a brain tumor, and it was a very difficult demise to watch and understand.  In November, that day came, the one you dread but also pray for, when it’s clear that it’s time.

I remember that week as a blur of sorrow.  In addition to losing Rooney, the week concluded with the unexpected early ending of my daughter’s college soccer career.  Her team had lost unexpectedly in the NCAAs, on a quest to what they had hoped would culminate in a national championship.  It may not sound like a lot in the big scheme of life, but it was the sudden endings, the unforeseen ones, that were piling up and difficult to compartmentalize and manage.

But . . . hope.  But . . . grace.

The day before we left to travel for her games that weekend, my parents stopped on their way from Pennsylvania.  There had been a terrible snowstorm, which had caused the relocation of the game from Central PA to southern Virginia.  During their brief stop, my dad and I were chatting, and he asked about the son of a friend and where he was going to college.  I couldn’t come up with the name of the school or the town, though I knew it well enough.  He couldn’t either.

We headed south the next day, but the name of that Virginia town would not come to me.  Call me crazy – I realize I could’ve googled it and had the answer in seconds, or asked any of a hundred people I encountered in the next few days.  Maybe I dwelt on it just for something to think about that was neither dog nor soccer-related.  In any case, over the course of the next few days, it did not come to mind, though I wracked my brain.

And then the career-ending loss, and I found myself back in Northern Virginia earlier than we planned, sad all over again.  That next morning, before I headed off to church, I sat down and composed a letter to Jeanette, the fine breeder of both of my goldens.  She and her husband Steve live in southern West Virginia and have become friends over the years.  For some reason, I felt compelled to tell her about both Crosby and Rooney at that moment.  I just felt like she needed to know.  I also wanted to tell her that while I couldn’t possibly have a puppy right now, that perhaps in the summer it would be time.  Living without a dog was unnerving and I had not been without one in my house for over 27 years.  There was no way the house could be void of a dog for very long.

Returning from church a few hours later, there was a response to my email.    I had known telling Jeannette about the dogs would be upsetting, and that’s why I had put it off.  What I didn’t realize is that God used my apprehension to orchestrate events in His perfect timing.  Jeannette’s email changed everything.

I’ve saved it and included a piece of it below . . .

“I am so so sorry Beth.  This breaks my heart in two.  Dogs are angels and I know they all go to heaven.  An experience we had with one of our dogs taught me that beyond a shadow of doubt.  I also know that a family like yours can’t live without the love of these amazing dogs.
I know you said that you can’t take a puppy right now, but I have a little one (from the) current litter.  I have two of them spoken for but I want you and your family to have one.  Please think about it. . . .  Please consider it. I can meet you in Lexington, Virginia (to drop her off).”

Lexington?!  It was a thunderbolt, stop-me-in-my-tracks moment.  She could meet me in Lexington?  There it was.  The name of the mystery town I couldn’t think of during the previous days.  The town that I could have looked up in a heartbeat to satisfy my curiosity and bad memory.  And a town I am quite familiar with, as the home of both Washington and Lee University and VMI.  Now I can’t imagine how the name escaped me.  Well, I kind of can, as clearly my bad memory was a key cog in the God’s choreography.

But I was not ready for a puppy, for a variety of reasons.  We had just lost Rooney days before – the loss was fresh and getting a puppy would feel horribly disloyal.  And the expense – carefully and beautifully bred dogs are not inexpensive.  Plus we were leaving for northern PA in three days, to celebrate Thanksgiving on our family farm.  The list of reasons to say no was long.

But God used Jeannette to toss all these objections into the wind with one word – Lexington.  Well, He used Jeannette and the photo of the puppy on the website.   I told someone that I couldn’t remember a time where God seem to be speaking so very clearly to me.

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Our first peek at our girl in her website photo.

Regardless of all my objections, by day’s end I found myself on the phone to both kids and several friends, telling the story and seeking advice.  Now I realize that the draw of a puppy is not unlike the pull of gravity.  It has complete power over you, despite any objections you may voice.

And every single person, without exception, said the same thing.

“You were meant to have this puppy, and you must name her Lexington.”

Jeannette also shared another part of this story that ultimately served as further confirmation.  These litters of theirs are carefully planned.  Unexpectedly, three of their female dogs became pregnant and gave birth within two days of each other.   This was not normal, as no breeder in their right mind would want to birth 20+ puppies in such a short period of time, let alone manage all the intense care that comes with them in the days and weeks to come.  It’s back-breaking, endless work to help these puppies and their mothers navigate the world.

