Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cause and effect

Date: September 29
Mileage: 31.1
September mileage: 361.7

Thursday: Ride in rain.

Friday: Ride in rain.

Saturday: Sore throat, fever, headache.

Forecast for Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sunshine.

Friday, September 29, 2006

"It's not artistic"

Date: September 28
Mileage: 36.4
September mileage: 330.6

The camera's just wet.

Does that mean I can't love this photo just the same?

According to the West Juneau weather station, today's rainfall so far is 1.34". Not that bad, really. We did a moderate ride in the afternoon that Geoff was not a big fan of. (The backstory behind that is that it took us nearly three hours to get out the door after a long morning, and we were running on little more than a 9 a.m. bowl of cereal until 4 p.m.) Anyway, during the last five miles he complained of lightheadedness and blurring vision, and then dropped me anyway. As for me, I pretty much forgot it was raining after a while. 25 mph headwinds and a 1,200-foot climb will do that. But to be honest, I enjoyed the ride. It wasn't bad. I really should just, as I said earlier this week, suck it up and ride more often.

As for rain gear - it's pointless. Who in their right mind would suit up in a bunch of breathable Gortex and then go jump in a lake, expecting to stay dry? You wouldn't. And you don't go biking in Juneau in the fall with any such delusions. This is why I'm such a huge fan of neoprene. I used it a lot last year to stay warm in the -30 degree windchills of January's deep freeze (hands, face and feet.) But it's also the ideal gear for 35 to 50 degrees and raining. If it had better range of motion, I'd go biking in a wetsuit. As it is, several layers of synthetics work pretty well. The most valuable riding-in-rain lesson I've learned: it's all about warm, not dry.

Another valuable riding-in-rain lesson: wet brakes have all the stopping power of a determined thumb. All I can say is that, at 35 mph, I'm pretty lucky I discovered this at a long straightaway while Geoff was several hundred feet in front of me.

This rain riding thing is still hard for me to volunteer for, but I'll get used to it. Otherwise, I won't be able to keep up much of a bike blog.
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bike building

It looks like I may be buying a snow bike! And not just any snow bike - a snow bike in pieces. Pieces that I have to track down, then order, then assemble. It's a terrifying endeavor for someone as technologically challenged as I am. Therefore, I find the prospect very exciting.

The other day Carlos, the proprietor of the Soggy Bottom 100, contacted me about a frame and wheel set being sold by a friend of his in Anchorage. The friend is currently working on the North Slope for two weeks, but if all goes well, I could soon be the owner of a Raleigh M50 DX hardtail frame, a snowcat wheel set with fatty tires and Shimano XT disk hubs, and a Surly fork that "is probably as good looking as (my) couch."

Nice! Frankenbike!

A frame and wheel set does not a bicycle make, but it's definitely a start - and it gives me a chance to customize all the components, right down to burly little parts that will hopefully be up to the continuous freeze and thaw of my southeastern Alaska home. And if the thing actually moves forward when I'm done with it - all the better.

The best part about this potential bike is that it will also work well in the thick, muddy stew that passes for trails around here. It's not a Pugsley - so I won't be carving fresh powder anytime soon - but it should hold up better on snowmobile trails than my Sugar. And - in theory - be a little less like a hot knife in butter on the Susitna 100.

I haven't definitely decided whether or not I'm going to ride the Susitna 100 in February. There's always the issue of expenses, which also now include a fair chunk of change just for travel, along with gear, vacation time, blah blah blah.

Beyond the blahs, there's a larger picture, a worldview that somehow shifted the day I stepped off that windblown trail and staggered toward my new life in Alaska. Racing the Susitna 100 is a rewarding memory, now that seven months have passed and time has mercifully glossed over long stretches of suffering and some initial feelings of failure. What I have left over are ghostly images the seem out of place in any world, especially my world. Sometimes, when I'm stressed and feel a need to go to my "happy place," I find myself reflecting back to the final quarter of the race, after a freak rainstorm turned the trail to soft mush and I had resigned myself to trudging the last 25 miles on foot. I should remember a miserable place - dripping icy water from every layer of clothing, plodding through the wet snow into slow, endless darkness - but I don't. All I remember are the ghost trees, still-life shadows on the snow, the way the air was so quiet even my footsteps seemed far away ... and the finality of it all forced me to slip so deep inside myself that now, just seven months later, I can't remember nine hours passing. I only remember one drawn-out moment of peace.

