COVID-19, Colorado, and Mount Bierstadt

A few months ago, my husband whispered the sexiest words in my ear, “Let’s talk about you taking a solo trip to Colorado.”

One of my best friends, Meredith, lives in Denver, and I typically fly out to visit 2-4 times per year. It helps that flights from MSP->DIA are usually between $50-$100 each way, so the flights are relatively affordable for our family.

The global pandemic put a big hold on our travel plans, and we haven’t gone anywhere since January. Our most risky trips involve Target pick-up, Sam’s Club, and sharing a cabin up north with Amy and crew.

We’re a mask-wearing family, and have limited our exposure to others. This isn’t a surprise to those who know me- I’m not really a risk-taker when it comes to stuff like this. I like following rules and generally being a “good girl.” The summer was a wonderful break for my constant COVID-19 related guilt, as I could see friends and family outside, and not worry as much about engaging in risky behavior. I know I have many friends who are also struggling with the constant fatigue of worrying whether or not we’ve made the right decision. Can we go to this event? Can we order from this restaurant? Is it okay to visit my grandparents? Should I teach my son to stop hugging people?

Most of you know that I’m very transparent about my mental health struggles, and I’d imagine that almost everyone has felt heightened anxiety and stress during the pandemic. I’m so thankful that I have a wonderful therapist who helps me work through my grief, anxiety, and PTSD.

She asked me a really important question, as it relates to my COVID-19 anxiety. I’d expressed my worry, that if (when) I get COVID-19, I’d feel incredibly guilty about giving it to anyone.

“Do you think people spread COVID-19 maliciously?”

Honestly, other than a couple psychopaths, NO! Of course not. Sure, there’s that one guy who knew he had COVID-19 and went around coughing on strangers, but that’s an exception. The vast majority of people aren’t out spreading the virus with terrible intent in their heart.

It’s sometimes hard for me to remember this perspective. I feel irresponsible when I don’t take precautions to protect others, so I imagine that it’s irresponsible for others not to award me the same treatment. I usually get angry when I see people seemingly being irresponsible- not wearing a mask indoors in a public place, or going to a packed bar for hours.

However, it’s not always this cut and dry, and if I’m being really honest, I place the blame for a lot of this familial/neighborhood tension on our majority party government leaders. They had a chance to take charge here, to protect individuals and take the pressure off businesses and families to make decisions prioritizing safety, and they didn’t. The reason this is such a challenge for people like me is that we feel personally responsible for the health of others, when faced with a viral pandemic. It feels really strange when I discover that other people don’t feel the same. “If you’re so scared, then stay home.”

It’s in this vein that I worry that people will be angry that I wanted to take a trip out of state right now. The idea of making short-term sacrifices to save someone’s life… that resonates with me. Am I being incredibly irresponsible to think about traveling? Should I continue to make short-term sacrifices, and worry about traveling later? What is short-term? When is “later?”

Anyway, I would never spread COVID-19 intentionally, but I do take calculated risks. For example, while I primarily work from home, I DO take Teddy to daycare. There’s no way that I could complete my work at an acceptable level with a toddler at home. I DO go to the grocery store, sometimes. I use grocery pick up occasionally, but I like to choose my own produce, you know? Calculated risk. I get take out food and sometimes have to go in to pay. Brian works outside of our home, and I don’t ask him to strip naked before walking in the door, or shower before I kiss him hello.

As I was thinking about calculated risks, and Brian’s suggestion for a solo trip, I realized that it may be possible for me to take a calculated risk and travel to Colorado. I’m prone to black-and-white thinking, and when the pandemic hit, I put travel on my mental DO NOT, NEVER EVER list, and never looked back. I thought there would be a “perfect” way that I could live to protect my family and those whom I love. I’ve really struggled with this idea of “perfectly” managing the pandemic. My goals of “perfection” are completely unsustainable. Once I remembered that everything in life is in shades of grey, I reconsidered my idea of banning travel.

What kind of precautions could I take to make this trip safe? What is the risk of me bringing the virus home to my family? What is the risk of me having the virus at home and taking it to Colorado? What steps have the airlines and airports taken to keep travelers safe?

Of course, this trip isn’t exactly like a typical family vacation where you go to packed tourist spots and stop at every gas station along the way. Most of my trips to Denver look like this: fly in, Meredith picks me up, we go back to her house and hang out, maybe get takeout, take a nap, explore something beautiful outside, drink some beer, go for a walk/run/hike, occasionally go fly fishing or do some other fly fishing thing (I’m talking about you, Flyathlon!), take a nap, marvel at the mountains, maybe visit another Colorado friend, drink some whiskey, take a nap, pack up, drive back to the airport, and go home.

