Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leave the city, part 2

Half my life spent on a highway
Half my life I didn’t choose
And I have seen the North Star

Shining in the freight yard
And I knew it was a hard time that he'd come through
It’s made him thankful for the blues.
— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

The abstract notion of going home begin to take shape as I drove north. It was a strange feeling to leave Salt Lake City, the place that had always been my home, and return to a city where I had no house, no family, no real belongings besides a few boxes, stuffed in the corner of a storage unit, whose contents I had long since forgotten. I was leaving behind all the good things that happened during the summer and going home to my disappointing history and personal failures and 9.85 total miles of singletrack bike trails.

Even though I had many reasons to love Juneau, these realities weighed heavily on me as I approached White Pass and the British Columbia/Alaska border. I was 20 miles from the ferry that would take me away from the present world I had grown comfortable with and strand me on the island of my past and immediate future. I wasn’t quite ready to face it. I parked near a high alpine lake and pulled my bike down from the roof rack. The saddle was missing chunks of foam and the frame was still coated in New Mexico mud - remnants of an adventure that left me feeling disappointed and hollow, if only because it had to end, and it was finally done. I rode along the talus-strewn shoreline until I found the faint summer footprint of a snowmobile trail weaving through the dwarf spruce trees. My nerves, long numbed by the robotic routine of driving 2,500 miles, suddenly buzzed with the thrill of new discovery. I traced the path through sock-grabbing bushes, over boulder fields and around switchbacks. As the terrain grew steeper, the trail became fainter, until I could do longer distinguish it from the rocky, bush-choked terrain. Like most places I had come to know in this region, it was a dead end.

As I did when I first moved to Juneau, I had an incredibly difficult time settling in. I couldn’t hold my focus; my mind wandered. Six weeks passed before I found my own place to live. At work, I made silly mistakes and missed deadlines. I told my friends and co-workers that I had been “Great Divided,” and I was just trying to regain my composure after the culture shock of the summer. But it wasn’t the truth. The Great Divide was a tiny gap next to the one I was trying to bridge - the divide between the former me, who had a partner and plans and future goals, and the new me, who suddenly didn’t have any of that.

Faced with the prospect of reinventing myself, I turned to the places where I felt the most at home. I was burnt out on cycling and still suffered lingering, nagging pains spurred by pedaling, so I took to the mountains on foot. When the terrain was easy, I ran; more often, I climbed or scrambled or staggered. The clear air was freeing, the views spectacular. I could look out across ridges stretching beyond the horizon - places the didn’t dead end; places that, if I could muster the strength and stamina and skill, could carry me as far away as I longed to wander. They were places where I could be free without guilt or regret. They were places where I could be alone without feeling lonely.

And it’s strange, because these are the places where I started meeting new people. I was three days off the ferry when I met someone while climbing up Mount Juneau. We went on a handful of subsequent hiking dates. I met another new friend on Ben Stuart, and yet another on the Sheep Creek Trail. Another friend set me up with a skier/kayaker. I was a biker/runner. We both acknowledged we had little interest in the other’s passions, but we found common ground in the mountains. We had our first “date” on Blackerby Ridge. We climbed up to Cairn Peak in a drenching September rain and watched the clouds clear just as we settled in to a hut perched on a high ridge between two glaciers. I looked out over the stark white ice field and felt a thrill of wonder, because Juneau really was larger than I had ever imagined.

I’m not sure how or why that all started to fade. The snows of late autumn came, driving me to the limits of my novice mountain skills, driving new nostalgia for my past life, and driving a wedge between the skier and me. Conditions at work, which had already been so consuming and stressful, deteriorated even further, until the time-suck often took me away from my last remaining passions - cycling and writing. And just as quickly as Juneau had opened itself up to me, it closed again. I’d wheel my bicycle out to a dead end, and then another, and then another, until the sameness stripped away any motivation I had to keep pedaling. I continued to climb mountains, but under the armor of winter they became more prohibitive, more frightening, more exhausting, in a way that made me feel like my skills were actually getting worse rather than better. But the most frustrating part about it all was there was nowhere I could go to escape the long shadow of my past self, still lingering on the other side of the divide. Everywhere I went, her joy and discovery echoed like a sad song, reminding me of everything I’d lost, of everything I wasn’t. Without even realizing it, I’d become invisible, a ghost haunting a world that had moved on without me.

To be continued ...

24 comments:

  1. There is no escaping memories or feelings is there... a change of scenery doesn't do it... because its embedded in our brain..A constant reminder to keep us in check of how we came to be.
    A great chapter here. You are evolving.