When that moment comes back to me, I begin to think I would be crazy not to ride the Susitna 100 again. To revisit old experiences. To create new ones. To wield a new snowbike and a season's worth of skills to possibly even competitive level. When I think about it that way - it feels like skipping Christmas (which, unfortunantly, I skipped last year and probably will have to again this year.) All the better reason to sign up.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Just suck it up and ride

The last cruise ship of the season came to town today, and just like that, the whole of downtown's tourist district is shuttering up and moving out. And I wondered, am I ready for the ghost town? And I ready for winter in Juneau?

Gone too are the salmon, the swarms of splashing fish that piled up beneath the dock outside my office window. At least the fishermen still come, snagging the last spawned-out chums (and bless their tenacity). But they, too, will soon be gone.

And gone are my excuses for not riding my bike in the rain, though I've lined them up like soldiers to knock down every morning I wake up to a drench of gray. Yesterday, a record 2.7 inches fell in a typhoon of horizontal drops. It doesn't sound that impressive until I compare it to Salt Lake City's numbers - where 2.7 inches just happens to be the precipitation average for the months of July, August and September combined.

I wore those numbers like a badge as I suited up this morning to go riding, only to change my mind at the last minute and get in my car to drive to the gym. I let the drizzle hitting my windshield justify my decision, until I crossed the bridge and looked groggily out toward the season's last cruise ship. Behind it, where V-shaped mountains plunge into the channel, streams of sunlight tore through breaks in the clouds, peppering the gray water with splotches of turquoise. It was surreal and beautiful and fleeting in every way, especially when I pulled into the gym parking lot and slipped into the mundane world of fluorescent lights and daytime TV.

"You have chosen poorly."

I'm not saying it's not going to happen again ... and again and again. I enjoy going to the gym and I'm a sucker for instant access to a warm shower. But I will try to remember that the worst day on a bicycle is still better than ... well ... just about anything else.
Monday, September 25, 2006

Soda fiend

I have a soda problem.

I know it. I admit it. And still, I'm bugged by the people who call me on it.

I was swilling my latest bucket'o'Diet Pepsi when someone (who I prefer to remain anonymous) waddled up to me and said, "Could you find a faster way to get diabetes?"

I had just seen him chow down about a pound of sweet and sour chicken with white rice, but I couldn't work up a snappy yet marginally polite comeback in time so I just mumbled, "um ... it's diet soda."

"So?" he asked.

"So it doesn't have any sugar."

He looked at me incredulously, so I added, "So it's a good way to get cancer, but not really diabetes."

Then he laughed and patted his stomach and said, "Yeah, I have to cut down myself."

I'm not sure we actually communicated at all during the exchange, but he did leave me feeling dull pangs of shame. I couldn't even enjoy the rest of my soda bucket, with those crisp flashes of ultra-sweetness followed by throat-tingling carbonation in every gulp. No, I actually dumped it out. But two hours later, I was back to craving soda all over again.

Sometimes I try to analyze why I've become such a soda fiend. I used to drink regular Pepsi and Dr. Pepper like they were the elixor of life until I realized they were probably the main reason I was carrying 20 extra pounds. So I switched to diet, and now I'm like an ex-smoker addicted to nicotine patches. In fact, I prefer diet now. I don't think it's the caffeine - I get giddy about Fresca (I mean, who wouldn't?) And I've proven to myself that it's not the sugar. So what is it? Why do I get happiness triggers firing in my synapses every time I think about stopping at a convenience store?

And what, really, do I have to gain by quitting it all? Until I figure that out, I'll probably just keep hoping they one-up that wimpy 64-ounce Super Mega Gulp.
Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bluegrass 101

Date: September 22
Mileage: 25.6
September mileage: 294.2

If there's one thing Alaska will never have a shortage of, it's live bluegrass music. You can't wheel a cart down the frozen food aisle without bumping into someone who plays in some kind of bluegrass band. I personally work with more than a handful of such musicians. Tonight we went to the Island Pub for thin-crust pizza and ended up spending a couple of hours watching the stylings of a decent Juneau bluegrass band, "Bluegrass 101." Most of the musicians were inexplicably dressed like mod hipsters, dancing around the stage as they shared a single microphone. But in the back, almost lost in shadows, was the female bass player. Decked out like an extra in "Annie, Get Your Gun," she stood with quiet dignity and plucked at the strings as the whirlwind swirled around her. It made me wish I never gave up the bass.

