June Travels: Our Crazy Life According to Instagram

My work-life balance has been nil with waaaaay too much playtime with the kids. I’m hoping to write about all our hiking adventures (and believe me, there are MANY) but until that time, my iPhone tells the story of our first month of summer break.

Chautauqua in Boulder

Our month-long party started with a glorious getaway to Chautauqua in Boulder complete with a charming cottage, emerald hikes bursting with jeweled wildflowers, a gourmet meal at the Dining Hall and Snow White reenacted by Theatre-Hikes Colorado.

Chautauqua in Boulder

Chautauqua meadow outside of our cottage

Snow White Theatre Hike!

With a kickoff to summer like that, it’s hard to go wrong. And we haven’t.

Giving Back

One day, we did a tour of the Food Bank of the Rockies where we learned about their kid’s program Kung Food Fighters to teach kids how to help fight child hunger.

Food Bank of the Rockies

But obviously not how to do Kung Foo moves.

Kicking It

Then there was the Colorado Rapids, our first-ever professional soccer game.

Colorado Rapids

We expect greater things from our soccer-playing son now.

Cave of the Winds

OK, technically our trip to Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor was late-May but I need to fit in our awe-inspiring cave tour of the 500-million-year-old Cave of the Winds, which was discovered in 1881.

Cave of the Winds

An exciting new addition to the already-cool caves is the Wind Walker Challenge Course. This three-story obstacle course is located on the rim of a 600-foot drop into Williams Canyon and has a challenging maze of steel beams, swinging ropes and ladders. Bode barely met the height requirement and I was proud of him for trying.

Wind Walker Challenge Course

Though it may take him a few years to recover from it. #Scary

Utah Fun

While Hadley was at Camp Chief Ouray for a week, Bode took his first solo flight to Utah. But then I crashed his party on the last day by scheduling a business trip in Park City where I also crammed in a quick hike to the Living Room, roller-bladed the Jordan River Parkway for the first time in 10 years (we’ve both changed!), had a cousin sleepover with the edible twinnies and storytime with Grandma.


Talk about a memorable trip!

Carnivores Unite

Then, Bode and I headed straight up to YMCA of the Rockies near Winter Park where we got a tour of Hadley’s camp and had some fun adventures of our own. Sane people would have turned around after picking her up but not us. We headed further west into the mountains for our Father’s Day tradition: the Frisco BBQ Challenge where we met up with carnivore-loving Jamie.

Golden Breckenridge

But the fun didn’t stop there during that masochistic week (I crammed in four trips, but who’s counting?) Breckenridge is just a 15-minute drive away from Frisco and if we were to have a cabin anywhere, it would be there. It was like coming home as we spent the morning at Peak 8 Fun Park, which boasts the most awesome line-up of summer activities of any of Colorado’s ski resorts with an alpine coaster AND slide, gold panning, a maze, bungee trampoline, miniature golf and a bounce house.

Breckenridge Peak 8 Fun Park

We were thrilled to be in Breckenridge during Kingdom Days, which celebrates the town’s colorful history.

Or rather, lack of color as you can see from this old-fashioned photo. Note to self: Next time stay and watch Kingdom Days’ uproarious Outhouse Races.

Breckenridge was founded back in the 1860s thanks to the many gold discoveries. I have always wanted to go on a mine tour and was thrilled when Country Boy Mine Tour was a part of our itinerary.

Country Boy Mine Tours

There is still gold in them thar hills but it costs more money to extract it than it is worth. Following the tour, we panned for gold and Hadley unearthed a real sliver of gold, which I then proceeded to lose.

So much for our chance at millions.

Breckenridge is part of an extensive paved trail system that connects to mountain towns Frisco, Dillon, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Vail. That evening, Hadley was exhausted after her week at camp so Jamie stayed behind while Bode and I took to the trail. I had an epiphany: almost exactly two years ago, Hadley took her first solo flight to Utah (like Bode) and she first tested out her new mountain bike on Breckenridge’s trail system, just as Bode and I did that evening on his newly-minted mountain bike.

New bikes on the Breckenridge bike path: Hadley (2011) and Bode (2013)

His ride went smashingly on the dirt trails…until he ended up slowly smashing into the bridge. Luckily he made a quick recovery.

Party Boy

For the past few years, we have been in Canada for Bode’s July birthday, which has resulted in a number of “pretend birthdays” leading up to the real deal. He wanted to celebrate with his buddies at Big Time Fun Trampoline Center and it was the cheapest, easiest party I’ve ever thrown: Invite friends, buy cake, show up.

Big Time Partiers

Why have I been killing myself all these years with parties, food and entertainment at my house?

Finally a Fish

For the third year in a row, I organized summer swim lessons for some of my good friends from our ward. It is a two-week pool party for the kiddos and a lot of fun to hang out with the Real Housewives of Jefferson County.

And most noteworthy? Bode has finally figured out how to swim and graduated from Squids, which is the first time he has ever passed a swim class. There may be hope yet.

Camping Disasters

I was looking forward to our camping trip yesterday to Camp Dick in the Roosevelt National Forest. Like so many of our adventures, it started well with blue skies, beautiful hikes, creek-playing and boulder-scaling.

Camp Dick

But then ended so very, very badly. Details tomorrow.

Lyons Soda Fountain

But I suggest you drown your sorrows with ice cream sodas, floats, freezes, phosphates and classy sundaes at Lyons Soda Fountain, one of the state’s best preserved and oldest soda fountains in Lyons, Colo. Because ice cream makes everyone feel better.

A Little Bit of Magic

Lest you think we haven’t had any downtime in June, think again. Every chance we got, whether we were at the park, in the car driving 14,265 feet to Mount Evans’ summit or in the basement, I was reading the kids their newest obsession: Time well spent in what turned out to be a magical month.

Today’s knee surgery: It’s all downhill from here

I lived in Salt Lake City for five years after graduating from BYU. During that time, I explored every trail along the Wasatch Front but there was one standout. Rain, snow or shine, I’d arise before dawn and would run Red Butte Skyline Trail, arriving at the crest of the mountain just as the sun kissed the Salt Lake Valley.

And yes, I did say run.

As in uphill.

By choice.

Since moving to Colorado, I’ve often longed to return to Red Butte but there has never been the perfect opportunity. When I was in Utah last summer, I finally found one thanks to my mother-in-law who offered to watch the kids for a couple of hours.

I drove through former military garrison Fort Douglas and passed the entrance to Red Butte Garden Arboretum. I followed the tree-lined gravel road to the cosseted parking area.

