Wednesday, August 30, 2006


In my last post, I admitted my faith that winter will come to Juneau - or, at the very least, the mountains above Juneau, and wow ... I haven't received that much of a comment lashing since I called Alaskans entitled.

I know it rains a lot here. I know that what snow does fall is wet snow. But - as long as it snows one in a while and the temperatures occasionally drop below freezing - wet, shallow snow can be the base of ideal snow biking conditions. But, I concur. I wasn't always so blindly optimistic. The first time I rolled through Alaska, as a tourist in the summer of 2003, Geoff, two friends and I spent four days shivering in the rain shadow of a run-down campground near Thane. After that mini-trip, we had very little - but nothing good - to say about Juneau in our trip blog:

"Juneau's a depressing town really, that has hardly anything going for it other than government jobs and cruise ship business, but we're making our best here and things certainly could be worse."
— Geoff, July 31, 2003

"We spent the entire ferry ride parked on plastic lawn chairs in the solarium of the boat, watching the sun set beneath an endless stretch of steep costal mountains. In the red-streaked darkness there was nothing besides the billowing shadows of spruce and slate-smooth water — and then suddenly, lights. Lots of lights, sprawled out along the black shoreline. This is Alaska's capitol. The center of the state's government commerce, and it sits alone, stranded on the southeastern panhandle between mountain walls and the sea."
— Jill, July 28, 2003

Those blog archives can really come back to haunt you ... enough to make me question my current state of sanity. However, while I was digging through the past, I also ran into an entry a week later, where I broke down my top 10 favorite and least favorite things about my trip to Alaska. Number 7 on the least favorite list: "Homer, Alaska" ... right before "Camping at the Juneau Ferry Terminal" (No. 6) and behind "Working for Dave in Haines" (No.8 - and a story I really must tell someday.)

So I wasn't so crazy about Homer as a tourist, either. And yet I moved there anyway. And, after a short time, it was hard to imagine a more scenic, more invigorating place to live.

So it didn't seem beyond reason to give Juneau a try. And who knows? You know what they say about hindsight ... it has this amazing way of glossing over the bad stuff to make room for new experiences.
Monday, August 28, 2006

Almost Septembrrrr

Date: August 28
Mileage: 19.5
August mileage: 352.9
Temperature upon departure: 55

This whole relocation thing sure is time-consuming. I feel like I've lost an entire month, and not in a good way. Among the things I didn't do in August 2006:

*Eat at a real restaurant (i.e. one that doesn't start in "Sub" and end in "Way.")
*See a movie (unless snipets of late-night B-movies on cable TV count)
*Play with my cat
*Cook a meal (It's true. When you consider the first point, I'm sure it's not hard to imagine how substandard my diet has been this month.)
*See live music
*Throw a barbecue
*Go for a hike that didn't end with me in a puddle
*Go for an over-50-mile bike ride that didn't end with me in a puddle

Also, for a summer month, 350 total cycling miles are a little bit sad, especially when I consider that my mountain bike sat dormant all month long. I spent about an hour this morning lubing the moving parts and trying to figure out how much of the "surface rust" is actually irreversible corrosion. I had to jerk the crank hard just to get the pedals unstuck.

But I'm finally getting settled enough to have other things besides moving on my mind. And now that I'm facing a slew of months that end in "brrrr," I'm starting to get excited about winter cycling again. I think this is going to be the winter that I build up a real snow bike, with snowcat rims, large frame, single speed, disc brakes - the works. If anyone out there in bloggerland has an old mountain bike frame with enough room for some really wide tires that you'd be willing to sell, please drop me a line. I still plan to re-fit my studded tires on the Gary Fisher for a good ol' ice bike (for commuting), but my hope is to build something truly trail-worthy to take on the slopes - and, if fortune shines on me, the 2007 Susitna 100.