It happened in the seventh grade - a terrible time to take up any instrument, really, let alone such a social monstrosity. But that's how things happen with me. I showed up at Orchestra 101 on the first day of school and sat in quiet confusion as they doled out all the string instruments. After a while, my bespeckled string-bean of a teacher held up a bass. Nobody volunteered. He looked pleadingly at the class, in such a way that without even saying a word, he somehow convinced me that I would be adored and showered with As if I accepted the strange challenge. I remember the decision being motivated by a misguided attempt to be a teacher's pet. But I think there were early sparks of an inherent desire to be unique. Either way, my reluctant hand crept into the air.

I didn't quite realize the gravity of my mistake until the teacher assigned everyone an hour of practice per night. He said this as I stood next to my instrument, towering a full two feet above my 5-foot, 90-pound frame. But it didn't sink in until he handed me the body-bag-sized carrying case.

In middle school, I lived literally behind my school building. It was a two-minute walk if I dawdled. But the prospect of hoisting that thing across the soccer field, past the fence and into my house filled me with the kind of terror that only 12-year-olds can appreciate. I've been trapped beneath an overturned raft in churning whitewater. I've ridden out a swirling storm at 13,000 feet in a turboprop plane. Those later experiences don't even come close to the kind of scary I was facing as I stood in the empty orchestra room and contemplated my walk home from school.

So there I was, the end of my first day in middle school, waiting and waiting and waiting in the dark room until I was certain that either the building had cleared out or the apocalypse had come. I crept into the empty hall, first dragging the bass behind me, then bear-hugging it as a waddled slowly foward. When I reached the door, I lifted it over my head with all the strength my tiny arms could muster and broke into a full-out, no-holds-barred sprint. I truly believed that by running fast enough, I would somehow become invisible. My lungs burned and biceps ached, but they were no match for the searing humiliation, the indignity of it all. I don't know that I've since run so hard, or experienced a 200-yard commute that took so long. But I made it home, wheezing, panting, sinking into the numb realization that this was what my life was going to be like every day from now on.

Well, the next day my mom put in a call to the school and came to an agreement that they would give me two basses, one to keep at home and one to play at school. That first-day bass run was the only one I ever did, but the damage was done. Any chance I ever had for musical passion had burned out in a flash of embarrassment. I was, from that day forward, the surly, scowling adolescent slumped over a string bass in the back row.

Do you ever wonder how your life would be different if one single day, one simple humiliation had somehow worked out differently? That's what I wonder sometimes about the upright bass. Maybe I wouldn't have become one of those people that obsessively rides a bicycle every day. Maybe I'd be in a band called Bluegrass 101.

It almost seems strange that I'll never know.
Friday, September 22, 2006


Date: September 21
Mileage: 56.0
September mileage: 268.6

Last long day.

And a window of daylight opens between rain and more rain ... not sun, not dry, but at least the pavement is visible.

We start riding where the city ends and head out the road to nowhere. With a dead end as a destination, there's really nothing to look forward to but simple miles of forest, peppered yellow and steeping in salt-encrusted salmon stink.

Beyond the streams the air smells sweeter than spring, as it often does when leaves start to die and sag on their branches. As most life does when it has better things to do than survive.

Nothing to lose.

We discover these new places ... a totem pole, a Catholic shrine, all sacred in their own ways, in their own place, hidden in the woods where their only chance for worship is knowledge.

Or serendipity.

The road is cut off without fanfare by a single sign with a single word ... END ... but there's a boat ramp and it's already obvious that everyone else out here has gone further. We're stopped by geography and the limitations of our equipment, and that's OK. Until I make the disheartening discovery that here, 28 miles from anywhere ... except encompassing swarms of gnats ... my rear tire has grown a tumor, an ominous deformity that has very few miles to live.

I grit my teeth because I know it's my fault. I never take good care of my things. I ride and ride and ride my bicycle, grinding the rubber into thousands of miles of road. I knew these tires were near the end of their life, but I never let it get to me until ... I'm stranded.

Only, I'm not. Not until it's really gone. Not until the final, fatal pop. I have faith. I have no choice. So we turn around. We turn our backs on the END sign to face uninterrupted miles of pale yellow and paler green.

They go smooth and they go fast. I doesn't take much time or thought before I'm home. Free. Saved.

Lesson learned? I reflect on it. Somewhere, above this curtain of clouds, the sun is beginning to sink beneath the sky. It's time again to move forward.