For the past two years, I’ve had to relinquish running due to my bum knee so I hiked a trail that starts on a closed-off service road and gradually climbs along gurgling Red Butte Creek. Deeply furrowed Western River Birches lined the path as I crossed over the creek and started the steep climb.

I wanted to run. I needed to run. In a move right out of Star Wars when Yoda limps to the fight scene with his cane and proceeds to kick Count Dooku’s butt, I kicked it into gear. Backpack bouncing, hair flailing, I grew wings as I flew along that trail.

OK, so maybe I was going downhill but work with me here.

It was a taste of the former life I loved and desperately missed.

Today, I am going under the knife for my knee surgery.

And hope to take flight again soon.

Park City Mash-up: Snowmamas Party & Xtreme Ziplining

The Setting
For two blessed days, I stayed in the master bedroom at this glorious four-story “cottage” at Silver Star at Park City.

Call me crazy but I didn’t think cottages had elevators.

Snowmamas Party
I was in Park City for Evo Conference, a top-notch social media conference for bloggers of all abilities. I have been a Park City Mountain Resort’ “Snowmama” ambassador the past couple of years and this was a chance for us to congregate and have one final party. There was karaoking where it was confirmed I can neither sing nor dance.

And that my sole Paparazzi is 9-month-pregnant Head Snowmama Krista.

On Friday night, the Snowmamas threw a party. If you’ve never never been to Park City Mountain Resort in the summer, you’re missing out. The compendium of activities include the Alpine Coaster AND Alpine Slide, Ziprider, bungee trampoline, miniature golf, climbing wall and Little Miner’s Park with a carousel and rides for small children.
(With the Snowmamas prior to going down the Ziprider. Not all at the same time. That would have been craaaaazy).

Xtreme Fun
Even though I had a blast attending Evo and hanging with the Snowmamas, one of my favorite activities was at the very end. I’m a big fan of anything fast and furious and was thrilled when fellow Snowmama Linda hooked me up with a ticket for the Xtreme Zipline (a $20 value) at Utah Olympic Park. Careening down the world’s steepest zipline at 50 mph has been on my bucket list for a while.

If you’ve never been to Utah Olympic Park (UOP) in Park City it’s worth a visit. The facilities include interactive Alf Engen Ski Museum, the inspiring 2002 Eccles Olympic Winter Games Museum, a fascinating bus tour of the aerials, ski jump and the combined track venues. In the summer months, they have the “Quicksilver” alpine slide, the ULTRA and Xtreme Zipline and the bobsled.

Though I can’t say I recommend the latter item after my infamous run last winter.

I stopped by UOP on my way back to Salt Lake City after the conference. I’ve traveled extensively by myself but it never once occurred to me that you need a buddy to ride the zipline.

Evidently, that is the case because in I was the only solo rider when I arrived at the top of the chairlift. Undaunted, I chatted with the other people as we endured the hour-long wait. I wasn’t nervous in the least and despite its velocity and pitch, the Xtreme Zipline has never resulted in any fatalities.

The ride was a blast and for a moment, I felt like I was a ski jumper as I careened along the K 120 ski jumping hill. Rest assured, there were no crash landings.

But here’s a confession: you always wonder what you’ll think about during your final moments on earth. For some, they think of their family. Others, they pondering the meaning of life.

For me, I sent Jamie the following email just a few minutes before riding the Xtreme Zipline:

If I die on the zipline I just wanted to make sure you already returned my library books. :) XO -A

A sentimental fool ’til the bitter end.

A welcomed reprieve before the holiday storm

I’ve been receiving oodles of emails asking about our cruise aboard the Norwegian Epic. Rest assured, it was an amazing vacation replete with sun, surf, sand and (of course) Murphy’s Law. When I can carve out more than a few minutes at a time, I’ll post all the sordid details.

But it won’t be this week.

I’m still playing catch-up and it doesn’t help that I am having the young women from church over tomorrow to make gingerbread houses, have meetings on Wednesday and an all-day commitment Thursday. Oh, and did I mention I’m flying to Park City on Friday for a Snowmamas summit over the weekend?

Oh yeah, and all that fun Christmas chaos.

Hence the reason for the lack of posting.

The kids’ six-day Thanksgiving vacation was a welcome reprieve. We watched movies, didn’t even get out of our PJs on Friday, went furniture shopping and invited some neighbors over for a pizza and movie night.

Last night, the kiddos and I got into the Christmas spirit. I dusted off the piano and we belted out carols, made gingerbread cookies, paper snowflakes and watched the 2010 Pumpkin Chunkin’ competition on the Discovery Science channel.

Because watching insane rednecks who built contraptions to catapult pumpkins hundreds of feet is never out of season.

A team of women won for the first time this year.

I’m not sure if I should be proud or embarrassed for my gender.

Haddie went back to school today and evidently was a bit rusty after the break. When I picked her up from the bus stop, our neighbor Gabe teasingly tattled,

“Hadley got off at the wrong bus stop today.”

Surely that couldn’t be the case. The girl has ridden the bus a hundred times so I looked to her for confirmation. She sheepishly grinned and tossed her BLOND hair.

Sometimes it frightens me just how alike we really are.

Snowmamas Getaway in Park City!

I’ve had a lot of fun on the slopes with my family this winter but sometimes a girl just needs to have fun. Park City Mountain Resort Marketing Director Krista Parry recruited five moms from various walks of life to contribute to Snowmamas.com and one of our rewards was a getaway weekend.

In style.

And with adrenaline.

(Hanging with The Vacation Gals Jennifer Beth and Kara at Utah Olympic Park. See my previous post about braving that crazy bobsled run).

We went tubing at steep, fast and thrilling Gorgoza Park.

(Picture: Krista, Me, Sugar and Linda as we teetered on the ledge of doom.)

And the snow. Did I mention the snow? On Friday, Park City Mountain Resort received 17 glorious inches of it. That, coupled with my Nordica Hot Rod demo skis made for the best ski day in The History of Amber.

Long and sordid as it is.

(Picture: Me, Krista, Linda and Katja)

There were only two exceptions:

I got separated from the group and encountered expert terrain with thigh-deep snow. Do you know those skiers in the Warren Miller films who effortlessly swoosh down the slopes leaving a spray of sparkling powder in their wake?

I was the very antithesis of that.

And then there was Sugar. I learned very quickly not to stop 10 feet from her because it will result in a roller-derbyesque take-down wherein she called me an unmentionable name.

Hint: it was not at all sweet.

Lest you think the Snowmamas are all work with no play, allow me to dispel these notions. I spent an afternoon brainstorming with some of the greatest minds in social media and family travel including syndicated columnist Eileen Ogintz.

