I recently celebrated my 47th birthday. By myself. As I wrote last year, my birthday falls during a time when I’m prone to seasonal affective disorder which even the Colorado sunshine doesn’t fully eliminate. It’s difficult for me to cheerfully celebrate when I’d rather crankily hibernate. Planning and conveying excitement to anyone who’d join me for a gathering feels like work. I’ve found that, in the absence of a significant other, I prefer to spend my birthday alone, often on a day trip to the mountains, followed by a small gathering later in the month. It’s not the cultural norm but it works for me.
This year on March 1, I awoke to thickly falling snow and temperatures in the teens. It was the kind of weather that encourages most people to sleep in, stay home or cancel plans (such as attending birthday parties!) that involve driving. If it had been any other day, I probably would have enjoyed the cocoon of my bed as the white stuff descended. But I was yearning for movement so I packed snacks, water, hot tea, two books and my journal, and, at 7:40 a.m., headed to my car. My idea was to go to Rocky Mountain National Park, which I hadn’t visited since before the flood.
Thick snowflakes stuck to my hair and my biceps burned as I scraped an unusually stubborn and thick layer of ice from the windows of my Subaru. As I poured most of my hot tea onto the windshield to make the job easier, I wondered if I was an adventurer or an idiot. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. As I slowly pulled away into blurry whiteness, the windshield wipers working overtime, my fear mongering brain chimed in: What if I got into an accident and died on my birthday? Wouldn’t that be horrible, and how would that look on my tombstone? I told it to shut up, and I wondered how far I’d get. Would I turn around at the first traffic light? Would I blaze ahead out of sheer willfulness? I had no idea, I just knew I had to be rolling. To minimize distractions, I didn’t turn on the radio.
At that first light, I noticed few cars and I realized that it was probably fairly safe to be driving. Even if I spun out, it was unlikely I’d hit anyone. I figured I’d make it to Lyons, 14 miles away, and evaluate from there. As I approached the town, a series of flashing yellow signs warned that the road to the mountains was a single lane, with expected delays of an hour. Maybe I wouldn’t get there after all. I stopped for a tea at the Barking Dog Cafe, a cheery spot filled with locals, including a table of elders that meets there in the mornings, a familiar sight from my hiking days. I settled in with a book for few hours as the snow dissipated into flurries.
With the weather clearing, I headed straight to the mountains, contrary to an orange detour sign pointing to a more roundabout route. I figured I could turn around if the warnings were, in fact, accurate. They were not. Only a small stretch was a single lane and, since travelers were sparse and the pavement clear, I made my way in record time, even after stopping at the Colorado Cherry Company for a decaf coffee. At the entrance, the uniformed ranger told me to be careful on the icy roads. I nodded and headed into the park, the landscape largely deserted save for a group of male elk resting in an open meadow, their dark antlers pricking the white sky. With the mountains blanketed in snow and silence, the wind blowing drifts across the landscape, I experienced that delicious combination of deep peace and intent alertness as I navigated just a few slick patches. I continued up to the parking area at Bear Lake (9475′) to catch the views and discovered many snowshoers, reassuring me that, whether adventurer or idiot, at least I was not alone. Up high, the temperature was double that of Boulder that morning. I loved that the mountains, and their capricious weather, frequently confound expectations.
Driving back down, I noticed I was singing “The sun will come out tomorrow” (Annie) and the theme song from “Jesus Christ Superstar”. That I was singing at all felt surprising, as if I were witnessing an unfamiliar aspect of my being. The tunes themselves I had first heard at the home of a childhood friend, maybe four decades ago, whose family loved musicals. Was my younger self visiting me on our birthday? Perhaps. I laughed, and wondered if she’d visit more often if I left the radio off all the time.
Returning to Lyons I pulled in at Julie’s Thai Kitchen, a tiny family-run restaurant tucked into an antiquated strip mall, that reopened after the flood. It serves some of the best Thai food I’ve eaten outside of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, with four levels of “hot”. I ordered the Pad Thai, opting for heat level three, exactly enough to keep my taste-buds tangoing without tanking. As I paid, the friendly server mentioned that the restaurant expanded its menu since they rebuilt. I made a note to return the next time I feel wanderlust coming on.
