Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Small dose of desert

Every since I re-read "Desert Solitaire" during a sleepless night between wearying days of that ill-fated trip to Eleazar's cabin in the White Mountains last month, I have been hungry for some time in the desert. For me, Alaska's frozen tundra and Utah's red desert have always been two sides of the same coin — desolate extremes that enrich my soul. Growing up in Utah, I cut my adventure teeth on viscous rivers and sandstone, and assume I'll eventually return to Alaska to die (hopefully the dying part happens well into my senescence, and the return much sooner.) I crave the frozen north because it's there that I feel most alive. I crave the desert because it's there that I still feel young. 

View from the backyard, looking toward the Colorado River and rain clouds over Grand Junction
 An opportunity arose when friends from Boulder rented a house in Grand Junction for the weekend. It will probably annoy locals when I say this, but every time I visit the far Western Slope of Colorado, all I see is Utah — from fluted mesa backdrops to manicured lawns in the desert to tidy street grids (but really, Fruita, what is up with the fractions? J 6/10 Road? What even is that?)

Wendy at an overlook — not really an overlook, more like a regular switchback on a ledgy trail
 I knew this trip was coming and had been saving up my legs for it, as I was pretty sure these folks were going to make me run. It was my fault for talking them out of bringing bikes at the last minute, because the logistics of toting the bikes became too daunting. I know, sacrilege. To prepare for the trip, two days prior I embarked on a five-mile run that was the most running (not hiking) that I'd done since February. I felt good. I was ready!

 Temperatures were mercifully mild for the 15-miler Steve had planned, traveling out to Rattlesnake Arches and back. The trail was just rugged enough that my body balked at running within the first few miles — every step felt jarring and awkward, and without my trekking poles I felt like a black bear trying to lumber forward on two legs. Running on rocks ... so strange! I was certain a face-plant was coming, and tentatively lurched into every step. I actually I did have a pretty good splat around mile 10, but I caught it well enough that I only ripped up my already deeply scarred right elbow. No one was around to see it, so all was well.

Arches — two for the price of one!
Mile four involved a mild class-three scramble in and out of a canyon that sparked navigation confusion and backtracking, then Marianne had a scary-looking ten-foot tumble that she managed to walk away from uninjured, then Jorge started experiencing vertigo and turned around. Given my own perceived balance issues, I was feeling pretty spooked about moving through this hard and often vertical place. Still, the arches were well worth the effort.

The iconic Rattlesnake Arch
Clustered within less than a mile of each other are six or more arches, looming over a narrow bench that spans incredible vistas.  Just a spectacular place, close to town and yet reasonably uncrowded on a Saturday in spring.

 The arch promenade can be looped by climbing through Cedar Arch and descending back to a junction. Spoiler alert: I chickened out without even considering this sandstone scramble, and instead backtracked the two miles. Sometimes I am more open to scrambling challenges, but on this day I was too much of a spooked and awkward bear stumbling along on my two legs, and knew I'd likely panic and freeze up. All of my friends did it, and said another party let them use a rope, and it was perfectly mellow and lots of fun. I did two 12-minute-miles and went splat.

Sheep blocking the trail
 On Sunday morning everyone had to rush back to Boulder for travel, work, and other obligations. I was planning to head to Salt Lake City to visit my family, but wanted to spend one more night in the desert. Before leaving town, I headed to a popular trailhead to hike Monument and Wedding Canyons. For this outing, there was no pretense of running. My quads were again sore, and my weird sense of balance had not recovered. But the walk was quite enjoyable.

One of the monuments in Monument Canyon
Although I intended to just hike the five-mile loop, I felt inspired at the junction and continued deeper into Monument Canyon, eventually climbing out Rim Road some six miles from the trailhead. Well, 12 miles is good, too.

View from my lunch spot. If you squint you can see the trail wending down the slope in the center. 
I did indulge in an extended lunch break with my sweaty shoes and socks flung aside, and the still-papery soles of my feet drying in the cool sand. My body is strongly not cut out for desert living. I was slathered head-to-heel in SPF 50, with dark red burns on my skin where I had previously missed spots. Hat and sunglasses couldn't quite temper the glare of the sun. Long sleeves protected arms that are more or less permanently sun-damaged. My throat felt parched even though I was gulping down two to three liters of water on these five- and four-hour outings. I was sneezing and wheezing from spring allergies despite Claritin and Singular. Still, I was happy, nonetheless.

