Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Modern Romance, part 2

A couple of months ago, on a sunny Tuesday morning in October, I hiked up Thunder Mountain and wrote a blog post called "Modern Romance." This is its continuation.

Headlights run together in a pale yellow stream as commuters make their way through the morning fog. A school bus stops and everybody waits. Children in thick coats sprint from dark houses and clammer onto the bus. Flecks of ice swirl through the billowing plumes of exhaust - frost or flurries, I'm not sure which. I'm taking a gamble that somewhere beyond the fog, it's a nice day. But the morning is kind of ugly, thick and gray, and grumpy because I couldn't sleep, so here I am, joining the pre-dawn commute. They'll go to work and school, and I'll go to Thunder Mountain.

(It's been a tough week. A relationship I had been cautiously optimistic about hit a dead end. These things happen. Nothing I can do about it, but it's hard not to feel frustrated and wonder what's wrong with me. I gave myself some time to feel bad about it and haven't been able to sleep much, but the weather's been gorgeous, as ideal as December weather can be, sunny, just below freezing, and no wind. That's the formula for stunning winter beauty, and spending as much time as I can afford to spend out in it really does keep me grounded, comfortably, somewhere between mania and depression.)

I'm dripping sweat all over the freshly frosted trail when Geoff calls, somewhat randomly, at 8:18 in the morning. He's been in San Francisco all week for a big race, a big race that went well, and he placed second, still ahead of the old course record, and won $4,000. I had decided earlier in the week that I was hurt that he hadn't called me about it, but that emotion didn't stick. It's hard for me to believe it's been eight months since we broke up. It does not seem like that long. I burned through my anger on the Great Divide, made my peace, and came home knowing he was right about the whole thing. Since then, we've had an amicable if somewhat distant friendship, based on reserved kindness and a whole lot of honesty. On the phone, we talk about his race, about our old friends, about his girlfriend. I'm sleep-deprived and gasping up a virtual wall of roots and frozen mud, so I don't feel a whole lot, but I'm glad he called.

Very slowly, I start to climb out of the fog. At first I see streaks of brighter light through the gray, and then the ice-glazed snow starts to sparkle. It's still early enough for orange light, burning hot through a hole in the clouds, and then I push through the hole, and there's nothing beyond but blue sky. The snow-coated mountain ridge is surrounded by a sea of clouds, everything shimmering gold beneath a low winter sun. Beauty like this brings me instant joy, no matter how ugly I feel inside, every time.

I reach the ridge and strap on my crampons. I weave up and down the slope so I can practice spike-walking in places where the consequences of falling aren't too disastrous. Learning the daunting art of mountaineering is something I really want right now. I'm not even sure where this desire came from. I've never felt this way about it before. I always saw mountaineering as this highly risky sport that required more skills and guts than I could ever possess. But now I see mountaineering for what it is at its surface - a way to go farther into these places I truly love, the mountains.

I stop for a moment at the edge of the ridge and look out over the shrouded city. A roar of sound fills the white spaces as though there were three feet of vertical space between us instead of 3,000. I hear vehicles streaming down the highway. I hear planes taking off. I hear machinery moving earth. I hear trucks backing up. I hear everything as though I were down there, among the din of traffic, but all I see is a wilderness of mountains and clouds.

As I work my way down the ridge, I see small tracks from a mountain goat, so I follow them. The goat went where I want to go, following the friendly side of a cornice, all the way to the edge of a knife ridge. I work my way up to my point of no return. There is an exposed traverse on this ridge that involves a scramble up loose talus. It frightens me even in the summer, when it's warm and dry. No way am I going up that section through the snow, with my limited skills, alone, unroped, in the winter. I notice the mountain goat didn't go that way, either. It turned right, scrambled along an even more exposed edge, skittered across a wall of barren, icy rock, and rounded the next corner out of sight.

I turn and look back at my own tracks - big, awkward, not at all like the goat's. I can't remember the last time I felt so much envy toward another creature. Mountain goat didn't need crampons. It didn't need an ice ax. It didn't need to spend years trying to figure out what it was doing. Mountain goat didn't traverse this ridge because it was restless, or wandering, or searching for clear answers to foggy questions. Mountain goat traversed this ridge because it was the most natural thing for it to be doing. Somehow, in this frozen wasteland, it had access to food, it had a home, it had a life. I wish I could be like mountain goat.

I glance at my watch and yelp. I am spending far too much time on this mountain. I reluctantly start making my way back down. The sun blazes, bright and warm. It's probably close to freezing up here. It may even be above. I feel cozy and comfortable. I have a down coat in my backpack, and a bivy sack. My cell phone has full reception. I wonder what my boss would say if I called him up, told him that I wouldn't be coming to work any more, that I would be moving to the top of Thunder Mountain, to become like mountain goat.

