Monday, October 28, 2013

Soldierstone and Whispers in the Rockies

There is a little known secret tucked away on the old Continental Divide. It isn’t an old ghost town nor is it a long-ago buried gold mine. It is invisible on printed maps.

Sure, there are thousands of secrets hiding in the Rocky Mountains. This, however, is a secret I found. This is a secret I have to share.

I wanted to be able to write about how to get there but it’s been impossible. The day we found this treasure I failed to write down the trails we explored. That is okay, really, because isn’t the search the most enticing part of any journey?

Brian and I started our quest at the Tomichi Trading Post just off of Highway 50, east of Gunnison Colorado. Our camper was at the Gunnison KOA and we had left the kids with Brian’s brother and his family. This type of post-children adventure was extremely rare for us. Because of this, I was out of riding practice and eager to spend some time on the Yamaha 125 Brian had given me for my 40th birthday.

Getting back on a dirt bike is a little harder than getting back on a bicycle and Brian clearly thought I’d have no problems. My trial would be by fire but I didn’t care. I wanted to find the treasure.

We started out on a dirt road heading south and as I moved into fourth gear, dust flying and the wind against me, I found myself wondering if a street bike might be something I could embrace. We exited after several miles, riding over a cattle guard and through a field, until we reached the trail head.

Brian had ridden this path a few days earlier with three buddies from Kansas City. They had stumbled across the treasure and once I heard the details I was hooked. He was fairly certain he could find it again.

My husband is an avid outdoorsman, confident and strong. I am a determined woman, often cautious but unwilling to show fear. These contrasting personality traits sometimes lead me into situations that aren’t exactly wise but build strong character. At least I like to think so.

He sped up the trail, leading the way, and as I rounded the first corner I realized this wasn’t going to be a smooth ride by any stretch of the imagination. The path was a washed out gulch with deep gashes formed by either running water or muddy tracks. Within moments, panicking at the high narrow sides which were the only way to avoid getting the front tire inside the jagged ruts, I had dropped my bike.

Brian returned to help me get started again but I was shaken. We had many hours ahead of us and if the entire trail was going to be like this I knew I wouldn’t make it. My upper body isn’t that strong and the early portion of this trail would later leave my muscles screaming. At the time, however, I simply wanted to hang on so we could get to the next stretch. I also found myself experiencing de ja vu….flashbacks of those early dating years when I launched myself into water skiing and trail mountain bike riding in order to impress the love of my life.

This old determination was rewarded, though, because we eventually reached a lengthy section of dirt and rocks that were easy to maneuver, leaving me an opportunity to check out the beauty of Gunnison Nation Forest.

We rode for over an hour and then the trail began to get steep and narrow. The rocks became larger as well. As we stopped to rest and hydrate, Brian explained that the next patch had been nicknamed “skulls” by one of his buddies. I found myself briefly imagining that this entire hill would look like a pile of sand to a giant because there were thousands of skull sized stones. Although crass, it was an apt description of the size of rocks we would be facing on the lower part of the quarter mile or so incline ahead of us. The left side of the trail rose sharply along the incline of the mountain, meaning riding along the side to avoid the piles of rocks wasn’t an option. The right side also presented a problem; there was a steep mountain drop off that would certainly result in a minimum of several broken bones if not worse if I were to crash.

Adding to the mix was the approximately 15-20% grade of the hill itself. Brian suggested I hug the left side and take my time but it became clear as soon as we began that I was in way over my head. His bike is a powerful Yamaha 250; he is strong and comfortable on it, able to handle the speed and dexterity required to make it to the top. My tires were smaller and the speed and skill required to tackle this monster of a hill was simply above my dirt bike pay grade.

After dropping the bike multiple times, struggling to get it back up on the uneven and mini-boulder filled trail, I decided to wait for Brian to realize I was no longer behind him. He eventually came back down and decided the best plan would be for him to ride his bike to the top and then walk down and ride mine up while I walked the grade.

By now, we had probably reached an altitude of 900 to 10,000 feet. I would have much rather ridden my bike up the hill but truth be told the physical and mental stress of trying to get the cycle up that steep trail had taken a toll and I used the hike to try and regroup by reminding myself of the “holy grail” we were seeking. I comforted myself in the knowledge that I had made it up more than half of the hill before admitting defeat.

Once we reached the top we ran into another issue. It had begun to rain and as it came down harder and harder I was struggling with goggles that kept fogging and with rain that impeded my vision. To make matters worse, Brian was second guessing our route, wondering if he had made a mistake somewhere along the way. In addition, one of the negative aspects of not riding often is that I don’t own riding gear like Brian. My boots were fine but my jeans were soaked to the skin. Brian had an extra rain jacket, which helped greatly.