Of the 24 total puppies, Jeannette had decided early on to keep the best two females from the bunch (they were from different litters), and sell the rest.  But the day before she received my email, she found out that a family needed to back out of a purchase of a female puppy from one of these litters.  So now she had three girls.  Jeanette decided that since the return was a sibling to one of the girls she had chosen to keep, it would be best in the end to keep siblings together.  So #3 needed a home.  Enter my email the following day.

I called Jeannette that evening, full of questions and concerns.  She met all my “buts” with solutions and an extraordinary financial kindness.  By the time I hung up, plans were in place for me to drive to Lexington in the morning and pick her up.  Wait –  her?  I’d never owned a girl dog of my own before.  I had no idea what that would be like.  Jeannette assured me that a girl was exactly what I needed.

“She will heal your heart.  She will bring you all love, laughter and happiness.
You all have been special to me and I’m glad to share her with you. Rooney and Crosby would have wanted it that way. “

Deal done.  My daughter had wanted to include Hope in her name, as she seemed to be a symbol of that in our lives.  And so off I went early the next morning to meet Lexington Hope in Lexington, Virginia.  What a difference a day makes.

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Meeting the girl in Lexington.

And the rest of the story is obvious.  Lexington became Lexi, and at 10 months old, she has been a mender of hearts and a wonderful addition to the family and perfect companion.  She has also been the easiest of puppies ever!  Maybe that’s the girl part.  I’m going with that.

My decision to take her west with me this summer was made partially out of necessity, as leaving her with 20-somethings who are in and out and have unpredictable days seemed like a poor choice for everyone.  But I also chose to take her to have a buddy along.  She proved to be the best possible companion, and at practically every turn, I experienced confirmation that my decision was correct.

Late this spring, as I planned my general route west, I knew that our first days of travel would take us through southern West Virginia.  I prevailed upon Jeannette and Steve to let us stop in for a visit.  I will be forever grateful to them for the gift of Lexi, and wanted to tell them again in person.   She was the perfect answer in God’s perfect timing.

And so, with much excitement, we headed for the hills to see all the relatives.  What a treasure of a day it would turn out to be!

Be sure to follow the blog for part two and our visit to White Oak Golden Retrievers.  It’s puppy heaven!!

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The best days are the wet and muddy days.

Cañon City, Colorado – a perfect first stop in the Rockies

My first evening in Colorado was magical.  Eight thousand feet up, clear crisp air that warranted long sleeves AND a hoodie for sleeping – if you live in stifling summer humidity you can appreciate this so much more – and in our tent, Lexi the Golden snuggled up to me for the first time of our entire trip, clearly a bit chilly herself.  But then came wind, and ground under the tent that was a bit bumpy, and a sunrise that I swear started with a 4.

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Early morning looking down on Cañon City, Colorado

I’m fine with early, but this was pushing it.  The magical outweighed the uncomfortable, and I quickly contented myself with the fact that today was destination day!  After six days of travel from Virginia to Colorado, Lexi and I would arrive that afternoon in Breckenridge.

But first, time to pack up and head to town for caffeine and a walk to explore the small town of Cañon City.  Actually, by Colorado standards, I think this is probably not considered “small”, as it has a population of over 16,000.  It has a great vibe, though.  Large enough to warrant cool restaurants and shops but small enough to feel like people really know one another.   I had loved the look of it on my way in yesterday, and was determined to check it out in a bit of detail since we weren’t expected in Breckenridge until mid-afternoon.

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Main Street, Cañon City, Colorado

Skipping to the punch line –  I will be back.  Here’s why:  the town sits, as it’s name suggests, in a canyon surrounded by snowcapped peaks, even in the middle of summer.  The Arkansas River runs just alongside after its trip through the Royal Gorge, just a few miles northwest of town.  The strip of stores on Route 50 contains everything you need.  Grocery stores, Starbucks (I provide the link simply because these are some of the the nicest folks I encountered on my trip!), hardware, all the requisite eateries and gas stations etc.  Main Street, which is a few blocks further in, is everything you want.  Quaint, attractive, friendly, lovely architecture up and down the long wide street.  One of my favorite and most welcoming attributes of a town is when the parking on Main Street is done diagonally.  Somehow it signifies a friendly openness (not to mention easy parking).  Cañon City seemed to be all these things.