Of course, maybe it’s not considered work if you’re holed up in a gorgeous cabin with food, new friends and fun.

Even if some of them do call you unmentionable names.

Let’s talk Girl Getaways. I’ve already named Park City as mine. Where would yours be?

Four Corners Region—Trailing the Ancients

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 1999. © Photo: Philip Greenspun.

The Four Corners region means different things to different people. To Terry Tempest Williams it is Navajoland, where every conversation, every sigh uttered by the “longtime-ago people” circulates around you. To Edward Abbey, the ancient canyon art of this region was the first world language that represented images ranging from the crude and simple to the elegant and sophisticated.

To me, it was a headache to sort through what the Four Corners meant to different people. OK, so my definition is a bit of a downer. But in my non-prolific defense it was overwhelming to determine which archaeological sites, modern communities and Indian lands to cover in an area that smacks of a primeval and intangible world.

My friend John and I turned to the Visitor’s Center in Monticello for the inside scoop on following in the footsteps of the Ancients. Little did I know those ancients would be by way of the local geriatric ward. A sweet grandma greeted me at the main desk. Haltingly, I asked her if she could help me find some backcountry routes in the region.

“Of course, sweetie,” she replied. “If I can’t help, then Herbert can.” OK, I didn’t exactly capture the name of the ancient, sun-worn man she pointed to at the end of the counter. But if any man looked like a Herbert, he did. It took mere seconds to confirm that they would not be good resources. They loaded me up with brochures and John and I headed to the BLM Ranger’s station a couple of blocks away for the real scoop.

We came away with concrete plans. We would start at the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park and cut over to Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch. From there, we would hit Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, and then Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Our final pinnacle experience of the lopsided loop would be to stand on the Four Corners marker to symbolize the end of our own Trail of the Ancients.

Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park
We headed south on U.S. 191 to the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park in Blanding. For $1, we were introduced to the largest collection of Anasazi (pre-historic Puebloan) pottery in the Four Corners region. Located on the site of an ancient ruin, the museum has a collection of archeological treasures from the Ancient Pueblo Indian, Navajo and Ute Indian cultures that includes pottery and a ceremonial kiva, home to the Anasazi between A.D. 825 to 1220.

A sun marker stood just beyond the ruin. The Anasazi used this solar sculpture to calendar when to plant and harvest crops, connecting them with solar, plant life and ceremonial cycles. John moved in for a closer look as I stood back to analyze the dance of shadow and light. I gave up after two minutes of intense scrutiny and resolved there was a very good reason why I live in the 21st century when all connections with time are made with my trusty calendar and digital watch.

My favorite part of the Edge of the Cedars was the Observation Tower. This circular room’s expansive windows traced many of the Four Corner’s ranges, starting with Sleeping Ute Mountain and extending to New Mexico’s famous Shiprock and Utah’s Grand Gulch Plateau. Sometimes called Cedar Mesa, this 1,000-square-mile recreation area includes many archeological sites and was next on our agenda. The Abajo Mountains rounded out our view in the semi-circular tower.

Grand Gulch Primitive Area
I was eager to explore the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, one of the premier backpacking areas in Southern Utah. A friend had raved about an unparalleled 22-mile backpacking trip from Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon, which winds through ancient ruins. John and I stopped at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to get the ‘411’and permits. If the building was any indication, we were in for a primitive experience—the station was in a condemned trailer transported from Hovenweep National Monument.

The gal on duty gave me a detailed play-by-play of Cedar Mesa, home to numerous rock art panels and prehistoric ruins. Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the canyons and mesa tops between 700 and 2,000 years ago, and many of their dwellings remain in tact and fragile. For this reason, permits are limited and required for all overnight and day trips.

She tipped me off on an area outside of the Gulch in Cedar Mesa: Mule Canyon. I was immediately attracted by her description of this 10-mile roundtrip hike. Two fairly easy hiking areas are found in the north and south forks of Mule Canyon, which cut through sheer sandstone walls and ponderosa pine. But the true appeal of this trail is that it contains the highest concentration of ruins found anywhere on the plateau—more than one ruin per mile. We were sold.

Mule Canyon
We arose to the predawn colors of the desert and watched as pink, magenta, silver and purple shafts of light enticed the sun over the horizon. We were on the trail by 8 a.m.

John portentously wore his new trekking hat that his friends allegedly bought in Nepal. He bore a strong resemblance to Paddington Bear but I decided I’d have more fun with exploiting the Nepalese claim and asked if this meant he was Sherpa for the day. He was not amused. But when I pointed to his CamelBak—“the Sherpa”—he resigned himself to his station of servitude.

As we hiked, the canyon deepened and eroded alcoves lined the cliffs. The majority of cultural sites were on the south-facing slopes among typical high desert vegetation. The north-facing slopes were verdant with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine that spilled down from the Abajo range.

We had hiked about 0.75 mile when Sherpa John suddenly stopped. “Do you think that could be something up there?” he breathlessly asked. I gazed at the sandstone wall shrouded by ponderosa pine. What could his stealth Sherpa instincts be telling him? But then I looked at the ground—a giant arrow had been traced in the sand, pointing to the wall. So much for instinct. His sighting did not amount to anything, but he pulled through about 1.2 miles up the canyon where he discovered the first of a string of Anasazi ruins.

We spent the rest of the hike perched on the sandstone walls exploring the various alcoves. We crawled into the ancient settlements and marveled at the fallen masonry of the dwellings. Shards of pottery, worn but still proof of the artistic refinement of the ancients, were strewn around the rooms and organized on rocks by other hikers. The desert sun had shifted by the time we made our way out of the canyon, the colors, textures and shadows of our surroundings changing with the angle and intensity of the sunlight. Mule Canyon had come to light—and life—before our eyes.

Monument Valley
We then followed U.S. 261 through Grand Gulch until we reached the Moki Dugway overlook where we gazed down upon the Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley’s compendium of silhouetted buttes. We descended three miles on the graded gravel road and then explored the 16-mile loop through the Valley of the Gods—often called a miniature Monument Valley. The rock/clay surface road was a roller-coaster ride through a sandstone museum that included Castle Butte, Rooster Butte, Battleship Rock and Setting Hen Butte.

And then it was onto Monument Valley—land of the American West, and backdrop of hundreds of western movies and magazine ads. Where a simple image, the silhouette of a monolith held sacred for the Navajos, is enough to make us dream of infinite possibilities and empty spaces. The Navajo Nation Council designated Monument Valley as the first tribally-owned-and-operated park on July 11, 1958. More than 140 habitation sites have been found on the 17.6 million acre Navajo Reservation that straddles the Utah-Arizona border.

