Monday, August 31, 2009

Cairn Peak

I set my alarm for 7 a.m. based on this forecast: Monday, mostly cloudy with isolated showers. Chance of precipitation 20 percent. If that isn't a promising weather forecast, I don't know what is. "Monday's the day," I thought. "The day to bag my biggest prize so far - Cairn Peak."

The sound of the alarm dragged me out of bed feeling the way I usually do in the morning - like someone stomped all over my head while I was sleeping. I shuffled over to the window to see nothing but a gray blank slate - a thick bank of fog. I groaned and went back to bed. The snooze button went off nine minutes later, and again nine minutes after that. Alertness began to creep in to my grumpy daze. I remembered that during high-pressure systems in the late summer, fog tends to settle low while clear skies open up high. Maybe ... maybe it could be done after all.

I set out in the haze with nothing but faith to guide me. Sure enough, after I climbed 1,800 feet out of the Twin Lakes neighborhood, the fog started to break up. And above the clouds was sparkling blue sky.

I gained the ridge and started the march toward Cairn.

The peak always appears closer than it actually is. One you reach the first "summit" of Blackerby Ridge, Cairn is still nearly two hours, four miles and ~3,000 feet of climbing away.

I have been shut down on three separate attempts of Cairn. The first was due to a shortage of time. The second was foul weather. The third, about this time last year, happened because I went on faith and the fog never cleared. My friend and I became so hopelessly lost in a zero-visibility cloud bank that we had to put all of our faith in my GPS unit to guide us out. As Juneau mountains go, Cairn stands apart as my most consistent failure.

I did not want to fail today. I had set an "absolute turn-around time" that I knew I had to adhere to if I was going to make it to work on time, clean and fed. That time approached quickly. Cairn crept closer. The clouds rolled up to the ridgeline and gathered. I picked up my pace through the patchy fog, wondering if I'd need GPS to get out this time, too, but still determined not to give up.

My "absolute turn-around time" came and went. Cairn was right there. Looking up at the summit, I figured I only needed an extra half hour, maybe 45 minutes to go there and back. Maybe I could fudge the clean and fed part of getting to work on time. I didn't know how. I would worry about that later.

I surprised a herd of mountain goats as I crested a small knob. They looked up, turned, and glided over the loose talus like it was flat, solid pavement. Their movements were so fluid that their climbing seemed effortless. In a few graceful steps, they galloped over the ridge and disappeared. Amazing. I know what I want to be in my next life.

Cairn Peak rises above the western edge of the Juneau Icefield. From here, I have a great view of a long line of "someday's."

The summit, 4,537 feet above sea level. Finally, I've worked my way to an elevation in Juneau that is higher than my parents' Sandy, Utah, home. And I was so happy to be there. Really, really happy.

And thus began the mad rush back to sea level, both to beat the clock and beat the fog, which was starting to worry me.

Looking down the ridge from near the summit. It is always farther than it looks.

I reached the trailhead very close to (OK, maybe after) the time that I was supposed to be at work. But the trail also is only a half mile from my office. I had some clean clothes in a suitcase in my car, and a bottle of soap. I gathered them up, walked a little ways off the trail, stripped to my skivvies and took a quick bath in the creek. I dried off, put my hair in a ponytail, put on some work-appropriate clothing, and rushed to the office, where I bought a pile of delicious offerings from the vending machine for lunch. Clean and fed! And only a little bit late. Tour Divide skills come to the rescue, again.

The total hike was about 12 miles with 6,400 feet of climbing. It took me just under six hours. It was a great day. Life doesn't get much more satisfying.
Sunday, August 30, 2009

No agenda

"What are you training for right now?" is a common question I hear from my friends.

"Nothing," I answer. "I'm not training at all."

They usually look perplexed. As long as they've known me, I've had some sort of epic event marked in red pen on my calendar, even if it was months away. Right now, smaller goals are only penciled in, lightly, and in the meantime I don't have any tangible motivation to ride my bike.

So I just ride my bike.

On Friday, I followed a sucker hole to the Valley, giggling out loud when I first glimpsed my shadow amid the swirling clouds. Tourist traffic was light that day, and the Steep Creek trailhead was closed due to bear activity, so I had the rare privilege of having the Dredge Lake Trails all to myself. I laughed and sang along with my iPod and looped the moss-covered corridors as filtered sunlight flickered through the trees. Two hours passed in what seemed like a dozen rapid heartbeats. I returned home soaked in rainforest bliss.