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St. Cloud Hotel stands as the largest and most imposing building in town, dominating half a block and the full corner on the 600 block of Main Street.  Clearly this is a building with a story to tell.  I happily discovered that its history was displayed on a marquee out front for easy reading, and it was fascinating.  Here’s a quote from what was posted.  “In the 1890s, it was the envy of every hotel owner in Colorado.  It offered steam heat, electric lights, running water, an elevator, and a first class dining room with linens tablecloths and napkins and snappy waiters.”  Wow.  I mean, Downton Abbey didn’t even have electricity until well into the second decade of the 20th century.

The most interesting thing is that the hotel originally didn’t reside in Cañon City at all. It was built and stood proudly in Silver Cliff, which today is home to 587 folks located 45 miles away.  Silver Cliff was a dying mining town in the late 1800s, and the St. Cloud was dying with it.  In 1887, the hotel was “taken apart . . . and moved brick by brick to Cañon City, where it was reconstructed on Main Street.”  Crazy.  Cool too.

As I stood there reading, I made a friend (ok, I probably shouldn’t call him that as I cannot recall his name now).  In any case, he was a local, and he and a few guys were busy sectioning off two blocks of Main Street and setting up a stage for a street dance that night.  I don’t know what a western street dance is like, but memories of those we had in college were FUN, so this added to the allure of the town.  Anyway, he was happy to share info about the town, and I peppered him with questions.

The biggest one was, “Where are all the people?”.  It was a beautiful Saturday morning, almost noon, and this is clearly a town that people would want to hang out in.  Cool-looking restaurants, lots of fun shops, plus all the stuff you use – like a drugstore, the local Republican Headquarters :), and an old but operational movie theater.

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But there were hardly any people walking about.  My new local friend said that there is so much that draws people to the area – all the outdoor sports, the Royal Gorge, etc., and those people tend to show up in town later in the day.  The locals head out to Pueblo and Denver for the big stuff on weekends.  It seemed wrong somehow.  I wanted to tell them all what they are missing!  Well, maybe they all showed up for the street dance.  Sadly I missed that.

I found that the architecture of the homes was just as welcoming.  Beautiful homes – large and small, lined the streets off of Main.  New friend guy told me that this town is also one of the most affordable in the state – a happy bonus!

While my experience with Colorado was minor (I’d been in the state for less than 24 hours), I could see this as a place to return and spend more time.  Perhaps when the St. Cloud restoration is complete and reopens for business!

But for now, we were on our way to Breckenridge for a week of blissfully sleeping in the same bed for consecutive nights and likely not getting behind the wheel of a car for seven days.  Heaven.

There was a “quick” way up, but that left me feeling certain that I would be missing some cool scenery.  Instead, we took some longer, less-populated roads and found a few treasures along the way.  It wasn’t a beautiful afternoon, but somehow the low clouds, almost fog, made the way more interesting.  The route took us north into more rugged territory, past countless ranches and increasing mountains of stone and red rock.  We drove through places like Hartsel, Florissant (home of the fossil beds), Lake George and Fairplay.

My biggest clueless moment of the day was approaching the old gold mining town of Cripple Creek.  From far above, the town’s main street stretched below, looking for all the world like something from the 1850s.  Jackpot!  Within about two minutes I realized that this word was completely appropriate in the most literal sense, and appearances from afar can be deceiving.  I eagerly drove down the hill, only to find the entire town filled with casinos and all the trappings that go with it.  IMG_4985While it was clean and neat, it could not have been more stereotypical and disappointing. (Okay, to be fair, there did seem to be a few historically-related items of interest, but they were so overshadowed by the kitschy casinos.)

On the “wild west” side of things, everything had been recreated to reflect the history of the town, but in the most sterile and Disney-like way.  And then I was almost sideswiped by a tour bus, which then stopped directly in front of me, right in the middle of the street, to purge its pale and dazed-looking pile of passengers.  They seemed for all the world to be folks who had not seen the light of day for a considerable time.  IMG_4989As they slinked into the open doors of the casinos which lined the street, I looked to my left and was gifted with a smile and a wave from an extraordinarily joyful older lady.  She sat perched on a bench under the “Bronco Billy’s” casino awning, donned in full wedding gown, complete with veil and gloves, beaming at me.  I waved back, and laughed my way right out of Cripple Creek.  You just never know what you’re going to find if you get off the highway!

