Sunday, October 16, 2016

Class of 1996

Last Saturday was my 20th high school reunion. 20 years! I graduated high school 20 years ago. Inconceivable.
But I digress.

I didn't love high school. Our nephew just started high school and I worry for him. If I had to repeat high school--especially in this day and age--I would have pigeon-sized butterflies swimming in my stomach.

High school did not offer the best years of my life. I actually think I ran screaming from the double doors on the last day of classes. This was the message I wrote on my class banner. I was as bitter as a crab apple.
"Class of '96, 
I hope you all grow up someday, but I doubt it. Good luck anyway! 
Patrice E. Kopec"

I'm not sure why I disliked high school so much. It was just a weird time for me. I wrote this in my diary 4 months into my freshman year: "I'm finally adjusting to high school, but I hate all the fights, peer pressure and smoke." Sounds like the best of times, huh?

I had a few cards stacked against me when I entered as a freshman. I had braces, four eyes, remnants of a bad perm, I laughed a little too much and I was still waiting for puberty to happen. To give you a better picture of the puberty part, I'll share this gem. The summer prior to starting high school, I gained a nickname because of a hot pink bikini I wore: Pink Floyd's "The Wall." I came from a small Catholic school--very small, as in 6 people in my graduating class--to a large public school (~300 in my class). I had no idea how to effectively change classes or open a locker (something about turning the mini wheel twice past zero??). Instead, I made my scoliosis worse by carrying around five huge textbooks because the thought of trying to get from A to B with a stop at my locker within the 4 minutes allotted between classes seemed superhuman. With my newfound freedom to wear something other than a plaid dress uniform and knee-high blue socks, I had a calendar dedicated to planning out my outfits, down to perfume choice.

I ranked low on the hierarchy built on sports, extra curricular activities, smarts, fashion sense, looks and clowning around. I was bookish, just not in the valedictorian way. I memorized WWII dates, struggled through Calculus and dissected a frog. I ran track and played field hockey, but was often benched. Seriously, my track coach would send my friend Amanda and I out for a long run on our own because he didn't care about fine-tuning our form (for the record, either did we. We would run to a friend's house and hang out, then return to practice claiming we ran 3 miles).

Despite all this, I wasn't entirely unpopular and more importantly, I survived. People told me they remember me as one of the most genuine and thoughtful gals in the class. In fact, my very good male friend, Matt, pulled me aside to tell me just how much he valued my friendship in high school. His kind words almost brought me to tears (J needs to step up his game). In any case, I needed that reassurance after reading what I wrote on my class banner!

You may be asking why in the world I would have wanted to attend my high school reunion if I felt so strongly about those formative years. I was wondering the same thing. Here are 4 reasons why I decided to go:

1) I didn't have the nerve to go to my 10-year reunion, because, well, that's just High School Part 2.  The statue of limitations on harboring ill feelings toward anyone usually expires around 20 years. Truthfully, I have changed dramatically since high school and even in the last 10 years. I feel pretty proud of the life I've built. I knew I could confidently walk the halls (so to speak).

2) Aren't we all curious? The popular people actually live ordinary lives! But they still won't give you the time of day. Oh, and my high school crush lost hair and gained a belly. How's that for retribution? I really need to tell my nephew that whatever you do to be cool in school won't mean jack days after graduation.

3) Facebook allows us all to "keep in touch" pretty well, but status updates are not real conversations. Face time (not the ap) is good for our health and very few events these days allow us the opportunity to really reconnect with people.

4) J and I share everything these days, but it's nice to take a walk down pre-couple memory lane in an effort to learn even more about each other. It only forges a stronger bond.

If you are on the fence about attending your own reunion, I say go. I had fun. There were only a handful of my fellow grads (50/300) who attended, and very few of my friends, but I am still glad I went!

Best friends then, best friends now. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Birthday Celebrations

Once upon a time, I told Justin that my 20-year high school reunion (more on that in another post) was taking place in New Jersey the week of his birthday and I really wanted to go. Not only did I want him to accompany me to the reunion, I didn't want to leave him for his special day.

