Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shifting focus

No biking means I've had more down time these past two weeks. Most of that time, unfortunately, seems to trickle into the office (I've found that less biking in fact results in less photography, writing, and most of my other more fulfilling pastimes.) But I have been able to allot some of my downtime to going through my stuff and skimming off the bottom. It's amazing how a person can move to Alaska with only the things they can fit in a Geo Prism, and three and a half years later end up with rooms full of gear. But assessing some of the stuff that has survived my myriad moves has been fun and nostalgic. A random scattering of 4x6 disposable camera prints are right at the top of the fun list: things I can't believe I still have but can't imagine throwing away.

Above is a picture of me as a 17-year-old at the Hurricane (pronounced "Her'kun") Dunes, more commonly known as Sand Hollow, in southwestern Utah. The Her'kun Dunes were the ultimate escape when I was a teenager - so close to Zion National Park that they were practically in the shadow of the massive cliffs, but so unknown that we only saw the occasional local pass through on a four-wheeler. My three BFFs and I would cut out of class on some Friday in early spring, load up Liz's Chevy Cavalier with our $10 sleeping bags, spring-bar tent and enough Doritos and Dr. Pepper to stock a convenience store. We'd stream down I-15 with our feet out the window, highway jet stream drying the toenails we had just painted blue and silver, listening to the radio until the signal cut out, then popping in Tarrah's garbled Atom and his Package bootleg tape, singing to the desert wind - "I had a dream when I was in high school, that I attended the Punk Rock Academy and no one made fun of me." The Cavalier would rattle down some half-washed-out dirt road until we arrived at our retreat, where piles of red sand swept against a mottled outcropping of sandstone. We'd weave through the red-rock maze, dance barefoot in the sand, play a genuine game of hide and seek like kindergarteners on summer vacation, and launch ourselves off 10-foot cliffs because nothing below could hurt us.

After dark, the moon and marshmallows came out. We built fires out of flash-flood driftwood, juniper and sage. The savory sweet smoke reminded us we were a long way from home. Reflections of flames flickered on the ragged walls, dancing like tamarisk in a cool desert breeze. "This is the most beautiful place on Earth," I would say, shamelessly quoting Ed Abbey. We all knew it wasn't, but it was our most beautiful place, because it seemed to reach only us, and we belonged there, and it, somehow, belonged to us.

The last trip we took to the Her'kun Dunes, sometime shortly after high school graduation, we found the access road half-paved. That was the trip we learned there were plans to build a reservoir. "They're gonna drown all them dunes," a woman at the grocery store checkout told us. Much of our redrock playground had been fenced off. We spent the rest of our weekend in Zion National Park never went back. But I read in the newspaper in summer 2000 that the state started work on the dam. I remember choking up a little.

Beyond occasionally bringing up Sand Hollow Reservoir as an example of the evils of St. George golf courses, I hadn't given the Her'kun Dunes much thought in the years passed. Bigger, better places came along, places set farther away from civilization where no one could drive a four-wheeler if they tried. Somewhere along there, the landscape of my imagination shifted from red-sand deserts to wind-swept tundra. But lately, this now-inundated patch of land has been creeping back into my dreams. I can almost feel the cool sand streaming through my fingers, almost taste the air surrounding our bon fires: sage brush, hot dogs ... freedom. It reminds me that a place can be long gone and still exist in memories. And maybe, in a world where nothing stays the same anyway, that's what really matters.

I've been trying to figure out why I don't feel more depressed right now. I hit a pretty big low point for the year last March, the year I had actually completed the ITI, that one event I had dedicated an entire winter to and had a somewhat successful first go at. This year I dropped out of the ITI the first day, injured myself in the process, haven't ridden a bike or even really been outside since; I'm working longer hours, combing through my stuff with an eye and getting rid of a good bulk of it ... and yet, in all honesty, I'm not all that bummed out.

And think it's because of the desert, and a little dry cabin down on a nondescript patch of sand near Teasdale, Utah, where Geoff and I plan to spend the late spring and early part of summer. This isn't goodbye to Alaska or even to Juneau. It's just a "furlough" as my ex-Army boss calls it, to I place where I can reconnect roots and regenerate strength, and hopefully grow experiences that can never be submerged.


  1. It's strange that life is like that. I lost my job in December, and have found myself riding the urban trails of Denver in my road bike, and a lot less depressed than I expected, or should be. We are fortunate to be able to turn the circumstances of our lives into something advantageous, I guess. Good luck on your continued recovery. I find your stories and photos truly amazing and awe-inspiring.

  2. The desert is a place where only the bare essentials for life exist, a place where you exist as part of the landscape, and if you try to be anything bigger than that, it eats you up. It doesn’t forgive, but it blesses at the same time. A sparse land where little grows...which should allow room for your own growth. Sounds like the perfect place for you guys to spend a season. Distractions minimal, stars more than anyone can count and experiences filling your well. I miss the desert. Enjoy and be safe. Great post!

  3. Hurricane ... brings back so many memories. My paternal grandmother came from there, my dad moved back for last 10 years or so. Best to get out in the desert around there, and avoid a bunch of the local crazies ... esp. as you head in the direction of Colorado City.