Into the first long night.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Here I keep my dreams

Date: September 18
Mileage: 28.7
September mileage: 212.6

If you ever have an hour or 37 to kill, I strongly recommend reading through the bicycle tour blog "Cycling Silk." It chronicles the adventures of several college students crossing western China's Silk Road and Tibet on bicycles ... one of them, Kate, is my friend's cousin or cousin's friend. I don't remember. The connection is distant and I've never met her, but I read what she writes and I feel like I know her:

"On a bike trip, you are exposed to the world around you in a way and to a degree that few other modes of transportation afford. That kind of raw vulnerability has its drawbacks - like choking on the fumes of transport trucks that roar past, or feeling every little bump in the road translate itself into a saddle sore. But in the end the perks take the prize: the freedom to explore a landscape at your own pace, under your own power, and the exhilaration that comes with traveling with all you need strapped to your wheels. This is nomadism at its best, with every day bringing some new adventure, be it grim or glorious, soul-stirring or soul-shaking. Whatever happens, on a bike you are rarely bored."

I won't spoil any of Kate's adventures, but it's definitely worth it to click on the archives and start from the beginning. It's my dream to one day visit this part of the world - cross the Gobi Desert and roll over the 17,000-foot passes that separate China from Tibet. So I'm guilty of armchair adventuring with only a stranger's blog and vague notions to guide me.

I dislike using the term "someday" as much as I dislike using "never" when I talk about my goals. I'm of the opinion that if you want to do something with your life, you should be working toward it right now. Even if it's financially or physically impossible, if you're not taking any type of action - stashing away savings, teaching your kids Chinese - then it's nothing more than a dream. It's no different than the confounding images that haunt my groggy morning snooze sessions ... they're not real, they're not satisfying, and, inevitably, they're bound to be forgotten before the Cocoa Puffs hit the bowl.

In a way, I keep hitting the snooze button on bicycle touring. I love it. I dream about it. It's a big part of who I've become. But I never do anything about it. Three years ago, I rode a bicycle from Salt Lake City to New York, and I don't think I've since found a simpler, purer way of living. Bicycle touring isn't practical as something to do forever, but I also don't like to use the term forever. I like to think about what I want or need to do right now. And right now, I'd like to work toward taking another bicycle tour.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Le (yet another) Tour

Date: September 16&17
Combined mileage: 43.6
September mileage: 183.9

I have an idea for a decent endurance biking event in Juneau. It came to me today as Geoff and I, while tooling around on a short ride, decided to cross downtown to look at a particular house for sale. The city is carved into a mountainside, not unlike San Francisco, in a way that each city block becomes progressively steeper. I flew across the first five blocks (about 5-7 percent grade) ... began to labor at the next two (10 percent) ... started wheezing at blocks 8 and 9 (15 percent) and wavered alarmingly up the last two blocks (judging by hikes that I've done in the past, I'd say these streets easily push 25 percent grades). About 30 feet from the summit stop sign, I glanced over at a cement barrier and became terrified at the thought of putting my foot down - for fear I would slip backward back down the street and over the edge. But I also wasn't sure I was going to make it - I was feeling light-headed enough that I feared for my consciousness. This happened on the tail end of a casual, 15-mile ride. Now, I'm not in the best shape I've been in all year. But I'm not exactly in the worst shape of my life, either.

So here's my idea for the endurance cycling event - it's a road ride, because the four-mile-long mountain bike trails around town aren't exactly distance-friendly. The cyclists start in downtown and ride out to the end of the road the turn around and return to town, covering the Mendenhall Loop on their way home (~80 miles). Then they cross the Channel bridge, ride to Douglas, out the end of the road, and back (~30 miles). Then they ride out to the southern end of the road, at Thane, and back (~14 miles). So, by covering every bike-legal mile of highway in the whole area, I have a 124-mile ride. I thought I could flesh it out to 150 by then weaving the course through every side street in downtown Juneau, so at the end of their century-plus, all the riders would have to climb and then descend, climb again and then descend again - every heartbreaking, breathtaking road in town. It's the Tour of Juneau. A 150-mile road ride isn't exactly a groundbreaking endurance event, but I thought all those short, steep late-ride climbs could really make it interesting.

Now, if only I could get the city to go along with me. I wouldn't even know how to begin to put together an mass-participant event, but it sure would be fun to try. I already have a T-shirt design idea. Because you can't drive to Juneau, it often carries the reputation in the Lower 48 that it has no roads. So I was thinking the slogan for my road bike Tour would play off that line at the end of the movie 'Back to the Future:' "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads."