Recently, my friend Dan, whose sole bike is a Surly Cross Check equipped with ~38c tires, drop handlebars and a homemade rack that could support a small deer carcass, asked me what "mountain biking" was like around town.

"Let's go riding on Sunday!" I said. "I bet you could ride your Cross Check on the Perseverance Trail."

So we met up in the morning. I had to pump the big ring to keep up with him on the pavement, and still had to leave it there as we shot up the steep trail. Dan followed my line, splashing through streams and weaving around wet boulders. By the time we reached the top of the canyon, we had already decided we were going to tack 22 more miles and 1,500 feet of climbing onto our ride with a dash up to Eaglecrest Ski Area, so I was surprised when he suggested we take the Red Mill spur down.

"I don't know. It's pretty technical. Not to mention choked with brush. We'll be soaked."

But Dan has this summer goal - which is right up my alley, actually - of running or hiking every trail in town. The fact that he was on a bike did not seem to be a hindrance to this goal. He wanted to check off the Red Mill trail. So we veered up the loose gravel and began our traverse of the steep sideslope. The narrow slash of a trail was littered with slippery wet rocks and roots. We both did our fair share of wavering and kicking off trees and the hillside. But when the downhill began in earnest, Dan locked in. He leaned way back, hovering over his narrow rear tire as we tackled a succession of dropoffs, our bikes harmonized in a chorus of clunking down the rocky pitch. I was nervous but determined; if Dan could ride a freakin' rigid cross bike down this trail, I told myself, then I could handle it. Clunk, squeal, clunk, clunk. A whitewater creek rushing beside us drowned out all other sounds. We skidded to a stop at the Perseverance Trail intersection, massive smiles spread across both our faces, and commenced the screaming descent in a blur of wind-induced tears and white noise.

Life's good when you have no agenda.
Friday, August 28, 2009

30 plus one week

This week, I have been getting out more often than I normally do - in a social sense - which means I have been sleeping later and getting outside a little less. It's a good thing, I think; after all, life is but a river that ebbs and flows. Autumn seems like the perfect time for an ebb. The rains move in; the temperatures creep down; life slows to a trickle. But come winter, the trickle begins to freeze and accumulate until it has transformed into something sparkling and new and almost electric, in a way that makes life come alive. I love winter. It truly is my favorite season.

It occurred to me today that I have been 30 for a week now. I'm supposed to be having some type of pre-mid-life/post-post-adolescent crisis, but to be honest, I've hardly noticed. I guess I do find myself looking in the mirror and thinking things like, "I'm 30 now. Maybe it's about time I started wearing makeup;" or, "Maybe I should buy some non-outdoors-specific clothing that isn't a hand-me-down from my 22-year-old sister;" or "I'm 30 and my worldly possessions amount to a few boxes of clothes, a kitty cat, a car that after being "totalled" by $700 in brake work is officially worthless, a road bike that has a similar status, a battered mountain bike and one beloved Pugsley." But my inclination right now is still toward less stuff and more mobility. I guess turning 30 hasn't done as much to spur me toward adulthood as I'd hoped.

And I won't even talk about my athletic pursuits right now. It's probably been pretty obvious from my blog that I'm all over the map, both demotivated and excitedly trying new things; both wrapped up in frequent adventures and discouraged by the "sameness" of the space I occupy. The sun came out yesterday afternoon and I watched it with bitter jealousy from my cubical at work. Today the rain rate was back up to a tenth of an inch per hour and I decided to go peak bagging anyway. Mount Roberts was my goal, with an ambitious hope for Sheep Mountain should the weather take a turn for the better.

The rain let up but it left behind a brutal, bitter cold wind. On the ridge, it was blowing 35 mph and easily gusting to 50 and even 60 mph (a speed where the wind takes your breath away, and pushes unsuspecting hikers nearly off their feet.) The ridge is somewhat narrow in spots, but not too exposed, so I layered up as best as I could with the random things I had stuffed in my Camelback over the past few weeks - a fleece pullover, a soft-shell pullover, winter mittens, a hat, a headband (which I pulled over my nose and mouth), and dry wool socks in a ziplock bag (lifesavers, those were.) Hard to gauge the windchill this early in the season. It felt below freezing, but then again the first real chills of the season always feel uber-cold. It was probably 45 or so degrees at elevation, not accounting for windchill.