I was initially disappointed with how tightly the Navajo Nation regulates the valley. There is no hiking allowed off the 17-mile road unless you have a guide. We passed on shelling out $30 for a 2-hour tour, bought a $2 brochure and set out to explore the valley on our own terms as best we could.

The first monoliths we encountered were the famous Mittens, which according to Navajo legend were once deities who lived upon Mother Earth in the beginning of time. As we drove, the subliminal imagery of the monoliths, spires, buttes, mesas, canyons and sand dunes invoked a powerful associative reflex, and the distinction between reality and illusion became blurred.

We continued along the rectilinear ribbon of the road until we encountered one such mirage of the ancients. OK, maybe it was only a burro but for a moment I was transported back in time. John insisted we stop for a picture and I rolled my eyes at his hypocrisy. He generally mocks tacky tourists who take pictures of animals in the wild and then get attacked.

And then a Machiavellian plan unfolded. As he made his way back, I deviously exclaimed, “The burro is attacking!” Instinctively, John raced back to the Jeep to find me laughing hysterically. In his defense, he weakly said, “I thought I heard him running.” My query, “Do burros RUN?” did not lesson the pain. He will not be stopping to photograph wild and ferocious burros anytime soon, I’m sure.

Canyon de Chelly
We were intoxicated with the sights and smells of the labyrinth called Canyon de Chelly from the moment we arrived in Arizona’s northeastern desert haven—from the pungent scent of the vegetation, to the purity of the dust and the lucidity of the air.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) is really several canyons that rise as high as 1,000 feet above the floor, overshadowing the streams, cottonwoods and small farms below. The Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931 to preserve the land where people have lived for nearly 5,000 years—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. Embracing nearly 84,000 acres within the Navajo Reservation, the monument is administered by the National Park Service but belongs to the Navajo people.

Backcountry camping was out of the question in Navajoland so we stayed at the Cottonwood Campground, which was free of charge. We stopped as the Visitor’s Center in the morning and learned the rules and regulations were similar to Monument Valley.

With the exception of one designated trail, we were not allowed to hike unless we were on a tour or with a Navajo guide. The tours cost $40 for a half day, or $15 per hour with a private guide, with a minimum of three hours. We opted to explore the south and north rim drives on our own, which took in famous ruins such as the Mummy Cave and the Sliding House.

The highlight of Canyon de Chelly was the 2.5-mile roundtrip hike to the White House ruin. We followed the trail along the rim for about 1,000 feet before descending steeply into a canyon that had been polished by eons of sandpaper winds.

The White House was like an apparition floating in the cliffs. Built and occupied centuries ago by ancient Puebloan people, it is named for a long wall in the upper dwelling that is covered with white plaster. At its zenith, the village housed about 100 men, women and children in 60 rooms. The pottery shards surrounding it testified to the leavings of an ancient civilization.

I could not wait to document the ruin on paper and film. Until I realized I had forgotten my notebook. And then my camera malfunctioned. Regardless, we were in good spirits when we finally made the steep ascent back to asphalt and civilization and prepared for the final leg of our Trail of the Ancients.

Four Corners Monument
The sprint to the Trail of the Ancients finish line had a few speed bumps. Our final stop was at the Four Corners Monument, the only place in the United States where four states and two Indian nations share borders. Established in 1912, this monument was to be the capstone of our Four Corners tour.

I had envisioned our crowning moment. The desert sun would blaze down upon us. We’d explore the Visitor’s Center and small jewelry shops on the perimeter of the monument before planting ourselves on the marker. And we would smile like tacky tourists as photographs were taken to document the experience for posterity.

Of course, that was the illusion. Reality was that we got caught in a blinding sandstorm. We skipped the booths and made a mad dash to the marker where we stood for a good five seconds.

And pictures? Get real. Don’t forget the broken camera.

Total elapsed time at the monument: five minutes.

The total elapsed time of finally hearing the silence of a region that many revere as sacred: timeless.

-Amber Borowski Johnson

The Flakes of Zion National Park’s West Rim Trail

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 2001. ©

Flakes. I can’t stand ‘em. I am, of course, referring to non-committal types; flakes of the snow variety are always welcome in my book…and most definitely on my slopes. Little did I know that my most recent trip to Zion National Park would be chock full of both.

I had already experienced most of the popular day hikes in Zion including Angels Landing, Observation Point and the Narrows, and I was itching to backpack something more remote. That something was the West Rim trail, often called the pinnacle backcountry excursion in Zion National Park. In just 14.2 miles, this moderately strenuous trail climbs along the backbone of the park and offers expansive views of a paradise where stone meets sky.

In retrospect, the trip was a gamble from the get-go because I was hooking up with a mixed-bag of friends:

Dave—Had been hanging out with him for less than a month. Seemed stable, reliable and sane (disclaimer: those were also my first impressions of Kramer.) Dave was training for a marathon and one of his favorite pastimes was night-riding Slickrock—a sure sign of water (or rocks) on the brain.

Kristy—Had dragged her along on several rigorous hikes over the years including a recent trek up Mount Olympus, after which she did not speak to me for quite some time. The West Rim was to be her first backpacking trip. Our friendship was at stake.

Mike—Volleyball buddy. Known to hit on random women in Taco Bell. No accounting for taste (regarding the restaurant and the women in question). Did Glacier National Park with him the summer prior; claimed a knee injury the day before a 20-mile hike. Instead spent the day hitting on women in the park.

Flake Number One Revealed
Upon arriving in Zion, we checked on weather conditions and obtained our backcountry permit and campsite assignment from the Visitor’s Center. We then grabbed some dinner and set up camp outside of Zion overlooking the Virgin River. That night, we watched the sun bleed into the crimson cliffs. I drifted to sleep watching lavender stars paint the sky, with no sign of either variety of flakes on the horizon for the next day.

We decided to drop Dave’s SUV at the Grotto Picnic Area in the park and then shuttle up Kolob Canyon in Mike’s vehicle and begin at Lava Point. When hiked north to south, the West Rim trail gains 1,265 feet in elevation and loses 4,825 feet. The plan was to backpack 6.8 miles from Lava Point to our campsite, spend the night, and then hike the remaining 7.4 miles to the floor of Zion Canyon. At least that was the plan.

Enter: morning. And Mike the flake. Shortly after breakfast, he announced he was not coming because he felt unprepared for adverse conditions. We had learned at the Visitor’s Center that it would probably rain or snow on the rim that night—a precaution I had given them prior to the trip. It was, after all, late-November, and the peak season for doing the West Rim is May – October. And so the first flake materialized.