I'm really looking forward to winter - which probably seems crazy in a place where "winter" technically ended only three months ago. Here in Juneau, I probably realistically have at least two more the wait before winter starts again. But that will give me time to get ready - build my winter bike, sharpen my snowboard edges, buy some new cross-country ski boots ... maybe new skis. Oh yeah.
Saturday, August 26, 2006

Home at last

Date: August 25
Mileage: 32.1
August mileage: 333.4
Temperature upon departure: 55

Tomorrow marks week 3 since I "moved" to Juneau, and I have finally moved to Juneau. I just signed a lease on a little apartment in West Juneau - decidedly less cool than my place in Homer, but private, well applianced, cat-friendly, and it includes my own yard and garden. And, well, it's a roof. Which is much better than I can get for $300 a month at the Mendenhall Lake Campground. And it's on a island. I've never lived on an island before. Now I can fantasize about the bridge getting washed out and having to call in stranded. If we get much more rain, that fantasy may not be far from reality.

I feel like my three weeks of homelessness helped instill a grizzled sort of sourdough strength that probably would have taken me much longer to develop if I hadn't been ripped so clean of my comfort zone. Those first 10 days in a tent were a baptism by immersion, quite literally, to life in southeast Alaska. I lived out in the weather and learned to move with the rain. I learned how the drizzle stung my eyes but the downpour cleaned my skin. I learned the hard way how to construct a decent tarp shelter, how to dry clothing when there were no dry spaces, how to clean up for an office job using public facilities. Even when I moved into a hotel, I still maintained a sparse, minimalist existence - all but the bare necessities locked away in storage or far away in Homer. I lived with the few things I needed, ate what was immediately available and rode my bike for the shear wonder of exploration (because, to be honest, when I just wanted to work out, I took the easy, rain-free option and went to the gym.)

And despite the disproportionately bad luck and numbing displacement that have come to define August for me, I feel like I hit the ground running. After all, it's not supposed to be easy to move to strange city isolated from its own state, which is in turn isolated from its own country. We outsiders have to be flexible to survive out here, or we'll go crazy trying.
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Missing Homer

Date: August 23
Mileage: 21.1
August mileage: 301.3
Temperature upon departure: 54

Another day, another ride, another road silt shower.

The air is saturated with rain so light it doesn’t fall, and mist so thick it doesn’t settle. Low-lying clouds roll down the mountainside like ragged curtains, ripped into powder-puff patches by the tree tops. Riding out Douglas Island on a day like today is like looking through a windshield with the defrost turned off - squinting at a ghost world masked in featureless gray. But in that otherworldly way, it’s beautiful.

Water spalshing up from the road hits my face, so I look forward until the mist stings my eyes. I close them for several seconds, open to check for road hazards and close my eyes again. The darkness feels oddly liberating, like diving underwater to suddenly find yourself breathless but weightless. I open my eyes for little gulps of light, but I savor the thrill of riding stretches of this remote road blind.

So it hits me as a little surprise when I round a bend and realize that I’ve emerged from the cloud cover. A slate of gray water stretches beyond the channel. And in the distance, actual distance, I see snow-covered peaks. I feel like I’m looking at the Kenai mountains across Kachemak Bay, the same sight that greeted me every morning for nearly a year. There’s a moment of blind confusion, and then the creeping realization that I am a long, long way from my comfort zone.

That was the first time that homesickness really hit me since I left Homer three weeks ago. That little bend along a waterlogged road was so eerily familiar that it reminded me how unknown everything is, how far I’ve really wandered, and how I'm really not going back. There's a time to embrace new adventure, and there's a time to mourn the world left behind. They're both rewarding in their own way.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Few roads

Date: August 21
Mileage: 33.4
August mileage: 280.2
Temperature upon departure: 57

This morning before work, I rode out near the end of the Douglas Highway. I had to turn around about 11 miles in due to time constraints, and later learned I was only about a mile from the end.