The wind was relentless, and continued to get worse. Mount Roberts has a few steep, loose spots that were sketchier than I remembered, and I ended up turning back short of the peak because I had become consumed with the idea that I was about to blow off the mountain. I'm not really sure what the wind speed would need to be to actually blow a 130-pound person off a mountain - probably at least double the strongest gusts that hit today. But the wind felt intense enough that I was genuinely jittery. Every time a gust hit, I just crouched down and held my hat until it passed. I was certainly relieved when I reached the tram terminal and ordered the biggest, hottest cup of coffee they had, and "cheated" the rest of the hike by riding the tram down to sea level. It was a good day. That kind of hard, cold wind makes me feel alive. Like I said, I'm definitely a "winter person."
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New project

I have been taking it fairly mellow these past couple of days - low-key run on the Mount Jumbo trail yesterday, and a mud shower of a bike ride up the Perseverance Trail today. I was definitely starting to feel some muscle fatigue and soreness from the running. It was good to do something else today, although I have to say that after three months of basking in the blissfully ordinary weather of the Lower 48, I am not digging the rain riding, what with the head-to-toe mud splatters and big pieces of grit in my teeth (I know, I know. Fenders. Now where did I stash those?)

I took this picture today lest anyone accuse me of no longer riding my bicycle. I learned that if you place your camera on your bike seat and set the self-timer, you come out with an bike's eye image, as if your bike were taking a picture of you, rather than the other way around.

But now, with the reality of autumn sinking in, I have started sitting down with the 45 minutes of idle free time I have in the day (I can bump this up to 55 if I avoid Facebook, 75 if I avoid blogging), and begun to map out ideas for an autobiography about the stretch of time between March 1 and mid-July. I think if I can find momentum, this will be a really fun project for me. For me, writing about experiences is not just a creative outlet - it's a form of art. The experiences themselves are the initial photograph, the immediate capture of a moment in time. Blogging is the rough sketch, drawing from that photograph a form that is only beginning to take shape. But writing, something I only rarely do, is like painting. I look back at the photograph. I spread my sketch on canvas. Then I take out my paints, my best ideas, and I surround the sketch with color strokes, shadows, hints of light, until it takes on a deeper, richer meaning. I used to paint often, but I no longer own the art supplies, so now I write. I think writing will be an excellent way to spend some down time this winter, and it will give me an excuse to sit in coffee shops and look intellectual and maybe meet other people of this type. :-)

But all good writing needs to be about something, so I am trying to dream up a central theme. The natural beginning is my 12 ill-fated hours in this year's Iditarod bike race. It has all the good dramatic elements to set up a story ... the struggle, the danger, the failure, the frostbite. I want this to be about more than riding bikes, but I don't want to fall into the narrative trap of a story about losing a relationship and trying to find myself. There are other ideas bouncing around in my head. It's fun, actually, thinking of myself as the character in my own story. I have to write what's true, but the truth is so much more fun to paint than fiction.

But as with anything I do that feels more committed, I'm intimidated by the scope of it all, even if I never finish it, or if I finish it and hate it, or worst of all, if I finish it and love it and never take it anywhere. Since I started mapping out chapter one, I went back and read and re-read my early March blog entries. And already I'm learning valuable lessons from myself, namely something I wrote shortly after the race, when I was still on crutches:

I don't want to ever become the kind of person who doesn't dare to fail and fail spectacularly. I don't ever want to be unwilling to approach the unknown. I don't ever want to live a life free of risk.

So I'm resolved to finally take a pen to paper (or Microsoft Word, whatever), and I'm blogging about it to put yet another flighty goal out there in a way that will keep me at least semi-committed.
Monday, August 24, 2009

Ditch trail

Living out of a suitcase for four months hasn't bothered me at all until today, when I was suiting up for a run with Abby on the Treadwell Ditch Trail, and all three pairs of running shoes were in various states of muddy and wet. I probably have an extra pair of running shoes stashed away somewhere; I may even have a boot drier. But today I had to pull on one of my wet pairs, green slime still glistening on the laces, a musty aroma of mildew on the mesh, bits of bark pressing down on my toes and muddy water gurgling out of the soles, as I contemplated the life of a runner in Juneau.

