Colorado FAQs (that resulted in forehead meeting desk)

When people speak of the East-West divide, I’m convinced they mean the division between the eastern and western United States. Plenty of my East Coast friends had never been west of the Mississippi River (except to go to California, which, in my totally unbiased opinion, does not count), and vice versa for many of my Denver-based friends. I don’t hear a lot of weird questions about the East Coast out in Denver, probably because so many TV shows are set somewhere out east. Really, the only question I get on that score is: “Is Baltimore really like The Wire?”

The answer being: “Pretty much.”

So most of the odd questions I get from one half of the country about the other are East Coasters asking about Colorado, which has featured in such pop-culture icons as South Park and Red Dawn. For all those who were still curious about these points, here are the verbatim answers to a few of the more common questions I’ve received over the years.

Q: Did you ski to school?

A: (Sigh) First of all, we have these things called snowplows, which perform the amazing feat of scooping the snow off the road and piling it on the side. Revolutionary, I know. If we had a raging blizzard, we might have had a snow day, or if the roads were dangerously slick, there was a delay while we waited for the ice to melt somewhat. Secondly, it doesn’t snow all the time (see later questions for a more detailed explanation of that shocking phenomenon). Thirdly, most of Denver is flat. The area around Capitol Hill is, well, a hill, but everything east of the mountains is flat enough to have reliable roads that we can, you know, drive or walk on. Like just about every other city.

Q: So…you don’t ski to school, then?

A: (Deeper sigh) NO.

Q: How’s the skiing in Denver?

A: A side note: I was never sure if this question belied a basic misunderstanding of geography, or if people just used Denver as a stand-in for the whole state of Colorado. Either way, I usually had to give a fair bit of explanation to address both issues.

Every picture taken in Colorado features majestic mountains in the background somewhere–I get that. Even pictures of downtown Denver are taken facing west. Since these pictures are usually taken on a clear day that puts the mountains in sharp relief, they do tend to make it look like the Central Business District simply arose from the same material the mountains came from.

However, only about half the state is mountainous. Towards Utah, you have the Colorado Plateau, which is gorgeous country–but it is mostly flat. Denver and other cities in the Front Range actually sit on the edge of the High Plains, which, as the name indicates, are flatter than a pancake. For about an hour after you cross the Kansas-Colorado border, you could be confused as to whether you actually left Dorothy’s home state, since the mountains aren’t even visible until about a hundred miles in.

And finally, yes, I did say “other cities on the Front Range.” Sure, Denver is the largest city in the state of Colorado. The city itself combined with the suburbs and towns surrounding it contain half of Colorado’s population, or about 2.5 million people in that area alone. If you throw Boulder and its surrounding towns in as part of the Greater Denver Metropolitan Area, you have three-fifths of the state population (three million people, for my fellow humanities majors). But the other two million live elsewhere–some in towns up in the mountains, but a lot in cities like Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Trinidad, all of which sit next to mountains as well.

So to wrap up all this exposition at long last: The skiing in Denver? Non-existent. The skiing in the Colorado Rockies? Extreme. To the max.

Q: So do you-all have indoor plumbing?

A: Okay, to be fair, I never got this as a question. I did, however, once manage to keep a straight face as I told a few of my college classmates that my family had updated to one of them newfangled flush toilets just in the past year. They believed me, and I spent about the next half hour convincing them that it was a joke.

Again, Denver is a city. It might have a different character than Baltimore, DC, or New York, and we have a different sense of fashion entirely (more on that in another entry, but suffice to say that freshly washed jeans and non-muddy hiking boots constitute formalwear in most cases), but we do have modern conveniences. We even have Nordstroms stores, something that continually amazes my Albuquerque-born-and-raised boyfriend. So yes, the toilets flush, and yes, you can even put toilet paper in them.

Q: Isn’t there snow year-round?

A: This question isn’t as dumb as it seems to some of my Denver friends. I have gotten snowed off hiking trails in June, July, and August, although this only happens in the really high peaks. And there are places in the mountains where hardcore skiers can find patches of snow on which to practice their skills even in the dog days of August. Again, though, this is just in the 11,000+ foot range.

The part where I smack my forehead is when I get the rephrasing of this question: “You mean it gets hot in Denver/Colorado?!”

Yes. Yes, it does. At a mile above sea level, we’re usually at least ten degrees cooler than the coastal regions, but you do the math on what that means when you’re sweating through 105-degree weather. Our 95-degree weather is still preferable, especially since the climate is so dry that sweating actually works, but it still makes going out in the daytime a dismal proposition. The mountains are better still, but at best, there will be a fifteen-degree difference between the city and the valleys. Either way, those who pack their long underwear for a July visit are in for an unpleasant (but hilarious for the locals) surprise.

Q: And finally, what the hell happened to the Broncos?

A: (Sigh). Lemme get back to you after I kill the Jack Daniel’s.

