Tomorrow we head home to New Zealand after our most recent and longest visit to the USA – this time Colorado. As has been the case for all of my trips to the States since 2011, I came to present at the Ancestral Health Symposium. But in line with every year I have travelled here, the symposium itself took a back seat to coming for the good friendships, old and new, that I’ve made in this country.
The symposium was held at the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado. For someone like me who loves the outdoors and smaller towns over bigger cities, Boulder was the perfect location. Over and above the 6 days in Boulder, we have been fortunate enough to explore some of the surrounding areas, including being hosted for 3 days in Denver by two wonderful people – Jeneane and Brad Barber (these guys took us in as complete strangers and opened their home to us in the way that Americans are famous for).
The following is a summary of my thoughts and feelings about travelling to and around a small section of Colorado.
We flew from Auckland to San Francisco via the consistently wonderful Air New Zealand. But this year we decided to splash out a little and purchase a Sky Couch. This is effectively a whole row to ourselves in Economy Class, but the real neat trick is that the row converts to a lie-flat bed just big enough to accommodate two Hobbits. In previous years we’ve been upgraded to Premium Economy (upstairs on the old 767), and we’ve even had an entire row of four seats to ourselves. But despite the extra space, we’ve still never had the ability to sleep in a completely horizontal position.
With the Sky Couch, the foot rests across the three seats fold up to fit flush with the seat, while the arm rests retract fully. You get a mattress to put down underneath you, two big pillows, and a blanket. You also get given a special harness to take the place of your normal seat belts.
The fit for us was tight, but we were able to get 6 hours of reasonable sleep – better than usual. Had the row in front of us not reclined their seats, we would have had a fraction more room, which would have made a big difference (as it was, it was virtually impossible to move once you had found a good position to sleep in). The flight was fairly turbulent from Auckland up to the equator, but lying down during the major bumps made it feel similar to being on a train.
If you are under 172cm tall and want to spring for a more comfortable long haul flight and lie flat bed without jumping up to Business Class, then a Sky Couch might be worth a look.
Land of the Free?
Let’s put this bluntly – we HATE travelling inside America. The best way to describe it is dehumanising. From the time you set foot on American soil, you never feel welcome. You are herded, yelled at, scolded, and glared at. San Francisco is generally a much better entry point than LAX, but it is still terrible.
I always arrive with the intention of treating everyone doing their job like a human being, but by the time I was through immigration and heading toward the TSA screening for our connecting flight to Denver, I was seriously needing to bite my tongue. It didn’t matter whether it was the person checking our baggage through, the person checking our passports at TSA, or the cabin crew on our flight – not a single one had the ability to acknowledge you as a human being in front of them. Even the armed guard checking tickets on our train ride from downtown Denver to the airport left us feeling barked at and interrogated.
Anastasia noted the abundance of signs, everywhere, all “yelling” what you are not allowed to do.
There will be many Americans who will dismiss this as the price you pay for freedom (I’ve heard this exact line many times over). Except you don’t have freedom. You have suspicion, paranoia, fear and anxiety.
The Brutality of Big
For reasons my naive self is yet to fully grasp, everything in the USA has to be big – brutally, planet destroyingly big. From buildings, to houses, to coffee cups, and especially to vehicles, American’s find status and value in the big and brutal.
Playing up to the stereotypes, the vast majority of people walk around drinking from disposable cups that are typically 1L in capacity at a minimum. What I might consider jumbo-size in NZ is typically the standard size here in the US. Even the portions of meat in the deli section are, on average, about twice the thickness of what we get back home.
Driving around Denver, and walking around Boulder, family homes are generally much bigger than the norm in Christchurch. But then they probably need to accommodate a lot of big “stuff”.
For me, the thing I find most jarring are the size of the vehicles. In Christchurch, in the midst of a building boom, I have despaired at the increasing number of big (generally black) SUV and utility vehicles being driven around. I can understand this, to a degree, when the tradies are carting all their equipment around, but when they are simply being used as some sort of oversized status symbol hangover from the 1990’s and 2000’s, and are being driven as a single occupant vehicle by some prick with a sense of entitlement, it’s all a bit much.
But what is big in NZ is but a Tonka Toy here in Colorado. Some of these 5-6L trucks are being used to haul big loads interstate (some of the truck and trailer combinations I’ve seen are on par with freight trucks back home), but the vast majority, however, are driven by one person, and seem to only sometimes carry another passenger.