    Teasdale is good for going lots of directions. Lots of places to backpack and camp both in the surrounding mountains and in some of the southwestern desert/canyons. I'm a bit jealous.

  4. very nice quote of Ed Abbey especially on the anniversary of his death.
    Great photos!

  5. Lovely post but in all honesty, not being nasty, I read this and I think to myself, "Where the hell do you get all this money to spend all this time here, there and in the desert and in the snow?" I know it's a british thing - everything's so expensive here, we're all tying ourselves in knots paying for our tiny houses. Perhaps one day even I will no longer be able to believe that once upon a time I took a massive amount of time off work to just BE somewhere doing something other than working.

    I think I'm going to have to take a day and spend it just BEING. Not doing.

    Sure as hell will make me less depressed.

  6. Trepid ... it's a fine line to draw. I work a relatively low-paying job and live in a high cost-of-living region, just like everyone else, really. Having extra money to essentially throw around is a result of the choices I've made in my life thus far:

    - I have no children.
    - I carry no debt and never have. (My parents and a rather gruelling bagel baking job got me through college.)
    - I don't own a house - I'm a renter.
    - I live in a two-bedroom apartment with my partner and one other random roommate. It's crowded.
    - I drive a 13-year-old car that gets great gas mileage. I paid cash for it in 2000.
    - I have no investments beyond a rather sad 401K, so the economic downturn has not hit me as hard as it might have others.
    - I live rather sparsely without too many extra perks. No cable TV, fancy cell phone, nice furniture, etc. I don't have too many whims beyond bikes, outdoor camping gear and sushi, and spend almost nothing on anything else that fits into the category of "stuff."

    It's all about lifestyle. I'm not rich and never will be - not even sure I'd want to be, although I imagine I'd use more money to buy more time. It seems hard, though, to have both money and time. I chose time. I've been building up to this period of time off employment for several years now. I thought I would have to quit my job, but I may not even need to do that, so I want to take every advantage of my options as I can while I am realatively healthy and debt-free.

  7. so you'll be in the area -- and your foot will be better -- for 2009 RAWROD, right?

  8. Damn, you're a good writer. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Wonderful post. I grew up in Southern Utah and used to go to Red Cliffs in February and March to get some early spring sun.

    When my family comes to visit in Juneau they remind me how lush and wet it is here by what they notice: all five senses are involved just as they are on the other end of the spectrum in the desert. Vive the extremes.

    I look forward to reading about how things go during your furough. I sometimes think that sharing time between Juneau and Rockville would be just right.

  10. Dramatic change (especially unwanted change) has always been good in my now I try to embrace it.

    Love the photos.

  11. great comment on time versus money...I wonder if money can buy you more time...time is the ultimate resource because once it's gone, no amount of money will buy it back...enjoy your health, your youth,and get rich by seems like that is a recurring theme I get by reading your posts and that's what keeps me stopping back as I want to keep reminding myself of that message...

  12. Thanks for sharing. I wonder if part of the reason for the lack of depression is the acquisition of experience-wrought wisdom. You're livin' it!

  13. Our greatest resource is our life energy. You are wise to try not to squander it, Jill, whether spent at work or anywhere else. Work is also a necessity and always there will be this struggle...until, hopefully, we become too old to work every day. Any way you can get it all to work for you is always great. Sounds like you've got a good approach. And not an "all or nothing" situation, which helps a lot. Good luck on your desert sojourn. It sounds wonderful. Although I always wonder for myself, is it the place that helps me progress? Or would the progress (or regression) occur regardless of where I chose to be?

  14. Jill, thanks for your post. It really is an example of how even the 'bad' things that happen to use can be an opportunity for better things to come.

  15. Wow, imagaine a summer in a place where you can actually wear short pants? What a concept! Can I come along too?

  16. Mike in WI said...


    You have nice writing style, I have enjoyed the Blog very much - Thanks for that.

    People always tell me I have an uncanny ability to sense when others are contemplating major life decisions...I sense you are in this process but already know in your heart-Soul what needs to be done, but the mind and inner human kindness are holding the final decision at need to rush but don't leave Geoff hanging in the balance longer than necessary.

    People also tell me to mind my own business LOL.

    Mike In WI

  17. can't wait to see you this spring!!! now that you've braved the frigid alaskan wilderness, any chance you'd give westwater another shot? may 16th - and you don't even have to ride with geoff ;-)
    xxoo jen

  18. Fatty ... I may be just a tad too late for RAWROD. Geoff has a race in San Fransisco in early May, and that's the first stop. I'm bummed. It would be super fun.

    Jen ... frigid wilderness or no, frostbite and death by hypothermia is still way less scary than Skull Hole. But I'll consider it. Despite my ongoing irrational fear, I really want to go with you guys down the Grand Canyon and such a leap would require baby steps. Shudder.

  19. Just spent last weekend in the Utah desert (Moab). Wish I could have spent much more time there. Nothing clears your head like the redrock desert of southern Utah. We went there all depressed over the loss of our dog, whom we think was nabbed by a mountain lion the weekend prior, but left with a much better perspective on it. We still miss him, and look for him outside our house every day (hard habit to break), but we were able to move past that initial intense hurt. Could just be time, I guess, but I find that time in the desert always helps me get over whatever it is that was eating me when I went in.

    Enjoy your time there.


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