Mike reluctantly agreed to shuttle us into the park to drop off Dave’s vehicle at the Grotto Picnic Area and we then followed Kolob Terrace Road to Lava Point. Beginning at the town of Virgin, 15 miles west of the South Entrance, the road climbs north into Kolob Canyon past jutting rocks, towering cliffs, and high plateaus, gaining 4,400 feet in elevation over 16 miles. The road winds past the Guardian Angel Peaks and eventually ends up at Lava Point, a fire lookout station at 7,900 feet.

It was noon when Mike finally dropped us off at the Lava Point trailhead and we were behind schedule by several hours. I surveyed my fellow backpackers. Dave, the king of supplements, downed his Blue Ox and graciously gave me a swig as he expounded upon the benefits of energy drinks. Kristy was nervous, yet eager. I inwardly chuckled as she strapped on my old Lowe backpack, its colors an obnoxious pink and teal medley.

It was very en vogue in the early ‘90s when I bought it. Really.

Storming Horse Pasture Plateau at Lightening Speed
The road leading up to the trailhead was closed because of snow so we hiked an additional 1.3 miles until we reached the West Rim marker. Once on the trail, we quickly passed a junction with the Wildcat Canyon Connector Trail. We soon found ourselves atop Horse Pasture Plateau. Over half of the hike is spent atop this finger of land that points toward Angels Landing. The trail often skirted close to the rim and we watched the wilderness unfold in shades of beige, red, brown, orange and yellow.

Blackened hulks of trees littered the plateau, remnants of the wildfire that ravaged the area in 1996. Numerous charred snags attested to frequent lightening strikes in the high country. I looked to the sky. Murky clouds were creeping in and a storm was palpable. For the first time, I made a connection between the weather and our surroundings; a lightening storm seemed inevitable on this plateau.

I was going to discuss my concerns with Dave but he had forged ahead while I hiked with Kristy. I glanced at our virgin backpacker to see if she had drawn any similar conclusions about her surroundings. Nada. She had innocently taken to quoting her favorite Simpson’s episodes, and informed me that the show could be seen 14 times a week on television. I figured it was best to keep her distracted by continuing to enlighten me with the inside scoop on Bart and Homer.

Our dramatic views really began as the trail glided up to a high overlook facing westward. The canyons began to gash deeper and deeper. We stopped and gazed at South Guardian Angel keeping watch over Left Fork Canyon. As we continued southward, North Guardian Angel, the fang-shaped crag to the right, appeared in this cut of Zion.

We followed the spine of the park until the trail led us down into Potato Hollow’s grassy meadow—the 5.2-mile mark (or 6.7 miles for us). We hiked through this narrow valley, passing an overgrown pond and a spring that fed into an old stock tank. Overgrown grasses, fir and pine sheltered our route. Numerous corpses of trees, scorched silver and black, were strewn around the meadow. New aspens were beginning to repopulate the area around the spring, breathing new life into this sheltered hollow.

Flake Number Two Revealed
Beyond the trail to our right was a campsite, the first of several designated sites along the West Rim. We had been assigned site No. 7 from the Visitor’s Center. The ranger had promised me this rooftop view overlooked some of Zion’s grandest wonders. I had envisioned we would arrive early in the day, set up camp, and then eat dinner while admiring the rose and purple canyons cast against an autumn sky.

But that was prior to the flaky Mike setback. What we got instead was dusk and an introduction to a second kind of flake—snow.

From Potato Hollow the trail turned south and we climbed steadily to regain the ridgetops. We made the final pitch and reached a junction with the Telephone Canyon trail as flurries set in. We needed to find our site, and we needed to find it fast. We took the right fork of the trail and were relieved to see a campsite marker in the distance. We were finally at lucky No. 7…or not.

As we drew closer, we discovered it was No. 6.; we had somehow missed our assigned campsite. We took one look at the sky and figured No. 6 was lucky enough for us. We quickly pitched our tents and dove in just as the snowstorm started pelting us.

Kristy felt ill but was still in good spirits. After dinner, I planned to share insights from my Zion guidebook with her. What I read did little to foster enthusiasm. As it turned out, my fears were confirmed: we were camped in an area that was notorious for getting struck by lightening during storms. In 1980, a lightning-caused fire blitzed the area, opening up westward views of Greatheart Mesa. A stellar view did not comfort me in the least, especially if we wouldn’t survive the night to enjoy it.

Kristy must have sensed my uneasiness. “So, what’re you reading?” she inquired. “Oh, nothing of major interest,” I casually replied. No sense in scaring the babe in the woods. If I thought she was mad at me for dragging her up Mount Olympus, getting struck by lightening would amount to a lifetime of the silent treatment.

Dave paid us a visit and I laughed as we jammed his 6’1 frame into our two-person tent, along with our two bulking backpacks. Mr. Supplements had a contraband cure for Kristy’s ailments—black market Canadian painkillers—and Kristy gratefully downed them. She then curled up in her sleeping bag so we had a wide-angle view of her backside, mumbled that she just couldn’t find a sociable position, and then she was out like a light. Dave and I kicked back and listened to the sky’s eruption continue unabated around us for a couple of hours before calling it a night.

I awoke to a flash of lightening at 2:30 a.m., which even roused Kristy from her drug-induced slumber. We listened to the constant hiss and flutter of the wind and snow on the tent. We timed the thunder and lightening in the distance. The strikes started minutes apart and slowly crept closer until the increments were a matter of mere seconds. We found ourselves no longer witnessing the storm from the sidelines, but a part of the perilous action.

I instructed Kristy to discard of any metal she may have had in her pack and peered outside. Herds of sinister clouds raced in the sky, imprinting the landscape with a shifting matrix of blinding snow. The only reprieves from the fusillade of snow whirling around were the colossal thunderheads that illuminated the heavens with surreal bursts of gold and blue lightening. Despite the drum roll that was pounding in my chest, I had to admit that the storm had a cold,
phantasmal beauty.

After what seemed like an eternity, the lightning inched away. Kristy drifted back to a restless slumber, constantly shifting and moaning. I poked her every few minutes to quiet her down, while also whacking the heavy snow off the tent. Suffice it to say, I didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.

A New Glimpse at Zion
By 5 a.m., the storm had subsided, leaving only light flurries. A foot of fresh snow was heaped on the plateau, and we were relieved to discover we could still decipher the trail. We backtracked to the Telephone Canyon junction and opted to take the Telephone Canyon trail instead of the Rim Route as originally intended.

The latter of the two would have been ideal for a clear day and offers the best views from atop the rim. But visibility was nil at that point and our primary concern was getting down the mountain. And so we chose the shorter descent, which eventually joined the Rim Route at West Rim Spring Junction.

