Aspen’s Rio Grande Bike Trail: Burgers, Bourbon And Basalt

biking a bridge on rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

I can probably be kicked out of Colorado for admitting this, but I’m just not that into bikes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been lugging my vintage, fixed-gear cruiser around for over 21 years. Even though I rarely ride it these days because I live in hilly Boulder, I’m devoted to it. But mountain biking and road cycling plain freak me out, and in this state, that’s like saying you hate snow.

So, when my friend S. urged me to join her on an 18-mile bike ride down Aspen’s Rio Grande Trail to the former mining town of Basalt, I was dubious. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 7. I have terrible balance. What about getting back up valley? Still, there was the allure of flying down a riverside path in the high Rockies on a summer’s day. I caved.

The Rio Grande Trail is a part of the former Denver-Rio Grande Railroad bed. It starts at Aspen’s Herron Park, just off Main Street on the east end of town, and runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley, all the way down to Glenwood Springs, 41 miles away. The trail, especially the Aspen-to-Basalt leg, is enormously popular with cyclists, walkers, and runners and, in winter, cross-country skiers.

aspen grove
WanderingtheWorld, Flickr

Last week, I met up with S. in Aspen. It was a bluebird day, one that begged for a picnic or al fresco lunch. Our plan of action, after picking up two titanium, single-gear cruisers, was to ride down to the nearby community of Woody Creek (home of the late Hunter S. Thompson), and hit the Woody Creek Tavern (bar of the late Hunter S. Thompson) for lunch. Their famous hamburgers and a margarita on the patio are an Aspen summer staple. Alternatively, if you want some truly excellent breakfast pastries or picnic bread, take a slight detour over to Louis’ Swiss Bakery in the Aspen Business Center.

The first mile of the Rio Grande Trail runs alongside the Roaring Fork River. This time of year, the vegetation is lush: wildflowers are in full bloom, and the aspens and pines provide ample shade. You’ll cross a wooden bridge or two, and after about five minutes, the pedestrians disperse, and can really start moving (do watch out for other bikers, stay in your lane and always wear a helmet).

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Tavern, which is essentially a roadhouse/bar/tribute to all that’s weird (there’s a reason Thompson was a regular). The burgers really are all that, if nothing fancy, and the Mexican dishes also win raves.

biking the rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

Post-lunch, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Basalt, which has become an alluring little hamlet in its own right. Don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but it’s a cute, quiet place to kick back for a few days, and enjoy the many outdoor activities the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer.

The ride from Woody Creek to Basalt changes from sub-alpine terrain to open valley and ranchland. Horses and cattle graze ipeacefully, and the rust-red hematite cliffs so indicative of this region loom to the right. Below us, on our left, was the river. The path remained smooth and the light was so bright it almost hurt. I started to remember why I’d been hauling my old cruiser around with me all these years. Being on a bike was exhilarating, especially in a place so geographically blessed. I certainly didn’t care that I wasn’t hammering it on half-track.

When we reached Basalt, S. and I pulled into a nondescript business park. We’d decided to cap off our ride with a visit to the the four-month old Woody Creek Distillers (they’re killing it with their whiskeys and vodka made with Colorado-grown ingredients, including Polish Stobrawa potatoes farmed up-valley on co-owner Pat Scanlan’s family farm.

woody creek distiller's copper still
Courtesy of Woody Creek Distillers

The gorgeous, state-of-the-art distillery houses a gleaming, copper-and-stainless steel German still, which can be viewed from the tasting room. Distillery manager David Matthews walked us through a whiskey tasting, which made me long for an accompanying wedge of bandage-wrapped farmstead goat cheddar from Basalt’s own Avalanche Cheese Company (pick some up at Whole Foods just north of Basalt, off of Highway 82, along with some famous Palisade peaches, grown just over the mountains on the Western Slope).

Back in Boulder, I paid a visit to my dusty cruiser, which has been languishing in the basement for nearly a year now. I’m going back up to Aspen in September to see the fall foliage; my newly-tuned up bike will be making the trip with me. Thanks, S.

The details
If you’re not bringing your own bike, the best place for rentals in the Aspen/Snowmass area is Four Mountain Sports (various locations). Note that many Aspen hotels, like the The Little Nell (which will comp rentals September through the first snow), have bike rentals for guests. The easiest way to return to Aspen is to catch the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) bus from Basalt.