He would probably just laugh. I reluctantly follow my tracks back, thinking about freedom and happiness. Up in the open air, it's very easy to believe that I can just "follow my bliss," if only I knew what that was. Travel around on my bicycle? Find a better-paying job, acquire a house? Give away all of my possessions save for my bicycles and my hiking gear and move to a small cabin and become a starving writer? Work for a struggling newspaper and find freedom in my surroundings, these beautiful, incredible surroundings? It's a moot thought exercise because the only place I truly believe in change is up here, and when I return to life below, the fog always seems to fill in these hollow hopes.

I reach the junction of the ridge, where the route drops back into the murky grayness. Traffic is still roaring. I frown, because I am not ready to go back. Sweat pours from my forehead. The temperature is rising. It feels like it's 80 degrees. I dump by backpack with the snowshoes and coat dangling off of it; I fling away my ax and my trekking pole. I strip off my gloves and fleece, and I take off up the other side of the ridge, running, as fast as my crampon-weighted feet will carry me, running into the calm winter air and white, bright snow. I run until I can not breathe, and still I keep running. I get carried away with the emotion of it; it feels like strong happiness, happiness as strong as love. I feel like I'm in love, but only with Thunder Mountain. Again, just Thunder Mountain.

And I wonder, I wonder about that emotion. If a person is in love with cold and desolate places, does that make them a cold and desolate person? I think it's a valid question.

Support this blog by buying my book! Signed copies only $11.95 plus shipping.


  1. Beautiful post Jill. A lot of emotion.
    As far as your question goes...

    "If a person is in love with cold desolate places, does that make them a cold desolate person?" I highly doubt it :)

    Nigity - "Always keep a smile in your heart."

  2. Whether we admit it, or not, it really is all about relationship. Everything else, the mountains, the snow, the brilliant meant to be shared with someone else. A person perhaps, and the one who created it all.

  3. Beautiful post in both pics and words.

  4. Your writings, pictures, and passion is amazing. If I were thirty years younger and single I'd drop everything and head to Alaska and take my chances.

  5. Generally, people that fall in love complement each other. Like the old "opposites attract" thing, but not so cliche. So if the mountain is cold and desolate, it must provide something to make your warm and caring heart stand out in comparison. Your relationships are deep and meaningful. You feel intensely and express beautifully. That's what the mountain says about you.

  6. You are a bit of an odd person, and no doubt you tell yourself that you don't fit in anywhere, but it's a lie. We all "don't fit in." We are all odd. Your biggest problem on the relationship front is simply that you haven't found your mate yet. Give yourself better odds, get out more, mix up your routine, go to different places, take more risks down on ground level. He's bound to show up.

  7. soy de la coruña, españa y hace unos dias encontre este blog, he leido poco pero tenemos muchas cosas en comun: la bici, las montañas, la fotografia....te seguire ....un besote

  8. I recommend: give away all of my possessions save for my bicycles and my hiking gear and move to a small cabin and become a starving writer! You have great talents. Keep climbing higher

  9. I believe it will all happen for you, just stay your course.

  10. Anonymous hit the nail on the head.

    Remember...there is something wrong with all of us.

    Beautiful photos lately too Jill. The frost feathers were incredible.

    Take care of yourself.

  11. Much like the picture of your shadow - your passions and talents seem to keep growing larger. We don't always find the answers in life as much as they find us. Like relationships they often come from unexpected or overlooked places. Don't rush towards either - I am 40 and don't like hearing it - but you are young and have so much life to live. Your potential is endless and all that you are destined to have in life will eventually come your way. I do however think you should call your boss and tell him that you are going to become a mountain goat - mostly because I would like to see his response in one of your wonderful posts. Ride/hike/climb on Jill.

  12. "the only place I truly believe in change is up here." I searched for the same things in the mountains and wild oceans for years with many of the same thoughts and feelings. Then I explored the wild landscape within my own soul and found so much beauty, peace, and a sense of grounding that sometimes it takes my breath away. Now I go out into the mountains and wilderness with such a happiness and peaceful feeling that it is as if I were seeing them for the first time again. It's a long and humbling journey that doesn't come all at once and actually never ends. Be kind to yourself and to others and I hope you find the beauty inside and peace that you seek. Meanwhile - awesome photos!!! ;-)

  13. I hear ya sister. I don't want to belong to any club that will have me.

  14. If a person is in love with cold and desolate places, does that make them a cold and desolate person?

    Same question here. Answer? Possibly, and these are not bad things to be, just different. Ice burns as hard as fire.

  15. hey there. Loved the post. Hangin there and the man you are looking for will come into your life.

    I have finally found love again and so will you.

  16. Desolate? Not from where the mountain goat is standing. :)

    Brilliant as usual, Jill--God bless and Godspeed!

  17. Beautiful post,touched my spirit. Thank you for sharing this one :)


  18. Awhile back Jill I kind of dissed you for writing about other things besides riding.

    I'm sorry for that now after reading this and all that I can say is go for it.


  19. Great Post Again Jill. You look GREAT in the full length shot with the mountains in the background. Some guy is going to be very lucky finding a young, very active woman who likes the outdoors.

    Good Luck in your quest for your sole mate / upcoming adventures!

    John S.

