Thursday, October 16, 2008

You can't go home again

I was grinding up a slick stretch of singletrack on Monday when the bike's rear wheel, unsurprisingly, finally refused to turn. I used a stick to chip away at a thick layer of mud crammed between the tire and the frame, but it was no use. The mass held as steadfast as concrete, and nearly as solid. A day of "warmer" temperatures and plenty of snowmelt had left the Draper trails wet and muddy. I headed out anyway, forgetting that those clay-packed trails in Utah become unrideable when wet, unlike the spongy trails in Juneau, which are always wet.

Eventually I stashed the bike in some trees and started hiking up the Jacob's Ladder trail, which I remembered as a steep but scenic route that, on an ambitious day, eventually reaches Lone Peak - a peak that, before I moved to Alaska, I considered my favorite place in the whole world. I knew Lone Peak was out of the question on Monday, but it felt good to walk in its shadow.

I hiked up the snowy trail until I met two other hikers - young, somewhat pudgy guys who looked like they were about 23 or 24 years old. They announced they were scouting out the route for a planned Boy Scout campout up in the alpine cirque (some 3,000 feet higher and buried in snow) for the following week.

"You guys are going to drag Scouts up in this?" I said. "Poor kids."

"Well, it's supposed to be 70 degrees next weekend," one of the guys told me.

"Still," I said. "There's a lot of snow that's probably not going to melt."

"Have you been up here before?" the other guy asked.

"I have," I said. "It's been a while." I thought back to the last time I had actually been up on Lone Peak. "Probably not since 2002." And I realized that it really had been at least six years. Shortly after that, I discovered cycling, and the big mountains started to fall into the background.

"Do you remember what the trail's like?"

"Steep," I said. "Just steep. But beautiful. Are you guys going to try to reach the cirque today?"

One of the guys just wrinkled his nose. "Probably not," he said. "We just want to go far enough to see where we're going."

I hiked on ahead, along the Draper Ridge until the trail veered onto the steep face of the mountain. From there, the melting snow and mud made footing sketchy and difficult. Handholds were few and I found myself digging my thinly gloved fingers into the snow. Satisfied that the trail was no longer even hikeable, I turned around and looked out over the Utah Valley, the lake and the suburban sprawl that surrounded it. The city used to look so small. It looked massive to me now.

The views had a displaced familiarity - a scene I had witnessed often but had let years pass since the last time. Dry air and relative boredom at 7,500 feet had become a foreign concept to me - and I almost laughed at loud at what a non-local I had become. Below me, the once-barren ridgeline of South Mountain was choked with new development - high-end homes, streets, and even a brand new LDS temple. But the terrain above my head was more stark, more rugged, and more appealing than I even remembered. It was like I was seeing a new world through old eyes, and an old world through new eyes, all at the same time.

I ate a Power Bar and soaked in the views and a fair dose of cold wind, waiting to see if the two guys caught up to me. They never did. They had turned around even earlier, apparently abandoning the scouting hike and, I hoped, the ill-advised Boy Scout campout the following week. The next day, I would be on a plane bound for Juneau, back to low elevations and stifling cold humidity and wet trails that don't incapacitate a bike. Back to my home. But there was a fear about returning to Juneau, about the possible twilight of my time there, and how I may never be able to look at it the same way.


  1. Development here has been insane! And now, no one can afford it.

  2. I hope you never leave Alaska. On the other hand, you can always carry home inside you, even in Utah.


  3. I am glad you were able to have a "non-local" experience in good old Utah. It is nice to look around every once in awhile and really appreciate your surroundings that you take for granted everyday.

    And there has been insane development here! But the Mountains, for the most part, are still very rugged and untouched.

  4. I know it probably seems ridiculous coming from me, a person who hardly knows you, but I just want to say that I totally and completely understand how one can never go home again. I find that realisation - no matter how many times I come across it - to be painful.

  5. Best of luck Jill as your adventure/journey in life unfolds.

    Kazimer - Kaz

  6. Jill,

    I hear you on the development and urban sprawl. Mine comes from your neighbor to the east - Denver. I go home and it makes me sick that all the land is being developed and there are so many homes for sell that can be upgraded instead.

    It sounds like a journey out of Alaska is growing in your mind. May wisdom be poured into you concerning your future. You make Alaska appear as big as it is in your stories and I hope they never end!

  7. Funny, I had a similar experience flying home from Chicago the other day. As I passed over the familiar mountains in Springville and saw Timp, Y Mountain, and the trail that winds from Squaw Peak to Hobble Creek I thought about how foreign yet familiar it all was.

    Though I think it had more to to with my elevation perspective than the 3 days I was away. Take what I can get, I guess.

  8. Hi Jill, thank you !!!
    Every morning I start with your blog and next year Iwould like to visit Alaska.
    from my country ( Italy Alps)it seems you live in the best pleace on heart!!! ciao Stefania

  9. nicely put, as always. i remember hiking in Utah red clay snow-melt back in 2001 when i worked there as a backpacking guide. after 10 minutes of walking my boots would look like moonboots of red clay, and each one weighed about 500 pounds. I can't imagine riding my bike in that!

  10. Jill- you've been 'tagged'! Check my blog for details!

  11. once you get a taste, it's hard to leave the table. not many other places where you can find wilderness in your backyard: wolves on glacial-lake ice, brown bears along salmon-filled streams, trees with lives that have spanned centuries. there is truth in wilderness, and truth is hard to leave behind once you have gotten a taste.


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