I headed back as the heat of the afternoon really started to bear down. Sweat was poring down my legs and aggravating an old but not-yet-healed rash around my ankles. I was quite disappointed to check the temperature gauge in my car and see that it was just 72 degrees, not the 114 that I was expecting.
 For the night, I drove west on I-70 for a hundred miles or so and set up my little tent on a sandy patch of BLM land in the San Rafael Swell, close to a wrinkle I hoped to explore the following morning — Devil's Canyon. It was a gorgeous and warm night of scratching my irritated and sunburned skin, blowing my nose, wondering if my sore throat was the result of a virus or just parched desert dryness, and getting up five times to pee because I over-drank water in large amounts. "No, you are not built for the desert," I thought as I listened to a hard wind drive sand against my tent. "But you love it all the same."
By morning, the wind had a sharp chill to it. I started down the rugged mine road in my puffy jacket, but thought better of that and stashed it in the car, opting to just shiver until I dropped far enough into the canyon to partially block the gale. For a time the walking was easy enough, and I drifted through happy memories of desert camping trips in the Swell, and of being 20 years old. Then I hit the wash and ankle-deep sand. Suddenly my quads were burning with angry muscle memory from hundreds of miles of soft snow in Alaska.

 My research of this route amounted to a Google Map search to locate the trailhead. Drainages veered off in at least four directions, and I had no idea which one was Devil's Canyon, or which way I was supposed to go. I was searching for a narrow slot that was supposed to cut into one of these canyons, but I realized at this point that my chances of finding it were low. I chose to head straight, along a sandy wash where I could occasionally see faint footprints. I hit a dead-end after an arduous mile and a half.

 Desert hopscotch — not the clumsy person's favorite game. Incredibly, I did not go splat. But I did start to run low on drinking water, having greedily slurped up too much again, and having promised myself that this "recovery" hike would be two hours tops. I'd already run up that amount of time, but chose to try one more drainage heading east.

 I did find a tiny slot — not the correct one — and water, although I had nothing to filter it and was not nearly thirsty enough to drink from a stagnant pothole. Despite being low on water, curiosity got the better of me, and I continued hopscotching, sand-wading, and sandstone-ledge-scrambing up a side canyon, hoping I might intersect with the road I walked in on. Again, I knew chances of finding an exit were low, but there's something so compelling about exploring a tiny wrinkle in the Earth. People on I-70 would look across this expanse and see only the flat juniper desert stretching all the way to San Rafael Knob. But the entire plateau rippled with these hidden canyons, a veritable maze that I could crawl through for hours, days, weeks even, and never find the place I'm looking for.

My explorations led to the sharp end of the drainage, where I crawled out onto a rim and followed a cattle trail back toward the main canyon. I assumed cattle like to access water, and that the trail would lead back to my starting point. Instead, it dropped into another small wash, which ended in a cliff that plummeted 200 feet into the narrow crevice I'd been at the bottom of, an hour earlier. No option but to backtrack. I was effectively out of water, and quite grumpy. But I'd made my choices. I wasn't going to die from 90 minutes of thirst. The wind still roared and the sun was hot now, drying my skin and throat to an even greater degree. My quads joined the chorus of complaints as I hopped rocks and waded through sand. To soothe a growing urge to panic, I sang to myself the Tom Rosenthal song that I mumbled many times during the Iditarod, where it always made me feel better.

"I took a road that wasn't a road, but it was something I chose, and that's fine."

The desert, like frozen tundra, never yields. The desert makes you earn it, whatever it is. The desert punishes mistakes severely, but it also rewards in kind. By the time I made it back to my campsite, my skin was pockmarked from the sand blast, and my throat was searingly dry. But I had a gallon of water stored under a blanket, where it remained blissfully cool. The taste of that water was pure ecstasy. 
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Wanna breathe that fire again

I felt like I was being excessively nice to my legs — taking rest days, avoiding running, and backing off efforts when I felt even a hint of lactic acid in my quads. Just two weeks had passed since the White Mountains 100, and already I felt restless, wistful for something more challenging, ready to breathe some fire. Taxes done and deadlines met, a window swung wide open on Wednesday. I excitedly planned a longer ride, just for fun, but with a gnawing desire to push myself at least a little. Then the wind came.

I was sipping coffee at the dining room table when a gust ripped across the yard and slammed into the house with a loud knocking sound — as though something broke, but I'm not sure what. I was afraid to venture outside to check. A glance at measurements from our weather station revealed the wind speed: 50 mph. It wasn't even 9 a.m., and the wind was supposed to worsen throughout the day. Well.

For the rest of the morning I glanced outside as trees bent sideways, and quivered along with them. I've ridden my bike through 50-plus-mile-per-hour gusts before, and I've been blown into a ditch. I've been hit with unidentified flying debris. I've also been pushed to the opposite side of the road without warning, which could have ended terribly if there had been any oncoming traffic. I'm frightened of strong wind — not because it creates difficulty, but because it's unpredictable with dangers that can't be lessened with any amount of gear or preparation, unlike heavy rain or 30 below zero. But on Wednesday, I had this gleam in my eye about the prospect. Sure, I didn't have to go outside and battle hurricane-force gusts for six hours. There was absolutely no good reason to subject myself to that. And yet.

