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 ...