I’m not exactly packing the clubs and looking for hookups with strangers. 😂

I’ve been working with my therapist on determining what activities make up my identity. I identify as a photographer, runner, and mother. I identify as a fly angler, adventurer, and wife. I identify as a dancer, musician, and athlete. I really identify with being a kind person. Part of my identity is tied up in seeking outdoor adventures and training for physical challenges, and I lost many parts of my identity when my mom died and I wrapped myself in the comfort of motherhood. I solely took on the identity of exhausted, worried new mother and deeply bereaved daughter.

I wanted to take these other parts of my identity back, so we decided to go ahead and plan a trip to Colorado. I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do, but I figured it would involve playing outside with my friend, drinking beer, and napping, so I knew it would be good.

As we planned the trip, Meredith text me, “Weather permitting, how do you feel about doing a 14er while you’re here?!”

Obviously, the answer was F*$# yes. My challenge was chosen, and I was ready to reclaim a portion of my identity.

We made the necessary plans at home, and Brian was excited about having a few days alone with Teddy. I laid out Teddy’s outfits and made a meal plan for “Boys’ Weekend!”

I was excited about being away from Teddy for the first time (outside of work engagements), but I was also nervous.

The boys dropped me off at the airport, and I flew out of CWA on Delta Friday afternoon. I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a mask-wearing flight attendant handing me a sanitizing wipe, and found that the flight was mostly empty, with passengers sitting kiddie-corner to each other.

I arrived at MSP an hour later, and my friend, Jenna, picked me up. I planned to spend Friday night with her, and return to the airport Saturday morning to head to Denver. I’ve known Jenna for 25 years- her mom occasionally picked me up and took me to dance class with Jenna and her sister when I was a young dancer, and we sang together in school until I graduated. 🙂 Jenna and I talked and laughed and caught up over wine and snacks and a two-mile walk around the lake. As we ate a delicious (home-cooked!) dinner in her beautiful screen porch, we lamented the cancellation of many planned girls’ weekends with the three of us- Meredith, Jenna, and me. In what seems like a serendipitous moment, I said, “Why don’t you come along with me?” A few short minutes on the Southwest app resulted in a boarding pass for Jenna that matched mine. We were going to surprise Meredith!

The evening took a fun turn as we redirected our attention to packing a bag for Jenna, and barely slept a few hours before we headed back to the airport- this time, giddy with this new surprise.

MSP was mostly empty, which was eerie but comforting in our COVID-19 world. Note to all hipsters: don’t pack your safety razor. TSA will take your blade and you may end up with hairy legs on your trip.

Waiting for our flight to Denver!

When we landed in Denver, Meredith pulled into the passenger pick-up area and saw me with my carry-on and my laptop bag. Little did she know, Jenna was hiding behind a concrete support beam, and stepped out right when Meredith came around to help load my luggage.

“Surprise!”

Girls’ weekend had begun.

The whole weekend was a blur of driving through the mountains, shopping, hiking, and drinking beer at outdoor brewery patios.

The drive time was filled with our newest obsession- a podcast about the takedown of NXIVM, a cult. We met some of Meredith’s friends and talked about climbing my first 14er. I was a little nervous when Meredith said the weather wasn’t looking great for our Sunday climb, and even more so when we decided that it wouldn’t be safe for us to make the trip. I mean, what part of 50 mile/hour wind gusts above the tree line sounds dangerous to you? *sarcasm* We discussed our options over beer and food truck snacks.

Meredith’s work schedule didn’t allow for time off on Monday, so she reached out to her group of friends, hoping someone would be free and interested in taking a stranger up a mountain. What a way to spend a Monday, huh? I wasn’t particularly optimistic, and wondered aloud if it was something I could do by myself. It wasn’t, although I didn’t know exactly how outside of my normal skill set it would be. We wondered if maybe someone could take me on Tuesday, but I’d have to change my flights home, and the logistics were a challenge involving Jenna driving me halfway home from Minneapolis and Brian meeting us there. Not ideal. I tried to adjust to the idea that a trip to Colorado was still an acceptable calculated risk, even if I wasn’t spending my time reclaiming part of my identity. I mean, cherishing long time friendships is a part of my identity… I tried to reassure myself. It didn’t really work. I wanted to climb a mountain.

Sunday afternoon, while shopping with Meredith and Jenna, we got the fabulous news that Meredith’s friend, Karl, was free to take me on Monday.

Hike a mountain with a stranger? Sign me up.

Karl text me to work out the details. He was just as excited as I was to discover that we share a 715 area code. The dude grew up less than an hour from me. It had to be a good sign.

