We are standing at the feet of giants.
This landscape is truly surreal and hard to process. As we walked into Boulder, the long line of the range slowly morphed and shifted, as different peaks and slopes and features grew out of the distance. Further into the city, the mountains closed in on us, surrounding us one three sides. We stayed with an old college friend, Matt, who lives in an awesome house at the base of the Flatirons.
There is nothing like spending time with old friends, and people our own age. We hung out with Matt and his roommates, and marveled at how much we have all grown as people over the last few years. Things just keep flowing right along, and sometimes it can be hard to keep up.
After sleeping a night up on the slope, overlooking Boulder, we drove up to Fort Collins for the weekend to stay with Kevin. Over a year ago, I met a veteran named Kevin on reddit.com while he was doing a Q&A about his experiences in Iraq and the impact that the war had on him. I asked him whether he had come across any Pet Therapy programs during his time with the VA, and although the answer was “no” we struck up a discussion about the significance of dogs in coping with PTSD. I told him about the walk and we kept in touch, all the way until we arrived at his front door.
Kevin and his roommate and close friend, Chad, were remarkable hosts. Kevin knows how to eat to maintain a high activity level, and he wasn’t shy about feeding us bowls of bacon and endless snacks. For a couple of precious days, we had a chance to just sit on a couch and be normal people. The dogs all mingled while we worked on press outreach, site maintenance (we finally updated the About the Walk and Meet the Team pages) and the ever-troublesome issue of fundraising.
Sitting in Kevin’s backyard in the shade, he told me about his experiences coming home from Iraq. Although he now knows that he was suffering from PTSD as early as 2004, he went undiagnosed for several years while his life spiraled out of control. He described PTSD as a numbness, but also a sort of mental pattern where he would get wound up, tighter and tighter in thought, and lash out uncontrollably. Interacting with people – even his own family – became more and more of a challenge as he felt alienated and “wrapped around the axle.”
Kevin hit a breaking point when he lost three friends (who had served with him in Iraq) to suicide. Not long after those deaths, his long-time friend Alan Lewis died tragically while trying to save his dog in the backcountry. Overwhelmed, Kevin drove north and reconnected with his old friend, Chad, who hadn’t known the new and troubled Kevin. “I used to be laid back, and then I wasn’t.”
With Chad’s support, Kevin started working toward his recovery. In 2010, Kevin decided to adopt a dog (“I felt like I needed a dog”) so he went to Petfinder.com and found Kenny. When he adopted him, Kenny was terrified of people. His fear was paralyzing, but with Kevin’s patience and understanding he began to work through it. Kevin said that he could relate to Kenny’s reactions to certain situations, because he reacted much the same way. Today, I would have never guessed that Kenny had any trouble with people. He is a very sweet and goofy dog, and whatever Kevin has been doing is working because he made friends with all of us.
Out of Kevin’s tragedies and hardships, he has found a drive to put his energy and passion into philanthropy. In honor of his late friend, Alan, he created the David Alan Lewis Foundation which is working to establish a scholarship fund in Alan’s name. Inspired by Alan’s desire to make the world a better place, Kevin created AlanFest, a music festival whose proceeds will support the scholarship fund. In their first year they managed to break even, and have been networking and building and growing for their second year.
Kevin and Chad are also involved in a program through the VA called the Caregiver Program. The Caregiver Program provides support and resources to people who provide care for disabled veterans – often friends and family. Chad and Kevin have been friends since high school, and Chad has a background in wilderness therapy and counseling which lends itself well to managing the stress of PTSD. He is a constant touchstone, a source of moral support for someone in need. Thanks to VA resources, Chad is able to be a support system for Kevin and be compensated for the the time he chooses to spend looking out for his friend.
All too soon, we had to leave again. Getting to meet Kevin in person was inspiring. Our mutual drive to leave a positive mark on the world and look out for our fellow person brought us together, and it will keep us communicating and collaborating. I know we will be crossing paths with these wonderful people (and their dogs) again someday.
Just before we left Fort Collins, we got in touch with Bryan Simpson from New Belgium Brewing. Despite coming off a 9-day stretch of 14-hour days and traveling, Bryan invited us to the brewery to hear about our story and give us a tour.
Fat Tire has long held a special place in my heart, and touring their brewery was like visiting the Chocolate Factory of beer. Bryan told us all about this worker-owned, wind-powered craft brew company while we walked thorough the brewery, sipping samples and gawking at the pipes and shiny cylinders. New Belgium takes very good care of its employees, and the whole team has a very progressive mentality about their business. They work to minimize their waste and carbon footprint at every turn, including collecting and treating their own wastewater and capturing methane produced by the brewing process. Behind the bar in their tasting room, in big friendly letters, the cooler doors say “Get Philanthropic.”
At the end of it all, we couldn’t thank Bryan enough for taking the time to lead us around and share the New Belgium passion with us. He sent us on our way with a case of beer and big dreams.
Onward, back down through Boulder, past a failed mail drop (got it sorted out later) and back to the walking. 20 miles from Boulder to Golden – just outside the West edge of Denver. And a driving detour into Denver – tiny little downtown surrounded by monumental sprawl, piled up against the Front Range and spilling back and back East, filling the spaces between the places. My sense of direction is shot in this city – unless I can glimpse the mountains to the West.
We had a wonderful visit at the Denver Children’s Home. Outside on the playground, we got to talk to the kids about Pet Therapy, our walk, and the importance of community service. Several of the kids asked a lot of questions, and we got to talk to a lot of them later as we made our rounds through their dorms. As always, we loved this visit. Something about hanging out with kids and watching the dogs light them up just leaves us smiling. Before we left, one of the classes presented us with a Bacon Quiche made in our honor. We devoured it in front of the Executive Director while we talked about the benefits of regular pet therapy visits.
Unfortunately, our scheduled visit at the Denver VA hospital fell through. We did our best to make it happen, but poor scheduling and neverending phone tag got the best of us. We spent the entire day running errands in city traffic, crawling and weaving in car-like fashion back and forth across this beastly sprawl. Our host tonight, Joe, helped us with some much-needed maintenance and repairs of Bob Todd, our trusty pushcart. Did I mention the handlebar snapped? It did. Yesterday. But Joe fixed it! Thank you Joe! We were up too late last night, talking and carrying on with Joe and his roommate, Jan. And now I’m up too late doing this. In five hours we re-pack the car and return to Golden, to resume our trek into the Rockies. It’s been a good week on the Front Range, but now it’s time to climb to the sky.