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.