"Spend my birthday in New Jersey??? EEEEEEW," was basically his response.

Given it was his big 4-0, I wanted to make as big of a deal as I could. If we stayed in New Mexico for his birthday, we would just be working. I couldn't even take him out for a nice meal, since we live in the middle of nowhere.

I sweetened the deal for a trip to New Jersey as much as I could.

"I'll throw you a birthday party with all your friends," I tempted. "And, let's go down to Atlantic City for a little getaway." If only there was a From Good Home concert and he would have been immediately sold.

Thankfully, he took the bait and off to New Jersey we went last week.

The week started with a birthday party hosted at his buddy's house. I've mentioned this on the blog before, but J attended a private high school in New Jersey (Seton Hall Prep). Most of us walk away with only a handful of good, lifelong friends from high school, but I am always amazed at the solid high school group of friends still in tact after 20+ years. The truth is, these guys can't end their friendships because they have so much dirt on each other. Kidding (or truth) aside, they are good eggs and are present for each other. A few of these guys drove from several hours away to come out and celebrate (missed you Beef!).

The Seton Hall Prep family has grown considerably, as J's friends are very prolific.
One of the boy's daughters even shares a birthday with J!

The Seton Hall Prep crew wasn't the only family we saw while in New Jersey (some not pictured). 
Our niece and my sister share October birthdays with J, so there was even more reason to celebrate together! 
 My aunt and uncle were in from Alaska the same week and brought my Nana out for a lunch date. 
Justin has known these 2 family friends since he was a teenager! 

The party wasn't the only way to celebrate. We treated ourselves to a 2-night getaway in Atlantic City. Even though I grew up in New Jersey, I have not spent a lot of time down in AC. It has had its ups and downs, but I was pleasantly surprised. We took long walks on the beach and boardwalk, ate seafood and tried our luck in the casinos. Let's just say we made a small donation to them. The birthday boy's usual card-playing luck was noticeably absent. 

All in all, I am happy to report, J was pleased with his birthday celebrations and keeps saying how memorable everything was for this 40th. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Happy 40th Birthday Justin!

Today, Justin turns 40.

My first impression of J was that he was "so cool." His smile won me over almost immediately ... and it still does. Even though we are going on 10 years married (Oct. 28), I am not surprised I fall deeper and deeper in love with Justin as every year passes.

I thought one of the best ways to wish him a happy birthday would be to recant the story of how I met him, since I never put it in writing!

It is 7pm on August 14 and the outdoor temperatures are still in the 90s. I pull up to my regular Wednesday night meeting with the Take A Hike Club of Arizona at Four Peaks Brewing Company in Tempe. 

The average age of Take A Hike members is 35, so I am one of the youngest members at age 24. Tonight I am flying solo, as my good friend, Amy, can't make the meeting.

The club follows the usual agenda: drinks, mingling, club business and upcoming trips. They end the "meeting" by asking if anyone is new to the club.

A young man my age stands tall and follows the drill about telling where he is from and his favorite hobbies.

"My name is Justin and I just moved from New Jersey to go to grad school at ASU," my heart skips a beat as he speaks. "I love music, hiking, camping and rock climbing."

After the meeting officially closes and more socializing ensues, I beeline to Justin.

"Hi, I'm Patrice and I'm from Jersey too!" I offer excitedly.

"Oh, hi." he smiles. 

We do the usual exchanges about Jersey (contrary to what people think, we do NOT ask what exit). As it turns out, we spent our most formative years not knowing each other just miles away from each other in NJ. I wouldn't be surprised if we crossed paths at Mennen Arena or a diner. 

Our conversation that first night in August 2002 was flowing like a river and I'd like to say we closed down the bar, but Justin had to leave at 10pm to go tutor. A girl. In Statistics. At 10pm. A girl. At 10pm. 

I left thinking, gosh this guy is cute and way cool, but he is most likely dating this "girl he is tutoring." 