Dave assumed the role of pathfinder. We sandwiched Kristy between the two of us. Despite a thorny initiation into backpacking, she was in great spirits and relished in the beauty of the snow.
And best of all, she was still speaking to me. Who would’ve thought that climbing Mount Olympus would be more traumatic than almost getting blasted by lightning in the middle of nowhere? I had underestimated the dear girl and Mr. Rocks-on-the-brain.

It snowed lightly as we shot down narrow Telephone Canyon. The snow pampered our every step and the surrounding monoliths looked like they had been embedded with millions of glimmering crystal deposits. We finally reached the West Rim Spring, where a slow flow of water seeped from the ground to feed an algae-choked pool. Shrieking birds swirled like snowflakes past the fingertips of the quaking aspens and Arizona cypresses that sheltered the spring.

From here, the main trail began its descent, traversing a sheer wall of sandstone. Our views opened northward to Mystery Canyon. Morning’s white beams streamed upon the pure snow that blanketed the canyon’s tall pillars. We wound through a lush gulch of Douglas fir and spruce underlain by bigtooth maple and Gambel oak. Their branches drooped by the weight of the snow, bowing in reverence to the storm that had ruled its environs.

We continued our steady descent around the base of Mount Majestic, bottomed out at a bridge over a side canyon and then began a steady climb. As we neared the top of the grade, we were greeted with a view of the Mountain of Mystery, Great White Throne and the Red Arch Mountains. The route turned slick when we reached a passage of naked bedrock. We methodically eased by the cairns, fluidly shifting weight between our feet, calmly studying the route’s curves and bulges.

We soon began the descent to the base of Angels Landing where it reaches a trail junction at Scout Overlook. When it came into full view, we stopped, gawked and succumbed to our tourist instincts by taking pictures. Like a hooded monk with a pure, white cloak, Angels Landing presided over the valley. The sculptured textures of its knife-edge ridge were sheer brilliance in the morning light.

And at this epiphanous moment atop the world (after realizing I was not going to die), it hit me—the West Rim trail had introduced me to a new Zion. Prior to my backcountry adventure, the park had conjured up many defining images: it was a day hike down a narrow canyon, a thrilling scramble up the precipitous cliffs of Angels Landing, and the quiet appreciation of sunset over majestic peaks.

But my Zion was now a collage of images and secrets veiled in deep canyons and high-forested plateaus. Where sheer rock buttresses seamed with snow pressed in from both sides, rising like the shoulders of a malevolent god. Where even the air had a shimmering, crystalline quality and distant peaks seemed close enough to touch.

Not bad for a flaky trip.

-Amber Borowski Johnson

Catching the Wave in Paria Canyon

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 2001. ©

My friends call me Amber Murphy in honor of my adopted Uncle Murphy, whose law I have the misfortune of living. I have traveled thousands of miles for a wedding, only to miss it after getting into an accident. When I show a broken appliance to a repairman, it works perfectly. And I know that anytime I put an item in a “safe place,” I will never see it again.

So what are the odds that I was one of only four walk-ins permitted to enter a place in southern Utah so remote and hidden that it is not on any map? That I stumbled upon this congealed ocean in the desert where the colors of a rainbow have been carved layer upon layer by wind and later–where violet and gold and green and salmon and scowling red splay across this chasm that trades colors with sky and cloud. Its hardened currents are christened The Wave. And I have never witnessed anything like it.

Of course, my journey was not lacking in calamity. I made the mistake of gloating to my friend John that I had road tripping down to a science and was able to pack in less than 10 minutes. John knows me too well. He flung me a skeptical look and proceeded to go through our checklist. Sunscreen? Check. First aid kit? Check. Tent? Silence.

Could it be? Had I forgotten the item most integral to our nocturnal comforts? “No worries,” I countered. “Temperatures are supposed to be in the upper 90s and sunny all weekend. We’ll be fine.”

It rained most of the weekend. As my wise Aunt Sue Murphy always says: “Things are never 100%, Amber, never 100.”

Paria Canyon
“I haven’t seen it all. I wonder if anyone has… But I’ve seen a great deal of it, together with Buckskin Gulch, a major tributary [of Paria Canyon], and it is one of my favorite secret places in the canyon country.”

-Edward Abbey, Days and Nights in Old Pariah

Edward Abbey’s Paria Canyon was a land of cavernous gorges, a fake ghost town built by Hollywood for some mediocre movies, a cow stuck in quicksand, high sheer tapestried walls of golden sandstone, the often impassable mouth of Buckskin Gulch, freshwater seeps and springs, blazing meteors by night and a radiant sun by day. Routine stuff.

The Wave is only a small part of the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Located deep in the clutches of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the wild and twisted canyons of the Paria River and its tributaries offer one of the most spectacular canyon treks in the state for experienced hikers.

The main trail through Paria Canyon extends 38 miles down the 2,000-foot-gorge of the Paria River in southern Utah to Lees Ferry in Arizona, where the Paria River empties into the Colorado River. Hikers must register at White House, Buckskin, Wire Pass, or Lees Ferry trailheads when entering or exiting.

Plan A was to backpack the length of this canyon but we did not have the 4-6 days required. We instead opted to do an overnighter from the White House Trailhead (at the mouth of Paria Canyon) to the Confluence (7 miles) and then continue 16 arduous miles up Buckskin Gulch, a major tributary. Heralded as the ultimate slot canyon of the Colorado Plateau, Buckskin is one of the longest and most consistently narrow canyons in the world. We then planned to arrange a shuttle to haul us back to the White House Trailhead the next day.

At least that was Plan B. But Plan B required an overnight permit issued from the BLM and the permits [of course] had been accounted for in advance. So, we quickly recreated Plan C. We would day hike to the Confluence and continue another couple of miles up Buckskin Gulch until we reached the rock jam, a 30-foot drop in the slot canyon. We would then retrace our steps back to the White House trailhead. The next day, we planned to enter Buckskin Gulch via Wire Pass, another tributary.

Murphy in Old Paria
We followed in the footsteps of Ed Abbey and camped near what was left of old Paria (Pahreah as it was originally called) our first night. Before we hit the ghost town, we passed the Paria Movie Set where several western movies and TV shows were filmed from 1963-1991. The set survived the gunfights but not the ravages of nature and floods eventually destroyed it. In 1999, volunteers tore down the set and reconstructed two of the buildings—the Red Rock Saloon and the Lost Lady.

Most people mistake this for the original Paria, but Ed Abbey did not lead us astray. With Days and Nights in Old Pariah in hand, we followed the dirt road for another mile beyond the Hollywood set and past the Paria cemetery until we arrived at the silt and sand bottoms of the Paria River.