Now that more than a month has passed since I left the Iditarod Trail, much of my current stream-of-consciousness thought involves fond recollections about how happy I was out there. Isn't it weird how that works? During the race I struggled, so much, and managed to hold onto this pain long enough to convince myself not to sign up for next year. Then, as soon as the deadline passed, I felt regret. While continuing to process this strange wistfulness, I often think back to the day I broke my trekking pole in the Farewell Burn and dropped into the cold snow, curled into a fetal position and bawled about it ... for several minutes at least. I was just so fatigued and frustrated with the seeming futility of my efforts. The prospect of things becoming even slightly more difficult broke an emotional floodgate, and I was temporarily but utterly broken. Now that a month has passed, I think about that incident and smile — because it sure was a beautiful day, with the frosty dwarf spruce and glistening fresh snow blanketing the wind-blown swamps. All I want to do is go back. What is wrong with me?

It will be easier to accept my limitations when I come down again. Right now I'm riding a bit of a high, feeling the strongest and most upbeat I've felt since December. Sure, I've got the sore legs, and the necessary Alaska recovery. But my emotional health has evened out and my breathing has been solid. Oxygen doesn't always come easily to me, and seems like a terrible thing to waste.

That's how I found myself buffeted by amazingly strong headwinds as I dipped in and out of ruts on County Road 68J yesterday afternoon. A steady stream of dirt and small rocks pummeled my bare legs. Gusts stopped my wheels cold while I teetered precariously on embedded boulders. I'd crash through the invisible wall by mashing pedals as hard as I could, lungs searing as air rushed past my face faster than I could capture it. It was comical, really — like a mechanical rodeo on an unruly bicycle with a mind of its own. The sheer effort of mashing pedals flushed the soreness right out of my legs, and everything about the ridiculousness felt amazing. I was the unstoppable force against the immovable object.  I was breathing that fire.

If I'd ridden an hour and turned around, it would have been perfect. But I continued battling the lung-searing headwind all the way to Nederland, then endured what was mostly a crosswind along the busy Peak to Peak Highway. The gusts required hard leaning to the left, which I had to swiftly correct in relative lulls, otherwise I'd shoot out of the shoulder and into traffic. Finally I reached the Switzerland Trail and a long descent with the wind at my back. This proved to be a detriment to me while steering around the many sharp rocks littering the doubletrack. Eventually I just let the wind push me over the rocks, and ended up with a sharp kink in my lower back, because right now I'm not exactly well-conditioned for rough riding. The pain endured as I fought my way around the curve past Sugarloaf into the fiercest wind yet. Gusts were being sucked into the narrow funnel of Fourmile Canyon, and I was barely able to mash pedals for most of a rocky, four-mile descent. I was certain some the wind gusts were pushing 80 mph, but of course can't verify this. Later that evening, I searched Wunderground for nearby weather stations, and did find measured gusts of 70 mph.

The final climb of the day was fairly protected from the wind, even when I pedaled in a westerly direction. I was finally able to relax as I bounced over sharp rocks for 1,500 feet of elevation gain. After nearly five hours of a ceaseless battle that demanded the depth of my strength, I felt drained — but in a pleasant way. Fatigue cleared my mind, making room for appreciative observations of the canyon's beauty to temporarily replace happy but preoccupying Alaska memories and unrealized ambitions. Glimpses of the Continental Divide revealed sharply contrasted black-and-white mountains framed by billowing clouds of blowing snow. Equally visible clouds of brown dust swept along the forested slopes to the south, but somehow left me alone, for a few minutes at least. Overhead the sky was a brilliant shade of blue, unexpectedly clear. Beauty is always easy to find, when I remember to look around.

And there's beauty in the ridiculous, like riding a bike in 70-mph winds for no real reason. The happy memories of breathing fire and watching dramatic storm clouds outlast the fatigue, brightly eclipsing all of those pretty days of spring when I prudently rested my legs and did my taxes. 
Wednesday, April 04, 2018

What now?

 The first few days following the White Mountains 100 were rough. Exhausted as I was after the 34-hour effort, my legs would not let me sleep. It was a pattern of writhing for a while, finally dozing, and jerking awake less than 20 minutes later with either cramps or a dull burning sensation in my quads. For two nights, I just gave up trying to sleep, crawled upstairs, and did my insomniac thing where I stare at Twitter or the New York Times and don't retain anything. People seemed to not believe me when I said I wasn't sleeping, but as far as I was concerned, an invisible force was slapping my legs all night long — how well would anyone sleep through that? I was so desperate for rest that wouldn't come. If someone had offered me hard drugs, I probably would have accepted. As it was, I coerced my physician friend Corrine to disclose the largest cocktail of Aleve and Tylenol that I could safely ingest.