This means that, having lived here only two weeks, and having ridden a total of only about 250 miles, I have now pedaled nearly every stretch of nonresidential road in the area. All I have left is the 8 miles of the main road that I missed when I crashed out Friday, and the one mile at the end of Douglas. As I looked out at the cross-channel view of town today, I began to form a realization of just how boxed in I really am here in Juneau. But at the same time, I feel grateful that what I'm "boxed in" by is thousands of miles of untrammelled wilderness. So, if I can box in some time, and if I can unpack some boxes at a (still crossing my fingers) new apartment, I hope to hit the trails real soon.
Sunday, August 20, 2006


Date: August 20
Mileage: 15.7
August mileage: 246.8
Temperature upon departure: 59

Today's my birthday
A year of growing older
A day in the sun
Saturday, August 19, 2006

Kissing pavement

Date: August 18
Mileage: 56.2
August mileage: 231.1
Temperature upon departure: 57

I'm sure seasoned cyclists begin to treat the experience as almost mundane, but for me, there's still nothing like launching off a bicycle at 20 mph to really puncture a perfectly good ride.

Even the sudden monsoon-like downpour that hit me yesterday at mile 28 of the-only-road-out-of-Juneau really wasn't that bad. It had been raining on and off all morning, and I thought, if anything, the thick drops would at least help wash the layer of glacial silt off my clothing. Deep puddles began forming on the rough and remote road. I plowed through them without even thinking about it, until my front wheel dropped into an pothole roughly the size of the Grand Canyon, completely covered by water. I felt the sickening crunch of the rim meeting the pavement through the now-flat tire. After that, all I can remember is the sequence of body parts splashing down - first my left hip, taking the brunt of the fall, followed by my elbow, and then, finally, with a loud "thud," my head ... groaning in a shower of gritty puddle water.

Every time I'm in the midst of a crash, I'm always surrounded by a feeling of unconditional calm. My thoughts turn to an involuntary play-by-play analysis of my situation ... "Road burn there ... That wasn't hard enough to break anything ... I hope this doesn't rip my coat ... Shoot, that sounded like my helmet being destroyed." Then, like an animal darting a moving car - almost mid-skid - I jump up and rush off the road, throw my bicycle in the grass, and spend several shock-filled seconds standing quietly in the right-of-way, building up the courage to inspect the damage. I usually inspect the bike first - not because I'm all that crazed of a gear head, but because it usually feels right to let the adrenaline settle down before I start tearing off clothing layers. My hip was throbbing with pain and I could see a large purple lump forming around the bone, but it moved OK and nothing seemed broken. My elbow was only skinned and my coat was intact. All-in-all, a fairly minor crash, but every step I took hit my hip bruise with streaks of pain, and I did have that nagging problem of being 28 miles from home. After about 15 minutes of standing very still and watching rain pelt that sadistic puddle, I decided that I could at least attempt the 16 miles to the nearest bus station. So I gingerly changed my flat, readjusted my seatpost and set out down the road.

I noticed I couldn't put much pressure on my left side without hitting those pain streaks, so I had to do all the pushing with my right leg. I have definitely had less pleasant rides - but not many - and the ride home was really only salvaged from a "worst ever" designation by an unexpected break in the clouds that brought the first rays of direct sun I have felt in weeks. Still, I passed the bus station feeling much less pain - repetitive motion tends to do that - and I did make it back to the hotel under my own power. But then, as I was mounting my bike on my car roof rack, I noticed papers strewn all over the passenger seat. Turns out some punk broke into my car, rifled through my glove box, and stole all the spare change out of my ash tray - including a handful of wafer-thin nickles that I once placed on train tracks in rural Ontario, which I always held on to for good luck. I tell you, this is not my month.
Thursday, August 17, 2006

I'm joining a gym

I'm out in the Valley today checking out housing. I'm at a library right now to dig up old landlords' contact info, hoping for a glowing reference so I don't get rejected again. I stopped at a bike shop because both my road tires are flat, slashed in several places, so I had to go buy some more patches and new tubes. I think I might have run over a mound of shattered glass, and my tires have about 5,000 miles on them - they just aren't what they used to be. I had ambitions today to ride out to the end of the road, but it hasn't stopped raining, quite literally, for four days straight, and today it's raining hard. I got soaked just vacuuming out my car. I thought it was just a dark cloud over my head, but it turns out it's like this in most of the state. Somehow, that makes me feel better. But I just can't face that soggy chill, water cascading off my helmet, down my nose and over my mouth until I can't tell whether I'm drooling or drowning. Not today. So I'm going to take advantage of free gym trials to spend a warm, dull "weekend" afternoon running circles on a hamster wheel. I feel really good about this decision. Sorry I don't have a picture today. I'm hoping to find the motivation to hike up Mount Roberts tomorrow, and I should get some great shots of gray, all-encompassing fog. Stay tuned.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