Weeks later in September, I went back to a Wednesday Take A Hike meeting. As I was walking into the bar with my friend Amy, I saw Justin pull up in a parking spot. He smiled and waved as he passed me in the lot. 

"My Jersey crush is here! My Jersey crush is here!" I felt like I just won the lottery as I shook Amy's shoulders with fury. 

After the regular meeting, Justin and I cornered a private table at the bar and got to know each other a little better. He told stories about his friend's band in NJ and all the shows. What I knew about music at the time could fit into a fortune cookie, but I smiled and nodded like I did. Despite my lacking knowledge, we hit it off again. 

"Do you want to go for a hike together sometime?" I suggested innocently, still unaware if he was dating this girl he was tutoring. 

We made plans to get together (as friends) on October 13, 2002. 

Our date started at 11am. We never did go hiking. We just sat and talked for hours. I discovered a lot about him on that first get together. I discovered he wanted to someday thru hike the Appalachian Trail. I discovered he wanted to someday visit Alaska. I discovered that he wasn't dating that girl he was tutoring. I discovered he was my soulmate. 

As they say, the rest is history. 

Happy 40th to the man who always dreams bigger than anyone can imagine, always has a comeback, always makes a joke, always puts others before himself and always has my heart. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Backpacking New Mexico: Calaveras Canyon

If there is one thing we've learned about living in New Mexico, it is that there is no shortage of outdoor opportunities. However, our fall teaching schedule has been a little busier than our springtime teaching schedule was--especially with some weekend work--so escaping has been more difficult.

The good news is, Santa Fe National Forest is in our backyard. Literally, 100 yards from our door.

Knowing we only had one night free last weekend and not wanting to drive anywhere, we decided a backyard backpacking trip was in order. So we walked to a nondescript trailhead up the road and dipped into Calaveras Canyon.
Once through the ponderosa trees and a livestock gate, the isolated canyon opens to serene meadows peppered by interesting rock formations, shapes like skulls and gorillas.

We selected a basecamp backcountry campsite and took off to explore deeper into the canyon and its offshoots. We traveled about 15 miles total, but feel we could go back and traverse even more. What we found were aspen tree groves and mountain lion prints--both equally exciting. The aspens haven't quite turned in this area, but many were getting ready to go.

The mountain lion may have been elusive, but the cow were not. We felt unbothered by them when we saw them way down the canyon at nightfall. By morning, though, they wanted to get a little cozier.
We have a few more canyons to scout in our backyard and hopefully we can get out there just in time for the aspens' full fire dance.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Currently: September

Currently living/working in: Teaching kids environmental education at Fenton Ranch in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. We've finished up the fifth and fourth graders and have moved onto our last unit with second graders! This season goes lightening-fast! 
I’ve taken the kids wading in our backyard creek about 15 times this season! This is a shallow area, but it gets up over my knees in some parts. 

Current mood: Happy, although sick (see “not excited about”).

Currently excited about: I mentioned that J & I accepted the position of caretakers for Fenton Ranch through the winter. So starting Nov. 1, I am diving into full-time book-writing!!! I am hopeful I will be able to finish the writing process of my book by Christmas! 

Currently not excited about: Kids’ germs. I’ve been told that working around kids means constantly fighting off their fierce germs. I typically have a rock-solid immune system, but it has been seriously compromised! I even had to get on an antibiotic, something I haven’t done in 10 years! 

Currently worried about: Our newfound cat, Mrs. Gibbles. She is the sweetest “barn” cat, and we are trying to domesticate her since we live in such a wild area. We are afraid she will be eaten by a coyote, owl or something bigger since she spends the majority of her time outside and she already came home with a bitten tail. We are working on getting her to a vet, but living in a remote area and working from sun up to sun down makes that a bit challenging. 

Currently thankful for:  Our van is currently taking a rest, but I still can’t believe we put about 10,000 miles on it across 18 states in less than 2 months. Can't wait to do it again next summer and add more states. 
Currently proud of: I love all these side writing projects I obtain writing on different blogs. In one of the latest on Cloudline’s blog, I was able to feature our oldest nephew and our Alaskan adventure with him. 