We parked the Jeep under a cottonwood tree and waded across the river. Originally settled in 1865 by Peter Shirts, Paria was vacated because of Indian raids and resettled again upstream in 1870. Repeated floods forced the settlers to leave.

John took the lead as I read Abbey’s instructions aloud. “ You wade across the river and climb the left, or eastern bank. Here, scattered over a mile of rocky benchland, some of it shaded by cottonwoods, are the ruins of the original town.”

It is probably not difficult for the average person to find the ruins, but as I’ve said before: anything is [im] possible with Amber and Co. John and I split up and scoured the sandy wash and benches but the only remains we found were petrified cow pies.

To our credit, Paria’s ruins were few even in Abbey’s day. But after a while, our fruitless search was forgotten. As we casually made our way back, the sun began to glow upon the surrounding mesas and buttes. The shadows lingered with rhythms of light and shade through tucks and swales and ridges, abruptly shifting as if haunted by the spirits of Paria.

We set up camp (which, thanks to my absentmindedness, consisted of our sleeping bags and pads) under the cottonwood along the banks of the Paria River. John, still in the spirit of the great Kerouac of the desert, consoled me, “Amber, don’t worry–Ed Abbey never used a tent!”

These words were recanted the next two nights when it rained. That John—such a fair-weather friend….

I have spent many nights in the outdoors cursing my stubborn insomnia. But on this night, sleep was a waste. I watched the falling sun set the bluffs ablaze, backlit by puffs of smoke-like cloud that shrouded the valley with a thick smell of history. And when the sky fell dim, I watched far-flung deities in the heavens.

The next morning, we stopped at the Paria Ranger Station on Highway 89 to check out conditions in Paria Canyon. A couple from Switzerland was in front of us talking to the ranger. As Eavesdropper Extraordinaire, I overheard them mention The Wave, and my interest was piqued. I had seen a National Geographic special on The Wave a few years ago and had been transfixed by this Kodachrome enclave.

But its environs were kept nebulous and for good reason. Fragile and cosseted, The Wave is not marked on most maps. It is located within Coyote Buttes, a protected area deep in Escalante. The BLM’s Web site issues only 10 permits per day, and these are usually booked six months out. The ranger station allows four walk-ins per day, and often has to turn to a lottery system because demand is high among the few people who know about it.

With these odds, the probability that a member of the Murphy clan would get a permit was pretty slim. But miraculously, there were two walk-in permits still available for the next day. I did a Murphy-Be-Damned jig and we eagerly listened as Ranger Dennis gave us detailed instructions to The Wave. We then set out for our day’s adventure to Paria Canyon.

Paria Canyon
We did not arrive at the White House trailhead until 10:30 a.m. and the pulsating sun was already inexorable. We registered and paid $5 each at the trailhead and then wound down Paria Canyon’s 2,000-foot gorge.

Promises of The Wave were soon forgotten as we lost ourselves in this multihued conduit that electrified 200 million years of geologic history. The riverbed that sweeps through Paria Canyon is navigable if you don’t mind getting your feet wet in multiple river crossings. In early spring, expect to hike in ankle to knee deep water.

During summer, the Paria River can be dry for the first seven miles, with the remainder below the Buckskin Gulch confluence flowing year round. Few obstructions block the path except for the large boulders that clog the river at mile 28.

Most hikers leave the canyon floor and follow a route on the south side of the stream. Flash flood danger is high July through September so precaution should be exercised. The Paria River’s white tongue trickled out when we reached some power lines, the unofficial 2-mile mark. Four miles in, the wide but dry riverbed slimmed into the Narrows, and these sinuous confines led us 3 miles to the Confluence. The shade of the canyon walls lengthened and often only a sliver of the sky was visible from between the 500-foot ramparts.

When we reached the Confluence, we paused before entering Buckskin Gulch, Edward Abbey’s secret hideaway. Innumerable little worlds, surprising worlds, and hundreds of hidden paradises existed within those crimson walls. Photographs fail to capture more than a micro-slice of its magnetism.

There are three routes into the Buckskin: Paria Canyon, Buckskin Trailhead, and Wire Pass, a shortcut into the gulch. This slick-rock slot canyon is like a canyoneer’s funhouse. Rock- and log-jams require innovative bouldering techniques. And large, deep stagnant pools of water may require swimming through stretches of the gulch where the walls are an arm’s length apart.

John and I continued only two miles up the Gulch until we reached a 30-foot boulder jam that requires the use of ropes to ensure a safe ascent (located 14.5 miles from the Buckskin trailhead). Reluctantly, we turned around.

Usually the return trip is anti-climatic for me but the bulging sidewalls of Paria Canyon provided a memorable playground. We skirted around the quicksand and tempted its clutches with taps of our feet. We chased the shade of shadows to escape the white sun. When the blue sliver of sky turned murky and gray, we marveled at distant glittering shafts of rain.

After slipping, slogging and hiking through the final stretch of the canyon, we were grateful to finish the hike before the torrents of rain really started. The result, I imagined, would be similar to flushing a toilet down this flash-flood prone canyon. For once, perhaps Murphy proved to be in our favor by denying us an overnight permit.

Our attempts to find sanctuary from the rain that night were disheartening. What we wanted to find: a cool grotto or casing of rock. What we found: shelter under a picnic table in a campground. I fruitlessly tried to console the chagrined John–“At least the small pavilion that encamps the picnic table is kinda cool. ”

Ed Jr. was not persuaded.

Doing the Wave
Shortly after 6 a.m. the next day, we were on our way to The Wave. We had camped only a few miles from the trailhead so it wasn’t difficult to get an early start. A sleepless night under a picnic table didn’t hurt either.

As we started hiking to this land of swirling sandstone atop the Paria Plateau, I felt a part of a clandestine conspiracy. The ranger did not reveal The Wave’s location until after we had our coveted permit in hand. There is not a developed trail and we had to follow the landmarks the ranger had shown us via his photographs. We were then sworn to secrecy about revealing its whereabouts.

We followed a Jeep road before the trail vanished and we were left to forge across a scrub-brush hill. This eventually gave way to swirling sandstone, a hint of what was to come. Three miles later, we crawled up the final cornice.

When we landed atop the plateau, I felt like I had crawled onto a Monet canvas and was unleashed to glide across this palette of mad, extravagant colors. The Wave’s concave walls looked like a kaleidoscope of frozen ocean waves.

In this hanging canyon, my senses failed me. My notes later seemed as limp and banal as a televangelist’s sermon. I was annoyed by my lack of eloquence, but also consoled by the realization that to describe a place that defies description by not saying anything is the best description of all.