For more summer biking ideas, consider one of these great coastal beach cruiser bike rides.

Five Things To Bring On A Long-Distance Bus Trip In A Developing Nation

chicken bus
David Dennis, Flickr

It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you want to get off the beaten path when you travel, at some point you’re going to have to take a long-distance bus ride. Even if you’re not a backpacker, some destinations are accessible only by the most inconvenient of methods. I’ve traveled by bus, Land Rover, bush plane, horseback and canoe, and while not always comfortable, I take great delight in using alternative forms of transit.

If the idea of taking the bus gives you the heebie-jeebies, be aware that it’s primarily bus travel in the U.S. that sucks. I’ve yet to have an experience on Greyhound (it’s called the “Dirty Dog” for a reason) that wasn’t totally jacked up. There’s always a toilet overflowing, an addict nodding out and drooling on your shoulder (true story) and a guy who can’t stop screaming into his cellphone or having a conversation with himself. But I love long-haul trips in developing nations, no matter how janky the ride. It’s the best way I know of to see and experience a country. It’s cultural immersion at both its most infuriating and its best, but I’ve yet to have a bad experience with regard to fellow passengers.

There are, however, some key items you’ll want to bring with you. I speak from painful/mortifying experience. Read on for what you’ll need for any bus journey lasting more than a couple of hours (bear in mind that in many parts of the world, you can’t rely upon bus timetables; I recently took a four-hour trip in Paraguay that turned into 11 due to monsoonal flooding. And there was no bathroom on board). Bringing snacks and extra water is crucial; usually vendors will come on board during stops, but you should never rely on this.

empty toilet paper roll
GorillaSushi, Flickr

1. A blanket or ultra/microlight sleeping bag
You’d be surprised how many clapped-out buses crank the AC. If you get cold easily, 14 hours of that might render you nearly hypothermic. Conversely, if you’re sensitive to heat and in a tropical country, bring along a packet of Emergen-C or electrolyte chews (I love Honey Stingers and coconut water) and something to protect you from the sun.

2. Imodium®
Trust me, if you’ve ever suffered from gastrointestinal issues while on a long bus trip, you’ll do anything, anything, to ensure it never happens again. That said, don’t let fear deter you from trying all those great street foods. I’ve learned, however, to dial down the gluttony before a lengthy journey. Ladies, I’ve also had to deal with a UTI on a bumpy 14-hour ride through rural Mexico. Pack your first-aid kit accordingly.

3. Toilet paper
See above; if you’re lucky enough to even be on a bus with a toilet, don’t count on it being well equipped. Also be prepared for pit stops on the road, whether by your necessity or someone else’s. TP is also great to use as a tissue, as an impromptu washcloth, or to wipe that weird goo off of your shoe from the aforementioned pit stop. Hey, I’m just reporting the facts.

4. Sleep aid
Even if you don’t suffer from insomnia, you may want to bring along something to help your slumber on overnight trips. Rutted-out roads, blaring DVD players, blasting radio, crying children – sometimes all at once will make you glad you have an ace in the hole. If nothing else, bring ear plugs.

5. Baby wipes and/or antibacterial gel
You’ll be grateful for these on sweltering rides, especially when the windows are jammed open and you’re dealing with noxious clouds of carbon monoxide or dust. Also useful after aforementioned bathroom runs, and before snacking.

Why Ditching Preconceived Notions Can Make For Better Travel

Bora Bora beach
Michael Stout, Flickr

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had heightened expectations or an ill-informed idea of a destination prior to a trip.

Me too. Many things influence our preconceived ideas about a place: daydreams, prejudice (I’m using this word in its traditional sense), and prior experience, as well as literature, the media, television and film. Example: Most of us entertain certain romantic notions when planning a trip to Hawaii or Paris.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, of course. But with every trip, I’m reminded of why preconceived notions are best left at home (unlike your passport). Besides avoiding the inevitable disappointment if your holiday is more “The Hangover” than “The Notebook,” there are other good reasons to approach an upcoming trip – be it business or pleasure – with an open mind. Read on for ways to recalibrate your expectations, and ensure a richer, more rewarding travel experience.

salar de uyuni rainy season
Juan Gatica, Flickr

Lower the bar
When you set unrealistic standards – whether for a hotel room, honeymoon, tourist attraction or country – you may be robbing yourself of fully enjoying the experience. If you’re convinced you’re going to meet your soul mate by parking it at the bar of a tropical resort, you may be bummed out with the outcome. Likewise, don’t assume your business trip to Delhi is going to leave you despairing at all the suffering in the world. Often, the best moments in travel come when we’re not trying too hard.