Alrighty. First Elway retired. Then Pat Bowlen got his undies in a bunch after a spectacularly awful playoff game in 2008 and canned Mike Shanahan who, it was noted two years later, at least managed to *get* the damn team to the damn playoffs. Then last year, Bowlen finally noticed that Josh McDaniels sucked more balls than a golf course vacuum cleaner and canned him before the season ended. Then the temporary head coach actually put in a lineup that could intercept passes while scoring touchdowns of their own, thus using the last few games to utterly fuck up Denver’s chances at getting first round draft picks. So yeah, it could be a while before we see another playoff season. Now I have to go out and get another bottle of J.D.

Thanks, North American Plate!

With all the hulabaloo on the East Coast this week and temperatures continuing cheerfully into the nineties here in Denver, focusing my Thursday post on skiing seems…unseemly, somehow. And while I racked my brain for an appropriate response to the earthquake using one of my own experiences from the six years I lived out in Baltimore, I couldn’t come up with anything that fit the situation.

Instead, please enjoy this chart I made about a trend I noticed as I read Facebook posts on Tuesday:


I would also like it on the record that we had a 5.3 earthquake here in Colorado just before midnight of that same day, and you didn’t see anyone breaking a sweat about it. This is mainly because it was near Trinidad, which is pretty much the edge of civilization. The closest thing we had to a panic was this supposed exchange between a state trooper and a little old lady:

Little Old Lady: “Is this the end of the world?!”

Sheriff: “Ma’am, we’ve all got to die sometime.”

Also, the owner of a liquor store lost over $1000 worth of merchandise. This was probably more upsetting to the residents than the actual earthquake was.

At any rate, stay safe. And for those of you on the East Coast who own liquor stores, you can probably find lawyers who are willing to sue the North American plate for damages.


A Hairy Day at the Beav

Beaver Creek is a truly epic place to ski, and not just for the jokes. Hell, some of the local business owners must either have a raunchy sense of humor or, in the case of one liquor store, had knocked back too much of the retail. Even though the selection was merely adequate, I still highly recommend that visitors to the town of Avon do their shopping at Beaver Liquors.

The day my cousin, her boyfriend, and I decided to plunge into the Beav last season, we started our day with bagels and distinctly NSFW jokes with our other cousins.

“Hope the Beav isn’t too hairy,” came the first quip.

“Are you kidding? At least the hair keeps that nice, wet, white stuff in. Otherwise, she’s a frigid bitch.”

“If you’re lucky, they’ve groomed the Beav.”

“But hopefully not too well. I like a few bumps on her.”

Having scared off the other customers, my male cousins headed to Copper Mountain. Our car headed out to explore the Beav’s secrets made its way out of Silverthorne and on to Vail Pass, one of nastiest stretches of interstate a car can go over in the wintertime.

It was snowing and the road was slick on the ten-mile stretch of 6% grades and sneering curves, but that was to be expected. “It always snows over the nasty mountain pass,” states a subset of Murphy’s Law, or at least, it should. But I’d expected this.

“Goddamn cocksucking motherfucking son of a shitfucking bitch!” I growled once every thirty seconds or so, gingerly sliding the car around a truck that was more concerned about staying on the road than my eagerness to get to the slopes, goddammit.

“Wow, you’re in a chipper mood today,” my cousin said, perfectly earnest.

We slid into the shuttle lot without hitting anything or throwing anything at the trucks. We had a deceptively easy time gearing up and getting on the shuttle. At the ticket counter, I got my discounted ticket thanks to my cousin’s Epic pass–discounted from a Benjamin and change to $80, but a discount nonetheless.

The snowstorm had followed us over Vail Pass and merrily billowed about while we were on the chairlift, but this was also to be expected. In fact, this was excellent–new snow, especially if the storm stuck around all day, meant a constantly refreshed supply of fresh snow to carve new tracks into throughout the day. We were a little giddy with excitement when we got off the lift that led to the Talons, Beaver Creek’s most challenging set of runs.

At the top of the run that would take us there, two employees frowned nervously at the sky. One pointed at a lead-gray beast of a cloud that advanced at a rapid clip, and in the opposite direction from where the storm had been coming earlier. Our group frowned at it, too, but this was Colorado. Weird clouds and unpleasant conditions came with the territory.

While we could accept ugly weather, ugly snow conditions were another matter. The gentle snow this morning and a season of glorious powder days gave us hopes of soft, silky champagne powder for our first run. We expected–demanded, even–a vigorous warm-up run on a gentle intermediate slope. Instead, the projected swish of skis and boards through soft snow turned out to be a grating skkkkKKKskkkKKKKssskkkKKKK as we dashed our edges against frozen concrete.

Turning was impossible. Sideslipping was slightly better, but not by much. There was nothing to dig our equipment into, no way to keep from flailing across the run and hoping downhill skiers got out of the way. The few flakes that continued to settle on the ground merely added insult to the injury we were already inflicting on our precious skis and snowboard.

After ten agonizing minutes on a run that should have taken three, we reached the longest chairlift in the Talons section. We were out of breath and afraid to look at our waxed fiberglass boards of choice. My cousin’s boyfriend spoke up.