Lexi and I happily descended into Breckenridge within the next hour or so, more than thrilled to be there.  Seven days and 2,293 miles from Virginia, we were psyched to call this Colorado hamlet, nestled in the Rockies, home for the next seven days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Top of the World – Cañon City, Colorado

I have a chronological mind.  Not OCD, but I do have a compelling need to keep things in order.  (Not my house, necessarily!  Just my thoughts.) So as I sit here in front of my roaring campfire, crackling now and again with the occasional spit of rain that’s blowing about, high on a mountain over Cañon City, Colorado, I’m having a hard time recollecting my thoughts about Kentucky.  Lexi, my 10 month-old Golden, is also very much living in this fine moment, and curled up and basking in the warmth of the fire. IMG_4819

In the order of things, I should be writing about Kentucky because that’s what I last chronicled on my road trip from Virginia to Colorado.  But I just can’t right now.  The Bluegrass State had its own magic for sure, and I’ll get it all down before long, but this night is the stuff dreams are made of.  I will likely overshare on the photo end of things because I certainly do not possess the words needed to paint an accurate picture.  But I’ll try.

A while back, as I researched the last night of the drive west, I kept getting stuck as to which way to head once I crossed the Colorado border, and where to stay.  I had one day before I headed to Breckenridge, and I was eager to make the very most of it.  I knew that  it needed to involve maximum amounts of jaw-dropping mountain views and still afford me a great place to stay the night before.  I changed my mind several times, but finally settled on the Royal Gorge/Cañon City area and its famous bridge.

Another tricky part of this trip is the budget, which is a challenge but leads to all kinds of interesting opportunities!  In my research I discovered a FREE campsite above Cañon City that had great reviews.  Small (only about 15 sites I think) and just a few miles from the Gorge.  The clincher was the views (and the price).  For most of the eventual stops on this trip, I have discovered that my obsessive research provided a framework for where I wanted to stop/stay/investigate, etc. but most times I didn’t end up in the exact spot I planned.  I love having the freedom to bail on a plan or change my mind at the last second when something doesn’t seem quite right.  This one, however, turned out to be right on the money.

We drove from Dodge City, Kansas today, and it was only about five or six hours.  I honestly lose track and there was a time change as well.  We made a few small stops along the way, but I was eager to get to Pueblo, sure that the mountain vistas would be evident by then.  They were.  Happily, Pueblo also offered a can’t-pass-up opportunity for Chick-FilA, which I hadn’t seen in my long trip across the prairie.   But I digress. . .  Back to the mountains (which I enjoyed more for having the Chick-FilA) . . . really there was just a hint of them at that point, but I swear they call to you, beckoning you closer.  By the time I reached Cañon City, we were surrounded by a ring of snow-capped peaks, shining in the afternoon sunlight.  A quick drive past the downtown area convinced me that I would be back in the morning to check it out in depth.  It looked lovely.

But Royal Gorge was the destination, and so we drove to the park, eager to see the Gorge and the highest suspension bridge in the US of A, which hangs over 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River.  I was also hopeful to find the campground, but the intel online was not super specific in terms of location, so I had my doubts.  However, on the switchback road up the mountain, I encountered a clear sign for a campground.  Driving back the dirt road a few miles, it was obvious this was the one.

 

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It is gorgeous, and very off the beaten path.  Think awesome with the true meaning of the word – I was full of awe.  I picked out a site – 6A to be exact – and reveled in the views both in front of the site and behind.  See photos please as this is where words fail me.  I’ve seen beautiful vistas like this before. I’m no stranger to the Rockies and the Tetons, but camping on top of the world, in plain view of all of it is just next level.

Oh yes, the Royal Gorge.  I decided to leave the campsite to see the main attraction, praying our special site would still be free when we returned.  (It was!)  The view and the bridge were amazing, but when we arrived I have to say I was disappointed by the amount of commercialism, crowds, and the cost ($28!) to cross the bridge via foot. It just wasn’t worth it, so we snapped a few photos and headed back to camp.

 

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I’m getting faster at the whole tent thing.  It’s actually not stressful now and has a great payoff.  It’s kind of like vacuuming or ironing – not that much fun in the process but you see the results of your efforts immediately!  Our “next door neighbors”, a sweet young couple from Tennessee, were setting up also, and Lexi made quick friends.   Once we got our site altogether (no dinner necessary – re: Chick-Fil-A in Pueblo), we headed out for a short hike.  Lexi encountered the first cactus of her young life, so staying on the leash proved to be the best option.  But how beautiful they were!  I was surprised to find cactus up here, though of course it is very arid.

