Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Adventures in solitude

"So you just sort of go it alone?" my friend asked when I explained to her why I wouldn't be able to attend her gathering this weekend.

"Yeah, that's kinda the idea," I said.

"Why is that the idea?" my friend said.

"Well," I said. "For starters, it's pretty hard to convince other people that riding a loaded bicycle 110-150 hilly miles a day in the cold is a good time. And, anyway, I'll be visiting friends along the way and maybe even talking them into riding some of the route with me. For the rest of the trip, I'll just have all sorts of time to really think about things."

"What do you think about?"

"My life, my goals, stuff," I said. "These tough trips really help me separate what's important from the general fluff. Although, I have to admit, I usually end up spending a bulk of my riding time thinking about food and sleep."

"So are you scared?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm scared. But mostly of bears and weather and scary people. The loneliness isn't so bad."

Geoff woke me up this morning with a quick call to inform me he was no longer planning to run the Bear 100 on Friday.

"That sounds like the smart plan," I said. "What made you change your mind?"

"I'm still fighting off a cold," he said. "Plus, Dane and Jess invited me to go backpacking with them in Boulder (Utah) this week, and that sounded more fun. That's where we're headed right now. Reception is pretty spotty. I wanted to call before I was out of range completely."

"But you already registered for the race, right?" I asked. "Didn't you spend like $200 on it?"

"Yeah, but ..." The call cut out. I wondered what really made Geoff decide to dump his plans for the Bear 100. Dropping out because he had a cold on Wednesday didn't really sound like him. Was he scared? Less certain about his physical recovery than he let on a few days earlier? Or is it possible that he's making peace with the idea of moving back to Alaska?

After I got off the phone with Geoff, I noticed what an amazing bright blue day Wednesday was shaping out to be. I had promised myself I would take the day off. I have 370 miles to ride in the next three days, and none of those miles are likely to be easy. But, as I looked outside, I thought that some days, resting the body is not as important as stimulating the soul. Most days are like that.

Luckily for me, in my nervousness about preparing for my bike trip, I had finished packing on Tuesday night. So I had little else to do Wednesday but eat and work and wait for my ferry to pull into port. I headed over to Mount Roberts for the second time this week, in favor of "easy" trail and lax hiking.

However, I tend to forget how energizing a clear day can be, when heart-stopping beauty stretches out beyond the farthest reaches of my vision. I'm gripped with a desire to push and push and push toward the horizon until it ends, knowing it never will. That's how I ended up on top of Gastineau Peak again, feet almost floating atop a couple inches of new snow, facing east toward a snow-capped skyline that continues into Canada.

I looked down the ridge at a healthy coat of termination dust that may be here to stay and thought, "It's still early. If I don't bag Mount Roberts today, I'll likely not have another chance this season." So down the ridge I went, the joint-jarring consequences of a long hike unacknowledged.

And I was so glad I went to the top of Mount Roberts. To just stop and turn off my iPod and listen to the frigid wind and the absolute silence of solitude. These are the moments I wish I had more opportunities to share with my friends. But there is also he sense that the reality of listening to someone rip into a PowerBar or complain about the cold might just crush these fleeting, perfect moments. And then there's Geoff, who on a gorgeous day like Wednesday, would probably just do all the things I can only dream about doing while I stand on peaks. I could picture him running the crest of the entire ridgeline until he looped back into town. It's too bad he doesn't really like Juneau so much any more.

In the time I've spent alone this fall, I've worked on formulating a concrete reason why I can't leave Alaska. And what I've come up with is, over the past three years, I've never known a period in my life in which I was so consistently inspired. I started writing again, a hobby I had all but given up on, and developed a passion for something I never even used to think was all that interesting - photography. I've honed my physical fitness to levels I never imagined and forged my new skills into something even better ... inner strength. I think often about my life before Alaska, a life Geoff actually had to drag me away from, kicking and screaming. I was once scared of nearly everything, but I was especially scared of being alone. My life revolved around late mornings at the Apple Fitness club, afternoons and evenings at work, and late nights with my friends, sometimes out until sunrise. I thought I was happy. Then I moved away from it all, and learned I hadn't been happy. Now I am afraid to go back. How can I leave Alaska? Alaska is my muse.

When Geoff told me he registered to run the Bear 100 this weekend, he said he mostly just wanted a good, hard effort with the alone time he needed to think about his future. I told him that's the same reason I wanted to ride around the Golden Circle again. Now he's backpacking in the desert and I'm still planning to pedal into the Yukon, a vast amount of space in which to think, and a vast number of miles to ride on less rest than I should have given myself. But I look forward to all of it. I leave soon to catch the 12:15 ferry. Wish me luck.