I am really starting to hit my stride with trail running ... starting to think about all the places I can take it ... starting to think about ways I can improve it ... starting to (gulp) enjoy it. If I can bear to leave my bike at home, there's still a whole lot of terrain surrounding me that I have yet to experience. And while walking can be relaxing, running tends to get you there faster, with larger doses of happy chemicals, and a greater feeling of accomplishment.

I still have little interest in 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons ... really, anything that involves pounding feet on pavement. Which is good. It means that if I do start running more, my fun won't be threatened by the temptation to turn it into training for some kind of race, because what kind of foot races are held in Alaska in the winter? (OK, there's the Little Su 50K. Don't tempt me.)

Or maybe ... do tempt me? I'm still very uncertain what I really want to do with this winter, but I do need goals to keep me motivated and I do need daily excursions in the outdoors to keep my spirits up. And right now, I am struck with this feeling that I need to do something different, even as I remain in Juneau with the same job and the same limited bike route options. Training for a 50K? Is that a completely idiotic idea? Or is it maybe just what I need?

Either way, it's fun to formulate different ideas and goals, even ones that contradict each other.
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Trickling toward fall

All around me now are subtle first hints of fall. Deeper chills in the morning air. Red leaves on the mountain ash berries. Devil's club wilting. Fireweed blossoms closing. Alpine ground cover showing hints of yellow. Oh, and then there's the nonstop rain. That's a definite sign of fall in Juneau.

I think I have finally found a place to live in Juneau. It's not available for another few weeks, and it's quite small, but it's cheap, secluded, scenic, cat-friendly and serves all of my needs - mainly, a dry place to rest my head and my bikes, with a shower and a garden hose to keep them both clean. Everything else is just excess. It's out in Fritz Cove, which is about 10 miles north of town. It will be my first time living on the mainland - no more Douglas Island, which makes me sad. But this place also doesn't require me to make any longterm commitment, which makes me happy.

I am still moving slowly toward my resolve to start up a training routine. Doing whatever I want every morning has been fun, but as the weather deteriorates, it's been harder and harder to motivate. My recent solution for horrible weather has been running. It makes perfect sense. Running is already full of suffering, so it doesn't matter much what the weather is doing. I made an attempt to run/jog/speed-hike/trudge up to Gold Ridge today. I'm hoping to include some intensity work in my repertoire in the near future, so I have to test my mental resolve to keep pushing the throttle when every synapse in my body is firing pain and my thoughts dissolve into unintelligible screams and grunts. I pushed to this level twice, swallowing gasps of lung-piercing raindrops and cold wind, leg muscles throbbing and head pounding as I splashed through goopy mud up the steep slope. It's a good way to gain 2,700 feet in just over an hour. It's not a good way to leave yourself feeling like you are worth anything during your nine hours at work later that evening.

But, high-intensity workouts do have their immediate mental rewards. I can see why people like them. Endorphins are pretty cool (but wear off much too quickly.) I hear high-intensity workouts improve your performance as well, but I hear this only works if you keep yourself in a constant state of pain. If you are not limping into work every afternoon, head spinning and feeling like your quad muscles are going to melt right off your femur, then you are not working hard enough. So I hear.
Friday, August 21, 2009

Over the hill

I came home from work at 11 p.m. last night with four big bags of groceries. Libby came out of her bedroom to wish me an early happy birthday just as I started spreading the contents all over the counter ... five pounds of chicken, red and yellow peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, red onion, cherry tomatoes, marinade, skewers ... the makings of my birthday kabobs. "Are you going to make those tonight?" she asked.

"I have to," I said. "I'm going to try to hike up McGinnis tomorrow and I expect it will take most of the day." I arranged the mountain of vegetables I had to slice up at midnight. "I'm going over a hill on my 30th birthday. Get it?"

Libby smiled with a skeptical sort of smirk. "How much stuff do you do exclusively for the benefit of your blog?"

I feigned insult. "It's not a blog gimmick! I've been wanting to walk over that hill forever! Tomorrow is my day off and the weather's not supposed to be that bad. It might actually be a good window to do it."