As the skies eventually cleared and the sun reappeared, we stopped in an open clearing to rest and figure out where we were. Brian went on ahead to check out the route and to see if he recognized any landmarks from his ride two days earlier. I took this time to dry out and stretch my legs while drinking in the beauty of the mountains surrounding me.

The Rockies are stunningly and strikingly beautiful. I am simply mystified by the violence underneath the earth’s surface that created these jagged and awesome peaks millions of years ago and there is no greater way to witness nature’s power and majesty then to lay eyes upon this mountain range.

By the time Brian returned from his scouting expedition, I was ready to continue this journey and eager to reach the goal. After another lengthy ride along a wide and relaxing dirt path, we rounded a corner and there, on our left, was an old wooden board painted with the words “Sargent’s Pass”. I squeezed the throttle.

Eventually, a large clearing opened up, seemingly within the eye of a storm. Surrounded by trees and mountains I took note of the granite monument protected by a crude rock wall.

Silent and alone, under Heaven’s gaze and the view of fallen warriors, was the treasure we had ridden so hard to find. After an initial inspection, Brian decided to ride ahead. He had seen this a few days before and understood me enough to know that I would appreciate the opportunity to spend some time alone surrounded by the solitude of the mountains.

Inside three short walls of rock was a Vietnam War memorial, placed there by unknown men at an unknown time. Brian and his friends had simply stumbled upon it while riding. They had asked a few locals at the Tomichi Creek Trading Post where it had come from and were told that the Park Rangers don’t know who is responsible for it. They leave the site unmarked on any maps. Some people think it was an officer who served during Vietnam, maybe using a helicopter to bring the heavy stone up to The Divide.

That's it, all the information available from the locals. I’ve searched online and found only a few items mentioning the site and absolutely no information on where it came from, leaving me even more intrigued.

I walked around and lying nearly flush with the mountain surface, outside of the rock wall, were rectangular stones haphazardly placed. At first glance, they appeared to be tombstones. Upon closer inspection, they contained sayings in various languages and fonts.

The stones were in sort of a circle...but not. I found myself wondering if there was some form of unwritten symbolism, sacred to the benefactor.

The etched words, in the varying languages I mentioned, were also from various years. Words like Eardstapa, which is some form of a word for warrior and which, most likely, was taken from the poem “The Wanderer”.

Some lines are from words one can find in Arlington Cemetery, such as: “Like the fallen leaves of autumn in unregimented ranks ….if by weeping I could change the course of events”.

There is an actual Bible verse and reference to the appointed time.

I expected a monument to American Vietnam Veterans. What I found instead was a tribute to all of the men who have fought; a reminder that Laos, Cambodia, France, Vietnam and the United States all left sons on the fields of battle. A testament that in the quiet stillness of God’s faithful watch, surrounded by untainted and un-bloodied beauty, a fellow wounded warrior remembers those sons…..those brothers…..those sacrifices.

I touched the stones, closing my eyes. I imagined other visitors and their stories. Tributes had been left on the large obelisk in the middle; pennies from different states and live ammunition rounds tucked into the grooves separating the squares that made up the largest piece. I wondered why they had visited…whether or not they had simply stumbled upon this site, like Brian and his fellow riders, or whether they went searching, like I had.

It had been a long and challenging ride and we still had several hours to get back down. The journey back would be equally difficult, resulting in my own hidden tears and bruised legs upon "skulls", but I would never regret this journey and the trials I went through in order to pay my respects. The struggles, frankly, seemed an appropriate toll.

Brian gently told me it was time to leave, but I wanted one more moment to remember this quiet hidden tribute. I paused a moment before putting on my helmet.

I closed my eyes and listened to the wind and the trees. I breathed in the mountain air, holding in the smells, and in those moments I swore I heard the whisper “remember us”.

I promised I would.

p.s. the last line is a link to video I took of Sargent's Pass...enjoy!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

An Open Letter to KU Men's Basketball

Dear Key to My Heart & Love of My Life Kansas Jayhawks,

It has been a trying year in our relationship.

Although there is nothing you could do that would ever turn me against you, it is certainly possible for this fan to lose passion for watching you in person. That time could be on the horizon.

It’s no secret: I am one of your biggest fans. I talk about you to anyone who will listen. I write about you with exuberance. I spend more money on you than is practical for a family of our means. I’m a walking plethora of useless Jayhawk trivia and one of my most treasured heirlooms is the shaky autograph of a man who wore a Jayhawk uniform almost 100 years ago; a man almost no Jayhawk has ever even heard of and who passed away over a decade ago.