By then it was four o’clock and I wasn’t ready to end the day. I headed to Longmont, a city of roughly 90,000 with a bit of a scruffy reputation. I planned to stop at Cheese Importers, which boasts a walk-in refrigerated fromagerie, a French bistrot and a retail space that sells European goodies. I hadn’t visited since the summer. En route, I pulled over to take a birthday phone call. A herd of cows huddled across the road as light snow dusted their hides. Later, driving down Longmont’s Main Street, I spotted a shoe store I hadn’t seen before, despite having been to or through Longmont several times. Once inside, I discovered they carry all the brands that accommodate my hard-to-fit feet, and then some. What a gift!
A few more phone calls delayed my beeline for the cheese shop and I didn’t arrive until 7 p.m., an hour before closing. Since I could easily spend half a day in that building, appreciating hundreds of cheeses from far flung locales, imported soaps, tableware, chocolates, jams, books, marzipan and other treats, perhaps it was just as well that I only had 60 minutes. I began at their Bistrot des Artistes and, at the counter, placed an order for a decaf coffee and, since it was my birthday, a slice of tiramisu. The barista asked me if the three of us were together. Three?
“No,” came my reflexive reply. Then I turned and saw two men, a bit older than me, with impeccably groomed beards, rare in these parts, holding stacks of cheese and olives in their hands. I wondered if they were a couple, out on a date.
“I guess not tonight,” quipped the one standing immediately behind me. We all laughed.
“Maybe another time,” I said. The clock was ticking…I wanted my dessert and some leisurely browsing.
“Although we do have these great cheeses…” he nodded toward his stash, precariously piled in his arms. I leaned over to peek at his choices.
I chose a table and waited for the barista to deliver my order. Two women, seated side by side, ate dinner across the room. Midway through my tiramisu one of them struck up a conversation, believing we’d met before. Her overture reminded me that what makes Colorado special is the friendly, open and trusting culture; had we been at bistrot in Paris, it’s unlikely we would have made eye contact. She was an artist who recently opened a gallery a few blocks away. It sounded like another local jewel, much like the shoe store and this slice of Europe, a reason to return to Longmont and see it with new eyes.
As I left the restaurant for the chilly cheese room (the store offers jackets for browsing), I passed by the ladies and the gents and wished them a bon soir. Lively, Parisian accordion music filled the space and I started to do a little jig while looking over their selections, hoping there wasn’t a hidden camera, then realizing, so what if there was? I decided on a log of British goat butter and then whirled around the room again before exiting to explore their offerings. In lieu of chocolate covered marzipan, I settled on a French translation of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.
As I approached the register, the artist from the bistrot was chatting with the cashier about her gallery and a class on The Artist’s Way. I had taken it several years ago in Boston; it’s a 12 week program, based on a book of the same name, that helps remove blocks to creativity. One component is the artist “date”, a weekly solo excursion to allow inspiration to arrive on its own time, unimpeded and unfiltered by the presence of others. I used to make regular dates with myself, but hadn’t in a while, which might explain my recent restlessness. During the check out, I mentioned to the cashier that I enjoyed the store’s music so much I had danced in the cheese room.
“That’s great!” she beamed. “I love knowing that.”
When I left Longmont, which is just 20 minutes from where I live, the weather was cold but clear. I made one more stop, at a newly opened grocery store whose brightly lit interior beckoned. By the time I returned to Boulder it was nearly 9 p.m., with snow falling as thickly as it had in the morning. The roads, covered with a white hard pack, looked the same. That conditions were nearly identical, save for the darkness, made it seem as though time had stopped, even though I had been away for more than 12 hours. As I put the goat butter in the fridge, I caught a glimpse of myself in the kitchen mirror. My face looked relaxed, younger…by a year, at least! That’s what happens when I adventure, or go on a marathon artist date. I connect with my self, no selfie required. There’s no better way to celebrate than that.