 

More surprising were the brightly colored blooms in pinks, lavender and yellow. An unexpected treat. And the views abound from every angle.  Thunder boomed down in the valley, and occasional burst of lightning struck many miles away in the distance.  As the wind blew in and chased the storm away, we were blessed with a beautiful rainbow.  It kissed the mountains on each end before disappearing into the clouds.  How much better could this get?

 

Turning around on our hike, God spoke the most wonderful sunset into existence.  To our backs a rainbow, in front of us a magnificent fiery sunset – the ones that you only see after the rain and clouds have been battling it out in the sky in those golden hours.IMG_4838

And now, in the aftermath of a beautiful evening, we just enjoy the fire.  The fire pit here is truly just that – built into the side of the hill so that the wind coming up the mountain just flings the sparks into the rocks.  But it creates a kind of coziness as well – the kind of hidden little hideaway I would have gone nuts for as a child.  Almost a secret space.

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So here I sit, laptop and fire, dog at my feet, staring alternately at my writing and the clearing sky ahead. (And wine!  I totally didn’t notice it in the photo until just now!)  Behind us thunder rumbles down the valley and miles-away lightning provides quite the show, billowing clouds lit from within, like kids playing flashlight tag in a giant tent.  In fact, this will be a good place to stop so I can soak it all in.  And just now, as if to just give one last stamp on the day, a sliver of a crescent moon is revealed behind the parting clouds, and the stars are sparkling their way to the forefront as well.  What a freaking good day.

IMG_4851 2Author’s note:  So my chronological mind compelled me to hold on to this so I could at least publish it in the order it happened, even though I wrote them out of order!

Kansas – Getting in and out of Dodge

IMG_3593I have memories from my adolescence of marathon drives through Nebraska, certain that part of the journey from Pennsylvania to the Tetons on 80 West would never end.  Looking back, I wonder how many Nancy Drew books I consumed just during that drive across that one eternal flat state.  It was a useful way to measure time and distance at that time in my life, so I could hardly complain.  What I wouldn’t give now for unending hours with nothing to do but read!

As I planned this year’s western road trip to Colorado from Virginia, I determined not to drive through Nebraska.  While I’m fairly sure my current self would not be as bored with the whole thing as my preteen self, I’m taking precautions and staying a bit to the south.  Kansas would be the flat state of choice, and I was kind of excited about it as I’d never been there before.  Surely it isn’t just all corn and flat, straight roads!

Ok so it kind of is, but there were enough interesting quirks about my route through it that made it worth the drive.  You just never know what you’re going to come across when you choose the “alt” road.  It would have been easy to just hop on Highway 70 and go, but I stayed south, steering clear of city life with the exception of a quick jog around Wichita.  Honestly I was looking forward to this part of the trip, as it was new and counted as adventure.

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One of the last “family” farms I saw in eastern Kansas, before big business and gigantic grain elevators took over the landscape.

I’m from north central Pennsylvania, but have lived in Northern Virginia for the last 27 years.  I’m used to green mountains and valleys, quiet farms and small towns, as well as busy highways and lots of people.  All of this can be found in between my two home states.  Neither of these provided any context for Kansas.  I was so curious about how people live there.  No big grocery store or easy access to so many of the day-to-day things we take for granted.  How far do these kids have to travel to go to school?  To church?  Just to see another human being??  Unless you live directly in town – ok, so town is a negligible word, as many towns boast populations like 235 (Severy, for example)  and 150 (Fall River), you may not have a neighbor for miles.  While I’m pretty independent and don’t need a lot of folks around, that would be a little extreme.

And it was interesting.  And spooky, to be honest.  In the eastern beginnings, the terrain was fairly flat and the farms were large, but there was still a sense of town and community, with the occasional family farm – self-contained and noncommercial.  The deeper in I went, however, the flatter and sparser it got.  The consistent scenery included windmills, corn, soybeans, the occasional farmhouse, and a giant grain elevator now and again, with train tracks running alongside.  And cows.  Thousands and thousands of them.  Many grazed peacefully on farmland as it whizzed past my window, but the real bulk of them were jammed into cattle feeding lots by the tens of thousands, which brought with it its own special brand of stench.  I love beef, (it’s what’s for dinner!) but I may have to think about it just a little bit more before I order the delmonico for dinner.