“Man, this sucks.”

My cousin and I agreed.

“Seems like a waste of a ticket,” he said to me.

“Yeah, but their liability notices are pretty clear. They don’t refund tickets for any reason.”

“This snow’s awful! We can’t do shit on this.”

“We could ski somewhere else,” my cousin suggested.

“Yeah, the stuff at the bottom looked like it was slush, at least. Still not great…” I shrugged.

“Shit’s all greens, though,” her boyfriend snorted.


By now, the light snow that had accompanied us got heavier. The wind kicked in, blowing it straight into our faces.

“Crap snow and bad weather? I think you could get a refund out of them,” the sole guy in our group persisted.

“Probably not a full refund, though.” I looked gloomily down at the run beneath us, one of the longest and steepest at the Beav. The moguls popped out of the run in stark, sharp-cornered relief. No indication of fresh snow, or any snow, on those puppies. “You lose a turn down there, and boom,” I added. The other two nodded glumly.

“Up to you,” he shrugged. He turned to my cousin. “What do you think?”

She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. If there’s good snow somewhere else, I’ll ski it.” Doubt hung heavily on the if.

“I think the only good snow’s on the greens. Let’s go down. I’ll see if I can get a partial refund.”

The other two nodded enthusiastically, and not a moment too soon. A gust of wind kicked up, tilting our chair at a 45-degree angle. The lift stopped. The snow that had been smacking harmlessly in our faces before now acquired a bite. Small thwacks rang in our ears and on our cheeks.

“What the hell is this? Hail?” my cousin’s boyfriend shouted.

“Hail is frozen rain,” my cousin yelled back. “This is frozen snow.”

“Snow’s already frozen!” I bellowed.

The wind whipped at us anew, threatening, or so it seemed to me, to blow the cable our chair was on right off the lift towers. I peered at the run below us. We were about twenty feet up, and the pitch and snow offered no mercy.

I took a chunk of ice to the ear. “It’s snail!” I declared proudly, mostly as a distraction from thoughts of my imminent death.

The chair jerked forward a few feet. I started to cheer. Another gust of wind blew us precipitously over to the side, and I squelched the cheer as we ground to a stop.

A flash of light burst to our immediate right. Before we could articulate the first word in, “What the fuck?” however–


All three of us immediately looked down. If we jumped, we were guaranteed to break something at a minimum. The drop was too long and the snow was too hard for us to get away with our bodies and equipment unscathed, and the run below was too steep and bumped out for Ski Patrol to get up with a snowmobile. They’d have to come down bearing litters, which was probably the last thing they wanted to do at this particular time.

On the other hand, we were on a metal-frame chair, supported on a metal cable, right next to a metal lift tower that was about as high as the surrounding trees, and my cousin and I were wearing metal-coated skis. I thought I could smell ozone, and I could tell by the utter lack of downtime between the strike and the thunderclap that it had hit on this peak.

“Oh my God,” my cousin whispered. “Holy shit.”

“It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna be just fine!” I forced out. It seemed like the appropriate thing to say. The wind continued gusting, but the chair lurched forward. It inched along, pausing occasionally but not for long, and sooner than I thought possible, the top of the chair appeared through the raging whiteness.

We hurtled off the chair as soon as our skis met ground. Though the conditions on this run were the same as our first, we still made good time, urged along by a few more helpful flashes of lightning nearby.

We shook as we pulled into the base area and removed our skis. I marched downstairs to the ticket office. There were quite a few people in line before me, and I was confident that I would get a full refund, no questions asked. Still, when I arrived at the counter, I had my convincing argument fully prepared:

“Hi there was lightning on the chairlift and I thought I was gonna have a heart attack and die can I have a refund?”

The sweet old lady behind the counter pulled her face into a genuine expression of horror. “Oh, no! Well, first I have to ask if you want to ski tomorrow. We’ll give you a new ticket for free.”

I gave it serious consideration, but ultimately I had to sigh. “Stupid job,” I said.

“I understand,” she murmured. She set to work on the refund, and thirty seconds later, the $80 was back in my bank account, ready to be squandered on some new piece of frivolity.

I rejoined my cousin and her boyfriend. “I just got two runs on the house!” I crowed.

The shuttle nudged downhill cautiously through the ten feet of visibility. I remarked, “I hope Vail Pass is still open.”

My cousin’s boyfriend dialed CDOT’s hotline. “Still open as of now,” he said.

“We’re gonna have to make serious time if we wanna get on it before they shut it down.”

Back in the car, I made as much haste as I could with the crappy visibility and the thickening layer of ice on the road. Just another day in Colorado, I tried to remind myself.

My cousin called the Copper Mountain group and got voice mail. “Hey,” she began, giving a wicked grin. “Turns out the Beav was hairier than expected.”

The hoots and hollers that erupted in the car were quickly silenced within a mile of Vail. VAIL PASS CLOSED, a sign read. ALL TRAFFIC MUST EXIT.

I sighed and got in the exit lane. Just another day in Colorado, indeed.