Um, yeah. I should probably try to get some sleep now.
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Orca skyward

Date: September 14
Mileage: 32.3
September mileage: 140.3

Today Geoff and I rented an 18-foot skiff with an outboard engine and eight hours of cloudless daylight to motor aimlessly around in. We had this crazy idea that with no experience, no depth finder, no anchor and one halibut pole, we were somehow going to come home with dinner. We headed out to Shelter Island just as the last of the morning frost melted away in a blaze of sun. We pulled in to a place called "Halibut Cove" (which means there's got to be halibut there, right?) and began fumbling around with a bag of still-frozen-solid herring and tangled hooks when Geoff let out a loud gasp. I whirled around just as a massive whale erupted from the surface no more than 200 yards in front of our tiny boat. With a thunderous roar it twisted its sparkling black torso, flashing a white underside and falling headlong back into the water, tail sinking beneath a geyser of white spray. Geoff and I just sat there, still balancing dead herring and hooks in our hands and giving each other a "did that just happen?" kind of confused stare.

The camera came out after that, as did many dozens more orca and humpback whales. The rest of the day's theatrics were decidedly less dramatic - but, I gotta say, there's nothing like a good opening to really carry a performance. We watched a pod of five synchronized-swimming humpbacks breach and pull their tails back in the water in perfect unison. Three playful seals came up right next to the boat and splashed around for several minutes as they swam away. Every once in a while, a chorus of whale songs echoed across the channel. Eagles coasted overhead as we skimmed the smooth water and distant icefields - almost never visible from shore - sparkled in the sun. Oh ... and we didn't catch a single halibut.

Despite our failure to bring home fresh fish, this turned out to be an exceptionally good weekend, and I have the sunburn to show for it. Yesterday we did a "bike tour" of Juneau. We rode out to the valley, crossing the path of a marauding black bear before connecting with the Spalding Trail. We hiked up (well, more like stair-stepped up) a plank-lined drainage to a high meadow, where we could soak in the clear air and work on our much-neglected sunburns. We ate lunch at this locally lauded Thai place that actually was pretty good (which, for this city's restaurant reputation, is pretty much shocking). Then, with stomachs full of basil tofu and vegetables, we rode the 15 miles home in a casual - almost effortless - hour. There should be more weekends like yesterday and today ... but right now, lingering in the last breaths of summer, I'll gladly take just this one.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The kids aren't alright

Date: September 13
Mileage: 23.8
September mileage: 108

Right now I work as a wire editor, which basically means I have my pick of dozens of national and world news articles to run in our local paper. Recently, one of my coworkers accused me of running "too many fat-kid stories." I can't help if all the published scientists are so single-mindedly focused on obesity (well, that and global warming.) I think these reports are justified. They scare me, too.

The latest study is saying that one in five children younger than 18 will be obese by 2010. Not pudgy. Not slightly overweight. Obese. It makes me wonder where these kids find the time to put on all this weight. You can't tell me that 20 percent of the youth population is genetically predisposed.

I guess what I don't understand is exactly when it got so bad. I come from "Generation Y," albeit the very, very front edge of it. But we had video games and Carl's Jr. and 7,578.2 satellite channels. We ate Doritos and Dr. Pepper for lunch and zoned out in front of the computer for hours (back in the days when texting was still called "chatting.") Now that I've joined the line of cane-waving, "back-in-my-day" generations, I'm just trying to make sense of the great health epidemic of our time, and why it seems to be hitting the youngest generation (Generation Z? Generation iPod?) so hard.

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote an opinion column for my school newspaper decrying exercise as an egomaniacle waste of time. Teenagers don't need to "exercise," I reasoned, because a teenager's life is exercise. They participate in school sports. They thrash around for hours at rock shows. The financially strapped among them (of which I was one) have to walk everywhere (because, when I was 17, it was not cool to ride a bike.) "Kids only exercise," I wrote, "because they're vain and think a few situps are going to make them look like Gwen Stefani." Yup. I had it all figured out.

I would have been royally outraged if the government tried to take away my Dr. Pepper machine. I would have laughed at efforts to slim down school lunch (we wouldn't even eat the greasy junk they served.) But, most of all, I didn't want someone telling me to spend precious hours of youth lifting weights or running on a hamster wheel, when there was a world of real fun right in front of me. It made so much sense then. What happened?