I strung a pile of chicken kabobs, e-mailed a few friends to remind them about the evening barbecue and fell asleep around 2 a.m. The alarm went off at 7:15. I slumped out of bed and packed up my Camelbak with rain gear and Clif Bars. The sky looked a lot more threatening than I had hoped. Low clouds can limit visibility to the point of disorientation, and rain creates very slippery trail conditions, so I'm always wary of going high in marginal weather. But the clouds were still well over the ridgeline and rain didn't seem imminent, and, anyway, I had been gunning for McGinnis' peak for three weeks now. It was my hill, and today was my day.

The hike up was fairly uneventful. I shuttled my mountain bike to the trailhead and used it to "cheat" the boring first two miles of the West Glacier Trail. Funny how boring miles on foot can actually be quite strenuous and challenging on a bike. I enjoyed trying to "clean" portions of the steep rooty singletrack, but I was sweating buckets by the time I finally parked the bike and began the real climb.

I reached the top just before noon, three hours after I left the trailhead. Despite overcast skies and scattered showers that cast a dull gray veil over the sweeping 360-degree views, I was super stoked to be up there. At 4,228 feet, Mount McGinnis is so far the highest peak I've summited in Juneau. A brutal cold wind whipped around me as I lounged on the narrow point of a summit (locals call it "the nipple"), eating my Clif Bars and making a several of those annoying cell phone calls, thinly disguised as return calls but strategically timed to advertise my geographic uniqueness (those "calls from the peak" are an outdoor junkie's version of drunk dialing)

The rain showers moved overhead as I moved down, and I had to work my way slowly down an increasingly slick trail. McGinnis' mid-mountain area is rippled with rock outcroppings, smooth but crumbling limestone that drops steeply and sometimes vertically to the Mendenhall Glacier. The "trail" through this area is simply a widely-spaced series of florescent tape tied to branches that attempts to pick the least treacherous path over the rock. Thick vegetation surrounding the rocks bands makes it difficult to pick out the path, and wrong decisions can lead hikers to the edges of cliffs. The few times I've done this part of the route, I always end up doing a fair amount of backtracking after getting rim-rocked above another dropoff.

The rain really complicated things by turning the rock outcroppings into a giant, jagged slip-n-slide. Few surfaces could possibly be more slippery. It was like climbing down a slope of ice. I had to resort to planting my butt and taking slow, tentative crab steps as I death-gripped handholds. I was about one-quarter of the way down a longer drop, about 30 feet, when unexpectedly my handhold and butt traction gave out at the same time, and my body started to careen down the face. Because of the thick brush, I hadn't yet seen the bottom when I lost control. I had no definite idea whether it was the right route or one of those rock bands that ends with a cliff. And in that funny way that thoughts can run rapidly through fractions of seconds when a mind is operating under hyper-stress, I thought, "@$%! I'm going to have one of those sad date-matching gravestones of people who die on their birthday."

I slid about 10 feet before I managed to grasp onto the branch of a tree just as my butt bounced over a deep, jagged bump. My arm yanked and my palms burned as I instinctively rolled over on my stomach and grabbed another rock knob, effectively halting my slide. No worse for the wear except for a black-and-blue goose-egg on my left butt cheek, and I discovered the bottom was just a soft mud basin that would have broken my fall rather gently anyway. But the whole thing left me rattled, and I pretty much avoided the wet rock altogether after that, opting to bushwhack through the brush instead (scratchy, but amazingly effective in halting falls.) I was elated to finally make it back to my bike, and through the leftover adrenaline rush, rode the downhill stretch more aggressively than I normally would.

And, of course at the barbecue, everyone asked me if the essence of turning 30 made me feel any different. And I couldn't help but me honest. "Actually, I said, I feel pretty beat up and tired right now. Definitely more than I did yesterday."

Over the hill indeed.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Today's my birthday.
It's just a number, they say
As time trickles down
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On a rainy Monday

It rained 1.5 inches today. I went for a two-hour run on the Lemon Creek Trail (can you believe that raging whitewater is a "creek?" In Utah, major rivers have lower flows than that.) Anyway, everything about the run felt strangely exhilarating - the slimy surface of the trail, the salt water streaming down my face, the clattering of raindrops as they bounced through tree-branch filters, the thick mist blowing sideways in 25 mph wind gusts, the icy plunges into knee and thigh-deep side streams and puddles. I hate this kind of weather, but I was loving that run.