(small) Stroke of luck

Date: August 14 and 15
Mileage: 13.7 and 4.7
August mileage: 174.9
Temperature upon departure: 55

Today I did a short ride but a decidedly long run. I've had a recent deluge of little annoyances that I attribute to bad luck. The latest involved popping a tube on the Douglas highway this morning, only to learn that my portable bike pump has seized up (probably due to rust or an inordinate amount of road grit.) So rather than hitchhike or shamefully limp my bike down the highway, I stashed it in the woods and jogged five miles back to town. It only took me 45 minutes! It was a short five miles, but still, I felt really good after the run. Probably even better than I would have if I completed the ride.

One flat tire does not a bad luck streak make, but there have been other incidences. The other night, I went to a Laundromat and stuck a load in, which failed to drain completely during the rinse cycle. I stuck to whole dripping mass in a dryer for an hour and did some grocery shopping, but my laundry was still nearly as wet when I returned. So I ran the dryer for another hour, left again, and when I came back, some of my clothes had - for lack of a better word - melted. Others were still damp. I'm pretty sure I've seen that Laundromat on a rerun of "The Twilight Zone." Then, as I was leaving, I stuck a pair of shoes on top of my car and accidentally left them there. Those are gone. And let's not even talk about the black cat back in Homer.

But I think my bad luck streak is breaking, at least in part. A benevolent co-worker hooked me up with a longterm motel room today, where I can stay until his mother arrives at the end of August. It's suck an anomaly - Mini fridge! 30' television! Roof! I showed up at work today raving about it like I had just spent the night at the Four Seasons, and my co-worker cut me off to remind me that it's a budget motel. Doesn't matter. My rolled-up tent is still fermenting in rainwater in my trunk. It's all about context.
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Liquid sun

Date: August 13
Mileage: 14.2
August mileage: 156.5
Temperature upon departure: 53

One way in which I am woefully unprepared for this move to southeast Alaska - besides, I mean, not having a home - is my complete lack of rain gear. During the winter I acquired good cold weather gear, but a parka and layers of polar fleece do little to keep out the chill when they're dripping from every square inch. The best things I own are neoprene gloves and booties, so - yeah - my hands and feet are semi-warm. I still have to head somewhere indoors after about 40 minutes because I am

Riding when it's -5 out is one thing, but cutting through the thick, soggy wind of 50 degrees and raining is a whole different kind of chill. While below-zero burns skin and bites ragged lungs, this Juneau August chill seeps into my core, saturating every cell with a deep and heavy cold until it has drowned all hope of ever being warm again. The instant fix for this is a hot shower, but the longterm reality is that I need some better gear. I have yet to check out the retail options in town, but I imagine such gear is not hard to find here.

I have yet to really do a long, hard ride here, but not for lack of time. It's funny, because I have so much to do, but can't really start any of it until I can set up a permanent household. So I spend too much time sleeping, reading, agonizing over the classifieds, and lingering in hot showers. I feel like more biking would lift my spirits and help jump-start my "settling" process, but it's so hard to find the motivation when I have a trunk full of wet bike clothes and an jittery energy reserve fueled by little more than anxiety, a small measure of desperation, and Goldfish. I've been subsisting on comfort food - which, in my case, consists mostly of processed carbohydrates that a 3-year-old would find appealing, make-your-own salad bars and sushi. Since I'm not currently spending any money on rent, why not?
Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hurray for good news

Date: August 12
Mileage: 15.7
August mileage: 142.3
Temperature upon departure: 51