After exploring every nook and swirl, I perched atop the apex of The Wave. For a moment, the heroic sun emerged and clanged across this stone rainbow like a cymbal. The clouds then antagonistically crept in, and the enclave was filled with an enormous hush as the sharp colors melted away in the fainting light.

Our explorations were not limited to The Wave. We climbed to a lone arch perched above us and later discovered a slot canyon that sent us gushing down Coyote Butte’s sandstone whirls and eddies. When we finally hiked out of the canyon, I was taken aback by the day’s perfection. Sometimes things have a way of going just right, even when the start seemed to go wrong.

Even for a Murphy.

-Amber Borowski Johnson

Testing the Limits in Bryce Canyon National Park

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 2002. Photo: Johan Elenga

A recent weekend in Bryce Canyon National Park was all about limits. I tested the limits of my friendship with accomplice Kristy by dragging her all over the park and then persuading her to compete with me in an archery biathlon.

Never mind that she had never been cross-country skiing before.

She tested the limits of her friendship with me during the five-hour drive to Bryce, when I had to roll down the windows for much of the chilly February drive thanks to her garlic pizza dinner. Our hotel room had to undergo a similar de-fumigation process.

We were going to Bryce Canyon’s annual Winter Festival. The three-day festival
includes free clinics, demos, and tours in cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, archery, ski archery, photography, and ski waxing. The event is usually held over President’s Day weekend but had been bumped up a few weeks to accommodate the Olympic Torch Relay.

I was ecstatic. Bryce Canyon National Park’s pillars, hoodoos, and fin-like ridges are stunning enough during the summer months. But in winter, they erupt from the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in a fiery display set against the cold white snow.

This high elevation park is also Utah’s smallest with an area of only 56-square miles. Best of all was the absence of the tourists who flood the park every year beginning in May. Park rangers assert that Bryce averages around 100 visitors on any given weekday and rarely more than 250 on the weekends during the off-season. The park’s elevation reaches as high as 9,115 feet, and the resulting snows scare off the fair-weather tourists from November through April.

Archery 101

We dove into the Winter Festival that afternoon, starting with the archery clinic. Our instructor was Eric Quilter, a member of the U.S. Archery Biathlon Team. Quilter had been involved in the cross-country ski circuit for years but shot his first bow at the Utah Winter Games only two ago. He soon started to compete in the Archery Biathlon, a blend of cross-country skiing and target archery. The event consists of a 6- to 12-kilometer ski course with several stops at the targets. Scoring is a combination of ski time and shooting points.

Quilter explained that in the real race, a simple “hit-or-miss” style target is used at an 18-meter distance from the racers. Our target was thankfully a huge bulls-eye with concentric rings that was in much closer proximity. He walked us through archery’s basics— everything from eye dominance, to brace-height, to stance.

Quilter then asked for volunteers. Never one to shun a shot at public humiliation, I started to step forward. “How about we start with the burliest in the group?” he quipped.

I stepped back. My daunting 5’4” frame topped with curly strawberry-blonde hair didn’t exactly constitute burly. But when a couple of wiry teenage boys stepped up, I figured I was in the running and joined them. I somehow thought my success (or lack of failure) qualified Kristy and me to take it to the next level: the archery biathlon. Kristy called it insane and at first, refused. She had never been on cross-country skis and didn’t believe me when I said it was “all in good fun.”  I finally convinced her to join me.

Cross-Country Skiing 201

We participated in a ski clinic early the next morning so Kristy did not have to race cold turkey. Our R.E.I. instructor taught our group of five the basics and then let us loose on the groomed Great Western Trail. I had grown up cross-country skiing on the flat golf course behind my house, and I figured 25 years of alpine skiing would have some bearing upon my skills. I forgot I thought the same thing when I took up water-skiing, when I had quickly learned otherwise.

Kristy did better than most of our group, which instilled a false sense of confidence. We eventually connected with over 50 kilometers of cross-country ski track that Ruby’s Inn Nordic Center grooms for classical and skating techniques. The trail winds through meadows and forests to the rim of Bryce Canyon. Some of the trials interconnect with ski-set trails inside the national park. The scenery was stunning and best of all, there was no track fee at Ruby’s.

Graduate-level Biathlon

We met for the race at 11 a.m. I surveyed the competition. There were many serious biathletes in the group. And then there was Kristy and me.

Eric relayed the rules. The children and youth would race first and start in 30-second increments. The race for the adults would not start until the completion of the previous races. Our biathlon consisted of six laps around the track. After the first two laps, we would stop at the archery range, shoot, and continue for another couple of laps repeating the process. We would shoot a total of nine arrows at three different times.

I was initially disappointed when I discovered there was a separate youth division but then I noted that Eric’s four young boys, all excellent skiers, were also racing. I decided it was best we had separate divisions—there’s nothing like having your butt kicked by a five-year-old.

I got realistic and decided upon two goals: to not wipe-out while skiing, and to hit the target every time. Bulls-eye was an added bonus.

I was slated third to start the race. Eric went first and I was at the line 60 seconds later. I started strong. With all my amateur archery biathlete might, I forged forward, relishing every stride. And then Eric passed me. On my first lap. I shook it off—I mean, the guy was on the U.S. National Team. But then another competitor passed me, and then another.

I conceded that the majority of the field outclassed me. I vowed to ski my own race and started taking notes. Most archery biathletes made use of the “skating” technique, which is generally faster than the traditional diagonal stride (“classic”) style of skiing I was using. No wonder they were able to pass me so effortlessly.

Oh, and also because I was slow.

By the time I finished lap two and skied up to the range, I was panting heavily. I grabbed the bow. It bobbed up and down like a ship on a tempestuous sea. I had not taken into account that I would be shooting under such conditions. Regardless, I somehow tamed the tempest and hit the target every time.

Like a masochist, I repeated the process two more times and completed four more laps with two stops at the range. I was exhausted when I finally crossed the finish line but my spirits were lifted when my supporters cheered me on.

OK, most of them were Winter Festival volunteers who were supposed to be there but hey, fans are fans.

I ran to the edge of the track to watch Kristy’s race. It wasn’t pretty. I mean, she should have won the rookie of the race award: first time on skis, first time shooting a bow, and first time in a biathlon. And her finish was spectacular. She made her final shots, turned toward the finish line and face planted. She somehow crawled across the line, leaving a trail of her sunglasses, hat, and gloves. She laughed.

Until she saw me.

Her look of death confirmed my worst fears. And at that moment in Bryce Canyon National Park, I realized I had surpassed the limits of friendship—a limit that no amount of belching garlic pizza could ever match.