The thought of what children must be doing that causes them to grow so large almost scares me more than the public health implications. Could they really be spending that much more time staring mindlessly at screens, downing an endless supply of processed food until they're too numb and stuffed to think? That's bleak. It's one thing to eat yourself into an early grave. It's another to waste away in a soulless existence.

I know that obesity is a complicated issue, and I believe it's not always a matter of lifestyle choices. Some children are genetically predisposed. Others struggle with larger issues such as poverty and parental indifference, issues that often accompany unhealthy lifestyles. But how can we help the rest? Those overwhelmed with such rapt indifference that they let the world go by through their television monitors and turn to food for the shallow sparks of joy food can provide? If only somehow we could make biking cool. That, I have faith, would solve everything.

What is this bright light? had the audacity to call for "abundant sunshine" on Wednesday. 61 degrees. That's call-in-sick weather. At the very least, I have no choice but to take my bicycle out in the morning.

I haven't ridden much this month, but I haven't fallen off the bandwagon yet. I have become a reluctant member of the cheapest gym in town, also known as "Juneau's #1 Gym." It's a musty old place above a deli and across the street from the high school, where I can exercise to the aroma of sweat and salami while teenagers rifle through my car.

It also is a scapegoat that allows me to groggily nurse a cup of tea all morning before putting in a frantic hour of running/lifting/magazine reading before work. My biceps are looking a little less, well, imaginary - but it's just not the same. After all of the progress I made this year, it is, alas, a place of defeat. So this is my September resolution - to rediscover the joys of bad weather bicycling, and to work toward becoming a - sigh - morning person.

Maybe it's this unfamiliar yellow orb in the weather forecast that fills me with such resolve. But, if the those predictions prove true, I'll have no excuse for not posting numbers tomorrow.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sept. 11

I didn't have much time to write a post. Interestingly, I've already told my Sept. 11 story. It's posted here if anyone cares to read about a bright-eyed young reporter trapped at a chemical weapons incineration plant.

Anniversaries, especially uniformly numbered anniversaries, always bring out an awareness of the time that passes. People usually spend anniversaries adhering to some tradition, focused on reflection, or lost in memory. I tend to fall in the third group. I can still feel the numb shock, taste metallic stillness in the sinking air, and see the televised images that I, and every other American, watched in horror as our bright, mundane mornings were violently jarred from their routine. It was a Tuesday. That fact felt important to me.

Every year since, I usually spend some time on Sept. 11 reading the words that people wrote around that date. As we march through this endless War on Terror, I'm always drawn to a quote that my friend sent me in an e-mail two days after the attacks. I read it because it speaks to me exactly what we're up against:

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Monday, September 11, 2006

I'm an Alaskan now

I spent the workday filling the newspaper with 9/11 fifth anniversary stories. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Sept. 11 has become a dubious date - but in 2005, it also happened to be the date I "moved" to Alaska. I thought about where I was this day last year, driving across the state line with a vaguely-promised job offer and little else on the horizon. One year went by. I rounded the jaw-dropping vista of Baycrest Hill, settled in Homer, moved to a cabin that received 250 inches of snow over the winter, embarked on my first below-zero bike ride, started entering endurance wilderness races, tried winter camping in April, pedaled by the light of the midnight sun, and gorged on the endless visual banquet until mountain-framed sunrises and wildlife sightings became routine. Then I packed up my life in Homer, relocated to Juneau, and started all over again. That's what happened in the one year it took for me to become an official, state-recognized "Alaskan."

Now I can get a fishing license. Qualify for the annual PFD check. Maybe run for city office if I ever move back to Homer (who wouldn't elect a "Homer Mayor Homer?") But, most of all, I've adapted my outlook and lifestyle to acclimate into this land of extremes ... I think to the point now where even the grizzled old fishermen wouldn't be able to tell me apart from the next pasty-faced Alaskan slogging down the street in a summer squall. And still, I've maintained an immigrant-like sense of Outsider pride. I'd still cook up a batch of Mormon funeral potatoes for the company potluck. And I don't own anything with the brand name "Carhart," "Xtratuf" or "Subaru."

It's strange that it's been a whole year - and yet, I can hardly imagine my life free of boreal wilderness and bald eagles perched atop streetlights. If year two brings even a fraction of the drastic changes I experienced since Sept. 11, 2005, I'm excited for the possibilities.
Saturday, September 09, 2006

It's not a habit ...