On a recent trip to Bolivia, I did a four-day tour of the Southwestern Circuit, from the craggy spires of Tupiza to the blinding expanse of the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat). Our small group really clicked, and for three days, it was non-stop laughs. On our final day, when we arrived at the salt flats at sunrise, a young woman in our group was devastated that the weather was dry. She’d spent years dreaming about visiting during the wet season, when mirror-like pools stretch seemingly into infinity.

Never mind that rainy weather means key sections of Uyuni are inaccessible (including the stunning Isla del Pescado, a cacti-covered “island” in the midst of the flats), and that we’d lucked out by missing the last of the season’s storms. This poor girl was inconsolable, and later confided that her trip was ruined. I felt for her, but her dashed dream served as a strong reminder to dial down the expectations. She was so distracted by what wasn’t there that she missed how absolutely captivating the salt flats are when dry.

bungee jump
Peter Bekesi, Flickr

Push past your comfort zone.
While you should always keep your wits about you and listen to your intuition whether you’re traveling or at home, there’s a difference between trying something new, and being foolhardy. On that same trip to Bolivia, I was presented with an on-the-fly opportunity to try rap-jumping – from a 17-story building.

I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of climbing out the window of La Paz’s tallest hotel and rappelling face-down to the busy streets below had me shaking. But I trusted the company and equipment (full disclosure: I’d already done prior research, and spent time with their guides). Accidents can still happen but I felt I was in good hands. I had a blast.

Be receptive to changes
As a control freak, it can be hard for me to admit defeat in the face of time constraints or other issues that affect my travel itinerary. For the most part, I’ve learned to roll with it. If not for the monsoonal deluge on the day I planned to take a cargo boat on a three-day trip up the Rio Paraguay, I wouldn’t have ended up at a dreamy agriturismo in the nearby countryside.

plane tickets and passport
mroach, Flickr

Reduce anxiety
On a recent business trip to El Paso (which required me to visit several factories near the border), I was pleasantly surprised by everything. Although my hotel was just 10 blocks from the aforementioned border and adjacent to the rail yards, the neighborhood was perfectly safe and I enjoyed several evening strolls around the nearby arts district. I also learned that El Paso is ranked the nation’s safest city of its size. I could have saved myself considerable angst if I hadn’t let media hype about Ciudad Juarez seep into my imagination.

I had a similar experience years ago in Naples. I’d always longed to visit the city but was put off by fearmongering fellow travelers and (ahem) guidebook writers. I was positive I was going to get shanked while in pursuit of the perfect pizza, but my desire to see Naples trumped my fear. As it turns out, I felt very safe as a tourist, even at night in the notorious Forcella (not as dodgy as it used to be, and the home of some of the city’s best pizza, which I’d take a shiv for, any day).

Obviously, my fleeting impressions of these two cities could easily be debunked, but the point is that I let a lot of rampant paranoia do my pre-trip research for me. If you go looking for trouble, you’re sure to find it. But I also believe in the travel adage that you’re just as likely to get hit by a truck while crossing the street at home. In other words, be smart and be safe, but don’t let fear stop you in your tracks. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you.

5 Ways To Preserve Your Travel Memories (That Don’t Involve Photos)

no cameras signage
LEOL30, Flickr

If you’re an avid traveler, chances are you’ve experienced some type of fantastical sight, to which no photograph can ever do justice. Talent and camera quality have no bearing whatsoever on the ability to capture this moment, and so you resign yourself to committing it to memory.

Although I love looking at travel photos, I’m not much of a photographer. But I’m also well-traveled enough to know that sometimes, when you try to shoot something stunning, you inadvertently end up depriving yourself of just enjoying the experience. I see this all the time on trips; the guy who’s so busy running around chasing the perfect shot, he misses the entire point of the destination.

I’ve finally learned when to put the camera down and just be in the moment – at a certain point, sunset photos become redundant. Remembering the other sensory details surrounding the actual event, however, may well be something you’ll cherish forever. I’m not saying you should leave your camera at home when you travel. Rather, I’m advocating incorporating other ways to create travel memories that don’t involve Instagram or tripods. Read on for creative ways to preserve “unforgettable” sights or locales.

girl writing in journal
Paul Stocker, Flickr

Write it
Even if writing isn’t something you’re particularly good at, that shouldn’t stop you from trying (not everything needs to be posted to a blog or social media). Whether you scribble in a journal or email the folks back home, the objective is to get your memories written down, without trying too hard.

