The Green Room

“It looks so…brown”. Those were the words my mother used when she first came to visit me in Idaho. She wasn’t wrong either. September in the high desert West is well, brown (as it is most of the rest of the year). Boise receives an average of 18 inches of rain annually; the national average is 38. Despite this seemingly arid environment there is a small window of the year called spring when the hills explode with vegetation and color.

I’m an East-coaster by birth, the Garden State in fact. Like many parts of the country I grew up experiencing four seasons. As the saying goes April showers bring May flowers, and grass, and leaves, and all sorts of verdant vegetation. In the summer the forest would get so dense that you could barely see the house from the road and the driveway would turn into a green tunnel – a major selling point for my father I believe. Summer months were spent mowing grass and generally trying to beat back the landscape from reclaiming the yard. Rain showers were a frequent event and “drought” was generally a foreign concept.

For the past fifteen years I’ve resided west of the Continental Divide, mostly in what is known as the arid West. I still remember driving into the Sacramento Valley for the first time as mountain pine forests gave way to barren foothills of yellowed grass gone to hay and the hardened black oaks that seemed so sparse compared to the dense Maine woods where my drive had begun. In this new environment the number of seasons seemed to decrease from four to two. The wet season and the dry season. I quickly realized the need for irrigation as I nuked the lawn in a matter of a few hot July days. Water I learned was the lifeblood of the landscape and it came sparingly.

Over time I’ve come to realize that spring and fall still exist in the high desert, they are just more nuanced. In the Intermountain West spring is the most dramatic albeit short lived. After long months of dry seemingly dormant hills, spring always seems to make a surprise arrival. Spurred by the right amount of moisture and heat, one always seems to wake up one morning to the site of verdant green hills. First the sage begins to bloom, with bunch grasses soon to follow. Then comes the cycle of wildflowers as arrowleaf balsamroot, lupin, and bachelors button bloom adding varying colors to the green sea. As the weeks progress the grasses take their turn with wild rye and bottlebrush squirell-tail growing taller and taller. Finally without notice the rains stop, the temperatures rise, and the hills color pallet fades to gold.

The fleeting nature of spring in the West makes me appreciate it that much more. I begin to look for signs of its coming arrival. Less in anticipation of the transition from winter to summer, but for the season itself. I try my best to sleuth out its arrival by watching temperatures rise, and the snowline recede, looking between last season’s hay for signs of new sprouts. Inevitably though spring seems to arrive like Christmas – suddenly and with excitement. 

When the first days of spring do arrive and I look out the window to see those green hills, I lace up my shoes and hit the trails. I try to spend as much time as I can out there soaking up the smells of sage, the sight of a flower blanketed hill side, and the coolness of knee-high grasses. No matter how long the run or steep the ride, it’s pretty hard not to smile in your surroundings. Day after day I try and get out and enjoy the spring landscape, because without warning I know I’ll step out my front door to see hills that are, well….brown.

Screen Time

These are some strange times we live in. Despite only being a quarter of the way through 2020, this is likely to be the statement of the year. COVID-19 as we have all learned is a highly contagious virus that has all but brought the world to a standstill. Health experts say that one of the best courses of action to combat the rapid spread of the virus is to stay home. For active types such as myself this has been a serious shift in mindset and calendar. Like most I enjoy a lazy Sunday hunkered down with an endless pot of coffee and a book, but any more than that (perhaps due to the quantity of coffee consumed) and I start to get antsy.  

Thankfully we live in a technological age that is well suited for the requirements of the social distancing lifestyle. Personally, I’ve found all this technology to be a double edge sword. Sure, I would much rather be shut in these days trying to decide between Tiger King or Ozark (both, you’re right) then back in the ‘80s when we were beholden to the TVguide and sitcom re-runs. But I can only take so much glow of the electronic devices. Like right now, as I write this I have my desktop, a laptop, and my phone right next to me in the same room as the Roku enabled TV – not currently on.  

Honestly there isn’t that much difference staring at a screen for 40 hours a week at the office versus the same thing at home. Well, the cloths and office furniture are more comfortable, and the coffee is way better. The biggest difference though is the beloved weekend. What is normally a spring calendar full of races, travel, and outdoor adventures has been wiped clean and replaced with more home projects, more movie streaming, and…why not? another beer, please. I fully realize this is a pretty privileged and trivial problem in the larger context of the world right now, but it is a pretty dramatic departure from the norm and for me personally one that’s been messing with my head. 