My Achilles tendons are really starting to feel better. The stretching pain only manifests itself when I take big strides, or pedal hard. I think I am ready to start riding regularly again, and am considering it - you know, training - unless we get another long block of sunlight (in which case I'll be traipsing through the mountains for all Juneau's long, wet, quickly approaching rainy season is worth, and I don't care how much it hurts or how little sleep I get.)

I know I am still not that far removed from the Divide, but I like the routine of training to: keep me motivated in difficult times; to keep me occupied in difficult times; and to spur excitement for the future. Not that I ever train with that much direction, but I do have a few hopes/dreams/goals that will require some structure:

1. Late September long weekend bike tour. (Golden Circle or TBD Alaska tour)
2. February 2010 Susitna 100. (With a goal of going light and riding fast.)
3. August 2010 TransRockies! (Oh yes, it could really happen. A friend and I have been "talking.")

Note that the last two are more athletic-driven goals, as opposed to the adventure/survival goals of my recent ultraendurance races. Both events will require the kind of focus I've never really invested before, which is why I'm excited to set them as goals. I'm excited to try something different. Although adventure is still very, very much what motivates me in cycling, I think it will be fun to seek out my athletic limits. As long as I continue to have fun and find new motivation, I think I only stand to benefit from a little bit of structure. I have enlisted a friend to help "coach" me. But the day any coach tells me to leave my camera at home is the day I stop training.

And until then, I will run in the rain, because running in the rain is surprisingly fun.
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Seeking shelter

Gray weekend. Steady rain, lazy to the last minute, and then, Sunday morning, just as three days of wind and rain strengthened to a howling peak, I went for a ride. Booties and a fleece hat in August, and after the precipitation soaked through, water streamed down my cheeks and into my mouth. It tasted familiar. Like salt and melon-cucumber shampoo, with hints of peat moss and rotting salmon. The taste of early fall.

Low tide. Chum salmon flopped around in a few inches of water at the mouth of Fish Creek, their bodies bleached and flaking, their mouths gaped and gulping at the soaked air. The rest of their lives could probably be measured in minutes, but by nature's cruel design they had already been dead for a while, struggling mere feet from the ocean they were born to escape. I wondered what their offspring would find when they returned here. Would they see the same dead end?

Heavy fog. Fishing boats flickered in and out of the clouds like ghosts in a postmortem search for kings. Rain pattered on the hidden surface of the ocean. A foghorn blew from sources unknown. The little boats circled the quiet chaos, where sky and water melted together in a gray mass, without even a faint line to draw the horizon. The ships could have been flying, but the kings were buried deep.

Rainforest Trail. I disappeared beneath the canopy where raindrops echoed but didn't fall. Spindly spruce trees dressed in moss towered over an explosion of devil's club, fully developed and blazing with red berries, the kind that develop just before the yellow wither of fall. The front wheel dipped down a narrow strip of gravel. I took in gulps of gravity as my body reflexively pendulated through a maze of sharp turns. The forest spit me full-speed onto the beach, with the bike clattering over a carpet of broken shells, and ghost boats skimming the fog, and still-alive salmon leaping toward the sky. Before I could even slow down, the trail turned back into the dark and sheltered woods, and a steep, winding climb, where gulps of gravity turned into gasps of air.

Within minutes, I was back to where I started, the crest of a mile-long loop. So I did the only thing I could do to stay out of the rain - I continued straight and circled, again and again.
Friday, August 14, 2009

Enjoying the break

I am still for the most part staying off my bike. I got out for a 30-mile ride the other day and felt Achilles pain toward the end. To tell you the truth, the pain's not even that bad. But my heel doesn't seem to hurt at all when I walk, and right now, I'm really enjoying the walking. For this super-short window of time between when the snow melts and falls again, so much new terrain opens up that it seems almost a shame to hold yourself to bikeable trails. In Juneau, if you really want to get out, you have to go where your bike can't.

Yesterday, my friend Abby and I headed up to the Douglas Island Ridge via the Dan Moller trail. Dan Moller is one of my favorite winter bike trails, well-used and often even groomed by snowmobiles. It's not so much a trail in the summer as it is a wooden staircase followed by spongy tundra.

Abby is a super-fast runner who can only drag herself down to my speed by schlepping around her 1-year-old son, Elias.