To give my American readers a sense of scale, below is a photo I took today at a carpark here in Breckenridge, showing a Subaru XV (exactly what we drive in NZ, and what we feel is big enough) next to something fairly common here.
Or lack of. Sorry Kiwis, but your road manners suck arse in comparison to what we’ve seen here in Colorado. With only a couple of exceptions, most drivers are courteous, especially to pedestrians and cyclists. Nearly everyone has stopped to let us cross, even when they weren’t legally required to. I am told that people with either California or Florida plates let the side down, but Colorado drivers on the whole seem pretty good.
On Ya Bike
If there was one single thing that would ever make me want to stay here, it would be the bike infrastructure of Boulder. It was AMAZING. Bikes and bikers everywhere. They were well catered to, with a lot of lanes, separated paths, greenways, and patient drivers. Pedestrians and bikers interacted well with one another, being polite and courteous. Retail shops and cafes, judging by the number of bike stands outside, were welcoming of those who travelled by bike to their place. Boulder has one-third the population of Christchurch but probably triple the number of bikes. It felt like an American Amsterdam.
Hold the Phone
People around these parts LOVE to talk on the phone, loudly, and endlessly, no matter where they are. In the supermarket? Have a deep and meaningful with whomever at high volume. In the middle of a serene natural setting? Have the loudest conversation possible so that all the creatures know not to come anywhere near where you happen to be.
Pick your times and places for making phone calls. And please, talk, don’t yell!
I am sure you all knew this was coming. I love my coffee. I love the standard of the coffee that Christchurch has to offer, my favourite being C1 Espresso. Far from me being parochial, I’ve had sufficient domestic and international visitors to Christchurch try C1 only to declare it is (or very near) the best coffee they’ve ever had. So my baseline and expectation is set very high.
I’ve previously shipped C1’s C1000 beans to friends in the US, and we travelled this time with both beans and plunger grind (thanks, Sam!). Without exception, everyone declared this to be the best coffee they’ve had. I was informed, prior to our trip over, that the baristas in Boulder could match the best in the world. A big call, but I travelled with an open mind and I looked forward to being surprised.
I know this is hard for some Americans to accept (I’m looking at you, Skyler Tanner), especially as the “third wave” hipster coffee scene spreads over here, but your espresso scene (or at least the one in Boulder) is average. I’ve had some okay espresso, but if I’d stay for the bikes, I’d quickly leave again due to the average to bad coffee. And no, having world champion baristas doesn’t make you a coffee superpower…
When here I typically order double espresso. Sometimes I forget all previous experiences and try to get a double espresso with a small jug of hot water on the side – something Americans just can’t seem to get. I made two attempts to teach baristas how to make a long black, but they default out to an Americano and show a complete inability to respect the espresso (I go out of my way to watch them where I can and see everything from water going in on top of espresso, to a nice pull, complete with crema, being thrown from a cup on the machine into whatever cup you are to be served with).
None of this would be so bad, and my expectations would have been much lower, if the various cafes didn’t talk such a big talk about how good their coffee is, or how they are willing to accommodate any requests. Also, nothing says I don’t care about you or good coffee more than the way most places churn you through with takeaway cups, even when they offer the ability for you to sit down.
Best coffee while here: At Jeneane Barber’s place using the same machine I have at home and C1000 beans, and a double espresso from the Warming Hut here in Breckenridge made using a Nespresso machine.
We have eaten and been fed VERY well here in Colorado. From Jeneane to Steph through to Dallas, we are ever grateful for the wonderful food we have had made for us. That there is a massive problem with junk food here (and at home) is a given, but you can eat some properly good food here. Travelling at the same time every year has meant one thing – berries! What NZ is to lamb, pinot noir, coffee, dark chocolate…. the USA is to berries.
Boulder has lots of great eateries. Pick of the bunch is a place called SHINE. In Breckenridge, Warming Hut. In fact, our general observation is that less is more here. That is, the places with the fewest and simplest choices offer the best fare. There is typically a paradox of choice in American menus. I think there is a perception that the more you can offer the customer, the better the perception of the place. For me, however, I find a busy 2-4 page menu overwhelming. I feel like I have ADD and I struggle to navigate it all.
There is a similar paradox of choice elsewhere, such as in supermarkets. I’ve heard it said in NZ that we just don’t get a lot of choice there. Want to buy an eco-friendly shampoo? You have the choice of 2, maybe 3 brands. Here in the USA, you’ll have easily triple that amount. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when you are someone who likes the keep it simple approach.
