Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Day five: Rohn to Farewell Burn

I continued to toss and turn in the tent as Rob milled around and other racers started to trickle in. This was the worst feeling of the race. Worse than the cold, the muscle soreness, the loneliness. The uncertainty was consuming my health from the inside out. I began to feel tired, restless, achy and sick. Finally, at 2 a.m., I knew something was going to have to happen. Something would have to happen. I couldn't lay in that tent indefinitely. I didn't have the strength. The nothingness was becoming too much to bear. And in the pre-morning haze, moving on started to seem like the more comfortable option. At least if I started moving forward, that would be something.

I packed up my bike and started down the Kuskokwim River, windblown of nearly all of its snow. The trail followed rocky, driftwood-strewn gravel bars and long patches of glare ice. It was treacherous riding, and there I was, half-addled and without a helmet, riding it. But the simple act of turning those pedals brought back a wave of confidence that I hadn't felt since I left Puntilla Lake nearly two days before. The wind blew hard at my side. The temperature hovered well below 0. I did not care. I could do this thing, I told myself. It actually was possible. I had the footprints and tire tracks of those who came before to prove it.

The trail began to climb out of the river valley and onto the surrounding bluffs through a very narrow corridor hidden in the trees. Snowmachines had left rolling moguls so tall and deep that hardly a half mile went by before I lost control of my bike and launched off the handlebars into a series of bank-side snow angels. The handling seemed nearly impossible and I wondered if it was all the extra weight on my front fork, or simply my own fatigue that caused me to steer like a clueless yuppie piloting a rental bike on the Slickrock Trail. If I slowed down, I would too easily lose my flow and swerve sideways off the trail. I started to walk longer stretches. I was so frustrated. This was the first rideable trail I had seen since Puntilla.

After about seven miles, I met a cyclist walking backward on the trail. The Italian, Antonio Frezza, had left Rohn nearly three hours before I had, and now seemed to be headed back that way. "Why are you going back?" I asked him. He shook his head. He did not know what I meant. "Is the trail bad?" I asked, louder, as though volume would suddenly help him understand English. He shook his head again. "Impossible," he said. "Impossible." He walked with me around the corner until I saw exactly what he meant. The trail dead-ended at a canyon-wide waterfall, trickling open water atop a wash of glare ice that sloped at a pitch of at least 8 degrees. "That can't be the trail. No way," I said in disbelief, to no one, really, because Antonio did not understand me. "Impossible," Antonio said again. I shined my headlamp around until I caught the gleam of a reflective marker at the top of the waterfall. This most certainly was the trail.

I had brought a pair of ice cleats with me, but had discovered one mile into the race that they wouldn't stay on my boots to save my life. Now, they were my only option. I strapped them on and began to stomp up the ice. When one cleat would slip off, Antonio would yell, "Hello!" I would have to set my bike down, sit down on the ice, and slide on my butt until I could grab it. Often, I kept going. About halfway up the waterfall, the bike's tires washed out and I lost my balance trying to catch it. A wrenching pain shot through my right hip as I twisted sideways and slammed into the ice before Pugsley and I slide 25 feet down the waterfall together. I laid on the ice for a few seconds as the pain in my hip pulsed and screamed and finally subsided to a manageable throb. "Hello?" Antonio called out to me. "Impossible," I called back.

Finally, with the ice cleats back on, I took careful, deliberate steps and reached the top of the waterfall. I stood at the top for a while and tried to direct Antonio to places where he might be able to climb around and retrieve my cleats before going back to get his bike. But after several minutes, he disappeared behind a rock outcropping. I didn't know where he had gone to, and I was becoming chilled just standing there, so I guiltily moved on.

About 45 minutes later, Antonio passed me, grinning. He motioned as though to indicate he had actually somehow carried his bike over the rock outcropping. I gave him a big thumbs up. It was one of the proudest moments of my trip.

As the day wore on, the pain in my hip grew worse. The trail climbed out of the river valley into an endless expanse of rolling hills. Each one seemed steeper than the next. My hip refused to let me motor up them, but the walking was even worse. When I would come to the bottom of the hill, I would stop for several seconds to rev myself up. Then I would take a few deep breaths, plow into the hill, take three or four laboring steps and stop until the pain subsided. Then I would take four more steps, stop, and repeat, until I reached the top of the hill. My progress was becoming glacial, but there wasn't much I could do about it out here. Rescue is not a given. Either you keep moving, or you die. Something has to happen.

I reached Bison Camp around 4 p.m., walking with a severe gimp in my right leg but otherwise feeling good. Antonio was already there with the wood stove burning, eating his dinner. I walked outside to gather snow for drinking water and stuck my deep-frozen tuna packet in a coffee can on the stove. As I rifled around through my pack, I realized that sometime during the day, I had lost my headlamp. That should have come as a devastating blow, but instead I just shrugged, walked outside with a knife to cut the headlight off my bike rack, and milled around the wall tent looking for materials with which to create a spare headlamp. Antonio beckoned me to try some his "fine Italian cheese," and I passed him my tuna packet with a spoon. We shared dinner in silence as I fashioned a new headlamp out of duct tape and an MSR strap. How quickly we become residents of the trail.

I finished dinner and chores around sunset and, despite my hip, was still feeling strong and raring to hit the trail. I thought the 45 more miles to Nikolai would be perfectly doable as an overnight ride, given the promise of flat plain with almost no hills left to climb. I limped up the last hill and looked out over the region known as the Farewell Burn. This is an area that was decimated by wildfire several decades ago, and it is just starting to come back to life. The Iditarod Trail cuts a thin white line through an seemingly endless expanse of spruce trees that are all exactly the same age, each about six feet tall. It has the appearance of a haunted Christmas tree farm.

I had been warned by Iditarod mushers and Ultrasport veterans alike not to venture into the Burn at night. It's an enchanted place, they cautioned. You will lose your mind to the monotony and your strength to a kind of cold you never thought possible. You will meet God and The Devil and you will sell your soul to both. As I pedaled at 7 mph into the night, I could feel the remoteness sinking in. The spindly branches of black spruce clones cut hard shadows into the moonless night. Over my head, a wash of green northern lights sparkled and flowed. Streaks of red and white light shot across the sky. As the laser light show grew in intensity, I began to feel more calm, more complacent. I forgot to stop to eat. I forgot to stop to drink. I was a zombie moving through a world of ghosts, one of the walking wounded and living dead. I probably could have continued forever in that setting and never noticed the passing of time, never felt a single moment of pain or a single reflection of fear or anxiety. But unlike the denizens of that ghost world, I was still a living being. And while I wasn't paying attention, my calorie stores again depleted to critical lows. Suddenly, without warning, I was laying in a snowbank. I had no idea how I ended up there. I didn't remember falling. I stumbled back onto my bike and began to pedal again, but again I wavered. I felt like I was falling asleep at the wheel. I fell off my bike and laid for several minutes, helpless, in the snow. I couldn't believe it. I had bonked again.

I thought about trying to stuff down food and continue on, but I could hardly keep my eyes open. I stumbled down the trail on foot for several more yards before I scouted out a nice spot in the snowbank. It looked so inviting. My skewed recollection of my harrowing bivy on Rainy Pass made a night in the bag seem like a stay at the Hilton. All I wanted was sleep, any way I could get it. I rolled out my bivy sack and crawled inside with my water bottle and a 5 oz. chocolate bar. I told myself I would eat it in the morning. I did not look at my thermometer before I zipped up the bag. I did not care.