I strongly recommend writing longhand, as it’s more expedient, practical and, for lack of a better word, organic. So no texting, iPad, netbook or other device. Just you, a pen and a notebook or sheaf of paper. Think about sights, smells, sounds, textures and colors. Whether or not your end result is a list, paragraph or story, you’ll have something that captures a memorable moment from your trip. Not only does this exercise improve your writing skills (which, after all, are crucial in daily life); it helps sharpen your memory and senses, as well.

Verbalize it
OK, I know I hinted at ditching the devices, but many people are articulate. If you’re known for being a great storyteller, record memorable experiences soon after they occur. Whether it’s a mishap, linguistic misunderstanding, touching cultural exchange or incredible meal, recount it in vivid detail, as you’d tell it to your best friend, spouse/significant other or kids.

shells on beach
B D, Flickr

Collect it
Although I’m a writer by occupation, my favorite way to create travel memories is by collecting small, meaningful souvenirs unique to a place. They may be found objects or regional handicrafts, but my interior decor is defined by these objects. They’re my most cherished possessions (next to, I confess, my photos).

Scrapbook it
I also love to collect vintage postcards from favorite destinations, as well as items like ticket stubs, peeled-off beer labels (really), black-and-white photos scrounged from street fairs and antique shops, and cultural or religious iconography. As long as it reminds me of a great travel experience and is flat, I keep it. Some of these talismans are tucked inside my passport; others are in a photo album or stuck to my refrigerator with magnets I’ve collected from restaurants all over the world.

aboriginal art
Barbara Dieu, Flickr

Hang it
Granted, this requires a bit more cash, effort and wall space than collecting shells. But even with a nearly non-existent budget, you can bring home a piece of art as a permanent reminder of a great trip. Here are some inexpensive things I’ve collected over the years:

  • A custom-made, silk-screened T-shirt depicting indigenous art, made at an Aboriginal-owned co-op in Australia.
  • A reproduction of an Aboriginal painting that I picked up for about $25USD at Sydney’s wonderful Australian Museum. I had it mounted for a fraction of the cost of framing.
  • A vintage card painted by a Vietnamese woman’s co-op, depicting war propaganda and purchased at a shop in Hanoi. I’m not actually a communist but the art is captivating.
  • A 4-by-5 piece of muslin printed with a photo transfer of an image taken at the port in Valparaiso, Chile. I purchased it for about $3USD in the artist’s studio, nearby.
  • A slender coffee table book on Italy’s Cinque Terra.

While travel itself may not come cheap, memories are often free (the above purchases notwithstanding). I encourage you, on your next trip, to put down your camera once in awhile, and rely instead on your senses. I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Is ‘Cabineering’ The New Glamping?

Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone
Courtesy of Delaware North Parks & Resorts

Love the outdoors but roughing it, not so much? A new movement called cabineering might be for you. The term was coined by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, which operates historic and scenic properties throughout North America and Australia, to describe its new Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone.

The upscale 50-cabin property is scheduled to open July 1 in West Yellowstone, Montana; the units will provide the “comforts of home and the perks of a hotel for adventurous travelers.” The overarching goal of Explorer Cabins is to “provide a unique vacation experience by combining several lodging movements, including cabineering, “generational travel” and dog-friendly travel…in a remote area.”

To celebrate the opening, Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts will host the “Cabineering℠ Cook-off presented by Pepsi” contest on July 17. Contestants must submit an original recipe, which must be created using only the appliances offered at Explorer Cabins, and prepared in 30 minutes or less. Recipes, along with a photo or video of the dish, will be accepted starting June 25 through July 3. Participants must “like” the “Visit Yellowstone Park” Facebook page to enter their submissions.

Three finalists will be selected and flown, along with three family members, to West Yellowstone to prepare their recipes before a panel of judges (Can you already hear the, “Please pack your knives and go.”). The winner will have his or her recipe added to the Branch Restaurant and Bar menu, located at Explorer Cabin’s sister hotel, the Holiday Inn West Yellowstone. The winner will also receive a trip for four to Explorer Cabins for three nights. Details are available on Facebook.