Even as the bushwhacking dragged on, Elias just slept or mumbled something or pointed to trees and rocks. I've never seen such a well-behaved baby. We hiked for three hours; he ate half a cracker, never fussed, and giggled when Abby said things like "look at all the pretty flowers." I told Abby, "You're in trouble. You've got an adventure kid on your hands."

Last night, I had a crazy dream where I was climbing the Mendenhall Glacier with ice axes and crampons as the glacier melted beneath me. As the ice sank I just kept climbing, frantically chipping at the wet ice as roaring streams of meltwater gushed down crevasses. It was one of those dreams that frustratingly had no resolution, so it lingered in my mind long after I woke up. So without ever really making a conscious decision to go there, I found myself out at the West Glacier Trail this morning, scouting the route to Mount McGinnis.

I walked for an hour and a half without breaking treeline. That is certainly a long, meandering trail, and hard to follow. On the way back, I lost the faint, rocky path and ended up on the ledge of a cliff the glacier had carved out millennia ago. Now the glacier is a shadow of what it once was, and noticeably shrinking every year. I'm still trying to figure out what that dream meant. Perhaps it doesn't have to mean anything.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Thanks to those who sent me nice e-mails and comments after my post yesterday. I really do make an effort to not get too personal with my blog, because I recognize that my boss, distant ex's, and a fair number of strangers peruse it. But sometimes I crave the catharsis of a private journal keeper, and my only real outlet is this blog.

It felt good to whine a little. Now it's time to take action. I was moved by Elden aka Fat Cyclist's latest post, "The Funeral and What's Next." Because the World Wide Web of blogs is in fact a small, tight-knit community, most probably already know that his wife died last week of the cancer she has been fighting for years. Having recently met the man, I was upset by the news, but deeply moved by his strong resolve to move forward. I thought, "If he can find the courage to move on with his life, I certainly can."

So in an effort to avoid flailing around in uncertainty, I've decided to set 10 goals for the near future. Some are quite ambitious and others are more doable, but all are things I find myself thinking about from time to time:

1. Be more focused about my housing hunt. I really need to find a place to live and get settled before I can move forward with much else.

2. Not be so stressed about my personal life: So I've dabbled a bit in the dating scene. It's been a real long while since I've actively tried this. It seems the rules of the game haven't changed much in the past decade, but I haven't really improved in my savvy at following said rules. And I'm a decade older. But I've resolved to just roll with it, and not constantly picture myself in a scene from that movie, "He's Just Not That Into You."

3. Work on a book proposal. I'd love to write a nonfiction book about the history and array of intriguing individual stories behind human-powered travel on the Iditarod Trail. I've been chewing on the idea for two years now, but I'm intimidated by the huge amount of research it would involve, the time it would take, and the prospect of interviewing (and finding) all the people involved. But I believe I could take it on with the both objectivity of a journalist and the insight of an insider. And I do think a compelling book about this tiny niche adventure sport could appeal to a wide audience. It's just too much work to do it "just for fun." Thus the need for a proposal.

4. Plan B, more realistic book project: I would like to create another "Ghost Trails"-type autobiography about the Tour Divide. The problem is, I had somewhat selfish, cathartic reasons for writing "Ghost Trails." I formatted it around issues that would not stop churning around in my head during summer 2008, until I wrote them all down. It's hard for me to think about a new project without viewing it in a similar slant. Maybe that's appropriate. I don't know. It certainly would be good for my mental health.

5. Fall Golden Circle tour: For two years now, I've embarked on a two or three-day bicycle tour of the 370-mile route between Haines and Skagway. I'd love to do that again this year, and I think I may even be able to coax a couple days off sometime in September.

6. Hucker trip to Carcross, Yukon: On my regular weekend, I'd like to travel to Carcross at least once to soak in white-knuckle runs down some really well-built mountain bike trails.

7. Klondike Road Relay: Yes, 'tis the season to make good use of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The relay is September 11 to 12, and involves running (yes, running) 10 or so miles of the Klondike Highway (at a relaxed, "casual costumed" pace.) Jenn, do you still have room for me on your Whitehorse team? I think I can swing it.

8. 2010 Susitna 100: I would love to approach this February race as a winter focus and really try to "race" it. And by race it, I mean not just finish it, but finish it as fast as I physically can. So for this winter, I am going to try to set up training that is more focused on speed and high-effort endurance, as opposed to my Iditarod training, which was focused on survival. I don't want my training to be too focused, though, because this is also the winter I plan to rediscover snowboarding.