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  2. Peter3:11 AM

    Amazing writing, Jill, but I'm very concerned that you're severely depressed. I hope that you're seeking the help of a talented professional who can turn you away from this downward spiral...You're much too talented, too strong and have such a great opportunity to inspire sooo many people. You must perservere!! :-)

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  3. Jill, what is this all leading to? Whatever that end point or starting point may be, it is certainly wonderful to read. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Amazing writing, Jill, but I'm very concerned that you're severely depressed. I hope that you're seeking the help of a talented professional who can turn you away from this downward spiral...You're much too talented, too strong and have such a great opportunity to inspire sooo many people. You must perservere!! :-)

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  5. Anonymous3:37 AM

    What a story - I think a lot of people can relate to it. Glad I stumbled across this blog. (And the pictures are fantastic!)

    MN flatlander

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  6. Jill, this is a really insightful post and am hanging on waiting for the rest of it.....almost afraid of where it might go. Follow your heart and your gut, life is an adventure, not a destination, and you have a lot of adventures. But there is a lot that is tearing at you. Paul

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  7. Scott5:06 AM

    Sounds like you're gearing up to leave Juneau. I hope that's not the case, but if it is, I wish you the best of luck.

    It's ironic that you wrote of what you have failed to become. Compared to the vast majority of people, you are strong, bright, insightful, and most of all, interesting. I hope at some point you start giving yourself credit for what you are and what you have, rather than focusing on perceived shortcomings.

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  8. Anonymous5:16 AM

    FWIW I hear in your journey what I see in myself and in culture around me. As a contemporary writer, and a very good one, I think you give voice to what most of us can only sense. We as people and a culture have our story a narrative we live by or for. Each of us and as a whole have that challenged. Being a deep thinker and skilled in articulating those thoughts and exploring there meanings can seem a blessing or a curse. Thanks for sharing your "Hero's Journey" and best wishes for your quest.

    Jeff

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  9. you write so well. I really enjoy your blog

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  10. Thank you!
    Alasky is a GREAT!

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  11. Your blog continues to be one of the more compelling creations that I encounter on the internet.

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  12. Anonymous7:33 AM

    Wow, talk about brutally honest writing. I've been reading your blog for quite a while and really hope that you can find a new way to be happy. Maybe it's time to move on from Juneau, maybe it's time to take on a new challenge (maybe something like this?

    http://www.ridingthespine.com/ )

    You're a survivor and will likely emerge from your current ?doldrums? a stronger, more focused person. And spring is just around the corner!

    Steve Z
    NE OH

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  13. I'm not sure where this is headed, but I hope you are looking at new horizons, whether they be in Juneau or elsewhere! You deserve it.
    btw.... Did I see your name on the White Mtns race registry? If you end up here, remember you always have a place to stay :-) I even have running water now.

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  14. Anonymous9:52 AM

    sounding kind of sad and nostalgic.

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  15. Wow! Wonderful writing Jill. I can hardly wait to read your next post. This is exciting. Wishing you all the best wherever this journey takes you.

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  16. Anonymous11:56 AM

    Called it. Back to Salt Lake in part 3? The part that interests me the most is whether the place is the problem. Please to discuss.

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  17. Anonymous3:04 PM

    oh Jill my heart is breaking for you..Mary in NC

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  18. Julie in Alaska8:02 PM

    Wish I could down with you sometime and talk about all this. I remember when I went through a divorce when I was 33--I realized that all the dreams I had shared with my husband remained my dreams...and then in the ensuing years, I went out to pursue them and achieve much that I had hoped. You will too. But so often I had mistaken taking action for something more than activity...and often, it is not what is needed. I learned lately to drift, wait and obey, as the I Ching says. Hard to do at your age! But what you have done so far is way more than most of us even envision. I hope you won't be sidetracked by "doing things" like races and spend more time "being." Ya know?

    If you are feeling helpless and hopeless, then it is time to get help, BTW.

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  19. Thank you so much for these words and for taking me along on your travels. Keep your head up and in search of some inspiration - the mountains need you to be their voice. I have tried to do my part here; www.bicycle-across-america.blogspot.com

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  20. Well you have my and my wifes attention. Very good build up going here! I am hopeing for a upbeat finish which ever way it goes. Pos vibes going your way Jill

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  21. Anonymous9:02 PM

    Jill, I've been lurking here for quite a while, and your blog has become an important part of my day. I have so much respect for your willingness to look deep into yourself and face whatever you find there with honesty. That, along with your powers of articulation, gives your writing such strength and resonance. You do seem to be writing from a fairly desolate place right now; perhaps, as other have suggested, you're suffering from depression. Maybe, though, your frustration and sense of dead-endedness (if that's a word!) is just a necessary transitional phase to spur you on to your next adventures. I liked what a previous poster wrote about learning to drift, wait, and obey. Sometimes it's necessary to lie fallow for a while in order to regenerate.

    Anyway, I don't know whether I'm on the right track with all that, but I do know that your writing has touched a lot of people; there are a lot of people who believe in you and are rooting for you.

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  22. You're a very talented writer! I really enjoy reading your blog.

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  23. wonderful! I really enjoy reading your blog,...

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