I know you’ve always been powerful and are a well known Blue Blood. Your games sell out and your fans travel across the country to watch and support you. I am one of those fans, but feel as if you have either been neglecting the signs or you have been receiving poor advice from those around you. This is deeply concerning and it is time for an intervention.

On Friday, my friend Cathy rescheduled a dentist appointment, took the day off of work, parked a hundred blocks away (okay, that's an exaggeration), and by 1:45 pm had secured a place in line in front of Allen Fieldhouse so that we could attend Late Night in the Phog.

I pulled my son and daughter out of school early, grabbed snacks, sharpies & Junior Jayhawk autograph books, and headed to Lawrence.

The parking lot was already full but along 18th Street car after car was parking, ignoring the “No Parking until 5:00" sign and the police officer who was sitting in his car watching the activity quietly without making a peep. After a short period of observation, I made the assumption that he would surely say something if he was planning on ticketing those people. Wouldn't any decent person at least issue a warning? Other cars kept showing up, parking, and happily heading towards the fieldhouse, so I did the same.

What is the old adage about making assumptions and what it makes of you and me? Remember that, My sweet Rock Chalk.

As Allen Fieldhouse came into view, we noticed multiple lines but found Cathy easily. Everyone around seemed happy and excited and as the 5:30 pm entrance time approached the crowd perked up. All at once people who weren’t in line or who were in the back of the line surged forward en masse towards the doors, climbing over gates and shoving people aside. As soon as it began it ended in what seemed to be a matter of minutes.

By now, we were just around the corner from the North doors adjacent to the parking garage but there were no longer any actual lines, just mass groupings around every single entrance. It was as if all of the lines had merged into large schools of people. We happily waited, assuming the groups would slowly move into the Fieldhouse.

Did I just use the word "assume" again, my little round ball king?

You see, the mass of people who jumped in front of all the people who had waited in line patiently and civilly for so many hours didn’t give a darn about anyone else, including the Uncle we were standing beside, his niece, or his sister. They had driven from Emporia and the eighteen year old niece, bound to a wheelchair due to what appeared to be cerebral palsy, kept asking in a sweet voice “what’s happening up there? Do you think we’ll get in? I passed up going to my high school Homecoming to be here.”

The uncle went to a side door to see if there was a handicapped entrance they could use to avoid the now potentially dangerous crowd. There had been no way they could compete with the mob when it moved forward, even though they had a good place in line. The usher physically ignored him but finally cracked the door and rudely told him to get back in line. This same scenario played out just a few minutes later to another person in a wheelchair who simply wanted to ask a question.

We waited patiently until after 7:00 pm, when a man in khakis and a head set walked by and yelled “If you don’t have a ticket you aren’t getting in! Now go home!”

Allen Fieldhouse had been filled to capacity the entire hour and a half after the doors “opened” and not a single staff member had come outside to let us all know. I assume, with a budget as large as that of the athletic program, they could’ve afforded a bullhorn?

I asked the man very pointedly when 16,000 people had entered the building while the rest of us stood there and watched. He paused, at a loss it appeared, and then muttered “it’s not 16,000….it’s only 13,000 because it’s standing room only; and there were 1,500 VIP’s and people with tickets.”

Fans began sharing stories at this point, like the woman who said that one usher had poked her head out and told them “We are only allowing in 100 at a time so you need to count off by 100’s among yourselves or no one is getting in.”

Many fans shared tales of driving or flying in from far away places and, after having secured spaces in line close to the front earlier in the morning, being shoved aside by the selfish mob. A much older female had been waiving a Late Night ticket from the 2nd story of the parking garage gleefully trying to antagonize the less fortunate fans under her. It evoked visions of a cake eating queen looking down from her lofty perch on hungry peasants below. An added insult was that none of us even knew there had been tickets to be had.

Students around us began receiving photo texts from other friends already inside the building who were saving open spaces, but many of these kids had been late getting in line because they had been in class. I read several times online that Greek organizations had held as many as 80 spaces in line at the beginning.

A female usher had been knocked down and barely avoided being trampled. A witness reported that a man in a wheelchair next to him found himself face down on the ground after the mob pushed the chair over. There were stories of a woman who collapsed and had to be moved inside the Fieldhouse so that medics could attend to her needs while the group outside shouted loudly (angry that she had "been allowed inside").

My foursome was hot, tired, frustrated, and aware of the oncoming thunderstorm, so we admitted defeat and headed to the car. The Lawrence Police Department had left me one final present: a $55 parking ticket.