Date: September 7&8
Combined mileage: 30.2
September mileage: 84.2

I'm beginning to believe that my natural timidness feeds this self-fulfilling cycle of injury. I don't crash my mountain bike all that often (I mean, relatively ...) But when I do, I tend to go big ... head over the handlebars, hitting the ground with some non-limb upper-body part, legs twisted around the front fork. And not because I'm a crazy, out-of-control, ego-fed "go big or go home" kind of a person. No. I tiptoe over everything. I relish in doing obstacles over ... but only if I can do them right the first time. If I fail, I'll run away as far and as fast a I can.

Today, Geoff and I went to check out some trails maintained by the snowmobile club, so we thought they'd probably be in good shape. And the trails were pretty good ... a little boggy, but they did build bridges over most of the major streams. On particular stream had a really strange bridge going over it - it shot up for about three feet at about a 60-degree angle, leveled off completely for about half a bike length, and then dropped back to the trail at the same angle. They even glued some black traction stripping over it just to ensure that it looks like it belongs in a skate park.

I stopped and walked over it because I was afraid. Geoff teased me for it, which was well deserved - it was, in fact, the smoothest portion of that entire trail. But it just didn't look natural or feel right. Still, I decided that I was being a little naive, and decided to ride over it on the way back.

Heading back, Geoff stopped and waited for me 50 feet down from the bridge. I interpreted it as him waiting to see whether or not I was going to pansy out. I stopped about 200 feet short to try to curb my swirling anxiety. But I had already made up my mind. I coasted down the trail, dodging a few roots and shimmying the handlebars dramatically enough that I was swerving all over the place by the time I hit the bridge. Front wheel on ... front wheel angles too far ... back wheel skirts the other side ... front wheel drops of the edge ... and the rider submits to a calm feeling of inevitability as her body launches forward, landing chest first in the muddy bank with a still-attached bicycle dangling from her crumpled legs.

Geoff came rushing over to me like I should be hurt or upset, but the whole situation felt perfectly natural to me. I knew I was going to end up in the mud with a bike twisted around my limbs. I saw myself crashing over that bridge before I ever rode it. I figured it was the most likely outcome. So did I actually make it happen? On some subconscious level, did I deliberately endo myself over a stream? Is your brain even allowed to do that? Is it something therapy can fix? I wonder ...
Thursday, September 07, 2006

The view from up here

Look fast. It goes quick.

Peak-bagging in Juneau could be a good analogy for life. You toil up the steep an muddy trail, mind fixed on the prize, focused on the trail ... only to look up at some random point and realize that the surrounding world is completely shrouded in fog, you have no idea where you are, and all this time, you've been laboring toward something you'll never have. Good lesson. Disappointing hike.

Not really, though. We hit the Mount Roberts trail late in the day with no real intention of making it to the top. But after we passed treeline, there was always the hope of finding that ever-elusive view. Unfortunately, right about the time we left the forest canopy, we met the cloud canopy. The initial contact point was an interesting sensation - walking into swirling wisps of visibility-obstructing gray vapor, then emerging into a colorful, wide-open sightline. Eventually, though, we were high enough in the cloud that the only things we could see - those things immediately in front of us - looked dreary and cold. We turned around.

Mount Roberts is interesting, because about two miles up the trail you reach the top of a huge tram that carts tourists up from the cruise ships. We stopped in on our way back down the trail, dripping cloud condensation and scraping our mud-coated shoes across the carpet. We were at that point a couple hours into our "wilderness" hike, suddenly browsing books and Tlingit trinkets in the climate-controlled confines of a huge gift shop. I was able to stop in at a full-service restroom, rehydrate at a drinking fountain, and continue on down the rugged trail. Someday, I plan to go back up and try the salmon burger. Hey, if you can't hike for the view ...

Today is my "Labor Day." (Ug. I can't believe I just said that. It used to drive me crazy when friends who had unconventional days off would call random days like Tuesday "My Friday." Now, I'm one of them.) Anyway, I have Thursday and Friday off, so I'm feeling guilty for not doing something more productive or adventurous with my three-day weekend. But maybe tomorrow I'll find a dresser. I wonder how that would look on top of my car.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Settling in, gearing down

Date: September 4&5
Combined mileage: 49.0
September mileage: 54.0

I spent the past two mornings riding the island roads with Geoff. Geoff and I hardly ever rode together during the summer because he was always training for mountain running, and I always insisted on four-hour rides whenever I could squeeze them in. But now we're both in a fitness lull, eager to explore our new home and unconcerned with upping our VO2 Max. For all of that time spent apart, though, we're having a hard time synchronizing our road riding. He can still outclimb me without even breaking a sweat. But today, I somehow dropped him cold on the flats, putting nearly a mile between us before I started to get worried and turned around.

