Monday, January 26, 2009

Conflicted

Date: Jan. 24 and 25
Mileage: 11 and 42.2
January mileage: 686.7
Temperature upon departure: 16 and 15

Frost had started to form on my sweat-soaked hair as I heaved my bike over a four-foot cliff and stepped gingerly onto ice-coated roots to climb up beside it. I gasped and grunted and pushed the bike's rear wheel forward while I clawed at petrified snow with my bare fingers. I stopped to catch my breath and look up at the trail - a continuing series of steep "steps" just like it. As a hike, the lower portion of the Mount Jumbo trail is a relaxing jaunt through the woods to gain 500 feet in a half mile. Throw in a big, awkward bike, and it becomes quite the grind.

But I knew it was all worth it because at the top of that small climb lay the Mount Jumbo muskeg - a fairly large area of stunted trees and open space that was, for now, covered in the most ideal kind of concrete snow. The kind of snow that's so smooth and icy hard that you don't even need a packed trail to ride your bike. You can go wherever your heart takes you. You can weave through trees, circle up a hill and back down, lock up your brakes and spin donuts. You can do anything you want. The world is your trail.

As I crested the last pitch, I set my bike down at the edge of the muskeg and wavered a second. I took a deep breath. I thought of Ken Kifer. Ken Kifer was a prolific Internet author and career bicycle tourist who was tragically killed by a drunk driver in September 2003. Back in 2002, when I was barely a skilled enough cyclist to keep two tires on the road but aspired to become a long-distance bicycle tourist, I considered Ken Kifer my mentor. I read his extensive site from start to end and e-mailed him for advice, which he was always kind enough to give. One anecdote that particularly resonated with me was an exchange — of which I'm sure he had dozens like it — with a person who questioned how a 50-something-year-old man could afford to devote so much time to traveling by bicycle.

"I've never had much money," Ken replied, "so I've never had much need for it."

The doubter scoffed. "Well, I wish I could ride my bicycle all the time."

To which Ken replied, "Why don't you?"

Ken's words struck deep as I moved to make major changes in my life in 2003 - quit my job, explore Alaska, ride my $300 Ibex bicycle across the country. I wanted to live my life like Ken. I wanted to earn miles, not dollars. I wanted to to accumulate experiences, not stuff. Not because miles and experiences are necessarily superior to dollars and stuff, or even mutually exclusive. But I was enamored with miles and experiences. I did not care about dollars and stuff.

This simple truth creeps back in as Geoff and I discuss our future. We have, for a while now, been formulating our exit strategy to leave Juneau. We wanted to move back to Southcentral Alaska, a more centralized, less-isolated region from which to conduct future adventures. There are, of course, many pros and cons to shifting from Juneau to Anchorage. But it was easy to think about back in September, when the rain never stopped coming and the promise of endless opportunity loomed large around the big city. Then the economy landed in the toilet, the newspaper industry settled even lower, and Geoff and I started to talk about not only leaving Juneau, but going away, for six months or so .... Out ... to briefly let go of our grip on dollars and stuff in the pursuit of miles and experiences.

The more we talked about it, the easier and more appealing it sounded. The terrible economy actually pushed our drive. "I've never had much money," I pictured myself saying to concerned family members, "so I guess I don't have much need for it." I gave notice to my employer some months ago. I thought a long resignation notice would give them the time they needed to make the transition as smooth as possible, and possibly give me a bridge back if I needed it, once my dollars and stuff dry out. Instead, the long notice has given them ample time to try to prevent the exit altogether. My new boss, a driven reformer whose workaholism I respect because I believe work is what he truly loves, told me, "I'll give you an offer you can't refuse." I was offered a raise, which I refused. I was offered a better raise, which I refused. Then my boss came back recently with a promotion - a big one - and a raise - a startling one. I would have to work 60 hours a week under my current salary to earn it. "I'll even give you a month of unpaid leave for your race," he said.

The promotion would be salary pay instead of hourly pay. I strongly suspect my 40-hour workweek would eventually increase, possibly significantly. I would be working days, which wouldn't just put a dent in my current cycling adventure habits. It would put them in a shredder. Except for the brightest months of summer, I would either have to ride a lot in the dark, a lot indoors, or quite a bit less than a lot. Much in my life would change, but many parts, maybe not the best parts, would stay the same.

And yet, I have temptations. I have doubts.

In many ways, I feel like I have been pushing my bike up the Mount Jumbo Trail for several years now. Sweat is frozen to my hair and I'm gasping for air, but through the last row of thick forest I can see that frozen muskeg, smooth and inviting and glistening in the noon sun. Only now I face a choice. I can set out onto the frozen muskeg, ride wherever I want to ride, go wherever I want to go, on seemingly endless but actually finite trails of my own making. Or, I can continue on the same steep forest trail, pushing my bike further up the mountain, with the hope that there is something even better up higher.

I'm fearful because I don't know where I should go.

I'm even more fearful because I think maybe I do.