The first thing I heard after turning on the radio to 610 for live coverage of Late Night was that there were 7,000 fans left standing outside Allen Fieldhouse.

Seven. Thousand.

This would’ve been frustrating by itself, my beloved KU, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve experienced other struggles with you over the past month as you apparently try to deal with the mass of fans now waking up to all you have to offer and wanting to get in on the game, so to speak.

I attended the North Dakota State football game on August 30 with my eight year old “Junior Jayhawk”. Junior Jayhawks had been specifically invited to the kid's Hawk Zone on this date for bounce houses, face painting, and basketball player autographs. It was over 90 degrees with no shade but Brody seemed to do fine running back and forth between the jump houses while my friend and I held his spot in line so that he could get his Junior Jayhawk autograph book signed.

The line moved slowly and I observed numerous adult couples walking away, each carrying their own signed basketballs and posters; most of them were childless.

At ten minutes before the scheduled end a staff member yelled “that’s it, no more autographs.” It looked as if it would've taken maybe another 20 minutes or so for the remaining fans left in line to get their autographs as well. The line was mostly red faced parents with sweat dripping down their backs and their sad offspring yelling “we waited for nothing?”

Ladies Night with Bill Self is a cancer fund raiser in its fourth year. You don’t advertise it very openly, which is fine, but we ladies are notified via an email that just randomly shows up some time in September when the tickets are on sale. It requires constant email monitoring because the seats cap out at 400, meaning it sells out quickly.

Let me just add that my old definition of "sells out quickly" has been altered forever after these past few months.

The day you emailed us, I contacted the ten ladies I know who desperately wanted to attend. They were surprised when they went to order tickets and the price had been increased by $50. Then there was a glitch in the system and they couldn’t order single tickets; they had to purchase two or more. We scrambled, trying to pair ladies up with each other but this meant some individuals had to front the cost of two or more tickets.

There's more, my waving wheat field beauty.

I received an email from the Williams Fund last week saying you would be releasing a limited number of individual seats to the New Mexico game at the Sprint Center in December. The email said we should click on the attached link at 9:00 am on October 5 to buy tickets. This is, by the way, the only KU game this season that they will be releasing tickets to because all other games are sold out to season ticket holders. Do you know, my darling KU, that the minimum season ticket is almost a thousand dollars? For ONE ticket?

At 9:00 am sharp I clicked the link and this was the result: “No Events/Items Available”. Just for fun, I continued refreshing the page throughout the day and into the evening but you apparently had given the tickets away ahead of time. A relationship requires trust to thrive and it hurts when you aren’t honest.

The final nightmare has been the Champions Classic in Chicago. As you know, my darling Rock Chalk, this is a marquee matchup between you and Duke (along with Kentucky vs Michigan State). You did come through for me via the Williams Fund, although the details haven’t always been clear. We had to pay for tickets up front but you couldn’t assure us that we would actually get them. Non-Williams Fund fans were simply out of luck because they had no option to purchase tickets through the university.

The State Farm Champions Classic itself didn’t announce the ticket release date until mid-September – for a November 12 game date. Tickets went on sale to the public on October 1st and at 10:00 am sharp, the appointed ticket release time, the entire event was already sold out (check out the comments under the Oct. 1 postings). Fans of all four teams around the country had purchased airfare and hotel rooms but have no way to purchase tickets unless they want to pay 400% above face value on scalping websites. I know this isn’t your fault, KU, but could you say something to the folks at State Farm and the Champions Classic?

The issues with Late Night are the most concerning to me. This single event is the only time the playing field is level for lower income fans to be able to actually see the Jayhawks inside Allen Fieldhouse during a game day type of atmosphere. Because it is free, these fans from all over the state simply have to sacrifice their time and patience but not their monthly bills (minus gas money). It has always been a wonderful gift, absent the required funds that many higher level donors can afford throughout the year while they attend any game they choose, regardless of price.

One or two glitches may be a coincidence, but what I see is a culture developing wherein only the privileged are going to be able to enjoy the amazing experience of watching you in person. This isn’t right. I love you with all my heart and want myself and other fans who also love you to be able to enjoy the experience.

Is this really what you want to become KU? A school who shuts out the common fan, tramples on the handicapped, and leaves young KU supporters sadly saying to their parents “but I waited patiently for so long like you told me to, why"?

I want our love affair to last, I really do. I want to love you in person because I’ve always heard that long distance relationships are difficult. I’ll keep putting in the work but you’ve got to meet me and the other fans halfway. If you love us as much as we love you, this shouldn't be too difficult.

With Deep Love and Respect, Me