As soon as I can get over my aversion to riding in downpours, I think I’ll begin to appreciate just how great the daily road riding opportunities from my doorstep really are. The route to Eagle Crest Ski Resort climbs 1,200 feet in 5.2 miles on a smooth, scenic canyon road that sees almost zero vehicle traffic this time of year. The North Douglas Highway snakes along the ocean shoreline for 13 miles, occasionally breaking away from the rainforest for sweeping views of jagged, glacier-capped peaks and a treeline draped in puffs of clouds. I can cross the bridge to downtown and ride my fill of lung-searing, 20-percent grades, then roll along the Thane Highway and cross numerous salmon-choked streams. Or, if I’m feeling destination-inclined, I can take the valley bike path 11 miles to the base of a giant glacier. For as limited as my options are, I think it’s going to take me a long time to get tired of riding these rides.
Monday, September 04, 2006

Rubber boots not included

Date: September 3
Mileage: ~5
September mileage: 5

This morning, Geoff and I did a nice hike-a-bike on a boggy trail near Eaglecrest Ski Resort. It was the beginning of what will probably be the slow elimination of many nearby trails - beautiful, unrideable trails. And still, I have this determination to hoist my mud-soaked mountain bike through ever mile of soggy peat until I know for sure. Today's ride, the Treadwell Ditch Trail, had several hundred yards of tentative but exhilarating balance-riding on narrow wooden planks, interspersed by much longer stretches of slimy roots, slick stairways and sludge.

For a failure of a mountain bike ride, though, it was oddly satisfying. This is the first time I've ventured into the thick of the rainforest, dripping brilliant shades of green from every dead tree trunk, sinewy vine and bolder. When I look at this kind of landscape, I can imagine what people must see the first time they step into the redrock desert that I grew up in - it's like stumbling upon an alien world. People in southern Utah call it "Mars." With its giant mosquitoes and burgeoning bear berries, Tongass National Forest looks to me like a prehistoric remnant of Earth. I can almost imagine mammoths milling about, though it dosen't take a very wide stretch of the imagination to see the backside of a big black bear. For a split second today, I could have sworn I saw a furry butt ... but I can't be sure. By the time I cranked my head for a second look, all I could see was a mass of bushes. Probably spending too much time daydreaming.
Saturday, September 02, 2006

Beautiful day, ugly couch

What is that strange color breaking through the clouds, or those streaks of light shimmering on the water? Could that be blue sky? Sunlight? How easily it is to forget.

My newspaper reported that 29 out of 31 days in August had measurable precipitation. One of those two days without rain was my birthday. The other, I'm guessing, came before I moved here. The climate is going to take some adjusting to, so my bicycling miles are way down. This kind of weather demands fat storage anyway. I have been logging more mileage on an indoor elliptical trainer. I was rifling through the magazine rack today when I realized I had already read nearly every Newsweek with the year 2006 on it, and found myself debating whether to read "US Weekly" or a two-year-old issue of "Self." And, suddenly, I realized that I need to cowboy up and return to a less soul-sucking physical outlet.

Today would have been a perfect day for some much-needed bicycling. However, Geoff and I decided to forgo our morning for a different kind of soul-sucking activity - the hunt for furniture, which people of our tax bracket call "garage saling." One of my favorite fringe benefits of owning a beater vehicle is all the ways I can prove that, contrary to popular opinion, trucks are not requisite to living in Alaska. So far I've hauled all of my stuff, a new bed, new table, and now the world's ugliest couch, on top of my little, two-wheel-drive sedan.

We bought this thing today because it was small for our small apartment, included a twin hide-a-bed, and came with an dark green slip cover - meaning it doesn't have to look like a 80-year-old woman's acid flashback gone awry. Driving down the road with the thing strapped to my roof generated more drive-by smiles than I've seen all month. Hauling the lead-weighted monstrosity down two flights of narrow stairs cost my back at least two years of use, but it was all worth it to set it down on my blue carpet, throw a multi-colored afghan blanket on top, and stare in horrified wonder at the visual train wreck happening in my own living room. I hope when I get home, the slip cover has been applied. Because no amount much garage saler's remorse is going to lift that ugly couch back out of my apartment.