Sunday, November 16, 2008

First tracks

Date: Nov. 16
Mileage: 12.4
November mileage: 442.8

When sunlight emerges from the cold and rain, the only question is where to follow it. The obvious answer is along frozen streets, into the mountain shadows and higher until there is nowhere to go higher. Climbing toward the sun.

The day started out with a little bumpy ice biking on the frozen muskeg. Then I hid my bike in the woods (too well, as it turned out, when it took me a few passes to find it later in the day). I strapped on my snowshoes and cut a path in the crusty snow all the way to the Douglas Island ridge.

The first steps over the crest of the ridgeline are always breathtaking. Generally, I have been traipsing through shadows for most of the morning. The low sun, which never extends beyond the other side of the mountain, makes its first appearance through snow-laden branches. Just beyond the trees are the peaks of Admiralty Island, wrapped in clouds, and the shimmering surf of Stephens Passage.

All around, sunlight glistens in a pillow of untracked snow. Trees slump beneath the weight of hard ice and everything is cast in stark contrast against the sky. I always have to squint but I hesitate to put on my sunglasses, for fear of shutting out even a fraction of the color and light. The landscape is so beautiful it hurts.

It's a happy hurt, a kind of ache, a sharp longing for distant joys of the past and unfiltered hope for the future. I stop to remove my hat, caked in frozen sweat, and smile in the cold wind.

Powder snow muffles the crunch of my snowshoes as I make my way along the ridge. A bald eagle screeches just a few feet above my head, but the only tracks on land are my own. Clear skies reveal ridgelines many miles away, and at elevation I can imagine these alien places are within my reach. Elevation reminds me that I don't really live in isolation; that even Juneau is connected to the world. In my mind I outline the islands and coast on a map that carries me down the Inside Passage.

The city looks warm and cozy. I have to be at work in a few hours, and the thought of leaving the mountains and the marshmallow mounds of trees is sobering. Down there are a hundred hanging indecisions, a wall of uncertainty and a company on the verge of bankruptcy. Sometimes I wonder how I can justify spending so much of my time pursuing frivolous activity while the world struggles. But it is here that I'm most powerful in the fight against despair. It is here that I remember the things that matter, forget the things that don't. It is here, on the Douglas Island ridge, where I could walk the same lines a hundred times and never feel anything short of awe.

What good would life be without awe?