Currently amazed by: These kids we are teaching. We don’t really have a comparison to teaching in a public school setting, but this group of private school kids blows our mind with their knowledge and integrity. 

Current guilty pleasure: Justin purchased an antenna to put on our roof to be able to watch football. Yes, they still make antennas. However, we are so shrouded among the mountains that we can only receive Fox and a static-filled NBC. Better than driving 45 minutes to a small town bar that has one single TV with a cracked screen, I suppose. 

Currently reading: Just finished Thru Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail by Carrot Quinn. At first, this book was a little slow to get into. Just the mundane details of a PCT hike. But then, it picked up with more emotions and I really admire Carrot’s honest writing style.  

Currently watching on Netflix: We still have the Netflix DVD plan, but we’ve been watching the 11-22-63 mini series. This 8-part DVD is based on Stephen King’s book, 11-22-63, one of our favorite books. They definitely altered the TV show from the book—in some ways we dislike—but it is still good. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Fall Scenes From Fenton Ranch

Sorry for the radio silence around here! Turns out this working thing is really, really time-consuming. I know you just cursed my name since we typically only work 6 months out of the year, but my defense is that our environmental educator role at Fenton Ranch has us going pretty much nonstop from Monday at 9am until Friday at 1pm and kids are freakin exhausting.

Enough of my excuses. We are loving fall at Fenton Ranch. There is still a good bit of wildflower ecstasy around the property, and the temps are crisp with late-afternoon thunderstorms that leave smoke rising from the valley above the Jemez Mountains and fiery evening skies. I am eternally grateful that our wandering souls find jobs in such gorgeous locations.

The other news is we are staying all winter! The school hired us to be winter caretakers and I am ecstatic to see what winter is like at Fenton Ranch. Could it be more beautiful than the spring and fall we've experienced? I will be sure to let you know.

Last spring when we worked as environmental educators at Fenton, we lived in a staff cabin. It was very cozy quarters, but it had no bathroom. Now that we are officially the caretakers, we get our very own cabin with a bathroom and kitchen!

Anyway, just thought I'd check in and give you a short snippet of life lately. We have fifth, fourth and then second graders this session, which runs through October. We have completed the fifth grade program, which we both loved immensely. It was all about the seven principles of Leave No Trace. Very fitting since J and I are Leave No Trace Master Educators and in fact, met our Fenton boss Jamie while taking that weeklong course. Our environment needs more protection and if the fifth graders can put just one principle into practice, than we've done our part as stewards of the planet!

Friday, September 9, 2016

High Point #40: Wheeler Peak, New Mexico

We bagged our 40th state high point this past weekend: New Mexico's Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet.

We had planned to do this one last spring when we were living and working here, but the trail was snow-covered through May. With that in mind, we didn't want to wait too long this fall, as winter could hit the mountains at any time. So even though we knew it would be crowded, Labor Day weekend seemed like the best fit.

Long holiday weekend aside, Wheeler Peak is always a popular hike that draw in the crowds, especially given the trailhead's location right at the Taos Ski Valley.

New Mexico only has 5 mountains over 13,000 feet, with this being the tallest. There are 2 routes up Wheeler: Bull of the Woods and Williams Lake. It used to be that the Williams Lake route was treacherous without an established trail. But that has changed in recent years and now there is a very well trodden path of switchbacks leading to the peak.
You can see Taos Ski Area in the background.
We chose the Williams Lake route because it makes for a very nice--albeit short--overnight backpacking trip into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness of the Carson National Forest. I wanted to backpack so we could camp at 11,000 feet to give me a little more acclimatization, but also because alpine lakes are just so awesome. Williams Lake sits in a beautiful cirque nestled at the foot of Wheeler.