9. New bike! By spring 2010, I'd like to be in possession of an awesome new mountain bike, and I'd like to force myself to do the research so that it's as awesome as possible, and I'd like to hunker down in a cheaper apartment and save some of my income so that I don't feel guilty about its awesomeness.

10. Future winter ride across the entire Iditarod Trail to Nome: Ha, ha, just kidding, Mom ... maybe.
Monday, August 10, 2009

Thunder Mountain

A landlord called and cancelled an appointment on me today because she already rented her apartment out to someone who weaseled their way in before me. I am beginning to get that "I'm going to be homeless forever" feeling in my gut, and honestly, it's not for lack of trying. I could be trying harder, and I could be less picky or more willing to blow all of my income down a rent hole. Sometimes I think about just pitching my tent in campsite No. 5 at the Mendenhall Lake Campground, which was my first "place" in Juneau. I've been thinking a lot lately about my first days in Juneau, because they were exactly three years ago, and they were filled with a lot of the same desires and uncertainties. But those days, those rainy homeless days in August 2006, were also filled with hope. Sometimes I feel like this second go-around is lacking in that regard.

I had planned to spend the morning dealing with my housing issues, but that call and another discouraging e-mail took all the wind out of my sails. I looked out the window to see sunlight filtering through a thin bank of fog, and beyond that was a surprisingly large patch of blue sky. "Screw it," I thought. "I'll just go hiking."

I headed to the Heinzleman Ridge trailhead. Heinzleman Ridge trail is a place I like to go when I'm in the mood for feeling lost, without the scary prospect of actually being lost. I have never found my way up to the ridge on the actual trail. I always end up wandering up a faint spur in a maze of bear trails at some point and bushwhacking through devil's club and blueberry bushes for a mile or so until I reach the meadow. As I plow through the vegetation, I grab handfuls of bright blueberries and talk to the unseen bears as I fill my mouth with juicy sour goodness. A fun way to travel, even if I would genuinely appreciate it if I stumbled across the real trail one of these days.

My recent longer hikes and bike rides have been alternately exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating because I really am happiest in the mountains, skimming alpine ridges above a huge populated world that hardly notices me. And depressing because I my life currently is uncertain and unsettled, and I find myself slipping into that feared dark head space and its windows that feature me front and center on a downward spiral.

When Geoff first broke up with me, two days before we left Juneau for our summerlong trip down south, I immediately lost all interest in biking. I really did. Zero passion. Biking, like the mountains, is a place I go to soak in space and solitude; at that point in time, that place was dark and filled with thoughts that made me feel really bad about myself. One of the few things that kept me riding during those last weeks in April and early May was a wavering conviction to continue training for the Great Divide (I didn't admit this to many people, but I mentally pulled the plug on that dream up until very close to the actual race, stopping the drain only long enough to maintain an excuse to stay in Utah and continue "training" by going on fun trips to the desert.) I remember just dreading going out for rides during our trip down the Cassier Highway and the Pacific Coast - even though we were traveling through beautiful places and bike rides were often my only opportunity to spend some time alone. I don't think I ever blogged much about that aspect of the road trip. It really was pretty miserable.

Anyway, summer marched onward and things got better. The fun desert "training" proved successful in that I rediscovered my passion for cycling. Then I actually showed up for the start of the Tour Divide, and, even more shockingly, eventually finished. Honestly, if you asked me a week before the race what my chances were, I would have just shaken my head. I had frostbite that kept me off my feet for most of March. I was working 70-hour weeks to make up for my upcoming vacation through April, and the breakup kept me preoccupied and demotivated in May. May turned out to be the biggest obstacle I would have to overcome. That I found the healthy head space to actually stick out the Tour Divide is even more amazing to me than the fact I managed to physically get through it despite my admittedly inadequate training.

But, I guess the point I'm working up to is that I am falling back into a dark head space, which was expected, but frustrating nonetheless. I guess Tour Divide stood to cure me only if I could keep up that "bike-eat-sleep-bike-eat-sleep" mindset all the time, which is obviously impossible. I knew I would eventually end up back here, confronting the hard things I left behind. At least I have places like Thunder Mountain that can still serve as escape, and a newfound optimism that, even if my mind isn't always along for the ride, as long as I keep plugging toward my goals, I'll eventually get there.