I dreamt last night that I was back in Utah, pedalling a long-ago sold mountain bike - my old red Trek 6500 - up an impossibly steep slope of slickrock toward the sun. The glare was so complete that all I could see in front of me was a bright blaze of white, and I could almost feel the sweat pouring down my scalp as waves of August heat shimmered off the sandstone. That's about the time I was jarred awake by nearby shouting, only to realize that my pillow had sopped up a large puddle that seeped into the tent beneath my poorly-built tarp shelter. I ran my fingers through my wet hair and looked at my watch - 5:30 a.m. A couple from a few sites down was having a screaming match at 5:30 a.m. Classy. Sometimes I feel irritated about the sketch-mongers around me, but then I remember that I live in a campground and can't exactly be counted above the fringe.

The house hunt is still coming along, and I've received a lot of helpful tips and leads that hopefully will put me in a place before my birthday, which is next week, and which - if I have to spent it with hobos in a campground - will officially go on the record as the most depressing birthday ever. So it was really nice to hear from Geoff today after he raced the Alyeska Hill Climb. He placed second in the up-and-down race, and he told me this secures his first place spot in the Alaska Mountain Runners Grand Prix. Which - at least by those standards - makes him the best overall mountain runner in Alaska for 2006. First place. In 2003, when we made jokes about the crazies who run up nearly vertical scree fields, I would have never guessed it. This is a picture of Geoff after he placed second in the Matanuska Peak Challenge last Saturday, which had one female racer who has children debating which was harder - Matanuska Peak, or childbirth.

That news lifted my spirts, which hit what I hope is rock bottom yesterday. I went on a hike to think about something besides housing for a while and ended up slipping on a wet rock and sliding down a waterfall on my butt, splashing down about 10 feet below into a waist-deep pond. Not that I wasn't already soaked from dripping brush and drizzling rain, but I was pissed about it on principle, angry at myself, and generally angry at the whole of Juneau. But, honestly, I feel much better today. My little private pity session in that puddle helped me realize that I can't just expect good things to come to me. I have to make them happen.

And just as I thought that, good things started to come my way. I actually received a lot of helpful hints and I am feeling much more optimistic. One of my coworkers may even put me up in a temporary place if I can't find a permanent one before the end of the month, so that's good news. So, yeah. I'm really not as pathetic as I sound on my blog. Now, time to go home to my wet pillow.
Friday, August 11, 2006

Half century and still homeless

Date: August 10
Mileage: 55.4
August mileage: 126.6 (inc. 15 miles Aug. 6)

I don't know if anyone out there in blogosphere is a landlord in Juneau, but my name is Jill and I have a cat. She's a very nice cat, very personable, and definitely a lot cleaner than any human child I have ever met - and a alot of adults for that matter. Please take pity on me. I'm cold and wet and have only a thin piece of nylon to call my home. Thank you.

For a city in Alaska, Juneau rentals have a surprisingly universal ban on pets. And they don't need to bend their discriminatory rules at all because places are snatched up the minute they hit the classifieds. I love my cat, but she and I may just have to weatherproof a cardboard box for the quickly approaching winter. Yesterday, so many landlords and real estate agents shut me down on the phone that I finally stopped asking them about their pet policy up front, hoping that by meeting me first and seeing how nice and somewhat normal I was, they would overlook my little furball waiting for me in Homer. I pedalled through the steady drizzle more than 50 miles yesterday to check a handful of places all over the city and valley, and still no dice. The places that will welcome pets with open arms are a little out of my price range. The others looked at me like I was asking to start a fire-twirling cult in their building. Sigh. I just finished unloading all of my worldly possessions into a heated storage unit, and I can't help envy their position - for $40 a month, my stuff has a better home than I do. But it's 1 p.m. now - time to set out for the afternoon and try again.
Thursday, August 10, 2006

The first days

I don't have much free time or computer access right now, but it seems prudent to let my friends and family know that Geo and I made in to Juneau. We left Palmer and drove, drove, drove through the night. Around 3 a.m., I stopped at a lookout near the pass at Haines Junction and passed out on a bench for three hours before driving the last 100 miles to Haines to catch my ferry. That Alaska highway is really not built for a loaded-down Geo driving in the ungodly hours of the morning. I made it over the endless potholes and gravel patches OK, but I came precariously close to running out of gas when I drove 150 miles without seeing an open gas station — and, more importantly, I ran out of any access to cold caffinated beverages. Still, I gotta hand it to Geo. He's been through a lot, and he's been a good car.