Best new food tried in Colorado: Bison, as perfectly cooked by Jeneane Barber.
Worst new food tried in Colorado: A coconut yoghurt which I made the rookie error of not reading the label of before eating. It contained 5 teaspoons of sugar in a small pottle and tasted vile.
Stop Sucking It
Please lose the whole straw thing, America. Most of the places we have been to here have great facilities for sorting waste and recycling – much better than Christchurch to be fair. However, the aim is to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The recycling thing here in Colorado seems great. I didn’t see a lot of evidence for reusing things, so can’t comment there. But reducing consumption here sucks, and the use of straws for drinks – especially when you intend to sit and drink it in once spot, is just plain awful and is something Americans need to stop.
Apart from the waste of resources for something we don’t actually need, see this video for what can happen to all those discarded straws…
Worst plastic abuse: Wholefoods supplying pre-cut fruit and vegetables, wrapping it all in plastic, and selling it in the “Paleo” section (a subsection of the larger and better produce section).
Colorado has been a series of firsts for me. My first live fox (my first dead fox was in Port Macquarie, Australia), and my first American snake. It is also my first time experiencing the chronic effects of being at altitude. The last time we travelled to the US, we did a drive up the mountains behind Salt Lake City, where I experienced a few head spins at altitude. But here in Colorado, it was a whole different ball game.
Boulder is effectively a mile high – high enough to put the handbrake on your ability to physically exert yourself. At sea level, 75 kettlebell swings are no problem. Doing 25 in the back yard in Denver, and I was smoked. Hiking in the Flat Irons behind Denver felt like I was breathing through a straw. Being driven to the top of the Continental Divide – effectively the top of Aoraki/Mt Cook, was a bizarre feeling where the air tasted metallic and a short burst of effort left you gasping.
The few days in Denver and Boulder before coming to Breckenridge probably took the edge of the worst of it, but the air is so thin and dry here that lips and skin crack, noses bleed, and eyes dry out. Also, avocados are impossible to ripen! And pee? Holy I need to pee again, Batman, the most inconvenient effect of being at altitude is that water is escaping you faster than you can put it back in.
I am really looking forward to heading back to sea level, primarily not to feel so dry, but also to see if I get any performance boost having had 2 weeks up here. Any negative effects of the altitude, however, are by far outweighed by the absolutely spectacular scenery that is this place. Big mountains surrounding massive valleys, huge rocks that just beg to be climbed and scrambled up, and lakes that become a focal point for all sorts of amazing critters, birds, and beasts.
During our last NZ summer, where we camped under the shadow of Mt Cook, we spoke to a family from Colorado and said how much we were looking forward to seeing their mountains. They said that they found NZ mountains perhaps a bit more dramatic as they tend to rise from almost sea level and head vertically up. While I can see that perspective, the mountains here are just as dramatic when you put them into perspective.
This morning we drank coffee at not much under 3000m before taking a gondola (free!!) and chair lift up to 3500m before mountain biking downhill on the plushest single track for nearly an hour.
Circling back to where I started, I generally find America a mixed bag. It is big, loud, brash, uptight, and has an over-inflated sense of itself. But that all said, and the reason we keep coming back, is that it has some of the warmest, friendliest, and most genuine people you will meet anywhere. The friends we have made here will be some of the best friends we will ever have.
To Jeneane and Brad – thank you for letting us into your home and sharing a small part of your world with us, including your fire.
To Diana, Victoria, Derek, Robb, Bryan, Darryl, and Tim – it was a great pleasure to spend some time in your company again. It is our hope and expectation that we will be able to host each of you in NZ at some point soon.
To Rangan, Crystal, Amy, Ian, Angelo, and everyone else who was a part of the AHS symposium that we either met again or for the first time, it is an honour to be a part of the same community with such sharp minds.
To the AHS team – thank you for hosting us, again!, and for letting me ramble about something. Keep the passion burning.
And to our dearest of friends, Steph, Z, and Dallas – you are all complete bastards for making us cry when we leave you, and for making us miss you so much when you are not around. But take that as a symbol of how much you all mean to us and how much we value your friendship.
We are not sure when we will return – much may hinge on a certain presidential vote coming up. Home will always be home for me, and the more I travel, the more I value New Zealand for everything that it is and could be (and the more I want to fight to make it better, and, er, less American). But America continues to hold a place in my heart, if only for the amazing people we met each time we travel here.