The issue really is that the stay-at-home order has caused a consolidation of outdoor activity. Combined with temptations of warmer weather and the local trails and rivers have begun looking like ant farms. Really the opposite of what we’re hoping to achieve and not my favorite conditions for enjoying solitude. So this last Sunday with an increasing urge to get out and low motivation to navigate the masses, Dana and I decided to take our quarantine on the road. I know what you’re thinking – but Neil, they say you should stay in place. True, however my parameters for this drive were to stay relatively local and not require interaction with people or essential services (see gas stations and diners).  

Glowing laptop in hand I looked east of town, scrolling along the map line delineating Blacks Creek Road. To date, neither Dana or I had spent any time in this area and I knew it only as a popular moto/atv destination in the Danskin mountains. Moving farther along the map, I saw the road winding its way out to the South Fork of the Boise River. Normally a popular fishing destination, I knew that the river would be closed through April affording us an opportunity to check out the canyon without constantly dodging RVs and boat trailers. The drive seemed to fit the bill – new location, interesting scenery, close to town. 

Camera and snacks packed, we hopped in the truck and headed east along the highway for 15 minutes to the Blacks Creek Road exist. Off the highway our eyes began scanning the landscape taking in the new scenery – rolling hills of high sage, a few farms and ranches, and the occasional candidate site for a meth lab. Pavement gave way to hard packed dirt as we drove higher into the hills. We passed by several trailheads full of trailers, bikes, and UTVs enjoying the sunshine and dry trail conditions of this popular off-road area. In the distance the snow-capped summits of the distant Soldier and Smoky mountains peaked out between the light green hills. Around one last bend and we began a steep climb to the high volcanic bluffs above the South Fork. 

Once on the plateau the real treat began as the road wound its way along the rim providing equally spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and bluffs with the deep basalt canyon below. We made multiple stops to check out hundred-foot waterfalls, a safer option than rubber necking around steep one lane switchbacks. Around one bend we passed by a working ranch complete with irrigated pasture, wondering how many years of hard work went into scratching out adequate pastures from the basalt and sage filled landscape. Watching the road disappear around another bend I asked Dana- keep going? Looking over I could see the eager curiosity in her eyes wanting to know just as much as I did what lay ahead. Sure! was the reply and onward we went. 

As we climbed over a small pass, the basalt canyons gave way to a high valley and signs of civilization. We passed several private lanes and seasonal cabins, coming to the crossroad hamlet of Praire, which consisted of a stop sign, a general store/gas station, and adjoining “motor-court”. Our wandering itch scratched and our bellies reminding us that we were coming up on supper time, we decided this little outpost was a good turning point. The sign indicated we were about equal distance from an out and back to a loop through Mountain Home. Despite the seeming remoteness of our current location we were less than 50 miles from home in either direction. We opted for the out and back as there were several spots we wanted to stop at and see from a different point of view. Swapping driver and passenger seats we made our way back from whence we came.  

Descending off the plateau and past the trailheads we recounted our favorite spots and the disbelief that a place so wide open was so close to home. Equally impressive was the fact that neither of us had explored the area before. Usually time behind the wheel is a utilitarian endeavor intended for the purpose of reaching a destination, be it a camping trip or running race. However, with the severity of the current state and the need hunker down many of our usual activities were off the table, leading to a massive increase in screen time. Though the Sunday drive was for the most part us isolating inside spending yet more time sitting on our butts, I’ll take this kind of screen time any day. 

High-fives for Blue Skies

For a skier there may not be a greater feeling than carving through deep, untracked powder (well, that and taking your ski boots off). Like the perfect wave or the pull of a giant chrome steelie, powder is the skier’s drug of choice. Unlike other ski areas in the west, the storm-sun cycle is pretty rare and the best snow storms are often followed by more storms or cold stormy weather. There are some that say a day on the slopes is better than a day at the office and generally I would agree with that statement. The last few seasons though I’ve also had a lot of days where I found myself standing on the ridge wishing my goggles had windshield wipers and questioning the lifties decision to continue to run the chair turned tilt awhirl. It is in those moments that my mind wanders nostalgic to those spring days where chair rides are for soaking up goggle tans and rather than how best to shield yourself from sideways graupel. That is why for me almost as glorious as a deep powder day is a warm blue-bird spring ski day. 