One of those evenings included the post-race pizza party, of which I remember little. I do remember agreeing to be the designated driver so that others could enjoy the keg. But shortly after taking the wheel, I hallucinated a cloaked grim reaper darting in front of the car and slammed on the brakes. Luckily Wendy was willing to finish driving home, so I pulled over immediately. Thinking back, I was definitely the least sober person in the vehicle.

The pain finally began to loosen its grip, but my legs were still too sore to stay comfortable during our drive back to Anchorage and flight to Denver on Thursday and Friday. I was perplexed about what exactly was wrong with them (I mean, I know I walked about 100 miles too far last week, but I have never experienced this depth of soreness before.) Beat helped shed some light by disclosing just how long he dealt with muscle pain following his Iditarod walk in 2015, when he and a few others battled thigh-deep snow drifts for 200 miles across the Interior. He likened the effort to climbing a Stairmaster for 12 hours a day, without relief. I remember that year well. For months afterward, Beat's legs felt sore every time he exercised. The soreness wasn't terrible and only lasted a few hours each time, but it did persist.

His descriptive use of "Stairmaster" rang true for my effort this year. Trail conditions weren't nearly as bad as those Beat faced in 2015, but I'm also not nearly as strong as Beat. Dragging my 45-pound sled through either wind-drifted snow or fresh snow was a full-strength workout for me, and I was doing it in large blocks — 12 hours, 14 hours, 20 hours without rest. No wonder I tore apart my legs.

 I have been cautious about venturing back into activity. I've noticed my legs actually hurt more after I've taken two or three days off. Easy motions seem to soothe them ... but not hiking. I tried one three-mile hike on Sunday, and that reignited deeper pain. I've accepted that it may be a while before I can return to running. But biking — at least, the two rides I've done — feels wonderful.

Go figure. It's been six weeks since I've been on a bike, and I'm back to riding at 7,000 to 8,000 feet after residing at low altitudes for more than a month. But I'm breathing more easily, climbing more smoothly, and feeling stronger than I distinctly remember feeling before we left for Alaska in February. My legs are actually less sore tonight than they were last night, after two rest days. It's as though in the process of burning out my hiking/running fitness, I managed to significantly improve my cycling fitness.

"Well of course you feel great, it's April," I reasoned today as I cleared a tough climb without even breathing hard. See, I have this theory about a four-month hormonal cycle attached to fluctuations of my hyperthyroid condition. Whether or not there's any biological merit to this theory (likely there is none), it doesn't really matter anymore — the placebo effect is firmly in place. I'm now convinced I'm nearing the high that follows two months of low. This further reinforces an idea that December, April, and August are "awesome." February, June, and October are "awful." All of the other months are somewhere in between on a roller-coaster bell curve ... and there's pretty much nothing I can do about that. I can burn myself out in March and still feel awesome in April. Or train hard all winter long and still arrive at my late-February race in horrible shape. The cycle dictates my fitness.

I realize I need to let go of these convictions in order to kill the placebo effect. But as long as it's April, I think I'll hold on a bit longer.

Of course, I realize that a lot of this April awesome is simply stoke about being back on my bike after such a long time away, and about being home again. For as inexplicably sad as I was during the weeks following the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I've felt pleasantly content since finishing the White Mountains 100. In many ways, I left all of my feels out on the trails in Alaska. Both mind and body are ready for some boring routine. But the wanderlust continues to whisper, all the same.

On the adventure/race front, I have almost nothing planned. I did sign up for a local 50K trail race in June, but that hardly counts. I willfully dodged the urge to plan a big summer race or trip, reasoning that I could really use a block of time to focus on the state of my health, rather than goals. I've also decided not to sign up for the Iditarod next year. This year was a bit of a test to see whether I have what it takes to walk the Southern Route to Nome, which was my tentative ambition for 2019. My conclusion was a resounding no. I don't have what it takes. The largest road block right now is my mind. I am tired — tired of all of the striving I've done for this trail since 2014. I am emphatically not ready to start all over again, effectively launching right now, to train and prepare for a physical endeavor that frankly feels impossible after what I experienced in the ITI350 last month. Of course, as I've stated before, the fact that something feels impossible to me has never been a reason not to try. But right now, I am not ready. Right now, I need physical and mental rest. And if 2019 just happens to be my last best chance, well, too bad.

It is strange for me, though, to have nothing on the horizon. Of course I hope to divert some time to writing and other projects, but these feel so small next to the sweeping emotions of a big adventure. Perhaps my resolve to keep it simple will crack. For now, though, I am content to pedal my mountain bike up a steep gravel road while elk graze in a meadow, and cold wind sweeps in from the west, carrying a strong aroma of wet dirt and crushed pine needles ... spring.