I want to say that I went to bed early on Sunday, but I didn’t. I hung with the girls and we watched tv and shared a pint of ice cream, like old friends do. Jenna was flying home early Monday morning, and we wanted to make the best of our time together. ❤

Karl picked me up in his Subaru at 3:30 am Monday to head to Mount Bierstadt. The general rule is to be heading back down the mountain by noon, so we needed an early start. I drank my coffee in the car and wondered if I should take my Dramamine. The road up to the trail was filled with switchbacks, and when my motion sickness kicked in, I dug through my (loaned) backpack for the tiny tube of nausea relief.

We made it to the trailhead, with two cars already parked. When I opened the car door, I was greeted with a chilly blast of wind, and couldn’t wait to put on snow pants and hiking boots. Brr! It was 10 degrees, windy, and pitch black. Instant winter.

I dressed up and loaded down, turning on my head lamp. Karl led the way in the dark, and I tried to follow his footprints on the snow-covered trail.

We walked on some gravel, and some big rocks, over a boardwalk, and crossed a creek by stepping on large rocks. It was a little scary. I kept looking up for the mountain but couldn’t see anything in the solid black sky, lit only by a million stars and a thumbnail moon, which reminded me of my mom. “Miss you, Mom,” I thought. She’d be proud of this adventure.

In hindsight, it’s a good thing that I couldn’t see the path ahead, because I probably wouldn’t have believed I could do it. Instead, I just focused on putting one step in front of the other. Sometimes my steps were pretty small, and I did take a few breaks to catch my breath. Karl was so reassuring and kept telling me that I was “crushing it,” which felt like a very Colorado thing to say. 🙂

It was a little harder to breathe as we got higher and higher, and the trail also got more technical. There was less of a clear path, and more markers to follow that left us room to find our own route.

I kept trying to measure my progress in my head, but I’m not used to thinking in two directions of measure at the same time. I’m used to tracking distance, of course, but less used to measuring “vert,” or the vertical climb. It was hard to imagine being 2/3 of the distance but only 1/2 the vert, and my brain was working just as hard as my body.

As the sun started to rise, and we got closer to the summit, the mountain’s silhouette started to appear. The mountains behind me turned pink, and I could finally see all the snow covered peaks. I could also see my goal- the top.

I looked back for the first time with the mountains in view, and gasped. You can see Mars shining away in the sky.

I saw my first pika, squeaking at me as it peeked around from a rock.

The pika is hiding in here somewhere. 😂

There are more pictures than words for this climb. I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, and watched as the climb unfolded in front of me with the sunrise.

Behind me, as the sun rose
Getting closer…

I’ve never pulled this particular move before, but I got quite acquainted with her.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but after a lot of climbing, a few slips, and lots of deep breaths, trying to get more oxygen, we made it to the top.

There were three other people up there, and everyone was so relaxed.

Karl brought margaritas to celebrate, and mixed them with mountain snow. How very Colorado.

Margarita with a view

I was an incredibly proud girl. I did it.

We scampered down the mountain much faster than we climbed up, but we still needed to be careful as the snow made the descent more dangerous.

I slipped a couple times. I bashed my arm on a rock, and have a nice little bruise to prove it.

The final mile of the 8 mile hike was one of the hardest, as the last chunk of hike is actually uphill, back to the trailhead. I was tired and emotionally drained, but pushed through.

I took this near the trailhead. Look how far we hiked!

Karl was a saint, encouraging me and making me laugh. It was a huge blessing to have him there, and I’m so thankful that he took a chance on spending his day with a stranger.

We headed back and met Meredith in Golden for lunch. We planned on going to a Tibetan place, but it was closed, so we settled for D-Deli, which I found on my last trip to Golden! They gave me a brownie for finishing my first 14er, and I felt like the whole city was celebrating with me. 🙂

I want to say that I went back to Meredith’s house and was incredibly productive, but I took an Epsom salt bath and a two hour nap. We ordered sushi takeout for dinner and I went to bed at 8 pm. That mountain wore me out.

Tuesday morning involved packing and heading to the airport. Both DIA and MSP were relatively empty, so getting through security was a breeze. I even had time to walk around the terminal for some exercise. I felt pretty good, other than a little soreness around my knees from the hike back down the mountain.

Special thanks to Meredith for loaning me cold weather equipment and to Jenna, too, for cheering me on from afar.

Colorado wind showing off at the airport.

The next couple weeks will involve self-quarantining and only seeing people outdoors, with the exception of dropping Teddy off at daycare. There is a perk to teaching virtually, and doing most of my work from home. I took my calculated risk, and I’m planning to be as safe as I can be- though Wisconsin is currently a much more dangerous place to be (COVID-wise) than Colorado.

I’m writing this from the plane on the way home to CWA, and the pilot just made his announcement that we’re beginning our final descent into Mosinee. I can’t wait to see my boys.

I feel proud. I did it!

I can’t wait to tell Teddy about this trip and I’m excited to model an active life.

As always, thanks for reading.

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