Like powder skiing, I first experienced the glory of spring skiing while living in Lake Tahoe. Many a spring days did I spend with friends cruising the sun softened slopes, hero snow as they say, capped off with a beer (or two) sitting around the grill and telling stories in the Kirkwood parking lot. Almost like a victory lap at the racetrack, there is a relaxed satisfaction that comes with spring skiing. The energy and stoke that is spent all season getting after storm days and untracked lines gives way to cruising laps and enjoying the scenery. And in a town like Tahoe or (insert most Colorado resorts) those victory spring laps can stretch for a month or more.

For the past several years, the kind folks at Inland Northwest Toyota Dealers have offered free ski days at several resorts, including one of my favorites Brundage Mountain. I was already excited at the prospects of ditching the office for the slopes when I checked the weather forecast on Monday. Doth my eyes deceive me? Friday’s forecast called for clear skies, sun, and mid 40 degrees up on the mountain. Normally I wouldn’t condone such mild weather at the end of February, but I welcomed a brief reprieve from windy days and low visibility. I told Dana with metered excitement as I knew that anything outside of an hour forecast is subject to pure falsehood and disappointment. I rechecked the forecast constantly throughout the week and each day offered the same prediction – sunny high in the mid-40s. We decided to take extra precautions not to jinx what was lining up to be a great day. I left my cloudy lenses in my goggles, we left food shopping to the last minute, packed extra layers, and left the grill to the very last thing I packed in the truck. My hopes were riding high and I wanted to make sure they didn’t come tumbling down.

Friday morning as we drove up to the mountain low clouds laid along the valley floor with frost covered trees lining the road, not signs we were hoping to see. But as we drove through town I could see the mountain rising above the cover, keeping my hopes alive. To my surprise as we pulled into the parking lot there were very few cars. Did I have the wrong day? Did Toyota change its mind? Are we the only ones who like spring skiing? Locating the Toyota crew, I rolled down the window to greet the rep and was surprised to find the temperatures to be surprisingly warm for ten in the morning. I (somewhat) jokingly offered up a toy-Yoda in return for a second free ticket. They accepted and what was already lining up to be a good day got even better. Sun, warmth, free skiing, and empty slopes equaled answered prayers. 

Getting ready we shed layers and switched goggle lens excited at the prospect of riding the chair without having to huddle down into our jackets. With so few people on the mountain, the lifties seemed share in our spring skiing attitude leaving us to figure out the loading line on our own. Buckled down and strapped in Jake, Dana, and I headed down for our first of many relaxed wide-open runs. We stuck to the south facing slopes in the morning where the sun had softened up the snow to an enjoyable condition. We stopped frequently to enjoy the views, chat, and snap a few photos. The lack of crowds meant quick turn arounds and lots of laps. 

After about two hours it was time for lunch. On a good snow day lunch usually looks like a Formula 1 pit stop – restroom, quick drink, granola bar, and back out on the slopes. On this day though the lunch break was half the reason we were there. With the tailgate down and brats on the grill we soaked up the noon-time sun. The Tennessee muscle relaxer was uncorked, and we decided that after lunch it might be best to ride the long slow triple chair for a little siesta. Overhead a few clouds threatened to roll in, but they’d be hard pressed to ruin our mood.  

Bellies full and libations finished we headed back out for a few more hours before our legs tapped out. The clouds seemed to have gotten the hint that this day was for the sun and they obliged to roll along. After another hour or so, satisfied that we squeezed the most out of our free day of skiing we decided to call it a day. Back at the trucks we happily shed boots and unnecessary jackets. After a few last high-fives we parted ways and headed back home, our faces a little burned and our smiles a little bigger. Now, I’m certainly not ready to call this ski season done. Heck its only the beginning of March after all and I wouldn’t mind a few more storms. That said, the days are getting longer, and I wouldn’t mind a few more victory laps to wrap up another great ski season. 


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