 

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When we left Missouri that morning, I had asked our hipcamp host for any ideas where to stop with Lexi, my puppy golden retriever.  There have to be parks somewhere in Kansas, right?  We can’t just run around in someone’s cornfield.  She has proven to be a great traveler, but at least once a day I try to find a place where she can run and swim, if we’re lucky.  My host recommended a place called Fall River State Park.  It seemed like a good place for a short respite, as our goal for the day was Dodge City.

As we drove, I just couldn’t imagine that somewhere in the midst of all these fields would be any water at all, let alone a potentially beautiful state park.  Surprise again!  Actually double surprise as we drew closer to the entrance, we began to see debris on the road.  It looked like there’d been a storm.  This proved to be an understatement and I reminded myself that I was in Kansas – home of Dorothy and Toto, tornadoes and misplaced houses that land on witches.

The park was officially closed, and no one was around.  Bummer for the locals I’m sure!  However, a few downed trees simply served to call us to investigate, not turn around (my Nancy Drew background at work).  One other car, coming behind us, seemed to have the same idea, so we pressed on, skirting trees and big branches as we made our way through. After all, we just wanted a place to walk and swim, so it seemed likely both could still be accomplished.  Plus, I felt just a little bit daring, knowing we were heading into a place we should have been heading out of.

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The entrance to the park was littered with trees, and even the propane tank had been flung around and lay sideways.

Swimming was not an issue.  There was what normally would be a beautiful lake, (and honestly, why it was called Fall River instead of Fall Lake I never really grasped) but it had run over the campground, and high water was  evident in every direction.  Lexi swam in the lakeside campsites instead of near them.  And there were no shortage of sticks to chase and drag around.  Retriever paradise!  It’s always amazing to see what wind and water can do, especially when you arrive in the aftermath and everything looks normal – until it doesn’t.  It will be a massive clean-up effort, but hopefully they’re able to reopen before the end of summer.  It was also a solid reminder that Kansas does storms – big time.

 

But on to Dodge City.  I had reserved a very affordable AirBnB – called “The Western Bunkhouse”  just outside of town, in a mini house that was part of a larger compound of cabins and buildings that appeared to be some sort of retreat, complete with church, meeting buildings and sports facilities.  The little house was perfect for us, and the folks that managed it were very attentive and helpful.

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Our perfect little AirBnB cabin for the night, just outside of Dodge City.

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The draw, of course, was the town itself.  I was so curious to see what remained of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  Turns out the town is all in on preserving their memories, both in the genuine historical sense and by creating every  kitschy reference imaginable.  While it was a busy town in its own right, with the requisite grain elevator, typical downtown, etc., it was obvious that selling the “Wild West” was its biggest draw (pun intended!).  I enjoyed checking it all out, and posed with Doc Holliday at his poker table, checked out the giant steam engine at the museum, and admired the storefront of the “Great Western Hotel”, which I believe is a re-creation but still cool.  If you love all these old stories and the movies that go with them (think Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), then it’s worth a visit.  I barely touched the surface of it all, but would have loved to dive in deeper.  This is one of the downsides to traveling with a dog in the summer – you just can’t go in anywhere for more than a minute!

 

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I can, however, highly recommend Red Beard Coffee!  I dashed in there for some caffeine on the way out of town, and found a cool storefront and a very engaging interior. (Not to mention the cool factor that they are located on Gunsmoke Avenue.)   The staff was super-friendly and helpful, especially to the older gentleman in front of me who may or may not have ever had a cup of coffee before and needed lots of handholding through the process.

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This little gem sits in downtown Dodge City, just a few blocks from the tourist attractions.

Biding my time, I noticed their prayer wall – a huge chalkboard filled with scrawlings and scribbles of prayers, ranging from petitions for a great harvest (clearly on the minds of most in this part of the country) to community unity and prayers for children.  Love!

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The “Prayer board” at Red Beard Coffee.

This last bit left me with a sweet memory for Dodge City, which of course stands in complete contrast with the bang-bang-shoot-’em-up history which draws most folks here.  Clearly it’s a kinder, gentler town these days.

Iced latté in hand on this very hot day, Lexi and I excitedly headed west.  Next stop, Colorado!  We were gettin’ out of Dodge.  (I’ve always wanted to say that.)  Happy trails!