Right now I'm homeless and logging in long training days at my new job. I'm staying at a National Forest campground on a lake near the Mendenall Glacier. It's fun to wake up every morning to a view of large chunks of ice floating in the deep blue water, but living in Juneau in a tent during the rainy season is not as romantic as it sounds. I have to take showers to dry out.

I've found the time to do exactly one bike ride, and haven't even really spent any time looking for a home yet, so my plan tomorrow is to spend an entire day riding my bike to all of the available places within a 12-mile radius. Only a 70 percent chance of rain tomorrow. Not bad.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Over 700 miles

23.9 gallons of gas: $82
108 ounces of Diet Pepsi: $6.43
Two-pound bag of generic Fruit Loops: $2.99
Meeting a lone wolf in the quiet Yukon dusk: Priceless
Saturday, August 05, 2006

In transit

Date: August 2 and 4
Mileage: 14.1 and 33.8
August mileage: 66.2

One way to make a move involving 1,000 road miles, two international border crossings and a scheduled ferry ride even more exciting is to prolong the bulk of it as long as possible and then scrunch the rest into one super Saturday. Another way to make the move exciting is to do it in this rig ---->

And I sure am excited, because after three days of schlepping around a 10-year-old Geo Prism with a metric ton of all of my worldly possessions, I am currently in Palmer, Alaska, about 250 miles north of Homer by generous estimates. But, hey, my slowness hasn't been in vain. I spent a tourist day in Seward on the wildlife cruise and glacier tour, visited friends in Palmer, wrestled a mad zoo movie crowd to see "Over the Hedge" and finally got a chance to ride the rollercoaster bike path along the Parks Highway. And how could I leave southcentral Alaska without at least once standing next to a Halibut that's taller than I am?

Now that it's Saturday, I may even be able to catch a glimpse of the pain Geoff is willingly putting himself through tomorrow before I embark on my own marathon. I feel really nervous for him and the Matanuska Peak Challenge, and it helps overshadow my own realities ... the fact that I'm "between jobs." And homeless. And more than 700 miles from the place that is responsible for my next paycheck. And putting a lot of faith in a loaded-down sedan with 142,000 miles on it.

It's exciting.

And Mom, I'll call you from the road tomorrow. Don't worry. I'll be fine.

For a great diversion, a Soggy Bottom spectator climbed all the way to Devil's Pass to get some great pictures of the leaders and the course. They're posted here. I think they show in stunning detail why people do this race. They don't, however, explain the Matanuska Peak Challenge. Nine thousand feet in 13 miles? (Make that six and a half miles, with six and a half more of knee-busting descent.) No amount of scenery is going to save that race. Wish Geoff luck.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Last ride

Date: August 1
Mileage: 18.3
August mileage: 18.3
Temperature upon departure: 51

Last bicycle ride in Homer.
With a wind chill in August and rain-spattered streets
Pavement I've pedaled down many dozens of times. Maybe 100 times.
Suddenly drenched in a nostalgia I cannot shake, a beauty I never noticed.

I struggle because I want to remember all of it -
The way the trees pinstripe the sunlight,
The tear-soaked plummet to the Bay.

I find it hard to breathe because I'm descending
Something I'll never again climb.

Wavering against the cow parsnip,
I strain to memorize the musty sweet smell in the explosive umbrellas
Unable to forget how each one looks at 10-below
Encapsulated in ice
As if locked inside eternity.

I find comfort in the idea that nothing stays the same.

I may never return.
But I'll never leave, entirely.

When you hear from me again, I'll no longer be a Homer in Homer.
I'll be a Jill in Juneau.