The Williams Lake trailhead is only 2 miles uphill from the Bull of the Woods trailhead, but we parked at the Bull of the Woods trailhead in the lower lot of the ski valley and walked the extra 2 miles on the road to save The Wanderer from climbing any more steep and hairpin hills. Even from the Bull of the Woods parking area, our total roundtrip mileage for the trip was still only 9 miles!

From Williams Lake on Sunday morning, our summit day was just about 5 miles roundtrip. We left early to avoid the typical afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains. Lightening was not a problem though; the wind was. As we climbed higher and higher, it got blustery. Our estimate was gusts up to 40 mph! I had to put every layer on me.
Also, roaming bighorn sheep and tremendous 360-degree views are supposed to be synonymous with Wheeler. You can see the Rio Grand canyon to the west, Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Range to the north and so on. All we saw was the inside of a ping pong ball! There might have been a bighorn sheep next to me, but I wouldn't have known.
Still, it was a successful summit. Though it was 13,161 feet, my lungs did fine. I'm guessing living at 8,000 feet, acclimating by sleeping at Williams Lake and the fact that the hike itself was relatively easy contributed to my success, but I just think the effects of altitude are erratic. I never know what I am going to get.

That concludes our 2016 summer of highpointing. Four successful summits (King's, White Butte, Elbert and Wheeler) and one attempt (Denali) to mark 40 highpoints before 40 years!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Currently: August

Currently living/working in: We roadtripped most of August, and are now settled back at Fenton Ranch in New Mexico, where we will again teach kids environmental education through October! 

Current mood: Content to be back to work at Fenton. We both really love our roles at Fenton, working with our boss, Jamie, and living in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. 

The property looks so different than it did in the spring! Amazing to witness the seasonal changes.

Currently excited about: The possibility of dedicated book-writing time for me this winter … still TBD, but pretty likely! 

Currently not excited about: Slow and limited Internet at Fenton Ranch. It would be the only thumbs down about being here. 

Currently worried about: We are now on our third trip to a mechanic for our 1995 Chevy Roadtrek ... every mechanic agrees it's a great vehicle, but it is not problem-free.

Currently thankful for: One of the things we miss the most while being nomadic is having a cat. We cat sit a lot and many family members own cats, so we definitely get our fix. But upon returning to Fenton Ranch this fall, we found a feral cat that roams the property and we pretty much adopted it. Well, feral might be too strong of a word. Do feral cats snuggle like this? 

Currently proud of: Guess who was the August JustAnOutdoorGal feature on a very popular blog??? 

Currently regretting: Not getting to watch a single minute of the Olympics! This is the one time we would have actually watched TV, but we were on the road during the Olympics and almost completely out of touch. 

Currently amazed by: The amount of gear we need to test for Backpacker Magazine this summer/fall. We always test various pieces of gear for them, but given the fact we were at Outdoor Retailer and in on the action, we have an extremely eclectic mound of gear to get out into the field!  But we love it!!!!!

Current confession: We spend the majority of our time outside and probably don’t wear enough sunblock. We are trying to be a little more cognizant about applying sunscreen daily and often. Thank you Sawyer for protecting us!

Current guilty pleasure: Grocery bills paid for by our environmental educator job at Fenton Ranch! It's a huge perk of the job. We eat with the kids most days, and even though this includes chicken nuggets, there is always the biggest salad bar ever and we eat the healthiest we do anywhere! 

Currently reading: I finally finished “No Shortcuts to the Top” by Ed Viesturs (with David Roberts). I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and really liked this book, but it took me 3 months to read, which is really long for me. I’ve moved onto “Thru Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Carrot Quinn. This book gets rave reviews, so I thought I’d love it. I’m only 12% in (according to Kindle), and so far, I like it, but don’t love it. 

Currently watching on Netflix: We signed up for the old-fashioned DVD plan while we are in a no-streaming zone!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Happy Anniversary National Park Service!

This week on August 25, 2016, the National Parks Service turned 100!! 