  20. No, I think it makes them strong and searching.

    And I think sometimes the answers to the questions life forces us to ask ourselves can't be found in comfortable valleys. So we go to those cold and desolate places - not because we embody them - but because if one is brave enough to seek the harsh places, perhaps they are brave enough to face the answer regardless of the conditions.

    Your post was amazing. It also made me think of that tolkien line: not all those who wander are lost.

  21. Wow. I liked the responses, too, esp. nice skier. Now that I am older, I see how much I pushed myself to reach all kinds of goals...and how that in the end, those efforts were often misleading. Better to follow the edict of the I-Ching "Drift, Wait, Obey"? But when we are young we seem unable to really accomplish this. I advocate considering some selfless service to others as a good antidote to that restlessness that is hard to contain....constant questioning of direction, work, recreation, passions gets so exhausting, doesn't it? Did for me...

  22. I, too, like nice skier's response. Not all questions have an answer. Be content with yourself and what you have.

    However, I don't agree everything in life needs to be shared with a special someone or that everyone needs a mate. If you aren't happy alone, then you will just be more miserable with someone who complicates the matter.

  23. Interesting article as for me. It would be great to read more concerning that theme. Thnx for posting this information.
    Sexy Lady
    English escort

  24. You are such a doubt you'll find a mate.

    He's out there somewhere, I guess the trick is finding him:-)

  25. Another excellent post. Nice work. I'm no expert in life, but it seems as though you may be over-thinking things. My advice is to relax, enjoy life as it unfolds (even if it's not the way you think it should unfold), and enjoy the wonderful surroundings you have.

    Face it. Even if things aren't exactly the way you want them to be, you've got a pretty good gig and have already had more interesting experiences than most people will over the course of their entire lives. My guess is that most folks would switch lives with you in a heartbeat.

  26. Jill...I'm with anon #1. If I were single and 20 years younger (ouch I'm getting old)and living in Alaska, I'd be knocking on your door :)

    Relax, enjoy, pursue your dreams and good things will happen. More than likely when you least expect it. Don't be too hard on yourself and remember that all good things take time. Those mountains you love weren't created over night.

    Nigity - "Always keep a smile in your heart."

  27. please stop talking about your ex. he's a loser. maybe what its going to take is for you to move to a new place to figure that out. but you have a lot more going for you then i think you give yourself credit for, and only by moving on will you figure that out. some people are just morally defunct.

  28. Jill,

    Been following you for years not for your emotional stuff but big respect for endurance athlete and your tough spirit.

    Get a grip girl, ur not cold etc many fish in sea etc.

    Just a thought tho maybe pond is too small in your neck of woods


  29. Bashing the ex is mean spirited - he is a nice guy and incredibly talented athlete. I admire Jill for remaining friends with him. It shows she has a good heart and does not harbor grudges. Jill - sit quietly, breathe, and let your thoughts flow by without trying to examine or understand. You will find what you seek right under your nose. Then you can go into the mountains with a true sense of freedom and peace.

  30. I agree with "Nice Skier" on the whole ex thing. What the hell would they know. Very judgmental and inappropriate.

    Jill...It takes a great deal of courage to open yourself up to so many people the way you have.

    I would not allow the anonymous post. Some are sincere, but it seems that many are no more than a pain in the ass. If you have an opinion...voice it and put a name at the end of it. Otherwise it is meaningless and chicken sh#$.

  31. Thank you for the beauty and honesty of the writing in your blog. You ask the questions from which I so often dance away.

  32. You are far from being a cold and desolate person. Sorry about your romantic hopes being dashed, that's never fun. Keep digging, the right person will come along and be lucky for it. As far as hitting the road for a life of adventure, I often think of selling my house, buying one of those "sleepable" VW's and exploring this beautiful country of ours for a year. I once googled the "ten most beautiful sunrises" in the U.S., if I could see those in my lifetime, I would have lived well.

  33. People are quick to offer their opinions aren't they? Good or Bad. Well if you were their sister too, they would all know what a rockstar you are. You are my inspiration. My next step may not be Alaska, but it's still a giant leap for me, and I think about what you've done to remind myself anything is possible.

    "The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers,"
    -M. Scott Peck

    Love you sister

  34. Finally, Jill the Writer is back! This is a great post, but unfortunately the first in several months, IMO. I feel like your blog became too much of the typical journal blog since this past summer (aka, "I ate sandwich today...", except yours reads, "I climbed Blackberry Ridge today..."), albeit a daily journal blog with outstanding pictures and better writing than most. What always drew me to your blog, though, was the writing; how you exposed yourself to us through your adventures. You took us on a journey through your adventures, but the posts were never really about the bike ride, the hike, etc., but rather the journey you were taking internally, and it was a hell of a ride for us to follow.

    This post brings us back to that, and in outstanding fashion. I enjoyed every word.

    (fans, please don't flame me for the tiniest bit of criticism. I still love Jill and her blog, and she's still a much better blogger than me - I exemplify the I-ate-a-sandwich-type blogger, when I actually bother to even post... :)


Feedback is always appreciated!