Visiting National Parks is something J and I have done ... a lot. We've been to 37 of the 59 parks (yes, we are keeping track) and dozens of the monuments. And as America celebrates this centennial anniversary of the day President Woodrow Wilson's signed the act to create the National Park Service, it is amazing to see how much the organization has grown.

There were less than 360,000 visitors across the 35 parks and monuments in 1916. The 307 million visitors in 2015 across more than 400 parks and monuments broke records and this year, it's expected to do it again.

J & I try to make a habit of visiting parks during their off season, rather than braving the crowds, because, well, jam-packed parks during the centennial celebration is an understatement.

This past road trip, however, we hit Yellowstone, Grand Tetons and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, as well as Devils Tower National Monument. We were really gluttons for punishment by hitting two of the most popular national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Tetons) during the peak season. The thing is, when we were driving from Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City to the Highpointer Convention in Montana, the most direct route--let alone the most scenic route--were through those two parks.

Granted, we didn't go see Old Faithful (wall-to-wall people!!!) and breezed through, but Yellowstone still stands to impress with all its fumaroles, mudpots and geysers.

Yellowstone became the world's first national park in 1872. The National Park Service has its work cut out for it in preserving this one. 

J had been to to Tetons before, but for me, it was a first.  And when we turned the corner from Jackson and caught sight of the jagged mountains reaching for the sky, I was amazed.  This place is a climbing mecca, so I am sure we will back to scale some of these bad boys, well at least J will be.  I may cheer from basecamp!
Further up north, we visited the less popular Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This park feels like sleeper park. It does not receive many visitors (about 600,000 per year compared with the 4+ million Yellowstone gets). Mostly because it's so far out of the way. The park is spilt into two units separated by about 60 miles. We felt like we had the whole north unit to ourselves as we walked through the dense juniper forest to the open plains overrun by bison and prairie dogs (there are pockets of the park called "prairie dog town" because there are hundreds of them). The south unit is certainly more popular, but both parks had scenic drives that let you see as much as you can with pullouts or hikes into the unknown.

Besides the lack of overcrowding, another reason to hit this park is because it is where Teddy Roosevelt first visited and fell in love with preserving wild spaces. The park highlights his history and accomplishments. He became known as the "conservationist president" with a legacy that includes creation of the US Forest Service and establishing 5 national parks and 18 national monuments. If he were on this year's presidential ticket, I'd certainly vote for him.

Last, but not least, we stopped at Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming. This was a quick visit to see the phenomenon of the 867-foot tower sticking up from the ground. Roosevelt designated this prominent butte as the country's first national monument
All the parks were mobbed given the timing of the centennial. The thing is, I'm pretty torn about seeing the masses enjoying the outdoors. Far too many Americans opt for indoor activities versus outdoor recreation. So getting people out and about to enjoy Earth's bounty is an awesome thing.

The problem is that people are often irresponsible users of the outdoors. I have been a culprit of it myself from time to time, so I am not pointing fingers. But it definitely pains me us to see people disrespecting nature and we saw a lot of that on this trip, unfortunately.
This bison says, "don't stand so, don't stand so, close to me." Always keep 25 yards from bison and most wildlife (100 yards from bear!). 

This is why J & I became Leave No Trace Master Educators in 2014 and now take jobs like the one at Fenton Ranch in New Mexico where we instill lessons about respecting nature to young schoolchildren. We have both learned so much through Leave No Trace about being good stewards, things we didn't know during our early days of backpacking (I wish I could go back in time and have a talk with myself ...) All it takes is a little education and an open mind from the user!

Okay, I'll get off my soap box now. But, I'll leave you with a quote I saw recently that really rang true for our passion. Happy birthday NPS! 

"This is what we can promise the future: a legacy of care. That we will be good stewards and not take too much or give back too little, that we will recognize wild nature for what it is, in all its magnificent and complex history - an unfathomable wealth that should be consciously saved, not ruthlessly spent. Privilege is what we inherit by our status as Homo sapiens living on this planet. This is the privilege of imagination. What we choose to do with our privilege as a species is up to each of us." 

- Terry Tempest Williams